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I could answer this with two words. OK, I will.

TASTING MENU.

Most self-respecting restaurants of higher caliber offer their patrons an opportunity to ride a roller-coaster of flavors, textures, colors, and aromas in the form of a tasting menu. Don’t even bother so much as glancing at it, however, if you only have one little hour for your meal. Exploring a Tasting Menu is like buying an open plane ticket to a secret destination without even having to pack so much as a change of underwear. Depending on the venue and the creativity of their chef, there may be five, eight, or even ten courses on those pre-set menus.

With all the cooking I do at home, and thanks to its variety, we  seldom feel the urge to eat out. There are many benefits to living off of self-made meals–from one’s finances (we’re saving a shit load of money each month), to comfort, health, and convenience and –last but not least by any measure– a reduced carbon foot print. Nonetheless, once in a blue moon, when you’re PMS-ing (girls AND boys), when you’re celebrating an occasion or a lack their of, when you get some ice-cream money from your granny, or when you are simply in the mood for an adventure, then treat your very self to a Tasting Menu at a good restaurant. Go ahead and let the chef impress you. Allow the best chefs in town to show off for YOU. Let them showcase their skills and various techniques they’ve been mastering over the years for you and only you!

I must warn you however. The experience is so highly thrilling and satisfying, you may get addicted. You’ll spend about 3 hours at the table, but time will no longer matter. You’ll be mesmerized, smitten, shocked, surprised more than once, maybe even disappointed for just a second only to be blown away with the next dish. Pair the food with wine for an extra buck (or bucket!) and land on your imaginary private island called HEAVEN.

It’s like a drug, and you’ll want to keep flying back, higher and higher. Don’t. Do not throw your money left and right. Be smart about it. Keep it special so the magic doesn’t wear off.

Prices vary from one place to another. With my Jason, we’ve eaten at those where once I saw the bill I went blind for about 24 hours straight. We’ve also eaten in places with incredible food for just a fraction of the others’ price tag. I am incredibly excited to say that all of you here in LA, as well as those willing to travel, can take such a culinary journey for a mere 50 smackers a head at Da Vinci restaurant in Beverly Hills, the very one and only where yours truly is busy cutting her teeth.

Here are just a few examples of the true pieces of art that happen to also be edible, all creation of the executive chef Jason Fullilove. All photos were taken by–coincidentally–my fellow Pole, Monik Schiller.

 

Fried Artichokes

 

 

Foie Gras Terrine

 

 

Heirloom Beet Salad

 

 

Pan-Roasted Salmon

 

 

Kobe Hanger Steak

 

 

Squid Ink Linguini

 

Have I mentioned $50 for a 5-course meal, each one coming with two options to choose from? Yes! Fifty dollars is all it takes. For another $30 you will be offered a different wine to go with each meal.

What are you waiting for? Call this number (310) 888-0090 and make a reservation at Da Vinci (9737 S. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills). I’ll be there today through Saturday and promise not to mess up your salad!

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…

 

Polish "schabowy" with my mother's "marchewka" (carrots and potatoes cooked together and finished with roux and fresh dill), on the side--my celery root salad.

 

…and pierogi (Polish dumplings) with meat for dinner.

 

Mom's legendary pierogi with ground meat.

 

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.

 

Georgian Chicken Kebab for Jason

 

 

Georgian Steak for Agi and her balls

 

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.

Bye, bye, Year 2009. You have brought us many changes, moments of overwhelming joy … and sheer terror. (Remember the Mashed Rutabaga with Cauliflower?) I have discovered my pyromaniacal tendencies and started to play with fire in the kitchen on a regular basis. Knives excite me just as much.  Bring it on, Angelina! Who knew? All that led to turning our house into a science lab of food making. There have been plenty of experiments (steaks from a toaster oven is just one example), and so far Jason hasn’t complained.

