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.

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