Tag Archives: vegetarian cooking

Carb My Enthusiasm

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Scan the health news and you’ll find reams of frightening headlines about “Bad Carbs,” “Are Carbs Evil?” and “Carbs to Avoid.” (Try swapping out the word “carbs” for “men,” it’s hilarious!) Really though, extreme low-carb diets such as Atkins promote an unbalanced and ultimately unsatisfying diet, which is why most people cannot maintain the regime long-term (or, in the case of my sister, one afternoon. As she says, “One day without a bagel is one too many.”).

Regardless of your dietary stance on carbohydrates, you must admit that it just doesn’t make sense to demonize them in their natural form, right?  I am tired of people giving carbohydrates in general a bad rap when there is a huge, critical difference between natural and processed carbs. Carbohydrates — our body’s main source of energy — should make up about 50% of our diet, along with protein and fat. Further, carbs are just satisfying and delicious, comfort food at its best.

Simple, refined, complex. No, I’m not describing my aesthetic sense (but thank you!), these are the three types of carbohydrates. Every once in awhile it’s a good to refresh our memories about which to avoid and which to consume with reckless abandon. So let’s do this!

Simple: This refers mainly to sugars –lactose, glucose, fructose–which are found in both natural and processed foods. I know you’re going to throw the “my-body-can’t-tell-the-difference-between-gummy-bears-and-bananas” defence at me, and yes, it’s true that our bodies process sugars in a particular way, but there are many other good things in whole fruits as well, like fiber and vitamin C. Perhaps you can buy gummy bears infused with fiber and vitamin C. Carry on, then! 😉

Refined: White bread/rice/pasta, snack and processed foods, most breakfast cereals, soda and other sugary beverages. Clearly I’m going to head straight to the closest baguette at the Farmer’s Market this weekend and bury my face in it, so everything in moderation. I’ve been trying to swap out white for brown rice, but nothing creates quite the same level of dissonance with my 6 year old as dishing her up a hearty helping of brown rice, so I have to plan carefully and be mentally fortified. Even buying whole grain bread instead of highly processed (check out the ingredients to make sure it’s truly whole grains and no added sugars or unidentifiables) is a great place to start realigning your diet.

Complex: And the winner is. . ! Here’s where you need to be hanging out, noshing on whole grains, unadulterated fruits and nuts, and starchy beans and vegetables. Pretty much any complete plant-based food falls into this category and is on the menu, friends. There is so. much. variety!  Have you tried an avocado (they just call them avos here, isn’t that adorbs?), tomato and basil sandwich on whole grain toast drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, perhaps with a side of baked sweet potato? Or how about a butternut squash and spinach Indian curry over brown rice, millet, or quinoa? ( It probably goes without saying that it’s best to eat your complex carbs sans the 1/2 cup of sour cream or thick slab of butter you’re staring at, but feel free to accessorize.)

However you’re incorporating more complex carbs into your diet, your body will thank you for it. Here’s a simple  — I mean easy -recipe loaded with complexity.

Sweet Potato and Spinach Saag (modified from Veganomicon)

  • 3-4 yams or sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped, then roasted at 400 degrees (on a lightly greased cookie sheet) for about 20 minutes. Feel free to replace with squash or pumpkin if you’re feeling all Thanksgiving-ish.
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 T peanut oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 t. garam masala (you can find this in most well-stocked grocery aisles because you’re so resourceful and fancy!)
  • 1/4 t. cinnamon
  • 1/2 t salt
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 chunk of fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 bunches fresh spinach, washed and chopped
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (optional)
  • juice of 1/2 lemon or lime

1) While your sweet potatoes are cooling, sauté the onion in peanut oil for about 5 minutes, until softened; add garlic and spices (except ginger), stirring over low heat for another 1-2 minutes.

2) Next, add the potatoes and grate ginger directly into the pan, stirring to heat through, then pour in water (adding more if it’s too thick).

3) Finally, throw in the spinach in two or three batches, making sure each is thoroughly mixed in.

