We went to LA for a three day holiday recently. Most people would be incredulous that LA is my idea of a holiday. But it is. I’m a city girl. I grew up in the midst of a thriving metropolis and feel most at home and at peace with myself when I’m around the cacophony of traffic and the hustle-n-bustle of a city. Not necessarily in the middle of it, but around it. In its absence, I feel like something is strongly missing from my life. It’s the same feeling I get when I can’t see the ocean too much, or smell the salty spray, only this is more intense. The two years I lived outside of an urban environment had me climbing walls. If I ever have to move out of the city, I would need to return to it often, every other day, like a swimmer surfacing for air.
LA delivers the big city like no other on the West Coast. Of course, San Francisco is prettier in its setting, but it is smaller, very definite. Step out of it and you know you’re out. LA feels like it has no boundaries, one big gritty and interesting melting pot of city and ‘burbs. This time I got to visit places that I haven’t been to before, like the Getty Center and the Griffith Observatory, both of which offer wonderful vantage points to the sprawling behemoth that is Los Angeles. If you haven’t been to LA, put both these destinations on your itinerary when you visit. The Getty Center has beautiful views and even better architecture, with beautiful courts and iridescent buildings dressed in travertine. The combined wallop of the art and architecture raised my spirits. This place radiates a contagious vitality. We had a mixture of lunch and dinner in a lovely little Mexican taqueria that served the best salsa I’ve eaten anywhere, that topped these delicious chicken tacos cooked in a fantastic peppery sauce. LA really has great Mexican food.
The observatory is a study in contrasts. This almost octogenarian building is gorgeous in it proportions and set on what must be one of LA’s most spectacular sites. It has a wonderful planetarium that was both educational and entertaining. The views here are gorgeous in the day time. But it was at night that I had the defining experience of my visit here, probably not an intended one. The sun goes down and the lights come on, studding the cityscape with sparkling dots and dashes that twinkle through the haze that LA is wont to be covered in. The stars in the skies are outshined by the ones on Earth. Nothing else I’ve seen puts the extent of light pollution on our planet into stark reality so definitively, except maybe Las Vegas. Strange, isn’t it? This place exists to search the skies and shed light on the mysteries of space.
Our interest in food never wanes, even on short vacations. So when a local friend told me about the Grove, the Farmers’ market in downtown LA, it was put on the top of my places to visit. I’ve already waxed lyrical about my love for the Farmers’ markets here in San Francisco. The Grove is a good Farmers’ Market with some delicious food. However I thought it paled in comparison to the abundant and gorgeous produce of the Ferry Building Farmers’ market or the Berkeley Bowl. Also, it didn’t help that the experience kept getting interrupted by an over-zealous security guard who came up to us, several times, in the half hour we spent there. He didn’t seem to want to tell us to stop taking photos but he didn’t seem too happy that we were, in a vague fashion. Then apparently someone complained to him that we were taking photos. Someone.complained.we.were.taking.photos. In a public place. In LA. You would think this was one place on the planet that people with be familiar with a camera. Someone had a problem with me shooting monkey bread and pies. I can tell you it soured the Grove for us and we left it thoroughly confused and a bit miffed, leaving us with a bitter taste that overpowered the wonderful falafel we had for lunch. Made me long for home. No one cares about people with cameras in San Francisco. (I’d say the same for the rest of the world, everywhere except LA, but that would be spite. Gah!)
Anyway, the episode didn’t completely ruin our trip there. The spell of the sun and gorgeous day washed away the annoyance. We also quite accidently discovered this beautiful Indian temple on our way to Malibu which was just icing on the trip. So pretty and white, all by itself, tucked away in the mountains. It quite made up for the morning. There was a serenity reigning over the compound in stark contrast to how noisy and crowded temples can be in the Bay Area.
Before we left SoCal, we had some wonderful tapas in a small California-inspired Spanish restaurant. The tapas were delicious and small, but so filling that we weren’t able to satisfy our interest in the enticing paella photographed in the menu. So today, on this fairly hot San Francisco day, Amey and I decided that we’d try making our own paella, toasting to the memory of our wonderful little trip.
