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A Dismal Lima Bean Soup

I’ve always disliked lima beans. I never eat them by choice. But I recently got tired of looking at the jar of dried limas sitting in my pantry – leftovers from making a recipe that used some in a modest supporting role a few years ago – and resolved to do something with them.

(From the above title you’ve no doubt gathered that this story is not going to have a happy ending. Since I’ve done many posts on recipes that came out extremely well for me, I feel it’s only fair to admit to some that haven’t.)

We were having chilly fall weather just then, which made a soup sound like a good idea. It would have to be not too elaborate, so if the limas let me down I wouldn’t have wasted all the other ingredients. But also not too bare-boned, lest there be too few supporting flavors for the beans to blend with.

In my ancient, rebound copy of Joy of Cooking I found a recipe simply called Dried Bean Soup, which offered a choice of navy, kidney, lima, or marrow beans. It looked as if it would do, so I soaked a cup of the limas overnight. The next morning they’d tripled in volume and looked pretty good, which was encouraging. They were to start cooking in boiling water with a bay leaf, whole cloves, peppercorns, and a meat ingredient: either ham, a ham bone, or salt pork. I had a chunk of salt pork in the freezer.

 

 

As the cooking began, it was not so encouraging. The required eight cups of water looked like an awful lot for the amount of beans, and the salt pork quickly released a lot of scummy fats. Well, plenty of time for it to improve, I hoped.

 

 

While it simmered along, I chopped the remaining ingredients: generous quantities of carrot, onion, and especially celery.

 

 

After two hours my beans had softened enough that, as the recipe directed, I added the chopped vegetables for a final 30 minutes. At least they made the soup look less like sludgy dishwater.

 

 

At this point the recipe suggested optional additions: garlic, saffron, sorrel, mashed potatoes. Oh, come on, Irma – have the courage of your basic preparation! Is it going to be OK without these things or isn’t it? I added only salt.

When the carrots were tender, I had to remove the meat and puree everything through a food mill. I pause to mention that my salt pork was so fatty there was hardly any meat to work with, and it was very stringy. But back to the pureeing. A blender or food processor would have done it faster, but there was so much liquid there that I thought milling might give it more texture.

 

 

The recipe then said to thin the soup, if necessary, with water or milk. Not a problem here: The soup was so thin I had to boil it down some. Didn’t help much. The bowl looked something that’d be served at Oliver Twist’s workhouse.

 

 

And so it was: like the worst kind of meager, insipid, institutional food. The only detectable flavors were clove, celery, and pork fat. Well, at least it didn’t taste like lima beans! I hate to waste food, but I tossed the rest of it.

I wonder now just where I went so wrong. If the limas hadn’t been so old … if I’d had a good piece of ham … if I’d used less water … if I’d tried one of the optional additions … would I have had a decent soup? I don’t know, but I’m not interested in finding out.

I threw away the rest of my dried limas.

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When it comes to pasta, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t approve of restaurant chefs who need to vaunt their “creativity” with dishes whose ingredients have never before encountered each other on a plate. There’s a reason some pasta combinations are classics: they work! But even a cranky person like me can occasionally appreciate something new.

This time it came about because Tom noticed that a farm stand at our Greenmarket was featuring boxes of very fresh, small king oyster mushrooms.

 

 

He couldn’t resist them. We’d had ordinary oyster mushrooms before, but not this different variety, which have been available locally only in much larger, stemmier sizes. I looked them up in Elizabeth Schneider’s magisterial Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini to see if they needed any special handling. The answer was yes: moist cooking to tenderize the very dense flesh.

Then I needed a recipe to make them with, so I did an Internet search for recipes using oyster mushrooms. The description of this one attracted me: “Oyster mushrooms are poached in butter and cream and tossed with pasta, Parmesan cheese and green onions.” Obviously, that’s not a classic Italian pasta preparation, but there was a reason I decided to try it: I happened to have a lot of scallions in the refrigerator.

 

 

My faithful knife man cut the mushrooms into small pieces, which I was to sauté for six minutes in butter, adding parsley, salt, and pepper for the last minute. Apparently if they had been the common oyster mushroom, as in the recipe, they’d have been tender by that point, but these sturdier ones weren’t yet.

