Date: February 15, 2012
by: June LeBell | Contributing columnist



“Sousa marches work really well for cooking and for the cleanup,” says Leif Bjaland. “But when we’re eating, I don’t listen to anything. The conversation is too good and music distracts from the food.”

Bjaland may be leaving these parts after 15 extraordinary years as artistic director of the Sarasota Orchestra, but his presence will be felt for a long time to come in the music we hear, the people we speak with and even the food we eat.

Bjaland, who will be conducting his final Masterworks set of concerts with the Orchestra this weekend, has been a big presence in town since first arriving here in the latter part of the 20th-century. One of the first things I remember, before I even heard him conduct, was seeing a life-sized cutout Leif sitting in the passenger seat of then-Florida West Coast Symphony Marketing Director Gayle Williams’ car. That out-to-know-you, friendly, music-is-fun, great-music-is-best Bjaland persona took Sarasota by storm, and, from informal commentaries to scholarly annotations, the conductor’s larger-than-life image has made an indelible impression on all of us.

What some may not know, though, is that Bjaland is also a “kitchen classic,” a cooking character, a chop-and-prep personage who loves eating as much as he loves cooking.

What’s most important to him about his kitchen space?

“That it’s a joyful place and that the food is good,” he says.

All that upper-body exercise on the podium keeps him svelte enough to really enjoy his food. Still, he’s relatively careful about what and when he eats on the day of a performance.

“If it’s an evening concert, I have a very substantial lunch,” he explains but then he eats “something light like soup a couple of hours before the performance. I’m a big fan of apples (pink lady, honey crisp or McIntosh) and there are usually a couple of them in the dressing room. On matinee days, I just have a big breakfast and skip lunch.”

Conductors interpret the music written by the great composers. Yes, they follow the score and work with what’s there, but they also reinterpret. That’s why the same symphony can sound so different in the hands of different conductors. So, we wondered how Leif is with recipes. Does he follow them, do them “as written” or ornament and make them his own?

“All of the above!” he replies with an emphasis like a downbeat. “Mostly, I vary recipes that I know well. When I’m trying something new from the food section of the newspaper, I try to follow the recipe carefully. In baking, I use less sugar and more spices. Adding cinnamon is a great way to reduce sugar, and Splenda works really well in some desserts.

“I’m very into colors,” he adds. “(Recently) I made a green salad with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette, and the pure white of the sliced pear and scarlet of the pomegranate seeds I put on top made it absolutely beautiful — and fun to eat.”

Bjaland shares much of the cooking (and eating) with his long-time partner, the conductor Emil De Cou, who straddles the country from Washington, D.C., where he’s associate conductor of the National Symphony, to Washington state, where he’s music director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

“We both like to cook and we work really well together in the kitchen,” Bjaland says.

Their culinary, as well as musical offerings, have made for some interesting memories of receptions and other events.

“When Emil was conducting for ABT (American Ballet Theatre), there was a huge reception following an anniversary gala,” Bjaland recalls. “Martha Graham — looking remarkably life like — was there and so was Agnes deMille — cantankerous, as usual. I remember that when deMille addressed the audience during the performance, all she said was, ‘Beauty. Beauty. Beauty.’ We waited for the rest, and when 10 seconds later it still hadn’t come, everyone burst into applause, even for a sentence fragment.

“I saw Jackie Onassis at a table below in the foyer of the State Theatre. She was a living cover of Look magazine — unbelievably elegant but girlish. I was star-struck.”

Here in Sarasota, one of Bjaland’s favorite places to dine out is Morton’s Gourmet Market.

“I know it’s not a restaurant per se, but during the busy part of the season I eat there seven or eight times a week,” he says. “I know all the girls at ‘The Island,’ and the food there is absolutely fantastic!”

Of course, being on the road (and on the podium) as much as Bjaland is, he loves being home, cooking and relaxing with some of his other favorite music: Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk, ’20s era and big band jazz, folk rock and Burt Bacharach.

“On Pandora, Oscar Peterson is the only artist who doesn’t lead to Frank Sinatra after three songs,” he says.

“It’s probably my Norwegian roots, but I love rhubarb,” says Bjaland.

Ever in search of great recipes using this not-often-used vegetable, which is often mistaken for a fruit because it’s used in pies and desserts more than savory dishes, Bjaland found the recipe at right in Bon Appetit magazine.

“It’s the best I’ve ever found,” he says.

And, in a glance toward healthy eating, he adds, “You can substitute ‘Splenda for Baking.’ I’ve done it and it’s just as good.”

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisps with Cardamom and Nutmeg
Serves: 6

1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Generous pinch of salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

5 cups of 1/2-inch-thick slices fresh rhubarb (from about 2 pounds)
2 cups halved strawberries
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon (scant) ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Sweetened whipped cream

Preparation For topping:
Mix first six ingredients in medium bowl. Add butter; rub in with fingertips until moist clumps form.

For filling:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter six 1 1/4 cup custard cups. Combine all ingredients, except whipped cream, in large bowl; stir to blend. Let stand until juices form, about 15 minutes.

Divide rhubarb mixture among prepared custard cups. Sprinkle topping evenly over mixture in each. Bake until topping is golden brown and crisp and filling is bubbling thickly around edges, about 45 minutes. Serve warm with sweetened whipped cream.

*The recipe, by Sara Foster, originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Bon Appetit magazine. 

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