Healthy Italian Cooking at Home

Host A Mardi Gras Themed Dinner Party

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Millions of people flock each year to New Orleans to celebrate one of the biggest events in the city: Mardi Gras. This holiday revolves around parades, costumes and lots of traditional food. The problem, however, is that many of us don’t have the time to fly down to the Big Easy for this special event. While you may not be in New Orleans for Fat Tuesday fun, you can bring the fun to your living room or backyard.

Make your Mardi Gras party a masquerade and ask people to wear masks and costumes. You can pick a theme like a 17th century ball (the attire of choice for many of the Mardi Gras balls in New Orleans), a favorite celebrity or even characters from comic books or movies. Or, you can simply ask that your guests come in their favorite costume without giving the dress a specific theme.

Traditional food during Mardi Gras includes slow-cooked dishes like gumbo, red beans and rice, chili or jambalaya. Finger food is always welcome, as well as any food that is purple, green or gold. A King Cake is traditional.

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Bright and colorful decorations are key to any Mardi Gras party. Purple, green, and gold are the official colors of the holiday, so be sure to incorporate them into your decor You can hang purple, green and gold streamers and beads along fences or the stairs. A fun idea is to get enough beads for everyone coming to the party that you can hand to them to wear as they walk in the door.

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The other most frequently tossed items from floats are doubloons, aluminum coin-like objects bearing the insignia of the float krewes. Decorate your table with an assortment of colorful doubloons and encourage your guests to take some home as souvenirs. Scatter confetti on the tabletop and light some votive candles.

I have lived for some years near New Orleans, but I have not developed a taste for their traditional seasoned dishes. So here is my suggested dinner party menu for 8 for some great food that is somewhat close to the New Orleans style.

Don’t forget to play New Orleans jazz or Zydeco music and, then, there are the drinks.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

The Hurricane became popular at Pat O’Brien’s bar in 1940’s New Orleans, after it debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was named after the hurricane lamp-shaped glasses the first drinks were served in. It’s said that O’Brien created this rum drink as a means to get rid of the large stock of rum his Southern distributors forced him to buy.

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Hurricane Cocktail

1 cocktail

  • 2 ounces light rum
  • 2 ounces dark rum
  • 2 ounces passion fruit juice
  • 1 ounce orange juice
  • Juice of a half a lime
  • 1 tablespoon simple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon grenadine
  • Orange slice and cherry for garnish

Directions

Squeeze juice from half a lime into cocktail shaker over ice.

Pour the remaining ingredients into the cocktail shaker.

Shake well.

Strain into a hurricane shaped glass.

Garnish with a cherry and an orange slice.

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Citrus-Marinated Shrimp with Louis Sauce

Makes 10 to 12 appetizer servings

Ingredients

Shrimp

  • 2 lemons, halved
  • 2 limes, halved
  • 1 orange, halved
  • 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • 4 pounds unpeeled, large fresh shrimp
  • 2 cups fresh orange juice
  • 2 cups grapefruit juice
  • 2 cups pineapple juice
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 1 lime, sliced
  • 1 grapefruit, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
  • Garnish: citrus fruit slices

Louis Sauce

  • 1 (12-ounce) jar chili sauce
  • 2 cups mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons grated onion
  • 2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Greek seasoning
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce

Directions

Make the Louis Sauce:

Stir together all the ingredients. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Make the Shrimp

Combine the lemon, lime and orange halves, crushed red pepper and salted water to cover in a Dutch oven. Bring to a boil; add shrimp and cook about 2 minutes or just until the shrimp turn pink. Plunge shrimp into ice water to stop the cooking process; drain.

Peel shrimp, leaving the tails on. Devein.

Combine orange juice with the remaining ingredients, except the garnishes in a large shallow dish or heavy-duty zip-top plastic bag. Add shrimp, cover or seal and chill 25 minutes.

Drain off liquid. Serve shrimp with Louis Sauce and garnishes.

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Fried Green Tomatoes

Serves 8-12

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 2 cups cornflake crumbs
  • 8 medium green tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch slices
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • Louis Sauce, recipe above

Directions

In a shallow bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt and cayenne. In another shallow bowl, beat the eggs and milk. Place cornflake crumbs in a third bowl. Pat green tomato slices dry with paper towels. Coat with flour mixture, dip into egg mixture and then coat with crumbs.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Fry tomato slices, four at a time, for 3-4 minutes on each side or until golden brown, adding more oil as needed. Drain on paper towels.

Place fried tomatoes on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 375° for 4-5 minutes or until tender. Serve along side shrimp and Louis sauce.

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Blackened Steaks with Horseradish Cream and Butter-Basted Potatoes

Serve with the Arugula Salad on the side. Recipe below.

8 Servings

STEAKS

  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • 3 lbs boneless grilling steaks (such as ribeye, top sirloin, or strip)
  • 4 tablespoons blackening seasoning
  • 8 oz whipped cream cheese spread
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half
  • 4 tablespoons prepared horseradish

POTATOES

  • 8 medium white baking potatoes
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 teaspoons herb-seasoned salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 8 slices bacon, cut into 2 inch pieces

Directions

For the potatoes

Preheat the oven to 475ºF.

Cut potatoes into quarters; place in microwave-safe bowl. Top with butter and cover; microwave on HIGH 5 minutes.

Stir potatoes to evenly coat with butter; microwave 5 more minutes or until potatoes are hot and just beginning to soften.

Transfer potatoes to 2-quart baking dish and arrange in single layer. Sprinkle with seasoned salt and pepper.

Arrange onions evenly over potatoes; top, evenly, with bacon pieces. Bake 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender and bacon is browned and semi-crisp.

For the steaks

Coat grill rack with cooking spray; preheat an outdoor grill.

Season both sides of steaks with blackening seasoning. Place steaks on grill; close lid (or cover loosely with foil). Grill 4-6 minutes on each side or until 145°F (for medium-rare).

Whisk remaining ingredients until blended and smooth. Serve horseradish cream with steaks.

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Arugula, Orange and Fennel Salad

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 4 navel oranges
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 (5-ounce) bag arugula, washed, stemmed, and spun dry
  • 2 medium fennel bulb, quartered and sliced very thin 
  • 2 small sweet onion, sliced very thin
  • Black or green olives, slivered

Directions

Slice off top and bottom of each orange with a serrated fruit knife or sharp paring knife, removing some flesh with the peel and reserve. With the flat end of an orange on a cutting board, cut off peel with a sawing motion from top to bottom, working all the way around the orange. Working over a bowl to collect juice, cut between membranes to separate orange segments and set aside. Repeat with the three other oranges.

Squeeze juice from orange tops, bottoms and membranes into bowl (you should have about 1 cup) and strain into a sauté pan. Add vinegar and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 7 minutes. Pour hot liquid into a bowl and whisk in olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Stir in salt and pepper.

