Someone’s Hungry.

organicspread
I’m on a cleanse. A surprisingly stringent clean-eating detox from sugar, caffeine, gluten, and a bunch of other delicious things. Today is day four. Things look grim. Sentences are short.

The Why: reconnected with old high-school friend who’s a consultant for the company that makes the detox products, facebook post called for bootcamp recruits, I was feeling pudgy. An email and a phone call later I found myself looking optimistically at thirty days without coffee, bread, sugar, most fruit, and a commitment to eat only organic produce and grass-fed meat. It’s January, after all; the parties season is over and I bore quickly. As noted, I’ve thickened a bit over the holidays and have been feeling rather sludgy. Why not take on a complete lifestyle change I know nothing about? My main concern was having to clean my blender so frequently.

Right now my main concern is not emptying the half-gallon bucket of organic almonds I’m cradling like a newborn directly into my mouth with the aid of a shovel and a mallet. My next greatest concern is that I can’t put off my second trip to Trader Joe’s any longer. I am the only person I know who loathes the Trader Joe experience, and would like to sit down with Trader Joe, cousin Trader Giotto, brother-in law Trader Jose and third cousin once removed Trader Ming, and make them justify the layout of their space, which gives the impression that Rodney Dangerfield raced through the store in a naked, meth-induced rage while strewing about the contents of three enormous duffel bags.

The produce section’s open floor plan translates into shopping cart traffic chaos, but you’re still safer there than if you’re stuck in bumper to bumper cart traffic within “the grid.” Two and a half actual aisles constructed out of various shelving materials, wood planks, metal woven baskets, wooden barrels and wicker containers aplenty offer the most nerve-wracking, cart-inching, categorically confusing dry goods shopping experience possible. Organic dark-chocolate-covered boysenberries wink ironically at their neighboring bags of quinoa and flax, and an open freezer counter casts a pallid and not at all tempting glow from beneath. I almost lost my handbag, so to speak, when I finally reached the four-foot wide designated rice shelf, and found they were out of brown rice. It’s enough that I’m expected to wash it, I don’t need the main carb of my daily plate (YES, PLATE) to be difficult to obtain. I’ll see you in hell, eventually, Trader Joe, but for now I’ll see you next week.

The daily plan involves a shake and some tea for breakfast, then either the same shake or a meal for lunch. Here’s the catch. “Meal” doesn’t mean a nice grilled tomato, bacon and cheese with some Cape Cod chips, or a small spread of muenster cheese, pepperoni, club crackers, pickles and grapes. No, “meal” means that half of the plate’s real estate is flat-out lost to non-starchy vegetables. A quarter of the plate should be a fist-sized portion of lean protein, which gives you an idea of the plate size we’re dealing with from the start. The last quarter of the plate is 2/3 high-fiber carbs and low-glycemic fruits, and 1/3 healthy fats. So much fun that I opt for the lunch shake and a bonus handful of almonds. What’s that sound? Pay no attention, it’s just my fury. I can’t seem to overcome a block involving the allowed grains, so I’ve been going full-fruit (rather, full-green apple) on that section. Healthy fats really just means nuts, so I’ve been getting by for the first few days with the following salad, accompanied of course, by my meat fist, as my sole solid meal.

The Healthiest Salad I’ve Ever Eaten

All organic:
One substantial handful of spring mix
1 diced green apple (organic green apples are tiny)
1 small of handful almonds, cut in half
1 small handful of diced veggie mix (carrots, peppers, radishes, cabbage, jicama, broccoli)
1 to 2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 to 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

Mix the greens together with the salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil until all leaves are coated. Add other ingredients and toss. Appreciate that this is only for thirty days, and that this particular lack of enthusiasm is the feeling of getting a little healthier. Enjoy!

Aside from my irritability and general snark toward the diet part, I’m keeping with it because I’ve noticed a significant change in my energy-level, and I’ve already lost a pound, not surprisingly. I’m blessed and cursed with an innate one-day-at-a-time outlook, so I’m always aware that tomorrow may find me in my van, parked outside Market Basket, with half a dozen of their store-baked blueberry muffins and a carton of buttermilk.

Wouldn’t you like to go to bed so that Mama can eat out of the pan?

