Sunday, November 6, 2016

Off We Went, Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Honor Flight with Dad

“Write it all down while it’s fresh, Sweetheart,” my dad says as I kiss him goodnight. He’s sitting in his chairlift, bound for his TV room, where he’ll enjoy a glass of wine and a bite before he goes to bed. He’s kissed my mom goodnight, and had one of the fullest days ever, and is too fired up to go to bed despite the 11:00 time….marking his 19th hour of being awake.  I smile, he kisses my cheek and the top of my hand, “thank you—again—for sharing this all with me,” he says, and then starts going up in the lift, singing, as always, “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun.” After spending the day with him and 61 fellow veterans, this song has a different meaning.

On October 29th, we started our day much earlier than most; we were at the Westchester County Airport prior to 6 am. We were greeted by a slew of red-shirted volunteers helped us with everything to getting Dad into his first of many wheelchairs, finding donuts and coffee, shaking hands, patting backs, smiling, supporting, and sharing a camaraderie that is so strong, so precious, and so unique.  From the first moment on, the day was an unforgettable adventure of faces, young and old, smiles, stories, remembrances, and tears.  

The travel portion of the adventure began as we boarded our police motorcycle-led bus brigade (made up  at least 10   local police officers—several bikers), which took us on a  dawn ride, past fire departments where we saw firefighters in full regalia standing at attention and saluting as we passed. As the sun rose, Dad could see our local police escorts.  He took my hand and exclaimed, “Wow…this is for us?” Yes, I smiled all for you. He held my hand tight and said,  “I’m so glad you’re with me!”

 That was one of many moments when I couldn’t help but feel that this time—this Honor Flight trip—was one that was so valuable to each and every one of us.   Despite great differences in lives, professions,  likes and dislikes, we all share the fundamental need to love, be loved, and appreciated. The Honor Flight gave both the much-deserving veterans, and us—their guardians and other volunteers—that reward: we all felt appreciated and loved.

The group—collectively—was dazzling!  Ranging in age from I think a twenty year-old grandson (guardian), to an 101 year-old WWII Vet. The journey talk was peppered   with clever quips, all kinds of tunes and tales, with many of our beloved vets enjoying the much-deserved privilege of speaking their minds on a hugely varied array of topics.  From fellow guardians,  to volunteers—the “angels” as my father termed them, like Jennifer, Marianne and Fred—and many more, to our uniformed companions, all were ever-present and tireless in their desire to assist as needed.

The day—despite its freshness—is a bit of a blur of young and old folks, reaching out their hands to my dad and the other veterans, offering praise, congratulations, and great thanks. Soldiers saluted, whole families parted to let us pass, and the warmth was way beyond that of the beautiful sun that graced our presence in Washington DC.  The visits to the memorials and Arlington National Cemetery were filled with poignant and provocative moments.

Dinner, like the rest of the day, was unlike any I’ve had in quite some time. Part sitcom, other time adventure, just when I was thinking about how tired this crowd must be, they would shine with a look, a smile, a tear—a remembrance. They never ceased to effuse, amaze—and entertain!

During mealtime I gave Dad the chance to sit with our dear friend/family pal Steve, and I sat with a  “new” group of delightful companions who, I’m sure could also double as stand-up comedians.

“I love having this lady next to me!” said one of the vets when I spooned the Italian dressing on his salad,  adjusted his coffee cup so it wouldn’t spill, and spread out his napkin. “Look at her attention to detail!” he exclaimed to the rest of the table. 

“Of course you love the attention," remarked another from across the table.  And I knew I  wasn’t the first “young” woman he’d flirted with that day! Then, when his guardian, I’m guessing about 20 years younger than the 90+ vet he was responsible for, started taking his charge out for a visit to the men’s room, he leaned over to me and asked in a stage whisper, “So, tell me: What did General Douglas MacArthur say to his troops?” 

