April: Looking back, looking ahead

April was filled with travel and music, including a sunny week on the Baja in Mexico, filled with painterly sunsets and pizzas on the grill, weathered wooden doors in sleepy little towns, and morning tea in oversized Talavera mugs. It’s always restorative to soak up the sun for a few days, especially in early April, when one is thoroughly tired of winter (even a relatively mild one) but spring has not yet officially made her presence known.

Mexico…I think that’s a perfectly reasonable size for a margarita, don’t you?

Later in the month, I found myself in the verdant, misty Pacific Northwest with Duchess for some teaching and a few shows in Portland and Seattle. I spent my early twenties in Seattle, discovering the city and adulthood itself through waitressing, singing, and some ill-considered love affairs. Singing has brought me back to Seattle several times in recent years, and I’m always grateful to be able to (at last!) enjoy the memories and familiarity without carrying the weight of old, bad decisions and cringe-worthy moments.

I’ve been traveling pretty frequently, mostly for work, since December and it feels great to be at home for a while. Looking ahead, there’s much to do and the calendar has a way of filling up, for which I am thankful; my official performance schedule is fairly bare until mid-summer, but a number of private party gigs have materialized in recent weeks. I’m also putting the finishing touches on my new website (huzzah!) and firming up release plans for my new recording project, a piano/vocal collaboration with Ehud Asherie.

I am buying armloads of lilacs at every street corner flower stand that still carries them and waiting, with bated breath, for warmer temperatures and clearer skies.

In April, I…
Blogged about: February and March.

Read: In Altre Parole, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve longed to recommence thinking and speaking in Italian, and since a return to la bella Italia isn’t on the horizon at present, I figured that reading in Italian would be a good place to start. I found Lahiri’s bilingual memoir of studying and writing in Italian to be circular and overly precious, but I loved the ritual of reading aloud in Italian every evening with an Italian/English dictionary at my side. I’ve got a couple of Italian-language books here at home, and the Brooklyn Public Library has a great foreign language section, so I’m looking forward to making this a new habit.

Watched: Z: The Beginning of Everything. Christina Ricci stars in this Amazon series about the early years of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clothes, music, and art direction are lots of fun, once you get past Ricci’s Southern accent. The New York Yankees! This team is on fire and I had a blast at my first game of the season. I can’t wait to go back.

Listened to: Louis Prima, The Wildest. God, what a fun record.

February and March: Looking back, looking ahead

One year ago, I wrote a “looking back, looking ahead” post for all of spring, comprising the months of March, April, and May. I’d like to avoid such a backlog this time around, but here I am, reflecting on February and March, smack dab in the middle of April. The funny/annoying thing is, while February and March were certainly not a snooze fest, they were fairly relaxed (March, in particular), so I don’t really even have a good excuse for my radio silence here.

Duchess has had a lot going on in the past couple of months: our new album, Laughing at Life, was released to critical acclaim in February, and we rode the momentum with the launch of our podcast, Harmony & Hijinks, as well as tours to the midwest and Canada and a standing-room-only four-night run at Greenwich Village’s 55 bar.

In my solo singing life, we continued post-production on The Late Set, my upcoming CD with pianist Ehud Asherie. In the last days of March, I spent a couple of days in Hilton Head, South Carolina singing at the Jazz Corner with Ehud, joined by New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher.

A few of the home-cooked meals that brightened February and March: butternut squash and pork sausage done cacio e pepe style; beef stew with anchovies and olives; kielbasa on split pea puree with caraway butter.

February and March were also filled with some lovely meals—both at home and in restaurants—and (probably too much) time binge-watching some fantastic new and new-to-me TV shows on Amazon Prime.

A few meals eaten out and about: savory ramen in Toronto; a pre-Valentine’s Day Spanish-style feast at Brooklyn’s La Vara; a rainy-day visit to Peking Duck House in Chinatown, following a screening of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” at Film Forum.

Looking ahead, there’s much to tell about April, including recent travels to Mexico and an upcoming Pacific Northwest tour with Duchess, but I’ll save all that for a couple of weeks, when I’ll be writing my end-of-month musings at the appropriate time (!).

In February and March, I…
Blogged about: January. Getting back on my (culinary) feet.

