I haven’t had paella in Spain, but if I ever hit up Valencia I know paella will be on my must eat list. Paella has bits of everything I love: rice, seafood, and most importantly, crispy burnt parts. Not everyone is into that toasted rice flavour, but I think the socarrat is the best part.
If you want the all important burnt bits, or socarrat, you’re going to need a paella pan. Paella is a dish where the cooking vessel is crucial. The width of a paella pan helps with rice distribution, ensuring that the rice cooks in a thin layer. Paella pans are sized by width and not height. So a pan that feeds two is generally about 10-12 inches and a pan that serves eight is about 18 inches.
The wider the pan, the more people it feeds. They even have pans that are 4 feet wide! Last Christmas Mike and I were in London and we saw two giant paella pans at Covent Garden. The saffron deliciousness wafting through the chilly air was so tempting so we decided to join the huge queue for a taste. I’m sure Hola Paella isn’t the most authentic paella in London, but it’s attracts a lot of attention and was a perfect snack to warm us up on a cold day.
After our giant paella experience I vowed that I would make paella at home. For my first attempt I tried to use a cast iron skillet and risotto rice. Big mistake: while the rice was tasty, it was more like a strange rice pilaff risotto and nothing like paella. This time around I armed myself with the right ingredients and the right cookware.
Just as important as the paella pan is the rice. Paella should be made with Calasparra or Bomba rice, medium grain rices grown in Spain. Spanish rice is chubby and round. It’s shape makes it ideal for absorbing large amounts of liquid while still staying somewhat firm. In traditional paellas, the rice kernels stay separate – in no way are they creamy or mushy.
The rice really is the best part of a paella. I can eat loads and loads of that smoky, saffron flavoured rice and I have. I made a giant pan of paella for Mike, myself and a good friend thinking there would definitely be leftovers (the recipe says serves 6-8), but the three of use polished it off in one sitting. We totally fell into simultaneous food comas afterwards, but it was oh so worth it.
Mixed Paella inspired by saveur.com
serves 6-8 or 3 very hungry people
- 30 threads saffron, crushed (a scant 1⁄2 tsp.)
4 chicken thighs
10-12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
fresh chorizo, removed from casing and crumbled
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium tomatoes, minced or grated on the largest holes of a box grater (discard the skin)
1 small onion, minced
7 cups chicken broth
2 1⁄2 cups short-grain rice, preferably Valencia or bomba
1 red pepper sliced into 1 inch strips
Put saffron and 1⁄4 cup hot water in a small bowl; let sit for 15 minutes. Season chicken and shrimp with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 16″–18″ paella pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken, shrimp, and chorizo and cook, turning occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer shrimp to a plate, leaving meats in pan. Add paprika, garlic, tomatoes, and onions to pan and cook, stirring often, until onions soften, about 6 minutes. Add reserved saffron mixture and broth, season with salt, and bring to a boil over high heat.
Sprinkle in rice, distribute evenly with a spoon, and add peppers. Cook, without stirring, until rice has absorbed most of the liquid, 12-15 minutes. (If your pan is larger than the burner, rotate it every two minutes so different parts are over the heat and the rice cooks evenly.) Reduce heat to low, add reserved shrimp, and nestle in clams hinge side down; cook, without stirring, until clams have opened and rice has absorbed the liquid and is al dente, 5–10 minutes more. Turn heat to high for 1-2 minutes to create the socarrat. Remove pan from heat, cover with aluminum foil, and let sit for 5 minutes before enjoying.
**Paella is totally customizable so feel free to make this dish vegetarian, all seafood, or all meats.