Three New Year’s Resolutions in one – healthy, creative, Spanish

It’s January, the evenings are dark, and the ‘healthy eating’ New Year’s resolution is still intact…. What better way than a pan of brightly-coloured, dance-in-the-mouth, veg-packed paella to brighten up a weekday evening?

I don’t know what it is about rice, but it has always terrified me. I can do a mean risotto, but I don’t think I’ve ever successfully boiled / steamed ‘normal’ rice. It always ends up over-cooked. So, despite being a lover of Spanish food, and always having a ubiquitous stub of chorizo in the fridge, I’ve not taken the leap before – surely I’d end up with soggy rice, surely?

One of our other New Year’s resolutions was to cook more creatively on weeknights, and not fall back on the tried and trust favourites – so, armed with my wonderful Pizarro book, Seasonal Spanish Food and a vat of freshly made chicken stock (I used this recipe, though I have to confess to having been a bit slapdash with the skimming off of impurities) I applied myself to the challenge.

And boy, am I glad I did. Perfectly cooked rice, bursting with warm, sunny Spanish flavours, and incredibly filling without sending me off to the gym in a fit of January guilt. I scaled down Pizarro’s instructions to make the recipe for two (and adulterated it in many other ways – apologies for any liberties taken!) and it worked an absolute treat – all the stock was absorbed without it drying out, and I was amazed how quick it was to make. A new addition to the weeknight repertoire, and one that’s making me even more keen to fulfil New Year’s resolution number 3, and get those train tickets booked to Sevilla.

I sometimes cut corners with savoury recipes, but Pizarro had two pieces of advice I would echo – one is that it’s essential to use paella rice. There seem to be lots of varieties, and the one I found in the shops was different to the one he recommended, but although it looks very similar to arborio rice, it’s not. Risotto rice is meant to break down easily and ooze gluten, to give risotto that lovely creamy texture. Paella is not about oozing grains, it’s about plumpness – and this rice absorbs all the lovely flavours in the stock, whilst still staying as separate grains. Secondly, use good, home-made stock. So much of the flavour in the paella comes from the stock, it’s absolutely worth using the good stuff in this.

Paella for two, sunshine on a plate

olive oil (I was quite sparse with this, I would use 2 tablespoons if not on a health kick!)
chicken thighs
60g chorizo, in chunks
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 plump tomato, chopped
60ml white wine
2 teaspoons mild smoked paprika
400ml chicken stock, hot
saffron strands, soaked in a tablespoon of hot water (Pizarro says 30 strands for 6 people – I used twice that for two, as we have loads of the stuff from a market in Cairo, but it’s not the best quality so we need to use more to get the colour and flavour)
160g paella rice
a handful of sugar snap peas
peas and broad beans (frozen)
2 romano peppers, grilled or griddled until black, then skinned and chopped
salt and pepper
chopped parsley to finish

1. In a wide-bottomed pan (I used my 30cm cast iron pot – this is probably a travesty!) on a medium flame, heat the oil and throw in the chorizo chunks and the chicken, skin side down. Allow the chorizo to cook and the flavours to ooze out, and the chicken to brown nicely. Cook about 4 minutes on each side. You might need to remove the chorizo before the chicken is browned, if it looks like it might catch.

2. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon, and put to one side. Turn the heat down, and add the shallots and garlic, and stir them to cover them in the oil and fat from the chorizo. Cook gently for about 5 minutes until soft and starting to brown. At this point, add the chopped tomato and the wine, and return the chicken and chorizo to the pan. Cook for another 4 minutes or so, to allow the flavours to infuse. After 4 minutes, stir in the paprika, and cook another minute or so, before pouring in the stock and the saffron-y water. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Shake the paella rice into the pan, trying to distribute it evenly. Give it all a good stir now, but don’t stir it again from this point on (or you risk it becoming risotto-like). Bring the pot to the boil, and then allow it to simmer on a medium-high heat for ten minutes. After ten minutes, throw in the sugar snap peas, the red peppers, and the frozen peas and beans. Turn the heat down to low and tuck a piece of tin foil over the dish. Cook for a further 8 minutes. (Keep an eye on it near the end – if it looks like it’s dried out, add a couple of tablespoons of stock. Similarly, if it’s too wet you might want to spoon a bit out. These amounts worked perfectly for me, neither too wet nor too dry, but I suspect different rices will absorb differently.)

4. At the end of its cooking time, try a grain or two and make sure it’s cooked. Remove the foil, turn off the heat and cover the pan with a tea towel for 5 minutes or so. Scatter the chopped parsley over the top, and serve from the pan at the table. Glorious.

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