September 25, 2015

Fall classics

It's started. That thing. That bulking up thing. Where I need more of everything - cake, candy, chips, chocolate. Well the chocolate was that really, really good stuff with caramel and sea salt - so, you understand.

Obviously we have entered, the appropriately named, fall. And preparing the waistline for winter. No judgement.

One of my graces has a 93-year-old mother who lives across the pond. She's so alive and sprightly and an inspiration in so many ways (last year she and her daughter went on a hiking trip through the national parks in the US southwest and she didn't want anyone on the tour to know how old she was because they'd make a fuss). She had been visiting for the past month, and on her last night here we finally gathered to share a meal with her.

It was the first day of fall. It did not feel like the first day of fall but I planned a fall meal - roast ham (yez, the bourbon ham from a recent post), leeks with a béchamel sauce, mashed butternut squash and carrots (which was lacking fresh ginger since we both thought we had some, and nope), roasted potatoes, and of course the sprouts from Brussels. It was 450° in the kitchen/dining room. Still we sweated our way through it all.

It all started with soup. Tomato soup. And I have to share that with you now.

I wanted to use a jar of the tomatoes I had canned a few weeks ago. And found the perfect, simple recipe for them on Chowhound. They call it Classic Tomato Soup. In fact, the recipe demands that they be San Marzanos. Their wish, my command. Bring on the immersion blender.

Classic Tomato Soup

1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced
kosher salt (I didn't use salt as there was salt in my jarred tomatoes already)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes, optional
1 28oz can San Marzano tomatoes, I used 1 litre because that's what I had. I wanted to scale up a bit
1-1/2 cups chicken stock (or you can use water)
1/3 cup heavy cream
freshly ground black pepper

Put a medium-sized pot on medium to low heat and add the oil and butter. Once melted, add the onions. Let them cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and taking care not to brown them. Turn the heat down if necessary. (If you have to leave the stove, make sure you put the lid on the pot, it helps prevent browning.) Then add the garlic and pepper flakes and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Increase the heat and add the tomatoes and their juice. Break down the tomatoes with the back of your spoon and cook for 10 minutes or so, until they're hot and starting to soften. Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Let it cook at a medium simmer for about 15 minutes.

Purée the soup with an immersion blender (one of my favourite kitchen tools ever). You can do it in a blender, but let the soup cool for 10 minutes and then carefully, carefully blend in batches. Put the soup back on the heat to warm up over low heat. Add the cream. Add the black pepper.

Now taste for seasoning - I'm glad I did, because there was salt enough from the tomatoes.

Portion the soup into bowls. You can then drizzle with olive oil and place a nice bunch of julienned fresh basil on top. And then finish with a little more black pepper. You can also shave some parmesan on top if you like.

It was a lovely meal I have to say. There was something in all of it that I'd made, the soup, the béchamel, the glaze for the ham - we even had our canned peaches with pound cake and cream for dessert.

And now that tomato soup is going into the repertoire. Because it is, as Chowhound promised, a classic.

September 17, 2015

Bourbon, ham, what could go wrong?

This is a family recipe. It comes from dear friends, well, family, in all but biology. They live in Florida. And about 8 years ago, while I was in the middle of chemo, they invited us down for Christmas. My Mum was going down. My second Mum, Auntie Joan was going to be there. The thought of a roadtrip for Christmas, and heading somewhere warm, that wasn't a hospital, was like a banquet of riches. I was more than grateful. I was overwhelmed.

So, the oncologist shrugged her shoulders and said, "go for it." Steve got lessons on how to flush and check a PICC line from our public health nurse (that's an intravenous line that stays in your upper arm throughout the six chemo treatments - and we only had to do it once during our stay), I donned a head scarf, packed some tshirts with longer sleeves, and we headed south. I don't even remember thinking about medical insurance for the trip. Wow.

I was on steroids at the time. I took them a couple of days before, then a couple of days after a treatment. That meant I ate like a lumberjack. Maybe two lumberjacks. Okay...three. And then I discovered Bob Evans. The restaurant with meatloaf sandwich screaming from the menu. I have never, for the record, ordered a meatloaf sandwich before. We stopped somewhere on interstate 79 for lunch the first day on the road. I ordered it. It came. Meatloaf sandwich on a plate. That's it.

