You can run, but you cannot hide: Hickory-smoked black bean soup

Light My Fire, The Doors

It was late and I was tired. The dining room was empty, the servers were tipping out at the bar, the floor manager had been fed, the bussers were piling dirty dishes into plastic tubs, the boombox above the pass was blasting salsa music, and the kitchen was clean. I lifted the fifteen gallon stock pot off the ceiling rack, took the roasted chicken bones out of the oven, added ten pounds of frozen backs and necks, some onion ends, carrots, and celery butts, a splash of dried thyme, bay leaves, and pepper corns, set the pot on the hot top, filled it with water and turned the burner to high. 

I changed into my street clothes, washed one layer of night grease off my face, dropped my smelly chef’s pants and jacket into the laundry bin, and yelled, ”No olvides bajar la olla!” (Don’t forget to turn down the stock pot) as I walked up the kitchen steps into the night. Melrose was quiet all the way through West Hollywood to Wilshire and even onto Westwood Blvd. where the last of the frat boys were struggling up the hill to Fraternity Row. The Sweetie was sound asleep, so I showered and slipped into bed, setting my alarm for 5:00 a.m.

Mary Sue and Susan were in Tokyo on a public relations boondoggle, leaving me in charge, answering to Barbara, the major investor, strict task manager, and co-owner of l.a. Eyeworks, located next to the Border Grill. I was determined to get an early start and leave no flaw that might attract her eagle eye and sharp tongue.

Mary Sue in front of the original Border Grill


The sun rose was rising over UCLA as I drove to work down quiet West LA streets, back onto Melrose—early enough to find a parking spot only two blocks from the restaurant. I could smell burning bones a half block away and could see wisps of smoke coming from under the back door by the time I got to the alley.

La olla had not been bajared. The stock pot had boiled dry—bones burning, scorching, and sending a black cloud of acrid smoke throughout the building. I couldn’t see the stove as I groped my way through the kitchen to turn off the hot top. Now what? The dining room was a dark haze, lunch service was in five hours, and Tom, the manager, was due to arrive any minute. I could run, I could hide—but I couldn’t let Barbara find out. Thanks to the 911 call from our neighbor, Ben’s Vacuum Repair, the fire engines were already sirening up La Brea. There would be no running or hiding, and Barbara would most certainly find out. 

Ben and I were well acquainted. He lived above his shop and complained to me daily about the noise, the smell of food, the smell of grease, the smell of garbage, the cigarette smoke that drifted up into his bedroom, the cars that parked behind his shop, the bussers that sat on his back stoop, and our illegal prep area in the alley. He had been on Melrose Avenue since the 1950s and fumed as his friends and their small businesses were pushed out by the hip and the gritty: Wacko, Aardvark’s, Cowboys and Poodles, Retail Slut, l.a. Eyeworks, Johnny Rocket’s, and the Border Grill, to name a few. 

Johnny Rocket’s

Tom, Barbara, Ben, and three firemen walked through the front door of the Border Grill at the same time. Tom groaned and headed for the phones, the firemen put their axes down, Barbara gave me a quick hug, and Ben struggled into the kitchen with two floor fans. 

It took a village: the wait staff unleashed Ozium bombs in the dining room; Barbara’s “smell guy” set up a ozone diffuser in the kitchen and one in l.a.Eyeworks’ storefront window; Tom placed pots of simmering vinegar-water on three electric burners borrowed from Flip, the thrift store across the street; Ben plugged in industrial fans that roared at the front and back door; and Cuco, the dishwasher, and a waiter from Tommy Tang’s bundled the offending bones into garbage bags, then dragged them into the alley. 

Tommy Tang’s

And what was I doing? I had brownies in the oven, cinnamon/vanilla/milk syrup simmering on the stove, tortilla chips bubbling in the fryer, peppers roasting under the salamander, and chicken parts browning on the hot top. If we weren’t ready for lunch at 11:30, at least we could smell ready.

So I guess the takeaway is, when disaster strikes, face the music, then get help. I wasn’t fired, I fed the fireman, sent Ben home with a to-go container full of fresh corn tamales, we opened on time for lunch, and served hickory-smoked black bean soup with avocado cilantro crema.

