Most holiday cooking is fraught with stress and guilt. Somehow it’s not as festive if you don’t stand guard over a hot oven or arrive at the table with your hair streaming down from your labors. Why not do something easier? Next up on the fun and festive list, this Cheater’s Paella. Great for sharing and filled with flair, it’s a feeds a crowd dish that’s perfect for the holidays.

Made with rice that has been cooked ahead of time and chilled, this version lets you make paella with aplomb. It has all the flavors of the Spanish original but it cooks more like Chinese fried rice. No paella pan required, you can use your trusty cast-iron skillet, which will work perfectly to give you that precious crispy rice socarrat at the bottom of the pan. 

Dotted with peas and peppers for a dash of red and green, it’s a reasonable facsimile of the paella you have known and loved. You can even make it plant-based by using soy chorizo or simply leaving out the shrimp and chorizo entirely. I would recommend using vegetable broth in place of the wine, or using half-wine half-broth if you do this. 

It’s your dish, so swap in what you like. If you can’t find Spanish chorizo, pepperoni is a fine substitute. You could add some cooked chicken or other types of fish like scallops, clams, mussels or calamari. I would recommend cooking the scallops and calamari as you do with the shrimp, but I would cook them fully and just add them to your finished dish. Cook any fish in shells separately and fully, and do the same. Do be careful about how much you are cooking the shrimp. You want them just short of being done because they will finish cooking at the very end. 

Once the actual cooking starts, this recipe comes together very quickly, so set out and prep all of your ingredients before you begin. Dice the onions, slice the garlic and chorizo, and measure out the tomato paste and white wine. Set out your olive oil, kosher salt, saffron threads, and smoked paprika, and slice a lemon and the roasted peppers.   

Bloom the saffron like matcha tea, brewing it in water between 160º F and 170º F. After 15 minutes of steeping, it is ready to add to your dish. Turmeric is not a perfect match for saffron’s delicate floral flavor, but 1/2 teaspoon of ground turmeric is a good substitute if you don’t have any saffron on hand. I used 2 heaping tablespoons of tomato paste in place of the double-concentrated variety. 

Use a short-grain rice, like Bomba, Arborio or Calasparra if you have it. I used my rice cooker, using 3 of the plastic measuring cupfuls to make the 5 cups of cooked rice that are needed. After the rice cooked, I fluffed it with a fork and cooled it quickly and safely to prevent the rapid growth of Bacillus cereus, a bacteria that all rice can harbor. I transferred it quickly onto a large baking sheet, spreading it evenly so that it would rapidly cool. I let this sit about 5 minutes before covering it with plastic wrap and refrigerating overnight. 

Make those lists and check them twice. Ingredients tend to vaporize this time of the year with all the baking and entertaining. Buy more butter, eggs, and (sees self here) sugar. If you don’t have all of the ingredients, the only thing you’ll be making is another trip to the store. And if you are cooking or baking for others this holiday, a reminder to check ahead for food allergies. Be sure to label and date things, because you don’t want to waste food or risk food poisoning. Most leftovers should be consumed within 3 to 4 days, and I have taken to the “3 days and you’re out” rule instead of doing internet searches. Better to be a little safer than a lot sorry.

There’s no place like home for the holidays. Stay merry!  

Cheater’s Paella


  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 pound tail-on medium shrimp, peeled, deveined

rice and assembly

  • 3/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 2-3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 ounces smoked Spanish chorizo or pepperoni, casings removed, halved lengthwise, sliced 1/4” thick
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped 
  • 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
  • 2 Tablespoons double-concentrated tomato paste
  • 1 Tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • 5 cups (packed) cooled cooked short-grain rice (from about 1 3/4 cups dry)
  • 1 1/2 cups frozen green peas
  • 1 cup roasted red peppers from a jar, cut into 1/2” strips
  • lemon wedges (for serving)

for shrimp

Combine garlic cloves, olive oil, kosher salt and smoked paprika in a medium bowl and stir together. Add shrimp and toss to coat. Let sit at room temperature at least 10 minutes. (Shrimp can be marinated 1 day ahead, covered and chilled.) 

for rice and assembly

Combine saffron threads and 2 tablespoons hot water in a small bowl; set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Cook chorizo, stirring occasionally, until golden brown on both sides, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer chorizo to a plate, leaving oil behind. 

Arrange shrimp in a single layer in same skillet. Cook until just pink on the outside and barely opaque in the center, turning halfway through (shrimp will finish cooking later), about 3 minutes. Transfer shrimp to plate with chorizo.

Add onion, garlic, and kosher salt to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally. Add another tablespoon of olive oil if pan looks dry; cook until onion is softened and translucent, 6-8 minutes. Add tomato paste and smoked paprika and cook, stirring often, until tomato paste is slightly darkened in color, about 3 minutes. Pour in white wine, scraping any browned bits stuck to bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 2 minutes.

Add rice and reserved saffron water to skillet, stirring to break up any clumps and coat grains. Lightly press down on rice with a spatula to form an even layer. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, undisturbed, until rice is crisp and deeply browned underneath, 8-10 minutes.

Scatter frozen green peas, roasted red peppers, shrimp and chorizo over rice. Cover skillet (use a baking sheet it you don’t have a lid), remove from heat and let sit until peas thaw and warm through, 5-8 minutes. 

Break up rice into large pieces and serve paella with lemon wedges. 

-recipe by Shilpa Uskokovic,


Donna Ferguson

Donna Ferguson

I love to cook, garden, and write about all the things in Vancouver and the Northwest that make life so great.

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