Like many, music was a big part of my youth.
That is not to say that I am at all musically inclined. I am not.
I can neither play an instrument nor carry a tune
(although my imaginary shower-audience might disagree).
I learned from an early age that any first-introduction to elder relatives would likely include someone serenading me with an Italianized version of “Michelle Ma Belle” (more like
‘Michella Ma Bella’). I fondly recall my grandmother singing it as I entered a room, occasionally followed by a quick chorus of
“A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” While I don’t doubt my grandmother found me attractive (as biased grandmothers do), I think she knew I never had, or would have, a melodic bone in my body.
The fact that I am tone deaf is a tragedy of great proportions considering that my maternal great-grandfather was a professional opera singer; one well-loved by native Italians turned New Yorkers who pined for the tastes and sounds of their homeland.
I suppose there is some truth to the fact that hereditary traits often skip an entire generation (with the exception of one’s genetic predisposition to obesity—I’m pretty sure that one clings to
DNA like frosting to a cupcake).
At one point in my misguided adolescence, I pretended I could sing
long enough to audition for a junior-high school musical.
After my passionate performance, one befuddled (and visibly horrified) musical director could only offer this:
“Well, you have a strong voice.”
After three painful years of choral instruction, I faced the proverbial music and threw in the towel. I soon learned to appreciate the
music du jour and like most teens of my generation, gleefully traded in my 8-track player and my 45’s for a state-of-the-art cassette player. It was that magical beat-box that introduced me to a plethora of performers who accompanied the greatest joys and the deepest sorrows of my young adulthood. What my voice lacked in singability,
my ear compensated for with its uncanny (yet useless) ability to recognize pop talent. I recall encouraging my closest friends to check out a little-known, single-named artist (for whom my parents prayed because her name was such a sacrilege), Madonna. So smitten by her unconventional manner, I soon mimicked her wardrobe and hair color, but wisely stopped short at her boycott of particular matters of personal hygiene (AKA shaving), and now, looking back, I thank
my Lucky Star that I kept my hygienic wits about me.
Back then (and still today), I was drawn to all types of music and was fortunate to have experienced the live concert scene when ticket prices were still affordable (so affordable that I actually slept through a couple of Loverboy concerts to which I accompanied
my dearest, band-obsessed friends).
I delighted in George Winston’s piano music blaring from my boom box as much as I enjoyed live performances by the likes of INXS,
Def Leppard, Journey, Billy Idol, Adam Ant, Huey Lewis,
Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, and The GoGo’s (to name a few).
It was by happy accident (and tolerant older siblings) that I was privileged to attend (what turned out to be) a farewell concert by a band called Squeeze.
In an open-air arena with the electrically-charged atmosphere only New York City can offer, I danced along to favorites like
“Black Coffee in Bed,” and “Pulling Mussels from a Shell.”
Those were days of enchantment, when the world was my oyster
(or more appropriately, my mussel), and I truly believed the future was mine to mold.
As it were, I did not marry Glen Tilbrook (or any other lead singers of my generation, for that matter) and sadly, I still can’t carry a tune.
Yet I sing nonetheless.
And although my genetic predisposition to operatic tendencies was lost somewhere in utero, I am blessed to have inherited one genetically-charged, die-hard appreciation for preparing and eating great food.
Coincidentally, that same great-grandfather who crooned Italian operas on the New York stage at night, was by day a confident and able cook. Perhaps it was his loyalty to his home country and his last name “Cuoco” (it means ‘cook’ in Italian), which provided him with inspiration in the kitchen.
In my seemingly desperate attempt to make some connection with the culinary history of my ancestors, I have spent a great deal of time researching the cultural significance of pasta to Italians
(need I explain?).
I discovered, as I bounced from eRecipe sites, to food-fueled
eChat rooms, that like music, food finds itself in and out of fashion. What was trendy in ’07 will not likely show up on the menus of
place-to-be restaurants in ‘08.
Also noted during my quest is a current interest in, and resurrection of old classics. Pot-pies and stews grace the covers of gourmet magazines once more, and readers are being reintroduced to the same reliable recipes upon which they were raised.
Like a favorite but forgotten melody, I have been reacquainted with Béchamel Sauce. Not being one to judge a book by its cover, I learned many years ago that this fancy-pants sounding sauce is nothing more than a simple, roux-based white sauce with infinite flavor possibilities. Most recently, a friend and neighbor recounted her delight in serving what has now become her “famous tortellini with Béchamel sauce.” On a popular cooking site, I read countless versions and methods for preparation in response to a recipe request for an “easy Béchamel.”
The fact is it couldn’t be any easier to prepare. It is one of those recipes I often refer to as low-commitment/high-yield.
It only tastes complicated.
