Post #616 Glad Yule Tidings!

December 12, 2018 at 9:57 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We’re soon entering the darkest part of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.  In just a few days, the shortest day of the year will be upon us and it will be the start of Yule.  Yule is the celebration of the return of the light.  It will still be dark and cold for quite a while, but each day will be longer by small increments.  Our ancestors railed against this time of year with a festival of light.  Harvests were long since in from the fields and stored in barns and out buildings.  Animals were brought in from the far fields and were safely warm and sheltered.

Lots of things kept people busy.  There were clothes to be made.  There was food to prepare.  All the things we call hobbies today were things done to survive in those times.  Candlemaking, soap making, beadwork, jewelry making.  Even dehydrating and smoking meats were routine chores done during the dark times.  But there were festivals, and story telling, and music, and laughter taking place.  And there were parties and special feasts, and plenty of holiday foods that weren’t made at other times of the years.  These days we have them any time, but then they were the special feast foods because the ingredients were expensive and hard to get.  Mostly the spices were hard to find or mock up.  Time was another factor.  So, I’m going to share a couple of the traditional recipes for the festival foods for Yuletide and let you go to town with them.

The first is the Twelfth Night Cake.  Twelfth Night was the end of the Yuletide season, and in many cultures it was the night gifts were given.  Twelfth night ended the season of frivolity and was highlighted by a madcap feast in a lot of cultures.  The cake was the centerpiece.  A dried bean and a dried pea were baked into the cake.  The person who got the bean was the “King” of the feast, and the person who got the pea was the “Queen” of the feast, irrespective of their real gender.  They led the rest of the revelers in foolishness.  This tradition was so widespread that it’s become an archetype.

The cake itself was basically a fruitcake with exotic spices.  The fruits took a long time to prepare.  So here’s a basic recipe:

  • 2 1/2 pounds mixed dried fruits, but lots of raisins
  • 2/3 cups whiskey
  • 1/2 cup candied orange peel, or mixed candied citrus peel
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cups butter, room temp
  • 1 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs beaten
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup glace or maraschino cherries
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Place the fruit and peel in a large bowl and toss with the whiskey and milk.  Cover and leave overnight in the fridge.  Preheat the oven to 275.  It’s a low heat but the cake cooks for a long time.  Oil a large cake pan measuring 12×10 inches and line with parchment paper.  Brush the paper with oil.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the beaten eggs a little making certain to fully incorporate between additions.  If the mixture curdles, add a small amount of flour.  Mix the flour, baking powder, and spices together in a bowl and add to the creamed mixture.  Fold until well blended.  Add the fruit with their steeping liquid.  Add the nuts and cherries and stir well.  Turn out into tin, and if you’re adding the dried bean and dried pea, press them into the batter somewhere.  Bake in the center rack of the oven for 2 1/2 hours.  Remove and allow to cool completely in the tin.  Turn the cake out and remove the paper and set on a plate.  The cake can be decorated any way you choose, but mostly it’s a simple lemon glaze and more chopped nuts on top.

The second recipe is for Mulled Wine.  I usually just see this around here at Christmas time but it’s a warm flavorful drink and can be enjoyed any time you like.  I have a cup of hot chocolate all year round; mulled wine can be like that, too.

Mulled Wine

  • 2 bottles good red wine (I’ve also used white wine)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 orange
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • orange and lemon slices

Put the sugar and water in a heavy pan and heat over low heat till dissolved.  Add the juices from the lemon and the orange and zest their rinds and add.  Add the whole spices and the ground ginger.  Boil for five minutes, then leave to infuse for an hour.  Strain into a small or medium crock pot.  Set on high and add the raisins.  Add the wine and stir.  When the wine is simmering, turn down to low, or warm if your crock pot has that setting.  Add the extra lemon and orange slices and a cinnamon stick and a couple of whole cloves.  Leave a ladle next to the crock pot for any to serve themselves.

Like I said, these are a couple of traditional recipes.  Here’s an untraditional one that could easily have been around back then.  A friend told me this one that she said has been in her family for generations, and that really what the season is about.

