This vegan, fat-free brown rice paella is filled with vegetables and is a delicious, healthy version of the classic rice dish.
The first time I had paella, I didn’t know it. I had invited my Venezuelan college roommate home with me over a school holiday because, in those days, the dorms completely closed over breaks, leaving the international students with no place to stay. For some reason, my parents weren’t home, and we were left to fend for ourselves. And we were hungry.
As we scanned the fridge for something suitable to eat, my roommate asked if I had rice. Sure, a Louisiana kitchen always has long-grain white rice. “Let me cook you something from my country,” she said, and set about sauteing onions in olive oil and gathering whatever meat and seafood she could find in the fridge. I went off to do something else, and when she called me in to eat, we sat down to a huge pan of reddish rice, filled with bits of meat and vegetables, similar to our local jambalaya, but different. It was amazing.
I’m sure I asked her what it was called, and she probably told me. But it was only years later, when I was living on my own and getting into cooking for the first time, that I realized what it was: a version of the classic Valencian dish paella.
Since then, I’ve become vegan and dropped olive oil from my diet, so that first paella no longer appeals to me. I’ve experimented with vegetarian versions, most notably my Quinoa Paella, but, as purists are quick to point out, it isn’t really paella if it doesn’t contain rice. In my Fatfree Vegan group recently, someone asked me if I had a real paella recipe, and I had to admit that the only one I know uses white rice instead of brown. (Along with olive oil, I’ve also eliminated white rice from my diet; talk about a purist!)
The Secret to Brown Rice Paella
So I set out to create a brown rice paella. I learned from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian that I could substitute brown rice for white in any recipe as long as I parboil it first. That was a revelation and opens up so many possibilities I can’t wait to try.
Bittman included his own simple paella recipe, but it involved putting the pan in the oven, something I couldn’t do because of the type of handles on my favorite pan. So I looked at a few other recipes, most notably this one from a cookbook writer in Spain, to get the basic stove top technique and authentic ingredients. And then I winged it, using frozen flat Italian beans as my principal vegetable and frozen butter beans as my legume.
This makes a huge pan of rice and veggies, so it was a good thing my family liked it (even the resident brown rice resister). I used my 13-inch Berndes saute pan, and this recipe practically filled it up. One thing to note is that the size and shape of your pan affects how quickly the paella will cook. My pan is so much bigger than the eye of my stove that the rice at the edges of the pan cooked more slowly than the middle. I’ve included instructions that are flexible so that you’ll know what to do if you find your rice cooking more quickly or slowly than mine.
Brown Rice Vegetable Paella
- 4 cups warm vegetable broth divided
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads crushed between fingers and added to 1/2 cup warm broth, see note below
- 2 cups short-grain brown rice
- 1 medium-large onion about 2 cups chopped, chopped
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 6 cloves garlic minced
- 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons smoked or regular sweet paprika
- 1 1/2 cup cooked butter beans lima beans, great northern beans, etc., drained
- 1 12-ounce package frozen green beans Italian preferred, thawed and drained
- 1/2 large red bell pepper cut into thin slices
- 1 cup canned artichoke heart quarters rinsed
Before you begin: Make sure you have butter beans, lima, or other dried beans already cooked. Defrost the green beans completely and let drain. Warm the broth; remove 1/2 cup to a small bowl or measuring cup and add the saffron to it. Parboil the rice up to an hour before cooking the paella.
To parboil rice, bring a large pot of water to boil, salted if you want. Add the rice and continue to boil, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Drain water completely (a colander helps) and allow rice to dry for up to an hour.
Heat a large, deep skillet or flat-bottomed wok. Add the chopped onion and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring, until onion softens, 4-6 minutes. Add the garlic and tomatoes. Cook, stirring and breaking up large pieces of tomato with the back of the spoon, until mixture thickens and most of the liquid boils off. Stir in the drained rice, paprika, and saffron broth and cook for another couple of minutes.
Add 3 cups of the warm broth and the butter beans and bring to a boil. Taste the broth to see if it’s salty enough and add salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Stir in the Italian beans. Increase heat until boiling again, if necessary, and then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes.
Arrange the bell pepper and artichoke hearts over the top of the rice. If the rice seems to be drying around the edges but is still not cooked, drizzle in a little more broth (1/4 to 1/2 cup) around the edges. Cover pan and cook on low for 10 minutes.
Check to see if rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. If rice is done but there is still a lot of liquid, remove the cover and cook until liquid boils off. If rice is not done, add a little more broth or water, if necessary, cover, and cook on low until tender. When rice is cooked, if there is excess liquid in the pan, remove the cover and allow it to boil off (paella should be moist but not swimming in liquid).
Remove from heat, cover, and let stand until ready to serve.
Though it is expensive, there really is no good substitute for saffron. It has a delicate flavor like no other spice. Some people recommend using turmeric or annato to replace the yellow color that saffron imparts, but in this dish, those flavors would be out of place and it would be better just to leave it out. I buy this good quality saffron by the gram from The Spice House (and they don’t pay me to say that!) More information about saffron is here.
(Nutrition data is based on using Imagine No-Chicken broth, Muir Glen Fire-Roasted tomatoes, and no added salt.)
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