Accidental Deliciousness

Posted May 29, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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This morning I was out on the patio early, aiming to fire up my smoker well before it climbed into the predicted 90s. The current temperature, by the way and according to Weather Underground, is 97.2°, but “feels like 93°.” And I would have to agree that it doesn’t feel a jot over 93°, although on my shady patio, where I do my smoking and grilling, it actually feels much more pleasant than it sounds.

But it was fresh and cool when I lit up my newish pellet smoker, which has been getting quite a workout lately. As a person who’s always smoked over logs with an offset firebox smoker, the pellet smoker has taken some getting used to. It’s not nearly as romantic, nor does it require the same amount of delightful fiddling and fussing. On the other hand, I have left it smoking all day while I was at school, and all night while I slept, and both the food and I lived to tell the tale both times. So, on balance, I approve of my Green Mountain Daniel Boone smoker, which sounds like only guys in coonskin caps can or would want to own one, but no.

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The real reason I was out there was to take my first crack at smoking salmon, which is a thing that you really can’t do without some kind of temperature-controlled device. I had gotten six pounds of beautiful Copper River sockeye sides at Costco for this express purpose, and although I had expert advice, I was quite nervous about doing harm to the lovely fish. It’s a very different process than I’m used to, a really short brining time, and a relatively short smoke. However, the results are as you see them, gorgeous fish that is moist and flaky, and only the tiniest bit too salty.

That’s my fault, because I’ve been making bacon on the smoker like there’s no tomorrow, and letting it cure for 6 days before giving it about 12 hours of smoke. And then giving it away and eating it up so fast that it never held still for a picture. So naturally when I saw that I was supposed to brine the salmon for just 6-8 hours I assumed that longer is better, because 6 hours when you’re used to 6 days seems like mere ephemera.  I’ve learned my lesson though, and next time I’ll restrain myself and pull it out of there after 6 hours, to reduce the salt level a little.

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The other thing that my smoker likes to do is brisket. This baby, its maiden effort, got devoured in a flash and was every bit as succulent as it looks.

But back to the salmon. Right behind me, as I turned momentarily away from puttering over the fish, I noticed that my arugula bed had sprouted a forest of flowers and their long leggy stems. As you know, if you don’t get the flowers off herbs and salads you won’t get any new leaves, and I have some special Italian arugula whose leaves are so splendid they’re like spicy, bitter green candy. So I swooped down on them and pinched off a big handful of stems and flowers and was getting ready to toss them on the compost pile when I had a brainstorm.

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Maybe everyone else has already discovered this and I’m the last to know, but those things are delicious. I knew that about the flowers, but the stems were a real surprise to me. So right away I decided to make a sort of pesto with them. Oops, no nuts in the house except smoked almonds. But hey, why not try something else improbable with my already-unorthodox ingredient list? And then, the pesto was really thick, and I thought of adding some water, but why add water when you have wine? Vermouth to the rescue. The result is astonishingly delicious, smooth, herbaceous, a little spicy, a little nutty. In fact, I ate quite a bit with a spoon, and it would be awesome slathered on crostini, or wherever you can think to spread it. Give it a try, weird as it sounds. And if your arugula is as spicy as mine, this doesn’t need any garlic, although you could certainly amp it up if you wish.

And that’s the story of the really good smoked Copper River salmon that was outshone by some stems and flowers, against all the odds.

Smoky Arugula Spread

1 1/2 cups arugula stems and flowers
1/2 cup Smokehouse almonds
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup dry vermouth
salt and pepper

Chop the arugula stems and flowers coarsely and grind them in the food processor with the almonds. Add the cheese and grind again to integrate. With the machine running, slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vermouth. Season to taste with salt and pepper and congratulate yourself on some great garden recycling.

Passing The Mom Torch

Posted May 14, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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weddingOn this Mother’s Day I’m keenly aware that this will be my last year as The Mother; next year at this time I’ll be The Grandmother. Because yes, the future is upon us, and Eric and Jessica are bringing about this shift in the gravitational pull of the family by having a baby in October. (pause for applause)

I’ve always thought of myself as too young to be a grandmother, even though some women are great-grandmothers by the time they reach my age. And although I know that many women can’t wait to pass this particular milestone, being a grandmother has never been a part of my self image, and I can’t help but feel that I’m not ready. Although since this baby will have three grandmothers, I expect that I can still act as if I refuse to grow up, without endangering the grandmother quotient that every baby deserves.

It’s a bittersweet time. It makes me feel my age as I’ve never done before, but the thought of a new generation in our family is so reassuring. It makes me think often about Shel, how he would have been so proud and happy to see Eric all grown up (well, mostly) and becoming a father himself. How he too would have had his moments of ambivalence, still seeing himself as a perpetual rock and roller, how he would have had to work to settle into this new role, how he might have loved it.

So although I do have moments of quaking in my boots at the prospect, and although I’ll always still be a mother, I’m trying to awaken to the reality of becoming more matriarch than Mom. It’s one of life’s predictable transitions, if we’re lucky, and it all revolves around having someone new to love in this world. So little mystery person, I promise to give you all I can for as long as I can, and Jessica, next Mother’s Day will be all about you.

