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You can learn to cook paella, too

This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Living Intown magazine.

By most historical accounts, paella is an ancient meal with modest origins.

Widely regarded as Spain’s national dish, paella began as a rice concoction simmered with a variety of vegetables and meats, usually the leftovers from a household’s week of meals.

Over the centuries, paella has morphed into a delicacy that is anything but humble. Chefs at the highest-rated restaurants in the world take pride in their creations and price them accordingly. Paella aficionados spend years honing their recipes, and while there’s really no wrong way to prepare paella, some cooks can be downright snooty about their ingredients.

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I am one of those cooks.

For instance, I use only calasparra rice and chorizo sausage that I order from Spain. Calasparra rice is not easy to find locally. Most grocery stores offer a poor substitute called “paella rice,” which looks like your run-of-the-mill white rice painted yellow with saffron flavoring. Trust me, it’s not the same experience. Real paella chefs use calasparra or bomba rices, which tend to have perfect absorption. The best chorizo should be firm links that can be cut into disks, not the loose stuff you find next to your grocer’s Jimmy Dean selection.

Making paella can be a social event. In a corner of my screened-in patio, I keep a paella grill, a propane-powered appliance on three legs with concentric gas burners at the top. With my mis en place perched conveniently next to the grill, I can sip wine with my dinner guests and chat for the hour or so it takes for the calasparra rice to absorb the last drop of saffron-infused stock and the mussels to open up as they surrender to the heat.

It’s a beautiful dish that’s as visually appealing as it is delicious. I prefer to include seafood with the other meats but I have had the occasion to serve guests with seafood allergies, so I’ve used substitute meats. Here’s my favorite recipe, to which I owe a number of chefs and cookbooks credit. Buen apetito!

Paella del Roberto

Ingredients

  • 1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • Olive oil
  • 8 cups chicken stock
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons saffron threads
  • 3/4 pound chorizo sausage cut into 1/2-inch disks
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 6 boneless chicken thighs, skinless and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
  • 2 cups calasparra rice
  • 1 red bell pepper, roasted and diced into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 green bell pepper, roasted and diced into 1-inch pieces
  • 20 mussels
  • zest of two lemons, use the lemons for lemon supremes
  • Flat Italian parsley to garnish

Peel shrimp and set aside. Put the shells in a dry 8-quart sauce pot and coat lightly with olive oil. Toast the shells until they turn pink.

Pour the chicken stock over the shells and add the saffron threads and bring to a simmer. Set aside and keep warm to infuse saffron into the liquid.

Cook the chorizo in the paella pan and render the fat. Remove the sausage and set aside for service.

Next cook the chicken thighs and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside.

Add a little olive oil to the pan and cook the shrimp briefly. (Don’t overcook.) Set aside.

Saute the onion and garlic until translucent, and add the paprika. Toss to coat the onion.

Add the calasparra rice and toss to coat the rice.

After removing the shrimp shells, add the stock to the pan along with salt and pepper. Then add the chicken thighs, chorizo and both the red and green pepper.

Allow the stock to come to a boil and decrease heat to simmer. Do not stir from this point on.

Continue to cook until liquid is almost absorbed, then bury the shrimp and mussels in the rice.

The paella is done when the liquid is completely absorbed and the mussels have opened.

Garnish with lemon supremes, lemon zest and parsley. Serve immediately.

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