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A Taste of Spain: Paella

 
 I had my first taste of paella when I was 10 years old, when a family friend from Spain came to visit and wowed my family with the most amazing dish I had ever seen. The golden rice with a crispy golden crust, bursting with the flavors of chicken, shrimp and tomatoes, haunted my culinary memory for years. And once I started throwing my own parties, it became a staple dish. (I made it this weekend for my dad, and it was a big hit!) The fragrant saffron, the smokey paprika, the creamy rice---it is simply sublime. It’s a fabulous party dish, too—beautiful to look at and relatively easy to pull together. And with a bottle of Rioja (or Sangria!) it just might be the perfect meal. A few quick notes: be sure to use short-grain rice. It’s worth looking for paella rice--it absorbs the liquid like no other--but Arborio rice will work in a pinch. And a paella pan is an excellent investment; the wide, shallow dish cooks the rice evenly and looks amazing when you serve it! If you don’t live near a good kitchen store, go online to La Tienda or The Spanish Table—both retailers have an incredible array of Spanish cooking products, including paella pans, rice, and saffron.

PAELLA VALENCIANA

  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 large, ripe tomatoes
  • 1½ pounds chicken thighs, preferably boneless and skinless, chopped into bite-size pieces
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced into 1-inch strips
  • ½ cup diced chorizo (see Note)
  • 1 teaspoon sweet pimentón de la Vera (Spanish smoked paprika; don’t use Hungarian paprika)
  • ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4½ cups chicken stock
  • ½ cup dry sherry (preferably Manzanilla)
  • 2 cups paella rice (Bomba or Calasparra)
  • ½ cup frozen peas
  • 1 pound large shrimp (shell on)
  • 1 pound littleneck clams
  • 1 pound mussels, scrubbed
  • 1/4 bunch Italian parsley, minced
  • Lemon wedges, for serving 
  1. Slice tomatoes in half, and grate each on a box grater over a bowl. Discard skins; set pulp aside.
  2. Set an 18-inch paella pan over two burners at high heat on the stove top, Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pan over high heat. Lightly season chicken pieces with salt and pepper, and brown on both sides until deep golden. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
  3. Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onions, season with a pinch of salt, and sauté on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and bell pepper and sauté about 4 minutes, until softened. Add the tomato pulp and chorizo and cook until about 5 minutes. Add paprika and saffron, and cook for about 1 minute. Add sherry and cook until evaporated. Add chicken stock; bring to a boil. Add the chicken pieces.
  4. Sprinkle rice across the pan and stir until the grains are submerged, then don't stir again. It’s important that you don’t stir the rice again – resist the urge! It will look like a lot of liquid but it will eventually be absorbed. 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 low and continue simmering for 6-8 minutes. Test rice again. If it is still hard, continue cooking for 2-4 more minutes.
  5. Arrange the shellfish and shrimp over the top of the paella, submerging them slightly. (If the pan is too crowded you can steam the shellfish in a separate pot and add to the paella before serving.)
  6. In the final 2 minutes, sprinkle frozen peas over the top and return heat to medium-high, listening for a crackling sound to ensure the bottom is toasting but not burning. Remove from heat, cover with paper towels and let sit for 5 minutes. Remove any shellfish that hasn’t opened.
  7. 8. Use a metal spoon to scrape toasted rice from bottom of pan and serve with a bowl of lemon wedges. Serves 6

Note: Chorizo is a dried pork sausage seasoned with smoked pimenton (paprika) from Spain available at most specialty stores. You can find fresh chorizo but for paella it’s best to use dried.