4) Remove from heat, squeezing in lime or lemon juice and adjusting seasoning. Serve with a complex grain of your choice and top with chopped peanuts and green onions, tomatoes, or some toasted pumpkin seeds if you’re taking the fall theme to the extreme.  (Note: Image is from Pinterest as my picture was unappetizing. Avert your eyes from the white rice!)

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If You’re Going to Stop Eating One Animal, Please Let it be Chicken.

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Yes, I gave away the message of this post in the title, so if you’re not ready to learn some tough stuff, read no further – just trust me and quit. eating. chicken!  (Of course in my ideal world industrial animal farms would become obsolete, but we must begin somewhere, right?)

And let me be specific; I’m not talking about chickens raised sustainably and humanely and happily by your local farmer or friend; I’m discussing the 7+ billion “broiler” chickens raised on industrial farms per year, that are, arguably, the most abused, unhealthy animals in our food system. Delivered to dark, windowless, filthy chicken houses at one day old, they only see the light of day on their first and last day of life as they are transferred to a slaughterhouse. They suffer greatly, jammed together with 30,000 other chickens and being continuously stuffed full of antibiotics, hormones, and whatever feed rapidly fattens them up, including old cookies and crackers covered in fat and sometimes even waste from chicken slaughterhouses.

The over 450 million “laying hens” have it no better, living out their days in dirty cramped cages with their beaks seared off so they cannot peck at one another. Male chicks, numbering up to 100 million per year, are of no use to an industry that cannot use them for laying eggs or their meat, so they are simply thrown away to suffocate or (worse?) ground up alive.  How can we stop this?  Refuse to buy anything but pasture-raised, organic eggs.  Even better, raise your own chickens or get eggs from a friend.

All chickens are descendants of a gorgeous, flying, wild bird in Thailand called the red jungle fowl.  Although scientists consider chickens to be as intelligent and inquisitive as cats and dogs, there is not one federal law that protects them from constant abuse.

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So how in the world did we get here?  During the early part of the twentieth century, chicken meat was provided by hens who had grown too old to lay eggs and had lived for up to six years. Chickens were usually sold whole, but this changed during the 1960s, when chicken producers realized they could make much more money by “recycling” damaged carcasses rather than just discarding them.  An absolute game-changer occurred in 1983 with the introduction of the Chicken McNugget, a seemingly healthier option (NOT) at a time when our FDA was pushing chicken as preferable to red meat.  Within one month McDonald’s became the nation’s second largest buyer of chickens (after KFC). There was even a new breed of huge-breasted chickens developed–known as Mr. McDonald. Today, broiler chickens live just over six weeks and have been unnaturally re-engineered to grow obscenely huge, to six times their natural size. To put this in perspective, if you’re a woman of medium build and weigh 130 pounds, you’d weigh over 800 pounds; a man of 160 pounds would weigh a mere 1000 pounds.  Our legs would give out, too, or we’d keel over from a heart attack at a very young age, as many chickens do, their hearts coated in a layer of fat.

The McNugget changed the entire way chicken were raised in this country and officially separated the egg and chicken meat industries. Four companies control over half the market today for chicken meat, but they only deliver and collect the chickens to be processed, they leave the the work of raising the chickens to contract farmers in the rural South. Many of these farmers hoped to remain independent but have instead – overwhelmingly – fallen deep into debt. They make on average $12,000 per year. Workers at the fast-paced slaughterhouses, poorly paid and lacking benefits, have at times admitted to abusing chickens or not stunning them properly before they are boiled. After the chickens are eviscerated they are thrown into a large vat of cold water with thousands of other birds; workers refer to this as “fecal soup” for obvious reasons, but producers keep the system going because more liquid absorbed leads to heavier weights and a larger price tag at the store.

Industrial chicken farming is a nasty, cruel business.  If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thank you — I know this is difficult information, but I sincerely believe knowledge is power and that we can each make a significant difference by influencing our own circle of peeps.     

