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Last week I made a salad for my clients. Tuscan Lentil Salad. They asked me for protein-rich, healthy, and low-carb meals.

Since I cook for each client once a week (for the most part), I have to come up with a practical menu where the food is easy to eat straight from the container (on a lunch break at work), and most importantly – easy to reheat later in the week. Usually I put some kind of soup on the menu, like Tomato Bisque with Quinoa, or Creamy Cauliflower Soup with chunks of the veg floating joyfully inside, or another health miracle, my Beet Soup, also known as a liver cleanser. Most of the soups I make are loaded with variety of good stuff while staying very light in the calorie department.

It’s very important that there are fresh vegetables on the menu, but a regular green salad lasts a day. Hence, for my clients I opt for hearty salads that will stay fresh for up to three days. I play with grains like a 6-year old with LEGO blocks. One day it’s Wheat Berry mix, another Quinoa blend, Barley, Farro, you name it. Last week, however, I used a recipe by Julie Daniluk, a Canadian nutritionist and the host of Healthy Gourmet (a TV show) simply because it looked divine.

Photo credit: Julie Daniluk

Click on the photo above to get to the recipe itself.

When I was mixing all the ingredients at my clients’ kitchen, they both peeked over my shoulder and instantly requested a taste of the wonder. Let me just say that it didn’t end on a simple one bite tasting. An entire portion planned for one of the meals later in the week disappeared from the counter. A few minutes later, the husband returned to the kitchen with an empty container in hand, still licking his mouth.

“THAT WAS DELICIOUS.”

The wife only said:

“CAN WE PLEASE HAVE THIS SALAD EVERY WEEK?”

Your wish is my command. The salad became a staple on their menu. I also tested it on Jason and he loved every bite. Well, not the olive bite. I tried so hard to sneak some succulent, delicious olives into his bowl, but his olive detector would not be fooled. There are only few edible things Jason is on non-speaking terms with, and olives just happen to be one of those misfortunate bastards.

Since the Lentil Salad was such a success, I had to give credit where it was due. Julie Daniluk is a walking encyclopedia of food knowledge. Put any type of produce, nut, meat, you name it in front of her eyes and she begins to recite all the attributes of the food like a poem.

I will have you know also that Oprah Winfrey got a whiff of the Healthy Gourmet show, and with no avail had her people load all the goodies up on her new network’s website. Aha, just look at the web address when you visit the show’s web page.

I’ve studied nutrition for my own benefit over the years. However, I never went to school to bring that knowledge up to more comprehensive and organized level. Julie is the reason I started looking into various nutrition programs around the country that offer either the traditional, thus purely scientific approach, or more holistic one that produces life coaches. Keep your fingers crossed!  I’m very excited about this project.

Pst, one more thing. It occurs to me that I have more in common with Julie beyond the affection for healthy and whole foods. Me thinks there’s Polish blood flowing in her veins…

To Be Investigated!

Me thinks it’s the last call for a hearty, soulful, and comforting like a hug of your loved one stew. I’m wary of saying anything out loud not to jinx it, but it looks like the sun is back in LA after a long and cold (as in jackets, woolen hats and scarves COLD) winter. I know this does not compare to what people back east have experienced, but here in Los Angeles we have high weather expectations. And we’re kind of pussies like that. One proper Southern California winter with its 70°F and up will do that to you.

Evenings, however, are still rather nippy and thus call for a healthy comfort food.

Here’s a list of reasons why you should try my Farty Party Bean Stew:

1. It’s healthy, for it is full of fiber and protein.

2. It’s made in minutes, like twenty at the most (if you’re using canned beans…)

3. It’s on the leaner side, despite the company of pancetta.

4. It’s as filling as a sheet of big bubble wrap inside a fedex package, and just as flatulent.

Ok, let me pause here for a moment. We’re talking beans so don’t pretend you’re surprised to hear about their gassy quality. The good thing is that after a reasonable portion of this sinfully satisfying dish you’ll suffer the consequences over an afternoon, and all you’re left with are sweet memories of one flavorful meal. Whereas, if you “indulge” in a bucket of fried wings, or a dozen of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, or even Fettucini Alfredo from Olive Garden, not only you’re building a muffin top around your waste, but also you’re loading your body with crazy amounts of saturated fat, preservatives, and other toxic chemicals no one can even pronounce.

