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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!

At first, you sit with your eyes wide open and the jaw hanging by your ankles mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of images thrown at you. You desperately want to understand what it is that you’re witnessing, but the scenery on the screen changes at such rate you just sink deeper into your couch more perplexed and confused. Only a few minutes passes when you get put off by the steady current of F**Ks and BLOODY H**Ls flowing out of the TV monitor with the might of a mountain stream in springtime. Next, you see a few pots thrown in the air followed by commands with a Cockney accent (get excited):

HOT SKILLET.

OIL.

SEASON.

TOSS.

MARINADE.

CHILL.

BAKE.

REST.

DONE.

That in a nutshell is Gordon Ramsay’s show THE F WORD that I’ve discovered recently on BBC.

There’s so much happening on the show, it took me a few full episodes to understand the concept behind each one. Gordon brings in a team of four people to cook at his kitchen. The patrons are the judges as they have the right not to pay for food they dislike. In between the bits of the competition Gordon travels to the end of the world, and then along the Milky Way searching for various delicacies. While he’s hog hunting, his colleague tries to convince the entire United Kingdom to eat veal and domestic beef rather than imported meat from such dubious locations as Turkey, POLAND, and Portugal. (Why the meat from my homeland is a NO-NO beats me, but that’s their show. I’m still alive and kicking despite the fact that I grew up consuming embarrassing amounts of Polish meat. Unless… they care about their carbon print. Aha! Me likey.)

Despite all the above I got hooked. I tivo and watch every episode. Sometimes more than once. Not only have I grown to like Gordon, and I mean I really really like him, but also I find myself snapping the back of my right hand against my left palm when making a point. Call me Ramsay.

Clearly, I had to share my enthusiasm with someone. Hence I force-fed Jason THE F WORD (f for food, hopefully). After initial strong resistance, finally he also admitted chef Ramsay was highly entertaining.

The show is different. It is British after all. What I like the most, however, are Gordon Ramsay’s recipes he shares on the screen. All of you who have been following me on these pages know I don’t cook much red meat or pork. The consumption of meat especially in this country is through the roof these days severely affecting the balance in Nature and more directly our health. I do use pancetta; little bits and pieces of that Italian bacon are enough to add a depth of flavor to any given dish without the need to eat half a pig at one sitting.

This may have been the third time over two years that I cooked pork for dinner. It only shows you how enticing the food made by chef Ramsay is. Below, I retraced the steps Gordon commanded me to take when making his pork chops with crashed sweet potatoes. My twist are the roasted beets and carrots. Voila!

SPICED PORK CHOPS WITH ROASTED BEET ROOTS & CARROTS

Begin with a marinade. Crash coriander seeds (about 1 tsp) with star anise (4-5) in a pestle and mortar. Toss the powder into a bowl and add the following:

-       1 tsp chili powder

-       1 tsp smoked paprika

-       2 tsp fresh thyme

-       2 cloves of garlic, minced

-       kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, generous pinches

-       2-3 tbsp olive oil

Mix all the components and spread all over the pork chops. (When buying the meat, choose the kind on the bone. Ask the butcher to expose the bone for you. Not only the pork chop has a more dramatic effect when plated, but also baking meat on the bone assures for a moist and flavorful dish.) Cover that with a plastic wrap and chill in a refrigerator for minimum 2 hours. When ready, take the pork chops out, heat a little olive oil in an ovenproof skillet and add your meat. You want to color the chops on each side and then bring the whole skillet to a preheated (400°) oven for 8-10 minutes. Take the meat out and rest for 10-15 minutes in order to let all the juices get back inside the meat. If you were to cut it right away, all that nectar would seep out onto your plate leaving the chops dry and utterly depressed.

While the pork chops relax on the side, into the same hot oven slide a tray with peeled and quartered beets. Make sure that they are seasoned with salt and pepper and moistened with olive oil before you sent them in! Half an hour to 40 minutes should do the trick.

You can add spice to your meal by adding a drizzle of Balsamic Vinaigrette, or Basil Vinaigrette. Let the flavors and colors of fresh produce bring your dish to live. If it looks appetizing, followed by a great taste, even your child (or your sister’s) will devour the veggies just as fast as the meat. In other words, no one’s safe around GOOD & HEALTHY FOOD. Eating habits, limitations, mental blocks dissipate when one’s nostrils get teased with the meal’s aroma. A beautiful arrangement of elements on a plate tempts the eyes. The hands will resist no longer and bring a bite to the deprived mouth. There’s no turning back from here.

