How It’s Going

Posted February 7, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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DSC_8077People ask me all the time how Shel’s doing. I think this is the truest answer, to say how he’s not doing. Now I’m the one who’s driving when the two of us are in the car, I’m loading the dishwasher, I’m putting out the garbage and recycling, I’m getting the paper and the mail in the morning, I’m doing Shel’s laundry, and heaven help me, sometimes I’m even making the coffee. These are things I wouldn’t have thought of doing just a month ago, because these were Shel’s jobs. Now they’re mine.

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And I’m learning that it’s a sacrament to fold Shel’s laundry.

Light A Candle

Posted January 23, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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IMG_7292Friends and dear ones, light a candle for us, please, because we’re in bad shape over here. Shel’s in a lot of pain, plus now he’s doing ten more days of radiation for spinal metastases. The insurance company, predictably, refused to pay for the targeted drug, but we’re appealing that and are keeping our fingers crossed.

I wake up in the morning, my pillow already damp with the first of the day’s tears. Mascara is utterly wasted on me. Toby is learning to go outside, on a leash, and shivers when he realizes how big and cold the world is outside the house. Me too. Shel struggles valiantly on, like the gull flying past, now finding a bright evening ray, winging over dark water, catching the last of the light.

Mutation Celebration

Posted January 14, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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DSC_6097-001This is our dear friend Bill, who died completely unexpectedly this week, and Shel, who is a mutant. Yes, although we’re unspeakably sad that Bill has left us, we’re so glad to learn that I Married A Mutant.

Shel’s test came back positive for the BRAF genetic mutation, which means that a protein that is involved in cell growth is faulty in my Best Beloved, and also, that there is a targeted drug that might possibly help him.

Quite a week this has been, so far, with such terrible and such wonderful news, tumbling over each other, all raw and unruly. Quite a week.

Scattered, Shattered

Posted January 9, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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DSC_6730Cancer will steal your soul, if you’ll let it. It scatters your hopes, shatters your dreams, leaves you trembling in the dark, tossing fitfully, waking to a tear-soaked pillow. And that’s just the disease I’m talking about.

Sometimes the treatments are so harsh that you’d pretty much rather die than take them. That’s how Shel felt last week, trying a new and ultra-toxic drug. But this week we both feel even worse than that, because of a medical error. We’ve been waiting for five weeks, since his biopsy for genetic sequencing, to see whether he’s a candidate for a treatment targeted at a specific mutation that he may or may not have. But yesterday we learned that the surgeon, after performing the biopsy, never correctly completed the paperwork to have the lab analyses done, and so the five weeks have been utterly wasted. Five weeks during which Shel’s been sliding painfully downhill, really suffering.

It hasn’t all been bad, I guess. We had Christmas, and New Years during that time. We had family and friends. We sat by the fire, harvested our first oysters, drank a lot of Champagne. And we had hope. Hope that although Shel gets visibly worse with each passing day, the results of the biopsy would allow him another treatment option. When we found out yesterday that the hospital had made a huge error, we had one of our darkest days.

Now, amazingly, inevitably, we’re daring to hope again, because now that the error has been discovered they’re making a mad dash to get the results. We’re hoping that Shel will have the mutation, and that he’ll be able to tolerate the treatment if he does. We’re hoping that he’ll be able to hang in there a little longer, that his pain will diminish, that his appetite will come back, that he’ll be able to wash the dishes without getting out of breath, that he’ll feel joy in something, that he’ll be at peace with the way it’s turning out, that he’ll be able to choose his moment and his way to leave us, and that it won’t be too soon.

Please keep him in your hopes and thoughts.

Fini, Le Foie Gras

Posted January 6, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

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DSC_8014Sadly, amazingly, we’ve just about come to the finale of our year-end foie gras and duck orgy. After making my terrine de foie gras, I found myself with a small bowl of vividly yellow foie gras fat that had spilled over the terrine pan, which I stuck in the fridge for “later.” Well, later finally came, and boy did I ever put it to good use.

Above you see a little poêlée de légumes, a simple pan sauté of vegetables that was made transcendent by the addition of foie gras fat. I sliced a couple of small turnips and browned them in the fat, sprinkled with some porcini salt. Blanched and shocked some green beans, tossed in some slivered red cabbage, and let it all dance together in the skillet for a few minutes. It was a fridge-cleaning dish, to be sure, but the foie gras fat made it unearthly delicious.

And then I made a foie gras sauce for the roasted chicken I served with it. Using a variation on the recipe I posted here. I sauteed a finely diced shallot in foie gras fat until it was translucent. I added a big glug, let’s say about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of dry sherry, and simmered it until it was reduced to a few tablespoons. Then I added an equal-sized glug of heavy cream and simmered that until it was reduced and thickened. And finally, I crumbled the last few ounces of my foie gras terrine into the sauce and let it melt. The roast chicken, on a bed of the vegetables, blanketed in the silky foie gras sauce, rendered us speechless. The moral to this tale: the next time you have some fresh foie gras, be sure to save any rendered fat – it proves the maxim that having a high class of leftovers makes for the best thrown-together meals you could ever hope to taste.

