A few years ago, my husband and I threw a party at our home with a South of Spain theme. We had Flamenco guitarists providing entertainment, and the food was catered by the Paella Project, a catering company founded by Chef Adriana Morera, a Cuban-American who was trained to make paellas in Valencia, Spain (the birthplace of paella).
Adriana had the distinction of winning awards at several paella cookfests, where she competed and won against notable paella chefs from Valencia itself.
Paella is a Spanish dish made of saffron-flavored rice traditionally cooked with meats, seafood, and vegetables. The dish got its name from the paellera, the flat, round pan with 2 handles, in which it is cooked.
For our party, Adriana cooked 2 types of paella: one with seafood and meat, and the other, a vegetarian paella. She cooked them in two huge (40″) paelleras over open flame beside our backyard pool. The preparation was pure theater! It was a unique experience to see a pan filled with rice, broth and toppings transform into a gloriously festive — and mouthwatering — paella!
Adriana’s paella was so delicious and authentic (like the paella I had tasted in Barcelona) – and guests raved that they’ve never tasted anything so wonderfully flavorful. Surprisingly enough, the vegetarian paella (which was served with lemon garlic aioli), was a bigger hit than the paella with seafood and meat — and it was gone much sooner than its meat/seafood counterpart. And there weren’t even many vegetarians among our guests — most of them were omnivores! It just goes to show that a dish doesn’t need to have meat, seafood, dairy, or animal-derived ingredients to be enjoyable and satisfying.
As part of Underground Health Reporter’s Meatless Monday issue, I’m featuring my version of Adriana’s vegetarian paella, which was scaled down to serve 4 people, instead of house full of party guests. The recipe doesn’t require you to use a paellera — a 12-inch oven-proof skillet will do. With its blend of seasonings (especially the saffron threads!) and ingredients like shitake mushrooms, baby artichokes, roasted red peppers, plum tomatoes, capers and Japanese eggplant, this vegetarian masterpiece tastes more heavenly than the sum of its parts. Truly a scrumptious and exquisite dish fit for a king!
8 vine-ripened plum tomatoes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional amount for drizzling
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1½ teaspoons paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 large Japanese eggplant, cut into 2-inch pieces
4 ounces shitake mushrooms, stemmed
1 large bulb fennel, cut into 8 wedges
8 baby artichokes, trimmed and halved
2 cups dry white wine
2½ cups short-grain paella rice
4 ounces haricots verts or string beans, halved if large
¼ cup capers, drained
¼ cup piquillo or roasted red peppers, cut into strips
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Core the tomatoes, cut into wedges and place in a medium bowl; season with salt, drizzle with a bit of olive oil and toss. Set aside.
Heat ¼ cup olive oil in a 12-inch oven-proof skillet (or a paella pan) over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, paprika, cayenne and saffron and season with salt. Stir occasionally, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes.
Add the fennel wedges and cook until lightly browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Flip the fennel and add the baby artichokes and eggplant to the skillet; cook until slightly tender, about 4 more minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and simmer until reduced by about one-third. Stir in the rice and 1-3/4 teaspoons salt; add just enough water to cover the rice completely, 2½ to 3 cups. Increase the heat to high and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle the string beans (haricots verts) and 2 tablespoons capers over the rice. Remove the pan from the heat and arrange the tomatoes on top; drizzle with any tomato juices.
Transfer the paella to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons capers and the piquillo peppers over the paella. Turn off the oven but leave the paella inside to continue cooking until the rice is tender, 15 to 20 more minutes. Garnish with parsley, if desired