Paella is the signature meal of Spain, a national pride, and yet almost no one fully agrees on what it is or how is should be made. It is a controversial meal for many reasons… starting with the simple fact that it is a huge shallow pan loaded down with complex and expensive ingredients which completely vary from home to home, town to town, restaurant to restaurant, and from region to region in Spain. Paella in Madrid is very different from that in Seville. But at the same time, like Bouillabaisse from France, Paella is a classic meal so identified with the soul of the country that it naturally comes laden with emotion, memory, tradition, pride, and a sensory longing for the authenticity of the time and place of one’s upbringing.
So when an American like myself dares to make Paella, there is naturally a rolling of the eyes by those from Spain. That’s understandable. But the truth is that Paella has become such a commonly ordered meal by tourists in Spain that chefs there often joke that it’s the only meal they make with a microwave. They make vast quantities of tourist style Paella and simply warm it up when it’s ordered, which is constantly. That’s one of the reasons many tourists come back disappointed by the Paella they got in Spain. It’s sort of like a New Orleans jazz band, after the 10,000th time that tourists ask them to play And the Saints Come Marching In, it gets kind of stale.
The other reason Paella varies so much in quality is that the ingredients are expensive and not easy to acquire. Saffron, just one ingredient, is the most expensive spice in the world, made from a crocus flower grown in Spain and Iran. Each flower has three stigmas, and it takes about 13,000 stigmas, harvested by hand, dried from 4,300 flowers, to make one ounce of saffron. For a Spanish restaurant to include all of the ingredients that are in our recipe, in the volume necessary for a crowd of diners, they would have to charge so much per meal that very few could afford to order it. It’s just too difficult for a restaurant to acquire all these ingredients in every season and in every region of Spain. And since it is essentially a rice meal, any errors made means the rice is mush and the meal is ruined. And even if they accomplished all that, the casual tourist would be very likely overwhelmed by the flavors and the intensity of this sumptuous meal. So to take on this lavish meal you must be like Don Quixote and be willing to let the Spanish cooks stand with arms folded as you tilt at windmills.
Paella was created by hunters in the woods and fields, and by fisherman along the sea. It was a simple authentic meal, made while camping over open fires, the smoke becoming an integral part of the flavors, as well as the local natural ingredients. So for me, to reveal the real heart and soul of this meal, I felt that Paella should taste like wildness, using meats and spices that are smoked, and at the same time, married to the tangy briny fruits of the sea. For all passionate home cooks, Paella is spectacular for festive gatherings of family and friends. Here is the paradox – like Bouillabaisse, when Paella was cooked along a vast coast for generations, by hungry fishermen, they generally used the parts that would be hard to sell, the small fish and eels which were considered scrap. At the same time, when made by hunters in the wilds of the interior of Spain, they used rabbit, wild boar, game birds and snails for their version of Paella. This is why all of the many regions of Spain have such different versions, they simply used what was at hand.
All over Spain, Paella has always been a family tradition, a shared connection to ancient times. It was considered part of their heritage to create it in their traditional way, and to feast. To remember the good times, was to remember Paella.
Like Gumbo Ya Ya, when I make Paella I am drawn to the more complex and contrasting flavors of a mixture of the land and the sea. Somehow, the blending of the strong flavors of the briny ocean combines in an almost magical way with those from the hunt… the slamming together of clams, crabs, shrimp and mussels bumping and grinding in the massive Paella pan with game birds, chicken, rabbit, and spicy sausages. All of this is held together with rice and saffron and tomatoes… like a cauldron of spicy broth from all Spanish regions. This more challenging version of Paella has become the Holy Grail of many cooks from around the world, who take on the making of this classic meal.
As always, I hope that those who make and share my version are transported in some way to this harsh ancient sun drenched and somehow tragically beautiful country of Spain… which I love. It is a land and a people who are full of life.
