4th of July Paella Fest

Posted by johngl

I’ve done a couple of other posts on paella (Paella and Paella Cookoff?) so the fact that grown men venture into 100°+ Texas temperatures and cook mass quantities of food in huge pans over an open fire should come as no real surprise.  So let’s leave the mere amateurs to cooking the mundane (hot dogs and burgers) on their shiny new stainless steel grills and come join me for more of this open fire cooking.

Searing chicken thighs
Chicken thighs searing skin-side-down over an open fire

The firepit is about 5 feet long and 3 feet wide.  It will accommodate two large paella pans with relative ease.

Fire pit cooking

But before we talk about the fire-pit cooking, we should delve into what makes a good paella.

I firmly believe that the most important part is creating a proper sofregit.  This blend of caramelized onions, peeled and chopped (or grated) tomatoes, and a host of spices creates the base for all of the rest of the flavors.

For this rendition, we started with 20 fresh Roma tomatoes and four large onions.  This may seem like a lot of stuff, but it cooks down a lot.

Start with the onions, cutting them into a 1/4″ dice.  Then pour some olive oil into a large pan and sautée them until they have some really dark color:

Sautéed onions

This takes longer than you might think.  Start early.  The idea is to get the rich brown color without burning.  Low heat for a long time is the best way to go at this.  Stir frequently to avoid burning.

Then there is the tomatoes.

The best way I’ve found to go at this is to cut an X into the bottom of the globe and drop them into boiling water for about a minute.  The skin will split when it’s done and peel right off the tomato.  Then I split them length-wise and de-seed the tomatoes.

After that, a fine chop will render a reasonably smooth looking sauce:

finely chopped tomatoes in their own juice

A few seeds are okay, but too many will change the texture of the sofregit.

After all of this, put the two together:

sofregit in process

Yes, this is a little wet. There’s a lot of juice that comes off the tomatoes, but since we wanted to keep those flavors around, I continued to reduce the sofregit until it looked like this:

sofregit, ready to go

Volume-wise, this is less than a quarter of what we started with, but oh, the flavors in there.  BigDMcC was kind enough to share his recipe this time around and we added his secret ingredient of Piment d’Espelette.  This sells for just under $20/oz.  We also added a few tablespoons of pequin infused white vinegar (pequin peppers in homemade white wine vinegar) and about three different kinds of paprika.  Naturally, salt and black pepper were added to taste.

As I mentioned earlier, the sofregit is the base flavoring agent of the paella and gets diluted with lots of chicken stock; it needs to have really bold flavors in order to carry things forward.

The next thing to consider is the rice:

Bomba is the rice to use

Here is why:

expansive rice

On the left, a cooked grain of Bomba rice, a short grain rice from Spain.  On the right, an uncooked grain of the same rice.  It is amazing how much these little grains expand.  They don’t stick to each other like an Arborio (used in risotto) would.  These shouldn’t be substituted for each other.  Use Arborio for risotto and leave it at that.

Imagine each little rice grain absorbing the flavors that are in the chicken stock/sofregit in order to expand.  It makes for an incredibly even distribution of flavor.

Then, we have the cooking methods:

crispy chicken skin

As noted in the first photo, the chicken thighs are cooked skin side down.  This method crisps up the skin in a manner that is indescribable.  The only comparison I can make is how fat is rendered out of a duck breast in order to make the skin wonderfully crispy.  Done correctly, only a small amount of fat winds up back in the paella.

I’ve already mentioned that the sofregit gets mixed in with the chicken stock. This is also a good time to add Spanish saffron, both for color and flavor.  We also added some precooked wild boar breakfast sausage and chorizo.

BigD added some quail breasts into his paella:

cleaning the quail breast

There ain’t a whole lotta meat on a quail.

a splayed quail

We took the bones, legs, and thighs and added them to the chicken stock.  A tasty addition there, I must say.  The breasts and tenders went into the paella.

The rice gets added to the sofregit/stock mixture, along with some of the other goodies. We allowed the rice to cook until nearly done, then added meats back in.

different stages

On the right, the chicken thighs added back in to finish cooking.  On the left, the rice hydration phase.

Within about 30 minutes, both paellas were complete:




The one immediately above is mine.  I browned some pork tenderloin spiced with three kinds of paprika and a dash of curry along with salt and pepper.  I also have a few chunks of chicken thighs mixed in.

The red peppers on both paellas were fire roasted:

small sweet peppers


bell peppers

Done in this manner, the skin of the peppers peel right off.  If you have too many for the paella, drop them (peeled and seeded naturally) into some olive oil and refrigerate.  They come in handy for all kinds of things.

Beside a great depth of flavor, the signature of a good paella is its socarrat.  This  golden brown crust is more difficult to achieve than one might think; it can go from brown to burnt in seconds.


This was my second solo paella and the first time I’ve gotten a reasonably correct socarrat.  More practice is warranted.

Again, it may seem a bit crazy to stand around a hot fire when it is already blazingly hot outdoors, but there is this primal thing that cooking over fire brings out in men. In this case, the end justified the means.

Happy Independence Day!

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About johngl

A bit of a wildman, John hails from the Midwest: A land of corn, cows, pigs, and a host of other healthfully meaty pursuits. Born on a dark and stormy night in late Fall, John grew up as the son of a meat cutter. There was always plenty of meat at hand. While not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, his family certainly ate well. According to his father, that was the whole point.

3 thoughts on “4th of July Paella Fest

  1. Hi John, we are doing some back yard renovations this week and along with some expanded flower beds I want to add an area in the back yard with pea gravel and a fire pit in the middle that can be used for log fires or for cooking paella. Various landscapers have told me we need “fire bricks” to line the insides, and maybe the bottom as well, as regular pavers or rocks have pockets inside that can heat up and crack or explode. I was hoping to just use our leftover cinder blocks and limestone rocks (not mortared together at first, until we make sure we like the size and location), but should we try to buy and add heat-resistant fire bricks all along the inside as well? I was trying to see your pictures and it looks like you just used regular pavers for the one at your old house? Did you ever have any problems with it, or is that fine if it’s large enough where the fire is not right next to the edges? One person said today that I should put lava rocks from Home Depot on the bottom as well, but we have tons of small and medium native rocks (river rocks?) but wasn’t sure if those are fire-safe. I don’t know how hard that would be to scoop up ashes, but we do need drainage if it rains. Thanks for any insight you can provide! Hope you are doing well!

    • Lauren! So nice to hear from you!

      Yes, we are doing very well, thanks!

      I had some pretty big blazes in mine and didn’t have a bit of trouble, ever. The bottom of it was lined with about 4-6″ of lava rock from Lowe’s and that was it. I shoveled out ashes a couple of times over the years. It never ever retained water as the bottom of the lava rock was on top of the ground (I didn’t dig out an actual pit).

      I would stay away from river rocks personally as I’ve been hit with a hot shard of granite before. I put the lava rock down to help insulate underneath the fire pit as I didn’t know if there were any tree roots underneath. I didn’t want to start any slow smoldering tree roots underground. Those can burn for weeks until it migrates up the root, hit lots of air at the surface and then poof, you’ve got a real problem on your hands, especially in Texas.

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