30 January 2011

The People's Orchestra

Have you bought my book yet, damnit?  Well, here's another little taster, but the book is way better!

I played for a short time in a regional orchestra in my state.  We would meet once a month for four rehearsals and the concert and collect our paychecks.  Really, it was more than that; the people were extremely nice to work with, the conductor was one of the best I have ever had the pleasure of playing under, and the music he programmed was generally superb, if not always precisely played.  It fit into my schedule most of the time and satisfied my occasional desire to play some of the orchestral classics, and I did it for four years.  Since we were the only such group for at least 200 miles in any direction, and since we had the name of the state in our group’s title, we were expected to play for events all around the state.  We were the people's orchestra, in a sense; if your town had a big event happening, one that might be enhanced by orchestral music, you called us.  I liked this notion, that we served our state and that there was a need for classical music in these very modern times.  This afforded me the opportunity to get to know some beautiful places I might otherwise never have visited and also introduced me to some very sweet people...sweet people who were not accustomed to organizing large-scale events.  (You knew a punch line was coming, right?)

The last drive-out I did with the symphony was to a small town just off the interstate, about an hour's drive from our town.  They were celebrating their centennial and wanted us to give a concert in the city park as part of their weekend festivities.  Although the drive was relatively short, we all took the bus.  There was no scenery, no cute historical stop between here and there, and the symphony didn't reimburse you for mileage if you opted out of the free transportation to an event.  In fact, after the disaster with the flat tire my first year, neither Joel, Meredith, nor I ever drove ourselves again.  Plus, it was 102 degrees outside (I know it's a dry heat, but that's still a lot of heat), and my nine-year-old car wasn't too powerful in the air conditioning department anymore.  Remember that temperature, by the way, because it's a key element to this story.

We headed first to the local high school to rehearse. The building was not air conditioned, but there were a couple of doors in the back that had been propped open for some ventilation.  Considering that the air was a dry 102 degrees, it might not have been the best idea--really, it just felt like we were in a blast furnace every time a "breeze" came through.  We managed a two hour rehearsal with several breaks (much more than the one break we would normally get for this amount of work time) so people could splash water on their faces, get drinks, and generally try not to die.  I should have gotten up more often to drink--the locals in charge of the event had kindly brought flat upon flat of bottled water for us--but the heat was just making me so tired, it was all I could do to stay awake.  I would hunch down like I was melting in my seat whenever I wasn't playing, the energy it took to sit up straight was so great, and at one point I realized that the conductor had been trying to get my attention for a while in the middle of rehearsal.  Apparently I had missed an entrance while concentrating on winter scenes and trying to remember what ice felt like.  The second clarinetist kept helpfully pointing out how red my face was getting, foiling my attempt to pretend I was not hot.

Eventually the rehearsal ended and no one had passed out.  We were herded into the front lobby of the high school where the event organizers had brought many very long, party tray-style sub sandwiches cut into little pieces.  There were several different fillings to choose from, bags of salty potato chips, and more bottled water for our lunch.   As is generally my tendency when I feel overheated, I wasn't particularly hungry, but I thought the veggies in the sub might add a little moisture to my system, and the tiled floor was so very cold and inviting.  Tables and chairs had been set up, enough to accommodate our entire group, but most people had chosen to stay close to the floor where it was cooler and one would have less distance to fall if they started feeling any worse.  These organizer people sure were perky, though--they were dressed in red and white striped vests with bright blue shirts with the town's logo underneath, several of them also wearing American flag-inspired visors.  They handed out little hat pins with the centennial logo and kept pushing the ham sandwich, apparently not a big hit with my cohorts.  They were so thrilled about the centennial, and so grateful that we were there to add "a touch of class", as ham-pusher Barb put it, to the celebration.  I wanted to like these people.  It's not that I disliked them; actually, I had just lost the will to experience emotion at all, except perhaps for a slight feeling of dread every time we were herded to the next location.

