Yield: 6 servings
Prep and cooking time: 50 minutes
Anyone who has eaten a truly wretched paella will be mystified by the dish’s popularity. Sadly, wretched is the norm in most households and restaurants: sticky, gluey rice and rubbery seafood, all swimming in a red-orange puddle of chorizo grease. But when, on occasion, it’s done right, it can be delightful.
In Spain, seafood and chorizo rarely turn up in a paella, except in restaurants catering to tourists who expect to be served little else. We outsiders use these ingredients because they seem “Spanish” to us; thus the paella served outside of Spain and within its tourist restaurants will be full of clams, shrimps and mussels—and olive oil and chorizo, naturally, for that stereotypical Mediterranean flourish. I would not use chorizo; it’s too greasy and it overpowers the other ingredients. Similarly, extra virgin olive oil, while it may be “Mediterranean,” doesn’t taste nearly as good as butter with the ingredients that we will use.
A fine paella can contain any combination of foods that you happen to enjoy. However, you must use a medium-grain starchy rice such as Granza, Bomba or Valencia preferably, or Arborio, Carnaroli or Roma, unless you’re willing to adjust the amount of liquid and the cooking time. There’s certainly no taboo against using, say, a chewy, long-grain rice—and plenty of Spanish cooks do—but this recipe is designed for medium-grain rice, so if you substitute a different type, you’re on your own.
The core problem with paella is timing: the rice determines how long the dish will bake in the oven: about twenty minutes. Other ingredients have got to come out perfectly cooked in that time, or they must be partly precooked, or prepared separately. This is especially true of seafood and fish: any seafood that you use should be cooked separately and carefully, left slightly undercooked, and warmed at the last minute. Clams, mussels, and prawns roasted for twenty minutes on top of a paella resemble—both in flavor and texture—nothing quite so much as pencil erasers.
The following recipe solves the timing problem. If you follow it to the letter, the rice, chicken, and shrimp will all be perfectly cooked. Chicken thighs are chosen specifically because they will roast on top of the rice, preventing it from drying, yet come out just done, while the rice will have absorbed their juices and flavor. The shrimp will be pan fried separately while the paella bakes, and added when it’s done. But we will extract the shrimp essence by first making a broth of the shells and heads, to create the liquid in which the rice will cook. Indeed, this method gives the dish more shrimp flavor and scent than it would have if the prawns were baked on top.
I call for “10 to 12” chicken thighs because it’s impossible to predict their size. It’s crucial that the rice be covered, with only moderate gaps between each thigh, to prevent it drying in the oven. Covering the whole with foil is not an option; while it will protect the rice, it will prevent the chicken skin from becoming crisp, and the trapped steam will make the meat rubbery. Additionally, the thighs can be brined and dried in the refrigerator prior to use, for better flavor and crisper skin.
This is an advanced recipe because it’s complicated and it depends on good timing. An experienced cook who can keep two or three processes going at once will not have trouble. If you’re comfortable with a bit of multitasking, this paella will become your favorite rice dish. And that’s a promise.
Chicken/shrimp broth ingredients
1-1/2 lbs large, unpeeled raw shrimp (with heads, preferably, in which case 2-1/4 lbs)
4 cups homemade chicken broth, or low-sodium commercial broth
1 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
1 rib of celery
1 small onion
1 tsp ground coriander seed
Salt and black pepper to taste
Optional: saffron threads
10-12 chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
Pinches of salt and black pepper
3-5 tbsp whole unsalted butter, as needed for the shrimp sauce
1/3 cup finely minced shallots
1/2 cup finely minced bell pepper
1 tsp finely minced or pressed garlic
1-1/2 cups medium-grain rice (preferably Granza, Bomba or Valencia)
Chicken/shrimp broth (3 cups for the rice, 1/2 cup for the shrimp)
1/2 cup diced fresh tomato, or 1/3 cup of tomato sauce
3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 tsp finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
Optional: 1/4 cup finely minced jalapeño pepper
Optional: saffron threads
Chicken/shrimp broth directions
1. Peel, de-vein, and butterfly the shrimp leaving the tails attached, and immediately return them to the refrigerator. Do not discard the shells or the heads if they’ve got them.
2. Collect all of the shrimp shells, heads, bits, etc. and put them into a medium saucepan. Roughly chop the onion, carrot and celery and add them to a saucepan with the chicken broth, the wine, the ground coriander seed, and pinches of salt, pepper and saffron to taste. Let this liquid simmer for fifteen minutes.
