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My past week could be accurately weighed in butter grams.

I made snickerdoodles (cinnamon sugar cookies common in the midwest U.S.) along with my extra-rich chocolate-chip cookies and handed them out to several audiences. They both contain a staggering amount of butter (the latter especially; it calls for 2.5 sticks of it, and its batter must be refrigerated for four hours so it stiffens enough to hold up in the oven), and consequently both were well received.

First on the docket: what I called Random Acts of Cookie. I’ve noticed there seems to be a general malaise in the world lately. Election year or some such nonsense. So on Wednesday I went on the offense and planned to fight back by handing out snickerdoodles to anyone I came upon.

I’d like to say I handed them all out. The truth is, only one person accepted one, though they were individually bagged and all. I’ll still say it was a success, though, because I drove some out to my friend Jim at work and he laughed and ate them right up. Then I gave another to my friend Mike, who’s from Ohio, and told him the cookie was his birthright. He conceded without an argument.

Next up I made chocolate-chip cookies for the cast of a show. My friend Tom plays a conniving, comedic pope in it (the script actually says, ‘with atrocious Italian accent’), which is reason enough to celebrate. That’s the box above. I also gave him a piece of chocolate cinnamon babka—my Easter bread—yesterday which, oddly, he ate on his way to dinner. I got a voice mail telling me to stop everything I’m doing and make only that, for the rest of my life. It is a good recipe. And the cast made appreciative little mmmm noises as they ate. It’s hard to disappoint actors.

Today was my last cookie visit, and it was half altruistic and half bribery: I returned some props to a rental company that can be as disorderly as a petting zoo inside Grand Central on Christmas Eve at 4:55pm. I bypass this by bringing them treats, and they got a dozen of those extra-buttery chocolate-chip cookies. As I told my friends on Facebook: It conveys moving past slights and misunderstandings, which I’m above, and also conveys a healthy dose of manipulation, which I’m not.

Also: Every time I bake, I try to hold back a few and set them aside for later. This way, when I know I’m going to meet a friend who loves chocolate, or has had a bad day, I can bring one along. It’s a very small gesture and very easy for me to do, but I have never met anyone who didn’t love it. Right now my freezer contains freezer-safe Hefty bags full of cookies, babka, two kinds of homemade Nutella truffles (those with a little added sugar and those without), and wedges of brownies. Treats in the freezer are my money in the bank. I’m armed. Make a lunch date with me and you’d find out.

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I’m on a lemon kick, I suppose. Did you ever have a craving just clobber you upside the head? This morning I happened upon a Nigella recipe for lemon yogurt cake and that was it: I got dressed, drove to the store, and bought a lemon.

This should have been a simple cake to make—there are few ingredients, they’re all recognizable, etc.–but it wasn’t written well. The measurements she gives are fine, but the process was frustrating; she kept instructing us to use a pot of this and a pot of that instead of the very measurements she calls for above. Grateful that I’ve spent most of my life in the kitchen and knowing I could grope my way out of this, I just stopped for a second, decided this was a basic cake—wet stuff added to dry stuff, combine and bake—and ignored everything in the middle of the recipe.

While stirring this up it occurred to me that I rarely go by the letter when I cook. Instead, I edit before I start. No, this doesn’t need two cups of sugar; good Lord almighty, one teaspoon is not going to be enough for something entitled a vanilla cake. And so on. I don’t do vegetable oil, so I substituted olive oil for this cake, and it was successful. Butter would have been good, too, obviously. And it called for the zest of half a lemon, but I know myself, and I like lemon desserts to taste quite powerfully of lemon. Delicately lemony cake, cookies, bars—not for me. So I zested the whole fruit.

Took a little bite when it was cool, and the inside is lovely and tender, almost creamy, like a really good pound cake. But even that whole lemon’s zest wasn’t enough for me. I’ll add the juice to the batter next time. Maybe I’ll end up squeezing it over the whole thing tomorrow like a filet of Dover sole.

One more thing: Nigella calls for the cake to go in a tube pan, but the only one I have is a Bundt. The cake’s a tad short in stature, as you can see. I’m going to try to eat it all before I learn if it has a Napoleonic complex.

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Two upper-classman girls helping a freshman into her costume belt.

I’ve worked with kids for half my life, usually nursery school kids, and usually in the classroom. About 10 years ago I started working with teenagers in theatre. Then things got a little nutty. I mean, I stopped getting barfed on*, but I inadvertently added in drama onstage, drama backstage (if you want real drama), and much illumination.