"I thought this came with fries," I said with a tad of aggression or annoyance, in a voice that wasn't entirely my own. The waitress jumped back almost imperceptibly. "I didn't think you'd want fries," she said. "Oh, I'll let you know if I want fries."

Steve was staring at me. And looking strangely amused. I didn't take the time to notice...I dug in. And within five minutes I called the waitress over. "I'll take the fries," I said. She brought a platter-sized portion.

We'd stopped for a big breakfast about four hours before that. But at the time I was eating double meals: two breakfasts, two lunches. I ate the sandwich. I ate the fries. People kept their hands away from me. It's one of the best kept secrets of breast cancer treatment. I gained weight. Like...10 pounds.

We arrived in St. Augustine the next day. Anne and Keith, his Mum, my Auntie Joan, my Mum welcomed us - even draped a huge Canadian flag on their garage door so we'd know which house was theirs. They encouraged us to walk along Micklers Beach, and relax. I felt embraced, at home, and Anne made this fantastic ham with a glaze that smelled of bourbon, cloves and oranges. It was perfect. And no, I didn't eat it all myself. And now I make it for almost every holiday meal I cook. It is more than bourbon, cloves and oranges. For me, this is a family recipe, cooked with love.

Bourbon glazed ham

1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup bourbon
1 cup sugar
6 bruised cloves
2 tbsp grated orange peel

Preheat the oven to 350°. Bring the ham out of the fridge to warm up.

Whisk together the glaze ingredients. You can increase the amount of wine or bourbon (if you have a large ham), but I found that at the smaller quantities it kept its truth as a glaze. Sometimes it gets too liquid-y.

Skin the ham, but leave a nice layer of fat. Make a diamond pattern by scoring the fat in 45 degree parallel lines, being careful not to cut through to the meat. Then cross hatch the lines by scoring the opposite way. Poke a clove into the intersection of each line or in the middle of the diamonds. It looks beautiful.

Brush a small quantity on the ham.

Bake at about 18-20 minutes per pound. For a partially-cooked ham you're looking for an internal temperature of  155°F. If you are heating up an already cooked ham (not spiral cut), you need to reach an internal temperature of 110° to 120° - any higher and you risk drying it out.

Baste the ham a couple of times - but don't use the juices that collect at the bottom of the pan or you will make the ham too salty. In the last half hour start basting more frequently. And if you like, at the end, turn on the broiler and brown the top to your liking.

Let it rest for about 15 minutes. May you share it with those you love.

September 14, 2015

Fast-beating chicken wings

You know how the tag line on this blog is thoughts on food, love and life? Well, I think I should add weather. Because I realize a lot of my food, love and life energy goes to what's happening outside.

I love outside. Well, except this weekend when a cold front swept in and vacuumed up summer in a whirl of wind, rain and blasts of cold. Admittedly, I think I heard all the plants sigh with relief. The grass relaxed and the dried up straw that had replaced the grassy park hills were re-invigorated this morning when I walked the dog.  And the collected puddles of water at the bottom of the hills were a perfect target for some doggy swirling and mud bathing. Sigh.

This morning summer is back for another gentle phase. Which put me in mind of another summer recipe, or actually two recipes at once - although it's perfect for any time of year.

I am synthesizing two recipes today. Oven roasted chicken wings - and my husband's spice rub that elevates the wings to a new height. Get it? Wings? Height?

Earlier this year I was looking for a faster way to cook chicken wings rather than my go-to maple-ginger-garlic chicken wings, which are fantastic, but need three hours in the marinade. As usual, I had hit the end of my work day having lost track of time and needed to cook up the planned chicken wings - which in my go-to mode would have had us eating with the late night news.

To google! And up came Michael Smith's roast chicken wings on the Food Network Canada site.

The key is cornstarch, mixed with your favourite rub. Of course do not do what I did the first time - I read cornstarch but reached for the baking soda. And no, I didn't notice until they were on our plates. Fortunately, I dug my teeth in first. And choked. It was like eating sea water. I grabbed Steve's plate and mine and headed for the compost bin. Wing fail. Low altitude crash and burn. We ordered pizza.

