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Me thinks it’s the last call for a hearty, soulful, and comforting like a hug of your loved one stew. I’m wary of saying anything out loud not to jinx it, but it looks like the sun is back in LA after a long and cold (as in jackets, woolen hats and scarves COLD) winter. I know this does not compare to what people back east have experienced, but here in Los Angeles we have high weather expectations. And we’re kind of pussies like that. One proper Southern California winter with its 70°F and up will do that to you.

Evenings, however, are still rather nippy and thus call for a healthy comfort food.

Here’s a list of reasons why you should try my Farty Party Bean Stew:

1. It’s healthy, for it is full of fiber and protein.

2. It’s made in minutes, like twenty at the most (if you’re using canned beans…)

3. It’s on the leaner side, despite the company of pancetta.

4. It’s as filling as a sheet of big bubble wrap inside a fedex package, and just as flatulent.

Ok, let me pause here for a moment. We’re talking beans so don’t pretend you’re surprised to hear about their gassy quality. The good thing is that after a reasonable portion of this sinfully satisfying dish you’ll suffer the consequences over an afternoon, and all you’re left with are sweet memories of one flavorful meal. Whereas, if you “indulge” in a bucket of fried wings, or a dozen of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, or even Fettucini Alfredo from Olive Garden, not only you’re building a muffin top around your waste, but also you’re loading your body with crazy amounts of saturated fat, preservatives, and other toxic chemicals no one can even pronounce.

5. It’s taste is divine!

Farty Party Bean Stew

I’ll give you an approximate recipe for the above mentioned culinary gift of gods as you know me: what do I know about measurements?

You’ll need:

- Beans, various varieties: cannellini, kindey, pinto, wide white beans, what have you. A handful of each kind. If possible, go for dry beans and soak them overnight, then cook in unsalted water till tender. Drain. If not available, use canned ones and rinse them thoroughly under a stream of cold water to remove all that excess sodium.

- Pancetta, three 0.5″ thick slices of it will do. The fresh one from your butcher is the best. This way you’ll get to cut it in chunky chunks and then incorporate those ruby pork nuggets into your stew.

- Large onion, diced.

- Chicken or beef stew, about 1 cup. Or more, if you’re making a large batch of the stew.

- Tomato sauce, 14 oz can or an equivalent from a jar (always better than a can.)

- Tomato paste, 2-3 tbsp.

- Maple syrop (Grade B is the one you want!), 2-3 tbsp.

- Worcestershire Sauce, 0.5-1 tbsp (OPTIONAL).

- Fresh herbs: oregano, thyme, marjoram, all chopped, 2-3 tbsp total.

- Olive oil, 1 tbsp.

- Salt, pepper, paprika, chili pepper, all to taste.

- Fresh parsley, roughly chopped, to be added in the end.

I use a large cast iron pot as it carries and distributes heat like no other. Drizzle oil into the hot machine, add chunks of pancetta and let it render. Next, drop in the onion, a touch of salt, all your herbs, stir and let it soften over a low to medium heat.

After that it doesn’t get any simpler. Toss all your soft beans into the pot along with the rest of the ingredients (aside from the parsley), mix well, bring to a simmer and let them cook for 10 minutes, with a lid on and over low heat. Taste, season to your liking, let it simmer another 5 minutes, and kill the fire. Add a bunch of chopped parsley and serve.

I think the stew is phenomenal on its own, but you may want a slice of some good, rustic bread to go with it. Your instincts are correct. That piece of bread will make the meal complete and protect you from going for seconds. And thirds. Yes, I did it, mea culpa. I suffered the consequences, too, I must admit. Still, I think it was worth every bite!

Nonetheless, enjoy my Farty Party Bean Stew and may it be our mutual farewell to winter.

Suddenly the air is different around here. The sun lays its rays at a new angle now. Its warming arms take longer to wrap themselves around my shivering shoulders. My bones feel denser, my brain heavier. I feel the change in my tummy even without the weather forecast bloke warning me of an upcoming winter storm.

WINTER STORM?? Aren’t we getting a tad dramatic? It’s still Southern California we’re talking about. Mother Nature came, coughed once or twice, and spat a few drops of rain on the ground. So much for the vicious and nut-cringing cold front, Mr. Weather Man.

