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I can’t concentrate on the keyboard. I keep drifting away into the wonderland in my head where Hauschka‘s piano rolls out a stairway in front of my eyes, and I ascend step by step into the air, surrounded by blue lollypops wrapped in red ribbons, and corpulent purple elephants taking an escalator down. Then, there’s a cloud of hippy bees buzzing by, followed by uptight butterflies dressed in unicolored suits and bow-ties.
I’m on zero medication, and it’s the music alone that afforded me a mid-afternoon high.
The reason I’m here today is to save the life of that half wilted zucchini in your refrigerator. There’s also a sad chunk of drying out bacon, or even better–pancetta–in the cheese drawer of your icebox that must be resuscitated immediately. And for the love of Zeus, how long do you think you can keep frozen peas in a freezer? They do expire, too, you know.
There’s no reason to toss food away, when it can be utilized in the most delicious way. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Every week, usually on Saturday, we do grocery shopping. Come Friday, I’m left with a handful of unused produce in our refrigerator, and a brand new challenge of turning it into a healthy, satisfying and comforting dinner for two. I’m not scared. On the contrary, I opt to face the music. That’s when I get to flex my creative muscle.
One of the babies of that intense and inspired labor was my ZUCCHINI, PEAS & PANCETTA MEDLEY. In other words, I saved the precious enzymes, mincro-elements, and hopefully also a few vitamins that then nourished our bodies, instead of being thrown away to the garbage and letting cockroaches rise in power.
The dish is so simple and self-explanatory, one does not even need a recipe. I will recap the steps in an effort to help you stayed organized.
Pancetta was diced and tossed into a hot skillet, and soon after chunks of zucchini followed. I seasoned the bunch gently with salt, as the bacon itself is salty already. Freshly ground black pepper, a touch of paprika, a dash of cayenne pepper for that extra punch in the nose all added flavor to my mixture. Half way through the coloring process (I like my veg a bit ruddy on the cheeks), in went the frozen peas. Five to seven more minutes and everybody was happy enough to leave the fire. A perfect time to finish the creation off with a teaspoon of my compound butter I told you about not long ago. The aroma of garlic and herbs unlocked from the creamy butter wrapped itself around every single green element on the plate, not leaving behind slightly salty and chewy bits of rendered pancetta.
We devoured the side dish along with steamed broccoli and a roasted leg of an organic chicken… Yes, it was a feast, and hardly did it look like the waiting area of an Emergency Room.
Do yourself a favor and save your hard-earned money. Don’t waste food. People in Asia, Africa, in your own city go to bed hungry each day, and only a fraction of them does it for vanity reasons. Let’s utilize more, and trash less. In general.
I’m still having dreams of the Parisian life we licked for a few days on the way back to LA from Poland. Those chocolate croissants for breakfast in bed, coffee, and I mean COFFEE after the meal (and never during), the loose scarf sitting tight around Jason’s neck and trying hard to make itself home despite his protests…
And the Louvre… We spent a day and a half meandering the hallways, the Royal chambers, and the dim basements of the castle. We could have stayed two weeks, and that would not have been enough. We were armed with a mini computer with headphones dangling from our necks, while a deep, male voice told us about every sculpture we paused in front of, every painting that caught our attention, and hundreds of other exhibits that helped us better understand who we are, and to see that the history really does repeat itself over and over.
Paris was also a meeting point, where we caught up with a bunch of old friends I know from way back, our ole New York days.
Laurent, my buddy, Lolo as we call him behind the scenes, realized he was slowly losing his marbles in the South of France where he was anchored for the past 12 months or so. He felt an itch again, that tickle in his butt that makes him move from one corner of the word to another every so often, and so he packed his backpack and flew himself to Malaysia.
From his most recent report I know he’s getting cozy in Asia. The lifestyle does sound quite appealing, particularly for a single man. Rent and food are cheap. A casual crawl in the swimming pool follows a tropical breakfast. Then there’s time for a massage. The kind one can get on every street corner, apparently. Or at the mall down the street from one’s flat. You know, the Malaysian massage.
Meanwhile, we’re back home, trying to get a grip on our life on this side of the world while fighting that instant nostalgia for Europe, and still not eating meat. Hence, my dish du jour:
4 large zucchinis, washed and grated
1/2 red onion, chopped and sautéed
6-8 tbsp whole-wheat flour
1 tbsp of potato starch
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup Fontina cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
handful of fresh dill, chopped (What? I’m Polish.)
