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Today marks two weeks since we returned from Europe, the continent where people eat whatever they want (for the most part) and seldom exercise the idea of a dietary restriction. Mother Nature is still the biggest supplier of food there, and no one questions that order. I choose to believe that based on the quality of ingredients that had built our meals while in Poland, and then in France.
When we first arrived back in Los Angeles, Jason and myself decided we needed a break from eating meat, as it was such a fundamental part of our diet when still on the Old Continent. The first week went swimmingly well. I whistled cheerfully as I cooked away quinoa, made meals with a variety of beans, various grains (e.g. barley), then lentils, and greens rich in protein (like broccoli). Last but not least nuts were all around us, all day long. And I don’t mean just because we live in Hollywood. Each morning I began with a whole-grain toasted muffin, topped with a layer of almond butter and slices of fresh strawberries. Jason snacked on a mixture of raw nuts and dried fruits in between the meals. Roasted pine nuts or walnuts ended up in fresh salads. Toasted pepitas served as a base for my vinaigrette.
About three days ago I realized I was …hungry. Sixty minutes after I finished breakfast I was ready to eat again. The first craving hit me right between the eyes leaving a black-eye the size of a fist. No matter how versatile menu I prepared for the day and how much flavor I incorporated into each dish, it all began to taste …boring. Every time I inserted a fresh bite of food into my mouth, from the start I knew it was missing one ingredient–meat. It didn’t matter what I was eating. If I could I would sprinkle pancetta bits into my whole-grain cereal with blueberries and a sliced banana. A temporary comfort I found in hard-boiled eggs, and cheese sandwiches.
Now, I know that all protein is equal. It doesn’t matter, from a scientific point of view, whether you get your amino acids (which are the molecules of the protein) from an animal or a plant, as our bodies are dexterous engineers and can put together a complete protein out of those building blocks. As long as you provide your system with those standard 22 amino acids it requires to form the protein we need. That’s the reason all nutritionists of the world emphasize the need for a versatile diet, in particular for the vegetarians walking amongst us.
Enough with the lecturing. I know that I had enough protein in my diet over the last two weeks not to NEED any meat. Though I realize now the source of my misery. It is all in my head. My cravings for a juicy steak, and beef stew, or a tender chicken thigh have everything to do with the fact that I can’t have it right now, for I do not appreciate restriction. It goes deeper than that. I refuse to be pressured. If there is a movie coming out that the entire planet can’t shut up about, and 70 million people go see it on the opening night, you can be sure Agi won’t participate in the mass hysteria. For example, I have never seen “Titanic” nor “The Da Vinci Code”. I wasn’t interested in the slightest. You know what else I have not watched, nor read? The entire “Harry Potter” series. Sure, we can argue whether I am better or worse for that, but it is not the point of this discourse.
Despite that fact that my diet over the last two weeks was nutritionally dense, I began to notice feeling weaker and weaker. I was no longer able to lift words and put them down on paper. At the gym, when requested by Jason to do abdominal crunches, I didn’t even stomp my foot on the ground anymore. I fought him just for a moment when he made me get down on the ground and throw my legs in the air, but only because resistance to a voluntary pain application is a part of my psychological make-up. Then I got a hair cut, as those two extra inches of hair made a whole lot of difference when washing it. Saving energy became my motto.
I am facing another two meatless weeks, which in my head translates into a form of mind slavery. It is my brain that has to make an effort to relax and breathe knowing it will be OK.
Agi, let me introduce you to DISCIPLINE. I hope you shall become fast friends.
I’m still having dreams of the Parisian life we licked for a few days on the way back to LA from Poland. Those chocolate croissants for breakfast in bed, coffee, and I mean COFFEE after the meal (and never during), the loose scarf sitting tight around Jason’s neck and trying hard to make itself home despite his protests…
And the Louvre… We spent a day and a half meandering the hallways, the Royal chambers, and the dim basements of the castle. We could have stayed two weeks, and that would not have been enough. We were armed with a mini computer with headphones dangling from our necks, while a deep, male voice told us about every sculpture we paused in front of, every painting that caught our attention, and hundreds of other exhibits that helped us better understand who we are, and to see that the history really does repeat itself over and over.
Paris was also a meeting point, where we caught up with a bunch of old friends I know from way back, our ole New York days.