Hickory-smoked Black Bean Soup

  • 2 cups cooked black beans
  • 2 Roma tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 tsp, salt
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1-2 diced canned chipotle in sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. Liquid Smoke
  • Avocado cream: 1 avocado blended with 1/2 bunch cilantro, 3 Tbs. Mexican crema, sour cream, or yogurt, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a squeeze of lime juice
  • Garnish with tortilla strips, avocado cream, and shredded queso fresco

Roast the tomatoes under broiler until blackened. Chop coarsely.

Sauté onions, garlic, chipotle, cumin, oregano, and coriander. Add salt, sauté 10 minutes.

Add the cooked beans, roasted tomatoes, and 2 cups chicken stock.

Simmer one hour. 

Blend soup with wand blender or countertop blender. Thin with more chicken stock if necessary.

Stir in 1 cup heavy cream, simmer 10 more minutes

Salt to taste. Garnish with tortilla strips, avocado cream, shredded queso fresco, and a squeeze of lime.

Posted in Recipes, Restaurants | 4 Comments

Mind Games: Bisquick pancakes, Brown sugar syrup

Mind Games, John Lennon


When I was a kid, my dad made pancakes on Sunday morning. He used Bisquick and two cast iron skillets—no blueberry faces, no chocolate chips, no banana smiles. There would be margarine and brown sugar syrup on the table—no bacon, eggs, or sausage—just flapjacks, as he called them. After breakfast, he took the Sunday Sioux City Journal into the TV room, sat in his Dad chair, and read the paper, sports section first. 

I can’t remember how it began, but he and I played the same game every week. I brought the paper in from the front porch and after reading the comic section, I carefully recreated a neatly folded stack and set it on the kitchen counter. Daddy cleaned up the flapjacks, poured himself a cup of coffee, picked up the paper, went into the TV room, sat down, and said, “I really love opening a newspaper that hasn’t been touched. There’s something so fresh and new about it.” Then he would wink at me. To this day, after I finish a newspaper, I recreate a neatly folded stack and think of him. How is it that I can retain decades-old, fleeting memories, but forget where I parked the car at Costco?

  • During the weather portion of the news, I saw Grand Mounds WA on the map. The Sweetie knew immediately that the “Mima Mounds” are close by, I thought immediately of my friend Beth. Now, where did that connection came from?
  • In the morning when I put on my underpants, I think of Foster who once said, “Stand up when you put your pants on—you’ll improve your balance.”
  • Every time I wear a turtleneck, I think of Katharine Hepburn. Every time I make cioppino, I think of Dinah Shore. 
  • Muth taught me how to fold a fitted sheet with a rhyme about bunnies in the corner. Can’t remember how it goes, but each Saturday morning when I change the sheets, I fold a neat square bundle thinking about bunnies and my mom.
  • Michael Roberts whacked my knuckles with the flat of a chef’s knife when I didn’t hold my fingers correctly. I still flinch whenever I start to chop vegetables. Jeffrey insisted that the cooks tear lettuce not chop it. I still tear lettuce
  • On the rare times I drive in downtown Seattle, I find my way to the freeway using Normie’s old mnemonic device “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest” (Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine)
  • Why are Phil Rizzuto, Allie Reynolds, and Ezzard Charles, familiar names to me? My second grade friends, Marzee Carlstein and Gordie Schmeckpepper, show up on demand but I can never remember the name of our neighbor across the street.
Oh well, “Love is the answer.”

Bisquick pancakes

  • 2 cups Original Bisquick mix
  • 1 cup milk 
  • 2 eggs 

 Heat griddle or skillet over medium-high heat or electric griddle to 375°F; grease with cooking spray, vegetable oil or shortening. 

 Stir all ingredients until blended. Pour by slightly less than 1/4 cupfuls onto hot griddle. 

 Cook until edges are dry. Turn; cook until golden. Note: If you like thin pancakes, use 1 1/2 cups milk.

 Brown Sugar Syrup

  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup butter 

Combine the sugar and water in a medium size saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Lower the heat to medium and allow the mixture to boil for 4 minutes. Add the butter and stir until the butter has dissolved. 

Posted in Family and friends, Recipes | 2 Comments

Sacramento Shorts

Sacramento shorts:

Sacramento drivers seldom honk their horns, either to complain or to alert.

