Seafood paella that writer Christine Burns Rudalevige and her friends ordered at a beachside restaurant in Valencia. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

My friend Joel and I met in 1998 when we worked remotely for a magazine that dug deep into computer networking technology. We bonded, though, over finding authentic local foods anywhere we happened to meet in person.

We ordered Alice Water’s baked goat cheese salad at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and stood on Broadway sampling slices of New York pizza. He treated me to machaca in his hometown of Tucson and I took him to Union Oyster House for New England Clam Chowder in Boston. We’ve eaten cacio e pepe in Rome, wild boar sausage and truffles in Umbria, and seafood quenelles and andouillette in Lyon.

So, when Joel sent an email that read “Hey, we’ve got an extra room in our Airbnb in Valencia. Interested?” Andy and I booked a cheap flight from London’s Stansted Airport to Spain’s third largest city (pop. 800,000), which sits on a section of the Mediterranean called the Balearic Sea, about two hours southwest of Barcelona.

And what, I researched beforehand, does that city lay claim to culinarily that we can seek out there? Valencia oranges, of course. Over the course of our four-day visit, we had our fair share of Agua de Valencia, the resident cocktail. Served in pitchers like its famous relative, sangria, this concoction combines freshly squeezed Valencia OJ with cava, gin and vodka. Taken at lunch, you begin to embrace the siesta culture.

Valencia is also the undisputed birthplace of paella, primarily due to the region’s long-standing history of rice production. The city is one of the largest natural ports on the Mediterranean and has been an important rice-producing area in Spain since the Moors introduced it there around 1100 AD. ‘Arroz,’ the Spanish word for rice, derives from Arabic, and not Latin, as does most of the Castilian Spanish spoken in the region.

The dish’s beginnings were very humble. Sometime between the late 18th and early 19th century, paella was born as the food of farm laborers, cooked for lunch by workers in the field over an open fire in a large pan called “la paella.” It contained rice, water and whatever else was readily available in the fields. It was eaten straight from la paella with wooden spoons, each eater sticking to a triangular portion (like a slice of pizza) that was wide at the edge of the pan closest to them and coming to a point at the center of the communal vessel.
Given that Valencia sits on the Mediterranean, you might assume seafood had a traditional place in early paellas, but you’d be wrong.


Paella used to be “the essence of simplicity, even austerity, with little meat and even less excess,” three anthropologists from Universidad Catolica de Valencia wrote in a 2022 article published in the “International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science.” That article surveyed home cooks in each of the region’s 266 towns on the basic ingredients of Paella Valenciana as passed down in their families. They found ten staple ingredients and another 50 that varied seasonally. In addition to water and the short-grained Bomba rice of the region, the other basic ingredients are olive oil, salt, tomato, saffron (or other colorant like turmeric or paprika), flat green beans, a Spanish variety of lima beans and only a bit of animal protein, most often home-raised chicken, hunted rabbit and/or foraged snails.

Anthropologically, the article explains, paella didn’t become the performative party food until the early 20th century, when professional chefs began to elevate it with expensive ingredients, the Spanish tourist industry started to market it as a worldwide draw, and cookware manufacturers started to sell bigger and bigger paella pans (they come as large as 3 feet in diameter now) to a wider audience of adventurous home cooks.

A variety of paellas offered by a vendor at Mercat Central de València. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

We saw these huge pans of it in the city’s markets where it was sold as takeaway fare. And we enjoyed it in smaller pans placed directly on our table to share. Our choices varied from the traditional snail and rabbit paella, a straight vegetable one with beans and artichokes, chicken and Spanish chorizo variations, and a fully loaded seafood number. We do take our research seriously, so of course, we tried them all.

But you certainly don’t need to travel to the Spanish eastern coast to score a paella that plays into both the celebratory nature of modern paella and its flexibility to embrace local ingredients.

“We’re on the Maine coast, obviously. And local seafood adds so much flavor and texture to a paella,” said Jay Villani, chef/owner of Local 188 on Congress Street in Portland. Paella has been on Local 188’s menu since the place opened in 1999. The staple ingredients in Villani’s paella pulled from the Gulf of Maine include flaky white groundfish like cod, littleneck clams and Bangs Island mussels with seasonal appearances by scallops, halibut and lobster. Cooked to order (be prepared to wait 30-45 minutes), serving two and costing $50-60 based on the ingredients in the pan, Villani sells between 12 and 40 paellas an evening, depending on the time of year.