“I’ll be back?” I asked, sheepishly.
They both smiled and declared in unison, “I shall return!” They made a dramatic u-turn, the guardian swirling (gently!) his charge around—while both managing to wave to me.

Then the dinnertime speeches at the podium, which were both reflective and thankful, commenced. Discussion of pictures (ah, that would be how my grandparents referred to movies!) was paired with talk  about things going viral! And then came the Hollywood finish: Michael (A.K.A. Isaac) recounting—interrupted by an emotion that resonated in all of us there listening—the tale of the wonderful coincidence of reuniting, at our pre-flight Meet and Greet, with his friend Russ after 73 years. Not a dry eye was in that dining room, and we were stamped with a smile/image we’ll all feel in our hearts forever. Appreciated and loved.

Like our evening speeches, that whole day was about presence, gratitude, and honor. To every person that shook my dad’s hand and said, “Thank you for your service,” he returned with a shake (okay, with the women it was a kiss on the hand!) and profound thankfulness. Appreciated and loved.

After landing back at Westchester County airport, on the plane and waiting (to get my dad back on a wheelchair).  I stood near the exiting aisle, and enjoyed the privilege of asking each and every one of the passengers, as they filed by,  if they had enjoyed their day. I was acutely aware that this was so not like any other flight; they were not pushing to get off, but rather taking the time to savor those last moments on the Honor Flight plane.  

I guess the veterans must have thought I was one of the organizers, since they were so effusive  with me in their appreciation. One man took my hand in both of his, looked me in the eyes— and I could see his tears (which of course inspired my own), and said, “This day was so beautiful. I’ve never had a day like this. Even when I came back from the army, I never felt like this. Thank you so very much for all you did.”  I just held his hand, smiled, and then hugged him a thank you, for all he did. Though the words were different with each passerby, the gratefulness, and smiles remained a constant.

When we finally exited the plane and arrived, once again, at Westchester County Airport, we received yet another hero’s welcome: we were greeted by an array of welcomers—from girl scouts, and family members,  to cadets.

“Look!” I said as I pushed Dad’s wheelchair towards the welcoming crowd so he could once again shake hands, and hear the heartfelt “Thank you for your service” declarations. But I stopped pushing—just for a moment and leaned over.

 “Dad,” I said—close and loud enough so I was sure he could hear me over the din, “they’re all here for you!”  

As I kissed his cheek, I could feel his smile, and his tear. 

Singing, "Off We go..." with Bill and our Beautiful Flight Attendant
(with HVHF Founder the Wonderful, Frank Kimler, the Man Behind the Curtain!) 

With Steve...the One Who Introduced Us to the Hudson Valley Honor Flight!

With Lovely Ian 
With Our Beloved Steve Scholem and His Sister, Sharon Scholem

With Fellow HV Honor Flight Friends: Veteran Bruce Gavril and Daughter Liz Gavril 

With Steve, and our Charming and Helpful Guide, Technical Sargent Jason 

Dad and His Angels: Marianne Mutoli-Schmidt and Jennifer D'Elia-DeFrancesco 
Dad Teaching An HVHF Guardian
Nora's  (His Great Granddaughter's!)
Special Handshake 

In the Airport--Talking about the Day! 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Playing with Pumpkin (Or, really, Kabocha!)

Mis queridos amigos,

It seems a bit crazy to be writing about pumpkin bread today. After all, right now it's in the low 80s here in New York. But, well, we know that this probably won't be the case for too long! 

And speaking of before too long, I'll be back in ol' Mambo 64 stomping ground--at Broken Bow Brewery--on November 10th from 6 to 8, with my old friends, talking about using their fabulous beer to make some treats! (Please contact me for info on signing up for that's filling up fast!) 

