We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

It's Spring! Make Deviled Eggs and Lemon Cake and Pickled Shrimp and...

by Michelle

   "Allegiance, after all, has to work two ways; and one can grow weary of an allegiance which is not reciprocal."  James Baldwin

   One of the more fun chapters of my life occurred during the early to mid 2000s when my daughter attended Montessori Schoolhouse from Kindergarten through 4th grade and I had a business development position with one of the larger employers in Tucson. Most of my business travel occurred during the summers and I had the pleasure of meeting my customers at conventions hosted in fun cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Washington D.C. and not as much fun destinations like Dallas, Orlando and Las Vegas (seriously, go to Vegas 11 times in one year and you won't be diggin' it either).
  Layered on top of busy school and work schedules, my husband and I undertook the long laborious affair of remodeling our home as a do-it-yourself project. As if that wasn't enough activity, it was also the the time in our lives when we entertained like crazy. We often entertained in conjunction with my good friend who also happened to be the mother of my daughter's best friend. We did not limit our entertaining to small cozy affairs. We also threw big, raucous parties where we commingled friends, neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances from all the parts of our lives. It was a mash-up of sorts and all the many different personalities came together to create a spectacle, especially at our annual Halloween bash. My friend and I had no sooner cleaned up a big mess of a party, when we began to plan our next big event. Now when I look back, I marvel at what we accomplished.

Pickled Shrimp are a tangy accompaniment served with the deviled eggs.
Juliette found the specialty egg plates while thrifting for about a $1.00 each. Score!
   In my garage there are tall and deep cabinets that house all the paraphernalia needed to cook and serve for large parties. There are big pots for making carnitas. An assortment of baking pans to make just about any type of sweet, including a square angel food cake. Elegant punch bowls for serving spiked beverages. Bowls of all sizes from the small to the enormous. Then there are the trays. So many trays including what seemed to be at the time, an ever expanding collection of etched brass platters for my Asian themed New Years Eve parties. Sometimes I think I should just have a big garage sale and rid myself of my haphazardly stacked "clutter mess". But, I can't. At least not yet. I enjoy selecting pieces to photograph for the blog and every once in awhile, as for Christmas, or my daughter's upcoming graduation party, I still need a variety of serving bowls and trays for a party. I subscribe to the theory that what you serve is just as important as how you serve it.
   This past Christmas I transformed into a lady Grinch. After Linda visited just after Thanksgiving and we had our big family celebration, the holiday season was over for me. Yes, we still exchanged presents, but there were no big family dinners or fanfare of any kind. Ixnay to the New Year's Eve party. I freed myself from all the extra curricular (and exhausting) work that comes along with the holidays, and you know what? It was great. We adopted my sister Juliette's tradition of watching films on Christmas Day as we lounged on the couch or sat comfortably cradled in our large padded chairs, resting our legs on the overstuffed armrests or on cushy ottomons. And for a simple dinner I heated defrosted homemade Beef Bourguignon and quickly whipped up fluffy mashed potatoes. Clean-up was a breeze. The dinner dishes were managed within fifteen minutes. Now that's a holiday.

   When Easter was within planning range this year I vacillated over whether to have a family dinner. Entertaining just seems like so much work now. My party flame has been extinguished and I don't quite know if I want to relight it. Every once in a while I get a party gleam in my eye and then I begin reminding myself of everything that's involved from the planning to the pre-cleaning of the house, to the grocery shopping, to the preparing of food, to the post-cleaning. Then there's the expense. It ain't cheap to entertain.
   When I invite you to my house to participate in a simple dinner or a big party, the invitation and the work associated with prepping the meal and the environment to enjoy in, is in fact, an act of love. What confounded me over time were our friends who made no effort to be reciprocal. We'd have them over again and again and yet they wouldn't invite us over, or out. Our best friends became those who showed us that they loved us back by being reciprocal in some way by either inviting us over for a meal or, if they didn't like to cook, taking us out to a favorite restaurant. And, don't even get me started on guests who bring Two Buck Chuck as a hostess gift and act like it is the greatest find in wine... ever. Two Buck Chuck is what it is. The swill masquerading as wine costs $2.00 and tastes like it too.
   While vacillating over whether to host Easter dinner, my daughter pushed me over the edge when she offered to lend a helping hand in the kitchen. I have found over the years it is so much easier when there is more than one person helping to prepare a fancy meal, or any meal for that matter. The proverb is true, many hands make light work. Plus there's the added benefit of shared camaraderie. Often, the kitchen is the best place to be. It's where the action is unfolding. That's why everyone jams themselves in to a kitchen during a party. Linda and I have so much fun working together to prepare a meal and it is great theater when we're in our groove. Linda's flown to Arizona more than a few times to help with the cooking for our big parties and special occasions, which makes the entire experience so much more enjoyable from beginning to end. Have I mentioned lately how much I adore my sisters? I do. They are fabulous in every way.

