August 20, 2012
Island Cooking:  Paella is a seafood feast


I really do enjoy cooking for my friends, and I recently cooked a substantial seafood dinner for some really good friends.

Another friend gave us some just-caught sea bass and tile fish and I combined them with shrimp in a great big fresh-tasting seafood paella.  My traditional steel paella pan holds servings for eight and we were only four at the table.  One or two of us could be called "a big eater," so there was not a lot remaining but what there was, was sent home with the friends for leftovers.

There are many recipes for paella and a great deal of innovation is acceptable.  The protein used depends on the region and its food traditions.  Rice, special short-grain rice, from the Spanish rice growing areas, is ideal.

I believe in terroir, the affinity for foods harvested from the same region, the same soil, same water, even the same breezes.  It is stretching it to infer that Spanish short-grained rice will taste better with our local harvests, but there is a more compelling reason to use it.  It has the perfect slightly chewy texture and flavor absorbing quality for paella and paella is, after all, at its heart a rice dish.  Regardless of whatever else you put in the pan, the rice is the reason.  If you cannot get Spanish rice, use a high quality short-grained variety like Arborio or California pearl rice.

The base is very important and, depending on what ingredients you plan to add, you will want a good stock.  Seafood, chicken, or vegetable all work just fine.

For this dinner, I used a seafood stock.  I did cheat and purchase a high quality organic fish stock but I added shrimp shells to intensify the flavor and complement the shrimp.

You will also want Spanish paprika and saffron.  

Paprika from Spain is different from the bland supermarket variety.  Is is slowly smoked over oak and has a fuller flavor.  Unless you really, really love paprika, take it easy, especially if you are adding chorizo which is rich in paprika flavor.  There are several choices of this paprika -- sweet, dulce, semisweet, or hot, picante.  I prefer the sweet.  It isn't actually sweet but it doesn't have as much heat.  

Yes, saffron is pricey, but not outrageously so in the minute quantities available at retail and you won't use it up quickly.  It is essential to paella, both in its exotic flavor and the beautiful golden color it imparts to the rice.  Anyway, it is expensive for a good reason.  Saffron comes from the stigmas of the crocus plant.  Imagine hand picking them at dawn from millions of tiny purple crocus flowers, only three stigmas to a flower and then immediately roasting them.  It takes hours to get even one cup of saffron.

Because pork and seafood are a good pairing and because my friends like hearty fare, I used chorizo and Serrano ham, more for flavoring than for bites - rather like I often do with bacon.  I also add piquillo peppers, luscious and jewel-colored roasted sweet red peppers.

Rather than serve a green salad, I decided to mix up one of my favorite side dishes, a cooling cucumber and sweet onion mix marinated for a few hours in a sweet/tart minty  simple syrup with white vinegar.  Couldn't be simpler and tastes like summer.

Inspired by the recipes of Penelope Casas

About 5-6 cups seafood broth
1 pound shrimp
Shells from the peeled shrimp
2 fillets sea bass
2 fillets tile fish - or other firm, fresh fish (not an oily variety)
1 pinch saffron threads
1/2 cup dry white wine
Sea salt
3 ripe tomatoes in season or 1 small can of chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 teaspoons sweet Spanish paprika
3 cups Calasparra, Bomba or other short-grain Spanish rice
2 bay leaves, crumbled
1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
1/2 jar of piquillo peppers, sliced
1 cup of beans of your choice or peas

Add the shells from the peeled shrimp to the broth in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil and heat together on low for about 1/2 hour.  Stir in saffron and wine.  Keep warm.

Cut the fish into bite-size chunks and set aside with the peeled shrimp.  Sprinkle with sea salt.
Grate the ripe tomatoes. Mince the garlic and the parsley and slice the roasted peppers.

Place the pan (about 17-18" in diameter) over two burners.  Add the olive oil and quickly saute the seafood for two minutes.  Remove and reserve.

Add the onion and saute until golden.  Add the garlic and cook another minute.

Stir in the tomatoes and the paprika.  Continue cooking another 2 minutes.

Add the rice and crumble in the bay leaves.
Bring the broth back up to a boil and add to the pan, along with the beans  Cook uncovered over medium-high heat until the paella is no longer "soupy," but there is enough liquid to cook the rice.

Stir in the cooked seafood and the pepper strips and transfer to a pre-heated 400-degree oven.  

Cook, uncovered, about 10 minutes, until the rice is nearly done and the broth mostly absorbed.
Remove from the oven.  Cover loosely with foil and allow to sit on the stove top for another 10 minutes before serving.

Sprinkle with the parsley and serve directly from the pan.

Good, crusty bread and a salad are all that is needed to complete the meal.

Most of the ingredients are available here, but if not you can get them at La Tienda in Williamsburg or through the online store at  It offers the finest Spanish ingredients, cookware, and other products with excellent service.  And enjoy Don's Blog with his personal stories of their artisans and producers and fine food and traveling in Spain.  Their commitment to and support for their suppliers is truly admirable.


1 long, English-style cucumber or 2 "regular" cucumbers
1 small sweet onion, Mattamuskeet if you can get it or Vidalia
Equal parts water, sugar, and white vinegar - about 1 cup each
A handful of fresh mint leaves plus a few for garnish

Combine the water, sugar, and half the vinegar and the mint leaves in a saucepan and bring to a boil until the sugar has dissolved.  Allow to sit for at least an hour so the mint infuses the syrup.  Taste and correct to your taste, adding more vinegar if too sweet.  The syrup should be tart and sweet and minty.

Peel the cucumber and slice in half lengthwise.  Remove the seeds and cut into slices.   Place in a long, shallow container.

Slice the onions into thin rings and combine with cucumbers.

Pour the syrup over the vegetables to cover.  Refrigerate overnight.

Slice the mint leaves very thinly for garnish.

All you need for after dinner is fresh seasonal fruit and Manchego, a delicious Spanish cheese.

(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)

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