June – Casual Shirts

We just played at Mystery Brewing. Stay tuned for our next performance!

We just played at Mystery Brewing. Stay tuned for our next performance!

Malls didn’t always depress me. When I was in high school I worked in one, in a magazine shop, and I enjoyed it. It had an eclectic mix of regulars that made every hour interesting.

There was the mall security guard – an old southern gentleman who kept a coffee mug behind the counter. Every hour would come by and pop the mug into the microwave for 30 seconds and take a sip or two before moving on. Without even trying, he’d make a single cup of coffee last 8 hours.

There was the guy from the stockroom at Dillard’s – every day he called to reserve magazines and newspapers. Since I never understood a word he said on the phone, I would stash a random assortment of periodicals behind the counter with hope that I had what he wanted. Face to face I understood about 30% of his words and I remember him asking me, “Can’t you understand what I’m saying?” after I had failed to reserve the Sunday edition of the Washington Post. (Quite miraculously, I had managed to reserve everything else he asked for.) I played it cool and told him it was sold out. He then pointed at the stack of Sunday Washington Posts still for sale and asked, “You sold out of those?”

Lastly, there was a pizza shop two doors down swapped calzones for cigarettes. It was a pretty sweet deal.

But since then, being in a mall wears me down. I’m not sure why, but I can feel my energy level dropping every minute I’m inside one. Maybe it’s the air. Regardless, I always feel like I need to shop as quickly as possible or else I’ll permanently wither.

Not that long ago I needed to buy some shirts, and I must have lingered just a little too long. By the time I made it outside, I was so dark and moody that I couldn’t even talk. I felt like a dementor had sucked out my soul. And then, out of nowhere, out popped this song. At least the first verse and chorus did. After that, the rest was easy.

On a completely different note, it has come to my attention that many people believe that my ukulele has a permanent smile, and are surprised when they they see it in person.

On a completely different note, it has come to my attention that many people believe that my ukulele has a permanent smile, and are surprised when they they see it in person.

But the smile is only photoshop...

But the smile is only photoshop…

You may have noticed that the instrumentation for this month’s song is, shall we say, non-traditional. That was intentional. As many of you know, I’ve got a band, “The Star Makers”, and the people in it bring a lot of talent and skills to my songs and I intend to feature their abilities in my recordings. This one features my long time friend Brian Risk (who also does a mixture of data analysis and music). I recorded the vocals and gave him a rough outline of the chords, and he came back to me with this incredible arrangement.

Folks! It’s been a great month! If you like the song, please share it with your friends. And if you’d like to sing along with this tune, here’s the song sheet.

 

Recipe – La Ferme Salad Dressing

Here, in the United States, it’s summer time and all kinds of things are growing in my back yard. These are the days for fresh salads, all the time. Here’s my French twist on a classic American recipe for ranch salad dressing.

First, puree a clove of garlic. You can do this with a garlic press, or you can do it with a knife and a large pinch of salt. While I generally enjoy the ease of a garlic press, for this recipe I prefer using a knife. Here’s video showing how I do it:

Once you’ve got your pureed garlic, put it in a small or medium sized bowl along with some fresh ground pepper, 1/2 tsp. of herbs de Provence, 1/4 cup of mayonnaise and 1/4 cup of butter milk (and if you used a garlic press, add a large pinch of salt). Then just whisk everything together. Bam!

The recipe makes about a half cup of salad dressing. If you need to, you can keep it in the fridge for about a week.

The recipe makes about a half cup of salad dressing. If you need to, you can keep it in the fridge for about a week.

Here’s a summary of the ingredients (you can also download the recipe)

  • 1 clove of garlic
  • A large pinch of salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried herbs de Provence
  • 1/4 cup. mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk

 

May – The Cue For The Band

Unlike a lot of my recent songs, this one wasn’t written in the shower. Instead, I wrote it in a comfy chair. This comfy chair was wedged in the corner of a room with terrible wi-fi, and that makes it perfect for being productive. The only thing you can do in that chair is get something done. Or read a book.

The ukulele enjoys a sip of tea while sitting in the comfy chair. (This comfy chair just so happens to be in Yangon domestic terminal).

The ukulele enjoys a spot of tea while sitting in a comfy chair. (This comfy chair just so happens to be in Yangon domestic terminal).

When I was younger I feared dancing and I blame my first middle school dance. The DJ (aka the school principal) was playing the Aerosmith/Run-D.M.C. version of “Walk This Way” and everyone was going nuts. People were just jumping up, down, left and right. It looked so easy! Because it was a group dance, I didn’t even have to build up the courage to ask anyone in particular to dance with me. Thinking, “what could possibly go wrong?” I jumped in and started to bounce around with everyone else.

