Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Simply citrus: Homemade syrups, salts, and preserved lemons

Citrus season is in full swing here, and I'm making the most of it. My lemon tree is churning out a generous bounty, and I'm loading my market bag with blood oranges, grapefruit, and some of the most spectacular navel oranges I've ever enjoyed. Today I have a handful of recipes to help you make full use of winter citrus while it's at its peak. These are all simple and economical recipes to help preserve the best of the season: syrups and frozen concentrates, finishing salts, and preserved lemons.

It's worth seeking out organic fruit for these recipes, particularly those that make use of the peel. This is a good time to score a bargain on organic citrus. These are easy to make with kids, too (be sure to supervise them if they use a grater).

If you're crazy for still more citrus, start a batch of limoncello that will be ready in time for summer, make lemon curd (or mango-lime curd, swoon!), or treat your favorite people to candied citrus peels.

Blood orange juice
Lemonade Syrup, and Blood Orange Variation

Store the syrup in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze as homemade juice concentrate. I love the taste of raw or organic sugar, but it adds a golden-brown tint. It's barely noticeable in lemonade, but it blunts the the vivid color of blood orange juice. This recipe yields four 8-oz. drinks; scale up or down to meet your needs.

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup lemon juice

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Let cool, the combine with lemon juice.

To prepare a drink, combine equal parts lemonade syrup with water — you may need to adjust proportions to suit your taste.

For concentrate, freeze portions in plastic containers, then store the frozen blocks in an airtight freezer bag or container.

Blood Orange Syrup: Substitute blood orange juice for lemon juice. This syrup is also especially good poured over shave ice or added to a glass of sparkling water. 

Frozen blocks of lemonade concentrate, waiting for summer

Citrus Salt

I intended to make this ages ago, after seeing it over at Steamy Kitchen, but only just got around to it after it was featured at 101 Cookbooks. Try citrus salt as a finishing touch with chicken, seafood, and vegetable dishes. Be sure to juice the fruit after removing the zest and use it to make the syrup recipes that follow.

organic lemons, oranges, and/or limes
sea salt

Scrub fruit well and dry thoroughly. Zest fruit, being careful not to remove the bitter white pith. Combine about 1 tablespoon of zest with 1/2 cup sea salt, mixing thoroughly with a fork.

Lay salt blend on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Let it sit out a while to dry, or put it in a 200 degree oven for 75 minutes to two hours, until zest is dry and crumbles easily between your fingers. You could do this in a dehydrator, too.

Store in an airtight container and it should keep for a few months.

Lemon salt, top, and orange-lime salt

Preserved Lemons

Try dicing preserved lemons and whisking them with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper for a fantastic dressing, as in my Persimmon and Fennel Salad. They're delicious with rice and other grains, in marinades, and atop simply cooked chicken and fish.

organic lemons
kosher salt or coarse sea salt
a large jar with tight-fitting lid
optional spices: cinnamon stick, cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaves, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, peppercorns

Be sure to have enough lemons to fill your jar, plus a few more for juice. First, sterilize your jar and lid by boiling them in water for 10 minutes.

Scrub lemons well and trim away any stems. Slice the lemons almost completely in half, but not all the way through. Make another cut, perpendicular to the first, so you've cut the lemons nearly into quarters. Sprinkle some salt in the bottom of the jar. Pack the cuts in the lemons with salt and put them in the jar. Pack firmly, squishing out some of the juice. Add any spices, if you wish, top off with another sprinkle of salt, and add enough lemon juice to completely submerge the lemons.

Shake the jar every day or two to evenly distribute juice and salt. As lemons soften, add a few more.

Your lemons will be ready in 3 to 4 weeks. They're very salty: You may want to rinse them before using, and taste before adding more salt to a dish.

I've been assured the jar never needs refrigeration, but I stick it in the fridge after opening it and try to use them up within 6 to 8 months.

091204_persimmon salad_3
Preserved lemons are perfect for Persimmon and Fennel Salad

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A feast for the new year

We just finished cleaning up and decorating our home this weekend to usher in the Year of the Water Dragon, which kicks off Monday.

