I recently made one of the most aesthetically pleasing yet abysmally unpalatable meals to have ever come out of my kitchen. Allow me to share my experience, along with the original recipes and my suggestions for their improvement.
When I received this month’s issue of Vegetarian Times, I knew immediately that I would have to try the recipe pictured on the cover, Paella Primavera. I’ve had paella before, in various incarnations, and I’ve always enjoyed it. And I assumed that this meatless version would be equally enjoyable. But I came to a realization that has ruined the dish for me: I do not like saffron, the ingredient that essentially defines paella. Maybe I just had a bad batch of this shockingly expensive spice, but it assaulted my tongue with a plasticky taste that medical-grade mouthwash would fail to fully annihilate. I don’t know why it never bothered me before, but I am Done, with a capital D, with saffron.
At any rate, here is the recipe as it appears in the March 2012 issue of Vegetarian Times, along with my one suggested adjustment (though of course, if you are, in fact, over the moon for saffron, by all means go ahead and use it to your heart’s content).
- 2 1/2 tsp. olive oil
- 3 cups broccoli florets
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped (1 cup)
- 6 green onions, thinly sliced (1 cup)
- 3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
- 3 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
- 1 tsp. crumbled saffron threads (I didn’t even have a full teaspoon to use and the flavor still overwhelmed me. My suggestion? Replace the saffron with cumin, or something spicy, like cayenne. I realize this negates the dish’s inherent paella-ness, but I would have enjoyed it much more without this petroleum flavored ingredient.)
- 1 cup short-grain white rice, such as Valencia (Valencia rice is pretty hard to find, but I used Arborio and it did the trick.)
- 1 cup fresh or frozen baby peas
- 1 cup halved grape or cherry tomatoes
- 12 pitted green olives, halved (I don’t care much for green olives, so I used all black.)
- 12 pitted black olives, halved
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Check out my awesome mise en place:
First, heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. I used my cast iron pan. Add the broccoli, bell pepper, and green onions and cook for about five minutes. It looks ever so colorful and pretty and healthy:
Once the vegetables have begun to soften a bit, add the broth (I used water and vegetable bullion), garlic, and saffron (REALLY wish I’d used cumin…) and bring it to a boil. Then sprinkle the rice over the ingredients, reduce the heat to medium-low (since I was using my cast iron pan, which tends to get hotter than my other pans, I turned it down to low), cover the pan, and let it simmer for about 10 minutes.
Then, sprinkle the peas, tomatoes, and olives over the rice mixture. Again, so pretty! Then cover and cook for eight more minutes, or until the rice is tender. Remove from heat and let it rest, covered, for five minutes before serving. Season with salt and pepper, if you’d like. Then dish it out and serve with lemon wedges and a sprinkling of parsley. Voila:
Oh, how I wish I’d enjoyed this more! But I’ll certainly try it again with different spices, maybe even some crushed red pepper.
Anyway. To go with the paella, I decided to try my hand at some vegetarian tapas. They came out OK but are also in need of some adjustments.
One of the most traditional Spanish tapas dishes is tortilla, which is not the more commonly known flat Mexican thing that comes in corn and flour varietals. It’s a simple potato and egg dish, sort of like a cheeseless Spanish Quiche. I found this recipe on the Vegetarian Times website.
Spanish Potato Tortilla
- 2 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. olive oil, divided
- 1 lb. fingerling potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (I did a little research and found that peeling is not traditional. Also, hats off to you if you can summon the patience to peel a pound of tiny potatoes.)
- 1 medium onion, quartered and thinly sliced (1 cup)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced (2 tsp.) (I also read that garlic is not traditional, but I think the dish would be a little bland without it.)
- 5 eggs
Heat two tablespoons of the olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat (I really don’t think you could make this dish in anything other than a nonstick skillet). Add the potatoes and cook for five minutes, or until they begin to soften. I made the mistake of buying red fingerling potatoes, which are actually red all the way through and look like beets when thinly sliced. This ruined the appearance but not the flavor of my tortilla.
Then add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent and the potatoes begin to brown. In my case, it was nearly impossible to tell if my red, sausage-like potato slices were browning. Sigh…
Once cooked to your liking, transfer the potato mixture to a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Whisk the eggs in a separate bowl and then stir them into the potato mixture. Heat the remaining teaspoon of olive oil in the nonstick skillet over medium heat and spread the egg-potato mixture in the skillet. Let it cook for about five minutes, until the edges are crispy, the bottom is browned, and the eggs are set halfway to the center. Remove the skillet from heat and carefully flip the tortilla onto a plate. Then slide the tortilla back into the pan and cook the other side for about five minutes. It’s done when both sides are brown and crispy. Let it come down to room temperature and then cut it into wedges.
Due to my poor choice in potatoes, mine came out looking like some kind of disgusting mélange of eggs and sliced hot dogs. But I swear, it was tasty once you got over the visual ick-factor:
My advice would be to use any kind of potatoes you like. I prefer Yukon Golds and will be using those in the future.
Next up, Marinated Red Bell Peppers and Manchego Cheese, also from the Vegetarian Times website.
Marinated Red Bell Peppers and Manchego Cheese
- 2 medium red bell peppers
- 8 oz. Manchego cheese, cut into 12 triangles (Have you had this before? I hadn’t, and once I tried it, I wasn’t a fan. If I made this again I would completely adulterate the recipe and use mozzarella instead. Spain meets Italy? Further comments below…)
- 3 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 large clove garlic, minced (1 tsp.)
- 1/2 tsp. cumin seeds (I didn’t have cumin seeds so I just used cumin powder and I think it was fine.)
Turn on your broiler, place the red bell peppers on a baking sheet, and broil for 20 minutes or until blackened on all sides, turning periodically. Remove them from the oven, place them in a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap, allowing them to steam for 15 minutes.
Then, remove the stem, core, skin (I left the skin on), and seeds and cut into 12 strips. I tried to get fancy and cut them into 12 triangles to roughly approximate the shape of the cheese triangles. Arrange the cheese around a dish and top each piece with a slice of bell pepper. I accidentally put the cheese on top of the bell peppers, but, hey, to-ma-to, to-mah-to. It’ll taste the same either way.
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, garlic, and cumin seeds (or cumin powder), and season with salt and pepper.
Spoon the resulting mixture on and around the cheese and let it refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to blend.
This dish sure did look nice, but, as I mentioned, I’m not crazy about this cheese. It has a very strong flavor and is rather hard. It might be good in small slivers on a cracker, but I think a softer, lighter cheese, such as mozzarella, would work better in this recipe, at least for my tastes. But I did like the garlicky marinade.
Finalement, I made stuffed avocados, which I liked the best of my “tapas,” which I’m putting in quotes because I don’t think stuffed avocados are technically “tapas,” just a finger food I decided to throw into the mix. A quick Google search led me to this easy recipe. It’s sort of like reverse guacamole, if you will.
- 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 3/4 cup thinly sliced red onion, quartered
- 1 tsp. fresh basil leaves, julienned
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 2 medium, ripe avocados, halved and pitted
- 2 tsp. lime juice
This one’s very simple. Mix all of the above ingredients together in a bowl (except for the avocados and lime juice) and then spoon the mixture into the avocados and drizzle with lime juice. And you can add more or less of any of the ingredients so it’s to your liking. Here’s how mine came out:
In the end, what I was hoping would be a delectable, meatless, Spanish feast was something of a disappointment in many ways. But I’m confident that, with a little ingenuity, I could pull it off with greater flourish some other night.
And of course, be sure to top off any Spanish meal with a fine, sure-fire glass of Tempranillo.