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 rose 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.
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, sauteing 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 puree; 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.