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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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So much for my BIG SURPRISE. It’s a slider, or a whole bunch of them, what I had in mind for your Labor Day festivities. The simplicity of the dish is just to laugh at. There’s no recipe even needed. You get a pound of ground beef, ideally organic and grass fed, cut it in four even squares. Then those squares get chopped in half. And guess what, the meat is READY! Cook each little bastard for 3-3.5 minutes a side, having seasoned them previously with salt and pepper of course.

OK, let’s make it even EASIER, if possible. I found this video on youtube, where chef John from foodwishes.com reveals his dirty little secret of how to keep your mini burgers all identical and perfect.

Saw it? Got it? Let’s move on to all the additional goodies that come with the meat then.

First and foremost, you need a platform that will showcase and carry your slider. Traditionally it’s a small bun. There are choices after choices of various bread options at grocery stores across the board. You can also go the more adventurous and holistic route I took and make your own rolls.

But who’s got the time for baking on a Sunday night, when your Labor Day BBQ crowd is already popping the beer caps off the bottles?

Once the meat and bread are taken care of, focus your mind and heart on the works, as they call them. My sliders came in all colors and flavors as you can see, as I couldn’t decide on one theme. I sautéed leaks for one. Another mini burger got a bed of caramelized onions to rest upon. And the third one was planked in a pool of pesto. For the topping I chose Fontina cheese, as it melts like butter and tastes nothing like the plastic cheddar thingy they sell you at most of the groceries. It actually tastes like cheese, surprise-surprise. Also, only because I had it lying around, I sliced mango and grilled it for the heck of it. It made a lot of sense in the ned, and I didn’t know it till it was already made.

These are only a few ideas to get you started, but you know the sky is the limit. Using blue Stilton and sautéed portobello mushroom will change the entire experience of a slider. Different sauces, different vegetables–from pickled to raw to grilled ones, will make the slider your very own, depending on your selection. Even the bun os not all that important. You could serve the meat in a cup of bibb lettuce, and that would be wonderful, too. And so much kinder to your love handles!

Think outside of the box, break the rules, get of the old beaten path in order to experience something new, whether in life in general, or simply in your kitchen. My discovery of the world of food has been amazing thus far. It’s a rare thing that I truly love what I’m eating, whether I made it or someone else. (Yes, I’m that picky and discriminating.) But then, when I do find the food that speaks to my soul, it really equals an orgasm. Ask Jason, he’s witnessed both. So keep at it, cook away, look for what tickles you, try new things, explore, and never limit yourself by what you don’t know. That’s the point of learning. Stay open. And who knew half a glass of wine would get me that tipsy?

Happy Labor Day!

Earlier today I was driving, blinded by the hammering rain, and as wipers ran frantically across the windshield, and I slid along the highway, I slipped into a contemplative mood. Then I thought to myself…as a child, after you’d learnt of the Earth’s rotation, did you ever think that it rained when the planet was upside-down? As if the seas and oceans poured out of their reservoirs? Yeah, me neither.

And then I remembered last night’s dinner… Now, can we please talk about that STEAK?! Or – in other words – the ULTIMATE COOKING TEST that I passed less then 24 hours ago …thank-you-very-much? Yes, let’s talk about that.

If you’ve followed me around for the last couple of months (or even a few days but managed to go through most of the articles) you must have noticed that I write a lot about chicken and not so much about other meats. There are reasons for that. Primo, there’s still plenty of time to cover all sorts of omnivores’ dilemmas. Secundo, I not only talk chicken but also cook chicken on most occasions. Each week, we interweave poultry with fish and vegetarian meals to keep our dinners versatile, healthy, and clean. Maybe it’s the fact that I lived my life vegan style for so many years before, that it took me so long to even open my eyes in the presence of red meat, not to mention putting IT in my mouth. I do not know.

However, last weekend Jason and I went to Whole Foods and he sweet-talked me into buying some fresh, organic beef fillets. We spent almost 30 smackers on two nuggets of cow meat, each about 2” thick. Having close to zero experience with beef, and intimidated by the price tag, you can only imagine the stress level I was under when prepping the dinner last night.

I knew there was no fooking around when it comes to raw meat. I also knew I needed to consult the best. So I turn on the TV and scroll down the recordings on our Tivo hoping to find one useful cooking show amongst the dozens I saved. YES! There she is! Ina Garten herself stands right there, in front of my eyes, ready to walk me through roasting a sirloin beef fillet “Barefoot Contessa” style.

