Friday, February 5, 2010
Monday, September 28, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Well, way to break my word. “A slew of posts.” Yes, the Walla Walla harvest has been intoxicating, and yes, I’ve been swimming in all kinds of music. Ironically, such inspiration leaves little time for writing.
But between watching the Tudors and passing out in my bed, I must share with you what is my quintessential fall.
August, of course, is characterized by the smell of blackberries under a crusty, creamy biscuit baking in the oven; the heat of the day cooled by that sinful scoop of ice-cream atop the blackish purple cobbler. It has a taste unlike anything, and a fleeting mystique, due to the miniscule season of the ripe blackberry, that rivals anything.
But September – this is when the comforts of the oven are substantially less glamorous. What does the apple hold to the blackberry? It’s large, a patchwork of colors, obnoxious, overly available, tempermental (those bruises are the baine of my existence); the blackberry is delicate, small, the color of royalty, and around only for the sweet last days of Indian summer.
Yet even the glamour of the blackberry cobbler cannot rival the pleasure of my mother’s apple crisp.
It tastes like coming home from school, staying up late when I should be doing my new homework assignments (which I’m still excited for, being at the beginning of the year), thrilled by the prospects of new crushes on new boys in my classes, finally wearing those cozy, outspoken fall fashion ensembles, finally, finally, it’s cold enough to be my favorite season.
The one thing that my mom always found time to bake – and the one thing she unconditionally loved to cook. Even during the last few months of her cancer, in 2008, I remember her sitting there when I was home for fall break, slicing away at the apples, saying, “I may have cancer, I may have chemo brain but God damnit I’m making apple crisp!” And she made it, perfect as ever. Still adamant about “NO OATS” in the crisp part, and equally adamant about the use of ONLY Jonathan apples. Not Jonagold. Just Jonathan. And it tasted like home, like childhood, like new books, like fall, like love.
So, of course, Margaux (my roommate and, essentially, wife) and I stocked up on apples at the Saturday farmers market. Between writing theses and outlines for seminars and reading about elasticity in market economies, we found time to make my mommy’s crisp.
To have a taste of home in my tiny carpeted kitchen is the ultimate comfort.
Pour toi, maman!
5 Jonathan apples, or 2 large Honeycrisp and 2 golden delicious
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
For the Filling:
Mix all the ingredients together. Place into generously buttered 9 by 13 baking pan.
Mix the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in large bowl. Blend the butter into the mixture until it forms pea size lumps. Sprinkle over filling.
Bake crisp for 35 to 40 minutes, or until bubbling and browned. Cool 10 minutes before serving.
A scoop of ice cream is ESSENTIAL.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Be prepared for a slew of posts – it’s fall, and I’m in Walla Walla. Which means several things:
1. The farmer’s market harvest is. Absolutely. In. Sane. A foodie’s paradise, really. Every fruit or vegetable you yearn for in it’s peak of freshness in the winter, it’s here.
2. I’m starting my last year of college, which means I’ll be going ballistic with musical information. Classes, recitals, my senior thesis, research, and just the overall proximity to the music library means that my social life goes out the door and I (willingly) move into the 17th-20th centuries for a few months.
3. My roommates and I have cancelled cable. Without Bravo and the Food Network, I’m all yours.
4. The natural beauty of Indian Summer and fall here is unbelievable. Inspiration!!
I’ve already got several ideas for recipes and musical counterparts – earl gray brownies and Debussy, for one, but I can’t post that yet because while I’m sure the recipe I’ve developed would work fabulously, I haven’t had the opportunity to try it. It’s between 90 and 100 here every day and I have no air conditioning. So the last thing I’m going to do is toil away in my tiny kitchen with a 400 degree oven in the background. No thanks.
Which leads to the theme of this post – delicious food you don’t have to cook!!
Yesterday I enjoyed a lovely morning to myself going to the farmers market and picking up whatever looked good, and brainstorming all day how I might utilize these fresh flavors. Outside, it was warm, but cloudy and misty; I had Dvorak’s American String quartet playing on my ipod, which is astoundingly congruent with a misty Walla Walla morning. I picked up some kohlrabi, which I need to think a little bit more about; some beautiful baby eggplant, hoards of summer squash, nectarines, pears, arugula (when arugula is in season, there is a level of bliss in my life that has no parallel), cucumbers, and a beautiful melon. Not to mention a loaf of peasant bread that has finally matched the richness of bread in northern Europe.
