Jeffrey Wells is fussing over two sets of homemade pralines laid out in rows on sheets of wax paper. One looks terrific--caramel-colored, smooth and glistening. "But they don't taste good. They even taste a little rancid," says the Louisiana-born bass-baritone.
Hmmm. What does that say about the less pretty set of pralines? They're paler and not quite as shiny.
Happily, they literally melt in your mouth. "I used off-brand butter and sugar and pecans for the first ones and brand names for the second," says Wells. "I was trying to prove a point that there is a difference in the type of products and produce you use. It really does matter if you try to save a buck. It all comes down to the quality of the ingredients. If you want something to turn out well, you have to get the freshest and best ingredients you can."
Now it's one thing to hear a chef talk foodspeak, but quite another to hear it from a 6-foot-3 1/2, 215-pound guy in black jeans and cowboy boots. Especially when the conversation is taking place in a temporary apartment with a kitchen designed at best for precooked microwave meals.
And even more especially when that someone is a top-ranking opera singer you'd think would be frequenting the best restaurants in town.
But Jeffrey Wells, who's here for six weeks to rehearse and perform in Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera "Susannah" for the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center (performances will run from Nov. 6 through Nov. 27), is not your ordinary opera singer. He's a former youth minister, a trained massage therapist and a super Cajun-Creole cook. He's even managed a Burger King. Instead of living in a worldly cultural capital, he lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. He doesn't drink--not even wine.
And he doesn't like to eat out all that much.
So when Wells and his wife, Jo Ellen, pack up to go on the road, they cart their crock pot along and try to live and eat normally whether they're in San Francisco or Paris or Palermo.
Right. That's for the gumbo and biscuits and red beans and rice that are mother's milk to the Baton Rouge native. He's been cooking seriously ever since he left home for college. Before that he helped out in the kitchen where his mother, a nutritionist for the local school system, held sway. "My sisters weren't interested in cooking until they got married," he says. "I was totally engrossed."
But his family's kitchen wasn't like the average American home. For one thing, there were raccoons to get on the table. (His father hunted, often taking young Jeffrey along.) They had to be skinned, cleaned and brined, and then precooked in the oven for an hour in a brown paper bag. "To get the gamey smell out," Wells explains. Then father and son covered the raccoon with a special paste made of oranges, lemons, nuts and cranberries and cooked it in the oven slowly for 12 hours.
The pleasure his father and mother took in preparing good food was passed along to the youngest child. As he finishes up the filling for two crayfish pies and apologizes for using a store-bought crust, it's clear that cooking has never been just a pastime for Wells. He's the real deal--his inspiration not only his parents' cooking but the soul food cooked by the women who looked after him while his mother was at work. The shelves in his temporary apartment are filled with ingredients for all the cooking styles he likes--grits and black-eyed peas, corn syrup and vinegars, spices. There are plastic containers for leftovers too--though he laments having to leave his good (and heavy) Le Creuset pots at home.
Nobody really taught Wells, 46, how to cook. Sure he helped out at home, but mostly he just watched. He must have been attentive because at 18 he managed to get a job as the night chef at a good-size catfish house in Baton Rouge without a single day's culinary training. In no time (really), he revised a few of the recipes and was turning out gumbos, etouffees and fried fish for 150 each night. "I'm lucky," he says, when asked how he knew what to do in the kitchen. "I remember everything I see and do. That's how I learn [opera] roles so quickly."
Nowadays, Wells is in demand, singing 48 to 50 performances a year both in Europe and the United States--after "Susannah" finishes, he's off to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His livelihood depends on his staying fit, so he has to be careful not to overindulge in the fattening foods of his childhood. He can't afford to stay up late and eat large meals after his performance the way many actors and opera singers still do. "That lifestyle's not good for me," he says. "I did it somewhat for the first five years I was on the road when my wife wasn't traveling with me, and it really took its toll."
He avoids milk and yogurt and ice cream and sweets too. Those pralines, for example. He gives them away to friends and cast members. He's found that too much white sugar and most milk products (though not cheese) give rise to mucous and bronchial congestion, ailments he simply can't risk.
Over time he's developed some food allergies too. Like shellfish--an allergy he discovered only after he completely lost his voice in the middle of a performance of "Ruslan and Lyudmila" in San Francisco in 1995. Though he'd never had the problem before, he couldn't sing for six weeks. He figures he probably ate so much shellfish growing up in Louisiana, an allergy to it kicked in in adulthood.
So he's careful about what he eats. "As a singer, I do what I can to take care of myself." And his motivation isn't just his current health and the fashion of the moment. He wants to extend his singing days as long as he can.
