True Confessions

Praveen at peace. He doesn't know about the palak paneer.

Person: Praveen
Location: Guwahati, India
Recipe: Vegetable Makhani

I cheated on my Indian couchsurfer. I know. I’m an awful human being.

And this after he brought me diamonds. And pearls. And brass earrings. And an odd but cool-looking key ring that sounds like bells when you shake it.

Diamonds and pearls and silver and brass are a girl's best friend(s).

And tea, god bless him, from his family’s tea plantation in Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam.

Oh and then, he saved my life. That’s right. He saved my life, metaphorically speaking, anyway.

And still, I cheated on him! I’m clearly an awful human being.

Do you want to know how he saved my life?

Well, for an entire year, I’d been sitting on a free $800 American Airlines ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD that I snagged after agreeing to be bumped from a flight to France last year.

For a whole year I’d been sitting on that ticket, waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to cash it in so I could fly to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

But then life took over, and I forgot about the ticket. I knew it had to be booked in September, but my day job didn’t allow for more vacation, so I’d purposely delayed booking a flight for as long as possible in order to push it into the following year.

Okay, so now it’s September second, a Friday night, and Praveen is at my house. He’s being incredibly nice.  We’re eating leftovers from an amazing Indian dinner he cooked for me the night before. When all of a sudden, it occurs to me that it’s September, which means, that’s right, that ticket, I need to book it soon because I have ONE YEAR to use it.

Do you see where this is going?

So I open the drawer in which I keep the envelope containing the ticket, pry it open, and discover that it needs to be booked THAT NIGHT!

ओह, नहीं!!  (“Oh, no!” in Hindi)

I start freaking out. I call American Airlines. What can I do? Where can I go? HELP!!!

After some back and forth, the ticket agent and I agree that my best bet is to fly to London on April 1, 2012. Done. Booked.

But wait. No. Not done. Not booked. Because booking over the phone isn’t enough. No. In order to use the free $800 ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, I have to BRING IT to the American Airlines counter at J.F.K. Airport and HAND IT to a ticket agent. And did I mention, the counter closes at 10:30 p.m. (it’s now 9:15 p.m.), I’m at least an hour from J.F.K. by subway, my car is in the repair shop, and it’s a holiday weekend, which means everyone and their mother will be on the highway, headed out-of-town.

मदद करो!!!!!! (“Help!” in Hindi)

Which is when Praveen, cool as a cucumber, says, “Don’t worry. I can drive you to J.F.K. I have a Zip car. And it has GPS.”* *(Insert my bad rendition of an Indian accent here.)

I stare at him, eyes melting. “Really? You would do that for me?”

“Of course,” he says, “It’s no trouble. I have GPS.”

At which point I feel EVEN GUILTIER that I CHEATED on Praveen earlier that night by offering him palak paneer that I’d bought that afternoon at a PAKISTANI restaurant! Which just goes to show what a horrible human being I am, and why it’s critical that Praveen NEVER, EVER find out what I did.

Cheating on Praveen at the Pakistani Tea House.

So we get in the car and start driving through the streets of Brooklyn and onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to get to J.F.K. Airport. But suddenly the GPS starts directing Praveen towards Prospect Expressway, which I would NEVER, EVER take to get to J.F.K.

“Praveen, why is the GPS directing us through East New York, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, in a completely different direction than I’ve EVER taken in my ENTIRE LIFE to get to J.F.K.?”

“Oh, that’s probably because I programmed it to avoid tolls,” he graciously explains, at which point I internally freak out even more, because now I’m sure we will NEVER, EVER get to J.F.K. on time because the local roods will take FOREVER!!!!!!!

But drive we do, through neighborhoods I completely don’t recognize, until we reach J.F.K., at which point we start madly following signs to the departure gate for American Airlines (the last one, of course), and then I’m dashing, but dashing, to the ticket counter and breathlessly explaining to the woman behind the desk my situation, which causes her to stare at me like I’m a crazy person, until I stop blathering, at which point she says to me, “Well you’re one lucky lady, because if you’d gotten here 10 minutes later, we’d be gone.”

And with that, she processes my reservation and hands me a ticket: London, April 1, 2012. Just like that, Praveen has saved my life. Or at least my $800 ticket.

I rush back to the car. I hug Praveen. We both start laughing, amazed at our (my) good fortune. And then we drive back to my apartment, hardly believing we’ve just been through this whirlwind, three-hour escapade.

And as we lay down in our respective beds, I think to myself, “God, how I love couchsurfing, and how grateful I am to have Praveen briefly in my life. But, more importantly, he must NEVER, EVER find out about that palak paneer!

Don't tell him I cheated!

————————————–

Here’s the dish Praveen made for me during his visit. It was delicious, but because I can’t find vegetable makhanwala mix like the one he BROUGHT OVER from India, I’m providing a substitute that should get you in the ballpark.  

And to show you what an even more awful person I am, this photo is NOT the dish Praveen made for me, because that was so good we ate all of it.  No, this is a similar-looking mixed vegetable plate from the Indian restaurant Taste of Tandoor, located at 149 Church Street in lower Manhattan.  If you want to cheat on your Indian couchsurfer while in New York City, you can also visit Pakistani Tea House, just down the street, at 176 Church Street.

Mixed vegetable plate from Taste of Tandoor.

Recipe: Vegetarian Makhani  (Buttery Vegetable Curry)
Serves: 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Vegetables:
2 1/2 ounces (75 grams) vegetable makhanwala mix if you can find it. If not, try this: Parampara’s Vegetable Jaipuri Mix
15 ounces (425 grams) frozen, defrosted or canned mixed peas and carrots
4 ounces (115 millilitres) milk
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
1/4 cup (40 grams) fresh red pepper, diced
2 Tablespoons (30 millilitres) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon (3 grams – 1.5 UK teaspoon)  mustard seeds

Rice:
3 to 4 cups (560 grams) pre-cooked white rice
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
2-3 Tablespoons (30-140 millilitres) vegetable oil
3/4 (1.8 grams – 1 teaspoon UK) teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon (1.5 grams – .75 UK teaspoon) mustard seeds

Optional for rice:
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek leaves
1/8 teaspoon asafaotida

Spicy World seems to be a good source for Indian spices if you don’t have an Indian grocery in your town, and you can buy from them directly on Amazon.com.

To prepare vegetables:
1. Place oil in frying pan over medium heat.
2. Add mustard seeds, onion, and red pepper.
3. Add 1 cup (250 millilitres) water and the vegetable makhanwala or jaipuri mix.  Stir to combine.  Continue to cook about 5 minutes.
4. Add peas and carrots.  Add milk.  Stir to combine.
5. Lower heat and allow mixture to simmer, covered, until ready to serve.

To prepare rice:
1. In a frying pan, place oil over medium heat.
2. Add cumin, mustard, and red onion.  Add optional spices.  Stir to combine.
5. Add cooked white rice and stir to combine.  Cook over low heat until warmed.

Serve vegetable makhani on top of spiced rice with naan bread as accompaniment.

Have Mercy on Us for We Know Not What We Have Cooked

Person: Monica
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Recipe: Gazpacho

Monica smiling before the storm.

We were battening down the hatches in the apartment, Monica and I. Hurricane Irene was drawing near, and New York City had begun shutting its collective doors to all but the most intrepid. Subway service was on its way to being suspended citywide. And as early as 5 p.m., bodegas were slamming their gates in preparation for the impending storm; shelves had already been emptied of water, bread, and milk. Soon, as Monica and I knew but never voiced, we would be one another’s sole ballast.

Watch out hurricane! You haven't reached Brooklyn yet.

Faced with impending doom, it’s natural to supplicate oneself to God in hopes of finding tea and sympathy. Luckily for me, Monica sang in a gospel choir in Barcelona, so we were that much closer to heaven. Steering clear of actual prayers though, as she claimed her interest in gospel was musical rather than religious, we instead eased our minds by filling the larder with God’s essentials: bread and water. I ran the tap and collected clear H2O in pots, then made a quick run to a grocery store to see what could still be had for love or money: jars of artichokes and capers, tins of tuna, perhaps a lemon. Two bottles of wine and some nectarines and apples I’d bought days earlier at the farmer’s market would keep us sane with sangria.

Calm before the storm.

That night, we huddled at the table while outside the wind whipped at trees and buildings. Rain pounded the glass, as we ate in silence under dim lights to conserve energy, hoping we’d be spared the rude awakening of even more thunder and lightning deep in the night.

It's going to be a rough night.

Dinner was modest – bread and cheese and olives at 10 p.m. – which Monica said was the typical dinner hour in Spain, even without a hurricane. Apparently, she couldn’t cook a lick herself, despite her mother’s job as a teacher to younger chefs. The skill had skipped her and her younger brother, while catching hold with the three eldest siblings.

The next morning, with further deluge still threatening, we turned into castaways on a desert island, tearing at the food in the refrigerator as if we’d been out in the elements all night rather than tucked cozily in our respective beds.

But as the day wore on, and we remained trapped, waiting, for what more we did not know, I began to go slightly mad, and before reason could grab hold of me, I began cooking as if my life depended on it. No piece of food went untouched. Whatever was there, I turned it into something. Guacamole. Tzatziki. Spanish gazpacho. Mexican chocolate ice cream. Nectarine-mojto pie. I was a whirling dervish of rolling pins and spatulas.

Nectarine-mojito pie. Take Martha Stewart's peach pie recipe, substitute nectarines, and marinate with rum, mint, and lime.

By the time I was done, there was enough food to feed a small army, not two solitary women trying to watch their summer weight for a few weeks more. What would we do? If we ate it all ourselves, surely we would have arrived post-storm two sizes bigger than we began. Then again, perhaps we needed to conserve. Who knew how long we’d be without another infusion of comestibles.

But just then, we heard a knock at the door, and standing outside were two unexpected guests, friends from afar who had travelled through the storm to see if we were okay. We invited them in and offered them sustenance. Soon a party atmosphere took over.

The Hurricane Singers.

The Lillet and sangria flowed. And, before we knew it, we were singing to God and the heavens, asking to be spared. Save us Yahweh. For we know not what we have done. We have been gluttonous with gazpacho and sangria and nectarine-mojito pie and Mexican chocolate ice cream. Oh, please, thou Anointed One, let us see daybreak the same dress size as how we beganeth the day. Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we have cooked.

And lo, our prayers were answered. And She was good. And our basement was spared from water damage. Later, we wandered the streets of Red Hook looking to see how others had fared, and found many not so lucky.

A flooded basement in Red Hook.

We prayed for their safe recovery and secretly offered thanks to the sky. Had they been gorging themselves on chips and beer, we wondered? But their kitchens held their own secrets, and it was left to us to imagine what had transpired.

What happened in THAT Red Hook kitchen?

Recipe: Spanish Gazpacho
Serves: 4-6
Preparation Time: 15 minutes

Monica's Spanish gazpacho. And a sunflower to ward off more rain.

Ingredients:

1 1/4 pounds very ripe, plum tomatoes – 630 grams
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons diced cucumber – 28 grams
1/4 cup diced green pepper – 53 grams
4 ounces olive oil – 118 millilitres
2 ounces red wine vinegar – 59 millilitres
Optional: Croutons (fresh or slightly stale bread brushed with olive oil and baked briefly in oven to crisp)

1. Roughly dice tomatoes into small cubes.
2. Place all ingredients except for olive oil and vinegar in a bowl or blender.
3. Blend with a hand mixer or in the blender until smooth.
4. Add olive oil followed by red wine vinegar. Blend again to emulsify. Approximately 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Top with croutons and a drizzle of olive oil.
6. Allow gazpacho to chill for a few hours to enrich flavor.
7. Serve cold or slightly chilled.

To take a spiritual tour of Brooklyn with one of our visitors, check out Dr. Kevin Dann’s Time Spirit Tours Web site.

Waves hit the shore in Red Hook.

Art vs. Food

Person: Deb
Location: Perth, Australia
Food: Chocolate bar

The artist at rest.

Deb makes art, prints to be exact. She came to stay with me on her way to a printmaking residency in Canada she’d won an award to attend. She’d flown more than halfway around the globe for the opportunity. And now, here she was, on my couch, readying herself for the next phase of her career.

Find Your Way - by Deb Taylor

As I recall, she ate little. Food a kind of afterthought. Her attention was elsewhere. To home, where her son was, and the future, where she would soon be able to create without limits.

Tracking and retracking by Deb Taylor

We shared few words, yet something passed between us. An awareness of the other’s presence. The knowing of silence within an enclosed space. Sometimes those who speak the least leave the deepest impression.

Untitled-1

She sent me a link to her artwork recently. Her prints are rich with color and texture. The quiet beauty suggesting, perhaps like her, a wild current beneath a still surface.

Untitled (River 2)

She didn’t bring a recipe, rather a small box of Australian candy bars. They were made of dark chocolate with a cherry interior and covered in coconut. Lamington cakes morphed into alternate form. They were lovely.

For the artist, food is a secondary concern. So long as there’s money for paint and brushes, all is right with the world.

And perhaps, for some, art trumps food as a necessity. The body knowing and the mind sensing the stronger impulse. To create. At any cost. Wherever it takes you. Even if it’s across the globe. To a stranger’s couch.  Being fed never was the point.

Earth

To see more of Deb Taylor’s work, visit her website.


Lost in a Pancake

Person: Martin
Location: Kalmar, Sweden
Recipe: Swedish pancakes with summer fruits

There was no question about it. Martin was lost in a pancake. The dwarf clown, Rainbow, had promised him a ride from San Francisco to Austin, Texas. Only now she was reneging. Something about the weather being off-kilter as predicted through the smoky, glass window of her Magic 8 Ball. A few too many clouds portended a dangerous trek.

He’d found her on Craigslist. Being from Sweden, he figured it was like Couchsurfing, safe and all. But Rainbow was a bipolar midget, 4′ 3″, with short, red hair as bright as a child’s balloon, talking a blue streak and emptying bag after plastic bag from the trunk of her Ford Escort, so they’d have room for other passengers.

At Rainbow’s group house, one of her housemates pulled him aside to set him straight. “She’s whack,” he whispered through a mouth half-covered by dreadlocks. “We all know it. But we put up with her. She pays half the bills.”

Martin was a producer at a theater company. Six months earlier, he’d asked for time off to travel and recharge his creative batteries; perhaps come back with ideas for a new show. That’s how he’d found himself in California, the place where ideas gush forth like geysers from an Icelandic spring.

But as he sank down in the crumb-laden cushion of a futon couch in an apartment in the Mission District to consider his fate (and whether Rainbow could be roused from her cumulonimbus funk), his mind drifted back to Kalmar. It was night. Lights were slowly rising on a stage. A man with a guitar was walking to the center of the stage. After a few moments, the audience began clapping its collective hands in anticipation; a performance was about to begin:

http://www.youtube.com/user/byteatern#p/u/3/cMc0vzcie0s

By the time he came to stay with me in New York though, Rainbow had relented. Maybe she consulted some cards or something; Martin couldn’t be sure. With the car now re-packed, they headed south along Highway 1 to pick up the other passengers. Kids just like him, who hadn’t known what they’d gotten themselves into either.

As they drove past L.A. and across Highway 10 through San Bernadino, Rainbow’s quirks continued. Fearing she’d running out of gas, she’d pull into a gas station whenever the arrow showed the tank half full. Martin wondered if he’d ever make it to Austin, let alone the East Coast.

He closed his eyes and began dreaming of a Swedish TV show from the 1960s, Vilse i Pannkaken (Lost in a Pancake), the one in which an innocent Swedish boy (played by an adult), falls into a giant Swedish pancake, only to find himself in an upside down world from which there’s no escape.

As Rainbow drove, headlong, across Arizona and New Mexico and deep into the heart of Texas, Martin comforted himself with thoughts of Swedish pancakes. The strawberries would be bursting just then and his mother (he could almost see her now as a haze of heat rose from the car’s roof into the clear, blue sky) would be standing at the counter whipping cream, transforming the cold, white liquid into light, airy peaks. Next, she’d take an iron pan and fill it with the golden batter. A few moments later, pleasure. Warm pancakes filled with summer fruit.

He could almost taste it. Like he could taste the dust against his tongue through the open window. Eventually, he’d make it to New York and my apartment. And one night, as we sat together, a harsh rain stirring up the sky, just as Rainbow had predicted, he made me pancakes, and all was right with the world.

Visit the Website of Martin’s theater company, Byteatern: Kalmar Lans Teater.

Recipe: Swedish Pancakes with Summer Fruit

Ingredients:

2 cup whole wheat pastry flour . 254 grams
1 cup whole milk . 200 millilitres
3 large eggs
3/4 teaspoon salt . 4 grams
5 – 6 tablespoons of butter . 84 grams

1/2 pound strawberries . 454 grams
1/2 pint heavy cream . 236 millilitres

Episode I: Strawberries

1. Cut strawberries into small to medium size pieces.
2. Place in saucepan and cook over low to medium heat, stirring to prevent sticking.
3. Allow to soften and warm slightly before placing inside pancakes.
4. Optional: Add honey or maple syrup as desired to sweeten.

Episode 2: Whip Cream:
1. Using hand mixer, whip cream to form stiff peaks.
2. Place in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Episode 3: Pancakes

Add flour to 1 cup milk. Whisk to combine.
2. Add second cup of milk. Whisk again.
3. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt.
4. Add eggs to make a thin batter.
5. Heat 1/2 – 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat in an iron pan.
6. Spoon 1 tablespoon of batter into pan to form a circle.
7. Cook until the edges turn golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.
8. Flip with spatula and continue cooking an additional 1 to 2 minutes.
9. Serve warm, filled with fruit and topped with whip cream.

And for music to cook by, check out the band, Pipes You See, Pipes You Don’t’s CD, Lost in the Pancakes:

Christmas in July

With New York City (and much of the U.S.A.) in the middle of a brutal heat wave, we need a little Christmas. Right this very minute! We need a little Christmas now!

And so to help alleviate the heat, the Couchsurfing Cook was inspired to write a song.
It’s sung to the tune of Mel Torme and Bob Wells’ heartwarming 1946 classic, “The Christmas Song” and is sure to put a smile on your otherwise red-cheeked (from the humidity) face.

Now I can’t promise that this song will prevent sweat from dripping down your brow and into your mouth as you stand broiling on a rush-hour subway platform, but perhaps humming it while lying in bed at 3 a.m. with a window fan blowing furiously at your naked body while you curse the used air conditioner you bought last summer on Craigslist (because a couchsurfer broke your new one) that’s so weak you wonder if it’s even worth the electric bill**, will make you feel at least a few degrees cooler.

**This is happening to the CS Cook right now!

With apologies to Mel Torme, the CS Cook presents “The Christmas in July Song”:

Piglets roasting on an open fire.

Piglets roasting on an open fire.

Sausage stinking up your clothes.

Sausage stinking up your clothes.

Ice cream cones, being sold from a truck.

Ice cream cones being sold from a truck.

That song will stop, with any luck.

Everybody knows cannoli and some funnel cake,

Everybody knows cannoli and some funnel cake.

help to make your clothes fit tight.

Help to make your clothes fit tight.

Hyper kids, with their mouths stuffed with sweets,

Hyper kids with their mouths stuffed with sweets.

will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know more food is on its way.
Like cotton candy spun around as if hairsprayed.

Like cotton candy spun around as if hairsprayed.

And every parent there is gonna cry,
when they learn corn costs five bucks to buy.

When told an ear of corn's five bucks to buy.

And so I’m offering this lemonade.

And so I'm offering this lemonade.

To locals and to tourists too.
Although you’ve been warned many times, many ways,
New York’s summer’ll make you brew.

Stay cool everyone!

Watermelons in red and green Christmas colors.

And for the strangest version of “The Christmas Song” you’re likely to see, click here.

What remains

Envelope

What lies inside?

I found the small, brown envelope, no bigger than a matchbook, buried in the recesses of a sock drawer in my father’s bedroom bureau. The drawer, itself divided into six wooden corridors, each held neatly folded pairs of, respectively, dress or athletic socks. The envelope, along with two others identical to the first, lay in this inauspicious corner for over 40 years, my father its sole protector. Why he’d kept the envelope for so long reflected either his forgetfulness or tenderness, both explanations were plausible. Unfortunately, he was no longer there to resolve the mystery; he’d died within days of my discovering them.

teeth

My first teeth.

