Paella Practicum

Capture the classic flavor of Spain by serving paella.

At first blush, the thought of creating and serving paella onsite can be daunting. After all, there are some serious aspects to consider: the cost of saffron, the (likely) lack of a paella pan, labor constraints and the long list of ingredients usually required. Yet FSD’s and chefs should persevere as this dish offers sublime, full flavors and a naturally beautiful

presentation that shows your organization and customers the creative capabilities of your culinary staff. For some advice on how to make this classic Spanish rice dish in higher-volume operations, FM asked Chef/Instructor Maureen Pothier of Johnson & Wales University, College of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island, to develop a recipe with onsite production concerns in mind.

Although she had never created paella in anything but a true paella pan before, Pothier discovered “delicious” results using a full size hotel pan instead. She also emphasizes that it can be made in a reasonable time frame with many readily-available ingredients. “Preparing paella can actually be quick and easy,” she says. “I’ve even come home from work, prepped it and popped it in the oven for dinner.”

Modest Beginnings

Originated in and around the region of Valencia, where it was first cooked on a open fire with snails, eels and green beans, paella is now generally recognized as one of the top signature dishes of Spain. There, various incarnations are served with vegetables and seafood only, or brimming with a combination of shellfish, sausage, chicken or rabbit and other meats.

However, as Pothier explains, traditional paella did not mix seafood with meat. “That was done as an accommodation to tourists,” she says. “But then they found out it tasted great, and now that popular version is known as .”

Playing Around

Paella is a flexible dish, readily adaptable to experiments with various vegetables and meats. “In my mind’s eye, I can see home cooks and chefs in Spain playing around with paella ingredients, and approaching its preparation with a ‘what do I have on hand today?’ attitude,” Pothier says. Beyond the ingredients in her own paella recipe (click here [4]), Pothier recommends other substitutions such as artichoke bottoms or hearts (fresh or frozen); pork; salt cod; shrimp or lobster; or garbanzo beans.

Critical Factors

Although Pothier relishes paella’s ability to adjust to different ingredients and techniques, she cautions that certain aspects of traditional preparation should not be altered.

The rice. Purists insist on Spanish Valencia rice for making paella, but since it can be difficult to acquire in the U.S., Italian Arborio or any other type of short grain rice will work. “The key is that the rice be short grain, because that style absorbs well,” Pothier says. “I’ve tried making paella with a medium grain, and the results are soggy.” Paella rice should also have “a little crispness” to it when done, she explains, “and short grain rice allows it to do that.” Because paella is never covered during the cooking stages, the rice cooks without being steamed.

Broth vs. water. A truly flavorful broth is another secret to great-tasting paella, according to Pothier. “Whereas technically you could just use water, beginning with a good broth will make the whole dish better,” she says. Using shellfish like clams or mussels provides an extra bonus, since they drop their own flavorful liquid into the paella as they open up and cook. In addition, bringing the broth to a boil before adding it to the paella means the oven doesn’t have to work so hard to get back up to the proper temperature.

Saffron vs. turmeric. The reason to add saffron to paella, Pothier maintains, is for its taste rather than its famous hue. “Saffron has its own wonderful flavor, and to replace it with turmeric just for color isn’t worth it,” she says. Unlike some chefs, Pothier does not disparage turmeric. (“I like its flavor, too, but just not in paella.”) Saffron, though expensive, is quite concentrated. Just a half-teaspoon, or a “good-sized pinch,” as Pothier describes it, is enough to imbue a 12-serving batch of paella with its distinctive flavor and tint. To accurately measure, Pothier recommends first crumbling the saffron threads in the palm of the hand.

La Paellera

Wondering just how important a true paella pan is to the authentic production of this classic Spanish dish? Consider this: the term paella itself comes from the word for the pan in which it cooks—a paellera.

Paelleras are typically shallow, thin-bottomed metal pans with a handle on each side. They range in size from 15 inches to nearly six feet across. Designed for cooking outside over a wood fire, even the smaller paelleras must be placed over two burners when used on an indoor stove. Cooking paella this way—uncovered over an open flame— develops the socarrat, a golden crust of rice on the bottom of the pan often considered the prime portion of the paella.

But don’t despair if there’s no well-seasoned paellera on hand. Chef/Instructor Maureen Pothier’s recipe for hotel-pan paella still yields delectable results, just minus the soccarrat.