 

 

When I poured on the recipe’s amount of heavy cream, I could see that it wasn’t going to be enough liquid for poaching, so I took it on myself to add a little broth.

 

 

Next I was to cook the mixture “at a gentle boil” for about five minutes, until the sauce thickened slightly. I was concerned that doing so might dry up the sauce and toughen the mushrooms, so instead I covered the pan and simmered it until the mushrooms were tender. The sauce didn’t thicken much, but I didn’t consider that a problem.

I set the mushroom pan aside while I cooked the pasta – linguine, as recommended – and chopped up two of my many scallions. I finished the dish right in the pan of sauce, tossing in the drained pasta, the scallions, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano.

 

 

I really hadn’t been expecting much, especially with the scallions going in raw at the end like that, but to our great pleasure everything came together extremely well. The linguine absorbed a good amount of the sauce, leaving the dish just moist enough. The mushrooms were delicious – the caps tasting noticeably different from and even better than the stems. The scallions also made a real contribution to the harmony of flavors, aromas, and textures.

I still wouldn’t call this an Italian dish, but it certainly was a good one. Guess I have to admit that the “classics” don’t have an exclusive lock on excellent pasta combinations.

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Mexican Corn Soup

A good cookbook is a treasure chest. You can have it for years, returning to it again and again for the same few favorite recipes, and then one day you open it to a different page and find an unsuspected gem. I’ve just lucked in that way with Diana Kennedy’s 45-year-old classic The Cuisines of Mexico.

This was my very first Mexican cookbook, and many of its recipes intimidated me quite a bit, back then. Ingredients were strange and not easy to find. Cooking procedures were unfamiliar too. My first attempt was Kennedy’s guacamole, which we adored at first bite. Little by little, I tried other dishes, eventually working up to her magnificent 4½-page chiles rellenos recipe. As my confidence grew – and Latin-American ingredients became more accessible here – I acquired other Mexican cookbooks, newer ones that caught my interest and largely displaced Kennedy from my repertoire. Except for her guacamole, which is still the only one I ever make.

Now in late summer, when my greenmarket’s bountiful fresh corn keeps calling out to me, I recalled that Kennedy has recipes for corn soups (one of which I’d blogged about several years ago). Why not try another one? So I did, and it was an idea as brilliant as the recipe. It’s called simply sopa de elote – corn soup, and there’s very little but corn in it.

For half a recipe, I had to cut two cups of kernels off fresh ears of corn. (I had four ears ready, but only three were needed.)

 

 

The next instruction seemed very odd: first, put the corn and half a cup of water into a blender and process to a smooth puree; then put that puree through a food mill. Seemed like suspenders and a belt! But OK, I did it. It made a surprising difference.

 

 

As you see above, what the blending produced seemed to be smooth, but the food mill extracted a lot of chaff from the kernels, leaving a slightly thick corn liquid.

In a saucepan I melted 2 tablespoons of butter and cooked the corn liquid in it for 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Then I stirred in 1¾ cups of milk and a little salt, brought it to a boil, and simmered it for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The butter kept trying to rise and separate out as the soup cooked, but it didn’t seem to be a problem.

 

While the soup simmered I prepared small amounts of garnishes to go in each bowl. Here I took a few liberties with the ingredients given in the recipe:

  • It calls for a dice of fresh chile poblano – or canned green chilies if necessary. It’s now easy to get fresh poblanos, but I had one, roasted, peeled and seeded, remaining in the freezer from last fall’s crop, so I used that.
  • It calls for crumbled cream cheese or Boursault. I was sure those were substitutes for a Mexican cheese that wasn’t widely available in the US in the 70s. Now we can easily get authentic queso fresco, which crumbles nicely. I used that.
  • It calls for small squares of tortilla that I’d have had to fry to crispness. Out of pure laziness, I just broke up some packaged corn tortilla chips.

To finish the dish I put some chile and cheese in the bottom of each bowl, poured on the hot soup, and strewed the tortilla chips over it.

