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I can’t say it enough: I love meat. The pink, the red, the white stuff, I’ll devour it all. If I grew up in China, IF, I’d probably eat dogs, too. Then again, I was born and raised in Europe and yet never ate a horse (at least not to my knowledge). Though horse meat was readily available to its enthusiasts (were they?), it just never sounded good. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that, when I was in my teens, my room was plastered, floor to ceiling, with posters of horses, plus an occasional image of Patrick Swayze and Mel Gibson (the real life mad man turns out) tucked in between.

Maybe Mel Gibson ate horses? Or dogs??

Here is another thing I not only am crazy about, but also can’t live without. So can’t you. The thing is the Earth with its abundance of life forms, with its breathtaking beauty, with its mind-boggling complexity, with its mighty power of creation…

 

I watched this video today, made by a very cool organization called GOOD, where I heard it again: meat production creates three times the green house gas emission as veggies, eggs, grains, or fish. The video is not a dooming project, it’s educational. See what small changes you can adopt in your every day living that will help not only to save you BIG BUCKS but also contribute to global energy savings and thus help protect our motherland.

 

 

When you go grocery shopping this weekend, plan your menu for your next Meatless Monday. You’ll find countless ideas for satisfying and nutrient-dense meals made with no meat on the pages of yours truly (ONE MORE BITE). For a quick reference, however, I’ll throw in another one today.

This is one of those dishes I actually don’t plan for. Funny enough, the only ones I do are those meat-heavy platters. Every week I get a variety of vegetables, whatever calls my name and with no agenda. Around 4 PM on a mid week day I enter the kitchen and poke my head into the refrigerator trying to figure out what to make for dinner. Slowly, one by one, I begin to pull out various greens and land them on the kitchen counter. Next, I go through the pantry cabinet and look for grains or pastas, beans, nuts, dried fruit, canned anchovies, tomato paste, etc. From a basket in the corner I grab an onion or a couple of shallots, a head of garlic, maybe a couple of potatoes. At this point, while I may look calm and relaxed on the outside, in my head I undergo a violent and calorie-consuming brainstorm.

Within minutes my kitchen turns into a mad scientist’s lab with lights blinking, cupboard doors slamming, windows shattering, and other inexplicable explosions visible on the horizon. Half an hour or so later I come out, as if nothing ever happened, with a complete dinner, plated and all.

It’s as easy as cooking rice and adding to it a handful of frozen edamame beans minutes before its done. It’s as easy as finely chopping a shallot, garlic and chili pepper and tossing them together on a hot pan with a touch of olive oil and a handful of almonds. It’s as easy as parboiling string beans and florets of broccoli in salted water and then adding those guys to the pan with the nuts. Drop in a handful of sweat peas, drizzle with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar or lime juice, even a touch of honey. Serve over the rice, garnish with fresh herbs and sprouts of any kind, and ENJOY immediately. I guarantee, you won’t even notice there was no meat on the plate.

Some days, when a special someone, like my friend Tamara who also happens to be an incredibly knowledgable and skilled acupuncturist (she’s funny, too!), comes over for dinner, I think things through and prep ahead. She follows what I call a relaxed vegan diet. Her household is free of animal products, however when out and about she will occasionally enjoy a piece of cheese, or pastry. She lives her life labels-free, thus allowing herself to be mostly content with what is, rather than stressed out with what’s not. I admire that quality in her as it’s not as easy to attain as it is to write about it.

We ate together last night, and I wanted to celebrate her joy de vivre by creating a dish bursting with flavors, textures, and colors, while respecting her vegan preference. Hence, I juxtaposed dark Mahogany rice with roasted peanuts and basil oil (all sunk in) against white and raw celeriac salad with walnuts and creamy sunflower seed vinaigrette. On a bed of bright orange sweet potato mash I laid green zucchini and bok choy, plus a handful of garbanzo beans made Southern style (meaning fried). To add texture I sprinkled nutty hemp seeds over the rice and red teardrops of pomegranate seeds all over the plate. A couple of edamame beans delivered another building block of protein, and made the meal complete.

Cooking is fun, especially when you think outside of the box and keep reinventing yourself. Mother Nature gifted us with thousands of incredible varieties of edible plants. Whether you like them raw, cooked, dehydrated, even fried (however rarely), chances are you’ll never get bored with them. So get jiggy with it!

