Regional French Cuisine: Pays Basque: Piperade

29 05 2009

Basque cooking is pretty much synonymous with peppers.  If you’re in a restaurant in France, and a dish is described on the menu as “à la basquaise,” it will probably be covered in bell peppers.  (Seeing as I am not exactly a bell pepper lover, this can be disappointing.)  Piperade is the name for a mixture of sautéed peppers and onions, usually seasoned with piment d’espelette and often involving eggs and/or ham.  Sounds like a pretty great breakfast to me, especially if I can swap out the bell peppers for my much-loved piquillos.

The beginning stages of piperade

Faced with yet another bunch of white asparagus from the CSA panier, I remembered a post by Mark Bittman in which he finally finds a way to enjoy the overpriced, underwhelming vegetable.  It involved peeling and cooking the hell out of them and then smothering them in a “broken hollandaise” of sorts.  I thought that some creamy, slow-cooked scrambled eggs would fit the bill, and the piperade would be the icing on the cake, so to speak.

S-L-O-W-L-Y scrambling eggs

I mean, we all know how great asparagus and eggs are together, right?  Now, if you’ll allow me, I have a short diatribe about scrambled eggs.  Don’t even think about cooking them all the way through.  Scrambled eggs should be smooth and creamy as well as fluffy.  They should never be dry.  Those cottony diner scrambled eggs with the browned bits and phony lard flavoring (or maybe it’s just rancid) turn my stomach.  The absolute best only way to cook scrambled eggs is VERY SLOWLY.  Over low heat.  In butter or olive oil.  Stirring constantly.  I mean it.  These are not a weekday morning project, that’s what fried eggs are for.  Oh, it’s going to take patience.  And time.  A whole lot of precious time.


Well, 25 minutes or so, anyway.  But it is time very well spent.  (And, as luck would have it, about the same amount of time it takes to steam white asparagus into submission.)

Brunch is served

Topped with a mound of soft-set piperade scrambled eggs, the white asparagus were indeed tolerable.  Good, even.  Although I can’t help but to think how much better it would be with green asparagus.  Or a few slices of cured ham, like a regionally appropriate jambon de Bayonne.  But then, what isn’t?

Originally published on Croque-Camille.


Au Bascou

27 05 2009

These regional French cuisine posts have turned out to be a great excuse to explore unfamiliar Parisian neighborhoods, take weekend trips, and try new restaurants.  While Nick and I have already found a Basque restaurant that we really like, I thought it would be fun to give another one a chance.  So we headed down the way, under sunny skies, to Au Bascou with a friend we hadn’t seen in a while.  (Who was kind enough to lend me her camera, as I absentmindedly forgot mine.  Thanks, Lissa!)  The cozy bistro has filets of Piment d’Espelette hanging from the exposed wooden beams, and the atmosphere is very relaxed and homey.


Irouleguy is the main wine produced in the Basque country.   Composed mainly of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and tannat grapes, it is a robust, rich red that manages to maintain its fruity characteristics – a great match for the hearty dishes of the region.  It’s also just a fun word to say.

Appetizers at Au Bascou
1. Rabbit Terrine, 2. Stuffed Piquillos

To start, Lissa and I split the rabbit terrine, and Nick ordered the stuffed piquillo peppers.  Our favorite dish at our favorite tapas place in Dallas was the piquillo peppers stuffed with fresh goat cheese and drenched in top-notch olive oil.  He was expecting something along those lines, but what arrived on the plate was quite different.  The peppers were there, sweet and smoky, and the olive oil was there, and there was even a nice little heap of arugula, but the peppers were not stuffed with goat cheese.  Or any cheese.  It was morue, the same salt cod used to make that Provençal favorite, brandade.  The peppers were good, but you can imagine that first bite, expecting tangy cheese and getting salty fish, was a bit of a surprise.  As for the rabbit terrine, it was very flavorful and not at all dry, a common problem when cooking rabbit.  The addition of prunes in the terrine made for a nice sweet foil to the savory meat.

