Picture the scene! An early summer evening in Valencia, Spain, in the mid-19th century; an aromatic open fire of orange and pine branches, and pine cones, crackles happily in an orchard clearing. A wide, flat pan, enormous, two feet across, sits suspended over the flames. The men, their olde-thymey pants hitched to their fuggin' armpits, bustle hither and yon, assembling the ingredients of a feast. For they are making paella, and this is the job of men, as they learned it from their fathers.
Lo! Here comes young Raimundo, at 6 years old already eager to participate in this masculine rite. "Papa!" he squeals, skipping and jumping in excitement as he approaches: "Papa! I have brought some clams! May I put them in the paella?"
"Ah my son," says Papa, hoisting the tyke onto his knee, stern but kindly. "The clam, she is delicious. But, she does not belong in the paella, for she is not part of an authentic Valencian seafood paella." He tousles the moppet's hair affectionately.
Raimundo is confused. He looks up at Papa, his innocent young face screwed up in a frown. "Fuck you talkin' about, pops? 'Paella' means 'pan.' This shit is a casserole. Lighten up and put some friggin' clams in it, ya dingus." Then he hook-shots the clams over his shoulder into the pan and swats Papa's horchada onto the ground to round out the own.
Listen. Tradition is great. It gives us all types of cool stuff. On the other hand, the main meat ingredient of traditional paella was water vole, a large amphibious rodent, so maybe let's all just step back and get some perspective here, because, Jesus, "large amphibious rodent," no fucking way. Since parsing from among the constituent parts of tradition for those that appeal to us and discarding the (amphibious rodent) parts that horrify and/or nauseate us is pretty much the only alternative to not having paella at all—and not having paella at all is a fate worse than pretty much everything except for having to watch The Magus—we're just not gonna worry about tradition so much.
So! Clams. Yes. And also mussels and shrimp. But not water vole, and not Spanish chorizo, which is just too damn hard to find in most places. Making paella is always kind of a ludicrous thing to do (it's complicated, it takes a while, you have to buy saffron, which means plunking down like 17 bucks for about a thimbleful of flower parts). Keep it as reasonable as you can, or you'll never do it.
Hey, speaking of which. Let's do it.
The first thing to do is acquire cooking liquid. If you want to make a (relatively) quick seafood broth by simmering some shrimp heads and shells for, oh, a half hour or so in water with chopped onion, minced garlic, and a couple of bay leaves, that'll be lovely, and will impart some richer seafoodiness to your eventual paella. (Set the denuded shrimp aside; you'll add 'em to the paella later.) On the other hand, if you want to buy a few cans of low-sodium chicken broth, hell, that will be OK, too. Or, another thing to do, if you're not going the seafood-broth route, is to grab a couple of cans of low-sodium chicken broth, plus a can or bottle of clam liqueur (this'll be by the canned tuna in your local supermarket).
The thing not to do is to just use some regular-ass tap water to make your paella, if you can avoid it. For all the sexy shellfish that will go into it, this paella and all others are really about the rice; do this rice the favor of making it with ingredients that will impart flavor to it. (And, no, before you ask, tap water with a packet of instant ramen flavor-dirt stirred into it will not suffice here, I am very sorry to report.)
You'll need, oh, somewhere between four and six cups of cooking liquid. Exactly how much will be determined by the next way that your paella either observes or offends tradition: your choice of rice. Acquire some short-grain rice. A note on that.
Traditionally, paella is made with bomba, a super-short-grain rice from Spain. Bomba is great for paella: It absorbs a ton of liquid (three times its volume, in fact, meaning that if you use two cups of bomba rice for your paella, you will need six cups of cooking liquid), which means that it can be made incredibly flavorful by the contents of that cooking liquid—but also, wonderfully, bomba holds its shape during cooking. So long as you don't stir it too much as it cooks, it doesn't get sticky and mushy like many short-grain rice varieties. This yields a result that engages you both with flavor and texture. It's wonderful!