We have serious reason to be concerned about the future of our kids on this planet (Koyaanisqatsi), but there’s still hope with the growing trend of getting fresh produce from local farmers (Feeling Peachy) and turning to alternative energy sources. We can get healthier with every bite of real food we put in our mouths and what we feed to our offspring. Preparing hearty meals with a variety of vegetables is not that difficult, and never boring. Every time I look at the photos of the Butternut Squash Risotto I made for dinner one night, or my Brussels sprouts on a Bed of Quinoa with a layer of Caramelized Onions, I experience such intense drooling that Jason is inclined to run for a stack of towels to cover the floor around me.

Do you want to hear about the best part? I lost about 15 lbs over the last year WITHOUT DEPRIVING myself of any food. There’s no diet plan, no counting calories, NO STRESS! Sometimes I may overindulge a tad, but who wouldn’t when served those scrumptious Veggie Balls over a bowl of Spaghetti Marinara? Duh! I eat whatever the hell I am in the mood for, and whenever my tummy screams HUNGRY. I hate fast foods with a passion. I avoid processed food products like the plague. However, I am on good terms with a bit of butter here and there. Cream poses no threat to me either. There are no sweets lying around the house, but it doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally get in the car and drive to the bakery for a piece of crunchy pastry when the craving strikes.

What I wish for myself, and for every single one of you, in 2010 is to live more in balance with Nature, stress less, laugh louder, breath lighter, and to age slower. Also, let’s not forget to bring the inner monkey out to play more often.

May all of us see a major shift in the collective consciousness and finally learn how to live symbiotically with Mother Earth so our kids and future generations get to experience the joy and innocence we were granted when growing up.

Thank you for being a part of my 2009. I hope we’ll be able to share and interact more in the upcoming year, and beyond.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!

Earlier today I was driving, blinded by the hammering rain, and as wipers ran frantically across the windshield, and I slid along the highway, I slipped into a contemplative mood. Then I thought to myself…as a child, after you’d learnt of the Earth’s rotation, did you ever think that it rained when the planet was upside-down? As if the seas and oceans poured out of their reservoirs? Yeah, me neither.

And then I remembered last night’s dinner… Now, can we please talk about that STEAK?! Or – in other words – the ULTIMATE COOKING TEST that I passed less then 24 hours ago …thank-you-very-much? Yes, let’s talk about that.

If you’ve followed me around for the last couple of months (or even a few days but managed to go through most of the articles) you must have noticed that I write a lot about chicken and not so much about other meats. There are reasons for that. Primo, there’s still plenty of time to cover all sorts of omnivores’ dilemmas. Secundo, I not only talk chicken but also cook chicken on most occasions. Each week, we interweave poultry with fish and vegetarian meals to keep our dinners versatile, healthy, and clean. Maybe it’s the fact that I lived my life vegan style for so many years before, that it took me so long to even open my eyes in the presence of red meat, not to mention putting IT in my mouth. I do not know.

However, last weekend Jason and I went to Whole Foods and he sweet-talked me into buying some fresh, organic beef fillets. We spent almost 30 smackers on two nuggets of cow meat, each about 2” thick. Having close to zero experience with beef, and intimidated by the price tag, you can only imagine the stress level I was under when prepping the dinner last night.

I knew there was no fooking around when it comes to raw meat. I also knew I needed to consult the best. So I turn on the TV and scroll down the recordings on our Tivo hoping to find one useful cooking show amongst the dozens I saved. YES! There she is! Ina Garten herself stands right there, in front of my eyes, ready to walk me through roasting a sirloin beef fillet “Barefoot Contessa” style.

One leads to another…

Eagerly following her guidelines, I mix about a tablespoon of room temperature butter with a tablespoon of Aioli Garlic Mustard Sauce (she asked for Dijon Mustard). I wash my two beef nuggets and pat them dry with a paper towel. Ina says: preheat an oven to 500˚. I turn on our toaster oven. It’s a fancy little box – highly dexterous and able to multitask at that. Not only does it toast our toast, it irons our shirts, gives foot massages, bakes, bikes, and then heats up to a breathtaking 500˚ and serves as a broiler.

