June 27, 2018

Dear friends,

Creating a recipe isn’t rocket science but it isn’t easy, either.  I practiced for about 15 to 20 years before I got good at it. That’s why I’m skeptical of all the food bloggers out there who present recipe after recipe with no attribution (but nice photos), giving the impression that they dreamed them up.

Really?

Not even professionals can keep the creative engine running week after week, and when I can’t, I tell you. This week’s delicious summer couscous salad recipe is from Ina Garten. I’m grateful that when the well runs dry I can turn to my food-writer friends, chefs and cookbook authors for inspiration. I’m happy to give them credit for the recipes I borrow. I hope others do the same.

Ina’s tuna couscous salad uses basic ingredients in just the right proportions to produce a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. Slippery orbs of large Israeli couscous are tumbled together with canned tuna, olives, peppers, garlic and lemon and let sit while the pasta soaks up the flavors. Fresh basil, chopped scallions and more lemon are stirred in just before serving.

The flavors improve the longer it sits, Garten says. It was delicious the next day when I had some for breakfast. (Yes, I liked it that much.)

Garten prefers the flavor and quality of Italian canned tuna for this recipe. I found it in a supermarket for about $2.50 per can. If you can’t find it or balk at the price, domestic canned tuna in oil may be substituted.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS & TUNA SALAD

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2 cups Israeli (large pearl) couscous (10 to 12 oz.)

2 (7-oz.) cans or jars Italian tuna, drained and flaked

2 tsp. grated lemon zest (2 lemons)

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ cup good olive oil

3 tbsp. capers, drained

½ cup pitted, oil-cured black olives, coarsely chopped (3 oz.)

½ cup jarred roasted red peppers, medium-diced (4 oz.)

2 tsp. minced garlic (2 cloves

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup chopped scallions (6 to 8 scallions)

¼ cup julienned fresh basil leaves, lightly packed

Juice of ½ lemon

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Add the couscous and reduce the heat to very low. Cover the pot and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes, until the couscous is just tender. Drain.

Meanwhile, combine the tuna, lemon zest, 1/4 cup lemon juice, olive oil, capers, olives, red peppers, garlic, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1½ teaspoons black pepper in a large bowl. Pour the hot couscous into the mixture and stir well. Cover and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Just before serving, stir in the scallions, basil, juice of the ½ lemon, and up to 1 more teaspoon of salt. Taste for seasonings and serve warm or at room temperature. This can be made a day in advance. Bring back to room temperature and add the scallions, basil, and lemon juice before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

From “Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust,” by Ina Garten.

GUT CHECK

What I cooked last week:
Couscous and tuna salad; grilled hamburgers; egg sandwich with pesto and fresh basil leaves; asparagus with vinaigrette.

What I ate last week in/from restaurants::
A chili-cheese dog at the Sub Station in Wadsworth; jerk chicken, rice with peas, cabbage stew and cucumber salad at Pots & Pans Jamaican restaurant in downtown Akron; chicken vlacki (Greek marinated chicken breast, feta, spinach, chopped cuke and tomato over a puffy flatbread) at Village Gardens in Cuyahoga Falls; banh mi, noodle salad, spicy fritters and more at an ethnic picnic with Akron Project Learn ESL students at Patterson Park in Akron; chicken under a brick over mashed potatoes, sautéed kale, asparagus and radishes at Wolfe Creek Tavern in Norton; barbecued ribs from the Winking Lizard in Fairlawn (meh).

THE MAILBAG

From Betty:
I know sauerkraut is loaded with probiotics because it is fermented, but does canned sauerkraut have probiotics too or does the canning process eliminate them? Same with dill pickles.

Dear Betty:
Canned sauerkraut is still fermented, so it contains the probiotics — good bacteria —that enable the body to extract vitamins and minerals from the food more easily than raw or plain cooked cabbage does. A word of caution, though — sauerkraut is high in salt.

Probiotics may have other benefits, too, such as reducing gas, constipation and diarrhea, according to dietitian Regina Petre at healthline.com.

