I have a feeling you’re looking at the title of this post with some skepticism. Easy paella? Isn’t that an oxymoron? We all know paella as a complicated dish so time-intensive that many Spanish restaurants ask you to call your order in ahead of time.
Well, thanks to Mark Bittman’s wonderful cookbook The Best Recipes in the World, I know better. Paella, he assures us, started as a simple work-night supper, and remains so in many parts of Spain. You can complete a scrumptious paella in 40 minutes – and you can spend 20 of that reading a book, or prepping a side salad and setting the table. In fact, paella isn’t much more trouble than its sister dish, pilaf – and unlike pilaf, which is usually a side, paella is a spectacular one-bowl main dish that will impress anyone you feed it to. You can serve it with a salad or bread if you like, but it’s not necessary. Everything you need is here.
Of course, the road to glory is not always a smooth one, and my first attempt at Bittman’s recipe left something to be desired. Paella is all about the rice: The grains should be firm yet moist, delicately clinging together without clumpiness, each one cooked through without a hint of chalkiness but still distinctly firm to the bite. Ideally, some of the bottom grains should be deliciously browned and a little crisp. And, of course, it should be delicious.
The first time I cooked paella, I made a terrible mistake – I failed to follow my instincts. Every recipe I’ve ever seen for the dish cooked it in the oven, uncovered. Generations of Spanish cooks can’t be wrong… right? So I put the pan in the oven without a lid, despite misgivings. And when I took it out, sure enough, the top grains were dry and not cooked through.
I scraped the top off that paella, and we ate the rest, and it was fine. But even what was left in the pan wasn’t perfect. I knew it could be better, that it would have been better if I’d just trusted myself. So after a little time to get over the sting of failure, I tried again. This time I covered the pan when I put it in the oven, then removed the lid after 15 minutes (which also happens to be the time when you want to add delicate ingredients like fish). After the final 10 minutes in the oven, this rice was perfect. The 15 minutes of covered cooking time allowed it to cook through, and the uncovered time let it dry out to produce perfect, moist, separate grains.