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Keep Calm and Cook On: Four Bay Area Vocalists Spill the Beans

June 8, 2020

As performers are sheltering-in-place with gigs up in the air or gone, some are finding solace in the act of cooking. In February, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook reprised the role of Julia Child in Bon Appetit, playing the iconic cook in Opera Parallèle’s fundraiser at Hayes Street Grill and then during the Sun Valley Music Festival, little knowing the role would be her last for months.

Cook likes cooking — on show days she bakes because it calms her. Disappointed by the March cancellation of Opera Parallèle’s performance of Harvey Milk in which she would have played “Mama,” Cook took to baking more often. Two birthday cakes (red velvet for her son and double-chocolate cake for her daughter, were layered with drama, as her husband searched three different stores for confectioner’s sugar to make the frosting. Lemon bars. Cookies. Her grandmother’s banana bread. A bevy of comfort food that’s good for the soul right now.

“There’s something very comforting about my grandmother’s recipe and knowing that was her recipe,” said Cook.  

Preserving What’s Good

Coloratura Chelsea Hollow summoned her inner food scientist as, one-by-one, her five shows were canceled. Pocket Opera’s The Cat That Became a Woman cancellation call came in the middle of a private coaching session cut short, as they concluded “I don’t think there’s a reason to do this right now.” And, her husband, who works for Facebook, was part of the team to create the COVID-19 info site on the social-media platform, so the early days after all her cancellations orbited around supporting him as he slept 30 minutes a day.

“There was an extended period where I wasn’t aware of what I had lost until I had a moment to breathe,” said Hollow. “It’s so hard to miss out on all I had worked on.”

Still, once Hollow found her food footing, she leaned into food preservation and the lure of homesteading. Before pursuing vocal performance, she’d been gearing up to become a physicist. She’d already been baking one sourdough loaf a week, and that increased to four a week, to share with friends. She started fermentation projects: making apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, and kombucha. “Things that seem like they take so long, we’ve seen from start to finish,” said Hollow. “Food is central to our family chemistry.”

But part of what Hollow has been craving are the flavors of childhood. For the half-Lebanese and half-Hungarian singer, this includes labneh, yogurt cheese with salt and garlic, or Hungarian cabbage rolls with sauerkraut, of which she said, “My daughter isn’t picky, but didn’t like it at all. I ate it four times in a row because it tasted like my mom’s cooking.” At home, Hollow regularly whips up Giddo’s waffles often, a recipe that came to her from her grandfather Giddo in a dream. “I woke up immediately and wrote it down. When I went home for Christmas, I made them with my mom.” The waffles even inspired Waffle Opera, a short-lived opera company where she and colleagues performed and served the waffles to guests.

All in the Family

Soprano Kerriann Otaño was set to finish her season as part of Opera San José’s artist program, with a role in The Magic Flute, when it was canceled. Her husband, tenor Dane Suarez, an Opera San Jose alum, had three shows postponed around the country, including a debut in Faust and higher profile gigs that all resulted in lost income and opportunity. It has been a hard time but has given them more time to do something together that they love: cook. Food has been part of their story from the beginning, as Otaño claims her stuffed mushrooms — based on her grandmother’s recipe — caused Suarez to fall in love with her. At home, Otaño considers herself more of a cook with Suarez the baker, something Otaño said reflects their personalities.

“Dane is analytical, organized, precise — his baking endeavors are more successful than mine,” said Otaño. “Where I am more go with the flow vibe of taste as you go. We improve on each other’s styles.”

Otaño has been making Ina Garten’s Caesar salad once a week with handmade croutons using a seasoning from the Gilroy Garlic Festival — “I’m such a huge fan of Gilroy,” said Otaño. Suarez keeps things sweet, turning to Melissa Clark’s bittersweet chocolate shortbread bars from The New York Times.

Taste of Home

During the second rehearsal of The Magic Flute, Opera San José canceled the show, soprano Elena Galván’s last as part of their artist program. A workshop for Fort Worth Opera moved online and she said the next two seasons of her performances have been moved out by at least a year and a half.

Galván is keeping busy with baking projects like attempting bread described as “half disaster” and finding success in focaccia. She regularly cooks with her husband, especially now that they are together longer than usual during the quarantine. They make his macaroni and cheese and calabacitas, a traditional Mexican dish of squash and corn that he loves. Time is an ingredient in short supply for Galván, so she’s been lingering with recipes she might bypass because of the time requirement, finding inspiration from cookbooks like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and trying to recreate Thai and Indian food at home.

The Galván family pozole recipe was one she used to associate only with Christmas, but she has been recreating it once a week to quench the craving for this version of the stew, first made by her grandfather, and beloved by the whole family. Her aunt used to ship her Hatch red chiles to use in the stew, an ingredient she said has become increasingly easier to find. Recently, Galván and her father, who is based in New York, happened to make pozole at the same time. It was “almost a cooking party” as father and daughter connected, virtually, through cooking.

