I confess I wrote love letters to H’s heartthrob while at the University of Colorado.  It was love at first sight for H when he saw her at CU’s Norlin Library.  H didn’t know her name, and when he did, he was too embarrassed to talk. So I volunteered to help.  I never imagined the love letters I wrote for H would make their way through the entire sorority.  It was a fairytale come to life.

Truly, H was special and the depths of H’s feelings for this woman were truly amazing, albeit he hardly suspected he would have to reveal his deepest feelings or the process would be ill fated.  H agonized over the pathway to expression until he finally found the way to vocalize his most sensitive feelings.  The moral of the story is that I had no idea I could help H influence the feelings of a young woman I had never met. H was desperate, and oddly, there was a similar desperation between writing love letters for H and needing to duplicate Paella from Valencia, Spain.

For background, I lived in Madrid, Spain for years, I went to school there, and I would still be living in Madrid  save for an unexpected medical emergency that returned us stateside.  As a family, we enjoyed life with dear Spanish friends, many of whom I had first known as a student at Complutense University.

I was writing novels, my wife was a successful designer and our son attended Spanish schools.  Frequently astonished Spanish parents would say,  “I look at your son with white blonde hair and blue eyes.  Then I close my eyes and I only hear Spanish kids playing.”

Memories of Spain followed us back to the US.  Truly, life in Spain, as we knew it, was about family and friends.   The years passed and the departure from Spain became definitive.  Yet the wonderful memories never vanished.

Paella had been a recurring motif of countless reunions.  For one year, we lived in the seacoast village of  Javia, an hour’s drive south of Valencia, where I regularly watched the preparation of many Paellas.  Surprisingly, when we were stateside, Paella became more than the signature dish of Spain.  Just as H needed love letters to charm his sweetheart, I had needed Paella to bring the charm of Spain stateside.  This creative idea should not have been difficult.  I was naturally inquisitive, and I stood beside the ppreparations of countless Paellas in restaurants, in homes and on the beach.  Yet there was a problem.

For several years, I was a member of the Board of Directors of the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce, and I frequently quizzed Spanish businessmen and restaurateurs why Paella was always disappointing in US restaurants.   The customary answers were:  “It can’t be done!  The rice, the water and the air are different in Spain.”  Soon I began to appreciate that no one really expected a US recipe could taste the way Paella tastes in Valencia — where they make the best Paellas in the world.  Finally, persistence and many lousy attempts led to a truly fabulous Paella recipe, and I was regularly preparing Paella for twelve or more people.  Then I stopped making Paella for twenty years.

At one distant time, Rafa and I would bicycle from Madrid into the Guadarrama Mountains.  The trip took from four to five hours.  On leaving, we would customarily say,  “Adios, Soldado” to the boy with the blue eyes.

With Quixotic intent I once again set about to write love letters in rice.  The occasion was the May arrival of an especially sad birthday.  On that day,  I mounted the bicycle I had not ridden since last summer when I was injured.  I looked upward and said, “Adios, Soldado.”  Then I grinned, “Hey Rafa, how about some help on the hills,” and I rode uphill for three hours.  I was exhausted when I returned, yet I felt terrific.  Then I made the most delicious Paella.

You’ll be the judge if you prepare this recipe. (Please let me know-Contact info at end)

“There is only one rule.”  My friend, Jose Hilario Olloqui, explained to me in the family restaurant, Mauleon, during the San Fermin Fiestas in Pamplona.  “Everything that goes into a paella must have a flavor.”

US – Paella from Spain

The Rice:

The fine Spanish Valencia rice is not readily available.  No problem.  Arborio rice — used for making Risotto (a kissing cousin to Paella) — is perfect.   Arborio is plump and absorbs water easily, and the cooked product is soft and a little sticky.  Arborio rice is readily available (Dell’Alpe brand in Safeway).  Beware! Paella is all about the rice, and to use anything other than Arborio is to court disaster!

I should mention this recipe does not include traditional seafood items, especially clams and mussels, (which might best be avoided in non-coastal areas during the long hot summer).  Shrimp are included in the recipe since the frozen variety is delicious and readily available everywhere.  If you can buy fresh shrimp, please serve with the heads-on and increase the flavor.

The total truth:  Paella is very romantic.   It is totally ahead of the candlelight dinner because of the special relationship that exists between the artist and the cuisine.

Paella for Four

Before we begin, Three Quick Caveats:

(1.) Never add plain water.  If you need more liquid, use chicken stock

(2.) Gather, prepare and lay out all the ingredients beforehand.