Plated-Only-for-Show Apple Crisp

Day three of Mr. P’s absence finds a bleak Peña household, indeed. I hide in the office for a few stolen puffs off my unnecessarily long cigarette, and count eighty minutes until the first round of bedding, and one hundred forty until the last. Someone wearing sneakers and underpants is stomping on something metallic, and someone else is whimpering, but not out of pain. I don’t wonder why. Because in one hundred forty minutes, I will covertly prepare my second apple crisp of the season, and then I will eat the entire thing. Last week I found the best apple crisp recipe ever — I’d stake my life on it — and my glee is only barely dampened by the awareness that a third of my existence has passed without its weekly consumption. The “crisp” is like the perfect oatmeal cookie: virtually no chew, caramel undertones, and just enough salt if made with salted butter. I used Cortlands for my first pass, but opted this time for Grannies, as the Cortlands shrunk so much I wound up with more crisp than apple. I expect, however, the good green lady will stand up loudly and proudly.

One of the hardest things to do when my charming husband is away is grocery shopping. Since Mr. P usually gets home from work around 7, I make two dinners on the nights I can face it. The first happens at 5:00 and has several minimally-seasoned components, never touching each other, and no more than one is cooked. The second dinner is the kind of food real people eat, and if the brood is still awake they sit with us and look suspiciously at their auxiliary meal. But after meeting the needs of three all day long, I’m happy to opt out of real-person classification if it means I can call it a night. So today, instead of getting food from which I could make myself a real-person dinner, in my solitude I bought a bag of Granny Smiths, a brick of Muenster, and a shrimp cocktail ring. The second and third items will be my appetizers while I wait out the half hour of baking time for my dinner of delicious shame.

Since I’m admitting to my gluttony, I’ll take a moment to justify it with a list of things that have triggered tantrums or breakdowns over the last thirteen hours. Getting dressed X3. Putting on shoes X6. Not being “the picker” during TV time X∞. Not being allowed to wear Halloween costume to bed X3. Being out of cinnamon bread and having to make due with strawberry waffles X2. Having Band-Aid party discovered and ended X3. Crayon issues X4. One-offs include having to get out of the bath, denial of shirt removal in public, denial of pants removal in public, and the cat not being in the mood for pets. I’ve only raised my voice twice so far, which is twice more than I’d like, but I’m going to take a B+ for the day. Academically, that grade would drive a dagger into my heart. But in the world of best-intentions parenting, I can sleep at night with anything above a C.

Thank heavens I was drunk.

Chicken and Rice Beware

I was overjoyed to find that BJ’s stocks wine glasses this morning, saving me a separate trip with the Sisters Sledge. Two trips, actually, since the smallest quantity available was twelve, and half the box is now in my basement. It’s difficult to judge an item’s size in a warehouse club, and upon unpacking the first half dozen, I realized that I could fit both my fists in the cup area of a glass. Perhaps it should have been obvious that the majority of people who pick up twelve wine glasses with their pallet of paper towel would prefer them to hold as much as possible, but these come close to novelty scale. I’m not much of wine drinker myself, yet the chalices are so impressive that I’ve got one filled up right now with Riesling. It doesn’t seem that the meniscus has budged over the last half hour, though the children have become much more bearable and the overhead lights are really beginning to grate.

Braced with enough of a buzz to risk a failure in the kitchen, this evening I took on a recipe for Chicken and Rice Casserole that I’ve been considering for the past year, but that’s always struck me as a little too weird. Mrs. Peña becomes dangerously fearless, however, with a little of the grape coursing through her veins, so even as the aroma of garlic wafting from the oven carries a little too much char for my taste, I’m not worried. An entire large pizza is rather appetizing right now, anyway.

Oh, Simply Recipes. Although I knew this day would come, the smack across my face still brings tears to my eyes. Why would you subject rice to such treatment? If aiming for a consistency between aspic and tapioca, one usually turns to cornstarch instead. And why would you do that to garlic? Eating this is like kissing a man who just ate scampi and chased it with a shot of foot. And where, for the love of all things holy, is that cloying sweetness coming from? I re-sampled my sour cream to verify that it hadn’t gone off, but now I wish I just assumed it had, since the alternative is that this tastes good to someone.

