Paella, often called the “national dish of Spain” by non-Spaniards, is considered within Spain as being a Valencian dish. Valencians, in turn, regard paella as one of their identifying symbols.
Paella likely has its origins as a meal prepared in the fields by farm workers for their lunch, cooked over an open fire. The name Paella is a Valencian word which derives from the Old French word paelle for pan, which in turn comes from the Latin word patella for pan. The name is pronounced “pa-ee-ya”.
In its modern form, paella originated in the mid-19th century near the Albufera lagoon on the east coast of Spain adjacent to the city of Valencia.
Americans are often intimidated by paella, thinking it is tricky and difficult to make. Quite the opposite. Reflecting its likely rustic roots, it is quick and easy to make – and it is delicious! Paella lends itself to many ingredients and variations. Here I have made a paella using chicken legs and Chorizo Bilbao as the protein(s) and also used fresh asparagus and piquillo peppers. While the photo above doesn’t really show the rice, paella is principally a rice dish – more about that further below.
In this recipe, I am linking to the website for The Spanish Table, a company that offers foods, cookware and wines from Spain. The Spanish Table has three stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. The “mothership” is the Berkeley store. The other locations are in Mill Valley (in Marin County north of San Francisco) and the newest store on Clement Street in San Francisco. You can order from their website – The Spanish Table ships to all states in the “lower 48.” Full disclosure: I work at the Berkeley Spanish Table location.
Spanish cooking is not at all the same as Mexican or Central or South American cooking. It is spiced, but not spicy in the “hot” sense of the term. Spanish cuisine is very reflective of its Mediterranean location: olives and olive oil, almonds and rice figuring in many dishes. The cuisine of Spain is often overshadowed by French and Italian cuisine. This is changing and people in the U.S. are discovering that the foods and wines of Spain proudly stand on their own alongside their Mediterranean cousins.
Paella is really all about the rice. Everything else used in a paella is meant to enhance the rice, not overpower it. A perfectly cooked paella has a nice crunchy bottom layer of rice. The rice is toothsome, not mushy. It is important to use proper Valencian or Bomba rice when preparing paella. An Italian arborio rice or typical Asian rices won’t give the same result.
Two of the beauties of making paella are (1) that it requires only two pans and (2) once the ingredients are prepped, your paella is ready to serve in about 20 minutes.
The Spanish Table (TST) imports paella pans directly from Spain in three styles. The classic pan is made of carbon steel. It must be seasoned before using and cared for as you would a Lodge cast iron skillet. Also offered by TST are paella pans made of stainless steel including a few sizes of stainless pans that are compatible with induction stoves. The third choice is enameled pans. The enameled pans do not require seasoning and are easy to care for. For this paella, I used an enameled pan measuring 12″ in diameter.
Other than the Valencian or Bomba rice, there are three other essential ingredients for making any version of paella: azafrán (saffron), pimentón (paprika) and broth. As I wrote above, paella is all about the rice. The saffron and pimentón are what make the rice. You can use regular paprika, but you will get the best tasting results using smoked paprika. Using broth rather than water adds to the character of the rice. The type of broth used depends on what other ingredients you use in making your paella. As the main meat in the paella here was chicken, I used chicken broth.
Three other ingredients commonly used in paella, regardless of the protein source, are sofrito, piquillo peppers and Chorizo Bilbao. Sofrito is a sauce made of roasted tomatoes, spices and olive oil. There are Italian (soffritto) and Portuguese (refogado) variations. Sofrito came with the Spanish to Puerto Rico, Mexico and Central and South America, so variations are commonly found in the cuisine of these places. The sofrito works with the saffron and paprika in developing the character of the rice. Piquillo peppers are not hot and have a pleasant, mildly sweet taste. They pair well with the seasonings used in paella and add great color to the dish. Chorizo Bilbao originated in the Basque city of Bilbao. Made with pork, garlic and piménton (paprika), it is partially cured and is firm in texture. It is not spicy hot like Mexican chorizo. Chorizo Bilbao is wildly popular in the Philippines, having come there with the Spaniards.
Now, put on your apron, wash your hands and let’s cook!
Paella with chicken legs and Chorizo Bilbao
• 12″ diameter paella pan
• 3 quart saucepan
• 10 threads (approx.) saffron
• 2 teaspoons (heaping) sweet smoked paprika
• 2 cups chicken broth
• olive oil
• 4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
• 4 scallions, washed, trimmed, peeled and cut into 2″ (approx.) pieces
• 4 pieces of chicken (legs, thighs or boneless thighs)
• 1 cup Sofrito
• 2 pieces Chorizo Bilbao, cut into 3/8″ pieces
• 6-8 stalks fresh asparagus, washed and cut into 2″ (approx.) pieces
• 1 cup celery slices
• 4 piquillo peppers, cut into half lengthwise (or you can cut into strips or rectangles – there is no “wrong” way. I cut them into half lengthwise to add color and appearance to the dish.)
Pour the broth into the saucepan and begin heating it. Crumble the saffron threads into the broth and stir. Stir in the 2 teaspoons of paprika.
While the broth is heating, pour olive oil into the paella pan, enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Turn the heat on to medium, add the garlic and scallions and cook until the garlic is soft. Salt the chicken and add it to the paella pan. Lightly brown the chicken. (Caution: olive oil has a low smoke point, so don’t use high temperature while browning the chicken.) When the chicken is lightly browned, remove it from the pan and set it aside.
With the burner still on medium heat, add the rice to the pan, stirring it to coat it with the olive oil. Now, bring the broth in the saucepan to a boil. While you are waiting for the broth to boil, continue to gently stir the rice, olive oil, garlic and scallions. When the broth comes to a boil, pour it all at once into the paella pan. Stir well. Add the sofrito and stir it into the rice. Add the chicken back to the paella pan and add the chorizo. Turn the heat to medium-high. Set your timer for nine minutes. After this, DO NOT stir the rice! Do not succumb to the temptation to cover the pan! This is the secret to getting the nice crunchy bottom layer of rice in your paella. You want to let the rice set and you want the evaporation of the liquids. When the timer goes off, reduce the heat to medium low – or even low, depending on how the heat is distributed on your range. Again, DO NOT stir the rice and do not cover the pan! Add the asparagus, celery and the piquillo peppers. Cook for nine more minutes. It’s okay to lift and turn the pan to aid in the evaporation of the liquid, but don’t stir the rice! When the timer goes off, serve the paella directly from the pan. Enjoy!