Paella is one of those dishes, like barbecue, that can spark endless heated debate. Everyone makes it differently, and everyone has found that one particular paella that is the apotheosis of paella. After that pinnacle is reached, no other paella will ever compare.
For example, some people swear that paella that isn't made in Valencia can never be true paella, due to the quality of the water in Valencia. And some people say that paella can not have both seafood and chicken in the same dish. (I happen to like it that way, though.) And then there are the paellas that are made with vermicelli (pasta), or beans, or the original, which is made with rabbits and snails, with no seafood in sight.
My Dad had a perfect paella in New York about 30 years ago, and nothing since has ever come close. For a few years now I've tried recreating that dish, and the response is always the same: "It's good, but it's not it."
This year, it was time to step it up a notch. In the past, I had attempted to make this dish by throwing some stuff into a casserole dish and throwing the whole thing in the oven for a while, but I realized that this inauthentic approach was just not going to cut it. It would never be that paella.
Therefore, it was time to ponder the variables that are generally considered part of an authentic paella. Most importantly, it's made in a paella pan. This is a large, shallow, circular pan that is ideally made of carbon steel. To be super-authentic, this pan is set over a wood fire, but I wasn't feeling that ambitious--obtaining the pan was just about the height of my aspirations. Part of the reason the pan is so important is because it enables the formation of a brown crust on the bottom of the dish. The brown crust is called soccarat, and some people claim that it's the key to a great paella, and in Spain, people apparently fight over the crusty bits.
(The Paella Pan)
Also of importance is the rice--short-grain rice is a necessity, and if you want to be really accurate, Bomba and Calasparra are preferred. However, these rice varieties can be difficult to find, so Arborio or Carnaroli are acceptable in a pinch.
Paprika is a part of all paellas, and smoked Spanish paprika is the ideal choice. This particular type of paprika can also be difficult to find, but it's worth ordering online because it's far more complex than regular paprika, and the smokiness will lend the finished dish that little 'something.' However, if you would like to use normal paprika, just make sure it's the 'sweet' variety, as opposed to the 'hot' variety.
Roasted red peppers are frequently a part of paella, and piquillo peppers are supposedly the best available. They're roasted over wood fires and retain their texture a bit better than normal roasted red peppers. Or so I hear. I had ordered some for this version of paella, but they didn't arrive in time, so experimenting with them will happen on another occasion.
So when it came time to attempt a more authentic version of paella, most of the key components were in place, and overall it was a success. We got a little bit of brown crust, and one tiny bit where the crust was a bit too brown. The paella was flavorful and delicious, and it was fun to eat, partially because the way it's brought to the table in a really big pan is in itself so entertaining.
If you decide to make the recipe as it's printed below, I apologize for the rather vague timing instructions. Ours took a while for the rice to cook (about 50 minutes), but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I was afraid of burning the bottom, so I kept the heat a bit lower than the original recipe instructs. However, I left the directions as far as heat and timing pretty close to the original, as I feel it's probably correct; I just tweaked a few things (like the use of tinfoil), which I discuss in the recipe below. Your cooking times may also vary based on the size of your stove, so basically, just be careful as you cook--watch, listen, and smell, and you'll end up with a delicious dinner. Or, like I say each time we're about to embark on a new culinary adventure--you can always order some pizza.
(Inspired by This Recipe)
- 1 5 lb bag mussels
- 3 large, ripe tomatoes
- 10 blanched almonds, ideally Marcona
- 3 cloves garlic
- Packed 1/4 cup Italian parsley
- 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 package dried chorizo, cut into 1/4 inch slices
- 1 pound shrimp, peeled
- 2 teaspoons sweet pimentón de la Vera (Spanish smoked paprika)
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1½ pounds chicken thighs, preferably boneless and skinless
- ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
- 4½ cups chicken stock
- ½ cup dry sherry
- 2 cups Calrose rice
- 2 red peppers, roasted, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch strips, then cut in half lengthwise
- About 1 bottle beer (lager works well)
- 1 cup frozen peas
Place the mussels in a bowl of very cold water and place the bowl in the fridge. Every 30-40 minutes or so, change the water (for a total of at least 2 water changes). Slice tomatoes in half, and grate each on a box grater over a bowl. Discard skins; set pulp aside. In a food processor or mortar, puree parsley, garlic and almonds with a tablespoon or two of water until smooth.
Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large pan over high heat. Add chorizo pieces to pan and cook until lightly browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Season shrimp with salt and 1/2 teaspoon paprika. Sear the shrimp in the hot pan until golden brown and almost cooked through.
With a slotted spoon, remove shrimp. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper, add to same pan, and brown on one side until deep golden. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
Set 18-inch paella pan over two burners at high heat on the stove top, and heat 1/3 cup olive oil. Add tomato pulp and cook until darkened, about 5 minutes. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika and 1/4 teaspoon saffron, and cook for about 1 minute. Add chicken pieces and sherry and cook until sherry is evaporated (you'll have liquid in the pan, but no longer be able to smell the sherry). Add chicken stock; bring to a boil.
Stir garlic, almond and parsley puree into the pan. Sprinkle rice across the pan and stir until the grains are submerged, then don't stir again. Add red peppers. Cook on high heat for 10 minutes, rotating the pan on the two burners to distribute heat. Using a small spoon, test rice and stock and add salt as needed.
Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking for 10 minutes. Test rice again. If the rice is drying out but still needs some more cooking time in order for it to tenderize, add some beer (or water or chicken stock) to the dry spots. The amount of beer needed will vary greatly depending on your rice, heat, etc., but we used about a bottle of beer.
If the rice is still hard, turn the heat down to low and continue to cook the rice until all parts of the dish are tender. You might need to intermittently cover the pan with a big sheet of tin foil. I wish that I could give you more specific directions, but I think that this is one of those dishes that you have to watch and play with, at least until you're practiced with it. We found that our total cooking time for the rice was about 50 minutes, about 10 of which were covered.
When all of the rice is tender but a little bit of extra liquid remains in the pan, scatter the mussels over the top, scatter the shrimp and peas around. Cover with tin foil and cook for about 5-7 more minutes, until the mussels are open.
In this last little part, listen for a crackling sound to ensure the bottom is toasting but not burning. It might be necessary to increase the heat to medium-high, but again, listen and pay attention to the dish. Remove from heat, leave the foil cover in place, and let sit for 5 minutes.
Use a metal spoon to scrape toasted rice from bottom of pan and serve.