The last few weeks of August and the first of September are often bittersweet.
With the kids heading back to school, our kitchen gardens rapidly maturing and vacations to the beach sadly in our rear-view mirror, it means the sunny days of summer will soon be behind us.
Not that fall is bad, of course. If the weather cooperates and you can sweet-talk someone into helping you rake leaves and replace screens with storm windows, it can be wonderful, what with all the colorful leaves, cooler temperatures and the return of apple- and pumpkin-flavored everything. It just doesn't have the easy, relaxed feeling we associate with summer.
Fall doesn't officially start until Sept. 23, so there's still time to plan one last outdoor "summer" party for family and friends.
My final outdoor get-together of the summer season was a paella party for about 15 friends and colleagues on a balmy Friday evening in my backyard. I'd originally planned on a pig roast, but the cost of buying even the smallest pig and renting a grill proved too prohibitive for a newspaper's budget.
Beside, who wants to work that hard when the ultimate party and celebration dish -- paella -- is so easy to make and a lot less expensive, if you don't go crazy with the seafood.
Paella is perfect for parties because it allows the cook to put on a show. It's a fragrant and colorful dish to watch someone prepare, especially when it's made outside under the sun or stars on a raised paella burner. As soon as the pan hits the flame, the subtle, earthy scent of saffron and smoky pimenton paprika fills the air, followed by the tantalizing aromas of garlic and onion.
Thanks to the many servings afforded by that giant pan, paella is meant for sharing -- and isn't that what a party is all about?
SPAIN'S ICONIC DISH
One of the best-known dishes in Spain, paella (pronounced "pie-AY-uh") is generally thought to have first been cooked in Valencia, on Spain's eastern coast.
Its current form originated in the 19th century as a humble farmer's lunch made with the short-grained rice grown there and whatever seasonal vegetables, bits of meat and seafood those in the fishing villages surrounding the Albufera had on hand. That was often flat green or lima beans, tomatoes, onions and snails, and maybe rabbit or chicken on special occasions.
Paella gets its name, not from the ingredients, but from la paellera, the Valencian word for the shallow, wide frying pan in which the rice dish is cooked. It was popularized when wealthy Valencians fell in love with the dish on their outings to the country. It was always meant to be shared and, to this day, is typically served family-style on a round table with the pan in the center.
There are probably as many recipes for paella as there are cooks making it (each region does it a little differently) but a few things are standard procedure. The authentic Valencian version always includes rice, water, olive oil, salt, chicken, vegetables, saffron and smoked pimenton paprika, according to the International Journal of Gastronomy and Science, based on research from social scientists at the Universidad Católica de Valencia.
So what about the seafood and chorizo sausage many recipes include today? In Valencian eyes, that's a no-no. (My group, however, found it quite delicious.)
A word about the rice: It needs to be short-grained, and to be truly authentic, imported from one of Spain's three regulated denominaciones de origen protegida (DOP).
Bomba, a short, almost round, pearly rice grown in all three regions, is the standard bearer because it absorbs three times its volume in water (regular rice absorbs only twice its volume). That allows the rice to soak up more flavor from the saffron-perfumed broth without turning to mush. Calasparra rice is also ideal for paella.
Also keep in mind that, unlike the Italian rice dish risotto, paella is not stirred -- or if you just can't resist the urge, hardly at all. You want it to form a brown and crispy crust called socarrat on the bottom and sides of the pan.
If you're going to break with tradition and add seafood (I used shrimp and littleneck clams), it should be placed on top of the rice during the last few minutes of cooking to keep it moist.
In Spain, paella is often eaten right out of the pan. Because there were so many of us at different tables, with an array of vegetarian side dishes, I offered my guests plates.
There were a few tense moments getting the gas to turn on under the paella pan, (it was a brand-new setup). But once we got started, it was smooth sailing. The results were incredible, and the presentation was gorgeous. What a fabulous farewell to summer!
Since rice is the star of paella, spend a little more on a quality product. Short-grained pearl white rice varieties such as Bomba or Calasparra, which are cultivated in Spain and easy to find on Amazon, are preferred. In a pinch, you also can use Arborio rice, but you will not end up with as crispy of a dish. Do not rinse it before adding to the pan.
You also want to use a high-quality saffron, which is definitely a luxury purchase (it's the most expensive spice in the world by weight). Remember that you are only going to be using a small amount -- it's what gives the dish its characteristic yellow color and distinct flavor.
Many paella recipes call for peas or green beans, but I'm not a fan, so I left them out. If you cannot find Spanish chorizo, it's OK to substitute another sausage with a robust flavor such as andouille.
I made the dish outside in a stainless-steel 20-inch paella pan on a paella burner from Spain (around $125 on Amazon). But you can also use a cast-iron pan or any heavy saucepan.
For a vegetarian version of this dish, omit the sausage, chicken and seafood and instead layer the top with a variety of fresh garden vegetables to steam along with the rice. I used diced red bell pepper, red onion and chunks of zucchini. The vegetarians in the crowd approved.
5 cups chicken broth or vegetable stock, or more if needed
1 teaspoon saffron threads (about 2 pinches)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Spanish chorizo sausages, cut into 1/2-inch discs
1 large onion, diced
2 or 3 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 cups Bomba or Calasparra rice
8 ounces shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on
8 ounces cleaned mussels or clams, scrubbed clean and beards removed
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, divided (or carrot tops or chives)
Lemon wedges, for serving
Bring stock to boil in a large saucepan and stir in the saffron; reduce heat and allow it to steep for at least 10 minutes while you prepare rice.
Heat olive oil in a paella pan or a large, deep cast-iron skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Brown chorizo on both sides for 2-3 minutes per side. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add onion, carrot, bell pepper and garlic to pan and saute for 5-7 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add tomato paste and stir well, cooking for 1 minute. Add paprika and season with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Continue to cook and stir for 5 minutes.
Season chicken thigh pieces with 1 teaspoon kosher salt and a couple grinds of black pepper. Add chicken and rice to the pan with the vegetables and oil. Cook and stir for 1 minute to coat all of the rice in seasonings and oil from the pan. The chicken will not be cooked through and that's OK. Return chorizo to the pan and stir to combine.
Slowly pour the broth around the pan. Give the pan a shake to settle the rice, but do not stir from this point on. You want a crusty layer of rice to form on the bottom of the pan. This is called the socarrat and it is key to a really good paella. (Stirring prevents the crust from forming.)
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cook uncovered for 15-18 minutes, giving the pan a shake once or twice during the cooking process, but do not stir. If it sounds like the paella is drying out before the rice has cooked through, you can add a splash of liquid or reduce the heat a little more.
Add seafood at this point, if using. You can nestle the seafood down into the rice a bit. Whether you are adding seafood or not, continue to cook the paella uncovered for 5 more minutes until done (about 20-23 minutes total time after adding the liquid to the rice). The liquid should be mostly absorbed and the rice should be tender.
Remove the paella from the heat and let it rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve with lemon slices.