The Main Event
1. Magret de Canard, 2. Slow-Cooked Lamb, 3. Monkfish in Curry Sauce

For the main course, Nick opted for the braised lamb, which was tender, juicy, and served with eggplant, zucchini, and a timbale of couscous.  He said he liked it, but could have done without the fussy little tower.  Lissa couldn’t resist the curried monkfish, as nontraditional as it may be, and loved every bite.  The sauce in particular got rave reviews.  As for me, I got the duck breast topped with foie gras.  (Have you ever known me NOT to take the foie gras, given the option?)  The duck was a perfect rosy, medium-rare, and the foie was seared crisp on one side while still remaining a decent-sized slab.  Impressive.  Best of all was the sauce: savory and sweet with a vinegary kick.  An exellent pairing with the very rich duck and foie gras combination.  As we ate, the clouds that had formed while wer weren’t looking opened up and we could see a torrential downpour through the skylights.  But the food was fortifying, and we knew the Métro was only steps from the door.

We all cleaned our plates and were feeling pretty full, but I insisted we taste at least one dessert. 

Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate!

I selected the Beret Basque from the relatively large dessert menu.  (I was very tempted by the strawberry millefeuille special, though.)  Supposedly, it is a traditional Basque chocolate cake.  (Did you know that the beret originally hails from the Basque country?  Well, now you do.)  The dessert that came to the table, thoughtfully split onto two plates to ease the sharing, did  not look a bit rustic.  It did, however, resemble a chocolate-lover’s dream.  A thin chocolate cookie, topped with a round of chocolate mousse, dolloped with a puddinglike chocolate ice cream and wearing a crisp shard of chocolate for a hat.  The three of us made short work of it and exited the restaurant to find the skies blue once more.  Which was good, because a short walk home was just what we needed after such a hearty and satisfying meal.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Worthwhile French Beers: Page 24

25 05 2009

Page 24, from Brasserie St. Germain, may very well be the best French beer I’ve tried so far.

Awwww, yeah.

Brewed in the Pas-de-Calais region in the North of France, using only regionally produced malt and hops, these beers are decidedly non-Belgian in character.  Upon pouring the Réserve Hildegarde Blonde, Nick and I noted its deeper than usual color… it’s really more of a strawberry blonde.  Nick was the first to take a sip, and afterwards he smiled, telling me, “You’re going to like this.  A lot.”  And he was right.  The distinct hoppy aromas give way to a perfectly malt-balanced quaff that still managed to retain its hop notes.  The only problem is that we only bought one bottle, and it was gone way too fast.

So naturally, we opened the Ambrée (another Réserve Hildegarde).  Slightly darker in color than its sister, it tasted slightly less sweet, although the malt remained in balance.  Rather than increasing the amount of malt in order to produce the color, the brewers just used a darker malt.  Without the malty distractions of typical amber beers, the hops assert their presence, though not forcefully.  While we didn’t like it quite as much as the Blonde, it’s still a very well-built beer.

“So we like this Page 24?” I asked.

“Considerably,” Nick replied.

We will be buying more of this beer, for sure.  Glancing over their website (linked above), I am intrigued by the rhubarb beer, and very interested in making a pilgrimage to the brewery for a tour and a chance to sample the entire line.  At 3 euros a pop, it sounds like a bargain to me!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Bringing All The Boys To The Yard

23 05 2009

One of the appliances I miss the most in my Parisian kitchen is my ice cream maker. Ice cream is absolutely one of my favorite things to make – it’s relatively easy and the possibility for mixing and matching flavors is endless. Recently, after receiving rhubarb in my CSA panier and scoring some fragrant, juicy strawberries at the market, I was overcome with the urge to make ice cream. Rich, creamy vanilla ice cream, with a thick swirl of sweet-tart strawberry-rhubarb compote.

Rhubarb and strawberries - before and after

Still on my Nose to Tail kick, I decided to use Justin Piers Gellatly’s base recipe for Ripple Ice Cream, since that was what I was hoping to accomplish.  It’s a pretty straightforward anglaise, with a heavy dose of vanilla (or maybe that was just me, trying to use the vanilla beans I keep buying – it’s a bit of a compulsion).

