NEW YORK – Allow me to begin this paean to paella by extending my sympathy for the subpar examples you have almost certainly endured in the past. When it comes to food, I tend to abjure rule-making as a limit to experience. But when it comes to restaurant-prepared paella – even and perhaps especially in Spain – you really should just say no. It is not impossible that a dining establishment could create a good paella, but such a thing is rare: The dish cannot be easily prepped in parts ahead of time, nor does it keep its luster long after initial completion. This is why better restaurants will require you to call some time ahead, or be prepared to wait for about 40 minutes, for fresh paella. (Run in terror from any menu that features it in a fast-foody looking picture.) Of course, even an honest eatery will charge at least $25 for the dish – a pretty penny that could, theoretically, be worth it, but that is far more likely to have bought you a warmed-over wasteland of Zatarain’s boxed rice strewn with sad, sandy mussels and peas wrinkled in self-disgust.
The thing I am subtly hinting at in all this restaurant-bashing is that you should be making paella at home. It is, after all, the Spanish equivalent of barbecue food, what denizens of towns like Córdoba lazily cook up over grills and open fires when they escape to their family mountain picnic hut for perol on Sundays and holidays. This cultural detail contains another clue: Though paella can be wonderfully fancy and expensive when gilded with lobster tails and rabbit haunches, a cheaper, rustic version is in some ways more traditional. Indeed, assuming you have a few Spanish staples in your pantry, the version that I will advance here could feed four for less than $10.
So let’s talk about that version. I favor a mar i muntanya approach, a bracing mixture of creatures from the sea and the mountain (i.e., the land) that, chintzy “surf and turf” platters aside, is relatively uncommon in America but is a specialty of Catalan cuisine. In this instance, we will use chicken, squid and sausage, easily procured proteins that, when combined, are as novel as they are inexpensive. I also want to advocate for reconceptualizing paella as a delightful weeknight meal rather than a showpiece reserved for large groups and special occasions. Adorned and scaled appropriately, it can absolutely be the latter thing. But the approach presented here is meant to provide two to four people with a hearty summer dinner without requiring exceptional effort or time on the part of the cook.
And did I mention you can cook it on the grill? In fact, you will probably obtain a better socarrat – a layer of crispy, caramelized rice on the bottom – that way. Note, though, that the heating instructions in the recipe below were tested on a gas range. If you don’t get a great socarrat, don’t worry – it’s really just extra icing on the paella cake.
Paella, Mar i Muntanya Style
(adapted from José Pizzaro’s Seasonal Spanish Food)
Yield: 4 servings
Time: About 1 hour
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
Large pinch saffron
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and/or drumsticks
Salt and black pepper
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 or 3 large garlic cloves, minced
7 ounces diced fresh tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes
4 ounces Andouille sausage or Spanish (not Mexican) chorizo, sliced
1/4 cup dry sherry or white wine
5 ounces squid, bodies rinsed and sliced into rings, tentacles reserved for garnish
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera (dulce) or other smoked paprika
1 cup paella rice, such as Calasparra
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
Sherry vinegar to taste
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
1 small lemon, cut into half circles, for garnish
Put the stock in a small saucepan over low heat. Put the saffron in a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon warm water; set aside.
Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel and season on both sides with salt and pepper. Put 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 9- to 10-inch paella pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and cook until browned on the bottom, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip and cook until browned on the other side, another 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cover with aluminum foil.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add onion to the paella pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Add the tomatoes with their juices, sausage, and wine. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is reduced to a stew-like consistency, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the squid rings and 1 tablespoon of the pimentón and stir well. Add the warmed stock and saffron with its soaking water and stir; bring the mixture to a simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the rice in an even layer and press gently to submerge, but don’t stir – the pan will be quite full at this point. Cook the paella over medium high heat, without stirring, until much of the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes.
While the paella is cooking, toss the squid tentacles with the remaining 1 teaspoon pimentón and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the squid tentacles and cook, stirring occasionally, until just cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes; the tentacles will curl and contract quickly in the pan. Remove from the heat, cover with foil and, set aside until ready to serve paella.
Gently nestle the chicken into the rice mixture (pour over any juices as well) and sprinkle the peas evenly over the top. Carefully cover the pan with foil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of one of the chicken pieces reads 165 degrees F and all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and allow the paella to rest under the foil for 5 minutes or until ready to serve.
To serve, splash the paella with sherry vinegar and garnish with parsley, lemon slices, and the cooked squid tentacles.