Back in the spring, the hubby took me on a date to a paella cooking class at La Tasca, a Spanish tapas restaurant with several locations in the DC area. I love going to recreational cooking classes like these, especially when there’s booze being offered. Open flames + large group + sangria = disastrous fun? Yes, please!
On the day we went to our class, we learned how to make paella along with 30 or so other fairly rowdy folks. Cooking stations were set up around the room, outfitted with large propane burners, wide, flat sangria pans and pre-measured ingredients. Our cooking class was hands-on, but thankfully the staff at La Tasca thought ahead by making sure we had all of our ingredients laid out in the right amounts. Copious sangria consumption by a horde of hungry people can make numbers fuzzy. Still, while paella isn’t hard to make, my takeaway from our afternoon of rice simmering is that it involves a lot of careful planning before you even turn on the stove. After that class, I’ve spent the last couple of months practicing paella every once in awhile, and today I have a solid recipe for seafood paella with shrimp, clams and mussels.
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Have you ever had paella? You have, right? If you haven’t, stop right now. Google “Spanish paella restaurant” and make reservations at your nearest paella supplier. Go there tonight. Order a paella for two, even though you might be the only one. If the restaurant you’ve found is doing it right, about 15-20 minutes after ordering, you will be presented with a flat, two-handled pan filled with saffron-flavored rice, vegetables, chicken and seafood. The rice will be soft, soaked with briny flavor from the seafood. It will be a magical experience, made even more so when your fork reaches the bottom of the pan and you realize, in delight, that the rice lining the bottom of the pan is crispy and browned. Paella is a complete meal in one pan, but it’s also so much more than that. It is a soulful, fulfilling experience.
The class was a fun way to spend the afternoon, but the instructors also had some helpful tips, like showing us that we didn’t need to pre-measure the rice or broth. Instead, we poured enough broth to come halfway up the sides of the paella pan, then poured the rice in a single row down the middle until it made a small, mountainous pile that perched out over the surface of the broth. Then we spread the rice evenly over the bottom of the pan until it lay in a single, even layer. I loved this technique, but it made me jittery when I tried it at home. I found myself constantly questioning whether I’d used enough broth or too much rice. I lead a lucky life indeed when my biggest stress of the day is whether my rice-to-broth ratio in my paella is correct, but there you have it. First world problem, indeed.
Still, I’ve found logic in other tips. The instructor we had emphasized over and over again how important pre-measuring your ingredients are in making good paella, and, having made paella at home myself, I have to agree and take it one step further — to make things even easier, line up your ingredients in the order in which they should get cooked. That way, you’re not pushing aside raw shrimp to find your broccoli to cook first. It also prevents arms flailing about and feeling scattered.
For a truly Spanish experience, you should aim to find Spanish paella rice instead of your regular white, long-grain rice. I used Calasparra rice (available at — where else? Amazon), which has a roundness and nuttiness to it that makes for a nice crunchy-soft contrast once cooked. As for saffron, you’ll quickly discover that saffron is expensive. Luckily, Trader Joe’s sells saffron for a reasonable $5.99 and provides enough to make two or three portions of paella.
Lots of people will tell you that you need a paella pan to make paella, but I don’t like to have single-purpose pans in my kitchen. Instead, I made a small portion (enough to feed two hungry adults or 3-4 peckish ones) in my Lodge 12-inch cast iron skillet, which, if you’ll recall, is one of the essential items that Chef Bryan Breland of Coastal Cupboard recommended to me several months ago. When my sister and her family came in town earlier this month, the skillet wasn’t going to hold enough paella for all of us, so I made a mild paella in the Lodge skillet and broke out my Le Creuset 5-quart braiser for a spicy chorizo version to feed the adults. My kids, along with my 16-month old nephew, the little truck of an eater that he is, devoured the little pan of paella like it was their job.
Actually, I think in our family, until the age of, like, two or three, that is your only job. Just eat the food. Eat. It. Everything else will come later.
- 4 tbsps olive oil
- 1 chicken breast, cubed into ½" cubes
- 4 ounces haricot verts or green beans, trimmed and cut into 1" pieces
- 1 cup broccoli, chopped
- 6 littleneck clams, scrubbed
- ½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined with tails on
- 8 mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
- 4 tablespoons tomato sauce
- 1.5 cups chicken broth
- 1.5 cups seafood broth or white wine
- 1 cup Spanish rice
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Pinch of saffron
- Optional: one chorizo sausage, casing removed
- Heat olive oil over medium heat in a 12" cast iron skillet or paella pan. Add chicken and chorizo (if using), sauteing until cooked through. Stir in garlic and paprika and cook for 1 minute.
- Add tomato sauce, broccoli and haricots vert. Saute for 2-3 minutes until bright green but still crunchy.
- Add broths and/or wine (if using). Turn up heat to medium high and bring to a boil. Stir in rice and clams (if using) cook for 10 minutes, adjusting heat slightly if rice mixture is about to boil over.
- Lower heat to medium-low. Add saffron, mussels and shrimp and cook for another 6-8 minutes until mussels are opened, shrimp is pink and opaque, and most of the liquid has been absorbed into the rice.
- Remove from heat and cover with clean, dry paper towels for 5-10 minutes (this process allows the rice at the bottom of the pan to get crispy).