key lime cupcakes

The trickling water in the fish pond lends a Zen quality to my Maryland backyard. I’m wearing the sundress I always wear after long, grueling bike rides: the loose, earth-toned one I seldom wear out. The air is close, whisking against my shoulders, taunting with its brief cool. Despite the heat, I spend most of the day outside, soaking up the surprise swelter of May’s first Day of Rest.

Despite an early-morning goodbye, today is perfect in doses: an early-morning chat with my mom, good coffee, a ripe mango, morning doves and squirrels and all the familiar summer sounds. The hours loll by, and the sky slowly darkens, preparing for thunder. Oil spills and bomb threats are peripheral. This cocoon shelters, though it fails to cancel any of this out.

This whole weekend, actually, has been one of the most relaxing I’ve spent in D.C. yet. We had to run a short errand yesterday (to deal with recent bank fraud), but found ourselves out in Bethesda, so tried another José Andrés restaurant, Jaleo. We ordered the tapas tasting menu, and it was decent, but we weren’t nearly as blown away as we were by Cafe Atlantico. It was lovely, though, to share a pint of beer and our too-late first meal of the day together on a bright patio.

When we returned home, it was time to use up the rest of last week’s key lime score (a whole bag for $2—half of which we turned into a key lime pie using this recipe—tasty, but not quite as good as the lemon was). What would be a quick and easy way to capture all that tropical tartness?

When I moved to my first major American city, I tried to ignore the cupcake craze that had captivated food bloggers, critics, and even sweet-toothed males. How good could they be? I’d always found them too sweet, too airy, too dry… uninspiring. I’d choose cheesecake, ice cream, or even a slice of dark chocolate any day. Plus, I blamed cupcakes for the food-as-fashion-accessory trend: they were quickly encroaching on Starbucks’ territory as divas toted ribboned boxes of the little cakes from hair appointments to manicure sessions.

Sometime in the last few weeks, though, I changed my mind about cupcakes. Maybe it’s my boss’s fault: he’s brought cupcakes to the office on two occasions, from the fanciest shops in D.C. Maybe last weekend’s whiskey + cupcakes party pushed me over the line. Somehow, in the midst of (yet stolidly ignoring) this city’s silly cupcake wars, I’ve come to appreciate the class of small cakes. So much so that I decided to devote an hour of my precious Saturday to concocting a key lime variety.

I didn’t have the energy to start my own cupcake war, reading recipe reviews and researching how to get the perfect “light, open crumb.” I just picked one that looked easy from Bon Appetit, with a plain buttercream icing from some generic website that aggregates recipes. I left out the green food coloring, used kefir instead of the buttermilk, and improvised on the self-rising flour by making my own: simply add 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt to one cup of regular flour.

The cupcakes turned out quite dense, yet lighter than pound cake, and with a nice chewiness. The icing was too runny (to solve that I’m just keeping the icing in a bowl in the fridge for a quick ice-your-own fix), and on the whole they weren’t as life-changing as this shop’s. BUT, they were fun to make and share, they honored the last of my Key limes, and even if they won’t win any wars, they made me appreciate even more the world of cakes that fit in the palm of a hand.

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nuts n’ bolts

Turning the calendar to December brings many happy memories, tinged with the sepia hue of nostalgia. The tree usually went up during the first week, leaving its silky pine needles strewn about the living room floor. The Christmas CDs were pulled from a basement cabinet, with Johnny Mathis, Amy Grant, and the Home Alone soundtrack still looking bright under eleven months of dust.

But the highlight of the pre-Christmas season for me always took place in the kitchen, gathered around two foil roasting pans. It was the evening we put on Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas album and made the annual batch of nuts n’ bolts that would feed a month’s worth of guests.

Us kids would measure out boxed cereal under dad’s tutelage, while our mom would whip up the mysterious sauce that would transform it. We’d take turns stirring the fragile mixture, and then settle in to watch a Christmas movie while our favorite snack baked.

We could never wait for them to cool and crisp up properly, so our first bowls were served oven-warm. We’d pour glasses of cool eggnog spiked with coke, and sit around the tree munching on what was to us the taste of the holidays.

