This Kabocha, Date, Nut Bread Kept Me Occupied While Social Distancing

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Cut it out. Yes, I’m talking to you, regular person who feels the need to criticize anyone baking during this time. It’s a great time to bake anything – whether you’re using up overripe bananas or making a focaccia and pretending you’re in Italy. Let people enjoy THINGS. Let baking be the escapism folks flock to for comfort during a scary and anxiety-inducing time.

So apologies to anyone who wants to force professional productivity on others. No, I will not be writing my magnum opus or conducting vital research. I will be baking because that will keep my body and soul fed and at peace. Stay mad about it.

NOW – why am I using squash for a springtime recipe? Well, because it’s important to use what you have on hand right now. As we all take stock (and make stock – AYYY) and assess what constitutes a necessary trip to the grocery store, we should see what we can use from our home inventory first, and that means checking the freezer.

For as long as I can remember, we never wasted pumpkins or squash. After Halloween and Thanksgiving my mom would take decorative, but edible gourds and kill them. This means roasting and steaming pumpkins and acorn squash and pureeing the flesh into smooth, orangey-yellow sustenance, roasting the seeds too for a salty savory snack. We would be pumpkin’d out with soups, pies, cookies and cakes before running out of puree, so into the freezer went pints and quarts of creamy orange goo for months. Since the apple doesn’t fall far in my case, that’s exactly the chain of events that lead me to unearthing pureed kabocha from my freezer. I also had pecans I used to make a Basically Baking recipe and dates that I found on sale at my shopping sanctuary, Ocean State Job Lot. It was a perfect storm.

This recipe can be catered to whatever winter squash you have, though I’d steer clear of the heartier butternut squash or stringy spaghetti squash. Acorn squash and pumpkin, sharing similar flavors and consistencies with kabocha, would be welcome replacements. This bread will also work with walnuts instead of pecans. You can also omit the dates or nuts and substitute with a full cup of one filling if that’s your jam. Don’t skip the parchment paper lining if possible; this will make the cake easy to lift from the pan and reduce unwanted crispiness. This kabocha date nut bread should come out moist but not dense and wet – the end product will be delightful enough to eat sliced, and hearty enough to toast and spread with peanut butter.

Baking with a limited kitchen gives you, dear baker, the ability to riff as you please. So riff on people. And take lots of pictures and gloat to your heart’s content online – hell, tag me and I’ll gloat for you.

Kabocha, Date, Nut Bread

1-1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 cup pureed kabocha squash

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tbsp. cinnamon

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 cup chopped dates

1/2 cup chopped pecans

  1. Place oven rack on the middle to upper racks of your oven (we’re baking the cake up there, but we want space so it doesn’t touch the heating element). Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease the inside of a loaf pan and line with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar and eggs until light yellow and a little bit bubbly. Once combined, add squash puree, vanilla and cinnamon and whisk until incorporated.
  3. Slowly stream the vegetable oil into the batter.
  4. Sift together flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder into the wet ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter or you just hate sifting, whisk flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder in a separate bowl and whisk into wet ingredients until combined, without lumps.
  5. Coat dates in a pinch of flour. This will prevent them from clumping together.
  6. Fold in pecans and dates until they feel evenly dispersed throughout the batter.
  7. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.
  8. Bake for 1 hour, or until golden on the outside, and a cake tester inserted in the thickest part comes out dry.

 

Tangy and Bright Marinated Beans

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You may be like me right now: using pent-up anxious energy to haul your Dutch oven to the stove at 8 a.m. to prepare a big pot of beans. I feel like I’m on nonna time – waking up early and letting bread rise or soup simmer until some shoulder tension eases. It’s only a matter of time before I’m in a “house dress” and wearing leather soled shoes while I putter around my house. For now, the meditative stirring and gentle burbling of long cooked beans melts the worry away. And bonus, I get extra creamy, flavorful beans at the end of it all!