As for pickles, most are made with vinegar and are not a source of probiotics. Fermented pickles, made by soaking cucumbers in brine, do provide probiotics.

From Anne C.:
I have seen people request old recipes that appeared years ago in the Akron Beacon Journal from time to time. I don’t know if anyone has shared this information, but when using the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s website (akronlibrary.org) for other research, I came across an online database that is available to patrons — the Polly Paffilas Recipe Index.

This resource includes approximately 5,000 recipes that appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal from 1959 to 1980. Recipes may be searched by keyword, ingredient, name, category or date.

You will need a library card to access the information. From the library’s homepage, in the large “Databases” box, click on “databases A-Z.” Then find the recipe index alphabetically under “P.” After finding the title of the recipe you want, to access the recipe itself, you will need to contact the Special Collections Division at specialcollections@akronlibrary.org.

Dear Anne:
Polly, one of my predecessors as food editor at the newspaper, was a cherished friend. I remember all of those recipes on index cards in overflowing file boxes in her closet. She took the files home when she retired because the newspaper was about to toss them away. Years later she gave them to me to preserve, and I donated them in her name to the library. Thank you for the reminder.

Saving recipes was easier when I was food editor. All of the recipes I printed from 1986 onward are available on the Beacon Journal database, also accessible through the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s website. From the home page, click on “Databases A-Z,” then on “Akron Beacon Journal.” After entering your library card number, you can search for recipes by name, ingredient, date or author, or a combination of any two.

 

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June 20, 2018

Dear friends,

If you’re one of those people who likes the idea of Hawaiian poke but doesn’t relish eating a bowl of raw fish — or maybe just paying for that much fresh tuna — I have a recipe for you.

In order to make poke less of an occasional treat and more of an everyday meal at my house, I devised a recipe for grilled mahi-mahi poke. I know, the whole point of the popular Hawaiian dish is raw fish, and a way to dress it up that isn’t sushi. But poke has been messed with so much already that searing the fish shouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

Originally, poke (pronounced POH kay) was cubed raw fish (often tuna), green onions, hot pepper flakes and sesame oil. Simple. But as it spread to menus across the country, it picked up more and more ingredients, from cucumbers and jicama to tomatoes and black beans. It’s even made now with tofu and cooked chicken.

My version doesn’t go that far. I merely chopped up a handful of cooling ingredients I’d like to eat in a summer salad — cucumber, avocado, green onions, sweet bell pepper and, for a touch of sweetness and a nod to poke’s origins, fresh pineapple.

I tossed the salad with cubes of grilled mahi-mahi because it was on sale. Any firm fish that can be cooked on a skewer without falling apart (halibut comes to mind) will do. Shellfish — shrimp, scallops — would be a good choice, too.

This grilled poke would be a good choice for an appetizer at a summer dinner with friends because the salad portion can be made well in advance and the fish added at the last minute. Or serve it over rice for a main course, or on spears of lettuce as a cocktail nosh. The sesame vinaigrette may be mixed in big batches and used on all kinds of salads. It’s delicious.

GRILLED MAHI-MAHI POKE

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Sesame vinaigrette (recipe follows)

1 ripe avocado, diced in 1/4-inch pieces

1/2 of a medium cucumber, unpeeled, diced in 1/4-inch pieces

1/4 cup red bell pepper in 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup sliced green onions

1/2 cup pineapple in 1/4-inch dice

Salt to taste

12 oz. mahi-mahi fillets, cut in 1-inch pieces

2 tsp. toasted sesame seeds

Build a charcoal fire or heat a gas grill to medium-high. Soak 4 long wooden skewers in warm water.

Make vinaigrette. Dice vegetables and pineapple and combine in a medium-large bowl. Add enough of the vinaigrette to gloss the ingredients, tossing gently. Set aside at room temperature.

Thread the fish cubes on the skewers. Brush with the sesame vinaigrette and season on all sides with salt. Grill the skewers over a fairly hot fire, turning once, until the edges begin to brown but the insides are barely cooked through. The fish will continue cooking off the heat.

