Foodie Tuesday: Ripe and Sweet

I can still remember my first tomatoes.  No, that’s not a euphemism, and okay, they weren’t the first tomatoes I’d ever tasted, but they were definitely the most memorable.  I was seventeen, and newly arrived in Italy that late-August day to begin my year as a foreign exchange student.  At lunchtime, my host mother set a large ceramic bowl of quartered tomatoes on the table.  The tomatoes were freshly picked from the garden behind the house, still warm from the sun, and dressed lightly with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.

I sat at the table, jet-lagged and bewildered, and savored the sweetness of the tomatoes and the peppery, herbaceous olive oil.  The flavors were at once foreign and familiar, simple and nuanced.  This, I felt sure, was the very taste of summer—no—of happiness itself.

Spanish panzanella

Spanish panzanella

Now that we are careening headlong into prime-time tomato season (seriously, how are we already in the third week of July!?), here are a few incredibly simple and delicious ways to enjoy summer’s tomato bounty:

Spanish Panzanella
With a couple of simple twists (frying the bread in olive oil to fend off sogginess, adding anchovies and capers for a salty kick), my favorite food writer, Diana Henry, lends a touch of the exotic to what is traditionally an Italian bread-and-tomato salad.  Recipe here.

Summer Soup with Pistou
A(nother) Diana Henry recipe, from Plenty.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you only own one cookbook, Henry’s Plenty should be it.  Straightforward, creative, and eminently practical, Plenty contains recipes for every season and every palate.  This vegetable soup is hearty but not heavy, and the last-minute addition of fresh tomatoes imparts just the right amount of brightness.  The recipe can be found at the bottom of this post.


Summer tartines: tomato and goat cheese and avocado with lime and black pepper

Lunchtime Tartine
I know.  This is decidedly not a recipe.  It’s certainly not cooking, for heaven’s sake.  I’m including this tartine, though, because its simplicity is matched only by its tastiness.  Spread leftover pesto or olive tapenade on a slice of whole wheat country bread, preferably one with a chewy crust, and dot the surface with goat cheese.  Top with cherry tomatoes, then sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and pepper for a rustic lunch that’s filling but won’t weigh you down on a hot day.  (The last time I made tartines for lunch, I also made one topped with smashed avocado, a squeeze of lime, and lots of black pepper; the mellowness contrasted nicely with the tang of the goat cheese and tomatoes.)

There are so many ways to make the most of tomatoes.  I mean, I haven’t even mentioned caprese yet.   Summer is flying by, though, so however you plan to prepare them, get thee to a farmer’s market and pick up some ripe, sweet summer tomatoes, then mangia!  Mangia!


Summer soup with pistou

Summer soup with pistou

Diana Henry’s summer soupe au pistou, from Plenty
Gently cook 1 leek, 1 large potato, and 1 celery stalk, all chopped, in olive oil for 5 minutes, stirring.  Add 4½ cups chicken stock, season, and cook for 10 minutes.  Add 2 zucchini, chopped; 8 oz. green beans, trimmed; 1¼ cups cooked drained navy beans; and 12 cherry tomatoes, quartered.  Cook for 5 minutes, uncovered, then add 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley.  Put 2 bunches basil, 3 garlic cloves, salt, and pepper in a blender, process and add ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. Top the soup with spoonfuls of pistou and grated Parmesan.  Serves 4-6

Spotlight On….Janis Siegel

One of my very first musical purchases was a copy (on vinyl, no less!) of the Manhattan Transfer’s eponymous debut album.  I was a teenager in the wilds of Wasilla, Alaska then, and a fledgling singer.  When the Manhattan Transfer came to Anchorage to do a concert, I was front and center, astonished that so much music—so much joy—could come from four voices.

Post-recording session, 2007.  (L to R: Yaron Gershovsky, Kevin Osborne, Lincoln Briney, Laurel Massé, me, Janis Siegel)

Post-recording session, 2007. (L to R: Yaron Gershovsky, Kevin Osborne, Lincoln Briney, Laurel Massé, me, Janis Siegel)

So you see, I’d been a big fan of Janis Siegel’s for quite some time when my phone rang one afternoon in 2007.  It was Janis herself (!) calling to hire me for a recording project (!!).  If I had to choose the exact moment in which I felt I’d really and truly arrived in New York City, it would be when I received that phone call.

