Serving the Spanish Sensation: Paella
By Micah Cheek
Paella falls into the same category as risotto and Bolognese sauce: recipes that have a reputation for being off-limits to all but the greatest chefs and little old grandmothers. There are volumes of conflicting advice on how to prepare it, and most people don’t dare try. But much like the others, paella comes down to a few basic principles that are easy to execute with the right kitchen tools. Home cooks who have been gifted cookbooks or bags of fancy Spanish rice will welcome the tools and tricks that make put paella on the menu when they’re cooking to impress.
Paella, the flagship dish of Spain, is a blend of short-grain rice, beans, tomatoes, artichokes and a bevy of potential proteins, from chicken to rabbit to snail. First, proteins are seared, and then vegetables are softened in the rendered fat from the protein. Grated tomato is added to the pan to form a sofrito, a flavorful paste of oil and cooked vegetables. Finally, rice and stock are poured on and stirred in. The rice is allowed to sit still until all the moisture from the broth is absorbed. Over the course of cooking, rice starches collect at the bottom of the pan and form a toasty crust called the soccarat. Traditionally, the recipe is cooked over an open fire and requires a specialized, hand-hammered pan.
Clemence Gossett, Co-Owner of The Gourmandise School in Los Angeles, California, says that good paella only requires a pan with good heat distribution. “It’s all about a wide, shallow pan for faster cooking,” says Gossett. “The heaviest duty, high-quality [pan] is the one you want.” The traditional paella pan is very thin, designed for cooking on top of a wide, even bed of embers. The pan’s shallow design is to give plenty of surface area for evaporating liquid.
Cooks who are making their paella over the kitchen range will just need to switch up to a thicker pan, which will retain and redistribute heat from a smaller heat source. “I would stay away from nonstick; they aren’t designed to distribute heat,” says Gossett. “I would say cast iron, or something like a carbon steel.”
A wooden spoon is the traditional choice for serving the finished dish. Calphalon’s large wooden spoons are made of beech and look great on the table. But for customers who want something dishwasher safe, any wide, shallow spoon will work well for scooping up portions of paella with the crispy soccarat underneath.
A set of tongs can pull double duty, both for flipping proteins as they sear and mixing ingredients. Any sturdy set of steel tongs, such as those from All-Clad, will prove effective and make the process of moving ingredients around much easier.
Customers who have a grill can make great use of a classic paella pan like the La Tienda Traditional Steel Paella Pan. Even a small porch grill like the Weber Portable Grill can provide heat over a wide area to cook everything evenly, as well as keeping the party on the patio. For the aspiring paella fanatic, another option is a purpose-built paella burner that attaches to a propane tank. One model, La Paella’s Burner Model 350, features controls for each of the concentric rings to ensure the perfect temperature. These specialized outdoor burners are large, designed to heat pans that serve whole parties worth, and are probably only going to be sought out by paella obsessives.