Some of the best music I heard this month, by far, was in the form of live streams from Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY. On Saturday, June 12, Stephane Wrembel performed two shows that were streamed for free, and both were extraordinary (as his shows tend to be). Both the early show and the late show are available to watch on YouTube. If you want to see a true master plying his trade, click on these links and enjoy.
But this is my monthly record recommendation, so it seems more appropriate —call me crazy— to recommend an actual record. Luckily there are quite a few good ones to choose from this month.
There were new records from a couple of people I wasn’t familiar with. K.C. Jones brought us Queen Of The In Between, and Rachel Baiman released Cycles. Both achieve the accomplishment of offering up intensely personal lyrics, often about very dark subject matter, without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic. Well worth repeated listening.
The month also saw new material from a few familiar faces. Hiss Golden Messenger’s new Quietly Blowing It stands as a bright light as we begin to make our way out of the trauma of the pandemic. I have similar thoughts about Tim O’Brien’s latest, He Walked On, though this record is a bit more pointedly topical. And Amy Helm continues to impress with What The Flood Leaves Behind.
Early on I was pretty convinced that Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real were probably going to win my recommendation this month for A Few Stars Apart. Back in the day, I was firmly of the opinion that Willie could do no wrong. Lukas is currently making it pretty clear the same is true for him. Alas, this month his record got edged into runner-up position because…
Amythyst Kiah’s new record Wary + Strange is off the hook good. Big, bold, butt-kicking good. Like a lot of folks, I learned about Kiah by way of 2019’s Songs Of Our Native Daughters album, on which she was featured alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Layla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Kiah definitely stood out on that record, which is no small feat for anyone working next to Giddens. But even so, I did not see this new record coming. I can’t say enough good things about it, so I’m not going to try. Just go listen. Now. What are you waiting for!? Go!!
There was a LOT of good music released this month, once again making it very hard to pick just one record to recommend. The Black Keys dropped a pretty much straight forward blues album called Delta Kream which, front to back, might be my favorite record from their catalog. I’m also really digging Rising Appalachia’s latest, The Lost Mystique Of Being In The Know. Oliver Wood (of The Wood Brothers) delivered an excellent solo record, Always Smilin‘. And another new solo album, Start It Over, from The Deslondes singer/songwriter Riley Downing, is also great.
As much as I like all those, my runner-up for May’s pick of the month is another blues record: Little Black Flies by Eddie 9V. Every single track on this record will make your toes tap and your head bob. So. Much. Fun. Neither Suzy nor I had ever heard of this guy before, but we will definitely be keeping an ear out for him from now on.
But in the end, my #1 May recommendation is Lord Huron’s new release, Long Lost. I hear a little of everything on this record. It’s folky, of course. (Who would imagine me recommending anything that wasn’t?) But in addition to that, there are huge helpings of Spaghetti Western, some psychedelia, a smattering of ’40s -’50s era American Songbook-like stylistic flourishes, not to mention any number of passages straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti / David Lynch toy box. And I don’t mean that I hear all this from one track to another; these influences are all stirred together in different combinations on every song. Hopeful. Mournful. Melancholy. Optimistic. It’s really good.
My April recommendation is a really close call. I very strongly suggest you check out Carsie Blanton’s new album, Love & Rage. It could easily have been my pick for the month and I’d have been perfectly happy with that. But in the end, I have to got with The Brother Brothers’ new release, Calla Lily. This record is like discovering a previously unreleased Everly Brothers album. Amazing. And I’m a complete sucker for that kind of close harmony singing and the kinds of songs that show it off.
Valerie June The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
Valerie June captured our hearts from the very start (with her 2013 debut album Pushin’ Against A Stone) and, like Buck Meek, she’s always great, a bit off the beaten path, and a little unexpected. But man oh man, this record is sooooo, soooo good.
Finding ourselves at home so much during the pandemic, Suzy and I unintentionally started a habitual Friday night review of the week’s album drops. About once a month we find something we really like. Eventually it occurred to me to post our monthly recommendations on Facebook. Which I have since been doing. But this morning I got thinking that I should post them here as well because a) it will make them much easier for me to find and refer to and b) I mostly hate Facebook.
Our January pick was Buck Meek’s Two Saviors
I love Buck’s unusual songs structures and oddball lyrics and subject matter. We’ve been big fans for several years now, but this album is off the charts good. Can’t say enough positive things about it. There isn’t a single dud anywhere on the record, but for me “Second Sight’ is a real standout.
Sometime over the years we started adding chicken to this basic pasta e fagioli recipe from Fine Cooking magazine (issue #11, 1996). Sunday I decided to try making it on my grill as an entry to this month’s soup challenge on one of my online BBQ communities.
So here goes: First, I spun a chicken on the rotisserie. I made a simple injection of melted butter, salt, and garlic powder, and then sprinkled the outside with salt and pepper.
