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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.

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!

A quick cheat sheet to whom it may concern: one doesn’t need to go to a culinary school (all fingers point at moi), nor be a self-trained chef (all fingers, once again: ready, aim, fire!) to make eggs like one.

On weekends, Jason and I like to sit down at our ginormous dining table for a proper breakfast, without the usual running from the refrigerator to the bathroom sink, exchanging a banana for a toothbrush, while getting ready for another work day. Most of the time, we celebrate either Saturday or Sunday with a plate of ever fabulous SCRAMBLED EGGS. The trick is to keep it fresh and versatile for there’re many years ahead of us full of chicken balls on weekends.

True, there are special occasions, like Easter for example, when I like to dress my eggs up in lace and frills.

Some days, however, I’m too hungry to fuss about their shape and form, so I simply flap my scramble-ness with an attitude (of a squash, e.g.) straight onto a plate, like I’d shown you here.

The problem with egg holidays is that they don’t come often enough. So what does one do when in the mood for some EGGstravaganza in between Easter and Hanukkah? I say adopt a holiday and turn the mundane Veterans Day, or President Day, or Labor Day for that matter into Scrambleday…

… Agi thought and so she did…

“Pancetta Italiana rendered in a hot pan, whistling a rhythmic sizzle under its nose. In the small pool of the glorious fat fresh Sage Leaves skinny dipped till crispy and fried. Next, Eggs were cracked up laughing when joining the party, seasoned with dirty salt and pepper on the rocks, they mingled and small talked with the new-found friends for life. Right when the bartender announced the last call, Ripe Gorgonzola crumbled all over the dance floor and seamlessly merged with the crowd. Instantly after the lights went off. Valets brought the plates to the front door with the toasts running. One sober gentleman, Mr. Round Cutter, offered his hand to keep the gleeful elements in shape, thus bestowing grace upon them for the last time before they reach Nirvana.”

How’s that for a recipe?

Bon Appetite!

I can’t concentrate on the keyboard. I keep drifting away into the wonderland in my head where Hauschka‘s piano rolls out a stairway in front of my eyes, and I ascend step by step into the air, surrounded by blue lollypops wrapped in red ribbons, and corpulent purple elephants taking an escalator down. Then, there’s a cloud of hippy bees buzzing by, followed by uptight butterflies dressed in unicolored suits and bow-ties.

I’m on zero medication, and it’s the music alone that afforded me a mid-afternoon high.

The reason I’m here today is to save the life of that half wilted zucchini in your refrigerator. There’s also a sad chunk of drying out bacon, or even better–pancetta–in the cheese drawer of your icebox that must be resuscitated immediately. And for the love of Zeus, how long do you think you can keep frozen peas in a freezer? They do expire, too, you know.

There’s no reason to toss food away, when it can be utilized in the most delicious way. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Every week, usually on Saturday, we do grocery shopping. Come Friday, I’m left with a handful of unused produce in our refrigerator, and a brand new challenge of turning it into a healthy, satisfying and comforting dinner for two. I’m not scared. On the contrary, I opt to face the music. That’s when I get to flex my creative muscle.

One of the babies of that intense and inspired labor was my ZUCCHINI, PEAS & PANCETTA MEDLEY. In other words, I saved the precious enzymes, mincro-elements, and hopefully also a few vitamins that then nourished our bodies, instead of being thrown away to the garbage and letting cockroaches rise in power.

The dish is so simple and self-explanatory, one does not even need a recipe. I will recap the steps in an effort to help you stayed organized.

Pancetta was diced and tossed into a hot skillet, and soon after chunks of zucchini followed. I seasoned the bunch gently with salt, as the bacon itself is salty already. Freshly ground black pepper, a touch of paprika, a dash of cayenne pepper for that extra punch in the nose all added flavor to my mixture. Half way through the coloring process (I like my veg a bit ruddy on the cheeks), in went the frozen peas. Five to seven more minutes and everybody was happy enough to leave the fire. A perfect time to finish the creation off with a teaspoon of my compound butter I told you about not long ago. The aroma of garlic and herbs unlocked from the creamy butter wrapped itself around every single green element on the plate, not leaving behind slightly salty and chewy bits of rendered pancetta.

We devoured the side dish along with steamed broccoli and a roasted leg of an organic chicken… Yes, it was a feast, and hardly did it look like the waiting area of an Emergency Room.

Do yourself a favor and save your hard-earned money. Don’t waste food. People in Asia, Africa, in your own city go to bed hungry each day, and only a fraction of them does it for vanity reasons. Let’s utilize more, and trash less. In general.


I’M BACK!

It is March 1st and my first Monday off in about five or six weeks. I fulfilled my duties on “How To Make It In America” and today I’m only going back for a group hug and to drop off my parking pass. I had fun, but I missed filling out these pages with silly nonsense and my experimental recipes. I’m so thrilled to be back in the kitchen.

