Bahn Mi Nachos

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The Superbowl is one of the best food holidays. In the same way that on Halloween girls can wear basically nothing and call it a “costume”, on Superbowl Sunday you can make something obscenely unhealthy and call it a “snack.” And then you can spend the rest of the afternoon eating a dinner-sized portion of said snack. It’s kind of like magic and it’s a magic I love taking advantage of despite my total lack of football interest or knowledge. In past years I’ve made reuben dip (sadly undocumented, but so cheesy and creamy plus slightly tangy from sauerkraut), buffalo wings (in baked form and turned into a dip), and a full scale snackadium (inspired by these awesome renditions). And this year’s goal was to up the ante on nachos by making them bahn mi style. Back in July someone posted a comment on Facebook, bemoaning the lack of bahn mi nachos in the world. The gauntlet was thrown, and it only took me about six months to figure it out.

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Here’s the thing: I’ve eaten a lot of bahn mi. A LOT. When I was in law school I probably had about one per week, from a little hole in the wall near campus with perhaps the best bahn mi in the city. I started with the tofu variation but by the end of law school I’d eaten almost every bahn mi on the menu and tried a handful of other varieties at different locations. And while it’s been a few years since I ate those sandwiches with borderline obsession, it wasn’t a stretch to figure out how the flavors could translate to nachos.

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The components of a bahn mi aren’t too complicated: some kind of cured meat, cilantro, a mix of pickled carrot and daikon, mayo, and crusty bread. Jalapeno slices often show up (which I left in), as does pate (which I left out; it just seemed too weird). The cheese was more difficult, to add or not to add? Vietnamese food doesn’t really use much dairy but nachos need cheese, and in the end it worked out remarkably well. Savory and sweet and creamy, with spicy bites when you get a jalapeno – the issue of which bite will burn your mouth is a key part of a bahn mi where only some bites have jalapeno, and those bites are a doozy. Jeff and I devoured the first batch, standing up at the kitchen counter listening to the first episode of Invisibilia (have you heard it yet? I love it!). We just stood over the plate, shoveling chips into our mouths, silently except for some sniffling when the jalapenos got the best of us. The plate was empty before the episode was over. The second batch actually made it to a football game and it was gone almost as quickly. It’s messy and a bit over the top and just the kind of “snack” for the Superbowl*, because any other time, these are just ridiculous. In the good way, of course.

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* I suppose you could eat these at other sports watching events or any seated occasion where you don’t really need your hands. I realize that excludes most parties, game nights, picnics, etc. What can I say, these are not easy to eat (neatly, at least), just easy to love.

Bahn Mi Nachos

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long
1 medium daikon, peeled and cut into matchsticks about 2 inches long
½ cup vinegar
2 tbs sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cups shredded cooked pork (or chicken, a rotisserie chicken would be perfect here)
2 tbs hoisin sauce
1 12-oz bag tortilla chips (you’ll probably only need about 2/3 of the bag, but this is just to be safe)
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
½ a jalapeno, sliced as thinly as you can manage (I used a mandolin)
Handful of cilantro, finely chopped
2-3 scallions, finely chopped
1 cup mayo (you might not need all of it, but then again, you might)
Sriracha sauce, for topping

COMBINE the sliced carrot and daikon with the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Let set it for about 20 minutes. (Ideally this would sit for a few hours but the first batch soaked for almost no time before eating.)

TOSS the shredded pork of chicken with the hoisin sauce and set aside.

PREHEAT the oven to 400F. Line a large baking sheet with foil

ARRANGE a few handfuls of chips into a single even layer on the sheet – use as many as you need to get a single full layer. Sprinkle over the top ¾ cup cheese, ¾ cup of the pork or chicken mixture, and about a third of the jalapeno slices. Spread out a second layer of chips and repeat the process. Then spread out a third layer of chips, using only about three-quarters the amount you used before, so there’s plenty of space between the new chips. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese, pork/chicken, and jalapeno.

BAKE the nachos for about 10-15 minutes, checking them after 5 minutes and every 2 minutes thereafter to make sure the cheese is melting but the chips aren’t burning. When the cheese is all melted and the chips are slightly browned, remove them from the oven.

DRAIN the carrot/daikon mixture and set it aside.

TOP the baked chips with the carrot/daikon mix, the chopped cilantro, and the chopped scallion. Using a spoon or a squeeze bottle, top the chips with mayo and sriracha to taste (I like to leave some areas without, for people who like it less spicy).

Eat immediately! Nachos are best right out of the oven and only go downhill from there. Not that you’re likely to have leftovers, in my experience.

