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Some years ago, one sunny Sunday Jason was strolling down Melrose Avenue heading to a record store. Since he lived in the vicinity, he left his car at home that morning and walked up a few blocks to the destination. A 7-foot tall Indian man with crystal blue eyes, wearing a perfectly fitted grey suit and a white turban, approached him on the street, gently asked whether he could speak with Jason for a moment, and began to tell him things. Things about Jason, his life, his family, and challenges he was facing, all in great detail.

The accuracy of the stranger’s words was mind-boggling. The man warned Jason not to drive his red truck to get the haircut the following Saturday. How did he know??? Later that day, astonished Jason obeyed and cancelled the appointment he had scheduled at his friend’s hair salon in Malibu for that coming weekend.

Then the man said:

I KNOW IT IS NOT EASY FOR YOU TO GET UP IN THE MORNING. HOWEVER, YOU WILL BE VERY SUCCESSFUL IF YOU BEGIN TO RISE WITH THE SUN.

I realize it sounds very general for all of you. Unless you know my Jason. He’s one of the most responsible, organized, hardworking and disciplined people I know. And yet, getting him out of bed in the morning is one tricky process. It takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, and always involves me waking up beforehand in order to help Jason open his eyes and shake hands with each new day. As a child Jason was also diagnosed with a sleeping disorder that prevents him from getting a full night’s rest no matter how long he stays in his dreamland.

Bottom line is, getting up in the morning is difficult for Jason not because he’s lazy, but because it is acutely painful.

I’ve heard the story of the encounter on Melrose Avenue a few times over the last couple of years. I even tried to push Jason here and there to take the challenge and see what happens. Every time, however, my enthusiasm was met by my mate’s strong resistance. I brought it up again when we were in Europe last month, realizing that the upcoming jet-lag was going to play in our favor. We were going to wake up early in the morning quite naturally for the first few days anyways. Why not to stretch it into a 6-week period?

Jason took the bate. Hook, line, and sinker!

We’re three weeks deep into the life-changing exercise. My alarm clock is set for 6 AM Monday through Sunday and back. The first few days were AWE-AWE-AWE-SOME!!! I woke up chirping like a bird, loving the surrounding silence, the quiet, the stillness. As the jet-lag started to wear off, so did my joie de vivre at dawn. I walk around like a zombie, yawning till I get dizzy, with madness tinkering in the corners of my eyes.

My HONEY, on the other hand, the guy who used to speak in TONGUES when woken up before 9 o’clock, is now up and running by 7 AM and on his way to the gym. I look at him envious and bewildered…

WHO ARE YOU? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY BOYFRIEND??

Now throw our meatless diet on top of it and stand in my shoes! Though I think I’m over the edge and the worst is behind me. The experiment turned out to be a great creative challenge, and I can’t say that I failed. Over the last three weeks we’ve had a different meal every night, each one nutritionally dense, flavorful, and full of protein, like my PAPPARDELLE WITH WILD MUSHROOM SAUCE OVER SAUTEED KALE AND GREEN BEANS.

I have tons of wild mushrooms stored away, handpicked by my mother, cleaned and dried by her husband. I used some last week to make mushroom broth, of which a few ladlefuls went into the sauce you see above.

As usual, I improvised. I let the broth reduce in the saucepan, allowing for the mushroom flavor to intensify. Next, I added about a tablespoon of butter and a handful of previously soaked wild mushrooms. I dropped in a whole shallot and one bay leaf.

In the meantime, I brought a pot of water to a boil, seasoned generously with salt and cooked some pappardelle pasta (my favorite kind of pasta in the world!).

Back to my sauce, I lowered the heat to minimum, added a drizzle or two of heavy cream, a bunch of fresh dill, salt, pepper, and a touch of nutmeg. Stirred, once, twice, turn the heat off, discarded the shallot and the bay leaf, and voila. The sauce was ready.

So was the pasta. I drained it and tossed it back into its pot. I crumbled some goat cheese all over the steaming noodles, shoveled it around till the cheese melted, and poured my mushroom sauce all over that gorgeous meal. It rested with dignity over the bed of greens that I sauteed with garlic just minutes before.

Even though I still think of meat with a tear welling up in my eye, dinners like the one above sooth my torn nerves just fine. I wrap myself in that comfort and calmly count the days down…

Till Sunday!

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Earlier today I was driving, blinded by the hammering rain, and as wipers ran frantically across the windshield, and I slid along the highway, I slipped into a contemplative mood. Then I thought to myself…as a child, after you’d learnt of the Earth’s rotation, did you ever think that it rained when the planet was upside-down? As if the seas and oceans poured out of their reservoirs? Yeah, me neither.