I typically make my dried beans the same way each time, not for a lack of creativity, but for the broad application of the flavors. For starters, I soaked my beans overnight and put them in fresh water in the morning to cook. I just like using fresh cooking water to have a clean start – I leave my beans on the countertop overnight. Who knows what the night goblins drop in there, you know?

Right into that heavy Dutch oven go lemon peel, crushed garlic, salt, black pepper, bay leaves, red pepper flakes and a good amount of olive oil. A pot of beans loves a little fat, so feel free to put in bacon, salami, or other fatty, salty meats. I personally just like to keep my beans vegetarian – truly rated E for everyone beans. Over a gentle heat, simmer the beans until they are infused with flavor and creamy inside.

Now after this you will undoubtedly have an overabundance of beans. Even using a fraction of the dried beans will yield just SO MANY beans. Whether it’s cause for concern, or a cause for celebration you will need to find ways to consume said beans without getting sick of them. Maybe on day one you make a plate with crusty bread, a pile of beans and some bean liquid and top it off with a runny egg. Another time you add the beans to some greens and serve that over pasta with a generous sprinkling of cheese…Then what?

You definitely don’t want your beans to go bad – so why not give them an olive oil bath to preserve them for as long as possible? Inspired by Marcella Hazan’s marinated eggplant and marinated pepper recipes from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, I thought marinating beans would yield a product equal parts delicious and sustainable. These marinated beans use lemon juice and olive oil, but any acidic liquid could replace the lemon juice. Red wine vinegar would also be lovely. Additionally, any herbs, spices or funky additions like chilis would yield both flavorful preserved beans with a delicious vinaigrette.

What I love even more than the long shelf life is the ability to just add more beans to the existing liquid. Got a jar of olive oil with a few beans in it? Add more string beans or white beans. As long as the olive oil prevents bean-air contact, your beans are safe to enjoy.

I like to pile these beans onto some crusty bread with sliced radishes and some salty, hard cheese. These are also a welcome addition to salad (using some marinade as dressing, obviously) or a side to fish. You could even make a zesty, cold pasta salad with the beans and marinade for a riff on a picnic staple. Regardless, you’ll have bottled springtime you can crack open even when there’s snow on the ground in March.

Marinated Beans

1/2 cup cooked white or navy beans

1/2 cup blanched string beans, cut into half-inch pieces

Juice from 1 lemon

Extra virgin olive oil

  1. Get yourself a little glass jar to store your beloved beans. I’m using a stout little Ball jar from some leftover jam.
  2. Layer your white beans and string beans in the jar. They don’t have to be stacked one way or another, the jar will get a good shaking later. Just leave some room between the beans and the lid.
  3. Juice the lemon right over the jar, being mindful of seeds. Now is when you can also add any herbs to the mix.
  4. Cover the remainder of the beans with olive oil, making sure all beans are submerged and there’s still room between the top of the jar and the oil.
  5. Place the lid on tightly and shake to combine the beans with the liquid. It will separate during storage, but it’ll at least give all the beans a chance to get to know the flavors.
  6. Keep refrigerated and dive in whenever you want.

Prove Your Love: Make This Lasagna for Someone Special

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What’s the most romantic food? Mass produced strawberries dipped in chocolate arranged like the finest rose bouquet? Spaghetti and meatballs served to you and your loved one in an ally accompanied by two old Italian men singing? Probably neither of those. For me, I say it’s lasagna and here’s why.

Lasagna is no small feat. It’s not an easy weeknight dinner you can just throw together. At least mine isn’t. This layered, decadent treat takes planning, multitasking and easily a full day if not longer. It’s a labor of love that requires the thought,” I’m going to make lasagna as a special meal for a special person.” It’s like making an intricate birthday cake but instead it’s savory and creamy and fills your home with a loving, familiar scent. Italians have taken tomatoes, cheese and carbs to new heights, but no other variation can top the end result that is cutting into layers of lasagna baked to perfection. I decided to make this for Valentine’s Day, but just like how you show love on Valentine’s Day, it’s appropriate for any time of the year.

