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There’s a rough, chunky Italian cookie that’s known as brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. At a dinner party of ours last week, the principal dishes all turned out that way: brutti ma buoni. It was one of those days when everything you touch tries to go wrong, and only luck kept the meal from being a disaster. This was the menu:

Mozzarella in Carozza
Spaghetti all’Amatriciana
Stuffed and Rolled Flank Steak
Sauteed Swiss Chard
Assorted Cheeses
Fig and Almond Crostata

I can’t blame unfamiliarity with these dishes, because I’d made them all before; most were even from Tom’s and my own recipes. Mercifully, Vicky and John, our guests for that evening, are good sports as well as adventurous eaters, so they were unperturbed by the appearance of their plates.

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The first setback was the antipasto, my mozzarella in carozza.

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This should have been a good-looking dish, as well as a delicious one. It’s made with slices of bread and slices of mozzarella, floured, egged, pressed together, and fried in olive oil. I’ve made this successfully for years (even wrote about it here once), but this time the egged bread tried to fall apart, and the mozzarella broke through its supposed-to-be-golden crust. Though it didn’t look at all appetizing, it still tasted much as it ought, and we all ate it happily enough, along with a little sauce of anchovy, butter, and cream.
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The spaghetti all’amatriciana also was from one of my recipes, this one in La Tavola Italiana.

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The only thing wrong with the pasta this evening was that the classic recipe uses bucatini, not spaghetti, and I only discovered that I didn’t have enough bucatini for four when it was too late to run out and buy more. Though very plain-looking, the dish tasted especially good because the tomato sauce was enriched by a particularly flavorful artisan variety of guanciale (air-cured pork jowl) that we’d smuggled in (shh!) from our last trip to Rome.
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But then came the stuffed flank steak: braciolone alla napoletana, yet another recipe from La Tavola Italiana. To get the full effect of this near-disaster requires several illustrations.

The flank steak, butterflied by our butcher

 

The stuffing ingredients: prosciutto ground together with parsley and garlic, plus golden raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, an egg, and grated pecorino romano

 

The flank steak trimmed and spread with the stuffing

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Now, here was the first problem: Which way should I roll that meat? Starting at the short side would have made a great blimp of a cylinder, with many opportunities for the filling to leak out during the cooking. So I rolled from the long side, making a long skinny tube.
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The size of it presented the second problem: Do I have a pot that will hold a 14-inch long roll? It had to be my ancient, rarely used 13-quart Creuset Dutch oven. (I could hardly lift the 21-pound monster out of its place in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet.)

Starting to brown the roll, along with chopped onion, carrot, and celery

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I’d placed the roll in the pot seam-side down, hoping it would seal. Nope! What it did was spread open as far as it could around the strings, as the meat shrank during the cooking. With the stuffing exposed that way, I didn’t dare turn the roll at all for the hour of slow, gentle cooking it would need. So I poured in white wine and diluted tomato paste, covered the pot, and looked in every 15 minutes to baste the meat with the juices and be sure it wasn’t sticking to the pot.

When fully cooked, the roll was definitely brutti.
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Maneuvering the meat out of that deep pot onto a cutting board without its breaking apart was a little tricky but we did it. And despite my fears, when I cut off the strings it stayed intact. In fact, it divided into not-bad-looking thick chunks for serving.

And if I do say so myself, the beef and its stuffing were both delicious: genuinely buoni.
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In retrospect, I can see it was a mistake to spread the stuffing all over the butterflied steak. In previous (forgotten, evidently) cases, I must have mounded the stuffing in the center and closed the meat over it, with enough overlap to ensure the stuffing stayed covered. I’d better annotate my recipe to that effect, to avoid imperiling future dinners.

The cheese tray, requiring no cooking or manipulation, was safely beyond my ability to harm it, but my dessert, the fig and almond tart, was one more barely averted disaster. I’ll save the rest of that story for my next post.

