Thursday, December 29, 2011

CB Cooks: Mole ("moe-lay")

Makin' mole! (with my new homemade hand-carved mole stirrer)
When anybody mentions "mole" (the sauce, not the animal) a lot of things often come up.

"Oh yeah, the Mexican chocolate sauce," "It's super hard to make!" "It has so many ingredients in it" "It's too sweet for me" "I've had the premade kind and I don't like it one bit" "It was invented by nuns who had to feed some important guy and only had chiles and nuts and stale bread in their kitchen" "It takes three days to make" "How the hell do you pronounce it?"

As far as the last question, I'm pretty sure it's "moe-LAY" for us gringos, with the accent on the last syllable. Not sure why there isn't actually an accent there, perhaps because the word comes from a pre-columbian language. (In fact, I'm pretty sure "moe-LAY" just means a mixture of stuff or a sauce; the word "guacamole" just means "mixture/sauce of avocados". Pretty sure, not completely sure, so don't quote me on that. My spanish degree only covered spanish, not native mexican languages.)

I'm a huge fan of mexican food, and many say the concoction known as mole is the greatest accomplishment of the entire cuisine. In a lot of ways it is very complicated- many ingredients, many flavors, and the complexity only gets more complex when you serve it with other food like turkey (as is traditional for many moles). (Remember- "moe-LAYS" not "moles")

As I understand it, often mole is prepared on special occasions, because there are many ingredients; also, it's often paired with slow-cooked meat, which of course takes a while to cook. For these reasons (and probably many others) mole is one of those dishes (like tamales) that seems difficult and beyond reach for us lowly gringos. Especially on any day that isn't sunday!

Well I've got news for you! I'm definitely no expert in mexican cooking- but I think I have at least a handle on making "moe-LAY." In fact, I made some last night (on a wednesday night!). It took about an hour, and it will be even tastier today. I've made it a bunch of times, and I think I've come up with some rough guidelines (i.e. not an exact recipe) for making mole. In almost every mole recipe I've ever seen (in english OR spanish) there are certain types of ingredients that are always present. Based on that "research," I've come up with a list of ingredients- basically, you need at least one thing from each category to prepare your mole. Just to reiterate, I'm no mexican cooking expert, and this is most likely complete blasphemy... But it tastes just like mole in restaurants. If I had a mexican aunt, maybe this is what her mole would taste like.

Below I've listed the 6 categories, and some common ingredients that go in those categories. My idea is this: if you take at least one thing from each category, you will have something that is pretty much a mole.


- like dried chiles (absolutely necessary), raisins, bananas, plantains, etc

- peanuts (or peanut butter!), walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, pecans, etc

- cinnamon (or mexican canela), anise, cloves, cumin, oregano, avocado leaves, allspice, coffee, and yes maybe even chocolate (but it's not entirely necessary!) - and SUGAR

- onions, garlic, tomatoes or tomato sauce, etc

- broth, stock, water, chile soaking liquid, beer, anything!?

- masa (like prepackaged tamale mix i.e. Maseca, or fresh from the tortillería), stale tortillas, toasted stale bread, animal crackers (I've heard this is a common old mexican lady addition)


Most recipes call for a very involved individual frying of each set of ingredients before everything is combined and blended together. I don't doubt this makes a thicker, richer, more voluptuous sauce... But this also exponentially lengthens the time needed to make this dish. When I make this, generally, I just throw everything into a blender and blend away! (If I fry anything, I'll get some onion and garlic looking toasty in a pan with some oil before adding it to the blender). Basically, here's the process:

L-R: Cloves, allspice, ancho chiles, piloncillo (sugar), tortillas,
oregano, pepper, onion, cumin, garlic, peanut butter,
tahini, walnuts NOT PICTURED: oil, guajillo chiles
1) ASSEMBLE your ingredients (at least one from each category, and you pretty much must use some kind of chiles)

For my wednesday night mole, I used:
dried ancho and guajillo chiles (fruits), peanut butter, walnuts, and tahini (ground sesame paste) (nuts), cloves, cumin, oregano, allspice, and some mexican piloncillo sugar (spices), onions and garlic (vegetables), chile soaking liquid (liquid), and stale corn tortillas (thickeners)

2) If your dried chiles are hard and old, and you can't run out and get some more, you might want to rehydrate them. Put them in a bowl, cover with hot water, and let them sit for 30 minutes or so. Mine were old, so I did this yesterday. Rick Bayless says if the soaking water is bitter, throw the water away.. If not, use it in the recipe! Mine last night was sweet tasting, so I used it. Many people will toast their dry chiles in a dry skillet before soaking, but I didn't do that. If you do it, make sure not to BURN the chiles.

soaking chiles (smells a whole lot like raisins)
3) BLEND - Add everything to the blender, and blend the &*#$ out of it. It might be better to add things in steps, to make sure everything gets blended.

4) STRAIN everything! This is key. The idea is to get a homogenous, velvety sauce with no lumps whatsoever. I have a strainer I pretty much only use for mole, I call it my mole strainer. 

Strain! Check out that gorgeous color. All that red/orange is from the chiles,
no tomato products here
5) Take the strained liquid and put it in a pan. If it's really really thick, add more liquid.

6) SIMMER - Add salt, pepper, whatever, to taste, and simmer. If it's too bitter, add some sweet stuff like sugar, honey, etc. Chiles are relatively bitter, you'll probably need to sweeten the mole at least a little bit.

7) That's it! You can simmer it for a long time, or not... Definitely gets better the next day.

I really like it over bean enchiladas, or grilled chicken, or pretty much anything. You can even put it on eggs! It's a really versatile sauce, and since there can be so many flavors in it, it goes with almost everything.

