There are times when it becomes necessary to lay aside a day’s plans so as to make paella for lunch. Suddenly, it seems, to eat a bowl of cereal is inconceivable, and no priority––neither the changing of a sheet nor the plotting of a career––can take precedence. So it was this Wednesday, that barely having seen my fiancée out the door to the hospital, my morning coffee still near at hand, I found myself peeling shrimp shells into a pot of simmering chicken stock.
For the most part, quarantine these past weeks has been about returning things to normal. When my fiancée walks back through the door after a twelve hour shift in the ICU, the bed is made, the floor is swept, there is warm food on the table. A day where I take out the recycling is a victory. Whereas before all this I worked as a storyteller of sorts at the Tenement Museum, I now tell the story, day after day, of home––the story that life has rhythm, that the physical world around us is benevolent and responsive to our needs. It’s important, with the sound of sirens filling the air and the danger of infection looming with every passerby, to tell that story. But it’s hard to tell a story and also be in it. I find myself, often, cursing under my breath as I scramble around the apartment preparing for dinner, so that when we sit down, everything is peaceful, relaxed. It was a pattern I’d settled into, I thought. Then, the urge for paella took me.
These urges, perhaps, are important. A few years ago, when I was teaching 5th grade after-school in Philadelphia, I would find many mornings the need to drive to South Philly to pay a visit to the Southeast Asian markets along Washington Avenue. There was a sauce I must have, or a vegetable that, having as yet eluded me, was surely lurking somewhere in the aisles of Huong Voung or Big 8 Supermarket. Sometimes, I would mound my grocery cart with supplies for elaborate curries and stir-fries and rush home to prepare them. The old West Philadelphia mansion I shared with five friends, all musicians, would be filled with the pounding of my mortar and pestle. This was their cue to call friends, who would drift in over the next few hours, gather at our table, and wait. My meals were never on time, and so they would sing songs, tell stories, until, long after any reasonable dinner hour, I would bring my creations to the table. More often, on those mornings when I was drawn to the markets, I would just wander the aisles, buying nothing, slowly becoming familiar with the shelves, taking stock. I would spend an hour or two, regarding the towering stacks of dried rice noodles (on the far left in Huong Vuong), the huge flats of mangosteen and rambutan (in front to the right). Then I would walk out, past the bemused checkout workers, and drive to work.
What can I show for those lost hours, other than a catalogic knowledge of First Oriental’s inventory circa 2015? Was it those days dogging the condiment aisle, or the recurring dreams of street vendors in a busy market that woke me with ecstatic tears, that led me to buy a one-way ticket to Thailand a few months later? These are the sort of questions I am asking myself at ten in the morning as I chop onions and tomatoes, crush saffron in that old mortar, and char split leeks on the stove.
Paella has always struck me as the most romantic way to cook rice. It’s all fire and passion and scatterings of rich flavors. There’s nothing formal about it, unlike its Italian cousin, risotto, which is stir-crazy and temperamental, but masks its sinister nature in smooth velvet. In Barcelona, I saw the huge paelleras mounted over open wood fires, the rice bubbling madly at first, then sizzling as the socarrat formed at the bottom. Ingredients were strewn (what’s more romantic than to strew!) over the rice and enveloped in its steam, until the whole thing was whipped out of the blaze and onto the table. But aside from its drama and its provocative flavors, paella is romantic, I think, because it is always cooked on such a scale that it is simply not to be eaten alone. And yet.
I set the finished paella on the table, shrouded in a kitchen towel, and pulled up my chair, watching steam rise through the white cotton and fill the late morning air with the smell of saffron. I folded back the towel, raised my fork, and dug in. The rice was firm and fragrant, with a toasted crust at the bottom. The shrimp were just cooked, and bright with lemon and parsley. I ate the whole thing. Then, I cleaned the dishes, made the bed, and got started with dinner.
The trick with paella is first blasting it with heat, driving water out of the pan like some malevolent spirit, and then gently finishing it to form a crisp socarrat on the bottom, but not the inch of smoking carbon I once served for dinner. If you can do that, the rest is just timing. The meat––chicken, chorizo, squid, rabbit (if you are the sort of person who has rabbit on hand in the middle of the apocalypse)––goes in with the rice, as do any vegetables that need softening, like green beans, or (unorthodox, I know) sliced kale stems, or big chunks of spring garlic. More delicate ingredients––shrimp, mussels, charred slices of halved leeks, are scattered on top, one after the other. If you have the self restraint not to stir, you should be fine.