Neither of us is too familiar with cooking Spanish food so we turned to the Internet for explanation. What we found was that onion, garlic and tomatoes form the sofrito or base of this dish, as they often do in Spanish cooking, which put me back a bit in my comfort zone. These three form the base of many an Indian recipe as well. But then there were recipes that included parsley in the sofrito. Problem. Parsley is not one of my favourite herbs. In fact the only parsley dish I ever actually liked was some chimmichurri I had once. Mostly parsley tastes like soap to me. I’ve found the world around me is often divided into parsley lovers and cilantro lovers. Many a parsley lover has told me that to them, cilantro tastes like soap. Those exact words. Weird, no? But I digress..
We also found that recipes often call for all kinds of meat and seafood in the one recipe. This was another problem. Like that little kid who doesn’t like his food touching other food on his plate, I don’t like all kinds of meat playing along in one single dish. But Amey wanted there to be some in this dish, for a contrasting bite to the veggies, so we compromised on including two kinds of sausage instead of several meats. After agonizing over recipes, we decided we needed to make up our own, based on several variations. The result is what you see here.
Paella with sausage and veggies
Spicy Italian sausage – 1 link, cut into 1/4” rounds
Sweet basil and roasted garlic chicken sausage -1 link, cut into 1/4” rounds
Yellow onion – 1, diced
Garlic – 6 cloves, minced fine
Cilantro – handful, chopped fine
Green bell pepper- 1, cut into strips
Red bell pepper-1, cut into strips
Carrots – 2, diced
Canned whole tomatoes – 8 oz
Valencian rice – 2 cups OR Bomba rice – 1 1/2 cups
Green peas – 1 cup
Smoked paprika – 1/2 tsp
Saffron – a pinch
Olive oil – 3 tbsp
Water – 2 cups
Chicken stock – 2 cups
Salt to taste
Lemon – 1, cut into wedges
- In a large pan (the more flat surface area, the better), add the oil and the sausage cuts. Brown the sausage and then remove to a paper towel covered plate.
- Add the onion and saute for a while until it starts to caramelize. Then add the garlic and cilantro and fry some more.
- Add the pepper strips and carrots. Saute until for 5 minutes.
- Hand crush the tomatoes and add to the cooking pan. Saute the mixture until it starts to brown or caramelize.
- Fold in the rice into the tomato mixture. After completely folded in, add the water and stock. Keep stirring slowly to cook the rice gradually, about 10 minutes.
- Add the peas. Move the cooked sausage back to the pan.
- Take a few tablespoons of hot liquid out into a bowl. Soak the saffron in this for a bit and return the liquid to the pan. Mix to incorporate. Cover the pan and let cook on medium low heat until the rice is cooked through.
- When almost all the liquid has gone, turn the heat up to caramelize and toast up the bottom layer of rice.
To serve, plate some rice including some from the bottom of the pan. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over.
Traditionally, the Spanish use a paellera; a flat, shallow pan took make paella. I don’t own one so I went with the largest shallow pan I had. You can substitute arborio rice for the traditionally used Bomba or Valencian rice (we got ours from The Spanish Table in Berkeley) but paella does is supposed to have separate, distinct grains, different from the texture of risotto. At any rate, do not use a long-grain rice like Basmati. It will probably turn to mush. The two kinds of sausage were amazing in this recipe, infusing their flavours into the oil. Even so, I think a vegetarian version would be pretty good too. Just leave out the sausage and use veggie stock.
Several recipes said that food colour is substituted because saffron is expensive, but that saffron is the heart of the dish. Every bite had an almost-floral afternote because of the saffron. I would not substitute it with anything else. Saffron is pricey, but so strong that hardly any recipe calls for more than a pinch at a time. If you store it well, tightly capped in a cool, dry and dark place, it has a long shelf life.
We decided to substitute the parsley we read about in some recipes with cilantro. I’m guessing this isn’t quite authentic, nevertheless, it worked brilliantly. This rice dish was piquant and satisfying at the same time, the twist of lemon at the end giving it a fabulous tang. I think the only thing I might try the next time I make it would be to use fresh tomatoes instead of canned ones. It did seem to have an excess of tomato, never a bad thing in my book, but it did tend to overpower the other flavours a bit, so you had to hunt for them. And remember to dish out a bit of the toasted rice in each helping. It really adds to the flavour of the meal. Anyone who has had caramelised onions on a biryani would understand. It is a similar layer of flavour.
The sunshine in San Francisco today echoed the intense heat in LA from our trip there and paella was a culmination of sunshine on our plates. I raise my glass to the West Coast. Right now, warm plate in hand, gazing at an azure sky, I’m exactly where I want to be.