Toss arugula with fennel, onion and 1/2 cup of the dressing. Divide among 8 plates and add reserved orange segments to each plate. Drizzle with a little of the remaining dressing and top with olives. Serve immediately.

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Country Corn Bread

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) plain yogurt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Directions

In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and salt. Whisk together the egg, yogurt and oil. Stir into the dry ingredients just until combined.

Transfer to an 8-in. square baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375°F for 20-25 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cut into small squares and serve warm

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King Cupcakes

Makes 1 dozen

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup warm whole milk (110°)
  • 2 (1/4-ounce) packages dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar plus 4 teaspoons
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, divided
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cake flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons hot water
  • Purple, green, and yellow sugar sprinkles

Directions

Combine milk, yeast and 1/4 cup sugar in a bowl. Stir well and set in a warm place for about 10 minutes. In another bowl, combine butter and next 3 ingredients; stir in 2 teaspoons lemon juice.

Combine flours, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and kosher salt in an electric mixing bowl. Add milk/yeast mixture and butter mixture, and beat, adding 1 to 2 tablespoons flour if dough is too sticky, until dough is smooth and forms a shaggy mass. (It should remain soft.)

Place dough in a well-greased bowl, turning to the grease top. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, about 1 hour.

Punch dough down, and place on a lightly floured surface. Roll dough into a 12 x 8 inch rectangle. Combine remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 4 teaspoons sugar and sprinkle evenly over dough. Roll dough into a log and cut into 12 equal pieces. Places pieces into paper baking cups in a muffin pan; let rest 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush cupcake tops with beaten egg and bake 20 minutes. Remove from pan and let cool on a wire rack.

Combine powdered sugar, water and remaining 1 teaspoon lemon juice in a small bowl. Drizzle over cooled cupcakes and top with sprinkles.

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Italian Regional Cooking – Marche

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Marche (in English, this region is also known as the Marches) is a mountainous and hilly region facing the Adriatic Sea that allows for very little travel north and south, except on twisting roads over the passes. The mountain area is rugged, with narrow valleys, deep gorges and numerous rushing, sometimes inaccessible, streams. The coastline presents a succession of gently rolling hills and flat plains crossed by rivers. The regional capital is Ancona. Other important cities are Ascoli Piceno, Pesaro, Urbino and Macerata.

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Prior to the 1980s, Marche was considered a rather poor region, although economically stable in some sectors, thanks to its agricultural and crafts industries. Today, the contribution of agriculture to the economy of the region is less significant. Their main products are cereals, vegetables, animal products and grapes. Olives are also produced and managed by various harvesters. The sea has always furnished a plentiful supply of fish with the main fishing centers located in Ancona, San Benedetto del Tronto, Fano and Civitanova Marche.

Ancona

Ancona

Many of the small craft workshops scattered throughout the rural settlements have modernised and become small businesses, some of which have become major brands known all over the world (Indesit, Tod’s, Guzzini, Teuco). This evolution led to the emergence of specialised industrial areas, which are profitable for the region, such as footwear and leather goods in  the provinces of Macerata and Fermo; furniture in the Pesaro area; household appliances and textiles in Ancona, where engineering companies are also found (including ship building, petrochemicals and paper, as well as consumer goods). The region continues to draw tourists, whose increasing numbers have been attracted by the region’s rich heritage, as well as by the attractive seaside resorts.

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One can visit the various workshops of local craftsmen, like those of violin makers, which attest to the skill and creativity of the region’s inhabitants. On the first Sunday of August, the streets of Ascoli serve as the background for the Quintana, in which expert horsemen challenge each other in a joust. The Cathedral of San Ciriaco rises on the site of an ancient Greek acropolis and is considered to be one of the most interesting Medieval churches in the Marches. Another site to visit is the fortress at Gradara, a magnificent example of medieval military architecture. According to legend, the fortress is where Paolo and Francesca kissed, as written about in “Canto V” of Dante’s Inferno.

The Renaissance Town of Urbino

The Renaissance Town of Urbino

If you love classical music, Pesaro hosts the Rossini Opera Festival with two weeks of complete immersion into the music of Gioacchino Rossini (a native of Pesaro) every August.

Take A Tour Of The Marches

The cuisine of Marche has been greatly influenced by other regions and by invading peoples throughout its long history.

Marche Kitchen

Marche Kitchen

Creamy sauces made from chicken giblets are used liberally in Marche cooking. Pork recipes rely on generous chunks instead of the traditional thin prosciutto style servings. Since pork is so readily available, there are many types of sausage made in Marche. A local favorite is a smoked sausage called ciauscolo and it is made with half pork and half pork fat and it is seasoned with salt, pepper, orange peel and fennel seed.

Polenta made from corn, seasoned with oil, cheese, lard, onions, ricotta, tomatoes, greens, legumes, etc.; bread made from a mixture of cornmeal and flour, wine and occasionally salt pork, is the typical diet of Marche shepherds and farmers.

Olives grow well in Marche and are often stuffed with savory meat fillings. Grapes, grains, mushrooms and a wide variety of vegetables are found throughout the region.

Casciotta d’Urbino is a sheep and cow milk cheese, hand-pressed into rounds, that are then salted and cured in a moist environment, producing a velvety texture. Ambra di Talamello is made from goat, sheep or cow milk and is cured in a pit lined with straw, resulting in an earthy flavor. Cacio La Forma di Limone is a sheep milk cheese made with lemons, then formed into small balls (that look a bit like lemons). They are rubbed with a salt and lemon mixture for curing, resulting in a refreshingly light lemon tang. Pecorino cheeses can be found in the region as well.

Pasta in the Marche region is rich with eggs that are formed into wide noodles, like lasagna and pappardelle. The region’s signature dish is vincisgrassi, a pasta casserole with meat sauce. Other pastas like spaghetti alla chitarra, spaghettini, tagliatelle and maccheroncini are typical of Marche dishes.

Along the coast, soup is popular, but it takes the form of brodetto – fish soup. Brodetto are prepared with all types of fish and varying other ingredients like vinegar, flour, garlic and saffron. Other seafood favorites include dried codfish, sole, bream, clams and mussels.

Marche desserts include a Pizza Dolce or sweet pizza and Frustenga a cake made with raisins, figs and walnuts.

Traditional Recipes From Marche

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Calamari Marche Style

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs small squid, cleaned and cut into rings
  • 1 fresh flat leaf parsley sprig, chopped
  • 2 salted anchovies
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 5 tablespoons white wine
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Remove the anchovy heads, clean and fillet them, if they are not bought as fillets. Soak them in cold water for 10 minutes and drain.

Chop the anchovy fillets.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet with the garlic and parsley.

Add the squid and anchovies. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes.

Stir in the wine and 3 tablespoons water. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes until tender. Serves 4.

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Mussels and Clams in White Wine

Serves 4

  • 1 lb or 500 grams of mussels, rinsed, cleaned & beards removed
  • 1 lb or 500 grams of clams, cleaned
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 4 cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
  • Red pepper or chili flakes
  • Salt
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for garnishing

Directions

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over low heat and slowly cook the garlic until brown all over.

