December: Looking back, looking ahead

December began quietly enough, but by the time Christmas rolled around, I’d recorded a new album, shot a part in a movie, and performed in Rome and Tuscany. I know. I can’t quite believe it all, myself.

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At Systems Two with pianist Ehud Asherie & producer Eli Wolf.

Early in the month, my friend and frequent collaborator Ehud Asherie and I went into the studio with a bunch of songs—some familiar standards as well as off-the-beaten-path gems—and spent a lovely day recording vocal/piano duos at Systems Two, my favorite studio. We wanted to capture the intimacy and spontaneity of our performances at Mezzrow, and I think we succeeded. (Incidentally, we’ll be at Mezzrow on January 10 and would love to see you there!)

I don’t know what I’m allowed to tell you about the movie thing, so I’ll keep things vague: the film is a mini-series helmed by director Errol Morris. It was picked up by Netflix, but I have no idea when it’ll air. I got to wear a super-glam vintage dress and sing a swinging, new-to-me song for a nightclub scene, in which I played (surprise!) a jazz singer. During my (long) day on set, I learned that a) movie-making involves a lot more waiting around and a lot less glamour than you might expect, and b) no one should wear a corset for 13 hours. I had grooves in my torso. Ow. Restrictive undergarments notwithstanding, I think this is going to be a fantastic project and I’ll definitely share more info as details emerge, which likely won’t be for several months.

img_8484Recent viewings of Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain had had me dreaming of Rome, and in a flash of benevolent synchronicity, I received an invitation to give a couple of private performances in the Eternal City over Christmas. Giddy with delight, I hopped aboard an Alitalia flight with E. and spent a very happy week making music and living la dolce vita.

We saw the Colosseo bathed in honeyed late-afternoon sunlight and watched the city turn pink at sunset from the top of the Gianicolo (Janiculum hill). Ramrod-straight cypresses and imposing pines presided quietly over the ancient city, as they have done for millennia, while high-fashion storefronts and elegant hotels sparkled with Christmas lights and decorations. On Christmas Eve, we stood silently in the Pantheon and listened to a few minutes of midnight mass. The neighborhoods of Trastevere and the Jewish quarter provided welcome respite from the post-holiday throngs at the Fontana di Trevi and the Vatican.

img_8132And—you knew this was coming—the food! We ate fettuccine Alfredo at the restaurant where the eponymous chef/owner invented the dish, and pasta all’Amatriciana in a restaurant frequented by Fellini in his day. Pizza a taglio (paid by weight, not slice) awaited us at Pizzarium, where unique flavor combinations (my favorite was buttery mashed potatoes and mozzarella) and impossibly light, crispy crust have garnered well-deserved international recognition.

We sipped caffe marocchino at the bar at Caffe Sant’Eustachio and swooned over the silken gelato at La Romana and Giolitti. Christmas Eve was spent at La Rosetta, for course after course of the most elegant seafood dinner I’ve ever eaten. Our last day in Rome, we joined new Roman friends for high tea at Babington’s, an English tea room that has stood adjacent to the Spanish Steps since the 18th century, then we walked to Campo de’ Fiori for a final dinner at iconic Roscioli.

img_8621I did spend a couple of days in the throes of a stomach-bug-turned-head-cold, but not even illness could lessen the magic of Rome at Christmastime. In fact, our trip was so filled with beauty and joy that getting sick felt somewhat penitential—a small price to pay for an unforgettable holiday.

Now, here we are, in the first days of 2017. As in years past, one word has presented itself as talisman and goal for the year ahead: communication. It seems fitting, as the year ahead will see the release of no fewer than three new CDs (Duchess’ sophomore release is coming next month, and I have two other projects in post-production right now), and a couple of other non-singing projects are fomenting as well. But first things first. It’s time to take down the Christmas tree.

img_8635In December, I…
Blogged about: November. Singer-friend Gabrielle Stravelli.

