Paella: Oh, what a dish

I want to say one word to you. Just one

word. Are you listening?


The conversation could end here, because the picture tells it all. It's gorgeous in its saffron robe, with plump coral-colored shrimp and happy clams and purple wiggles of squid. Bring it straight to the table in its own pan and you've got a party. Toss in some garlicky allioli to stir into the rice and a bottle of crisp rosé and you've got a great party.

Everyone loves paella. But curiously, despite the fact that Spanish cooking is on the minds of gourmands around the globe — with El Bulli continuing to capture the spotlight and tapas having spawned an explosion in wine bars — paella, one of Spain's most beloved dishes, hasn't found a place on many restaurant menus.

That's all the more reason to make it at home.

Especially because it's the greatest dish imaginable for summer entertaining. Not only does it make a stunning visual statement — it's unbeatable for that dramatic entrance. But it also takes care of itself for the last half hour of its cooking time, leaving you free to toss together a salad or put the final touches on a charcuterie platter to serve as a starter. And you can even make it on the grill.

Once you get the hang of the technique — and it doesn't take much practice — you'll want to make it a part of your repertoire, and even riff away on the ingredients. Unlike risotto, which is almost impossible to serve as a second course (unless you have a cook), paella has the grace to leave you time to sit and chill with a bowl of gazpacho first.

Confession: I was always afraid of paella. I think it's Craig Claiborne's fault, for my first tentative experience with the dish involved a recipe in the old New York Times cookbook. I remember it as being difficult, long and involved to prepare, and the rice turned out gummy.

A recipe for seafood paella in Anya von Bremzen's most recent book, "The New Spanish Table," was so easy and turned out to be so fantastic — and such a crowd-pleaser — that it got me wondering why I hadn't been making paella every week for the last 20 years. Von Bremzen, a Spanish-food authority who divides her time between Spain and New York, suggests serving the paella with allioli, Spain's version of aioli. Just a little dab of the garlicky mayonnaise stirred into the rice as you eat it takes it to a whole new level.

Inland inspired

WHEN most Americans hear "paella," we automatically think of seafood paella, but in fact the original paella doesn't involve seafood at all. "It comes from Valencia and involves rabbit, snails, sometimes chicken, never seafood," Von Bremzen says. "It's an inland dish, the rice cooked in the paella pan with a very simple sofrito. Even adding onion is something of a heresy."

In fact what defines paella is the pan: The word comes from the Latin patella, a shallow pan.

Though it's not the original dish, seafood paella is extremely popular on the Valencian coast, where it's served at chiringuitos, seaside seafood shacks. It might include mussels, clams, scallops, monkfish, squid or even squid ink for a black paella. Mixing seafood and meat is taboo.

Chiringuito seafood paella is just as at home here in Southern California.

But don't stop at seafood — the dish is a natural for adapting to California ingredients. A true paella Valenciana might include some combination of rabbit, chicken, duck and land snails (rosemary is the traditional substitute), with the permissible additions of flat green beans, butter beans and artichokes. It's not difficult to give that a California spin, with chicken, Romano beans, favas, rosemary and artichokes.

And there's no reason you can't get more imaginative. In Valencia and Alicante, the two regions paella rules in Spain, meatballs, pork, sausages (including morcilla, or blood sausage) and pine nuts are used, as well as potatoes, cauliflower, chard, red pepper and other vegetables. So why not use California quail or spiny lobster, zucchini or mushrooms or eggplant — or whatever looks great at the farmers market or is just coming up in the garden?

But whatever you embellish it with, the important thing to remember is paella is all about the rice. You want it to absorb as much flavor as possible, and wind up just a bit al dente, with the grains keeping their integrity. The Italian rice called Vialone Nano is ideal for this. And the seafood or meats and vegetables shouldn't overwhelm the rice.

