Fidella? Paedeuà? Maybe We Should Just Call It Fideuà Inauténtico.

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A little bit of Valencia, a little bit of Catalunya, a little bit of Inglewood.

If you’ve ever been to Spain — and even if you haven’t — there’s a fair likelihood that you have at some point encountered paella, that rice-based Valencian marvel redolent of saffron and pimentón de la Vera. Believe it or not, the paella you treasure in your taste buds’ memory is likely, in a word, inauténtico. Paella, like pizza and pretzels, rallies a passionate coterie of prescriptivists to its bosom, each claiming that a single path alone leads to the culinary ecstasy prized by gourmands. Yeah, bunk.

The earliest precursor to paella I could find dates to about 1520, when the notes of the master chef to Ferdinand I, Rupert de Nola (who, despite his name, was not from New Orleans), were codified into Libre del Coch (later Libro de Guisados), said to be the first printed cookbook in Catalan (and, some further allege, in Spain). It seems to have been compiled originally in 1477, which indicates that book publishers back then maintained the same sort of leisurely release schedule they do today.

What? A book without pictures? Depends on your edition.

But I digress. According to Saveur magazine, the original Valencian paella was likely cobbled together from local ingredients. Rice was a Moorish legacy dating back to the overthrow of the Visigoths in 711, and Arab traders brought saffron to the region a couple hundred years later. Then, all they had to do was add some veggies and protein, and presto! It’s said that snails (which sound much tastier in Spanish, as caracoles) and rabbits were often featured, as were local beans. [Beans and rice? How is it that there’s no paella burrito food truck in Los Angeles? Maybe this.] In any event, the natives are passionate about what is and is not authentic (even when they disagree on specifics), but what else would you expect from citizens of a town that sports its own rice museum?

In the early 20th century, one Valencian had gone completely heretical, not only adding seafood to paella, but substituting noodles for rice! There are competing legends surrounding the origin of fideuá, one of which portrays it as an accident by a chef who had run out of rice, another concerning a chef who attempted to dissuade a gluttonous sea captain by ostensibly making his paella less palatable with noodles. Whatever the truth, the dish became a hit, though it migrated up the coast into Catalunya for its most elegant expression.

While I have a great deal of respect for the tradition of Spanish cuisine, I’m not above a cultural mashup (I am going to pull together a paella burrito one of these days!), so I assembled a dish I proudly call Fideuà Inauténtico. [I once worked with a multiple Grammy-nominated art director who occasionally said, “Go ugly early.” I’m not sure exactly what she meant by that, but it seems to apply here.] I will note that, as with many of the recipes found on this blog, this is more of a suggestion than an absolutist set of instructions.

Developing the socarrat.

Fideuà Inauténtico
Serves approximately 4 to 6, with a little left over

NOTE: This was made in a 16″ Staub pan designed for cooking paella. Technically, the pan is also called a paella, so saying “paella pan” is as redundant as saying “La Brea Tar Pits.” Mine is rather heavy and thick, while the traditional Spanish version of the pan is thin. The size and weight of your pan will affect cooking time, so have a care. The ultimate goal is for the pasta to absorb the liquid, and to develop a bit of a crust (or socarrat). While the dish as pictured was made on top of my ancient O’Keefe and Merritt stovetop, I often use my outdoor gas grill for this dish, because it produces a superior socarrat, thanks to the larger burners and higher BTU output.

INGREDIENTS
2 packages fideo pasta* (7 oz. / 400 g each)
½ cup / 120 ml extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
1 pound / ½ kg boneless chicken thighs, cooked and chopped
1 – 2 teaspoons / 2½ – 5 g pimentón de la Vera (sweet/dulce if you have it, but bittersweet/agridulce or hot/picante work fine)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 pounds / 1 kg tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped or two 14-oz / 400 g cans of fire-roasted diced tomatoes
20-24 large shrimp, tail on, uncooked
8 oz. / 225 g link of Spanish chorizo** cut into 20 or so slices
3½ – 4 cups / 820 – 940 ml of stock (I used chicken stock, but fish or veggie or beef would work fine also), heated
⅛ – ¼ teaspoon / .09 – .17 g saffron (not really very much, because it’s super expensive, but you can add more if you want)
¼ cup / 60 ml dry Spanish white wine such as Albariño (optional)
Salt to taste

*Angel hair pasta and vermicelli also work well, so long as they are in broken into short pieces and you adjust the cooking time and amount of liquid so they don’t get overcooked. Spaghetti, on the other hand, is too thick.
**Spanish chorizo, unlike Mexican chorizo, is cured and has the texture of a hard sausage.

