Archive for summer

Plum Passion

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A book I owned and adored as a child

A book I owned and adored as a child

In Maryland, strawberries mean spring, and peaches and plums mean summer. These aren’t the only fruits that prosper due to our excellent fruit-growing climate, but they are ones that are truly ravishing and worth only eating in season.

I feel especially passionate about plums this summer. They are so varied—my farmers market had at least five varieties last weekend. The sensual experience of looking inside a plum reveals gold, pink, or purple or red flesh. The taste ranges from tart to tangy to sugary sweet. Sizes range from slightly bigger than a cherry to palm-sized. It carries a rose-scented perfume, because the plum is actually linked to the rose family… stop laughing. I am not talking about sex, okay? I am talking about a healthy, anti-oxidant rich plant.

Despite its obvious allure the plum is regarded as the slightly odd cousin to most stone fruit. Perhaps this is because some raw, ripe plums are still tart—and after cooking, plums take on a deep flavor. If the plum is dried, it becomes a prune—and there are no end of jokes about the medicinal benefits of prunes.

I have a special affinity for plums because my German mother introduced me to them. In fact, she considers them the highlight of summer baking. I still remember my mother carrying crates of prune plums into our Minnesota house every August. These were not Minnesota plums—the weather there is too cold to plant plum orchards. But these California plums with tart interiors that were only in the supermarket for a few weeks were treated like treasures. Once the plums were free of stones—a tiresome process that could take hours—they became the stars of Pflaumenkuchen: neat rows of plum slices arranged atop a yeast dough stretched across a cookie sheet. Warm Pflaumenkuchen was served with coffee to adults, because very few children were excited about a sour fruit dessert topped with plain whipped cream. You could say that plums are the Cabernet Sauvignon of fruit. Big, bold, mind-blowing.

Other plums from the crates were boiled down into a dark, thick plum jam that would be eaten year round on toast. I liked this, too. After a childhood of plum jam, most jams made from strawberries and raspberries taste too sweet.

I live a thousand miles from my mother now, so we cannot make plum desserts together. But I am set on carrying the plum torch, and I have sampled all the different kinds of local plums that show up at my farmer’s market. This past weekend, I got a $6 container of Methley plums, doll-sized, purple globes that are slightly bigger than cherries. They are sweet and much juicier than the plums used in German confections; I understand the Methley originated in Asia, where plums are much juicier than the varieties native to Europe.

I remain cheerfully determined to introduce plums to the prejudiced. This week, I found an easy recipe for deconstructed plum galette on the Food52 website. It specifically calls for Methley plums. Preparing the fruit from pitting to cooking took less than fifteen minutes, because the plums are small enough to fit inside a cherry-pitting tool.

The dough was sticky and a little tricky to work with. It baked up delicious and crisp and the perfect foil to warm, juicy fruit. as the recipe suggested, I used two rounds to create a kind of plum sandwich. They were the perfect counterpoint. With cooking, the very sweet plums I’d tasted raw had deepened to a nuanced, bittersweet flavor.

My son took one look and said, no thanks.

Summer on the Table

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Summer is supposed to be done. I know this because I see big yellow school-buses on the freeway, and the Staples office supply store is full of families loading up on binders, notebooks, and pencils. But may I make a public service announcement that it’s still summer out there? I only have to go to the farmer’s market in Baltimore to know this. August and September are the peak months for tomatoes, peppers, peaches and plums. Just about everything is at its best, with the exception of delicate lettuces.

Baltimore and nearby suburbs are awash in farmers’ markets, large and small. I usually shop at the big one that runs year-round in the neighborhood of Waverly on Saturdays, but I also adore the Kenilworth Farmers’ Market in Towson on Tuesday afternoons, which is smaller but has a more “artisan” feeling.

I find it exciting that Maryland farmers are now growing specialty tomatoes like the ones famous from San Marzano, Italy. Though I’m sure Italians would not be happy to see the name of that terroir applying to bullet-shaped, meaty tomatoes grown outside of Italy. But wow! The transformation of these Roma tomato varieties into sauce and chutney is magically easy.

Excellent cherry tomatoes went into this salad that is jazzed up with avocado, scallions and basil.

I rarely travel in the summer, because I dig very deeply into writing and revising. Fall is the time writers must travel for book festivals. I would ideally like to write-garden-cook all summer, but the heat drives me inside so I’m mostly writing and cooking.

My eyes are bigger than my stomach—how many things can you do with a gorgeous bunch of scallions before it wilts?

The smaller the zucchini, the more I want to eat them. But there are only so many ways to shred, slice, sauté and bake “courgettes,” another name for them that is not used here.

I tried to tempt my husband toward kale by asking him to grill it. Result: interesting, but still pretty sharp. With summer’s ease, these are experiments worth taking. If it doesn’t thrill the palate, try something else.

This is a delicious variant on potato salad; grilled potatoes and fennel, pickled fennel fronts and a yogurt mint dressing. And look below to see a snack of grilled corn tossed with fresh herbs and topped with cornflakes! All of these recipes are weekend experiments taken from an excellent recipe collection of Kerala-inspired grilled dishes published in an early summer edition of Food and Wine.

An improvised apricot-blueberry-buttermilk cake that I concocted looked rather like a Matisse. Fabulous warm from the oven.

Cooking summer produce is a way for me to vacation into different countries without leaving my house. Still, all the fancying and fixing can’t replace the perfect purity of what we can only eat in the summer, sometimes with a fork and often, just with the hands.

Summer in the City

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.


In Spring of 2017, I hired a man to dig out the grass in front of my Baltimore, Maryland house. He thought I was crazy to pay him for that, but I had the idea of replacing the grass with a lot of perennials that are native to Maryland and Virginia. I wanted to plant food for the local bees and bugs (the good bugs, of course) and have the feeling of a full, lively cottage garden. Native gardening guru friends told me this kind of garden doesn’t need much water, because the plants are used to the climate, and such laid-back flora grows happily without special attention.

I also heard a saying that was meant to encourage me: the first year plants sleep—the second year they creep—the third year they leap!

I was pleasantly surprised to see plants getting a nice, full shape the first year. But this year, WOW. I don’t really think we can pretend anyone is creeping. The mountain mint is a monster stalking the entire space!

Lots of rain made these plants really grow, and it’s amusing to see my short dogs wandering through their personal jungle while bees buzz gently overhead.

Another thing that surprised me about my impromptu native cottage garden is how long it is taking everything to flower. With these natives, varying shades of green are what I’m stuck with for a long time. I will have to wait till August to see yellow petals on these Black-eyed Susans below, and they are already approaching 6 feet tall.

One of my goals this summer was to “be in the garden” most mornings while it’s still cool. An overdue book turned my mornings into writing sessions on the screened porch until today—July 17.

The middle of July is usually when most people stop gardening. But it’s my start date. I had a bunch of weeds to pull.

But they easily gave way. Today I did a spot-check on a Virginia Sweetspire bush advertised as “good for poor soil” that I’d planted this May. I watered it a couple of days in the beginning and then I started writing overtime and let it go without extra watering.

I think the Sweetspire, below, got mad about that.

Can I make things better for the poor shrub this late in the season? And is there any point in planting anything more in the bare dry spots…or is that insane with the 90 degree heat that lies ahead?

If you ask me, is easier to plant a garden than to write a novel; but it’s more tempting to disappear in a rewrite than to pull ivy.