Entries Tagged as 'Pasta'

Top 10 Fall Favorites

September 23rd, 2014 · 14 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Pasta, Pork and Beef, Seafood, Vegetarian

All right, guys, the open-toed shoes are getting packed away, the leaves are going all gold on us, and soccer season is starting to actually feel like soccer season. In other words, fall is here, which means we can justify a dive back into the archive to find some of my heartier favorites.

1. Pomegranate-Braised Pork Loin with Cabbage (pictured)
Good for: Entertaining (as long as it’s not Rosh Hashana dinner) and weeknights if you are working from home and the smell of pork wafting through the air increases your productivity the way it increases mine.

2.  Dinner: Red-Wine Braised Short Ribs
Good for: 
Rosh Hashana dinner (pair with this killer kale-apple-walnut salad, plus Ronnie’s challah and pomegranate molasses-glazed carrots) or entertaining families.

3. Roast Salmon with Brussels Sprouts and Ginger-Scallion Sauce
Good for: Fast weeknight dinner when you just. can’t. handle. another. big. clean-up.

4. Dinner: Spaghetti Carbonara
Good for:  Nights when you are thisclose to ordering take-out — it’s a five-star recipe that will save you bucks and taste better than anything you’ll order in a restaurant.

5. Dinner: Bittman’s Cornmeal-Crusted Chicken with Soy & Lime
Good for: Weeknights when you are staring at your raw chicken breasts for the hundredth time this week thinking “If only there was something new to do to these that doesn’t involve a lot of brainpower.”

6. Dinner: Butternut Squash Soup
Good for: Weeknights. Serve with a big chunk of crusty bread and topped with chopped walnuts, sour cream, and chives. (By the way, I think it’s illegal to do a fall food round-up and not include some version of this soup.)

7. Dinner: Arroz con Pollo (page 52 Dinner: A Love Story)
Good for: Friday or Saturday night family dinner, when the clock isn’t ticking. Book owners: This recipe has no photograph and is somewhat lost among its other much-regaled neighbors (it’s right next to Black Bean Burritos and Salmon Salad), but please do yourself a favor and make it soon. It’s one of my all-time favorites — the kind of meal I eat and think “Why don’t I make this once a week” — and it kills me to think it’s not getting the love it deserves.

8. Dinner: Soba Noodles with Greens and Crispy Tofu (page 186, Dinner: The Playbook)
Good for: Nights when you want substance without the meat.

9. Dinner: Minestrone
Good for: 
Sunday Dinner — I take the extra and freeze in single-serve portions to thaw as I need for late-coming soccer players, or mix into pasta for Ribollita.

10. Dinner: Cider-Braised Pork Meatballs
Good for: Putting your farmer’s market apple cider to good use.

Dinner #4, Carbonara, in all it’s artery-clogging glory.

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Ode to an Italian Market

April 24th, 2014 · 13 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Quick

Oh market of ancestral pleasures,
A carnival of old-school treasures,
Your homemade fare, it lifts, amazes,
I think it’s time I sing your praises.

Behold those days my tired body’s
so grateful for your manicottis.
The workday hard, the lunchroom cruel,
No prob when we have your fa-jool* 

On nights I’m out and can’t cook dinner,
I always have a pinch-hit winner,
I’m late, not dressed, oh holy moly!
The sitter boils ravioli.

“From scratch” can be so overrated.
When those meatballs can be plated
From the freezer, quick and thrifty,
Just flip the oven to three-fifty.

So here’s to every gift Italian,
To ziti baked and veal medallion,
Sending thanks that’s good and loud,
Grandma Catrino would be proud.

Seven bucks for fifty fresh, authentic, restaurant-quality, cheese-filled ravioli. What rhymes with “bargain of the century?”

*Note actual spelling of Fa-jool on third shelf from bottom right in top picture. Photo taken via my instagram (dinneralovestory) at Mercurio’s Italian Market on Mamaroneck Avenue, Mamaroneck, NY.

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Restaurant-Worthy Carbonara

January 13th, 2014 · 31 Comments · Pasta

“Okay, I think we have a plan,” my friend Jeff said. “Why don’t you and Jenny come over on Friday at six, we’ll have a quick drink at our house, and then head out to dinner. Sound good?”

Given that Jeff and his wife, Kirsten, live in Washington, DC, which is only 20 miles from my parents’ house, and given that we’d been trying in vain to set up a dinner together for two years now, yeah, this plan sounded good. It sounded perfect.

Except Jenny and I got stuck in traffic and showed up half an hour late. And then, it was a beautiful spring night, so we sat out on the stoop at dusk and drank some wine, and that one drink turned into a couple of drinks, and Kirsten was newly pregnant with their second kid, so we heard all about the pregnancy and their plans for moving into a bigger place, and before we knew it, our quick drink had turned into a bottle of wine.* Jeff looked at his watch.

“We’d better go,” he said. “None of these places take reservations and it’s kind of late, so we might be screwed.”

We were screwed.

By the time we’d walked over to 14th Street, that much was clear. We checked a tapas place: hour to an hour and a half wait, crowd spilling into the street, no chorizo for you. We checked an extremely fun-looking oyster bar: yeah right, was basically the message. We checked another place that was so full, they suggested we put our names on the list and go to the bar next door, where they’d come find us when they had a table. We went to that bar, only to realize we were too old (and pregnant) to be hanging out in bars. Were we going to have to stand up the whole time? My back was killing me. And boy, was it dark in there! And was the music ever loud. Did the speakers have to be so big? Jeez. Isn’t that bad for your hearing? I had a sudden flash of how my dad must have felt when I dragged him to my first concert – Judas Priest, Capital Center, 1984 – and he spent the whole time, wedged between a group of biker dudes with long yellow beards, inhaling enormous clouds of second-hand weed smoke and leaning forward every few minutes to shout, ARE YOUR EARS RINGING, TOO and DO YOU THINK WE NEED TO STAY FOR THE WHOLE THING?

