Monday, December 17, 2007

Doctor Atomic - A Review of the Opera

After far too many weeks off, I am back. The holidays does find ways to suck up time, ya know?

Over the weekend Mom and I went to see the Chicago premiere of an English-language modern opera called - you guessed it - Doctor Atomic. Shortly into the First Act, the phrase came to me:

"Doctor Atomic Bombed"

Would I ever taint my review of an opera solely to use a pithy turn of phrase? Well, perhaps I would, but I assure you that in this instance it is not the case.

Doctor Atomic, composed by American John Adams, with a libretto by Peter Sellars (not the funny one), premiered at the San Francisco opera on October 1, 2007. At the time, I was dating a gal who lived in The City (as natives are likely to refer to SF) and desperately wanted to see the opera after reading generally positive reviews. Alas, I never made it to a performance there, so I was absolutely delighted when the Lyric Opera decided to stage a Chicago production this season.

I read up on a bit on the performance, so I knew that the opera focused on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. Still, when Mom and I learned that Sellars (who directed the Lyric's production of Doctor Atomic) would be giving a lecture prior to the opera, we jumped at the chance to attend.

Sellars, who directed the Lyric's production of his work, explained that the libretto was derived from such varied texts as the Bhagavad Gita, Charles Baudelaire, John Donne, and newly declassified government documents. Heady stuff. Still, I felt a bit uneasy as he gave his talk. Sellars began his talk by comparing the events of 1945 to the current nuclear age. He had a pretty clear agenda which, in its simplest terms, boiled down to: nukes = bad; war = bad; nuclear war = very bad.

The problem with the opera was not so much as Sellars' political slant (I daresay we'd probably pull the lever for the same candidate more often than not), it was the fact the desire to make a grandiose statement rendered the opera an unwatchable bore. The desire to stay true to the text of primary documents yielded singing about dodecahedrons and whatnot (think setting a high school physics class to music...badly). Now, I'm as fond of dodecahedrons as anyone...but it's not a word that rolls of the tongue and singing it is even more of a mess. This yielded an unpleasant discord between Adams' composition and the dialogue that was being sung onstage. Apparently Sellars was so self-satisfied by what he had learned during his research that he wanted to impress us with his knowledge. Sadly though, it came at the expense of his own libretto, which ended up a cacaphonous mess.

Amazingly the opera made almost no emotional impact as well. It was completely lost, somewhere between the scientific gobbledygook and the s-l-o-w pacing. Occasionally dancers would flit about the stage and I am convinced that their appearance was solely designed to keep the audience awake. The production droned on for 3hours 15 minutes. While squirming in my seat, I wondered whether operas have editors. I have no doubt that the Manhattan Project could be worthy of a modern day Ring Cycle (though, ironically, the pacing may been inspired by Wagner), but there was just no substance to the production.

I am simply amazed that so little was done with a subject that seemed so ripe for exploration. I give Adams and Sellars credit for their courage to tackle this project, but the final result was simply awful. The thought that goes into a piece of art may well be important, but what's more important is the work itself. It must be able to stand on its own merits. Doctor Atomic actually shares quite a bit in common with the Manhattan Project -- no matter how well-intentioned it may have been, at the end of the day you're left with a horrific bomb.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chestnut Mushroom Soup

When Thanksgiving rolls around, everyone in my family is expected to pitch in. The host makes the turkey, someone else makes sides, you get the idea. For the last several years my commission has been soup. But not just any soup, my chestnut mushroom soup. Chestnuts scream that the holiday season is upon us and they are also the source of the wonderful richness of the soup. The first time I made this recipe I was asked how much cream I used...but there is none in the recipe and I'm sure that if you try it you'll agree it completely unnecessary. 2 other things are especially notable about the soup: it's easy to make and it's extremely flexible to different variations.

I've reproduced the recipe for the latest batch of my holiday soup...I hope you enjoy.

1 jar whole chestnuts (14.8 oz) - I've roasted fresh chestnuts and they are honestly not worth the hassle.

1 oz. dried mushrooms (rehydrated), liquid reserved -- I used mixed wild mushrooms for my latest batch, but you can use any variety you might have on hand

(mushrooms and chestnuts, pictured at left)

4 cups chicken/vegetable stock -- chicken stock is richer, but it's you can make this dish vegetarian by using vegetable stock and not lose much

3 cups celery, chopped

3/4 cup onion, chopped

2-3 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil in dutch oven or pot (at least 4 qt. capacity). After oil is heated, add chopped celery and onion. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the contents turn translucent, approximately 10 minutes.

2. Add stock, chestnuts, rehydrated mushrooms and reserved mushroom liquid (if the liquid looks gritty, be careful not to add the grit). Bring mixture to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partly covered, for 30 minutes.