DIRECTIONS

Cook chicken thighs in advance, using whatever method you prefer. I braised mine in wine, intending to finish them off with a little browning on the gas grill, but I skipped that step for time’s sake, and it worked out fine. In fact, I made the thighs the previous night, and just chopped them up the following evening. I saved the cooking juices to combine with the stock.

Heat the stock in a saucepan to simmer; you will be adding it in a bit at a time later in the recipe.

In large paella pan (sic), combine olive oil and fideo over high heat; brown fideo to golden colour, stirring frequently (don’t worry if some gets a little too dark, just don’t burn it). Add pimentón de la Vera and onion and cook until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and continue cooking about one minute. If it looks like the fideo is getting too dark, splash in a little stock or wine and allow it to evaporate.

Add tomatoes, cooked chicken, chorizo, shrimp, and saffron, arranging them in the pan evenly. Begin pouring stock in a bit at a time (about 40% the first time, then 20% or so with each subsequent pour), allowing it to reduce a bit before adding more. DO NOT STIR, because this will mess with the formation of the socarrat. [You can sample the pasta along the way, checking to see if it has gone from crunchy to al dente. Typically, fideo requires only 4-5 minutes in boiling water.] A couple of minutes after the first stock addition, flip over the shrimp. When they are cooked, they’ll turn from grey to pink and white. You may need to turn them over a couple of times to get them there. Should you run out of stock, you can add a bit of dry wine, such as Albariño, or even a dry rosé. It’s also possible that you may not need to use all your stock. Let your tastebuds be your guide. If the pasta’s done and the shrimp are pink, you’re good to go. Allow the liquid to evaporate, take the pan off flame, and let it sit for a 3-5 minutes to help build the socarrat.

Lift portions out of pan with spatula, making sure to scrape off the socarrat in the process. It is traditionally served with allioli, a kind of garlic mayo that can be made in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle. Possibly due to the number of margaritas I had consumed, I skipped this step. It tasted fine without the condiment.

Just about fork-ready.

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegetable & Rice Soup [Instant Pot® recipe] [Vegan optional]

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Please, anything but this.

This soup was borne out of a need to use up a bunch of celery before it went south. [Seems like I make a lot of “necessity” soups.] Being an enterprising lad, I Googled “celery soup,” and got about 1.83 bazillion recipes for Cream of Celery Soup. I don’t want to demean the good folks whose soup provided Andy Warhol such a rich vein to mine for his art, but the cream of celery soup of my youth was possibly the worst-period-soup-period-ever. It was always the last can in the cupboard, and was only ever served out of dire necessity. To be fair, I think the only reason my mom kept any in the first place was so that it could be used as a sauce for some sort of ’60s casserole that has mercifully and permanently gone out of fashion. Fortunately, my Google Fu skills are strong, and I eventually landed on what appeared to be a terrific recipe by Martha Rose Shulman of the NY Times. It was modified to fit my ingredients, but it’s fairly faithful to the original.

Stop me if I’m sounding like a broken record here, but if there are two things I could ever want you to take away from this blog, they are these:

    1) You can do this. Goodness knows, I’m no chef. But I can make a tasty meal; that’s all anyone ever asks from an amateur.
    2) A recipe is a roadmap. There’s always more than one route to your destination. And, failing that, there are always other destinations.

Perhaps the two most delightful aspects to this recipe are 1) you don’t have to pre-cook the rice (a few minutes at pressure in the Instant Pot® does the job); and 2) you can make it vegan simply by removing the Parmesan cheese. If you can operate a knife, a spoon, a can opener, and a measuring cup, you can make this. You don’t even really need an Instant Pot®. It just will take longer on the stove (probably about 45 minutes to an hour of simmering, depending on how quickly your rice cooks up).

Doesn’t that look like a bowl full of healthy goodness? And we haven’t even added the tomatoes or the stock yet.

