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For the longest time, to me, Spanish food meant tapas and tapas only. Baked goat cheese in tomato sauce, calamari a la plancha, sautéed mushrooms, pinxtos…what’s not to love? I’d always been so firmly focused on the small plates, I never bothered exploring the array of more filling options. And after staring down the beady-eyed shrimp topping my first paella during a trip to Madrid, I wasn’t quite sure that I was up for the challenge.

But once I got past my fear of picking apart the little creatures, I was on a mission to learn to make paella at home. It just seemed a little overwhelming, what with hunting down the special pan, special rice, special who the hell knew what else. So being the thoughtful man he is, upon our return to Chicago Gaspar made us reservations at Café Ba-Ba-Reeba’s paella cooking demo. Of course, I suspect he was thinking about how he could benefit from me learning to make paella, as much as he was thinking about making me a happy lady. For anyone living in the area, I wholeheartedly recommend signing up for the class. It’s reasonably priced, includes lunch and vino, and they sell super convenient paella kits. For the rest of you, check out La Tienda for kits or individual ingredients.

Once you gather the key items, you will get plenty of use out of them. Trust me. The first must is a paella pan. The pans are shallow and have sloping sides, which helps the rice cook evenly and develop a more intense flavor. In addition to the proper pan, it’s important to use high-quality paella rice. Calasparra or Bomba rice is the best. These are classic short grain varieties grown in Spain that are super absorbent, expand in width when cooked, and maintain their separate shape without becoming creamy or sticky. Then there’s the saffron, which gives the paella its rich yellow color and an additional depth of flavor. I also consider the sweet smoky Spanish paprika a must.

Beyond these key ingredients, I tend to mix it up, and you should too. Chicken, monkfish, rabbit, chorizo, shrimp, mussels, peas, red peppers…whatever strikes your fancy.

Real, Valencian paella is almost always cooked over an open fire, which helps it develop the delicious socarrat, a caramelized crust of rice. I’m not really in the proper situation to be cooking over open flames, so my methods are modified accordingly and sadly, that means no socarrat. But if you have the time, patience and equipment for it, you can cook the paella either over an open flame or completely on the stovetop, rotating it often. Whichever way you choose, tranqui, it’ll still be delicious.

This version is adapted from the recipe for Arroz el Principe in Paella Cookbook from Café Ba-Ba-Reeba.

PAELLA MIXTA

4 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 pound (approx. 1/4 kilo) dark meat chicken, diced

Seafood of choice (I recommend 15 raw shrimp or 1/2 pound shelled mussels)

1/4 pound hard Spanish-style chorizo sausage, diced

2 tsp. garlic, minced

1 tsp. sweet pimentón (paprika)

3 ounces tomato puree

1 can peas

1 1/4 cup Calasparra or Bomba rice

3 threads saffron

4 cups chicken stock

salt, to taste

Before you start, I recommend prepping all the ingredients. The cooking process goes pretty quickly, so it’s best to have everything on hand.

Heat the olive oil in your paella pan over medium heat, and sauté the chicken until golden brown. Add the garlic, sweet pimentón, tomato puree, peas and chorizo. Then add the rice, stirring so that the grains are thoroughly coated with the oil mixture. Finally, add the saffron and chicken stock. Turn heat to low. Continue to cook until 1/4 of the liquid is reduced. Add the seafood, without stirring the rice (I just sort of tuck/dunk the seafood into the mixture, so as not to disturb the rice too much). Season with salt and bring to a boil. Place in the oven at 350° Fahrenheit for 15 – 20 minutes. Before serving, let it rest for a few minutes, covered with brown paper or foil, so that the rice absorbs the liquid completely and the outside edges crisp.