Last month (before we moved) JonPaul and I were back in Chicago for a “house hunting” trip without our kids. Although it was supposed to be a “work” trip, we managed to sneak in a little fun and have dinner at one of our favorite places in the city, Avec. Their food is just outstanding. If you can only go to one spot in Chicago, this would be it for me. I’ve loved it for years, and it’s still one of my all time favorite spots.
The thing to know about Avec however, is that it’s communal dinning. What’s communal dinning you might ask?? Well let me just tell you. You’re essentially sitting next to a stranger, at the same table, eating dinner. I personally don’t mind. In fact, I actually kind of like it. It creates a sense of community and sharing. Breaking bread together, literally.
On this particular night, I was essentially breaking bread with the gentleman sitting next to me, only it wasn’t bread, it was paella. More like, me, drooling over his. I’m pretty sure my staring wasn’t very subtle and made the whole dinner awkward. For everyone (at least that’s what JP says, but what does he know?). It just looked so good, and smelled even better. Spicy and smoky with that crispy rice that’s just a little burnt on the edges. Ugh. I couldn’t help myself. I was for sure staring.
I had order envy. It happens to all of us. You see a plate being whisked by to a table across the way, and think, “why didn’t I order that?”. Well this order envy was right next to me and I honestly couldn’t stop staring.
Since I couldn’t actually eat this poor mans food (although he did offer, but I politely declined. I have some dignity). I decided to make my own.
Now let me be clear. What the gentleman sitting next to me was enjoying, and what I made at home, are not the same thing. I’m not trying to recreate what Avec has already done so well. Rather I took inspiration from that dish to create my own.
This version is vegetarian, light, bright and can be made any night of the week in just about 30 minutes. It may not be Avec, but it can be communal dining in your very own kitchen.
The base of the dish is a generous amount of onion, garlic, paprika and then of course that gorgeous vibrant saffron. For the rice, I used a type of bomba rice, but any short grain rice would work. I let it simmer with a splash of white wine, chicken stock and a healthy dose of hearty vegetables. To finish the dish I added a handful of parsley and then what I think was the most important part, a ton of fresh lemon juice. The lemon juice brought out all of the flavors of the saffron and paprika.
The result is a dish that’s bright, healthy, hearty and oh so satisfying. It may even leave the people sitting around your table staring and drooling too. So don’t forget to share.
- ½ cup water
- ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 white onion, diced
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 1½ cups of paella rice (or arborio if you can't find it)
- ½ cup of dry white wine
- 1 tsp of smoked paprika
- 1 tsp of salt
- 2½ cups of chicken stock
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced
- 1 jar of artichoke hearts, roughly chopped
- 1 cup of fresh (or frozen) peas
- 2-3 lemons, sliced
- handful of parsley
- Bring water to a boil. In a small bowl place heated water and saffron threads. Allow the saffron threads to steep for at least 10 minutes. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a large paella pan or heavy skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil and onion. Allow the onion to cook for 3-4 minutes. Then add the garlic and paprkia and cook for another minute
- Next add the paella rice and stir to coat with the oil. Add the white wine and stir. Allow the rice and wine to cook for several minutes
- Next add the saffron water, chicken stock, and salt. Reduce heat and cover on medium low for about 15 minutes.
- Once rice is tender, remove lid and add the red peppers and artichokes. Stir gently and continue to cook for another five minutes.
- Add in the peas, chopped parsley and the juice and zest of 2 lemons. Stir.
- Serve and garnish with additional lemon wedges and parsley.