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verdant ribbons… and beans

By on Jun 10, 2015 in baking, dinner, experimenting, vegetarian | 0 comments

There is this one stand at my local farmer’s market that I always frequent because they are they mushroom people, and I can not resist a good mushroom. But of course, a farm can not subside on mushrooms alone. They have quite a bit of prepared stuffs, tamales, soups and the like, and of course in my brain I always think “I can totally make that.” But then… I noticed a bin full of asparagus. No ordinary asparagus, but big, giant stalks that looked as though you could beat someone bloody with them. They really would be a festive form of defense, but likely only good for one skirmish. In which I would lose after having sautéed all of my weaponry. The stand guy caught me in my reverie, and he already knew what I was thinking. “I know, I know,” he said, “people think giant asparagus are going to be all tough and woody. These aren’t.” I raised an eyebrow. He had to be kidding. These look like they could be used for a log cabin for an elf. The Keebler boys could upgrade. But no, he was deadly serious. Apparently they use quite a bit of mushroom detritus as fertilizer for their asparagus. He was hesitant to use the word ‘steroid,’ because it instantly evokes negative connotations, but it sort of was. Their asparagus grows so fast and so furious, it hasn’t had the chance to get all tough and woody. It just sprouts out of the ground and keeps, well, sprouting. So I decided to take him at his word (his mushrooms are delicious, after all,) and I bought a chunk of it. And then… what to do? I wasn’t sure, in my spring asparagus frenzy, that I could take another sautéed number. They were just too intimidating to eat raw, and I will admit, I was still hesitant about them. Enter the peeler. I had heard of the wonder of the shaved asparagus salad (which sounds vaguely pornographic) via Smitten Kitchen, and since I am an admirer of hers, I thought I’d start with that. And then… I did what I always do. I researched. And researched. Dug up recipes here, there, and everywhere. Decided that greenery alone wasn’t enough, I needed something more substantial. And I had that round of leftover cannelini beans I had cranked out with my beloved pressure cooker a few days earlier, seasoned with bay leaf and garlic. I had herbs loose and running around, including a fresh bunch of dill and a potted tarragon plant on the deck. I paused for a moment, eyeing the last of a ridiculous, eye roll inducing bit of chèvre. Being a Wisconsin woman at my core, I of course panicked, thinking a quarter pound of chèvre would not be nearly enough. (It was.) So naturally, I made a pizza. Yes, you read that right. A pizza. While I do adore the traditional pizza, riddled with cheese and pepperoni, every so often I wander off with other types. And, to be fair, Google revealed that someone had done a pizza with spinach and white beans, and since spinach is green, and asparagus is green, and Smitten Kitchen had done a straight up shaved asparagus pizza, a mashup was required. I started to shave the asparagus, cursing my ancient peeler, and wondering why I insisted on clinging to this thing that only worked on the most delicate of carrots. It does look pretty in photos, though. If you have not shaved asparagus, it is quite the event. You will make a mess. Just be ready for that. Your kitchen will smell like someone just mowed the lawn. I have read accounts where people do this with a mandoline. All I could envision was my fingers going free range in a bloody heap on the cutting board. I stuck with the cruddy peeler. It took some doing, but I finally had a glorious, soft pile of thin curls of asparagus. I ate one. The mushroom stand guy was not wrong. It was beautifully tender, even raw. And then… well I sort of lost all control. I tossed in some olive oil, squeezed in a bit of lemon, a pinch of red pepper flakes. Not enough. A sprinkle of salt, a grind or two of black pepper. Nope. A bit of fresh dill and tarragon, minced together and tossed in. Now it was enough. The beans were already flavored with garlic, so I let them be. I pushed and patted out the pizza dough, slathered it with fruity olive oil, and dotted on the creamy white beans. Totally normal and acceptable sized gobs of chèvre were dotted on. And then, the asparagus, slick with oil and redolent of green, herbs, and lemon. The rest of the chèvre was dotted on, after a brief moment of panic, as I still believe ¼ lb. would not be enough. It still was.   A careful slide into the oven, blessed with obscenities as I burned my arm on the edge of the oven on the way in, a fretful wait, and ah! Joy! A light pizza at once creamy and piquant, the asparagus having almost pickled in the heat and spice. A fitting summer pizza, to be sure. Shaved Asparagus White Bean Pizza Technically this could be vegan if you just take away the chèvre. You could also just do the asparagus part alone and make...

