Sunday, August 25, 2013

Buy Hendri Coetzee's Memoir, Please

Dear Readers - I'm asking you to consider purchasing a memoir written by Hendri Coetzee, Living the Best Day Ever. No one asked me to promote the book and I have nothing to gain other than the satisfaction of sharing insight into a young man whose impact on my son, and the ripple effects through our family, have been significant. Also, it's a good read! A bonus is that this first hardcover collectors' edition is being produced in the spirit and style of a classic explorer book, complete with Hendri's hand-drawn maps. The book includes five photos by Chris Korbulic.

Hendri Coetzee, 2010 shortly before his death.  Photo by Chris Korbulic.
Do you remember Hendri Coetzee? I sure do. I became acutely aware of him late in 2010 when our son Chris Korbulic and his kayaking partner Ben Stookesberry launched into what was planned as a three-month circumnavigation of rivers that connect Africa's West Rift Valley. Their expedition was to end when they arrived at the Congo River. Hendri was their guide.

Who the heck is he? I asked Ben, who had searched-out Hendri online and made the long-distance arrangements. Is he legit?

Ben said, in as many words, This guy is great. And indeed he was. Hendri was a modern-day explorer,  extreme kayaker, and adventurer. I later learned he was also a thinker, philosopher, comedian, and one helluva writer.

The trip would take them down the gnarly hippo and crocodile-infested Nile River in Uganda, across Lake Victoria, into the Ruzizi River and then the Lukuga River. Ahh, yes. The Lukuga, which I bet anybody who's reading this had never heard of before this expedition.

By this trio's ridiculous standards the Lukuga was tame. Most of Hendi's exploits were far sketchier, and Chris and Ben travel the world chasing waterfalls and unexplored rivers. The Lukuga was an unlikely place for any of them to die.

Hendri was taken by a crocodile on that river. Chris was just a few feet away and saw the split-second attack. Why didn't the croc take Chris? Or Ben? They will never know but will forever question: Why did I live? Why did Hendri die?

Just the previous evening, sitting cross-legged in a rainstorm while Chris and Ben huddled beneath a tarp, Hendri laughed and joked, bringing light to what could have been a miserable situation. Despite the downpour, their meagre dinner of a shared candy bar and a bit of dried fish, he was having the time of his life— another Best Day Ever. The next day he was gone.
 What could be more ironic than dying when you feel most alive?      From Living the Best Day Ever 
His memoir brings to life many of his incredible adventures, and he tells the stories with delicious detail, impressive descriptive power, humor and self deprecation. In most cases, he's aware that death is at his side, a subject he mentions time and again.

He wrote in one of numerous foreshadowings:
The lack of happy old people in my environment is a good indicator that this is an unsustainable lifestyle. Either I find something better, or I die on the river. Either way I have nothing to worry about. The worst possible scenario is that I don't let go when the time comes, that I live out my life by an empty well, depressed and chained to a dead passion."  From Living the Best Day Ever
I was asked to give the manuscript a quick edit. (It had been edited already and would undergo a more thorough treatment before publication.)

It was sent to me from Uganda via the Internet. I printed all 296 single-spaced PDF pages, sharpened my pencil and went to work. (The boxed manuscript traveled back to Africa with Chris a couple weeks later.)

Fascination and awe grew as Hendri's life unfolded. My eyes flew over the words, stopping now and again to correct a comma, substitute a word choice, or eliminate excess. I laughed out loud, (Yes LOL!! as they say on Facebook) teared up, shouted at Hendri, talked with him quietly, and marveled that a young man bent on apparent self destruction was also sensitive, compassionate, thoughtful, self deprecating, courageous, outrageous, damn smart and funny!

With his muscular physique and history of daring adventures, you might think he was macho in the worst sense. Not at all. In fact, he was full of self doubt, always questioning, always thinking—and always writing. He began his  Great White Explorer blog to chronicle what would be his final expedition. He was 35. His blog posts are part of the book.

Note: If you check out the blog, you'll find a piece written in August 2013 by his good friend Leyla Ahmet. Her piece is worth reading. To see Hendri's 11 posts, scroll down on the right to 2010 archives.

