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Recipes and Stories

8 September 2020: Roast Chicken, Leftovers, and Biscuits

Creamed Chicken with vegetables on Cream Biscuits has the hearty comfort of a pot pie without the fuss of pastry and a prolonged stay in the oven.

8 September 2020: Roast Chicken, Leftovers, and Biscuits

 

One of the most comforting things that I do in my kitchen is roast a chicken. There's something about the process that soothes and reassures like nothing else. Until recently, however, it was a comfort that had its limits.

 

While the process and the first perfect slices with their sliver of crispy skin and dribble of silky gravy are indeed an unparalleled comfort, even a small bird is more than my two-person household can consume in two meals. After the second day, what's left rapidly starts losing its appeal.

 

And as its allure dwindled, finding ways to rejuvenate it so that not even a scrap was wasted was a challenge. Even sharply reminding myself that there were hungry people who'd welcome stale leftovers didn't help. The prolonged pandemic quarantine changed all that. Read More 

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27 August 2020: Late Summer Cooking—Pan-Seared Fish Fillets

Pan-Seared Flounder with White Wine, Lemon, and Capers

 

Probably no one will disagree that this has been the oddest of summers. It almost feels as if it passed us by without really happening. Yes, we've had the fresh produce, the heat and humidity, long hours of sunshine, and crashing thunderstorms that mark the season.

 

And to get out of the apartment and see something other than one another and the same four walls, we've enjoyed long walks in the lovely summer-green parks that make Savannah unique and have even walked on the warm surf-washed sand of Tybee Beach. But for us, at least, it's been with a kind of odd detachment, as if time suspended in March and hasn't really caught up.

 

My cooking this summer has been reflective of that: Read More 

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30 July 2020: A Summer Tradition with an Old Favorite

My Shrimp Creole, a dish I've made every summer for at least half a century.

 

Tradition has been defined as "how it was done when you were a child." Whether that's a general truth or just a jaded observation of how lifelong behavior patterns form at a very early age, we do tend to hold onto things, both good and bad, from our childhoods.

 

Regardless of when and how they begin, as so many personal and family traditions have been laid waste in this time of pandemic isolation, never have the ones that we can still keep seemed more important.

 

One of mine, which began when I was about ten, is making shrimp creole every summer. Even at that age, cooking and cookbooks were already a source of endless fascination. Read More 

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24 July 2020: Tomato Sandwiches

English-style tomato sandwiches for afternoon tea, the kind one can enjoy without straining ones social graces or staining one's good clothes.

 

This time of year, there's an awful lot of deeply opinionated nonsense written about one of summer's simplest and greatest pleasures: tomato sandwiches.

 

Among the silliest are the "we're just plain folks" types who claim that it must be made with gummy white loaf bread that sticks to the roof of one's mouth and is so insubstantial that a slice of it will compress to a peanut-sized nugget, and that it must squirt and run all over one's arms and shirt.

 

That's just about all that they seem to agree upon: Some authoritatively insist that the crust may never be trimmed off, others that it must always be removed, some that the tomato must be the size of a rib-steak and hang out the edges while others allow nothing thicker or larger than the bread itself. There are proponents of the dictum that the tomato must be peeled, others that it should never, ever be peeled.

 

And then there's the mayonnaise (which is taken for granted): Read More 

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2 July 2020: Old Home Week and Pimiento Cheese

The Arts and Crafts Cottage where my maternal grandparents lived, which we all knew as "Ma-Ma's House."

 

Last week I went back to Anderson, South Carolina, my parents' home town and the site for some of my best childhood memories and earliest cooking experiences. It was the first time I'd been back in at least twenty-three years, and was bittersweet.

 

It was surprising how much was just was it had been when I last drove away from it, as if the ensuing decades had passed without touching it. But so much had changed—and a good bit of it for the better. By the time I was in college, the old downtown was rapidly going to seed. But it has since experienced a Renaissance. The courthouse square, which had been paved over as a parking lot in the fifties, has been reclaimed as a small park and the site of a new courthouse annex. Trees lined the center median of Main Street, and new shops, restaurants, and hopping night spots have filled the old storefronts that line its edges.

 

But. While all the places that had meant a lot to me were still standing, many of them were in peril. Read More 

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30 June 2020: Lowcountry Summer in a Bowl

Shrimp with Tomatoes and Okra

 

Three quintessential ingredients of a lowcountry summer table are tomatoes, okra, and local creek shrimp. And nowhere is the eclectic blending that defines our cooking better illustrated than when those three are combined in the pot.

