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December is that time of year when everyone from Average Joe to Plain Jane hasten their steps in an attempt to find closure. Whether it’s personal matters like cleaning one’s teeth and de-cluttering their house, or a business deal that must be closed before the clock strikes midnight, all tasks are to be accomplished or else everything will turn into a pumpkin patch and Cinderella will run away barefoot.

The same commotion rules our house these days, hence my seldom presence in this cyber neighborhood. I’ve been meaning to sit down and tell you a story of a certain encounter, and a chat that followed…

Last month, while helping chef Fullilove shine his bright culinary light on LA food enthusiasts at the Test Kitchen, I ran into Ani Phyo, the raw food chef extraordinaire and author of four un-cook books. I think she’s working on her fifth now.

It’s funny how it happened really. All covered in flour dust while cutting beet pasta into long ribbons of vegan tagliatelle, I noticed this woman hanging around in the room, speaking gently on her cell phone, trying to be as non-intrusive as possible. Her voice I found very comforting and calming. Yes, I have a thing for voices. It turns me on if it strikes the right tone, and I don’t mean in a sexual way. At least not this time.

I digress.

The woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t match the face with a name in my head. She greeted us, asked about the pasta with an excited spark in her eye, and I couldn’t help but notice the voice again. Have I mentioned that I have a thing for people’s voices? I had to say something! Graciously she accepted my compliment and exited the room leaving nothing short of a shimmering glow behind. I saw her around over the two days I spent there, me working on Jason’s thing, her prepping for her event the following week. It wasn’t until I heard someone mention the name “Ani” and the word “raw” all in one sentence when it hit me.

I’VE GOT HER BOOK IN MY HOUSE! I’VE SEEN HER YOUTUBE VIDEOS. I KNOW WHO THE WOMAN IS!

Phew!

Ani Phyo in the kitchen of the Test Kitchen with Top Chef Alex Reznik.

Next thing I know, I’m stalking the poor gal around the kitchen premises hoping to score a short chat with her. For this blog. For YOU! Of course, it wasn’t the time nor place for it, so we settled for a phone conversation after her menu tasting at the Test Kitchen in mid November. However, Thanksgiving got in our way and it wasn’t until maybe last week that my phone rang at the precise time Ani said she would call.

I had a roster of questions I planned to bombard Ani with, but you know how it is. A conversation is a living creature, and so, as to be expected, it took us on its own ride. To begin, I wanted to know what was Ani’s definition of RAW FOODISM. She made it very uncomplicated by describing raw diet as fresh, whole foods made with ideally locally grown and organic ingredients.

“You can make a simple and delicious tomato and tarragon bisque straight from the blender. Or you can cook it, but that takes it longer and makes it more complicated” she explained.

Back in the day, when my eating habits were all over the map for reasons other than health, I went through raw stage myself. I read a ton about the diet, and learnt how complex and time-consuming its preparation was. Foods should be either completely raw or cooked in temperatures not exceeding 118° as to save the metabolism-boosting enzymes captured in the produce. Grains should be soaked in water for extended lengths of time in order for our stomachs to be able to digest them. If you wanted to get different textures you would have to dehydrate and/or powder some of your veggies. It wasn’t a diet for someone who works 10-11 hour days and wants to have a social life on top of that. Thank god, I lived in NYC back then where I had a raw food restaurant just a few blocks up, and a deli with fresh fruits and veggies cut and packaged daily for my convenience. My refrigerator stood empty for the entire five years that I was in Manhattan.

The memories of that period came back to me now, with Ani on the other end of the cable, and so I asked her about that whole process. Shockingly, she wasn’t very excited about dehydrating the food herself since in the process you lose, you know, the water. Then you need to drink it separately, and why would you do that if you can get both in one. Most of her recipes can be made very quickly, as she pointed out, using only a few kitchen essentials like a knife, a blender,  and a food processor, which I found stamped as little picture icons next to each recipe in her book, “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen“.  Speaking of the book, its cover presents Ani about to take a bite from a raw sandwich she’s holding in her hands. That thing looks so incredibly appetizing. Every time I glance at the bookshelf, I want to rip it off the page, lick the paper, and bite into the binding. I can TASTE it just by looking at the damn thing. You must check it out!

