On Location: Cooking for a Food Photo Shoot
Shira takes us behind the scenes.
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Last year, I got to spend several days with Elizabeth Poett and her family on their incredible spread, Rancho San Julian, in California's Central Coast for an entertaining story. This time of year in New York is pretty enjoyable but no match for the golden hills of Santa Barbara County. I'm from Big Sky country (Oklahoma, where my grandparents operated a dairy farm) so having access to unlimited horizon line brought back fond memories. As did our daily trek across the ranch's many cattle guards.
The sheer scale of the property left an impression. It's 14,000 acres and is one of the oldest family-run ranches in California. Which means you've been quietly driving through the property on Highway 1 for some time before you even realize you're there. But once you pass, turn around, and eventually find the correct turnoff that leads you to Elizabeth's house, boy are you in for a treat. The house was originally built in Santa Barbara, then painstakingly moved up the coast by barge to its final resting spot on a gentle hill surrounded by California live oak, chickens, horses, sheep, and plenty of cows. Our crew spent three days there prepping the shoot, hanging out with the family, and enjoying the sunshine. Oh, and waiting for the arrival of baby calves (there was one birth while we were there!).
The crew included some of my favorite former colleagues from Martha Stewart Living. Melanio Gomez (MSL Class of 2007) headed up the prop styling with help from local leather goods maker Tiffani Ortega. And I got to cook alongside Elizabeth Colling again (MSL Class of 2011)-she left the test kitchen a few years ago to open a beautiful shop that serves up sweet and savory treats in Santa Barbara, Merci To Go. Photographer Lauren Ross was no stranger to the ranch and beautifully captured its spirit. As you can see above, everyone took a turn trying to tame the abundant California light with tree branches. Result: sparkling dapple.
Elizabeth came up with a simple menu of central coast classics like grilled rib-eyes, lima beans, and corn with nods to her family's Hispanic-Anglo roots. And there were mean margaritas, flavored with an incredible Santa Rosa plum simple syrup (the PERFECT combination of floral, sweet, and tart) and batched out for a crowd. I plan to make this my new pink summer drink.
Same goes for the crisp butter lettuce salad with crunchy bacon, cucumber, radish, and avocado ranch dressing. Set this out with sliced ripe tomatoes and grilled bread, and you've got a perfect summer dinner.
If you're going to eat meat in 2018, Rancho San Julian beef is the golden standard-sustainable and utterly delicious. Keep your eye out for fresh cuts at the Santa Barbara and Santa Monica farmers' markets, or contact Elizabeth directly at theranchtable.com. How fun to take a turn on the family's wood-burning Santa Maria-style grill. This type of grill features a large cast-iron grate suspended over a fire pit. The adjustable grate is ingenious (flare-ups no more), and the smoky flavor is something you just can't get on a kettle grill. Now if only they made a compact NYC version?
The grilled-in-husk corn was also a favorite. The homemade seasoned salt, inspired by Tajín Clásico, is nothing more than slowly dried lime zest, coarse salt, and chipotle-chile powder. Sprinkle this on grilled corn with butter and top with Parmesan (it also tastes great on popcorn!).
I've just started seeing first-of-season apricots, and I can't wait to pair them with sweet cherries for this cornmeal-crust pie.
While we were shooting Elizabeth Poett prepping in the kitchen, the photographer loved Elizabeth Colling's linen apron, and the two swapped for the shot (it's a beautiful apron, and you don't have to be named Elizabeth to wear it!).