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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Posse's Leap Day Party At Pandolfi's

That elusive day that only arrives every four years known as Leap Day brings (yet another) cause for celebration and so we made February 29th this month's date for our Posse Dinner Group. Indeed, this is that First Fridays dinner group as it was named by our beloved Carolyn and indeed, we have yet to land on an actual first Friday of the month again. This month, Leap Day evening was the time and date and the locale, as it would turn out, would be something special, indeed.

This extra given day was an odd duck, for sure, as it began with an early morning meeting following a night of driving home through wild storms. Following the meeting, I spent the day helping out at Willow Springs as the store's proprietors and our friends Daphne and Jim enjoyed a well-deserved ski trip. It was a kick hangin' with Tabitha for the day and a great time to sample their goat cheese and artichoke appetizer pizza...yum.

The Leap Day highlight most assuredly arrived in the evening, however. Another restaurant had been chosen for the Posse dinner prior to this (each month's restaurant choice is chosen by a different Posse member), but a chance meeting moved us to a new setting: Pandolfi's Deli.

Pandolfi's occupies a non-descript building that's nestled in the charming little enclave of Columbus Park near the River Market area. Posse member Carl had met Jake Hendershot, the proprietor, at a function and Jake invited our group to Pandolfi's for our Leap night shindig. Jake's parents were the owners of the original Pandolfi's in Liberty and he re-opened the business in Columbus Park, an area of KC that is rich with Italian heritage. As their website recounts, many of the staff at Pandolfi's represent the spanning of four generations of the Pandolfi family. The man that is the centerpiece of the Pandolfi's logo is great-grandfather Giuseppi Pandolfi.

I will admit that I had only taken a cursory glance at the website before joining my Posse friends for the evening. I only noted the various deli items and was still looking forward to a delicious sandwich from an authentic deli. What I didn't realize was that these fine folks were opening Pandolfi's just for us that night and the chef de cuisine, GrantCansler, had created a menu tailored just for the Posse. Needless to say, my excitement dialed up to 11 at that point.

We settled into our seats in the cozy dining area and were quickly served baskets of warm, crusty bread with butter. We ordered bottles of wine; the ladies preferring the sweeter Vino Dei Fratelli Muscato Puglia, we gents selecting the Dievole La Vendemmia Chianti Classico. The chef presented us with a smooth amuse bouche: a silky seafood bisque-like crema served in a demitasse espresso cup. Our antipasti course were two crostinis; one topped with creamy housemade ricotta with olive oil and the other with a white bean salad. Both very good, but they book-ended the joyous centerpiece...their version of shrimp and grits featuring a splendiferously spicy shrimp mix topping a polenta round. Next up was the primi course; an arugula salad that perfectly paired the bitter greens with creamy goat cheese and sweet, crunchy candied pine nuts.

Our pasta course was next and one that my eyes rolling up from delight....truffled penne pasta with mushrooms and pinot grigio. Creamy and delightful. The secondi course came next and was equally wonderful: seared, melt-in-your-mouth scallops served over amazing saffron risotto with wilted spinach. Finally came the decadent dolce course, made-from-scratch tiramisu and cannoli. We swooned over dessert as the servers brought steaming cups of Brazilian coffee and complimentary glasses of Prosecco. We hoisted our glasses in a toast to Carolyn, who will be on her way to New Jersey on Monday.

Our checks arrived with leather-bound books that we were encouraged to write in; relating our dining experience. We wrote as creatively as our food-addled minds would allow us to, but nothing could quite suffice other than Deb's assurance that we had found the "perfect bite".

Our entire Leap night experience was indeed a delightful surprise. We were utterly seduced by Pandolfi's; beginning to end. I can't wait to come back and bring Keith for dinner and I also look forward to trying out the deli. Pandolfi's is only open for dinner on Friday and Saturday night, so make your reservation! Thank you, Pandolfi's...you made for one memorable Leap Day.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Whatever, Oscar.

Those who know me know that I dig that annual celebrity ass-kiss called the Academy Awards. Typically, we host a get-together rife with good food and stiff drink. We gather under some high-minded idea of celebrating all thing film; while the real fun is found in ripping on the finery that the stars come draped in. Ronnie and Jeff were going to come over again this year, and indeed, there are no two people I would rather listen to riff on the red carpet that these two. We had a great menu planned; featuring fondue and some pulled-pork sliders. Real life, however, served itself as a reminder that its all mindless fun until reality sets in.