The idea of raw foods instantly whisks me away to tropical lands abundant with fresh produce… and sunshine! Would it be wise and practical to switch to an all raw diet for someone who lives in an area where winter comes and slaps you in the face with its snow falls and damp weather, I asked next?

“You can add heating ingredients, like chili pepper, or ginger to your food. However, everyone is unique and must listen to their body. I lived in Portland for four years, where it rained a lot, and my hands were constantly cold. I don’t know if it was good for me that I ate raw there. It depends on a person. Just listen to your body, and if you feel like you need something warm, eat something warm.”

Here’s where I really started falling for that girl because… she’s rational. She encourages people to stay healthy and live balanced lives as opposed to following some strict rules that lead to extremes.

“If you want to make changes in your diet” – Ani suggests – “start with whole ingredients.” (Meaning unprocessed, organic produce.) “Have gratitude, educate yourself and make choices based on that knowledge. Living a whole and balanced life is not only about the food, but also about your attitude, creating a strong bond with your community, giving back, and having gratitude.”

Having heard all that I couldn’t help but wonder: does Ani Phyo, the sexy queen of raw food movement, cheats on an occasion with what she consumes herself?

“Oh, yes, I cheat sometimes. How crazy do you want to get?” she asked laughing. “I love quinoa. I like tempeh, too. Just the other day, I wanted something warm, so I cooked myself a bowl of lentils. And sometimes, when I get the craving, I stop by Veggie Grill and get a veggie burger. And you know what, I have wheat intolerance, and I know I will have a stomach cramp and I will feel bad for a day, and I may even break out. But once in a while, if I want it, I just have a veggie burger.”

I was in love. A normal gal, sane, with all the pieces of furniture neatly organized in her head. It’s all about balance, people. Extremes never work long term and too often lead to eating disorders, which I myself learnt the hard way. Ani also admitted to having lived hard core raw for a decade, and today she realizes it wasn’t healthy for her.

So what does her day look like today food wise? She starts with two, three smoothies in the morning. She’ll blend blueberries, cashews, water and lecithin into a creamy drink and have it for breakfast. For lunch she may have a big green salad since she likes to work out mid day. After breaking a sweat, she may enjoy another smoothie while her metabolism is rolling. Dinner meal could be a bowl of lentils, a wrap, a salad, whatever strikes her fancy. Kelp noodles is something she raves about for a great addition to a salad.

When on the road, and she travels a lot, Ani always carries with her a bag of goji berries, nuts, maybe nori wrap or dried sea vegetables to nibble on. A banana, an orange and some peanut butter also travel well and help her get through parts of the country that don’t offer a wide array of fresh produce.

Ani Phyo's Raw Kale Chips

In the end I got all girly on her and dug for her beauty tips.

“I don’t put on my skin anything I wouldn’t eat, since it gets absorbed through the pores and gets into my blood stream. I use hobo oil to moisture my skin. Or coconut oil. I just rub it all over. I smell like a piña-colada and I love it. However, in winter I use hobo oil, because it sinks into the skin faster.”

Make-up she uses sporadically, not on a daily basis. Ani’s OK with mascara in moderation, not to be extreme. And if she uses eye shadows, she chooses spirulina based cosmetics.

All in all, it was such an inspiring exchange. Ani is gracious, laughs a lot, and takes herself lightly. Her beauty comes from within first. It’s her healthy mind and body that allow for her charms to express themselves in the physical form as well. She’s delightful to be around, and I hope for another chance in the future.

Feel free to visit her website and direct any questions to her via her Facebook fan page. That’s the best way to get a hold of her, she says.

