How to Make Perfect Paella
One of the things I like best about paella is that it’s nearly always made by men. In Spain, it’s generally the centerpiece of a leisurely Sunday lunch, and I have been reliably informed that the role of women in the preparation of this meal is to lounge about in the garden sipping wine or beer while their male companions labor on. At such moments I frequently hear women murmuring, “I could get used to this!” as they top up each other’s glasses. I have to agree.
Rich’s first foray into paella-making came at a Spanish friend’s home, but his efforts to come to grips with the process was frustrated by Javier’s casual insistence that you just put in “as much as is needed” of each ingredient. Traditionally, Spaniards use the pan itself (known as a paellera) as a measuring device, pouring a river of dry rice down the middle. “The width of the rice is the same as the distance between the rivets on the handle,” Javier pointed out. “And the depth should match the height of the rivets on the pan.” When Rich asked about the rice-to-broth ratio, Javier's answer was, of course, “as much as is needed.”
Since then Rich has taken paella-making classes with Victor, a local chef who told us that paella originated in the rice-growing region around Valencia as a casual meal assembled by men out in the fields. When lunchtime approached, they’d capture their protein live and toss it in the pan — generally this meant rabbit, chicken, and snails. This, Victor maintains, is the only true paella recipe. You’ll be astonished to hear that snails, and even rabbits, have largely been abandoned in favor of more mainstream ingredients such as shellfish and chorizo. Go figure.
Today, making paella is a bit like assembling a salad; the only rule is that there are no rules. Paella chefs feel free to choose their own ingredients and assemble them in any order they wish. Nearly a dozen years ago, Rich was given a great paella recipe (with precise measurements) which he's followed loosely over the years, adapting it to his whim and the available ingredients. His skill with paella has grown over the years and made him extremely popular at pot-luck meals in both Seville and California; by now he’s able to produce perfect paella every time. Here’s how he does it.
Rich favors inexpensive short-grained rice over the fancy, pricey “paella rice” sold in specialty stores. And he strongly recommends buying an authentic paellera rather than using some other pan you already have at home; you really do need a very broad, shallow pan to make the recipe work. As for the heat source, your best bet is to invest in a gas-powered burner ring that matches the size of your pan, because it’s the only way you’re going to achieve the slightly crusty, caramelized bottom layer of rice that many consider the best part of the dish. However, you can get quite good results using an ordinary gas stove (the five-burner models make it easier to maintain even heat) or a barbeque if that’s what’s handy.
“The best thing about paella,” Rich says, “is that it brings people together communally.” It’s true; everyone loves to come into the kitchen or out onto the deck to check on the progress of the meal and offer unsolicited advice that’s completely ignored. When the paella’s ready to eat, you set it on the table right in the pan, and everyone helps themselves, creating the kind of cheerful pandemonium that for me is the hallmark of a good party. The pan stays put so people can scoop out seconds and often thirds and fourths. I never serve anything with paella except a light salad to refresh the palate, and by the end of the meal, everyone’s ready to stagger home for a siesta.
As Rich’s experience shows, you don’t have to be Spanish to make paella, and of course, in these egalitarian times, plenty of women are cooking it for themselves. You no longer need to travel to Spain in order to buy a proper pan, nor do you need to wheedle the recipe from a Valencian chef. But you will want to follow the ancient tradition of gathering a group to enjoy the feast. We’ve all seen those movies where European friends and relatives come together for a long, leisurely afternoon meal in the garden, with kids underfoot and lots of wine and laughter. If you’re like me and think that’s a great way to live, you might want to start by learning how to make paella. If it turns out perfectly, you can all celebrate with a lovely communal meal together. If it’s an utter disaster, you’ll have a great story to tell, and the motivation to try again.
Good luck! If you do start making paella, Rich and I are standing by to hear your stories. Tell us all and send photos to email@example.com.
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6/6/2018 04:06:54 pm
I got a paella pan for a wedding present 44 yrs ago. And now due to both Mike and I being type 2 diabetics and our daughter being a vegan I've had to adapt my recipes I now fix paella with quinoa and all veggies. It really isn't bad. Took it to granddaughters International Night and brought home an empty pan. I do like to order the "real" thing when we're in Spain!
6/7/2018 07:40:39 am
As you so rightly point out, Kay, paella is endlessly adaptable, which makes it great for special diets. Our celiac friends love it. At the meal I filmed, one of our guests doesn't like shellfish, so we made one section without. I've never tried it with quinoa, but maybe one of these days!
6/6/2018 06:44:05 pm
Yes! Matt needed this! Great video. Miss you both!
6/7/2018 07:42:18 am
Step one: buy Matt a paella pan for his birthday. Step two: print out the recipe Rich uses. Step three: invite us over, and you and I can sit in the garden while they cook. Sound like a plan?
6/7/2018 07:44:37 am
Glad you liked the video, Steve. Rich loves making paella and has labored for years to perfect his craft. I get to be the guinea pig every time. Am I lucky or what?
6/6/2018 07:57:48 pm
I LOVE this post! Please write more about cooking traditions you encounter, and the recipes you find would be most appreciated!! I personally think one of the best things about international travel is the food : )
6/7/2018 07:46:41 am
As you've no doubt noticed, my blog has been focusing on food more often lately; I just keep running across amazing customs and recipes that I want to share. And thanks to feedback like yours, I will keep it up!
6/7/2018 11:14:55 pm
Yum! What a great post - we've been looking for a good tried and true method to use in NZ and I think this is it! Thanks for sharing and great video!
6/8/2018 08:13:27 am
So glad you found the post/video useful, Lindsay! The beauty of paella is that it can be made just about anywhere with a wide variety of ingredients. Maybe you can find a way to give it a touch of NZ flavor. Let me know how it turns out!
6/28/2018 04:35:15 am
Looks so yummy...have been wanting to try making paella....time I try it! Thanks!
8/17/2018 04:02:59 pm
If you try making it, Faye, let me know how it turns out!
8/17/2018 06:08:47 am
Do I really have to buy a paella pan? I have a mix I bought in Barcelona in Dec. but the recipe font is too small. Glad I came across this and can't wait to make it. Thanks Karen and Rich.
8/17/2018 04:04:21 pm
Buy or borrow one if you can, Kitty. It's hard to get the right consistency in the rice without a very wide, shallow pan of a certain density. But you can always give it a shot and see how it turns out; even if it's not classical paella, it might be great.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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