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Published: Tuesday, 10/28/2008

Food & Opera: these recipes will make your kitchen sing

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Risotto with Peas and Mushrooms. Risotto with Peas and Mushrooms.
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Now is the time to bring a little culinary music to your kitchen. As the Toledo Opera opens its 2008-09 season with Giuseppe Verdi s Rigoletto on Nov. 8 and 14 at 7:30 p.m., and Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. at the Valentine Theatre, there s an assortment of easy-to-make dishes to prepare you for the music.

Rigoletto is perfect for someone who knows nothing about opera, said Fred Plotkin in a phone interview from his office in New York City. The music is familiar. The story is gripping. Mr. Plotkin, a former performance manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has directed opera at La Scala and has worked for more than 40 opera companies. He is also an expert on the connection of food and opera.

Renay Conlin, artistic director of the Toledo Opera, agrees. Food and opera go together. When [opera singers] are not singing, they are eating. Many are good cooks.

Rigoletto is set during the Renaissance although it was written in 1851. There s various feasting in the first act, said Mr. Plotkin. It s at a party in the town of Mantua, which was landlocked but had access to ingredients from far away with two rivers through it.

When he thinks of the feast in Rigoletto, it brings to mind the cakes that people at that time may have enjoyed, especially the Torta Sbrisolona, which is a crumbly nut cake. I just know they are eating it at that party, or pasta filled with pumpkin.

Last spring, he gave a presentation, Opera: The Food of Love, at the International Association of Culinary Professionals in New Orleans. He talked about how characters in opera engage with food and drink, sometimes with life-changing results. Chefs have created recipes inspired by composers, characters, and divas. He also talked about the relationship between composers and food, and how they connected to it creatively.

Indeed, it gave me plenty of food for thought for my kitchen.

Opera is not about reality. It s about emotional truth, Mr. Plotkin said in his April presentation. Among the connections between food and opera is the rice aria of Di Tanti Palpiti in Tancredi, which Gioacchino Rossini wrote in the time it took him to cook risotto.

In Mozart s Don Giovanni, the lead character appears to eat. He loves food and wine, said Ms. Conlin.

Mozart benefitted from the great baking traditions of Vienna. He lived on sugar. He loved cake, said Mr. Plotkin.

Puccini (who wrote La Boheme), who is the most popular opera composer in America, was not a cook. He liked beans and onions, wild fowl. He was a hunter. He said that Verdi, who was a good cook, was the most popular composer in Italy.

Many recipes relate to opera such as the Tosca Salad, said Mr. Plotkin, author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera and six books on Italian cuisine. Food plays a part in the second act of Tosca in which the police chief, Scarpia, is eating dinner in his office and comes face to face with Tosca, whose lover, Mario, is being held.

Inspired by Puccini s opera, the Tosca Salad was created around 1900 by Chef Auguste Escoffier.

To celebrate the opening of the Carlton Hotel, Escoffier created a dish for Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba (who sang Wagner s Lohengrin at Covent Garden). Peach Melba was flambe peaches over ice cream with fresh raspberry puree. Today there are many versions of the dessert from grilled peaches to fresh raspberries rather than puree.

Light eaters

Escoffier also created Melba toast in the singer s honor, which was served with tea as a popular food for breakfast. Most opera singers don t drink alcohol; it dries out their vocal chords, said Mr. Plotkin. They led solitary lives to save their voices. Food was sent to the hotel room. They didn t shake hands for fearing of getting a cold.

Opera singers and theater-goers may not eat much before a performance. You go after the show and celebrate and have the light dinner called a souper.

It s not a gastronomic experience as much as a celebratory experience, said Ms. Conlin.

At the turn of the century, Luisa Tetrazzini from Tuscany was called the Tuscan thrush , says Mr. Plotkin. She loved to cook. She tasted turkey for the first time in America. And she added it to her pasta.

Thus evolved Turkey Tettrazzini. She thought that spices ruin vocal chords. She ate no fried foods.

Mr. Plotkin calls Verdi the greatest opera composer who knew about food. His father-in-law was a spice seller and a merchant. His father owned an inn where postal carriers visited. Later he brought a farm with lots of crops, pigs, and sheep. Verdi knew his wines.

Beethovan hated food and no interest in gastronomy. Wagner was a meat eater who became a vegetarian and returned to eating meat. He influenced composer Engelbert Humperdinck who wrote Hansel and Gretel. In the Dream Scene the children are in the forest starving.

Opera influenced

When the 48th Sapphire Ball is held Saturday night (Nov. 1) at the atrium at the Dana headquarters, the fundraiser for the Opera will feature a sumptuous Italian feast. This year s theme is un Ballo in Maschera the name of an opera composed by Giuseppe Verdi. Masks, which will be worn, will also be part of the decor.

The Italian inspired menu will begin with antipasto of marinated fresh mozzarella, balsamic roasted cremini mushrooms and Parmeggiano Reggiano with truffled honey. Entrees include grilled Tiger shrimp and roasted garlic crostini with Italian white bean ragout, potato nocchi and forest mushroom ragout, and gremolata crusted loin of lamb.

In your kitchen, don t hesitate to try Risotto with Peas and Mushrooms recipe from the USA Rice Council. Risotto is made with arborio rice, which absorbs a lot of liquid and becomes plump and creamy. You add the hot liquid to the rice very gradually stirring constantly. You can add a number of ingredients to this basic risotto to make a new and different meal each time.

Fred Plotkin shared his recipe for Tosca Salad, a chicken salad with white truffles, celery, Parmigiana Reggiano cheese, hard boiled egg yolks, parsley and tarragon with a white wine dressing.

Turkey Tettrazini, a dish of pasta and turkey, is a great way to use leftover turkey. The recipe printed here is from The Good Home Cookbook edited by Richard J. Perry (Collector s Press, $29.95).

There are many versions of Peach Melba. This one comes from The New York Times Dessert Cookbook edited by Florence Fabricant (St. Martin s Press, $29.95).

You can even serve a simple entree of grilled salmon with a gremolata sauce, rice, and broiled tomatoes for dinner and buy cannolis for dessert from the bakery.

Now you re in the mood for opera.

Contact Kathie Smith at: food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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