My grandmother had a way of writing someone off that sent shivers down the spines of those who witnessed her ruling. While I’m not adequately furious with Simply Recipes to “leave them to God,” another culinary fiasco on their heads and I might have to become a Catholic.

The harsh light of this particular morning finds me doubtful that this casserole merits such scathing criticism as above. More likely, my gripe tank couldn’t withstand the pressure of one more minor disappointment and, as it burst, spewed forth the rantings of a tipsy perfectionist. Further, Mr. P enjoyed two servings as I withheld my commentary, having eaten earlier, and his verdict was an enthusiastic “delicious!” Keep in mind, though, that I married a smart man.

I hear it’s fantastic, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The Best Vegetarian Chili I Never Tasted

I love a challenge. I hosted a baby shower for the radiant and ever-gracious Jess D last Sunday, and it was a rare occasion to find more vegetarians and vegans on the guest list than otherwise. Regretfully, I may have harbored a tinge of culinary resentment toward the sans-meat crowd back when I had endless, uninterrupted prep time before parties to spend on crown roasts, sushi, and various fowl. But now that I average two diaper changes while waiting for my morning coffee to percolate, I’m grateful whenever the time-consuming task of meat preparation is rendered null.

Obviously, my tried and true Vegetarian Appeasement made the spread, but I needed one more vegetarian entree, having been physically unable to hold back from applying the bacon topping to You Ain’t Leavin’ Mac & Cheese. Somehow, I was able to locate the recipe for a meatless chili I made six Labor Days ago, combing through search results on Epicurious until I found one with a familiar, ridiculously long list of ingredients.

‘Vores of all walks claimed to enjoy the chili, but one should never take guests’ compliments as honest criticism. I’ll admit that I don’t eat chili of any kind, ever, so I had no idea what was going on in those bowls. However, Mr. P revisited the leftovers twice, legitimizing it as an official victory.

I find it inordinately satisfying to approach meals I prepare and events I host as competitions with myself. None of my children put up a fair fight at anything other than Candy Land, and I no longer work in an office environment (where competitive baking is always encouraged), so I have no choice but to set my own bar progressively higher in order to routinely best past selves. A disconcerting side effect of my approach to staying sharp has been my inner monologue’s shift to a dialogue, with definite manager and underling roles.

In addition to barking orders at my underling and maintaining a high level of hustle in the kitchen, my manager enforces our unnecessarily rigorous weekly schedule, ensures everyone is dressed and fed by eight, and gets us all strapped in the car and on our way by nine. My underling wonders if my manager has been overbooking us lately, but the former doesn’t get a say. Fortunately for my underling, my manager (who’s also in charge of menu planning) is a voracious carnivore, and while this chili is now a standard in our vegetarian repertoire, we’re still not eating it.

And to All, a Loosened Belt

A Delicious Christmas Dinner to All…

This year is the second of my recent decade-to-lifelong election/takeover as Christmas Dinner Host; thank you again for being so gracious about the whole thing, Mrs. S! In the case that you, too, are preparing the yuletide feast, but have yet to finalize your menu, allow me to suggest one that seamlessly combines New England tradition with festive flair, and reinforces that your children never prefer their future spouses’ cooking to your own. Speaking of children, while they are often delightful, we don’t consider them actual people when determining food quantities, especially turkey poundage. That leaves my diner total at ten, requiring a twenty-pound turkey to ensure enough white meat for all with a few leftovers to sustain Mr. P during his annual Christmas night toy bender.

20-Pound Butter-Basted Roast Turkey with Giblet Gravy*

The Wood Sisters’ Pork Stuffing

Whipped Russet Potatoes*

Mashed Butternut Squash with Honey and Crushed Red Pepper*

Fo Show Green Beans (Green Beans with Toasted Almond Butter)

Red Pearl Onions Tossed in a Balsamic-Brown Sugar Glaze*

Orange Scented Cranberry Sauce

Dessert will be a gingerbread train cake with an individual car for each plate, and of course we’ll have a wasply assortment of spirits ranging from wine and sherry to gin and rum as liven-uppers for the nog and cider.