BAM! Blood was all over the place. Within seconds I had hit a cute Indian girl (that I had a small crush on) in the nose with the top of my head. She was in tears and her clothes were ruined and I just stood there in shock, not knowing what to do. This was definitely The Worst Night Ever.

After The Worst Night Ever I gave up dancing until I was halfway through college. Unless I was careful, I knew it would lead to tears, so I played it safe; I signed up for ballroom dancing. I figured the rules and predetermined steps were there to keep everyone safe. However, once I learned a few steps, I noticed I was never in sync with anyone else. It was a mess. I moved early, and, to my mind, everyone else moved late.

I didn’t know this at the time, but different people have very different ideas about the beat. Classically trained musicians anticipate the beat. They are taught to lift their bow and move it across the strings just a moment early, so the audience will hear something at the exact moment the beat occurs. In contrast, many people react to the beat. They wait until they hear it before moving. As you can imagine, if one person is early and their partner is late, the result is a disco fiasco.

After a few years of playing with rock bands, who are relaxed about everything, I finally learned to be flexible with the beat. Now I don’t fear dancing nearly as much as I used to. It’s fun! (And it’s been years since I last bopped someone’s nose on a dance floor!)

Now the ukulele is relaxing on a nice park bench. (In the botanical gardens in Singapore).

Now the ukulele is relaxing on a nice park bench. (In the botanical gardens in Singapore).

Folks! It’s been a great month! For this tune I owe a huge debt to Robert Cantrell for coming over on a Sunday afternoon and recording the fantastic pandeiro part that you can hear throughout the song. If you want to sing, or play your own pandeiro along with the tune, here’s the song sheet.

Recipe – Home Style Fried Okra

Not everyone likes okra, but I’d be willing to bet that most people will like this recipe. It’s very different from the restaurant style fried okra you may be familiar with (if you are familiar with fried okra at all), where each piece is individually battered and deep fried. Instead, with this method, the okra clumps together a little and the shallow pan frying brings out more flavor.

One of my favorite quick and cheap meals, this is the recipe my mother made when I was a child. I serve it in a bowl on top of jasmine rice with a glass of wine or beer.

You start by combining 1 pound okra cut into 1/2 inch rounds (fresh or pre-cut frozen) with 1/4 cup of all purpose flour1/4 cup of ground corn meal (yellow or white – and if you don’t have corn meal, just use more flour), 1 tsp. of salt, 1/2 tsp. of ground pepper and, if you’re feeling adventurous, 1 tsp. of chili or curry powder in a large bowl. The chili or curry powder is terribly non-traditional, but it’s a fun twist on the flavor.

Here's the okra, flour, corn meal, salt, pepper and chili powder before I stir it all together.

Here’s the okra, flour, corn meal, salt, pepper and chili powder before I stir it all together.

Stir the mixture around with a fork to lightly coat the okra. Most of the flour and seasonings will migrate to the bottom of the bowl.

After stirring, the okra is lightly coated with the flour mixture (but most of the flour is now in the bottom of the bowl).

After stirring, the okra is lightly coated with the flour mixture (but most of the flour is now in the bottom of the bowl).

Then add two eggs and stir to combine. If there are still dry spots, add another egg and stir it in. It’s better to use too many eggs than too few.

Here's what the mixture looks like after I've stirred in 3 eggs.

Here’s what the mixture looks like after I’ve stirred in 3 eggs.

In a 12-inch non-stick pan (or cast iron skillet), add enough oil to coat the bottom and heat it over medium-high heat (I usually use close to 1/2 a cup). When the oil starts to ripple on the surface, add the okra mixture and spread it out into a single layer.

I've just added the okra mixture to the hot pan with the oil.

I’ve just added the okra mixture to the hot pan with the oil.

Put a lid on the pan and cook for 10-15 minutes. Use a spatula to check the bottom of the okra every now and then. When it’s golden brown, remove the lid and flip the okra. NOTE: At this point, the okra mixture will have stuck together to make a single sheet in the pan. Don’t try to flip this whole sheet, just break up into smaller pieces and flip them individually.

Here's what it looks like when you try to flip the okra the first time. It will have all stuck together. Just break it into smaller pieces.

Here’s what it looks like when you try to flip the okra the first time. It will have all stuck together. Just break it into smaller pieces.

Here's what the okra looks like after I've completed flipping all of it.

Here’s what the okra looks like after I’ve completed flipping all of it.

 

Cook for another 10 – 20 minutes, stirring and flipping the okra every 5 minutes or so, until the okra is well done – dark brown and even black in spots.

This is what the okra should look like after another 10 or 15 minutes of cooking, stirring it every so often so that it is cooked evenly all over.

