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:

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.

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.