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Over the last few weeks, maybe even a month or so, I have re-discovered why I choose to eat out less then seldom. Because I have, over the last few weeks, maybe even a month or so, I have been eating out A LOT. Between breakfast, lunch, and dinner there had to be at least one meal, almost every day, from a source not related to my kitchen.

It started with lunches at work conveniently sponsored by HBO. We would have meals delivered from a different restaurant Monday through Friday. However, when the producers flew to NY for the premiere of the show, our LA team suddenly turned into a bunch of orphans no one remembered, nor cared to feed anymore. Hence, midday trips home began and my Sunny-Side-Up was born. Once the lunches were taken care of, dinners with friends began, from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back, and last minute stops at the local Whole Foods store for a quick bite of scrambled eggs with breakfast potatoes on the way to work.

All that foreign food corrupted my entire plumbing system. One day I found myself uncomfortably bloated for no apparent reason and realized the sensation had been absent from my life since the spring of 2008, when my cooking ride began. I knew right then it was time to go back to my pots. Beside, the comfort level my jeans achieved with my ass was alarming on its own. Suddenly the fabric snuggled tighter with my cheeks and SINCE WHEN ARE THESE GUYS ON A FIRST-NAME BASIS?

Time is not my friend these days, however. I come back from work anytime between 19:00 and 01:00 hour. When lucky to be home before the late night edition of the local news, I scramble to put together an easy meal. The focus is far from gourmet. I cook a pot of quinoa and store it in the refrigerator in an airtight, glass container. That’s my base.

All I have left to do after work is to chop and sauté some veggies, add garlic, onions, spice it up with chili powder, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and fresh herbs, and serve it over my quinoa. Sometimes those are roasted Brussels sprouts. Sometimes it’s steamed broccoli mixed with tomato sauce.

And if I’m sick of quinoa I switch to sautéed zucchini with onions and pancetta over a bowl of whole-wheat noodles. The following day the leftovers land in Jason’s lunch box.

Those are only examples. Every (free) night is another experiment. My kitchen is like a box of chocolates. YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GONNA GET. What you can be sure of though is that most of the ingredients used are organic, whole grain, unprocessed, and from local suppliers (when available). That way I’m being good to my micro and macro Universe. And the Universe pays back in the form of a regular bowel movement and a quiet tête à tête with our Tivo undisrupted by violent burps, digestive fireworks and other gastric explosions.

No more eating out for the next few weeks, maybe even a month or so” we pledged last Sunday over two juicy UMAMI BURGERs with port and melted stilton and a side of sweet potato fries. Our Last Supper was just as good as any other sinful act we had ever committed.

Oh-Mah-Gawd, what a paralyzing accident did I get myself into last night! I crashed face first into a platter of… (are you sitting down?)… CARAMELIZED PEARS WITH… (oh, god, save my soul!)… WHIPPED CREAM.

Our sweet neighbor Mike stopped by in the afternoon hours carrying “something small and trivial, but better than sex”. He appeared at our threshold oh-so gently cupping two precious, juicy, perfectly ripe pears he had purchased from a specialty store. Generous man that he is, he hurried to share the joy the fruit had given him and Peter, his husband, with us.

We have a special bond with our neighbors, as not only are they fun, life loving, gregarious and genuine people, but also Mike is as nuts about playing in the kitchen as I am (if not more…? Nah, can’t be!). He often runs over with treats of his own making as those are the simple things in life that make the difference. It doesn’t hurt that Peter, like myself, is Polish. All in all, most of the neighbors are rather sweet and semi-chatty making the place our version of “Melrose Place”. Well, maybe with less inter-unit screwing.

Mike tenderly slipped both pears into Jason’s hands while giving the cooking instructions to me. “Slice those babies up and sauté them with a little brown sugar. They’re heavenly. I’m telling you, they’re better than sex!” he exclaimed visibly elated and off he returned to his lovely abode.

