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Al Fresco! Diversity and freshness dominate Spanish-style paella feast

Sep 26, 2015 08:08AM ● By Kevin

In all of its diverseness, cooking in Spain is recognized by one common characteristic: using fresh ingredients. Whether it is the fruit in sangria, the vegetables in gazpacho or the seafood in paella, the ingredients used to prepare these dishes are as fresh as possible. Many open-air Spanish markets make this possible for shoppers. People will shop every day to ensure the use of the freshest ingredients. It’s a good example to follow. However, grocery shopping every day and finding the best and freshest ingredients is not always easy for us to do.

Fresh ingredient options seem to be getting better and more readily available, though. Farmer’s markets and “natural,” “organic,” “health food” and “gourmet” groceries, have a worldwide selection of ingredients to choose from, and choices are often no longer limited to dried, canned or frozen. This is where shopping every day becomes important in the life of a cook.

Buy fresh, cook and enjoy immediately. That routine will not work with everyone’s schedule, but if you can apply this principle for special meals, entertaining or just a couple of cooking adventures a week, you’ll surely notice a difference in your cooking and your dinners will be fantastic! So this philosophy is the focus for my highlighted recipe and this month’s topic: a Spanish paella feast.

A Name All in the Pan

Paella — a popular and traditional Spanish rice dish — is named after the pan in which it is traditionally cooked. A paella pan is a large, shallow pan with two loop handles. While an average paella pan is roughly 14 inches in diameter, this style of cooking utensil can be found in smaller sizes, as well as sizes as large as several feet across and that require two people to carry. These large vessels are commonly used for outdoor cooking, on an outdoor barbecue or over a fire pit. It is the ultimate pan for an outdoor gathering with communal food service; a giant pan for an incredible one-dish meal for festive entertaining.

For most family-meal purposes, though, the average paella pan is more than sufficient. It is designed to sit nicely on a stovetop and conveniently fits in the oven, as well. But even if you don’t have the “special” pan for this dish, any large shallow skillet will suffice. Many paella pans come with a domed lid; however, most paella pans are without a lid. Generally, a lid is not necessary. Paella is cooked uncovered. A lid is handy for the final resting period once the paella is removed from the heat.

Rice and So Much More

Paella is a rice dish. But the rice is merely a canvas on which a creative cook paints a delectable array of flavors, ranging from the uniquely inspired and richly intense hints of the pricey-per-pound saffron spice, to the cook’s-choice favorite selection of meats, vegetables and fresh shellfish. The paella rice is a medium-grain rice; a rice that absorbs liquid and ultimately does not stick together once cooked. Specialty packages of Spanish rice are available for paella, but any medium-grain rice will do. Try to avoid using long-grain rice to achieve a proper consistency and texture for paella.

Saffron is perhaps the world’s most expensive spice due to time-and-labor intense harvesting efforts — and the fact that each “thread” of saffron is only one of three stigmas of a small crocus flower. The unique flavor and bright yellow-orange color that a tiny bit of saffron imparts to paella helps to distinguish this dish from all other rice dishes. While a tiny vial of saffron may seem quite the hefty price for such a small amount, you’ll only need a pinch of threads for a full recipe of paella. A little will go a long ways.

A sofrito — a thick Spanish red sauce — provides a rich flavor base and is usually a simple combination of sautéed tomato, onion, red sweet pepper (pimiento) and garlic. Popular vegetables and legumes in paella include onion, tomato, sweet peas, chickpeas, green beans and artichoke hearts. Occasionally, other herbs and spices are added, such as parsley or cayenne pepper.

Meats to use in paella range from chicken to chorizo, and pork to ham. Seafood is also a distinguishing feature of the traditional paella. Shellfish is common in paella, with a cook’s choice selection ranging from shrimp to lobster, calamari to scallops and mussels to clams. Although every chef highly contends to have the best paella, there isn’t any single paella recipe that is “the standard” paella. Each cook adds his or her own flair to create wonderfully unique paella creations, and you’ll find one of those creations in my highlighted dish, simply entitled, Spanish Paella (see recipe). 

From Fire to Table

Beyond the flavors, the key to a great paella exists in the even layer of rice across the bottom of the pan. This is why the size of the pan is important for a true paella. Typically, the layer of rice should be no thicker than about one-half an inch. When the rice cooks in the sofrito, and the saffron-infused broth is added, it simmers until the liquid is absorbed and the colors and flavors have become part of the rice base. It is perfectly done when the rice does not stick together and a crust starts to form on the bottom.

Even heat across the bottom of the pan is equally important to achieve the desired results. Using such a large pan on the stove can yield uneven results, so try to match the pan to the heat source (or vice versa). It may be necessary to heat a paella pan over two burners. Finding a suitable large source of heat is often why an outdoors set-up is preferred for a paella feast. Large grills and fire pits often accommodate the large paella pans and offer the needed even heating for delicious results.