Scrape fish from skewers into the salad. Drizzle with more vinaigrette and sprinkle with salt to taste. Toss. Sprinkle with sesame seeds to serve. May be spooned directly into bowls, served over steamed rice, or loaded onto spears of leaf lettuce. Makes 4 servings.

SESAME VINAIGRETTE

3 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 tbsp. sesame oil

2 1/2 tbsp. rice vinegar

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. (or more to taste) chili pepper flakes

Combine all ingredients in a lidded jar and shake well.

TIDBITS

Local produce isn’t exactly flooding thmarket yet, but I’m nabbing as much as I can at farmers’ markets. So far I’ve bought wonderful lettuce, crisp radishes, green onions and small but sweet strawberries at the Countryside Farmers’ Markets in Highland Square and Howe Meadow near Peninsula. But the best local produce I had last week — at the lowest prices — came from a different kind of farm market. Tony and I revisited the County Line Produce Auction near Homerville for the first time in about a decade, and I intend to hang out there this summer.

Farmers, including many Amish, bring crate after crate of fruits and vegetables to sell. Most but not all of the produce on the auction side is local, but the items in the smaller lots sold on the retail side are all locally grown or baked. I got two quarts of strawberries for $3 each, a big bag of crisp, sweet leaf lettuce and a loaf of homemade bread. I regretted not snagging a big baggie of peas in their pods before I got in the checkout line. The line was long but moved quickly.

Anyone may bid on the produce on the auction side, which becomes more and more local as the summer progresses. Just be careful — a woman in line with me said she once bid on a watermelon (she thought) but actually bought a pallet of 19. She and a friend had to make two trips to get them all home.

County Line is at 11701 Jeffrey Rd., West Salem. Sales begin at 3 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and continue until everything is gone. The website is countylineproduceauction.com.

GUT CHECK

What I cooked last week:
Pan-grilled chicken breasts with fresh pineapple sauce, steamed buttered asparagus, baked Japanese sweet potatoes; oven-fried garlic potatoes, stir-fried pork and vegetables with a honey, mustard and pomegranate molasses sauce; grilled rib steaks with horseradish sauce, tossed salad with pomegranate-mustard vinaigrette, parfaits of local strawberries with whipped topping; crab cakes with homemade tartar sauce, tossed salad with vinaigrette, watermelon; grill-smoked prime rib with horseradish sauce, buttered lima beans, garlic potatoes.

What I ate in/from restaurants last week:
Pork and green chile burrito from Emi’s Tacqueria in Medina; Subway spicy Italian sub; Hawaiian pizza from Rizzi’s in Copley; a scrambled egg, piece of bacon and a biscuit at Bob Evans.

THE MAILBAG

From Joy:
You probably received tons of responses to your latest questions (in The Mailbag two weeks ago) but here’s my contribution anyway. Keep in mind I live in the metro Vancouver, B.C., area, though.

  1. Your truffle oil loses its aroma and flavor after few months because there are no truffles in the truffle oil. What you are buying is olive oil mixed with compounds like 2,4 dithiapentane that mimic the taste of truffles. However, a site called “Eataly“ claims it sells truffle oil that actually contains real truffles: https://www.eataly.com/us_en/magazine/culture/truth-truffle-oil-urbani/.
  2. Your cornstarch-thickened pudding thins due to a process called syneresis (weeping).   This happens most often in puddings or pie fillings containing eggs or a high sugar concentration. I’ve seen it far too often myself with my lemon meringue pies and tarts until I finally switched to Clear Jel. Here’s a short article on how cornstarch works: https://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/jcooks/10-06-03.html.
  3. I buy jumbo or extra large eggs if they are cheaper than large eggs, as I don’t have a problem using them in cooking or making egg dishes for breakfast/brunch as the difference in egg weight isn’t that much. I also use them in baking if volume measurements are the only choice, as volume is never exact anyway. In recipes where eggs are weighed, though, I’ll use any size egg on hand if I’m making a baked item where all ingredients are weighed.
  4. The food blogs I read weekly: Barry at Rock Recipes (from Newfoundland, with a good many Newfoundland recipes you’ve never heard of or believe exist); See Jane Cook; Mennonite Girls Can Cook; Not Quite Nigella; David Lebovitz; Love and Lemons; Grilling Companion; An Oregon Cottage; and more than a dozen more than Jane is too tired to type.
  5. Where’s a good place to eat in the Akron area? Well, I don’t live in the Akron area but Pots and Pans Jamaican Cuisine at 325 S. Main St. in Akron has a lot of positive reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor.

