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Tournedos Rossini

The dinner Tom and I ate this Christmas Eve was arguably the best meal we’d ever made for ourselves. It was also extremely costly, but we regarded it as a Christmas gift to each other. Its centerpiece was a slightly tamed version of Tournedos Rossini.

Properly done, that luscious French dish is a filet mignon sauteed in butter, sitting on a round of bread sauteed in butter, topped with a thick slice of bloc foie gras, garnished with a piece of black truffle, and bathed with a complicated Madeira-and-truffle sauce. Caloric megadeath for sure, but what a way to go! For our version, adapted from the recipe in the Classic French Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, we vastly simplified the sauce and substituted morels for the truffle. It was still wonderful.

With the change in the sauce, it wasn’t at all difficult to make. The published recipe uses a sauce base of fond lié, a complex sauce that’s itself based on fond brun de veau, a French “mother sauce” that takes at least eight hours to make. Instead we defrosted some of Tom’s hearty meat-and-vegetable broth and boiled down that very flavorful liquid to concentrate it even further. To that base we added a dose of good Sercial Madeira that we’d also reduced by half (skipping the truffle juice that the recipe wanted added to the wine). It wasn’t as rich as the classic sauce, but it tasted very good. A small amount of a high-quality Madeira does wonders for sauces.
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Other than setting out the remaining ingredients on the kitchen counter, we didn’t do any more work on the dish until after we’d finished our first course at dinner (American transmontanus caviar on homemade buckwheat blini and a glass apiece of champagne; if you’re going to splurge, go all the way). Then I began heating vegetables (tiny green peas and sauteed morels that we’d frozen fresh earlier in the year) while Tom browned slices of my white bread in butter.
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We transferred the bread to dinner plates and in the same pan (with more butter) sauteed our filet mignons. They were larger than the classic tournedos cuts, but that wasn’t a problem.
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Keeping the steaks warm on the plates, we quickly deglazed the pan with more Madeira, stirred in the previously made sauce base, and simmered it briefly. (We skipped the step of straining the sauce and swirling in yet more butter: Neither was really necessary.)

On each steak we placed a thick slice of duck foie gras and a small morel to serve as a faux truffle, and poured the sauce over them.
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Magnificent! A wonderful combination of flavors. The foie gras virtually melted into the beef the moment it was cut into. And it is an honest opinion, not sour grapes, to say that morels are tastier than most black truffles. Certainly they are never as aromatic, but they are definitely more flavorful.

All this magnificence had an equally great companion in the Drouhin 2004 Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru that Santa provided. Tom may have more to say about that wine soon on his blog.

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We could have taken our Fourth of July picnic up to a table on our building’s roof garden, but it was still ghastly hot and humid that evening, and since the elevators don’t go up to the roof, we’d have had to shlep food, drink, and all their accouterments up a sweltering stairwell. So our foursome picnicked in the dining room in air-conditioned comfort.

Tom created a dandy little hors d’oeuvre for the occasion – a sort of micro-mini ballpark hot dog. He fried two slices of sandwich bread in butter, spread them with yellow mustard, cut them in one-inch squares, and laid a chunk of frankfurter on each. Half of them received a round of homemade bread-and-butter pickle under the frank, and the other half were topped with a piece of cornichon. Both were very tasty, but we all agreed the bread-and-butter-pickle version had the edge.

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The main event opened rather elegantly with Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison. A few years ago I wrote a post about making this specialty of the famous New Orleans restaurant. It’s a luscious dish and always a favorite.
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After that came the more traditional picnic-y foods.

