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 â€” it had al dente, saffron-scented short-grain rice, perfectly cooked seafood, and a crispy socarrat â€” 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.
The pan is carbon steel, so it had to be cleaned and conditioned like a new wok. I assembled the ingredients:
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.
I added some olive oil to the pan and sauteed the shrimp, scallops, and calamari for two minutes, then removed everything from the pan.
I added the onion and garlic and cooked for about five minutes on medium heat until the onion softened.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I invited our guests to serve themselves out of the pan, which is the traditional style.
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 â€” another traditional ingredient â€” 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.
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.