Welcome to my Heaven. Make yourself at home, my friend.

Last Friday I sat down with TOP CHEF Season 5 finalist, Stefan Richter, at his LA FARM restaurant here in Los Angeles.

We first met about three years ago when I was still working in the sales department of a moving company. I came over to Stefan’s tiny cottage (one room with an attached kitchenette) in Santa Monica to give him an estimate of a moving cost. I knocked on the door and was greeted by this bald guy, who on top of his accent spoke so fast it took me a few minutes to adjust and to understand him. Talking to Stefan, in fact, is like playing racquetball. It requires reflex and focus. His words, like the ball, shoot out with such speed that they bounce around all over you, on the floor and against the walls. If you want a fair game, you better pick up your racquet and hit back. Otherwise he’ll talk you to death.

When I began to turn around in his apartment (again, it was the size of a shell of a pistachio, so to say that I WALKED AROUND would be an overstatement) one glance at his wall brought instant shivers to my back. There was a set of SHARP and SUPER POINTY KNIVES attached to a magnetic rack mounted above the sink in his kitchen. I had no clue what his profession was at the time, mind you. All I knew was that I was writing down an inventory at a stranger’s bedroom feeling the bald guy’s breath on my neck (have I mentioned the size of that place?) while from across the room the knives watched my every move, patiently hanging on the wall. And then he started flirting with me.

Ten minutes after I left, Stefan called me to ask if I was married or if I had a boyfriend. He made me laugh.

GIVE ME A GOOD PRICE AND I’LL MAKE YOU A VEGAN DINNER AFTER I’M MOVED. WE’LL CELEBRATE.

I jacked up the price and booked the job. The dinner promise was never fulfilled, but we did become friends and raised a few toasts together after all.

Many rivers have dried since those days. I am no longer a vegan, and funny enough now I cook for a living myself. Stefan went on the TOP CHEF, got a national recognition, and soon after opened two restaurants in Santa Monica, CA – STEFAN’S LA FARM and STEFAN’S ON MONTANA. He also has a book deal and a clothing line coming up later this year called COCKY CHEF CLOTHING.

Mirror Reflection

It’s been almost a year since I saw him, and when I arrived at LA FARM last Friday all that past time went out the window when I heard Stefan’s:

SR: Hi Agi. You cut your hair! WHY?

AG: You no likey?

SR: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I prefer long hair on a girl.

AG: Yes, you’re very traditional in certain aspects.

As it was the lunch hour, the place was slowly getting busier and appropriately louder, hence we made ourselves comfortable at the private section of the restaurant – an elegant and quiet banquet room.

Banquet Room at LA FARM

First, I wanted to understand what being a chef meant to him:

AG: Stefan, tell me what makes one a chef, beside schooling and/or training.

SR: Go to restaurants. Try their food. See what you like.

AG: What does make one a good chef?

SR: Look at the restaurant. Is it busy or not? That’s the deal. It’s not just about being a chef. It’s about being smart. It’s a business, too.

AG: Do you still enjoy cooking?

SR: Of course, I do.

AG: Do you cook every day?

SR: Yeah.

AG: Do you ever cook at home? Does your refrigerator today have anything else beside beer in it?

SR: Nope. I don’t eat at home.

AG: What is the hardest part of your job?

SR: People. Dealing with the employees.

Dealing with Employees

AG: Apropos, I talked to one of your employees. He said it takes a thick skin to work for you, but at the same time he’d never seen anyone cook like you do.

Stefan would never admit he enjoyed the compliment, but I did see a shadow of a smile tinkering in the corner of his eyes upon hearing it. I asked nevertheless:

AG: How do you feel hearing that?

SR: I couldn’t give a shit. I don’t care because this is business and people have to understand that. If I’m running a business, and my business doesn’t make it, they’ll all go somewhere else. They’ll get another job. If I fuck up this business, what am I supposed to do? Go back to Finland?

AG: You were doing pretty well on your own, before the show, before the restaurant. Your catering business is still thriving.

SR: I know, but still. I’ll look like an idiot if I lose this restaurant.

AG: So how is the business?

SR: It’s great. It’s been nine months. We do 240 lunches on average, 180 dinners.