3. Strain the chicken/shrimp broth through a fine sieve, and discard the solids. Keep the broth hot, and be sure to reserve 1/2 cup for later use with the shrimp. You should end with about 4-1/2 cups of strained broth, which is enough for the rice, the shrimp, and a reserve to moisten the rice during baking.
Chicken and rice directions
1. For better flavor and crisper skin, brined chicken is recommended. Whether brined or not, the thighs should be removed from the refrigerator about fifteen minutes before cooking.
2. Preheat your oven to 375 F.
3. Sprinkle the skin sides of the chicken thighs liberally with black pepper, and if not brined, sprinkle both sides with salt. (Brined thighs don’t require additional salt.)
4. In a large (appr. 13”) oven-proof skillet or paella pan, melt 1 tbsp of whole butter and heat it until the foam subsides and the milk solids darken. Brown the thighs over very high heat, skin-side down, until crisp and golden (appr. 6 mins). Don’t fiddle with them; turn them only once, and then brown the meat sides moderately (appr. 4 mins). Do not crowd the skillet and use the highest heat you can deliver; if you cook them at too low a temperature, by the time the skin is crisp, the chicken will have cooked through in the pan and will overcook later in the oven.
5. Remove the chicken, let it rest in a bowl, and remove all but 2 tbsp of fat from the skillet.
Here’s part 2 of the companion video (recipe continues below).
6. Add the rice to the pan and sauté it over medium heat until it becomes opaque.
7. Add the minced shallot, bell pepper, jalapeño pepper (if used), and a pinch of salt, and sweat the vegetables over medium heat without browning. When the vegetables have softened, add the minced garlic and sweat thirty seconds longer.
8. Add hot, strained chicken/shrimp broth, and any juices collected from the resting thighs, to the rice mixture, for a total three cups of liquid. Add the chopped tomato or tomato sauce, a pinch of salt, and another pinch of saffron threads.
9. Stir over high heat until the liquid reduces so that the thighs can be laid on top without sinking. There should be no liquid above the surface of the rice.
10. Remove the pan from the heat and place the browned thighs on top of the rice, skin side up, in a single layer. Arrange the thighs to cover the rice so that it won’t dry in the oven, but leave half-inch gaps between each, allowing steam to escape around them; otherwise, they will be steamed from below, which will toughen them. As the thighs roast, their juices will moisten and flavor the rice.
11. Bake at 375 F uncovered for approximately 20 minutes. Once the paella is in the oven, you must start cooking the shrimp, but check it after ten minutes’ baking. If the rice seems dry, add up to 1/2 cup of hot liquid, preferably leftover chicken/shrimp broth.
1. Once the paella is baking, preheat a 9-inch skillet over medium heat while you dry the shrimp meats with paper towels.
2. Add 1 tbsp of whole butter to the pan and heat it until the foam subsides, then lay the shrimp in quickly on their sides. Fry the shrimp on one side until cooked nearly, but not quite, to the middle. Working quickly, turn the shrimp and fry the raw sides. Remove each to a bowl when the middle shows a narrow raw band. Some will have to stay in the pan longer than others: pull each when the bluish, raw center reaches approximately 1/4 inch in width.
3. Set the shrimp aside and deglaze the pan with the reserved 1/2 cup of chicken/shrimp broth and a splash of white wine. When the liquid has reduced by two thirds, lower the heat, add any juices collected from the resting shrimp, and whisk in 1-3 tbsp of cold butter as needed to create a pan sauce. Season it with salt and pepper to taste. Keep the sauce warm, over very low heat, or it might break (if it should, whisk in a splash of broth and 1 tbsp of cold butter to emulsify it again).
1. Remove the paella from the oven when the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed, and set it on the stove.
2. Toss the shrimp briefly in the pan sauce to reheat them, and scatter them on top of the paella.
3. Spoon the remaining pan sauce over the chicken thighs.
4. Finally, garnish the dish liberally with chopped parsley, and sparingly with chopped cilantro, and serve it immediately. Typically, the pan is brought to table.
Any foods that you enjoy in combination can be made to work, but you must think carefully about how long each item needs to cook within the context of how long the rice needs to cook: about 20 minutes. If you’re willing to experiment with foods that need either precooking or last-minute cooking, and to accept the occasional “learning experience,” you’ll find that virtually any ingredients will create a paella that you can serve with pride.