I didn't mark Lunar New Year while growing up in New England, but it's an eagerly anticipated holiday for my sons. It's such a joyful celebration — and food, of course, is part of the fun.

A little lion
We've done a little tidying up, set out fresh flowers and mandarin oranges, and hung up our decorations. For New Year's, we'll enjoy a modest feast with a nod to traditional dishes. The start of the new year snuck up on me, however, so we'll be taking advantage of the fact that this is the year of the creative, independent, and calm water dragon, and make do the best we can (without braving the busy Asian market just before the holiday!).

I'll be making long noodles — spaghetti, this year! — to celebrate long life. We just finished off the last of our homemade dumplings from the freezer, so we'll get by with ravioli for our "little purses." And I might make this stir-fried lettuce for a little more good luck. We'll make more traditional fare before the holiday ends. Read on for a few more ways to celebrate:

Wrapping dumplings
  • Make dumplings. The first few may come out a bit wonky, but you'll soon get the hang of these delicious little purses. Kids enjoy making them too — just be sure the edges are well sealed so they don't split open during cooking. To freeze, set the dumplings on a silicone baking mat or parchment, then store them in a freezer bag for a quick meal later. My kids love to find dumplings in their lunch box.
  • P1050649
    Beautifully marbled tea eggs

  • Prepare tea eggs. Oh, I love these! These are fun to make, lovely to look at, and delicious to eat. Like dumplings, they're perfect for a lunch box. It's an easy recipe to do with kids too.

  • Have a popiah party. Like dumplings, these Taiwanese crepes symbolize prosperity and good fortune — and are another way to involve kids.

  • P1090773
    Baked rice cake

  • Bake sweet rice cake. You'll need glutinous rice flour for this, but it's worth seeking out (try an Asian market) for this slightly lighter and easier take on the traditional sweet.

  • More ways to celebrate: Wear new clothes, get a hair cut, and set off party poppers in lieu of firecrackers! And don't forget to give the kids red envelopes with crisp dollar bills inside.

    To learn a little more about the holiday, visit Wikipedia. And for more inspiration in the kitchen, check out this feature at Epicurious.

    May the Year of the Water Dragon bring you and your family good fortune!

    Friday, January 20, 2012

    Cocoa and Cinnamon Biscotti

    My 7-year-old and I were extremely bored last Monday. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and we were trying to find something else to do with our free time at home, apart of dreaming about traveling to snowy places.

    That's when Darienne's latest series of posts and somehow one chapter of An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler, started to act as a magic potion on my motivation.

    We headed to the kitchen and I invited my son to make an experiment. At this point I have to add some background to the story: Science is highly appreciated here and anything related to mixing things and heating them to see what happens is welcome, especially by the older kid.

    So he announced he wanted to try to bake a "I have a dream kind of cake" to celebrate the reason for the school day off. We started putting ingredients on the dining table and he helped choose his favorites: cocoa, cinnamon and vanilla. He asked me what to do. I declared that we would bake with no recipe, using our intuition and mixing things and adjusting the quantities. While I would add the ingredients, he would take notes. Then he mixed all the liquid ingredients with Mr. Whisk — a very lovely kitchen tool (in the photo).

    Flour, eggs, milk, canola oil, baking powder, cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate chips were added gradually. We both stirred everything with the help of a vintage wooden spoon as we dared to make an "old times" cake, with no electricity wasted. The batter was looking beautiful and uniform, ready to go and be baked. He decided to include a secret ingredient, so to make the recipe unique. We did.

    After 40 minutes the cake was ready — perfect taste and not so perfect texture — too dense. But the boy didn't care about the texture and enjoyed a big slice of it with a tall glass of milk. After one day of sitting on the countertop I just decided to give it a second chance. I sliced it with a sharp knife, and baked the sliced cake for about one hour. That's how these wonderful biscottis were born! And they made me think if somewhere in Italy biscottis were created like this — by chance. Or if it was just a way of giving a longer life to a once-upon-a-time cake.

    Cocoa Cinnamon Biscotti

    I see this recipe as a reference and a "freedom license" to create something out of it. For sure we will revisit it sometime to achieve the texture I would love to have. Darienne had a sample and called the biscotti a cross in between biscotti and brownies. 

