In Praise of Pectin-Free Jam


not any ol’ plums…damson plums

I had no idea there was a plum tree in our yard until Himself came in and said, “Hey, we have plums out back!”

I’m not usually so inattentive to the things growing around me, but we’ve only been in this house for a few months now, and for the past two of them I’ve been recuperating from a badly sprained ankle. Our yard is especially bumpy and uneven and not the best place to set one’s weight on a beleaguered appendage. The last time I’d been in the backyard there was no sign at all that we’d soon be the proud possessors of enough plums to relieve every sluggish digestive tract in Seattle.

It turns out we have ourselves a damson plum tree. I remember when I was a kid my grandmother talking about the damson plums she’d enjoyed as a child, but I was never curious enough to ask her for more detail. (The same can be said for so very many things, to my great regret.)

When I saw our plums, I wondered. They certainly don’t look like the ones I find at the grocery. These are smaller and slightly oblong, sort of like fat purple footballs. Slightly astringent in taste, and even when they’re super ripe they’re not terribly juicy. So I looked them up online, and sure enough, they’re damsons. And they’re ready for the picking. The eating. The preserving.

I made chutney from the first picking, because chutney is such a delightful free-for-all. You can throw just about anything in there and it will turn out fine, as long as you like the things you put into it. And I froze a few pounds to use at some unspecified time down the road when the tree’s bounty is but a tasty summer memory warming the dark months of winter.

But looming before me was the task of jam making. I wanted homemade jam, oh yes I did. I just didn’t want to use pectin.

It’s a fairly modern practice, relying on store-bought pectin to encourage jams to set up. But I don’t like the unnatural thickness it inflicts on them. And as someone who bristles at following rules, especially when it comes to combining flavors in the kitchen, I resent the strict instructions that come with pectin.

“Ignore these rules at your peril!” they insinuate. “Deviate one jot and sugar will turn to salt, hens will lay rocks, and trees will hurl their fruit at you, just like in The Wizard of Oz.” Or some such. That’s the subtext I pick up, but perhaps I’m being overly sensitive.

So I set out to find advice on making pectin-free jam, something that would allow for creativity and personal preference.

Sure, pectin-free jam isn’t going to have that stand-a-spoon-in-it thickness of commercially prepared jam or jam made with commercially prepared pectin, but I’m willing to trade that for a fuller, more nuanced flavor. We only think jam should be that thick because it’s all we’ve ever eaten, right? Rather than let it flow delicately over a piece of toast, we think we have to lay it on with a trowel and the firm touch of a mason building a cathedral. But sampling pectin-free jam brings the same sort of delightful epiphany that occurs when you make your first batch of aioli after a lifetime of eating store-bought mayonnaise.

“Where have you BEEN all my life, you wondrous bite of deliciousness?!” we think, even if we don’t say it out loud. Because most of us don’t talk to our food. Or if we do we don’t admit it.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I decided to find someone who had already done all the work, gone through the trial and error and figured everything out. I found that someone on the Northwest Edible Life blog, researched and written with great deftness and insight by Chef Erica. She has an understanding of preserves that, in my opinion, borders on the mystic. Well she’s demystified the process for the rest of us, and I’m happy to share her instructions for making pectin-free jam.

She not only tells you how to do it, but she provides the lowdown on how to tweak it to your liking so, as she says, your jam doesn’t taste just like what everyone else makes. She even has a nifty little Signature Jam Flavor Maker Chart to show you what flavors go together naturally, so you can add in spices and other flavorings and create a jam that is uniquely yours.

The results of my first round of jam-making using the damson plums and her method as my guide yielded the best jam I’ve ever tasted!

Yes, the house is hot from jam making in summer. Yes, it costs more to make it, what with the product (if you don’t have a tree, a garden or a generous neighbor), the jars and assorted bits and bobs and ingredients. And the gas or electricity it takes to cook down a trove of fresh fruit into a few tiny jars.


But in the dead of winter, when you open one of those jars and smear some of that bright, flavorful jam over a warm slice of toast or a piece of pound cake, you’re going to be so very happy that you spent the time, money and effort and created something special. A jam that is uniquely yours.

happy residue

happy, happy residue…
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No Hopping With Knives

knives & crutchesSigh. Here’s the view from my chair at the table. Knives in the background and crutches in the foreground. If you are using one, you’d best not be using the other.

A few days ago I wiped out on the walkway in front of our house. The doctor says “bad sprain.” The doctor says “stay off that foot for at least a week.”