 

Though they've found their way into gardens and pots the world over, tomatoes are believed to have originated in Central America. Okra, while now common in the Atlantic Rim's African Diaspora and in Southeast Asia, has its roots in Africa. And although dozens of varieties of shrimp are found in every part of the globe, our local brown creek shrimp have a unique sweetness thanks to the grassy marshes where they've thrived for thousands of years.

 

When all three come together in the same pan, however, their sum speaks solely of the coastal plains of the South and subtropical Caribbean,  Read More 

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12 June 2020: Rising to the Occasion—Cream Biscuit Raisin Cinnamon Rolls

Cream Biscuit Cinnamon Raisin Rolls, here finished with a dusting of powdered sugar

 

Probably the biggest challenge to comfort baking during the pandemic quarantine has been the shortage of basic ingredients. Early hoarding made flour scarce, but now, while it's still not plentiful, it is available; leavening, on the other hand, continues to be in very short supply. The yeast and baking powder shelves at most markets have been empty for weeks now, and while mail-order sources haven't dried up, on-line ordering is expensive and usually means ordering more than most of us can use.

 

One fall back alternative is self-rising flour, which is regularly, if unevenly, available. But self-rising flour can't be used for yeast baking, for thickening, or for most pastry,  Read More 

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5 June 2020: The Comforts of Poached Eggs

Uova alla fiorentina, or Eggs Florentine-style

 

Many of us have been indulging ourselves a lot through the pandemic period of quarantine with favorite comfort foods, paying scant attention to saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and other alimentary bad-boys that make eating as worthwhile as they make it dangerous. But it shouldn't follow that the only comfort food is something that is a coronary waiting for a place to happen.

 

One of my favorite comfort foods is poached eggs. They can be served up any way from simply seasoned with salt and pepper to nestled on a toasted Holland rusk (or English muffin) that's topped with sautéed Canadian bacon or aged ham, then lavishly blanketed under a fluffy, lemony hollandaise. But my hands-down favorite is uova alla fiorentina. Read More 

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30 May 2020: Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash

Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash with Bacon

 

My mother is descended from generations of gardeners, and fresh produce from our family garden counts among the fondest memories and greatest comforts of my childhood.

 

From late spring when the red clay of the Carolina hills was turned over for new planting until the frost nipped the last of the tomatoes and sweetened the fall greens, our gardens were both a place of deep comfort and a source for even deeper comforts at the table.

 

Of all the things that came from them, the one that resonates with the best of those childhood memories and characterized our summer table is yellow crookneck squash.  Read More 

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16 May 2020: Quarantine Cooking for Two—Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks

Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks with Red Wine Déglacé

16 May 2020: Quarantine Cooking for Two—Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks

 

One of the most revealing things about this pandemic lockdown is the power that the comfortably familiar has had over us, especially in the kitchen and at the table.

 

Many of us who cook as much for pleasure as necessity have a list of things we're always saying we'd master if only we had the time. Well, now we have it. But instead of leaping to explore those uncharted culinary avenues, what did we do? Most of us turned inward, fell back on the kinds of safe comfort foods we've made hundreds of times.

 

It's only natural, in such unsettling, uncertain times as these, that we'd not just crave but need the safety of familiar comforts. There's nothing wrong with it. Read More 

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12 May 2020: More Pasta and Squash

Pasta with Bacon and Yellow Crookneck Squash

 

As many of you know, for most of my adult life, two culinary traditions have been inextricably intertwined in my kitchen: the Southern cooking of my childhood, and the Italian cooking that made such a marked impact while I was studying architecture as a young adult.

 

Part of it is that the two cuisines (or, I should say, collections of cuisines) have so much in common. The cooks of the South's many cuisines, and those of Italy, especially Northern Italy, share so many of the same ingredients and approach them with a similar mindset, combining and building flavors in exactly the same way. Because of that, the blending of these cuisines in my kitchen has a natural logic.

 

At any rate, that blending has marked my cooking for nearly half a century. Read More 

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20 April 2020: Improvising on the Routine in Quarantine

Fusili (Rotini) Pasta with Zucchini, to which chicken can be added as it was in the accompanying recipe

 

A social-media query that has often been bandied about among the curious (or merely bored), in this time of pandemic-induced social isolation, is whether or not it's had a significant impact on our individual cooking patterns.

 

Are we cooking more? Are we experimenting more? Have irregular shortages of certain staples such as meat, flour, eggs, milk, and pasta impacted what we do cook?

