When I used to cook for a rowdy bunch of sailors in Key West during race week there, one of them always asked me to make paella for dinner. He would bring a giant paella pan that I could use over a fire. I always had leftover lobster and all their legs and shells to make a shellfish stock with. And I’d include shrimp and mussels and chicken and sausage. This was not, of course, true paella, rather a mix of shellfish and meat with a medium-grain rice, but it was terrific, especially cooked over a smoky fire.
There’s a lot of hot air blown over what a true paella is, as there always is over national dishes, this one from the Valencia region of eastern Spain. Some people insist that combining land animals (chicken) with seafood for a paella mixta is an abomination, maintaining that mixing the two muddies the flavor, a point I don’t argue. I would have, in Key West, thrown in some chorizo for color and intensity had I thought to buy some. To that, traditionalists would reiterate what someone tweeted to me: “Don’t call something with chorizo a paella.” Indeed, when the British chef Jamie Oliver posted a recipe for paella with chicken and chorizo, he said he got actual death threats. “They went medieval on me,” he told the Independent. (He didn’t seem to be bothered by it—“It tastes better” seems to be his final opinion on the matter.)
And that is the bottom line: taste and the pleasure of it. Taste always wins in the end. But as someone rather fond of words and precision, I would have preferred he call it Arroz con Pollo y Chorizo. Or if he wanted to avoid the controversy, he could have called it a cazuela, casserole, which is actually the shape of the pan he used in the paella photograph accompanying the recipe. Because there’s everything right in combining chicken and chorizo and rice.
The most sensible response to the “authentic” question comes from the aforementioned Sarah Jay, a writer, editor, and cook who fell in love with paella two decades ago. She told me, “An authentic paella is more about technique and equipment than what you put in it.” She would say it must include medium-grain rice, saffron, and a sofrito, one of the key techniques in a paella, and it must be cooked in a shallow paella pan. (She is now the owner of paellapans.com.) She would also note, and I would underscore, that while other ingredients should be plentiful, rice should be the dominant ingredient. I’ve seen paella recipes that have so many ingredients beyond the rice that the rice is lost. Rice should be central, flavored and supported by the additional meat or seafood or vegetables.
The traditional rice for paella is the Spanish medium-grain rice bomba. It’s very absorbent but retains a distinct bite. There really isn’t a substitute, though I’ve used Arborio with acceptable results, and really, any medium-grain rice will work. But for the best paella, seek out bomba at a store or online. I like to toast the rice before adding other ingredients, for any rice-based dish. It adds flavor.
Traditional paella includes the elegant and fragrant spice saffron, lightly toasted to draw out its flavors and dry it out so that it can be pulverized. Yes, it’s pricey, but a little goes a long way, and it really does add a flavor that makes it unique.
The sofrito is a great technique for any rice dish, be it a risotto or a pilaf. It is the result of cooking sweet ingredients so slowly and for so long that their flavors transform into something far deeper and richer than what they were to begin with, or even than what they would have been if cooked only briefly. Here I’ll use olive oil, onion, and tomato. Traditionalists might not even use onion, but that seems foolhardy to me. Onion gives so much sweetness and depth to the finished dish that it should never be omitted from paella or risotto. I grate both onion and tomato so that I have a watery puree of each. This water needs to cook off before the vegetables can brown, so you’ll need 45 minutes or so until the sofrito is deeply colored and intensely flavored.
The final critical component to a great paella is a great stock, because that’s going to be the dominant flavor of the rice. If you use canned broth, your rice is going to taste like canned broth. If you intend to use store-bought broth, try to find fresh-frozen broth or, if those aren’t available, organic broth in cartons.
With a seafood paella, there are two strategies you can use: Cook the shellfish ahead of time and use all that good cooking liquor for your stock, or cook the shellfish in the rice as you go, allowing them to open up in the rice and dump their juices into the rice as it cooks.
Having used both methods, I prefer the former, even though it doesn’t make intuitive sense. After all, putting raw shellfish into the paella to cook is not only traditional, it saves the step of cooking them separately, and those juices are going to wind up there no matter how you cook them. There are a few problems with this thinking, though. One, you don’t know how much liquid the shellfish are contributing, so you won’t know how much stock to use, given that the rice typically requires 3 parts liquid to 1 part rice. There’s less judging by sight in a paella than there is in a risotto, and paella should not be stirred once it gets simmering (in this way it is more like a pilaf in technique). You need to have a lot of paella experience to perfect the strategy of cooking raw shellfish in your paella and still have the bottom of the pan be dry enough to create the socarrat, the browned crust of the rice that is one of the great pleasures of a paella.