He could have easily thrown away the envelope containing my first childhood teeth once I’d graduated college or married or had children of my own. Surely there were other mementos of my youth for him to treasure as he aged – photographs, grade school reports cards, yearbooks, and such. That he saved my teeth could certainly have been an afterthought. And yet, there in his sock drawer, a place he surely accessed daily, it would have been difficult if not impossible to ignore their presence entirely. What memories, I wondered, might he have conjured on the odd occasion when his hand, fumbling for something so quotidian, accidentally happened upon the miniscule package? Did he keep my teeth in close proximity for the express purpose of reminding himself of a more innocent time, before my turbulent adolescence and adult diaspora turned my relationship with him into something far more distant?

Discovering the envelope reminded me of the childhood ritual of placing one’s first, lost teeth beneath a pillow hoping a fairy will bestow a gift of money upon the bearer the next morning, as reward for having endured this first painful act of maturation. What was the origin of this ritual, I wondered? Was it practiced the world over? Or is the Tooth Fairyjust another commercialized, and distinctly American, superhero?

Our teeth are used to eat of course, and the act of eating our first food, absorbing something more substantive than mother’s milk, serves as an important sign of our potential survival past the first still vulnerable years of life. Is the loss of teeth an equally powerful premonition of our eventual death? What would our earliest ancestors have thought of this mysterious transformation from strength to weakness at still so tender an age? Could it be that, just as food and animal sacrifices were given to the gods to assure a good harvest or as plea that winter’s bleak darkness be transformed into spring’s renewal, that the loss of a child’s teeth necessitated prayers in hopes that the youth would survive her own early seasons? When a new tooth then emerged, (pushing forth with the same urgency as the mother during childbirth or the plant bursting through frozen ground), what relief there must have been for the adults, a vindication of prayer, or at least the continuation of life’s progress.

I took the envelope containing my teeth gingerly out of the drawer and distributed the two remaining ones to my brothers. But what would I do with a set of my own childhood teeth? What purpose did they serve now that my father was gone? Or would they, like him, need to be similarly set free, along with his shoes and clothes and socks, the accessories of a life no longer requiring objects to confirm its existence.

dad

Dad and me and my brother.

__________________

* I wrote about my last trip to visit my father when he became ill here. He died on June 27, 2011. He was 79 years old and was surrounded by his family in the last few days of his life.

__________________

Click here to learn the true origin of the Tooth Fairy myth.

Can’t We All Just Eat in Peace?

This past Monday was July 4th. So Liz, Ben, Petter (from Sweden, ergo the spelling), and I decided to celebrate the all-American holiday by taking a road trip (by bike, of course, being the eco-friendly Brooklynites and Scandinavians that we are) to explore our neighbor to the north. No, not Canada. A much more foreign place: Queens.

Where the heck is it??

Upon crossing the border, through the scary transition zone known as The Evergreens Cemetery (the final resting place of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lester Young, Isaac Asimov, and Walt Kelly of Pogo fame, among others), we encountered a native of this unfamiliar land, a lovely man selling fruit and sundry products.

Welcome Brooklyn strangers!

Wanting to appear natural in our newly adopted country, we decided to expand our oh-so-sophisticated Brooklyn tastebuds by trying foods we’d never had before, including:

Tiger Tonic

Good fer what ails ye.

Tamarind and Cassava Bread

Two new discoveries.

and Aloe Vera juice, una bebida inteligente (an intelligent drink).

Green is good.

But what surprised us most was a fruit we’d never encountered on the shelves of our local Trader Joe’s called quenepa or honeyberry. According to our new friend, you peel, pop, and suck the green darlings to savor their sweet-ish, gelatinous interior (but avoid the big pit!). All we could say as we peddled off was, “Viva la Queens!”

So happy, he's leaving Sweden.

From there we wended our way through the pine-filled woods of Forest Park, the unexpected mansions of Kew Gardens, and the iconic World’s Fair landmarks in Corona Park and Flushing Meadows.

And it was there (before getting on the subway because we were bone tired at this point), that we saw what makes America truly great: families celebrating July 4th. Among them:

Afghanis

Chicken kebabs on skewers.

Pakistanis

Grilled steak and chicken tikka.

and Mexicans and El Salvadorans.

Elotes on the grill.

That’s right, all the people who supposedly hate us or are here to undermine our way of life, happily honoring American independence in our public parks.

Makes ya’ think, don’t it?

Perhaps the world would be a better place if we could all just, as my mother might say, eat in peace.

And "You Go, Queens!"

With special thanks to Petter Bertilsson for providing the camera and taking many of the photos for this issue!

Is That All There Is?

Person: My father
Location: A Chicago suburb
Recipe: None. Just buy Boost and Ensure..or a dark chocolate bar.

My Childhood Bedroom

My childhood bedroom.

I couchsurfed in my childhood bedroom recently. They say you can’t go home again but, in fact, you can, it’s just that the bed will be a hell of a lot smaller and more uncomfortable than when you were a kid, and lying on it may make you instantly regress to being a teenager, something which your couchsurfing host, in this case my mother, may not necessarily appreciate.

The reason I was couchsurfing in suburban Chicago was because I had to fly home on short notice to see my 78-year-old father, who’d caught pneumonia and been rushed to a nearby hospital. By the time I arrived, he was being kept alive by a ventilator dangling from his mouth.

When I entered the Intensive Care Unit, I wasn’t prepared for what hit me. My father, who’d always been thin, (and who for years I’d credited with bestowing upon me his genetic predisposition to eat whatever I wanted without gaining weight) had transformed from thin to frail and from frail to skeletally gaunt.

Mom and dad at the beach circa 1970.  Thanks for the skinny genes!

Mom and dad at the beach circa 1970. Thanks for the skinny genes, dad.

He lay in bed, his body propped up by pillows, unable to move his mouth, his nourishment, what little he could tolerate, delivered by long, thin needles dangling from his threadbare veins.

Yet rather than consuming, it was my father who appeared swallowed up by the phalanx of machines and wires that surrounded him, including a feeding bottle that dripped cream-colored liquid in dull, metronomic precision.

Feeding Solution

Feeding from the bottle.

The sight of the bottle reminded me of another time my father had been forced to adhere to a liquid diet. I was a teenager, and he’d just undergone extensive jaw surgery to correct a problem with his ill-formed teeth. Yet after the surgery, rather than return to full functioning, he spent months with his jaw wired shut waiting to heal, doomed to an entirely pureed diet that he sucked through a straw with his then-metallic teeth. To this day, I’ve never seen a more angry or irritable person than my father during that period, nor a more relived one when the wires were removed and he was permitted, slowly, to eat whole food again.

Back in my father’s hospital room, I stared at the bottle of liquid nutrients keeping him alive and wondered to what lengths I’d go when or if my time came. It’s not that I live to eat, but would I want to keep going if that most basic of pleasures was taken from me?

Then I thought of older people who find food too salty or can no longer tolerate spicy dishes. I imagined the 5 p.m. dinner rush in the restaurants of Miami Beach and the bland mush of nursing home food. Were these the culinary insults God hurled at the elderly? The slow, interminable deterioration of all forms of pleasure such that, once we reach our final resting place, the dirt that awaits us tastes like manna from heaven?

And then I remembered my paternal grandfather, a man who lived to be 97 and ate nothing but dark chocolate in his waning days, and who for years began each morning with orange juice spiked with whiskey.

My grandfather, Max.  The man who outlived four wives.

My grandfather, Max. The man always had the last laugh.

Maybe there was hope that growing old didn’t have to be a slow plod toward infantilization. And maybe the secret to living to a ripe, old age was to doggedly eat what one wanted, medical studies and God be damned!

The good news is that my dad has beaten the pneumonia, for now, although he needed a tracheotomy to replace the ventilator, and still can’t breathe entirely on his own. This means, eventually, he’ll need to enter rehab to learn to eat again.

For his sake, I hope it’s not as bad as when he had his jaw wired shut.

Les Vacances

Jean, Luthier and International Man of Mystery

Person: Jean
Location: La Roche-sur-Yon, France
Recipe: Jeanago, a mysterious French drink

This post is dedicated to Kristin Espinasse, the wonderful blogger who writes French Word-a-Day. It’s Kristin who keeps me connected to the French language, and to my imaginary life in France, when I can’t be there. Subscribe to Kristin’s blog for your own thrice-weekly dose of her inimitable joie de vivre.

The Couchsurfing Cook was in need of les vacances. So, lickety-split, she hot-tailed it over l’Atlantique to the centre de la cuisine, a.k.a. France.

Typical French fare: A castle in Nantes

There, aided by her host fantastique, Jean, she experienced once again les plaisirs de la vie, and took a walk, not on the wild, but rather le gentil, side of life, at least for a week.

A violin and cabinetmaker by trade, Jean, I quickly discovered, had the soul of a chef; he bakes his own pain de campagne nearly every day. Que dire de plus? Need I say more?

Jean's pain de campagne

In France, or at least at Jean’s home, every meal was an occasion. And with an hour required for preparation, an hour for a leisurely repast, and a half hour to wash and dry dishes, I’d hazard that 7 1/2 hours of a typical French person’s day is dedicated directly or indirectly to food. How the French get other work done, I have no idea. But, no matter. I was on vacation and, tout de suite, this New Yorker found herself sold on a life that revolved, if not entirely, at least frequently, around le cuisine.

It also doesn’t hurt that, despite la vie de la bouche, no one in France appears to gain weight or age, other than with graciousness and youthful glow intact.

So what, you ask, does the French diet consist of? Well, at chez Jean, it included the following:

Breakfast: Croissants or bread with jam, honey, and butter, alternating with yogurt and fruit.

Petit-déjeuner

Lunch: Pasta with seafood, salad, a glass of wine, and chocolate for dessert.

Le déjeuner

Dinner: Duck with vegetable, a glass of wine, and two or three cheeses for dessert.

Le dîner

How people stay thin in France remains a mystery to me. But I’ll let the diet doctors fight that one out. In the meantime, I’m merely lounging on my canapé, waiting for the beurre to melt from my thighs.

The other activity, besides eating, that requires one’s full attention in France is buying food from the local marché, which occurs a few times a week. Saturday is the busiest day because, unlike New York City, stores close on Sunday so people can – you guessed it – stay home with their families to eat.

Visiting the French market.

“How do businesses make money here if they’re closed all the time?” I asked Jean, nosy New Yorker that I am, as we perused the aisles.

“How do ze people in New York find time to enjoy ze life?” he parried.

Damn. The man had me. Touché, Jean. Touché.

Of course, I didn’t fall dans l’amour with every dish to which Jean introduced me. Take, for example, bigorneaux, brownish-yellow squiggles of gelatinous sea snails that one consumes as an apertif.

Sea snails awaiting the dining table.

Removing the tiny buggers from their curvy lairs requires stabbing and dragging them out with long, metal pins topped with colorful round baubles. If I hadn’t watched Jean eat one first, I’d have sworn we were supposed to make earrings out of the little guys, not pop their salty bodies into our mouths like so much edamame; consider me unconverted.

I was also introduced to grenouille, their tiny frog legs lightly dredged in flour, then sauteed in butter to give their miniature thighs, knees, and calves a delicate, crusty crunch. A cross between chicken and I’m not sure what, I tried not to imagine where those legs had been or to what kind of squooshy body they’d been attached before gnawing as close to the bone as I could manage, while keep my pinky finger extended to maintain ma haute French manners.

But the real surprise came not from a dish I ate, but rather a refreshing summer beverage I drank, courtesy of Jean. It was one he invented many years ago, and which we imbibed at an outdoor cafe, following a canoe ride down the green-watered canals of the Marais Poitevin, in the Vendée region.

The green canals of France.

Unfortunately, being the international man of mystery that he is, Jean asked me not to reveal the secret ingredient that makes his drink special, though he did give me permission to offer a prize to the first person who can guess what is is.

J'ai soif! Je dois avoir un Jeanoco.

The drink is similar to a popular one in France called a Monaco. In Jean’s version, grenadine is replaced with another sweet syrup, lending the drink a more sophisticated panache. As a hint, the syrup is made from a food that, although nutritionally good for you, can often be found in a food most dentists deplore.

Think you know what turns a Monaco into a Jeanaco? Simply post your answers in the Reply section below. The first person to solve the mystery wins a bottle of the syrup to add to their cocktail mix collection.

And, in the meantime, check out the recipe for the original Monaco to let your own French vacances begin!

Recipe: Monaco
Ingredients:
10 ounces lager, a light, golden-colored beer
6 ounces sweetened lemonade
Dash of grenadine

1. Fill glass with lager.
2. Add lemonade.
3. Top with a dash of grenadine, and stir.

Santé!

* And to buy some fabulous wines on your next trip to the Vendée region, check out the award-winning choices from Domaine Coirier, a warm and welcoming vintner in the town of Pissotte.

Wine crate to go.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Betty on the couch.

Person: Betty Hoops
Location: Aspen, Colorado
Recipe: Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

“I have a woman who was in the Guinness Book of World Records staying with me!” I tell anyone who’ll listen, after Betty Hoops writes to ask if she can couchsurf with me.

“She set the 2008 world record for hoop running in distance and speed! That means she ran a 10K race while hula hooping, without stopping, dropping, or touching the hoop. She even hula-hoops while snowboarding! How cool is that?”

Betty finishing the Bolder Boulder in Colorado.

Betty is from New York, Westchester to be exact.
For years though, she’s lived in Aspen, Colorado.
“I need the mountains,” she says, when I ask her why she lives there, after explaining how hard it is to get attention for what she does, living so far from New York and L.A.
“I feel a connection there that I don’t get anywhere else.”

Betty on Mount Sopris Summit doing 'Spinning for Peace.'

Betty never imagined she’d be a hula hooper though. Originally, she studied cooking at the C.I.A., The Culinary Institute of America. Then, after 9/11, she left her job at a high-end restaurant in Aspen to come to New York to heal people through hooping.

“I’d be walking near Wall Street carrying my hoops, and these construction workers would yell down from the top of a building, ‘Hey, is that a hula hoop? Let me try it!’ And sure enough, they’d come down, and these big guys, I’d teach them to do it right there on the spot. That’s what’s so great about the hoop. Everyone responds to it.”

She taught anyone who would ask. Policemen. Firefighters. Kids traumatized by what had happened that day.

I get off the R train near Washington Square Park.
I’m supposed to meet Betty here so she can teach me to hoop.

Even though I live in New York City, Washington Square Park is a place I don’t hang out at and rarely visit. But when I first moved to the city in the ’80s, as a wide-eyed kid from the Chicago suburbs, to study theater at NYU, Washington Square Park was my backyard.

My roommate, Susan, grew up in the city and attended Stuyvesant High School.
Her friends practically lived in Washington Square Park and, like Betty, they were street performers: jugglers, musicians, magicians, and fire-eaters. They smoked clove cigarettes, drank beer from paper bags, and got stoned while playing Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan on cheap guitars. They took me to parties in lofts and on roofs, and taught me how to be cool, long before I knew what I was doing.

And now, here it was twenty-something years later, a long time since I’d done anything like hula hoop on a Saturday afternoon in Washington Square Park. In fact, I don’t even know if I’ve ever had a hoop around my waist; maybe as a little kid.

Yet the second I arrive at the park, I feel something change inside. Is it Betty, with her mystical, whirling dervish spirit? Hooping like it’s a religion? Like it’s a prayer? Like the gods are smiling when she spins?

The Couchsurfing Cook gets her hoop on.

She turns on a boom box. “Turn it up!” I say, as music fills a park already bursting with people. And, right there, I’m 20 years old again, without a care in the world. The boom box is blaring Michael Jackson and Cindy Lauper, and all the songs I remember from those first years at NYU, when MTV was new and music was what you lived for.

At first, my hips move in awkward middle-aged lady circles. Not like the bone-thin, grade-school girls who pick up a hoop and start moving their tiny waists in circles too small to detect. “How come it keeps going around them, even though they’re barely moving?” I cry to Betty. “It’s so unfair!”

But she’s an amazing teacher and, within moments, the hoop is spinning round. I’m light and free, and whatever reticence I had before to leave my warm, cozy apartment to be outdoors on a cold, Spring afternoon has vanished, disappearing in the pure, unadulterated joy of a hoop.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________
To see how well I did under Betty’s brief, expert tutelage, check out this funny video she and I got roped into performing in that day – a goofy send up of Cee Lo Green’s song, “F-k You!” made by Columbia Business School students. To see us hooping, go to 4:15 in the 4:33 video. Or, for a bigger laugh, watch the whole thing!

Betty makes her own hoops – a softer form that’s easier for beginners and more fun in the long-term. For a 10% discount on your own hoop, email Betty at bettyhooping@gmail.com and put Couchsurfing Cook in the subject line.

Recipe: Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

Betty started making this cheesecake for friends when she’d go to festivals or snowboarding, and it was always a big hit. Not surprisingly, it’s round, like a hoop.

Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake and Hula Hoop

Ingredients:

4 ounces soy cream cheese . 236 millilitres
8 ounces soy sour cream . 113 grams
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract . 2.5 millilitres
1/2 cup maple syrup . 125 millilitres
4 1/2 ounces grain-sweetened chocolate chips . 177 grams
4 ounces graham crackers . 113 grams
5 tablespoons melted Earth Balance buttery spread or similar butter substitute . 75 milliliters

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit . 180 Celsius.

2. Blend cream cheese and sour cream in a mixing bowl with the blade set at low speed.

2. Add vanilla extract and maple syrup.

3. Melt chocolate chips in small pan set in larger pan of water or a double boiler. Melt chips over low-medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat as soon as chips are fully melted.

4. Allow chips to cool slightly, then add to cream cheese-sour cream. Blend again to combine.

5. Place graham crackers in a bowl and, using a heavy object (I used the bottom of a glass measuring cup), crush until they form a soft crumb. You could do this in a Cuisinart as well.

6. Melt butter in small saucepan. Add to graham crackers and stir to combine, making sure crumb is sufficiently moist.

7. With your fingers, press graham cracker crumbs into pie tin, covering bottom and sides to equal thickness. You should have enough crumbs to cover nearly the entire tin sides.

Graham cracker crust in a circle

8. Fill tin with chocolate cream cheese-sour cream mixture.

9. Place in center rack of oven and bake for 45 minutes or until chocolate mixture rises to top and is firm to the touch.

10. Allow to cool on countertop and serve.

Vegan chocolate cheesecake ready to serve.

Food During Wartime

Location: Sperwan Ghar, Kandahar province, Afghanistan
Person: Mitch
Recipe: Water

I’m not sure why I agreed to let Mitch couchsurf with me. He was a little younger than my preferred age and, based on what he’d written, his cooking skills seemed questionable, despite having a mom who worked in the restaurant business. Mostly I was interested in the fact that he was Canadian, and since I’d planned to go maple syruping soon, thought that hosting a guy from Montreal around the same time might make for a funny post.

I hadn’t realized he was in the army and that he’d done two tours in Afghanistan. I was fascinated and asked him to tell me about his experience there.

