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Everything that you currently are, you once ate   

Friday, 8 June 2018

Everything your body has ever done comes from one source: food you’ve put in it. That Five Guys burger was broken down in your colon, became lung cells, which were then compressed to exhale the carbon dioxide currently leaving your body as you read this sentence.

Food is, quite literally, the stuff of life. How wonderful! Every molecule of your beautiful body was once food. Then you ate it. And it became, well, you.

That spicy noodle soup you’re slurping will become skin cells on your forearm. The protein bar you grabbed for breakfast will become brain processes and hormone secretions. Everything that you currently are, you once ate.

It sounds nuts. We don’t usually think of food this way.

But when we do, meals become moments of serene gratitude and joy. Food, the human body, life: these are miracles.

And that’s why at meals, we give thanks.

How I Prevent My Morning Sniffles As A Singer   

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

There is a long list of things that singers do to their homes to keep their vocal tract tracts healthy. Humidifying. Dusting. Regularly washing sheets. Allergen-proof pillow cases. You name it. But I recently discovered I had been overlooking something big. It’s super cheap to fix, and has had a big impact on my vocal health. Once I fixed it, I haven’t had morning sniffles.

Most homes and apartments have an air system which has an air filter you can change out. However, this filter is located where the central air system begins, often the basement or a utility closet. After the central filter, there are tens or hundreds of feet of air ducts which, if you’re brave enough to take a look, are guaranteed to be chock full of dust and allergens. It’s unavoidable…even if you DO change your central air filter regularly! Over time, that central air filter will have missed a great deal of airborne allergens, dust, and gunk. And that’s when it’s clean. And let’s be real: how many of us actually change our central air filter every month??

Now take a look at the grates on your air vents. Those little things you ignore every day. Notice how the edges are coated in a gray film? That’s what’s getting inside your vocal tract. Everything you see on the outside of the grate is just a fraction of the crud that’s made its way into your body. Yikes.

Here’s the solution I came up with. Super cheap filters inside the grates that cover your air ducts.

  1. Buy a single pack of the True Blue Cold Air Return Filter Pads, 10×30.
  2. Take out the grates covering the end of your air vents. There’s usually one in every room.
  3. Cut the pad into grate-sized pieces. Place the pad on the inside of the vent.
  4. Re-install the vents.

That’s it. A simple, cheap, and fast solution which has had a profound impact on me as a singer. It provides a double-filter solution and if I forget to change a filter (which is, uh, almost all the time!), I’m fine. Between the two filters (the central filter and the grate filter), the allergens and dust get trapped.

Now, I don’t wake up with sniffles any more. Airborne allergens, dust, and whatever other crud that lies in my air ducts? It’s not making it into my throat any longer. It has almost totally eliminated the days where I wake up and have to fight mucus or a sore throat.

I hope this helps other singers out there, or maybe those of you who deal with asthma or similar issues where air quality plays a big part of your daily life.

Drop me a line if you have any great tips on cleaning up your environment for vocal health!

The only guide you’ll ever need to make insanely great, mouth-watering chicken   

Friday, 1 December 2017

Chicken matters to me. Chicken is cheap. Chicken is protein. Chicken is low calorie. Did I mention chicken is cheap?

But home cooked chicken usually tastes like… Well… Have you cooked it yourself? (Of course you have.) I bet it was…uninspiring.

My own attempts rate anywhere from “cardboard laying on sidewalk in the sun” to “covered in sauce so I can pretend it doesn’t taste like a sock.”

Since college, I’ve dreamt of cooking chicken as delicious as Chick-Fil-A’s without having to deep fry it. I came to believe this was impossible. But I was wrong! Making truly great, juicy, delicious chicken at home is not only possible, it is actually cheap, fast, and takes only slightly more effort than the ole “toss it in a pan until it’s probably done” technique.

Here it is. Every damn thing you need to know, in the whole universe, about making supremely delicious chicken. At home, like a normal person. Without spending a lot of money. Or time. I call this recipe The World’s Most Perfect Chicken Breast for a Normal Human Being Who Probably Has a Job and Things To To Do Besides Just Cook.

What makes something taste good? Really good?

What makes all food delicious is a combination of flavors (bitter, sweet, sour, salt, and umami, aka savoriness or brothiness), mixed with our other senses (sight, smell, touch, mouthfeel, sound, and your thoughts about the food before eating it). All of our senses coming together in pleasant harmony: that’s what we mean when we say something tastes good.