As for myself, my favorite places to eat lunch when I’m downtown Vancouver would be the Lebanese food truck near the Art Gallery and, a bit farther out from downtown, Peaceful Noodles on Broadway where the pan-fried dumplings and beef roll are awesome.

Dear Joy:
I think years ago, when I first bought truffle oil, it was flavored with real truffles. I haven’t tasted any like that in a long while, yet I keep buying it and hoping I’ll get a good one. Now thanks to you I know where to find the real stuff. Eataly sells 100 milliliters (about 3 ounces) of Urbani white truffle oil for $19.80.

As for my cornstarch pudding returning to its liquid state overnight in the refrigerator, I think the article you referenced tapped into the real problem — stirring the pudding after it reaches 95 degrees and begins to thicken. According to the article, stirring at that point breaks the starch network that sets and traps the liquid, freeing it to return to its liquid state. Geez. Maybe Clear Jell IS the answer.

Speaking of awesome, thanks for all of your research. The next time I am in Vancouver, one of my favorite cities, I will head directly to Peaceful Noodles for some dumplings.

June 12, 2018

Dear friends,

Peaches and blue cheese: The idea is intriguing. That’s what I thought when I saw a recipe for peach and blue cheese salad in “Michael Symon’s Carnivore.” I imagined the crunch of the raw Marcona almonds contrasted with the soft sweetness of the peaches, reined in with the bite of vinaigrette and pungent blue cheese.

The reality was less than ideal because of a couple of hiccups in the recipe, but ultimately I turned it into a pretty interesting side dish for a grilled steak. In his cookbook, Symon writes that he spoons the salad right on top of rib steaks. I dunno about that (the peach chunks alone would obliterate the steak), but served alongside it was pretty good.

I had to seriously decrease the amount of dressing on the salad (Symon called for using the entire batch) because of the juiciness of the warmed peaches. I also gave up on warming the peaches on a grill, because the natural sugars in the fruit caused them to stick like crazy to the metal. I think the oven temp of 250 for the alternate peach-cooking method was a mistake, so I have upped it to 450 degrees for the two minutes of warming. Other than that…

Seriously, other than that, the salad is a winner. But next time, the Cleveland chef might want to try the recipes he sells under his name.

PEACH & BLUE CHEESE SALAD

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1 garlic clove, minced

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 tsp. honey

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing

6 firm peaches, pitted and quartered

½ cup raw Marcona almonds

2 cups arugula

1 cup crumbled blue cheese

Kosher salt

Heat a charcoal or gas grill to high or preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together the garlic, vinegar, mustard, honey, and the ¼ cup olive oil. Brush the peach quarters with olive oil. Grill on a well-oiled grid for 1 minute per side, or warm them in the oven for 2 minutes.

Gently combine the warm peaches, almonds, arugula, and blue cheese in a large bowl. Add just enough dressing to moisten; toss to combine. Season with salt to taste. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

From “Michael Symon’s Carnivore: 120 Recipes for Meat Lovers” by Michael Symon and Douglas Trattner.

HELP U COOK

Regular whole raw almonds may be substituted for the Marcona almonds in the salad recipe above. But if you like almonds, Marconas are worth seeking out. The first time I tasted them was at a farmer’s market in Spain. I didn’t know they were special when I bought a bag of the fat, skinless almonds.

Over the next few days, I became addicted to the almonds. They have the sharp, clean crunch of a macadamia and a ripe, full almond flavor. They are one of the few nuts I’ve had that are delicious raw.