Turn the heat up, add the chili flakes and clams – cook about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then add in the mussels.

Turn up the heat and toss in the cherry tomatoes, sauteing for a moment or two.

Add the white wine and cover the pan. Allow to cook covered 1-2 minutes until the shells open.  Then shut off the heat and add the parsley. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil.

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Spaghetti alla Marchigiana

Ingredients

  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1/3 pound guanciale or pancetta cut into little cubes
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1 fresh chili pepper left whole
  • 1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
  • Salt to taste

Directions

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the spaghetti al dente.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan sauté the guanciale and fresh chili pepper in the olive oil.

When the guanciale is crispy and golden, add the onion and garlic and continue to sauté. Add salt to taste.

Once the onion and garlic have become golden, take the pan off of the heat and set aside.

Put the drained spaghetti into a serving dish and sprinkle the pecorino cheese on top.

Pour the onion, olive oil and guanciale sauce over the top of the pasta. Mix well and serve.

Additional pecorino cheese can be sprinkled over the pasta as a finishing touch.

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Polenta with Beans and Cabbage

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 1 1/3 pounds (5-600 g) finely ground cornmeal (polenta)
  • 6 ounces (150 g) dried fava beans
  • 6 ounces (150 g) dried white beans
  • 1 to 1 1/3 pounds (5-600 g) green or red cabbage
  • 1/4 pound (100 g)  guanciale or pancetta, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste

Directions

Soak the beans and fava beans separately in water to cover overnight and cook them separately until tender.

Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the tomato paste, the minced herbs and the guanciale, reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook the mixture gently for about 30 minutes, taking care to not let it brown.

Lightly salt and shred the cabbage,

In the meantime, heat 2 quarts of water.  When it comes to a boil, add the cornmeal in a very slow stream (you don’t want the pot to stop boiling), stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep lumps from forming. Add the cabbage and continue stirring, in the same direction, as the mush thickens, for about a half-hour (the longer you stir the better the polenta will be; the finished polenta should have the consistency of firm mashed potatoes), adding boiling water as necessary. The polenta is done when it peels easily off the sides of the pot.

Stir the beans and the sauce into the polenta when it’s ready, let everything rest for a minute and then turn the mixture out onto the polenta board or large platter.

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Funghetti Di Offida

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ lb all-purpose flour
  • 1 ¼ lb sugar
  • 1 large pinch anise seed
  • Water

Directions

Using a mixer work together the flour, sugar and anise seed with a little water until you have a smooth dough.

Form the dough into 1-inch balls and allow them to dry for thirty minutes on parchment paper.

Place the balls in a mini muffin tin, one ball in each mold. The molds should be small enough so that the dough touches the edge.

Bake the cookies in a 350°F oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Remove from the oven and serve hot. Reheat before serving, if you plan to serve them later.

Dinner For Two On Valentine’s Day

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Valentine’s Day Traditions

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, US store shelves are stacked with candy hearts, chocolates and stuffed animals, but not every country turns to greeting cards and heart-shaped candies to their declare love. Some exchange wooden spoons and pressed flowers, while others hold a special holiday for the loveless to mourn their single lives over black noodles.

Italian Love Locks

Italian Love Locks

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Valentine’s Day is synonymous with love and Italians traditionally are considered to be lovers. Known in Italy as “La Festa Degli Innamorati,” Valentine’s Day is celebrated only between lovers and sweethearts. Young sweethearts in Italy profess their love for each other with a more recent tradition, attaching padlocks or “lucchetti” to bridges and railings and throwing away the key. The tradition of locking padlocks to bridges, railings and lamp posts began in Italy a little more than four years ago after the release of the best-selling book “Ho voglio di te” (I want you) by the Italian author, Federico Moccia. This was followed by the popular movie with the same name, starring Riccardo Scamarcio and Laura Chiatti. In the story, young lovers tie a chain and a padlock around a lamppost on the north side of Rome’s Ponte Milvio and inscribe their names on it, lock it and throw the key into the Tiber River below. The action suggests that the couple will be together forever.

Although Valentine’s Day is a relatively new holiday in Denmark (celebrated since the early 1990s according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark), the country has embraced February 14th with a Danish twist. Rather than roses, friends and sweethearts exchange pressed white flowers called snowdrops.

With a reputation as one of the most romantic destinations in the world, it’s little wonder France has long celebrated Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers. It’s been said that the first Valentine’s Day card originated in France when Charles, Duke of Orleans, sent love letters to his wife while imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1415. Today, Valentine’s Day cards remain a popular tradition in France.

Valentine’s Day is a popular holiday for young couples in South Korea and variations of the holiday are celebrated monthly from February through April. The gift-giving starts on February 14th, when it’s up to women to woo their men with chocolates, candies and flowers. The tables turn on March 14th, a holiday known as White Day, when men not only shower their sweethearts with chocolates and flowers, but also with a special gift.

With Carnival held sometime in February or March each year, Brazilians skip the February 14th celebration and instead celebrate Dia dos Namorados, or “Lovers’ Day,” on June 12th. In addition to exchanges of chocolates, flowers and cards, music festivals and performances are held throughout the country. Gift giving isn’t limited to couples, either. In Brazil, they celebrate this day of love by exchanging gifts and sharing dinner with friends and relatives, too.

Like many parts of the world, South Africa celebrates Valentine’s Day with festivals, flowers and other tokens of love. It’s also customary for women in South Africa to wear their hearts on their sleeves on February 14th. Women pin the names of their love interest on their shirtsleeves, an ancient Roman tradition known as Lupercalia. In some cases, this is how South African men learn of their secret admirers.

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Dinner For Two

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Risotto with Fresh Pear Sauce

2 servings

Ingredients

  • 3/4 lb (12 oz) Carnaroli rice
  • 3 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock, heated
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 oz Gorgonzola cheese

Pear Sauce

  • 1/2 clove of garlic
  • 1 sprig marjoram, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 small to medium pears

Directions

To Make The Sauce:

Peel the pears and cut them into small pieces. Finely chop the garlic. Wash the marjoram and pull off the leaves.

Place a skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and, once hot, add the pear. Saute for a minute. Season with salt and pepper, then add the garlic and marjoram. Cover with the broth and cook until the pears are soft.

Remove the pan from the heat. Let the pears cool, then puree the pan contents using a hand blender. Adjust the salt and pepper to taste and keep the sauce warm until serving.

To Make The Risotto:

Place a saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil and, once hot, add the onion.

Cook slowly so that the onion doesn’t brown. Add the rice and toast it for a couple of minutes or until it becomes transparent. Add a pinch of salt.

Add a couple of ladlefuls of the hot broth to the rice. Once most of the liquid has evaporated, add more broth.

The rice should take about 16 to 18 minutes to cook, depending on its quality. When al dente, remove the pot from the heat and add half the Gorgonzola and butter, cut into pieces. Stir and cover. Let rest for two minutes.

