I jump in the jeep and peel off down the coastal Highway One towards Santa Cruz. Radio blaring, hair stinging my eyes with the wind whipping it every which way, the salty sea air cleansing the grease off my skin from my kitchen after a very long, very chaotic, very exhausting Sunday brunch of 200 plus people.
Free at last. Free at last.
And although there is plenty of trouble to get into on a late Sunday afternoon in the sunny Marina, I need to get out of town or I can't truly relax. To go where my cell phone doesn't work. To be in wild blackberry bushes, and chicken coups, and zucchini plants up to my ears, and holly hocks and sunflowers towering over my head, and heirloom tomatoes ripe for the picking, and collard greens begging for attention.
I need to be at Echo Valley Ranch in Loma Mar, California.
One of the most enjoyable parts of being a chef in the Bay Area is making connections with the farmers. And I'm partial to the ones around Pescadero and Half Moon Bay.
Why? Because half my family lives here and I grew up on this coast boogie boarding and camping on the beaches and picking artichokes on the side of the road and buying beans at Phipps farm and getting fish just in off the boats.
I cracked my first dungeness crab at the local institution Duartes as a toddler. And have picked endless flats of the relatively unknown but nonetheless delicious berry, ollalieberry, to make jam with my mother.
Kate and Jeff Haas are the proud owners of Echo Valley Ranch. And they grow an array of beans, greens, squash, herbs, carrots, potatoes, and more. They also produce farm fresh eggs. (Although it can be quite challenging to find out where the chickens lay their eggs since they run around the farm at will – I even found one nestled at the base of a redwood tree)
I mentioned awhile back that I would really like zucchini flowers and maybe some interesting varieties of squash and now I've got so much of both I'm practically throwing them into all my dishes. This is a good problem to have.
Squash blossoms are a specialty item because they are difficult to transport. And for those who have suffered squash fatigue (I just picked all the zukes last night!!?! How is it possible that there are a gazillion more this morning??!), laugh not.
Although it is true that one plant can overwhelm a family and inundate a neighborhood with endless "gifts", restaurants pay top dollar for flowers and baby squash.
Currently on the menu I have handmade fettuccine with scallops, Laughing Bird shrimp, sautéed squash blossoms and dill white wine sauce. I have a walu (butterfish) garnished with stuffed blossoms in tempura batter.
But that's not all: I have grilled baby pumpkin and summer squash and a zucchini & basil soup garnished with basil-mint oil, crema, and micro cilantro. The only thing I don't have (and should have) on the menu is zucchini bread. I love zucchini bread.
This is my second home.
I walk out in the gardens and pick bright colored rainbow chard, nasturtium blossoms, peppery arugula, red runner beans, corn, squash, carrots, basil, and tumeric root.
I look at the bounty and brainstorm dishes for dinner supplementing with whatever protein is in the fridge. Kate pitches in and we cook together on her old Merrit O'Keiffe stove in well seasoned cast iron pans that make everything taste so much better. Jeff pours wine lending a hand where needed and always adding his sense of humor.
We polish off God knows how many bottles of wine (whose counting anyway?) and close the night with wild blackberry pie and coffee.
The roads through Loma Mar are windy and I never make the trek home after dinner. Instead I stay in the meditation cabin just feet from the river that surrounds the property and close my eyes to the music of water rushing over smooth rocks and pebbles.
My shoulders relax, the crease in my forehead disappears, I smile at my good fortune to be in such a magical place, I am at peace.
For the moment…
I still have to find more recipes for all the flats of blossoms and cases of squash I know I'll be driving home with in the morning.