Now this particular recipe from my great grandma’s recipe box still remains a mystery. As mentioned in the mysterious meat sauce that makes up one third of this lasagna recipe, no one knows who wrote this recipe and how it ended up in the box. My grandma tells me that all the recipes in the box were either written by my great grandma or my grandma assisting her. The only other potential scribe would be one of my great grandma’s friends, but unfortunately it’s impossible to track down that information now. What I know for certain based on the pin holes in this worn piece of loose leaf is that this recipe was well loved by previous owners. There’s no doubt.

While many people make lasagna with a cheese only layer, this recipe calls upon béchamel to achieve even, creamy layers to hold the lasagna together. Upon doing some research, this is common for lasagna from the Emilia Romagna region (you know, the Italian region that has given humanity absolute hits like parmigiano reggiano, balsamic vinegar and Massimo Bottura). While béchamel is really one of the French mother sauces, it’s used widely as the base for only the creamiest dishes. If you’ve had a home made mac and cheese that blows the blue box away, you can probably thank béchamel.

While this recipe clearly outlines how to make the bolognese sauce and the béchamel sauce, as well as how to order the layers (bolognese, grated parmigiano reggiano, and béchamel), it leaves out how to cook the noodles and for how long and at what temperature to bake the assembled dish. Some people cook the noodles fully before assembling, some people don’t even bother to cook the noodles at all, but since this recipe does not use the otherwise popular mozzarella and ricotta mixture in the assembly, I knew I had to do my research. And as luck would have it, Chris Morocco from the Bon Appetit test kitchen uploaded a whole video on Bon Appetit’s Best Lasagna, and by luck, once again, his version uses bolognese and béchamel sauces. Bingo. Therefore this recipe combines the translated Italian recipe found worn and well-loved in my great grandma’s recipe box with the technique approved by the Bon Appetit test kitchen. After all, it’s probably a good sign that the two are so similar.

The Perfect Lasagna

For the mysterious meat sauce

Olive oil

4 tbsp. butter

1 carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 pound ground beef

1 – 28 oz can or jar of tomatoes (I like to use passata or pureed tomatoes)

Salt & pepper

  1. Melt the olive oil and butter in a 4 qt Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot.
  2. Once the butter is melted, add the carrot, celery and onion and salt. Cook the vegetables until soft, then add the beef. Cook everything, breaking up the ground beef and stirring until the beef is cooked, and everything is combined.
  3. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook for about an hour until the crumbled beef and diced vegetables are thoroughly mixed and the sauce is at your desired consistency.
For the béchamel sauce

4 tbsp. butter

4-5 tbsp. all purpose flour

1 liter of milk

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. In a saucepan melt butter.
  2. Add 4 tablespoons of flour to start and whisk together. For a thicker sauce, add one additional tablespoon. Stir the flour and butter continuously, careful to not let it take on too much color.
  3. Add milk in small quantities while whisking.
  4. Stir while allowing the mixture to cook for about 10 minutes or until it’s thick enough to coat a spoon.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For the noodles

1-lb box of lasagna noodles

  1. Boil a pot of water as if about to make pasta, but add olive oil. Adding olive oil will prevent the noodles from sticking together while cooking and after if making them ahead of assembling your lasagna.
  2. Boil 2-3 sheets of lasagna noodles at a time. Like in the Bon Appetit recipe, they should be far under al dente, “until just starting to soften but still snap in half rather than bend when folded.”
  3. Once to desired consistency either place them directly on the lasagna in a full layer, or drizzle with more olive oil and let cool on a baking sheet.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the whole box is made.
For the assembly
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 325 F.
  2. Add one layer of bolognese sauce to the bottom of the casserole dish. This should be 1 to 1-1/2 cups of sauce.
  3. Layer the sheets of lasagna noodles over the sauce. It’s okay if the noodles don’t cover every square inch because they will expand but be sure to fill as much space as possible. This may mean cutting noodles and filling spaces with tiny bits.
  4. Continue the assembly in this order until the final layer: bolognese, shredded parmigiano reggiano, béchamel, and noodles.
  5. Once you reach the top of the casserole dish (or you run out of noodles), finish the top of the lasagna with a final layer of béchamel and shredded parmigiano reggiano. Top with freshly grated black pepper.
  6. Loosely cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. This will prevent the dish from drying out. After an hour, increase the temperature to 425 F and bake uncovered for 10-15 minutes or until it is browned to your liking.
  7. THIS IS IMPORTANT: let the lasagna cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting and enjoying. The layers need to settle down so you get nice and clean slices.

