Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An Unplanned Paella at the Food Bloggers Picnic

Paella  al fresco at the Bay Area Food Bloggers Picnic
What to take to the food bloggers picnic?
You want to show off, but not be obnoxious about it.
You want something portable and suitable for al fresco eating that shows you have game.
And most important when you are trying to decide on the morning of the picnic when you have done NO advance planning or shopping, you want to cook something you have all the ingredients for in the house.

My recent solution was a vegan paella.

You could make yours not vegan by browning ground animal-based chorizo (either take it out of the casing or try Diestel's excellent ground turkey chorizo).  Every brand of chorizo (even among the soy versions) has a different seasoning, so you may need to adjust the heat and salt in your paella. I used the Trader Joe vegan chorizo in this recipe. (Note: This recipe calls for the uncooked style of Mexican chorizo -- which is much more widely available in the U.S. than the traditional Spanish cooked chorizo sausage.)

Feel free to sub out the vegetables and garnish.  Paella is a very individual dish and is suitable for many occasions and virtually unlimited adaptations.  For the best paella, I do believe using a thin, seasoned metal paella pan (paellera) works best.  (Although I've made decent paellas in a stainless steel fry pan.) You also need the right rice.  Use either a Spanish paella rice (such as bomba or Calasparra) or Italian aborio rice.  I usually make mine on the stove and then finish it in the oven for even cooking, but if you have access to an outdoor fire (especially wood) it is wonderful cooked on that.

Here's my basic rules for paella making. I encourage you read through them since I give a lot of tips on how to make paella in the post. The post also features a recipe for paella with meatballs and avocado sauce. I've taken to serving my paellas with a sauce of some kind.  I like the avocado one in that recipe, but I've also made a smoked eggplant one and even used hummus as one.  They really elevate the taste experience by adding a creamy, cool component.  For this paella, I served a simple store-bought hummus for folks to drizzle over their rice.

I don't claim this is a "traditional" paella, I'm not sure I believe in such a dish any more, anyway.  A paella is just a canvas to express flavor and texture to me as long as it still relies on what I consider proper technique.  The one step I usually include that's not in this version -- I normally add chopped tomatoes to my sautéed vegetables.  I didn't here because I didn't have any regular tomatoes in the house due to my aforementioned lack of planning.

Since I started writing this my patron saint of paellas, Penelope Casas, has passed away.  Her books taught me the basics of technique and encouraged me to experiment.  I fell in love with Spanish food during my first trip to Spain in 1995.  Casas helped me recreate a little taste back home with authenticity and vision. 

A word of encouragement -- the directions are more complicated to write out then do (especially if you review by basic rules and read through the recipe posted there.)  Allow yourself enough time (paella holds beautifully) and enjoy.

Accidental Vegan Paella
Serves 3-4, more as tapas (appetizer)

2 cups vegetable stock
Pinch saffron threads (optional)
2 Tbs. oil
6 oz. crumbled soy chorizo (out of casing)
1 cup chopped onion
2 Tbs. minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped  carrots
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/8 tsp. or to taste salt
1/8 tsp. or to taste black pepper
1/8 tsp. ground cumin
1 cup paella or Arborio rice
1 cup white wine
About 16 green beans or asparagus spears, partially cooked
About 8 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
Fresh, chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put stock in pan on stove and heat to simmer and add saffron threads if using.  Keep warm.

Add oil a 10-12" paella pan or oven safe sauté or fry pan. (See note below.)  Heat oil in pan on stove over medium high heat.  Brown chorizo.  Remove from pan with slotted spoon.  Add onion and sauté until softened.  Add garlic, sauté until golden.  Add celery, carrots and red bell pepper.  Sauté until beginning to soften.  Add salt, pepper and cumin adjusting to taste since chorizo is highly seasoned.  Sauté a minute, stir and mix in browned chorizo.  Mix well.  Add rice.  Stir until well coated with oil.  Sauté for a minute, add 1 and 1/2 cups stock and wine.  Mix well, and stir occasionally until stock is simmering and rice has begun to swell. Adjust heat to keep at a simmer.

From this point on, do not mix or stir the rice.  (Stirring makes the dish mushy as well as preventing the formation of a bottom crust of rice.) If you are concerned that it is not cooking evenly, adjust or rotate the pan on the stove over the heating coil or flame.  Place string beans and cherry tomatoes in a decorative pattern on top of paella.  Continue to cook, without stirring, until rice is beginning to soften and if you bite into a grain it is crunchy but not raw tasting.  (Timing will vary widely).  There should be some liquid left in the pan as well.  If the rice seems dry, add stock as needed.  (You will probably need to use the entire 2 cups.) If you use up stock, add warm water as needed. Cover with aluminum foil or pan lid.  Place in oven and bake for  10 minutes. Check to see if rice is almost but not quite cooked through when you bite into a grain.  If the rice is not ready, add liquid if needed, cover and check again in a few minutes. When the rice at that al dente stage, remove from oven and keep covered for 10 minutes or so before serving.  Uncover and garnish with chopped parsley.  If not serving right away, slightly undercook and keep covered until serving or uncover and serve at room temperature, garnishing right before serving.

Note:  You could use a larger paella pan, but timing will vary greatly.  If you are using a 14" pan, you could adjust the recipe to increase ingredients by 50 percent.  If you are not using a paella pan, make sure that any handles on the pan you do use are oven safe.  Heavy cast iron pans, earthenware casseroles and similar pans do not work very well in terms of getting a traditional paella texture.

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