Tag Archive: flour


The most relaxing thing I have ever drank in my life is surprisingly not gin and tonic. Or a Tom Collins. It includes no alcohol in the least.

People who know me would then guess that tea is the most relaxing thing I have ever drank, but that’s not quite it either. While I profess a love for tea and follow it devoutly when I’m not drinking coffee to keep myself on a time table of epically challenging proportions. If I mapped it out, it would probably look like a two year old’s rainbow-colored scribble drawing. I would insist it was an elephant despite being nothing more than an incoherent network of haphazard lines. Apparently, this is just how the female brain works. It makes sense that my schedule, which revolves so heavily on my thought process to make and meet it, should resemble a tangle of yarn. Right? Tea smooths most of the kinks over and helps people unwind… or wakes me up if I’m drinking English Breakfast Tea. But in truth, the properties of tea, much like those of soup, are sometimes not enough to get the truly tough tangles out.

At times like that, I think of lavender, and I’m not talking about the smell.

Sure, lavender soap is awesome, and although there are more exposed nerve endings in the nasal cavity than there are anywhere else in the body, there are other ways of taking it in.

My hometown has a limited number of local tea and coffee establishments. Like many suburban towns, we are composed mainly of golf courses, subdivisions, strip malls, and fast food chains. I used to frequent one about twenty minutes away until their customer service went down hill. After three years of being looked down on for being a minimum wage worker at a pizza restaurant, I expect to be treated like a human being when I am being served at the very least. One of life’s greatest challenges is to respect people who cannot be bothered to at least make an effort to respect me. I personally don’t care if my server is old enough to be my mother. I am a paying customer. I had to put up with plenty of high school students as a pizza slave, disrespectful kids and people whose parents called me demanding to know why they were overcharged (and in the instance I am thinking of, I took the right amount of money; the parents simply assumed that I was wrong… but do I get to tell them that they’re dumb-asses? No! Instead, I have to act professionally and calmly explain that their son paid with the roll of quarters I supposedly. At least they admitted I was right, but still… stuff like that sticks like cheese sticks to the soles of shoes, filling all of the crevices. That kind of thing changes a person). I know friends who have had to deal with the same thing in reverse, middle-aged people who throw temper tantrums about stores being sold out of the television on sale when the flyer says, in fine print, “Limit 4 per store.”

In the hub of this tea shoppe, I discovered lavender lemonade. It was relaxation in a cup, a tranquil taste that followed me all night at work while I was dealing with the evening rush and the chaos at the counter and the testy customers.

At times, lavender lemonade is not practical for instilling a calming sense, particularly at the end of the semester, and particularly when it has to be portable. The conundrum I faced was transforming this relaxing substance into something class-appropriate. Of course, I didn’t have to bring something “British” to Victorian Literature, but since I’ve spent the past four years dabbling with it, studying it, savoring it, absorbing it–hell, living it, I figured I should live a little British on the cooking side as well.

With the help of the internet (my greatest sous chef aside from my three-quart aluminum sauce pan) and a little ingenuity, I found the answer in comfort food.

I’m talking biscuits. British biscuits.

To this day, the language differences between American English and British English fascinate me. The oddest of the bunch for me is the “jumper” (American: sweater) because I have always thought of Oshkosh when I hear the word “jumper” due to spending most of my very early childhood in them. I’ve very seldom been to the theater with friends, but I frequent the theatre, a spelling difference so minimal that it has become a habit. Others, I acknowledge without that little twinge of discomfort that jumpers cause, like the “x” in “connexion” and the “u” in “colour.” And, despite having family in the South, this semester in Victorian Literature educated me on the original meaning of “biscuit” (American: cookie). Not the most valuable lesson I learned in the course, but interesting enough to sprinkle on a blog post like sugar.

Since I had already made bread for my Writing Center coworkers and minestrone for my creative nonfiction course, I plotted something sweet to finish the week off with, a relaxing biscuit form of the beverage that soothed my troubled mind. Of course, eating lavender doesn’t appeal to everyone; in fact, after trying a sip of Maye’s pear and lavender martini, Caity told her (and later me) that it tasted like bath soap to her. I can’t rightly call it an acquired taste; it is just something that I happen to enjoy, sort of like the act of writing itself.  I went in with reservations and left with a new appreciation for something that I didn’t originally consider edible.

Now, if only I could have that same mindset with seafood…

Lavender Lemon Shortbread Biscuits
(Adapted from this recipe)

Close-up

Ingredients

  • 1 stick butter
  • ¼ cup and 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup corn starch
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp dried lavender flowers (most likely available at your local organic food store for a reasonable price)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Cream butter and sugar with a fork in a bowl.
  3. Combine flour and corn starch in a separate bowl.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Add lemon juice. Mix. I found it effective to use my hands in combining them.
  5. Add lavender.
  6. Flour work surface and knead dough 5 to 10 times.
  7. Pam the pan. Insert dough into pan and press into a uniform thickness of about ¼ inch. (Trust me… this is easier than rolling it out.)
  8. Prick shortbread with fork.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, carefully tap pan against the side of the oven to deflate it. Bake additional 10 to 15 minutes until cookies are golden brown.
  10. Sprinkle with remaining sugar. Let cool for 5 minutes. Slice cookies.

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Cooking is not a science. Some people say it is, but the truth—or my truth—of the matter is, there has never been anything scientific for me about cooking. I simply walk into the kitchen and observe. Look around me. What is available? I am a forger in familiar territory. My eyes have roamed these shelves more times than the Canadian geese have migrated. I just exaggerated a little bit, but it’s not technically lying if you’re just adding something to the truth, particularly if you’re a story teller. In the same way, cooking is not a science. I don’t let the truth, or a version of it, get in the way of a good culinary experiment. I suspect Benjamin Franklin did not expect lightning to strike his kite any more than Thomas Edison suspected the wire in his light bulb to glow. With cooking, it’s different. I expect the outcome to be positive in the most general sense of the word because I’ve combined ingredients that I like to eat and brought them together in harmony, sort of like a choir, only pleasing to all five senses rather than just the eyes and ears.

