I remember each and every paella I’ve ever had — where I was, who served it, how hot or breezy the day was, the sound of the waves or of laundry flapping on an airy patio, the bright design made by the lemon and peppers adorning the steaming rice. That’s because a paella is a full sensory experience, the kind that gets etched in you forever.
Usually cooked outdoors over a charcoal or wood barbecue or a gas ring, the making of paella is as much a social and sensory experience as the consumption of the dish. The more people standing around commenting on whether the rice is getting too burnt or is not done enough, the better.
This vegetarian version is perhaps my favorite of all. The rich umami flavor of leeks and mushrooms has floored many of my guests when they find out it has not a single morsel of seafood or meat. Not having to stop and open a clam or peel a shrimp means more time to just enjoy everyone’s favorite part — the rice.
This recipe, which serves eight people, is made in an 18-inch paella pan, but can be scaled depending on your pan and party size. You can cook it on a circular grill or gas paella ring or, for an easy alternative, cook it on a stove across two burners, rotating the pan a quarter turn every five minutes or so to ensure it cooks and browns evenly. A perfectly cooked paella will have a deep golden brown bottom that is crackly and stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Mushroom and Leek Paella
3 large leeks, washed well
1 pound cremini mushrooms, stems separated from caps
9 cups salted vegetable stock
1 large pinch saffron threads (about ¾ loose teaspoonful)
¼ cup olive oil
1 large bell pepper (any color), seeded and finely chopped
¾ teaspoon pimentón dulce (sweet Spanish paprika)
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 large tomato, chopped
¾ teaspoon salt
3 cups paella rice or bomba rice (Matiz brand paella or bomba rice is available in well-stocked markets and online)
½ cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen
Sliced roasted red peppers or piquillo peppers
Garlic aioli, optional
Slice the green part off the leeks, reserving the white part for later. Roughly chop the green stalks and place them in a 4-quart saucepan along with the mushroom stems, vegetable stock and saffron threads. Cover and simmer the stock for 20 to 25 minutes, while you prepare the rest of the paella.
Using whatever heat source you’ve chosen (a circular grill, a gas paella ring, or across two stove burners), heat the olive oil in an 18-inch paella pan over medium-high heat.
Finely chop the white parts of the leeks and the mushroom caps and add them to the paella pan, sauteeing until they soften and begin to lightly brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the chopped bell pepper and saute another 3 to 5 minutes. Add the pimentón and garlic and saute another minute before adding the tomato and salt. Cook for 2 to 3 more minutes, until the tomato darkens and the juice is mostly absorbed. Pour in the paella rice and saute 1 to 2 minutes so the rice is thoroughly coated in the flavorful vegetable mixture.
Use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove and discard the leeks and mushroom stalks from the simmering stock. Pour the hot stock into the paella pan and gently stir the rice mixture around until it is evenly distributed in the pan. Taste the broth and add salt if necessary. Do not stir the rice after this point.
Continue to cook the paella undisturbed over medium-high heat, rotating the pan a quarter turn every 5 minutes to ensure even cooking and browning across the bottom. After 20 minutes, sprinkle the peas over the top and allow the paella to cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the stock has been absorbed and the rice is al dente. Remove the pan from heat, cover it tightly with foil and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Serve garnished with roasted red peppers, lemon wedges and a dollop of aioli.
Registered dietitian and food writer Laura McLively is the author of “The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook.” Follow her at @myberkeleybowl and www.lauramclively.com.