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Even when it seems that nobody’s home and things get eerily quiet around here, like minutes before sunrise, don’t think for one second that I lounge with my bum buried deep between soft cushions of a couch and scratch me some balls. On the contrary, I’ve been out and about cruisin’ and schmoozin’. As a result, just the other day, I met Susan Feniger of STREET, and then Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of ANIMAL, another wildly popular restaurant and one of LA foodies’ favorite.
A close friend’s birthday celebration brought me to a dinner table at STREET, where Susan poked her head in between us to say hi and offered her menu suggestions. I couldn’t help myself and launched across the table over a timidly flickering candle, barely missing my friend’s wine glass, in order to shake Susan’s hand. My impetuous plunge landed me right in front of our chef and I came just shy of kissing the woman. I looked up in terror, prepared to be escorted out of the venue at once. To my astonishment, after my less than graceful entrance, chef Feniger was simply delightful, all smiles, and generously opened her door to me whenever I am ready to commit some time in her kitchen. Woot-woot!
ANIMAL is a whole different animal. If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you may remember me mentioning PIGGING OUT at the place just a few short months ago. To this day I have vivid memories of their BACON CHOCOLATE BAR (go ahead and click the link to see the chefs in action) that haunt me whenever I’m craving a dessert. I was so impressed, in fact, with the food and the entire concept behind their restaurant that I finally got my act together and approached chefs Jon and Vinny directly. I prepared a speech, and drove down Fairfax with candy up in my sleeve ready to bribe. I asked for a job, the non-paid kind, an apprenticeship.
My wish was granted even before I finished telling my long and windy story with a trembling voice and sweaty hands. I couldn’t believe how easy that was. And just like that, at 8 o’clock the following morning I was tucked in a truck along with Jon Shook and his right hand Frank heading down to Santa Monica Farmers Market in order to get fresh produce for the restaurant.
Farmers are the only providers of produce and meat for ANIMAL’s kitchen. “It’s all about the love” I was told. How classy? How elegant? And how honest an approach to making food and conducting business in general that is? Think about it. As a customer at a fine dining place you don’t want to be served some cheap rubbish full of chemicals and genetically altered by mad and corrupted scientists. As a restauranteur, you don’t want to cheapen your final product by using crappy produce of vague origin. Also, by shopping local not only do they support their farmers, but also minimize their carbon footprint! And yes, they recycle at the restaurant as well. I was shown separate containers for food waste, trash, and then paper and metal. One of the staff members takes away all the plastic bottles they collect in a month and takes it to a recycle center.
Need I say more? I’m in love. I can’t wait to join the 2 Dudes, as they used to call themselves, and their team, and see my inner dude come out and play. Did you take a look at that video I told you to click the link to? The Bacon Chocolate one? Go ahead and do it again, this time paying close attention to the chefs’ surroundings. You see that kitchen they’re making the bacon candy bar in? From now on, a few times a week, this will be my office, my lab, my classroom, and my playground. It is going to be a fun and rewarding ride, and you bet I will be writing about it. Looks like we got a green light for Season 2 of my Restaurant Diaries. Woot-woot indeed!
It may come as a shock to some of you, but I do not cook. I mean, I do but I don’t. Everyday, I mean. Wait. Let’s go back. I love to make food. From the first step of washing and peeling, through chopping, then sautéing and seasoning, to stirring and tasting I engage as if I were watching a season finale of Grey’s Anatomy. There are times when I bury myself in the kitchen for days and cook my heart out. I strip, mix, whip, bag, massage and flip until my legs shake and I lose my breath… for a moment.
Alas, however satisfying the experience, I must step aside for a day or two to recover, recuperate, and relax. On those days Jason (and myself, who am I kidding) has a chance to go out and take care of the culinary sentiments Agi doesn’t necessarily tend to – good sushi, authentic Mexican cuisine, or a good ol’ American burger. And I tag along for a chance to try something new, cleanse my palette, and even to get inspired.
