One of my favorite films of all time is Sean Penn’s “Into The Wild,” a true story based on the Jon Krakauer novel (of the same name) about a young vagrant named Christopher McCandless. In the middle of his soul-searching journey, Christopher stopped at Salvation Mountain and Slab City, two famously eclectic landmarks in the Colorado Desert of California.
There, he met an intriguing and colorful cast of characters, from the creator of Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight (who played himself), to the artists and wanderers who sought refuge in what’s frequently called “The Last Free Place on Earth.”
I’d almost forgotten about those scenes until I found myself close to the very locations where the movie was filmed, just a few miles from the Salton Sea near the nondescript town of Niland.
It was early September when we drove through the sun-baked section of desert that regularly reaches temps of 120°F in peak summer. That day, it was 111°F and the first time the thermostat in my car climbed into the triple digits all year.
The Salton Sea, one of the world’s largest inland seas and lowest points on earth, exists entirely by accident.
Situated in the Sonoran Desert (the hottest desert in North America) and occupying the Salton Sink (a valley below sea level that has no outlet), the Salton Sea was created in 1905 through an engineering mishap by the California Development Company. Irrigation canals were dug from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley to support the agricultural land surrounding the sink. When heavy silt build-up threatened the livelihood of the farmers, a cut was made into the western bank of the Colorado to allow more water to flow through. Unfortuately, torrential spring runoff caused the water to crash the canal gates and flood into the Imperial Valley.
For two years, the entire Colorado flowed steadily into the Salton Sink and submerged the town of Salton until repairs of the canals could be made in 1907. Out of this flood was born the Salton Sea, a body of fresh water measuring 45 miles long and 20 miles wide with 130 miles of shoreline. (To this day, it remains the largest lake in California.)
When the water didn’t evaporate from the basin as quickly as engineers had hoped, real estate developers seized the opportunity to build the “Riviera of the West,” a shangri-la in the desert with ritzy resort towns going by names like Bombay Beach, Salton Sea Beach, Salton City, and Desert Shores; a sort of Palm Springs by the water, if you will.
I recently dug and divided the salad burnet in my herb garden and a thought occurred to me — why didn’t more people use this ancient herb? With its clean, crisp cucumber flavor, salad burnet is surprising to those who try it for the first time, and appreciated the more it’s used in the kitchen.
Introduced to Elizabethan England in the 16th century as an ornamental herb, the leaves were floated as a garnish in goblets of wine. Eventually they found favor in European cuisine (where they’re often bundled together with other herbs at the markets these days), the name alone telling you what they’re most used for.
But salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) isn’t just for sprinkling on salads. It can be folded into cream cheese or compound butter to brighten little tea sandwiches, or infused into a bottle of vinegar to make a zesty salad dressing. It can turn into a fresh, tangy puree for topping steamed fish and swirling into light soups. And personally, my favorite is using it as a garnish for gin and tonics, iced teas, lemonades, and what I call “spa water” — cold, refreshing glasses of cucumber- and lemon-scented water.
I’ve been road tripping around Northern California all month (have you been following me on Instagram?) and as the weeks have passed, I’ve really been enjoying the change of seasons. The pine needles are dropping, the leaves are turning color, and the days are getting cooler. It’s something we don’t see much of in Southern California, especially with the Indian summers we usually have in September.
But up north, it’s undeniably fall. And one of the first telltale signs of fall is the arrival of sweet, juicy, tree-ripened apples by the bushel. These are the kinds of apples that may be full of worms or holes, or grow a little smaller or appear a little duller, but they’re above and beyond the year-round supermarket apple that looks perfect but tastes a bit like styrofoam.
Our friend in Sebastopol lives on several acres of fruit trees, and right outside his kitchen is a beautiful apple tree grafted with four different varieties of apples. I went fruit-picking on his property one afternoon and filled up my basket (a souvenir from the Sebastopol farmers’ market) with armfuls of apples and even some pears.
The apples have traveled with me from place to place, making the rounds from Sonoma to Marin to Placer Counties and now to Nevada County, where I’m spending my last week on the road. In every house we’ve stayed, I’ve whipped up some version of this puffed apple pancake for brunch (and sometimes with a pear or two thrown in for good measure).
The five little things that made my week…
1. Getting my sunset kayak on in Tomales Bay. I was hoping to paddle through the bioluminescence this time of year, but the glow was very faint, even on a moonless night. C’est la vie.
Last week was my first-ever visit to the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, and stepping onto the Sonoma County Fairgrounds was like stepping into a Garden Betty dream. Imagine booth after booth of produce porn, tables lined with late summer bounties, vendors serving up local, sustainable, and organic food, and a pop-up farm filled with fluffy sheep, alpacas, goats, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, and other fowl.
If you like to geek out on garden stuff, run an urban homestead or a full-scale farm, strive toward a life of self-sufficiency, or simply appreciate good food that comes from the earth, coming to the Heirloom Expo is like coming home.
Sometimes it feels like I’m waiting alllll summer for my basil to grow into a bush, and suddenly at the end of the season, boom. My Thai basil explodes overnight and I find myself blending and freezing several pints of pesto to save for the winter months.
But fresh basil is a favorite of mine in the kitchen, topping bowls of arrabiata-sauced pasta and creamy tomato soup, cut into a chiffonade (I love that word) for stews or stacked whole on top of Caprese salads. But beyond those traditional uses for basil, I particularly like it in unconventional recipes, like my baked blueberry-basil donuts or this homemade Thai basil ice cream.