The scent of sauteed onions, bell peppers and chorizo filled the air as partygoers crowded around the giant paella pan on the terrace. As his kids scampered up for a peek, my brother-in-law stirred in saffron-scented rice, pimenton and simmering chicken stock, sending up clouds of aromatic steam. It only got better when he threw in golden-brown chicken thighs, scallops, prawns and mussels — and, finally, an artful sunburst of slim asparagus stalks.
When you consider its sumptuous, creative possibilities, it’s little wonder paella has become trendy once more. Paella tents are popping up at food fests, while pinot and paella parties are a new favorite at California wineries. And in Andrew Burrell’s North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, it has been one long summer of outdoor paella gatherings, with friends bringing prawns, tilapia, clams and mussels to contribute to the feast.
The centuries-old dish may have originated as a humble, rustic meal favored by farmers in Valencia, Spain, but it has re-emerged as the ultimate party food. A lavish meal in a single pan, a paella can serve 10 people or 40 — or several hundred, say the chefs who do big paella feasts at Los Gatos’ Regale and Livermore’s Crooked Vine wineries.
The appeal? There’s something about the spectacle — the flames, the sizzle, the aroma — that makes paella an impressive showpiece, yet the ingredients are straightforward, the technique easy to master and the equipment easily improvised.
A paella burner, a free-standing structure that holds the iconic paella pan and connects to a propane tank. But a barbecue, a stovetop or even an oven work fine.
Of course, the pan and the fire are just the starting point. But it’s not paella unless it has rice, saffron and pimenton (a smoky Spanish paprika), and the type of rice is key. A classic paella uses Spanish bomba or an Italian arborio, although Moore prefers a Japanese-style short-grain that has been well-rinsed and dried. (He acknowledges that Spaniards are going to hate him for saying that.)
Paellas are made by layering flavors, starting with a sofrito — a sauteed mixture of onions, peppers, garlic and tomato — then rice, stock and the proteins of your choice.
The mixture is stirred once, then left to simmer so a caramelized crust, the socarrat, forms on the bottom while above, all is tenderness. Don’t keep stirring, Moore warns, or you’ll end up with risotto or a pallid pilaf. Then take it off the heat, cover it with a dish towel and let it rest and cool a bit. He says it tastes “endlessly better” when it’s warm, not piping hot.
The resting period also gives the flavors and textures a chance to mellow, and lets the rice finish cooking in its own heat — while you’re sipping sangria with your guests and nibbling tapas or figs with burrata.