I know, I know I was supposed to keep it clean and light during that time squeezed between holidays. I didn’t plan on being put against the wall by an idea of that incredibly decadent dessert that’s “better than sex”. Who could resist that? So I did it. Yup, I broke and made the CARAMELIZED PEARS WITH (gasp) WHIPPED CREAM. You can walk around huffing and puffing all you want, but you can’t stop me from telling you ABOUT THOSE PEARS, because it’s simply too divine to just keep it to myself.

I followed Mike’s directions, and sliced the fruit into half-an-inch thick discs and set them on a heated pan with a touch of olive oil and butter. I sprinkled them with raw cane sugar, as that’s the only kind of sugar you’ll find in this household. Then I christened each slice with a drop of pure vanilla extract, and drizzled fresh lemon juice all over the pan. Just a touch. I let everybody get happy for a few minutes over a low-medium heat. Then I flipped the pears and gave the other side a moment to lounge in their own juices.

Within minutes I had this beautiful delight on a platter dressed with a flower of whipped cream and drizzled with its own caramelized juices. All it needed was a dust of cinnamon and a fork. The rest is history.

The whole pear incident, from start to the last bite, took no more than half an hour. However, I needed many hours of bouncing off the walls in our living room before I wore off the sugar rush and was able to settle down in bed for the night. Just saying.

And yes, it was ORGASMIC. Jason, however, thinks pears taste like dirt, so he would have none of the dessert and he never experienced what I did. I guess we’ll cultivate the old fashion way and won’t give up sex just yet. (PHEW!)

Nothing, and I mean nothing makes me happier than the smell of onion slivers sautéing with marjoram on a hot pan greased with olive oil and a touch of butter.

Well, maybe on days when Jason comes home at a civil hour from work, and we watch “Modern Family” and “The Daily Show” together while he rests his head on my lap, then I’m a little happier. New lingerie makes me super happy, too. Come to think of it, I get also fired up when I manage to touch my nose with the tip of my tongue, as it doesn’t always happen. I think it depends on humidity in the air or something.

And then, when Cosmo sings I experience the highest levels of delight. He’s not a very outspoken dog, if you know what I mean. Between the few barks here and there and an occasional “Hi, whassup”, hardly ever does he use his string cords. Hence, I’m particularly elated on those rare moments when he feels the blues and acts on it.

But those onions! When the slices hit a hot sautéing pan and utter that violent sizzle that they do, I get the chills. I instantly sprinkle them with a dash of salt and a generous serving of dry marjoram, previously crashed in my hands. The herb then opens up as a blooming flower and releases its aromatic oils, thus flavoring everything around it. Can you smell it yet? You should get the first whiff right as you stir them together with a wooden spoon. Just close your eyes and inhale… Oh…

The romance begins. The arches of the onion loosen up, as if they were melting in the arms of the marjoram, giving in, and letting the herb lead on the dance floor. Slow heat from the gentle flame beneath their feet is soothing and relaxing. The herb brings out what’s best in the onion – all its sweetness comes out for the world to see. Time stops for them and they think they could go on like that forever, but I know 10-15 minutes is all they have in them before they burn out.

Caramelized onions make the world a better place. They give any dull dish a Cinderella spin. Spread a spoonful of those onions on your boring chicken breast, and it turns into a Supermanchicken. Feed them to that dry sandwich with leftover pastrami, and it’s as if you splashed it with Redbull and gave it wings. You want to bring more vegetarian meals to your table, but you’re afraid it could be dreary and monotonous? Top your Quinoa & Brussels Sprouts with the onions, and you’ll never bitch about vegetables again. Is your ice-cream too vanilla? Give it a scoop of caramelized onions and forever change the meaning of dessert. Ok, maybe that’s going too far, but in most cases sautéed onions are the reason I get out of bed every morning.

This time I used them to kick life into my SALMON WITH LENTILS dish I made for dinner the other night.