Read: The Mother’s Recompense, by Edith Wharton. It had been well over a decade since I’d read Wharton, and returning to her forthright, incisive prose was a treat (although this story was incredibly sad). M Train, by Patti Smith, which I read while sick in bed in Rome. Smith’s dreamlike, poetic memoir is filled with reminiscences of her own travels and occasional illnesses abroad. It was, along with cups of chamomile tea and a deeply cozy hotel bed, comforting while I was under the weather.

Watched: White Christmas. I mean, obviously. Anthony Bourdain’s Rome-themed travel shows.

Listened to: Well, Christmas music, of course. Also lots of podcasts. I’m really digging Homecoming, Milk Street Radio, and Everyday Emergency.

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Foodie Tuesday: Fast & Festive

June-cleaver

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, and I’ve been whiling away my December afternoons by cooking.  Whether I’m baking cookies and listening to Christmas music or preparing the Sunday roast while serenely sipping a glass of wine, the kitchen is the perfect place for reflecting on the joy of the season.

HA HA, JUST KIDDING.  I’VE HAD THREE COLDS AND HAVE BEEN SO BUSY I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS RIGHT NOW.  I ONLY KNOW THAT I’M WICKED BEHIND ON EVERYTHING, AND PUTTERING AROUND IN THE KITCHEN LIKE A DERANGED JUNE CLEAVER IS ABOUT THE LAST DAMN THING ON MY MIND.

Ahem.

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Seriously, though, how does this happen?  I remember being a kid and feeling like Christmas would never arrive, and now I look at the calendar and just fucking panic because the time is flying by so quickly.  This particular holiday season feels especially frenetic, as I’ll be singing on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year, so our big holiday home cooking extravaganza is likely not going to happen until New Year’s Eve.  What to do in the meantime, then, for some festive (but low-maintenance) holiday treats?  Well, below are some foodstuffs and libations that will spark the holiday spirit but which require little to no effort to throw together and may, in fact, inspire a night out on the town.

1. Appetizers for dinner.  Swing into your corner store and pick up a couple of good cheeses (mix it up: try a cloth-bound cheddar and a soft, creamy blue or a nutty Parmigiano and silken triple-creme), some marinated olives, some sliced prosciutto or store-bought pâté, and a baguette, and voilà: an elegant, no-fuss repast that feels chic and celebratory.   These noshes are perfect for when you’d love to have dinner with a friend but don’t want to spend a bunch of money at a restaurant or slave over a hot stove at home.

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2. Eggnog.  I know, it’s so obvious, so slow-and-over-the-center-of-the-plate, that I’m almost embarrassed to include eggnog on this list.  But this wildly caloric holiday tipple is a classic for a reason. I tend to loathe mornings, but this time of year, I look forward to making an eggnog latte and sitting by the Christmas tree while I wake up and prepare to face the day. And, at the end of a long day battling crowded subways and an ever-expanding to-do list, a glass of eggnog dusted with a whisper of freshly grated nutmeg and bolstered by a shot of bourbon or dark rum (my favorite) is a balm for the spirit.

3. Clementines.  I’ve never been a big fan of oranges, but last year at about this time, I was leaving an evening yoga class (insert “caricature of a Brooklynite” joke here), and the teacher offered me a clementine for the road, which I ate slowly as I walked home.  The night air was still and icy, and each wedge of clementine seemed to contain a bright, intense burst of sunshine. Eating that clementine in that winter night air felt meditative and right; it was one of those food experiences that is memorable for its simplicity and clarity.  I love to end my day with a cup of herbal tea and a clementine.  (The shot of vitamin C feels restorative, too, as cold and flu bugs abound this time of year.)

4. Oysters.  I know that it is now perfectly acceptable to consume oysters in the months without the letter “R” in their name—May, June, July, and August—but just as I only drink rosé in the warm months, I only eat oysters when there’s a chill in the air.  For a decadent treat, I love to spontaneously duck into a charming bistro and enjoy a dozen oysters on the half-shell while I read a good book (it feels vaguely illicit and Parisian).

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5. Bubbles.  I couldn’t write about oysters (or the holidays, for that matter) without mentioning sparkling wine.  Whether it’s champagne, prosecco, or cava, if it has bubbles, I want some.  Just one bracing sip of ice-cold sparkling wine calls to mind the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon’s (likely apocryphal) exclamation upon discovering champagne: “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” The holidays’ hectic pace notwithstanding, there is much to celebrate this time of year, and there’s really nothing more celebratory than a flute of bubbly.