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Kale, No! The Dark Side of Leafy Greens

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock — and if you have, I sincerely apologize — you have probably tired of all the hoopla surrounding kale, officially named the “It” vegetable of 2013 and proudly riding that title into 2014. Kale is the bad-ass of Superfoods — impossibly high in iron, oozing Vitamins K, A, and C (step aside orange juice, I’d rather have kale juice, fool!), bursting with antioxidants, helps one detox, and is an anti-inflammatory (except your ego, which kale is known to inflate). But wait, there’s more to this CV: immune system boost, hydration support, lowers cholesterol.. . and who knows, kale can probably massage my feet and help clean my kitchen!  What’s not to love, you ask? I can already feel the angry cyber-stares of kale groupies, and I want you to know, I’m one of you. I *heart* kale, I really do, but recent events have caused me to question my carefree waltz down the green leafy path of raw kale consumption.

I received a Vitamix for my birthday, and if there is anything more amazing then whipping up a delicious, kid-friendly green smoothie that actually consists of huge swaths of raw kale, spinach, and flax seeds, then please do let me know. So, in short, I’ve been blending and eating more raw kale lately than ever. That is, until my friend’s discovery stopped me cold.

One of my dear friends, let’s call her Matilda, recently found out she’s been a fabulous host –as in host to a freaking parasite!  (I will spare you the details, which resulted in considerable mental anguish.) Now, if Matilda ate undercooked meats on a regular basis or had traveled to exotic locales in recent months this might be more understandable, but Matilda is a dedicated vegetarian.  She rarely eats meat of any kind, though she did consume a few bites of sushi around the holidays.  One thing Tilly and I have in common is our healthy blending habits, however, and her gastroenterologist mentioned that a significant amount of parasites can be spread to humans via — you guessed it — leafy greens that have not been washed well enough to rid them of tiny, undetectable parasite eggs.  Leafy greens are sometimes grown using “night soil” as fertilizer, a fancy name for human waste. Now, before you go all wacky, most of the time this waste is treated to remove all bacteria so it is considered safe (and what else is humankind supposed to do with all of the poop in the world? This is a deep, dark question, my friend). At times, though, when farmers are not allocated enough water — as happened in Spain in 2005– they have turned to unregulated night soil and things have gone to sh*t health-wise, so to speak.  Matilda’s doctor thinks she probably contracted her parasite from greens, but of course no one can be sure. Aside from parasitical worries, I’ve also been reading about the dangers of eating too much kale (ie, juicing, blending, and/or eating significant amounts of raw kale on a daily basis), the most serious of which is hypothyroidism and its sidekick, goiters.  If your joints are aching, you’ve gained weight, and your neck resembles the Hulk’s, this might be worth a doctor’s visit.   

So what are kale lovers to do?  I wish I knew how to quit you, kale. .  .but that’s not an option.

Never fear! Here are some easy suggestions for how to deal with the dark underside of leafy greens:

1) If you’re going to eat/juice/blend raw kale (or spinach, swiss chard, et al), make sure you soak and wash the leaves thoroughly in cold water. You may want to add a few sprays of natural veggie cleaner to your bowl of water or salad spinner.  You can make your own spray, too – just combine 1 tablespoon of lemon juice (about 1/2 a lemon), 2 tablespoons white vinegar, and 1 cup of water in a spray bottle. (Martha Stewart just called, she wants her job back!)

2) Try freezing bags of leafy greens to use in smoothies, which is quite yummy and eliminates any possible “guests.” They like it warm.

3) Lightly steam or saute kale and spinach. One of my favorite ways to eat kale is with garlic — simply saute 1 minced clove of garlic in olive oil for 2 minutes, then add one bunch of washed kale leaves (minus stems) and cook for another 5 minutes or until bright green. Add salt and pepper to taste, and red pepper flakes for an extra kick.

4) Adding iodine to your diet (Brazil nuts, seaweed) can help offset the effects of hypothyroidism, and can only be healthy for the rest of us, right?

I am going to keep eating kale, in spite of this bump in our otherwise fabulous friendship, and I hope you do, too! 🙂

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I’m Going Nuts

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Maybe it’s the fact that I collected 80 essays today, or the mountainous mounds of clean, unfolded laundry lounging on my bed, or perhaps it’s the endless paperwork and errands surrounding our upcoming move to New Zealand, but one thing is certain:  I feel a wee bit overwhelmed lately, slightly nutty. Which got me to thinking about, well, nuts, and how much they enrich my life.  