Maddie and I prepared a double batch of Avalon and Sonora's Favorite Chimichurri
so we could send them home with a jar filled to the brim with their favorite sauce. 
   For Easter dinner we invited my nieces Avalon and Sonora, and my mother. Juliette declined our offer and opted to stay in Bisbee to enjoy time with her son Paul and his family. She sent me adorable photos of her grandsons searching for Easter eggs. Even though I had the offer of help from my daughter and could plan a more elaborate meal, in the end I did not want to complicate our time together. Naturally, there are always everyone's food preferences to take into consideration when planning a menu. Avalon doesn't care for ham. My husband doesn't particularly like lamb. Everyone loves steaks. Steak it is. Once again.
   I tend to always make one new dish for an event, which reminds me of my friend Stephanie and the time I hosted a Spanish dinner. I assume if you are coming to my house that you must be starving and want loads of food, and variety, of course. I tend to offer big portions and lots of sides. There are always several appetizers for a party and there is always a risk that guests will fill-up on cheeses, maple sugared candied walnuts, charcuterie and shrimp before the main affair hits the table.
   One of the sides for the Spanish dinner were roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with a mixture of mashed potatoes and salt cod. I was running behind on dinner because I was fussing around with the appetizers, grilled flat breads with chimichurri sauce (still one of the best things I have ever tasted). Everybody was chowing down and dinner was yet to be served. Stephanie was dressed up and looking fabulous, as always. She asked if she could assist me in any way. I hesitated, assessing her outfit and not wanting her to get messy. "There is one thing," I said reluctantly. "I need the piquillo peppers stuffed."
   Stephanie gamely put on an apron and got to work scooping the savory white mixture into the small roasted red peppers. I apologized for the chaos of the evening. Stephanie and her husband are admirably organized when they entertain and have practically the entire meal prepared in advance. I'm always amazed at their operational efficiency. Stephanie laid my concerns to rest. "Are you kidding?" she asked rhetorically. "Where else in town town would I be stuffing cod into a pepper." I still laugh at the memory. It's true. I'm always doing something crazy foodwise. And when I'm in the middle of pickling or preserving or doing some intricate activity in the kitchen, I'll repeat to myself Stephanie's line. By the way, the cod stuffed peppers weren't that great (they are likely an acquired taste), but who cares? The rest of Spanish themed dinner was pretty amazing.

   For our lovely Spring dinner to celebrate Easter, I broke no new ground. That's how I kept things simple. I settled on the favorites. And by doing so, Maddie and I could practically make everything without a recipe. My husband grilled New York steaks and we rounded out the menu with loaded baked potatoes, pickled shrimpsautéed and caramelized mushrooms, grape tomato halves with balsamic syrup vinaigrette and chimichurri.
   When I greeted my nieces at the door and said there will be lemon cake and strawberries they both cheered. And they were especially happy that I made a double recipe of chimichurri with the plan of sending them home with a full jar of the condiment. My Easter surprise for Maddie was a special cheese that Linda introduced us to when we lived in California with her for a year. Maddie couldn't wait to dig into the rich creamy deliciousness that's called Mt. Tam Triple Cream Cheese by Cowgirl Creamery.

My daughter brushes lemon glaze and drizzles frosting on Lemon Cakes
while I peel the hard boiled egg.
   With Easter dinner I did not satisfy my need to make one new dish to accompany all the tried and true menu favorites. I have Maddie's upcoming graduation "fiesta" to try my hand at a few new recipes. Namely, I want to make Horchata as well as a Watermelon-Lime Agua Fresca. I may also indulge in my need for menu overkill by also preparing Pineapple Ginger Agua Fresca. The younger ladies in my life have been investigating the pleasures of fondue lately, so I will also whip up Queso Fundido in the copper fondue pot that Juliette found for me on one of her regular thrifting jaunts.
   Even though I no longer have a huge desire to entertain, especially like we did during the glory years when my daughter was just a young girl and we had a big group of friends from all walks of life, I do still recognize the importance to connect, to share a meal together, to share stories and above all, share laughter. We all seem to live such busy lives now that if we don't carve out time to simply be together, it just doesn't happen at all. So, I'll slog through the bits that I really don't really care for anymore to get to the end goal... time well spent with family and friends enjoying each others company and strengthening our relationships through the time honored tradition of sharing a well-crated meal.

