Nano-opera: La Rondine

La Rondine is your basic “girl meets guy, blows off icky rich husband, runs off with guy, wimps out, returns to rich husband, blows off and breaks heart of good guy” story set to equally boring music. 

So, yet another misogynist libretto and forgettable music, performed well by the San Francisco Opera, conducted adequately by some dude with regrettable Kent Nagano hair. A violinist friend in the opera orchestra (nameless here for reasons about to become obvious) said his hair was the only reason they could follow him: he attempted to give beats 1, 2, and 3 with his stick and did give a really clear beat 4 by running his other hand through his hair. The violinist mentioned that it’s a good thing his hair is long, or else beat 4 would have been only an eighth note. 
Victoria pointed out that the lead diva had nice breasts. (She sang well, too.) A backstage friend in the opera company (nameless here for reasons about to become obvious) replied that it was no accident that only she had low-cut costumes, and then admitted that it was probably just as well given most of the figures in the chorus. 

How could I have forgotten the wine?

Well, we didn’t–I just forgot to write about it. 

We repeated something fun from last year’s Thanksgiving, was that we had an informal contest to see who could come up with the best wine pairing for the meal. The prize is bragging rights, and the fact that all the dishes were departures from tradition made this year’s contest extra challenging. 
Pretty much everything we had was really good, but one wine did eke out a victory–the Navarro pinot noir that Noel and Ayse brought. David the Violinist brought a wonderful New Zealand sauvignon blanc by Isabel, along with a late harvest sauvignon blanc that we enjoyed with dessert. David the Bassist also went white, with two bottles of Chateau St. Michelle riesling. Victoria and I served two champagnes, one a yummy Scharffenberger and the other an even yummier Dampierre that Katja had given us at last year’s smørgåsbord. We also entered a white table wine from Hagafen called “Don Ernesto’s Collage” and a Tayerle pinot noir. 
They were all good, and most of us agreed that each wine was optimal with a certain dish, but the Navarro pinot noir won as the best overall match for the meal.  

A radical take on Thanksgiving menu traditions

I inherited a gluten intolerance from my mom, which means I’m not supposed to eat bread or anything else made from wheat, rye, oats, barley, or malt. Fortunately, I don’t have celiac disease, the most extreme form of gluten intolerance where consuming gluten slowly destroys your intestines, so when I cheat, the immediate suffering is the only consequence. I am generally willing to cheat if it’s for a good enough reason; the bread Hayes Street Grill served with our pre-opera dinner on Wednesday night, for example. My mom’s Thanksgiving stuffing is another worthy exception, and I probably would have been willing to cheat for it again this year–since Ayse was making dessert, we knew to expect baking miracles, so I knew I was going to be eating some gluten anyway, and she didn’t disappoint us. Still, I decided to make a breadless stuffing.

Let me back up.

We’d decided that this year’s potluck Thanksgiving should have radical takes on all the classic menu items.


Starting from the end of the dinner and working backwards, Ayse came up with a brilliant replacement for the traditional pumpkin pie: an amazing peanut butter pound cake baked in the shape of a turkey (who knew that turkey-shaped cake pans even exist?), surrounded by an assortment of cookies, including crunchy-gooey meringues and an absolutely brilliant update of the classic peanut butter with chocolate kiss cookie: peanut butter cookies with integrated Reese’s peanut butter cups! We served this with espressos and lattes. Noel gave me a much-needed refresher lesson in making espresso and got me back on my espresso game.


Instead of mashed potatoes, we had Noel’s scalloped potatoes, which featured a secret. They were incredible, and nobody could guess the secret: he’d deep-fried the thin potato slices before assembling the casserole, which he finished under the broiler. I have no idea what else was in them. Radical and fabulous.


Instead of some traditional gloppy cooked vegetables, David brought a tossed salad with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, microgreens, a classic vinaigrette, and a surprising key ingredient: figs! Wonderful, and the acid/sweet contrast was a welcome palate-cleanser in such a rich meal.