It sounds like a silly, simple thing, but nuts are the vegan’s secret (energy) weapon.  Unfortunately, for those of us who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, nuts were considered of the Dark (ie, Fat) Side.  Instead of munching on a handful of almonds, walnuts, or cashews, I was the TCBY worker’s worst freaking nightmare, asking to taste all eight “low fat” or “fat free” flavors.  I would have done well to note that Seventh-Day Adventists — many of whom consumed record-breaking amounts of all kinds of nuts, but walnuts in particular, were some of the oldest living humans on earth.  (I’m sure avoiding hard drugs helped their longevity, too, but really, it’s clearly about the nuts.)       

Protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids, and healthy fats — nuts have them all, baby!  Before you take a spatula straight to that jar of natural peanut butter, however, let me remind you that nuts are like tiny power bombs, so a few go a long way.  Which nuts are best?  Simply put, all nuts are good for you, so experiment — toast hazelnuts to add to your hot cereal, try chopped walnuts and pecans on salads, and crush cashews or peanuts on Pad Thai and savory stews.  Blended raw cashews with water creates a creamy sauce that can be seasoned in endless ways, and combining finely chopped walnuts, rice, lentils, onions and simple seasonings can a very fine vegan meatball make. A few nuts add incredible texture and flavor, turning a simple dish into a masterpiece.

One confusing side note about nuts: should we eat them raw, or roasty-toasty?  In terms of health benefits, it’s best to either eat nuts raw or roast them yourself at low heat, and not too long (take it easy, Iron Chef).  Apparently roasting nuts at high heats for too long kills off many nutrients and can also create carcinogens — aside from tasting like charred gravel.  Certain bacterias can thrive in raw nuts (especially almonds) and toasting or blanching them reduces the risk of contracting a food-borne illness when you’re trying to eat like a health goddess. 

I will post more nut-related recipes soon. Until then, my friends, I’ll be folding laundry. And going nuts. Join me?   

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The Not-So-Sweet Impostor: High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

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‘Tis the Season for immune issues, tooth decay, and metabolic syndrome, right?  Well, in America, where each of us now consume on average well over 60 pounds of HFCS per year, it seems that these sweetener-induced health issues aren’t just treats to be enjoyed once a year anymore.  

Since you’re probably not guzzling corn syrup out the bottle (please PM me if this indeed describes you), how exactly are we getting so much HFCS in our diets?  HCFS is in almost all sweetened beverages (fruit juices and sodas, in particular), most store bought baked goods (I can hear your collective screams), canned fruit, packaged cereals, and dairy products (think sickeningly sweet yogurt and ice cream). Further, HFCS is often added to low or nonfat products  — along with other preservatives, chemicals, and thickeners  — to boost flavor and prolong shelf-life.  Basically, if a food is highly processed and contains absolutely no nutritional value, you can be sure HFCS is on the ingredients list. 

HFCS lurks in many fast food items as well, including that bizarre non-melting shake, ketchup and florescent nugget dipping sauces or dressings, burger buns, pancakes, all desserts, maple syrup, and of course in that gigantic super-sized soda.  Fun fact: a 20-ounce soda or HFCS sweetened drink has the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar. (To put this in perspective, our ancestors used to consume about 20 teaspoons of sugar per year.) 

The people who make HFCS want you to believe it is a natural product and interchangeable with cane sugar (“sugar is sugar!”), and yes, HFCS is derived from corn, but the highly-processed final product is anything but just another sweetener.  Basically, natural cane sugar is glucose and has to be digested, while HFCS contains industrially-engineered fructose (not natural fruit sugar), which is absorbed directly by the liver, hence immediately spiking insulin levels. This “free” fructose can actually make small holes in our intestinal lining, triggering inflammation and a host of health problems: insulin resistance and diabetes, fat deposits in your liver and elsewhere, heart disease, various types of cancer, dementia, metabolic syndrome, empty calories (=junk in your trunk), teeth decay, and a speeding up of the aging process (yours for free!).  The manufacturers of HFCS are extremely secretive about the processes used, and for good reason. High fructose corn syrup is laced with contaminants and toxins, including mercury. Not exactly a glowing report. . .unless we’re talking about a potentially radioactive glow?   

