28 February 2011

Sautéed vegetables with goat cheese

I was craving goat cheese all week-end, yet between travel and social calls, none of that sweet stuff was to be procured. So it was imperative to me that I work it in to my dinner plans tonight. Now, as content as I am to eat toast with thick layers of soft cheese for just about any meal, I felt I should really feed my partner a more balanced offering. I settled on an quick and hearty combination of vegetables that I could adorn with thick globs of young goat cheese.

Sautéed autumn vegetables with goat cheese
(makes 2 servings as a main)

1 large red onion
1 large sweet potato
1 dozen Brussels sprouts
2 cloves garlic
olive oil, for sautéing
1 tbs balsamic vinegar
1/2 sprig fresh rosemary
3 oz. soft goat cheese
salt and pepper

Halve and cut the onion into thin strips, and begin to cook it in olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. After 5 minutes salt the onions and add the vinegar. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and let the onion soften, about 10 more minutes.

Peel the sweet potato and cut it into relatively thin slices. Add them to the frying pan uncovered, adding more olive oil as necessary, as well as salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cut off the ends and quarter the Brussels sprouts. Put them to boil in a medium sauce pan with salt. Once the water is boiling, blanch them for approximately 5 minutes.

When the sweet potato slices are cooked through, add the Brussels sprouts into the mixture, along with the 2 finely chopped garlic cloves and ripped up rosemary. Let everything cook a few minutes longer, and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Once the vegetables are on their serving plates, add a large dollop of goat cheese on each mound. Enjoy!

22 February 2011

Searching for Little Miss Prodigy

In the first chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov makes a passing allusion to the limits of child prodigies. He describes them as “pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters” (Nabokov 25)*.

While I might not phrase it quite the same way, I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. Why is there such a cult around people who display signs of talent at an early age? Well, some of the answer is obvious, and even reasonable: we are fascinated by abnormality. We are fascinated by genius, and the child who sits at a piano making up musical hits certainly seems genial when his peers are busy eating crayons. But what happens at age twenty? Is our modern-day Mozart still, well, a Mozart? What if he isn’t?

Little Sophie Delphis, showing sure signs of early genius - look at the way she holds that stuffed monkey. Photo by Marylène Delbourg-Delphis.

Some people display prodigious talent at an early age; some don’t. Ultimately, does it really matter? In a way, yes – the Wunderkind has an edge. He has, on a basic level, had more time to practice and hone his ability. Part of the reason an obsession builds around early talent is that it takes a tremendous amount of time and learning to become proficient in any number of fields, especially when the body is expected to achieve extraordinary feats, from violin to gymnastics. An earlier proclivity toward a subject simply means more time.

And the fact that he shows more promise, earlier, may very well mean that our Wunderkind will continue to be better than others in his age bracket even when they are no longer begrudgingly expected to stick small objects up their noses for entertainment purposes. He could very well be a genius, possessing such innately superior abilities that they naturally present themselves early on. But he may simply be on a different learning curve, one that will ultimately level out.

via Cartoon Stock.

Two major problems stem from our fascination with prodigy. The first is the Good Modern Open-Minded Encouraging Parent’s obsession with finding talent at the youngest age possible. Do not enroll your hyperactive two-year-old in a ballet class; do not panic if your child is not voted MVP when a soccer ball is the size of his torso. The second is that, specifically in the arts, the quest for Doing Everything Earlier (much like its cousins Doing Everything Faster and Making Everything Bigger) often results, at best, in a proficient but robotically technical understanding. (At worst it results in shoddy technical foundations that can have quite literally crippling side-effects in later years.) Therein comes the frustrating truth of “second-rate musicians with sad eyes.” Creating art means actually living. How many experiences can an eight-year-old bring to a performance? How many can he bring twenty years later when all he has ever known are practice rooms and concert halls?

Some child prodigies are incontestably superior; some are questionable. Most are, if not mystifying, interesting, or at least pretty adorable. But they are not the be all and end all of accomplishment. They are, innately, outliers, and it is not every parent, teacher and mentor’s job to craft a Child Marvel out of every normal, even precocious, boy or girl. It is high time we stopped glorifying half-baked stabs at achievements just because they were orchestrated by someone who hasn’t yet hit puberty.

But, lest I sound too... crotchety, a bit of good clean fun, courtesy of a very young Beverly Sills, who proves you can make the transition from kiddie wonder to adult artist:

*Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1989.

19 February 2011

Buckwheat chocolate chip cookies

I have a soft spot in my heart for more unconventional flours. In the baking aisle, I stare longingly at the spelt and kamut flours, the corn meals, the bran, etc... Inevitably, I crack, and I bring home some treasured bundle that ends up being used that week and then left in the pantry mercilessly under-appreciated. But this should not be so! Therefore, I have been on a small mission to use up the pantry staples that never quite became staples. Today's offering is a buckwheat take on that beloved icon of baked goods, the chocolate chip cookie.

