Slow-Cooked Vegetable Dinner + “An Everlasting Meal”

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Tim and I are taking our CSA box back to the car, a heavy bushel filled with watermelon, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers and yellow squash. Our usual routine has been to unload this share at home, turning some into dinner with a simple salad or something roasted, storing the rest of it away on the counter or the fridge to be cooked and eaten as the week goes on. But today, instead of setting things aside, I’m cooking it—all of it—one thing after another, often in the same liquids or roasting juices of the previous pan. With two months left on our CSA, I’ve been reading Tamar Adler’s book, “An Everlasting Meal,” and, as most home cooks who’ve read it would tell you, the way I use vegetables—actually the way I use almost everything in my kitchen—will never be the same.

Polaroid_vegetables

I first heard of Tamar Adler, and her book, in May, through an email from my friend Kendra. In the midst of what she called a “life-changing book,” Kendra was writing from her kitchen, where she’d just boiled vegetables, one right after another, in the same big pot, then layered them with leftover rice and roasted pork that “sent [her] through the roof in euphoria.” All the scraps went right back into the same water, boiling steadily for about an hour, after which she took a sip so good, tears came to her eyes. I didn’t know much about Tamar Adler back then, hadn’t read the New Yorker article she would later write about Julia Child, hadn’t caught when people like Tara from Tea & Cookies or Tracy from Shutterbean were talking about how wonderful she was. All I knew, in May, reading a note from a friend, was that Tamar Adler’s way of using vegetables was so mind-blowing and beautiful that it could evoke tears of joy—and so I promptly clicked over to the Nashville Public Library system, became #54 or so in line and, waited.

polaroid_book

I started reading “An Everlasting Meal” less than two weeks ago, just before we went away for my birthday. I continued reading it on the seven-and-a-half-hour drive down, the three-hour drives to and from Louisiana, the seven-and-a-half-turned-nine-hour drive home. Hearing Tamar’s advice is like talking to a woman who’s been cooking a long lifetime, filled with wit and wisdom gained from years of trying different techniques. She reminds me of my grandma, who knew foods so well, she didn’t have to consult recipes; and of Tim, who’s wowed me since we met with his ability to make a restaurant-worthy dinner when we have nothing in the fridge.

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Tuesday in the kitchen, the outside light growing dim, once all my vegetables are washed and drying on a towel on our counter, I push trays of salted, chopped, oiled eggplant in the oven, alongside rounds of potatoes. A pot goes on the stove to boil water for tomatoes, which get cored and skored with x’s on the bottom, plopped into water for eight seconds so their skins peel right off. Then into the same water go six or seven large potatoes, which I’ll eventually throw in the fridge to have when I need them (which turns out to be two days later, when I’m in a rush to a friend’s house for dinner and Tim and I throw together a potato salad).

Then, in my largest, deepest skillet, I warm minced garlic in olive oil and butter, adding half a green pepper, chopped. Next goes all the diced eggplant that wouldn’t fit on my baking sheet to roast and some leftover chicken broth I poached eggs in that morning. I chop the three boiled tomatoes and add them next. Last are fingerling potatoes, diced smaller than I’ve ever diced them, so they’ll soften fully and well.

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Tim’s been gone this whole time, at a work meeting, and when he arrives home two hours later, he steps into the kitchen with a smile on his face. “Something smells good!” is how he greets me, and after he helps me clean up, after we salt and pepper the vegetables, then salt them again for taste, we dine on leftover roasted chicken topped with our slow-cooked vegetable hash, the fridge now packed with glass tupperware and mason jars filled with roasted eggplant and potatoes and green peppers and radishes and tomatoes—all of which will contribute to quick meals for the next few days.

Sitting across from him at the table, we take a few pictures in the chandelier light, join hands and shake our heads. This rustic spread before us, the combined byproduct of chicken broth (which I made from roasted chicken bones yesterday) and today’s CSA vegetables and a few hours of time, is, without question, one of the best meals we’ve enjoyed all week.