Nevertheless, I can see the change of season in my kitchen as well. All the golden and ruby leaves fell and went. New vegetables arrived. Crimson cuts of beef begged to be braised in red wine with a harem of root vegetables, ending their poetic orgy as a hearty and gut-warming stew on a bed of toasted pearl barley…

Three days later a bowl of hot, mildly spicy, yet with a hint of sweet innocence BIGOS turned up on our table bringing bliss and comfort just like a Swedish massage followed by a plunge into a hot tub would.

WAIT, WHAT DID YOU CALL IT?

Repeat after me: BEE-GOHS. You got it. Bigos is a Polish staple, at least in my family. There isn’t a holiday, or any family gathering without a giant pot full of this steaming hot sauerkraut stew. Every cook has his/her method and thus certain details of its preparation differ. My mother always mixes white cabbage and sauerkraut in almost equal proportions along with a myriad of spices and a whole animal. I swear, she adds half a pig and anther half of a milking cow into her stew and cooks it all together for hours, or days if possible. What we end up with at the dinner table is pure magic.

When I first moved to California, I moved into a house shared with two other girls. The place was furnished, set, and very homey. I got homesick. I was still eating only vegan foods back then, and in order to cure my nostalgia I was reinventing my mama’s dishes sans any products having lived with a face. My Vegan Bigos was born, and it rocked the worlds of many. I substituted meat with tofu and tempeh, added a bunch of wild mushrooms, and let the goodness cook for hours and hours and hours.

The version I make today is even simpler. On average I use:

- about a quart of store-bought sauerkraut, rinsed under cold water, wrenched and then chopped

- 2 small leaks, washed properly as leeks should be washed, then chopped

- 1 large onion, cut into small to medium dice

- a few garlic cloves, finely chopped

- 2-3 half inch rings of uncured pancetta, diced

- 3 small carrots, peeled and grated

- 4 oz tomato paste (But seriously, I never measure anything, so who knows…)

- handful of dried wild mushrooms, rehydrated in hot water for min. 1 hour prior

- seasoning: salt, pepper, lots of paprika, chili pepper, nutmeg, 2-3 bay leaves, dry marjoram, even thyme if lying around

- vegetable oil (I use sunflower).

I start with heating up the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot, then add my pancetta and let the chunks render. When the bits get crispier, I take them out, and toss in the onions and the leeks. I let them sauté for a couple of minutes before I add garlic. Right off the bat, into the mix there goes about a tablespoon of dried marjoram and a touch of salt to help the veg sweat. Now you’re ready to add the sauerkraut, carrots, mushrooms along with the water they soaked in (Watch for any dirt and sand on the bottom of the cup though!), tomato paste and all spices but the black pepper. You’ll finish seasoning your stew with pepper (and more salt if needed) in the very end.

Bring back the pancetta bits and mix all your ingredients together. Cover the pot with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and let cook for 1.5 – 2 hours. Check on the guys every so often and add a touch of water if it gets too dry. Also, you don’t want to burn the stuff. It’s too good to waste! Mark my words.

Rustic simplicity: a bowl of steamy hot, comforting Polish Stew with a slice of bread, or better a few hot potatoes. Bigos (if cooked with minimal amount or no meat) is an excellent accompaniment to pork loin or even a steak. You can dress it with fresh dill or parsley. Cilantro works just as well. Some Poles like it sweeter and add prunes and/or plum preserves. Some like it on a sour side and avoid such nonsense. You’re the artist, it’s your dish. Go ahead, cook and make potfuls of mouthwatering art poached in love and seasoned with fairy dust. Fear not the winter frost any longer!

About a week ago, maybe two, right before I got sick, I went to see the antics of THE FLYING CULINARY CIRCUS at Surfas store in Culver City, CA. Those are four young… Wait, let me rephrase it… TFCC are four very young chefs from Norway who travel around the world to cook and horse around for whomever pays. That’s in a nutshell what TFCC stands for.

From left: Trond, Tor, Agi, Mathias, and Hans-Kristian.

The presentation at Surfas was organized by their PR company, and various media personas, bloggers including, were invited. We got to taste a few samples of the chefs’ culinary creations, like their HOME SMOKED SALMON WITH HORSERADISH CREAM, POMEGRANATE & SHERRY VINAIGRETTE…

Delightful! I loved the flavor combination and the contrast of textures.

Another popular bite was SALMON “KISS” WITH TERIYAKI-LIME SAUCE AND SESAME SALAD…

Fantastic! Must have been the top dish that night.

