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Austin singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso tells his story through food in new cookbook

By Addie Broyles, Austim-American Stateman, June 18, 2013
Michael Fracasso remembers what he ate the night after the Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
It’s not that the noted Austin singer-songwriter can remember every meal he has ever eaten, but the following day was his 12th birthday. To celebrate, his parents got a copy of “Meet the Beatles!,” which they listened to while eating polenta and homemade sausage.
In the 50 years since, not a day has gone by that Fracasso hasn’t thought about making music, and these days, he’s thinking about food as much as songs.
Fracasso, who has lived in Austin since the early 1990s, grew up in Ohio with the kind of Italian-American parents who made their own pasta, grew their own peppers, brewed their own wine and picked their own wild mushrooms.
“But Mom would never ever let me cook,” he tells a roomful of guests at Lake Austin Spa Resort, where he recently taught a cooking class.
Since the late 1990s, Fracasso has been teaching both public and private classes, but as of this spring, he finally has a cookbook to show for all those recipes he has collected and fine-tuned over the years.
At the class last month near Steiner Ranch, Fracasso explained how he finally learned how to cook, a story that he also tells in “Artist in the Kitchen: A Brief Autobiography in Food” (Little Fuji, $30).
“I was the only boy in the family, and I grew accustomed to Mom doing all the cooking,” he says. “I went away to college and lived with four other guys. One of my roommates did all the cooking, and we cleaned up after him. He made things like pork and beans, Tuna Helper and casseroles, and he was a terrible cook.”
In a moment as transformative as the “Meet the Beatles” dinner, Fracasso bought a 25-cent copy of Maria Lo Pinto’s “The Art of Italian Cooking” from a sidewalk vendor near the Ohio State University campus in Columbus.
“I started reading the book that night, and I could feel the recipes going through me,” he says. The next day, he went shopping and cooked something good (he can’t remember what) and felt the same joy that his mother did preparing food that meant something to him.
“This book was an epiphany to me,” he writes in “Artist in the Kitchen.” “I could feel it clicking with my genetic makeup like a long lost brother.”
In the decades that followed, Fracasso continued to cook, exploring new cuisines as he moved from Ohio to Washington and then New York City but never drifting far from his Italian roots and always carrying with him Lo Pinto’s book. (It’s held together with duct tape now.)
He’d always thought about compiling a cookbook, especially after he started teaching cooking classes in Austin, but it wasn’t until a car accident last year injured his hand that he had to take a break from performing.
While friends, including Patty Griffin and Robert Plant, hosted a number of fundraisers to help cover some of his medical expenses, Fracasso decided this was just the opportunity he needed to finally finish a cookbook that he had informally been working on for years.
Some of the recipes, like the gnocchi and braciola, have been passed down directly from his mom, while others are dishes he has added to his culinary songbook over the years, including a cauliflower pasta born out of economic necessity in New York, and fig and bleu cheese crepes topped with candied almonds that he likes to teach in his classes.
“When I do a dish, I read as much about it as I can,” he says. “I find all the ways of making the same dish and then come up with my own way.”
Now that his hand has healed and he’s back on the stage at area venues like the Cactus Cafe and the Continental Club, Fracasso pulls out his guitar at the end of his cooking classes for a short, intimate set of whatever songs he feels like playing that day. He has released eight albums in his career, and though he could talk about his love of food all day, he’s more coy about songwriting.
“I let the music speak for itself.”
UPCOMING EVENTS
Michael Fracasso will sign copies of “Artist in the Kitchen” at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople, and at 6:30 p.m. Friday, he’ll teach a class ($50, centralmarket.com) at Central Market North, 4001 N. Lamar Blvd., to show how to make some of the dishes
from the book, including green bean and beet salad with goat cheese, toasted walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette; risotto with lemon and asparagus; and lamb chops with Middle Eastern spices. Fracasso will also perform a few of his songs after the cooking demonstration.
For more information on his private cooking classes or to buy the book, go to michaelfracasso.com.
Asparagus Risotto
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock, divided
2 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 yellow onion, minced
2 cups 3éarnai rice
1/2 cup white wine
16 fresh asparagus tips, washed
2 1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a small pan, heat stock and reduce to a simmer. In a large 3éarn pan or Dutch oven
over medium heat, heat olive oil and 3éarn the onion until translucent. Add rice and stir
to coat with oil. Add the wine and stir until it is absorbed. Add one cup stock and stir
until liquid has absorbed. Continue adding stock in this way, which should take 15 to 20
minutes.
Add the asparagus after about 15 minutes, adding stock as needed. Continue stirring
and cooking until the asparagus is cooked and the rice is al dente.
Remove risotto from the heat and stir in butter, parsley and pecorino cheese. Salt and
pepper to taste.
— From Michael Fracasso’s “Artist in the Kitchen: A Brief Autobiography in Food”
Green Bean and Beet Salad with Goat Cheese, Toasted Walnuts and Raspberry Vinaigrette
1 lb. beets
1 lb. green beans
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. raspberry vinegar
3/4 tsp. salt
4 oz. goat cheese
Chop off leafy greens of beets and reserve for another use, such as 3éarnai greens.
Wash beets and boil in lightly salted water. (Cooking time will vary depending on size of
vegetable. The skin should easily peel off in about 30 minutes for small beets, 40 for
medium and 60 for large.) Rinse under cold water and peel off skin. Cut off ends and
then cut into cubes. Reserve.
Snap off stem ends of the green beans and rinse. In a large sauté pan with a lid, steam
in a little bit of water for about 12 to 14 minutes until beans are bright green but not
crunchy. Rinse under cold water to prevent further cooking. Drain.
Toast walnuts on a hot skillet. They toast very quickly and should be swirled around for
a minute or two and then removed from skillet to prevent burning.
Place vegetables and walnuts in a medium serving dish. Drizzle with olive oil, raspberry
vinegar and salt to taste, and sprinkle with clumps of goat cheese. Toss gently and
serve at room temperature.
— From Michael Fracasso’s “Artist in the Kitchen: A Brief Autobiography in Food”