Posts tagged Italian food

Homemade Orecchiette

Three years ago, my inaugural post on this blog was about making fresh pasta. Jim and I had pulled our never-used pasta machine out from storage, mixed together an egg-based dough, and cranked out an overwhelming quantity of linguine for the first time. Despite this successful experience—and apart from two other tiring experiments with homemade ravioli and ricotta gnocchi—making fresh pasta never became a habit for us. But on Sunday I was feeling adventurous and energized, and decided to try my hand at it again, this time with orecchiette.

Orecchiette means “little ears” in Italian. Small and circular with an indented center (hence the name), they are typical of the Southern region of Puglia, the area where my mother is from. Puglia’s flat landscape and arid temperatures are ideal for wheat production, making pasta and bread the most substantial elements of the region’s cuisine.

One of the interesting things about orecchiette and other traditional pastas from Southern Italy (such as cavatelli and strozzapreti) is that the dough is often made without eggs—flour, water, and salt are the main ingredients. A mixture of semolina and white flour forms the base of what becomes a chewy, dense pasta that can stand up to the most aggressive sauces. I have to say, this is one of the easiest doughs I have ever worked with. The absence of eggs creates an elastic dough that is quickly kneaded into a smooth ball, ready for shaping.

The rest of the steps on Sunday were decidedly un-exhausting. I divided the dough into 8 equal pieces, rolling each one into a long rope. After cutting them into compact squares, I pushed my thumb in the middle of each piece and gently dragged them a short way across my pasta board, creating a series of concave disks. I’ll admit, my first few attempts looked more like Fritos corn chips than perfectly circular orecchiette, but these are supposed to be rustic, right? Eventually I got the hang of it, and before I knew it, two cookie sheets were full of orecchiette waiting to be cooked.

In order to keep with the Puglian theme, I used my homemade “ears” in one of the region’s iconic dishes: orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. Because of their cup-like shape, orecchiette are rarely paired with smooth tomato- or cream-based sauces; chunkier sauces with meat or vegetables work better with this particular pasta. While the orecchiette cooked, I combined some blanched broccoli rabe with olive oil, garlic, and our favorite fennel sausage from our local pork store. Once tossed with these ingredients, the orecchiette formed a neutral, sturdy base for the bitter greens and strongly spiced meat, a classic combination that works every time. Now that I know how easy it is to make orecchiette, I see many more Puglian Sundays in our future. Cavatelli, here we come!

Recipe for Homemade Orecchiette with Fennel Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

For the pasta dough (recipe adapted from Michele Scicolone’s A Fresh Taste of Italy):

  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm water

Combine the all-purpose and semolina flours and the salt in a food processor. With the machine running, slowly add the water, until a stiff ball of dough forms. Remove the dough from the processor and place it on a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about a minute or two.

Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. Take one piece and keep the remaining pieces covered with the inverted food processor bowl or another bowl. Taking the dough between your hands, roll it into a long rope about 1/2-inch thick. Cut the rope into 1/2-inch pieces. With your thumb parallel to the long side of each piece, push it into the center of the dough and slightly drag the piece backwards. It will curl around your thumb, creating a concave disk. Set aside and repeat with the next piece of dough. When finished with all the dough, place the orecchiette on cookie sheets lined with napkins and a light dusting of flour. Cook right away or freeze. You should wind up with about a pound of pasta.

To freeze the pasta, place the filled cookie sheets in the freezer. Freeze until they are solid (about an hour or two) and then transfer the orecchiette to freezer-safe bags. They can be frozen for up to one month. When you are ready to use them, don’t defrost them. Add them directly to boiling, salted water and cook as usual.

For the Sauce:

  • sea salt
  • 1 bunch of broccoli rabe, washed with ends trimmed
  • 4 links of high quality fennel sausage
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • salt
  • pepper
  • pecorino romano or parmesan cheese

Preheat the broiler. Bring a large pot of water (big enough to hold the pasta) to a boil. Season with sea salt. Add the broccoli rabe and blanch for about 3 to 5 minutes. Using tongs, remove the rabe from the water and set aside. Chop roughly into smaller pieces. Do not drain the boiling water.

While the broccoli rabe is cooking, cook the sausages under the broiler for about 6 minutes, turning them after 3 minutes. Remove from the broiler and slice into 1/2-inch pieces. The pieces will probably still be a little pink in the middle.

Add the pasta to the boiling broccoli rabe water, and cook until al dente, about 10 to 13 minutes. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and sauté until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Do not let it brown. Add the sausage and the broccoli rabe to the pan, cooking until done, about 5 to 7 minutes. Drain the pasta when ready.

