Making Paella in Basque country – San Sebastian, Spain – my @AlbertaatNoon column for September

paella on my plate photo - Karen Anderson
paella on my plate
photo – Karen Anderson

I’m just back from Spain. It was my first time there and the whole time I explored my new surroundings Elton John’s song Daniel kept playing in my mind. I’d find myself humming it or singing a few lines…

Daniel is flying tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading to Spain
(and a bit further on)
They say Spain is pretty though I’ve never been
Daniel says it’s the best place he’s ever seen
and he should know he’s been there enough…

Spain is pretty and its filled with justifiably proud people and that wonderfully (when it’s done right) ubiquitous dish called paella.

This post will tell the story of my chance to cook paella in San Sebastian with a Basque country native. Keep reading and I’ll share his great recipe with you.

Driving across Northern of Spain from Barcelona on the Mediterranean to San Sebastian on the Atlantic it was as though the highway cut a swath through wide open sky and countryside simultaneously. The sun-baked plains are dotted with regular rows of orange trees and the grey green plumage of olive groves. Grape vines stray from their trellises to wave hello. Wind turbines twirl with almighty fury while a myriad of panels tilt back and soak up solar power. We felt the sunshine, heat, and wind as we whisked along in a race with the revolving earth. And then our exit appeared and we turned a corner and were met with steep grey cliffs wearing lush green growth like a St. Paddy’s day hat. Down, down, down we plunged through the canyons to the blue, blue sea.

The eye is always happiest when it lands on green. It finds a little peace. Green means rains and rain means food will grow.

San Sebastian has a wonderful culinary reputation. It’s known as the taste nerve centre of Spain with 30 Michelin-starred restaurants and pintxos (I’ll write more about pintxos soon) bars to drool for. I’d arranged ahead of time to meet the best friend of a friend and I looked forward to the chance to spend time with a local.

Slim and fit we met Jesus and Ithaxoon were waiting on the appointed day outside the cathedral steps. We walked and talked about life in Basque country and toured the town from one end of its broad sea wall to the other. Evening fell and we explored favourite pintxos bars and had fun seeing how much we could eat and drink for 10 Euros per person. We spent another day hiking nearby cliffs and lunching on sardines and langoustines in an ancient village and then came the greatest moment for me – an invitation to come for lunch to learn how to make paella.

Bliss and joy – here’s an authentic Basque recipe for paella and photos of my lesson with my friend’s best friend and now my dear friend – Jesus.

Basque country paella
Serves 4 and may be multiplied as long as you have a big enough pan to hold it.

Notes to the cook
Here are a few pointers. First read the recipe through and break it down. The dish will come together with was if you make your stock and sofrito a day ahead and refrigerate them until you need them. A sofrito is to Spanish cooking what celery, carrots and onions are to the base of most soups, stews and sauces in the classic French cooking that most North American culinary schools and cookbooks are based on. Use short grain rice; preferably from Valencia, Spain (this may be ordered online = in Alberta from The Cookbook Co Cooks in Calgary will mail it anywhere in the province). If you can’t find Valencian style arozzo substitute Italian arborio rice. Do not stir arborio rice as you would in a risotto as it will not achieve the intact texture of paella but instead turn to a creamy risotto as it is meant to be used for. Do not use basmati or long grain rice as they will break apart with this method.
Okay – read on.

The fish stock
1 lb prawns with shells on – peel and reserve the shells in one bowl and the meat in another
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
3 – 236 mls bottles of clam juice
Heat a saucepan on medium heat and add olive oil
Add the garlic clove and cook on low heat until fragrant
Add the prawn shells and stir to break them apart for three to five minutes
Pour in the clam juice and simmer for at least 30 minutes or overnight in a slow cooker
Strain, season with salt and pepper and keep warm until needed

The sofrito
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
2 tomatoes, cut and blended till smooth in a food processor
Heat the olive oil in a small frying pan and add the onion cooking until soft and translucent
Add the garlic, stir to distribute it and cook on low until soft
Sprinkle the paprika and stir to coat the vegetables
Add the tomatoes and simmer over medium heat until the mixture becomes a thick paste – about 10 to 15 minutes then set aside.

Bringing it all together with the rice and meats in your paella pan
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb bone-in chicken pieces with skin removed
½ lb of chorizo sausage cut in bite size pieces (may substitute rabbit)
2 cups of short grain rice – preferably Bomba, Calasparra or rice grown in the Valencia region of Spain
½ cup carrots, diced
½ cup onion, chopped
½ cup fresh green beans, chopped in 1 inch pieces
½ cup red pepper, chopped
reserved sofrito
3 cups stock
1 cup white wine
pinch saffron threads (about 20) soaked in 1 tablespoon of hot water
reserved shrimp
½ pound mussels and mixed baby clams in the shell, scrubbed
Parsley and lemon
Heat the oil in a large flat fry pan or paella pan and add the pieces of meat and sausage, browning them on all sides until done
Add the vegetables and cook on low heat until they are soft and the onions are translucent
Add the sofrito and stir to evenly distribute
Add the rice and stir until totally coated
Add the stock, wine and saffron and do not stir – instead leave the mixture to simmer at a constant bubble until all the liquid is absorbed, the rice is puffed up and the sauce is thick – about 10 minutes
Meanwhile steam the mussels in a small amount of water for about five minutes and discard any that do not open.
Tuck the prawns into the rice mixture and spread the mussels evenly on top.
Cover with a lid or aluminium foil letting the paella rest (for at least 10 minutes) and the seafood heat.
Serve on the table topped with some chopped parsley and a few lemon wedges.

Now that you’ve read the method, you might feel a bit overwhelmed but if you follow along with the photos below you’ll see that the dish really does come together with ease once you’ve done all your prep work.

This post is dedicated to Jesus and Ithaxoon and their family. Thank you for the privilege and joy of cooking and sharing this lovely meal together and for all your time and caring attention when we visited.

And now, for those of you that’d like to close your eyes and drift away have a listen to Sir Elton John singing Daniel. He’s still right – Spain is pretty and I’ll add that its pretty tasty too. It’s a great place to savour it all.


  1. Sue

    Wonderful article, pictures, and recipe! I feel transported to Spain with your beautiful pictures and words. Can’t wait to hear more.

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