25 June 2011

Tune in to CPR.ORG to listen to me make a fool of myself!

This is an excerpt from a full essay that will be featured on the show Telling Stories on Colorado Public Radio this weekend.  In the Denver area, tune in to 90.1FM; you can also listen ANYWHERE! at cpr.org--choose the news channel, not the classical channel.  The show airs Sunday, June 26 at 2pm and Monday, June 27 at 9pm, MDT.

Drowning on a Rooftop: My Short-lived Career in Jazz

When I was the new flutist in town, I was lucky enough to befriend a seasoned flutist in the area who had more work than she could handle, and she soon began sending people my way when she was unavailable.  She wasn’t sending me the good stuff, though-- I was fielding calls for outdoor weddings, free library concerts, and small-town museum exhibits.   In the summer, the wedding calls were particularly prolific.  I do not love outdoor weddings, but I was a hungry musician fresh out of graduate school and eager to take any job I could get, so whenever the phone rang, I said yes.

At times that was probably a mistake.  Having just completed a degree at a prestigious music school, I thought I was ready for anything that came my way; I thought I’d played it all.  I was foolishly over-confident.  I could change the tiniest detail in my orchestra solo when the conductor requested it because he was telling me EVERY DETAIL he wanted me to play.  I could change my interpretation of a concerto on a dime in lessons because I had been trained to recreate whatever sounds someone else told me to make.  [Bring in a copy of me playing Devienne w/ UW orch.] I have since learned that success as a student in a coddled environment is not exactly the same as surviving as a gigger, when one must be able to play something completely foreign without any coaching--that is not how we are trained at the university.   I learned my lesson that summer on the rooftop of the most expensive hotel in town; it was at the wedding for the daughter of a local news anchor.

I was substituting for my friend, and it was her regular trio who had been contracted to do this gig.  The pianist and cellist were old friends, and the trio had a set book of tunes they played which comprised classics from the big-band era and Frank Sinatra's songbook: “Chicago”, “De-Lovely”, that sort of thing. [Play jazz clip here--S‘Wonderful.] So, this was a jazz gig.  Let me explain. The world is divided into two kinds of flute players: those who are classically trained, and those who play jazz.  I do not know how to play jazz.  I like jazz--I like to play it on my stereo when friends come over for dinner, and I like how cool I think it makes me look when people see my CDs laying around.  I have been guilty of losing track of myself while cooking to my Totally 80s compilation, only to make a mad dash for the Chet Baker and Herbie Mann CDs at the sound of the doorbell (it also helps to have a couple others laying around casually--I like the experimental stuff that looks impressive but sounds awful--just put it on a side table underneath the stereo remote.)  So I can listen to jazz, but as a performer, I learned music strictly by reading it and following the directions on the page, not by reading a skeletal outline of the tune and filling in the rest on-the-spot.    And I had never played off of jazz charts, which are not only missing a crucial number of notes, but also tend to be scribbled in a way that makes it look like the arranger must have been writing with his toes.  I'm not making excuses--I was inexperienced.  No amount of cleanliness in those scores could have saved me.  I had no idea what I was doing.

As soon as I arrived and discovered that the music on my stand was beyond my training, I looked beseechingly around the room for my colleagues, whom I hoped would be understanding and get me through it. I‘ll be honest, I was in an absolute panic, and having just come from school, I still had fresh memories of  striving to be note-perfect and please everyone for my well-deserved pat on the head.  But when I saw jazz charts on the stand, I knew I would not be getting a gold star for this performance.  As humiliating as the thought was, I was completely prepared to relinquish any sense of shame for whatever sad, patronizing help they could throw my way.  After all, I reasoned to myself, they wouldn’t want to crash and burn in public, even if it was clearly my fault.  The audience wasn’t going to say “well, that flutist is obviously clueless, but the other two have got some jazz chops.”  Most likely, the audience would just say, “they suck.”