Nut Candy

  • 2 cups salted peanuts out of the shells
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of each of the following ground spices in any combination: cinnamon, ground clove, ginger, ground allspice, mace, nutmeg, star anise, lemon zest

In a large skillet, toast the peanuts lightly over low heat.  Add the spices and toss for about 30 seconds.  Take off the heat and add the melted butter.  Shake to evenly coat then spread over a baking sheet to cool.  These can be served warm or room temperature.  They usually don’t last long, but if there are any left over store in an air tight container in the fridge and bring to room temp or lightly heat in microwave before serving.

 

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Post #615 Taking the Water Out

December 9, 2018 at 3:24 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I grew up in the Arizona desert, so it’s probably no surprise that I like to dehydrate things.  I also like things that are dehydrated.  Well, not all things.  When I, myself, get dehydrated, I turn into a nasty beast.  All head-achy and snarly, no sense of humor.  But we won’t go there.  This post is about dehydrating foods and how good they are.

A long while ago, I was an avid long-distance hiker and backpacker.  I did large sections of the Appalachian Trail, although not a complete end to end trip.  I’ve probably done about 1/4 to 1/3 of it in sections.  Most of my hikes were 1-3 day affairs, but one or two were week long.  When hiking, weight in your pack is one of the primary considerations.  In most places of the trail, and in most trails that lead up to it, natural water sources are fairly easy to find, but you do have to carry water with you.  Water is heavy.  One gallon of water is slightly over 8 pounds.  When carrying everything you need to sustain yourself over a few days, your pack should be about 1/4 of your body weight.  For me, that meant between 40 and 50 pounds.  The tent took up some weight; the sleeping bag took up some weight; my clothes took up some weight; food took up some weight.  The first thing to factor was the weight of the water I would need to carry.  Everything else could be trimmed.  I’ve known hikers who clipped the strings from tea bags to save weight.  A little over the top to my way of thinking, but they felt better for it.

There were things I could do to trim clothes weight.  Disposable underwear; light weight shoes; tech material pants; things along those lines.  Tents were light weight; sleeping bags were mostly air.  So the biggest area to trim weight was food.

That meant no cans.  Of any kind.  Also, no bottles.  Glass is pretty heavy.  Even the food itself was a consideration.  Mushrooms are heavy.  Steak is heavy.  Uncooked pasta and rice are pretty light.  Bread is both heavy and light, depending on what kind you get.  Veggies are full of water so are heavy.  But there’s a trade off with food.  Weight versus nutrition.  Light foods tend to be lower in nutrition.  Lots of hikers make certain to take multivitamins while on the trail.

One of the best foods for sustained physical activity is protein.  Simply put, meat.  The heaviest of foods to take on the trail.  There are other proteins that work as well, but their form is heavy.  Peanut butter, hummus, and the like.  There’s one protein that’s plant based and fairly light weight, tofu.  But it has it’s own drawbacks and a lot of people just don’t like it.

Once the balance of weight and nutrition are met, there’s the question of storage.  How to keep the food from going bad.  That’s the million dollar question, and the answer is pretty simple.  Dehydrating it properly keeps it light, nutritious, and stable.  It lasts much longer dried.  Take the water out, and it takes a long time to spoil.  And, when food is dehydrated, its flavors intensify, and so does its nutrition.  Mostly because it’s compacted into a smaller piece.

In the dry desert states, that’s easy.  Put the stuff outside, not directly in the sun, and covered but with airflow, and it a couple of days, it’s going to be dried out.  Anywhere else, there’s only mechanical means.  There are two primary mechanical ways:  heat or chemical.  Very low heat, and lots of time.  Chemically, there are a ton of ways but the most prominent is salt.  Salt pulls the water out but also infuses the food with salt that deters mold, mildew, and nearly every other spoilage.  Sulphur fumes does the same thing, but tends to makes foods taste odd.  Other chemicals not readily available to us, will do the same things, but are cost prohibitive.

I’ve never used salt.  You need a ton to make it work, and the result needs a ton of water to rehydrate.  Not too easy on the trail.  So heat it was.  I started off in the oven, then bought a dehydrator.  Most of the units for home use are under $100 and can be added to.  They use low low heat air flow to pull the water out and away.  And I think they’re fun.  So what do I make with them?

