Delving into the secrets behind a Spanish classic, seafood paella or “paella de mariscos.”
In January of 2018, I traveled to Madrid to reunite with my friends from abroad, Cait and Natalia, and to also learn the secrets behind making paella. Natalia is a native of Madrid and we first bonded while living in Vietnam over our shared love of food. She taught me how to make croquetas while we were in Vietnam! Cait, who I met in South Korea, is also a food devotee. I was first introduced to this dish by my dad. He loved cooking this specific meal as a tribute to his Spanish ancestry, and also because of our shared love of seafood. I made a promise to myself that if ever I went to Spain, I would learn how to cook paella in order to preserve my father’s memory for the next generation.
Paella is widely regarded as Spain’s national dish but in actuality, the recipe originated in province of Valencia and is considered to be a regional symbol of Valencia. The original Valencian recipe calls for chicken, snails, rabbit, and three types of beans. Today, there are many interpretations of this one pan feast, but rice simmered in either seafood or chicken stock and colored with saffron threads remains the one uncompromised feature of this dish.
Big thanks to Natalia’s mother for lending us her beloved paellera, a shallow carbon-steel pan with a flat bottom used specifically for making paella, as well as her family recipe. The version of paella we made is Paella de Mariscos, or seafood paella, the most globally known variation of paella. While standard seafood paella omits vegetables, her family recipe keeps vegetables for added freshness. This recipe also only included deshelled mussels, but personally, I love the aesthetic of the mussels kept inside its shell to be used as decorative element of paella so I revised the recipe we made to use both deshelled mussels, and fully intact mussels. Paella that uses seafood without shells is called paella del senyoret.
A few notes about the ingredients
- The traditional cooking method calls for olive oil.
- For seafood paella, feel free to add or subtract seafood ingredients. We used a wide variety of marine life like prawns, squid, hard-shell clams, shrimp, conger eels, and even monkfish, to round out the flavors. But your ingredients should reflect individual preferences and will depend on seasonality and availability of the ingredients.
- If you’re pressed for time, you can swap out the homemade seafood stock for a premade version.
- The Spanish use bomba rice due to its durability when soaking up stock, but if you can’t find bomba rice on your shelves, just use any short, round grain rice. A good alternative is arborio rice.
- When using the saffron threads, a little goes a long way—which is great, since saffron ain’t cheap! All it takes in one pinch of the wiry red spice to turn your paella into that gorgeous marigold shade.
- As a Spanish friend shared with me, under no circumstances should you use water make paella. Use chicken or seafood stock.
- For garnish: you can add sliced lemons and sprigs of parsley to finish the meal.
PREP TIME: CHOP AND PEEL YOUR VEGGIES. CLEAN YOUR SEAFOOD.
WHEN HANDLING THE SEAFOOD, MAKE SURE YOUR MUSSELS ARE STEAMED AND YOUR SHRIMP IS SAUTEED BEFORE YOU ADD THEM TO THE PAN. THE ONLY RAW SEAFOOD INGREDIENTS THAT WILL GO INTO THE PAN IS YOUR SLICED SQUID AND CLAMS.
DON’T THROW AWAY YOUR SHELLS! THIS WILL BE USED FOR YOUR HOMEMADE SEAFOOD STOCK.
COOKING TIME: LET THE RICE SIT IN THE PAN TO CREATE A BEAUTIFUL CRUST AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PAN.
PRO-TIP: Constant stirring will disrupt the process of creating a crust. Let the rice settle and stir occasionally.
GARNISH WITH SPRIGS OF PARSLEY, SLICED LEMONS, AND SOME STEAMED MUSSELS (IN SHELL) AND WHOLE PRAWNS.
FIND THE RECIPE BELOW
This recipe is from Natalia’s mother’s kitchen.
WATCH THE TUTORIAL VIDEO FOR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE
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