LAGNIAPPE - Exploring music and food together.

Chef Chris Loss Recommends…
To Complement A Piece Of Music He Has Never Heard

With Chris Loss and Dave Schwartz


Jean Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela
With Cholent, , or 'Sue's Stew'

Dave: Chris, I recently heard of the ‘Slow Food Movement.’ And so, always ready to turn a phrase, I thought why not ‘slow movement food?’ With that I have selected for this installment of “Lagniappe” a tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela by the gifted and imaginative Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1975).

Franz Liszt in the middle of the 19th Century coined the term, ‘tone poem.’ A tone poem is typically a symphonic work that is based on an extra-musical idea, often a work of literature. A synopsis of the literary source is usually provided to the audience before a concert so that they may familiarize themselves with the narrative on which the work is based. . This allows the audience to understand the reason for the musical processes that are in effect for that particular work.

Sibelius composed the tone poem The Swan of Tuonela in 1893. It is the third of a set of four symphonic poems, the Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22. However, The Swan was originally intended to be the prelude to an opera based on Finnish legends about the warrior hero, Lemminkäinen. When the opera was never realized, Sibelius created the suite.

In the score, Sibelius describes the extra-musical source that his music graphically depicts:

"Tuonela, the land of death, the hell of Finnish mythology, is surrounded by a large river with black waters and a rapid current on which The Swan of Tuonela floats majestically, singing."

The music is somber and much of this is created through the orchestration. The atmosphere of this otherworldly river is depicted with strings and harp while the English horn represents the swan swimming along the black waters of the river of death. This is one of the most famous English horn solos in all of orchestral music. The piece is roughly 9 minutes long. The music is elegiac, reflective, and while one might feel a cold chill, there is a certain warmth, perhaps compassion, that comes through. The texture of this music, and the pure beauty are captivating and there is hardly a time when I listen to this work that I am not completely caught up in the music. I often find myself sitting completely still, contemplatively, as the music drifts along.

Many an orchestral player has jokingly referred to this piece as the “Swan of Salmonella,” but I am sure we can avoid that connotation here!

So, Dr. Loss, what would you recommend?


Chris: Dave, just in time for Passover, we’re going to make some Cholent, an old Jewish preparation, steeped in tradition and cultural history, that is easy to prepare. The main ingredients are a tough cut of meat, some potatoes, carrots, onions, and lots of time. Time for the meat proteins and fats to “melt”, and the vegetables to release their juices at the very low cooking temperatures required for this recipe. But before we get into the mechanics of making Cholent, I want to talk a little bit about Slow Food and evolving culinary traditions.

The Slow Food movement has captured the attention of chefs, gastronomes and other thoughtful eaters. The movement celebrates global cuisines, culinary heritage, and traditional techniques. It is in part a reflection of a macro-trend in the food industry to provide “authentic” culinary experiences, and to use food to express ideas, convey ideology, and educate consumers. Many people are looking for more than flavor and nourishment in their stew pots and breakfast bowls -they want an experience. Experiential cuisine can manifest itself in many different ways. In some cases it’s fantastical and confounding, like the cuisine of Ferran Adria or Grant Achatz. Their creations can be surreal and abstract, and cause the diner to question their environment and their personal perception of it. These dining experiences often result in self awareness, and self-discovery. In other instances, experiential cuisine helps create a sense of place in time with food, and puts cuisine in an historical and or geographical context, by strictly adhering to techniques and ingredients from a region or culture. Salumi, in Seattle, comes to mind. Food in this instance becomes a foundation or mooring to steady the wandering culinary spirit. The Cholent for Sibelius, is for most, I imagine, in this later category.

As I mentioned, the recipe will require very low cooking temperatures (225 F) and as a result, an extended cooking time of 18-24 hours. This culinary technique is many hundreds of years old, and evolved out of Jewish Sabbath laws that do not permit work after sundown on Friday. Traditionally, Jewish women would put the Cholent ingredients into a pot, seal the pot shut with a flour and water paste, and bring it to the local bakery. Although ovens would have been turned off for the Sabbath, the residual heat would suffice to cook the stew long and slow, over night, ready for a hot meal on Saturday after Synagogue. (The etymology of Cholent is thought by some to be French: chaud, for hot, and lent for slow.)

