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Paella Valenciana Mixta

Early on when I started dating Rosa, I offered to make her a paella. She happily agreed to let me cook the one thing I knew about Spanish food at the time for her, but she didn’t tell me her real feelings until afterwards. Apparently, she had a full speech prepared for dinner, the gist of which was: “that is good rice with stuff in it, but that is not a paella.” Thankfully, she never got to give that speech, since I had made quite a few paellas after being taught by a Spanish friend a decade prior. Though paella may be the most iconic dish of Spanish cuisine, I don’t think most people outside of Spain really understand what it is. Hopefully, if you make it through this post, you can count yourself in the know.

Paella originates in Valencia, which, not so surprisingly, is the region in Spain famous for growing rice. These days, Paellas are popular throughout Spain, both in restaurants and as a special dinner at home, but, even so, many visitors get a second-rate imitation when they first arrive to Spain. The touristy areas are filled with shops happy to push out mass produced, frozen, reheated, bad facsimiles of paella. In most decent sized cities around Spain, and certainly all over Valencia, though, you can find establishments that take paella very seriously and will give you a proper introduction. You can, however, learn to make a real paella at home on your own.

Some paella basics…

First, the name paella actually comes from the pan, which is called a paella. You don’t NEED to use a traditional paella pan to make paella, but you absolutely must use a wide, shallow pan. The reason for this, is that a paella should only have a thin layer of rice in the pan. The best made paellas are only a few grains of rice thick when they are served. It’ll take a little practice to know your pan well enough to get the amount of rice just right when combined with all of the other fun stuff cooked in.

Your choice of rice matters a whole lot when making paella. Valencia is a famous rice growing region, and the most prized rice from the area is called “arroz Bomba” (Bomba rice). It is a very small, round-grained rice, that looks almost like a smaller arborio rice. There are a few other similar, small, round-grained rices grown in Valencia. Most are harder to find here than arroz Bomba, but any will work fine for the paella. If you can’t find arroz Bomba, or similar Valencia rice, you can substitute Arborio rice. It’s not exactly the same, but it will be close enough, that the non-Spaniards at your table probably won’t notice the difference. What makes arroz Bomba (and the similar Valencia rices) special (besides their size, shape, aroma, and flavor), is that they can absorb A LOT of liquid. The can absorb about 3x liquid by volume - significantly more than most other rices that you will encounter. This means they can absorb more flavor than other rices, and grow more during cooking. Don’t use Asian rice or long grain rice for a paella. The taste and texture will be wrong. The resulting dish might still taste good, but it will not look or taste like a paella.

Now to the cooking…

Making a proper paella is a process, and it always starts with a sofrito. The sofrito generally contains onions and peppers, with most people adding a bit of tomato as well. The sofrito is seasoned fairly simply with salt, and (depending on who you ask) Pimentón de la Vera. I love the smokey flavor of the pimentón for extra background depth in the paella, but some people like to skip it. When the sofrito has cooked to an almost jam-like consistency, a picada is added. The picada is a freshly ground paste, which, for a paella, typically includes garlic, parsley, and saffron. After the picada is cooked down (often with a bit of wine to get the saffron “bleeding out”), the rice is stirred in to get coated with oil and to soak up some of the big flavors. A bit more wine is added, and then the stock. Once the stock is added, you never move the rice again. One, you don’t want to build up all the starches in the cooking liquid like you would in a risotto, Two, it needs to set up in an even, solid layer. Third, and probably most important of all, you want to develop a socarrat.

A properly made paella will always have a thin, crusty layer at the bottom of the rice. This thin crusty layer, called “socarrat” in Spanish, is one of the first things any Spaniard tends to look for when served a paella. To get the socarrat, you need to keep cooking the paella on medium-low heat for a couple more minutes after the liquid has been absorbed. Getting a good socarrat is an art in its own right, that takes some practice to do well consistently.

Showing a bit of socarat (crusty layer of rice from the bottom of the paella).

So, what else goes in a paella?

First, there are a few kinds of paella. There are seafood paellas that contain only seafood - some purists will tell you that this is the only true type of paella. There are paellas that contain only rabbit or chicken. Finally, the focus of this post is on a paella mixta, which contains both meat and seafood. Most traditionally, rabbit is the meat used for the paella, and that is my personal preference. Many people these days use chicken, however. Either works well. Regardless of which meat you choose, it needs to be bone-in, cut into typical stewing sized pieces. For the rabbit, this means using just the legs, which can be left whole or separated into smaller pieces at the joints. For chicken, this means, drumsticks, thighs, and wings separated at each joint. I typically reserve the white meat pieces (loins from rabbit, breasts from chicken) for other dishes, cause this type of cooking method doesn’t lead to very nice results for them.

The seafood varies quite a bit depending on season, availability, and who is making the paella. Some common seafood additions are clams, mussels, shrimp (always with shell and head on), squid, and different types of lobster. This is by no means an exhaustive list. At home, people will often cook most of the seafood in the paella. In restaurants, some of the seafood is often cooked separately and placed on top, at the end of cooking, as a garnish.

I have never seen sausage in a proper paella in Spain or in a paella made by Spaniards. For some reason, though, I see a lot of Americans putting chorizo and other sausages into paella recipes. If sausage makes you happy, go for it, but I know a few folks from Spain that will tell you how obscenely wrong you are.

Finally, paella was traditionally cooked outdoors over a fire, and, I have been lucky enough to do so several times. It’s a challenge to control the heat just right this way, but it is an absolutely magical experience. If you have the means to do so, I highly encourage you to give it a try at some point. I was originally taught to cook paella on a weber charcoal grill in the backyard, and, at home, that is still the way I always cook the paella. You can fit a good family-sized paella on the standard Weber charcoal grill.

