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Missed me? Good. I missed you, too. All the writing I’d done over the last year and a half about my love for cooking, and my dream to turn this passion into a bill-paying hobby now has come to fruition. The fact I’m here so seldom these days is due to my fully booked schedule. Yoohoo!

Last month I was working closely with my dear friend and a talented vegan chef, Melissa Costello of KarmaChow, on a project that involved cooking three meals a day for a group of 15 people over a period of three weeks. You can imagine our hands were full. However, I returned home with a roster of recipes that will serve as an inspiration to my own meals that I’ll then exhibit on these pages for you to enjoy.

Instead of a recipe, however, today I want to introduce you all to an Australian food stylist and a celebrity chef, Donna Hay. OK, some of you may not be that impressed as you and Donna go way back. Good for you! I myself, however, only discovered her last year, and, what can I say, I was head over heals for the Aussie gal and her culinary chops.

There are books, videos, an Australian TV show on food styling, and the magazine I’m a fan of. Only six or seven issues a year, which come to America with an irritating delay. Nonetheless, I am able to snatch each one every two months or so from my local Barnes & Noble. And so can you. I invite you to look through its pages for not only a gold mine of brand new recipes, but also the stylings of the dishes Donna and her team put together. Her signature color, pale blue, transcends across most of the recipes creating a casual, somewhat relaxing, and yet very elegant image. Juxtaposed against that gently humming background are vibrant reds, greens and yellows that make all dishes presented jump out of the pages. Literally! The arrangements on plates are an artistic expression in its own right. Simplicity screams through all Donna’s creations. Each element on the plate is exposed while being a coherent part of the entire dish, and yet there’s no chaos. Brilliant!

Even Oprah (I can’t believe I’m mentioning her visit to Australia once again, as if there wasn’t enough talk about it already) knew who to call when in the Aussie Land in order to have a feast of senses of her life…

 

It’s only fair to mention that my attitude towards Oprah is rather bitter-sweet, to put it mildly. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with BITTER-SWEET, especially when it comes to such chocolate bites sprinkled over thick slices of French Brie and topped with fresh basil chiffonade, then enclosed within two crispy slices of sourdough bread and melted in a panini maker. Aha! That’s a little secret I know from my gal, Giada De Laurentiis, and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me spilling the beans.

And just like that I snuck in a recipe. A little bonus before I get down to sharing more of my own culinary tips and ideas. Check out the Australian cook extraordinaire and try something new today. Let your curiosity be stirred and your taste buds tickled. Always try to use the best, the purest, the freshest ingredients, and the pay off will be ongoing though your lasting satisfaction, infectious happiness, and vitality!

I can’t believe I haven’t been here in so long. I can’t believe you’ve been coming back and checking in all this time. I can’t believe you haven’t given up on me. I bow to you in gratitude while applauding your clearly divine patience.

What’s been going on is delicious and note worthy. December was cooked into a gourmet month in its entirety. Suddenly my name was passed from mouth to mouth and I landed catering gigs and other fun events of sorts that kept me tied to my stove.

To keep the long story short, I’m attaching a few photos from the above mentioned moments of what later turned out to be a great success:

Beef skewers with sweet potato, grape and chimichurri sauce.

Coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate and polished for the party.

One of my brilliant helpers, Molly, working my Goat Cheese Tarts like she means it.

The #1 Crowd Pleaser: Beef Sliders w/ Balsamic Shallots

One bites: Cherry Tomatoes with Goat Cheese and Balsamic Glaze

Those are just the few snapshots I was able to take in the midst of the festivities. As soon as all the parties were over with, I was home in a bath tub filled with hot waters and enhanced with silky oils. The bath was mandatory if I were to get up early the following morning and pack for our trip East.

There, as in Texas, we entered virgin (to me) territories of disc golfing. Having successfully scattered all my discs all over the four adjacent fields, and that’s not what I were to aim for, I decided at last to let the others do the work while I laid in the grass to contemplate. Things seemed to look more interesting from that angle.

