I’m guilty of writing those recipes from time to time. I get excited about a technique or a combination, and one pan leads to another. Even the simplest of dishes, such as pasta with a quick pan sauce, can violate the one-pot rule. At least the stockpot I boiled the pasta in usually needs little more than a good rinsing afterward.
Some of my favorite dishes, though, are far more streamlined. Stir-fries, soups, sandwiches, salads and pizza typically use just one cooking implement — if that. And then there are the single-pan dishes that seem much more complex than they really are.
Which brings me to paella. I can hear the cries already: Paella for one? Blasphemy! “Paella is a sociable dish,” writes Alberto Herraiz in a cookbook called, simply, “Paella” (Phaidon, 2011). And indeed, exhibition-size paellas abound; Jose Andres and his Jaleo team make an annual appearance at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, among other places, to make paella for, oh, 300 or so of their closest friends. It involves tubs of chicken, bushels of vegetables, gallons of stock, bag upon bag of short-grain rice and an oar-size stirrer.
When my sister and I traveled to Spain almost a decade ago, we made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of paella. There, we tasted an iconic iteration of it in a seaside restaurant outside the city. The standard offering served two. Just two. As Spanish cooking authority Penelope Casas writes in “Paella!” (Holt, 1999), “Although it makes a splendid party dish (for which most of the preparation can be done in advance), it is just as appropriate for quiet nights at home.”
Hear, hear. The day after we tasted that revelatory paella in Valencia — the pan was bigger around than I had expected, the rice shallower (and crispy on the bottom), the other ingredients sparser — we bought carbon-steel paella pans outside the city’s fabulous Mercado Central.
Since then, I’ve made paella for dinner parties at least a few times a year for six or eight guests, not 300. But I also like to go to the other extreme. Paella may be sociable, but sometimes I’m not, so I make paella for one. It’s satisfaction, not precision, I’m after. Paella delivers, especially for a rice fiend like myself.
Once I figured out the right amounts, everything else fell into place: one-third cup of Bomba, Calasparra or Arborio rice; a cup of seafood or vegetable broth, usually of my own making. The technique is the same as for the larger paellas: Without the benefit of an outdoor grill, I followed the procedure I learned from Casas’s book, amended here and there by my Catalan friend Pep.
In some ways, paella has more in common with risotto than with most baked rice dishes, such as pilafs. You build flavor by sauteing garlic, onion (or, in single-serving style, shallots) and a spice such as Spanish smoked paprika in olive oil, then you coat the rice in this mixture, helping seal it so it doesn’t leak starch and get mushy. The short-grain rice slowly swells as it absorbs the broth on the stove top, never covered, but rather than constantly stirring and gradually adding broth, you pour in all the hot liquid at once and occasionally swirl the pan as the paella gently bubbles. You finish it in the oven, still uncovered, then cover with foil only once it’s out, letting the rice finish cooking as the paella rests and cools. To get that crispy layer on the bottom, you put it back on the stove top for a final couple of minutes.
My favorite personal paella for a while used squid, scallions and cherry tomatoes. Now that I’m eating a mostly vegetarian diet, it has been helpful to remember that in Spain, paella includes all manner of ingredients. What unites them is the rice and the pan.
I flipped through “Paella!” and “Paella” and found ideas in both. Herraiz’s book, which has a nifty cover made to look and feel like the cloth bag that traditional Bomba rice is sold in, has very few vegetarian recipes. But I did see a mullet and roast pumpkin paella that inspired me to use small cubes of butternut squash, cooking them in the rice instead of roasting them separately. Casas’s book has a take on a simple vegetarian paella that features spinach, chickpeas and pine nuts; I simplified it even further and used the very non-Spanish flavor of Madras curry instead of my beloved smoked paprika. Traditionalists would be horrified, but Herraiz is not one of them; his book, in fact, includes a recipe for a “Return to India” paella that uses not just curry powder, but tamarind paste and coconut milk. Perhaps I could be forgiven.
One thing most Spaniards would probably not forgive is my choice to make my personal paellas in a small steel pan I bought in Paris. It’s not considered technically correct to refer to any dish as paella, in fact, if it’s made in anything but that traditional, shallow pan. The word, like a Moroccan tagine, refers to both the pan and the dish. But my paella pan is too big for a single-serving approach, so I and the Spaniards are just going to have to agree to disagree.
Or so I thought. My paella pan is 13 inches in diameter, making it appropriate for four or six. The paella for two we ate in Valencia came in a 10-inch pan. I’ve always assumed that was the smallest size available. But last week I logged on to LaTienda.com, a favorite source of all things Spanish, and noticed that I was wrong. There, for just under $13, was a carbon-steel paella pan measuring just under eight inches, designed to serve one. I clicked, I bought and I felt blasphemous no longer.
Yonan is author of the upcoming “Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook” (Ten Speed Press, August 2013). He can be reached through his Web site, www.joeyonan.com.