Nothing breathes Spanish cuisine as much as a paella. So much so, that paella is considered to be Spain’s national dish. Actually, it is technically a regional dish from Valencia. But its aromatic flavors have made it one of Spain’s most popular dishes the world over.
If you are unfamiliar with paella, let’s quickly take a look at the structure of the dish. Paella is a rice dish, where the rice is simmered in a combination of sauce and broth along with typically chicken or seafood, in a large flat pan. This method imbues the rice with bucket loads of flavor, making it the star of the dish.
The original or traditional paella from Valencia is made with either chicken, rabbit or duck and vegetables and beans. The spread of the dish to the coastal regions of Spain birthed the seafood paella variations, and modern takes on paella have introduced further new ingredients such as chorizo sausage and pork.
Paella is essentially a very simple dish to make, while being rewarding in its depths of flavor. There are however a few tricks and tips to making a great paella.
The first one of these, concerns the sauce in which the rice is cooked. Many paellas are started by making a tomato, onion and garlic sauce by simmering the ingredients together in the paella pan. This is called a sofrito. The sofrito should ideally cook for up to 40 minutes or even longer in order to sweeten and deepen in flavor. The trick with the sofrito is not to burn it. One does not want browning to occur. So if you see the tomato and onion mix sticking or browning, add a little water to deglaze the pan and you will be able to continue cooking the sofrito without getting bitter or burnt notes.
The other tips concerns the rice. Firstly, be sure to use round grain rice as it is most suited to paella recipes. Second, once the rice has absorbed all of the liquid in the pan, and is close to being fully cooked, it should start to crispen on the bottom and form a chewy layer. The Spanish term for this is socarrat. Now because most paella pans are larger than most hot plates, burners and hobs, you will need to rotate your pan around on the heat, to ensure an even crispening of the rice on the bottom of the pan. This is very important, otherwise one can end up with a burnt ring in the center, and not much socarrat.
Not let’s talk briefly about the flavoring behind this paella recipe. Seafood paellas often contain a variety of seafood, but being a mussel lover I wanted to develop a mussel on mussel paella recipe. And for most mussel lovers the only thing better than mussels… is smoked mussels. Having to make smoked mussels at home of course is a lot to ask if one does not have a smoker. So I hacked it and incorporated a can of smoked mussels along with the fresh ones. The result is a small explosion of mussel based umami!
To increase the amount of mussel flavor in the rice, the mussels are cooked in broth, and the broth is then used for the rice. The already cooked mussels can then simply be placed on top of the paella before serving. Generally the seafood is cooked on top of the rice. With this method one is able to gain maximum mussel flavor in the rice, and you also do not need to worry about the timing of when to incorporate the mussels into the paella for optimum cooking. Which allows you to place your full attention on the rice and its socarrat.
Not all of us have a paella pan in the cupboard, so feel free to use a large skillet pan. The important part is that it is large enough so that the rice will form a thin layer when fully cooked. Thicker paellas can be soggy and heavy. A thinner layer of rice will allow more socarrat to develop and for the rice to cook evenly.