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Valentine’s, shmalentines. If he loves you, you better not let him get away with a lousy bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates once a year. I’m saying “HE” as I have a “HE”. Your SHE is to express her love for you just as spontaneously and uncontrollably as my HE. And he does. Jason doesn’t buy me flowers for any specific occasions. He shows up at the threshold of our home with a fragrant bomb of fresh flowers whenever I reach the darkest depth of despair. (In other words, I’m feeling low.)

We also have established a versatile set of I-love-yous: for Good Morning and Good Bye; Thank you, Baby, I-love-you; on the phone: I’ll talk to you later, I-love-you; when experiencing sudden ebb of chest-expanding feelings unrelated to moon phases: I LOVE YOU! And last but not least, at night, after wishing each other sweet dreams back and forth three times and in 2 languages, he whispers into my ear with a perfect Polish accent: KOCHAM CIE [pronounced: koh-hahm tchyeh, more or less].

Love has settled like dust in every corner of our house. It oozes out of every steaming pot of food I make, it comforts our bare feet as we walk on our vacuumed carpets, it forgives the dances in the nude, it folds loads of laundry, and it tries really hard to ignore the soundtrack of cheerful and very confident farts in the background after one of those healthy meals. Love is always in the AIR. How timely for Sade to release a brand new album after close to a decade!

See, we don’t really feel the need to exchange Valentine’s cards. We both feel loved twentyfourseven on any given calendar day. It just so happened that we spent the Valentine’s Day this year in one of the most romantic destinations in the US – Napa Valley.

Jason was summoned to San Francisco for work this past weekend, and I simply tagged along. There was no Valentine’s Day plotting involved, no romance a’la carte.

As he was done with his duties on Sunday, we rented a car and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge heading north to visit both Sonoma and Napa Valleys.

It seems as the time stops up north. The Sun and Earth are still happily married and continue to bear their offspring across the golden fields and rolling hills. We stood on the side of a road and witnessed their bond, inhaled the love heavily sprayed in the air by ubiquitous blooming flowers, heard the birds exchange their KOCHAM CIE’s in their own tongue, and we were silent.

Now, do you still need a Valentine’s card? Or maybe that’s just us. I did, however, make a FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE for my coworkers, with a drizzle of RASPBERRY SAUCE. Oh, heavens! Chocolate and fresh raspberries together truly is a marriage made in heaven, or in the garden if you must. The sweet but tart flavor of the sauce strikes against the depth of the chocolate comfort, thus sending a ticklish shiver down one’s spine. If there is food with orgasmic qualities, this dessert certainly represents that group honorably.

Let me walk you through the few steps the cake requires. If you are organized, you will have made the cake and cleaned up the kitchen within one short hour. I use only organic ingredients. If they are not easily available in your area, at least choose the best quality items. It is worth it.

Ingredients:

–       5 egg yolks

–       5 egg whites

–       1 stick of butter

–       5 oz semi-sweet chocolate

–       1/2 cup raw cane sugar

–       1/2 tsp instant coffee

–       1/2 tsp kosher salt

–       1/2 tsp cardamom

–       1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Draw a 9” circle on a sheet of parchment paper and cut it out. Spray the bottom of a 9” round baking sheet with a non-stick spray, place the parchment paper in, and spray once again on its surface. Put aside. Preheat your oven to 325°.

In a double boiler melt together chocolate and butter; then add coffee, cardamom, and vanilla, mix well and don’t let it boil. As soon as the mixture is liquid and coherent, take it off the heat and let it cool until the rest of your cake components are ready.

In a large bowl beat together egg whites, using a hand-held mixer, and slowly add half of your sugar and salt. When the egg whites create soft peaks, they’re done. In a separate, smaller bowl beat the egg yolks together with the remaining sugar until they form a creamy and tick cream, and sugar is mostly dissolved.

Gently combine the egg yolks and the egg whites together, and slowly start adding your melted chocolate mixture in the eggs. Using a spatula gently fold everything together until it is a coherent chocolaty mass. Do not stir. Do not violently mix it. Simply fold all the elements together, patiently, with love, in one direction. It may take you about 5 minutes.

