When special friends who love food cooked over an open fire come for dinner, paella is an excellent choice. The classic rice dish from southern Spain is cooked in a special galvanized or carbon steel pan with handles. Calasparra or Bomba are the most authentic choices of rice for paella making, but Canaroli, an Italian rice, is an excellent alternative.
Over the years, I’ve tested this recipe many times, with many different friends, and I’ve learned a few things. (Before making it, review the steps for preparing this recipe as it requires close attention to timing.) Here are my observations:
- I like to make paella over a live fire, but a gas grill works well too.
- It is essential to maintain full and complete heat under the pan. If you are using a single gas burner, rotate the pan frequently while the rice is cooking.
- High quality, super fresh seafood is essential to the success of Pescatarian Paella. If you have access to a fish market that stores its mussels and clams in live tanks, purchase your shellfish there. The fish called for in this recipe can be any firm white fish available in your region: cod, snapper, halibut, scrod, fluke, pike or other regional specialty.
- I like to use a combination of liquids and/or stock for cooking the rice, preferably one part whole tomatoes, one part clam juice and one part vegetable stock or water.
- Once the rice is distributed evenly in the pan, and the tomatoes and liquids have been added, paella must be left to finish cooking without stirring. As the rice continues to absorb the liquid, the socarrat, that crunchy crust of charred rice on the bottom of the pan, forms. More liquid can be added as the rice cooks, if it appears that the rice isn't softening, just don’t scrape the bottom of the pan!
- Have the seafood ready to add toward the end of the cooking process. Aluminum foil or a lid will help keep the heat in the pan, and ensure that the fish is cooked through.
- Because I like to control it, I cook the shellfish separately, over a burner, just until it opens. The liquid that’s released as the shellfish steams can be added back to the paella, if more liquid is required to cook the rice until it is al dente (literally, to the tooth) or semi-soft. Place the clams and mussels on top of the rice to complete the final cooking.
The finished dish pictured below includes green beans and whole cherry tomatoes, but almost any seasonal vegetable with a complementary flavor and texture will work in your paella.
Makes 8 to 10 servings, Or use a 14-inch pan and a half-recipe for 4 to 6 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1 sweet red pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 yellow pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 medium-size fennel bulb, core removed and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons finely minced or grated garlic
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon saffron threads
4 cups Calasparra, Bomba or Canaroli rice
2 tablespoons pimenton or smoky Spanish paprika
1 tablespoon ground espelette pepper
8 cups vegetable stock, or 4 cups clam juice and 4 cups water or vegetable stock
4 cups stewed tomatoes
2 tablespoons salt
1-1/2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
8 ounces firm white fish, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
12 mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
12 medium steamer clams, rinsed
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley
Prepare a wood or mesquite-fired grill by burning the fire down to low coals that are still generating a good amount of heat. A hot fire needs time, so allocate at least 90 minutes to burn the coals down to this stage.
Place an 18-inch paella pan on the grill directly over the fire. Heat the pan and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion, peppers, fennel and garlic, and saute for 5 minutes. If the vegetables start to brown, add a splash of water to the pan. (The water will cool the pan and add moisture, allowing the vegetables to simmer and soften some more without coloring).
When the vegetables are soft but not mushy, add the thyme, saffron and rice. Stir the ingredients together for a few minutes to allow the rice to heat up and absorb the oil and flavorings. Add the pimenton, espelette pepper, vegetable stock, clam juice, tomatoes and salt. Stir well to incorporate the ingredients and then allow the pan and ingredients to get hot again. The liquid should sit about 1/2-inch above the rice. Stop stirring at this point, and do not stir the rice again.
Let the paella simmer slowly, rotating the pan clockwise on the fire or stovetop to ensure that the rice cooks evenly. After about 20 minutes, or once the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, add the shrimp and fish pieces to the top of the rice to cook. This won't take long! Cover the pan loosely with foil or a lid.
While the shrimp and halibut are cooking, bring 1 cup of water to boil in a large saucepan. Add the mussels and clams to the simmering water and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook the shellfish over high heat until their shells open, discarding any clams or mussels that do not open. If the rice in the paella pan has absorbed all of the liquid, pour the water used to steam the shellfish over top and use a slotted spoon, place the open clams and mussels on the paella.
Sprinkle the top of the paella with parsley and serve. With good bread and a salad, paella makes a complete and satisfying meal.