When I was leaving work on Friday, there were two text messages that stopped me in my tracks. One, from Ronnie, that said that his mother had been hospitalized for a suspected stroke. That was stunning enough, but the second text was from Kristy, my hometown bestie, informing me that my Aunt Bonnie was in the hospital and in critical condition. A flurry of phone calls followed, updates given, worries grew. Within the next 24 hours, Ronnie's mom's tests were good and she improved. My aunt, however, was not expected to survive the night, but has astoundingly defied the odds again and is conscious and responding to medication. I've written about Aunt Bonnie on this blog several times. She is the one that's a wizard in the kitchen; the creator of the Magic Noodles. This is the woman who, despite all of her health issues, hand-wrote all of her recipes for me. She is one of my most treasured aunts and she and my Mom are as close as two sisters could be. Mom had a hand in raising Bonnie and they have always been two peas in a pod. When I was young, I always knew when Mom was talking to Bonnie on the phone when I heard her nearly breathless with laughter. I still picture the two of them at Dad's funeral; their wheelchairs pulled together, sharing tears with clasped hands. I remain ready, in case anything happens, to head back to my hometown to help Mom, in case anything happens. The prayers are ever-present for Aunt Bonnie...her own strong faith has gotten her through so much.

So, the Oscar get-together has been canceled due to all of the family crises. I remember that the Oscars were going on when I was home taking care of my ailing parents. The situation didn't allow for a viewing of the awards, let alone any type of party. The Oscars seem so vapid and meaningless in the shadow of Real Life but sometimes I think that's the allure as well. For some of us, giving a night over to a little glamor and some potential for bad celebrity behavior is a much-needed lark. That same year, Kristy got Ronnie to text me his twisted and hilarious red-carpet observations. I sat in my childhood bedroom, with only these texts connecting me to the awards and I relished each text that came. I was convulsed with gut-busting laughter as the texts rolled on and humor was a rare thing during those days. Don't tell me laughter doesn't heal.

I am a die-hard film fan, too, although this year, one that has barely participated in the process. I've seen one, count it, one nominated film: The Help. Also, the most highly touted films such as The Artist or Hugo have been met with relative "mehs" from many of my most trusted fellow film fans; including Ronnie and Jeff. Therefore, I haven't been moved toward seeing many of the nominated films. I'm a film freak in traction.

It looks like a quiet year for the awards and for us. K threw together some frozen meatballs we had in the freezer in the slow cooker with a garlic-chipotle barbecue sauce that we had picked up in Kentucky. We are munching on some healthier cut-up veggies as well as some flax brownies from a box. It ain't fondue, but it is what it is and it won't go straight to my ass like most of the items we were going to make. I miss the camaraderie, though...I will hopefully get some texts or emails on the red carpet from Ronnie and Kristy. Laughter is good. It's part of the secret to Mom's and Aunt Bonnie's longevity, if you ask me.

In the meantime, prayers remain for all those loved ones who need them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Bittersweet Fat Tuesday

The annual kickoff to Mardi Gras is a bittersweet one for us this year. A year ago, we were invited to our first Carolyn Schutte bash; a Mardi Gras party I recounted on this blog. It was a classic bash, alive with New Orleans music and fabulous Cajun food that was largely prepared by Carolyn's husband. Now, a year later, Carolyn continues her struggle to recover from a traumatic brain injury. We await word on Carolyn's transfer to the New Jersey facility that is considered her best shot at recovery, as it is considered one of the best in the country for treating this type of brain injury.

So, no parties this year, despite the fact that KC will be putting on the Fat Tuesday dog. I have to work, so no hoopla, but I had to get a little taste of Mardi Gras. I have always wanted to make a steaming pot of Creole jambalaya and so, I did, accepting that it would probably pale in comparison to Jim's. I was also trying to do a budgetary version, so I skipped the shrimp and just made it with chicken and sausage. Otherwise, I followed Emeril's recipe. Even though I've been trying to make healthier versions of dishes lately and had indeed read that I could make jambalaya with turkey sausage instead...