Buckwheat chocolate chip cookies

1 cup buckwheat flour
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 oz. unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup unsalted almond butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350ºF, with rack in the middle. Grease cookie sheets or sheet pans (2 to 3 will be necessary, or you can of course bake in batches).

Cream together the softened butter and white and brown sugar until obtaining a light paste. Beat in the almond butter, then the eggs, salt and vanilla extract.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the buckwheat and all-purpose flours with the baking soda and baking powder. Mix the dry ingredients into the paste with a spatula or wooden spoon.

If using a bar of baking chocolate, cut it up into a variety of sizes with a sharp knife, so as to obtain larger chunks as well as much smaller ones. I used a combination of leftover chips and baking chocolate discs, which resulted in a whole slew of shapes and sizes. Mix chocolate pieces into the batter.

Form tablespoon-sized balls of dough and arrange them on the baking sheet(s). The cookies will not pool or expand outward very much, so they can be relatively close together. Along that same vein, press the balls of dow down slightly with your fingers, as they will not flatten significantly. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. When removing the cookies from the oven, let them cool at least partially on the sheet, as they will be still too soft to handle. Yields approximately 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

When the cookies are cool, they are soft and chewy, but not in the same dense and gooey way as a typical soft chocolate chip cookie. The buckwheat flour and almond butter add a pleasant nutty depth to the taste of the batter that complements a dark chocolate well. The dough is not very sweet - there is enough sugar in this recipe for my taste, but I think it would certainly not be cloying to up the granulated sugar level to 3/4 cup.

15 February 2011

What am I doing here?

I was waiting at an audition last Saturday when an unfamiliarly enlightened thought struck me: I was not viewing the other singers around me as competition to be feared and loathed. I could hear snatches of warm-ups and last minute rehearsals from the practice rooms, and from these it was clear that the vocal caliber was quite high. But this didn’t throw me into a panic; I didn’t have the compulsion to compare my own shortcomings to these anonymous sounds. Instead, they reassured me of my worth: since we had already gone through a prescreening round, all the singers around me had been in some way selected to audition. Including me. “If the others are impressive,” I thought, “I must be as well, in some capacity.” I felt like an insider, and I felt flattered.

This isn’t usually the situation at an audition, when tension runs high. Moreover, most audition situations are not callbacks or invitation-based exams: in a general “cattle call,” it is exponentially more difficult to feel loved and wanted. (Except perhaps for the consummate egomaniac, but that’s not really the way to go either.) I realize I won’t have the luxury of feeling so cared for at every interview and audition, but it doesn’t mean I cannot synthesize a comfortable atmosphere through my perception of the situation and, more importantly, of myself in it.

Ideally, we would not need so much comparative input from those around us, being able instead to have an inherent feeling of self-worth. Realistically, however, in a world and a career path where progress is an idée fixe, one person’s worth is constantly placed on a scale with his competition. An audition is not, ultimately, about finding the perfect singer, it means finding the best singer in a given group – so the comparison to others is that much more on candidates’ minds. That’s fine, and necessary, to some extent. It’s also helpful to track one’s own progress with the general level of others more or less in the same boat.

But drawing comparison, and the natural longing for a competitive edge, cannot become a debilitating loss of sense of self. Self-esteem means in part self-knowledge. It means knowing that you are your own working organism, rather than an entirely relative shadow of those around you.

As I’m seeing, it gets easier with age – or rather, with maturity. It also gets easier with experience and a basic list of accomplishments that serve as a stabilizing base. Without these applicable “successes” – concerts, awards, even simple praise – it’s hard to shape a visible form out of the general mass of potential talent and practice hours. In much the same way as children have to develop a sense of their personalities, singers, and other career-people, have to create themselves over time. A balance must be struck between the developing internalized and externally-fueled senses of self.

13 February 2011

Clementine olive oil cakes

Valentine's Day is nearly upon us, although I can't say I really care about flowers and chocolates and romantic dinners - frankly, I don't need a nationally specified date for my loved ones to show me affection. But every holiday has a potential upside in my view, and that is themed cooking. (Had I not been so busy, I would surely have made groundhog-shaped cookies on 2 February...) So, when I had a Sunday afternoon, too many clementines, and an inclination to bake, it was clear that this would be the perfect pretext for heart-shaped goodies.

Clementine olive oil heart cakes
(adapted with little change from Smitten Kitchen)

3 clementines (or 1 to 2 oranges, depending on size)
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp Amaretto
1/2 cup tart whole milk yoghurt (or buttermilk)
3 "large" eggs
2/3 cup olive oil
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt

The zested clementines declare an impromptu war on the eggs; the knife moderates.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF; grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan or smaller pans amounting to an equivalent volume.

Combine grated zest of the clementines and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Peel the fruit, removing as much pith as possible from the segments, and chop into small pieces. Add to the zest and sugar, along with the Amaretto. Whisk in the olive oil, yoghurt and eggs.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet mixture, gently and without over-stirring.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake for 50 to 55 minutes (40 to 45 if using smaller moulds) - the top should be a golden brown and an inserted toothpick come out clean. Let the cake(s) sit for 5 to 10 minutes before unmoulding, then cool to room temperature.

