Saturday, January 18, 2014

Valencian Seafood Paella

"Wait a second," you're thinking. "Valencia? Didn't you just come back from Argentina? Why are we now in Spain?"
Yes, I most certainly did. During my time in Argentina I ate like a queen, unapologetically consuming copious quantities of steak, Malbec, manchego, gelato, and dulce de leche. But I realized that the uniqueness of these delicacies lies in the superior quality inherent to their home turf, making them quite difficult to recreate in the states. Argentina beef is delicious because it comes from grass-fed, free-grazing cattle in the country's northwest plains and pastures.  Mendoza vineyards create fragrant, local wines. Instead of strong recipes, Argentina boasts strong ingredients, served simply and plainly to best highlight their exquisite quality. And since I was not able to pack that bife de chorizo and sinfully delicious manchego-fontina fondue in my suitcase, I'll have to leave my delightful PorteƱo culinary experience (but not the 5 pounds that came with it, unfortunately) back in South America.
Cuisine-wise  though, I will stay in the Spanish-speaking world.  So across the globe to Spain we go, where this Valencian Seafood Paella gives me an opportunity to gush about my new favorite ingredient: saffron.

Up until now, I've been faking saffron yellow rice with turmeric. Same color, tasty spice, healthy benefits—good enough! But I recently was lucky enough to obtain two packages of the highly urbane (and costly) saffron spice, whose feather-delicate threads belie the flavor-packed punch they deliver. A meer pinch of the fire-colored spice is all you need to transform any dish into a regal, sophisticated masterpiece. Apparently, Ancient Romans used to perfume their baths with saffron, and Europeans who were caught adulterating saffron in the 1400s were burned at the stake. Now, I wouldn't go that far to get the ambrosial, honey-nuanced spice, but you get the gist.

Obviously, paella was the first dish that popped into my head to make with my new ingredient! A recipe search quickly debunked two previously existing myths of mine, and I was excited to learn that first, paella is not complicated to make at all, and second, it can easily be adapted into a light dish. (I often find restaurant versions way to rich for my liking.) Minimize the oil, choose a brown rice, amp up the vegetables, and pick seafood for a protein—and you have yourself a wholesome, healthy meal. Speaking of: check out this recent Chicago Tribune article highlighting the benefits of whole grain rice's phytonutrient oryzanol, boasting cholesterol-lowering, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and anti-oxidant properties to name a few.

Valencian Seafood Paella
Serves 4

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 dried bay leaf
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 1 15oz can diced tomatoes, drained)
4 canned artichoke hearts, quartered
3 roasted red peppers, cut into thin strips
1 cup frozen peas
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
dash of cayenne pepper (optional; for heat)
A generous pinch of saffron threads (about 30 threads or a scant ½ tsp)
2 cups whole grain rice (traditionally short-grain rice such as Arborio or Valencia is used, but Basmati, Jasmine, and Brown can be substituted)
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if needed
1 cup dry white wine (plus 1/2 cup; see note below)
16 jumbo shrimp in their shells
16 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Crush saffron threads and place in a small bowl with ¼ cup hot water. Let sit for 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large, shallow skillet over medium heat. Cook onions until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, cooking for one additional minute, and paprika, bay leaf, and tomatoes; cooking for 2-3 minutes more.
3. Add rice, stirring well until all the grains are coated. Pour in saffron mixture and broth, chicken broth, wine, and a generous sprinkle of salt; bring to a boil. Add artichokes, peas, and peppers.
4. Reduce heat to low and cook the rice, without stirring, for 10 minutes, rotating the pan to ensure that the rice cooks evenly. (If at any point the rice seems too dry or you hear crackly frying noises before it’s done, add more broth.) 
5. After 10 minutes, add the shrimp, and turn when they become pink on the first side. Nestle in mussels hinge-side down*, and cook until mussels have opened and rice has absorbed the liquid (al dente), 5-10 minutes more. Discard any mussels that remain closed.
6. Remove pan from heat, cover with aluminum foil, and let sit for 5 minutes until serving.

*Only cook the mussels with the rice if you have ample room for them to open when the lid of the pot is on. Between the cooked rice and shrimp, I didn't have room, so I cooked them separately. To do this, place mussels in a large pot with 1/2 cup wine and salt & pepper. Cover pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a steady bubble (you'll hear it and see some steam escaping.) Cook, undisturbed, for 5 minutes. If most mussels shells are still closed, cover again and cook for a few more minutes. Discard any mussels that remain closed, and add to paella pot when the shrimp is finished.

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