Since then, I’ve gotten to know Janis as a person as well as a musician, and I’ve become an even bigger fan of hers.  In addition to being a Grammy-winning vocalist and arranger, she’s an incredible cook, a great writer, and a very generous human being.

Thank you, Janis, for your kindness and inspiration.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
My early inspirations were Janis Joplin, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Motown music and Laura Nyro.  Music gave me the most joy, expression, and connection.  I naturally gravitated towards singing, writing, playing my guitar and traveling, whereas the academic life I was expected to pursue did not hold the same passion. I left nursing school/college at age 18 to pursue my muse.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Singing harmony has been the most natural thing for me. I’ve been doing it since I’m a girl, without any training.  My challenges have been sight reading, writing counterpoint, learning to sing less, and learning how to protect my voice from the rigors of the road, aging, and illness.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I would be an emergency room nurse or a surgical nurse.  I have always been fascinated with medicine and originally went to school to pursue a career in nursing.  I think I would enjoy and thrive on the challenges presented in these kind of traumatic/react-in-the-moment situations. Ultimately, I enjoy healing.

JanisImagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime.  Who is in your “dream band?”
Fred Hersch – piano, Boris Koslov – bass, Steve Gadd – drums, Nguyen Le – guitar, Romero Lubambo – guitar, Tivon Pennicott – tenor sax, Luisito Quintero – percussion

My dream band of the past: Art Tatum – piano, Ray Brown – bass, Gene Krupa – drums, Cannonball Adderley – alto sax, Michael Brecker – soprano and tenor sax, Clifford Brown – trumpet

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Food breeds loyalty.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
During the past two years I’ve been learning some songs in different languages…Spanish, Greek, French and currently, Portuguese.  I also am obsessed with different kinds of rhythmic structures from different musical cultures.  Right now in steady rotation: Nando Lauria, Sara Tavares, Monika Borzym, Robert Glasper, Janelle Monae, Santi Ibarretxe, Taylor Eigsti, Snarky Puppy, Bach…

Fun Facts…
One or all of these are true:
1. I have a morbid fascination with skin diseases.
2. I used to collect sea shells and dreamed of being a marine biologist.
3. My great uncle Chick was a Catskill comedian and my grandmother was a hat model who spoke Italian.
4. I once stayed several days at the Hell’s Angels car graveyard retreat in Reseda, California with the vice president of the Oakland Angels, Mexican Eddie.

Janis has some upcoming summer shows with the Manhattan Transfer, following her recent solo tour of the Philippines and Australia, which garnered rave reviews.  You can keep up with Janis’ solo performance schedule on her website or visit the Manhattan Transfer website for their tour dates.

Way Out West: Vegas, baby. Vegas. (And L.A.)

Last week, I traveled to Las Vegas and Los Angeles with the George Gee Swing Orchestra for an East Coast-meets-West Coast battle of the bands.  I was reminded of some important truths:

1. Las Vegas in July is, as Cole Porter put it, too darn hot, which can result in being confined to your hotel room, where at least it’s air conditioned and you don’t have to listen to the incessant beeping and buzzing of slot machines.

2. If you’re performing in Las Vegas, you may find that you share equal billing with a $7.77 all-you-can-eat casino buffet.  Live it.  Love it.  Embrace it.

3. Even a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker like me can find solace and (yes!) inspiration in the glory that is an In-N-Out burger. You win this round, L.A.

4. Playing music for a living is a pleasure and privilege; it’s pretty damn rewarding to be a part of something that results in lots and lots of people dancing and smiling.

5. Whether you’ve been away for a few days or a few years, there is no sight more welcome than that of New York City coming into view from the airplane.  There truly is no place like home.



June: Looking back, looking ahead.

