Once you get the hang of paella, which won't take long if you heed these simple guidelines, you will be able to spread your wings and fly with any combination of tasty enhancements that strike your fancy. After years of academic study (reading tons of recipes) and hands-on trial and error (lots of trial, minimal error — I said it's easy) I can confidently offer my 10 golden rules to ensure a perfect paella every time along with my Spectacularly Delicious paella recipe.
1. You must use a real paella pan. Amazon offers this 18.5" polished carbon steel number as well as a nice array of other suitable choices. The paella pan is a deal breaker; if you don't have one, get one now. (Hold your questions about the Nambé paella pan shown at right; all is revealed in rule 10.)
2. Top notch saffron is essential. Add it to the barely simmering broth you'll have at the ready for cooking the rice. This distributes more of its distinctive flavor, amplifying the rich golden color. Never add saffron directly into the rice. If the price of the saffron you're about to buy seems too good to be true, trust me, it is. The quality of saffron is one corner you never want to cut.
3. Always use Spanish paella rice. Bomba is the best known brand and is excellent. Paella rice absorbs more than three times the liquid of other rice varieties; the more broth absorbed means more flavorful rice, which is why a well-made paella is so damn delicious. Risotto rice (Arborio) is not interchangeable with paella rice. Arborio is prized for the starchiness that creates the hallmark creaminess of that Italian classic. Paella rice does not stick together nor is bound in a thick sauce. Distinct, plump, golden grains are the sign of success. Put all thoughts of wild rice, brown rice, jasmine rice and Uncle Ben out of your head.
4. Do yourself a favor and cook meats like chicken and pork and raw sausages until barely done before adding to the rice. This way there'll be no question that the meat is cooked through. The ample rice cooking liquid keeps the meat from drying out. Giving smoked or cured sausage slices an advance browning is also strongly advised.
5. Although the rice is different, there is a similarity in technique in the beginning stages of paella and risotto. Place your paella pan on your cooktop and over medium heat and in a bit of olive oil sauté the rice briefly to toast it. Then begin adding simmering broth a little at a time, stirring to keep from sticking. Add more broth as it is absorbed. This will be familiar from the all the risotto you've got under your belt (figuratively and literally). For paella, stop the broth-and-stir stage after the first 10 minutes or so, short of cooking it all the way through. You'll still have about half of the required broth. Then evenly arrange the pre-cooked meats and not-cooked fish in the paella pan, tucking everything snuggly down into the rice. If you're using clams or mussels, place them around the perimeter, hinge at the bottom so they'll open wide facing upwards. Carefully pour in the remaining broth, cover tightly with foil and finish in a hot oven .
6. Here's how to add grated ripe tomatoes to the rice. Core a summer beauty, slice in half around the equator and squeeze out the seeds and watery white stuff. Hold a box grater over the simmering rice and skin-side up, use your palm to grate the pulp right into the rice, leaving only a stripped skin. The skin protects your hand so put worries of grated hand flesh our of mind.
7. The "experts" will tell you that real, true, authentic paella is cooked uncovered over an open flame. Dig a little deeper and you'll find that real, true authentic recipes call for toothsome morsels of rabbit and snails, not that there's anything wrong with that. (The now-ubiquitous lobster-studded extravaganzas are arrivistes in paella history.) But I digress. The key topic at hand is the foil cover and oven finish (see 5). While in Spain producing a photo shoot for House Beautiful at the estate of a venerable aristocratic family, the stern, no-nonsense cocinera covered her masterpiece with foil and finished it in the oven. If it's good enough for the table of the Marqués de Riscal, it's good enough for me.
8. Don't overload the dish with too much meat and fish. I like a mix of meat and fish and am sometimes guilty of pushing the limit of the protein-to-rice ratio. I go for 2/3 or 3/4 being rice, which is likely heartier than purists would advise. Then again those snails and rabbits were chosen because they were cheap and plentiful. We Americans are used to better, and more of it, thank you. And you'll want to have enough of everything so there's a nice array in every serving.
9. No need to pre-cook fish filets. Do keep in mind that clams and mussels always take longer to open than you expect, so factor this into your plans.
9. Paella is very durable. You can keep it in a warm oven, covered with foil for at least an hour or two. Back in the day it was left out and eaten cool (or what passed for cool in the dusty fields of Spain). Serve paella nicely warm, not steaming hot.
10. For the grand presentation, keep your eyes peeled for a glamorous paella pan. The one shown here is vintage Nambé. I start my paella in an authentic paella pan (see 1). Then I arrange the goodies in this beautiful, oven safe and heat-retaining paella presentation pan. Care to guess where we acquired this Nambé treasure? Correct! A yard sale for like $10.
Click here for the Spectacularly Delicious recipe for Paella shown on this page.
For a more advanced version, click here for the inky and intriguing Paella Negra.