This is what the okra should look like after another 10 or 15 minutes of cooking, stirring it every so often so that it is cooked evenly all over.

 

Season with extra salt to taste and serve immediately or transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

Here's my favorite way to serve home style fried okra.

Here’s my favorite way to serve home style fried okra. It’s tasty, inexpensive, and satisfying.

Here’s a summary of the ingredients (you can also download the recipe)

  • 1 lb. okra cut into ½ inch sections (fresh or pre-cut frozen)
  • ¼ cup. all purpose flour
  • ¼ cup. ground corn meal (white or yellow)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • (optional 1 tsp. chili powder or curry powder)
  • ½ tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2-3 eggs
  • about ½ cup oil

April – Look Away

Thanks to everyone who came out to the album release show a few weeks ago. It was great to see so many friends in the audience. My friend Kacy Jung was in the front row and took some wonderful pictures (which I’ll sprinkle throughout this post).

The band, plus friends, all on stage for the "Going Back To Cali".

The band, plus friends, all on stage for the last song of the night, “Going Back To Cali“. It’s hard to see in this picture, but that cello is strapped to me so I can stand and play at the same time..

Lately, it seems like I’ve written all of my songs in the shower. This tune was no exception, but it has a bit of a story to it.

One day, before I took a shower, I came up with a really catchy pizzicato riff on my cello and I’d worked it into a full song. The part was peppy and it even included a really clever key change in the middle of the chorus. I thought it was cool, but I didn’t have a melody or lyrics for it yet. So I came up with a plan: I would play the cello part a bunch of times and get it stuck in my head and then run and jump into the shower and sing whatever came to mind.

Performing "The Whistle".

Performing “The Whistle“.

So that’s what I did. I played the part a bunch, then jumped into the shower and started singing. At first I was coming up with potential melodies and words that worked, but somewhere between the shampoo and the soap things changed. The melody got darker and slower, from peppy to introspective. By the time I got out of the shower, I had a melody and lyrics, just like I’d planned, but for an entirely different song. Before, the cello part was flashy and complicated, now it barely had two chords.

After I got dressed I wondered what had happened to my plan and peppy cello part. I tried the same thing the next day and ended up with the same song. I have a theory that this song was stuck in my head to balance out my concert. The show was a huge extroverted thing that was fun and confident. In contrast, this song was entirely introspective. Maybe I needed to have both experiences to keep an even keel?

Performing "You".

Performing “You Don’t Know“.

Folks! I hope you had a great April. Spring has been slow coming, but it’s beautiful now and May should be a wonderful month. As always, if you’d like to play or sing along with this month’s tune, here’s the song sheet.

Recipe – Vegetarian Potstickers

One thing vastly different cultures agree on is that dumplings are awesome and delicious. There are many varieties, but the general method is to take something fantastic and then wrap it up in a bit of dough. One thing that sets dumplings apart from other tasty foodstuffs is that they are a pleasure to make with friends. You can prepare the filling in advance and then throw a dumpling making party. It’s fun, especially when people express their personal style in the wraps, and it’s tasty.

One of my favorite types of dumplings are potstickers. I’ve always loved them, but I’ve always been a little disappointed in the quality of the vegetarian varieties served in restaurants. These can be watery and lacking any rich flavors. So I made this recipe to solve all those problems. There are a lot of steps, but once the filling is made, wrapping the dumplings up is something you can do with the whole family and all your friends. It’s fun and the work goes quickly. Here’s the recipe.

Here’s how to do it:

Make the filling…

First, in a large pan over medium heat, add 2 Tbs. oil and 3 onions, thinly sliced. Caramelize the onions by cooking them slowly (turn the heat down if they brown too fast) for about 30 minutes.

Here I've just put the onions in the pan.  The goal is to slowly cook them for about 30 minutes until they become super soft and sweet.

Here I’ve just put the onions in the pan. The goal is to slowly cook them for about 30 minutes until they become super soft and sweet.

Here are what the onions should look like after about 30 minutes of cooking.

Here is what the onions should look like after about 30 minutes of cooking.

Then add one grated carrot and one diced poblano and cook until soft (about 5-10 minutes).

Now I've added the the grated carrots and diced poblano pepper.

Now I’ve added the the grated carrots and diced poblano pepper. Next I’ll stir the mixture and cook for about 5 or 10 minutes, until they are starting to get soft.

Then add 3 cups of sliced napa cabbage and cook until reduced and most of the water has evaporated (about 5 to 10 minutes).

Here I have just added the napa cabbage to the pan.

Here I have just added the napa cabbage to the pan.