Steep, Temper, Strain, Chill

But these are the easy parts.  No special equipment is required to cook a custard or bake some fruit.  I had a trick up my sleeve, though, courtesy of the internet’s favorite ice cream guru, David Lebovitz.  Turns out you can make ice cream completely by hand if you have a cold freezer and a little patience.  (Two Lebovitz recipes in one post?  Again?  Yep.)

Churning Ice Cream.  Very.  Slowly.

Here it is after a few hours of freezing with me stirring every 45 minutes or so.  I tried the immersion blender , but it just liquefied what frozen bits there were, thus setting me back an hour or so.  So spatula and whisk it was.  When it was starting to get late and the ice cream was still quite soft, I folded in the cooled strawberry-rhubarb compote anyway.  The result was a more homogeneous ice cream (no swirl to speak of), but really.  It was bedtime.  The next day, I checked the freezer to find the ice cream on the icy side.  Not terribly so, but not the creamy spoonful I’d been dreaming of.  Luckily, it tasted great.  So what does one do with overly hard ice cream?  Make it into a milkshake, of course!  (Here’s where the immersion blender shines.)

Strawberry-Rhubarb Milkshake

It may not be the deliciously marbled red and white scoop I’d originally planned, but it was luscious just the same.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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The Basque Cheeses That Shall Remain Nameless

20 05 2009

This may come as a shock, but I have no fromagerie in the immediate vicinity of my apartment.  (What?  In Paris?  Yes.  I do have about a dozen Pho places to choose from, though, so I guess it evens out.)  So if I want something more esoteric than the local Monoprix has to offer, I have to venture out to other neighborhoods.  This is how I ended up at the Fromagerie Secrétan, located on (here’s a shocker) Avenue Secrétan in the 19th arrondissement.  Secrétan is a laid-back  market street, with a handful of primeurs hawking fruits and vegetables, a couple poissonniers and boucheries for your flesh-consuming needs, not to mention bakeries, traiteurs, and a full covered market as well.  Heading over there after work one afternoon last week, I was pretty sure that I would find at least one cheese shop open.  And I did. 

I asked the cheerful owner if he had any Basque cheeses, and he eagerly pointed me to three very similar wheels.  The first, Ossau-Iraty, I know well.  It is a deliciously smooth sheep’s milk cheese which gets its firm texture from pressing and aging as opposed to cooking.  Ossau-Iraty is nearly always accompanied by black cherry jam, which is a great match for its salty, rich tang (though other applications are acceptable).  The cheese next to it had no label, but was described as a more aged Ossau-Iraty.  Ok, I’ll try a wedge of that.  Moving on down the shelf, there was a third wheel, much whiter in color, labeled simply, “Brebis-Chèvre.”  So this one is like Ossau-Iraty except made with both sheep’s and goat’s milk.  (Are you sensing a pattern here?)

Ossau-Iraty variations

Stéphane, the proprietor, wrapped my two non-Ossau-Iraty cheeses in paper printed with the shop’s silly logo and sent me on my merry way – across the street to the wine shop.  (The overstuffed mouse is thinking that he loves all the cheeses too much.  Kiffe is apparently an old-fashioned slang term that may be enjoying a revival – think “groovy” around the time the Brady Bunch Movie came out – and describes a sudden, intense, uncontrollable love.  Wait, that sounds dirty.)

But about the cheeses.  The aged one (creamy yellow in the photo) tasted as you might expect an older Ossau- to taste – similar, but mellower, nuttier, and more savory.  The goat one (lighter with small holes) surprised bothNick and me with its unusual flavor.  And I mean that in a good way.  It had a definite goaty tang rounded out by a slight pleasant mustiness.  I had purchased a wine that claimed to be good with cheeses from the Pyrenées, but once we started eating, the thought of wine didn’t even enter our heads.  That’s saying something.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Picnic Pesto

18 05 2009

Picnicking season is finally upon us.  Our blanket is at the ready, our supplies of wet naps have been replenished, and a bottle of rosé awaits in the fridge at all times.  I love the impromptu nature of the picnic.  It’s the sort of meal where Nick can call me from work on a particularly sunny afternoon and ask me to throw together a salad and get out the cheese, tell me he will pick up a baguette on the way from work, and we meet at the canal for a light, leisurely supper.