And then I remembered last night’s dinner… Now, can we please talk about that STEAK?! Or – in other words – the ULTIMATE COOKING TEST that I passed less then 24 hours ago …thank-you-very-much? Yes, let’s talk about that.

If you’ve followed me around for the last couple of months (or even a few days but managed to go through most of the articles) you must have noticed that I write a lot about chicken and not so much about other meats. There are reasons for that. Primo, there’s still plenty of time to cover all sorts of omnivores’ dilemmas. Secundo, I not only talk chicken but also cook chicken on most occasions. Each week, we interweave poultry with fish and vegetarian meals to keep our dinners versatile, healthy, and clean. Maybe it’s the fact that I lived my life vegan style for so many years before, that it took me so long to even open my eyes in the presence of red meat, not to mention putting IT in my mouth. I do not know.

However, last weekend Jason and I went to Whole Foods and he sweet-talked me into buying some fresh, organic beef fillets. We spent almost 30 smackers on two nuggets of cow meat, each about 2” thick. Having close to zero experience with beef, and intimidated by the price tag, you can only imagine the stress level I was under when prepping the dinner last night.

I knew there was no fooking around when it comes to raw meat. I also knew I needed to consult the best. So I turn on the TV and scroll down the recordings on our Tivo hoping to find one useful cooking show amongst the dozens I saved. YES! There she is! Ina Garten herself stands right there, in front of my eyes, ready to walk me through roasting a sirloin beef fillet “Barefoot Contessa” style.

One leads to another…

Eagerly following her guidelines, I mix about a tablespoon of room temperature butter with a tablespoon of Aioli Garlic Mustard Sauce (she asked for Dijon Mustard). I wash my two beef nuggets and pat them dry with a paper towel. Ina says: preheat an oven to 500˚. I turn on our toaster oven. It’s a fancy little box – highly dexterous and able to multitask at that. Not only does it toast our toast, it irons our shirts, gives foot massages, bakes, bikes, and then heats up to a breathtaking 500˚ and serves as a broiler.

Given the choice between a big spacious oven that takes time to heat up, thus sucking proportionally more energy, and a compact and eco-friendly toaster oven, which does Agi take? Of course I go for the latter. But first, I rub the mustard-butter mixture all over my steaks, sprinkle evenly with salt and crushed black pepper (as Ina told me to), and shove both into the fancy toaster oven-slash-foot massager.

Here comes the tricky part, and the most crucial one when it comes to cooking meat period. The question of …HOW LONG? When Ina dances in front of the camera with her block of premium cow cut, she makes the task look as simple as putting your foot on a gas pedal and pushing. Easy, right? But what will she tell all the flustered cooks at home who have not only hit the dining room wall, but also drove through it and into the neighbor’s stack of hay? Hey, what will you say then, Ina?

You see, everything looks perfect on the TV screen, but I’m stuck at home with those two shits of red meat, the very expensive kind, all battered up and ready to dance in the fire. Ina says to give it 20-25 minutes in the oven until the fillet reaches 120˚. Then to wrap it with aluminum foil and let it rest for another quarter of an hour before you make the first cut. She then slices it and makes Roast Beef Sandwiches with Horseradish Sauce and Arugula.

Are you kidding me?

Here’s what Agi does. I let both chunks of meat, generously coated and well seasoned, broil away in the scorching hot toaster. I walk on eggshells pacing around the box. I peek through the little smudgy window, but the darkness within prevents me from getting any feedback. I mumble a few prayers in Polish that I remember from my early days, retrieve a flashlight from our goodie-drawer in the bedroom and shine a light on the sweaty guys.

Steaks in the Oven

I check the clock as if my life depends on it. I do the math in my crazy head and figure it should take less time for my small baby fillets in that little toaster oven. Hence, 13 minutes into this melodrama, I’m on the verge of pulling my hair and spitting all my teeth out into a handkerchief. I can’t take it any longer and pull out the tray with the toddlers. I stick a thermometer into one of them and let my eyeballs follow the mercury rise up to 120, wait, 130, oh no! it keeps going up to 140˚. Suddenly it stops, takes a breath, and picks up again before settling at 143 degrees Fahrenheit! What did Ina say?? One hundred twenty degrees was all it was supposed to reach. Damn it! And I tried so hard… I’m devastated. My hope that stood breathless in the corner for all this time now burst and evaporated along with the aroma of freshly roasted meat.

