I’m thinking of Spain. Actually, I’m thinking that Madrid is one of the few European airports that is open right now, and that I wish Husband had been able to head south rather than north when he left Paris two days ago. His three-day business trip is turning into quite the adventure, seven days in, and we miss him round these here parts. But he’s safe and somewhere where he speaks the language, and there’s not much to be done about a volcano, now is there?
So, when life hands you a volcano, you make … paella? Well, I did.
I know that people wax poetic about paella, but I always find the recipes and menu descriptions to be “too-too,” if you know what I mean. I know it’s supposed to be one-pot peasant food, but the melange of meats and seafood and vegetables overwhelms me, and is expensive for a home cook who has to go out and buy all of those ingredients (rather than a Spanish fisherman or farmer who is using what he has on hand.)
But the idea of a truly simple, flavorful, rice-based meal appeals to me, which is why I like this pared-down version, in which juicy tomatoes nestle in flavorful, al dente rice. The very simplicity of the dish demands that you use fresh, potent ingredients. Spanish pimenton, or smoked paprika, is available at Williams Sonoma stores and at Whole Foods. You can also get it online. The flavor of saffron isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and you could conceivably omit it, but I think that it’s key to the beautiful color and earthy flavor of the finished dish – you don’t need much to have it make a big impression.
As for the tomatoes, this is the time to wait for the best summer beauties or – as I did – take advantage of specialty store versions. The ones I used are called Kumato tomatoes, and are a remarkable mahogany brown. I understand that they’ve been bred to provide the intense garden-tomato flavor that so many supermarket tomatoes seem to lack these days. In any case, I bought them on a whim, used them here, and the roasting only concentrated their tomato-ey sweetness, giving me a taste of summer a few months early.
You can throw this dish together in about half an hour, and a good bit of that time has the paella in the oven. It’s simple enough to make for a family dinner, and yet tasty and attractive enough to serve to company as a first course or vegetarian entree. And, if you happen to be someone who has shrimp looking for something to do, or some chorizo that needs eating, this is a foundation recipe that would adapt easily.
Paella With Tomatoes
(Adapted from Mark Bittmann. Serves 4 to 6)
3 1/2 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, trimmed and cut into thick wedges
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Large pinch saffron threads (optional)
2 teaspoons Spanish pimentón (smoked paprika)
2 cups carnaroli or arborio rice
Chopped parsley (optional)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Heat stock or water in a saucepan or the microwave. Put tomatoes in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle them with 1 tablespoon olive oil and toss to coat.
Heat remaining olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened – about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, saffron, and paprika and cook for a minute more. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is shiny, another minute or two. Add liquid and stir until just combined.
Place tomato wedges on top of rice and drizzle with accumulated juices and olive oil from the bowl. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Check to see if rice is dry and just tender. If not, return pan to oven for another 5 minutes. If rice looks too dry but still is not quite done, add a small amount of stock or water (or white wine). When rice is ready, turn off oven and let pan sit for 5 to 15 minutes.
Remove pan from oven and sprinkle with parsley, if using.
If you want a crispy crust on the bottom, put the pan back on the stove over high heat for a few minutes