What Covid brought us – paella (or Renee’s rice dish)

It’s a year now since South Africa went into a total Covid-19 lockdown.

That initial set of restrictions in late March 2020 took away both my and my sister’s birthday celebrations (we both have birthdays in April). They took away being able to walk the dog. They took away my husband’s ability to earn his income (temporarily). They took away bustling out to the office for my hours at allAfrica.com.

For many people the restrictions and the virus took much more: lives and incomes went, along with our sense of certainty.

Many people turned to baking (I made bread). Or they found themselves decluttering (I’ll put my hand up for that one, along with working in the garden). Cooking featured too.

In our house, one of the things being locked inside brought us was a resurgence of paella.

Years ago, I bought – at ruinous expense – a proper paella pan. We made paella a lot, and then we had a child and complicated meal-making went out of the window. We made paella every now and then as Jack got older, but it was always a special occasion thing.

But lockdown meant long hours at home. I hauled the paella pan out, and we went in search of saffron. That took some doing, with shortages of all sorts of things on the supermarket shelves. We eventually found some and bought the shop’s entire supply: two small plastic boxes of red threads came home with us.

There were other things we needed but there could be no foraging for mussels, there could be no shopping for fancy rice, there could be no shopping for artisanal chorizo. We made do: frozen mussels, ordinary long grain rice, supermarket chorizo. As I have written before, our lives now are all about substance rather than style, good enough rather than perfection.

Over the last year, this is one of the Covid things that has stuck – I make a paella once a month, with those same less-than-gourmet ingredients. We’ve made a vegetarian version, we’ve made it without mussels for a friend of my son’s who regards shellfish with suspicion. We’ve made it on a Weber, and on an open fire, and on the stove top too.

Out of restrictions, a family tradition has been born. Thank you, pesky virus.

THE RECIPE

Disclaimer: I am under no illusions that this bears any resemblance to paella made in Spain (though my husband Bob, who lived in Spain for a year, many years ago, says it is fairly close). Call it Renee’s Rice Dish if you like.

The original version of this comes from Angela Day, the cookery column that used to be carried in the newspapers of Independent Media. The one I make is based loosely on the Spanish style paella in this set of recipes.

INGREDIENTS

Chicken pieces (bone in, thighs and drumsticks are good; as many pieces as you have people, times two – so six people, 12 pieces of chicken)
Olive oil
1-2 onions, halved and sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
As much (and as fancy) chorizo as you can muster, sliced
Pinch saffron
15 ml (ie some) boiling water
2- 4 teaspoons paprika (we do four, and if we can get smoked paprika, even better)
4 plum tomatoes (or 3 big tomatoes), chopped
375ml Arborio rice (but I have used Spekko long grain rice; Tastic Bonnet is good if you can lay your hands on it)
1 litre of chicken stock (sure, homemade if you have; shop stock is fine)
Mussels (whatever you can lay your hands – Cape Point mussels on the half shell work well)
1 cup frozen peas

METHOD

Spray and cook the paella pan (or the biggest, heaviest bottomed frying pan you have; a big cast iron pot might also work).

Put the pan on the biggest plate/gas ring you have. If using gas, put in a heat diffuser. Heat it a bit on high heat, then turn the heat down to the lowest you have and leave it there – this is a long, slow business.

1. Put the olive oil (probably three or four tablespoons) in the pan.

2. Cook the chicken for as long as you have patience – turn it often. You want it good and crisp. It only has 30 minutes in the stock later so you want it as cooked as you can get it at this stage. When you think it’s ready, take the chicken out of the pan and keep aside.

3. Fry the onions – you want them mushy and browned.

4. Add the garlic and fry it for a bit – a minute or two, stirring.

5. Add the chorizo – you want it to fry until it is starting to render its fat.

6. While keeping an eye on the chorizo, put the saffron in a bowl and add the boiling water.

7. Add the saffron + water, and the paprika to the pan. Stir-fry for a minute or so. Breathe deeply. At this point it will be smelling gorgeous.

8. Add the tomatoes, stir to mix – let them cook until they’ve gone soft and mushy.

9. Add the rice and stir it around so that it all gets coated with the oils in the pan.

10. Add the stock and stir – then bring it to a boil (more or less – but let it get good and hot). Now it will the red colour you see in the picture above.

11. Put the chicken back in. Push it into the rice and juice. NOW WALK AWAY. Set a timer for 10 minutes, rest your feet. Above all do not stir the food in the pan.

12. When the timer goes off, turn all the chicken pieces over. DO NOT STIR ANYTHING THE PAN. Set the timer for another 10 minutes and walk away.

13. When the timer goes off, investigate the rice with a fork, gently. Does it look like all the stock has been absorbed? If not, let it sit on the heat for another three or four minutes.

14. When all the stock is absorbed, dot the mussels wherever there are spare spaces. Sprinkle the cup of frozen peas on top of it all. Put on a lid – I use a wok lid which fits the paella pan. Tin foil would do the job. You are wanting the mussels and peas to steam now.

15. Set a timer again for 10 minutes and walk away. When it goes off, take off the lid and taste the peas – if they are cooked, you are good to go. If not, put the lid back on and leave for two or three minutes.

Carry the pan to the table, beaming with pride. Let people dish for themselves straight out of the pan. You can provide lemon wedges if you want – I always forget. No one seems to mind.

