Thursday, December 30, 2010

Revising the Gospel

Certain things should be left alone.  Others might be altered, a little, with great care.  Most of Julia Child's recipes fall into one of these two categories.

Julia Child has long been a sort of patron saint of cooking.  Her books and television programs probably did more to awaken the American palate than any other single thing has done in the last half-century or so.  Julia's status has risen (and I imagine sales of Mastering the Art of French Cooking have rejuvenated) thanks to Julie Powell's blog, book, and movie about cooking her way through that definitive English-language book on French food.   Powell's love-hate relationship with Julia Child is familiar to anyone who cooks seriously and has used one of Child's books.  When you read the instructions, you're inclined to think, "Seriously?  I have to do all that??"  Yes, you do.  Skip one step, scrimp on time in one aspect, and you will pay the price.

Sue and I first learned this about 30 years ago.  Along with our good friend Barbara Hall, we were cooking dinner for our graduate school professors as a sort of farewell and thank you.  (Nobody does that sort of thing much anymore...)  We made Julia's Beef Wellington, among several other dishes (I recall a lobster bisque, too.)  The Wellington required a gravy based on a demi-glace.  At one point, Sue and Barbara went out to get some ingredient we had run short of (or maybe it was the strawberries to put on the ice cream for dessert), leaving me in charge of the kitchen.  Mainly, I was fretting while the demi-glace simmered.  The ham we had used seemed a little aged to me, and when I sampled the sauce, I thought I detected a distinct "off" flavor.  By the time the women got home, I was frantic--certain that the sauce was a failure and that we'd have to start over, with little time for such retrenchment.  Barbara, ever the voice of reason, said, "Well, how long has it cooked?"  I think it had been on the stove for two hours, and the recipe said to cook it for three.  "OK," Barbara said.  "It can't hurt to cook it for another hour and see what happens."  I was skeptical.  I shouldn't have been, because after about 2 hours and 59 minutes, the sauce underwent a transformation.  It was like a potion in Harry Potter: you know how they change color when you add a certain ingredient?  Well, all of a sudden, this sauce went from pretty poor-tasting to heavenly.   Julia Child is the Snape of sauces--or maybe it's the other way around.  In any case, we decided then and there that you departed from Julia's instructions at your peril.

I have had that experience again, just this evening.  I'm preparing French Onion Soup according to the instructions in Julia's magnum opus, The Way to Cook.  Once I had put everything together, I gave it a preliminary taste--and it tasted too boozy (it has cognac and vermouth in it).  But I didn't panic.  "Simmer for one-and-a-half hours," it says.  So I did.  After an hour, it still tasted boozy.  But at exactly 1-1/2 hours?  Perfect.  Sublime.  Amazing.

So I hesitate to say that I did make one slight departure from Julia's instructions, which I think improves the soup.  This is daring; it's tantamount to heresy, like changing a few words here and there in St. Luke's Gospel.  But I just didn't think the soup was dark or rich enough, so I used an old trick I picked up someplace:  I caramelized a couple of tablespoons of sugar with a little water until it was very dark and stirred that into the soup.  (You have to do that carefully, because the caramel tends to spit when it hits the hot liquid.)  Well, it did just what I'd hoped:  it improved the color, and it added a little depth to the flavor.

This isn't radical, but any departure from Julia's instructions--delivered as they are with the authority of Moses coming down from Sinai--seems a bit rebellious.  I hope everyone in the family agrees that the risk was worth it.  It's about to go into the oven to get its topping of toast and melted cheese.  The whole house smells wonderfully of beef broth (which has been brewing on and off since last night) and onions.  It's a cold, rainy night in Phoenix; there's a fire in the fireplace, and this seems like the perfect meal. 

Cooking and living both demand boldness and a certain fearless abandon.  Go ahead--make a mess.  Otherwise, you might never find out what's possible.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Dinner

While the menu for the Thanksgiving turkey dinner is more or less carved in stone at our house, Christmas dinner is a good deal more flexible.  This is partly because for years we'd have a Thanksgiving celebration for students, then for ourselves, and then a Christmas party for the choirs at which we served roasted turkey and ham for sandwiches.  By the time we got to Christmas, we were turkeyed out and weren't too interested in continuing Sue's family tradition of more or less repeating Thanksgiving at Christmas.

So each year, it's a bit of a process to decide exactly what Christmas dinner will be.  In the weeks before the holiday, we're usually overwhelmed with concerts and the general hilarity of the holiday season; we often don't get much time to discuss the menu.  This time, thanks to Elizabeth, it was a slam-dunk.