The gentlemen also served us SCALOP CEVICHE that was made right in front of our eyes, which I wish had been done at least 15 minutes prior in order to let the acid cook the scallop. The salmon dishes certainly made up for that one missed appetizer.

Trond is sautéing bok choy with sesame seeds and chili for the Salmon KISS.

What was made long before our arrival was a very simple, very comforting, and very familiar to anyone who grew up in a cold(ish) climate LAMB & CABBAGE STEW. All attendees of the presentation not only got to taste the goods, but also received the recipes for all sampled dishes.

Since the STEW is so easy to make that your 4 year old daughter (sister? niece? neighbor? anyone?) could make it, I’ll share that with you as well (I’m copying the text from the sheet word for word):

- 2.2 lb lamb meat from legs with bones

- 4.5 lb cabbage

- 2 t black peppercorns

- 4 t whole-wheat flour

- water

- salt

1. Cut cabbage into large pieces. Layer meat, cabbage, peppercorns, salt and wheat flour in a big casserole. Bring to a boil and skim foam that rises to top.

2. Boil for 2-3 hours until the meat loosens from the bones.

That’s it. That’s the entire recipe. The flavor was really good, simple, but good. I’m sure you can easily substitute the meat for beef or buffalo. You could add carrots and leeks for an extra layer and depth of flavor. You could add heat of cayenne, or smokiness of smoked paprika. You could… make it your own. Served with potatoes, to me that’s the perfect winter meal.

The guys had one more surprise up their sleeves for us. Once the tasting was finished, and everyone present was comfortably sedated on ever flowing champaign, Tor, Trond, Mathias and Hans set the music and the stage for their famous waffle making presentation…

I recorded this video with my camera, hence forgive the sound quality. I did minimal editing in the very beginning and in the end of the clip. However, I bare no responsibility for the quality of the act itself.

Are you ready for this? I don’t think they were!

All in all, we all had fun. Clearly, none of the members of The Flying Culinary Circus takes himself too seriously. They cook and they monkey around. Come to think of it, that makes perfect sense. It doesn’t matter who you are and where in the world you live, I bet you like to eat well and laugh your back side off. TFCC will deliver just that.

We had a little falling out with the sun here in Los Angeles for the last few weeks. Or so it seemed. In my three-and-a-half years in LA I haven’t experienced that much rain. Plus it was my first winter in California that I needed to cover my chest with more than a bikini top, and wear shoes covering my toenails. Yup, it was pretty nippy here, and not in a good way. I brought it all on myself, I realize, with my bitching about the long and hot summer we had last year. Imagine, I had the nerve! I should really shut up in that instant before one of you on the East Coast, or up North, stretches your vindictive hand across the entire United States and slap me on my face.

Luckily, the sun came back, shiny and perky as if nothing ever happened, teasing and schmoozing to get out and bask in its rays. Hence, I invited my fellow blogger and a kindred spirit, Alisa, to come over for lunch along with her 2-year old and their pup. That dog, by the way, is the most non-mean and non-vicious Chihuahua I’ve ever come across in my life. On the contrary, the little Bean is just as sweet as my Caramelized Pears with Whip Cream.

We sat ourselves outside in the midst of the quasi-jungle in our backyard, munched away some Quinoa Salad and another one with Greens, Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Toasted Pine Nuts, and sipped my ICE TEA.

I poured boiling hot water over a bag of Sweet & Spicy Herbal Tea accompanied by one bag of Organic Chamomile Herbal Tea, let them seep together for 10-15 minutes, and then transferred that herbal essence into a jar filled with ice cubes and juice of half of a lemon. That was it. I dressed it up with a few lemon slices and we were ready to chill.

Here’s a twist I applied to the second batch after Alisa left – I added a pinch of cayenne pepper. If you’re familiar with the Master Cleanse, you’ll understand. If not, I’m afraid you’ll think I’m nutso.

Trust me, that little heat will do wonders to your body. Not only does cayenne help remove fat cells from your digestive track (that you can later use as a part of your fertilizer… if you want, but no pressure), but also combined with fresh lemon juice the concoction acts as a brush to your system – it helps clean it from the toxins we accumulate every day. To top it all, the heat helps break a sweat, which is your body’s natural cooling mechanism. It’s not serendipity that people who live in tropical climates tend to eat hot and spicy food.

Think about it. Summer is around the corner.

Visiting Jason’s folks always makes me nostalgic about country living. Even though their town is not quite rural, still they wake up to a view of rolling hills and a medley of trees centuries old.