Granted, positive things don’t always happen when I mix two things together. I once had a hankering for something sweet and spicy, so I mixed some hot curry powder with creamy peanut butter. The problem is, I used too much and wound up with something that tasted vaguely of sawdust and cayenne pepper. Point taken: curry and peanut butter cannot simply be mixed together. My food taught me yet another valuable lesson.

But I didn’t need food to teach me mathematics. I needed a good high school calculus teacher and a good college calculus professor, and even by their powers combined, they couldn’t make me understand anything past series. Science requires precision, and cooking… well, cooking requires a lot of taste testing. Try that in a chem lab and let me know how it turns out.

I also didn’t need food to teach me philosophy, but it did help a little bit. You are what you eat, after all. I imagine that would make me some sort of chicken soup. Some days, I’m nothing more than ordinary chicken noodle. On others, I’m a zesty chicken chili. On others still, I must be chicken curry since I eat it for breakfast on occasion. In either case, I am an odd arrangement of ingredients that vary only slightly from day to day—and nine times out of ten, a recipe for disaster no thanks to some hereditary clumsiness.

I eat; therefore, I am.

People say baking is a science, too. An exact science. If you put a few extra drops of lemon juice in a batch of soup, then fine. It will be a little lemony. Toss in something to balance the flavor out, and life is good. But some extra flour in the cookie dough, a missing egg, and a sporadic oven, and suddenly, your warm, fluffy dough pillows turn into crumbly pucks of horror and sadness.

Fact: I am not a scientist. Last time I was in the chemistry lab, I nearly set the school on fire. Too bad my air-headed track athlete lab partner was cool-headed enough to turn off the gas. Otherwise, I would have been a hero among high schoolers for the first, and probably last, time in my life (because, at least in my high school, bookworms with straight A’s were hardly material for the “cool” table). I am a literary critic… I guess. That’s what you become when you finish master’s coursework in English, right? I approach recipes for baking the same way I approach recipes for soup, which I approach the way I approach prose: they are blueprints totally open to interpretation. And if my interpretation happens to include cloves where they were not included before, then who’s to stop me if the bread supports my reading?

Much like books, everyone has their own taste in food. Mine wavers somewhere between Italian, Mexican, and Japanese on most days, with heaps of soup and sandwiches to fill the gaps. The original more than likely holds enough interest, but I have a strange way of looking at the world. I read significance into things and savor contradictions the same way I do curry… although some days, I feel like the world is insipid as plain gelatin—or else it sets me smoking like a charcoal grill.

I’m not hard to please, but underneath all that literary critic frosting is a thin remnant of my childhood, the wafer of writer-ness that, like a Twinkie, will endure long past its expiration date. I was, and still am, a storyteller. Even in verbal recall, I can turn something as ordinary as going to the grocery store into a harrowing tale of how the lady on her cell phone was right in front of the stock selection and how some child in the produce asked his mom if they could have broccoli for dinner. Little facts like that stick with me, especially if they stir up some emotional reaction. Of course, by the time I retell the story, the lady with the cell phone will have been there for five minutes instead of 90 seconds. But then, I could get into the whole discussion of perceived versus actual time; it’s not a lie. It’s just my version of the truth, my perception.

I suppose food really has taught me something about that whole perceived versus actual time business, but perhaps I should save that for another blog entry.

I am not a scientist. I am an interpreter. I can’t be boxed in by lines and directions, but I can be inspired by them… hence, the creative nonfiction class. Of course, not crediting the inspiring force in some way is called plagiarism in my line of work (although I suppose creative writers call it artful stealing… or borrowing, depending on who you are). I saw a bread recipe on Stephanie’s blog, Modern Christian Woman, and I knew the minute I did that I had to try it, and as most interpreters do, I adapted this recipe to my diabolical purposes of feeding a hungry Writing Center staff during what would be my last end-of-semester party with them. They have given their heartfelt approval, and I pass it on to her with gratitude.

Interpreting is only half of my job, though. As a literary critic, I am expected to share my interpretations with others, for better or worse. After all, what good are two ginormous loaves of bread without a company to break it with?

Garlic Cheddar Herb Bread

(Inspired by Stephanie’s Recipe for Garlic Cheese Bread)

Epic Loavery

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp spicy Italian seasoning grinder spice (sold at Kroger, but you could easily add salt and red pepper flakes to Italian seasoning.
  • 3 tbsp, plus 2 tbsp shredded Parmesan and Romano cheese

Directions

  1. Heat butter, milk, sugar, garlic, and grinder spice in a small sauce pan until butter is melted. Let cool.
  2. Combine yeast and water in a large bowl and let dissolve. Trust me… use a large bowl. You will kneading (spelling intentional) it later. 🙂
  3. Add eggs, milk mixture, cheeses (reserve 2 tbsp of the grated, though) and half of the flour to the yeast. Mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add enough flour to make a dough (roughly an additional 1-2 cups).
  5. Knead dough for 7-10 minutes.
  6. Spray bowl with pam and return dough to bowl. Cover and let rise for an hour. The dough should double in size.
  7. Punch down dough. Remove from bowl and make two loaves of roughly equal size. Place on a cookie sheet, cover, and let rise again (about one hour). The loaves should again double in size.
  8. Give the bread a rubdown with olive oil. I did this with my hands, but a brush would work as well. Grind some extra spice on top. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Pat everything down nicely.
  9. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

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Did you ever wonder why hot dog buns come in packs of eight and hot dogs in packs of ten? I’m pretty sure it’s for the same reason that leeks only come three in a bunch at the local Kroger: to force people who hate wasting food, people like me, to get very creative with their cooking.

