Of all the cookbook shoots Will and I worked on over the course of five months, the two weeks that we spent in Northern California this past spring were among my favorite… and mostly because it felt like we were vacationing, not working.
I mean, when your office for the week is on top of Mount Tamalpais, there’s not much to complain about.
I think Iman is hiding eggs from me again. She likes to do that a few times a year, and seeking out her stash becomes an Easter egg hunt as the hubby and I scour the chickens’ 2,500 square feet of foraging space for their secret nest. (Last summer’s search yielded almost a dozen eggs!)
So I was very confused the other day after I skipped a day of egg collecting and, in three different locations, ended up finding an Iman egg, a Kimora egg, and a mystery egg that looked like a bantam had come and laid it for us.
I propagated a few store-bought lemongrass stalks a few years ago when I first moved into my house, and every year since then, they’ve been the gift that keeps on giving, year round. Each little lemongrass plant (which began its life as a clump of three rooted stalks) has grown into a wild-looking shrub with dozens of thick, juicy, citrusy stalks. And maybe I’m biased, but I feel homegrown lemongrass far outflavor the ones you can find in the store (especially since you can use the lemongrass leaves as well).
Needless to say, we make a lot of meals with lemongrass around here. My husband is king of marinated lemongrass chicken, and I like to drop a few stalks into the broth for my slow-cooked Vietnamese pulled pork tacos. In the winter, we’re all about lemongrass-infused tea. In the summer (and with our heat wave this past week), we do flavored fizzy drinks with a versatile lemongrass-ginger syrup. It’s lemony and spicy and wakes the senses. It also adds a little (or a lot of) zing to iced teas, hot teas, margaritas, mojitos, Prosecco, and Dark and Stormy cocktails.
But on most afternoons, you’ll find me on our sunny porch with two jars by my side: a jar of lemongrass-ginger syrup and a jar of lemongrass-ginger ale on the rocks!
I’m often fascinated by the stretch of highway halfway between Los Angeles and Mammoth Lakes Basin. Going north, it starts as a nondescript drive through miles of arid desert before the majestic peaks of the Eastern Sierra Nevada come into view. And it’s here, on a random turn-off from the highway, where one of the most seismically active regions in the country resides.
Fennel is found in the wild all over California, and much to my amazement, many people consider it a weed… an aromatic, anise-flavored weed.
I grew a small patch of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) in my garden this past spring, but my neighbor across the street has fennel growing en masse on his property. Every summer, as the flowers start blooming in abundance (and releasing the seeds that make it such a notorious weed), I watch him cut down stands of tall, leggy stalks, sending the sweet scent of fennel through the air and into our yard. The plants come back anew in winter, and by summer, we have flowers again.
Fennel originated on the shores of the Mediterranean, making the California coast an ideal environment for this perennial plant to thrive. It’s become naturalized along our seashores and riverbanks, growing year round in our dry, mild climate. And while fennel is classified as an invasive in this part of the world, it’s actually an important food source for our pollinators, which are highly attracted to its umbels (umbrella-shaped flowers).
We usually treat fennel as a spice (for its dried seeds), an herb (for its fragrant leaves), or a vegetable (for its tender bulb), and most of its uses revolve around cultivated varieties like Florence fennel and bronze fennel. Wild fennel doesn’t grow a bulb at its base (at least, not one that we’d enjoy eating), but it does offer its own bounty: fresh, warm, golden pollen.
The five little things that made my week…
1. A harvest of Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers. Sometimes I’ll trick friends into trying one by saying it’s a mini watermelon.
Before a cookbook was ever even a glimmer in the back of my mind, I’d always envisioned cookbook shoots to be high-intensity, elaborate affairs requiring a village to create. And in some cases, this is true.
My hubby Will used to recount that in his early days of photography, fresh out of school, he assisted a Williams-Sonoma shoot that took over an entire house. He was only one of three photo assistants on set, alongside the photographer and the art director, prop stylist, food stylist, and all of their assistants. They would spend upwards of 2 to 3 weeks shooting everything they needed to shoot, working 10- to 12-hour days back to back. It was a huge production.
Fast forward 12 years later, and his next cookbook shoot would involve neither a lavish location rental nor a herd of assistants, but myself, two pugs, and a pile of props packed into a corner of our living room.