Paella is a rice dish, similar to Louisiana jambalaya, and is considered a “national dish” in Spain. While there are different ingredients and varieties based on the individual cook and/or region of Spain, they all have two things in common: the use of a special “paella pan” and saffron.
A paella pan is round and shallow pan, typically made of carbon steel. Believe it or not, the use of a “real” paella pan is essential to making a good paella. A soup pot ain’t gonna do it. The size of the pan, the ratio of the height to the diameter and the use of carbon steel all ensure the rice and other ingredients cook evenly and thoroughly when used properly. They also allow the use of high heat for searing and for that heat to dissipate quickly when taken off the fire.
Paella pans are also specifically designed to cook a specific amount of the dish and are classified according to the number of people they will feed. It is important to use the right size pan for your crowd. Because of the shallowness of the pan, you cannot overload it to cook more than it was designed for, nor will it cook properly if you try to cut the recipe down to less than the pan’s intended capacity.
In many Spanish villages, festivals and special events are celebrated with paella. Often, one or more paella “masters” will build fires and cook for the entire town with pans designed for 50-persons or more.
For this article, we used a 22-inch diameter pan which is rated as a 10-person pan. The pan is shown below. For comparison purposes, a “two-person” pan (with red handles) was placed inside for the photo. Note the dinner fork we set inside the two-person pan for scale.
A two-ring propane burner hooked up to a 15 gal. tank was used as a heat source.
This dish is a “mixed” paella because it contains both meat and seafood. “Seafood” paella, as the name obviously implies, only has seafood. Typically, meat-only is considered “Valencian” paella—especially when game, such as wild rabbit, is used.
So, let’s get started…
First, we browned some ham, chorizo sausage and garlic cloves in oil.
Once browned, they were removed from the pan and a “sofrito” mixture of tomatoes, onions and peppers was thrown in and sauteed.
When they were good and cooked through, we returned the meat to the pan and added about 5 cups of Bomba rice. Bomba rice is the traditional “proper” rice to use in a paella because of it’s ability to absorb large quantities of liquid while retaining its shape. However, it is difficult to find and fairly expensive (Bomba rice can be ordered online at La Tienda—also a good source for real paella pans among other things). If you choose to substitute, try not to use generic, plain, ol’ long grain rice. Short grain (i.e. “sushi” rice) is most similar in size and texture to Bomba, although many people prefer to use Basmati or Jasmine for the flavor.
Then the stock (chicken/shrimp stock infused with lots of saffron) was added. Note that the infused saffron is critical. Without saffron you are just making a pan full of rice—not “paella.” About eight cups of stock was used at first, but a cup or two at a time was continuously added as the rice soaked it up (about every ten or fifteen minutes).
Once the rice stopped absorbing liquid (about an hour later), green peas and calamari were stirred in, then shrimp, clams, mussels, red pepper strips, asparagus stalks and artichoke hearts were laid on top. Some more saffron fibers were sprinkled over the whole shootin’ match and another cup or two of stock was added to help steam the toppings. When done properly you should not have to cover the rice to for it cook through. Beginners may find this goal difficult to reach at first.
The finished product…
Things to consider:
1) Preparation ahead of time is essential. Once you start cooking, you must KEEP ON cooking. You cannot just stop in the middle to clean shrimp, chop onions or make more stock. This is one area where a good loafer must be sure to be “lazy.”
2) Try using a charcoal or wood fire. The gas burner worked well, but the heat was still a little too concentrated in the middle part of the pan. Just be sure you can move the pan to areas of more or less heat as needed.
3) Have fun with it. Play around with the ingredients. Try something new.
4) Don’t give up. Paella is not “impossibly” difficult, but is not a trivial thing to make either. You may have a bit of a learning curve to go through.
5) Invite lots of friends. If you don’t have any friends call us and, once we’re assured you have an adequate supply of good beer, we’ll be happy to join you.