The -35% salad

11 May

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I’m taking a cooking class on coursera.org. It’s a course on Child Nutrition and Cooking which is not necessarily a course about advanced cooking techniques or anything of that sort. The content of the course seems mostly tailored on preventing Americans from exploding by providing an alternative to fast food, which is a bit of a downer because I do not think the problem is so big outside the USA, but the course is still fun and that’s enough.

The course also requires to hand in some assignments, which, for this particular week, required to make a salad containing at least three vegetables. At the beginning of my project I was bit struggling with deciding what I should do for salad because there are so many different varieties of salad one can do that I could not decide what or which ingredients to use. Plus I did not want to use the recipe of a salad from, I don’t know, Yottam Ottolenghi, Bill Granger, or whoever. While thinking on a plausible solution I had a revelation: I’ll combine my two passions (1) cooking (2) prevent supermarket food from going to waste. I will make a salad which contains only products which are sold in discount. This discount policy is adopted by some supermarket chains in Europe who apply a discount on food which would otherwise be thrown away at the end of the day. It might sound gross, but it really is not. It isn’t that supermarket sell food that is gone off, it’s just before the expiring date. The ‘expiration’ indicator with vegetables, which don’t have an expiration date, is their fresh look or the fact that in a pack of six tomatoes, for example, one is gone off. Anyway, because the supermarket I go most frequently apply a 35% discount to these products, I named my `project’ salad: The 35% off salad.

Obviously, the ingredients which go in a 35% discount salad change depending on season and daily availability, but what I found today were: 400g of cherry tomatoes, 1 iceberg lettuce, 300g of spinaches, 1 yellow pepper, 1 red onion, and a small bunch of radishes. There was also some Greek feta in discount so I bought that one as well.

First I cleaned and washed all the vegetables and removed the rotten leaves and tomatoes I broke the big leaves of the lettuce and spinaches. Then I cut the yellow pepper, crumbled the feta and sliced finely the radices. I then halved the cherry tomatoes, and transferred everything into a mixing bowl.

For the dressing I wanted to make something with yoghurt, but I then defaulted on the red onion. I sliced it finely, and marinated with the zest and juice of an orange. To given it even more body I added two spoons of white balsamico and a spoon of ginger juice. I then plucked and chopped finely some fresh parsley and chive, mixed everything nicely together and seasoned with freshly ground salt and pepper.

Well, among the other things the salad had to appear appealing and with a nice colours combination. What do you think, will I pass?

Basic pasta (or fresh pasta 0.01)

6 Mar

Cooking, reading, thinking and writing about food is a very good procrastination tool. My fb page is now cluttered with recipes and tips & tricks from all the cooks and magazine I like, and I love it. Just last Saturday I have tried 3 new recipes. They looked appealing but they were, all considered, not very special.  Just explaining how I will consider a recipe as a good recipe or not will require a whole post (and it is arguably less interesting that what I want to say). However, just food (or talking about food) in itself is not going to get me out of unemployment, so I have to be more active in the unemployment front. To balance the thin food/work-seeking equilibrium I try to spend more or less the same amount of time I spend in looking around in cooking sites also looking for possible jobs. Today I sent in a couple of applications and therefore I thought it was just fair to write also something on my little blog. In some way I consider this post a bit of a treat, and I am going to make this treat about a short story on making the easiest `pasta all’uovo’.

Marleen and I love `pasta all’uovo’ (fresh pasta) and I wanted to write a post about it for a very long time. However, every time I was starting to write I stopped even before considering typing because myriads of thoughts and ideas cluttered my mind. I feared I would have written such a long a post that it would have become unreadable. In essence, I was not sure how to organize a post on fresh pasta when I had so much to talk about. But I had a (brilliant) idea.

I will write a series of posts, which will increase with the difficulty of the procedures involved. I will start with a post that explains how to make the simplest fresh pasta and then build upon that post. The thing is I love, absolutely love, making filled pasta (e.g., ravioli, cappelletti, cappellacci, tortelli, tortelloni, tortellini). However, a fresh-pasta-marker (fresh in the sense of newbie, but also in the sense of a maker of fresh pasta, I like the subtlety of that double meaning) should not start with pasta-making making filled pasta. In fact, filled pasta requires a bit of experience managing the dough, having previous experience will help in the process of making filled pasta because there are many little tricks one can use to fix the pasta. The reason I’m making this rather tedious and boring preamble is that many friends very enthusiastically bought a pasta machine, used it once, got upset and never used it again. That is NOT what should happen. Start easy and then go complex, that is true also for pasta making. If one’s desire is only the making of filled pasta, then their best option is to ask a friend, who already have experience, to help them out.