Next time I got it. And I've gotten it ever since, multiple times.

You can use any spice rub or even an herb mixture if you prefer. But I'll give you another round of Steve's spice rub (which I'd take to a desert island) that was one of the first recipes I posted 9 years ago (wow!).

I'll give you ratios and you can make the batch as big or small as you like and you can store whatever you don't use. This works on chicken, but also anything else from beef and roasted potatoes.

Steve's Rub

1 part chili powder
1 part brown sugar
1 part black pepper
2 parts kosher salt
Healthy dose of paprika

Mix together. Done.

Now...for the chicken wings

12 chicken wings
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp sugar (feel free to adjust this as there is sugar in the spice rub)
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp favourite spice rub (I added more rub mix - the recipe calls for 1 tsp)
1 tsp pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Mix the dry ingredients in a big bowl (big enough to add the wings). Add the wings to the bowl, a few at a time, and toss. Place them on the baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Turn the wings over. Bake for another 30 minutes.

I always think it's going to be all cornstarch-y and can't believe it's going to work this time...but it always comes through - unless I've used baking soda. Duh.

While they're in the oven I usually strain some yogurt to thicken it and add whatever flavours I like - lemon zest, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. That becomes a dip for all the vegetables I cut up as finger food.

This is a perfect football dinner. And yes that other chicken wings recipe was written for the Super Bowl a few years ago when the Ravens won.

And this year, I got to try on Cameron's Super Bowl ring - they gave one to every employee (not all of them choose to do that). Yet another highlight of 2015.

September 10, 2015

Finding Fido

I thought I wanted to adopt a dog. Then I became convinced. Then I became obsessed. I wanted to adopt a rescue, a stray, an unwanted animal. It turns out in the world of pet adoption, I had to wait for the dog to adopt me.

Back in my younger days, puppies were available like ripe tomatoes in late summer – in the classified ads in newspapers, on street corners, at farmers markets. People would be grateful if you just grabbed one as you rode by on your bike, slowing down only to scooch it comfortably into your basket. I know they were terrible times. I know about the abuse, neglect, stupidity of my fellow humans.

But here’s the thing.  One year ago today, our pup finally found us. We’d passed the application process, passed the home inspection (the first and only one we made it to). After 14 tries.

Before that, there was Kenny, Maddie,  Remy, Cassidy, Lya, Sansa, Tex, Robby, Sheamus, Benji, another Benji, a schnauzer whose name has vaporized in my head, Pixy, and then, finally, Morgan. We’ve dubbed him Captain Morgan – Terrier of the High Seas.

If you had plotted my emotions on a graph during that nine month search, I looked like a parabola. Websites like petfinder and adopt a pet probably thought I was some kind of computer virus. I checked their sites daily, sometimes more, in case a new little guy had arrived. I’d get excited. I’d email. I’d fill in an application. And I’d wait. I ended up sobbing more than once. And more than once I just said to myself, “forget it. It can’t be this hard. I quit.”

It wasn’t like we were on some dogland security list or anything. We both grew up with dogs, and when I moved into an apartment I had a cat – then she had kittens – and I kept three of them – and they all lived to ripe old ages and nursed them through their final illnesses. And then we took in my mother in law’s dog when she went into a home. So we had some pedigree of experience.

Granted, some of the 14 just weren’t for us – one was a ‘nipper’, one had medical issues (kidneys, been there, done that). Another was so crazy we knew we couldn’t handle him, so we turned into rescuers ourselves, researching and sending info to the owners about how to surrender a dog you no longer want or can care for.  One agency will not adopt anywhere outside their region, even though we’re a mere half-hour from them. Two of them needed another dog in the house to give them some lessons on how to be a dog. At a pet adoption fair we filled in an application and then the dog was withdrawn as we stood there next to her waiting for our interview because she hadn’t been assessed yet. Many were adopted to other people. Dog #13 we were approved for, but when we tried to arrange a visit, our emails went unanswered. The only way I knew our girl was gone was when I went back to Petfinder and looked her up. I just stared at the screen in disbelief. It said ADOPTED! In upper casing, with an exclamation mark like it was a celebration or something.  I tried to confirm it with the rescue agency and they just never, ever responded.