His basic strategy: keeping his eye on fat content and eating in moderation. He's not likely to eat Cajun food, for example, more than a couple of times a month--and then only when he and his wife entertain. "It's just too fatty," he says. "I never claimed it was healthy."
He eats an apple, or applesauce, every day, drinks tons of water ("Hydration is very important") and, like most entertainers, never eats immediately before a performance. Instead he eats around 4 in the afternoon--"A light protein or a pasta"--and something light, like a chicken Caesar salad, afterward.
He even tries to think of ways to make the foods he grew up with a little healthier, a little less caloric. That's not easy in a cuisine where pork fat rules. But he perseveres. For his gumbo, for example, he makes his roux by browning whole-wheat flour in a hot, hot oven rather than stirring white flour into butter on top of the stove.
Nobody's perfect, of course. And Wells confesses he's not always as watchful as he should be, sometimes yielding to temptation in the form of chicken breasts wrapped in bacon in a creamy sauce. Beef too. A couple of times a week.
Since he loves to cook, he gets particular pleasure from cooking for friends, and just about everywhere he performs, he and Jo Ellen host cast parties where he treats fellow singers to examples of two of America's finest regional cuisines.
If not for a cold the singer picked up during the early days of rehearsals, he would have cooked for the cast of "Susannah" already--it's harder to work in when they're actually performing. So with time limited, the cast may have to settle for gumbo (his own recipe with that low-fat roux) and monkey bread, a sweet yeast bread that takes him all day to make.
But if they're lucky, they'll meet up again, for more gumbo, and some of his chicken or shrimp etouffee, a salad of course, and his wife's bread pudding with double cream and some "Southern-style" lasagna. "It's really good, too," says Wells.
An Opera Singer's Louisiana Heritage
Whether he's on the road or back home in foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, opera singer Jeffrey Wells loves to cook the Louisiana specialties he grew up eating. Though he doesn't eat this way all the time, he loves to share his culinary heritage with friends and family. Here are a few of his favorite recipes.
(8 to 10 servings)
This is a mild version of a traditional New Orleans dish that is typically served over hot rice. If you'd like a bit of kick, add some cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes along with the other seasonings.
About 1/4 cup bacon drippings or vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
1 large stalk celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
16-ounce can tomatoes, chopped, not drained
8-ounce can tomato sauce
6-ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
4 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
In large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the bacon drippings or oil. Add the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic and cook until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown.
Meanwhile, in a large stockpot, stir the tomatoes with their juice together with the tomato sauce and tomato paste. Then stir in the lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Add the vegetable mixture and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer, partially covered, until the shrimp are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf.
Serve the shrimp and sauce over rice.
Per serving (based on 10; using canola oil): 271 calories, 39 gm protein, 10 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 276 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 730 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
(Makes 2 pies, about 16 servings)
Fresh crayfish meat is a rarity in the Washington area, but frozen crayfish tail meat is available at the seafood department of many supermarkets and specialty stores. You may also substitute shrimp.
2 unbaked 9-inch pie shells
1 egg white, lightly beaten
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1 pound crayfish tail meat, chopped, thawed if frozen (you may substitute shrimp that has been peeled, deveined and chopped)
1 bunch scallions, white and tender green portions, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
3 to 4 tablespoons flour
1 pint half-and-half
3 tablespoons sherry (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 pound cooked crab meat, picked over
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the pie shells with the egg white; set aside.
In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add the crayfish tails and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, about 6 minutes. Remove from the heat; transfer to a plate and set aside.
In the same skillet, melt the remaining 8 tablespoons butter. Add the scallions, bell pepper, celery, onion and parsley and cook until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Slowly stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture forms a paste that is lightly browned and slightly thickened. Slowly add the half-and-half, stirring constantly. Stir in the sherry, tarragon, basil and salt and both black and cayenne peppers to taste, combining well. Add the crab meat and crayfish to the vegetable mixture.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shells. Bake the pies in the preheated oven until set, about 30 minutes.
Per serving (based on 16; using crayfish): 180 calories, 11 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 64 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 249 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
(Makes about 30 pralines)
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) butter
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 cups pecan halves
Have ready a large sheet of wax paper.
In a large saucepan, combine the granulated and brown sugars with the butter, milk and corn syrup. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Stir in the pecans and cook until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage (a small amount of the mixture will form a soft ball when dropped into cold water; 234 to 240 degrees on a candy thermometer).
Remove the pan from the heat and stir vigorously until the mixture cools slightly and begins to lose its gloss (about 220 degrees on a candy thermometer). Working quickly, drop tablespoons of the praline mixture about 2 inches apart on the wax paper; set aside until cooled and hardened. The pralines will keep for 2 weeks wrapped individually in wax paper and stored in an airtight container.
Per praline: 153 calories, 1 gm protein, 20 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 8 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber