Archive for the ‘French Letters Visits America’ category

Where Wheat Is King

August 4, 2017

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Yesterday I went on a hot and hazy journey. You might have heard that we’re having a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures hovering around 100°, and that we’re being smoked out by the fires in British Columbia. It’s not as bad here as it is in the Bainbridge Island area, where a friend told me today that he couldn’t see across Puget Sound for the smoke. But it’s hazy and greyish and the sky has an unhealthy gauziness to it. Plus it’s icky sticky hot. Staying indoors with the air conditioning cranked seems the prudent thing to do.

Nonetheless, yesterday I went on a 200 mile drive through it all.

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It was such a still day that even the windmills were powerless to churn up the cough-inducing mix of smoke and dust from the last of the wheat harvest. The wheat is mostly in, but the last harvesters are toiling away, and the trucks hauling the wheat down to the Seattle Grain Terminal are plying the roads. It’s the kind of drive where all you see is wheat, interspersed with scrubby range land, and punctuated by startlingly few homes. A lot of the way I had the road absolutely to myself, and I admit that I reveled in it.

When I drive like that I don’t have the radio on, no CD, just the whoosh of the car in space. Sometimes I sing to myself, sometimes I don’t. It’s a time for freedom, for just keeping my eyes and ears open and being glad to be on the planet another day.

I was going to Clarkston, WA, for my work.  The work part was good. Very good, even. But the town was discouraging, at least to an outsider. I asked one of the guys I was interviewing where the pretty part of town was, and he allowed as how there really wasn’t any. It’s a town of about 7,000, plopped down in what we’d call the middle of nowhere. In French you’d say it’s at the fin fond of Washington, which means more or less the furthest depths, and to my ear captures the situation better. It’s a town that sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, which makes it sound pretty.

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I took this picture at a tiny park in town, and for once the picture looks a lot better than real life, hence the power of Instagram (I imagine). This looks bucolic, but in reality it’s kind of tucked behind an industrial area, an afterthought. Clarkston also just a bridge away from Lewiston, ID, which is the most inland seaport in the U.S. Amazingly, it’s located 465 river miles inland from the Pacific, separated by eight locks and dams. Tens of millions of tons of wheat pass through this port, on their way west, quite a bit of it headed for Asia. That makes it sound imposing.

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But in reality, it looks like this. A small and dusty town perched on the edge, one where you can still get burgers and shakes delivered right to your parked car. There’s a lot to be said for that, and there are things you could say against it as well. I could say that nearly all of the students attending the community college there qualify for financial aid. I could say it’s a place where two years of community college studies will get you a job at less than $20 an hour, whereas if you took that welding degree and hopped a plane to Texas you’d likely start out at $80,000 a year. It’s a town where a hot and dusty traveler might not get offered a cup of coffee. That’s how on the edge it is.

Of course, I was only there for three and a half hours, so what do I know? Four hours on the road, less than that to try to capture the feeling of the place, the dreams of the teachers and students of that college. To understand why they are there, of all places on the planet, other than an accident of birth. Why do people stay there, in a town that wheat built? What did I miss, in my laughably short time there?

Well, I can say that I didn’t see anyone kiss, although they must. I didn’t see anyone vote, but it’s Trump country so that’s probably just as well. I didn’t see the town’s beating heart, and so I’ll go back. I’ll keep looking, but I’ll be prepared to be disappointed. I didn’t see a single sign advertising gluten-free anything.

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Crossroads Of The Heart

July 28, 2017

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Somehow life in France always seems more vivid to me. I don’t know why, but when I’m there the smallest things glow with meaning and emotion. Every word and gesture seems nourished by an undercurrent of feeling.  Shel always said that when we lived there I was the happiest he’d ever seen me, and I think that’s still true. Something in me sings to be there, it’s an intimate experience of well-being, living in a place where le relationnel, the interpersonal, is the driving force of daily life.

I got a little French suntan last week while I was on vacation, but it’s already fading. I’m still thinking in French half the time, but it’s no longer all the time. I brought home with me the impulse to look prettier, fuss with myself a bit, that always descends on me when I’m there. That too shall pass, and I’ll once again go to the grocery store in embarrassing shirts with lackadaisical hair, not having looked in a mirror all day. That’s how I am here, less, in so many ways.

One reason is that there everyone knew and loved Shel, thought of me as his wife, seldom saw me alone. Here, no one’s ever known me to be anything but alone. Ça change la donne, which is hard to translate. It’s a game-changer, making you do something differently because of the hand you’ve been dealt.

In a certain way now I’m a half, but my friends in France all knew me when I was part of a whole. In another way I’m twice what I was, because, whatever happens, now it’s all up to me. I live another life in France, I speak another language, I’m someone else entirely.

But this time I was definitely an American, and faced a lot of gently- raised eyebrows. and a certain amount of tiptoeing around, until I took to saying notre soi-disant President, our so-called President. It’s a lot for one person to have to answer for, the horrific mistakes made by one’s country. I gained a much greater sympathy for the Germans of modern times, who must feel, as I do “it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it.”

All of which raises the question of who I want to be in this so-difficult world. In spite of  the legendary bureaucracy and the notorious plumbing, should I sink back into what feels to me like the warm bath of French life? Or is that bath bound to cool with the times, just as the American dream is shattering, unthinkably? Stand and fight, or flee toward peace?