The Saddest Shopping

Posted February 11, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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Today when I arrived at the grocery store some nursing students from my school were handing out shopping lists for Project Backpack. I was surprised because on the island we have Project Backpack, but it’s in August and it’s all about getting school supplies for students that need a hand. But here we were in Walla Walla, on the first sunny day since I can’t remember when, in February. It couldn’t be about school supplies.

The nursing students explained to me that they were collecting food for elementary school kids who depended during the week on the breakfasts and lunches they got at school. They said that those kids have teachers who will put food into kids’ backpacks for the weekend, because otherwise the kids might not eat anything until Monday.

Then it got worse. They handed me a shopping wish list, consisting mainly of non-nutritious carbs-bordering-on junk. Instant oatmeal, mac and cheese, crackers, granola bars, Cup’o Noodles soup, and a couple of more promising things like peanut butter and little fruit cups. On the island, when I bought food for the Food Bank, I always carefully chose the food for the most nutrition, especially protein, per dollar that I could find. So naturally I thought “This is a crap list! I’m going to upgrade this food. At least I’ll be one person who’s donating some actual nutrition.”

But then I stood in the cereal aisle,looking at the list for a long time, and I realized that all of the foods on the list required, at most, the addition of hot water. The rest could be eaten out of the package. If there were no adult to cook something. If a kid had to eat snack food out of her backpack all weekend until she could get something more substantial in her school meals on Monday.

And so, in the end, I filled my cart with those mostly empty-carb foods, because anyway that’s what the kids are used to eating and spending three times as much for Annie’s Organic mac and cheese would probably result in a kid tossing the weird hippie food and going hungry altogether.

I handed several bulging bags to the young nurses and then I walked through the brimming produce aisle, and went to the local butcher, to do my own shopping. All the while thinking how unbearable it is that kids in this country are going hungry. But then I decided that I had to be honest about it. It’s kids in my small town that are going hungry. Kids just a mile from me that are living out of their backpacks for the weekend. Living on the kind of food that only the most desperate of parents would feed her children. In my own town.

Something Good From Russia

Posted January 23, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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We’re all up in arms about Russia these days, and with good reason. However, when I recently posted a picture of this delicious cake on Facebook people were content to forget all about politics in the interest of pastry. I made it with homemade apricot preserves, which is why there are such large pieces visible, but Bonne Maman is a good substitute.  And as you can see, I don’t decorate with the chopped walnuts called for in the recipe, because I like the look without them.

I’ve had this recipe since Putin was in diapers. No, not really, only since 1991, when it appeared in Bon Appetit, but that sounds better than saying that I’ve had it since Putin was in the KGB. Every time I’ve made it people have been ready to forget all about the cold war and embrace our Slavic brothers and sisters. Maybe we should rename this World Peace Cake. Try it and see whether you don’t get a yearning to dust off your passport and visit its homeland.

RUSSIAN WALNUT TORTE WITH MOCHA CREAM

CAKE
2 cups toasted walnuts
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
7 large eggs — separated
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon minced lemon peel
MOCHA CREAM
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder or instant coffee
powder
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate — chopped
1 1/2 cups chilled whipping cream
2/3 cup powdered sugar — sifted
2/3 cup apricot jam
Chopped walnuts
FOR CAKE: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch-diameter
pans with 2-inch-high sides. Line bottoms with parchment. Dust
pans with flour. Finely grind toasted walnuts with 2 tablespoons
flour in processor. Using electric mixer, beat egg yolks and 1/2 cup
sugar in large bowl until pale yellow and tripled in volume, about 5
minutes. Mix in fresh lemon juice and vanilla extract. Gently fold in
nut mixture, breadcrumbs and minced lemon peel.

Using electric mixer fitted with clean dry beaters, beat whites in
another large bowl to soft peaks. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup
sugar and beat until stiff but not dry. Gently fold whites into yolk
mixture in 2 batches. Divide batter between prepared pans. Bake
until tester inserted into centers comes out clan, about 45 minutes.
Transfer cakes to racks and cool completely. (Cakes will shrink
slightly as they cool). (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover cakes and
let stand at room temperature.)

FOR MOCHA CREAM: Combine 3 tablespoons water, rum and
espresso powder in heavy small saucepan over low heat. Stir until
espresso powder dissolves. Add chopped chocolate and stir until
melted and smooth. Cool.

Whip cream in bowl to soft peaks. Gradually add sugar and beat to
medium-stiff peaks. Add chocolate mixture to whipped cream and
fold together.

Place 1 cake on platter. Spread half of jam over. Spread 3/4 cup
mocha cream over. Top with second cake. Spread remaining jam
atop cake. Spoon 3/4 cup mocha cream into pastry bag fitted with
medium star ti. Spread remaining mocha cream over sides (not
top) of cake. Pipe mocha cream decoratively around edge of cake.
Sprinkle with walnuts. Cover with cake dome and chill at least 30
minutes and up to 4 hours.

