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Last week Jason and I took five days and four nights out of our schedules in order to get out of Los Angeles. Four nights and five days for what seemed was just a minute.

We packed a cooler, a change of underwear, our camera, an ipod worth a decade of continuous music, Cosmo’s squeaky toy, and a liplube, and off we drove to New Mexico.

There, Jason’s best pal, his soul brother, his BFF Paul welcomed us at his log cabin hidden amongst sky-reaching pine trees on top of a mountain. Fourteen glowing eyes, twenty-eight legs and six tails total, all of which belonged to Paul’s cats, froze motionless behind his back at the threshold of the house upon our arrival.

If you’re quickly doing the math in your head, and 2 plus 2 just won’t make 4, know that one of the seven felines was a Manx. Ah… six tails indeed.

And then Cosmo appeared. Out of the car he sprang and around the house he span sniffing the ground and learning about his new circumstances. He spotted a cat, one of the seven that had dispersed in the darkness, and set his aim. Little did he know, the cat (all of them) moved with the speed of light (from his perspective) and flew through four bedrooms, the kitchen, and a vast living room in the same time poor Cosmo was still trying to find a way out of the first room alone. The three of us stood there, the speechless spectators, and quickly came to a conclusion that no intervention was required. Cosmo would never catch up with any of the kitties, hence no threat was posed.

The cats watched Cosmo's every move.

Cosmo had his eye on the cats.

Sequestered within the heart of the forest, wild coyotes crying in the distance, we set by the fireplace and exercised our brains talking for hours on about life and humanity, ecology, the origin of Homo Sapiens, Terence McKenna, fire fighters, the stars above and the volcano nearby. At sunset, we drove to the peak of the mountain and watched the sky.

We walked through the woods for hours, down to the river and up, by the Aspen girls. Then, in complete darkness we found the way out onto the highway and back to the house.

We cooked all meals, from breakfast through dinner. Well, I cooked, but always surrounded by eager and willing helpers. All it took was a hundred dollars that we stretched between four people and three meals a day over the July 4th weekend.

Five days away from home, from my kitchen, and from my computer turned into a full week of catching up. Not only did I not have time to write, but also I had to gear up for a whole lot of cooking for my upcoming Lunch Deliveries.

Before I withdraw back into my kitchen chambers, I want to share with you a dinner idea. Something different. It’s a simple peasant food with a smoky twist I put together one day recently–ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES WITH SMOKED MACKEREL.

There’s such a colorful and flavorful variety of root vegetables you can make this dish every time anew. Pick three veggies at a time and reinvent the meal over and over again. You could do carrots, turnips and kohlrabi. Add potatoes for extra body. Next time try diced rutabaga, parsnip, and squash. Add Brussels sprouts for color. Then you still have beets in various colors, same as carrots, plus a celery root, and a fennel bulb to twist it all together. Roasted onion never disappoints either.

To roast your medley, first preheat the oven to 400ºF. Wash, peel and dice all veg keeping them all more or less same size. Toss the bunch into a roasting pan, sprinkle with olive oil, add a bunch of fresh thyme (leaves picked or whole brunches scattered around), half a spring of fresh rosemary (or leaves picked and scattered around), a few crushed garlic cloves, and 1-2 bay leaves. Season generously with salt and pepper and mix everything about making sure all pieces have been treated justly. Pour 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of veg or chicken stock to the bottom of the pan, and slide the dish into the hot oven. Roast for 30-45 minutes (depending on your veg and the dice size). Half way through, dive in with a long spoon and toss the medley about.

When finished, scoop as much as your hungry soul desires onto thy plate, top with chunks of smoked mackerel (that you had previously scraped with a fork from the fish itself, leaving the bones and skin behind), and freshly picked dill. Treat the fish with just a few drops of lemon juice, sprinkling from up high. That simple touch thus turns the meal automagically into a hedonistic thrill.

I can’t even describe the pleasures you are to experience upon the first nibble. The creamy flesh of the oily fish melts together with the savory vegetables producing a carnival of joy in your mouth. Don’t just take my word for it. Try it at home, I dare you.

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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