 

Potato Crust Quiche – The Year of Pie

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I don’t go in for concrete, goal-oriented, measurable New Year’s resolutions. Each January I designed a new theme for the year – there was the year of getting into better shape, the year of exploring more about Northern California, the year of being better about finances. It spreads the pressure over 12 months instead of concentrating it all in in just one. The results have been good, or at least good enough to keep up the tradition. This year is the year of decluttering – exciting I know. And this yearly theme idea, it works just as well for a blog as it does for the rest of my life. Not the decluttering bit, although I might get around to that, but having a year-long focus, something to recommit to every month.
2015: The Year of Pie

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Ok, pie is not exactly a new thing to commit to on this blog. There are a fair number of recipes already that profess my love of pie. There are some sweet, and some savory; there’s even a wedding pie in the archives. But it’s not like most New Year’s resolutions are creative or unique. And once I came up with the idea, I couldn’t say no to a year of pie. But then, well, January is sort of an awkward time to talk about pie. It’s not exactly an indulgent time of year what with the perennial “lose weight”, “get in shape” resolution machine (see above about uncreative resolutions). I’m going to start this off slowly, with a savory pie. Quiche, to be exact.

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Quiche is something I’ve talked about here before, almost exactly a year ago. But this one, the first in the Year of Pie, is different. It’s not the filling – although I did take out the cream in favor of yogurt, mostly because I usually have yogurt and rarely have cream. It’s the crust – I swapped the traditional crust for a potato crust; a layer of grated potato, squeezed dry, and mixed with some flour, egg, and salt. It’s part quiche, part potato latke. I might even like it better than a regular quiche, and it comes together way faster since there’s no need to have a pre-made dough in the fridge, chilled and waiting for you. Because as much as I’d love to be the person who always has a spare pie crust in the freezer, I’m just not. I am however, the person who probably has a few spare potatoes rolling around in a drawer. This year is off to a good start.

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Potato Crust Quiche

2 small or 1 large russet potato, peeled
1 egg
1-2 tbs flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
7 eggs
1-2 cups of filling – chopped vegetables, meat, cheese, etc. – I used sautéed shallots, roasted peppers, and feta; ham and cheddar is a good combination too, or tomatoes and pesto.
1-2 tsp salt
½ cup yogurt (optional)

PREHEAT the oven to 400F.
GRATE the potato into a dish cloth and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
MIX the dried potato, egg, flour, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl until well combined.
PAT the mixture into a pie pan in an even layer – it helps to use a cup or a glass to pack it in evenly on the bottom and sides.
BAKE the crust for 20 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned.

BEAT the eggs with your filling and season it with salt – use more if the fillings aren’t salted. Add the yogurt too, for a creamier filling, or leave it out if you don’t have any around.
POUR the filling into the prebaked pie shell and return it to the oven for another 10-15 minutes. Start checking it after the 10 minute mark and bake it until the filling is set all the way to the middle. You may need to poke the center to make sure it’s not uncooked.

Like any quiche or frittata, this version keeps well for up to a week and it’s good warm, cold, or room temperature. I like to experiment with the fillings, and by experiment I mean use up whatever is left in the fridge.

Lentil and Carrot Salad

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I do a lot of thinking while I’m running. I wouldn’t call it my best thinking. Most of my thoughts are taken up by “my legs are tired” and “what mile was the turnaround point” and “am I going fast enough.” But I do have a lot of time for thinking. I went for a run on New Year’s Day – a particularly painful one after the previous night’s festivities. In between all the internal complaints I had, I thought about what was in the fridge. Specifically, the bag of baby carrots in the crisper drawer.

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After a party baby carrots almost invariably end up in the fridge, next to the too-hoppy beer that I probably won’t drink. I thought about that bag a carrots a lot during my run, wondering what I could possibly do with them. Throwing them out was not an option – I’m just too stubborn to admit defeat like that. I’m not really a fan of baby carrots at the best of times – they might be +1 for convenience but compared to a real carrot they’re about -5 for taste. Sometimes I consider spending the extra few minutes peeling and slicing carrots into sticks for dipping, but let’s face it, that isn’t going to happen. Which means every once in a while I find myself staring down a bag of baby carrots and wondering what to do with them.

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A quick survey of the fridge after my run turned up a container of cooked lentils that I’d made a few days earlier, a nice complement to carrots and, bonus, something that also needed using up. I grated the carrots, tossed them with the lentils, some feta, and salad dressing, and I honestly expected the end result to be somewhat forgettable. But piled on a sandwich that day it seemed like it might be worth sharing. Then when it was tossed with some greens a few days later, it definitely seemed worth sharing, because there aren’t a lot of salads that you can dress and stick in the fridge for several days and still enjoy eating. As much as I’d rather avoid the January carrot love fest that’s going on right now, well, maybe you have some baby carrots languishing in the crisper. And if you don’t now, you probably will and this recipe will be waiting for you.