Mom's Deviled Eggs

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Tucson Botanical Gardens and Cold Brewed Mint Iced Tea

My Traveling Tales by Michelle

   "Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."  — Nathaniel Hawthorne

My husband and I enjoyed a refreshing lunch on the patio at Café Botanica,
the restaurant nestled inside the Tucson Botanical Gardens.
   When my husband and I purchased our home thirteen years ago, I willfully ignored the fact that the large back yard was a barren landscape (even though the ground was completely covered by gravel). I was undaunted by the thought of master planning and then planting what is a fairly big area, even though friends and family tried to forewarn us. A blank canvas, I thought, in which we will create an inviting environment to attract birds and butterflies and to entertain our friends. What thrilled me most was the unencumbered view of the Tucson mountains. I minimized the labor intensive effort that would be required. I also ignored what would likely be a steep financial cost of putting in the watering system, patios and landscape. At times, ignorance truly is bliss. Until reality sets in—that is.

The Tucson Botanical Garden features a butterfly exhibit in a greenhouse filled with orchids.
   What happened first, is pretty much what always happens, I suspect. We ignored the needs of the yard in favor of the house. My husband and I agreed that the "miles and miles" of dusty rose pink carpeting would need to be replaced. And since we would have to live with that awful carpeting day-in and day-out, I wanted it gone sooner rather than later. It was definitely the priority project. I also wanted to paint over the white walls and add lots of happy color. From an operations point of view, the painting needed to happen prior to the installation of new flooring. As the saying goes, one thing leads to another.
   Similar to my thoughts on landscaping, I was likewise unfazed by the prospect of remodeling. I grew up with a father who subscribed to the do-it-yourself lifestyle before there was ever a Home Depot to promote such activities. I don't recall my dad hiring anyone to do anything on the houses or yards of my childhood homes. He had the tools and the know how to initiate and complete just about any type of home improvement project.
   After my husband and I were settled into our home, I'd giddily read through Phoenix Home and Garden and Martha Stewart Living seeking artistic inspiration. Pages ripped from the magazines decorated the refrigerator and were a constant reminder that we had big plans ahead that needed to get underway. I set about to convert our stucco and tile track home into a suburban shabby chic palace. I dreamed big, planned big and then finally got down to the execution phase.
Two views of the same butterfly inside the Butterfly Magic exhibit. 
   What happened next was years of toil punctuated with multiple starts and stops. Energy ebbed and flowed as did our family income. At the start of the project we ripped out all the downstairs carpeting and the linoleum in the kitchen. What remained was a lot of stubborn glue that needed to be removed from the concrete floors. The work was slow and tedious as we tried a variety of nasty cleaning agents that did not work. Frustrated, I called my dad, the do-it-yourself guru, for advice. He spoke out loud as his brain systematically tried out and discarded several possible solutions. Finally, he asked, "Did you try just water? Most of those glues are water based." Turns out hot water and lots of elbow grease did the job. Thanks, dad!
   Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a business contact that I had not spoken to in years. In the interceding time, his business has grown exceptionally. I complimented him on his success and he replied, something to this affect, "The funny thing is success is never linear. The road to success has its ups and downs and there are always obstacles to overcome. Oh, look, watch out for the snake pit. And, darn, we took a left when we should have turned right." This line of thought applies to home improvement projects, too. You think that your on the right path until oops! something happens that sets you back and there's a new challenge to overcome before success is hard won.

   Once the glue was dealt with, I finally started painting. Initially I thought painting the ceiling a light blue would add the novelty pop of color that I desired. Even though I tried to minimize the work by painting just the ceiling, it in itself was no small job. The front room is made grand by a vaulted ceiling. I didn't like the idea of painting the highest point of the ceiling from an extension ladder. I tapped into my inner Michelangelo and used scaffolding instead. Sometimes I stood on the scaffolding and at other times I laid on it depending on where in the room I was working in relation to the slope of the ceiling. After I completed painting the ceiling,  with a keen eye I evaluated my work. Now this may sound odd, but the tones of the paint did not go well together, even though the ceiling was a light turquoise and the walls were white. The hues were definitely a mismatch and that's when I conceded to myself that the walls needed painting, too. I had just talked myself into about a year's work at my less than part-time pace.