Then add the remaining Gorgonzola and Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir until creamy. Pour the pear sauce into the bottom of individual serving bowls and spoon the risotto on top.

Garnish with a sprig of marjoram and a grating or fresh black pepper.

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White Sea Bass with Orange-Fennel Relish

U.S. white sea bass is a sustainable choice–not to be confused with Chilean sea bass. Other good fish choices are Gulf of Mexico caught snapper or halibut or mahimahi.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 ½  teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh orange juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated orange rind
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
  • Half of a (12-ounce) fennel bulb
  • 1/2 cup fresh orange sections
  • 2 tablespoons chopped red onion
  • 1 ounce halved Castelvetrano (green) olives (about 1/4 cup)
  • 2 (6-ounce) white sea bass fillets
  • 2 teaspoons butter

Directions

Combine the first 4 ingredients, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk.

Remove fronds from the fennel bulb and chop them to measure 2 tablespoons. Remove and discard fennel stalks. Cut fennel bulb in half lengthwise and save one half for another use. Discard the core. Thinly slice the fennel bulb half. Add sliced fennel, orange sections, onion and olives to the orange juice mixture; toss gently to coat. Stir in fennel fronds.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle fish evenly with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add butter to the pan; swirl until butter melts. Add fish and cook 4 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Serve with relish.

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Cheddar Biscuits

Make the entire dozen and freeze the extras.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup milk; (up to 2/3 cup)

Garlic Butter

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/3 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt and garlic powder. Whisk together to combine thoroughly. Add chunks of butter. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut butter into flour until it is coarse and pea-sized (doesn’t need to be fine).

Add oil, grated cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup milk. Stir together. Keep adding milk a bit at a time, just until the dough is moistened and no longer dry and powdery. (Shouldn’t be sticky, just moist enough to hold together).

Drop approximately 1/4 cup portions of the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet using an ice cream scoop or large spoon. Bake for 15-17 minutes until lightly golden.

While biscuits are baking, melt 3 tablespoons butter is a small bowl in your microwave. Stir in the 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and the parsley.

When biscuits come out of the oven, use a brush to spread this garlic butter over the tops of all the biscuits. Use up all of the garlic butter. Serve warm.

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Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberries

Ingredients

  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
  • 1/2 pint Strawberries; hulled, quartered
  • 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier (orange liqueur)
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream

Directions

In the top of a double boiler (not directly over heat), sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup buttermilk; let stand to soften, about 5 minutes. Place water in the bottom of the double boiler and bring to a simmer.

In a separate small pan bring cream and 3 tablespoons sugar to a boil.

Add to the gelatin mixture in the top part of the double boiler and place the pan over the simmering water; whisk until gelatin dissolves, 5 minutes. Stir in remaining buttermilk thoroughly with a whisk.

Divide mixture into two dessert bowls. Cover; refrigerate until set, 4 hours.

Meanwhile, mix strawberries with Grand Marnier and sprinkle with remaining sugar. Let stand for about 1 hour. Top panna cotta with strawberries and juice collected in the bowl..

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Italian Favorites Made Gluten-Free

glutenfree

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (durum, emmer, spelt, farina, farro, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together.

When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, the response from their immune system damages the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine, called villi. Properly working villi allow nutrients from food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. When villi are damaged, vital nutrients go unabsorbed. When people first get diagnosed with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity, one of the things they mourn most is having to give up “regular” wheat-based pasta.

Gluten -free Flours

Gluten-free Flours

Gluten-free pastas are made from corn, brown rice, quinoa and some brands offer a mixture of gluten-free ingredients. Barilla and Ronzoni offer gluten-free products. An Italian made brand, Jovial, was rated best by America’s Test Kitchen and Food & Wine magazine. You might want to see if it is available in your area.

Gluten can be found in many types of foods, even ones that you would not expect to find it in, for example:

  • Energy bars/granola bars – some bars may contain wheat as an ingredient, and most use oats that are not gluten-free
  • French fries – be careful of batter containing wheat flour or cross-contamination from fryers
  • Potato chips – some potato chip seasonings may contain malt vinegar or wheat starch
  • Processed lunch meats
  • Candy and candy bars
  • Soup – pay special attention to cream-based soups, which have flour as a thickener. Many soups also contain barley
  • Multi-grain or “artisan” tortilla chips or tortillas that are not entirely corn-based may contain a wheat-based ingredient
  • Salad dressings and marinades – may contain malt vinegar, soy sauce, flour
  • Starch or dextrin, if found in meat or a poultry product, could be from any grain, including wheat
  • Brown rice syrup – may be made with barley enzymes
  • Meat substitutes made with seitan (wheat gluten) such as vegetarian burgers, vegetarian sausage, imitation bacon, imitation seafood (Note: tofu is gluten-free, but be cautious of soy sauce marinades and cross-contamination when eating out, especially when the tofu is fried)
  • Soy sauce (however, tamari made without wheat is gluten-free)
  • Self-basting poultry
  • Pre-seasoned meats
  • Cheesecake filling – some recipes include wheat flour
  • Eggs served at restaurants – some restaurants put pancake batter in their scrambled eggs and omelets, but on their own, eggs are naturally gluten-free
  • Beer, ales, lagers, malt beverages and malt vinegars that are made from gluten-containing grains are not distilled and therefore are not gluten-free. There are gluten-free products available.

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Gluten-free Italian Meatballs

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound lean ground beef
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 dash red (hot) pepper sauce, as desired, to taste
  • 1½ tablespoons gluten-free Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/3 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup finely crushed Rice Chex or gluten-free bread crumbs

Directions

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

In a mixing bowl, combine ground meat, salt, onion, garlic, onion powder, basil, thyme, oregano, red pepper flakes, hot pepper sauce and Worcestershire sauce and mix well.

Add the ricotta, Parmesan cheese and crushed Rice Chex. Mix until evenly blended, then form into 1½-inch meatballs and place on a baking sheet.

Bake until no longer pink in the center, 20 to 25 minutes. Add them to your favorite pasta sauce.

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Gluten-free Chicken Parmesan

Ingredients

  • 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, halved horizontally
  • 3/4 cup of potato flour, rice flour, cornstarch or general all-purpose gluten-free flour
  • 3/4 cup crushed Rice Chex or gluten-free breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups homemade or storebought marinara sauce
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 ounces mozzarella cheese, preferably fresh, cut into 6 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Directions

Combine breadcrumbs and grated cheese in a shallow bowl.

Combine the spices (salt to thyme) in a small bowl and mix.

Heat the broiler.

On the stove, warm the tomato sauce in a saucepan.

Over another burner, heat the oil in large skillet over medium heat. Don’t let it get smoky.

Season both sides of the cutlets with the spice mix.

Dredge cutlets in gluten-free flour of choice.

Then dip cutlets in the beaten egg and then dredge in the breadcrumb and cheese mixture, turning to coat both sides. Place cutlets on a plate.

