paella on the beach

originating in valencia, paella is named for the pan it’s cooked in — the paellera — and was at first made with chicken, rabbit, snails and fresh beans cooked together over an open fire.   as the dish spread, local variations developed and people improvised with whatever was at hand.  like anything you cook, your ingredients should vary depending upon what’s available locally and seasonally.

recently, patty unterman, who knows more about every kind of food than anyone i know, cooked paella for a group of friends over an open fire on the beach.   it was hands down the best paella i have ever tasted and one of the most delicious and memorable meals of my life.   two reasons it was so perfect,  she explained, the smoke from the fire (in this case, made of driftwood) infuses the paella with distinctive flavors and the perfect socarrat — the caramelizing of the rice on the bottom of the pan — develops best over an open fire.

patty bases her paella on the proportions suggested at the spanish table (   it’s also where she buys her paella rice, piquillo peppers, chorizo and the 24-year-old pedro ximenes sherry vinegar which she swears she can’t live without.  we got our local clams at warrenton deep sea market, a few miles away in warrenton, oregon.

here’s how you do it.   calculate the amount of each ingredients by multiplying the below measurements by the number of people you want to serve (so for 10 people you’d use 5 cups of rice).

½ cup uncooked valencian rice

1 cup chicken stock (heated in a separate pot)

5 threads saffron (soaked in a little bit of white wine)

1 chicken thigh

½ soft chorizo

½ teaspoon sweet pimentón (paprika)

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ cup chopped onion

⅛ cup grated tomato (skin discarded)

2 shrimp or prawns

2-4 small clams and/or mussels

1 cup vegetables (english peas, snap peas or green beans cut in 1-inch pieces, artichoke heats

1 red piquillo pepper cut in strips

olive oil

it’s critical that your paellera is perfectly level, evenly heated and is stable —  you don’t want to go to all this work, only to have your dinner slosh into the fire.  i positioned two large stones so that i could hook the handles of the pan on the corners of the stones.    then, because the pan was still a little tippy, i jammed two old bbq forks into the sand so the sides of the pan would also rest on them.    you need an even bed of hot coals, so i built a “log cabin” style fire with drift wood ranging from 1-2 inches in diameter.   i started the fire 60 minutes before we wanted to start cooking — 2 hours before we wanted to eat.

once you have a nice bed of coals, put the paellera on the fire to heat, then add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan.

when the oil is hot, add chicken and fry until it begins to brown.

then add garlic and onions and sauté until they’re translucent.

next, add the chorizo, then a couple of minutes later, the rice, stirring until it’s well-coated with the olive oil.

add paprika and grated tomato and stir.   then add the hot stock and saffron-infused wine.  the fire needs to be hot enough to bring the stock to a boil, then kept at a high simmer.

once the stock is added, do not stir the paella.  the rice will cook, absorbing the flavors of all of the ingredients as the fire slowly dies down.

when the rice has absorbed a lot of liquid but is still soupy, add the mussels and/or clams.

when the rice is cooked, tuck the shrimp or prawns down into the rice.  then add piquillo peppers and spread the vegetables on top.

this is when the crusty-caramel-y layer is forming on the bottom of the pan. it will smell (and taste) toasty, but not burnt.  the vegetables will cook in the steam and the paella is done when they are cooked but still crunchy.

pull it off the fire and let it “rest” for 10 minutes before serving.   salt it and squeeze lemon to taste.

how gorgeous is this?!

patty’s blog on food and restaurants is   it’s indispensable.