He did. ___________________________________________________________________________________

From emails sent to Mitch’s friends and family back home:

where do I begin. Saturday December 8th my section wakes up at 01:30 we get all our gear on. frag vest, tactical vest, helmet, kneepads, rifle, night vision goggles, rucksack with jacket, 24 hour rations, 5 liters of water, ranger blanket, beef jerky, vise grip attached to 30feet of string, 8 electric detonators, 4 non electric detonators with time fuse, one wall breaching charge consisting of 6 blocks of c-4, 2 x one block c-4 charges, gunshot residue test kit and other various small pieces of kit. altogether it all probly weighed approximately 80-90lbs of kit.

our task was to go in 2-3 man teams of Breachers and be attached to a section of British royal Gurka regiment infantry soldiers. the Gurkas are actually Nepalese soldiers that join the British army to get good wages and British citizenship. every year approximately 30000 people from Nepal apply but they only take 250. these guys walk around with like 100+ lbs rucksacks for weeks at a time. so basically there some of the toughest troops in the world.

we stepped off the line of departure around 03:30 (we were supposed to leave at 03:00 but the Afghan national army always take their time getting ready. it was pretty cold probably around 1 degree. our objective was approximately 3-4 kilometers and we were going to take one of the most direct routes possible which meant thru grape and marijuana fields over walls and thru little villages. it was a brutally hard walk in the dark over very uneven terrain.

as sun rose we had to stop for about 15 minutes to wait for the ANA to do there morning prayers we stopped about 300 meters from our first objective.

when we arrived at the first of our objectives it was around 07:00 and we started hearing small arms and machine gun fire in the distance and then massive thumping sounds followed by the scream of an artillery shell flying overhead down range to its target. the battle had begun in the south with the Canadian Van-doo company.

as the Gurkas and ANA started searching we got the word we needed to breach some doors. the first lock we got to was too big to use the shotgun on plus it was a steel door(high risk of ricochet). we discussed it and decided to use a 1/4 block of c-4, I think it was a bit too much cause it bent the door in half fucked it up good style. then we started breaching the rest of the doors with the shotgun. one of the buildings we blew the locks off of was a medical facility which sucked but we reimburse people for the damage.

In one of the compounds they found some Constantina wire (razor wire) and on the other side of the compound the other engineer team found a pressure plate connected to Det cable, some empty jugs and what looks to be homemade explosives. we completed the search of the compound and area by around 11:00.

As we moved to our second objective the gunfire and explosions from artillery and close air support started sounding closer and closer. during one of our crossings of a wadi (water stream) it was pretty muddy on the opposite side of the bank and Kayla was slipping and sliding trying to get up the top so I figured I should just try and jump to the other side over the muddy bank. Well the second I hit the other side all the weight and momentum slammed my ass face first into the dirt which hurt quite exceptionally.

around 13:00 we reached police substation Hajji which was built by my troop earlier in the tour and is in the heart of the worst Taliban area in Kandahar province. It took them 8 hours under enemy contact to reach before they even got started construction. this place gets attacked by the Taliban on average twice a day. we call it the wild west because there have been a lot of running gun battles in that area one of the reasons for this operation.

We took lunch on the outside of the compound with the infantry in the towers doing over watch. at this point we got an opportunity to talk with the Gurkas who are quite funny and friendly guys. they told us about their trip to Wainwright in 2004 to do a training exercise and they thought it was the coldest place on earth, the funny thing is they were there in the spring. they all got a week of leave to do whatever they wanted and did some adventure tours everything from skydiving to river rafting. they really enjoyed the strip clubs and bars and all had a very high opinion of Canada. one of them it was their first exercise since joining the Gurkas and said he paid pretty badly.

Gurkas

after relaxing after lunch, we were waiting for the word to continue advancing. on our path to our last objective which was the market area we had to pass over some trip flares (trip wire attached to a flare) we were all told not to set it off so the Gurkas and us all took care to step over it but once the ANA started to pass it one of them set it off. the ANA are pretty interesting guys they will fight like bastards but a lot of them are clueless with a lot of things they like to smoke pot before they go on operation.

as we were walking we encountered a pot farmer who was telling us he hates the Taliban and stuff because they come to his home and take whatever they want. he was hoping that we would bring more security to the area. as we were walking thru the fields we started to hear a lot of machine gun fire probably no farther than 300 meters from our position. we got into location and over the net came word that there was 5 Taliban seen in the area with rocket propelled grenades.

the Gurkas set up a fire base which also had a sniper and there mortar team. at this point bullets were flying all over the place and the firebase let loose on the Taliban at this point I was laying against a wall and fell asleep for about 5 minutes or so I think I was pretty exhausted I was awoken by an A-10 thunderbolt flying overhead and raining hell down on the Taliban’s position followed by a lot of rounds from the tankers.

during all this the Gurkas caught a man in the area that was identified as Taliban. they brought him over to the ANA soldiers and the man was visibly shaking. the Gurka officer requested that we go over and do a gunshot residue test on him. the results were negative but it doesn’t test to show if he has shot a rocket. so the ANA detained him we went back to our positions in the line and waited for further orders. during the time we went to go sit down the ANA started whacking the guy with a tree branch and pulling his beard and stuff until one of the Gurkas went over to them and told them to cut it out. later on I was talking to that Gurka and he told me they would probably have killed the guy if we were not there.

after the fighting died down we got the go to clear the rest of the market. we showed the Gurkas how to use the shotgun and let them breach a few doors. the guy doing it was having a lot of fun but then the shotgun jammed so we took over again and between Kayla me and the chief we went thru about 30 shells and a half block of c-4 to get thru the market.

over the net we got word that one of the tanks had shot to close to a group of friendly soldiers lightly injuring a Canadian and two afghan soldiers. at this point it came down that we were finished advancing, and we were to re-muster and make our way back to the fob we were to leave at last light.

at this point I was really, really tired I had only taken my back pack off maybe 3 or 4 times thru the whole day and my whole body was really feeling it. while marching out we linked up with the rest of the Gurka company and our engineers. the walk out was somewhere around 4 kilometers but I was running low on water (at this point I had drank about 5 liters of water and was sweating quite heavily). the Gurkas gave me two more bottles of water and we were on our way.

at about 18:30 our company came across some a group of young Afghan males. my Det got called up to go do the explosive residue test and gunshot residue test on them. we tested one of them and the interpreter told us that they had just come back from there evening prayer at the mosque, the tests came up negative, so at that point we let them go and were back on our way. moving at night with approximately 250 people in a line is not as easy as it look in pitch black darkness we had to stop every 10 minutes to make sure everyone was still in the line not to mention everyone was getting really tired.

by the time we seen the silhouette of Sperwan Ghar I had completely ran out of water but knew we were close so I just said fuck it and kept moving. well let me tell you that was probably the longest hour of my life all I could taste was the dust that the line was kicking up as they walked towards the mountain. I was praying to god that we didn’t come into contact because I was so physically exhausted. as we got to the road and started to walk thru the front gate and pass the guard tower I have never felt more relief in my life. I moved as fast as I still could towards our living quarters. I was dropping my gear once I was within 15 feet of the door got to the fridge and grabbed the first drink I seen and consumed it quite furiously.

In all we walked for approximately 18 hours while breaching and clearing buildings with a full load of kit. it was the most physically and mentally demanding day of my life. I don’t think I will ever forget this day and just thought I would write this note so you all would have a better idea of what I’m doing over here. I have to get going to bed it’s like 11:00 and I have another long ass day tomorrow.

Sperwan Ghar, Kandahar province
Afghanistan

___________________________________________________________________________________

This has been a hard month for me physically and mentally. Our troop was tasked to build a strongpoint in the middle of really bad Taliban country, I can’t say where or exactly what or why because of operational security. anyways we left for the strongpoint’s location at about 0200 on January 4th. it was a long trip on a route that is quite rough but we never travel so a lot safer.

At approximately 0500 it started to rain which it hasn’t done much since I been here, maybe 2 days since I arrived here October first. We were to dismount and walk to the site where they wanted the strongpoint built, criss-crossing thru farmers fields in about a foot of mud we arrived at our destination just at first light around 0630.

The site was along one of the main road arteries for movement of the population, and cuts right thru Taliban country. the road is so littered with IEDs no one travels this road without a lot of engineers to clear it of mines and IEDs. Probably the last time it was traveled down this far was when the last rotation from Gagetown was here last year.

we formed an all around defense with the vehicles and waited for word to start building at this time it was raining quite hard and the ground was absolute shit mud everywhere, it looked more like Wainwright then Afghanistan. while we were waiting on the final go ahead to build we went and did some patrols with the infantry searching for weapons and explosives. we didn’t find much and the population of the village did not seem to threatening to us so those went smoothly as a patrol does.

on the January sixth we were given the go ahead to start building which was going to be a lot more difficult due to the muddy terrain. as we assembled the observation points and the Hesco bastion walls the time passed really fast but because of the shitty ground the nights were quite uncomfortable on the night of the sixth it started snowing and it was an absolutely freezing wet cold. when we finished construction we moved our troop into the two sea cans that the observation posts were constructed on. that didn’t last long though because the sea cans got repossessed by the infantry officers. It only took us two days to build the strongpoint but we had a lot of help from the infantry.

on the night of the 8th we had to move from sea cans just outside the walls of the strong point, we got the badger to flatten some ground for us for us to put our tarps between our two vehicles. the badger parked next to us but about 3 meters from our tent. at around 0750 I went out and took a piss behind the badger walked back into the tent and laid on my cot about 3 minutes later an large scream flash and massive explosion happened right beside our tent filling it with dust. I jumped from my bed put on my Frag vest and helmet grabbed my bag with my clothes and jumped into our T-LAV. at this point we checked for everyone was ok then I looked up and noticed that the tarp on the top of the badger that the badger crew sleep under was all fucked up.

I exclaimed something like “OH FUCK THE BADGER!” jumped up and ran to see if anyone was on top of it that’s when is seen the sleeping bag of one of the crew I grabbed it and felt a hot piece of shrapnel on top of it and then I grabbed his foot (I’m not going to say his name because some of you might know him but you probably already know about it if you do know him.) my master corporal jumped on top and told me to go call a medic. I yelled at the top of my lungs “MEDIC, MEDIC!!) at this point the two Tactical combat casualty course (TCCC) qualified guys from my section Sap. Clark and Cpl Rochon grabbed there TCCC medic pouches and jumped on top of the vehicle. I then seen a warrant officer and a guy with a medic bag running towards our location and I grabbed the medic and brought him the badger at this time Sap. Pittman and another TCCC guy were on top giving first aid. he was breathing on his own but he had a massive wound to his face and was missing part of his jaw. the crew of the badgers sleep on stretchers so he was already on one when they took him off the top of the vehicle and got him to the medical tent to await an air medi-vac. afterward our whole section got into our tracked light armored video (T-LAV) and no one really said anything to anyone everyone’s face was grim and sad and the mood was very sullen.

when we finally returned to one of our forward operating bases for a much needed shower and hot meal. we were all terribly dirty and didn’t have much in the way of clean cloths. I went and used the internet for a bit and sent a few messages letting people know I was still kicking it. went in the mess and made myself a soup and an improvised grilled cheese sandwich using some stale bread and some cheeze whiz not exactly like home but better than nothing.

we departed back for the strongpoint the next morning at first light with some warm food in our bellies and a good shower we were ready to take on anything. our convoy was large and was big enough to supply 3 police sub stations and the strongpoint we had just built. at approximately 1000 hours the 3rd vehicle in the order of march exploded with one of the largest IEDs I have seen yet. our driver immediately dropped our ramp and my section ran to the scene to secure the location. sapper Clark and myself were instructed to jump on the vehicles and treat the wounded. I had a sick feeling in my stomach before Clark opened the door praying that the guys inside would be ok. to my relief they all escaped with minor injuries, but the vehicle was a mobility kill which means that it couldn’t drive on its own power.

it was decided that we would spend the night at the closest checkpoint and continue on in the morning. this time though we would have more soldiers dismounted to visually check the route our section was picked and we got on our way. its kind of hard to explain the feeling of walking on a road that you know is most likely mined or booby trapped but it’s a little unnerving to say the least. you feel exposed and basically at the mercy of the bomb makers and hope they skipped a step and made a dud that won’t function or that we find the bomb before it has a chance to hurt anyone.

well we missed one and next thing we know a vehicle about a kilometer behind us exploded, as one of the people checking the road I felt absolutely terrible because we missed something and someone could be dead because of that, but once again the vehicle that the soldiers were traveling in survived the blast but was once again a mobility kill. I have to hand it to those Germans they build sturdy tanks it barely had a scratch.

when we finally got the strongpoint everyone was a little shaken up but moral was high. we stayed for a few nights at the strong point and then the orders came down to use the exact same road that had claimed two of our vehicles in the two previous days and that we were to be extremely vigilant in our searching for IEDs. the day started off slow and we had to stop for about an hour and a half because one of the vehicles got stuck and when they went to pull it out they didn’t hook up the lift points or used to much power and ripped the front end off the vehicle so we had to wait for them to put it on a flatbed truck for transport to a mechanic. the day was extremely cold sitting around waiting, then it started to snow and seeing that it had been raining for the better part of 10 days there was huge puddles on the road. my feet were soaking wet and really uncomfortable but the rest of me was dry because of the awesome gortex rain suit we were issued here.

we were about 700 meters away from our second checkpoint when an explosion happened about 60 meters behind me this time they hit another large vehicle and again no serious injuries at this point we were all like what the fuck is going on we made it to our checkpoint and were told to halt for the day. all the dismounted guys from my section jumped in the back of our T-LAV and got the driver to crank the heat and we started to dry off our socks and gloves as best we could. all of a sudden people started jumping in the vehicles and getting ready to leave in the same direction we had just came I was totally confused then we got word that another vehicle had hit an IED and that the rest of the convoy had to turn around and head back the way they came. this was getting to be too much I had just walked down this road twice and seen fuck all it was very frustrating. the worst part of it all is that one of the people in my section was in the convoy that had to turn around and all her kit was on our truck so she was stuck out at the strong point with nothing no toiletries, no sleeping bag, no change of clothes and worst of all she isn’t with us and we were still going to push towards the FOB.

Waking up the next morning I realized we were not getting in a rush to move anywhere and we were told we could sleep late because there was no timings for the day. I laid in my sleeping bag and watch as it snowed outside our tent.

when I finally got the courage up to brave the cold and get out of my warm sleeping bag it must have been like 1000 hours January 17th we started to work on our tent and we went and got some firewood and a guy in my section went across the street and bought a barrel off the locals to use as a burn barrel to heat up our tent we made some air holes and cut a hole in the top. We then dug a hole about a foot and a half in the ground and put the barrel in it got the wood and started it up. Everyone took off their wet boots and put it beside the barrel to try and dry them up and it was mighty hot so it started to work quite quickly. So quickly in fact it melted a plastic on the side of my master corporals boot where the lace holes are it was pretty funny.

around 1400 word came down that we were to move on a route that was most likely IED’ed but the plan was a lot different from our normal course of action and it was on a different route I can’t say the details but as we were pushing away from the checkpoint we didn’t even go a kilometer before we found an IED. because we were pressed for time they blew it in place rather quickly and we moved on. when they figured it was safe we mounted our vehicles and pushed towards the FOBs. we made it back without incident but I felt just terrible knowing that Kayla was all alone out at the strongpoint with some people that she doesn’t know with no kit and we were destined to be

eating hot dinner and having a shower I felt so bad I couldn’t stop thinking about it. she’s a tough gal but she was really looking forward to having a shower and cleaning her cloths and stuff. I decided that I would do all her laundry and clean all her kit so when she does get back here she can just relax without having to do any work I know she’s going to be in a bad mood I would feel like shit to be in her position.

anyways shit happens and I got to go eat some supper.

Recipe: Water

Ingredients: Your imagination

1. Imagine that you are without a sink and faucet and have no spigots neatly labelled hot and cold.

2. Pretend you have to fetch water from a well that is miles from your home.

3. Visualize walking that distance as a daily activity and the time it takes to travel those miles in all kinds of weather, sometimes with shoes whose soles are worn so that you can feel the earth beneath your feet.

4. Picture that, as you walk, you need to pay close attention to landmines, gunfire, and dangerous people lurking in shadows who could harm you.

5. Feel what it’s like to finally arrive at the well and begin hauling up water from the earth’s depths.

6. Hear the sound the water makes sloshing in the bucket, as you lift it towards the sky.

7. Notice how your arms feel as you pull hard on the now-heavy rope.

8. Begin to carry the water back home, walking as slowly and carefully as you can so as not to spill a drop.

9. Upon arriving safely at home, take a metal cup and dip it into the bucket to fill it with water.

10. Quench your thirst, and taste water, as if for the first time.

Where Would Jesus Eat?

Would you like fries with that host?

With “The Book of Mormon” by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone opening on Broadway this week, New York City is about to be overrun by a bizarre and mysterious phenomenon with which few urban dwellers are familiar. No, not LSD. It’s the elders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a.k.a. LDS.

Now, being the strapping, young churchgoers that they are – and with a bevy of wives and gaggle (or is it pride?) of children to feed – the question of where to find sustenance in the neighborhood nearest the theater district, the ominously named “Hell’s Kitchen,” presents Mormons with a moral dilemma of Biblical proportions.

"No, Jesus! Don't eat there!"

But have no fear ye descendants of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Couchsurfing Cook is hereth to provideth ye with wholesome restaurant recommendations sure to solveth that most pressingest of religious conundrums:

“Where would Jesus eat?”

Nook Restaurant

Nook, an intimate, 25-seat restaurant is perfect for the secretly gay Mormon who feels naturally comfortable in closet-size settings.

But Mormons of any sexual orientation should feel quickly at home with dishes that hew to traditional American fare, while offering flair-worthy presentations that offer a playful nod to potentially gay diners; a touch that will likely be noticed by only the most discerning or paranoid Mormon elder.

The burger and fresh-off-the-farm-boy salads are standouts, while the hearty Hungarian goulash, served over plain-jane egg noodles, is the perfect “transition” dish for gastro-curious Mormons.

True, the earthy, phallic-shaped mushroom cigars may look inappropriate entering the mouth, but if anyone asks why you’re eating them, simply say, “It’s not polite to ask, and I have the right not to tell.”

Nook doesn’t serve alcohol, perhaps as a polite nod to the faithful (though BYOB for non-Mormons is permitted). But be forewarned that this restaurant may be a poor fit for Mormons who are also chubby chasers; seating at Nook is extremely tight.

Great for dates, not great for guys or gals into chubbies.

Bali Nusah Indah

With its claim to fame as having a larger Muslim population than any country in the world, there’s plenty of potential converts at Bali Nusa Indah, one of the few Indonesian restaurants in New York City.

Could he be open to reading a book that will change his life?

But it may be Mormons who leave converted by the rich, spicy curries at this Theater District gem. Bali Nusah is the perfect spot for the Mormon with an adventurous palate who wants to ready his tongue for going on mission. Start with a simple salad containing a lovely peanut and lemon grass dressing.

A salad never hurt anyone. Did it?

After that, it’s baptism by fire with exotic-sounding dishes that range from mildly to medium spicy like ayam pelecing, a broiled boneless chicken with chili sauce or sambal goreng udang buncis, stir-fried spicy hot shrimp and string beans.

Learn to pronounce these dishes before you go on mission.

For the Mormon with a large brood, the best choice may be the Dutch colonial rijsttafel or rice table. With as many as 40 small plates to sample, each capturing Indonesia’s diverse cultures and tastes, it’s hard to imagine that any of your wives could complain that there was “nothing she could eat.”

Balkanika

The Old Testament and the Koran may have once done battle in the Balkans, but at Balkanika, a new restaurant owned by Istanbul-born Pando, the intention is to spread culinary peace and love across this former war-torn region.

Welcome to the Balkans! We're not at war anymore!

And spread is the operative word here, with its countless mezes or dips that may be hard for your average Mormon, raised on meat and potatoes, to wrap his mental pita around. The meze sampler of 17 spreads from ajvar (red pepper with eggplant, onion, and garlic) to tarator (yogurt, cucumber, and dill) is enough for an elder and at least three wives to enjoy, and the light-as-air bureks, phyllo pastries filled with spinach, leek, beef, or cheese may make some Mormons swear they’ve died and gone to heaven.

The meze sampler at Balkanika. Perfect for a large Mormon family.

The selection of Balkan wines from Bulgaria and Turkey are little known in the West, and not at all in Utah, but should be heartily enjoyed by agnostic and atheist diners.

The one dish at Balkanika Mormons will want to avoid are the “Sexy Balls,” thankfully served only at brunch. These healthy creations, made from pumpkin and flax seeds, nuts, and fresh and dried fruits taste delicious to those who don’t believe Joseph Smith is a prophet equal to Moses, but could admittedly traumatize the young ones in an LDS family for years to come.

Dining with the devil.

