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I read in a magazine once that the best day for grocery shopping is Wednesday. After a thorough analysis of the results of a poll the authors ran, and based on the database collected, it was concluded the stores were least crowded on the third day of a week.

A whole lot of people must have read the same snippet in the magazine, as my local Trader Joe’s was bursting with fruit colors and soap bubbles when I arrived right past the lunch hour yesterday. Shopping carts were jamming at the front door, people pushing through, cars coming in and out of the parking lot, food disappearing from the shelves. You’d think Armageddon was coming, but I checked on my calendar that in fact March 3rd was WHAT IF CATS AND DOGS HAD OPPOSABLE THUMBS? DAY.

That surely explains the commotion at the grocery on the least frequented day in a week.

The last few days have been strongly affected by a craving rollercoaster. Since Monday, I think I stepped out of the refrigerator and paused consumption to take care of three things only – to walk Cosmo (as it would be embarrassing), brush my teeth (awkward), and when going to sleep (messy!). My right bicep is sore from the constant lifting forkfuls and spoonfuls of food to the opening in my head.

You know what I miss? I never thought I would say this but I miss being hungry. I want to feel empty for a change. Here’s a solution. While I wait for the estrogen levels to drop, I shall fill my refrigerator with foods that are filling, packed with fiber and digestion-boosting enzymes, just like my WHEAT BERRY SALAD. It tastes divine. It looks beautiful and appetizing. It’s crunchy and labor-intensive for the jaws, forcing you to chew your meal longer while enjoying its interlacing flavors and working out at the same time. Brilliant!

WHEAT BERRY SALAD

-       1 – 1.5 cups wheat berries, cooked

-       1 romaine lettuce, chopped

-       1 sm package of mixed greens

-       2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped

-       1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

-       1/2 cup scallions, chopped

-       1/3 cup toasted pine nuts, cooled off

-       3 tbsp goat cheese, crumbled

-       1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped

DRESSING

-       1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

-       1/3 cup flax seed oil (or use only olive oil)

-       1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar

-       1 tsp Dijon mustard

-       1 tbsp honey

-       pinch of salt, pepper and garam masala to taste

Bowl. Toss. Dress. Toss. Serve. Eat.

Abracadabra, cravings be GONE! P-O-O-F.

I have every reason to believe that the BEET SOUP I’m making will bring my culinary machismo to a new level.

I just couldn’t resist. My smart and utterly eloquent screen saver suggested a word of the day: machismo. I had to smuggle it into this post. I had to!

I digress.

The Beet Soup is one of those Polish adaptations I have introduced into our home. Jason, being the white boy from Texas that he is, had barely even encountered a beet before Agi came along. When I insinuated making the soup for his parents while they were visiting, they only looked at me with eyes wide and said: “We love you, Agi. You are so cute!” That was the end of the Beet Soup conversation.

Half of a garden went into making the soup du jour, beets including. All you vegetarians out there don’t get too excited, as I “ruined” it for you with a handful of diced pancetta. Once again, my resistance mechanism didn’t kick in… but it was so worth it!

As the aromatic whiff of the Beet Soup tickled my nostrils, I was forced to pause this soup tirade. My nose disengaged from my body and mindlessly led me to the kitchen. I had to take a taste. GOD! It was slightly sweet but with a lemony bite to it. All vegetables perfectly cooked and soft. Each bite just melted in my mouth. Then I heard the angels’ choir burst forth in song: Alleluia!

Toast

I know it’s very douche-baggy of me, but today I will only BRAG about the soup, and not so much share it with you. That’s only because there are other important things that deserve my attention. Trust me, it is for a cause. Good or bad… we’ll see.

A few days ago I wrote about our grocery shopping routine, that heavily involved the local Trader Joe’s. The truth is, our pantry and the refrigerator are predominantly supplied with TJ’s goods. The $100 that we usually drop at the register is exchanged for 4 (four) bulging bags of food sundries (many, and I mean many of which are organic). Our love for the store is unquestionable and apparent.

We’re not alone. There’s a fan club and a huge following of Trader Joe’s groupies out there. We met them. We heard them. They even made films with their phones. You must SEE it for yourself to understand.

TJ Store

However, as in life, once you get to know someone, the veil of awe and perfection slowly fades, and you begin to notice the wrinkles, grey hairs, and even that crooked tooth. Over the course of the last year, we’ve come to know a substantial number of TJ products. Some of them we fell in love with. Others led to addiction. Every weekend we would head to the store, our hearts filled with hope. We would park and walk into the chambers of our local Hawaiian themed Trader Joe’s drooling in anticipation of the flavors we’ve come to cherish.

And then, one sunny Saturday, disaster struck.

As we circled across the isles, loading stuff into our cart, we at last arrived at the booze section. A quick scan of the shelves, followed by a thorough search between six-packs resulted in an anxious interrogation of the nearest store employee who confirmed what we already suspected – the Blueberry Beer that we had discovered just weeks earlier and enjoyed so deeply was gone… forever! It was DISCONTINUED.