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My potato salad, made with the season’s first new potatoes, thinly sliced, a little red onion, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and homemade mayonnaise.
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Tom’s macaroni salad, with bits of celery, bell pepper, red onion, and tomato; dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and the same mayonnaise.
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A broiled flank steak with Tom’s minimal barbecue sauce: his own seasoned ketchup, Worcestershire, and chipotle Cholula. It makes a light coating, penetrating the meat just enough to liven up its own flavor.
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There was also corn on the cob – white corn, first of the season, wonderfully fresh and sweet – chunked heirloom tomatoes, and a crusty baguette; all set out family style and attacked with enthusiasm and old-fashioned boardinghouse reach.
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To finish the meal we had a nectarine cake, which I make from a Joy of Cooking recipe called Plum Cake Cockayne. It’s a regular summer dessert of mine, sweet, easy, and good with any stone fruit. It was consumed with alacrity, even though everyone protested how full they already were. That’s the magic of fruit desserts.
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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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A place in my neighborhood, billed as the only 100% Paleo restaurant in the city, puts a chalkboard on the sidewalk listing daily specials. I love to walk by and envision a Neanderthal family sitting in their cave breakfasting on something like No-Yo Matcha Parfait: coconut milk, maple syrup, taro root, almond butter, matcha, banana, and grain-free granola. Where in the world could a group of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers have collected that combination of foodstuffs?!

Such absurdities make it impossible for me to take the Paleo diet seriously. While I’m quite happy to eat meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, there’s no way I’d give up all dairy products, grains, bread, pasta, sugar, salt, and coffee. (Not to mention wine.) But leaving aside the pros, cons, and controversies of the Paleo approach, it can be fun on occasion to eat something “primordial” – and there’s nothing more primordial than roasted marrow bones.

Here’s the batch that we had one recent evening:

raw-bones

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They’re perfectly easy to prepare: Place the bones in a roasting pan with the wider side of the marrow openings up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the pan in a 450° oven until the marrow softens and begins to ooze out – about 15 minutes. Serve. Except for the salt and pepper, any Paleolithic cook could have done it.

roasted-bones

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It’s hard to overstate how elementally satisfying the succulence of marrow is at the end of a grey, cold, winter day. However, I destroyed the Paleo purity of the dish by having a loaf of crusty ciabatta bread as its accompaniment.

bread-loaf

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There’s nothing roasted marrow likes better than to be scooped out and spread on a slice of warm toast, there to be blissfully devoured.
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plate-of-bones

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And one more post-Paleolithic touch: Marrow loves a good, soft, round red wine. So do I.

bone-tower

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My trip to Rome earlier this month was, gastronomically, very much of an auld lang syne experience. Beloved Spouse and I dined only at restaurants we’ve known and loved for years, and mostly on dishes that we’ve often eaten there and that are a large part of the reason we love them. Here are what we had on three of the days.

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fortunato-al-pantheon

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Fortunato al Pantheon
is a slightly austere establishment, favored by politicians from the nearby national Parliament. It was a modest trattoria years ago, when we first discovered it, but it has grown in elegance while still retaining its basic honesty.

The moment we walked into the dining room, we smelled truffles. Wow! We hadn’t expected the season to have started yet. We couldn’t resist them, but first we had to have antipasti: a pair of carciofi alla romana and a plate of salume.
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fortunato-1

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Then came the truffles. For Tom, tagliarini topped at tableside with shavings of a single large white truffle; and for me tagliarini already dressed with a sauce of black truffle and porcini mushrooms. By our waiter’s courtesy, I also received the last little bits of Tom’s white truffle.
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tartufi-bianchi

Tagliarini con tartufi bianchi

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tartufi-neri

Tagliarini con tartufi neri e funghi porcini

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These were both stunningly rich dishes, but after them we felt we could manage a little dessert: a dish of fragoline con panna and a small tiramisù.
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Walking back to our hotel, we pondered one of the enduring mysteries of Roman dining: How do you get fresh artichokes, wild strawberries, and truffles at the same season?
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checchino

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Another evening found us at Checchino dal 1887. It’s in Testaccio, the epicenter of Rome’s ancient quinto quarto cuisine – i.e., variety meats, or more simply, offal. Testaccio used to be the butcher’s section of the city, and the “fifth quarter” of the animal was what the poor got, after the best cuts went to the aristocracy, the clergy, the bourgeoisie, and the military. Dishes made from those innards, though not for today’s faint-hearted eater, are central to Rome’s traditional cuisine.

