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


Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments
With Mangos, Sausage, and Cous Cous

Dave:  Chris, last time it was Beethoven. Well, let me hit you with another big guy, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Most people know Stravinsky for The Rite of Spring, but I am going to recommend another piece, Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. Written around 1923, this is an example of his neo-classical style--in other words, a composition in which Stravinsky conscientiously recalls the style and techniques of an earlier age. Stravinsky’s Concerto gives a big nod to the Baroque music of Bach and Handel (for a kick check out Bach’s D minor Harpsichord Concerto and compare the first movement with Stravinsky’s.)

Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments is a three-movement work that is about 20 minutes long. After a somber, dirge-like introduction, the piano explodes into a blur of perpetual motion. The model is Bach but the accent is all Stravinsky—syncopation, ostinati, crisp orchestration, and the amazing “wrong notes” that just seem to work.  The second movement is one of the more tender moments from Stravinsky. The tune, simple, almost clumsily stated by the piano in the opening bars, becomes broad and quite dramatic.

The third movement returns us to the syncopation and rhythmic intensity of the first movement. Quite simply, it grooves. A favorite moment of mine occurs near the middle when the brass introduce a melody that sounds like it should be a college fight song. I find the thought of Stravinsky and college football amusing.  I suspect that this reveals a bit of the composer’s musical wit.

Consider this when you listen to this music--Stravinsky described himself as a craftsman who “made things.”

So what do you think? I am thinking a late afternoon listen out on the patio with...


Chris:  Dave, with your description of Igor’s Concerto on my mind, I walked home (quite hungry), stopped at the grocery store, and picked up some vittles that eventually comprised the following meal:

Combine two cups of chicken stock with a cup of water in a pot and put on to boil. 

Then gather together the following: a cup of Israeli cous cous; one good sized mango, diced approx. ½ inch cubes; half of a medium sized onion, also diced to about half an inch; two spicy sausages, sliced laterally almost all the way through the casing on the other side; one tomato (I like Plums for this, and just in general) roughly chopped; two handfuls of mixed baby greens (the now ubiquitous and extremely convenient mesculin mix that you find in the grocery store is good), one cup of pistachios, one mint leaf, one basil leaf, and a small bunch of chives.

By the time you assemble and prep the ingredients, the cooking liquid for the cous cous should be ready and boiling, so drop the cous cous in there and turn it down to a simmer.  Cous cous is just a form of pasta, so you may need to add some extra water, but you want it to absorb most of the liquid and the flavor of the stock-water solution (2:1 just because I used canned stock and I didn’t want it to be too salty).

Heat a sauté pan on high and add a tablespoon of olive oil (canola’s fine too), place the sausage in there (exposed meat side down) and let it get a nice deep golden brown.  This is where your inner craftsman starts making flavor through a combination of caremelization and Maillard reactions.  The heat creates an environment in the pan that encourages interactions between sugars and proteins, resulting in a vast diversity of complex flavors that are collectively pleasing to most palates.  It’s important to learn how to control these reactions.  See Harold McGee’s, On Food and Cooking, or Peter Barham’s, The Science of Cooking for details on this.

One rule to abide: don’t crowd the pan.  If the pan contains too much meat (or whatever it is your searing) it won’t get hot enough, and these tasty flavor compounds won’t have the opportunity to form.

You’ll notice that some of the color will form on the sausage meat, and some will stick to the pan.  The stuff on the pan is often referred to as the “fond”, and is an important contributor to the flavor in this and many other foods.  You don’t want the fond to get too dark, so monitor your heat and adjust if necessary.  Also note that the rate at which this color and flavor forms will increase over time.

Flip the sausage over and let it sear for not more than a minute, then remove it from the pan.

Add the onions to the pan.  The heat will force the plant cells in the onion to surrender their water and the sugars and amino acids dissolved in it.  This solution will begin to remove the fond form the bottom of the pan (“deglazing” and essentially stopping the caramelization and Maillard reactions), and its solutes will begin to react with the heat and cause additional browning on the surface of the onion.

Stir a little bit.

After a few minutes (depending upon how hot your pan is, and the ratio of onion to pan surface area), the onions should take on a golden color (with some darkness at the edges). Add the tomato, which will serve to further deglaze the pan, and contribute more moisture to dissolve all of those “SanFrantastic” flavor compounds you’ve created!  You’ll notice that all these liquids are quickly combining to become your sauce.  Give a stir or two, add half of the mango chunks, and stir gently.  The natural pectin from the mango and tomatoes will give the sauce a nice texture allowing it to adhere to most everything it touches.

