February – On Your Doorstep

Greetings from Singapore!

uku_merlion_smile

The ukulele is visiting his friend the Merlion, Singapore’s mascot. It’s half fish, half lion. Trust me, the Merlion gets bent out of shape if you call it a mermaid. He says, “Merlion! Merlion!”

For the past two weeks I’ve been here, visiting my folks. It’s been a lot of fun (and I’ve eaten a lot of good food).

Do you see that building in the background that looks like a durian shaped performing arts center? It actually is a durian shaped performing arts center. One day the ukulele will play there.

Do you see that building in the background that looks like a durian shaped performing arts center? It actually is a durian shaped performing arts center. One day the ukulele will play there.

One highlight was a side trip to Burma (Myanmar). This country is known for a lot of things, one of which is its sunsets, particularly in Bagan. Months before I arrived, I had read about them in travel books and once there, was desperate to see one in person. As soon as I could, I rented an “ebike”, an electric scooter that I named “Ernest”, and headed towards the nearest pagoda. Ernest wasn’t the speediest ebike around, and had a lot of trouble whenever we weren’t going downhill, but he tried has hard as he could.

Burma, an especially the Bagan region, is covered in old pagodas, many of which are over 1200 years old.

Burma, and especially the Bagan region, is covered in old pagodas, many of which are over 1200 years old.

My timing, however, was rather poor. The sun was setting as I made my way to the pagoda. I begged Ernest to go a little faster and he chugged along as best he could. When I arrived at the pagoda, it was bathed in a breath taking golden light and the sun was just on the horizon. Everything was perfect except one small detail. The camera shot wasn’t as awe inspiring as what I’d seen in the guide book. Certain that I could find a better location to capture the moment, I hopped back onto Ernest and puttered off to the next pagoda.

Unfortunately for me, time didn’t stand still. Instead, with my back to the west, the sun silently slipped behind the mountains and vanished. Instead of taking my perfect picture, I missed the whole thing. Disappointed, Ernest and I went back to the hotel for the night.

The last light of the day, shining on a pagoda.

The last light of the day, shining on a pagoda.

The next day, I had a much better plan. I left earlier and had the perfect pagoda picked out long in advance. When I arrived, I climbed to the top level and watched the sun slowly sink into the horizon. Everything was perfect, except one little thing – beautiful sunsets, the kind that fill you with a sense of wonder and amazement – don’t fit into tiny camera frames. Sure, I took pictures, but being there was what mattered most. It wasn’t about saving a formal record of the time – filing it away so that I could look at it later – it was about experiencing the moment first hand – watching it as it happened and soaking it up. To truly enjoy my trip, I needed to be there for the experience, and not just the pictures.

bagan_sunset_1

Believe me, this looked way better in person.

Folks! I hope you had a great February and are looking forward to March. I know I am. Feel free to share this song and story with your friends and loved ones. If you want to sing or play along, here’s the song sheet. It’s about how when you do things that you really care about, that you really love, the thought of failure can be really scary. However, It’s the only way I know how to do anything.

January – You Don’t Know

Do you ever feel like you’re living in a movie? Every now and then there will be a short moment where everything syncs up and flows just like someone had scripted it. That’s how this month’s song came about.

The Ukulele doesn't mind singing in the car when the radio doesn't work. And even when it does, the ukulele still don't mind singing.

The Ukulele doesn’t mind singing in the car when the radio doesn’t work. And even when it does, the ukulele still doesn’t mind.

A few months ago the radio in my car stopped working. This means I either drive in silence, or I sing a little song to myself. I bet you can guess which option I usually go with. One day I got into my car and, while I started the ignition, I sang, “You don’t know… which way to drive this car to day…”. That’s how the song started, and as I drove the rest of the song materialized, finishing when I turned the car off at home. It was just like the perfect montage scene in a movie, where the music plays while the main character does something interesting (like learn karate).

The ukulele isn't all that good with maps. Good thing he can get his phone to tell him when to turn left!