Downtown bus drivers are bored, annoyed, or just plain mean. I was scolded for using my bus app incorrectly, left standing at the bus stop three times, and flung into my seat if I didn’t move quickly.

I was in the front of the bus, sitting on an aisle-facing seat when a very grumpy man in a very wide wheelchair rolled over my feet. When I said, “Ouch”, he said, “Hmphhh. That didn’t hurt, you big baby.” To be honest, he was right.

Without fail, whenever I approached an intersection, cars stopped and waited for me to cross.

Farmers markets are just that: outdoor areas where local growers sell their produce. No music, mimes, hand-made soap, gimcracks, refrigerator magnets, or tie-dye t-shirts—strictly farm business. And the prices—cheaper than the store. I’m not kidding: vine-ripened tomatoes, $1.25/lb., baby bok choy, 8 for $1.00, zucchini, $1.00/lb, cilantro, 2 bunches for $1.00.


Unlike Chicago, in downtown Sacramento, backpacks, children, strollers, and dogs are rare.

City pedestrians follow the rules. Almost no one crosses the street until walking man starts blinking and robot voice says, “Walk sign is on, Walk sign is on.”

Having a 40-acre park in the middle of downtown is a wonderful thing, but the six-block square green space makes bus travel tricky.

Locals seldom brag about their city. They seem to quietly share Joan Didion’s opinion of her hometown:”Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

Residents are, however, thrilled with Greta Gerwig‘s Oscar-nominated Lady Bird, a coming-of-age drama set and filmed in Sacramento.

Maren Conrad’s mural on 16th & I

People who live and work in Midtown are quick to speak up if you mistake Midtown for Downtown. “Oh this isn’t Downtown, this is Midtown.” Midtown has a mixed use feel—quaint, old wide-porched houses, small retail stores, brownstone townhouses, busy restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. Downtown is the Capitol, tall commercial buildings, at least two Bail Bonds per block, empty “For Lease” stores, Golden1 Stadium, and the Convention Center.

All in all, Sacramento was a lovely place to visit and I would live there.

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Let the buildings keep our children dry

 Jackson Browne, Before the Deluge

We wondered why so many Midtown Sacramento houses have tall, daylight basements and steep, front-yard staircases leading up to wide porches. Sacramento, built in the lowest part of the Sacramento Valley, has historically been vulnerable to flooding. In 1862 after weeks of heavy rain, catastrophic flooding of the Sacramento and American Rivers created an inland sea in the Central Valley, submerging Sacramento for months under 30’ of flood water.  

The city responded to the devastation by launching a ten-year project that raised the level of Midtown neighborhoods. Houses that had not been swept away or destroyed by the flood were lifted up 10-15 feet. New regulations mandated that future building must include daylight basements firmly connected to heavy concrete posts, with steep stairs leading to the second story living quarters.

These “high-water bungalows” can be found for a hefty price in Midtown, Winn Park, Oak Park, and Lavender Heights.



Midtown’s mixed-use zoning allows for and encourages residential housing, retail, restaurants, and small businesses to nestle side-by-side making it possible to walk to work, eat, shop, and visit your acupuncturist.
Fremont Park
Mural on J & 23rd Street
Last time we were in Sacramento, Korean tacos were two bus transfers away. This time, they’re right across the street at Gogi’s.
Anyways, the project is over, we’re sleeping in our own bed, the hummingbirds have not returned yet, it’s raining, the road construction is finally over, the Dodgers won, and I’ll swim at my old pool this morning—back home and so glad.
Posted in Travel | 1 Comment

Sacramento: City of Trees

Say something mean and you will immediately be proven wrong. A few weeks ago, I jibed that Sacramento is not found at the top of any list—my bad. “American Forests” names Sacramento’s tree canopy as the best urban forest in the country, beating out Seattle, Boston, Amsterdam, and Paris. 

When settlers first arrived in Sacramento during the gold rush, the Central Valley was covered with grasses. It took only one summer of +90° days, I would guess, for the newcomers to plant thousands of shade trees. The city was officially smitten: in 1921, early tree-hugger Sacramento Bee editor C.K. McClatchy, regularly published front page obituaries for dead trees.