We lasted about five minutes. Back on the street, we huddled up to think. I felt bad for Jeff. The pressure was on. “I know,” he said. “There’s a place a few blocks down that Kirsten and I went to for our anniversary,” and when we got there, we poked our heads in and yes, thank god, we were in luck: they had a table! It was a perfectly nice restaurant, but it was also the kind of place with starched white tablecloths and those Reidel glasses that can hold like two bottles of wine, entrees that start at $30 and a kind of hushed, West Elm, serioso vibe. The maitre d grabbed four menus and started to lead us to our table.

“Do we want to do this,” Jeff said, verbalizing what we were all secretly thinking, “or do we wanna just go back to the house and cook in? We can make some pasta and drink wine and hang out.”

The man was speaking our language. “Let’s go home,” we all said.

And so we did. We walked home, cut the babysitter loose, and cranked up some music. As always, we all ended up in the little kitchen, watching as Jeff made his moves behind the stove, and their two-year-old, Billie, slept soundly upstairs. He grabbed some Pecorino and bacon and eggs and whipped up a Carbonara – he’d experimented with many artery-wrecking versions over the years, but the one he made that night, and the one he liked best, was one he found on youtube and had adapted to his specifications. Instead of straight Pecorino, he did half Pecorino and half Parm. Instead of pancetta, he went with cubes of good bacon. Instead of three eggs, he used four – and we showed him how to temper the eggs before adding, which made the whole oh-God-will-they-scramble-or-will-they-not part of the meal much less stressful. Instead of dropping 250 bucks on dinner, we had something that was every bit as good for about ten bucks. It was also a hell of a lot more fun. – Andy

* Chardonnay, actually. Jeff did this to f*ck with me. He thinks it’s hilarious that I enjoy a good glass of chardonnay. He can’t get over it. Like the guy is a Navy SEAL or something. Like he owns power tools. Plus, I don’t like Chardonnay. I like French Chardonnay. Which is even worse.

Restaurant Worthy Carbonara
As simple as this recipe is, it can go to the scrambled-eggs place fast if you’re not careful. As far as we can tell, there are two important steps to take to avoid this. First, the pasta water. Adding a little of it to the eggs is called tempering, and it helps get the eggs used to the idea of heat slowly rather than all at once (which usually results in scrambling). The other crucial step is to remove the pan from the heat completely before adding the eggs. We set the skillet down on a cutting board before adding them. (Some cooks like to do the egg-tossing in the pasta’s serving dish.) If you are cooking this for guests for the first time, we recommend a dry run so you’re not in panic mode. On the other hand, even if the eggs do scramble, it will still taste delicious.

1 pound spaghetti
1 clove garlic, minced
2-3 thick slices pancetta or bacon, chopped into lardons, or cubes
4 eggs
3/4 cup Pecornio, shredded, plus more for serving
freshly ground pepper

Prepare spaghetti according to package directions — don’t forget to salt the water. While spaghetti cooks, fry pancetta in a large deep-sided skillet set over medium heat until crisp. Lower heat and add garlic towards the last minute of bacon-crisping. While everything is crisping, whisk your eggs in a medium bowl.

Drain pasta, reserving about a half cup of pasta water. Add spaghetti to the skillet while it’s still a little wet and, using tongs, toss with garlic and bacon fat, adding a drizzle of pasta water to keep it loose, and to prevent spaghetti from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Remove pan from heat completely. (We set the skillet down on a cutting board on the counter.)

Vigorously whisk in about a tablespoon or two of hot pasta water to your eggs — this is the tempering. Add eggs to the pasta slowly, tossing until pasta looks silky and coated, but not drippy and wet. Toss in cheese. Serve immediately with more cheese and freshly ground pepper.


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Fend-for-Yourself Night

October 17th, 2013 · 12 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Vegetarian

Please head over to my favorite style blog, Cup of Jo, for today’s post on Fend-for-Yourself Night (also known as F@#k Family Dinner.) Pictured above: My Egg and Cheese Tortilla; Below: Andy’s Cacio e Pepe.

While you’re there, check out the rest of Joanna’s gorgeous food coverage including, but most definitely not limited to: banana-chocolate chip muffins, olive oil cake, coconut hot chocolate, and veggie burgers.  (#One of these things is not like the others.)

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Do-Nothing Dinner

August 8th, 2013 · 98 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Quick, Vegetarian

A few Augusts ago, my friends Jeni and Ben and their three kids came to visit us. They live on the Upper West Side, which is only about a 20-minute drive from my house, and yet, with full-time jobs and full-time families (their oldest daughter was about 4 which would make her twins 2, and my kids were 6 and 4), we had the hardest time coordinating get-togethers. (You know that famous New Yorker cartoon, “How about never — does never work for you?” That was us.) Well, on this particular occasion, we had by some miracle figured out a time that worked for a drive-by. It was a Saturday — couldn’t do lunch (soccer practice, naps) couldn’t do dinner (twins’ bedtime looming) so we settled on the somewhat odd, not-quite-cocktail-hour of 5:00.

“Just stay for dinner,” I told her when she called that morning.

“No no no,” she said .”Please don’t do anything.”

“But it’s no trouble.”

“Just trust me. It’s more stressful if I try to feed the kids there. Please don’t worry!”

I agreed begrudgingly. But then I hit the farmer’s market where, of course I was bamboozled by my daughters into buying a container of BuddhaPesto. The stuff is so good. I mean, so so good and leprechaun green and fresh you just can’t believe it. (The Times‘ Jeff Gordinier was similarly smitten last summer.) And, since it was August, there were tomatoes. The kind of tomatoes you dream of all year long. Striped, heirloom, green, gold, cherry, plum, little, big, blistered, exploding. The kind of tomatoes you slice at dinnertime, drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, and then back away from. Because to do anything more, to add anything else, would be to incur the wrath of the tomato gods…or me, for that matter.

