On a recent camping trip to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, I was able to pull off a feat I have been hoping to accomplish for quite some time: to cook a paella over wood fire. It’s almost as if this dish was designed with the great outdoors in mind, in fact, tradition in Valencia, Spain, calls for the men to prepare paella feasts over an open fire. In addition to proper fruit wood (orange and apple), pine wood and its cones can also be thrown in the fire to round out the rice with a smokey aroma.
We were joined by our intrepid German friends, Jochen, Caro and little Konrad, as well as their good pals Baran and Patricia. The weekend was filled with great conversation and storytelling around the campfire, and of course we used every opportunity to prepare and consume delicious meals.
Big Basin Redwood Park is threaded by verdant trails with creeks lined by huckleberry shrubs.
The lush canopy is cross-hatched by the colossal redwoods foliage, which also serves as the perfect sanctuary to a wide variety of bird species, while providing shade to the surrounding campsites.
With shimmering rays of sunshine coming through the tree-tops that almost create a Jacob’s Ladder sky-like effect as they reach for the earth, you can imagine all the amazing photo opportunities.
Following a lovely hike on the Pine Mountain trail, Zara and I headed back to camp while we still had some daylight left to prepare the paella I’d been thinking about all month.
There are three main pillars to every paella varying from ingredients to technique:
The colorful base; a combination of caramelized diced onions, garlic, tomato and parsley. In addition to adding flavor and color to the paella, this starter helps to bind and thicken your sauce as the rice simmers down. Sofrito is also a seminal foundation in Latin American cuisine.
The soul of every paella. Saffron (or azafrán en Español) adds the right accent of color, taste, fragrance and immediately identifiable with every bite.
The finishing touch. Once the rice it’s ready, the paella is done, but the secret to this traditional dish is the balance in texture between the ingredients and the rice. Soccarat adds that needed crunchy finish to the rice by quickly cooking the bottom and sides of your almost finished paella at high heat.
I could go as far as to say that smoked paprika, sausage (chorizo) and seafood are as crucial to a great tasting paella, but one can deviate by skipping or supplementing any of these ingredients, for example, when making a great vegetarian paella. With that said, I always start with smoked paprika in my sofrito and most of the times also include it in any marinated meats ahead of time to be incorporated right in the rice for added flavor. Smoked paprika is integral in providing that bold color and smokiness to the dish.
If I may go off on a tangent for a minute… years ago while strolling down the long Barcelonetta beach stretch, I came across a cosy little restaurant by the name of l’Arròs. It was there where I had one of my most memorable meals: a sea urchin infused fideuà paella, which I’ve been wanting to recreate ever since. I guess this will have to wait for now, but please do try this at home in paste form within your sofrito.
You will need…
Marinade for chicken, recipe follows
- 1 ½ pound chicken, cut into 3 inch pieces
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 2 tsp dry oregano leaves
- ¼ tbsp turmeric
- ½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil
- pinch of salt and ground black pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil for sautéing
- 1 Spanish chorizo sausage, thickly sliced
- 1 tbsp smoked Spanish paprika
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 small Spanish red onion, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed and diced
- 2 small red bell peppers
- Half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped, reserve some for garnish
- 1 (15-ounce) can whole of tomatoes, drained and hand-crushed
- 2 cups short grain Calasparra Spanish bomba rice
- 7-8 cups of warm vegetable or chicken stock
- Generous pinch of saffron threads
- ½ pound littleneck clams with shells scrubbed
- ½ pound mussles with shells scrubbed
- ½ pound jumbo shrimp, peeled and de-veined, ideally with heads on for added flavor
- Lemon wedges, for serving
After adding some olive or vegetable oil, toss in the sliced chorizo and cook for about four minutes on both sides. It is just enough time to infuse some flavor into the oil as the chorizo will continue to cook with the rice. Once it’s done, place it aside, but keep the oil in the paella pan.
Anytime during this process, place the bell peppers right on the fire and turn every 5 minutes on each side until done. Once the peels are charred, remove the skin and slice into long pieces to serve as garnish at the end.
At this point you want to add the marinated chicken and cook it about two thirds of the way on both sides before setting aside.
With the same oil still in the pan, sprinkle in the diced onions and sautée for a few minutes until golden, then add the garlic for about two minutes until it softens. I also had some leeks at home so I added a handfull of it in with the onions.
At around the time when the garlic is done, add the smoked paprika, salt, ground pepper and stir momentarily.
Toss in the chopped parley, tomatoes and stir. Cook for about five minutes.
Once the flavors have settled in, add about 1 ½ to 2 cups of the Calasparra rice (or more depending on the size of your pan) to absorb the flavors for about two minutes while occasionally stirring.
Tip: You may want to maintain a consistent fire as your paella will simmer for a while longer following this step. Add one or two additional logs to your fire to keep the flames going.
At this point, add the water, stock or a bit of bright white wine combined with the water or stock. Personally, I’m a big fan of low sodium stock to intensify the flavor of the simmer. Given the Calasparra rice’s high starch content, make sure you add about 4 cups of liquid to every one cup of rice, but definitely play it by ear.
Once the liquid starts to bubble, add the chorizo back in, a few pinches of saffron and push the chicken gently down into the rice. At this time, do not stir the paella as you want everything to settle in and cook evenly through the end. Keep an eye out on your fire to make sure it’s consistent.
Tip: As with other spices, placing saffron in the freezer tends to prolong its shelf life.
A few minutes later, distribute the clams evenly throughout your dish. Clams typically take longer than mussels so the timing is key for them not to be overcooked. Once the clams are in, arrange the large shrimp in a symmetrical fashion for presentation purposes.
When the liquid starts to seep right into the rice, sink the mussels about half way in.
The shrimp and mussels should take about 10 minutes to cook. Depending on the size of your paella pan, the strength of the fire and the amount of rice you added, your dish should take about 30 minutes (from step 5) until the rice is al dente.
Keep an eye out around the rim as the rice galvanizes around the edges and a toasted layer starts to form at the bottom of your pan. This is the socarrat.
Set aside before serving to garnish with the lemon wedges, bell pepper slices and fresh chopped parsley.
And there it is, your own campfire paella.
On our way out the following day, Zara and I drove by Felton, just a few minutes from Big Basin. If you’re not in a rush, I highly recommend having a cold one at one of the quirkiest little establishments, Monty’s Log Cabin bar.
From there, hop on over to the Sasquatch museum, across the road. Spend some time talking to the charming owner, Michael, who reminds me of an awesome uncle with a world of knowledge on the subject of Bigfoot, but whatever you do, do not refer to it as “the missing link” or you’ll get an earful.