spring is sproinging

By on May 24, 2015 in cooking, dinner, love, vegetarian | 0 comments

The winter was long and dreary. Yup, totally not an original statement. I am still not entirely sure if it is aging or actual changes in winter, but it feels like winters are getting harder in my beloved Midwest. Not necessarily in terms of snow, although Chicago did enjoy a 2′ in one day blizzard that buried my car so completely I could only see 1” of it after the snow plows came through, but in terms of the grey. The never… ending… grey… The cold that keeps a harsh snap way past any time that seems sane, though you know it happens every year. And for me, personally, in case the lack of writing wasn’t obvious, it was never… ending… work. Work is good, absolutely! I am lucky to have it. But being a studio of one, a freelancer, I piled on too much, deadlines slid around, and suddenly I found myself sitting in front of my computer for 14 hours a day, almost 7 days a week, cultivating that translucent pallor enjoyed by the most dedicated of gamers. And my nutritional intake… well it was beginning to be on par with those gamers. For all my wailing about ‘there is always time for food,’ I wasn’t making that time. I was eating crap. Constant takeout. Skipping meals, only to binge on some processed snack late in the night. And I am feeling it. Mind, body, and soul. Enter Wisconsin. Well not really. I entered Wisconsin. Wisconsin pretty much stays where it is. Every year my family does a giant gathering in southwest Wisconsin, which coincidentally happens to be the most fertile farmland in the country. I have no scientific basis for that, I just have the evidence of my own eyes as I drive through and raid every food coop I can get near. This is the part of the country I grew up in, where I thought all cows happily grazed on grass all over rolling hillsides. I had called my Mom the week before to ask if her lone asparagus plant was up already, and had she cooked any. She swiftly replied “oh you know that never makes it into the house.” You see, if you have never beheld an actual asparagus plant in spring, you are missing out. Asparagus is one of those magical vegetables that heralds the final arrival of spring in the Midwest. It’s the first really edible green thing we see, and after months of grey, we fall all over ourselves eating this marvelous chlorophyll-laced tribute to the lengthening, warming days. And if you have ever stood in front of an asparagus plant, snipped a stalk straight off, and ate it straight away, well… it would never make it into your kitchen, either. I couldn’t pilfer any of my mother’s asparagus, but I did manage to find fresh local bunches of it at the local food coop, glorious in their short trip from farm to store. Next up, the ramp. This is something I had never heard of growing up. They are purely wild, can’t really be cultivated. Ramps are a strange sort of wild onion, pungent and fragrant, appearing only for a few weeks and POOF! Gone. They smell marvelous, and need to be treated with some respect, as their flavor is ultimately quite delicate and can get lost. And finally… the mythical morel. Everyone at this point seems to know about morel mushrooms. Another one of those wild foods that simply can not be cultivated. People hunt them every year, and do not reveal the locations they find them in. Somewhere I imagine there are wills out there, revealing spots solely to the most trusted loved ones, but only after the original finder has passed. I have yet to ever find a morel, but I found the next best thing this year. Deep in the rolling hills of the Coulee Region live many, many Amish families. There is one in particular I visit every year to get maple syrup from. This year, the grandson had found morels, and they were selling them, for far less than a schmancy Whole Foods would. I can’t tell you my source, as it’s almost as valuable to me as if I had found them myself deep in the woods. And so I eagerly snatched up the last container, paid the nice woman, and ran. Once back in Chicago, it was time to assemble my tribute to spring. I had some heirloom flint cornmeal I had picked up the previous year from a farmer’s market, and decided to make polenta. I added no parmesan, no cheese of any sort, I wanted it to be as straight up as possible (but not without considerable quantities of butter.) While the polenta slowly burbled away (I use a brilliant method by Deborah Madison that takes a little longer, but does not require constant stirring,) I snapped the tough ends of the asparagus off, sniffing the juicy fresh green. The morels were soaked lightly to rid them of any hidden passengers, and simply sliced lengthwise. Their earthy pepperiness filled my small kitchen. A few ramps were minced, adding to the light scents floating about. A bit of butter and olive oil was heated in my ancient cast iron skillet, and first went in the morels. The butter and olive oil bubbled appreciatively at their arrival. A pinch of...

