Paella. We’ve all heard of it, and we’ve all probably eaten it, perhaps in a fancy Spanish restaurant where the dishes are passable if watered-down versions of their original incarnations, and the ricey paella concoction arrives at the table slightly gloppy yet decently yummy after an interminably long wait.
A few summers ago, I stumbled upon the revelation that this is not the way to enjoy paella. No, no, no. Paella is not a food that can be restricted to the confines of a hush-toned restaurant. Paella is wild, unfettered, astoundingly fulsome. It is a bounteous, raucous feast, not a primly composed and daintily consumed dinner.
My first encounter with this side of paella’s true nature occurred by accident. Memorial Day weekend was almost upon us, we had no specific plans, but we did have a big Brooklyn backyard, a Weber grill and loads of friends willing to come over to eat whatever we whipped up. Someone suggested cooking paella over the coal-fired grill. I’d never heard such craziness. I was immediately smitten. I’ve never met a cooking challenge I could resist.
I scoured New York City posthaste for a giant paella pan, then with that secured, set to work cobbling together a recipe. Since this was going to be my first crack at making paella — let alone making it over a live fire, for a throng of people, with no party-food backup plan — I was hoping to find a recipe that was a foolproof silver bullet, but one timid Google search was all it took to understand that this would not be the case. Paella lovers, it turns out, are fiercely passionate about their personal versions, and paella recipes are like thumbprints: Every single one is different.
But the basic method of preparation is roughly the same, so after absorbing scads of recipes I emerged with what seemed like a fairly reasonable ingredients list and a fairly decent approach.
I shopped and prepped over the next few days, sourcing bomba rice and saffron and chicken thighs, chopping peppers and onions and chorizo, stashing it all in my fridge and cupboards in anticipation of the big event. Memorial Day dawned. We fired up the grill. The backyard flooded with party guests. I hauled my many bowls full of prepped ingredients, the enormous paella pan, a bottle of olive oil and a pair of tongs out to the grill.
And that’s when it hit me: Paella is the ultimate al fresco party food. It’s a complex, one-dish meal that can feed an entire crowd and also functions as the center of the action. Everyone loves watching it come together and wants to participate; cooking it is close to the simplest thing in the world; it’s infinitely malleable once you wrap your head around the basic cooking process; and pretty much all the heavy lifting is done in advance, with the prep work. OK, you’ll have loads of little bowls scattered about once you pour in your peas and chicken stock and garlic, but dealing with those is what happily tipsy post-party cleanup is all about. That first paella was an enormous hit. The only thing to do next was take my new perfect-party-food theory out on the road.
Every August I’m fortunate enough to spend a few blissful days with some of life’s best friends in a magical spot on the Maine coast. Jen, Brad, Joy and Doug are a carpe-diem crew game for pretty much any adventure, so I knew they’d be ideal paella partners in crime. That first summer, we giddily collected mussels from the rocks just outside our door, procured freshest-of-the-fresh lobsters from the fisherman neighbor, and stoked the seaside logwood fire until the coals were primed for the paella pan. Swept up in the romance of our beach heathens moment, I had the genius idea to use seawater in place of stock for cooking the rice. The results were mouth-puckeringly salty and inedible, but my friends immediately understood paella’s deep, liberating fun.
We worked on our paella game every subsequent August. One year I didn’t clean the mussels well enough and the whole dish was sandy. Another year, while lifting the groaning pan off the grill, I almost fell into the fire. But finally we decided that we were well-versed — enough — in the whole festive madness to invite others to partake.
And invite we did. This group does nothing in half measure. Jen spread the word to a merry band of local friends that swelled to a couple of dozen. Brad hunted down two Mack truck wheel-size pans. Joy helped me chop and chop and chop in preparation. Doug made sure all our wine glasses stayed full. Mid-afternoon on the day of the big shindig, Brad built two fire pits on the beach and topped them with grills. Jen set the most gorgeous, low-slung rambling duneside table. I lugged the pans to their stations. Joy helped me corral all the copious prep. The twin huge paellas went off without a hitch. The setting sun cast its golden glow as everyone feasted, convivial, bubbly, sated. Paella theory, proven.
PAELLA FOR A 32” PAN
2 tablespoons saffron
6 pounds chicken thighs
6 pounds mussels or clams or combo
6 or so cups olive oil
2 pounds chorizo, cut into chunks
3 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 heads garlic, diced or minced (basically, cloves chopped however you want)
10 tomatoes, grated on a box grater
6 onions, sliced or diced, your call
20 cups chicken stock or broth **water can be used instead of or in addition to stock/broth
18 cups rice: arborio or calasparra or bomba (the rice is important!)
1 package frozen peas
6 red peppers, diced or sliced fresh flat-leaf parsley to chop up and sprinkle over top before serving lemons, sliced into quarters, for each person to squeeze over their portion before eating
Add salt as needed
1. Heat stock/broth, infuse it with the saffron, keep warm.
2. Preheat the olive oil in the pan until it shimmers.
3. Brown chicken thighs on all sides in the pan, about 4 minutes per side, and then remove from pan.
4. Cook chorizo chunks in pan until they’re getting crispy but not burned, and then remove from pan.
5. Saute onions and garlic in pan, then add peppers and tomato and keep sautéing, cooking it down. Deglaze pan with 6 cups stock/broth or wine, scraping up the nice browned bits on the bottom of the pan and letting the whole veg/liquid mixture cook down a bit more.
6. Then add all the rice. Stir it to coat the rice and then DO NOT STIR THE RICE AGAIN!
7. Cook for about 4 minutes, then nestle the chicken thighs into the rice throughout the pan.
8. Continue cooking until nearly all the stock/ broth has evaporated. Then add 3 more cups stock/broth.
9. Cook down until almost all the stock/broth has evaporated. Then add 3 more cups.
10. At this point, start tasting the rice for doneness.
11. Add the chorizo and peas, and if you’re doing shellfish, add it hinge-side down, so they can open up.