Guess what, no animal was harmed in the process of writing this post. On the contrary, Cosmo napped on my lap all along with my left hand scratching his ear while the right one typed each letter  o n e   b y   o n e.

Also, for the record, I would never EVER bite a dog. Not even a hot-dog.

Naked patches of dirt around our house, where there used to grow juicy grass, signaled it was time to get off our meatless diet. Last Sunday marked the monthniversary of our eating only combinations of  a veg with another veg over a bowl of grain of some kind.

To celebrate, we invited a few friends over, all foodies, for a potluck dinner. Everybody brought a dish of their own making. Our dining table, barely standing straight under the weight of all the goods, bravely held on its head a giant casserole of Risotto, a glass bowl of Short Ribs with Wild Mushrooms (from Poland!), a tray of Armenian mini Pizzas and Pastry Rolls filled with Cheese. There was Shrimp Ceviche, mean Brussels Sprouts with Pine nuts, another dish of Rosemary Roasted Potatoes, Sauteed Zucchini with Mint Butter, and some Simple Green Salad for common sense. The menu was only complete with a platter the size of the Columbus Circle in New York City filled with THAI LAMB LARB of my creation. Here’s the satellite shot, for it were the only way to capture it whole:

I found the recipe for this colorful appetizer in my recently purchased book “Small Bites” by Jennifer Joyce. As the author explains, “larb” describes ground meat in Thai. She used pork for her dish, however I went with lamb. Shockingly, that’s pretty much the only change I applied to the recipe. (Yes, Mama Linda, for once I followed the instructions!)

Before I list all the ingredients, let me just say that if I were to ever make this again (as hardly ever do I repeat myself on a plate), I’d use BIBB LETTUCE instead of Romaine. The latter seems muscular enough to hold the filling, however its leaves are long and straight-ish. Bibb lettuce not only has a kick-ass name but also its leaves create small and sturdy cups that I imagine would be more practical with this dish.

Having said that, let’s rock & roll. Get yourself the following items:

– 3 stalks lemongrass

– 2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used coconut)

– 1 lb lean ground pork (lamb worked!)

– 1 tbsp soft brown sugar (raw cane variety was just as good)

– 1 sm red onion, finely diced

– 1 ripe but firm mango, diced

– 3 tbsp fresh cilantro leaves, some chopped and some picked leaves for garnish

– 20 heart of Romaine lettuce leaves, chilled to serve (mark my words. I say BIBB!)

Remove the hard parts of the lemon grass and finely chop only the white, soft insides. Toss it into a saute pan with heated oil and stir fry it till soft over medium heat. Now get the fire going and add your larb. Cook it until crispy and brown. Remove from the heat when fully cooked (5 minutes or so), and set aside.

Quickly whip out a DRESSING using the following:

– 3 tbsp palm sugar (again, raw cane rocked!)

– 1 sm red chili pepper, deseeded and finely chopped (wahs your hands THOROUGHLY afterwards and under no circumstances touch your eyes, or nuts if a boy, with those fingers. Trust me!)

– 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

– 1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and grated

– 1/2 cup fresh lime juice

– 2 tbsp fish sauce.

If you own a mortar and pestle, use it to crush the sugar, pepper, garlic and ginger together until they turn into a paste. Add the lime juice and fish sauce and mix together. In case you didn’t have the ancient tool, simply toss everything into a small jar, close it tight and shake like a mad person until sugar’s dissolved and all the guys inside are seriously dizzy, but happy.

Pour the dressing over the still warm meat, add your onion, mango, and cilantro, toss about and scoop some of the filling onto the prepared lettuce leaves. Done!

The dinner, just like a Thai wedding, went on for days. Or at least it felt like it, especially when we collected all the empty wine bottles in the end.

Jason’s and my celebration of meat went on into the week, and was culminated with our last night’s visit at ANIMAL. This LA restaurant has earned its reputation with the rich meat dishes it serves. It was also featured in various culinary magazines as well as the Food Network, or else known as my televised bible. Can you imagine a better place to PIG OUT? Literally.

We started with a few appetizers to share:

1. Carrot Salad with Parsnip Chips, Green Goddess Dressing and Avocado

2. Hamachi Tostada with Herbs, Fish Sauce Vinaigrette and Peanuts

3. Lamb Meatballs over Golden Rice with Green Garbanzos & Creme Fraiche.

Everything was phenomenal, but the meatballs just blew our minds. It sounds almost like an oxymoron, but those meaty balls were fluffy, almost airy, so light and delicate. Amazing!