Laurent, my buddy, Lolo as we call him behind the scenes, realized he was slowly losing his marbles in the South of France where he was anchored for the past 12 months or so. He felt an itch again, that tickle in his butt that makes him move from one corner of the word to another every so often, and so he packed his backpack and flew himself to Malaysia.
From his most recent report I know he’s getting cozy in Asia. The lifestyle does sound quite appealing, particularly for a single man. Rent and food are cheap. A casual crawl in the swimming pool follows a tropical breakfast. Then there’s time for a massage. The kind one can get on every street corner, apparently. Or at the mall down the street from one’s flat. You know, the Malaysian massage.
Meanwhile, we’re back home, trying to get a grip on our life on this side of the world while fighting that instant nostalgia for Europe, and still not eating meat. Hence, my dish du jour:
4 large zucchinis, washed and grated
1/2 red onion, chopped and sautéed
6-8 tbsp whole-wheat flour
1 tbsp of potato starch
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup Fontina cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
handful of fresh dill, chopped (What? I’m Polish.)
When sautéing an onion I like to sprinkle it with a nice amount of dried marjoram, and watch the magic happen. The herb hits the hot oil thus releasing an aroma that simply knocks me out, while my socks stand up right next to my feet. I mean it in a GOOD way. That divine smell drifts through the kitchen and out into the courtyard making the wild cats from the hood hold the fire and suspend their everlasting turf wars. One day I shall record their CRYYYING OUUUT LOUDDD at 4 o’clock in the morning, right outside our window, and let that serve as evidence in my case.
The pancakes. Let the onion cool off a tad and then mix all the ingredients in a large bowl, making sure all the flour is evenly incorporated. I can’t really tell you how much flour to use exactly. The consistency of your batter will depend on so many factors, I don’t even know where to begin: how much water your zucchinis brought, how humid the air is in your neck of the wood, the weather, the stock market, global warming, and the current phase of the moon. In other words, test-drive your pancakes. Throw a spoonful on hot oil in your pan, and let it fry for a couple of minutes. Now flip it. Did it fall apart? Then you need more flour. Got it? Great.
What’s there left to say? Good luck! The wild Felis catus will soon be sending you Thank You cards.
Remember that scene in MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING where the aunt learns that the groom is a vegetarian? No? Here you go, refresh your memory and realize that a carnivorous diet is not only a Greek sentiment.
I grew up eating meat, all kinds of meat, from kielbasa, to ham, to pork chops, to beef goulash. In fact, as a child meat was my favorite type of candy. I was quite proud of my affection towards cooked animal flesh, and many a time I showed off in front of family members by sinking my teeth into a chicken thigh like a hungry Barbarian. I saw approval and joy in my mother’s eyes as between her two kids I was the one who loved to eat. My older brother apparently was on a hunger strike till the day I was born (five years of his life). Then he saw me glued to my mother’s tit like a roll of adhesive tape, and then to anything else that happened to get too close to my mouth, and realized he had to follow the laws of a jungle in order to survive. He learnt to not only chew, but actually to swallow his food.
Later in life, when I began to carve my own judgment about the surrounding world and my position in it, I decided I didn’t like myself, from the way I looked to the way I felt. One thing led to another and suddenly I spent my entire 20s battling eating disorders and fighting my own demons. The struggle was extreme, painful beyond verbal expression, acutely lonely, but also purposeful. I have no regrets for I have found my answers, peace, and balance in life.
It was during that decade when I progressively started to eliminate certain foods from my diet, beginning with sweets and bread, then meat, followed by dairy, and eventually going completely raw. Traveling to Poland was a torture, as I craved all the foods of my childhood with the intensity of a concentration camp’s survivor. My body was starved for years. And yet my brain would stand guard in front of the plate and forbid me from stealing even a bite. The physical torture I had put upon myself was meant to cover the emotional pains I dealt with. I get that now. It was for me to discover, however, and no one could have done the homework for me.
It is quite clear I was a vegetarian, and then a vegan for all the wrong reasons. My healthy self enjoys meat as much as a leafy vegetable.
Now imagine my enthusiasm and childish joy when I come home to my mom’s culinary fireworks, a fraction of which I described in my previous entry. I forget myself in the pleasure that fills my mouth upon each nibble. I don’t OVER DO it either. I get just enough.