Vegetable & Rice Soup
Makes approximately 16 cups / 4 liters

INGREDIENTS
6 celery stalks / 400 g, diced
1/2 red cabbage / 400 g, shredded
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, diced
1 bell pepper, de-seeded and diced (I used 6 mini peppers instead)
6 garlic cloves, minced
Salt (preferably kosher) and pepper (preferably ground white) to taste
1 cup / 180 g uncooked rice (I used brown basmati)
3 tbsp. / 45 ml extra virgin olive oil (spring for some good oil!)
1 28-ounce / 794 g can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
1 1/2 quarts / 1.5 liters water or vegetable stock (Better Than Bouillon enhanced my stock)
2 tbsp. / 50 g tomato paste
1 teaspoon / 4 g dried thyme
2 tbsp. / 3 g dried parsley flakes (or 1 tbsp. / 4 g fresh parsley)
A small (50 g / 1.75 oz.) Parmesan rind
Celery leaves for garnish (optional)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS
Chop up celery, cabbage, onion, carrot, bell pepper, and garlic cloves; place in Instant Pot® container. Sprinkle salt and pepper over vegetables and stir. Add olive oil and uncooked rice to container. Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté” and sweat vegetables, stirring occasionally, for about 10-15 minutes, until they soften a bit. Add chopped tomatoes, vegetable stock, tomato paste, thyme, parsley, and Parmesan rind (if desired — omit for vegan version). Mix briefly with spoon or spatula. Turn Instant Pot® to “Keep Warm / Cancel,” which will end the sauté function.

Place lid on Instant Pot®, making sure vent is turned toward “Sealing” rather than “Venting.” Press “Soup” button, making sure pressure is on “High.” Set timer for 16 minutes. Go answer some email or vacuum your front room.

When timer goes off, allow Instant Pot® to decompress naturally, or at least for 10 minutes, before carefully switching vent from “Sealing” to “Venting.” Remove lid, and adjust spices as necessary (soup will be hot). Ladle directly into bowls or mugs and garnish with celery leaves and/or grated Parmesan (omit latter for vegan version).

To borrow a phrase, “Mmmm-mmmm good.”

Soupe de la Semaine: Coconut Tomato [Vegan]

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The turmeric makes it yellow.

The bride and I just got back from Paris, where we dined somewhat indiscriminately. Maybe that’s not the precise word, because we were pretty careful (bordering on obsessive) about choosing our restaurants. We certainly dined well, if perhaps excessively. But since the scale ticked a little higher upon our return, we decided to dial it back a bit.

February is normally one of our two vegetarian months per year (and not because it’s the shortest, since our other is October), but we’re kickstarting it off a few days early as part of our “Going Clean in ’18” campaign. I saw a version of this soup in Urvashi Pitre’s Indian Instant Pot® Cookbook, and it’s very close to this one, but I adjusted some of the portions because I love cilantro and ginger, and I’m not afraid of a little pepper. While she prepares it in an Instant Pot®, it works just fine as a stovetop recipe. It’s easy and delicious both ways.

Three quick notes: Should you be using fresh tomatoes, the immersion blender (or food processor) might not decimate all the seeds to your satisfaction. If you’re fussy about that, you could strain the soup (I didn’t). Second, this could easily be adapted for omnivores; some shrimp or cooked chicken (especially thighs) would make an excellent complement. Finally, this is pretty great served cold as well, just in case you want to make it in summer.

Coconut Tomato Soup
Makes about 8 cups (about 2 liters)

INGREDIENTS
3 lbs. / 1.5 kilos tomatoes, roughly chopped
(you can use canned if they are unseasoned)
1 red onion, diced
3 cloves minced garlic
1 chunk minced ginger (approx. 1 inch / 2.5cm) (approx 2.5g)
¾ cup / 15g chopped fresh cilantro
1 can coconut milk (13.5 oz. / 400ml) (I prefer the “fat”/”whole” variety)
1-2 teaspoons / 6-12g salt
¾ teaspoon / 1.5g ground white pepper (or cayenne pepper or Piment d’Espelette)
1 teaspoon / 3g ground turmeric
1 tablespoon / 22g agave syrup or honey (the latter is not vegan)

DIRECTIONS [Stovetop]

Chop tomatoes (unless using canned), dice onion. mince garlic, peel and grate ginger, wash and chop cilantro and add them all to soup pot. Add coconut milk, remaining spices, and agave syrup or honey.