Read: La Venessiana, a Venice-centric blog that, however briefly, transports me to La Serenissima. This article by Tamar Adler about having a “house meal.” I wouldn’t say we have a “house meal,” per se—that is, we don’t do a lot of template cooking—but I find great comfort in the handful of stalwart recipes that we make again and again.

Watched: A whole lot of great shows on Amazon Prime. The Man in the High Castle, which asks the question, “What if the other side had won WWII?” Completely engrossing. Mozart in the Jungle, which boasts a fantastic cast (Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters) and puts classical music in the spotlight. Goliath, starring the always-excellent Billy Bob Thornton as a brilliant but troubled lawyer who takes on a wrongful death case against a huge corporation and his old law firm. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, set in 1958 New York City and centering on a young Jewish housewife’s foray into the world of stand-up comedy. The soundtrack for the pilot was filled with Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, and super-young Barbra Streisand. I am delighted—delighted!—that this show was greenlit for two seasons.

Listened to: Luiz Bonfa, Solo in Rio, 1959, damn near every morning. A lovely way to start the day. At the Supper Club, with Peggy Lee subbing for Jo Stafford. A friend gave me a CD of some rare live radio broadcasts from 1946 and 1949, recorded for the Armed Forces Radio Service, and they are a delight from start to finish (thank you, Stan!). Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. His interviews with Elaine Stritch and John Turturro had me howling with laughter.

Spring: Looking back, looking ahead

All too quickly, spring has come and gone and we are careening full tilt toward summer. What can I say about the past few months? March took me to Mexico, where I spent a lovely week with my parents, who live on the Baja.

We sipped mango smoothies in the mornings and strolled long stretches of the all-but-deserted beach in the afternoon. We cooked lots of delicious food and drank lots of ice-cold Mexican beer. We road-tripped to El Triunfo, Todos Santos (my favorite) and La Paz. I delighted in painterly Baja sunsets and the velvety-dark night sky, perfect for stargazing. I can’t wait to go back.

Mexico1

April’s highlight was a quick tour to Montana with Duchess. That same month, I joined millions of fans in mourning Prince’s untimely death. Then, May ushered in a stubborn summer cold (yuck) and the recording of Duchess’ second CD (yay!).

Looking ahead, I am eagerly anticipating a return to Northern California for a tour with Duchess next week. June has been fast-paced and full of activity, but the rest of the summer looks quite relaxed, with time for afternoons spent reading in the park, weekend getaways, and (I hope!) spontaneous beach days.

Also on my summer agenda? Digging deep into this book and honing my sight-reading skills. Summer school, if you will.

This spring, I…
Blogged about: Singer-friend Thana Alexa. Duchess’ upcoming new CD & recent Montana tour. The Everlasting Now.

Read: I did a lot of reading the past few months. I’ll spare you the complete list, but here are some of the books that stand out. And Again, by Jessica Chiarella. A vaguely dystopian novel whose premise centers on the complex ethical issues surrounding human cloning. At its core, though, this is really a novel about identity; what actually is the “self” when a person’s body (and a lifetime of scars, piercings, tattoos, and illnesses) can be erased and recreated as new? Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. In all honesty, Rubin’s approach to life often comes across as austere, or even joyless, but her research on how and why we form (and keep!) habits was interesting and useful. A House in the Heights, by Truman Capote. Some of the loveliest prose I have ever read, with the added delight of being set in my neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. I wanted to memorize each sentence. Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. A challenging and extremely well-written portrait of a marriage. The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin. A feather-light but enjoyable imagining of the real-life friendship between Truman Capote and New York socialites in the 1950s. The Voiceover Artist, by Dave Reidy. Wry and sweet, and imbued throughout with a sense of place (the novel is set in Chicago), I enjoyed this debut novel. In Some Other World, Maybe, by Shari Goldhagen. I expected this novel to be a fluffy read, but it was poignant and smart and human. I really liked it.

Watched: Birdman (on the plane from Montana). Sophie’s Choice. I’d read William Styron’s novel and seen the film adaptation years ago, but was blown away all over again by the actors’ nuanced, earnest performances. Silicon Valley and Veep, both of which make me cackle.

Listened to: Chris Isaak, The Baja Sessions. I’ve loved this record for years, but after my idyllic week on the Baja in March, I’ll forever associate it with long drives through Mexico. Prince. Lots and lots of Prince. Peggy Lee.

