Sunday, October 4, 2009

Adios Tomatoes!

Here in Portsmouth, the swamp maples are turning red. Our winter feeder birds—juncos, bluebirds, and white-throats—have arrived. Migrating warblers are passing through. Signs of deepening fall are everywhere, but I can’t stop thinking about tomatoes.

Earlier this week in Boston, when a timely flyer on my car windshield reminded me that the Farmers Market at Prudential Center was still open, I'd headed right over. Immediately, my eye was drawn to the colorful selection of beautifully ripe heirloom tomatoes at the stand run by MacArthur Farm of Holliston, MA. That's when I realized I’d yet to make one of my favorite summer recipes: tomato paella.

I first discovered this dish two years ago, thanks to Mark Bittman’s Minimalist column in the New York Times. Because it's so simple, the quality of the ingredients is key here, especially the tomatoes. Don’t try it with tomatoes you find in the supermarket, unless they’re local, farm grown. The recipe itself is pretty straight forward. You core and cut the tomatoes into wedges, season them, and put them in a bowl, so you can capture all the wonderful juices.

Next, you fry up some minced onion, garlic, and a chili pepper (my addition), then saute with saffron and smoked Spanish paprika. The recipe says these are optional, but to me, they form a deep, essential flavor base.

For the rice, a quality short-grained rice is a must. This time, I used a Carnoroli "risotto-style" rice, but I've successfully substituted short-grained brown rice as well.
I also prefer the richness provided by homemade chicken stock, but if you don't have any, you can use water.

You’re welcome to turn this into a traditional paella, adding meat and seafood like shrimp, mussels, or clams. But I love it this way, as a main course on a hot summer night, or as a side to roast pork or chicken on a cool October evening. It’s a great way to say “via con dias” to last of the season’s tomatoes.

(By the way, the Prudential Center Farmers Market is from 11 to 6 on Thursdays through the end of October, on the Boylston Street Plaza.)

Mark Bittman's Paella With Tomatoes
The Minimalist, New York Times, September 5, 2007

3 1/2 cups stock or water
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into thick wedges
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 small minced hot pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Large pinch saffron threads (optional)
2 teaspoons Spanish pimentón (smoked paprika), or other paprika
2 cups Spanish or other short-grain rice
Minced parsley for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Warm stock or water in a saucepan. Put tomatoes in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle them with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss to coat.

2. Put remaining oil in a 10- or 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic (and chili, if using), sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, saffron if you are using it, and paprika and cook for a minute more. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is shiny, another minute or two. Add liquid and stir until just combined.

3. Put tomato wedges on top of rice and drizzle with juices that accumulated in bottom of bowl. Put pan in oven and roast, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Check to see if rice is dry and just tender. If not, return pan to oven for another 5 minutes. If rice looks too dry but still is not quite done, add a small amount of stock or water (or wine). When rice is ready, turn off oven and let pan sit for 5 to 15 minutes.

4. Remove pan from oven and sprinkle with parsley. If you like, put pan over high heat for a few minutes to develop a bit of a bottom crust before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

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