Here, Tom always starts with the same pasta dish: rigatoni con pajata. Pajata is the small intestine of milk-fed lamb, still filled with partially digested milk. Tied into little sausages and cooked in tomato sauce, it’s delicious beyond what you would expect. That evening I chose an equally traditional, though meatless, first course: pasta e ceci (chickpeas).
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I made up for that reticence with my second course, padellotto alla macellara. This “butcher’s platter” was a sauté of pajata, liver, sweetbreads, and testicolo. (Yes, testicle). Not your everyday plate of protein. Tom had a bollito misto – mixed boiled meats – including on this occasion beef, calf’s tongue, and a small pig’s foot.
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I must admit, we couldn’t finish either of these ample plates.
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zi-umberto

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Osteria da Zi’ Umberto
is a small, lively, bustling, casual eating place in Trastevere. Though not strong on atmosphere and looking a little run-down, it turns out very good, mostly rustic food at relatively modest prices. After starting with a few fiori fritti (batter-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies), we had first courses of pappardelle with wild boar sauce and fettuccine with porcini mushrooms.
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2-umberto-pastas

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Then Tom had oxtails – coda alla vaccinara – and I had suckling pig – maialino arrosto con patate. Both were beautifully prepared.
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coda

 

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At all these meals we drank wine, of course – mostly wines of Rome’s Lazio region, which aren’t commonly available in New York – and ended with espressos and grappa. Many interesting kinds of grappa. Tom has written a post about the wines for his blog, which you can see here.

Our remaining three dinners in Rome are described in my next post.

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Tuscan Pot Roast

Last Wednesday the featured article in the NY Times food section was about a midwestern restaurant chef’s elaborate pot roast. I found it strange, because in the photos, text, and recipe, the beef was accompanied by an array of root vegetables. When I make a pot roast, the roast is alone in the pot. With vegetables, I’d call the dish a stew or a braise.

My curiosity piqued, I looked up pot roast recipes in several of my cookbooks, as well as online. By golly, they all included vegetables! The sole exception was my copy of the 1937 America’s Cook Book, the only cookbook my mother ever owned. Its recipe for pot roast is the one that graced our family table when I was growing up: just beef, salt, pepper, flour, and rendered suet, with an optional version including some water. Replicating that simple dish kept me happy for many years. Then I discovered a different but also vegetable-less approach in Italy and began making Tuscan Pot Roast, a recipe I developed and published in The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

That train of thought a few days later took me to the freezer, where I pulled out a nice two-pound piece of eye of chuck to defrost for dinner the next night. Eye of chuck is our household’s favorite cut of beef for stews, pot roasts, and bollito misto. It’s a loose-textured meat, well marbled and very flavorful, but it requires long, slow cooking to become tender and especially to melt its central tendon to succulence.

raw eye of chuck

This is the same cut the newspaper’s featured chef uses. He calls it paleron; the article says midwestern butchers call it flat iron roast; elsewhere it’s apparently called top blade roast. Hereabouts, it’s eye of chuck.

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For my recipe, I put the beef into a heavy pot with butter, olive oil, two cloves of garlic, four sage leaves, salt and pepper.

first cooking

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Under very low heat it cooks, covered, for an hour, getting turned over every 10 or 15 minutes. Then I uncover it, raise the heat somewhat, pour on half a cup of red wine and boil it briskly until it’s nearly evaporated.

adding wine

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Lower the heat again, cover, and cook until the meat is tender, usually about another half hour. Just before serving I take out the beef and keep it warm while I remove the garlic and sage and deglaze the pan with half a cup of broth. Blended with the meat essences left in the pot, that makes a rich, dense, dark gravy that doesn’t need any other thickener.

slicing

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This pot roast has to be sliced fairly thick so it won’t fall apart. Sometimes it falls apart anyway, it’s so tender. There’s just one more thing I’ll explain about the photo above: As a concession to nutritional “science,” my published recipe says to carefully defat the sauce before pouring it over the meat. When it’s just for Beloved Spouse and myself, I don’t do that. That golden rim of liquid fat makes the gravy even more luscious for spooning over mashed potatoes or mopping up with crusty bread.

All right then, I’ll go to hell.  I understand the company is more interesting there anyhow.

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