 

For my part, not much has changed. I routinely cook every day, and other than developing a recipe for a newspaper column, the only real difference in what I cook is that I'm tending to be less experimental, and am falling back more and more on things I've made dozens, if not hundreds of times. Read More 

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3 April 2020: Finding Comforts in Isolation

Aunt Margaret's Congo Squares (Bars), a comfort in any season, but especially now

 

As we move into a third week of isolation and face that it's not going to end any time soon, we're all looking for comfort in this time of uncertainty wherever we can find it. Someone asked if I was cooking more—and actually, I'm not: we but rarely eat out and I cook every single day.

 

But what I cook has changed. I don't bake a lot, especially not sweets, except around the mid-winter holidays. But warm baked treats are a comfort—if you have flour—and I do, having just filled my flour canister up for a seminar I'd been asked to do on bread in the Bible. Social distancing orders caused the seminar to be postponed, but it meant I had a reasonable supply of flour on hand when hoarders stripped our grocery's shelves, so I've actually been baking a little.

 

A couple of days back, Timothy asked if I would make Congo Bars. It opened a floodgate of warm, deeply comforting childhood memories. They were just what we needed.

  Read More 

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30 March 2020: Simple Carbs in a Crisis

Gratin of New Potatoes and Spring Onions

 

A dear friend and fellow food writer/cooking teacher reminded me this morning of one reason that panic hoarders have cleaned out the flour, pasta, and rice from most of our markets over the last two weeks: Simple carbohydrates are a natural mood elevator.

 

She suggested breadmaking as a great way to expend energy in this time of confinement that has an added bonus of providing a lovely, warm simple carbohydrate that comforts and naturally lifts us from the inevitable depression that comes with being cooped up.

 

It's a fine idea. Unhappily, unless you made it to the market before panic emptied the shelves of bread's primary ingredient, for the moment, an idea is all it can be.

 

So far, however, no one has been panic-hoarding one of natures great sources of simple carbohydrates: potatoes (at least, not here in Savannah where I live). Read More 

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16 March 2020: Braised Cabbage

Lettice Bryan's Fried Cabbage is actually braised, and makes a fine accompaniment for roast poultry, pork, ham, and that St. Patrick's Day Corned Beef

16 March 2020: Braised Cabbage

 

The middle of March marks an all-too-brief moment in the year when green cabbage, which gets so little attention the rest of the year, comes into its own and finally gets to share a bit of culinary lime light.

 

After months of being taken for granted slivered up in coleslaw or stewed with salt pork and languishing on the steam table of restaurants offering so-called "country" cooking, green cabbage finally gets to nestle up to that ubiquitous hunk of St. Patrick's Day corned beef and shine, if only for a day or two.

 

That wasn't always the case: Read More 

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11 March 2020: Why You Should Be Loving (and Using) Your Grandmother's Silver

A Tomato Server: Just because that's its name doesn't mean that it can only be used to scoop up sliced tomatoes.

 

Today, we're taking a break from cooking to talk about another important aspect of the meal, one that is especially timely just now.

 

Unless you've been hibernating for the last few weeks, you're well aware of how the outbreak of a new, influenza-like virus has sent a wave of panic over the globe, creating a renewed hyper-sensitivity to sanitation.

 

Instructions on proper handwashing have become common on social media. There have been runs on toilet paper, hand-sanitizer, and masks. We're being cautioned about being in the confined crowds of an airplane, theater, church, and other such public places. And when people do venture out, they've started shying away from direct contact with others, avoiding handshakes and that modern habit of hugging everything and everyone in sight.

 

There is, however, a simple and very effective practice that most people have overlooked, one that has almost been lost to our progressively modern world: the use of silver tableware. Read More 

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11 February 2020: Smothered Pork Steaks with Sage and Shallot Gravy

Smothered Cubed Pork Steaks with Sage and Shallot Gravy

 

One of the best things about having a basic set of simple dishes that we turn to again and again is that they provide us with knowledge and skills that we don't even have to think about. So, when we're confronted with a new ingredient, once we understand its essence, we can automatically apply the knowledge and innate set of skills we already have, without having to dig out a recipe.

 

Recently, a recipe featured in my newspaper column called for a small amount of fresh pork. While shopping for it, I ran across cubed boneless pork steaks on sale, and found a package that contained just enough for the recipe with two nice-sized steaks that could be set aside for another meal.

 

I'd never cooked cubed pork steaks, but it didn't matter.  Read More 

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27 January 2020: A New Leaf

Ground Beef and Macaroni Casserole: Simple comfort food whose subtleties should no be taken for granted.