___________________________________________________________________________________

So grab your golden plates and walk, run, or bike over to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see what the Couchsurfing Cook can verify is a truly hysterical yet moving musical, “The Book of Mormon” and try these great restaurants for a pre- or post-show meal:

Nook Restaurant . 746 9th Avenue . 212.247.5500

Bali Nusra Indah . 651 9th Avenue . 212.265.2200 ‎

Balkanika . 691 9th Avenue . 212.974.0300

Should We Give Them Cake?

Location: Cork, Ireland
Person: Susan Rita
Recipe: Gur or Chester Cake

Once upon a time, there was a food blogger who wanted to go on the gur. To be “on the gur” is Irish slang for playing hookey.

She’d been blogging every week since January, while also working two jobs, and she was tired.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t take a break because, as they say, “The blog must go on…”

One day, to cheer her up, her friend Susan Rita stopped by to sing her a song she’d written. It was a blues song about cellphones, and how people are talking on them all the time.

The song reminded the food blogger of Twitter and Facebook, and all the other ways people today are always blathering on all the time. Sometimes, it did seem to her as if people really were just talking to themselves!

The food blogger sometimes felt this way about her own “talking.” She couldn’t figure out how to stop the nagging feeling she had that talking (in the form of a blog) was meaningless, when all was said and done.

She thought about the people in Japan who had lost their homes, and didn’t even know where their next meal was coming from. They were scared and cold and hungry. How could writing a food blog help them?

She thought about the post she was writing for St. Patrick’s Day about Gur cake, an Irish dessert made with stale bread soaked in tea to make it soft again. Susan Rita had told her about it after she went to Ireland to research her roots there.

At the Cork Butter Museum, Susan Rita had offered a piece of Gur cake to the man at the entrance, Mr. Humphreys. He was so excited when he saw it, because it reminded him of his childhood, when he’d skip school and buy it for a tuppence at the local bakery.

The food blogger thought about the Irish people. They were resilient too, just like the people in Japan who had survived the earthquake. She thought about giving someone in Japan a piece of Gur cake, as a symbol of transforming tragedy, the way the Irish people had turned stale bread into sweet cake.

The Gur cake reminded the food blogger of a Buddhist story too.

The story was about a woman whose child dies. Inconsolable, she goes to the Buddha to ask him to relieve her suffering. He agrees to help, but says first she must collect a mustard seed from every person in the village who has not experienced suffering. The bereaved woman agrees, but at each home, the person she visits relates their own story of suffering and, in that moment, she realizes she actually isn’t alone, and her suffering disappears.

Gur cake may not be the answer to life’s pain. But perhaps it can serve as a small reminder that, when all seems lost, we have the capacity to create beauty from nothingness.

Gur or Chester Cake.

With special thanks to Paul and Derek from Jim Brady’s Restaurant and Lara from Moran’s Restaurant and Bar in New York City who vetted the Gur cake.

Hear Susan Rita and her Ruel String Band sing her original blues song: ““.

DONATE TO JAPAN’S RELIEF EFFORTS.

Recipe: Gur Cake, adapted from a recipe by Sheila O’Donoghue-Baratizadeh posted on Traditional Irish Foods
Prep Time: 1 1/2 hours
Cook Time: 1 hour
Servings: 14-16 squares

Ingredients:

Bread Stuffing Part I:

6-ounce loaf ciabatta or Brennan’s bread (allowed to sit for two days wrapped in paper towel to dry) – 170 grams
3 cups hot (not boiling) water – 660 grams
2 tea bags (Irish Breakfast or black)

1. Place ciabatta bread in a five-pound aluminum loaf pan (29.8 cm. x 14.3 cm. x 8.1 cm.).
2. Cover bread with tea water that’s been allowed to steep 2 minutes and cooled slightly.
3. Press the bread down and turn it a few times to make sure both sides are wet.
4. Cut ciabatta in half and allow to soak in tea water for an hour until fully soft.

Shortcrust Pastry:

8 ounces all-purpose flour – 228 grams
1 ounce sugar – 29 grams
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces cold, unsalted Kerrygold Irish butter or regular butter, cut into small squares – 114 grams
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon ice water

1. While bread is soaking, begin making shortcrust pastry by mixing flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.
2. Add butter to flour, using fingers to mix, until flour resembles small bread crumbs.
3. Make a well in center, and add well-beaten egg yolks. Use a knife to combine eggs into flour.
4. Dust table surface with 1-2 tablespoons flour. Turn dough onto floured surface; dough will still be crumbly. Slowly add ice water to dough by teaspoons to help it stick together.
5. Knead dough with hands, adding ice water in small amounts as needed until dough forms a smooth ball.
6. Divide in two, wrap each in plastic wrap, and place in refrigerator until ready to use.

Bread Stuffing Part II:

4 ounces currants – 114 grams
1 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour – 42 grams
4 ounces brown sugar – 114 grams
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 ounce butter – 28 grams
2 tablespoons Pumpkin Pie Spice or British Mixed Spice
(alternatively, you can use 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cloves, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/4 teaspoon cardamon)
1 large egg, well beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 lemon rind, finely grated

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Farenheit – 190 degrees Celsius.
2. Use hands to squeeze tea water from bread and return to loaf pan.
3. In a separate, clean bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add sugar, rub in butter with fingers, and add spices.
4. Add currants to bread and mix well with hands to combine.
5. Add bread mixture to flour and mix to combine.
6. Whisk egg into milk, add grated lemon rind. Set aside.
7. Remove dough from refrigerator. Place on table lightly dusted with flour.
8. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll each ball into rectangular shape, same size as aluminum loaf pan.
9. Grease bottom and sides of pan with butter.
10. Place one rectangle of dough on bottom, trim to fit, and press into pan bottom. Use fork to prick holes in dough.
11. Add milk, eggs, and lemon rind to bread mixture. Stir to combine.
12. Fill loaf pan with bread mixture. Distribute evenly to cover pastry bottom.
13. Place second rectangle of dough on top. Trim ends to fit. Prick top evenly with fork.
14. Place in middle rack of oven and cook for approximately one hour until golden brown on top.
15. Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. If you’re not making royal icing for the top, whip cream makes a nice accompaniment.

Women on the Verge of a Dietary Breakdown

Location: Finale Emilia, in the Italian province of Modena
Person: Samantha
Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara

March is the month in which human beings – trapped inside for months to avoid winter – finally allow ourselves to, well, go a little crazy.

And, being the wise creatures we are, we humans have also realized it’s better to ritualize our weather-induced insanity, rather than let it run amok by, for example, grabbing a club and galumphing over to Frank’s cave next door to knock him upside the head because he and Brenda totally dropped the ball on our plans for a joint Florida cruise!!!!!!

Ah…that feels much better.

How do humans ritualize March madness? Well…

Catholics, and some Christians, celebrate Mardi Gras.

Jews celebrate Purim.

Sports fans celebrate the NCAA Playoffs.

And women celebrate….
Wait a second? Are you kidding me?
That’s how we’re supposed to let loose after months of having to trudge through the snow in our Manolo Blahniks???
By celebrating Women’s History Month????
NO FRIGGING WAY!!!!!

You call this a party???

Okay…deep breath…stay calm…must think…Ides of March…ideas…
Wait! Got it!

Alright people. Listen up:

I’m hereby announcing the Female Version of March Madness:

This March, instead of a respectable, feel-good holiday about all things femme, I’m advocating a release of seasonally-induced craziness (as opposed to the hormonally induced one, already discussed in an earlier post) by exercising our right to a Hall Pass:

In other words, a week in which women can eat all the de-stressing, comfort food we want, without having to worry about our weight!

Just imagine it ladies: ice cream, pasta, tater tots (even if some cheerleading instructors among us consider them a controlled substance).

Mercedes on Glee fights for her right to tot.

That’s right.
Stand away from the pantry, boys.
This March, we are WOMEN GONE CULINARILY WILD!

The Couchsurfing Cook goes mad.

Here in New York City, my Italian friend, Samantha, got a few of us ladies off to a smashing start the other night by making spaghetti carbonara. Her recipe is simple and delicious and, better yet, I’ve provided a non-bacon version for the vegetarian and non-pork eaters among us.

Last, but not least, in another bout of madness for the CS Cook, I’m hosting my
first-ever contest:

Take a picture of your favorite comfort food and tell me in 200 words or less why you love it.

The winner, chosen at random, will win a copy of The William Sonoma Comfort Food Cookbook or, if you’re anti-cruelty, The Vegetarian Meat and Potatoes Cookbook.

The contest is open to all. You don’t even need to have XX chromosomes to enter. Deadline for entries is Sunday, March 13, 2011, at midnight. Winner announced March 16, 2011.

Samantha's amazing Spaghetti Carbonara.

* Check out the Website Samantha writes for, NUOK.IT, the Italian’s guide to all things New York.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Servings: 3 to 4

Ingredients:

8 ounces spaghetti – 250 grams
3 egg yolks
12 ounces bacon (We used Wegman’s uncured bacon or substitute equal amount of turkey bacon or baby bella mushrooms) – 340 grams
ground black pepper
Pecorino romano cheese (to taste)

1. Chop bacon into small pieces. Cook in skillet over medium heat until crisp but not burnt. If substituting mushrooms, first heat 1/4 cup (59 milliliters or 2 UK liquid ounces) olive oil in skillet. Once hot, add chopped mushrooms and a pinch or two of salt. Allow to cook 10-15 minutes until tender.

2. In small bowl, beat egg yolks, then add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Cook pasta in large pot of salted water. When done (al dente, a little chewy still), pour approximately 4 ounces (118 milliliters), approximately half a glass, of pasta cooking water into a bowl and allow to cool slightly.

4. Once cooking water is warm, add three-quarters of it to the egg yolks. Whisk to combine.

5. Return skillet with bacon to stove under low heat.

6. In a colander, drain pasta from large pot, then toss in pan with bacon.

7. Add eggs to pan. Toss to combine. Turn heat off and keep tossing.

8. If pasta looks dry, add more of the pasta cooking water to moisten.

9. Serve immediately in individual bowls. Top with grated pecorino romano and pepper.

** Want to know the inspiration for the black and white photos above? They came from this year’s TED Prize Winner, graffiti artist JR. **

Blame it on the Gumbo

Location: Pinewood, Louisiana + Garland, Texas
Person: Clell
Recipe: Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

After a time, a man gets to talking.

Maybe he confesses something. A dream. A desire. A regret.

Hours pass. He has time to reflect. On his life. Places he’s been. Things he’s seen.

There are subjects on which he’s an expert. Possesses expertise. You can see it. The way he stirs the spoon in the pot. A confidence there.

Not every man has his patience. It’s a skill hard-won. Perhaps his mother’s side? He never did say.

Then again, he left home early. Says he carries memories in his mouth now. Just went home for grandma’s birthday. Everyone knows, miles don’t equal love.

After some hours, the sky darkens. Night rushes in. The man grows tired. The hours feel like years. He’d just like a place to lay his head is all. The simple things what’s needed. Hot coffee in the morning. A piece of bread to dunk his sorrows. His requirements small. Not like his dreams. They loom large. Floating off to a distance. A black unknown.

Still, he knows there’s tomorrow. Believes it in his skin. The way he knows his history. The body, like the future, never lying.

In the morning, the man disappears. His soul turning material with the sun’s clear light. A shirt. A tie. Now a pair of pants.

Leave no trace, he learned as a boy, hunting in a Texas wood (pointing the gun away from the doe, as she sprang through the air unbidden, though he’s never spoke of the transgression).

Yes, it’s true what they say. Or what I imagined in a dream that followed: You can learn a lot about a man, by the way he makes gumbo.

* Thanks to Clell for sharing his family’s gumbo recipe. The Southern Foodways Alliance also has a wonderful article about how to make roux.

Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Clell's Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Servings: 10-12
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients:

Roux:

1 cup vegetable oil – 236 ml
1 cup flour – 120 grams

Gumbo:

64 ounces chicken broth (can substitute vegetable broth or, as we did, half chicken, half vegetable) – 1892 ml
3 ounces chopped okra (10 whole) – 87 grams
4 ounces chopped onion – 115 grams
5 ounces celery (2 stalks) – 140 grams
1 green pepper – 85 grams
5 bay leaves
4 teaspoons Cajun or any mixed spice seasoning containing celery salt, garlic, thyme
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons tabasco
2 teaspoons salt or to taste (we went easy on the salt)
1 lb. can whole, peeled plum tomatoes – 500 grams
13 ounces andouille sausage (4 in total), cut into diagonal rounds – 356 grams
6 fresh, whole oysters, shucked including juice
6 fresh, large shrimp, shells and tails removed, each cut in thirds
11 ounces medium, whole frozen shrimp, thawed to room temperature, each cut in half – 310 grams

To serve: 10-12 cups cooked, white rice

* It helps to have two people making gumbo. One to stir the roux, the other to ready the gumbo ingredients. At any point, the two can trade places.

Directions:

To make the roux:

1. Heat 1 cup vegetable oil over medium heat in a cast iron skillet until hot but not smoking, approximately 5 minutes.

2. Add 1 cup white flour and stir with wooden spatula to combine.

3. Lower heat and continue stirring oil and flour without pause for what will seem like FOREVER, but which is actually about an hour. Be sure to regularly scrape the pan bottom to prevent flour and oil from sticking. As you stir, the roux, as it’s called, will slowly change color from pale beige/grey to warm yellow to light caramel and then medium-dark brown caramel.

4. Once the roux is in the medium caramel-colored range, remove pan from heat and continue stirring a few minutes longer, until it turns slightly darker caramel brown. It’s important to remove pan from heat BEFORE the roux gets too dark, as it will continue cooking off the burner.

5. Whatever you do, DO NOT WALK AWAY from the roux, ALLOW IT TO SIT for too long without stirring, or LEAVE HEAT TOO HIGH, which will cause it to burn. If you sense the pan becoming too hot or see it starting to smoke, immediately remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before returning to low heat.

* There are some very talented people, probably Creole or Cajun folks, who can safely make a nearly black roux. Do not imagine you are one of them. Just take it slowly. Remember, they call New Orleans (N’awlins) the “Big Easy” for a reason. Roux may seem intimidating, and it is a bit of an art, but mostly it requires a calm head and a good nose.

While the roux is heating, a second person can do the steps below. In terms of timing, you want to have the roux finish so it’s ready to add to the broth and vegetables when you’re about at the halfway point:

1. Chop okra, bell peppers, and celery into 1/4″ pieces. Finely dice onion. Set each aside in separate bowls.

2. Into a large, deep pot, pour half the broth and warm under low to medium heat, approximately 10-15 minutes.

3. Add okra, onions, celery, and green peppers. Stir to combine. Cook until slightly softened, approximately 10 minutes.

4. Add whole tomatoes and spices. Stir to combine. Cook another 10 minutes.

5. Using wooden spoon, add roux to broth and continue stirring to combine. To keep gumbo from becoming too thick or gummy, quickly add remaining broth in cup measurements, stirring to combine. Stop before it gets thin and soupy.

6. Add andouille sausage and oysters. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to simmer.

7. Let gumbo cook, uncovered, simmering, another 30 to 45 minutes. Continue stirring gumbo occasionally, checking thickness, and add more broth as needed to maintain thick but not pastey consistency.

8. After 30 minutes, add fresh and defrosted shrimp.

9. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. The taste should be spicy but not burning. Allow to cook another 10 minutes until shrimp is done.

10. To serve, ladle gumbo over 1-2 cups hot rice. Gumbo can be eaten right away, but some contend it tastes even better the next day.

How the Slow Sex Movement was Born

Do you know where your porn comes from?

It began innocently enough: four women of a certain age meet on a Saturday in New York City to talk, eat, and see art. Yet by day’s end, we were innocent no more, and I’d conceived of a new movement: Slow Sex.

We started at M. Wells, the hip, newish restaurant in Long Island City, famous for Montreal cuisine. The place was packed, placing us within pheromone distance of a bevy of boys, all leaning Canadian in plaid shirts, black, square glasses, and baggy jeans.

Big chicks dig plaid.

The boys didn’t appeal to our sense of smell, but the food got our juices flowing (the meat being the thing at M. Wells). Sadly though, the venison jerky salad was so dry it needed K-Y jelly, and the fish soup, (the one thing you want to smell fishy), creamy in all the wrong places.

The fish soup at M. Wells. Creamy, yes, but where's the fish?

Thankfully, the desserts – coconut cream and maple pies – brought us the satisfaction we’d been craving.

Look how big it is!

From there we headed to the art museum P.S.1, where we walked smack dab into real sex, as opposed to the faux food-induced variety, in the photography of Laura Nakadate, whose looks suggested she never ate, and whose artwork gave the impression she preferred sex with herself, leading us to wonder: Do women even need men to get off, or is pleasuring yourself with dessert good enough?

Laurel Nakadate gets off on herself.

A few hours later – famished and parched from all the sex – we decided to get our fill at Jimmy’s No. 43, a Slow Food joint in the East Village, where our friend Rich served as chef.

We hadn’t expected that a place known for hand-crafted beers and organic, locally sourced food would lead us to dishing on sex again, but this time it was Rich who was all hot and bothered.

“Did you see the recent New York magazine article about how Internet porn is ravishing men’s sex lives?” he asked, handing us plates of roasted sweet potatoes with thyme he’d slaved over all day in the kitchen.

“I mean, you can find anything out there. Big-breasted women with fake boobs. Flat-chested hipster chicks who look like teenage girls. It’s all there, easy to access, and free. Which means, guys can’t get it up with their girlfriends any more,” he cried. We were enraptured, though whether by the implications of what Rich was saying or the braised kale with Heritage Farm bacon he handed us next, we weren’t sure.

So good you can eat it.

I surveyed the room, now thick with men, all of whom looked eerily similar to those at M. Wells: black, square glasses, plaid shirts, baggy jeans, all sporting thick beards one hoped would go the way of the once-fashionable female bush.

That’s when it hit me. If it was true that guys who got off on Internet porn were the same ones who could a) tell extra virgin from virgin (olive oil) with their eyes closed (and hands tied behind their backs?); b) would no sooner wrap their mouths around a hormone-injected hamburger than listen to Justin Bieber; and c) would give their last dollar to buy a dozen, free-range eggs rather than be caught fixing an omelet with the corner bodega variety, then all we needed to get them interested in their girlfriends again was convince them that pleasuring themselves online was equivalent to eating a McDonald’s Happy Meal!

I suggested this to Rich after pleasuring myself with his sticky toffee pudding.

Rich's sticky toffee pudding a.k.a. food porn.

“I’m not advocating a return to a boring sexual diet,” I argued, Ronnybrook whipped cream still glistening on my lips. “On the contrary. My point is to show gastronomically sophisticated men that sex with locally grown women (rather than ones shipped from overseas, whose origins are unknown), who aren’t picked while still underripe, nor filled with chemicals like silicone, are as worthwhile procuring as a perfectly marbled slab of Niman Ranch bacon for the superior mouth feel both offer. Heck, maybe we can even get men to see that older, heirloom women – while not always perfect looking outside – taste better than mass-produced younger varieties that just look fresh on the shelf.”

I continued, my excitement mounting. “And for guys who, for ethical reasons, only eat organic, free range, and Fair Trade food, we label porn so that, at least if they’re going to consume it, they can feel better knowing the women they’re watching are cage-free!”

Extra virgin. It's worth paying for.

Rich wasn’t so sure, nor were my girlfriends. But I contend that if New York magazine is right – that easy access to fast-food sex dulls men’s taste buds for the good stuff – it’s time to borrow a page from the Slow Food movement’s little black playbook. Maybe then, asking men to forego cheaply produced porn will feel less like a moralistic burden and more like a message they can wrap their legs around.

In fact, I’ve come up with a slogan to start the campaign:

“My milk’s free of bovine growth hormone, and my girlfriend’s breasts are too.”

That's right guys. They're all natural.


___________________________________________________________________________________

For a fabulous meal made with organic, locally grown food (all prepared by a chef we love), visit Jimmy’s No. 43, 43 East 7th Street, NYC, 212.982.3006.

Read a review of Laurel Nakadate’s show from female friend #1 and art critic/editor extraordinaire, Carol Diehl.