Well, that was my rationale, but unfortunately, the cellist and pianist were not on board with my game plan.  The cellist seemed to approach that afternoon’s musical soiree as a kind of duel, like that cheery ditty, “Dueling Banjos”, only one of the banjos (me) just falls on her face.  When I first spotted him, he was already at the bar looking grim as he ordered his first drink (vodka martini), and commenced playing the game he would maintain throughout the gig: don’t look at the flute player.  Don’t speak to the flute player.  Play as if the flute player is not there.  Playing jazz is really a combination of having the tunes memorized (I did not), having been properly trained to improvise in the style (I was not), and LOOKING AT EACH OTHER during performances to more smoothly take turns playing the solos (which I did not want, but if I had to solo, he could at least tell me when to do it).  So this “pretending I was invisible” schtick was just altogether wrong for the occasion.  It was about  like trying to run a relay race while refusing to acknowledge the next runner in line--you’re not supposed to just throw the baton on the ground and go have a Gatorade, you’re supposed to hand over the baton, then you can have your Gatorade.

And speaking of Gatorade, did I mention there was an open bar for the musicians, as well?  It was part of our pay, and initially it was also a pretty big reason why I decided to take the gig.  But here’s the problem: I hadn’t eaten much that day, and the bartender was generous with the alcohol.  My gin and tonic was gin with a splash of tonic.  Don’t ask me why I decided to cash in on that part of my pay before I even saw the music, but I assumed I could do it.  If it had been Pachelbel’s Canon, I totally could have done it.  I really shouldn’t have tried with Cole Porter.  I wasn’t exactly drunk, but the buzz I had going did not help boost the old confidence level as I tried to figure what the heck I was suppose to be doing.   As I surveyed the slightly blurry landscape of discerning audience members on that rooftop, I started to realize just how screwed I probably was.

Meanwhile, the pianist, a caricature of an aging debutante, was hugging and kissing every well-dressed couple over sixty years of age.  She seemed to be more of a small-time society lady than she was a serious musician.  But she was chatty, kind, and had pretty low standards, so that was somewhat comforting.  She was not, however, the mothering type, and she just assumed I’d pick up on things.  She also had a constant refresher going on her cosmo, so that might have been part of the reason she wasn’t always picking up on my not-so-subtle signals.

She was so wrapped up in her friends, and the cellist was so furiously sucking down his drink while diligently avoiding eye contact, that we had no opportunity to talk strategy before we had to start playing.  What tunes would we play?  What was the "high-sign" to stop?  Where was a tuning pitch?  How do you read his music?  I was the only one who didn’t know anything, and they sort of left me in the dust.   So as we began, I kept looking blankly--nay, pleadingly--at the pianist just before starting a tune so she could tell me which one it was.  I would then madly tear through the songbook until I found it, while the cellist glared and sighed at me and the pianist nervously giggled.  No one would have mistaken me for a pro.

I was generally playing the melody and should have been the one to improvise some solos over the more basic piano part, but it was such a struggle.  If it was a tune I recognized, I would just try to copy my Sarah Vaughn or Billie Holiday CDs as well as my memory would allow, and then play a couple of major scales up and down until the other two stopped.  [Insert clip of me fumbling over Theresa’s vamp on Take 5.]  Sometimes I had no clue what the song was and would just stare at the pianist to communicate that I would not be doing a solo, no thank you.  She was kind enough to jump in with her well-worn solos at those times, but only if I caught her eye.  A few times I just dropped out and stared at the music while they went on with their sparse accompaniment parts for several bars before the pianist jumped in.  A couple of years later I heard one of those tunes, I think, at a friend’s house (he was also trying to look cool while serving dinner).  Hearing the melody with the words made me realize just how badly I had butchered that song: I was stopping in all the wrong places because I was so flustered (“you make my…[stare wildly at pianist]…heart…smi-….le”.  At the time, the cellist got so frustrated that he shouted, “Ah, GOD!” during one of my blank moments between what should have been syllables of the same word.  He said it rather loudly.  During the performance...

THERE'S MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM!  Listen to Telling Stories  at cpr.org Sunday, June 26 at 2pm and Monday or June 27 at 9pm, MDT.