*The recipes for the unlinked dishes involve little more than their descriptions, and I’ll trust you to use your judgement when determining quantities. After all, if you weren’t confident in your potato whipping or onion boiling skills, you wouldn’t have any business hosting the most stately of annual feasts.

Weather you celebrate the holidays with faith, aesthetic, or a combination of both, I wish all of you a transplendent meal, and a quiet moment afterwards to consider how delightful it is to be you.

Angry Cooking

Angry Chicken

I decided to shelve a 986-word rant regarding my threshold for inconsideration and incompetence across all age groups having possibly been crossed. It turned out that being stood-up for a blind play date with all three kids at Funworld, and my resulting expulsion from a playgroup I’d never been to, did not, in fact, kill me. Nor did the overly audible comment from a woman behind me in line at the Hallmark store as I waited to have an ornament boxed so I could quickly remove my whiny children from the public sphere. Please don’t bother getting irked on my behalf at her declaration of “I don’t understand people who have more kids than they can handle.” In exchange for her helpful insight, I provided her with something to work on with her therapist for the next several years. And Sally the Entitled’s incessant reproachment of my parenting still hasn’t plateaued, but fortunately, I have an abundance of faith in myself, and rubes, barbs, and gripes haven’t debilitated me. On the contrary, my fury-induced blood pressure spikes result in waves of some of my best cooking.

It was a rare occasion yesterday afternoon when, although I had adequate hustle and elan to cook something delicious, I considered the prospect of a trip to the market as appealing as participating in organized running. I may send Simply Recipes a Christmas gift; I had chicken, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and not much else, but the resulting Chicken, Mushrooms, and Tomatoes with Port Wine caused an elated Mr. P to unconsciously hum quietly until he admirably gave up just before the bite that would have killed the evening.

I’m sure you’re aware of my penchant for a well-executed cream sauce, but this is a refreshingly dairy-free combination of shallot and mushroom, and the tomato manages to restrain itself to a supporting role. The final reduction is spectacular, and even better when drizzled over whatever accompanies your chicken; in retrospect I would have gone with rice, as my choice of egg noodles proved to be a slippery one.

So even though the end of my tether is in clear sight, the pairing of productive, passionate ire with a reliable site for new recipes culminates in several days of Michelin-worthy dinners at Chez Peña, before my wrath cools back down to mild irritability and Mr. P resigns himself with grace and dignity to another long stretch of family-restaurant-tier cooking. But not tonight. Tonight, I summon my last sputters of anger for Sherry-Dijon London Broil with caramelized shallots and rice pilaf.

Sorry, Chef Ramsey, they can’t all be “the most magnificent.”

TMI Chicken Soup

The first day of Mr. P’s long awaited nine-day Thanksgiving break found all five Peñas sick as dogs. We, the house-bound four, had been chewing on this particular bug for twenty-four hours, initially tipped off by Billy the Kid’s impressive reverse-vacuum all over my bedspread, while Mr. P efficiently wrapped up all loose ends at work on Friday before succumbing to the inevitable, compounded by the standard general start-of-vacation collapse. By the time I dragged the king comforter out of the dryer two hours after its ordeal, I was in full denial of my own doom. I was not ill. By Saturday afternoon, I was still the most functional, but only because I refuse to negotiate with disease, my ability to ignore discomfort having increased tenfold after carrying twins with a perforated appendix.

Note to potential and current gestators: if you point to the side of your enormous pregnant belly and tell your doctor, “this hurts and I can’t eat,” don’t downplay the pain and nausea, or you’ll receive the standard “why don’t we take a look after the baby comes.” I’m betting that liability near-miss still keeps a certain OB/GYN up at night. I’d heard of women being sick while in labor, but getting off an operating table seconds after receiving an epidural and seconds before a c-section, throwing up, and remounting just as all feeling drained from my legs reassured me that I possess excellent time management and multi-tasking skills. Unfortunately, it also detracted from focusing on the miracle of life and whatnot. Had my concerns been addressed, however, I might not have come out the other end fifty pounds lighter and then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy creeping out Mr. P with my ultra-slender “tween starlet calves” for a month before returning to my preferred state of sturdiness.