Buy paintings by female friend #2, Julie Wolf, and crafts and antiques by female friend #3 Liz Asch.

Learn “What’s Organic About Organic?” by bringing this new documentary to your home town.

Want organic milk and humanely raised meat produced by farmers not agribusinesses? Support Ronnybrook Farm and Niman Ranch.

The Couchsurfer Who Changed Everything

Marcel as I imagined him...

Ah, romance! The dirty, little secret of Couchsurfing. Sure, sometimes it’s all kumbaya, joining the world’s diverse peoples in a platonic group hug. But other times, CSers just wanna have fun, at least with people whom they know have already pre-booked their ticket home.

Yet I can state unequivocally, that in over two years of Couchsurfing, no man (or woman) has ever broken my Bristol-Palin like chastity.

That is, until Marcel.

From the moment we met, I knew Marcel was different: gentle, funny, willing to share the tiniest details of his life as if we’d known each other forever.

Initially, I swore I wouldn’t “out” our love on the blog. But now that I’ve changed my Facebook status to “In a relationship,” I’ve decided it’s time to let the world experience, as I did, the man – and day – I’ll never forget…

____________________________________________________________________

After Marcel and I awoke (he on his air mattress, I on my off-the-ground, queen-size bed). I suggested we hit the Lower East Side for breakfast at Panade, a “puff” cafe known for their sweet and savory choux pastry concoctions.

Panade girls staring at Marcel and me.

Marcel, having never experienced “puffs” in his country, the name of which I can never remember, took delicate bites of the cheese and rosemary and declared it better than the leaves he usually eats.

Choose your puff.

From there we walked to the Union Square Greenmarket, a perfect spot for people watching, as well as purchasing fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat, all by local purveyors, and at sizes even Marcel could chew.

Foolishly oblivious to the difference in our heights (did I mention Marcel is rather small?), I noticed his feet were worn to nibs by the time we arrived at the market! Helping steady him with my hand, we momentarily touched and, just then, something ineffable passed between us; at that moment, I knew our connection was much stronger than merely our mutual love of sleeping for free in other people’s homes.

After sharing a handmade Dutch pretzel (was he imagining us entwined?), he asked if we could stop at the Apple (PRODUCT PLACEMENT) store, to send an email. Immediately, my mood deflated. Was he writing to his girlfriend in his unpronounceable country to share with HER the fabulous day he was having with ME?

My hopes for love dashed, I sulked off to check my own email when, strangely, one from Marcel magically appeared on the screen: “THANK U FOR THE MOST PURR-FECT DAY OF MY ENTIRE LIFE!! I’M FALLING IN LOVE WITH U!!##$$, MARCEL!@#$%”

Our eyes locked across the crowded Apple store. We rushed into one another’s arms, the other guests too immersed in their iPods (PRODUCT PLACEMENT) to notice. After that, there was nothing, not even the fact that Marcel’s country only sells PCs, that could come between us.

Marcel and I relax at Sanctuary T.

Exhausted from the Apple store – and the excitement of our newfound love – we decided to recharge at Sanctuary T. There, in the dimly lit, Asian-influenced room, Marcel and I sipped mood-enhancing teas, grew tipsy from tea-infused cocktails, and ate tea-dusted main courses, secure in the knowledge that whatever herb or caffeinated beverage we imbibed could only further stimulate our feelings towards one another.

But just then, a dark cloud of recognition jolted us from our reverie: our day of love was nearly over, and soon Marcel would have to return to his difficult-to-locate-on-a-map country. Could our love withstand the oceans, mountains, hurricanes, mudslides, tsunamis, and occasional locust infestations, that routinely pummel his impossible-to-spell nation?

Teas and tea objects on display.

But there was no time to ponder, as night was upon us, and it was time for dinner.

Amazingly, Marcel had taken the initiative to read the New Yorker in the bathroom of my apartment earlier that day, and recommended we check out Millesime, a restaurant that had recently opened in a former no-man’s land (the East ’30s) that had begun trending hip.

Tiffany roof at Millesime.

There we found the Carlton Hotel, a Beaux Arts-style building built in 1904, recently renovated into a fashionable boutique hotel and now home to Millesime and the downstairs M Bar. As we entered the airy restaurant with its Tiffany glass sunroof, red leather banquette, marble bar, and candle-lit tables, it was as if – not only Marcel and I but the entire room – was aglow!

The dinner only heightened the exquisiteness of what we believed would be our last night together, beginning with the perfectly chewy yet crusty bread served with wine and olive tapenade, moving on to the perfectly prepared lobster on a bed of ice with house-made cocktail sauce and aioli, and ending with a simple yet elegant dessert consisting of a honeycomb square paired with a salty, French cheese.

The dining room at Millesime.

It was only then I saw Marcel crying.
“Why are you sad, my love?” I asked, barely able to contain my own tears.
Because,” Marcel squeaked, “We’re at the most romantic restaurant in New York, and I have something to give you.
He lowered his already small body down further to the ground and knelt on one knee.
Will you marry me?
Before I could answer, the wait staff burst into applause.
“Say, ‘Yes!'” they shouted.
And I did, amid tears and laughter, as a waiter lifted Marcel from the ground and carried him in his hand for all to see.

Downstairs at the M bar, we celebrated and danced, snacking on lamb chop lollipops and Basque-style popcorn, while the DJ spun songs from the ’50s, because Marcel said it reminded him of home.

____________________________________________________________________

Now that we’ve caught our breath, Marcel and I have decided to divide our time between New York and the land mass he calls home. Happily, we both still love couchsurfing and continue to host people when they come to visit. We do though still sleep in separate beds. After all, I don’t want to crush him.

Marcel was kind enough to make this video to share himself with all of you. I think you’ll agree, he’s just as described!
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

To recreate my perfect day with Marcel, we encourage you to visit our favorite places:

Panade: 132A Eldridge Street
Union Square Greenmarket: From 14th – 17th Street between Broadway/University Place and Union Square East. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Sanctuary T: 337 West Broadway
Millesime and M Bar: 92 Madison Avenue

How to Get Laid on Valentine’s Day…and Beyond!

Guaranteed to get your loved one horizontal.

Do you want to get laid on Valentine’s Day…and Beyond?

If you answered YES to this question, then I’m about to reveal a SUREFIRE METHOD that’s GUARANTEED to get the woman or man of your dreams under the covers wearing nothing more than their tighty-whiteys in less than 24 hours or I WILL GIVE YOU YOUR MONEY BACK!!!

How do I know this method works? I speak from PERSONAL EXPERIENCE!

When I was 21 years old, I worked for a summer as a bartender in London. Being 21, I admittedly had other things on my mind besides alcohol (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean, say no more…).

Yet no matter how much I batted my eyelashes, dabbed beer behind my ears, and yelled at blokes in the bar that they could “wank off” if they didn’t like what I was pouring, British men avoided me like I was Fergie pre-Weight Watchers.

To drown my sorrows, and cool my searing flesh, I began swimming at the local pool. Then, one day, while emerging Bo Derek-like from the piscine, I met a handsome Frenchman who, oo-la-la, also happened to be a chef.

Jean, as I’ll call him, was just what the doctor ordered to restore my joie de vivre. Yet despite his whistling “Tea for Two” beneath my window at night and covering my neck with passionate kisses in front of the guards at Buckingham Palace, I refused to let him have his way with me, delicate, young thing that I was.

But all that changed one afternoon, when he suggested we take a walk in the park. Expecting nothing more than a chaste stroll, I was shocked when Jean suddenly pulled from his pockets – not what you think, dear reader – but rather a Swiss Army knife, spoon, apple, and bottle of wine.

Now what Jean did next – and what I’m about to share with you, dear reader – is something that is SO GUARANTEED TO ENLARGE, I mean, ENTHRALL the woman or man of your dreams, you’ll be running to the drugstore for protection faster than a free-range chicken at the Slow Food – Charlotte Chapter’s Southern Food Cook-Off!

What he did was carefully remove the central part of the apple’s core, leaving the apple bottom in place. He then cut a wider circle around the apple top to create a shallow opening. Using the spoon, he scooped out most of the innards to form a cup. Finally, ever so gently, he filled the apple “cup” with wine, and offered me a sip. The rest of the afternoon passed in a dream-like blur, as the apple cup of wine moved back and forth between our two lips, until they were stained cherry-red.

More important for YOU to know, is that within eight hours of Jean’s skilled handiwork, I was laid out on his bed as horizontal as Click and Clack the Tappett Brothers beneath the body of a Mustang lowrider.

Which is why, dear reader, if you want to get laid on Valentine’s Day – and beyond – there’s NOTHING, I mean NOTHING, sexier or more romantic than hand-carving your beloved an apple wine cup. And, better yet, this SUREFIRE METHOD costs less than $10!! That’s right!! LESS THAN $10!!

So don’t delay!! Act now!! Rush order your apple today!!
THIS METHOD IS GUARANTEED TO GET YOU LAID OR I’LL GIVE YOU YOUR MONEY – OR READING TIME – BACK!!

Oh, Mexico!

Rocio and her mom at home in Cancun.

Location: Mexico
Person: Rocio
Recipe: Ponche, Winter Fruit Punch
___________________________

There are three ways a person can travel:

Walk among the people.
Bike, bus, or train with backpackers.
Observe from a remove, knowing it’s all a mirage.

Over nine days in Mexico, I experienced all three.

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___________________________

On January 1, I flew to Mexico for what I thought was a much-needed vacation. To be clear, I live in the United States, have a roof over my head, eat three meals a day, enjoy the benefits of heat, electricity, and hot water, and am fortunate enough to engage in work I find meaningful that also pays enough to meet my basic needs while giving me extra for occasional splurges.

I first couchsurfed at Rocio’s home in Cancun. Incredibly, she left me alone in her house while she stayed at her boyfriend’s; her boyfriend, she later confessed, was her ex-husband.

In the bedroom at Rocio's.

I then headed to the beach town of Tulum where, lacking a reservation, a Swedish woman on the street directed me to a cheap, but clean, hotel.

A hotel in Tulum.

Finally I spent four days at a luxury resort in Playa del Carmen attending a workshop — the real purpose of my trip.

The bedroom at Grand Velas Riviera Maya.

___________________________

In Cancun, Rocio’s mother fed me bacalo and gave me warm ponche to drink to celebrate the New Year. At night, I wandered the streets and found a restaurant called Blanca Elana, where I watched a woman make tortillas while I ate papas con rajas.

In Tulum, I sat by the beach at restaurants with outdoor terraces and wooden tables. At Las Estrellas, I ordered ceviche and drank cold, Mexican beer.

Ceviche at Las Estrellas.

At Xcatik, the French-born chef treated me to fusion versions of traditional Mayan food and introduced me to Mexican wines.

Steak with black beans and guacamole.

Once at the resort, I dined at five or six restaurants, each with its own cuisine. Getting to them required taking a shuttle bus down a smooth, dirt road through a mangrove jungle. Waited on by beautiful waitresses and handsome waiters who anticipated my every move, I took delicate bites of strange and exotic dishes like Napoléon de Foie Gras Mi-Cuit Sur Tuile d’Amandes, each dish a kind of theater unto itself.

Foie gras at Grand Velas, photo courtesy of Loaded Kitchen.


___________________________

For fun, in Rocio’s neighborhood, I wandered the neighborhood in the early morning and listened to birds.

In Tulum, I biked to an archaeological site filled with Mayan ruins, where I hiked through green fields scattered with tourists.

Mayan ruins with tourists.

At the resort, I lounged by the pool and read or drank margaritas and chatted about food and photography.

The pool at Grand Velas Maya Riviera

___________________________

Nine days later, I returned to New York City, the memory of Mexico quickly vanquished by the onslaught of wind and snow and the inevitable routines of daily life.

But when I drink a cup of ponche now to warm my hands, I’m reminded of why I love to travel and how fortunate I am to experience travel in its many incarnations.

___________________________

With thanks to Rocio and her mom; Chef Dennis Radoux at Xcatik (Calle Sagitario Pte. esq. con Alfa norte, Tulum); Petter from Sweden, who walked me back to town after visiting the ruins, and the Swedish tourist who led me to the hotel; the leaders of Food Blog Camp and all the wonderful bloggers I met there, including Maggie, my former roommate, who blogs at Loaded Kitchen; the staff at Grand Velas Riviera Maya, and the doctor who treated me when I fell ill there; KerryGold for providing a scholarship to the workshop; and all the strangers who crossed my path whose names I will never know but who supported me along the journey. Namaste!

________________________________

Mexican Ponche, Adapted for Gringos

To make true ponche requires ingredients that may be difficult to find in some parts of the world, like piloncillo and sugar cane. I’ve included a link to a traditional recipe from the wonderful Mija Chronicles and created my own version using more easily available ingredients. For the dedicated, some but not all, Mexican ingredients can be ordered online and delivered to Europe through Mexgrocer. For U.S. customers, Latin Merchant has a wide selection, including the ingredients below, all of which can be shipped within the U.S.

Servings: 8-10 teacup size servings

Ingredients:

4 cups water
5 cinnamon sticks, 3-4″ each
2 tablespoon tamarind paste
1/2 cup firmly packed dark, brown sugar
1/2 cup whole walnuts
1/2 cup yellow apple, cut into 1″ pieces
2/3 cup pear, well-ripened, cut into 1″ pieces
8 prunes
1 cup orange slices, peel left on, each piece cut into small triangle

Optional if you can find them:

4 whole guavas, also called guayabas, in syrup, seeds removed and cut in half
6 tejacotes in jar, pre-cooked

Directions:

1. Place water, cinnamon, tamarind paste, and walnuts in medium size pot on stove over medium heat. Cover and heat until just beginning to boil.

2. Add remaining fruit except orange or tejacote or guayaba if using.

3. Lower heat and allow to cook until fruit is soft but not falling apart, approximately 15-20 minutes.

4. Add orange slices or Mexican fruits and allow to cook another 10 minutes or to taste.

5. Remove cinnamon sticks. Serve hot, scooping pieces of fruit and nuts into each cup.

恭喜發財! Gōng xǐ fā cái!

Congratulations and be prosperous, now give me a red envelope! – Chinese New Year’s greeting

For those who don’t live in a multi-culti city like New York, it’s possible you were blithely unaware that Chinese New Year began yesterday.

This is the Year of the Rabbit when we’re supposed to eat carrots, hop around, and have sex as often as possible. I don’t know if any of that’s true, but I just added it to Wikipedia for the heck of it.

Now in 50 years, we’ll all know when Chinese New Year is because, by then, the Chinese will rule the world – if not the universe and most of the alien galaxies – which means it’s only a matter of time before we’re counting on abacuses, silverware as we know it will have disappeared, and our grandchildren will be speaking to us in Mandarin so that, not only won’t we be able to hear them, we’ll have no idea what they’re saying.

To give those of you who’ve never experienced Chinese New Year a 50-year leg up on the competition, I’m sharing photos of what it was like yesterday in New York City’s faux Chinatown; I mean faux only in the sense that, in the real China, people probably don’t hawk “I Love New York” T-shirts alongside their black market “Black Swan” DVDs.

The air was chill that morning, but the streets felt warm as we wandered among crowds dressed in bright colors, some beating on drums. Policeman stood by while firecrackers popped and cracked. Even they had no intention to stop the fun.

Firecracker droppings

Dragons shook and danced their way into stores, sending New Year’s greetings and asking for gifts. Store owners obliged by giving the dragons money in small, red envelopes. I’m told it goes to the benevolent associations and not the gangsters. Hey, what can I say? I’m cynical. I live in New York City.

Dragons roam the streets.

My co-workers and I celebrated by having lunch at Joe’s Ginger, the country cousin, though no less delicious, version of Joe’s Shanghai.

Joe's Ginger at 25 Pell Street

My co-worker, also named Joe, suggested we order soup dumplings. I’d never had one before. They sounded scary.

Filled with fat mounds of pork with soup snuggled inside – all of it held together by a spiral twist of sticky dough – soup dumplings pop a dollop of liquid in your mouth if you’re not wise to the fact before biting down. Joe advised we poke a tiny hole in the sack to let a little juice slip out first. Ha! I’m no fool! I knew to tuck a napkin under my chin to prevent squirtage.

Plate o' soup dumplings

Then we shared plates of cold noodles with sesame sauce and Shanghai-style eggplant with garlic. The eggplant had a little pork too. It was an awful lot of pork in one day for a nice Jewish girl like me, but I didn’t want to be rude so dug in with the others. Of course, God punished me later that day by having me lose my subway Metrocard. Darn you, God!

After lunch, and despite being stuffed as dumplings, we went scheming for dessert. First we hit the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, but the scoops were expensive – $3.75 for flavors like green tea, lychee, and almond cookie – so we kept walking.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory at 65 Bayard Street

Heading back to the office, we found many shops closed for the holiday, but luckily one of our favorites was opened: EVERYTHING FROSTED! And whether you like cupcakes or not, you have to admit it has the best name in the whole, wide world.

John Wu, owner of Everything Frosted at 105 Mosco Street

The owner, John Wu, makes cupcakes in exotic flavors like pink champagne and tiramisu and in Chinese flavors like jasmine with vanilla bean frosting and green tea with black sesame frosting. He trained under the Executive Pastry Chef at the White House. Do you think that means they served cupcakes for dessert at the recent White House dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao?

Joe liked the cupcakes so much, he bought six. Each one cost $2.50. A lot less than that $3.75 ice cream cone!

Now $2.50 times six equals…uh…uh… Well, if I was one of those whip-smart Chinese kids, I’d have figured it out by now. Too bad I’m just a dumb-ass white lady licking frosting from my fingers, when I should be using them to count!

Joe’s Ginger, 25 Pell Street, 212.285.0333
Chinatown Ice Cream Factor, 65 Bayard Street, 212.608.4170
Everything Frosted, 105 Mosco Street, 212.227.9828

There Will Be Blood

rib roast

Was I wrong to long?

Every 28 days, I crave meat. Bacon. Hamburgers. Skirt Steak. The desire always presages what, in the parlance of our times, is quaintly referred to as “that time of the month.”

For three years, however, I dated a man who was macrobiotic. A man who never ate red meat. Around him, my carnivorous urges felt embarrassing. Shameful even.

Helpless to stop the hormonal deluge, I spared him my animalistic longings by sucking bones in secret. Returning from these sanguinary sessions, I’d fear that he’d taste charcoal on my breath or spot an incriminating barbecue stain on my collar, thereby dooming the relationship forever.

Yet despite our gustatory differences, I found myself falling in love. And so, as lovers often do, I hid from him the more salacious details of my past culinary dalliances, like the time I ate a bucket of Hecky’s Ribs after a failed audition or when an ex-boyfriend and I took mushrooms then ordered one too many burritos from a Mexican place on Chicago’s West side whose cleanliness was highly questionable.

I was ultimately humbled though by his nutritional certitude. Of course it was wrong to eat animals, any fool with a graduate degree knew that. If I was honest, I’d even shared his beliefs, back when I was an idealistic vegetarian sleeping on futons and lugging casseroles to potlucks in my hubristic youth.

ribs

I wanted love -- the whole hog.

It was New York that hardened me, I now realized. In a city requiring testosterone to survive, I’d become unfeminine by eating meat. With his help, I’d change my evil ways. Become pure again. Virginal. Or at least a respectable pescatarian.

In all fairness, he was a fabulous cook. One of the best I’ve ever had. He could do things with miso and seaweed no man had ever done for me before. And his wild Atlantic salmon — steamed simply with garlic, ginger, and tamari — was a revelation; fish still redolent of its aquatic self.

But the relationship wasn’t without challenges. Problems began as early as our third date when I suggested eating at a restaurant; a proposition he found distasteful. It wasn’t until years later — once we were already enmeshed — that he explained his belief that our constitutions are affected not only by what we eat, but by the manner in which food is prepared. Enjoying a meal born out of a chaotic restaurant environment was for him as abhorrent as ingesting sewage. Needless to say, we dined almost exclusively at home.