Because I just got back and have therefore an empty pantry, I had to go to the regular grocery store, which, when you’re new and developing a budget (and have limited funds at that), can prove rather trying. How am I going to live my lifestyle and not completely break the bank? So I decided that, with this beautiful produce plus a little expensive cheese, good olive oil, sea salt, organic eggs, and roasted chicken, you can go a long way.
This is how I used my bounty last night – a very simple preparation. I was really excited about using raw summer squash – I don’t think people give it enough credit, it has a creamy, sweet texture that takes well to good salt.
Fresh harvest salad
(Serves 1 – easily doubled!)
½ large summer squash
Handful of arugula
1 oz. good quality blue cheese
Hawaiian sea salt (or any good coarse salt)
Good quality extra virgin olive oil
Julienne the cucmber and the squash, or dice finely if you are challenged like I am. Slice the nectarine in generous chunks. Toss together and generously sprinkle with sea salt and olive oil, then splash some balsamic vinegar on top. Crumble the blue cheese over the salad.
Serve with jambon cru, a little sliced prosciutto, or roasted chicken.
And for your next farmer’s market trip – listen to this! Dvorak string quartet in F major (American). Rhythmic and folky, accessible, but pleasurable and interesting.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
It was misty; it may have been early afternoon, or early morning, or even dusk. Lake Annecy looked like a massive sapphire inset in a necklace of platinum hills, and even at age 7 I was moved.
I remember we walked into a monastery. There was some sort of sacred chant coming from somewhere. Odd, because we were seemingly the only people. In fact, maybe I imagined it. But I think I cried a little bit. Sometimes I think my sensitivity to certain sounds borders on a disability; and that was one of many moments in my life when music became God, and I couldn’t speak. Mom asked me something, and I just shook my head. Everything but the sound dissipated.
Heavy stuff for a little kid. I’ve always been weird like that.
So maybe that little event is the root of my developing life passion – early music. Sound before time, I say – that is, essentially, the sounds before Bach. The past two weeks, ending last Saturday, I was in an early opera workshop at the Seattle Academy of Opera, directed by Stephen Stubbs. From August 13-22 we rehearsed, coached, and staged a program of opera scenes from the 17th century, most from Italy, but one (massive) French work and one (hilarious) British work.
“Early opera?” You say. “What?”
Essentially, opera before functional harmony and counterpoint became codified in the early 18th century.
“Of course!” You say.
Let’s just say that, when you think of classical music, you probably think of stuffy, structured, heavily intellectual music from which entertainment is not a goal but a by-product reserved for those “in the know”. While I don’t think this has to be the case at all with music written post-Bach, it doesn’t help that the work of the latter, Mozart, and everyone up until Debussy (who threw a bitch-fit about it at the Paris Conservatoire) was created with hoards of texts and rules and treatises in mind – most of which were written after the composition of the opera scenes we worked on this month. Not that there weren't any guidelines to writing this early music - but the obsession with form, harmony and counterpoint that characterizes the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods was not at it's viral peak.
So I’ve been thinking, as a highly intellectual composer myself and major adherent to organized sound – is it really necessary to set these compositional rules in stone? Aren’t these rules just vocalized versions of what is inherent? So why bother making a big deal out of them, and take cues from Monteverdi and, more or less, let it happen? I’m not sure. I don’t, by any means, believe that beauty, entertainment, and intellect are mutually exclusive – after all, Bach and Mozart are two of my Gods - but there is something about this 17th century music that is raw, real, and relevant. Honestly, I think music of 1600 has more in common with music of 2000 than it does with anything written between 1700 and 1899. Whether this is “better”, I don’t know, but based on the thoughts of non-musicians that responded to my performance on Saturday, there is something so natural, expressive, and accessible about early music.
So all of us involved in this sound-before-time world are set on bringing it to the masses – and helping everyone discover that there really isn’t much difference between Bob Dylan rocking out on his guitar and Barbara Strozzi strumming the hell out of her lute.
