Music adds spice to cooking

Sharon O'Connor can't imagine working in the kitchen without music playing in the background. But not just any music. A former cellist with the San Francisco String Quartet, she likes to find just the right piece to accompany her culinary forays. The pursuit has led her to write cookbooks that combine her passion for food and music in an inimitable way.

Each of her cookbooks comes in a boxed set with music created, performed, and recorded to suit the recipes.

Ms. O'Connor, who has cooked with such famous chefs as Daniel Boulud and Ming Tsai, is president and creator of the aptly named Menus and Music company. With 18 cookbook-CD sets already under her belt, she is now getting ready to release another eight cookbook sets later this year.

"I've never met a musician who didn't love food," she says. "For us, experiencing life through all the senses seems natural."

There are many studies out there, she adds, which indicate that if people listen to great music while dining with others, they enjoy longer conversations and consume less food.

O'Connor's knowledge and interest in a variety of music grows out of her experience playing it. She's done projects with the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, as well as with renowned jazz musicians like Bucky Pizzarelli and Kenny Baron. She's also worked with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison, and Linda Ronstadt, plus recorded performances of Irish, Spanish, Italian, and French music, as well as American country music.

To some degree, her work with the string quartet helped launch her cookbook-writing career. The ensemble provided entertainment at parties catered by well-known chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recipes from these chefs served as inspiration for her first books.

Today, O'Connor appears on the Food Network and travels all over the world to find great recipes and music to accompany them. She calls the quest the "perfect way to investigate/experience a culture," with each compilation taking about a year to complete. She adapts the recipes of professional chefs in her home kitchen in Piedmont, Calif., and arranges to record and edit music in studios in New York and Berkeley, Calif.

The whole selection process "becomes absurd" if you become too specific, O'Connor says. "However, if you're cooking a Spanish dinner, a recording of classical Spanish guitar makes the moment far richer; Italian food enjoyed with Italian songs can transport you to Italy. Shared moments over a homemade bistro dinner with French jazz" can change "a day of tedium ... to an evening of delight."

In addition to writing books and playing music, O'Connor offers culinary tours. Next stop: Italy, where besides leading cooking classes she hopes to play her cello at the Villa San Michele in Fiesole, near Florence.

O'Connor hopes her work will make mealtimes pleasurable for people. "We live in such a rushed world," she says, "I hope I can bring pleasant dining experiences into people's homes again."

Marinade

2 tablespoons canola oil
Juice of 2 limes
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Salad

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and diced
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1 Hass avocado, peeled, pitted, and diced
1 red onion, diced
Corn chips, or 2 corn tortillas, sliced in strips (optional)

Vinaigrette

1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Marinate the chicken: In a large baking dish, combine the canola oil, lime juice, garlic, jalapeño, salt, and pepper. Stir to blend. Add the chicken breasts, turn to coat, and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, turning once or twice, or refrigerate up to 4 hours.

Meanwhile, roast the red bell peppers directly over the gas flame of a stove, on a grill, or under the broiler, turning occasionally until charred all over, about 10 minutes. Transfer the peppers to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let steam for 5 minutes. Rub off the skin and seed the peppers.

To make the vinaigrette: In a blender or food processor, combine all the vinaigrette ingredients and purée.

Prepare a fire in a charcoal or gas grill or preheat a broiler. Grill or broil the chicken for 8 minutes on each side, or until opaque throughout. Transfer the chicken to a work surface, let stand for 5 minutes, then chop into 1/2-inch pieces.

In a large bowl, gently toss the chicken, tomatoes, avocado, and red onion with the vinaigrette until well combined. Sprinkle with the tortilla chips or strips, if using.

Adapted from 'Cooking With the Blues' by Sharon O'Connor, Sharon O'Connor's MusicCooks

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