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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!

By the time you read these words, we’ll have been to our Halloween Party, gotten stupid drunk, laughed our asses off just by looking at each other and the other CRAZIES surrounding us, schlepped back home, scared the hell out of Cosmo and homeless cats, had sex, sobered up, taken wigs and fake eyelashes off, had sex, and flipped a few pancakes up under the kitchen ceiling.

Right now, however, I’m lounging on our bed and looking pretty. That’s all I’m doing in the anticipation of THE NIGHT OF THE UNHINGED. Jason, on the other hand, is fulfilling his New Year’s resolution a little prematurely by organizing all the crap in our “office”.

The costumes are resting in the closet, their elements perfectly matched and hand picked during our Insane Halloween Spree last weekend. Many ideas were brought to life as we brainstormed costume options. One thing was clear – we were going as a couple and our outfits were to indicate as such. To spice things up, we excluded famous characters, and instead focused on two-word phrases, like:

–       Whipped Cream

–       Pocket Knife

–       Double Door

–       Body Lotion

–       Plastic Surgery

–       Good-Bye, etc.

We settled on Jason’s PEAS & CARROTS, as not only this idea was REALISTIC to execute, but also the phrase itself was charged with happiness and a promise of lasting forever.

Peas&Carrots

Time to put the wig back in the closet and leave Halloween behind. One thing that may still remind you of the weekend festivities is the lingering hangover, or sugar rush, and/or heartburn spasms from those “juicy” and perfectly greasy grilled sausages from street vendors that one just must have at 3 AM when leaving a party. Thank god for my Carrot who steered me away from those. Instead, we devoured a homemade breakfast at 4 AM consisting of scrambled eggs with sausage, tomatoes and basil + a turkey mustard sandwich with pickles and CARROTS. Going to bed at 4:30 AM with my stomach FULL is a dream I wish to live out more often… NOT.

To let your intestines breathe (and I mean it literally), I propose a fresh salad that not only has the ability to wipe all food debris from the previous night out of your system, but shockingly also tastes delicious! Let’s make some LEEK SALAD, shall we.

The VIP list of ingredients should read:

–       2 medium to large leeks

–       4 small to medium carrots

–       2 ripe avocados

–       1 cup of fresh dill, chopped

–       1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil (the good stuff)

–       2 tbsp of lemon juice (the fresh stuff, from the actual fruit)

–       sea salt, 1-2 tsp – ish

–       black pepper, freshly ground, lots of it

The leeks are tricky, especially if you haven’t used them before. They grow in dirt, they like it, and so they carry it along wherever they go. When you hold your leek, cut off the roots and the dark leaf tops. Those are hard and bitter. However, the light green and white part contains all the flavors you want to preserve. Grab a sharp paring knife and cut the leek length wise, opening it like a fan. Don’t make the mistake of cutting it through. You want to be able to keep it all together while letting cold running water wash out all the residual dirt from between the leaves. Does that make sense?

I hope you’ll find THIS helpful – a quick tutorial I’ve found on youtube on how to prepare leeks. You’re welcome.

Once you’re past the dirty job, cut the leek all the way though, yes, length wise, then each half  – again in half. Hold the bunch together (that thick ponytail of leek strips) and chop it as finely as your talent allows. Drop the shreds into a large bowl and move on to the carrots.

Jason Carrot

You want them peeled clean and grated. Into the bowl they go. Chop the dill and fedex it into the same ol’ bowl. Avocados – same story: cube them finely and scoop out on top of the veggie pile. Add salt, black pepper (lots of it), lemon juice, olive oil, and swirl around the dish letting everybody mingle and show off what they do best.

The LEEK SALAD, as is the case with other hard vegetables salads (see the CELERY ROOT SALAD for example), benefits and really reaches its potential only after it sits for an hour or so in a closed container, in the back corner of your refrigerator, away from all the gossip and commotion. The salt and acid from the lemon help break the fiber enough to soften the leek, and help it release a few tears of juice.

Leek Salad

The avocado serves as a binder in this salad. However, you could use sour cream instead, add 1 tsp of sugar, and make it a completely different foodie experience. Try it with grated green apples, or slivers of red bell pepper to add some blush to your dish.

LET ME NOT limit your creative flow. And LET ME hear back from you once you’ve tested and tasted your masterpiece!

This morning I went on a hike with Heidi. We’ve known each other for as long as I’ve been in LA, however, life happens and we lost touch for a big chunk of that time. It felt good learning about the shenanigans she’s been up to as we struggled through the bushes up the hill.

Upon my return home circa two hours later, mildly sweaty and not at all tired, I hopped into the shower to wash off the LAZY rash I’ve been dealing with lately. Due to my soft spot for the planet, I usually take super speedy baths. Three minutes is all I need to cover tops to bottoms (yes, I need plural for my BOTTOMS). On occasion, when any labor-intensive activity is required (major scrubbing, shaving, scull massaging, egg scrambling, knitting, etc.), I like to turn off the water in between various stages of any given task. For Jason such dry shower is a DISAPPOINTING WASTE OF FUN TIMES.

