Did you have a nice Easter, lovelies? I was incredibly fortunate to spend my long-weekend at my dear friend Fran’s century-old country house in the tiny Valencian town of Agres, here in Spain.
It’s right near the beautiful Sierra Mariola limestone mountain range so we stretched our legs on gentle hikes through the national park, wandered the historic nearby town of Bocairent, and amused ourselves playing card games into the wee hours of the morning.
Fran’s a rad cook and a vegetarian to boot, so I also took the opportunity to raid his encyclopedic knowledge of local foods and customs.
Enter arroz al horno, or Valencian oven-baked rice.
You’ve heard of paella, right?
That emblematic Spanish rice dish, which originates in the Valencia region? Well, arroz al horno is kind of like the mountain version of paella, only cooked slightly differently.
In years gone by, Spaniards living on Valencia’s slice of the Mediterranean coast made paella based on fish and various meats. But further inland, meats were harder to come by and families might only stock up once or twice a year. So they devised their own hearty rice dish based on beans, grains and vegetables.
Many of the cities and towns in this region have their own variations of baked Spanish rice. Fran tells me his arroz al horno is the typical recipe of southern Valencia and the inner, north-western section of the Alicante province, in the mountains near Alcoy.
The recipe is simple, filling and incredibly cheap. You need only tomatoes, chickpeas, rice, garlic and potatoes – ingredients that are easy to find in any country and cost next to nothing.
Traditionally, Spaniards bake this dish in a brown clay or earthenware casserole dish named a cazuela. A heavy, ovenproof pot or casserole dish works fine, too.
What goes in:
(This makes enough for roughly two people.)
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into half-centimetre slices
400g canned chickpeas
1 or 2 tomatoes, sliced
5 to 6 bulbs of garlics, roughly chopped
Rice – about two handfuls per person
Water, heated until boiling
How you do it:
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Celsius.
Heat a good dollop of olive oil in a frying pan, enough to cover the base. Fry the garlic over a low heat until it starts to golden. Add the potato slices and fry until they soften and start to golden but are not fully cooked.
Throw the garlic, oil and potatoes into the cazuela. Add the chickpeas and rice and mix it all together.
Add enough boiling water to cover everything then mix in the turmeric. It can be handy to keep some water boiling in case you need to add a little more later. Lay the tomato slices across the top of the dish.
By now the oven should be really hot. Put the cazuela in the oven and turn it down to 200 degrees Celsius.
Allow the rice to roast until fully cooked, which will probably take between 40 minutes and an hour. Check every now and then to make sure there’s enough water for the rice and add more if needed. Stir the rice at about the 30-minute mark so any uncooked granules on the top are mixed through and add more water if necessary.
Serve straight from the oven in winter or allow to cool for half an hour in the hotter summer months.
Arroz al horno is best gobbled down the same day.
And if you really want to enjoy this meal like a local, follow it up with a warming nip of herbero, an aniseed liqueur made in this region from herbs like thyme and sage that grow wild in the mountains. Delicious!
Here are a few other little pictures from our grand, relaxing weekend away, starting with a snap from the city of Bocairent.
Our four-legged friend, Cooper…
The view from Sierra Mariola…
Master chef Fran, in the gorgeous old streets of Agres…
And the stunning view from our balcony…