But here’s the problem. Chicken cuts have very little fat. Chicken breast has effectively zero. This means that it does not taste good on its own. It needs a lot of help. But most importantly, chicken does not retain its water content well when cooking. This is why you end up with dry chicken, with both moisture and flavor flushed out during cooking, resulting in an unappetizing, boring fillet of Bland™.

So to fix that, and to change your chicken forever, here are the four, absolutely essential steps to making delicious chicken.

  1. Give it moisture
  2. Give it flavor
  3. Retain its moisture + flavor during and after cooking
  4. Cook to temperature, not to time

Here are three commonly used approaches to give your chicken moisture.

  • Buy fattier chicken cuts
  • Cook with more oil
  • Deep fry

Fattier chicken cuts? Makes your job easier, but it only slightly improves the result.

Cook with more oil? In the pan or in the oven, what you will have is chicken whose outside is coated in fat, but the inside of the chicken will still be dry and tough. Doesn’t solve the problem.

Deep fry? So yummy! Served with a side of obesity, heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. I mean, deep fried chicken has such a great taste, don’t get me wrong. But it is not something you want to be putting in your body on a regular basis. Not only is it expensive and messy and time consuming to make, the long term health consequences for your one lifetime on earth are simply not worth eating it regularly.

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time for (drumroll please) the big reveal. The thing that matters most. The reason for this post. The method that will make you love your chicken like your firstborn. You will give your chicken moisture, give it flavor, and retain its moisture during cooking with brining.

This method is the big secret that every restaurant and food chain around the world uses to make their chicken taste so much better than yours. Brining. It is the amazingly simple cooking method that will change how you cook meat for the rest of your life (not kidding). A brine is one of those rare things in life that is so simple it seems like a trick, yet delivers massive results.

Without hyperbole or exaggeration, I absolutely believe that brining is the most important thing any home chef can learn when it comes to cooking meats. It’s not complicated. It’s extremely cheap. It takes very little planning. The results are gangbusters and totally asymmetric. Very little effort for a huge reward.

What is a brine?

A brine is a salt water solution. When cooking, you soak meat in this solution for a period of time before cooking. (How long you brine depends on the size of your meat. We’ll get to that.)

Here’s what happens when you leave your meat in a brine:

  • at the cellular level, the meat absorbs (by diffusion) lots of the water and a little bit of the salt, drastically increasing the meat’s moisture, and
  • the salt breaks down the structures of the meat proteins, causing them to now hold onto water molecules during the cooking process, which prevents dehydration, and finally,
  • the salt causes a noticeable shift to a much smoother meat texture.

Just from salt water and a little time, yes, you too can save the world! Or at least cook some fine chicken. (Want to nerd out? Check out these slides into the molecular breakdown that occurs when you brine.)

Two disclaimers

  • Do not put poultry (that means chicken!) into a warm brine. The brine must be cold. Putting poultry into warm water is a sure fire way to disease and infection. The brine must be cold, when the meat touches it for the first time.
  • For those worried about too much sodium in their diets, don’t be.

This cold brine recipe is what I do 9 times out of 10. It’s faster, without sacrificing quality at all. If you’re trying to get fancy, and infuse spices into the middle of the meat, check out the hot brine below. But for most home cooking folks who just want perfectly succulent chicken, the cold brine is the fastest, easiest way to go. It’s what I’ll be doing tonight.

The Cold Brine Chicken Breast Recipe

Part 1: Prep

Equipment

Ingredients

  • 3-4 chicken breasts, each about 1 inch thick.
  • 80-90 grams of kosher salt (note: it is absolutely essential that you weigh salt, and not measure it by volume. I recommend the Ozeri Pronto Food Scale. I got one myself three years ago, and it’s still working flawlessly, on the same battery.)
  • 4 cups of cold water

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, stir salt into water to dissolve, until the water is clear.
  2. Place raw, unfrozen chicken breast into brine. Chicken should be totally covered by or free floating in the brine. Cover with tin foil.
  3. Place a baking sheet in the fridge. Put the covered bowl with chicken on the pan in the fridge. Leave for 60 minutes. (The baking sheet prevents any raw chicken juice from accidentally slipping into your fridge.)
  4. Take chicken out of brine, and let it sit for 30-60 minutes before cooking. (You can get away with skipping this step when pressed for time, but it does improve the meat when you let it sit.)