So last Saturday, as some of you know, I had the great pleasure of being at the New Rochelle Grand Market Farmer's Market, where I shared some of my fresh-baked pumpkin (kabocha) bread. Kabocha, pumpkin's cousin, is sweet and moist, with has dark green skin, and orange flesh that is slightly sweeter than pumpkin (and with more of a chestnut-like consistency). I have to say, that this is so moist, it's more like a bread pudding. Luscious, spiced, and sweet--though not overwhelmingly so--this is as delightful as a breakfast treat, as it is for a snack, or dessert. The key, I discovered, is baking (roasting) the kabocha separately, and then puréeing it. The result is totally worth the time! (And yes, my friends, I will share that slightly sparky (thanks to cayenne pepper) pumpkin soup, too. Maybe next time?!)  Would love to hear how you like this one! 
One of the Loaves! 

Sample Kabocha Bread--See those Raisins? 
With Peppe--showing off--at the Farmer's Market! 

Kabocha Bread 

Makes two standard-size loaf pans 


1 tablespoon unsalted butter, for greasing the pans
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup canola oil
About 3 cups of roasted kabocha purée (I wash the outside, cut about a 4-pound   squash into smaller pieces--quarters to eighths--seed it, drizzle olive oil and honey or brown sugar, and roast on a foil-lined pan at 400°  for about 35 minutes or until softened. Peel, coarsely chop, and purée in a food processor.)

Optional: 2/3 cup golden raisins and/or toasted pecans

1.  Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375°F. Butter the bottom and sides of 2 loaf pans. 

2.   In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.

3.   In the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, mix the brown sugar on the lowest speed to break up any lumps. Add 1 egg and continue to mix on low until smooth and incorporated. Add the remaining eggs, one at a time, and mix on low until smooth and well blended. Shut off the mixer and scrape the mixture down the bowl.  Return the mixer to low then add the oil in a thin steady stream and continue to beat until fully blended.

4.    Add the flour mixture in 3 batches. Use a large rubber spatula to fold the mixture together until just incorporated. Fold in the roasted kabocha, along with the raisins and /or nuts,  if using.

5.   Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until the the breads are firm and risen and the tip of a paring knife inserted in the center of the cake emerges clean, between 50 and 60 minutes (and you may want to rotate the pans once during the baking time). Transfer to a wire rack to let cool for about ten minutes minutes before inverting. Serve fresh and warm, or let them cool, wrap them and refrigerate for up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 1 month. (I love it toasted...with a glass of port, and with some vanilla ice cream!)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Three Years and a Lifetime Later!

Maybe, as you start reading this, you can hear me sigh.
After all, it's been a very long time since I've blogged here. In fact, it's been exactly three years and three days!

So, let's see. Since then, I've opened and closed a restaurant (ah...Mambo 64 in Tuckahoe, New York...which we closed exactly 1 year ago today), written Latin Twist, a blog for LoHud, gone back to teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), been an event planner and caterer, taught many cooking classes,   made dozens of drinks,  served many meals, had the pleasure of meeting lots of lovely people, watched my son move to Ecuador,  my daughter to Brooklyn, and most recently, started spending way more time with my husband, parents, and friends.

Those of you who know me know that all of these things are so important in my life. I can't imagine life without my big three Fs: family, friends, and food. The connection between people and food/culture is full of beauty and delight; it's one that that never ceases to impress and amaze. My mission continues to be that of bringing together diverse people and their stories over our common ground: food.

I'm kicking off this first blogafter being inspired by a Saturday visit to the New Rochelle Farmer's Marketwith a recipe for one of my favorite soups, gazpacho, which was published two years ago in my LoHud Small Bites column,  Latin Twist .

And also, speaking of the New Rochelle Farmer's Market, I will be doing a demo there on
Saturday, October 8th, at 11 am. I'm still figuring out what I'm making; the market has so much to choose from.

So I close today, with the promise of bringing you more tales and treats in the not-too-distant future.
Thank you for your support always, and I look forward to seeing all of you in the kitchen!
All the best,

PS My new portrait, featured here on my blog, was taken at Alvin & Friends, by the fabulous New Rochelle-based photographer, Rodney Bedsole.