I am a very lucky girl.
All through my childhood, for as far back as I can remember, my father would take us on a family vacation abroad every single summer for a couple of weeks. Sometimes it was just the five of us, other times we would have another family of friends with us. In either case, it was always the most exhilarating time of year for all of us, one which we looked forward to all year and painstakingly counted down the days to until that all-exciting night before leaving, full of luggage-packing mayhem, overly eager squealing and guaranteed sleeplessness.
The initial plan was that we would go somewhere new each year…and that plan was going fine; we visited so many wonderful and exotic places… until the summer of 1998.
That fateful year, my mother happened to become close friends with a wonderful lady called auntie Salwa, who happened to own a house in a town called Marbella on the gorgeous Mediterranean coast of Spain. She and her family (who somehow happened to be even bigger and louder than ours! Score!) spent all of their summers there, and she managed to convince my mama and papi that we all tag along. So we did…and the rest, as they say, is history. We were hooked.
After that, we kept going back to Marbella every single summer, up until the summer of 2008, which is when we stopped taking family vacations altogether. Let’s not go there just yet…too many feels.
I don’t exactly know what it was that captured our hearts so instantly. Maybe it was the fabulous shopping. Maybe it was the gorgeous Spanish people with their irresistible, roll-off-the-tongue, sing-song language and their perfectly tan olive skin. Maybe it was the abundance of adorable small villages scattered around the area, each one more charming than the other. Maybe it was the company and local experience of auntie Salwa and her tremendously entertaining brood of four daughters, who shared our obsession with shopping and talked over each other as loudly and as passionately as we had ever seen, and who instantly felt like family. Maybe it was the magical combination of all of the above. In any case; we became addicted.
In between all the shopping, endless walking and exploring, getting lost in our rental cars and, well…more shopping; there was the food. There were so many dishes that we fell in love with and kept going back for more of, but two of the dishes that stuck with me the most is a Spanish tapas dish called Gambas Pilpil (or Pilpil Prawns), and their classic regional seafood Paella.
The Pilpil prawns I’ll talk about another day, but today it’s all about the Paella.
Now, before anyone starts roasting me about authenticity, I do not in any way claim this to be the absolute authentic Paella. I repeat; not claiming to be 100% historically/regionally accurate here. For me, this is simply my interpretation of the seafood Paellas we used to have during our summers spent in Marbella, and it has been tailored to suit my taste and memories.
Phew. Now that THAT’S out of the way, let me tell you the most important thing about this version of Paella; I think it’s delicious! There are endless variations of Paella, but to me, seafood Paella will always win. It screams of summer, and looks so effortlessly stunning to boot. Another fantastic bonus is that it’s a one pot dish, which is something quite irresistible to me.
You know the movie ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’? You know how the dad in the movie always insisted that every word in existence can be attributed to Greek origins, and often challenged people to give him a word; ANY word, so he can prove it was Greek? Well, my mother can be somewhat similar. She insists, along with my auntie Salwa, that Paella comes from the Arabic word ‘Ba’eyya’, which means leftovers, and they go on to argue that it makes perfect sense because you could use little bits of whatever leftover meats or veg you have in your Paella, and that this is basically how it originated from when Arabs reigned over Andalusia.
Look, this might all be as accurate as unicorn fairytales, but I love it. How can you possibly resist a story and reasoning like that?
My point being; make your Paella your own. Feel free to change up the types of seafood you use, or use different meats altogether if you please. Remember my mom and her ‘ba’eyya’ theory, and go nuts. Tailor it to suit your own tastebuds, the method and spices stay more or less the same.
To me though, Paella isn’t Paella without that bright summer-sun yellow hue, which must come from fresh, real, good quality saffron. I understand that saffron is insanely expensive, but you only need a tiny amount, and for this dish it is SO worth it! So splurge a little on some of the good stuff, you won’t regret it! The golden saffron-stained tender, impossibly juicy rice really is the highlight of any Paella dish if you ask me.
I made this Paella for Christmas eve, since seafood is the food of choice for the crazy Australian summer Christmas season, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s a great, super impressive dish to feed a crowd in any summer gathering without too many pots and pans to worry about, and is always one that people will leave your place talking about.
Enjoy, and happy holidays!
- • 1 generous pinch of good quality saffron threads
- • 3-4 tbsp. olive oil
- • 1 large onion, finely chopped
- • 4 cloves garlic, minced
- • 300g short grain rice, unwashed*
- • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
- • ½ tsp. ground turmeric
- • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper or any chilli powder, optional
- • ¼ cup verjuice, OR 1 tbsp. white grape vinegar**
- • 250g fresh tomatoes (about 3-4 tomatoes), finely chopped
- • 900ml fish or vegetable stock
- • 200g firm white fish fillet, cut into bite-sized chunks***
- • 200g squid, cleaned and cut into rings or strips
- • 300g raw prawns/shrimps, peeled or unpeeled ****
- • 250g mussels, scrubbed clean and de-bearded
- • 150g frozen peas
- • roughly chopped parsley to garnish, optional
- • lemon wedges to serve
- Place the saffron in a small bowl or cup and cover with a couple of tablespoons of boiling water. Set aside to steep until needed.
- Find a large shallow pan to make your Paella in; a specialised paella pan or a large cast iron skillet both work perfectly, but any large shallow (non stick) pan will do. Place the pan on medium heat and add the olive oil and onions, along with a good pinch of salt. Sauté the onion until beginning to soften, about 3-4 minutes, then add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds.
- Add the rice and stir to toast the grains for 2 minutes. Add the saffron (along with its steeping liquid!), paprika, turmeric and cayenne pepper/chilli if using and stir for a minute to toast the spices.
- Add the verjuice/vinegar and the tomatoes, stir briefly, then add the stock. Bring to the boil then turn down to a steady simmer and cook for 10 minutes, uncovered, stirring often. Have a little taste to check for seasoning (the rice should still be al-dente and firm at this point), adjust by adding more salt if needed.
- Add the seafood: give the rice a final good stir, then nestle the fish and the squid into the bubbling rice, then arrange the shrimps and mussels onto the top of the rice. Cover the pan with a lid, turn the heat down to the lowest setting and cook for 10 minutes without removing the lid (TIP: if your pan doesn’t have a lid, you can use a large metal tray or baking sheet as a lid, and weigh it down with anything heavy to make sure it stays put).
- Remove the lid, scatter the frozen peas onto the paella, and cover again for a final 5-7 minutes, until the peas are bright green and the rice is cooked through. Remove the Paella from the heat, garnish with parsley if you like and serve hot right away, in the pan it was cooked in, with fresh lemon wedges to squeeze on.
**Verjuice is a lightly acidic liquid made from unfermented grape juice, that is often used here in Australia in place of white wine. It has a very subtle grape flavour and is lovely for deglazing as a non-alcoholic alternative. I do know it’s hard to find in other countries, so just tablespoon of white grape vinegar or lemon juice will do the trick.
***Here, I used snapper fillet, but any firm white fish, like sea bass for example, will do.
****I have had paella with both unpeeled and peeled shrimps, and both are great. The unpeeled prawns look much more impressive, but are a bit fiddly to eat as you have to dig in with your hands, so it is totally up to you! Shrimp with just the tail on are a good medium, as they still look pretty but are much easier to eat than those with full shells.
• Make sure you have all your seafood cleaned and prepped and ready in advance before you start cooking the paella, so that it is ready to add to the rice right away.
• Feel free to change up the type of seafood that you use in your Paella, or even experiment with other meats if you like.