Part 2: Cook

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400° F.
  2. Drizzle olive oil on a large baking dish. Place chicken breasts in dish, each separated by an inch.
  3. Spice the heck out of those chicken breasts. I like to do a combination of Ancho Chile Pepper + Chili Pepper + light Cajun Spice + light Cayenne Pepper + Sea Salt + Pepper + Sriracha Sauce. But do whatever you fancy. And don’t forget to spice BOTH sides of those breasts!
  4. Cover baking dish with tin foil.
  5. Cook at 400 ° F in oven. Cook until the meat temp is 155° or 160° F. (After being taken out of the oven, a meat’s temperature will continue to rise several degrees. 165° is recommended for chicken.)
    • I usually cook them for about 20-25 minutes, before stabbing them to check temp. Then I’ll check them a couple of more times. The closer you can get to cooking them to an exact temperature, the more delicious and juicy your meat will be.
  6. Let the meat sit 20 minutes before cutting into it. Don’t skip this!
    • What? Why?! When meat is cooked, all of its moisture is forced to its outer edges. If you cut into it right after cooking, all of that moisture will get flushed out on to the cutting board. When you let meat sit, the moisture that is currently ballooning around the meat’s edges will reabsorb into the meat and equalize.

There it is. I swear, it is worth your effort to learn to cook chicken like this. You’ll need to hang around your home for about an hour and a half for everything. Now, if I had been told this back in my “cook everything in a stove top pan” days, I would think this all sounds like a lot of work. But it is hands down way less work. There’s no puttering around, adding oil to the pan, poking the chicken, stirring, flipping, etc. What is so amazing, is that this recipe only takes about 10 to 15 minutes of active time in the kitchen. It is a total breeze, and you won’t believe how good this chicken tastes.

How to Adapt this Recipe

Brining Principles

Cooking more chicken? Less chicken? When brining, you have to take into consideration

  1. the thickness of the meat,
  2. the salt-to-water ratio, and
  3. the amount of time the meat sits in the brine.

Cooking 10 chicken breasts that are each an inch thick? Or cooking 3 chicken breasts that are each an inch thick? In both scenarios, soak the meat in the brine for the same amount of time. Time in the brine is determined by the thickness of the meat, and not how many pieces of meat.

If your chicken breasts are thinner or thicker, use these rules of thumb for how long to leave the meat in the brine, based off of the thickness of the meat:

  • 1/2” thick meat: 1/2 hour
  • 1” thick meat: 1 hour
  • 2” thick meat: 3 hours
  • 3” thick meat: 8 hours
  • Thicker than that? See the bottom of this post for further reading.

A rule of thumb for your salt-to-water ratio is 5-10% salt to water. The amount of salt in the brine affects the time you’ll leave the meat soaking and the saltiness of the final product; however, for best results, most recipes sticks within the 5-10% range. You can increase the amount of salt in your brine, if you’re pressed for time and can’t leave the meat in the brine for very long, but it is risky and didn’t work out well when I tried it.

The type of salt matters. A lot. FYI don’t use Himalayan sea salt. It’s quite expensive, and is actually worse for brining than cheaper versions because of the size of the crystals. I have brined with 3 types of salt, and strongly recommend kosher salt for your brine. (If you don’t know what kosher salt is, don’t worry: every grocery store carries it. And it’s cheap.)

The Hot Brine Chicken Recipe

Do everything the same as the cold brine recipe, except these differences:

  • Stir the salt into the water, and add your own spices and flavors that you would like to infuse into the chicken. Dry spices, alcohol, reductions, etc.
  • Boil this solution. Stir to dissolve ingredients.
  • Let it cool completely, down to room temperature, before putting the chicken in it. (The cooling down is essential, for food safety reasons.) Cooling can take quite some time, and adds about an hour to the recipe.

This allows you to be creative with the flavors. It does add a good bit of time to the process, since you must wait for the brine to completely cool before soaking the chicken in it. In general, I only do this when I am cooking for guests. It’s nice, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference that I think an added hour of time is worth it on a regular basis.

Postlude

Why do I need a thermometer and food scale?

It’s not possible to cook consistently high quality meats without a thermometer. I promise. I tried, for years. It ain’t happening. Bite the bullet. Get a thermometer.