It's been a bit quiet on this page for a reason—one that doesn't say anything flattering about me.

 

The electric range in my apartment kitchen, which has given me fits ever since we moved in, decided to up its battle plan and try to put me over the edge: the burner whose switch and thermostat was going bad went all the way, and instead of randomly surging to high stayed there no matter what it was set on.

 

It left me to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas with two small heating elements, a large one that could only be used to bring water to a boil in a hurry, and an oven that runs hot and doesn't heat evenly. The only way to get a slow braise or stew was in that oven on a baking stone. And once that pot or kettle of water was boiling, it had to come off the element; the heat was too intense even for cooking pasta. Read More 

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24 December 2019: Christmas Ham Rolls

Christmas Morning Countnry Ham Rolls

 

One of the advantages of having a second home in Virginia is that we can get baked country ham sliced to order from the supermarket deli up there, a luxury we've not had here in Savannah for a long time. Which means that over the holidays we'll be able to enjoy an old Southern Christmas treat: baked country ham sliced wafer-thin and piled high in warm biscuits or yeast rolls.

 

Sadly, the tradition of having this treat on Christmas morning is vanishing faster than snow in Florida. Read More 

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12 December 2019: Fruitcake Season

My Christmas Fruitcake. Photography by Rich Burkhart.

For more than twenty years, beginning in the early days of researching my first cookbook when the handsome antique recipes first captured my cook's imagination, fruitcake making was one of my favorite holiday chores.

 

There was something soothingly nostalgic about it, even though it wasn't part of my childhood. My mother was a fine baker and had made the family fruitcakes in her youth, but she stopped making them when she married a minister and became a working mother with three rowdy boys.

 

And yet, candying my own citrus peel, picking over the pecans, hydrating the dried fruit and steeping it in whiskey, mixing the spice-and-sherry-laced pound cake batter, was always like a refreshing visit back to childhood. And the aroma after it went into the oven was worth every minute of the trouble it had taken to get it there.

 

Then, rather abruptly, I stopped—and not because I got tired of it. Read More 

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12 December 2019: Crystallized or Candied Citrus Peel

Crystallized or Candied Citrus Peel

It's easy to imagine the cook who first decided not to waste the fragrant lemon and orange rinds that were left behind when the fruit was peeled and prepared for the table, fiddling around and boiling it in honey or sugar syrup until the tart, brightly colored peelings were plump and sweet. It's still one of the most delightful candies ever created, but is also indispensable in holiday baking, especially in fruit cake.

 

Though commercially candied citrus peel for baking has been around for a long time now, today most of it is made with high-fructose syrup, which, while cheaper, is cloyingly sweet with an unpleasant aftertaste. Fortunately, making it at home isn't difficult or all that time-consuming and is an excellent way to use leftover citrus peelings that would otherwise be thrown out. Read More 

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18 November 2019: Early American Bean Soup

Early American White Bean Soup

 

It never pays to get carried away and overthink things in the kitchen.

 

When the weather finally turns cool, nothing warms and comforts quite as simply or completely as a hearty bean soup. The ingredients are inexpensive, the method is artless and requires next to nothing in the way of skill from the cook, and virtually the only way to mess it up is to walk away from the pot and forget it long enough for it to boil dry.

 

And yet. When I dug up one of my recipes from an old newspaper column to make a shopping list for a pot of bean soup, instead of finding simple directions for a simple dish involving one pot (as it should be) was confronted with an unnecessarily complicated operation requiring two pots and a layered sautéing step that was supposed to "build" the flavors but in fact didn't contribute enough to those flavors to make it worth the trouble. Read More 

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5 November 2019: My Grandmother's Dumplings

MaMa's Dumplings, My Broth. Heaven in a Bowl

 

Well, it only took close on to sixty years to accomplish it, but I think I've finally mastered one of my favorite dishes from childhood: my maternal grandmother's dumplings.

 

MaMa made broad, flat noodle-like dumplings that are sometimes called "slipperies," and the broth in which she simmered them depended on the time of year, what she had on hand, and her mood. Even when rolled flat, the dough is similar to biscuits, with exactly the same ingredients—flour, salt, baking powder, shortening of some kind, and milk.