Last week I reached one of those culinary climaxes, and I was COOKED OUT. I had nothing left in me to power through another dinner in the house. I needed a breather. Jason very generously offered to take care of dinner and whipped out his wallet. Neither one of us wanted to be responsible for choosing a restaurant in case it turned out a total failure. We decided to write down potential eateries on pieces of paper, fold them up, and throw them into a hat.
I shoved my whole arm inside, stirred around the votes, tried to FEEL the answer with my fingers, and finally pulled out our vote. It read: SUSHI. I liked what I saw as it was MY handwriting. Jason didn’t oppose, however he still wanted his vote to be considered. I dove in once again and searched all around the bottom of the hat for another strip of paper. I got it at last, unfolded it and read out loud: SUSHI.
That’s it. All Jason wanted was to show how unanimous we are in our thinking. So cute!
It was getting really late, and certainly past our mealtime. Our stomachs started growling at each other and I knew that any minute they would jump at each other’s throats. With no further ado, we hurried to a nearby Japanese restaurant called Shintaro – a staple in the neighborhood, but a new joint for us, since we’re relatively new to the hood. Thank god, the sushi was stupendous and calmed down the CRANKY HUNGRY BITCHES within us just in time before disaster struck.
The next day we got caught in Santa Monica running errands. It was close to 6pm when we realized we never had real breakfast or lunch. After a quick debate, we arrived at this earthy new restaurant called Kreation Kafe where they serve fresh organic produce from a local Farmers’ Market, organic beef, free range chicken, wholesome teas…you get the idea. The food was EXCELLENT and well worth fasting a whole day before feasting on this full and healthy meal.
Sunday rolled in, and became JUST ANOTHER MANIC PRE-MONDAY, filled with running around with no time to breathe. Come dinner hour, we looked at each other and I couldn’t believe the words that came out of my mouth:
“Do you want pizza?”
“YEAH!” Jason exclaimed with the expression of utmost shock mixed with a hint of adoration painted on his face.
And just like that, we ended our weekend of dining out with an artificial blob of pizza from a street-corner burger joint. It was stomach-wrenching and disappointing on every level possible. Not only did the pizza guy take our money upfront, then didn’t RECALL us paying for it, and refused to release our dinner in a box, but the pizza was ABSOLUTELY TASTELESS. Furthermore, it then made itself at home in my intestines for an unmentionable amount of time, making me feel not only constipated, but PREGNANT CONSTIPATED.
I missed my cooking toys. I missed spending time with my knives and chopping boards. The weekend seemed longer than it really was, and I needed to start the new week with something healthy and delicious. And even though it took a whole three days, I eventually reached our kitchen, and upon arrival I scrutinized the pantry to establish a dinner potential. I quickly devised a plan: SEARED TUNA OVER FORBIDDEN RICE WITH AN ORIENTAL FLARE.
I’ll walk you through the steps should you decide to flatter me by copying thy menu one night.
Forbidden Rice, aka Thai Rice is black, and as such presents itself with glamour and style on a plate. Cook it accordingly to the directions on its package. For extra flavor, add a couple of dry bay leaves to the pot and obviously season the water with salt. Chicken or vegetable stock are excellent substitutes for water, and certainly bring an extra layer of flavor to the whole dish.
For the fish, you want Sashimi Grade Tuna Fillets. Wash them in cool water and pat them dry-ish using a paper towel. Place the guys in a plastic zip-lock bag or a shallow glass/ceramic container, add enough low sodium soy sauce to cover the flesh, and close it up. Store your fish in a refrigerator for 1-2 hours, and let it marinate and soak up all those salty flavors. Clearly, you should prep the fish first, followed by the rice, and not the other way around. Are you confused yet?
When the rice is perky and bubbly in the boiling liquid on your stove, and the fillets are done marinating, heat a grilling pan (or any non-stick frying pan really) and get the tuna out and onto the pan. Violent sizzling is the music you want to hear. Sear the fish for 2 minutes on both sides, and the edges – for about 30 seconds each. Use a pair of clasping tongs to help stand your tuna on its sides.