I do not recommend mercury thermometers, or the cheap Kroger/Wal-Mart brand thermometers: they’re either full of poison (mercury!) or highly inaccurate, which will mean dried out meats, or a broken thermometer in a few months. Last year, I bought the Lavatools Javelin, an instant-read thermometer, and it’s so amazing that I now pack it with me when I travel. I never traveled with cooking gear before, until I got this thermometer. The last time I visited my family, I used the Javelin to make chicken breasts for the whole family. They thought it was so good, they all asked me to make it again the next night, and two of my family members ended up getting their own instant-read thermometers for their own cooking.

And why the food scale? Salt (and, in fact, many ingredients) cannot be measured accurately by volume, with your typical cup measurements. Read more on the different weights of salts.

Further Reading

 

Dormi O Bambino – Italian Version, Transcription from Three Tenors Concert (Original Lulajze Jezuniu)   

Saturday, 25 November 2017

I’m excited to be singing a Christmas concert in a few weeks, and in searching for repertoire, I suddenly remembered the great track Dormi O Bambino from the Three Tenor’s Christmas album in 2000. The song is so sweet, so beautiful, and so simple. I’m convinced almost any crowd would love it.

Searching for sheet music, I discovered a few things. For one, it’s not a published piece! Dormi O Bambino is actually a translation of a Polish folksong, a cradle lullaby, by the name of ‘Lulajze Jezuniu.’ What the Three Tenors sang was translated and arranged just for them, and never made commercially available.

I wanted to sing the song in Italian, which didn’t make things any easier. The Three Tenors album version is a mixture of Polish and Italian.

After searching fruitlessly for some time, I contacted Classical Vocal Reprints who, for those not in the know, are hands down the authority on finding rare or hard-to-find versions of sheet music. They’re amazing! (And better at what they do than most universities libraries…truly amazing!) But for the first time ever in my experience, they were unable to locate sheet music for me.

So here we are: unpublished music, in multiple translations, with no commercial version available anywhere.

Well, I did what any frustrated singer would do: I parked my butt in a chair, and listened to Carreras’ concert version fifteen times, and transcribed the Italian through a combination of lip reading and careful listening. (And Carreras’ muddy diction made this take quite a few listens!) I checked my transcription with a former Italian teacher of mine, who is a native Italian and currently teaches in Bologna. She helped me improve the quality of the transcription, and we worked out a finished product that we both feel is pretty darn accurate.

Here below is the transcription of Dormi O Bambino, all Italian. If you have a half decent pianist, they can arrange an accompaniment with interludes easily from any recording. I hope that by sharing this, I can save someone else some time!

Please feel free to share this with friends or colleagues (especially tenors looking for Christmas rep!). Enjoy!

Dormi, o bambino perlina mia; dormi amata dolcezza mia
Gesu or dormi, dormi o bambino e tu mammina culla il piccino.

Chiudi ti occhietti, colmi di pianto.
Calma il tuo viso così affranto
Gesu or ormi, dormi o bambino, e tu mammina culla il piccino.

Gesu or dormi, dormi o piccino, e tu mammina culla il bambino
E tu mammina culla il piccino.

References

The Arts. Why?   

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The arts educate the whole person, drawing on every skill set, hope, desire, and human need, to create something meaningful.

The arts are not for the sole purpose of earning a profit; this is their strength.

The arts inspire us to strive beyond the basic demands of survival, beyond animal needs.

The arts teach us to see humanity in the eyes of a stranger.

The arts teach us to listen more and shout less.

The arts teach us to work together for a common good.

The arts inspire the mind and heart, with lasting permanence.

The arts express the values that the next generation will internalize.

The arts change minds and perspectives.

The arts nurture the human heart, the forgotten treasure in modern educational systems.

The arts feed the mind and challenge the body.

The arts inspire in us the most powerful human feelings of love, awe, and devotion that will sometimes leave a person forever changed.

The arts are a bedrock block of human living and life, and have been fundamental to every known culture.

The arts are what make us human.

Hummus: easy, perfect, can’t-mess-it-up food for beginning cooks   

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Hummus! Silky, pairs with everything, infinitely flexible, and everyone loves it.

It can also be said as “hoo-moose”, as my Romanian voice teacher, Virginia Zeani, used to pronounce it!

This is a spicy sriracha, chili, and crushed garlic hummus, sprinkled with paprika and chopped fresh basil. Included are lemon juice, two types of olive oil, sea salt, and ground pepper. The basic formula for hummus is the easiest thing you can imagine (mushed up chick peas + olive oil + some sort of flavoring), and anyone can do it (although a food processor really is highly recommended, to halve your prep time). For hummus beginners, The Kitchn’s write-up is as good as any.

