When listening to Toronto crooner, Melissa Lauren, I am transported to a world of cigars, scotch, swanky casinos and the Rat Pack. She’s a smooth throwback to the Golden Days of Hollywood while constantly updating her sound into something all her own.
With her latest album, “Your Mess”, released last fall, a new role as producer and writer, and a little baby girl who’s arrival is imminent, Melissa’s life and career is full of exciting new changes.
All this has fuelled a metamorphosis into an intuitive singer who’s learning to find beauty in the tormenting mess.
” ‘I won’t rest until I am my best for you.’ ” The Toronto chanteuse can now put up her feet – she’s lovely with her strummy and breezy elegance, which is absolutely good to us” – Brad Wheeler, The Globe and Mail.
Melissa’s new album has her taking on a much more creative roll. Writing her songs while producing allows the freedom to express herself and her journey thus far. Things have gotten edgier and more mature this time around as the artist embraces heartbreak, chaos, upheaval, anger and joy. Instead of shying away from ‘The Mess’, she is igniting yet another creative aspect of herself.
Melissa cut her teeth as part of the Toronto All-Star Big Band and continued on with them until 2004. Since then, she has performed across the country at many major jazz festivals and is now setting her sights on Europe.
She’s had the chance to work with great talents from Jeff Healey to Jackie Richardson, from Gordon Lightfoot to Buddy Di Franco. In addition to her growing jazz career, Melissa has been expanding into the electronic music scene.
Her greatest challenge is up next – the role of Mom. This lucky baby girl will be born into a house of considerable musical talent from her mom’s silky voice to dad, Nathan Hiltz‘s, lyrical guitar sounds. (Check out more from Nathan in my very first Harlot’s Artists feature here.)
Look forward to seeing Melissa and her band at The Rex Hotel every Wednesday in the month of April from 6:30 – 8:30pm. Until then:
Let’s get to more yumminess and talk food:
The Harlot: Do you have a favourite restaurant or cuisine?
Melissa Lauren: This answer seems to change for me every couple of years. I’ve gone through phases where I can’t get enough Thai, Indian, Mexican, then I tire of it. Right now I’ve really been feeling the meat and potatoes thing again. There’s a German spot near one of the schools where I teach called Bread & Butter, they make AMAZING Schnitzel and potato salad. I really enjoy the Chicken Paprikash.
We know that taste and smell are closely linked to memory, is there a particular dish that conjures up powerful images of home?
My family is of Polish background, so the smell of onions and potatoes makes me think of my Babcia’s pierogi at Christmas time, as does the smell of cabbage cooking. She would also make amazing kapusta and cabbage rolls. When I try to do something with cabbage it always tastes so bland!
All those smells bring me back to Christmas Eve at my Grandma’s and the Ukrainian food I thought was gross then and love now. Mmmm cabbage, I think the key is loads of butter. (Check out my cabbage rolls.)
Is there a snack food from your childhood that holds special nostalgia?
I ate a lot of cheese and crackers, apples and peanut butter, celery with cheese wiz (I know, cheese wiz??!!) I was a kid that would always like a variety of textures and tastes on her plate, my mom always taught me to put a little bit of everything from my plate onto each forkful. So to this day, I love lots of textures, colours and flavours in my dishes. If I’m making myself dinner, I have a little bit of many different things on my plate. I always need something crunchy!
That’s a pretty sophisticated thing to learn as a child. Is there a favourite dish you have that someone in your life makes for you?
My mother makes cod-o-gratin that takes me back to Newfoundland. I also love her sweet and sour chicken and Nappa cabbage salad. I’m a huge vegetable person and I love the way she prepares brussel sprouts and her yam/cauliflower casseroles at Thanksgiving. Oh, and Turkey!! I would eat Turkey once a week if I could! I’ve never done it myself. My aunt passed away this year and it was hard to imagine never eating her Thanksgiving turkey again.
What is your favourite dish to make for yourself or for guests?
I love spice. I like to make a nice spicy chilli. The problem is I can take a lot more spice than the average person. When I was a baby, my parents tell me one night I was eating off my father’s plate from my high chair at a restaurant. When he finally went to take a bite of his meal, he had to run to the bathroom he was choking from the spice. I was happily chowing down… so, I usually have a few versions of hot I prepare depending on who is eating. I also make a mean charcuterie plate.
Is there a food or food craze you absolutely can’t stand?
I’m not that into sushi. The only two foods I absolutely won’t eat are avocados and lamb.
What is you guiltiest food pleasure?
I love nippy cheese with grapes and olives. I love the combo of sweet and savoury so I’ll couple things like a croissant with jam and sharp cheese. People ask if I have any weird cravings now that I’m pregnant, but It’s really hard to say because I’ve always eating weird combos of things!
What is your favourite beverage?
Wine. But I can’t drink it right now. I like cider too. Since I’ve been pregnant I’ve been drinking lots of soda water, fancy sodas.
What is your go-to bar order?
That totally changes and depends on the bar. If it’s a pub – whatever cider is on tap. ‘Bar’ bar – vodka soda with tons of lime. Place with good wine – a nice full bodied malbec. Damn, now I’m thinking about booze…
What condiment can you not live without?
Mustard! And hot sauce.
Ditto – they make everything better. If someone were putting together the ultimate dinner for you – no limitations – what would it be?
A surf and turf of some kind, with asparagus, a nice crunchy salad with some kind of hard cheese and olives to start.
Hmm… not so much on tour, but I remember travelling a couple times and being fed meals at people’s houses we were staying at that was just comprised of meat. Nothing else – meat. No sides, no bread, no veg, just a big hunk of roast beef. That’s not so much exotic as it is alarming.
Is there somewhere in the world you would love to travel to for its culinary offerings?