With hot dogs, the solution is easy. So you’ve got ten hot dogs and eight buns. You serve eight at a party, and cut the other two up and eat them for breakfast. It’s that simple. With or without beans. If you’re feeling creative, you can make little octopus wieners and draw little faces on them with ketchup or mustard. But because I made the mistake of reading the label once, I no longer face this dilemma. Hot dogs will not cross my threshold, and for a good reason. Kosher beef is an option, but how the heck would I make soup out of hot dogs, and how would I go about spinning kosher beef into a blog about chicken soup? It’s best for me to stick to those bags of frozen chicken breasts, which have significantly less fat… at least before I stick them in a cream-based chowder.

Leeks are slightly more difficult. I usually only cook once a week, and when I do, I go through the motions of cutting, peeling, dicing, slicing, sauteeing, and simmering. I do it with a smile or while singing slightly off tune, and I do it so I know I’ve got something good waiting for me at the end of the day. I’ve got this paranoia of illness. At this point in the semester, I know that catching anything will spell sudden death, so if I want to stay healthy, I feel the need to eat healthy, hence the soup.

The trouble with leeks is this: they are slightly more volatile than your everyday hot dog, and you can’t just fry a leek up and eat it (well, you probably could, but I would personally prefer to pair it with something… pasta maybe?) any more than you can just hack it up and put it on top of a salad (now that I think of it, that’s not a bad idea… I’ve never had a raw leek. I’m not even sure if they’re edible). This presents a troubling impasse of options for someone who wants a leek and hates to waste food, and the solutions I’ve come up with hardly seem adequate.

  1. Buy the leeks and throw the ranky ones away. It’s worth it for soup, right? Not at $3.00 a bunch, it doesn’t.
  2. Over-leek the soup. Of course, given the constraints of my personal challenge, this creates a bit of a problem. Over-leeking might create bigger problems.
  3. Get really sick of leeks by week 3. Grin and bear it… and make just one more recipe with leeks. Once the soup is done, proceed to the fridge for a celebratory shot of gin, maybe two. Completely lose the desire to think about leeks until you realize that you haven’t updated your soup blog in a timely fashion. Cuss. Cuss again because there’s simply too much shit to do. Grin and bear it. Write a blog entry and put leeks to bed for good… or at least for now.

I’m ready to leave leeks behind. They really have tested my creativity as a cook, pressed it to its utmost limits. I’ve had to grapple for solutions, altering one old recipe just to use one, then finally getting rid of the last one with an excellent fallback, once again from childhood, and once again because of my father. I was eleven when I was presented with what looked and smelled like an oversized green onion. “What exactly is this?”

“A leek.”

“A what?”

“A leek. It’s like a green onion.”

“What are you going to do with it?” I had just eaten lunch, but I was intrigued by this strange piece of produce.

“I’m making potato and leek soup.”

I knew what a potato was, so I had no doubt that it would be delicious, and I was not disappointed. My expectations were met and then some. I gave my compliments to the chef.

Maybe it’s his fault that I had a leek craving three weeks ago and had to go through the pains of finding really creative ways to use them up. Fortunately, this is the end of it. I am happy to report that the leeks are gone and that the cause of my cravings, in a roundabout way, prompted the solution to my problem. As I sat down with the first bowl, I thought of my dad, whom I would soon be seeing because of an impromptu Easter trip home, took a bite of my own efforts, and smiled. Even in the face of a hellishly busy week, I was happy to find that I was still happy to enjoy the little things in life.

Chicken, Potato, and Leek Soup for the Sole

The Eleventh Bowl

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 leek, washed and diced
  • 2 stalks celery, washed and diced
  • 1 mammoth potato, washed and diced
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1/8 cup flour

Directions

  1. Combine olive oil, spices, chicken, leeks, and celery in a pan. Sautee for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add flour to magical magnificent puddle of water from leeks, etc. Combine well.
  3. Add half and half. Whisk like the devil.
  4. Add chicken stock and continue whisking vigorously until all lumps of flour are gone.
  5. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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I am a square. A straight arrow. One of those people who colors inside the lines obsessively. If there is a rule, I will adhere to it with very few exceptions. If there are guidelines I don’t understand on a paper, I will gently pepper the instructor with questions for clarification. On occasion, I have been known to shift around policies without actually breaking them, but that’s only when I feel like I am to blame for a miscommunication with one of the Writing Center’s many online submitters.

One day, I came home from tenth grade and sat down at the table, and my dad said to me, “You’re such a good kid. Why the hell are you so good?”

“I don’t know.” I thought about it over an algebra problem. “Maybe I just want to make you guys proud, you know?”

“Well, that’s all good and well, but seriously… break the rules. Stir up some trouble. Start a fight.”

When he said that, a million little thoughts rushed into my head, thoughts I didn’t want to bring up.

The bullying stopped in ninth grade. From third to eighth, I was the center of attention, and not in a good way by the standards of the other children. I was hyperactive and bubbly on most days, but on others, I was overly sensitive. One look could make me cry. Quite frequently, I didn’t understand why I was in trouble since the other person was the perpetrator and, therefore, the ones to blame. Worse still, I took to new information like tomatoes to basil: we complimented each other perfectly. There were days when I had to redo homework, but only because my handwriting was messy from doing it on the bus. And because I worked hard, teachers liked me, and I liked them. I guess it got old in ninth grade. Most of the boys who tormented me had moved away, and the girls on the cheerleading squad finally decided they had more important things to do than tease me, and I had more important things to do than try to ignore them or come up with a witty reply on the spot.

I was seven when I got chicken pox. It was three days after my great grandfather’s funeral, and my cousins had bestowed the disease on me.  My second grade teacher, who I still occasionally contact for old time’s sake, made me a plate of fudge and called me at home to make sure I was doing well. Of course, I ate all of the fudge in one sitting and later threw it up, but that’s beside the point. The gesture said something about her view of me, and I liked what it said enough to make a poor life decision.