cabbage, my new love affair

By on Aug 6, 2014 in dinner, salad, vegetarian | 0 comments

Some day, if you are a fan of farmer’s markets, you will find yourself irresistibly drawn to a cabbage quite literally the size of your head. It may actually be larger than your head. The compacted center beckons from the center of the lush furled outer leaves, and before you know it, you are attempting to wedge it into your bag (which once seemed so voluminous,) hurriedly flinging a few dollars at the person who so carefully grew it. Then you get it home. You rearrange half of your small refrigerator in an almost vain effort to fit it in. And then reality sinks in. You just bought a cabbage bigger than your head. You are one person. What in god’s name are you going to do with that much cabbage? Coleslaw, while a venerated summer tradition, just doesn’t do it for you. While you do enjoy pickling and preserving things, sauerkraut is really not going to happen in your kitchen.   So now what?   You turn to someone who always knows better when it comes to vegetables. Deborah Madison, your favorite cookbook author. You skim through the four books you have from her and finally land upon a recipe that not only seems appealing, but makes some use of your small attempt at an apartment herb garden. A wilted red cabbage salad with mint, dill, parsley, and goat feta. Sure, you’re missing the lemon part, but you have white wine vinegar, and it appears to be there only for sharpness. You cut into the massive head of cabbage, the magnificent JT of cruciferous vegetables that is bringing sexy back to this much maligned member of the Brassicaceae family. You really do not like most of the other members, but somehow… the humble cabbage speaks to you. Usually. The oddly random yet mathematical swirls of the vibrant compacted leaves laid bare as you gaze upon the freshly cut vegetable is intriguing, yet you can’t quite be completely in love with the idea of eating it. The doubt is there. That faint odor you can’t quite place but makes your nose wrinkle wafts up with each sharp slice into the massive beast. Even as you wilt it in a large pan (noticing that clearly an 11” skillet is not big enough and you need an even bigger one,) you are suspicious. Will this become a nasty cooked cabbage nightmare, a thing of 50s dining past that made everyone hate cabbage for decades? You hold steady, keeping faith with the instructions of Ms. Madison. Your eyes flick back and forth between the pan and the clock, timing out the brief tosses of the brilliant purple shreds. You swear softly as you lose a few bits of cabbage to the gap between the stove and the wall. You really do need a bigger skillet to cook a pound of sliced cabbage.   After a few short minutes, it is done. You toss it with fresh herbs, plucked straight from your back deck, and wonder why you don’t use all the herbs five times a day. The lingering scent of mint mixed with dill on your fingertips is heavenly. A dash of vinegar, a generous grind of black pepper, a shower of piquant goat feta, and it is done. Somehow, magically, that off-putting scent has vanished. You spear a generous round of cabbage and somewhat hesitantly taste. You pause. You continue to chew, but more slowly, savoring every heady moment. You are now comforted in the knowledge that you know how you are going to deal with the remaining half of the giant head of cabbage. You are going to make this again. Tomorrow.   Wilted Red Cabbage Salad with Goat Feta   (This is not my recipe. This is from Deborah Madison’s latest work, Vegetable Literacy. I am more than a little in love with her books, ever since I bought my first copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone 15 years ago. You don’t have to be vegetarian to love her.)   4 cups packed red cabbage, sliced thinly (a scant pound) 1 medium red onion, sliced thinly 1 clove garlic, minced fine 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley juice of one lemon (or, if like me you have no fresh lemon, a generous splash of white wine vinegar) salt and pepper to taste goat feta to finish (I honestly don’t know why goat feta as opposed to normal, but I found some and it was deliciously mild.)   In a large skillet or wok, heat the olive oil until hot. Add onion and sauté for one minute, just until it starts to get soft. Add in the cabbage and garlic, and a generous pinch salt. Cook for about two minutes, tossing all the while. You just want it to get slightly wilted, not completely cooked. Remove from heat and toss into a large bowl. Add in lemon juice (or vinegar) and a generous grinding of black pepper. Taste, adjust salt and pepper as necessary. Add in the fresh herbs, reserving a pinch or two for serving. Toss together. Portion out onto serving dish and sprinkle with crumbled goat feta and the remaining herbs. Be alarmed at how much you suddenly like cabbage....