One thing, Jason and I both felt we OD-ed, was meat while traveling through Europe. While such a meat-heavy diet makes a perfect sense in Poland, and other European lands due to their cooler climate, it does not feel natural in Southern California (where we live), which by definition is warm, sunny and abundant with fresh produce. Hence, in order to bring our digestive tracks back to the summer schedule, we chose to go meat free for a month upon returning to Los Angeles.
It’s been almost a week, and thus far I have not had a single meat craving. For a few days we munched on a quinoa salad with orange lentils, peppers, and scallions for lunch. I made a gigantic pot of hearty vegetable soup with white beans and whole-wheat fussily pasta, which is just as satiating as if it contained chunks of chicken. Between the meals, we graze on the grass from the outside lawn and fight over nuts with local squirrels. Then, one rainy morning, I thought of making STUFFED PEPPERS, a novelty in my repertoire.
Before I tell you what and how I did it, I must plug in a disclaimer: I was totally and utterly IMPROVISING. If you decide to follow me, you’re doing it at your own risk.
Here’s what happened. I cooked a cup of wild rice, adding some frozen organic corn towards the end, a whole can of pinto beans (washed and rinsed off), a whole bunch of freshly chopped herbs (dill, parsley, what-have-you), and maybe a half-a-cup of grated Gruyere cheese. I made sure there was enough salt and pepper in it, and then I twisted the flavor with a touch of cayenne, sweet paprika, and ground nutmeg. Why not?
In the meantime, I washed my bell peppers, cut off the tops, emptied their bellies, and turned the oven on at 400°.
You know what happened next. I stuffed the peppers with my rice filling, drizzled the tops with a little bit of olive oil, and shoved the guys into my hot oven. They baked for about 30 minutes until the peppers got slightly wrinkled and softened. However, they were not overcooked and thus kept their shapes.
Two stuffed beauties per capita were MORE than enough for us, and not once did we think of getting a burger for dinner the following day. Also, since it was my virgin STUFFED PEPPER, now I also know that the red one is THE ONE. The best complement to your dish would be a bowl of mixed greens with a lemony dressing, bringing healthy freshness and balancing the heavier tones of the meal.
During our three-week vacation in Europe, we flew three times, made six separate trips by train, drove several cars, took a ride on a tram, subway and in a shuttle bus. We slept in countless beds and each one left a different imprint on our bodies. It turned out that sleeping around really is exciting and affects one’s libido (provided your bedroom is NOT adjacent to the one your conservative uncle sleeps in). The best part is that you can DO IT very successfully with the same partner throughout the journey! (That’s for those of you who duck when such words as FIDELITY and COMMITMENT are thrown at you.)
Since we were on the go for the most of the past twenty-one days, the little time we spent under a roof, any roof, we used up for hanging out with my family and friends, then here and there some tequila or pierogi-spiced hanky-panky , and most importantly–beauty sleep. The Internet got pushed back in time till the days I was about 14, meaning it didn’t exist. There was simply no time left for rants and scribbles. Hence, I have a whole lot of catching up to do here, and with no further ado I’ll bring up the foods we consumed while at the far eastern land.
I could summarize it pretty much with one word: MEAT. I’ll give you an example of our daily diet in Poland. On an average day we had cold cuts for breakfast, schabowe (tenderized, breaded and pan-fried pork chops) with cooked together carrots and potatoes (as seen below) for lunch…
…and pierogi (Polish dumplings) with meat for dinner.
There are hundreds of things one can fill their pierogi with. My mom is an exceptional cook and she spoiled us rotten with the meals she prepared. Not only she made three different kinds of pierogi for us (with meat, with blueberries, and so called Russian ones, filled with a mixture of mashed potatoes and country cheese, served with a dollop of sour cream and freshly ground pepper), but also she cooked various meats, and soups Jason has never tasted before like Botwinka. In a sense, it is red chard soup made on the base of a home-made chicken broth, later thickened with flour and finished with heavy cream.
I say, in a sense, as for us Polaks this is a soup made of very young beets, when their bulbs are not quite developed yet, and the leaves get to play the role of the guest of honor in the pot. The beet root, however, belongs to the same family and the same species as the red chard does. If you’re wondering if the soup is any good, let me tell you that that damn Botwinka had put my relationship with Jason in serious jeopardy for a moment. After the few spoonfuls of the dish Jason was on the verge of proposing to my mother, who thank goodness is off the market.
