Traveling, Cooking, Reading, and Trains

Hiking date: September 12, 2019

We’ve had a very wet beginning of September here in Portland. Last Thursday when it was just overcast we wanted to go out for a walk somewhere other than our neighborhood where I walk at least 4 days a week and Carla walks all 7. But then we didn’t want to go too far in case the rain moved in while we drove. Tualatin Hills Nature Reserve on Millikan Way in Beaverton is the perfect spot for needs.

Of course I took my camera! Our first stop was the meadow/marsh at the end of the first trail. The leaves are just starting to turn.

I tried a few close ups of some leaves. By this time in my life I should know what Poison Oak looks like. There are signs along the trail to look out for it and I thought this might be a sample until I noticed the thorns when processing the image. And I don’t think the leaves are serrated quite like this. Probably wild blackberry; but if I’m wrong, please let me know in the comments.

Next I found a leaf that is getting a head start on fall with it’s change to red.

In advertising, nature shows, and books leaves are usually pristine. But this is how they look in real life along a trail. They wilt around the edges and little bugs – I’m guessing – make a meal of parts.

The views from the trails are beautiful, but the area is heavily wooded and shady making it hard to get dramatic pictures. But the sun poked through a couple of times and I worked on getting some of the contrast I saw. I try to pay close attention to my f/stop, aperture, and ISO in my photos, but I don’t usually do much with metering, leaving it as “Multi” which take a look at the middle of the subject. I wasn’t happy with the results of those shots the contrast was lost. Luckily I assigned a function button to allow me to change where to meter the light. My best results were when I chose “Center” or “Spot” where it would meter from the I was focused on. I really enjoy when I experiment with camera settings to get closer to the picture I want.

There is also a “Highlight” metering option that I just saw as I was refering to my camera to write this post. I need to play with that.

We took another trail which was darker but the sun was just peaking through some of the upper branches. I played with my f/stop to see if I could grab an image of the sun rays. This was shot at f/18.

I think the number of “rays” is determined by the number of leaves on the aperture apparatus.

After our hike we stopped by a nice little coffee shop Carla knows about – coffee shops are not in short supply in Portland so we have plenty of options. I had to have a cinnamon roll if for no other reason to troll my buddy Jay who loves cinnamon rolls with a passion. We usually text each other a picture of our pastry with “Hah! I’m eating a cinnamon roll and you aren’t”

A note about the pictutres and this post. All the nature pictures were taken with my Sony A7R3 and Sony 24-105 lens. This is my go-to combination for most of my pictures. The cinnamon roll was taken with my iPhone.

I did 95% of the post-processing on my iPad. It’s a long, laborious process. The iPad “sandboxes” apps so if one app crashes it won’t corrupt the other apps. Good reasoning but it sure makes it harder to share things from one app to another.

  1. Import the pictures from the SD card into Appe Photos.
  2. Create an album in LightRoom Mobile
  3. Import pictures from Photos to LightRoom
  4. Delete the pictures from Photos – I don’t want duplicates
  5. Edit the photos in LightRoom Mobile – which is not as robust as LightRoom Classic CC on the Mac.
  6. Export the photos back out of LightRoom to Photos so I can easily access them from my blogging app. It turns out I might be able to export to my Google Drive in step 5 and load into the blogging app from there – but using Photos is a bit easier during the writing.
  7. Write the blog post, importing pictures along the way
  8. Delete the photos – AGAIN – from Photos.

I used the WordPress iPad app to write this post. On LightRoom Classic CC I have an export preset made up especially for blog pictures so they fit well in the theme I use. I can’t figure out how to do that in LightRoom Mobile. As a result, I’m not sure how the pictures will look when they are published. Finally, I can’t figure out how to load a banner image as I usually do on my posts. Scratch that – I found a way!

But in the long run it’s a better solution than hauling my heavy MacBook Pro around on long trips. And a brand new iPad OS is on the way at the end of this month that may solve some of the interface problems. We shall see.

City of Thieves Cover

City of Thieves

Author: David Benioff
Copyright: 2008
Type: Fiction
Finished: September 7, 2019

Rating: ★★★★★

Image from Amazon

I went from the pure escapism of Son of Tarzan to one of the grittiest, intense novels I’ve ever read,  in City of Thieves by David Benioff. The protagonist, Lev, is a teenage watchman in his apartment building in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the German siege in the winter of 1941-1942. Benioff paints a devastating portrait of the cold and deprivation under the siege.