Therefore, I prefer to cook the shellfish separately while I’m cooking the sofrito, then hold them in the warm liquid, covered with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out, while the rice cooks. Then I add them to the paella toward the end to reheat as I raise the temperature to create the all-important socarrat.
The following recipe will serve 8 to 10 and uses a 22-inch/55-centimeter paella pan. Paella is a celebratory meal meant to be shared, and it’s visually dramatic and fun to present at a big table. But the recipe can be halved and cooked in a large skillet or a 14- to 16-inch/35- to 40-centimeter paella pan, adjusting the recipe as needed.
This recipe has a lot of details and so might seem complicated, but it’s essentially just three steps: (1) Make the sofrito, (2) Cook the shellfish and create a flavorful broth, and (3) Cook the rice in that broth, adding the shellfish at the end.
First, make the sofrito (this can be done hours before you begin cooking the rice, if you wish): Heat
While the sofrito is cooking, make the shrimp stock and cook the shellfish (this, too, can be done hours ahead of time): Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a high-sided saucepan. When it is hot, sauté the sliced onion and carrot until they’re tender. Do not add salt (the shellfish will add plenty). Add the shrimp shells and cook until they’re hot and pink. Stir in the tomato paste. Add the white wine and simmer until half of the wine has cooked off. Add the water (the shells should be covered; add a little more if they’re not) and the thyme (if using). Gently simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the shrimp stock into a large saucepan.
Bring the shrimp stock to a simmer and add the cherrystones. Cover the pot and cook just until they open; use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer them to a bowl as they do, and cover the bowl. Next, add the littlenecks to the stock and do the same; transfer them to the bowl with the cherrystones and cover. Finally, add the mussels and do the same; transfer to the bowl and cover. Strain the stock through a fine-mesh strainer (if you wish, line it with a coffee filter or a double layer of cheesecloth to catch any last sand or grit). Measure the stock you now have. You will need 9½ cups/2.3 liters in all. If you don’t have that much, supplement it with fish stock, clam juice, or vegetable stock (or a combination of white wine and water). Taste the mixture to determine how salty it is from the clams. If it’s too salty, pour off a cup of it (save it for another use) and replace with water or unsalted stock. Return the 5¼ cups/1.25 liters of shellfish stock to the saucepan.
Put your smallest saucepan over high heat for 30 seconds or so. Remove it from the heat and add the saffron, tossing it so it toasts evenly. When the pan has cooled enough to touch, crumble the saffron between your fingers until it is all pulverized. Add the saffron to the shellfish stock. Bring the broth to a simmer, then remove it from the heat. Return the clams and mussels to the shellfish broth and cover the pan to prevent the shellfish from drying out.
When the sofrito is properly reduced and browned, add the rice and turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir the rice continually to toast it, a minute or so. Strain the shellfish stock into the paella pan, keeping the shellfish in the saucepan, covered. Add the rosemary springs to the paella pan. Stir well so that the rice and sofrito are uniformly mixed. When the liquid comes to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low and don’t stir it again. Remove and discard the rosemary stems after they’ve simmered 2 to 3 minutes. Rotate the pan, or pull it over the heat to ensure even cooking over the entire bottom of the pan. You might also be able to use a combination of front and back burners depending on your stove.
After 12 minutes, press each shrimp into the cooking rice. After 3 more minutes, turn the shrimp over and arrange the clams and mussels evenly across the top of the paella. Cover the pan with aluminum foil for 2 or 3 minutes, continuing to ensure that the bottom is uniformly heated.
Taste the rice; it should be al dente. If it needs a little more cooking, cover again with foil and cook for a couple more minutes.
When the rice is just done, remove the foil and turn the heat to medium-high. Keep the pan moving over the heat to make sure the bottom is evenly heated. You should hear a gentle crackle as the socarrat forms. Push the tip of a spoon into the paella in various places; if it catches on rice stuck to the bottom, you’ve created a socarrat. The paella should smell browned and fragrant.
Remove the pan from the heat, cover it with a towel or tent loosely with foil, and let it sit for 5 minutes.
Remove the towel, arrange the lemon wedges around the pan, and garnish with the chopped parsley. Serve immediately.
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