Breaking the rules for paella

For kids, three months of summer vacation can be quite boring if you live in an isolated location in the country and cannot just walk down the street to hang out with friends. To keep our son busy (and preserve our sanity), a few summers ago my husband commissioned him to do a few short videos. One of the videos he made was about high-fructose corn syrup. Our son discovered that we are an almost HFCS-free household. When he searched our pantry and fridge for props, the only product containing HFCS he found was a bottle of mustard.

MSG is another blacklisted ingredient. It is not difficult to avoid HFCS and MSG when you cook mainly with fresh or frozen ingredients and make as much as possible from scratch. Yet I must admit that I deviate from my own rules once in a while for convenience or taste, or both.

For paella, for example, I use yellow rice mix, aka Spanish rice, which sometimes contains MSG. When I cannot find brands that are MSG-free, I remove about half of the heavy seasoning from the uncooked mix by placing it in a colander and shaking it a few times over the sink. The remaining amount of MSG is minimal. MSG usually gives me terrible migraines but I have never felt a thing after eating this paella.

This recipe is adapted from Paella, Fast and Easy in Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks at Home. I doubt whether Mr. Bittman would agree with my using yellow rice mix from the package but since I adhere to most of what he advocates so passionately, I hope he would let this one slip.Most of the vegetables for the paella – peas, greens beans, and bell peppers – come from my garden, fresh during season, frozen in the winter. When I made the paella yesterday I did not have peas, as the supply of peas from the garden is already gone. We were also out of carrots; unaware of my dinner plans, my husband fed the last carrot to our dog, whose favorite treat is carrots.

To make up for the missing peas and carrots, I doubled the amount of bell peppers and green beans. And, instead of chicken broth, which I normally use for liquid, I used homemade turkey broth from our Thanksgiving turkey, also coming from the depth of our freezer. This recipe offers lots of flexibility in terms of ingredients.

One little trick: my son does not like peppers so I omit them in half of the paella and place a piece of triple-folded aluminum foil across the pan. After the paella is cooked, that barrier can be removed very easily.

Paella

4 cups chicken broth

1 cup fresh or frozen green beans

1 red bell pepper

1 carrot

1 onion

1 swordfish steak (about 6 ounces)

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups yellow rice mix (Spanish rice), some of the seasoning removed as described above

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

½ pound uncooked shelled and deveined medium-size shrimp (41-50 count)

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Heat the chicken broth in a saucepan.

3. Cut or break the green beans into bite-size pieces. Cut the pepper in half, remove the seeds, and cut into ½-inch pieces. Peel the carrot and cut into ¼-inch cubes. Halve the onion and slice very thinly. Cut the swordfish into ½-inch cubes.

4. Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat until translucent, stirring often.

5. Add the rice mix and stir to coat. Cook for 2 minutes until it turns glossy. Add the hot broth and stir (stand back, it will steam when you add the broth).

6. Add the shrimp, fish, and vegetables, distributing them somewhat evenly. Bring to the boil, then carefully transfer the pan to the preheated oven. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, until the rice is cooked through and the broth is absorbed. If during the cooking some of the vegetables start to poke out, gently push them back into the liquid so they won’t dry out. Do not stir.

7. Remove the paella from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Beans in cheesecloth

Like beans in a brick, this is not an innovative recipe but a technique, the result of a 20-minute discussion last week between my husband and me about the most efficient way to blanch filet beans. If you have several pounds to process at once like we do, dumping the pot of water with the beans every time will turn the kitchen into a Turkish bath. Bringing one pot of water after another to the boil will take forever. If you leave the beans in the same water and remove them with tongs, half of them will be overcooked by the time you fish them all out.

Therefore, in previous years, I put the beans in a metal colander, which I placed in a pot with boiling water. But unless I did this in very small batches, the beans were too crowded and did not cook evenly.

After we took out half of our pots and colanders of various sizes and staged the different options, it occurred to me that cheesecloth might be the way to go. I placed a pound of green beans on a large piece of cheesecloth, twisted it several times at the top so it formed a loose bag around the beans, and lowered it into a large pot of the boiling water. I firmly held onto the top with a pair of tongs. When I immersed the bag into the bowl with ice water, it cooled off almost instantly so I could open up the cloth and release all the beans.

Tonight it’s blanching time again. For now I am happy with the cheesecloth trick. I am only curious what my assistant, in charge of the ice water cooling and spreading the beans on dish towels to dry, will cook up on his end. He usually runs the ceiling fan at top speed to dry the beans. But there is always room for improvement…

Beans in a brick

Unlike chicken under a brick, beans in a brick is not a recipe but the way I grow green beans. Every year I had entire rows of French filet beans, aka haricots verts, getting knocked over, a paining sight. Whether it’s the wind on our hilltop, or the weight of the beans that does it, I don’t know.

I tried different things, from securing every plant individually with a small stake (tedious and useless) to stretching wire along each side of the row (equally useless). I even called the company where I bought the seeds to find out what they recommend but they did not seem to understand what I was talking about, since the beans are described as self-supporting in the catalog.

Then, one day, I was standing outside the car wash waiting when my eyes fell on a pile of bricks nearby. What if I buried the seeds into the holes of bricks and let the plants grow into them? That way the crucial first 1.5 inches of the stem, where the plants always break, would be protected. Lucky coincidence – our local hardware store was just discontinuing selling bricks, so I got a few dozen bricks for free.

It worked! I seed the beans very densely, one in every hole, so they also support each other. The most important thing is not to move the bricks the slightest bit after seeding because the small hole is the seed’s lifeline to air and light. Without it, no germination!

A few plants still get knocked over, but this is minimal compared to the previous damage. Now it’s almost time to harvest, and I am looking forward to my favorite salad with green beans. The original recipe is from Bon Appetit but because I don’t like raw onions of any kind, I omit the shallots in the dressing. Since with my growing method, I get a good crop of haricot verts, I use three times more green beans than the recipe calls for. Therefore this is not a Potato Salad with Haricots Verts, but a Haricot Verts Salad with Potatoes.

Haricot Verts Salad with Potatoes, Blue Cheese and Walnuts

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh sage

1 pound small reds-skinned potatoes

Salt

1.5 pounds French filet beans

1/3 cup walnuts

2/3 cup crumbled  blue cheese (Gorgonzola or Roquefort)

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Whisk the mustard with the vinegar and olive oil. Stir in the rosemary and sage.

3. Wash the potatoes and toss them whole with 3 tablespoons vinaigrette until they are evenly coated. Spread them in one layer in a baking dish. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and bake for another 40 to 50 minutes until they are soft, turning them once in a while. Cool.

4. Bring salted water to the boil in a large pot. Have a large bowl with ice water standing by. Cook the beans in the boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and throw immerse the beans in the ice water immediately. Swirl them around so they cool evenly. Drain again.

5. Lightly toast the walnuts in an ungreased pan. Chop them coarsely.

6. In a large bowl, mix the potatoes, green beans, cheese, walnuts and the remaining vinaigrette.  Season with salt and pepper.

Makes 6 servings