We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.
~Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Such fallible creatures we are, so driven to ignore precedent and repeat our errors. We live forwardly but stubbornly fail to capture retrospect for a greater comprehension of the present. It just seems that grand blunders and miscues tend to abound during times of human conflict as well. Which brings us to the otherwise pastoral Ardennes forest, a land of human flaws, trials and tragedies.

A sparsely populated region, the Ardennes form part of la diagonale du vide (the diagonal of emptiness) a vast swath of land running from the French-Belgian border in the northeast to the Pyrénées in the southwest. Perched on a chalk plateau, the Ardennes are typified by steep valleys carved by swift rivers–the Seine, the Marne, the Asne, and the most prominent, the northward flowing Meuse. A bucolic region of dense verdant forests, rolling hills, deep valleys, ravines and ridges, the Ardennes are located primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg, but they also stretch into northern France.

The Ardennes were thought impenetrable by France’s top brass…unsuitable for grand military operations due to the redoubtable forest, challenging terrain, narrow and winding roads and frequently fragmented communications. Yet, the same Ardennes were the site of several military clashes rife with error.

August, 1914
The Battle of the Ardennes was a brutal conflict fought between German, French and British forces on the Western Front near the outset of World War I. One conflict was centered in the Ardennes forest and the other further north, at the village of Charleroi. The battle was provoked when outnumbered, brightly adorned French troops stumbled into German forces in thick fog in the lower Ardennes.

The French were to be reinforced on the battlefield by the British Expeditionary Force. But, an unexpected delay coupled with poor relations and communications between French and British commanders, caused the British to instead engage elsewhere in the Battle of the Mons while the French continued to fight alone. The combat was ferocious. “If you go into the death trap of the Ardennes, you will never come out,” lamented a French officer. In a single day of battle, some 27,000 French soldiers perished.

At Charleroi, with roads swollen with Belgian refugees, the French army began collapsing along their lines. His army pushed to its limits, the French general Charles Lanrezac ordered a full retreat without having consulted French headquarters. The scale of the French defeat was notable and losses were devastating. Though the command did not denounce Lanrezac’s decision thus tacitly authorizing it, he was later made a scapegoat for the failure of France’s offensive strategy during the Battle of the Ardennes. Many historians suspect this reprimand was likely due to his openly harsh criticism of his superiors’ shoddy field tactics.

The Maginot Line
France had suffered withering losses of life, limb and property in the Great War.
To deter future invasions from Germany, after World War I the French constructed a system of seemingly impregnable underground defensive positions. This almost surreal series of linked forts, vaults and domed turrets meant to protect the eastern frontier was called la Ligne Maginot. The forts were elaborate underground wonders that housed a half million French troops with protected fortresses, casements, electric trains, kitchens, bakeries, cinemas, air conditioning and the like. But they did not stretch the length of the border, stopping well short of the sea. Notably, the Ardennes was left virtually defenseless, manned only by a few poorly trained and weakly equipped divisions. While the French had earlier pioneered the use of armor and aviation in warfare, French military strategy had become shortsighted and devoted to the now obsolete static trench tactics of WW I. Few efforts were made to protect the homeland from concentrated armor, troop or air advances. Their armies had simply become anachronistic.

May, 1940
Europe had been at war some nine months. The armies of Britain and France, despite having declared war on Germany following Hitler’s attack on Poland, had seen little combat. This tense period, which came to be known as the “Phoney War,” met an abrupt end in early May, 1940, when Germany launched an invasion of France and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Even though reports had earlier poured into the French command that the Wermacht had been amassing troops and equipment just across the border of the Ardennes, they fell on deaf ears.

German armored units crossed the river Meuse and streamed through the Ardennes. They cut off and surrounded Allied units that had advanced into Belgium and The Netherlands. French divisions in the Ardennes were not prepared or equipped to deal with the major armored thrust and were incessantly hammered by the Luftwaffe’s air cover. German forces also outflanked the Maginot Line and advanced deeply across France. By the third week in June, German forces had reached the English Channel.

So, the vaunted Maginot Line was summarily defeated not by a frontal assault but by a massive German flanking maneuver by way of the so-called “impervious” and marginally defended Ardennes. The collapse of the French nation soon ensued.

The panicked French government fled to Bordeaux, refugees streamed out of Paris and the city was occupied. The recently appointed chief of state, Philippe Pétain publicly announced France would request an armistice with Germany. The armistice was signed in Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s same railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest used for the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Pétain would soon become head of the French collaborationist government at Vichy, and after French liberation was brought to trial and condemned to death. His sentence was commuted to solitary confinement for life, and he was imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died.

