Thursday, February 11, 2010

Loving Leftovers...and Spanish Rice (quick, what do these things have in common?)

This week’s Gospel readings have been taken from Mark. They will culminate with the very memorable story of the loaves and fishes on Saturday. This great public miracle of Christ’s marks a dramatic moment on many levels, and is an episode that has been extensively commented on by a host of intelligent and thoughtful people. I would like to focus on an aspect of this miracle that I imagine is near (in practice if not in spirit) to many mothers’ hearts: leftovers. The Gospel tells us of the multitude of people who were following Christ and who had no food to eat. We learn of the scant amount of food that the apostles had at their disposal. Yet, Jesus transforms the meager portions into an abundant supply—so much that there were twelve baskets of food left over after everyone had eaten. It’s a beautiful reminder of the way in which the Lord transforms our inadequate supply of X (you name it, whatever it is!) into something overflowing with abundance. In fact, this excessiveness marks one of Jesus’ consistent characteristics: he doesn’t merely fulfill needs, he outdoes Himself. He doesn’t just cure people, He forgives sins; he doesn’t just make some wine for a party; He makes excellent wine; He doesn’t just redeem us; He gives Himself totally to us. And when He makes food, there is a lot left over. I’m guessing that a many people had a lovely snack later that day…or perhaps a delicious breakfast of bread and fish?

We tend to think of leftovers as something “lesser” on many levels. But leftovers are, first and foremost, a sign of abundance. Leftovers are a sign that more was given than was necessary: the food exceeded the need. This can also be a sign of affection and concern, as we tend to recognize in the U.S. around Thanksgiving, when our entire nation seems to plan on leftover turkey in order to turn it into soup, sandwiches, and casseroles the next day.

I’d like to reconsider leftovers in this light. In my family, my husband is actively *upset* if there aren’t any. He takes food to work, and he’s not a big sandwich person, so he counts on extra food for his next day’s lunch. Plus, there are children still at home who will eat up extra food from the evening’s meal for their lunch if he doesn’t take it. Having more than you need can be a really good thing—as long as you like the food! (which can be the tricky part). I’d like to give a specific suggestion on this front: cultivating dinner choices that either a) are tasty as leftovers or b) can be incorporated easily into some other meal. In the first category, I’d say that things with sauce do much better—perhaps part of the reason I always wish there were more left over when I order Thai food. In the second category, I’d suggest simple things that can be reintroduced (pleasantly!) into quesadillas, casseroles, or other hodge-podge dinners. I would also like to offer a recipe: for paella. This may sound counter-intuitive: paella is a delicious meal, generally thought of as high maintenance; which it can be. But it is also a very flexible meal, which can include a number of ingredients and allows for a pretty wide variety of cooking methods, as long as you like saffron rice. The recipe that follows is based on the recipe for “Easy Lobster Paella” from the Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten). If I offend any purists, I apologize. But I’ll also note that giving a recipe for any traditional food sparks controversy—no one ever agrees on the “right way”…and I first learned to loosen up my attitude about paella from a Spanish priest friend who came over to our place and made paella with me.

Easy (non-lobster) Paella
[editorialized with my ‘user comments’ in brackets]
¼ cup good olive oil
1 ½ cups chopped yellow onions (2 onions) [add more or less according to taste]
[I add a tomato or two which I chop and cook with the onions; you can a bit of tomato sauce for a bit of tomato flavor]
2 red bell peppers, cored and sliced into ½ strips [I leave this out for my kids, but it’s better and more authentic with them; roasted peppers can also be added at the end if you like]
2 tablespoons minced garlic (4-6 cloves) [again, you can modify according to preference]
2 cups white basmati rice [any rice will do, actually, which may surprise many people. I have actually never made paella with basmati rice, though I have used both Arborio and long grain and even a combination of both and been happy with the results]
5 cups good chicken stock, preferable homemade [superior chicken stock will make for superior taste, but any broth/stock will do—including bouillon. The Hispanic aisle of supermarkets even has a bouillon flavor with saffron already added in if you want to try that. I would recommend adding a cup or so of clam juice and/or seafood broth or bouillon to enhance the seafood aspect, especially if you’re leaving out the Pernod. White wine is a nice addition to this mix. So 4 cups chicken stock +1 cup clam juice/ seafood broth+ ½ cup wine is a good mix…slightly more than the 5 cups called for]
½ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes [I leave these out; my family doesn’t like spicy and I don’t think of Spanish paella as spicy at all…but to each his own!]
1 tablespoon kosher salt [or any salt]
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup Pernod
1 ½ lbs. cooked lobster meat [I do between 1 and 1.5 lbs. shrimp; the frozen kind, defrosted, since they are easy to have on hand and my family loves them, though you could modify the seafood]
1 lb. kielbasa, sliced ¼- ½ inch thick [or any other cooked sausage. Or skip the sausage if you don’t like it or don’t have it]
½ pound leftover chicken or other meat, cut into bite sized pieces [warning: do not use something very ‘saucy’ or something with a strong flavor: leftover roast chicken is great, but you don’t want anything that will assert its own flavor instead of becoming one with the paella—no chicken parmesan! You can also fry up some chicken thighs or other chicken pieces and add them towards the end if you like]
1 (10 oz. package) frozen peas [I also sometimes include green beans]
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley [or you can omit]
2 lemons, cut into wedges [again, to taste]

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Heat the oil in a large ovenproof Dutch oven [or something else big, that has a lid and can go on the stove and in the oven]. Add the onions and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell peppers [and tomatoes, if including] and cook over medium heat for 5 more minutes. Lower the heat, add the garlic and cook for one minute longer. Stir in the rice, chicken stock, saffron, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and place it in the oven. After 15 minutes, stir the rice gently with a wooden spoon [I generally add the chicken or any other ‘leftover meat’, and return it to the oven to bake uncovered for 10 to 15 more minutes, until the rice is fully cooked.
Transfer the paella back to the stove top and add the Pernod [if using]. Cook the paella over medium heat for 1 minute, until the Pernod is absorbed by the rice. Turn off the heat and add the lobster [raw shrimp], kielbasa, and peas and stir gently. Cover the paella, and allow it to steam for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley, garnish with lemon wedges, and serve hot. [If you like some of your rice crispy, you can turn the heat up to 425 or so on your oven and finish it there for 5-10 minutes].

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