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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kitchen Iconoclast

I get a kick out of how conservative Valencianos can be when it comes to the recipes of their emblematic dishes. Change a single ingredient of traditional paella Valenciana and you are going to get an earful of abuse and complaints. I suppose I see their point. These dishes have been around for centuries and have come to define the people in this corner of the Mediterranean. It took their ancestors a long time to develop the dishes Valencianos call their own so why would you want to tinker with them? If these recipes were good enough for grandma and grandpa, they should be good enough you—especially if you are a foreigner, and worse, a guiri from Ronald McDonald Land. For Valencianos, changing a single ingredient in their dishes is almost as serious an affront to their faith (cooking and eating) as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is for Muslims.

However, as an American I have been influenced by a dozen different national cuisines so I tend to pick and choose and experiment using all of them. I have created a few signature dishes through trial and error, innovation, and often by pure accident. Sometimes I will see a dish and just be impressed with the way it looks. I will then set out to make a dish that looks similar to the one that I admired but without consulting the original recipe; I’ll just wing it. I will detour from a recipe of a familiar dish and use ingredients that I think would go well with the cooking technique involved. This was the case with my latest blasphemy against Valenciano cooking.

I started with the basis concept of the Valencian staple arroz al horno (baked rice), or arross al forn in Valenciano. I had just tasted a risotto someone made at a dinner party in which they used spinach. I thought spinach would go well with baked rice. I also though that since I was going to veer from the traditional recipe I may as well go all the way and really switch things around. Instead of using garbanzo beans I opted for garrafón which are large butter beans (lima beans?) common in Mediterranean cooking.

Spinach Baked Rice

2 cups rice
5 cups stock (chicken, meat, or vegetable)
2 cups cooked beans
1 cup peas
Spinach (either fresh or frozen)
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 tomatoes
3 potatoes
For seasoning I used saffron, cumin, and salt.
Some sort of meat is optional

Peel the potatoes and boil until they are cooked most of the way. Bring the stock to a boil. Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil and when translucent, add the chopped spinach. Cook only a minute or so until the spinach wilts. Add the cup of peas and remove from fire when peas have heated up. Place this in your baking dish. Sauté the rice in a bit of olive oil for just a minute or two as with risotto. Add the rice to the baking dish and mix with the vegetables. I usually heat the pre-cooked beans in with the stock. Usually the beans that come in a can are a bit under-cooked so they need a few minutes to be more al dente. I added a saffron packet and ground cumin to the boiling stock before I pour it into the baking dish. If you are going to use any sort of meat in this dish it also needs to be cooked almost thoroughly before going into the oven. I used two different types of sausage common here (morcillaand blanquets that don’t need to be pre-cooked. Add the slices tomatoes to the dish along with the cooked meat. Cut the potatoes in ¼ inch slices and place them on the top of the entire dish. I like to salt the top of the potatoes. The potatoes sort of protect the rest of the dish from the heat. Bake at about °200 Celsius. After about 30 minutes in the oven you may want to place a sheet of aluminum foil over the dish to keep the potatoes from burning. It takes about an hour to cook but you can tell when it’s done because the stock has all been absorbed.

This was one of the better things that I have come up with in my cross-cultural cooking fusion. I think the dish would also go well with chicken as the meat or even some sort of fish. I think that you could also sprinkle parmesan cheese on top of it a few minutes before you pull it out of the oven. As I said, I mostly just borrow the cooking technique and the basic idea; from there it’s all fair game.

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