It's also grown only in Spain; finding it, if you do not live in Spain, is a big ol' pain in the ass. It's available online, or in that specialty gourmet grocer where the clerk sees you buying bomba rice, deduces that you are making paella, then sees that you are also buying clams, deduces that you are making inauthentic non-traditional paella, and furtively notifies security.
If you can't find bomba rice, you can also use Italy's famous arborio rice, familiar to you from the time you made risotto. Like bomba, arborio rice does a great job of holding its shape during cooking, compared with other short-grain rices; unlike bomba, though, it can be found in most big supermarkets that have a selection of varieties of rice, or one of those "International" aisles with, like, all the same shit you can find everywhere else in the store, only more expensive and with accent symbols all over everything.
On the other hand, arborio doesn't absorb quite as much liquid (that is to say, as much flavor) as bomba—you'll want around two cups of liquid for each cup of rice—and, even though you will not be stirring it as you would when making risotto, it will still yield a paella that is somewhat stickier and creamier than what you'd get with bomba. But still! Arborio is good paella rice. It will give you good paella.
So, say you can't find bomba or arborio rice. What then? Is it time to grab as many boxes of Uncle Ben's as you can fit in your basket? Fuck no, buddy! You just need to find some kind of short-grain rice. Who the hell knows what kind it will be—whether mushy and sticky, or really friggin' mushy and sticky. Maybe it will be super-sticky Japanese sushi rice, which, like arborio, will require a 2:1 ratio of liquid to rice when you cook it, and which, oh man, sushi-rice paella will reeeeally offend the weenies here. Awesome.
Whatever it is, if you're concerned that it might be stickier than the fancy Euro rices, you can reduce that stickiness somewhat by rinsing the rice a lot (put it in a pot, cover it with cold water, stir it a bit with your hand until the water is cloudy as hell, then drain the water all the way out and repeat, literally nine billion times, until the water doesn't get cloudy anymore), or you can just accept that your paella will be a bit stickier and mushier than the stuff young Raimundo chucked his clams into, but will still taste good, so maybe it's not such a big deal after all, I mean for chrissakes can we just move on already.
So you've got cooking liquid, and you've got rice. Let's start making paella! Heat some extra-virgin olive oil in a big pa—
Oh right. About the pan.
There is a special pan called a paellera. It is very wide and very flat and has a raised rim, so that when you cook paella in it, lots of rice spends lots of time in direct contact with the hot surface of the pan, so that this bottom layer of rice becomes toasty and crusty. The Spanish call this layer of toasted rice on the bottom of a pan of paella "socarrat," and, when done right, it is very tasty. It is also probably not worth the effort and money that will be required by the quest to obtain an authentic paellera, which you do not currently possess, and which, let's be realistic here, you would use maybe, maybe, four or five times between now and the end of your life. If you have a wide cast-iron skillet—or, hell, even a big flat-bottomed wok—you can make paella in it that will be just as tasty as you will ever require your homemade paella to be.
So. Moving on. Heat a couple of big glugs of extra-virgin olive oil in your widest, flattest pan over medium-low heat. If you'd like to chuck a pinch of chili flakes into this oil, that will add some welcome piquancy to your paella, but isn't required.
Now, chuck a couple of big fistfuls of live clams and mussels into the pan. You'll have checked these to make sure they are alive (by flicking the hell out of any open shells and watching to see if they closed in response), and de-bearded them if necessary, as we discussed before. Clamp a lid on the pan and cook the clams and mussels just until their shells open, maybe two or three minutes, then remove them (but not the oil!) from the pan and set them aside. The bivalves don't need to be fully cooked, at this point: They're gonna go back in the pan later, but you're getting them started now so they won't hold up the show at the end.
