What’s the best way to make paella? Easy: outside and over a wood fire. It lives up to the primal romance of cooking by fire. Meat, heat and eat. Like Francis Mallmann, perhaps the biggest proponent of cooking by fuego, told me, “always better outside.” (He literally wrote those three words to me in an Instagram direct message, and I’m totally non-humble bragging about it ♥) Francis is right: it’s so much better to cook and eat a meal outside. It’s also the way that Valencianos originally cooked paella — farm workers and laborers would huddle together at lunch and fire up some rice plus whatever else was on hand — chicken or rabbit, maybe a handful of snails and a few sprigs of wild rosemary. And it’s the way we prepared and ate a deeply flavorful paella last weekend. Picture perfect it wasn’t — but kissed by a wood fire, simmered with a fish head and packed with middle eastern spices it certainly was. I’ll take the latter any day.
There’s something so satisfying about building a fire, putting food over it and watching it change. Outside, where there’s less temptation to start washing dishes (old restaurant habits die hard) or to check your social media stats, you become hyperfocused on the details of cooking. Armed with tongs and a jar of cold white wine, I watched how fast the tomatoes started sizzling in the olive oil and the green peppers shriveled and caramelized; how the rice slowly went from skinny and brittle to plump and toothsome. I truly appreciated the power of fire.
Fishing for ourselves made it even better. I learned to cast when I was 12. After a routine braces tightening and me sobbing in pain, my dad took me fishing, thinking it would calm me. We were just us two, in a tiny green boat in the lake behind my house. He may or may not have given me a mouthful of beer to swish around in my mouth, as he instructed me to hook the line with my finger, open the bail, pull the rod back and release. Today, it still has that calming effect on me (both beer and fishing, tee hee hee). Plus, besides being infinitely fresher, when you fish it yourself, you feel more respect for the animal you’re eating. I considered how two hours earlier, the bass on our plates was swimming in the lake, cruising for snacks. And then we were eating him. I never consider the life of the salmon I buy from a pile of salmon on ice at Food Bazaar. Meat eating doesn’t feel bad, just more conscientious.
The stars aligned: we caught bigmouth bass, my sis-in-law Lau gifted us a paellera — the flat, shallow pan, which is where the name “paella” comes from — and I just received a shipment of custom blend spices from The Spanish Tin. We were destined to make a paella by fire. And we would do it al ojo, which means without a recipe. Because as long as you do a little homework beforehand and taste, taste and taste as you go, chances are you’ll make something delicious.
always better outside
Here are some tips for next time you have the chance to make a paella by fire:
- Build a solid structure. Make sure the structure on which you’re placing your pan is solid and even before you light the first match. The key is to make sure the rice and liquid don’t tip to one side. You also want to be sure that the pan will be centered over the fire, so that the rice cooks evenly. Again, do this before you start the fire — it’s gonna be much trickier to fix once the flames are blazing and you’ve got hungry friends waiting.
- Let the fire die down. I get it — I’m a nervous cook, and sometimes I want to dive right into cooking. But once you build your fire, it’s crucial to let it die down a bit before you begin. Why? Because fire is hot as hell — much more powerful than your stove top, I don’t care what kind of fancy range you’re werkin wit. If the fire is too hot, the rice will burn on the bottom (beyond the tasty socarrat — more on that below) and those flavors will infiltrate your entire dish.
- Do NOT stir. Again, very tempting. But in order to achieve the socarrat — that delish crusty rice layer that forms on the edges of the pan, you have to avoid stirring the rice once it starts cooking. You can and should do one initial stir, to evenly distribute the ingredients. Then hands off. Find a branch to play with. Go forage something. (Here’s a secret: the socarrat is where the most flavor is packed.)
- Salt, spice & taste. Though we’re not stirring, we are tasting, from beginning to end, to make sure salt and spice are on point. You cannot, I repeat cannot, just add a bunch of salt on top of your finished paella. Let them get to know each other early, and season to your liking.
- Test rice for doneness. Once all the moisture evaporates from your paella, test the rice for doneness. It should be al dente, a wink before risotto consistency.
- Repose before eating. Remove your paella from the fire and let it sit for 10 minutes or so, so the flavors really meld, before eating. Serve with slices of fresh lemon and encourage your peeps to eat from the same pan. It’s more autentico that way.
By the time our bigmouth bass paella was ready, night had fallen. I was so excited about the generation of our paella that I forgot to throw on the canned peas until the last moment. But the rice and the pan were hot enough to heat them quickly and as we ate out of the pan in the near-darkness, I could have sworn — it was one of the most gratifying meals I’d ever eaten.
Hasta la proxima,
Thanks to The Spanish Tin for hooking us up with their Far East spice blend. Also, it’s cozy eats season — head to The Spanish Tin and restock your spice cabinet with their spices STAT.
For more paella insight, here’s a very thorough story on the paella situation in Spain.