As with many menus, the plan for this Christmas meal began with (and therefore was built around) a relatively minor player:  Elizabeth asked for Yorkshire pudding.  (An aside is necessary here.  We call Elizabeth "Switzerland"--affectionately, of course--because she rarely ventures an opinion.  If a couple of options are offered--"Do you want to go to the museum or the park?"--Elizabeth will generally defer to the collective will and have a great time.  She's happy with all the choices, and that makes her neutral.  Because of this, on the rare occasions when she does state a preference, we drop everything and do exactly as she asks.  So when, without my even raising the subject of Christmas dinner, she mentioned that it would be wonderful to have Yorkshire pudding at Christmas, the question was decided.)  Yorkshire pudding is, of course, the quintessential accompaniment to roast beef.  Indeed,  old cookbooks tell you to put the pudding batter in the bottom of the roasting pan while the meat cooks, allowing it to absorb all the juices.  That's probably a little too fatty for today's tastes, so roast beef isn't as crucial to the preparation of Yorkshire pudding as it once was, but the connection is still inevitable.  So if Elizabeth wants Yorkshire pudding, we must be having roast beef for Christmas dinner.

That brings us to another story.  A few years ago (4? 5?  I'm not sure.) I saw Alton Brown talk about a low-heat method for cooking a rib roast.  I was intrigued.  It requires keeping the roast in the fridge for days wrapped in towels so that a good deal of the moisture gets sucked out of it.  You also have to purchase a large flower pot to invert over the meat while it roasts.  This was all so--out there--that I simply had to try it.  Well, the result was delicious, but it took 8 hours to cook instead of the 4 predicted in the recipe.  We were eating dinner at 10 p.m. on Christmas and falling asleep with our heads dropping into our mashed potatoes.

Fortunately, that trauma is far enough in my past that I was willing to attempt the process again.  I thought I could make some adjustments in the procedure (like taking the roast out of the fridge for a few hours before it cooked) to avoid repeating the endless cooking of the last time.  So the feature of tonight's dinner is a rib roast.

There will also be Yorkshire pudding, since Elizabeth asked for it.  And mashed potatoes.  I don't do anything fancy with mashed potatoes, like add garlic or anything, because the old-fashioned way with just some butter and milk is so good.  Why mess with and try to gussy up a simple thing that is already wonderful?  We'll have some green beans.  I think I'll steam them in the microwave, then warm them up in a pan with some butter and slivered almonds.  I've also had a butternut squash sitting on the counter for a while, so it's time to do something with that.  I'll probably cook it, mash it, and throw a bunch of stuff in there with it.  Maybe butter, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and whatnot (the whatnot is likely to include rum...).  I think I'll chop up some toasted pecans for the top and bake it for a little while, maybe with the Yorkshire pud.  Sue will make a salad of orange sections macerated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar that will be set on a bed of baby greens.

For dessert (not that we really needed anything other than the pile of cookies I've baked in the last week or so, though I'm emphatically not complaining) I have already made a cranberry cream pie from a family recipe a student gave me when I first came to Arizona.  I've messed with it a little, but not much.  It's kind of a surprising pie and really delicious.  It also looks fabulous in the really wonderful new ceramic pie plate our friend Barbara Daniel gave us earlier in the week.  In fact, there's some doubt as to whether the pie will make it to dinner unscathed.  Someone might dip into it prematurely, which is actually OK by me.  I'm posting a couple of pictures now, before someone raids the kitchen...

While we're waiting for stuff to cook, we'll nibble on some good cheese--there was some really excellent-looking Stilton in the market the other day, and there was also some fabulous triple-creme brie.  Our arteries will just have to cope for a day.  I've got some nice cashews around, some pecans I toasted with butter and seasoned salt, and I think there might be a couple of olives kicking around in the fridge someplace.

There is nothing particularly gourmet about this meal.  There doesn't have to be--it just has to taste good and be made with care.  Good food, I learned some years ago, does not need to be complicated.  It just needs to be based on good ingredients conscientiously prepared with respect for their flavor and quality.

I will let you know how it goes.  I've been snapping photos sporadically (I don't have the knack yet of documenting all the steps) so that I can post them later, probably with some recipes.

Whatever you are serving or eating for your Christmas dinner, make it wonderful by sharing it with people you love.  That, after all, is the most important ingredient.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Wish

I first heard this lovely text as a reading at the Lessons and Carols Service held each year in Kirkpatrick Chapel at Rutgers.  It was December of 1974, and I was an eager (and admittedly rather pretentious) first-year student--we called them "freshmen" then.  Robert Tanksley, then the new chaplain at Rutgers, continued a tradition established by his predecessor, Brad Abernethy, and read this near the end of the service.

