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I’M BACK!

It is March 1st and my first Monday off in about five or six weeks. I fulfilled my duties on “How To Make It In America” and today I’m only going back for a group hug and to drop off my parking pass. I had fun, but I missed filling out these pages with silly nonsense and my experimental recipes. I’m so thrilled to be back in the kitchen.

Last Sunday I spent tucked under a blanket and surrounded by my cookbooks. As I leafed through the pages time stood still. Cosmo curled up on my pillow and rested his chin on my shoulder with a gentle sigh. A tiny spider treaded by whistling quietly not to disturb. I was as captivated as a 7-year old reading fairy tales and stories by Hans Christian Andersen.

Our dinner table hasn’t seen much meat over the last couple of months, which I am proud of. However, the cook in me longs to explore new culinary regions and foreign territories. I know I won’t be discovering new lands. Nevertheless the thrill will be of the same magnitude as if traveling to an exotic country, whatever that means to you – Vietnam, Zimbabwe, or Poland. Hence, I’m thinking Pork Chops with Roasted Beets, Cornish Hens and Dill-dusted New Potatoes, Duck with Madera Sauce, Leg of a Lamb with Caramelized Endives and Frisée with Lavender-Honey Dressing. Somebody pinch me, HARD, for I’m drooling dreaming.

Certainly, I won’t whip it all out in a day, or even one week. Those dinners are coming up, I assure you. It’s time to sharpen your knives and fast for the upcoming feast.

Look what I did last night – SWEET POTATO AND PORTOBELLO MUSHROOM CUPCAKE. Ok, it is not a cupcake, but one could be fooled.

After making out with the cookbooks I was so powered up and inspired I was buzzing. Jason came in to the bedroom and asked me:

WHAT’S FOR DINNER?

Before he realized what happened I was stuck in our refrigerator head first plotting the menu. When he followed me to the kitchen he stumbled upon a headless body sticking out of the icebox accompanied by various food articles shooting out and landing on the kitchen counter. There were 2 GIANT MUSHROOMS (which my Jason HATES), fresh sage, parsley, gorgonzola cheese, chicken stock, 1 egg, and a box of diced pancetta. From a veggie basket I grabbed 2 shallots, a couple of garlic cloves and 4 sweet potatoes.

The potatoes got peeled, washed, cubed and tossed into a pot with chicken stock and a touch of salt. When those cooked I minced garlic and shallots, and chopped a handful of sage. I tossed pancetta onto a hot skillet, let the fat render and added my minced and chopped goods. Seasoned with a touch of salt they sautéed for a couple of minutes, until cooked and drained potatoes arrived. Everything was mixed together, seasoned with more salt and black pepper to taste, and then crushed and mashed.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes were done.

In the meantime, I wiped the mushrooms with a damp paper towel, as it’s not a good idea to wash them under running water. Mushrooms soak it up, and their flavor gets compromised severely.

Two small bowls came out of a cupboard. In one bowl I beat the egg; the other one was for flour, which I seasoned with salt and pepper and a few springs of fresh thyme. The mushroom hats were dusted in the flour, then coated with egg and gently set onto a hot skillet with a tablespoon or so of olive oil. I let them cook topside down first for about 10 minutes over a low heat, then flipped over and covered with a few slices of gorgonzola. The guys cooked until the cheese began to melt.

I was ready to plate. First I scooped my MASHED SWEET POTATOES with shallots, sage and pancetta. Then I topped the mound with my beautiful PORTOBELLO HAT. The “muffin” was then showered with chopped parsley and the plate landed in front of Jason’s face.

WOW!

My cheeks were the color of roses due to the heat and excitement over my new creation. The church bells rang in the distance and a hummingbird got trapped inside my chest. I was terrified that Jason would take a bite and spit it out across the room. Then he would throw his fork at me and thus nail me to the wall behind my back. Have I mentioned he HATES MUSHROOMS?

Why would I even take my chances, you ask. It’s obvious! I’m from Poland, where mushroom picking is a common hobby and people take it seriously. I grew up picking, cleaning, drying and cooking varieties of mushrooms you’ve never heard of. I LOVE MUSHROOMS. My mother sends me boxes of dried wild mushrooms in mail. My cousin smuggled a bag of those stinkers for me in her backpack across the US border. I am compelled to find a way to help Jason overcome his fear of fungi.

Luckily, it’s more about the texture than the flavor itself. He’s an enthusiast of my MUSHROOM-BARLEY SOUP, where the hero of the day gets chopped up in a food processor. However, a PORTOBELLO STEAK is a different story. I stood motionless by the table, keeping a safe distance, while Jason was testing the waters. The first bite in and down. Nothing. No sirens. No thunders. No knives in the air.