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Whenever I cook duck legs for dinner, Tom and I remark that we should have them more often. These small, neat packets of succulence are far easier to prepare – and have a higher proportion of meat to bone and fat – than a whole duck. Legs aren’t always available in stores, however, so on our occasional day trips out to eastern Long Island I always try to get some from a poultry farm that we patronize.

That part of Long Island has long been famous for raising Pekin ducks. Back in the 1930s it’s said that there were as many as 90 duck farms in the area. One that I remember fondly from family summer vacations in my youth was this one, known to all and sundry as The Big Duck.
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This 30-foot long, 20-foot high creature was originally the duck farm’s retail store. Now a tourist center and gift shop, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Back now to my kitchen, where I looked through my books for something luscious to do with a pair of my recently acquired legs. I found it in an unexpected place: Venetian Cooking, by H.F. Bruning Jr. and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo. The authors frankly say “in the Venetian diet poultry comes a bad third after seafood and meat,” but they provide a handful of recipes for it, including one for Anatra in Umido, braised duckling. (Maybe, since ducks are waterfowl, Venetians think of them as feathered fish?)

Italian duck breeds being much less fatty than Pekins, I did have to scrape some fat from my legs, but they didn’t have the gobs and layers of it that other parts of a duck’s anatomy have. I suppose that’s because legs do all the work in the water, which keeps them muscular, while the rest of the body just floats along on top, fat keeping it warm.
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As often is the case, I was scaling down a recipe for a whole cut-up duck, so my faithful knife man did the initial job of chopping two stalks of celery, a third of a large onion, and a third of a carrot. While he was doing that, I heated a flameproof casserole and lightly browned the legs in butter and olive oil.
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The legs came out to a plate and the vegetables went in, to cook gently over low heat.
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When the onions were translucent, I stirred in salt, pepper, and just a little liquid – 4 teaspoons of tomato sauce and 2½ tablespoons of water – returned the legs to the pot, and brought the liquid to a simmer.
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From this point on, all the dish requires is patience: It took two hours of simmering, but the result was well worth the time. The legs were fork-tender and luscious, and the nubbly sauce was a rich melange of vegetable flavors. Crisp sautéed potatoes and good Italian frozen peas made excellent foils for both meat and sauce.
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“Rich” and “luscious” are unquestionably overworked words in the food vocabulary, but they’re unavoidably accurate to describe a fine duck dish like this one.

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It’s always a happy surprise when new recipes turn out better than I’d expected. The above homey-looking dinner plate holds two excellent dishes from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain. This is the book that first introduced me to Spanish cooking and the one I most often rely on. It has never let me down, and I still continue to discover good new things in it.

This time I was initially struck by a recipe called Higado con Pimientos, which had an uncommon pairing of calf’s liver and green peppers. Liver and onions is a classic combination, but I’d never seen green peppers used in a dish with liver. Casas also recommended a potato dish, Patatas Picantes, as an accompaniment. Curiosity led me to try them.

The ingredients for two portions of both recipes were easily assembled: liver, sliced Bell peppers, sliced onions, minced garlic, a potato parboiled and sliced, and a few condiments.
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The first things to be cooked were the peppers and onions. We have peppers and onions often, but I do them in the Italian manner, which is to say together in one pan. For this dish they were done separately: first the onions, sautéed in olive oil and removed to a dish; then the peppers, briefly sauteed in the same pan, then covered, fully cooked, and removed to the dish. Finally the liver was quickly sauteed in the same pan, with a little more oil.
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Meanwhile, I’d been also cooking the boiled, sliced potatoes – sauteeing them in a different pan until lightly browned and then stirring in minced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and pimentòn dulce (Spanish smoked paprika).
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When the liver came out of its pan, I deglazed it with white wine, reduced the liquid, poured that over the liver, and put it in a serving dish in a turned-off oven to keep warm.

