(Almost) Traditional Spanish Paella

Perhaps no dish conjures up more images of Spain than paella. Steeped in history and distinctive spices, to prepare this dish is to summon the soul of Spain and the spirit of her people.

For the uninitiated, paella (pronounced “pie-AY-ya”) is kind of a rice casserole, traditionally prepared in a special kind of pan (from which it takes its name) over an open fire. And it’s prepared by men.

Food carries a very strong cultural imperative in Spain, and customs are not swept away merely for the sake of political correctness. Throughout Spain, there are exclusive all-male clubs dedicated entirely to cooking and to the pleasures of the table.

Paella has at least 400 years of history, and its origins are in the province of Valencia, on the southeast coast. There, they grow the medium-grain Valencia rice that absorbs flavors wonderfully and is the key to the dish. The first paellas were made by peasants, using their native rice and whatever was available–often snails, onions, and that curious import from the New World, the tomato.

Since then paella has evolved into an enormous variety of dishes in every region of Spain, as well as the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the Philippines. Many use saffron, but not all, and the countless combinations of ingredients include all manner of shellfish, game, fowl, mushrooms, and finfish.

The traditional method, using the wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed paella pan, cooks slowly over a well-regulated fire. Where Americans might have a clambake, Spanish families have beach cookouts where paella is made amid plenty of wine-fueled arguments about the right way to do it. Controlling the fire, stirring enough but not too much, when to add which ingredients so they cook completely without overcooking; all this is debated throughout the process because every Spanish cook claims to make the best paella. This method takes practice and patience, but is quite rewarding for all who partake.

Now for those who are looking for a shortcut, here’s a simpler method that cooks the rice and the seafood/chicken/chorizo mixture separately so it doesn’t require the constant attention of the traditional method. Breaking with tradition is not a sin of which I am often guilty, but I have to admit that this does produce quite a tasty dish … even if I would be shunned by my fellow male chefs in Spain.

Fresh At the Farmers’ Market: Pick a Pack of Bell Peppers

Sweet bell peppers always seem to be around–and to some degree, they are. You can find them at the supermarket year-round. But this is their peak season, when they ripen in home gardens and flood farmers’ market stands.

With their iconic bell shape and primary hues ranging from green to red, yellow, and orange (you’ll even find shades of purple), these peppers are the workhorses of the kitchen. We reach for them whenever we want to add a little crunch to a slaw or a dash of color to a stir-fry.

I confess that while I appreciate their sunny palette, mild flavor, and lovely texture, I usually make bells play second fiddle to the fiery glamour of their hot chile pepper cousins. That’s too bad, because they deserve the spotlight. Bell peppers certainly pack an impressive nutritional punch. A red bell has nearly twice as much vitamin C as a navel orange; orange and yellow peppers have even more.


As with any produce, you want bell peppers that are brightly colored, unblemished, and firm with thick flesh. Green bell peppers are, basically, unripened versions and taste less sweet (some say, bitter) than red, orange, or yellow peppers. Which variety to use depends on what you want in terms of flavor and color.


You can recruit bell peppers to add a background note to all manner of dishes or make them the star attraction (they’ll enjoy the spotlight). Some ideas:

  • An aromatic base: Just as mirepoix (chopped onion, carrot, and celery) is the basis of many French dishes, Louisiana cooks rely on their “trinity” of green bell peppers, celery, and onion as a key ingredient in Cajun and Creole dishes like gumbo and jambalaya.  A version of Italian soffrito calls for sauteing minced green bell pepper, celery, onion, and garlic in olive oil as the first step in many recipes.
  • As a vessel: Stuffed peppers are a standby dinner in many households. Just cut off the top, discard the seeds and stems, and stuff them with a filling (a combo of browned lean ground beef and cooked brown rice or quinoa would work; so would our Easy Rice Pilaf). Bake your stuffed peppers at 350 F for about 15 minutes.
  • In a hot dish: Sure, temperatures are soaring now, but cooler evenings aren’t far off. Bell peppers play very nicely in cozy chilis and curries, like Kurt’s Iowa City Chili and Lia’s Pumpkin Curry.
  • In a sauce or side: To try bell peppers paired with deliciously complex Aztec flavors, make Lia’s Grilled Onions with Chile-Nut Puree. Our Sweet Pepper Confit shows off a variety of red, yellow, and orange peppers cooked over low heat until they’re meltingly tender for a condiment that works as well on sandwiches as it does sausages.

My version of Spanish romesco sauce here puts roasted red bell peppers front and center in a versatile sauce that’s starring in lots of meals at our house this week–pasta, pizza, a dipper for grilled shrimp … give it a try and let us know how you end up using it.

Roasted Red Pepper Romesco Sauce

Romesco sauce is delicious staple of Spanish cuisine. Our version of Catalonian tomato-red pepper romesco sauce boosts the ratio of roasted bell peppers. There are lots of ways to roast peppers and other items. Lia likes to do it on the stovetop in a comal (a flat griddle pan). You can also throw them on a hot grill (especially good and smoky if you add soaked wood chips to the coals or a smoker box), or use a pair of tongs to hold peppers over the open flame of a gas stove. Since this recipe calls for roasting a fairly large volume, we pop ‘em under the broiler. However you do it, the result is a simple, smoky romesco sauce that you can serve with grilled bread as an appetizer; as a condiment with fish, poultry, or meat; tossed with pasta; or even on pizza in place of traditional tomato sauce. It may just end up being your new all-purpose sauce.