24 June 2011

Guide to edible airport food

I do a moderate amount of traveling, and I rarely bother to pack snacks anymore, although it is in my Midwestern blood to carry sandwiches everywhere and generally be a cheapskate.  It's just not worth the frisking at security, and those guards are never attractive.  Never.

Here's what I've found so far that's edible.  Feel free to comment and your faves, too!

Top picks at DIA (Denver International Airport):

Boulder Beer Tap house   Jeppesen Terminal West, Level 5  One of Colorado’s premiere microbrewery (and the first in the state, back in 1979), Boulder Beer serves up some tasty staples like lagers and porters, and a special collection for connoisseurs, like Hazed and Infused (a hoppy, bitter ale).  The food’s good, too.

Lounge 5280 Wine Bar  B Gates  This stylish, contemporary bar seems like it could be in LoDo, and the wine list really is top-notch.  What’s really special, here, though, are the signature cocktails using fresh herbs and fruit juices.  Ask your bartender to recommend appetizers that will compliment your drink--they’re great at pairings here.

Mesa Verde Smoking Lounge A Gates  I hate cigarette smoke, but their Mexican-inspired dishes are terrific.  Ask to sit on the "patio" and you can avoid the lung cancer.  For a hearty brunch before a long day of travel, try the chilaquiles and a cup of coffee for as satisfying of a meal as you might get at your favorite neighborhood joint.

New Belgium Hub  B Gates  Famed Fort Collins brewery New Belgium has finally set up shop at DIA.  Get a sandwich and sample some of the beers that have earned them cult status in the West.

Paradise Bakery and Café  B and C Gates  Of all the coffee shops in DIA, this is my favorite, because the baked treats are sooo good.  The muffins are a real treat.  The breads they use in the sandwiches are homemade, as are their soups; it’s a great little deli experience in the middle of the airport.  Oh, and the coffee is fantastic.

Rock Bottom Brewery  C Gates  Just like the locations around the Denver area, this chain has a good selection of beers from around the world and a great burger to fill you up for the plane ride.


MSP (Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport):

California Pizza Kitchen  Concourse F  These guys really do bake up a great pizza.  The crust is buttery, crunchy on the outside and fluffy inside, and just the right thickness to hold up to the generously portioned fresh ingredients they use.  Get the chicken and roasted garlic--it’s fresh roasted garlic and high quality white meat with a light white sauce and sweet red onions.

Caribou Coffee  Concourses A, E, F, G, Terminal 2-Humphrey  The local favorite really does serve the best cup of coffee in town (including MSP), and their sandwiches and salads are just fine.

Great River Market and Deli  Concourse G  I’m not usually too keen on the fast-food sandwiches (boring and dry), but this menu really does boast some great ingredients and tasty, fresh-baked bread.  For a comforting breakfast that will last you all day, get the Hashbrown Casserole.

Itasca Grill  Concourse A  Like the popular restaurant in the Minneapolis area, the airport location serves up some artful breakfast/ brunch dishes like cinnamon vanilla French toast, an enormous breakfast burrito, and a bevy of omelets.  For lunch, the turkey apple wood bacon ciabatta is divine, as is the lime-infused grilled chicken and brie sandwich.

Maui Tacos  Concourse C Great fish and fresh salsas top fresh-made corn or flour tortillas for a healthy, flavorful meal I never imagined I could get in an airport.

Northern Lights Grill  Concourse D  This restaurant celebrates local cuisine, from simply cooked wild rice soup to broiled walleye and good old-fashioned Midwestern pot roast.  A great wine list offers something to compliment each dish, and the atmosphere, if you turn yourself the right way, makes you forget about the airport chaos beyond.

Rock Bottom Brewery  Concourse C  As stated above, this chain has a good selection of beers from around the world and a great burger to fill you up for the plane ride.  Good place to bring kids (childless beware: people bring their kids here!).

