Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kitchen sink cookery - Not-paella

Wednesday is my night to cook, and as I get lazier I've become attached to one pot cooking. At the same time, I don't want it to all taste the same, look the same, or feel like eating undifferentiated soylent green. Cue a discussion of recipes with a friend who also cooks on Wednesdays, and the entirely too enticing idea of "paella" made with couscous instead of rice.

This, of course, inevitably led to a Fake-paella Off! We've both made couscous "paella" with shrimp tonight, the winner gets a delicious dinner to eat. The discerning will realize that we are both winners in this case, since we're both competent enough cooks to make it delicious, and separated as we are by several states we're each cooking our own dinners. But it's fun to go into it as a sort of challenge. It's also an excuse to take lots of pictures.

I call this kitchen sink cookery because it's like making fried rice. It doesn't matter what goes in as long as it all works together. In the end, it's all about ingredient order since it's all made in one pot. I was substituting and estimating through most of this, and it came out exceedingly tasty. It was also, to my delight, incredibly fast. The ingredient prep took longer than the cooking. I started all prep at 5pm and had the Not-paella and a secondary vegetable done by 5:45. (Disclaimer, looking at my log, I actually started prep at 4:15ish. But I was also doing a million other things, and chatting, and taking pictures and things. The actual cooking took about 25min.)

The finished product, one serving with shrimp and no large turkey pieces and one with only turkey. I can't really eat shrimp; I have a mild sensitivity to them. So the turkey was for me, and to add richness to the broth. For a gander at the competition and her fine looking not-paella, go here

One thing I really liked about this, as well, is that I'm not actually that fond of the saucy rice in paella or risotto. It's often too mushy or sticky/glutinous for me. The couscous fluffs up into tender bites that are not at all gummy. It has a light feeling to it, which is perfect for hot weather. And because it's cooked so quickly, each bit of the dish retains its own flavor while still blending together as a whole. Very tasty and not at all mush or porridge-like.

So, on to the recipe. Substitution is inevitable, so this is just an idea of what to put into it. Varying seasonings and primary ingredients would give it a very different flavor and I fully intend to try that some time.

Couscous "paella" - serves 4-6

  • 2 small onions, sliced
  • 2 carrots, chopped - I needed the color since I had neither red pepper nor tomato, and they add richness to the dish which is good since I used water instead of broth.
  • a clove of garlic, chopped - I would have used more, but we're shockingly out of more!
  • 1 bell pepper, sliced - I had intended a red pepper, but was handed a green one.
  • Mushrooms, about 2c sliced - these were huge mushrooms, I only used 3!
  • smoked turkey, sliced thick and the scraps chopped small - I used a little over a pound.  Any meat will do, really. This is what I had.
  • shrimp, cleaned but in shell - I used 9 big 16-20/pound shrimp that were already de-veined. The shell helps keep them moist and flavorful and also flavors the dish. There were only 3 of us and I don't eat shrimp. If there were more people who eat shrimp, I would have used more shrimp, and possibly less turkey.
  • dried rosemary, a pinch freshly crumbled.  Of course fresh would be lovely.
  • dried thyme, a pinch freshly crumbled.  And once again fresh would be lovely.
  • saffron threads, soaked in a tablespoon or so of boiling water - My saffron is quite old so I should have used a little more than 6 threads, and I really should have toasted it before using it but I was lazy.  Still adds an indefinable sort of something to the whole dish, however.
  • sea salt
  • pepper, freshly ground is ideal
  • olive oil, virgin or extra virgin is tastiest
  • 3.5c water or broth - I used water, and I used about 1/4c more water than what was called for for the couscous to account for boiling off. With the right balance of ingredients, broth is unnecessary.
  • plain couscous - I had a 10oz box of plain and a 5.4oz box of flavored, but I left out the flavor pouch. I used all the couscous from both boxes. The ratio of couscous to water according to the box is 2/3c of dry couscous to 1c of water.

Raw ingredients and a close up of saffron threads

Method: Get a nice big heavy bottomed frying pan hot and add the olive oil and the onions, carrots, and garlic, and some salt and pepper. Cook over medium high heat until the onions are getting color and the carrots are almost tender, then add the bell pepper. Saute briefly and then add the 3 1/2c water, rosemary, thyme, and saffron. Bring it to a boil and then cover it and turn it down to medium and let it simmer vigorously while doing something else for a few minutes. This lets the broth that will cook the couscous develop flavor. I cooked broccoli.

After a couple minutes, add the cooked meat and the mushrooms, stir it well and cover it back up again until it comes back to the boil. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning with more salt and pepper if necessary. Then add the shrimp and cover it back up and let it cook for another minute or two depending on the size of the shrimp. I let it cook for 3min because my shrimp were very large, but smaller shrimp would of course need less time.

After the shrimp are half cooked, turn off the heat and add all the couscous to the pan, poking the mixture carefully so it's evenly distributed and everything has access to the broth. Cover it back up again and leave it alone for 5min.

After 5min, open it up and carefully stir it to fluff up the clumps and to turn the top layer of couscous under a bit so any parts that are slightly dry can soak up more moisture. This happens fast, so it should be fine by the time plates are located. Cover it back up until ready to serve, which should be quite soon if serving shrimp!

If it's truly too dry, sprinkle it with a small amount of boiling water or broth, say 1/4c. and let it sit covered for another few minutes. Then stir and serve. But try stirring everything and waiting a couple minutes first before doing this. It shouldn't need it, as the couscous can pull moisture from the other ingredients. If it's too wet, stir it a bit and leave it uncovered. Place it over very low heat if necessary and stir it briefly once in a while until it fluffs up.

The broccoli is because we really like vegetables in my family. So I made it in my quick saute/steam method. I take a heavy cast-iron pan and heat it up good and hot, add some canola oil and a dash of salt, and then I throw in the cut up broccoli and some garlic. I stir it around for a bit until it wants to burn, and then I add in about a cup of cold water, cover it up right away, and turn the burner all the way up. I let it steam for a few minutes until the broccoli is bright green and the desired state of tender, and then turn off the heat, open it up and stir it around to let the excess water evaporate. It's fast and good, and I find this method works for pretty much all the brassicas.

Dinner was delicious and light and fast and savory and really perfect for today. It's a substantial quantity and three of us decimated a little more than half, with a side vegetable. As a one dish dinner, I think this would serve 4 comfortably.

I'm stuffed, but wondering when I can go have more. I can totally imagine this not-paella with any number of ingredients and still being delicious. So I consider this a definite victory. I like victories like this one. Everyone wins!

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