(And there’s more!) Once we’ve eaten our fill, the leftovers go into a mason jar in the fridge, providing us an intensely flavored mixture of vegetables now marinating in their own sauce, ideal for blending or eating again with pasta later on. All of the odds and ends from chopping didn’t go into the trash but were saved in a pile to add to the water once the potatoes finish boiling. We cook them for hours until they’ve created a dark, rich, mineral-heavy vegetable broth now stored in our freezer.

The subtitle of “An Everlasting Meal” is cooking with economy and grace—and, right now, looking at our plates at dinner, the fridge stuffed with ready vegetables, stock boiling long on the stove, I want to cry with Kendra at how good and right and practical this all is.

Tamar Adler, reading your book has been the best kind of cooking school, such an education and a gift. I will be reading it for months and years to come. Thank you.

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to greet it with a smile on my face

Bon Secour Water

Hello from the land of my thirties! I entered this new decade Saturday, in beautiful Gulf Shores, Alabama, where Tim took me away two days before, as a way to jump up and meet Thirty with a smile on my face, exploring and discovering instead of pining and reminiscing. I don’t know what it is about these big birthdays, the ones that end in zeros, but so many of my female friends have had terrible times with them. In fact, after talking to one friend in particular last month, I burst out crying to Tim about how everybody treats aging like such a bad thing, and so was I going to sink into a depression on August 25 this year? Would I miss my family more than I usually do? Should he brace himself now for the drama? Thankfully, in our case, that outburst seems to have been all the drama and sadness I needed—and also, my husband is a kind, generous soul who responds by telling me he’ll handle everything for my birthday and I can just relax, which, if I’m being honest, is probably exactly why I felt (and feel) like turning thirty is such a good gift.

Gulf

Last year at this time, while Tim and I were planning our wedding, picturing our life together and discussing our budget, we would have told you travel wasn’t on the table. We took a killer honeymoon (gifted from my parents) and then came back, settled in down in Tennessee, thankful. Sometimes we talked about his days of touring with the bands he used to manage or my old days of that full-time salary in my early twenties, but mostly we put travel in the mental box that holds children and home ownership and writing a book someday, and then we sealed it up tight. Someday, we’d love to take some trips. We’ll see.

But then, my friend Kim gave us a night in an Atlanta B&B. Dole sent us to California. A crazy generous friend of friends unexpectedly lent us her beach house in Florida. My parents took us with them to their Wisconsin cabin. Now here we are, married less than a year, and we’ve traveled together to half a dozen different states—all because other people have made it possible. And last week, for the weekend in which I turned thirty, we took the first trip we planned and paid for, we meaning Tim, who surprised me from beginning to end: we headed south.

GULF shores, alabama

I don’t know about you, but, growing up in the Midwest, when I heard Alabama, I thought, I don’t know, Reese Witherspoon and college football and farmers living in the backwoods. But driving through the state, top to bottom, last weekend, I saw Alabama is both charming small town and beautiful coastal paradise, not to mention hot, hot sunshine that makes flowers and Spanish moss trees and pecan orchards grow.

We stayed in Bon Secour, a former French fishing village whose name means, literally, “safe harbor.” Our bright blue stilt house was right on the bay, filled with furniture out of a Pottery Barn catalog and featuring entire walls of windows facing the water. Friday night, we slept with the bedroom shutters open so I could wake up with the sun, watching it slowly light up the waters and turn the sky pink, drinking in the quiet and the beauty before me on the first day of my thirties. There were shrimping boats sailing by and alligators near the dock and hundreds of seagulls flying back and forth above the calm and tranquil inlet.

Also, southern Alabama is conveniently right between Mississippi to the west and Florida to the east, giving us the perfect opportunity to tour the South.