 

 

It was lovely. The soup base was the pure soul of exquisitely sweet corn. This is being a good year for corn here, so the soup just sang of green fields and summer. Each garnish provided its own flavor and texture contrast: the poblano a hot chile zing, the cheese a faintly sour soft curd, and the chips a lightly spicy crunch. I’m sure I’m going to make this soup again before corn season is over.

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Incidentally, the corn soup was the centerpiece of a pleasant, down-home Mexican dinner. Before it we had Kennedy’s guacamole with tortilla chips and salsa, and after it we shared two large (purchased) tamales, one of cheese and one of chicken mole, along with which I served red Mexican rice and more of the guacamole.

 

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It’s being a good year for many local summer vegetables: tomatoes, corn, peppers, and onions. The small early-season onions at my greenmarket were especially mild, moist, and sweet. As they grew bigger, they lost some of that fresh youthful charm, and by now the onions being sold are mostly “cured,” having the paper-thin dry skins of year-round store onions. But one greenmarket stand is still offering nearly fresh small ones.

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My original intention for the box I bought this week was to make a batch of the Italian sweet-and-sour preparation cipolline in agrodolce. But as I browsed recipes ranging from very simple to quite elaborate, none caught my fancy. So I turned from my Italian cookbooks to my Spanish ones. In Penelope Casas’ Tapas I found a recipe called cebollas in adobo, which instantly appealed. Its slightly sweet marinade was unlike any adobo I’d seen before and looked to be very tasty.

Tiny onions are often the devil to peel, but the ones I took to make up the recipe’s ½ pound behaved like angels. A brief dip in boiling water, removal of the root and stem tips, and the delicate skins slid right off, smoothly and evenly.
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To start the cooked marinade I needed small amounts of chopped tomato, onion, garlic, and parsley, plus a bay leaf, some basil, and dried thyme.
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After a brief sauté of the onion, garlic, and tomato, I added the herbs, salt, pepper, and a little water, covered the pan, and simmered for 20 minutes.
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Then I put the onions in a small saucepan with the tomato mixture, 1½ tablespoons of olive oil, ¼ cup of my own red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of raisins, 1 tablespoon of sugar, a little more thyme, basil, salt, and pepper, and another ½ cup of water.
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All this was to simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. By then, my kitchen was scented with the zesty marinade reduction, but my onions still weren’t quite fully tender. They took another 15 minutes of gentle tending, along with a tad more water to keep the sauce from scorching.
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They looked very tempting, just as they were, but the recipe said to cool and refrigerate them, so I didn’t even sneak a taste. Besides, the recipe also said they’d go well with any other sauceless tapa, so I needed time to prepare a companion for them.

From a recipe in the same Casas book I made a tortilla of potato, chorizo, ham, and peas.
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This was also to be served at room temperature, so it was evening when we finally sat to the two tapas.
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It was a good combination, as well balanced as were the flavors of the onion dish itself. That was neither strikingly sweet nor strongly sour, but a pleasing blend of flavors, the lightly enhanced sweetness of the onions counterpointed by the acidity of vinegar and tomato. The tortilla was also very tasty, with its own counterpoint of smoky ham and chorizo poised against the sweet young peas and egg, and with a texture just firm enough to welcome a little moistening with the onions’ excellent adobo. Both tapas went very well with a bottle of 2011 Consejo de la Alta Rioja, highlighting the affinity a region’s dishes always show for the kind of wines they grew up with.

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Despite the excessively hot weather we’re having, summer must be starting to wind down: The first local cauliflower is appearing in my Greenmarket. Unseasonable as that seems, I was glad to see it. There’s a dish I’ve been interested in trying for which I’d need a small cauliflower. This little bronzy-green head just filled the bill.
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The recipe I had in mind, from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, is called Cauliflower with Peas. Cauliflower has a strong affinity for Indian spices, as I know from enjoyable meals in Indian restaurants, and this recipe uses a good range of them – mustard seeds, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and asafetida. (Shameful confession here: In every Indian dish I’ve ever made that calls for a pinch of asafetida, I’ve skipped it. And so I did again this time. I haven’t missed it.)

