Where Wheat Is King

Posted August 4, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,

20160708_162915

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.

20170803_141627

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.

20170803_131925

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.

20170803_132502

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.

Advertisements

Crossroads Of The Heart

Posted July 28, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

Tags: ,

IMG_20170718_193342_HDR

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.

La Piscine Et Le Glouglou

Posted July 17, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

Tags: , ,

IMG_20170717_183518_HDR

Glouglou is a lovely onomatopoetic French word that technically means to gurgle, or glug, but also means to drink a lot, or describes what one drinks a lot of. And piscine is, of course, a swimming pool. And drinking, perhaps immoderately, while swimming? Well, that’s the story of the day.

Because all the while I was planning this trip to France I was dreaming of this pool. Perhaps it’s a shallow dream, to go where it’s hot and submerge oneself in cool water while drinking French wine, or the alluring, anise-flavored drink of the south, pastis. Ok, I’ll just go ahead and be shallow. I’m on vacation and shallowness is called for. Or, if not called for, at least allowed and indulged.

IMG_20170717_184347_HDR-01 (002)

Although down here near the deep end is where some of Shel’s ashes are buried, and it’s here that I place a glass of whatever glouglou I’m indulging in, so that I return regularly to where he lies, floating, paddling, and just generally hanging around his presence, on some level or other.

Today while there I suddenly began humming a bit of a song by Alain Bashung, “un jour je parlerai moins, jusq’au jour où je ne parlerai plus.” One day I will speak less, until the day when I speak no more. Which is, as you know, exactly how it went down. That inspired a pretty big gulp.

After a few lazy laps I passed by this same spot and heard in my head another French classic, “il y a longtemps que je t’aime, jamais je ne t’oublierai.”  I’ve loved you for such a long time, I’ll never forget you. And there a gulp wasn’t enough, I discovered that what I really needed was a saltwater face wash, which my own blue eyes obligingly provided.

Ok then, is that why I’m here, in this sort of garden of Eden?

IMG_20170716_185425_HDR-01

To revisit my past life? I thought I was coming to see old friends, before they, or I, get too old for a grueling journey between our two far-apart daily lives. I didn’t realize that this house would be a living cemetery of memory, albeit beautiful memory, and beautiful in its own right. Maybe more of a memory museum.

IMG_20170716_185647_HDR-01 (002)

But yes, the view from this pool, one of my very favorite spots in the world, is clouded, or enhanced, depending on your perspective, by the shadows of my former life. In this case, it’s analogous to a filter. Because for the first time I decided not to bring a camera, but to try to make a leap into the future by using just my phone to capture my days. And the filters cast shadows, and make things glow, just like my memories.

But I’m not reproaching myself for any of it. I plan to spend as much time in the pool as I possibly can, and if it’s saltier when I leave, well c’est la vie.

 

 

 

 

 

Heading Home

Posted July 13, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

Tags:

IMG_9048

Tomorrow I’m headed home to Uzès, one more time. It’s a funny thing about the idea of home. Sometimes I miss my island home, sometimes I feel right at home here in Walla Walla. Pretty much always I miss the home in Uzès where Shel and I lived for so long, the friends we loved, the familiar sights and sounds and flavors.

Because I stayed in another house when I was last there, two years ago, it’s been four whole years since I slept in the bed Shel and I shared for more than 1000 nights. Four years since I awoke to the tuneless, no-nonsense clanging of the bell in the nearby convent and the smell of bread from the bakery next door. And just over two years since we laid his ashes to rest by the pool where I plan to swim every day for the next week.

It’s going to be hot, in the 90s the whole time, and of course there’s no air conditioning in the house. Just the cool tile floors, the shutters closed during the day, the crisply ironed sheets, and the chilly, inviting swimming pool. I’m planning to spend a lot of time in that pool, doing just what I used to do. My trick is to put a nice glass of pastis at one end of the pool, then swim laps. Two laps, a sip. Four more laps, another sip. One can, and I used to, spend hours like that. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my cranky shoulder will hold up to that regime.

I’ll hug and kiss old friends but won’t be there long enough to make new ones. But even though the time will be almost unbearably short, that’s why I’m going, for those hugs and kisses, those beloved faces, the hot streets, the packed-beyond-belief summer market, to see which shops and restaurants have closed and which new ones have opened, to have lunch on the terrasse with a vast assemblage of patés, cheeses, and olives, and rosé by the gallon.

Ma vie d’antan me tend les bras. My old life is waiting for me with open arms, and tomorrow I’ll fly straight into them.

All Cherries, All The Time

Posted July 10, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: ,

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

Posted July 3, 2017 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: , ,

_DSC3772

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

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

Tags: , , , ,

_DSC3554

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.

_DSC3549

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.

_DSC3505

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.

_DSC3551

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.