Everyday Meals

19 Cooks We Love on the Recipes That Define California in 2019

When it comes to the most interesting state to cook and eat in right now, all eyes are on California. “The Golden State is hands-down the best place to eat in America,” Eater proclaimed last year. Also last year, the New York Times decided to send its own California-focused restaurant critic West to cover the entire state’s eating culture. Even the stodgy Michelin Guide has taken a new look at the Golden State, launching its first statewide guide this summer. But California isn’t just for the restaurant-goer; it’s a wonderland for the home cook too.

Nearly two years ago, I bought a one-way plane ticket to move across the country to California — for the second time. The first time, in my mid-20s, I jetted off to San Francisco. This time, the palm trees, sunny skies, and laid-back vibes of Los Angeles called my name. And as with my first go-round, I was immediately taken with my new home’s year-round fresh produce and open-minded attitude about what to eat.

Between these two sojourns, I’ve been lucky to have a firsthand glimpse of how the eating culture has changed. Unlike a decade or two ago, the reliance on letting farm-fresh ingredients shine in simple dishes is getting more diverse and creative than the expected French- or Italian-inspired preparations. Golden State cooks certainly haven’t moved on from uncomplicated, produce-driven recipes, as they can easily turn to farmers markets for incredible produce all year long.

But home cooks in California also proudly embrace the cultural influences that give the state its rich character — the flavors immigrants have brought from Mexico and South America, from Asia, from the Middle East. After all, California is home to more immigrants than any other state, and it shines in our cuisine.

To see what California really tastes like now, in 2019, we asked 19 cooks from various disciplines — chefs, photographers, writers — what dish they think best embodies California home cooking.

California is home to more immigrants than any other state, and it shines in our cuisine.

We spoke to chefs like Preeti Mistry, who is making a lively and thoughtful contribution to the space where Indian and California cooking meet. We talked to writers and cooks who focus on home cooks, like Erin Alderson, Andrea Nguyen, and Gaby Dalkin, who all have devoted followings online and beyond. And we reached out to some of our favorite purveyors of good California food, like Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo Beans, Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery, and Elisabeth Prueitt of Tartine. Each person we spoke to had a considered opinion on what recipe, to them, tastes assertively like California in 2019.

Read more: The Best Foods Everyone Should Be Ordering from California

The responses we received are as diverse (and wonderfully flavorful) as the state itself. Sure, there are a handful of salads and other dishes putting fresh produce front and center (yet surprisingly, no avocado toast!). But you’ll also see dishes inspired by Mexico, Vietnam, Korea, and elsewhere, reflecting the rich fabric of California’s population. 

And whether or not you live in California, you can get a taste of this glorious state in your own kitchen with the recipes shared by these talented cooks.

Gratitude Chicken and Celery Rice

The recipe is about my experience as a refugee, and these days I think a lot about people coming to California as refugees and immigrants. I wonder what is new for them, how they feel to be free from their burden and fears. California is a generous state to newcomers. — Andrea Nguyen, Bay Area-based food writer, cooking instructor, and author of Vietnamese Food Every Day

Get the recipe: Gratitude Chicken and Celery Rice

Quinoa-Oatmeal Cereal

California is the good morning state. Every time the sun rises there is a possibility and an opportunity for trials and errors, success and failures, to give and to receive, but to never give up. We believe we can and will change the world, and as dreamers we hope to lead our nation into the future. With our temperate climate and gentle ocean breezes, we rise with the sun to run, hike, swim, and surf. An active morning means a healthy breakfast. My favorite is the quinoa oatmeal, all the comforts of traditional oatmeal but in the spirit of our state, it is of course vegan and gluten-free. — Helene Henderson, founder of Malibu Farm and author of Malibu Farm Cookbook

Get the recipe: Quinoa-Oatmeal Cereal

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Turmeric Yogurt

This recipe is entrenched in California cuisine in terms of seasonality and using local produce, but as seen through an Indian lens. In my mind the arrival of heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market signals the official start to summer. In this recipe, the tomato itself is the star — with a little assistance from the Indian spice pantry. I like to mix a few different varieties of cherry tomatoes in with the large heirloom tomatoes — of various sizes and colors — to really emphasize the diversity of choices during peak tomato season. We top it with my take on green goddess dressing. — Preeti Mistry, Oakland-based chef, advocate, and author of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook

Get the recipe: Heirloom Tomato Salad with Turmeric Yogurt

Garlicky Yogurt Green Beans

I think what I love most about California home cooking is how easy it is to make vegetables shine with just a few ingredients (a must when cooking vegetarian, like I do). These green beans are the perfect example of this, with a little help from local yogurt (Straus!) and walnuts. We really have nearly everything we need, right here at home. — Erin Alderson, Sacramento-based founder of food blog Naturally Ella

