Friday, April 15, 2011

Fajita Chicken

Johnny B's Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Eating: Number 2

For those looking to eat real, affordable food that they can cook themselves with a busy life, here is my biggest source of meals throughout the week: FAJITA CHICKEN.

Fajita chicken requires a couple things besides ingredients: a George Foreman-type grill, and the foresight to marinate the chicken a day or two before cooking. You can cook it on a skillet, but this takes forever, and burns the outside. So, pick up a double-sided electric grill at a thrift store for $5. You'll save more than that the first week you eat this instead of going out!

Here's the process:

Buy some boneless skinless chicken breasts. Frozen or fresh, but avoid chicken "tenders." They're just cut into smaller pieces, and they cost more. I get a 5-pound bag at Wal-mart and keep it in the freezer, thawing 6 or so at a time. It should cost about $2/pound - incredible value for meat.

Pop the chicken in a gallon Zip-loc bag, add ~1/4 cup water and a splash of olive oil (optional), and dump in a packet of taco seasoning (about $0.75). Close the bag and mush it around till the seasoning is thoroughly distributed. Put the bag in the fridge and leave it for a day or 2. Don't forget about it! Raw chicken goes bad fast even in a fridge.

On cooking day, preheat your grill, and cook the chicken breasts for 10 to 12 minutes. Sometimes there are really thick pieces, so I'll cut into them to make sure they're not a little translucent in the middle.

Set the cooked pieces on a plate and let them cool. Then cut them into strips or smallish cubes, dump them into a leftover container, and keep it in the fridge. Voila! You have the core of a full meal sitting there, available to pull out at a moment's notice!

Here's what I do with the cooked, sliced pieces:
  • Fajitas. This requires tortillas, cheese, sour cream.. whatever else I want to put on them. I don't do this much anymore - too much time to prepare.
  • Mexican Rice Bowl. This has staved off starvation on many a rushed afternoon. I often have cooked rice in the fridge, and I just dump some into a leftover container, throw in some chicken, cheese and sour cream (salsa if I have it), and heat it in the microwave. Filling, easy to eat in the car, and delicious.
  • Fajita Chicken Salad. A staple of my diet. Chop/tear up some lettuce, chop up some vegetables if you have them (broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, celery, etc.), and top with chicken chunks and some ranch. I also add cheese, sour cream (less salt than ranch), salsa if I have it, and crushed-up tortilla chips (so good!). For a bonus, microwave the chicken and cheese separately and dump on top. Tasty, and lots of veggies!

That's it, folks. Marinade (5 minutes & thinking ahead), cook (~30 minutes), and use (4 minutes for rice bowl, ~10 minutes for salad). Chicken is cheap, lean, and you control the amount of sodium in it. With cheese and dressing it's a bit salty, but still a far cry from a burger and fries, or anything at Taco Bell. A few strips put over a big salad is as healthy a meal as you could want while still feeding an active human.

That's it for now. Eat well! Don't cave to the system of over-priced prepared foods!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Cool Fruit Smoothies

Johnny B's Tips for Healthy & Thrifty Eating: First Edition

It's starting to warm up (at least here in Tennessee), and when you start craving something cool and refreshing, don't run to Sweet CeCe's or DQ! Make a smoothie at home, with about 50¢ worth of supplies!

[Note: this tip requires a modicum of foresight. Have a couple bananas a day past ripe? Got some fresh berries at a good price? Got a can of peaches sitting around? Lay them out on a tray and pop them in the freezer. Once they're frozen, stash them in a Zip-Loc bag for some future date. It will be well worth your while.]

Two weeks later, it's 85°, sunny, and you want a cool treat. You're in luck! Grab that bag of frozen fruit, your jug of milk, and a couple ice cubes. Unless you have a top-notch blender, start with the ice first. This works for food processors or blenders, food processors just require more patience to get things blended up well. Blast the ice until it's not getting any smaller, then add the frozen fruit, bananas last. The point is to put the stickiest/wettest things in LAST, so everything else can get busted up pretty well by bouncing around and hitting the blades. SO, go ice, then, say, strawberries, then peach slices, then banana chunks, stopping and stirring as necessary to break up clumps. I even shake my Cuisinart while it's running, to dislodge things. At last, pour in just enough milk to make a homogeneous mixture. You will find, to your delight, a thick, smooth creamy treat more like ice-cream than your typical watery smoothie. You can add more milk to make it runnier, if you want. I like mine thick like frozen yogurt.