The easiest fresh pasta one can make is the pasta sheets for lasagna. Why? Because if anything goes wrong there is (usually) an easy to fix. But before getting into fixing let’s bother about getting something to fix!

Making lasagna sheets is easy. What you need is 100 g of flour and 1 large egg per person, more if your guests have a large appetite. Many cooking sites, books, magazine etc. says you should use flour `00 ‘ (double zero), but I do not. And I am Italian (OKOK, I live in the Netherlands and `farina 00’ can be bought at kidney’s prices here in comparison to Italy, and given that I have only two kidneys  selling them for a pack of flour seems a bit… paradoxical), but still, white wheat flour will do fine. Then you need to mix flour and egg(s).

Mixing can be done in 2 (that I can think of) ways: automated, manually. If you have a kitchen machine that’s easy, just put flour and eggs in proportion to the pasta eaters and let it mix (e.g., 1-2 minutes) until it forms a ball which should look like the photo – that dough is brown because it contains cocoa powder (Note: if the ball forms quicker you do not need to let the engine of your kitchen machine going). If the ball does not form within that interval and you have clues that it won’t form you have to consider whether the dough is too wet (too much fluid) or too dry (too much floor). All you have to do is add the opposite ingredient (water if dough is dry and flour if dough is wet) consider adding small quantities (e.g., table spoons as, for example, adding 1 spoon, let mix 10-20 seconds, so that you won’t get with three time the amount of pasta you wanted to work with in the first place).

The manual procedure, if you like to work with your hands, is more fun, more environmentally friendly, a bit more messy, requires less washing up (unless you throw everything in the dishwasher) than the ‘robotic’ one. All you need is to create a small pile of flour and dig a little hole in the middle (as a volcano) – NOTE that you should not reach the surface of the surface on which you are making your dough.  You break the egg(s) in the hole of the volcano and start mixing with a fork. When you see that mixing can be done with the hands then you start working the dough. This is usually done pushing and folding the pasta. Push the pasta with the palm(s) simultaneously stretching it with your (arched) fingers and then folding it again. You repeat this for 10-20 minutes or until you think the dough is elastic enough. I find that if the pasta dough is good, this pushing-stretching-folding activity is quite enjoyable. If the pasta dough is sticky or too dry you need to add water/flour little by little. What I do is just to spread a spoon of flour/water on the working surface and work the dough through it.

If you want to add salt to your dough you do it before mixing with the egg(s). And to make sure the salt is maximally distributed with the flour mix a bit before adding the egg(s). Personally I never add salt because I cook the pasta in salty water (the golden ration is 10:100:1000 for salt, pasta, water) and I think it’s enough. I do not add it also if the recipe says to do it, but that is my personal preference.

When you are done you leave your dough to rest for 30 min / 1 hour / 1 day if you plan to use it the day after. Getting the dough to rest is not a necessary step, you will be able to work it in any case, but it helps the elasticity of the dough. If you have the time let it rest, otherwise get to the pasta machine and roll it through it. If you do not have a pasta machine you can flatten the pasta with a rolling pin. Flattening the pasta with a rolling pin is a bit of work, the only suggestion I can give is that it is way easier if you roll little snakes (as for the gnocchi) out of your ball of pasta and then flatten those. The flattening of the piece of pasta is also a trick one can use to pass the pasta through the pasta machine. Flattening a short pasta `cylinder’ will (1) make the pasta sheet broader than if it wouldn’t be flat and (2) save time because there is no need to fold it several times before it acquires the desired thickness.