Mercifully, the personnel manager left us on the cool linoleum floor of the high school until just before the show, so we didn't have to stand around very long in the heat when we weren't earning our paychecks.  We loaded up the buses and drove the four blocks to the park where we would give our concert.  It was to be an hour of patriotic music with no intermission, which I thought was absolutely brilliant.  Don't leave us out there any longer than necessary.  We had been briefed that we would be in a band shell, but because the conductor didn't know what direction it was facing, he advised us to bring our sunglasses.  He shouldn't have been as worried about that as about what the organizers called a 'band shell".  As it turns out, it is a "picnic shelter" to the rest of the world.  So, as we arrived, elderly men were hurriedly (for them) moving the metal folding chairs from the picnic shelter, where they had crammed things in around picnic tables and a grill that were cemented into place, to the only open, level plot of land large enough to hold us--in full sun.  I could see the local bank's lighted sign from where I sat, obnoxiously flashing the current temperature: still 102.  The string players were in an uproar, worried that the thin, delicate, and ancient walls of their precious (really!) instruments would be irreparably damaged.  Woodwind players alternately whimpered, sighed loudly, and mumbled about wanting a pay raise.  The brass and percussion players stared stoically ahead, arranging their music on their stands as best they could with clothespins to foil the sporadic, sudden breezes that were too few and far between.  I thought briefly about crying at the hopelessness of the situation, but I didn't have the moisture left in my body to form tears.

I don't really know how the concert went, to tell you the truth.  I wasn't concentrating on the music much at all, but rather on just sitting upright, thinking about cold things, and not playing during any silences or after pieces had ended.  The crowd seemed very happy.  I don't think anyone was younger than 50, but there were a good number of them, and they clapped and smiled heartily, whooping it up when we played the state song.  At one point I saw some movement in my peripheral vision and was curious enough to look: the second trombonist, with a poker face that would make 'em proud in Vegas, calmly got up, walked over to the nearest park garbage can, and unloaded all of the contents of his stomach.  He then composed himself, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, and returned to his seat to finish the concert. I remember thinking, slowly and deliberately to myself, "I will never do an outdoor gig again".  And to this day, I haven't.

22 January 2011

Hot (food)Spots in Fort Collins, CO

Fort Collins is a great place to visit--hiking and whitewater rafting on the edge of town, unique boutiques, some decent clubs with local bands, and great food and beer.  Here are my favorites, if you're looking for somewhere to start:

Lucille’s Creole Café: 400 South Meldrum

If you’ve been to New Orleans, you’ll get the same classic brunch experience from Lucille’s.  Each Lucille’s location (FoCo, Longmont, Boulder, Denver) has a slightly different menu.  The FoCo shop features more vegetables than other menus while keeping all the heavy, greasy stuff that makes Sunday morning feel so cozy.  Order up a plate of Beignets with your chicory coffee (costs a little extra) while you wait for fluffy biscuits and homemade marmalade with egg dishes chocked full of spicy sausage, shrimp, and flavorful sauces straight outta NoLa.  Be ready to wait, though--the line is always out the door on the weekends.

The Bean Cycle: 144 N. College

There are plenty of funky coffee shops in Fort Collins.  This one makes a mean brew and orders up the best pastries from local bakeries in the area, plus it’s run by a sweet family and shares space with a non-profit, lefty bookstore.  Why not give them your money when it’s time to perk up?

Rasta Pasta: 200 Walnut Street Suite A (corner of Walnut and College)

This place is pure college town: grungy little corner shop with old furniture and mismatched silverware, plastic cups, and cheesy Rasta nostalgia to boot.  If you have an allergy to Bob Marley worship, don’t go.  But if you want a huge plate of tasty pasta for cheap, embrace your hippie past and come on in. Sauces range from simple, elegant white wine and garlic (and be forewarned: they love garlic!) with fresh tomatoes to Jamaican jerk chicken, and you won’t need another meal for a looong time.  Great after a hike at Horsetooth.

Coopersmith’s Pub and Brewing: 5 Old Town Square

This gastro pub is definitely for grown-ups, though it welcomes a wide range of guests.  Try every home brew you can handle--they’re all well-crafted and balanced--or get a Scotch flight and learn why the stuff can be so expensive (and revered).  Typical pub grub gets some extra touches: the pub fries are lovingly breaded and seasoned, personal pizzas with hand-tossed crusts feature a wide array of fresh toppings, and the quesadillas are stuffed with smoked salmon and brie.  There are a lot of microbreweries in Fort Collins, but I think Coopersmith’s does it best.