When we got out of my mother’s kitchen, and off we went to bother the rest of my family scattered across Poland, we were welcomed at their tables heavy with foods of all kinds. While certain elements varied from a house to a house, two were constant: sausage and vodka. Jason was tested heavily by various men from my tribe. He passed, but I’ll bet the very lace on my chest he’ll stay away from the Fire Water for many years to come.
Kielbasa, or a Polish sausage as you may know it, is omnipresent across my country. Even when we went to the countryside with Kinga, we were invited to a picnic with campfire and the whole nine yards. There was beer, bread, and sausage (duh!) baked on a stick over raw and bursting flames.
Due to the obvious meat overdose, upon our return to Los Angeles we decided to stay on a vegetarian diet for about a month just to keep things balanced in nature. I will miss though the bread we had for breakfast each morning, whether it was in my mama’s kitchen, or at the boutique hotel in Krakow. I tell ya, what we get here, in the US, has very little to do with the real stuff. Sniff, sniff… I won’t even mention the pastries we devoured in Paris! How is that even legal? How is that legal that bread can taste like homecoming and poetry at the same time? And then, how is that legal that such crap, also labeled as BREAD, is produced and sold across the United States of America, the place once called the most powerful country in the world?
I’ll go to my room now and cry in silence for a moment. Just give me a second to compose myself to continue with my food report.
When we got to Krakow, a Georgian restaurant was highly recommended to us, and guess what we ate there. More meat, you got it, served with a bouquet of fresh salads and a traditional Georgian sauce that tasted surprisingly close to the mixture of mayo and ketchup. Jason, like a total girl, chose chicken. I went all the way:
GIVE ME SOME STEAK, WOMAN! I roared across the room and banged on the table with my iron fist, still holding a silver fork. Then I gulped down a chalice full of red wine unmoved by its trails dripping down my fat and matted beard.
Heavy and balky, filled with at least three full animals in our stomachs, we meandered the streets of the Old Town in Krakow, visiting Wawel (The Royal Castle), and the magnificent Church of Saint Mary. And then a miracle happened. Following the Polish guide Jason had armed himself with before the trip, we discovered a food gem, an oasis of green in the midst of that Sahara of meat, a true heaven for any veg junkie in the vicinity–we found a SALAD BAR!
The place was magical, and became our stable for the remaining days in the Old Capitol of Poland. The same things that were served on our plates also decorated the walls of the venue.
Tears crawl back into the corners of my eyes when I look at this. It’s a true Love Manifesto on a plate. Delicious. Crunchy. Raw. Versatile. Colorful. Meatless…ahh.
We have seen so many places, peaked into so many corners of Poland, tried every Polish snack and experienced every Polish stereotype (from vodka and sausage through the cold and grey, to the world famous hospitality, to the ubiquitous green and primal forests). However, not once have we stumbled upon a white bear strolling down the street.
Then we flew to Paris, but that’s a whole new story.
How was your weekend, Internet? Ours was just as mundane as usual. Or was it?
One slept in whilst the other one went grocery shopping and then carried all four bags into the house all by herself. One got a haircut while the other one was stuck with a bunch of needles all over her body in a room filled with Brian Eno’s tunes. One studied Polish while the other mastered a few new French phrases before our trip to Paris in May. Surprisingly both enjoyed the Chopin concert despite their paralyzing fear of highly potential boredom. One has donated three bags of clothes, shoes and purses to SOJOURN, a charitable organization that supports battered women and underprivileged children in Los Angeles, while the other has only one closet with just enough clothes to cover his back. He also read a very hopeful and BRIGHT GREEN interview with Alex Steffen published in our beloved magazine THE SUN.
What about those needles, you may wonder. A few months ago I met this gorgeous woman Tamara ZumMallen through my dear friend Missy. Even though we haven’t known each other long, already we have shared many laughs and even some tears together.
Tamara happens to be a very knowledgeable and experienced acupuncturist, hence last Saturday I ended up in her bed. Wait, what I mean by that is that I was laying ON her therapist’s bed in her office at the HEALING HANDS WELLNESS CENTER at 414 N. Larchmont Ave, here in Los Angeles. While I rested garments-free under the crisp white sheets, she gently but skillfully inserted two needles into my feet, four more were placed on my belly, one on my chef’s wrist, two in my ears, and one straight into my third eye.
