Friday, February 27, 2009

Baking As A Pre-Concert Ritual

Many of my non-musician friends have recently asked me, "What do you do to prepare for a concert on the day of the performance?" This has prompted me to think about pre-concert rituals. Some of my musician friends are superstitious, in that they have to eat a certain meal beforehand or wear the same special pair of lucky cranberry-colored socks on stage, for instance. Generally speaking, most musicians I know try to take it easy on a concert day. Of course that's not always possible, but on the day of a big performance, one would ideally have time for a leisurely walk and a good catnap, after having done just enough light practicing of one's instrument to feel warmed up and ready for action. I have one friend who invariably relies on a minor caffeine transfusion and a substantial hit of nicotine before he performs, yet even with all of that coursing through his system, he still manages to walk out on stage and play like an absolute god. (As someone who is very caffeine-sensitive, the merest thought of drinking coffee on the day of a performance is enough to give me a serious attack of the jitters on the spot!) Another friend of mine calms her pre-concert nerves by giving shoulder rubs to whomever is fortunate enough to be nearby. That's lucky for all of us, but she swears that the act of massaging other people's shoulders limbers up her own hands so that she then feels warmed up enough to play. I don't do anything out of the ordinary immediately before walking on stage, but I've just come to realize that my afternoon pre-concert ritual is perhaps not so typical, for I usually get in the kitchen and bake.

It's always baking, not cooking. Any substantial knifework tires my hands easily, something I can't afford to do before performing, and let's not even talk about what disasters could occur if a knife slipped. So as long as I have good oven mitts, baking is safer, and it's also particularly easy when you have a stand mixer to help. (How I love my KitchenAid!) Baking is also comforting. I don't know anyone who would not be moved to happiness by the warm toasty aroma of a freshly baked cake filling the house. I am forever improvising in my savory recipes, but baking is more of an exact science and I am much more inclined to follow a recipe more carefully, especially when I am guaranteed success. (Kitchen failures always make me especially sad, something I don't want to run the risk of before a big concert!)

I realize I have a history of pre-concert baking, starting from when I was in college. I usually threw a party after my recitals, a tradition that still exists today. In thinking back over of my various recitals over the past fifteen years, there is frequently a dessert attached to the memory of that day. It's one of those strange ratios, in that the more important the evening's concert is, the stronger my compulsion is to get in the kitchen in the afternoon. But I don't think my musical performances have suffered too much from this diversion of energy, and if anything, my kitchen endeavors have possibly even helped me. A brief case history, if you will:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Film Food

In the spirit of the Oscars this week and my favorite Top Chef "Film Food" episode from last season, I am continuing my list of food inspired by favorite movies. My last post was a cocktail list, and if I were hosting a cocktail party, "Breakfast At Tiffany's"-style or otherwise, many of those potent potables would have fit in quite nicely. But now I'm ready to move onto dinner, ranging from light starters to more substantial courses.

One could do very literal interpretations of food presented in any film, but that's not the route I want to take here. For example, It would be fairly obvious to do liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti for “Silence of the Lambs” as an exact recreation of one of Hannibal Lecter’s meals in prison. But I think it’s more fun to come up with dishes that require a bit more imagination than just taking a dish or a menu exactly off the big screen.

What kind of meal would YOU make, as inspired by your favorite films?? I would relish reading any of your ideas, if you would be so kind as to leave a comment on this post! To jump-start your cinematically-driven culinary creativity, here are my Top Ten Dishes inspired by a few more of my favorite movies. (Yes, I have many favorites!)

10. Stuffed Dates: "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Indiana Jones is in possession of an ancient medallion engraved with cryptic markings which could provide a clue to the resting place of the lost Ark of the Covenant. Hoping to discover the Ark before the Nazis do, Indy and his friend Sallah take the medallion to a wise old sage in Cairo who deciphers the mysterious markings. A bowl of dates has been placed on the table for the two guests, but the dates have been surreptitiously poisoned by one of the many nefarious characters trailing Indy. Fortunately Indiana is saved from eating the poisonous dates just in the nick of time. I would lace a platter of dates with something altogether different, as one of my favorite ways to start a meal is to stuff dates with a little goat cheese, wrap each one in a paper-thin ribbon of prosciutto, and stick them under the broiler until the prosciutto beings to crisp and the cheese melts inside. Nobody could ever declare these "bad dates"!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cinematic Cocktails

I have “Top Chef” fever. My excitement is definitely mounting as the finale of season 5 approaches next week, but I won’t give anything away for fear of spoiling anything for any of you who might not be up to date with the current season. I’ve enjoyed watching this particular season, but I have to say that none of the episodes grabbed in quite the same way as last season’s Film Food challenge, whereby the contestants were required to create a dish as inspired by their favorite movie. As their challenge was announced and the chefs began to brainstorm and plan their dishes, my mind began racing wildly, careening full-speed down my long list of favorite movies. Had I been a contestant on the show, I would have had difficulty narrowing it down, being the movie buff that I am. I would have wanted to make at least a seven-course meal with dishes all inspired by different favorite films, and I actually came up with 30 favorites right off the top of my head. I thought this was such a fun challenge, I created my own personal list of cinematically inspired dishes.