GUT CHECK

What I cooked last week:

Meatloaf, baked sweet potatoes; poke salad with grilled mahi mahi, bell pepper, green onions, avocado, pineapple and sesame vinaigrette; chocolate pudding; hamburgers; spaghetti squash with venison spaghetti meat sauce.

What I ate last week in/from restaurants:

Thai curry noodles with chicken at CoreLife in Fairlawn; spanakopita at Countryside Farmer’s Market in Highland Square; steak sandwich at Dontino’s La Vita Gardens in Akron.

THE MAILBAG 

From Sandy D.:

My hummus recipe is similar to yours and I like it, but have you not heard of or tried gas station hummus? When I first heard about it I thought, “It’s hummus — how much better than mine can it be?” Well, I’m not sure what the magic is but holy smokes, it is the most creamy, smooth, flavorful stuff ever!

You can get it at the Sunoco station in Olmsted Falls at the corner of Columbia and Sprague Roads or the Sunoco in Willoughby at Lost Nation and Lakeshore Boulevard. Call ahead, though — it is so popular it sells out quickly.

As far as your list of questions, I can only answer one. I read a couple of food blogs each week on a regular basis, but there are many out there that are very run-of-the-mill. Seems they are more focused on being cute and stylish than offering me any helpful info about cooking.

At any rate, if you haven’t had gas station hummus yet, please try it. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Sandy, Sandy, Sandy:

Just the phrase “gas station hummus” sends me into paroxysms of rapture. Hummus from a gas station! I haven’t tasted it and already I’m a believer. I once had barbecued ribs at a gas station in Kansas City and the place is now on everybody’s “best ribs” list, so why not hummus?

It turns out that your gas station hummus has been an underground hit among Cleveland foodies for about a year. It is actually available at three gas stations — the two you mentioned and Ohio City Gas at Lorain Avenue and Fulton Road in the Ohio City area of Cleveland. Muntaha Dari makes the hummus at her gas station in Willoughby and her sister, Khalil, uses the same recipe at the station in Olmsted Falls that she owns with her parents. Their brother owns the Ohio City station, where the hummus is made by his wife, Nazek Allan, from a recipe taught to her by the Dari’s mother. I can’t wait to try it.

From Maryann:

How do you know if meat, chicken, seafood, etc., bought “unfrozen” in a grocery store hasn’t been previously frozen? Sometimes the package seems to have little crystals like just-thawed meat. Usually I repackage family-size items into smaller servings to freeze. Is it safe to do this even if I’m not sure if the item has been previously frozen in storage?

If a product label says “fresh” does it mean never frozen or just not frozen now? If I thaw something that I froze but change my mind about cooking it, can I refreeze it?

Dear Maryann:

If a food is labeled “fresh,” it means by law that it has never been frozen. But the government’s definition of “never frozen” is wacky. It allows processors and shippers to call a food “fresh” if it has been “hard chilled” to 27 degrees. To me, 27 degrees is frozen. A consumers’ group once protested the nonsensical rule by bowling “hard chilled” turkeys down the streets of Washington, D.C.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you see ice crystals in a food, it is safe to refreeze. Food safety experts tell us not to refreeze food that has been completely thawed, but frankly, I do it all the time. The safety folks are acting out of an abundance of caution. They fear that if your frozen food has been thawed, you may have allowed it to warm up past 40 degrees for two hours, the point and time at which bacteria can grow enough to hurt you. But if you have sense enough to keep your thawed food cold, you can safely refreeze it. Thawing and refreezing won’t do any favors for the texture or juiciness of the product, but it won’t kill you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 6, 2018

Dear friends,

With the price of hummus hovering at $5 for a little bitty saucer’s worth, I needed to make a change. First I found the same quality of hummus in the same amount (10 ounces) at Aldi for $1.99. But then I realized that it’s still just a handful of pureed beans. Why aren’t I making it myself?