Adults like to moan about the shortcomings of kids, and teens in particular. This is nothing new. Back in 20 BC Horace was kvetching to the same tune, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Yeah, there’s vanity and techno obsession and laziness among teens. But so is there among adults. I’ve worked with both backstage, and quite honestly? If I were to assemble a dream team of ideal colleagues**, the scale would tip heavily in favor of the teens. In my experience crewing roughly four shows a year, they’re the reliable, enthusiastic, and hardworking ones. Most consistently.

They’re also fascinating—wonderfully, sometimes heartbreakingly, candid. I like to engage them, and am humbled to be rewarded with a lot of trust.

Everyone wants to feel seen.

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Actors waiting on stage right for their entrance cue.

Story time. Seriously, I have tons. And I haven’t forgotten this is primarily a food blog. Don’t worry; food and teenagers are inextricably linked.

…There was the boy who spent most of his time grinning and jumping off things—easily the most high-octane kid I have ever worked with. Once, after he told me about a beef stir-fry he’d made and was very proud of, he revealed to me—still grinning—that he was a hemophiliac. He hated feeling captive by it and knew risking injury was stupid, but said it kept him sane—like giving the disease the middle finger from time to time.

…Seeing two freshman girls reassure, and embolden, and wipe the tears from an eighth-grade girl’s cheeks when a classmate had said something mean to her.

…The girl who loved acting but became almost paralyzed with stage fright. She said once she got out there, she would forget her nervousness and enjoy herself. So every night at places, she would come to me and I would say, ‘You just have to make it for 10 more minutes. In 10 minutes you’ll be fine.’ A year later I bought a ticket for the winter show, which she was stage managing for the first time. I went backstage to see her because I knew she was nervous. When she spotted me she squealed, ‘OH IT’S MARISA OH I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE!’ And I reminded her that she’d be golden in 10 minutes.

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Lest they forget.

…The boy who raced down the hallway with a pan of brownies, stopped in his tracks, held the pan out to me so I could pull off a piece, then kept going. He didn’t speak because his mouth was stuffed.

…The girl whose mother died just a few days before the run of the show. I was stunned when she arrived to rehearse. The staff said she did not want to talk about her mom yet, but just wanted business as usual. And every single kid in the show respected it. Every now and again I’d see one of them walk past and squeeze her shoulder, but not say a word.

…Once I brought in a big box of homemade cookies, and another day a bigger box of chocolate truffles. I have no pictures because crumbs and empty candy cups dusted with cocoa powder don’t make stellar shots.

…I asked two students what topics they chose for their senior theses: (1) the history of the transgender movement; 2) the wisdom—or folly—of knowing the future, with citations from the movie Dune and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five). How cool is that, really?

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Costumes for set dressing.

…I asked an actor where he was from, and he told me Virginia. A few minutes later he asked what my last name was. I told him, and asked why he wanted to know. He said he wasn’t sure what he should call me. I assured him he could call me by my first name. He grinned a sheepish grin and fidgeted a little, and said he thinks he’d feel better calling me Ms. Procopio. This was new. Then I remembered: he’s southern. 🙂

…One actor confided he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, and was on the outs with his family about it. He also confided an injury, and when he came up with a new way to dance that kept him from pain he was so excited to share it.

…I learned that the kids who are the shining stars, the most charismatic, the most beautiful, need more TLC and a shoulder to lean on more often than the average kids.

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My most recent crew kids liked to mark the number that was next up so they could look ahead to their cues. They were new to crewing, and I’ve never seen this idea in action before. It’s a good one.

…Asking a sound tech who studied in Spain for a year to tell me what he ate there. His eyes lit up as he told me about octopus eaten at every meal, about fresh anchovies skewered in fire and smoked, and how they charred, and crackled in his teeth. He was from Oklahoma, though I couldn’t tell from his accent (though it explains why he called me ‘ma’am’ when he first met me). He spoke glowingly about game-hunting and how he can tell from the taste of the venison if the deer nibbled trees a lot: ‘It tastes twiggy.’

…High-fiving an actor every night when he came off stage for not incinerating the building in a scene in which he held a Zippo up to a travel-sized can of hairspray. An admirable accomplishment.

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Actors will be actors. Dressing room tidiness.

…When I complimented another kid, from Korea, on the stones it takes to go to school halfway across the world when you’re only 14, and asked why he did it, he said, ‘Do you want the brutal truth?’ I said yeah. And he replied that kids in his home country were expected to study 8-12 hours a day, and by going to school in the U.S. he could do ‘all this,’ and waved his arms across the stage. ‘It’s much better,’ he said. A little later he went to the concession table, bought two Sprites, and gave me one.