The thing is, I never promised Jeni and Ben I wouldn’t cook for them. Just the kids. So at some point during the course of the family’s two-hour cameo — at which point I think every single toy in the toy box had been removed and discarded on the floor by five gleeful children  – I plopped two dinner plates on the table for the grown-ups. Spaghetti tossed with that BuddhaPesto, and slices of heirloom tomatoes (salted, oil-drizzled) that looked like they should’ve been painted by Cezanne. (I can brag about that because I had absolutely nothing to do with it. They came that way.)

You know the Virginia Lee Burton book The Little House about the cottage that stands peacefully still as construction and skyscrapers and general chaos looms all around. That’s how I picture Jeni and Ben eating that dinner. I will never forget how grateful two people could look eating the world’s simplest summer meal, as five screeching kids launched into their fifteenth game of Elefun in the living room.

Jeni tried to fight it, but was powerless in the face of the tomatoes.

“I told you not to do anything,” she attempted weakly.

“I didn’t. I boiled a pot of water. That was the extent of my cooking.”

“But you did! Look at this.”

I guess. But, I reminded her, it doesn’t take much.

Spaghetti with Pesto and Summer Tomatoes

Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of pasta water. Toss pasta with a little olive oil while it sits in the colander. Add prepared pesto (the freshest you can find, such as BuddhaPesto) to the same pot you boiled spaghetti in and whisk in a drizzle of pasta water until it’s saucy, but not watery. Add pasta back to the pot and toss. Serve garnished with freshly grated Parmesan.

While spaghetti cooks, slice summer tomatoes onto a plate. Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of the best olive oil you’ve got, sprinkle with sea salt (and pepper, if you must) and serve alongside pasta.

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Last Night’s Dinner

June 14th, 2013 · 18 Comments · Anatomy of a Weeknight Dinner, Pasta, Quick, Vegetarian

The Order of Events

5:30 About to leave for Phoebe’s last lacrosse game of the season; realize I have not thought about dinner for one second. Do quick scan of fridge, see big bouquet of wilting CSA mint sitting in cup of water, screaming “Now or never!” It’s summer and summer + mint immediately sends me in the direction of peas. Yes! A bag of Trader Joe’s peas in the freezer. Leave on counter to thaw. Head out the door.

6:30-7:30 Game a total nail-biter. Would’ve loved to end season on a win — instead added a notch in the “L” column. Whole team fought so hard. 8 to 7. So close!

7:45 Walk in the door. Water goes on stovetop for boiling. Andy adds thawed peas and mint and everything else into blender. I assemble a turkey-and-cheese sandwich for the resident pasta hater. My sweaty, battered Left Attack takes a shower.

8:05 Milk poured. Pasta twirled. Picture snapped. Dinner served.

Spaghetti with Mint-Pea Pesto
This is a feel-your-way kind of recipe. We agreed after the fact that we should’ve used a food processor instead of a blender — because it helps to have the pulse option to control the consistency. Also: If you don’t want to serve this with pasta, just skip the thinning out part and spread on a baguette, Todd-style.

1 1/2 cups frozen peas (I used 3/4 of the bag you see above)
1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, washed
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parm, plus more for serving
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil
salt to taste
1 pound spaghetti

Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove. Whirl remaining ingredients (except spaghetti) in a food processor. Taste and adjust as you go. (Don’t overprocess or it will be too emulsified.) Consistency should be somewhere in between smooth and chunky guacamole.

Add pasta to the pot and about half way through cooking it, scoop out about a cup of hot water. Set aside. Drain pasta once cooked. Scrape pea mixture into the empty hot pot, then start drizzling reserved pasta water into the dip, whisking until it has the consistency of a creamy sauce. Toss pasta in sauce and serve with freshly grated Parm and some torn mint leaves if you’re feeling fancy.

Note: This was written on Thursday so “last night” in the title refers to Wednesday. In case anyone out there is fact-checking.

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Miss Jenny

April 26th, 2013 · 36 Comments · Pasta, Vegetarian

For as long as I can remember my mother has called me “Miss Jenny.” Not all the time and not necessarily in public, but often enough so that I don’t notice unless I really stop and think about it. As an endearing as the little nickname is, I’m convinced my mom started calling me that not to be cute, but because it was part of a bigger plan she had for me.

Right after college, Mom had a roommate named Jane. To the rest of the world, though, Jane was known as “Miss Janey” the host of Pittsburgh’s Romper Room show. She was a celebrity among preschoolers (I feel certain I might hear from a few of you on this one) as well as in the greater Western Pennsylvania region, and to my mom, who at the time had a desk job at U.S. Steel, no one was more glamorous. On top of being a TV star, Miss Janey was warm, witty, and beautiful. Full of life was the term she’d use.  ”Oh Jenny,” my mom would say. “She was just like you.” And just like that I’d imagine myself as Miss Jenny the celebrity TV host.

Moms are smart that way.

There would be more plans. My mother would go out of her way at the Grand Union to point out Geraldine Ferraro on the cover of Newsweek, and tell my sister and me whenever the occasion presented itself: “You could be the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court if you wanted to be.” (Until 1981 at which point we learned we’d have to settle for Second.) My mother made sure to steer me in the direction of some wildcard careers, too, pointing out that I’d make a great eye surgeon because “Oh Jenny, you’re so good with your fingers,” and once even making me sit down to draw a cartoon for the New Yorker because “Oh Jenny, you can draw better than any of these guys.” A real estate lawyer whose idea of fun was (still is) pouring through a densely-typed annotated contract, she didn’t quite grasp that the creative industries could sometimes be a little more complicated than that.

Her relentless career-mapping didn’t stop just because I became a grown-up. If anything, it ramped up. When I was just starting out in magazines — I mean just starting out, like bottom-of-the-barrel starting out — she sent me an article in the New York Times that profiled the newly appointed glamorous editor-in-chief of a super high-end lifestyle magazine. (Back when there were such things.) This editor just had a baby and I remember reps from Prada and Calvin Klein falling all over themselves figuring out what to send the little boy for a gift. The editor was a Big Deal and her appointment was Big News. But according to my mom, whoever hired her for the job had made a mistake by not interviewing me, the girl who was in charge of editing the programming schedule for a cable TV guide.