Cooking lentils is pretty straightforward, just follow the instructions on its packaging. If you want to jazz it up like I do, get a carrot and two celery stalks. Wash ‘em, peel ‘em, and chop ‘em finely. Then sauté the veggies in a hot pan with a teaspoon or two of olive oil, and – what the hell – a little butter, too. Season it with salt and pepper, and give it 5-6 minutes. Next, add a cup of green lentils and toast them for a minute or two along with everybody else in the pan before adding any liquid. You could simply use water and 2 bay leaves, or chicken stock, or a veggie broth, about 1.5 cups of it. Clearly, you need a pan with some depth to it to fit it all in. Add more salt and pepper, maybe a dash of cayenne, maybe a teaspoon of nutmeg and cumin, cover with a lid and let it simmer over a low heat until fully cooked. You may need to add more liquid, so keep an eye on the lentils. Minutes before the legumes are done, add a splash of red wine vinegar to give them that extra zing.

On a separate pan, grill the salmon fillets seasoned with salt and black pepper. Depending on their thickness, you may need to give them 3-4 minutes per side. You never want to keep the fish over that fire till its completely cooked, because it will get dry. Turn the heat off BEFORE the fish is done, and just let it sit for another five minutes on its own. It will get there, I promise.

No dinner is complete without a fresh salad. Whisk a quick DRESSING in a cup (extra virgin olive oil + lemon juice or vinegar at 3:1 ratio, 1 tsp of Dijon mustard, 1 tbsp of honey, salt and pepper) and pour over your greens. You may want to add chopped tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, radishes, shallots, what have you. You may also keep it clean, if that’s your preference. All’s good as long as you get your vitamins in their natural form.

Salmon with Lentils

Tah-dah! Your dinner is ready. Scoop a little bit of lentils onto your plate. Then gently lay the grilled salmon over the kernels with the green accent of your salad to its side. DO NOT FORGET THE CARAMELIZED ONIONS! Perfection.

Happy Lentils Everybody!

This week I chose to do an experiment. I wanted to try how it tastes to be an adult. You know, a responsible, preventive, and prepared person. In other words – an un-spontaneous human. I sat my ass down and planned it all out – the menu, activities, Cosmo’s vaccinations, yoga, and writing. The irony is that the very first time I decided to exercise mature behavior – BAM! – lightning struck right in the middle of my sandbox disguised as a phone call from HBO asking if I could fill in for one of their guys, who fell victim of the flu.

Don’t get me wrong… getting a call like that makes me as happy as that kid from “Slumdog Millionaire” that hustles through an ocean of fecal matter when given a chance to see his Bollywood idol. Frankly, I got so excited I shaved my legs. Not that anyone in the office would ever see me in anything less then full body coverage, cape included.

On top of that, two more irresistible gig offers came in almost simultaneously – both involving work with my befriended chefs. How is it that I can practice the most comfortable couch potato position (tuchas buried deep in between the cushions, legs stretched out on the coffee table, with my mouth wide open, and a laptop rested under the chin on my two perky you-know-whats) for five months, and no job seems to find its way to me? Then one day, within less than twenty-four hours, everybody needs me at once, and I get bombarded with offers. HOW?

Yes, I have been unemployed for the last few months, I admit. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been on hiatus for that long. Two, three-weeks in between jobs happen to everyone. But five months? It’s many weeks, days, and hours (!) to fill with activities preventing one from going coo-koo. Writing helps me stay focused. (Otherwise, I get side tracked too easily, take a wrong turn, and get lost in the labyrinth of thoughts in my head.) Cooking is therapeutic. Cosmo is entertaining. Jason is understanding and supportive. Agi is convinced she’s uncovered her creative voice, and thus must exercise it at all costs.