If you’ve  managed to keep your pantry as full as your calendar this holiday season, I salute you.  For my part, though, I’m surrendering the notion that I can keep my sanity intact and spend leisurely hours in the kitchen this time of year.  Until the holiday frenzy is past, I foresee a lot of catch-as-catch can meals and, yes, sparkling wine in my future.  Cin-cin, santé, and happy holiday eating and drinking!

Foodie Tuesday: NOLA Edition

If you’ve been keeping up with the gals of DUCHESS (and, for heaven’s sake, please do!), then you know that we recently spent a whirlwind weekend in New Orleans, fêting the Boswell Sisters and their legacy of close harmony singing.  We performed at Snug Harbor with a panoply of NOLA’s finest musicians, then joined a bunch of other girl groups for a Boswell Revue; you can see photos and read all about our trip over on the DUCHESS blog.

This post, however, is about the bacchanal of eating we did in New Orleans.  We landed midday and were ready for some lunch, so after setting our bags down in our Bywater shotgun shack, we headed over to The Joint for some BBQ.  Because I excel at moderation (ha), I ordered a platter of ribs, pulled pork, and brisket, plus mac & cheese, coleslaw, and a side of pickled jalapeños.  A frosty Abita was, obviously, the only appropriate beverage pairing.

Leaving The Joint, we passed by a neighborhood store that had a sign out front advertising “Wildlife Specials”: rabbit, raccoon, and alligator meat were all for sale.  Next time?

Left: BBQ in the Bywater, Right: a NOLA wildlife menu (live snapper turtles!?)

Left: BBQ in the Bywater, Right: a NOLA wildlife menu (live snapper turtles!?)

Some dear friends of mine had recently vacationed in New Orleans in honor of their ten-year wedding anniversary, and they kindly gave me some pre-trip dining recommendations.  Thanks to their sage counsel, DUCHESS wound up in the French Quarter’s Verti Marte for some pre-gig po’boys.  I opted for a grilled shrimp sandwich.  The picture you are seeing is half—HALF—a sandwich.  There are fully-grown dachshunds who are smaller than this sandwich.  But the shrimp were so tender, and the bread so fresh, that I am proud (and somewhat mortified) to say that I ate the whole thing.  The whole thing.  And then, in a feat that defies all laws of physics, the DUCHESS gals somehow squeezed into our Spanx and tight dresses and sang the gig.  WHERE IS OUR GRAMMY FOR MOST FOOD CONSUMED IN A SINGLE SITTING BEFORE A GIG?

So much goodness.  So much cholesterol.  So worth it.

So much goodness. So much cholesterol. So worth it.

Chicory coffee and beignets: the perfect way to start the day in NOLA.

Chicory coffee and beignets: the perfect way to start the day in NOLA.

One fine morning, we made our way to Morning Call over in City Park.  No trip to New Orleans would be complete without beignets and chicory coffee, after all.  We sipped our cafés au laits and ate the feather-light beignets while a young trio played the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”  Despite a brief but torrential downpour, it was the perfect way to spend our morning.

We wound down every evening in NOLA by sitting on the front porch of our sweet little house, listening to the crickets chirp and chatting about the day’s adventures.  It was on this porch that I met my new favorite snack of all time: Cajun Dill Gator-Tators.  These spicy, dill pickle-flavored potato chips were crunchy and salty and the perfect accompaniment to our icy cold beers.  And speaking of beer, I’d like to go on record as saying that there is something singularly atmospheric and satisfying about strolling through the French Quarter on a languid, humid afternoon while drinking a beer in broad daylight.

Beer, chips, open-air drinking.  Sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you!

Gator-Tators, our sweet little NOLA porch, and open-air drinking….what’s not to love?