When sautéing an onion I like to sprinkle it with a nice amount of dried marjoram, and watch the magic happen. The herb hits the hot oil thus releasing an aroma that simply knocks me out, while my socks stand up right next to my feet. I mean it in a GOOD way. That divine smell drifts through the kitchen and out into the courtyard making the wild cats from the hood hold the fire and suspend their everlasting turf wars. One day I shall record their CRYYYING OUUUT LOUDDD at 4 o’clock in the morning, right outside our window, and let that serve as evidence in my case.
The pancakes. Let the onion cool off a tad and then mix all the ingredients in a large bowl, making sure all the flour is evenly incorporated. I can’t really tell you how much flour to use exactly. The consistency of your batter will depend on so many factors, I don’t even know where to begin: how much water your zucchinis brought, how humid the air is in your neck of the wood, the weather, the stock market, global warming, and the current phase of the moon. In other words, test-drive your pancakes. Throw a spoonful on hot oil in your pan, and let it fry for a couple of minutes. Now flip it. Did it fall apart? Then you need more flour. Got it? Great.
What’s there left to say? Good luck! The wild Felis catus will soon be sending you Thank You cards.
The day has come. April 15th arrived and Uncle Sam wants to hear from you. For once I have taken care of my taxes way before the due date, which, as you know, ended up in my utmost indignation and relentless hiccups despite my wildest expectations. Nonetheless, since I no longer need to worry about 2009, I can focus on a bowl of whole-wheat comfort bathed in a juicy sauce of my choice.
Every week Jason and I do groceries on Saturday, and we buy either one whole chicken that will last for several dinners/lunches, or just a chicken breast plus a fresh fish fillet. Those take care of two to three dinners a week. The remaining days we follow a mostly vegetarian diet.
Usually around Thursday I glance into the depths of our refrigerator and panic as the only thing looking back at me is one sad veg (like zucchini or broccoli), a half-empty jar of capers, leftover mascarpone cheese and rapidly wilting dill. For a moment I’m startled wondering what to make for dinner. But then I run through the pantry and discover at least two variations of dry pasta kicking back in the drawer, a can or two of water-packed tuna (no salt added), maybe a jar of tomato puree, and to make the deal even sweater – there’s a bag of artichoke hearts in the freezer. In a basket there’s always a few onions and garlic cloves only waiting to get in the game.
It takes about 20-30 minutes to make a hearty meal out of the above-mentioned. During the time my pasta water boils in a large pot, I chop and sauté an onion, add drained and crumbled tuna meat, then capers, frozen artichokes, and cover it with my liquid tomatoes. I season the sauce with salt and pepper, maybe a touch of paprika, and let it all simmer together until the pasta is aldente.
Apropos pasta, for a chunky sauce like this, choose the kind of noodles that have ridges and holes allowing the sauce to wrap itself around and/or inside each peace and become one. It’s very sexy.
(Hearing the words, Cosmo lifts his head from the nap, sniffs around, and teased by the aroma coming from the kitchen he barks out loud: OOO, DID SOMEONE SAY SEXY?)
Turn off the heat under the sauce. Scoop about a tablespoon or more of mascarpone cheese and incorporate it into the sauce. Let it melt, baby, let it all nicely melt in. Add freshly chopped dill or parsley, and slowly toss in your cooked pasta along with about a ladleful of pasta water. Mix it all together and voila!
I can’t even describe how phenomenal that meal is. My advise to you is to make only as much pasta as you’d like to eat at one sitting. If you make too much, you’ll be huffing and puffing but you won’t be able to stop before the dish has disappeared from the surface of the Earth.
Here’s another variation of my pasta mid-week fix. Get yourself an Anaheim pepper (green bell pepper will do, too), chop it and toss into a blender with 2 cloves of garlic, chopped onion, a bunch of cilantro, good pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper, a touch of chili powder, and drizzle in some olive oil. Mix it all into a green sauce.
Heat your skillet, add olive oil and sauté chopped zucchini (2-4, depending on their size), while your pasta is boiling away in a separate pan. Season it with salt and pepper and maybe a touch of smoked paprika (why not). When zucchini is semi-soft, add the green sauce and let it simmer together until the noodles are aldente. Toss the pasta into the skillet, stir, push everybody around, and serve!
Feel free to begin this dish with diced pancetta, letting its rendered fat to be the base for the zucchini. You can also add grated Gruyere cheese at the very end, or Parmesan if you prefer. Melted cheese will help bind your pasta with the sauce, turning the dish into a close-knit family.
