Usually when I think paella, I think rice, saffron, tomatoes, shellfish, and sometimes sausage.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can swap the seafood for chicken or keep it vegetarian, or use white rice instead of brown (just halve the time the pan spends in the oven).  In spring, asparagus, artichokes, fresh peas, and shrimp keep it light and fresh.  Wedges of just-off-the-vine tomato, eggplant, and spicy sausage are perfect for summer.  In the colder months, root vegetables and winter squash pair nicely with chicken thighs and hearty brown rice.

A few tips for adapting the recipe:

  • Use up to 4 cups total of whatever vegetables you like, but keep cooking times in mind when deciding how to cut them.  Tomatoes, asparagus, and other quick-cooking vegetables can be kept in large pieces; root vegetables, winter squashes, mushrooms, eggplant, and other sturdy vegetables should be diced small or sliced thin.
  • For an all-seafood version, use 8-12 good-sized shrimp, or try scallops or mussels.  Use white rice instead of brown so the shellfish won’t overcook.
  • If you omit the chorizo, you may want to add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes for a little heat.

Paella, for February

Adapted from Food Matters by Mark Bittman

Yield:  Serves 4-6

3 1/2 c. vegetable or chicken stock, or water, plus more as needed

Pinch saffron threads

2 c. sliced mushrooms, any kind you like

2 c. diced butternut squash (1/2 – 3/4″ is good)

3 tbsp. olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tbsp. tomato paste

2 tsp. paprika (ideally the smoky, Spanish variety, but any kind will do)

2 c. brown rice

3 oz. cooked chorizo (or other sausage, if you prefer), diced into 1/2″ pieces

2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2″ pieces

1 c. frozen peas

Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.  In a small saucepan, warm the stock and saffron.  In a mixing bowl, toss mushrooms and squash with 1 tbsp. olive oil, salt, and pepper, and set aside.

Warm a 12-inch, oven-proof skillet over medium heat, then drizzle in the remaining 2 tbsp. olive oil.  Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is tender, about 8 minutes.  Season lightly with salt and pepper, stir in tomato paste and paprika, and cook for another minute or two (let the tomato paste soften and brown a little — you want to cook off its slightly metallic flavor).  Add the rice and cook, stirring, for another minute or two, then stir in the warm stock, chorizo, chicken, and peas.

Spoon the mushrooms and squash over the top of the rice mixture, then put the skillet in the oven and bake, undisturbed, for 40 minutes.  Check to see if the rice is tender and dry — if not, return to the oven for another 5 minutes (add a bit more liquid if rice is dry but not yet tender).  Keep checking every 5 minutes until rice is done (it shouldn’t take more than another 10), then turn off the oven and let the skillet sit for 10 minutes.

Remove skillet from oven and sprinkle with parsley.  To make a nice bottom crust, put the pan on the stove over high heat for a few minutes before serving.

Notes: The easiest — and tidiest — way to cook sausage is on a foil-lined sheet pan, in the oven.   Bake at 375 degrees for about 15-20 minutes (depending on girth of sausages), turning over half-way through.  No splattered grease on the stovetop, no fry pan to wash.

What to do with leftover sausage and squash?  Make soup!  Brown crumbled sausage with a chopped onion (and celery if you have it) in a little olive oil.  Add some minced fresh thyme, diced squash, some canned or cooked dried beans (and their cooking liquid, if you have it), some chopped canned tomatoes and their juice, stock or water, and salt and pepper.  Raise heat, bring soup to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer gently for 10 minutes to meld flavors.

Have extra chicken thighs?  Try this.