“You would’ve been perfect for that job, Jenny. She reminded me of you. She sounds just like you.”

And then a few weeks ago, during a cold spell in February, Mom called to tell me that she had just watched someone on the Today show making macaroni and cheese — all in one pot apparently. “Oh you would’ve loved her. She was so natural and funny. I think maybe you should try to watch it. She was sweet. Just a doll. She was just like you.”

The seed she planted that time was probably not what she had hoped for. Instead of unleashing my inner Miss Jenny, I instead found myself obsessing over the idea of a one-pot baked macaroni and cheese. My nine-year-old loves Mac & Cheese but for whatever reason I find myself avoiding a homemade batch because of all the gear involved. I started experimenting, spending more time in the kitchen that I would ever admit to Sandra Day O’Connor (or my mother). I discovered that it was a great recipe for salvaging leftover heels of cheese (almost any combo of hard cheeses worked) and though I never quite pared it down to ONE pot, I streamlined it to the point where all the prep work could be done in the time it took for the pasta to cook. Which means I have that much more time to work on my New Yorker cartoons.

Please see Dinner: The Playbook for the Macaroni & Cheese recipe.

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Anyone Can Make This

April 22nd, 2013 · 27 Comments · Pasta, Quick, Vegetarian

I should qualify that a bit. When I say that “anyone” can make this, I suppose I should point out — before the haters do — that not just “anyone” would be able to figure out how to invert his or her wrist in a way that helps distribute a container of grape tomatoes onto a baking sheet. This technique, also known as “dumping,” involves a slight acceleration of the wrist, which helps direct the tomatoes onto the baking sheet and not flying across the kitchen at an errant trajectory. Oh…I guess it’s presumptuous of me to assume that pretty much “anyone” is going to own a piece of equipment as arcane as a “baking sheet.” For those of you who don’t own one, and who don’t live near a grocery store (a place where food and cooking miscellany is sold), I’m sorry. This recipe is probably not for you. Nor is it for anyone who has yet to master water boiling. Or pepper mill grinding. Or who hasn’t yet figured out how to transform a hard block of Parmesan cheese into snowy shreds, a technique known by many in the professional food world as “grating.”

But for everyone else in search of a quick dinner on a weeknight? This one’s for you.

Penne with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes
This recipe changes for us based on what kind of night it is. If you have some time, I advise slow-cooking the tomatoes for an hour and a half at 300°F. This results in blistered, concentrated tomatoes that fall apart beautifully when mixed into the pasta. If it’s a weeknight and you only have 30 minutes or so, proceed as directed.

1 16-ounce container of grape tomatoes (or however many you’ve got)
1 small onion, chopped roughly (ok, I admit, a little skill involved here, but minimal!)
4 tablespoons olive oil
a shake of red pepper flakes (optional)
salt & pepper
a sprig of thyme, leaves removed (optional)
1 pound penne pasta (I like the ridged kind, penne rigate, or orecchiette)
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

Preheat oven to 350°F. Dump tomatoes and onions on a baking sheet lined with foil. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, thyme leaves and toss with your fingers or a spoon. (Do this gently so you don’t rip the foil.) Bake for 25-30 minutes until tomatoes look shrivelly and brown but not burnt.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add pasta and cook according to package instructions. When draining, reserve a ¼ cup of pasta water. Place pasta pot back on burner over low heat and add butter and remaining olive oil.

Add penne back to the pot and toss with tomato-onion mixture and cheese. If it’s looking gloppy or sticky, add a little reserved pasta water to loosen.

Serve with additional grated Parm. If you are feeling indulgent, a dollop of ricotta is gonna be pretty excellent.

The post-roast. See how easy?

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Could Not Have Been Easier

January 10th, 2013 · 23 Comments · Pasta, Picky Eating

I guess it’s not breaking news that pasta dinners are faster than most, but because I tend to plan around the pasta-hater in my house, I don’t get to make these kinds of dishes as often as I’d like. And when I do, and they turn out as deliciously as this Orecchiette with Peas and Country Ham (Meal #2 of 7 in my Seven Days, Seven Dinners challenge), I am reminded why I keep trying to fight the good pasta fight. I love Orecchiette here because it scoops up the peas and ham without requiring too much concentrating. (Have you ever tried to have spaghetti with peas? By the time I’m done with dinner and all that twirling and scooping and balancing, my brain hurts.) We used some crazy mail-order country ham (more on that later), but any old ham or pancetta would be fine. Whatever works nicely on sandwich bread for lunch the next day — or in our case, whatever works nicely on sandwich bread for the diner not enjoying the real dinner at the table.

Orecchiette with Peas and Country Ham

1 pound of orecchiette
handful frozen peas to taste
salt and pepper
shake or two of red pepper flakes
olive oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
2 or 3 slices of Country Ham (or ham or a handful of pancetta pieces)
1/2 cup Parmsean, plus extra for serving
2 pats butter
handful freshly chopped mint or parsley

Cook pasta according to package directions.  When it has one more minute of cooking, toss frozen peas into the water with the pasta. Reserve about 1/4 cup of pasta water then drain in a colander, drizzling a little olive oil into pasta to prevent sticking. Return pot to the stove and over medium heat, add a few glugs of olive oil, onions, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cook about a minute, stirring. Add ham and cook until slightly crisp. Add pasta and peas to the pot and stir everything to combine. Add cheese and butter and a drizzle of reserved pasta water to make the cheese distribute evenly. Serve in bowls with more cheese and herbs.