In my next installment, I’ll include photos of the foods Ani Phyo wowed the crowds with at the Test Kitchen back in November. Stay tuned.

I can’t say it enough: I love meat. The pink, the red, the white stuff, I’ll devour it all. If I grew up in China, IF, I’d probably eat dogs, too. Then again, I was born and raised in Europe and yet never ate a horse (at least not to my knowledge). Though horse meat was readily available to its enthusiasts (were they?), it just never sounded good. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that, when I was in my teens, my room was plastered, floor to ceiling, with posters of horses, plus an occasional image of Patrick Swayze and Mel Gibson (the real life mad man turns out) tucked in between.

Maybe Mel Gibson ate horses? Or dogs??

Here is another thing I not only am crazy about, but also can’t live without. So can’t you. The thing is the Earth with its abundance of life forms, with its breathtaking beauty, with its mind-boggling complexity, with its mighty power of creation…

 

I watched this video today, made by a very cool organization called GOOD, where I heard it again: meat production creates three times the green house gas emission as veggies, eggs, grains, or fish. The video is not a dooming project, it’s educational. See what small changes you can adopt in your every day living that will help not only to save you BIG BUCKS but also contribute to global energy savings and thus help protect our motherland.

 

 

When you go grocery shopping this weekend, plan your menu for your next Meatless Monday. You’ll find countless ideas for satisfying and nutrient-dense meals made with no meat on the pages of yours truly (ONE MORE BITE). For a quick reference, however, I’ll throw in another one today.

This is one of those dishes I actually don’t plan for. Funny enough, the only ones I do are those meat-heavy platters. Every week I get a variety of vegetables, whatever calls my name and with no agenda. Around 4 PM on a mid week day I enter the kitchen and poke my head into the refrigerator trying to figure out what to make for dinner. Slowly, one by one, I begin to pull out various greens and land them on the kitchen counter. Next, I go through the pantry cabinet and look for grains or pastas, beans, nuts, dried fruit, canned anchovies, tomato paste, etc. From a basket in the corner I grab an onion or a couple of shallots, a head of garlic, maybe a couple of potatoes. At this point, while I may look calm and relaxed on the outside, in my head I undergo a violent and calorie-consuming brainstorm.

Within minutes my kitchen turns into a mad scientist’s lab with lights blinking, cupboard doors slamming, windows shattering, and other inexplicable explosions visible on the horizon. Half an hour or so later I come out, as if nothing ever happened, with a complete dinner, plated and all.

It’s as easy as cooking rice and adding to it a handful of frozen edamame beans minutes before its done. It’s as easy as finely chopping a shallot, garlic and chili pepper and tossing them together on a hot pan with a touch of olive oil and a handful of almonds. It’s as easy as parboiling string beans and florets of broccoli in salted water and then adding those guys to the pan with the nuts. Drop in a handful of sweat peas, drizzle with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar or lime juice, even a touch of honey. Serve over the rice, garnish with fresh herbs and sprouts of any kind, and ENJOY immediately. I guarantee, you won’t even notice there was no meat on the plate.

Some days, when a special someone, like my friend Tamara who also happens to be an incredibly knowledgable and skilled acupuncturist (she’s funny, too!), comes over for dinner, I think things through and prep ahead. She follows what I call a relaxed vegan diet. Her household is free of animal products, however when out and about she will occasionally enjoy a piece of cheese, or pastry. She lives her life labels-free, thus allowing herself to be mostly content with what is, rather than stressed out with what’s not. I admire that quality in her as it’s not as easy to attain as it is to write about it.

We ate together last night, and I wanted to celebrate her joy de vivre by creating a dish bursting with flavors, textures, and colors, while respecting her vegan preference. Hence, I juxtaposed dark Mahogany rice with roasted peanuts and basil oil (all sunk in) against white and raw celeriac salad with walnuts and creamy sunflower seed vinaigrette. On a bed of bright orange sweet potato mash I laid green zucchini and bok choy, plus a handful of garbanzo beans made Southern style (meaning fried). To add texture I sprinkled nutty hemp seeds over the rice and red teardrops of pomegranate seeds all over the plate. A couple of edamame beans delivered another building block of protein, and made the meal complete.