Obesity rates have tripled over the last few decades, and our diabetes rates are up seven fold. Certainly HFCS is not the only culprit, but since its invention in 1957 some of the numbers are indeed startling. And it is no coincidence that many fast food chains replaced real sugar with HFCS as it became readily available – and extremely cheap — due to highly subsidized corn in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

In a (corn)nut shell, we should all avoid high fructose corn syrup like the plague it is. Do yourself – and your intestinal lining – a favor; eat more whole plant foods, and when you buy processed foods, check the labels and eat smart. 🙂 

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What’s NOT to love about lentils?

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Well, my friends, I have had the week from Hades here, I kid you not. I will not bore you with the details, but let’s just say it was a winning combo with the husband out of town (as in Tasmania out of town) and myriad illnesses all around (we like to mix it up in this family!). We are slowly scraping our way back to health, and I credit just a tiny part of that to the mighty lentil!

Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean we have to be all hoity-toity and ignore the perfectly amazing little legumes whiling away the time in our cupboard. Yes, I’m talking about the lentils you bought recently but have considered too humble for your dinner party guests.  I know that in betwixt these festivities you, like me, need some simple, healthy, and comforting food, and lentils are just waiting to be appreciated for their awesomeness. Lentils have been staples of Indian, African, and Middle Eastern cuisines for thousands of years, and it’s high time we all got on board!  We visited India last December, and our favorite dishes by far were the incredible Bengal lentil curries.

There are many reasons to cozy up to this legume. First of all, they are one of the easiest ways to get your daily dose of fiber and protein (1/2 cup = 9 grams fiber, 12 grams protein!), and tons of other important vitamins and minerals, most notably magnesium, calcium, iron, folate, phosphorus, and potassium. Further, lentils — unlike most other beans (lentils are technically considered “pulses,” not really beans, but let’s not get technical) — do not need to be soaked and can be quickly cooked to perfection (whilst absorbing spices and flavors) in just 20 minutes. Oh, and certainly not least, lentils are inexpensive, usually under $3 for a 16 oz bag of organic lentils. As I say, what’s not to love? 

You can certainly use lentils in salads, veggie burgers, and lentil roasts, but I like them best cooked simply and served warm. Here are a couple of easy recipes to add to your repertoire! 

Curried Lentil Stew

  • 2-3 t. olive oil
  • 1 large sweet onion, chopped
  • 3-4 carrots, chopped (or whole if you prefer)
  • 1 cup cauliflower, chopped into florets
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cans diced organic tomatoes
  • 1 cup lentils, green or brown (red are gorgeous but get too mushy!)
  • 3 cups vegetable stock (or water)
  • 2 t. curry powder
  • 1 t thyme (dried)
  • 1 t sea salt
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 1 T balsamic vinegar
  • 1 T lemon juice

1. First, add onions and carrots to your heated olive oil. Cook for about 7-9 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add garlic and cook for about one more minute. You’ll want to just stop now because your kitchen will be smelling so very nice, but push forward! Your family is depending on you!

2. Rinse your darling lentils, looking out for stones, then put them in with the onion mixture, also adding the broth, tomatoes, curry powder, thyme, salt, and pepper.

3. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 25-30 minutes. Add in your cauliflower and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until lentils and veggies are tender. Remove from heat, stir in vinegar and lemon juice, and you’re done. Yummilicious. I’ve also made this with sweet potatoes and added spinach . . . you really can’t go wrong! Serve over brown rice, baked potatoes, with cornbread or chips, topped with a dollop of soy sour cream and chives or other fresh herbs.

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Easy Lentils and Rice (adapted from Veganomicon)

I love this recipe because it is so quick and takes relatively few ingredients or brain power, which is kind of where I’m at this week. You can also fancy it up by topping with chopped avocado, baked yams, broccoli, or caramelized onions. (To caramelize onions, just slice 2-3 sweet onions thinly, stir in 3-4 tablespoons olive oil and salt, then place in a baking dish and bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.)  I also love the pairing of lentils with cinnamon, so so good!