3. Let soup cool. Puree in blender. Add additional salt and pepper (if necessary). Reheat and enjoy.

(picture is pre-puree...kinda forgot about the "finished" pic...sigh...)
Yields: approximately 8 cups

Tips: I tend to "under-season" in step 1 because as Mom taught me, you can always add more, if needed. going in the opposite direction...not so easy.

I will often sautee thinly sliced mushrooms in olive oil and place 2-3 strips as a garnish on top of the bowl. It's a nice presentation. You can also garnsih with finely chopped chestnuts or parsley.

You can stretch the soup a bit by adding more stock. This is pretty rich, so thinning it out a bit won't hurt much.

If you want an extra-special treat, sautee some bacon (preferably thick cut), removing it from the pan when it first starts to crisp. Then, sautee the veggies in the bacon fat instead of olive oil in step 1 and follow the recipe as written above and garnish with the bacon.

Wine - Condessa de Sarabella Garnacha 2005


Today's wine is another Trader Joe's special. This little dandy is a Spanish garnacha (grenache)was only $3.99 and yes, the price was the primary motivation for buying the wine. Let's be clear, I like good wine. I also like expensive wine. But not all expensive wine is good and not all good wine is expensive. If I'm enjoying a bottle with friends, I'm usually willing to shell out a little more money for a nice bottle. But when I'm just having a glass by myself, I like the mystery that goes along with opening a bottle of unknown quality.

First impressions: I like the label. I like label art quite a bit (Imagery produces the most amzing label art on a consistent basis and their wines are pretty freaking delicious too). I've posted a photograph so you can draw your own conclusions. Pouring the wine into the glass yields a medium-dark reddish-purple liquid. The nose suggests blueberry and maybe just a bit of heat. The bottle says it's 13.9% alcohol, so it's not too bad. A quick Internet search let me know that the grenache grape tends to be a bit alcohol-y (is that a word? It is now), so it seems par for the course.

Hmm, this is a hard one to pin down. This wine doesn't show much fruit up front. It's a little restrained and a bit hot from the alcohol. Further sipping showed some blueberry, strawberry and a little spice. Not too much of a finish. I'm very undecided about this wine. I can't tell if I like the restraint or if I'm desperate to taste more fruit. When I remember what I paid, I decide that the good outweighs the bad.

Taste: 5/10

Value: 8/10

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Football - The Hooligan Reasserts Himself


I suppose some explanation is warranted when a posting starts with an exclamation, but I fear what you'll think of me. Frankly, when I started this blog, I wanted to make it one-stop shopping for anything and everything that appealed to me. Ok, maybe not EVERYTHING, I may be a Hooligan, but I like to think I'm discreet. And I was beginning to think it was a little too adventurous - food and wine and sport and opera??? I was thinking we'd focus more on the Cultured and less on the Hooligan. But today, the Hooligan reappeared.

Like so many of my days, it all started rather harmlessly, as I was trying teaching the local orphans how to read and write. Sure, it can be a thankless task, but I don't do it for fame or adulation. No, I do it because it feels so good to give back. Well after my time with the little urchins...umm, orphans...I hurried to meet my friend Bryan at Fado's. Arsenal, defender of liberties and all that is good and holy in this world was taking on the Liverpudlians a/k/a the Scousers. Well, perhaps not exactly, but that is the fan-base of Liverpool, another top team (but not the top of the table kind of top, like Arsenal) in the Barclays English Premier League.
The game was very tense. The referee awarded a dodgy free-kick to the home side and Arsenal were quickly down 1-0. Though the boys in red valiantly battled back (no wait -- Liverpool wore red at home, Arsenal were wearing white with maroon shorts and hooped socks. For the record, my friend Steve is a very big fan of hooped socks. For the non-Britishly inclined, "hooped" = horizontal stripes)...wait where was I? Oh yes, as the boys in white with maroon accents valiantly battled back, they could not break through the Scouser defense. Wave after wave of Arsenal attacks were unsuccessful, each one causing the tension to reach increasingly dizzying heights. But then, when in the 80th minute, Fransesc "Cesc" Fabregas (a/k/a Cesc Pistol or Fab4) scored to draw Arsenal even at 1-1. Pandemonium ensued. The bar erupted (to be fair, it was also pretty loud when Pool scored too) and I screamed. After a quick high-10 with Bryan, I lept of my barstool and hugged a man I did not know (I'm not ashamed to admit, I enjoyed it too). Then in my zeal, in one fluid motion I jabbed the air while giving a menacing stare in the general direction of a Scouser sitting at a nearby table, then banged my hands flat against the wall nearby, which gave off a loud, most satisfying "Ka-thump!"
And then "Ouch!"
I managed to hurt my left thumb in the celebratory process and I'm relatively certain that the ka-thump played a vitally important role. Though the game ended as a draw, let the record show that the boys inspired many with the fierceness displayed at Anfield today. They inspired with passion, they inspired with persistence, they inspired with grit. And though 3800 miles away, their heroics inspired the return of a certain Hooligan, which in turn inspired a certain "Ouch!"

