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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

I Think I Got Shipwrecked on the Spice Islands

I’ve tried everything....

Chris Terrell © 2017
Before
I’ve tried alphabetizing. I’ve tried country of origin. I’ve tried flavor profile. I’ve even tried color. No, I’m not talking about the latest culinary fads, but my spice cabinet. It’s a mess. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot keep it organized. So I continue to buy spices I don’t need because I cannot find the spices I already have. I have two jars of ground nutmeg (obviously a panic buy during Thanksgiving 2015); I have three jars of chili powder (2014 Iron Bowl?); and I have one unlabeled jar of a spice that I cannot identify (don't ask). 

If this were 1517 rather than 2017, I'd be sitting on a fortune. I would've retired on this spice cabinet way, way back in the day! 

What a difference 500 years make. 

Chris Terrell ©2017
After
If you were living in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, life was dull as dishwater. Speaking of dishwater, I’m pretty sure this is where the “don’t-drink-the-water warning” came from! The only option you had for hydration in 1354 was  to drink beer…at breakfast…at lunch…and at dinner. These folks had to have been buzzed most of the time. 

But if the water didn’t kill you, the food certainly could. It was bland. It was boiled. It was boring. No wonder folks tried to score some Malabar black pepper in a back alley moat to make that stuff edible. Pepper was medieval crack to these people. 

It was no wonder then that the Europeans' need to "spice up" their dull culinary lives lured the Portuguese explorer Vasca da Gama to India in 1498. The spices he hauled back to Europe covered his expenses several times over. Nice rate of return Mr. da Gama!  

These days, spices are cheap and scoring some nothing more dangerous than a short drive to the Piggy Wiggly. We even have entire stores dedicated to selling nothing but spices. First world problems, right?

No cuisine may have a stronger association with spices than  Indian, especially curry—a melange of various individual spices. Many of these mixtures, or "masalas," are family secrets, passed down from generation to generation. 

And speaking of Indian spices, during my expedition into the dark recesses of my spice cabinet, I found six jars containing different Indian spice blends, made by a company named  Ajika. I grabbed the jar for Tandoori Chicken Blend and, believe it or not, the “use-by” date was many months away. And on the back of the jar in very fine print was a recipe for grilled tandoori chicken that sent me scurrying in a huff to find my reading glasses. Dinner that night was solved. It was quick, easy, and tasted great. 

For this post, I wanted to share my discovery with my dear readers. However, there was one problem. Ajika no longer appears to be a going concern. I couldn’t find the website advertised on the back of the jar, and even on Amazon the available jars were limited.   

Sharing a recipe for a commercial spice blend that may or may not be readily available doesn't make a lot of sense if one can't get ahold of it. The only other option was to re-create the recipe. On the back of the jar, the ingredients were listed simply as: “cinnamon, clove, fennel, turmeric, ginger, spices.” Not much to go on. This was going to take a bit of detective work and so down the rabbit hole that is the Internet I went.

I quickly uncovered more tandoori masalas than there are bodegas in Manhattan. After several dead ends, however, I came across this recipe for tandoori masala that looked promising. So, with the Ajika spice blend  recreated—perhaps—here’s the recipe:

Grilled Tandoori Chicken

For the Tandoori Masala:

2 T cumin powder
2 T coriander powder
4 tsp turmeric powder
4 tsp chili powder
4 tbsp sweet paprika
4 tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

Preparation:

For the marinade, combine four tablespoons of the tandoori masala with 1 cup of yogurt, 4 cloves of minced garlic, 2 tablespoons of minced garlic, 4 tablespoons of lime juice (about 2 limes), and salt to taste. Pierce four boneless chicken breasts and poke numerous holes in the chicken breasts with skewers. Place the chicken in a gallon Ziploc bag with the marinade and marinate for 4 to 24 hours. Grill at high heat on both sides until tender. 


So what started out as the dreaded task of cleaning out my spice cabinet, turned into a delicious recipe for grilled tandoori chicken. And much like those discoverers of the 15th and 16th Century, I realized that one will never know how to get from the start of one's journey to the end. But then there’s a real reason for that phrase: “variety is the spice of life.”