Don’t forget about your vitamins and enzymes stored in everything that’s green, leafy AND EDIBLE. A little salad on the side of your plate will serve as a nutritious smiley face to your dinner.
I’m afraid this is it. I wish I could say something more to make the dish sound more complicated. It’s just not. I keep saying – this is COOKING FOR IDIOTS with an IDIOT (me) COOKING.
I farted around all day today. I did nothing. I sat on the couch and watched Cosmo snore. He sleeps with his head resting on a pillow and the rest of his body curled up in a fetal position. I mean, is he a person? Frankly, I’m convinced my dog is an incarnation of my future child. The thought is just as terrifying as it is thrilling.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a few dreams with Cosmo as my son… sort of. Once, he came to me as a young boy with angel-like curly hair and blue eyes. I knew I was about to go through this ultra scary transition into a new world. Suddenly, I got a phone call and it was Cosmo ringing from THE OTHER SIDE. He explained to me that he wasn’t able to make the transition for me despite how much he wanted to. However, he assured me that he was there waiting for me on the other side with his unconditional love, trust, and comfort. Don’t say a word, I know…!
Another time, I dreamt that Cosmo was … a horse … stunning … a true stallion. We walked together through a field of grass where a group of youngsters was playing soccer. You ought to know that Cosmo in my waking life is an excellent soccer player. You must see it to believe it. Tens of hundreds have been amazed thus far, and news of his talents keeps spreading across the land. In the dream, my HORSE went after the soccer ball and started playing the game! The guys were getting irritated, as he was chasing their ball. I yelled “Please, stop playing for a second so I can get him and take him off the field!” I kept calling “Cosmo! Cosmo! Come here!” When I finally fetched him, he lay down on his back clearly making his belly available for scratching! I’m still talking about a horse here, pay attention; it was a BIG HORSE BELLY. After we got up, we walked side by side, and again I felt his love, like of a son for his mother. I asked him to carry me. He stood up on his hind legs, the beautiful horse that he was, took me in his ARMS and carried me with the utmost care and tenderness. It was AMA-A-Ziiiing. I felt his “arms” shake gently, which I instantly addressed asking if I wasn’t too heavy (the true woman in me spoke!). He simply replied “No”.
If you haven’t yet, you should call the authorities now. My straightjacket size is 8, but if you can fit me in a 6 you’ll really make my day! When I think about it all, I’m torn whether I should see a psychiatrist, go through a series of parenting classes or check myself into Cesar Millan’s Dog Psychology Center. I CAN HANDLE THE TRUTH! Bring it on.
I don’t mean to get sentimental, but all that talk of Cosmo and being a mom, and then Jason falling asleep with his head on my belly makes me think of family, of home. HOME is the place I’ve always longed for, since I flew away from my childhood house when still just a chick with ruffled feathers and hay filling the space between my ears. For over a decade, I lived the life of a gypsy, scared of committing to one place. I broke into a cold sweat and my voice instantaneously rose three octaves when asked to sign a THREE-YEAR car lease.
Then I met Jason, and from DAY ONE we’ve been inseparable… uhhhh … sort of. Right off the bat, Guatemala kept us apart for two weeks. Then a Texas wedding got in the way, followed by more Texas interruptions that summer. Next, a Polish wedding across the ocean kept us high and dry for a week. And last but not least, Berlin rose like a WALL between us. It’s not the time apart, however, but the moments together that made us realize early on that I’m his PEA and he’s my CARROT.
For the first time in my adult life was I able to understand what HOME meant. Carried on memories wings, I traveled over the mountains and plains, over the ocean and back through time to my childhood days, back to the homeland in Europe, with all its customs and traditions, textures and fragrances, joys and sorrows. I finally appreciated my roots, my heritage, my own family. Suddenly, HOME wasn’t just the future house that My Love and I were to build together and the children we were to conceive. It all came together then, and my definition of HOME finally embraced where I come from along with what I bring into my future.
