There must be as many ways to make the Spanish dish paella as there are myths about its origins. Debates range from the etymology of its name to the specific ingredients that should be used to make it. But one thing is for sure – this is slow food meant for a crowd. It’s the kind of dish that takes hours to make; it’s meant to be lingered over and savored – during both the cooking and the eating – while debating politics with an uncle or discussing a friend’s new arty endeavor, all while sipping sangria, of course.
Traditionally, this rice-based dish would be made for Sunday lunch, so it translates well to a large dinner party, especially since the process of cooking it also makes a great spectacle for guests. So when my friend Maaike Bernstrom (a Puddingstone contributor) and her husband Erik hosted a paella party one warm and sweet evening last summer, I knew it would be a treat. Having previously lived in Valencia – where the dish first originated – the Bernstroms had brought both the tradition and the know-how back home with them.
Though some ingredients may be determined by what’s regional, on hand, or in season – shellfish, chicken, rabbit, various types of beans, and green vegetables can all be swapped in or out – without certain things, it just wouldn’t be paella. Short-grain Spanish rice is a must, along with saffron and sofrito, a sauce made from onions, garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil. And a dimpled paella pan will help ensure cooks have a better chance at creating the prized socarrat, the crusty, almost-burnt layer left at the bottom of the pan when the dish is done cooking.
As Erik labored over his 40-serving pan, which cooked over an open fire in the backyard, delighted guests tasted Spanish cheeses, cured meats, olives, and nuts and enjoyed cocktails. Combined with Maaike’s backyard bouquets and a candle-lit chandelier hanging from a tree that greeted us at dusk, the effect was truly charming.
Scroll down for recipe.
All photos by Maaike Bernstrom Photography
Paella doesn’t have to be a summer-only dish. In fact, the Mooring restaurant here in Newport serves it every Thursday through the winter. Nor does it have to be cooked over a fire pit – a grill or stove will do. Paella, it turns out, is on of those dishes where what matters most is the people gathered to eat it.
Erik’s Seafood Paella
Special equipment: 15-inch paella pan
6 cubes fish bouillon
6 cubes chicken bouillon
1 ½ teaspoons saffron
3 teaspoons smoked Spanish Paprika
15 cups water
1 ½ large onions, chopped
1 ½ red bell pepper, chopped
1 ½ tomato, chopped
2 pounds Spanish-style chorizo, cut into ¼ inch slices
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
¾ cup fresh parsley, chopped
¾ cup garlic, chopped, plus 18 whole garlic cloves, peeled
18 ounces roasted piquillo peppers
6 cups Bomba rice
4 lobster tails
1 pound mussels
1 pound shrimp
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
To prep, build a wood fire in a fire pit. Paella will cook best if heat is evenly distributed; coals should be very hot — allow to build heat for a minimum of two hours before cooking (more if cooking for a larger crowd) — but flame should be low before placing pan over fire. Tip: keep a small pile of wood nearby to add as needed.
On stove, fill a large stockpot with the water and place on medium high heat. Add bouillon cubes, saffron, and paprika. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in paella pan over fire pit till hot, but not smoking. (Add more oil if necessary.) Add chorizo and chicken and brown, over medium heat, for about 5 minutes. Remove from pan and transfer to plate. Add remaining olive oil to pan and cook onions over medium heat until translucent. Add bell pepper and cook for about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and garlic and simmer for another 5 minutes, until ingredients have become a sofrito; that is, they should have a sauce-like appearance.
Pour in rice and stir until it is covered with the tomato mixture. Slowly add all broth to tomato mixture. Add in chicken and chourizo. Stir rice mixture again until evenly distributed throughout pan. Do not stir mixture again after this point.
Allow mixture to simmer for about 10 minutes, then arrange mussels, shrimp, and lobster tails, one by one, atop mixture, evenly distributing throughout. Simmer for another 15 minutes, or until all broth has been absorbed, adding extra liquid if necessary. Remove from heat, gently cover with foil and allow dish to sit for 10 minutes. Garnish with piquillo pepper slices and lemon wedges before serving.