It must be said that this is probably a 20th-century forgery.  The first time it shows up is in the 1930s, as a Christmas card from Greville MacDonald, the son of a celebrated British novelist, George MacDonald.  While it purports to be from 1513 and authored by "Fra Giovanni," it's not certain who this Giovanni was.  It's often attributed to Giovanni Giocondo, a celebrated architect, but there is really no evidence to support this claim.  What's even more telling is that the text never appears in any other translation--some variants drop part of the text, but all of them use exactly the same wording.  I've also never found any trace of the original language, which would probably have been Italian, although it might have been Latin.  Either way, if it were a genuine sixteenth-century artifact, it would turn up in its original form, with at least a couple of different English renditions.

In the end, of course, it doesn't really matter:  the sentiment is beautiful.  I especially like the exhortation to look.  At different times in my life, other bits of it have resonated with me.  The idea that beauty lies beneath the surface of our difficulties is particularly meaningful to me now.  So no matter where and with whom this originated, I hope you find something here that uplifts you.

A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia Dela Aldobrandeschi, 
Written Christmas Eve Anno Domini 1513

I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.  There is nothing I can give you which you have not got. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look.

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel's hand that brings it to you.

Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel's hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you; not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem, and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

And that is my wish for you, too: that you find joy in all you do, especially at this time of the year with its outpouring of generosity, journeys homeward, love, wondrous music, and magical light.

Merry Christmas to you, wherever you are, whether near or far.  Be well.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Recipe: Parsnip and Apple Soup (or, Another Day, Another Soup)

Elizabeth has the flu.  What a bummer, two days before Christmas and on the day we were all planning to see The Nutcracker in the amazing production by the Arizona Ballet.  (Sue and I enjoyed it so much that we wanted to back, and we wanted the girls to see it.  Miriam will get to go, at least.)

I still have a bucket-load of stock from the other day.  I know this looks like a non sequitur, but it isn't.  Somebody with the flu + bucket-loads of stock = soup.  It's inevitable.  And I have just the thing.

OK, here's the story behind this soup.  I first had it in January 2000 while on a trip to England with students from Salem College.  My wonderful colleague, Joan Jacobowsky, was the other chaperone, and our good friends Clem and Margaret Sandresky were along as well.  Clem had been the dean of the Salem College School of Music for many years and had retired only a few years before I held the post.  Margaret had taught theory at Salem for a long time, and her father had been dean of the music school before Clem.  Joan was celebrating fifty years of voice teaching at Salem.  These are special people with a remarkable commitment to Salem, to say nothing of their vitality and longevity.  Margaret and Joan are still living.  I won't divulge their ages.  Clem died in June of 2009, a loss his friends still feel.

But I digress.  We were all in England in January.  It was cold and damp, because that's how England is most of the year, but especially in January.  We were visiting Winchester Cathedral (if you're of a certain age, you will now be singing a song...).  No place is colder and damper in England in January than a medieval cathedral.  And to top it all off, it was raining, hardly unusual in England in January.  After the tour of the church, we were soaked and chilled to the bone.  Salvation came in the form of a little canteen run by church volunteers.  It stands just outside where you end the tour.

We went in, and Parsnip and Apple Soup was on offer.  I had never had it, but I figured it was worth a try.  I can't remember ever having anything before or since that was so warming and so comforting.  Joan had the presence of mind to ask one of the ladies how it was made.  She was given this list, but no instructions:

1 lb. parsnips
4 oz. potato
1 onion
1 Granny Smith apple
2-1/2 cups of chicken broth (If you're vegetarian, use a good-tasting vegetable stock.  Remember that the flavor of the stock is crucial to the flavor of the soup, so get a good one.)

That's it.  Well, that's not much to go on.  And the proportions don't seem right--it doesn't sound like there's enough liquid.  (I suspect there may have been a little confusion converting between grams and cups.)  I started out using the amount called for, but I ended up adding quite a bit at the end.  The proportions given below are more accurate, I think. 

So here's what I did.

First, I doubled everything and ended up quadrupling the liquid.

Here's the rest, given as a conventional recipe:

Chop one large onion and saute it gently in about 4 tablespoons of butter in the bottom of a heavy soup pot.  (I used my cast aluminum Dutch oven this time).  When the onions are translucent and just beginning to brown, add about 2 quarts of stock to the pot.  Peel and cut the potato (I used 1 large Russet weighing about 1/2 pound) into 1-inch dice and add it to the pot.  Peel the parsnip (I used a pound), chop it into small chunks, and add that to the pot.  Let it all simmer until the vegetables are really, really soft, even falling apart (maybe an hour--don't worry, you can't overcook it).