 

Foodie Tuesday: Spring Green

IMG_2447After a long, dark winter, the lush unfurling of springtime is a benediction.  The regeneration of the natural world is energizing and inspiring, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) the intense “circle-of-life” reflection that the season can bring, spring finds me wanting to lighten up. Culinarily speaking, I crave brightness and simplicity, which can be easily found in spring produce: baby asparagus, fava beans, and new peas, to be precise, all of which have made appearances on our dinner table in recent weeks.

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the culinary section of a used bookstore in DUMBO when I chanced upon Amarcord, a memoir by Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking.  Hazan’s forthright description of springtime vignarola is proof positive that Italians are unparalleled when it comes to showcasing the intrinsic glories of seasonal produce.

You must be there at just the one moment in the spring when baby fava beans, small rosebud artichokes, and very small peas, all at the same early stage of development, appear in the market at the identical time.  If it should last more than two weeks, it is a lucky year; a month, a prodigy.  You also need some cipollotti, young onions, and a small head of romaine lettuce.  The onion is sliced and cooked in olive oil until it is very soft.  You add the lettuce, the trimmed artichokes, the shelled beans and peas, and cook.  The vegetables are so young that it doesn’t take very long.  When done, it doesn’t look very presentable.  It is a dark, mushy mass that you might think a careless cook had produced.  But when you take a mouthful, it is as though spring itself in all its tenderness has been delivered in edible form.

Fava beans team up with asparagus in another quintessentially springtime preparation, which is so simple that it can scarcely be called a “recipe.”  I’ve prepared this salad as a side dish, but tossed with pieces of gently poached chicken breast or topped with a broiled salmon fillet (in which case I’d omit the cheese), it can easily serve as the main event.

Spring Salad (adapted from Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl)

  • 1 bunch of young asparagus
  • 1 cup of cooked fresh fava beans (blanch and remove outer skins) 
  • generous handful of chopped mint
  • 1/2 cup of shaved pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • squeeze of lemon (optional)

Steam or boil the asparagus until the spears are just tender—they should retain a bit of firmness.  Shock the asparagus in an ice bath and chop into 2″ pieces.  Toss the asparagus and the fava beans in a couple of tablespoons of grassy extra virgin olive oil, along with the mint and cheese, then add salt and pepper to taste.  For extra brightness, finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Here in New York City, outdoor space can be tough to come by, and few of us are able to eat what we’ve grown ourselves.  Happily, farmer’s markets abound, bringing the verdant freshness of spring vegetables within reach.  This time of year, it is easy bein’ green.

Veg Collage

April: Looking back, looking ahead

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.” -Ellis Peters

11204887_10205714760681892_444853869013410021_nTo begin a post with a quote feels very “college-admissions-essay” to me, but Ellis Peters’ words seem especially fitting in these first days of May. Seemingly overnight, New York City has burst into exuberant, riotous bud and flower.  E. and I took a trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on Sunday and the beauty was overwhelming.  The scent of lilacs wafted on the breeze, the rainbow-hued tulips were dazzling, and we were so happy to stroll in the springtime sunshine that our first sunburns of the season went unnoticed until the following morning.

But, as the song goes, “spring can really hang you up the most,” and that feels pretty goddamn true, lately, too.  Last week, I was devastated to learn that my first singing teacher and musical mentor died of breast cancer. During my wretchedly awkward early teenage years, Janet Stotts gave me a sense of self and of belonging in the world.  She was an extraordinary woman who touched thousands of lives, and I am deeply grateful to have been her student.

11205157_10205714768602090_7286000846154644776_nAnd, this being May, we are nearing the two-year anniversary of Joshua Wolff‘s passing.  Josh was a wonderful pianist and a dear friend, and he’s never far from my thoughts. I remember wandering in a daze through my lushly blooming neighborhood two springs ago, when Josh was ill, bewildered that the world could contain such heartbreaking suffering and loveliness at the same time.

I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to be a downer.  But there is something about the tender newness of spring that invites reflection on life’s opposites: yes, we are fragile and vulnerable, and our time here is short.  But there will always be a spring, audacious and resilient.  Isn’t that amazing?  No matter how bruised and battered we are by the harshness of winters both literal and metaphorical, the life force “that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas) always reasserts itself.  And I am, indeed, perpetually astonished.