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Peach Pizza on Kefir-Soaked Spelt Crust

Ready-to-Bake Kefir Spelt Pizza Crust

The month of August has been a quiet one for us. Expected guests had to cancel at the last minute, plans changed and, while you’d think this would be the sort of thing to discourage us, in fact, it’s been the opposite. We’ve been dealing with the wide-open weekends of Tim’s homemade pancakes, afternoons spent writing, evening walks in the park, impromptu trips to thrift stores or out for tacos. The weather’s even cooperated, moving from the abrasive 100s to more reasonable upper 80s, making it a little easier to enjoy cooking in the kitchen again. For years, Tim’s told me about his homemade Chinese food, and this August has been his chance to take a few hours in the kitchen to show me. I’ve baked cookies without recipes. We’ve slow-cooked vegetables via Marcella Hazan. And not once, not twice, but three times, we’ve made homemade kefir-soaked spelt pizza crusts, topped by peaches and spinach and goat cheese.

Tim and the Pizza

In so many ways, August has been a contrast to the months before it, in which we’ve hosted out-of-town guests or traveled ourselves, and, to make up for the hours we’d be missing, worked double-time beforehand. In the same way that you appreciate your sophomore English teacher so much more because you disliked your freshman one, we’ve been basking in the beauty of this August and its slow, steady schedules.

Sliced Spinach, Peach & Goat Cheese Pizza

Most Tuesday nights, we share dinner with Tim’s brother, Nathan, who lives about a mile or two away, in the house where Tim lived before October. Every other week, by the time he arrives, we’re also unpacking our biweekly CSA haul, a tightly packed bushel box of yellow squash and watermelon and sweet corn and tomatoes and so on, which we pick up from the 12 South Farmers Market held late Tuesday afternoons. On one particular week, we’re pulling away from the market, not yet home, when I catch an image on Instagram of a peach-topped pizza. Despite the loot in our back seat, we beeline for the grocery.

At home, we launch into our biweekly routine, Tim slicing up watermelon that we snack on while we divvy up the goods. Meanwhile, I mix together a pizza crust, letting it soak in the warmest spot above our oven.

Slice of Spinach, Peach & Goat Cheese Pizza

By the time Nathan arrives, the August sun is lowering, the house enjoying that late-summer twilight that turns everything golden and dim, and two pizzas are in the oven, one on a stone and one on a baking sheet.

Spinach, Peach & Goat Cheese Pizza

That first time is magic: crackery crust, sweet and soft peaches, the tang of goat cheese mixed with drizzles of honey. We eat it on the sofa, piece after piece after piece, the three of us flipping through channels on TV, occasionally interrupting the programming to marvel at the way the crust holds up or the way the edges have a faint hint of Saltine.

Peach Pizza on Kefir Crust

When Nathan leaves, it’s barely 8 p.m., so Tim and I clean up the dishes and put away the leftovers and take a drive, headed nowhere in particular, off to enjoy a lazy summer night, with nothing to do. I say to him, This August has been like one long date!, enough that I almost feel guilty!, and he says to me, I know.

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Lacto-Fermented Salsa

My senior year of college, while I was student-teaching my way into an education degree I already knew I didn’t want, I had an advisor named Heather. Heather was fantastic. She wore dark-rimmed glasses and crisp, collared shirts, and her short brunette hair was always cut neat and kept perfectly in place. Though I’d never taken one of her classes, I’d known her since the semester before, when one Saturday afternoon we’d both shown up to help a friend paint a new apartment. Moving her paintbrush against the wall like she was Mr. Miyagi in “Karate Kid,” she’d stood next to me in the living room, nodding for me to follow suit, “It’s like makeup, Shanna: blend!”

Some people who are quick to teach like this can be terribly off-putting, always demanding to be heard, but not Heather. Her brand of counsel combined with an otherwise warm and soft demeanor to make her the best kind of maternal, like a big sister who shared all her secrets. We’d have our weekly phone calls to discuss my kids and how they were taking to “Silas Marner” or what I should do about the funny boys who tried to flirt with me, and she’d have me both cracking up and taking notes while she dispensed adages like “monitor and adjust!” for handling a classroom. I loved her.