I DON’T KNOW YET.

Another morsel of food went into his mouth.

HM… I THINK I LIKE IT.

Phew! A giant swig of air I was subconsciously holding in my lungs escaped with a loud and uncontrolled whistle. I could not believe my eyes. Jason was eating away his MUSHROOM MUFFIN, his ears striking and tail wiggling in full contentment.

THIS IS YUMMY!

I must have done something right. I can’t wait to take Jason mushroom picking in Poland. That will be a trip in its own right.

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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.

My balls are shrinking. Age, like cold water, morphs my GUTS into small and shivering little nuts.

I was an adventurous and stupidly brave kid who would climb trees and roofs of garages with my older brother’s friends, despite an ever-growing collection of bruises and boo-boos all over my limbs. I was the one whose back all the girly girls would use for shelter hiding from the boys who wanted to pinch their arms and pull their plaits when we were all in second grade. I was the one to stand up to a teacher when the whole class felt mistreated and no one would rise to speak for themselves. I was also the one to scratch my Russian teacher’s car (she was an old and grumpy Pole who taught Russian) with my house keys at the age of 11 when the woman called me a STINKY BUM in front of my entire class for not having memorized new vocabulary SHE HAD NEVER TOLD US TO!

No, I’m not so proud of the latter. At least now I’ll know what to teach my kids NOT to do, specifically. Scratching your Russian teacher’s car with your keys will lead to everlasting shame and will potentially ruin your only chance to enter your own house. At least until parents come home. I can always prevent this from happening by NOT enrolling my kid in Russian classes. Instead, let’s focus on mastering your mama’s native tongue my child  – Polish.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the FEAR. The fear that has emerged out of a thick fog as I entered my thirties. Flying has never made me feel like being on top of the world. There used to be a thrill associated with that activity, but frankly, when younger I would get excited just as much when riding a shopping cart across a super market. Ok, that still is a source of a massive glee. In order to fly, however, without breaking into a showering sweat I need a sedative.

Last weekend, when we were flying to San Francisco, one shot of Patron helped me loosen up enough to cheerfully enter the tunnel leading up to the plane. Right at the door of the machine there were standing two police officers and chatting with an older couple. Apparently they were escorting a passenger who got warped in a loop of time and was not sure where he was anymore. However, as I walked up to the group, all I heard was:

HE WAS IN TOKYO TWO DAYS AGO, THEN HE WAS ON TWO OTHER FLIGHTS SINCE AND NOW SUFFERES FROM INSOMNIA. HE HASN’T SLEPT IN THREE DAYS AND IS AWFULLY CONFUSED.

I looked at the police officer TERRIFIED and asked with crawling panic in my chest:

I HOPE YOU’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT OUR PILOT!

An explosive of laughter tore the air around and strangely enough that sound instantly comforted my shaken insides, a loud sigh escaped my wide-open mouth.

After a wonderful and unintentionally romantic weekend in Napa we found ourselves at the airport all over again. Our flight was delayed two hours due to the weather. The only way I knew how to keep my composure was to hit a bar next to our gate and sip on a perfectly chilled Blue Moon with a slice of an orange tucked on the rim of the glass, while I read through Michael Pollan’s food rules he had recently put into a book by the same title. Thirty-two ounces of the golden nectar later I was perfectly joyful and frankly could not stop laughing, for any reason and at anything. I was ready to board.

Before I knew it, Tuesday rolled in and we quietly dispersed back to our offices. Since lunch wasn’t provided at my work that day, as all the big shots (a.k.a. producers) were absent, I drove back home to let Cosmo out and had about fifteen minutes to feed myself. I opened the fridge and heard the wheels turning in my head. It only took seconds and I had the plan.

Two slices of bread with a thin layer of butter, a few slices of Fontina and a tomato went into a toaster oven. Two eggs were cracked, one after another, yolks separated, and then dropped gently onto a hot skilled greased with butter and olive oil. I seasoned the eggs with chili powder, sea salt, black pepper, and let them set. As soon as the bread was ready, I slid one SUNNY-SIDE-UP on top of each toast, garnished it with a fresh basil leaf and a few slices of fresh avocado. A handful of baby carrots completed that landscape art on my plate.

The bread with melted cheese and toasted tomato was embedded within the frames of the perfectly crunchy crust. I broke the egg yolk with the tip of my knife and let it ooze all over that open sandwich like a warm mist on my face during a facial treatment.