The children scurrying around the Butterfly Magic greenhouse were
highly skilled at finding the deeply hued dart frogs.
   While vacillating over the color palette for the walls, my sister Linda recommended that I watch the Julie Taymor directed film, Frida starring Salma Hayek, to pay close attention to the set decoration. Linda was right. I found inspiration in the vivid colors of Frida's home and paintings and decided upon the colors typical of a Talavera painted plate: cobalt blue, yellow, orange and green.
   Applying multiple colors of paint is tedious work because where the various colors meet, the lines must be perfect. Thankfully I have a steady hand, but I still needed to use lots of blue tape to ensure perfect transitions between adjacent colors. Even then, there were too many touch ups to count. We lived with concrete floors for the years that I painted. I didn't mind it much. My daughter Maddie thought it was wonderful when she and her friends donned roller skates and created havoc throughout the first floor of the house playing tag.
  While our remodeling projects extended across the years, our lives went on. Amongst the chaos, we entertained. At times I'd use the good china even though there might be scaffolding in the front room and plastic sheeting protecting areas in the living room. Several friends told me that I was an inspiration, that they couldn't conceive of hosting events at their house unless everything was perfect. If I waited for everything to be perfect, then there would have been no parties and no fun... for seemingly forever.
   I set up long tables in the front room and hosted themed parties. One of the niceties of our lifestyle was that I didn't have to worry about the kids spilling food or drinks on the concrete floor. I continued to decorate for the seasons. There were heavily adorned Christmas trees to grace the front window and a full house of our family from near and far who stayed with us to enjoy the season. We hosted New Year's Eve celebrations with dance parties in the living room. We celebrated Valentine's Day with family and friends with tables covered with lace and set with vases of tulips. The Easter bunny came and went. Barbecue season rolled around. The fire pit got a lot of action. We did the things we wanted to do and our friends and family joined in the fun.

   While I dreamt of a suburban shabby chic palace, my husband dreamed of creating an oasis in the barren scape of the gravel yard. Sometimes I spied him at the kitchen table with his eyes directed to the yard, a far away expression on his face, and I knew he was painting a picture in his mind of a fully landscaped, functional space for relaxing and entertaining. A gorgeous, green, manicured respite from the world featuring mature trees, a gurgling fountain, a dramatic fireplace and an extended patio softly illuminated with strung lights swaying gently in a soft breeze. I know this because he often draws master plans that look like pages torn from a football play book. He verbally translates the written x's, o's, and arrows that are the markings for trees and shrubs and points of architectural interest.
  The yard waited while I finished the painting. After the painting was finally completed, we embarked upon staining the concrete floors in the kitchen and living room areas. Hindsight is 20/20 and I wish we had subbed this work to a professional. The extended physical labor and repetitive motions of mopping the floors during the staining and cleaning resulted in a rotator cuff injury. When I asked the doctor how long it would take my shoulder to heal, he said that it would hurt for a very long time. So long, in fact, that one day I would wake up and realize that my shoulder did not hurt anymore. He was right. My shoulder did in fact hurt for so long that I was not aware when the pain had stopped. I know the pain continued for at least a year, although I was only seriously debilitated for a month or so. Thankfully I did not need surgery. I just had to grit my teeth and bear it and use my arm.

   The house stayed a work in progress for many years until we were forced to complete the work. We finally buckled down and finished the tile and carpet when we put our house up for sale in 2009 when we were planning to move back to California. For all the years we have lived in our house, the backyard is the project that is continually pushed aside. The decision making process usually goes something like this: do we want to get braces for our daughter this year or landscape the back yard? Braces it is. Shall we go on vacation this year or landscape the back yard? Ummm, vacation, please. Everything always seems to take priority over the yard.
   In preparation for placing the house on the market to sell, we planted ten trees in the backyard and some bougainvillea. The caliche soil in Arizona is so stubborn that we had to rent a jack hammer to assist with "digging" the holes for the trees. Crazy! In addition to the planted trees there were also numerous potted fruit trees placed throughout the yard and smaller groupings of herbs and succulents in various shapes and sizes. We did just enough to make the realtor happy. When we took our house off the market in 2010 and decided to stay in Tucson, it was nice to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We like our brightly hued walls, the finished floors, and our partially landscaped yard.

Apricot Mallow is a drought resistant plant that is gorgeous and requires little water.

   On a late Saturday afternoon, Jay and I often celebrate happy hour by sitting on retro-style metal chairs that are situated under the eucalyptus trees that provide ample shade. Our conversations often turn to the yard. We debate where to plant more trees and whether we should still pour a meandering concrete walking path that will run the perimeter of the yard. We'd like the dirt area between the concrete path and the wall to be planted beds with creeping ground-cover and flowering shrubs. We discuss the materials we could choose to build the outdoor fireplace and living room area. And, what about a pizza oven? It still sounds great even though we've been eating Paleo as of late. There are so many options to consider and so much money needed to create such an inviting space.

