Picture this. It’s a hot and sunny evening in Madrid. Your feet ache from conquering the city and its abundant art galleries and your head is spinning after a pitcher of sangria. You’re sitting in a fantastically ambient outdoor plaza awash with that warm glow of sunlight you find only on perfect summer evenings. Crisp white linen flutters on dozens of tables, bottles of wine and plates of olives are shared as conversations and laughter unfold in a language you barely understand. The baroque facades of buildings – dripping in vines and flowers – begin to impart their shady relief on you, and it is a perfect evening for…paella.
I fell in love with paella in Spain. Doesn’t everyone? Truth be told, I had never tried real paella before, because I don’t eat pig or seafood. In Canada, it seems the only paella people eat is the one with chicken and chorizo, and the one with seafood and chorizo. Most would argue that this is the only way to eat paella, but I beg to differ. To me, the real flavour of paella comes from the plump ripe tomatoes, rich saffron and tangy lemon zest. You don’t need meat to indulge – and in fact the traditional way of preparing this Valencian dish is with rabbit, not pork, so even the chorizo-lovers are veering from tradition.
Now most people who eat paella in Spain get duped into eating what is probably akin to the McCain’s frozen pizza. Restaurants catering to uninitiated tourists churn out individual paella made of turmeric (cheating!) and cooked in a plastic pan that roughly resembles a paella pan. The way you know if you are getting the real thing is in the time. If the waiter tells you it will take 45 minutes to an hour, you are getting the real thing. And it is worth the wait. A real paella is prepared fresh for you, and comes to you in the paella pan in which it is cooked, hot and steamy. The more people sharing, the larger the pan. I remember being a little woozy on sangria and cerveza, and incredibly tired and hot, and thinking that maybe I would just slip into that gelato shop and get something to tie me over, but the saffron marinated olives and artichokes and crusty bread kept magically appearing just when I thought I couldn’t wait a moment longer. Before I knew it, I was plunging into a rich aromatic paella and vying for the soccarat – the crispy crust of rice that everyone gently pryes from the bottom of the pan.
Since that magical evening in Madrid, I have worked diligently at honing my paella making skills. It’s actually harder than one would think. First of all, I had to buy a paella pan, which I found at Creative Cookware (www.creativecookware.com). Then I had to find bomba rice, the traditional rice from Valencia that is used in paella. I have seen a million recipes (okay, will maybe more like dozens) online that call for brown rice or jasmine or basmati. Those are imposters! A real paella is made from bomba rice, and it’s not as easy to find in Toronto as you would think. Most paella rice is sold as a prepared food, with flavours and dried herbs and vegetables already mixed in. I eventually found pure, unadulterated bomba rice in the St. Lawrence market, at one of the gourmet/imported food stalls in the basement.
My last challenge was in getting the rice to cook evenly. No matter what I tried, it seemed that the centre of my paella cooked well, and the rice on the edges was far to al dente to be considered acceptable. I was getting frustrated. And then I read that traditionally paella is cooked over an open flame. My stove-top probably didn’t distribute heat evenly enough along my wide paella pan. So, I had the idea of trying it on the barbeque, and, not wanting to over cook the organic halal chicken that cost me a fortune, I created my own vegetarian version by default. The result: perfectly cooked rice and a richly satisfying vegetarian meal.
Here is my vegetarian paella recipe. If you don’t get bomba rice, I am told you can come close by using good quality arborio rice (the short grain rice used in risotto). If you don’t have a paella pan…thanks for coming out (just kidding). You can get by with a cast iron pan (and if you like the results, invest in a paella pan, they aren’t really that expensive).
When you prepare the ingredients, chop them all up ahead of time. The actual cooking process moves very rapidly and doesn’t afford you the time to chop/cook/chop/cook.
I’ve grouped the ingredients by stage, so you can put each set on a separate plate or bowl, ready to be dumped in.
1 red onion (chopped in wedges)
1 red pepper (chopped into 1-inch pieces)
1 tsp Spanish paprika
1 tbsp dried rosemary
3 plum tomatoes (halved, seeds removed, flesh grated and skins discarded – pulp)
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 oz sliced mushrooms
2 tbsp lemon zest
1 cup fresh or frozen green fava beans
1 cup of green beans, julienned
1 cup bomba rice
1 generous pinch of saffron, soaked in 2 tbsp hot water
2 cups vegetable stock
1 jar Spanish marinated artichoke hearts
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
12 grape tomatoes, sliced lengthways
Lemon wedges and green olives to serve
- After chopping everything and putting them into separate “holding” bowls or plates, turn the barbeque on high, and allow to heat for about 8 minutes
- Reduce heat to medium and put your paella pan with anywhere from 1 tbsp to ¼ cup olive oil (depending on how low-fat you want it) over the flame
- Add onions and red pepper and sauté, being careful to avoid splattering oil (reduce heat further if necessary)
- Remove onions and peppers, and add second bowl with the mushrooms, garlic and lemon zest. Saute, stirring constantly.
- Add tomato zest and spices and bring to a gentle boil
- Return the onions and peppers to the pan and add both beans
- Add rice on it’s own and stir vigorously for a minute or two, until it starts to soak up liquid
- Add saffron and stir. At this point, you need to add the stock. When you’ve poured it evenly over the pan, you can gently press down on the rice to make sure it is all submerged
- Scatter the artichoke and parsley over the top and resist the urge to stir
- Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cook for approximately 20-25 minutes. Don’t worry about the rice sticking; as long as it’s not too hot, this will form the soccarat, a delicacy
- With only a few minutes remaining, scatter the grape tomatoes on top
- Serve with a mixture of olives and lemon wedges (if you are not serving it for guests, use the lemon you took the zest from; the lemon will not keep well after the zest has been removed)
- This also goes really well with a crusty multigrain baguette and dipping oil made with 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar and a pinch of chili flakes