I had to come up with something better than that, though, something to prove to my father that I could make a little trouble when I felt like it.

“Well, what about that time in eighth grade I almost got a detention for swearing?”

He said it hardly counted, but it certainly counted for something when he got home that evening, namely a long and somewhat voluminous lecture on why young ladies shouldn’t say those words.

To hell with that. Between him and my mom, I am fluent in “sentence enhancers.” That whole “Do as I say, not as I do/Because I said so” thing doesn’t work with me… so maybe I’m a little less of a straight arrow than I first thought. I follow the rules, but only if there is a clear rationale for doing so, just as I work around them if the situation warrants it.

My most grandiose rebellion of all was becoming an English major. After one year of constant identity crises and attempting to follow parental expectations, I finally decided it wasn’t worth it and that I would do whatever the hell I wanted regardless of their approval or disapproval, so I quit school for a semester to sort everything out. Bad idea. I practically went stir-crazy. It only took me a month to figure myself out. English major it was, for better or worse. It has been almost seven years since then, and I have no reason to regret rebelling. I’ve earned an opportunity to do something incredible with my life through the very same degree that my parents nearly convinced me not to get.

This week, I decided to break the rules… a lot. Like, to the point where I am expecting my dad to show up on my doorstep to set me straight. I’m expecting at least one comment that says, “How dare you?” Let it be known that I know gumbo is not an Italian dish but Cajun or Creole, and let it also be known that I couldn’t care less. For one thing, I happen to dislike Cajun food, granted I haven’t had much of it. The closest I have probably gotten is Frogmore Stew, which not only does not contain “Frogs” or “Frogmore” and is notably not a stew at all since it does not have a thick stock but a thin and runny broth that tastes like a salt lick infused with Cajun seasoning. If you think about it that way, my “gumbo” is more a gumbo than Frogmore “Stew” is a “Stew.” Italian food is just… better to my palette. My mom jokes that she should have been born Italian. I still wonder why she didn’t marry into an Italian family, but that’s just the way things go, I suppose.

But there was another influence on my decision this week. Cooking meals for yourself means that if you buy a package of five Italian sausages, you inevitably have two left over when you’ve finished making baked penne, and when when there are two perfectly good pieces of Italian sausage hanging out in your freezer, what else can you use them for but something Italian?

Somehow, the kitchen has put me in some paradoxical space between rule-follower and rule-breaker, and I am enjoying every bite of this gray area.

Italianesque Chicken and Sausage Gumbo for the Sole
(With Basil Lemon Risotto… also for the Sole)

The Ninth Bowl

Let’s start with the gumbo…

Ingredients

  • 3 Chicken Tenders
  • 2 Italian Sausages
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 leek
  • 1 yellow squash
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/8 cup flour
  • ½ a bunch of fresh basil

Directions

  1. Defrost chicken and sausage. Cube chicken. Sauté in pan with sausage.
  2. Add garlic. Sauté for an additional 1-2 minutes.
  3. Combine flour, butter, and oil to make a roux. Add chicken stock and whisk.
  4. Remove sausage from pan and slice into ¾ inch pieces (don’t panic if it’s not cooked all the way through).
  5. Add crushed tomatoes and Italian seasoning. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  6. Add squash and leeks. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
  7. Add basil and turn off heat. Let sit for two minutes.
  8. Serve with Basil and Lemon risotto… because it is gumbo, after all.

…and add some risotto!

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken boullion
  • 2 ½ cups water
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 1 cup arabiatta rice.
  • ½ bunch of fresh basil
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • ¼ Grated parmesan

Directions

  1. Combine olive oil, lemon juice, chicken bouillon, and water in a pan. Heat to a boil.
  2. Add arabiatta. Cook uncovered for 16 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. When the cooking liquid is gone, add basil and Parmesan. Stir. Serve with gumbo. It also tastes good by itself.

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Sometimes, a soup receives a name, and sometimes, a soup names itself.

There comes a time in every sole chef’s life that they realize they have purchased a little too much at the grocery store. It is admittedly difficult for someone to buy food just for one person, particularly when his or her appetite fluctuates so greatly. One week, I will be chowing down on everything in sight. The very next, I will be averse to the mere thought of victuals. Since my departure date is pending and will be no more than five months away, I have to be extra careful about what I buy and in what quantity because I doubt I can transport a freezer full of food home even with my parents’ help. Even more pressing still is the absolute fact that my tastes vary greatly from my dad’s. My love affair with lentils and soup and chicken are all inexplicable to him; on most days, he would rather have beef or pork, both of which seldom occupy any space in my fridge or in my stomach, even when I decide not to cook. And don’t even get me started on curry. I could probably eat curry every day, but I refrain for the sake of variety. Good thing I have friends who appreciate it as much as I do, willing participants in my culinary experiments.

Unfortunately, the number of friends I have who appreciate vegetables is significantly lower, and I am thankful for those that do. It gives me a reason to use an extra onion in the stir fry or an extra few stalks of celery in the soup, because celery is horribly volatile and goes bad quickly despite its necessity.

Bottom line: I opened the fridge when I got back from my visit home to find the red bell pepper I had bought a couple weeks before and thought, “I need to use this.” The same went for the celery I had just purchased, volatile but absolutely necessary for my cooking endeavors, and the carrots, which I had just bought more of due to a cognitive slip at the grocery store and my failure to generate a list beforehand. I followed the trail to half a pint of half and half, an open box of chicken stock, and finally to the freezer, where there lurked all manners of frozen vegetables that were just begging to be used. The trouble was getting this mish-mash of ingredients to cooperate with one another in a dish. I was daunted by the impossibility of making these ingredients work with one another. How would I turn this discord of ingredients into something palatable enough to be exposed to the public eye and tongue?