5. It’s taste is divine!

Farty Party Bean Stew

I’ll give you an approximate recipe for the above mentioned culinary gift of gods as you know me: what do I know about measurements?

You’ll need:

- Beans, various varieties: cannellini, kindey, pinto, wide white beans, what have you. A handful of each kind. If possible, go for dry beans and soak them overnight, then cook in unsalted water till tender. Drain. If not available, use canned ones and rinse them thoroughly under a stream of cold water to remove all that excess sodium.

- Pancetta, three 0.5″ thick slices of it will do. The fresh one from your butcher is the best. This way you’ll get to cut it in chunky chunks and then incorporate those ruby pork nuggets into your stew.

- Large onion, diced.

- Chicken or beef stew, about 1 cup. Or more, if you’re making a large batch of the stew.

- Tomato sauce, 14 oz can or an equivalent from a jar (always better than a can.)

- Tomato paste, 2-3 tbsp.

- Maple syrop (Grade B is the one you want!), 2-3 tbsp.

- Worcestershire Sauce, 0.5-1 tbsp (OPTIONAL).

- Fresh herbs: oregano, thyme, marjoram, all chopped, 2-3 tbsp total.

- Olive oil, 1 tbsp.

- Salt, pepper, paprika, chili pepper, all to taste.

- Fresh parsley, roughly chopped, to be added in the end.

I use a large cast iron pot as it carries and distributes heat like no other. Drizzle oil into the hot machine, add chunks of pancetta and let it render. Next, drop in the onion, a touch of salt, all your herbs, stir and let it soften over a low to medium heat.

After that it doesn’t get any simpler. Toss all your soft beans into the pot along with the rest of the ingredients (aside from the parsley), mix well, bring to a simmer and let them cook for 10 minutes, with a lid on and over low heat. Taste, season to your liking, let it simmer another 5 minutes, and kill the fire. Add a bunch of chopped parsley and serve.

I think the stew is phenomenal on its own, but you may want a slice of some good, rustic bread to go with it. Your instincts are correct. That piece of bread will make the meal complete and protect you from going for seconds. And thirds. Yes, I did it, mea culpa. I suffered the consequences, too, I must admit. Still, I think it was worth every bite!

Nonetheless, enjoy my Farty Party Bean Stew and may it be our mutual farewell to winter.

This morning, it wasn’t even 6 yet, I woke up to a strange screeching noise outside our window. At first I thought the stray cats that live around the building are in the middle of another turf war, since it’s a little early for their mating season. A series of whimpers got me confused. Are these quarreling squirrels? Before the sunrise?? They seem too loud and too persistent, unless… they sense an earthquake coming!! That got me out of bed, and with my eyes resenting to open I felt my way to the bathroom.

That’s when Jason’s alarm clock went off and I couldn’t believe it was already 6 AM. I had just fallen asleep, I thought, while those shameless critters are trying to take it away from me. I immediately exchanged notes with Jason on what he thought was making the noise.

“IT’S EITHER SQUIRRELS OR BIRDS. NOT CATS. THEY’RE EITHER FIGHTING OF FUCKING.”

Huh. Birds? How do birds fuck, I wondered, and decided I wasn’t ready to think just yet. Back under the covers I dove, two pillows over my head, and boy, did I try hard to ignore the whinnying and purring that continued outside.

Around 7 o’clock Jason crawled over the bed to kiss me good-bye as he was heading out to work.

Yes, making a hit show that “The Good Wife” is requires both the creative talents of the writers as well as hard work and personal sacrifices of the production and post production team. Jason, being the head of the latter, carries an incredible load of responsibility on his shoulders. And he does not take it lightly.

He headed towards the door, and silence followed. I waited for a few seconds for the sounds of the closing doors behind him. Instead, I heard him tip toe back to the bedroom and whisper:

“BABY, COME. QUICK! SHHH…”

“CAN YOU SEE THEM?” I instantly was on board to find out what was messing with my sleep at this ungodly hour.

“OH, YEAH!”

“ARE THOSE SQUIRRELS?” I breathed out as we approached the wide open door facing our backyard. My eyes scanned the ground, and saw nothing out of ordinary.

“LOOK UP” Jason pointed at the little roof above our neighbor’s Rachel’s front door across the yard from us.

