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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.

There’s this thing on a certain social networking site, known as Facebook, where one writes up 25 things about themselves and sends the list to 25 people. The idea is to share intimate, less known facts about yourself with people of your choice. Instead of writing down my 25 things and posting it on the above mentioned website, I thought I’d toss them here and make a salad out of it.

1. Almost every morning, as I dress up my bottom, I glance in the mirror and smile with approval at the sight of my profile.

2. The more I cook, the more appreciation I gain for my mother’s culinary talents. I didn’t realize how good of a cook she was until I tried the trade myself. The goal is NOT to be able to make a few dishes I can later alternate when making dinners for my family. Instead, I cook to free my soul and go to heaven for having discovered and exploited my potential.

3. There’s something about Jason’s nipples I cannot simply resist.

4. I am on non-speaking terms with Starbucks for their new line of VIA Ready Brew. While the world screams “RECYCLE! USE LESS PACKAGING! STOP CUTTING DOWN THE AMAZON!” they come up with those tiny coffee sachets worth 1 cup each. Hello! Have you not heard of global warming and The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas?? These Starbucks people are bananas! Argh!

5. The awesome thing about the holidays is that Jason can’t stop me from making peanut butter and chocolate brownies, or a shit load of chocolate cookies, or even a brownie pie!

6. My favorite candy store? Sur la Table for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

7. My favorite day of the week? The bra-free day. I like to keep my girls free and give them all the play-time they want before I get them to work for food when I get pregnant next year.

8. Hey, Mister! Have you not noticed your car has built-in blinkers? Nooo, these are not Christmas ornaments. You ought to use blinkers all year round dammit. Oh, yeah, that’s a huge pet-peeve of mine.

9. I grew up surrounded by books. Love ‘em to the last page. However, since I started this blog, I’ve been mostly purging words rather then inhaling them. I miss that.

10. Cosmo is a four-legged Pelè in disguise.

11. I have a vivid imagination. In my head, I see pictures of myself and/or people close to my heart in extremely catastrophic scenarios. Those images come to me randomly and out of the blue. Often they are so realistic I start to cry. I am unaware of the origin of this condition. I don’t know how to overcome it either.

12. Beauty moves me. It fills up my chest till it hurts and I start to cry. Again.

13. I secretly fart.

14. I haven’t used a hairbrush in six months, since I cut my hair short.

15. I was a witch in one of my previous incarnations, who lived in the woods and brewed herbal concoctions for various ailments.

16. – 24. Last night I made a salad, a twist on Coleslaw, that was so good the world stopped spinning for a moment. It was so fantastic in fact it’s worth 9 points of the 25 Important Things From Agnieszka Graczyk’s Life. Here’s how I did it…

I bought a package of shredded cabbage. I’d have gotten a whole head if the store offered one, as you know how I feel about the unnecessary packaging, etc. They didn’t carry the veg in its natural form. Back in my kitchen, I emptied the bag into a large bowl and added shredded Granny Smith Apple along with a bunch of chopped scallions. In the meantime, I toasted maybe a 1/2 a cup if raw walnuts, let them cool, and then roughly chopped them into small boulders of brain nuts.

Don’t they totally look like brains? The truth is they are really good for your brain, so it’s a clever tip to remember. The smurfs that write on Whole Foods web pages made my life easier for describing in detail the nuts’ magic:

Walnuts have often been thought of as a “brain food,” not only because of the wrinkled brain-like appearance of their shells, but because of their high concentration of omega-3 fats. Your brain is more than 60% structural fat. For your brain cells to function properly, this structural fat needs to be primarily the omega-3 fats found in walnuts, flaxseed and cold-water fish. This is because the membranes of all our cells, including our brain cells or neurons, are primarily composed of fats. Cell membranes are the gatekeepers of the cell. Anything that wants to get into or out of a cell must pass through the cell’s outer membrane. And omega-3 fats, which are especially fluid and flexible, make this process a whole lot easier, thus maximizing the cell’s ability to usher in nutrients while eliminating wastes–definitely a good idea, especially when the cell in question is in your brain.