Place 3 cutlets in the heated skillet; cook until golden, 1 to 2 minutes on each side.

Using a spatula, transfer browned cutlets to a baking pan.

Cook the remaining cutlets and place them in the baking pan.

Top each cutlet with a slice of mozzarella. Broil the cutlets about 4 inches from the heat source until the cheese is melted and lightly browned in spots, 4 to 5 minutes.

To serve: put some warm sauce on each serving plate and top each with a cutlet. If you prefer, you can pour the sauce over the chicken.

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Gluten-free Lasagna

Makes 1 – 9×13 inch pan

Ingredients

  • 1 package gluten-free lasagna noodles (8 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1/2 pound Italian pork sausage, casing removed
  • 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can diced Italian tomatoes (28 ounces)
  • 1 can tomato paste (6 ounce)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 16 ounces ricotta cheese
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1¼ pounds shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

In boiling salted water, cook lasagna noodles to a firm al dente, according to instructions. Remember that the noodles will cook more in the oven later, so do not overcook them.

Place the cooked noodles on clean kitchen towels to prevent them from sticking to each other.

In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, ricotta, Romano cheese, salt, black pepper and half of the mozzarella cheese. Refrigerate until needed.

To make the sauce:

Heat a large skillet to medium-high, add oil and cook the onions until soft.

Add sausage, ground beef and garlic and cook until the meat is crumbly and evenly browned. Drain off excess fat.

Stir in the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, basil and oregano.

Increase the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened.

To assemble the lasagna:

Spread a thin layer of the cooked sauce evenly over the bottom of a greased 9×13 inch baking pan. layer 1/3 of the lasagna noodles, 1/3 of the remaining cooked sauce and 1/3 of the ricotta mixture. Repeat this layering 2 more times.

Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella cheese evenly over the top of the lasagna.

Bake about 30 minutes at 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is melted and golden brown.

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Cheese Stuffed Polenta with Sausage

Ingredients

  • Olive Oil
  • 1 cup quick cooking Polenta
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
  • 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 3/4 cup shredded provolone cheese
  • 3 cups Marinara Sauce
  • 1 pound Italian sausage, casing removed
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil leaves

Directions

Coat a 9″ x 13″ baking dish with olive oil.

Bring the chicken broth to a rapid boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat. Add the polenta, pouring slowly and stirring until mixture is thickened, about 1 minute. Mix in butter and Parmesan cheese until fully incorporated.

Pour 1/2 of the cooked polenta into the greased baking dish. Gently spread the polenta to the edges of the pan. Sprinkle evenly with the shredded cheeses. Pour the remaining polenta over the cheese and spread to the edges of the pan. Allow polenta to cool, then cover and chill for about 2 hours or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.

In a skillet brown the sausage and add the marinara sauce. Cover the pan and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Once ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350˚F.

Bake the chilled polenta uncovered for about 30 minutes, until it begins to brown. Remove from the oven. Allow to cool for 10 minutes.

Cut into squares and serve warm topped with the sausage sauce, grated Parmesan and fresh chopped basil leaves.

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Shrimp Scampi Over Linguine

Yield:4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 minced garlic cloves
  • 1/2 cup dry white vermouth
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 pound gluten-free linguine (quinoa pasta works very well in this recipe)

Directions

Cook the gluten-free linguine according to package instructions. Drain and place in a large pasta serving bowl.

Put the shrimp on a large plate and pat them completely dry with a paper towel. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the butter and olive oil to the skillet. When the foaming subsides, raise the heat and add the shrimp. Cook the shrimp, without moving them, for 1 minute. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Turn the shrimp over and cook for 2 minutes more. Transfer the shrimp to the bowl with the pasta.

Return the skillet to the heat and pour in the vermouth and lemon juice. Boil the liquid until slightly thickened, about 30 seconds. Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Stir the zest and parsley into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the shrimp and toss to combine with the pasta.

"The gluten is free. The pizza, however, cost $12.95."

Cooking with Winter Citrus Fruits

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Citrus fruit (grapefruit, lemons, limes and oranges) are at their best in the winter and can add a burst of flavor to your recipes. These fruits are a rich source of vitamin C, which helps protect you from infection, can help keep your skin smooth, heals wounds and cuts and assists in red blood cell formation and repair.

A little bit of lemon zest brightens up morning pancakes while some freshly squeezed orange juice can be used to marinate mahi-mahi before grilling it.

Try these suggestions for adding citrus fruit to your menu.

  • Make citrus fruit salad and include all of your favorites Try it with a sprinkling of unsweetened coconut flakes or a bit of raw honey and a sprinkling of nuts.
  • Enjoy citrus for dessert with a square of dark chocolate.
  • Pair with almost any variety of cheese. Hard, salty cheese adds wonderful balance and flavor to the sweet acidity of the fruit.
  • Stir into Greek yogurt, cottage or ricotta cheese and eat as is or with a bit of honey or sliced dates for breakfast or a snack.
  • Bake with citrus fruits.
  • Cut into rounds and serve with a leafy green salad for a beautiful presentation.
  • Add citrus to smoothie blends, such as green apple and parsley.
  • Dip citrus segments into sweetened cream cheese dip or spread with your favorite roasted nut butter.
  • Use citrus zest to add flavor to condiments.
  • Add citrus segments to whole grain salads.

Some tips in using citrus fruits

  • Heavy citrus fruits with firm rinds will have the most juice.
  • Citrus fruits will stay freshest when wrapped in a plastic bag and stored in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer.
  • Fresh-squeezed juice and citrus zest can be frozen for later use.
  • When a recipe calls for strips of zest, a vegetable peeler works well. But for fluffy, grated zest, try using a microplane zester.

How to cut citrus fruit into segments:

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Cut off the top and bottom of the fruit and stand it up on one end. Slice downward to cut away the skin and pith, moving around until all is removed. Holding the fruit over a bowl, slice along both sides of the membrane to release the segments.

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Italian Kale Salad with Citrus Fruits

Lacinato kale is a variety of kale used in Italian cooking. It is also known as Tuscan kale, Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, Dinosaur kale, cavolo nero, black kale, flat back cabbage, palm tree kale or black Tuscan palm. Lacinato kale has been grown in Tuscany for centuries. It is one of the traditional ingredients of minestrone and ribollita.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups raw lacinato kale, stems removed, cut into strips 1 cm wide (measure after cutting)
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts or pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted
  • 1/4 of a red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 tablespoons fresh goat cheese or feta cheese
  • 1 grapefruit, peeled and cut into sections, dividing membranes removed
  • 1 orange, peeled and cut into sections, dividing membranes removed
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Dressing

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

For the dressing:

Combine in a bottle or small bowl. Mix well before using.

For the salad:

Mix kale, pine nuts and onion in a large bowl. Season salad with salt and pepper. Cut goat or feta cheese into small pieces and mix into the salad.

Toss the salad with enough dressing to coat the leaves. Arrange grapefruit sections on the salad after it is put on the plate so they do not break.

