Saturday, August 15, 2015


Sixteen One-Pint Jars of Vanilla-Pluot Preserves

Today was preserves day. A long and arduous task. Cutting five pounds of pluots (with five more pounds to go!!), then trying to balance the right amount of sugar, lemon juice, water and a vanilla pod (thank you, Gypsy). Cookbooks are hopeless on the subject.There is no lack of interesting recipes, but they are short on technique. Don't look to YouTube. I watched in astonishment as a woman demonstrated making her plum jam, which wasn't not going well. "Oh well, I'll just add pectin, which I would prefer to avoid. She had been given a large amount of plums and had some knowledge of making preserves, but this is a rather precise kind of work, and it deserves less "personality" and more tutorial. I'd love to find a large guide to making jams, jellies and preserves (conserves too) that offer a wide variety of fruits with suggestions for combinations, and with recipes for various amounts of fruit (small batch, medium and large batches that take advantage of the season). 

Peaches and nectarines have nothing on the color palette of Pluots!

Pluots are absolutely gorgeous. Many had a real ruby center, but others had a yellow center showing their apricot origins. With a canning kettle for boiling the filled jars (10 minutes for each five jars), sterilizing the jars, lids and caps, the cutting of the fruit (I will cut the rest of the fruit and freeze it for gallettes this fall and winter), cooking and skimming the foam that invariably rises to the top, this project took up three very concentrated hours. 

The yellow foam that rose to the top of the fruit as it was cooking has to be skimmed from the top, otherwise, it will cloud the finished preserves. 

So six jars of jam (from yesterday), sixteen of preserves made today, I'm done with jam-making this season. The pear tree gave no fruit this season after several of seasons of good yield. By then the pears should get back to producing fruit. And then I'll make pear butter.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

PLUOTS--The Most Beautiful of Stone Fruits

My Pluot Tree in full bloom this spring.

I should have realized this spring that my Pluot tree was going to offer me a spectacular crop when I saw the way the tree bloomed. Every branch was covered in pretty white flowers. What a display. About two months later, I suddenly saw fruit sprout all over its many branches. I had worried that by not pruning there tree this season that I had allowed it to get too large. But the Pluot just spread it's shapely branches and produced a prodigious amount of fruit. What was odder still, was the pear tree next to it simply gave no fruit whatsoever. In the four years since the trees were planted, the pear had always given me a modest crop, while the Pluot didn't give much fruit at all. So I waited patiently and was rewarded. 

The Pluot Tree in late July heavy with lots of fruit. 

So I'm finished picking all those lovely pluots from my tree in the back yard. I decided to make jam. Had to something with all that gorgeous fruit and after giving a bag to Sara and another bag to my brother Scott and his lovely Bernadette, the time came to make jam. I used a recipe from THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK by Amanda Hesser. She asked for two and three quarter pounds of fruit and a half a cup to be brought to the boil and then simmered until the fruit was soft. Then I ran it through a food mill. The yield was to be something like two and three quarters cup of pulp and juice. I got five and a half cups, which meant it would require more sugar than the one cup called for. I added another two thirds cup of sugar, and simmered it for about 45 minutes. A sample when placed on a freezing cold plate finally gelled. The jam was ready for the jars and a final 10-minute water bath. 

As gorgeous a color as these pluots are, the photo doesn't begin to capture the stunning combination of dark wine red skins with a touch of yellow representing the fruits combination of plums and apricots. This bucket of plots was the last of the fruit picked from the tree today. 

