Nora O'Connor: Green Room Food and Risotto Cakes

This in-demand backup musician counts on hot toddies and pho to keep her voice ship-shape

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That enchanting blur you saw flying across Chicago the other day was Nora O’Connor, moving from a daytime recording session with her all-star band the Flat Five (or maybe the legendary Mavis Staples), to a nighttime gig singing with Andrew Bird (or maybe Robbie Fulks or Neko Case), to the airport to fly to New York (or maybe L.A.) to play guitar and sing on Fallon (or Conan) with The Decemberists (or Iron and Wine). She’s been called Chicago’s secret weapon, but the secret is out of the bag, so let’s just call her a weapon, or better yet an arsenal. After all, she is armed with a sweet voice, killer pitch, and reliable chops on guitar, bass, and percussion, enabling her to leap effortlessly from session to session, gig to gig, and instrument to instrument.

Paste chatted with O’Connor as she embarked upon a European tour with The Decemberists, with whom she is playing guitar and singing. And eating bread. Lots of bread. As a highly sought-after back-up musician, O’Connor has spent a substantial amount of time on the road, and she has some good tips for gig-day dining (“keep it brothy”). While we appreciate her words of wisdom about eating on the road, we especially appreciate her ad hoc recipe for the risotto cakes she loves to make when she’s back home. What’s her secret? She shares it generously: “You need to let that shit caramelize.”

Paste: You’re at a truck stop, you’re starving, and you have five minutes to assemble a meal. Describe that meal.
Nora O’Connor: Lately, truck stops have a better selection of granola bars, power bars, meal replacement bars (so many names). I would scan those first and then check the scary fruit bowl on the counter to see what looks least waxy. I like to think this will hold me over until I can get a hot meal. If I know it’s gonna be a long stretch I’ll grab some nuts and jerky too!

Paste: When you’re traveling, what food from home do you crave?
NO: I miss my salad dressing. I have a couple of very simple recipes. Decent extra virgin olive oil is very nice but no need to be too bourgeois-y. I like a simple lemon juice, olive oil, kosher salt, and pepper dressing. But if I’m feeling ambitious I’ll combine champagne vinegar, olive oil, Dijon mustard, garlic or shallots, honey, salt, and pepper in a mason jar. Shake and pour. I don’t measure, just a lil’ this and that. That’s why I’m a horrible baker.

Paste: Do you have any superstitious pre-show drink rituals?
NO: Yeah, don’t get drunk Nora! Actually, 99% of the time I will have a glass of wine while I’m putting on makeup before the show. I like my whole ritual of makeup and hair curling, it kinda calms me down, and the wine—that helps too. If I’m not still learning the songs for that night’s show I like to listen to other music I can harmonize with, like Cody Chesnutt.

Paste: Do you have any secret special singing concoctions?
NO: If my voice is fried (or my nerves), I love a hot toddy: hot water, bourbon, lemon, honey, and a dash of cayenne pepper.

Paste: Is there anything special you like to eat before you play a show? Or anything you definitely do not like to eat before you play?
NO: I try to keep a three-hour window between a meal and show time. If I had my way, I would go for a good bowl of Vietnamese Pho, hands-down my favorite afternoon meal on show day. It’s not always easy to find, but I’m starting to find it more and more. It’s good to keep it brothy.

I can’t do Indian food the day of the show. Or let’s say I shouldn’t. But sometimes when in Rome (or Baltimore…)

Paste: What’s your favorite thing to cook in February?
NO: I love making risotto in the winter. I like to make my own chicken stock, and I usually have some in the freezer. I haven’t perfected it, so I tend to add a scoop of “Better Than Bouillon” to bump up the flavor. It’s also a dish I like to make vegetarian (mushroom, butternut squash, or risotto verde) just in case one of my many veggie pals is coming over. And I’ll admit half the reason I love making risotto is that I can make risotto cakes later in the week! Oh, and drinking the white wine you have to use in making risotto. Sipping and stirring. Stirring and sipping.

Paste: Please tell us how to make risotto cakes!!
NO: Oh dear, I love all savory cakes. Salmon, crab, black bean, scallion…bring me the cakes! I combine leftover risotto with an egg, a little flour and some breadcrumbs. I form little cakes, roll them in a bit more flour, and pan-fry them in canola oil. It’s simple, but be patient and let that shit caramelize! They are great for brunch over greens with a fried egg on top.

Paste: What’s the dinner scene like on the Decembrist’s tour?
NO: I played my first show with them last night in Dublin. I think they are an adventurous bunch and I foresee some nice meals ahead. We will have catering most days after soundcheck, a few proteins, starch, salads, soup, that kinda thing. But here I am, day three of a three-week European tour and I already lost count of how much bread I’ve eaten. So. Much. Delicious. Bread. And. Creamy. Butter.

Paste: Who has better greenroom food, Fallon or Conan?
NO: Conan has the best greenroom. It’s a really nice open lounge. They even have a couple of massage chairs. They always have good snacks, but we usually go for the nachos at the commissary.

Fallon doesn’t have much—those New York studios are tiny. But it’s Jimmy Fallon and he’s delicious. Although I can’t compare my crushes on Conan and Jimmy. It’s complicated.

Freda Love Smith is a drummer and writer whose food memoir, Red Velvet Underground, is forthcoming on Agate. She blogs at Follow her on twitter: @fredalovesmith.