breathe in the fennel

By on Oct 12, 2013 in dinner, for one, love, quickie, salad, unprocessed october, vegetarian | 0 comments

“Eat your salad.” It is a refrain most of us have been hearing since childhood, and as adults we do (mostly) understand we should probably be eating more vegetables, but in reality, most of us view the act of eating salad as drudgery. Some sad little bowl of pale lettuce with a viscous bottled dressing poured over it, all hoovered down with one eyeball on the main plate, which is all you really care about. That is what most people encounter when they think of salad. This just makes me sad. When I eat a salad, I make it an event, piling mixed greens with exotic sounding names into a bowl the size of my torso, throwing whatever veggies I can get my hands on. Invariably, the cool delicate crunch of a cucumber gets involved. A sliver or twelve of red onion, perhaps briefly pickled in some red wine vinegar. Some sweet little tomatoes. If goat cheese happens to be in my fridge, it will be on my salad. Or blue cheese. Croutons. I insist upon croutons. If I’m really ambitious, I make them myself, chopping up a baguette from the store, letting it dry out overnight then tossing with some melted butter mixed with paprika, salt, maybe some garlic powder, and baking until crispy. Fruity olive oil, a splash of vinegar, a grind or two of pepper, a sprinkle of a nice kosher salt, and I am good to go. No need for the eerily red “French” dressing of my youth (which was my favorite, but now I can not stop thinking about what on earth goes into it…) But sometimes, I ponder a giant bowl of lettuce, sigh deeply, and think, “Really? This again?” There is an answer to this vegetable quandary. Get rid of the lettuce. Judith Jones, the remarkable editor for “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, wrote a lovely little book called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One”. Yes yes, the joke can be easily made about the depression level of a single person cooking alone, but really, it can be enjoyable. And no one sees you when you manage to drop noodles on your cleavage and scoop them up with your fingers and slurp them down. Not that I have ever experienced that situation before… But I digress. Ms. Jones wrote this book with the idea that you should be able to cook for just one, and cook well. And despite her long relationship with Julia Child, this does not instantly translate into a cookbook filled with 24 step recipes. As fall slowly descends upon Chicago (well, it seems to be waiting somewhere, bathing us in bizarre mid-70s days in October, which of course means it will snow at some point in the next two days,) apples crop up everywhere. And so I decided to try a quick recipe for an apple fennel salad for one, of course tweaking the recipe just a hair for my own good. This involves not a single leaf of lettuce. It is simplicity writ fancy. Bright crisp apple mingles with the cleansing yogic breath of raw fennel, wreathed through with a classic vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and mustard. And of course in my case, it was whole grain mustard I had made myself (it is October Unprocessed, after all!.) It is a salad without a familiar leafy refrain, yet still crisp and cool, feeling a bit more substantial than a wedge of iceberg lettuce. Give it a whirl. I guarantee it will not be drudgery. Apple Fennel Salad Serves 1-2, depending on your appetite   1 small tart apple 1 small fennel bulb, fronds removed and reserved 8 walnut halves, roughly broken 1 Tbsp. olive oil 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar ½ tsp. mustard (whole grain or Dijon) pinch of salt a grind of black pepper   Core the apple and slice thinly. If you have a mandoline, use it on a very thin setting. Trim the fennel bulb, getting rid of the tough bit at the bottom, and slice thinly (again, using the mandoline if you want). If it is just you and you only want half of this salad now, place half the apple and fennel slices in a container with cold water and refrigerate. Trust me, it’ll hold for a few days.   In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper. Arrange the apple and fennel slices in a bowl, and yes, you should make it fancy just for you, because you deserve it. Drizzle the dressing over it. Mince a few of the fennel fronds and scatter over the whole. Toss the walnuts on. Sit down, breathe deeply, and...