Ingredients for a springy pesto.

Even when you plan a picnic, like I did a few weeks ago with Hope, it’s nice to have dishes you can throw together at a moment’s notice.  Pasta salad is a picnic favorite in our house, and ever since I learned the trick to making pesto that doesn’t separate and clump when served on cold pasta (hint: it’s mayonnaise), I’ve been experimenting with different combinations of herbs and vegetables.  I usually employ a clean-out-the-fridge method of pesto-making.  Any fresh herbs I have lying around get thrown in, and the results are always tasty.  This time around, I happened to have two bunches of mint that needed some attention.  I had purchased them at the market because they smelled so refreshing, forgetting that I had used up the last of the rum making vanilla extract.

Mint pesto, peas, pasta

I added some parsley to the mix to help maintain the green color, and a handful of peas came along for the ride.  Because what says Spring more than peas and mint?  With the exception of cheese, the rest of the Usual Suspects were there: pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice.  Tossed with twirly pasta, toasted pine nuts, and more peas, it was a hit at the picnic.  The fresh, green flavor helped us all feel a little better about sitting around eating while watching the joggers in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.  I’ll be sure to make this again, next time I have mint lying around.  Or I may even buy some for the occasion.

Perfect Pesto Picnic Pasta

Pea and Mint Pesto Pasta Salad

 Delicious, refreshing, and utterly springy, this is the perfect dish for the first picnic of the season.  The addition of mayonnaise to the traditional pesto helps it cling to the cold pasta.  If you start the pasta first, you can have this salad ready to go in around 20 minutes.

 For the Mint Pesto:

2 bunches mint, washed and leaved (about 2 cups/450 ml packed leaves)
½ bunch parsley, washed and picked
1-2 small cloves of garlic, peeled
¼ cup/60 ml peas (use fresh if they are young and sweet, otherwise use frozen, thawed)
¼ cup/60 ml pine nuts
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
A little reserved pasta cooking water, if necessary

  1. Combine all ingredients except pasta water in a tall container.  Purée with an immersion blender, adjusting the consistency if necessary with a little of the cooking water.  Taste and tweak the seasoning as you desire.

 For the Pasta Salad:

7 oz./200 g pasta (short shapes with lots of surface area are best – think fusilli or farfalle)
1 recipe Mint Pesto
½ cup/120 ml peas (see note above)
½ cup pine nuts, toasted

  1. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water to just past al dente.  (You’re going to be eating this cold or room temperature, so it should be tender.)  Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking.
  2. Toss the pasta with the pesto, peas, and pine nuts.  Pack into a reusable, picnic-friendly container and get outside!  Serve on a picnic blanket with plastic utensils.

 Serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as a side.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

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Exploring France: Pays Basque: Piment d’Espelette

15 05 2009

When did it get to be May 15th?  And here I am, writing my first post for what is supposed to be “Basque month.”  I have been doing some research, but so far that has not been apparent on my blog.  At any rate, I’m kicking things off with one of the produits phares* of the Basque Country.

Piment d'Espelette in its dried, ground, jarred form

Piment d’Espelette is a mild (around 4,000 on the Scoville scale for you chili geeks out there) red pepper with hints of smoke and a slight bittersweet quality.  It was brought to Europe from Mexico in the 16th century, along with many other New World food “discoveries” such as potatoes, tomatoes, and corn.  The Basque country was found to be an ideal climate for cultivating the small, elongated, bright red peppers, and the piment d’Espelette soon became an integral part of Basque cooking.  It gained AOC status in 2000, and now commands fairly hefty price tags.  On account of this, I had been holding off buying some, until one day, browsing in G. Detou (after stops at La Bovida and Mora– Les Halles can be dangerous!) I found a jar of that lovely reddish-orange powder for half of what they were charging at the grocery store.  I also came home with 3 kilos of Valrhona cocoa powder, but that’s neither here nor there.