Toss the broccoli rabe and sausage with the cooked pasta. Add a glug of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with pecorino romano or parmesan cheese. Serves 4. Enjoy!

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Brunch at Morandi

Weekend holidays tend to disorient me for the rest of the week, and Easter Sunday was no different. So this post is going to be short and to the point, because I also can’t let another day go by without describing the fantastic brunch I had at Morandi in the West Village a few weeks ago with my dear friend Cheryl.

When Morandi first opened in 2007, it received pretty mediocre reviews, a first for the Keith McNally empire that includes favorites such as Balthazar, Pastis, and Minetta Tavern. But before anyone could try a second plate of spaghetti at this stylishly rustic Italian restaurant, chef Jody Williams was fired and Tony Liu took her place. Now, since I hadn’t eaten at Morandi until a few weeks ago, I can’t talk about whether it’s better or worse than before. All I can say is that Cheryl and I had the best brunch ever when we ate there.

Of course we started with the carciofi alla giudea, or fried artichokes ($12). Lightly dressed with lemon juice, they were light and crisp, the delicate leaves protecting the soft center choke. They were also surprisingly un-greasy for a fried dish, and Cheryl and I ate them all in just a few minutes.

Everything on the menu from the egg-based dishes to the salads sounded amazing, and it took me forever to choose my main dish. I finally went with the fazzoletti di ricotta, warm buttery crepes filled with lemon ricotta and topped with strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries ($13). Think of them as the Italian equivalent of the much-loved blintz. The crepes were thick and doughy, the lemon ricotta light and airy. Combined with a dusting of powdered sugar and fresh fruit, this was the perfect breakfast dish.

Cheryl had an equally difficult time choosing her meal, but finally went with the classic spaghetti carbonara ($15). Morandi’s was one of the best versions of this dish I have ever tasted. The pasta was cooked perfectly, and the egg was just slightly cooked from its heat. Small chunks of pancetta hid between the egg-coated spaghetti strands, but believe me, none went to waste. Did I mention yet that Cheryl let me eat the last bite? If that doesn’t prove our friendship, nothing does.

We considered ending our feast after our main dishes, but then quickly requested the dessert menu. The crespelle di cioccolato, or chocolate crepes, could not be denied ($9). Topped with chestnut gelato and a sweet citrus-based sauce, they were delicate and decadent at the same time. As Cheryl and I lingered over our coffees, we saw so many dishes pass by our table that we wanted to try; we almost ordered a second meal then and there. But the tempting focaccia “occhio di bue” (cracker-thin focaccia topped with a sunny-side egg, pancetta, and pecorino, served on a gorgeous wood serving tray) will just have to wait until another visit—which will be sooner rather than later. We’re already looking forward to our next shot at the best brunch ever.

Morandi, 211 Waverly Place at 7th Avenue in the West Village, Manhattan. T: 212-627-7575

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My Quest for La Quercia

Last week after our lovely lunch at Mimi’s Hummus, Rachel and I ducked into Market, the gourmet food shop next door. I walked slowly around the store, perusing the jars of local pickles and Middle Eastern spices, purposefully restraining myself from making any unnecessary (yet likely delicious) purchases. In fact, I probably would have left empty-handed had I not taken a closer look at the refrigerated case of cured meats, olives, and cheeses. That’s when I saw the yellow- and green-accented packaging of La Quercia Prosciutto Americano.

La Quercia is the only American producer of high-quality prosciutto, and its products have been lauded by Americans, Italians, and all nationalities in between. I had read about this unique Iowa-based company last year, and had recently tried its prosciutto at Danny Meyer’s new restaurant, Maialino. My dining partners and I were astonished by the meat’s authentic, natural flavor, and how it more than held its own against the Italian offerings on the cured meat platter we shared as an antipasto. But it was only after I found this pre-sliced, handy package of La Quercia’s cured pork at Market that I reviewed the company’s inspiring background again.

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse lived in Parma, Italy, for three and a half years, and fell in love with the idea of making Italian dry-cured meats in their home state of Iowa. After years of experimentation with this centuries-old tradition, the Eckhouses founded La Quercia (“oak” in Italian) in 2000. Not content to simply create an Italian facsimile of prosciutto, La Quercia produces cured meats that celebrate Iowa’s natural bounty without using artificial ingredients or preservatives. All of the pigs for its various cured products—in addition to different variations of prosciutto, La Quercia makes speck, coppa, pancetta, and guanciale—come from within 200 miles of the prosciuttificio, and are raised on vegetarian, grain-based diets, without antibiotics. These are pig products we can all feel good about.