The first batch of Pluot Jam for 2015

The color of the jam is ruby red and gorgeous. I have five jars. Now I have to turn the rest of the harvest into more jam. By the time I'm through, I should have 30 jars! Better go get some more sugar. Some lucky people are going to have an interesting stocking stuffer this year.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Restored Water Fountain

I'm an okay handyman--better than I thought, but not as good as I could be. But I'm working on it. Nobody told me that you have to drag things into the garage from the garden over the winter. That includes terra cotta pots, table umbrellas (I actually new that), and water fountains that look like their made of stone, but are actually made of fiberglass. My good friend, Dyanne, gave me a handsome water fountain as a house-warming present. I set it up and for four seasons, it has worked like a charm. This year, I cleaned it up, noticing that the old pain was chipping badly, and saw a few cracks, but they didn't look like the might be a problem. The next day, I came out to the back yard and discovered the tank was empty and the pump was huffing and puffing with no water to recirculate. As I do in all similar circumstances, I asked my friend, Bob Spivey for help. Bob is in his middle 70s, retired, and a man of few words. But he's always fixed things for me or told me how to fix things. Lately, he's been telling me more how to fix things than actually fixing them for me. No worries. I don't mind rolling up my sleeves and getting down to business. He pointed to the back of the fountain and said, "tear a hole in it and remove the old plastic tubing and replace it. fix all the cracks. Repaint, find a place for it. Fill it with water. Plug it in. Should be fine. I did specifically what he told me to do, and it worked like a charm. I bought a beige base coat in spray paint form. And then another can of spray paint from Rustoleum, which would give the topcoat a visual equivalent of texture. Though I brought the first can back to Ace Hardware because it wasn't spraying correctly. The replacement can wasn't much better, but it got the job done. I fixed the cracks with marine adhesive, but it took seven days to cure an when I was done, I discovered another batch of cracks. That took another seven days to cure after I sealed every crack I could find.

The fountain is in a new location, and it's got a new paint coating, and it's working like a charm. It looks brand new (as long as you don't look at the back side of it! And I'll remember to store it in the garage this winter.

Pluots ripening in a brown paper bag.

Pluots brought in a bucket from the back yard.

My pluot* tree has given me a magnificent harvest this summer. While my pear tree gave me nothing, the pluots were plentiful and gorgeous. But lately a bunch of slightly under ripe pluots have been falling to the ground, which is covered in river rock. They crack on impact and are useless. Something had to be done. I went on Amazon and found a fruit picker, but it was out of stock and priced at $38.00! I had some business to settle in Sellwood, a lovely neighborhood that abuts mine, and drove over today. I passed the local Moreland Hardware Store (part of the True Value network), and thought they might have one. I'm glad I stopped. I found one that extends practically to the top of the tree, and it only cost $18. Back at the house, I quickly filled two pails of pluots, which are in paper bags ripening (as instructed on a YouTube video). Pluots have a sweet, musky flavor and truly represent the best of a plum and an apricot.

Tomorrow I'll deliver some to my brother for installing these fabulous new lights in my backyard, which have added some awesome atmosphere to the back yard for summer dinners al fresco. It's been a summer of fixing and restoring things in my house.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


The New Grassless Garden

I turned 65 in late June and found myself delighted to finally be rid of expensive monthly health care. Cut my expenses in half, though doctors are lined up for tests through out the rest of the summer. Nothing scary, just tests. It didn't help to get the news that, Kurt Aldag, one of my favorite publishing colleagues and a dear friend of many years, had a stroke late this spring. He recovered fast, which was a huge relief, but he's turning 65 next month. Reminds us that life marches on.

This was the summer I finally made up my mind to do something about my garden. I hate grass. It requires watering, seeding, feeding, and always ends up looking like crap. I called Errin, who has done a bunch of heavy garden chores for me over the years, and told him the grass was going. He had to trim the hedges anyway. I decided it was also time to dig up the front garden, get rid of all that plastic the previous owner had put down to retard weeds, and give my white camellia a major trim. Four guys descended on my house over two days and the results were excellent. They dug up all that sod with the plastic webbing, leveled the dirt, put down a special fabric that allows water to sink into the ground, but also retards weeds. Then they brought in the river rock to cover the yard where the grass had been. It looks great against the red brick patio. I'm delighted and the low maintenance is the icing on the cake.

My old cement birth bath in the same of a maple leaf supported by it's new heavy wire stand. 

My gorgeous white camellia tree got a huge haircut. I'm told it will fill out and bloom 
beautifully again next February. 