Freezing my half naked self, I glanced in the direction given and was instantly awaken by the view that opened in front of my eyes…

After my initial stupefaction, I collected myself and ran for the camera. The raccoons were fully at it with surprising stamina after about two hours of continuous shagging. They considered us for a moment without losing a beat and went back to their task at hand clearly not impressed by their new audience.

The power of marketing, I thought! When Hallmark announces February The Month of Love, even raccoons comply.

I planned on posting a new recipe today, but suddenly found myself in a pickle. How do I segue from the furry bandits’ forbidden urban loving to my… FORBIDDEN RICE SALAD?  The common ground could be the fact that both myself and the fellow raccoon is an omnivore, and we both find immense pleasure in munching on either berries and greens, or a succulent thigh of a smaller animal, for example.

One of my ever strong guilty pleasures are hearty salads that are obvious for lunch, and brilliant for dinner in the place of heavy meals weighing one down before bed time. Any grain will work here. From quinoa to barley to wheat berries to rice, the sky is the limit. Whether you add greens to the grain, or grain to the greens is up to you. Clearly, the more rice, the more carbs in your plate, but if you’re an active, high-energy creature, you may want to refuel appropriately. We’re all different.

Once in a while I create new dishes from leftovers in my refrigerator. Since, I’ve had a container of cooked wheat berries in my ice-box over the last few days, that’s what I’ve been using in my salads this week. Another time, I pulled out a box of leftover forbidden rice and pondered how to utilize the goods. There was a ripe avocado smiling at me from the counter. Mr. Tomato was no less charming. Skinny cucumber was bored out of its mind in the produce drawer, and spinach threatened to wilt on the spot if not occupied at this instance.

There was no reason to fight, so I gathered the party in a bowl, seasoned with salt and pepper, drizzled with good olive oil (the extra virgin kind), and squeezed that sour smile of the lemon’s face all over the bunch. Toss, again, and once more. And get at it.

You’ll love the medley of textures in your mouth. From crunchy rice kernels to creamy avocado bits it all comes together into the most satiating, health-reviving, energy-boosting, and joy-awakening meal. And its simplicity should be encouraging even to the laziest of us. It’s easy to eat right. It’s just a matter of making one’s mind.

Right, Mr. Raccoon?

Bon Appetit!

Last month, when done with all my catering events, I found myself surrounded by an ocean of leftover fresh spinach. I had bought so much of it, turned out, I could fill the bath tub with all that green and sprinkle some more on the floor leading to our bedroom instead of rose petals. Talking about a healthy sex life!

However, since we were to leave first thing the following morning for our Christmas pilgrimage to East Texas, I was left with no choice other than to blanch the green entity in batches and freeze for later. The later came as soon as we returned to LA, when I opened the freezer and an avalanche of frosty green bricks fell out on my feet.

WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I TO DO WITH ALL THIS?

And the cooking fest began. First was Sautéed Spinach With Toasted Pistachios to accompany my Stuffed Chicken Thighs Wrapped in Bacon. (Thank you my buddy Gordon Ramsay for this decadent idea!) Next, I mixed the spinach, having thawed it out earlier (duh!), with shallots, garlic, and ricotta cheese thus turning it into a creamy filling for my Faux Ravioli (the same way I made them here). I made so much of it actually, I later used some of the mixture on Whole Wheat Crepes, folded them in four, and pan fried them into perfectly crispy Sides for my Beet Soup. A bunch of friends that came over for dinner that night saved me from devouring the entire pile by myself, the suckers were that good.

My favorite spinach transformation, however, was the dish I am about to describe, wherein the title-artichokes finally come to play their role.

If you’re one of those people that would die for a dip of an artichoke dip, but every time you allow yourself to indulge you feel awfully guilty, here comes your savior.

With the ever reliable help of my ordinary suspects–pancetta and frozen green peas–that are always in stock in my kitchen, plus a handful of frozen artichoke hearts, shallot, pistachios, tablespoon of mascarpone, salt and pepper, I was able to bring this goodness to life and declare THE END OF THE CALORIE-DENSE AND SOUL-POLLUTING ARTICHOKE DIP ERA.

