Oswald Rivera

Author, Warrior, and Teacher

Category: miscellaneous (page 2 of 2)


Adobo, along with sofrito and achiote, is a magic word to those of us whose forbears hail from the Caribbean. It is an indispensable item in our cuisine. At its basic it’s simply a mix of black peppercorns, oregano and garlic. In the old days these ingredients were crushed in a mortar and the mix was rubbed thoroughly into meat, fish or poultry. That’s still the way it’s done by purists (and yours truly). Back on the block, most people just sprinkled the meat with ground pepper, ground garlic, dried oregano and, sometimes, onion powder, then marinated it in olive oil and vinegar. Others, like my Uncle Phillip, preferred fresh lime juice to the vinegar. And there were no strict guidelines. We all did it by eye measurement and repetition.

Since then, I’ve discovered that adobo is not solely a Puerto Rican or Caribbean thing. In the town of Puebla, in Mexico’s central range, they have a version of adobo that is a paste of ancho chiles, garlic, peppercorns and cumin seeds. And they normally use it when cooking pork. This is interesting, since in some Puerto Rican versions of adobo , they may also add cumin seeds. In my family we didn’t add cumin seeds. We just kep it to the basics.

When I was growing up in Spanish Harlem, no one knew about adobo outside my neighborhood. It was well known in the Dominican enclaves on upper Broadway, but that’s as far as it went. As adobo was popularized by assorted gourmands and gourmets, it was, like all else, commercialized. So that today you can find it in a jar in any store. It’s convenient but, if you want the real thing (and not just something with chemicals and preservatives), you can make your own adobo quickly and efficiently. And it’s far more tasty and healthy than the store-bought stuff. The recipe given below is the one we’ve been using in my family for generations. You can go the traditional method and use a mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients, or  not. Also note that the ingredients can be doubled or tripled, if you want more. Just store the remainder in an air-tight container away from heat and light or in the fridge.    


1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper or 8 whole peppercorns, crushed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder or three cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried or fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon onion powder (optional)

If using fresh peppercorns and garlic, just combine with other ingredients and crush in a mortar. If not, just combine all ingredients in a bowl. Another variation is to heat the salt and peppercorns in a dry skillet on medium heat until the spices are lightly toasted (about 3 minutes). Then combine with the other ingredients and grind in a blender or spice mill. Some say this renders a more fragrant adobo. In the Rivera family we just mix the ingredients and forego the frying part. Your choice; and enjoy! 

Food with Wine

One of the things that drive most people batty is this idea of pairing food with wine. And it can get ridiculous sometimes. There are tomes out there that try to inculcate us as to what “specific” wine goes with what food. What goes with duck a l’orange or a burger or, even pickles. When this topic comes up, I always recall one of my father’s saying: “drink whatever damn wine you want  for dinner.” I know, this is heresy with some of the more pretentious types. Yet, really, who is to say what proper wine goes with what you eat? I know, the usual canard is: white wine with fish; and red wine with meat. But, guess what, I like red wine with fish—and who is to say I’m wrong?

Of course, the concept can be taken to extremes on both accounts. My mother, bless her soul, loved to drink Manischewitz sherry with everything.That was her thing. During my youth, I had friends who, during the Jewish Seder, would drink Mogen David Heavy Malaga Red. Now, if you like Mogen David, and I do, that’s okay but, after a while, the sweetish stickiness of the wine gets to you. Luckily, like most Seders in those days, the wine was cut with seltzer water. Thank goodness today we have good, genuine Kosher table wines appropriate to the occasion. It’s a matter of common sense. Most people are not going to have a dessert wine with the entrée. That doesn’t mean you have to carry a wine bible with you everytime you go out to eat. Most of us, when we go out dining, we usually differ to the maitre d’ or, in fancier establishments, the sommelier (you know, the guy with the wine key who selects the wines). I have never gone wrong with differing to those in the know. That’ their job, That’s what they’re paid for. However, let’s say, someone invites you to dinner. You may know what the person is going to cook; but what wine to bring? To be safe, just in case, you may decide to bring a red and a white.