When our Chris is deep into an adventure, we are always hungry (desperate!) for news. When Hendri's blog came to light, I was thrilled to learn expedition details, terrifying as they often were. I was also amazed by his writing. He generated a flurry of words that he obviously didn't have time to labor over, let alone go through the torture of revising/rewriting. He was a natural. He wrote out of excitement and the need to tell his stories. As I worked through the manuscript, I was taken with his respect for African people, who somehow manage moments of joy in the midst of great poverty and pain. A couple of my favorite quotes:
 White people are not tough enough to be black
The Heart of Darkness is a label that will hang over the Congo for a long time. The cliché is turned on its head when you find out it is your own heart that leans in that direction. 
His ability to create a sense of place in the here-and-now and also in historical context is remarkable. I developed a desire to GO THERE and I am! (PK and I are soon headed to South Africa and Uganda.)

Fear,  disillusionment, death, good, evil, leadership, self-doubt, haves and have-nots, joy in the moment, guilt, implications of being white—all are themes that are woven throughout the book. All this is mixed with the adventure stories that wouldn't be unbelievable  if they were in a novel. Who would believe, for example, that cannibals are still operating deep in the Congo and that Hendri nearly succumbed to a group of them?

Extreme kayakers will relish the wave-by-hole accounts of class five and six rapids, and the trials of expedition leadership as well as unsupported solo explorations. The rest of us will enjoy those parts, but will be taken as well  by his insights and original thinking.

Why do I care? Because I care about the people who put their hearts and resources into getting it into print, and I care about Hendri, although I never met him. And I care about my son, Chris, who could have been crushed between a crocodile's jaws but wasn’t.

Chris escaped death, and because he loved and admired Hendri, he thought about conducting his life in a more conscious way that Hendri had demonstrated, specifically about accepting the troughs that occur between peak experiences, and learning to accept and even welcome the “flat water.” He wrote about Hendri’s  “best day ever” state of mind in a piece in Canoe and Kayak magazine.

Hendri's philosophy demands embracing the moment, whatever it brings.
Do I always do this? No. But I do think about it, and I do try. And I believe I have been elevated in some situations that otherwise would have been terribly dull or uncomfortable. Hendri’s memoir made me realize the role individuals can play in creating their own realities. 

He caused me to think and wonder. What more could one ask from a book? Or from a person, dead or alive?

 For how-to-pre-order info, keep reading. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Bomb! Zucchini, Potato, Tomato Gratin with Pesto

Does this look good or what?! And it is. Easy, too, except for making it look pretty.
I'm not claiming "low-carb" for this one. I am claiming that this recipe at least mitigates the evils of potato starch (AKA carbs) with loads of zucchini, tomatoes, cheese, and basil pesto. It is basically a potato gratin but with half the potatoes. Ok, ok, it is not virtuous at all carb-wise, but I need to adapt to the husband factor here. He grew an entire row of potatoes this year, recently harvested them, and we are now looking at several big burlap bags of spuds hanging in the somewhat-cool pump house. What's a girl to do? Short answer: use zucchinis with potatoes in roughly equal parts in every potato dish to calm the blood sugar surge perpetrated by potatoes, and, at the same time, please the potato man. And if anybody's counting, subbing zukes for spuds also lowers the calorie count. 

Idea! You could make this without potatoes. I bet it would taste just about as good.

Pesto Gratin with Potatoes, Zukes, and Tomatoes 

Choose potatoes, zukes and tomatoes that are of similar diameter when sliced whole. In my case, all were approximately three inches around, give or take. I used a food processor to slice the potatoes and zucchinis, reducing a 10-minute tedious exercise to a few seconds. I sliced the tomatoes by hand. Use a 9X13 inch casserole dish. Preheat oven to 375. The recipe below serves eight as a side dish. 
  • 3 potatoes, medium-sized, red or yellow, sliced. Russets not recommended.
  • 2-3 medium zucchinis, sliced
  • 2-3 medium tomatoes, sliced
  • 6-8 tablespoons basil pesto, preferably without cheese added (if you're using commercial pesto, don't worry about the cheese.)  See photo.
  • 1 medium onion cut in half and into slices
  • Italian cheese blend, about a cup, grated
  • salt and pepper to taste (I bet a dash of smoked salt would be great!)
  • a few sprigs of fresh basil, torn into pieces to add the last few minutes of baking 
Spread the pesto onto the bottom of your casserole dish. Stir in the raw onion.
As you can see, pesto covers the bottom but isn't thick. I used four pesto cubes. (To make pesto cubes, use your favorite pesto recipe but leave out the cheese. Freeze in ice cube trays, then transfer to plastic freezer bags. My inexact pesto-making method is below.)