Over the years, despite boyfriends and girlfriends, first apartments, and busier lives, we managed to hold on to our tradition. Sure, there were years there were four of us instead of five. There were times it didn’t bring the same magic it did at five, or seven, or even fifteen. But somehow, each year the nuts n’ bolts got made.

This year the god of all things salty, fatty and delicious brought me back to Winnipeg for the festivities. I never realized how international our recipe was: Our mix always included Chex cereal, which we could only get in the U.S., and Shreddies, which you can only get in Canada. Suddenly, nuts n’ bolts had become an unlikely metaphor for my life over the past few years.

I scanned the recipe and sheepishly asked my mom if we could cut down the pound of butter. Both of us are fitness and health buffs, but her response reminded me that there are just some things you don’t mess with. As I watched a block of the stuff turn melt away in the saucepan, I made peace with my Christmas companion: Olive oil could wait. It was time to rekindle an important, buttery love.

I brought a small bag of the mix back to Syracuse with me, and after suffering through small rations decided to make my own batch. Mark turned his nose at the idea, but encouraged me nonetheless. I committed to a half batch, knowing I’d be sharing with lucky friends along the way.

Even without my beloved Canadian Shreddies and the warmth cast by 10 hands mixing and stirring away, my first crack at tradition was a success. I used raw cashews and no-oil roasted almonds to cut down on salt and fat. And yes, I even cut down on the butter by an ounce or two. (Don’t tell my mom!)

But what was really music to my ears? Hearing Mark utter these words while hovering over the cookie sheet: “I guess I do like them.” Looks like I’ll have to give up more than I bargained for. But it’s Christmas, and that’s fine with me.

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kale chips

Remember these?

The leafy crunchy greens that had me  swooning in a Colorado mountain town are back. Say hello to kale chips: so much more than just a stand-in for those Doritos you’re trying to hide from view.

With my oven already roaring at 400° from two other dishes and a healthy bunch of lacinato kale in my fridge, I finally got around to try making these myself. Lacinato kale is different from the regular curly kale you often see in grocery stores. It’s sometimes called “dinosaur kale,” and like any self-respecting T-Rex, it holds up particularly well to heat.

What runner/triathlete out there doesn’t love a good salty snack? Maybe it’s all the salt we lose on those mammoth bike rides and speed drills. Maybe it’s just a good old fashioned craving. Whatever it is, it’s tasty and packed full of all those things your eyes gloss over when reading articles in Runner’s World and Clean Eating.

Things like beta carotene, vitamins K and C, calcium, and antioxidants. Those age-old nutrients that we’ve only recently decided to heroize into  “super foods,” “power foods” and “clean foods.”

Well kale is as mighty as they come, and it tastes great too. It’s nutty and not as heavily sulfurous as some of the other cruciferae specimens. It’s a dark mineral-green, which to me says “good for you” like coffee beans say “hello day.”

And crisped-up in a hot oven with just some good olive oil and salt, there is no better destiny for the wrinkled kale leaf. Paired with a cold beer and some sweet evening relaxation, these guys almost, almost, make me want to toss the tortilla chips sneering at me from behind my morning muesli.

But then I remember the salsa. Oh, the salsa. Too heavy for such dainty chips as these, and just not the right flavor match either. I can’t let the salsa down!

And so I don’t toss the tortillas — with their oil and calories and lack of antioxidants — because they’ll come in handy one day when I just don’t care about so-called Superfoods. But until that moment comes, I’ll take the Super, and all the taste that comes along with it.

Kale Chips

1 bunch of kale, washed, stemmed, and torn into chip-sized pieces

olive oil

your favorite salt

Preheat oven to 400. Toss the kale pieces in a big bowl with a few drizzles of olive oil. Sprinkle with a few pinches of salt (kosher, sea, Celtic, or harvested from the rocks of the coast, your choice). Bake for 8-12 minutes, or until the edges of some of the pieces have just begun to brown. Remove to the counter top to cool, and serve as a snack or appetizer.