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Jarred Pasta Sauce: A Taste Test

June 25th, 2012 · 50 Comments · Pasta

Sometimes I wonder if I’m channeling my culinary energies in the proper direction. Because when the kids come home from school (or camp, or whatever is ending at 3:00 these days) they sit down at the kitchen table and eat their after-school snack the way Mr. Fox does in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Which is to say, like wild beasts. Phoebe’s order is pretty typical, and simple enough for her to put together on her own: popcorn and fruit, cheese and crackers, apples with peanut butter. Abby, on the other hand, expects more. She expects nothing less than a big bowl of pasta, prepared a very specific way — with a pat of butter, a sprinkling of sea salt, and just a spoonful or two of tomato sauce mixed around until the whole thing looks “pink.”  This little tradition started about two years ago, right after I lost my job and realized that I had a much better shot of getting her to clean her plate at 3:00 than I did at dinnertime. Often Abby stands over me as I stir the sauce into her spaghetti or orrechiette or cavatelli, monitoring the progression in color until it’s just right. I’m not going to go into detail about why I have no problem giving her what calorically ends up being a fourth meal — all I’ll say is that it’s sorta doctor’s orders — but what I do have a problem with is whipping up a homemade pasta sauce for a snack, i.e. the meal that is supposed to merely tie one over until dinner a few hours later. And so this is how we’ve become jarred sauce afficionados — always on the lookout for a new kind to try from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, Stop & Shop or the local Italian Market. Once, at Stew Leonards, Abby spied a jar of marked-down Rao’s marinara, and you would’ve thought she had spotted the Pope himself. “Mom! It’s $3.99 for RAO’s. You can’t NOT buy a jar at that price!”

This is also how we found ourselves coordinating a blind taste test at the kitchen table on Saturday to determine which jarred sauce out there is the best. Or, to put it another way, which jarred pasta sauce is least likely to incur some kind of curse from the grave of my childrens’ two Italian Great Grandmothers. We spent a morning tracking down all the sauces that are readily available to us (including a pizza sauce from Trader Joe’s that Abby insists is the best) then, after dusting off my old Real Simple road test skills, I typed up a questionnaire for Abby, Phoebe, and their father. Each of the 10 sauces (including one quick-and-dirty homemade one I put together in 10 minutes, the time it takes to heat a prepared sauce) was spooned into its own Dixie Cup and served at room temperature. (No one knew which sauce was in which cup except for me.) The three judges were given ten small pieces of bread each, one to dip in each cup, and tested the same sauces at the same time, in between tastes, cleansing their palates with a sip of seltzer made with our brand new seltzer maker.

After each taste, the judges recorded some notes, gave the sauce a grade between 1 and 5, with 5 being the best, and 1 being the worst, then had to decide if the sauce should “go to Vegas” — which is So-You-Think-You-Can-Dance parlance for “go to the next round” and which, in the end, didn’t really mean anything but was still good for a laugh. We did conduct a Vegas round, but ultimately the winner was determined by adding up the point scores.

Above, the judges in action. Amazing how much you can get done on a Saturday afternoon when there are no organized sports to race off to.

The Results

The winner did not shock me — in my experience, Rao’s consistently trumps the competition in these kinds of contests. And amazingly, it can accomplish this without the massive amounts of sugars that helped  the two runners-up (Don Pepino and Newman’s Own) snag their victories. But what really surprised me here were the supposed gourmet brands that ended up being absolute doozies.  Take Whole Food’s Organic Classic Pasta Sauce, for example. Some of the words used by our judges to describe it? “Plasticky” and “artificial.” (Is this what you’d expect from their popular organic 365 line?) But at least that one was on the more affordable end of the spectrum  – the one that really made me mad was Mario Batali’s Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce, which I picked up at a specialty kitchen store for TEN DOLLARS. (Business expense, I told myself.) What did our judges have to say about this one? “Horrible. Spat in garbage” and “As if it was made in a test tube, designed by people who have never tasted actual tomatoes.” Even though the lowest point score one could dispense was 1, Abby decided nothing short of a negative 100 grade would express her disgust sufficiently.

As for my homemade sauce, which came in sixth — behind Ragu for chrissakes! — I’m just going to tell myself it’s a relief: Unless I have time to make it the real way, it’s not going to be good, so what’s the point?  Anyway, here are the full results of the test, in order from best to worst.

WINNER: Rao’s Homemade Tomato Basil
Overall Point Score: 12 1/2
Sugars: 3 grams
Sodium: 340 mg
“Best sauce ever. Fresh not too sweet — great flavor.”
“Tastes fairly real, nice texture.” (more…)

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One Meal, Three Ways

June 4th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Deconstructing Dinner, Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Pasta, Picky Eating, Quick, Vegetarian

If you asked 8-year-old Abby to list her favorite foods, I have a feeling the following would show up in the top ten: penne, fettucini, rigatoni, farfalle, gnocchi, orechiette, and (as of last week), cavatelli. I don’t know how much of this love affair is because she’s defining herself in opposition to her sister, a world class pasta hater,  but I do know that because of Phoebe’s refusal to touch the stuff, Abby doesn’t get a nice bowl of spaghetti and meatballs nearly as often as she’d like to. I also know that eliminating pasta from our dinner repertoire is not an option given how much Andy and I love it, and given how much the girls’ Great Grandmothers are named Turano and Catrino. So while the rest of us might get a nice bowl of cavatelli with spring asparagus, tomatoes, ricotta, and lemon, Phoebe would get something that looks like this:

Not bad, right? I might call this ricotta and tomatoes on baguette a first cousin of the real dinner.

And maybe I’d call this one a second cousin, which I might serve a toddler (or a pincer-grasping baby) who prefers his food equal but separate.

Pasta with Asparagus, Tomatoes, Ricotta & Lemon
This recipe has you tossing the aspargus in with the boiling pasta water which saves you a pot to clean. (You’re welcome!) For Version 2 dinner: toast a baguette, top with ricotta and tomatoes as shown. Drizzle with olive oil and some good sea salt. Serve asparagus on the side. For Version 3: I think you got that one.

Cook 1 pound pasta according to package directions. (We used cavatelli, but any kind will do.) While pasta is cooking, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Swirl a halved garlic clove in the oil just for a quick flavor hit, then remove. Add 1 1/2 cups chopped grape tomatoes (yellow or red), salt, pepper and cook until tomatoes are wilted.

During last three minutes that the pasta is cooking, toss in 1 bunch asparagus spears (chopped) to the pot. Drain pasta and asparagus together and immediately toss in with tomatoes, cooking until pasta is coated with tomato juice.

