It’s always the light I notice first.
We left Seattle in the middle of a February rainstorm, the only time that Seattle looks the way you imagine Seattle to look. It was drippy dark grey gloomy, the sky seemingly a ceiling only 100 feet above our heads. Seattle light, even in the best of conditions, is tinted toward blue. In July, when the sky spreads wide and high, that blue is radiant, like liquid, the best kind of light I know. In February, that blue light can feel oppressive, like depression or muffled sounds in the middle of a dark wood.
When we landed in San Francisco, I saw it again. Golden light. That northern California light is like looking through a jar of golden honey.
The next morning, when we woke up at a friend’s home in Oakland, we walked into the kitchen to find this light streaming through the door.
We were clearly no longer in Seattle in February.
It was lovely to pause in the home of our dear friends, the ones who had just moved from Seattle to Oakland the month before. We talked and talked more while the kids imagined and played together, one talking incessantly of Neverland and the other reciting the eating habits of the capybara. We lingered at the table, sharing this frittata and another cup of coffee. (And how decadent it felt to be in the home of another gluten-free family, so we didn’t have to worry about cross-contamination.) Danny and I both felt like cats curled up in the sun, not wanting to move.
But move we must. We were on our way to Sacramento for a potluck.
Only ten minutes on the road, I was hit by a physical wave of nostalgia so strong that I almost wanted to pull over to the side of the road. I grew up in Southern California, in Claremont. (After we finished the official business part of this California trip, we three spent a couple of days in my old hometown, which did me good.) Southern and Northern California sometimes feel like such different places that they might as well be two states. But this section of the freeway, that swirling grey, the road signs, it all felt like home.
Growing up, I never appreciated California. I grew up in smog and heat and too much cement. Now, as an adult, I could see it new, especially with the eyes of someone fascinated by food and how it is made. California, you are something else.
Our friend Garrett, generous mensch that he is, volunteered his home for our Sacramento potluck. We kept the invite list small, intimate, to make sure we could talk with everyone. (And not overwhelm Garrett’s home, as well.) He’s the co-author of one of our favorite cookbooks of 2013, Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese. If you love cheese, love to cook, and you have gluten-free pasta in your home, you’re going to love this book.
In fact, look at the gluten-free macaroni and cheese (with smoked pimenton) that Garrett made for the potluck. How lucky were we?
One of Garrett’s friends, a trained pastry chef, showed up with a plate of homemade fudge and a plate of individually wrapped caramels she had made that day. Those caramels were evil. So good. (Thank goodness for the fruit salad.) Quickly, the entire table filled with good food and the room filled with even better people. Guy brought garlicky anchovies cured in fresh herbs and peppery olive oil, which he included in a memorable salad. We heard about local beef, farmers and chefs that people loved, and the latest farm-to-table event in town. Proudly, without hearing each other say it, every pocket of the room told me the same phrase: “We are the farm-to-table capital of the world!”
It makes sense. The land from Sacramento, through Davis, down to the Central Valley of California, is some of the most fertile in the country. It seemed, at times, that nearly every square foot of land that was not houses or stores was a farm. At least here on the west coast, most of the produce we eat comes from this region of California. (Especially in February, where nothing but kale and celery root seems to be growing here.) The abundance of this area of the world is enormous. In Sacramento, however, the folks who came to our gathering loved talking about local chefs and the restaurants they loved best, all of which had favorite local farms they loved to support. Eating local is not a trend in Sacramento. It’s just a way of life.
(If you’d like to know more about the restaurants in Sacramento, take a look at Beth Pladson’s blog, SacTown Wino and Foodie. Beth, thank you for your help in organizing this gathering!)
We talked and laughed while Lucy and another young girl ran through the room with kumquats in their hands, having just picked them off the tree in Garrett’s backyard. (As he said, “Go right ahead. I’ll never be able to pick them all.”)
Look at this golden light gleaming off the citrus in our friend Elise’s enchanted garden. I will never get over it, the citrus trees in every backyard. I grew up with a pomegranate tree and avocado tree in our backyard, with lemon trees up and down the block. I didn’t appreciate it then.
