When my daughter Amanda and her son, Orion, started planning their annual trip to the Cape last summer, they told us they’d be traveling with a friend this time. She and her family have been living in Granada for the past six years, but the friend, Julio Cabo, was from Valencia. And, relatedly, he had some questions for us: Would we like him to make a paella? Yes, we said. Did we have a paella pan? No, but how about a cast-iron pan? That would not do.
After exchanging phone calls, texts, and photos, we ordered a traditional shallow steel paella pan, made in Valencia. Pans range in size from 10 inches, just right for paella for two, to ones several feet in diameter for paella to feed a small town. We chose a 20-inch pan, supposedly big enough for paella to serve nine.
“It might not be big enough,” said Orion, age six, when he saw it, “because I can eat a lot.”
Valencia is famed for, among other things, originating paella, and Julio’s would be made in the classic style. When the appointed day arrived, we all helped gather wood and watched Julio cut it to precise sizes. Next, after checking the wind direction, he rearranged the stones in our firepit, to make sure the fire would have enough air.
Julio tended the fire closely, and an hour or so later he set the pan over the embers, added olive oil, and sauteed the chicken. Water and spices simmered with the chicken and green beans, and last, Amanda carefully poured just the right amount of rice in an X-shape on top.
“Will there be any sausage?” Hugo asked hopefully. “It isn’t traditional,” Amanda told him. What is central to this dish is the grain itself. Bomba, grown in Valencia, is the rice for paella making. Short and round-grained, it absorbs liquid and flavors without becoming sticky or creamy. Calasparra, another fine Spanish rice, can be used, but arborio will do if you can’t find those.
The paella simmered slowly, and aside from giving the pan a quick jerk to distribute ingredients, Julio did not stir it — not even once. The idea is to keep the rice from releasing its starches into the paella. When the rice looked done and the pan gave off an irresistible fragrance, Julio got down on his hands and knees, his face inches from the paella pan on the embers.
“What’s he doing?” I called out.
“Shh!” Amanda said. “This is a very important moment! He’s listening for the crackle of the socarrat.” That’s the layer of crusty rice that forms in the bottom of the pan. According to tradition, when it has set, the paella is ready.
We ate every morsel down to the last grains of rice. When the rest of our family arrived, Julio made paella again. This time it was a vegetarian version with artichokes but following the same rituals and with the same exquisite result. Both had a gently smoky redolence.
Vast lore and mystique surround paella and what goes into it. Spanish authorities have declared it an official cultural asset, and social scientists have studied the 10 ingredients most widely regarded as permissible in the dish, based on a survey of older residents in several hundred Valencian villages. Scandal, abuse, and outrage are words used in the region to describe any deviation from the two classic paellas: one with meat and vegetables, the other with seafood and no vegetables.
Of course, variations have developed in Spain and around the world, and paella mixta, a version with seafood, sausage, and vegetables, is one travelers will most often see on restaurant menus.
Standing observantly on the sidelines as Julio cooked, Hugo resolved to learn the essence of paella well enough to come up with something we can all cook up on a summer evening without Julio’s lifetime of experience or even a live fire.
For this version, we also wanted to follow the advice in our $5 Foodie cookbook and try to make it affordable. Saffron is the traditional spice to finish paella with, but Hugo found that smoked paprika, Spanish pimentón, provides a pleasant smoky touch instead. In this recipe, you can also adjust the proportions of seafood, meat, and vegetables as you like.
You could cook this over an open fire or on a hot grill, but we used our stovetop. And don’t tell Julio, but a large cast-iron skillet will work for this version if you don’t have a paella pan. We added a garnish of fresh orange zest — an unconventional last touch that adds a bright note and evokes Valencia’s orange trees, whose branches, along with vine cuttings, are traditionally used to build paella cooking fires.
Simple Chicken and Shrimp Paella
Makes 5 servings
For the marinade:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper
For the paella:
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, diced in 1-inch pieces
2 precooked sausages, in half-inch slices
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup white wine
1 cup bomba rice (or other short-grain white variety)
1 Tbsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper
½ cup tomato sauce
1 cup water
6 ounces shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 10 shrimp)
Orange zest, as a garnish
- In a bowl large enough to hold the chicken, stir together the marinade ingredients. Cut the chicken into 2-inch pieces and coat in the marinade; cover and refrigerate 2 hours to overnight. (If you’re short on time, just go directly to step 2.)
- Add a tablespoon of oil to a large skillet or paella pan over medium heat (use more if cooking uncovered over an open fire). When the oil is hot, add the marinated chicken pieces and sauté for about 5 minutes, until chicken is lightly browned. Add the chopped onions, bell pepper, sausage, and garlic to the pan and cook a few minutes more, to soften the onions. Slowly pour the wine into the pan and stir.
- With the pan still at medium heat, add the rice, paprika, oregano, salt and pepper, tomato sauce, and water. Simmer gently for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Place the shrimp on top and cover the pan for just a few more minutes until the rice and shrimp are done. Stir once or twice, if necessary, to prevent the rice on the bottom of the pan from burning.
- Garnish and bring paella in the pan to the table. Spoon it up from the bottom.
Note: For a vegetarian version, omit the meat and seafood and add extra vegetables, such as sliced mushrooms and diced zucchini, together with the onion and bell pepper in step 3. If using peas or chopped asparagus, add them for only the last 5 minutes of cooking.