The ukulele isn’t all that good with maps. Good thing he can get his phone to tell him when to turn left!

Even though writing down the date just became really complicated, it’s an exciting time of year. It’s a time to make plans and set goals. I guess I have my usual goals this year (more songs and recipes), but I’ve also got a few other monthly plans for 2015. It’s a fun way to see what I can do. Do you have any new year’s resolutions? Feel free to post them in the comments below!

Folks, I hope you have a great month coming up! If you’d like to sing or play along with this new tune, here’s the song sheet!

A fun fresh tomato sauce for midwinter.

pasta_on_plate

A little bit of summertime in the middle of winter.

Just when you thought winter couldn’t be any colder and darker, here’s a fun way to shake it off and bring a bit of summer into your home — An easy and delicious recipe that uses cherry tomatoes, which are pretty at the peak of their ripeness all year round.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Cut a large onion into thin slices. Add it to a large pan over medium heat with 3 Tbs. of olive oil and a large pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, occasionally, until the onion just starts to get soft, 3 to 5 minutes.

onions_in_pan

The first step – cut an onion into thin slices and cook it over medium heat.

2) While the onion is starting to cook, cut 7 cloves of garlic into thin slices and then add them, with another pinch of salt, to the onions, cooking for another 3 to 5 minutes. The goal is to soften the onions without allowing them to brown.

sliced_garlic

You don’t have to slice the garlic “Goodfellas” thin, just thin.

3) Once the onions are soft, add 2 pounds of cherry tomatoes, stems removed and rinsed, and 1 tsp. of salt. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes until most of the tomatoes have deflated and the sauce is thick.

tomatoes_in_pan_first

Here I’ve just added the tomatoes and salt to the onions and garlic.

tomatoes_in_pan_third

After 20 or 30 minutes, the tomatoes will have deflated and made a thick sauce.

4) While the tomatoes are cooking, boil a pot of salted water and cook 1 lb. of pasta. Once both the sauce and pasta are cooked, combine and enjoy!

pasta_in_pan

When the sauce and pasta are done cooking, combine and then serve!

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

  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced thin
  • 7 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
  • 2 lbs. cherry tomatoes, stems removed and rinsed
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 lb. pasta

December – Amadeus

Friends, we made it! Hooray! It’s been another magical year and I’ve loved very minute of it. Like last year, I thought it would be fun to end with an unexpected cover song. Something you’d never think would be played on a cello. Something inspired by a movie. Something in German. The only song I could think of that fit all of those criteria was “Rock Me, Amadeus” by “Falco” (aka Johann Hölzel). I remember this song as a kid, thinking that it made classical music “cool”, not realizing that it was played entirely on synthesizers. Well, I guess I finally got revenge for that – I swapped out the electronic instruments for banjos, mandolins and, of course, my cello.

Writing songs each month has been an exciting adventure. Like seeing a mountain on a map, but not knowing the best way to get there, I knew what I wanted the songs to be like, but had to explore different combinations of instruments to make the right sounds. It was a lot of fun and I learned a whole lot in the process. I guess it’s no surprise that a lot of the songs were written during, or were inspired by, real life adventures to Cambodia (Up In The Air), the Galapagos (Puzzle Pieces), Long Island (Dance Party) and Colorado (You and Cabin Pressure). And since I sing in the shower, it’s no surprise that a few were written there (That Dude (in the movies), Right Here, Right NowTurn On Your Radio). The rest were written on my bike ride to work (The Chariot, That Dress, Winter), where the rhythm of pedaling provides a constant beat to try ideas against.

The ukulele is hard at work learning "Turn on the Radio".

The ukulele is hard at work learning “Turn on the Radio”. He can’t wait to play it live!

Just like last year, I’m going to make final mixes of this year’s tunes, plus a bonus track, and compile them into an album. This one will be called “Germany Zulu”, after the last two phonetic alphabet letters in my father’s old ham radio handle. The first three and middle two letters were coded in the song sheets for Puzzle Pieces and Turn On Your Radio.