Thursday, January 26, 2017

More Soup for You!

Winter—or the random days in Alabama when it feels like it—is one of my favorite times to cook, full of stews, braises, pies, and soups. All foods that warm the belly and feed the soul. Soup in particular pairs well with winter. It is communal; a single pot simmering on the stove for all to walk up to and savor its aromas.

And soups are surprisingly easy to make. If one can boil water and chop vegetables, one can surely make soup. This may explain why soup is one of the oldest forms of cookery. At some point, one of our distant ancestors, the proverbial “cave man,” got tired of eating tree bark and sipping water from a stream. He perhaps took that bark, maybe even a few veggies and herbs, and put them together in an earthen pot on that new-fangled invention called “fire” and—voila—soup was born!  

M.F.K. Fisher liked soup and devoted a whole chapter to it. Here’s what she had to say:

The natural procession from boiling water to boiling water with something in it can hardly be avoided, and in most cases heartily to be wished for. As a steady diet, plain water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot to two and maybe a meager bone on feast days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavor of the hot liquid.  

      —M.F.K. Fisher, How to Boil Water.

Wise words indeed! (And if she thought there were food “saints” in her day, she’d be downright shocked by today’s gastronomic high priests and priestesses!)

And while making soup is a relatively fuss-free endeavor, there are some basic tips one should keep in mind. Here are some good ones from Harold McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking:

  • Rich soups can benefit from a counterpoint of acidity. For example, vegetable purees can benefit from the savoriness of a little bacon or tomato or parmesan cheese, soy sauce, fish sauce, or miso.
  • To thicken soups with flour or starch, always pre-disperse the thickener in a roux or slurry to prevent lumpiness.
  • Add uncooked ingredients in stages to a simmering soup to avoid over- or under-cooking them. First, add whole grains, firm carrots, or celery, then more tender onions or cauliflower, pieces of chicken great or white rice or pasta; at the last minute, add delicate spinach, fish, or shellfish. 
  • Take care not to overheat the soup when adding protein, in order to avoid curdling. You can also use starch or flour to keep proteins from coagulating or curdling.

So one evening when the mercury finally fell into the moderately cold zone, I put on some music and fired up the fireplace and made soup. (OK, I don’t actually have a fireplace, but I have a great app that plays one on my TV.) 


Copyright © 2013 Chris Terrell
The Finished Product!
I made roasted cauliflower and carrot soup, a recipe for the most part of my own creation. My recipe uses sumac to add some acidity. Sumac is a shrub originating in Turkey and certain varieties are cultivated in southern Italy and in Sicily. The fleshy petals and small berries are dried and reduced to a powder which has a lemony, acidic flavor and is popular in Middle Eastern cooking. Mixed with water, it can be used in the same way as lemon juice.

Here’s the recipe:

Roasted Cauliflower and Carrot Soup with Sumac

Ingredients

1 large head of cauliflower
2 cloves of garlic
1 small yellow onion
1 1/3 lbs of carrots
1 tablespoon of coriander (ground)
1 tablespoon of sumac
1/2 tablespoon ancho chili powder
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 qt of vegetable stock
1/2 cup of dry white wine
3/4 cups of water
salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

Break apart of the cauliflower into florets and toss with olive oil and salt and pepper and spread out onto a sheet pan and roast in an oven at 425 degrees for about 30-40 minutes.
While the cauliflower roasts, dice the onion and mince the garlic. In a stock pot, place the butter and a tablespoon of the olive oil, along with some salt and pepper and sauté the onions until soft, about 10-15 minutes. Add garlic and cook for about 1 minute until fragrant.  

Add the carrots to the stock pot, along with the vegetable stock, wine, and water and bring to a boil. Then add the roasted cauliflower and reduce the heat. Cook on medium for about 35-40 minutes until the carrots and cauliflower are tender.  

