Seafood Paella

June 15, 2009

I first encountered a paella recipe 25 years ago, in The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey, one of the books I used at the beginning of my continuing Great Cooking Adventure. It appeared to have all of the necessary elements: sausage, chicken, shrimp, clams, rice, and saffron (available only in powdered form, which meant it was probably 50% tumeric). It tasted good, so I was happy to cook it every other month.

Then I tasted a real paella, cooked by a friend’s Spanish mother. It was nothing like the soupy rice concoction I had been eating for years — it had al dente, saffron-scented short-grain rice, perfectly cooked seafood, and a crispy socarrat — the caramelized bottom crust. Thus began my Quixotic (Spanish, get it?) quest to cook an authentic paella.

I tried other recipes, including what should have been a foolproof method from Cook’s Illustrated, but the best I ever wound up with was a jambalaya with upper-class aspirations. I thought I made a breakthrough when I found a paella pan at Ikea (a Swedish paella pan, should have been a warning sign), but it had a non-stick coating which prevented socarrat formation.

I had given up on the dish when I read about a specialty provider, La Paella, that sold authentic paella pans and genuine short-grain Valencia rice. A week later I had a sixteen inch pan and a kilo of rice, and I was ready to go.

Paella pan

The pan is carbon steel, so it had to be cleaned and conditioned like a new wok. I assembled the ingredients:

Mise en place

One onion, two plum tomatoes, six large peeled garlic cloves, a quart of lobster stock, a dozen mussels, a half pound each of shrimp, scallops, and calamari, saffron, and Valencia bomba rice. I peeled and de-veined the shrimp, and cut the calamri into strips (the bodies had been cleaned and split, so I didn’t wind up with rings).

I peeled the onion and tomatoes, then pulsed them both in a food processor until finely chopped.

Onion and tomato

I added some olive oil to the pan and sauteed the shrimp, scallops, and calamari for two minutes, then removed everything from the pan.

Seafood

I added the onion and garlic and cooked for about five minutes on medium heat until the onion softened.

Onion and garlic

I added the tomato and some salt, and cooked for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the mixture thickened and darkened. I now had a sofrito.

Sofrito

While the sofrito cooked, I brought the lobster stock up to a simmer and added a large pinch of saffron threads. I added two cups of rice to the sofrito and stirred for about two minutes.

Rice and sofrito

I added the saffron-infused stock, shaking the pan to distribute the rice evenly, then simmered vigorously over medium-high heat until the liquid reached the level of the rice, about ten minutes.

Stock added

Even though my stove has a large “power boil” burner, the flame doesn’t spread out across the entire pan bottom, so I slowly rotated it during all of the remaining cooking steps to ensure even heat distribution.

I added the mussels to the pan and cooked over medium-low heat for another ten minutes. When all the liquid was absorbed, I arranged the shrimp, scallops, and calamari over the rice.

To create the socarrat, I turned up the heat to medium-high and rotated the pan for about two minutes, listening for the rice crackling. I let the dish rest for five minutes under foil, then served the whole pan at the table with lemon wedges to pass around.

Finished paella

I invited our guests to serve themselves out of the pan, which is the traditional style.

Final plate

How did it taste? For a first attempt, I think I came pretty close. The rice was separate grains with a slight chew, you could taste and smell the saffron, the seafood was perfectly cooked, and the socarrat (the darker bits in the photo) had a nice crunch.

The rice should have had a deep yellow-orange color instead of the beige I wound up with . I probably didn’t use enough saffron, and I didn’t add any smoked pimenton — another traditional ingredient — that would have deepened the color. A seafood paella omits chorizo sausage, which would have added color as the fat rendered out.

I still haven’t made a near-perfect paella, but now I know I’m moving in the right direction.

Sources:

Seafood from New Deal Fish Market.

Paella pan and bomba rice from La Paella.

Saffron from Penzeys.

Lobster stock from the Belm Laboratories Research Kitchen.

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