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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011 08:41 pm

The pleasures of paella


I’ve had Spain on my brain lately. Not because I’m planning a trip, although it’s high on my travel wish list. It’s because on Aug. 14 my husband, Peter, and I will host a house concert by a world-famous flamenco guitarist.

We’d decided not to have any more house concerts until fall. But when the opportunity to book Adam Del Monte came up, we just couldn’t turn it down.

A classical and flamenco guitarist, Del Monte spent much of his childhood in Spain, which he considers his natural environment. He studied classical guitar in Spain and Britain, and also spent months at a time living with gypsies in caves in the Sacromonte hill in Granada, Spain, absorbing the art of flamenco. “My physical body was born in Israel, but my soul was born in Granada,” he says. “Flamenco is much more than guitar playing and the percussive dance associated with it. Above all, it’s a way of life with a multi-faceted feeling.”

Del Monte has won international guitar competitions and performed worldwide, including in America at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, and with the Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta symphonies. He also composes and teaches at the University of Southern California.

If flamenco is a musical way of life, paella is a culinary way of life. In fact, there’s an article in the July/August 1996 issue of Saveur magazine entitled “Paella as a Way of Life.” Considered Spain’s national dish, it has countless familial and regional variations, but everyone agrees that paella originated in Valencia, where the short-grain rice integral to it flourishes in area marshes. They also agree that the original paella wasn’t seafood-laden, as are many modern versions, but was a rustic dish made with ingredients from kitchen gardens and hutches: chicken, rabbit, land snails and three kinds of beans, cooked over a wood fire and eaten from a communal pan outdoors.

That’s about all they do agree on. Some insist paella is still properly consumed only outdoors, away from the city. Some say it’s been perfected in restaurants. Some say it should be eaten midday, others say at night. Some say paella can only be made with Valencia’s calcium-rich water. Is making it on a stove acceptable? Finishing it in an oven?

Acceptable ingredients are disputed. Mixed paellas (containing meat and seafood) are less common in Spain than in America, although they do exist. There are fish and seafood paellas; vegetable paellas; meat, poultry and game paellas; egg paellas – there’s even a paella (my favorite) that uses pasta instead of rice. Spanish cooking expert Penelope Casas’ cookbook, Paella! contains more than three dozen variations.

In the end, though, what makes paella a “way of life” doesn’t depend on specific ingredients, or how it’s prepared. Like flamenco, paella is meant to be shared with family and friends, a convivial celebration of life.

To make a reservation or find out more about the Aug. 14 house concert featuring Adam Del Monte, visit www.glatzclinic.com or call 217-525-8444.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RealCuisine Recipe

I’ve never actually made paella, although I’ve helped with prep. That’s because it’s Peter’s specialty, something he’s made for years for our family, for dinner parties, and when camping. He’s acquired several paella pans of various sizes. The latest measures 26 inches across, purchased specially for the upcoming concert.

This recipe is adapted from one on The Spanish Table website, www.spanishtable.com. It lists the ingredients per person, which is particularly useful. The Spanish Table has a bounty of Spanish ingredients, cookbooks, cooking equipment (including multiple sizes of paellera – paella pans) wine and more.

A note about ingredients and equipment: Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by weight. The hand-harvested stigmas of a particular crocus, between 150,000 and 225,000 stigmas are needed for one pound. But a little goes a long way: the following recipe takes only five threads (dried stigmas) per person. Saffron is available locally at the Italian Food Mart (although they're currently sold out), 416 E. Monroe, and at Mini Devon, 2700 W. Lawrence, #K.

 Often – even in Spain – turmeric or powdered yellow dye is substituted to provide the distinctive yellow hue, though not saffron’s flavor.

Spanish paprika is smoked, giving it a special taste. Widely available online, it’s become a staple in my kitchen. Substituting regular (Hungarian) paprika produces a slightly different, though equally delicious, paella.

Paella pans (available online and at Target) are inexpensive, but a wide shallow skillet works just fine. 

Ingredients per person

  • 5 threads saffron, or substitute a pinch of turmeric
  • Dry white wine – 1/4 c. for the first person; 2 T. for each addition
  • 1 c. chicken stock
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 c. uncooked short-grain Spanish rice or Arborio (Italian risotto rice)
  • 1 chicken piece, such as a thigh or wing
  • 4 or 5 half-inch slices of Spanish cured chorizo, or substitute another spicy pork sausage
  • 1/2 teaspoon Spanish sweet smoked paprika or substitute sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 c. chopped onion
  • 2 T. canned crushed tomato
  • 2 shrimp
  • 2-4 small clams and/or mussels
  • 2-4 roasted red pepper strips
  • 1/2 - 2/3 c. total of one or more of the following: artichoke hearts, peas, and green beans, preferably broad flat beans, such as Romas, cut into two-inch lengths

For garnish

  • Chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
  • Lemon wedges
Several hours or the day before beginning to cook the paella, crush saffron and add to the wine. Set aside.

Heat the stock in a separate pan. Keep warm.

Heat a paella pan or wide shallow skillet over medium heat. Add enough olive oil to completely coat the bottom and fry chicken until it begins to brown. Next add garlic and onions and sauté until translucent. Add chorizo and cook until heated. Add the rice, stirring until well coated with oil. Add the paprika and tomato. Stir while cooking for a few minutes.

Add saffron-infused wine and hot stock. Bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of pan. Do not stir from this point on.

Adjust heat to a slow simmer. When the rice has absorbed much liquid but still has a soupy appearance, add the mussels and/or clams.

Once the rice is cooked, add salt to taste. Add the shrimp, tucking them down into the rice, then the vegetables. During this time the rice should be caramelizing on the bottom of the pan, creating what is called the socarrat. It will make a faint crackling sound and smell toasty sweet but not burnt.

Set aside to “rest” for 5-10 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, garnish with lemon wedges and serve.

To cook paella in an oven: Use an oven if your pan is too large to cook on the stove, even with occasionally moving the pan around on the burner(s). Begin on the stove, but after adding the liquid, carefully move your paella pan into the oven (350 degrees-400 degrees). Once rice is done, return it to the stovetop to create the caramelized layer of rice on the bottom of the pan.

To cook paella over a barbeque grill, an open fire, or in a fireplace: Cooking a paella on a kettle-type barbeque, open fire or fireplace is easy because the cooking sequence follows the fire’s natural cycle. Once a good, hot bed of coals is established, brown the chicken and follow the sequence above. The fire only needs to remain hot enough to bring the liquid to a boil when adding the rice. Once it’s boiling, the rice can slowly simmer, absorbing the other ingredients’ juices, along with the saffron’s color, flavor and aroma. The smoke created by the wood, and/or throwing herb sprigs and/or grapevines on the coals, imparts extra flavor. The fire can die down slowly while the rice cooks.
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