There are occasions when you may have to decide what wine will go with your meal and, lets be honest, most of us are not sommeliers, or had the luxury of taking a wine course. I’ve discovered, through trial and error, that there are wines which are appropriate with almost any category of food. For instance, light reds like a Barbera (dry, mellow, and full-bodied), a Gamay  (think of a light, vibrant Beaujolais) or Pinot Noir (a dry, pleasant Burgandy). They pair well with whatever is on your plate. They are not the heavy hitters like a Bordeaux, a Montepulciano, or a full-bodied Zinfandel. The ones I mentioned are mainly red quaffing wines that won’t overpower the meal or put anyone off. As for whites, you can never go wrong with a Chenin Blanc (medium-dry, soft and fruity), Sauvignon Blanc (medium-bodied, crisp and fresh; in California it is also known as Fume Blanc), or Soave (medium-dry, very refreshing). These go good with almost anything—seafood, pasta, even pork. If that doesn’t work, and you have a crowd that can’t make up it’s mind, go with the compromiser—rosé or better, still, champagne. But, whatever you do, go with your taste buds. If you like it, you got it made—no matter what anyone else says. This is America, not the Ritz.

caption: courtesy of Mail Online

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Tomatoes for the End of Summer

By now most of us are, as the saying goes, “tomatoed-out.” In the dark days of winter we dream of fresh, succulent vine-ripened tomatoes. By late August, we’ve just about had our fill. I mean, how many tomato salads or stuffed tomatoes can you have? Well, kiddies, the season will last until October. And, yes, there are still many innovative ways to use this vegetable. Below are given some ingenious ways to use tomatoes. So, in the middle of a frosty February, you can again begin to dream of the fresh juicy crop come June .


That’s right, a raw sauce where the tomatoes don’t have to be cooked. Simple: In a bowl, combine 1 pound chopped tomatoes or 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved; 1/2 cup diced mozzarella cheese; 1/3 cup chopped black olives; 1/4 cup olive oil; 1 teaspoon capers; 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar and 2 garlic cloves, minced. Stir in 1/4 cup fresh chopped basil, 1 teaspoon oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Let the bowl stand for 1/2 hour to allow the flavors to combine. Toss with you favorite hot pasta. 4 servings.


The all time favorite, and the easiest thing to prepare: Wash and slice off the tops and bottoms of 1 pound tomatoes, and cut the tomatoes into about 3 slices each. Slice 1/2 pound mozzarella very thinly; wash and  dry 10-12 large basil leaves (more if the leaves are small). On a salad plate, arrange the mozzarella and basil on the tomato slices, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with some oregano and pepper. 4-3 servings.


A fancy-fied tomato dish to impress your guests: Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Cut 2 large beefsteak tomatoes into 1/2-inch slices. Arrange the slices, slightly overlapping, in an oiled 9-inch gratin dish or shallow casserole.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, 2 tablespoons finely chopped basil, and 1 teaspoon oregano. Cook 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, in a small pan or skillet over moderate heat, stirring until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup fresh bread crumbs, 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle over the tomatoes, and bake in the middle of oven until bread crumbs are golden, about 15 minutes. 4 servings.


In a large bowl, combine 1/4 cup olive oil and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar. Add 1 teaspoon oregano, and salt and pepper to taste; 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved; 1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced; 1 medium green bell pepper, chopped; 1/3 cup black olives, halved; 1 small red onion, chopped; and 1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley. Mix together, then stir in 1 cup crumbled feta cheese. Take 4 (8-inch) diameter pita bread, cut in halve and stuff with the tomato mixture. 4 servings.


That’s right, homemade ketchup. Believe me, much better than the stuff you get at the grocers, and much healthier. Store bought ketchup is all processed sugar and salt. Ca-ca. And the homemade brand is so easy to make: In a food processor, puree and blend 1/3 cup water; 3 small tomatoes, chopped; 2 tablespoons white vinegar; 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves; 1/4 teaspoon pepper; 1/3 cup honey; 1 tablespoon maple syrup, and 1 tablespoon cornstarch. That’s it. You’ll never use the store-bought stuff again.