In April I…
Blogged about: March.  Lady Day at 100.* The “Charlie” to our “Angels,” Oded Lev-Ari (for DUCHESS).
*My Billie Holiday post was chosen by WordPress for the “Freshly Pressed” homepage, and was shared hundreds of times on social media.  I’m honored that the post resonated with so many people.

Watched: A Star Has Burnt My Eye, a mixed-media theatrical production that told the strange, sad story of the mysterious songwriter Connie Converse.  This show haunted me for days afterward.

Read: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.  A poetic novel about a troupe of wandering Shakespearean actors and classical musicians, post-apocalypse (a flu has killed 99% of the world’s population).  This book explores questions about why we make art, and whether creative expression matters in the face of unspeakable horrors.  The way that the author interweaves her characters’ lives in this sprawling, yet cohesive story is masterful.

Listened to: Stevie Wonder, Songs In The Key Of Life.  LIVE!!!  Songs In The Key Of Life has been a part of my musical consciousness as long as I can remember.  Getting to see and hear Stevie Wonder perform this album live and in person was the thrill of a lifetime.  I pretty much wept for three hours.

Foodie Tuesday: Constant Craving(s)

I’m preoccupied with spring. It’s entirely likely that my obsessive fixation on sunshine and 70-degree weather is rooted in the fact that both seem to have RSVP’d “No” to April. Ah, well. Until the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is fully bedecked with blooming tulips, I’ll continue to summon spring as best I can in my kitchen. Below is a list of some epicurean delights I’ve been craving (and savoring!) lately, all of which evoke spring’s lush, temporal beauty.

1. Fava Beans
I can’t stop with the favas! This early in the spring, fava beans taste mild and, well–green–with a pleasantly subtle bitterness. There’s something bucolic and picturesque about fava beans, despite (because of?) the rather protracted shelling, blanching, shocking, and re-shelling process. A couple of glasses of wine into a Sunday afternoon, with Italian canzoni emanating from my stereo, I can imagine myself returned to a life I’ve never lived: I may be shelling fava beans in my Brooklyn apartment, but in my mind I’m at home in the Tuscan countryside, watching the rolling brown hills turn green and preparing for Pasqua. I told you, this is after a couple (oh, fine…a few) glasses of wine. Hannibal Lecter was on to something: fava beans do go beautifully with a nice Chianti.

2. Peas
Since my parents are reading this blog (and, let’s face it, they may very well be the only people reading this blog), the inclusion of peas on my list of spring cravings will doubtless come as a shock. I’ve never been a fan of peas. In fact, there are pictures of me as a baby, grimacing as I spit peas out of my mouth. But. Around ten years ago (Jesus), I worked at a French restaurant in Seattle, and one spring our chef introduced a salad of watercress with barely blanched, tiny, sweet peas tossed throughout. The whole business was finished with a medallion of goat cheese and a dressing that I couldn’t replicate if my very life depended on it. Remembering that salad, I’ve started introducing petites pois into my gastronomic forays. They’re even part of the menu for my upcoming wedding. And don’t even get me started on the pairing of sugar snaps with Sahadi’s hummus. Sweet(pea) mystery of life, at last I’ve found you!

3. Roast Chicken
Roast chicken was one of the first things I learned how to make. Lucky thing, too. The dish immediately calls forth images of home, comfort, and effortless sophistication, yet it’s almost laughably easy to prepare. Salt, pepper, and a little olive oil will result in a moist, tender bird with crispy skin. Fresh parsley and thyme, along with lemon zest and copious amounts of butter, will result in a brush with nirvana. When I was 22, I was seduced by a very romantic and very complicated chef. Using his roast chicken and impossibly long eyelashes, he lured me down a rabbit hole of bad decisions and emotional turmoil. Had I known at the time that a perfect roast chicken was a decidedly unromantic, uncomplicated proposition, I doubt I would have been as easily duped.

4. Rosé
I don’t really have to elaborate on this, do I? Nothing bespeaks indulgence, elegance, and frivolity (springtime’s daughters, all of them) more than pink wine. A glass of Bandol rosé is a Provençal sunset in liquid form. And if God made anything more luxurious and enchanting than a flute of Billecart-Salmon brut rosé, She kept that shit for Herself.

5. Asparagus (and Eggs)
Eggs, whether poached, hard-boiled, fried, or scrambled, are the perfect dance partners for asparagus. The woodsy pungency of steamed young asparagus fairly cries out for a baptism of molten, silky egg yolk and a sprinkling of sea salt. And on my more motivated mornings, I revel in asparagus and goat cheese scrambles. Something about seeing a bunch of asparagus stalks in my fridge, standing up like so many soldiers, fills me with good cheer.

