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Over the last few weeks, maybe even a month or so, I have re-discovered why I choose to eat out less then seldom. Because I have, over the last few weeks, maybe even a month or so, I have been eating out A LOT. Between breakfast, lunch, and dinner there had to be at least one meal, almost every day, from a source not related to my kitchen.

It started with lunches at work conveniently sponsored by HBO. We would have meals delivered from a different restaurant Monday through Friday. However, when the producers flew to NY for the premiere of the show, our LA team suddenly turned into a bunch of orphans no one remembered, nor cared to feed anymore. Hence, midday trips home began and my Sunny-Side-Up was born. Once the lunches were taken care of, dinners with friends began, from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back, and last minute stops at the local Whole Foods store for a quick bite of scrambled eggs with breakfast potatoes on the way to work.

All that foreign food corrupted my entire plumbing system. One day I found myself uncomfortably bloated for no apparent reason and realized the sensation had been absent from my life since the spring of 2008, when my cooking ride began. I knew right then it was time to go back to my pots. Beside, the comfort level my jeans achieved with my ass was alarming on its own. Suddenly the fabric snuggled tighter with my cheeks and SINCE WHEN ARE THESE GUYS ON A FIRST-NAME BASIS?

Time is not my friend these days, however. I come back from work anytime between 19:00 and 01:00 hour. When lucky to be home before the late night edition of the local news, I scramble to put together an easy meal. The focus is far from gourmet. I cook a pot of quinoa and store it in the refrigerator in an airtight, glass container. That’s my base.

All I have left to do after work is to chop and sauté some veggies, add garlic, onions, spice it up with chili powder, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and fresh herbs, and serve it over my quinoa. Sometimes those are roasted Brussels sprouts. Sometimes it’s steamed broccoli mixed with tomato sauce.

And if I’m sick of quinoa I switch to sautéed zucchini with onions and pancetta over a bowl of whole-wheat noodles. The following day the leftovers land in Jason’s lunch box.

Those are only examples. Every (free) night is another experiment. My kitchen is like a box of chocolates. YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GONNA GET. What you can be sure of though is that most of the ingredients used are organic, whole grain, unprocessed, and from local suppliers (when available). That way I’m being good to my micro and macro Universe. And the Universe pays back in the form of a regular bowel movement and a quiet tête à tête with our Tivo undisrupted by violent burps, digestive fireworks and other gastric explosions.

No more eating out for the next few weeks, maybe even a month or so” we pledged last Sunday over two juicy UMAMI BURGERs with port and melted stilton and a side of sweet potato fries. Our Last Supper was just as good as any other sinful act we had ever committed.

Bye, bye, Year 2009. You have brought us many changes, moments of overwhelming joy … and sheer terror. (Remember the Mashed Rutabaga with Cauliflower?) I have discovered my pyromaniacal tendencies and started to play with fire in the kitchen on a regular basis. Knives excite me just as much.  Bring it on, Angelina! Who knew? All that led to turning our house into a science lab of food making. There have been plenty of experiments (steaks from a toaster oven is just one example), and so far Jason hasn’t complained.

We have serious reason to be concerned about the future of our kids on this planet (Koyaanisqatsi), but there’s still hope with the growing trend of getting fresh produce from local farmers (Feeling Peachy) and turning to alternative energy sources. We can get healthier with every bite of real food we put in our mouths and what we feed to our offspring. Preparing hearty meals with a variety of vegetables is not that difficult, and never boring. Every time I look at the photos of the Butternut Squash Risotto I made for dinner one night, or my Brussels sprouts on a Bed of Quinoa with a layer of Caramelized Onions, I experience such intense drooling that Jason is inclined to run for a stack of towels to cover the floor around me.

Do you want to hear about the best part? I lost about 15 lbs over the last year WITHOUT DEPRIVING myself of any food. There’s no diet plan, no counting calories, NO STRESS! Sometimes I may overindulge a tad, but who wouldn’t when served those scrumptious Veggie Balls over a bowl of Spaghetti Marinara? Duh! I eat whatever the hell I am in the mood for, and whenever my tummy screams HUNGRY. I hate fast foods with a passion. I avoid processed food products like the plague. However, I am on good terms with a bit of butter here and there. Cream poses no threat to me either. There are no sweets lying around the house, but it doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally get in the car and drive to the bakery for a piece of crunchy pastry when the craving strikes.

What I wish for myself, and for every single one of you, in 2010 is to live more in balance with Nature, stress less, laugh louder, breath lighter, and to age slower. Also, let’s not forget to bring the inner monkey out to play more often.