Using those 6 categories, the combinations are endless! By varying the type of chiles used, or the amount of sweetness, or the amount of other fruits or nuts, this base recipe could create an infinite variety of moles. This isn't entirely authentic, but the flavor is pretty close. If you follow these simple steps, in a matter of minutes you can be on your way to creating your own custom mole!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Pine, sharpies and nail polish

December bass! Homemade lure!
(It looks like blood, but it isn't- it's just sharpie and nail polish)
Went out yesterday, figured it might be my last chance at some open water, and I really should test some of my lures before I start making a bunch more. Headed over to the good old retention pond, 1/2 mile from my house; the idea was to try out the lures for about 15 minutes then head home.

It was cold! I hadn't been fishing in a while, and although it's been unseasonably warm, it's still a lot colder than when I usually fish. The wind was fierce. The pond looked icy, almost. There wasn't any ice just yet.

My mother-in-law hooked me up with a ton of wine corks, so I've been putting those to good use. I also have been using my new coping saw and "craft blade" (xacto knife) to make these creations.

I quickly busted out my brand new giant tacklebox (thanks, wife) and snapped on a lure and cast it out. It was nice to be fishing! I tried a few of my lures- some of them worked exactly as expected. Others, like my jointed cork lure, failed miserably.

This was great! Just like a jitterbug
This one, not so great
Something I didn't expect was my diving cork lure turning upside down! I guess it makes sense, the way the weight was distributed. It kept trying to dive up, so I could tell it was a good design. Earlier today I added some weights to the lower half, which corrected the problem.

Awesome! ...but upside down in the water
This one was just terrible, floating completely on one side
(then again, maybe it looks wounded...)
And then, there was this one:

I got some pine dowels at the store ($.89 per foot, I bought 6 inches) and made two new lures- this guy was the first one I finished. I sloped the head down as I wittled; I wanted to see if I could make it dive without the use of a metal or plastic bill.

I painted it white with nail polish, then using a trick from this awesome book my awesome wife got me for Christmas I spray painted some olive color through some cooking-sponge mesh. Then I took a brown sharpie and added dots; some more nail polish for the gills, some metallic-looking grey nail polish on top, then the craft eyes, then finally a coat of "hard as nails" clear coat nail polish. Looked pretty awesome, I think! Very strange, not like a store-bought lure, but I really liked it a lot. I was going for a baby largemouth type effect, but it turned out more like a trout.

So I snapped it onto my line, cast it out, and was very pleased with the action in the water. It seemed to have a wide action to it, and most certainly did dive! The shiny grey glitter on the top shone through the water, and I occasionally caught glimpses of the white belly- like a flashlight.

And then, on my third cast, as I retrieved and watched the lure dive into the dark water, I felt some resistance- I must have snagged some dead plants or something. But wait, no! I caught a glimpse of something very familiar, but unexpected- a largemouth bass on the end of my line! The hit was extremely light, as if it were an afterthought.

He just couldn't resist my weirdly-decorated lure! The rear treble hook got him in the lip, which always makes me happy. I'd hate to mismatch the size of the hook to the size of the fish, and gut-hook a big fish or skewer some little guy. This combination seemed just right.

Freezing cold bass!
I hoisted him out of the water; when I grabbed his lip, I was taken aback by how cold he was. Well of course it's cold, the water is almost freezing, I told myself. I'll admit it, just like many times earlier in the year, I giggled like a school girl. This was awesome! A bass, in a pond, on a hand-carved lure, in December?? And a largemouth!? I started to think about the largemouth preferred water temperature, I seemed to think somewhere around 72°F, and how crazy it was he would have attacked my lure. I was retrieving it pretty quickly, it's not like he had a lot of time to think about it.

I snapped about 500 pictures - very quickly - and carefully returned the beautiful fish to the water. The water definitely has an effect on the fish, it was clearly dazed when it got back in the water. After a few seconds, he snapped back and swam away in a flurry of fins.

Later I was thinking, and I'm pretty sure that was my first crankbait bass ever! I haven't fished with crankbaits too much, mostly because they cost a lot and I almost always loose them. I caught a big chicago river bluegill a while back on a small crank, and almost immediately got it stuck on some wood. I should do more of these lures....

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Vote for CB Fishes!

Do you like CB Fishes?

I just noticed the Outdoor Blogger Network (an awesome site, great way to find awesome blogs) is going to feature 3 blogs in a few weeks.

They are selecting the 3 blogs based on voting!

If you enjoy what you read and see here, please consider voting!

Just go here, find "Cb Fishes" and click "Like"

Thanks for reading!


here's the link again, just in case:

More hand carved crankbaits

The Christmas collection
I don't have any fancy stories or accounts of cutting off my fingers, but I do have a bunch of pictures of lures I've been making.

A few months ago I read some posts on about some anglers who were making their own hand-carved wooden crankbaits. I remember thinking "Oh man, that would be awesome but I could never do that. Way too complicated, not to mention I have no idea how to carve wood. Or use tools." A few weeks later I started making some inline spinners, which in some ways are pretty simple to make. And they caught fish!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I recently got some flannel shirts which somehow directly led to a sudden interest in wood carving and pyrography. I've been carving up a storm! Turns out it's not as difficult as I thought...

I think it looks pretty nice
I think I've figured out how to use which blades (although I still keep breaking them every so often); it seems like each lure I carve is better than the last. My recent coping saw purchase has been incredibly helpful- now I can cut the blocks of wood to a more lure-like size, so I don't have to whittle off a pound of wood to get the size I want. I've been using sharpies and nail polish to "paint" the lures, and I'm pretty happy with how they are turning out.

I sure hope they can catch some fish....

I think the glitter nail polish really pushes this one over the top
My favorite one so far
You can see the music-making equipment in the background
(what a strange man-cave)
This one has metal beads inside that rattle a little bit
A lure in the colors of my alma mater,
Powers Catholic High School - Flint, Michigan

Bedroom producing

Slightly cramped...
I've recorded a whole lot of stuff in our townhouse guest bedroom (aka "the studio")- most of the Christmas album, some of the upcoming electronic album, and lots of other random stuff. I guess you could call our second bedroom my "man cave," although maybe it's not your typical cave... I've got some keyboards stacked up on one end, my dual-monitor computer setup against one wall, midi controllers and audio interfaces stacked on the desk...