No other pan will do

THE pan is also important. It absolutely has to be a paella pan, or it's not paella. The whole idea is it needs as much surface heat on the bottom as possible so it cooks properly. There's only one kind of paella pan; they're inexpensive, and you can find them at many cookware and restaurant supply stores. They always have two handles and come in different diameters. When you buy one, it'll need to be seasoned (instructions usually come with the pan); then after you cook with it and wash it, dry it thoroughly and wipe it with vegetable oil.

It's important to use a pan that's the right diameter for the amount of rice you're cooking, as the layer of rice shouldn't be very deep; ideally, no more than half an inch. (Our recipes, which each serve six, call for a 15-inch pan.)

And you might want to take it outside. "Paella is something you do in the country, outside, with the family," Von Bremzen says. "You can get it in a restaurant, but it's kind of a festive, outdoor home thing."

How do you do that? Finish it on a grill rather than in the oven, as most recipes call for. That adds a smokiness that you can also play up by using smoked paprika instead of sweet paprika. A Weber works perfectly — just place the paella pan on the grill and cover the grill. The effect is subtle, but it's a nice option when you're entertaining outside. Adding soaked wood chips to the charcoal will add smoke, enhancing the effect.

The technique for making paella is simple.

Start with the meats and vegetables, sautéing them in olive oil. Push them to the edges of the paella pan, and add a little more olive oil to the center of the pan, along with some crushed garlic or onion, cooking just till it's fragrant. Next add fresh tomatoes that have been grated on a box grater. That's the sofrito. (Grating the tomatoes is easier than it sounds, and results in a quick, fluffy purée; discard the skins.) Stir the tomato into the oil and garlic or onion and cook it six or seven minutes, until it's reduced and thickened.

Combine the meats or seafood with the sofrito, add the rice and stir to coat it. At this point, you can stop the process, and time the rest to when you want to serve it. That's actually good for its flavor.

About 40 or 45 minutes before you want to serve it, resume cooking. Heat the rice again, and add simmering stock or broth into which you've added a generous pinch of good saffron threads that you crush with your fingers. The proportion is important: For 1 3/4 cup rice, add 4 cups stock. (You can adjust the stock up or down depending on how much rice you use.) Cook it on high heat for seven or eight minutes until the liquid is almost level with the rice, but the rice is still soupy.

Now put it in a hot (425-degree) oven, uncovered — or on a grill — for 15 minutes. Remove the pan, cover it with foil, and let it sit 5 minutes, then uncover it and let it stand another 5 or 10 minutes.

Grasp the paella pan by its two handles and bring it straight to the table. A group swooning is guaranteed.



It's all in the rice

THE short- to medium-grained white rices traditionally used for risotto are the best ones to use for paella too.

By far the best is Vialone Nano from Italy's Veneto region, says Spanish food authority Anya von Bremzen. "I've tried everything. It absorbs flavor really well, it remains separate."

Second best is Arborio, the most common risotto rice. "It's a little gummy, but it's fine," says Von Bremzen.

Carnaroli doesn't absorb as much flavor, and Bomba, which is popular in Valencia and Alicante, is difficult to work with because it absorbs so much liquid and it stays very al dente.

Vialone Nano is available at Surfas in Culver City, (310) 559-4770, ; Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery in Santa Monica, (310) 395-8279,; Vicente Foods in Brentwood, (310) 472-5215; Claro's Italian Market, Arcadia, La Harba, San Gabriel, Tustin, Upland, West Covina,; Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market in the Original Farmers Market, Los Angeles, (323) 939-7792,; and online at and

— Leslie Brenner


Chiringuito seafood paella

Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from "The New Spanish Table" by Anya von Bremzen. You may substitute scallops for the monkfish and mussels for the clams. See accompanying box for sources for Vialone Nano rice. Arborio rice may be substituted.

