Old Dog Ranch isn't your ordinary ranch. It's home to a wealth of walnut trees, and to the Sitkin family, and each has sustained the other for decades.
Now, Molly Sitkin is the walnut trees' main keeper. With them, she creates unctuous butters and delicately spiced snacking nuts. We chatted with her about Old Dog Ranch and how she honed the incredible recipes she now sells.
Where did you grow up?
Old Dog Ranch, Linden, CA.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A vet, until I passed out when I saw one drop of my horse’s blood. But I always loved food.
Who taught you to cook? If the answer is different, how did your interest in food and cooking ignite?
My dad is an amazing cook, my mom is a very experimental cook, and I’ve always loved to eat. I think I got a little from each of them!
So, why walnuts? Did your family specifically plant walnut trees on the land, or were they already there?
My dad planted a small orchard of walnuts about 30 years ago in order to diversify our family farm. At the time, he was primarily growing apples. Now we have three walnut orchards.
Is it difficult to grow and tend to walnut trees? What’s their ideal climate?
They can be temperamental, but seem to grow well where we live. We had a very hot summer and expect to lose about 20% of our crop this year.It’s been a rough few years for most California farmers — years of drought, then torrential rainfall over the last winter, and then a super hot summer. We try to be optimistic and grateful, but ask me again in about a month once I get our numbers in.
What are the challenges of making walnuts into butter? Is there a reason more people don’t, or that they’re not manufactured commercially the way other nut butters are?
It’s mostly a shelf life issue. Because we are so small, we can make fresh walnut butter every week.
You make your own honey on the farm — so, what about the beekeeping? How long has your family been doing it, and what are the challenges there?
I keep the bees on our ranch. Both my brother and my dad are scared of bees. I’ve been doing it for about 3 years now. Learning more every day!
What’s your favorite way to use your walnuts and walnut butter?
Raw Honey and Sea Salt Walnut Butter on Frog Hollow apricots in the spring, and persimmons in the fall.
What’s your favorite of your seasoned walnut flavors?
I mostly snack on the Organic Raw Walnuts, but I love the Organic Maple, and all three of the savory flavors — Organic Rosemary, Organic Smoked Paprika and Garlic (we smoke homegrown peppers over walnut prunings) and our Seasonal: Preserved Meyer Lemon, Toasted Cumin and Aleppo Pepper.
Old Dog Ranch's Mexican Hot Chocolate walnuts
Have you ever tried to make any flavors that didn’t turn out well?
YES, all the time. Wasabi Soy was the all-time grossest. I’ve also had quite a few Mint Chocolate Walnut fails.
Any other products you have in mind to develop in coming years?
Considering Organic Walnut Oil.
Do you have any other food-related dreams you’d like to realize?
I really want to open a healthy, or healthier, candy store someday, with all candies made with local ingredients and no gross colors or flavors! Or a build-your-own-s’more bar. Actually, this list is endless, but those are my top two.
What’s your favorite local restaurant, café, or market?
Every farmers’ market. Even for someone like me, who lives at farmers’ markets, I still find new things. I love to taste creations other people have come up with, and I like to support their businesses.
Do you listen to music or podcasts while you cook?
I will often listen to Pandora — reggae and lots of folky rock.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
My binder of recipes. I’m allergic to just about everything yummy (soy, wheat, cows’ milk, shellfish, chicken, tuna and more), so I’m always adapting things.
What are your favorite non-cookbook books or authors?
Hey, I run a small business. I make time to read The Week to catch up on what’s going on in the world, but that’s all I have time for these days.
What’s your favorite comfort meal to make?
What’s your go-to dinner party meal to make?
BBQ! We have a small house but a big backyard, so we like to have our parties outside. My boyfriend Andy is the BBQ master. NO GAS GRILLS HERE. We get ¼ cow and a big pork bundle from our friend Farmer Joy whenever she harvests. I usually get pretty creative with whatever veggies are coming out of our garden or are in season from the farmers’ market.
What’s your favorite drink of the moment?
Spruce tip tea. I’m not a big drinker, but it is also great mixed with lemonade and vodka.
Who’s a celebrity that if you met, you think would really like you?
I would love to meet Ayesha Curry, or Jami Curl of QUIN candy.
We're going to ask you some quick-fire questions now — answer them before you have a chance to think about it! Dog or cat?
DOGS PLEASE. As many as possible. Preferably mutts or pitties!
Tomato sauce or pesto?
Both, together on a thin crust GF pizza with some goat cheese.
Regular fries or waffle fries?
Chocolate or caramel?
Pizza or pasta?
Wine, beer, or cocktail?