    2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    1/3 cup cocoa
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/3 cup sugar
    1/3 cup chocolate chips
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    3 eggs
    1/4 cup canola oil
    2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    1 1/4 cup milk
    1 tablespoon your secret ingredient

    Preheat oven to 350F. Mix all dried in a bowl. In another bowl whisk all liquid ingredients. Pour liquid into dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon. When blended, add chocolate chips and fold them to the batter. Transfer mix to a 9-x-13-inch cake pan and bake for about 35 minutes. When cold, slice it and bake the slices for about 30 more minutes at 375 F.  

    Saturday, January 14, 2012

    Seeking balance

    I follow scores of food blogs and browse several magazines with recipes. The list of dishes I'd like to try far exceeds anything I might actually tackle. I drift from whim to whim, and typically feel I'm neglecting something I meant to do. Too often, I spend so much time figuring out what exactly I want to do that there's not time to actually do it. Which is ridiculous.

    Balance is the key. It's an ongoing struggle, but here are a few things that might help.

    Just say no

    If you tend to take on too much, try saying no — at first. It isn't as negative as it sounds. Whenever I'm seized with the impulse to make/do/buy something, I say no. In my head, it goes like this: "Ooh! Such-and-such holiday that my family doesn't even celebrate is coming up and I should try to make that complicated traditional dish for it … " And then I stop. No. Just … no.

    And more often than not, it's a relief to let myself off the hook. If I end up saying yes, it's only because I've convinced myself it's a good idea, and in the process I've usually figured out a reasonable way to get it done without turning my life inside-out.

    Plan meals

    I've written about this before, but it's essential to maintaining sanity in the kitchen: Make a workable meal plan and do your best to stick to it.

    A couple tips:
    • Create a simple, two-week plan of favorite dishes you can make blindfolded and with one hand tied behind your back. Set it up on a repeating cycle in an online calendar. This is the default plan. From here, customize to your heart's content. (Read this post for more.)
    • Pair up meals to make good use of ingredients. If you roast a chicken one day, plan for chicken salad, enchiladas, or soup the next. If one meal uses half a can of coconut milk, plan something the next day to use the leftovers (like this dessert). Today's roast vegetables become tomorrow's soup, frittata, or veggie taco. (Check out this recent article in the NY Times for inspiration.)
    • Keep a freezer inventory. If you stash food away for a rainy day, don't waste it! Clean out the freezer three or four times a year, tossing the funky stuff and jotting down everything that goes back in. Type it up, post it in the kitchen, and update it as needed. In your meal plan, be sure to include convenient freezer meals for busy days.

    Put technology to work

    Quick access to recipes on my phone and computer help me improvise without waste at the market. A few favorite tools:
    • Evernote is simply amazing. I clip recipes from websites, email pictures of print recipes taken with my phone, and sync it all among my phone, our iPad, and my computer. Evernote can even search text in images, making it incredibly easy to find a half-remembered recipe when you're eyeing a special at the market.
    • MacGourmet recipe software keeps my personal collection always accessible. It automatically imports recipes from dozens of sites, and is almost as easy to search as Evernote. Creating grocery lists is easy, and I can figure out nutritional info for my own recipes. It's for Mac only, unfortunately, so it may not be right for you. Other options include these alternatives recommended by Lifehacker readers
    • Save money and enjoy peak produce by buying what's in season where you live with this seasonal ingredient map from Epicurious. Sticking to a seasonal menu helps simplify and focus meal planning.
    Scores of popular recipes resources have phone-friendly versions, including Epicurious, Allrecipes, and Everyday Food. I frequently turn to Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything app.

    Rely on routines and rituals

    Repetition evolves into ritual. Make-your-own pizza one night is fun; do it every Friday, and it's a family event. We have a few rituals: One night each week my husband makes his stir-fry, I slip out to a coffee shop to work, and my kids enjoy "boys' night" with dad. Saturdays it's lunch at at a favorite sandwich shop. During baseball season, we picnic at the field before practices. These rituals provide structure and much-needed breaks.

    Aim to please just one person at a time

    You probably can't please your whole family with one meal, I wrote yesterday, and trying to do so can be frustrating. If you struggle with this, here's my advice: Stop trying.

