Sunday, March 12, 2006

Rice of Spring

Way back in high school, our foreign language club took a trip to England, France, and Spain. Though I had been well taught by the Chef Mother to have a somewhat adventurous palate, I wasn't terribly impressed by the food I found on most of the trip (save for the croissants and sweet butter served for breakfast at one Parisian hotel -- bliss!).

When we arrived in Spain, hot and weary, naturally we had to try the national dish, paella. Traditionally served piled high with shellfish, chicken (or some other meat, I don't remember), and vegetables, this saffron-infused rice dish made a stunning presentation, especially offered on big platters to wide-eyed teenagers. As much as I loved shrimp, though, I wasn't very keen on the whole thing.

But hey, the rice was good.

Fast forward to a mere five or six years ago, when I invited Mitch Heat and his then-roommate Danya to dinner over spring break. I wanted to make something wholesome but elegant for these kind young men, and when I found the Spring Vegetable Paella recipe in my copy of Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites, I decided it was time to overcome my old prejudice.

The rice (in this case, brown basmati rice) cooks in a broth of water and brine from a can of artichokes, with saffron liberally sprinkled in. And the vegetable mélange served on top includes artichokes, asparagus, red pepper, and peas for an extraordinarily colorful dish.

These fine gentlemen brought the makings of a spinach salad, while I added a sublime garlic bread to the table, with a Grand Marnier-drizzled torta de almendra (almond cake) for dessert. Truly a fine feast overall!

But what I remember most about the evening is that dear Mitch took six or seven helpings of the main dish. "Please pass the paella," he would say with dignified formality.

Finally I chuckled and asked, "Are you really that hungry, or do you just really like the paella?"

"I really like saying 'Please pass the paella'!" he grinned.

I couldn't argue with that, and I couldn't argue with how good this vegetarian version of paella tasted, so it has ended up in my spring cooking repertoire for the past few years.

Today's version added carrots and baby portabella mushrooms to the mix, adding more color and a deeper flavor that turned out beautifully. (I'm not a big fan of mushrooms, but I have to admit that I liked the baby 'bellas in this.)

Fresh vegetables and rice the color of sunshine on a dreary (but warm!) day -- how can you go wrong?

Please pass the paella, Mitch... it's good to eat with you again, even if it's only in spirit, every time I make this dish.

It's the perfect way to welcome Spring.


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