Victoria wouldn’t let Thanksgiving go by without her favorite cranberry sauce, so I did make a batch of cranberries according to what I think of as Mom’s recipe (the one from the back of the bag where you run cranberries and whole oranges through a Cuisinart, then stir in a pile of sugar, a couple slugs of Triple Sec, and a dut of Kirschwasser), except that I had run out of sugar and substituted 1/4 C of Splenda where I was supposed to use 2 C of sugar. That turned out well. The key to working with Splenda seems to be to use about an eighth of the sugar amount–or at least start with that, taste, and increase slowly until you’re satisfied. Remember that anything served cold needs to be a little sweeter than you want it to be while it’s still warm. I couldn’t find my Kirschwasser, so I used some German apple-pear brandy that was right in the front of the liquor cabinet instead, and that added a nice, subtle extra dimension. Serve cold. 

To keep the radical rule, though, I also made the most unconventional cranberry sauce recipe I know of, which is the classic Mama Stamberg recipe that Susan Stamberg has recited on NPR every year since the beginning of NPR. As she admits, it sounds disgusting–cranberries, sour cream, onions, horseradish, and sugar?! in the freezer?!–but it’s actually quite good. Kind of a Jewish chutney, if you will. 

I guess if horseradish is good on a Hillel sandwich (matzoh crackers, the chopped-apples-and-walnuts mixture called charoset, and fresh grated horseradish), why not in cranberry sauce? Our next door neighbor, Jaryn, serves horseradish with just about everything, including her St. Patrick’s Day corned beef, and I have to admit it’s what corned beef has always needed.


Okay, I broke the rule with the yams and made the same yams I’ve made just about every year since Josie first brought them to my Thanksgiving back in the 90s: they’re her mashup of two different recipes, and my version of them is basically to roast and peel a mess of yams, then pour a mixture of melted butter, orange juice, and bourbon over them, add pinches of your basic sweet spices, and bake. This year I made a slight twist by adding cardamom to my usual choices of cinnamon and mace. However, we did do something a little bit radical when it came to serving them: the pot was really hot, and we were out of room on the table for anything requiring a trivet, so I set them up on the window ledge instead. And there they sat, forgotten, until we were clearing for dessert. Can you believe nobody had yams with Thanksgiving, and nobody noticed they were missing? We all had a token serving as a separate pre-dessert course.


I’d tried to talk folks into having a goose instead of a turkey (the ultimate radical menu change!), but everybody insisted we had to have turkey. Victoria especially insisted, and I know better than to disappoint her on something fundamental. 

Our turkey was pretty straight-ahead. It was your basic bargain-basement non-orgasmic cage-raised boringly-fed bird, seventeen pounds, brined since Monday in Emeril Lagasse’s brine (at John Watkins’ suggestion), but with the addition of juniper berries (from Barbara Kafka’s brine). As usual, I followed Barbara Kafka’s instructions for roasting at 500 degrees (actually I set the oven for 450 with the convection fan on) for only two hours. This method puts out a lot of smoke, so we had the hood running pretty much the whole time. It also results in a very darkly-browned skin with some crunchy bits.

Another twist was that this year, instead of attempting to carve the bird the way my dad does, I decided to try the method recommended in a New York Times’ article I’d read the day before, “The Butcher Carves a Turkey,” which was accompanied by a helpful video demonstration. The basic idea is to part the roasted bird off its carcass first, then slice it, and to arrange it all on the platter a certain way that keeps the white and dark meat separated but still looks attractive. I did this for two reasons. One, even though he’s tried to teach me several times, I suck at trying to do it Dad’s way, but I’m pretty good at butchering raw birds, so I figured I’d be better at butchering and then slicing a roasted bird than I’ve ever been at trying to carve the traditional way. Two, I agree with all the points the butcher makes about why it’s a better way. Dad manages to make the traditional way work out really well, but as the butcher points out, the big problem with the traditional way–besides that it’s difficult–is that you end up slicing with the grain of the meat instead of across it.

I’m completely sold. I had the entire thing neatly sliced and plattered in the time it would usually take me to make a mess of half the bird. I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to carve around all the weird shapes; I was just slicing hunks on a board. The slices were coherent and tidy. The light and dark were nicely separated. The platter looked good. I could throw all the weird bits into my gravy pan, which was simmering away while I was slaughtering. We had a platterful of sliced meat to put away after dinner instead of a big, messy carcass. It was easy to pack our guests off with leftovers. Noel had a tidy carcass to take home for making stock, something I won’t be having time for this weekend, since I’m making a mileage run to Frankfurt and back, Saturday-Monday.

