Paella: A Recipe for American Cooks

by José F. Martínez


Valencian paella is perhaps one of the most well-known courses from Spain. Original from Valencia (as you may have already guessed!), it is a staple of their diet. As a kid, I ate paella with my family virtually every Sunday. I still remember how my mother, on occasion, would try cooking something else for Sunday, and the rest of us (especially my father) would show a mix of disapproval and resignation in our faces.

It is supposed to be made following a rather strict procedure, yet there are many paella-like rice recipes all over Spain that have little to do with Valencians’ understanding of it, and that in many cases make us jump when we see such concoctions being served to unaware tourists.

Paella’s recipe has been the source of many bitter discussions, believe it or not. It is said that, in one occasion, a case was brought before the Valencian Parliament to decide whether Valencian paella should contain bell peppers or not.

Despite living in the United States, an ocean away from Valencia, I still proudly make and eat paella pretty much every Sunday.

I expect (and welcome) some criticism from other “paella connoisseurs” (I think every Valencian feels a little bit like one when it comes to talking about paella), which I will gladly read and, eventually, reply to. However, this recipe is the result of attending and enjoying many paella events, so chances are that a fair share of Valencians will agree with it.

The Ingredients

Although there are two basic flavors of paella, meat or fish, many of us think the authentic one is the former. The meat used for it is chicken, rabbit, or both. For those not very keen on strong meat flavor, I recommend sticking with chicken. Rabbit is delicious, but it may be challenging to get in the United States, and some people may not like the idea of eating one anyway.

Here are the ingredients, or their substitutes were I not able to locate the original:

  • Olive oil. Don’t bother using any other. The scent of chicken being fried in olive oil is engraved in our deepest memories. I always use extra virgin oil for paella, but in Spain it is common to leave the extra virgin variety for the salad dressing and use the standard, less acidic version for cooking.
  • Chicken and rabbit, 1-2 pieces per person. Rabbit adds a distinct flavor to the broth, and thus the rice.
  • Lima beans (Garrofó), five to ten per person. Garrofó is a variety typically grown in Valencia, which has a little black spot in the center. I have not found any in the US, but if the Lima beans are relatively fresh they work just fine.
  • Green beans (Bajoca), five to ten per person. The ideal ones are flat (called “Italian” in some supermarkets). They are not as available as round-shaped green beans in the US, and those will work well, so don’t bother shopping around too much.
  • Tomato. Use half tomato for every four people approx. Don’t abuse it or the paella will come out acidic.
  • Sweet paprika (Pimentón dulce). I believe this is not the exact ingredient, for the scent of the originial is somewhat different. Make sure that it is not hot or smoked paprika.
  • Saffron. If you can afford it, it is said to be the key ingredient! If you can’t, you should substitute with turmeric to still get the yellow color on the rice. Just a little bit, either way!
  • Fresh rosemary.
  • Lemon, one every four people.
  • Water, 125cc/person.
  • Salt, at your discretion.
  • Kokuho pearl rice, 100cc/person. I think this is simply the best rice I have ever eaten, better than SOS or La Fallera, which are the ones typically used for paella in Valencia. I discovered this rice in the US and I am very impressed by it. Besides, if you follow the quantities for rice and water given in the bag, it almost always comes out perfect. If you cannot find it, try to use pearl rice–not long grain, not Basmati, and definitely not “instant” rice.

Despite dissenting opinions by some, I shall state that paella is a no-garlic, no-onion, no-pea, no-bell-pepper, no-mussel, no-sausage, no-chorizo course.

Depending on the season, you may find snails (Baquetes) on Valencian paella, but if you haven’t gotten past the rabbit part I figure snails won’t sound too mouth-watering.

The Pan

A key thing is the recipient in which you are going to cook. We use the paella in Valencia (“paella” means “pan” in Valencian). Generally speaking, the shallower the better. Thick rice cookings are difficult to manage and the rice is not steamed homogeneously, so try and use a container such that your paella does not grow beyond 7-8cm in height. In any case, my experience is that a dutch pan is fine for up to eight people using the rice referenced above.