You can, of course, cook paella on the stove, but this can be a little tricky to execute well. For one, the pans tend to be wide, and you want the flame covering the whole bottom of the pan so it cooks evenly. Your stove will limit your ability to use a decent sized pan. Also, traditional hammered steel paella pans aren’t perfectly flat, so they don’t sit nicely on the standard electric burners prevalent in so many places these days. You can get flat-bottomed stainless steel paella pans, but they are relatively expensive. In Spain, many people have special burners for making paella that get used outside much the way Americans grill or barbeque. You can actually find these burners in the USA, often in the same places you can buy a paella pan.

Paella is never cooked covered, nor finished in the oven.

Ingredients (for 15"/38cm paella pan)

1 rabbit cut into pieces (carcass used to make stock)

You can substitute a chicken cut in pieces, (again, using the carcass for stock)

6 – 8 large shrimp, head and shells on

6 – 8 small calamari, cleaned, bodies, cut in rings, tentacles left whole

6 – 8 small clams, cleaned, alive

6 – 8 mussels, cleaned and debearded, alive

1 cup Arroz Bomba (you can substitute arborio if necessary)

1 quart (4 cups) hot stock (you can use chicken, rabbit, or seafood with rabbit or chicken)

¼ cup fresh shelled or thawed frozen green peas (optional)

¼ cup piquillo peppers or roasted red peppers cut in thin slices (optional, for garnish)

Lemons, cut in wedges (optional, for serving)

½ tsp (or TT) Pimentón de la Vera

½ cup dry white wine

Oil for cooking

Salt and fresh ground black pepper TT

For Sofrito:

1 large white or yellow onion, peeled and cut in small dice

1 large green bell pepper, seeded and cut in small dice

3 or 4 Roma tomatoes, seeded and cut in small dice

For picada:

3 or 4 garlic cloves, peeled, and rough chopped

5 or 6 sprigs of parsley, leaves only

Generous pinch of saffron threads

Coarse salt

Rabbit pieces and shrimp in pan.

1. Get the paella pan hot on medium heat. Season the rabbit (or chicken) and the shrimp with salt and black pepper. When the pan is hot, add enough oil to coat the bottom, then add the rabbit (or chicken) pieces. Cook the pieces until well browned on all sides, then remove from the pan and set aside. While the pieces are cooking, brown the shrimp in the pan. You want to cook them just long enough to get color on each side, don’t try to cook them all the way through. As soon as they have color, remove them and set aside for later.

2. Make the sofrito: After the rabbit and shrimp are browned, lower the heat to medium-low, and add oil, if needed, to generously coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and a good pinch of salt. Cook, stirring regularly, until they are soft. Do not brown. Add the bell peppers and continue to cook until very soft and cooked through. If they start to get color, lower the heat. When soft, add the tomatoes and another pinch of salt. The tomatoes will release some liquid. When the liquid is mostly gone, add the pimentón and continue cooking, stirring as needed for a couple more minutes.

Picada freshly ground.

3. Make the picada: Combine the garlic, parsley and a pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle, and grind to a paste. When pasty consistency is achieved, add the saffron, continuing to grind, and work in half of the wine a little bit at a time until it is incorporated.

Note: This step can be done up to an hour in advance, but I usually do it while the sofrito cooks. I often assign the task to an eager guest if we have company. You can just as easily, albeit less ceremoniously, make the picada in a blender or food processor.

4. When the sofrito is ready, add the rice and stir it to get it coated with all of the flavorful oil and sofrito. Stir in the calamari rings (reserve the tentacles) and also stir the picada into the pan, getting everything evenly mixed up. Let cook for a minute or two until the wine has reduced away.

Rice stirred into the sofrito. Picada and calamari rings soon to follow.

5. Turn the heat up to medium-high and pour the other half of the wine into the mortar or blender container to “clean out” any remaining tasty bits, then into the pan. When the liquid is all absorbed, arrange the rabbit or chicken pieces in the pan, the rice spread out in an even layer, and then pour the stock into the pan. Add a generous pinch of salt, and let the liquid come up to a simmer. Adjust the heat so that the liquid stays at a gentle simmer.

Note: Once the stock is added and everything is arranged in the pan, you do not want to stir or move the rice again.

6. Layer in the remaining seafood: When the liquid is about 90% absorbed, arrange the clams in the paella, pressing them into the rice, then arrange the shrimp around the pan. Next, arrange the calamari tentacles and finally the mussels, again, pressing the mussels into the rice. Finally arrange the peas on top. If you are garnishing with red pepper, now is the time to arrange them on top, as well.

Note: The idea is to give each seafood item just long enough to cook through. If they get overcooked, they dry out. Mussels open and cook very quickly, clams more slowly. Squid cooks very quickly. Use your judgement on the timing. Ideally, you want all of the seafood, just finishing to cook as you take the paella off of the heat. If you want to cook some or all of the seafood on the side (as is common in many restaurants), simply arrange the seafood on the top in the last couple minutes of cooking, just giving it enough time to cook through.

7. After the final liquid is absorbed, let the paella continue to cook for another 3 or 4 minutes on a medium-low flame. This is the time when you will develop the socarrat (the crust on the bottom layer of rice). Remove from the heat and let rest for a couple minutes before serving. Some people like to put a little squeeze of lemon on their paella, so, if desired, you can serve with the lemon wedges on the side.

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