How to Add More Protein, Fewer Carbs, and Way More Flavor to Spain’s Most Iconic Dish: Paella

Spanish paella with prawns

The dish paella (pronounced pa-AY-yuh) is actually named for the shallow cooking pan in which it’s made and served. 

Paella originated in Spain, where centuries ago farmers would throw together white rice and any proteins they could find, and cook them over an open fire in the fields where they worked. Over time, paella evolved into a masterpiece of Spanish cuisine: a dish typically made with white rice; a variety of seafood (shrimp, mussels, lobster) and/or meat (chicken, chorizo); a flavor base (sofrito) of garlic, onions, peas, and tomatoes; and a sprinkling of saffron.

But white rice isn’t the optimum carb for health-conscious guys. And what’s a meal without plenty of veggies? So we’ve put together 5 savory, satisfying paella recipes made with the healthiest whole grains to make healthy, protein-rich meals that are lower in carbs, calories, fat, and sodium. Keep reading for more expert tips and ways to elevate the classic Spanish dish.

1. Familiarize yourself with saffron 

Just a bit of the exotic spice turns a boring plate into a memorable meal. And luckily for your wallet, a little goes a long, long way. Think of saffron as the truffle of the spice kingdom.

The fragrant red strands, harvested from the stigma of the saffron crocus flower and then cured, are essential to the flavor of many Spanish dishes. But saffron isn’t just powerfully tasty, it’s also megahealthy, packed with a carotenoid called crocin—an antioxidant that helps fight cancer, stabilize blood sugar, and promote memory retention.

Since saffron is also one of the priciest spices you’ll ever come across, costing upward of $12 for just one gram, you’ll want to exercise restraint when you use it—which isn’t difficult to do, since just a bit will be plenty for pretty much any dish. According to Alex Raij, chef and co-owner of NYC’s La Vara restaurant, always buy whole strands of saffron, not the preground variety, which might be cut with marigolds. 

How to use saffron: Before adding it to a dish, crumble the strands in your fingers so the fragrance is distributed evenly. It’s particularly tantalizing when added first to a pan of sizzling oil, which really wakes up a dish, Raij says. Store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

2. Don’t be afraid to use rabbit

Want to make a super-authentic paella from Valencia, Spain, the proud birthplace of this ultraversatile dish? Then pull a rabbit out of your hat. 

Top chefs often name famous Spanish chef Josefa Navarro’s simple rabbit paella as the best paella in the world; and many American students studying in Valencia have been welcomed their first day with a traditional rabbit paella, cooked over an open fire and bestowed upon them by their host family as if it were a gift from the Spanish magi.

And cooked right, it is. Because rabbit isn’t just delicious—it tastes a bit like chicken (no kidding) but with a slightly “wilder” flavor. It’s also a nutritional slam dunk: A super-lean meat, it has more protein and less fat than chicken, veal, turkey, lamb, beef, and pork and half the calories of lamb or beef.

If you don’t have a local butcher who sells rabbit, you can order boneless rabbit loin (you seriously don’t want to be picking out all those tiny little bones) online from D’artagnan.

For more expert advice, visit 3 tips for cooking a great paella.

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