These Anisette Cookies and a Pot of Coffee are a Match Made in Heaven

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Everyone is getting engaged and married and truly I feel sorry. Because no one will have a stronger, more solid union than my great grandma’s anisette cookies and an entire pot of black coffee. Honestly, where’s that love comparison? I just want someone to compliment me the way anise biscotti compliments hot coffee. Where’s that romance?

“Ninety nine cents would get you a pound of these cookies.” Thinking about the light-weight of each crispy baked wedge made me realize the sheer volume that equates. “We would bring them home and drink a whole pot of coffee,” says my mom. It’s true, these cookies practically beg for a dunk before each bite, after which the harmonious union of coffee and anisette simply transports you to an old-fashioned Italian-American bakery of yore. So good you almost don’t feel bad about eating a few for breakfast. Oops.

This recipe, another mysterious find from my great grandma’s recipe box, was entirely written in English which could mean one of two things: it is once again not hers, or she had serious help writing it. In a comparison between this and her snippets of attempting English in other recipes, it appears that this is her handwriting. Impressive if so, but also curious. Someone definitely helped her, perhaps speaking the translation and showing her how to spell each word with some corrections on the way.

This recipe is also one of the rare recipes from the box that includes all measurements, oven temperature and a procedure. Truly miraculous when all others are written in at least two languages and have little clues pertaining to how the flour and baking powder eventually become a sponge cake. That being said, this recipe was also easy by most baking standards: add ingredients to the bowl, beating after each addition, then pouring the batter into a greased cake pan, baking until golden brown, slicing and baking again for maximum crispiness. This technically makes them biscotti.

Biscotti, though typically what Italians call a cookie, literally translates to baked twice. Most traditional biscotti have nuts or candied fruit in them and turn out just a touch drier, denser and tougher. Still absolutely delicious, but this recipe is unlike those cookies. These cookies are lighter and more tender. Still crispy, but you won’t have to clamp down on the cookie with your molars in order to take a bite. The coffee isn’t necessary to soften the cookie, it just tastes good.

I prefer espresso in general over coffee, but, as Ina Garten would probably say, if you can’t make espresso then regular coffee is just fine. Just try to resist eating them all.

My Great Grandma’s Anisette Cookies

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

3 tsp anise extract

3/4 cup cooking oil (canola oil)

1-1/2 cup flour

2 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Add all ingredients in order given beating well after each addition. Pour into greased 9×13 pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove from pan and slice into 1 inch strips.

Place on an ungreased cookie sheet for another 10 minutes to toast.

The Mysterious Meat Sauce

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Bestowed unto me, a box of hand-written recipes from my great grandma’s house. Among them are time-stained index cards with recipes written in a combination of English, Italian and dialect with ambiguous instructions, cook times, measurements and temperatures. Except for one. One is written out with clear instructions and ingredients. Clearly not written by my great grandma, the recipe uses full sentences and proper Italian. My great grandma notoriously spoke broken English and wrote in that confounding amalgamation of languages that only which another immigrant could fully empathize.