The humble beginnnings of a tasty pasta sauce

I’ve been using it sparingly here and there, but this week, all that changed.  Apparently Spring’s sudden onslaught (and just as sudden retreat) has wreaked a bit of havoc on the farms that provide me with my CSA panier.  The bag was positively bulging the previous week, with more lettuce than two people could possibly eat in a week, barring some kind of fad diet.  This week, though, they had to supplement with some zucchini from the Drôme.  And they are beauties.  Small, slender and sweet, they gave me the urge to sauté them up with a little tomato and toss them over a big bowl of whole wheat spaghetti.  And then it occurred to me that the piment d’Espelette might be just the thing for a light, summery pasta dish such as this one.  And it was.  The faint heat was a great match for the fresh, sweet zucchini.  I see piment d’Espelette playing a pretty big role in my kitchen this summer.  Good thing I know where to get it cheap.

*WATCH! As my grasp of the English language slowly devolves into franglais.  Literally, this phrase says “lighthouse products,” but obviously that’s not what it means.  Maybe “beacon” would be a better translation.  Anyway, it’s a product that gets a lot of attention, or is especially connected with a region or company.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Why English Food Doesn’t Suck, part 4: Neal’s Yard Dairy

13 05 2009

For my final (for now) argument in defense of English food, I give you Neal’s Yard Dairy.  In making my travel plans for London, I knew I couldn’t miss making a pilgrimage to this celebrated cheese shop.

Cheese at Neal's Yard Dairy, photo by Nick

The cheeses are hand selected for the shops and the company maintains close relationships with the farms and cheesemakers from whom they buy an extraordinary array of cheeses, all produced in the British Isles.  Nick and I visited the Covent Garden Shop, and when we walked into the narrow room, the smell of cheese hit us immediately.  Cheeses of all shapes, sizes and provenances were stacked high on the counter, and the very helpful salespeople were only too willing to let us taste to our heart’s content.

Appleby's Double Gloucester, photo by Nick

We sampled at least a dozen cheeses, and ended up purchasing five.  Two cheddars, Montgomery’s and Keen’s, both made from unpasteurized cow’s milk but displaying quite different characteristics.  The Keen’s is smoother in texture with a nice sharp bite on the finish, while the Monty’s has an almost granular structure and flavor reminiscent of fine Parmigiano-Reggiano.  We also picked up a wedge of nettle-wrapped Cornish Yarg, rich and earthy in flavor with a slight lactic tang, and a mystery cheese whose name we can’t remember and which mysteriously didn’t feature on our receipt.  But if I have to pick one standout, it’s the Stichelton.  (Apologies for the lack of any kind of attempt at styling this photo – hey, we were eating.)

What remained by the time I remembered to take a picture

Stichelton is what Stilton is supposed to be.  Apparently, there was a scare a number of years ago involving a few cases of food poisoning from raw-milk Stilton.  Cheese producers began making it with pasteurized milk instead, and even got a PDO (the English equivalent of AOC) for Stilton produced in this manner.  Since then, cheeses made traditionally, using raw cow’s milk, cannot be called Stilton.  So Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy, joined forces with Joe Schneider, an American cheesemaker, to produce a “new” cheese – Stichelton.  It is so good, my mouthis watering now, just thinking about it.  Dense and rich, withgreenish-blue veins emanating from the center, the cheese is piquant yet smooth, with toasty, caramelized flavors to round it out.  The flavor just lasts and lasts on your tongue.  If you like cheese, you must try this as soon as humanly possible.  It’s love at first creamy, tangy bite.

It’s time again for La Fête du Fromage Chez Loulou.  I missed last month, but hopefully this will make up for it.  Look for the delectable roundup on the 15th.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Poireaux Vinaigrette

11 05 2009

This is one of those ultra-complicated Classic French recipes. 

Leeks + Vinaigrette...

I kid, leeks vinaigrette are every bit as uncomplicated as they sound.  Two ingredients: leeks, vinaigrette.  (Please, trim, halve, and wash your leeks very well before cooking them.  And I’m saying vinaigrette is one ingredient, because counting the oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, etc. as separate ingredients just seems a little nit-picky to me, especially when they are all pantry items.  It’s not like any shopping is required.)  My point is, if you have leeks in the house, you can make this.

