I feel like Bill Cunningham when I say “paella is the feast food of the summer” but it is showing up everywhere—at farmer’s markets, food truck events, community gatherings, and on restaurant menus. This traditional food from Valencia Spain is infinitely versatile. It can be humble or elegant and made with meat, fish or whatever is available. It is also infinitely expandable: In 1992 the city of Valencia prepared a paella for 100,000 people! Paella is the ultimate big batch dish.
As longtime Barcelona resident, Spanish food expert (and dear friend) Jeff Koehler notes in his wonderful book, La Paella, the origins of the word “paella” which translates to “pan” in Catalan. The pan itself is wide and shallow with sloping sides and two handles. The size of the pan is crucial in that it must be big enough so that the rice cooks in a thin layer (1/2 to ¾ inch thick). “The more rice, the wider the pan.” When everything is in the pan, the liquid should ideally reach the pan’s handles.
You can find these pans online (just Google “giant Paella pan”) though for smaller batches you can use a cast-iron pan.
The traditional and most festive method of preparing paella is outside over an open fire. According to Jeff, in Spain this ritual remains in the domain of men, “who savor their moment of epicurean glory. Dishes of marcona almond are set out as groups hover about. They might be talking passionately of politics and futbal (soccer) but are keenly following the progress of the paella.”
I recently cooked paella at my house for 10 people and it was surprisingly easy and delicious. And because I started the prep late and my guests arrived early, we all cooked together as a group. My friend Dahlia was an especially good sport and cleaned all the squid! We added chorizo and drank wine and talked and tasted and marveled when all the broth evaporated and we were left with a savory dish and a reason to celebrate!
To find more of Jeff’s amazing recipes:
Tips for making big quantities: Jeff says the following recipe can be easily doubled but you must use the right-sized pan (see chart above). For a doubled batch you can use less oil.
Paella a la Marinara
By Jeff Koehler (from La Paella)
This paella celebrates the flavors of Spain’s coasts, mixing both shellfish and fish. Monkfish, with its sublime flavor and firm flesh, is ideal, though any other firm-fleshed white fish will work well. Use what looks best and freshest at the market.
Yield : Serves 6
8 1/3 cups water
½ pound small clams, purged of sand (see Notes)
½ pound mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 pound monkfish steaks, or 10 ounces grouper fillets, or another firm-fleshed white fish steak or fillet, deboned and broken into pieces
Freshly ground pepper
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Flour for dredging
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch-square pieces
1 pound cuttlefish or squid, cleaned and cut into 2-by-½-inch pieces (see Notes)
18 large raw head-on shrimp with shells
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
4 ripe medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped or coarsely grated (see Notes)
½ teaspoon sweet pimento
2 pinches saffron threads (about 20 total), lightly toasted and ground (see Notes)
3 cups short or medium grain rice
1. In a medium saucepan, bring 5 cups of the water to a boil and add the clams and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat and simmer, partly covered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside, covered, leaving the clams in the water. (Discard any that do not open.)
2. Put the mussels in a small sauté pan, add 1/3 cup of the water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until all of the mussels have opened, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside, covered. Do not drain. (Discard any that do not open.)
3. Season the fish generously with salt and pepper. In a 16- to 18-inch paella pan, heat the oil over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, dredge the fish, piece by piece, in flour and then cook in batches, turning just once, until golden on the outside and just cooked through in the middle. Transfer to a platter.
4. Remove any solids left in the oil with a skimmer or slotted spoon and then prepare the sofrito in the same pan. Add the bell pepper, and cook, over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it begins to brown and become fragrant, about 3 minutes.
Add the cuttlefish and cook until its moisture has been expelled, about another 5 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping anything that sticks to the pan.
5. Add the shrimp and cook until pink, about 2 minutes on each side. Lower the heat to medium-low, add the garlic, tomatoes, and 2 pinches of salt, and cook, stirring from time to time, until the tomato has darkened to a deeper shade of red and the sofrito is pasty, 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, strain the broth from the clams and reserve it. Discard one shell (the empty one) from each clam, and set aside the rest.
6. When the sofrito is ready, sprinkle in the pimentón and saffron, letting the flavors meld for a few seconds while stirring constantly.
7. Add 4 cups of the reserved clam broth plus the remaining 3 cups of water, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Taste for salt and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Sprinkle in the rice. With a wooden spoon, probe the pan to make sure the rice is evenly distributed. Do not stir again. Lay the pieces of fish on top and then the shrimp. Cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes over high heat.
8. Reduce the heat to low and cook for an additional 8 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al punto, with just a bite to it.
Remove the paella from the heat, cover with paper towels, and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.