The Courtier Cooks…Arròs Negre (Black Rice)

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and last night on the eve of today’s feast, in Barcelona people partied until the wee hours celebrating the birth of Christ’s cousin and forerunner.  Every year I host my own commemoration of this Catalan custom at the manse, transferring it to the nearest Saturday night in order to allow time to recover the next day of course, though with certain modifications. I have to cap the guest list very strictly to prevent overcrowding, so no long, outdoor communal dining tables like you see in different Barcelona neighborhoods on the Night of St. John.  Moreover, I imagine the District of Columbia would have a problem if I tried to make a bonfire in my back yard, so we just stick to sparklers.

One of the dishes I made for the feast is called arròs negre, “black rice”.  It once known as “paella de pobre” since it was made with just a few, very inexpensive ingredients by fishermen.  Since after posting the photograph below on social media several people asked for the recipe, I am happy to share it with you.

I realize the picture may appear ghastly.  As my youngest brother commented, it looks like an overhead shot of the armies of Mordor.  However this is a dish that is both impressive to look at and to eat.  The color is extraordinary, while the taste and aroma are not at all “fishy”, as you might expect. Rather, it is a more delicate, subtle hint of the seaside, something simultaneously sweet and briny, but very faintly so.

Fortunately, this is a wonderfully simple dish to make, and you can always put in your own variations.  Personally, I like to keep this one plain, since as with all Iberian rice dishes, the rice is the most important part.  If you concentrate on making the rice flavorful, the additions are not as important.

Ingredients:

4 cups of seafood stock

2 cups of short-grain Bomba rice

2-3 medium to large-sized squid, cleaned and separated into tubes and tentacles

1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (not Hungarian)

1 teaspoon of salt

6 sachets of cuttlefish ink

1 lemon

1.  Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.  In a 15-inch paellera, heat the seafoood stock and squid tentacles on medium-high until the liquid comes to a boil.

3.  Once the broth is boiling, use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove the squid tentacles from the stock. Discard.

4.  Pour in the Bomba rice, smoked Spanish paprika, and the contents of the 6 sachets of cuttlefish ink.  Be careful when opening the ink sachets as the contents will stain your clothes and hands.

5.  Stir everything together well to combine evenly, then stop stirring completely. From this point you will not stir or touch the rice again.

6.  Continue cooking, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

7.  Meanwhile, cut the 2-3 squid tubes into rings, about the width of your finger.

8.  Scatter the squid rings across the surface of the rice, and push them in slightly using the back of a spoon.

9.  Now turn off the stove top, and cover the top of the paellera with foil.

10.  Carefully place the paellera in the center rack of your oven for about 8-10 minutes.  You want to check toward the end to make sure all the liquid has been absorbed. The rice should be cooked, but still have a bit of a bite to it, not be soft and mushy.  If you need to add more liquid, add a 1/4 cup of water or seafood stock. If the rice from the bottom of the pan is a little bit burnt, even better.

11.  Remove the paellera from the oven, and allow to sit, covered, on top of the stove for about ten minutes to rest.  When you’re ready to serve, squeeze some lemon juice around the surface, or serve with lemon wedges for your guests to put on themselves.

Bon profit!

Arros NegreThe black rice, cooking away on top of the stove.

Sunday Dinner and the Single Man

Lets face it: on Sunday afternoons many of us go into a funk, particularly if we do not yet have families of our own.  I know one very outgoing fellow with a girlfriend, a flatmate, and plenty of professional work and personal interests to keep him busy, who tells me that most Sunday evenings he starts retreating into himself.  This is simply one of those quirks of human nature, the way that some people love wintertime, while others get down in the dumps until the days lengthen.  So I would like to suggest a solution for those of us who experience this affliction – or affectation, depending on how you look at it – and that is the idea of the Sunday dinner.

A few weeks ago on the Catholic Weekend show we had as our special guest podcaster and blogger Jeff Young, The Catholic Foodie.  Jeff presented an idea which I had never considered, of making Sunday dinner something special during the week.  Of course many of us grew up with the idea that Sunday was a time for a special meal with family or having people over, and to the extent that it brings families and friends together reviving this practice is certainly a good idea.  But what about for those of us who are single and NOT planning on having people over this Sunday?

As is the case with many American bachelors, much of my in-house dining consists of things which come out of a microwave or which can be cooked in ten minutes or less.  Paradoxically, I am in fact known for being a very good cook, and I love to cook for other people.  However when it comes to making things for myself at home, I must confess that a frozen dinner or a simple bowl of pasta is usually enough to satisfy me.

