Sofrito Paella

Two favorite foods are Cioppino and Paella, very similar concepts built on a rich stock, seafood and tomato foundation, but very different in texture and seasonings. My favorite Cioppino is served at Scoma’s, a classic San Francisco Italian restaurant, tucked off to the side on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, hidden from tourists, and loved by locals. At the time, over 2 1/2 decades ago, it seemed ludicrous to pay $21 for tomatoes and seafood – a basic stew. A few bites later I sighed, “This is worth every penny and more.”

While Scomas graciously shares their recipe, it appears they weren’t feeling generous enough to include all the ingredients. Cioppino without garlic? Without red pepper flakes? Without fish stock? Those were some of the key flavors, and even though I could probably taste my way through making variations that would get me closer to the target – tasting exactly as if they had made it – I’m concerned umpteen versions might water my fond memories. There are some things worth practicing deferred gratification.

Paella, on the other hand, is something I’ve felt compelled to re-create. The quaint Spanish-theme restaurant, tucked away in lovely Cape Cod copse, had the best Paella we had ever tasted. Unfortunately, bland-palette New Englanders have replaced the menu offerings with yet more boring fried fish and sloppy slaw shack, as if Cape Cod needed another one.

My Paella is a blend of 5 recipes, nowhere even close to the Paella of our memory. But in many ways, I like my version better. That’s the fun of country-style peasant food – customization to individual tastes is part of the adventure.

I’ve yet to successfully replicate the crispy-rice bottom which our waiter ceremoniously whacked free from clay baking vessels, a “must have” by Paella Purist standards – akin to those who enjoy the thick crust of cheese that develops on the bottom of the fondue pot. Not being a purist, I’ve focused instead on developing more complex flavors for the above-the-crust portion of the dish. Besides, I have a perfectly brand new, authentic stainless steel paella pan and I can’t justify buying new clay dishes. Well, until I find more recipes that need them, but I digress. On to the secret ingredient…

The Secret Sauce

I discovered two keys to a really good Paella – making a really good Sofrito and choosing the right kind of rice.

Sofritos, common to Puerto Rican, Spanish and Caribbean cuisine, are referred to as “the secret sauce” by Sofrito aficionados. There are as many Sofritos as there are possibilities for incorporating their taste-tingling goodness into stews, soups or bean-based dishes, or, Paellas. Sofritos begin with the same basic ingredients – onions, tomatoes, garlic and some form of peppers. From there, spices vary, reflecting individual cultures and tastes. Traditionally, Sofritos are prepared fresh weekly, kept on hand and used throughout the week, or in this case, prepared for one main dish.

Arborio replaces Bomba

As far as rice, Bomba is the traditional medium-grain Spanish rice used in Paella. A few phone calls to local specialty stores, all of which turned out to be Bomba-free, left me searching for a substitute. Being geographically stuck between California and Spain, I didn’t feel a desire to pay shipping costs from online shopping sources from either location. Several cookbooks later, I discovered Arborio rice was an acceptible substitute as it had the ability, like Bomba, to soak up liquids leaving individual grains infused with flavor, rather than turning to mush like other types of rice.

There Must Be An Easier Way….

My first few Paella attempts found me working hours on end, spending the better part of a day, browning meat, dicing onions, layering flavors. Hours and months into my experimentation, I discovered that crafting Paella could be spread out over multiple days. Par-boiling the rice, and making the sofrito ahead of time (saves time and allows the flavors to meld) means that on the day I want to serve Paella, I only need 15 minutes stove-top and 11-minutes oven time to complete the dish.

My Paella is best served with a good, hearty room temperature red wine and freshly baked sourdough bread, followed by flan for desert. Enjoy!

First Step

Prepare the Sorfrito and Partially-Cooked Arborio Rice (recipe follows) – up to 1 week ahead of the final dish. I also make my own chicken broth and chorizo (recipe follows), up to 1 week ahead.

Second Step
  • 1 lb boneless chicken thighs, cut in 1/2-inch strips
  • 2 tsp mild chili powder
  • sea salt
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 lb fresh chorizo sausage (I prefer to make my own which turns out to be a crumbled sausage so I can control the amount of “heat”. It may also be purchased. If not available, Andouille or Kielbasa may be substituted.)

1. Sprinkle chicken with chili powder and salt.

2. Brown chicken and sausage in olive oil, medium heat, saute 3-4 minutes.

3. Set aside.

4. Heat oven to 450f.

Third Step

  • 1 recipe Sofrito
  • 2 cups chicken or shrimp stock (fresh, home-made)
  • 1/4 c white wine
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 1 recipe parboiled Arborio rice
  • 1 pkg (10 oz) frozen green peas (about 2 cups)*
  • 16 large shrimp (about 12 ounces) peeled
  • 12 ounces squid, tentacle removed and reserved, bodies cut into 1/2-inch rings
  • 1 lobster, 1 1/4 pounds
  • 24 mussels, scrubbed, bearded and thoroughly rinsed
  • 1/4 c fresh cilantro leaves, minced

1. Stir saffron, stock, wine and saffron threads into the Sofrito (use a 12-inch saute pan, at least 3 1/2 inches deep or, preferably, a paella pan) heating to a gentle simmer.