Sara layin' it down
On the other end of the desk is my other workspace, where I make fishing lures and wooden stuff; my carving knives, coping saw, wood burning tool, nail polish (for fishing lures of course), sand paper, and a variety of pliers are strewn about everywhere. Sometimes the music stuff gets intertwined due to the limited space, so there are wood shavings in my midi controller keyboard, or saxophone reeds among my half-carved fishing lure bodies. I kind of like the combination- it's a physical version of my two main obsessions.

Last night my good friend Ed and my new friend Sara came over to record a demo- in the bedroom studio! This was actually the first time I'd recorded other people at home, and I think it went really well. The musicianship was at a very high level, which is of course the most important part of the whole process.

Ed played guitar and keys (my own Nord Electro 2, far enough away from the fishing gear that there's no danger of accidentally playing a chord and getting stuck in the hand with a treble hook); Sara sang. Somehow we managed to get all three of us in the tiny room at the same time. Ed plugged direct into the computer, but then I sent his signal to the bathroom a few feet down the hall, where I had my Fender Champ Amp (tube amp) miked with an SM57 and my favorite Røde NT1-A. The bathroom has a great sound! I haven't miked a lot of amps, but I spent some time positioning the two mics and am very happy with the sound. I put the 57 on the edge of the speaker, and it has a lot of thick and delicious low end; the NT1 was about a foot away, and provides some high end sparkle and some of the nice reflective sounds of the bathroom. Combined with the direct signal, I think it will turn out pretty swell.

Didn't sound poopy at all!
Ed and his many guitar chops
Sara sang into an AKG-414C (a $1000 mic which I incorrectly told them was a $4000 mic) - an amazing reference-quality mic - which was then routed directly into a $20 tube mic preamp. I suppose it's a little blasphemous to do such a thing, as the 414 is incredibly accurate and transparent-sounding; by running it into a crappy cheap preamp, to some extent I cancel out how nice a mic it is. That said, I really like how the combination sounds! When Sara gets louder, you can hear some tube distortion kick in, which I think is just what their demo calls for.

Due to the lack of space, Ed sat at the computer so he could reach the Nord keyboard, and I sat on my cajón at my wood carving station. Since I couldn't reach the computer without leaning over Ed, I set up my laptop with screen-sharing, so I could control the main computer from a foot away. It looked pretty fancy, all those glowing screens in the tiny room.

We recorded almost two and half hours of music, which once I whittle it down will be 4 songs for their demo. I've been given explicit permission to "to do my thing," so it's very likely there will be some remixes (I'm thinking a cumbia and a dub remix at least).

It was great to get some real musicians in the "studio" (remember, it's actually the second bedroom), and it was a great time tracking them. I've got a lot of Christmas-related stuff to do today, so I may not get down to mixing until after Christmas... But I can't wait to dive in and get to work on this fantastic demo.

It was really great to be the engineer/producer; it's really a different thing than recording my own stuff. I really enjoyed tracking, and can't wait to fully produce their stuff. I'd like to do more of recording other people's stuff, although I might need to figure out a better way to fit more people in the "studio..."

Even Walter got in on the action

Sunday, December 18, 2011

CB carves some wooden lures

Carved, sanded, ready for the details
(Sitting on top of a wood block just like the one it used to be)
I recently bought a bunch of flannel shirts, which for some reason gave me the urge to get some wood and carve things. I've been experimenting with pyrography (the fancy word for the controlled burning of wood to make designs on it), as well as wood carving. Having made some lures a few months ago- lures that managed to interest some fish- I have the confidence now to make more, knowing there's a good chance they can catch some fish.

Today I've been drinking coffee, listening to Q-tip (if you haven't heard his brand of hip hop, I highly recommend it), and making wooden fishing lures. A great combination I think. Hip hop and fishing go great together, I think... Perhaps the Fonetiks should make a comeback...

The workspace
(Just to the left is my music stuff - computer, keyboards,
monotron, nord electro- I like the juxtaposition)
Using some of the tools my buddy Mark let me borrow (especially the fly tying vice) I've been able to complete my first sturdy wooden lure. I recently received my second shipment from Jann's Netcraft (thanks to Rob for hipping me to them) and got some stuff I needed. Stuff like split rings, brass screw eyes, quick-change clevises, colorado and willow blades, and more.

A couple of weeks ago I bought a cheap wood carving kit, which came with a single handle that could accept a variety of different blades. I proceeded to break almost every blade in the kit due to my lack of experience (and the crappy quality of the blades). Most of the breaks happened when I used the blade in a way it wasn't intended! I've done some internet research, and I think I've learned the error of my ways.

Ordering some Christmas presents on Amazon, the site recommended a $2 wood carving kit to me, and I snatched it up! I got it a few days ago, and although it is very cheap, the tools seem very substantial. I haven't broken a single blade yet! These tools - I think- are specifically for doing relief carving, not whittling so much. I've put them to good use on some projects that I can't share just yet.

Sharpie-d, nail-polished, and ready for the hardware
I used on of the V-gauge tools (I think that's what they're called) to make little scale indentations on the lure. Will the fish care if there are fancy little scales on the lure? I don't know, but I think it looks pretty cool. I couldn't open my little canisters of paint, so I just used some sharpies to paint the lure, doing my best impression of a firetiger pattern.

Then, using some wood glue, craft-store eyes, my split ring pliers, and the fly tying vice, I assembled the rest of the lure. I'm extremely satisfied with how it looks, and I have no doubt that this will catch some fish. At least I hope so!

The finished lure. I'd eat that!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

CB Cooks: Granola

Walnut cranberry apple (sauce) granola
If I don't think about it, I'll drink an entire pot of coffee in the morning without eating a single thing. I love coffee, and often I feel like that's all I need to get my day started. I've heard it isn't the greatest idea to drink mass quantities of coffee on an empty stomach, so I've been on a mission to find something easy and quick I can eat with my coffee. Sometimes I feel like making some oatmeal (like this fine recipe) but lately it hasn't been doing it for me.

My solution? Granola! It's just baked oatmeal. This is easy and quick to make (I've been making it once a week for the past two weeks... so I guess that's only twice....) and it's a perfect accompaniment to my requisite coffee in the morning.

WHAT YOU NEED for the basic granola recipe
2 cups of oats - the old school kind, but not the steel cut kind
1 cup of syrup/honey/similar stuff in some combination
4-6 tablespoons smooth apple sauce - this is the secret ingredient in my recipe; it is a substitute for oil, and it makes the whole thing taste much nicer and enhances whatever fruit you add
-I bet other types of puréed fruit would be awesome here- even jelly or jam might work
Salt (to taste)

SEASONINGS: To taste, add whatever you want
Lots of cinnamon
A lot of vanilla extract
Ginger might be nice, if you're in to that
Unsweetened cocoa (might burn, so be careful)
Brown sugar (would definitely make things sweeter)
Ground coffee (I might try this next time...)
Ground chile powder (i.e. ancho powder- this would be for the daring- I haven't tried this, but dried chiles are really just spicy dried fruit, it could be amazing)

ADDITIONS: Then you can add stuff like
Hazelnuts (paired with cocoa it'd be like nutella granola)
Dried fruit (like raisins, cranberries, blueberries, pineapple, peaches, mango, etc)
Pepitas would be awesome
Dried coconut (this is really great with coffee)
Peanut butter (not sure if this would work, but it could be great)

1. Combine your syrup/liquid stuff, apple sauce, and seasonings- mix well

2. Pour your liquid mixture into 2 cups of oats, stir until extremely well combined
Plain old oats with light syrup ready for baking

3. Spread out the mixture on a baking sheet, bake for 15 minutes at ~300°F
- If you want toasty nuts, you can add them now
- You could also add any dried fruit now, but they might get kind of hard and chewy by the time your granola is done

4. After 15 minutes, pull the sheet out and stir the whole thing well
- If you want your nuts less toasty and your fruit softer, add that stuff now instead of step #3

5. Return to oven, cook for another
15 minutes: soft, chewy granola
20 minutes: darker, more roasty granola, might be crispy
25 minutes: watch out, you might burn it! It will certainly be crispy

6. It will crisp up a little as it cools

7. Store in something airtight, otherwise it will get stale fast (I use a big zip lock bag- this recipe fills about a third of a gallon bag, at least I think it's a gallon bag)

8. Enjoy!

Sprinkle your homemade granola on other stuff, like ice cream, yogurt, etc.
Form into bars, make your own chewy granola bars
Instead of baking in the oven, add more liquid to the mixture and then fry on a griddle- oat cakes!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Korg Monomania Monotron Contest!

It's been a while since I've posted about music, but I've been busy making a lot of it. Right on the heels of finishing up this year's Christmas album, I decided to stay on the music-making path and make some more. The music I've been coming up with has a very clear experimental electronic flavor, although I guess to some extent most of my stuff could be called "experimental."

Either way, so far I've got 11 tracks almost ready to go. I'm hoping to "release" (post to the internet) the album before the end of the year. Most of the tracks were created with "found" sounds I recorded (like the sound of a construction site jackhammer or the escalator at J.C. Penny. Most of the tracks are also pretty weird, even for me. I've been primarily working on these tracks while commuting to and from downtown, so in some ways this album won't be a "studio" album, it will be a Metra commuter train album.

A few weeks ago my lovely wife Claire told me about a Korg Monotron song contest. Yes, this is the same wife that regularly suggests I go fishing on weekends; i.e. a great wife. I thought it was cool, but didn't really think about entering.

Last night for some reason I went back to the contest site, read the rules, and listened to some of the winners from the Japanese competition. I expected to hear some completely amazing stuff, and although there was some very nice monotron playing there, it really didn't seem like many people were taking full advantage of all the sounds the monotron can make, especially when paired with a capable workstation like Ableton Live. I also checked out the prizes page, and when I saw the 24-karat gold-plated monotribe and silver-plated monotrons, I knew I had to enter.

Gold plated Monotribe
Reading the competition rules, I realized I already had a piece of music composed entirely of monotron, that also happened to be shorter than the 2 minute maximum entry length. Sweet! It was a track I made almost a year ago after I got my monotron for Christmas- I popped it into Live, did some quick remixing, and quickly posted it to YouTube.

Then I sat on the couch, opened my laptop, and began playing my monotron into Ableton Live. After a few short hours, I had a 2 minute piece of pure monotron music. Although it may sound otherwise, every single sound in the track was created using the monotron, through extensive editing, repitching, and some other secrets. It's amazing how voice-like the monotron can sound with some nice reverb (toward the end of the track). I'm pretty happy with how it turned out!

I will definitely add that to the track listing on the upcoming album. Although it would super amazing to win something for playing around with my monotron, I don't really know what my chances are, or even what the judges are looking for. I just did my thing, and they can take it or leave it. Either way it was a fun little evening project, and another addition to the new album.

Entries are due by January 1, and they'll announce the winners (1st, 2nd, and 3rd places I think) on January 6. If you happen to have a monotron, you should enter too! I know for a fact at least one person is getting a monotron for Christmas (I'm talking to you Dan Kramer), and a monotron piece would be worth major extra credit in my class... Just sayin'....

My favorite adventures of 2011

As we get closer to the end of the year, I've been thinking about all the great adventures I've had this year. This was the first year I've really seriously fished (i.e. been completely obsessed with fishing). I really appreciate the mentoring of my buddies Mark, Luke, and Rob who introduced me to the awesome world of fishing.

I've had a lot of firsts this year: my first kayak, my first river fishing, my first super big fish (the giant catfish), my first time wading... all kinds of great stuff I can't wait to do again once it gets warm. I might find myself on the ice at some point this winter, but until then....

