Paella is traditionally made for large groups, so it’s the perfect dish for holidays and other family gatherings. Image source: Flickr CC user Michela Simoncini
Sometimes it’s good to create your own traditions. In my family’s case, it’s our holiday dinner. Yes, it’s turkey and yams for Thanksgiving, but paella for Christmas at our house. We settled on paella after a trial run led by my uncle, who grew up in Brazil. None of us knew how to prepare this hearty seafood dish from South America, but it was a hit the first time out. The real seal of approval was that there wasn’t much left in the pan.
Absolute Necessities for Great Paella
Paella preparation does involve gathering a lot of ingredients. The key ingredient, seafood, must be very fresh to produce the rich variety of tastes and textures of the dish. Gathering the freshest versions you can find of all these different varieties of seafood--the clams, mussels, and shrimp--is not an easy chore, especially around the holidays when the stores are packed. A great solution is to order your seafood online and have it delivered to your door. A thoughtful seafood vendor may even sell paella kits which include all the seafood you need, plus the fish broth, spices, and rice.
Along with the seafood, the two key factors in making great paella are the right rice and the right pan. My uncle uses arborio rice, a short-grain rice that produces a nice creamy feel, not with any added fat, just from its starch content alone. For the pan to make it in, my uncle brought over his own paella pan, which is just a large shallow flat pan with handles. If you can’t borrow one, you can easily find a paella pan at a reasonable price in most cooking stores. If you are preparing paella for eight people or more, a pan that is at least fifteen inches in diameter is best.
Seafood Paella, South American Style
You probably think of Spain when you think of paella, but there’s a South American style of paella, too, and Spanish and South American paellas have their own characteristics. Spanish paella would contain Spanish paprika, would likely use Calasparra rice, and would have a crust on the bottom when completely done. South American paella is more likely to contain chorizo, and may or may not use saffron. A country like Brazil, with many cultures, is much more likely to have local variations. In both countries, paella is a family dish, usually served at home on Sundays.
Our glorious holiday paella tradition was almost struck down in year two because my aunt said it wasn’t fair to my uncle, as he got stuck in the kitchen all night. So we incorporated a little delegation and training, which wasn’t difficult as paella is cooked in stages. Involving your guests makes for good conversation and less work for the chef! As a group activity it works well, even in a tiny galley kitchen.
Here’s the recipe:
To make preparation easier on your main paella cook, enlist helpers at each stage. First, chop and sauté your onions, peppers, and chorizo in the paella pan, and set the pan aside. Next, using a different pan, brown your chicken in batches, making sure the pan isn’t too crowded, or you won’t get a good sear (if you have multiple people helping, one person can be browning chicken while the other sautés the peppers and chorizo). Remove and set aside.
Third, get the rice cooking. In your paella pan with the onions and peppers add the rice and most of the chicken stock (about 7 cups is good). Keep a couple cups to add later. Bring this to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium and stir while uncovered for ten minutes until almost all the liquid is absorbed. (During this time you can have another helper scrubbing and rinsing the shellfish).
Add tomato sauce, saffron, and some salt and pepper. Next, for the clams and mussels you have a choice. You may want to cook these separately, or cook them along with the shrimp in the rice. However you choose to prepare them, you’ll still want to embed the seafood along with the chicken in the rice, as the shells impart quite a bit of flavor.
Now all that remains is to place the pan in a 400℉ oven and let it cook uncovered for twenty-five minutes. If you choose to cook the clams and mussels in the paella, add these about halfway through cooking. You’ll also want to have one of your sous chefs keep a watchful eye on the pan and stir it. If it needs liquid, in other words, if it is sticking too much to the bottom of the pan, gradually add more stock.
The finished paella has a multi-dimensional flavor, so what to serve with it? We chose some colorful roasted winter vegetables and a fresh green salad. We also did not have to restrict ourselves to red or white wine, as a light white, a rose, or a pinot noir all go well with paella. This is perfect for a family gathering, as it means that no matter what type of wine each person prefers, they can go for it, and it will taste great with the main dish.