France, I think the richness and cheese would be right up my alley.
If you were throwing your dream dinner party, who would be your ideal three guests and what would you serve to them?
David Letterman, Tom Selleck and Mickey Rourke. And maybe Sinatra if I get a fourth. And Steak and cigars obviously!
There’s a room of manly men! Any other food stories you’d like to share?
I’m so wordy I think I may have already shared a few up there. I guess to touch on the idea of cooking/eating and how love is such an important ingredient:
When I was little and moved to a new school after coming back to Toronto after Newfoundland, my mother would come and eat lunch with me everyday in the car until I was comfortable. I can still taste the bologna sandwiches. When I finally had the courage to eat in the lunch room, I would open my lunch everyday and she would have folded a little note on a heart shaped piece of paper with a message for me. Thinking of it still makes me feel warm. I can’t wait to make lunches for my little girl.
That might be the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard and such a lovely tradition to pass on.
ALSACIAN COQ AU RIESLING WITH WILD MUSHROOMS & BUTTERED NOODLES
Alright, this recipe is a little decadent, I will admit, but well worth it – bacon, cream and butter = heavenly comfort. Melissa mentions her current love of flavours from Germany and Eastern Europe with a more meat and potatoes vibe. France’s culinary offerings pop up in her interview, which are taken into consideration with this Coq au Riesling – a very Alsatian dish. The region of Alsace, France borders Germany and takes on a lot of similarities in food and wine as borders have shifted throughout history.
This is great with some nippy cheese, grapes and olives – something salty, sharp and tangy that will contrast this main. Finish with some apple strudel, apple/caramel crepes or a light puff pastry tart. Definitely include a crunchy salad, maybe with a dijon vinaigrette to cut the richness and add texture.
This can easily be served over mashed potatoes, but I like the soft and pillowy noodles as it’s traditional. This is a phenomenal dish for dinner parties, make it a day or two ahead and pop it in the oven to heat through.
You have the option of chicken with or without the skin. I like to leave the skin on through the whole process for flavour, then remove before serving – it can get a little slimy. You can also begin skinless allowing you to skip the browning process, eliminating the extra fat.
As you dig in to this Alsatian delicacy, picture an A-frame ski lodge, roaring fire and the craggy peaks of the Alps rising in the background.
4 chicken leg quarters, legs and thighs separated (with or without skin)
1 bottle of dry riesling (preferably Niagara or Alsace regions)
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 small onion, diced
6 strips of bacon
12 pearl onions
500 grams or 6 cups of sliced mushrooms, preferably a mix (cremini, button, oyster, shitaki, chantrelle, etc)
3 small shallots, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp unbleached flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
fresh ground pepper
350 grams wide noodle fresh pasta such as fettuccine or linguine
1/4 – 1/3 cup salted butter
lots of fresh pepper
Pour all the ingredients for the marinade into a large, heavy duty sealable bag or an airtight container. Refrigerate 12 – 48 hours, turning once or twice.
Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve the liquid and discard the bay and thyme sprigs.
In a large dutch oven, lay out your bacon strips and heat to medium, turning a few times until crispy. Remove to a paper towel lined plate.
Toss in your mushrooms and gently saute until they begin to soften.
Meanwhile, bring a small pot of salted water to boil. Cut an X shape in the tops of the pearl onions. Blanche for 1 minute, remove with a slotted spoon and allow to cool. Peel, trim and leave whole.
Once the mushrooms begin to colour, add the pearl onions and saute a couple minutes more. Remove to bowl.
Wipe pot clean and add a little oil or bacon fat.
*Skip this step if you are using skinless chicken:* Turn up to medium/ high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Brown the chicken on all sides and remove.
Add the shallots and season with a little salt. Toss about until they begin to colour. Add the garlic, thyme and butter, mixing through until the butter has melted. Sprinkle over the flour and stir until it becomes a paste.
Add the chicken, marinade and chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 – 40 minutes.
Remove lid and turn up the heat to high. Bring to a boil and reduce liquid by about a 3rd, around 5 minutes.
Pour in the cream, mushrooms and pearl onions and reduce heat to a very slow simmer. Cook uncovered 15 – 20 minutes more until thickened.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook noodles according to the package instructions. Drain and return to the pot with the butter. Toss with a generous amount of fresh pepper. Taste for seasoning.
Take the dutch oven off the heat and remove the thyme sprigs. Taste for seasoning and adjust with more salt and pepper. Crumble the bacon and sprinkle over.
Serve family style right from the pot or plate the stew over the noodles with some crusty bread. Pair with a fresh salad or crisp green beans – something light and crunchy – this is one decadent and rustic stew.
Congratulations to Melissa and Nathan – first time parents I know will compliment each other in life as well as parenthood. xo
ONTARIO WINE PAIRING
The full flavours of bacon, butter and cream in this stew needs something crisp to contrast. A chardonnay may be a little too creamy and analogous, while a light pinot noir may disappear into the richness. For this dish I find symmetry cooking and pairing with the same wine. For cooking, you definitely need to use a dry riesling, but you have the option of dry or off-dry to enjoy alongside.
Riesling has a vibrant and bright personality, fruity acidic notes and great versatility. This wine exemplifies the Niagara region – it’s a varietal that thrives in the extreme heat of our summers as well as the cold, unpredictable winters. This is a great everyday wine.
I have to admit, I haven’t been much of a riesling fan, but recently I have found some gems in Niagara. The one that wins me over for this dish is Konzelmann Estate Winery’s 2013 Riesling. This is a light bodied wine, with lots of green apple, citrus, lychee and some juicy honeydew melon. Tangy and sweet lemons create a refreshing finish.
Support Ontario wineries – we have a lot to offer!