Puree the soup with an immersion blender until puréed. (This is fun!) Add coriander, sumac, and ancho chili powder Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve into bowls and add a table spoon of heavy cream to each and mix. Serve immediately.

NOTE: You can also take whole coriander and roast and then grind in a mortal and pestle.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Where Are They Now?: Tuna Noodle Casserole




When: Friday, September 22, 1961
Where: Somewhere in Cleveland
[Phone rings]
Julie: Hello?
Nancy: Hey Julie, this is Nancy. Are you and Frank coming over for dinner tomorrow night?
Julie: Yes. We found a babysitter! Betsy Thompson, though she does let them watch a bit too much TV. 
Nancy: Yeah, I can see why—they just bought one of those new color TVs. Speaking of little Jimmy, how does he like his new teacher?
Julie: I think he does, especially after she brought some homemade cookies for the class. I tell you one thing though, he doesn’t like the school food. Little Jimmy still wants a homemade lunch every day. This kid is going to turn into a bologna sandwich and a Twinkie!
Nancy: No kidding! Little Bobby takes a PBJ and a Dr. Pepper in his Lawman lunchbox to school every day. Hey, speaking of something sweet, are you going to make that new Jello salad recipe?
Julie: Probably so. I know John loves Jello.
Nancy: Does he ever!  But if I could only figure out what to make for dinner. John insists on grilling some pork chops, but I don’t know…
Julie: How ‘bout something out of that fancy new cookbook John gave you for your birthday? French, right? What’s her name, Julia Child?
Nancy: Yeah, but it looks a little complicated…
Julie: What about your tuna noodle casserole? Everyone loves it, especially little Jimmy.
Nancy: Great idea! And I’ve got everything I need for it here in the cupboard… I think.  Let me  check.… Shoot, I don’t have a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. It’s OK. I’ll have Bobby ride his bike to the Fishers and grab a can.
Julie: Sounds good. We’ll take care of the cocktails. I think Frank owes John a bottle of Canadian Club. Gotta go, Jimmy is playing with Frank’s cigarette lighter again!  
Jimmy – stop that right now!
* * *
This dialogue is not an exercise in early 21st Century hipster irony. People really talked like this in 1961. More importantly, people ate like this in 1961. They liked tuna noodle casserole, Jello, and Canadian Club. 
And yet, tuna noodle casserole— let’s call it “TNC” for shortmade a comeback in my house recently. But more out of necessity than anything else.
Anyone who has visited my kitchen. quickly notices two things. First, I have a lot of pots, pans, and appliances devoted to cooking. Second, if one were to open the cabinets, one would discover a surfeit of bottles, jars, boxes, and cans containing everything from verjus, sardines, almond oil (not kidding), various types of olives, lentils, sushi rice (even though I’ve never made sushi), and jars of spices (typically 2-3 jars of each kind because I don’t check before hitting the store). It all looks like the kitchen Prospero would have had.
So one of my informal new year’s resolutions was to slowly cook through this backlog of epicurean ephemera. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. After all, what does one do with a bag of chia seeds and a very large jar of organic peanut butter from Costco?! 
And then, behind the half-empty box of elbow macaroni and saltines, I discovered several cans of tuna fish. 
Are you with me? 
Yes. TNC!
Though I grew up on TNC, it is certainly not something in my culinary wheelhouse. As a result, I consulted The Joy of Cooking, the best source for these kinds of dishes. Sure enough, there on page 96, I found a recipe for TNC. I scanned the list of ingredients. I had everything but, like Nancy, I lacked one lousy can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Does anyone buy that stuff anymore?
After a quick trip to the Piggly Wiggly, I was in business. And what a business it was: easy and cheap. And it helped clear out my cabinets. 
Like I said, I grew up on this stuff. My kids, however, were newbies. They had never had TNC I was curious how they would react. They each took a bite…. Wait… Score!  I’m making this again!
Mid-century modern is certainly having a moment. Mad Men was a huge hit. Skinny ties are back, and Eames chairs are all the rage. But the food? Not so much. 
As for “little Jimmy?” He retired from the hedge fund he ran in New York. He lives in Napa. He’s vegan and hates tuna noodle casserole.
Hey Jimmy: my kids love it. 
Times change.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Is It Midnight Yet?