I Can and I Did: Chunky Farmer’s Market Salsa

I passed a food milestone yesterday. A friend of my mother’s came through town last week bearing an armload of a gift: my mother’s old hot water canner. (Basically, a big black speckled pot with a metal rack inside.)

My late-summer dreams of salsas, jams, and chutneys are inching ever closer. Yesterday, with a little help from Central New York farmers, I canned for the first time.

With a few weeks of research under my belt and the fear of botulism clinging fiercely to my hope, I set out to making a batch of salsa worthy of chips and tostadas. The great stuff at the stores is well over 5$, and the cheaper stuff is barely a dressed-up ketchup. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.

I scoured the internet for recipes, finally settling on one from FoodieMama.com.  I wanted chunks of tomato and good fresh peppers, and despite the recipe writer’s disdain for spelling and grammar, this one seemed to fit the bill.

A lazy hour at the farmer’s market outfitted me perfectly for my first adventure in jars: a flat of pint jars for $10, an assortment of peppers for $4, and tomatoes to last a lifetime for $9.

Equipped with my bounty, my canner, and some 80’s music, I proceeded to make six and a half pints of salsa in an afternoon. We polished off the half pint with some locally-made tortilla chips, feeling like good slow-foodies with every crunchy bite. The only adjustments I’ll make next time will be to add a little more heat; it turns out those little Serrano peppers weren’t as hot as they felt on my fingertips!

The next day I checked the jars and each one of them had sealed properly. My salsa not only tasted great, but it would keep for months without crowding my fridge.

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Homemade Energy Bars V: Shot Blocks Redux

One of my favorite authors once wrote “how we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” It’s one of those observations so plain it pricks you. Nothing terribly complicated or profound, but as true as the sun’s heat in July.

On a bike ride the other day, I saw it printed on the Unitarian Universalists’ church lawn sign. (Am I the only one who’s noticed that the more liberal the church, the better the church sign quotes?)

This week, I got my days back. And true to Annie Dillard’s sentiment, my life. It came suddenly, with the absence of 9 am starts, ominous deadlines, and open jaws of expectation. It came, bringing hours to write and cook and clean and shop for groceries.  It came with empty hours too, heavy with shoulds and if-onlys.

And so here I find myself in that precarious place between the fullness of life and its opposite. This past year has been manic, and looking back I’m sometimes surprised I survived. But rather than rolling gently off that year, I’ve crashed abruptly into this week.

This week — with its scaled-back workout schedule, pressing humidity, and loose ends — is like an irritating old friend. You love her but sometimes you just don’t know what to do with her.

Besides being void of routine, this week has also brought the dreaded taper, that bittersweet period before a big race when triathletes attempt to do something foreign to their very existence: rest. For most, this comes about as naturally as speaking Czech.

But with the advice of my tri friends ringing loudly in my ears (“5% undertrained is better than 3% overtrained”), I’m hanging out with my food processor instead of my running shoes. I decided it was time to bring you another snack packed with energy and natural goodness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of Clif shot blocks and GU gel as the next endurance athlete. But I also take pride in turning the earth’s bounty into sport fuel. Minus the citric acid, “natural flavor,” sunflower oil, and carnauba wax.

So here’s a humbler kind of shot block, one that looks suspiciously like a Christmas goodie. The chocolately goodness comes from minimally processed cocoa powder, delivered a shot of not only good-for-you flavanols, but magnesium and zinc too. And we all know how great almonds are for us.

And so going back to my opening quote, I guess I spent part of my day conjuring up good and healthy things. My life, I hope, will follow suit.

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Homemade Energy Bars IV: Sunshine Bars

I could do the cucaracha right now. Problem is, I don’t really know what the cucaracha is. But if I did, I’d clutch these granola bars in my hands and shake them like marakas.

You see, I’ve been wishin’ and hopin’ and dreamin’ about creating the perfect home-made baked granola bars: toasty brown on the outside but with just the right chew factor that (some of) the bought ones have. I’ve managed with the chewy ones and the rolled ones and the fudgy ones, but the good old fashioned baked version has eluded me.

