Paella is a very simple dish that Valencian peasants would cook using cheap, fresh and widely available ingredients. Yet despite its innate simplicity, people repeatedly misunderstand and complicate it, causing us Valencians a great deal of stress in the process, because we know it could be so much better and yet people keep insisting on bastardising our national dish in every possible way! 😭
Also if you, like me, do not live in Valencia and hence do not have access to some of the “niche” local ingredients, I will also provide acceptable replacements that follow the original spirit. I live in the UK, so my suggestions will reflect what I can find in local markets and supermarkets. If it’s not in my list, it quite probably is not acceptable, so don’t add it 😜
We didn’t really know what to have for dinner, but we also had a lot of random vegetables that we had to eat before they went off. One pepper… another single potato… an aubergine… a fennel… What to do with all these bits and pieces?
The answer, obviously: roast all of them in the oven!
Then we had them with some olive oil (of course), a bit of chorizo and a fried egg (“for protein” 😅). And I made a salad for lunch the following day ✌🏻
Basically any random vegetable that you might have in your fridge, but in our case:
1 red pepper
Pebrella (if you have it) or oregano
A piece of chorizo (optional)
One egg per person (optional)
If you skip the chorizo and eggs, this could be a totally vegan dish. Do as you feel!
Put some water on a pot so we can lightly boil the fennel before roasting it (that way it will be tender). Set the heat to high.
Set the oven to 200C
Cut any ugly bits off the fennel, chopping off the ends and perhaps the outside leaves. Wash off any soil. When the water is boiling, add the fennel to it.
Prepare one or more trays (depending on how many vegetables you want to get rid off), oiling them lightly or perhaps adding some aluminum wrap if you don’t want things to stick to your tray
Peel or wash very thoroughly the potato (sometimes I like to keep the skin), and slice lengthwise. Lightly cut the flat sides so they get better cooked. Then place on the trays.
The aubergine is pretty tedious to peel, so I don’t. Wash it carefully and slice it like the potato, and place on the tray too.
Peel a few garlic cloves, slice them and place them on the aubergine slices. It adds a nice garlicy flavour!
Peel the onion, slice it in four parts and place on the tray.
When the fennel seems to have softened a bit, take it out of the pot, and (slice in 3 or 4 parts, place in tray)
This is our tray of things that will take longer to cook:
Add a bit of olive oil and salt, and place in the oven so it starts cooking.
And now for the tray of delicate things that take less to cook: the tomatoes and pepper.
Wash the pepper and slice longitudinally. Remove any seeds, and place on the tray.
Wash the tomatoes and slice in somehow thick slices (don’t go too thin or they just evaporate down to nothing). Place in the tray, and then add some olive oil to everything, and sprinkle with pebrella or oregano over the tomatoes. And place it in the oven.
Keep an eye on the food as it cooks. Some things take less to cook, so you might need to take a tray out and remove some of the ingredients to prevent things from burning. TIP: If it’s hard to look at the tray underneath because the oven light is on top, you can use your mobile phone’s flashlight function as a “lantern”.
When things are cooked to your liking (e.g. some people prefer the potatoes more done and crispy, others prefer them tender…), arrange them in dishes, ready to serve.
Optional: Right after turning the heat in the oven off, take a piece of chorizo, peel the skin off, slice it in two and place them in the oven to gently warm up while we cook the eggs. This will release its smokiness and soften the fats, so it’ll take a darker colour.
Optional: Fry the eggs, and place on the dishes.
Add some paprika on top of the potatoes. I’m using smoked paprika like the one in this recipe.
And there we go! Ready to eat 😋
We had never roasted fennel before, and this was such a nice surprise. It turns way mellower than when raw, and the aniseed flavour is sort of surfing on top of a gentle wave of sweetness. It conjured visions of walking across fields on a slightly chill, crisp Autumn Sunday morning; muddy boots and all.
You would wonder: can a roasted fennel do ALL THAT to your mind? And my answer is that the only way to find out is to try it by yourself.
This is a very traditional winter stew from the Serra de Mariola area—a crossroads of mountain ranges on the edge between Valencia and Alicante provinces.
Not even a century ago, this area was not very well communicated: picture uphill and downhill winding roads perched on the deep cut carved by a seasonal river over centuries, or a really strenuous hike uphill to then downhill and uphill and downhill again, a few times (if you didn’t like the other road, per chance).
So the natives of this particular corner of Spain developed very unique and distinctive signature dishes. It’s quite unusual for many of them to be featured in restaurants outside of their birthplace, let alone international restaurants which are more keen on popular dishes such as paella or tapas.
But they are so tasty, comforting… and cheap!
This recipe is adapted from the recipe in the “La cuina de la serra de Mariola” book (by Mila Valls and Ana Valls), which is a fantastic collection of local recipes and anecdotes.
Ingredients (for two people)
Four cloves of garlic
A medium sized potato
A red pepper (or dry pepper if you can find it)
~100 gr of fresh cod
A good bunch of Swiss chard (or spinach, up to your preferences and availability-the traditional is Spinach)
This dish is very easy to make: we will slice and chop ingredients, add them to a deep pot. Then we will add water and bring it to a boil. But let’s not anticipate…
Chop the onion somewhat finely:
And same for the pepper. Actually, the tradition is to use dried red pepper, of the sort you would use to preserve the summer harvest so you could use it when the cold weather came, but funnily I haven’t been able to find them yet in London (I have a hunch they might sell them in Spanish deli shops). Maybe ‘sweet chilli’ could work, but I haven’t chanced the risk of making my borreta taste Mexican! So I’m just using sweet red pepper.