    Instead, try to please one at a time. We take turns being the "star of the day" in my family, an approach that helps resolve who gets to choose the bedtime story or pick a TV show. I apply the same idea to my meal plan, making sure at least one night a week the main dish is focused on pleasing one of the very different personalities in my home.

    Take time off

    When you're feeling run-down, sometimes the answer is as simple as stepping off the hamster wheel. A smart friend of mine orders takeout every Friday night. We go out to lunch every Saturday and my husband takes over dinner duty every Monday. Give yourself a break. No one's about to give you a trophy for all your hard work. If you're tuckered out, take off the apron, pour some cereal for dinner,  have a seat, and enjoy your family.

    And with that, I'm wrapping up my New Year musings and taking a little break for the weekend. Thanks for reading along, and for the comments here, at Facebook, and over e-mail, for this little series and throughout the past few years. Here's to a healthy, happy 2012!

    Friday, January 13, 2012

    A healthy attitude for healthy meals

    100621_grilled eggplant pizza_05

    No one in my family savors food the way I do. The boys all have favorite foods and occasional cravings, but what they're eating just isn't as important to them as it is to me. I'm finally starting to adjust my expectations, to realize that just because I'm excited to try a new roast chicken recipe doesn't mean anyone else will be.

    Preparing family meals can feel like a lonely job, especially with picky eaters. The solution, of course, is to make it less lonely. Yesterday I wrote about letting go of some of the emotional baggage by compromise and ceding some control to the kids. Today, here are a few ways the grownups can make mealtime more fun.

    Train helpers

    It isn't enough to ask or insist. I'm trying to be better about teaching my family how to help.

    For example, my husband said he'd be happy to share meal duty, but he doesn't know how to cook. He can make a killer lasagna, but that’s best enjoyed as an occasional indulgence.

    Together we came up with something new but simple: Every Monday for months, he made penne pasta with chicken sausage. And after we tired of that, I taught him how to make a simple (and healthier) stir-fry. Baby steps.

    My kids run hot and cold on helping in the kitchen, and I don't ask them to lend a hand enough. With a little more patience on my part, I can help them own some of the small jobs at dinner time. A simple invitation to taste-test usually leads to a suggestion, and then a little person's pushing a chair over to the counter to do the work himself.

    For some inspiration, we have dozens of kid-tested recipes. For ideas on how to get kids involved with meal prep, check out this list at

    Find the fun

    There's a reason kids like Happy Meals, and it has nothing to do with the food. A little goofiness can be a great way to break down barriers at the table. If nothing else, you'll enjoy the break in routine!


    A few quick ideas:
    • Make it fancy. Dress up nice, set out the fancy candles, and serve the milk in plastic wine glasses. Practice good manners by playing the part.
    • Play with color. Throw the kids for a loop with a monochromatic meal — say, chicken nuggets, corn, and mango chunks, or spinach pasta with pesto, green beans, and kiwi. Tint the milk to match. (Though this is probably a maddening idea to anyone whose kid is stuck in the all-white-foods phase.) At the other end of the spectrum, make a meal with every color of the rainbow!
    • Picnic. Spread out a blanket in the back yard or on the living room floor and serve dinner from a picnic basket.
    • Play drive-through. Let the kids make the menu, pick up cheap toys from the dollar bins at Target and stuff them in paper bags, and turn the kitchen into a drive-through.
    • Eat at the kids' table. Instead of the dining table, sit down at that teeny tiny little table where the kids do all their coloring and scissoring and play-dough smooshing. Your knees will be in agony afterward, but the kids will love it.
    • 100621_grilled eggplant pizza_09
    • Pizza night. We did this every Friday for a while, and the kids looked forward to it. We need to revive pizza night at my house!
    • Dinner and a movie. Pick a movie and meal to match — ratatouille, of course, for the movie of the same name, noodles with Ponyo, ants on a log or ant's house cake with Bugs, apples with Tangled, etc.

    Feast with friends

    Food is best enjoyed with friends, of course! Give another parent a welcome break prep and invite their family over for dinner. It might be just a simple roast chicken with salad on the side, or even take-out, but with all the happy chatter at the table there won't be any complaints. Shift the focus from the food to enjoying good company, and you'll help your children learn to appreciate the value of gathering at the table.

