I was raised in an Italian family with wonderful food roots and was fortunate enough to marry into an Italian family with equal food credentials. My grandmother (Mamaw) and my husband’s grandmother (Nonnie) were both Tuscan, coming from small neighboring towns and sharing the belief of “all good things are Italian”. They delighted in cooking for others and passing on the family recipes. Early on in my marriage, Nonnie, gave me a stash of saffron that she received from her relatives in Italy. They also believed the saffron available in the U.S. was inferior to that in their home country so they periodically supplied her with enough so she could continue to make her “Risotto Milanese”. Knowing it is considered the most expensive spice in the world, I was determined to figure out how to use it. Why is it so expensive? It comes from the dried stigmas of the autumn crocus and the blossoms must be picked by hand at just the right time. Each blossom has three stigmas and it is said about 75,000 blossoms are necessary to produce one pound of saffron. It is most widely used in the kitchens of Spain, Italy and South of France. With its cost, it is small wonder that one must guard against excess, besides, too much can add an unpleasant metallic taste to your dish. I have read that the very early uses by royalty and aristocracy was actually finely ground gold dust making it even more prized and cherished. Do not let the per pound price deter you as a pinch is all you need and it is available in small quantities at reasonable prices.
With all this in mind, I knew I was in possession of something dear and wanted to give it due respect. As I was perusing a garage sale one day I found this paperback, “An Herb and Spice Cook Book” written by the famed Craig Claiborne, which I purchased for five cents. This may be the best nickel I ever spent as it still holds a valued place in my collection. In this book was a recipe for paella thus marking the beginning of concocting many versions and later claiming it as one of my signature dishes. This is one of those creations that is completely adaptable to your location. If you are near the sea, it is filled with fruite de mar (scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels or whatever is available) but if you are landlocked, one can make it with chicken or rabbit (traditional) and spicy Spanish chorizo. I have even heard of people making it vegetarian, although that seems counter indicated in my mind. The dish speaks seafood and meat to me but as I always say, whatever makes you happy. Here is today’s quick and easy version with shrimp and chorizo but please feel free to add chicken, other seafood, or other things you may have on hand.
Recipe Serves 8
2 T extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb. large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
8 oz. Spanish chorizo, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds (do not confuse with Mexican chorizo as it is a completely different product)
1 large onion, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, medium dice (or red and yellow combo)
4 hot and or sweet cherry peppers, chopped (I use a mix of hot and sweet)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 c long-grain rice
1/4 t sweet Spanish paprika
Pinch of saffron, crushed with fingers and dissolved in 2 T warm water
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes or fresh equivalent
3 1/ 2 c chicken stock
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
1 c fresh or frozen peas
4 scallions, sliced 1/4 – 1/2 inch
2 T fresh oregano, stripped from stem and rough chop, or 1 t dried
2 T fresh cilantro
- In a heavy 12-inch saute or paella pan, heat 1 T of olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook shrimp just until it turns slightly pink on both sides, do not over cook, shrimp will continue to cook when added back later. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
- Add remaining 1 T of olive oil and chorizo to the pan; cook over medium-high heat until just beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.
- Add the onion and peppers and cook until translucent and soft, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and rice; cook, stirring to coat, until rice is translucent, about 2 minutes.
- Stir in paprika, saffron with its water, tomatoes and stock, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper.
- Bring to boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, 20- 25 minutes.
- Stir in the peas and scallions, cook for one minute. Stir in oregano.
- When ready to serve, stir in cilantro, reserving a little for top garnish.
This meal, known as the national dish of Spain, is bursting with flavor and has an abundance of color giving it spectacular eye appeal. Folk lore traces the origin of this stew to the gauchos (early Spanish cowboys) where it was prepared over an open fire. One of the most treasured parts is the crusty layer that forms on the bottom. People have been known to fight over it. It is the the layering of flavors and the resulting taste, however, that what will draw you to make it over and over.
My husband and I traveled to Spain some years ago and ate paella in every region we visited. We found there were no two preparations that were the same so this is the perfect recipe to make your own and unleash your creativity. The secrets are simply fresh and local ingredients as it is in all Mediterranean preparations. I hope this becomes a favorite of yours and perhaps your signature dish.
Let us hear your spin on this classic Spanish favorite.