May all of us see a major shift in the collective consciousness and finally learn how to live symbiotically with Mother Earth so our kids and future generations get to experience the joy and innocence we were granted when growing up.

Thank you for being a part of my 2009. I hope we’ll be able to share and interact more in the upcoming year, and beyond.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!

Nothing, and I mean nothing makes me happier than the smell of onion slivers sautéing with marjoram on a hot pan greased with olive oil and a touch of butter.

Well, maybe on days when Jason comes home at a civil hour from work, and we watch “Modern Family” and “The Daily Show” together while he rests his head on my lap, then I’m a little happier. New lingerie makes me super happy, too. Come to think of it, I get also fired up when I manage to touch my nose with the tip of my tongue, as it doesn’t always happen. I think it depends on humidity in the air or something.

And then, when Cosmo sings I experience the highest levels of delight. He’s not a very outspoken dog, if you know what I mean. Between the few barks here and there and an occasional “Hi, whassup”, hardly ever does he use his string cords. Hence, I’m particularly elated on those rare moments when he feels the blues and acts on it.

But those onions! When the slices hit a hot sautéing pan and utter that violent sizzle that they do, I get the chills. I instantly sprinkle them with a dash of salt and a generous serving of dry marjoram, previously crashed in my hands. The herb then opens up as a blooming flower and releases its aromatic oils, thus flavoring everything around it. Can you smell it yet? You should get the first whiff right as you stir them together with a wooden spoon. Just close your eyes and inhale… Oh…

The romance begins. The arches of the onion loosen up, as if they were melting in the arms of the marjoram, giving in, and letting the herb lead on the dance floor. Slow heat from the gentle flame beneath their feet is soothing and relaxing. The herb brings out what’s best in the onion – all its sweetness comes out for the world to see. Time stops for them and they think they could go on like that forever, but I know 10-15 minutes is all they have in them before they burn out.

Caramelized onions make the world a better place. They give any dull dish a Cinderella spin. Spread a spoonful of those onions on your boring chicken breast, and it turns into a Supermanchicken. Feed them to that dry sandwich with leftover pastrami, and it’s as if you splashed it with Redbull and gave it wings. You want to bring more vegetarian meals to your table, but you’re afraid it could be dreary and monotonous? Top your Quinoa & Brussels Sprouts with the onions, and you’ll never bitch about vegetables again. Is your ice-cream too vanilla? Give it a scoop of caramelized onions and forever change the meaning of dessert. Ok, maybe that’s going too far, but in most cases sautéed onions are the reason I get out of bed every morning.

This time I used them to kick life into my SALMON WITH LENTILS dish I made for dinner the other night.

Cooking lentils is pretty straightforward, just follow the instructions on its packaging. If you want to jazz it up like I do, get a carrot and two celery stalks. Wash ‘em, peel ‘em, and chop ‘em finely. Then sauté the veggies in a hot pan with a teaspoon or two of olive oil, and – what the hell – a little butter, too. Season it with salt and pepper, and give it 5-6 minutes. Next, add a cup of green lentils and toast them for a minute or two along with everybody else in the pan before adding any liquid. You could simply use water and 2 bay leaves, or chicken stock, or a veggie broth, about 1.5 cups of it. Clearly, you need a pan with some depth to it to fit it all in. Add more salt and pepper, maybe a dash of cayenne, maybe a teaspoon of nutmeg and cumin, cover with a lid and let it simmer over a low heat until fully cooked. You may need to add more liquid, so keep an eye on the lentils. Minutes before the legumes are done, add a splash of red wine vinegar to give them that extra zing.

On a separate pan, grill the salmon fillets seasoned with salt and black pepper. Depending on their thickness, you may need to give them 3-4 minutes per side. You never want to keep the fish over that fire till its completely cooked, because it will get dry. Turn the heat off BEFORE the fish is done, and just let it sit for another five minutes on its own. It will get there, I promise.

No dinner is complete without a fresh salad. Whisk a quick DRESSING in a cup (extra virgin olive oil + lemon juice or vinegar at 3:1 ratio, 1 tsp of Dijon mustard, 1 tbsp of honey, salt and pepper) and pour over your greens. You may want to add chopped tomatoes, cucumber, bell peppers, radishes, shallots, what have you. You may also keep it clean, if that’s your preference. All’s good as long as you get your vitamins in their natural form.

Salmon with Lentils

Tah-dah! Your dinner is ready. Scoop a little bit of lentils onto your plate. Then gently lay the grilled salmon over the kernels with the green accent of your salad to its side. DO NOT FORGET THE CARAMELIZED ONIONS! Perfection.

Happy Lentils Everybody!