I took the simple route with my package of Prosciutto Americano, draping its thin slices over squares of cantaloupe and eating it for lunch. Each buttery, supple slice was a revelation. The chewy, slightly fatty meat, falling in elastic sheets over the fresh fruit, was less salty yet somehow creamier than other Italian prosciutto I have tried, and I found myself eating slice after slice without pause. Later in the week, Jim and I sandwiched the remaining pieces in between some turkey cutlets for this recipe, adding a more intense layer of flavor to a simple meal. No matter what dish it appeared in, La Quercia’s prosciutto was the star. And we have Iowa and the Eckhouses to thank for it.

La Quercia’s prosciutto and other artisanal cured meats can be found at specialty food and grocery stores such as Whole Foods and the Red Hook Fairway. Check out their website for more store and ordering information.

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From Leaf to Stem

Every few weeks I find myself in the same position: Hunkered down in front of my open refrigerator with a plastic bag in hand, tossing withered produce and uneaten leftovers into the trash. Limp, yellowed parsley; saggy celery; dried-out chunks of onion; I’m always surprised at—and disappointed by—the amount of food that Jim and I waste each week.

In contrast to my guilt-inducing produce situation, Cathy Erway (of the popular blog Not Eating Out in New York) talks about her success with limiting food waste in her lovely new book, The Art of Eating In. As part of her desire to cook more and spend less, Erway employs often-discarded vegetable accessories such as beet greens and fennel fronds in her dishes, so that no part of the vegetable goes unused. While reading these pages, all I could think was I bet celery never goes bad in Cathy’s fridge. I hung my head in shame and once again vowed to change my ways. Surprisingly, I actually had some luck doing so.

It started with a big, floppy bunch of Swiss chard. I removed the stems and combined the pink-rimmed leaves with some leftover baby spinach, onions, feta cheese, and phyllo dough for a gorgeous Greek-inspired vegetarian pie. This light, flaky pie lasted us through one dinner and several lunches; not a single bite was left behind. And as I emptied the crisper drawers of plastic spinach containers and leftover cheese wrappers, I placed the Swiss chard stems in their place, instead of throwing them in the trash like I often do.

For the next few days, those stems stared at me every time I reached past them for tomatoes or salad greens. Finally, when they were about to turn, I pulled out a recipe for baked Swiss chard stems that I’d been saving for years. Similar to a casserole, the stems are layered with tomato sauce, garlic, and parmesan cheese, and baked in the oven until golden brown. Classic Italian flavors combine with an overlooked yet ruby-red vegetable for a satisfying side dish. And the best part was, not a single part of that Swiss chard went to waste. Not only was I proud of myself—and happy that I evaded another round of chard-induced guilt—but I discovered a delicious new side as well. I hope the trend continues; maybe I should try beet greens next. Thanks for the inspiration, Cathy!

Recipe for Baked Swiss Chard Stems with Tomatoes, Garlic, and Parmesan (adapted from Jack Bishop’s recipe as published in the New York Times on April 5, 2000)

  • 1/2 lb chard stems, bruised parts trimmed, halved crosswise
  • salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for baking dish
  • 2 small garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1-14 1/2 ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a few quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot. Add the chard stems and cook until they are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium in a medium skillet. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer until sauce is almost dry, about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cover the bottom of a lightly greased baking dish with a single layer of chard, cutting stems if necessary to fit them in the dish. Spoon a bit of tomato sauce over the stems, and sprinkle with a little cheese. Repeat with the next layer of chard, alternating the direction of the stems. Finish tomato sauce and cheese. Sprinkle the parsley across the top.

Bake until chard is very tender and top layer is browned, about 25 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and let settle for 5 minutes. Cut into squares and serve. Serves 4 as a side dish. Enjoy!

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Cooking with Mom: Beef Pizzaiola

When I was a kid, I never thought about where my next meal was coming from. All I knew was that sooner or later my mother would call me into the kitchen from playing outside to sit down with the rest of my family and eat the dinner she had prepared for us. More often than not, her meals were inspired by her Southern Italian upbringing. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, roast chicken with potatoes and bread crumbs, stuffed eggplants and artichokes—these are the dishes I remember from my childhood and have always wanted to make my own.