Four pesto "cubes" (that's a cube from my freezer there in the middle).
Together they equal to five or six tablespoons of  pesto. 

The slices are more-or-less the same size. I used a food processor to
cut the zukes and potatoes. 
Overlap sliced vegetables as shown below, using about the same amount of potato slices as zucchini slices but fewer tomatoes. Salt and pepper as desired. Cover the casserole with foil and bake at 375 for 35 minutes. Remove from oven, take off the foil and bake for another 15 or 20 minutes, until most water has evaporated and the potatoes are soft. Cover with grated cheese and torn fresh basil and return to oven until the cheese is melted and slightly browned.
Layer the potatoes, zukes, and tomatoes as shown, I used red and golden potatoes.

The finished product......a crowd pleaser. 
Pesto cube directions below.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer Berries Crisp- Low Carb-ish

A berry "crisp" made with coconut flour and oats isn't crunchy but it is delicious. 

I'm calling this dessert, which is a popular potluck contribution, "low carb-ish" because it tends in the right direction but oatmeal pumps up the carb count. Still, with four to six cups of berries and zero real sugar, it is far more virtuous than fruit desserts made with flour and sugar. It tastes great, too, and is so easy to put together. Figure about 10 minutes assembling and 45 minutes in the oven.

I credit my sister, Monette Johnson, for coming up with this recipe 10 years ago when we both were acquiring the low-carb habit. She modified a recipe that started with a boxed yellow cake mix. Yuck! Commercial cake mixes, with processed ingredients and high sugar/flour content, are death to a low-carb effort or healthy eating in general. I've tweaked her recipe a bit further to use coconut flour rather than whole wheat or oat flours. Almond meal would work well, too. This is also a gluten-free dessert, provided you use the right oats. Turns out that Quaker, the most commonly available oatmeal, has traces of gluten-containing grains, which could send the truly gluten-sensitive bolting for the restroom.
Splenda, oats, butter, coconut flour, walnuts, cinnamon—that's about it for an easy topping.

Summer Berries Sensational Dessert

4-6 cups of berries, fresh or frozen. I tend toward six cups of strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and/or raspberries
3-ounce package sugar-free J-ello
1 cup water
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/4 cup coconut flour (other non-wheat flours also work)
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 stick butter, melted
3/4 cup Splenda, or other sugar substitute
1/4 cup chopped walnuts (or other nuts)
Strawberries and blueberries this time around. I also use raspberries and blackberries, or any combination of these four berries. We are still harvesting and freezing strawberries, and our first picking from our wild blackberry "fence" is in the freezer. More berry crisps are coming soon.


Preheat the oven to 350. Spread the berries in a 9X13-inch baking pan. Shake the J-ello powder on top, then drizzle with water. Mix gently.
Melt the butter, then mix in the oats, flour, Splenda or whatever you like for a sweetener, cinnamon, salt and walnuts.
Spread the mixture evenly atop the berries. Bake for 40-45 minutes. It's best served warm with plain half and half, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ratatouille with Sizzle

I trotted out to the garden late in the afternoon to pick a few veggies for dinner. Well, it turned out to be way more than "a few veggies." Did I forget it's August? The month of way too much produce for the ordinary person in her ordinary life? Stay away from the garden for a couple days and gremlins sneak in to inject plants with steroids. It's crazy! But wonderful.
Whew! The garden surprised me after a couple days away with about 20 times more than we can eat.
I'll give away most of those great English cucumbers (they're appreciated by residents at the assisted living place where my mom lives). I'll put on my apron and figure out the rest. 
Anybody up for eggplant? We planted just one variety this year, and it all ripened at the same time. How inconvenient!  The eggplants are at their peak—purple/black and glossy. They must be used soon. The fruits are too small, mostly, for eggplant Parmesan, which is my favorite. It's a good year for eggplant volume, but not so much for size. So it'll be ratatouille that makes its way into the freezer to remind us in the dead of winter that we had a glorious August harvest. Why is it so difficult to remember when it's cold. grey and wet that we had these bright warm days (even tho smoky) just a few months back?

