This last week, Cooking with the Troops descended on Brook Army Medical Center for a series of events, culminating in the kickoff of our Homefront Support Program.
It all started with a Cuban lunch, prepared by some truly amazing people. When the chance to do some food events at the Warrior Family Support Center first came up, the first "call" that went out was to Valentin Prieto of Babalu Blog, and Marta Darby of My Big Fat Cuban Family. Val has been tormenting me for years with his tales of pig roasts and such at his "Man Camp" and I've been trying some of Marta's recipes for a while now, but wasn't satisfied with the results. Thanks to their willingness to volunteer, quite a few of us had the chance to learn directly from them.
And volunteer they did! First, Marta decided she needed some help, so she brought her husband and four of her children (Adam, Amy, Jonathan, and Lucy) in to help with the cooking. Then, they really kicked out the stops. Val contacted his friends at La Caja China, who agreed to donate two of their large roasters: one to CwtT and one to the WFSC. To top that off, Val and Marta then got Conchita, Goya, and Cawy Bottling to dontate ingredients and products for the feast they were planning. Then, Val was contacted by Dos Cubanos Pig Roasters, who asked if they could join in and help. Jorge and Joey not only asked to help, they brought two of their Caja China units up so we could roast four pigs for the lunch, and brought even more family to help. Net result is that we ended up with 21 amazing people helping with lunch and dinner on the 15th.
(Photo Courtesy of Marta Darby)
A lot of preparation was done on the 14th, but cooking on the 15th began a bit after 0500 when the pigs were readied for the roasters, and the coals lit. Here's a bit of what went on:
As the pigs roasted for three hours, there was time for some relaxation, and time to work on the sides and the supper. The sides were in Marta's capable hands.
The sides, well, wow. Words don't do them justice. Plaintains, white rice, black beans Cuban style, and -- last but not least -- Marta's Guava tarts. To put it properly, what went with the Lechon Asado a lo Cubano, was: Arroz Blanco, Frijoles Negros, Pantanos Maduros Fritos, Yuca con Mojo Criollo, and Pastelitos de Guayaba.
The shots above give a little idea of what went on in that kitchen, but not all of it. Big thanks go to Michael Russo (center of kitchen shot) who flew in from New Jersey to help, and to Heather Solos of Home Ec 101 who came in and not only helped with the dinner and the Homefront event, but threw herself into all the preparations and clean-up. She and Mike (and Concrete Bob) jumped in to help us do a deep clean on the WFSC grills, to the point of routing out clogged jets in the burners to said grills in the heat. And it was indeed warm while all of this was going on...
After three hours of pig roasting, it was time for the turning. Concrete Bob captured the event (and live streamed it during) including preparing the roasted pigs for lunch:
I can't say enough good about those pigs. The skin was the best pork skin I've ever had. Period. The meat was perfectly cooked, flavorful, and fall-off-the-bone tender. Watching Jorge and Joey work was a treat.
It was a good thing as we did decide to do four pigs, as we ended up feeding 300 (plus) instead of 250. Any dreams of sandwiches from leftovers were dashed as all the meat was gone by the time the lunch feast ended.
I also firmly believe this man is a saint. This is Marta's husband Eric who pitched in on everything, with a smile and patience that would shame Job. Not only that, he was always up for more. Then again, that pretty well summed up Marta's wonderful family. This great shot of him is courtesy of Lucy Darby.
To cap the talk of lunch, here's a final shot of one of the pigs coming out of the Caja China. After the lunch, a small bit of time was taken to relax, and quite a few of us enjoyed two boxes of hand-rolled cigars provided by Cuban Crafters. These were shared with the men and women there at the WFSC, and a good time was had by all.
Then it was on to dinner. Chef Ellen Adams prepared a tasty meal of grilled chicken sandwhiches, guacomole, a delicious couscous salad, fruit salad, and some toffee bars. She was aided in preparations by Heather Solos and Rhane, the grandson of McQ who was also there filming and jumping in to help as needed.
But, that wasn't the end of things.
The next day, we were at the Fisher House to do conduct the prototype event for our Homefront Support Program. The short version is that Cooking with the Troops has developed a fun 2-3 hour event that provides fundamentals in food safety, nutrition, and cooking -- with the participants being the ones to do the cooking, and then serve the resulting meal family style.
The basics of the event are the work of Chef Ellen Adams, who also led this first event. The idea behind it is to teach how to do good food fast, rather than fast food. In the process, the participants learn how to help their food budgets, cook some very tasty food, and start learning a bit about nutrition. The latter part is going to be expanded, as wounded require the same amount (or more) calories than those on the front line, but the makeup of those calories is very different. As time goes on, those needs and amounts change, and one of our goals is helping the participants meet those needs and changes.
What started with five particpants grew as others walked by and were pulled into the fun. What they did was prepare: parmesan breadsticks, mixed green salad with homemade lemon vinaigrette, pasta e fagioli soup, Mediterranean baked chicken, rigatoni with turkey kielbasa, and apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.
The group also had an unexpected guest in CSM Drew E. Pumarejo of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. He and his aid checked out the course, and were good sports about being in the group shot for the event. The food was delicious, and the participants were in for a surprise.
At the start of class, they were issued the basic tools needed to cook. At the end of class, those tools were given to them. Big thanks go to Messermeister (USA) for the knife rolls; Microplane for the graters; Le Creuset for the silicone spatulas; J.A. Henckels, who donated the chef and paring knifes used in this event; Ace Mart for the flexible cutting boards; and, Focus Products Group, who provided the stainless steel measuring spoons, metal spatulas, and dry measure cups. In addition, CwtT provided liquid measure cups and Y-shaped vegetable peelers to complete the sets.
Based on the feedback from this event, we will tweak and do a proof-of-concept event -- hopefully soon. While I'm really not supposed to do it, I want to thank the Bob Woodruff Foundation for their grant which is covering the development of this program area. They were willing to take a chance on a charity so new it hadn't even filed its first 990, and it is very much appreciated. I just wish they could have tasted the delicious food cooked at this first event.
Most of all, I want to thank Val, Marta, Eric, Amy, Adam, Jonathan, Lucy, Jorge (and his family), Joey, Rhane, Heather, Ellen, Bob and Mike: this would not have happened if not for you. I count myself as lucky and blessed to be able to say I know people like you. Thank you.
Big thanks also to the very patient and helpful people at the Warrior Family Support Center. This is an amazing place, with some truly amazing people who make it run. They can't ask for anything, but I can: give to them. If you go visit, be sure to ask about the sculpture above the fireplace, but be prepared for some dust to get in your eyes...
Also, I know why my making of Marta's dishes never turned out quite right. It's family. The reason those black beans and other sides, the guava tarts, and such all tasted so good -- it was the love put into them by her family and friends. It was an honor to be a small part of that family during this time, and appropriate too. What CwtT does, it does for the family that is our warriors, their families, and caregivers. Family doing for family, that's what it's all about.
I knew this was going to turn out all right from the start, because Val and Marta were on point for most of Friday. When you have free Cubans doing a meal for family, you have no worries. Cuba Libre!
Heather has her write-up of the events here
Marta has her write-up of the events here
In addition to the video above, Concrete Bob has some thoughts here
Val has his write-up here