…The crew girl who hurdled actors and set pieces to make her cue on time. She lost her house in Hurricane Sandy and was displaced for a year while her family built a new house, but was unfailingly upbeat and worked just as hard as she ever had. She would be on my dream crew.

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A crew girl waiting, tie line in hand, to pull at her cue.

*To be fair, that only happened to me once. Poor kid.

**Because regardless of age, that’s what they are, since we’re all working toward the same goal: a good production.

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Hey now! We love these!

1) Get the unfathomably groovy idea of making them from scratch.

2.) Find a recipe from an esteemed resource who would know from these things.

2a) Strut a little.

3) Make the graham cracker cookie bases, which turn out surprisingly delicious in their own right, and not just as a generic circle to hold the two gooey toppings.

4) Make the marshmallow, which I’ve done before many times using another recipe. Realize that this new recipe is different from the former in several ways, the most notable being that the former did not turn the product into Insta-Cement.

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No, this is the second batch. As if my hands, stricken with stickin’, could maneuver a camera with the first.

5) Coax the marshmallow from the piping bag onto the cookies with warm, carefully chosen expletives. To which it’s actually responsive, and confirms that the recipe must come from the south. Far, far, FAR south. Like underground south.

5a) Decide next time to use the marshmallow recipe that comes from more northern climes.

6) Melt chocolate. Read the recipe that says to dip the cookies into it by hand. Choose not to spend what would otherwise be a productive evening in the ER with third-degree burns that smell like chocolate, and carefully pour the chocolate onto each marshmallowed cookie. Feel winningly like Jacques Torres.

7) Watch in horror as the marshmallow oozes off each cookie under the heat and weight of the hot chocolate, like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with better ingredients. Try to add more chocolate, but get the same results.

8) Shoot them maybe five different ways, each time having them insist on coming out blurry.

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Probably out of a deep sense of personal shame.

9) Taste one. It’s bloody effing fantastic. Question whether people would find it worrisome if I asked them to shut their eyes, then grope their way into the cookie bag, and then taste them.

10) Take my chances, dip them the way the recipe suggests, and find it works better than my Jacques Torres-y pouring method, even though some still ooze. Realize that there are plenty of people in my circle who are happy eating my kitchen mistakes.

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11) Re-panic when I also realize that since I don’t know how to temper chocolate–which the recipe does not even mention needs doing—it means there’s a solid chance the chocolate will have bloomed* by morning.

12) Cheer in a confused way** when even after Day 4, the chocolate topping has not bloomed.

12a) Get seriously cocky.

13) Bake Batch #2 with the worry-free poise of a principal dancer in the Ballet Russe who’s hoisted by a dancer with thighs like carved cedar. Use the favored northern marshmallow recipe, dip, and otherwise treat Batch #2 precisely as I did Batch #1.

14) Swear blue and green the next morning when 2/3 of them bloom.

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15) Seek out alternate chocolate topping for Batch #3, to be prepared this weekend.

16) With a fork, chip wedges of cooled chocolate out of the bottom of the Pyrex bowl and poke it into mouth. Do the same with the marshmallowy chocolatey dripped bits that are stuck to the cookie racks.

17) Be soothed.

*Tempering is the method by which chocolate is kept heated to a certain, consistent temperature, and guarantees a glossy finish. If you don’t do it, the chocolate blooms. It doesn’t affect the taste, but it looks funky.

**This isn’t easy. You try it.

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So begins the first installment of my cooking project! I chose Anita’s cookies because every ingredient in them is like butter on a burn* to me, and because right now I want to expend only the barest amount of effort while still getting a fat payoff. What we cook should work for us. And for where I am right now, these cookies do that.

To be more specific, this month I’m backstage, crewing two theatre shows. And while I love it, it’s hard physical work. Factor in the frosty 95-degree weather, and my head feels like drywall. I hope you’re all less in the mood to dig into Big Thinking and more in the mood for goofing off a little, because I sure am.

I took a page from Anita’s book with this recipe and did my own thing in a few places: I added good-quality 60% cacao chocolate buttons instead of chopping up chocolate (zero energy for that today) and toasted the walnuts before adding them (a very nice thing to do to a nut). I also used organic whole wheat pastry flour for half of the flour called for.  Stirred it all up, scooped it onto cookie sheets, put the sheets in the oven, then I…

…Oh, you think that’s it?

No, right about here let’s throw in a monkey wrench, something completely screwed up, like having my oven refuse to go past 300 degrees, then slowly shut itself off and start emitting gas, like something out of a 1970s made-for-TV movie starring Dirk Benedict.

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Bring on your Battlestar Galactica plastic weaponry. I smite thee with stink.