(un)sexy soba

By on Jul 14, 2013 in dinner, experimenting, fail... or not, process, vegetarian | 0 comments

Soba is not inherently sexy, at least not at the home cook level. In the past, I have been accused of describing food in an overly salacious, borderline obscene manner. Who am I to deny the seductive quality of a plump, juicy peach as it explodes under the fervent explorations of eager teeth? But these are noodles. Made of buckwheat flour. Even the sound of it… the hard consonants dropping out of the mouth, clattering about the ear. Buckwheat. (crash) Not sexy. But you see, there is a hidden seductive joy in the noodle. Perhaps it was implanted in my brain by a certain old Disney movie, leaving my brain to still believe that somewhere out there I will meet a scruffy fellow who will give me the last meatball and share a long, slow slurp of a last noodle, ending in a kiss. Perhaps it is simply that fact that one uses the word “slurp” a lot with noodles, and that has a certain… quality… Perhaps not. Food ricochets about the world, each culture having its own iteration of bread, pickles, soup, and of course, noodles. I love noodles. Adore them. Pasta, egg noodle, rice noodle, udon noodle… I will eat them all. As a child my mother would occasionally bust out and make egg noodles from scratch for soup. I can still see the cookie racks, carefully tented into one another, egg noodles drying over them, while my impatient little self pouted that we had to wait so long to eat them (even though in the end I always loved them more than the ones out of a bag.) When it comes to pure ingredients, there is not much to most noodle making processes. Mostly, it is about technique and time. You can definitely mess them up, some more easily than others. When I first started messing with traditional egg pasta dough, there were a few batches that ended in cursing and tears. Enter the soba noodle. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour, which is a flour with zero gluten, which means it has zero power to create the traditional stretchy dough one usually associates with a flour product. In Japan there are chefs who can do it totally with just buckwheat flour, but I imagine them to be serious men who have spent years studying with a former soba noodle master, shoulder muscles huge and taut from years of muscling about dense, gluten-free dough. I am but a woman in Chicago, lacking in years of careful culinary tutelage. I have the internet. The internet told me to add some regular flour. One day I ran across this post at The Kitchn, which is a remarkable site and a minor obsession of mine. It is how to make your own soba noodles. I had never made soba noodles or any noodle outside of European heritage. So of course I had to. I found some buckwheat flour, read the recipe through a few times, and dove in. I frowned at it, because my noodles were significantly… well… greyer than hers. My dough did not look nearly so appealing. It looked vaguely like it was meant to fill in scratches on wood surfaces. But it smelled… it smelled amazing. Straight flour has a clean scent. Whole wheat adds a bit of nuttiness to the nasal palate. But buckwheat… smelled warm. Inviting. Like it would have wrapped little buckwheat arms around me, had it the gluten content to form dough that could stretch that far out. I nibbled a bit. Even in my brief foray into kneading it, there was no trace of the nasty grittiness I normally associate with whole wheat pasta. (And no, I really do not like whole wheat pasta. It is fine in certain applications, and only a few brands don’t taste like carefully crafted sandpaper noodles, but it is no direct substitute for a classic plate of spaghetti. Not in my world. Putting my white pasta soapbox away now…)   Nothing about my noodles looked like the beautiful post I had read. They were thicker, due to my rash method of cutting, which of course I had to improvise rather than being a good person and following their recipe. And of course, because I do not have a prop kitchen or fancy prop dishes for this endeavor, just my tiny kitchen so small I had to move the rolling to my dining room table, a 1950s formica number, they were really not that sexy looking at all when I pointed my camera lens at them. I should point out that I did not use one of the two flours she recommends, I used Arrowhead Mills because it is what I could get my hands on, so it is entirely possible that I am not getting the full effect of these noodles from scratch. And yet, boiled in salted water and rinsed in cold water, just as prescribed, they were still divine. Chewy, nutty, smooth, proving the age old adage that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And it really does. I splashed in some sunflower oil, soy sauce, minced scallions, and red pepper flakes, almost entirely as described in the recipe (they call for dark sesame oil, which I did not have on hand.) Then I added on a bit fat chiffonade of shiso, a lively Japanese herb I found at the farmer’s...