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Lentil and Carrot Salad
Makes a scant quart

1 cup uncooked French green lentils
1 quart water
1 tsp kosher salt plus more for seasoning
2 cups shredded carrots
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbs mustard
1 tbs honey
1 tsp dried dill (optional)
¼ – ½ cup of crumbled feta cheese (use however much you want)

BOIL the water in a medium sauce pan and when it’s boiling add the lentils. Cook them for about 25 minutes, until tender and no longer crunchy inside. Alternatively, you can cook lentils in a rice cooker, using 2 parts water and 1 part lentils, cooking them on the white rice setting. When they’re done drain them and season them with 1 teaspoon of salt.

COMBINE cooked lentils, shredded carrots, lemon juice, mustard, honey, dill, and feta in a large bowl and stir well. Taste and add salt if needed (I need about 1 teaspoon to season the salad).

The salad keeps, dressed, for about a week in the fridge and is just as good on it’s own, on greens, or on a sandwich.

Happy New Year – Here’s to 2015

It’s been a good year over here, complete with two weddings, lots of noodles and fried chicken, and more adventures than I can count both at home and overseas. There were new friends, and some old friends who moved closer, and lots of new babies. We drank a lot of toasts and shared a lot of wonderful meals. And this little blog got a mention in Oprah Magazine (the April issue). 2015 has a lot to live up to. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

Happy New Years!

PS. If you’re curious what the top 5 most read posts of 2014 are from this blog (because it feels like every other blog does this kind of round up), well, here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Buckwheat Butter Cookies

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Is it too late to call these Christmas cookies? Now that the holiday is upon us, and the stores are probably closed, and anyway, these aren’t terribly Christmassy cookies to begin with. They aren’t chocolatey or pepperminty or cut into thematic shapes and decorated with royal icing. But despite their relatively unassumingness, these are my Christmas cookies. By which I mean I’m going to be eating these on Christmas.

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I first fell for these cookies months ago, when they were introduced to me as nibby buckwheats (on this podcast where they had a song with the lyrics of “Nibby Buckwheats! Nibby buckwheats!” How could I resist?). Buckwheat flour is having a big moment – it seems that people all over the Internet can’t get enough of it – and for good reason. Its nutty flavor gives a little oomph to what would otherwise just be a butter cookie. But the nibs – I didn’t like the nibs. They threw off the otherwise perfectly tender and chewy texture of the cookies. And of course without nibs, these are no longer nibby buckwheats. They’re just buckwheats, which is not as much fun to sing to yourself.

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But they are still just as fun to eat. They’re a grown-up cookie, with only a little sweetness and a toasty flavor from the buckwheat flour, and a chew not unlike a good gingerbread cookie. Somewhere between a snap and a crumble – they give when you bite into them but they aren’t cakey. A cookie that perhaps defies exact description but is still delicious with a glass of eggnog. Or maybe next year they’ll be packaged up and handed out as gifts. Or maybe, like me, you’ll treat yourself to your very own batch of these. Hopefully before next Christmas.

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Buckwheat Butter Cookies (because Un-nibby Buckwheats is a terrible title)
Adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert (sadly no longer in print)

Makes about 2 dozen 2-inch cookies

Baker’s note: You could make these cookies vegan by substituting the butter with 6 tbs of coconut oil and 2 tbs of water. Mmm, coconut buckwheat.

1/2 cup plus 2 tbs all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tbs buckwheat flour
1 stick butter (1/2 cup or 8 tbs)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp vanilla extract

COMBINE all purpose and buckwheat flours in a bowl and set them aside
BEAT the butter, sugar, and salt together in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or in a bowl with electric beaters, or with a really strong arm and a spoon, until they are light and fluffy (3ish minutes on medium speed)
ADD the vanilla extract to the beaten butter/sugar
SLOWLY ADD the flours, on low or medium low speed, and beat until it forms a dough. This takes a while compared to other cookies, it will be crumbly looking and then come together in a dough and will pull away from the sides of the bowl.
ROLL the dough in a log shape (for slice and bake cookies) or into a flat disk (for roll and stamp cookies), wrap it in plastic, and let it rest in the fridge for at least an hour, and preferably overnight. You have to mix for a while to bring the dough together so it needs time to relax or the cookies will be tough.