Last week I invited my mother to my apartment so we could cook one of her classic Italian recipes together: Beef Pizzaiola. It’s a simple, one-pot meal of tomato sauce and chuck steak with a spicy yet comforting aroma I can recognize immediately. The word pizzaiola means pizza-style, and refers to a tomato sauce made with garlic and oregano. I tried to do some research about this recipe’s origins, but all I could find was a short note about how this humble dish doesn’t have a defined history; no one has ever laid claim to it because it’s just that simple.

Now, let me make something clear: my mother and I cooked her version of this herb-filled, meaty sauce. There are many variations of this dish online and in cookbooks, but we made the version that has existed in her Apuglian family for generations. I have no idea which recipe is more authentic than another, as every region and every tiny village in Italy has its own culinary traditions. This is ours.

My mother’s recipe is very straightforward: Take some chuck steak, a can of whole tomatoes (pureed in the food processor), a bit of garlic, a few handfuls of pecorino romano cheese, parsley, oregano, and a few glugs of olive oil, and throw it all in a big pot. I should note here that my mother does not measure her ingredients; she eyeballs them, which is why I needed to cook with her and try to write down all the steps. Anyway, the ingredients sit one on top of the other, in festive layers of green, red, and white, until they come to a boil. Then you just let the whole mixture of beef and tomatoes simmer away for an hour or so, stirring it here and there, until the meat is very tender and can be pulled apart with a fork.

Served over spaghetti with some meat on the side or as a secondo, this sauce is completely different from your everyday marinara. Dark red, abundantly spiked with gutsy oregano and salty romano cheese, pizzaiola is a hearty, in-your-face type of sauce. Infused with flavor from the slow-cooked meat, the sauce is deep and satisfying, and an appropriate remedy for these cold winter days. And while chuck steak can be rather tough, in this dish it’s transformed into a soft, satisfying bit of protein.

As you can probably tell, the pizzaiola tasted as wonderful as I remembered. I just hope it will again next time, when I attempt to make it without my mother.

Recipe for Mom’s Beef Pizzaiola

  • 1 1/2 pounds chuck steak
  • 1 28-ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves
  • 1/3 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound of spaghetti

Cut each steak roughly into thirds. You should try to achieve equally-sized chunks of meat, following the natural lines of the steaks.

Pulse the tomatoes a few times in the food processor. They should be left a little chunky; they do not need to be perfectly smooth.

Combine the meat and the tomatoes in a big pot. Add the garlic, parsley, cheese, oregano, and olive oil. Do not stir.

Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and bring to a simmer. Cover. Stir every once in a while, making sure the meat doesn’t burn and the cheese doesn’t clump together. If the sauce seems to reduce too much and becomes too thick, add a little bit of water to the pot. Once the sauce is simmering, bring a big pot of salted water to boil for the spaghetti.

Cook for about an hour, until the meat is soft and breaking apart with a fork. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, cook the spaghetti.

When the spaghetti is drained, stir with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of sauce. Plate the spaghetti, and generously sprinkle each dish with romano cheese. Top with sauce. Serve the meat on the side or after the spaghetti course is finished. Serves 4 with leftovers. Enjoy!

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Eggs in Purgatory

Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? I don’t have an easy explanation for where I’ve been the past few months. All I can say is that I dropped off the grid for a while, and now I’m doing my best to resurface. I’ve missed my little blog. It’s a bigger part of me than I realized, and I’ve deeply felt its absence. For the past three years, Artichoke Heart has been my primary creative outlet, and this too-long pause made me wonder what I enjoyed most about blogging: thinking about food, writing about food, or being excited about food. Because honestly, I wasn’t feeling any of it, and wasn’t sure when or if I would again.

But I have been cooking. I experimented with this recipe for Drunken Noodles, and another one for stuffed cabbage. I made spaghetti and meatballs and an ice cream icebox cake that caused my dear friend’s children to squeal with delight. And after each successful (or not successful) meal, I wondered if it would lead me back to the blog. I came close a few times, sitting at the computer, fingers on the keys and staring at the blank screen, but the words wouldn’t come. Finally, on Friday night, I made a dish that reflected my self-inflicted, in-between state: Eggs in Purgatory.

It’s a dramatic name for a simple Southern Italian dish, a classic example of cucina povera where a robust, healthy meal is made from a few basic ingredients. Eggs in Purgatory are just poached eggs in tomato sauce. Yup, that’s it. You crack a few eggs over a simmering onion- or garlic-based tomato sauce, and let them slowly cook, the golden centers and creamy whites quivering in a bubbling, crimson sea of tomatoes. Gently pour the gleaming eggs and sauce over a piece of toast, and dinner is served.