Cooking is fun, especially when you think outside of the box and keep reinventing yourself. Mother Nature gifted us with thousands of incredible varieties of edible plants. Whether you like them raw, cooked, dehydrated, even fried (however rarely), chances are you’ll never get bored with them. So get jiggy with it!

Guess what, no animal was harmed in the process of writing this post. On the contrary, Cosmo napped on my lap all along with my left hand scratching his ear while the right one typed each letter  o n e   b y   o n e.

Also, for the record, I would never EVER bite a dog. Not even a hot-dog.

Months of anticipation, weeks of preparation, two days of hard work, and now it’s all over with. My two days at Test Kitchen with chefs Jason Fullilove and Seth Caro were not only educational, thrilling and satisfying on so many levels, but also those two days in the freezing kitchen (an oxymoron, true nonetheless!) turned simply into a big family event.

There was an army of us helping chef Fullilove present his big guns, his culinary creations. Despite the stress and long hours with no food (the cobbler’s children walk barefoot) there was a sense of camaraderie and thrill among all of us. When I first saw the menu penned by Jason Fullilove I thought out loud:

HE’S SUCH A SHOWOFF!

…only to hide my intimidation with the dishes he had put together for his Test Kitchen stint. Take a glance at what we served and drool with compassion:

Black Rice Beignets w/ Goeduck & Sea Urchin Crudo, Cherignola Olive Powder, Salmorigio Aoili, Lemon Confit
Pear Ravioli, Telaggio Cheese, Marcona Almonds and Fresh Cardamom
Barramundi, Black Octopus Sausage, Smoked Lobster Nage, Aerated Sorghum Seeds
Ras Al Hanuot Spiced Lamb Belly, Fresh Chick Pea Puree, Heirloom Carrots, Salsify
Warm Gianduja Cake, Butternut Squash Pudding, Pear Yokan and Fenugreek Ice Cream

Black Rice Beignets w/ Goeduck & Sea Urchin Crudo, Cherignola Olive Powder, Salmorigio Aoili, Lemon Confit

Pear Ravioli, Telaggio Cheese, Marcona Almonds and Fresh Cardamom

Barramundi, Black Octopus Sausage, Smoked Lobster Nage, Aerated Sorghum Seeds

Knowing the Los Angeles market and its ever growing demand for vegan options Chef Fullilove also served such bites ala carte. One of the biggest hits of the night was vegan pink pasta, cutting which was a floury task just hours prior:

Tagliatelle, butternut squash, tuscan kale & olive oil poached tear drop tomatoes

Roast Forest Mushroom and Leek terrine w/ Chestnut & Lambrusco Espuma

The desserts, conceptualized and executed by chef Seth Caro (a recent contestant of Bravo’s “Top Chef Pastry”), were an artistic exposition in their own right. I was lucky to observe and participate in the process of their creation, never anticipating the final result to be that electrifying to my palette.

Warm Gianduja Cake, Butternut Squash Pudding, Pear Yokan and Fenugreek Ice Cream

Jason, my better half, came to the restaurant for the tasting along with our good friend Dana. When I stepped out from the kitchen to check on them, Dana was squealing and squeaking with a mouthful of the above delight, wiggling her tiny butt across the chair she was sitting on. When she saw me approaching, she exclaimed:

WTF? THIS IS UNREAL! HERE, YOU MUST TRY IT.

…and a spoonful of the cake with the oozing hot chocolate entered my mouth at once.

