Oh, paella. I love you so.
From the moment we clicked “Confirm” on our plane tickets till we first set foot in Barcelona, I thought of nothing. but. paella. Paella when I woke up every day. Paella while I conditioned my hair in the shower. Paella at work. Paella at home. Paella in the morning, paella in the evening, paella at suppertime…
And then we arrived. And ate paella. And it was GLORIOUS. And I immediately began plotting how to make it for my very own self.
Now, I realize there’s a computer screen and a whole series of tubes between you and me, and you probably can’t see me flailing all over the place trying to put words to the experience of eating paella in a Spanish coastal town. But trust me. I’m flailing.
It’s seafood plucked straight from the glassy Mediterranean; pearly rice grains, with just the barest whisper of crunch still in the middle; a thick glaze of tomato and smoky, brick-red Spanish paprika; little crispy bits collected in the recesses of the pan; a good glass (or two) of Spanish wine to wash it all down.
So how exactly does one replicate that in a tiny American apartment kitchen?
The answer, of course, is that one doesn’t. But the beauty of paella–as I found out once I came home and began pestering Google for answers–is that there’s no one way to make it. As with cioppino, the whole point is to make full use of the local supply, whether it be seafood or meat or vegetables or a freeform combination of all of the above.
The crucial element, aside from the short-grain rice, is pimenton dulce–Spanish sweet smoked paprika. I’m not much for souvenir shopping, but I made sure to nab myself a tin of the stuff at the central food market. It’s the color of a New England college building, with a depth of flavor to match: brawny, smoky, mysterious, a little gruff. Without it, paella is just rice with a bunch of seafood in it.
Oh, and I splurged and bought some saffron too. But you don’t have to. I just thought the jar was pretty.
This is the first paella I’ve ever made, but it is by no means the last, or even the most definitive. I cobbled this together from what was readily available at the grocery store, and honed a (very precise, scientific) method of cooking by watching this video over and over and over again. The result may not have been authentic, but it was pretty damn tasty.
Look at that photo. That’s a warm Spanish summer evening, on a restaurant terrace by the beach. That’s glasses of cava fizzing lazily in the twilight. That’s a waiter leaning over your table with a black two-handled pan, and the unfolding aroma of sugar-sweet shellfish and smoky pimenton.
Saturday Night Paella (serves 6)
NOTE: You can do this in a paella pan, if you own one; if not, a 12-inch deep-sided skillet or even a wok works fine. I wouldn’t use cast iron for this, because you’ll need a pan that will let you vary the heat under the rice, rather than getting hot and staying hot.
3 cups water
1 lb raw peel-on shimp, thawed if frozen
1 lb sea scallops, thawed if frozen
10 oz. chorizo (optional)
1/2 lb. romano beans
3 tbsp olive oil
1 15-oz. can tomato puree (low-sodium if you can get it)
1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
Zest of half an orange
Large pinch of saffron (optional)
1 bay leaf
3-4 large sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cups short-grain rice (I used Arborio, but if you can find real Spanish short-grain rice, go for it)
Salt to taste
Pour the water into a saucepan. Peel the shrimp and add the shells to the water. Bring to a low boil, then turn the heat down to low, cover, and let simmer while you prep the rest of the ingredients (keep an eye on it–shrimp stock likes to boil over).
Devein the shrimp, if they’re not already deveined. Pull the small hinge muscles off the scallops, then cut them in half. If you’re using Mexican (fresh) chorizo, remove the casing; cut or crumble the chorizo into bite-size pieces. Trim the ends off the beans, then cut them in half.
Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in your pan of choice. Add chorizo (if using), and saute for a couple minutes to start rendering out the fat. Add the beans and saute for an additional 5 minutes, just until they start to soften. Add tomato puree, plus about half a can of water. Stir in smoked paprika, orange zest and saffron (if using). Let the whole thing simmer for another 5 minutes.
Strain the shrimp stock into a measuring cup, and discard the shells. If there’s less than 3 cups of stock, add water to make up the difference. Add the stock to the pan, along with the bay leaf and rosemary. Let the whole mess simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the flavors in the pan have infused into the liquid.
Turn the heat down to medium, and add the rice, stirring to make sure it’s evenly distributed throughout the pan. Simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the rice absorbs enough liquid to come up to the surface; then turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer another 10 minutes.
Stir the shrimp and scallops into the rice, making sure they’re buried under the rice to absorb the heat. Continue to cook, another 5-10 minutes, until there is no more liquid left in the pan, and the rice is fully cooked but still just the leeeeeeeetlest bit firm. If you have the guts (I didn’t), stop stirring for the last 5 minutes and let a little bit of a crust form on the bottom. Taste and adjust the salt as necessary–it may not need much.
Turn off the heat, let the paella rest for 5-10 minutes, and then omnomnom.