Warm and cozy from the oven.

The resulting cakes are moist but very light. Halved, they would happily sandwich whipped cream or orange marmalade. Now that I've made you a bit of dessert, dear readers, will you be my Valentines?

09 February 2011

Drunken Tea Time

On Sunday afternoon, the household wasn't gearing up for the Super Bowl, but we were having roommate tea time. And to make things more interesting, we made it a spiked tea. Joe looked up various gin and tea-based drinks, and came up with a combination that was quite popular all around.

Gin and Tea Punch:
10 oz. gin (Beefeater in our case)
10 to 12 oz. strongly brewed Earl Grey tea
6 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar (or a bit less, to taste)
1/2 oz. orange bitters
1 oz. Cointreau
lemon slices

Here is a helpful diagram of the components (the last is sugar, if you couldn't tell - for which I wouldn't blame you).

Melt the sugar in the tea in a sauce pan (preferably with an enameled interior), stirring regularly over medium heat. Add in other liquids and heat, but do not let boil. Serve in tea cups, with a lemon slice. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

06 February 2011


The scene: The airport, Air Canada terminal, ten o’clock. I am about to enter the security queue when a terrible realization flashes before me: I’ve left my plastic ziplock bag of liquids and creams on the table by the door at home. (You know, so that I would be sure not to forget it…) At this point, you might ask, “Why is this such a tragedy, Sophie? Surely you can buy makeup and travel-size toothpaste in Montreal?” On this point, you are not mistaken: While a minor inconvenience, the need to purchase emergency audition makeup is certainly not earth shattering. But! I need contact lenses – contacts I am not currently wearing, and contacts I will need to be wearing for my audition. My heart sinks.

A representation of my troubled mien; my large glasses.

Of course, there is no written rule that says I cannot wear glasses while singing, but I would certainly prefer the third of my face that is obstructed from view by my bulky frames to be visible to my audience. Let us call it an unwritten rule, then. Nor am I integrally blind without contacts – I surely won’t be able to recognize any faces, but I probably won’t run into the wall, either. (Probably…) So why can’t I simply go in blurry-eyed?

Focus: when I cannot focus literally, I have a considerably harder time focusing in any other capacity. This was made excruciatingly clear to me last year during a studio class (wherein a teacher’s students attend and sing in an intra-studio masterclass). I went up to sing a relatively fresh piece, was asked to remove my glasses for expressive purposes, and felt immediately out of my element. Not only was the visual world blurry around me, the music sounded more unfamiliar. I struggled with the simple task of counting the beats; I couldn’t remember the words in advance. I was swimming through an aria I had already sung from memory earlier that day.

via pvks

Focus is a keystone to performing – on stage, as well as in any other field (how many books, coaches, and courses are dedicated to finding focus in sports, or business, etc…?) – and it is something that everyone is concerned with finding, refining, or keeping. It is not the same thing as thinking. Often, in fact, we (we singers, and we humans) are told to stop thinking and start doing. Because this is what performance is: the result of months or years of thinking, analyzing and practice come to a head in an instant of action. Concentration funnels all this training. The paradox is that the more focused we are, the more we are able to let ourselves go. It allows actors on stage to be simultaneously desensitized enough to the outside not to be taken aback by disruptions and aware of their surroundings enough to improvise when things go awry. But without focus (and previous, hard work!) you are simply left trying to think and process very fast. In certain cases it works, or at least well enough. But a performance is not about letting others in on the odds and ends of your work process; it is about sublimating these into something greater.

For the sake of our subject matter, let us get back on track. How does my woeful story of missing contacts pan out, you ask? Do I muster up the courage to go in blind? No: I arrive in Montreal, and with a bit of digging and a bit of luck, I come across an office that will fill my prescription without a new eye exam. So my odyssey comes perhaps to an overly neat end, but one that I certainly prefer!

03 February 2011

Winter Weeknight salad

While yesterday's slush spurred me to cook up a hearty dinner of sweet potatoes and baked bluefish (we bought a whole specimen and called him Bernard) covered with bacon and shallots, today seemed like a salad night. The result was a welcome mixture of tart, sweet and rich tastes and textures.

Arugula and pear salad with feta and pumpkin seeds.

The mixture, per plate:
A couple hefty handfuls of arugula or other dark green (spinach, etc..)
Half pear (red Anjou here), quartered and cut into thin slices
1 tbsp pumpkin seeds (pepitas), toasted
1 oz feta

The dressing, for two plates:
1/4 cup kefir or tart plain yogurt
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

As is generally the case when I cook, I end up using ingredients off the top of my head, and mixing them by sight and taste rather than by strict number. I encourage you to do the same, and to disregard my "recipe" in however many ways you see fit.