I also tossed half a lemon and two cloves of garlic into the cavity of the chicken before trussing it.
I put it on the rotisserie at 325°F, with three small chunks of cherry for smoke.
While the bird was spinning I gathered all my soup ingredients, chopped half an onion, and boiled one cup of ditalini pasta.
When the chicken was done, I dismantled the rotisserie, added more lump to the firebox, set in my heat deflectors and grill rack, and put my cast iron pot in to heat. While the grill came up and settled at around 350°F, I shredded half the chicken (and vacuum-sealed the other half for another day), and got everything set up in easy reach of the grill.
Now for the soup part. First, I sautéed 1 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, and two cloves of finely minced garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil for about half a minute or so.
Then I added the chopped 1/2 onion, and cooked it until tender, maybe 2 or 3 minutes.
In with two cans of great northern beans, plus the cooked pasta.
Then three cups chicken stock, plus the meat.
With the lid on the pot and the grill dome closed, I let it come to a boil, which took about 30 minutes. Then I moved the pot lid sort of cockeyed and (again) with the dome closed, let it simmer for another 10 minutes.
Finally, I stirred in 1/8 cup parsley flakes, 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, and a tablespoon of lemon juice.
For dinner, we served it with some leftover greens and Brussels sprouts, and a good chunk of bread.
I got this recipe (which Suzy and I lovingly refer to as “Nigella Helper”) from Nigella Lawson’s free Recipe Of The Day email. Like most of her Recipes Of The Day, it’s an absolute breeze to make; you can easily whip it together on a weeknight after work. But I like to make it ahead because it saves well and, like most soups and stews, I think it gets even better after “soaking” for a night or two in the fridge.
Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat while you finely chop a carrot, a stalk of celery, a small onion, and a clove or two of garlic. I usually use a little mini food chopper. When the oil is hot, pour in the veggies and let them cook 5 minutes or so, until they’re softened.
Add in about a pound of ground beef and turn the heat up a bit. Stir as needed to break it all up and get it cooked through until all the pink is gone.
Add a can of kidney, pinto, or other beans, undrained. (Nigella’s recipe says borlotti beans, but I virtually never have them, and I almost always have kidney beans.)
Stir in the beans, and then pour in 4 cups of beef broth and stir in a can of diced tomatoes.
Let that come to a boil, and then add in 8 ounces (half a box) of macaroni or other small pasta. Stir it up, bring it back to a boil, and then turn it down to a fairly active simmer. Let it ride, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, stirring every so often. I find it needs more stirring at the beginning to keep the mac from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
In the end you’ll have a sort of a thick stew. I like to let it get to the point where it’s equally suitable to serve in a bowl or on a plate.
Nigella’s recipe calls for a sprinkle of parmesan when serving, which nudges the whole thing in a bit of an Italian direction. Pair it with a green salad or simple steamed vegetables. I’ve also discovered that if I skip the parm and add a little hot sauce, it makes for a pretty good chili. (Bonus!)
A couple months ago I made this and posted the finished result on Instagram. Since then, a number of people have asked for the recipe. Most often my response is that meatloaf is kind of like soup; you should just put whatever you like in it and call it a day. Apparently this is an unsatisfactory answer for a sizable portion of folks, so when I made it again yesterday I took pics, and today I’m laying out exactly how I made it.
First, chop up a small onion, probably a little less than a cup. (Neither of us is a big fan of onion, so you may want to use a little more.) Cook them in some olive oil with two or three cloves of minced garlic. Mine cooked long enough yesterday to get a little color, but that’s not necessary. Just be sure they’re softened.
Meanwhile, combine one pound of ground beef and one pound of sausage, give or take. My package of ground beef was about 1.3 pounds, which is plenty close enough for me. Anyway, get it mixed up really good.
Pour in the onions & garlic, and add in two eggs (beaten), one cup of milk, one tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, two teaspoons of your favorite BBQ rub, and 1 1/3 cups of panko bread crumbs. Then get your hands in there and start working it.
At first it will seem way too wet, but as you knead and squeeze, it will gradually pull together into a slightly-wetter-than-normal hamburger-y consistency. If you really feel like it’s just not happening, add more bread crumbs a little at a time until you’re happy with it.
Form it into a loaf in some sort of baking dish and smoke it at around 350°F to an internal temp of 165°F. It took mine roughly 90 minutes to get there. The two times I’ve made this I used hickory for my smoking wood, and I was pretty stingy with it. I feel like it’s really easy to over-smoke ground meats, but of course, like the onions, that’s a matter of your own preference.
NOTE: It probably goes without saying, but you can just as easily bake this in your oven as in a smoker. I’m sure it would still be perfectly good. Just not smokey.
Tent it with foil when it comes off the heat, and let it rest for at least 5 minutes before you slice it. Or tent it and let it cool completely if you’re making it ahead. We can get two meals out of half the loaf, and we vacuum-seal and freeze the other half for quick meals later.