Get the recipe: Garlicky Yogurt Green Beans

Cherry Frangipane Galette

California grows the widest variety of fruit, vegetables, and nuts, and with more year-round produce than any state. Galettes make wonderful use of any seasonal fruit from berries and stone fruit to citrus and poached quince, with frangipane being a delicious foil. — Elisabeth Prueitt, chef-owner of Tartine (San Francisco and Los Angeles) and author of Tartine All Day

Get the recipe: Cherry Frangipane Galette

Santa Maria-Style Pinquitos & Tri-Tip Steak

Tri-tip is a distinctly California cut, especially known in Santa Barbara county. It’s traditionally smoked over California oak, then served with this beautiful side of pinquito beans. The story behind the beans is that it was originally thought that they were brought to the region by migrant citrus workers in the 1950s. It’s truly an iconic dish. We would eat it with an incredible salad and corn tortillas. — Steve Sando, founder of Napa-based Rancho Gordo Beans

Get the recipe: Santa Maria-Style Pinquitos & Tri-Tip Steak

(Any) Grain Bowl

Home cooking is healthy cooking, and I would say the ultimate representation of that in California is a grain bowl with quinoa or rice, some vegetables, avocado, and a little protein. Good food is healthy food, and we have the luxury of freshness in our markets that’s the envy of other cities. The ingredients make for really easy combinations that can be eaten on the go.— Gabriela Cámara, chef-owner of restaurants Cala (San Francisco) and Onda (Los Angeles) and author of My Mexico City Kitchen

Get the recipe: Grain Bowl

Spiced Lemon Pickle

There are certain things that are unique to California, like Meyer lemons. This recipe not only highlights citrus, but also reflects California cuisine’s changing nature. We’re the state with the largest number of immigrants, and this dish celebrates our immigrant culture. — Nik Sharma, San Francisco Chronicle food columnist and author of Season

Get the recipe: Spiced Lemon Pickle

Vermicelli Noodles with Lemongrass Herbed Meatballs

Jessica Battilana’s cookbook Repertoire is one of the books that came out in the last year or two that we cook out of most often. This is one of our go-to weeknight staples, not only because the meatballs are so flavorful, but also because it’s a great way to use up whatever’s left from your farmers market haul — which is a very California way of cooking. — Ken Concepcion and Michelle Mungcal, owners of Now Serving, a cookbook and culinary shop in L.A.

Get the recipe: Vermicelli Noodles with Lemongrass Herbed Meatballs

Crazy Big Salad

California is produce paradise, so you really don’t need to ‘cook’ a lot — just buy what’s peaking at the farmers market and have a bunch of ‘add ins’ to give it texture and sparkle. It’s a giant healthy salad ready in five minutes if you keep your pantry/fridge pretty well-stocked. I love to eat this way in the summer especially, shoveling in a giant bowl of food out on the porch while my kid rides his bike on the back porch and we just hose off afterwards as a “bath.” — Leela Cyd, Santa Barbara-based photographer and author of Food With Friends

Get the recipe: Crazy Big Salad

Persian Lime-Poached Seafood Stew Over Herbed Basmati Rice

We have a thriving Persian population in California. This recipe is my California version of Omani Paplou soup, a bright seafood soup flavored with musky dried Persian limes, which can be found at any Middle Eastern or Iranian grocery store. Here in California I swap in local halibut and mahi mahi in place of the tuna steaks we used in Oman, and I like to make it spicy with the addition of chili-garlic paste. I also double the cilantro and often, taking a cue from my Persian relatives, add bunches of extra herbs I have in the fridge (can there be too much fresh herb in anything?).” — Felicia Campbell, Editor of Edible San Diego and author of The Food of Oman

Get the recipe: Persian Lime-Poached Seafood Stew Over Herbed Basmati Rice

KBBQ Perilla Wraps

Given Korean food’s relatively quick rise into the fusion mold here in California and lettuce wraps’ popularity across many cuisines, such as Chinese food, this recipe is a nod to both KBBQ and the abundance of lettuce you can find here. If you can’t find perilla leaves, you can substitute with your favorite lettuce and herbs. And you can even swap out the meat: If you don’t want to use pork belly, you can sub in brisket, or we’ve even made this with ribeye. The beauty of this recipe is its simplicity and versatility. — Aaron Choi, owner of Girl & Dug Farm in San Marcos