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One of my favorite nibbles is the corn meal dish called “polenta.” This is finely ground yellow or white corn meal that is cooked in boiling water until it thickens. It can be eaten as is, or leftover polenta can be baked or fried. “Polenta” is an Italian word derived from the Latin pulmentum, a term used to described various crushed grains. Ancient Romans ate versions of it known as puls. It was with the introduction of corn from the New World in the 16th century that modern polenta came into being. Prior to that time the crushed grains used included such items as flour and millet.

Polenta is known as a peasant food; and it is usually served with a sauce. Today it is eaten world-wide. In southern Austria it is eaten for breakfast; along the Adriatic Coast is is called pura or palanta and is usually served with fish. In Hungary it is prepared with sweetened milk. In South Africa, it’s eaten as a cornmeal mush called mealie pap. In the southern U.S. it’s popular as a dish called coosh, cornmeal mush that is sliced and fried and topped with maple syrup.It is also traditional in Brazil, Uraguay and Argentina, where many Italian migrated to in the 19th and 20th century.

I prefer polenta with stewed chicken or gravy. But you can serve it with sausages, mushrooms, roasted vegetables, just about anything. Given below is the traditional way of making polenta. All you need is corn meal, water and butter. Nothing could be simpler, or more satisfying.


3 cups boiling water
1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup cold water
2 tablespoons butter
Salt to taste

1. Bring the 3 cups of water to a boil.
2. Combine the corn meal with the cold water, stirring to break up any lumps. Add this gradually to the boiling water, stirring constantly. Add the butter and salt and continue cooking, stirring about 15 to 20 minutes until the polenta achieves a smooth creamy texture.
     Yield: about 8 servings.

The Power of Grits

I came across grits, that all-American gem, while stationed down South during my time in the Marine Corps. And I got to love them. I was, and remained hooked on grits. This archetypical Southern staple is like no other. Strange that a kid from Spanish Harlem should become so enamored of this dish but, then, why not?

Grits are of North American Indian origin. It is simply coarsely ground corn. The preferred version in the South is hominy grits. This is field corn that is soaked in lye water (what in the old days was known as potash water). The corn kernels swell to twice their size, and are then dried and ground. Hominy as an Indian food goes back to at least 5,000. When European colonists came to the Americas, the Indians taught them how to make it. Hominy comes in three varieties: fine, medium or coarse. A newer innovation, quick grits, is very fine grain that has been pre-steamed. But no real Southerner would ever eat or cook quick grits. That would be sacrilege. To them the old-fashioned stone ground gits is the real deal.

Grits comprise the typical Southern breakfast. They are nominally served with butter, sausage, country ham or red-eye gravy. The words “grits” is derived from the Old English “grytt,” meaning coarse corn meal. As such grits is similar to corn-based porridges such as the Italian polenta and the ever popular farina. Besides breakfast, grits has another use: when I was down South they would take leftover cold grits, slice it like bread and fry the slices in oil. Another way to enjoy this heavenly item.

When making grits, the rule of thumb is that grits it will consume four times their volume. So, for 1 cup of grits use 4 cups or water or chicken stock, and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the liquid is absorbed. I recall that grits was popularized in the 70s TV series Alice where the waitress, Flo, working at Mel’s Roadside Diner, would always exclaimed, “Mel, kiss mah grits!” And, just one more fact, there’s even a World  Grits Festival held yearly in St. George, South Carolina.

The recipe given below is simply grits cooked with onion, garlic, nutmeg, red pepper, Cheddar cheese and eggs. Then the whole thing is baked in a casserole. Another innovative way to cook grits, and it’s scrumptious.