Still it pained me when, after nearly three years of romantic and culinary bliss, I nonetheless felt compelled to admit that I’d grown weary of our all-macrobiotic diet, and wondered if we could perhaps spice things up a bit, you know, cook something Italian or French, say, using only locally grown and organic products, of course.

The situation worsened a few months later when I asked, gently I thought, if we could eat out once a month, his manhood seemingly bruised by the suggestion.

Then one night, as we sipped kukicha tea in the living room after another of his healthy and delicious meals, he said impassively that he thought it might be best if I moved back to my own house, where I’d thankfully kept a second set of dishes, anticipating just such a moment.

The discovery a few weeks later that he’d been cheating on me was admittedly a shock. Yet I found myself oddly comforted when I learned about the woman who’d stolen his heart and satisfied his appetites where my own attempts had failed.

Understandably, she was Japanese.

Ice Cream Confessional

The author's mugshot a.k.a. high school yearbook photo

I used to steal ice cream. I was 15 and worked at the local Baskin Robbins. Technically, I wasn’t stealing for myself. The real culprit was my mother.

Ruth, my mother

The author's mother in college playing innocent.

She’d come pick me up at night after my shift. I was old enough to work but didn’t yet have a driver’s license. As she waited in the car listening to talk radio, I’d finish the last closing routines: wiping down the glass cases, carrying trash out behind the store, and turning off the hot chocolate warmer and flowing water inside the metal trays where we kept the scoopers. Then I’d lower the lights so no one could see what I was about to do and go outside for her instructions.

“What’s the flavor of the month again?” she’d ask, avoiding my gaze by staring out the car’s windshield.
“I think it’s Nutty Coconut.”
“All right. Good. Let’s get a pint of that.”

Back inside I’d pack up a pint, making sure to wipe down the metal spatula to hide any evidence. The whole thing felt cheap and tawdry. But what I could I do? She was my mother, and I needed the ride.

Once I’d left for college though, I told myself my days of stealing ice cream were over. Sure, I still loved the stuff (and could easily eat it every day if no one cared what I looked like) but in the intervening years, I’d convinced myself that I’d reformed.

And then it snowed here in New York. A lot. And suddenly, before you could say Pralines’n Cream, I got the itch again.

I first waited until the snow was at least four inches off the ground. Then, under cover of darkness, snuck out to the yard with a glass measuring cup. Working quickly before my neighbors could see, I filled a metal bowl with snow; the old skills returning as if riding a bicycle.

Once inside, I got to work on step two. A few years earlier, I’d briefly dated the hot chocolate king of New York and had picked up a trick or two. My vision? Combine the best of winter into a single treat: hot chocolate snow cream.

I prepared the hot chocolate, then let it chill for an hour until thickened almost to pudding. Finally, mixing the hot chocolate and snow together, I stirred gently until the concoction held.

hot chocolate snow cream

Hot chocolate snow cream: Costs so little, tastes so good.

I tasted it, as nervous as if my mother had ordered a gallon instead of a pint. It was perfect. Better even than Nutty Coconut. And, best of all, it was practically free, and no one got hurt.

Hot Chocolate Snow Cream
(adapted from Pierre Hermé, Jeffrey Steingarten, and David Leibovitz by way of Wittamer)

Servings: 2
Total Time: 1 1/2 hours
Ingredients:

5 to 6 cups fresh snow
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup whole milk
1/8 cup sugar
2 ounces dark chocolate, sliced thin with serrated bread knife
1/8 ounce unsweetened cocoa powder
pinch of salt

Stopping by ice cream on a snowy evening.

1. Scoop up 5 to 7 cups of clean snow. Place in metal bowl or plastic container and store in freezer until ready to use.

2. Mix half and half, milk, and sugar in a heavy saucepan (like Le Crueset) and whisk to combine.

3. Place on stove over medium heat and allow to just boil, stirring occasionally.

4. Remove from heat and add chocolate, cocoa powder, and salt. Whisk to combine.

5. Return to low heat and allow to boil again, stirring continuously.

6. When mixture begins to boil and thicken, remove from heat and pour into metal bowl. Place bowl in refrigerator and allow to chill one hour.

7. Remove hot chocolate from refrigerator and snow from freezer. Add snow by 1/2 cup increments into hot chocolate, stirring after each to combine until mixture is the thickness of ice cream. Taste after 5 cups and add more snow if desired.

How to Overcome Existential Crises

Croissant and Tea

The Answer to Life's Persistent Questions?

I often have existential crises. Mostly they involve wondering, “What’s it all about Alfie? Does anything matter? Aren’t we human beings just filling our time doing things without meaning, like watching “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” or taking sides in the Bears-Packers game or, dare I say it, blogging about food? I mean, shouldn’t I be saving dolphins? Or working to stop human trafficking? These are important issues. But imparting to the world yet another recipe or caring if my lettuce photograph perfectly captures the subtlety of every green curl or water droplet? I’m not sure I can get behind that.”

It’s at such times I consider moving to France. At least there it’s okay to have existential crises. Hell, there philosophers are TV stars whose shows air in prime time!

But since circumstances preclude me from packing my bags and heading tout de suite to gay Paree, I make do with second best: I drink tea from a white porcelain bowl and eat a pain au chocolat, a chocolate croissant, to briefly relieve my agita.

Sitting at my kitchen table, legs curled beneath me on a wooden chair, I stare out the window at a grey January morning. I take bites from the croissant. I cup the bowl of tea in my hands and feel the warmth through the porcelain. Gingerly I dunk pieces of croissant into the tea to melt the chocolate ever so slightly, and I imagine I’m in Paris, back at Elsa’s apartment in Belleville, where I couchsurfed in September and spoke French for hours and hadn’t a care in the world.

And then I think, maybe this is the answer to existential crises: Taking joy in small pleasures. Relishing time alone to reflect. Creating relationships and with them lasting memories. Appreciating the handiwork of something well made — a croissant or a cup of tea or even a phrase that moves another human being to contemplate their own existence.

Maybe some days that’s the best we can do. And maybe that’s good enough. But just to be sure, I promise myself I will also save a dolphin and do something to stop human trafficking.

And maybe, if I calm my mind, I can allow the desire for pleasure and the need to stop the world’s pain to peacefully co-exist…at least until tomorrow’s breakfast.

With special thanks to Marquet Patisserie located at 221 Court Street in Brooklyn for the pain au chocolat!

Marquet Patisserie

Marquet Patisserie: A lovely place to sit and reflect

A Very German-Jewish Christmas

My best friend, the annoyingly multi-talented, Kurt

My best friend, the annoyingly multi-talented, Kurt

Location: Catskills + Germany
Person: Kurt, my best friend
Recipe: Rothkohl, German Red Cabbage

We had another snowstorm in New York the other night. Bad news for a lot of people, but great news for the Couchsurfing Cook because it’s a perfect lead in for me to share my recent snowy Christmas adventure couchsurfing in the Catskills with my best friend Kurt.

Technically I wasn’t couchsurfing, just visiting, but when you’re staying with a guy who owns three goats, three dogs, two cats, and a mess o’ chickens, it’s more than likely all the beds will be taken and you’re just as likely to find yourself curled up on the divan as nestled under a blanket in a bedroom.

Goats eating dinner

Goats eating dinner

Kurt’s been my best friend since the first hour I moved to New York City 11 years ago when our dogs met in the park in Williamsburg and we realized we knew each other from a dog run in Chicago where we’d both formerly lived. Kurt’s also one of the most talented people I know. He’s an architectural designer, furniture maker, farmer, gardener, marathon runner and, most importantly for us, a great cook, the kind who never opens a cookbook yet can still prepare an Oktoberfest for 50 without blinking an eye. In short, I hate him…and he’s my best friend.

The funny thing about our friendship though is that while he’s off-the-boat German and I’m Jewish, it’s never been an issue between us (though sometimes I do get upset when he orders me to wash the dishes after one of his fetes).

But when his Christmas party this year consisted of him and three Jews, I thought it was an occasion worth documenting for posterity.

Luckily, in addition to being a fabulous cook, Kurt’s also a great sport who was kind enough to share with me his recipe for Rothkohl, German red cabbage. The New York Times health writer Tara Parker Pope lists cabbage as one of the 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating. So start those New Year’s Resolutions now! Eat your cabbage! Or Kurt and I will get VERY, VERY ANGRY!!

Just kidding… : )

And check out the video to see what happened when a German and three Jews celebrated Christmas together:

RothKohl

Servings: 8 as side dish
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients:

1 medium to large head red cabbage
2 Granny Smith apples
1 medium-sized yellow onion
1 Idaho potato
1 1/2 cups red wine vinegar
1 cup dry red table wine
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
approximately 1/8 cup whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon each salt and pepper or to taste

Rothkohl ingredients

Rothkohl ingredients

Directions:

1. Peel outer skin from onion. Push whole cloves into onion, spacing evenly apart to cover onion entirely. Set aside.

2. Peel apples. Cut in quarters. Remove seeds and center core. Cut each piece in half again. Set aside.

3. Skin and coarsely grate potato. Set aside.

4. Rinse cabbage under cool water. Pat dry. Remove outer leaves.

5. With large kitchen knife, cut cabbage in half. Remove tough end and inner white core. Cut each half into long 1″ wide strips. Cut strips in half again and separate into chunks.

6. On stovetop over low heat, melt butter in large, deep saucepan. Add cabbage and stir. Cover and allow to cook until cabbage is slightly softened. Approximately 5-7 minutes.

7. To cabbage add red wine vinegar and stir to combine.

8. Place spiked onion in pot.

9. Add bay leaves and green apples.

10. Add potato, first squeezing out excess liquid potato starch.

11. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix ingredients with wooden spoon to combine letting onion remain whole.

12. Raise heat to medium. Cook cabbage covered approximately 10 minutes until apples begin to break apart.

13. Remove cover. Stir to loosen cabbage from pan. Lower heat and add red wine. Stir to combine.

14. Allow to cook covered one hour over low heat until very soft, stirring every 10 minutes to prevent cabbage sticking to pan.

15. After an hour, remove bay leaves and onion.

16. Serve hot. Tastes better eaten days later and can be frozen to keep for up to a month.

“We had no idea just how desperate people would be…”

Chicken and pie living side by side.

Yes, that’s a quote from the head chef at Hill Country Chicken, referring to their fried Texas-style chicken. As someone who can’t eat chicken because I’m allergic to it (Yes, it’s true. People never believe me!), I was still desperate myself to try the sides and pies at Hill Country, which I did the other night in the middle of a frigid winter storm.

Read the sign: Cowboy Pie

All I can say is there’s nothing like coming out of the cold and into the warmth of your mama’s kitchen circa 1950. And that’s just what it’s like entering Hill Country Chicken. I was already a fan of their Texas-style brisket barbecue joint located around the corner and down the street. This time, while I couldn’t eat the main attraction, I had a yummy comfort food-y bowl of mashed ‘taters with pimento cheese with a side of fire-and-ice pickles. (God I love food with dashes.) Both were fab-tastic (my own invented dash-y word). The pickles were so good — flavored intensely with dried coriander and chili pepper flakes — I did something I’ve never done: DRANK THE JUICE!

Carbs and curbs


Honestly, it may be the tackiest thing I’ve ever done.

Here’s their address if you want to try the whole bird:
1123 Broadway @ the corner of 25th Street

For some reason my link to their Website isn’t working… : (

Durian in Winter

Durian in Winter? Who knew!

Very pleased to announce a new feature on the Couchsurfing Cook. It’s called The Daily Discovery.

Every day — or as often as I can — I’ll post a photo and tagline chronicling my adventures finding fun and funky food in New York City.

Today’s DD: Durian in Chinatown. In 1856, British naturalist Alfred Russell White described the durian as “A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes….It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect.”

It’s one of those love ’em or hate ’em foods that are worth trying at least ONCE before you die. Notice how the guy serves it: Cut crescent shape slices from the top, then scoop out a log of pale, yellow flesh. Spoon up and enjoy!

Leave a comment if you can think of other foods that may smell odd but taste great!

In Which My Okna is Broken by a Handsome Czech

cmunda

Cmunda with sauerkraut and ham. Focus on the cmunda.

 

“Every story begins with an event. This event is understood as the incursion of one logic into the world of another logic initiating what every story grows out of and draws nourishment from: situations, relationships, conflict…The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable…For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story.”

– from Stories and Totalitarianism by Czechoslovakian Playwright Václav Havel

A play written after Czech couchsurfer Eda stayed with me, then had an accident in my house. Can you guess what happened? Can you solve the mystery? Read on to figure it out…

Characters:
COUCHSURFING COOK
UNSEEN PERSON

A small room.  The COUCHSURFING COOK sits forlornly in a chair head resting in her hands.  She appears sad and slightly frustrated.  The UNSEEN PERSON asks a question that is only heard by the COUCHSURFING COOK.

CS COOK:
You ask me what is cmunda?  Hlupák! Pitomec! Again we must speak of this? Everyone knows cmunda!  It is like your pizza.  So common.  Only those who spend their lives in holes covered with leaves hiding from communists do not know cmunda!

Why just the other day Babicovy Dobroty, the Rachael Ray of Czechoslovakia, and I made cmunda together.

Babicovy Dobroty and I make cmunda.

What do you mean it does not look like me?  Perhaps I cut my hair.  Perhaps I gained weight over the holidays.  It is possible!  Anything is possible!

You say the last time I spoke of cmunda was after couchsurfer Eda stayed at my home? Perhaps this is true.  But why must you bring him up?  You know I am trying to forget Eda.  You know this!

You want me to tell the story again?  Why must you force me to speak of this? Do you not recall how I told you of the incident with the klimatizace?

You want to hear it again?  Agh!  You hlupák!  Fine.  I will tell the story:

Many months ago, there came to my home a man.  A young man.  A handsome man.  Blond.  Tall. Maybe six feet.  I don’t know!  Stop asking questions!

He brought cookies.  Like wafers.  Only bigger.  They were filled with chocolate.  They were a little dry, but that is a story for another day…

Eda brings me chocolate wafers. They were a little dry.

No matter.  He said he was grateful to be at my home and that he would be good to me. And I, hlupák that I am, believed him. But then, without warning, he broke my okna…and my klimatizace!  Ah, and afterwards, I was hot.  So very, very hot.  I thought I could not go on.

And my heart.  It too was broken.  Like the okna.  Because, blázen that I must be, I trusted him. It is true.  I opened my heart and trusted.

But then, as I explained to you months ago, but which, stupidní člověk, you have forgotten, I realized, after he left, that there is no okna klimatizace where he is from!

How do I know this?
Because there is no other explanation for what happened next…

He saw the klimatizace.
It was sitting in the okna.
And yet he opened it.

Hovno!
What was he thinking?

There were five oknas in the apartment.
Did he HAVE to open the one with the klimatizace in it?
He did not.
He was not thinking. Perhaps he is hloupý. This was my thought.

Unless…what if they have no okna klimatizace where he is from?
Is such a thing possible? No okna klimatizace?
Ano!  It’s true.

See. Klimatizace on the floor. Not in the okna.

After he left, I looked through the broken okna and stared at the ground below.

No more okna.
Goodbye okna.
No more klimatizace. Goodbye klimatizace.

I am happy you have fresh air Eda.
But could you have chosen another okna?
Or at least the one without the klimitizace?

And that is it.  That is the end of my story.
What?  You say it is not a story unless there is a happy ending?

Fine!  I will tell you this:  After he left, I made cmunda. There. Are you happy?

Because, as babička says, there’s no better way to wash the taste of a broken okna and klimatizace out of your mouth than with a piping, hot plate of cmunda.

And with that I say, “šťastný stravování!
And you? Enough!  No more stories!

cmunda ingredients

All you need to make cmunda.

 

Cmunda: Czech Potato Pancakes*

*Best eaten after your air conditioner has fallen to the ground because your Czech couchsurfer Eda opened the window in which it was sitting. God knows why he chose that one out of the five other windows in the apartment!

Servings:  Makes 14 medium-sized pancakes

Ingredients:

2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes (you can peel the potatoes, but I prefer to leave the skin on.  That’s where all the nutrition is!)
6 small to medium garlic cloves
1 egg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 Tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons regular salt or 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons marjoram (can substitute oregano if marjoram can’t be found; trust me, it’s hard)
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 ounces butter or vegetable oil for frying.  Both work.  Butter is richer.

Directions:

1.  Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees.
2.  In a food processor or by hand, grate potatoes into thin strips.
3.  Put potatoes in colander over bowl and squeeze out liquid, then discard.
4.  Transfer drained potatoes into bowl and add milk, eggs, flour, and spices.  Mix well until fully combined.
5.  Heat 1-2 Tablespoons of butter or oil in cast iron skillet or non-stick pan over medium heat until hot but not brown.
6.  Fill 1/2 cup measuring cup with grated potato mixture and add to pan.  Flatten with back of spatula into thin, medium-sized pancake.  Potato mixture may stick slightly to spatula.
7.  Let pancake cook on bottom until brown, approximately 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and repeat on other side.  Pancakes will cook faster as pan continues to heat.
8.  Remove from pan and place on plate covered with paper towel to absorb excess oil.
9.  Put pancakes in oven to stay warm until ready to serve.

Vincere la Battaglia di Wounded Tastebuds

Ready for the hunt...

October 11th was Columbus Day here in the U.S. of A.

Columbus Day, for those unfamiliar with it, celebrates the moment in 1492 when an overly confident Italian guy who hated asking for directions set sail from Spain in a big wooden ship for what he thought would be a quick trip to India to pick up frankincense and myrrh for his wife and instead landed at a totally wack Club Med in the Bahamas.

Now although you’d think Columbus Day would be a joyous celebration for Americans (named oddly after Amerigo Vespucchi whose b-day we don’t even acknowledge), the holiday is actually roiled in controversy.  That’s because it was Columbus who started the annoying trend of rich Eurotrash kids coming to the U.S., taking over the native people’s dance floor, smoking their home-grown Gitanes, leaving the stubs on the ground, then totally forgetting to tip.  All I can say is, Italian guys, SO hot but SO Genoa Shore!

Anyway as neither “Native American” nor Italian but rather avowed foodie, I have to admit that while I’m pissed at Columbus for setting in motion the manifest destiny thing, it’s hard to stay angry at a guy who unintentionally spearheaded the America-as-culinary-melting-pot-phenom that’s still taking place today.  Heck, half the reason I live in New York City is for the great Italian restaurants.

On the other hand…

It’s ALSO TRUE that it was the Mohawk and Iroquois — among other First Nations people — who taught us that the best-tasting food isn’t imported from thousands of miles away but rather grown close to home and eaten by those strange creatures modern explorers call “locavores.”

So there’s a culinary conflict here:  How to reconcile the exploratory spirit of Columbus — who gosh-darn-it just wanted to track down some Thai peppers for his off-the-chart hot sauce — and those who argue he should have stayed in Madrid eating free-range pollo and grass-fed vaca?

As the Couchsurfing Cook, you probably think you know which side of the debate I come down on, but I’m guessing you’re wrong.  You see I support both locally grown and world cuisine. Which led this past October 11th to an epiphany.  Why is there no special food connected with Columbus Day?  Christmas has goose. Hanukkah has potatoes.  Ramadan has dates.  Why nothing to honor Columbus?

Grifola Fondosa (Hen of the Woods) waiting to be cut.

And then it came to me.  Mushrooms.  Columbus Day needs mushrooms.

Why mushrooms? Because it’s mushrooms — and only mushrooms — that can bridge the gap between Italians and First Nations people.

Think about it.  Mushrooms are neutral.  They accept everything.  Olive oil. Garlic.  Butter.  And they come in all colors — red, white, brown, yellow, even blue.  They’re completely unprejudiced!  They’re also spongy and soft, like our hearts, which presumably will melt like butter upon tasting a cross-culturally unifying dish containing them.

And so it was that I spent Columbus Day hiking through the woods of Connecticut searching for mushrooms for what I’m convinced will become THE signature Columbus Day dish.  A dish that includes locally sourced mushrooms eaten by indigenous Northeast tribes as well as exotic, far-flung Italian flavors any visitor to a high-end version of the Olive Garden restaurant chain would easily recognize (did someone say, “extra garlic”?).