The NJNG tech told me the igniter in the oven was busted and needed replacing. I asked my downstairs neighbors if I could use their oven. They said they were sorry, but they didn’t want the extra heat on a day like today. They did offer to see if they could relight it, something about kneeling on the floor, reaching through the broiler drawer with an Aim ‘N Flame and brute ambition. I know nothing about this method. It might have worked finely and dandily. But I couldn’t stop picturing a Hiroshima-styled mushroom cloud over the spot where my house had been and brioche tins flying out over the Atlantic. So I called my friends Kim and Doug, who are endlessly amiable and happy to help in a cookie crisis. Within an hour both batches were done.

These cookies are hearty, homey, flavorful, and textured in a very appealing lumpy bumpy way. As Anita points out, they lend themselves well to additions and substitutions. They’ll keep well frozen, I’m sure, and will defrost to keep my stomach full this week as I zip around the county. Thanks, Anita.

Here she is:

This is based on my mother’s oatmeal cookies, but I changed it up. Instead of cinnamon, I added cardamom. Instead of raisins, I used home-dried apricots (although commercially-dried apricots would do as well). I substituted chocolate chips (which I think are rather tasteless)** for chopped dark chocolate. I also added coconut.

I can’t keep these in the cookie jar. Heck. Half of the time they don’t even make it that far—they are eaten right off of the cooling rack.

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

2 c all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

2 tsp ground cardamom

1 1/2 c butter, softened

1 c brown sugar, packed

1 c granulated sugar

1/4 c molasses or barley malt syrup

4 eggs

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

3 c old-fashioned rolled oats

1 c chopped dried apricots (if unsulphured, slightly reconstitute by soaking in warm water)

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 1/2 c shredded coconut (unsweetened)

1 1/2 c chopped dark chocolate. (I put the pieces in a big plastic bag and whack the bejeezus out of it with a meat tenderizer.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a separate bowl combine flour, soda, salt and cardamom, and set aside. Cream butter and sweeteners together. Add eggs to butter and sweetener mixture, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next. Add vanilla. Add oats, flour mixture, apricots, walnuts and coconut. Mix on low speed. Add chocolate. Combine.

Scoop by spoonfuls, about 2-3 tablespoons each, onto cookie sheets, leaving a couple of inches in between. Bake for 11-13*** minutes. Cool on a rack, then feast.

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

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Do I seem obsessed with shiny chocolate?

 

*Especially the butter.

**Absolutely the case with Nestle.

***Mine took 18 minutes.

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Gonna be even purtier when they’re tipsy.

The first thing I want to say is WOW, and the second thing I want to say is grazie. You sent recipes from as close by as across the lake and as far away as South Africa. I selected 25 of them. Stoked doesn’t come close!

I chose the recipes for this project after having exhaustively researched the origins and ingredients for each, creating a map across my studio wall with pins stuck in various countries, burning up Google, and whipping up a spreadsheet outlining…okay, no, that never happened, it’s more like I was just mouth-open intrigued by every one. That’s pretty much all of the rhyme and reason involved here. Some recipes are ones I’ve never tried before and have always wanted to, some are ones I’ve never heard of, and some are classics. And I’ve never made any before, which was a major selling point. Some of you sent more than one recipe. That’s cool. I’m a game kind of girl.

As I make each recipe I’ll be documenting the whys, wherefores, and holy-craps here. Along those lines, come on and cook one recipe or all with me. When you do, write in and tell me how it went. I think one of the best ways to get under the skin of a country and its people is to taste its native cuisine. Food and the stories that accompany it can be transporting. They can carry us to another time and place as well as or even better than an airplane can—or in some cases, a time machine.* Your kitchen is your cockpit. This will be an education for all of us.

I’m still waiting on an official go from some of you, and some I’m not sure I can swing,** but here are my choices.