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Lemon Rice Soup with Tiny Meatballs

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup medium-grain white rice
  • 3 cups water
  • Kosher salt
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 3/4 pound lean ground turkey or lamb
  • 1/3 cup sweet onion, minced
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped mint, plus extra for garnishing
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped dill, plus dill sprigs for garnish
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
  • All-purpose flour, for dusting

Directions

In a large saucepan, cover the rice with the 3 cups of water, season with salt and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat until the rice is tender and the water is nearly absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Transfer 1/2 cup of the rice to a blender and spread the remaining rice on a plate.

Add the chicken stock to the empty saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Add 1 cup of the hot stock to the blender with the rice, cover and puree until the rice is smooth. With the machine on, add the egg yolks and lemon juice and blend until smooth.

Season with salt and pepper. Stir the mixture into the hot stock and keep warm over low heat.

In a medium bowl, mix the meat with the onion, mint, 2 tablespoons of the dill, 1/4 teaspoon of the lemon zest, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.

Form the mixture into 1-inch balls. Lightly dust the meatballs with flour, tapping off any excess, and drop them into the warm soup.

Increase the heat to moderate and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the reserved rice and the remaining 1 tablespoon of dill and 1 teaspoon of lemon zest and season with salt and pepper.

Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with dill or mint and serve.

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Lemon Gnocchi with Peas & Spinach

Ingredients

  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 8 ounces heavy cream
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • Fine Sea Salt
  • 3 cups packed baby spinach leaves
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 (1-pound) package Potato Gnocchi
  • 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

Directions

In a large skillet, combine peas, cream, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in spinach and cook uncovered until leaves are wilted. Remove pan from the heat and mix in lemon zest and juice.

Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Add gnocchi and cook until they float to the top, about 4 minutes. Drain gnocchi, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water.

Mix the drained gnocchi with the cream sauce in the skillet. Add the reserved pasta water and stir to coat. Top with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.

Serves 4

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Pork Chops with Orange & Fennel

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 navel oranges
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 4 – 4 ounce boneless pork chops, 1/2 inch thick, trimmed
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, roughly chopped or coarsely ground in a spice grinder
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large fennel bulb, cored and thinly sliced
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 3 cups arugula, tough stems removed

Directions

Remove the skin and white pith from oranges with a sharp knife. Working over a bowl, cut the segments from their surrounding membranes. Squeeze juice in the bowl before discarding the membranes. Transfer the segments with a slotted spoon to another bowl. Whisk lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch and 1/4 teaspoon salt into the bowl with the orange juice. Set aside.

Season pork chops on both sides with fennel seeds and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chops and cook until browned and just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and tent with foil to keep warm.

Add sliced fennel and shallot to the pan and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add arugula and cook, stirring, until it begins to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes more. Stir in the reserved orange segments, then transfer the contents of the pan to a large serving platter. Place the pork chops on top.

Add the reserved orange juice mixture to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Pour over the pork chops and serve.

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Lemon Olive Oil Cake

Ingredients

Cake

  • 3/4 cup Extra Virgin olive oil
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

Icing

  • 1 cup confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, plus more to thin glaze

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Grease a bundt pan with olive oil, then dust with flour.

In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, eggs, yogurt and lemon juice. Stir in sugar.

In another bowl, sift baking powder and flour. Once combined, slowly add the flour to the wet ingredients as you mix.

Pour batter into the pan and bake for about 40 minutes. Test with a toothpick for doneness. It should come out clean.

Remove cake from the oven and allow to rest. Once it has cooled, turn it onto a plate.

To create the icing, mix sugar and lemon juice together until smooth. Drizzle the over the cooled cake.

Serves 8 to 10

Italian Regional Cooking – Toscana

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Tuscany is known for its landscapes, traditions, history, artistic legacy and its influence on culture. Tuscany is unrivaled as the center of art. One can find examples of every age and style: from the Etruscan civilization to Roman monuments and ruins; from the Romanesque architecture and impressive Gothic cathedrals to the exceptional artistic explosion of the Renaissance. Florence has preserved its masterpieces and great works of architecture over the centuries.

Tuscany borders the regions of Liguria to the northwest, Emilia-Romagna to the north and east, Umbria to the east and Lazio to the southeast. Tuscany has a western coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea, containing the Tuscan Archipelago, of which the largest island is Elba. The climate is fairly mild in the coastal areas, but much harsher and rainier in the interior, with considerable fluctuations in temperature between winter and summer.

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Florence is the capital of Tuscany. Other important cities are Siena, Pisa, Arezzo, Pistoia, Prato, Lucca, Livorno, Grosseto and Massa Carrara.

The most important collection of paintings in the world is found in the Uffizi Gallery. Great paintings can be seen in the Gallery of Palazzo Pitti, such as Tiziano’s and Raffaello’s masterpieces. Florence also has the Museum of the Costume, the Museum of the Carriages and the beautiful Italian gardens, Giardino di Boboli. In the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, the famous “Pietà” by Michelangelo can be admired.

The Via de' Tornabuoni in Florence, the city's top fashion and shopping street,

The Via de’ Tornabuoni in Florence, the city’s top fashion and shopping street.

The fashion and textile industry are the pillars of the Florentine economy. In the 15th century, Florentines were working with luxury textiles such as wool and silk. Today, the greatest designers in Europe utilize the textile industry in Tuscany, and especially Florence.

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Simplicity is central to the Tuscan cuisine. Legumes, bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms and fresh fruit are used. Olive oil is made up of Moraiolo, Leccino and Frantoio olives. White truffles from San Miniato appear in October and November. Beef of the highest quality comes from the Chiana Valley, specifically a breed known as Chianina used for Florentine steak. Pork is also produced and the region is known for its many excellent cured meats. Tuscany’s climate also provides ideal soil for the grapes grown to create the region’s world-renowned Chianti wine.

It is Carnival time in Tuscany

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It was February 1873 when a group sitting around a table at the Caffè del Casino in Viareggio had the great idea to have an annual parade of floats to celebrate carnival time. They wanted a parade out in the piazzas, in the streets and, most of all, among the people. The parade floats take center stage each year and usually represent satirical versions of politicians, figures from popular culture or show business. The floats are always based on the hot topics of the day. The floats parade through the crowds along Viareggio’s seafront every Sunday for 4 weeks until Mardi Gras. For 4 weeks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, the 4 districts of Viareggio hold large open air street parties with music and masked balls until the early hours. Open air restaurants offer local specialities, mainly fresh seafood dishes, and stages are put up on street corners where free live concerts are performed. Bands and DJs give it their all, dressed in costumes and wearing carnival masks.

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Cenci’ are traditional sweets that are often prepared throughout Tuscany during Carnival time. These treats are made with fried dough and covered with powdered sugar. In Italian, their name means ‘rags’ because that’s exactly what these haphazard squares look like! They’re golden, crispy, light and easy to prepare.