Then the Entrees arrived. Jason ordered Catfish with Gold Rice Succotash, drizzled with Tabasco Butter and topped with King Crab. Every bite melted in his mouth. I can verify it was true, for I have sunk my fork into his plate for examination.

My main course was quite different. I asked for Crispy Rabbit Legs with Peas, Dandelion and Meyer Lemon Aioli. The meat just fell off the bone upon the slightest touch of my utensil. It was cooked to perfection and the flavors did not disappoint. HOWEVER. Yes, there is a “however”. For my liking, the meal was too heavy. There was so much sauce poured all over the meat you could hardly see the Guest of Honor peeking through it. The rabbit, that pour bastard, was DEEP FRIED, I guess the best method for that crisp texture. It’s not the kind of food I enjoy on weekdays, or even a weekend.

The feast did not end there, oh no! We had to try their famous dessert of Bacon Chocolate Crunch Bar dressed with Anglaise. While their Panna Cotta did not kick flip-flops off my feet, and one taste was enough, I could hardly stop myself from stealing the chocolaty bites finished with bacon bits from Jason’s plate. Bacon was written all over that bar, but also it was married to rich and velvety chocolate, and it was a Holy Union I tell you. Alleluia.

After sampling their food it was clear to us why the two chefs from Florida, who created the restaurant, called it ANIMAL. The food was superb, and it stood for its name, but when the dinner was over I considered another meatless month, just for a moment.

And then I found a leftover patch of grass behind our garage.

Today marks two weeks since we returned from Europe, the continent where people eat whatever they want (for the most part) and seldom exercise the idea of a dietary restriction. Mother Nature is still the biggest supplier of food there, and no one questions that order. I choose to believe that based on the quality of ingredients that had built our meals while in Poland, and then in France.

When we first arrived back in Los Angeles, Jason and myself decided we needed a break from eating meat, as it was such a fundamental part of our diet when still on the Old Continent. The first week went swimmingly well. I whistled cheerfully as I cooked away quinoa, made meals with a variety of beans, various grains (e.g. barley), then lentils, and greens rich in protein (like broccoli). Last but not least nuts were all around us, all day long. And I don’t mean just because we live in Hollywood. Each morning I began with a whole-grain toasted muffin, topped with a layer of almond butter and slices of fresh strawberries. Jason snacked on a mixture of raw nuts and dried fruits in between the meals. Roasted pine nuts or walnuts ended up in fresh salads. Toasted pepitas served as a base for my vinaigrette.

About three days ago I realized I was …hungry. Sixty minutes after I finished breakfast I was ready to eat again. The first craving hit me right between the eyes leaving a black-eye the size of a fist.  No matter how versatile menu I prepared for the day and how much flavor I incorporated into each dish, it all began to taste …boring. Every time I inserted a fresh bite of food into my mouth, from the start I knew it was missing one ingredient–meat. It didn’t matter what I was eating. If I could I would sprinkle pancetta bits into my whole-grain cereal with blueberries and a sliced banana. A temporary comfort I found in hard-boiled eggs, and cheese sandwiches.

Now, I know that all protein is equal. It doesn’t matter, from a scientific point of view, whether you get your amino acids (which are the molecules of the protein) from an animal or a plant, as our bodies are dexterous engineers and can put together a complete protein out of those building blocks. As long as you provide your system with those standard 22 amino acids it requires to form the protein we need. That’s the reason all nutritionists of the world emphasize the need for a versatile diet, in particular for the vegetarians walking amongst us.

Enough with the lecturing. I know that I had enough protein in my diet over the last two weeks not to NEED any meat. Though I realize now the source of my misery. It is all in my head. My cravings for a juicy steak, and beef stew, or a tender chicken thigh have everything to do with the fact that I can’t have it right now, for I do not appreciate restriction. It goes deeper than that. I refuse to be pressured. If there is a movie coming out that the entire planet can’t shut up about, and 70 million people go see it on the opening night, you can be sure Agi won’t participate in the mass hysteria. For example, I have never seen “Titanic” nor “The Da Vinci Code”. I wasn’t interested in the slightest. You know what else I have not watched, nor read? The entire “Harry Potter” series. Sure, we can argue whether I am better or worse for that, but it is not the point of this discourse.