Baby Agi

The latest fruit of my creative purging is a meal I designed in my kitchen art studio when Jason went to the Devo concert last Tuesday – SAUTÈED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND ONIONS ON A BED OF QUINOA INFUSED WITH FRESH HERBS (gasp…inhale). By far, it is the ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD with an emphasis on healthy and )))flatulent(((. Do not let the last trait stop you from following the recipe since utmost satisfaction from the meal is GUARANTEED. Simply make sure to let yourself out for a walk when the digestive process sets in to prevent turning your pad into a deadly gas chamber.

I realize not many people are friends with the above mentioned cabbage relatives. The problem lies within the cooking method. Do it intelligently and the frog will turn into a Handsome Prince for the happily ever after.

YOUR INGREDIENTS OF THE NIGHT:

-       1 cup quinoa

-       1.5 lbs Brussels sprouts, peeled and halved

-       4 oz pancetta, diced

-       1 large onion

-       3-4 cloves of garlic

-       1 tbsp dried marjoram

-       1 tbsp of unsalted butter

-       1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped

-       1/2 fresh Italian parsley (or another fresh herb), chopped

-       kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

-       1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Tie an apron around your waist and let’s make you this Masterpiece In A Bowl. First things first, let’s cook quinoa in a 2:1 ratio (2 cups of liquid to 1 cup of grain).  You can use regular water and a few bay leaves with a couple of teaspoons of salt. You could go the chicken broth route. Or just dissolve a bullion cube in the pot with quinoa to enrich its flavor. Follow cooking directions from the box.

When that’s taken care of, start chopping your onion – cut it in half first, then slice both parts. Crisp the pancetta on a heated skillet, remove the cracklings and set aside for later. Add the butter to the pan, and throw in the onions along with marjoram and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Stir around to ensure even coating in grease and spices. Let the onions sauté slowly on low heat for about 10-15 minutes. When ready, remove from the pan and set aside with your cracklings.

In the meantime, blanch your mini cabbage buds for just a few minutes, and then shock them in a bowl filled with ice water. Drain immediately and set aside. When the onions are done and resting with the pig bits on the counter, chuck the Brussels sprouts onto the same skillet and brown them over a low to medium flame. Sprinkle red pepper flakes over the buds. Let them hit the bottom of the hot skillet, thus opening up their chambers of flavor.

Check on the quinoa. If it’s fully cooked, take it off the heat, and toss in all fresh herbs, previously chopped as ordered. Mix it, taste it. Is it salty enough? Don’t be afraid to fix the dish to your own liking. That’s the point after all, isn’t it?

Mix the mini cabbages in the skillet again, add your cracklings and onions, and tumble all around. Turn off the heat. Scoop a little quinoa into a bowl, cover with a layer of the Brussels sprouts and the works, twist open a bottle of beautifully chilled Blue Moon, dive into the cushions of your couch, stretch your legs over the coffee table, turn on the TV, and DIG IN.

Quinoa

And you thought you hated Brussels sprouts, silly.

Earlier this year, in the spring, Jason and I worked together on a pilot for Fox, called “Sons of Tucson”. Jason is a freelance producer working on various TV shows for different networks. He’s given the industry over a decade of his life, and paved his way with sweat and blood. He got on board of SOT excited to be working once again with the Emmy-winning director, Todd Holland, and started building his department.

Since I had recently been laid off from my previous job, and was ready and eager, he hired me proudly as his Bitch. Well, my deal memo called the position “Post Production Assistant”, which didn’t bother me. One of the crucial tasks I was entrusted with was keeping everybody in the house fed. I was armed with a folder full of menus to keep things colorful and versatile. However, it was Healthyca, a little gem of a restaurant in the Valley, that became a main source of our lunches till we wrapped the pilot. It was then that I rediscovered QUINOA. I hear some of the members of our crew got quinoa-obsessed ever since.

Quinoa [keen-wah] is a grain native to South America; it’s the sacred crop of the Incas, also considered a Super Food for its nutritional value. 100 g of uncooked quinoa contains 14 grams of protein, plus significant amounts of B-vitamins, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, and Zinc. It also carries a balanced mix of essential amino acids making it a delicious source of complete protein.