The solution rested in an old British ballad and a quartet of spices.

Several days after my culinary adventure, I was having a conversation with my most loyal reader, who never fails to comment on my posts… never mind the fact that I may or may not have bribed her with soup. “What are you doing?”

“Eating leftover soup. This week, it turned out really well.”

“Really? What kind of soup is it this time?”

“Chicken and Rubbish soup,” I answered. “Though I’m a little hesitant about the name.”

“Why?”

“Well, I called it that because I basically used everything in my fridge that I would have thrown away otherwise. Still, the word ‘rubbish’ might throw people off. It has a bit of a negative connotation.”

“Well, I like it. I think it’s funny.” She would, too, since we have practically the same sense of humor. We are the ones who needed nine rounds of rock-paper-scissors to determine who got the first slice of pizza because of eight consecutive ties. “It’s a good selling point. It will make people wonder what’s in it.”

“In other words, it’s good advertising?”

“Exactly,” she answered.

When the idea for this soup first came to me, the nascent conception of this dish told me exactly what it would be called. It was not a matter of determining a more euphemistic term but of taking a risk on a word that could either revolt or charm and combining it with something canonical enough to convey the right meaning.

Scarborough Fair Chicken and Rubbish Soup for the Sole

The Eighth Bowl

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken fingers, frozen
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • ¼ cup carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • ½ red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 cup flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp parsley
  • 2 tsp sage
  • 2 tsp rosemary
  • 2 tsp thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/8 cup frozen corn
  • 1/8 cup frozen green beans
  • 1/8 cup frozen peas

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, sauté onions, carrots, celery, and spices in olive oil for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add butter and flour. Make a roux.
  3. Whisk in chicken stock, lemon juice, and half and half.
  4. Add frozen chicken fingers. Cook for about 30 minutes until chicken is done.
  5. Remove chicken and shred. Return to pan.
  6. Add bell pepper and frozen veggies. Cook for an additional 10 minutes.

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“To every thing there is a season.”

-Ecclesiastes 3:1

I have a confession to make. I have lived in Michigan for twenty-one years, and I’m pretty sure I hate winter more than I hate politics. Both have nearly ruined me as a human being.

I can never be right in politics no matter how hard I try. Maybe that’s why I quit trying.

Seven years before coming to grad school, in a time when I was a budding academe, I decided to attend my final astronomy lab despite the white-out conditions we were expected to get. I watched the road vanish under threads of snow as I drove. They wound and unwound together with every passing vehicle.

The lab lasted for two hours. In that time frame, the world became an impassable blank screen. My fair-weather drive home was twenty minutes. This time, it took me an hour and a half. I cruised at the speed of twenty-five miles an hour with my teeth clenched and my arms tensely glued to the steering wheel. Every time I hit the brakes, I prayed to God that I wouldn’t skid into the intersection or get rear-ended. Every turn was a white-knuckled tango with old man winter. Four-wheel drive SUVs sped past my 1997 Plymouth Neon and cast a blanket of snow over my slow-moving car. I would have given anything to see them roll into a ditch.

Have I mentioned that my battery light was on the whole way home?

Neons have a few nasty habits, but one of the worst is corrosion on the poles of batteries. A bluish or greenish chalky substance forms around the poles and cuts current to the rest of the car but only if the car isn’t running already. For some reason, it reminds me of cocaine. It certainly cuts the car’s capability to function.

When I got home, my parents told me, “You shouldn’t have gone out in that shit, but I’m happy you’re home.”

I responded, “I didn’t really have a choice, now, did I? I had to turn in my final project or else get docked for being late.”

Our conversation is a real show of values. The way I see it, they have no sympathy for someone who (in a manner of speaking) wades through a bunch of shit to ensure success. My rebuttal says that I value success more than self-preservation.

You would think by now I had learned my lesson, but no… schoolwork comes first no matter where I go. I expect to piss a lot of people off during Spring Break because of it. Then again, they aren’t the ones with the mile-long to-do list mocking them every step of the way.

Ultimately, my season of reprieve will come when I have that fancy piece of paper in my hand, the one that says, “I did a bunch of shit while putting up with even more shit from people who don’t get it. Here’s the document saying I did so with the president’s John Hancock and the official University seal.” Until then, I will be in a perpetual season of work regardless of what it’s doing outside.

I said earlier that I hated winter, but there are things I like about it. No, it is not the damn snow or the laughing children who play in it. It is not building my upper body strength by scraping an inch of ice off of the car or earning my badge of courage by wading through an ice-encrusted campus to retrieve a graded final paper.

Winter is not just snow season.

It is asparagus season.

Suddenly, the Filet Mignon of vegetables drops in price from an average $3.00 a pound to anywhere between a dollar to a dollar and a half. Aside from the pine trees, it is the only green thing in sight, and as far as soup goes, it is far more valuable to me than a Christmas wreath… unless it were a Christmas wreath made of asparagus. Now, that would be something.

I have assigned my own significance to winter. When the snow hits the ground as it did this past Friday for practically the first time all winter, I had only one thought on my mind.

Curry.

Last year, Michigan was buried under an obscene number of snow storms. Several Tuesday evenings were buried under about nine inches of the white, powdery stuff, and unlike my first institution of higher learning, this one values the lives (and probably wallets) of its denizens. Classes were cancelled for two Wednesdays, and on one, they were delayed until noon.

I woke up at seven-thirty on the first occasion and blinked against the blue-gray stuff that would grow to a white glare as the sun continued to rise. How could the world change so much in eight hours, and how could I be so oblivious to it? Granted, I have been more oblivious to more pressing changes like current events, but the snow reminds me just how blank my days among the books really are.

What could I do to liven things up?

