Seasonal Flavors: Paella

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Paella. Photo: Denise Zito.

I believe I wanted to make paella before I had even tasted it. The idea of a savory stew of chicken, pork, seafood and rice just sounded divine. Back in the olden days, if you wanted to cook something new, you’d have to buy a new cookbook or perhaps go to the library. I found my long-desired paella recipe in a hotel travel magazine in Vail, Colorado in 1994. Recently, I discovered a paella recipe in my Joy of Cooking; listed under ‘cereals.’ Wait, what?

Me, being me, I didn’t do a test run, but instead decided to make it for the first time for my father’s birthday, hosting the 19 members of our extended family. That’s a lot of expensive ingredients and I remember thinking “my little nieces never eat anyway, I won’t make any for them”—just to save some money.

Never mind that I didn’t have the proper cooking vessel. I used two enameled roasting pans on the stovetop—and burned a bit in both pans. The paella was a big hit. And the little nieces who never ate anything, not only ate a portion but begged for more!

However.

That recipe was horrible. Nothing listed in the proper order and terribly confusing. I have over the years revamped and improved it.  The Joy of Cooking recipe pales next to this one.

When I finally traveled to Spain to taste the “real deal” I was more enamored than ever with paella in its many forms.  Here are my favorite memories:

  • asking the staff at a Barcelona hotel where I could buy a paella pan, and being sent on a wild goose chase through the city, including two subway changes and a hunt through a large department store.
  • lugging the gigantic, heavy pan back through the city and the two subway changes.
  • managing to get it into my large suitcase and then having to ask a random stranger at Dulles Airport to help me heave it from the luggage carousel.
  • going into a Barcelona grocery store and asking in my best Spanish “where is the rice?” The man followed me to the aisle and asked me, “Where are you from?”  I answered (really pleased that he couldn’t place my U.S. accent), ‘The United States.’  Him asking, “Do you not have rice in the United States?”  Me replying, “Yes, but there are 25 kinds of rice in the world and we can only buy three of them.”
  • making paella again and again and loving it every time.

This is not a trivial undertaking: lots of expensive ingredients, lots of time. Worth it? Completely.

Here is the recipe and of course this would be fantastic as the entrée, accompanied by the dessert of Santiago Cake that I contributed to the July Gazette.

Paella

  • ½ lb bacon
  • 1 lb sausage (chorizo, or hot Italian)
  • Olive oil
  • 1 cup sliced onion
  • 1 cup sliced sweet peppers
  • 8 pieces of chicken (thighs work well; skinned or skinless, you choose)
  • ½ cup white wine or vermouth
  • 4 ½ cup chicken or beef broth
  • 1 lb shrimp
  • 2-3 fresh tomatoes
  • I cup green peas
  • 1 cup cooked garbanzos
  • 2 cup Spanish or Italian rice
  • 24 mussels
  • 24 clams
  • 3 lemons, quartered, for serving

Paella spices:

  • ½ tsp saffron
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • ¼ tsp coriander
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ tsp thyme
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • 2-3 cloves minced garlic
  • Salt and pepper

Shrimp marinade:

  • 1 T lemon juice
  • 2 T olive oil
  • ½ tsp oregano

Begin with a large, heavy bottomed pan—or a roasting pan, but be careful not to burn it! Sauté the bacon and sausage in 2T olive oil. When the meat is brown, add the onions and peppers and cook for 10 minutes.

Remove all this from the pan and reserve. Add the chicken pieces and brown on both sides.  Add the bacon, sausage and veggies back to the pan. Add the wine, the stock, the spices, and the garlic.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

While simmering the paella, clean the shrimp and toss it with the lemon juice, oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper. Refrigerate till needed.

Core, skin, and chop the tomatoes. (Easily done by covering them in boiling water in a heat-resistant pan.  Remove when cool and the skin will come off easily). Reserve.

Now, turn up the heat till the contents of the paella pan are boiling and sprinkle the rice over the entire pan.  Gently press the rice into the liquid.

This can now be covered and put into a 200°F oven till ready to serve, or, cook gently uncovered for 15 minutes and proceed as follows:

When ready to serve, adjust heat to medium and add the shrimp, peas, garbanzos, and tomatoes, pressing gently into the paella. Cook uncovered for five minutes.

Don’t stir. Insert the rinsed mussels and clams, hinge side down, reduce heat to simmer and cook for 7-8 minutes. If the shellfish are good, they will slowly open as they cook. If they don’t open, don’t eat them—consider them a beautiful garnish.

Serve with lemon quarters. I always forget to serve the lemon quarters. Don’t be like me!

Serves 8-10.

*It’s taken me years to realize that this is best made the morning of your dinner party—up to the seafood addition step. Keep it in the oven, covered, at 200°F until your guests are ready to dine.  Then add the seafood and serve when it’s thoroughly cooked. This way, the rice is completely cooked and has soaked up some of the cooking juices.

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