Paella: A Recipe for American Cooks
by José F. Martínez
Latest update: October 2020
Valencian paella is perhaps one of the best-known courses from Spain. Original from Valencia (as you may have already guessed!), it is a staple of its people’s diet. As a kid, I ate paella with my family virtually every Sunday. On occasion, I still remember how my mother would cook something else for Sunday, and the rest of us would show a mix of disapproval and resignation in our faces.
It is supposed to be made following a relatively strict recipe. Yet, many paella-like rice recipes all over Spain have little to do with Valencians’ understanding of it. In many cases, they make us jump when we see such concoctions being served to unaware tourists.
Paella’s recipe can be the source of many bitter discussions. At an outdoor gathering, it is not unusual to see a person cooking paella over an open fire, and five people around him/her passing judgment live. It is even said that, on 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 with my family pretty much every Sunday.
I expect (and welcome) criticism from other “paella connoisseurs” (I think every Valencian feels a little bit like one when it comes to talking about paella). However, this recipe results from attending and enjoying many paella events; chances are that a fair share of Valencians will agree with it.
The Ingredients (per person)
Although there are two primary flavors of paella, meat or fish, many think the authentic one is the former. Meat here means 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 if I was 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 most profound memories.
- Chicken thighs, 1 piece.
- Butter beans, 5 pieces.
- Green beans, 5-10 pieces. 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.
- Sweet paprika, 1 gram. Do make sure it is sweet–not hot or smoked.
- Saffron, one pinch regardless of the number of people. If you can afford it, it is said to be the key ingredient! If you can’t afford it, you may substitute with a pinch of turmeric or artificial yellow color to still get the rice’s right color. I always use saffron; my mom always used yellow coloring.
- Tomato (grated), 20 grams. Don’t overdo it, or the paella will come out acidic.
- Water, 125 cc.
- Table salt, 1.5 grams.
- Kokuho pearl rice, 100 cc. I think this is simply the best rice I have ever used for paella, better than SOS, La Fallera, or even Bomba, which are typically used for paella in Valencia. I discovered this rice in the US, and I am very impressed by it. Besides, if you follow rice and water quantities listed in the bag, it always comes out perfect. If you cannot find it, try to use pearl rice–not long grain, and definitely not “instant” rice.
- Lemon, 1/4 piece.
- Fresh rosemary.
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 the butter beans will work just fine.
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 in which you are going to cook is key. We use the paella in Valencia (“paella” means “pan” in Valencian). Generally speaking, the shallower, the better. However, my experience is that a Dutch oven is perfect for up to four people, and it can handle up to eight reasonably well.
You need to put the butter 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 (the skin will be wrinkly). You may also use canned beans if that’s more convenient.
Heat olive oil to medium-high temperature, so it barely covers the bottom of the pan. Excess oil can make the course pretty heavy. The best adviser is experience. Remember that oil usually spreads out as it warms up, so be conservative.
Clean the chicken, remove as much fat as possible, but unless you really dislike it, leave the chicken’s skin–it gives a nice flavor to the course. Fry the chicken, about 15 minutes on each side. Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables and grate the tomato.
When the meat is crispy-golden, take it out and set aside. It does not matter much if you do not do it, but it facilitates the roasting of vegetables. Paella pans in Valencia are very wide and slightly concave on the inside, which allows us to move the chicken to the periphery and cook the vegetables in the center.
Drop the green beans into the oil and fry them for about three minutes, stirring. Add the paprika and the saffron and stir again for about 30 seconds, 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, scraping the pan’s bottom to “clean” it from the stuck-on residue (which will add to the flavor).
Add the meat back into the pan and mix everything. Next, add the water and the salt. Use a wooden stick to touch the bottom of the pan and measure the height of the water. You will need it later. (In paella pans, the handles’ rivets (which show on the inside) indicate the water level. There are different pan sizes for different numbers of guests, and 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 return to the original height: use the wooden stick for this critical step. Then put the pan back on the burner and add salt.
As soon as it starts boiling, use a spoon to taste the water. It is essential to take the water from the bubbles: it’s the only part of the water’s surface with no oil. Taste for salt. If necessary, add more salt, but don’t be slow on this: you want to add the rice before too much water evaporates.
Next, add the rice. Remember that you want to keep it shallow. Shake the pan slightly to spread the rice, and wait until the water boils again. Then, lower heat to a minimum and cover. Let it simmer for 25 minutes. If you have used the same type of rice and quantities, I can guarantee it will come out perfectly 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,” 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: Take it out of the range and cover it for a couple of minutes. This will 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 hurry, you can save about twenty minutes using chicken broth instead of water. In that case, you may skip the meat and vegetable simmering (whose purpose is to make broth anyway). This is how I always make it home.
If you would like to use an Instant Pot, you can use the rice program, but be sure to pour 100 cc/person of chicken broth instead of 125 cc. It’s not quite the same, of course, but it’s surprisingly acceptable.
That’s it! I hope you enjoy this fantastic piece of Valencia’s culture. Please feel free to email me with your stories, questions, suggestions, etc.