Happy Red Quinoa, Fennel, and Strawberry Salad

Early June is the apotheosis of the strawberry in this part of Europe – you can hardly turn around twice without spying them in the markets, peeking out behind garden fences, even growing wild in the forest. (Few things in this world taste better than wild strawberries plucked on a hike in the woods.) Inspired by this juicy bounty, (and feeling hungry for lunch,) I created this lovely lukewarm salad featuring the crunchiness of red quinoa, the crisp and soothing touch of fennel, and the aforementioned berry-infused glory. Besides providing a satisfying lunch before a long rehearsal in the opera pit  – next stop, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly – this would be a pretty addition to an early summer picnic spread.

Ingredients:

3/4 cup red quinoa

1 1/2 cups water

1 medium fennel bulb, chopped

7-10 ripe strawberries, tops removed, quartered

1 little pot goat’s or soy yogurt, unflavored 

juice and zest of 1/2 lemon

1/8 cup sunflower oil

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 

 

Directions: Cook the quinoa in the rice cooker, then let cool. In the meantime, prepare strawberries and fennel. 

 

When the quinoa has reached room temperature, toss together remaining ingredients and season to taste. 

 

Use a few extra strawberries as garnish… 

 

This recipe, besides being delicious, is also gluten-free, appropriate for the later stages of the Candida diet, and vegan if you use soy yoghurt. 

In the meantime, my husband prepared his own lunch, his Käsespätzle :-) 

 

Vegan Refried Black Beans in my Luxembourg Kitchen

image4Luxembourg, my adopted home, is a crossroads for many culinary traditions, but Mexican cuisine isn’t among them. My husband is a San Antonio native as well as a gifted Tex-Mex cook (you’ll also rarely find a better Käsespätzle or Züri geschnetzeltes than the ones he can put together.) So we often get a “hankering” for the bold, sensual tastes of the American Southwest. Without the proper ingredients, especially chiles, whipping up the perfect mole enchiladas can be a nightmarish task. For years, we’ve stuffed packages of dried ancho, guajillo, cascabel, morita, chipotle, adobo, and others into boots and rolled-up shirts in our luggage on the way back to Europe. Sometimes we forget until time to put that particular pair of shoes on again and feel the mysterious, disconcerting crunch of capsicums between our toes…

Nowadays, you can find tortillas in the shops, even a gluten-free version, as well as salsa (mediocre,) seasonings (worse than mediocre,) and even canned refried beans (ick.) A couple days ago, I tried my hand at creating a tasty, vegan incarnation of refried beans. I was very pleased with the results and am happy to share my recipe with you here. This should be especially helpful to my European readers, as I have kept the number of chiles involved to a minimum. As usual, I’ve done my best to find organic ingredients where possible. This recipe is lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and yeast-free, and yes, it’s vegan unless you are dying for some butter to fry the beans.

You can also start out with a jar or can of black beans rather than dried, but where’s the fun in that?

Old World Refried Black Beans

Ingredients:

400 grams (14 oz) black beans, dried

Yeast-free vegetable stock, or make your own from scratch

2 cloves rose garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

a pinch of fresh or dried sage (I dehydrate our sage from the garden)

12-15 piquin chiles or equivalent, dried (don’t be afraid to use the seeds as well)

chili flakes, to taste

a few shakes of ground chipotle peppers

a pinch of cinnamon

1 tsp. coriander seeds

salt to taste

olive oil

zest and juice of 1 lime

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Pour boiling water over the dried black beans, enough to cover them plus a couple centimetres, and leave to soak overnight. The next morning, drain and rinse the beans, pour new boiling water over them, and leave for at least an hour (all morning is ideal.) Drain and rinse again since they are stubborn, then cook for about an hour in the vegetable stock on medium-low heat, covered.

In the meantime, grind up the cumin seeds, dried sage, all chiles, cinnamon, and salt together with a mortar and pestle.

When the beans are finished cooking, remove most of the liquid, holding in reserve. Dump the beans in your food processor, add a bit of the broth and a few glugs of olive oil, and whir until you get that telltale refried bean consistency. Add more liquid and olive oil as necessary.image1

In a large saucepan or wok, heat up more olive oil on medium heat (or butter, if you prefer) then sauté the garlic for a minute, then add the ground spice mixture and sauté another couple of minutes. Add the bean purée and mix thoroughly. Cook about 10 minutes more, stirring frequently to keep your mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add lime zest and juice to the beans, then adjust seasonings to taste. You now have a delicious, basic refried bean paste for whatever dish you are preparing.image5 Kerry’s portion turned into chalupas compuestas (grilled tortillas, beans, gouda with cumin, cilantro, salsa;)image6mine sat atop a bed of whole-grain rice with lambs-ear lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cilantro,and salsa. image7

¡Buen provecho! 

