As I mentioned in my wrap-up of Eat Local month, during August I had been resisting using the ingredients I brought back from Spain in order to support the campaign to eat as much locally produced foods as possible. Although it's true that some of the ingredients I brought back were local when I purchased them (such as the olive oil that I bought at the local co-op's mill), I didn't want to go down that road, or before you know it I'd have been rationalizing my way into eating a dozen Ho Hos® ** (you know, Hostess® claims the recipe, or more accurately the chemical formula, came from a bakery in San Francisco, so maybe it qualifies...).
Last night was the first day of September, so it was high time for me to dig into my Spanish products and make some paella!
So, what's in a name? I hesitate to even use the word "paella" to describe this Spanish-inspired rice dish, which in Spanish I would be more inclined to call arroz de verduras and in Catalan arròs amb verdures, arroz/arròs simply meaning "rice" and verduras/verdures meaning "vegetables." But, for better or worse, in English we tend to call any Spanish-style rice dish a paella, so that's what I'll call it here.
My goal for this vegetable paella was to showcase the pristine artichokes and peas from Swanton, one of our local farms, in a vegetarian (heck, it's even vegan!) rice dish that would retain the integrity of an authentic paella or arròs like the one I sampled in Valencia. You could substitute any combination of fresh seasonal vegetables that you prefer, such as peppers, zucchini, green beans or mushrooms. Even if you've never had a good paella -- oh the horrible things I have seen and tasted that went by the name of paella (even in Spain)!-- I know you're really going to like this one! And it's so easy, much less work than making risotto, because you don't have to stir it at all!
Before I get to the recipe, though, I want to get on my soapbox and share with you some of the things I've learned about paella on my trips to Spain and in my readings.
Traditionally, a paella should be cooked in a special shallow, round steel pan called, not surprisingly, a paellera. I don't yet have one, but they're easy to order on line. The important thing to take into account when choosing a paellera or whatever pan you're going to use is how many people you plan to serve. The size of the pan increases with the number of servings.
For example, my recipe below is for just 2 people, so I used my shallow 10-inch/26 cm sauté pan to successfully imitate a paellera. For 4 servings, you'll need a 13-inch/34 cm paellera; for 6 servings, a 15-inch/38 cm pan; for 40-50 servings, a 36-inch/90 cm pan (and a really big spoon).
I wasn't going to get into this, but I might as well. At least in Valencia and Alicante, Paella is traditionally the Spanish equivalent to the American Sunday afternoon backyard bar-be-cue. What I mean is it's a dish, more often than not, cooked by men. And when men cook, we like to do it outside, over a wood fire. If you're inclined to cook your paella in a manly fashion, you may want to consider a tripod, but actually the standard round Weber® is perfect. If you can get your paella pan in time, it would be a perfect alternative to hot dogs and burgers for the upcoming Labor Day weekend grill-fest!
Alas, as I've mentioned before, I don't own a grill, so I had to settle for cooking my paella indoors. Besides, a vegetable paella is hardly manly (real men don't eat vegetables, do they?). To replicate the subtle smokiness that a wood fire imparts to the rice, I used a little of the marvelous smoked Spanish paprika, pimentón de la Vera.
Paella is really all about the rice. It's helpful to view the role of all the other ingredients as existing to season the rice (for those more acquainted with Italian cuisine, it's akin to the Italian view of pasta).
What kind of rice should we use? Although cookbooks will (correctly) assure us that we can successfully use any short-grain rice, like Italian arborio or Japanese rice, to make satisfactory paella, I have found that it's more fun to use authentic Spanish rice, either the excellent calasparra or the exceptional bomba. Italian risotto rices are bred to be creamy and Japanese rices are meant to be sticky.
Spanish rices, on the other hand, are bred to absorb as much liquid as possible without releasing too much starch. Bomba rice absorbs up to 50% more of your flavorful broth than other rices, which in turn will produce a more concentrated and intense flavor in our finished paella.
Our second most important ingredient, it follows, is our broth or stock. If we were making a seafood paella, we'd want a rich fish stock, ideally one made with shrimp shells and tiny crabs. For meat-based rices, I recommend chicken stock. But here we're making a vegetable paella, so we need either a chicken stock or, if we want it vegetarian, a flavorful vegetable stock (I like Annie Somerville's tips for making vegetable stocks in her book, Field of Greens).
Any way, without further ado, I'll stop yammering and give you the recipe.
Paella of Artichokes and Peas
6 baby artichokes or 1 large artichoke
1/2 lb. English peas in their pods (or 1/2 c frozen peas, thawed)
2 small tomatoes
4 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t sweet paprika (see text above)
pinch of saffron (about 20 threads)
2/3 c calasparra or bomba rice (see text above)
11-13 oz. chicken or vegetable stock, hot (you'll only need the larger amount if you are using bomba rice, because it absorbs more liquid)
parsley, chopped (optional)
1 lemon, cut into wedges (optional)
Prepare the artichokes by first removing the tough outer leaves and then using a sharp knife to pare them down to their tender hearts. You want to cut away the tough green parts and leave the tender yellow parts. If you can, leave a little bit of the stem attached. Cut the hearts in half and scrape out the furry choke. If using baby artichokes, decide if you'd like them cut once more into quarters or if you'd prefer to keep them as halves (you want them to be eaten in one mouthful). If using a large artichoke, cut each half into wedges about 1/2-inch across.
Shell the peas, so that you end up with about 1/2 cup. Slice the tomatoes in half across the equator. Using a box grater, grate each half of tomato over the largest holes of the grater. Set aside and reserve the tomato pulp. Note: use the pea pods and the tomato skins to deepen the flavor of your stock.
Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in your 10-inch paellera or sauté pan over medium-low heat, add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the garlic and cook a few more minutes. Add the artichokes and a few tablespoons of water, season generously with salt, cover, and cook 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the artichokes are nearly tender (add a splash or two more water if the onions start to brown too much). Remove the artichokes and set aside, leaving behind as much of the onion as is possible.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan, turn up the heat to medium, and add first the paprika and the saffron, stir a few times, then add the rice. Stir thoroughly for 2 minutes, then add the tomato pulp, stir, the artichokes, and finally the stock. Bring to a boil and make sure it is seasoned adequately. Add the raw fresh peas, if using.
Once the rice has started to appear above the stock, after around 5 minutes, turn down the heat to low. Do not be tempted to stir (this is not risotto and you do not want to release the starches). Continue to cook 10-15 more minutes until almost all the stock has been absorbed into the rice. Remove from the heat and cover the pan tightly with a lid or foil. Let the rice rest for 10 minutes. Take off the lid and serve. If you want, you can garnish with chopped parsley and wedges of lemon.
* Apologies to William Shakespeare
** Just for the record, I don't really eat Ho Hos®