Back to the present, with a mere low-grade fever and repulsiveness confined mostly to my head, the task of making chicken soup with rice fell to me. When visiting Epicurious, I prefer to to limit my options to recipes that boast four entire forks, but three and a half are apparently the mediocre standard in this case, so I settled on one that conformed to Mr.P’s request for “not weird.”  I found the absence of onion unsettling, so I threw in half a chopped yellow, and combined a tablespoon each of fresh thyme and parsley, scoffing at the direction to limit myself to one or the other. Then I salted and peppered the dickens out of it.

I regard chicken soup as a food of necessity, and since one can’t taste much of it when one needs it the most, and wouldn’t make it if one didn’t need it, it doesn’t really matter that this one is exceptional to a fully functioning palate. The rice leaves relatively little broth, but just enough to avoid the dreaded bisque effect. The carrots and celery remain brisk and cheerful, having just cooked through upon serving, and lend an appealing primavera quality that’s often appetizing to an invalid. I suppose Epicurious’ three-and-a-half-forks rating is, indeed, appropriate; even at it’s best, chicken soup is still just chicken soup.

Cow and Chicken

Chicken Chicharrones

I resent Chick-fil-A for three reasons. Long before I’d been unlucky enough to live within a drivable distance to the fast food establishment that considers itself above operating on Sundays (I am a staunch advocate of separation of church and chicken, so that’s reason number one), I worked in the screen-printing sector for a spell, where I came across the ambiguous logo for the first time. I assumed the pronunciation was “chick fillah,” and figured the company had been founded by a surly aviculteur with a strong Boston accent, who supplied chicken filling for nuggets, patties, and the like. Obviously, reason number two addresses the all too common liberties taken with the alphabet.

Reason number three arose the first time I acquiesced to BK’s pleas for a Chick-fil-A kid’s meal from our mall’s food court, a routine I was unaware Mr. P had allowed to develop. I’ll note that our mall, though relatively close by, is actually in another state, one that boasts a long line of historically bad ideas. To my delight, I saw that the nuggets looked homemade, identifiably chicken, and lightly breaded. But then I tasted one, and a specific rage rose up out of my chest, one reserved for the slap in the face that is misleadingly appealing fare. I don’t know if the trademark “flavor” originates intentionally from a specific “seasoning,” or if I’m just experiencing the complex flavor profiles of grease, but those obsequious cow mascots need to offer at least bearable fare if they don’t want to end up in my sandwich.

I recently came across a recipe for chicken chicharrones on the always reliable simplyrecipes.com, and jumped at the chance to impress Mr. Tilde with some flavors from the mother protectorate. Upon plating the piping hot, shimmering with oil yet obviously crunchy little chunks, I noticed a hint of physical resemblance to the insipid little orts slung by CfA, but hoped that half an hour marinating in rum, lime juice, and soy sauce would yield a much more palatable product. Palatable is an understatement, and elastic waistbands are called for once again, as well as a table-side candy dish filled with Tums. A squirt each of lime juice and hot sauce are legally mandated in this case, and I find diners are especially delighted if the lime wedges are presented in a small communal bowl.  I’ve never been much of a deep-fryer, especially when peanut oil is involved, but I’m going to need to start that new gym membership, now that I’ll be eating this three nights a week. And when I finally have a few too many chicharrones sometime after Christmas, I’m coming for you, beefcakes.

Night Baking: Never a Good Idea

Waker-Upper Animal Crackers

I usually don’t begin thinking abut Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving, but after stumbling upon the yuletidiest cookie I’ve ever tasted, I’m ready to start the season before we even hit Halloween. Billy the Kid has a knack for randomly remembering items we used once, over a year back, and last night while we had some “us time,” waiting up late for Mr. P after the ladies retired, BK declared he had a great idea. Indeed, it was the perfect time to dig out the five small animal-cracker cookie-cutters/stampers from Williams-Sonoma we bought two summers ago, our singular attempt thwarted by an inappropriate dough that melted over details and puffed out when baked, yielding cartoonishly cloud-shaped cookies. But Mrs. Peña runs a tight ship, and they were exactly where they should have been, as I had already learned when BK was one that throwing away anything he deemed “his” was a very bad idea.

