Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!

May I Suggest . . .

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The University of North Texas Collegium Singers in dress rehearsal for their performance at the Berkeley Festival of early music, June 2012, Dr. Richard Sparks conducting. Yes, *that* Richard Sparks.

MUSIC.

Having had my senses immersed in the bath of fall season-opener concerts of all sorts lately, to the literal tune of hundreds of voices and instruments in symphonies, marches, art songs, musical theater melodies, electronica, motets, chaconnes, folk songs, choral masses, lullabies and all sorts of other lovely music, I am reminded as always at this time of year that such an intense schedule of events, however fabulous and rich they are, can be exhausting. More importantly, though, I am reminded that it’s also invigorating, inspiring and often utterly thrilling.

It’s also the time of year when the European choral magazine for which I proofread and text-check translations goes back into full production for the year. The articles and news items are all full of reviews of the summer season’s festivals and conferences and the amazing machinery that underlies these productions, from choosing and ordering music scores through civic action, political efforts, fundraising, singer scholarships, educational programs for participants and audiences, performers’ uniform shipping, young composers’ symposia, etc, and right on down to whether ‘civilian’ supporters of the group are allowed to arrange the music stands or chairs onstage if the local symphony hall union members are on strike. At the heart of it all is such a profound passion for music that millions of people worldwide, including those from countries and cultures one might be surprised to find even having the time or energy amid their economic, social or yes, war-related battles to sing and to listen to singers. If there’s a genuinely possible force for world peace, my friends, it may well be in music.

More personally, it’s music that is a central force for my own happiness, for a large number of reasons. Every one of those listed above comes into my own life and being regularly. But as you know, I am partnered for said life with a musician, and so the whole topic comes that much more sharply into focus. Music has been a glue for us two from the very beginning of ‘us’. Ask our mutual dear friend, a fellow musician, if I were single and might therefore be ‘available’? Check. Collaborate over a large-scale music performance and its visual presentation as a way to get to know each other a bit, hovering around each other during rehearsals and preparation? Check. Go on a first date to a Mark Morris Dido and Aeneas dance performance [yes, truly spectacular, by the way] for which my suitor had prepared the singers? Check!

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Since thousands vie for the dozens of positions in the final selected groups, high school students in Texas undergo a rigorous preparation for All-State Choir auditions, studying the literature in workshops and camps across the state each summer to compete in their local and regional trials before the year of All-State even arrives. This is the UNT group working in the summer of 2012, rehearsing in the camp organized and run by Dr. Alan McClung, assisted by UNT students and graduates and conducted each year by a different guest conductor–this year, by my spouse. What can I say, it’s what he does. And what I love to hear and see.

What followed is, was and ever shall be musicocentric. Our honeymoon (more about that in a future post) was built, in fact, around my fiance’s conducting gig–a gig including, naturally, our aforementioned Dual BFF as accompanist–at a choral festival in Veszprém, Hungary, arranged under the auspices of the parent organization that spawned the magazine for which I still do editorial duties, if you can follow that sprawling, meandering melody line. One might say that it all began with music and went racing straight downhill from there. Or, if one feels as I do, that music has brought uncountable joys into my life from earliest memory to the present, and will sustain me until the end. In any case, one of the clear high points of musical pleasure has been attending the myriad concerts, events, conferences, performances, and festivals that bring musicians and music lovers together all over the world. A huge number of our favorite people are those whom we’ve met in and through all of this music-related stuff. We have deeply loved ‘family’ literally around the world whom we’ve met and with whom we’ve bonded through musical acquaintance.

If you haven’t done so yet, or not recently enough, may I suggest that you ‘get thee to’ the nearest conference, symposium or festival involving music as soon as you’re able. If, like me, you aren’t an active participant, know that every artist needs his or her cheerleaders and fans and supporters, and that your mutual love of the art will mean more than that you stood onstage during the work or the bows. Yes, even non-musicians can and should pitch in–even those with no sense of pitch can fold programs, stuff envelopes, recruit audience members and donors and board members and political supporters, can drive the shuttle that carries the singers and their accompanists from venue to venue at the festival, and can buy tickets and bask in the glorious sounds from town square to church nave to school ‘cafetorium’ to symphony hall and shout a resounding Bravissimi! to all and sundry.

Beyond that, though, the immersion of being in a place where a huge number of people, participants and supporters and happy observers alike, have come together from a wide range of territory for an extended period of days solely for love of music–that is a wholly different and magical experience everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy at least once. So I commend them to you, the small-scale community events offered by your local affiliated high schools and the international events hosted by long-lived organizations in exotic places and every variation on the theme you can find. I promise you will leave with a song in your heart and memories to last you to when all of your other memories have faded to dust and perhaps beyond. If music be the food of love, play on! For though in this line opening his play ‘Twelfth Night‘ Shakespeare exposed the Duke of Orsino’s conviction that being surfeited with love (in this instance, via its musical surrogate) would cure him of his hunger for it, I think that quite the opposite is true: if they are excellent, the more we experience them and are filled with them, the more we crave both love and music.

Food of that sort for thought: visit first the websites and then the events offered by your local choirs, bands, orchestras, theaters, and performance companies. My own favorites are hosted by professional organizations of music educators, conductors and performers simply because those are the ones I’ve naturally had the privilege to attend, as consort to my musical prince charming, and these all offer performances by top artists that are open to the public, sometimes even with free admission. Explore them! The organization that ‘sponsored’, or inspired and was the jumping-off point for, our honeymoon with its Singing Week in Veszprém–with its half-dozen ateliers conducted by musicians from Europe and North America and singers and whole choirs from all over as well–was what is now called the European Choral Association-Europa Cantat and it hosts a wide variety of such choral events throughout each year, with a focal youth choir festival occurring triennially in places like Passau, Leicestershire, Barcelona, Utrecht, Torino (2012), and Pécs, Hungary (a locale to be repeated in 2015).

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Just this month, the newly minted University Singers at UNT performed their first concert of the season with my spouse at the helm. If you live in or near a college town, you’ll find endless opportunities for attending all sorts of musical events, many of them free and most of them truly outstanding–after all, these people are all here gaining expertise for what may be their whole life’s passion, and performers need great audiences too.

Pop, folk, jazz, rock, blues, punk, bluegrass, Early Music, all flavors and kinds of music and individual organizations from the Oldtime Fiddlers [I once got to run the stage lighting for their competition in Washington state–fabulous fiddling, huge fun and even some fantastic yodeling!] to the Verona Opera [I can say from my one experience there that genuine opera under the stars is something not to be missed, even if it’s still 40°C when the singing ends in the middle of the night]: there is something for practically any musical taste out there, and many of them that I enjoy immensely are included among these. My personal pet organizations among the professional gang also include many others: IFCM (International Federation for Choral Music), ACDA (American Choral Directors Association), ACCC (Association of Canadian Choral Communities), TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association), Chorus America, the Boston (odd-numbered years in June), Berkeley (even-numbered years in June), and Vancouver (annually in August) Early Music festivals, and ever so much more.