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Vegetable-Rich Chicken Paella

In this uncertain time of a worldwide pandemic--words I never thought I would say-I'm seeking peace and a big inhale-exhale with words and with food. It feels like the two small things I can do right now.

When I was  a new step-mom years ago, I didn’t know how to parent, but I knew how to cook. And I knew that in gathering our new family around the table, I could nourish their bodies and then eventually, their hearts.  

And when my Pappy was in the last stages of lung cancer, I took a leave of absence from my job to go be with him and my Granny and our family. I couldn't nurse, so I made myself useful by cooking. So I spent the days and weeks making chili and cornbread and biscuits and gravy and all the things that fed our souls.

Over the years of being married to Elie--who does everything with unselfconscious ease--I've learned grace in the kitchen. To welcome people to our home wholeheartedly, to gather around the table and make them feel welcome, seen, loved. I have relaxed, knowing nothing has to be rushed, or perfect. People remember most how you make them feel.

In a world saturated with networks and blogs and podcasts all dedicated to food, it has come to feel cliche to share a love of cooking. But cliche nonetheless, I find solace in the kitchen and around the table. And when everything else feels uncertain, I feel secure and peaceful there. It’s the one talent I’m sure of—the ability to nurture others. To make them feel welcome. To make them feel cared for. To make them feel nourished. Even at a distance.

I'm going to try and write here as often as I can during this time of sheltering in place, to feel connected, to remember this time and hopefully, to inspire. My friend Sarah is also writing every day during this time of crisis, and her words always bring insight and comfort.

I'm starting with this recipe for paella, which has become a favorite. I used Aran Goyoaga's paella recipe in her beautiful book Cannelle et Vanille as inspiration to create this vegetable-rich version, which is easily adapted to be vegetarian or vegan. And in this age of reducing food waste, it makes use of what’s on hand.

If you don't have leftover chicken in your refrigerator, you can sear chicken thighs at the beginning of the recipe (before you cook the mushrooms) and then just nestle them into the rice to cook. I've done that often and it works beautifully. You could also substitute shrimp or sausage for the chicken. Or, leave the meat out altogether and make a vegetarian version. To make this dish vegan, just use a vegetable stock. With all of the vegetables, the dish feels complete and satisfying without meat. And you always get those delicious crusty pieces of rice at the bottom of the pan, no matter what.

Make any substitution to the vegetables, based on what you have on hand. Regular button mushrooms can be substituted for shiitakes. Kale or other hearty greens could be switched out for swiss chard. I use cherry or grape tomatoes in this dish, because they are usually more flavorful this time of year. But, if you don't have fresh tomatoes, use canned. Add in anything else that sounds good to you, like summer squash or zucchini. Make it your own.

And now for the recipe.  

Vegetable-Rich Chicken Paella

Serves about 6 people, depending on how hungry they are

  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • a pinch of saffron (about a 1/2 teaspoon)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • 4 - 6 ounces of shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 small red or yellow onion
  • pinch of red pepper flakes, I love these
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 bunch of swiss chard
  • 1/2 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 2 cups Bomba or Arborio rice
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups of cooked chicken, shredded
  • handful of parsley, torn
  • 1/2 lemon, thinly sliced

Pour the chicken stock into a small pan and place over low heat, to bring to a slow simmer. Add a pinch of saffron and stir.

Then start by prepping all of the vegetables.

For the shiitake mushrooms, remove the stems and either freeze to add to a stock later or compost (they are too tough to eat). Tear the caps in quarters or halves.

Thinly slice the onion. I like the texture of sliced onions better than chopped, but you can decide what you like.

Thinly slice the garlic.

Thinly slice the red bell pepper.

For the swiss chard, remove the stems and cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Tear or slice the leaves.

Place the cherry or grape tomatoes in a food processor or blender and coarsely chop (or chop them by hand, to save dishes). Add the tomatoes to the pot of warm chicken broth.

Heat a 12-inch paella pan or similarly-sized pan over medium heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and then add the shiitake mushrooms, letting them cook and stirring occasionally until their water has released and they've started to brown. Remove the mushrooms from the pan and reserve.

Add a couple of more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and then add the sliced onions and a good pinch of sea salt and chile flakes, cooking for a few minutes and stirring, until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the garlic, red pepper and stems of the swiss chard and continue to cook for another few minutes, until the vegetables have softened. Add the leaves of the swiss chard and reserved shiitake mushrooms, stirring until the chard has wilted.

Add the rice and cook for a minute, stirring, to let the rice get coated in the olive oil and vegetables.

Add all of the chicken broth with tomatoes and the shredded chicken. Stir once and bring to brisk simmer. Taste the broth and add any salt if needed--it will depend on how salty your chicken stock is. Do not stir the rice again after you have adjusted the seasoning. Place aluminum foil or a large lid over the paella leaving a little vent to let steam escape and cook for 18 - 20 minutes, or until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked through, but still has a bite. Remove from the heat and let set for a few minutes.

Sprinkle the top of the paella with with the torn parsley leaves and scatter the lemon slices. Serve with a green salad, or just a great glass of Spanish wine.

Sending you all big hugs and so much love.

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