Today, however, I craved comfort that only a strong stream of water running down my nekid body can bestow. And so I stood there… nekid, wet, and happy as a pig in the mud for at least a whole seven minutes. And when I cut off the downpour at last, I didn’t even mean it. It was the sense of duty that got me out of the bathtub. “Somebody should be writing now!” I kept hearing in my head.

So I stood there… nekid, wet, happy as a pig in the mud on the cold bathroom floor, drying off with a fuzzy towel, when my eyesight came to rest on our toilet. There’s truly nothing extraordinary about the white urinal, but it made me think of Terri’s recent post where she talked toilet, etc.

Terri Terri Quite Contrary

That’s all she wrote. That’s it! It wasn’t satisfying for me. It’s toilet talk for god’s sake. Come on! The commode comes with HOT WATER. It begs the question HOW DOES ONE DISCOVER THAT IT COMES WITH HOT WATER? Is the hot water settling like a warm mist on your bare bottom? Do you dip a toe inside to test the waters? I need more information, Woman! Terri, I have this itching urge to comment on the TOILET SITUATION in your office, the I-can’t-believe-I’ve-just-gone-there kind of comment like, uhm.., wait. I almost have it… on the tip of me tongue, uhm… Yeah, nope, I’ve got nothing. Carry on.

And just like that I was done with my hygienic routine. Time to put some clothes on.

All that treading in the dust made me hungry for something truly earthy. And what’s more earthy than a vegetable born in the dirt, then dug up to be eaten for dinner? Mr. Celery, let’s look at your root. I like it big and hard with the skin peeled off, ready to eat. But first I’ll take you gently in my hands, wash you, strip you naked, and then give you a free ticket for a ride on the food processor rollercoaster.

Apples + Celery + Lemon

What I’m saying, y’all, is today I’m making a CELERY ROOT SALAD. When you get your big and chunky root all ready as described above, pair it with 2 Granny Smith Apples, cored and cut in eighths. Also, grab a half of a cup of fresh raisins, and the same amount of raw walnuts. The nuts need to be toasted. With raisins, I like to soak them in a freshly boiled cup of hot water for a few minutes before tossing them in my salad. This way they get plump and soft, and easy to chew on.

To make your life easier, let me just put together a roster of all ingredients for the Salad of Honor:

–       1 BIG or 2 medium celery roots

–       2 Granny Smith Apples

–       1/2 cup of fresh raisins

–       1/2 cup of raw walnuts

–       fresh basil leaves and dill (about 1-2 tbsp of each, chopped)

–       1 container of non-fat Greek yogurt, or equivalent of organic sour cream

–       sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (note: this salad LOVES black pepper, so don’t be shy)

–       1 tbsp of sugar (I use raw cane, organic), or honey

–       1 tbsp or so of freshly squeezed lemon juice

Once you get your celery and apples cleaned and cut in chunks, drop them into a food processor and grate. Feel free to use a hand grater if you have extra time on your hands, or your gym membership expired. Transport those veggie and fruit strips into a large bowl. Sprinkle all with lemon juice to prevent from oxidizing and thus turning dark. Season with salt to help soften the celery. The salt will also help the apples release their juice. Now add chopped herbs, soaked and drained raisins, cooled toasted walnuts (roughly chopped), yogurt/sour cream and get the whirlpool going. Using two salad forks, mix everybody together. Grind black pepper all over the bowl until it hurts your knees. Add a sprinkle of sugar, and a dash of love. Mix again, taste, fix if needed, and store in a refrigerator in a tight container.

Celery Root Salad

That’s the trick. The celery root and the apple have to spend some time on their own, consummate their marriage, play with the gifts you sent with them on their honeymoon before you can fully enjoy the taste of the union. Give it an hour, at least. And the day AFTER the wedding night is like heaven. There’s the crunch, a sweet bite dancing with the sour, and a little bit of heat from the pepper – an explosive mixture and a perfect marriage recipe.

May you live happily ever after!

Before we met, both Jason and I were dining out most of the time. Jason had memorized all the taco, burger, and sushi joints on Ventura Blvd and beyond, while I was hooked on Whole Foods and their salad and hot foods bar.  Needless to say, we were spending a fortune on our meals – in our world it translated into eating away a medium-sized car a year. One day we did the math, and between the two of us we were trashing about $1800 a month on the “fuel for our bodies”. Multiply this by 12 months and you have just burped a brand new Honda Civic with a built-in GPS and Satellite Radio.

Many people ask me how old I was when I started cooking. While I made a few simple dinners here and there as a teenager to give mama a hand, the whole love affair with pots and pans bloomed when I started dating Jason. Our courtship period was marked with his long and romantic letters text messages while traveling solo in Guatemala, homemade salads, and a barley-mushroom soup I’d make after his return. It wasn’t until a few months into our romance when we collected all our receipts to calculate our food expenses that the alarm bells began to ring. Our jaws dropped, broke into a million pieces, and scattered all over the floor when we saw the mind-blowing amount of almost two grand on the calculator.

That was our “Aha! Moment”. That was a turning point toward our future lives. More importantly, it was the time of my creative liberation when the cooking beast within was unleashed.