Traditionally the leeks for leeks vinaigrette are boiled, but I’ve had some very bad versions of this dish in mediocre cafés, where the soggy, grayish leeks swim in a pool of industrial vinaigrette.  Maybe you have, too.  If so, I urge you to give these a second chance.  I think we’ve all learned some valuable lessons about the comparative merits of boiling and roasting vegetables.  So I roast mine.

... + broiling = delicious side dish

Broil, to be more exact.  I drizzle them with a little vinaigrette (one made with tarragon vinegar and hazelnut oil is nice) both before and after cooking, and voilà, instant side dish!  Don’t tell the French I’m suggesting improvements on their classics, but I bet these would be great on the grill, too, what with summer fast approaching.  Just be judicious with the vinaigrette before cooking – you don’t want drips and flare-ups stealing the show.  And it doesn’t even have to be leeks!  Try this treatment with other seasonally appropriate vegetables – asparagus and green beans are two of my favorite candidates.  Of course, now we’re veering even further away from the original, but it just goes to show that a little technique goes a long way.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.

Why English Food Doesn’t Suck, part 3: Fergus Henderson

8 05 2009

I hardly know where to start with this one.  The dinner Nick and I shared at Fergus Henderson’s St. John Bread and Wine was, quite simply, excellent in every way.  The food was delicious, the atmosphere was convivial, the service was friendly, and we walked out of the place with a couple of free doughnuts!

Many of the places we ate in London were suggested by Shuna Fish Lydon, former pastry chef of The French Laundry and author of the fascinating blog, Eggbeater.  The Harwood Arms was the only one I booked in advance, deciding to play the rest by ear.  Upon arrival in London, after fortifying ourselves with fish and chips, Nick and I met up with my cousin, who is an enthusiastic foodie.  She was excited to see my list of possible restaurants, and was particularly delighted to see St. John and The Modern Pantry on the list, which certainly played a role in my decision-making.  St. John, the main restaurant (which was ranked #14 on this year’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list) was booked solid, but fortunately its little sibling, the more casual St. John Bread and Wine, had room for us.

Salad is always better with a little pork... or a lot.

We started with a bowl of buttery Lucques olives and a salad of slow-cooked ham, pea shoots, and radish.  This is my kind of salad.  The richness of the ham was perfectly balanced by the fresh pea shoots and the peppery bite of the radish.  And seasonal to boot!  I love food like this: great ingredients at their peak, prepared simply and lovingly.

I do love me some pot pie

When we entered the restaurant, a sparely decorated open cube with white walls and black and white checkered floors, we noticed a pie on one of the tables.  It looked and smelled so good that there was no question we would be ordering chicken and bacon pie for two.  Our choice made, the smile of the chef jacket-clad waitress confirmed that we had made the right decision.  And how!  The crust was flaky and deeply browned, and underneath was a steaming hot stew of, well, chicken and bacon.  The flavor was spot-on: smoky, salty (but not too much), and very satisfying.  My only reservation was that some of the bits of chicken were on the dry side, but I know of no way to avoid this when cooking a whole chicken – the breast pieces are always going to be drier.  Still, it was overall a very enjoyable dish.

The obligatory, yet tantalizing vegetable side dish

The pie was served with a side of crisp-tender broccoli rabe in a mustardy dressing that stood up well to the strong flavor of the vegetable.  While we were eating, we kept sneaking peeks into the semi-open kitchen.  The pastry station was in our direct line of sight, and we watched as the chef spooned up perfect quenelles of hand-whipped something with what looked suspiciously like a bloody mary on the counter next to him.  He appeared to be working out a new recipe, and I was so curious I had to ask when he walked past our table to talk to some friends of his that had come in for dinner.  It turns out he was experimenting for an upcoming competition, and when I told him I was a pastry chef, too, he offered to send us a taste of his new dessert.  Obviously, we accepted.  I took no picture, though, because since it was new and destined for competition, I didn’t want to steal anyone’s thunder.  I will say that it was intensely chocolatey, which is never a bad thing in my book.

Speaking of books…

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