A bowl of Spanish bomba rice. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Since Bomba rice can be difficult to source in the United States he uses short-grained sushi rice. It has a similar structure and can withstand the high heat that gives a paella its authentic crusty, crispy bottom – which is called the socarrat. Vilanni uses an unusual ingredient in his paella – black garlic sofrito (he sources the black garlic locally when he can find it). The sofrito gives a smoky, acidic undertone to the paella that open fire cooking would otherwise impart. Villani starts his over gas flame and finishes the paellas in a hot oven.


In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the paella at Cava Tapas and Wine Bar is made with marinated chicken and house-made spicy chorizo, paprika, vegetable stock and another type of Spanish short grain rice (Calasparra). The restaurant adds seasonal vegetables – this winter, it’s been red peppers, shaved Brussels sprouts and spinach – at the tail end of the cooking process. The current mix of vegetables is a favorite of Executive chef Hillary Schmidle, who added there are no hard and fast rules to how the vegetables change with the seasons. But if push came to shove, she said the version she makes in late summer with Maine’s sweet corn crop tops them all. “Nothing beats corn stock and fresh corn in a paella,” she said.

With more than a dozen years cooking paella under her belt, Schmidle is confident that most things a cook has on hand could be successfully added to the pan. “Some (ingredients) may need to be cooked before you add them to paella (beets, sweet potatoes, things like that). But really, you can build your own adventure.”

Which is exactly what I’ve done here.

Winter Paella with chicken, chorizo and butter beans. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Winter Paella

I opted for a flat, low-sided, 9-inch skillet I have in my London flat because I don’t have room in my suitcase to haul an authentic paella pan around. This recipe is sized to feed two, but it can easily be doubled to fit a 30-centimeter (12-inch) paella pan suited to feed four. While Valencian paella makers who cook the dish over an open flame use plain water, I follow Spanish-American chef José Andrés advice to use a good chicken stock when making paella indoors.

Serves 2


2 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Kosher salt
1 lemon, halved
Olive oil
1/2 cup chopped Spanish chorizo
1/2 cup canned lima or butter beans
1 cup finely chopped peeled canned tomatoes
1/4 cup diced onion
1/4 cup diced green pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
Pinch saffron
2 to 3 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon very finely chopped fresh rosemary
6 ounces short grain rice, such as Bomba, Calasparra or sushi
1/2 cup frozen peas

Place the chicken, smoked paprika, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the juice from 1 half of the lemon in a bowl. Combine well and let the chicken marinate for 30 minutes.

In a 9-inch flat-bottomed, low-sided skillet or traditional paella pan, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium-high until it is hot but not smoking. Add the chicken thighs, skin-sided down. Sear until the skin is well browned, 3-4 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook on the other side for another 4 minutes. Move the meat pieces to the outer edges of the pan, creating a circle in the center.

Add the chorizo and lima beans to the center of the pan and season with salt. Cook until slightly browned, 3-4 minutes, then push them to the outer edges of the pan with the meats.

Pour the tomato, onions, green pepper and garlic into the center of the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until it reduces by half and begins to turn a deep red color, 3-5 minutes. Stir the meat and vegetables into the tomato sofrito and continue to cook for about 3 minutes more to continue to caramelize the tomato sauce. Crumble the saffron into the pan and add 2 cups of stock and the rosemary. Taste the liquid and season with salt to taste.

Increase the heat to high, let the liquid boil for 2 minutes. Add the rice, taking care to spread it evenly around the pan. Use a wooden spoon to mix it with the meat and vegetables. Cook for 8 minutes on high flame, stirring only occasionally. You should see the rice floating around the pan as the stock boils.


Reduce the heat to medium-low and do a final stir to make sure the meats and vegetables are evenly distributed across the pan. Cook for 8 minutes without stirring as the liquid cooks down. Taste to see if the rice is only slightly al dente, with a nice firm center. If it is too hard, add another 1/2 cup stock and cook for 2 more minutes. Taste the rice again. If it’s too hard, add the last 1/2 cup stock.

When the rice is just right, increase the heat to high. Add the peas and cook until the rice on the bottom of the pan caramelizes into a crunchy socarrat, 5-7 minutes.

Remove the paella from the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes before serving with lemon wedges from the remaining 1/2 lemon.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the former editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at:

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