Usually I make roasted ratatouille in big batches and freeze it. Today I didn't mean to harvest all this stuff, but since I had so much, and it was so perfectly fresh and beautiful, I decided to revert to my earlier approach to ratatouille—frying—and make enough for one dinner for two. Let me tell you, it hardly made a dent in the volume of just-picked produce. I'll rally tomorrow or the next day to do the big ratatouille roasting operation. (Roasted ratatouille recipe coming soon.)

In the meantime, I remember how much work it is to do fried as opposed to roasted. With small amounts, however, it isn't that big of a deal. I added a couple new elements: jalapeno peppers and smoked salt. I gotta say, yummers! Here's how to make fried ratatouille with a peppery twist.

Ratatouille with Sizzle

Ingredients (for 2 or 3 people)
  • 2 small to medium zucchini, yellow, green, or striped
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 jalapeno peppers (optional)
  • 1 sweet red pepper
  • 2 cups roughly chopped fresh tomatoes 
  • smoked salt to taste (I used Trader Joe's South African Seasoning Blend)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (important!)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 2-6 tablespoons olive oil (huge disparity, I know. Stick with me.)
  • salt and pepper to taste


Make life easier and use two non-stick fry pans. Cut the zukes into about one-inch sized pieces. The eggplant may be sliced into slightly larger uniform-sized pieces. Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Mince the jalapeno and slice the sweet pepper into uniform chunks. Get it all ready before starting.

Stir fry the zukes in 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. At the same time, stir fry the eggplant in a separate pan. Eggplant tends to eat oil, so I start with 2 tablespoons and when the pan gets dry and the eggplant threatens to burn, I add a little water. It boils away and the eggplant is just fine. Combine the eggplant and zukes and set aside.
The eggplant and zukes are in the smaller pan. The onions, peppers and garlic are in the larger pan, where all ingredients will converge in the end. 
In the larger pan, saute the garlic and onion for a few minutes in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the peppers and stir fry for a couple more minutes. Dump the zukes and eggplant into the onion/pepper/garlic/rosemary mix and turn off the heat. Rosemary is a big deal for this recipe. Nothing else will do the trick.
Zukes, eggplant, onion, garlic, peppers stir fried and combined. 
Put the cut-up tomatoes into the now-vacant frying pan. Cook over medium-high heat until the tomatoes are soft and the moisture is steaming away. Add the chopped rosemary and a little table salt.
Tomatoes are beginning to sweat and reduce.
Cook until about half the tomato juice has evaporated and then add to the rest of the ingredients. Turn the heat to medium high. If you're using smoked salt, add it now and be careful—it can overpower, especially the African blend that includes other spices.  Add the chopped basil at the last minute.
The finished ratatouille took about 35-40 minutes to prepare, not counting the time required to grow and harvest the ingredients. It is served with simple cucumber onion salad, Trader Joe's hot Italian sausage, grilled, and the ubiquitous (at our house) chipotle and creamy garlic dill sauces. 
The garden also provides food for the soul. I didn't get any bird pictures, but from my harvesting position I admired swarming swooping chattering avians plus other garden beauties.

Bird-planted sunflowers with lots of bees. 
Lovely cosmos, which self seeds all over the place.

Yellow zinnias with a fig "tree" behind.

Fifteen-feet tall sunflowers. I'm not kidding. 