I’ve used quinoa for years, cooking it on its own and serving it with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, or steamed and sautéed broccoli, or inside tomato soup. I’ve had it a few times cold as a salad, and it was good, too. Nothing beats though Quinoa Salad made at Healthyca. Great job, guys! Keep it up.

After the pilot was over, and we returned home for good, away from the Valley, I got inspired to recreate the dish that rocked the worlds of so many. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am about to share with you the fruits of my labor, my little secrets that make THE difference. It is highly valuable information, hence consider it CONFIDENTIAL. And even though it’s not exactly the same as Healthyca’s, it is damn good every time I fix it.

Quinoa is cooked in 2:1 ratio, where you take 2 cups of liquid for each cup of grain. SECRET #1: flavor the quinoa while cooking, either with a few bay leaves dropped into cooking water, or substitute your H2O for chicken stock (low sodium). {The same rule applies to rice and other grains you may want to cook} It’s done when all liquid is absorbed. Remember to discard the bay leaves before mixing your salad. They are not edible. Set the quinoa aside to cool, and mix it a few times around so it doesn’t dry on the surface.

Now the fun part begins – you get to invent your very own Quinoa Salad. You can make it a Crunchy Quinoa Salad by adding finelly diced Persian cucumbers, radishes, red or yellow bell peppers, and heirloom tomatoes, say 1 cup of each, plus a handful of chopped scallions and fresh herbs (dill comes to mind instantly, then parsley, basil…). You can get a more meaty texture and make it a Quinoa a’la Mexicana by mixing black beans, yellow corn kernels, red bell pepper, red onion, cilantro (chopped appropriately) into the salad. Think about color combination and texture. Feel it on your tongue as you create. Smell the goods. Another idea would be Quinoa with Roasted Vegetables, where roasted halves of Brussels sprouts, chopped carrots, parsnip, and garlic cloves make the “filling”. It doesn’t have to be vegetarian either. Throw in some roasted chicken breast cut in bite size chunks. Maybe add a handful of baby spinach leaves and let them wilt in the warmth of quinoa and veggies. Be creative. Be daring. Be wild!

SECRET #2 lays in the dressing. Aha! You definitely want your quinoa salad moist. A dry salad is a waste of time. It’s just wrong. Period. For the cold version the best and easiest choice is a lemon dressing (these proportions are good for 1.5 cups of cooked quinoa, adjust as desired):

-       2/3rd of a cup of GOOD extra virgin olive oil

-       1/3rd of a cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice

-       1 tbsp of lemon zest

-       1-2 tbsp of honey or agave nectar (start with 1 tbsp and taste)

-       a solid pinch of sea salt

-       a healthy pinch of freshly ground black pepper.

Whip it good into a coherent mixture, taste, and pour over your salad. Mix well, set in the fridge in a closed container, and let all the flavors get to know each other. You may enjoy it on its own, or serve it as a side to a rock-and-roll sandwich you’ll put together in the meantime.

If you take the warm route with roasted veggies (and chicken), I would start with sautéing diced slices of pancetta on a skillet with onions and garlic (salt & pepper!) over a medium heat. Once the fat from the pancetta is melted, I would add a can of diced tomatoes (low sodium) and simmer over a low heat for a minute or two. I want enough liquid to combine the quinoa with the veggies, but I don’t want it soggy. Take it off the heat, again pour over the grain, add the spinach and voila! You made yourself a royal dinner, just as – if not better – the Incan monarchs used to dine.

red quinoa din3

I know you’re all suddenly hungry now, and drooling over the computer screen, so go, go play in the kitchen. Take a bowl full of this ambrosial meal and lure your mate, date, neighbor, or friend. Report back to me when you recover your senses after the feast.

Oh, Yes!

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