Cooking for the New Year doesn’t need to be difficult -- it only needs a “wow” factor. In Spain, they know how to do that right. When they get a crowd together, they make paella. 

Entertaining for the New Year doesn’t need to be difficult, time consuming or messy. You want to enjoy your party, not spend the day cleaning and cooking. Cleaning is for after the party. And cooking? Well, it only needs a “wow” factor.

In Spain, they know how to do that right. When they get a crowd together, they make paella. Everyone’s favorite foods find their way into one big pan, which is also called paella.

Now my version takes some liberties with the classic, but it’s as easy to make for 10 as it is for 50 people. (For more people, you just need more of the same ingredients.) Mine relies on a few fresh things plus some frozen and canned for ease. And the results are delightful.

Start with the pan. A paella pan is large, often black, shaped like a skillet, but with two handles on opposite sides. It works best over a gas flame, but I’ve used it on an electric burner as well. If you have one, put it to use as was intended. But you don’t need to go out and buy one for the occasion. Just use your largest skillet, casserole, or baking dish. Even your turkey pan will do in a pinch. Just put it over two burners.

I start by buying a decent brand of olive oil — not necessarily expensive and not extra-virgin to flavor everything that goes into the recipe.

To cook, I go down the list of ingredient and prep each one. That means the large yellow, or Spanish, onion gets chopped and set on the counter ready for cooking, as well as the remainder of ingredients on the list.

I buy a whole chicken, and have the butcher cut it up into serving size pieces to save cutting at home. Some supermarkets carry whole cut-up chickens already packaged in the refrigerator case; in others, you need to find the butcher. What I want here is a variety of parts.

That large yellow onion might also be called a Spanish onion. A sweet Vidalia onion works as well. In a pinch, a red onion will do.

Saffron is optional and very expensive. If you want the color it provides at a lesser cost, try annatto (in the spice or Spanish aisle). Soak a teaspoon of these seeds in hot chicken stock until they give it a rich golden orange hue. It tints the rice a deep “saffron” yellow.

Wintertime plum tomatoes in the produce bin look and taste pale, so I use canned plum tomatoes for a brighter color and flavor. Scoop them out of the can with a slotted spoon, saving the leftovers for another use (take them out of the can and put them in a plastic container then refrigerate).

Usually paella contains sautéed fresh red bell peppers. However, in this big, fast, easy version, I just drain and rinse a jar or two of roasted bell peppers, then chop them. Much faster! And they add a smoky flavor component.

Chicken stock. So much to say. Make your own and keep it handy in the freezer? Good, but so many of us don’t have the time. The stock that comes in a box is a close substitute to homemade stock. A bit more costly, but very handy. I buy the salt-free kind and add so I determine how salty, not the manufacturer.

In this recipe, I’ve written in black beans, a trick I discovered in Cuba. They add another dimension of color. Some recipes call for red kidney or cannellini beans. And although some recipes specify Italian Arborio rice, my paella turns out just as nicely using Uncle Ben’s original. Just be sure that the liquid completely covers the rice or any uncovered grains will not cook thoroughly.

Keep in mind that paella looks best at its most colorful. That means that the mixed frozen vegetables should be as many colors as possible. Look for bags with corn, green beans and carrots to add color and flavor. The frozen vegetables go right into the pan from the bag and cook up with the rice.

The last addition: seafood. If the wallet allows, get a pound of shelled, de-veined shrimp with tails on. The tails are for eye appeal. More economically, get one to two pounds of mussels from Prince Edward Island. They are the cleanest. Rinse well. Pull out the little hairy things that stick out (beards). And make sure that all are closed, or if open, tap them and watch for them to close up. A few may not. Discard those. Put mussels or shrimp into the pan in the last few minutes of cooking. Mussels are ready when they open; shrimp, when they turn pink and curl.

A final touch: I chop up some fresh cilantro and sprinkle it over the top, put lemon wedges around the edges. If you like some heat, sprinkle in some hot sauce or ground cayenne.

I serve it right from the big pan either in the middle of the table, or on the stovetop. Pile up colorful bowls and napkins (this is where mismatches look great) and let everyone help themselves. Enjoy the party.

CLASSIC PAELLA VALENCIA
Makes 6 servings

1/4 cup olive oil or enough to film the bottom of the pan    1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds, cut into 8 serving pieces    salt, ground black pepper, to taste      1 large yellow onion, chopped      1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed (optional)      4 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped     1 jar roasted red peppers, drained and chopped       4 cups chicken stock, homemade or kitchen ready boxed stock   2 16-ounce cans large black beans        2-1/2 cups rice                 1 bag frozen mixed vegetables (corn, green beans, carrots)    1 pound cleaned de-veined shrimp, or mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded     Lemon wedges for garnish
 

1. In a paella pan or a really large skillet (12-inches and up) over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil.

2. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook on both sides, until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes per side. Remove from the pan; set aside on a plate.

3. Add the onion, saffron, tomatoes, and roasted peppers to the pan. Reduce heat slightly. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions soften, for 6 to 8 minutes. Take a few pieces of the vegetables out of the pan and bite into them to be sure they are tender, not crunchy.

4. Return the chicken to the pan. Pour in the stock; simmer for 10 minutes. Add the white beans and rice and stir to mix. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, without stirring, until rice is nearly tender, about 20 minutes.

5. During the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the frozen vegetables and shrimp or mussels into the rice, gently folding into the top layers of rice, so that the crust that is developing on the lower layer —it’s not burning! — is not broken.

6. Let the paella stand, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes to be sure that the rice absorbs all the liquid. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve hot right, bringing the pan to the table.

Linda Bassett, author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” can be reached at KitchenCall@aol.com.