However, I would add two tips to the butcher’s instructions: one, wear a full-length apron, not a waist-down one like I did; two, if you have two boning knives, use the one you don’t like to get the chunks off, then use the one you do like to do the slicing. That way, you can save the good knife’s slicing edge for slicing after the dirty work is done by the more expendable knife, and if you’re working one hunk at a time, you simply switch knives instead of having to steel your knife repeatedly.


My gravy was only a little off from tradition. I always make a stock from the odd bits of the turkey, celery, onion, and herbs. This year I used the spent herbs from my unstuffing custard (see below), cream and all, along with chicken stock (since our bird had almost nothing on the way of odd bits), onions, garlic, and celery. That simmered away all afternoon. After pouring off the turkey fat from the roasting pan, I deglazed it with the strained stock, then kept tossing in the weird and fatty bits from my carving process as it simmered away on the burner, reducing to about half while I carved, and then straining out the chunks before thickening. As usual, I added several slugs of marsala and a bunch of salt and pepper, then thickened it with a gluten-free cornstarch slurry, and I broke with tradition by adding a dash of Pernod pastis to finish it. I don’t think you could quite taste the pastis’s anise in the gravy, but it did have a more complex flavor. Also, since I’d roasted the bird at 500 degrees, the pan drippings were nearly scorched, resulting in a wicked-dark brown gravy that miraculously didn’t taste burnt.


Which brings me to the main point of this blog post: my “unstuffing custard.” The goal was to make something that would be as satisfying and delicious as my mom’s classic breadcumb stuffing, without the bread or any other gluten. Since I’m better off with low-carb eating, it ideally wouldn’t have carbs at all, but I wasn’t going to be stubborn about that in a meal that’s already hopelessly carby. 

My version of Mom’s stuffing is to make a huge bowl of bread cubes from at least three kinds of bread–usually a dark pumpernickel, white sourdough, and something medium-brownish like a whole-wheat. Saute onions and celery in a lot of butter. Drizzle over the bread cubes. Add salt, pepper, and a ton of crumbled sage leaves–enough to make Dad sneeze, and then a little bit more. Moisten with boiling water, stuff into bird, roast, extricate, and serve with a ton of gravy.

The miracle of Moms’ stuffing is the wonderful, overpowering sage flavor. I figured the key to my unstuffing would be to do something with enough fat to draw out the celery and sage flavors, and I’d need to come up with some kind of base that would have the rich, puddingy texture of a traditional breadcumb stuffing. I thought maybe some kind of savory custard recipe would be the starting point, so I googled a bit and found this one from the New York Times: Baked Savory Custard with Cheese. This looked close to what I was hoping for, so I decided to use it as the skeleton of my new recipe. Since I haven’t made a lot of custards but know that they can be tricky to get right, I also did some reading on the science of custards from both Cookwise and Harold McGee’s latest book. My particular question was whether adding a lot of fat, such as butter or olive oil, would interfere with the thing setting up. I couldn’t find any commentary on that, so I just decided to plunge in. What else is new? I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that it all worked out, and if I say so myself, it was pretty fabulous. So, here’s the recipe that I developed and why I did things the way I did. Most of the measurements are approximations from memory, because I’m really not a measurer, and somehow I seem to get away with that.

Unstuffing Custard

  • 2 C cream
  • several springs fresh thyme, oregano, rosemary
  • almost a whole bunch of sage sprigs
  • 3 large cloves of garlic
  • 4 stalks celery
  • 1/2 stick salted butter
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 C dried shiitakes, rehydrated with boiling water
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 1/3 package of cream cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 C finely-grated Emmenthaler, parmesan reggiano, pecorino romano
  • 3 eggs plus 2 yolks

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and put a kettle of water on to boil.

Put all the herb sprigs and the cream in a small saucepan and bringly slowly up to a simmer. The original recipe just wants you to scald the cream, but I wanted to simmer it for a while to extract as much herb flavor as possible, so I let it “simmer” just below a simmer the whole time I was doing everything else. At some point it did start to boil because of my inattention, but I got it off the heat right away and then continued with the sub-simmer simmer. 

Pour boiling water over the dried, sliced shiitake mushrooms to rehydrate them. (Or use fresh.)