In my end-of-day haze, I quickly scanned several holiday baking magazines until I saw a picture of a cinnamon cookie that looked like it could stand up to our stampers with a few slight modifications. I only noticed the call for espresso grounds once I had started assembling the mis-en-place, but it was already late, so how bad could one small coffee-infused cookie be for a toddler at 9:00 PM? Gleeful cries of “my feet  can’t stop running!” finally tapered off around 10:30 when BK fell asleep while talking, and a steady stream of the little “crackers” kept me fully alert until Mr. P’s arrival around midnight.

If you’ve ever been the lucky recipient or partaker of a Pepperidge Farms Entertaining Cookie Collection, you’ll recall the thin, unassuming, simple Bordeaux wafers, and the uncomfortably urgent desire to put all of them in your mouth at the same time. The following recipe produces the same flavor and crisp consistency, but with more heft than flake, and if you bake for just a minute less than indicated, a hint of chew. The combination of small and thin with the descriptor “cracker” will encourage gluttony, so keep a mental count as you visit the plate throughout the day in case you need to shame yourself into restraint.

1 stick butter, softened
1/4 C shortening
1 C sugar
1/2 C brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp instant espresso grounds
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
2 C flour

Assemble the dough in the standard manner. Shape it into two discs and refrigerate them for an hour. Roll out the dough to 1/4″ thickness before cutting out shapes, and bake single sheets at 375 degrees for 6 minutes (check every minute after 4 during the first batch to determine exact baking time). Cool the cookies on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a sealable plastic container or bag before hiding them under your bathing suit in the corner of your top drawer.

I like the idea of vegetables…

Squash Savers


Not only was it a delightful day in all ways save for infant temperaments, but one packed full of smug superiority, my second favorite vice. BK and I got an invigoratingly early jump start on the day, giving a friend a lift to work at eight, then we slowed down by the house as Mr. P chucked in the girls, and off we traipsed to our local farm where we fed goats and bunnies and picked a pound of nice fat blueberries. I’ve learned to bring Wet Ones along on our pickings, as Billy the Kid brazenly over-samples to the point of facial evidence, and I dislike receiving cool looks from any sort of help. Back home, we picked our first summer squash, and I created the following recipe to render the yellow vegetable adequately palatable, mostly by masking the crap out of it with ingredients I like, such as eggs and crackers. The resulting side dish was victoriously satisfying, but even more delicious was the nap I unintentionally took with the girls after lunch.

I have a generous but firm quiet-time policy to ensure my babies get at least twenty minutes of sleep during the day, and BK can either nap with me on the couch or play quietly in the office or his room with a variety of toy options, including (and I will not apologize) the iPad. But even the ultimate attention magnet only buys a half hour at most of distraction for a three-year-old, and I usually get just a short lie-down before I have to engage El Torito in something far away from my napping time-bombs. So I awoke disoriented and suspicious two hours later, and followed a trail of strewn berries into the kitchen to find my little man closing the fridge door, hands clawed and straining to transport many more blueberries than they were able to hold. Evidently, BK had quite a little afternoon for himself. After ditching his pants in the bathroom, he based himself on the office recliner with the iPad, making routine trips to the fridge to reload, while watching some sort of ridiculous anime in Japanese he found on the hulu app.

12 1/4″ slices from the widest part of a summer squash
1 C finely crushed butter crackers
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp onion salt
1/2 tsp dried basil leaves
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 C grated mozzarella
1/4 C grated Parmesan
Canola oil

Combine the cracker crumbs with the spices and salt and spread them out on a plate. Heat about a quarter cup of canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Once it’s hot, dip a squash slice into the egg, coating completely, then lay it on the crumbs and turn/pack to coat. Put it in the hot oil and repeat with the remaining slices. After all have been in for 1 minute, start flipping the slices over with tongs, beginning with the first one that went in. Once flipped, let them cook for another minute or until they’re crisp and golden-brown – no amateur pale spots!

Transfer the slices to a plate lined with paper towel to blot the excess oil, then arrange them on a rack placed over a cookie sheet. Top each with a sprinkle of parmesan and mozzarella, and broil them on high at the second-highest rack level for a minute or two until the cheese just starts to brown. Serve them scalding hot to avoid any trace of actual vegetable, and don’t forget to hide your berries!

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