Lulu Asian Bistro : 117 South College Ave

I stumbled upon this place after a Christmas day hike because I was peckish and nothing else was open.  What a pleasant surprise--the happy hour beers were a great deal, martinis were creative and tasty, and the food is very well-done Asian with a little modern flair.  Very capable preparation, and a great blend of cozy bistro and sleek bar.

Taj Mahal: 148 West Oak Street

If you like Indian food, you probably fall into one of two serious camps: fans of Taj Mahal or fans of…that other place.  I’ll tell you why I love Taj Mahal.  Each dish is amazing--meat is fresh and well-cooked, sauces are all distinctive and flavorful, appetizers are all carefully prepared and wonderfully balanced, and the kitchen wants nothing more than to tailor your dishes to your tastes.  The building is getting a make-over outside, but the inside is the same as it’s always been and open for business.  I know people who drive from Wyoming to eat here, and I know why. (I once ate so much there that I almost passed out.  No joke.)

15 January 2011

Lighten up! You've already eaten your weight in meat and chocolate!

And with that said, a call for calmness and sanity at the dining room table (I will be doing a ton of crunches to ring in the new year.  Starting in February).

Adapted from French Women Don't Get Fat or something like that...

Curried Chicken with Cucumber
Serves 4

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 skinless, boneless chicken (or turkey) breasts, cut lengthwise into ½ inch strips
Salt and black pepper
½ cup plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 cucumbers (or zucchinis, or other squash), peeled, seeds removed and cut into ½-inch slices
Juice of one lemon
Cooked basmati rice for serving

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Season the chicken strips with salt and black pepper and add to the skillet.  Cook until golden, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. 

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the yogurt, curry, and cucumber slices and set aside. 

When the chicken is golden, deglaze the pan with lemon juice, scraping all the brown bits off of the pan.  Add the cucumber mixture and stir to combine.  Cook for about 3 minutes or until cucumbers are al dente.  Remove skillet from heat and return the chicken to the pan and stir to coat. 

Serve with basmati rice.

08 January 2011

Two from Husband

So, what was your New Year’s resolution?  Personally, I think it’s all a stupid game--be a useless slob and generally bad person all year, then sit around hating yourself for it on January 1st, resolve then (and only then) to be a better person in some impossible ways, and repeat.  I have friends who cleverly get around the guilt part of this by resolving to “have more fun” or “drink more” or “piss off someone at work”, but that is also sadly playing into the game, isn’t it?

Alright, I’ll make a resolution--I resolve to let my husband cook more of the meals.  Not really--I love cooking, and in return he does scary things like climb on the roof and tedious things like prune the fruit trees.  But I couldn’t think of a good introduction to a couple of recipes featuring his hidden cooking talents.

These recipes are pretty stereotypically man-like: simple, comforting, and pretty fatty.  I love them, and while I also love fussy things like smoked salmon with capers and lemon-dill sauce and escargot, there is something very satisfying about eating a huge pile of pasta and undercooked brownies, too.

These recipes are both form the horse’s mouth, but don’t worry--I got permission to print them here.  I think.

Easy Carbonara

Celebrity chefs have come up with all kinds of fussy ways to dress up this dish, but all the roasted chicken and pancetta in the world doesn’t make it any better than this.  

2 eggs
¾ cup grated Parmesan (the cheap powdered kind in a canister is fine)
1 cup frozen peas, 4 slices bacon, well-cooked and crumbled
generous amount of freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste
enough stick pasta for four

Cook the bacon.  Last time we baked it in the oven, only we lowered the temperature to 350° F and used parchment paper instead of foil.  Cook pasta according to directions on package in salty water.  Place the frozen peas in the bottom of a colander and drain cooked pasta over them--this heats them up without overcooking them so that they’re still sweet.  Return pasta and peas to cooking vessel.  Working quickly, crack eggs over pasta and dump in the cheese, crumbled bacon, salt and pepper.  Stir like mad so that the eggs form a creamy sauce and you don’t see any raw bits floating around.  This recipe serves four, but we usually eat it by ourselves.  Then you can skip dinner.

