Paella is a stunning dish, and it's more versatile than you might think.
In Spain, home cooks make family-size paellas outside over a live fire and fill them with whatever regional ingredients are easily accessible. (They also make them in dinner plate-size paella pans in their small apartment kitchens, too.)
When living there for a year in college, I had all kinds of paellas in all kinds of settings: With chicken and red peppers around my host mom's cramped kitchen table. With fideo and clams at a seaside restaurant. I even had one with rabbit with butter beans cooked over a smoky fire.
Every home cook had his or her own tricks for getting the rice to cook through while also forming that crispy crust on the bottom without burning. I'm still honing my own paella skills, and I love an excuse to work on them.
Earlier this month, I found this grilled paella recipe from a new cookbook from America's Test Kitchen: "The Complete Summer Cookbook: Beat the Heat With 500 Recipes That Make the Most of Summer's Bounty" (America's Test Kitchen, $32.99). I have a round paella pan, but I loved the idea of using a metal baking dish over a gas or charcoal grill. You could also make this on a stove, but on a beautiful fall afternoon, grilling outside is a great excuse to enjoy the fresh air.
When I had the chance to make a paella for a socially distanced camping trip, I decided to make two: one with chicken and shrimp and another without any meat at all.
The vegan paella was the most exciting because I'd never made one before. I picked up some Tofurky plant-based kielbasa sausage in the produce section of H-E-B, and I found no-fish seafood broth from Ocean's Halo at Whole Foods. (There are a number of other vegan seafood-inspired broths and bouillons available online, and you can also make your own with seaweed and mushrooms.)
In both paellas, I used red and yellow bell peppers, onions, garlic, lima beans, and green beans, and in the vegan one, I added mushrooms for extra umami and texture. It was surprisingly easy to cook both kinds of paella side-by-side on a large propane grill, and the America's Test Kitchen recipe has an excellent technique for flavoring the broth ahead of time. Instead of using a jar of roasted peppers, I sautéed all of the veggies before adding the Arborio rice to the paella pan. It's important to make sure all of the rice grains are coated in oil before adding the warm broth. (If the liquid is room temperature, it will add to the cooking time and throw off the water/rice ratio.)
For your best shot at getting that crispy socarrat on the bottom, resist the urge to stir the rice after you've added the broth. For the vegan version, there's no need to cook the plant-based sausage beforehand. Just nestle whatever plant-based protein you're using into the rice. If you're using peas or fava, lima or garbanzo beans, sprinkle them on top toward the end of the cooking time.
This flavor-packed Spanish rice dish is a perfect one-pot showpiece for entertaining. Many modern recipes are cooked on the stove, but paella was originally made on the grill, so we started there. A large roasting pan was easy to maneuver, and its surface area maximized the amount of rice in contact with the pan, which formed the caramelized crust known as socarrat. Building a large grill fire and fueling it with fresh coals (which ignited during cooking) ensured that the heat would last throughout cooking.
We streamlined the recipe by using roasted red peppers and tomato paste instead of fresh peppers and tomatoes. Staggering the addition of the proteins ensured that each element was perfectly cooked. Grilling the chicken thighs infused them with smoky flavor and gave them a head start on cooking, and arranging them around the cooler perimeter of the pan helped them stay moist. Nestling the clams and shrimp into the center of the pan allowed them to release their flavorful juices into the rice without overcooking. If littleneck clams are not available, increase the shrimp to 1 1/2 pounds and season the shrimp with 1/2 teaspoon salt at the beginning.
You will need a heavy-duty roasting pan that measures at least 11 by 14 inches for this recipe. If the exterior of your roasting pan is dark, the cooking times will be on the lower side of the ranges given. You can also cook this recipe in a paella pan that is 15 to 17 inches in diameter.
- America's Test Kitchen
• 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed and halved crosswise
• 1 1/4 teaspoons table salt, divided
• 1 teaspoon pepper
• 12 ounces jumbo shrimp (16 to 20 per pound), peeled and deveined
• 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
• 6 garlic cloves, minced, divided
• 1 3/4 teaspoons hot smoked paprika, divided
• 3 tablespoons tomato paste
• 4 cups chicken broth
• 1 (8-ounce) bottle clam juice
• 2/3 cup dry sherry
• Pinch saffron threads, crumbled (optional)
• 1 onion, chopped fine
• 1/2 cup jarred roasted red peppers, rinsed, patted dry and chopped fine
• 3 cups Arborio rice
• 1 pound littleneck clams, scrubbed
• 8 ounces Spanish-style chorizo sausage, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
• 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
• Lemon wedges
Pat chicken dry with paper towels and sprinkle both sides with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss shrimp with 1 1/2 teaspoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon garlic, 1/4 teaspoon paprika and 1/4 teaspoon salt in bowl until evenly coated. Set aside.
Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add remaining garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until garlic sticks to bottom of saucepan and begins to brown, about 1 minute. Add tomato paste and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until dark brown bits form on bottom of saucepan, about 1 minute. Stir in broth, clam juice, sherry and saffron, if using. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Remove saucepan from heat and set aside.
For a charcoal grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter mounded with charcoal briquettes. When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over grill. Using tongs, arrange 20 unlit briquettes evenly over coals. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
For a gas grill: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave all burners on high.
Clean and oil cooking grate. Place chicken on grill and cook until both sides are lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes; transfer chicken to plate and clean cooking grate.
Place roasting pan on grill (turning burners to medium-high if using gas) and add remaining 1/4 cup oil. When oil begins to shimmer, add onion, red peppers and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion begins to brown, 4 to 7 minutes. Stir in rice (turning burners to medium if using gas) until grains are well coated with oil.
Arrange chicken around perimeter of pan. Pour chicken broth mixture and any accumulated chicken juices over rice. Smooth rice into even layer, making sure nothing sticks to sides of pan and no rice rests atop chicken. When liquid reaches gentle simmer, place shrimp in center of pan in single layer. Arrange clams in center of pan, evenly dispersing with shrimp and pushing hinge side of clams into rice slightly so they stand up. Distribute chorizo evenly over surface of rice. Cook, moving and rotating pan to maintain gentle simmer across entire surface of pan, until rice is almost cooked through, 12 to 18 minutes. (If using gas, adjust burners as needed to maintain simmer.)
Sprinkle peas evenly over paella, cover grill, and cook until liquid is fully absorbed and rice on bottom of pan sizzles, 5 to 8 minutes. Continue to cook, uncovered, checking frequently, until uniform golden-brown crust forms on bottom of pan, 8 to 15 minutes. (Rotate and slide pan around grill as necessary to ensure even crust formation.) Remove from grill, cover with aluminum foil, and let sit for 10 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges. Serves 8.
- From "The Complete Summer Cookbook: Beat the Heat with 500 Recipes That Make the Most of Summer's Bounty" by America's Test Kitchen (America's Test Kitchen, $32.99)