Three Musketeers of disc golfing at it.

Also, it was cold. Cold it was. Have I mentioned it was really, really cold out there?

The more so we enjoyed getting back into the warmth of the Harkins’ family’s house right in time for Christmas celebrations. Santa lost his marbles this year, clearly, as the mountain of presents that built up around the tree was making me dizzy just by looking at it. It could only be compared, I imagine, to the impression Uluru Mountain in Australia made on Oprah on her recent trip to Australia. All we wanted to do at the sight of our holy hill of presents was to close our eyes and meditate over its natural beauty.

Not for long. The children soon arrived and the mass destruction began. Neatly wrapped boxes proceeded to fly across the room, ribbons got ripped impatiently, and the wrapping paper torn into confetti.

Don’t be fooled by the innocent faces of those two little munchkins. They know their game, trust me.

It all stil looks neat and sane, doesn’t it? Just wait.

Heavy duty trash bags and oxygen masks were required to bring this war zone back to civilized conditions.

Then, suddenly I realized Cosmo went missing. How could he have not really? My instant reaction was to scream:

FREEZE! NOBODY MOVES. EMPTY THE TRASH BAG RIGHT NOW.

I did it with my inside voice, thank god. I had put that family through enough already with my shopping cart rides across their local Walmart, and then again by asking for vibrators at their local BEST BUY when the nice salesman offered to help us with any electronics we may be in need of. It’s a small town, by the way. I’ll say no more.

At the peak of my panic, I glanced just below my feet (the monkey in me climbed up the couch to take a few shots of the surrounding madness) and saw Cosmo tucked between the cushions… those of the sofa itself and those belonging to Jason’s mom…

I feel like I should end this ramble-o-thon right about now, but then it wouldn’t be complete without Paula Dean, would it?

The Queen of Southern Coking opened the Rose Bowl Parade herself, and Jason and I were there on the crisp morning of the New Year in Pasadena, and our asses we froze, and off the bucket list we took part taking in the thing forever. Alleluia.

Though we also snapped a big bucket of photos, I think I’ve exhausted my audience, my blog space, and my own self with this vomit of stories. Please, forgive my erratic behavior on these pages. I’m just a girl… who likes to cook and then write about it. I can’t control everything else that falls in between.

Happy New Year, Everybody. I’m excited to go through it with you again. Cheers!

Working from home turned me into a Neanderthal woman.

Now, what does working from home entail? The fact whether you get paid for it or not is an irrelevant technicality. Remember that money never defines you. My new trade consists of whipping out versatile dinners for at least 5 nights a week, tossing loads of dirty clothes through the laundry machine (most of it Jason’s since, you know, the Neanderthal factor), vacuuming the three area rugs spread across our apartment twice a day of all the nasty little wooden shells that have been falling off the trees surrounding our apartment and consequently dragging themselves inside our chamber of love underneath ours shoes for the last MONTH. Gasp for air. Other activities of a house worker involve watching Oprah and Food Network, Skyping with Mother, Cousin, and our handsome gay neighbors, scrubbing the bathroom floor with a toothbrush (oops, nope, that’s Jason), and writing.

Anyone who’s ever tried as much as to write a letter understands that the task is unlike riding a bicycle – once you’ve written something good it doesn’t mean you’ll now produce quality pieces with ease happily ever after. And it never gets easier. True, there are days I shoot out articles in no time, as if I dissolved 3 tablespoons of verbal Metamucil in a glass of aloe vera juice with a heavy drop of senna extract and washed it down my throat. However, quite commonly I just sit in front of my laptop and glance at its blank screen with such intensity I make myself run to the bathroom even without drinking the above-described concoction. That helps putting down the first paragraph on the page. Then nothing, nothing for a long time, and a little more nothing before the next paragraph sees daylight. Sometimes I find myself walking Cosmo, washing dishes, and knitting a sweater between single sentences. So when people (women especially) tell me “Don’t talk to me about pain till you give birth”, I scorn the challenger with the ole good “Been there. Done that. Three times a week, at least.”

