A large paella pan filled with smoky wild mushrooms, deep earthy flavor, and both creamy and crispy rice. This may not be your “go to” party menu, but you just might want to rethink that. Millions of Spaniards have made this their traditional weekend house or celebratory meal of choice for hundreds of years.
We tend to think of hamburgers or maybe steaks as the perfect thing to throw on the grill for company. But consider Paellas many advantages. The versatility and seasonality lend itself to so many variations. Dietary restrictions are easily met. Gluten free? Check. Vegan? No problem. Carnivorous cravings? Pile it in. Fish you aren’t certain what to do with? Build a paella around it. Strange CSA box contents and wondering what to do with turnips or field peas? Paella delivers up easy answers. Epicurean adventures and challenges, all handled with ease. And then there is the magical thing that happens when you all gather around a shared pot. Much like Swiss fondue, Szechuan hot pot, or a Low Country Boil there is something special to the gathering around a shared dish that adds a sense of community to the experience.
You may think of paella as exotic restaurant food requiring special equipment and knowledge, but it really didn’t originate that way. In Spain, this was always meant to be a dish cooked at home in the outdoors over a fire and shared with friends. And although traditional Valencia paella uses rabbit, snails, beans, and chicken; even there it has as many variations as chefs. A Paella pan is helpful and a good investment. As is Bomba rice (although risotto is a good widely available substitute). But don’t let their absence from your cabinet stop you from trying it out. Your improvised results with a flat skillet and short grain rice will likely blow any of those “fluffy yellow rice with frozen peas and shrimp” memories out of the water. Time, technique, and ingredients are very varied and forgiving. Relax. Figure out what you have, what you crave, or who’s coming over. And put on a show. Enjoy a glass of wine and conversation as the sofrito simmers and liquid absorbs. Watch the magical transformation as simple ingredients like rice, mushrooms, and stock become dinner theater right on your patio.
To get you started here is a recipe for Wild Mushroom and Vegetable Paella inspired by an EVO Grill demo at the Charleston Wine & Food Festival by award winning and very charming Chef Katie Button of Curate. She encouraged the same, “Relax! It will be okay” mentality. Here, she cooked up Paella for 40. But our recipe is scaled down for 6-8 guests. If you need to feed more people than that, you might try a variation with seafood or meat in a second pan.. You can even find recipes for dessert paella with ingredients like mango and coconut and black rice. A simple green salad tossed with a sherry vinaigrette is all you need on the side.
Traditionally everyone will be given a wooden fork and eat from the outside in with mental triangles creating personal sections according to number of guests. And ingredients in your area that you don’t particularly enjoy are traditionally moved to the pan’s center, where they up for grabs by all. So add to the list of paella party benefits, very few dishes! Get recyclable bamboo forks and you won’t even have those to clean. What’s not to love? So I encourage you to BE BRAVE and to give it a try for your spring time patio opener. Offer up some bread, mixed olives, and sangria as your friends arrive. Unless they are Spanish, your guests will never see it coming. You might even decide you need a paella pan.