Despite that fact that my diet over the last two weeks was nutritionally dense, I began to notice feeling weaker and weaker. I was no longer able to lift words and put them down on paper. At the gym, when requested by Jason to do abdominal crunches, I didn’t even stomp my foot on the ground anymore. I fought him just for a moment when he made me get down on the ground and throw my legs in the air, but only because resistance to a voluntary pain application is a part of my psychological make-up. Then I got a hair cut, as those two extra inches of hair made a whole lot of difference when washing it. Saving energy became my motto.

Agi in Poland, by the Baltic Sea, all happy and joyful knowing she can eat whatever the hell she wants!

I am facing another two meatless weeks, which in my head translates into a form of mind slavery. It is my brain that has to make an effort to relax and breathe knowing it will be OK.

Agi, let me introduce you to DISCIPLINE. I hope you shall become fast friends.

Amen.

Remember that scene in MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING where the aunt learns that the groom is a vegetarian? No? Here you go, refresh your memory and realize that a carnivorous diet is not only a Greek sentiment.

I grew up eating meat, all kinds of meat, from kielbasa, to ham, to pork chops, to beef goulash. In fact, as a child meat was my favorite type of candy. I was quite proud of my affection towards cooked animal flesh, and many a time I showed off in front of family members by sinking my teeth into a chicken thigh like a hungry Barbarian. I saw approval and joy in my mother’s eyes as between her two kids I was the one who loved to eat. My older brother apparently was on a hunger strike till the day I was born (five years of his life). Then he saw me glued to my mother’s tit like a roll of adhesive tape, and then to anything else that happened to get too close to my mouth, and realized he had to follow the laws of a jungle in order to survive. He learnt to not only chew, but actually to swallow his food.

Later in life, when I began to carve my own judgment about the surrounding world and my position in it, I decided I didn’t like myself, from the way I looked to the way I felt. One thing led to another and suddenly I spent my entire 20s battling eating disorders and fighting my own demons. The struggle was extreme, painful beyond verbal expression, acutely lonely, but also purposeful. I have no regrets for I have found my answers, peace, and balance in life.

It was during that decade when I progressively started to eliminate certain foods from my diet, beginning with sweets and bread, then meat, followed by dairy, and eventually going completely raw.  Traveling to Poland was a torture, as I craved all the foods of my childhood with the intensity of a concentration camp’s survivor. My body was starved for years. And yet my brain would stand guard in front of the plate and forbid me from stealing even a bite. The physical torture I had put upon myself was meant to cover the emotional pains I dealt with. I get that now. It was for me to discover, however, and no one could have done the homework for me.

It is quite clear I was a vegetarian, and then a vegan for all the wrong reasons. My healthy self enjoys meat as much as a leafy vegetable.

Now imagine my enthusiasm and childish joy when I come home to my mom’s culinary fireworks, a fraction of which I described in my previous entry. I forget myself in the pleasure that fills my mouth upon each nibble. I don’t OVER DO it either. I get just enough.

One thing, Jason and I both felt we OD-ed, was meat while traveling through Europe. While such a meat-heavy diet makes a perfect sense in Poland, and other European lands due to their cooler climate, it does not feel natural in Southern California (where we live), which by definition is warm, sunny and abundant with fresh produce. Hence, in order to bring our digestive tracks back to the summer schedule, we chose to go meat free for a month upon returning to Los Angeles.

It’s been almost a week, and thus far I have not had a single meat craving. For a few days we munched on a quinoa salad with orange lentils, peppers, and scallions for lunch. I made a gigantic pot of hearty vegetable soup with white beans and whole-wheat fussily pasta, which is just as satiating as if it contained chunks of chicken. Between the meals, we graze on the grass from the outside lawn and fight over nuts with local squirrels. Then, one rainy morning, I thought of making STUFFED PEPPERS, a novelty in my repertoire.

Before I tell you what and how I did it, I must plug in a disclaimer: I was totally and utterly IMPROVISING. If you decide to follow me, you’re doing it at your own risk.