Here's a ratio I've used with good success (makes 1 big serving):

3 ice cubes

5 to 8 strawberries (sliced and frozen)

4 peach slices

~1/3 cup whole milk (whole milk = very rich and creamy)

If you're looking to be knocked over the head with intense flavor, this isn't it. But if you want a COOL, HEALTHY, CHEAP snack, plus the satisfaction of making something yourself and beating the over-priced retail food market, this is it!

Additions to try:

Vanilla extract

Fruit jam to intensify the flavor

Lemon or lime juice to intensify the tartness

Honey if you really want more sweetness (dont' give in! Train your tastebuds!)

If you try this, let me know how it turns out! If you have any requests for ways to eat healthily and cheaply, let me know, and I'll try to cover them.


Friday, April 30, 2010

The Secret to Audio Engineering

Are you ready for it?

I really should charge for this post, because this is the sum total of everything I've learned from the past year of reading a bunch of books and magazines, recording two albums, listening to hundreds of tracks, hanging out in a slew of Nashville studios, and talking with a bunch of professional engineers and producers.

No matter the song, style, or instrument, here is what you need to get a great sound recorded. In exact descending order of importance:

1) A great player
3) A quality instrument, properly set up and tuned (by the great player)
4) Your ears. Do what sounds good!
5.1) A microphone that's not garbage (a $250 AT 4033 is perfect)
5.2) A great preamp (this is the expensive part. Gonna set you back about $2000)
- If you're dedicated, you can acquire equivalent preamps for more like $500. It just takes patience, connections, and/or willingness to learn electronics and solder.

The end.

And really, 5.1 and 5.2 should be in smaller type or something.
Their importance pales in comparison to number 1 and 2.

Oh, and would you also like the secret to being an all-star producer and making hit music?
One thing.
This is it!


That is the oxygen of music.
All the vitamins in the world won't help if you ain't got no air :/

I wish I could convey the mountains of books and articles and discussions and obsessions in the audio industry that are all eminently superfluous to what's listed above. It's so simple, but we all keep hoping that buying the right compressor will make the mediocre song performed by mediocre musicians sound like magic!

Perhaps some day I'll look back on this post and smile at my audacity. But this is what I've seen walked out in a thousand ways. And I think it makes sense, in the cosmic simplicity of the universe.

So there you go. I take cash and checks. Paypal is good too :)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Very Good Friday

Today was a great day! Many good things happened within these hours that I always want to do but don't often end up accomplishing.

It started with a wake-up phone call from Justin at 6:45am. (Earliest I've gotten up in a LONG time)

Followed by Bible reading while eating a grapefruit and a tangerine.

Then, I admit, I took a shower and crawled back into bed for awhile. It was supposed to be a 7:45 wake-up, but the time zones messed things up. I was bitter cold too - the ground floor here is always bone-chilling! :-(

Got back up and headed to Sal's. Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughn's keyboard player) came in at 10 to lay down piano for a Tom Douglas demo. It was a rollicking honkey-tonk tune, with gritty lap steel guitar and drums that made you smile. He took it up another notch with just the right feel, and easy command of a thousand amazing riffs.

After he left I gradually talked Sal into giving Taco Bell another try. He had gotten severly burned out after eating it almost every night for months back when he was touring. I explained that they had delicious steak and chicken now, paired with cheese, wrapped in a crispy fried tortilla, and bursting with quesadilla tastyness. My euphoric language eventually got to him, and we ended up having a great lunch at the Franklin Taco Bell.

We kicked it back at the studio for a few more hours after lunch. Sal worked on Tom demos, and I read up on Beat Detective in the ProTools manual. Learned a lot of great stuff about something I've been using in ignorance. The last thing we did before I headed out was jam out on piano and guitar. Sal showed me some jazz chord progressions, and especially the "Sharp fourth substitution," which is rocking my world!

At 4 o'clock I headed north to Nashville for a GUITAR LESSON! Yes indeed, after watching a show at 12th & Porter and feeling yet again utterly inadequate musically, I had the idea to take lessons while I'm here and get some much-needed external input for my playing. I got a recommendation for a good guy at Rock Block Guitars, choked slightly at the cost, but ultimately decided to go for it. I spend money on plenty of things, few of them as beneficial as this will (hopefully) be.
The lesson was good, but not in a cool flashy "look at all these licks I learned!" way. We talked about what I hope to learn, I played for a bit, and he began showing me that my left hand posture is very wrong. My fingers are all scrunched together and my wrist is twisted at an angle. All of that feels fine, but weakens and constricts my motion. I've got a set of exercises to work on to drill in proper wrist position, finger separation, and elbow movement. Ehhhhh, it's always like this learning a worthwhile skill! Gotta work to make something very weird become natural.