Then peel the garlic cloves. I didn’t slice them because I wanted their flavour in the stew, but I didn’t want to eat them. So the idea is to remove them once cooked, but before serving (except if you forget like me and end up serving your spouse a bowl with three garlic cloves 😅).
Peel the potato and dice it. Not too big not too thin either… somehow like cubes, so they don’t break too much when cooking.
Wash the chard—wash it a lot! They often have so much soil on it!
The best way I have found to clean the chard well is to submerge it in water in a bowl and let it dissolve the soil and etc, then give it a good shake, drain, and wash again (maybe a few times, until you see no soil or sand come off).
Then wash and add a tiny little bit of cod to the pot. This is a 100g fillet:
This fillet came with skin (on the other side, which is why you can’t see it). I tried removing it before cooking but it’s impossible–it’s just too attached. The solution is to cook it with the skin, and remove it with something sort of blunt, like a spoon, when it starts to come off. Then it might break down further, giving the soup a great ‘fishy’ taste.
Once all the above ingredients are in the pot, add enough water to cover all of them and then a bit more, depending on how much you like soups. This is meant to be a soupy stew. Add a dash of olive oil. Cover with a lid, and bring to a boil.
When it starts boiling, reduce heat and simmer for about 20-30 minutes. Sometime around 15 minutes is a good time to check if the fish skin is coming off, as described above.
When things are pretty cooked: potato pieces are breaking down nicely, the fish is visually hard to spot, etc, it’s time to do two more things:
check for salt, correcting if needed, and the…
add the eggs!
Crack one egg per person, and carefully place it over the stew. Perhaps bring the heat up to boil them faster! Here they are right after being placed on the stew:
And here they are after cooking and setting. The food is ready!
To serve, use deep bowls. Take the eggs first, then “top up” with as much stew as you want.
Borreta means ‘fluff’. I want to think it is because of the fish being dissolved and adding some ‘fluff’ to the dish.
Each time I ask for fillets like this at the fishmongers they ask me something along the lines of “is this ALL you wanted?” or “this is just A SMALL FILLET, you know?”. Yes, yes, I know. I just want a tiny bit of flavour on my dish, thank you very much, judgmental fishmonger 🙄
The original recipe calls for dry salted cod, which I have, again, been unable to find in London. I haven’t really tried very hard, to be honest. Possibly a Portuguese deli would set me up pretty quickly, but for now, I’m happy with the fresh cod! If you use dry salted cod you need to de-salt it first by rehydrating it in water, and changing the water a few times. It’s a bit tricky in that way…
Shops selling dry fish and other dried goods used to be a very common sight in my town about 30 years ago. They were named “salazones” (“salted goods”) or “ultramarinos” (“from overseas”, because they also sold exotic products from far away… like big fish!). I really dreaded walking past one of them, as the smell was SO ABSOLUTELY INTENSE I could barely withstand it. Often I’d devise plans such as holding the breath, or sticking my nose inside my clothes, or covering my nose with my hands… and nothing would work as the smell was just unbeatable.
This is fun to make (spiralising things is so much fun), and fairly quick to prepare. Plus it’s quite filling AND lightweight – courgettes are basically water!
You will need a spiraliser, or you can buy pre-made courghetti, although I’ve never tried those and I’ve no idea how bad or good they are!
Ingredients (for two people)
Two medium sized courgettes (about 15 cm length)
3 or 4 garlic cloves
One 400g tomato tin
Optional: Parmesan cheese and butter (leave out if vegan)
Start by washing and spiralising the courgettes. I make one pile per courgette, as it makes it easier to separate the portions later
Peel and chop the onion and garlic cloves
Put oil on a pan, and start frying the onion and garlic
In parallel, wash and chop the parsley, and add it to the pan as well
Once the onion is pretty soft, move everything to one side, like in the picture
Add some more oil, and set to a very high heat
When the pan is very hot, add the contents of the tomato tin to it, and fry on a very high heat for about 1-2 minutes or until you think things are going to burn! Stir frequently during this time. The goal is to get the tomato to lose its acidity
Now reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes
Optional: add a dash of butter now to get a deeper body. Mix it well until it dissolves.
Slowly add about 200ml of warm water to compensate for the evaporation.
Add a tablespoon of paprika, and mix well
About 10 minutes in the simmering, try a bit of the sauce, and add salt and pepper to taste, mix well and try the sauce again. It might still be a bit acidic, but don’t add sugar – just wait for longer!
Depending on the quality of the tomatoes, you might need to wait for longer. It usually pays off to wait as the flavour gets more developed and interesting. So you might need more than 20 minutes.
Once the sauce is ‘done’, turn the heat off.
To cook the courghetti, add some oil to another pan, and set on a very high heat.
When the pan is very hot, add a ‘pile’ of courghetti, and stir continuously. We don’t want anything to get stuck, and we want the cooking to be homogeneous. We also don’t want the courghettis to get too soft, so that’s why we need the heat to be very high, so they cook outside but not too much inside. If the heat is too low, they will start releasing water, and the result will be too “liquidy”.
Once one pile is cooked, place on a deep bowl, and go to step 15 to cook the next, until all have been cooked.
Pour the sauce on top of the cooked courghetti
Optional: add a good dose of grated Parmesan cheese
Add some pepper
Optional: add a dash of the best olive oil you have
Tricks and tips
I used this smoked paprika my mum brought me from Extremadura, a region in West Spain, renowned by the quality of their paprika!
If you have the chance to shop at a Spanish grocers, “Pimentón de la Vera” is the type of paprika you want to look for.
Also, depending on your spiraliser, you might get very long ‘courghetti’ so it might be interesting to cut the piles a few times with scissors before cooking them, so they’re not like 3 meters long and impossible to eat with a fork.