I should point out that I am not a musicologist - I am a theorist. My place is not to explain the "why" - the historical and social background of musical advancements - but the "how" - the cut-and-dry mathematics of why things sound the way they do. I sit down with a score and do an analysis of the elements that are present, not necessarily the factors that made them be (although, of course, there is much overlap). In such a way, I am fascinated with the inherent similarities and differences of pre-rule and post-rule harmony. Amazing that the harmonies can be so similar, but the ways of expressing them, so different.
Someday, maybe as a doctoral thesis, I want to explore why it is that post-Wagner, composers wanted to explore pre-Rameau. And consequently, why compositions of these respective periods are theoretically so similar. What is natural to our ears? Did the rules help or hinder? Because they broke for a reason, right?
Maybe people aren’t meant to follow rules. They never seem to last.
Just some food for thought.
Here’s a piece by Charpentier that I’ve completely fallen for. Harmonically very simple, and certainly it wouldn't sound outlandish to Bach or Mozart, but there is something about the leisurely approach that is very intriguing. The ground bass doesn't really change; its like a beautiful flower pot out of which the voices are required to do nothing but express.
Let it take you to that misty French lake and that dark monastery.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I had always been upset with my displeasure for the taste of fresh figs, thinking that, how can I be a true queen of all things sensuous if I cannot indulge willingly in eating the most historically provocative fruit? I mean, figs: they are contoured to a woman’s cures, and the inside is so seedy, so fleshy, that one cannot help but feel as if they’ve committed a cardinal sin in biting into it. The firm flesh, the seductively silky interior. It’s a shockingly erotic combination.
So, being a fiend for beauty and all of its sinful little minions, I could never reconcile the distaste I had for this fruit with the image I had of eating them. The only fresh figs I had had were sour, rank, flavorless, industrial, plastic. Not like how they look. The ultimate deception. A book with a beautiful cover and a crappy story.
But, yesterday, I saw a beautiful flat of fresh figs at the natural market nearby in Fremont and decided I would jump in, head first. Make myself love them. How could I not? They represent everything I advocate: late, wine-soaked lunches on sultry Meditteranean avenues, ancient Provencal men complete with newsboy caps and baguetted bicycle baskets, the fruit dangling like a jewel from a tree that provides the most sensuous shade. A fruit with a Franco-Italian accent: an available exoticism.
Toting my box of figs home, I examined them, my new project (next to fully understanding species counterpoint , orchestration, and expanding my symphonic knowledge). An image flashed of last summer, on the Amalfi coast in Italy, of gigantic green figs with magenta organs being devoured by some singer friends of mine on the cobblestone street. Those probably taste like what figs should taste like, I told myself, and vowed to go to the market the next day to buy them; but they were gone, elusive, fleeting, like a mirage of the perfect romance. The one that got away.
That was my fig. You can see how loaded this subject is for me.
When I got home, I selected the plumpest, most inviting of the figs, closed my eyes (and then opened them, wanting to see the pretty magenta), and brought the fig to my lips.
And it was everything I had ever imagined it would be. Sweet, like lavender honey, with a slight crunch of the seeds, a crispness, and a sour tautness of the skin that came together like all the elements of a Ravel orchestration.
You can imagine my euphoria at realizing that the only figs I had previously were bad figs – that was the deception! Which, much to my delight, was completely concurrent with my fig fantasy. How romantic. The fruit that, completely mysteriously, not linked to look, smell, or feel, can either send you to the sky with pleasure, or make you burn with anger. This was my kind of fruit.
As of now, I am enjoying these figs raw, unadultered, just as they are, considering I am without kitchen for the next week. And who knows how long the season of sensuous figs lasts – quite short, I would imagine, so perhaps its best to just enjoy them in their naked beauty, with a bit of fresh goat or sheep cheese just to make it extra special. Throw on a little balsamic reduction, a barefoot picnic, and a glowing afternoon sun and you have the exact situation in which I hope to live the rest of my life.
