Musings on paella

I have offered to cook for my great buddy Mark at his forthcoming wedding.

We’re looking at between 50-100 guests. We’ve settled on paella as a main course. As I already have the equipment to cook 60 portions of paella (two massive burners and pans) this seems sensible.

I can hear you thinking – but Nick, this is a perfect opportunity to roast a whole pig/lamb/antelope, what’s wrong with you, wanting to cook just boring old rice? Well I’ve promised the bride and groom that I will not be biting off any more than I can chew, just this one time. It’s their special day.


Much of it can be pre-prepared, making life on the day much easier. The major effort is probably chopping up the vegetables for sofrito – but I’ll get Hannah to do that.

It is very important to get this right on the day so I am doing a bit of research and pre-preparation to get the recipe bang on.

In cooking paella there are several fundamental principles that have seen me right. Firstly you need a decent paella rice, calasparra or bomba. Preferably it comes in a nice cloth bag but that’s not essential.

You must have a very good, flavoursome freshly prepared stock.

Thirdly you should cook it outdoors. Over a wood fire is nice but gas is more realistic and easier to control.

In fact, you could stop there, great rice and great stock should give you a tasty dish.

But it won’t be paella, you need at least a sofrito for that. Conventionally the sofrito has onions, green peppers and garlic in although even this isn’t set in stone.

Some say the sofrito shouldn’t have onions. I find this hard to understand, onions are a key source of flavour in a sofrito – but perhaps for a fish paella with subtle flavours this could be true.

The sofrito must be cooked very well and be well caramelised (but never burnt). This is an important source of flavour.

Some insist tomatoes are a vital addition. Tomatoes obviously contain umami which is useful to create a rounded dish but too much tomato flavour may add too much acidity. If you need acidity in the paella to cut through the oil then a sprinkle of lemon juice does the trick.

If you do use tomatoes, should you use canned or fresh? Sliced, left whole or grated?

Saffron is probably a must. But it’s easy to overdo this powerful spice.

Moro often like to soak dried noras peppers and rip them up into the paella. These definitely have a distinctive flavour. The only problem with this is that the skin tends to stick in your teeth, potentially ruining wedding photos.

We already said good stock is a must, but chicken, fish or vegetable? Or a combination of two?

Olive oil. How much? Moro call for the rice to be glistening with oil but never greasy. Some olive oils are too strong flavoured, I prefer to use a neutral flavoured (i.e. cheaper) extra-virgin oil for paella.

Jerez. The Moro recipe for rice with chicken and artichokes calls for a third as much oloroso as stock. This should give a beautifully rich flavour but might be too rich for some people. Certainly this approach won’t work with a fish paella. Although dry white wine or fino is probably worth considering in any paella.

After all this, I genuinely think the main ingredients are less important. You want some nice tasting protein but you don’t have to go mad. Some arroz uses sparse additional ingredients: chicken and artichoke, rabbit and chorizo, pork and greens. I think I prefer these.

An apparently “authentic” Valencian paella often seems to choose anything that is to hand: chicken, pork, prawns, clams, squid, mussels, snails etc. My experience is that less is more. And besides, few of us can really claim to be able to put our hands on spanking fresh seafood.

Suspect snails won’t go down well at a wedding. And besides you have to keep them in a box for 2 weeks to shit out their insides.

Chorizo: probably only necessary for hearty meat paellas (and even then, not for all). One would want a semi-cured or fully-cured chorizo as opposed to fresh. The latter gives more flavour but the pieces will be harder.

Peas are nice!

The burnt layer on the bottom of the paella – the socarrat – is important. Although paella is never a wet rice, it shouldn’t be bone dry either. It should be covered with foil during the 2nd half of the cooking.

Finishing touches: adding lemon wedges seems like a good idea. Grated lemon rind over the top might also be nice. Why not go the whole hog and sprinkle with a gremolata? That’s Italian so not authentic but might work well.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Some further reading: Rick Cooks, Paella Professor including some thoughts on tomatoes in paella, Moro’s chicken and artichoke paella.

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