Total time: 1 1/2 hours || Active time: 40 mins
The origin of this recipe is pretty much a culinary steam of consciousness. It starts last fall, when I visited Europe for the first time. Terry and I were lucky enough to spend a week in Paris at the Gentle Gourmet for Paris Vegan Day, and afterwards we took a train to Barcelona. The train ride was about 8 hours, and most of it was spent playing this flavor game we made up. We wrote down every flavor we could think of, closed our eyes and ran a pencil across the paper, picking four items at random. Then with our four choices, we imagined a dessert out of them. So while you may never want to try our lavender cream pie with candied mint, poppyseed shortbread and blood orange caramel, it was a really fun way to to spend a scenic train ride. Well, that and sips of thick espresso from the snack car.
And the game does have some practical benefits. It’s really how lots of us cook – by inspecting our pantries and fridges for what might work and then throwing it together and hoping for the best. So when I was wondering what to do with some wheatberries that had been taking up residence in the pantry, I rolled the dice in my spice rack to see what would happen. I keep everything on a couple of lazy susans in a cabinet, so I just kind of twirl them around hoping for some inspiration. This reminded me of our train ride and picking out flavors, which instantly reminded me of Spain, and well, duh, of course I should make paella, or really “paella,” since it’s inspired by that dish, but not prepared the same way at all.
Memories of Barcelona had whet my appetite for all sorts of flavors that I put together here. Saffron of course, but also roasted red peppers, leeks and lots of garlicky goodness. We didn’t eat anything exactly like this, but elements are roughly inspired by a restaurant we visited a handful of times called Organic.
The end result is a homey dish, with lots of great texture. The wheatberries have a satisfying chewy bite that works wonderfully with the creamy chickpeas and everything is coated with a tangy, sultry broth, punctuated with a few briny capers.
The actual hands-on work here isn’t at all tedious, you just need to do a little preparing ahead of time – mainly cooking the chickpeas and soaking the saffron, which take very little effort. If you’re not used to working with wheatberries, definitely give the recipe a read because who knows? You might be missing out on your favorite new grain!
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 cup boiling water
1 cup wheatberries
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
2 leeks, white and green parts only, sliced into ¼ inch half moons and washed well
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup dry white wine (Chardonnay is great)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 roasted red peppers, jarred or homemade, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
4 teaspoons capers
Lots of fresh black pepper
2 cups drained, cooked chickpeas (one 15 oz can should work)
1/4 cup chopped parsley or cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Prepare the wheatberries:
This is my favorite cooking method for perfectly cooked, plump wheatberries with great texture. Just place them in a 2 quart pot and submerge in water that covers them by 2 extra inches. Cover and bring to a boil. Let boil for 2 minutes then turn the heat off completely. Keep covered and let steam for another hour. They should be firm and chewy, but if you think they are a tad too firm that’s okay because we’re going to cook them the rest of the way in the paella. Drain and set aside.
Prepare the saffron threads:
In order to get the most flavor from saffron, they need to be steeped. It’s very easy, just pour 1/2 cup of boiling hot water over the saffron in a coffee mug, cover and let sit for about an hour. Once ready to use, press against the saffron with the back of a spoon to crush it a little. It’s now ready to use.
Prepare the paella:
First you’re going to saute the leeks and set them aside. I love the delicate oniony-ness of leeks and it will get lost if they’re overcooked, so this method works wonders – we’ll add them back to the pan at the end. So… in a large pan over medium heat, saute leeks in 1 tablespoon olive oil with a pinch of salt for about 7 minutes, until tender. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
In the same pan over medium low heat, saute garlic in 2 teaspoons olive oil for about a minute. Add the oregano and thyme and saute for about 30 more seconds. Add white wine, salt and saffron threads in water and turn the heat up high. Bring to a boil and let boil and reduce for about 3 minutes.
Lower heat back to medium, add the cooked wheatberries, vegetable broth, tomato paste, roasted red peppers, bay leaves, capers and fresh black pepper. Let cook for about 15 minutes adding the chickpeas about halfway through. The wheatberries should absorb a lot of the liquid, but it should still be somewhat saucy. Remove bay leaves and taste for salt.
Mix in the chopped parsley or cilantro and lemon juice. Turn off heat and let sit for about 10 minutes to let the flavors marry. It’s one of those things that will taste even better in an hour or so, so if you’ve got that kind of time then go for it, just gently reheat before serving.