The final step was to reheat the peppers and onions in their original pan, season them with salt and pepper, spread them over the liver, and serve.
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These were the simplest procedures, yet they had remarkably subtle effects. Sauteeing the onions and peppers separately, in the same oil, and then finishing them in the remnants of the liver oil and the deglazing sauce, made the vegetables quite different from Italian peppers and onions: they didn’t blend together but each stayed itself, with just overtones of the other components’ flavors. And the liver had taken on the same multi-flavor hints from the vegetables’ sauteeing oil and the deglazing sauce. I was very happily surprised by how the peppers’ natural acidity made them a wonderful foil for the sweetness of calves’ liver and the onions.

The potatoes – with crunchy edges and soft interiors – loved their zingy spices and made an excellent counterpoint to the gentle harmony of peppers, onions, and liver.

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Altogether, a very interesting pair of dishes and a very enjoyable simple meal.

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The other day I idly pulled out my copy of Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking. I’ve had the book ever since it appeared in 1978 but have rarely used it in recent years. Turning pages, I found many recipes I’d completely forgotten about.

Now, I yield to nobody in my reverence for Marcella – “the first name in Italian cooking,” as she was billed in her early days – but this, her second book, is not in my opinion equal to her first. There she stayed mainly in her comfort zone of Bolognese and Emilia-Romagna cooking, but here she broadens out to other Italian regions. I feel that her southern Italian recipes, especially, don’t reflect the sure hand she had with the dishes of her native region.

Ignoring those reservations on this occasion, I was attracted to her Sicilian recipe for Bocconcini di Pesce Spada Fritto – fried swordfish tidbits. In the headnote she says Sicily has the finest swordfish in the world. From my admittedly modest experience in that region, I agree. She also says this preparation keeps swordfish “as moist and tender as it was when it first came out of the sea.” For that, I’d give it a try.

The recipe needs fairly thin slices of the fish. I was able to get my local fish store to butterfly a New-York-standard-sized swordfish steak to yield two more or less ¾-inch thick pieces.
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I cut them into smaller pieces, as directed, and put them into a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper for two hours at room temperature, turning the “tidbits” occasionally.
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Then they had to be patted dry and dipped in egg and flour to be ready for frying.
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Next, I may have made a bad mistake. I had some lightly used frying oil that could handle one more use, so I poured it into a pan and got it hot – without rechecking the recipe’s instruction. Which, I saw when I did look back, called for only ¼ inch of oil. Mine was over an inch deep. Well, I said to myself, this fish is to be fried, not sauteed. Surely it will cook just as well, and probably even faster, this way. So in the pieces went.
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They took quite a bit longer than I expected to develop the indicated light golden crust, and even though I’d carefully shaken off the excess egg and the excess flour, the coating seemed unusually thick and rough.
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To my regret, I can only call this dish mediocre. The swordfish had stayed moist, all right, but the strong flavor of eggy, oily crust was the predominant note on the palate. That, and maybe also the oil in the marinade, seemed to increase, rather than counteract, swordfish’s natural oiliness. Even fresh lemon juice couldn’t redeem it.

Possibly my fish steak wasn’t as fresh as it could have been? I loved all the swordfish I’d eaten in Sicily. Maybe if my fish had been caught in the Straits of Messina, by the local ages-old method, and brought to the table within a day, it would have been a whole different thing. Maybe I ruined it by my inattention to detail in the frying. Or maybe Marcella didn’t entirely succeed in translating the Sicilian dish for the American kitchen. Or possibly all of the above: there are days like that.

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I tried an unusual shrimp dish this week. Most of the time, when I serve shrimp it’s either in a traditional shrimp cocktail – briefly boiled, chilled, and dressed with a spicy ketchup-based sauce – or cooked in a way that uses a lot of fat: frying, sautéeing, or broiling with butter or olive oil. Itself almost pure lean protein, shrimp seems to revel in being bathed in tasty fats.

There’s very little fat in the recipe for shrimp au poivre I found in Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. The premise of the entire book is capitalizing on balancing contrasting flavors. In this recipe the contrasts are shrimp for sweetness, lemon juice and zest for sourness, and garlic and black pepper for heat. Goldstein says her inspiration was steak au poivre, in which the meat is coated with cracked peppercorns, sauteed, and served with a deglazing sauce.