Something about the flavors of this dish hit Jim and me right away. Our forks returned time and time again, the soft egg yolks bleeding gently into the sweet tomatoes. I overcooked the eggs a little bit (they were closer to soft-boiled than poached) but no matter. The crunchy bread beneath was the perfect base for the liquid mass of protein and tomatoes above.

Perhaps the allusion to Purgatory is derived from the image of eggs momentarily suspended in the tomato sauce, a symbolic transitory state between Heaven and Hell. Whatever the connotation of this dish may be, I hope my extended blogging lapse is over, and that I’ve found my way back to the Choke.

Recipe for Eggs In Purgatory (with garlic-based tomato sauce), adapted from Smitten Kitchen

  • 1 14-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 slices of toasted peasant bread
  • Fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Warm the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until the garlic has browned, stirring frequently, for about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and season with sugar, a pinch of salt, and black pepper. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Gently crack the eggs into the tomato sauce, allowing the interiors to spread throughout the sauce. Cover the pan and let the eggs cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, uncover, and let the pan stand for 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer 2 eggs to each piece of toast and cover with sauce. Garnish with cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Serves 2 as a main dish. Enjoy!

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Gina DePalma’s Zuppa di Farro

Have you ever come across a recipe—whether online, or in a cookbook or magazine—and fallen in love with it immediately, before even tasting the results? Similar to finally finding the one, I think you just know when it happens. Lucky for me, I’ve been struck by this culinary bolt of lightning more than once, most recently with chef Gina DePalma’s recipe for zuppa di farro (farro soup). I found it at the beginning of last month on Serious Eats, bookmarked it immediately, and couldn’t wait to try it.

soup

I’m not sure what inspired my strong feelings about this recipe. Perhaps it was DePalma’s evocative prose about discovering this soup in Italy during lunch on a blustery day, or maybe it was her appetizing photo. In addition, a closer look at the recipe revealed two things: many of my favorite ingredients were included (tomatoes, farro, pancetta, parmesan cheese) and I had almost all of them in my pantry or refrigerator. Like any great love story, it was meant to be.

All I needed was time, as DePalma suggests soaking the farro for two hours before cooking. Most recipes I’ve seen soak the grains for 20 minutes, but on a chilly Sunday afternoon with nothing to do and nowhere to be, I did as the recipe instructed. The rest of the steps were simple: I sautéed the onions, garlic, and pancetta, then added the tomatoes, farro, and some homemade chicken stock (instead of DePalma’s suggested beef stock). The soup simmered for a while on the stovetop, and then rested so the flavors could come together. A cup of the mixture was pureed and then added back into the pot before serving, creating a more liquid base of flavor.

Oh boy, were my instincts right about this soup. The chewy grains melded with the tomato-infused broth to create a rustic, hearty-but-not-heavy dish that delighted with each spoonful. Meaty chunks of pancetta swam here and there, peeking out between the sprinklings of tangy parmesan cheese and spicy fresh parsley. Jim and I ate it for two nights in a row, almost reluctant to finish it off; we just didn’t want this love story to end. But by the end of the bowl, I realized that although recipes may come and go, at least this one would have a permanent place in my heart.

Recipe for Zuppa di Farro (adapted from Gina DePalma’s recipe on Serious Eats)

  • 1 cup farro
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1-1 1/2 ounces of pancetta, diced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • a dash of dried sage
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup canned plum tomatoes, crushed and chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 to 6 cups good-quality chicken stock

Start by placing the farro in a medium bowl, and covering the grains with cold water. Soak for 2 hours. Drain and set the grains aside.

Heat the olive oil over low heat in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the garlic. Sauté the garlic until it starts to brown, then remove it and discard. Add the onions and the pancetta to the pot and stir. Season with a pinch of salt and keep stirring. Sauté the onions and pancetta until they soften and turn translucent at the edges, then add the herbs. Sauté for another minute, but don’t allow the mixture to brown.

Add the tomatoes to the pot and stir. Then add the farro, about 2 cups of the stock and 1 cup of water. Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cover and lower the heat. Simmer the soup while covered for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so. As the soup thickens, add ladles of stock to the pot. The soup shouldn’t be too thick; the grains should be loose and floating in liquid.

When the farro is tender, the soup is ready. Allow it to cool for 30 minutes in the pot. Remove 1 cup of soup to a blender and puree. Stir the mixture back into the soup, and add more stock if necessary.

Heat the soup a little bit before serving. Garnish with parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, and grated cheese.

Serves 4. Enjoy! (Jim and I ate this soup over 2 days. On the 2nd day it had absorbed quite a bit of moisture, so I added some stock to thin it out.)

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