Heading Home

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

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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.

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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: , ,

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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

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

Tags: , , , ,

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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

Tags: ,

 

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

Tags: ,

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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

Tags: , ,

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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.