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December is that time of year when everyone from Average Joe to Plain Jane hasten their steps in an attempt to find closure. Whether it’s personal matters like cleaning one’s teeth and de-cluttering their house, or a business deal that must be closed before the clock strikes midnight, all tasks are to be accomplished or else everything will turn into a pumpkin patch and Cinderella will run away barefoot.

The same commotion rules our house these days, hence my seldom presence in this cyber neighborhood. I’ve been meaning to sit down and tell you a story of a certain encounter, and a chat that followed…

Last month, while helping chef Fullilove shine his bright culinary light on LA food enthusiasts at the Test Kitchen, I ran into Ani Phyo, the raw food chef extraordinaire and author of four un-cook books. I think she’s working on her fifth now.

It’s funny how it happened really. All covered in flour dust while cutting beet pasta into long ribbons of vegan tagliatelle, I noticed this woman hanging around in the room, speaking gently on her cell phone, trying to be as non-intrusive as possible. Her voice I found very comforting and calming. Yes, I have a thing for voices. It turns me on if it strikes the right tone, and I don’t mean in a sexual way. At least not this time.

I digress.

The woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t match the face with a name in my head. She greeted us, asked about the pasta with an excited spark in her eye, and I couldn’t help but notice the voice again. Have I mentioned that I have a thing for people’s voices? I had to say something! Graciously she accepted my compliment and exited the room leaving nothing short of a shimmering glow behind. I saw her around over the two days I spent there, me working on Jason’s thing, her prepping for her event the following week. It wasn’t until I heard someone mention the name “Ani” and the word “raw” all in one sentence when it hit me.

I’VE GOT HER BOOK IN MY HOUSE! I’VE SEEN HER YOUTUBE VIDEOS. I KNOW WHO THE WOMAN IS!

Phew!

Ani Phyo in the kitchen of the Test Kitchen with Top Chef Alex Reznik.

Next thing I know, I’m stalking the poor gal around the kitchen premises hoping to score a short chat with her. For this blog. For YOU! Of course, it wasn’t the time nor place for it, so we settled for a phone conversation after her menu tasting at the Test Kitchen in mid November. However, Thanksgiving got in our way and it wasn’t until maybe last week that my phone rang at the precise time Ani said she would call.

I had a roster of questions I planned to bombard Ani with, but you know how it is. A conversation is a living creature, and so, as to be expected, it took us on its own ride. To begin, I wanted to know what was Ani’s definition of RAW FOODISM. She made it very uncomplicated by describing raw diet as fresh, whole foods made with ideally locally grown and organic ingredients.

“You can make a simple and delicious tomato and tarragon bisque straight from the blender. Or you can cook it, but that takes it longer and makes it more complicated” she explained.

Back in the day, when my eating habits were all over the map for reasons other than health, I went through raw stage myself. I read a ton about the diet, and learnt how complex and time-consuming its preparation was. Foods should be either completely raw or cooked in temperatures not exceeding 118° as to save the metabolism-boosting enzymes captured in the produce. Grains should be soaked in water for extended lengths of time in order for our stomachs to be able to digest them. If you wanted to get different textures you would have to dehydrate and/or powder some of your veggies. It wasn’t a diet for someone who works 10-11 hour days and wants to have a social life on top of that. Thank god, I lived in NYC back then where I had a raw food restaurant just a few blocks up, and a deli with fresh fruits and veggies cut and packaged daily for my convenience. My refrigerator stood empty for the entire five years that I was in Manhattan.

The memories of that period came back to me now, with Ani on the other end of the cable, and so I asked her about that whole process. Shockingly, she wasn’t very excited about dehydrating the food herself since in the process you lose, you know, the water. Then you need to drink it separately, and why would you do that if you can get both in one. Most of her recipes can be made very quickly, as she pointed out, using only a few kitchen essentials like a knife, a blender,  and a food processor, which I found stamped as little picture icons next to each recipe in her book, “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen“.  Speaking of the book, its cover presents Ani about to take a bite from a raw sandwich she’s holding in her hands. That thing looks so incredibly appetizing. Every time I glance at the bookshelf, I want to rip it off the page, lick the paper, and bite into the binding. I can TASTE it just by looking at the damn thing. You must check it out!

The idea of raw foods instantly whisks me away to tropical lands abundant with fresh produce… and sunshine! Would it be wise and practical to switch to an all raw diet for someone who lives in an area where winter comes and slaps you in the face with its snow falls and damp weather, I asked next?

