John Cheek, a bass-baritone opera star, was introduced to the Berkshires in 1977, when he sang at Tanglewood under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. “I was completely smitten with the Berkshires,” he says as he explains why he and his wife Lee bought a little cottage in Stockbridge a few years later. For the next 12 years they “commuted” to the Berkshires on weekends until they decided that the drive to and from had gotten a bit old. In short order they bought a house in Egremont and have made it their home ever since.
In 1971, Cheek began studying for his Masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Those of us of a certain age will remember the lottery for the draft in the early 1970s. Cheek got a very low lottery number, so he joined the Army where he made his operatic debut in an Army chorus in 1973.
Cheek made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1977, and has performed there throughout his career. Additionally, his opera work took him all over the world, giving him the opportunity to sample a wide range of cuisines. There were many years when he was on the road at least half of the year, singing all over the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, China, and Mexico.
Cheek learned a great deal about French cooking during the many months he and his wife Lee lived in Paris. And even now he speaks glowingly about the wonderful pasta and pizza of Italy, where the wood burning stoves produce crusty loaves.
Over the years, Cheek has become an excellent cook. He is a longtime fan of Saveur magazine, from which he has gotten a large number of ethnic recipes. “Saveur is good at that type of thing.” He photographs many of the dishes he makes for dinner, and posts pictures of them on Facebook.
Cheek is an avid gardener, where he grows 6 or 7 varieties of tomatoes, kale, chard, collards, cucumbers, green beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, zucchini, winter squash, and enough garlic to take him through to the next year.
In keeping with the calendar, Cheek produced two dishes, both suitable for the holidays (and any other time, for that matter.)
John Cheek’s Roasted Cranberry Sauce adapted from Saveur
1 large orange
1 pound fresh (or thawed) cranberries
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 green cardamom pods, smashed
4 whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
1 small jalapeno, stemmed and thinly diced
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Using a peeler, remove peel from the orange, taking off as little as possible. Cut peel into very thin strips about 1½-inch long. Squeeze juice from the orange; strain and reserve 1 tablespoon juice.
In a bowl combine, peel, cranberries, sugar, olive oil, salt, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, and jalapenos. Toss and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast until cranberries begin to burst and release their juices, about 15 minutes.
Transfer cranberry mixture to a bowl. Stir in reserved orange juice and port. Let sit for at least 1 hour so that the flavors meld. Remove and discard cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon before serving.
John Cheek’s Aged Eggnog, courtesy Alton Brown
12 large eggs (pasteurized if you need peace of mind)
1 pound sugar
1 pint half-n-half
1 pint whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup Jamaican rum
1 cup cognac
1 cup bourbon
Separate the eggs and store the whites for another purpose.
Beat the yolks with the sugar and nutmeg in a second bowl until the mixture lightens in color and falls off the whisk in a solid “ribbon.”
Combine dairy, booze, and salt in a second bowl or pitcher, and then slowly beat into the egg mixture.
Move to a large glass jar (or a couple of smaller ones) and store in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 weeks. A month would be better, and two better still. But you can drink it right away if you’re thirsty.
Serve in mugs or cups topped with a little extra nutmeg grated right on top.