“At night the wind blew so loud and long it startled you when it stopped; the shutter hinges of the burned out cafe on the corner would quit creaking for a few ominous seconds, as if a predator neared and the smaller animals hushed in terror.” [p 7]

There were no wooden shutters in the hinges since they had long since been used as firewood. By the time of the story everything was gone from the city. 

“We spent our spare time hunting rats, who must have thought the disappearance of the city’s cats was the answer to all their ancient prayers, until they realized there was nothing left to eat in the garbage.” [p 10]

And then one night he and his friends spotted a German aviator parachuting into the city. At first, they thought the impending attack had begun. But actually it was just a lone pilot who had ejected during a bombing run. The friends rushed down to investigate and grabbed some of the dead man’s belongings including a knife and a flask of Cognac, his wallet, watch, and a knife – which Lev kept. Having these items was a state crime – stealing from the people. The group and the corpse were soon discovered by Russian soldiers on patrol; all got away except Lev whom the soldiers decided “was a good one for the Colonel.” [p 16] . He was thrown in a dark prison cell and was sure he’d be executed in the morning. 

Lev was terrified

“…contrary to popular belief, the experience of terror does not make you braver. Perhaps, though, it is easier to hide your fear when you’re afraid all the time.” [p 18]

At some point he is joined in the dark cell by a Russian army deserter Kolya. In the morning the two were brought before the colonel in charge of defending the city. He did not have them executed, but he did take their ration cards and gave them a chance – return in a few days time with a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding. Without ration cards, they’d die of starvation so they had to do something.

Kolya is a good counterbalance to the taciturn Lev.

“Kolya’s blue eyes, neither fear nor anger nor excitement about the prospect of a fight—nothing. This, I came to learn, was his gift: danger made him calm.” [p 50]

This attribute would come in handy over the next few days. The rest of the novel follows this mismatched pair on their scavenger hunt. The things they see and hear about are horrifying. The deprivation and degradation of the “Piter” residents, the countryside, and the Germans is appalling. After a day and night in the city they decide they have to go out to the countryside behind enemy lines to find the eggs. This novel is compelling and is a book I almost couldn’t put down. But I’d have to put it down for a few hours just to process what I had read. 

“The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening. German corpses fell from the sky; … [summary of events edited so as to not spoil the plot]…I had no food in my belly, no fat on my bones, and no energy to reflect on this parade of atrocities. I just kept moving, hoping to find another half slice of bread for myself and a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter.” [p 212”]

Benioff bases much of his work on “Harrison Salisbury’s masterpiece, The 900 Days [which] remains the best English-language book on the siege of Leningrad.” [p 259] He was also the head writer of the Game of Thrones TV adaptation (which I never watched or read) and wrote the screenplay of The Kite Runner. Perhaps that experience and approach is why this novel is so fast paced. 

I highly recommend novel, but steel yourself.

The Son of Tarzan

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Copyright: 1915 (Original)
Type: Fiction
Finished: August 31, 2019

Rating: ★★★

Image from Amazon

For a misogynistic, racist, and scientifically inaccurate novel, this is a fun read. Lord Greystoke (Tarzan) is living back in London with his wife and teenage son, Jack. They keep Jack in the dark about his father’s identify but the Tarzan spirit is strong in this one. Tarzan’s friend Akut the Killer Ape ends up in London – you’ll have to read it to find out how – and Jack contrives to return Akut to Africa. One thing leads to another and yadda, yadda, yadda, Jack turns into Korak the Killer in Africa.

Run-ins with whites and blacks turns Korak into a loner;  until one day he rescues Meriem from an Arab sheik and they start an innocent life together along with Akut. But poor Meriem, she is captured by bad men so many times it’s hard to keep count. In the midst of her travails she is rescued – temporarily – by the Great White Hunter she knows only as Bwana and his wife “My Dear”. 

Although it ends up being too much of “Perils of Pauline” (a 1914 movie serial) for Meriem, it can be a fun read and an interesting look into early 20th century adventure stories. I especially liked some of the narrative descriptions of action. At one point Jack is fighting with a man and his helped out by Akut.