We closed our trip with a fancy-schmancy dinner at Herbsaint, helmed by chef Donald Link.  My entrée, a confit duck leg atop “dirty rice” (rice cooked with chicken liver, bell peppers, and Cajun spices) was a perfect example of how Herbsaint brings quintessentially Southern flavors to traditional French and Italian dishes.  We ate, we drank, and we toasted to the magic of New Orleans.  Les bons temps definitely rouler’ed, and I cannot wait to go back for some more music and food.  Until next time, NOLA!

Top: the DUCHESS team toasting to NOLA at Herbsaint (Amy, Oded, Melissa); Lower left: duck confit atop "dirty rice," Lower right: watermelon gazpacho with lump crabmeat

Top: the DUCHESS team toasting to NOLA at Herbsaint (Amy, Oded, Melissa); Lower left: duck confit atop “dirty rice,” Lower right: watermelon gazpacho with lump crabmeat

Autumn in New York

LeavesAndPumpkinsCollageWe have careened headlong into fall.  Summer was a nonstop flurry of singing and travel, and the past three weeks or so have been such a blur of activity (my CD was officially released, my parents came to visit, DUCHESS took a trip to New Orleans) that the turning leaves and ever-cooler temperatures took me by surprise.  I savor this time of year, and it was a bit jarring to glance at the calendar and realize that we’re rapidly nearing the end of October.  With the exception of drinking a couple of pumpkin spice lattes recently (I know, I know) and the happy donning of my favorite scarves and sweaters, I’ve scarcely noticed that my favorite season is flying by; Thanksgiving will be here before we know it!

Yesterday, the lure of crisp air and clear skies proved to be irresistible and I took a couple of hours to meander through my Brooklyn neighborhood.  With no particular destination in mind, I was free to stop and smile at brightly decorated brownstone stoops, festooned with oddly-shaped gourds and pumpkins of all colors and sizes.  Upon returning home, I made a big pot of roasted butternut squash and apple soup.  It’s a start.

Brooklyn stoops, in full autumn regalia.

Brooklyn stoops, in full autumn regalia.

Still on my fall to-do list?  More only-in-autumn recipes, like this butternut squash strata from my culinary hero, Diana Henry.  A caramel apple from the farmers market, and some apple cider to heat on the stove with a stick of cinnamon, too.  Definitely a trip to Central Park for some quiet reading in the Conservatory Gardens (maybe I’ll pair this excursion with a visit to the MOMA to take in the Matisse exhibit).  A late-afternoon glass of red wine in a cozy bistro, catching up with an old friend.

I know I’m biased—my all-consuming love of New York City is well documented on this blog—but autumn in New York glows with a singular beauty, perhaps borne of the juxtaposition of nature’s splendor and the city’s hustle and bustle.  As the song goes, “it’s good to live it again.”

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Foodie Tuesday: An impromptu jaunt to Italy…er, Eataly

Last Friday was one of those picture-perfect September days in the city.  The skies were clear, the air was crisp, and the foot traffic on 5th Avenue was a beautiful parade of the “glittering crowds…in canyons of steel” that Vernon Duke surely had in mind when he wrote “Autumn in New York.”

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Hallelujah! An unabashed celebration of carbohydrates.

As I left my late-morning voice lesson, I realized that nothing on my to-do list was terribly pressing, and so I could take my time getting back to Brooklyn.  I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to duck into Eataly for a quick lunch and look-around, and was reminded of something that Italians seem to know instinctively: stealing an hour for a delicious meal and a bit of unapologetic leisure is deeply restorative and good for the soul.

Mario Batali’s sprawling, airy monument to all of Italy’s culinary delights can be a little overwhelming, it’s true.  Eataly houses walls of cookbooks and sleek, Italian-designed cookware, bottles of extra virgin olive oil in every imaginable shade of green-gold, a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheese shop, no fewer than seven restaurants plus a Nutella bar (!) and a room dedicated solely to gelato and espresso, so it can be hard to know where to start.

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The essence of Italian cooking: high-quality ingredients, prepared simply so that the flavors sing of themselves.