My one-pound cauliflower produced a generous half pound of florets, which I matched with a third of a cup of green peas. The remaining ingredients, all classically Indian, are a fresh hot green chile, a small tomato, grated fresh ginger, and a little chopped cilantro. Indian cooking moves fast, so I had to slice the chile and chop the tomato before going any farther.
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Once all was ready I heated olive oil in a nonstick skillet and threw in the mustard seeds. As soon as they began to pop I added the chile slices and gave them a few stirs.
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Next in went the tomatoes, salt, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and ginger, to be stir-fried for a few minutes.

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Finally, the cauliflower and peas, plus a little water.
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This was to simmer, covered, for 10 minutes or until the cauliflower was tender. Well, my cauliflower was not about to be rushed. I had to add three more doses of water and keep things simmering for almost 15 further minutes until the vegetable softened.  Early-season cauliflower are apparently pretty dense.

In an Indian meal the dish would have been ready to serve now, sprinkled with the chopped cilantro. But Jaffrey had offered a very different alternative in her recipe headnote, which I couldn’t resist trying. “I often mix it with cooked penne pasta and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese,” she said.

So I slid my covered skillet to the back of the stove, got some water boiling, and cooked up a batch of penne. Ecco! and namaste.
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It was a very pretty, very fragrant dish. It was also somewhat dry, though, with not enough moist sauce to be absorbed by and flavor the pasta. A big splash of olive oil along with the grated cheese on each dish helped, but essentially the two main components didn’t do anything for each other. The cauliflower itself was fine, with a strong kick from the serrano chile. The peas, tomato, and cilantro mostly blended into a spicy pulp that clung nicely to the florets. But the pasta just sat among the vegetables and appreciated the olive oil and Parmigiano.

Well, no harm done, but no kitchen magic in that combination, either. I’d be happy to make the cauliflower preparation again in the context of an Indian meal, where I think it will be excellent, but I won’t try to bridge the two-cultures gap this way again.

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Eggs à la tripe popped into my mind the other day. Why, I don’t know – I hadn’t made them in more than 20 years. Nor do I know why I hadn’t: We’d definitely liked them on the few occasions I did. Somehow they just disappeared from my repertoire. If you’re not familiar with the dish, don’t be put off by the name: There’s no actual tripe in it.

As I recalled it, oeufs à la tripe was a very simple French preparation: just hard-boiled eggs and softly sauteed onions in a sauce of béchamel with gruyère. But, for the details, I had to figure out which of my cookbooks I’d found the recipe in.

Larousse Gastronomique, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame Saint Ange, Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, and the Time-Life Good Cook egg volume were all ruled out because they don’t use gruyère in their oeufs. The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking does call for cheese, but it’s a much more complex dish than the one I remembered. Clearly, the dish I remembered isn’t the primary or classic version. But it’s the one I wanted to have. On a hunch I checked Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, and there I recognized my simple recipe. My research method may be haphazard, but its results are sound.

So merrily into the kitchen I went and set to work. My faithful knife man sliced half a very large Spanish onion for me, which I softened slowly in butter, covering the pan partway through so the onions wouldn’t brown and stiffen.
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While the onions cooked I sliced four jumbo eggs that I’d hard-boiled the previous day.
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Back at the cooking onions, I sprinkled on salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of flour; stirred the flour in well; and gradually stirred in 1⅓ cups of milk – thus making the béchamel right on top of the onions. When the sauce thickened, I stirred in ⅓ cup of shredded gruyère and let that melt in.
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Finally I gently folded the sliced eggs into the sauce, trying hard to keep them from falling apart. Snatched tastes of that sauce, by the way, were even better than Tom or I had remembered. Might have been given an extra boost by the excellent cave-aged gruyère I had on hand that day.

At that point the eggs are ready to eat just as they are, over toast or rice, the recipe says. But it has an alternative serving suggestion: spread the mixture in a gratin dish, dot with a little more butter, and run it under the broiler to brown lightly. I liked that, because it could all be prepared well in advance and just finished at dinner time.
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That evening we had the eggs and their lovely sauce alongside grilled boudin noir sausages. They made a nice sloppy summer supper, and an excellent match to a lightly chilled red Burgundy.
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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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