“You can add heating ingredients, like chili pepper, or ginger to your food. However, everyone is unique and must listen to their body. I lived in Portland for four years, where it rained a lot, and my hands were constantly cold. I don’t know if it was good for me that I ate raw there. It depends on a person. Just listen to your body, and if you feel like you need something warm, eat something warm.”

Here’s where I really started falling for that girl because… she’s rational. She encourages people to stay healthy and live balanced lives as opposed to following some strict rules that lead to extremes.

“If you want to make changes in your diet” – Ani suggests – “start with whole ingredients.” (Meaning unprocessed, organic produce.) “Have gratitude, educate yourself and make choices based on that knowledge. Living a whole and balanced life is not only about the food, but also about your attitude, creating a strong bond with your community, giving back, and having gratitude.”

Having heard all that I couldn’t help but wonder: does Ani Phyo, the sexy queen of raw food movement, cheats on an occasion with what she consumes herself?

“Oh, yes, I cheat sometimes. How crazy do you want to get?” she asked laughing. “I love quinoa. I like tempeh, too. Just the other day, I wanted something warm, so I cooked myself a bowl of lentils. And sometimes, when I get the craving, I stop by Veggie Grill and get a veggie burger. And you know what, I have wheat intolerance, and I know I will have a stomach cramp and I will feel bad for a day, and I may even break out. But once in a while, if I want it, I just have a veggie burger.”

I was in love. A normal gal, sane, with all the pieces of furniture neatly organized in her head. It’s all about balance, people. Extremes never work long term and too often lead to eating disorders, which I myself learnt the hard way. Ani also admitted to having lived hard core raw for a decade, and today she realizes it wasn’t healthy for her.

So what does her day look like today food wise? She starts with two, three smoothies in the morning. She’ll blend blueberries, cashews, water and lecithin into a creamy drink and have it for breakfast. For lunch she may have a big green salad since she likes to work out mid day. After breaking a sweat, she may enjoy another smoothie while her metabolism is rolling. Dinner meal could be a bowl of lentils, a wrap, a salad, whatever strikes her fancy. Kelp noodles is something she raves about for a great addition to a salad.

When on the road, and she travels a lot, Ani always carries with her a bag of goji berries, nuts, maybe nori wrap or dried sea vegetables to nibble on. A banana, an orange and some peanut butter also travel well and help her get through parts of the country that don’t offer a wide array of fresh produce.

Ani Phyo's Raw Kale Chips

In the end I got all girly on her and dug for her beauty tips.

“I don’t put on my skin anything I wouldn’t eat, since it gets absorbed through the pores and gets into my blood stream. I use hobo oil to moisture my skin. Or coconut oil. I just rub it all over. I smell like a piña-colada and I love it. However, in winter I use hobo oil, because it sinks into the skin faster.”

Make-up she uses sporadically, not on a daily basis. Ani’s OK with mascara in moderation, not to be extreme. And if she uses eye shadows, she chooses spirulina based cosmetics.

All in all, it was such an inspiring exchange. Ani is gracious, laughs a lot, and takes herself lightly. Her beauty comes from within first. It’s her healthy mind and body that allow for her charms to express themselves in the physical form as well. She’s delightful to be around, and I hope for another chance in the future.

Feel free to visit her website and direct any questions to her via her Facebook fan page. That’s the best way to get a hold of her, she says.

In my next installment, I’ll include photos of the foods Ani Phyo wowed the crowds with at the Test Kitchen back in November. Stay tuned.

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Due to current state of our economy, traveling is a privilege few can afford these days. While it’s certainly not the same as plane hopping and visiting foreign countries, living in a metropolis that is Los Angeles allows us to sample and taste exotic flavors and thus explore various cultures in just a few BITES. Sort of.

Agi on Brooklyn Bridge '02For the nearly five years that I lived in NYC, surrounded by thousands of top restaurants that the city is famed for, sadly (and for all the wrong reasons) I lived on baby carrots, bananas and watermelon. (Oh, Agi, you fool!…) Hence, it is Los Angeles where I discovered Green Curries, good sushi, Alu Gobi Masala, Pad-Thai, et al.

Since I started messing around in the kitchen, which in my mind translates into COOKING, I’ve been drawing ideas from our various culinary expeditions in the city. Jason has the natural curiosity and drive to taste the new and exotic, while I get to be a hitchhiker on his sampling trips.

Now, I am no expert on THAI cuisine, however my embarrassing love affair with Pad-Thai precisely makes me a frequent visitor to Thai restaurants around town. Hence, when I look for an exotic note in a homemade meal, my first thought travels across the ocean to Southeast Asia.