Mostly beef jerky.  I grew up with that stuff like it was candy.  But another popular favorite is fruit leather.  Those are so good!  Like natural candy.  I’ve also just dried ripe fruit into pieces and added those to various things.  Partner/Spouse does not like raisins (and I can take them or leave them) so I’ve never tried them, but there’s a world of dried berries out there.

Fruit leathers are one of the easiest things to make but they require some preparation.  First, it needs a base.  Most of the time, it’s applesauce.  But it can be other things, too.  The fruits are pulverized in your favorite pulverizing machine.  Mine is my food processor/blender combo.  (I got a Ninja!!)  Then they’re mixed with the applesauce and spread on a flat sheet in the dehydrator.  It takes about eight hours to completely dehydrate.  Usually during the last half of that, I add nuts, or seeds, or coconut, or something to add texture and crunch.

Dried fruits and veggies are easy, too.  Just make sure they’re ripe and no blemishes or rotten spots.  Cut them into uniform pieces and dry away.  Once they’re dried, they can be used to make soups, stews, rehydrated into breads or cakes, toppings on desserts and ice creams.  It’s really just your imagination.

My true love for the dehydrator is jerky in whatever form.  We grew up with jerky in the house constantly.  It makes a nutritious, if somewhat salty, snack when you need something to tide you over.  I’ve made meals out of jerky, cheese, and crackers.  We bought a ton of jerky, mostly beef, and made a ton of jerky, mostly beef.  One year, I made three pounds of jerky in the oven for my brother-in-law’s Christmas present.  I made regular and peppered.  He thought they were great.  He worked outdoors at the time and he’d put a few pieces in his pocket to take with him for breaks.  He said his teammates were jealous.

Oven jerky is really simple.  Take a very lean cut of beef and trim off all visible fat.  Slice the beef about a quarter inch thick and about two inches wide.  Length is up to you.  I usually go about six inches.  Sprinkle the beef lightly with coarse salt and using a rolling pin, lightly press the salt into the surface of the beef.  Lay the beef strips on a cooling rack making sure that none of the strips are touching.  Lay the cooling rack over a baking sheet.  Put the beef strips into the middle of your oven and set the oven to it’s lowest possible temp setting whatever that is.  Prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon across one corner and place a small fan to blow across the opening.  You want as much air circulation inside the oven as you can get, but you don’t want to dissipate the heat.  Leave it alone for 8 hours and check it.  The strips should be stiff and firm and crack but not break when you bend them.  It may take longer or shorter depending on the temp of the oven.  Once it’s reached that stage, take the jerky out of the oven and allow it to cool COMPLETELY.  You can eat it any stage you like, but to keep the jerky from spoiling, do not wrap it until completely cooled or else residual moisture will cause mold issues.  The salt helps retard that, but isn’t foolproof.  To make flavored jerky, if you want spice and herbs, just add them at the salt and rolling pin stage.  If you want sauces, omit the salt stage and spread a layer of sauce on both sides of the beef strips.  You’ll need to increase the drying time since you’re adding moisture to the jerky, and the final product will be a little sticky, but taste wonderful.  There is a way to make jerky out of hamburger (the leaner the better) using a press to shape them and adding spice blends, etc.  I’ve never used ground meat, though.  It feels like cheating to me.

When I was eighteen, I came home from work once in the early afternoon.  Mom was cooking dinner that night so I wasn’t in a hurry, but I wanted a snack.  I reached for a box of jerky on the counter.  I didn’t recognize the brand, but grabbed a piece.  They were a little odd looking, as though they’d been pressed into cookie mold or something.  And they were individually wrapped in plastic but the plastic had air in it.  I was hungry so I took a big bite expecting to have to tear the jerky with my teeth to get it free from the main piece.  But it came away in my mouth like a cookie.  Odd, again.  And it crumbled a little and was dry.  The taste was okay, but overall, the experience just wasn’t good.

I looked up and saw Mom watching me with a look of amusement on her face.