We mourned the loss of the perfect, not too sweet, not too bitter Blueberry Beer, and moved on with our lives. Several months have gone by, when one day we found ourselves startled again. As we stood in front of the shelf where the Red Pepper Spread used to sit and wait for us week after week, there was nothing. A black hole of emptiness. We stayed cool and decided to give Trader Joe’s the benefit of the doubt. “Maybe they’re out?” – we thought. Oh, naivety! It took us three subsequent visits to bring ourselves to realize the inevitable – the spread that we used on most of our sandwiches, the spread we ate by the spoonfuls with cheese and crackers, the spread we sent to Jason’s parents in Texas (!) was… DISCONTINUED.

Around the same time, we started hearing similar stories from friends, coworkers, neighbors, and whole communities. There were laments and loud protests. There was sadness and anger. I heard birds chirping the gossip that some people had even left Trader Joe’s for another discount organic food giant in the hood called Fresh & Easy.

One day I decided to take action and get to the bottom of this misfortune. I asked around to gain a better understanding of how serious the problem had become. And the people have spoken:

Jen said: “Blueberry beer sounds awesome! My favorite thing they discontinued was a spice-rubbed tamarind in the dried fruits section. Soooo tasty, sweet, almost like candy, and yet still good for you!

Heidi: “I love their artichokes in glass jar & lavender body scrub – but don’t think those products are still on the market.

Cate: “I really miss the butternut squash ravioli and the hot/sweet mustard they used to have. Both great, both now gone. Sniff.

DonnaAnn: “OMG yes! Trader Joseph’s Granola bagels. Three layer dip: cream, sun dried tomato, pesto. Goji Berry Trail Mix. The list goes on and on.

Andre: “I would have to say that I miss the Organic Ginger Snaps the most. I was shopping there the other day and I was craving the sweet snappy ginger taste with some cold milk. Alas, the ginger snaps were no longer. I asked the Manager and he said they had been discontinued. Other ginger snaps just don’t have the same “bite”. :(

Jason: “I miss those little peanut butter cluster desert thingies. They tasted like a nestle crunch bar that tripped and fell head first into a jar of peanut butter…. yum.

Melissa: “The rice flour to make pancakes! It was sweet and made crispy thin little flapjacks!!

Karen: “YES!!! I miss the rice flour too Missy!!!!!!!

Chantel: “Ok… I know it’s so un-trainer of me, (again… got my fingers in the cookie jar), but the Chocolate Covered Toggee Squares… just like See’s molasses chips, but so much cheaper! Yes, the Blueberry beer was the bomb too!

Leanne: “It’s not vegan & it’s not organic but the egg sandwiches I used to love are gone! So is the raw goat feta.

Jeffrey: “Loved their chopped ginger which came and went. Was so useful in many dishes.

I’m getting short of space to let all the voices be heard. I hope these few are loud enough to echo all the way to the Trader Joe’s headquarters causing them to take pause. I understand the whole national preference thing, but it is so unfair!

Oh, Beloved Trader Joe’s, you are ALL about customer service. The courtesy and smile that you so graciously provide in every corner of the store makes our shopping chore so un-chore-like. And yet, Trader Joe’s, you keep taking FOOD away from us. You pull the goodies out of our mouth! That is so NOT cool.

The funny part is that Trader Joe’s is now following me on Twitter. That’s right! I even got a direct message from them just yesterday.

TJ Twit

I’m so happy they LOVE my blog. I love them right back. But I also want my Red Pepper Spread right back… Pretty please?

Dear Trader Joe’s, please feel the love, and hear our cries each time you pull an item from your shelves.  You giveth but you also taketh away.  Not cool.  Can’t something be done?

Sincerely,

The People

Before we met, both Jason and I were dining out most of the time. Jason had memorized all the taco, burger, and sushi joints on Ventura Blvd and beyond, while I was hooked on Whole Foods and their salad and hot foods bar.  Needless to say, we were spending a fortune on our meals – in our world it translated into eating away a medium-sized car a year. One day we did the math, and between the two of us we were trashing about $1800 a month on the “fuel for our bodies”. Multiply this by 12 months and you have just burped a brand new Honda Civic with a built-in GPS and Satellite Radio.

Many people ask me how old I was when I started cooking. While I made a few simple dinners here and there as a teenager to give mama a hand, the whole love affair with pots and pans bloomed when I started dating Jason. Our courtship period was marked with his long and romantic letters text messages while traveling solo in Guatemala, homemade salads, and a barley-mushroom soup I’d make after his return. It wasn’t until a few months into our romance when we collected all our receipts to calculate our food expenses that the alarm bells began to ring. Our jaws dropped, broke into a million pieces, and scattered all over the floor when we saw the mind-blowing amount of almost two grand on the calculator.

That was our “Aha! Moment”. That was a turning point toward our future lives. More importantly, it was the time of my creative liberation when the cooking beast within was unleashed.