1 cup grits
4 cups boiling water or chicken stock
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
4 eggs, separated

1. Stir grits into boiling water or stock. Add salt and cook until soft.
2. As the grits cook, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
3. In a small pan, melt the butter and saute the onion and garlic until soft.
4. Add to the cooked grits along with the nutmeg, red pepper and Cheddar cheese. Stir to combine.
5. Let cool slightly and add the egg yolks.  In a small separate bowl beat egg whites until stiff and they  hold soft peaks. Fold into grits mixture.
6. Spoon mixture into a casserole (about 2 quarts). Here I prefer to use a cast-iron pan. But any good baking pan or souffle dish will do. Place in oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until desired degree of doneness.
    Yield: Six or more servings.

How About Some Kasha Varnishkes?

In the last post I included a recipe for latkes, a traditional dish served during Chanukah, to honor the Festival of Lights. Traditionally, my Jewish friends serve latkes with beef brisket. However, it has been my experience and preference that a great dish to serve with brisket is none other than that usual standby, kasha varnishkes.

Kasha is boiled or baked buckwheat. Actually, buckwheat that has been hulled and crushed. It is a side dish (think of rice or pasta) popular in Eastern Europe. It is traditional comfort food. I love kasha varnishkes, by itself, or as an accompaniment to a main meal. And I prefer that popularly known brand, Wolff’s Kasha. So, without further ado, here is my version of kasha varnishkes.


1 cup kasha (medium grain)
1 large egg (or egg white, if preferred), slightly beaten
1/4 cup margarine or olive oil (being Latino, I prefer the latter)
1 large onion, thinly sliced in rounds
2 cups chicken broth or bouillon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 cup bow-tie noodles
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1. In a small bowl, combine the egg and kasha. Using a wooden spoon or fork, mix well, making sure all the kasha kernels are coated with the egg.
2. Heat oil or margarine in a heavy skillet or frypan, and saute onions until translucent.
3. Stir in kasha mixture, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add broth or bouillon, salt, pepper, and oregano. Bring to a boil, cover tightly and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, bring a medium-to-large pot of water to a boil. Cook the bow-tie noodles according to package directions. Drain.
5. When kasha is done, stir in cooked noodles. Put skillet or frypan in the broiler and brown under broiler flame (1-2 minutes).
6. Remove from boiler, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with gravy or as is.
Yield: 4 servings.

Note: You can also convert this dish into kasha pilaf by omitting the noodles, and sauteing 1/2 cup sliced mushrooms along with the onions. Or you can add 3/4 canned chickpeas, drained, to the broth or bouillon. This is the fancier way of cooking kasha.

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The Alimighty Egg Cream

I recall the first time I was down south, and it was when I was in the military, fresh out of boot camp. I stopped by a local soda fountain store in some God-forsaken burg somewhere and asked for an egg cream. The old cracker behind the counter gave me a weird look and said, “Pard’on?” I repeated my request. He stared at me myopically through thick lens glasses and said, “Yuh wan’ an a-i-ggh in yore cream?” I knew then I was in foreign territory, at least where egg creams are concerned.

Egg creams, in the north, and by that I mean the New York metropolitan area, are a rite of passage, a legendary elixir that defies imagination. I’ve had a love affair when egg creams since my early youth. Even in the Spanish Harlem of old, we revered egg creams. It transcended race, creed, nationality. It was, and still is to some of us, the ultimate good time drink—especially in you like chocolate.

Egg cream’s genesis is said to have begun in Brooklyn, N.Y. Yes, the same borough that gave the world Barbra Streisand, Neil Simon, Neil Young and William Bendix, gave us the egg cream, that immutable mix of cold milk (whole, not skim or partially skimmed), chocolate syrup and seltzer. Historians claims that is began in the Jewish community in the 18880s and 1900s. Yet, it does not have an egg. Some authorities state that initially, before World War II, it did contain an egg that was mixed in with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. I cannot say if this is true or not. The consensus behind this theory is that the egg was dropped from the drink because of wartime rationing.