“For just one night let’s not be co-workers. Let's be co-people.”

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

© 2013 Chris Terrell
Don't have too many of these at the holiday office party!
This wild ride called 2016 is coming to a close. Some of us will, no doubt, wrap the year up with a traditional New Year's Eve party, an odd tradition that, for many us, means the first day of the new year is spent downing a lot of aspirin or even a little Hair-of-the-Dog.  The one advantage that a typical NYE party does have, however, is this: it is NOT the holiday office party—that annual party many of us survived several weeks ago and, one would hope, has now long been forgotten by its participants. 

There are many different types of office parties depending on where you work and in what kind of industry you work. (Lawyers can be pretty wild when let out of their pinstriped cages.) To better understand the myriad office parties/work parties (or any party for that matter), I decided to compare them to some of my favorite movies. And to keep this blog entry as closely related to food as possible, I’ve quoted a line from the movie that relates to food or eating. I’ve now decided to make this a fun movie game: find the foodie quote in movies not ostensibly related to food.

The Godfather (Part I or II)

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

These are the office parties where your boss expects you to attend. In fact, it is probably required. When you get the invitation, you can hear your boss, sitting in the cold recesses of his top floor corner office, speaking coldly to his secretary: “I'll make him an offer he can't refuse.” These are typically invite-only parties, reserved for “upper management.” This fact creates envy amongst your co-workers who were not invited, thereby adding to the stress of the evening. If they only knew that you would prefer to trade in your invite on some kind of invite exchange and stay home with a six-pack of PBR, a pizza, and the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

The Graduate

Mr. Braddock: Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.

Benjamin: Oh, it's not. It's completely baked.

This is the kind of party in which a boozy Mrs. Robinson wanna-be is in attendance. She spends the whole night trying to drag you into the back corner, whilst telling you how bored she is. This particular party guest, however, is in excellent shape for her age (expensive Pilates classes) and shows up one step ahead of the competition in terms of how many drinks she’s had. Her dress is expensive and low-cut and she always stands too close, with one hand glued to the small of your back.  Now don’t get me wrong, I thought Anne Bancroft was hot as hell in that movie and Benjamin Braddock was a fool at first, but it is a lot different when your office party’s version of Mrs. Robinson is the wife of an executive VP who wants you to marry their daughter. Of course, you spend the whole time worrying that you don’t drink too much and do something stupid. To borrow a line from the movie above: “women are more dangerous than shotguns.”

Another use for this movie reference would be the party with the really bad food; food that tastes like…shall we say….plastic? Oh come on, you remember:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Forest Gump

“My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.’”

Remember Bubba Blue from Forrest Gump? He was the guy who talked about 2,465 different ways to prepare shrimp: “You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it.” Well, this is the party where there’s always that one guest you try to avoid—maybe it’s Bob from accounting or Janice from the mail room—who thinks you are their best friend (or at least the only person too polite not to run away) and who proceeds to talk your ear off, as you try to figure out how to talk to that cute new girl in HR. They will tell you every boring detail of their otherwise dull life, as you try and pull away, reflexively drinking from a beer that you finished about twenty minutes ago. 

Titantic

“Why do they insist on announcing dinner like a damned cavalry charge?”

This is the office party where we know how it's going to end, and we know that it is going to end badly.  Like Mr. Fleet in the crow’s nest who first sees the iceberg dead ahead, the sense of inevitable doom is palpable.  These office parties are more typical for smaller companies  where everyone knows each other; the hierarchy is rather flat; and the workforce is young. Think dot com start-up or even a restaurant. I’ve been to these parties. Eventually, someone gets way too drunk. Someone gets way too belligerent. And someone gets way too frisky. And like The Hangover, Parts 1-16, no one ever remembers a damn thing in the morning. As a result, no one gets fired!