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The whole sheet of loose leaf paper, speckled with pin holes as if it was passed around and pinned to bulletin boards by a number of people, contains a recipe for a luscious lasagna, including a bolognese sauce with optional mushrooms, cream and prosciutto and a buttery bechamel sauce in lieu of layers of melted cheese. Without a proper baking dish, I couldn’t make a full on lasagna, but I knew I needed to understand why this recipe of mysterious origin earned a coveted spot in the recipe box. I decided to attempt the bolognese sauce.

There’s something truly magical about cooking from a hand written recipe. Nostalgia kicks in, even if the recipe or recipe writer is unfamiliar. I felt like the essence of the author was right there with me, instructing me on how to properly brown and season the ground beef. Maybe it’s intuition, but despite never making this recipe or tasting the end result before, I knew exactly when the sauce was at it’s peak and ready to serve.

Now this recipe is by no means revolutionary. It was incredibly simple. The key, however, was in the fats. A little bit of oil and about 4 tablespoons of fat get things going. The carrots, celery and onion then cook in that rich liquid along with the beef and a good amount of salt. Then it’s a waiting game. Once the vegetables have sweat out enough liquid and the beef has cooked, tomatoes are added and the pot simmers for a hour, allowing the meat and vegetables to become soft and homogeneous and the sauce to thicken.

Good lord this rich, thick boy sticks to your bones on a winter night. The tomato sauce gains a silky texture from the rendered fat and butter and the vegetables make the whole dish sweet and complex. Rigatoni is the ideal pasta shape for bolognese, holding beefy treats within each tube. No exceptions.

Whoever wrote this recipe: thank you. This was a real treat (a beefy treat) and I can’t wait to layer this inside a lasagna.

Ragu Alla Bolognese

Olive oil

4 tbsp. butter

1 carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 pound ground beef

1 – 28 oz can or jar of tomatoes (I like to use passata or pureed tomatoes)

1 pound dry rigatoni

Salt & pepper

  1. Melt the olive oil and butter in a 4 qt Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot.
  2. Once the butter is melted, add the carrot, celery and onion and salt. Cook the vegetables until soft, then add the beef. Cook everything, breaking up the ground beef and stirring until the beef is cooked, and everything is combined.
  3. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook for about an hour until the crumbled beef and diced vegetables are thoroughly mixed and the sauce is at your desired consistency.
  4. Cook the rigatoni in generously salted water to the box’s instructions. Reserve some pasta water.
  5. Combine pasta and sauce in the Dutch oven, adding pasta water if the sauce is too thick. Serve immediately with cheese.

 

Roasted Squash and Feta Salad

Roasted Delicata Squash Grain Salad

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Once upon a time there was a sophomore in college who finally had a kitchen and wanted to do nothing but cook all day. She spent the last summer working on an organic farm and just got an internship with a food magazine. Unfortunately, she also had to do things like go to class and overcome the insanity of living in a house with nine other manic 19 year old college students. Exciting. But how was she going to make this all work? She was going to bring squash from the farmer’s market to chamber choir rehearsal. That’s how.

If you couldn’t guess, that girl was me. A lot has changed. But deep down I’m still that weird girl. Catch me at work returning from lunch with a canvas bag full of produce sitting at my desk until my commute home. My affinity for squash has not changed and it’s only magnified in autumn when produce bins are overflowing with easily the most beautiful fruit. Stripes, patterns, rich colors and unique shapes coax creativity in the kitchen, too.

I was particularly inspired by delicata squash’s stripes and the way it looks like flowers when it is cut crosswise into rings. It’s so cute and the skin is edible?!? A double whammy.

For this recipe I adapted Epicurious’ Sheet-Pan Roasted Squash and Feta Salad. I’m obsessed with the idea of warm salads, especially during this time of year when mindful eating becomes difficult because the outdoor chill makes you crave cheesy pasta, and avoid cold, uncooked greens at all costs. I also watched Epicurious’ Instagram story series “At Home with Anna,” where Anna Stockwell, senior food editor, invites viewers into her kitchen and cooks dinner. Surprise, surprise, she made her version and it looked delicious, giving out those fall vibes we’re all looking for these days.

