Squash blossoms in paradise

Squash blossoms in paradise

Here’s a question: if you were stranded on a desert island and could bring one book with you with the stipulation that all your food – recipes as well as ingredients – must come from that book, what book would you choose? (be sure to answer the question in the comments; prize for the best answer!)

My friend at Novelbite would definitely be able to recommend an actual piece of literature that would have enough sustenance in food AND story. For me, though, there’s no question – I’d choose a cookbook – California Rancho Cooking. I found it several years ago in Sutter’s Fort gift shop in Sacramento during Kid Two’s fourth-grade pilgrimage to our state’s capital. The fort was built in 1821; much still stands as a visual demonstration of life in that era.

Recognizing author Jacqueline Higuera McMahon’s name from her occasional San Francisco Chronicle food section stories, I bought it immediately. It turned out to be was a perfect book for the place; she’s an eight-generation Californian whose family received one of last Spanish land grant ranchos in 1821, just before Mexican independence. Ok, so it’s thin on plot, but she sprinkles in enough glimpses of rancho life to keep my imagination flowing on a desert island. Plus, the flavor of life on a rancho is mouth-watering; from simple breakfasts of sweet milk tortillas to picnics of spicy chicken and potato salad to celebrations studded with Chilean empanadas and sweet tamales, those Spanish and Mexican roots come through strong.

It’s the perfect book for my sense of place, too. I know why there’s a recipe featuring wild mustard greens; I see acres of the yellow blooms in fields and ditches alike, and know mustard is thought to be brought to the state by the padres who, Hansel and Gretel-like, scattered seeds to make their route through the wilderness easier to find on the way back to Mexico. She writes about making sandwiches from watercress found in a stream fresh from spring rains; I’ve found that same green in springtime hikes on the cliffs next to the sea. Recipes from life on a Northern California rancho would never get boring on a desert island.

wild mustard growing at Elkhorn Slough

The book’s rock star recipe for me this summer are the squash blossom quesadillas. My two zucchini plants are prolific bloomers and fruiters, which is probably why Native Americans used the blossom as a symbol of fertility. And they taste so good! Fruity and light with the essence of zucchini.

I’ve been happy to have a fresh handful of blossoms every couple of days for pizza topping or to stuff with mozzarella cheese, dredge in egg and flour, and saute. But since you can only eat so many stuffed zucchini blossoms, I was even happier to find this recipe. Leave out the peppers and onions if it needs to be especially child-friendly. It’s a great vegetarian dish with a side of guacamole and chips. For a summer meal, watermelon is great for dessert.

Words and instructions are hers; photos are mine:

squash blossom quesadillas
from Jacqueline Higuera McMahon’s California Rancho Cooking

  • 2 tablespoons pure olive oil
  • 1 cup diced mild red onion
  • 2 fresh Anaheim or poblano chilies, charred, peeled, and seeded
  • 6 epazote leaves (optional), minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 10 cleaned squash blossoms, cut into strips
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup cubed melting cheese, such as Monterey Jack
  • 6 flour tortillas or 8 corn tortillas

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and saute the onion until softentned, about 10 minutes. Cut the prepared chiles into strips and cook for 5 minutes with the onion. Stir in the epazote, garlic, and blossoms.

Continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Season with salt and add the cheese. Turn off the heat and stir until the cheese is melted.

To make the quesadillas, place 1/4 cup filling on half of each of 6 flour tortillas. Use less for a smaller corn tortilla. Press into a half-moon shape and heat on a comal or a nonstick pan over medium heat for about 3 minutes on each side or until quesadilla is golden.

We’ve been grilling them out on the barbecue. Here’s Kid Two’s finished plate:

An endless supply of squash blossoms on a desert island – that’s my idea of paradise.

So what book would you bring??? I’ve got a copy of California Rancho Cooking for the person Kid Two and his Buddy judge as having the best answer! You’ve got until September 10th to answer.


  1. Only one cookbook?
    Nick Malgieri’s “Chocolate.” The title alone is compelling enough, but I’ll add additional reasons 😀

    1. Some recipes include fruit — so I would be eating something healthy.
    2. Some recipes include coffee — an absolute must-have on a desert island or anywhere!
    3. The morning news reported that chocolate is healthy — full of flavonoids which help fight skin damage from excess sun exposure. On a desert island, I need to help my skin all I can.
    4. Cocoa butter can also be used as a moisturizer after a long day of assault by sun, sand and sea.
    5. Stranded on a desert island, I wouldn’t have to watch my figure. I’d be free to indulge all I want. Bring on the cheesecake, the mousse, the brownies and the “truffes champagne.” I can eat all I want, guilt free.

    YUM!!! I’m ready to go!

  2. Maggie— what a wonderful post! It makes me homesick for New Mexico actually and before I read this and just saw the intro in my e-mail I thought, certainly I would bring my mother’s godmother Erna Ferguson’s classic New Mexico Cooking– I refer to it in my essay A Bowl of Red. My first edition is inscribed by Ms. Ferguson to my mother; the good vein in our relationship was that she passed the art of authentic SW cuisine on to me.

    I recently posted a poem about the first time I made Moussaka– check it out. I thought of you when I was writing it– http://parolavivace.blogspot.com/2011/08/new-poem-moussaka-making.html You live in such a gorgeous place: so very far inland and so very near the gorgeous mountains, I pine for the sea. xxxj

    • This is such a gorgeous poem, Jenne’. You really are a quite talented poet – I love the feelings and images you weave into an act of cooking.

  3. Thanks for your answers, and to everyone who answered on Facebook! Predictably, the Kids enjoyed the argument for “Chocolate.” I’m not even much of a chocolate fan, Karen, but you even convinced me!

  4. WOO HOO!!!!
    Thank you!!!! And seriously, check out the cookbook — it has hundreds of recipes! I’m sure there are some savory recipes there 🙂

    Thank you very much. Special thanks to the kids!!!


  5. I just found a copy of California Rancho Cooking at a thrift store in Corrales New Mexico. My husband and I lived in the California desert north of Palm Springs for many years. I miss California, but not the summer heat. As I am reading El Principio, I am reminded of my favorite comic book, written and drawn by Carl Barks, Donald Duck in Old California. It was Carl’s gift to the California that Señora McMahan’s family lived in so long ago. As I read Rancho Cooking, I am transported to a time and life that no longer exists, except in my imagination. Thank you to Jacqueline for this wonderful book. I can’t wait to begin making some of the recipes. Perhaps I will start with the Red Enchiladas. I will hide one for breakfast.

    • It’s such a fantastic cookbook. I’m really glad you found a copy and are enjoying it as much as I do!


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