PFFFFFFTTTT!!!!!

Yes, that's my less than sophisticated response to using turkey sausage. I didn't wait this long to make jambalaya only to make it with turkey sausage. Not when I can indulge in...

AHN-DWEE, BABY! That's right, I had to go with that deliciously spicy, traditional Andouille sausage so known for its popularity in Cajun dishes. I did however substitute brown rice for white and while that made for adjustments for rice cooking time, it added depth to the jambalaya flavor. Yes, its clear why Emeril's jambalaya was rated five stars by over 150 users on the Food Network site...um, other than the fact he's a New Orleans native and acclaimed chef famous for his Cajun food...it was a hearty, spicy, soul-warming treat. It also had that quality I've been looking for this winter: it made enough to feed me for a week. You can find the recipe here.

I miss the party, sure, but the taste of the jambalaya brings a goofy grin to my face while it lifts the chill from the bones. I am hopeful for a Mardi Gras party next year with Carolyn again. Happy Fat Tuesday, everybody.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Brazilian Flavor At En Chamas

We knew it was coming...a night out with our friends Daphne and Jim at En Chamas Brazilian Steakhouse; a first for K and I, despite its looming presence in our own neighborhood. I was certainly looking forward to the experience, but had heard enough to know that this was not a dietary dinner and there would be a lot of food. K and I prepped for the Main Event; subsisting on oatmeal and spinach and partaking of the fine weather by going on a walk/run at the Downtown Airport. And indeed, this spring-like weather was seriously spinning its web...we made our way to Planters; that center of all things spice and seed in City Market and there, the doors were open and the crowds were streaming through. We were there to pick up seed packets for the new chef at the Elms including mache, sorrel and rosemary for his herb garden. Everyone seemed to already be awash in a sort of spring fever. It was February 18.

Soon, we met our buds at the beautifully appointed En Chamas restaurant at the Tuileries Plaza shopping center near our home. We ordered cocktails...mine was the national cocktail of Brazil to be exact; a traditionally made Caipirihna of fresh lime muddled with sugar, then topped with ice and Cachaca; a Brazilian rum. Our server then enlightened us as to how the rodizio service takes place..

En Chamas is Kansas City's first Churrascaria, which is literally translated as "house of meat". As the website recounts, this refers to a South American rotisserie-style preparation. "Rodizio" means "rotate" in Portuguese. Our instructions were to visit the gourmet bar first, which provides a vast amount of salads and sides. While this experience appears to be a bit nightmarish for vegetarians, the gourmet bar does indeed offer a wide array of salads and vegetable dishes. The garbanzo salad, steamed mussels and simmering, salty feijoada; a Brazilian black bean dish were highlights of the bar. Once returned to our table, though, the real stars of the show arrived. The continuous tableside service began as the gauchos started bringing large skewers of various meats and slicing off pieces for us to enjoy. There is an amazing array of succulent meats to sample: Sirloin stuffed with provolone cheese, caramelized pit ham, chicken spiedini, garlic beef and scallops wrapped in bacon....to name a few choices. The gauchos arrive and serve so rapidly that you can barely catch your breath unless you turn over that tabletop token that says "No thank you". It was a bit of a dizzying service experience, but oh, those meats. One bite of the sirloin and my eyes rolled in rapturous response. I was reminded why I haven't become a vegetarian myself...that beef was juicy and oh, so flavorful.

In the end, it was a great night of laughs, conversation and fabulous food with Jim and Daphne. As we enjoyed our creamy chocolate mousse for dessert, it was clear: En Chamas was a Brazilian delight.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Random Bites: Roasting, Remakes and Aretha's Aria

When we whipped up that way-good Turkey Tetrazzini last weekend, we roasted some brussel sprouts to accompany them. Brussel sprouts are admittedly not my favorite, but when placed on a pan, topped with salt, pepper and olive oil and baked in a 400-degree oven for 10-15 minutes, they were downright delicious. Consider me a roasting aficionado when it comes to vegetables..I have yet to find one that I haven't completely dug after roasting...broccoli, tomatoes, asparagus, peppers. I would even challenge folks who aren't big on veggies to try them this way...you may change your tune. Here's a few more of my digs this month....

