I have always loved paella and the combination of flavors that come together when the sofrito is made. Sofrito is a combination of vegetables sautéd in olive oil, and used as a base in Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American cooking. The sautéing of the peppers, onions, and garlic in olive oil give this dish its distinctive sabor. Add to that the sausage, chicken, or seafood, and Calasparra rice, and you’ve got the makings of perfectly delicious paella. Last year while vacationing in Cadiz, Spain I had the honor of watching Pepe, the sous chef at our resort give me a private lesson on how paella is made in the southern part of Spain. Apparently, like most recipes, every region, restaurant, and family holds on to a recipe that rings true for them. With that in mind, I knew I could muster the courage to make paella at home.
We began our session with a glass of vino. My hubby, kids, and I watched as they brought out the biggest paella pan and gas burner I have ever seen. All the ingredients had been pre-chopped and everything was fresh. I took pictures and hubby videotaped the event. I didn’t want to miss a thing. The key to making good paella Pepe kept telling me was the sofrito. If I got this basic step down, then everything else should fall into place. First things first, start with fresh ingredients, including your meats or fish.
My first test was with chicken and it was delicious but I overcooked it and I slightly burnt the peppers, onions, and garlic. In order to keep this from happening make sure you pre-chop all your ingredients prior to getting started. I usually chop as I cook but this recipe was not as forgiving, hence the slightly charred peppers in my first attempt. One week later I decided to make this recipe again so I wouldn’t forget my mistakes and fix them. Only this time I used a variety of seafood perfect for a Friday Lenten dinner. I stopped at my local butcher shop and picked up some mussels, peeled and deveined shrimp (I would have preferred prawns, but my butcher didn’t have any), and halibut.
Once the sofrito is made you can add the chicken, sausage, or prawns and sauté it in the sofrito for about 3 to 5 minutes so it picks up the flavors. The raw chicken will need to cook longer, til it’s browned on all sides. I couldn’t find Calasparra rice so I used Arborio rice. There is a lot of talk online about what rice would make a good substitution and it seems most people agree that Arborio rice is a good substitution and I agree.
This final seafood paella was magnificent. The house smelled amazing, the flavor combinations were a thrill to my taste buds, and my eyes rolled back in my head indicating, yes I indeed had created a pretty darn good paella. So where is the Mexican twist in this you ask? Well, Spaniards aren’t known for eating spicy food, it’s actually Mexico who introduced Spain to a variety of chile peppers, so my Mexican twist is to add some cayenne pepper and chile powder for that added kick that I love so much.
One final note, the toasted rice at the bottom of the pan is actually coveted in Spain and considered a delicacy, it’s called socarrat in Spanish and essential to good paella. The socarrat will happen on its own if you cook the paella over a flame or electric stove like I did, but not in the oven. When you get to that part of the pan scrape it up and let it crunch between your teeth, you’ll be glad you did.
What is your favorite paella?
Seafood Paella with a Mexican Twist
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, sliced
- 2 teaspoons cayenne chile pepper
- 2 teaspoons chile powder
- 20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined or raw prawns
- 20 saffron threads
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 3 cups Arborio or Calasparra rice
- 9 cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
- 1 large halibut steak, cut into large chunks
- 20 mussels
- 1/3 cup peas, fresh or frozen, but not canned
- Heat olive oil in paella pan, a paellera, over medium-high heat. Add olive oil and let it get hot.
- Add red and yellow peppers and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and continue to sauté for about 5 minutes. This is the base of your sofrito.
- Add cayenne and chile powder and mix well.
- Add the shrimp and cook for about 3 minutes, just long enough for the shrimp to pickup some of the flavors of the sofrito.
- With a mortar and pestle blend the saffron and salt until well combined and add to the sofrito. Mix well.
- Add the rice and sauté for about 3 minutes. Continue to mix so rice does not stick to the pan. Add the chicken stock and heat for about 10 minutes. Salt to taste.
- Add the parsley and combine.
- Add the halibut chunks and mussels by burying them into the partially cooked rice.
- Sprinkle the peas on top of the rice. Cover pan with foil, create a tight seal, lower the heat to low and let it simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. You can hear the liquid cooking.
- After about 20 minutes taste the rice to make sure it is cooked and not crunchy. Cook longer if necessary, maybe 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the foil and let it cook for another 5 minutes creating the special socarrat at the bottom of the pan.
- Once it’s ready remove from the heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.
Written by Veronica / Photos by Veronica