My first introduction to paella is deeply imbedded in my mind. I was 16, impressionable, and in Mexico on holiday with my extended family. We were a very large group of about 25 and did everything from day trips to the market, to snorkeling, to eating grand meals together. Coincidentally, my mother’s best friend also was on holiday in Puerto Vallarta and invited us all to dinner for traditional paella. At the time, the closest thing I’d ever had to real Mexican food was guacamole and chips or nachos from Lopez y Gonzalez in Cleveland, Ohio, so this was truly an eye-opening experience. I can still smell the bubbling beer broth and see the sizzling rice on the stove. The chef let it simmer for hours as the meats and seafood cooked. I watched in amazement at how simple it all looked, and as it turns out, it is.
Mexican Paella is very different from the more familiar Spanish Paella. The Mexican version is soup-like and is made with beer broth and parboiled rice. The Spanish version contains saffron and is spicier. I’d have to say that I lean toward the Spanish version, as I like my food spicy-hot and I’ve never been a fan of rice in soups. However, paella is one of those dishes that no two cooks make exactly the same way. As I was told, make it once, learn the technique, and then go off on a “paella tangent.” Of course my adaptation is from memory, gluten-free, and meatless, so I’ll let you decide whether it leans toward the Spanish or Mexican version.
I like to cook the vegetables separately from the quinoa as cooking them together makes the paella mushy. This doesn’t happen with rice, but quinoa has a completely different threshold for absorbing liquids. I also find that layering the vegetables slowly lets you see how they are cooking and how watery they are at that time of year. This recipe is very forgiving and is adaptable to whatever you happen to have in your fridge. The spices, tomatoes, and olives hold the dish together and keep it consistent but again, it is your paella, and a platform to go off on your own “paella tangent.”
1 cup dried quinoa (I like using mixed -- black & white is very pretty in this recipe)
½ large red onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
1/4 teaspoon saffron, chopped
2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne (or more, depending on your heat preference
1 large handful organic grape tomatoes (about 20) quartered
1 large handful (about 2 cups) maitake mushrooms (or your favorite) chopped
20 black oil-cured olives, sliced
¾ cup organic frozen peas, defrosted to semi-frozen state
2 3/4 – 3 cups vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat ½ tablespoon of coconut oil or organic butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet with sides.
- Add the onions and sauté about a minute; add some of the broth, sauté a few more minutes, then add the garlic and sauté until it begins to smell fragrant.
- Add the mushrooms and spices and sauté for about 2 more minutes. If the mixture becomes dry, add a little more broth.
- Add the tomatoes and cook until they begin to break down, adding salt as needed.
- Add the olives, stirring occasionally. Remove the vegetables from the heat and set aside, adding the semi-frozen peas on top. They will steam on top with the heat of the vegetables.
- In a separate pot, heat the vegetable broth until it begins to simmer and add the quinoa, a few olives and a few tomatoes, to flavor the broth. Cover and cook for about 15 minutes, then fluff with fork.
- Combine the quinoa with the vegetables and toss gently with a bit of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and adjust to taste. Sometimes I will add a bit more cayenne or paprika.
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Lora Krulak, author of Veggies for Carnivores, is inspired by global flavors and exotic spices. She focuses on giving people the tools and understanding they need to create healthy, vegetable-centric lifestyles, without having to become a vegetarian. In addition, she's taught yoga, and has traveled the world—from India, Bali and Thailand, to Turkey, the Middle East, Australia and Southern Europe—bringing the stories, recipes and cooking techniques, learned and perfected overseas, to everyone.