Now, cook some vegetation and spices and stuff in the oil. A entire Spanish onion, chopped; a few cloves of minced garlic; a pinch each of salt, dried oregano, and paprika (smoked or sweet or whatever; suit yourself). Move this stuff around with a wooden spoon or spatula until you can smell all of it and the onion looks sweaty and the oil has turned the red color of the paprika and you've entertained the thought of maybe just eating a fistful of hot onion and garlic and paprika.
Turn up the heat, and chuck two cups of dry rice into the pan. With your Cooking Implement, stir and fold and toss the rice for a few minutes, until it's fully coated with the oil and the vegetation is distributed fairly evenly through it and the whole mess is hot. Now, do a couple of things in quick succession. The next paragraph is going to have lots of boldfaced type in it. There's just no getting around it.
Hand-crush a few canned whole tomatoes and dump them into the pan. Toss the rice a tad to work these in. Add your cooking liquid—remembering your 3:1 ratio of liquid to rice for bomba rice and 2:1 for arborio (or sushi rice, you madman)—and add a small pinch of real by-God saffron threads, a pair of dried bay leaves, and another pinch of salt to the pan. Gently, oh so gently, so as not to disturb the starch too much, give the whole agglomeration of foodstuffs one—and only one—slow swirling stir, then level it off with the spoon or spatula (so the rice cooks evenly) and leave it the hell alone.
The key, between now and the end of this whole friggin' process, is to disturb the rice as little as possible. You can do that! You're like a Level 76 at Mostly Not Doing Anything. Bring the cooking liquid to a very low simmer, then lower the heat a lot to keep it there. You'll want to leave your nascent paella alone for, oh, 10 minutes or so; by then the rice will have absorbed most of the cooking liquid and will be filling the pan. After 10 minutes, gently burrow your shrimp into the rice, one by one; layer the clams and mussels over the top.
Let this stuff cook for another, oh, nine or 10 minutes, uncovered. (Nuke a bag of frozen peas in the microwave while you wait.) The heat from the cooking rice will cook the shrimp and finish off the bivalves; the layer of bivalves will slow the evaporation of the cooking liquid just enough to help the rice get to where you want it, which is a state of slight al dente-ness just shy of the soft fluffiness you associate with regular old rice; the smell of cooked shellfish and saffron and paprika and onion will cause the Iberian peninsula to detach itself from Europe and float across the Atlantic, to park itself outside of your home and play songs of seduction on an acoustic guitar through your window. You're so close to eating paella!
Move the now-cooked bivalves out of the way for a moment. Drop some of those peas across the top of the rice; with a fork, and continuing to behave gently so as not to fuck up however much of a layer of toasted rice your paella formed on the bottom while it cooked, fluff the upper layers of the rice, working the peas into it as you go. Now, return the bivalves to the top of the rice. Sprinkle some chopped parsley over the whole thing. Scatter some lemon wedges around the perimeter of the pan. Take the entire pan to a table and place it, theatrically, on top of an oven mitt so that it does not light your home on fire. Sock an empty bowl next to it, for the bivalve shells.
You have made paella. The next part is eating it.
Serve your paella with white wine or cold beer. A fun way to eat it, if you're eating it with a laid-back, fun-loving assortment of people (and if you're not, uh, kick them the hell out and find some new friends), is for everybody to just dig straight into the pan, using forks to extract the bivalves from their shells, spritzing here and there with the lemon wedges as they go, firing down mouthfuls of fragrant, gently briny, impossibly satisfying rice, munching on shrimp, smiling at each other, conspiratorial over this shared thing that is good, making goofy mmm and ooh and oh god, I love this noises, dueling each other with their forks over the last mussel, snarling, wild-eyed, murderous, the winner holding the last mussel aloft in triumph, then coming to her senses, blushing attractively, offering it to the small child whose hand she impaled in the scrum, and everybody happy and flushed with big black ecstasy-pupils.
Truthfully, this is quite traditional. Maybe not the stabbing-someone-in-the-hand part, but making and sharing and appreciating good food. That's the tradition that gave us paella in the first place, and it is observed in Spain and everywhere else (except for England).
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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