Remove from heat and toss in 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of ricotta (or to taste), 2 teaspoons lemon zest, salt, and pepper. (If it’s too hard to toss in the skillet, you can do  this in a large bowl.)

Serve with chopped fresh basil.

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Friday Reading

March 9th, 2012 · 11 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Quick

Are you guys following Joanna’s cooking series over at Cup of Jo? She’s 33, mother to a 1-year-old, and sick of not knowing how to cook. So in her words, her plan is “to try to master–really master–the classic recipes: scrambled eggs, mac n’ cheese, tomato soup, chocolate chip cookies, that kind of thing.”  Each week she’s highlighting a new recipe courtesy of her favorite food bloggers. This week The Wednesday Chef weighed in with ”the best tomato sauce you’ll ever have“ which does indeed look as though it lives up to its name.

Here are a few other things I’m excited about this week.

The new Everyday Food video series on youtube. Editor Sarah Carey makes dinners in (almost) real time. How easy does this this one look?

Jennifer Steinhauer’s ambitious attempt at recreating hostess cupcakes, Twinkies, and ho-hos in “It’s Not Junk if I Made it.

How many times have I announced to the girls that we are embarking on a baking project only to find myself abandoned in the kitchen as soon as something more interesting comes along? The upside, as Melissa Clark points out in her Hamantaschen story, is that when you’re in charge, at least “the cookies turn out very very good.”

Am I the last to know about this super simple starter? I think I’ll make it for my friends coming over for dinner tomorrow.

Caroline’s perfect avocado and celeriac sandwich.

Those of you following DALS on twitter know this already, but Bon App’s hoisin meatloaf was every bit as satisfying for last week’s Sunday dinner as I had hoped it would be.

I’m going to leave you with a few quotes I read in The Corrections last night. And then re-read and re-read and re-read until I came to terms with how good they were:

“Whether anybody was home meant everything to a house. It was more than a major fact. It was the only fact.”

And, on the next page: ”And if you sat at the dinner table long enough, whether in punishment or in refusal or simply in boredom, you never stopped sitting there. Some part of you sat there all your life.”

Have a good weekend.

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When the Pasta-Hater is Away…

March 5th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Pasta, Pork and Beef, Posts by Andy, Quick, Uncategorized

God knows, it’s not that I don’t love the kid. I have pledged my undying devotion to her here — she’s our firstborn, is kind to animals, has the soul of a poet, and is generally an all-around solid performer at the table. But Phoebe does not eat pasta. Phoebe, in fact, actively dislikes pasta. She hasn’t touched the stuff in five years. She wrinkles up her nose at the sight of it, says it’s slimy, boring, without flavor. I don’t know where she comes from, when she says things like this. The girl has not one but  two Italian grandmothers and she doesn’t like pasta? As they say in the Old Country, WHAT THE? To each her own and te gustibus and etc. — we all have our food bugaboos, and there’s no accounting for them – but the upshot of Phoebe’s pasta aversion is that Jenny and I, two lifelong pasta lovers, have basically given it up in the interest of family dinner harmony. (Hence the minimal pasta entries on the ol’ DALS recipe index. Apologies!) But then, last Saturday morning, Phoebe woke up with some kind of virus. “Churny,” is how she described the feeling in her stomach. She didn’t have a bite of food all day, and spent much of the afternoon in bed. You know it’s for real when Phoebe says dinner doesn’t appeal to her.

Again: I love her dearly and I evinced real sympathy for her plight, but I also chose to see this as a rare opportunity. Jenny was out with friends, so it was just Abby, me, and a bag of good linguine. Phoebe, nursing her mild fever, was fully laid out — a sad-eyed Lady with the vapors — on the kitchen counter, a couch cushion under her head, watching us as we cooked. As Jenny has noted here before, the recipe we settled on (below) looks so much more daunting, when you write it all out, than it actually was to pull off. This was a pure and simple pantry meal: we did no pre-planning, and no shopping. Everything we needed was already in the house — and most of it was frozen. When it came time to eat, Phoebe couldn’t bear to sit with us at the table: the sight of food, she said, would put her over the edge. So she sat in the TV room, reading Garfield under a blanket, as Abby and I tucked in. “How good is pasta?” I said to her, but she didn’t answer back. Her mouth was full. – Andy

Pasta with Vegetables and Pecorino

We used frozen corn and peas here, but you can use anything, really: broccoli would be good, as would spinach. You can also skip the pork at the beginning, but adding bacon in our house is like baiting a hook, and Abby can’t resist. So we went with the pork. Which doesn’t seem to gratuitous, as the chicken broth base makes this feel somewhat light, and a little bit healthy.

1 pound linguine
1/4 cup bacon, pancetta, or good country ham, chopped
1 shake red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 cup frozen corn
1 cup frozen peas
4 scallions, white and light green parts only, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon salted butter
Pecorino Romano, grated, in great quantities

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. While pasta is cooking, in a large skillet, over medium-low heat, cook bacon in olive oil with red pepper flakes, about 5 minutes. Add chicken broth and turn heat to medium. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, scraping any brown bits on bottom of pan as it cooks. Dump in peas, corn, scallions, salt and pepper. Stir and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Add lemon and butter, and stir until it’s silky and emulsified. Dump cooked pasta into skillet and toss with tongs. Serve topped with plenty of Pecorino Romano.

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Real Deal Bolognese

January 17th, 2012 · 59 Comments · Pasta, Pork and Beef

Like a lot of people I know, I returned from my first trip to Italy in 1993 determined to teach myself how to cook. The eating in Florence, where Andy was “studying” art for the summer, was so revelatory that I didn’t waste a whole lot of time once the wheels touched down Stateside. On the way home from the airport, I stopped by our local bookstore and found my friend Matt behind the counter. I asked if he could recommend a good Italian cookbook that might offer even just a hint of what I had just experienced across the Atlantic. As far as I know, Matt never cooked a thing in his life, but he will forever hold a special place in my heart because he handed me The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan, and, with the understatement of the decade, told me, “People seem to really like her.”

