Delicious Days on Catalina Island
Catalina Island Cosnervancy
Friends visited the island this week. They are gourmet cooks and appreciate deeply savory foods of complex flavors. He creates culinary masterpieces in every genre from stew to cheesecake. She is incredible with the knife-work. They own a library of cookbooks and actually use them, testing recipes, scavenging ideas and inspiration. They organized an International Dinner Club of which I was a part for about two years. Trouble is, I am not much of a cook. While I was growing up, my mom owned the kitchen and I just never got much practice or appreciation of the ACT of cooking. I do appreciate the ART of cooking; and I demonstrate appreciation by EATING.
I always hope that the cook/artists in my life are OK with a happy, benign, and enthusiastic food devotee who will gladly swab down the kitchen. They cook, I clean. To me, this seems like a fair mutualistic symbiosis.
The visiting friends offered to cook dinner on the last night of their Catalina visit. Happily, I had a pantry full of gorgeous organic fruits and vegetables procured from Catalina Organic Co-operative, a year-old enterprise organized and operated by island residents. COCO has about 70 participating families shopping at weekly markets featuring 100% organic produce. The food is not grown on the island, which has no agricultural enterprises at this point in time.
At various times in the past, there have been attempts to grow fruit trees, chickens, milk cows and other produce on the island to supply select restaurants in Avalon. Middle Ranch was the agricultural basin in which these activities took place. Ultimately, the existence of the small-scale farming venture was determined by the fresh water supply on the island. By 1962, when Southern California Edison assumed water management on the island, all irrigation ceased and dry-farming became the practice. Today, the fruit trees in Middle Ranch are rain watered only. Some of the trees still produce fruit and local folks enjoy plucking pomegranates and apples in season. Farming days are only a memory, but the Catalina Island Conservancy now protects eighty eight percent of the land as wildlife habitat, a benevolent evolution.
Today, a few families, all Conservancy employees or restoration project contractors, live in the old ranch houses. I happen to be one of them. Living in Middle Ranch, on Santa Catalina Island, has to be one of the most serene existences on Earth. At night, there is no mechanized sound and no visible light pollution other than a few neighbors' glowing windows. I find it sublime, dust and all. There are no paved roads, no radio reception, no newspaper or mail delivery, and no ATMs. We do have most other services like electricity and running water. There are no stores or markets in Middle Ranch, which returns me to the dinner party. Quite a bit of improvisation takes place in my kitchen, based upon available ingredients and equipment on hand.
When the Visiting Chefs snapped into action, I was a bit embarrassed when they opened the cupboard to find my 50-year-old Revere ware, hand-me-downs from my mom who had received the set as a wedding gift. But, after all, the kitchen in my house in Middle Ranch is pretty much the same as when the house was built in the 1950s so I prefer to think of the Revere ware as period furnishings.
The cooks coaxed that old equipment to recall the glory days in Moms kitchen. Dinner was sumptuous, bordering on divine. When I use the same ingredients, the meal almost always becomes stir-fry-on-brown-rice; edible but not memorable. They created Chaparral Salad with a piquant sprinkling of sage and Island Pavarotti, an unforgettable medley featuring fresh golden beets and garlic with operatic qualities that made my taste buds applaud with joy! The Semi-Arid-Not-a-Desert Island Dessert, a no dairy, no eggs chocolate cake from scratch served with organic strawberries and peaches deserved the standing ovation (and curtain call) it received. They did it without recipes, purely inspired by the available ingredients, love of the art of cooking, and years of experience.
This brings me, finally, to the punch line of this story. Catalina has all the ingredients necessary for a superbly savory experience. The ingredients can be combined in all kinds of ways, to suit your taste. Here are a couple of recipes to try:
Avalon Sweetness in the Morning
1 Couple, preferably in love.
1 Beautiful day in Paradise morning
2 Cinnamon rolls from Lloyds of Avalon Confectionery on Crescent Avenue
2 Steaming cups of coffee from CC Gallagher
(Extra karma points if you bring your own travel mugs. Garbage management is an issue on the island)
Walk one block to Island Plaza and catch the open-air trolley to Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden. The trolley costs $1 per person each way. Admission to the Botanical Garden is $3 per person for adults. Spend as much time as you want in this beautiful, serene garden owned and maintained for public enjoyment by the Catalina Island Conservancy. An exquisite cactus garden draws visitors in. Footbridges and meandering paths guide you to landscaped plots dedicated to exhibiting the rare plants of the California Channel Islands. There are plenty of shady spots with benches perfectly situated for contemplating the birds and bees.
Catalina Daylong Family Casserole
4 Family members (more or less, to taste), fit for hiking.
1 Water bottle and hat per person
2 Day packs for sunscreen, camera, binoculars, and sweatshirts.
8 Sturdy walking shoes, in pairs to fit.
1 Hiking permit (free) procured at the Catalina Island Conservancy, 125 Claressa St.
4 One-way tickets on the shuttle to Catalinas Airport in the Sky.
Call 310-510-0143 to reserve spaces, $11 per adult, $8 per child.
The day before this excursion, prepare daypacks, obtain hiking permit, and make shuttle reservations. On the morning of the trip, meet the shuttle at Island Plaza for the scenic drive from Avalon up the tree-lined Summit Road and on to the Airport in the Sky. Plan to visit the Nature Center with its colorful new exhibits and attractive Catalina Island native plant garden (free). Then, have breakfast or lunch at Buffalo Springs Station Café. Sit on the lovely covered veranda of the old white stucco and tile roofed airport building. Views and wildlife watching are primo from this vantage point. After the meal and an appropriate rest for digestion, grab the daypacks and set off on foot, back to Avalon. Just past the airport, take the spur trail to the Soapstone Quarry, an archeological remnant of the Tongva Indians, early inhabitants of the island. The walk back to Avalon is about 8 miles, mostly downhill. You will pass near Catalina Ironwood groves (a tree found only on Catalina and nowhere else in the world), walk along China Wall, and catch vistas of both sides of the island. This premier family outing features physical activity and discovery.
Island Friends Fish Feast
Any trip to the island should include time spent on or in the ocean. The water surrounding Catalina is remarkably clear and at about 72 degrees is very swimmable in late summer and early fall. The near shore underwater habitat is a snorkeler's delight; kayakers also get cool glimpses of sea lions, garibaldi, and other sealife.
4-6 Friends, assorted shapes and ages OK.
1 Swimsuit, hat, sunglasses, pair of water sandals per person.
1 Gallon or so of sunscreen, applied frequently.
1 Gallon or so of water, drink plenty.
2-3 Snack sacks, a friendly selection of whatever your crew most likes to nibble.
Call Descanso Beach Ocean Sports (DBOS) to reserve kayaks (most are tandems) and snorkeling gear (310) 510-0052. You can "go it alone" or take a knowledgeable naturalist guide along on your trip. The great staff of DBOS will show you how to use the kayaking and snorkeling gear. The lack of surf on the Channel side of the island means that the ocean is almost always a friendly, navigable paddle-surface. On the day of your Friends' Fish Feast, show up a little early at Descanso Beach, just past the Casino Building in Avalon. I recommend heading toward the West End of the island toward the lovely coves. It is easy to beach the kayaks for excellent snorkeling, relaxing on the beach, and snacking.
After your day on the water, celebrate the sea with a toast at the open-air bar at Descanso Beach. Live music on weekends!
Maybe this short sampling of some favorite Catalina recipes will inspire you to experiment, try new things, and discover your own island artistry. Bon Apetit!