Of all the dishes to make for company, very few are as beautiful, impressive or delicious as seafood paella. Conveniently simple to make, this Spanish dish is fantastic for dinner parties among close friends: with a short list of simple steps, pour everyone a glass of crisp, dry white Spanish wine and delegate sous chef tasks while everyone crowds the kitchen. I recently made this for a small party, and decided that it would be my go-to recipe for special, casual events because nothing has a more choice ratio of easy, low stress preparation, dramatic presentation and show stopping flavor.
Paella, considered by non-Spanish food-lovers as the quintessential Spanish dish, is traditional to Valencia. In this region, paella is a symbol of cultural identity, with two primary versions. Valencian paella features chicken, duck, rabbit, snails and beans cooked with green vegetables and rice, seasoned with rosemary, paprika, garlic and saffron. Seafood paella, from the Mediterranean coast, uses a variety of fish and shellfish, cooked in saffron-infused broth with rice, onions, red peppers, garlic and tomatoes. Common in other areas of Spain and world-wide, but not in Valencia, mixed paella combines any meat or seafood, according to the taste of the chef.
When making paella at home, it is essential to use the correct pan. The name of the dish actually comes from pan in which it is cooked – most often polished steel with two handles, but always shallow, flat, and with a large surface area. While specialized paella pans are readily available, it can be made in any large, shallow skillet or pan.
The key to perfect seafood paella is the combination of different textures and flavors in the seafood selection. Any firm white fish that can hold up to cubing, sautéing and stirring into rice works, so look for monkfish, cod, halibut or tilapia. My standard shellfish are mussels and manila clams; I always include shrimp or prawns in the shell, as they are most flavorful this way. Though this makes dining slightly challenging, the rustic appearance of whole prawns or even easy-peel shrimp elevates the drama of the presentation.
Begin by making the broth. Combine the white wine, water, clam juice and saffron in a medium sauce pan and bring to a low simmer. Cover, and keep warm.
Dice the red pepper and onion, and set them aside. Combine the chopped parsley, garlic, olive oil, tarragon and lemon juice in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in the paella pan over medium heat. Cube the fish into one inch pieces, and sauté with the prawns for one minute and then remove to a bowl and set aside. They will not be cooked at this point.
Adding another couple tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, sauté the diced pepper and onion for about five minutes, or until they begin to soften. Add the spices and diced tomatoes and sauté another five minutes. Add the rice and stir to combine before pouring in the broth. Stir in the peas and the parsley and lemon juice mixture and bring the broth to a boil. Stir occasionally for ten minutes or until the broth is about half absorbed into the rice.
Clean the clams and mussels under cold water. Stir half of the shellfish, along with the cubed white fish into the rice mixture, and then arrange the prawns and remaining shellfish on top of the paella. Be sure to position the clams and mussels so they open facing up. Cover the paella for about five minutes to allow the shellfish to cook and the rice to steam.
Once all the clams and mussels open, uncover and turn the heat to medium high. The trademark of good paella is the toasted rice crust on the bottom of the pan, called socarrat. This delicacy comes from cooking over an open fire or on an oven range where high heat from the bottom burns the rice slightly. When the paella begins to smell of toasting rice, remove it from the heat, re-cover and allow the paella to sit for about five to ten minutes to allow the rest of the broth to absorb into the rice.
Traditionally eaten directly out of the pan, a nice touch is to bring the paella pan to the table and allow guests to serve themselves. Have available a couple bowls for shells as well as damp hand towels or napkins to clean fingers. Paella pairs beautifully with crisp, dry white wines – I served two inexpensive Spanish wines, a 2009 El Pansador Verdejo and a 2010 Valdeorras Rua, both of which stood up beautifully to the lightly spicy and aromatic dish. The final touch should be crusty, chewy bread served with a shallow saucer of high quality extra virgin olive oil seasoned with a large clove of pressed garlic, a generous pinch of salt and fresh black pepper.
The variety of seafood included in paella is flexible, but should always include a firm white fish, prawns, mussels and clams to give the dish its classic mix of flavor and textures. Though specialized pans are made for paella, any shallow, wide pan will work.
1 ½ cups water
½ cup dry white wine
½ teaspoon saffron threads
1 (8 ounce) bottle clam juice
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon dried tarragon
1 large clove garlic, pressed
½ pound tilapia, cut into one inch cubes
½ pound unpeeled prawns
1 medium red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
½ cup canned diced tomatoes
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 large cloves garlic, pressed
1 ½ cups uncooked Arborio (or other short grained) rice
¾ cup frozen peas
½ pound manila clams, well-scrubbed
½ pound mussels, well-scrubbed and de-bearded
- Combine the ingredients for the broth in a small sauce pan. Over medium heat, bring the broth to a low simmer. Reduce heat to low and cover.
- Combine the ingredients for the herb blend and set aside.
- Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a thirteen to fifteen inch paella dish (or other shallow pan.) Sauté the cubed tilapia and prawns for one minute over medium heat. Remove to a bowl and set aside (the fish and prawns will not be cooked.)
- Add another couple of tablespoons olive oil to the pan and sauté the onion and red pepper until they soften slightly and the onion becomes transparent, about five minutes. Stir in the canned tomatoes, paprika, salt, red pepper flakes and garlic; sauté for about five minutes.
- Add the rice and stir to combine. Add the rice, broth, herb blend and frozen peas. Bring the broth to a boil and stir occasionally for ten minutes, or until the rice has absorbed about half of the broth.
- Stir the tilapia and about half of the shellfish into the rice. Arrange the prawns and remaining shellfish on the surface of the paella. Position the clams and mussels so they will open facing up. Cover the pan and cook about five to ten minutes, or until the shellfish have all opened.
- Uncover the paella and increase the heat to medium high. Once the rice begins to smell toasted from the bottom of the pan, about three to five minutes, remove from the heat. Cover the paella and allow it to sit for five to ten minutes to allow the broth to absorb into the rice before serving.
Yields 6 servings