Every time we travel to our cabin, I rouse from drive induced numbness when the Sierra peaks first come into view. It’s difficult to stay alert as we pass through the stark high desert landscape of the Owens Valley. But, about 4 hours into our journey, as we approach the little town of Lone Pine, the mountains reveal themselves, and I’m not talking about any old hills, but Mt. Whitney, the tallest crest in the continental US, and its cohort of summits that soar over, or close to, 14,000’. I immediately switch from sluggish to animated, anticipating breathing clean air, hiking up to pristine lakes for picnic lunches, and dinners by firelight. (The photo above is not Mt. Whitney, but other Sierra peaks.)
We have a delightful arrival routine. First stop is Apple Hill Ranch, a lush oasis in the high dessert. Cactus, sage and parched land surround this paradise situated at the base of the Sierra. The 40-acre farm is fed by mountain water, which nourishes the plants and helps them grow remarkable fruits and veggies. It’s a pick-your-own place, and I’m eager to get out of the car and ramble around the ranch in search of perfectly ripe peaches, sweet zephyr squash, crisp radishes, earthy red Russian kale, sugary figs, abundant herbs, tender eggplant, and the most mouthwatering heirloom tomatoes, ever. We harvest a big box full of super fresh provisions, enough to last a few days, but not so many that I don’t need to return again.
Next, I fetch a striking bouquet of flowers at Alpenglow Gardens, where Jacky Surber lovingly grows heirloom blossoms. Her arrangements remind me of the wild flowers that grow throughout the Sierra, and an arrangement in our dining nook makes every meal festive.
Because we are too tired to cook after the drive, we stop for takeout at Taqueria mi Guadalajara, a cute yellow trailer parked by the side of the road. It takes about 7 minutes for the cook to put together two meals to go- often nachos al pastor for me, chicken enchiladas or chili relleno for Steve.
Then we zoom up the hill to our cabin, where we unload all the edibles (because of bears in the vicinity, its unsafe to leave anything with a tempting aroma in the car), open all the blinds and windows, turn up the hot water heater, and get the wood stove going if temps are cool.
Finally, and best of all, we take the dogs hiking on a path we’ve named the Atticus Trail, in honor of our beloved dog who enjoyed his last walk on this quintessential route. It travels through Aspen groves, high mountain meadows, a juniper forest, then under boulder cliffs, to a lively stream, with arresting views of nearby peaks along the way.
Now it’s time to eat, and although we purchased takeout meals, we also have the perfectly ripe tomatoes we just picked. It takes only minutes to put together a platter of picnic tomatoes- tomato slices topped with a thin shmear of mayonnaise, and my flourish—a dab of quick pesto.
Picnic Tomatoes with Rustic Pesto
Rustic Walnut Pesto
- 2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves, stems removed
- 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
- 1 small shallot, peeled, coarsely chopped
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fresh tomatoes, cored
- Fresh herbs, such as basil, marjoram, mint or parsley, chopped (optional)
For the pesto
- Place the basil, walnuts, shallot and lemon zest on a cutting surface. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and chop finely. Chopping with the salt helps release the flavors. Transfer to a small bowl. Mix in the oil and cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks; pour a film of oil over and seal tightly. Bring to room temperature before using.)
For the tomatoes
- Cut the core out of the tomatoes. Slice tomatoes into rounds and arrange on a platter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then spread with a little mayonnaise. Dot with the pesto or sprinkle with fresh herbs.