The salad would not be complete without the dressing I quickly whipped up in our Magic Bullet. These were the components:

–       freshly squeezed lemon juice from 1 lemon

–       1 tbsp of honey

–       2 tbsp of heavy cream

–       3 tbsp of olive oil (the whole nine yards – organic, extra virgin, first cold pressing, etc.)

–       2 tsp of sea salt

–       1 tsp of black pepper.

Everybody in the bowl (the cabbage, scallions, apples, and nuts) got coated evenly with the silky dressing, then chilled in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes before consumption time. Then I took a bite, and with it I heard music and saw fireworks on a horizon. It was amazing, beyond delicious. There was the tartness from the apples and the dressing, but instantly the nut took off the edge and spread comfort and bliss in my mouth.

I didn’t need anything else for dinner. That was my delight of the day. For Jason, however, I reheated leftover penne over pancetta and garlic, and grilled three chicken tenders. Just like that. Nevertheless, the salad still took the Guest of Honor’s seat, and got a round of applause. Pure brilliance on a plate.

25. I am madly and uncontrollably in love with that white boy from Texas named Jason Blaine. Moreover, I am madly and uncontrollably loved by that white boy from Texas named Jason Blaine. He loves me just the way I am.

Gobble, gobble…!

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

Before we met, both Jason and I were dining out most of the time. Jason had memorized all the taco, burger, and sushi joints on Ventura Blvd and beyond, while I was hooked on Whole Foods and their salad and hot foods bar.  Needless to say, we were spending a fortune on our meals – in our world it translated into eating away a medium-sized car a year. One day we did the math, and between the two of us we were trashing about $1800 a month on the “fuel for our bodies”. Multiply this by 12 months and you have just burped a brand new Honda Civic with a built-in GPS and Satellite Radio.

Many people ask me how old I was when I started cooking. While I made a few simple dinners here and there as a teenager to give mama a hand, the whole love affair with pots and pans bloomed when I started dating Jason. Our courtship period was marked with his long and romantic letters text messages while traveling solo in Guatemala, homemade salads, and a barley-mushroom soup I’d make after his return. It wasn’t until a few months into our romance when we collected all our receipts to calculate our food expenses that the alarm bells began to ring. Our jaws dropped, broke into a million pieces, and scattered all over the floor when we saw the mind-blowing amount of almost two grand on the calculator.

That was our “Aha! Moment”. That was a turning point toward our future lives. More importantly, it was the time of my creative liberation when the cooking beast within was unleashed.

We started a regimen of regular escapades to the local Trader Joe’s for a weekly supply of groceries. Week after week the tab was coming to about $100. Another $20-$40 smackers were dropped at a Farmers’ Market in exchange for organic carrots, leeks, seasonal fruit and veggies along with a variety of aromatic, fresh herbage. Next, we invested in a pair of twin lunch boxes (It’s sickening sometimes how cute we are!), a set of good knives, pots and pans, and our love boat set sail.

Lunch Boxes

Are you following? Are you breaking your fingers trying to add it all up? Are you smashing those beads on your granny’s abacus? No, you’re not crazy. We cut down our food expenses by 2/3rds! So now, even though we don’t eat out as much anymore, and meat shows up on a plate no more than 3 times a week, we haven’t seen the same meal on our dinner menu in a few months.

Having said that, I will admit we’re a part of that lucky, sun-burnt whassup-dude-nation of Southern California. Not only do we have 70-degree weather all year round on average (which allows for a variety of fresh, organic produce), but we also have Trader Joe’s – the main source of affordable, healthy and organic yummers. It seems the guys are scrambling though to bring the goods to more Americans. You can check here if your city has also been blessed with its own TJ store.