Singing "Over the Rainbow" at the US Open, led by conductor David Michael Wolff

Singing “Over the Rainbow” at the US Open, led by conductor David Michael Wolff

You guys.  It’s July tomorrow, for crying out loud!  The summer is going by so quickly.  It’s not always easy, but I’m trying to remember to take time out for, well, doing nothing.  There’s a whole lot of busy-ness and business to take care of in our day-to-day lives, but I’ve found that taking an hour to read a book in the park or just stroll down a tree-lined street can make a huge difference in one’s mood and, yes, productivity.

My ode to leisure notwithstanding, June was fast-paced and filled with some pretty ridiculously fun gigs: DUCHESS brought girl-on-girl harmony to Birdland, I guested with the Carolina Philharmonic in a celebration of music from the movies and Broadway, and I teamed up with Joe Alterman, Jim Cammack, and Kevin Kanner for some jubilant, hard-swinging jazz in Greenwich Village and on Long Island.


DUCHESS backstage at Birdland

Looking ahead, July is filled with travel!  This Thursday, I’m boarding a plane with George Gee and friends for a couple of back-to-back big band gigs in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.  Later in July, I’m heading out to the Pacific Northwest for a few shows in Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland.  And in the last few days of July, the DUCHESS gals and I are hitting the road: Route 66, to be exact.  We’ll be sharing the stage with Bruce Forman’s CowBop and a host of other entertainers as we perform in historic theaters along the “highway that’s the best,” as the song goes.

In June, I…

Blogged about: The Return of Ad Alta Voce.  Singer-Friend Amy Cervini.  The Greek Festival.  Words & Music.

Watched: Veep.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus, cursing like a sailor.  Tony Hale.  Gary Cole.  Need I say more?

Read: What Is Visible, by Kimberly Elkins.  A fictional portrayal of real-life Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to learn language.  Sad, fascinating, beautifully written.

Listened to: Maria Rita and Marisa Monte.  Both women gorgeously meld traditional bossa nova with contemporary songwriting and production for the perfect summer soundtrack.

Somewhere in the midst of all this music and travel, I’m hoping to make it to the beach for an afternoon of unfettered relaxation.  Seize the summer, everybody—let’s all heed these wise words from Ferris Bueller:


Words & Music #8

The seven days I waited to die were strung like glass beads catching light in a window about to be flung up.  I watched the free, endless air, and phrases and scenes from the book reopened.  Like Prince Andrei flat on his back dying in battle when, for the first time, he sees with his entire self the blue and white of the sky, the open dome over this scrap of earth.

Two characters speak of preexistence and eternity.  If they are immortal spirits, they also existed before they were born.  All is one, past, present, future, and good.

That I was young didn’t matter.  I’d had what I wanted, dancing and George.  My dreams healed.  Each night I danced beautifully again, I was the leader of the Bacchantes, killing Orpheus with my powerful legs once more.

–Varley O’Connor, The Master’s Muse

Foodie Tuesday: Get Me to the Greek

GreekChurchEvery year in early June, the Greek Orthodox church down the street throws a festival and invites all of Brooklyn to take part.  For a solid week, our block is perfumed with garlic and grill smoke while Greek music (and, at night, thumping dance club jams) fill the air.

As teens in traditional garb link arms and perform Greek folk dances, their yia-yias sell seemingly endless trays of homemade spanakopita and honey-soaked desserts laden with pistachios, walnuts, and almonds. Handsome young guys work the grill stations, serving up souvlaki, gyros, and octopus to hungry Brooklynites.

PicnicAll week, the street is closed to cars and a vaguely European atmosphere takes hold.  Diners fill the tables in the street and a handsome priest in a gray robe belted with a rope meanders through the crowd, greeting parishioners and locals who are gathered in downtown Brooklyn to eat, drink, and make merry.

This year, E. and I made the most of a fairly rare occurrence: a sunny, warm Saturday night when neither of us had to work.  We arrived early at the festival and picked up some grilled octopus (charred and smoky, but delicately flavored and very tender) and a gyro platter, along with spanakopita and a big Greek salad.

WineParkWe also picked up some homemade Greek yogurt with a sour cherry compote and a piece of kataifi, redolent of cinnamon and honey, for dessert.  Armed with this feast and a bottle of cold, crisp white wine, we made our way to the waterfront park, where we set up a blanket and dined as the sun set over Brooklyn.

