A Coastal California Cooking Vacation

I'm fresh off the plane from a two and a half week cooking vacation in my home state of California. The first ten days had me with family and friends in Tomales Bay in a house we rented after reading Christine Muhlke's cooking vacation story in Bon Appétit's April issue. It looked so good, I had to do it too. So we signed up, packed our bags, flew to San Francisco, stopped in San Rafael for provisions, and drove to a little town up the coast.

After ten days there, a stay that included visits from both my parents and also some friends from the food world, we drove down Highway One and into Los Angeles where we continued our cooking vacation with a week in the house where I grew up and my mom still lives. By the end of the trip my belly had devoured just about everything I love about food in California, with barely ever setting foot in a restaurant.

Here are some images and ideas for your own cooking vacation. Start planning for next summer now!

When we arrived at the house, we had trouble opening the door, so we walked a few hundred feet down to Hog Island Oyster Company and asked if anyone could help. A few minutes later, the place was closed and the owner invited us to a picnic being cooked by some friends of his. Champagne went into our tumblers, fresh strawberries stained my daughter's mouth, and we had our first of hundreds of oysters. These were served grilled with a kimchi sauce. Brilliant.

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Oysters were a theme of the vacation — a theme of the summer, really (I ate them and wrote about it in Croatia, too) — and it didn't take long before we started grilling our own with bits of bacon, butter, chopped herbs, onion. At $35 for 50 oysters there's still plenty of room to eat them raw. The ice we laid out for leftovers went unused.

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In fact, raw oysters, grilled oysters, grilled bread (using the same melted butter concoction poured over the oysters) and a salad with cold rosé was the general dinner formula for the first four days or so. We couldn't help ourselves. Eventually we branched out making pork chops from the local butcher, Marin Sun Farms, a mussel stew, wild salmon, a spicy citrus chicken, pies and tarts and cobblers, and on and on.

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A new vacation tradition was born on this trip. Anyone coming to dinner has to stop at the local thrift store and put together their dinner outfit. We gave people a $20 limit. It made cooking and eating our meals, not to make our vacation photos, pretty entertaining. The results were beyond my wildest dreams. I wish I could show you photographs of my mother and my editor Amy, but both of them would disown me. Instead, here is my dad and me, posing with the house cocktail, a foraged huckleberry gin and tonic.

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After over ten days of this kind of carrying on like Gatsbyesque characters, we meandered down the coast to Los Angeles with my mother to Los Angeles where we continued cooking in my childhood home.

The first night was perhaps the most magical: we took a bowl, a cutting board, a few knives, and some olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to the garden. Drinking wine we'd picked up on the way down in the Santa Ynez Valley, we chopped up all the crops that had ripened in mom's absence and called it dinner.

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Tell us below about your cooking vacation. I'd love to hear stories from the present and memories of the past. If this idea is new to you, try it. When on vacation, skip a few restaurant meals; just make something, call it dinner, see how it feels.

Related: Help Me Cook an Amazing 3-Course Meal While on Vacation

(images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.