Given the choice between a big spacious oven that takes time to heat up, thus sucking proportionally more energy, and a compact and eco-friendly toaster oven, which does Agi take? Of course I go for the latter. But first, I rub the mustard-butter mixture all over my steaks, sprinkle evenly with salt and crushed black pepper (as Ina told me to), and shove both into the fancy toaster oven-slash-foot massager.

Here comes the tricky part, and the most crucial one when it comes to cooking meat period. The question of …HOW LONG? When Ina dances in front of the camera with her block of premium cow cut, she makes the task look as simple as putting your foot on a gas pedal and pushing. Easy, right? But what will she tell all the flustered cooks at home who have not only hit the dining room wall, but also drove through it and into the neighbor’s stack of hay? Hey, what will you say then, Ina?

You see, everything looks perfect on the TV screen, but I’m stuck at home with those two shits of red meat, the very expensive kind, all battered up and ready to dance in the fire. Ina says to give it 20-25 minutes in the oven until the fillet reaches 120˚. Then to wrap it with aluminum foil and let it rest for another quarter of an hour before you make the first cut. She then slices it and makes Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Sauce and Arugula.

Are you kidding me?

Here’s what Agi does. I let both chunks of meat, generously coated and well seasoned, broil away in the scorching hot toaster. I walk on eggshells pacing around the box. I peek through the little smudgy window, but the darkness within prevents me from getting any feedback. I mumble a few prayers in Polish that I remember from my early days, retrieve a flashlight from our goodie-drawer in the bedroom and shine a light on the sweaty guys.

Steaks in the Oven

I check the clock as if my life depends on it. I do the math in my crazy head and figure it should take less time for my small baby fillets in that little toaster oven. Hence, 13 minutes into this melodrama, I’m on the verge of pulling my hair and spitting all my teeth out into a handkerchief. I can’t take it any longer and pull out the tray with the toddlers. I stick a thermometer into one of them and let my eyeballs follow the mercury rise up to 120, wait, 130, oh no! it keeps going up to 140˚. Suddenly it stops, takes a breath, and picks up again before settling at 143 degrees Fahrenheit! What did Ina say?? One hundred twenty degrees was all it was supposed to reach. Damn it! And I tried so hard… I’m devastated. My hope that stood breathless in the corner for all this time now burst and evaporated along with the aroma of freshly roasted meat.

With my shoulders hanging down by my hips, and my mouth curved upside down in sadness and utter disappointment, I continue assembling the dinner for Jason who should arrive home any minute now. With a tear lingering in the corner of my eye, I cook a little pasta and make a quick Marinara Sauce. In another pot, Brussels sprouts steam themselves for the heck of it. The meat just hangs out in the cooling toaster, very confused and unsure of its future.

When my honey walks in through the kitchen door, I finish plating our meal and walk him straight to the dining room with an ambivalent expression on my face. He reads me like an open book:

-       It didn’t work out? Don’t worry, baby. You don’t even like red meat. I don’t have to have a steak. And if I crave it one day, I’ll just go out. It’s really not a big deal. And you know I love everything else that you make. I guess red meat is just not your thing. And THAT’S OK!

-       Booo-hooo …! – is all I have in me in response.

We sit down and with obvious hesitation take the first bite. Hmmm… Without uttering a single word, Jason hums and moans, wiggles his rear end in the chair, throws his eyebrows up and down, and as he swallows the rest of the bite he exclaims:

-       This is FANTASTIC! This is what I call a STEAK. This is perfect! Baby, I have no words… You are an amazing COOK.

-       This thing really IS good. Wow. I can’t believe it. I have just lost my flower. I’m no longer a STEAK VIRGIN! – I reply dumbfounded.

With each bite, I fall deeper and deeper in love with the golden nugget of steak I brought to life with my very hands. It’s a medium rare perfection with the smoky flavor of mustard, and as soft and juicy as the melted butter it was cooked in. The crazy part? It was broiled inside our smart, GREEN, multifunctional toaster oven!!!

Who knew?

Steak Dinner

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