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Wine -- St. Francis "Red" 2004

I've been meaning to try a bottle of "Red" because I've often enjoyed other offerings from St. Francis Winery. My Uncle Marc, who is the person most responsible for my appreciation of wine, first turned me on to St. Francis several years ago. Most of the St. Francis wines I've tasted have been very good, and the bottle of Anthem that I tried was simply sublime (it was the type of wine you'd stick a shiv in your neighbor's back for...seriously, it was that good. And frankly, I don't care about my neighbor all that much either). A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit the winery on a visit to Sonoma and it was spectacular. Needless to say my hopes were high when I first spotted this wine staring at me from it's perch atop a shelf at Trader Joe's, especially since most of their wines go for considerably more coin ($20-$50+) than this $10 bottle.

I was taken with this wine before I even opened the bottle. The label could only be described as "fun" with the word "RED" emblazoned on a gold background of red splotches (there are several different labels but they all play on the same general theme). It was a severe change from the more staid labels that St Francis typically employs. The bottle informed me that I would be imbibing a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel. Already I was excited...Cabernet Sauvignon is my favorite grape (Zinfandel's pretty high on he list too) and I am developing an appreciation for Cabernet Franc. I was dizzy with excitement before had even poured the first glass.

The Cultured lost out to The Hooligan and I could wait no longer. Out came the synthetic cork and in it went into my glass. I was immediately taken by it's garnet hue, very much in the middle of the wine spectrum. Initial sniffs detect aromas of green pepper and healthy amount of spice (is the pepper from the Cab Franc?). I kept thinking "oh please let this wine taste good." After a long day chauffering my grandmother I didn't just want this wine to taste good, I needed this wine to taste good.

And we had...success! The wine was a bit dry on the palate, with a bit of an acidic finish. It definitely had a substantial mouthfeel -- somewhere between medium and full-bodied. There was a good amount of fruit in the wine too, with blueberry being the dominant flavor. Also present was some green pepper, violet and I swear I tasted chicory. Or was that licorice?

This wine simply does not have the refinement of St. Francis' stable of very good wines but Red clearly shows its pedigree. This would be very good with Italian dishes (pasta bolognese, sausage pizza, etc.) or beef (though perhaps not steak). This is definitely a wine I will buy again.

Value: 8/10
Taste: 7/10

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Food - Chicken and Tomato Paella (thank you Mark Bittman)

Last Saturday Me and Mum headed to the new Whole Foods off of Roosevelt Road (that's in Chicago, but you knew that already). Well to make a long story medium, when leaving the parking lot, we took a wrong turn and our exit was blocked by the Maxwell Street market (which is no longer on Maxwell Street, but that's not particularly germane to the story). So, Mum sez "hey let's have a look around" to which I respond "k" (riveting stuff, I know, but hang tight, it gets better).

Well, contrary to what Jane Wyatt and Robert Young would have you believe, Mother knows best. Once we got past the hubcaps that had been pilfered the night before, we wandered smack dab into a mountain o' produce. Cases and cases of asparagus, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, etc. And they were so cheap! We took a case of vine-ripened tomatoes and a case of red peppers for a sawbuck. Not each -- $10 total! Of course when we got 'em back to Case de Mama we kinda realized that we had no idea what to do with our booty.

[At this point I must confess that this story is about to pass up medium length, so that whole thing about not making this a long story...yeah, you're gonna want to disregard that]

Well we spent that afternoon roasting red peppers and making an unbelievably killer tomato sauce with basil. Though we put a significant dent in our haul, I still returned home with more peppers and tomatoes than I've ever had in my house at one time (save, of course, for the Beefsteak Summer of '62...good times my friends, good times). Well inspiration hit, courtesy of a little thing called the Internet. I found a recipe for Mark Bittman's Tomato Paella. Those of you who don't know Mark Bittman, it's time to introduce yourself. He writes for the New York Times and is a proponent of minimalist (simple) cooking. Gotta say, most of his recipes are easy enough that a relative novice can turn out good tasting meals with minimal(ist) effort.

I've reproduced the recipe below, with some additional hints.

Tomato Paella
Serves 4 to 6

3 cups stock or water (I used vegetable stock)
1/2 cup white wine (I added a bit more than 1/2 cup and think it could stand 6 oz)
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into thick wedges
Salt and freshly ground black pepper (use a good amount)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon minced garlic (would double the amount, but then, I like garlic)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Large pinch saffron threads
1-2 teaspoons Spanish pimentón (I used 2 tsp. of regular paprika)
2 cups Spanish or other short-grain rice (I used arborio rice, which is the classic for risotto)
Minced parsley and basil for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Warm water in a saucepan. Put tomatoes in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle them with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss to coat.

