My husband is about as American as you can get. Until recently, Sergio had spent nearly all his life in the Lone Star State, having grown up outside of Houston, Texas, attended University of Texas as an undergrad and relocated to Houston as an adult. He loves all things sports (particularly the ’Horns), can grill like a pro, and drives a Ford F150.
But what makes him even more American is the fact that he came from somewhere else. Sergio was born to a Spanish mother and Cuban father in Spain. His father had always dreamed of coming to the United States and, so dedicated was he to fulfilling this chosen destiny, that my father-in-law gave up 2 years of his life in a Cuban work camp before he was permitted to leave his country. Shortly after Sergio was born, his father’s papers came in, and off they moved to relocate in a foreign land (and, I imagine, the even more foreign town of Sugar Land).
Sergio became a naturalized citizen in 1991, an experience that plays out every day in the United States. So even though he is 100% American, he is also (as he jokingly adds) “50% Cuban and 50% Spanish”. As such, he has access to the authentic recipes of his abuela‘s kitchen, passed down orally through his mother.
Among the favorites is her recipe for paella. Paella is one of those dishes that, after you have made it yourself, you will wonder why you pay an arm and a leg for it in the restaurants. While a bit labor-intensive (you constantly have to monitor the paella to make sure the rice is cooking evenly), a good paella is relatively simple and cheap to make. Also, because of the novelty and communalism of it (truly a “family style” dish), it is great for dinner parties.
1 regular white or yellow onion, diced
6 whole cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/2 large red bell pepper, 1/2 of which is cut into thin strips, the other 1/2 diced
1 1/2 cups paella rice (or short-grained rice in a pinch)
1/4 pound chorizo (or your favorite sausage or ham), diced in 1/2 inch cubes
1 pound of seafood comprising:mussels and/or clams (in shell) and calamari
1 pound of shrimps (in shell with the heads, the larger the better)
a few threads of saffron
salt, pepper and sugar, to taste
1. Place 3/4 pound of shrimp in 5 1/2 cups of water and, after reaching a rolling boil for 3 minutes, reduce to low-medium heat and allow to cook for 30 minutes (shrimp broth).
2. Cover bottom of paella pan in thin layer of olive oil, at medium-high heat.
3. Cook 1/4 pound chorizo just enough to render fat.
4. Once pan is hot, place 6 garlic cloves (still in their peels) in olive oil and remove when thoroughly browned.
5. Place 1 diced onion and and 1/4 red bell pepper, diced, and stir. Once onion is translucent, add calamari and continue to stir.
7. Add 1 1/2 cups paella rice, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of pepper and a generous pinch of sugar and continue to stir.
8. Remove shrimp from pot, remove the heads from the shrimp, deshell, devein and cut the shrimp into small morsels and mix with rice.
9. Add 1 cup of shrimp broth and 3-5 threads of saffron, and continue to stir until boiling.
10. As liquid boils off, continue to add 2 more cups of shrimp broth.
11. Boil for 5 minutes, covered (heavy or tripled-folded aluminum foil works well), and then lower heat to medium-low.
12. Leave for 10 minutes, covered.
13. Add remaining 2 cups shrimp broth slowly as it absorbed by the rice.
14. Arrange mussels/clams, shrimp (with heads) and 1/4 red bell pepper, sliced, on top.
15. Allow to cook for 5 more minutes, covered.
16. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes, covered.
Paella does require a large, flat-bottomed pan for cooking the rice evenly- the key to a good paella. This does not necessarily mean you must go out and buy a paella pan (although if you cook it frequently enough, it is well worth it, as a paella pan can be used for plenty of other dishes), you can always ad lib and/or make smaller quantities.
Because paella rice must be cooked evenly, most stoves are not ideal to evenly distribute heat across your big-bottomed pan. A grill (charcoal or gas) is a great solution. Just be sure to pay close attention to your rice- it cooks quickly on the grill! Otherwise, turn on all burners to cover as much surface area as possible and rotate the pan to distribute heat evenly.
Fresh seafood (vs. frozen) really makes a big difference.
If you can’t find shrimp with their heads on, substitute chicken broth for shrimp broth and substitute more seafood or chicken for the shrimp.