Part of the problem is pickyness. I’ve tried over 15 recipes, tweaking and re-tweaking. I’ve meticulously recorded every substitution and result. Most of the bars have turned out quite edible — something to be proud of even. But there’s always been one tiny problem. Too sticky. Too crispy. Too crumbly.

To add to my dismay, I desperately wanted crispy rice cereal in these elusive bars. Just a wee bit of that airy crunch you can hear in the back of your head when you chew. Whenever I’d add the sticky ingredients, those rice puffs would soak it all in and mush up like an abandoned bowl of Cheerios. I wasn’t about to make Rice Krispy squares, laden with butter and melted marshmallows. I wanted something good.

Eventually I gave up and bought some, just like normal people do. But after the 18th disappointing, too-sweet bar with a novel-length ingredients list, I went back to my oats and my coconut. I begged them to co-operate. I needed them to get me through the last two weeks of school without putting up a fight.

I guess I did something right. Sometimes I think ingredients, like people, just need to be loved. People talk to plants, horses, babies — why not craisins and pumpkin seeds?  As I wax poetic about something that was probably more luck than oat-whispering, I beseech you: Quaker and Kashi got nothing on homemade bars. Unless, of course, it takes you months to get them how you like them.

Good granola bars depend on the right proportion of ingredients, a sticky binder, and the right baking time and temperature. After many trials, I think I’ve found the right bar to usher me into a new season of triathlon training.

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the chi of kimchi

If only there was something yummy and exotic that made itself. Something you could just quickly cut up, stir, and plop in a container, only to turn out 5 days later in a delicious new guise.

Wait! There is! It’s called kimchi, and for its tart and tangy goodness we can thank the Koreans.

I’m seeing Korean food turn up everywhere. On the pages of Bon Appetit, on food blogs, and even in the New York Times. It’s even gone fusion, with a Twittering taco truck that brings mobile eats to its loyal followers. Kimchi is so important that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute even developed space kimch. Why? To accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian space ship, Soyuz, of course.

I can’t remember when I first tasted kimchi, but it wasn’t too long ago. I then started buying some locally-made stuff, available at the Central New York Regional Farmer’s Market, in all sorts of shades and styles. Being the fermentation freak that I am, my next thought was  “OK, my turn.”  Anyone who’s been to my apartment has seen the various fermenting things lying around my house. And before you run away scared, know that each one of them is darn delicious.

Food that is fast, easy, healthy and given to leftovers is manna for me right now. Finishing up my masters leaves little time for poring over new recipes (sad face #1), therapeutic vegetable chopping (sad face #2), and Zen-like-stove-top stirring (sad face #3). To this sorry state came my new friend kimchi.

The fabulous ferment did not only arrive to a dire, time-crunched situation, but to a household with a brand-new mandolin. Picked up for a steal of a deal on Amazon with Christmas money, this Japanese slider-knife is a miracle in a drawer. With this little beauty and a far superior recipe, my second batch of kimchi turned out much better than my clunky, over-garlicked first batch.

What, you may ask, is kimchi? It’s a Korean side dish with an inimitable taste, yet a Korean proverb reads, “if you have rice and kimchi, you have a meal.” To me, it’s crunchy ribbons of daikon and carrot folding over each other between layers of ruffled Napa cabbage. It’s chilies melding with garlic and ginger, and crisp veggies fermented to perfection. Served at room temperate over fried rice or a plate of egg rolls, or just eaten out of a jar, kimchi is a great snack full of healthy probiotics.

Best of all, the do-it-yourself kind pretty much does it itself. Just make sure you don’t spill it all over your gym bag.

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Homemade Energy Bars I: Whole Grain Chews

There’s only one problem with getting into fitness: inevitable weakening in the face of the supplement craze. As I watch my fellow triathlon trainees squeezing gels into their mouths, it’s easy to give in to the notion that I need the stuff. I continually have to remind myself that real food should be enough for any body. Beyond the protein (powder) shakes that help me meet my protein requirements minus much meat, there’s no creatine, glutamine, ecdysterone, 5-HTP, or anything else I can’t pronounce or made up of more numbers than letters in this body.