Impressive weightlifting, if I do say so myself. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Oregon Coast Getaway with Four Wheel Camper

This is what you don't want to see when you visit the Oregon coast—a band of
thick fog sitting on Highway 101. It bodes ill.
Because when you see that fog bank ahead, here's what the
usually stunning scenery looks like. 
PK and I are always ready to charge off in our little Four Wheel pop-up camper, if even for a few days. Since the Four Wheel is the self-proclaimed "only true off-road camper," and we chose it so we could go places people driving boxcar-sized RV units can't, we usually shun massive campgrounds and opt for Forest Service camps, or we tuck into undeveloped pull-outs, cliff overhangs and shorelines. We weren't entirely successful in crowd avoidance during our recent two-night trek to Oregon's southern coast, however. More on that below.

When we left for the coast a couple weeks ago, we were fleeing the heat. We'd endured triple-digit temps alternating with high-nineties for what seemed like forever, but was really only most of July.  (Now we're living in smoke from numerous forest fires. See previous post if you like depressing stuff.)
This beach is in Northern California just a few miles from the Oregon border. We considered camping in the deserted nearby parking area in the spirit of our dear little camper, but dang, it was chilly, windy, and smelled of rotting fish. Also, fog was rolling in. Sometimes we have to practice tough love with the camper.

The Southern Oregon/Northern California coast is famously cool when the inland valleys are roasting. We left the ranch sweltering in 100+ temps and two hours later were shivering on the beach (alone, of course) with stiff winds challenging the worthiness of our wind jackets. We wanted out of the valley heat, but not in to coastal chill, wind, and fog.

 We ended up about 12 miles inland on the Chetco River just outside of Brookings, Oregon, completely out of the fog and into perfect weather. This is a Forest Service camping area, but without formal sites. There may have been as many as 50 people around, but we couldn't hear them.
We couldn't see them, either. We like this. (It looks like PK is
staring at the trees, but the Chetco River is the blackness beneath the trees.)
We weren't offended when a sweet little family used the swimming hole in front of our camp. 
Camping is a "special occasion" offering an excuse for drinking wine. I don't need much of an excuse, of course, but there are worse things. The slanted light did wonders for our plastic glasses. 

Easy dinner, mostly from the garden. Simple cucumber salad,
fried spuds with zucchini, onions, chard and basil, and Trader Joe's
hot Italian sausage.  
Next day we were ready for another go at the coast, but alas, the fog persisted and, for the most part, hid the Oregon coast's spectacular beauty.

This was the view from atop Cape Sebastian, which is usually mind-blowing. 
We stopped for lunch at the picturesque Griff's restaurant on the dock at Port Orford, having read positive reviews on Yelp! PK gave thumbs up to his fish and chips. My crab Louis ($17!!) was dinner-salad sized, came with a packet of Ritz crackers (!!) and left me hungry and crabby (hahaha). 

Here we are at the second-night camp, cheek to jowl with cold grumpy campers on both sides, at Bullard's Beach State Park. Oregon has a great state parks system, but our camper does not like super developed and crowded campgrounds.Bullard's Beach has more than 300 sites plus a bunch of yurts and an equestrian camp. Sites are neatly divided by vegetation, but it didn't work for us. 

The indignities! The Four Wheel camper (she needs a name!) gets embarrassed when out of her element. We can get by without power and water hook-ups for several days, but we use them when available, especially when we've paid for them. The white bucket catches sink water. Having campers directly across the way and on either side is, well, just not fun.
PK on the last steps of a mile+ trail from camp to the beach. 
Another beach to ourselves! At least 600 people, probably more like 1,000, were in the campground, but truthfully, this beautiful beach wasn't that inviting and I don't blame them for sticking close to their RVs. The temperature differential between camp and the beach was probably 20+ degrees, so people we saw along the trail were mostly underdressed. A tee shirt is not going to do the trick here. That's grey fog blowing in on a stiff ocean breeze. Sand is skittering across the beach, and I guess we gave it five minutes. Or less. The Oregon coast isn't like California with nearly naked people frolicking in the surf (Here you could die! And you would most assuredly need a wetsuit.) The Oregon coast in July .... unknown to tourists who have not visited during summer months.... is often chilly, windy, and foggy. My sister came all the way from Minnesota one summer, traveled the Oregon coastline from north to south, and didn't see the ocean for more than a few minutes. Best time to visit? Late August and September. Then you can get by with shorts and tee shirts and the Oregon coast will blow your mind and make your eyes and your heart ache at the beauty of it all.