Midnight in Paris

“[B]ut I will say that we both like Indian food, not all Indian food, but the pita bread, we both like pita bread, I guess it’s called naan.”

This is the office party you haven’t been to in a long time, or one in which old friends or a girlfriend plans to attend, or even an party at the company or firm where you worked for many years. As a result, you have very unrealistic, if not downright romantic, notions about what to expect at such a party. As Gil discovers, the idealized past wilts in the blazing noonday sun of the present. But like the dialogue in Midnight in Paris, the conversation amongst old friends is relaxed and nostalgic and, like an old sweater, it feels comfortable even if a bit tight around the middle.

Well, there you have it—the unofficial five categories of office parties explained through the movies. Think of this as a public service announcement.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

What you hear coming from your radio this time of year is not Sleigh Ride or The Christmas Song, but a train whistle of inevitability. With only about 36 hours left, Christmas is coming at you like a Japanese bullet train. And speaking of bullet trains, there is real cause for concern that if I eat one more piece of rum cake and have one more glass of eggnog, that the button on my jeans may pop off and fly across the room and take out someone’s eye.

Christmas is as much about food (and drinking) as it is about presents. But at least the presents don't make us fat! So in the spirit of the season, let’s talk about Christmas food. After all, next month, we’ll all be talking about diets. Ugh.

And when it comes to Christmas food and drink, what two always come to mind (even if we never have any)? Yep, eggnog and fruit cake.

EGGNOG

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, eggnog is enjoying something of a comeback.  In the article, Joe Miller, director of marketing at Trickling Creamery in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, is quoted as saying, “[w]e’re getting a lot of coffee shops and restaurants doing interesting things with eggnog.” Really? I’m not sure I would put the word “interesting” and eggnog in the same sentence.

The second question most of ask about eggnog (the first one being, “why the hell would anyone drink that?”), is what is “nog”? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, nog was "a kind of strong beer brewed in East Anglia.” That makes sense, because about the only way to drink this stuff is with copious amounts of bourbon. And spiked ‘nog is certainly helpful at those holiday gatherings. If your Aunt Rita is going on and on about your Uncle Ralph, then slip her a little eggnog with a lot of Jim Beam.

FRUITCAKE

Around the holidays, I try to remember the less fortunate. I get toys for the angel tree at work. I put money in the Salvation Army kettles. I buy a fruitcake, that multi-colored, dusty brick orphan alone on the shelf at the Piggly Wiggly. (I don’t think a new fruitcake has been made since 1978; they just get passed from family to family, year after year.) 

It’s Christmas, and I get sentimental at this time of year, and I’ve always felt a bit sorry for fruitcake. Let’s face it: fruitcake may be the most maligned and ridiculed food in the Western world. But it shouldn’t. Fruit cake is nothing more than cake with dried fruit and nuts, hence the name. And based on that definition, fruitcake has been around a long time. The Romans ate a type of fruitcake that consisted of pomegranate seeds in a barley mash.  From there, it spread to the rest of Europe and then on to Aisle 4 at your local supermarket. 

And while I don’t eat fruitcake very often, when I do it’s Claxton. This iconic fruitcake has been made in Claxton, Georgia, for a hundred years. But just because Claxton has been around a long time, doesn’t mean it's not in step with the times. Claxton now makes something called ClaxSnax, which according to the company’s website is “Claxton Fruit Cake by the slice, individually wrapped for freshness.” What’s next ? One hundred calorie “ClaxSnax” packs? (For the record, that would be a piece of fruitcake the size of a quarter—have you read the calorie count on the back of the box?!)


I’ve been told that fruitcake is not that hard to make and can actually be made quite well. The jury is still out on that one and besides, the holidays are nearly done and I’m done with cooking, so maybe next year. Until then, grab a fruitcake from your local grocery store at half-off and scarf down the last few fatty calories before the new year, when we all will be forced to hit the gym!


Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Holiday on Ice

“Eggnog tastes 80% better in a collared cardigan sweater.” —Jack Nicholson—



Starting on Thanksgiving morning, with that first Bloody Mary, and ending with that last glass of Champagne on New Year’s Eve, the holidays are a liver-busting, moonshine marathon. There’s rum cake, rum balls, rum punch, red wine, white wine, brown water, and plenty of bubbly. It’s a wonder we remember the holidays at all. But then again, maybe that’s the point. Do you really want to remember your obnoxious brother-in-law and Aunt Ethel’s fruitcake?

Of course, at one point in our nation’s history, such revelry would have landed you in the pokey. We’ve forgotten how much easier (and legal) it is for us to get a little tipsy and flirt with our secretaries at the office holiday party.


And so during this time of giving and giving thanks, it is only proper that we remember an obscure date that went unnoticed about ten days ago: the end of Prohibition. On December 5, 1933, the humble State of Utah adopted the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thus making it possible for many a husband to tolerate his mother-in-law at Christmas. 


But how the heck did Prohibition even happen in the first place? Did we really amend the oldest written constitution in the world to outlaw non-GMO drinks that have been around since ancient Egypt? 


Yep, we sure did.


Party Pooper!
On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the 35th state to ratify the 18th amendment. And one year after ratification, on the  stroke of midnight on Saturday, January 17, 1920, the manufacture and the sale and the transportation of intoxicating liquor was prohibited in every corner of our great republic. Surely the irony is not lost on me that Prohibition began on a Saturday. 

To add insult to injury, the enabling act for the amendment was called the Volstead Act, named after Congressman Andrew Volstead of Minnesota. It is only fitting that an act to take all the fun out of Christmas was named after someone who sounds like a bad guy from a Harry Potter novel.

Prohibition’s proponents were mostly rural; its opponents, mostly urban—a political divide that endures to this day. And like all social and political movements, there were those who were true of heart in their motivations, and those who were not (in the North, there was a strong anti-immigrant motivation for prohibition; in the South, it was racial).


We all know what happened during the next thirteen years: bootleggers, Al Capone, speakeasies, bathtub gin, Jazz, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway (ok, the last two are not too bad).

What killed Prohibition was money. With the Great Depression dragging on into its fourth year, the federal government found itself short on revenue from the absence of alcohol taxes. And so on December 5, 1933, the State of Utah opened up the taps. Just in time for a holiday on ice. Cheers! 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What Word Goes With Gravy?

“Our senses are never inaccurate, just our interpretations.”

--Stephanie Danler

Recently, I was interviewed for an article in a local magazine. The article, yet to be published (fingers crossed), will be about bloggers in Birmingham. I will be the only food blogger. The writer of this yet-to-be-published article pointed out that my blog is different because it disdains a one-to-one correlation with food. It is “of food” rather than “about food.” This may explain my occasional writer’s block. Writing about anything is hard; writing about food is even harder. 

How does one describe the taste of a ripe, juicy peach eaten at a backyard, family cook-out on a warm June evening? How does it differ from that of a peach eaten in a tart in a Parisian bistro? How does one compare the taste of your first birthday cake with that of your child’s? Does a hotdog at an amusement park with your high school sweetheart taste differently than the one eaten on a cold January night in New York with your fiancée? 

Food, like real estate, is about time and place. But how do we transliterate emotional acreage into what Hemingway called the “truest sentence”? Adumbration is the best we can hope for because we never remember how that birthday cake actually tasted in the same way we remembered what it was like to eat it.

The efficiency of our senses to experience in real time exceeds the ability of our brains to record the experience for posterity. In a restaurant on a Friday evening after a hellish week at the office, a hot and sizzling steak becomes, in a fraction of a second, an emotion that any attempt at prose cheapens the experience. There’s a reason we taste before we speak; a reason we speak before we write. 

Writing about how something taste is pointless, which is one reason I don’t write a lot of restaurant reviews or even read too many of them. I tend to take stock in how my friend’s face lights up when she describes the new sushi restaurant she found. In other words, I find it more valuable to write about how food makes us feel rather than how it tastes or, more importantly, how we think it should taste. So if that makes my writing more “of food” than “about food,” then I stand guilty as charged.