Sal texted me as I was heading out and invited me over for "Pizza Friday" at the Oliveris. We did this last week too, so now the kids think it's a tradition :) I was quite happy to enjoy Tina's great pizza and hang out with the fam. Sal's kids are something like 8, 6, 3 and 2, so there is a TON of energy about EVERYTHING, and no lack of talk or excitement. I love it! Hanging out with kids is like a huge blast of fresh appreciation for every little thing in life. Make the stuffed lamb breakdance on the table, and you're more entertaining that Jerry Seinfeld! :-) I have been really blessed by Sal and his family's friendship to me. Great folks!

After dinner and hanging out I popped over to Billy's. Billy Whittington is Sal's go-to engineer and mixer, and I've been going over to his house-turned-studio every couple days since I got here. It was 7:30 on a Friday night, but there was no doubt Billy would be camped out in his chair, mixing and editing away. Such was indeed the case. Lights glowed through the windows, Billy's pickup was parked outside, and I gingerly opened the noisy old back door (in a house that's a studio you never know if somebody might be recording live) to hear the monitors thumping from the mix room. Billy is a great guy - friendly, welcoming, ridiculously hard working, and really good at what he does. I took a seat and watched the screen for a good 30 minutes as he worked. Asked a question here and there, and eventually Anna Johnson and Billy #2 arrived. Anna is a (extremely talented) musician who's been recording her debut album with Billy W and Billy Smiley (producer, guitar player, co-owner of the house studio, and quite commesurate with his last name). So she listened to the mixes Billy had been working on, people started coming in and out, and after looking at some of Anna's drawings and paintings (which are also really good - gosh!) I headed out.

In one of my alternate-route explorations of Franklin I had passed this immensely intriguing "Battle Ground Brewery." It had been bouncing around in my head since then that I needed to check it out, and I figured this Friday night was as good a time as any. It didn't seem that big from the outside, but I went in, went up a big flight of steps, up some more steps, and through a big seating area into a room, hunting down the enticing blare of live music. Ah me oh my, what a great way to wrap up the day! It was a huge old Civil War-type house, great feel. They brew their own beer, and at the far end of the room was a 4-piece blues band just tearing it up. That's one of the great things about Nashville - all the musicians are stinkin' GOOD! These guys knew what they were doing, and both guitar players were loaded with chops. So I sat there editing my latest batch of photos on the Macbook Pro, sipping the best pale ale I've EVER consumed, and listening to fantastic guitars just sailing away.

AND, I'm wrapping all of this up by writing it up in a blog post! Also one of those things that I always want to do, and that weighs on me when I don't do it for awhile. I'm propped up against the wall, laying on my air mattress bed, tucked nicely under warm blankets and my hoodie hood. The warm glow of the touch lamp leaves most of the room in pleasant obscurity, and Steely Dan is spinning away on the record player. Oops - just finished the side. Guess I should shut it off and hit the sack. G'nite y'all!

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Spurts of laughter erupt intermittently from behind the Pastors College classroom doors. The whole place is empty except for those students and a couple other folks who are staying late after the Christmas breakfast. I'm hunched over my Bible, stabbing white plastic fork-fulls of salad from my bowl, alone in the Sovereign Grace break room. Keith Foley--Christmas music that I've been listening to all my life--stirs up great swells of Christmassy feelings and sentimentality as it plays on the little boom box next to my table. It's 3:30pm. Lunchtime in my heedless schedule. There's a sense of finality--of completion--, as I just came back down from playing guitar for the last choir performance of the year - an all-school Christmas chapel. I feel like I should be wrapping up the last few stay ends in the office and heading off to somebody's house for Christmastime bustle and warmth. But the guys are coming at 6, and every hour from now till then will be used to get the studio ready for the recording session.
More cool and different stuff to do.
That's what my life has right now.

Running a studio!! Dinners at Leaches'; Playing live music at Starbucks! Playing at church this Sunday; Random stops up in the CLC offices to chat with folks; The rare trip to a grocery store or somebody's house for care group; Helping with high-school/middle-school choir; Trips up to Philly! Late night after late night in the studio, at this desk, in this deserted building.

Cool and different stuff.

Even going home for Christmas is strange: Flying from here down to Florida for a holiday spent between 3 trailers in an RV park. I won't be back in Pittsburgh at all this Christmas season!

My excitement for all this is a bit tepid right now. It's been a long stretch without a home base. I'm sick to death of myself, and I don't think I'm the only one. My musical well is nearly dry, plus I'm sick, a bit low on sleep, and I haven't gotten nearly enough Bible in me this week. [Aha! Methinks perhaps me found the biggest cause, no?]