What I do know is that in my part of the world there has been an ongoing discussion, some would say an argument, about what type of chocolate syrup to use. When I was a kid, it was divided into two camps: those who favored the traditional Fox’s U-bet Chocolate Syrup, and those who preferred Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. In my neighborhood, there were some partisans who used Bosco as the syrup base. I have never tried it with that.

Sadly, egg creams are becoming a nostalgic entity. Back in my youth, there were neighborhood soda fountains all over, and each served egg creams. Today, they are harder to find. My favorite New York egg cream these days comes from Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, a diner that has been on 5th Avenue and 22nd street since 1929.

At home, I still make my own egg creams. And I still use the traditional small Coca-Cola glass for it. There are many variations to making a genuine New York egg cream, as you will see below. But in all cases it is imperative that you use a long spoon to mix the chocolate and the milk in order to get a foamy white head.

Here’s a traditional recipe. Oh, yes, very important, the classic egg cream should be drunk straight from the glass. I find that I lose something if I drink it through a straw; I just don’t get the taste of the foamy cream.



1/2 cup cold milk
1 cup bottled seltzer or club soda
2 tablespoons chocolate syrup (or more to taste)

Pour the milk in the bottom of a soda glass. Then drop the chocolate down the side of the glass and gently mix it with the milk, using a long-handled spoon. Now pour the seltzer down the center of the glass and stir with the spoon to generate a thick white foamy head. Some variations argue that you should stir the mixture only after everything has been added, being careful not to disturb the foam. And some say, first add some milk, then the syrup, then more milk and the seltzer. And still others claim that it tastes better using whipped cream instead of milk. You are free to experiment to see which one suits your palate.

The New York Bagel

To me, bagels are like a religious experience. And that’s saying a lot for a non-believer. For every New Yorker, bar none, bagels are a rite of passage. This delicious savory transcends race, creed, gender, ethnicity, political affiliations,whatever. If you’re a newcomer in the city, or been here all your life, bagels are part of your psyche. For most, it is the morning meal that defines your day.

Nothing compares to a New York style bagel, boiled, chewy, and crusty. Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought the bagel with them to North America at the turn of the twentieth century. And they settled all over, not only in New York. Many went to Canada so that today you have the Toronto and Montreal-style bagel. I’ve had Canadian bagels. They’re not bad. But there’s something about a New York bagel that just makes it different. Some say it’s the water and, to a certain extent that may be so. Supposedly, the water from New York reservoirs is among the best in the nation. All I know in that I’ve had bagels (or facsimiles thereof) in other parts of the nation and Europe. It ain’t the same.

However, I did discover that when the genuine thing is not available, there are passable substitutes. About fifteen years ago I took a trip to Bozeman, Montana, a beautiful part of the country. No New York bagels. But I discovered that, in a pinch, Lender’s Frozen bagels aren’t that bad—especially if you’ve got nothing else.

And of course, we all have our preferences in types and flavors. We know that bagels are often topped with seeds (the most popular being poppy and sesame), or infused with other ingredients. My wife, Holly, prefers onion bagels. I prefer pumpernickel. We both love our bagels topped with whitefish. Although, from what I’ve seen, the all-time favorite is still bagels with lox and a schmear (cream cheese). Lox is cured salmon. I prefer Nova, or Nova Scotia lox, which is cured in a milder brine solution. Some aficionados prefer gravlax (gravad lox), which is not smoked and coated with a spice mixture.

Most Midwesterners out there are saying, What’s with this bagel thing? Well, it’s like an egg-cream soda, another New York staple. If you’ve never had it, you just don’t know. When I was in Buffalo one time, I had a beef on wek. It’s a local thing that once you try it, you get hooked.

Oh, if you can find a genuine shop that makes their own bagels on premises, like Bagel Works on First Avenue, then you’ve struck gold. Bagels have become a big industry and most are now made for distribution nation wide. So, if you have to, wherever you may be, look out for the local product. Believe it or not, they are out there. We discovered local bagel joints even in the wilds of Vermont. If it’s made on site, you’re in heaven.