Looking back, here are some of my favorite adventures from this year.

August: That time I caught the huge goby

Biggest goby I've ever seen

Salt Creek and Arlington Heights Road

I know, I look like a moron.. But I was so excited!

Right after this picture was taken, the catfish bit down on
my thumbs, HARD. This was the first fish to make
me bleed profusely

October: My first successful wading trip on the Fox River

What a beautiful fish
October: The time a bass ate my homemade lure... then I caught more fish on my own lures

Sunday, December 11, 2011

View posts by topic!

My first wood-burned fish
For a while every single post was about fishing (this is called CB Fishes after all), but during the cold months I probably won't be doing too much fishing. I've been spending a lot of time cooking and making music.

I realize a lot of my posts don't interest everybody (i.e. anglers may not care about my new synthesizers, and music people may not understand how awesome fishing is) so I'm trying something new to make it easier to see the posts you might actually find interesting.

I've added some tabs at the top of every page, called "Fishing," "Cooking," and "Music." Clicking any one of those tabs will take you to all the posts related to that particular topic. In other words, if you want to see all the posts about fishing (and only fishing) click "Fishing."

If I end up posting about a variety of different things (more than just fishing, cooking, and music) I'll add some more tabs to help you find what might actually interest you. One of those future topics might be wood carving or wood burning (pyrography) which I've recently become interested in.

Until next time, take care, and thanks for reading!

- Chris

CB Cooks: Extra crispy skillet potatoes

It's been a major life goal of mine to cook diner-style hashbrown/home fried potatoes at home. Not only is it incredibly satisfying and simple to make, but you can make them EXTRA crispy. 99% of the time, I make mine in my cast iron skillet, but you can make them in any skillet-type kitchen cooking vessel. I have been in love with my cast iron skillet for some time now... In most of my cooking I use only 3 things: the cast iron skillet, the (cast iron) dutch oven, and the crock pot. In the summer I use the grill too.

I rarely use a microwave in cooking, but in this recipe it really is the secret ingredient! When I cook raw potatoes in the skillet, when the outside is nice and crispy but the inside is still raw and starchy. My solution is to pre-cook the potatoes in the microwave, cut them, THEN throw'em in the pan. By the time the outside is super crispy and delicious, the inside is heavenly soft like mashed potatoes.

Anyway, here is my recipe:

- Potatoes - I've tried a bunch of different varieties, and they all pretty much work
- Oil - I've used olive, canola, and "vegetable;" they all work fine too
- Salt
- A skillet - I HIGHLY recommend a seasoned cast iron skillet! I think it's much easier to get the potatoes evenly crispy
- A microwave (I guess you could use an oven)

1) Prick some holes in the potatoes with a fork, wrap in paper towel, and throw in the microwave (If the 'taters are really big, you could just cut them in half)

2) Cook on high for 3-5 minutes, depending on size

3) When you hear the potatoes screaming in agony (you know, the high-pitched sound of the steam escaping) let them sit for a while

4) Heat up some oil (probably more than you think) in the skillet

5) Cut up the potatoes- the smaller you cut them, the more surface area there is to get nice and crispy

6) When a little piece of potato sizzles like crazy when you throw it in the skillet, dump the rest of the potatoes in

7) DON'T TOUCH! Let them sit there for 3-4 minutes; sprinkle some salt on top. You want the potatoes to develop a nice thick crust- if you move them now, the crust won't develop and the potatoes will soak up all the oil. Don't fill the pan too full either, or else the potatoes will steam instead of fry.

8) With a spatula, stir the potatoes, let sit again without touching for 3-4 minutes

9) Besides the microwave, this is the key to getting a nice crispy crust. Let them sit! If you stir fry them, it will never happen

10) Continue the stir-wait process for about 20 more minutes

11) Once they look evenly browned and crispy (like the picture), they're done! Add more salt to taste, and eat immediately!

- I sometimes throw sautéed onions and poblano peppers in once the potatoes are almost done. Don't put those in at the beginning, they will surely burn
- These potatoes are great on their own, but even better paired with some delicious scrambled eggs with chorizo, onions, and poblano pepper strips
- If you cook in an oven-friendly vessel, you could plop these in a heated oven to keep them warm while you prepare other stuff
- Then again, another great thing about cast iron skillets is they stay warm for a long time, so maybe that's not even neccesary

Monday, November 28, 2011

Turkey Chipotle Tortilla Soup

I came back home this weekend with a container full of turkey and turkey stock... and some ideas! I've made "tortilla soup" before with the more usual chicken and chicken stock, but this is so tasty I had to share. The masa acts as a thickener and adds a wonderful corn flavor to the whole dish. Although I put some crumbled tortilla chips on top of the soup, really it's completely uneccesary- you get plenty of corn flavor from the masa and the kernel corn. I generally don't like soggy pieces of tortilla floating in my soup, which is why I add the masa instead of regular tortillas. After all, tortillas are made from masa! I also would have added some chopped cilantro after I was done simmering, but I didn't have any. Whole cooked beans would be great too.

Whatever you do, don't skip the lime juice! It really makes the dish.

- Leftover turkey (cooked)
- Stock of some kind (homemade turkey stock would be the best, but chicken or veggie would be good too. The stock I had already had some carrots and celery in it- the more the merrier!)
- Onion, diced
- Garlic, minced or powdered (if using minced, quickly fry it before adding it to the pot)
- Some kind of diced green chile (I used poblano, you could use jalapeño or green bell pepper if you can't handle any heat)
- Chipotles en adobo (2 or more, diced) ***
- Some kind of dried red chile (I used ancho powder)
- A small can of tomato sauce (I used a 6oz can, I think)
- 2 tablespoons prepared dry masa, i.e. Maseca brand
- Corn (I used frozen yellow kernel corn)
- the juice of 1 small lime
- Salt, pepper, cumin


1) Bring the stock and meat to a simmer
2) Add the chipotles, dried red chile, and tomato sauce
3) Combine the masa and some water in a glass; stir to combine, then pour into the pot
4) Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt, pepper, garlic, and cumin etc. to taste
5) Once everything is nice and simmer-y, add in the onion and green chile
6) Simmer that stuff for about 5 minutes
7) Turn off the heat, then add the corn
8) Serve and enjoy! Even better the next day

Top with crumbled tortilla chips, or tortilla strips, more diced onions, avocado, julienned cabbage, pickled jalapeños, cilantro, etc.