This week I chose to do an experiment. I wanted to try how it tastes to be an adult. You know, a responsible, preventive, and prepared person. In other words – an un-spontaneous human. I sat my ass down and planned it all out – the menu, activities, Cosmo’s vaccinations, yoga, and writing. The irony is that the very first time I decided to exercise mature behavior – BAM! – lightning struck right in the middle of my sandbox disguised as a phone call from HBO asking if I could fill in for one of their guys, who fell victim of the flu.

Don’t get me wrong… getting a call like that makes me as happy as that kid from “Slumdog Millionaire” that hustles through an ocean of fecal matter when given a chance to see his Bollywood idol. Frankly, I got so excited I shaved my legs. Not that anyone in the office would ever see me in anything less then full body coverage, cape included.

On top of that, two more irresistible gig offers came in almost simultaneously – both involving work with my befriended chefs. How is it that I can practice the most comfortable couch potato position (tuchas buried deep in between the cushions, legs stretched out on the coffee table, with my mouth wide open, and a laptop rested under the chin on my two perky you-know-whats) for five months, and no job seems to find its way to me? Then one day, within less than twenty-four hours, everybody needs me at once, and I get bombarded with offers. HOW?

Yes, I have been unemployed for the last few months, I admit. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been on hiatus for that long. Two, three-weeks in between jobs happen to everyone. But five months? It’s many weeks, days, and hours (!) to fill with activities preventing one from going coo-koo. Writing helps me stay focused. (Otherwise, I get side tracked too easily, take a wrong turn, and get lost in the labyrinth of thoughts in my head.) Cooking is therapeutic. Cosmo is entertaining. Jason is understanding and supportive. Agi is convinced she’s uncovered her creative voice, and thus must exercise it at all costs.

Baby Agi

The latest fruit of my creative purging is a meal I designed in my kitchen art studio when Jason went to the Devo concert last Tuesday – SAUTÈED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND ONIONS ON A BED OF QUINOA INFUSED WITH FRESH HERBS (gasp…inhale). By far, it is the ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD with an emphasis on healthy and )))flatulent(((. Do not let the last trait stop you from following the recipe since utmost satisfaction from the meal is GUARANTEED. Simply make sure to let yourself out for a walk when the digestive process sets in to prevent turning your pad into a deadly gas chamber.

I realize not many people are friends with the above mentioned cabbage relatives. The problem lies within the cooking method. Do it intelligently and the frog will turn into a Handsome Prince for the happily ever after.

YOUR INGREDIENTS OF THE NIGHT:

–       1 cup quinoa

–       1.5 lbs Brussels sprouts, peeled and halved

–       4 oz pancetta, diced

–       1 large onion

–       3-4 cloves of garlic

–       1 tbsp dried marjoram

–       1 tbsp of unsalted butter

–       1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped

–       1/2 fresh Italian parsley (or another fresh herb), chopped

–       kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

–       1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Tie an apron around your waist and let’s make you this Masterpiece In A Bowl. First things first, let’s cook quinoa in a 2:1 ratio (2 cups of liquid to 1 cup of grain).  You can use regular water and a few bay leaves with a couple of teaspoons of salt. You could go the chicken broth route. Or just dissolve a bullion cube in the pot with quinoa to enrich its flavor. Follow cooking directions from the box.

When that’s taken care of, start chopping your onion – cut it in half first, then slice both parts. Crisp the pancetta on a heated skillet, remove the cracklings and set aside for later. Add the butter to the pan, and throw in the onions along with marjoram and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Stir around to ensure even coating in grease and spices. Let the onions sauté slowly on low heat for about 10-15 minutes. When ready, remove from the pan and set aside with your cracklings.

In the meantime, blanch your mini cabbage buds for just a few minutes, and then shock them in a bowl filled with ice water. Drain immediately and set aside. When the onions are done and resting with the pig bits on the counter, chuck the Brussels sprouts onto the same skillet and brown them over a low to medium flame. Sprinkle red pepper flakes over the buds. Let them hit the bottom of the hot skillet, thus opening up their chambers of flavor.

Check on the quinoa. If it’s fully cooked, take it off the heat, and toss in all fresh herbs, previously chopped as ordered. Mix it, taste it. Is it salty enough? Don’t be afraid to fix the dish to your own liking. That’s the point after all, isn’t it?

Mix the mini cabbages in the skillet again, add your cracklings and onions, and tumble all around. Turn off the heat. Scoop a little quinoa into a bowl, cover with a layer of the Brussels sprouts and the works, twist open a bottle of beautifully chilled Blue Moon, dive into the cushions of your couch, stretch your legs over the coffee table, turn on the TV, and DIG IN.

Quinoa

And you thought you hated Brussels sprouts, silly.

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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