4 to 6 dozen fresh live mussels
1 pound of langoustines or New Orleans crawfish
10 chicken thighs, free range and air chilled, skin off and bone in (you can also use duck/pheasant/Cornish Hens/or
any game bird)
2 big onions, chopped
2 shallots, diced
1 entire head of garlic, each clove crushed
1 28 oz can of plum tomatoes from Italy (we use tomatoes from San Marzano, Italy)
1 pound crab meat or the legs of King Crab
1 pound shrimp, preferably wild caught, in shells (we use Gulf shrimp)
2 large pinches of Spanish saffron
2 tablespoons of dried hot peppers or 4 fresh serrano peppers
1 tablespoon of smoked hot Spanish paprika
6 bay leaves
4 cups of white rice, uncooked. Note: the most authentic is Bomba rice from Spain because it absorbs more of
the flavorful liquids (Available on Amazon)
1 pound of spicy sausage, either pork/turkey/Andouille/Spanish chorizo
3/4 pound of smoked bacon, pork or turkey, fried and diced
2 big red bell peppers, chopped
12 oz frozen baby peas
4 cups chicken broth, we boil down the bones from a whole roasted chicken (5 cups if you use Bomba rice)
4 cups of shellfish broth, clam/lobster/crab (5 cups if you use Bomba rice)
1/2 cup Spanish olive oil (half for the chicken, half for the veggies)
1/4 cup duck fat for its wildness and to replaced the fats lost removing the skin (optional, but wonderfully umami)
Note: you will need 2 full size Paella pans, with lids, or a large shallow pan with lid.
Spanish Chorizo is a crucial ingredient…
Salt and pepper both sides of the chicken and sprinkle on the paprika in a light dusting. In a very large 14 to 15 inch fry pan, add half the olive oil and all the duck fat, crush in the garlic, and slowly warm up the oil until the garlic melts in.
Add the chicken and slowly fry both sides, turning often. When the chicken is 3/4 done, remove and cover. When the chicken is cooled, de-bone all the meat, chop into pieces and set aside.
Gently fry the uncooked rice in the oils that remain in the pan until they are well coated with all the burnt bits, garlic and grease. Remove the rice and set aside.
Pour the last half of the olive oil in the same pan and fry the onions and peppers until the onions are opaque. Salt to taste. Add the shallots, sausage, chicken, and all meats and bacon. Pan fry at medium temperature until seared slightly. Add the tomatoes, crushing by hand each plum tomato as added. Stir until mixed.
Note: if you are using Bomba rice you should use 3 cups liquid to 1 cup rice.
Now add saffron, hot peppers, bay leaves, shellfish broth, all seafood and heat until just warm… not cooked. Now separate all these ingredients into the 2 Paella pans equally.
Add the rice and liquids (broth and tomato juice) equally to both pans, so the ratio is roughly 2 cups liquid to 1 cup rice. Add the mussels and peas on top of each and cover. Simmer both pans about 12 minutes on medium, until the rice is barely al dente, remove from heat and serve immediately, since the rice will continue to cook in the hot pans.
Serve from the Paella pans. This feast will easily feed 10 to 12 people, until they are in a food coma… with big Spanish grins… Paella in one hand, and a Sangria in the other.
On a recent visit to Barcelona, we stayed 100 feet across a little square from the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, a 14th C. Gothic masterpiece. This photo was taken from our window. Really. We were pretty thrilled about that. Obviously. And then a sudden massive Medieval celebration happened just outside the window. Astounding country.
Simplicity is at the heart of Spanish cuisine, whether it’s tapas with cured hams thinly sliced or fresh seafood tossed in a pan with olive oil and garlic. We’ve found that to make authentic dishes from Spain you really have to make the effort to find the imported ingredients, and they are more and more available online (La Tienda and Amazon) and in specialty stores.
The unique flavors of Spain have a profound gravitas, like smoked paprika, chorizo, Piquillo peppers, cooked and marinated octopus and the finest dark flaming red saffron. For us, Spain is not so much a place but a way of life, and always a delightful feast.