One of my greatest warm weather joys is cooking an enormous Paella over an open fire for a large group. It brings back memories of the short times I lived in Spain while growing up. On one specific weekend, my family took a road trip out to the rustic farmhouse of some family friends in the dry Spanish countryside. When we arrived at the property there was a stout old man standing outside, roughly shoveling heaps of shrimp and vegetables into a massive pan over an open fire. I had never seen anyone cook that way before. I watched all the ingredients simmer while the aroma of the saffron tied everything together. I must have blacked out the wait because my memory cuts to sitting at the long indoor table, cheerfully cramped with about fifteen other people, all staring at the delicious heap of yellow rice topped with whole shrimp and mussels. Fortunately, I had learned to correctly peel the head and skin off a whole shrimp earlier that year, so there was nothing slowing me down. After eating to complete exhaustion my sisters and I climbed up into the large farmhouse attic where we each took our place on one of many guest beds. An old woman who lived there came upstairs and covered each of our bellies with warm blankets to help digestion. After a long nap, I went outside and found my place on a hammock where I swung in complete bliss.
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of putting on my best re-enactment of that cooking performance for about twenty friends here in Beacon. My research tells me that original Paella was made from rabbit so I made sure to use one whole rabbit along with a whole chicken. I cheated a little by cooking with an outdoor gas burner—mainly because I have not yet set up a fire area in the backyard of my new house. I must say that cooking this way is far easier but less thrilling—thrill being the more important factor. Nevertheless, this was one of the best Paellas I have ever cooked and the guests seemed to like it too!
*For my Paella I used a 24″ diameter pan which can cook enough to serve about 20. The recipe I give below will provide general guidelines so that you can use it to cook on any size pan. If you choose to cook this over an open fire—always preferred—wait until the flames have burned down into a bed of coals so that the temperature is more stable. At this point add wood or coals in small doses every twenty minutes or so.
Chicken Pieces*keep the livers too!
Mixed Vegetables (Artichokes, Green Beans—broad if possible—Fava Beans all work well)
Stock (Vegetable, Seafood or Chicken)
Saffron (or Goya Azafran)
Fresh Rosemary Sprigs
Whole Garlic Cloves Unpeeled
Arborio or Short Grain Rice, (Bomba rice is actually best but expensive and hard to find)
- Level the pan using a basic carpenter’s level.
- Apply enough oil to the pan to coat the whole surface.
- Heat the oil until it’s hot enough to sizzle if you throw a little piece of the chicken fat in.
- After the oil is hot, add enough chicken and rabbit pieces to cover the bottom with a few inches between each piece. Fry until browned and almost done (about a half an hour).
- Add the livers for a few minutes.
- Then add vegetables in a reasonable proportion including garlic.
- Then add enough tomato sauce to coat the ingredients without having everything swim in it. Stir occasionally until the sauce begins to stick.
- Add stock up to the screws of the paella pan.
- Add several whole rosemary sprigs and bring it all to boil for about ten minutes.
- Add enough paprika and saffron to get a good orangish color (just use the Goya Azafran if you don’t want to spend a lot of money). Taste test it here.
- Then add enough rice to make a cross over the diameter of the pan. (I think the cross is more tradition than technique, but all the more reason to do it). Stir the rice in. It should very slightly emerge above the liquid if you have the right amount.
- Let the heat die down to a medium
- Fish out the rosemary and garlic
- The heat should get to a low over about ten minutes. Maintain this until the rice is cooked and the liquid is evaporated. If the paella is dried and the rice isn’t done add more stock and wait a little more.
- If it is nearly done and there is no crust (socarrat) at the bottom you can add a little heat at the end.
- Taste test and add seasoning or salt as needed.
- Plate and serve!
Camarón de la Isla
For the music, there is nothing more appropriate than flamenco. If you are unfamiliar with real flamenco—not the Gypsy Kings variety, which is rumba flamenca— the album below is an accessible starting point. Camarón (José Monge Crúz), was regarded as a god in the flamenco world. He is to flamenco singing what Paco de Lucia was to flamenco guitar. The two played together during the seventies in what was one of the most productive and innovative times in the centuries old flamenco tradition. After Paco went on to focus on a solo career Tomatito served as Camaron’s principal guitarist beginning with the album below. This album is perhaps the pinnacle of the modernization of flamenco that happened in the seventies. It contains more pop and latin rhythms than a more strictly traditional flamenco would. This makes it a bit more fitting to play for a general crowd at your paella party.
Let me know how it turns out, and leave me a message in the comments if you have any questions. Enjoy!