Finding myself with a week off at Independence Day and having nowhere to go and nothing to do thanks to the restrictions placed on us by our ol’ pal COVID-19, I decided to cook up a bunch of stuff to vacuum-seal for future weeknight meals. On Monday, for no particular reason, I did a twofer. First up:
Kamado Braised Short Ribs
For this cook I used boneless beef ribs, which I often get at Costco. Other times I’ve made it with regular bone-in short ribs and it works exactly the same way, so use whichever beef ribs you can get your hands on.
Also, this is basically a stew, so if you’re playing along at home don’t feel compelled to follow my directions to the letter. Add what you like, and leave out anything you don’t. I make it different every time, but Monday I pretty closely following a recipe from John Setzler, of the Kamado Joe Cooking Channel on YouTube, and owner of KamadoGuru.com. I love his saying: “Cook more, measure less.”
Anyway, on to the recipe.
The night before you plan to cook, take about 1 1/2 – 2 lb. of beef ribs and coat them good with BBQ rub. (You could just as easily use plain old salt and pepper, or any other beef rub that suits you.) Bag them up tightly, getting as much air out of the bag as possible, and keep them in the fridge overnight.
On cook day, while you wait for the grill to heat up to around 250°F, slice the ribs into pieces, maybe twice as big as bite sized. If you’re using bone-in ribs, just cut them into single ribs. When the grill reaches temp and the smoke is rolling nicely (I used hickory), put the slices in over indirect heat and let them smoke for an hour.
While the ribs are smoking, prep the braise. Dice up one onion, and chop two carrots (this time I used heirlooms) and three stalks of celery. Heat a 1/4 cup of olive oil in a dutch oven, and cook the onions gently until they’re translucent. Add the carrots and celery, and stir occasionally until they’re tender.
When the ribs have smoked for an hour, remove them from the smoke and boost your grill temp to around 325º-350ºF.
While the grill is coming up to temp, go back to your pot and add one cup of chicken stock, two cups tomato sauce, 12 oz. of beer, some rosemary, thyme, and oregano, and a teaspoon of garlic powder. Bring it to just boiling, and add salt, pepper, or other seasonings to taste. (Keep in mind that the flavors will intensify during the cook as the braise reduces. Go easy on the salt.)
When it just reaches a boil, stir in the smoked ribs.
Put the pot in the grill and let it cook undisturbed for a half hour or so, then give it a stir, cover it with the lid, and cook for another hour.
After that hour covered, you’ll have a thick, dark, rich dish, ready for serving. Most often we serve this over rice, but this time we needed to use up some potatoes. Doesn’t matter; you can’t go wrong.
The second dish I cooked Monday was
Arroz Con Pollo
This meal is usually all cooked in one pot. Monday, though, since I already had the grill fired up and at my disposal, I changed it up a bit.
Start out with a pound and a half of chicken parts. The original recipe, which I found in Fine Cooking magazine issue #37, calls for bone-in parts, but we almost never have those on hand. We always have boneless skinless breasts, so that’s normally what I use. Also, to make it a little easier to eat when the time comes, I cut the breasts into more manageable pieces. Maybe two times bite sized, like I said above with the beef ribs.
Give the chicken a good solid sprinkle of salt & pepper.
Also, take about pound of Italian sausage –hot or mild, or a combination of both– and cut them into roughly 2-inch pieces.
Now, normally you’d heat some olive oil in your pot and sauté the chicken. If you’re using chicken parts, you want them done and starting to brown. If, like me, you’re using boneless skinless breasts, you want them to be ever so slightly underdone. They’re going to get a few more minutes’ cooking time later in the process, and if you get the skinless chicken completely done now, it will dry out when you get to those last few minutes. Either way, when the chicken is ready, remove it from the pan. Put the sausages in and cook until done. Add more oil along the way if needed.
Again, that’s all according to the recipe. But as I said before, Monday my grill was hot and I had plenty of extra room, so I cooked the chicken (again, stopping just short of done) and the sausage over indirect heat at about 350ºF.
Otherwise, though, I followed the recipe like normal.
In the aforementioned large pot over medium heat, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil (which you’d already have if you cooked your chicken and sausage in the pot) and sauté one small chopped onion and 4 minced cloves of garlic until tender, about 5 minutes. Add 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1/4 tsp. paprika, 1/4 tsp. chili powder, and 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric, and stir for a minute or so to distribute it throughout.
Add a can of crushed (or diced) tomatoes, with their liquid, and 1/2 cup white wine or beer. Bring the heat up to medium high and cook for two minutes. Then add 2 1/4 cups chicken broth (or water) and 2 cups uncooked rice. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Return chicken and sausage to the pot and stir to distribute.
Reduce heat and cook, covered, at a mild simmer for 15 or 20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is done.