The wind whips through the flames of an orange-wood fire in the outdoor kitchen of Nou Racó, a waterside restaurant just south of Valencia. Embers and smoke swirl up and around the shallow 3-foot paella pan set above the fire. In it, a roaring boil of broth and more than a dozen ingredients slows to a steady simmer, then to a slow burble as the grains of rice settle into place.
Chef Jorge Pardo Pérez has been toiling for 90 minutes a stone's throw from the rustling, 10-foot-high reeds surrounding the Albufera lagoon — building a fire, rearranging the coals to optimize unpredictable heat, searing chicken, rabbit, and duck, piling more and more into the pan, called a paellera. The last step is to remove the brackets that hold the pan aloft and set it directly on the hot coals, frying the lower level of rice as it crackles and pops its way to the finish.
It's an exhibition honed by 15 years of practice, and the voluminous paella for eight people is richly aromatic, with earthy, tender rice, and succulent meat. I scoop out far more than my share, scraping up crusty bits of rice, called socarrat, a coveted textural contrast that distinguishes a good paella from a great one. It seemed impossible to pull off at home.
And noticeably lacking are many of the ingredients we in the U.S. have come to expect of paella — ingredients often so numerous they turn paella into a project too cumbersome for most home cooks. There was none of the surf and turf mashup, no peas, no bell pepper or onion, none of the bright yellow rice, all traits that have come to define, often poorly, Spain's most famous culinary export.
In other parts of Spain, those ingredients might be welcome, but this is the original paella Valenciana, a product of the farmers who have raised rice here since the Moors took over a onetime Roman colony and flooded the fields.
Though the Mediterranean is less than a mile away, this paella used what was even closer: the duck, rabbit, snails, and rosemary that ran wild, eventually supplemented by chicken and two kinds of local beans, a broad, white one called garrafó, and ferradura, a flat, long green pod. Eventually joining the roster were tomato, paprika, sometimes artichoke, and saffron, another once-abundant Arab import.
Classic paella can include any of the above ingredients, but rarely includes them all, despite Pérez's upmarket version that did (plus duck liver). In fact, during a week-long exploration of the dish on its home turf, I learned that the essentials are just rice, chicken, water, salt, sweet paprika, and those two beans. Even saffron now is considered expendable. Suddenly, paella seemed so much more approachable.
But paring down the dish to its essential ingredients wasn't my only concern. The gigantic pan, the wood fire, the endless simmering, all are authentic, even romantic elements, but they are a stretch at best for the home cook.
Clearly, I'd have to find someone who had figured out another way. At first, my requests for an at-home paella demonstration — without the shallow, two-handled paellera or open fire — were met with scoffs, disbelief, or colorful descriptions of purists who, loosely translated, were fanatical in their devotion to tradition.
I found my less puritanical teacher in José Ramón Hernández, a chef in nearby Burjassot who sells hundreds of orders of paella Valenciana each week at his restaurant, Botiga dels Menjars. Despite initial worries that others would, in his words, crucify him, he offered to use his two young daughters as test subjects on a paellera-free paella.
"We strongly defend the real Valencian plate," Hernández says in his modern kitchen, bowls of grated tomato, beans, and chicken parts laid out in front of us. "But to me, the way to export it to the world is to give people the option to cook in what they have."
Even at home, he has three sizes of paelleras and a special attachment for his gas stove with concentric rings that allows the heat to reach all parts of the pan evenly. For our lesson, he dismisses all of it. Instead, for his adapted method, he browns chopped chicken thighs and wings over a regular burner in a stew pot, a receptacle deep enough to feed at least four.
Once the chicken is deep golden brown, he adds the ferraduras, lowers the heat and cooks for a few minutes. Freshly shelled garrafós go in next, then he carves a well into the ingredients and drops in paprika. The spice blooms in moments to infuse the hot oil with flavor; grated tomato goes in soon after.
Hernández covers the ingredients with homemade chicken broth and adds quartered artichoke hearts. The mixture simmers while we chat with his family in the kitchen, about the girls' English homework, about their neighbors, about Señor Ratoncito Pérez, a regal mouse who is the Spanish answer to our Tooth Fairy.
After the broth has reduced by a third, Hernández stirs in Spanish Bomba rice and four sprigs of fresh rosemary. It cooks, uncovered and undisturbed, until the liquid is mostly absorbed, then thick bubbles of steam break through the surface. He calls them chimneys.
He finishes the paella in a 400°F oven to let the rest of the moisture boil away, then removes the racks and places the pot directly on the bottom of the oven, mimicking direct contact with hot coals. The crackling of the rice gives way to a higher pitch, and a toasty aroma fills the kitchen.
After a brief rest, it's ready, and we dive in, finally finding the proof that the paellera may be romantic, but it's far from essential.
Since Hernández already had done most of the work adapting the recipe to the home kitchen, replicating his results at Milk Street mostly was a matter of substituting easier-to-find ingredients. We also adjusted some of the timing to maximize flavor and prevent overcooking.
Green beans and canned cannellini beans made fine substitutions for the ferraduras and garrafós, and though in our testing Bomba rice was the best option, well-rinsed Italian Arborio rice worked, too. And we found that a typical 12-inch nonstick skillet was large enough to make plenty for four, though we wondered whether we could manage the tricky socarrat without having to dismantle a hot oven.
We began by seasoning boneless, skinless chicken thighs with salt and both sweet and smoked paprika, then browned them in the skillet. The deep fond that resulted was the first of several layers of flavor that the rice would eventually soak up. The chicken was set aside, and we warmed the cannellini beans in the remaining fat, then reserved them with the chicken.
We then sautéed halved cherry tomatoes, cooking them down with olive oil and tomato paste until browned to further boost the flavor. In the tomato mixture, we sautéed garlic with more smoked paprika, then deglazed the pan with 1/2 cup dry sherry, the acidity of which balanced the richness.
Rosemary, bay leaf, and saffron went into the skillet with chicken broth, and after bringing the mixture to a boil, we added the rice, along with the chicken, cannellinis, and green beans. The mixture cooked undisturbed until most of the liquid had been absorbed. Using the bottom of the oven to create the socarrat proved tricky; it was hard to monitor and easy to overcook. It also required turning on the oven. Instead, we left the pan on the stovetop and briefly increased the heat. This worked well to fry the lower level of rice, and allowed us to listen for the sizzle and judge doneness by smell.
After letting our paella rest, covered with a kitchen towel, the crispy crust released from the pan, and the rich flavors brought us right back to the Albufera, minus the wind whipping off the water.
We'd figured out the socarrat, and as Hernández said, "The fun part is scraping the bottom."
For the recipe and more, head to Christopher Kimball's Milk Street.