Take A Tour Of Tuscany

Traditional Tuscan Regional Cooking 

Soups, sauces and stews are the cornerstones of Tuscan cooking, many beginning with and relying upon the mastery of a soffritto on which to build more complex flavors. A soffritto can be considered the Italian verson of mirepoix and is a combination of olive oil and minced browned vegetables (usually onion, carrot and celery) that creates a base for a variety of slow-cooked dishes. Herbs (sage and rosemary) are used in many Tuscan dishes and seasonings can be added to the soffritto as needed to bring out the unique flavors of each different recipe.

Stracotto (braised beef) is a well-known favorite of the area, as are finocchiona (a rustic salami with fennel seeds), cacciucco (a delicate fish stew), pollo al mattone (chicken roasted under heated bricks) and biscotti di prato (hard almond cookies made for dipping in the local dessert wine, vin santo). Borlotti beans, kidney-shaped and pink-speckled, provide a savory flavor to meatless dishes and cannellini beans form the basis for many a pot of slowly simmered soup. Breads are many and varied in Tuscan baking, with varieties including, donzelle (a bread fried in olive oil), filone (an unsalted traditional Tuscan bread) and the sweet schiacciata con l’uva  with grapes and sugar on top. Pastas are not heavily relied upon in Tuscan cooking and pappardelle (a wide egg noodle) is one of the region’s few traditional cuts.

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Tuscan Bread

This is a three-day process.

Makes 2 Loaves

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 4 cups warm water (110 F)
  • 9 cups unbleached, All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • Olive Oil
  • Semolina or cornmeal to flour the work board

Directions

To make the biga:

Combine the yeast and ½ cup of water in a bowl; stir and set aside. Measure 2 cups of the unbleached flour into a large bowl. Make a hole in the center of the flour with your hands and pour in the yeast mixture. Move the flour from the sides of the bowl into the yeast mixture and combine. Gradually pour in 1 cup of water. Use a wooden spoon to mix the flour and yeast mixture together to form a thick paste. Sprinkle another cup of the unbleached flour over the top and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set aside in a cool place to rise for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.

The next day, add the whole wheat flour, 1 cup of warm water and another cup of the unbleached all-purpose flour to the bowl and mix, kneading the dough slightly in the bowl with your hands. The dough will be very sticky. Cover and set aside again to rise for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.

On the third day, stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of water. Work in the remaining flour, leaving a little of it aside to spread on the board or work surface. Turn the dough onto the floured surface and knead it for 10 to 15 minutes or until the dough is silky and springy and has lost its stickiness. Place the dough in a large bowl sprayed with olive oil. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place the dough in a warm place (75 F) to rise for 2 to 3 hours.

It is best to bake the dough on a baking stone. To do this, preheat the oven stone at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes prior to baking the bread.
Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, punch it down, knead it briefly and divide in half. Form each into an oval or round loaf. Set the loaves on 2 oven peels lined with cornmeal. Cover the loaves with a clean towel and allow them to rise for 45 minutes while the oven is heating.

Transfer the loaves from the peel to the stone; if you only have one peel, form one at a time and set one on a piece of parchment paper.

Bake the loaves for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees F and continue baking another 40 to 45 minutes or until the bread is browned and sounds hollow when tapped with your knuckles.

To bake the loaves without a stone, form the loaves as above and place each one on a lightly oiled and cornmeal lined baking sheet. Cover as above and let rise. Bake as above. Cool the bread on a rack before slicing.

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Ribollita

Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried cannellini beans, uncooked
  • Olive oil
  • 1 large red onion, sliced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 4 potatoes, diced
  • 10 zucchini, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups swiss chard, shredded
  • 1 leek
  • 1 savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 1 bunch kale, shredded
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • Loaf of stale Tuscan bread

Directions

Soak the beans overnight and then cook over low heat. It will take approximately 1 hour for them to cook.

In a soup pot, gently saute the onion, carrot and celery in a little olive oil. Add the other vegetables, with the exception of the cabbage, kale and beans which are added at a later point. When the vegetables have sweated out their juice, cover the ingredients with hot water and then add all the cabbage and kale. Cover and simmer for an hour over medium heat.

Add the cooked beans, salt and pepper. Let simmer for another 20 minutes, stirring frequently because the beans tend to stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato paste.

Slice the stale bread and, in an earthenware casserole, alternate layers of bread with the soup until the bread is soaked. Cover and refrigerate the soup until the next day.

To serve, reheat it or “re-boil” it, as the name in Italian suggests.

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Lemon and Black Pepper Grilled Chicken Legs

Serves: 4 as a main course

Ingredients

  • 8 chicken legs with thighs
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Directions

Arrange the chicken in a shallow bowl or baking dish. Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary, salt and pepper. Pour over the chicken, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours.

Heat the grill to medium-high heat. Place the chicken on the grill and cook until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes, turning once or twice. If using a gas grill reduce the heat to low and cook 20 minutes. If using a charcoal grill, move the chicken to the edges of the grill, cover and cook over indirect heat. Check for doneness after 20 minutes.

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Ricciarelli – Tuscan Almond Cookies

These cookies just happen to be gluten-free.

Makes about eighteen 3-inch cookies

Ingredients

  • 1-1/4 cups sliced or slivered almonds
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Grated zest of 1 medium orange
  • Confectioners’ sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Grind the almonds in a food processor until reduced to a semi-fine powder. Set aside.

In a bowl, beat the egg whites on high-speed, adding the sugar a little at a time. Once all of the sugar has been incorporated, add the vanilla.  Continue beating the whites until very thick and glossy, at least 5 minutes.

With a rubber spatula, fold in the ground almonds and orange zest.

Use 2 tablespoons to scoop the mixture onto the prepared baking sheets.  The cookies should be oval-shaped, about 2-1/2 inches long x 1 inch wide.  Only put about 9 cookies on each baking sheet as they will spread a little. Dust the tops of the cookies with confectioners’ sugar.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until firm to the touch, but pale in color, not brown.

Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool.  When completely cool, re-dust the tops with confectioners’ sugar.

Company’s Coming

 

companyscoming

Plan a dinner party for 6 this weekend. Dinner parties are a lovely way to entertain friends and family but the preparation and serving can cause the host to feel very overwhelmed sometimes, to the point where it can be hard to enjoy the occasion.

Here are some ideas to ensure that your dinner party runs smoothly and is relatively stress-free.

Planning will reduce a large amount of the stress. Use lists to detail shopping needs and when you will prepare the menu items. It is also a very good idea to keep a record of your dinner party menus to make it easier to know what to do, as well as what to avoid. I keep all my dinner menus according to the time of year in a file on my computer.

Asking too many people is asking for trouble; you won’t have time to talk to them all and you will find it hard to prepare for a large group of people. I like 6 for dinner.

Set the table well in advance with any decorations you want to include.

