Paella Paella, the Spanish National Dish
Photograph by Britney B.

When visiting our home in Menorca in the Spanish Balearic Islands, I always look forward to eating a good paella, usually at one of our favourite restaurants, El Bribon, along the harbour front at Menorca’s second city, Ciutadella. Most restaurants in Spain will only prepare a paella for a minimum of two people, so I have to cajole my husband into ordering one as he really prefers the El Bribon’s lemon sole. When choosing a restaurant in which to eat paella in Spain, it’s a good idea to choose one where the locals eat because if they don’t there’s probably a very good reason why not. Also, expect to wait at least 25 minutes after ordering to be served as the paella will be cooked especially for you. Beware of restaurants that offer paella for one person. In my experience they are usually pre-cooked and never very good.

Paella is very important to the Spanish and no fiesta or family occasion is complete without one. It’s not particularly difficult to cook, though for some reason there’s a mystique surrounding its preparation, and it’s certainly true that good paella is out of this world and a poor one is not worth lifting a fork to. The dish originated in Valencia, the rice and saffron capital of Spain, and, like the majority of popular national dishes, had a very humble beginning as a cheap, basic and filling meal with ingredients that were readily available. Any unsold market produce (fish, shellfish, vegetables, and meat) or edibles that could be snared, trapped or netted, could all contribute to a paella. Another advantage was that only one cooking utensil is required and, because paella cooks quickly, little fuel. In the days when very few people had an oven, everything had to be heated from below so a range or the hot embers of an open fire could be used to cook the dish.

You really need a paella pan (paellera) to cook good paella, especially if you are preparing it for a crowd. A frying pan or wok will work for two to four people but it’s not ideal as the distribution of heat can’t be controlled well enough. Paelleras come in all sorts of sizes depending on the number you are cooking for.

Basic paella ingredients are rice, oil, saffron and stock. Rice must be short or medium grain and unwashed. Oil must be good quality olive oil. Saffron is expensive but a pinch for four people will be sufficient – if unavailable you can use a little colouring but never turmeric which will give the required colour but the completely wrong flavour, so better to use nothing at all. Good stock is essential as the whole point of paella is the superbly flavoured rice, combined with the flavours of the additional ingredients.

The following is a typical recipe for mixed paella. Any of the ‘additional ingredients’ can be substituted to accommodate personal taste or availability. Everything except the stock should be cooked in the paellera.

Mixed Paella (Serves 4)

400 grs. short or medium grain unwashed rice
1 litre stock (approx.) – see recipe below
pinch saffron
200 ml. extra virgin olive oil
450 grs. fish
12 large uncooked and unpeeled shrimp
8 large uncooked mussels 1 small chicken, cut up into bite size pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large ripe tomato, halved
1 small red pepper, seeded and cut into strips
Small handful of frozen peas
2-4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 heaped tsp. paprika
salt to taste

Alternative Ingredient Ideas - choose from any of the following: Lobster, crab claws, any type of fish or shell fish, rabbit, chorizo sausage, pork loin, butter beans (soaked overnight), green beans, artichokes, etc.

Heat the oil in the paellera, add the meat and fry until lightly browned. Add the tomato, cut side down, the onion and garlic. By the time the onion is soft the tomato skins will slip off –discard them and mash the pulp. Add the pepper, peas, fish, shrimp and mussels (ensuring these are tightly shut). Cook, stirring, for a few minutes. The mussels should now be open – any that aren’t should be discarded. Add the paprika and mix in well. Up to this point the cooking may be done in advance – just remove from the heat and continue when ready.

Reheat, if necessary, and add the rice, stirring to ensure that each grain is coated. Cook for a few minutes. Add half a litre of boiling stock, the saffron and salt, and stir well. Distribute rice, meat and fish evenly and increase the heat until bubbling. DO NOT STIR AGAIN (just shake occasionally to prevent sticking). When the rice begins to absorb the stock, add more (use your judgement as the tomatoes, mussels, etc. release liquid and one make of rice may absorb more than another does). Simmer for 8 minutes, remove the shrimp and mussels and reserve*.

Now lower the heat, cover and continue cooking for another 10/12 minutes or until the rice is almost cooked. The rice should be very moist but not wet. If too dry, add more boiling stock. If too wet, raise the heat for a minute. Remove from the heat, decorate with the mussels and shrimp, cover and leave to stand for 10 minutes before serving.

  • For a boneless paella remove the meat as well. Discard shells, head and bones. Don’t be tempted to de-bone or shell before cooking as the heads, bones, etc. add flavour to the rice and this is very important.

The Stock (for 4)
1 large fish head, or pieces
1 bay leaf
1 onion, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
6 tbls. olive oil
(if making mixed paella, chicken bones etc. but no skin)

Fry the onion and tomato in the olive oil until it is almost a puree, then add 1 litre of water plus the other ingredients. Boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes until the fish have disintegrated. Pour through a sieve and reserve the liquid.