Vegan Almond Butter Hummus, or painting with a restricted palate

IMG_5227This afternoon, 10 (mostly) Americans gathered at our friend’s 300-year-old farmhouse in Lorraine to celebrate Easter the traditional way: consuming copious quantities of home-cooked food together. We had a couple vegetarians in our midst and based our feast on vegan delicacies, if you don’t count the marvellous braised lamb prepared by our host.

I’ve been on a restricted diet for the past nine weeks. The purpose is to restore the skewed balance in my intestinal flora, as well as to cure recurring, painful oral infections (a horn player’s nightmare!) My inspiration for taking this on was the well-researched, humorous, first-hand account penned by a favourite author of mine, Cash Peters. His book on tackling Candida albicans overgrowth was a revelation to me and explained many other health issues I’d dealt with over the years. His blog is at least as fun as mine and is worth perusing, while you’re at it! Several doctor’s and nutritionist’s appointments, tests, and treatments of various sorts later (note to self: don’t mention colonic irrigation in a blog with a recipe,) I’ve settled into a rhythm of different foods, supplements, and the inevitable emotional/spiritual changes and vulnerability that come from willingness to heal.

You’d think we all want to be healthy and whole all the time, and in theory, we do. The problem is, we get so used to our imbalances and pain that the work involved in transformation feels like an uncrossable chasm. Insane, no? I tend to treasure my convictions anyway (such as, I’m already a healthy eater – what could diet have to do with any of my problems?) so it takes some doing to change course. As it turned out, I’m missing an antibody that protects the mucous membranes along with having a yeast intolerance, combining to muck up the works. Stress definitely plays a role. Did I mention that I play horn for a living?

It has been a hard regimen, I won’t lie. Maddeningly frustrating, sometimes, since food is one of the main ways we commune with others in social situations. Nine weeks in, though, my symptoms have disappeared, I’ve lost 6 kilos without trying, and my energy is good and steady. I’m slowly re-introducing foods banned on the Candida diet (hello, Rioja and potatoes! Berries and bananas, you’re next, my old friends!) Cooking has proven a challenge. We often make parallel meals, or mine serves as a side dish for my husband. Despite the restrictions, I’ve come up with some gorgeous new additions to the repertoire. You’d be surprised how a narrowed list of allowed foods can spark your creativity. Here’s my vegan almond hummus that proved a massive hit at Easter lunch today.

Since recipes don’t usually read as “a glob of this and some bits of that,” I’ve done my best to provide proportions for you. Feel free to play around with them according to taste.

Ingredients:

-250 g (about 8 oz.) cooked chickpeas, drained

-1/2 cup almond butter, either blanched or natural. I used blanched today.

-1/4 cup yoghurt (soy for vegan hummus, also excellent with Greek-style or goat’s milk yoghurt)

-2-3 cloves raw garlic

-a few healthy glugs of extra virgin olive oil

-juice of 1-1 1/2 lemons, to taste

-1 heaping teaspoon ground cumin

-Himalaya salt to taste

-sweet or smoked paprika for garnish

Add all ingredients except paprika to your food processor (mine is a sturdy Magimix that would break your foot if you dropped it!) and blend until smooth, adding additional olive oil if needed for consistency. Add salt to taste.

Pour into decorative dish and garnish with drizzled olive oil and paprika. Plop in a sprig of parsley if you’re feeling frisky. Enjoy with raw veggies, rice cakes, or whatever takes your fancy.

The secret to a healing or detoxifying diet is to focus on and be grateful for what you CAN eat, rather than bemoaning what you give up. Come to think of it, that’s true in pretty much any area of life, isn’t it?

