Spring Green Paella with Chickpeas and Clams
My borderline obsession with making paella began sometime in the mid-2000s. I was planning my first trip to Spain and pinned Valencia on the itinerary just to try the city’s famed dish. By that time, I had learned to stop ordering paella in most American restaurants, as I’d been served one too many soggy pots of rice with no hint of the fabled socarrat—the caramelized crust that forms on the bottom of a properly made paella—that I’d read about in Spanish cookbooks.While roaming the streets of Valencia, I came across a family cooking an enormous paella in an alleyway. The pan was resting on the uneven rim of an old steel drum with flames from a wood fire rising up around its edges. I noted how thin the layer of rice was; it couldn’t have been more than a finger’s width deep, which I learned is the goal to increase the ratio of socarrat.To that end, the paellera, or paella pan, needs to be as wide as possible. Most of the paella I make is for entertaining. It’s dinner theater, and a fantastic way to serve a crowd. I keep a 22-inch paellera at my parents’ home on the coast of Florida to cook it for our family (and the neighbors … and my sister’s in-laws) when I visit. There I can cook outside on a charcoal grill almost year-round, with a bounty of seafood to choose from.But back home in rainy Oregon, I wanted to stop only associating paella with patio parties. After all, it’s the ultimate one-pan meal suitable for using whatever ingredients are on hand. So I recently bought an 18-inch paellera, which is the right size to serve just four to six and will rest comfortably over two burners on my stovetop. I will make concessions on “authenticity,” but I will not give up the precious socarrat, so I learned how to achieve that on a gas stove.In his book, Catalan Cuisine, author Coleman Andrews ends his manifesto on making paella with this: “Remember that paella is above all a celebration of rice; everything else—seafood or otherwise—is just gravy.” Short-grained Spanish Bomba rice is essential in this paella recipe, as is seasoning it with saffron and cooking it in high-quality (preferably homemade) broth. But the “gravy” in this weeknight paella is just one protein—littleneck clams— and lots of green spring vegetables in the form of asparagus, green peas, and pea shoots. Tomatillos replace out-of-season red tomatoes (and keep with the green color theme!) and they bring a welcome acidity to the dish.Serve this spring greens paella with albariño, a wine from Spain’s Rías Baixas region. Ask for one that’s weighty on the palate, which will match bite-for-sip with the almost excessive amount of olive oil in great paella. Its salinity mimics that briny liquor that absorbs into the rice as the clams open, with a hit of tart lemon bringing it all into check. After the paella, here’s an easy dessert: a splash of Pedro Ximénez sherry poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Buen provecho.