(By the way, I'm not always a fan of peeling vegetables; I was taught that a lot of the nutrition gets scraped away with the skin.  You can leave the peels on, but just know that it will affect the look of the soup:  there will be flecks of peel in it.  If that doesn't bother you, skip peeling.  If you want a consistently smooth, uniform-looking soup, peel.)

When the vegetables are cooked, peel, core, and chop the apple (I used 2 good-size ones), and add it to the soup.  Cook for another 5 - 10 minutes, until the apple is tender.  Put everything through a blender, adding more stock if needed to make the soup a pleasantly thick consistency.  

Serve it piping hot with some crusty bread on the side.

It was delicious--hearty and warming, just plain food.  If you wanted to dress it up a little, you could put a dollop of yogurt or sour cream on each bowl and maybe a sprig of mint.  But it's probably not necessary and possibly pretentious.

Next time you need some comfort in a bowl, you might want to try this soup. I hope it made Elizabeth feel a little better--at least she felt a little warmth.

Stay hardy, and enjoy simple things.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Recipe: Tuscan Bean Soup

It's ironic that the first recipe I'd post here would be for bean soup, because I don't like bean soup.  Or at least I think I don't.  In fact, I'm generally not all that fond of beans.  I don't exactly dislike them, it's just that they seem boring to me.

I have this experience with many foods:  I actually enjoy them when I'm eating them, but when I think of cooking them, the idea leaves me cold.  Tofu is like that.  I never say, "Wow.  I could really go for a dish of tofu right now."  If you do, why then, you have my admiration.  I do enjoy Ma Po Tofu when I make it, but I just don't get the hankering.  Same with beans.  (In fact, it just occurred to me that tofu is a bean product, too.  Maybe there's a pattern here.)

It's further ironic that this recipe even sounds boring.  When you read it, you will probably think, as I did when I started, "Sounds bland."  (I was doing something I often do--taking bits and pieces from other recipes to decide what I'd put in it and how to cook it.)  But somehow, trust me, it isn't.  It's quite toothsome, in fact, and just the ticket on a wintry night.  The secret may be the hunks of parmesan rind you throw in there. (Never throw those hard rinds away.  Just keep 'em in a baggie in the back of the fridge or in the freezer.  They're a great addition to soup.)

My only difficulty here was that the beans took forever to cook.  I'm not sure why:  the last time I made this, they took about an hour.  It could be that the beans were old (even dried beans get stale; when they do, they may never really soften when cooked).  Perhaps the difference was that I used cannellini beans this time; last time, I used Great Northern.

Most of the soup can be done ahead, even the day before.  So why not make it the day before or at least in the morning?  That way, if you have recalcitrant beans, your dinner won't be late.  When you're ready to serve it, heat the soup and toss in the chard.  Let that cook for a few minutes, and you're all set.

Here goes.


The night before:  soak 1 lb. (approximately 2 cups) white beans (Great Northern, cannellini, etc.) in cold water to cover by at least 2 inches.

They'll look like this the next morning:


When ready to cook:

Lightly coat the bottom of a large, heavy pot with olive oil.  Over medium heat, sweat 1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups).  Then add 4 - 5 cloves chopped garlic and saute for a minute more.  (You have to cook garlic a little, but it's better if it doesn't brown too much.)

Drain the beans and add them to the soup pot.  Add 1 quart stock (store-bought chicken--I like the stuff in boxes better than canned--or homemade [see below for instructions]), 1 quart water, several sprigs of fresh rosemary, and a hunk of parmesan rind, about 3 inches square, give or take. (Or add a couple of pieces; this is not exact.  After I grated the cheese for garnish, I threw in some more rind and that cooked for a while, too.)  Simmer this, uncovered, for about an hour, or until the beans are tender.  Add more stock and water if it gets too dry, but the final product should be quite thick and not too brothy.

(If you want to make this vegetarian, just use vegetable broth in place of the chicken stock.  If you're vegan, you could leave out the parmesan, but I warn you:  it won't be as yummy!)

(May do ahead to this point.)

When ready to serve:

Fish out the cheese rind and any rosemary stems (the leaves are OK to leave in).

To the hot soup, add about 1/2 lb. Swiss chard, cut up.  (I took out the stems and chopped them up like celery and threw that in first.  Then I cut the leaves in half and sliced them into thin ribbons.  Actually, to be fair, Sue did most of this step.)   Cook for 5 minutes or so, until the chard is tender.  Taste for salt and pepper, adding some if necessary.   (I advise waiting until now to add salt and pepper:  the amount will depend on how salty your stock is, and too much salt keeps the beans from cooking well.)  Serve hot.  Pass a bowl of freshly grated parmesan for folks to use as a garnish.