*********************************************************************

Soft-Boiled Eggs with Dippy Soldiers

Curry-baked Chicken with Vegetable Curry and Green Pea Rice

Jenny Davies

jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk

*

Melon Jam

Peach Jam with Ginger

Octopus with Pasta

Katerina Papaspiliopoulou

Athens, Greece

*

Sauerbraten

Kay Coppola

West Long Branch, NJ

USA

*

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Mozzarella and Anchovy

Daniela Cassoni

Rome, Italy

*

Eggs Daffodil

Louis Rousseau

Santa Cruz, CA

USA

*

Toad of Toad Hole

Cheese Marmite Muffins

Mike Batho

Manchester, England

*

Applesauce Cake

Plum Pudding sauce

Kim Raynor

Wanamassa, NJ

USA

*

One-Gallon Daviess County Kentucky Burgoo

Mary B. Goetz

Owensboro, KY

USA

*

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

*

Homemade Maraschino Cherries

Linda Lavalle

New York, NY

USA

*

Rose Liqueur

Ladyfingers

Letizia Mattiacci

Umbria, Italy

*

Turkish-Inspired Leek Meatballs

Liz Reuven

kosherlikeme.com

*

Cornbread with Warm Buttermilk and Honey

Constance Moylan

USA

*

TMC Chicken POMOrado with Habanero

TMC Baked Rabbit with Mustard and Habanero Glaze

Johnnie Walker

Logan County, CO

USA

*

Grilled Pimiento Cheese

Sarah Lansky

Sarasota, FL

USA

*

Malva Pudding

Sauce

Richard Key

Ocean Basket N1 City Mall

South Africa

*

Hoppin’ John

Weena Perry

Keyport, NJ

USA

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Oh, and…

If you or any home cooks you know have authentic recipes from Asia, Australia, South America or other parts of Europe or North America, please hit me up at mcproco@gmail.com. The thought of cooking myself around the world gets me really jazzed. And I think we established long ago that I’m just a mite cracked in the head, so I might as well give in to it.***

*It’s true, but it’s also a gratuitous Doctor Who reference. So you know.

**Whether I will make the rose liqueur, for example, depends on whether I can find a sweet-tasting, unsprayed bush. And it has to be on public property, because making the recipe after having avoided a felony charge will only make it that much more enjoyable. I’ve tasted petals from about six different wild bushes that range from neutral tasting to bitter. Cross them fingers for me.

Cropped beach rose

Lettucey. Bummer.

***Two concussions strong!

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I love to make treats for the casts and crews of my shows, and to give as holiday gifts and thank-yous. 99.44%* of the time people love it. But that itty bitty percentage** left over gets all judgmental on me.

‘How can you make these things knowing there’s such an obesity problem in this country?’ they ask. I’ve even had people ask how I can live with myself, as if baking with butter and sugar is akin to mooning a Gymboree. Here’s my thinking.

Yes, a massive pile of Americans are obese. But they didn’t get that way from having a brownie at a Saturday night barbecue, or a couple of Bubbe’s latkes at Chanukah, or Cadbury eggs on Easter. And goodness knows I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. But I have mambo’ed with weight gain and loss my whole life. As my ninth grade biology teacher said, if you consistently eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. That’s how it works. So with a few exceptions, I’m pretty sure those suffering with serious weight issues got that way from consuming too much, or consuming rich foods too often—foods that are meant to be once-in-a-while treats.

Your Great Anye’s German stollen, that wonderful buttery dried-fruity holiday bread—that’s a treat. You’re not supposed to live on it. It’s a Christmastime joy, along with goodwill and empty parking places. The problem comes when the line between treats and everyday healthy foods becomes so blurred that for breakfast we grab a doughnut made with shortening and fake colored sprinkles instead of scrambled egg whites and whole wheat toast, or for lunch we choose Cool Ranch Doritos instead of a turkey sandwich. Many of us have forgotten the difference, forgotten to be discerning.

And so we get fat, and we judge ourselves and others for it. We forget that eating, like most things in life, is about balance. We’re supposed to make healthy food choices most of the time. And we’re supposed to celebrate with indulgent foods at special times. Yes, supposed to. If we can decide to live by that tenet, maybe we’ll work out this obesity epidemic (or at least come closer to doing so). And I can’t think of a better time than now, holiday time, to emphasize balance in eating.

Please, have some of your mom’s killer lasagna bolognese and your best friend’s oatmeal cookies this holiday season. Just go easy the rest of the time. Get your veggies in there. Drink lots of water. Take care of yourself.

The really good news is when we choose to live this way, choose to eat healthy foods*** most of the time and blow it out a little on the weekends and on holidays, we’ll look forward to those special treats that much more. Remember anticipation? We’ll feel like kids again.

Full disclosure:

1) Last week I overdid it: I drank hot chocolate every single day without fail. Even with 1% milk, that’s a lot. This week I have to do better with balance.

2) I’m totally in the mood to make my mom’s sour cream coffee cake, but it’s something that we kids grew up eating on Christmas morning. I am making myself wait, just like I did last year, and I know I’ll be glad I did.

I’m so excited for that cake. It’s something, like the stollen, that says yesterday is gone, tomorrow is later, and I am living for this flavor, this texture—this luxury—right now. And there’s no crime in that.

*With apologies to Ivory soap. You’re doing a fine job.

**Don’t make me do the math.

***Which doesn’t mean it should taste like a loofah sponge, by the way. Find recipes that use spices, herbs, garlic, the good stuff, and you will not deprive yourself.

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