“Mom, don’t buy this jerky anymore.  It’s not very good,” I said.

“It’s for the dogs.” she replied.

Ooops.  I looked at the box closer and noticed the stylized cartoon puppy with the grin on its face and the words in bright red “For Dogs”.

“Never mind.”  She didn’t laugh as long as I thought she would.

Post #614 This Stew is a Labor of Love

December 5, 2018 at 11:49 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The weather has turned cold and it’s time for those warm comfort foods that make the house smell amazing.  Since we’re cooped up inside due to unfriendly weather outside, we have time to putter in the kitchen and pay attention to long cooking recipes.  This recipe is a meat stew, but it’s not made in the traditional sense.  There are no veggies, the seasonings are added after most of the cooking is done, and it’s simmered on the stove top for hours.  It’s easy to make, but takes a long time.  It’s a version of Beef Burgundy and comes in a dozen different names.

I’ve made this several times over the years, but haven’t made it lately.  You can’t put it in the crock pot because it won’t cook down and create the velvety sauce it needs.  You can’t put in the oven because it needs to cook with the top off and be stirred often.  The ingredients are minimal so it has to be treated right.

Take a 3-4 pound chuck roast and cut it into 1 inch pieces.  You can brown them or not; it won’t impact the flavor of this dish.  Place the meat into a large heavy high-sided pan.  Sprinkle with a little salt, but no other seasonings, spices, or herbs.  Add two cups of good quality beef broth and two thirds of a bottle of a good dry red wine.

TIP:  When cooking with wine, always use a wine that you would drink.  If it doesn’t taste good to drink, it won’t taste good to eat.  All recipes that use alcohol in whatever form are relying on the taste of the drink, no the alcohol.  The alcohol will burn away in the cooking process.

Over a medium heat, bring the liquid to a boil and allow to boil for five minutes or so, then reduce the heat so the stew is on a low simmer.  Stir the stew so it doesn’t scorch.  Allow the stew to simmer for three and a half hours.  As the liquid reduces, replenish first with the rest of the red wine, then with half cups of beef broth until you’ve reached five cups.  Do no use water as this will reduce the flavor.  Stir the stew occasionally to ensure no scorching and equal cooking.

The meat will become fall-apart tender and release its own flavor to the broth.  At the three and a half hour mark, add salt if needed, although it likely won’t be if you’ve used beef broth that includes salt.  Add half a teaspoon of dried thyme, half a teaspoon of ground black pepper, and if you want to, one small onion that’s been thinly sliced.  You can also add a clove or two of crushed garlic.  Make sure there’s enough broth to simmer for another hour, but will reduce to a thick sauce in that time.  Stir the stew to combine.  At the end of four and a half hours, you will have a stew of beef chunks in a thick savory sauce that’s almost like a glaze.

Beef chunks by themselves can be a little boring, so I’ve added mushrooms to this at times.  Other times, I’ve added carrots for their sweet cooked flavor.  It’s really up to you if you want to change it up, but I highly recommend making it simple first, then adding later.

When I serve this, I boil up some noodles and spoon the stew over them.  I top with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chopped scallions.  Sometimes I use mashed potatoes instead of noodles.  Fresh crusty bread and a salad along with it make a good meal.

Let me know if you try this and what changes you made!  It’s all good.

Post #613 “Even the Cats Wouldn’t Eat It!”

December 2, 2018 at 6:54 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I have a very dear friend, one of the few I have left from high school.  She’s a trifle acerbic, very opinionated, fiercely loyal, and doesn’t care about cooking beyond feeding herself.  I love her to death, and we’d do practically anything for each other.  She and Partner/Spouse met for the first time a couple of years ago, and they’ve been fast friends ever since.

She likes to cook easy things.  Really easy things.  When we were young adults, after high school, on our own, she made a lot of pasta.  I tried teaching her other kinds of meals, but she just wasn’t into the time aspect.  She has since “discovered” the crock pot and the idea of slow cooking appeals to her.  But back then, fast and easy was the order of the day.