It has taken me six years to finally get my garden to the the place where I'm reasonably happy. Gardens are a lot of work. I have friends here in Portland who dote on their gardens. Trish, for instance, spends hours and it shows. But I don't like working that hard, especially during a really hot summer like we're having in Portland. I also like to mix up the plantings with interesting things that make a garden fun to look at. Sculpture, water features, small statues, decorative pots both small and large, a metal holder that I found for the cement bird bath that I moved to the back of the garden. I'm not all that great at weeding and keeping things trim and under control. But with the changes this summer, I'm having fun reshaping and arranging my garden frog, an old skunk, a rabbit, a stone Cairn that Ken gave me when he moved into my house, a couple of old urns, a sphere. I bought a new bird  bath early this summer on a great sale. It's a blue pottery bowl set on ceramic base. I thought the cement leaf that I bought the first summer I lived in Portland, would look better in the back of the garden, with the new bird bath moving into its place. But I also thought the cement bird bath would look great if it were on some sort of cylindrical base. Last Saturday, I was at Stars, a local antique mart in Sellwood, a neighborhood near me. There I found a tall, rusty column of heavy wire in a graceful pattern. I had noticed black crows liked to visit the yard and play and wash in the bird bath. This would elevate the bird bath, which would benefit the crows, who are constantly being chased out of the yard by my dog, Archie. I brought it home and put it in place, but the minute I filled it with water, it leaked. So I put marine adhesive over any potential cracks, and let it cure. It was dry enough tonight to fill. I expect to see crows capering there in the morning.

Bamboo in Galvanized Planter

I love galvanized planters and I needed a large pot to grow bamboo which would give me some privacy from a neighbor. It is probably going to take a few years for the two bamboo plants to grow tall enough, for privacy, but I like the fact that it is bushy and with this planter, I can contain the bamboo, which is notoriously invasive.

We've had a brutal summer in the Pacific Northwest, which is normally cool. Upper 80s an 90s has been the norm since June. We had two days of downpours last weekend, but it was the only rain we've had all summer long. Though Portland isn't under drought, fifteen Oregon counties are,  dependent on mountain water, which is in slim supply these days. I've never seen Mount Hood with so little snow. Washington state is in even worse shape. Nobody knows when this is going to stop. Who thought drought would ever be situation in our water-rich region?  I never watered the grass in my back yard, but the garden needs watering when it is this hot. The sun has brutalized my garden this year. I've got roses, iris, peonies, euphorbia, and other plans that don't require much water. I'm not sad that my dahlias didn't do well because white butterflies love to eat them. It's astonishing how hungry they are and I refuse to use harmful pesticides, which have been harmful to our bee populations. But hydrangeas hate the sun. One large hydrangea in my front yard gets the full blast of summer sun, and is constantly wilting. It's already done for the season--a full month earlier than in past seasons. Even my tomato vines have leaves that are yellow and brown. Some of it is a little over-watering, but the sun is toasting them too. All these problems--or as my friend Jim says, "white man's problems." Is it any wonder that I hate gardening. Should have bought a condo instead.

Grape tomatoes from my garden

This would be the perfect summer to grow tomatoes, something I gave up during my first summer here. Lots of people have problems with their tomatoes. The next year I discovered cherry and grape tomatoes and I have never looked back. Here's a bowl of tomatoes that I picked during the last two days. They are so sweet. I made a dish of shrimp, Andouille sausage, peppers, and onions for dinner last Saturday. Along with rice, and a flavorful dish of sautéed white and yellow corn with red peppers, scallions, and red pepper flakes, we had a terrific Saturday night dinner. This bowl of grape tomatoes is candy sweet. The vines produce a huge crop, and we'll be eating them into the first two weeks of October.

Shrimp, Andouille Sausage, red peppers, garlic and scallions with rice sautéed with shallots, chicken broth and fresh bay leaf, and a big green salad, for a simple Saturday dinner for two.

