Isabel is still all smiles after a hard day’s work tending the fires at L’Establiment on the reedlined banks of one of the many canals that run through the Valencian rice fields in the little town of El Palmar, a town where each and every restaurant is dedicated to paella. “When I opened the restaurant with my family in 1982, I knew nothing about the restaurant business,” she told me, “but I knew how to make very good rice at home, so I just adjusted my recipes to serve more people.”
Her all-vegetable paella was one of the best I had ever eaten, and the memory of its taste stayed with me for many weeks. Of course, Isabel attributes its great taste to the garden-fresh vegetables that grow in abundance in Valencia, a region often called the “Garden of Spain,” and the wood from orange trees (Valencia’s other claim to fame is its orange groves) used to flame the fire and make the socarrat—a crisp crust of rice that sticks to the bottom of the paella pan. Nonetheless, when I prepared her paella at home I think the results came quite close to the original.
- 2½ cups vegetable broth or chicken broth
- Kosher or sea salt
- 1/8 teaspoon crumbled thread saffron
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ½ cup frozen baby lima beans, thawed
- 8 baby carrots (about 3 ounces), scraped and chopped
- 8 shiitake mushrooms, brushed clean, stems trimmed, and coarsely chopped
- ¼ pound green beans, preferably broad flat beans, ends trimmed
- 2 medium red bell peppers (about ½ pound), cut into ½-inch dice
- 1 medium zucchini (about 6 ounces), cut into ½-inch cubes
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ cup chopped whole canned tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, preferably Spanish smoked
- 1¼ cups Valencian short grain rice, or Arborio
Combine the vegetable broth, salt to taste, and saffron in a pot. Cover and keep warm over low heat. Preheat the oven to 400°F for a gas oven, 450°F for an electric one.
Heat the oil in a paella pan that measures 13 inches across the top. Add the limas, carrots, mushrooms, green beans, peppers, and zucchini and stir-fry over high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more, then add the tomatoes and paprika and cook over high heat for another minute. Taste for salt (the mixture should be well salted) and pour in the broth. Bring to a boil, add the rice, and boil until the rice is no longer soupy but enough liquid remains to continue cooking the rice, about 10 minutes.
Transfer to the oven and cook, uncovered, until the rice is almost al dente, 10 to 12 minutes in a gas oven, 15 to 20 minutes in an electric one. Remove to a warm spot, cover with foil, and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes, until the rice is cooked to taste. To make the socarrat crust, uncover the paella and return to the stove over medium-high heat. Cook without stirring for about 2 minutes, until a crust of rice forms on the bottom of the pan (be careful not to let it burn). Serve, scraping up the crust with the edge of an inverted metal pancake turner.
Nutritional information is based on 1/8 teaspoon added salt per serving.