“[Condon’s] eyes bulged in horror at the realization of the truth which that glance revealed.” [Loc 471]

Moments later…

“His head whirled in the sudden blackness which rims eternity.”  [Loc 475]

But my favorite florid description is when Korak is forced to defend himself against an indiginous group.

“Weighted down as he was by dogs and warriors he still managed to struggle to his feet. To right and left he swung crushing blows to the faces of his human antagonists…

A knob stick aimed at him by an ebon Hercules he caught and wrested from his antagonist, and then the blacks experienced to the full the possibilities for punishment that lay within those smooth flowing muscles beneath the velvet brown skin of the strange, white giant.” [Loc 1646]

Does Meriem get freed from her various tormentors? Does Korak the Killer ever reunite with his family? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out. 

The Kindle edition is available free on Amazon thanks to the Gutenberg Project; so all it will cost is a day or two of your time. For pure escapism this is fun page turner, just be prepared to bring a willing suspension of disbelief. [Coleridge]

Chances Are
Author: Richard Russo
Type: Fiction
Finished: August 21, 2019
Copyright: 2019

Rating: ★★★★★

Image from Amazon

Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey were college friends who worked together cooking and cleaning for a women’s sorority house in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Their paths diverged on the military draft night of December 1969.

“Earlier, while serving the girls’ dinner, they’d been in the same boat, but now their birthdays made individuals of them, people with singular destinies, and one by one they drifted away, back to their dorm rooms and apartments, where they would call their parents and girlfriends and discuss the fact that their lives had just changed, some for the better, others for the worse, their grades and SATs and popularity suddenly beside the point.” [Loc 113]

“Lincoln and Teddy, both luckier on a night when that – not smart, not rich – was what you wanted desperately to be” [Loc 126]

All three were in love with Jacy- a  young rich woman who lived in the sorority. Over 50 years later the three men gather back to Lincoln’s family vacation home on the east coast. The main topic of discussion is what happened to Jacy. No one seems to know and the speculation is widespread. There is a touch of murder mystery in the story.

After describing the events on draft night, Russo masterfully drops back into the men’s childhoods and we see the formation of three distinct characters. Russo is one of my favorite novelists and his skills are on display in this story. The characters are richly drawn and distinct. He carries much of the action forward through dialog instead of droning on in narrative. In other words, Russo shows his characters through dialog and action rather than merely describing.  

At one point during the weekend the stresses of being with old friends are evident to Teddy:

“It came to him that the whole weekend had been a mistake, a misguided attempt to preserve something already lost. Clearly the friendship that had served them all so well had played itself out. Whey the graduated from Minerva, they’d somehow, without meaning to , graduated from one another.” [Loc 2274]

But they keep working through that tension to come to a resolution. Most of the story is told from Lincoln and Teddy’s points of view. After a few turns, including a battle with a neighbor, we learn what happened to Jacy.  As the title implies and as we watch the characters past and present, we understand the influence that chance has on one’s life. Our parents play enormous roles in our lives – whether by action or inaction. 

Perhaps this novel speaks to me so profoundly because I remember the draft numbers being pulled for my age group. Five of us were together; three received very high numbers, Dave and I were not so lucky, getting 13, and 25.  Spoiler alert: I wasn’t drafted and the Vietnam War was over by the time my student deferment was over.

Richard Russo is just fantastic at examining the nuances of lives and relationships. His characters are so real. If you are familiar with Russo’s work, you may have already made an appointment with yourself to pick it up. If you are not, this is a great place to start. I started my blog reading reports too late to discuss the Russo’s earlier work, but you can find my reports on Richard Russo’s later works here on my blog. Mohawk and Empire Falls are his masterpieces, while Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool are probably his most popular; the former was made into a movie staring Paul Newman

About ten years ago our youngest son moved to Chicago to get his Master’s degree at DePaul University. He met his future wife there and they settled down. We visited probably once per year. And then our grandchildren were born. From then we visited two or three times a year and in every season. In summers we often drove taking many routes: Interstate 80 through Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa; the Mt Rushmore route through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana. Heck one time we even took Route 66: Portland to Santa Monica, California, then through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri.