“It smells like Italy here,” Lucy kept saying as she raced through this magic place of light. She was right.
Of course, there’s a price to pay for all that sunlight and warmth. This year, the drought in California is alarming. Everywhere we went, we saw signs of a terrible year. This is the American River, which we saw on an early evening walk with Elise. “Usually, we don’t see these rocks and islands until August,” she told us. “I’ve never seen it this low in February before.”
I regretted complaining about the rainfall in Seattle.
Our heads full of stories from the new people we had met, and our hearts full of gratitude for Elise’s hospitality, we walked back toward her home. There was an evening in the garden, and a dinner of flank steak and Elise’s chimichurri ahead of us. But for a moment, I stopped walking, letting everyone else go ahead. I just needed a moment to take in the day in Sacramento and offer up my thanks toward that glowing northern California light.
We’d like to send out a huge acknowledgment and thank you to Erewhon Organic for sponsoring this California tour. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to meet you and gather material for our next cookbook. Erewhon Organic makes some of our favorite foods in the world, including their new quinoa-chia cereal and their buckwheat-hemp cereal, which was our favorite breakfast on this tour. They do things right.
After a day of traveling, gathering, laughing, and eating, we just wanted a quiet evening with our friend. Luckily, she felt the same. Good food doesn’t have to be complicated, especially when there are ingredients as fresh as those we found in Sacramento. We roasted up some potatoes, made a big green salad, and marinated flank steak to go with the chimichurri Danny threw together with Elise’s recipe.
The only secret to this flank steak is letting go of fear of burning down the house. When you sear the steak, you’re going to create smoke. Turn the fan on its highest setting. Or, you can do as Elise and I did and run around the house, opening all the windows. Don’t worry. It’s just the sugars in the marinade burning off in that hot oil. Oh, and it’s worth it.
This steak goes so well with chimichurri. (And any leftover chimichurri goes well with roasted chicken, over white rice, or stirred into a potato salad.) But you could also use it to make a great steak salad. After a few days of eating food on the road, I started craving this steak. We made it again as soon as we reached home.
- Marinade for the flank steak
- 2 tablespoons apple cider
- 2 tablespoons balsamic (use the grocery-store balsamic, not the aged balsamic)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon mustard
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
- salt and pepper
- For the flank steak
- 1 pound flank
- salt and pepper
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- To make the marinade, put the apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic powder, mustard, and rosemary into a blender. Blend until everything has emulsified, about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Put the flank steak into a large bowl. Pour the marinade over the steak. Let it marinade for at least 30 minutes but no more than an hour. (After an hour, the vinegars will begin to “cook” the meat.)
- Heat the oven to 450°.
- Take the flank steak out of the marinade and pat it dry. Season it with salt and pepper. Cut the flank steak in half, vertically. (Make sure each piece is the right size to fit into the skillet you are using. You might cut the steak into three pieces.)
- Set a large skillet (preferably cast-iron) over high heat. Turn on all the fans and open the windows. Get the skillet scorching hot. Add the olive oil. As soon as it is hot (that will be immediate), put one piece of the flank steak into the hot oil. Sear the steak until it is dark brown but not burnt, about 3 to 4 minutes. Be careful and watch the steak carefully. You don’t want the sugars from the apple cider vinegar and balsamic to burn. Flip the steak and sear the other side the same way.
- Put the skillet in the oven. Repeat the searing process with another skillet, the remaining oil, and the remaining piece of steak. Put that piece of steak in the oven.
- If you want your steak rare, take it out of the oven when it has reached an internal temperature of 135°. If you want your steak medium-rare, take it out of the oven when it has reached an internal temperature of 145°. Medium is 155° and well-done is 165 and over. (Danny and I both prefer our flank steak at rare to medium-rare.)
- Turn a saucer upside down on a larger plate. Take the steaks out of the oven and drape them over the saucer. Let them rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
- Slice the steaks against the grain into the thinnest slices you can make.
You can use another oil, such as avocado oil, if you don’t want to use olive oil here. Coconut oil or butter would both burn too fast, so be careful of that.
Be sure to discard the marinade, since it has all the remnants of raw meat.