Even when you think there’s nothing to eat in your house, think again. Check your cabinets; check the produce drawer in your refrigerator. From my experience, there’s always a lonely fellow left sending out RESCUE ME messages either by a pigeon, or in a bottle, or even coded in Morse, just dying to be devoured with pleasure. It’s just a matter of sautéing or fixing up otherwise.
I’m outta here. Da Vinci is exepcting.
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.
Did someone slip something into my coffee yesterday morning? Or even earlier, in my sleep, was I powdered with magic dust over my dreamy eyes? From the moment I pulled one leg out of bed, the other one just jumped. From then on I was just bouncing around the house like an energizer bunny on crack. And I will acknowledge that I really don’t know what I’m talking about here, as whenever I see any drugs (crack, marihuana, ibuprofen, aleve) heading in my direction, I spin around on the ball of my foot and… sayonara! Gone, I am. Still, I was clearly high on something when I entered the kitchen soon after noon that day. I didn’t leave until 6 PM, thus sacrificing the playtime with Cosmo and completely ignoring any of my own physiological needs. What happened in between the 1200 hour and 1800 hour is a mystery, which nonetheless resulted in the birth of the following:
– Pita Chips with Gruyere and Paprika
– Zucchini Chips
– And last but not least – Romesco Sauce.
A sample of each and every delicacy landed on the dinner plate I assembled for Jason last night. He devoured the meal with such passion, the temperature in our freezing house (the furnace is kaput, to be fixed any day now) rose by 17 degrees. Celsius!
Ladies and Gentlemen, today I present to you…
– 2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded
– 3 red fresno peppers, dipped in boiling water for a few minutes, then peeled and seeded
– 12 garlic cloves
– 1/2 cup toasted almonds
– 3/4 cup halved heirloom grape tomatoes (red)
– 1/2 red onion, roughly chopped
– 1 lrg slice of rusting bread, crust off, diced
– 1/2 cup aged balsamic vinegar
– olive oil
– fresh dill, handful, roughly chopped
– kosher salt, paprika and black pepper to taste.
I discovered ROMESCO SAUCE recently when I was watching one of the Bobby Flay shows on Food Network. I was so intrigued I poked around on the Internet and pulled out one of his recipes for a yellow version of the treat. But Agi being Agi, I had to do things MY WAY, because that’s how I roll.
Romesco is a Spanish sauce traditionally served with fish. However, you can use it as a dip or spread as well. I would go even as far as accenting a pork chop with a teaspoon of the delight. You see it tastes like a sweet pepper jam, if you can imagine that. Have you ever had a sweet pepper jam in your life? Exactly! You’ve got to try this one. It’s divine! Probably due to all the love it requires to make it. Some of you may think it’s a lot of work. I just call it INTENSE LOVE THERAPY.
Are you ready? Then hit that PLAY button on your screen for instructions.
Get all your ingredients ready in separate bowls. Only this one trick will make your life SO MUCH EASIER you’ll send me thank you notes and a pair of Cirque du Soleil tickets! Pour a few splashes of olive oil into a deep saucepan and heat it until it smokes. Now, one by one, sauté each ingredient for a few minutes over medium heat, ensuring that all elements of your sauce are cooked. Leave the almonds aside for toasting sans the oil. Let them get their own natural oils out when in a toaster oven or on a small dry and heated skillet. And for crying out loud, do NOT burn the garlic. Those little suckers of cloves really don’t like high heat for prolonged periods of time, so be sure to toss them around in the pan until lightly golden, and get them out of there asap.
Each ingredient, after it’s been sautéed, may be dumped directly into your prearranged food processor. When everybody’s in, pour the balsamic vinegar into the saucepan, deglaze the pan, reduce it for a minute or two, and also pour the mixture into the machine on the counter. Add fresh dill, close the lid, and press ON button. Leave it be for a couple of minutes until the sauce is of smooth and unified consistency. Turn of the food processor and taste your creation… What did I say? Isn’t it heavenly?! You may want to season it now with salt, pepper and paprika to your liking. You may spread it thinly on your toast and top with a slice of turkey, cheese and cucumber. You may want to serve it with grilled salmon or tuna, or next to the pork chops we talked about earlier. You could also bake various veggie chips and use the sauce as a dip. The possibilities are as many as you can come up with. It’s your game. You set the rules.
All I know is that by making this sauce I raised my very personal bar of culinary standards set in my house. I have so much more respect for myself now that I made my own Romesco Sauce. Are you kidding me? This rocks! Now it’s your turn. Go and make me proud. I promise that your every effort will be rewarded tenfold.
All right. That’s all she wrote.