Today I want to share with you my Thai- inspired dinner experiments, starting with…

COCONUT RICE

–       2 cups of brown basmanti rice

–       2 cups of light coconut milk

–       2 cups of low-sodium chicken stock

–       4 cloves of garlic

–       1/2 tsp of red pepper flakes

–       1 tbsp of coconut oil

–       1/3 cup of sun dried raisins

–       kosher salt + black pepper to taste.

Peel your garlic and then smash it. Yes, go ahead – give it a healthy whack! Heat the coconut oil in a pot, throw in the red pepper flakes and the garlic, and reduce the heat to medium. Toast the two troublemakers for 1-2 minutes and let the oil soak up those flavors, but watch not to burn them. Next, add your rinsed basmanti rice, salt it, mix it, coat in the oil and let everything get merry for about 2 minutes. When you hear the rice kernels pop – the party has begun!

Now it’s time for the liquids – first coconut milk, then the chicken stock. Mix it, stir it, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cover with a lid. Let the rice simmer until all the liquid is absorbed, for 20-30 minutes. When done, fluff it up with your wooden spoon, or what have you, and toss in the handful of raisins that have been sitting on the counter and resting before their turn, and stir those guys in. The heat from the rice will help soften those sweet little bites of sun and welcome them into the family.

Coconut Rice with Roasted Chick

I am proud to say the Coconut Rice made an astounding impression on the three Chicken Thighs that I had roasted just for the occasion. (Thus dressed up, the chick rested its tender legs on the scoop of the rice delight, sipped on its own juices, closed its eyes, and daydreamed about exotic vacation on the silky beaches of Thailand… Sunglasses – check, coconut drink – check, sunscreen – check!… The chicken sighed.)

Chick and Salad

Two cups of dry rice makes a lot, and I mean A LOT of cooked rice, even if you have my appetite. I’m talking about an appetite of a teenager in puberty, whose body is an inexhaustible power plant. I’m talking a-never-ending-yearning-for-food-of-a-pup (see Cosmo). In other words, Agi’s appetite after a two-hour work out with her boyfriend-slash-trainer who is totally and positively immune to her huffing, puffing, flirting and joking, followed by threats and other verbal abuse.

Frankly, it’s a wild mystery to me how he does it. All I know, he just stands there and – with stoical patience – commands me to do a series of exercises despite my above mentioned forms of protesting and rebellion. Jason simply waits me out. And when it finally dawns on me I am not winning this battle, I suddenly find myself strangely aroused … by his power over me.  Authority once again proves itself the most powerful and natural aphrodisiac.

Serendipitously a poem comes to mind, written by the very father of my mate-slash-coach. Dr. Jimmy Harkins spoke in rhyme once again, and his words I shall recite for you in the ADDENDUM…

https://agablack.wordpress.com/2009/09/21/where-the-coconuts-fall-adendum/

You think about it while I’ll tend to the second batch of the leftover rice. For dinner #2 I propose:

CHAI CHICKEN WITH PINEAPPLE FRIED RICE

–       Coconut Rice from the previous day

–       1/2 to 1 cup of diced pineapple with its juice (depending on how much rice you’re left with)

–       2 – 3 cloves of garlic

–       1 tbsp of coconut oil

–       1 tsp of curry powder

–       1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes

–       1/3 cup of chopped scallions

–       2 chicken breasts (organic and free range if available) for the Chai Chicken (see FRIKKIN’ CHAI CHICKEN for the recipe https://agablack.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/frikkin’-chai-chicken-freekeh/)

While the chicken is cut in strips and mixed with red curry powder, curry, garam masala, salt, pepper, crushed garlic and coconut milk, and all is cheerfully cooking in one pot, you grab a deep skillet and heat it on the stove. Add the coconut oil. Peel and smash garlic cloves and throw into the oil. Let it toast along with red pepper flakes for a minute over medium heat (watch not to burn) and slowly add your leftover Coconut Rice. Mix it well with the infused oil. Slowly add the pineapple chunks with its juice, sprinkle with curry powder and mix well. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and let it all get happy for about 5 minutes. About a minute to the end throw in the scallions and mix together. Serve along with your Chai Chicken, its sauce poured over the rice, and simply FORGET WHERE YOU ARE AND IMAGINE YOU’RE ON THE COAST OF THAILAND.

Pineapple Fried Rice

This dish is to die for. If it weren’t for the ridiculously large dining table that separated me from Jason, we would have been stealing bites off of each other’s plates the night I made it.

BE ADVENTUROUS IN YOUR KITCHEN!

HAPPY EXOTIC TRAVELS EVERYBODY.

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