 

The Thousand Days

Posted January 14, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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This has been a rough week. Unrelenting snow and ice, temperatures well below freezing night and day, back in school after many months, and I have been off kilter the whole time. Bothered by everything, pleased by nothing. Too much so to be explained by mere weather, mere homework. Finally, though, just before falling asleep, it came to me. This has been the week of the thousand days, the thousand nights.

A thousand days since Shel died. A thousand days of making my way through life alone, hands outstretched, groping in the dark. A thousand days of picking myself up off the floor and telling myself to get back in the game. A thousand mornings of going out into the world trying to be a good, brave girl. A thousand afternoons of coming home to an ever-empty house.

A thousand days of putting air in my own tires, of trying to figure out how to put things together, and take things apart. A thousand days of talking to myself, singing to myself, cooking for myself. Trying to encourage myself, appreciate myself, dress for myself, tuck myself in and wish myself a good night. A thousand nights of sleeping alone.

A thousand days of wiping my own tears, celebrating my own triumphs. Going to the doctor by myself, going to the hardware store by myself, going to England, France, and Canada by myself, moving to a new town, watching our world spin and wobble, forgetting to mark the days as they come and go. Being hot by myself, cold by myself, happy and unhappy and everything else by myself. Getting older, by myself.

I never would have believed I’d get this far away from him. A thousand days. A thousand nights.

 

The Age Of Apathy

Posted November 11, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags:

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I don’t want to mince words, nor do I want to say things I’ll regret later. But above all I don’t want to leave this unsaid.

Probably like many of you, I have a friend who did not vote for Hillary Clinton, for the usual and tiresome list of reasons. He also claims that Trump “did not win on my account.” And he says, with a discouraging regularity, like so many of us, “whatever” and “it is what it is.”

Our language reveals the apathy that’s endemic to our society. We live in a world where, rather than stand up for what we believe we shrug it off with a whatever, vapidity masquerading as tolerance. A world where we don’t put in the energy and effort to make it what it should be, sighing that it is what it is to excuse our inaction.

In fact “it is what it is” because that’s what we do. We accept that “whatever” is good enough, is the best we can hope for, and then we justify our failure to make things right by saying that things are what they are, full stop. So almost half of us didn’t even bother to vote, chose not to vote against racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, threats of violence, abuse of the most vulnerable. Just stayed home, watched the election on TV, and when their abstention had allowed a despicable despot to get in line to run our country, I have no doubt that they absolved themselves of responsibility with one of those two odious phrases.

I can’t blame my friend for being who he is. I can only blame myself for thinking he was someone different. Same thing goes for my fellow citizens. I thought that decency still had the upper hand in our society. I was blind to a truth that I hoped never to see. The age of “whatever” is upon us, whatever is exactly what we’re going to get, and it’s arguably what we deserve. It is what it is until we change it.

Peel Me A Grape

Posted September 4, 2016 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags:

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I fully intended to go to the fair. I wanted to see the animals, the kids’ 4-H projects, the pies, the jams and jellies. I really didn’t give a hoot or a holler about the concert stages, the fair foods, the hordes of visitors. I just wanted a metaphorical taste of the country life.

But somehow, instead of going to the fair, I became the fair.

My Concord grapes were so ripe that I could smell them from the driveway. I happen to think that their perfume is deeply thrilling, and I would eat them if I could, even though most people don’t consider them fit to be table grapes. Last year I gave them all to the food pantry, because they came ripe just as I was moving in, and I didn’t have the time for them.

This year I decided to make jam, which is truly a labor of love. I de-stemmed and then peeled 13 pounds of grapes, which took me the better part of an afternoon and evening. I wished for an old-fashioned huge family, sitting around the table, popping the fruit from the skins amid merry chatter. Instead, I sat outside on a lovely afternoon happily free from yellow jackets, and with the encouragement of some very nice tequila popped until I feared I could pop no more. And then, inevitably, I popped even more, because 13 pounds is roughly a million grapes. Fortunately friends came to harvest the remaining 40-50 pounds, because really, I was popped out.

But while I was popping the clear, seedy pulp from the fragrant near-black skins I looked up and saw that my plum tree had lots of ripe fruit, most of it too high for me to reach. I snatched down what I could, and made a few jars of plum-cardamom preserves. The rest will have to wait until a friend with a ladder comes to pick them for me. Whoever planted that tree let it get way too tall for picking. I don’t know what I’ll do with the rest of the plums, but it definitely won’t involve peeling them.

Plus, I remembered the pumpkins that a friend gave me last weekend, just waiting to be roasted, puréed, and frozen until Thanksgiving. So that’s up next, as soon as I wash just about every large bowl and huge pan in my kitchen, all of which are currently coated in stickiness.

The peculiar part is that, low-carb person that I am, I won’t eat any of it. I made it all to give away, because I can’t stand letting beautiful produce go to waste, and I love that it grows effortlessly in my garden, and because I enjoy feeling like a long-ago country girl, if only for a day or two. All that by way of saying that I had a good excuse for not making it to the fair, although I really did want to go. Next year I’ll have to plan better and not wait until the last day of the fair to start peeling those grapes. Or maybe I’ll gather a jolly popping crew and we’ll go to the fair together. Because whatever the next year may bring, there’s sure to be fruit, and there’s sure to be a fair.