Chop the onion and celery into hunks and run them through the Cuisinart, not quite to a puree but close. (It’s about juice, as I’ll explain in a bit.) Melt half a stick of butter in a small saute pan, then add the onion-celery glop and let simmer over medium heat–just high enough that you’re not sweating the vegetables, just low enough that you’re not browning them much, either. Run several large cloves of garlic and a shallot through the Cuisinart and add those to the pan. Add a pinch of cayenne (a few taps-worth from the shaker jar), kosher salt, and freshly ground black telicherry pepper. You want all this to cook gently for quite a while, so that as much juice as possible steams off. I think adding the salt to this part of the recipe also helps with the water-dispersal, but I’m not certain about that. The kitchen scientists warn about the danger of water from vegetables seeping out and making the custard have runny bits, so that’s why I took all these juice-minimizing precautions.

Crack three eggs into a medium casserole (I used a deep souffle dish). The original recipe has you use ramekins, but that didn’t seem right for a Thanksgiving stuffing. Crack two more eggs over the dog’s food dish, separating the whites into her food dish and the yolks into your casserole. The dog also gets the egg shells, and if you’re lucky, she sticks around to clean up any other little messes that arrive on the floor. Back to cooking, lightly beat your share of the eggs.

Strain the shiitake juice into the stockpot that’s going to end up in the gravy (see “Gravy” above). Just about wring those suckers out–get all the extra moisture out, as explained earlier. Buzz the cream cheese up with the shiitakes in the Cuisinart, then stir this mixture into the eggs. I don’t think the cream cheese ended up being very important, especially given the next step, but we had some sitting around, and I wanted to give my custard every chance of setting up. I was worried that all the water in the celery, onion, and mushrooms would make my custard a watery mess, as the scientists had warned, but as it turned out, my custard set up quite well, so I probably could have skipped the cream cheese. 

Grate about 4 cups of semi-hard or hard cheeses. We had a hunk of Emmenthaler, a smaller hunk of parmesan reggiano, and a tiny hunklet of pecorino romano, so that’s what I used. Stir about two-thirds of this into the egg mixture, and reserve the rest.

Slowly stir the sauteed vegetables into the egg mixture. Strain the cream slowly into the egg mixture while stirring constantly. Toss the used herbs into the stockpot, cream-coating and all. (Why not?) I had Victoria pour the cream slowly through a mesh strainer into my mixing bowl, while I was folding the mixture with a silicone scraper. I’m not sure how you’d accomplish this without a Victoria; I suppose you’d have to pre-strain the cream into a convenient pouring container and then pour with one hand while stirring with the other. The key in this step (and the steps above) is that you’re never shocking the eggs with a sudden influx of heat, which would cook and curdle them; instead, you’re first diluting them with all the other cold ingredients, and then you’re slowly stirring in the hot veggies and finally the hot cream.

Place the souffle dish in a somewhat larger pan that’s at least as deep and at least half an inch wider–an inch all the way around would be better still. Fill the larger pan up to the level of the glop in the souffle dish with boiling water. Try not to splash water into the custard as I did, but if you do, use a paper towel to soak it up and out. Baked custards need to bake in a water bath, so that the heat is gentle and consistent, and the custard can set up slowly. Too hot, and you get scrambled eggs in runny slop; too cool, and you get wobbly goop. At least that’s what the kitchen scientists say. I decided not to use the convection fan on my oven, reasoning that it would make the top of the custard cook too quickly.

Bake uncovered until it’s almost done, then scatter the reserved grated cheese over the top and let that melt and brown while the custard finishes. “Done” is defined as the point where most of it has set up, but the center is still a bit wet and wobbly. The center will finish setting up from carryover heat while it rests and cools. The kitchen scientists say to have courage about taking it out before you’re convinced it’s done, because if it cooks any longer, the eggs will curdle and the fluids will weep out and form runny rivulets. Ish kabibble, as my great-gramma would have said. I had mine in about half an hour, plus ten more minutes with the cheese, but apparently the shape of the dish and its bain marie (hot water bath) can both affect cooking time, as well as all the usual variables that affect cooking times for anything you bake. (My ex the chef pointed out that any good pastry chef will tell you the temperature but not the time for baking anything, because you can never count on the time, no matter how much you try to control all the variables. Therefore, the correct time for any baking recipe is always “until it’s done.”)

The original recipe said to serve it warm, at room temperature, or cold a few hours after baking. I made it just before putting the turkey in to roast, so two hours later it wasn’t very warm, and I think stuffing ought to be warm or even hot. So, while the turkey rested, I threw the yams in to bake (about 30 minutes), and I put the custard in for the last fifteen minutes or so, covered, just long enough to warm it through but not long enough to risk more cooking.  