I’ll keep you posted with progress on the new album and the release show for it. The band has already been hard at work learning these songs, plus favorites from 2013. And who knows, we might toss a few of the newest songs from 2015 into the mix. I think it will be a blast.

All of the other instruments  super excited about band practice, too!

All of the other instruments are super excited about band practice, too!

Folks! I hope you enjoy this last tune for 2014 and that 2015 will be full of awesome things for you. I know it will be for me. This adventure isn’t over yet and you can look forward to another new song at the end of January.

p.s. Bonus points to anyone who can guess who my father’s favorite composer is. Feel free to put your guesses in the comments!

A fantastic vegetarian caesar salad dressing

salad

I’m pretty sure this recipe is the best vegetarian Caesar salad dressing out there, but, I’ll be honest, I haven’t tried them all. However, I know for sure that this one is easy and tastes great. This time of year my favorite Caesar salad is fresh kale, with the stems removed and the remaining leaves chopped into small pieces, shaved parmesan cheese and croutons. If you leave the croutons off until the last minute, you can make this salad, mixed with the salad dressing, up to a day in advance. That’s right, you can make this salad a day in advance, which makes it the easiest salad on the planet.

The recipe is quite simple (and I’ll have pictures up here as soon as I can).

1) Puree one clove of garlic. You can do this with a garlic press, but the way I like to do it is on the cutting board. I sprinkle a pinch of salt on the garlic and then chop it up. When the bits are small, I spread them out with the side of the knife while pressing down firmly. Sweep the garlic back and fourth a few times and it will become a paste.

2) Then, in a small bowl, whisk together the pureed garlic, 1 Tbs. mayonnaise, 1/2 Tbs (or 1 and 1/2 tsp.) Dijon mustard, and 1/2 Tbs. red wine vinegar.

3) Now, while whisking, slowly pour in 2 Tbs. – 1/4 cup of good olive oil. The amount of oil depends on how thick you want the dressing to be. I like mine to be pretty thin so I can coat a whole lot of kale. Continue to whisk until the sauce looks uniformly brownish.

4) Lastly, season the dressing with with salt to taste (maybe one or two more pinches will do), black pepper to taste (maybe 1/4 tsp.) and the juice of one small lemon wedge.

That’s it! The whole thing can come together in less than 5 minutes. Toss it with your chopped kale, shaved parmesan and croutons and you’re in for a delicious treat.

November – Turn On Your Radio

When I was growing up, my father was an avid radio operator. Not the kind of radio for listening to music, but the kind for talking to people far away. When the weather was right, a cloudless night sky, he’d say, “Propagation’s good!”, power up his equipment and scan the frequencies for friends, most of whom he had never met in person. He talked to people as far away as Russia and deep into the southern hemisphere.

It's hard to see, but there's a tall radio antennae to the right of the ukulele. He's wondering how far it's signal reaches!

It’s hard to see, but there’s a tall radio antennae to the right of the ukulele. He’s wondering how far its signal travels!

In the room where he stored his radios, my father had a world map that showed the distant places he’d contacted. My favorite was the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Rocks. I thought the name alone was funny, but it was also as remote a place as I could imagine. My father showed me a black and white picture of it; a few barren stones in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Back then, the internet was limited and it wasn’t easy to communicate. I showed the map and picture to my friends because I was proud that my father talked with people so far away.

During the holidays, my father turned on his radio and it sounded like the skies were alive with good cheer. We heard celebrations taking place all over the world. Friends and strangers wished us a merry day and we returned the joyful salutations. It made the world seem like a friendly place. Even though the US and the Soviet Union were waging a “cold war”, I realized I had something in common with the people outside of my country. I learned that the only way to really know someone was to talk with them.

All of these instruments are different, and the cello doesn't trust the banjo all of the time, but for the most part they get along!

