Kitchn Love Letters

I’ve Lost Count of the Days, So I’m Making a “Special Occasion” Meal (with a Weeknight Twist)

updated May 4, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Time is weird right now. The fast pace of our daily routine squealed to a stop as our elementary and preschools closed and my husband began commuting down the basement steps instead of across the city. And while there’s definitely a lot of anxiety in my household right now, I’m also embracing this slower spring pace. This extra time at home has revived the joy I find in cooking, and encouraged me to branch out from my old standbys.

Out of all the recipes I’ve made in the last two months, one stands above the rest. You see, I like experimenting in the kitchen, which means that most new-to-me recipes never make a second appearance. But this weeknight orzo paella proved to be the exception — and it’s keeping my family happy while we shelter in place.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Paella is already a family-favorite, but it takes some patience. It’s a meal best saved for special occasions, or at least for a night when I don’t have one eye on the stove and another on the backyard swing set. That’s what makes this weeknight orzo paella so perfect for right now. It delivers the feel and flavor of our favorite paella, with a fraction of the effort. It’s the kind of thing that feels special in a time where I’ve lost count of the days at home. When things feel so uncertain, weeknight paella feels like a treat.

Early in this experiment of self-imposed exile, it was easy to pull the exact ingredients for this recipe. Every home has their own staples on hand, and mine is rarely without shrimp, sausage, and peas in the freezer and a box of orzo waiting in the wings. That first night, I seared, seasoned, and stirred this meal, wondering and worrying: Would my immunocompromised family members stay healthy? How will I balance work, teaching, and mothering? How do I explain this new world to my kids, especially when there is still so much unknown?

As we ate together at the table, I saw that this meal achieved what not many recipes do — it nourished each person at the table. The sausage satisfied my spice-loving husband, while my 6-year-old plucked pink shrimp off of her plate (and mine!). It is no surprise to any parent that a 4-year-old has the most discerning palate, but thankfully the smoky tomato-spiked orzo was exactly what mine wanted.

As the weeks at home have stretched on (and on), the ingredients we have available have ebbed and flowed. We haven’t had sausage and shrimp simultaneously since that first night, so diced chicken thighs usually take their place. When the peas ran out, I reached for frozen green beans, the end of a broccoli stalk, and even a bell pepper that was about to go bad. Even after the orzo was finished, I kept on cooking, turning back to a more traditional paella ingredient: rice. But these substitutions don’t really matter. It is knowing that even with so little in my control, this meal achieves one important thing: It makes dinner feel a little more like an occasion, and it helps feed my family.

Get the recipe: Weeknight Orzo Paella