This post is getting long now, therefore the rest will come in a follow up. There is one last point to mention: one could argue that lasagna actually requires more work than, for example, tagliatelle or tagliolini (which are lasagne sheets which are cut when still fresh and eaten with a sauce, e.g. ragu alla bolognese / pesto alla genovese). I will not argue with that. I am saying that pasta sheets are the easiest to make, and not that the actual use of the lasagna sheet might be more than tagliatelle. All considered, tagliatelle requires to make a next step, whereas lasagna sheet just need to be passed through the rolls of the pasta machine. Moreover, sticky lasagna sheet are way easier to work with than sticky tagliatelle. In fact, sticky tagliatelle will glue together, whereas sticky lasagna sheets can be put in the lasagna nonetheless they are sticky. In any case, a good alternative could be to split work with your partner/neighbour , if you make a proper agreement s/he can make the rest of the lasagna and then you’ll both be happy. What about that for a suggestion?!?!?

Muffins with mozzarella and herbs

19 Feb

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Most muffins are sweet, but since Marleen and I tried salty muffins and were really happy with them for lunch/brunch I thought I give a try to something new. Also, I already backed a cake this week and (1) I did not want to overdo it with sweetness (2) it was not all consumed. Therefore there was no reason to make another cake unless Marleen and I are considering joining a ball-shaped humans competition. Moreover, yesterday I was in experimenting mood, therefore I decided to experiment with muffins.

I had a goal in mind for this muffins. They should have satisfied the prerequisites of (1) could be eat by Fay (who is now 7 months) (2) could work as a snack (3) could be a relatively easy and `healthy’ lunch (easy in the sense that Marleen could bring the lunch to work without too much trouble), (4) which could go in the oven simultaneously with the lasagna, which needed to be backed 30 min at 190°C. I thought that (1) muffins were pretty portable, (2) I could have replaced butter or oil with yoghurt and milk, (3) used half white and whole-wheat flour so that it would have been a bit more `wholemeal’, and (4) remove the salt therefore `becoming’ Fay proof (whole-wheat flour is not recommended for kids that are less that 1 year old, but I think it’s only because they don’t digest it, so that’s not too much of a problem). This makes for pretty healthy, pretty boring muffins. Therefore, to make the muffins a little bit less boring I thought I could have added mozzarella and a bit of fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and parsley (I wanted to add also sage, but I forgot).

This is what I mixed together. 150g of white and whole-wheat flour each, 1 teaspoon of both baking-powder and soda, half a teaspoon of sugar, 125g of mozzarella in cubes, a tablespoon each of finely chopped rosemary, thyme and parsley, 100ml of yoghurt 100ml of milk and 2 eggs.

And this is how I mixed it together. First I mixed the flours with the dry ingredients. The purpose of this mixing is to distribute all ingredients equivalently in the dough. Then I added the herbs and the mozzarella’s cubes and mixed everything again. I then mix together yoghurt, milk and eggs and then added this batter to the mix of flour. After mixing this well together I spooned it in a muffin’s baking form and set it on the oven while I finished the lasagna. When ready I baked muffins and lasagna at 190°C for 30 minutes.

To my surprise they became more tasty than I thought. The fact that salt is absent is rather noticeable, but it is not too disturbing. Actually, if one is thinking that the absence of salt makes the muffins much healthier than if the muffins would contain salt, then the muffins become very tasty. Another surprise was the crunchiness and fluffiness of the muffins. I think the crunchiness came from the fact that I used whole-wheat flour, because it is more or less the same effect that whole-wheat flour does to bread. The extra fluffiness might instead have come from the fact that I left the muffins rest in the oven before baking them. The resting time and the absence of drafts in the oven likely initiated the rising process and therefore might have boosted the fluffiness of muffin, which would have been probably a bit less risen if it would only have been cooked. I now for sure I’ll try again, but for now I had to write it down before I forget what I did. Cheers.

Thuisafgehaald

1 Feb

Thuisafgehaald literally translates to: picked-up at home. It is a Dutch `invention’ and the Thuisafgehaald concept is simple: share your meals in the neighbourhood to reduce wasted food. Basically, if you go to http://www.thuisafgehaald.nl/, you enter a website which makes it possible to, (after you enter your postal code) find whether some of your neighbours (in the Netherlands) cooked something nice for dinner and whether you can pick it up. In fact, the interface will show what your  `neighbour’ is offering, how many €s s/he asks for it, and when you can come and collect it.