Carol says, well, mostly things that shouldn’t be spelled out here.

Himself is to be commended for all he has done. Our usual divide-and-conquer chores have fallen squarely on his shoulders, feeding us both, cleaning the house and kitchen (and cat litter). Doing laundry. Shopping. Feeding cats and catering to their demands. And most of all, catering to mine. Is anyone actually a good patient? A patient patient? Certainly not moi.

It’s amazing how much you take for granted in your everyday life, doing this and that with nary a thought. But once you’re hobbled, even temporarily, suddenly the tiniest thing that needs doing needs someone else doing it for you.

He bought us a whole roasted chicken, and we laid siege to it while it was warm and then picked the rest off the bones for cutting up for future meals to put on salad, on nachos, on whatever. Nothing that requires too much prep. The bones are in the freezer for stock making when I’m back on my feet.

Was that the best roast chicken ever? No. But it was pretty good, and it was there when we needed it. And that’s enough.

To stand on one foot and lean against the counter while cutting vegetables would be dangerously stupid. Hopping across the kitchen on one foot with that knife in hand to wash it would be even more dangerously stupid.

No running with scissors, and no hopping with knives. No matter how self sufficient we are—or think we are—there are times when we need to let someone else help us out.

Thanks Andy, for all your help, and more importantly, for ignoring my crutchy crankiness. You’re a champ!

I love you!


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While I’ve previously devoted this blog primarily to regional and international cuisines—and will continue to do so—I have a collection of essays in various stages of completion that I want to begin sharing in this space, food-related essays on my growing up days in the rural South. I love traveling and sampling the cuisines of the world, but at heart I’m still a Tennessee farm girl.


In my credulous preschool days the Beatles just wanted to hold my hand. That was about as racy as the radio ever got then. But before the Top 40 concept reached the hinterlands of rural, churchgoing Tennessee, you never could tell what sort of risqué business might ooze into your world on the airwaves. While it was nothing on a par with today’s no-holds-barred lyrics that could make a porn star blush, it was enough to stoke the imagination of a child brimming with more questions than the adults were willing to answer.

Once when I was about five, my momma and I were shopping in the general store just down the road from our farm when a chipper voice on its tinny speaker instructed:

“Keep on churnin’ till the butter come…

Keep on pumpin’ make the butter flow.

Wipe off the paddle and churn some more.”

Churn_01I asked her about it because I couldn’t understand why anyone would sing about making what we smeared onto our toast for breakfast.

She grew ashen, pointed across the store and blurted, “Look! There’s a kitten!”

I raced over and began scouring the dry goods section but didn’t see it anywhere. By the time I returned to her side the song was over, and my questions shifted from the significance of those dairy-centric lyrics to the whereabouts of the mysteriously vanished kitten that I failed to find playing amongst the bib overalls and nubby work gloves.

Her diversionary tactics worked for a little while. Then I heard “I Like Bread and Butter” and decided it was my new favorite song after the luster had faded from the not-quite-so-snappy “Jesus Loves Me.” I’d prance around the house singing the sad story of the fellow whose girl feeds him bread and butter, and everything is hunky dory until he comes home early one day and finds her eating chicken and dumplings with another guy.

“Does this mean you can eat chicken and dumplings with your honey but not with anybody else?” I asked as she stirred a generous dollop of bacon drippings into the iron skillet filled with blackening green beans. “Or that it’s okay to eat bread and butter but it’s not okay to eat chicken and dumplings?” She told me I asked too many questions and that I’d understand when I was older. When those responses didn’t satisfy and I pressed the issue, she explained that children who were too inquisitive were in danger of going straight to H-E-double-L.

This made me wonder if there was some moral objection to dumplings that was simply too wicked to discuss. Our family didn’t eat them, and honestly, I wasn’t sure exactly what a dumpling was. There was no one I could turn to for clarification of these finer points of culinary propriety. My momma clearly wasn’t up to the task, and I figured if she couldn’t explain them to me, no one else could either. While my daddy was a farmer, and I’d witnessed plenty of hanky panky going on amongst the hogs and cattle, we never discussed the similarities between what the livestock was doing and what humans might get up to. Were any of those extra parts I saw while they were carrying on “dumplings?”