Then last September 10th, after the application process, and after the home inspection, we headed 3 hours to the southwest, plowing our way through a storm system so bad I was leaning forward in the car to see if that dark swirling cloud that had descended onto the highway was, in fact, a tornado or just a rainpocalypse – and yes, thinking that, yet again, this was a sign that this dog wasn’t for us – we finally met Morgan. He was at CK Animal Rescue in Chatham, Ontario.

He comes from Alabama – a lot of rescues come from the US up to Canada through a sort of canine underground railroad with rescuers, foster homes, and convoys, bringing the dogs here to avoid what is, apparently, a very high kill rate in shelters across the US (one report in Maclean’s from 2013 put the number at 60%, compared to Canada’s 14%). And CK Animal Rescue founder Nancy Ball takes more than her share. CKAR also fosters dogs of military personnel who have to go overseas, they give free dog food to anyone who is at risk of having to give up their pet because of economic hardship, and they help anyone living in an abusive household who won’t leave because they don’t want to leave their pets behind. They find temporary shelter for the pets – it’s called the purple leash campaign. And something I never, ever thought of.

And, they answer their emails. They were lovely, efficient, caring and determined to find the right home for Morgan. He'd been in Canada for a couple of months, and his Canadian fosters were with him when we arrived. Nancy told them to go for coffee because she needed to see Morgan’s reaction to us without them there. “I’ll know in 15 minutes if this is going to work,” she told them.

He sniffed around us. His ears back, his eyes pleading for us to be kind – he has the most amazing eyes and under his scruffy fur, enormous inch-long black eyelashes which he uses to full effect.  He sniffed around the floor and Steve crouched down to hold out his hand. Morgan lifted his paw and put it on Steve’s hand. Steve scratched his chest. Morgan licked his hand. Then he did the same
thing to me.

Finally, I went to sit on the couch and Morgan crawled under the coffee table and stuck his head up at my knees. I patted my lap to encourage him and he jumped up into my arms.

“That’s what I was looking for,” Nancy said as she snapped photos of the whole process.

Now that I know him so well, it’s absolutely amazing he did that. He is so shy and timid of strangers he is only now after a year willing to come out from behind my legs when we meet people on the street. And just barely. He might, on a good day, sniff people’s outstretched fingers, and on the best days will allow a scritch under his chin. It makes that first evening with him a bit of a miracle.

Within a few minutes we had the papers signed, the money transferred (the cost included all his shots, his neutering and a microchip) and we had a little dog curled up in the back seat of our car. As we headed east again, we drove straight back into the rainstorm and the dark, and it was so bad that we (neither of us timid drivers) pulled off the highway for the night. Morgan took it all in stride. We found a hotel, he decided that was the life for him, and he slept all night curled up against my stomach.

Captain Morgan, terrier of the high seas had adopted us. He is smaller than we expected, hardly sheds, doesn’t bark much (except at our landlady…sigh…and not even at the mailman when he comes to the door), and is smarter than a fifth grader. He’s still timid but getting better, he loves us to bits, and he makes me howl with laughter at least once a day. His character has just blossomed. His best bestie is the cat next door who has always considered our casa his casa.

I can’t believe Morgan has been in our lives for a whole year already. He turned two in the summer and I know what will happen, I’ve lived through this movie before – it will flash by. But in the meantime I guess, I will just put up with the demands for cuddles, and the early mornings, and the blast off into mud puddles face first, and the fearsome tearing apart of stuffed bears, dogs, ferrets and gators, oh and a living room full of sticks and snowballs, and the standing between me and the kitchen cabinets as I cook, and the rocket sled chases of squirrels and raccoons, and the stretching bravado of confronting the badass black cat in the alley. Because, after all, he is the terrier of the high seas. And he’s mine.

September 08, 2015

Thai twist on gazpacho

Quick, before summer blazes out tomorrow - this heat wave is unbelievable and I kind of love it - we need to cover another hot weather recipe.

During one of the best long cottage weekends of this summer, my friend Carol made this gazpacho as a starter for a hot Sunday evening (which ended up a pouring-rain evening). We stayed indoors, had drinks, did crosswords, read the paper, pulled out magazines, and had a lovely, peaceful, contented evening with each other - all five of us, plus our dog.