 

My mistake lay in the assumption that it was exactly the same as biscuits, Read More 

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29 October 2019: Party Food and Hot Cheese Dip

Hot Baked Three Cheese Dip

 

One of the biggest challenges of writing my regular newspaper column is party food. That's mainly, I confess, because I'm a bit of a broken record when it comes to putting out a party spread: I butter-roast a couple of pounds of pecans, toss them with salt (and chopped rosemary if I'm feeling racy) grate a pound or so of cheddar and stir it into a batch of pimiento cheese, stuff a pan of biscuits with country ham or roll out a batch of spicy cheese straws, and call it a day.

 

Coming up with a different menu that's clever and interesting and doesn't have any of those things on it, is always a struggle.

 

The clever part is the biggest stumbling block. Read More 

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25 October 2019: Soup Season and Beef Soup Monticello

Beef Soup Monticello

Last weekend, more than sixty members of my high school class gathered in the cool of a rainy upstate Carolina evening to celebrate the anniversary our graduation into adulthood. It was a welcome refreshment of the spirit, not only in the renewing of old friendships, but in the taste of distinctly autumnal weather afforded those of us who now live away from those hills.

 

The respite from our lowcountry heat made it easy to get into a fall mindset for the research and development of seasonal stew recipes for my regular newspaper column. But a bonus was that the combinations of flavors that came to the fore inevitably brought me back to a favorite recipe from a favorite kitchen of the past: Beef Soup Monticello. Read More 

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18 September 2019: Panned Oysters

Elegant simplicity, Panned Oysters on Toast

As Savannah's weather begins to moderate and our season for oysters opens, it seems like a very good time to revisit an old local favorite, Panned Oysters. There may be other ways of preparing oysters that are as good, but short of forcing a live oyster open and slurping it without ceremony right out of its shell, none can top it for flavor or surpass its elegant simplicity. Read More 

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14 September 2019: Blackberry Cobbler

Old-Fashioned Blackberry Cobbler, with a proper pastry crust.

Some of my loveliest late-summer memories are of foraging for wild blackberries in the pastures, woodland thickets, and shoulders of country lanes in the rural communities and small towns where I grew up in upstate South Carolina.

 

We'd come in from those outings tired and sweaty (we had to wear long sleeves, thick jeans, and sturdy shoes as protection not only from the brambles but crawling varmints), our hands and wrists scratched and deeply stained with purple, filled with at least as many berries as we had in our pails. I could close my eyes and literally see mound upon mound of shiny purple-black fruit. Read More 

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15 August 2019: An Old Dog Relearning Old Tricks

A Quick Sauté of Beef is done in less than tweny minutes, start to finish.

I am having to relearn how to cook on an electric range, and the one on which I am learning is working my nerves.

 

Crowded into the end of our apartment's galley kitchen, the thermostat of its large front burner is defective and will suddenly make it surge to high heat when it's set anywhere between high and medium-low. From medium-low to low, it practically turns itself off and is barely warm.

 

That can be fixed, but the undercabinet microwave that hovers a mere thirteen inches above the cooking surfaces (five inches less than standard upper cabinet height) cannot. Read More 

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26 July 2019: Peach Shortcake

Peach Shortcake

 

Shortcake is one of the most versatile of all home desserts. The biscuit-like cake can be enriched with more butter and an egg yolk, spiced, studded with currants or chopped raisins, glazed with beaten egg white for a glossy finish, or brushed with milk and topped with cinnamon sugar.

 

The filling can be anything at all from savory to sweet: on the savory end, creamed chicken, creamed asparagus or peas, or even seafood (though I'd leave out the sugar in the shortcake for that); on the sweet end, fresh berries or soft summer fruit such as peaches, plums, mangoes, or figs, jam, cooked fruit compote, or even citrus marmalade. Read More 

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13 July 2019: Remembering Jo Bettoja

Jo Bettoja's Georgia Pasta is one part uptown Roman Pasta al Forno and one part down-home Southern Squash Casserole.

She was standing alone, her regal bearing making her seem much taller than she actually was. Impeccably dressed in a chili-pepper red Chanel suit, her sleek, graying hair neatly pulled back in its signature coil at the nape of her neck, she sipped from an old-fashioned glass cupped in her hand with careless grace, and exuded the kind of timeless beauty and noble elegance that had earned her the nickname "la bella contessa."

 

My breath caught in my throat. There, within just a few yards of my wondering eyes, was one of the great, iconic teachers of Italian cooking. I had two of her lovely cookbooks and had long admired her simple, direct way of writing and cooking. And she was right there. Alone.

 

Pinching myself and gathering my nerve, I ambled over, and shyly introduced myself, "Signora Bettoja, you don't know me from Adam's house cat, but I've been an admirer of yours for years and have wanted to meet you for a long time." Read More 

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