Some time in 2005, way too long ago for me to be more specific, I was in Spain shooting the series that became “The Best Recipes in the World.” I was with a small crew that included my friend (and director), Charles L. Pinsky, moving through Western Europe, cooking with chefs we liked, learning, improvising, and generally being made fun of. (If you’ve seen that series, or “How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs,” or, for that matter, anything Charlie produced featuring the late Pierre Franey, you know that the “being made fun of” feature is integral.)
Anyway. There I was near Valencia, paella country, in a restaurant that featured ten small piles of wood set up on a stone counter; each pile was topped by a small grill. When someone ordered a paella, the chef lit the first fire and got to work, adding oil to the pan, followed by rice (from nearby, of course, like everything else) and, in most cases, what he insisted was the “real” paella: flat (Romano-style) beans, rabbit, and snails.
The paellas were, almost needless to say, incredible. You ate them with wooden forks, communally, fighting over the socarrat - the crusty bottom - while drinking too much.
My creation that day was made with shellfish, shrimp, and squid, as I recall, and let’s say worth eating. I mean, pretty damned good. But not “real” paella, per the locals, and probably not real paella by the standards of anyone who didn’t grow up eating paella in eastern Spain.
In fact, there was a general reluctance to call it paella, and my dish was labeled “arroz con cosas”: rice with things.
I’m kind of proud of my arroz con cosas, which I’ve made for probably forty years, and in a variety of styles. Arroz con pollo is a form, and even arroz con frijoles (beans) can qualify. As can, without much of a stretch, a variety of Chinese-ish “fried rice” dishes, Japanese mixed rice, and so on.
But when I make what you might call paella - more accurately, perhaps, called rice with seafood, Valencia style? - I follow a pretty typical pattern, and it looks like the recipe below. The picture below is of a version I made with monkfish earlier this week. Monkfish is a great choice because it won’t fall apart (or get too tough) no matter how long you cook it, within reason.
I usually include saffron if I have it (not that expensive per use if you can invest in an ounce from a reputable source, like Vanilla Saffron Imports), not only for color but for flavor. But saffron wasn’t a part of the “real” paella that day, so I don’t know what to tell you. What I can tell you is that this recipe has infinite possibilities, and will take you a long way.
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Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.