With my shoulders hanging down by my hips, and my mouth curved upside down in sadness and utter disappointment, I continue assembling the dinner for Jason who should arrive home any minute now. With a tear lingering in the corner of my eye, I cook a little pasta and make a quick Marinara Sauce. In another pot, Brussels sprouts steam themselves for the heck of it. The meat just hangs out in the cooling toaster, very confused and unsure of its future.

When my honey walks in through the kitchen door, I finish plating our meal and walk him straight to the dining room with an ambivalent expression on my face. He reads me like an open book:

–       It didn’t work out? Don’t worry, baby. You don’t even like red meat. I don’t have to have a steak. And if I crave it one day, I’ll just go out. It’s really not a big deal. And you know I love everything else that you make. I guess red meat is just not your thing. And THAT’S OK!

–       Booo-hooo …! – is all I have in me in response.

We sit down and with obvious hesitation take the first bite. Hmmm… Without uttering a single word, Jason hums and moans, wiggles his rear end in the chair, throws his eyebrows up and down, and as he swallows the rest of the bite he exclaims:

–       This is FANTASTIC! This is what I call a STEAK. This is perfect! Baby, I have no words… You are an amazing COOK.

–       This thing really IS good. Wow. I can’t believe it. I have just lost my flower. I’m no longer a STEAK VIRGIN! – I reply dumbfounded.

With each bite, I fall deeper and deeper in love with the golden nugget of steak I brought to life with my very hands. It’s a medium rare perfection with the smoky flavor of mustard, and as soft and juicy as the melted butter it was cooked in. The crazy part? It was broiled inside our smart, GREEN, multifunctional toaster oven!!!

Who knew?

Steak Dinner

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“Fireflies & French Fries: A Circus Extravaganza” was the theme for Chantel’s party on Friday night. There was food (of course) and we arrived with a bowl of whole-wheat Pasta with Sautéed Veggies.

That night, however, was NOT about the food. It was a night of raw talent blending with artful beauty of bodies dancing in the air, wrapped in silk, or set on a trapeze or a hula-hoop. The medley of aerial performances inaugurated the birth of Chantel’s ECCENTRIC TALENT MANAGEMENT.

I feel proud and privileged to witness how my friends grow and follow their dreams. I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many talented people, and such potential. It could be intimidating, but no, not any more. In their growth I find inspiration and motivation to pursue my own happiness, to reinvent myself and experience fulfillment. Thank you Chantel, Jason, Melissa (she likes that despite being called Missy all her life), Kristel, another Jason, and Veronica, and Heather, Leslie, Aveena, Ed The Man, Patrick, and the list goes on…. Thank you, for you have empowered me to chase my own dream..

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These shots give very little justice to the level of skill and beauty ZIRCON & WISH presented at the party. It was close to midnight, wine filled our glasses, we emptied them, and the crowd was at AWE…

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ANJELICA BONGVIONNI & ATLAS left us stunned when, right outside of the house, in the middle of the street, in the midst of the night, they were spinning their wheels.

Before we knew it, Saturday rolled in like a fog, and with it a headache and stomach rebellion. We decided to respect our bodies and let them rest. Thus a BBQ with Sasha by his pool, and a movie at the Hollywood Cemetery with Leslie had to be cancelled. We stayed home issuing 2 rain checks.

An alarm clock tore away the best of sleep first thing Sunday morning. I had a feast to prepare for a group of friends coming that evening to fulfill house-warming duties. While Jason was finding peace and inspiration at Agape during the day, I was lost in deep meditation chopping and prepping various elements for the supper. After more or less 5 hours, we had Basil Pesto sans cheese to go with whole-wheat organic Fettuccine, Chicken with Brown Rice and Vegetables, Spinach & Mushroom Strudel, Quinoa a’la Mexicana, and Blueberry Curd Cake to sum it all up. Minutes before the first guests arrived, Jason whipped out a kick-ass Guacamole, as wells as a Caribbean Shrimp Salsa with mango, papaya, pineapple, red jalapeno pepper, lime juice, cilantro and spices. We served both appetizers on a platter with blue corn chips. The meal was spectacular. We gathered around the table covered with this wholesome meal sprinkled with love, poured wine, again shared stories and laughs, and thus warmed the house.

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Those moments I deeply cherish. We live our lives fast, especially in cities like Los Angeles. Friends become family, and yet we struggle to find 5 minutes to stop and spend quality time with those that matter to us. Let there be more gatherings and feasts around a table topped with homemade foods. Let us re-learn how to use our hands to create a nutritious meal for our own bodies. Let’s keep it in balance.

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I’m running out of space today. However, since there’s a demand and curiosity, next time I’ll tell you all about quinoa, and how it came to be a staple in my kitchen.

Sayonara for now.

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