We started a regimen of regular escapades to the local Trader Joe’s for a weekly supply of groceries. Week after week the tab was coming to about $100. Another $20-$40 smackers were dropped at a Farmers’ Market in exchange for organic carrots, leeks, seasonal fruit and veggies along with a variety of aromatic, fresh herbage. Next, we invested in a pair of twin lunch boxes (It’s sickening sometimes how cute we are!), a set of good knives, pots and pans, and our love boat set sail.

Lunch Boxes

Are you following? Are you breaking your fingers trying to add it all up? Are you smashing those beads on your granny’s abacus? No, you’re not crazy. We cut down our food expenses by 2/3rds! So now, even though we don’t eat out as much anymore, and meat shows up on a plate no more than 3 times a week, we haven’t seen the same meal on our dinner menu in a few months.

Having said that, I will admit we’re a part of that lucky, sun-burnt whassup-dude-nation of Southern California. Not only do we have 70-degree weather all year round on average (which allows for a variety of fresh, organic produce), but we also have Trader Joe’s – the main source of affordable, healthy and organic yummers. It seems the guys are scrambling though to bring the goods to more Americans. You can check here if your city has also been blessed with its own TJ store.

A few days ago, I found a new “delicacy” within the depths of the store’s freezers. It is an extreme rarity to catch me using any pre-made frozen dinner thingies so abundant in every grocery store in America, but after having scouted the frozen Chicken Cilantro Mini Wontons, a bulb lit in my head. “What if I take the leftover roasted root vegetables from last night’s dinner, use them to make a soup, and dump the frozen wontons inside…?”

TJ Wontons

And so she did.

WHAT I USED FOR THE DISH:

–       roasted root vegetables (see below for details)

–       1 medium leek (only the while and light green part, thoroughly cleaned – muy importante!), chopped

–       1 medium onion, diced

–       garlic (CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?! Ok, 6 or 7 cloves)

–       4 oz package of diced pancetta (from Trader Joe’s)

–       1 carton of low sodium chicken broth (also fathered by TJ)

–       2-3 dry bay leaves (remove before serving!)

–       5-6 whole peppercorns (same here, out before serving)

–       1-2 tsp of dry marjoram

–       2 tsp of lemon juice or vinegar

–       half a bag of fresh arugula

–       handful of fresh dill, roughly chopped

–       spices (eyeballed…sorry): red curry powder, garam masala, cumin, nutmeg

–       kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

First, I diced a peeled onion and chopped my CLEAN (I can’t emphasize it enough) leek. Into a hot pan I threw a handful of diced pancetta, let the fat melt and the meat get crispy, then fished the cracklings out and set them on a plate for later. Into the greased pan I threw the onion and leek, and let them sauté for about 5-7 minutes. Next went chopped garlic, salt, dry marjoram and black pepper.

At this point, a neighbor passed by our open back door and shouted: “Mmmm, something surely smells GOOD!”

My roasted veggies got really excited and all jumped into the pot at once. To help everyone inside bond, I poured about a half cup of chicken broth, stirred the party around collecting all the flavors from across the dance floor, then turned off the heat – time to get serious. I emptied the content of the pot into a food processor, and… pushed the ON button.

The whirlwind of events that followed is too graphic to describe. Know that at the end of the night, I was left with a creamy and smooth veggie mass, which was returned to the pot. To turn it into a soup, I added the rest of the chicken broth from a box, the bay leaves, peppercorns, more salt and pepper, a touch or two of red curry powder, garam masala, cumin and nutmeg. The lemon gave its juice. The cracklings were also ready to get back in the game. I left it all to simmer for about 30 minutes, covered with a lid.

Half an hour later the wontons were ready to join the party. I emptied the bag into the soup to let everybody mingle and phone numbers were exchanged. Next, I turned the heat off and added the arugula, which instantly wilted in the temperature of the goods it swam in. The final touch was a dust of chopped dill sprinkled over a serving of Roasted Vegetables Soup with Chicken Wontons.  God, bless its soul, for it was heavenly! Jason had two helpings.

Chicken Wontons

Hmm… where was I? Oh, right, the mere memory of the dish throws me off track. Before I move on to the roasted root vegetables part of my story, let me just take a deep breath and compose myself again.

Alright.

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED:

–       3 medium to large parsnips

–       4 medium to large carrots

–       1 celery root

–       kosher salt + black pepper

–       Herbs de Provence

–       Extra virgin olive oil

Wash and peel your veggies, cut in 1/4” strips and spread on a sheet pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, herbs and seasoning. Using your hands, massage the goods into the veggies, and thus prepared, throw them into a 400˚ oven for about 30 minutes. THAT’S IT!

Just make sure the veggies are soft before you allow them out for some fresh air. Each oven is different, so you may need 5 minutes less, or 10 minutes more to turn your root vegetables into that beautiful and delicious patchwork of roasted carrots, parsnips, and celery root.

The sky is the limit – or the ground rather – when it comes to vegetables you could be roasting: butternut squash, acorn squash, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets, garlic – I’ve done them all. Don’t limit yourself. Be bold. Experiment. Follow your instincts. The pleasure received from such trials will be that much greater!

Amen.

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