K and I eat a fair amount of oatmeal. We happen to have a boatload of oats these days and finally realized that they gain a whole new life once ground up in the food processor. We put these ground oats in Mason jars and keep them around for some awesome uses: a spoonful added to my breakfast smoothies or a handful added to bath salts to help combat that annoying dry winter skin. Gee whiz, I feel so Martha Stewart sharing this....yeah, I know. Whatever, Martha.

I'm completely relishing the book I'm reading right now. It's called Eminent Outlaws; written by Christopher Bram and it recounts the history of famous, male gay writers. James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Gore Vidal and many more are woven into the talented and tempestuous tapestry that was the lives of these men. For me, the book is an engaging read that leaves no dramatic stone unturned. The drugs, alcohol, celebrities, egos and crippling writer's block are all in there. Bram's descriptions of everything from creative process to personal demons are utterly absorbing. My favorite book since The Night Circus.

Holy Alpha Base, Batman, they're remaking another childhood favorite of mine! There was a little cult gem of a TV show that was on during my younger days by the name of Space:1999. The show was utterly overshadowed by the original Star Trek, despite its superior special effects (and sometimes superior storylines). I enjoyed Spock and Company also, but I really loved Space:1999. One episode called Dragon's Domain that would be laughed at these days for its rubbery monsters and lame effects, literally gave me nightmares during the childhood days. It involved some giant creature with a glowing eye and tentacles that ate people and spit them back out as skeletons. Yikes! It was recently announced that they are indeed remaking this show as Space:2099. Considering Battlestar Galactica, I suppose this was inevitable. Should be interesting...

Finally, I offer another video. The Grammys have been on my mind after this last week's crazy but memorable show. I got to thinking about what was the most jaw-dropping moment that I'd ever seen on a Grammy show and it involved a diva that's going to be performing at Whitney Houston's funeral this week: Aretha Franklin. Opera star Luciano Pavarotti was due to perform on a telecast a few years back and had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. Aretha Franklin filled in and many assumed she would simply perform a song from her own vast catalog. Instead, she sang Pavarotti's legendary aria Nessun Dorma and did so in his key: no small feat, that. She nailed it and left that typically jaded audience in a teary and breathless standing ovation. It was a brilliant, transcendent musical moment. Check out the video and see ya next post!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Further Tales Of The Fat-Loss Follies (And A Music Moment)

In between chocolate tours and fast-food Fests, its become ever more necessary to shave off some calories where possible. My intake through the week largely consists of vegetables and our cooking excursions have revolved around The 400-Calorie Fix cookbook and the Cooking Light website. Here are some of the more successful and quite tasty meals we've encountered..

First, a disclaimer regarding The 400 Calorie Fix: we are NOT following the plan or any plan, so please do not look here for any type of official results. We are simply trying out some of the recipes in the cookbook. That said, the Sloppy Joes from the 400 Calorie Fix were a quick, easy mid-week meal that made enough for a week of meals. They were also quite tasty, but I did have an issue that actually had nothing to do with the recipe itself. I've been lessening the amount of bread in my intake, and Sloppy Joes, after all, lend themselves to eating bread. That said, we did choose whole wheat buns to go with them. The Joes also paired nicely with a spinach salad.

From the same cookbook, we also sampled the BBQ Spice-Rubbed Pork Loin Roast, which was marvelous. Spicy and tender, and once again enough to feed us for a few days. I was a mite concerned with the amount of sweet in the recipe; with the brown sugar and ketchup involved. The point was deliciously moot in the end and the recipe can be found here.

Finally, this past weekend, I was searching for something healthy and light that would provide meals for this week. We consulted the Cooking Light site and found a Turkey Tetrazzini recipe that sounded good. Indeed, it was seriously yummy and made a boatload for the week's work lunches. We used every low-cal and fat-free ingredient suggested and went one step further: we substituted 100% whole-wheat spaghetti in place of the vermicelli. Delish and here's the skinny.