A few days ago, I found a new “delicacy” within the depths of the store’s freezers. It is an extreme rarity to catch me using any pre-made frozen dinner thingies so abundant in every grocery store in America, but after having scouted the frozen Chicken Cilantro Mini Wontons, a bulb lit in my head. “What if I take the leftover roasted root vegetables from last night’s dinner, use them to make a soup, and dump the frozen wontons inside…?”

TJ Wontons

And so she did.

WHAT I USED FOR THE DISH:

–       roasted root vegetables (see below for details)

–       1 medium leek (only the while and light green part, thoroughly cleaned – muy importante!), chopped

–       1 medium onion, diced

–       garlic (CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?! Ok, 6 or 7 cloves)

–       4 oz package of diced pancetta (from Trader Joe’s)

–       1 carton of low sodium chicken broth (also fathered by TJ)

–       2-3 dry bay leaves (remove before serving!)

–       5-6 whole peppercorns (same here, out before serving)

–       1-2 tsp of dry marjoram

–       2 tsp of lemon juice or vinegar

–       half a bag of fresh arugula

–       handful of fresh dill, roughly chopped

–       spices (eyeballed…sorry): red curry powder, garam masala, cumin, nutmeg

–       kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

First, I diced a peeled onion and chopped my CLEAN (I can’t emphasize it enough) leek. Into a hot pan I threw a handful of diced pancetta, let the fat melt and the meat get crispy, then fished the cracklings out and set them on a plate for later. Into the greased pan I threw the onion and leek, and let them sauté for about 5-7 minutes. Next went chopped garlic, salt, dry marjoram and black pepper.

At this point, a neighbor passed by our open back door and shouted: “Mmmm, something surely smells GOOD!”

My roasted veggies got really excited and all jumped into the pot at once. To help everyone inside bond, I poured about a half cup of chicken broth, stirred the party around collecting all the flavors from across the dance floor, then turned off the heat – time to get serious. I emptied the content of the pot into a food processor, and… pushed the ON button.

The whirlwind of events that followed is too graphic to describe. Know that at the end of the night, I was left with a creamy and smooth veggie mass, which was returned to the pot. To turn it into a soup, I added the rest of the chicken broth from a box, the bay leaves, peppercorns, more salt and pepper, a touch or two of red curry powder, garam masala, cumin and nutmeg. The lemon gave its juice. The cracklings were also ready to get back in the game. I left it all to simmer for about 30 minutes, covered with a lid.

Half an hour later the wontons were ready to join the party. I emptied the bag into the soup to let everybody mingle and phone numbers were exchanged. Next, I turned the heat off and added the arugula, which instantly wilted in the temperature of the goods it swam in. The final touch was a dust of chopped dill sprinkled over a serving of Roasted Vegetables Soup with Chicken Wontons.  God, bless its soul, for it was heavenly! Jason had two helpings.

Chicken Wontons

Hmm… where was I? Oh, right, the mere memory of the dish throws me off track. Before I move on to the roasted root vegetables part of my story, let me just take a deep breath and compose myself again.

Alright.

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED:

–       3 medium to large parsnips

–       4 medium to large carrots

–       1 celery root

–       kosher salt + black pepper

–       Herbs de Provence

–       Extra virgin olive oil

Wash and peel your veggies, cut in 1/4” strips and spread on a sheet pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, herbs and seasoning. Using your hands, massage the goods into the veggies, and thus prepared, throw them into a 400˚ oven for about 30 minutes. THAT’S IT!

Just make sure the veggies are soft before you allow them out for some fresh air. Each oven is different, so you may need 5 minutes less, or 10 minutes more to turn your root vegetables into that beautiful and delicious patchwork of roasted carrots, parsnips, and celery root.

The sky is the limit – or the ground rather – when it comes to vegetables you could be roasting: butternut squash, acorn squash, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets, garlic – I’ve done them all. Don’t limit yourself. Be bold. Experiment. Follow your instincts. The pleasure received from such trials will be that much greater!

Amen.

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