2. Add 1 recipe par-boiled Arborio rice;

3. Fold rice and Sofrito together, stirring to coat the grains; simmer 3-4 minutes carefully twirling the pan around on the burner so the rice cooks evenly absorbing the liquid. DO NOT COVER and DO NOT STIR or you’ll end up with risotto. Turn burner off.

4. Stir peas into the rice & risotto mixture; season to taste with sea salt and pepper.

5. Quickly arrange shrimp, squid, and lobster pieces over rice mixture. Bake 7 minutes.

6. Arrange mussels over rice and seafood; bake until mussels open, 3 to 4 minutes longer.

7. Remove pan from oven, cover and let stand for rice to complete cooking and absorb remaining liquid – about 15 minutes.

8. Sprinkle with rough-chopped parsley and cilantro; serve.

Poblano Sofrito

This is the core of the dish, giving it a depth and complexity beyond ordinary Paella. Sofritos may be used for a wide variety of dishes as a base for soups, stews, chilis or beans. It’s worth the effort to search for poblano chilis, called for in this recipe. One red pepper and jalapeno – roasted, peeled and seeded – may be used in the poblano’s place, but the end result will not be the same amazing, satisfying flavor.

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 medium Spanish onions, cut into medium dice
  • 2 large poblano chiles, roasted , peeled, seeded and cut into medium dice
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped; 1 cup liquid reserved
  • 3 T sweet paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsps fresh oregano leaves minced, or 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 T sugar (optional – depends on acidity of canned tomatoes; if using home-made rehydrated tomatoes instead of canned, do NOT add the sugar; dehydrated tomatoes have a deep, lovely complex flavor unlike canned)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 T fresh cilantro leaves, minced

1. Saute the onions and poblano chiles in the olive oil, 3-4 minutes.

2. Add garlic, saute for 1-minute.

3. Add remaining ingredients EXCEPT cilantro.

4. Simmer on low until the mixture caramelizes and the flavors meld – 20-25 minutes.

5. Remove bay leaves; add cilantro.

(May be cooled to room temperature, covered, and refrigerated up to 1 week.)

Makes 6 cups

  • 4 c chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  • 3 T olive oil
  • 3 c Arborio rice

1. Bring chicken stock to boil in large saucepan; simmer over low heat.

2. Heat oil in large skillet; add rice, and stir constantly to toast rice;, about 1 minute.

3. Slowly add chicken stock to rice; bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly until some of the liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes.

4. Remove pan from heat; cover and set aside until chicken stock is completely absorbed.

5. Spread partially cooked rice on cookie, cover with plastic, and refrigerate until ready to assemble paella. (Can be refrigerated up to 2 days.)


This is not a typical sage or black-pepper seasoned fresh sausage, but instead, Sonoran-style for a change-of-pace flavored with garlic, chilis and Mexican oregano. It’s pretty much guaranteed that the oregano sitting in your cabinet is Mexican oregano. Greek oregano, the “other” Oregano is typically only available if you grow it yourself. In either case, try to use fresh if available as its flavor will be more pungent and typical of real chorizo.

I prefer 100% ground pork, but goat, beef, or venison may also be used. This recipe makes twice as much as what is needed for the Paella, with the remaining making a wonderful addition to omelettes, frittatas, and corn-tortilla breakfast burritos. Like other fresh sausages (as opposed to cured/fermented/aged), shape into patties and either fry immediately or freeze for later use.

  • 2 lb ground pork
  • 3 tsp sea salt
  • 6 T pure ground red chile
  • 6-20 small hot dried red chiles; tepine, Thai dragon, pico de gallo, crushed (I’ve never used more than 6 as I’m seasoning with young children in mind.)
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 T fresh leaf oregano (or 2 T dry leaf oregano)
  • 2 tsp whole cumin seed, crushed
  • 1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 4 T organic apple cider vinegar
  • 2 1/2 T water

1. Stir together dry ingredients.

2. Stir together wet ingredients.

3. Place ground meat in a mixing bowl, adding dry and wet ingredients.

4. If you have a dough-hook, “knead” the ingredients into the meat on the lowest setting, just until incorporated. Ingredients may also be mixed by hand, folding the dry and wet ingredients into the meat. Do not overwork as ground meats can become “gummy”.