Sacramento’s park system flourished as urban and residential trees were planted. In 1923, in order to promote neighborhood tree planting, the city and the Boy Scouts partnered in a program that offered to plant trees for free. Boy Scouts canvassed neighborhoods urging citizens sign request cards that committed each resident to care for their tree, which the city then provided and planted. So now, pedestrians in downtown Sacramento are guaranteed protection from the summer sun. 

Until recently, downtown walkers could always find a cool spot to sit and rest, but one night last week all park benches along K Street were replaced with red “leaning rails.” Social advocacy organizations shouted “Gentrification!”, calling the move, “a stupid and mean” effort to solve a complex problem by targeting the homeless. Supporters of the removal insist that the city must respond to downtown’s renaissance and real estate boom with “urban beautification”, more space for bike racks, and a “safer, more comfortable” environment for tourists and high-rise residents. The pros and cons of urban renewal and the debate over the use of public spaces strikes again.

*Sacramento’s has long celebrated the title, “City of Trees” with a slogan painted on a water tower next to the I-5 freeway. Last year, in order to attract more travelers, the Sacramento Tourism Bureau convinced someone to repaint the old slogan with “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital”, whatever that means.



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The Sacramento Delta, “California’s Holland:” Seafood gumbo

No wonder Walt Disney chose California to be the location of his Magic Kingdom. From the north to the south, California stretches the imagination: ever-so-hip San Francisco, Yosemite—an American rock climber’s Mt. Everest, Big Sur, avocados, Lake Tahoe, In-N-Out Burgers, Hollywood, Steinbeck’s Monterey, Gidget’s surfer dudes, and 1,100 miles of man-made levees. Yes indeed, levees as in Holland and New Orleans. I was as surprised to drive along the levees above the Sacramento-San Joachin Valley River Delta as I was to see container ships packed into Houston’s wharfs and docks. I was never very good at geography. 

The levees on South River Road, a twenty-minute drive from downtown Sacramento, wind along the Sacramento River past miles of agriculture to one side and bridges, boats, and ferry crossings on the other side.

Given California’s popularity as a tourist favorite, you would think that two small towns along the Delta levees, Locke and Walnut Grove, would be bustling with families, strollers, artisan beer, and upscale restaurants, but not so much. What we found on our weekend drive was one ghost town and one quiet, picket-fenced town.

When the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Chinese immigrants who built the railroad were then hired to build the levees that converted the Sacramento Delta into some of the richest farmland in the world. Chinese laborers were welcomed into the work force and settled throughout the West, building towns and establishing communities. 

When the levees were completed and the gold rush economy faltered, the Chinese were blamed for stealing jobs and depressing wages. Responding to public pressure, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which specifically forbade any Chinese immigration. Then came the “Driving Out” as vigilantes forced Chinese residents to flee, burning and looting their towns and businesses. Many of the Chinese found safety in Walnut Grove and Locke where they worked in the fields, renting houses from rich American landholders. 

In its heyday, Locke had restaurants, markets, a Chinese school, flour mills, slaughterhouses, and gambling halls; then the exodus began. The second generation found new futures at UC Berkeley, the State of California forced the shutdown of the gambling halls, segregation lifted, and Chinese residents left Locke and moved to the suburbs. Today, only 10 of the 80 people who live in Locke are Chinese Americans.

Walnut Grove has stayed pretty much the same since 1950, with the central district relatively untouched.

Mural of Walnut Grove in the 1880s

Walnut Grove, 2013

Seafood gumbo

Authentics will insist that a gumbo must be started with a dark roux and finished with filé powder, but I usually don’t.

  • 4 oz. margarine—don’t substitute butter. Margarine has a higher heating point and will allow you to brown the spices/vegetables properly. If you don’t have margarine, use vegetable oil. 

Spice Mix:

  • 2 t. paprika
  • 1 t. Coleman’s dry mustard
  • 1/2 t. cayenne
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1⁄4 t white pepper
  • 1⁄4 t. black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 t. thyme
  • 2 c. chicken or fish stock
  • 1 diced large onion
  • 2 T minced garlic
  • 3 stalks celery—diced 
  • 1 diced green pepper 
  • 1 diced red pepper 
  • Tabasco (better wait and taste before adding—we may have gone over the edge already)
  • 3 T Worcestershire sauce
  • 1⁄2 c. tomato sauce
  • 1 c. chopped fresh or canned tomatoes
  • Filé powder to sprinkle on at the table

Combine spices. Melt margarine in heavy pot. Add onions, celery, peppers and turn heat to medium-high. Stir in garlic and dry seasonings. Cook, stirring constantly for five minutes, constantly scraping bottom of pot.