Oh, the delectable bliss.

Fifteen minutes on the dot. Prepared and consumed. Done. Haul my arse back to work.

I stole food from my dog.

I am out of control.

Since I got that call about that job on that show for HBO, the one you know nothing about as it’s not yet on, it’s been raining almost consistently here in LA. That last piece of information is relevant to my story only thanks to the drip-drip soundtrack that torrential tempest provides as I type these words.

So, I’ve been working on HOW TO MAKE IT IN AMERICA … the show, and quite literally, in life. There’s no glamour in the services I provide here, but I feel at ease and no longer experience the yearning for recognition and appreciation for my work in a corporate setting. It brings an unspoken amount of relief to have finally discovered a passion in life, which for me, aside from exploiting my life on the Internet, is defined by cooking. I have developed a skill I can offer to the world now. The minute I’m done with my current duties on the show, I’ll walk back to my kitchen, or into my clients’ kitchens and will make a living by stirring, blanching, and shocking vegetables.

In the meantime, I share offices with editors and their assistants who work hard gluing and stitching together the show you’ll be able to watch on HBO in a few short weeks. Since the office space is rather congested, everybody can hear the dialog, music score, and any other sound effects present in a given scene the editors are currently working on. Today moaning and gasping fills the air around, as the sex scenes are being patched together. I can’t help giggling under my nose as if I were 12 and caught my uncle and auntie DOING IT.

While I’ve been enjoying the on-screen sex at work, my loyal ol’ pooch goes through separation anxiety.

It must be it. How else to explain he’d gotten sick FOUR times since I left home? There’s nothing new about the wholesome dog food we’ve been feeding him forever. He’s not lethargic or sad when I come home. On the contrary, the minute I open the door he jumps at me from whichever corner of the house he’s been laying in wait and nails me straight to the wall behind me and bombards me with a shower of kisses. What that really means is that he licks my face inside out with a boy scout’s zeal and precision of a robot on Adderall. When he gets back on his fours at last, the joy dance begins and Cosmo spins right round until I get dizzy. I say he’s fine.

Still, my heart sank every time I saw my baby throw up and all this past week. It was time for me to take action. It was time to employ some drastic measures. Cosmo was about to learn of that brilliant witch that his mommy was.

I entered the kitchen, swoosh, pulled out a pot, clink, and mounted it on the stove, bang. Inside went diced pancetta, a handful, and sizzled until its fat rendered. Rice (half a cup) was next along with a tablespoon of crushed dry marjoram. Mixed with the pork juices, the rice toasted evenly just in time for a cup of grated carrots that landed right in the pot. Then I drowned it all in organic, low sodium chicken stock, because my dog deserves the best. It didn’t end there. For color, I tossed in sweet peas, then seasoned the dish with salt, and plunked a bay leaf to top that field of savory yumness.

You think dogs don’t like parsley? Just watch Cosmo.

Photo – courtesy of Laurent Dambies and his MACRO lens. The parsley was mine.

Thus enlivened, Cosmo’s breakfast/dinner combo for the next 4 days was officially completed. Except, I tasted it. BIG MISTAKE. The food was beyond awesome, its flavor so simple and comforting, and yet robust and indisputable. I took another bite. EVEN BIGGER MISTAKE. An electric current of paramount pleasure torpedoed down my spine. My hair stood upright. ALL HAIR. Everywhere. Next thing I knew, half of the pot was empty and the wooden spatula I used to stir the goods was shoved fist-deep into my throat. I was out of control stealing my sick puppy’s meal. Suddenly, I caught his terrified look with the corner of my eye, as if he was saying: “MA! WTF?!” The spoon slipped out of my hand and dropped to the floor. The sound of it was like a slap to my unconscious self, thump. When I realized the level of devastation the hungry monster within caused I was startled. The little bit that was saved was barely enough for two doggie meals.

Cosmo sat right by my feet throughout the cooking process and the incident of mindless food absorption. He was hungry. He KNEW I was fixing food for him. I don’t know how, but he knew. I saw a shade of panic in those deeply dark eyes, not yet a full on attack, but a growing anxiety of upcoming loss. You know what I’m talking about? I could see it all in the look he gave me.

Without a word, I grabbed a box of quinoa, 4 more carrots, a parsnip, and made a new batch of food for my pooch. This time I knew better than adding salt, bay leaves, and fresh parsley in the end. A tablespoon of lard is all any dog needs in their food to get their undivided attention. And enough to avert mine.

You don’t have a dog? What’s the problem? More food for you!

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