Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Paella History Lesson

I don't remember when I first ate paella, but I do remember my first memorable paella experience. The year was 1997 and J was in her last year of school at the University of Rhode Island. She was living in a beautiful condo with a few of her friends right across the street from Narragansett Beach. I was already a working stiff in Boston and went down for a visit one fall weekend. While sitting out on her deck, enjoying the views of Narragansett Bay, we met one of her neighbors, Rob. He lived alone in the condo next door and if I had to guess was in his early 40s. Rob had some friends in from out of town and after introductions we were offered some of their homemade sangria. One of Rob's friends, Pepe, a large Spanish man, had hands so big he could hug you with them. Yes, his name was Pepe and we vividly remember his handshake. That's not all we remember from that night, we were invited over for more drinks and stayed for dinner, take-out from a local restaurant called The Spanish Tavern.

The Spanish Tavern, closed several years ago, was famous for their mixed seafood paella and that is just what Rob ordered for dinner. Served in a disposable, aluminum pan, not unlike a lasagna pan, this paella was a beautiful sight. The rice, seasoned and colored with classic Spanish saffron, was cooked perfectly. Mixed in with the rice were fresh mussels and clams, tender calamari and shrimp, boneless chicken, and delicious, salty chorizo, a spicy Spanish sausage. But that's not all; the pièce de résistance of this paella was a whole steamed Maine lobster, split in half, resting on top of this already perfect pan of paella. This amazing meal may not have been the first time I ate paella but it was certainly one of the most memorable times.

Then there was Mexico in 2005. J and I were celebrating our one year anniversary at the Iberostar Paraiso Beach Resort on the Riviera Maya. One afternoon while lounging on the beach, we noticed a HUGE pan of paella being cooked over an open fire. This paella pan, a traditional paella pan, must have been five feet across. The paella lunch was part of a weekly beach party held at the resort that included live music and a bikini contest, which I did not win. With all these wonderful paella memories, it's surprising that I've never attempted to make paella, until now.

Paella on the beach in Mexico

Paella is generally considered the national dish of Spain. However, if you ask a Spaniard, they will tell you the dish is from Valencia, Spain's third largest city on the Mediterranean coast. The word paella was used to describe the wide, flat pan that this rice dish is made in, but came to describe the actually food as well. Considered by many a laborers meal, paella was originally made in the fields of Valencia. Classic Paella Valenciana is made with chicken, rabbit, snails and beans, all items generally available in and around the fields of Valencia with snails being the most common because of their availability and cost (free if foraged.) Chicken and rabbit, while still common, were saved for more special occasions.

The paella that most people think of when they hear the word paella is Paella Marisco, or seafood paella. This variation, while not the original, is still considered a classic, traditional, Spanish dish and contains contains seafood like shrimp, mussels and calamari and can also contain meat like chicken and chorizo. For my recreation of the classic Spanish paella, I am making a Paella Marisco containing chicken, chorizo, calamari, shrimp, mussels, and clams. This is the dish I remember from The Spanish tavern, without the lobster which is definitely not a traditional Spanish ingredient. And one more thing, paellas are traditionally cooked outdoors over an open fire, so I'll be cooking my paella over a charcoal fire in my Weber Kettle grill. I also do not own a classic paella pan, so I'll be using a large saute pan.

Chimney starter used to start charcoal fire
Chimney Starter 

Two level fire (hot side and cool side) built in grill
Charcoal Grill

Black forest bacon rendered down
Black Forest Bacon

Diced onions sweated in bacon fat
Onions in Bacon Fat

Chicken added to onions to cook
Chicken with Onions in Bacon Fat

Diced tomatoes added to chicken and onions
Added tomatoes

After chorizo cooked for a few minutes, rice added and coated well with mixture. Water added next
Added rice

After about 15-20 minutes of cooking, calamari and shrimp are added. Mussels and clams are added a few minutes later for the 4-5 minutes of cooking.
Added seafood for last 5-10 minutes of cooking

Seafood Paella, garnished with diced red pepper and a lemon wedge

Seafood Paella

One important part of classic paella is the crispy bottom of the pan. To get this crispy bottom, it is important that you do not stir the pan once the seafood is added to the mixture. If you must stir in the seafood, be careful not to scrape the bottom or else you will disturb the much sought after crispy bottom layer!
The Crispy Bottom of Classic Paella

Paella Marisco 
Adapted from Lisa & Tony Sierra, Guide
Serves 6
1 yellow onion, diced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1/2 lb bacon, diced
1/2 lb boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite sized chunks
1/2 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized chunks
1/2 lb chorizo sausage, sliced into disks

1/2 lb calamari (squid) cleaned and sliced into rings
3/4 lbs raw shrimp, medium 
2 cups medium or short grain rice
4-6 cups water (I added 6 cups and it was a little too much.)
1 teaspoon Spanish Saffron
1 dozen or more mussels
1 dozen or more littleneck clams

