After a trip to Spain, I bought a paella pan and starting making this dish that is at once regional (in and around Valencia) and the country’s most famous dish.
I tried painstakingly traditional paellas and unorthodox ones such as Ottolenghi’s vegetable-laden paella. Usually I was cooking for a group–paella has a well-deserved reputation as a festive dish–so the quantities were fairly large. And the paellas tended to be elaborate, with many ingredients. The results were okay, but I was always tinkering with the amount of broth, rice or something else, and the timing seemed unpredictable.
The paella pan went onto a hook in our condo storage cage and pretty much stayed there.
Now the party’s over and I’m cooking mostly for just two (or occasionally for four, because we like leftovers). I pulled down the paella pan and gave it another twirl. I used less rice and broth, of course, and a few seasonal vegetables plus a protein.
At some point, I hit my stride and started turning out paella closer to what I’d tasted in Spain.
I realized that 1 to 1 1/2 cups of rice was the right amount for my 15-inch paella pan. Given that rice is the star, I also cut back on vegetable quantities and spread ingredients into a thin layer that cooks properly in about 25 minutes.
I stir the grains in sizzling olive oil before adding broth, as with risotto, and follow the Italian dictum of covering but not drowning the rice in broth. The results do not resemble risotto because I’m using a paella pan instead of a saucepan.
I recommend buying a paella pan, although you can get by with a 12-inch skillet. The one I have is carbon steel, which starts to rust before your eyes if you don’t treat it right. What you have to do is clean and dry it thoroughly and then coat with a thin layer of oil. But it’s reasonably priced, conducts heat well and is simply the right vessel for the dish.
True to paella-making tradition, I don’t stir after adding broth, allowing the rice to come out drier on top than in the middle. The texture is notably different from risotto, which has a creamier, stickier consistency. Giving the pan a quarter turn occasionally as the paella cooks will promote even cooking. I can’t say I’ve achieved a perfect socarrat (the sought-after bottom crust), but that’s a goal to strive for.
One of the pleasures of cooking paella is arranging the final ingredients and garnishes over the rice. It’s a dish that, however simple the ingredients, insists on showing off.
Choosing the right short-grain rice is important. Bomba or calasparra rice, which you may have to order on line, works great, but so does the readily available Calrose rice used by Asian and Latin American cooks. It’s nice to treat yourself to Spanish ingredients–saffron, paprika, jarred piquillo peppers. Once you have them, you’re set for quite awhile.
I noticed in Spain that many paellas feature just one or two kinds of protein, not a smorgasbord. Yes, you could include several kinds of seafood in your paella, but shrimp on its own is perfectly fine. Plus whatever seasonal vegetables you have on hand. Right now we have another month of superb summer squash, peppers, tomatoes and corn, and they’re all in this recipe.
- 1 large Italian frying pepper (Cubanelle) or 1 small bell pepper
- 3 scallions or 1 medium onion
- 1 medium zucchini or large rib celery
- 1 large tomato
- 1 ear fresh corn or ½ cup frozen corn
- 2 garlic cloves
- 12 ounces medium or large shrimp peeled, tails on
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ cups short-grain rice such as Calrose, bomba or calasparro
- 2 pinches saffron
- ½ to 1 teaspoon sweet, smoked or hot paprika (preferably Spanish)
- 1 bay leaf
- 3½ to 4 cups salted vegetable broth or water or as needed
- ½ lemon or lime halved and cut in thin half moons
- ¼ cup snipped basil parsley or cilantro leaves cut in ribbons
Cut pepper in thin strips. Chop scallions, including green tops. Dice zucchini or sliver celery. (Combine these three ingredients in one bowl.) Core tomato and dice, keeping juices. Scrape corn off cob. Finely chop garlic or squeeze through a garlic press. Sprinkle shrimp lightly with salt.
Place paella pan over one large burner or two smaller burners. Heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add pepper, scallions and zucchini, spreading out over pan. Cook for a couple of minutes until softened but not browned, stirring once or twice.
Add rice, stirring to coat with oil. Cook for a couple of minutes. Add saffron and paprika, stirring to tint the rice.
Spread out pan contents and add broth to cover (if using water, salt to taste). Adjust heat so rice mixture simmers gently and cook for 10 minutes. Do not stir! Give the pan a quarter turn now and then to promote even cooking. If rice grains are uncovered early in that process, add a bit more broth.
Distribute diced tomato, corn, shrimp and lemon slices over paella. Cook about 10 minutes longer (again, no stirring), turning shrimp half way through, until rice and shrimp are fully cooked. Garnish paella with basil leaves and let stand at least 5 minutes before eating.
Set the paella pan on the table with a couple of serving spoons and invite everyone to dig in.