It's been a summer of a lot of cooking. I made this blueberry pie from a favorite recipe by Ron Silver, owner of Bubby's in New York. This is such a great pie--a pre-baked crust filled with a combination of fresh blueberries, and a "jam" of cooked blueberries, cornstarch, sugar and lemon. I add lemon zest for a little more zest. It is served with a pile of creme fruit and it represents summer at it's most delightful. It also tastes sensational for breakfast the next day.

Fresh Blueberry Pie from BUBBY'S HOMEMADE PIES

This particular dinner started with one of my favorite baked pasta dishes from Diane Rossen Worthington from her Seriously Simple Holidays cookbook. Baked Pasta with Tomato, Red Pepper, and Sweet Italian Sausage Sauce, is Diane's spectacular answer to finding a festive main course dish for a holiday dinner party.  Ziti is combined with a sausage and roasted red pepper laced tomato sauce, with  cremini mushrooms, baby arugula, grated Parmesan and Asiago cheeses, heavy cream. It's an extravagant, make-ahead casserole and a real crowd pleaser. I normally make it during cold weather nights, but it worked for this summer menu. 

Baked Pasta with Tomato, Red Pepper, and Sweet Italian Sausage Sauce

Crab is in season and crab cakes seemed like a great idea. The recipe I selected is from The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser. It has a lot of ingredients in it--celery, scallions, Italian parsley, eggs, crushed Saltines, red pepper flakes, Old Bay spice, and then dredged in fresh breadcrumbs. But the ingredients never mask the crab. It comes with an equally ingredient-stuffed remoulade sauce full of paprika, celery, parsley, garlic, scallions, etc. The recipe yielded twelve crab cakes--my guest and I ate half of them one night. She took three with her and had them for lunch the next day. I polished them off tonight with a gentle reheating in a low over. Notice the remoulade sauce doesn't have the consistency of mayonnaise. I'm hopeless with mayonnaise concoctions. Should have just begun with Hellman's and called it quits. But no, I keep thinking one of these days, I'm going to conquer my fear of mayonnaise. While the sauce refused to thicken, it still tasted great. 

A platter full of freshly made crab cakes!

Sauce Remoulade (not a success), but still tasted great. 

A quick saute of leftover rice, yellow zucchini, scallions, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.

Salad Caprese

One of my favorite lean meats these days is the always delicious pork tenderloin. This tasty cut has virtually no fat, and takes well to many kinds of flavors from spices to vinegars and condiments. I found a recipe for a pork tenderloin, fingerling potatoes and baby arugula salad in THE WHOLE HOG by Libbie Summers. I often brush the cleaned tenderloin lightly with grape seed or canola oil and roll it in a spice mixture (such as hot smoked paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, oregano, a touch of sugar), or in fresh, finely chopped herbs (thyme, rosemary, and Italian parsley is a favorite), and salute it briefly in a heavy oven-proof skillet on top of the stove before putting it into a hot oven for a few minutes to finish the cooking. It must be slightly undercooked (I pull it out of the oven at 145-degrees and let it rest for ten minutes before I slice it. Out of the oven, it continues to cook and reaches to 150-degrees).  In the original recipe, the dressing for this salad called for rice wine vinegar and olive oil, a good combination, but I wanted a more classic mustard vinaigrette enhanced by the kick of garlic. It's a great summer one-course meal and so versatile and receptive to many ingredient variations.

Roasted pork tenderloin salad with fingerling potatoes and baby arugula, with a few changes--this time romaine lettuce replaces the arugula and radishes provide extra crunch. 

All in all, retirement is rather nice. I'm trying to get away from the computer and get some reading done, but it's difficult. The computer is an addiction and hard to quit. Doctor visits tend to be a little more often than in the past, as all sorts of health issues need to be faced. The extra time, however, is often used in the pursuit of things you'd never knew were interesting. I'm astonished how often I turn to YouTube to find out how to prune a tree, create a non-stick surface on a carbon steel pan, create a sourdough starter, or make homemade compost. Netflix has introduced me to the strange and compelling activity of binge TV watching. Good a series as it is, you need stamina to watch seven seasons of THE WEST WING.