As concerned as my momma seemed to be about me skipping down the murky path to Aitcheedubulel, wherever that was, I decided this question should remain unasked. Singing about food was inexcusably naughty. Period. But the issue lingered in my mind, and I began looking everywhere, musing over song lyrics and searching for clues to this conundrum. At church I browsed through the hymnal during sermons and was surprised to find that even the hymns we sang at Thanksgiving, the season for conveniently overlooking the sin of gluttony, made only scant and unhelpful mention of food. The holiday table at church groaned from the weight of turkey, dressing, brown-and-serve rolls, countless congealed salads and plenteous desserts. There, as everywhere else, we talked about food, obsessed over it and packed it away in huge quantities.

We just didn’t sing about it.

Then one day a woman’s smoky voice spilled out of our lunchbox-sized, leather-bound transistor radio. “I need a little sugar in my bowl,” she sighed. “I need a little hot dog between my rolls.” I held my tongue until the singer of “All That Meat and No Potatoes” bemoaned that he was “waitin’, palpitatin’.” Picking judiciously through the food references, I focused on the non-food word.

“Momma, what’s ‘palpitatin’?”

“It’s a ten-dollar word for goin’ to the devil,” she snapped, her face crimsoning to the shade of our rooster’s crown, and switched off the radio with such vehemence I thought the knob would break off in her hand.

So proximity alone was enough to get a word barred from discussion. This was a difficult time for a child enamored of words and already stoking her vocabulary for life as a writer.

Finally I started school, with each day beginning and ending on the bus, surrounded by kids of all ages and backgrounds. The worldly high school men sat on the back three rows and snickered about things like “makin’ bacon.” Their obsession with food puzzled me, until finally I began putting the clues together, noting that somehow it involved s-e-x and that this stuff was supposed to be fun. But they clammed up every time they saw me glancing back their way, so I got only, um, snatches of the mystery.

By second grade I decided the playground was the only sensible place to learn what “doing it” was all about, when my worldly, town-dwelling friend Patty promised to explain it to me during recess one day. I counted the miserably slow minutes until we hit the playground.

We hung upside down on the monkey bars in silence for what seemed like forever, when suddenly she heaved herself over, grabbed my shoulders, pressed her lips against my ear and whispered: “A boy pulls down his pants, and a girl pulls down her panties, and he sticks his you-know-what into her you-know-what.” Then she let go of my shoulders, and I swung back into my solitary upside down space, more knowledgeable but feeling cheated.

That was it? I had to hang by my knees until I was lightheaded just to hear that? I had a brother and a raft of boy cousins, so it wasn’t like I’d never caught a glimpse of their equipment when someone had left the bathroom door open. But her account sounded too matter-of-fact, basic “insert Tab A into Slot A” business, and not like the kind of knowledge that needed to be so carefully guarded. And not like any fun at all, certainly not like something you’d want to sing about.

Before I could react the bell rang. We unhooked our knees, turned the requisite flip and dropped to the dusty ground.

“But what about butter?” I called after her as she raced ahead of me to the schoolhouse door. “And potatoes . . . and dumplings?” She stopped in her tracks and looked back at me in bewilderment, her authority dissolving. She was just as baffled as I was.

Further complicating matters were whispered suggestions that sex and babies were somehow connected. One day as I set the table for dinner, a boy called in to “Swap Shop” on the radio and offered to trade his rock-n-roll records for a baby bed. Momma let out a hoot but then sucked it back in, as quick as the cord retreated back into our fancy new Electrolux vacuum cleaner.

So there was a clue. I knew women carried their babies around under their baggy dresses until they got tired of that. Then they pulled the babies out from under their dresses, wrapped them in blankets and carried them around in their arms. But how did they get there in the first place? Did singing about food cause them to get the babies? How was that possible?

Deepening the mystery was the introduction of Better Than Sex Cake. Every upstanding churchwoman and neighbor lady had a recipe for it, but they always whispered its name with a blush and a titter. Being a kid, I had nothing to compare it to. Even my stately grandmother began bringing this cake to church potlucks, and she whispered and tittered with all the rest. I had no appreciation for it simply because it wasn’t chocolate. I’d look at her cake, pale yellow and loaded with crushed pineapple and instant vanilla pudding and topped with canned whipped cream and flaked coconut, and I’d shudder. It was the sum and substance of everything I despised in a dessert, because there were flavor issues. And texture issues. It was supposed to be better than sex, so I held out scant hope that sex would be worth the bother.