Skol Café and Bar  Concourse A  This bar is beautiful (That's it to the right)!  Scandinavian design accents the Northern European-inspired snacks and drink available.  Do like the locals do and stick to the vodka--it’s incredibly high quality and a perfectly clean palate cleanser with the smoked salmon toasts.


Sea-Tac (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport)

Anthony’s  Central Terminal  Like their locations around Washington and Oregon, Anthony’s in Sea-Tac specializes in fresh Puget Sound delicacies like oysters on the half shell. Alaskan King Salmon, and their signature blackberry cobbler made with fresh, local berries.  Local microbrews and wines complete a menu that will give you one last great dining experience before your trip home.

Bigfoot Food and Spirits  North Satellite  This popular Seattle chain is little more than a sports bar: BBQ sandwiches, big burgers, and beers. Along with a few brunch selections and an ample dessert menu.  But it’s all really tasty, reasonably priced (for an airport), and will fill you up for a long time.  Great comfort food.

Ivar’s Seafood Bar  Central Terminal  An iconic name in Seattle, Ivar’s serves up beautiful, perfect fish & chips, as well as just about any other local seafood you can imagine craving.  The northwest chowders are fantastic, and their grilled prawns, halibut, and salmon are as dreamy a meal as you’ll find anywhere in Seattle.  Clams, calamari, and scallops make a tasty snack, too.

Maki of Japan  Central Terminal  Well-made sushi and authentic noodle dishes with pork are your best bet here, and the price is right: 8-piece sushi rolls start at just $4.95.

Mountain Bar Room  Concourse C  The burgers and beer are fine here, but this place is best for breakfast.  Belgian waffles and a “Big Cheese” ham and cheese omelet are more special than they sound.  Anything can be prepared to take on the plane if you request it when you order.

Pallino Pastaria  Central Terminal  The wait can be a bit long for this fast-food stand, but it’s worth it.  Perfectly-cooked pasta is topped with your choice of  freshly made sauces for a meal that would put Olive Garden to shame.  The personal pizzas come in a wide variety of flavor combinations, and many of them can be made into sandwiches, as well.

Seattle Tap Room  Concourse B  This is beautifully prepared gastro-pub fare.  The beer-braised bratwurst plate and meatloaf are both terrific, and the beers on tap represent local breweries from throughout the Northwest (and occasionally the Rockies).

Vino Volo  Central Terminal  This tiny space offers high-end wines poured by the glass and sold as full bottles to take home (they’ll also ship for you).  Not sure what you like?  Get a taste flight and chat up the server--they are well-trained in matching you to your perfect mate.

Coffee:  You’ll have to pick your team here, just like you have to in Seattle-proper.  Seattle’s Best, Starbucks, and Tully’s the three local giants, are all equally represented here.  Good luck.  (I choose Tully’s.)

23 June 2011

Carnie Food Fun!!

In honor of the Greeley Stampede, which opens Friday, might I present this humble ode to all the nasty little snacks we put into our bodies throughout summer festival season...

So, I live in Greeley, Colorado, home of the world’s largest 4th of July rodeo (that’s specific, isn’t it?). It starts this week, and it’s approximately seven blocks from my house. I'm a little bit excited in spite of myself.  I do not enjoy country music (though I can hear it from my porch every night of the Stampede, so, bonus for me) and rodeos seem pretty cruel, but the Stampede holds kind of a special place in my heart. It was my introduction to this little Western town’s ranching culture, which is quite different from my childhood memories growing up in Chicagoland. It is also –or was, until this year—free to enter, and I love free stuff! I will eat things I hate or listen to a poetry reading in a language I don’t know if it’s free! Of course, the rides and the food cost money, but the gawking was free, and that was good enough for me.