I’ve had mixed success with this book’s recipes, so I was skeptical about whether shrimp could really handle the amount of pepper this one calls for, but interested enough to try it. I scaled down the recipe quantities by a third to provide two portions and assembled the ingredients.
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You see up there two generous teaspoons of coarsely ground Tellicherry pepper. Actually, the recipe called for cracked pepper, but I’ve never enjoyed the sensation of biting into peppercorn chunks, so I took the liberty of making that change.
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Moving right along, I salted the shrimp lightly and seared them quickly in minimal olive oil.

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I took out the shrimp, deglazed the pan with white wine and fish stock; stirred in minced garlic, minced lemon zest, lemon juice, and the pepper; and cooked briskly to reduce the liquid by half.
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Then all there was left to do was return the shrimp to the pan, give them another sprinkle of salt, heat them through, swirl in a little softened butter to smooth out the sauce, and serve.
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It was an almost startling dish. The sauce certainly made a contrast with the sweetness of the shrimp. Tellicherry peppercorns, said to be the richest and sweetest variety, also have a lot of fire, and it was all on display here. I’d say it was even intensified by the lemon juice and zest. The garlic, normally a perceptible presence in any dish, was pretty faint in this one.

The overall effect was weird at first, but as we ate along, it grew on me. Not, I’m sorry to say, on Tom, for whom the dish simply never came together. Despite being a major shrimp lover, I doubt I’ll make this recipe again – but I can imagine enjoying the dish if it were served to me some time in the future.

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Last week, for a dinner party to celebrate two recent birthdays, Tom’s and our friend Betty’s, I made a Beef Wellington. I couldn’t even remember when I’d last made one, but Tom, who had a hunger for a big piece of first-rate beef, had requested it and I was happy to indulge him. This pastry-wrapped beef fillet roast is a delicious and impressive dish in the high old classic style that I love, and really not all that difficult to make.

The recipe I’ve always used is one I copied out from someone else’s Gourmet Magazine cookbook – the original version from the 1950s. Over the years I’ve made a few alterations of my own, trying different kinds of pastry crust, omitting bacon slices for the initial roasting, and replacing the recipe’s blithe demand for “3 or 4 truffles” with a layer of mushroom duxelles.

The pastry recipe I like at present, a pâte brisée from Simca’s Cuisine by Simone Beck, uses a whole egg and half a cup of white wine instead of water. It produces a lot of a nicely savory crust, the excess of which can be frozen for future use. I made up a batch a day in advance.

Early the next day I rubbed my two-pound chateaubriand, cut from the thick end of the fillet, with cognac, salt, and pepper. It looked good enough to eat just as it was!

 

It went into a 425° oven for just 15 minutes and then I set it aside to cool while I made the duxelles. I finely chopped a quarter-pound of mushrooms, ferociously twisted small handfuls of them in a cloth to squeeze out their water, and sautéed them in butter and oil along with a little minced shallot. Some recipes say you don’t have to do the squeezing – the liquid will evaporate if you cook the mushrooms long enough. OK, but I think the results are better with the shorter sauté. Also, the squeezing is kind of fun – it’s amazing how much water comes out of apparently dry mushrooms.
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Now all was ready to assemble the dish. I rolled out a big sheet of dough and, on the area where the beef would lie, spread a thick layer of duck liver mousse. (That was purchased, not homemade, and I chose it as a middle ground between the recipe’s options of foie gras and chicken liver pâté.)
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I set the meat on the mousse and spread the duxelles over the top.
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I wrapped the dough snugly around the meat and its accompaniments, trimmed off the excess, and sealed the seams with beaten egg.
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I turned the loaf seam-side-down and moved it to a baking sheet, where I gave the whole thing a brushing with the egg. Then for fun, I cut flower shapes from the leftover dough, lined them up along the loaf, and brushed them with egg too. They were a little silly looking, but they gave it a festive air.
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By then it was still only mid-afternoon, so I refrigerated the pastry until evening. The recipe called for baking it 30 minutes at 425°, but since mine had been cold, it took a little longer. It came out looking very cute, sort of like a cross between a loaf of country bread and a child’s decorated football, with an aroma that carried a promise of great things.
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And it delivered on the promise. When sliced into, the pastry crumbled a bit, but the beef was rare to perfection – absolutely gorgeous. It simply melted in the mouth, moist with beef sweetness, and the accompanying flavors of mousse and duxelles enhanced every bite of the savory crust they’d annealed to. Duchesse potatoes and sauteed spinach – the latter dotted with pignoli and raisins – played excellent supporting roles on the plates.
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This was a properly festive dish for the two birthday people, and it matched beautifully with the 1982 Chateau Montrose St. Estèphe that Beloved Spouse had chosen to pair with it. Need I say we all thoroughly enjoyed the celebratory meal?

