Thursday, October 18, 2007

Food - Chicken and Tomato Paella (thank you Mark Bittman)

Last Saturday Me and Mum headed to the new Whole Foods off of Roosevelt Road (that's in Chicago, but you knew that already). Well to make a long story medium, when leaving the parking lot, we took a wrong turn and our exit was blocked by the Maxwell Street market (which is no longer on Maxwell Street, but that's not particularly germane to the story). So, Mum sez "hey let's have a look around" to which I respond "k" (riveting stuff, I know, but hang tight, it gets better).

Well, contrary to what Jane Wyatt and Robert Young would have you believe, Mother knows best. Once we got past the hubcaps that had been pilfered the night before, we wandered smack dab into a mountain o' produce. Cases and cases of asparagus, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, etc. And they were so cheap! We took a case of vine-ripened tomatoes and a case of red peppers for a sawbuck. Not each -- $10 total! Of course when we got 'em back to Case de Mama we kinda realized that we had no idea what to do with our booty.

[At this point I must confess that this story is about to pass up medium length, so that whole thing about not making this a long story...yeah, you're gonna want to disregard that]

Well we spent that afternoon roasting red peppers and making an unbelievably killer tomato sauce with basil. Though we put a significant dent in our haul, I still returned home with more peppers and tomatoes than I've ever had in my house at one time (save, of course, for the Beefsteak Summer of '62...good times my friends, good times). Well inspiration hit, courtesy of a little thing called the Internet. I found a recipe for Mark Bittman's Tomato Paella. Those of you who don't know Mark Bittman, it's time to introduce yourself. He writes for the New York Times and is a proponent of minimalist (simple) cooking. Gotta say, most of his recipes are easy enough that a relative novice can turn out good tasting meals with minimal(ist) effort.

I've reproduced the recipe below, with some additional hints.

Tomato Paella
Serves 4 to 6

3 cups stock or water (I used vegetable stock)
1/2 cup white wine (I added a bit more than 1/2 cup and think it could stand 6 oz)
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into thick wedges
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (use a good amount)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic (would double the amount, but then, I like garlic)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Large pinch saffron threads
1-2 teaspoons Spanish pimentón (I used 2 tsp. of regular paprika)
2 cups Spanish or other short-grain rice (I used arborio rice, which is the classic for risotto)
Minced parsley and basil for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Warm water in a saucepan. Put tomatoes in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle them with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss to coat.

2. Put remaining oil in a 10- or 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, saffron if you are using it, and paprika and cook for a minute more. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is shiny, another minute or two. Add wine and let simmer until it is mostly absorbed, then add the hot water and stir until just combined.

3. Put tomato wedges on top of rice and drizzle with juices that accumulated in bottom of bowl. Put pan in oven and roast, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Check to see if rice is dry and just tender. If not, return pan to oven for another 5 to 10 minutes. If rice looks too dry but still is not quite done, add a small amount of stock or water (or wine). When rice is ready, turn off oven and let pan sit for 5 to 15 minutes.

4. Remove pan from oven and sprinkle with parsley and basil. If you like, put pan over high heat for a few minutes to develop a bit of a bottom crust before serving. (I did this and liked it)

This recipe was really a showcase for the tomatoes. Cooking them in the oven served to intensify their wonderful flavor. Still, the rice itself was only good, not great. I think this recipe could use a bit of aggressive seasoning (to boost the flavor) and throwing in some other veggies-- perhaps asparagus, eggplant or peas -- would be a plus. I used vegetable stock, but chicken stock would give a little extra richness (I think using just water would be a bit blah). Bittman suggests trying the base version at least once, fair enough especially if you are blessed with a bounty of tomatoes.

Maybe Bittman has a point about trying it the minimalist way the first time; this is a very adaptable recipe. My dinner guest Stephanie wanted some protein, so I threw in some chicken breast strips that I had in my freezer and that worked out well.

Verdict: thumbs-up. Relatively simple to prepare and once you make it the first time, you'll start putting together combinations for the next go-round. Next time I think I'll try it with chicken sausage and asparagus...or eggplant might be nice too...or maybe...

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