I’ve made hummus in the past and many of you probably have, too. Why did we stop? At its most basic, it is merely chickpeas, tahini (sesame seed paste), garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. About 10 minutes in the kitchen gets you a velvety yet substantial dip that is low in carbohydrates and moderately rich in protein. How low, how rich? One-fourth cup of hummus has about 100 calories, 8.5 grams of carbohydrates and 4.8 grams of protein.

In this country hummus is considered a party or snack dip but that hasn’t stopped me from eating it for breakfast lately. I’m not alone, I discovered when I read a J.M. Hirsch article in Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Magazine, which won the James Beard Award for dining and travel journalism this year. In Israel, Hirsch says, hummus is a breakfast food. Period.

“This is no tub of American grocery store hummus,” he writes. “It is light, ethereally smooth. The flavor is at once boldly nutty with tahini yet also subtle. None of the harsh garlic and lemon I expect. Is there even any garlic in it? Most shocking: It is deliciously warm. Who knew you could eat hummus warm?”

The hummus the writer learns to make in Jerusalem starts with dried chickpeas, cooked until soft and pureed with some of the cooking liquid while warm. Then tahini, lemon and salt are added. Nothing else.

Someday I may become a hummus purist and use dried chickpeas (the smaller the better), but for ease of preparation I’ll still mostly reach for canned. Although many American recipes suggest laboriously removing the skins from the cooked chickpeas, Hirsch’s Israeli version just processes the heck out of them — four minutes total.

Using warm chickpeas is essential, so I heated up my canned beans and liquid before processing. Then I added the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and salt. I like garlic, so sue me.

Olive oil is drizzled over the hummus after it is in the serving bowl.

You can see how Hirsch and the magazine staff make their hummus by Googling “JBF journalism nominees,” clicking on “Read All of the 2018 Journalism Nominees Here,” scrolling down to Hirsch’s hummus article and clicking on it. Sorry the process is so convoluted, but many of the nominated articles are no longer available to the public in any other way. Or could go directly to my streamlined, quick recipe for hummus.

Whichever version you prefer, remember it’s not just for parties anymore.

QUICK VELVETY HUMMUS

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1 can (about 15 oz.) chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

1/3 cup tahini (preferably imported)

2 tbsp. lemon juice

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tsp. sea salt

2 tbsp. olive oil

Pour chickpeas and their liquid into a small saucepan and heat almost to a simmer. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of the liquid. Puree beans in a food processor for 2 minutes, until very smooth. Add tahini, lemon juice, garlic and sea salt. Puree 2 minutes longer. With the motor running, pour in the 1/4 cup cooking liquid and process until smooth and whipped. Pour into bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

GUT CHECK

What I cooked last week:

Summer rolls with shrimp, crispy rice sticks, carrot and cucumber slaw, crushed peanuts and fresh mint; grilled sausage links; a salad of grilled peaches, arugula, blue cheese and almonds; asparagus, walnut and feta salad; hot dogs over a campfire.

What I ate in/from restaurants last week:

A steak, sweet potato and arugula bowl from CoreLife in Fairlawn; half of a steak and arugula sandwich on a baguette from Panera Bread; two coney dogs with mustard and onion from Netty’s Famous Chili Dogs near Marblehead; scrambled eggs, bacon and toast at Big Boppers near Marblehead; a spinach, tomato and Swiss omelet at Big Boppers.

THE MAILBAG

No letters, no Mailbag. So this week I will turn the tables and ask YOU a few questions that have been on my mind.

  • Why did my truffle oil lose its truffle aroma and flavor after a few months?
  • Why is some cornstarch pudding watery the next day?
  • Who buys all those jumbo and extra-large eggs in grocery stores, when every recipe I’ve ever seen calls for large?
  • How many food blogs do you read each week, and why did so many people suddenly decide to do my job? Everybody and their grandmother is a food writer now. I cannot keep up with the output of just Akron food bloggers, let alone a sampling of food blogs from elsewhere. Are there readers for these things?
  • Where is a good place to eat lunch in the Akron area, and what do you order?

* Why not drop me a line?