All of these instruments are different, and the cello doesn’t trust the banjo all of the time, but for the most part they get along! Without each one, this song wouldn’t be the same.

Folks, I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday this year. I know it’s a busy time, but it’s also a time to reflect on how much we have in common with everyone else in the world. Most people like to hum a tune and share their happiness with the people around them.

This month I was very lucky, Robert Cantrell helped me with the percussion parts in the song. If you hear an awesome “THUMP” during the verses, or a little razzle-dazzle during the last chorus, you’re hearing the fun, skill and energy that he brought to the part. If you’d like to sing or play along with us, here are the chords and lyrics!

My Sister’s Amazing (banana) Chocolate Chip Muffins

One of the highlights of visiting my sister is that she makes the most amazing muffins for breakfast. These come together quickly and it doesn’t take long before her whole house is filled with the mouth watering aromas of chocolate and vanilla. I wish I could visit my sister every weekend, but I can’t, so she was kind enough to give me her recipe. Since I always seem to have bananas around my house, I’ve added them to the mix, but these work great with or without them.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Preheat your oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit (about 200 degrees celsius) and grease a 12 cup muffing pan.

2) Combine 14 and 3/4 oz (3 and 1/2 cups) of all purpose flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. baking soda and 1 tsp. salt in a large bowl. Hold onto that teaspoon measuring spoon, since you’ll need it again in a bit.

3) Now coarsely chop up 1/2 cup of milk chocolate chips and 1/2 cup of any combination of dark, bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips and add them to the flour mixture. Combine everything with a fork.

chopped_chocolate

This is what “coarsely chopped” looks like.

dry_stuff

Now I’ve added the coarsely chopped chocolate to the flour mixture.

dry_stuff_combined

Now I’ve combined the chocolate with the flour mixture.

4) In a separate bowl (potentially a large glass or other microwave safe bowl),  measure 7 oz (1 cup) of sugar and 4 Tbs. of butter, cut into 1 Tbs. pieces. If you had the foresight to take your butter out of the refrigerator well in advance, which I never do, you can cream together the sugar and butter with a fork. However, I usually just microwave the butter and the sugar for 30 seconds to a minute – until I can easily combine the two with a fork.

I can never remember to leave the butter out overnight, so I just microwave it for 30 seconds.

I can never remember to leave the butter out overnight, so I just microwave it for 30 seconds to a minute.

Here I've combined the melted butter with the sugar.

Here I’ve combined the melted butter with the sugar.

5) Optional, but awesome: Add 1 or 2 ripe bananas to the sugar mixture and mash them up with a fork.

6) Whisk in 2 eggs, 2 tsp. vanilla extract and 10 oz. of a combination of sour cream and buttermilk to the sugar mixture. (I usually have 6 oz of sour cream sitting in the fridge from last week’s taco night and 4 oz. of buttermilk from the jug that lasts forever.)

7) Fold the sugar mixture into the flour mixture until there are no longer any patches of dry flour, and distribute the mixture among the 12 cups in the muffin pan.

all_combined

Here’s what it looks like when you finally combine all of the ingredients into a single bowl.

Here's what the mixture looks like in the pan before baking.

Here’s what the mixture looks like in the pan before baking.

8) Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. You can tell when the muffins are done when you can poke the biggest one with a toothpick and it comes out clean (or just smeared with chocolate).  After baking, let the muffins rest in the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to wire cooling rack.

A tasty treat, waiting for you to eat.

A tasty treat, waiting for you to eat!

Shockingly, these muffins taste better at room temperature than when they are still warm.  I find this out the hard way every time I make them.  It’s a delicious lesson.

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

Dry Ingredients:

  • 14 3/4 oz (3 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup of any combination of dark/semi-sweet chocolate chips, coarsely chopped.

Wet Ingredients:

  • 7 oz (1 cup) sugar
  • 4 Tbs. butter, cut into 1 Tbs. pieces
  • 1-2 ripe bananas (optional, but awesome)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 10 oz of a combination of sour cream and buttermilk.