When the mixture is ready, pour it into the prepared baking pan and put in the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes and then remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.

It’s best when chilled overnight in a refrigerator and served either with fresh strawberries or my RASPBERRY SAUCE:

Thaw out a bag of frozen raspberries, place them in a small saucepan and add 3-4 tbsp of raw cane sugar (depending on the size of the package). Mix with a wooden spoon, throw in a few springs of fresh mint and let it simmer together for 10-15 minutes. About 5 minutes before it’s finished ad a few drizzles of good balsamic vinegar (1-1.5 tbsp) and mix again. When done, pour the raspberries with all the juices through a sieve to remove all seeds and obtain a perfectly smooth and silky RASPBERRY SAUCE.

Sensational!

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I hate for you to think I’m neglecting my JOURNALISTIC duties of logging in the nuts and bolts of the culinary ventures I participate in. Nothing further from the truth. My heart aches for the lack of time, and my fingers itch to type away such succulent words and directives as STIR, MASSAGE, RUB (my roasted chicken), TENDERIZE, ROLL OUT, STRETCH (that bread dough AND my back after 17 hours of hustling in the kitchen…), SPREAD (the vegetables on a roasting pan), BEAT, PRESS, SQUEEZE, and POKE (no fun!).

It’s day 2 of the production of this very article I kid you not. I sneak in a word or even a complete sentence between various tasks that are being thrown at me at work. The satisfaction from such naughty behavior tickles me inside, adrenaline sprints through my veins, and the mischievous brat inside imitates a sinister laughter.

There’s no story to share, no juice or dirty laundry to expose, no beans to spill. Life goes on oblivious to all circumstances and doesn’t pause for a minute. Thus imagine what a Herculean effort it is for me to rewind time and bring you back to my kitchen last Sunday, where Leslie was plotting to stock her purse with my POTATO SKINS while I wasn’t looking. (Check the comments section if you believe me not!)

Speaking of the devil…

It is a true American Comfort Food, and a virgin territory for me. You know how I feel about doing a research and digging out recipes for dishes I attempt to make. I’ll be blunt – I’m too lazy for that extracurricular activity and so I merely cut to the chase of figuring out the jest of the dish at hand on my own. Most of the time I’m exploring foreign culinary grounds in order to learn and thus expand my repertoire. Just like with those guys above – The Russetts.

Leslie said:

“I’m severely craving baked potatoes.”

Agi thought:

“Bring it on!”

I got a bag of medium Russet potatoes, cleaned and baked them in a preheated oven (at 400°) for an hour. Next, I cut them in half (after they cooled off a little, hello!) and scooped out most of the potato leaving the skins still strong and intact. About 4 oz of pancetta landed in a hot skillet, fat rendered, pancetta was rescued into the bowl with the potato “meat”, and onion slices caramelized in the same skillet. I sprinkled crashed dry marjoram (I’m in love with that herb, no question) all over softened onions, seasoned with salt and pepper and set aside.

The potato “meat” mixed with crisped pancetta was then seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, nutmeg and chili powder. One teaspoon of butter gave it the moisture of a tropical forest. The green ribbons of basil chiffonade interlaced the filling like lianas in a jungle.

Drum-roll, please! The hero(in) of the dish arrived – Gruyere cheese, grated and generously added into the mixture. Once coherent, the mass was then scooped back into the potato skins, topped with more cheese, drizzled gently with olive oil, and baked in the oven for another 25 minutes at 350°.

We served them instantly, garnished with a tart tip of sour cream, and washed down with a glass of cold Chimay.

Need I say more?

Jason’s work is bananas. His mornings on the run are bananas. His hours are bananas. The creative muscle of the team is bananas. Jason’s mustache is bananas! (picture of which he won’t let me post here, boo)

Last night was the first in weeks where we were able to sit down at the dining table and enjoy a meal together. There was plenty to enjoy; I made the quickest and the yummiest and the healthiest dish there is in the whole wide world – Grilled Salmon over Spinach Salad with Cranberries, Toasted Pecans, and Roasted Butternut Squash. To finish it off, I christened the plate with a beautiful green dressing – my Mustard Parsley Vinaigrette.