Due to family circumstances, even though she lived apart from her father, she cooked for him daily.  Fast and easily, she usually made him ramen soup.  He liked it; she liked making it.  All was good.  I was watching her one time, and she opened the package after the water boiled and took the dried mass of noodles and broke them in half.

“What are you doing?” I asked.  I’d never seen that before.  “They don’t cook any faster that way.”

“That makes it easier for dad to eat it.”

“Noodles aren’t hard to eat,” I was very puzzled.

“You don’t know my dad,” she replied drily. “Trust me.  This is easier.”

So I shut up.

We were having lunch one time, I think at one of the local restaurants.  Suddenly, she looked at me and asked, “Did you know you’re supposed to add spaghetti to boiling water, not cold?”

Without laughing, I nodded.

“I didn’t!  I heated up a jar of Ragu the other night for me and dad.  Then I put water on the stove and put the spaghetti in it.  A half hour later, I went to check it, and you can stop laughing now!”

“What happened to it?” I asked.

“It melted to the bottom of the pan.  Even the cats wouldn’t eat it.  I had to throw the pan away.”

“The directions are right on the package,” I said gently.

“Shut up!  I know that now.  Dad was so mad because he had to go out and buy another package of spaghetti noodles.”

A few years later, she went into the Navy and was gone for quite a while.  Her first trip back home, she would be coming by to visit my family so mom told her to stay for dinner and asked what she wanted.  She begged for mom’s “special” spaghetti.  Mom had three marinara sauces.  The easy one was straight from a jar with a little doctoring up.  The second was the medium sauce which started with cans of tomato sauce, and tomato paste, and sautéed veggies.  It cooked for several hours in the crock pot and was delicious.  The hard one started the day before by picking tomatoes from the garden (our buying the ripest ones she could find in the store) and blanching them to take the skins off.  Homemade sauce that simmered on the back of the stove for a day and a half and steamed the wallpaper off the wall behind the stove.  And mom did herself proud.

When my friend arrived, we were walking through the kitchen and the aroma of the sauce attacked us immediately.  Mom asked her if she’d like to taste it.

“Oh my god, Mrs. Copeland!  That tastes just like Ragu!!”

For her, that was the highest praise there was.  I immediately choked and sputtered before laughing uproariously.  Mom just looked at her in bafflement.

She did live it down.  Eventually.

So the reason I’ve been thinking about pasta stories, I read an article today about putting salt in pasta water.  I’m hit or miss on adding salt.  Growing up, I never added salt to the water.  My family didn’t mind pasta without the salt flavor.  The times recently that I’ve added salt, I didn’t really like the flavor.  Too much or too little?

When dried pasta is first put into boiling water, the flour rehydrates before cooking.  Whatever flavor is in the water gets absorbed into the pasta.  Soon after the pasta rehydrates, it starts cooking and a skin forms over it.  No more flavor is added.  So that short window is the only time to add flavor to the pasta itself.

But as I write this, I’m thinking about other flavors that might be added to the pasta.  Garlic maybe?  Basil would be nice.  Or maybe a hot pepper.

So I’m going to start experimenting and see what happens.  Let me know what experiences you’ve had with salt or other flavors, and what your opinion is on salting the pasta water.  Good or bad?

As always,

Post #612 Gone But Maybe Not Forgotten?

November 25, 2018 at 8:04 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Have you ever been driving somewhere and seen a corner that doesn’t look quite right?  Like there’s a ghost of something that used to be there?  Then you remember it used to be the home of one of your favorite restaurants, and you’re faintly regretful that it’s not there anymore even though you likely haven’t thought about it in ten years.  It happens to me quite a bit, and I usually try to remember my favorite order from the place and when I was last there.  I’ve read that a new restaurant is the riskiest business venture there is, and that 75% of all restaurants close within their first five years.

Then a few days ago, I read an article listing a bunch of restaurants that have disappeared over recent years.  I thought it would be fun to look through and see if I recognized any of them.  It was disturbing how many I knew.

Burger Chef – Okay, I haven’t seen this one since I was a kid, but I do remember their burgers and their signs.  They started out regionally but expanded by leaps and bounds.  At one point, just before they were bought out by Hardees, they were all over the country.  When we moved from New York state to Arizona, we stopped there fairly often.