The answer is curry. It is practically always curry. I used what I had on-hand since the roads were impossible and cooked a double-batch. During Snowmageddon: The Sequel, I thawed out the leftovers. In both instances, I devoured a bowl of the luscious, exotically flavored concoction while working on onlines attempting to get a clue about genre analysis, which I’m still not entirely sure I understand despite what my academic record says.

This past Friday was a particularly bad day for snow because I had to trek across campus in backless heels and a dress coat. I was one of six Writing Consultants selected to workshop with students competing in the New Venture competition. “New what?” a friend of mine asked during our weekend phone conversation.

“New Venture. Business students basically pitch ideas for companies. They compete nationwide for the top prize of $30,000.”

“And you had to dress up for this?”

“Yeah… apparently, someone who went last week wore jeans and never heard the end of it.”

“Oh… was the student you worked with dressed up?”

“Well.” I’m loathe to say it. I’m loathe to even write it. “Ironically, he was wearing pajama bottoms and a hoodie.”

I feel like I was duped into wearing those backless shoes. Winter tricked me, so what better way to get back at it than to show it that I have enough control to cope with its shenanigans? I turn up the heat a few notches on Sunday morning and get to work. For the next few days, I will be enjoying curry asparagus soup in the hopes that it will discourage this season enough to stay away until I am safe at home for Spring Break, engaged in doing exactly what I would be doing if I were snowed in at Mount Pleasant.

This bowl is a minor triumph over circumstances beyond my control.

What now, winter?

The Sixth Bowl

Curried Chicken and Asparagus Soup for the Sole

(Based very VERY Roughly on Slightly Plagiarized From Inspired by This Recipe)

Ingredients

  • 3 chicken tenders, defrosted
  • 1 lb asparagus
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, separated into 1 tbsp portions
  • ½ tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp garam marsala
  • ½ tsp black pepper

Directions

A Cautionary Foreward: For those of you who have not cooked with asparagus before, the bottoms can get a little, shall we say, woodish. I’m talking “chewing on a Popsicle stick” woodish. Unless you enjoy gnawing on lumberesque substances, I would recommend breaking one stem beforehand and then chopping the very bottoms off. See pictures two and three in the slideshow for a detailed shot.

  1. Dice chicken into cubes.
  2. In 3-quart sauce pan, brown chicken in olive oil. Dice asparagus.
  3. Once chicken is browned, add garlic. Saute for additional 1-2 minutes until garlic is golden.
  4. Add butter, remaining olive oil, and flour. Mix well to make a roux.
  5. Add chicken stock to pan and whisk until roux dissolves.
  6. Add cream, lemon juice, curry, and garam marsala. Simmer 25-30 minutes until chicken is tender.
  7. Add asparagus. Cook until crisp-tender (about 10-15 minutes). Add black pepper to taste.

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Today, I spent two and a half hours shopping for a pair of shoes.

Very soon, I will be going back to Chicago for a second interview that could send me packing my bags and engaging on my first ever international travel, not as a vacationer but as an employee. I took a lot of things away from the first interview in November, the one where I applied too early and was thus simply invited back to an interview without having to reapply. Be as direct as possible. Stand so you possess more authority. Japanese students will generally not question the teacher because they respect you too much to. Speak slowly. Don’t wear a black blazer because every other company in Japan does. Oh, and backless shoes are not part of the dress code.

Damn it.

Since this interview is in two weeks and Monday is the new Sunday, I went on a hunt. Five stores and one-hundred fifty minutes later, I satisfy myself with a pair of heels that have textured bottoms and that are just comfortable enough to get the job done without making me want to tear them off.

I am certain that I was “that” customer today.

For those of you who have never worked in customer service, there are customers who simply have an aura of discontent about them. They think everything is too expensive and that nothing is ever good enough. At Pizza Hut, “that” customer was the guy who, five minutes after placing a counter order on a busy Saturday night when we were understaffed, came back for his food, and when told it would be out in another four to five minutes, said, “Lady, I just want my food.”

“That’s fan-frelling-tastic, asshole. Sit the hell down and I’ll pull it out for you, but you’d better not bitch that it’s undercooked.”

As much as I’d like to say I said this to his face and then stormed back into the kitchen, I shamefully admit that it didn’t, but it would have made for a great story, wouldn’t it have? Instead, I said, in my sweetest voice possible, “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve got some new people working the kitchen and we’re really busy tonight. It will just be another few minutes.” He shook his head in dismay and disappeared back into his black pick-up. The other customers waiting at the counter stared at me in amazement, and one or two jaws dropped a little. Here I am, a 20-year-old wearing a work shirt with holes down to practically my waist in the arm pits, a hat that looks like it had an unfortunate encounter with a steamroller, and not one ounce of make-up. By that point in my career, used to juggling “that” customer, who thinks everything in the universe should revolve around him, with the more patient and understanding patrons. I’m glad I could demonstrate the fact that despite my minimum-wage, thankless job, I was more than competent enough to put up with “that” customer while maintaining professionalism.

A middle-aged woman approached the counter to pay for her carry-out order. “I’m sorry he was so rude to you.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it,” I reply. “I deal with people like him a lot in this line of work.”

My journey for the perfect shoes began at Kohl’s. After seeing a rather obnoxious commercial and being cheated out of a pair of sketchers by some rain check error and a lack of communication, I swore I would never go back, but a shoe sale enticed me.

Fact: Shoe sales are terrible ideas. They only occur when the most frequently worn sizes are gone, and for some reason, everyone deems it necessary to bring their screaming kids, which mingle well with neither PMS nor hunger.

Fact: You will inevitably find a pair of shoes you like, only to learn that a) the only pair left is the display pair, which are ALWAYS size 6 to 7.5, b) there is one pair of boots on clearance that, if your foot were only one quarter of an inch thinner, those boots would come home with you, or c) learn that they only come in brown.