The name was familiar — Andy’s Aunt Patty had already introduced us to Marcella’s milk-braised pork loin — so I plunked down my five bucks for the mass market-y looking paperback, started flipping through it, and for almost twenty years have not stopped. That’s probably why the book, held together by masking tape, now looks like this:

It’s sort of like looking at Luca Bear, my daughter’s dingy teddy-bear lovey with the frayed bowtie that she has been sleeping with since she was 13 months. One look at him and you know that thing has been on the receiving end of some serious love.

The summer I first bought CIC, I tried out a few of the recognizable recipes — Tomato Sauce 1, Tomato Cream Sauce, Blender Pesto — making some real knucklehead comments in the margin as I went along. “Too garlicky” I wrote after adding three cloves of garlic to a tomato sauce that didn’t call for any garlic at all. Improvising with a Marcella recipe, I’ve since learned, is not something one does, unless one does not want to learn how to cook. You make the dish exactly the way she tells you to. In a nod to her shortcut-obsessed American audience, her headnotes are studded with phrases like “if you insist” and “if you are so inclined” (Fettucine with Gorgonzola Sauce: “You can try substituting domestic gorgonzola or other blue cheeses, if you are so inclined, but you will never achieve the perfectly balanced texture and flavor of this sauce with any cheese but choice Italian gorgonzola”), but the effect is the opposite of liberating. It makes you desperate to not disappoint her. (There are also many less passive instructions such as this one, under Mayonnaise: “I can’t imagine anyone with a serious interest in food using anything but homemade mayonnaise.”) The ingredients she uses in her recipes are all basic staples of any kitchen — butter, ground beef, salt, onions — which means that in order to yield the kinds of dishes that have earned her exalted status in the food world, it is absolutely imperative that you do not deviate from what’s written. For Hazan, who was trained as a biologist and went on to teach cooking classes in her New York apartment, it’s all about technique. When I do what I am told (literally leveling off two tablespoons of chopped onions), not only do I find  myself with insanely delicious dinners I’d be proud to serve to Grandmas Turano and Catrino, but I find myself a little smarter in the kitchen. Her bolognese, which you are looking at above, was the first Hazan recipe that we fell in love with for this reason. “It must be cooked in milk before the tomatoes are added,” she wrote. “This keeps the meat creamier and sweeter tasting.” And then: “It must cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is 3 1/2 hours; 5 is better.” We, of course, always do five. (more…)

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Perfectly Good

November 7th, 2011 · 27 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Posts by Andy, Quick, Uncategorized, Vegetarian

Every spring, growing up, my elementary school would put on a fifth grade Science Fair. They’d clear out the gym, bring in a bunch of those long cafeteria tables, and the fifth graders would file in early, groggy and grumpy, to set up their exhibits. Later that day, we’d take our places behind our posters and dioramas and baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes, as the rest of the school filtered through, pretending to be interested. My exhibit was a poster-board triptych about beach erosion, which is strange to me now, seeing as we lived nowhere near the beach and I gave not one fig about erosion.* The thing I remember most from that day, though, was not my lame poster or the sweet feeling of relief when the fair was finally over. What I remember most was an exhibit, a few doors down from mine, cheerily titled “Nuclear Winter.”

I wasn’t sure what nuclear winter was, exactly. Was it related to acid rain, that great scourge of the late 70s and early 80s? Was it the same thing as fallout? Would it require a bulkier winter coat? No, if this exhibit was to be believed, nuclear winter was something far, far worse. This was no shoebox diorama. This was, no exaggeration**, a 2×3 foot topographical model of a ravaged landscape. When nuclear winter came knocking, it announced, the world would turn the color of cigarette ash and bus exhaust. Human beings – those that survived – would be forced underground. The sun would be extinguished, winter settling in for the long haul. Here and there were shattered (painted plastic) tree trunks and a pile of rubble that was once a house. The boy who made the exhibit had strewn some white, stick-like things on the ground which, he said, were supposed to represent animal bones. Here was a simple law of nature that even a fifth grader could understand: without sun, there is no food; without food, everything dies. Call me sheltered, but this was a possibility I had not yet contemplated in life. What fifth grader does? Either this kid was the love child of Cormac McCarthy and Ingmar Bergman, or he was onto something real, in which case my family would need to be prepared. We had no stockpiles of food in our basement, only a workbench, a giant foam mattress, a pool table, and some old cans of Minwax. If nuclear winter hit and the animals died and our Safeway was reduced to a gray smudge, how would we survive? What would we do for food?

Thirty years later, I know exactly what I’d do: I’d head to my in-laws’.

Open the door to Jenny’s mother’s refrigerator, and this is – more or less – what you will see: very little that resembles what we think of as “groceries.” You will see orange juice and water, a tub of whipped cream cheese, and a smattering of condiments. But mainly, you will see endless bowls and plates and little glass dishes, all neatly covered in Saran Wrap, containing leftovers. A dessert plate with five green beans. A bowl with three flaccid strawberries. A plastic take-out container with two ounces of plain spaghetti, cooked, and another plastic take-out container with about four tablespoons of marinara sauce. One-third of a breaded chicken cutlet. Half a piece of French toast. A Chinese food carton containing a single piece of black-bean shrimp. A Ziploc bag containing one sad leaf of Boston lettuce. Enough hummus to satisfy a field mouse. A slice of honeydew melon, vintage unknown. None of this will go to waste, by the way. Not one bit of it will be thrown out. Everything here will be repurposed, over the coming days, into the brown bag lunches that Jenny’s mom has taken to work every day for the last 30 years. Think of it as leftover tapas. This is an actual picture I took at her house last weekend: (more…)

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Aren’t You Impressed?

