Not long after we moved into our home on Bainbridge Island, my wife and I were awakened in the middle of the night by what sounded like demons fighting in the trees...

Share story

Not long after we moved into our home on Bainbridge Island, my wife and I were awakened in the middle of the night by what sounded like demons fighting in the trees.

“Dogs?” I wondered.

“Not dogs,” insisted my wife. “Listen.” She was right.

The guttural noises emanating from the dark were not the sounds of dogs. For a moment I imagined the sounds came from people, too angry to form words. Eventually, it became clear that whatever we heard had nothing to do with us, and so we pulled the covers up and went to sleep.

“Did you hear the raccoons last night?” asked one of the neighbors in the morning. “They were going for your plums.”

The plums, we now realized, were fully ripe, and they hung in great grape-like clusters from the drooping branches of a tree not far from our bedroom window. Our house stands in the middle of an acre of fruit trees: apple, pear, cherry, fig and plum. And the place is locally famous, not only with the neighbors but with the wildlife, for its bounty. Flocks of birds, packs of raccoons, families of deer and the occasional rogue black bear find their way into our yard and help themselves like teenagers in a suburban refrigerator.

The folks who lived here before us diligently set about making themselves as reliant as they could be on the land. Immigrants from whatever incarnation of Yugoslavia existed at the turn of the last century came first. They planted most of the trees, along with a row of vines for wine grapes. (Noble firs and red cedars that had been clear cut when the vines were planted have come back and shaded the little vineyard, so sadly, there’s no longer enough sun to ripen fruit for the wine they must have enjoyed back in the day.)

Immediately before us, a couple of organic gardeners worked a few raised beds, installed a food dryer in the basement, and established the rustic Green Acres style that we have maintained, planting a few rows of beans or a patch of greens when the spirit moves us. We inherited cases of their canning jars when we bought the house, and every year I refill them with pears, applesauce, plum chutney and blackberry jam.

Mostly, we have been pretty nonchalant about the abundance we inherited, but lately, with murmurs of worldwide food shortages in the news and the drums of global climate change and economic breakdown sounding on the horizon, I have been looking at the garden and the orchard with new appreciation. With a little more attention, I tell myself, we could learn to rely more on this plot of land, and a little less on the food-delivery system represented by our local grocery store.

I have never been what you would call a survivalist, but I did grow up in the land of duck and cover. That might help explain why I have this fascination (obsession?) with food supplies, stocking our pantry with canned goods and buying flour in 50-pound bags. Our basement camping cupboard is stocked with a portable butane stove and a case of fuel canisters. I don’t really expect the worst; it’s just that I feel better when I have some provisions on hand for a rainy day.

Granted, my little stash is not going to help me survive a nuclear winter or the kind of cultural annihilation depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel, “The Road,” but it comes in handy when a regular winter storm leaves us without power. And between the garden and the orchard and a well-stocked pantry, I can go for quite some time without a trip to the store, fostering the illusion that we are a self-sufficient household, and when the demons growl in the night, I rest assured that all is well in our little world. I know that I have a chicken in the freezer and enough plums on the tree to turn it into something tasty for dinner.

Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Chicken Baked with Plums and Olives

Serves 4

Chicken Mirabella exploded onto the American scene in the 1980s when Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso gave us “The New Basics Cookbook.” My wife and I loved the chicken with prunes and olives, but over the years, I replaced the dried plums with fresh ones and toned down the brown sugar and vinegar called for in the original recipe until they were gone, and the natural sweet-tart flavor of fresh plums has taken over. We like to serve the chicken with a green vegetable from the garden and some dried pasta from the pantry.

One 3 ½- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

12 ripe Italian prunes, or other backyard plums, halved and pitted

¾ cup pitted Manzanilla or other green Spanish-style olives

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 cup dry white wine such as chardonnay or sauvignon blanc

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with the salt and pepper and arrange the pieces, skin side up in a single layer in a 2-quart, nonreactive (glass or ceramic) baking dish.

3. Tuck the plum halves in around the chicken pieces and scatter the olives and garlic over the chicken and plums. Pour the wine over all.

4. Bake until the pieces are well-browned on top and an instant-read thermometer, inserted into the thickest piece of chicken, registers 165 degrees, about 40 minutes.

5. Use a spatula or a slotted spoon to hold the chicken pieces in the pan while you pour most of the juices into a saucepan. Boil the pan juices over high heat, stirring from time to time until the juices are slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Distribute the chicken between serving plates and ladle on the reduced pan juices.

Greg Atkinson, 2008