    My get-togethers with Anna and her kids have been an invaluable creative outlet for me. That's when I stretch my wings and take risks. She's always an enthusiastic guest, and usually finds a way to elevate an ordinary dish into something extraordinary. If my kids won't touch the food, hers might. That's my test kitchen, and dishes that make the cut find their way to my family table later.

    Tomorrow, some thoughts on staying organized and finding balance. Until then:  How do you turn things around when you're worn out with kitchen duty?

    Thursday, January 12, 2012

    Compromise as a path to mealtime peace

    One of the first things moms learn: You can't please everyone all the time. You probably can't even please most. Apparently, I need to absorb that lesson again and again: I keep serving up dinners hoping for a chorus of wows, then taking it personally when one (or more) diners pokes halfheartedly as his plate and sets his fork down. As I rework my approach at the start of the year, I'm looking for chances to meet the kids halfway. Well, almost halfway — there's room for compromise.

    Put the kids in charge

    I confess, my knee-jerk reaction would be to snap, "Fine, why don't you just make dinner yourself!" My more mature, parental response: Have a go at it, kids! Here's a cookbook — take a look, and pick out something you want for dinner this week.

    Kids can't plan a meal without some guidance, of course. Take a look at the nutrition guidelines at for preschoolers and older kids, print out a MyPlate place mat, and challenge the children to come up with a reasonable meal.

    It won't be anything like the kind of meal you'd plan, but that's the point. If parents smile graciously and eat a meal of plain, buttered spaghetti, white bread, and baby carrots, the kids might — might — be better sports about chicken curry with roasted Brussel sprouts. (I know not everyone is on board with MyPlate, but it isn't a bad starting point for talking nutrition with kids.)

    To help kids get inspired, hand them a child-friendly cookbook. I love Mollie Katzen's Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes, which has illustrated steps for pre-readers. The website for They Draw and Cook is a visual wonderland, and their cookbook is fun to browse (though young readers might need help with the fonts and handwriting).

    Relax standards

    I don't advocate buying a lot of processed junk, heating it up, and calling it nourishment. But it's emotionally healthy to let go, a little bit, and embrace some conveniences that won't kill us. Don't laugh, but it's taken me a long time to accept that steamed frozen vegetables are an OK alternative to freshly peeled, cut, seasoned, and roasted carrots.

    Seriously, I'm lucky to live in a place where fresh, local vegetables are abundant year-round. But if I'm already investing time and attention in what should be a fantastic meal of chicken parmigiana, we might all be happier with steamed frozen veggies on the side rather than a cranky mama who labored over the carrots around and in between the chicken cutlets.


    Resentment is toxic. Instead of taking responsibility for everyone's satisfaction, put the responsibility back on them.

    A great way to end the lunch box blues, for example, is to let your child choose what to eat. Present a menu of reasonable options, get a few suggestions from your child, and you have a plan for the week. Download and customize this menu I made for my second-grader, inspired by this menu shared at TipJunkie. Kids can even help pack their lunch. (If you have trouble with the download, drop me a note and I'll e-mail it.)

    You may still chafe if your child barely touches his packed lunch, but it's no longer your burden. You're freed from guilt, second-guessing, and irritation, and instead can help your child figure out how to make a better choice next time.

    Allow reasonable alternatives

    Experts agree: Don't become a short-order cook for your kids. But you can give them an out if they really don't like dinner — provided you keep it reasonable.

    I wrote two years ago about a genius tip to offer one simple, plain, and healthy backup choice to end mealtime battles (courtesy of It's Not About Nutrition).

    My now 7-year-old is no longer interested in cottage cheese, but he can prepare a slice of buttered whole-wheat toast all on his own. I no longer offer a backup, but sometimes he'll ask: "Could I make a slice of toast? I don't really like dinner."

    A slice of wheat toast isn't the best dinner, but it isn't the worst either. Best of all, he feels empowered to take care of his needs himself.

    Tomorrow, some tips for facing meal prep with a good attitude. Until then: How do you stay positive in the kitchen? Do you have a favorite kids' cookbook, or a tip for managing picky eaters?