December, 1944 – January, 1945
As winter chilled across France, the Battle of the Bulge (aka the Ardennes Offensive or Von Rundstedt Offensive) took place near the close of World War II. Allied forces had rapidly advanced across France which led to a certain sense of complacency. They dicounted any chances that the Germans would seize the initiative to counterpunch and had forgotten those lessons of the 1940 blitzkreig through the Ardennes. So, those same impassable forests were left scantily clad again.

On the German end, the Luftwaffe had been effectively grounded, leaving little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. Hitler unrealistically assumed his armies may be able to defend Germany if they could neutralize and divide the Allies. Senior German military officers doubted whether these goals could be attained with this counter-offensive. Their concerns went unheeded by an irrational Führer who desperately wanted to stage a repeat of the 1940 campaign which preceded France’s sudden fall.

So, hidden from air surveillance, a formidable Nazi force assembled in the narrow, mist-shrouded valleys and thick forests of the German Eifel hills on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. There were glaring drawbacks facing them: a somewhat depleted, often elderly reserve troop force and a dramatic shortage of fuel. The Germans planned to remedy the latter by capturing American fuel depots as they advanced.

The attack proceeded apace at night in mid December 1944, along a 70-mile front of the Ardennes. Tactical surprise against this weakly defended sector was achieved during heavy overcast weather, which impeded the Allies’ superior air forces. The cloudy night skies of the dark forest were illuminated by German searchlights, flares, tracers, and the bursts of artillery fire. The noise of artillery shells, tanks and small arms fire was deafening. German fired artillery volleys at the trees which not only dropped molten metal on soldiers, but also sent large wooden splinters and treetops downwards. At first, there was nearly blind panic behind the American lines. Mayhem. Scattered bands of troops wandered about frigid, wintry forests, digging foxholes, and randomly skirmishing with any Germans they encountered. The combat was chaotic, confused and fierce in cold, snowy conditions. A bulge emerged and deepened into the Allied lines.

Dogged resistance though — particularly around Elsenborn Ridge and the pivotal towns of Bastogne and St. Vith — threw the Germans well behind schedule and denied them vital roadways. Many exhausted, young Americans displayed resolute heroism through numerous firefights while almost devoid of food, supplies and ammunition. The 101st Airborne Division, surrounded and besieged in Bastogne, was holding the town precariously. Lacking fuel though, the advancing German armored divisions finally came to a halt in the Ardennes before even reaching the river Meuse and then (when air spaces cleared) were constantly hampered by merciless air attacks. The Allies finally went on the offensive closing the last escape routes and securing victory.

The Battle of the Bulge inflicted horrendous casualties on both sides (some 185,000). In the wake of defeat, German units were left severely depleted as survivors retreated to their final death dance along the Siegfried Line. Shortly after Hitler’s suicide, Germany signed terms of an unconditional surrender.

February, 2012
The Champagne-Ardennes is a part of champagne land–that luscious, nutty, fruity, floral, ample, bright, elegant, flinty, musty, oakey, structured, toasty, woody, yeasty, and supple bubbly we so covet.

Located in France’s northeast, the Champagne-Ardennes is comprised of the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haute-Marne. However, the “region” designated for the production of Champagne, also includes parts of the adjoining départements of Yonne, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne and Meuse. The old French province of Champagne roughly comprised this same area.

An amalgam of art and science, méthode champenoise champagnes are tediously crafted from the cuvées of selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Pure varietals such as Chardonnay (blanc de blanc), Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (blanc de noirs) are created exclusively from those grapes. The slight reddish tint imparted to some champagnes results from using blanc de noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker the red.

Next, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire elixir, called the tirage, is poured into a thick glass bottle and sealed with a secure crown cap. The tirage is placed in a cool cellar and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, producing that cherished effervescence…those “stars” that the monk Dom Pérignon captured and savored centuries ago.

After several months, yeast cells die and the fermentation process is completed. The champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in those toasted yeasty traits. While aging here, the yeast cells split open and spill into the wine which imparts these complex aromas and flavors.

Then, in a laborious process, the dead yeast cells (lees) are removed through a process known as riddling (le remuage). The bottle is placed partially upside down in a rack at a 75° angle. Each day, the riddler turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while maintaining its downward angled postion. This forces the dead yeast cells into the narrow neck of the bottle where they are finally removed via disgorging. The bottle is kept angled downward while the neck is frozen in a bath which forms a plug of frozen wine containing those dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is removed and the carbon dioxide pressure forces the frozen plug out leaving behind champagne. At this stage, un dosage of white wine, brandy, and sugar is added to adjust sweetness levels. The bottle is meticulously closed with the cork wired down to secure the internal pressure of the carbon dioxide.