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Thoughts on perfection vs. excellence and the American Horn Quartet’s final year

For months now, I keep telling myself that it’s time to jumpstart this blog again after a hiatus of over a year, as the sheer act of bringing reflections and thoughts to (virtual) paper has always been a joy. Each time, the impulse died with the internal dialogue, “Too much has happened to write down” and, my all-time favourite murderer of creativity,”If you are going to write something, it needs to be spectacular.” (Read: perfect.) Perfectionism is dangerous game the ego plays to prevent us from giving birth to any creative endeavour. As a performer, I relearn every day the delicate skill of knowing when to let go and let a performance happen. The moments we divest ourselves of the need to steer the outcome are those where magic and miracles can happen. Yes, careful and considered preparation are a requisite for this letting go – it’s a balancing act. The fulcrum is different for each person and every situation, but what remains constant is the triumph of enthusiasm over anxiety, put simply, love over fear. I like the idea of striving for excellence rather than perfection. It’s just as much work, but without the automatic “doomed to fail” label attached. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

So…now to plunge in and share with you what’s on my mind today!

The American Horn Quartet, one of the greatest joys and blessings in my life these past several years, will give its last concert next August in Los Angeles at the International Horn Symposium. Due to a schedule conflict between orchestra and tour obligations, the AHQ has just completed a US tour without me. I was quite heartbroken at first not to be able to participate in what is the last major American tour of the quartet, as well as one I had the main share of organizing. Okay, I’m still sad about it. But 1) my part has been in the more than capable hands of Karl Pituch of the Detroit Symphony orchestra, for many years our go-to sub anytime we need reinforcements in North America. And 2) the reason I remained in Europe was to rehearse with the OPL for an upcoming tour including one of my favourite things to play, the 3rd horn part of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with my extremely talented colleagues. So, back to the AHQ. A lot of people have asked why we are throwing in the towel while still at the top of our game. That’s an answer unto itself, really – we would like to leave a legacy of fantastic concerts and conscientious artistry and go out before we outstay our welcome. It’s also become more difficult for all four of us to free ourselves from other (job) obligations at the same time. The quartet has been around for 30 years; I have had the pleasure of the last six. Once we pass the torch, I’m not sure what will take its place – certainly Kerry and I will resume the Virtuoso Horn Duo, put on hold as our priority went to the quartet, and I hope the Ni Ensemble will get going again. Aside from that, the extra time not spent answering and writing hundreds of emails organizing tours will go to other projects. I honestly have no idea what I’ll be doing in 5 years, and that’s okay. But I will miss the AHQ dearly. The four of us bring out the best in one another musically – I call it the Turbo button. When the music kicks into high gear, the combination of laser-like concentration and the power of the music feels like a clear, sharp wind, leaving no room for distracting thoughts. So even though the repertoire we play can be devilishly difficult, my mind is rarely more peaceful than in the middle of a performance. I truly feel emptied out, in the best possible way, after a recital.

Earlier I was talking about perfectionism, about knowing when to put in the nitpicky work and when to surrender to the flow. In our rehearsals, we sometimes go into ridiculous, microscopic detail, even on pieces we have performed dozens of times. The alchemical transformation comes about as a result of the absolute trust we have in each other on stage. Even if clams happen (for my non-musician friends and readers, that’s what we call the occasional splats that happen to every horn player!) or if a passage doesn’t come off the way we did it in the practice room, that trust remains. Recently, in London at the International Horn Society symposium, someone’s cell phone went off in the audience just as we had started the finale, throwing us off our rhythm, and we had to start the movement over. It’s the first time that had ever happened during my tenure with the quartet. But so what! We knew that we could sink straight back into the flow of the piece because of that trust. Also, we have fun.

We have a new CD coming out called En-COR! – yes, it’s a pun, and yes, the whole CD is made up of our favourite encore pieces. Release date should be the middle of December, just in time for Christmas stockings. We used the Kickstarter program to fund the project, with well over 100 supporters. Once it’s available (Albany Records,) I will share links to find it. During the recording sessions, the microphones were close to us, so the listener has the feeling of being right there. You can hear us breathing, hear our valves clicking, feel the organic current of the music. Our Grammy-award winning producer, Gregg Squires, did a brilliant job in capturing a very “live” feel. With two and a half days to record 20 pieces, the principle of knowing when to move on becomes pretty important.

Preparing to take our final bow...

Preparing to take our final bow…

Hey, blog written! Now I just have to press “send.” How hard can it be? :-)

Out of the Closet

 

Every September in Luxembourg, local residents find a large, orange transparent sack shoved through the mailbox (or sometimes, dumped unceremoniously on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the front door.)  This is the time to go through closets, locate items we no longer wear and wish to donate to charity, and pack them into the bag for pickup, usually scheduled for the first day of autumn.  Whether this is coincidence or deliberate seasonal gesture, the timing is fortuitous.