*** Awesome tip! ***
When you buy a can of chipotles en adobo, sometimes it's hard to use all of them at once- especially if you're heat averse. The best way to save them for later is to pull out each chipotle and place it on a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil, then put that in the freezer. After a few hours, pick up the chiles and put them in a ziplock bag back in the freezer. Now you can grab as many or as few chipotles as you need for your recipe.

Chipotles en adobo (dried smoked jalapeños in a vinegar-tomato sauce)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Beckstrom Holiday Extravaganza! "Liner Notes"

The "studio" (aka second bedroom) - Just outside the frame are piles of instruments, papers, and fishing lure-making supplies

If I remember what it was like to purchase real life CD's, back in the day known as compact disks, I think they usually came with some kind of explanation about what was recorded on the plastic disc. With digital internet downloads, it's easy to lose that kind of explanation about what you're hearing... I suppose I could have put this stuff in a PDF that you download with the audio files from, but I think this way works too. In fact, maybe better! If you just want to hear the music, you don't have to worry about all these technical details.

If you want to know what that weird sound was, read on!

Frosty the Snowman

Last week I discovered Herbie Hancock had a disco phase. This blew my mind, because not only do I love Herbie Hancock, but I also love disco. Not only does Herbie have some disco albums, he uses vocoder extensively on these tracks! After listening to "I Thought it was You" continuously for about 48 hours, I knew what I had to do.

I recorded the live drums with only my Edirol R-09 recorder (2 condenser mics) and mixed it in with some more of my favorite TR-808. The Korg M1 patch "Piano 16" (preset #01") supplies the extremely 80's piano hook. I kept thinking I stole the hook from somewhere; after polling my wife and Facebook, it is kind of from "Hill Street Blues," "Greatest American Hero," "Family Ties," and Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now." Kind of, but not exactly from any of those things. The incredibly awesome "Fretless" (#06") M1 sound provides the baseline. The CS-80 makes another appearance with some wobbly string pads.

For the bridge, I did my best Daft Punk impression- I am a huge Daft Punk fan, which might be obvious by my extensive use of 808's, vocoders, and chord changes like A minor to E minor. Somebody once said disco never died, it just went underground! There really is a huge connection between disco like Herbie's "Sunlight" album and anything Daft Punk has done…

After another set of hooks, I head back to Daft Punk groove land and put in a requisite 80's style sax solo. I remember going to the dentist as a kid, and always hearing these 80's and 90's classics like "Careless Whisper," which always seemed to have a smooth and growling sax solo. Always seemed like the sax player had to be shirtless for it to sound like that. When I recorded the solo, I was fully clothed, although I did go through my tube preamp to get some fatness to the sound.

Little Drummer Boy

This is another Christmas tune I've never especially liked. I've avoided it at all costs having never heard a version I particularly liked. What changed my mind? My good friend Beth Caucci requested it.

The first thing I thought of was a whole mess'o funky drums. It is called drummer boy, after all. I didn't think samples would do the trick- I needed REAL drums. Turns out I had some perfect drums already! Early in the summer I was working on a funk EP that never got realized (I mostly lost interest and went fishing instead). After hours at work, I found a drum practice room, set up a bunch of mics, and laid down some drum tracks. I don't remember exactly what micas I used, but I was incredibly happy with the sound! That was the first time I'd put a mic UNDER the snare drum, which is now pretty much my favorite thing ever. Makes them SNAP.

The original drums track was supposed to accompany an original funk tune, which hits and fills that corresponded to the tune's baseline. No matter, I figured I'd just plop them into Ableton live and make them work. Although they were recorded at one tempo, it was easy to make them a little faster in Live. Once they were in, I laid down tons of tracks on top of them. My main inspiration was the amazing Herbie Hancock tune "Spank-a-lee."

I put in some congas that I recorded earlier as well, and layered on piles and piles of other stuff. I put my Korg Monotron- my one and only analog synthesizer - to good use, punctuating the track with futuristic synth explosions. It's a very fun instrument to play.

For the saxophone solo, I duplicated the track, took it down an octave, completely ripping off the technique from Joshua Redman's album "Elastic." The lick at the end of the tune is almost wholesale stolen from a repeating lick on "Spank-a-lee," which might be my favorite lick of all time! I've been working on my own virtual modular synthesizer (the Becktone 3000), and I found plenty of places to stick that in the track. The buzzy baseline, some of the synth explosions, some of the melody lines; that's all Becktone 3000!

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

A couple years ago, my friend Victor Chaga introduced me to the kuduro music of Buraka Som Sistema. Basically it's TR-808 informed portugeuse-african dance music. It's super funky, super energetic, and at times relatively abstract. I wanted to try and do my version of kuduro for this track.

Working on the Becktone 3000, I discovered a way to make a bell-like sound. Using a sine wave LFO to modulate the pitch of another sine wave oscillator, I turned up the LFO frequency to the human hearing range. In other words, there was vibrato happening extremely quickly- instead of a few times per second, it was happening around 10,000 times per second (i.e. 10kHz). For some reason, this sounds kind of like metallic bells. (The technical term for this is Frequency Modulation, or FM synthesis. Famous synths like the Yamaha DX7 use this type of synthesis.) It's a common thing on a Christmas album to have the classic tubular bell sound, so I figured I'd do my version. That's what you hear at the beginning and end of the track.