You want the spices to stick a little to the pot. Scrape with a wooden or metal spatula and scrape constantly while temperature is hot. Reduce heat to medium, and add tomato sauce, tomatoes, Tabasco, and chicken stock.

Simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour

Once the vegetable/tomato mixture is finished, you first add firm fleshed fish—snapper, cod, catfish—then shellfish, and/or oysters. Some seafood gumbos start with making a roux which serves as a thickener. Filé powder is added just before serving for the flavor. Andouille sausage (polish sausage makes an adequate substitution) can also be added before the seafood for an even more robust taste.

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Living the life of Eloise: Breakfast-room burrito

As a young reader, I loved the Eloise books, written by Kay Thompson, about the adventures of a six-year old girl who lived on the top floor of New York’s Plaza Hotel. My life in was about as far from Eloise’s as could be. There were no hotels in Pender, Nebraska, Eloise’s mother let her have a dog, Eloise was self-confident, ordered room service, and was allowed to be impertinent. Little did I know that eventually I would lead the life of Eloise and learn a thing or two about long-term hotel stays.  

  • Is that cheap, black plastic radio flashing 12:00 in loud red numbers? Hold down the “Time” button and the “Hour” button at the same time, scroll to the correct hour, do the same for minutes. 
  • Is your room too hot? Hotel thermostats are notorious for being deceptive. You think you’re in control, but you wake up at 1:53 am, sweaty and hot because the air-conditioner isn’t working. You set it for 65, sure enough it says 65, but “THEY”, the ones actually in control, have set the building’s temperature to suit the bottom line—therefore it’s never cool enough. Try this: 1) hold down the display button 2) Press off while continuing to hold down the display button 3) Release off, but continue to hold down display, and press the up button 4) Release all buttons 5) Scroll for your desired temperature. Or, try this: hold down both the up and down arrows at the same time and a wonky “bp”, meaning by-pass, displays. Set the temp to your liking and go back to sleep. You’ll have to do it every 24 hours, but it’s a small price to pay for a cool sleep.
  • Can’t sleep because the light comes into your room through the gap in the curtains? Use a trouser hanger to clip them together.
  • Speak up if there is something broken in your room.
  • Always tip the housekeepers, the maintenance man (he’s probably the one who can Jimmie your window open), and don’t forget about the breakfast room workers. Those people are the ones who can make your stay more pleasant. 
  • Pack duck tape, a screwdriver, and a electric plug extender in your suitcase. Duck tape covers the awful LED light on the smoke alarm THEY installed right above your pillow, duck tape can be used to make an acceptable refrigerator shelf, hang a wall clock, repair a cracked coffee machine, or fix the hem of your pants; a screwdriver may open your window if the maintenance man refuses, tighten a wobbly fan, or prop up the window you forced open; and there are never enough electric sockets in a hotel room.
  • Use your empty suitcase as a laundry basket. That way, you can roll right on down to the laundry room. And don’t forget to pack a handful of dryer sheets.
  • You can make passable coffee if you add a packet of Starbuck’s Via to a hotel cup of coffee.
  • Sneak food from the breakfast room in paper coffee cups to use later—hard-boiled eggs, a few packets of cream cheese or peanut butter, yogurt, nuts, or Craisins. I made a decent dinner salad once with breakfast Canadian bacon, hard-boiled eggs, Craisins, microwaved waffle pieces, walnuts, and a bag of lettuce. And, check out the Breakfast Room Burrito below.
  • Don’t hesitate to move the furniture around. I set up a little sitting area with a chair facing the view, a side table, and the cheap radio close by so I can listen to Fresh Air and Radio Lab.
  • Check the front desk around five at night, there may be cookies. 
View from our window
Mural at the hotel entrance 
View from the parking garage
Sacramento’s ride-share “Jump” bikes
Sacramento Memorial Auditorium
Breakfast-room burrito verde
  • Scrambled eggs, breakfast meat, butter pats, leftover rice, sliced or shredded cheese, flour tortillas, bottled tomatillo sauce, chopped cilantro (this may be a stretch)
  • If you have a burner, sauté breakfast meat and rice to reheat, microwave scrambled eggs
  • Lay rice/meat mix and eggs in the middle of the burrito, sprinkle with cheese and cilantro. Roll neatly as possible
  • Melt butter in sauté pan, brown all sides of burrito
  • Turn heat to low, cover and cook for 5-7 minutes
  • Microwave tomatillo sauce, pour over burrito
Posted in Travel | 2 Comments


