AS A 22-year-old opera singer living in "a little California shack where you had to walk through the kitchen to the living room," Carol Neblett had good reason to be nervous cooking dinner for Sol Hurok, who was unvaryingly known as "The Great Impresario." Hurok arrived in a long, black Cadillac limousine, walked in and immediately exclaimed, "Garlic! i can't eat garlic. It makes me deathly sick."
Neblett throws herself into the telling of the story, even 13 years later, when she is a star singing Fiora in the Washington Opera's "L'Amore dei Tre Re." Tall and slim, blond and galmorous in white angora sweater and gray velvet pants, she waves her hands, with their pink-polished nails and multitude of rings. A born actress -- as well as singer -- Neblett recalls that she never missed a beat in responding to Hurok's garlic aversion. She knew he never ate garlic, was her improvised response, because she had called his secretary to check on his food preferences. Then she dashed into the kitchen to unstuff his garlic-laden game hen, wash it under warm water, squeeze lemon over it, sprinkle with cinnamon and recook it.
In those days, says Neblett, she couldn't afford to have extra food "just in case." But nowadays when she entertains, she always cooks too much.
Her refrigerator bears evidence of that. Staying at the Guest Quarters for the month, Neblett has her kitchen stocked for a long stay and plenty of unexpected company. She is watching her weight after having lost 40 pounds in the last year by giving up wine, butter and cheese and "going the fish and chicken route." But in the refrigerator are remains of a chicken stuffed with onions and cherries, which she cooked for director Frank Corsaro, and a marinating beef roast. Spinach salad. Green goddess dressing. Yogurt, honey, ketchup, relish, whipped butter and Fleishmann's margarine. Why Fleishmann's? Neblett volunteers that the margarine company "was very good to doctors in the old days," with tickets to concerts and symphonies. And she is newly married to a doctor, cardiologist Philip Akree, whom she left back in California with her 6-year-old-son, just two weeks after the wedding, in order to rehearse in Washington.
Since Neblett, continually traveling, often arrives in a new city only the night before rehearsals, she includes among her six suitcases one filled with food and cooking equipment: coffee filters, liquid detergent, a sponge, rubber golves, hot chilies she has sent to her from Arizona, nuts and raisins, low-sodium canned foods, her own special herb mixture and whatever she happens to have in her refrigerator when she leaves home. She also carries a 20-pound nebulizer, which sprays sterile saline solution into her lungs to counteract allergies. In her current opera, which opens at the Kennedy Center Saturday night, Neblett is "on the floor all the time. You have to be in very good shape," she added.
Cutting down on salt has helped Neblett shed punds, so she continues to forego it in cooking, and has deleted soy sauce from her repertoire. Hot chilies are a mainstay for her, though she does not eat them the day of a performance.
Neblett's singing and cooking careers developed side by side, both unexpectedly. Her father was a pianist who "always took his frustration out on Chopin," and she learned to read music long before she learned to read words. She started studying violin at age 2, but with nobody in her family particularly interested in singing, she didn't study voice until age 16; and opera was the last thing she ever would have dreamed of doing.
Nobody in her family was much interested in cooking either, though she hunted game birds with her father, along with plucking and marinating them, learned to cook them as well. But her first obsession with cooking came one traumatic day when she was 7 years old.
Neighbors whom she hardly knew were making pizza, and she wandered in to watch, remaining totally absorbed long into the evening. At about 10 p.m., the pizza lesson completed, Neblett sauntered home, only to find her mother crying and the police searching for her.
As she grew up, she developed strong opinions on cooking, particularly cooking wild birds. She removes skin and fat while the birds are still raw, because she finds that the skin imparts a gamey taste. tMarinating in wine with, perhaps, pimento, is cruicial, the longer the better but at least 24 hours. Then she rinses the birds (a technique that was to later stand her in good stead with Sol Hurok) and discards the marinade. On of the important secrets in cooking game, says Neblett, is cooking with lots of lemon.
"I have always been a nibble-and-taste cook," says Neblett, who finds that in cooking strictly by recipe, "there is always something missing." Improvisation was also crucial in the beginning of her singing career. Hurok heard her sing in San Francisco when she was 21, and appeared backstage in a black cape with a black and gold walking stick to say that he wanted her to sing a recital for him the next week. Thus occurred her first recital, put together within a week and sung in a huge hall for six people, Hurok among them. She recalls his response, "I take you. I represent you." Then, after two years of singing with major symphonies, he insisted she begin an opera career.
So Neblett wound up living in New York, in a 4th-floor walkup in Greenwich Village. Having decided that the most important thing to do to stay healthy in a big city was to eat well, she did her marketing at an expensive shop called Jefferson's, at which James Beard also shopped. One day he apporached her and stated, "You're Miss Neblett," she recalls. He had heard her sing, and claimed her voice reminded him of his old friend, Esther Andreas. One of those coincidences that make a turining point: Esther Andreas had been Neblett's voice teacher. And thus began a friendship between Beard and Neblett that shuttled between his grandly equipped kitchen and her closet-sized one. "We became cooking buddies," she reminisced, and she grew fond of rich sauces and cooking with plenty of butter, Beard style. "I could barely afford to feed him," she added.
On her travels, she began talking to chefs, collecting recipes and asking to see resaurant kitchens. On tour with Luciano Pavarotti, they alternated cooking days, his place for pasta, her place for lamb -- which she injects with cognac and garlic, using a hypodermic needle, or bastes with coffee sauce.