One final, somewhat unrelated note: music is often an integral part of our cooking. Be it a Pandora station tuned to classic rock or the iPad playing our downloaded tunes, we dig music during meal-prep. The music world has been turned on its ear lately with the recent loss of Etta James and now, stunningly, Whitney Houston. The train-wreck of a Grammy Awards last night was a good reminder of how pure talent still overshadows over-the-top WTF moments. Don't get me wrong...I appreciate crazy, out-there spectacle, if for nothing else, just for the water-cooler talk it provides. When I'm cooking or writing or just chilling, however, give me those crystalline voices (like Whitney's) and those pure harmonies, like the stirring tribute for Etta James performed by Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys; my favorite performance of the evening. There's a reason why the amazing Adele swept the awards last night. There's also a reason why the most memorable Super Bowl performance was not a half-time spectacular but a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. By Whitney Houston. Rest in peace, Whitney.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Our Little Lebowski Fest

Our gal Jane has been weathering a hell of a year. On top of some serious health challenges, she has recently lost her beloved pup Molly. We realized that it was time to surround her and lift her spirits again, and as this group's best medicine is seriously gut-busting laughter, what better time to gather for a viewing of one of Jane's favorite flicks, The Big Lebowski? Shut the #@!* up Donny, it was time for own little Lebowski Fest.

Most of us attending were familiar with The Coen Brother's irreverent cult flick The Big Lebowski. Jane is such a fan that Linda had gifted her with a mug bearing the image of Jeff Bridges as The Dude. We agreed in advance that a Lebowski Fest should feature foodstuffs that reflected the flick. Classic bowling alley grub was indeed the featured fare, including mine and Keith's Rotel Dip and some takeout Pizza Hut. Ronnie made some of he and Jeff's killer pigs-in-the-blankets, Linda some delicious Fritos pie and Jo made neon-blue but tasty bowling-ball cupcakes. Yes, it was all decidedly non-healthy, but watching The Big Lebowski doesn't exactly lend itself to fancy crudite. And then there was Jane's contribution....

Jane had asked for an idea of what to contribute. As the rest of our offerings were set, I suggested a food item with a possible German twist, in reference to the German nihilists in the movie. She eventually decided that she was preparing creme brulee for the Fest.

(sounds of tires screeching)

Creme Brulee? You can almost see John Goodman's character Walter fly into a rage over the very idea of this delicate French dessert being served along with the cholesterol-challenging chow we were serving. Jo and I were momentarily aghast at the idea and then were
immediately overtaken by new thoughts...

.....Mmmmmm...Creme Brulee...

...and our brief purist outrage evaporated. We put out all the food in Jane's kitchen and made our way downstairs to watch the Main Event. Armed with Linda's wicked White Russians and some Sarsaparillas a la
The Stranger, we settled into the room that surrounded the rug that...you know...brought the room together. As we guffawed over various scenes, Jane commented, "Forget the gourmet dinners...this food is GOOD". Indeed, it was damn good, including the "creme" with fresh berries. The "brulee" part didn't pan out and that's what we get for trying to create a dessert in honor of nihilists...who care about nothing. It didn't matter...the berries and cream paired with the glowing cupcakes reminded us that you could never have too much blue food.

Jane probably laughed the hardest of all of us throughout the film and that was the point of the evening, after all. Turns out Jane, like the Dude, abides.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

All Hail The Hallowed Hot Wing

Oh, that succulent little spicy morsel that opens my senses, puts fire in my belly and warms my soul...the hot wing. I love them dressed in many potential styles...BBQ, Thai, or what-not but good, old-fashioned Buffalo-style will always be my beloved version. Every Super Bowl Sunday, I ask Keith to whip up his version of Buffalo wings and for that reason above all I look forward to the Big Game every year. Let me tell you a bit about the rapturous romance I've carried on with hot wings over the years...

Once upon a midnight bleary, I was a poor college student at West Virginia University existing on Ramen noodles and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Desperate for some flavor that didn't unfold in a McDonald's wrapper, my Morgantown buds clued me in to a local favorite: Wings Ole. Here, I was introduced to a white, Styrofoam box filled with a pile of saucy, messy wings with a side of celery sticks and a plastic cup of chunky bleu cheese dressing. Looking at it, it seemed a tad underwhelming and not even necessarily appetizing....but then I took my first bite. Minutes later, after a flurry of messy movement, I slumped on the table, my face in a wing-sauce covered stupor, deliriously dazed from those bursts of spicy madness soothed in a blanket of bleu cheese. I had actually never cared for bleu cheese dressing before then, but when combined with those fiery hot wings....well, shut the front door. I would soon seek out all of Mo-town's fine wings, and find myself particularly spellbound by those joyous wings at Crockett's Lodge.

