Film on the Stage

Sunday I had the tremendous pleasure of hearing music I wrote for an animated short nearly three years ago come to life on stage in its first ever live performance to picture. The film, Evenfall, tells the story of a young girl wandering through a forest full of neon creatures that both watch out for her and frighten her. Coming from the mind of the wildly talented animator Carolyn Chrisman, this project was our first collaboration and garnered Ms. Chrisman a place in the regional finals for a Student Academy Award. You can see the original project in the video embedded above.

Sunday’s performance was special for two reasons, one being that it happens to be close where a good chunk of my family resides, which means they were able to share in the performance with me. The other reason is that it was also the debut of groundbreaking new software developed by Minnesota based conductor Scott Winters and his company, Ion Concert Media. In film scoring, music is created using very precise techniques to make sure that it falls exactly where it needs to capture moments in the film. Recordings with musicians are made using click tracks so that the precise tempos used in composition translate to the live players so that all of that meticulous timing transfers accurately to the recording. Often for live concerts involving film, the same click technique is used; if you see the orchestra performing with headphones, that is exactly why: they are playing to a click. Again this makes sure all those musical hits line up precisely with the picture.

The software that Scott has developed turns this process on its head by making the film itself an instrument that can follow the conductor. So, rather than having to take such painstaking measures to conform the music to picture, the picture can actually be conformed to the music. Using an iPad on stage with the rest of the orchestra, Scott can adjust the playback of the movie to follow the baton of the conductor. In eliminating the need for click, you give back the nuance and interpretation that isn’t possible when playing to a predetermined tempo track. It’s truly remarkable technology that I honestly don’t quite understand. But what I do know is that it has the potential to create a whole new platform for filmmaking and composition: films created for the purpose of live musical accompaniment. I’m sure my colleagues will agree that such a prospect is wildly exciting.

Evenfall in Florida
Special thanks to Greg Raven for this photo

Terri’s Sauce

Terri's Sauce

Anyone with even a remote association to Italian ancestry more than likely has a mother with a tomato sauce recipe. And all of them will tell you that their mom’s is the best. Lucky for me (and for you), my mom’s is actually the best. Since the family has been steering away from carbohydrates (lord knows pasta is the last thing any of us need), it’s been literally years since I last had Terri’s sauce. I mean, what does one have with tomato sauce other than pasta….or ravioli…? So when asked what I wanted when I was home for this trip, you can bet I said sauce.

Terri has two secrets. The first: Pastene Kitchen Ready Tomatoes. The flavor is incomparable. Why? I have no idea. Give it a shot and tell me what you think. The second: in lieu of sugar, baking soda. Tomatoes are incredibly acidic and many people add sugar to counteract all that acid. In fact, many of the name brand jarred sauces like Ragu and Prego add so much sugar it’s the same as eating an Oreo cookie – no joke. The jury is still out for me as to whether adding sugar (a small amount) is a good practice, but my family is certainly adamantly against it. Terri adds just a teaspoon of baking soda to her sauce, sometimes two, and it works wonderfully.

For this batch we did a cliche: spaghetti and meatballs (and sausage). If I haven’t had sauce in years, I haven’t had meatballs in longer. Some are in the school of putting their meat into the sauce raw and letting them cook completely in the sauce, which has its merits. Terri and I are in the school of searing them off first and then letting them finish in the sauce. For me, the flavor one gets from browning is always desirable, so I think searing is the way to go. Terri actually bakes her meatballs, which I think is easier than trying to fry them in a pan, particularly when you’re making them in large quantities. And it still gets that brown color! We also seared sausages and some riblets. Topped with pepato Romano (that’s Romano cheese with black pepper), I’m brought back to our kitchen table in Pembroke where I grew up. So simple, and yet nothing quite compares.

What foods take you back?

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Floridian Pizza Oven

Home Brick Oven

This weekend I’m in Florida to see a live performance with picture of an animated short film I worked on some years ago while at USC. More on this in a coming post. One of the reasons I decided to make the trip out here for this particular performance is that my family happens to live out here. And of course, where there is family, there will be food… lots of food… ridiculous food. Today I was visiting my uncle who recently had a brick oven built in his back yard… What? Doesn’t everyone’s uncle have a brick oven? Hm… Anyway, he was generous enough to allow me to invite myself over for pizza. My initial visit was at 12, which was a good thing since he needed to light the fire right then so that it would get up to temperature by dinner time at 7. The temperature? Around 700 degrees. Cook time? 90 seconds.

Now don’t think for a minute we used any “pizza sauce” homemade or otherwise. Uncle Sam does pizza “sauce” with fresh chopped plum tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, oregano, and salt – that’s it. Topped with a combination of fresh and shredded mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms, and onions, it’s divine. There is nothing like the crust one gets from a brick oven. A bit charred, amazingly crispy, and with a touch of smoke from the burning wood. I’m obsessed. He tells me that there are a myriad of things that taste amazing from the oven – chicken, steak, vegetables. But his favorite? Whole roasted turkey. That will have to wait til next time.