With a special shout out to an amazing artist and mycologist, the inimitable Gerry Miller, who regularly travels to the Amazon to hunt mushrooms and herbs with Peruvian tribes who still live as if in pre-Columbian times.  Thank you Gerry for teaching me how to hunt!

Heck if this whole Italian-Indian reconciliation catches on, I guarantee that one day Sherman Alexie will be the Grand Marshall for the New York City Columbus Day Parade.

Six Nations Risotto ingredients

Six Nations Risotto ingredients

Six Nations Risotto
In keeping with the international spirit of this blog, this recipe includes Imperial (U.S.) and Metric (U.K.) measurements.  Let me know if you like this feature and want it in future posts or whether it should go the way of turtle soup.

 

Servings: 6 as main dish; 8 as side

Ingredients:

1 1/4 cups – 280 grams butternut squash (can substitute delicata or acorn)
1 cup – 225 grams wild mushrooms wiped clean  (I used Hen of the Woods and chanterelle, but you can substitute brown or portobello)
1 cup – 225 grams arborio rice
1/2 cup – 115 grams dry white wine
1 cup – 45 grams fresh spinach (can substitute watercress)
2 cups – 16.5 U.K. ounces hot water
1 large – 9 grams vegetable bouillon cube
2 tablespoons – 2 U.K. tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons – 3 U.K. tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon – 5 grams minced garlic
1 tablespoon – 15 grams minced shallot
1/2 teaspoon – 2 grams ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon – 1 gram ground sage (can substitute finely chopped fresh sage or savory)
1/2 cup – 90 grams grated parmesan cheese
Coarse salt and ground pepper to taste
Optional but highly recommended:  3/4 cup – 70 grams toasted ground walnuts

Directions:

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit – 205 Celsius.

2.  Peel squash and cut into 1/2 ” – 1.25 centimeter cubes.  Toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil.  Add nutmeg and sage.  Add salt and pepper to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon each.  Place coated squash in large pan in oven and cook uncovered until soft and slightly brown, about 20 minutes.

3. Dice mushrooms into 1/2″ – 1.25 centimeter pieces.  Toss with 1 tablespoon melted butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook on stovetop over medium heat until softened.

4.  Place vegetable bouillon in hot water and allow to dissolve fully.  Stir to mix.

5.  In  medium-size saucepan over low to medium heat, saute shallots and garlic in 1 tablespoon butter and 1/2 tablespoon olive oil.  Cook until soft but not brown.

6.  Add arborio rice to saucepan and stir continuously with wooden spoon until rice turns from bright white to translucent at the edges, about 3 minutes.  Add wine and continue stirring until nearly all liquid is absorbed.

7.  Add vegetable broth to rice in 1/4 cup – 2 U.K. ounces increments, stirring continuously each time until liquid is almost entirely absorbed.  As rice cooks it will expand and become creamier. Rice is done when it’s slightly chewy or al dente.   Test doneness before last broth is added and increase or decrease as needed to reach desired consistency.

8.  After final broth is absorbed, turn off heat and add spinach, squash, and mushrooms to rice mixture.  Stir to combine.  Cover pot and allow to sit for 2 to 3 minutes to allow spinach to wilt slightly.

9.  To serve, spoon between 1/2 and 3/4 cup – 100 grams of risotto into a bowl and top with about 1 1/4 tablespoons of parmesan per serving.

10.  If desired, sprinkle with small handful of pre-toasted ground walnuts.  Walnuts can be roasted ahead by cooking in pan on stovetop at medium-high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Saving the World One Brownie at a Time

Madagascarian Brownies

Malagasy Brownies

A few years back, I developed an unhealthy brownie obsession.  It started after I’d decided to pursue a romantic fantasy to quit my day job and open a cafe.  To see if the dream had legs — and to try my hand at the business — I managed through luck (living in the right zip code) and a little chutzpah to enter a free baking program for low-income workers at a school in Long Island City.   Little did they know, I wasn’t poor just creatively unsatisfied.

Here’s what happened next:  For six weeks I’d spend from 9 to 12 listening to people’s problems.  Then, at noon, like Clark Kent learning that Lex Luthor was about to invade Earth, I’d toss off my Anne Taylor dress, grab jeans, t-shirt, and a baseball cap, dash to the subway, and emerge 20 minutes later at the Consortium for Workers Education & Artisan Baking Center magically transformed from staid, nerdy psychologist into hip, flour-encrusted baker.  Then, from 12:30 to 4:30, I’d knead dough, fill pastry bags with frosting, and haul tray after tray of breads and sweets into hellishly hot ovens.  I was in heaven.

Mid-way through the program though, I came up with a new idea. Perhaps, rather than open a cafe (a potentially money-losing prospect anyway), I’d create a product.  A brownie product.  A very special brownie product:  Brooklyn Brownies.

Now Brooklyn Brownies wouldn’t be like ordinary brownies with walnuts and plain square shapes.  No.  Brooklyn Brownies would be round or rectangular and have flavors styled after Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Coney Island with marshmallows and salted peanuts or Greenpoint filled with cream cheese and sour cherries.

The idea was inspired.  I envisioned my brownies supplanting the cupcake craze.  But just to be sure, I embarked on a whirlwind brownie-tasting tour to sample my competition.

You see the brownie I envisioned was very specific, hovering in the liminal space between cakey and fudgy.  Neither overly cloying (e.g., topped with frosting) nor flat, dry, and square like so much unleavened bread, my brownie, my ideal brownie, exuded a mature chocolaty je ne sais quoi not sullied by childish accoutrement.

Happily, my tastings left me wanting (and not for more) with only my hips appreciating the “exercise.”   And so, after numerous trials and oh-so-many errors, I finally created a recipe I thought achieved crustulum perfectus.  The Brooklyn Brownie was nearing completion.

And then I met Joe.

Like me, Joe had a day job.  And, like me, he too harbored fantasies of changing his life.   Only he aspired to a more noble calling:  he wanted to find creative and successful ways to fight poverty.   So he’d started working for Madécasse, a company that produced single-origin chocolate bars made entirely in Madagascar, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world but home to some of the world’s finest cocoa.

Madécasse was founded by two former Peace Corps volunteers who, after living in Madagascar, realized the country wasn’t poor because it didn’t produce enough cocoa, vanilla, and spices, but because it only produced those things.

This realization led them to a unique proposal:  why not fight poverty not with development aid or “Fair Trade” but by involving the Malagasy people at all levels of chocolate production — from bean to bar to wrapper.  That way more of every consumer dollar spent on the end product would benefit the island.  The result?  A higher-quality bar that could hold its own against competitors and yielded four times more impact to the Malagasy people through farmer training, higher wages, and increased employment.

Joe had inspired me.  What if I too could make a difference by using Madécasse bars in my brownies?  So one afternoon, Joe came to my apartment and we made them using Madécasse 70% cocoa and Sea Salt & Nibs instead of my usual source.

I was humbled.  They tasted amazing.

Now, thanks to Joe, I not only have better brownies, but a greater appreciation for the economy and politics behind chocolate.  And, if I ever do launch Brooklyn Brownies, I know exactly where I’m getting chocolate for the ginger and coconut-infused Flatbush!

Learn how Madécasse chocolate bars are made, then go make your own Malagasy brownies!

Joe in my kitchen.

Joe in my kitchen.

Joe Salvatore, Marketing Director — Madécasse:

“The pod is the size of a football.  It’s purple, green, and yellow.  It’s just beautiful.  It hangs off a twig, and you whack it off the tree and catch the pod.  They use an interesting tool.  It’s curved, and you have to crack the pod just right.  It slices the pod open and the middle looks like bug larvae — white, pulpy, and gooey.  All the stuff around it though tastes good.  Inside it looks like a garlic bulb or a football with little beans inside. You have to break the pod just the right way, because if you damage one clove, you damage them all, because it quickly degrades the whole fruit.

Once you get the insides out, you separate each bean by hand.   You ferment them to develop the flavor, then dry them in the sun.  You spread them out every day in the morning and before night scrape them inside.  You do this for a couple of days and, as you do so, they turn from white and pulpy to the dark brown color we know.

Now normally those cocoa beans ship to other countries where they’re sold to middlemen who then sell them at a higher mark-up, after which they’re shipped to Europe or other countries where they start to work on them.  They put them in machines that crack and separate the inside of the bean, which is called the nib, from the outer shell.  The outer shell is then blown away and it looks creepy, like a brain, folded, with nibs inside, densely packed.  That’s what chocolate’s made from.

You break those apart and grind them to a certain consistency.  Then you smash the nibs which, when you crush them, release a liquid that looks and tastes like chocolate and is then separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter, which is basically fat.

To make a chocolate bar, you combine the cocoa solids and cocoa butter with sugar, vanilla, and binding so it holds together.  Then you mix it for a long time to release the unique cocoa flavors, and that’s what makes for a fine-quality chocolate bar.”

Malagasy Brownies

Serving:  8-10 rectangular brownies

Ingredients:

9 oz. chocolate (1/2 Madécasse 70% and 1/2 Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs)
7.5 oz. unsalted butter
8 oz. granulated sugar
2.25 oz. pastry flour
4 large eggs at room temperature
Pinch of sea salt (only if using regular chocolate not Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs)

Directions:

1.  Break chocolate and butter into small pieces and place in the top of a double boiler with the bottom pot filled halfway with water.  Alternatively, simply set in a small pot over a slightly larger pot filled the same way with water.

2.  Place double boiler on stove top over low to medium flame and gently stir chocolate and butter with a wooden spoon until fully melted.  Remove from heat.

3.  Measure sugar into a blender or Cuisinart and grind to a finer consistency.

4.  Stir pre-measured pastry flour into sugar to combine.  Then stir into chocolate until dissolved.

5.  In a separate glass measuring cup or bowl, whisk eggs until slightly frothy.

6.  Remove chocolate mixture from pot and scrape into medium to large bowl with a rubber spatula.

7.  Pour eggs into chocolate and fold in gently until combined.  The chocolate should have a thick, pudding-like quality.  *If you didn’t use Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs, add pinch of salt at this stage.

8.  Cover bowl with plate and allow to sit for 30 minutes until thickened.

9.  After 15 minutes preheat oven to 350 degrees.

10.  Very lightly coat the bottom of each loaf, muffin, or Silpat container with unsalted butter, just enough so brownies slip out after baking; too much and the bottoms may be slightly greasy.

11.  Using a spoon or measuring cup, fill each container three-quarters of the way with brownie mixture.

12.  Bake on middle rack of stove for 30 minutes or until tops have a solid,  marbled appearance.  Brownies may be slightly soft in center.

12.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.

13.  Use a knife to gently loosen edges and remove each brownie by hand.

Brownies can be stored in a plastic container in the refrigerator or on the counter top for a few days.   They taste even better the second day!

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Head for the Bar!

The new digs a.k.a. kitchen

In case you hadn’t noticed, the CS cook has been on hiatus for a while, two months to be exact.  The reasons are many.  A cool art project I did on Governor’s Island.  An exciting new job.  Less couchsurfer requests due to the collapse of the world economy.  A re-evaluation of taking in couchsurfers, based on the goofy experience with the Korean girls (read last post for the sordid details).

But perhaps the biggest reason for my disappearance was that the Couchsurfing Cook got herself a BRAND-NEW KITCHEN! That’s right.  Ya’ can’t be cookin’ in the public eye without some serious Ikea cojones to back you up, and now I have them.

You see for the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve been working in a pretty makeshift set-up without storage, shelves, pantry, nuthin’! When I needed a place to put dishes, I’d put ’em back in the dishwasher!  I had one — count ’em one — drawer for spices, pasta, flour, etc.  Needless to say, it was NOT culinarily inspirational.

However given that I was short on cash-ola (and can’t make a large design/purchasing decision to save my life) the kitchen languished in a state of entropy until, well, until this blog came along and then, thankfully, something had to change.

And kids, change it did.  BIG TIME!  And now, it’s big, clean, white, and bright, and itchin’ for a cookin’ fight, as we like to say in Texas.

Which, speaking of Texas (trust me readers, this is going somewhere…), it’s been HOT here in New York City.  And I mean hot as h-e-double-toothpicks.  In fact, it’s so hot, you can fry an egg on your forehead!  It’s so hot, the hot dogs are sweating mustard! It’s so hot, the ice cream’s moving to Canada!  It’s so hot…aw heck, I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Marcy and me after I dyed and cut my hair and got a tattoo

But seriously, it’s so hot that the other day I drifted into a Proustian, heat-inspired reverie of my own first wild and crazy couchsurfing experience, a Sex-in-the-City style trip I took a few years back to the fair city of Austin, Texas, where I met a woman who’s now become a lifelong friend and one of the BEST couchsurfing ambassadors I know:  Marcy Etemadi.  And it was in Austin, with the red-headed, salsa-lovin’ Marci, that I was introduced to what has become my favorite summertime drink, one that’s PERFECT for hot, hellish weather.  The infamous, only known in Austin, “Mexican Martini.”

Now if you haven’t already guessed, an M&M (as I’m going to nickname it) involves tequila instead of gin.  Having never been a gin fan myself, I for one was thrilled to learn you could turn the British classic on its head with a south-of-the-border twist.

But the coolest thing about an M&M is that you’ll NEVER (and I mean never) find a bartender outside of Austin, Texas who’s ever heard of this drink nor knows how to make it.  Which means, dear reader, when you saunter into your local pub, all gimlet-eyed, and ask the lovely lad or lass behind the bar if s/he can fix you a “Mexican Martini,” this same bartender will no doubt look at you with an expression lying somewhere between fear and love.  Because you, dear reader, have stumped the chump.  You’ve challenged the bartender’s manhood.   Respect, as Arthur Miller would say, must now be paid.

At which point your task is to whip out the piece of paper upon which you’ve written the recipe, hand it to the bartender, and calmly wait for the results.  Then, upon making said beverage and determining that it is, indeed, delicious, YOU, dear reader, will be elevated within the confines of the pub to cocktail god/goddess status. More specifically, the bartender will genuflect in your direction, bow in humbleness to your libational loveliness, and be forever in your debt for teaching him/her how to make this drink, thus guaranteeing you a free round next time you visit.  Do I wax nostalgic?  Oh yes.  I wax.

And so, without further ado, I present the M&M.  The perfect summer cool-me-down.  The drink that will have the bar buying YOU rounds.  And, more importantly, will quickly help you forget that Satan just sent God a text message asking if he could raise the temperature on earth just a few degrees past 100;  he’s feeling a little chilly.

Sante!  Slainte!  Salut!

Mexican Martini

Serves one lush or two lusty but responsible females.

Ingredients:

2 ounces silver tequila
1 1/2 ounces Cointreau
2 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 ounce fresh orange juice
1 splash Sprite
1 splash olive juice or to taste
2-3 plain or jalapeno-stuffed olives

Directions:

1.  Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
2.  In the shaker pour the tequila, Cointreau, lime, and orange juice.
3. Shake and strain into a wide martini glass pre-prepared with a salted rim.
4.  Add a splash of Sprite and a splash of olive juice, or more to taste.
5.  On a toothpick spear 2-3 plain or jalapeno stuffed olives and add to glass to garnish the drink.
6. Sip and enjoy.

I Am Strong. I Am Bulgogi.

We had to leave...we're sorry.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We were supposed to make bulgogi.  Together.  You and I.  But you had other plans.  You went to the outlet mall with your “friends.”  You shopped at Tory Burch and Chanel while I went shopping for london broil and kimchi.  It was all I could do not to cry while chopping the onions.

Sure my 40-year old friend Randy thought you were great.  You were a cute Korean exchange student from South Dakota. Who wouldn’t love you?  So naive and innocent with those big, dark eyes.

You’d never been to New York you said.  We were going to make bulgogi you said.  It was your favorite dish you said.  Was any of it true?

Because then you disappeared.  Like a thief.  In the night.  And after losing the keys to my house!

Sure you left a note.  Said you were sorry.   Said you were so ashamed you’d lost the keys you had to leave.  But what about my calls?  My pleas?  “Come back!” I cried.  “I’m not mad at you.  What about the bulgogi?”

But you didn’t return my calls.  All you did was leave me trinkets.  A plastic Korean drum on a key chain and a pair of chopsticks.  What am I supposed to do with those?

But it’s okay, because I’m strong.  Stronger even than kimchi.  And I figured out how to make bulgogi.  On my own.

I learned there are different ways to make it.  You can fry it in a pan.  You can barbecue it.  One recipe even called for Asian pears to sweeten and tenderize the meat.  But I decided to do it my own way, using oranges instead of pears.  Because I could. Because I wanted to.  Because it’s my bulgogi now!

That’s right.  I made bulgogi.  I made it without you.  And it was good.  And my friends liked it.  And you know what?  I’m going to make bulgogi again.  Because it’s a great summer dish.  And it’s delicious.  And I know now, because of what happened between us, I can survive.  I can make bulgogi on my own.  And because of that, I know I’ll be okay.

Bulgogi Without the Korean Girls (Who Went to the Mall, Lost the Keys to My House, Left Me an Apology Note, Disappeared, and Refused to Answer My Calls)

Serves 6


The dinner table set with bulgogi fixins'.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds london broil, thinly sliced

For Marinade:

6 tablespoons low-sodium tamari
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 cloves minced garlic
2 teaspoons white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 scallions, including green, sliced on diagonal into 1″ pieces
1 yellow onion chopped into 1″ pieces
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon grated orange rind

To Serve:

1 head red leaf lettuce
5 cups cooked white rice
12 ounces kimchi (1/2 – 3/4 jar)

Directions:

1.  Whisk marinade ingredients in a small bowl.

2.  When sugar has dissolved, pour marinade into large ziplock plastic bag.

3.  Add beef and chopped onion to bag and, using your hands, massage marinade into beef.

4.  Allow beef to refrigerate at least three hours.  For more flavor, let marinade overnight.

5.  When ready to prepare, preheat outdoor grill.

6.  When coals are ready, remove meat from marinade and place directly on grill.  Optional: brush grill with canola oil to prevent sticking.

7.  Cover with top and allow meat to cook 5-10 minutes until tender and slightly charred.  Use tongs to turn meat over and cook another 5-10 minutes or to desired doneness.   Remove from grill.

8.  While meat is cooking, wash and dry lettuce, separate individual leaves, and place on plate.

9.  Place spoonful of rice on top of each leaf, top with  slices of meat and a spoonful of kimchi to taste.

10.  Wrap lettuce around meat, rice, and kimchi.  Eat and enjoy!

Ten Commandments of the Couchsurfing Cook

In my last post I skewered (humorously I hope) the gluttony of food blogs currently devouring space on the Web and questioned the utility of adding yet another filler to the mix in the form of the Couchsurfing Cook.  Given however that I seem to have, perhaps unwittingly, plunged into the foodesque, food-ish, blog-like-thingy, I have no choice now but to attempt, at least if I want to look myself in the mirror each morning, to distinguish this blog from the others being offered up for public consumption, or at least keep it sufficiently entertaining such that people don’t come to question the meaning of their lives or wonder whether their time on this earth was well spent by having wasted another perfectly good hour reading this blog.

With that as introduction, what should you, dear reader, expect from the Couchsurfing Cook in future episodes, should you deem her worthy of your time?  Well, given that the idea for this blog emerged as part of a half-witted idea that it would be pretty sweet to get paid to travel the world and eat with people and then — given the ice-water shock of reality when I realized no one was likely to pay me to do anything even vaguely resembling such a plan for some time — and then, coming to the third “ah ha” moment when it occurred to me I could simply start cooking with couchsurfers in my apartment to get the ball rolling, upon which I next surmised, “Oh, but what are you going to do when there are no couchsurfers?” and next noting the further factoid that there were already a slew of food bloggers already out there plying their trade who had far more cooking cojones than I, and then, well, yadda, yadda, the narrative could go on and on, but needless to say somewhere in the midst of all this I began writing, and a couchsurfer appeared, and a recipe came forth and now here we are, but truthfully I’m still a bit baffled myself as to what this blog is going to be and more importantly how the hell I got here.

