I’ve eaten a fair amount of paella in my time, and frankly, I never really got the appeal. I mean it’s rice, protein and vegetables, all with a slight saffron flavor. It’s usually dry, insipid, and quite frankly, not worth the trouble to make. I’ve had two paella pans, or paellera (and correct my Spanish, please, as I’m probably using the singular form of the word instead of the plural), and I’ve done paella in the oven, but I never really enjoyed it.
I knew there had to be something more to paella, as it is one of those iconic dishes that should be so good, yet, here in the US, it’s never been anything more than edible. This past weekend, however, I may have figured out the secret to paella, and it comes down to one critical ingredient: wood. I made two different kinds of paella over a hot fire, just like the gauchos in Spain do. OK, so I did it in a grill, and I used oak instead of orange and pine branches, and didn’t use rabbit or snails, but it was good. Damn good.
The key component of paella is not the meat or seafood, but the rice. The gold standard of paella is whether or not the bottom layer of the rice has caramelized and slightly crisped up, and this layer is known as the socarrat. It’s a tasty component, but difficult to accomplish, somewhat equivalent to getting a gentle char on a pizza crust. I’ve now attained moderate socarrat success, and it’s all because of the fire. Because I cooked over high heat, I was able to get the rice to caramelize just a bit, without burning it. I was pretty damn scared that I was going too far, but I didn’t. With a little more practice, I think I’ll be able to get a perfect socarrat, but we shall see.
The other thing that the wood fire did was add flavor, a bit of smokiness without overwhelming the dish. Granted, I smelled like smoke for a couple of days after making these dishes, despite repeated showers, but the food itself was only moderately smoky. And damn good.
I ended up two different paellas: one meat-based, with marinated boneless chicken thighs and chorizo, and one seafood, with clams, grouper and shrimp. I committed some major paella violations in making these dishes, and for the purists out there, you may stop reading now. First, I couldn’t procure Spanish chorizo, so I used Mexican, which is a COMPLETELY different type of sausage and totally changes the dish. Yes, I know this, and I really don’t care, as it tasted really, really good. Second, I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs, instead of the bone-in cuts typically used. Third, I peeled and deveined the shrimp, which we all know dries it out. But I briefly brined the shrimp to offset the dryness. Finally, I overfilled my paellaras, but I had a few people in the house that night, including a lot of hungry teenagers. I needed a lot of food.
I also used arborio rice, which is another dubious replacement for bomba or the other classis rice types, but arborio has been deemed as an “acceptable” replacement.
So, what did I do? First, paella requires a fair amount of chopping, cutting, and basic prep work, but beyond that, it’s pretty simple. For both paellas, I had onions, garlic, bell peppers, green beans, rice, saffron and stock (homemade, if possible — chicken for the meat and fish/clam for the seafood). I infused the stock with the saffron. Some folks, I understand, like to toast the saffron in the paellera, but I didn’t go there.
For the meat paella, I marinated the chicken for several hours in a mix of red wine, garlic, onion, orange zest, salt, and olive oil. I browned it in the paellera, removed it, and then cooked the chorizo. I added onions, garlic, and some sliced bell peppers, stirring occasionally, and then the rice. I followed this up with some diced tomato and then added the stock, stirring occasionally. I added green beans, some more bell peper, olives, chorizo and chicken. I then let it cook in the closed grill, allowing the smoke to permeate the dish.
The seafood paella followed a similar approach, starting with olive oil to sweat the onions, garlic, and bell pepper. Rice followed, then the seafood stock. After cooking the rice for a few minutes, I added the clams, hinges up, so the clam juices would flow into the rice when the clams opened. Green beans, grouper, and then the shrimp were added. Close grill and finish.
I let the paellas rest for about 10 minutes after taking them off the grill. I squeezed some lemon juice over the seafood paella and garnished both with lemon wedges. The chicken/sausage paella was a deep reddish-brown color, not at all like the typical yellowish hue associated with the dish. That’s because I used the sacriligious Mexican chorizo and tomatoes. The seafood version, however, was appropriately colored. Nevertheless, the guests gave me a lot of “oohs and ahs” when we put the pans on the table.
More importantly, I heard a lot of happy moans and groans when they ate it. Ah, the power of wood.