Me? Spoiled? Never. ;-)

Homemade Brick Oven Pizza

Flaky Grilled Indulgence

Grilled Cheese Croissant

Perhaps the best and yet worst thing about working at the coffee shop is the proximity to amazing baked goods, particularly the croissants. In general try I avoid everything we sell at all costs… but some nights when we have them left over after we close and they’re going to be thrown out anyway, it can be hard to resist.

Recently I was feeling a bit indulgent and decided there must be something I could do with these delicious croissants at home. Something delicious, something that could go really well with tomato soup, something….. GRILLED CHEESE. But not just an ordinary grilled cheese. No no. I love the creamy salty goodness of Kraft American singles when I’m using whole wheat bread from the grocery store. But somehow slapping cheese product on a delicious, elegant croissant seemed somehow wrong. A grilled cheese with ham and egg made with smoked Gouda and Gruyere – now that is croissant worthy.

But where can a starving artist find such lavish ingredients at an affordable price? Why, Trader Joes of course! A pack of pre-sliced smoked Gouda: $2.99. A pack of minimally processed rosemary ham: $2.99. A block of Gruyere: $3.99. 1 dozen eggs: $1.99. Croissants: free. Spicy brown mustard: already in my fridge. Having enough for at least five sandwiches but making only two and eating the rest of the ingredients out of the fridge in the middle of the night: priceless.

Cast Iron Sandwich Press
There’s a sandwich under there!

Basically you make this like you would any other grilled cheese, with a few minor adjustments. Because croissants are like 90% butter, you only need to put a very thin layer in your pan to grill it. And the real key, as you’ve probably deduced from the picture, is that you need to weigh it down while it cooks. I happen to have two cast iron pans, one smaller than the other. Perfect. Just top it with a can or two and let it do its thing. You want to cook it for a bit longer than you think you need to make sure the middle gets hot, about 5 minutes per side. Watch your heat and make sure it doesn’t burn. For the sandwich itself I spread a thin layer of spicy brown mustard on the bread before layering the Gouda, ham, egg, and Gruyere. And speaking of the egg, you want to scramble two eggs and spread them out in a thin layer across your egg pan, almost like you were making a crepe. Put it on low heat and cover it until the whole thing is just set. Slide it onto a plate and cut it up into pieces that will fit onto your croissant. Lovely.

We all need to indulge from time to time. This was certainly mine. When I bought all that cheese and ham I also bought a bunch of vegetables to juice and make salads the next day. Balance.

Heirloom Tomato Soup: Cheap and Guiltless

Heirloom Tomato Soup

As the weather gets cooler I find myself craving warm comfort. I’ve said it before and ill say it again, soup is the starving artist’s secret weapon: low cost, high yield, mega satisfying. Lately I’ve been eating my stress, which is never good. This weekend I decided I needed to make something warm, satisfying, and completely guilt free. I had grilled cheese on the brain (more on this in another post) and so I naturally thought of tomato soup. I tell you I was tempted to buy a box of Trader Joe’s tomato soup. Like, whatever, I just want soup, I don’t care. And then I came to my senses and realized that for a few more dollars I could make a big pot of my own soup that would knock the pants off of TJ.

So here is what I purchased:

  • 1 package of TJ mini heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 24 oz cans of diced tomatoes
  • 1 box vegetable stock or broth
  • 1 cup of chopped fresh basil

And here’s what I used from my own pantry:

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Kosher salt, crushed red pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Sugar
  • Tomato paste (in a tube in my fridge)
  • 2 tsp dried basil
Heirloom Tomato Soup
Heirloom Tomato Soup

All I did was get my big enamel soup pot over medium high heat with just enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Toss in the heirloom tomatoes and let them heat up while you dice half the red onion (be sure to stir them around occasionally). Once the tomatoes have been heated for 8-10 minutes, add the onion with a good pinch of kosher salt, a few pinches of crushed red pepper, and the dried basil. Once the onions soften, use a garlic press to press in two cloves of fresh garlic right into the pot. Then add a good squeeze (about two tbsp) of tomato paste. Stir and cook for one minute then add the two cans of tomatoes, about 2 cups of the vegetable broth, bay leaves, and about two teaspoons of sugar. Bring to a boil, then cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove the bay leaves, add the fresh basil, and use a stick blender to puree to desired consistency. Feeds 4-6 people easily. Delicious, healthy, and totally homemade.

Serving suggestions/variations:

  • Adding a can of fire roasted tomatoes will add a new dimension of flavor to your soup
  • Using diced carrots along with the onions will contribute to sweetness and add more flavor
  • Try topping your bowl with some sliced avocado. Or, if you’re feeling indulgent, some grated gruyere cheese. Mmmmmm.