Avoid making a menu that requires everything to be prepared and served immediately, or you will never leave the kitchen. Keep in mind which dishes can be prepared in advance. Desserts that can be made the day ahead are ideal, as are elements of the main course that can be prepared hours earlier and simply reheated.

During preparation time, clean up as you go, so you don’t have a pile of dishes to wash at the end.

Leave time to take a leisurely bath and get dressed.  If you do the preparation work ahead, everything will run smoothly and you can enjoy the rest of the evening with peace of mind.

Here is my game plan for the menu below:

  • Chop all vegetables and garnishes the day before and store in plastic bags.
  • Make the soup a day or two before the dinner party. Reheat before serving time and add the garnishes just before serving.
  • Bake the cake the day before, frost and store in the refrigerator.

On the morning of the dinner:

  • Assemble the potato casserole and refrigerate it. Take it out of the refrigerator about an hour before baking. Remember, it needs about 1 1/2 hours to bake.
  • Pound the chicken and place it in the plastic bag and refrigerate until you need to marinate it.
  • Make the garlic oil and cook the spinach. Leave in the pot and reheat before serving.
  • Assemble non refrigerated ingredients and pots on the counter to be ready to go as it gets closer to cooking time.
  • Make croutons for the soup and set aside.

At dinner time

  • 1 ½ hours before you plan to serve the main course, bake the potato casserole.
  • Remove the cake from the refrigerator.
  • Remove the potato casserole from the oven and let it rest, while you prepare the chicken.
  • After you and your guests are finished with the first course, cook the chicken and mushrooms, heat the spinach while you finish the sauce for the chicken and bring everything to the table.
  • Serve the cake and coffee.
  • A perfect evening.

First Course

companyscoming1

 

Creamy Asparagus Soup

Serves: 6

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs asparagus
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • Water
  • 2 medium white potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Garnish

  • 2 slices country bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
  • 6 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper
  • 6 oz cooked crabmeat
  • 2 tablespoons slivered fresh basil

Directions

Wash asparagus, cut off bottom 2 inches and discard. Peel lower half of the asparagus spears, then cut into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

Heat 3 teaspoons of oil in a large saucepan on medium-high. Add garlic and onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until onion begins to turn translucent.

Mix in flour and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Then, gradually add broth and 1 cup water, continue to stir and bring to a boil, about 5 more minutes.

Add potatoes and asparagus. Bring broth down to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the asparagus is tender. Remove the pot from the heat and purée mixture with a hand immersion blender or in a regular blender for 20 to 30 seconds. While the pot is off the heat, blend in milk, salt and black pepper. Reheat gently before serving.

Heat remaining oil in a small sauté pan on medium-high. Add bread and toss until lightly brown, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

To serve, spoon 1 cup of soup into each of 6 bowls. In the center of each, place 1 tablespoon of croutons, 1 tablespoon red bell pepper, 1 oz crabmeat and 1 teaspoon basil. Serve immediately.

Main Course

companyscoming2

Chicken with Porcini and Red Wine Sauce

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt, divided
  • 3/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper,divided
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
  • 2 medium shallots, minced
  • 1 lb white button mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch-thick
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh chives
  • 5 tablespoons dried porcini mushroom pieces, rinsed to remove any dirt
  • 3/4 cup fruity red wine (such as Merlot)
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
  • Spinach with Lemon and Garlic Oil, recipe below

Directions

Place chicken breasts in a large zip-top plastic bag and, using the smooth side of a meat mallet, lightly pound each breast to 1/4-inch thickness.

Add lemon juice, seal bag and marinate chicken at room temperature for 15 minutes.

In a small saucepan, cover porcini mushrooms with 1/3 cup boiling water and let rest while you prepare the other ingredients.

Heat a skillet over medium-high and add half the oil.

Remove chicken from the bag, discarding excess lemon juice. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Add chicken to the pan and cook, turning once, about 5 minutes each side. Transfer to a plate, cover tightly with foil and let rest.

Heat remaining oil in the same skillet, add shallots and sauté for 2 minutes.

Add white mushrooms and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Sauté until mushrooms are softened and have released most of their juices, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in chives. Return chicken to the pan and heat briefly.

Add wine and honey to the saucepan with the undrained porcini mushrooms and bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is reduced by about two-thirds, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter. Season with remaining salt and pepper.

Place spinach on serving plates and top with chicken and mushrooms. Drizzle sauce over each serving.

Note: Spinach may served separately, if you wish.

Spinach with Lemon and Garlic Olive Oil

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • 2 dried red chilies broken in half
  • Kosher salt
  • Thick strips of zest from 1 lemon
  • 3 pounds fresh spinach, cleaned, thick stems discarded
  • Freshly ground pepper

Directions

In a small saucepan, stir together the olive oil, garlic, chilies and 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir in the lemon zest. Bring the oil to a gentle simmer over low heat and cook until the garlic begins to brown slightly, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the oil infuse for 1 hour. Discard the garlic, chiles and lemon zest.

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the spinach until bright green, 15 seconds. Drain the spinach in a colander, pressing down to remove all the water. Pat dry with paper towels. Wipe out the pot with a paper towel to remove any water drops.

In the same pot add the garlic oil and spinach and stir until is hot, about 2 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a serving bowl and  season with salt and pepper.

companyscoming4

Potato and Fennel Gratin

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • 4 lbs russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced to about 1/8-inch
  • 1 bulb fennel, halved, cored and thinly sliced to about 1/8-inch
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper, divided

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large measuring cup, combine half-and-half and broth and set aside.

Mist a 2 quart casserole dish with cooking spray. Add half the potatoes, arranging them in even overlapping rows (it may be more than 1 layer).

Add fennel in an even layer, then sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Arrange remaining potatoes evenly on top of the fennel.

Pour half-and-half mixture over top of the potatoes. Use a spatula to press potatoes down into the liquid. Top with remaining salt and pepper.

Bake for 30 minutes. Use a spatula to press the potatoes down into the liquid. Continue baking until liquid is absorbed, potatoes are cooked through and the top is golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes.

Let rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Dessert Course

companyscoming5

Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

12 servings

Ingredients

  • Coking spray
  • 1  3/4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup safflower oil

Frosting

  • 1 cup cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple extract

Directions

Position oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325˚F.

Mist a 13×9 inch baking pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together pastry flour, almond flour, baking powder, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt and cloves. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, lightly beat eggs. Add brown sugar, milk and oil and beat on medium speed until light and frothy, about 3 minutes.

Add flour mixture in 3 additions and beat each time on low-speed, until just incorporated.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and spread batter evenly.

Bake until edges are golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean, about 25 to 28 minutes. Cool cake on a wire rack. Unfrosted cake may be kept in an airtight container at room temperature overnight.

For the frosting:

In an electric mixer beat cream cheese on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add honey and maple extract and beat on medium-high until combined, about 1 minute, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.

Spread frosting evenly over the top of the cake. Sprinkle the frosting with the remaining cinnamon.

Frosted cake may be refrigerated in an airtight container overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.

companyscoming6

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