PREHEAT the oven to 350F when you’re ready to bake the cookies, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

CUT cookies, either by rolling out the dough and using a cookie cutter or by simply slicing rounds off the log you made before resting the dough, and arrange them on the baking sheet. These cookies don’t expand much so you can get them pretty close together.
BAKE the cookies for 11-14 minutes, turning them halfway through cooking if you remember, until the cookies are just barely brown on the edges. Remove them from the oven and let them cool on a rack. Repeat the cutting and baking until you run out of dough.

These cookies are good for a few days after baking. If you can’t eat them all before then, put them in the freezer for up to a month and take them out one or two at a time, warm them in the toaster, and enjoy whenever.

The Failure Files: Peppermint Cheesecakes

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I ran out of “cute” cupcake liners about nine mini-cheesecakes into this recipe. For about a minute when this happened, I considered going out to buy new liners, holiday-appropriate pieces of paper, instead of using the Halloween themed ones I still had in the cabinet from (last?) October. I didn’t because some sane part of my brain realized that having treats wrapped in pinterest-perfect cuteness would not, in fact, make them taste better. It was that same part of my brain that saved me when I overfilled the first batch and the cheesecakes ballooned up and out of the mini-muffin tin. And when I proclaimed them a failure and threw myself dramatically on the couch, that part also told me to shut up and quit being such a drama queen. It’s just dessert.

Baking between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not always the fun process it is during the rest of the year. I get stressed out about whether what I make is good enough, cute enough, worth bringing to a party or giving away. And at my best I can get out of my own head enough to just enjoy the it anyway or to laugh at the abject failures before going out to buy something instead. It doesn’t happen like that every time – sometimes I just stay flopped on the couch, muttering to myself about how terrible things are – but more often than not these days I embrace the failure. Or at least I deal with it cheerfully. Because failures happen in every kitchen – even if blogs and magazines don’t advertise that fact very often. Cakes sink, rice burns, flavor combinations just don’t work out – it happens. It doesn’t mean anything negative about you, or your cooking, or your ability to think up new recipes. You live, you learn, you eat something else for dinner.

At least there were some valuable lessons in this whole experience. No, this cheesecake recipe can’t just be baked in mini-muffin tins – it doesn’t work right in such small quantities. And no, candy cane Joe-Joe’s can’t just be substituted directly for the biscuits I usually use for the crust. And no, the sky does not in fact fall when I make sub-par baked goods with the intent of serving them to others. Shocking, I know. I still took the cheesecakes pictured above to the office cookie swap. They weren’t a total failure – although I did manage to turn off the oven while baking the last batch (just in case I hadn’t made enough mistakes). They weren’t worth making again and the recipe isn’t worth sharing. But they were sweet, and minty from the chocolate peppermint, and festive in a weird way. And if anyone says they like them, I’ll just say “Thank you.”

A New Family Thanksgiving

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I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about the word “family” over the course of this year. Sometime early in our engagement a friend said that one of the big meaningful things about getting married is that it is, in a lot of ways, the start of a new family. And despite the fact that Jeff and I lived together for more than five years before getting married, our wedding really did feel like the beginning of the two of us as a family. We’d traveled together. We took care of each other when we got sick. We’d celebrated holidays and new jobs and graduations together. But we didn’t really call ourselves a family. I mean, let’s face it, getting married is the first time you can think a family member is sexy without feeling dirty about it.

This is also the first year that other people have asked if we’re going to have new family traditions now that we’re married. As if the rings give us a new privilege to break free and celebrate Thankgiving our own way. I’m always a little mystified by this one since Jeff and I started our own traditions when we moved away from home. Distance makes a much better impetus for change than a marriage document, and by this point we’ve pretty much established our Thanksgiving tradition.

We, or rather I, start planning for the holiday early. Often as early as April, although this year I got a late start and only began in July. I go through notes of past years, look up new recipes, start thinking about what I want to make for this year. It’s an almost entirely different meal every year – except for this cranberry sauce which Jeff has decreed must appear at every Thanksgiving. A month in advance we have a menu, a few weeks in advance we have an idea of the guest list (which varies from four to our all time record of 21), and the weekend before the holiday we start cooking. We’re in the thick of it now, fridges bursting with every dairy product you can think of. It’s wonderful. It’s exhausting. It’s our first family Thanksgiving. Sort of.