Hence, my urge to bring back the flavors I learned as a child into my life here in the US of A. It’s not an every day desire, but here and there I crave me some POTATO PANCAKES, or BARLEY AND MUSHROOM SOUP, or OPEN SANDWICHES just like granny used to make, and then the simple and delicious KOGEL-MOGEL to cure my sweet tooth. Nothing, however, and I mean nothing brings me back home faster than a fresh and deeply fragrant link of KIELBASA (or Polish sausage as you know it). Nooo, I do not make it myself. Are you crazy? I’m lucky enough to live in a multicultural city where there exists a Polish Grocery Store with Polish Kielbasa among other VERY YUMMY POLISH THINGS.
When I first discovered the store in Santa Monica, I immediately packed Jason in the car and drove there to present him with the tastes of my youth. As soon as we walked in, we were enveloped by the strong and tantalizing fragrance of kielbasa. There were many kinds to choose from, and boy did we try them all. After that Polish overindulgence, we never went back.
Many months went by, we moved to a new home, and befriended our neighbors. Peter turned out to be Polish. Of course, we talked food and even fed each other many Polish meals that we tried to recreate. Today, however, Peter did more than just run over for a bowl of Sauerkraut Soup. He stopped by the Polish Grocery and brought back a few pounds of KIELBASA. When he walked into my kitchen, the whole room filled with the aroma of smoked meat. Cosmo lost his mind. He forgot he was a dog, stood up on his hind legs (sounds familiar?) and danced around Peter as if it was the only way he knew to walk, his nose glued to the plastic bag in Peter’s hand. Any minute now, I thought, he’ll speak up “WOMAN, GIVE ME A PIECE OF THIS THING THAT SMELLS SO GOOD I DON’T EVEN KNOW MY NAME ANYMORE!”. As soon as my dear neighbor left, I put my head inside the bag, got down on my knees, inhaled deep, and …lost consciousness. The next thing I remember, Jason was scraping my kielbasa-stoned body off the floor, the plastic bag the meat came in still stuck to my face…
It took a day or two to recover my senses, and only then was I able to slice the links in a civilized manner to arrange them on top of toasted bread, and embellish the sandwich with cheese, tomatoes, and pickles. My tongue, once again, afforded me a trip back home for a quick but delicious visit.
If you live in Los Angeles, or only pass through at any moment in your life, make a point of stopping by J & T European Gourmet Food – the Polish Grocery in Santa Monica. They are located at 1128 Wilshire Boulevard. It will take care of your KIELBASA CRAVING good! That’s a promise.
I started the day rollerblading with Mel in Santa Monica on the beach. She has moved back to LA recently, after having escaped the city for over a year, and I find myself starved for her company. She’s a true inspiration in my efforts to live my life in balance and respectful of Mother Nature.
We strolled down the boardwalk across the abundance of white sands, our skin licked by first and still shy rays of sun, and we breathed in the ocean air.
After an hour of this constant motion, all chatted out, drenched and happy, I rushed home for lunch. Into the kitchen I walked, the refrigerator’s door ajar, and what did my eyes see? Nothing. There was no left over quinoa salad, there was no fish from last night’s dinner, there was no turkey for a sandwich, and the produce compartment echoed back: “Empty!”
I refused to go grocery shopping when my belly screamed to be fed. I attacked the pantry cabinet and found stuck 3 small cans of water-packed tuna adjacent to a jar of pickles. Eureka! I’ll have a beautiful tuna salad sammy.
Into a bowl went:
– all tuna, drenched of water
– 4 small pickles, finely chopped
– 2 hard boiled eggs, cooled off, and then chopped
– 1/3 of a cup fresh green onions (I grow my own), chopped
– handful of fresh herbs (I had parsley and dill), finely chopped
– 1/4 of a cup low fat mayonnaise
– 1/4 of a cup non-fat greek yogurt
– 1 tbsp of dijon mustard
– sea salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste…
…all mixed together into a perfect and delicious tuna salad. One scoop covered a whole wheat toast, topped with a slice of an heirloom tomato and radish for crunch. A perfect lunch.
A hungry belly’s ultimate goal is a Happy Belly. There’s always food in my kitchen, even when it seems the opposite. Always, just a few ingredients and a few easy steps away.