The thuisafgehaald definition of neighbour is a bit abstract.  The default range of distance is minimally 1 Km, so it might be that your actual neighbour is not even participating, but the guy down the hallway (or around the block) might. The range of distances extend to up to 10 Km, so you  might consider a quick stop on the way home from work. In essence, if you can quickly set it in the oven or microwaving your food will not disintegrate all the texture, why not picking up 10 Km from your house?

But who is cooking? Anybody can cook (yes, like in Ratatouille). Marleen and I have been participating since October 2012. If you’d like to give a look to our profile you can find it here. http://www.thuisafgehaald.nl/koks/marleen-paolo/item30350. It is actually a very convenient way to cook, because there is no need to divide or multiply the ingredients according to the persons eating, so rather than cooking for two you can cook for four, six or eight people. I find this sometimes makes recipes a lot easier to deal with than if you would only make it for two persons.

Besides from not having to recalculate every recipe’s quantity there are also other advantages to thuisafgehaald. For instance you get to know new people in the neighbourhood. Some comes again, so you get to know them a bit more  and then (especially I)  feel a bit more integrated with these Dutchies. With some others you get to have conversations about food, recipes and books, so it becomes indeed some kind of extended neighbourhood. It is also a very good opportunity to practice the language, in fact I am trying to  speak only Dutch with the people who comes over.

Picking up food at somebody’s else place is also a very good sign of integration, in my opinion. You get to know people and to see differences which gains into the diversity repertoire, which is always good. Personally I always feel a bit exposed when someone comes over. One becomes paranoid about cleanness and order (I am not so good in keeping stuff organized and in their place). On the other hand, most of the time when people comes I am always a bit behind schedule so they see the kitchen in the status that it is when I am really using it. This state is comparable to a war zone, just with pens, cans, and wooden spoons instead of all the mass murder stuff used to make wars. In any case whether picking-up or giving food away thuisafgehaald is always fun, so I highly recommend it!

The thuisafgehaald concept is starting to spread around the world too. The Dutch website has been translated into  English. The English version also make it easier for the foreigners to both offer and pick up food. And the neighbourly nations Germany and Belgium are also starting their own thuisafgehaald. Being Italian, I am curious whether the thuisafgehaald concept will ever take over souther nations than these. In Italy or Spain for instance, which are regions where hospitality and the food culture are very strong and treated very differently than in NL for example, the problem is that food is shared. If one goes to somebody’s house at dinner time the family will just add a chair to the table, and then no excuses can be taken, that is how it goes. The only way to avoid being asked to join the dinner is not showing up during dinner time (which one rigorously does if he has not been invited). Also, in Italy or Spain people would feel very offended if you try to place money on the table for their food (after 8 years in the Netherlands and 4 months of Thuisafgehaald I still fell a bit embarrassed too). So I am curious to see what happens if the thuisafgehaald concept will expand to include countries such Italy or Spain.  Will the tradition change?

Torta di ricotta

29 Jan

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I have a wonderful memory of once eating the best `torta di ricotta’ ever. It was in Tuscany (Italy) and during a boy-scout camp. We went visiting a zoo or a park, the memory is a bit vague, and there was a little bar on the side of this place and there I took a slice of this amazing ricotta cake (no wonder any other memory of that day was blown off my mind). In any case, from that day ricotta cake has a special place in my heart and this is one of the (likely numerous) attempts I will make to try get to find the same type of torta di ricotta.

I have tried a torta di ricotta already. I found the recipe on the back of a ricotta package from Galbani. That recipe was not so interesting or tasty to deserve a whole post. The one I would like to talk about is actually my interpretation of a recipe that Marleen found. We bumped into this recipe because we had bought 1.5Kg of ricotta and it needed to be used. I was bored of mixing it with salty food (e.g., pasta, lasagne, filled pasta, etc.) even if there are plenty of way in which ricotta can be mixed with anything. This time I wanted to make a cake, therefore we opened the great wide internet and we start browsing for pictures of ricotta. When Marleen’s saw the picture of the blog of Chef Dennis (http://www.askchefdennis.com/2012/06/torta-di-ricotta/) she said I had to make that torta di ricotta, and I tried.

The first attempt I did exactly what Chef Dennis suggested and the ricotta cake became nice. However, I was a bit disappointed because the final result did not justify the amount of work necessary to make the cake. In fact, the dough is very difficult to manage, that is, only preparing the dough so that I could put in the filling took me around an hour. I can always blame such a long time to my incompetence or to the fact that it was the first time I tried it, but I was disappointed. Marleen also was not very enthusiastic. In essence, we both liked the cake, but I was pondering whether there was an easier way to make the cake, whereas Marleen was more of the opinion that repeating such recipe was not an effort which I should have endeavored again.