I strolled slowly, smiling at the innumerable shapes and sizes of pasta that lined Eataly’s shelves.  I marveled, too, at the vast array of honeys from all over Italy (chestnut, acacia, linden, wildflower) and pondered having a lunch of gelato (pistacchio, nocciola, and cioccolato, to be exact) before taking a seat at the bar in Le Verdure, Eataly’s vegetarian restaurant.  I ordered the bruschetta del giorno: toasted country bread topped with goat cheese, fresh figs, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Wanting something sophisticated but non-alcoholic to drink, I also ordered a blood orange San Pellegrino soda.

I ate slowly, reading a book and people-watching.  At the end of my lunch, I felt that a metaphorical as well as literal hunger had been satisfied.  It’s easy, in our always-frenetic American lives, to pooh-pooh our need (yes, need) for la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).  But the truth is, an hour spent savoring a well-prepared meal and enjoying a favorite corner of the city can reinvigorate one’s spirit and even boost productivity.  I left Eataly with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, newly resolved to find more moments of indulgence and relaxation amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

I miss Italy terribly, and can’t wait to go back for an in situ dose of la dolce vita, but in the meantime, it does my heart good to know that Italy-via-Eataly is just a subway ride away.

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Songs for Supper

Jazz Musicians & Food

L to R: Duke Ellington, enjoying a sundae; Billie Holiday, cooking; Frank Sinatra, having coffee & a donut in his dressing room.

Musicians tend to be bons vivants, possessing refined palates honed from playing countless gigs at fancy-schmancy shindigs with top-shelf food and drinks.  Lots of musicians are great home cooks, too; maybe there’s a connection between improvising in a band and improvising in the kitchen?  Whatever the explanation may be, I think it’s safe to say that musicians, as a group, love food with a special fervor.  When musicians get together, it’s usually not long before the conversation turns to what we’re eating on the way to the gig, what we’ll be eating at the gig, and where we’ll go to eat after the gig.

Today’s Foodie Tuesday post raises a metaphorical glass to the love affair between musicians and food, although this smattering of food-themed songs doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how many great tunes have been written about eating and drinking.

Sweet Kentucky Ham, written by Dave Frishberg, performed by Rosemary Clooney
Man, did Rosemary Clooney have a way with a lyric or what?  Perhaps more than any other song I can think of, this tune encapsulates what it feels like to be in a lonely hotel, dreaming of the taste of home.  In his signature style, Frishberg has written a wry lyric that is both humorous and heartbreaking.

Eggs and Sausage, written and performed by Tom Waits
I first heard this tune on Waits’ live-in-the-studio recording, Nighthawks at the Diner, when I was about twelve years old.  This tune, in particular, evoked everything that I imagined adulthood held in store for me: late nights, breakfast-for-dinner, and city life.  As it turns out, the adult me does love all of those things.  I also love this clip of a very young Tom Waits on the Mike Douglas show, in which Douglas hilariously introduces Waits as “…a combination poet, jazz singer, and vagrant, with a surprising amount of personal charm.”  For his part, Tom Waits describes himself as “an unemployed service station attendant.”

Frim Fram Sauce, written by Redd Evans & Joe Ricardel, performed by the Nat “King” Cole Trio
I don’t know what “frim fram” sauce is (although autocorrect seems to think it’s “from farm,” so maybe there’s a connection?).  Nor have I ever eaten “ossenfay” or a side of “sha fa fa,” but this is the first song that came to mind when I decided to post about food and music.  Nat Cole was such an incredible musician; he made everything look so effortless, but he was playing a lot of piano and his singing was smooth as silk.   The double-takes between the “two Nats” in this clip are priceless.  For another take on the tune, check out Amy Cervini’s version.

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, written by Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, performed by Frank Sinatra
This song won an Oscar in 1951; it’s a very silly lyric that is offset by a couple of rather unexpected harmonic shifts.  Only Frank Sinatra could sing about a “weenie bake, steak, and a layer cake” and make it sound swinging and cool.

Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama), written by Sidney Bechet & Leonard Ware, performed by Fats Waller
The Andrews Sisters had a massive hit with this song, but I’m including Fats Waller’s version here.  His hilarious and playful interpretation makes it clear that this song is, perhaps, not really about food at all.  You be the judge.

Bon appétit, happy listening, and please feel free to share some of your favorite food songs in the comments!

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.

tartines

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