Dana couldn’t help herself. Her joyful exuberance caused by the explosion of flavors in her mouth urgently needed an outlet. Born entertainer, not only was she the perfect companion for Jason, who celebrates the culinary arts with similar passion to mine, but also she befriended everyone in her vicinity from the patrons at adjacent tables to all the wait staff swiftly sweeping across the room.

Dana, with her expressive nature, was a perfect example of the satisfaction all our guests experienced on both nights. All the food was impeccably paired with wine by the Test Kitchen co-owner and sommelier, bringing each dish to a new level. We served close to 200 people, and smiles were ever present, emails and comments of gratitude still pouring into chef Fullilove’s inbox.

I forgot how much fun I had by his side at that other restaurant in Beverly Hills some months ago. After those two 14-hour days I was ready to play again. Hence, as of this week I’m sharing my restaurant time between Animal and Desert Rose in Los Feliz, a Mediterranean kitchen Jason took over last month. I’ll be reporting more. Stay tuned.

 

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.

Bon appétit!

HOLY FUCK is the best running music I’ve listened to by far. This electronica band from Toronto has successfully established its presence on the independent music scene since their creation in 2004.

Check them out on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrtQEaeGaZY

Make sure to TURN UP THE VOLUME!

5933_123004603012_592198012_3071034_3721692_n After a weekend of various festivities and loving life while indulging on some luscious treats, I finally drove my self to the gym to bring the discipline back and regain inner balance.

What you take in, make sure to extract in some other form. Keep it forward. Don’t think about calories. That is just as bad for you as smoking – both deeply affect the quality of life, and shorten it. Whether it’s the toxin of a cigarette, or a toxic thought that brings you down, stresses you out, and keeps you in the clutches of guilt, both are just as destructive to your system. If you see your body as a car engine, you’ll know exactly how much gas it can take to run smoothly. If you flood it, the engine will cough and stall on you. Stay in tune with your body; it will tell you exactly what it needs whether it’s a slice of cheese or pastrami, a crunchy carrot, a steaming bowl of soup, a brownie oozing with chocolate, an earth shattering orgasm, or breaking a sweat during a high energy run.

It was HOLY FUCK that filled my head space allowing my body to chase free thoughts while treading on gym equipment, and – believe it or not – to completely relax. The old truth has proven itself once more – everything in nature thrives when in balance.

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The weekend was officially launched with a Thursday Night Picnic in a park with a bunch of Leslie’s friends, and friends of friends, and then some. Each one contributed to the potluck on a patchwork of blankets. There was a jar of divine potato salad with a secret ingredient of grated pickles. We had tortilla chips and red snapper ceviche, quinoa salad and chunks of watermelon. Someone else brought a package of cheese nuggets made from REAL milk. I took a bite and was startled at how much the taste resembled flavors I remembered from home. It tasted like…hm… cheese?! Yes, the real deal…

I grew up in a small city in then still very agricultural Poland. Even though the town was surrounded by the industrial chimneys of power plants, we still lived close enough to farms and the countryside. Fresh milk straight from a cow, farmer’s cheese, large eggs, and grass fed beef were easily accessible. It was cheap, and yet organic. When I first came to America and had a bowl of cereal with “milk”, I couldn’t finish my breakfast. It tasted nothing like milk I ever knew. Frankly, it was pretty disgusting. It’s saddening to see the “food-like products” – to quote Michael Pollan – filling up hundreds of food stores’ shelves all over the States. Those items are tempting for their price, I understand, but the quality is just as low. I am convinced our society would be a much healthier one had it nourished itself with the pure foods produced by our planet.

My decision to take a vegan route was more complex than just based on the taste of food, but that was one of the important elements. I lasted about 7 years. However, now, living as a recovered omnivore, I still drink almond milk, I pick my veggies from local farmers at a market, I choose organic meats, eggs from cage-free hens, and beef from happy cows fed on grass, and not corn.

I digress.

At the picnic we shared wine, stories and laughs. Hours later it was the chill of the night that drove us away. We packed Cosmo and went home.

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To be continued…

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