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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!

Today is a good day.

It’s good despite a certain physical discomfort I’m really trying hard to restrain myself from writing about again. But how not to when my high school classmate contacts me via skype earlier today, and when I say I won’t be able to chat long due to the above mentioned experiencing of pain, she bluntly asks:

“Is that perhaps the famous PMS?”

We haven’t spoken in a decade, mind you, minus an email here and there. Dumbfounded I utter:

“But how do you know???”

“From your blog!”

Ah. That. Though I haven’t written about this one yet. YET.

The day is good nonetheless. It’s great. It’s FESTIVE & CELEBRATORY. Here’s why. Something happened today, something unprecedented, at least as of the year two thousand and six…

It was one of those exotically warm days in October, back in 2006. It was exotic to me, as I had just moved to Los Angeles from quite positively four-seasoned New York City. Don’t forget also that I grew up in Poland. Four ever changing seasons was all I knew till then. It must have been one of those summery days of Californian fall in 2006 when my ass was wrapped in a pair of my favorite jeans for the very last time. As never after it was able to fit again. Until this day…

Today I pulled the old buddies out of the closet where they sat in the dark corner forgotten and in disgrace since TWO-THOUSAND-AND-SIX. I dug them out from underneath a pile of all those new guys I collected in the meantime. And just like that, suddenly inspired, four years later I tried to reunite the best of me with the best of the blue jean kind. And it worked!

Truth be told, it did require me to HIP-HOP some, and then to CHA-CHA-CHA a little bit more in order to tuck every last bit of me inside of those pants. Nevertheless it WORKED! Not only was I able to zip and button up, but also I am able to sit in those jeans as I type these words. Initially I tried the desk chair first for it’s adjustable, then the couch as it’s lower thus more challenging. In the end I was rolling on the floor exchanging hugs, tears, kisses and stories with my best buds who have returned home at last.

About this photo… May I inform you that my legs go for inches and inches beyond the frame of this photograph, so don’t be fooled by skewed proportions. Also, Cosmo is a very SMALL dog. A miniature really. What you’re looking at are legs… thin and all-the-way-to-my-tuchas long. Note that at the time of taking this photo my tuchas was sitting at the neighbors’ kitchen table.

Well, then. Now you know WHAT. Time to reveal HOW. Let’s omit the part where I skyrocketed three sizes up in the first place, about four years ago. The first two sizes left me shortly after I met Jason and fell in love. They just packed their stuff and went on their own, leaving no letter good-bye. Not that I ever missed them. But that last little size got stuck. Let me assure you that I didn’t even mind it in the end. I was comfortable in my skin at last, for the very first time in my life really, and it didn’t matter that much what the scale underneath me said. I wouldn’t even step on one, because who cares!

Lately, however, Jason and myself found motivation to get back to the gym, as we do every few months or so. Jason was complaining about a few extra pounds he no longer wished on him. I needed to get my core muscles stronger for those long hours of dancing around the kitchen when at work. Every child knows, however, that no exercise will bear results if the diet ain’t right. Hence, following the wisdom of many trainers that crossed my path (whose secret equation for losing weight is: 70% diet, 30% physical torture), we decided to switch dinners and lunches around.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been sending Jason to work with his lunchbox full of hearty and filling goods so he has enough energy for a jog when off duty. And then, after the gym, instead of stuffing ourselves with a bowl of pasta or rice, we simply enjoy a nutritious salad, full of natural vitamins and metabolism-boosting enzymes along with a touch of protein (nuts, chicken, fish, cheese, beans, etc.) and healthy fats (olive oil or walnut oil, nuts, avocados, and such).

This salad-eating also forces me to keep inventing new dishes and re-inventing what’s known and out worn. Above you see a version of a coleslaw. It’s crunchy like the traditional one with slivers of radishes, ribbons of red cabbage, and thin slices of Green Apple. It’s full of toasted walnuts that take the edge off the apple’s tartness. The dressing is somewhat familiar, though made with a non-fat Greek yogurt (like in my slaw recipe I posted here). However, there’s butter lettuce in the place of white cabbage, sprinkled with poppy seeds and thus turning the mix into a brand new experience. And trust me, a plate full of this salad, where you must work out your jaws on each bite, will keep you satiated till you’re ready for bed.

What do you do with the left over cabbage, you ask. It’s a good question. Let me also applaud you for purchasing the whole head in its natural form versus already shredded one and packed in plastic. Use those crunchy ribbons as a color-booster on all the different types of salads. Not only does it add esthetic value, but also texture and anti-oxidants, calcium, potassium, and loads of vitamin C, K and A.

Here’s another variation on a salad that served as post-work out dinner for Jason and moi. As seen above, its an abundance of sautéed kale with shallots, garlic, and tomato over roasted young potatoes, with added crunch of red cabbage, persian cucumber slices and paper-thin slivers of radishes. Needless to say, it is a warm, comforting, and filling plate of … vegetables. Yet it won’t weigh you down just hours before saying sayonara to your day.

The bottom line is this: exercising is undoubtedly good for keeping my butt cheeks closer together, tighter I mean, less jiggly and more bouncy. It also allows my back to stay firm and strong during those 8-10 hour shifts in the kitchen when on my feet at all times. However, it’s those hearty SALADS FOR DINNER that let my bottom jewel shrink enough to fit in my old blue jeans and wiggle woogie-boogie.