I’m still dreaming of that duck paté, though, and looking for the slightest excuse to make it again. Perhaps you’re coming to dinner sometime soon?

Best Dish Of 2013

Posted January 1, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

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After a full and joyous year of cooking, it’s the very end of this past year that stands out, and one of the very last dishes I made in 2013 that will remain in my memory as the best thing I cooked all year. It’s a long story, and it begins here, with our friends at Pleasant View Farm.

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Rose and John’s Pleasant View Farm produces foie gras and duck of exceptional quality, and I was lucky enough to get two of their Moulard ducks and one foie gras this year for our holiday festivities. I spent days happily cooking them, and turned out an amazing number of delectable dishes.

DSC_7927The ducks arrived looking like this, since the carcass must be cut open to remove the foie gras. This was my first experience butchering a duck, which, after watching about a dozen YouTube videos on the subject, turned out to be a lot easier than I had expected,

DSC_7922even if I wasn’t able to remove the breasts as cleanly as a pro would have done. The breasts were enormous and beautiful – that’s a full-sized dinner fork next to them for scale. We ate two of them pan-roasted and sliced, for traditional deliciousness, and I set aside the other two for what was to become my most favorite duck dish. I also separated the legs and wings and put them with the necks

DSC_7916for making confit.

DSC_7933After three days of dry brining I covered the duck parts with

DSC_7936the fat I rendered from the ducks. Because these ducks were raised for foie gras production, they were really fat; each of mine weighed about eight pounds, and that’s without their livers, which weighed over a pound apiece. I ended up with about 2 quarts of the most pristine duck fat, and also a giant heap of cracklings from the skin. If you have cracklings, called gratons in French, and some good confit, you can’t do better than to make Paula Wolfert’s awesome Salad of Duck Confit with Red Cabbage, Chestnuts, and Watercress, which I served for Christmas dinner. I shredded the confit into the salad, instead of presenting the legs whole, but otherwise I follow the recipe exactly and so should you, as it’s probably the best salad you’ll ever eat.

I also picked the meat off the confited necks and wings and made duck rillettes, which aren’t pretty enough to merit a picture, but were a favorite around here during the holidays. I like to add a little quatre épices, or French four spice, to the rillettes for a hauntingly sweet spiciness.

DSC_7928The duck carcasses went into the roaster before being made into stock. Two ducks made about a gallon of light stock, which I then reduced to about a cup and a half. Once chilled, this became an intense duck jello.

DSC_7964What on earth can you do with duck jello? Well, you can serve it as a garnish to this absolutely stellar duck paté. I was happy to have island-grown pork and pork fat to use in the paté, as well as some really great bacon, so everything that went into it was of an excellent quality. I used this recipe, with one small change, since I discovered at the last minute that I didn’t have any green peppercorns, but what I did have was the last of my annual batch of preserved Meyer lemons. Finely diced preserved lemon made a great substitute for the peppercorns, and went so well with the Grand Marnier-marinated duck breast that I think I’ll always make it like this. And I’ll definitely always make this, because it’s stunningly delicious, and takes a satisfyingly long time and enough finicky prep to be really fun to make. Plus, it makes a huge amount, and ours fed us and our guests from Christmas day through New Year’s Eve.

DSC_7974Also, Toby, who is strictly not allowed on the dining table, conceived a mad passion for the paté, and every time I had it out of the fridge there he was, begging piteously, then eating with unmistakable devotion whatever little pieces I shared with him. But don’t make this just for your cats, make it for a party where you want to show off, and where your guests love good food. This tastes exactly like a paté from a great charcuterie in France, and even though we ate a lot of good food in France this year, this paté, fait maison, by my own two hands, is the best thing I put in my mouth in 2013. Try it, you’ll love it.

And you know it must be good when it takes top billing even over the terrine of foie gras, which I made in the classic French style, just sprinkled with Cognac, salt, and pepper. It was melt-in-your-mouth fabulous, as foie gras should be, and then some. Still, it’s the paté that will stay on my mind, and that’s saying a lot.

Glad Tidings

Posted December 31, 2013 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

DSC_7820The days are getting longer, inching toward summer, although really it seems more like millimeter-ing at this point in the year. On this, an ever-so-slightly shorter night, we’ll drink Champagne and hope for a peaceful 2014, and do our best to stay up until the new year arrives.

And tomorrow, it’ll be all about the duck, since we’ve been awash in duck and foie gras around here, and it’s made for an awesome farewell to the year. In fact, some of that foie gras is still awaiting our out with the old/in with the new evening, and I’d share it with you if I could. A virtual toast to your happiness!


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