We started a regimen of regular escapades to the local Trader Joe’s for a weekly supply of groceries. Week after week the tab was coming to about $100. Another $20-$40 smackers were dropped at a Farmers’ Market in exchange for organic carrots, leeks, seasonal fruit and veggies along with a variety of aromatic, fresh herbage. Next, we invested in a pair of twin lunch boxes (It’s sickening sometimes how cute we are!), a set of good knives, pots and pans, and our love boat set sail.

Lunch Boxes

Are you following? Are you breaking your fingers trying to add it all up? Are you smashing those beads on your granny’s abacus? No, you’re not crazy. We cut down our food expenses by 2/3rds! So now, even though we don’t eat out as much anymore, and meat shows up on a plate no more than 3 times a week, we haven’t seen the same meal on our dinner menu in a few months.

Having said that, I will admit we’re a part of that lucky, sun-burnt whassup-dude-nation of Southern California. Not only do we have 70-degree weather all year round on average (which allows for a variety of fresh, organic produce), but we also have Trader Joe’s – the main source of affordable, healthy and organic yummers. It seems the guys are scrambling though to bring the goods to more Americans. You can check here if your city has also been blessed with its own TJ store.

A few days ago, I found a new “delicacy” within the depths of the store’s freezers. It is an extreme rarity to catch me using any pre-made frozen dinner thingies so abundant in every grocery store in America, but after having scouted the frozen Chicken Cilantro Mini Wontons, a bulb lit in my head. “What if I take the leftover roasted root vegetables from last night’s dinner, use them to make a soup, and dump the frozen wontons inside…?”

TJ Wontons

And so she did.

WHAT I USED FOR THE DISH:

-       roasted root vegetables (see below for details)

-       1 medium leek (only the while and light green part, thoroughly cleaned – muy importante!), chopped

-       1 medium onion, diced

-       garlic (CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?! Ok, 6 or 7 cloves)

-       4 oz package of diced pancetta (from Trader Joe’s)

-       1 carton of low sodium chicken broth (also fathered by TJ)

-       2-3 dry bay leaves (remove before serving!)

-       5-6 whole peppercorns (same here, out before serving)

-       1-2 tsp of dry marjoram

-       2 tsp of lemon juice or vinegar

-       half a bag of fresh arugula

-       handful of fresh dill, roughly chopped

-       spices (eyeballed…sorry): red curry powder, garam masala, cumin, nutmeg

-       kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

First, I diced a peeled onion and chopped my CLEAN (I can’t emphasize it enough) leek. Into a hot pan I threw a handful of diced pancetta, let the fat melt and the meat get crispy, then fished the cracklings out and set them on a plate for later. Into the greased pan I threw the onion and leek, and let them sauté for about 5-7 minutes. Next went chopped garlic, salt, dry marjoram and black pepper.

At this point, a neighbor passed by our open back door and shouted: “Mmmm, something surely smells GOOD!”

My roasted veggies got really excited and all jumped into the pot at once. To help everyone inside bond, I poured about a half cup of chicken broth, stirred the party around collecting all the flavors from across the dance floor, then turned off the heat – time to get serious. I emptied the content of the pot into a food processor, and… pushed the ON button.

The whirlwind of events that followed is too graphic to describe. Know that at the end of the night, I was left with a creamy and smooth veggie mass, which was returned to the pot. To turn it into a soup, I added the rest of the chicken broth from a box, the bay leaves, peppercorns, more salt and pepper, a touch or two of red curry powder, garam masala, cumin and nutmeg. The lemon gave its juice. The cracklings were also ready to get back in the game. I left it all to simmer for about 30 minutes, covered with a lid.

Half an hour later the wontons were ready to join the party. I emptied the bag into the soup to let everybody mingle and phone numbers were exchanged. Next, I turned the heat off and added the arugula, which instantly wilted in the temperature of the goods it swam in. The final touch was a dust of chopped dill sprinkled over a serving of Roasted Vegetables Soup with Chicken Wontons.  God, bless its soul, for it was heavenly! Jason had two helpings.

Chicken Wontons

Hmm… where was I? Oh, right, the mere memory of the dish throws me off track. Before I move on to the roasted root vegetables part of my story, let me just take a deep breath and compose myself again.

Alright.

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED:

-       3 medium to large parsnips

-       4 medium to large carrots

-       1 celery root

-       kosher salt + black pepper

-       Herbs de Provence

-       Extra virgin olive oil

Wash and peel your veggies, cut in 1/4” strips and spread on a sheet pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, herbs and seasoning. Using your hands, massage the goods into the veggies, and thus prepared, throw them into a 400˚ oven for about 30 minutes. THAT’S IT!

Just make sure the veggies are soft before you allow them out for some fresh air. Each oven is different, so you may need 5 minutes less, or 10 minutes more to turn your root vegetables into that beautiful and delicious patchwork of roasted carrots, parsnips, and celery root.

The sky is the limit – or the ground rather – when it comes to vegetables you could be roasting: butternut squash, acorn squash, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets, garlic – I’ve done them all. Don’t limit yourself. Be bold. Experiment. Follow your instincts. The pleasure received from such trials will be that much greater!

Amen.

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