Since my BOO-BOO, my Honey-Poos, my Bubba has been chained to his office with thick and indestructible links of obligation and reliability (that are gazzillion times stronger than steel) for most of his waking hours a day, my motivation to cook has been rather flaccid. I made a pot of scrumptious Ribollita Soup with my homemade bread earlier this week, which lasted for FOUR DAYS (unheard of in this neck of the woods …in other circumstances). I’ve been also forced to finish off whatever leftovers were still stationed in the fridge, since me and waste don’t get along.

For three days I would also walk past a bunch of untouched bananas sitting on the kitchen counter and observing my every move in silence. I had no purpose for the guys, since Jason had been stripped of the time for his morning bowl of cereal with a sliced banana and a handful of blueberries. Each day I would notice the skin on the fruit turning one shade deeper from golden to brown, and the aroma of the bunch would chase me through the house.

BASTA!” I exclaimed on Saturday morning at last. “I’m making a banana bread.” SWOOSH, I opened my laptop, CLICK-CLICK I typed on the keyboard and, HELLO! asked the Internet for the recipe. I liked the one on www.joyofbaking.com and decided to follow the steps. Ok, I would NOT be myself if I didn’t tweak it, just a tad. Below I’m describing in detail how I went from a bunch of ripe and smelly bananas to a FRAGRANT and GOLDEN BROWN luscious BANANA BREAD that is sweet really just a tiny bit and packed with nuts of all kinds. For your reference, here’s the link to the original and my nod of thanks to the author of that recipe.

And here’s Agi’s Way:

Ingredients:

–       1.25 cups of toasted and chopped assorted nuts (walnuts, pecans, pine nuts)

–       1.25 cups of all-purpose unbleached flour

–       0.5 cup of whole wheat flour

–       0.5 dry cup of agave nectar

–       1 tsp of baking powder

–       0.5 tsp of baking soda

–       1 tsp of salt

–       1 tsp of cinnamon

–       0.5 tsp of cardamom

–       1 tsp of vanilla extract

–       2 large organic eggs

–       4 medium very ripe organic bananas

–       0.5 stick of butter, melted and cooled

Preheat the oven to 350°. Peel and mash your bananas in a bowl, add melted and cooled butter, agave nectar, vanilla extract, and mix it all. In a separate bowl crack open two eggs and beat them with a fork. Add the eggs to the banana mixture and set aside.

Sieve all the dry ingredients into another large bowl. Now gently fold the wet banana mixture into the dry ingredients. Don’t mix, just keep folding it in until all components are combined. You’ll see a chunky and thick batter and that’s what you’re after.

Scoop your forthcoming bread into a 9” x 4” loaf pan, previously greased with either butter or a non-stick spray, level out with your spatula, and put into the oven for about 55 minutes to an hour.

The bread will look like Jennifer Aniston’s post summer bod – golden brown and shiny. It will smell just as well. Be warned that you won’t be able to resist to not only inhale its fragrance, but also touch it tenderly all over its curves, lick it perhaps, slightly nibble on it, definitely kiss it, and inevitably TASTE it.

A slice of the BANANA BREAD toasted on a Sunday morning, then touched with organic butter and a drizzle of blueberry sauce, paired with a cup of freshly brewed coffee…. Oh, dear lord, my angel of prosperity, the spirit of my deceased grandmother who watches over me, I don’t believe I’ve been THAT good to deserve it all.

But if it’s already given… Thank you!

P.S. Mustache update: it’s been trimmed. Boo.

I am the mother to Cosmo, a 4-year old shihtzu. My dog requires a bath every 10 to 14 DAYS. Otherwise, the white parts of his paws start to resemble an old pair of UGG boots dipped in mud and then sun-dried, and he secretes the scent of a homeless person. If I were to stretch the time between his baths and let him walk around au naturel, we would all get evicted from our building in no time.