The Procedure

You need to put the Lima beans into water overnight–don’t forget this (translation: I always do). If you do, you can still boil them twenty minutes before beginning to cook, but they will not have such a nice aspect (their skin will be wrinkly).

Heat olive oil to medium-high temperature,so it barely covers the bottom of the pan. Excess of oil makes the course pretty heavy on the stomach. The best adviser is experience. Remember that oil usually spreads out as it warms up, so be conservative.

Clean the chicken and rabbit, try and remove as much fat as possible (I think the average American chicken is rather disgusting in this respect), but unless you really dislike it, leave the chicken’s skin–it gives a nice flavor to the course. Salt and start frying the chicken and rabbit.

Meanwhile, wash the vegetables and split all green beans. Dice the tomatoes into tiny pieces: you should not see any tomato chunk in a paella serving. Alternatively, you can use a grater. Do get rid of the skin in any case. Salt the vegetables and turn the chicken/rabbit over.

Prepare a recipient with the fresh water, and set it aside.

When the meat is golden, take it out and set aside. It actually does not matter if you do not do it, but it facilitates the roasting of the vegetables. Paella pans in Valencia are quite wide and slightly concave on the inside, so we move the chicken to the periphery and cook the vegetables in the center.

Drop the green beans and the Lima beans into the oil and fry them for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. (Make sure the Lima beans are dry or you’ll get some unexpected “fireworks.”) Then add the paprika and stir again. Fry for about half a minute and then add the tomato. If you fry the paprika for too long you will ruin it. The water the tomato contains will cool down the oil enough to “protect” the paprika for a bit. Stir for a minute, then add the meat back into the pan and mix everything. Next, add the water.

Use a wooden stick to touch the bottom of the pan and measure the height of the water. You will need it later. We do not need such a stick in Valencia, since the handles of our paella pan show on the inside, to indicate where the water is supposed to reach (there are different pan sizes for different number of guests; some people have quite a collection!).

Let the water boil at moderate heat for twenty minutes. Then take the pan away from the burner–but don’t turn the burner off. Add water until you get back to the original height: use the wooden stick for this delicate operation. Then put the pan back on the burner. Add salt and let it boil.

As soon as it starts boiling, use a spoon to taste the water. It is important to take the water from the bubbles: it’s the only part of the water’s surface with no oil. Taste for salt. Add salt if necessary, but don’t be slow on this: you want to add the rice before too much water evaporates. When done with the salt, add the saffron. You may add the saffron strands (or powder) directly, or you may boil the saffron in a bit of water and then pour that water into the paella, discarding the saffron strands.

Next, add the rice, 100cc per person. Remember that you want to keep it shallow, 7-8cm. Shake the pan slightly to spread the rice, and wait until the water boils again. Then, lower heat to minimum and cover, and let it simmer for 25 minutes. If you have used the same type of rice and quantities, I can guarantee it will come out perfect most of the time. Note that this is not the way it is done in a paella pan. In that case, the paella pan is open, and the amount of water is correspondingly higher, about two to three times the volume of rice. This method is less “fool-proof” however, so I recommend that you stick to Kokuho rice guidelines.

During the last ten minutes of simmering, quickly add a couple pieces of rosemary on top of the rice and cover again. The steam will activate the scent of the rosemary, which will bathe the paella.

At this point the paella is almost ready: Simply take it out of the range and cover it for a couple minutes to concentrate the rosemary scent, and maybe soften a few rebel grains of rice.

Finally, many people like to squeeze some lemon over their course. I personally love it.

Final Tip: Quick Paella

If you’re in a rush, you can save about twenty minutes by using chicken broth instead of water. In that case, you may skip the meat and vegetable simmering (whose purpose is to make broth anyway), and go to the salt-saffron-rice phase directly. If you would like to use an Instant Pot, you can use the rice program, but be sure to pour 100cc/person of chicken broth instead of 125cc. It’s not quite the same of course, but it’s surprisingly acceptable. In fact, it’s how I cook it these days.

That’s it! I hope you enjoy this fantastic piece of Valencia’s culture.