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I’m an inveterate list-maker. Besides shopping lists and to-do lists, I keep lists of foods in the freezer and bottles in the wine closet. For dinner parties I list the timing of every step in the final cooking and serving. And tucked into many of my cookbooks are lists of recipes I want to try some day. The day just came for one of those.

Today’s dish is from my list for Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: gratineed ham crêpes. The filling sounded tasty, the creamy sauce was made with an unusual technique, and the final gratin was also unusual. His separate recipe for making the crêpes themselves didn’t attract me, but I could work with the Julia Child crêpe recipe I’ve always relied on. So on to the attempt.

One day in advance, I put together the crêpe batter – mixing flour, salt, milk, water, eggs, and melted butter in my old blender. Crêpes are about the only things I still use a blender for: I’ve found that the food processor can leave lumps. The batter needs at least two hours of chilling, but it’s perfectly happy to sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, feeling quite professional, I assembled my batterie de cuisine on top of the stove: two crêpe pans, a little dish of oil and a brush to grease them with, a plate to receive the cooked crêpes, the blender jar of batter, a quarter-cup measure to dip it out with, and a little bowl to hold the wet cup. All was set up for fast, efficient cooking of two crêpes at a time.
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Pride goeth before a fall! It had been too long since I’d last used those crêpe pans. They’d lost their seasoning, so when I poured in the first batter it instantly cemented itself to the pans, even though I’d greased them. It had to be scraped off in bits – which didn’t do the pans any good.
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Chastened, I selected the less-bad-looking pan, scrubbed it with salt, oil, and paper towels, re-seasoned it as well as I could at the moment, and resumed cooking my crêpes – slowly and carefully, with just the one pan. They gave no further trouble, thank goodness.
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That taken care of, I could go on to make the sauce, while Tom minced half a cup of good smoked ham, shredded half a cup of gruyère, and beat an egg yolk with two tablespoons of heavy cream.
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The sauce started as essentially a bechamel, but made differently from the way I’m familiar with. First, I had to brown the mixture of butter and flour, rather than letting it foam along without browning. Then the milk to be added had to be lukewarm, not boiling. Third, after additions of nutmeg and cayenne it had to cook for 10 minutes, which is a longer time than I’m used to, before being enriched with the egg yolk-cream mixture.
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I set part of the sauce aside for topping the filled crêpes and mixed all the ham and most of the gruyère into the rest of the sauce. I remembered to lay out the crêpes ugly side up, so when rolled they’d show their better sides. It seemed like very little filling.
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I laid the rolled crêpes in a buttered baking dish and topped them with the remaining sauce, thinned out a little with cream, the rest of the grated gruyère, dots of butter, and – what for me was another unusual feature – fine dry bread crumbs.
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The dish baked for 15 minutes at 400°. It came out looking quite nice, except that the butter had made little puddles rather than spreading out. I guess my dots were too big. No harm, though.
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The crêpes were excellent. Richly flavorful, despite the modest amount of filling; though Tom would have liked a stronger ham presence. The texture of the dish was one of its best features: soft in the center but pleasantly crunchy on top from the breadcrumb gratin. I may adopt that gratin for when I make other kinds of crêpes – which I must do soon. Gotta keep those pans seasoned!
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