Carla and I often shared our dream of the family moving to Oregon to be near family, but let it go because they were building a nice life for themselves in the Midwest. And then! This past spring they told us they were looking for jobs back here in Oregon! After a lot of work our son received two job offers and is now a middle school math teacher in the Beaverton School District.

Naturally we jumped at the opportunity to help them move. They put their house up for sale and wouldn’t have a place to live until it sells, so we spent two months cleaning and clearing our house to share with them for a couple of months. On August 7 we flew back to help pack and then drive home.

Chicago is a great city with lots to do in the city and the surrounding villages. But it was a stone drag to have to travel so far to see the kids and grandkids for just a week or so at a time. Nevertheless, the silver lining to that black cloud is the railroad activity. The BNSF Transcon is just a 15 minute walk away from their old house and I spent hours getting pictures of trains almost every visit. I knew this week would be busy so the first evening I headed trackside for one of my last visits.

Short CSX consist of autoracks rolling through Riverside, IL
Outbound BNSF Metra on a summer evening. Riverside, IL

The good news: In a wonderful coincidence our oldest son was in Chicago for a conference. He finished up at noon on Thursday, August 8. The bad news: he had to be at work on the following Monday. After stopping at our youngest son’s house for a glass of water and a change of clothes, he and Carla hopped in one of the cars and headed. The first night they made it almost through Iowa. Friday they had a long 14+ hour drive through Nebraska and most of Wyoming – three miles from the Utah border. Saturday brought a shorter-but-still-long drive through Utah, Idaho, to Pendleton, OR. Sunday was a quick drive home.

Meanwhile my job back in North Riverside was to entertain the grandkids so my son and DIL could pack. Being in Chicago, we had to grab some Chicago style dogs so we headed to the local Portillo’s to scratch the itch.

In line to order hot dogs at Portillo’s.

The inside lighting is mostly red which is terrible for photography. But I was able to adjust some picture of the kids enjoying their hot dogs and French fries.

Hot dog with some ketchup for the dippin

I’m already missing Portillo’s.

While we were out on our adventure movers came to pack everything in a PODS container for shipment to Oregon. The two on the left brought things down while the man on the right packed it all in. He must be dynamite at the game of Tetris.

Packing the PODS container.

Most everything was packed so we ate the rest of our meals out. One stop we had to make for the kids was Junction Diner. It’s an old school diner with an O-gauge railroad running around the circular counter. When your food is ready, it is placed on the train flat cars and delivered to your seats! (I planned to insert a video of the train but after 3 minutes of exhaustive research I couldn’t figure out how – so here’s a picture of the 3 year old. I have a similar picture of the older one at the same place a couple of years ago but I can’t find it!) He loves trains as much as I do.

The POD was packed and the house cleaned out and up so Monday it was time to head out. My son took his wife and kids to the airport for an early flight to Portland where Carla would pick them up. The PODS people picked up the container but seemed to have lost track of what they were doing with it – they were planning to put into local storage in Chicago. I started the drive home while my son talked for an hour and a half with various people at PODS. It took more work than I would have thought to fix things up.

We wouldn’t need to rush home quite as fast as Carla and my older son, but four nights was still pushing it. I figured we might bet lucky to visit a few train sites long the way. First up was the Rochelle, Illinois railroad park. This is a spot a couple of hours west of Chicago where the Union Pacific and BNSF lines cross. The city put up a web cam and a little covered picnic area. I visited here back in 2015. We met a small family that was touring the Midwest for 10 days stopping at railroad sites.

Union Pacific and BNSF crossing diamond in Rochelle, IL

The folks who were there said there wasn’t much activity and the traffic monitoring system showed it was unlikely we’d have much action for at least an hour. It was preparing to storm so we hopped in the car and headed west toward our stop in Iowa City. We were still driving in the dark when a thunderstorm surrounded us. While the lightning wasn’t terrible there was more than enough rain. We agreed we wouldn’t drive that late the rest of the way.

Our destination for the next night was North Platte, Nebraska.

Nebraska farm land.

News flash: there is a lot of corn in the midwest. I was talking with a friend who grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa (I’m looking at you Jan!) who told me the cool, wet spring meant soy beans couldn’t be planted. Instead of a mix of crops, we saw more corn that we normally see.