It’s a time of deep, existential deliberation for me, and it’s France that inspires my contemplation. As a woman alone on this Earth, one with a foot in each of two worlds, I welcome your thoughts and counsel.

All Cherries, All The Time

July 10, 2017

Here in eastern Washington cherries are bustin’ out all over, so I thought I’d pop this post and recipe up again from 2011. It’s still the best one ever, à mon avis, in my opinion. And why am I speaking French again? Because this is the week I leave for France! I’ll be telling you more about that cherry on top soon.

French women are famously fastidious eaters, as we all know. Unless faced with this clafoutis, that is, in which case all bets are off. Recently I watched two women (for some reason clafoutis is considered to be kind of a feminine dessert) delicately sigh their way through generous servings, and then, apologizing just a little, just for form’s sake really, dive right in to seconds.

I had always found clafoutis ( pronounced klah-foo-tee) to be a bit insipid; after all, it’s more or less fruit baked in pancake batter. But this time, combining two different recipes that I found on the French website Marmiton.org I made the queen of clafoutis, a memorable clafoutis that will enchant all cherry lovers and encourage them to excessive consumption.  After all, cherries are only once a year, and it’s our duty to eat as many of them as possible during that sweet season.

The French believe that leaving the pits in the cherries makes the clafoutis more flavorful. It’s certainly easier on the cook, and provides lots of opportunity for playful pit-spitting and juicy red fingers when you serve the dessert.  The squeamish may pit their cherries, but if you want the real deal, leave your cherries intact.  As it were.

Cherry Clafoutis

For the cherries:
1 1/2 lbs perfectly ripe cherries, stems removed, unpitted
1 T butter
1 T sugar

For the batter:
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
a pinch of salt
5 T flour
5 T sugar
2 ounces butter
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla
extra butter for topping

In a large non-stick pan melt the 1T butter and 1T sugar.  Add the cherries and let them slowly caramelize over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the juices begin to run and the cherries look glazed, about 10-15 minutes.  Butter a 9×13″ pan and place the cherries in it, distributing them evenly.

Preheat oven to 350° and while the cherries are cooling a bit, prepare the batter. Melt the butter in a small pan or bowl and set aside.  Beat the eggs well with the salt, using a whisk. Beat in the sugar, then sprinkle in the flour while continuing to whisk until batter is smooth.

Mix together the milk, melted butter, and vanilla and add it to the dry mixture, stirring until thoroughly combined. Pour the batter carefully over the cherries in the pan, being careful to keep the fruit evenly distributed.  Generously dot the top with little slivers of butter.  Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is puffed and deeply golden. Serve warm or at room temperature, warning your guests about the pits.

My Chicken Addiction

July 3, 2017

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I didn’t mean to get hooked. It happened accidentally. I don’t want therapy. I just want to keep making this dish, and to share it with you.

First there was a recipe in Sunset Magazine for Ghanaian Peanut and Spice Lamb Skewers. I didn’t quite love it, although the recipe had looked delicious. But it made a lot of spicy peanut powder, and the leftovers of that sat on my counter for a few days, awaiting inspiration.

And then, to use up that powder and a few other things in my fridge, I made this dish. And although it may have started out to be all about using stuff up, I’ve made it again and again, and have never felt like altering my first recipe in the slightest.

It’s rich and comforting, exotic and familiar, infinitely satisfying. And it does call for one unusual ingredient, which is powdered peanut butter. I found several different sorts of that here, but most had sugar added. However, the one made by Santa Cruz Organic is nothing more than a fine, fine powder of peanuts, peanut flour really.  You could probably substitute peanut butter here, but I haven’t tried. It’s perfect just the way it is, and I hope it will hook you just the way it did me.

Peanut Coconut Summer Chicken

1/2 cup powdered peanut butter
1 T paprika
1 T ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Mix this all together in a small bowl and set aside.

8 bone-in skin-on chicken legs – you can separate the thigh and drumstick or not, as you prefer
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
1 piece of ginger, about 2″ long, diced or julienned to taste
1 bunch green onions, sliced, white and green parts
1 can coconut milk
2 T neutral oil
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large pan and brown the chicken thoroughly on both sides, salting it as you go. I like to cover the chicken, but not the entire pan, with a crumpled piece of foil to reduce spatters and help it cook more evenly. As pieces are browned remove them and place in a single layer in a  large, oven-proof casserole dish.

When all the chicken is browned remove most of the accumulated fat from the pan, leaving a couple of tablespoons. Toss in the red pepper, ginger, cilantro, and green onions and sauté until wilted. Add the spiced peanut powder to the pan and stir until well combined. Pour in the coconut milk gradually, stirring until you have a smooth sauce. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper.

Pour this sauce over and around the chicken pieces. Cover the dish loosely with foil and bake at 350° until cooked through, about 25-30 minutes, depending on how well you browned the chicken initially. That’s it. Serves 6-8.

I show it with a tangy, lime-juicy spaghetti squash salad, which I think was an excellent accompaniment. Quick pickled cucumbers would also be nice.

Accidental Deliciousness

May 29, 2017

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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

May 14, 2017

 

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

February 11, 2017

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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.