Sambo’s – Okay, we had one of these in the little town I grew up in and we went there all the time.  Good food, plenty of it, and cheap.  However, it’s name did it in.  As the nation became more sensitive and aware of hidden prejudices, business dropped off.  As business dropped off, quality declined.  The last time I was there, I was with some friends, and one of them had ordered a burger.  The tomato slice looked about three years passed its sell-by date.  It was so horrid, he sliced it into pieces so they couldn’t recycle it.  They were bought out by Denny’s.  Probably a good thing.

Chi Chi’s – I first bumped into this restaurant when I moved to DC.  I was looking for a good Mexican restaurant and someone suggested this on.  I looked into it and thought it sounded good, and there was one near where I lived and worked.  I invited a friend to go with me.  She’d grown up in Corpus Christi and was Mexican herself.  I figured we’d pick it apart and have fun.  Her response was classic.  “Why would they call a restaurant that?”  The food was formulaic, and the flavor was not outstanding.  I described it to friends back home as tomato sauce with a jalapeno pepper.  They did make an outstanding salsa and fresh made tortilla chips.  So much so that when the restaurant closed, they continued to sell the jarred salsa in stores.  It’s still around.

Howard Johnson’s – Affectionately nicknamed HoJo’s, it was prolific during the 70s and 80s for it’s motel and restaurant combination and its distinctive orange roof.  It was a popular venue for manager meetings due to its large dining area.  I was involved in a few of those manager meeting myself back in the day.  I wasn’t too taken with the food or the atmosphere, but I guess its reliability and price was appealing to businesses.  Gone now as it fell out of fashion and other meeting places took their place.

Kenny Rogers Roasters – The only time I ever ran into this one, oddly enough, was in China.  It seems the Chinese like their fried chicken; the KFC always had a line starting at 7am.  Roasters never had the lines, but had really good food.  My first trip I walked passed one every day and stopped in several times for take out.  They treated me like a king every time.  Not sure why it never took off.  Too much competition, I guess.

Bob’s Big Boy – Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory loved the burger at Bob’s Big Boy.  I liked just about everything else.  There was one directly across the street from me and down one block when I first moved to DC.  Their portions were large, well cooked, and delicious.  But they couldn’t compete, for some reason.  Slowly, they closed restaurants all over.  They’re not technically defunct.  There are five still open in So. California.

Bennigan’s – This was one of the up scale family style restaurants that proliferated in the 80s and 90s.  They were a great date night place and the yuppies loved it.  Brunch was also a favorite time for the restaurant.  But it didn’t stand out from the pack and eventually was bought out by competitors.  I always enjoyed the place, but found wait staff to be rude on occasion.  Maybe that’s why they didn’t last, who knows?

Ponderosa/Bonanza Steakhouses – I LOVED these places.  The way it was set up, you stopped at the front and ordered your entrée.  They had everything!  I always ordered a steak, because, why not?  Once inside the restaurant, you sat down wherever with a little flag stand that held a number.  From that point, you had three or four different buffets that you were welcome to enjoy.  Soon, your entrée arrived and you just hoped you weren’t full from all the sides you had eaten.  There was even a dessert buffet.  Free refills on your drinks as long as it wasn’t alcohol.  So, so, good!  I think once I had the fried chicken.  Yum!

A&W – Who doesn’t know A&W?  The best root beer in the world.  Defined the drive-in when I was a kid.  Specialty burgers and the best root beer floats going!  So far as I know, there’s just one left open and it’s in Rhode Island!  If you know of any others, let me know.

Steak and Ale – This was my favorite steakhouse of all times.  It was a lodge style ambience with a huge fireplace and lots of wood fixtures etc.  Thick steaks, thick fries, great salads, and home made dark bread made with honey.  Fresh salted butter to go with it.  A terrific wine selection and desserts to die for.  I have no idea why they went under, but they did file bankruptcy way back when.  My favorite meal was the herb crusted prime rib and Cesar salad.

So!

Test time!  Who remembers any of these restaurants?  Who has any to add?  A trip down memory lane is always fun.

As Always,

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