Here’s what happened. I cooked a cup of wild rice, adding some frozen organic corn towards the end, a whole can of pinto beans (washed and rinsed off), a whole bunch of freshly chopped herbs (dill, parsley, what-have-you), and maybe a half-a-cup of grated Gruyere cheese. I made sure there was enough salt and pepper in it, and then I twisted the flavor with a touch of cayenne, sweet paprika, and ground nutmeg. Why not?

In the meantime, I washed my bell peppers, cut off the tops, emptied their bellies, and turned the oven on at 400°.

You know what happened next. I stuffed the peppers with my rice filling, drizzled the tops with a little bit of olive oil, and shoved the guys into my hot oven. They baked for about 30 minutes until the peppers got slightly wrinkled and softened. However, they were not overcooked and thus kept their shapes.

Two stuffed beauties per capita were MORE than enough for us, and not once did we think of getting a burger for dinner the following day. Also, since it was my virgin STUFFED PEPPER, now I also know that the red one is THE ONE. The best complement to your dish would be a bowl of mixed greens with a lemony dressing, bringing healthy freshness and balancing the heavier tones of the meal.

Bon appétit!

Midnight’s around the corner and I’m buzzing like a hummingbird in the midst of its mating ritual. I walked into our house not long ago after a full day at Da Vinci’s kitchen, where I was on my feet hour after hour after hour. There’s no way around it—I’m pooped. However, the thrill and satisfaction that fill every cell of my body are irreplaceable.

Since I must rise with the sun tomorrow in order to make it to my yoga class before I race back to the restaurant, I will only share with you a few quick notes from another day of my apprenticeship.

I was announced “The Queen of Soup” by the chef, which was accompanied by an imaginary drum-roll and crowning. I didn’t do a good job with imagining the crown though, as it’s kind of tight and makes my head itch. I took the title nonetheless and made SPICED BEET SOUP finished with fresh parsley flakes.

Also, it seems I’m in charge of the Family Meal every time I’m there. No problem; let me do my magic. Today I was given three whole chickens to run with anyway I desired.

My vegetarian friends, now comes the part where you should close your eyes; or better, think of it as a commercial break and go make yourself tea, or run to the bathroom, or go feed the fish, or clip your nails, or… you know. You may not like the next paragraph.

I decided to cut the chickens into separate parts, and bake them in the oven (at 375°) seasoned with spices, a bunch of fresh thyme, bay leaves, garlic, and white wine. Thirty minutes later I pulled out a hot tray of tenderness hard to describe. I used the drippings from the tray to flavor spaghetti that completed the meal, and tossed it with a handful of freshly chopped parsley. Was it a light meal? Hell, no. Did I want to bath myself in that tray? God, yes!

Among a dozen of other tasks, I was also entrusted with making so called ONE BITE of my own design. One Bite is literally a 1-bite dish that is served as a gift from the chef in many high-end restaurants, or between courses, when guests choose a full tasting menu. (The tasting menu requires a whole new entry, which I will surely get to in the near future. That’s so much fun!)

Let me have drum-roll again tonight, as if I don’t toot my own horn, who will? Here comes my ONE BITE, Ladies and Gents:

 

One Bite

 

This is PICTACHIO-MASCARPONE CREAM OVER A CUCUMBER DISC FINISHED WITH LIME ZEST AND A CROSTINI thank you very much. This little thing could serve as an appetizer at your next house party, so feel free to take the idea and make it your own. I’ll tell you what I did, and you may get inspired.

Into a food processor I tossed a handful of toasted pistachios, one clove of garlic, about a teaspoon of coarse sea salt, and a few cracks of black pepper. The machine did the work for me and turned the nuts into a coarse meal. Next, I added softened mascarpone cheese (maybe 1-2 tbsp), a big handful of fresh cilantro and let the blade spin again until everybody merged into a coherent mass. If the mixture seems too thick, you can add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Small circles I cut out of my cucumber slices; then I topped them with the cream, lemon zest and the cracker. Voila! ONE BITE for ONE MORE BITE.

I take just a tiny bite of credit for it though. Chef Jason Fullilove is such an inspiration. Not only does he experiment and finds new flavor connections every day, but also he encourages us all to dig deep and find our own ingenious voice. He challenges us, but never leaves unsupported. He’s available at all times, and finds sheer enjoyment in sharing all his knowledge with anyone interested. I think I’ve found my hen that lays golden eggs (no offense, Chef). I will follow him as far as I can before he files for a restraining order.

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