As an avid eater and home cook, I love the way food inhabits—indeed, creates—our memories, and over the past few years, the taste of our neighborhood Greek festival has become inextricably linked with summer. From the creamy tang of feta cheese against the sweetness of cherry tomatoes to the garlicky earthiness of lamb with tzatziki on pillowy flatbread, the flavors sing of sunshine and warm breezes.

BkBridgeSomeday, I hope we’ll travel to Greece and dine as the Parthenon looms in the distance. Until then, the Greek festival right here in Brooklyn is a glorious way to spend a summer evening.  Opa!

Spotlight On…Amy Cervini

Amy Cervini  is not only a singer I admire greatly, but she and I go way back as musical collaborators, too.  From a vocal quartet to “duet night” at the 55 bar to the girl-on-girl harmonic hijinks of DUCHESS, Amy and I have logged quite a few musical miles together.  And no matter what the setting—backed by a full orchestra or singing a cappella, fronting a big band or a rhythm section—Amy’s fearlessness and joy are constantly inspiring.

amy cervini jazzHere’s something you should know about Amy: she accomplishes more before noon than many people do in a week.  Seriously.  Amy performs, she teaches, she’s a publicist and manager, she’s a relentless supporter of her fellow musicians on the scene, and—oh, yeah—she’s raising two gorgeous kids with her husband, producer-arranger-composer Oded Lev-Ari.  How she gets everything done, I have no idea, but she just released her fourth (fourth!) CD, Jazz Country, to rave reviews, and recently completed a West Coast tour.

Amy graciously took some time out of her always-packed schedule to answer a few questions for the inaugural post in the “Spotlight On…” series here at Ad Alta Voce.  Thank you, Amy!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I’ve been playing music since I was a child and began playing in big bands when I was around 11 or so.  Both of my siblings also played and we really connected over this shared interest.  I actually tried really hard NOT to be a musician and tried moving schools from an arts high school to “regular” high school, but found myself in the music room rather than the classroom.  I finally had to surrender!  I discovered that performing and specifically singing is an essential part of who I am.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging? 
Having started as an instrumentalist rather than a vocalist, I can sometimes have a very “non-singer” approach to things.  I ended up singing rather than playing because I felt like the horn was a barrier, stopping me from saying what I needed to say.  Then, I had to learn to stop thinking like an instrumentalist all the time.  My focus had to shift from notes and time to telling a story.  Let me clarify: notes and time are still important, but the main focus had to become telling a story.  It took a while for me to get that.  I think the thing that has been the most natural for me has been the feel of the music that I sing most often, jazz.  I think that some singers struggle with the feel because they are introduced to jazz later in their life, but because of my saxophone background, I had been listening to jazz since I was about 11.AmyCerviniClose

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
I think I would be a marine biologist.  That’s what I was thinking in high school and college when I tried not to be a musician.  I love the water.  I don’t know if I could hang with all the math that is required to be a scientist, but I used to be good at it back in the day so maybe…

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
My dream band is (one of many, I’m sure, but this is the first that comes to mind): Cannonball Adderley on saxophone, Bruce Barth on piano, Christian McBride on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
Because of my Jazz Country project, there’s a lot of country going on right now.  Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, etc.  Lately I’ve been so busy learning music that I need to perform that I don’t have a whole lot of time to actually listen to new things.  I also have a big stack of CDs to listen to by my friends and colleagues.  I recently had a chance to listen to Jean Rohe‘s new CD; it’s beautiful!  Still waiting for a moment to check out a new one by Gian Slater.

Fun Fact
I hate bananas.  I am actually quite picky with food.  I’ve expanded my palate a ton since moving to NYC but I still don’t really like most fish, I don’t care for tomatoes, I don’t like beets, I don’t like cooked fruit…the list sort of goes on for a while.  I’m a pretty laid back gal so I think that surprises people.

You can catch Amy performing live this month in an intimate duo setting (voice and guitar) at the Lexington Hotel (511 Lexington Avenue) at 6:00 pm on June 12 and June 24.  Rumor has it that DUCHESS may be making an appearance, too!  Amy also holds a once-monthly residency at the 55 bar; her next show there is on July 3 (7:00-9:00 pm).