Loquita Executive Chef Sergei Simonov guides students through the ins and outs of making paella. | Photo: Leslie Dinaberg

The beautiful, smoky flavors of Spain took the spotlight at Taste of Santa Barbara’s paella cooking class last week with Loquita Executive Chef Sergei Simonov. Under the expert guidance of Chef Simonov — whom I felt like I got to know earlier this year when I binged his star-in-the-making season on Netflix’s Pressure Cooker — the intimidatingly fancy-looking (and mouthwateringly tasty) “Chorizo y Pollo Paella” dish was actually quite manageable and fun to make. 

Cheers to learning how to make paella as part of the 2023 Taste of Santa Barbara program! | Photo: Leslie Dinaberg

Of course, the assistance from the team of sous chefs at the Apples to Zucchini Cooking School, where the class was held, didn’t hurt, nor the did the skills of my kitchen partner Alexandra (Alex) Bongaerts, a lovely woman who warmly welcomed me into her group and incidentally owns the flower wonderland Florabundance in Carpinteria. 

We started the paella party with sangria and a nice assortment of breads and cheeses as Chef Simonov gave us some background on the dish, which was right off Loquita’s menu.  

“I was just in Spain, a little over three weeks ago; I was in Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. Valencia is the birthplace of paella on the far east coast of Spain,” he said. The most traditional paella is the paella Valenciana, which is made with rabbit, chicken, and snails, he explained, “but that might turn some people away, which is why we’re cooking the pollo and chorizo up for you today. … The traditional version of the dish is, I don’t want to say it was a peasant dish, but it was kind of like a farmer’s dish, cooked over an open wood fire. The flame was meant to be shared; it was a very humble kind of cooking experience. You gather around with everybody and share a rice dish you cook together.”

Writer Leslie Dinaberg, left, shows her dish off to Apples to Zucchini Cooking School Founder Nancy Martz. | Photo: Leslie Dinaberg

He continued, “Here we take the beautiful Spanish origins of the dish, and obviously it’s what Santa Barbara is; we’ve now kind of made it fun and exciting. We use all the local farmers and ingredients to really highlight all these beautiful paellas and obviously all the tapas that we have at Loquita as well.”

With that intro, we fired up our induction cooktops, and soon the spicy smells of Spanish chorizo permeated the room, followed by sofrito (a mix of aromatics), mushrooms, garlic, other spices, grated tomatoes, and eventually the bomba rice. “The rice is the most important part of the dish that we all love,” said Chef Simonov. He explained that the bomba rice is a much larger grain than what we usually see, “much larger than a basmati; its most comparable rice is almost like sushi rice. It’s got a lot of good starches and a very short grain.”

Soon we added chicken stock and a bit of Spanish paprika as we let the paella boil and then simmer over low/medium heat without stirring it. The key to toasting the rice is patience, Chef Simonov explained, testing each dish with a special set of tweezers to make sure all the rice falls to the bottom of the paella pan. While the restaurant grills its chicken before adding it to the paella, for our dishes we cheated a bit and heated it in the oven as we watched the crispy edges of the rice, called “socarrat,” begin to form. The socarrat is one of the most important keys for fabulous flavor, according to the recipe handout.

Showing off their paella dishes after class | Photo: Leslie Dinaberg

Now cooked with a nice sear, we sliced the bone-in chicken thighs and artfully arranged them around the paella, along with blistered shishido peppers, grilled lemon, lemon aioli, and fresh chopped parsley! Admiring our beautiful dishes as we walked them out to the garden of the cooking school, we enjoyed a communal paella feast, paired with Sunstone wines, under the setting sun. 

I don’t know that my home cooking skills are quite up to making paella by myself, but the class was a lot of fun and a great showcase for some of the flavors of Santa Barbara and the excellent lesson space of Apples to Zucchini Cooking School. I can’t wait to see what they cook up for us at next year’s event.


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