It’s not the saffron or the succulent meat. The seafood or the lemon. Tis the socarrat!
Paella is and can be alot of things, but much of it has nothing to do with how good it tastes. The communality it demands between guests provides this surrendering force that relaxes everyone, and excites them at the same time.
I don’t mean to be so dramatic about it but with most great and memorable gatherings there is always a certain je ne say quoi.
Cooking a whole pig or goat can have a similar feeling; or a labor party when all your friends come over for a big yard project and afterwards you party into the night and revel in your accomplishment. Effort I think is the key here, (I know I’ve gone down this path before).
Paella has this kind of magic; where everyone gets to tangibly feel a part of an effort and a transformation.
Gettin’ it all together
There are three things involved that make a paella party fun and cool. One is the pan, called a paellera; it’s what gives paella it’s name, which is a Spanish root word for pan. Now I’ve made great paella on the stove top many times without this special pan, but if you want to have the experience I’m talking about, you’ve gotta get one.
Next is an outdoor fire. Both words are important; outdoor, and fire. Gatherings outdoors are great, but if everyone is communed around a fire pit, then the intrigue and anticipation for the dinner rises even higher.
Last is not the ingredients like you might think; but the common thread of all relaxing, fun social gatherings…booze. I know, I know; I beat this horse to death sometimes, but it’s true! Add a couple drinks to room full of silent people and BOOM! Conversation. As an added bonus–the combination of an outdoor fire and booze gets you a nice little peanut gallery that helps out with labor, un-needed tips and critiques.
Piled on top of all that, we’re finally to the pièce de résistance. The ingredients are not the “third reason” because we are not in Spain and therefore have no traditional binding that limits us to which ingredients we use. If anyone ever tells you your paella is not authentic because you didn’t have (insert unattainable ingredient here), tell them you canceled the party and there’s no reason to come over on Saturday.
Rice, saffron, a few veggies and meat are all you really need. I like the complexity of using Spanish chorizo, chicken thighs and seafood. Chorizo is spicy, earthy and full of wonderful fat and flavor, although probably the hardest ingredient to find. If you can’t find the cured Spanish variety, don’t substitute with the soft Mexican chorizo. Good butcher shops will usually carry it and I know Whole foods has it. I like chicken for the fatty skin and it’s always my first step–browning and rendering the chicken skin provides your cooking fat for the rest of the dish. Rabbit, and duck can also be used but it’s up to you.
After I remove the chicken I add the chorizo and veggies (sofrito). Traditionally the sofrito cooks up to a paste but I tend stop before the veg looses it’s shape. Next is the rice–once again, tradition states not to use long grain rice, but if that’s what you decide to go with, no one will be the wiser unless they “know” paella. I always use a medium or short grain rice, usually arborio. It’s readily available at all supermarkets and has the physical make up we need.
Arborio and other short grain rices have an outer layer that melts its starch. That starch (which so famously gives risotto its creaminess) is what helps form the socarrat.
The socarrat is the beautiful crust that forms on the bottom, adding textural variance and supreme richness. When the rice toasts on the bottom of the pan the moisture inside the rice is replaced with the fats and spices– then fries crisp. Ohm nom nom.
1tsp saffron threads, dried or lightly toasted
2T olive oil
2lb chicken thighs with bone and skin
kosher salt and fresh pepper
2c sliced or diced Spanish chorizo
2c finely diced onions
1c finely diced bell peppers
1c diced tomato
3c arborio rice
2-3lb assorted seafood
1c blanched peas or green beans
3T minced parsley
1tsp minced lemon zest
Heat the water and saffron in a pot to steep; set aside.
Prepare your fire and set the pan. Once hot; season the chicken, swirl in the oil and place the chicken skin side down. Render the skin until browned and crisp, then flip. Move the chicken to the edge of the pan and add the chorizo and veggies. Stir and saute until soft or mushy. Add the rice and saute a bit to toast. Add the saffron water with a couple teaspoons of salt. Nestle the chicken into the rice and adjust the fire so it’s not at a raging boil. Cook for 10 minutes and start layering on the seafood with the slowest cooking fish on the bottom. Cook another 5 minutes and flip any fish on the top that is’nt getting hit with heat. If your rice is starting to finish but the fish still needs a little time, lightly tent with foil or parchment to help steam. When everything looks cooked, wait for a crackling sound on the bottom which means the rice is frying. Garnish with peas, parsley and lemon zest.