August 10th, 2011 · 19 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Vegetarian

How…why….does one find oneself prepping homemade macaroni and cheese in a 425° oven on a 100° day when there is a perfectly fine box of 10-minute stovetop Annie’s Mac & Cheese in the pull-out pantry? It seemed so logical the day before when I made dinner plans out with my friend Elizabeth and her husband. I had a babysitter booked so I suggested they drop their kids at our place while the four grown-ups went out to a local Italian spot. I’ll make sure there’s dinner here for the kids, I offered. “George likes macaroni and cheese, right?”

“It’s his favorite thing,” said Elizabeth.

It’s not that I like Elizabeth more than most of my friends, but…well, maybe I do. And maybe that’s why, when she and her husband come over, I find myself splurging for the truffled Pecorino on the cheese plate instead of the aged gouda, or going out of my way to track down the delicate farmer’s market kale instead of the tougher Stop-and-Shoppy kind. Do you have friends like this? Who you want to impress? I mean, Who bring out the best in you? Everybody does, right? This is what I convinced myself when I was whisking up the bechamel at 5:00, boiling gemelli, cranking my oven past the 400-degree mark — because apparently 15 out of 20 days over 90 degrees in New York has not been hot enough for me. But, I have to say, 45 minutes later I did have a damn good looking baking dish of golden, bubbly mac-and-cheese to serve Elizabeth’s boys. So what if Elizabeth herself wouldn’t be eating it — she would see my macaroni magnum opus when she dropped them off and…I had to wonder where this thought was leading me. She’d see it and…what? Like me more? Seriously. Why? What the…? Who am I cooking for? What am I trying to prove? What is wrong with women? I don’t know a single man who would find himself in this position. Do you?

I got a call right before Elizabeth was due at my house. She was running late at work so her babysitter would drop the boys off and she would meet us at the restaurant. “Hope that’s OK!”

No. Nothing about this was OK. At all.

Mac & Cheese Notes

I followed Bittman’s recipe to the letter for this one. Except at the end, I use my friend Kate’s trick and crumble potato chips into the bread crumb topping. Also, I like prepping the M&C in advance when I’m entertaining families — it’s a nice “bridge” dish that can be the main for the kids and a side for the grown-ups. (Especially if BBQ chicken is on the menu.) Just prepare until the point where you top with bread crumbs, then refrigerate, pull out about an hour before you want to serve, and continue with instructions.

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For a Limited Time Only

May 9th, 2011 · 7 Comments · Grilling, Pasta, Posts by Andy, Quick, Sides, Salads, Soup, Uncategorized, Vegetarian

It’s Mother’s Day morning, and Jenny is standing over me with her iPhone, timing me as I type this. The goal is to write this post in seven and a half minutes or less, which is exactly how long it took us to get this dinner going the other night. So: have you had ramps before? We hadn’t either, as of three or four years ago. Were they the same thing as garlic scapes? Were they spring onions? Did you have to cook them first? All we knew was, they were one of those slightly mysterious things we’d heard serious food types talk about rapturously every spring, but we’d never willingly eaten one, let alone cooked one in the comfort of our own home. Thanks to some generous friends upstate, who happen to have them growing all over their yard, all that has now changed, and we’re here to say: ramps freakin’ rule. They’re a fleeting, fragrant, oniony-garlicky vegetable, also known as the wild leek, that pop ups every spring for a few weeks (if you’re lucky) and then disappears. They look kind of delicate, like green feathers, but don’t be fooled; these things announce themselves, flavor-wise. We’re now among the geeks who look forward to their arrival, spend time tracking them down, and then eat as much of them as humanly possible over their limited engagement in our lives. (Jenny just announced that I am about to pass the five-minute mark. “Hurry,” she says.) Anyway, ramps: They’re embarrassingly (more…)

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One Meal Fits All (Or: Whatever You Gotta Tell Yourself)

April 1st, 2011 · 28 Comments · Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Pasta, Picky Eating, Quick, Vegetarian

I think the surest way to ring the death knell on family dinner is to cook something different for every party present. It’s hard enough to get one dinner on the table let alone four, each of which may be greeted with groans or, worse, no comment at all. But considering that children (green-fearing, sauce-o-phobic, generally annoying children) are often the defining variable in the term “family dinner,” this can be a hard thing to get around. Luckily you are here, in the care of a family dinner expert, the author of not one, but (almost) two family dinner cookbooks, so pay careful attention to the hard-won, time-honored advice you are about to receive. The trick, I’ve decided, is to lock yourself into a state of extreme denial and then psyche yourself out with careful inner rationalizing every step of the cooking process in order to convince yourself that you are making one thing when in fact you are doing nothing of the sort. Behold last night’s dinner. I wanted — no, needed — my favorite ace-in-the-hole pasta: Whole wheat spaghetti with caramelized onions, spinach, and Parmesan. Even though Phoebe won’t touch pasta. Even though Abby loves pasta, but generally won’t eat this pasta unless it has a hint of sauce on it. (“Pink!” she commands.) But I plowed ahead anyway. Let me show you how it’s done.

Psyche-out Moment 1: I set four identical plates in a grid. This immediately creates the promise (illusion?) of uniformity and order.

Psyche-out Moment 2: I earmark the lower right bowl as Abby’s and spoon in just the right amount of spaghetti sauce — and a couple hunks of butter. This can barely be called “customizing” since it takes under 10 seconds.

Psyche-out Moment 3: I earmark the lower left bowl as Phoebe’s. And while, yes, the baked potato is not exactly the same thing as whole wheat spaghetti, it’s not like it took sooo much extra effort for me to chuck the thing in the oven at 400°F as soon as I walked in the door from work at 6:00. If I was editing this recipe for a magazine, I told myself rather convincingly, I would’ve just have to replace one word: “Pasta with Caramelized Onions, Spinach, and Parmesan” would be “Potatoes with Caramelized Onions, Spinach, and Parmesan.” And Sour Cream.

Psyche-out Moment 4: Pasta is done and plated in three out of four bowls. Onions and spinach are done and plated in three out of four bowls. Three out of four! Even though the two kids’ bowls are barely related to each other, each can lay claim to having one major component in common with the grown-up version. Right? Right? Right? Who’s the April Fool? Not me! (more…)

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