Upon first visiting the Stampede, I was surprised to find that the food here was different than it had been at the super-awesome Frankfort Fall Fest (can I get a holla Lincoln-Way class of ’92?!), or the Illinois or Iowa State Fairs of my youth. Carnie food is not universal; it is nuanced, finely tuned to its audience to deliver the most pleasure it can. Ahem. Oh sure, you can get a bright pink hot dog or gray bratwurst anywhere, but the Stampede has some pretty special things, too…

Deep-fried Oreos Doesn’t that sound terrible? But they’re not—the fried outer coating isn’t really salty so much as it is like a doughnut, and the Oreo inside is slightly melted, creating a fudgy texture that is a vast improvement upon the dry, crumbly original. Just beware: after three, my heart started pounding and I was suddenly rendered unable to walk for a short period of time. They have deep-fried candy bars, to, but that’s just gross.

Green Chili Fries I suppose it’s not surprising, in this heavily Mexican-American community, that you can get some really good hot green chilies. I just didn’t expect to get anything so good at a street fair. Not so different from French-Canadian poutine, this is simply a Styrofoam plate of fries slathered in green chili and cheese sauce. I love it.

Giant Turkey Leg I have not eaten one of these things (never been a turkey fan), but my neighbors swear by them. And they really are giant—these things are almost the size of a one-year-old’s pudgy leg. They are pre-cooked and then smoked until they get a bit dry, but it’s worth just holding one up to your head for the great facebook picture.

Fried Coke I’m not kidding. It’s a doughy mixture with coke syrup which is then deep-fried in balls and topped with more coke syrup and powdered sugar. It kind of tastes like funnel cake, but also like Coke. I like it because it’s chewy.

“Berrie-Kabobs” (spelling not mine) I know! How healthy! You get a big skewer of chunked fresh fruit, generally strawberries and bananas. The catch—everything’s coated in white or milk chocolate.  And that's carnie.

Smoothie Bar I like fresh fruit smoothies at any time, and these don’t seem to have any weird, unhealthy additives. It’s like a Carnie Jamba Juice. And that’s just funny. Coloradoans—so healthy!

Pork Chop on a Stick I hate pork chops, but I just like that they exist.

And of course…

Beer Garden Every fair I have attended in this state has a beer garden with crappy Coors, but also some local brews that taste delicious. Love you, Colorado.

18 June 2011

Recipe for poached eggs with asparagus

This is a springy meal if ever there was one.  Try to find those delicate, thin stalks of asparagus to match the delicacy of the eggs.

Serves 2

2 cups  jasmine rice
4 eggs
1 lb. asparagus, washed and trimmed
4 scallions, washed and sliced (green and white parts)
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of two lemons
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs (chives, dill, basil--whatever you’ve got!)

Cook rice according to package directions.  When rice is done, stir in fresh chopped herbs and fluff with fork.  Cover to keep warm.  

Meanwhile, in  a small bowl whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, mustard, and salt and pepper.  Set aside.

Bring salted water to boil in a medium saucepan.  Drop asparagus in and blanch for about 30 seconds up to one minute, until stalks are bright green (they should still be firm).  Remove asparagus to a plate and cover to keep warm.  Bring water back to boil and poach eggs until done to your liking.  

To assemble: On each of four plates, spread herbed rice, lay ¼ of the asparagus stalks across rice, then set one poached egg on top.  Drizzle with the lemon vinaigrette (save extra in a jar for salads or cooked green beans later).   Goes well with a crisp glass of Prosecco.  (Who am I kidding?  Everything goes well with Prosecco.)

10 June 2011

Balls for vegetarians


I love meatballs.  They are tasty, but more importantly, they are also ball-shaped, which is oddly satisfying to me.  I do not love handling ground beef, which is just nas-TAY and bad for you (especially given the lack of oversight exercised in America's slaughterhouses), so I have been experimenting with other ball materials.  Are you enjoying this childish prose?

Both recipes rely on the magic of soy products.  If you've got a problem with soy, I can't help you.

Tofu Meatballs

Serves 4

1 (14-oz.) package firm tofu
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup bread crumbs
½ small onion, minced
1 ½ teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
1 ½ teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups tomato sauce
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 cups cooked pasta or rice

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Remove tofu from package, wrap in some paper towels, and press between flat, heavy surfaces for about 30 minutes to release liquid.

Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine egg, bread crumbs, onion, herbs, and spices.  Add the drained, crumbled tofu and combine thoroughly with hands.  Form mixture into balls about the size of golf balls and arrange in a single layer in a lightly greased baking dish.  Bake in oven for 20 minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven and increase heat to 450°F (or preheat your broiler if you have one).  Spoon the tomato sauce over the top of the balls and sprinkle with Parmesan.  Place the dish in the oven and cook until the cheese is melted and lightly browned, about 3 minutes.  Remove from the oven and serve with rice or pasta.

*          *           *           *           *           *          *          *

Greek-Style Meat-ish balls with Tzatziki 

2 packages Morningstar Farms Soy Crumbles, thawed (just put the bag in the 'fridge for a couple hours)
1/2 red onion, minced (keep the other half for the rest of the recipe)
1/2 cup very finely crumbled feta cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large egg
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for baking dish
1 tablespoon dried oregano
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
½  teaspoon salt
½  teaspoon black pepper

And also:
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
2 roasted red bell peppers, cut into strips
½ cup kalamata olives
½ red onion, sliced into thin strips
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt to taste
4 cups cooked orzo 

To make meatballs: Combine all ingredients in a bowl, then use your hands to mix ingredients. Lightly oil a 9 x 13 baking dish. Shape meat into 1 tablespoon size meatballs and place on baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes. Turn meatballs and bake 10 more minutes. Turn again, and bake 5-10 more minutes, until meatballs are well-browned and a little crisp on the outside.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large frying or sauté pan over medium heat.  When it shimmers, add the onion and sauté 20 minutes, so that they start to carmelize.  After you have turned your meatballs, add roasted red pepper, olives, oregano, and about a ½ teaspoon of salt.  Lower the heat to medium-low.  Stir well and continue to sauté another 10 minutes.  Add the lemon juice and crushed red pepper, stir again, and cover.  When the meatballs are cooked, add them to the pan and combine ingredients, and cover so that the flavors get a chance to mingle a little.  Serve with orzo.

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeds removed, and roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 cup Greek-style* yogurt 
Salt and black pepper to taste

Place garlic and cucumber in a food processor and run until garlic seems well-chopped and cucumber is all broken down.  Place in a bowl, stir in yogurt, and season with salt and black pepper to taste.  Serve alongside meatballs as a dipping sauce.  (Leftover meatballs an tzatziki can also be stuffed in pita bread for great warm or cold sandwiches later in the week).  

*Too cheap for the Greek stuff?  You can substitute 2 cups regular plain yogurt and drain: place a colander inside a larger bowl, then pour 2 cups yogurt into a paper coffee filter.  Lay this inside the colander and allow to drain, refrigerated, at least 2 hours up to overnight.  (Thank you, Amy Sedaris, for that tip.)

03 June 2011

Fruited Wild Rice Salad

Inspired by my need to bring something gluten free with blueberries in it to a book club meeting (it's complicated), I concocted this dish to offset all the sweets on the table.  Be advised, this recipe is gluten free as long as you don't cook the rice in vegetable broth--if you want to get all fancy and do that, then it'll have traces of gluten from the liquid.

Fruited Wild Rice Salad

1 cup wild rice
1/2 cup jasmine rice
3 cups water
½ cup dried cranberries
¾ cup chopped dried apricots
½ cup chopped red onion
¼ cup orange juice
2 Tbsp. honey
1½ tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 tsp. grated orange or lemon peel
4 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen (thawed)
8 oz. mixed fresh salad greens (optional)

Keep rices separate.  Combine the wild rice with water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer until rice is starting to soften up, about 20 minutes.  Stir in the jasmine and cover, continuing to cook until both rices are tender, about 20 more minutes. (Check occasionally to make sure there's enough water--add more if needed.)  Stir in cranberries, apricots and red onion and allow to sit, covered.

Prepare dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice, honey, grated ginger, and lemon peel. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drain the rice mixtrure and place in a bowl.  Pour dressing over the rice and mix well. Gently fold in the blueberries. Arrange greens on a platter and mound rice on top if you prefer.