Nebraska corn

I was impressed by the size of weather fronts. We drove for hours under this weather system. Excuse the poor photo quality, but I love that big arc in the front.

Weather front in Nebraska

It turns out we should have gone a little farther but those clouds reminded us of our prior day’s experience. Fortunately, North Platte is a nice spot for a railfan to stop. We stopped here in 2010 and 2016. There is an eight story Golden Spike tower just next to Bailey Yard – which is an enormous classification yard for the Union Pacific.

Union Pacific Bailey Yard seen from the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, NE

You also get a different view of the cornfields up there.

Cornfields next to the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, NE

We didn’t want greasy travel food for dinner so tried a little restaurant in North Platte that serves “Eccentric Food”. We had hummus and falafel. I guess calling it Middle Eastern food wouldn’t be a help in the center of the midwest. The hummus was okay; the nan was very nice but the falafel and fresh vegetables were on the lower side of so-so.

We were up and ready to go early the next morning. Our destination was Evanston, Wyoming, which is 3 miles from the western border. We took a short detour into Green River, Wyoming to check out the rail yard. Carla and I stopped here back in June 2016. There is a long pedestrian bridge over the half dozen or more tracks. I saw a train on the far side so had to get over my fear of heights to get over to the other side.

Proof that I was up on the bridge.

Your correspondent on the pedestrian bridge over the railyard in Green River, Wyoming

One of the trains we had been playing leap frog with was temporarily stopped but before long it moved west.

Westbound container train in Green River, Wyoming
Westbound container train in Green River, Wyoming

This was our last train viewing stop of the trip. We were tired after our 576 mile trip into Evanston so fell asleep a little early. The next day – Thursday – would be our longest drive – almost 600 miles – to Pendleton, Oregon. That would leave us a short drive home so my son could see his family before bedtime.

We stopped for lunch at Hanson’s Cafe in Glenn’s Ferry. It’s a fun little place we try to stop at whenever we go by. You can see some interesting pictures of the interior in this post from 2015.

Hanson’s Cafe. Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho

We passed through Boise at 80 MPH. I had harbored thoughts of stopping to visit friends but the extra miles we had to travel dashed those hopes: family before friends.

We were up Friday morning anxious to get home. But the family was at the Oregon Coast when we arrived. They were delighted to see Papa.

The trip was over 2,100 miles. Google Maps says it is a 32 hour trip but it’s really more like 42 hours. Google is okay for local trips but for long distance it assumes you are going exactly the speed limit the entire time, with no stops or slowdowns.

The road home

We’ve enjoyed our trips by plane, train and car to Chicago but I think we are done.

I worked to get back to a normal schedule so went out to breakfast Tuesday of the next week with my buddies. We normally go to Fat City in Multnohmah Village. The chrome of the counter seats reflects the floor – and you can see me if you look closely.

Fat City Cafe – Multnohmah Village; Portland, Oregon

Cook Date: August 24, 1019

Last spring I bought a Mak 2 Star pellet grill; it worked very well for me so I sold my Weber kettle charcoal grill and my Weber gas grill figuring the Mak could do it all: low ‘n slow as well as high temp searing and grilling. The new grill is high tech in that it has an electronic controller to maintain temperatures and even automatically change running temperature based on time or temperature reported from a meat probe.

With technology comes problems. On my first low ‘n slow cook of some baby back ribs the temperature ran away and charred my ribs. Some other folks with the latest software also had problems. One of the reasons I bought a Mak was their customer service. I had a weekly call with the the technology manager to report what I found in my additional testing. Mak sent out an update just before we made a quick trip to Chicago in early August – more on that adventure soon. I did a dry run and things looked good. But I knew I wouldn’t be happy – nor would the folks at Mak – until we did some real cooking. I finally got that chance yesterday. I put on two racks of baby backs and ran the same program. It worked great! I’m still learning the grill so I should have started earlier – but that’s not the grills fault.

Early Saturday morning, I stripped the membrane off the bone side of the ribs and sprinkled both sides with some kosher salt for a dry brine.

Baby back ribs with a dry brine

Mid morning I gathered my Assistant Pit Master to make some MeatHead’s Memphis Meat Dust for the rub.

Making Memphis Meat Dust Rub

When finished I had my Assistant Pit Master show off our work.