Now add 1 cup of edamame and 2-3 Tbs. of grated ginger and stir to combine. Then add three eggs, break the yolks and and stir to scramble. To finish, add salt to taste (often I’ll just sprinkle a pinch or two of salt in the pan each time I add an ingredient to it and that alone does the trick.)

I've just add the eggs. Now all I need to do is stir them in and cook until scrambled.

I’ve just add the eggs. Now all I need to do is stir them in and cook until scrambled.

Now the eggs are scrambled and the filling is finished.

Now the eggs are scrambled and the filling is finished.

Make the dumplings…

To make the dumplings, you’ll need the filling, one package of Shanghai Style dumpling wrappers (or any other type of dumpling wrapper that you can find), a small bowl filled with water and a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Once the filling is cool enough to handle, put about 1 Tbs. of filling in the middle of a dumpling wrapper. Dip one or two fingers in the bowl of water and coat the outer edge of the wrapper with water.

After putting some filling into the middle of the dumpling wrapper, you wipe a wet finger around the edge.

After putting some filling into the middle of the dumpling wrapper, you wipe a wet finger around the edge.

Fold the wrapper to make a half moon shape and press the edges to seal.

Now fold the dumpling in half to make a crescent shape and pinch the edges together.

Now fold the dumpling in half to make a crescent shape and pinch the edges together.

Optional: Fold the edges to make an attractive border.

This step is optional, but you can make an attractive boarder. It's easy and fun! Check out the video.

This step is optional, but you can make an attractive boarder. It’s easy and fun! Check out the video.

Here’s what it looks like when you’re done making the dumplings:

If you have friends or family helping out, you can make a whole pan of these dumplings in no time.

If you have friends or family helping out, you can make a whole pan of these dumplings in no time.

To cook the potstickers…

Put about 1 Tbs. of oil into a large cast iron skillet or nonstick pan. Line the bottom of the pan with as many potstickers as you can fit.

I crammed as many dumplings into the pan as I could!

I crammed as many dumplings into the pan as I could!

The remaining potstickers can be cooked in a second batch (or a second pan) or frozen (I slide the baking sheet in the freezer to freeze the dumplings and then, once they are hard, transfer them to a zip-lock bag.) Cook the dumplings over medium-high heat until they have browned nicely on the bottom. Then add ¼ cup of water to the pan and put a lid on the pan as quickly as you can. Cook another 5 minutes before removing the lid. Continue to cook until all of the water has evaporated and then serve.

This is what the bottoms of the pot stickers should look like when they are done cooking (I've already steamed them and they are ready to serve).

This is what the bottoms of the potstickers should look like when they are done cooking (I’ve already steamed them and they are ready to serve).

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 2 Tbs. oil
  • 3 onions, sliced thinly
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1 poblano pepper, finely diced.
  • 3 cups of finely cut napa cabbage
  • 1 cup edamame
  • 1-2 Tbs. grated ginger
  • 3 eggs
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 package of Shanghai Style dumpling wrappers

March – Lucky To Be Alive

Is there anyone out there that doesn’t like singing in the shower? That’s where I wrote this song. I was in Bagan, Burma, washing the day’s dust off and this one just came to me, verses, choruses and everything all at once.

Sunrise in Bagan.

Sunrise in Bagan.

During the afternoon, while I was puttering around pagodas, I had been thinking about a time when I was really young. On the playground I had just learned the saying, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. It seemed to me like a pretty clever response to teasing and other juvenile torments. Later in the day, I mentioned it to my mother and she looked at me and said, “if only that were true.” I asked what she meant by that, because the only pain I knew came from, well, you know, sticks and stones. She told me that broken bones heal relatively easily, but the scars that words carve into us take much, much longer to heal.

At the time I was too young to understand what she said. I knew that she was saying something serious, but, having just brushed off insults at school without a second thought, I couldn’t imagine how much damage words could do to me. Since then I’ve learned that she was right. Sadly, it’s something everyone learns.

However, about the same time I learned the “sticks and stones” saying, I also learned about forgiveness. Like my mother’s comments, I didn’t understand it until much later in life. However, I’ve found that forgiveness is the only thing that heals the wounds that words inflict. It frees me from them and lifts my spirits.

The west entrance to the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon.

The west entrance to the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon.

Folks! It’s been a great month! It was busy at times, but I got a lot done and was able to spend time with very good friends. However, I’m super excited about April! My new CD, Germany Zulu, is coming out!!!!! The release show will be at The Cave in Chapel Hill on April 17. I’ll be playing with a full band, and The Drowning Lovers will open up. The show starts at 9, so come if you can. Otherwise, you can pre-order the limited edition CD or pre-order the songs on iTunes and Amazon!

And, as always, if you’d like sing or play along, here’s the song sheet.