So I tried it again (this is because I like to listen to other people advice ;-)). However, this time I took what I thought were the best elements of Chef Dennis’s recipe and adapted it to make the dough a little bit more easy to work than the original recipe of Chef Dennis.

For the dough I made the `simplified’ version of the Italian pasta frolla. I call it the simplified version because I do in the kitchen machine and I am not literally following all the instruction of the bible, which is ‘La cucina italiana’. For the ingredient I took half of the quantities suggest by the book: 175g of flour, 75g of ground almond, 100 of sugar, one table spoon of baking powder, one sachet of vanilla sugar (in NL it contains 8g), the zest of a lemon and a pinch of salt. I let the machine mix this stuff together and then I added 75g of butter in small cubes and 2 eggs (also with the egg white, which makes the dough drier). I mix everything again for a minute or something and if the dough is not all forming in a block I add 1 to 3 table spoons of water until it starts to become more compact. This procedure, in my opinion, makes the dough a bit more manageable when you need to flatten it or make the borders of the cake. I think I then let it rest in the fridge for almost 1.5 days, mostly because I did not have the time to work it rather than because it needed all that time (Note that, however, according to Artusi living the pasta frolla in the fridge for longer interval is better because it makes it more friable).

For the filling I did exactly what Chef Dennis did, so I am not going to describe it. I even made the ricotta the way he describes it. The only difference is that I could not use his ‘double-boiler technique’ because with the double boiler I could not get the milk temperature above 70 Celsius deg. Therefore I placed the pan directly on the fire, but the ricotta became also in this way and I do not know whether there is a difference between the two ways of cooking it. I do tend to prefer what works for me though. On another note, this procedure yield a superdry type of ricotta which is MAGNIFICENT to use as a filling in filled pasta).

In conclusion this second time it all worked out, and now I’m spending the four-hours-waiting time before we can finally determine whether we will ever make this recipe again. The procedure was helped by the fact that the dough was easier to work with than the dough I got following Chef Dennis’s recipe. However, especially covering the cake is a bit of a delicate process and a yet even less crumbly dough than this one will make the process easier than it is. However, note that a yet more manageable dough than this one might yield a less crunchy cake than this. Anyway, with a spatula which is large enough to lift almost all the cover it was not overcomplicated. I also used a little trick to make all the cracks disappear before baking it. I took a little water mixed with a little sugar (e.g. 1 tablespoon each) and brush it on top of the cake;s cover… all the cracks seemed to be gone.

The time has almost come, will a bite of the cake blow our minds off?

Bread

17 Jan

I have been trying to make bread for a while. Because just making bread from a package seemed too simple, I wanted to try to make bread that look like the baker’s bread but from scratch, which is just mixing stuff together. Numerous attempts have failed miserably, like when I made yeast my self and being so disappointed from the whole result that I baked it all in block and reinvented how to make bricks.

Anyway, here are the ingredients, quantities and procedure to get 500 g of bread. All the procedure will take you 10 minutes (even if it seems it takes an hour to describe) plus 20-25 minutes baking. There are also 1 or 2 hours of rising time in between. OK. I mix together 200g of white wheat flour, 200g of whole wheat flour, 60g of spelt flour, 40g of kamut flour. Mix the flours together, so that they are even distributed among each other. Then add 1 teaspoon of (dry) yeast (I use dry because in Groningen I can find fresh yeast only on packages of 42g, which is a bit too much for 500g of bread). One teaspoon of baking soda. I find that backing soda does not help the rising much, but I think it helps the yeast in keeping a bit the structure of the bread. I see it in this way, the yeast gives the rising power, the backing soda provides a bit of scaffolding, so that the rose structure does not collapse. Then 1/2 teaspoon of salt (this you can leave out, then your bread will be insipid but maybe you don’t mind). 1/2 teaspoon of (brown) sugar (I use sugar because I read it on the package of the yeast that sugar should be added. Sugar activates the rise of the yeast, but I am not sure whether it is not dependent on the type of yeast and whether different types of sugar make a difference for the activation. I use brown sugar because it seems more ‘naturalistic’ than white or other sugars, and I did not try without it because that would add another variable to the equation which I was not in the mood yet to control). At this point I mix everything again, to be sure the powders are well incorporated with the flours, otherwise you get all your ‘rising power’ unevenly distributed, which makes your bread acquire curious shapes. Then I add 2-3 tablespoons of yoghurt, this is also to boost the rising process of the bread, I read yoghurt helps backing soda to kick in, which I thought I observed after I started adding yoghurt to the dough, but it might be a placebo effect. Then I mix everything again.