Carol is our go-to person for gazpacho. She make the beautiful, classic tomato-based Spanish soup (or liquid salad as I saw it called on one website - ugh) which turns out exactly as it should every time - fresh, spicy, cold, delicious.

Its origins are from Andalusia, southern Spain and various opinions say the Romans or Greeks had a similar bread and garlic based soup. But I like to agree with those who say it was the Moors. It is a great thirst quencher - and women in the fields used to make it in big wooden bowls called 'dornillos' and feed it to the farm workers.

This time Carol tried a new recipe that we loved and can now be firmly in her repertoire: Thai Gazpacho Verde. It blends the Andalusian classic with Thai flavours. Carol found the recipe in the summer issue of the always excellent Food & Drink from the LCBO (liquor stores in Ontario are run by the government). The recipe is by Toronto food writer and recipe developer Eric Vellend and he brings a great twist to gazpacho, no tomato. It's all about the cucumber and avocado and the great Thai flavours that slip in there. And cucumbers are bursting out all over the grocery this is definitely the time. There is apparently a saying in Spanish, 'de gazpacho no hay empacho' which means 'you can never get too much of a good thing or too much gazpacho.'

Thai Gazpacho Verde - serves 4

2 large English cucumbers, peeled
1 small avocado, halved, pitted, peeled
1 clove garlic, minced
2/3 cup water
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp salt

2 tbsp thinly sliced shallots
1 thinly sliced hot red chili pepper
1 cup loosely packed mint leaves (you have me at mint)
1/4 cup finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts

Cut cucumbers into medium chunks. Dice the avocado. Put them into a blender and add garlic, water, lime juice, fish sauce and salt. Blend til smooth. Cover and put in the fridge for at least two hours. (Recipe says it will keep in the fridge for up to 2 days.)

Place the shallots in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Cover and refrigerate for 10 minutes. Drain and pat with paper towel. Place in bowl with chili and mint. Toss.

Pour the soup into serving bowls. Put a mound of the shallot/mint/chili mixture on top and then sprinkle with the peanuts.

September 04, 2015

Ultimate flank manoeuvre

Summer has pitched a fit in this last week before Labour Day. It's so hot and muggy here in Toronto that we broke the temperature record for the hottest day all year...and also the hottest nights.

We live without air conditioning in our 1-bedroom apartment. We live with two ceiling fans. And this week we live with them rotating full time, all the windows closed, the door shut. It could be the middle of winter out there for all I know. Amazing how at a certain temperature, at opposite extremes of the thermometer, you're trapped in your house the same way the drifting, blowing, wind-chilled air keeps us huddled inside, warming ourselves on the glow of the tv.

The dog, who hails from the state of Alabama, and looks a bit shocked that the dog days of summer are so dog dang hot up here, has surrendered to the comfort of the bed under the ceiling fan and looks both scruffy and pathetic.

So...anyway, under the heading of eking out a little more summer grilling time, (we've grilled twice this week to avoid the heat of the oven - and waiting for the heat to dissipate has meant grilling in the dark) I have to share this gem of a recipe for the best marinade for flank steak. I love flank steak.

I discovered this early in the spring by googling 'best flank steak marinade'. I came up with Kelly Senyei's post on her blog from a couple of years ago, appropriately titled "The Ultimate Asian Flank Steak Marinade".

So, looking at the ingredients list, and looking in the pantry I said, right...that looks like the ultimate flank steak marinade. I've now made it so many times and it has turned out beautifully each time. The mark of an ultimate recipe.

My only revision of the recipe is the time she gives for marinating. She recommends marinating overnight or at least 10 hours. I don't marinate meat for more than 90 minutes since a marinade especially made with acid (as this is) will break the protein bonds in the meat making it mushy rather than tender. But the flavours are beautiful in this, and in 90 minutes the meat does take on that lovely aroma of the out your big ass ziplock bag.