In our neighborhood we also have a giant orange container for the same purpose, next to the bins for recycled glass and paper, perched outside our local Portuguese greengrocer’s shop.  On the afternoon the orange bag arrived (this year, still clinging stubbornly by one corner to the mailbox), I got excited.  My natural impulse to give things away and to clear space kicked in with a sort of frenzy, and soon I was happily laying waste to my closet and chest of drawers.  Once I started, I didn’t want to wait the two weeks until pickup of the sacks, so I ended up taking 4 bags down to the corner container.  Clothes I hadn’t worn in a really long time.  Clothes given to me that I had kept just to be nice.  Clothes I wasn’t sure why I bought in the first place.  Clothes hanging under other clothes, forgotten.  Clothes I imagined someone else would take pleasure wearing.  Clothes that didn’t quite fit my body, or my personality, but that had continued taking up space, “just in case.”   A few holdouts from the 90’s that had survived several such purges and changes of residence gave me pause, but sometimes it’s simply time to let go and move on.  (Apparently, I was fond of leopard prints in the 90’s…)

Cleaning out a closet isn’t such a big deal, really.  Making space in my head, in my heart, my spirit – that’s another thing.  What in my life have I been carrying around that I haven’t needed for years but haven’t released?  What burdens have I taken on from my family, friends, colleagues, society in general, and never examined?  What do I hold onto from the past that no longer serves me, but stays in my psyche, “just in case?” 

Releasing old baggage and destructive behavior patterns is as easy – or torturous – as we allow it to be.  My Reiki teacher, Don Alexander, often spoke of resistance, of the many ways we hold onto the familiar just because we know it and are afraid of who we are without it.  Even, and sometimes especially, the pain.  Why do we identify with our limits, physical or intellectual?  Why do we let the old tapes in our heads tell us what we cannot accomplish, why we cannot be free?  Don teaches his students a wonderful meditation about this.  After centering and finding a calm place inside, you slowly strip off, one by one, all your physical layers.  Who are you without your hair and skin?  Who are you without your muscle?  Without your eyes and ears?  Without your soft organs, your blood?  You continue this until you are down to your very bones.  The idea is to pare everything down to its most essential, its basic components. 

Who am I without my horn playing?  Who am I without my need to make people feel comfortable and happy?  Without my anxieties and desires?  Without my intellect?  Without my taste in literature, my ability to cook, my health, my marriage, family, senses, thoughts, emotions, even without my name? 

Obviously, we don’t throw everything away.  (I still have clothes in my closet!) But if we take a moment now and then to look deeply at the things we carry, to discover what is essential and what is not, and to release just a little of what burdens us, we can breathe so much more freely.  I’m still working on it, that balance between resistance and release, but the releasing part gets easier with practice.

Oh, and by the way, if you ever see me decked out in leopard prints again, send me home to do another closet purge, please.

 

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(Over)view from the rooftops of Paris

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I’ve just had the pleasure of spending a couple free days in Paris between performances with the OPL at the Opéra Comique.  Our Sunday show fell on my birthday, so Kerry and I stayed afterwards and indulged in an Ethiopian feast at one of our favorite restaurants in the Latin Quarter.  We found a very cute studio through the airbnb website (if you don’t know it, it’s a bit like Craigslist, but you are better protected from scams.)  The view out our window (7th floor, luckily with elevator, which is by no means a given here!) is lovely –  a double rainbow greeted us upon arrival, crowning the Jardin des Plantes right across the street.  Yesterday the master craftsmen at L’olifant Paris whipped my horn back into shape and gave me the opportunity to try some beautiful horns and mouthpieces.

