Sketches of Spain: Vegetarian paella with cauliflower rice

I like cooking classes because they are a great way to connect with people who love food and to learn tips, tricks and techniques. I am lucky to have more than one cooking school within walking distance from my house. I took a class on vegetarian cuisine at the New School of Cooking which encourages a love of crafting food in novice and experienced cooks alike. We made several dishes, including a vegetarian paella – but all that rice made me feel heavy.  So of course I modified it to meet my current dietary needs (and taste buds) – crispy cauliflower “rice” with vegetables, seeds, and spices. As the cooking instructor said, “make the recipe yours.”

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The cooking school’s recipe included legumes (beans) for protein, white wine and of course rice. I replaced these ingredients (seeds, vinegar and cauliflower) and modified the recipe to make it not only whole30/paleo compliant, but full of flavor and unique.

The cooking instructor said that she thinks that it is better to use water than a store bought veggie stock – while I know store bought stocks are not as tasty, I do believe store bought stocks or bouillon cubes add more depth than water alone (pay attention to salt content). The choice is yours. I always have homemade stock on hand. You can easily make a stock on the fly by throwing an onion and a few veggies into a pot with water and simmering them for about 20 min. Or you can make a giant batch of stock, like I do here, and freezing it into portions in ziplock bags or containers. I make about 20 cups at a time in a giant stock pot and thaw it out as needed. The stock was warmed before I used it in the recipe – cold stock will reduce the heat and increase the cooking time.

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The recipe also called for seasonal veggies – which means I used anything I could find in my fridge as it was all recently picked from my home garden, bought at a farmer’s market or came from our CSA box. In this case it was butternut squash, mushrooms, broccolli, kale, peas and brussel sprouts. Instead of fava beans, or beans of any sort to stay paleo/whole 30 compliant for this recipe, I decided to use seeds for protein.

Rather than the risotto like cook the original recipe required using rice, this dish starts out on the stove, is finished in the oven and is served straight from the pan. Since one of the best parts of a good paella is the crispy rice on the edges, the key to this dish is “drying” the cauliflower.

I used a food processor and the grater blade to make the cauliflower into larger pieces of “rice”, but you can use a normal blade and pulse for a few times or grate it by hand to have finer pieces of “rice”.

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One head of cauliflower is A LOT of cauliflower. The raw riced cauliflower is freezable, so store 1-2 cups in ziplock baggies and freeze it for later use – perhaps rice for a side dish instead of quinoa or real rice, any rice recipe (fried rice, pulao), pizza crust and more.

I added a tablespoon of ghee to a skillet and sweated the caulifower until it was slightly dry and browned on the edges and set it aside. I then cooked the veggies with the stock separately.

One interesting technique I learned was to grate a tomato to make it juicy – which was better than dicing it. You could blend it, but I found that grating it by hand gave it a unique texture, less saucy than a blend, more saucy than a chop – though either is fine for cooking.

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Once the veggies were cooked, I mixed in the cauliflower rice, topped it with sunflower and pepita seeds and put it in the oven for about 10 min. The finished dish was topped with olive oil, pimenton and saffron to give it that paella flavor and flair. The oil adds a richness to the dish and fat for this lean dish – fat is important in our diets for cellular function and nutrient absorption. It is important to include good fats into our diets and know the smoke points of different oils so that we cook with them properly (that’s another discussion).

Serve it hot directly from the pan. I serve it with lemon wedges for people to squeeze themselves – the acid enhances the favor and may help stimulate digestion. You could squeeze lemon before serving, but I like the idea of people participating in the final taste of the dish. Especially for a communal dish like paella.

Buen provecho.

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Vegetarian Paella with Cauliflower Rice

  • 1 Tbs ghee + 2 Tbs
  • 3 cups cauliflower, grated
  • 1 vidalia onion, diced
  • 3 piquillo peppers, diced
  • 3 cups seasonal vegetables diced- asparagus, snap or english peas, brussel sprouts, carrots, zucchini, bell pepper – any veg
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced (cremini, white button, any mushroom will work)
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 cup grated fresh tomato
  • 1.5 cups veggie stock
  • 1 Tbs coconut or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp pimenton (spanish parika) + 1 tsp
  • 1 cup raw sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
  • 10 strands saffron
  • 3 Tbs olive oil
  • salt, pepper
  • lemon wedges

Heat the oven t 350 degrees F.

Add 1 Tbs ghee to a skillet and add in grated cauliflower. Stir occasionally and cook until cauliflower is slightly brown and most of the moisture is gone. Place in a bowl.

In a large skillet, add 2 Tbs ghee over medium to high heat and sweat the onions until soft and translucent, about 5-7 min. Add in piquillo peppers and mushrooms, cooking for about 3-5 min. Add in remaining vegetables and cook until slightly tender (about 5-10 min depending on the veg) and add in garlic and 1 tsp pimenton. Add in tomato, vinegar and stock, mix thoroughly. Cook until the stock is absorbed – about 10-15 min.

Add in cooked cauliflower and mix thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle sunflower and pumpkin seeds over the top. Place the pan in the oven and cook for 10 min.

Remove the pan, drizzle olive oil over the top and garnish with 1 tsp pimenton and saffron. Serve hot with lemon wedges.

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