Assistant Pit Master showing off our work.

We removed the ribs from the refrigerator and fired up the grill. After a bit we applied the rub and put the racks of ribs on an upper rack of the grill.

Racks of ribs on the smoker rack

While the ribs cooked my helper and I watched My Los Angeles Dodgers squeak by the American League team from New York.

As the ribs cooked I taught the primary tenets of barbecue to my assistants. What are the 3 elements of delicious barbecue? Meat, smoke, and time. And “If you’re lookin’ you ain’t cookin”. My program plan was

  • Apply smoke for 30 minutes
  • Cook at 240° for 2 1/2 hours
  • Foil with some apple juice for 30 minutes
  • Remove from foil and cook until firm – about 30 more minutes

As it reached time to foil the ribs weren’t pulling back from the bone as much as I’d like so I continued cooking without foil. Then later foiled for 30 minutes and sauced/firmed/grilled the last 20 minutes. The weren’t fall off the bone which the family likes but they came off with a gentle tug.

Baby back ribs fresh off the grill

I flipped them bone side up and cut into 1 rib pieces

Ribs ready to eat

I liked the smoke ring.

Smoke ring on baby back ribs

Dinner was served. We also had salad and bread but I was in a hurry to taste them.

Dinner is served

The grill update performed fantastically and I was happy with the results. I will give them a little more time to cook next time.

Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Type: Fiction
Finished: August 1, 2019
Copyright: 2018

Rating: ★★★★

Image from Amazon

This is a tale of a young girl – Catherine “Kya” Clark – who is abandoned by her mother, brother, and father to life in a marshy North Carolina cabin. From the age of six she has to learn to fend for herself after her mother left. Her father – a terrible, violent, often absent man – left a few years later. Always alone, she developed abilities and an inner strength, but her “differentness” was a barrier between her and society. Delia Owens poignantly examines the tension between loneliness and the desire for connection. 

As a young teenager she slowly establishes a bond with Tate who teaches Kya to read.

“Her impulse, as always, was to run. But there was another sensation. A fullness she hadn’t felt for years. As if something warm had been poured inside her heart.” [p 98] 

And then when Kate doesn’t come back for a while, the lonesomeness comes back:

“…loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm. Now it grew roots inside her and pressed against her chest.” [p 100]

Mixed metaphor aside this is a very descriptive passage.

Owens other strength is her description of nature. The derivation of the title is nice. She has won awards for her non-fiction nature writing and it shows here. 

“AUTUMN WAS COMING; the evergreens might not have noticed, but the sycamores did. They flashed thousands of golden leaves across slate-gray skies.” [p 122]


“The shack sat back from the palmettos, which sprawled across sand flats to a necklace of green lagoons and, in the distance, all the marsh beyond. Miles of blade-grass so tough it grew in salt water, interrupted only by trees so bent they wore the shape of the wind. Oak forests bunched around the other sides of the shack and sheltered the closest lagoon, its surface so rich in life it churned, Salt air and gull-song drifted through the trees from the sea.” [p 7]

I love that description of the trees bent by the wind. 

While we know that after mating the female praying mantis kills the male, Owens’ description is deliciously detailed, gross, and riveting. These rich descriptions paint a beautiful picture of Kya’s world. 

I also like the structure of the novel where we jump between Kya’s early life and the investigation of a death. It doesn’t take long to realize she will be a suspect – it’s  novel afterall; why else would the death be mentioned – and the story of her life leads up to the accusation when the two paths join.

There is a map at the front of the book; I wish I would have realized that at the beginning. In addition to being helpful, it shows the detail Delia Owens included. I didn’t picture the Fire Tower where it was.

Could a six year old really survive like that? Kya’s language and use of idioms don’t ring true given that her major exposure to language is through Tate’s textbooks. Talking with my attorney son about the legal process, parts of the story are just flat wrong. But like my son says, if you wrote about it realistically, you’d have a terrible story Finally, some of the ending – which I don’t want to give away – is a little too perfect.

However, the story is so compelling and beautifully written that I gladly employed  Coleridge’s “willing suspense of disbelief”. I highly recommend this book – and I’m not alone: it’s number 1 on the Amazon charts on the week I wrote this, and has a full 5 stars with over 18,000 reviews. It’s a perfect summer read.

