North Florida Paella

It’s not just for South Florida. Even with its complexity of tastes, paella is a simple dish to prepare.

Though South Florida is famous for the traditional Spanish dish, paella, we folks in North Florida have our own version. We gather and eat the fruits of our local waters and woods, which is typical for this dish in many lands. Ahh, the smell of toasted saffron, garlic, grilled wild birds and fresh seafood.

I love paella in all its variations. Whether in Spain, Miami or across the Americas, I’ve never eaten two paellas that were alike. The dish, always based on rice and saffron, is a showcase of local food products. I’ve had it in a purple-black variety colored with squid ink, and I’ve had it in a totally vegetarian form using fresh artichokes as the centerpiece of the recipe. You’ll find it made with rabbit meat and mussels in Spain, or shrimp and pork sausage in South Florida. No matter which form it takes, paella is a great celebration and tribute to the foods of a particular geographic area.

Even with its complexity of tastes and numerous ingredients, paella is a simple dish to prepare. With some planning—mostly gathering ingredients—your paella can be prepared in about three hours, even on major holidays. Mom will be excited about that, as there’s no more getting up before the chickens to start the oven for the turkey or roast beef!

Paellas cook best in a large pan. Latin grocery stores usually carry several sizes of aluminum paella pans, and there are also some very nice ceramic ones available. Use a pan to fit the size of your crowd. A big roasting pan will do just fine, so long as it fits your oven. We keep two or three different sizes of aluminum pans around the house, as we sometimes make smaller paellas for four or six people. This recipe is for a group of 10 to 12 hungry celebrants.

With the exception of the rice, saffron and olive oil, the preparation of paella is all about options. The first is deciding whether to cook it on the stovetop or in the oven. I prefer the oven method, as there’s little spattering during the initial browning of the first ingredients.

My list of ingredients is below (Serves 10-12):

1 ⁄2 cup olive oil

2 onions, red or yellow, sliced

1 bell or Cubanelle pepper

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 large chicken, duck or goose, chopped with skin on

2 lbs. hot, Andouille sausage (or alligator, pork, venison or crayfish sausage)

8-10 Roma tomatoes, canned, whole

1 large can of quartered, Marzano-type tomatoes

3 or 4 bay leaves

Three 14-oz. cans of chicken stock

3 pinches of Spanish saffron

Three 14-oz. bags of Valencia or Arborio rice.

3 lbs. large Gulf shrimp, peeled (or use crawfish tails, grouper or snapper chunks)

1 cup green peas, frozen (or use asparagus)

Toppings:

Cooked and heated stone crab claws
Grilled quail or doves
Grilled Florida lobster tails
Grilled “buster” shrimp
Cedar Key littleneck clams

Begin by preheating your oven to 350 degrees. Stir your onions, peppers and chopped garlic into about 1⁄2 cup of good olive oil in the bottom of the pan. Then add chicken pieces, bite-sized chunks of sausage, and quartered Roma tomatoes. I usually add some freshly ground pepper and a few bay leaves, but not salt at this stage. This is a good place to begin to understand some options. Some folks use green bell peppers, but I prefer Cubanelles. Some with cast-iron stomachs add lots of heat with jal-apeños or even fiery Scotch bonnet peppers! Chicken options might be wild duck or goose, but I enjoy the flavor of the chicken fat and skin. Good sausage choices are hot Andouille or maybe a locally available favorite, such as alligator or venison sausage. Roma tomatoes are not necessary (canned Italian San Marzano-type tomatoes are good, too) but really add great flavor. Cook the above for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. The result should be a mix of roasted meat and veggies, deeply browned and aromatic. You may want to consider de-boning your poultry now, but that’s not an absolute necessity.

While the chicken, sausage and vegetable mix are cooking, toast the saffron in a small frying pan, just enough to bring out its unique smell. Saffron is rare, and pricey, and a little goes a long way. Two or three small pinches are adequate for a large paella. In a large saucepan, bring your chicken stock near boiling, and add the saffron to flavor it. Canned chicken stock is pretty good, but I’ll admit the best paellas I’ve had used homemade fish or shrimp stock. That, however, is another cooking lesson in itself.

Sausage is from alligator, pork, venison or crayfish.

Add the hot stock to the large pan’s contents, then mix in your rice, and salt to taste. It’s important to use Valencia rice, as it’s a flavorful, short grain. It comes packaged in 12- to 14-ounce bags, and I allow one bag for every four persons served. Generally one 14-ounce can of chicken stock is enough to cook one bag of rice, as the meat and vegetables also create some broth. Keep an eye on the stock level as you cook. You may have to adjust the mix with either more rice or more plain stock. Be sure the rice is wet and slightly covered by the broth. Continue to cook, uncovered, until the rice soaks up the liquid.

The final phase of paella making deserves some attention. The rice should be slightly chewy and not gooey when done. I usually turn off the oven with the rice slightly crunchy and allow it to continue to cook, covered lightly with foil, after the final ingredients are stirred in. The final ingredients are shrimp (or options), green peas (mostly for color) or anything that doesn’t need too much cooking. Don’t overcook your shrimp—ever! As this last part of the process is going on, I usually prepare and cook the “dressy” toppings, such as the grilled wild birds, stone crab claws or lobster tails. Those are added just as the dish is taken to the table.

Served with a green salad, Cuban bread and flan for dessert, paella is a wonderful main dish for any celebration, not just holidays. It’s simple to prepare and allows meat-eaters to get their fill, yet provides plenty of options for those preferring just fish or fowl. And, best of all, it allows us to enjoy lots of our Florida seafood and game with good friends and family. FS