Get the recipe: KBBQ Perilla Wraps

Crookneck Squash & Corn Soup with Pierce PT

Grilled Fava Beans

This dish is from New York chef Ignacio Mattos, and for good reason: He trained at Zuni Café in San Francisco under Judy Rodgers. Favas are a common crop and cover crop (particularly for wineries and grain/bean producing farms) in California, and they are the true harbinger of spring when we see them at the markets. What makes this dish uniquely suited for the California home kitchen is how simple the preparation of the main ingredient is, but also how much flavor the end result yields. In California, there are so many full-flavored world cuisine influences — Latino, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, to name a few — defining the dining scene, that home cooks crave foods with intensity of flavor, but perhaps with a simpler preparation. Mattos’ dish is the distillation of California cuisine and excellent home cooking in one: impeccable ingredients plus quiet technique (in this case displayed by tossing the beans with water prior to grilling) plus restraint equals delicious food. — Miles Thompson, L.A.-based chef of July

Get the recipe: Grilled Fava Beans

Taco Salad

Growing up in Southern California, we would eat taco salad with ranch dressing at high school lunches. My California spin on the taco salad lightens it up with a cilantro vinaigrette, and it’s the type of dish you can switch up depending on what’s in season. In summer, you can use corn, tomatoes, and avocado, then toss in some roasted sweet potato come fall. It’s one of those dishes I make on repeat for both lunch and dinner, using whatever I have from the farmers market. — Gaby Dalkin, L.A.-based blogger and author of What’s Gaby Cooking

Get the recipe: Taco Salad

Pozole Verde

This recipe is bright and spicy and acidic and green, which all screams California to me — especially Southern California. I was purposely trying to come up with an L.A. dish when I was fairly new to the city, which is how it came to be. You see pozole everywhere, especially on the weekends and in any Mexican restaurant here. This recipe is brothy but still light, spicy, and flavorful, and it has almost a raw quality to it. The jalapeño is still very fresh, which is how it’s a little different from a traditional pozole. — Jeremy Fox, chef/owner of L.A. restaurant Birdie G’s and author of On Vegetables

Get the recipe: Pozole Verde

Shaved Vegetable Salad with Anchovy Vinaigrette

A feature of the Bay Area is that we have beautiful produce year-round, so the way I love to eat is a big shaved vegetable salad using whatever’s in season, whether it’s watermelon radishes or fennel or turnips or rutabagas. Once you’ve cut the vegetables really thin, whether it’s with a knife, mandoline, or peeler, dress them simply with a dressing made of a little pounded garlic, salt, a few anchovies, a squeeze of lemon, a splash of red wine vinegar, and the best olive oil. And you can vary the dressing, adding hard-cooked egg or crushed almonds to make it a little substantial, or add some shaved Parmesan or black truffle to the salad if that speaks to you.” — Cal Peternell, Berkeley-based writer, podcast host, and author of Twelve Recipes

Get the recipe: Anchovy Vinaigrette

Simply Grilled Steak and Vegetables

For me, this recipe embodies California cooking because the houses in my neighborhood are old ranch homes and have zero insulation. The weather is never extreme in California, so some homes are not built with A/C or even full house heating. I can grill outside year-round — not many other parts of the country can say that.” — Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, executive chef and partner of El Jardin in San Diego

Get the recipe: Simply Grilled Steak and Vegetables

Secret Lasagna

California doesn’t give a f*ck. Our billionaires built computers in their garages, our top directors shot their first films with home movie cameras, and our most famous chefs started on sidewalks and in food trucks. We really love the unconventional path to success that no one believes in. That’s why this lasagna is so uniquely Californian, and Los Angeles in particular. It has all the flavor elements that remind you of the one your mom or grandma made but it doesn’t follow any of the rules. There isn’t a creamy bechamel or a thousand layers of cheese and meat sauce. There are just a few layers, big chunks of slowly braised beef (a la my French grandma’s Boeuf Bourguignon), zucchini roasted in too much olive oil almost too long, and a cheese blend that includes cottage cheese?! Who the f*ck do I think I am? Just some guy mixing up different parts of his childhood nostalgia and putting it out there for people to hate on or enjoy. — Royce Burke, Chef-owner of L.A. restaurant Yarrow Cafe

Get the recipe: Secret Lasagna

Karen Palmer is a Los Angeles-based writer who’s covered the world of food and drink for more than a decade. When she’s not writing or eating, she’s making French bread pizza for her nostalgic pop-up Pain Pizza. Follow Karen on Instagram at  @karenlpalmer.  

Edited by: Ariel Knutson

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