The dish was ready in 15 minutes, since I was of such mind clarity to let the spinach thaw out the night before in the refrigerator. In a tiny drizzle of blended oil I sautéed some shallots first, added thinly sliced garlic and pancetta. When the fat rendered, I added pistachios, and a bunch of frozen peas and artichokes. Salt and pepper were not forgotten either. Over a slow heat, and under a lid, the veggies came to their senses and asked for Mr. Spinach to join his buddies. Another three minutes of that cuddle party and I was ready to finish the dish with a touch of mascarpone that gently spread its sweet and creamy arms all over the green meadow in the pan. Fold it once, twice, aaaand hop into a bowl. Believe it or not, that was my dinner, and I was fully satiated and content.

Try it. Let’s make the other cheesy and heavy dip retire already. Comfort foods are good especially when they are good for us. And they are good indeed. Oh, how good they are, I tell ya!

December is that time of year when everyone from Average Joe to Plain Jane hasten their steps in an attempt to find closure. Whether it’s personal matters like cleaning one’s teeth and de-cluttering their house, or a business deal that must be closed before the clock strikes midnight, all tasks are to be accomplished or else everything will turn into a pumpkin patch and Cinderella will run away barefoot.

The same commotion rules our house these days, hence my seldom presence in this cyber neighborhood. I’ve been meaning to sit down and tell you a story of a certain encounter, and a chat that followed…

Last month, while helping chef Fullilove shine his bright culinary light on LA food enthusiasts at the Test Kitchen, I ran into Ani Phyo, the raw food chef extraordinaire and author of four un-cook books. I think she’s working on her fifth now.

It’s funny how it happened really. All covered in flour dust while cutting beet pasta into long ribbons of vegan tagliatelle, I noticed this woman hanging around in the room, speaking gently on her cell phone, trying to be as non-intrusive as possible. Her voice I found very comforting and calming. Yes, I have a thing for voices. It turns me on if it strikes the right tone, and I don’t mean in a sexual way. At least not this time.

I digress.

The woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t match the face with a name in my head. She greeted us, asked about the pasta with an excited spark in her eye, and I couldn’t help but notice the voice again. Have I mentioned that I have a thing for people’s voices? I had to say something! Graciously she accepted my compliment and exited the room leaving nothing short of a shimmering glow behind. I saw her around over the two days I spent there, me working on Jason’s thing, her prepping for her event the following week. It wasn’t until I heard someone mention the name “Ani” and the word “raw” all in one sentence when it hit me.

I’VE GOT HER BOOK IN MY HOUSE! I’VE SEEN HER YOUTUBE VIDEOS. I KNOW WHO THE WOMAN IS!

Phew!

Ani Phyo in the kitchen of the Test Kitchen with Top Chef Alex Reznik.

Next thing I know, I’m stalking the poor gal around the kitchen premises hoping to score a short chat with her. For this blog. For YOU! Of course, it wasn’t the time nor place for it, so we settled for a phone conversation after her menu tasting at the Test Kitchen in mid November. However, Thanksgiving got in our way and it wasn’t until maybe last week that my phone rang at the precise time Ani said she would call.

I had a roster of questions I planned to bombard Ani with, but you know how it is. A conversation is a living creature, and so, as to be expected, it took us on its own ride. To begin, I wanted to know what was Ani’s definition of RAW FOODISM. She made it very uncomplicated by describing raw diet as fresh, whole foods made with ideally locally grown and organic ingredients.

“You can make a simple and delicious tomato and tarragon bisque straight from the blender. Or you can cook it, but that takes it longer and makes it more complicated” she explained.

Back in the day, when my eating habits were all over the map for reasons other than health, I went through raw stage myself. I read a ton about the diet, and learnt how complex and time-consuming its preparation was. Foods should be either completely raw or cooked in temperatures not exceeding 118° as to save the metabolism-boosting enzymes captured in the produce. Grains should be soaked in water for extended lengths of time in order for our stomachs to be able to digest them. If you wanted to get different textures you would have to dehydrate and/or powder some of your veggies. It wasn’t a diet for someone who works 10-11 hour days and wants to have a social life on top of that. Thank god, I lived in NYC back then where I had a raw food restaurant just a few blocks up, and a deli with fresh fruits and veggies cut and packaged daily for my convenience. My refrigerator stood empty for the entire five years that I was in Manhattan.