Last Sunday I spent tucked under a blanket and surrounded by my cookbooks. As I leafed through the pages time stood still. Cosmo curled up on my pillow and rested his chin on my shoulder with a gentle sigh. A tiny spider treaded by whistling quietly not to disturb. I was as captivated as a 7-year old reading fairy tales and stories by Hans Christian Andersen.

Our dinner table hasn’t seen much meat over the last couple of months, which I am proud of. However, the cook in me longs to explore new culinary regions and foreign territories. I know I won’t be discovering new lands. Nevertheless the thrill will be of the same magnitude as if traveling to an exotic country, whatever that means to you – Vietnam, Zimbabwe, or Poland. Hence, I’m thinking Pork Chops with Roasted Beets, Cornish Hens and Dill-dusted New Potatoes, Duck with Madera Sauce, Leg of a Lamb with Caramelized Endives and Frisée with Lavender-Honey Dressing. Somebody pinch me, HARD, for I’m drooling dreaming.

Certainly, I won’t whip it all out in a day, or even one week. Those dinners are coming up, I assure you. It’s time to sharpen your knives and fast for the upcoming feast.

Look what I did last night – SWEET POTATO AND PORTOBELLO MUSHROOM CUPCAKE. Ok, it is not a cupcake, but one could be fooled.

After making out with the cookbooks I was so powered up and inspired I was buzzing. Jason came in to the bedroom and asked me:

WHAT’S FOR DINNER?

Before he realized what happened I was stuck in our refrigerator head first plotting the menu. When he followed me to the kitchen he stumbled upon a headless body sticking out of the icebox accompanied by various food articles shooting out and landing on the kitchen counter. There were 2 GIANT MUSHROOMS (which my Jason HATES), fresh sage, parsley, gorgonzola cheese, chicken stock, 1 egg, and a box of diced pancetta. From a veggie basket I grabbed 2 shallots, a couple of garlic cloves and 4 sweet potatoes.

The potatoes got peeled, washed, cubed and tossed into a pot with chicken stock and a touch of salt. When those cooked I minced garlic and shallots, and chopped a handful of sage. I tossed pancetta onto a hot skillet, let the fat render and added my minced and chopped goods. Seasoned with a touch of salt they sautéed for a couple of minutes, until cooked and drained potatoes arrived. Everything was mixed together, seasoned with more salt and black pepper to taste, and then crushed and mashed.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes were done.

In the meantime, I wiped the mushrooms with a damp paper towel, as it’s not a good idea to wash them under running water. Mushrooms soak it up, and their flavor gets compromised severely.

Two small bowls came out of a cupboard. In one bowl I beat the egg; the other one was for flour, which I seasoned with salt and pepper and a few springs of fresh thyme. The mushroom hats were dusted in the flour, then coated with egg and gently set onto a hot skillet with a tablespoon or so of olive oil. I let them cook topside down first for about 10 minutes over a low heat, then flipped over and covered with a few slices of gorgonzola. The guys cooked until the cheese began to melt.

I was ready to plate. First I scooped my MASHED SWEET POTATOES with shallots, sage and pancetta. Then I topped the mound with my beautiful PORTOBELLO HAT. The “muffin” was then showered with chopped parsley and the plate landed in front of Jason’s face.

WOW!

My cheeks were the color of roses due to the heat and excitement over my new creation. The church bells rang in the distance and a hummingbird got trapped inside my chest. I was terrified that Jason would take a bite and spit it out across the room. Then he would throw his fork at me and thus nail me to the wall behind my back. Have I mentioned he HATES MUSHROOMS?

Why would I even take my chances, you ask. It’s obvious! I’m from Poland, where mushroom picking is a common hobby and people take it seriously. I grew up picking, cleaning, drying and cooking varieties of mushrooms you’ve never heard of. I LOVE MUSHROOMS. My mother sends me boxes of dried wild mushrooms in mail. My cousin smuggled a bag of those stinkers for me in her backpack across the US border. I am compelled to find a way to help Jason overcome his fear of fungi.

Luckily, it’s more about the texture than the flavor itself. He’s an enthusiast of my MUSHROOM-BARLEY SOUP, where the hero of the day gets chopped up in a food processor. However, a PORTOBELLO STEAK is a different story. I stood motionless by the table, keeping a safe distance, while Jason was testing the waters. The first bite in and down. Nothing. No sirens. No thunders. No knives in the air.

I DON’T KNOW YET.

Another morsel of food went into his mouth.

HM… I THINK I LIKE IT.

Phew! A giant swig of air I was subconsciously holding in my lungs escaped with a loud and uncontrolled whistle. I could not believe my eyes. Jason was eating away his MUSHROOM MUFFIN, his ears striking and tail wiggling in full contentment.

THIS IS YUMMY!

I must have done something right. I can’t wait to take Jason mushroom picking in Poland. That will be a trip in its own right.

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