I couldn’t contain my excitement last week, when a friend returning from Spain, brought me the one thing I’ve been wanting for a while now. An authentic paella pan. For those of you who are not familiar with Paella, let me introduce you to the national dish of Spain. Traditionally cooked in an open smoking fire, in a specialised round shallow pan of polished steel and two handles, this dish is a combination of rice, vegetables and meat/seafood. An essential ingredient of this dish is saffron, which lends it a beautiful aroma and golden colour. In Spain, Paella is never made for less than two, it is a social production, which makes it perfect for a party. While you’re cooking, guests usually sit outside sipping Sangria or Cava (Spanish champagne) and eating Marconas (Spanish almonds) and Manchego (Spanish cheese). In the Spanish home, traditionally, Paella is made only for lunch, never for dinner and eaten from a communal pan.
Great Paella rests on six pillars: The rice, the pan, the heat, the sofrito, the liquid and the soccarat. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Seafood Paella, which consists of lobsters, fish, clams, scallops, mussels, prawns, squid etc, but there are versions that contain chicken, pork, rabbit, duck, snails, beans, peas, artichokes or peppers.
There is an old story of how the Moorish kings’ servants created rice dishes by mixing the left-overs from royal banquets in large pots to take home. It is said by some that the word Paella originates from the Arab word “baqiyah” meaning left-overs. However, linguists believe that the word Paella comes from the name of the pan it is made in—the Latin term patella, a flat plate on which offerings were made to the Gods.
The stories of servants creating dishes from the king’s left-overs are nice, but we know for certain that it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that modern Paella was created in an area around Albufera (a bay south of Valencia). At lunch time, workers in the fields would make the rice dish in a flat pan over a fire. They mixed in whatever they could find, such as snails and vegetables. For special occasions, rabbit and later chicken were added.
The best rice for Paella is Bomba, a Spanish short-grain rice that is able to absorb three times its volume in liquid. When cooked, the grains remain separate and do not stick together. (The rice in Paella should be dry and separate when done, not creamy
Note: If you have to substitute, then, use Basmati Rice. Go for whatever seafood you can get your hands on. And use a large shallow nonstick frying pan if you don’t have a paella pan.
●1/2 tsp crumbled saffron threads
●1 cup clam juice or stock from prawn shells / fish head stock
●1 small yellow onion (about 4 oz)
●2-3 ripe tomatoes (about 12 oz)
●¼ cup plus 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
●4 cloves garlic, finely chopped plus 4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
●½ tsp smoked paprika
●12 large (31-40/lb.) shrimp, peeled with tails intact and deveined
●1 lb mussels, rinsed
●1¾ cups Spanish Bomba rice
●12 sea scallops
●1 lemon, cut into wedges
In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, toast the saffron over 30-60 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat. Finely crush the saffron threads with the back of a spoon. Add the clam juice to the pan and return to the burner. Bring to a boil. Once the mixture reaches a boil, remove from the heat, cover, and set aside to infuse.
To make the sofrito, halve and peel the onion. Grate the onion halves on the largest holes of a box grater to get about 1/3 cup of onion puree. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally. Grate the tomato halves on the box grater down to the skin to get about 1¼ cups juicy tomato pulp. Place a 14- to 16-inch paella pan over medium-low heat. Add ¼ cup of the oil to the pan. Once the oil is hot, add the onion to the pan, stirring occasionally, until it softens and darkens slightly, about four minutes. Stir in the tomato pulp, chopped and whole garlic, paprika, and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Cook the mixture in the centre of the pan, stirring frequently, until it’s deep, dark red and very thick, 30-40 minutes. Adjust the heat as needed, taking care not to let it burn. If the mixture starts to stick, add a bit of water and scrape to deglaze the pan.
While the sofrito is cooking, add the shrimp shells to a 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shells are dry and pink for two-three minutes. Add 5 cups of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Pick through the mussels to find the 12 smallest. Remove the beards if present, and reserve in the refrigerator. Add the remaining mussels to the pot with the boiling water. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the broth into a 2-quart measure, discarding the shells and mussels. Add the saffron-clam broth and 1½ teaspoon salt to the shrimp-mussel broth. Measure out 5¼ cups of the broth, reserving the remainder.
When the sofrito is finished, add the rice to the paella pan and cook briefly over medium heat, stirring constantly to combine for one to two minutes. Spread the rice evenly over the pan, increase the heat to high and slowly add the 5¼ cups broth, trying to keep the rice in an even layer. From this point on, do not stir the rice. Bring to a boil and then adjust the heat to maintain a vigorous simmer, repositioning the pan as necessary so it bubbles all the way to the edges. Simmer vigorously until the rice appears at the level of the broth for about eight minutes.
Arrange the reserved mussels in the pan, spacing them evenly. Reduce the heat so the broth maintains a more moderate simmer and after another five minutes, arrange the shrimp in the pan, pressing them into the rice. Continue to simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender but still firm for five minutes more. The rice needs to simmer for roughly 18 minutes total. (If the broth seems to be evaporating too quickly, cover loosely with foil or add a bit more broth or water, ¼ cup at a time as needed.)
While the Paella cooks, lightly season the scallops with salt. Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the scallops and cook until nicely browned on both sides and just cooked through, two-three minutes per side.
When the rice is done, arrange the scallops on top of the Paella. Check for any caramelised rice sticking to the pan by using a spoon to feel for resistance on the bottom of the pan. This is called the Socarrat. It is the dark crunchy, scorched bits of crispy rice that fry on the bottom of the pan near the end of the cooking as the liquid evaporates. In fact the word comes from the Spanish word for “scorched” because it is slightly burned. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. To get it you need plenty of oil, and you’ve got to keep a close eye on the final minutes. Just don’t let the rice burn. Soccarat is prized among Valencians and every recipe or instructional piece on Paella will talk about the soccarat. It has been called the “prize in a well-made Paella”. The flavour of the rice will change and improve dramatically once the soccarat has formed, so it is well worth the effort to see that your Paella forms one.
Check in multiple areas, especially the centre. If none of the rice is caramelised, increase the heat to medium-high and cook, moving the pan around, until you hear a good deal of cracking and feel resistance, about one-two minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat. Cover with foil or a dishtowel and let rest five-10 minutes. Arrange lemon wedges around the perimeter of the pan and serve.