Not long after, I accompanied some of my college friends to Buffalo, New York to visit the family of one of said friends. It was a whirlwind Halloween weekend of Niagara Falls, drinking Labatts in Canada, a madcap costume party complete with a cameo from SuperFreak Rick James himself and last but certainly not least, my first taste of Buffalo wings from their original source: The Anchor Bar. Yes, those awesome wings were a happy accident created in 1964 by the Bellissimos at The Anchor Bar and on our Buffalo excursion, I got to dig into the original recipe hot wings and this, my friends, sealed the deal. It was a full-on, lifelong love affair.

I would experience many a happy hot wing over the years and would collect many a fellow fan. My friends Shereba and Brenda and I would ravage the Buffalo wings at Joey's in Charleston, WV. I would discuss the aphrodisiac quality of a fine hot wing in Marietta with my friend and co-worker Chris. Kaki and I would seek out hot wings everywhere we went and actually discussed the idea of a dream road trip where we would find all of the best hot wings. Kak makes a fine Buffalo wing herself; the kind where I could drink the wing sauce alone. Her beau J.B. makes a fiery and tasty grilled version himself. I'm happy to say Keith is also a fellow wing fan and many times in our life together have we sought out hot wings. One more reason he and I were meant to be: my last name is Haught; pronounced "hot", and his last name is Winge; obviously inclusive of the word "wing". Coincidence? I think not.

So on this Super Bowl Sunday, the K-Man has worked up some of his marvelous wings and he does them a little differently every year. This year we had two batches: one baked and one deep-fried; both dripping in that hot, vinegary super-sauce.

We also made nice and healthy Chicken and Mushroom Quesadillas that we found on Food Network's website. It was cool to make quesadillas for the first time and they were very good. We got the first one a little overdone but the rest were delicious. You can find the recipe here.

But, you know....Whatever.

Did I mention how much I love hot wings? Sigh. I love that spicy, saucy, spectacular madness.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Chocolate Rush

It's a real condition, that chocolate rush, and it arrives following a day of chocolate sampling. I had the honor and privilege of being a judge for the Downtown Excelsior Partnership Chocolate Tour in Excelsior Springs today. The chocolate rush that followed nearly had me dancing on the ceiling after, but, oh my, what a way to go.

The participating businesses brought out their finest cocoa-laden treats to entice attendees in their doors and then dazzle them with their wares and customer service. Judging by the hopping streets and crowded businesses when we judges passed through, the event appeared to be a great success. My fellow judges Kelly from The Gregg Williams Foundation, Kyle from Cerner and Mary from WDAF-Fox4 and I made the most of this quite awesome opportunity. Many of the merchants demonstrated impressive creativity and some of the samplings were outright revelatory; such as Penny University's Chocolate Bacon and Redmond Furniture's White Chocolate Buttered Popcorn. Penny U was in fact the first runner-up and Oooey Gooey Chocolates and their decadent Black Forest goodness were the Grand Prize and People's Choice Winner. There was also a grand-prize giveaway of a night's stay at the Southmoreland Inn at The Plaza, which features a Russell Stover room. The lucky winner was Jae Juarez. Many a sugary highlight was evident throughout the day, from Willow Spring's Creme Brulee Cupcakes and Chocolate Wine to Ventana's Chocolate Cheesecake with Cherry-Chocolate Beer to the Tiger Butter at Choreography Of Memories. Also, loved dipping pretzels in white chocolate at Gallery Off Broadway. I totally dug the many imaginative beverages today as well, from the Rock Star Mocha at Penny U to the Godiva shooter at the Atlas Saloon. There were even demonstration classes at The Hall Of Waters, on everything from chocolate "balloon bowls" to chocolate cocktails.

It was an overdose of chocolate love today and what better way to spend a dreary, drizzly Saturday in February. Most of all, the true kick came from seeing the throngs of visitors moving through downtown, especially the newcomers.

Sweet.