Tomorrow Sovereign Grace is closed, so I think I'll get some sleep and not come in till lunch time, which will be awesome. Mauricio plays at La Tasca at 10:30pm, and maybe I can even drum up a friend or two to go see him with. I have a Starbucks gift card to use, which will brighten up the afternoon, and a Christmas bonus which pleasantly changes the financial landscape. The Spanish album to-do list before I leave on Monday is by no means small, but it feels eminently doable and useful. All my packing and arranging to leave, however, isn't so neat and tidy, and I know Monday will be upon me before I blink twice. Alas! The carrot of peace is held a little further out in front of me :)

So there you go. For better or worse, a cross sectional slice which, though thin, goes through most of the varied elements of my life right now. I would have scoffed if you'd told me 10 months ago that this is what I'd be doing! Crazy how the times change.

Hm. I really need a back rub.

And salvation.

Well, at least I have salvation.*


*[Just so there's no possibility of misunderstanding, that was poignantly ironic understatement, meant to address the folly of my heart and underscore the massive undergirding of security and good news that my life unfolds upon. Thanks be to God for His incomprehensible mercy! ¡Gracias al SeƱor por Su misericordia incomprensible!]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Many Changes

It's been awhile since I've posted! 10/5 was my last entry, and that was more than a month and a half ago. A good, long, packed month and a half.

When I last wrote, I didn't have a key to the Sovereign Grace studio, I worked mainly up in the CLC offices, I lived at Greg's townhouse, and I didn't know what I was going to do after the end of the year.

I now not only have a key to the studio, but I pretty much live down there, making only brief trips to my new quarters in Germantown. When the year is up I will work full-time for a month at Sovereign Grace finishing an album, and in February I'll move to Nashville! Yes indeed :)

So that's the short story. To fill in a bit...

After my last post, I got pretty involved doing video work for Bob, and had the opportunity to sit in on Josh Harris' recording sessions for the audiobook of his latest work: "Dug Down Deep." Lots of great truths and applications of Christianity that have been floating around various sermons and conferences and teachings, all condensed and organized into a well-written and encouragingly small book :)

I had a fantastic trip to Pittsburgh in mid October, and really enjoyed some quality time with folks there. I also had a great weekend in Philly, enjoying the quality friendships that I've been blessed with in my sporadic visits up there.

As October slipped into November, I became more involved with the high school choir, which I had originally just been accompanying on guitar. I actually found myself alone in a room full of high schoolers, teaching a sectional for an hour. Quite an eye-opening and exhausting experience. I've been leading sectionals regularly now, and we had our first performance at an all-school chapel last week. My boys sang well, all things considered! I also started teaching guitar lessons, and wrapped up a lot of my tech team and Ken Boer projects.

November saw a transition in the overall feel of my time in Maryland. I moved out of Greg's townhouse, which had been only 5 minutes from the church. My new place is 30 minutes away, and although I have a whole floor to myself and a nicer room, the extra distance makes me more inclined to stay busy at the church than to trek home and hang out there. It's fairly stark, too: the kitchen lacks a cutting board, a scrub brush, a garbage can, dishwasher detergent, and most of the time silverware!

Around that same time--early November--I had a few discussions with Bob Kauflin, which gave me a strong vision for wanting to learn how to record and produce albums. Ken Boer had assigned me to be "project coordinator" for an EP of a few Spanish worship songs that Covenant Life wanted to produce, and as I began to tackle that in earnest, the scope quickly escalated to a "as good as we can make it with some money invested" bona fide album. The realities of peoples' schedules left me as effectively the engineer and co-producer for the album, and as rehearsal dates loomed near, my days became packed with studio work.

Since November started, the picture in my head of my life is centered around the carpeted halls of the Sovereign Grace offices. My little "office" at the desk in the studio lobby, with 2 laptops humming away. Breakfasts, lunches, and most dinners sitting on a tall stool in the sweet break room. Warm Dr. Peppers from the broken pop cooler. Starbucks "Via" instant coffees (quite good!). And the control room and studio rooms becoming like my living room as I spent hours setting up mics, snaking cables around, patching preamps and A/D's, and setting gains. It's strange to think that this is the exact same spot that I entered with trembling and awe just back in August, when Dave Mac walked me in there and we talked about the possibility of an internship.

