Barcelona is a passionate city. She is proud of her rich cultural history, uniquely ornate architecture – and her deliciously aromatic cuisine. I first visited this coastal city after college when I was backpacking through Europe. I remember spending my days shopping the markets, taking in the sights at Gaudi’s Park Guell and strolling Las Ramblas. One of my stand-out experiences was trying paella for the first time.Paella isn’t that well known in the States, but it’s a classic Spanish dish. Paella is a festive one-pot meal spiced with saffron and packed with vegetables, chorizo (Spanish smoked sausage) and seafood. (Though ingredients are easily substituted to meet your dietary needs.) Most experts agree paella is native to Valencia, 200 miles south of Barcelona, but Barcelona embraces the paella tradition like it’s her own.
I was lucky enough to visit Barcelona again last April on my Europe’s Mediterranean Coast tour. While in Barcelona, our Tour Director, Luca, arranged for us to have a paella cooking class. And as someone who loves food – especially paella – I jumped at the chance.We shopped for ingredients at La Boqueria. Mercado de La Boqueria is a famous 100 year old market located on Las Ramblas. From fresh fish and meat to spices and vegetables, La Boqueria is a one-stop shop for all of your paella needs. It’s also the perfect place to experience the local culture. While we were shopping we interacted with local merchants and practiced our Spanish speaking skills. After buying our ingredients, we walked a few blocks to the kitchen where our chef, Eyal, prepared the vegetables and seafood for our meal. As we all gathered around the large pan to get a front row view of the paella prep, Eyal shared the colloquial history of the famous dish. According to him, the origin of the word paella comes from “pa-ella” meaning “cooking for her.”Once the paella was ready, we savored it. Not only because we were starving, but because we were a part of the process from beginning to end. We didn’t leave the kitchen as paella experts, but we left with a priceless experience. It’s a simple meal, rich in tradition and history, and we can now say we made paella in Spain.I loved making paella so much that I now make it at home all of the time. It takes time to prepare, but it’s worth every minute. Here is my favorite recipe. (I do recommend a paella pan, but a large skillet will work just fine.)
Traditional Spanish Paella
This is a fairly quick paella with minimal pre-cooking. It will take about 30 minutes to prepare and 30 minutes to cook. Serves Four.
* 16-inch paella pan or large skillet
* Large pot with lid for broth
* Box grater
* Mortar and pestle (can use mug and spoon as substitute)
* Paella lid or aluminium foil
* Large bowl
* Measuring cups
* 1 large tomato (or 2 medium)
* 1 small onion
* 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
* Kosher salt
* 6 to 8 cloves garlic, peeled
* 32 oz seafood stock
* Pinch saffron threads (about 20 threads)
* 8 oz. bottle clam juice
* 1 1/4 cups Bomba rice
Optional toppings (mix-and-match)
* 16 asparagus stalks
* Sliced peppers
* 2 sliced pre-cooked chicken breasts
* ¼ lbs chorizo (Cook in the pan prior to making the sofrito)
* 8 scallops
* 1 lbs Manila clams
* ½ lbs shrimp, peeled and patted dry
* 2 to 3 lemons, cut in wedges
Cut the tomato in half and grate both tomato halves using the box grater onto a plate. Discard tomato skin. Do the same with the onion (cut in half and grate both halves onto a plate).
Set the paella pan over medium heat, add the olive oil, onion, and a pinch of salt. Sauté the onion until it softens. This should take about 2 minutes. Add the tomato puree, season with salt, and let it cook, but stir often. Add the garlic cloves and continue cooking until the mixture has darkened to a deep burgundy and is thick like a tomato paste. This process takes at least 15 to 20 minutes, but it can cook for up to 45 minutes or more if you want. The longer you cook, the deeper and sweeter the flavor. When the sofrito starts to stick to the pan or turn brown, add a little water to deglaze the pan, lower the heat a bit, and keep cooking. (You can make the sofrito ahead and refrigerate for several days, or freeze for a few months.)
Add the rice to the sofrito, and cook, stirring until the rice is translucent. This should take about 2 minutes. Increase the heat to medium high. Add 3 ¾ cups of the seafood broth to the pan and reserve the remaining broth. (I like to cook the rice by slowly adding the broth, similar to risotto.)
Use a spatula to spread out the rice in the pan so it is evenly distributed, and give the pan a shake back and forth once or twice as well.
Simmer vigorously but do not stir the rice once it comes to a boil. When the rice is at the same level as the liquid, after 8 to 10 minutes, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Arrange the toppings in the pan, submerging them as much as possible below the level of the liquid. Continue to simmer about 10 minutes more.
Taste a grain just below the top layer of rice; it should be al dente, with a tiny white dot in the center. If the rice is not done but all the liquid has been absorbed, add a bit of broth and cook a few more minutes. During the last two minutes of cooking, arrange the shrimp (or any quick cooking seafood) in the pan, along with any juices.
Increase the heat to medium-high and, rotating the pan, cook for about 2 minutes, until the bottom layer of rice starts to caramelize, creating the socarrat. The rice will crackle, but if it starts to smell burned remove the pan from the heat immediately.
After you remove the pan. Cover loosely with foil or a clean kitchen towel and let the paella rest for 5 minutes to even the cooking and let the flavors meld.
Set the paella pan in the center of a round or square table. Remove the kitchen towel and invite people to eat directly from the pan, starting at the perimeter, working toward the center, and squeezing lemon over their section, if they want.
Meaghan is an Email Marketing Manager for EF Educational Tours. She is East Coast bred and has traveled to 18 countries. Her all-time favorite travel experiences are: renting an apartment in Paris for a week, visiting Lisbon for the first time and making paella in Barcelona.