We were having a group to dinner over the President’s Day weekend. I saw it as a great opportunity to cook something substantial. I hit upon making a paella for a couple of reasons. I’d read an article in Saveur written by David Rosengarten. In it, Chef Rosengarten had gone to the source: the cradle of Spanish paella making, Valencia. What inspired me the most was that the original recipe, dating from the early 1800s, called saffron-scented rice cooked with Rabbit, chicken, Snails and three kinds of beans. Rosengarten pointed out that you can still find that version all over Valencia. But the list of paellas does not stop there. There are seafood paellas, vegetable paellas and paellas using all kinds of meats. The recipe is wildly adaptable because as Rosengarten pointed out: “Tinkering, it seems, is inherent to the culture of paella.” And it’s to be remembered that “Paella” refers the wide, shallow steel pan in which such dishes were cooked. In my case, all I really needed was a good basic recipe from which to build my paella. And as to its ingredients, well I just went shopping in my freezer. There I found the chicken thighs, hot Italian sausage and shrimp that would form the backbone of what turned out to be a delicious and terrifically well-received dish. Although no thanks to the recipe I found for Birthday Party Paella.
|Valencia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast|
Bon Appetit, or more properly www.epicurious.com, was the source of Birthday Party Paella. Never explained was whose birthday was being celebrated. In our case I suppose we could have called it Washington’s Birthday Party Paella. It was, after all, President’s Day weekend. The recipe was first published over 10 years ago. Due to its longevity, it came with comments from no less that 128 ‘reviewers’. The vast majority of these were rants on how little flavor there was to the original recipe. How vegetables had be substituted or omitted altogether, how fish had replaced shrimp and beef, chicken. There was very little left of the original Birthday Party Paella by the second or third page of reviews. And quite honestly, that was a good thing. Reading the recipe, I had to marvel at the almost complete lack of seasoning of any kind. ¼ of a teaspoon of saffron threads? 2 bay leaves? 1 ½ teaspoons of salt in a dish with 12 chicken thighs? I started out with their ingredient list and took off from there.
|Traditionally, Paella is cooked over
a wood fire
David Rosengarten’s walk down Paella’s Memory lane was a huge help. Traditionally, Paella was the province of the male members of Valencian families who put it together while the women of the family went to mass on Sunday mornings. The dish was made over open fires so that the rice crisped on the bottom, and the meat took on smoky flavors. But once the dish became a restaurant standard, the old wood-fire method was largely replaced with stovetop cooking. To compensate for the lack of smoke, smoked paprika came into the mix. And what of saffron, that wildly expensive (and, to my way of thinking, largely tasteless) backbone of traditional paellas? According to Rosengarten’s article: “One out of a hundred restaurants in Valencia uses saffron these days,” José Fernandez, the chef of La Pepica, one of Valencia’s most venerated paella restaurants,” told him. “It’s much too expensive. Instead, many cooks color their paellas with paprika”. So there were apparently few rules in the making of a paella. However there were a couple of basics that I had to abide by.
|With its own spice mix,
Arroz Amarillo adds a layer
of flavor to the dish.
The starting point of a good paella start is a sofrito, or flavor base, of chopped vegetables cooked in the same pan as the meats in the recipe have browned in—in this case, lots of chopped onions, garlic and fire-roasted tomatoes. Red Peppers are a mainstay. The longer the sofrito cooks, the darker and more intensely flavored the paella will be. And then there’s the question of the rice. Bon Appetit’s recipe called for Arborio Rice. Reviewers on Epicurious were almost universally miffed at this suggestion. I wanted a saffron-colored rice without the saffron so I opted for Goya “Yellow Rice Spanish Style” supplemented with some long grain rice to get the volume up above what came in the Goya package. And as much as I wanted the rice to crisp and form what’s called socarrat on the bottom of the pan, it didn’t. What I did end up with was a delicious dish made, not in a paella but in a large roasting pan: Shrimp and Chicken and sausage, glorious big pieces of red pepper and zucchini, wonderfully aromatic rice, and a group of dinner guests who went back for seconds.
The next time you’re entertaining, consider serving this dish. It’s one of those amazing meals that keeps you out of the kitchen because it’s made in advance and requires little or no tending. Then you pull your beautiful one dish dinner out of the oven and serve with a green salad. Here’s the recipe:
Recipe for Birthday Party Paella Serves 10.
3 tablespoons olive oil
Adobo All Purpose Seasoning*
6 fresh hot Italian sausages (about 1 3/4 pounds)
12 chicken thighs with skin and bones (about 4 1/4 pounds), excess fat trimmed
2 very large onions, chopped (about 5 cups)
10 garlic cloves, chopped,
14 1/2 ounces diced Fire Roasted tomatoes, (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 bay leaves
4 medium zucchini, halved crosswise, then quartered lengthwise
3 red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch-wide strips
1 1/2 pounds uncooked large shrimp, peeled, deveined
Ancho Chili Powder
2 cups Goya Yellow “Spanish Rice” supplemented with ½ cup of long grain rice.
5 cups canned low-salt chicken broth
2 heaping teaspoons smoked paprika
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy large shallow pot over medium-high heat. Add sausages and sauté until cooked through, turning often, about 10 minutes. Transfer to large bowl.
Sprinkle chicken generously with Adobo seasoning and freshly ground black pepper. Working in batches, add chicken, skin side down, to pot. Cover and cook until brown, about 6 minutes. Turn chicken over, cover and cook until brown and cooked through, about 8 minutes longer. Transfer chicken to bowl with sausages.
Add onions and 10 chopped garlic cloves to pot; sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Add tomatoes and bay leaves; stir 2 minutes. Stir in zucchini and bell peppers. Transfer to another large bowl.
Toss shrimp with remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and sprinkle with ancho chile powder. (Chicken-sausage mixture, vegetable mixture and shrimp mixture can be prepared 6 hours ahead. Cover separately and refrigerate.)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush one 18 x 12 x 2 1/4-inch roasting pan with olive oil. Spread the rice evenly over the bottom of the roasting pan. Then spread the vegetable mixture over the rice.
Cut sausages diagonally into 1-inch slices. Using wooden spoon, push sausage and chicken pieces into rice mixture; pour any juices from bowl over.
Bring 5 cups chicken broth and two heaping teaspoons of smoked paprika to boil in medium saucepan. Pour evenly over rice mixture. Cover roasting pan tightly with foil. Bake until rice is cooked, about 1 hour. Remove foil and place dish in oven for another hour.
Take dish out of the oven and sprinkle shrimp mixture with salt and pepper. Arrange atop rice mixture. Cover pan with foil; bake until shrimp are opaque in center, about 20 minutes longer. Sprinkle with parsley. Spoon paella onto plates and serve.