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Vegetarian on the Inside A Southern wink at Paella

September 28, 2010

My adorable friend Lino studies the history of fascist cement. At first blush such a research topic appears to be the epitome of the ivory tower academic obtuseness that motivates regular folks to rally for the elimination of tenure in the humanities. But the ways in which Francisco Franco manipulated Spanish science and engineering really is quite interesting and relevant. Lino also exercises on the giant circus rings at Ocean Park Beach. I will allow that this is academic frivolity manifest.
Additionally, Lino is really good at winking. He’s subtle to the point that you’re not quite sure if you saw what you saw. Perfect wink execution. Especially when combined with the lilt of his accent (“I come from Seville?”). I’m envious of the mystery he generates so effortlessly. I gave up on refining my winking technique when I was about 12 when my mom saw me practicing in the bathroom mirror and told me that I didn’t need any more “come hither” looks. Maybe I’ll try fashioning a Spanish accent instead.
Lino is the most fun when he is constructing a meal (I know, it is hard to believe there could be something more fun than a conversation about the socio-political history of cement). He’s a bit of a whirlwind in the kitchen, dashing back and forth, telling as story, setting things on fire, and winking as he hands you a glass of wine. And as far as I can tell there is no underlying recipe or even logic to Lino’s cooking. He just starts grabbing things out of cabinets (he was working in somebody else’s kitchen at the time) and throwing them in pots or pans or blenders. I’m pretty sure I was once given a blended cocktail that had caraway seeds in it. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find his wristwatch in the tortilla espagnol he once brought to a potluck. It is refreshing to witness this kind of freedom in the act of cooking.
I think there is something to this Iberian approach of haphazardly throwing everything you’ve got at the project at hand, like, say, believing that India could be reached with a right turn instead of a hard left at the fork in the road at the Canary Islands. Or Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe (the bumper sticker would read “Spain: First to Circumnavigate!”). So I hope Lino would approve of the vegetarian paella dish I made last week from a bunch of odd end vegetables I had lying around. This traditional Spanish rice dish is best known for showcasing fish and shellfish and I think some would argue that to leave out the fish is to leave out the soul. And we all know how the Inquisition feels about lost souls. But I think using good vegetable stock (homemade if you have it), paprika, and vegetables that generate flavorful juices as they cook go a long way towards making this dish as rich and filling as the original version. And I like to think that with the additions of lima beans and mustard greens, it has a bit of Soul Food flair. A Southern wink, if you will.

Soul-less/Soul-food Paella
A blasphemization of Mark Bittman

Serves 4-6
Preparation Time: 30 minutes total, 15 busy

Ingredients
3 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
a small eggplant (or a dozen of those itty bitty ones showing up in the garden), cut into 3/4 inch cubes
1 cup lima beans, frozen is fine
~ 4 cups mustard greens, roughly chopped
5 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons paprika
2 cups short-grain white rice or parcooked short-grain brown rice (I used fully cooked brown rice and reduced the water/stock amount to about 1 1/2 cups)
salt and pepper
For the Aïoli (optional)

3-8 cloves of garlic (to taste), minced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
pinch of cayenne
pinch of fresh ground pepper

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Warm the stock or water. Gently toss the eggplant and lima beans with 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper in a bowl. Set aside.
Heat up the remaining 3 Tablespoons of oil in a large (10- or 12-inch) oven-proof skillet (my cast-iron behemoth has worked great). Chop your onions and garlic in and cook over medium-high heat. Stir to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn. After the vegetables have softened, about 5 minutes, stir in the tomato paste and paprika. Cook for another minute then stir in the rice. After about a minute, maybe two, it should be shiny. Add the warm stock and stir until it is just combined, no more.
Scatter the eggplant and lima beans on top of the rice, drizzling any juices that accumulated over everything. Scatter the chopped mustard greens on top. Place the pan in the oven. Resist temptation to open the oven and fiddle with it. After 15 minutes you may check to see if the rice is try and just tender. If not then cook for 5 minutes more. If you find that all the liquid has been absorbed but the rice is not yet cooked, add a small amount (less than 1/4 cup) of stock, water, or dry white wine). When the rice is done, pull out the pan and let it rest for 5-15 minutes. If you’d want a nice crust on the bottom, place the pan over high heat on the stove for a few minutes just before serving.
While you’re waiting combine the Aïoli ingredients. Serve on the side.

Alix Hui is an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University. She can be contacted at alixhui@gmail.com.

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