(3.) Paella is best cooked over a gas flame (The Gas Grill is excellent)

(4.) Move the pan frequently to compensate for irregular heat.

(5.) Don’t leave the cooking site.  Have someone fetch what’s needed

The Necessary Items:

16-inch metal paella pan

Stainless Steel food mill

Mortar and Pestle

Metal Spatula

Rubber Spatula


2-cups Arborio short-grain rice

5 cups Chicken Cooking Stock

6 –Tablespoons Pure Olive Oil (Extra Virgin is for salads)

8 large uncooked shrimp (head-on shrimp for flavor)

1 whole chicken quartered (or buy pieces: legs, thighs, breasts, etc.)

1 red pepper (sliced into strips)

1 green pepper – (sliced into strips)

1 onion, thinly sliced

6 fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

2 Tomatoes – thinly sliced, discard stem ends

¼ teaspoon red Spanish saffron strands

2 – teaspoons sweet paprika

Fresh spring garden peas (or canned)

2 Imported Fire Roasted Red Peppers, sliced into thin strips

(Safeway Select Brand)

6 tender, young French green beans (Haricot Verts)

3 lemons


(1.) Cover the bottom of the Paella pan with 6 tablespoons pure olive oil (again: not extra virgin olive oil) and adjust the flame on high for simmering.  Place one sliced garlic sliver into pan until it begins sizzling.  Now add all garlic and onion slices, using the metal spatula separate and to press down upon the garlic and onion slices. The garlic will be done first (moist, light brown color) and the onions will take longer to turn a caramelized color.  Be patient.

(2.) Remove garlic, then onion slices and save on a plate for later.

(3.) Now place chicken pieces into the paella pan and fry over a medium flame, with skin-side down. Turn and separate the pieces while cooking.

(4.) Apart, bring 5 cups Chicken Cooking Stock to a boil

(5.) When the chicken is ½ done, add tomatoes, red and green pepper slices.  Then cook everything together until the tomatoes are soft, soupy and bubbly.

(6.) Now add the 2-cups Arborio short-grain rice and simmer for five minutes with chicken, tomatoes, red and green peppers.

(7.) Insert the 5 cups boiling Chicken Cooking Stock into pan.

(8.) Use the stainless steel food mill to grind the sautéed garlic and onions through the holes in the bottom of the plate and into the paella pan.  Transfer the remaining substance on the food mill plate with the rubber spatula

(9.) Use the mortar and pestle to crush and grind the saffron

(10.) Add two teaspoons sweet paprika to mortar and use the pestle to mix with the saffron, then add both to the paella pan.

(11.) Cook with bubbling heat for five minutes

(12.) Lower heat to moderate and ‘cook’ the rice slowly

(13.) Add raw shrimp and green beans

(14.) Cook until liquid level in the paella pan is just below the rice, while paying particular attention that reservoirs of liquid are at the edges of the pan are absorbed

(15.) Garnish on top with peas and fire roasted red pepper strips

(16.) Remove from the heat, cover with aluminum foil for 20-minutes

(17.) Cut lemons with paring knife around the middle section with crisscross incisions ‘/\/\/\/’ then break apart.  Use to garnish the outside of the paella pan.

(18.) Uncover and serve.

The fundamental recipe does not adapt well to change.  No problem adding different meats, chorizo, seafood, even a vegetarian Paella.  Beware of switching to brown rice.  It’s very disappointing (I’m sorry)

Truthfully, the most important ingredient is what the chef is feeling.  There is a beautiful Zen to cooking Paella. Maybe you will smell the Mediterranean, or the morning sunrise over the water, or you might imagine enjoying Paella on the beach in Valencia.   Remarkably, the Paella will turn out in explicit harmony with the feelings of the person preparing this exquisite dish.  (P.S. A good Rioja wine is recommended for the chef)

Please send comments to: Email: info@cmichaelbennis.com

About the Author:  C. Michael Bennis is a toy and advertising industry executive. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and lives in Tucson, Arizona.  Rules of Engagement is his first book.

For more inforation, visit http://www.cmichaelbennis.com/ and see the video of Show Host Danielle Knox interviewing C. Michael Bennis on The Balancing Act Airing on Lifetime Television.

“Michael is an award wining author who does not disappoint with his latest novel Rules of Engagement. It’s a thrilling love story set in exotic locales, filled with mystery, twists, turns and of course passion and romance.”

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