My first paella was at a Spanish restaurant in Santa Fe during an anniversary weekend away. We paired it with sangria and ate it directly out of the pan. We hunted for the socarrat, the crust at the bottom that is the sign of a well-made and slow-cooked paella.
Since then, we’ve enjoyed plenty of versions locally. On the Hill near CU in Boulder, down the street from where we live in Erie, even for breakfast at the Boulder Farmers Market. We’ve never taken a paella class, but there are plenty around. There are even paella kits from restaurants that make it easier to try your hand at making it on your own. We’ve even cooked paella for friends in our own kitchen, after being gifted a paella cookbook, buying a pan, and sourcing our own bomba rice.
Now that we’ve dabbled in it, we wanted to dig a little deeper into the local options and learn how we could make a good variety at home. I started with Hugo Meyer, head chef and proprietor of Piripi on Briggs Street in Old Town Erie. The first Monday of the month Piripi serves paella all day to the delight of diners throughout the region. On the day we went there, there were three types: misto (mixed), vegetarian, and seafood. Meyer said it takes four days to prepare and that it takes all the fires in the restaurant, but for him it’s worth the work. “It’s always busy. People wait a lot, they have it for the whole day, but it’s a social night. We have a flamenco guitarist that comes to play. People come from all the neighboring towns,” Meyer explained.
Meyer talked about enjoying paella on an olive wood open fire. He said that high-quality ingredients are what make the dish. Good rice, saffron, and a well-made broth. Meyer informed us that “it’s an absorption cooking method, and when you cook the rice in the broth, all the flavor stays in the rice.”
He also talked about the socarrat. “It’s a Valencian word. It’s the caramelization of the pan and the rice. It intensifies the flavors,” he said. The trick, he explained, is to “use a good virgin olive oil, but once you have everything set, don’t shake the pan too much.”
Along with my visit to Piripi I found paella one Saturday morning courtesy of Nahid Pesaran of Boulder Paella who hosted a paella tent in the food court of the Boulder Farmers Market. Born in Iran, she fell in love with paella and often cooked it on her own after she learned about it from her sister-in-law who lived in Spain. She bought a paella pan and made it a few times a year until one of her neighbors encouraged her to make it more often. Then she got hooked.
Now that she’s cooking at the farmers market, she often makes paellas with ingredients she finds in the stalls there, always with homemade broth she makes herself. “Everybody can make paella in any way they want it. We buy mostly organic. Our mushrooms, our onions, our chicken, our carrots — it’s from the farmers market as much as possible. Sometimes we add asparagus, which we love, and our lamb paella is very delicious. People love it,” Pesaran said.
Like Meyer, Pesaran also highlighted the need for the highest-quality ingredients when making paella and says saffron is key. She also said that she’s careful to keep her rice firm. Paella — and Spanish cooking in general — is all about highlighting simple, fresh, and seasonal flavors. It’s not about making a complicated sauce or using intricate techniques, although culinary knowledge and skill are obviously required.
Where can you find either of these options? Meyer can be found hosting his paella days the first Monday of the month at his restaurant, Piripi. Around the holidays, he also makes paella kits so that people can enjoy them at home or give them as gifts.
Pesaran can be found at the Boulder Farmers Market when it opens for the season. She’ll also have an additional online presence with her website boulderpaella.com, which is expected to come online this spring.