While it may sound like a quickie, it was nothing but. Tamara began the session with sitting me comfortably on the bed; then she conducted a thorough interview. We went through my health history, eating habits, regularity of my menses, the shenanigans I recently got myself into, and my thoughts on Jamie Oliver’s FOOD REVOLUTION in America. The show had aired on ABC the previous night.
Speaking of which, for crying out loud, how is it possible that a six-year old child does NOT know what a potato looks like?? Perhaps a tomato? Anything? Jason and I were watching the program in terror, while tears welled up in our eyes.
In the meantime, the needles were prepped to stand upright around my bellybutton. At Tamara’s request, I stuck my tongue out at her. It was dark and purple-ish, enough for her to determine mild blood stagnation with kidney QI deficiency. She recommended eating black and blue foods to balance out my kidneys. Instantly I asked DOES CHOCOLATE COUNT FOR BLACK FOOD? Luckily it did, as long as it is dark and raw, or at least organic. Next the needles helped me get un-stuck.
It was a thrilling and yet relaxing experience. What I loved about that Chinese healing method is that it has a very holistic approach to one’s health. If you have a headache, the acupuncturist will ask you a series of maybe 20 questions about everything but your head to find the source of pain. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Western medicine adapted the same attitude instead of just curing the symptoms? While I’m not trying to doom our doctors and their astounding accomplishments in the medical field, I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in the system they’ve been taught and have since practiced.
(Oh, I am so getting an email from Jason’s dad, Doctor Jimmy Harkins, with his take on the matter later today. I hope he’ll be kind to me. He always is.)
All that typing made me hungry. While I go pop in a few blueberries and black olives, I suggest you spruce up your chicken dinner with my recipe. How does CHICKEN CORDON BLEU WITH GOAT CHEESE, CRANBERRIES, AND HERBS sound? You can serve it with sweet potatoes or a giant bowl of greens mixed with avocado, tomatoes and dressed with a light, lemon vinaigrette. After the din-din, your mate will kiss your feet in gratitude, and then some. I don’t need to hear about that part of your evening, but you enjoy!
Wash your hands and set your station ready. If making a dinner for two, you’ll need:
- 2 chicken breasts, organic and free-range
- 1 egg + 1 tsp of water, for egg-wash
- 2-3 tbsp of flour (any kind, choose the healthier option)
- 2-3 tbsp of breadcrumbs
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 oz of goat cheese, soft
- 2 tbsp of dried cranberries, soaked in hot water for 5 minutes and then drained and roughly chopped
- 1 cup of fresh basil/dill/parsley/cilantro (use one, two, or all if desired), roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp of fresh thyme
- 1 tbsp of olive oil
- 2 plastic zip-lock bags, large
- meat-tenderizing tool (could be a rolling pin)
- 4 small bowls
Beat the egg and water with a fork in one bowl, and use another two bowls for flour and breadcrumbs respectively. Season your flour with a solid pinch of salt and pepper, while the breadcrumbs – with a few springs of crushed fresh thyme and your olive oil.
In a separate bowl, mix the goat cheese with herbs and cranberries, and season gently with salt and pepper. Feel free to pimp your filling with the zest of a lemon, too! Mix well.
Place each chicken breast in a separate plastic bag and using your meat tenderizer pound it evenly until it’s about 1/4” thick. Remove it from the bag with a pair of tongs and place on a plastic cutting board (that had been devoted in your house solely to raw meats. I don’t want to mother you, but make sure you keep the raw meat away from EVERYTHING else to avoid possible contamination. That means you must wash your hands and anything the meat has touched in hot water and with soap when done). Season both sides with salt and pepper. Using a small spoon, scoop some of the cheese filling and spread it evenly across the chicken fillet, leaving about 1/2” strip clean around the edge. With your clean hands fold the longer sides of the chicken inwards, and then roll the whole thing making sure all filling is secured inside it. Repeat the procedure with the remaining chicken breast.
Now, dip each stuffed chicken breast first in the flour and coat it lightly on all sides, then the egg-wash, and finish with the breadcrumbs.
Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and put into a preheated oven at 350°. Bake about 20 minutes, until the chicken is golden brown. When done, remove from the oven and let the meat rest for about 10 minutes. Cut each piece into 1/2” thick pinwheels and serve as desired.
That’s my take on CHICKEN CORDON BLEU. It’s elegant, creative, delectable and never boring. Bon appetit!