How Cooking Has Changed Since COVID-19

Hollow and her family used to regularly head to the grocery store on last minute trips, but during shelter-in-place, they’ve adopted more of a meal prep mentality. She relies on freezing portions of tonight’s meal for future last-minute options. Her tip here is to make an extra batch to freeze in a way that is easy to cook up later. Otaño said she’s broken out the Instant Pot more, making carnitas and different types of taco fillings that can later be used on salads, or in quesadillas too.

Suarez and Otaño are longtime proponents for ordering meal-kit delivery a few times a week, a practice they said travels with them as they do performances. It ensures cooking together on the road, keeping them out of a food rut, as their four binders of meal-kit recipes can attest. What’s been hard for them is not getting together with friends over food.

“We love cooking for people. That’s been one of the hardest things about shelter-in-place,” said Otaño. “We used to do weekly potlucks with friends in opera.”

The Show Must Go On

The pandemic weighs heavy on Galván’s mind as she said some opera friends without permanent work have moved in with their parents. Then there is the longing to return to the stage:

“Opera singers are not used to working with mics. The purpose and main reason it moves people is the feeling of the power of someone’s voice carrying through a hall — it’s a fully body-centric, visceral experience,” said Galván. “To have an audience in front of you and get the feedback — it’s scary to know that’s not going to be around ... we are all figuring out how to bring art to life.”

As art is centered online, the vocalists are trying to too. Suarez has a few projects that are trying to go virtual, saying “People are trying to find creative new ways” for bringing music to life. An in-person workshop at Fort Worth Opera moved online for Galván. Hollow brought Minette, her character in The Cat That Became a Woman, to life last week in a virtual recital with Pocket Opera.

As the Frederica von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice at San Francisco Music Conservatory, Cook transitioned to virtual instruction once the quarantine went into effect and all student performances were canceled. She described the students as “incredibly resilient” as each department took their performances online in “Tiny Dorm Concerts,” a riff on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. Students participated from wherever they were sheltering in place and made it work. “They made it their own and it was fantastic,” said Cook, noting the online concerts provided a tangible goal for them to work toward during the semester.

“It gave them a chance to express themselves and feel like they were continuing to make music,” said Cook. “We have to keep going. Keep making music until those halls open up again.”

Until then, Cook is making the best of it, noting too often they haven’t had time to all eat together. Sitting at the table with her family of five, for Cook, every meal with them is a gift.

Try some of the recipes mentioned:

Galván Family Pozole
Makes four healthy servings

  • 2 tablespoons plus 1–2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons ground red chile (Hatch is best, although you could use any red chile powder)
  • Kosher salt 
  • 5 cups chicken stock (and/or beer — any pale ale you have is good, although a little dark beer like Guinness can add a fun flavor. Otherwise, go for a beer that isn’t strongly flavored. I have used Modelo and Tecate, but my Dad prefers to save that for drinking)
  • Pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
  • 1 onion (white or yellow)
  • 1 pound boneless pork chops 
  • 2 (14-ounce) cans hominy (one drained, one undrained)
  • Lime, oregano, onion for garnish

Make the Chile Sauce:
Heat 2 tablespoons oil on medium high until almost smoking in a small pot. Add flour and briefly brown lightly (this is your roux) and be careful not to burn. Stir in chile and a fat pinch of salt (I like to use a whisk to mix best). Heat just briefly until it’s aromatic.

Add a cup of stock and stir/whisk until smooth. Add another fat pinch of salt, depending on how salty your stock is. Add more stock and/or beer, maybe a total of a quart, until it looks and tastes right (not too thick and dark, not too light and watery). Stir occasionally. 

Prepare the Pork: 
Cube the meat. Dice the onion. Crush and ready the garlic. Heat 1 or 2 tablespoons of oil in a stockpot on high until almost smoking. Brown the pork in two batches (Don’t crowd the meat). Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and add onions to the meat. Sweat for about five minutes until translucent, don’t brown. 

Finish the Stew:
Season with salt and pepper. Add garlic for the last 1–2 minutes. Pour in all of the chile sauce. Stir and simmer for a while. Add hominy — one can drained and one can with the liquid. Simmer a bit more and top with the garnishes you like. Enjoy!

Grandma Deinhart’s Banana Bread
(contributed by Catherine Cook)

Makes one loaf

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar 
  • 2 large eggs, beaten 
  • 3 medium very ripe bananas 
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • Cooking spray 

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and bananas until well blended. Stir in dry ingredients and mix well. Put into sprayed 9-inch bread pan. Bake banana bread for 15 minutes at 375 degrees, then turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake another 45 minutes or until knife or toothpick comes out clean. 

Click on the links below for two more recipes:

Giddo’s Waffles  (contributed by Chelsea Hollow)

Bittersweet Chocolate Shortbread Bars (recommended by Kerriann Otaño & Dane Suarez)

Annelies Zijderveld is an East Bay based culture and food writer. She authored the cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea, and teaches cooking classes around the Bay area. Her writing can be found in Paste and Edible East Bay among others. A mezzo-soprano, she sings at her church in Oakland and fell hard for opera at a young age. Visit her website here.