Place the remaining mango on the plate and lace it with the mint leaf sliced really thin (chefs call that “chiffonade”).  It’s blueberry season, so if you got a bush in the back yard, or have a pint of berries in the fridge, you can sprinkle some on top of the minted mango.  I didn’t, but I’ve got blueberries on my mind.

Now, add the sausage back to the stewing fruit and vegetable mixture.  I added a little water (maybe 2 or 3 table spoons) to thin it out a little and provide a medium to finish cooking the sausage.  Spoon the sauce over the sausage a few times, add the chives and basil (chopped), give another stir, turn off the heat and let the residual heat finish cooking the meat.  Be careful not to over cook the sausage and dry it out.  Also, too much cooking will darken the color of the mango and tomatoes beyond what some may consider aesthetically appealing.  The matrix in the pan should have colors reminiscent of a Hudson River hillside in autumn: orange, gold, red and some brown.

OK, place the greens on the plate or in a bowl (when I eat outside on the porch I prefer to use a bowl.  Sometimes it’s easier to eat from a bowl because I can pick it up and move it around without spilling the sauce –might even keep the warmth in a little bit longer too).  Sprinkle the greens with a little salt and pepper.

The cous cous should definitely be done by now.  If there is excess water in the pan, drain that off, and then put the cous cous in the middle of the plate, on top of the greens.  Note: the regular small cous cous will of course work for this as well (as will brown rice, or quinoa, which sounds pretty good, actually), but keep in mind that the smaller cous cous will cook quicker.

When you place the cous cous on the greens the heat will wilt some of them, but not all.  I like that because some of the greens are bitter and when wilted, they mellow and mix nicely.  Some greens around the perimeter of the plate will remain crisp.  So we’ve got a salad on the edge.

Pour the sausage and mango sauce over top.  The sauce will coat the cous cous well, and also serve as a dressing for the greens.  I forgot about the pistachios.  The purpose of the pistachios (when I made this) was to stave off my hunger.  I saw them in the store when I got the mangos and sausage, because I was really hungry after work.  But this brings up an important point, I believe: try not to cook while ravenous because it complicates things.  When I’m really hungry, I’m impatient, and my judgment is off, and I make mistakes.  I like to nibble on something while I cook (the constituent ingredients of the meal, if nothing else)--maybe some olives, a piece of bread, some cheese and some mustard or something (whatever you have around).  Prime your senses, don’t bind them with hunger (we have this luxury).

But I had some pistachios left over so I chopped them up, placed them under the broiler for a brief moment just to warm them, and threw them on top.  Actually the pistachio is the great-great-great grandparent of the mango, so we’ve inadvertently got a nod here between the old and new.

I found this dish to be nicely balanced: spicy and sweet, soft and crunchy, the cool and minty mango with the hot and steaming cous cous and sauced meat, providing the palate with a variety of shapes, sizes, textures, and flavors to negotiate with.  Diversity of sensory stimuli is kind of important when it comes to some foods and ones perception of them.  Sensory scientists have shown that after a few bites of something, the “flavor” of that food diminishes.  Essentially the brain is saying, “OK, tasted that, it’s good, not harmful. Consume, digest and all that, and move on to the next stimuli.  Don’t waste energy firing anymore neurons on that.”  It’s a psychophysical phenomenon called “fatigue”.  The flavors are there, but your brain can’t be bothered to acknowledge them after the preliminary introduction.  In fact, chefs (hybrid craftsmen and empiricists) will tell you something similar.  This is one of the reasons chefs often design meals that consist of many small, intensely flavored dishes.  The first two bites are what count.  Also this allows them to express more of their ideas through their food in one sitting.  I would guess that Igor’s doing sort of the same thing.  He’s got some things to say (some musical ideas to share) and they are best expressed using a variety of audio stimuli.

Truth be told, I had a glass of cold milk with this, but a Pilsner Urquel would hit the spot.  Also, wine gurus will likely tell you that a cold climate Chardonnay could provide a nice balance of oak, acid and fruit to compliment this dish.

A note on scaling up:  Typically. I cook for one or two people, but these recipes are more or less ready to scale up (just some multiplication).  However, keep in mind that you don’t want to crowd the pan, in this scenario. It’s a whole other bag of beans if you’re looking to create an experience for 20, 40 or a hundred people.  Maybe there’s an analogous situation when creating music.


Dave:  Diversity of sensory stimuli is just as important in musical composition as well. The best composers keep the music continuously fresh without ‘crowding the pot.’ Stravinsky may sound like his pot is crowded but what is actually going on in this work is his ‘spicing up’ of some familiar musical flavors. Stravinsky has a heavy spice hand and therein lies so much of his music’s charm.

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