Not surprisingly, the dense Ardennes forest is also magically teeming with champignons (mushrooms) — chanterelles, boletes, morels, hens of the woods (Coquilles En Bouquet, Pieds De Griffon, Polypores)…

MUSHROOM-GRUYERE TOASTS & FRISEE WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

Wild Mushroom-Gruyère Toasts

3 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 3/4 lbs mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, cèpes, morels, oysters), gently cleaned and cut into halves or thirds depending on size
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C fresh thyme leaves, stemmed and chopped
1/4 C fresh chives, chopped
Pince of sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 C Gruyère, shredded
Fresh quality artisanal bread, cut into 4″ squares, crusts removed

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high until the oil is shimmering. The butter should turn just a light golden hue, but not burn. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the liquid has evaporated, about 5-6 minutes. Add the shallots, thyme, chives, salt and pepper and cook about 1 minute more.

Meanwhile, toast the slices of bread strewn with some Gruyère in a broiler. Cook on one side some, then turn over and toast very little before adding the Gruyère. Please resist the temptation to overload the bread with cheese. The mushrooms are the star attraction, the rest play bit roles.

Spoon the mushroom mixture on top of the toasts and serve with the frisée salad.

Frisée & Champagne Vinaigrette

1-2 heads frisée, torn into large bite size pieces

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with the frisée.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss greens with champagne vinaigrette.

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Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.
~Mark Twain

Decision fatigue. That mental chisel which chips away at rational choice. The brain strain that afflicts both rich and poor, those slogging through work’s quagmire, agonizing at the mall or mired down at home. Different from what is typically perceived as physical fatigue, it takes an insidious toll on the brain. Researchers have noted that over time it depletes the mind’s energy, leading to erratic choices and dubious decisions. Faced with navigating a ceaseless influx of decisions upon decisions, many look for shortcuts and some begin to act impulsively while others resist change and do little. Even the mere act of resolving potential tradeoffs may prove cerebrally exhausting. Innovation and creativity often lag. Willpower wanes. Choosing threads, wheels, colors, fabrics, channels, deals, gadgets, abodes, mates and more…all can foster tired, vulnerable minds which is the paralytic price paid for our dizzying overabundance of options. Well, with the exception of partners which usually presents either arid or florid choices.

The human brain is a remarkably pliant organ, but it is not without limits. Much like a muscle, when it becomes depleted, the brain loses efficiency. But, unlike other body parts, the brain usually fails to appreciate when an onslaught of decisions renders it fatigued. As with depression and other mental disorders, the very organ that is supposed to protect against harm is the same organ which is disabled. The often unrecognized tired mind struggles to ascertain what to retain and what to disregard, often failing at both, and then rueful choices follow.

Decision fatigue even plagues home cooks pondering a simple meal. Such an array of options. What sounds most appealing? What to buy or what is even available at the markets? Should the meal be lavish or frugal? Are there compromises to consider? What app(s), entrée and sides should be served? What types of prep are most apt given the basic menu and timing issues? Whose palate must be placated? How should the meal be plated? Should any of the meal be served in courses or at once? What should be served to drink? Which wines pair better? Shall there be dessert, and if so, what? How should the table be set and the meal presented? What otherwise seems a banal task of serving food can be rife with uncertainty and tiresome indecision. Perhaps this is why many have a short list of favored meals.

Acute and chronic stress levels are reaching blight proportions. Not only does prolonged stress raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, increase the risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, it makes you one unpalatable mate. Researchers have even learned that chronic stressors can rewire the brain in ways that promote its presence. These sinister changes in the neural circuitry affect the regions of the brain associated with decisions and behavior. You tend to fall back on rote routine and eventually settle into bad habits. Executive decision-making skills are hampered.

Fortunately, stress induced changes to the brain are reversible, and pharmaceuticals are often not the answer. Solace can be found in the kitchen. Once embraced, cooking offers a change of pace and venue, soothing the angst and perturbations of the daily rut. Jangled nerves can be soothed. On a most basic level, it provides a creative outlet where raw, solitary ingredients are transformed into an amalgamation of scents, flavors, textures and hues. While stress numbs the senses, cooking activivates them. The cooking process has an almost measured field of action, a mission with a defined goal, and a finish with sensuous contentment.

