No one awake but us
On the night we got there, when we checked in, the lady at the front desk wrote out the wifi network and password on the corner of a pad of paper, ripped it free, and handed it to me. I slid it into my phone case, so that I wouldn’t lose it, and last week, three months later, I noticed it still wedged there.
“How’s that Rancho Pescadero wifi working for you?” Brandon says, peering over my shoulder. “Little slow, from 2,000 miles away?” I roll my eyes, yank out the scrap of paper, and crumple it up. But when he looks away, I press it flat again and slip it back in.
I first heard about Rancho Pescadero was from a couple of Delancey neighbors and longtime regulars, Tom and Kate. Kate is a book editor, and Tom is a contractor – hard at work right now on Dino’s, actually – and they both like to be outdoors, hiking, boating, fishing for wild salmon in the Sound. At some point last year, they mentioned to me a trip they’d taken to a small resort an hour from Cabo San Lucas, near the southern tip of Baja, Mexico, a remote, mellow spot where, from the beach, they’d been able to see humpback whales splashing around. And though I, ① am generally allergic to resorts, and ② wanted mostly in that moment to slump onto the pavement and sob extravagantly, because a childless weekend felt, to this parent of a three-year-old, like the equivalent of an oasis mirage to a desert traveler, still, I mentally filed away the name of the place, just in case: Rancho Pescadero.
So when I found out last fall that our friend and mentor Renee Erickson, chef-owner-superwoman of The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Whale Wins, Barnacle, Bateau, Bar Melusine, and General Porpoise Doughnuts, would be headlining one of a series of Guest Chef Weekends at Rancho Pescadero, and when we were invited, WHAAAAT, to go along, I said, of course, yes. (And then I ran around pretending to be Debbie Hunt from Singles.)
We begged my mother to June- and Alice-sit, and we packed our swimsuits, sunscreen, four New Yorkers, my film camera, and three rolls of film, and on an early flight out of a rainy November day, we went.
We were not the only ones invited that weekend: Marian Bull, who I knew a little from Food52, was there, and so was her friend Caro, and Riley Starks, of Nettles Farm on Lummi Island, whom I had wanted to meet for years and years, ever since my friend Kate met him and later gushed that he raised the most delicious chickens she had ever eaten. Rancho Pescadero was exactly as Tom and Kate had promised: beautiful and unfussy, with two small pools, a long stretch of beach, an organic garden(!) and a restaurant beside it, a salty margarita, everything a person could want on vacation and nothing a person doesn’t. Renee cooked lunch in the restaurant on the first day – shell-on shrimp in browned butter and lemon and Espelette pepper, to be eaten with your hands slash dripped all over your bathing suit cover-up – and the next night, she cooked dinner. Afterward, we met back at the hot tub in our dinner clothes, took off our shoes, and perched around the rim to dunk our feet, and it was so quiet, ten o’clock, seemingly no one awake but us.
I can also report that Caro does a very good faux-Australian accent, and that Marian is the person you want driving the rental car when your destination, a nearby cove beach Tom told you about, is hidden at the end of a dusty, bumpy, unpaved, unmarked road along which towering saguaro cacti stand sentry.
I can also report that you may indeed have the absolutely electric pleasure of looking up from your magazine to see a humpback whale breach off that beach, slapping the water with her great fin. I can report that you may meet a shy hermit crab over by the cliff, and that one of you may name her Deb. I can advise that you get in the car and head back to Rancho Pescadero by sunset to watch, along with a bunch of schoolchildren, when the local expert lady comes to release dozens of silver-dollar-sized baby sea turtles from their hatchery in the dunes and set them waddling miraculously into the ocean.
In any case, I say all of this today because it is February, as you may have noticed. And while the sun is out in Seattle today and that is very nice, I woke up wanting to look at these pictures, to feel warm for a few minutes, and to eat Renee’s shrimp again, then, now, forever.
P.S. As an aside, I cannot stop listening to Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods. Actually, forget the shrimp: S-K FOREVERRRR
P.P.S. Also, I just read this, via Marian, and barely came up for air.
Renee's Messy Prawns
Adapted very slightly from A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus, by Renee Erickson
Renee’s original recipe calls for spot prawns, but they’re highly seasonal and tough to find outside the Pacific Northwest, and anyway, this is delicious with any shell-on large (31/35) or extra-large (26/30) shrimp. Renee used local Baja shrimp to make the recipe at Rancho Pescadero.
In any case, eat these prawns from the outside in, sucking the sauce from the shell before peeling the shrimp, dredging it in the buttery sauce, and popping it in your mouth. As Renee says, “Start by making a mental commitment to getting a little messy. Suck on the open end of the shell first, then on the tail. Finally, uncurl the thing, so its legs are splayed out, the same way you used to eat an orange wedge when you were a kid. Only after you’ve sucked the juices and seasonings out of the legs can you peel and eat it.” Serve with a baguette for sopping up juices, and a wet towel for each guest, for cleaning hands.
Oh, and this recipe comes together very, very quickly, so be sure to prep all the ingredients before you begin, and keep them close at hand.
Note, also, that this recipe doubles easily – but you’ll want to cook the shrimp in two pans, so as not to crowd them.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat. When hot, add half of the butter (56 grams) to the pan. When the butter is melted and bubbling, add enough shrimp to cover the pan in a single layer, using about half of them. (You don’t want to overcrowd the pan, because the shrimp need to brown, not steam.) Season them generously with salt, and let them cook for 1 minute on the first side. Sprinkle the shrimp evenly with half of the garlic and half of the piment d’Espelette, and flip them over in the pan. Add half of the lemon juice to the pan – this will prevent the butter from browning too much – and cook for another minute or two, until the prawns curl and the shells begin to brown.
Transfer the shrimp and Espelette butter to a large platter, and repeat with the remaining butter, prawns, salt, garlic, piment d’Espelette, and lemon juice, letting the pan come back up to temperature between batches, if necessary.
Serve the prawns hot, garnished with the chives, and go at it.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings