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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Paella Primavera and Vegetarian Tapas

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).

Paella Primavera

Ingredients

  • 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:

Mise en Place

Directions

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:

Paella Primavera

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.

Paella Primavera

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:

Paella Primavera

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

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

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…

Spanish Potato Tortilla

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:

Spanish Potato Tortilla

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

Ingredients

  • 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.)

Directions

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.

Roasted Red Peppers

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.

Red Peppers and Manchega Cheese

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.

Red Peppers and Manchego Cheese

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.

Tomato-Stuffed Avocados

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

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:

Tomato-Stuff Avocados

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.

A Meatless Spanish Feast

And of course, be sure to top off any Spanish meal with a fine, sure-fire glass of Tempranillo.

Tempranillo

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Swiss Miss and Mister – Days 2 and 3: More Luzern, the Golden Pass, Wilderswil, and Grindelwald

Having fallen asleep around 9pm, Michael and I were both wide awake by 3am, and we could see from the window of our hotel room that a few stray revelers were just heading home for the night. While we waited for the sun to arrive, I turned on the TV and flipped through the channels, landing  on a German-dubbed episode of Frasier. Around 5am, we started getting dressed for the day and then went for a walk through the dark, pre-dawn city around 6am.

The one benefit of going for a stroll before anything is open is that you have everything to yourself. The streets were empty, save for a few garbage men and early rising chocolatiers, the latter of whom fill their storefronts with impeccably crafted and arranged confections such as these:

Luzern Chocolaterie

I wanted to see Luzern’s famous Lion Monument, and after a long, uphill hike and an unnecessary detour, we found it. But it was 7am and the uncooperative sky was still black as midnight, so the sculpture, though drenched in a sort of ethereal, misty quietude, was barely discernible, and our trek was all for naught. We made the long journey back to the city center and stopped in a small cafe where we dropped 13 francs on two small cups of coffee and three dry but quickly-devoured croissants.

Before heading back to our hotel, we visited the Jesuit Church, one of Luzern’s most distinguishing landmarks. We went inside and were the only ones there, the silence adding to the hair-raising creepiness that always overwhelms me in any church, especially old ones (except for Notre Dame in Paris, which I love). The sanctuary was filled with the echoes, gold leafing, and various adumbrations of eternal piety typical of most European churches.

Jesuit Church, Luzern

Jesuit Church, Luzern

Our Luzern itch sufficiently scratched, we returned to our hotel room, packed up, and walked to the train station, where we set out on our first ride on the Golden Pass, one of the Swiss rail system’s scenic/panoramic routes. It did not fail to please, and I can’t imagine a ride on the Polar Express would be more magnificent, awe-inspiring, or surreal. The journey from Luzern to Wilderswil (via Interlaken) climbed up, up, up through mountains that heaven itself would have difficulty replicating. Cozy chalets and fairytale villages dotted the snowy landscape, topped by chimneys exhaling inviting plumes of smoke into the cold, clean Alpine air. Children could be seen sledding down hills in their own backyards, and foggy-breathed livestock huddled for warmth aside rustic barns. It was a feast for the eyes, and I couldn’t help but feel consumed by gratitude for somehow being lucky enough to experience such a beautiful place.

View from the Golden Pass

View from the Golden Pass

Once we arrived in Wilderswil, we walked all the way up the tiny village’s main road, at the terminus of which our hotel, Hotel Baren, was located (I would like to make an aside here to note that the Swiss seem to be preternaturally obsessed with bears; this was one of three hotels we stayed at which were named after said beast). It was a quaint bed and breakfast with ascetic but clean accommodations. It was getting to be late in the afternoon by the time we’d checked in and cleaned ourselves up, so we explored the village for a while after dark, picked up some rations at the grocery store, and holed up in our room for the night, drinking wine and eating bread and cheese and watching movies on our laptop. Perhaps not the most adventurous way to spend an evening in a foreign land, but it suited me quite well.

Hotel Baren, Wilderswil

Rations for the Poor Americans

The next morning, we got up early and decided to take the train to Grindelwald to see what kind of wintry trouble we could get into. We’d heard that Grindelwald would be crowded, and indeed it was, but not to the extent that we didn’t enjoy ourselves. It’s an adorable village with plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy even if you don’t feel like hitting the extensive slopes in the surrounding area. Michael was hoping to get some skiing in, but since I have all the grace of a cracked-out, epileptic Rhesus monkey on even the most delicately pitched of bunny slopes, he took pity on me and we rented two sleds instead. And oh what fun it was!

A bus filled with the fracas of a half-dozen foreign tongues and the wailing of children took us up a series of precarious hairpin turns to the top of a mountain. The view on our ascent gave me that almost fearful feeling I get whenever nature manifests itself in such a large and consuming way. The stunning peaks seemed to stare down at my small, insignificant self with ancient authority. When we reached our drop-off point, almost above the tree line, we fetched our sleds from below the bus and took off down the trail. Any nerves I had about careening down the mountain were quickly calmed when I realized how immensely fun the sport was and how incredible my surroundings were. As much as I loved gaining speed, I had to pause periodically to take in the landscape.

Sledding in Grindelwald

Mountains Around Grindelwald

Eventually, we made it back down to Grindelwald, returned our sleds, and explored the shops before getting on the train back to Wilderswil. We spent the evening in our cozy room and ended with a nightcap of Switzerland’s finest one-franc brew:

Rugenbrau

I wouldn’t say it was “Lager Hell,” but I don’t think we’ll be importing it any time soon.

Next post: Day 4 – Murren and Bern