This is why I have been combing blogs and books, and experimenting with combination after combination of natural ingredients to bring you a collection of the best homemade energy bars. This is why I will continue to experiment, posting the worthy results under this new series. I hope you appreciate the results: many craisins were harmed in the process.

Most of the popular commercial energy bars are chalk full of weird ingredients, and taste like chalk to boot. Exceptions are Larabars and most Clif Bars, which will cost you a (however chiseled) arm and a leg to consume regularly. Making a whole pan of your own is a matter of less than 5$ and 10 minutes in the kitchen. Stock up on oats, pressed barley, coconut, honey, peanut butter, nuts and dried fruits, and you’ll have everything you need on hand to whip up any number of my bars. Keep them on the counter for a week, or wrap ’em in foil and freeze them for that 3-week away hike.

I like to alternate recipes to keep me from getting bored. Some bars are baked, which tend to be lighter and crispier, while the unbaked ones resemble the chewy commercial type. The baked ones are more cookie-like, while the pressed ones tend to be sweeter and more intense.

The unbaked ones (like the recipe I am sharing today) need a lot more sticky binder than you’d expect to keep them from falling apart. Please don’t make the mistake I did and try to cut down on the peanut butter! If you’re worried about fat issues involved in 1 whole cup of peanut butter, cut the bars into small cubes…that’s all you need for a quick jolt on the trails anyway!

These bars are dense and satisfying, perfect mid- or post-workouts over an hour long. (Before a workout you’ll want to have some more complex, or slow-burn carbs for sustained energy.) They are sweetened with all-natural ingredients–honey, dried fruit, and natural peanut butter. Honey is made up of fructose and glucose and is a simple, or single-molecule sugar. This means that it enters your bloodstream quickly–translating to more energy bang for your buck.

Athletes take note: carbs (formerly known as sugar) are your friend and fuel. And heck, they’re a lot cheaper than filling up your car. Remember that it is also important to consume simple carbs after a workout, when your muscles are needing to restock their glycogen stores. (See this article for more information than you care to read here.)

All that aside, they’re just plain tasty and convenient. And they fit perfectly in laptop bags, glove compartments, and even dainty purses.

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to dip or not to dip

My ten year hiatus from lap swimming ended abruptly when I decided to start training for a triathlon. It was on my life list and I was feeling fitter than ever, and so this winter I put my ideals into gear for a dose of cold hard reality. And cold swimming pools on early snow-dusted mornings.

Not long after that I started Fresh Cracked Pepper. Now that I think about it, this sudden intersection seems perfectly obvious. As I have lately discovered, almost nothing makes you hungrier than forty five minutes flailing around in a big vat of water. I don’t know why swimming causes such a specific type of hunger, considering the loss of appetite that occurs after running or cycling. I suspect it has something to do with body temperature, but I’m content to roll with the blissful ignorance.

I love the cool slippery texture shock of jumping into a new element, the exhilaration of blood pulsing outward to propel heavy limbs, the desperate gulps of breath to sustain floatation, survival even. And then there is the onset of a pervasive emptiness, a hunger felt from the fourth toenail up to the left collarbone, and everywhere in between. I challenge any restaurant billboard to do that.

Naturally, when I finished today’s swim my breakfast seemed about as recent as the invention of fire. Did I even eat this morning? Oh yeah, porridge. And an orange. And a latte. Hello? Stomach? Satiety? Silence — no answer but a low rumble. More, give me more. This was an argument I was happy to lose.

I’ve been craving crunch lately. This is nothing special however, given that I’d probably choose crackers over caviar, pretzels over panettone, tortilla chips over truffles. (Ok, maybe the last one is pushing it.) I’ve always been a crunchophile.

Recent cravings for biscotti inspired me to augment my post-swim lunch with a little dose of la dolce vita. And this one I can promise you, is truly a slice of the sweet life. Not only is this recipe simple, it’s actually a healthy and traditional. With no oil, butter or shortening, it mirrors the traditional Italian more closely technique than many recent versions.