Those days are almost a decade ago now, but I’ve known a lot of other Heathers since then, people who have chartered a path in a way that makes me want to follow. There was Kelley who taught me about newspaper reporting; Liz, who showed me how to knit; my dad, who demonstrated firsthand the value in being self-employed. And when I met Tim, he’d stand next to me in the kitchen, baking cookies without a recipe or, putting cucumbers in a jar with water and salt to make pickles—the way hundreds of generations had set the example before us—and I learned what it was to lacto-ferment.

lacto-fermented salsa

We’ve been doing a lot of lacto-fermenting in our kitchen this summer. This has been in part because of all the vegetables we’ve had on hand, in part because of a few fermentation cookbooks that have come our way. In addition to sauerkraut and pickled okra and garlic carrots, we’ve made a moist and dense chocolate carrot kefir cake, adapted from a zucchini version in “Cultured Food Life.” We’re experimenting with making our own mead as I type, the jar of it sitting at the bottom of our buffet.

Also, there was this lacto-fermented salsa, from “Real Food Fermentation.”

salsa and chips

In my world, just as the concept of blending brush strokes came through Heather, the idea of lacto-fermenting came through Tim—but it originated far before us. Lacto-fermentation is basically just the natural process whereby the starches and sugars in vegetables and fruit convert to lactic acid through the presence of a friendly lactic-acid producing bacteria. It’s been used for centuries, since far before the advent of refrigerators and freezers came along to preserve produce shelf life. Lacto-fermented foods are tangy, delicious and loaded with probiotics, that buzzword you’ll hear us talking about when we say kefir or yogurt or kombucha.

salsa_chips

This salsa recipe is, no question, going to be placed on regular rotation in our household, if not for the good bacteria, then for the taste. In the one or two weeks it lasted in our kitchen, we ate this salsa on sprouted corn tortillas brushed with coconut oil and toasted in the oven; piled it on top of tacos from Baja Burrito; and ate it with chips again. It’s hot enough to get your nose running but not so hot to have you crying, and in my book, that’s the mark of a winner.

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Honey-Glazed Peach Spinach Salad

Tim and I live in the downstairs of a 1940s-style house; I may have mentioned this before. If you walk into our living room from the front porch, you see built-ins around the fireplace, stuffed with the combined libraries of 20+ years of separate lives: a few textbooks, many novels, the guidebook and accompanying tapes for a ‘How to Speak Italian’ course. For the first few months we lived together, the mantel between these shelves was completely bare; December brought a $5 fresh pine wreath from Aldi, which we left mounted weeks past New Year’s; we finally threw it in the fireplace in February, planning to watch it burn, but it’s still sitting there. In its stead are perched a giant canvas engagement shot, a few framed prints and a wooden letter “M” I spray-painted white in a few Pinterest-driven weeks last winter.

3 fresh peaches

Besides the ottomans and the rug, everything in this living room is either from our previous apartments or hand-built by Tim; that’s true in most of the house. The leather couch: from his old apartment with two other guys. The coffee tables: my former nightstand and Tim’s former filing cabinet. As we usher you through to the dining room, we’ll give you the biographies of the entertainment center (built a few weeks before the wedding), the dining table (finished in those days when I was in Chicago making wedding favors) and the buffet (brought to our house just after we got rid of our first Christmas tree).

It’s a small and cozy two-bedroom, just the sort of place you’d think of when you think young newlyweds. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm, with beat-up hardwood floors, painted but paneled walls, white crown molding and natural light brought in through lots of windows—at least one in every room.

Fresh peaches and baby spinach

While you’re sitting at the table, we might tell you how last summer when we toured apartments, this place was last in the long line of possibilities we looked through and, by far, the best. I’d kept a list back then, with all the things we’d hoped for in our future home: an extra bedroom, a garage, windows in the bathroom and kitchen. This place had every one. And sometimes, still, we can’t believe we live here.

After we hand you your plates, piled high with baby spinach and roasted peaches and goat cheese, we might whisper that we’d stay forever if it weren’t for the smell of smoke filling our bathroom lately or the strange phenomenon we witnessed when our neighbor removed items from our trash can and took them to his backyard (!), or the growing desire we both have to plant a garden and, to watch it grow.

Baby spinach on plates

We talk to you from the kitchen, a white, 100-square-foot galley-style space with gray laminate countertops and a floor our landlord laid before we moved in (chosen primarily, we think, because it’s the cheapest kind they sell at Home Depot). There’s a white stone bowl with red tomatoes to the left of the sink and a handful of peaches set beside it.