Serve with lots of gravy, just like a real stuffing. 

That’s the recipe, best I can recall. Please leave a comment or email a question if you think I’ve missed something important in there–I might have, and I don’t want to be one of those people who publishes recipes that haven’t been tested and don’t work.

Our guests loved it. We did, too! I think it was a success. The cheeses were a great addition to Mom’s stuffing’s flavor profile, but I think it would have tasted good without the cheese, too, or with about half as much cheese. The catch is, I’m not sure what would happen with the custard if you changed the cheese factor in the recipe; I just don’t have enough experience with custards to guess. If anyone experiments with that, please report your results in the comments! 

Nano-opera: More on Flute and Butterfly

Dad commented:

Great opera review. I had never thought of Lady of the Night as Cruella DeVille. Now I’ll never be able to think of her as other than Cruella.

I’m not sure I would make the comparison normally, but in this production it was hard not to. Take a look at the “Inside The Magic Flute” video at San Francisco Opera’s website and get a load of the costumes and sets! You can also get a taste of the Queen’s phenomenal pipes–Erika Miklósa was unbelievably good in the role. I can die now.

He continued:

Re Butterfly, your version might make more sense but it would certainly detract from the tragic drama. I find it difficult to not break down in tears throughout the second and third acts because I know how it ends.

Knowing that the story ends in a slapstick brawl would ruin the effect, though springing an alternate ending as a surprise might certainly be a pleasant surprise–once.

Who said it would be slapstick? I think those women would be pretty serious in their passionate dispatch of the assholes who ruined their lives, don’t you? And would it be any less tragic with the right characters dying?

Nano-opera: Magic Flute and Madame Butterfly

Magic Flute

Another opera nano-synopsis, this time for Magic Flute, in particular San Francisco Opera’s 2007 production, which seems to take place on a Batman set and features characters and costumes from a bunch of other movies: Big chested ladies with scary bras headed by Cruella de Ville from 101 Dalmatians, aka the Queen of the Night, battle with the Planet of the Apes headed by the knight from The Seventh Seal, aka Sarastro, for the hearts of Tamino, Birdman, and Birdmanina.

For benefit of those who didn’t see it, Sarastro’s gang gave “helmet hair” a whole new meaning, and Sarastro himself was a dead ringer for Max von Sydow’s knight (the one who plays chess with Death) in The Seventh Seal. Nearly every character besides a few of the leads wore costumes that in some odd way or another drew attention to their breasts or man-breasts, particularly the Three Ladies and their über-Lady, Cruella de Ville. If the ladies and their queen had managed to triumph, we might have called it bra-us ex machina.

In any production, Magic Flute is yet another opera that has real problems when viewed from a feminist or vaguely enlightened perspective. The Queen of the Night is your typical mother spurned and scorned and bears a not unreasonable grudge against Sarastro, the man who stole her daughter from her after her husband died, but somehow the librettist finds a way to make everything her fault and cast Sarastro as the good guy. One wonders if Mozart perhaps saw a little more gray between the black-and-white lines of the libretto, though, given that the Queen and the other women have all the best arias and most powerful singing. Sarastro gets to make various heartfelt, sincere, warm-fuzzy “love makes the world go round” points, and sure enough he does seem to be a bit of a natural facilitator, but he always does so impotently–the arias are set in the basement of the bass range where even the best singers struggle to project. Even this production’s costumer also seemed to give the ladies some benefit of the doubt–they got all the best costumes and hair!

Librettists seem to find heartbreak to be just and reasonable grounds for women to commit suicide. Perhaps this is wishful misogynist thinking, as many of opera’s heroines would seem to me to be justified in killing off the men rather than offing themselves. I’ve already made the case for the Queen of the Night above, and it’s not hard to extend this argument to the rest of opera’s greatest hits.

Madame Butterfly
Take Madame Butterfly for example: impregnated and then abandoned by a lying ne’er-do-well Pinkerton, who’s enabled by a regretful but spineless Sharpless, Cio-Cio San offs herself in despair, but wouldn’t it be more satisfying and considerably more realistic for Cio-Cio San, Suzuki, and Kate to whack Pinkerton and Sharpless instead, and then continue on about their business of raising the brat together?