Don’t let biscotti’s bad rap stop you from trying these endearing biscuits. I promise you it’s not their fault. In fact, I blame their tragic fate on big coffee companies who pedal varieties done so poorly no one would feel them to the dogs waiting outside. Sorry guys, but even your best 6$ latte can’t redeem those cellophane-wrapped logs of petrified dough. Thanks to the Wednesday Chef, the true biscotti fairy paid me a long overdue visit this afternoon. Full of just-chewy centers edged with crispness, our acquaintance was renewed with gingery vigor.

And then I was ready for lunch.

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40 days of hummus

I just realized that I started this new site in sync with the beginning of Lent. What was I thinking? Isn’t this supposed to be a time of renunciation (at least for those of certain faith of which I happen to be a part of)?

But before I could even think about what on earth a Lenten food blog might look like, my thoughts turned to what Lent is about in the positive. Perhaps this is just an elaborate justification for not giving anything up. Whatever it is, it makes me grateful, and I think that’s kind of the point.

We usually associate Lent with self-denial. But this time in the Christian year is not just about becoming vegetarian or denying yourself a few meals. While these things have played a role in Lent, so has teaching new believers and restoring drifted ones, inviting the poor into one’s home, and cultivating divine awareness through prayer and meditation.

The 6 Sundays during Lent aren’t even counted in the 40 days, but instead are termed “Mini Easter” celebrations. I like how in the midst of the solemn 40-day procession towards Good Friday, people found ways to savour the things of the Earth.

Maybe the rest of us could focus our 40 days on filling our kitchens and diets with more hospitality, generosity, creativity, and life. I am reminded that the word lent quite literally means spring. Green things are on the horizon, however frozen our world may now appear.

Driving home from church last night, the words spoken to me echo in my mind: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then I got to thinking about what any normal person would think about on such an holy day. Hummus.

It’s a mediterranean spread made with chickpeas, but it also refers to the organic material derived from partial decay of plant and animal matter. Mmmm, mmm. That went with the “returning to dust” theme, didn’t it? So while I pondered whether I’ll end up in the carrot or beet row of someone’s future garden, I whipped up a couple batches of spreadable earthiness. And they all taste better than compost, I promise.

Given the persistent grayness that has descended upon this city and the fact that the book I’m reading (though exquisitely written) is also bleak and dismal, I decided to put some colour into my day via hummus. Inspired by the “beet this hummus” at the restaurant I worked at for some time, I decided to see what other hues I could transform the humble chickpea into.

I felt like a 5 year old with three new cans of play-dough. For the plain one, I added some ground cumin, chili powder, and turmeric. For the fushcia one, I boiled up some beets — you really don’t need much, even one quarter-sized slice will turn the hummus pink. I garnished it with black pepper which I thought went nicely with the bright colour. For the green one: boiled spinach along, a drizzle of pumpkin oil and basil.

Go ahead and experiment! (I tried adding black beans once and it turned out purple!) These “hummi” would be great for theme parties (St. Patrick’s day, Valentine’s) or just to spice up a dreary February day.

Basic Hummus

1 large can (1lb/13 oz) chickpeas, or 2 smaller ones, liquid reserved

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice (ok ok, the bottled stuff will do)

1-2 T tahini paste (peanut butter will also do, but the flavour is not as subtle)

salt and pepper

Pour the liquid off the chickpeas, reserving it. Rinse off the peas. Place into an empty yogurt container, or other cylindrical container (or into the pitcher part of a blender. I like the hand blending method much better, though.) Add either 2 T of the reserved liquid, or 1 T of olive oil (the first is higher in sodium, the second in fat). Add the garlic, depending on how peppy you like your spread. Blend, moving the hand blender in an up and down motion. You will have to stop periodically (unplug!) and scrape around the blade to “help” the blender get to all the peas. Continue until you have a nice, creamy paste. Add the tahini paste and salt and pepper. Blend again.

Now for the fun. Add any of the following, according to your tastes! Plain yogurt (for extra creaminess, but keep in mind it won’t last as long in the fridge), cumin or curry powder, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, lemon zest, pumpkin oil, chili powder, boiled spinach leaves, cooked beets, cooked carrot, other beans, etc.

Serve with toasted pita chips, pretzels, and fresh veggies. Or, spread on burgers, sandwiches, and in pitas.