There was only one thing to do: pick up and move on to Shoe Sensation, the equivalent of the second circle of Hell. At least here, I found shoes that fit, but they were shoes I could never have… at $70 a pair on clearance. The gentleman who helped me had a lisp like lavender and enough patience to make me regret not buying anything.

Cue stop number 3: JcPenney. I have had good luck with them before, but I neglected to remember that the one in Mount Pleasant, for some unfathomable reason, does not carry wide shoe sizes. Apparently, natives of this town all have skinny feet. But seriously… shoes aren’t like cabbage. They don’t have an expiration date. At the very least, they could carry a couple of pairs in wide for foreigners like me.

On a whim, I stopped into K-Mart. They have nice sandals, so I figured it was worth a shot, but the only pair that fit me was this hideous navy pair that woudln’t really compliment anything I plan on wearing.

By some miracle, I found a sufficient pair at Payless. It is the second time they have saved my ass for an interview of this nature.

Buying shoes is such a damnable task. After spending the day as “that” customer, I sit down to a bowl of the chicken and dumpling soup I cooked yesterday, realizing as I devour the bowl that this soup will always succeed where shoes will fail: it will always be a comfort, and it will always help me stand through any challenge, whether that is a to-do list near completion or an interview that threatens to change my life forever.

Chicken and Dumpling Soup for the Sole

(Based roughly on this stew recipe.)

The Sixth Bowl

Ingredients (S0up)

  • 3 Chicken Tenders, Frozen
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ teaspoon dried basil
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ cup baby carrots, cut into round discs.
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, diced

Ingredients (Dumplings)

  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 ½ tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley

Directions

  1. In a 3-quart sauce pan, combine broth, bay leaves, basil, and thyme.
  2. Add frozen chicken tenders and cook for about 20 minutes.
  3. While chicken is cooking, combine flour, salt, pepper, parsley and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Cut butter through flour with a fork until small lumps form.
  4. Add milk and mix until dough is combined. Set aside.
  5. When chicken is finished cooking, remove from pan. Shred chicken. Add vegetables and chicken back to pan. Cook until veggies are approaching tender (about 15 minutes).
  6. Form ½ inch balls with your hands and a fork/spoon and drop dumplings into broth. Cook uncovered for about 5-10 additional minutes.
  7. Optional: If soup has not thickened to desired consistency, add 1 tablespoon corn starch to cold water. Stir in and cook for an additional two minutes.

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I just bought my first box of saltines since 2010. These crackers are fit for all manners of cheese, particularly those deli slices of colby or colby jack. They are also fit for my off-brand peanut butter. And if I am having a bland day, I’ll eat them plain. They are, in short, the ideal snack food because of their versatility. They don’t taste like anything and can therefore be topped to the choosing of the consumer, or else devoured naked in times of duress to satisfy a salt craving.

But they are not fit for my soup.

Imagine, if you will, building a house (or any sort of structure, which, for the record, you don’t want my help with. I will make your construction gents lemonade and feed them with whatever I have on hand, but if you give me a hammer, I will somehow manage to lodge it in the concrete foundation or get it stuck in the PCP pipe… never mind how. I will manage. Trust me.). Now, a house is a very personal thing because it needs decorated and furnished with lots of stuff that speaks about who you are. You put stuff in it. Make it your own. Hang pictures on the walls. Throw area rugs on the floor. I’ve seen this happen with soup: some people delicately dip their crackers as they do biscuits (re: cookies) into tea. Others feel more destructive and crush the offending wafers to a fine powder, then sprinkle their remains into the bowl like the ashes of a cremated fisherman. As for me, I’m a dipper, and if I get oyster crackers, I will eat them prior to taking the first bite of the soup.

Returning to my point: say you’re at a diner and you order a bowl of soup. It looks a little like Progresso. This calls for some crackers, as they are the closest thing to pleasant texture you are guaranteed to get out of that bowl.

Say you’re in Mount Pleasant at The Brass Café, and you order your nine dollar sandwich with soup (which you always should at The Brass). You order the three bean (you’ve already had the chicken and rice once before, and it was good, but you’re looking for something a little different). It comes out. It’s tomato based and spicy enough to make your nose run a marathon but not spicy enough for you to lose IQ points by continuing to eat it. Aside from cooling your mouth with the water you ordered, you cut the flavor’s intensity with the crackers. Joy and bliss ensue as you finish the soup. It’s nice soup, and you don’t really have any alternatives for dipping because you bought it from someone else.  Similarly, when you buy a house, you don’t have much choice of what’s already in it, but you can change it once it belongs to you.

Just so with my soup. I spend a good, hard hour and a half in the kitchen manufacturing the Monticello of soups (I wouldn’t compare it to the Sydney Opera House or Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff, but in terms of quality, it’s decent enough to be a Monticello), cutting vegetables into uniform chunks and turning my little slice of heaven into the Tower of London by torturing myself half to death with the smell of it cooking. The last thing I want to do is default to painting all of the walls white and buying my furniture from WalMart (unless your wallet necessitates it, which, if you’re building the Monticello, I doubt you are in poverty). I don’t cook anything I don’t like, and I happen to enjoy my soup quite a bit. In fact, it’s probably my favorite thing to eat. So, if I’m spending that much time on my soup and plan to dunk something in it, why not make it something worthwhile?

Generally, I think soup is fine as it is and doesn’t need any help, especially if I’m in control of everything that goes into it. In week 2, I bought a nice bakery loaf of multi-grain bread to go with my chicken broccoli-cheddar soup. This week, just before going to work on my chipotle chicken chowder, I decided that something delicious needed to go in there, and what better than some garlic-cheddar biscuits? They’re the only reason I ever want to go to Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday’s (I’m still weary of fish, and while Ruby Tuesday’s has a decent salad bar, I personally think that Bennigan’s has better burgers), and if I had know they were so easy to make, I would never have had a reason to set foot in either establishment in the first place (if not for Ruby Tuesday’s Salad bar, that is).

