Although rancho land was generally fertile, the rancheros (rancho owners) chose not to do much farming. Only enough food was raised to feed the family and guests. Raising cattle took less time than raising crops.
Corn, barley, and wheat were raised on the rancho. Some vegetables (beans, onions, peppers, garlic) and fruit (apples, pears, oranges, peaches, apricots, watermelon) were grown. Grapes, both for eating and for making wine, were a common crop, as were olives.
Rancho women, having come from Mexico or Spain, continued to prepare their food in the Spanish style. Much of the cooking, however, was done by Indian workers, who added their methods and ingredients to the Spanish cuisine.
The main diet on the rancho was beef, beans, and tortillas. The tortilla (a thin, flat cake made of corn or wheat flour) was often rolled into a cone and used to scoop up the beans. A flat piece of a tortilla could also be used as a spoon.
The beans eaten by the rancheros were called frijoles. They were cooked with peppers and onions, and were considered by the Californios (people who lived in California during the rancho period) to be "the best food in the world." Frijoles de olla were beans cooked in an earthenware pot. Frijoles refritos were mashed beans fried in oil.
There was always plenty of beef on the rancho. Sheep and wild game were also eaten. Large pieces of meat were roasted on a spit over a pit with an open fire. Some fresh meat was cut in one-inch thick strips, soaked in salty water for several days, then hung in the sun to dry. Sometimes the meat was coated with chili powder to help to preserve it. These strips of meat (called carne seca, or jerky) got black and very hard. The vaqueros (cowboys) took the dried beef sticks with them when they rode out on round-up or on trips by horseback.
Milk and Eggs
Though there were cows on the rancho, they were not often milked. The people did not use much milk or butter. Sometimes in the spring the women would make a kind of cheese in small flat cakes. Flocks of chickens were raised on the rancho, and boiled eggs were eaten often.
Olive oil was used instead of butter or lard for cooking. The olives were grown on the rancho, and the oil was pressed out. First, the olives were spread out on mats to ripen until they were wrinkled. Then they were crushed and boiled with a little water before being put into a coarse cloth bag and pressed between boards. The juice that came through the cloth bag was then boiled. This made the oil rise to the surface so it could be separated from the water.
Grains like corn, barley, and wheat were pounded and ground into flour, and then made into bread or tortillas. Often this grinding was done by hand on stone metates. Some ranchos had millstones which they had gotten from the missions. The stone could be turned by means of a long pole attached to a turning post. The pole was either pushed by hand or a horse was harnessed to the pole to turn it. Grain could be ground more quickly by this method.
Wild mustard greens were gathered and eaten. The greens could be steamed, or fried in olive oil. The mission padres had brought mustard seeds to California in the 1770s and the plant had spread. Descriptions of California in the early 1800s say that much of the land was covered with wild mustard, growing waist high on the hills.
Coffee was made on the rancho from burned wheat. But the people preferred to get South American coffee from the trading ships that visited California. The ships also brought chocolate, sugar, and other spices.
The Californios liked their food well seasoned, especially with chili peppers. So spicy were some dishes that they were referred to admiringly as "capable of raising the dead."
The ranchero often started his day with a cup of chocolate or coffee. Hot chocolate in the morning was considered to make one stronger for the day. Then the ranchero would go out to ride over some of his land, coming back in an hour or two to have breakfast. This mid-morning breakfast was called almuerzo.
Breakfast was a hearty meal. The main dish might be carne asada (beef broiled on an iron rod over the open fire) or chorizo sausage (ground pork mixed with spices and ground chilies). This was eaten with onions, eggs, frijoles, and tortillas. Everything was seasoned with chili peppers.
LUNCH AND DINNER
The food for lunch, which was eaten at about noon, was much like that of breakfast. At dinner time (about dusk), corn, potatoes, and other vegetables were added to the meal. Sometimes the meat and vegetables were all stirred together into a stew called guisado.
There was not much variety in the food served on the rancho, each days meals being much the same as the day before.
Sweet desserts were rare because sugar was costly, having to be shipped from Boston or Mexico. Pumpkins, grown on the rancho, were sometimes made into pies. They were sweetened with wild anise, a licorice-flavored plant that grew here.
Fruit and wine were often eaten at the end of the dinner meal. Besides the fruit raised in the rancho gardens, wild plums and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus were gathered.
Rancho families liked to pack up some food and wine and have a picnic (a merienda). They would go by horseback or in a carreta (cart) pulled by oxen to a shady place along a stream or near a spring. There they would cook their meat on sticks over an open fire, using a tortilla to pull the hot cooked meat off the stick so they would not burn their fingers.
A recipe to make with adult help
6 ears of corn, scraped