I know it’s not my time, but I had a request for a bagpipe YouTube. 

Every September in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, the California Fire Foundation honors the firefighters who died during the past year. There was no mistaking where the ceremony would be taking place.

Just as we walked up to the right spot, we could hear the first wail of the pipe and the clickety thump of the drums as the Pipes and Drums band started their march. 

The family of each fallen firefighter was presented with a flag during the ceremony.

 I think way down deep everyone loves bagpipes—the crowd in the park certainly did. It was a solemn, moving event and a beautiful opportunity to remember Josh. 


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Burners and bagpipes: Sacramento

Life can pivot on a moment’s notice. The late night call from your agent offering you a part in the new HBO mini-series, Ed MacMahon appearing at your front door with a check for $6,000,000, peeing on a stick and watching it turn pink, hearing your shoulder crack as Altuve tags you at second base, sitting in front of your Doctor as she says, “Well, the tests have come back…”—the balance tips. 

Life-changing but not nearly as dramatic was the recruiter’s late night call telling the Sweetie, “You’ve been cleared to start on Tuesday.” The wait was over, the scurry to get ready began, and we were on our way to Sacramento for four weeks. I’m reluctant to leave the hummingbirds and chipmunks, our cozy living room fireplace, the trees that are flaming into autumn, and my sister, but I am certainly ready to live without the grating construction noise the cement trucks make as they build a road on our front porch.

So before you can say, “Crocker Art Museum,” here we are in Sacramento, home of the Kings, the State Capitol Building, UC Davis Medical Center, the second sunniest July in the world, the third best park system in the country—not exactly at the top of any list, but interesting none the less.

Our closest grocery store reminds me of the Jewel-Osco in Chicago—narrow dark aisles, curt customer service, shelves crammed with one of everything, occupied sleeping bags lining the sidewalk—used by just about everyone within a six-block radius.

Although I read the notice that was slipped under our door, I was startled to see a window washer outside our 11th floor window this morning. 

The Johnny Cash mural painted on the side of our hotel by Shepard Fairey for Sacramento’s recent “Wide Open Walls Festival.”

Downtown mural, “Shared Abundance,” celebrating the California rice harvest, painted by Franceska Gaméz.

Chicago is famous for its abundance of public parks, but here in Sacto we have the beautiful World Peace Rose Garden right across the street.  

While I was in the rose garden, smelling the roses, I heard the unmistakeable sound of bagpipes. You might remember I love bagpipes, so I followed the sound down the path and there they were: the California Firefighters Pipe and Drum Band practicing for the 2018 Memorial Ceremony honoring fallen firefighters. 

Sacramento performance artist, David Garibaldi, painted this as he was having lunch at the “Cafeteria” across from our hotel.

As we’re back to one burner and a microwave, there won’t be a recipe. Stay tuned though, I am working on 15 ways to “upgrade” instant ramen.

Posted in Travel | 3 Comments

Harvest: Tomato jam, Plum Chutney, Plum Streusel Tart

“Want some plums?”—the brief text from my sister was music to my ears. An abundance of plums (or “plummage” as she so aptly put it) meant plum chutney, plum jam, roasted plums, dried plums, or if I’m feeling flush with time and energy—a plum tart. 

Italian prune plums are those egg-shaped, purple plums that droop the branches every other year, lay on the ground covered with wasps in September, require little preparation, and cook down into dark fuchsia goodness.