In Milwaukee, she decided to meet Tony Randall, who was on tour with "The Odd Couple," so she invited him to dinner -- cold duck with ginger sauce and the Schramsberg champagne she has sent to her by the case. After too much champagne, one of her usually-reticent friends told Randall that he had been awful in that evening's performance. She remembers his reply, "Well, madame, perhaps you'd like to go on for me tomorrow night."
Such exchanges and such dinners are becoming part of written history for Neblett, for she has long been working on a cookbook. Well, it is more than a cookbook, she explains. It is a book of tales about people she has cooked for and with, of traveling and of stories told at dinner tables. The problem with finishing the book, besides her being too busy with traveling and raising a small son from a previous marriage and suddenly deciding to get married again, is that she never measures anything she cooks. And she doesn't ordinarily make a dish the same way twice.
Here are some of her favorite recipes, at least the way she cooked them the last time. LEG OF LAMB WITH COGNAC (10 servings) 5 to 6 pound leg of lamb 1/2 cup cognac 2 large cloves of garlic, finely pureed 1 cup of sinfandel or other robust red wine (more if necessary) Black pepper to taste Pinch of allspice 1 teaspoon rosemary Juice of 1 medium lemon Honey to taste (optional)
Using a hypodermic syringe with large hole (can be purchased in cookware stores), inject the lamb with mixture of cognac and garlic. Roast at 500 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn oven to 350 degrees. Pour wine over lamb and sprinkle with rosemary, pepper and allspice. Roast until lamb is pink, basting frequently with wine and lemon juice. More wine, mixed with water if you prefer, may be needed if it boils away. If the pan juices taste too tart to you, add honey to taste. Serve lamb with mint or apple jelly and with the pan juices, which may be thickened with cornstarch and enriched with a spoonful of butter if desired. CAROL NEBLETTS HERB MIX 1 part rosemary, chopped 1 part dried herb flowers: violet, malva, calcatrippae or lavender 1 part marjoram 1 part basil 1 part dried parsley Dried sage, about a pinch per quarter-cup of mix Chopped dried onion skins or packaged dried onions, to taste
Mix and store for seasoning chicken, light game or fish. The herbs and proportions can be varied, but Neblett never includes tarragon. QUICK ON-THE-ROAD CHICKEN (6 to 8 servings) 1/2 pound small white onions, peeled 6-pound roasting chicken 1 1/2 teaspoons herb mix (see above) Freshly ground pepper to taste 2 tablespoons safflower oil 1 tablespoon olive oil 1/4 cup butter or margarine 3 tablespoons honey Juice of 1/2 large or 1 small lemon 2 cloves garlic, mashed 1 1/2-inch piece dried hot red pepper, chopped 1 cup dry white wine 1 to 2 cups canned pitted bing cherries, drained
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Parboil onions while oven heats, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle herb mix and black pepper over chicken, inside and outside. mRub outside with safflower and olive oil. Stuff chicken with onions and start it roasting for 10 minutes in a deep roasting pan. In the meantime, melt butter with honey, lemon juice, garlic and hot red pepper. Brush mixture over chicken and pour wine into the roasting pan. Turn oven down to 350 degrees and roast 1/2 hour longer. Stuff chicken with cherries and strew the rest around the pan. Roast another half hour or more, until the chicken tests done. Remove from oven and let rest while you skim fat off the pan juices and boil them down to serve as gravy with the chicken. Serve with baked yams and endive salad. Cold whitefish (6 servings as an hor d'oeuvre) 3 whitefish fillets, trimmed so they are the same size Juice of 1/2 lemon 1 to 2 cups homemade mayonnaise seasoned with a pinch of saffron Capers, carrots slices and cucumbers or parsley for garnish Plain crackers for serving
Bake fish fillets just until they turn opaque. Squeeze lemon over them and refrigerate until very cold. On a serving dish, stack the fish with mayonnaise between each layer, then frost the top and sides with mayonnaise. Decorate with capers, carrots and something green, either cucumbers or parsley. Serve with crackers as an hor d'oeuvre. HOLIDAY DUCK (8 servings) 1 cup seedless raisins 1 cup brandy 2 ducklings 4 to 5 pounds each 6 or more apples pared, sliced Basting sauce: 1.2 cup soy sauce 1.2 cup honey 3 cloves garlic, peeled 1.2 teaspoon ground ginger 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper; 1 cup medium dry sherry
Soak raisins in brandy 1 hour or more. Wash and dry ducklings; trim wing tips, if you wish. Cut off necks, if needed. Put on rack in large heavy pan. Drain brandy from raisins and save both. Fill cavitites of ducklings with apple slices and drained raisins.
Put ingredients for basting sauce in blender or food processor. Process until garlic is smooth. Add brandy.
Roast ducks at 475 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove ducks from oven, pierce skin with fork to release fat. Spoon some of basting sauce over duck. Return to oven and roast at 350 degrees 1 1/2 hours or until ducks are tender. Baste duck with sauce every 20 minutes. If ducks get too brown, cover with a tent of foil partway through cooking period. Remove foil during last 10 minutes to crisp skin or return heat to 475 degrees, if you wish.
Notes: Extra apples and raisins can be baked separately along with ducks to use as garnish. Neblett sometimes makes a sauce of mayonnaise, yogurt and ginger to serve with duck.