Best Flank Steak Marinade

1 flank steak (1-2 lb)
1/4 cup soy sauce (I use gluten free soy sauce for Steve)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (Kelly calls this her secret ingredient)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 tbsp honey
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp minced fresh ginger
3 spring onions thinly sliced

Start by placing the open ziplock bag in a bowl. Fold down the top. It will stand better in the bowl as you put the ingredients in. Add the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, vegetable oil and whisk in the honey, garlic, ginger and spring onions. Put the meat in the marinade and close the bag. Mush it around to make sure all the surfaces of the meat are covered in marinade. Now put it in the fridge for 90 minutes.

Preheat your grill and pull the meat from the fridge. Take the steak out of the marinade. Throw away the marinade. Cook the steak to your liking. Let it rest and slice til your heart's content - try not to eat it all before it gets on the plate.

I noticed that Kelly also sprinkled some toasted sesame seeds and freshly sliced spring onions (not the ones from the marinade!) on top of the slices when serving, which looks beautiful.

Here's to the last long weekend of the summer of 2015.

September 02, 2015

Smoke On, Now.

The Snowbirds - earlier this year in BC - courtesy DND/CAF
"Sign it," he said, throwing a blank form on my lap. I was busy looking down, writing notes, trying to keep track of what was going on. But frankly, I had lost track of what Mike was saying because it didn't matter. I wasn't going.

I looked up at him - his eyes were sparkling, and he was grinning a little. "Sign it," he said again pointing at the form and then moving on to hand out waiver forms to the other seven or so people in the room. I gulped. I was being offered a ride with the Snowbirds, the Canadian air force's aerobatic team. And Mike Lenahan, the communications officer, was in the middle of the safety briefing.

Here's the thing: I'm a terrible flyer - especially if it involves detailed safety briefings - which if you remember I wasn't listening to. I'd rather not, thanks. I shook my head vigorously and felt myself pulling my spine into the back of the seat hoping it and the wall behind me would give way and I could back flip out to the parking lot.

I know, what the hell was I doing there then? Well, in my not-so-infinite wisdom, I had pitched a story on the Snowbirds and their first female technician, Corporal Marlene Shillingford. I was doing research. And that's what I told Mike, who had invited me down to watch the process. "I'm just here to watch and do research," I said, and the sentence disappeared into meekness. "Sign it," he said. I looked at the form and my ears opened up just in time to hear Mike say, "when, not if, you regain consciousness..." My head started spinning..."Wait, did you just say 'ejector seat'?"

It was 22 years ago. And I can still feel it. It was exhilarating, nauseating, nerve wracking. This week those beautiful birds will be flying over Toronto again for the Canadian International Air Show. And I'll be jumping out of my skin and out onto the deck every single time I hear their unmistakable engines. And remembering.

Suddenly I was putting on the navy blue flight suit, the helmet with the mirrored visor, the oxygen mask dangling off to the side. Very. Top. Gun. Then I was climbing into the cockpit of plane #7, to the left of Capt. Frank Bergnach, the pilot. Marlene strapped my shoulders down, hard. I couldn't move. The oxygen came on. Frank explained how the radio works and how to talk to him - and that if I threw up in the mask, it would be up to me to clean it up later. The canopy started closing over our heads as the engines geared up. My mouth was dry. And when I looked down, my knees were knocking together. Literally. I tried holding them with my hands so Frank wouldn't notice.

Frank noticed. The brakes were released and we were gliding out with 8 other planes to the runway. All at once. Doesn't that seem dangerous? Shouldn't we go up one at a time? Why am I here? What was I thinking? As we taxied I could hear Frank through my headset telling me about his vast experience flying: a bazillion hours in the Tutor jet, a bazillion hours in F-18s, a bazillion hours landing on aircraft carriers with the US Air Force...and I felt myself finally breathing in. Which was good. This was an experience, and I - was - not - going - to - miss - it.

All nine planes lined up on the runway in a diamond pattern. The radio squawked to life as we heard the Major in plane #1 just ahead of us, give the command to start rolling. Damn, I was holding my breath again. As we picked up speed on the tarmac, suddenly the Major was off the ground, then us, then the rest, and we unzipped ourselves into a three-dimensional diamond. These planes were flying close together - we were on the far left side of the formation and Frank spent practically 100% of the time looking to the right and watching our neighbour's left wing which was unnaturally close. The plane above us didn't look more that 20 feet away - every rivet, every panel, every detail, visible.