Vegetables and legumes are added to the paella as the rice is cooking, while the meats and seafoods are usually sautéed or steamed separately before adding to the dish. Layer upon layer, this simple, richly flavored rice dish becomes a complex mélange of exquisite tempting tastes.

When finished cooking, cover the pan and allow the flavors to mingle for several minutes. When ready to serve, always serve from the paella pan. If the pan is family size, bring it to the table and allow guests to serve themselves, from the perimeter of the pan to the center, squeezing lemon juice over the servings as desired. If a giant paella pan is prepared over a fire, serve from the grill or from the pit. Allowing family and friends to be part of this serving ritual — to be part of the paella cooking experience — is the true tradition of this special family meal. 

Beyond the Paella

While there is no doubt that the paella alone would satisfy hungry appetites, the feast would not be complete without a few tempting treats while the paella is cooking. Spanish tapas are simple appetizer bites to keep guests wanting more. Meant for immediate gratification, and ranging from simple to elaborate, choose a few tasty morsels to serve before a paella meal. Here are some examples:

Banderillas are simple little skewers of small bites of fresh vegetables, cooked new potatoes or pearl onions, artichoke hearts, small mushrooms, olives or pickles, cooked shrimp, rolled anchovies, pickled herring, canned tuna, ham, cheese or hard-cooked egg. Combine three or four favorites on a decorative toothpick — little swords are most appropriate — and serve with a simple dressing: Combine 1/2 cup chopped parsley, 1/2 cup finely diced cornichon or dill pickle, 1 minced clove of garlic, 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar and 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, mixing well.

Olive paste canapés are another simple-to-grab, easy-to-enjoy tapas treat to serve. Combine 1 cup black olives (pitted), 3 tablespoons pine nuts (or walnuts), 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1 clove of garlic and black pepper to taste in a food processor or blender. Process to the desired consistency and spread this mixture lightly on thin slices of crusty French bread. Top with crumbled blue cheese and garnish with a slice of black olive and a sprinkle of chopped fresh parsley. Make these in advance and keep them covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 hours.

And what Spanish feast would be complete without sangría? In a large pitcher, combine 1,500 milliliters of red wine — any favorite inexpensive red will do — with 1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice, 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice and 1/3 cup sugar. Stir to dissolve sugar and chill the sangría thoroughly in the refrigerator. When ready to serve, add 2 cups chilled club soda, 3 cups ice cubes, and thin slices of orange, lemon and lime. This refreshing homemade Spanish wine cooler is perfect for a paella party. 

A Spanish Paella Feast

Fresh ingredients, family and tradition play very important roles in Spanish cooking; values to appreciate and to take to heart when cooking at home. Recognize the joy of “cooking from the market” when preparing this meal, and sit down with family and friends to celebrate and enjoy a fantastic, fresh and festive Spanish paella feast. 

Spanish Paella

Serves 8

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound lean pork, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 pound Spanish chorizo sausage, thinly sliced
1 red or green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
2 cups medium-grain rice
4 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 (2-ounce) can pimientos, drained
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 pound bay scallops
1/2 pound fresh mussels
1/2 pound fresh clams
1 cup dry white wine
Lemon wedges to squeeze over paella

In a paella pan (or large skillet) on medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sauté chicken, pork, and sausage until cooked through, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove meats from pan; reserve. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan. Sauté bell pepper, onion, and garlic until tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in diced tomatoes, salt, and black pepper.

Add rice and spread evenly over bottom of pan and cook on low heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Bring chicken broth to a boil in a saucepan. Add saffron and simmer for 1 minute. Add saffron-infused broth to the paella pan, along with parsley, pimientos, frozen peas, shrimp, and bay scallops. Cook on medium-low without stirring, for 20 to 25 minutes, until the rice is tender, has absorbed most of the broth, and starts to form a crust on the bottom. Return reserved meats to paella and cook briefly to heat through.

While the rice is cooking, prepare the mussels and clams. Using kitchen scissors, trim any “beards” from the mussels (outside the shell). Using a soft brush, scrub and rinse mussels and clam shells under cold water. If any shells are open and do not close, discard and do not use. All shells should be firmly closed. Heat wine in a saucepan. Add mussels and clams, cover, and cook on medium heat until the shells open, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Top the paella with the open-shell mussels and clams. Cover the paella (off the heat) and allow to rest 5 minutes for the flavors to mix. Serve paella with lemon wedges on the side for guests to squeeze lemon juice over servings as desired.


Buy mussels and clams with tightly closed shells, or those that snap shut when tapped—otherwise they’re not alive and fresh. Discard any that feel heavy (possibly full of sand), are loose when shaken, or if the shell remains open. Refrigerate mussels and clams (under damp paper towels) and use the day of purchase.

The meats and seafood in paella are cook’s choice. Use any combination that suits your taste. I’ve used quite a variety in this recipe, but use what you like. You might choose one meat and one shellfish. Or go for it and use all of the options listed. Make this recipe your own using only the favorites your family will enjoy.

Written by Carol Ritchie

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