Pick it up.

Date: July 20, 2019

My Sister-in-Law’s garden is in full bloom. She came over for dinner this evening and brought along four different kinds of squash.

Fresh squash and brats – It’s what’s for dinner

It was a beautiful night so I started up the grill. I broke out my Mak grilling pan for the first time.

Fresh squash on the Mak grill pan

After they had a head start, I put on the brats.

Dinner is almost ready


Dinner is served

Brats, Olive Ciabatta, Grilled Squash, and Coleslaw.

Date: July 16, 2019

We’ve eaten a lot of beef lately so we decided to lighten things up a bit. After soaking a 7×15 cedar plank in water for a couple of hours I fired up the grill to 350° and lightly salted a small salmon fillet. When the grill was up to temp, the salmon goes on the plank and the plank goes on the grill.

Cedar Planked Salmon on the Mak 2 Star

USDA says salmon is done at 145°; we have friends who take it off at 120°. We like it somewhere in between. Living in the Pacific Northwest, our fish is very fresh and we are confident in fish monger so I took it off at 130° – about 15 minutes.

Cedar Planked Salmon

I picked up a nice sourdough bread and Carla made some coleslaw. One of our DILs is from South Africa and she introduced us to having chutney as a condiment for salmon. I picked apple and cranberry – it went great with the apple smoked fish.

Salmon Planked Salmon with Coleslaw, Chutney and Sourdough Bread

Delicious. The cedar plank didn’t smoke much, so next time I might boost the grill temp a bit to 400°.

Cook Dates: July 7 & 13, 2019

I’m going through my standard grilling and barbecue recipes to see how they work on my new Mak 2 Star pellet cooker. I’ve worked my way up to Santa Maria Tri-Tip; one of my favorite cuts of beef.

We invited our friends, the McD’s, over so I wanted to do something special. I’ve been talking about it ad nauseam for two years so I decided to make a cheesecake in my pressure cooker. That’s right! The cheesecake needs to be cooked the day before and chilled overnight so let’s start there.

Many of the recipes I read were basically cream cheese, sugar and eggs. I wanted something with a bit more complex flavor – maybe a bit of tang. So, I followed a DadCooksDinner recipe. This recipe adds 1/4 cup sour cream for that extra flavor. I didn’t use the strawberry topping he used – but more on that later. After reading a few of Mike Vrobel’s later blog posts I added two teaspoons of corn starch to keep the eggs from curdling.

All across the web it was driven home that for best results the cream cheese and eggs need to be at room temperature. So, I put them out on the counter for them to rest for an hour.

I was going to use a mixer for the filling and I didn’t want to dirty up the food processor as well, so – following his technique – I crushed 6 graham crackers in a 1 gallon plastic bag. I varied from Mike’s recipe by using 6 graham crackers and 3 tablespoons of melted butter instead of short break cookies.

Crushing graham crackers for the cheesecake crust.

Over a year ago I bought a 7-inch springform pan and a silicone sling; it finally got used. Forgetting to spray some vegetable oil in the pan to prevent sticking, I pressed the crust into the pan and pushed it up a bit higher on the sides.

Cheesecake crust

Time to get everything together: cream cheese, lemon zest, corn starch, eggs, vanilla extract, and sour cream.

Cheesecake filling ingredients.

I got busy mixing the ingredients in the right order so I didn’t grab pictures. You’ll need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times. Before adding the eggs I tasted it and it was just like cream cheese frosting – no surprise.

I carefully poured the filling into the pan on top of the crust. I should have worked a bit more to get the top smooth.

Cheesecake batter ready for pressure cooking.

After putting 2 cups of water in the bottom of the InstantPot, I lowered the cheese cake in its sling, sealed it and cooked it for 20 minutes with a 20 minute pressure release. I slid a small paring knife – dull side forward – around the pan to loosen it.

Cooked – but not finished – cheesecake.

After it cooled a bit more I put it in the refrigerator and contemplated the topping. Fresh blueberries are filling the produce aisles of our local stores this time of year, but I wanted to make a conversation piece. Dulce de Leche it is. Again, following Mike Vrobel’s lead, I used a can of sweetened condensed milk.