If all the hard work in spring and summer pays off, a gardener is rewarded with almost too much of a good thing. However, we are seldom burdened with an excess of tomatoes, green beans, Rainier cherries, raspberries, or eggplant. When we lived on Vashon, we had an old, scrubby apple orchard that produced tons, (I’m not exaggerating) of warty, knobby, apples every September. What the deer and squirrels didn’t eat, were juiced, sauced, pied, tarted, crisped, dried, smoothied, and eventually raked into the garden for compost. 

By the first of October, I winced at the sound of a full bushel basket thumping down on the back porch. Ginny and Ron had an old, hand-cranked, apple press that they trundled out of the shed every Fall, and set up…under the apple tree…for their friends and family to use. The Sweetie and I would shovel the excess apples from our yard into the back of our beat-up, orange pickup, hose them off, drive along Quartermaster Drive and Tramp Harbor to their house, and squeeze apple juice into recycled milk jugs. There is nothing like drinking fresh-squeezed apple juice as it pours down the chute into your cupped hands, picking out the stems and worms as you go. We were blissfully unaware of the dangers of unpasteurized raw juice and, aside from an occasional case of the “runs”, suffered no lasting harmful side effects. 

On Eld Inlet, Nancy faces their grape surplus by making juice and jelly and uses the over abundance of Romas by making superb tomato jam. In California, where backyard produce is impossibly brilliant, a gardener’s bounty is likely to be lemons, oranges, grapefruits, almonds avocados, or figs. My friend Karen, used her lemon crop to fill the garage refrigerator with lemon curd, lemon panna cotta, lemon juice, and lemon zest—I want her harvest. 

Nancy and Tom’s Concord grapes

Can you see the handsome man in the swing?

But for now, I peek frequently into the pantry to admire the top shelf lined with shining jars of chutney, jam, and applesauce and thank my gardening friends for the apricot cherry jam, Red Kuri squash, and lots of plums.

Tomato jam

  • 1 ½ pounds Roma tomatoes peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup fine diced sweet onions
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon grated or minced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes or to taste

Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often.

Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, then cool and refrigerate until ready to use; this will keep at least a week.

Plum Chutney

  • 10# Italian plums (preferably free from a friend)
  • 3 c. sugar
  • 2 c. rice wine vinegar (cider works too)
  • ½ c. fresh chopped ginger
  • 3 T. chopped garlic
  • 2 t. nutmeg
  • 1 T. cinnamon
  • 1 t. allspice
  • 2 t. salt
  • 1 t. cayenne pepper

Combine all and cook one to two hours until thickened. Process in water bath or freeze.

Plum Streusel Tart (an old City Restaurant dessert— steppy, but worth the trouble)

Paté Sucre:

  • 8 Tbs. (1 stick unsalted butter), softened
  • 1 cup + 6 Tbs. powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 3⁄4 cup flour

In an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and salt, and beat until combined. Add flour, all at once, and slowly mix until flour is evenly moistened. (Don’t overmix).

Transfer to a plastic bag and form dough into a 6” log. Seal bag, pressing out any air, and refrigerate at least 4 hours.

Divide log in half for one tart. To roll, soften dough by pressing it with your hands until soft and malleable. Form a 4” round disk. On a lightly floured board, roll from center out, lifting dough, turning slightly, to prevent sticking. Roll dough to 1/8 inch thickness.

Fold dough in half, and lift into tart pan. Unfold and press gently into bottom and up the sides. Clhill 1⁄2 hour before baking.

Almond Cream:

  • 1⁄2 cup + 1 Tbs. granulated sugar
  • 1 cup almonds (I’ve used both blanched and unblanched)
  • 9 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Process sugar and almonds in a food processor until fine. Add butter, one Tbs. at a time, pulsing after each addition until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.


  • 1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 7 Tbs. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1⁄4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup + 2 Tbs. flour

Cream together sugar and butter until smooth. Add cinnamon and salt and mix until blended. Add flour. Mix with your fingers just until crumbly.

To assemble tart:

Roll Paté Sucre and use to line a 10” tart pan with removable bottom. Preheat oven to 350 ̊. Bake empty tart shell for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and spread almond cream in hot tart shell. Bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

Cut 8-10 plums in half and remove pits. Arrange plums, cut side down, over baked almond cream; sprinkle with streusel and bake 20-30 minutes, until plums are soft and crust is golden brown.

Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

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