Paella with chicken and prawns, a foolproof recipe. No, you don’t need a special pan and yes, socarrat, crusty rice at the bottom is quite possible to achieve.
Paella is not a national Spanish dish
Paella originates from Valencia, which is a city and also the province the city is located in, one of a dozen or so, more or less fiercely diverse regions of Spain. They are nothing to do with Spanish Costas, named del this or that mostly by non-Spanish tourists.
Paella is a Valencian dish and therefore it is quite unreasonable to demand it in Barcelona or Bilbao.
It’s very much like a tourist visiting England, expecting to be served haggis in a random restaurant. And yet paella has become the dish that the holiday crowd wants to nosh everywhere from Costa del Sol to the Bay of Biscay.
I have a lot of admiration for the Spaniards’ patience and resignation with which to tolerate the costa-vacationing ignorants.
Native types of paella
Paella valenciana traditionally features rabbit, sometimes chicken, often white beans. Not what the tourists expect, eh?
Another type, closer to those expectations, is paella de marisco, with various seafood though not necessarily always tame prawns and mussels: I have been served one where I could only identify octopus amongst other varied sea creatures nestled in rice.
Paella mixta is, as you cleverly guessed, a mix of surf and turf; in other words, whatever is available or at hand. Which is the category that my recipe below broadly falls into.
But I admit there are rice dishes all over Spain and even Portugal similar to paella, except they are called ‘rice with whatever’: arroz negro, arroz de marisco, or arroz de pollo. Invariably referred to as ‘paella’ by the tourists.
Who also pronounce it wrongly. Say it properly: pah/EH/yah. You might get away with pie-yey-ah but never, ever pie-ella or you’ll be laughed all the way out of Valencia.
One of the top toughest dishes
I have been feeling quite pleased with myself ever since I’ve read that paella was one of the top most difficult dishes to make at home. But is it really?
First, everyone thinks you need a special pan, having seen those street or market vendors cooking it on enormous flat planchas.
I actually bought an authentic paella pan once but it now lives at the darkest end of the cupboard while I make my paella – a frequent occurrence – in my biggest frying pan, about 25cm in diameter. I couldn’t quite fathom the paella pan and how to stop rice from burning and sticking to it.
Maybe it was the fact that I’m not Spanish, or perhaps tools maketh not the master. Either way, it is perfectly feasible with a very big frying pan.
True: it won’t make an amount for a party dish unless the party is the four of you and not very hungry.
Second, what meats or seafood to use in it? As per above, the Valencians prefer either rabbit or octopus but neither hits a north-European spot.
Plus, there are tonnes of conflicting recipes and experts on the subject, admonishing you for adding in chorizo, peeled seafood and for stirring. But if we only ever implemented pure form recipes, the world of cooking would be a shrivelled mummy.
So guess what – the one below isn’t pure form.
Third, how on earth do you achieve the toasted crunchy rice at the bottom called socarrat? It’s without question the best bit and I’d be inclined to agree with the critics that without it, your dish is ‘rice with things’ not paella (see the comments to Jamie’s effort).
How do you? There is an element of luck involved, that’s why my best advice is: don’t stir. Or even DON’T STIR which I make explicitly clear in the recipe.
How to make perfect paella
It is not really difficult. Make sure you have everything peeled, chopped, sliced, cut as well as dissolved (stock) and weighed out (rice). because from the moment you start, the whole cooking process takes only thirty minutes, plus ten to rest the dish.
Heat up the pan and brown the chicken. Then, a bit like cooking in a wok, push it to the sides and use the middle of the pan to cook the onion and garlic, adding tomato puree when the aromatics brown.
The pepper joins in, still over medium-high heat, and after a couple of minutes you can stir everything together plus chorizo, and shower it with paprika.
Now the key moment: pouring in stock. That’s right: first the stock, then the rice. Let it come to a vigorous bubble before you sprinkle the rice over it, more or less evenly.
And that’s the end of stirring the pan! Let it cook for 10 minutes, pushing rice grains into the liquid if necessary, adding some wine if it threatens to cook off too soon.
Time for prawns and peas, if using. Arrange them prettily and turn down the heat to a low simmer, until all the liquid is gone and the prawns have turned pink. This stage lasts about 10 minutes as well and you can cover the pan for it – with a baking sheet if the pan doesn’t have a fitting lid.
And finally the exciting bit: after the 10 minutes turn the heat right up and listen for the rice to start crackling, like popcorn. Keep it like that for half a minute - and it’s done.
Paella needs steaming off: cover it with a tea towel to absorb it and let it sit for another ten minutes.
Uncover, serve and dig for the socarrat…
More Spanish recipes
Fideua, Spanish pasta dish with fish and seafood, is cooked exactly like paella: in an enormous pan, only with short vermicelli pasta replacing rice.
A fine example of ‘rice with things’ a.k.a. a variation on the paella theme: Spanish rice with corn and chorizo sausage. This dish is easily adaptable, just swap ingredients.
And for dessert, an authentic Spanish recipe for tarta de Santiago, traditional Galician almond cake or pie. Tarta or torta de Santiago has only three basic ingredients and is the most famous Spanish dessert.