Tim and I cooked together when we lived in different states and would visit for quick weekends; we cooked together when we lived in Nashville in different houses and traded dinners at his place or mine; but now, in this little house, we cook together constantly, swapping tasks and sharing chores for every meal.

I wipe down the counters one last time before we join you at the table, and Tim reaches into the fridge, past spinach and Pecorino and yesterday’s zucchini fritters, to grab the water pitcher, which, we apologize, is for some reason, the only drink we have on hand today.

Honey-Glazed Peach Salad for Two

Around the table, sitting at mismatched chairs beneath a vintage glass chandelier with cobwebs on it, we look at our plates, like we do most nights, and they’re as colorful and full as any from a five-star salad course in town.

Honey-Glazed Peach Salad Plate

Closeup of Honey-Glazed Peach Salad

With you, we give thanks. Because if any part of our simple, newlywedding life is mature and adult-like and settled, it’s not our careers or our furniture or our savings plans—in truth, we’re more likely to buy extra produce than new stocks—sitting before the spread before us, enjoying it with you, we know, it’s this, the way we eat.

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Sparkling Raspberry Lemonade + Sam’s Club Book Giveaway

I’ve gone to bulk warehouses since I was a kid, tagging along with Dad while he ran errands. My dad worked a lot of nights when I was young, building the cleaning business that he and my mom had started just before I was born. The way they tell the story, in the early days, they mopped up apartments for a local university, my mom then heavy with child. They had me, then my brother, and meanwhile the company grew. By the time I was in elementary school, there were several accounts to keep up with, taking Dad away from us most nights. So to make up for it, he’d take me with him—to work and on errands, the two of us riding together into the night sky.

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samsbook_mint

My dad, who sports short, graying hair and a neatly trimmed moustache, stands 5’10”, which today is just two-and-a-half inches higher than me, but I’ve always had to jog to keep up with him. When we’d arrive at the almost-empty parking lot of a shiny office building, I’d be trotting behind his white sneakers, pumping my arms to keep up. Wearing the same pleated Dockers and collared shirts he still wears every day, whether it’s Monday morning or Saturday afternoon, he’d be talking with employees about sealants and floor polishers and machinery, and I’d be hanging behind, hunting for a vending machine.

halvedlemons

It was the same when we went shopping. In the beginning, I think we went for work supplies, but later, we went just as often for laundry detergent or water or something else my family was in the habit of buying in bulk. While he’d be on a mission to get the items on his list, I’d be scoping out cases of candy or granola or chips. I’ve always been able to count on Dad for snacks. It’s one of the main things we share, besides our dark skin and giant smiles and ability to talk in-depth for hours: we like keeping foods on hand that are easy to grab and eat. Cashews, almonds, dark chocolate, dried bananas. We could go to Sam’s Club for fabric softener, but we’d emerge with a bin of something tasty I’d be able to break into and eat fistfuls of in the car. I knew this as well as I knew my name.

pitcherlemonade

Today, living in Nashville, Tim and I have bulk memberships of our own. This feels as much a proof of our adulthood as voting or paying bills. When we walk up to our local warehouse, flashing cards with our pictures on them to gain entrance inside, we’re essentially announcing to the salesperson and our fellow shoppers and anyone who sees us that we are responsible. We plan for the future. We buy toilet paper in advance.

Never mind the fact that both our memberships have been gifted to us (the first as a birthday gift last August; the next, directly from Sam’s Club, who wants us to talk here about the warehouse shopping experience and a summer promotion they’ve got going on). From the first moment we walked those aisles together, calculating the savings on a giant bag of frozen organic fruit versus the 16-ounce bags from the grocery store, we were hooked. Generally speaking, we look to buy local and to support small business, but true confessions: if you show us a 12-ounce container of organic raspberries at Sam’s for $3.99 ($3.99!), we’re sold.