One leads to another…

Eagerly following her guidelines, I mix about a tablespoon of room temperature butter with a tablespoon of Aioli Garlic Mustard Sauce (she asked for Dijon Mustard). I wash my two beef nuggets and pat them dry with a paper towel. Ina says: preheat an oven to 500˚. I turn on our toaster oven. It’s a fancy little box – highly dexterous and able to multitask at that. Not only does it toast our toast, it irons our shirts, gives foot massages, bakes, bikes, and then heats up to a breathtaking 500˚ and serves as a broiler.

Given the choice between a big spacious oven that takes time to heat up, thus sucking proportionally more energy, and a compact and eco-friendly toaster oven, which does Agi take? Of course I go for the latter. But first, I rub the mustard-butter mixture all over my steaks, sprinkle evenly with salt and crushed black pepper (as Ina told me to), and shove both into the fancy toaster oven-slash-foot massager.

Here comes the tricky part, and the most crucial one when it comes to cooking meat period. The question of …HOW LONG? When Ina dances in front of the camera with her block of premium cow cut, she makes the task look as simple as putting your foot on a gas pedal and pushing. Easy, right? But what will she tell all the flustered cooks at home who have not only hit the dining room wall, but also drove through it and into the neighbor’s stack of hay? Hey, what will you say then, Ina?

You see, everything looks perfect on the TV screen, but I’m stuck at home with those two shits of red meat, the very expensive kind, all battered up and ready to dance in the fire. Ina says to give it 20-25 minutes in the oven until the fillet reaches 120˚. Then to wrap it with aluminum foil and let it rest for another quarter of an hour before you make the first cut. She then slices it and makes Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Sauce and Arugula.

Are you kidding me?

Here’s what Agi does. I let both chunks of meat, generously coated and well seasoned, broil away in the scorching hot toaster. I walk on eggshells pacing around the box. I peek through the little smudgy window, but the darkness within prevents me from getting any feedback. I mumble a few prayers in Polish that I remember from my early days, retrieve a flashlight from our goodie-drawer in the bedroom and shine a light on the sweaty guys.

Steaks in the Oven

I check the clock as if my life depends on it. I do the math in my crazy head and figure it should take less time for my small baby fillets in that little toaster oven. Hence, 13 minutes into this melodrama, I’m on the verge of pulling my hair and spitting all my teeth out into a handkerchief. I can’t take it any longer and pull out the tray with the toddlers. I stick a thermometer into one of them and let my eyeballs follow the mercury rise up to 120, wait, 130, oh no! it keeps going up to 140˚. Suddenly it stops, takes a breath, and picks up again before settling at 143 degrees Fahrenheit! What did Ina say?? One hundred twenty degrees was all it was supposed to reach. Damn it! And I tried so hard… I’m devastated. My hope that stood breathless in the corner for all this time now burst and evaporated along with the aroma of freshly roasted meat.

With my shoulders hanging down by my hips, and my mouth curved upside down in sadness and utter disappointment, I continue assembling the dinner for Jason who should arrive home any minute now. With a tear lingering in the corner of my eye, I cook a little pasta and make a quick Marinara Sauce. In another pot, Brussels sprouts steam themselves for the heck of it. The meat just hangs out in the cooling toaster, very confused and unsure of its future.

When my honey walks in through the kitchen door, I finish plating our meal and walk him straight to the dining room with an ambivalent expression on my face. He reads me like an open book:

–       It didn’t work out? Don’t worry, baby. You don’t even like red meat. I don’t have to have a steak. And if I crave it one day, I’ll just go out. It’s really not a big deal. And you know I love everything else that you make. I guess red meat is just not your thing. And THAT’S OK!

–       Booo-hooo …! – is all I have in me in response.

We sit down and with obvious hesitation take the first bite. Hmmm… Without uttering a single word, Jason hums and moans, wiggles his rear end in the chair, throws his eyebrows up and down, and as he swallows the rest of the bite he exclaims:

–       This is FANTASTIC! This is what I call a STEAK. This is perfect! Baby, I have no words… You are an amazing COOK.

–       This thing really IS good. Wow. I can’t believe it. I have just lost my flower. I’m no longer a STEAK VIRGIN! – I reply dumbfounded.

With each bite, I fall deeper and deeper in love with the golden nugget of steak I brought to life with my very hands. It’s a medium rare perfection with the smoky flavor of mustard, and as soft and juicy as the melted butter it was cooked in. The crazy part? It was broiled inside our smart, GREEN, multifunctional toaster oven!!!

Who knew?

Steak Dinner

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