The best part comes AFTER the bath. When in the tub, Cosmo relinquishes his power and hands over authority to the person pouring water all over his body. He stands motionless, startled, with his eyes W-I-D-E open and mouth shut tight. He endures all that rubbing and scrubbing without uttering a single cuss word despite the fact that we give him enough reasons to call us every name in the book.

Then comes the towel… The challenge is to get as much moisture out of his coat as possible before Cosmo torpedoes out of the bathroom. When he’s out, he’s gone! With crazy eyes, he gallops across the house back and forth, non-stop, for about 3 days straight, pacing and barking at himself, his tongue hanging out and drops of water splashing all over the walls, floors, and ceiling. Suddenly, he stops for a moment to catch his breath, after which he takes off all over again and slaloms between the legs of the dining table and its chairs. If you find yourself in his path, you best run for your life. Nothing stops Cosmo when he’s in DRYER MODE.

Inevitably, the spectacle ends and Cosmo finds his way to me. Putting on his cutest face, wagging his tail, waving his eyelashes at me, he asks,  “What’s for dinner, mama?”

“Dog food for you, you little mischievous bundle of love you” “Roasted Asparagus Wrapped In Pancetta for me and daddy.”

In my effort to break the cycle of cushioning my midsection during the holiday season, I’m breaking the bank in search of ideas for flavorful yet light meals. Starvation and deprivation are two words that longer belong in my dictionary. They should never be an option for you either. Eat whatever you want, just be smart about it, and love yourself no matter what!

ROASTED ASPARAGUS WRAPPED IN PANCETTA served with a side of Mâche with Avocado Salad with Strawberry Dressing makes a beautiful and delightful dinner for two, and most importantly leaves room for dessert.

To start, preheat the oven to 400°. Snap the ends of the asparagus spears off and drizzle them gently with olive oil before seasoning with black pepper. You don’t need salt because of what’s coming up next: wrap a paper-thin slice of pancetta (or pastrami) around each spear and lay it flat on a baking sheet. Place the pan in the oven for about 12-15 minutes until the asparagus is cooked, but still has a little bite to it.

In the meantime, prepare your salad as you would with the Mustard Dressing. Except this time, instead of Dijon mustard, add a handful of chopped fresh strawberries and whip the dressing in a blender or Magic Bullet, if you have one. Then dress your greens and avocado gently, drop a few chunks of strawberry around for extra blush, and serve everything with a toasted slice of baguette.

The salty and crunchy bites of the Asparagus contrast, thus emphasizing the delicate leaves and flavor of the cow grass dipped in strawberry juice, making this an exquisite and sophisticated meal .

Who even needs a dessert after that?

Every year about this time, the flu comes around and does its damage. Consequently, there’s a lot of sniffling, coughing, sweating, and pill-popping happening. This year we got the swine variety, and everyone and their mothers lost their minds, following shameless media propaganda. I almost got worried for a second myself, but thank god, Jason grabbed my shoulder just in time, span me around, shook me up with his manly might, and spoke to my senses.

“Woman, where’s your reason? Every year the flu takes down a few thousands of people. Those usually are the folks of older age, and with pre-existing illnesses. For those poor souls any kind of flu, some times even a cold could be deadly.”

Thus the man convinced the woman, and the sun shone again, and the birds chirped lightheartedly at the sight at dawn.

I’m not trying to dismiss the lethal potential of the flu. I’m not a doctor, so my opinion is rather vulnerable. However, I don’t think there’s a reason to panic. Several of my friends fell victim of the virus. They felt like shit for about a week, with fever of 103 degrees, and violent vomiting tormenting their bodies. Not fun. Still, doctors let them go home with no medication prescribed, as those were in short supplies and thus reserved for pregnant women, children and others with life-threatening symptoms. None of the people I know, that have gone through the piggy flu, had had any complications. They simply did what one does with a regular flu – let it wear itself out, while drinking lots of fluids, resting and watching Oprah.