2. Put remaining oil in a 10- or 12-inch ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, saffron if you are using it, and paprika and cook for a minute more. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is shiny, another minute or two. Add wine and let simmer until it is mostly absorbed, then add the hot water and stir until just combined.

3. Put tomato wedges on top of rice and drizzle with juices that accumulated in bottom of bowl. Put pan in oven and roast, undisturbed, for 15 minutes. Check to see if rice is dry and just tender. If not, return pan to oven for another 5 to 10 minutes. If rice looks too dry but still is not quite done, add a small amount of stock or water (or wine). When rice is ready, turn off oven and let pan sit for 5 to 15 minutes.

4. Remove pan from oven and sprinkle with parsley and basil. If you like, put pan over high heat for a few minutes to develop a bit of a bottom crust before serving. (I did this and liked it)

This recipe was really a showcase for the tomatoes. Cooking them in the oven served to intensify their wonderful flavor. Still, the rice itself was only good, not great. I think this recipe could use a bit of aggressive seasoning (to boost the flavor) and throwing in some other veggies-- perhaps asparagus, eggplant or peas -- would be a plus. I used vegetable stock, but chicken stock would give a little extra richness (I think using just water would be a bit blah). Bittman suggests trying the base version at least once, fair enough especially if you are blessed with a bounty of tomatoes.

Maybe Bittman has a point about trying it the minimalist way the first time; this is a very adaptable recipe. My dinner guest Stephanie wanted some protein, so I threw in some chicken breast strips that I had in my freezer and that worked out well.

Verdict: thumbs-up. Relatively simple to prepare and once you make it the first time, you'll start putting together combinations for the next go-round. Next time I think I'll try it with chicken sausage and asparagus...or eggplant might be nice too...or maybe...

Wine - 2004 Feudo Zirtari Rosso Sicilia $3.99 (Trader Joe's)

So tonight The Cultured Hooligan (that'd just be CH for short) polishing off a bottle of 2004 Feudo Zirtari Rosso Sicilia that was purchased at Trader Joe's for the incredible price of $3.99. Now before we get into the review, given that this is the first vino-related post, it's important to first define ye olde hooligan's approach to wine...

Now the CH doesn't claim to be an oenophile (despite the fact that it's a phenomenal word), after all he's just a hooligan (albeit a cultured one). Typically CH drinks wines that are either somewhere in the range of good - very good (and priced accordingly) OR he drinks cheap wines. Why the disparity? Well if you guessed that it's better to drink good wine when someone else is paying for it, you're not far off. But that's not really it (well maybe just a little). Anyone can pick-up the latest issue of Wine Spectator, read about some great juice and then head to the local wine shop, plunk down $30-$50 and have a nice bottle. But isn't there more to it than that? Where's the sense of mystery, of daring? The Cultured Hooligan likes to cut his own path. He chooses the road less-traveled, blindly strolling through the aisles of Sam's or (more often) Trader Joe's, boldly selecting a bottle guided only by his wits and a rudimentary knowledge of varietals. There he quietly lurks until he pounces upon his prey: a pretty bottle with a low sticker price.

Experience has taught The Hooligan that price gives only the faintest indication of a wine's character. So take it from a Hooligan, spend a few bucks on a cheap bottle that you're going to drink with home-cooked meal and if it doesn't meet your linking, smash said bottle over the head of a supporter of a rival club. You're guaranteed to get your money's worth either way.
It's important to set expectations when opening a bottle of wine. Let me remind you that The Hooligan received change back from a Lincoln (Honest, Abe, I did), so the bar was not set terribly high. According to the website, the wine is a blend of 4 grape varietals: Nero d'Avola, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine itself was a light mish-mosh of flavors, no one grape stood out. The wine was somewhat dry and too tannic, with an unpleasantly astringent finish. However, when paired with food (a chicken and tomato paella), the wine seemed to improve considerably.
A great wine? No. A good wine? A decent wine - yes, and for the price it's worthwhile, but perhaps not something to seek out.
Value: 8/10
Taste: 3/10

First Post

So, here's the skinny...I started a blog for Mom who is battling cancer. Well, Mom's blog is really kept for Mom (well, Mom and the people who care about her), but I wanted to bore MY friends with stories about MY passions - Arsenal, opera, wine and food.

That's where the name comes in. No, not my name, the name of the blog. Football (just for clarification, football = soccer) is associated with a hooligan culture, especially in Europe (try to stay with me now, Arsenal is based in North London). But I'd like to consider myself a 21st century hooligan, a lovable rogue who can appreciate a nice cabernet franc as easily as a 1-0 victory over Spurs.

So these posts shall be a mix of all my passions. I hope you enjoy.