In Valencia, paella is cooked over an open fire, tended to by a cadre of men who fuel the flame with orange-tree branches and pinecones to infuse the rice with a woodsy aroma. It all sounds terribly romantic. And terribly impractical to try at home. (Who has access to a cadre of fire-stoking men and an orange tree?)
But with a few tweaks that harness the power of a backyard grill, you too can make the perfect paella (see the recipe)—smoky and savory with a nice socarrat, that prized layer of crisp, charred rice on the bottom.
The word "paella" refers to the pan it's traditionally cooked in. But don't get too caught up in tradition. Better to cook the chicken and shrimp independently, directly on the grill. You'll have greater control over doneness and, added back to the pan, they infuse the rice with smoky flavor.
As for that rice, look for Bomba, a Spanish short-grain variety that can absorb three times its volume in liquid without turning mushy or starchy. Don't overload the pan: The cooked rice should come up to about your first knuckle, lest you risk losing the precious socarrat. The ideal rice is crispy on the bottom and fluffy on top, not sticky—you're making paella here, not risotto.
But a good paella doesn't stand on rice alone. You'll also need to master the art of sofrito, the sauce at the base of paella (and hundreds of other Spanish dishes). Traditional versions involve braising finely diced onions, garlic and grated tomatoes in olive oil until they fall into sweet submission. Ours gets gentle heat from ñora chiles, plus a pinch of smoked paprika and saffron, too.
Once all the flavors have soaked into the rice, serve a bit of everything straight from the pan with a garlicky Catalan allioli on the side. Keep plenty of lemon wedges on hand to brighten things up.
Every step is fairly straightforward, but there are no shortcuts to great paella. Be prepared to put in a little work. But the fragrant shrimp- and sausage-packed results are definitely worth it. A final consideration: Which of your friends are worthy of this handsome feast?
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