Here's the finished soup, still in the pot:

With a bit of crusty bread on the side, this is a nice, simple winter supper.


There is no great art to making stock:  just throw some stuff in a pot with a lot of water and let it simmer for a few hours.  You'll have something decent at the end.  If it's too weak, you can always boil it down a bit to concentrate it.  Just go easy with the salt, because you really can't take salt out (you could add more water, though, and there's some trick about putting a raw potato in it, but I've never tried that).

Two tips:

1.  I generally use some stock as part of the liquid when I make stock.  You read that right.  I keep stock in the freezer and always add some of the old stock to the pot when I make a new batch.  The stock will come out rich and flavorful that way.

2.  I usually make stock with the carcass from a turkey.  If you use bones from cooked meat like that, your stock will be a bit weak.  Therefore, I always keep the odd bits of raw poultry in the freezer:  the tips of the wings, any fat from the cavity, the backbone if I'm cutting up a chicken, the giblets.  Just stick them in baggies or small plastic containers and dump them (frozen is fine) into the pot when you make stock. 

So here's what I do.

Get the biggest pot you've got.  Mine is 16 quarts (4 gallons).

Meat:  Stick the turkey carcass into the pot.  If it won't fit, cut the carcass apart with a meat cleaver.  (This is great for getting out your aggressions, if you have any.)  Add any stray chicken parts you've kept around.

Veggies:  I use celery (several stalks, with the greens on top when possible--grocers always want to hack those off these days for some reason), a couple of carrots, a couple of turnips, a couple of parsnips, and a whole onion.  I don't even peel the onion:  the skin adds some color to the stock.  Just wash everything well.  No need to peel it or cut it up.  Leaving it whole (or breaking the celery and carrots in half) makes it easier to fish out later.

Herbs:  I put a bunch of dill and about half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley into the pot.  Rinse them well, but there's no need to chop them.  You could throw a bay leaf or two in there if you want.

Liquid:  I put at least a quart of stock into the pot (2 is better).  Then I fill up the pot with water to cover everything.  Skip putting wine or anything like that in at this stage.  It keeps the stock more versatile.

Seasoning:  I wait to salt the stock until it's cooked.  There's no advantage to putting it in earlier, and the evaporating liquid can play havoc with the amount of salt.  (Plus it's hard to account for any salt that may linger in the turkey carcass, especially because I brine my turkeys before I roast them.)  Some people think that pepper has a different flavor when it's boiled.  If you're one of them, and you like that difference, go ahead and throw some pepper in there (you could use whole peppercorns if you want).  Otherwise, there's no problem with waiting until the stock is finished to add the pepper.  For a nice touch, you can toss a dozen or so whole cloves into the pot.  Experiment!  This is a very forgiving enterprise.

Here's everything in the pot, ready to cook:

To cook:  Bring everything to a boil, then turn down the heat until the stock is simmering gently.  You want to see bubbles breaking the surface pretty often, but no actual boiling going on.  Skim off any foam that develops in the early stages of cooking.  Set a lid askew on top of the pot, but don't cover it tightly (doing so can sour the stock).  Let it simmer for at least 2 hours.  3 is better, and 4 or 5 won't hurt it!  Keep cooking it until it's rich and tasty.

Here's how it looked about 3 hours later:


Fish out as much of the solids as you can, using a slotted spoon.  Then strain the broth (I use cheesecloth in a large colander).  Skim off excess fat:  if you have the time, chilling the stock will make this easier.  The fat will rise to the top and solidify, and you can just take it right off.  But skimming it with a spoon is pretty easy.  I am not fanatic about getting every molecule of fat out of it.  Salt and pepper it to taste, and you're done, ready to use it for gravy, soup, or whatever your fancy may be!

Stay warm, eat healthy, and be willing to take time over things that are worthwhile.

The Flash Mob That Almost Wasn't (And Then Was)

Today was the big Hallelujah Chorus Sing-In at the Scottsdale Fashion Mall.

Our first inkling that this was going to be HUGE was the traffic getting to the mall.  Of course, that could just have been normal hilarity that happens three days before Christmas. I wouldn't know.  I avoid malls as much as possible, especially at Christmastime.  The absolute paucity of parking spaces might also have been normal for this time of year, but I suspected not.  After ten minutes or more searching, we finally parked on the very top of the garage, way back in a corner.  I'm not even sure it was a legitimate parking space, but we didn't get a ticket.  We had left an hour before the thing was to start, which should have been plenty of time, even allowing for the traffic.  But it was close.  We got into the mall at about ten to twelve, and we got near the Food Court by five of, only to find that we were too late.