On a recent weekday evening, while preparing a tweaked version of Janet Fletcher’s CORKSCREW PASTA WITH BRUSSELS SPROUTS, SAUSAGE, TOMATOES AND CREAM, I decided to resurrect
Béchamel a la Michelle in my very own kitchen.
In my struggle to offer healthful solutions to a pasta-loving family,
I was being haunted by one pricey bag of imported farro pasta
hiding in my pantry. So, I threw caution to the wind, roasted one
too-expensive, too-tiny container of Brussels sprouts (my favorite way to prepare them), sautéed a bit of spicy sausage with plum tomatoes, and put together an easy and delicious Béchamel.
When the pasta (finally) finished cooking, I married the whole happy lot with the velvety sauce and waited for the troops to arrive.
However, as is typical around here, none responded immediately to my tribal yell signifying a successful hunt (AKA a ready,
home-cooked meal, or in many cases, the arrival of take-out).
While I waited impatiently, I picked at the plump, vibrant sprouts to stave off my I-forgot-to-eat-lunch hunger. The combination of salty, almost-caramelized sprouts with the nutmeg-sweet, creamy sauce was music to my mouth. So moved by its rhythm, I managed to eat every last Brussels sprout before hungry natives even had a chance to spear them.
Fortunately (or not), both son and husband have self-diagnosed allergies to all-things-vegetables and so I ate, free from guilt, and nary a tear was shed for the missing (albeit delicious) sprouts.
The meal was inhaled and received its seal of approval from my regular panel of judges. As I offered my explanation for what they were eating, I realized that I enjoy saying ‘Béchamel’ as much as I enjoy making and eating it. The fact that it rhymes with my name
is a bonus for the sake of folly.
As I cleared the (now empty) kitchen and started on the dishes,
I felt compelled to sing along as I washed them.
What is it about rushing water that triggers the need for song?
I sang along with the humming faucet to my own concocted renditions of “Michelle Ma Béchamel” and “Pulling Brussels from a Béchamel.” And although I was painfully off-key, I enjoyed a moment of amusement at my corny play on words, and a moment of free-ness that so often accompanies spontaneous song.
And I got to thinking about that old Squeeze cassette and those joyous, musical moments of my oblivious youth. And how although I was not gifted with voice, I am content playing to the audience of a hot shower, a kitchen faucet and the occasional rainy sidewalk.
I am convinced that both singing and cooking offer limitless joy to those who embrace them. Each offers the rich rewards of instant gratification and the opportunity for communal participation
As I call upon the old classics of both the musical and culinary worlds, I am hopeful that like music, my cooking reflects the passion from which it is conceived. While my techniques and tools may be pedestrian, I am fueled by the mastery of my ancestors and their dedication to creating symphonic dishes with simple, quality ingredients.
J.R.R. Tolkien once said: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” For as long as I can remember, music and food have provided me with amusement and joy. Like true, old friends they have carried me through good times and bad. So, while I can’t speak for a merrier world, they certainly make for a merrier me.
And while I’m in the habit of lyrics-modification,
were my grandmother here today, I think she might agree that
A merry meal and a merry song orchestrated by a merry girl,
all together are indeed like a melody.
Until Next Time,
Make Life Delicious
Share Your Food
Once again, I make a strong recommendation for
Janet Fletcher’s book,
Four Seasons Pasta.
I am including the recipe for her simple Béchamel Sauce which is delicious on just about everything. I strongly encourage you to
seek out whole nutmeg (in my supermarket it is available in a small bag hanging near the other spices) instead of its’ already ground cousin. Use your favorite microplane or zester to add a bit to your sauce (a little goes a long way). It imparts a nutty, sweet flavor to the sauce and will have your hungry crowd wondering just what that flavor is. I especially love this sauce atop roasted vegetables, sautéed spinach, and layered between veggie lasagna.
I have made it with everything from lowfat milk to half and half but my favorite recipe uses a combination of whole milk and light cream. Make it your own to suit your own taste/needs.
4 TBS Unsalted Butter
4 TBS Unbleached All Purpose Flour
3 Cups Whole Milk
1 Small Bay Leaf
1 Clove Garlic, Halved
Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Freshly Grated Nutmeg
Melt the butter in a saucepan over moderate heat. Add the flour and whisk to blend. Add the milk, whisking CONSTANTLY. Add the bay leaf and garlic. Bring to a simmer, whisking often, then adjust the heat to cook at a BARE SIMMER. Cook for 15 minutes, whisking often, then season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Remove the bay leaf and garlic before serving.
Once the flour is added, it is important to whisk aggressively to remove any lumps. Once you add the milk and you start whisking, make sure your heat is at a moderate level to avoid scorching. Continue to whisk until it appears smooth, with no lumps. Once it is smooth, you can be less diligent with whisking but remember to keep the heat at a bare simmer for the majority of the cooking time. You will notice the sauce thickening as it simmers. Do not allow it to boil.