There is, as with any great dish, tradition and regional specificity when it comes to paella. But there is also tremendous flexility. This recipe is meant to emphasize this flexibility, somewhat at the expense of tradition. Sure, you can find plenty of recipes online for paella Valenciana, or paella de marisco. But the point here is to conceive of paella as a back-of-the-fridge kind of dish that can be whipped out at a moment’s notice––if all your prep is ready, the actual stove time is under 30 minutes. Paella is a disaster if you overcrowd the pan with ingredients, so the emptiness of your fridge is your greatest advantage. And assuming you don’t have a paellera, use the biggest pan you have, or go for broke and use a rectangular baking dish (you can even throw it in the oven––they do at Duende, in Oakland).
- copious amounts olive oil
- much salt
- 1 medium onion (yellow, or red or white)
- 2 medium tomatoes, or ~1/2 cup canned tomatoes, or 1 tsp tomato paste
- 2 red bell peppers, or 2 jarred roasted piquillo peppers (e.g. Matiz brand), cut into long strips
- ~6 cloves garlic, minced
- immoderate pinch saffron
- 1/2 tsp smoked Spanish paprika
- 1 cup Spanish paella rice, like bomba
- 4 cups liquid (stock and or white wine and or water)
- 1 large sprig rosemary, slightly charred over a burner
meat, in order of cook time from long to short, such as:
- 2 chicken legs, split at the joint and browned until almost cooked through
- rabbit, chopped into large pieces and browned until almost cooked through
- 2-3 links fresh chorizo, browned
- ~1/2 pound squid, cleaned and sliced
- large fillet rockfish, tilapia, or other firm-ish white fish, cut into 3-4 pieces
- 10 shrimp whole or peeled with shells reserved (frozen is fine here)
- 4-6 scallops
- ~10 mussels
vegetables, in order of cook time from long to short, such as:
- 1 cup snap peas or green beans
- 1/2 cup frozen lima beans or peas
- up to 1 cup chopped kale stems
- 3 spring onions or stalks spring garlic or ramps, sliced diagonally into half inch pieces
- 2 leeks, trimmed, tough outer layer removed, halved lengthwise, and charred on both sides in a hot pan or over the burner
- 1 handful canned artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained
- 4 asparagus spears, sliced diagonally into 1-inch pieces
- small handful chopped parsley
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- Salt and brown the meat, and prep everything so you don’t find yourself in my constant predicament, rummaging through the cabinets as something burns on the stove.
- Put the liquid (stock, wine, water, whatever) in a saucepan and heat to a simmer. Add shrimp shells, if using, and slightly oversalt. Simmer until needed, maintaining the level with more liquid.
- Heat the paellera (or whatever pan you’re using) on the stove, and add several glugs of olive oil. Sauté the chopped onion, and fresh or jarred peppers, until soft and slightly browned.
- Add more oil, then the garlic, paprika, and saffron, and sizzle to bring out the fragrance, ~30 seconds.
- Add the tomato, and stir, constantly scraping the bottom, until very thick and jammy.
- Stir in the rice, and sauté until its outer layer has become transparent, and slightly toasted.
- Add squid, chorizo, chicken, or, improbably, rabbit if using, along with any vegetables that you want to cook into the rice, such as beans, kale stems, or spring onions.
- Add the liquid, and stir, scraping the bottom and distributing the rice evenly around the pan. Now never stir again.
- Crank the heat all the way up. You may want to use multiple burners, turning the pan every couple minutes to create a wider cooking surface.
- Now place the rosemary in the middle of the pan, and arrange the leeks and artichokes, if using, insides facing up.
- After 8 minutes, add the fish and shell-on shrimp.
- After 10 minutes, the liquid should be almost under the level of the rice. Before the liquid disappears, add the mussels and shelled shrimp, and wait another minute to add scallops.
- Wait until the rice is bubbling thickly and the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Listen carefully for the sound of sizzling or popping from the rice on the bottom. When you hear this, around 12 minutes in we hope, radically lower the heat.
- Scatter the asparagus, or other vegetables you want to just barely steam, over the top
- Continue cooking until the liquid is absorbed and the toppings are all just cooked through, about 20 minutes in total.
- Cover with a clean dish towel (a lid would drip steam down into the rice and sog your socarrat), and rest for 5 minutes
- Serve immediately, strewn with parsley, and topped with lemon wedges.
- There will be no leftovers.