Heat over medium heat until just about boiling, then back the heat off and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.

Process soup with immersion blender or in batches in a blender/food processor. [If you’re using either of the latter, drape a towel over the input tube or lid to allow the steam to vent, or you will Jackson Pollock your kitchen walls — and yourself — with hot soup.]

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a little extra chopped cilantro.

Before the magic of the immersion blender.

DIRECTIONS [Instant Pot®]

Chop tomatoes (unless using canned), dice onion. mince garlic, peel and grate ginger, wash and chop cilantro and add them all to inner cooking pot. Add coconut milk, remaining spices, and agave syrup or honey.

Lock lid (making sure the vent is set to “Sealing”), select “Manual,” set pressure to “High,” and time to 5 minutes. When finished, allow pressure to release naturally before unlocking lid.

Process soup with immersion blender or in batches in a blender/food processor. [If you’re using either of the latter, drape a towel over the input tube or lid to allow the steam to vent, or you will Jackson Pollock your kitchen walls — and yourself — with hot soup.]

Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a little extra chopped cilantro.

Enter The Octagon. Salad, that is.

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This is going to be a little frustrating for those of you who need precise measurements or who aren’t comfortable grilling a steak. I’m just warning you up front, so you won’t be disappointed and won’t waste your time. That said, if you are agreeable to a bit of improv, you’ll be rewarded with a tasty, carnivore-pleasing meal. It’s called the Octagon Salad, not in homage to the ridiculous 1980 film starring the ridiculous Chuck Norris, but because it has eight elements, to wit:

    INGREDIENTS
    Mixed Greens
    Grilled Steak, cut in strips [Chicken or Pork may be substituted if desired]
    Corn (fresh, canned, or frozen)
    Tomatoes (cherry or grape; chopped sun-dried tomatoes can be substituted)
    Marinated Bell Peppers (1 jar usually does it for me)
    Cashews (preferably roasted and salted)
    Tortilla Strips*
    Cilantro-Pepita Caesar Dressing
    Finishing salt

The beauty part of this salad is that, apart from the steak and the tortilla strips, it can all be assembled from pre-packaged ingredients; cherry or grape tomatoes work particularly well in that regard (you can slice them in half if you feel the need). It’s also a terrific way to use up leftover grilled meats, should you have some. While I’ve tried making this with store-bought rotisserie chicken, the texture just doesn’t work, so I advise against it. I haven’t yet tried it with grilled sausage, but I’m sceptical as to whether it would work… maybe an herbed chicken sausage could be acceptable. Or maybe not. [If you find one that fits, please let me know!]

As for the cilantro-pepita dressing, if you happen to live in California (as I do), it’s a pretty good bet that one of your local supermercados carries the El Torito brand, which is right tasty, if somewhat expensive. If you are feeling more adventurous, or are just plain thriftier, copycat recipes for a DIY version can be found here and here.

The steak, corn, tomatoes, and marinated bell peppers can be combined with the dressing ahead of time, and if you have more than one evening’s worth of those ingredients, they may be kept in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Don’t add the cashews or the tortilla strips until the very end, or they’ll lose their crunch (part of this salad’s attraction is its variety of textures). It is best served al fresco with a white wine (Sancerre, Albariño, and Moschofilero all work well) or a rosé (even sparkling!), but if you are watching calories, some lemon and cucumber spa water is an excellent substitute.

Be sure to sprinkle a tiny bit of coarse finishing salt over each individual plate immediately before serving. This is a place where a little Pink Himalayan salt or black “lava” salt (which is just salt mixed with charcoal, incidentally) can add some visual interest. I have a bunch of different salts from all over the world for just this purpose. Trust me, your guests will feel special when you tell them that you had your grey sea salt shipped in from the Guerande Salt Ponds on the Breton coast. Or they may just consider you a dimwitted gasbag easily fished in by the latest culinary fad. But either way, it will be entertaining for them, and that’s the point.

And yes, I realize that the finishing salt brings the ingredient total up to nine. But who would want to eat a nonagon salad?