From LA FARM's menu

AG: How is STEFAN’S ON MONTANA different from LA FARM?

SR: MONTANA is simple, local. It’s inexpensive here as it’s inexpensive there. Main course here, Steak Frites is $17. You’ve got to be smart about it. The economy is bad.

AG: What’s your favorite cuisine?

SR: I don’t know. Let me think about it for a second. I don’t have a favorite one. I like everything. I love food. I love to cook, anything. That’s why I do it for a living. By the way, isn’t it funny? Look at my wine rack. There are two different bottles in there…

…And just like that Stefan gets distracted as his ADD gets the better of him. When he rearranges the bottles on the shelf, I manage to get him to sit back on his tuchas for a few more minutes. I wan to know if anyone else besides me sees the similarity between him and another chef, über famous British star Gordon Ramsay. Both are hyper, cocky and swear like … chefs. I’ve been watching Ramsay’s show called THE F WORD…

SR: Like fuck? (laughing)

AG: Like food.

SR: A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a normal thing in a restaurant business. There’s an old saying: if you can’t take the heat, stay away from the stove. If you want to be in this business, you have to shut the fuck up and deal with it for a while.

However, unlike chef Gordon who says anyone can develop and train their palette, Stefan is convinced it’s a talent one must be born with. “You either have it or you don’t.”

Beside the passion for making food and European heritage, we don’t have many things in common with Stefan. The more so was I surprised and pleased to learn that he gives a damn about his carbon footprint.

SR: I only have American product – American meat, American wine and beer. The economy is bad in America. Why would I bring shit from Europe and put a carbon footprint out on something on top of that?

AG: Where do you get your produce?

SR: I get California produce, so I go to a farmer’s market. Certain farmers drop off their tomatoes here, their potatoes, etc.

AG: What’s next for you?

SR: I’m writing a book that I have to finish by the end of the year.

AG: And what’s the name of your ghostwriter? (laughing)

SR: No, for real, I’m writing it myself. Do I have an editor that will go through it and correct it later? Absolutely. But I am writing it. I started it about 7-8 years ago.

AG: So tell me about the book.

SR: It’s about my life – stories, recipes, bullshit. Every chapter has a recipe.

And some day, down the line, he also “wouldn’t mind a couple of kids with the right person”. In the meantime, it’s all about business.

AG: Are there chefs you look up to, someone you would consider a mentor?

SR: Not really. Do I think there are great chefs that I respect? Absolutely. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], Thomas Keller… They are great business people. But do I look up to them? I regard people with whom I have valuable business.

AG: At last, but not least, what dish would you recommend to my readers if they wanted to make an easy and yet gourmet meal?

SR: Risotto. If you have a date make a risotto. It’s easy and you can make it vegetarian or with meat. There are a lot of options.

Stefan at his kitchen at LA FARM

I left the Finnish chef at LA FARM and I headed over to his other restaurant, STEFAN’S ON MONTANA, to check out the new, local breakfast-lunch-and-dinner joint.

In front of STEFAN'S ON MONTANA

When I was bending over the menu trying to snap a photo, an older gentleman approached me, and inquired if I was anybody’s friend at the place. “I’m friends with Stefan Richter.” I offered to which the man reached out his hand and introduced himself (and his wife sitting nearby with their dog) as the co-owner of both restaurants.

Later, I texted Stefan:

JUST MET YOUR PARTNER. FUNNY, YOU NEVER MENTIONED YOU HAD ONE. A LOVELY MAN.

To which Stefan replied:

Text Message from Stefan

Followed by another message from chef Richter a few minutes later:

YOU LOOKED GOOD. NICE BUTT. JUST A COMPLIMENT.

Many things he isn’t. You can’t expect to have a deep, existential debate with Stefan. He is one opinionated guy and will offer his point of view on any matter in the world. Most of the time, however, it’s just a fluffy cloud of clichés and one liners with no substance. One thing he is though is his business. A typical only child, he doesn’t know how to share himself, his attention, his time, unless it is beneficial for his affairs. People either love him or hate him. While the first admire his confidence, the latter are put off by his cocky attitude. Whichever way you see Stefan, he is a greatly talented chef and a successful businessman.

I’m quite certain we’ll be hearing more of Stefan Richter in the future. In the meantime, someone get me a cocktail. I’m exhausted.

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