Vegetable Paella (Spanish Saffron Flavoured Tomato Rice)
Some good friends of ours are good friends of ours arre back in town for a short visit and were coming over for dinner. I was wondering what to cook and as I kept narrowing down the options, I just realised that I was getting into a sort of rut with my menus. At some point, I seemed to be revisiting to the same old lot of trustworthy recipes. Not that this is a bad thing, especially as they have always been reasonably well appreciated by my dinner guests and family.
Still, I wanted the excitement and adventure of something new on my dinner menu. While it is most definitely not a good idea to mete out the “guinea pig” treatment to one’s guests, I knew I could experiment on these friends of ours to some extent. I ran my new menu past my husband just to make sure he didn’t think I was heading for Disasterville!
I decided to serve a rice dish for the main course, and chose to make vegetable paella. In a country where there are so many different types of pulavs (pilafs), biryanis, khichdis and other rice dishes, a Paella might seem like just another tomato rice. Well, it is and it isn’t.
Paella is a Spanish saffron flavoured tomato based rice dish with vegetables and meat or shellfish. The Paella traces its origins to Valencia and gets its name from the "paellera", a round flat pan with two handles in which it is cooked and served. The paellera ensures that the rice can be cooked uniformly in a thin flat layer.
The original Paella is supposed to have been a labourers’ meal which was cooked slowly over an open fire using meat like chicken, rabbit, duck or snails which were available in and around the fields they worked in. It was served as a communal meal where everyone used their spoons and ate out of the paellera.
A paella is very flexible sort of dish to cook so, if you don't have the exact ingredients, you can always substitute something similar or something more to your personal taste. It also is a good way to use up what’s left in vegetable bin in your fridge. What is distinctive about a Paella is the saffron that flavours and colours the rice, and the round and short grain rice that is used to make it.
Traditionally the Bomba variety of rice, which is grown in Calasparra, is used to make Paella. This is a short grain rice which absorbs a lot of water when cooking and stays firm without becoming mushy. I have seen a lot of recipes which call for using Basmati rice in Paella. My personal opinion is that this is doing a disservice to the Paella and the Basmati rice. I would suggest using a short grain or else medium grain rice for making Paella.
If you do not have saffron on hand, you can use turmeric powder. It is a rather poor substitute in this dish but it will give your Paella good colour, if not the flavour of saffron.
While cooking Paella, the rice is usually not cooked separately but added along with the stock after all the vegetables and meat have been sautéed. Paella is also never finished in the oven, traditionally though you will find some recipes that cook it this way. Here, I have deviated slightly by cooking the rice in vegetable stock first and then adding this to the sautéed vegetables. Since I used a medium grain rice, I found this an easier method to ensure that my Paella did not end up mushy but nice and moist.
Traditionally, Paella is a stand-alone dish and not served with anything but perhaps wine though many serve it with a green salad on the side. We are South Indians, and are not used to weating our rice preparations "dry" and without some sort of sauce-like gravy or something similar to accompany it. Actually we are the happiest if there's some sort of yogurt, plain or otherwise to go with our rice.
Since I was serving something non-Indian, I thought I'd keep with that plan and serve some Tzatziki with the Paella. Does Spanish rice and Greek yogurt sound like too much of fusion? If you are Indian, you would know that the flavours would be a perfect complement.
(Adapted from Meals That Heal by Lisa Turner)
- Put the rice and vegetable stock in a large pan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer and let the rice cook, stirring occasionally. The rice should be well cooked and moist, but not mushy or sticky. Add a little more vegetable stock while cooking, if needed.
- In the meanwhile, place the saffron threads in a small bowl and pour a little hot water over it and keep aside for the colour and flavour to release.
- Then heat the oil in another pan and turn the heat down to medium. Add the cumin seeds and sauté for about half a minute. Then add the chopped onion, garlic, chopped peppers and eggplant. Sauté until the peppers are almost tender. Add the chopped olives, pepper, chilli flakes and cook for about half a minute.
- Add the puréed tomato and cook for a couple of minutes. Salt to taste. Add the saffron (with the water), cooked rice and mix everything together gently. Adjust for salt once again as needed.
- Serve warm with lemon wedges, a salad, plain or seasoned yogurt and crisps for a more complete meal.