My lifelong love for movies has been fostered by my dad, a man whose film collection is extensive and whose thorough enjoyment of those movies is immensely contagious. My favorite game to play while riding with him in the car was always “Name the movie quote”, and we have had endless hours of discussion and pleasure fueled by our mutual love for films. Since Dad has been getting in touch with his inner chef over these past few years, much to my mom’s and my great delight, our more recent conversations also run along the lines of “What are you cooking this week?” in addition to “What have you seen lately?”

In honor of Dad, whose birthday is today, I’m celebrating our mutual enthusiasm for both movies and meals, and I am going to share my three Top Ten Lists of film-inspired food over three separate blog posts. Since it is often quite lovely to have an aperitif to whet one’s appetite before getting to the real meat of the issue, I hereby present you with the first of my Top Tens: a cocktail list. CHEERS!

10. Classic Dry Gin Martini : “Bullets Over Broadway”. Dianne Wiest plays an aging diva past her prime who takes playwright John Cusack to a little speakeasy after their first day of rehearsals at the Belasco Theater. He is totally enamored of her and is stunned when she orders “two martinis, very dry” without even consulting him. “How do you know what I drink?” he stammers. She looks at him coolly and replies, “Oh you want one too? Make it three.”

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Kale Dish Delicious Enough For A Birthday

Today is my mom's birthday, and in honor of the beautiful woman who always let me fiddle around in the kitchen with her from the time I was very little, I wanted to include a recipe that would really appeal to her. It's difficult living in opposite parts of the country as I hate not being able celebrate my family member's birthdays with them. If Mom could have been in New York with me today, I would have baked her favorite birthday cake for her, a simple dark chocolate cake adorned with lightly sweetened fresh whipped cream. But before we got around to the cake, I would have also made her my favorite kale&rice bowl topped with a perfectly poached egg. That may not sound like the typical meal one would choose for one's birthday lunch, but I know it's one that Mom would appreciate in spades. This is a dish so satisfying and nourishing, yet it's one that you can feel totally justified in following it with that dark chocolate cake for dessert.

Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around being in the kitchen with my mom. When we lived in San Diego, Mom hosted monthly piano recitals at our house for all of her many students, and she always baked up a storm so that the kids could have a little party after their concerts. When I was six years old, I remember marching into the kitchen during one of her pre-recital baking flurries, announcing that it was time for me to learn how to cook and that I was going to help her get ready for her party the next day. Endlessly patient with me, she always pulled up a chair for me next to her at the counter, letting me measure ingredients and stir endless bowls of cookie batter with her as we prepared for these post-concert parties. Whenever I bake with my nephew Mac (a.k.a. the Little Chef), I am always reminded of how it felt to be the little helper in the kitchen with Mom years ago and how I absolutely LOVED it.

However, as much as she may have baked any number of sweet treats for her piano students, Mom always cooked quite healthily for our family, much to my childish frustration. My parents moved from Minnesota to California in the early 70s, and they jumped on the major health food bandwagon, reducing their meat consumption and taking serious advantage of all of the great fresh produce that was suddenly available to them in the land of sunshine. I have memories of this avocado green Champion juice extractor that lived on our kitchen counter, a hulking machine so formidable that it scared the living daylights out of me every time it was turned on. The juicer practically vacuumed in the vegetables, making a noise like a garbage truck as it inhaled whole carrots, beets and celery stalks, transforming these large vegetable pieces into a single glass of vivid juice.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tiger Cake And The Little Chef

The Little Chef is back in town for the weekend, much to our mutual great delight. In many ways, my 7-year-old nephew Mac and I are kindred spirits, sharing a similar focus and enthusiasm for whatever projects we throw ourselves into. As much as I love cooking for my friends and family, Mac takes great pride in his position as my "Little Chef". One of the first things he asked me upon arriving at my apartment was, "Louise, what are we going to make while I'm here?" There was no question in his mind that we'd be spending some quality time in the kitchen together, and he launched into a whole recital of chocolate treats that he was eager to create with me. But when I told him that I had a special recipe called Tiger Cake that I'd been saving to make with him, he quickly abandoned his previous ideas about cupcakes or peanut butter truffles, totally hopping on board with my plan.

Mac, a.k.a. the Little Chef, and I have had a blast in the kitchen together ever since he was three years old when he insisted on helping me make his chocolate birthday cake. I still crack up when I imagine that tiny boy standing on a chair next to me at the kitchen counter with a little flour sack towel tied around his waist as an apron, so eager to help. He always wanted to measure the dry ingredients by himself, especially when cocoa powder was involved, even though he would usually end up wearing a lot of that cocoa himself as he determinedly scooped it out of the box! 

This weekend I realized that my Little Chef is now tall enough to help me without the aid of standing on a chair. (Gulp.) He buttered the Bundt pan quite vigorously and we laughed hard when we both ended up with flour all over our shirts as he attempted to 'gently' coat the buttered pan with flour!


"Why is it called Tiger Cake?" my Little Chef asked, as he helped me measure and sift flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl, being a little more careful with this step. I explained that we were going to divide our cake batter and add chocolate to only half of it. The way we layered the two batters in the pan was going to create a "tiger stripe" effect.