Yes, art requires sacrifices. First went the manicure and pedicure. Next, I killed make up. I take that back. I never leave the house without a few touches a concealer on my skin and brushing my eyebrows. The latter is especially crucial if I want to avoid causing any traffic accidents when women faint and children scream terrified by my sight, while old people gawk at me thinking “I thought I had seen it all…” It also takes an effort to ensure I have a fresh shirt on my back every morning. I suspect I could save money on heating the apartment if I finally got the nerve to burn all my bras. My boobs haven’t seen one in months, because, why bother? There are days I forget to shower. It’s gotten so bad in fact that lately I started having nightmares where my various …uhm… [I’m whispering that one] hairy parts are being exposed in public.

Irrefutably, crazy love and pure exhaustion keep my boyfriend from running away, maybe even blinded. When he comes home and hands me “You look beautiful. I love you” like a bouquet of flowers, I instantly look behind me expecting to see Eva Mendes stretching her baby-oiled body against the wall and sporting the Calvin Klein underwear. Is he really talking to me?

Such an image inevitably brings forth fear and motivation. For instance, I have already showered three times today, filed my nails, put on some make up even though the only things we had planned for the day was a quick trip to a coffee shop and a walk with our dog around the block. I applied all sorts of grooming, which I shall NOT describe. My efforts paid off faster than I thought when Jason and I walked by a Victoria’s Secret’s store and left with three new pairs of lace unmentionables.

All that pampering made me feel like a woman again, the modern variety with manicured hands, waxed unthinkable places, and trying to fit in clothes two sizes too small.  As such, I couldn’t fathom feeding my body with anything more than a simple salad.

MÂCHE WITH AVOCADO AND MUSTARD VINAIGRETTE

The name of the salad pretty much says it all. If you’re not familiar, mâche is also known as cow grass. Its leaves are very delicate and it is mild in taste.

Empty a bag of mâche into a large bowl; dice a ripe avocado and spoon it out on top of the greens. Feel free to add chopped scallions and diced tomato if you crave some color. It will all go swimmingly together. Now drizzle your salad with the dressing (recipe below). Gently toss everything around, and voila! Enjoy the treat and feel healthy, light, and beautiful. Size does not matter …in this case.

MUSTARD VINAIGRETTE

-       3 parts of good quality extra virgin olive oil

-       1 part of white balsamic vinegar

-       1 tsp of Dijon mustard

-       1 tbsp of honey

-       sea salt + freshly ground black pepper to taste

Whisk it in a small bowl, or shake it up in a closed jar, or best – mix it together in a blender (or Magic Bullet) until the vinaigrette is evenly emulsified. It’s that simple. And so delightful!

Smacznego!

Every year about this time, the flu comes around and does its damage. Consequently, there’s a lot of sniffling, coughing, sweating, and pill-popping happening. This year we got the swine variety, and everyone and their mothers lost their minds, following shameless media propaganda. I almost got worried for a second myself, but thank god, Jason grabbed my shoulder just in time, span me around, shook me up with his manly might, and spoke to my senses.

“Woman, where’s your reason? Every year the flu takes down a few thousands of people. Those usually are the folks of older age, and with pre-existing illnesses. For those poor souls any kind of flu, some times even a cold could be deadly.”

Thus the man convinced the woman, and the sun shone again, and the birds chirped lightheartedly at the sight at dawn.

I’m not trying to dismiss the lethal potential of the flu. I’m not a doctor, so my opinion is rather vulnerable. However, I don’t think there’s a reason to panic. Several of my friends fell victim of the virus. They felt like shit for about a week, with fever of 103 degrees, and violent vomiting tormenting their bodies. Not fun. Still, doctors let them go home with no medication prescribed, as those were in short supplies and thus reserved for pregnant women, children and others with life-threatening symptoms. None of the people I know, that have gone through the piggy flu, had had any complications. They simply did what one does with a regular flu – let it wear itself out, while drinking lots of fluids, resting and watching Oprah.