At this point I add 300 ml of lukewarm water and mix again. When everything seem incorporated I put it in a loaf pan and let it rise for a couple of hours. Rising is actually an interesting procedure as well, what works best for me is to place the loaf pan on a radiator with a wet cloth on top (wet because it prevents the bread from sticking to the cloth and become too dry).  Be ware that if the radiator is too hot and while transporting the bread to the oven the change in temperature is too high, your bread will collapse while you transport it to the oven. Because I have a gas oven I cannot set the temperature to less than 120 Celsius degrees and at that temperature the bread would cook. Also, I try to be a bit aware of the environment and letting the oven go for 2 hours to rise bread seems a bit too inconsiderate of the environment to me. If you want to be the most environmentally aware and your house does not need a radiator to get warm, then you can leave the bread to rise in the switched off oven, but the result will be a bit less good.

And for the backing, I do 20-25 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius, I never bother pre-heating the oven, also this to save the planet from global warming, and most of the time the bread is cooks well as well… Also with the backing procedure I’ve experimented with different settings. Always to limit wasting resources (this is also why I’m using a gas oven and trying to avoid an electric one) I try to bake multiple things at once (e.g. with the bread might go a cake, muffins, both, or other bakery products). Usually if there are not products which require a very careful backing process it works all well. For example, if I’m backing muffins and they should go for 40 min at 150 and the bread should go 20 minutes at 220, I might do 30 min at 180 and everything seems to be fine. The crust of the bread might be a bit more soft though, so what I do sometimes is to do 10 minutes at 200, then add the muffins and lower the temperature to 165-170 for 25 minutes… you need to work out what works for you and with your oven.

Also, from my experience the best results are obtained with leaving the backed products in the oven after being cooked (ever had those awesome carrot cake collapse immediately after being extracted from the oven). So be patient and let them rest a little.

Oh, and ambulance driving by woke up Fay, I need to go back to my father duties… to the next one.

25 kilos of flour

4 Jan

During Christmas Marleen and I visited Hanos in Nijmegen. Hanos is a restaurant and catering wholesale, which means you can find almost anything you have been looking for but could not find it. There is a problem with accessing the store, because you need a card you can get only as an entrepreneur, but Marleen’s parents have one so we could join them in their visit to the store.
The Hanos is nice because of the varieties of products they offer, but also for the quantity options. For instance, there were bags of 25 Kg of flours (when you are using 5-6 kg of flour a week it is a bit unhandy to buy the 1kg packs they have at the supermarket). But also packages of 1.5 Kg of gorgonzola, or ricotta. Kinds of pecorino cheese I did not even now existed, any kind of fruit, vegetable or fresh meet/fish you could come up to. Also the varieties of spices, oil, vinegar, wine, spirits etc. is enormous. We could finally find Colza oil, which I could not see in any supermarket, or other cooking shop. Colza oil is part of the dressing of the lemon-ravioli with goat-cheese which are described in Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. Now that we tried the recipe I am not sure it makes a lot of difference than the sunflower seed oil I used before, but maybe I should try again and use colza oil in one plate and sunflower oil in the other. I do not think using olive oil for this recipe is a good idea because the taste of olive oil is, I think, too strong for the ravioli. To make it less abstract the dressing of these ravioli consists on tarragon, red pepper and lemon juice (once could also add salt, but I don’t).
I’ll talk about the ravioli recipe another time but, in conclusion, the Hanos is an ingredients paradise. The only catch is that one might end up buying the whole shop (which is not very plausible when you are unemployed, or, also in this case, unemployment might help given that you really must choose on what you are going to put your money on). Last thing said, I opened the 25 Kg package of flour December 30 2012. How long will it last?