It had already happened.

We were heartbroken.

We learned later that mall authorities, concerned about the size of the crowd and probably worried about repeating the problems they had yesterday in California (see the update to the first post of this blog), asked for the singing to happen early.  So they had started at 11:45, and it was already over by the time we got inside.

But all was not lost.  There were hundreds and hundreds of people gathered, and they were not to be denied.  People like us, who had come planning to sing at noon, weren't about to leave just like that.  Somebody was talking on a bullhorn--we learned later that he was telling people that the whole thing was over and that the crowd should disperse--but we could neither hear nor understand him.  Sue said, "We should just start singing."  "I'm a conductor," I said--the one and only time that this has seemed like a useful skill!  "I could get this thing going, but we need to be closer."  By this point, to try to see better, we had moved to the very top level of the mall and were standing at one end of it.  I figured if we could get more to the middle and start singing, people would join in.

As we made our way over there, the singing began--someone had obviously had the same idea.  And so, for about five glorious minutes, Scottsdale Fashion Mall reverberated to the sound of the Hallelujah Chorus in what probably was more like a flash mob.  This second, spontaneous time wasn't planned.  It felt a little more rebellious, somehow, because it wasn't really supposed to happen.

I imagine people have lots of reasons for going to an event like this.  For some, it's a response to the commercialism of Christmas to sing that great music in the middle of a shopping mall. For others, singing of the eternal reign of the King of Kings is a religious moment that might restore a little of the meaning to Christmas.  Still others like the sheer massive sound that so many people can make in a reverberant space.  It's all terrific.

Me?  I was overcome and could barely sing.  We were standing among people who weren't singing, which made it even more special, somehow.  Sue was in great voice.  So was Miriam.  Elizabeth sallied forth in spite of a cold.  I sang about every third phrase of the bass part, but we managed to contribute mightily at our end of the balcony.  It was just as thrilling as I'd hoped it would be, despite the rocky start.

We saw lots of people we know there, including a former student of mine, Ken Owen, who was back in town to visit his in-laws.  I haven't seen him in a couple of years, so it was especially nice to find him there along with his wife Angie and their three children, Thomas (age 5), Suzette (age 3, I think), and David (age 7 months and very robust!).  I had never met Suzette and David.  I still think of Thomas as the first "grandchild" of the choral department at ASU:  Ken was the first of my ASU students to have a child.

Singers, students, family, music -- what could be better?  So even though it had been announced on the news in advance and was hardly a surprise, and even though so many people showed up that it had to happen early to keep from being dangerous, it's all good.  And I got to sing it after all.

Here's a video of the first time (the one we missed).  I'll keep checking to see if any further videos are posted (especially of the second, unofficial time).  But this gives you the idea.

Scottsdale Mall Hallelujah Flash Mob, 12/22/2010

Here, courtesy of our friend Jane Little, is a photo of us.  This was taken before the spontaneous sing-along.  We're hiding our disappointment rather well, I think.  (Left to right, Elizabeth, Me, Miriam, Sue)

UPDATE:  Click here for a news clip on the event.

FURTHER UPDATE:  Here's a video of the time we got to sing.  You'll hear how it started in low and started to grow... (I hope you get the Dr. Seuss reference.)

Merry Christmas one and all, and keep on singing.

(Coming soon:  yesterday's bean soup...a success!)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

First Things Fourth (or "Hello, My Name Is...")

OK, this should have been the first post, but you know how things are.  Better late than never.  I'll label this "introduction" so you can find it again, if you want.  (Addendum:  I put this at the top of the page in a separate tab.)

1.  I decided to join the rest of the twenty-first century and try out a blog.  I have never been a conscientious diarist, so it's likely this will be sporadic at best, but I thought it would be worth a try.  What will I discuss here?  Primarily my main interests:  music, cooking, and my family.  Probably a little politics (but I'll go easy on that).  I can think of a lot of things I might have put in a private diary that won't show up here, most likely.  I might note from time to time what I'm reading; it's a pretty eclectic mix.  (At the moment, I'm rereading the Harry Potter books.  We saw the seventh movie about two weeks ago, and I realized that I had forgotten way too much of The Story So Far.  I am now on Book Four.)

2.  The title needs a tad of explanation, perhaps.  "Schildkret" may derive from the German word "Schildkroete," which means "turtle."  Ever since I learned that, I've had a particular affinity for turtles.  (Why someone would take the surname Turtle is a bit beyond me.)  As a lifelong lover of the "Alice" books--dare we argue that Harry Potter is one of Alice's literary descendants?--I have also felt a particular connection to the Mock Turtle.  (He's the sort of thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from.  So in Tenniel's drawing, he has a calf's head, because MTS is made from veal.)  He's a weepy fellow who is stuck in his school a lot of us professors.  And of course he makes the tortoise/taught us pun, which makes him even more appealing.  (That whole episode in Alice is full of groaners.  The best, I think, might be the Classics master who teaches Laughing and Grief.)

