Monday, 18 May 2015

Veggie Paella with Asparagus

Asparagus is the tease of the veg world - it needs heaps of growing space, takes three years from planting before you can harvest a few measly tips, and when it finally arrives the season is only 6 weeks long. I made the mistake, once, of trying out-of-season asparagus from Peru, and it did not taste good for its long journey. If you've only ever eaten out-of-season asparagus and decided you didn't like it then, I beg you, try UK asparagus now, while it's in season. It's sweet and tender and so, so much better than its poor, bitter, traveller cousin.

When asparagus season is on I use it as much as I can before it's all over for another year. One of my favourites is a vegetable and goat's cheese frittata, asparagus laid out on top like a wagon wheel, browned under the grill to finish the cooking and crisp the tips. It's also great steamed and tossed into a warm pasta salad with blackened peppers, sautéed mushrooms, olives and pan-fried halloumi. But, of course, the best way to eat it is the simplest: steamed or griddled asparagus with home-made oven chips, hollandaise sauce and poached eggs for dipping. Yum.

This paella is based on a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi, which you'll find in his wonderful book, Plenty, but it's gradually changed over the years until it's become a different beast. Last night it changed again as I discovered that I didn't have any white wine (which I always use in place of Ottolenghi's sherry) and decided to use Badger Beer's Poacher's Choice instead, because we've had a bottle sitting around for weeks, left over from a selection pack. It worked perfectly, but you could substitute it with any other berry-flavoured ale, or a sweet cider.

The first good cherry tomatoes are starting to appear in shops, and the plum-types work best for this because they tend to have slightly firmer, sweeter flesh than the round varieties (though if you can get your hands on Tesco's round Sugardrops, they're possibly the best supermarket cherry toms around). Whatever variety you go for, if they're not bright red and don't smell earthy and deeply tomatoey, then it might be worth leaving them out, because those sour, orangey, unripe chaps are no good here (or anywhere).

To prepare asparagus, hold it about halfway down the stem with one hand and, with the other, gently bend it from the bottom end until it snaps. Discard the bottom - this bit is usually woody and unpleasant.

                                                                   (c) Becca Thorne 2015

Vegetable 'Paella' with Asparagus

Serves 2 (or 4 with a big salad)

4 good-sized banana shallots, halved and finely sliced
1 aubergine, quartered and cut into roughly 0.5cm slices
approx 10 chestnut mushrooms, roughly sliced
1 red pepper, cored and cut into strips
1 large clove garlic, crushed and finely chopped
10 plum-type cherry tomatoes
10-12 pitted olives, halved
8 asparagus tips
1 cup paella rice (I often use arborio if it's all I've got)
1/3 bottle Badger Poacher's choice (or other fruity ruby beer)
1 pint hot veg stock, made with 2 tsp Bouillon powder, or 1 veg stock cube
2 generous tsp smoked paprika
sprinkling of cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/3 tsp turmeric
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat approx 1tbsp olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed frying pan (or a paella pan, if you've got one - you lucky devil), over a low-medium heat. Add shallots and cook until softened and starting to brown.
2.Turn the heat up to medium and add the aubergines, with a pinch of salt, and cook for a few more minutes until just stating to soften and soak up oil, then add the mushrooms, pepper and garlic. Add more oil if the pan is starting to look too dry, and allow the veg to cook down, stirring every so often to prevent burning.
3. Once the veg is mostly cooked, tip in the rice and stir to combine and coat it in oil. Add the Poacher's Choice and allow to bubble and reduce away.
4. When the liquid is almost all gone, stir in the spices and pour in all the stock. Turn the heat down a little to prevent the stock boiling off too quickly, and check every couple of minutes to ensure the bottom's not burning.
5. After about 5 minutes the liquid should be thickened and the rice nearly cooked (to test the rice, bite one of the grains. It's at the right point when the rice is fat and swollen, soft on the outside but the inside is still just firm enough to get stuck in your teeth). Space the asparagus out evenly across the top of the paella. Sprinkle over the tomatoes and olives, turn the heat down and cover with a lid, a large plate or some foil. Leave for another 2-5 minutes or until the liquid is almost completely gone, the rice is soft and you can easily slide the point of a sharp knife into the asparagus stems.
6. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately, with lemon wedges if you wish, making sure everyone gets a fair share of asparagus.