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012

    A fresh look at mealtime

    I'm not one for making new year's resolutions, but the aftermath of the holiday season is a natural pause point. I'm catching my breath after the holiday fun, appreciating what’s been going well, figuring out what needs tweaking, and making a few course corrections.

    Feeding my family is a central thread in that process. Nourishing my family is an act of love — or at least it should be. But it doesn't always feel that way after I've navigated the market, done all the chopping and sautéing and baking while helping with homework and mediating sibling disputes, and served a meal that more often than not gets a lukewarm response. My kids have become picky eaters, and it's been a wearing several months.

    The challenges involved touch so many parenting issues for me:
    • Compromise: I have yet to find a food that everyone in my family loves. Four people, four very distinct tastes. Factor in the responsibility to make sure everyone is eating healthfully, and I have almost zero chance of pleasing the whole crew at any given meal. Somehow, I have to negotiate a peaceful middle path.
    • Attitude: I like cooking and I love food, but I loathe drudgery. Planning, shopping, putting away groceries, washing, peeling, chopping, cooking, packing up … too often, it feels like a chore. It doesn't help when the product of my efforts is met with indifference or even a chorus of "ew!' (Sometimes from me too.) When resentment takes hold, it feeds on itself in a vicious cycle. I don't like the way it feels, and I don't want to model that attitude for my kids.
    • Balance: It's amazing how much time I can spend planning, procuring, and preparing food. And then dinner is over in a flash! I've made strides lately in budgeting my time better, and need to continue to keep myself on a short leash. 
    Over the next few days, I'll share a few ideas and tools I'm using to try to meet those challenges as gracefully as possible. Some are focused on organization and simplification, others on family roles. Happily, as I sat down to clarify what I need to work on and how, I found that every potential solution to one issue also helped another.

    Are you reorganizing your approach for 2012? What do you do to keep yourself sane and happy in the kitchen?

    Saturday, January 7, 2012

    Cooking with Kids: "Snowballs" Winter Soup

    Isn't it nice when something happens at random while you're cooking and leads to a surprising solution? That just happened while we were cooking with kids at school: The original plan was to cut snowflake shapes from slices of baked potatoes, add them to a very colorful vegetable soup, and play with their imagination. But the project of cutting the potatoes with the cookie cutters didn't work:  The potatoes were too mushy to allow the neat plan.

    So, instead of getting disappointed, I was taken by a very fast experiment that ended up working perfectly: They mashed potatoes with their own hands and made snowballs with them. Roasted cauliflower was cut in thin slices to make the  pretend-to-be snowflakes. All was fun when the kids enjoyed throwing the "snowballs" and "snowflakes" into a pot filled with hot soup, also adding some white corn kernels. At the end of the process they were all surprised to see how the snowballs had "melted" into the soup.

    The book read to inspire the kids to cook was the adorable Perfect Soup, by Lisa Moser, found in the local library by Carla, a mom and a teacher who volunteers with me in the Cooking Club at school. It's very easy reading for kindergartners and first-graders and has lots to offer to the kids. Something like the gift of sharing. Perfect to begin the new year with a good story and lots of inspiration for a new start (and more vegetables on our plate!).

    Snowballs and Soup

    By chance we've found that russet potatoes are good to roll the balls. Bake them in the oven or even microwave with the skin, so that the chefs can have extra work. I am still testing firmer potatoes to cut with cookie cutters. 

    4 cups vegetable or chicken stock (if not homemade go for higher-quality ones from cartons, low-sodium and preferably organic)
    2 cups water
    1 cup tomato paste or your favorite tomato sauce
    Kosher salt to taste
    1 cup white corn kernels
    3 baked russet potatoes, mashed with hands and shaped into "snowballs"
    2 cups roasted cauliflower florets (with garlic powder and salt)
    Parsley or cilantro leaves (to dress it up)
    Japanese "snowflake" shape rice crackers (optional)

    Heat vegetable broth and water and simmer while preparing the other ingredients. Mix in tomato paste, salt, corn, potato snowballs, and cauliflower. Continue to simmer for about 10 minutes.

    Serve in a bowl and top it with cilantro and add rice crackers to add some crunch. 


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