Ring mod by chrisbeckstrom

The drums are from the summer session, originally destined for a completely different track. Does that count as sampling? I put some Nord Electro wurlitzer on top, and things were coming together! I originally tried using shouted vocals for the melody (kind of like some kuduro) but ended up using the vocoder. (That's the robotic sound I use so often.) That's me singing, kind of. As I worked on the track, it reminded me a little of Keith Jarrett's "Spiral Dance" (but Keith's is way awesome…) Probably good I kept it so short, as you can only take a vamp for so long!

White Christmas

My new favorite band is Little Dragon. Thanks to Taylor O'Donnel and Ryan Andrews, I am now aware they exist, and am completely in love with their sound. A lot of their stuff has a big digital synth vibe to it, which I've never been too interested in.. However, hearing how awesome and funky old school digital sounds can be, I was determined to attempt my own 80's pop/electro arrangement.

My "tape machine"
I've been playing around with the Korg M1, one of the most popular and widely used digital synthesizers. It came out in the late 80's (or 90's?) and has a very digital sound. In the past I've avoided this type of sound at all costs, but for this track I decided to embrace it! The opening sound of the track is a combination of the "Bell Ring" patch (#35 on the M1) and the amazing "Lore" patch (#30) recorded and reversed. The strings that come in is a patch I came up with on the virtual Yamaha CS-80 made by Arturia. In keeping with my attempt at 80's electro, for the drums I dug up some samples of the classic LinnDrum drum machine. This was one of the first drum machines to use samples instead of synthesizing sounds. I recorded the drums onto cassette tape to get some more punch (and tape hiss), and the track was almost done! The vocoder makes yet another appearance here.

The final step was a synth solo at the end, played on the Becktone 3000. I was thinking of Geoff Keezer's synth solos on the Christian McBride album "Live at Tonic," where he manipulates the filter cutoff as he plays what I think is a Moog. I don't have a Moog, but I do have a Becktone.

Feliz Navidad

I'm going to be honest here, I very much dislike the original "Feliz Navidad." Although I like that it's in both English and Spanish, I never cared for the song much. I thought maybe I could do a 30 second 8-bit version of it, just because. As I started working on it, I tried out some reharmonizations- keeping the melody the same but changing the chords underneath. Instead of the normal D major, I made it B minor. Instead of using premade 8-bit sounds (like the amazing YMCK Magical 8-Bit plug VST plugin or the equally awesome Chipsounds plugin) I loaded up about 15 tracks of Ableton's Operator synthesizer, chose digital waves, made them monophonic, turned off the anti-aliasing feature, and put MIDI arpeggiators in the signal path. Since I couldn't modulate the pulse-width of square waves in Operator (technically, changing the length of the duty cycle, in case you're interested) I loaded up some instances of Ableton's Analog, where I could change this. I heavily quantized everything, so every 16th note fell exactly into the 16th note slot, which is something I don't do very often.

All of this was to emulate the way vintage video game sounds sounded. Although I have none of the technological limitations those original composers had, I wanted to limit myself so it would sound more "video-gamey." I created some drum sounds with looped noise oscillators, and used some short LinnDrum samples (heavily bitcrushed) for snare sounds. I also added some effects that change the bit depth and sample rate: basically making things sound less good, which as you may notice is something I really like.

What was originally going to be a 30 second interlude turned into a 4-minute 8-bit jam! After playing a few verses and choruses, I wasn't ready to end the song… I was so in love with the groove and the sounds, I decided to try to make one of those 8-bit solos that sounds kind of improvised and kind of programmed. I tried playing in a solo, but it just sounded wrong- it sounded like somebody trying to improvise a synth solo.

I turned the tempo down to 50 bpm, hit the record button, and played in a solo. My original tempo was 150, so this was 1/3 the speed! For a moment I almost changed the whole tempo down to 50 bpm, it sounded so groovy. I recorded a few passes, then brought the tempo back up to hear the results. Amazing! Maybe not the best solo in the history of improvisation, but it sounded a lot more idiomatic to this style of music! The pitch bends sounded especially cool, so I made sure to add a lot more of those.

The Christmas Song

This is by far my favorite Christmas tune of all time. I remember playing this in high school with the band for our annual Christmas concerts (along with "White Christmas"). I remember loving the harmony of these tunes; to my young ears it was so refreshing to play such harmonically rich music. Not that I don't like some of the other things we played, but this stuff sounded so exotic to me.

The past two years I wanted to do an arrangement of this song, but nothing I came up with seemed to do it justice. I didn't want to destroy the original harmony too much, as it was so great. After a few different ideas, I was about to give up hope for this year. In an inspired suggestion, Claire said I should do a "crazy strings Chris Beckstrom-style-arrangement." At first I thought that was a bad idea… But then after some brainstorming on my Nord Electro, I was convinced it was a great idea! Also, I rarely write for anything even close to strings or orchestra, and this would be a good challenge. I tell my students all the time how to make their virtual orchestras sound better, it would be interesting to see if I could actually make a fake orchestra sound realistic.

I opened up Logic (every other track was done in Ableton Live) and loaded up 20 or so tracks of Vienna Symphonic Library. Vienna is a fancy sample library, which basically allows you to emulate each instrument in an orchestra. Piece by piece, I recorded each part of the orchestra, strangely starting at the top with the first violins. Usually with a piece like this I'd open up Sibelius and *actually* arrange it with notes and chords and everything. Not this time- I had an idea what kind of orchestration I wanted, so I just played in each part one at a time, putting together chords from the top down. It's amazing how much more epic everything sounds with some strings on it… As I added more strings, I turned up my reverb more and more, trying to create a bigger space for orchestra as it grew.

The beginning would be a mostly-normal arrangement of the song, with rhodes, bass, and drums. I was thinking about how Brad Mehldau might arrange this song (a la the album "Largo" or something, if Brad Mehldau weren't that great at playing piano). The second section would be have the vamp I came up with on the Nord, with the melody superimposed on top of the unrelated harmony. After a few hours going late into the night, I had what kind of sounded like an orchestra in my computer, and I was pretty satisfied.