Although I don’t trust in skinny chefs, I do believe in eating healthy, so I’ve altered a recipe I found online to omit the butter (gasp), and they turned out fine. The world did not careen off of its axis or anything drastic like that, and I didn’t miss the butter flavor once I sopped these in chowder stock. I would call them Monticello windows, but that’s carrying the metaphor too far, don’t you think?

Chipotle Cheddar and Garlic Biscuits for the Sole

The Finished Product

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. canola oil / butter
  • 1 tsp. olive oil / more butter
  • 3 tsp. parsley flakes (reserve 1 tsp.)
  • 3 tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ cup shredded chipotle cheddar cheese

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, 2 tsp. parsley flakes, and garlic powder.
  3. Add oil and milk. Mix thoroughly with a fork.
  4. Fold in cheese.
  5. On a baking sheet, spoon dough.
  6. Top with olive oil and remaining parsley and pat down lightly.
  7. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Yields 9-10 biscuits, just enough for me to perform quality control.

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I went to Panera Bread for the first time as a freshman in high school with a friend of mine and her mother in the days before I understood that restaurants would customize your order. When I first saw the menu, I had no idea what to buy. I hated mayonnaise with a passion (and still do with few exceptions), and practically every sandwich on the menu utilized one form or another as a condiment. Worse still, practically everything had tomatoes, a food that, in its raw form, is only just now becoming tolerable to me at the age of 24. I gave the menu one of my blankest looks, much like the one I would give my calculus text book three years later. I had been ordering for myself at restaurants for probably six or seven years at that point and cutting my own meat for a year longer, but thus far, I never had to make such a life-altering decision in my brief and sheltered existence.

“The broccoli cheddar soup here is really good,” my friend insisted.

I confess I was dubious. “The problem is I don’t really eat a lot of raw cheese, so I’m not really sure if I’d like a soup with a cheese base.” I associated any sort of “cream” soup with the milk and roux mixture we served at home. Chunks of potatoes or broccoli floated around in milk broth, but I canned up my complaints about the flavor to avoid offending the chef, whether that was my mom or my dad. Uttering one word of disdain was like cranking a pan full of spaghetti sauce on high and simply walking away from it: if I spawned more heat and threw off the equilibrium, the white stove top of a calm evening would look less like an appliance and more like a massacre. Of course, I only mean words, but as the only child, I tried to keep parental perturbation down to a minimum.

I wasn’t seeing any other solutions to the problem, and the menu wasn’t responding to my glances. “Get it in a bread bowl,” she suggested. “At least try it.”

Fortunately, this was before Panera became less restaurant and more madhouse. There were only a handful of customers already dining, and we were the only ones in line. It was about 11:30. Nowadays, there aren’t even any tables left at 11:30, and the line of diners stretches helter-skelter towards the door. I placed my order and got a glass of water to accompany my lunch.

If I had to choose one word to describe my first encounter with that soup, it would have to be euphoric. I became more attached to it, ordering the dish every time we visited the restaurant (until I discovered the Sierra Turkey sandwich; then, I began alternating between the two).

A few years ago, this friend added a little too much heat to my stable existence, and I simply rammed her into the back of my subconscious, relegating her to the bottom shelf and cutting all ties. The problem was that as we grew older, I aged like a barrel of wine: I was cumbersome and still had a very limited perception of the world, but my flavor was developing, changing, growing, and (hopefully) improving. I began to see the world through glass that was not rose-colored. I labored at a Pizza Hut, tolerating my menial minimum-wage job, disdaining my slacking coworkers, and at times wanting to toss a full vat of sauce on the customers. People were not all nice, and life was not easy. Conversely, she aged more like a Twinkie. As another only child, she lives in a smaller container than I do, a plastic wrapper where she sees the world not quite as it is but how she wants to. She was preserved by an abundance, and maybe an overabundance, of affection. I saw ugly sides of her that I will never share with anyone else, and those sides reminded me that unlike her, I had to earn my gas and spending money. She got sizable handouts of money from her parents regularly, but for me, every dime was a drop of sweat, every quarter a rock of the knife on the board, every dollar a spot of hot oil singeing my flesh and leaving small, white, dalmatian-spot scars.  She still appears in my dreams sometimes, usually as an antagonist, and when I wake up on mornings like that, I find myself wondering if she ever changed.

Although my relationship with this particular friend came to an abrupt end and I no longer frequent Panera, my bond to broccoli-cheddar soup grew infinitely stronger when I found this recipe and began making my own. I actually prefer my own broccoli-cheddar soup to Panera’s because the broccoli is chunkier and never overcooked.

Mount Pleasant is rumored to be getting a Panera Bread in the next six months. I jokingly tell people that the reason they don’t have one already is because I can make their broccoli-cheddar soup better than they can. It seems odd to me that Panera is just now coming here when I’m getting so close to leaving, so maybe there is some truth in this.

But it’s probably just a coincidence.

Chicken and Broccoli Cheddar Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 4 baby carrots, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 2 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 4 oz fresh broccoli, chopped
  • 2 tsp butter, separated into 1 tsp portions
  • 1 ½ tsp flour
  • 1 pint half and half
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp nutmeg

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, melt 1 tsp butter. Add onions and cook until onions are caramelized.
  2. While onions are caramelizing, defrost chicken tenderloins in microwave for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter and mix with flour. Cook for 1-2 minutes until flour/butter mixture is pasty and golden.
  4. Add chicken stock to the pan and whisk until roux is fully dissolved. Add half and half. Lower heat to a simmer. Dice chicken and add to pan. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  5. Add carrots and celery. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Add broccoli. Simmer for another 15 minutes.
  7. Add sharp cheddar in ¼ or ⅓ cup batches. Whisk each batch until it is fully melted and combined with the cooking liquid.
  8. Add nutmeg and black pepper. Serve with crusty bread.

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