Below is an embarassingly easy salad, soup, and sandwich trio to add to your decision tree. Relax, unwind, create and then savor. To narrow the matrices for the indecisive, the core ingredients remain fairly constant—fennel and fungi fervor with bright, fragrant tones of anise, sometimes citrus, and an underlying earthiness.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SALAD WTH CITRUS-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 C fine champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 C extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Parmigiano reggiano, thinly sliced into curls

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, orange zest, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream until it emulsifies. Set aside.

Cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb so as to remove the fingers. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a knife.

Slice the bulb very thinly into rings. Add mushroom slices and gently toss with a light coating of the champagne-orange vinaigrette. Sparsely finish with a few parmigiano reggiano curls.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SOUP

4 T unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and chopped
1 t fennel seeds, toasted and ground
8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed

4 C mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/2 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter until hot and foaming, but not browning. Add the fennel and toasted fennel seeds, then sauté over moderate until just softened, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushrooms, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, turn to high until it just reaches a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Pour into a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée in pulses until smooth.

Pour the puréed soup into a large heavy saucepan, add the cream, and gently reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking. Ladle into shallow soup bowls and strew with tarragon ribbons.

FENNEL, MUSHROOM & PROSCUITTO PANINI

1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and thinly sliced, almost shaved
4 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 oz proscuitto, very thinly sliced
4 oz taleggio or fontina cheese, sliced

Artisan bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill sparingly with fennel, mushrooms, proscuitto and top with some taleggio. The bread should be the star.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight(s) on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. It should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing cheese.

Pourboire: foods known to reduce stress include asparagus, avocado, berries, beef, cottage cheese, fish, milk, nuts, oranges, pasta, rice, whole grain breakfast cereals and breads, raw vegetables, cooked spinach, tea, and dark chocolate. Some foods are chocked with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B-6 and B-12 while others increase magnesium, folic acid, calcium and serotonin levels. These foods also counteract cortisol & epinephrine, the so-called “stress hormones” secreted by the adrenal glands.

Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
~Gen. William C. Westmoreland

Vietnamese cuisine can be so simple in its essence, yet almost obsessively numinous.

Native to India, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a genus of numerous species of citrus flavored, tall perennial grasses. A ubiquitous herb in Asia, it is commonly used in south Indian, Vietnamese and Thai regional fare…and this makes little mention of Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, et al. As a general rule, wherever radiant and aromatic tropical/equatorial fare is found so is lemon grass.

Rich in citral which is the active ingredient in lemon peel, fresh lemon grass is much preferred for its vibrant flavor over the dried variety. Lemon grass is deceptively pungent and should be added with care to enhance its lemon frangrance along with those subtle inflorescences of ginger and rose. The entire stalk can be put to use. So, the green blade can be sliced very finely and added to soups, and the fragrant bulbous portion can be bruised and/or minced. Bruising releases the lemon grass essences much as you would with smashed garlic. Firmly press down on the bulb end of the lemon grass with the broad side of a chef’s knife or pound lightly with a mallet. In this lemon grass chicken version, the fibrous outer membrane of the bulb is lubriciously peeled away to reveal the soft inner skin which is then bruised and minced.

LEMON GRASS CHICKEN (Sả Thịt Gà)

3 T nước mắm Phú Quốc* (fish sauce)
1 T nước măn chay pha sản (chilied soy sauce)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 T honey
1 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces

3 T raw cane sugar
1/4 C water
1 1/2 T chicken stock

3 T peanut or canola oil
3 fresh stalks of lemon grass, tender white inner bulb only, bruised minced
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
3 Thai chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely minced

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, for garnish
Chopped, roasted peanuts, for garnish

In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, chilied soy sauce, garlic, and honey. Then, add the chicken and stir to coat well.

In a small skillet, mix sugar with the water and cook over medium high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Cook, without stirring, until a deep amber caramel forms. Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken stock. Transfer to a bowl.

Heat wok over high heat, add peanut oil and heat until shimmering but not smoking. Add the lemon grass, shallot, garlic and chiles and stir fry until fragrant. Add the chicken and darkened sugar mixture and sauté until chicken is cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened.

Transfer to a bowl and serve with steamed jasmine or white rice. Top with chopped cilantro and peanuts.

*Pourboire: both nước mắm Phú Quốc and nước măn chay pha sản are available at asian markets. Phú Quốc is an idyllic island off southwestern Vietnam mainland, resplendent with verdant interior jungles, squeaky white sand and cobalt seas. The island is also famed for nước mắm which is crafted from a particular anchovy there. On the bottle, look for the words nước mắm nhi which signifies that it is crafted from the first extraction, not unlike the first pressing of extra virgin olive oil.