*The way to get the tortilla strips done as in the photo is to purchase a package of taco-sized corn or flour tortillas (spinach- or tomato-enhanced tortillas add an extra colourful dimension), cut them into quarters, stack the quarter-rounds and slice off 1/4″ (6mm) strips. Heat up about 1/2″ (13mm) of canola or other high-smoke-point oil in a frying pan, and dump in the strips, stirring until browned. Remove strips from frying pan with slotted spatula and cool on paper towels. If you have extra, pop them in a Ziploc bag and save for later; they should be fine for at least a week, but they never seem to last that long.

Balkanizing My Kitchen, Part one — Lutenitza

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Three tasty pepper-derived foodstuffs.

Three tasty pepper-derived foodstuffs.

Not to worry: my kitchen has not split into warring factions. I just happened to be at Big Lots! [or, as some stores’ signage reads, Big! Lots (formerly Pic ‘N’ Save)] earlier today, poking around to see if they had any more jars of Macedonian Lutenitza, as one often does on a Tuesday. And that’s when it happened.

Let me back up a minute. Back in the ’50s, in Culver City, California (not far from where I live), a guy named William Zimmerman put together a chain of stores that specialized in overruns and closeouts, and called it Pic ‘N’ Save. Later, as the chain expanded — overexpanded, as it turns out — they redubbed themselves MacFrugal’s, and were purchased in 2002 by Consolidated Stores Corp., who converted the locations they kept open to their pre-existing brand, Big Lots! (and ultimately renamed the entire business Big Lots, Inc., which currently trades on the NYSE with the symbol BIG). While most of the merchandise in these stores is off-brand or otherwise out of favour (see picture below), they occasionally bring in weird little items that magically appear — and then just as magically disappear. So it was with my introduction to Macedonian Lutenitza.

Get 'em while they're not hot.

Get ’em while they’re not hot.

Lutenitza (also known variously as ljutenica, lyutenitsa, or lutenica, plus a dazzling variety of Cyrillic-alphabet spellings) is a type of salsa/sauce/relish widely made throughout Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia. Its basic ingredients are tomatoes, red peppers, aubergines (eggplant), vegetable oil, sugar, and salt, though variants also contain onions, carrots, garlic, and black pepper, among other things. Like salsa, everybody’s grandmother makes “the best,” and family recipes are handed down as prized possessions. I’m sure my Bulgarian friends — if I had any — would blanch at the idea of buying commercial lutenitza, but heck, I didn’t even know about it until a week ago. [Note to self: Make some Bulgarian friends.]

For the geographically challenged, this is where lutenitza comes from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

For the geographically challenged, this is where lutenitza comes from. Photo courtesy Univ. of Texas Library.

While lutenitza itself is entirely vegan, it’s served on meats, fish, breads, roasted vegetables, French fries, and pretty much anything that doesn’t move. Some versions are apparently hotter than others, but if you make your own — which I’m guessing you’ll probably have to do, unless you have a Balkan grocery (or Big Lots!) in your area — you can adjust spices to taste. This recipe, courtesy of rhubarbfool.co.uk, looks like it would match up pretty closely to the one in the bottle I have, except it would seem that this commercial version has upped the pepper and carrot content in favour of using aubergine, and he uses olive oil rather than a more neutral one such as canola.

Lutenitza Serving Suggestion, courtesy http://www.mucizelezzetler.com

Lutenitza Serving Suggestion, courtesy http://www.mucizelezzetler.com

Lutenitza –- Bulgarian Vegetable Relish

Ingredients

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 medium aubergine, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large roasted red peppers, skin and seeds removed and then diced
1 400g (14 oz.) can chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or summer savory if you have it)
2 tablespoons sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Take a medium sized saucepan and fry the onions, carrots and aubergines in the olive oil until soft. Add the red peppers and fry for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and seasoning, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add a little water if the mixture seems too dry. Mash some of the mixture using a potato masher. You are aiming for a thick ratatouille type texture. Spoon into a clean preserving jar, cool, seal and refrigerate. Makes about 1 kg/2 lb.

If, however, you plan on making it the old fashioned way — which is to say in bulk to put up for winter — this video, which calls for an astonishing 8kg (nearly 18 lbs.) of tomatoes, might serve you better, as might this video, featuring the “Sexy Chef,” Liz Todorova.

More on lutenitza’s cousins, ajvar and pinjur, in a later post. Do come back.