Jason’s Fudgey Brownies

This is loosely adapted from Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her? By Betty Rae Frandsen, et al.  A delightful guidebook to not setting your first apartment on fire and managing to get some nutrients into your pitiful diet from 1983, it actually does have some good guidelines in it.  Definitely subscribes to the Midwestern palate, though.  What makes this recipe uniquely Jason is that the brownies are totally undercooked, so his editing of cooking temp and time are crucial.  Have a spoon ready, and DO NOT remove from the pan until you are about to put one on a plate.

I topped mine with leftover cranberry sauce
and Greek yogurt for breakfast.
1 cup butter
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs
½ cup cocoa
1 ½ cups flour

Melt butter and mix with eggs, vanilla, and sugar in a bowl.  Add the dry ingredients and stir well.  Pour into a greased brownie pan (9 ½ x 13 inches) and cook at 300°F for about 18 minutes.  It will appear wet in the middle but with a solid skin over the top; remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan before cutting.

Good job, Jason!

02 January 2011

Two more soups for leftovers

BO-RING!  These soups will make it better.

More simple things to do with the stuff you didn't finish after your holiday meal...

Cheesy baked potato soup
Serves 4
Skip ahead if you have enough leftover mashed potato to use...

2 tablespoons butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and chopped into small cubes (or a combination of russet and sweet)
4 cups vegetable broth
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup sour cream or Greek style plain yogurt
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 slices crisp bacon or Morningstar Breakfast Strips, crumbled (optional)

Heat the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat; when it foams, add the onion.  Sauté  until onion is translucent, about 4 minutes.  Add salt, garlic and chopped potato and sauté another 3 or 4 minutes, stirring constantly to keep potato from sticking.  Add 2 cups of the vegetable broth, stir, cover and bring to a boil.  Once boil begins, lower to a simmer and cook about 15 minutes, until potato is soft enough to mash. 
Mash the potato mixture in the pan with a hand masher or use an immersion blender to create creamy mashed potatoes. Add the other 2 cups of broth, sour cream and cheese and stir to incorporate.  Cover  and lower heat to medium-low until cheese is melted into soup, about 5 minutes.  Add black pepper to taste.  Garnish with chopped green onion and bacon, if desired (you can also top with additional cheese and sour cream if you have it). 

Chicken Vatapa
Serves 6
Vatapa is a traditional rustic Brazilian stew, and it's flavorful enough to cover up the gaminess of leftover poultry.  Best of all, it’s all done in 30 minutes.
1 teaspoon canola oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon peeled, grated fresh ginger (purchase ready-to-go in the produce section of Safeway on 3rd Ave.)
1 jalapeno pepper, minced (remove seeds for milder flavoring)
1 cup water
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes with juice
1 (12 oz.) can light beer
¼ cup dry-roasted peanuts
3 cups cooked chicken or turkey
½ cup coconut milk
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper

Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeno and sauté 2 minutes or until onion is soft.  Stir in water, tomatoes in their juice, and beer.  Bring to boil, then cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes. 

Place peanuts in a spice or coffee grinder (or a good old-fashioned nut grinder) and process until finely ground.  Add ground peanuts, chicken, and coconut milk to Dutch oven, stirring to combine.  Increase heat to medium.  Bring mixture to a simmer and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in parsley, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper. 

Don't say I never gave ya nuthin'.

01 January 2011

Happy new year--screw the cooking

Cooking was more fun when it was plastic
and no one expected it to be edible.
If you have been doing your American duty during this holiday season, you have been chained to the kitchen off and on for a month preparing bland, gamey meats (well, that's how I feel about turkey, anyway), inoffensive hors d'oeuvres for your sensitive work friends, and cooking up huge pots of vegetables and mashed potatoes to provide some nutrition without making the little ones work for it.  Sick of it?  Good news--you can recycle all of that crap and turn it into meals that are more interesting than their origins.  Plus it's good for the environment... ba-da-DUM.  

Take any one of those leftover dips you made for guests (chipotle crabNorth African, or hummus) and toss it with some pasta and a little of the pasta water to help it mix.  Add leftover veggies like green beans, peas, or broccoli.

Remember that Turkish green beans recipe?  It's a snap (even faster when the vegetable is already cooked), and it can be adapted to any green veggies.  Serve over rice.  Toss in some slivered almonds if you want.  

One word: Coddle.  Just use whatever meat (and leftover mashed 'taters) you have and throw in some freshly cooked bacon.  

Add bacon to everything.  It'll be fine, and no one will complain.