It seems a good place and time to bring a little perspective to the goings-on of the past and future couple of months, especially because I haven’t written a blog for a good long while.  The “doing”/”being” ratio has tipped more to the “doing” side, as it often does when I don’t pay attention to seeking the inner stillness and reflection necessary to feel whole.  Mind you, I love pretty much everything I have been doing lately – playing great music with the orchestra every week, preparing and presenting concerts with the American Horn Quartet, taking Pilates lessons, going to plays and dance productions, and all the normal bits of everyday living.  A huge bonus lately has been to have so much time together with my husband, sadly lacking this time last year with all the traveling.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself walking around in a bit of a daze, not taking everything in.  Other than while playing music, when the habit of years of laser-like focus kick in, the edges seem a bit blurry to scenery, conversations, even the taste of food (for those of you who know me well, that’s a clear sign that something is amiss!)  Even this morning, I had originally planned to go to a museum but feared just drifting by the exhibits without appreciating them.  I go through this cycle often, not realizing it’s happening for a while.  This classic Far Side cartoon says it beautifully:

 

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The trick – the art – to living is in balance (being married to a Libra will teach you a thing or two about that as well!) – especially that between the inner and outer life.  The next few weeks are just as activity-laden as the previous ones, including more performances in Paris, an AHQ tour to the States, Götterdämmerung on Wagner tuba when I return, then brass quintet rehearsals and a Britten Serenade performance etc….  But I am going to do my best to find the inner stillness and perception to be fully present in the big and small moments, including the ones that don’t have a website link attached. But there just may be a double rainbow in the offering.

 

 

 

 

A change of pace

The quote “You are human beings, not human doings” has been attributed to various sources – little wonder, really, as we can all relate in times of intense activity.  Indeed, until quite recently, I’ve felt like a tetherball with Luxembourg as the pole, constantly spiraling towards and away by rail and by plane.  I think I was home for something like 15 days between May and the end of August, mostly in 36-hour chunks, emptying one suitcase and packing another.  Two of my suitcases are nearly the same size for just this purpose.  Endless gratitude to Kerry for putting up with Suitcase A on the bedroom floor while Suitcase B was on a conveyor belt in some airport.  Summer 2012 was particularly dizzy.  A combination of professional engagements and family-related visits led me to Japan (twice), Oregon, San Antonio, England and Scotland, Thailand and UAE.  There’s a beauty and freshness to travel and to the feeling of being a part of the international cultural scene as well as opportunities for growth and connection with other people and places.  I’m so grateful for all the experiences I have had and wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.

At one point after popping home for one night then rushing off to catch a train to another airport for two long-haul flights in a row to Asia, I just wanted to weep. (That came, eventually, late at night in a high-rise hotel room on the other side of the planet.)  Somewhere in the world, people were leading normal lives, cooking dinner at home for their families, doing a yoga course on Wednesday nights, leaving their instruments in lockers in the brass room of the concert hall, growing herbs on the balcony…

Then, in rapid succession, two events changed the course of the near future.  The first involved our landlord deciding to sell our flat so that we had to find another place to live.  Moving house has been physically and emotionally taxing in more ways than we could have foreseen, as well as having the extra burden of giving up our large rent-controlled place in Strassen.  We had to downsize or move further out of town, so we chose to find a smaller, albeit more expensive, apartment.  For much of the move preparation, I was commuting back and forth from a gig playing first horn on Schoenberg’s mammoth “Gurrelieder” with the Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn, playing a rehearsal, taking the next train home, packing several boxes, then catching the early train the next day for an afternoon call back in Germany….Now that all is said and done, we’re living in a gorgeous renovated 1950’s apartment in one of our favorite neighborhoods in Luxembourg City.  It’s full of light and charm, about a 10-minute walk from downtown.  What seemed painful at the time has ended up being a wonderful thing.

Around the same time this move was going on, I was offered a 75%, 2-year position playing 2nd horn in the OPL (Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, where Kerry and many of my good friends work.)  The opportunity came more or less out of the blue, just when I was longing for a more stable situation and more time at home.  Since then, the position has morphed into a Wechselhornstelle (position playing 2nd and 3rd horn.)

We took probably a dozen trips to the local recycling center, getting rid of “stuff” we didn’t have room for anymore.   Though we loved many of the items we threw into giant bins or sent off to be sold on consignment, each time we let go of another load I felt this enormous sense of relief and freedom, a release of pure energy.  Our excess possessions and attachments make it harder for us to breathe, to move, to fly.  Likewise, though I’ll be traveling less in the coming months, my new job feels liberating too (not counting three trips to the States in a row this coming spring, but that’s the subject of another blog!)

So… what will I do with all the time at home now?  Cook for my family and friends, grow herbs on the balcony, leave my horn in my locker at the Philharmonie, certainly.  Perhaps I’ll even do that Wednesday evening yoga class.