Dulce de Leche ingredient – REMOVE THE LID IF YOU MAKE THIS

This can of Borden’s milk brings back memories. We didn’t have Borden brand where we lived – or maybe my mom just didn’t buy it. But my Grandma had it, so it reminded me of fun times at my grandparents house when I was a kid.

If you make this recipe, REMOVE THE LID BEFORE COOKING! I pulled off the pull tab lid, stripped the paper off the can, covered tightly with aluminum foil and cooked it for 40 minutes in the pressure cooker with 2 cups of water. Wait for the natural pressure release and there you have it: Dulce de Leche – a beautiful milk caramel topping.

Dulce de Leche from Sweetened Condensed Milk

The next morning I removed the springform side of the pan and held my breath. I couldn’t figure out a way to make a taste test without prematurely cutting out a slice, so I just trusted the process.

Pressure Cooker Cheese Cake.

The crust isn’t as thick as it looks here; it is pushed up on the sides pretty far.

We didn’t really eat dessert first, but let’s proceed thematically. Dianne McD is a master baker so I asked for her help drizzling the Dulce de Leche over of each piece. Dessert is served.

I held my breath and took my first bite – it was delicious! The sour cream added just the right amount of tang and the lemon zest brightened it up without being over powering. If you make this, used the DadCooksDinner recipe and follow his directions closely – make sure the cream cheese is room temperature when you start and don’t over beat the eggs.

We also had Tri-Tip. I’ve written about this so much I’ll keep it short(-ish). I did have a problem adjusting to my new grill. With gas grills I crank all the burners to high, scrape the grates, then reduce the heat wait a few minutes and cook the meat. The Mak grill is well insulated by that thick stainless steel so it didn’t want to come back down to a reasonable cooking temperature – 230° to 250°. So I opened the lid for a while. Well, the thermocouple is in the back corner so by the time it got down to the target temperature, the front part of the grill – where I’d be cooking – apparently got too cool. So, it took an hour longer to cook than usual. I learned from my mistake and tried again the following weekend with better temperature control. I’ll be using pictures of both cooks.

If you aren’t familiar with Tri-Tip you are probably a vegetarian, or haven’t lived in the western U.S. or both. I guess butchers in other parts of the country cut it up differently. My recipe can be found here: Tri-Tip with Santa Maria rub. That recipe is for a gas grill – but it can be easily adapted to charcoal or pellet.

Pay attention to the grain of the meat; you’ll see it runs in opposite directions on the two sides. When carving, cut in half from the hypotenuse (long edge) to the right angle. Then slice each half into thin slices against the grain. If you don’t you’ll have some tough meat and wonder why I like this dish so much.

I applied a liberal dusting of Santa Maria rub: granulated garlic, onion powder salt, black pepper, white pepper, and cayenne pepper.

I used the reverse sear sear method. Set up the grill for 2 zone cooking. Start the roast on the indirect of a grill. Flip at the 15 and 30 minute marks and spray with a mixture of garlic olive oil and red wine vinegar. Then flip and baste every 5 to 10 minutes until the internal temperature is about 125°. Finally, move the meat to the hot side of the grill to get the outside nice and crusty, taking it off the heat when the internal temperature is about 5° to 10° shy of your desired level of doneness. Follow USDA guidelines for doneness temperatures.

Searing the Tri-Tip with corn on the front side. (Picture from 2nd cook)

I got a little anxious toward the end and cranked the temp a bit too much at the end. It was good, but a bit more medium than medium-rare.

Dinner is served: Tri-Tip with corn on the cob and a side of beans.

Look closely and you can see the red smoke ring around the outside. For authentic Santa Maria Tri-Tip, cook with oak pellets or wood chunks.

I had much better results the following weekend with a better controlled grill temperature. I cooked at 235° for about an hour. I think next time I’ll cook with the grill at 250°. I put it in the warmer when the internal temp got to 125°, then cranked the grill temp up to finish.

Tri-Tip and corn on the cob – take 2.

For the second take I removed the corn from the foil and grilled directly for a few minutes. It looks prettier – to me – but uncharred was a bit tastier according to the judges.

Dinner is served (Second cook)

Medium rare Tri-Tip with corn on the cob and Olive Ciabatta Bread

And for good measure a close up shot.

Medium rare Tri-Tip with corn on the cob and Olive Ciabatta Bread