1 red pepper seeded and diced
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon wedges

1. Light a full chimney of briquette or hardwood charcoal
2. When charcoal is lit, about 10 minutes, create a two level fire in your charcoal grill
3. Place pan on hot side of the fire and add bacon to pan. Cook until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Remove bacon from the pan and save for something else.
4. Saute onions in bacon fat until translucent, about 3-4 minutes
5. Add chicken to pan and cook until chicken starts to brown, another 3-4 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and pepper to season the chicken.
6. Add diced tomato to pan and stir
7. Add sliced chorizo to pan and cook for a 2-3 minutes
8. Add two cups of medium grain rice, bomba rice is best if you can find it. Stir until coated with from fat and juices in pan.
9. Add water, saffron, salt and pepper to taste. Stir, and cover to bring to a boil. Traditionally, paella is cooked without being covered but I wanted to get the water boiling quickly.
10. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, then add in calamari and shrimp and cook for 3-4 minutes.
11. Add mussels and clams to top of pan and cover, cooking another 4-5 minutes or just until mussels and clams have opened. The mussels will open first, with the clams taking a couple minutes longer to cook.
12. Taste rice, adjust the seasoning if necessary.
13. Serve, garnishing with lemon wedges and diced red pepper.


  1. Very nice! Paella is one of my favorite things to eat and I prefer it just like this, with a mixture of meat and seafood. I actually saw a large pan like that in France last week on market day--the batch of paella being cooked looked so good--just like yours. You even got the soccarat part down. It's hello Challenge 3 for you!

  2. Hi Jean, thanks! This is the first time I have made it and I definitely had to do some research.

    I hope your prediction is correct, too. I've checked out some of the competition and there are some awesome round 2 submissions, yours included!

  3. Great job on your Paella. I also made Paella for challenge #2. I made Paella Mixta since I am a vegetarian and this gave me the option of keeping it veggie. Here is a link to my post if you are interested

  4. Great job, I love paella so much!

  5. Great post. My mouth is watering looking at the pictures (especially of the bacon :)) You got my vote!

  6. I
    I used to make paella all the time before really knowing what it was supposed to look like, etc.

    Your dish looks great!

  7. Love the story and the dish. I saw your profile about riding to fight cancer. I walk to fight cancer and love meeting new people who fight. I am almost 8 years cancer free and loving following my food and drink passions.

    I'll be watching. Good luck!


  8. Hi Nutritious Foodie, you've got my vote, nice job on your paella!

    Hi Betsy, thanks! Me too!

    Hi Rhodey Girl, thanks for your vote! You have mine too.

    Hi Amy, thanks! Doesn't really matter what it looks like as long as it tastes good!

    Hi Jason, thank you! So glad to hear you are cancer free. Cancer sucks! Eating and drinking rules!

  9. This looks soooo good! I love that you did it all on the grill. It's our favorite way to cook. You have my vote.

  10. I am impressed you actually did paella legitimately, over fire. I don't think my attempts with a gas stove really ever have quite hit the true mark.

    Viva Espana!

  11. Great looking paella! This will certainly be a super filling dish what with all that meat & seafood. *licks lips*

  12. That paella looks incredible, especially with all that seafood.

  13. Hi Sarah, thanks! It's all about recreating the classic, and fire, as you said, is required!

    Hi Marisa, thanks! So filling! Lunch leftovers nearly put me in a food coma the day after!

    Hi Lisa, thanks so much! It was loaded with fresh seafood, so good!

  14. The paella looks great! So cool how you cooked it in a saute pan over your Webster grill! Neat!

    Best of luck with PFB! Just voted for you!

  15. Hi Foodie, thanks for the vote!

    Thanks to all for your kind comments and support, alas I did not advance to round 3. I guess it would have helped my cause if I mentioned Project Food Blog and Foodbuzz in my post!!

  16. This looks simply scrumptous, I have never been brave enough to make Paella, I should, I enjoy it quite a bit! I love all of your photos, your food looks so tasty!

  17. Hi Stephanie, making paella is actually quite easy and can obviously be made on the stovetop. Thanks for the compliments and for reading!

  18. This looks absolutely gorgeous! Thanks for sharing!

  19. Hi Renee, thank you! Good luck with the chili. I actually have no idea how my chili would cook on a grill - 2-3 hour cook time on stove top. Will need to closely monitor grill temps, use a dutch oven, keep grill lid on. I'm going to have to try.

  20. Hi "One Food Guy"!
    Your paella looks wonderful! So glad you enjoyed our recipe, and adapted it to your own taste.
    Lisa & Tony Sierra
    Guides to Spanish Food on

  21. Hi Lisa and Tony, thank you so much for your comment! Great recipe.