My own weapon against the virus is my will power. At the slightest scratch in the back of my throat I simply say “Naha! It ain’t happening. I am HEALTHY and FLU-FREE”. (Say it fast five times in a row.) I block the concept of getting sick out of my consciousness. I’m not even kidding you, twenty-four hours later I barely remember I was coughing the day before. Works like magic every time. You should try it, too.

On most days I have an appetite of a small horse, which once again proves I’m a picture of health. I made a pot of BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO, for instance, and we destroyed it with Jason in two days over 3 meals. Part of the “problem” was Risotto itself – its symphony of flavors, the sweet juxtaposed against the savory, the heat, the comfort, the rainbow across the sky, the BUTTERflies…

Butternut Squash Risotto

Before I move on, I want to test if you’ve been paying attention. Does the post read a little funny today? Does my English “sound” Polish all of a sudden? Wonder why? I haven’t gone mad, and yes, I’ve been taking all my vitamins. I simply needed to let my editor (Jason) off the hook for a few days or so, as his work turned into a circus on wheels. Jason has been putting in 16-20 hr days. Yes, you’ve heard me – twenty hours just yesterday. He’s already doing more than an average person is capable of, so understandably I am on my own for now, and you just have to deal with my accent.

If you’re feeling a little under the weather these days, BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is an ideal meal to quickly boost your energy levels. Chicken soup is so last season. What you need to know about Risotto is that the dish requires some loving, as you can’t really dump the rice and veggies into a pot and walk away. You need to tend to it, gently stir the rice around, sprinkle with spice, love, and fairy dust, and whisper sweet things into the pot’s ear. Know it will all come back to you in a bowl – the food made of love. What BETTER nourishment than that?

Let’s get the ingredients ready:

-       Butternut Squash

-       6 cups of chicken broth (1.5 carton)

-       4 oz diced pancetta

-       1 onion

-       6 cloves of garlic, minced

-       3 tbsp BUTTER

-       1.5 cups Arborio rice

-       0.5 cups of white wine (the kind you’d enjoy drinking)

-       big pinch of saffron

-       1 tbsp dry marjoram

-       1 cup Monterey Jack Cheese (grated)

-       1 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped

-       salt + black pepper to taste

-       1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat an oven to 400˚. Cut the squash in cubes. Spread them in one layer on a sheet pan, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and some dry herbs (whatever you’ve got – marjoram, Herbes de Provence, oregano…). Shove the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes or until soft.

Cutting up Squash

Heat the chicken broth in a pot and keep it on over a very low heat. Throw pancetta into a separate pot, let the fat render, and then add the BUTTER. When it melts, toss the onion into that pool of yummy fat. Sprinkle all with salt and pepper, add the marjoram, and mix them together. Let the onions sweat for a minute or two to release their sweetness and fuse in with the herbs. Your minced garlic is next in line – into the pot it goes. Stir once more.

Here comes the rice. Chuck it into the same pot with the onions and cracklings, incorporate with all the flavors, and cook for a moment letting the rice kernels toast. Now pour in the wine and let it grab all the bits of flavor off the bottom of your pot. Reduce the heat to low.

The fun part begins with the first 2 ladles of the heated chicken stock you’ll add to the rice. You need to stir it almost non-stop as the liquid gets absorbed. With your free hand, season the dish with salt and pepper as you go. Every few minutes you’ll add another 2 ladles of the broth, and continue to stir. Keep going until all stock is gone, and the risotto is cooked.

Roasted Butternut Squash

Before you turn off the heat completely, add the roasted squash, your grated cheese, and fresh dill. Now, kill the fire. Give it two or three more stirs until the cheese melts and binds the dish together for the rest of its days. Your BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is ready to serve. And it should be… served immediately.

In the end, your throat is warmly coated, your belly is fed and comforted, and your right bicep is twice the size of your left gun. It’s a win-win every way you slice it. And really, what’s BETTER than BUTTER? Particularly when it’s sweet and savory, not BITTER.

I’ll go take my vitamins now.

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