I think I won’t be parting with these for a while… My ass can’t be trusted.

There’s this thing on a certain social networking site, known as Facebook, where one writes up 25 things about themselves and sends the list to 25 people. The idea is to share intimate, less known facts about yourself with people of your choice. Instead of writing down my 25 things and posting it on the above mentioned website, I thought I’d toss them here and make a salad out of it.

1. Almost every morning, as I dress up my bottom, I glance in the mirror and smile with approval at the sight of my profile.

2. The more I cook, the more appreciation I gain for my mother’s culinary talents. I didn’t realize how good of a cook she was until I tried the trade myself. The goal is NOT to be able to make a few dishes I can later alternate when making dinners for my family. Instead, I cook to free my soul and go to heaven for having discovered and exploited my potential.

3. There’s something about Jason’s nipples I cannot simply resist.

4. I am on non-speaking terms with Starbucks for their new line of VIA Ready Brew. While the world screams “RECYCLE! USE LESS PACKAGING! STOP CUTTING DOWN THE AMAZON!” they come up with those tiny coffee sachets worth 1 cup each. Hello! Have you not heard of global warming and The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas?? These Starbucks people are bananas! Argh!

5. The awesome thing about the holidays is that Jason can’t stop me from making peanut butter and chocolate brownies, or a shit load of chocolate cookies, or even a brownie pie!

6. My favorite candy store? Sur la Table for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

7. My favorite day of the week? The bra-free day. I like to keep my girls free and give them all the play-time they want before I get them to work for food when I get pregnant next year.

8. Hey, Mister! Have you not noticed your car has built-in blinkers? Nooo, these are not Christmas ornaments. You ought to use blinkers all year round dammit. Oh, yeah, that’s a huge pet-peeve of mine.

9. I grew up surrounded by books. Love ‘em to the last page. However, since I started this blog, I’ve been mostly purging words rather then inhaling them. I miss that.

10. Cosmo is a four-legged Pelè in disguise.

11. I have a vivid imagination. In my head, I see pictures of myself and/or people close to my heart in extremely catastrophic scenarios. Those images come to me randomly and out of the blue. Often they are so realistic I start to cry. I am unaware of the origin of this condition. I don’t know how to overcome it either.

12. Beauty moves me. It fills up my chest till it hurts and I start to cry. Again.

13. I secretly fart.

14. I haven’t used a hairbrush in six months, since I cut my hair short.

15. I was a witch in one of my previous incarnations, who lived in the woods and brewed herbal concoctions for various ailments.

16. – 24. Last night I made a salad, a twist on Coleslaw, that was so good the world stopped spinning for a moment. It was so fantastic in fact it’s worth 9 points of the 25 Important Things From Agnieszka Graczyk’s Life. Here’s how I did it…

I bought a package of shredded cabbage. I’d have gotten a whole head if the store offered one, as you know how I feel about the unnecessary packaging, etc. They didn’t carry the veg in its natural form. Back in my kitchen, I emptied the bag into a large bowl and added shredded Granny Smith Apple along with a bunch of chopped scallions. In the meantime, I toasted maybe a 1/2 a cup if raw walnuts, let them cool, and then roughly chopped them into small boulders of brain nuts.

Don’t they totally look like brains? The truth is they are really good for your brain, so it’s a clever tip to remember. The smurfs that write on Whole Foods web pages made my life easier for describing in detail the nuts’ magic:

Walnuts have often been thought of as a “brain food,” not only because of the wrinkled brain-like appearance of their shells, but because of their high concentration of omega-3 fats. Your brain is more than 60% structural fat. For your brain cells to function properly, this structural fat needs to be primarily the omega-3 fats found in walnuts, flaxseed and cold-water fish. This is because the membranes of all our cells, including our brain cells or neurons, are primarily composed of fats. Cell membranes are the gatekeepers of the cell. Anything that wants to get into or out of a cell must pass through the cell’s outer membrane. And omega-3 fats, which are especially fluid and flexible, make this process a whole lot easier, thus maximizing the cell’s ability to usher in nutrients while eliminating wastes–definitely a good idea, especially when the cell in question is in your brain.

The salad would not be complete without the dressing I quickly whipped up in our Magic Bullet. These were the components:

–       freshly squeezed lemon juice from 1 lemon

–       1 tbsp of honey

–       2 tbsp of heavy cream

–       3 tbsp of olive oil (the whole nine yards – organic, extra virgin, first cold pressing, etc.)

–       2 tsp of sea salt

–       1 tsp of black pepper.

Everybody in the bowl (the cabbage, scallions, apples, and nuts) got coated evenly with the silky dressing, then chilled in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes before consumption time. Then I took a bite, and with it I heard music and saw fireworks on a horizon. It was amazing, beyond delicious. There was the tartness from the apples and the dressing, but instantly the nut took off the edge and spread comfort and bliss in my mouth.

I didn’t need anything else for dinner. That was my delight of the day. For Jason, however, I reheated leftover penne over pancetta and garlic, and grilled three chicken tenders. Just like that. Nevertheless, the salad still took the Guest of Honor’s seat, and got a round of applause. Pure brilliance on a plate.

25. I am madly and uncontrollably in love with that white boy from Texas named Jason Blaine. Moreover, I am madly and uncontrollably loved by that white boy from Texas named Jason Blaine. He loves me just the way I am.

Gobble, gobble…!

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