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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