Pizza: The Great Jewish Invention

Ever wonder how pizza, one of America’s favorite foods, came about? Millions of pies are consumed daily. But how did it all begin? And where did it come from? Of course, one never thinks of this while enjoying their favorite slice. Leave it to a compulsive nut like me to reflect on this. Yet Pizza does have an interesting and varied history. First of all, we think of it as an Italian invention. Well, there are many theories out there as to the origins of pizza, and in this respect our Italian brethren are not the only ones involved.

Pizza, at its basic, is baked dough with toppings; and its genesis comes from flat, round bread cakes that have been with us since the beginning of time. The ancient Greeks had a flat round bread (plankuntos) baked with an assortment and toppings and eaten at the time by the common folk. In ancient Persia (modern day Iraq) soldiers of Darius the Great in the 6th century B.C.E. baked a kind of flat bread on their shields and covered it with dates and cheese. But I do not credit the invention of pizza to those great empires, mighty though they may have been. My favorite theory about the invention of pizza involves the Jews and Imperial Rome. Scoff in you will, but the logic and proof is irrefutable. Just as some credit Irish monks with preserving ancient manuscripts and thus saving western civilization during the Dark Ages, I credit the Jews with inspiring America’s favorite snack.

Here’s how it all happened. In the year 66 of the Common Era, the Jews rose up in revolt against their Roman oppressors in then Judea (modern day Israel). The Romans sent in general Titus Flavius Vespasian with four legions, among them the 10th Legion. The revolt lasted until September 70 C.E. During that time, the soldiers of the 10th legion faced a shortage of supplies, primarily bread. The only thing they had available was unleavened bread that the Jews ate, especially during their holy days. The Jewish unleavened bread was much like present day pita bread, which is still consumed today in Greece and the Middle East (along with countless yuppies on the East Side). But the Romans couldn’t stomach this unleavened bread because, truthfully, to them it tasted awful. So they put toppings on it, usually a mix of olive oil, vegetables, herbs and even honey.

With the squashing of the revolt, the 10th Legion was sent back to its home base in Naples. And the legionaries (much like the GIs returning from Italy after the Second World War with a yen for newly discovered pizza) brought back with them a taste for this flavored flat bread. Soon it became a Naples favorite. In fact, shops have been discovered in the ancient city of Pompeii complete with marble slabs and other tools which resemble a conventional pizzeria.

What about the tomatoes and cheese and all that other stuff? The Romans used cheese as a topping as well. Tomatoes were brought to Europe from Peru in the 16th century, and people in Naples started adding tomatoes to the flat bread

to create the simple pizza that we know today. They became known as “Neopolitan pies” and the men who baked the dish (in the poorer sections of Naples, by the way) were “pizzaioli”—hence the pie became “pizza.”

So there you have it. You can thank our Jewish brethren (by way of the ancient Romans) for this heavenly creation. Today there are hundreds of toppings for pizza, everything from Jalapeno peppers to caviar. It is estimated that American and Canadian citizens eat an average of 23 pounds of pizza, per person, per year, with the favorite topping combination being pepperoni and cheese. And February 9th is International Pizza Day!

Below is the simplest pizza recipe I know. It’s not your traditional pie. It follows more along the lines of the savory enjoyed by the ancient Romans in that it uses a flat bread as the pie. In this case, focaccia. You can get focaccia bread in almost any supermarket these days. My favorite is the Boboli brand which comes in original pizza crust, thin crust, or 100% whole wheat. The recipe is a variation on Pizza Margherita, named after Queen Margherita of Italy who is reputed in 1889 to have inspired her chef to create a pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil—to emulate the color of the Italian flag: Red, white and green.

Combine 2 tablespoons olive oil; 1/2 pound plum, chopped tomatoes (can use good quality canned tomatoes); 2 garlic cloves, finely minced; and salt to taste. Set aside. Top the focaccia with 6 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese, and then add the tomato mixture. Bake on a baking sheet or oven rack at 450 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and top with 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese and 1/4 cup fresh chopped basil. Cut into wedges and serve.

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