I have made paella in the past, but dare I say I have (nearly) perfected my paella prowess. Nearly because I must work on “the crust” and perfected because after a recent dinner with a Spanish friend, who claims all food in America is horrible (no matter the origin or chef), had to concede that my paella was in fact, “just as good, maybe better, than some in Spain.” Because of her limited English skills I will simply understand that in her translation she actually meant “best ever.”
The key to perfection that was missing in my first paella was the paella pan. With a plethora of paella now under my belt, I realize this is key to near perfect paella. It may be difficult to justify purchasing a pan with one purpose, but if your goal is perfect paella, get the pan (a fairly inexpensive one can be purchased through Despana). (In fairness, a delicious rice dish is still possible without it, though it will not be true paella.)
After a good cooking vessel, it’s all about the ingredients. While I don’t think short grain rice is necessary– unless authenticity is your goal, using the proper stock builds flavor to an incredible degree. This, and the willingness to part with far more saffron than your pocketbook deems sane (look at this as a one-time splurge since most of us rarely use saffron).
A fish paella needs a fish stock. If your paella will have meat, a chicken stock will work. To build that perfect stock, I bought a cod fish head for about $2 at the fish monger. After purchase, I questioned my Spanish friend: What kind of fish should stock be made from? “Cod, of course.” Of course.
Pointer: fish stock is easy to make, but it is important to use non-fatty fish. Salmon is bad. Cod is good. One can also use shrimp shells or lobster shells. Another great thing about fish stock is that it takes about 15 minutes to make. Any longer will produce a bitter stock. Easy: Saute rough chopped onion and garlic, add fish head, bay leaf, add water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, simmer for 10 minutes, strain and set aside. In a pinch, bottles of oyster stock are okay, though overly salted, or some fish mongers have pre-made stock.
With the fish stock done, consider the types of fish to use. Again, nothing too fatty or oily as the flavor will overtake the dish. Nothing too flaky, as it will fall apart. With this in mind, you can play with sustainability issues in your neck of the woods. If you cannot afford lobster, monkfish is a good substitute (with okay sustainability). Neither is important in your final dish, but will add a nice meatiness to the final paella. Others to mix and match include shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels and scallops.
Now, nothing left to do but make paella. It is not as time consuming as it seems, nor as overwhelming, and the road to perfection is well worth the effort. D and I make a pan loaded with $30 worth of fish (approximately 1 pound of everything) and it lasts us a solid 5 days (10 meals). Price wise, you can’t beat that.
This recipe is adapted from a recipe found in the Cuisines of Spain cookbook by, Teresa Barrenechea. After the third paella, I stopped opening the book, but credit where credit due, no doubt.
(Perfected) Seafood Paella
Serving Size= 8 persons. Active time= aprx 45 minutes. Inactive time= 12 minutes.
1 dozen littleneck clams
2 tablespoons coarse salt
4 cups fish stock (see recipe above)
3 pinches + saffron
3-4 tablespoons olive oil (the Spanish love their olive oil)
1 Spanish onion, sliced thin
6 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 large red or orange bell pepper, seeded and cut lengthwise into narrow strips
1 pound monkfish, cut into 2 inch pieces
2-1/2 cups Spanish, short grain, rice
3/4 pound calamari, whole or rings
3/4 pound medium or large shrimp
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
salt to taste
1/4 cup parsley plus more for garnish
juice of 1 lemon, plus more for garnish
Clean clams under cold water. Discard any open clams, or those that do not close when touched. Place clams in a large bowl with the coarse salt and let stand for 30 minutes as you prep remaining ingredients. (Clams will release sand trapped in shells.) Keep stock at a simmer In a small sauce pot, keep stock at a simmer, add saffron and stir to dissolve. Add saffron and decrease the heat retain simmer.
Preheat oven to 500F. Heat olive oil in a large paella pan on medium heat. Add onion, garlic and bell pepper, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes, until everything is soft. Turn heat to high, add monkfish and cook 2 minutes each side, until lightly browned and opaque. Add rice and saute for 5 minutes, stirring. Add 1 cup hot stock, scraping up any brown bits attached to the bottom of pan, and stir until soaked up. Fold in shrimp and calamari, add remaining stock, stir to incorporate, and bring dish a boil. Drain clams. Arrange the clams and mussels over top of dish, without pushing them too far under the liquid. Transfer uncovered pan to oven for 12-15 minutes, until rice has absorbed all liquid and clams and mussels have opened. Remove from oven and discard any clams that do not open. Fold in parsley and sprinkle lemon juice over top. Cover with a towel and let sit for 7 minutes. Serve with more lemon and parsley over top as garnish