3.  Who am I?  In January of 2011, I'll be 55.  Since 1983, I have taught music and conducted choirs at various schools of higher learning:  the University of Rochester, Centre College, Salem College, and since 2002, Arizona State University.  I also conduct the Mount Desert Summer Chorale from late June through early August in Bar Harbor, Maine, and am the Director of Music at Scottsdale United Methodist Church.  One has to keep busy.  I love to cook and do most of the cooking at our house these days.  I'm usually in search of the perfect recipe for something.  Last fall, it was gelato.  At the moment, it's spritz cookies (which are pretty but generally tasteless).  I read widely and voraciously.  I have opinions about everything.  I have Type II diabetes, sleep apnea, and a few other challenges that mean I take two generous handfuls of pills every day and try to watch what I eat.  Mostly, I pretty much do what I like; I'm not much hampered by these health issues, even though they sounded scary at first.  I love art and stop in the art museum when possible in every city I visit.  Traveling is fun, too, and I have been lucky to visit some interesting and unusual places.  I like words and language, though I am now finding it hard to learn new languages (I have tried to learn Spanish but have only succeeded in mastering a few phrases.)  Since I love words, it's probably not surprising that I like crossword puzzles (especially the cryptic crosswords Frank W. Lewis has produced for decades for The Nation), Scrabble, and have dipped my toe into the waters of poetry and fiction writing.  I love theater and have recently revived my stage career, such as it is, with Ben Weatherstaff in The Secret Garden at ASU (a huge thrill).  In a few months, Sue (my wife) and I will appear in the South Mountain High School production of Footloose, in which we'll play a husband and wife!  I have two remarkable daughters, Elizabeth (25 at the moment) and Miriam (20).  Elizabeth has a blog of her own--see the link at the right.  Sue teaches dance at South Mountain High School.  Elizabeth started a graduate program in Theater for Youth at the University of Texas at Austin this fall, and Miriam is a junior in vocal performance at Ithaca College School of Music in upstate New York.  We have a cat, Figaro, and a big dopey dog named Buddy.

With all that in mind, you should be able to follow things here pretty well.  I hope it turns out to be fun.

Tuscan Bean Soup and Anise Cookies

Today's primary cooking projects are a Tuscan Bean Soup and Anise Cookies.  These two quite different dishes have one important feature (not to say "ingredient") in common:  time.  To make bean soup, you have to start the beans soaking the night before.  And then, because I still have the turkey carcass in the freezer from Thanksgiving and the time to devote to doing it, I'm making the stock for the soup from scratch.  (By the way, I am not dogmatic about this the way some cooks and cookbooks are.  I think there are some really good packaged stocks out there, and I don't mind using them when I don't have homemade stock around.)

The anise cookies, a Christmas tradition in Sue's family, are very old-fashioned.  They are leavened by ammonium carbonate (smelling salts!), which takes a lot of time to work.  So you mix up the dough from superfine sugar, eggs, flour, and the ammonium carbonate.  You roll out the cookies with a fancy rolling pin that leaves designs on the dough and cut the decorated dough into squares.  Then you place the cookies on a baking sheet that is sprinkled with anise seeds.  THEN they have to stand for at least 8 hours.  It's better if they rest overnight.

Both require the cook to plan ahead, and this is not particularly how I ordinarily like to cook.  I prefer, really, to grab a pan and get going.  But this is the week for long-range plans, perhaps in preparation for the New Year's resolutions.  (I have a rib roast dry-aging in the fridge per Alton Brown.  I will cook it Saturday.  THAT'S planning.)

I will try to document all the dishes for the blog.  Please be patient.  I'm new at this.

"These mashed potatoes are so creamy..."

You know how signals can get crossed when there are several conversations going on at once?  There's a particularly funny scene in While You Were Sleeping (one of Sandra Bullock's first movies) in which this happens.  The topper is the daffy grandma, played by Glynis Johns, who stays above it all and praises the mashed potatoes.  So whenever we end up with crossed wires in our house, someone will say, "These mashed potatoes are so creamy..."  (Miriam even said it in a rehearsal this past summer when people were asking questions all at once and my answer to one question was interpreted as a response to another.)

This, I promise, is a verbatim transcript of a conversation in the car last night.  For reasons best kept to ourselves, we were reminiscing--not always kindly--about some teachers the girls had in high school.  (Though my daughters are 25 and 20, we still call them girls.  Sorry...)  Here goes.

