My first experience with seafood paella was shortly after my arrival in Spain. The paella was placed on the table complete with whole, head-on shrimp, the eyes appearing to look straight back at me. Paco grabbed one and demonstrated the technique for digging into one, complete with slurping up the “juices” from the head.
I unabashedly grabbed one and tried to replicate my host’s actions, quickly making a mess of the situation. With my limited Spanish, I asked a few questions and tried again, finally mastering the technique a few months into my six month stay in Seville. Dare I say that Paco and his wife Paquita were proud. Paquita was my hostess’ nickname. It translates as “Paco’s little wife”, which cracks me up—she was indeed tiny!
Paquita made an incredible paella. Many versions include meat, but Paquita’s was strictly seafood, complete with the head-on shrimp. My version of Paquita’s paella is a mash-up of what I can remember from 10+ years ago and a few techniques that I’ve picked up since.
For this version, I started with the Spanish flavor trifecta of onion, garlic, and tomatoes, and then I took a page out of Mexican cooking. A former co-worker named Jessica moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a teenager, and I used to stare longingly at her lunch every day. Tostadas, homemade salsas, pozole, tamales—she admittedly made some of it and bought other parts (like the tamales) but it always looked so good!
I questioned her on my Spanish rice technique after I made yet another disappointing batch. I was doing it ALL wrong. She explained that you blend the tomato and garlic together in a blender before cooking it with the rice and water. This, along with a Goya seasoning packet, gives the rice its signature orange hue without chunks of tomato floating around. Genius!
I used the same technique for this paella, which saves some time that you’d normally spend dicing everything finely. You just need a rough chop on the onion, garlic, and tomatoes. Then you’ll blend everything into a beautiful orange hued sauce that’ll flavor the paella.
The two typical seasonings for paella are saffron and paprika. You could absolutely use regular paprika, or track down smoked Spanish paprika as I did to add a very light smokiness to the finished dish. The smoked paprika is also amazing on roasted potatoes or a roasted chicken for future uses. I opted for seafood stock to complete the broth that the rice cooks in, though you could use chicken stock or vegetable stock instead.
Now onto the main event: the rice. Traditional paella rice is a short grained rice, which you can buy at certain specialty markets or online. It maintains just a hint of chewiness when cooked, similar to risotto rice. You could absolutely substitute arborio rice or a similar risotto rice if you can’t find paella rice.
Once the rice is almost cooked, you add the shrimp and mussels, cover with foil, and steam until the mussels are open. A quick word on mussels: buy them the day that you want to use them. Open them up as soon as you arrive at home (some grocery stores package them in a non-breathable container), and place them in a bowl in the refrigerator. When you’re ready to cook them, some may have opened. Give the open mussels a tap on the kitchen counter and wait for them to close. If they don’t, discard them. This is why the recipe calls for half of a pound, as you’ll usually need to toss a handful of them. Give the closed mussels a quick soak in a bowl of cold water to loosen the sand and dirt, and then they’re ready to be cooked.
I finished the paella with Matiz piparra peppers, which are pickled and have a slight punch of heat. They’re gorgeous on top of the paella and they make great snacking peppers. I put the extras in a small bowl and let my guests dig into them along with some Spanish olives before dinner.
This dish is a show-stopper, so I make sure the presentation is part of dinner. I bring the whole pan to the table, as they do in Spain, and then dish it out from there. If seafood isn’t your thing, you could make a meat version by using sliced chorizo and boneless skinless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized pieces. I’ve also made a version with bite-size green beans, artichoke hearts, and chopped roasted red peppers, and it was a hit with my vegetarian guests. Clams and calamari would be nice additions if your guests are big seafood lovers!
- 1 large Spanish onion roughly chopped
- 3 roma tomatoes roughly chopped
- 3 garlic cloves roughly chopped
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cups chicken stock or seafood stock
- ¾ teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
- ½ teaspoon saffron threads
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 2½ cups paella or risotto rice
- ½ lb mussels
- 8 jumbo shrimp shell-on if desired
- 8–10 piparra peppers
- Heat olive oil in a 12 inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and tomatoes. Cook for 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and very soft. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds more.
- Transfer the mixture to a blender. Remove the middle portion of the blender lid to allow steam to escape, and cover the hole with a dish towel. Blend at medium speed for 30 seconds, until the mixture is mostly smooth.
- Transfer the tomato mixture back to the pan and add the stock, paprika, saffron, salt, and rice. Allow to cook uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, inspect the mussels. If any are open, tap them gently against a countertop and wait for them to close. If any do not close, discard them.
- Place the closed mussels in a bowl of cool water and let sit for 10 minutes to allow any dirt or sand to release to the bottom of the bowl.
- When the liquid is almost absorbed by the rice, stir in the chorizo and shrimp. Drain the mussels and lay them on top of the rice.
- Cover the skillet with aluminum foil and allow to cook for 4–5 minutes, or until the clams and mussels open.
- Arrange piparra peppers over the top and serve.