I can’t write about this hummus without noting the following: this was my first homemade hummus, and it absolutely smoked the competition of every store brand out there, and I am quite confident I’ve tried almost every hummus brand in America. It wasn’t even close. A trifecta of sweet chilis (sriracha), saltiness (sea salt), and fat (olive oil) delivered a complex flavor profile with a lingering finish…you know, one of those rollercoasters of taste after each bite. Absolutely amazing, and the type of food experience that can never be captured by something delivered in a sealed plastic tub!

This hummus is made more delicious by sharing it with friends, just like all food.

Thoughts on Las Vegas   

Monday, 2 October 2017

50 human beings whose human bodies were ripped open by the lead of a fellow countryman. Each person, each self had thoughts, a mother, best friends, a Facebook pic, good days and bad, a dream for the future just like you. Each soul was abruptly sent on, with no meaning to the end. Just blood. Every new instance of mass murder in America, I find myself more numb than the last time. I’ve got those artist sensibilities; I think out of self defense, my mind and body shut down when the new horrifying headline suddenly comes into my view. I can’t take it. But I have to remind myself that that isn’t the number 50. This is 1 human plus 1 human plus 1 plus 1 plus 1, etc. all the way to 50. We can only imagine 4 distinct things at a time. At the number 5, our brains stop seeing individuals and just see 1 big group. This makes it so much harder to fathom or process in any substantial way such acts of heinous, grotesque proportion. Pray for each soul, one by one. Imagine the smile of each face, one by one. Pray for the corrupted soul of the man who gave his free will to the spread of evil and darkness. Lord have mercy. We need it.

Food Principles: Save Yourself 6 Years of Pain in the Kitchen   

Friday, 22 September 2017

I want to share some of the most incredibly simple and powerful food principles I’ve learned in my life. I recently made up this phrase, food principles. I think it’s a solid concept, and I’ll loosely define it as: the underlying principles of food that are simple to learn, but have an exponential effect on how much more effective your cooking gets. Or, those little nuggets of knowledge that you just always wish you knew, and could have saved you hundreds of minutes and hours in the kitchen.

For example, I spent 6 years of cooking dried out, sock-like chicken until I learned the food principles behind delicious, mouth watering chicken. If my taste buds could only get those 6 years back!

Cook enough, and you start to see patterns. You start to understand why the chicken breasts in recipes A, F, and Z where so much more delicious than G, H, and K chicken breasts. You start to understand how to retain moisture under any heat level, how to infuse taste throughout the whole meat instead of just the outer edges. You learn why restaurant chicken tastes so damn good, and why yours tastes like damp cardboard. But that takes years.

Over a very long time, if the individual is paying attention, a cook goes from learning the what to learning the why. The what and when (i.e. a recipe) can help you make great food. But knowing why it worked, knowing the food principles, is what makes you a great cook. It’s what makes you faster, more efficient, better. It’s what makes your food tastier, more nutritious, more creative, more fun to make. To me, a great cook is someone who is fluent in the language of foods, and cooks with a great passion to serve something beautiful, delicious, and delightful to those who eat it.

Food principles are the things I always wish I had known. The basic bits of wisdom that will take you from good to masterful faster than any other knowledge you could acquire.

I’ve learned quite a few that have become entirely indispensable, and every last one of them will be published right here on Sing.Eat.Repeat., over the next year.

In the mean time, find something delicious, and share it with a friend.

Sweet Potato Fries, beta 1.0   

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Sweet potato fries made with a whole crushed garlic head, fresh basil leaf, dill weed, and sea salt, tossed lightly in olive oil. Cooked at 400° for 25 minutes. Drool-worthy and better than any French fry I’ve ever had from fast food! Really incredible flavors. So easy. You can’t beat fresh herbs and ingredients. And don’t forget: dill is one of the most underused herbs, and under appreciated, for taking almost any flavor profile in a surprising direction.

However, these were too limp after cooking, and don’t hold their form. Research tells me that soaking the fries in water before cooking will make them dry out more during the actual cooking process. Sweet potato fries beta 2.0 is officially under development.

© 2019 Edward Atkinson. All rights reserved.
“To sing is to thank God you are alive.” — Virginia Zeani