MIRIAM (remarking on a teacher both girls had):  She was a little strange.  She brought her chihuahua to school a couple of times.

SUE:  Elizabeth, wasn't her brother in your class?

ME:  Wait, do they allow that?

MIRIAM:  Well, he was small enough to fit in her purse.

EVERYONE:  "These mashed potatoes are sooooo creamy..."

(See, I was talking about the brother.  I thought he had a class with Elizabeth that his own sister taught.  Miriam thought I meant the dog.)

Elizabeth keeps thinking she'll write a family memoir someday--sort of a twenty-first-century Life with Father.  When she does, it will be full of such non sequiturs, because this is the main stuff of our lives around here.  (That, and my faux pas when driving.  I get easily turned around and easily confused by things like medians and curb cuts.  That happened last night, too.)  (Oh, and there will be one celebrated story involving passing gas in the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul's Cathedral in London--and yes, you can hear that on the other side just as clearly as you can a whisper.)

Until the book comes out, you will have to content yourself with the little allusions to our hijinks I will report here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Flash Mobs, Random Acts of Culture, Etc.

It started, so far as I know, with a bunch of people dancing to "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music (the recording by Julie Andrews, of course) in a train station in Antwerp.  If you haven't seen that, it's worth tracking down on YouTube.  It's fantastic.  Then a cell phone company organized something similar in a train station in England (for a commercial, I think).  It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to make such unexpected outbursts of performance work with music.

This past October, the Opera Company of Philadelphia landed on just the thing:  sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah in the middle of a department store.  And not just any department store:  this was the old Wanamaker's (now it's Macy's) where there is a monster theater organ.  The organist launched into the opening ritornello, but that wasn't unusual: organ music plays quite often in the store.  But then the singers--hundreds of them--joined in, to the surprise and delight of the shoppers. People looked on in amazement, and plenty starting singing along.  The expressions on the faces are priceless. The video of the event went viral on YouTube.  You can find that one, too.

I'm a cynic in many ways.  I figured by the second or third time I saw this, I'd think it was old hat.  No such luck.  Each time somebody sends me the link (and I've gotten it at least a half-dozen times), I watch and I'm thrilled.   There was a similarly unannounced sing-along of the Hallelujah Chorus more recently at a food court in a mall (in Canada, I think), and people have been sending me the link to that YouTube video as well.  That one starts with one singer, who looks like she's talking on her cell phone, launching into the theme.  Then another guy takes it up, and then one posing as a janitor does it, and so on, until there's a whole gang of people singing--including some who just showed up for a burger and fries. Still not old hat.  Still thrilling.

So perhaps you can imagine my delight when it got noised about that folks were going to attempt to have a "spontaneous" sing-along of the Hallelujah Chorus here in the Valley of the Sun.  It happens at the Scottsdale Fashion Center food court this Wednesday (12/22) at high noon.  I suspect that every available choral singer for miles around will be there (the hope is that we will exceed the 650 reported to have taken part in Philadelphia).  I can't wait.

My enthusiasm dimmed a little when I heard an NPR story this afternoon about such things happening all over the place.  They interviewed a lady from Kansas City who had just organized one there.  I was a bit disappointed that Phoenix was just a little behind the curve; that we'd be just one more flash mob, part of a trend (but not a trendsetter).  I'm guessing that nobody at the mall on Wednesday will really be surprised by the outburst, and the surprise, after all, has been a big part of the fun.

But my disappointment, if that's what it was, was short-lived.  When you think about it, even briefly, isn't it pretty fabulous that a huge number of singers (I will report later how many) all show up at the same time to sing what is arguably the most famous piece of music in the western world?  And that even people who don't know it's going to happen are moved and join in?  I mean, how cool is that?  Pretty cool, actually, and most of the time conducting choral music doesn't seem like the coolest thing a person could do (it's what I do).

So for one brief shining moment this Wednesday, we won't be either ahead of the curve or behind it.  We'll just be cool.  And that's pretty cool, if you ask me.

UPDATE, 12/21:  Even something like a flash mob can backfire. Here's news from Sacramento this morning:

LA Times Story

Comments about the stories are all over the place, but are mostly dominated (it seems to me) by grouches. Here's one example:

McClatchy Story

(Scroll to the bottom for the readers' reactions.)

The same story is posted here, but again note readers' comments at the bottom.

I stand by my original sentiment. You just have to see the reactions on people's faces to realize that this is not some inconvenience. It's a pretty cool way to share music, and it emphasizes, it seems to me, that we have more in common than we have differences.