tantalizing the microvilli

By on Jun 14, 2013 in cooking, dinner, experimenting | 0 comments

I have recently taken up reading a book on the subject of what really gets our human gustatory engines humming. Ostensibly, this book is about processed food, and how the sugar, salt, and fat therein are calibrated  by legions of food scientists to hit our deepest urges so we just want more and more, or at least that seems to be the trend. Fair enough. I have been known to mow down on a salty delicacy fished from the deepest recesses of a bag that crinkles just so as my fingers desperately search for that last little chip (and I must wonder if they engineer the crinkle of the bag as carefully as the food, because it is absolutely part of the sensory experience.). But this isn’t about the engineering of the chip or the bag. This is about a paragraph that basically debunked the long-held belief I have had that the tongue has different “taste zones.” Apparently, it really doesn’t. Apparently even the idea behind it was a misinterpretation. If you really want to read this paragraph, read the book and we’ll discuss. The thing that particularly caught my eye was where he talked about microvilli, tiny little hairs on each little bump on the tongue and how they were ultimately the taste receptors. And of course I tiptoed through the Wikipedia entries, and couldn’t find the word ‘microvilli’ in the taste bud entry, but plenty of info that ultimately led me to discover the term “gustatory hair,” but then I decided that was a far ickier headline than ‘microvilli’, since that word lacks association with hairs in food. And so here we are.   “Wait…” you might ask. “You were going somewhere with this? Seriously?” I am, dear reader, I am. You see, I am going to pull together sugar, salt, fat, sweet, salty, bitter, maybe even a hit of umami, if I really grasped what that meant (technically there is a description involving an aftertaste leaving a ‘furry taste’ on the roof of the mouth, but much like the gustatory hair of earlier, we are going to walk away from that for the moment so we don’t foment further negative associations.) So I give you… coy creamy cheese tortellini cooked to an al dente finish, spicy, salty Italian sausage, seductively earthy mushrooms, onions made sweet by low heat slowly coaxing forth the sugars nesting deep within their cells, a sharp bite of Parmesan, a subtle acid hit of lemon and crossing into a new realm for me, the vegetal  bitterness of broccoli rabe. (For those who have known me my whole life, they know broccoli and most cruciferous vegetables are my mortal enemy, but I accidentally ate some broccoli rabe one day at a restaurant and decided I should be a little more flexible.) And honestly… that’s actually about it. There are no fancy reductions, no little tricks, just simple ingredients combined simply and quickly. I’m sure proper chefs would have heart attacks at this, but sometimes… I only want to wash two pans. No hours of prep, just clean, fresh flavors, all mingling in a plate, each bite bringing different sensations to the table, each tickling the various taste receptors, tricking the brain into happy oblivion in a more satisfying manner than any crunchy item hatched from the labs of a major food magnate.   Tortellini for All the Microvilli Serves 4 hungry people, 6 people who have other stuff to eat as well.   1 lb. frozen cheese tortellini 1 lb. spicy Italian sausage (I get mine from Whole Foods, that makes a wickedly good one, and it’s pretty spicy… you can try sweet, but it just won’t be the same. Or you can go veggie and not use it at all) 1 lb. cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced 1/2 Vidalia or medium sweet onion, thinly wedged 1 bunch broccoli rabe, washed and roughly chopped olive oil a lemon, halved Parmesan for grating   Bring several quarts of water, salted, to a boil for the tortellini. While the water is boiling, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add in the onions and sprinkle with a generous pinch salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the onions have gotten all soft and luscious. Add in the sausage, breaking it up as much as you can while you cook it. When the sausage is almost fully cooked, add in the mushrooms. Keep stirring the whole time. Somewhere in here I am guessing your pasta water has come to a boil. Start cooking it. Keep an eye on it, since frozen pasta cooks very differently than the dried. Read the instructions on the package, since they might vary from brand to brand. You want it to be al dente. Do NOT drain fully when you are done. Trust me. Once the mushrooms look all deliciously moist and dark, taste one to test it and make sure it is fully cooked, then add in the broccoli rabe. Keep stirring until the broccoli rabe turns a vivid green. Squeeze the half a lemon over (I have decided that lemons are the most valuable thing in the world, and now add them and their brilliant acid hit to almost everything I make now) and cook for 30 more seconds. Taste again, and salt and pepper to taste. Now drain almost all of...