No evidence remains to confirm my doubts because at some point these recipes vanished from the collections of both grandmothers. I think all venerable Southern women make a pact so that whenever one of them dies, the others will sneak into her kitchen, ninja style, spirit away her Better Than Sex Cake recipe and destroy it.

What did I learn about sex from all this vagueness, from the tittering and whispering about cake and the pretend kitten spotting? And from all that cryptic music in which the mysteries of food loomed so large?

Not much, but by the time I was in junior high and the boys were embarrassing the girls with their most obnoxious renditions of Robert Plant singing, “Squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg,” I realized Led Zeppelin’s take on that old Howlin’ Wolf tune wasn’t about fruit at all. What adults couldn’t accomplish with averted eyes and evasive responses, teenaged boys reeking of Hai Karate and cigarettes could, and I began to appreciate that it’s through music and food that sex finds some of its most imaginative and playful expression. At least it gave us a way to speculate in public about things we otherwise didn’t dare discuss in polite society—and eventually develop our own savory vocabulary as we engaged in the fevered backseat exploration of lemons, potatoes, dumplings and all.

It turned out that churnin’ had nothing to do with dairy products and farm chores. It had everything to do with frosting the cake.


Better Than Sex Cake

The list of recipes for Better Than Sex Cake is endless, and like other sensual activities, completely open to interpretation. Essentially the idea is to load one cake with as much decadence as it can bear, and then add some more. While I believe no cake baked from pre-made, packaged ingredients is going to be better than sex, every recipe I’ve ever seen for it contained nothing homemade. So in the spirit of my Better Than Sex Cake-baking forebears, mine is also a combination of store-bought ingredients.

  • 1 box of Betty Crocker Devil’s Food Cake mix, plus the ingredients listed on the box: 1¼ cups of water, ½ cup of vegetable oil and 3 eggs
  • ½ of a 14-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 small jar of caramel sauce
  • 1 8-oz. container of Cool Whip
  • chocolate chips, as needed
  • peanut butter chips, as needed
  • Butterfinger candy bars, as needed

Bake the cake according to the directions on the box.

Leave it in the pan, and let it cool partially on a wire rack, about 10 minutes.

While it is still warm, poke holes in the cake about an inch apart with the handle of a wooden spoon, and drop a few chocolate and peanut butter chips into each hole.

When the cake has finished cooling, pour the sweetened, condensed milk into the holes. Next pour the caramel topping over the cake and spread to cover. Then top the cake with the whipped topping (use it all!). Sprinkle with enough crushed Butterfingers to completely cover the whipped topping.

If any cake survives the initial assault, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator.

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Surf & Turf, Spanish Style


Next time I go to Spain I’ll be sure to take my fine swine t-shirt with me. It just might get me some freebies!

I’m currently reading John Barlow’s Everything But the Squeal, in which he details his year spent eating every part of the pig on his travels throughout Galicia, the northwestern corner of Spain that borders the Atlantic Ocean. For those of you who might not have heard the expression, it is said—most correctly—that when it comes to the pig, you can eat everything but the squeal. Actually, I always heard that expression as “everything but the oink,” but the idea is still the same. If you treat it with ingenuity, patience and care, you can consume the hog in its entirety.

What struck me, though, was his reveal that when you go to Galicia’s pork-centric festivals (and Galicians reaallly love their pork!), whether the exalted piece of pig flesh is the snout, the corkscrew on the backend or somewhere in the middle, you’ll find not only the celebrated piggly part but pulpo as well. It is a feature of every festival. EVERY festival. In fact, Barlow says that pulpo is “as close to a Galician’s heart as pork.”

Pulpo is a treat that shows up on tables throughout Spain. Fitting in the tapas category—or pintxos if you’re in the Basque region—pulpo is octopus tentacle that has been simply cooked (in Spain it’s usually boiled in a large copper pot), cut into bite-sized pieces, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Spanish paprika and flaky sea salt. The flesh is dense yet smooth and creamy, unless it’s been mishandled and becomes tough and chewy. Its delicate flavor makes it a natural for all sorts of flavor combinations.

This past week I found myself in an Asian supermarket, pulpo the last thing on my mind. As I searched for items for some recipes I’ve been developing, I swung by the seafood section for a look at the fresh fish and such, much of which was looking right back at me (I’ll return for those catfish heads another time). And I spotted individual octopus tentacles, pre-cooked and packaged with little sleeves of wasabi. As I plucked a couple of them out of the array of seaweed salad, sushi and kimchi—all of which I adore—my thoughts weren’t of Asian food.