Some perspective
from a shot this year by DND/CAF
The turbulence pushed and pulled us. While Frank looked to the right, he maneuvered the plane, fighting to stay in formation. I could hear him through his mask, grunting, and gasping and holding his breath and then letting it go. All adrenaline, all cardio. All the time.

We were doing banking turns in unison, this way, that way and then heading vertically into the sky. The G-forces bent my head into the shape of a football. At various points the Major's voice would break through and I'd hear him say in his slow drawl (which I still imitate), "Snowbirds. Smoke onnnnn....Noooow" and from underneath the planes a stream of smoke would bleed out behind us into ribbons of white - and then, "Smoke off. Nowwww."

At one point all the planes broke away from formation into their own part of the sky. Frank asked if I was okay and I told him, "Totally. Totally okay."

"Want to go upside down?" Well of course. I'd come that far, and I wasn't even aware I had knees anymore. He told me he was going to throw the stick to the right a little and then all the way to the left. Was I ready? "Just do it," I said.

And he did. And I kept my eyes looking up and through the clear canopy over my head, the world spun around like it does when you're passing out. When he righted the plane, I was whooping. Like a kid. No seriously, whooping, hollering, giggling all at once. And then I topped it off by slapping my legs (since I couldn't jump up and down) and saying, "Again, again, again!"

I had just turned 30 by the way. Three days earlier I had been in Belize on a research trip for another documentary and we had had a "wrap party" which involved celebrating my big birthday - and getting me (for the first time in my life) totally drunk. Drunkety drunk drunk, as one of my friends likes to say. Many shots of tequila, followed by a couple of hours sleep, then a boat ride, then 2 planes to get home. Ugh. But there I was, in the plane, acting like a four year old. And he spun us around again.

Just when I thought it was over, Frank asked me if I'd like to fly it. "Fly what," I asked, trying in vain to turn my helmet towards him. "The plane. Wanna try it?" What? Why hells bells. Yes. So I did. Sort of. I took the stick that was in front of me and starting moving it around. Do you know what it's like to ride a horse that knows you ain't the master of this situation? The horse that either just munches on the grass or heads straight for the barn? That's what the Tutor felt like. It responded. And it was thrilling. But when Frank broke in about a minute later and sped us up and away from the earth, I was relieved.

We all came back into formation and headed back to the airport. The wind had picked up so the order was for the planes to land in formations of three instead of all at once. I was so high I have no idea how Frank held the plane to the ground. We got back to our parking spots, the canopy opened and Marlene was there to unstrap, peel, and extract me from the seat. My feet hit the tarmac and I started jumping up and down like a lunatic. I hugged Marlene, I hugged Frank. What a spectacle. I do not know how people keep their shit together when life offers you an opportunity like that. They do keep their shit together...but I am not one of them.

It was a two-hour drive home. But I think I did it in about an hour. The car's wheels barely touched the highway. I was high for about a week. I dreamt about it. I couldn't stop grinning.

And to think I could have missed that by being too scared. I can make myself crazy with this stuff. I'm so grateful that voice in my head told me to remember that life is an experience, so live it. As I get older that voice diminishes. Among the top experiences I've had so far the snowbirds flight is right up there - along with hiking in the Himalayas, diving with a whaleshark, and my wedding day. Our adventures have tamed out a bit. Life has kicked us about a little and I find myself looking back at the last few years and sensing how gun-shy I've been.

My adventures have been more internal than external. And I think it's just been time for that. I'm grateful - despite all the pollution I've dug up from my depths. It's exhaust - and exhausting. But it's getting done.

And I find myself looking out again at the moment. And the experience. Bring it on.


Addendum, Marlene is still in the air force and, in fact, went back to the Snowbirds a few years back to do a stint as their crew chief, the first woman again to have that job. She flew with the team lead. That was unthinkable when we did that story. Bring it on.

Photos from the CAF image gallery and as per the terms of use -  they are official works (IS2009-0352 and FA03-2015-0001-15) published by DND/CAF and they have not been produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of, DND/CAF.