  • 1 cup lentils (I like green or brown best)
  • 1 cup rice, brown or white, rinsed (I have used jasmine and basmati)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 t. allspice
  • 1 1/2 t. cumin

1. Bring four cups of water to boil in a large saucepan or pot. Add rice, cinnamon stick, and spices. Bring back to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.

2. Add lentils (after rinsing!) and bring back to a boil, then simmer on low until liquid is absorbed, about 35-40 more minutes. Remove from heat, remove cinnamon stick (unless someone loves chomping into that!), and mission accomplished! If you went to the trouble to make the onions, throw those in there, of course.  I often add a bit of sea salt and black pepper too, as needed. Try this alongside a fresh tomato – cucumber – red onion salad for a Mediterranean twist in winter. Happy lentil eating, my friends!

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Olives: Not Just For Pizza Anymore

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Ever heard of the dove who returns to a sea-bound ark with an olive branch in its beak?  Remember Jesus preaching on the Mount of — wait for it — Olives? 

Olives are one of the most perfect foods on the planet, in my opinion. Spherical, shiny, salty. . . they are beautiful to behold and even better to eat.  Olive oil gets most of the attention these days for its health benefits and delicious taste, but I’d like to draw attention back to the source of this nectar of the gods, the olive itself.

Like most of you, I grew up only running into flavorless black olives on my pizza (healthy meal? check!), or at the occasional dinner where I would engage our guests with the obligatory look-I-have-ten-olives-on-my-fingers routine. My parents were so proud. Can most kids down an entire bowl of olives in 7 minutes flat? I don’t think so. Alas, my 1980s family was also all about the margarine and the ranch dressing.  I don’t know when the divine pairing of balsamic vinegar and olive oil took place, forever altering the culinary course of bread and salad, but I’m quite sure it was not in Idaho.  But I digress.   

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean, Asia, and northern Africa, though of course they are now grown in many temperate parts of the world, including California and New Mexico.  The olive tree can thrive for hundreds of years, and between its gnarled trunk, gorgeous branches, and delectable fruit, it is easy to see why the Ancient Greeks and Romans considered olive oil sacred (who doesn’t? My husband would drink this stuff by the glass if it were socially acceptable) and presented olive wreaths to Olympic champions.  (On that note, don’t you think victorious athletes of today would much prefer a glorious plant-based wreath to a bulky solid-gold medal and Wheaties contract? Of course they would.) Another fun historical/literary fact: the bed of Penelope and Odysseus (yes, that Odysseus) was apparently constructed around the trunk of an olive tree. I leave you to interpret. Let’s just say that the Greeks, who today use 60% of their agricultural land to grow olives and produce 20% of the global olive supply, take olives very seriously. 

I know, I know, olives are high in fat.  But remember, my little fat gram counter, there are good and bad fats, and olives happen to fall squarely in the good column, providing a healthy serving (usually about 1 gram per olive) of monounsaturated fat, along with antioxidants, calcium (olive milk, anyone?), fiber, potassium, and vitamin E.  Because olives are too bitter to be eaten when raw, they must undergo some type of curing. Greeks process ripe olives, then cure them in one of three ways: dry-cured (rubbed with salt), sun-cured (left out in the sun, wrinkled), or oil-cured (soaked in oil for several months). Kalamata olives (uh, yum) are cured in red wine vinegar or wine; the ripeness and fermentation give them their depth of flavor. Canned black olives, which we are most familiar with in America, are picked unripe and soaked in an alkaline lye mix for several hours, oxidized with air, then rinsed. Iron is added to keep the characteristic dark color and firm texture, and chemicals are used to help the olives stay strong for the de-pitting process.  Lye leeches out the flavor, but these short-cuts make for much quicker production.  Convinced yet to give whole, wrinkly olives with pits a try?  (I am loathe to abandon my favorite, garlic-stuffed jumbo green olives, but I will at least branch out.)        

I love to add olives to pasta or grain-based salads, slice them onto flat-breads or hummus, make them into pates for appetizers, or simply eat them as a satisfying snack. Olives, olive you!     

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