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RLemonade_2glasses

A few weeks ago, we used our new membership to buy 24 ounces of fresh organic raspberries, a bag of lemons and a case of Pellegrino, which we took home and turned into this refreshing, sparkling summer drink. It’s part of Sam’s Club’s current “Fruit Cooler” challenge, wherein they’re inviting bloggers to create refreshing summer recipes based on produce from their stores.

As part of the project, they’re giving away one of their beautiful cookbooks, “Fresh, Fast and Fabulous,” to a commenter on this post (will be chosen Friday morning Congratulations, Kendra!). They’d also love you to try the challenge in your own home. The idea’s not that different from the way my dad and I have always shopped together: go into the store, hunt down what you like—although, I will grant, my preferences today lean more towards organic produce or cases of oranges than they do towards candy bars—take it home and, enjoy.

For more information on Sam’s Club produce, visit SamsClub.com/meals.

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Strawberry Walnut Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream

bowloficecream

Last summer, summer 2011, was the summer of wedding planning (also known as The Pit). I spent all my free time hunkered down in there, absorbed in the constant tasks of ceremony details, caterers, jazz bands, invitations, favors, showers, guest lists, seating charts, expectations, and I’ll be honest with you: sometimes it got a little dark. Thankfully, Tim was with me. Having the two of us together made The Pit more cozy.

The only problem with hunkering down for a summer, however, is that you miss a lot of things. It has to happen, but you do. While we were making regular trips back and forth from Chicago, the rest of the world continued on, the way it always does. While our weekends were spreadsheets of to-do lists and hours picking towels and bed sheets at Target, I tuned out of blogs and stopped reading or writing or paying attention to, well, anything that couldn’t get into The Pit with us. Sometimes my family got in there. Sometimes, our friends. But everything else didn’t fit, and so I let it go.

For the most part, that was OK. Simplifying, even. But then a few weeks ago, I was washing dishes in our kitchen, looking out the window, and I noticed how big and tall and purple our neighbor’s tree had gotten. In an instant, my eyes moved across the street to another one, hot pink like a Spring Break bikini. We drove to the grocery store, past that vintage brick apartment complex we always see, and an entire row of trees bordering the road had exploded into whites and reds and violet and deep maroon. It was then that I realized just how deep we’d been buried, together with our heads down, moving through that tunnel in the dark.

Last summer, I don’t remember a flower. This year, giant blooming trees are EVERYWHERE.

Nashville in Bloom with white buds
Nashville pink flowers
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NashvilleinBloom_house

So if there’s one thing I’ve wanted for summer 2012, it’s to stay above ground. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been here so often. When I look back on this year, I’ll remember making risotto with my brother, enduring weeks of three-digit-temperature days, sitting inside while the sky got dark with clouds and rain and thunderstorms.

NashvilleinBloom_sky

I’ll remember walking through neighborhoods with Tim to see the world in bloom, camera around my neck, marveling at the different colors and the intricate petals and the way they look against the early evening sky.

I’ll remember telling myself to take the time to notice, really look at and observe, the life I’m living: the mornings Tim and I shuffle to the dining table, laptops in hand; the afternoons walking down the driveway, feeling the heat as we grab the mail and see that couple across the street who wave like friendly grandparents. I’ll remember walking through a park last night, where the air smelled mossy and moist, surrounded by one hundred different shades of green.

NashvilleinBloom_twilight

But mostly, I’ll remember what we’ve been eating:

The ice cream.

dual_icecream

Summer 2012, in addition to being the first summer we were married and the first summer I felt like I lived in Nashville has also, more notably, been this, at least in our house: The Summer of Ice Cream.

icecream

There are new flavors rolling out every week, from frozen yogurt to chocolate chunk to cinnamon honey, and we eat it almost as quickly as it comes out of the machine. The first time Tim made this strawberry version, plumped up with chopped walnuts and big pieces of soft chocolate chunks, we polished it off in one day. It might be our current favorite.

bowlandspoon

In fact, the way things are going, this fall may be The Autumn of Ice Cream and this winter, The Winter of Ice Cream, and who knows how long it will go. But whatever the future brings, ice cream and otherwise, one thing’s for sure:

I get to have my eyes open to notice it, right now, today.

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