Recording drums in the garage
The next day I set up the drums in the garage so I could add them to the track. I recorded the drums at tempo, listening to the track in headphones. I imagined the drummer from John Zorn's "free jazz" band (the Masada quartet with Dave Douglas) and how he might approach an arrangement like this. I hoped my crazy drum playing would disguise my lack of chops! I was pretty happy with the sound of the drums- I used all the mics I have at home for the drums. A put an SM57 very close to the snare (to get the brushes sound), a Rode NT1 a few inches above the hit, my Edirol R-09 recorder (condenser mic pair) about 3 feet away from the drums, and my homemade sub-bass (a speaker used as a mic) right next to the bass drum. I didn't mic the floor tom at all, and I absolutely LOVE the sound of it in this mix- it sounds far away and reverby- you can hear the garage, but in a good way! For the second part of the song, I put the SM57 underneath the snare to get more SNAP. I also made sure to reverse the phase: otherwise I would lose the snare in my mix! I would get plenty of the top snare from the NT1, so I wasn't worried. Listening back through my headphones, I was immensely happy with the way the drums sounded. With my bare-bones and rag-tag selection of microphones, I liked the sound of my drums a lot. I recorded a few takes into Ableton Live, and that was that.

The final step was adding the tenor saxophone, which I chose to play the melody in the second half. I recorded it in using my NT1, and ran that through my Art MP tube preamp for some more fatness. The tenor still wasn't doing it for me, so I added a little bit (maybe too much) ring modulation. (That's the strange sound you hear when the tenor plays.)

My favorite part is the bridge, when everything stops and the strings play the melody. As I was playing the strings in, to my ears it sounded surprisingly Bernard Herrmann-esque. Especially with the vibes! Except for the TR-808 drum machine samples and funky acoustic drums. And the TR-303 acid bass that accompanies the entire second half….

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

This was the first track I worked on, and I basically throw the kitchen sink at it: sampled TR-808 drum machine (my favorite drum sounds), the Korg Monotron (my favorite noise-maker), the Stylophone Beatbox, and heavy usage of the amazingly insane Audio Damage Ratshack Reverb (it's actually delay). This was the only track where I used sampled vocals- the part at the beginning is the Mac speech voice reading back the lyrics, put through the Ableton Live resonator plugin to make it pitched. I found the vocals at the end somewhere on YouTube, pitch shifted to fit my key. The little vamp in between sections is another homage to Herbie Hancock, but in a much, much weirder way.

O Come O Come Emmanuel

I am completely taken with the rhythm known as cumbia. As I understand it, the style comes from Columbia, and is a synthesis of native south american, spanish, and african rhythms. The first time I ever heard this rhythm was in Mexico, when my friend Victor Hernandez-Stumpfhauser invited me to Morelia, Michoacán to play for his brother's wedding. (Michigan - where I'm from, and Michoacán, where he's from, actually have the same linguistic origin. They both refer to a place with a big lake.) Anyway, we played jazz tunes for the wedding, but suddenly every song we played had this particular rhythm, with a heavy emphasis on 1 and 3 (well, really 1 and 2). I asked "Que ritmo estamos tocando?" and they said "Cumbia!!"

And so began my love affair with cumbia- the Columbian rhythm that is so popular in Mexico. Friday I was listening to an album by puertorican rapper Calle 13, heard some cumber, and decided I HAD to put some on my album.

I recorded a few takes of Korg Monotron bass, carefully played in at half speed with a sharpie (the monotron has a ribbon controller for a keyboard, so it's difficult to play it in tune!). The monotron also provided the bubbly hooks, which I panned hard left and right. You can hear the high noise floor of the monotron! But I like it.

The Korg Monotron
All the track needed was more cowbell, some cheesy organ (dialed in on the Nord Electro), and some vocal accompaniment. That's me singing on there, right into the NT1, not pitch shifted at all. I was going for an old "exotica"-style vibe, like Les Baxter or Esquivel. After seeing this youtube video earlier in the day, I completely unintentionally played "the lick" during the organ part...!

Auld Lang Syne

In high school one year around Christmas I got an album of jazz christmas arrangements, I think it was in the checkout lane at Target or something. Most of the arrangements were pretty standard, but at the time it was a complete revelation to me- that you could take such popular and widely-known songs and completely rearrange them into something new. Although the playing wasn't amazing, and the arrangements were less than inspired, I was taken with the idea. In some ways that album may have been the impetus for all these Christmas albums I keep making; perhaps it even inspired my entire approach to arranging existing songs (let's be honest, more like "de-arranging" or "re-arranging").

I recently realized that nowhere on my website ( is there a track of me playing straight up medium swing jazz. Originally I was going to do a chiptune/8-bit version of "Auld Lang Syne", but after doing that with "Feliz Navidad," I decided something else was in order for the happy new year song.

I put an arrangement together in my head; jazz organ version, medium swing, tenor solo- all doing my best impression of Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack" (strangely-panned and out-of-tune tenor solo and all). But that would be too normal… I wondered what it would sound like to write a traditional-style saxophone soli, but instead of alto or soprano saxophone on the top, put an accordion. Saxophones already sound kind of like accordions, it's not THAT much of a stretch. I also thought of a movie I'd seen about Benny Goodman, where he put clarinet on top and totally changed the sound of his band.

The drums for this track were almost the only drums on the album I recorded at the actual tempo. All the other ones I recorded at half speed or faster (I'm not a very good drummer!). After some serious accordion shedding (practicing) I hit the big red record button and laid down some jazz accordion. As I recorded each saxophone part underneath, my soli began to take shape. I was surprised how normal it actually sounded- I thought the accordion would stick out like a sore thumb, but to my ears it fit right in. Maybe I have a strange bias for accordions… So there you have it- there is now an almost straight-ahead jazz tune on my website, where I am not only playing swinging jazz saxophone and organ, but accordion.