But, since I can’t cheat you out of a recipe, here’s one I developed a while ago. It uses dry figs, since they have a higher sugar content that brings in a bit of a headier flavor (and they’re available year round, and, unromantically, reliably delicious). It’s an interesting pasta, not for the faint of heart. Give it a shot. I have black mission figs in the recipe but gold Calmyrnas would probably be quite an interesting twist.
And because this is the Culture Queen, how can I leave you without a synergy of the senses? The logical composer to pair with figs is, of course, the illustrious and flamboyant Frenchman, the person that I first hope to see my first Friday night in heaven, Francis Poulenc. His music is the perfect balance of playful, anti-romantic humor, neo-classical craft, and pure, delicious aesthetic. Undoubtedly there will be a post to come exclusively devoted to Poulenc, my boo, the love of my life.
This particular piece is one I’m singing at my senior recital next year, and in fact, you can find a recording of me singing it last year in Italy on youtube. I’m pleased with my performance so I wouldn’t be bothered if you looked it up, but for now, I’m giving you my uncontested favorite singer of all time, Elly Ameling. She sings it with pure brilliance.
First the recipe:
spicy linguine with figs and lemon
1 package dried figs
white wine, hot water
olive oil and walnut oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon chile flakes
3/4 cup greek yogurt
zest of 1 ½ lemon
juice of 1 lemon
tablespoon each of olive oil and walnut oil
small handful of mint, chopped
¼ cup chicken stock (more or less, depending on desired consistency of sauce)
½ cup grated parmiggiano reggiano cheese
whole wheat linguine
Chop the figs in halves or thirds. Soak the dried figs in white wine and a little hot water, until slightly plump.
While the figs are soaking, stir the greek yogurt, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, walnut oil, and mint together in a small bowl.
Heat the olive and walnut oils over medium heat in a pan big enough to hold the sauce and the pasta. When hot, add the garlic and sauté until slightly softened. Add the chile flakes. When fragrant, add the figs and soaking liquid. Cover and cook until figs are softened, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat water and cook pasta according to package directions.
While pasta is cooking, add the yogurt mixture to the figs. Cook until bubbling to meld the flavors. Add enough chicken stock to thin the sauce to desired consistency.
When pasta is cooked, drain, and add to the fig sauce. Stir until combined and add half the parmiggiano. Serve remaining cheese at table with pasta.
Now the music:
Saturday, August 15, 2009
The Nocturnes of Frederic Chopin will always be like oatmeal on a cold morning for me. There is nothing quite as comforting, as universally warming, as a piercing and melancholy melody supported by the simplest of tasteful chords; the utmost intimacy, they express feelings we’ve all felt but can’t quite express verbally.
I say oatmeal on a cold morning, but also, a croissant at a dark café on a rainy day in winter. These pieces are Paris to me – I’m not sure why, it could be some subconscious memory of listening to them during one of my stays (and it happened to be raining every time), or it could be what they represent. Unabashed passion, but bundled into something of the utmost taste and beautiful aesthetic. That is the root of Francophilia as we know it, I think. Maybe that’s what I love about these pieces the most – their obvious focus on plain and simple beauty, with virtuosity, craft, and innovation all coming in second. The classical world lacks such beauty without flamboyancy; such pieces as these are refreshing, cleansing, honest.
I’ve included my favorite, C minor – I have hoards of associations with this piece, but let’s just say that if I were a piece of music, I would be this. I have plans to tattoo it all over my body. More on that later. There is one measure - the one immediately before the slow B section begins - that I believe to be the most divine moment in most piano music, solely because of the exposed and simple melody, basic chord progression. I've always said that if a composer can make something so basic delicious and heartwrenching, he has succeeded as an artist. Mozart and Chopin, among few others, are winners in this respect.
Enjoy this piece, and look up the rest. They sound as short vignettes of a sad but beautiful life, which is the true artist’s destiny.
My preferred pianist for this piece, at the moment, is Alexis Weissenberg; didn't find him playing on youtube, but certainly look up the album if you have time. He plays with a raw gruffness with which purists might take issue, but for my taste, it's just right.
What would I eat with this? Definitely chocolate. No recipe, because the simplicity of this piece can only be savored with something equally simple - a bar of 70% cacao Scharffen Berger chocolate. Go forth. Enjoy.