If you’re curious about what made the cut for this year’s menu, indulge your nosiness: Stuffing, Salad, Cauliflower, Corn, Potatoes, Rolls, Cranberry Sauce #2, and Desserts 1 and 2

And if you’re in need of more last minute inspiration from around this site: Mushroom Casserole, Shredded Brussels Sprouts, Hashed TurnipsCranberry Blueberry Cobbler, Gingerbread Cake

Food for Being Sick at Home

I spent most of the week after our honeymoon lying on the couch. Sick. Sniffling, runny nose, congested, with a stomach bug thrown in for good measure. Tissues piled up around the apartment as I moved from bed to couch, blowing my nose, napping, coughing, generally being as pathetic as possible. Eating was not a priority and the things I did eat were hardly noteworthy. When I’m sick I like to eat specific things: brothy soup, saltines, applesauce, and sliced hard-boiled eggs on toast. Bland, unchallenging food. Food that almost never makes an appearance when I’m healthy, or at least not in the plain Jane variations that I subsist on during a bad cold.

What we eat when we’re sick seems to be equal parts conventional wisdom and nostalgia. Bland crackers, plain toast, watery soup, all seem to be universally agreed upon. The applesauce is bit more unusual but understandable. But, to date, my brother and I seem to be the only people fed hard boiled eggs on toast as “easy on the stomach” food. The toast was always dry, the eggs sliced on a little device made exactly for that purpose (also great for evenly slicing mushrooms) and sprinkled with salt and a little black pepper. Like any good sick-day food it tastes delicious while you’re snuggled up in bed with a box of tissues and disappointingly bland when you’re back to feeling healthy. And it’s terribly unphotogenic to boot (plus who wants to drag out the camera equipment when they feel sick?). But when you’re stuck on the couch, sniffling, and generally feeling sorry for yourself, it’s a pretty ideal plate of food.

And what was the first thing I ate when I was feeling better? Fried eggs with toast. Obviously.

Kitchen Tips and Tricks

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Tip #1: A spoonful of mustard will brighten up a slow cooked stew.

My dad is a stew man. He’s a fan of any pot of food that makes its own gravy, which can be sopped up with slices of bread one the juice is all that’s left. Or maybe even before, alternating bites of soaked bread with slow cooked meat and vegetables. But that slow cooking process also mutes bright and punchy flavors so that by the time you’re ready to ladle it out everything is a bit flat, a bit one note. It’s a common problem and recipes suggest adding one or another ingredient to liven things up.

Let’s just dismiss all the suggestions that involve cooking or preparing something extra before serving, like some finely minced herbs or lightly sauteed garlic. There are times when I have the patience to do that but in general, stew is something I serve when I’m short on time or energy. The cooking happens days in advance (or weeks if I’ve stashed some in the fridge) and when it’s on the night’s dinner menu mostly I want to just heat it up. Nothing more. The other option for sprucing it up is to add something, either at the beginning or the end of the process, to refresh the flavor.

Adding at the end doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t solve the problem of having a one note dish. The stew becomes too overly tart or acidic to the exclusion of other flavors and you end up with a different version of the same problem. The secret weapon I’ve found over years of trial and error is a spoonful or two of mustard, added to the stew at the beginning of cooking. The strong nose-tingling kick mellows during cooking but it doesn’t disappear entirely. Unlike vinegar or lemon juice which have distinct “cooked” flavors that can be off-putting, mustard tends to cook out into an indefinable yet noticeable brightness that cuts through the rich slow-cooked flavor without unbalancing it. It works for just about every stew recipe I’ve tried and when I leave it out, I notice the difference. Given the negligible extra time it takes and the fact that I always have mustard in the fridge, it’s a no brainer.

The Last Melon of Summer

By 5 pm, there were only two slices of melon left. We went for a walk around 2:30 to buy “treats.” I bought a chocolate bar flavored with coffee and studded with pieces of buttery toffee. Jeff bought a crenshaw melon, bright yellow and weighing at least five pounds. It smelled floral and sweet, and he happily lugged it the few blocks home. Split open, it was even more fragrant as he scooped out the interior seeds and went to work breaking it down. He cut up half of it, piling the slices into a bowl that he demolished over the next hour. I had a slice. It tasted like summer, aromatic and heady and sweet without being cloying. A clean flavor, “as close to juice as fruit gets,” Jeff told me.

The melon’s gone now, was gone before dinner time. It’s probably the last melon of summer. Even San Francisco’s delayed summer is wrapping up although this week still promises some hot days. Even in California, melons worth eating are only around in the late summer. Now is the time for plums, pears, and dark purple grapes.

But, if you happen to find yourself with a late summer melon like we did, don’t hold back. Let the rinds pile up over the course of the afternoon. I’ve never found a better way to eat a melon than by the slice, although on the rare occasion we end up with more than we can finish plain I’ll chop it up into a salsa with jalapeno, red onion, and cilantro. Mostly though, it ends up eaten fresh, plain or with salt sprinkled on top (the salt! If you haven’t tried it, please do; it changes everything) and maybe a little chili powder. Slice after slice, until it’s gone.