3 1/2 cups clam juice diluted with 1 1/2 cups water

1 large pinch saffron, pulverized in a mortar

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 pound monkfish or other firm-fleshed fish, cut into 1-inch chunks

Coarse salt (kosher or sea)

4 to 6 ounces cleaned squid, bodies and tentacles cut into 1-inch pieces

10 medium garlic cloves (8 crushed with a garlic press, 2 minced), divided

2 large, ripe tomatoes, cut in half and grated on a box grater, skins discarded

1 1/2 teaspoons sweet (not smoked) paprika

1 3/4 cups short- to medium-grain rice, preferably Vialone Nano

1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

12 small littleneck clams, scrubbed

12 jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined

2 lemons, cut into wedges

1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the diluted clam juice in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the saffron and keep the stock at a slow simmer until ready to use.

2. Place 3 tablespoons of the oil in a 15- or 16-inch paella pan set over a single burner and heat on medium heat until it starts to smoke. Add the monkfish and cook until barely seared, 1 to 2 minutes, seasoning it lightly with salt. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fish to a bowl and set aside. Add the squid to the pan, stirring, until just seared, about 2 minutes, seasoning it with salt.

3. Push the squid to the edges of the paella pan, where it's not as hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to the center of the pan. Add the 8 cloves of crushed garlic and cook until fragrant, less than 15 seconds. Add the tomatoes to the center of the pan, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring the tomatoes several times, until they are thickened and reduced, 5 to 7 minutes. Season lightly again with salt. Using two wooden spoons, push the squid toward the center of the pan and mix it up with the tomatoes. Add the paprika and stir for a few seconds.

4. Add the rice to the paella pan and stir it gently to coat with the pan mixture. Pour in 3 1/2 cups of the simmering stock, keeping the remaining stock simmering in case it is needed later. Set the paella pan over two burners, stir in the parsley and a sprinkling of salt, and shake the pan gently to distribute the rice evenly. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Periodically move and rotate the pan so that the liquid boils evenly.

5. Press the clams and the monkfish into the top of the rice and cook unti the cooking liquid is almost level with the rice but the rice is still rather soupy, another 2 to 3 minutes. If the liquid is absorbed too fast and the rice still seems too raw, sprinkle on some more stock.

6. Transfer the paella pan to the oven and bake until the clams open and the rice is tender but still a little al dente, about 15 minutes. Check the paella a few times and sprinkle more stock over the rice if it seems too al dente. Remove the paella from the oven and discard any clams that have not opened. Cover the pan with aluminum foil, and let stand for 5 minutes. Uncover the pan and let stand for another 5 minutes (the rice gets better as it stands).

7. While the rice is standing, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet or wok over high heat. Stir-fry the shrimp, a few at a time, adding some of the minced garlic to each batch, until the shrimp are bright pink and just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per batch. Transfer the shrimp to a bowl and keep warm.

8. To serve, arrange the lemon wedges around the edge of the paella pan and decorate the top with the shrimp. Serve the paella straight from the pan, along with allioli, for stirring into the rice.

Each serving: 366 calories; 21 grams protein; 40 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 13 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 103 mg. cholesterol; 371 mg. sodium.


Basic allioli

Total time: About 20 minutes

Servings: Makes slightly more than 1 cup allioli

Note: Adapted from "The New Spanish Table" by Anya von Bremzen.

2/3 cup best-quality olive oil

1/3 cup peanut or canola oil

4 large garlic cloves, minced

2 large egg yolks

4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Coarse salt (kosher or sea)

Stir together the olive and canola oil in a measuring cup with a spout. Place the garlic, egg yolks and lemon juice in a blender, and pulse until a coarse paste forms. With the motor running, add the oil in a slow, thin, steady stream. The mixture will be the consistency of a thick mayonnaise. Scrape the allioli into a bowl, and season with salt to taste, and more lemon juice, if desired. Let stand for at least 1 hour before serving, or cover and refrigerate if keeping longer. If the allioli seems too thick, thin it out with a little water before using. Makes just over 1 cup.

Each tablespoon: 114 calories; 0 protein; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 13 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 23 mg. cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.


