Autumn moves through the air these days, even though it is just past the middle of August. In the mornings, the sun rises just a touch later than it did last week. The warmth of the day feels like an echo, an old memory instead of a present moment. The sky over the Olympic mountains settles into darkness more quickly than it did in June, when light lingered until well after 10 pm. Within a few weeks, summer will clearly be done.
Normally, I flinch against these days, these days of transition and fleeting sunlight. The incipient chill in the air signals the end of long days of freedom and a return to the alarm clock. This summer, in particular, has been so extraordinary that I simply dont want it to end. Long mornings with the Chef, eating gourmet breakfasts and reading the paper, studying menus of our favorite restaurants online, walking through the neighborhood holding hands and chatting happily. We flew to Tucson for a birthday trip with his marvelous parents, three days of laughter, driving around the neighborhood in a golf cart, and lightning storms that split the desert sky in half. We drove to the coast of Washington, sipping on Slurpees and singing, then drove in go-karts, played miniature golf, and trash talked with each other during video games. (Also, there was the ocean.) We have walked in the long grass of Discovery Park in the late afternoons, sat atop the grassy hills of Gaswork Park at midnight, and lingered long in the sand at Madison Park beach after he is done cooking for the night. We have laughed and looked into each others eyes and stayed up late at night talking in bed. We have eaten better than I have ever eaten in my life.
Why would I want summer to end?
But if the Chef has given me anything besides wide-open love he has taught me to appreciate the moment even more than I did before. When we were driving away from our home the other day, and the cooling winds of autumn came through the sun roof and ruffled our hair, I instinctually flinched. Before he could notice me, he shouted out, with school-boy glee, Its fall! When I started to complain, he looked at me and said simply, Comice pears. Wild mushrooms. Butternut squash. I laughed and felt immediately better. Oh, thats right. The earth has its reasons.
With this in mind, I was stopped at the front door of Kens Market when I meant to go in to buy milk. Sitting in a little bin before me? Italian plums. I discovered these last year, in between summer and autumn, when I was new to the joys of farmers markets and buying fruit when it had just become available. I bit into their dusty skins and swallowed their slithery flesh for days on end. Inspired by a story in The New York Times, I made an incredible plum crumble that made everyone moan. I made it again. And then, Italian plums disappeared from the stores and stalls of the farmers markets, and I had not seen them since.
I dont eat anything out of season anymore. I stick to that rule, steadfastly. Before I went gluten-free, I did not pay attention to my food the way I do now. In fact, I often bought pale tomatoes in January, their fat pink globes taunting me in the taste. Now, I only eat fresh tomatoes during this time of year. Soon, they will be gone. I miss them, in January, when I dream of that plump red goodness. But when they return, I devour them until I am sated, happy for the chance to eat something when the earth wants it to be eaten. And so, when I saw the Italian plums for the first time this year, I snatched up a pound immediately.
Then I walked back home and made some plum crumble for the Chef. He moaned and smiled and asked for more. I love making food that he loves.
A few days later, by some wonderful coincidence, a 33-pound box of Italian plums arrived at our door in the arms of a Fed-Ex man. Now, I know this doesnt happen often it has certainly never happened to me before but this is one of the unexpected joys of having a food website. I am often sent free food and promotional items. Most of the time, I make no mention of that food in these pages, because it simply doesnt meet my standards. But who could refuse a 33-pound box of Italian plums? This nice man named Eric read my website awhile ago, noticed how glowingly I wrote about my Italian plum crumble, and offered to send me some of the Italian plums from Blue Mountain Growers in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, the farm he represents.
There must be something about the sun of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, because these Italian plums are gorgeous. Their dark purple skins are stretched taut across their fleshy yellow innards. Every bite brings globules of juice and tartness. And I can strip every shred of flesh from the little wooden pits, so that nothing remains but the echo of dusky plum taste. I could eat five or six at one sitting, and not yet be done. I have.
Still, even if we eat ten handfuls a day, the Chef and I could not possibly finish a 33-pound box before all the plums go mushy. So we have plans to make jam. We have been handing out bags of plump plums to friends and employees at the neighborhood coffee shop. We have eaten enough crumble that we grumble at the thought of taking one more bite.
Driving the Chef to work one day, I said to him, What do I do with them? He suggested a savory sauce, softened and sweet, for on top of meat.
Pork, I said immediately. And he nodded his head vigorously. I had chosen well.
And so, on Friday, my dear friends Molly and Brandon ambled up the stairs of our home. Sadly, the Chef was at his restaurant, cooking food and making people happy. But we raised glasses of champagne in his honor. We were happy with each other. We sat at the little table by the window and gawked at the vivid red streaks above the Olympic mountains, as the sun set earlier than it had the day before. We talked of difficult friends and literary agents and catering jobs and computers. We laughed. There was a romaine salad with a lemony dressing. There was chocolate mousse. But first, there was the plum sauce, warmed and slightly sweetened, which I had made with the Chefs cell phone instructions. It lay draped across seared pork chops. (Brandon ate his over a grilled piece of polenta, since he has never eaten a piece of meat in his life.) We dipped our forks into its jammy goodness, then filled our mouths with the taste of early autumn.
No one was complaining about the end of summer any longer.
PORK CHOPS AND PLUM SAUCE
I can’t help it. Whenever I hear the phrase “pork chops,” I always think of this moment from the Brady Bunch when Peter Brady said slyly, out of the side of his mouth, “Pork chops and applesauce.” What was the reference? I only vaguely remember something about him pretending to be a hard-boiled detective. But I have remembered the intonation so well that I still mutter “…and applesauce” every time someone says pork chops.
(Don’t even let me mention the word phenomenon and a certain little rhythmic song from Sesame Street. If you are about my age, your brain is singing it right now.)
And so, perhaps this recipe will help me extricate that broken-record repetition from my mind. Pork chops and plum sauce. The tartness of Italian plums, with a resilient sweetness, softened by warm butter, enhanced by puckery orange juice — this sauce lingers in the mind long after it is gone. Long after these chops left our plates, long after Molly and Brandon left our house, the taste stayed with me. Pork chops and plum sauce. It has a certain resonsant ring to it.
Now, if only I could invent a phenomenon sauce.
Two tablespoons of high-quality, unsalted butter
One red onion, finely diced
Twelve Italian plums, slivered into quarters
A handful of sugar (about one-quarter cup, if you want to be fussy)
A glug of white balsamic vinegar (two or three tablespoons)
Half a glass of orange juice (or half a cup)
Melt the butter over medium-high heat, being careful not to brown it. When it has melted and becomes bubbly, tip the diced onion into the skillet and stir it frequently. As the onion becomes soft and translucent, add the slivered plums and sautée them for a few moments. When the plums have started to grow soft and sag, add the handful of sugar and the glug of white balsamic vinegar. Stir and cook, simmer and allow the plums to become fully softened, until the flesh yields easily to the fork. Add the orange juice and stir and sautée some more, until the entire mixture has congealed and smells so good that you can no longer resist it.
Spoon the plum sauce over pork chops you have seared in a skillet, then thrown in a 500° oven until they have reached at least 155° degrees. Enjoy the crispy bits and juiciness even more with this plum sauce dripping down the sides of the chop.
Serves three, amply.