Anyway, this recipe calls for cubed bread and radicchio, but I figured the roasty squash and salty feta would pair well with farro. Plus, instead of storing and getting soggy greens, all parts maintain integrity through refrigeration and reheating. It makes a great autumnal desk lunch that can be eaten warm or cold.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cook the farro as instructed on the package. I buy Bob’s Red Mill farro from Ocean State Job Lot and I swear by it. (If Bob’s Red Mill or Job Lot want a spokesperson or brand rep PLEASE contact me.)

While the farro is simmering away, cut your delicata squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and pulp and cut into half rings. On a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil, toss squash with enough olive oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. After the first 10 minutes, flip squash and roast for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until squash takes on color and becomes soft.

While farro bubbles and squash sizzles, let’s make some dressing! Combine 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. honey, 1 tsp. thyme and salt to taste. Honestly, you can use any oil and vinegar based dressing with some herbs mixed in. I know I don’t always have thyme but I have other dried herbs that could also substitute.

Hey, cube up some feta too!

Drain any excess liquid from the farro and combine with squash in a large bowl. Add feta and mix so feta gets warm through. Toss grains, squash and feta with the dressing. Eat warm immediately, or chill for another day.

This recipe is very easily adaptable to accommodate other squash or grains depending on what’s available: swap out quinoa if you can’t find farro for a high-protein alternative; remember to remove the skin from other squash varieties, like butternut or acorn.

Bistered Shishitos with Tangy Sauce

Blistered Shishitos with Tangy Yogurt Sauce

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Do you ever pull a recipe completely out of your ass? I did. I didn’t even actually make this before suggesting it to my mom to serve at a dinner party. I guess you just have to trust your gut sometimes, right? I was happy to learn that it was easy to make and her guests LOVED it. In fact, it’s making a return on her menu sooner than I would’ve expected.

This recipe draws inspiration from tangy yogurt sauce I love so much. I feel like for so long I associated yogurt with sweetness, but really yogurt it sour and compliments sweet and savory foods with acidic delight.

Now you probably don’t remember the first time you tried certain foods, but I was fortunate to experience fun food firsts late enough in my teens that the memory is still fresh. When I worked on a farm we would occasionally sell produce that I had never seen or tried before. Since I was often asked about flavors or recipes, I took it upon myself to taste anything I had never seen before. This is where I tried tomatillos, thai basil and mizuna greens for the first time, among other stranger vegetables. It was all for the job, trust me. When we received our first batch of shishitos I had questions about the wrinkly light green pepper. Was it spicy like a jalapeno or sweet like a bell pepper? I learned that it can be a little of both. Turns out, every few peppers are spicy while most of them are mild. It’s like jalapeno roulette!

Years later (aka 2019) these peppers are everywhere.

Shishito peppers are small enough to keep whole for this recipe. Plus, the attached stem doubles as the perfect tool to pick up and dip the charred peppers. Flavor and function. You love to see it. You want to dry roast these in a cast iron pan until they blister and take on color. Don’t fear burning them, they taste better with more char.

Arrange them on a plate to cool. While the peppers cool, combine your Greek yogurt, lime juice, grated garlic, chili powder, salt, pepper and olive oil. Let the yogurt sit for a few minutes, as the garlic will develop more flavor the longer it sits. Taste for seasoning and adjust according to what you like. Add more yogurt to make it more creamy or more lime juice for sweetness. Plate the yogurt sauce in a small bowl for dipping or spooning over the peppers.

Finally, let your guests go crazy dipping peppers into the yogurt sauce. Snacky enough to finish each pepper in one bite, and deceptively healthy.

This recipe is flexible too. Can’t find shishitos? Use poblanos the same way, just slice and seed the peppers before charring. You can use lemon juice instead of lime and cumin instead of chili powder. The yogurt sauce also tastes great with cucumbers or with burrito accoutrements (think burrito bowl, chipotle chicken, that sorta thing).