My own weapon against the virus is my will power. At the slightest scratch in the back of my throat I simply say “Naha! It ain’t happening. I am HEALTHY and FLU-FREE”. (Say it fast five times in a row.) I block the concept of getting sick out of my consciousness. I’m not even kidding you, twenty-four hours later I barely remember I was coughing the day before. Works like magic every time. You should try it, too.

On most days I have an appetite of a small horse, which once again proves I’m a picture of health. I made a pot of BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO, for instance, and we destroyed it with Jason in two days over 3 meals. Part of the “problem” was Risotto itself – its symphony of flavors, the sweet juxtaposed against the savory, the heat, the comfort, the rainbow across the sky, the BUTTERflies…

Butternut Squash Risotto

Before I move on, I want to test if you’ve been paying attention. Does the post read a little funny today? Does my English “sound” Polish all of a sudden? Wonder why? I haven’t gone mad, and yes, I’ve been taking all my vitamins. I simply needed to let my editor (Jason) off the hook for a few days or so, as his work turned into a circus on wheels. Jason has been putting in 16-20 hr days. Yes, you’ve heard me – twenty hours just yesterday. He’s already doing more than an average person is capable of, so understandably I am on my own for now, and you just have to deal with my accent.

If you’re feeling a little under the weather these days, BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is an ideal meal to quickly boost your energy levels. Chicken soup is so last season. What you need to know about Risotto is that the dish requires some loving, as you can’t really dump the rice and veggies into a pot and walk away. You need to tend to it, gently stir the rice around, sprinkle with spice, love, and fairy dust, and whisper sweet things into the pot’s ear. Know it will all come back to you in a bowl – the food made of love. What BETTER nourishment than that?

Let’s get the ingredients ready:

–       Butternut Squash

–       6 cups of chicken broth (1.5 carton)

–       4 oz diced pancetta

–       1 onion

–       6 cloves of garlic, minced

–       3 tbsp BUTTER

–       1.5 cups Arborio rice

–       0.5 cups of white wine (the kind you’d enjoy drinking)

–       big pinch of saffron

–       1 tbsp dry marjoram

–       1 cup Monterey Jack Cheese (grated)

–       1 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped

–       salt + black pepper to taste

–       1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat an oven to 400˚. Cut the squash in cubes. Spread them in one layer on a sheet pan, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and some dry herbs (whatever you’ve got – marjoram, Herbes de Provence, oregano…). Shove the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes or until soft.

Cutting up Squash

Heat the chicken broth in a pot and keep it on over a very low heat. Throw pancetta into a separate pot, let the fat render, and then add the BUTTER. When it melts, toss the onion into that pool of yummy fat. Sprinkle all with salt and pepper, add the marjoram, and mix them together. Let the onions sweat for a minute or two to release their sweetness and fuse in with the herbs. Your minced garlic is next in line – into the pot it goes. Stir once more.

Here comes the rice. Chuck it into the same pot with the onions and cracklings, incorporate with all the flavors, and cook for a moment letting the rice kernels toast. Now pour in the wine and let it grab all the bits of flavor off the bottom of your pot. Reduce the heat to low.

The fun part begins with the first 2 ladles of the heated chicken stock you’ll add to the rice. You need to stir it almost non-stop as the liquid gets absorbed. With your free hand, season the dish with salt and pepper as you go. Every few minutes you’ll add another 2 ladles of the broth, and continue to stir. Keep going until all stock is gone, and the risotto is cooked.

Roasted Butternut Squash

Before you turn off the heat completely, add the roasted squash, your grated cheese, and fresh dill. Now, kill the fire. Give it two or three more stirs until the cheese melts and binds the dish together for the rest of its days. Your BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is ready to serve. And it should be… served immediately.

In the end, your throat is warmly coated, your belly is fed and comforted, and your right bicep is twice the size of your left gun. It’s a win-win every way you slice it. And really, what’s BETTER than BUTTER? Particularly when it’s sweet and savory, not BITTER.

I’ll go take my vitamins now.

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