I got really excited about all the walks we could take while here, in Texas. Yesterday, after all the Christmas commotion settled like dust on the electric snowman, we finally wrapped ourselves up in layers of T-shirts and flip-flops we brought from California, and entered THE COLD. I know what you’re thinking. “You’re from Poland! You should be used to winter chill.” Oh, bullocks! Living in SoCal for more than one winter erases any memory of cold, hence your endurance to temperatures below 50° is no longer and your inner WIMP is revealed.

With trembling hands and clicking teeth, while freezing winds shook up my insides, I pulled out a camera and bravely marched ahead. Here’s what we came across on our walk in the neighborhood.

Buffalo.

Cosmo discovered he really is a Sheppard and not a Shih-tzu dog.

Dead Santa. Drunk maybe?

After such a REFRESHING walk, nothing is more comforting than a hot shower, a fuzzy blanket over my body, Jason right beside me, and a book in hand. I started reading the one I gave Jason for Christmas, “The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo”. After a few pages I paused perplexed and looked at the name of the author:

“Stieg Larsson is a guy’s name. Hm. The book reads as if it was a woman writing as a male character. Strange.”

Jason put down his read, looked at me, and said:

“Hm. He’s dead, the author.”

“He was still a man before he died, right?”

“Probably. (pause) I never saw his penis or anything.”

“Have you seen his face??”

“Nope.”

“His rear end?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“So you wouldn’t recognize it anyways, even if you saw it now, walking down the street for example.”

“Probably not.”

“And now, that the guy’s dead, chances are rather slim you would ever come across his ass anyways.”

“Yeah, it’s highly unlikely me thinks.”

“But you never know.”

“True, you don’t.”

And we both got back to reading.

I owe you a recipe for the MUSHROOM SOUP WITH BARLEY I made for our Christmas dinner. As far as appliances go, all you need is a big pot, a food processor, a sharp knife to chop your veggies, and a cutting board (for obvious reasons).

The soup INGREDIENTS are as follows:

-       1 celery root (or 4 celery stalks)

-       4 carrots

-       2 parsnips

-       1 med leek

-       1 onion

-       3-4 dry bay leaves

-       7-10 whole peppercorns

-       1-1.5 cup of dry wild mushrooms (medley)

-       4 cups low sodium chicken stock

-       2 cups water

-       3/4 to 1 cup barley

-       1 tbsp of dry marjoram

-       1-2 tsp nutmeg

-       1-2 tsp cumin

-       2-3 tbsp heavy cream

-       handful of fresh parsley or dill, chopped

-       1-2 tbsp of olive oil

-       kosher salt + ground black OR white pepper to taste (about 2 tbsp each total)

Start with soaking the mushrooms in lukewarm water for at least 45 minutes before you even begin prepping your meal. Wash and peel all the vegetables, with a special emphasis on cleaning the leek. Roughly chop all the carrots, parsnips, celery, leek and onion.

Drizzle olive oil in the pot and heat it up. Toss the onions and leeks inside the pot, sprinkle with crushed marjoram, season with salt and pepper, and mix everything well. Sautè the veggies until they get translucent over low heat (5-10 minutes). Add the rest of the vegetables, and season with more salt and pepper. Let them get comfy for another 10 minutes. Now, pour the mushrooms into the pot along with the water they were soaking in. Stir and increase the flame to medium. Cover with a lid and let everything cook for about 10-15 minutes. Turn the heat off and scoop the content of the pot into the food processor. Blend the veggies into a coherent mass and bring back to the pot. Add the chicken stock and water and turn the heat on medium-high. Throw in the bay leaves and peppercorns, season with nutmeg, cumin, more salt and pepper and stir. Add barley, stir again, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover with the lid, and let the soup become a soup for about an hour. Check on the dish every so often and stir again.

The soup is ready pretty much when the barley is fully cooked. It will soak up a lot of water, thus making the dish deliciously hearty and thick. It’s up to you if you want to add more water, or leave it as is. Just make sure to taste the soup before feeding your peeps and add more salt/pepper if needed.

Right before serving, pour a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream into the pot and toss a bunch of chopped fresh parsley or dill. Stir and serve. Y.U.M.

The soup is very low on fat, and yet highly nutritious and comforting. Jason likes to soak some bread in his bowl, while for me the soup itself is plenty of food at one sitting.

Don’t forget to remove the bay leaves and peppercorns before serving the dish!

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