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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!

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Risotto is by no means a light dish, especially if made like the Italians from the North intended it to be. There’s no harm in enjoying it on an occasion though, as it is simply a velvety comfort on a plate like no other. Once you master the technique of making a risotto, you can start experimenting with other grains. I’ve tried it with quinoa and barley, and both grains were just as spectacular in the dish as their ancestor rice.

Below is my Prima Vera version with fennel, leek, asparagus and green peas. Know, however, that your risotto is limited only by your imagination. You can use mushrooms and squash, and meats, all the way to fish. I’ve seen sweet risottos made with fruits and berries. I’ve seen a Farro Risotto cooked with red wine in the place of the stock.

Go ahead, test drive it, play in your kitchen, challenge yourself, and have fun above all. The more JOY you add to your meal, the more flavor it will give you back.

BARLEY RISOTTO PRIMA VERA

Start with allocating the following items at your arm’s reach:

– 1 fennel bulb, cleaned & chopped

– 1 lrg leek, cleaned & chopped

– 3 cloves of garlic, minced

– 1 cup of frozen green peas

– 1 sm bunch of asparagus, bottoms snapped off

-1 cup pearl barley

– 1/2 cup white wine

– 3 cups veg or chicken stock

– lemon zest of one lemon

– 2 tbsp of mascarpone

– 1 tbsp butter

– 1/2 cup grated Gruyere

– salt and pepper to taste

– fresh thyme and tarragon, chopped

– fresh parsley, leaves picked

– olive oil

Making Barley Risotto is not much different from the traditional one, except it’s easier. You follow the same rules as with the traditional risotto, beginning with sautéing the veg. Start with the leek, then fennel and garlic at last, add fresh thyme and tarragon, salt and pepper, and stir occasionally until soft and translucent. Make sure you have enough olive oil in the pan to prevent any burning.

Next add the barley, and toss everything around, allowing all kernels to bathe in those flavors. Toast the grain for about 2 minutes, once again stirring and watching not to burn anything.

Splash some wine into the pot, thus deglazing the bottom. Add about two-thirds of your heated stock and stir. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat, cover the pot leaving just a small gap, so the barley can breathe, and leave it be. Come back once in a while to stir, and check on your grain. If it gets too dry, add more liquid. You may not need, however, the entire 3 cups of stock to cook the barley.

About half way through the process add the green peas and asparagus (cut in 1 inch long pieces), stir and cover again to finish cooking.

When the barley is fully cooked, but still slightly chewy, turn off the heat and add your butter, mascarpone, Gruyere and lemon zest. Mix about letting everything get incorporated evenly into the dish. Taste, fix the seasoning and serve immediately.

Dress with fresh parsley leaves.

If you’re feeling lost in my ramblings, take a look at another dish, my Butternut Squash Risotto, and note all the similar steps it takes to accomplish this Italian classic. Think of it as your light in the tunnel, or better–your GPS through these pages full of recipes scattered across the board.

Your efforts will be ten fold rewarded with the first forkful of your homemade meal in your mouth. Guaranteed.

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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