In a way November is flying past, but honestly, as I look back on it, it has crossed the threshold of busyness, where time passage goes from flying by due to systematic occupation to crawling along in slow motion because every day is packed with a million different, new things. I much, MUCH prefer it that way. That's the way I'd like to live my life. Mike Q nailed it when he said it was like "youth camp mode." Except its a more temporally diffuse goal, and my work happens in a STUDIO, with MUSICIANS, making MUSIC! :-)

Let me tell you about this Spanish album. Which reminds me, I need to send out an email about coming up with a legit name for it :) The idea started about 10 months ago, when a fellow from Iglesia Gracia Soberana began writing some cross-centered worship songs in Spanish. Gracia Soberana is a Spanish-speaking church plant that meets in the Covenant Life facilities on Sunday afternoons. The fellow was Mauricio Velarde, and the vision was to have a disc with some cross-centered worship songs, written natively in Spanish. Virtually all the current Spanish worship songs are either lacking theologically, or are gross translations of English songs, which have great theology but utterly no lyrical flow or artistry to them. The field is wide open for these songs, and as we reviewed what Mauricio had written, Bob decided to expand the scope, since the songs were solid, and we could easily have 10 of them to make a full-sized album. We assembled a crack team of CLC musicians, and together with Mauricio began rehearsls, trying to get a bunch of white guys to play some authentic Latin music :)

Last week was our first tracking session, and the project is in full swing now. It has been highly enjoyable working with these guys, who are seasoned from years of playing. The contrast between this and working in my home studio--scurrying between the computer desk and the microphone, constantly hampered by my own unsteady playing, unable to do much with mic placement--is remarkable. This is a privilege and a joy, and there are very few things I would rather be busy doing.

As I write this, I'm laying in the top bunk of our motor home, which is parked in Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina. The whole fam plus Uncle Keith is on Thanksgiving vacation. Yes, whole fam! Ken flew in to DC on Friday (well, early Saturday morning... long sordid tale), we drove to Pittsburgh that night (morning), and all trucked down to South Carolina to meet UK on Saturday. The weather has been gloomy and gray so far, and I have been quite sick, but it's nowhere near as unhappy as that makes it sound. It's fun just to be together, and dry humor is never far away. Neither is a cold Dr.Pepper, nor a walk to the beach, nor a game of corn hole, nor Uncle Keith's wireless internet :) Nor Daisy!! Ahh, good times. Hopefully tomorrow I'll get to try out one of UK's kayaks.

I know there's a lot I haven't covered here, but I think I updated the overall "feel" of things. A few other snippets:
- Leading worship at care group now, and everybody's singin' their hearts out
- Hanging out with Mauricio and his friends, amidst a din of Spanish conversation :)
- I'm learning a TON of Spanish! This is exactly what I've always wanted to do - be surrounded by it, and learn it conversationally.
- Oh goodness, me and Justin's trip to Cleveland for Steve Gole's wedding! Staying at Eric and Bethany's, playing on the worship team at church.. ah, it was a good weekend.
- Fee came and played a concert at CLC, and I got to help with setup and running sound. They put on a kicking show, and I have tons of respect for them for truly honoring and praising God through a rock concert... not an easy thing to do.
- Walking around singing Spanish worship songs all day every day. "Sal - vo, solo por Tu gracia!"
- Google Wave with the tech team. Super-helpful daily to-do lists. Super-fun, though dubiously productive, exchanges of humor and wit.
- Starbucks. Has anyone ever had a Flying Tiger at Starbucks? You should try it next time you go. Let me know what you think!
- Harvest party! Running sound for a bluegrass band, and getting an offer to play mandolin with them.
- Getting dropped into random things like running a camera on Sunday mornings. Good way to learn quick!
- I think I spent one other Monday at the zoo, and then another one at the National Museum of Natural History. Days full of wonderment, but also a great sadness as creature after creature, marvel after marvel was threatened or nearly extinct from mankind's heedless domination of the earth. This wasn't the way God intended it to go, and the planet truly is groaning and dying under the management of fallen humanity. Makes me deeply sad.
- Oh yes, goodness: my plans for 2010. Arg. They'll have to wait for another post. For now, my mind is running full speed, but so is my nose, so I need to go to bed and let my body continue to heal itself.

To God be the glory for the merciful, undeserved grace He has been pouring out! I do not know where this road will lead, and I don't need to right now. He has given me work to do that delights my heart and advances His kingdom, and He has provided a next step to take down the road of music production. Nothing could be more undeserved, but He is good and kind. My greatest desire (other than to see Him and be like Him) is to start every day on my knees before Him, and proceed in total dependance on God, seeking His help with every task, and His blessing on every decision. Without Him, all is naught. With Him, anything is joy!