The memories of that period came back to me now, with Ani on the other end of the cable, and so I asked her about that whole process. Shockingly, she wasn’t very excited about dehydrating the food herself since in the process you lose, you know, the water. Then you need to drink it separately, and why would you do that if you can get both in one. Most of her recipes can be made very quickly, as she pointed out, using only a few kitchen essentials like a knife, a blender,  and a food processor, which I found stamped as little picture icons next to each recipe in her book, “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen“.  Speaking of the book, its cover presents Ani about to take a bite from a raw sandwich she’s holding in her hands. That thing looks so incredibly appetizing. Every time I glance at the bookshelf, I want to rip it off the page, lick the paper, and bite into the binding. I can TASTE it just by looking at the damn thing. You must check it out!

The idea of raw foods instantly whisks me away to tropical lands abundant with fresh produce… and sunshine! Would it be wise and practical to switch to an all raw diet for someone who lives in an area where winter comes and slaps you in the face with its snow falls and damp weather, I asked next?

“You can add heating ingredients, like chili pepper, or ginger to your food. However, everyone is unique and must listen to their body. I lived in Portland for four years, where it rained a lot, and my hands were constantly cold. I don’t know if it was good for me that I ate raw there. It depends on a person. Just listen to your body, and if you feel like you need something warm, eat something warm.”

Here’s where I really started falling for that girl because… she’s rational. She encourages people to stay healthy and live balanced lives as opposed to following some strict rules that lead to extremes.

“If you want to make changes in your diet” – Ani suggests – “start with whole ingredients.” (Meaning unprocessed, organic produce.) “Have gratitude, educate yourself and make choices based on that knowledge. Living a whole and balanced life is not only about the food, but also about your attitude, creating a strong bond with your community, giving back, and having gratitude.”

Having heard all that I couldn’t help but wonder: does Ani Phyo, the sexy queen of raw food movement, cheats on an occasion with what she consumes herself?

“Oh, yes, I cheat sometimes. How crazy do you want to get?” she asked laughing. “I love quinoa. I like tempeh, too. Just the other day, I wanted something warm, so I cooked myself a bowl of lentils. And sometimes, when I get the craving, I stop by Veggie Grill and get a veggie burger. And you know what, I have wheat intolerance, and I know I will have a stomach cramp and I will feel bad for a day, and I may even break out. But once in a while, if I want it, I just have a veggie burger.”

I was in love. A normal gal, sane, with all the pieces of furniture neatly organized in her head. It’s all about balance, people. Extremes never work long term and too often lead to eating disorders, which I myself learnt the hard way. Ani also admitted to having lived hard core raw for a decade, and today she realizes it wasn’t healthy for her.

So what does her day look like today food wise? She starts with two, three smoothies in the morning. She’ll blend blueberries, cashews, water and lecithin into a creamy drink and have it for breakfast. For lunch she may have a big green salad since she likes to work out mid day. After breaking a sweat, she may enjoy another smoothie while her metabolism is rolling. Dinner meal could be a bowl of lentils, a wrap, a salad, whatever strikes her fancy. Kelp noodles is something she raves about for a great addition to a salad.

When on the road, and she travels a lot, Ani always carries with her a bag of goji berries, nuts, maybe nori wrap or dried sea vegetables to nibble on. A banana, an orange and some peanut butter also travel well and help her get through parts of the country that don’t offer a wide array of fresh produce.

Ani Phyo's Raw Kale Chips

In the end I got all girly on her and dug for her beauty tips.

“I don’t put on my skin anything I wouldn’t eat, since it gets absorbed through the pores and gets into my blood stream. I use hobo oil to moisture my skin. Or coconut oil. I just rub it all over. I smell like a piña-colada and I love it. However, in winter I use hobo oil, because it sinks into the skin faster.”

Make-up she uses sporadically, not on a daily basis. Ani’s OK with mascara in moderation, not to be extreme. And if she uses eye shadows, she chooses spirulina based cosmetics.

All in all, it was such an inspiring exchange. Ani is gracious, laughs a lot, and takes herself lightly. Her beauty comes from within first. It’s her healthy mind and body that allow for her charms to express themselves in the physical form as well. She’s delightful to be around, and I hope for another chance in the future.

Feel free to visit her website and direct any questions to her via her Facebook fan page. That’s the best way to get a hold of her, she says.

In my next installment, I’ll include photos of the foods Ani Phyo wowed the crowds with at the Test Kitchen back in November. Stay tuned.

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