The dish has persisted because it is very adaptable. There are versions of Cholent in Hungary, India, Morocco, Georgia, Germany, Spain and of course America. Robust culinary techniques and traditions are forged over time and out of necessity, and this is definitely the case for cholent. This dish can involve a variety of ingredients, and there is no right or wrong way. I want to share my Mom’s version, which is part of my culinary tradition and history. It is for me, the flavor of comfort and security. I’ll call it Sue’s Stew, “a version of Cholent.”

  1. Take approximately 3 pounds of beef brisket, place it in a plastic bag, and coat it with 1 package of Lipton onion soup mix, and set aside.
  2. Peel and roughly chop 2 pounds of onions, and place in a large sauté pan with half a stick of butter on med-high heat. Add 1 chicken bouillon cube and cook.
  3. Chop 2 cloves of garlic together with 10 peppercorns, and kosher salt (not sure why my mother has always done it this way, but she does. It’s her technique and tradition. I wouldn’t be surprised if it does in fact result in a specific flavor quality, as the ions in the salt might disrupt the activity of enzymes in the garlic that cause characteristic garlic flavors -anyway) add this to the onions, as they begin to turn golden, then continue to cook until golden brown, and remove from the heat.
  4. Rough chop two pounds of carrots (big two inch chunks), and halve or quarter 2 pounds of potatoes.
  5. In the bottom of a large pot, for which you have a tight fitting lid, place half of the golden browned onion/garlic/bouillon mixture. Then place a layer of potatoes, carrots, and handful (about 2 tablespoons) each of dry pinto beans, lentils, barley, and wild rice. Then place the soup mix coated brisket on top. Layer in reverse, the bed of ingredients just set under the brisket, topping off with the second half of the golden browned onions.
  6. Place 6 whole unshelled eggs, around the beef and grain-veggie mixture.
  7. Now, because you will not add any water at all –moisture for the grains and beans will come from the veggies and meat, it’s important to seal the pot very tightly before placing it in the oven. My mother uses a tightly crimped layer of tin foil and then places the lid on top, to seal the juices in the pot.
  8. The pot can be placed into a low oven (190-225 F) and should be forgotten about. At about 18 hours or so, you’ll be reminded of the Cholent by the warm savory aroma of stewing beef and earthy grains and legumes that will inevitably escape from the pot. This is the sort of food that you should not check on while it is cooking. The key is to trap the moisture in.

In my house we would serve this with gherkins or pickled green tomatoes, and ketchup.

The eggs are a snack that you can eat with the meat and veggies, and grains, or separate from the meal. They eggs become an earthy olive color, and are packed with savory goodness.

Note: if you want to formulate your Cholent to contain reduced sodium, you could remove the onion soup mix and bouillon, and substitute 8 or 9 whole mushrooms (baby portabellas or shitakes are good), a sprig of thyme, half a bay leaf, and sprinkle the meat with paprika.

The flavor of this stew is well balanced somewhere between savory, sweet and salty, and it will improve with age and reheating.


Dave: Chef Loss, it sounds delicious. In so many respects this recipe is the perfect culinary metaphor for Sibelius' tone poem. The slow tempo allows the listener to savor the English horn's warmth and beauty gliding easily over the strings' background. The orchestration is a fantastic blend that balances solo instrument with string ensemble. Each harmonic shift is deliberate and sweet. There is legend and cultural tradition at the core of this composition. Just as Slow Food is an experience, so is this slow movement. Combining the experiences of Cholent with The Swan of Tuonela would be...well, let's just say, there is nothing wrong with leftovers!

About Dr. Loss

Chef Chris LossChris Loss is the Director of the Ventura Center For Menu Research and Development at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

He holds a Ph.D. in Food Science from Cornell University and is a 1993 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

Learn more about Chris Loss

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

Ventura Center for Menu Research and Development at CIA