They were of PULPO!


I’m a sucker for these suckers…

So when I got home with them, I tossed out the wasabi packets and gave the tentacles the Spanish treatment, added in a few delectables from the local Spanish market—namely some anchovy-stuffed Spanish olives and tiny green pickled peppers called piparras—and poured myself a glass of txakoli, a crisp white wine from the Basque country. And I rounded out the feast with a hunk of bread Himself had baked the day before, great for mopping up every last bit of olive oil, paprika and sea salt.

pulpo din din

mine, all mine…

Speaking of Himself, he was out of town, so I greedily envisioned enjoying my feast all by myself. That worked out only until Cosmo’s nose alerted him to something in the kitchen that he needed to check into. Turns out, he’s a fan of pulpo too. And now he drifts through hopefully, assured that there’s more pulpo and that I’m in a sharing mood.

pulpo lover

fellow pulpo lover

What a delight that this need not be an either/or proposition. In Spain you can indulge in both, just my kind of surf and turf. Now I’m scoping out recipes for combining these two, like wrapping octopus in bacon. I’m not the first one to think of this—the internet is full of menus featuring pork belly and octopus There’s even a restaurant in Milano that serves octopus and pork belly lollipops!

As for me, I’m not interested in blazing a new trail but rather reimagining how I can take ingredients into my own kitchen and use them in ways I’d never thought of—like giving my Chinese octopus a Spanish passport.

I see a whole new type of angels on horseback in my future.

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green almonds in the last place I’d expect to find them…

one almondDuring my 18+ years living in Los Angeles I searched unsuccessfully for the delicacy that is the green almond. One of those items only in-the-know locals are hip to, they eluded me each time I’d check the farmers’ markets in April, the wee micro-season in which they’re available. Like the town’s celebrities, I knew they were there–just hard to spot sometimes.

But today Himself and I were in Goodies Mediterranean Market, a great Seattle find, picking up rose water for a recipe I’m developing, when I decided to pop into the fresh produce area for a look around. And there, far, far from the Mediterranean climate of our recently departed Southern California—and the Mediterranean itself—lookie what I found…

almond halfGreen almonds! They sort of look like tiny, immature peaches, don’t they? That’s because they’re kinfolk, botanically speaking. But you can munch away on these without doing a thing to them. Yup, can you eat them whole, just as they are and enjoy their crisp, delicate tartness. Or you can toss them in a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of flaked sea salt and make a lovely little snack for yourself. They need nothing else to be delightful. If you’re a peach-fuzz-o-phobe, don’t let the fuzzy exterior put you off. Crunchy is the primary texture you’ll notice. And see the very inside of the almond embryo? It’s cool and jelly like.

almond splitThe late Chef Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café fame so loved green almonds that she featured them on the cover of her wonderful Zuni Café Cookbook. She liked to carve away the exterior and pull out the delicate centers, those future almonds, to serve with white rose nectarines and prosciutto. Their subtle tang plays well with the delicate sweetness of the nectarines and the salty, porkiness of the prosciutto.

So to all my Southern California pals—and to anyone heading that way in the next few weeks, including my colleagues in town for IACP’s annual conference—keep an eye on the farmers’ markets, especially the one in Santa Monica, and see if you can get your hands on some green almonds. (Come to think of it, the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is a good place to spot both delicacies and celebrities!) Once they move beyond their cute fuzzy puppy stage, you’ll have to wait until they’ve matured and lost their tough outer layers to enjoy the mature treasure inside. (em, talking about green almonds again, not celebrities!)

And if you’re not in a Mediterranean climate, check around to see if you have a grocery nearby that carries the foodstuffs of that area. Even if you don’t find green almonds, you’ll certainly discover something you’ve never tasted before that’s worth trying–perhaps a whole shopping bag full of somethings that will surprise and delight.

Addendum… After posting this entry I realized I was essentially saying “I couldn’t find these, but you should take your time and look for them.” To carry the celebrity analogy further, going to a Southern California farmers’ market is a feast for the eyes, with those mountains of showy citrus fruits, orderly boxes of jewel-like berries and lush jungles of greenage. Y’know, the celebrities of the farmers’ market. Then there are a few items that don’t announce themselves from the moment you step out of your car. Let’s call them the character actors of the farmers’ market. You have to look for them, but when you find them you think, “Oh THERE you are! I’m so glad to meet you!”

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