But I digress…

Today (or rather tonight, because in truth it was 10:20 p.m. on 5.11.10 when I began this entry after downing a beer and two shrimp empanadas) my goal is to spell out, for myself as much as for you, “The Ten Commandments of the Couchsurfing Cook” or at least a rundown of what I’m going to strive to provide to you, dear readers, should you find yourselves lost in the foresty ramblings of this itinerant cook as she/I ever-so-bravely traverses the culinary universe.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF THE COUCHSURFING COOK

1.  This blog will be about more than just food.  Since we’ve already determined that the world has enough food blogs in it, this blog will be as much about introducing you to cool people from around the world who are cooking interesting dishes or doing interesting things as it will be about food in and of itself.  Because, at the end of the day, I’m much less interested in food on its own than I am fascinated by people and food in context, as ritual, and as segue way into other cultures.  The people cooking on this blog are ones you might not otherwise meet but who, upon having met, may be ones you’d want to hang out with and, who knows, become friends with some day.  The Couchsurfing Cook’s tagline:  It’s not just about the food.

2.  This blog will be FUN to read.  There’s nothing worse than wasting your time (time and health being all we have) reading boring dreck.   However, to be even clearer, I’m going to offer various departments of fun like Adventures in Cooking, Dinner Party Conversation, Taste Test, Cook-Off, Sunday Dinner, and Food and Sex, so you can choose your food fun poison…if that makes sense.  Nah, probably doesn’t but what the hell.  You get my drift.

2.   The dishes presented on this blog will be affordable for the average person.  By that I mean, I’m not generally going to make aspirational dishes that break your grocery store bank.   While some of this is dependent on the courchsurfers who stay with me (or the people whose homes I visit), I’m going to try to keep costs reasonable and publish the food prep costs as much as possible (thank you Cathy Erdway for that inspiration) so you know approximately what to expect before heading to your local superette.  It’s not that I’m against splurging, but I also firmly believe eating well shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.  The Couchsurfing Cook has to pay her rent too!

4. This blog will focus on quality not quantity.  I’m not going to publish a recipe or post every day because I don’t think most people can keep up with that much weekly cooking.  To my mind, publishing a recipe-a-day or “twittering” every meal you eat is excessive.  I want people to be inspired by this blog to cook for themselves, not feel so inundated with recipes they end up reading about what I’ve made and never experiment themselves.

5.  This blog will NOT glorify food porn.  While I have no problem presenting mouth-watering pictures of food, the last thing I want to do is display gorgeous images of prepared foods that only make you feel worse because you know you won’t have time to make the same dish or worry your version won’t measure up to the glossy hype.   In other words, no one is going to be shaving ANYTHING (not even Parmesan) in response to this blog!  Got it?

6.  This blog will be about regular people not food stars.  While I have great respect for culinary experts sharing their passion and expertise with us ordinary folks, I sometimes think we’ve exalted experts so much in our society that we’ve come to distrust our own ability to be creators of our own lives, especially regarding something as personal as taste and what you enjoy eating.   In my world, you are a creative cook right now!  Yes, there are things you can learn to be a better cook, and I’m happy to share what I know and/or borrow/steal from those who know more than me.  But let no one say you need Le Creuset pots and Wusthof knives (though both are nice) in order to make a meal of beauty.  Some of the best cooks I know work in kitchens smaller than many people’s bathrooms.   Heck, really great meals can be prepared over a hole dug in the ground filled with wood chips.

7.  This blog will aspire to be a multilingual conversation among many.  Not right away, but in later iterations, I’m envisioning Skype dinner parties and live cooking demos so people feel truly connected in real-time with the community who participate in this blog.   After reading the Couchsurfing Cook and joining the CSC community, I hope one day you’ll feel like you have places to eat and people to visit all over the world!

8.  This blog will promote food rituals and gatherings. While I completely support eating well alone, one of the practices I feel is lacking in the world today is ritual.  Therefore what I want to inspire via this blog is the organizing of Sunday night suppers and Moveable Feasts with friends and family.  I want people to host simulcast world-wide dinner parties so people can participate in a multicultural shared dining experience.  Optimistic?  Probably.  Crazy?  Absolutely. Possible?  Let’s hope!

9.  This blog will give back to the larger Couchsurfing community. Couchsurfing changed my life.  Okay, maybe that’s grandiose, but it definitely introduced me to amazing people whom I never would have met had it not been for the site.  Few experiences in life allow for that deep connection in a short time; couchsurfing does.  So whatever goodness gets generated via this site, some percentage will be donated back to Couchsurfing.org.  To be clear, the site is NOT making money now.  I’m just saying if it ever does, CS will be thanked.

10.  This blog will be what the world needs now…or at least what the world needs on a day when the egg yolks dribble into the whites, the milk turns rancid,  and the neighbor slams the door in your face when you ask to borrow sugar.  And it will make you faster, smarter, and more attractive to the opposite sex. Because I know you can choose to read anything and everything on the Web, my small hope is that there’s something about this blog you’ll come to look forward to with each post.  Perhaps it’s a helpful cooking tip.  Maybe it’s a fun, new recipe to add to your repertoire.  Or it could be a great story to tell at a party you’re going to later.  Whatever it is, feel free to stay in touch and send me your input, feedback, and ideas.  I’m new at this and can use all the help I can get!  Bon appétit!

Why The World Doesn’t Need Another Food Blog

Last night I had a nightmare brought on, I’m fairly certain, by reading too much Amanda Hesser earlier that day.  I won’t go into the gory details, in case you’re reading this over your morning scone.  But suffice it to say it involved a spindly, doe-eyed child in a classroom for which I was the substitute teacher whose persistent fainting — due it appeared to lack of nourishment — led me on a desperate search for her wealthy French (in the dream) parents, who sounded positively nonplussed upon my informing them that their daughter was dangerously ill.  Relieved to have at least reached le pere et la mere by phone, I subsequently looked down to see, not an enervated but by all accounts, deceased girl draped across my lap.  It wasn’t pretty, dear readers, not pretty at all.  And her name? Amanda.

What does this nightmare have to do with the Couchsurfing Cook?  Well, yesterday, in order to gird my loins for the daunting task of food blogging, I decided to spend a few too many hours reading other food blogs and watching food-related YouTube videos to, you know, check out the competition.  And what I found pretty much freaked me the f-k out.  You see the unpleasant truth is this:  THE WORLD DOESN’T NEED ANOTHER FOOD BLOG.   That’s right.  THERE’S MORE THAN ENOUGH INFORMATION OUT THERE PEOPLE.  If you meet someone at a dinner party who claims s/he doesn’t know how to cook, sorry, the chick/dude’s lying.  S/he’s just not trying hard enough.

In fact, not only does the world not need another food blogger/critic/TV star but one could easily divide the current characters peopling the food blogger/critic/TV star universe into the all-too-horribly-familiar categories one would find at your typical large suburban high school in the U.S. of A.,  further proof of how depressing it is out there. To wit:  Smart Kids a.k.a. Brown Nosers; Sluts; Mister/Miss Popularity; Class Clowns: Hip Kids; Rebels; Jocks; Model U.N.ers; and Nerds.

In the Smart Kid/Brown Noser Category we have Amanda Hesser and Jeffrey Steingarten.  These two are far more intelligent than you or I and have no trouble rubbing our faces in it like so much herbs de Provence.  Having done time at Harvard (Steingarten) or the obligatory cooking stint in Gay Paree (Hesser) they blithely discuss food they know you or I will never eat, often partaken in restaurants they know we can’t afford, and then flaunt (discreetly of course) their oh-so-fabulous lives.  In truth, I admire their encyclopedic knowledge and am perhaps a tad jealous of their exemplary taste and perfectly pedigreed kitchens but, unfortunately, like most WASPs and WASP-wanna-bes I’ve known, they’re just not that much fun to be around, let alone have to sit through an entire meal with.  Oh, and for God’s sake Amanda, get some meat on your bones!

Next we’ve got the Sluts.  That’s right, I’m talking to you Nigella Lawson and Padma Lakshmi!  Sure you’re sexy and sophisticated and act older than your peers, but why do I always feel dirty after I’ve eaten with you?  I know you’ve been around the food block a few times and have the air of having licked and sucked it all.   And, yes, I get it, food isn’t just an intellectual or nutritional exercise for you, it’s sensual and pleasurable too, I’m down with that.  But is there a reason I have to feel guilty after every meal you prepare?  Can’t we just eat and go to sleep?  Does making one of your recipes always have to end up with someone smearing whip cream or olive oil over everything?

Mister and Miss Popularity.  Well, Martha Stewart takes the crown for the women and Mario Batali’s wearing it for the guys.  These two are loved, loved, loved by everyone, everyone, everyone.  They want nothing more than to please, and please they do.  And because they so want to please, they’re everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.  Not content to simply cook, they also sell bath towels, open restaurants, and create magazines — all before breakfast.  They’re like that annoying girl in high school who, not satisfied enough being elected class president, insists on also starring on the girls’ soccer team, playing the lead in “Oklahoma,” and volunteering at the local soup kitchen in her free time.  You want to kill her every time she enters the cafeteria.  Same with Martha and Mario.  Can you two chill every now and then instead of constantly making the rest of us feel inadequate in the kitchen?  *Note:  It was a toss-up between Mario and Mark Bittman.  What is it with people whose name starts with “M”?

Onto the Class Clown.  Here we’ve got a three-way competition between Paula Dean, Rachael Ray, and Emeril Lagasse.  These food stars are determined to be FUNNY!  Heck Paula and Emeril even have the fat Southern thing going on.  But sometimes you just want to yell at them, “What did you do with the money?”  “What money?”  “The money for comedy lessons?” It makes me wonder whether, under their buoyant exteriors, these kids aren’t just sating their insatiable need for attention with fistfuls of food.  Watching them makes me wonder whether to eat, laugh, or cry.  And, no, I’m not going to have a second helping just because you made it.  I’ve read the research.  If your friends are fat, you’re likely to be too.

Ah, the Hip Kids, clearly a growing category these days.  I’m going to put Cathy Erdway down here along with Jamie Oliver.  Erdway, who decided to lock herself in her Brooklyn apartment for a year and abstain from all restaurant food,  has become the latest hip chick doyenne in the food blogging world, while Oliver’s wildly tousled hair and plaid shirts make him look as if he was dragged off the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn after an all-night bender  to cook for his hung over mates.   These food writers are the ones I’d most like to throw back a beer with, but I think I may not be cool enough for them.  And anyway, they’re probably too busy with their book tours and radio programs to have time to hang in the kitchen with their “friends” anymore.  Oh well, I was always too square for the Hip Kids and too hip for the Squares back in high school anyway.

My Rebel Yell goes out to Anthony Bourdain.  You, my friend, are definitely too cool for school.  Anthony of course will eat foods most of us wouldn’t dream of touching with a ten-foot pole, let alone stick in our mouths.  Is he a risk-taker?  Definitely.  Reckless? Well, it depends on whether you don’t mind taking an anti-diarrheal with your pho.  From a high school perspective, Anthony is the bad boy you can’t take home to your parents who nonetheless makes your thighs turn to jello whenever he pulls out his garlic press when the teacher’s not looking.  If only he weren’t traveling the world so much, I know we’d be together…in the kitchen.

The Mr. Jock Award goes to Bobby Flay.  Let’s face it, the man likes nothing better than a throwdown.  He’ll even fight girls, no questions asked.  No sissy chef he, Bobby treats cooking like an athletic competition, making it hardly surprising that his audience is made up of wildly impressed female fans along with adoring (albeit non-homoerotic) male ones.  Bobby is here to reassure America that real men do cook, although not necessarily quiche.  And they definitely don’t cry when they lose on Iron Chef…they just hurl their cutting boards across the room.

You have to admire and respect the kids who join Model U.N.  Clearly these students care deeply about the world and want to make it a better place, yadda, yadda.  Rick Bayless from Topolobampo is such a well-meaning chef.  Determined not to kowtow to the hoi polloi who deem Mexican food about as worthy of their attention as the Mexican dishwashing staff hidden in the back room far from their immigrant-fearing eyes, Bayless doggedly and determinedly keeps begging America to TAKE MEXICAN FOOD SERIOUSLY.  I appreciate his ardor and certainly the food that comes out of his Chicago kitchen is worthy of respect.  But do I really need to eat goat cheese tortillas and black bean soup EVERY DAY?  God, Rick, have a burger, will ya?  Or are you one of those self-hating Americans who thinks our country isn’t THE GREATEST IN THE WORLD?  I guess, if you like Mexico so much, maybe you should marry it?  That’s what we’d say in high school anyway…

Last but not least, the Nerds.  I love Adam Roberts.  He may be laughable in his role as the Amateur Gourmet, but in Adam’s case, as in the case of every successful Nerd, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.  Catapulted to fame after his Janet Jackson breast cupcake went viral, he has parlayed his unhappy law school imprisonment and subsequent discovery of the joys of cooking into a wildly successful brand a la Bill Gates.  These Nerds are clearly onto something.  Heck, Adam doesn’t even write his own recipes for the most part, he uses other people’s creative efforts then just documents himself making them.  Wait a second, I think I see a connection here.   Didn’t Bill Gates do the…  Hmm…  Damn those Nerds!  I am totally stealing their lunches later.

In the end, where does this high school nostalgia leave me vis-a-vis this blog?  And what’s a girl to do if, after starting a food blog she’s unfortunately discovered that there may be no need for one?  Well, the answer’s obvious: this blog can’t be like the other kids.  It has to be different.  Luckily for me, I never fit in in high school.

: )

Next Episode:  The Ten Commandments of this Blog or Why I’m Going to Make Every Effort to Make This More Than Just Another Food Blog.  Stay tuned!

When the Pie was Opened


One of the great things about biking in the city is how you wind up randomly discovering places you might otherwise miss while rushing past in a subway or car.  Today on my bike home from Prospect Park to Carroll Gardens, I stumbled on a new restaurant in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.  The outside facade was done in whitewashed brick and the Ye Olde English lettering used for the name above the door made me feel as if I’d arrived in a small British village by way of the Gowanus Canal.   Appropriately the cafe’s name was similarly quaint “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.”  And the blackboard out front said it all:  this restaurant specialized in pie with a capital P.  But what amazing flavors of pie! Strawberry/Balsamic…Chess…Lavender/Blueberry.   Having only a dollar in my pocket and needing to get to the optometrist by 6:00 p.m. to pick up my new funky glasses, I couldn’t stop to eat.  But I’m definitely returning soon to see what dainty pies they set before this queen.  (Sorry, bad joke.)  This could become my new favorite writing locale.

Address:  439 Third Avenue at 8th Street
LINK:  http://birdsblack.com/

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Au Revoir Elsa

Elsa left yesterday.  She was my “first.”  Not in the way you think (minds out of the garbage disposal dear readers!).  No, Elsa was the first couchsurfer who agreed to cook with me.  And for your “first” it doesn’t get much better than making tarte au pomme and beef bourguignon with a cool urban-planning professor from Paris!

Elsa stayed for a week, and from the moment she walked up to me on Atlantic Avenue with her short choppy hair, thin jeans and t-shirt, and those black, rectangular glasses all the architects wear,  I knew we would get along famously in the kitchen.  Elsa was clearly way cool.

Almost immediately after arriving though, I sent her to Fairway, one of the best and biggest grocery stores in New York City, to stock up on food.  When people from other countries — even other cities — stay with me, they nearly all enter a state of shock upon entering Fairway.  It’s as if they’ve never seen so much food — and good food — together in one place.

But when nearly two hours passed with Elsa still gone, I began to worry.  Had she’d gotten lost in the frozen food aisle?  Or been trapped beneath a fallen pile of tomatoes?  Just then the door opened and Elsa walked in, her face glowing beatifically — as if she’d gone to food heaven and then fallen back to earth from the weight of her now-laden, reusable shopping bags.  “That was incredible,” she said.

I recognized most of what Elsa bought, except for one package I had no idea Fairway carried:  pre-boiled and peeled beets sealed in vacuum-packed plastic.  Now in Brooklyn — where we’ve all become holier-than-thou locavores — admitting to buying pre-packaged, pre-cooked anything could easily get you tossed out of your favorite dinner party.  But Elsa assured me that in Paris these pre-done beets are all the rage.   It certainly did make life easier not having to wait an hour for the suckers to carmelize in the oven, and given how nutritious beets are (calcium, phosphorous, potassium, Vitamin C, to name a few) it was nice knowing there was a simpler way to add them to meals.   In the end, we made a salad of beets and spring lettuce drizzled with orange vinaigrette that easily matched the more-complicated version.

But Elsa’s real gift (not counting the yummy chestnut paste she brought that I’m still dreaming up ways to use) was her recipe for beef bourguignon.  Now I have to confess that before embarking on this Couchsurfing Cooking project I never cooked meat at home.  In fact, I’m what you’d call a hypocritical vegetarian:  I never cook meat myself, but if I crave it at a restaurant, I’ll cave.  If that’s not hypocritical, I don’t know what is.

This is all to say that Elsa preparing meat in my kitchen was another “first” along my downward (or upward as the case may be) spiral to becoming a Couchsurfing Cook.   Thankfully she was an excellent teacher, aided I should add by the distant assistance of her brother, a culinary school teacher whose secret ingredient clearly catapulted the dish to a higher gastronomic realm.

And what was that secret ingredient?  Now you’re not going to tell anyone, are you?   Well it’s…shh…CHOCOLATE!   Who knew?  Turns out if you stir in a speck (and I mean a speck) of semisweet chocolate at the end of cooking along with the burbling red wine and beef fat juice/stew for some amazing reason — perhaps that extra bit of fat/sugar in the chocolate  — the sauce becomes infinitely smoother.

Here then I present Beef Bourguignon a la Elsa.  Thank you Elsa for being my “first.”   I won’t ever forget you.  :  )

Preparation Time:  15-20 minutes
Cooking Time:  Approximately 2 hours
Cooking Supplies:  Cast Iron Pot; Knife; Wooden Spoon; Measuring Implements

Serves 3:

17.5 ounces stewing beef
1/8 to 1/4 cup flour
1 bottle (750 ml) red table wine (make sure it’s wine you’d drink, although it doesn’t have to be top shelf)
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground whole nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon semisweet chocolate

1.  Cut stewing beef into 2” chunks.
2.  Place meat in a heavy cast iron pot.  In French they call it a casserole en fonte.
3.  Cook over medium to high heat until meat is browned.  The French term to describe the meat when done is “saisir” to be seized.
4.  Sprinkle meat with flour and stir with a wooden spoon until meat is thoroughly coated.
5.  Pour ¾ of wine over meat.
6.  Lower heat to simmer and add spices along with salt and pepper to taste.
7.  Allow meat to cook over low heat for two hours adding the last ¼ of wine as needed to ensure meat remains covered.
8.  After two hours meat should be tender and wine reduced.
9.  Just before serving, stir in dark chocolate.  A tiny piece is all that’s needed; add too much and it will taste like chocolate.
10.  Serve with a side of potatoes or over pasta to absorb sauce.

Cooking Like a Couchsurfer

My Brooklyn Kitchen

Where the Magic Happens

I don’t own a TV so therefore I don’t watch cooking shows.   I guess it’s ironic then that I’m about to start one.  A cooking show that is.  I mean, I do cook.  I like to cook.  Sometimes.  But other times I’m lazy and the idea of washing dishes sends me straight to my phone to order in Chinese.  So why would I want to start a cooking show? Online? Because I’m also a couchsurfer.  And I love hosting people from all over the world.  And when they’re here, I like to cook with them!

That’s right, starting May 12th.  I’ll be hosting couchsurfers in my one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and cooking with them.  Dishes they like and make at home — or ones their mother or grandmother or uncle makes — specialties from around the globe.  And I’ll be interviewing them.  About their home country, what they eat for breakfast.  Anything really. And you can send in questions too.  I’m game for anything.

What’s different about the show?  Well, for starters, there are no star chefs here.  Just real people.  So you’re likely to see mishaps.  Maybe lots of them.  Stuff may spill.  Things could burn.  But that’s reality.  In the kitchen.  My kitchen anyway. Stay tuned!