I could go on, I really could. Mint, fennel, rhubarb, lamb, and countless other springtime delights each merit rhapsodic praise. But I have to go be a singer today, then I’m meeting up with my fiancé and his family for Passover seder at Sammy’s Roumanian. Who would have ever believed it? This German-Norwegian-Anglo-Saxon Catholic girl (from Alaska, no less), is celebrating Passover. Stay tuned, as the Sammy’s Seder is sure to figure prominently in an upcoming Foodie Tuesday post. Until then, may all the delights of spring–however belated her arrival–be yours.

Foodie Tuesday: Joy Spring

Just last week, we were doused with yet another batch of what meteorologists call “wintry mix.” “Wintry mix” sounds like a cheeky and fun Christmas music playlist. In actuality, wintry mix is a miserable combination of rain and snow, usually delivered sideways by frigid winds on the day you’ve decided to will springtime into existence by wearing your lightweight coat. Chilling you to the bone, wintry mix reminds you that Mother Nature, like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” will not be ignored! They don’t call April “the cruelest month” for nothing.

April in New York City can be heavenly, though. After what has felt like an interminable winter, yesterday dawned balmy and clear. The scent of hyacinth followed me down 5th Avenue, rendering me powerless against the floral frocks and white cotton blouses in the window of H&M. And next weekend I’m attending a “Blossom Brunch,” where some Brooklyn ladies and I will sip mimosas to a Blossom Dearie soundtrack, then head to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens to take in the cherry blossoms. Happily, spring finally seems to be, well, springing.

For a recent mid-week dinner, I wanted something delicate enough to celebrate spring’s audacious spirit of renewal, but rib-sticking enough to fortify me against any unexpected final throes of “wintry mix.” I decided on a spring vegetable risotto, and Ina Garten’s recipe did not disappoint. Fennel and leek were sautéed at the outset with olive oil and butter, providing a nuanced but assertive flavor backdrop for verdant baby asparagus and peas. Fresh lemon juice and zest, together with mascarpone cheese, suffused the risotto with just the right blend of piquancy and richness. And the half-hour I spent meditatively stirring (and stirring, and stirring) suffused me with kitchen zen.

In her cookbook, Ina describes risotto as a great “last-minute” dinner. Really, Ina? Risotto requires around 30 minutes of non-stop stirring, to say nothing of the prep time involved. No, spring vegetable risotto is not quick to arrive at your table, but like springtime itself, it’s well worth the wait. A somewhat modified version of Ina’s recipe is below. Happy cooking, and happy spring!

Spring Green Risotto (adapted from Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics)
serves 4

1 & 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 & 1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 leeks, chopped (white & light green parts only)
1 cup chopped fennel (I used one bulb & it was just the right amount)
1 & 1/2 cup arborio rice
2/3 cup dry white wine
4 to 5 cup simmering chicken stock (unlike Ina, I don’t care if you use homemade or store-bought; we used organic store-bought and it was great)
1 lb. asparagus
10 oz. frozen peas, defrosted
juice and zest from 2 lemons
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano (extra to serve)
3 Tbsp. minced chives (extra to serve)

Heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Sauté the leeks and fennel for 5-7 mins., until tender. Add the rice and stir for a minute until each grain is coated in the vegetables, oil and butter. Add the white wine; simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until most of the wine has been absorbed. Add the chicken stock, a couple of ladles at a time, stirring almost constantly; wait for the stock to be absorbed before adding more (this will take 25 to 30 mins.).

Meanwhile, cut the asparagus into 1 & 1/2 inch pieces, discarding the tough ends. Blanch in boiling salted water until al dente (4 to 5 mins.). Drain and cool immediately in ice water.

When the risotto has been cooking for 15 minutes, drain the asparagus and add it to the risotto with the peas, lemon zest, and salt & pepper to taste. Continue cooking and adding stock, stirring almost constantly, until the rice is tender but firm.

Whisk the lemon juice and mascarpone together in a small bowl. When the risotto is done, turn off the heat and stir in the mascarpone mixture plus the Parmigiano and chives. Serve hot with a sprinkling of chives and more Parmigiano.