California paella

Total time: About 1 hour, 45 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: You may substitute three-quarters cup to 1 cup frozen peas or lima beans (defrosted) for the fava beans. See accompanying box for sources for Vialone Nano rice. Arborio rice may be substituted.

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2 -inch chunks

1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika, divided

Fine sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

6 garlic cloves, crushed through a garlic press, divided

5 cups chicken broth

1 generous pinch of saffron

1 1/2 pounds fava beans, shelled

2 large or 3 medium ripe tomatoes

1 lemon, cut in half

1 1/2 pounds baby artichokes

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 pound Blue Lake green beans or Romano beans, cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths

1 roasted medium-size red pepper, peeled and cut into medium dice (about 1/4 cup)

1 branch rosemary

1 pinch of cayenne

1 3/4 cup Vialone Nano or Arborio rice

1. Place the chicken in a medium bowl and sprinkle with one-half teaspoon of paprika, one-half teaspoon salt, a few grindings of pepper and half the garlic. Toss the chicken to coat with the mixture, then set aside.

2. Bring the chicken broth to a simmer in a large saucepan and add the saffron, crushing it with your fingers as it goes in. Turn the heat to low and cover until ready to use.

3. Fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil. Add the shelled fava beans, blanch for 2 minutes, then drain and shock in ice water. Peel the skin from each fava bean; discard the skins. Set aside.

4. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and grate them on a box grater into a large bowl, discarding the skins. Set aside.

5. Fill a medium bowl with cold water, squeeze the lemon halves into it, and drop in the squeezed lemons. To trim an artichoke, pull off all the outer leaves until only pale, tender leaves remain. Trim the bottom of the stem and peel the stem. Use a sharp knife to cut off the tips, then cut it in half vertically (if the artichoke is very small) or in quarters (if it's bigger). Drop the pieces into the lemon water. Trim the rest in the same manner. Leave them in the acidulated water until ready to use.

6. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 16-inch paella pan over high heat until it's smoking. Add the chicken, and sauté for about 3 minutes over high heat, until the pieces start to brown. While they're browning, drain the artichokes, pat them dry and add them to the chicken; continue sautéing for about 7 to 8 minutes until the artichokes are tender and beginning to caramelize (you may need to turn down the heat a bit). Add the string beans and continue sautéing for about 2 minutes. Add the red pepper and a good pinch of salt, and stir to combine. Push everything to the edges of the pan.

7. Add the remaining olive oil to the center of the pan. Lower the heat to medium, add the remaining garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the tomato purée to the center of the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are thickened, about 5 to 7 minutes. Push the chicken and vegetables into the tomato mixture, and stir to combine. Add the remaining paprika, the sprig of rosemary, the cayenne, and a good pinch of salt and stir. Add the rice and stir to combine.

8. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 degrees or light a grill with a lid. If using a grill, do not continue with the recipe until the grill is nearly ready, when the hot coals are coated with white ash.

9. Add 4 cups of chicken broth to the paella pan, and stir to combine. Shake the pan gently to distribute the rice evenly. Move the pan over two burners and continue to cook over medium heat until the cooking liquid is about level with the rice but the rice is still soupy, about 7 minutes. Periodically move and rotate the pan so that the liquid boils evenly. If the liquid is absorbed too quickly, sprinkle on some additional broth.

10. If using a grill, when the rice is almost done, distribute the coals evenly on the bottom grate. Transfer the pan to the grill and close the lid, or to the oven. Bake or grill for about 15 minutes, until the rice is tender, but a little al dente. Check on it a couple times as it cooks, and if seems too al dente, sprinkle on a little more broth.

11. Remove the paella from the oven or grill, cover the pan with foil and let it stand for 5 minutes. Uncover it and let it stand an additional 10 minutes. Serve from the pan.

Each serving: 565 calories; 37 grams protein; 67 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 74 mg. cholesterol; 659 mg. sodium.