Nevertheless, I decided to take Jeff’s advice, and began an experiment of planning and making something special for Sunday dinner.  I chose dishes that would not be too complicated to make, but which would require more than just a few minutes of preparation and cooking time.  I also liked the idea of experimenting, for like many men I look as a recipe more as a set of general instructions.  You then subsequently personalize the instructions based on your own experience, your understanding of different kinds of technique, and also what’s in the cupboard at the moment.

I decided to use rice as the base for my month-long experiment, since it takes quite awhile to cook, making it the last thing I would turn to for dinner during the work week.  My first Sunday dinner was a chicken and sausage gumbo, which I had never made before, and it turned out rather well, if I do say so myself.  The following Sunday I made risotto with wild mushrooms and prosciutto, and the Sunday after that I made arroz a banda, which is a type of saffron-seafood rice.  And for yesterday’s Sunday dinner I made garlic and red pepper rice with roasted chicken, peas, and carrots.

What have I learned from the experiment so far? Well for one thing you are very much more conscious of how fortunate you are, when food is something you carefully prepare.  You become aware of the real blessing it is to make something nice to eat, but also to be able to enjoy the process of making it.

For another, the prospect of Sunday dinner has made my late Sunday afternoons fly by quite happily.  When Sunday teatime rolls around, I start thinking about what I have to do to get ready for dinner in a few hours, and plan accordingly.  The time spent preparing, cooking, and then eating the meal simultaneously allows some good time for solitary reflection, since there is not much else you can do while you are waiting for some ingredient in your dish to finish frying, melting, etc.

This is not to say of course that you should not have people over to enjoy your cooking, or that you should not go out to see friends or family on Sunday evening yourself.  Yet particularly for those of us who are single, and who as a result often find ourselves at a loose end on Sunday evening, I would suggest you try this experiment yourself for a month, and see how it works out for you.  Even if you choose to fast and live on locusts and wild honey the rest of the week, the prospect of preparing and enjoying a Sunday dinner is something which will bring home to you, in a very tangible way, how blessed you are.

Gumbo

Sunday Dinner No. 1: Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

The Throwaway Bread

Since we’ve been having such nice weather recently, the other day I went to a local cafe for lunch, so that I could sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.  I ordered a large bowl of potato and leek soup, which came with a very lovely bread roll.  This was not the sort of hard, inedible thing you get at a wedding reception or charity dinner, but rather a beautifully shaped, crusty, oblong bread, something like a miniature baguette.

I had just sat down to eat my soup outside at one of the cafe tables, when a woman came up to me off the street.  “Can you buy me something to eat?”, she asked.  Not having any money to hand, I offered, “Well, I could give you my bread,” since I had not even touched the beautiful little loaf yet.  The woman then picked up the bread, looked at me with something which I can best describe as disdain, turned around and threw the bread in the street.

Chances are, as you read the forgoing, your first reaction was to criticize this woman for a lack of gratitude.  Or perhaps your reaction was that I should have ignored her altogether.  Or perhaps you think it would have been better not to offer her anything at all, if I didn’t have any money I could give her so that she could go decide for herself what she wanted to eat.  Or you might have reached the conclusion that this poor woman was simply not right in the head, for if she was mentally “all there” and hungry, she would not have thrown away perfectly good food.

All of these things are possible ways to look at this incident.  However I don’t want the reader to spend too much time thinking about the motivations of this particular woman or of this particular scrivener.  Instead, I’d like you to think about a more important lesson that we might be able to draw from this experience.

When we think about it a little more deeply, isn’t what took place a rather striking example of what sin is like?  Throughout our lives, God always offers us what we need.  Too often, if what He offers us doesn’t conform to what we want, what do we do with it?  We simply throw His gift away, and move on thinking we will get something better from some other source.

Now before you or I or anyone else starts thinking, “I would never do something like that,” I would suggest that it is time for all of us to swallow a big dose of humility.  Go read about King David or St. Peter, and ask yourself: do I really think so highly of myself, that I am better than they?  If the answer is, “Yes,” then frankly you have some rather significant problems to work out in your little gray cells. For I assure you, far better men than you or I have simply thrown away God’s gifts many times, and indeed you and I are doing so far more often than we might care to think.  While this incident with the throwaway bread was an isolated one, I hope that what we can take away from it may be beneficial to many of us.

As a matter of fact, this story has a terrific application for the immediate future.  Over the next few weeks, we are going to spend a great deal of time asking and answering the question, “What do you want?”, as we go about buying things for one other.  Yet how many of the things we say we want, are also things that we actually need? This something all of us should be thinking about, not just during the materialist nightmare known as the “Holiday Season”, with all of its meaningless excess, but more importantly as we consider the meaning of the spiritual nature of this time of year, which is of far greater importance than anything we may give or receive.

pan
“Basket of Bread” by Salvador Dalí (1926)
Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida