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In its April 2020 issue, Food and Wine ran a recipe for a Mixed Vegetable Paella. That started me rooting through Plenty by Ottalenghi, thinking, well, this might hit the spot. I’m trying to do mostly meatless through the week.

Then I opened up the pantry to see if I had some sort of short-grain rice. I grabbed a bag that looked like it fit the bill—and it was Whole Grain Italian Barley. Fancy! More importantly, on hand.

The point is, as with all the Pantry recipes I’m putting together of late, anything short fat grain will work. Yes, you could use Arborio or some even fancier short-grain rice like Bomba or Calasparra. Then again, how long is your life? Do you really want to make a special trip to buy that stuff when good old barley or farro or even regular rice will do in a pinch?

Truthfully, what makes Paella paella is the crust that forms under the rice. And while you don’t need a special pan, it makes achieving the crust a lot easier. Others might argues seafood/chicken/sausage in some combination are essential, but those folks aren’t vegans.

Nonetheless, I do not feel comfy calling this paella, so hence the name change. It’s really intended for whatever’s on hand, whatever you need to use up in the fridge. In my case, it was asparagus, barley, and fennel.

Saffron, the weird little blood-colored threads, is another essential paella ingredient, and it does make the mix taste especially Spanish. So you can skip it, but if you have it or can get some, I think it’s worth it. (Caveat: It ain’t cheap.)

As for the crust, I didn’t get it in this batch using my trusty cast iron skillet. But what I did get was a tasty vegetarian main perfect for these hibernating times.

The Step by Steps

Vegan Spanish Barley Bowl, Step 1: Prep

  • Slice one onion, one medium pepper or half a large one, and jalf of a fennel bulb.
  • Mince garlic.
  • Get out a couple of bay leaves, smoked paprika, turmeric, cayenne, and saffron if using. Have your grain (preferably about a cup of short grain rice or barley or farro), sherry, olive oil, stock.
  • Have your asparagus or some cooked beans handy. Additionally, have cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives, and parsley or herbs of your choice available.
Vegan Spanish Barley Bowl

Vegan Spanish Barley Bowl, Step 2: Cook

  • Heat a heavy pan—cast iron is perfect—over medium high heat. When pan is hot, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add onion slices and sauté til beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add pepper and fennel slices and cook 5-6 minutes more, until soft, and fennel is beginning to brown. Add minced garlic and cook about a minute.
  • Boil your stock: double the amount that you have grain.
  • Add all the spices except for the saffron (see below for exact amounts, or just eyeball it) and the grain and stir well. Add the sherry and saffron and boil til mostly absorbed. Add twice the amount of stock as grain and salt. Let boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Don’t cover the pan, and don’t stir; you want the grain to form a crust on the bottom of the pan. Let the mixture simmer until liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes for long grain rice, barley or farro. Do a taste test to be sure.
  • If using asparagus, cut in bite size lengths while grain simmers. Slice cherry tomatoes in half or quarters if using. Chop herbs.
  • If grain is still not done when liquid is cooked in, add another 1/2 cup and let it cook in. When rice or grain is cooked to your liking, sprinkle asparagus, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives, and chopped parsley on top. Cover with foil and let sit for 10 minutes. Served with a big squeeze of lemon.
Vegan Spanish Barley Bowl

Vegan Spanish Barley Bowl: Leftovers

I mixed the leftovers the next day with a beaten egg and a little Parm, reminiscent of the Spaghetti Pancake I subsisted on during my time in Peru. No longer vegan, but the crust was a piece of cake. And, once again, super tasty.

Vegan Spanish Barley Bowl: The Recipe

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Make It Work Vegetarian Paella
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Instructions
  1. Heat a heavy pan—cast iron is perfect—over medium high heat. When pan is hot, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add onion slices and sauté til beginning to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add pepper and fennel slices and cook 5-6 minutes more, until soft, and fennel is beginning to brown. Add minced garlic and cook about a minute.
  2. Boil stock.
  3. Add all the spices except for the saffron (see below for exact amounts, or just eyeball it) and the grain and stir well. Add the sherry and saffron and boil til mostly absorbed. Add twice the amount of stock as grain and salt. Let boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Don't cover the pan, and don't stir; you want the grain to form a crust on the bottom of the pan. Let the mixture simmer until liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes for long grain rice, [] for barley or farro.
  4. If using asparagus, cut in bite size lengths while grain simmers. Slice cherry tomatoes in half or quarters if using. Chop herbs.
  5. If grain is still not done when liquid is cooked in, add another 1/2 cup and let it cook in. When rice or grain is cooked to your liking, sprinkle asparagus, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives, and chopped parsley on top. Cover with foil and let sit for 10 minutes. Served with a big squeeze of lemon.
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