WHY NO STIRRING?
You want the rice to stick to the pan. According to Angela Day, a “characteristic of perfect paella rice is it produces a delicacy known as ‘socarra’ which is when the rice sticks to the pan at the bottom and becomes crispy”. Trust me, dear reader, the rice stuck to the pan is the best bit.

VEGETARIAN VERSION
We have made paella using exactly this same flavour-building method, but using bottled artichokes, olives and mushrooms. The mushrooms were cooked at the same time as I would have done the chicken and added back along with the artichokes and olives after the rice. Vegetable stock is often not as salty as chicken stock, so adding some salt when you stir in the rice is a good idea.

BRAAI NOTES
We found doing this on the Weber tricky – it was too hot, and stayed too hot, and we couldn’t move the pan up and down to adjust the heat. The open fire (mostly charcoal) works well – start with it hot, and move the pan closer to the coals as they cool. Bob says you need a good deep bed of coals.

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Thoughts at the end of a long year

Cricket is back, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

In the depths of South Africa’s strong lockdown, I remember wishing that there was some cricket to watch – it felt as though a leisurely Test match would help pass the time.

England is in South Africa for some T20 and ODI men’s matches. Ordinarily this would be an occasion of joy and interest, a sign of things getting back to normal.

Instead it feels that the matches just underscore how very peculiar things are.

The T20 at Newlands on November 27 was played in front of an empty stadium. I felt as though I was watching two different matches.

On the screen, the batsman hit a mighty six, straight into the stands. In my head was the memory of a roar from the crowd, a man reaching up to catch the ball (and not spilling a drop of his beer!) and throwing it cheerfully back to the fielder.

On the screen was a forlorn figure, the fielder trudging up the stand to fetch the ball, just as he would have done as a schoolboy.

The thing is sport is a collective endeavour: the players and the crowd together are the warm heart of humanity, loving and hating and hoping and despairing and eating and drinking and hugging and Mexican waving.

This is what the Covid pandemic has taken from us, or from the ones of us who are still alive and plodding our way through days that feel flat and long and tired.

I have been lighting two candles every night since March. As I do it, I think of all the other people who are having a hard time in the Covid. I am so much better off than them, I think, with gratitude and the certain knowledge that I have done nothing to deserve it.

No one I know and love has died, we have weathered the financial storm, we are not going hungry, we are not health workers on the front line. All we have to do is wear masks and organise small, cautious, open-air social gatherings with people we know well and can set the rules about what to do about cutlery and crockery. Summer is here and we can even go out for a beer or two to the local pubs where we can sit outside. (I am aware there are those who think even these activities are too risky – this article is a good articulation of the position our family has taken: Confessions of a Pandemic Risk-Taker

So, if things are sort-of-just-okay in this corner of Cape Town, why am I having terrible dreams? Why have I been unable to settle to my sewing and handwork? Why does everything feel like such an effort?

The cricket made me understand. We are all living and working and playing in a small circle of light while all around darkness and loneliness and isolation loom.

In times like these, I turn to poetry. And two poems come to mind. Nobody can express anguish quite like TS Eliot. Phrases from his Preludes keep going through my mind. They are about a different time and place, but the mood is exactly right for now. Part four goes like this:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;…

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

I will keep lighting my candles, thinking of the gentle things that we all miss. Because what else can we do now except hope? And that’s the second poem that keeps coming to mind. It’s hand-written in a book I have been keeping for years, where I copy down things that strike me. It is about a man and his cat.

My Cat and I (Alan Mathews)

When the clock uncovers me

and the day lies mean and flat.

I wrap myself in solitude

and breakfast with my cat.

 

High on kitchen stools we perch,

metabolism thin,

and ponder on the fates that move

the world of mice and men.

 

He understands me well, my cat.

He makes no smart replies.

Instinctive wisdom lies behind

his tranquil slitted eyes.

 

The monstrous tensions of our race

somehow he comprehends

and how life great simplicities

evade his giant friends.

 

So with his furred contentment

he absorbs my edge of pain,

assuring with a rounded purr

that good will rise again.

 

Restored, I pat him ‘au revoir’;

he bumps me with his head.

I hustle out to earn a bob.

He strolls to find a bed.

 

I have carried that poem with me for thirty years, and I didn’t write down the source publication*.  I hope you find it as sustaining as I do. Cricket matches will again be full to the brim with people drinking beer and catching sixes. Good will rise again. Until then, wear a mask and take as few risks as you can.

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* January 2021 update: I have made some progress on tracking down the source of the Alan Mathews poem. A search on Twitter led me to the Facebook page of poet Robyn J Black, who mentioned Alan Mathews in a post. I contacted Robyn, and she sent me this information: “Yes that is a poem by Alan Mathews, a long-time member of the Goulburn Valley Writers Group Inc., former founder and editor of Tamba magazine and award winning poet and short story writer. Alan was from Orrvale and Shepparton, Vic. Aust. and passed away a couple of years ago. He was a gentle and gentlemanly soul, and an exquisite writer. We miss him. ‘My Cat and I’ was printed in ‘Categories’ and in Alan’s book ‘Blackbird Singing’”. Blackbird Singing is listed in the Australian national book catalogue as published by Little River Press (which cannot be found online) and this article in a local newspaper about Mathews says that Blackbird Singing is self-published. I continue to search for the copyright holder!

February 2021 update: Robyn Black has contacted me. She writes: “Alan Mathews’ widow, Bev Mathews, has advised she gives permission for Alan’s poem to be used and she said he would be tickled pink to know you mentioned him and TS Eliot in the same blog.” Copyright permission obtained at last!