This is the seat of a mosiac bench that was installed in the Tucson Botanical Garden
as a tribute for a family's loved one that passed away. 
   While our landscape plans are still in flux, we enjoy finding inspiration in Tucson's various public gardens. Our favorite places to visit time and again are the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tohono-Chul Park and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. All three parks do a wonderful job of providing identification of the plants and trees planted throughout the landscapes. While we wander, Jay and I record plant names in notebooks and capture photos with our iPhones to record our preferences. We always say this is the year we will finish the yard and once again spring is well underway and we are still dreaming the dream.

   As a couple what Jay and I know "for sure" is that we don't want to live in this house forever. We will be empty nesters in the fall after our daughter leaves home to attend college. We may downsize. I fantasize about less upkeep and definitely less time cleaning. A single-story home sounds great—no climbing up and down the stairs a hundred times a day. I am no longer naïve about the consequences of both time and money associated with the do-it-yourself home improvement movement. I do not desire weekends filled with home renovation projects. I'd rather spend my time on photography or writing or working on a new recipe in the kitchen. Or sitting in the lovely garden of my next home that the previous owners spent their time, money and effort to create. No one will be able to say that I am not grateful. Oh, I will be—I promise.

Cold Brewed Mint Iced Tea

Friday, April 10, 2015

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

by Michelle

   "The majority of modern medicines orginate in nature. Although some mushrooms have been used in therapies for thousands of years, we are still discovering new potential medicines hidden within them." ~Paul Stamets

   Oregano's Pizza Bistro is a Chicago-style pizza restaurant that just so happens to offer really excellent stuffed portobello mushrooms. According to the menu, the big caps are stuffed with sausage, marinara, basil, four cheese blend and diced roma tomatoes. This is my take on their popular dish.
   Since I've been eating Paleo-style, I threatened my family that I was going to stuff the mushrooms with riced cauliflower. Horror ensued. After a recent jaunt of over-imbibing cauliflower during the Whole30 Challenge, my husband and daughter raised the white flag. And waived it vigorously. Surely there would be anarchy in the house if I proceeded with that plan. I do wonder though, if jazzed-up cauli-rice might make a great vegetarian filling. I didn't add a dab of marinara like Oregano's, but I may try that next time. My basil pesto might also be great smeared on the bottom of the cap along with the balsamic. So many variations, so little time.

Gigantic mushrooms are ready to pop in the oven for a quick twenty minute bake.
Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

   Although I have been eating primarily Paleo since February, I have continued to eat some dairy. I tolerate dairy well and love cheese too much to give it up.

6 portobello mushrooms
2 pounds bulk sausage, I used Italian chicken
2 strips bacon, diced; optional
1 yellow onion, finely diced
1 big carrot, quartered and finely diced
2 medium celery stalks, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, cored, seeds removed and diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 big handful parsley, minced (about 1/2 cup)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
balsamic glaze or balsamic vinegar
about 1/3 cup grated parmesan
about 1 cup shredded mozzarella

Aluminum foil or parchment paper
Baking sheet + rack

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Gently fry bacon so it releases fat and the bacon cooks without burning. Once the fat is rendered, add the onions. Cook for a couple minutes then add carrot, celery and bell pepper. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the sausage. Crumble the sausage with a spatula into smaller pieces. Cook for a couple of minutes, then add garlic. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sausage is cooked through. Turn heat off and add parsley.

Drizzle balsamic glaze for a sweet and tart balance to the rich filling. 
2. While the sausage mixture is cooking, prepare the mushrooms. Carefully remove stems with a paring knife and discard. Gently remove brown gills from undersides of mushrooms using a spoon; discard gills. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place a rack on top of the aluminum foil. Put the mushrooms on the rack and set aside.
3. Drizzle mushroom caps with balsamic glaze, or brush on a thin layer of balsamic vinegar. Divide the filling among the 6 mushroom caps.
4. Bake 15 minutes, then remove caps from oven and sprinkle the tops with grated parmesan and shredded mozzarella. Return the mushrooms to the oven and bake an additional 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

The mushrooms pair nicely with Caesar Salad.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Cauli-Rice Cous Cous Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette

by Michelle

"A recipe has no soul. You as the cook must bring soul to the recipe." ~Thomas Keller

    Since the beginning of the New Year, I've been on a bit of a cauliflower bender as part of a whole foods eating challenge. The goal is to omit refined sugars and "unsafe" carbohydrates from my diet.   What I have discovered, and rather quickly I might add, is that cauliflower is the character actor of the vegetable crowd. My husband isn't a big fan of the vegetable. Nor my daughter. Therefore, over the years I've passed over cauliflower in favor of just about every other vegetable available, except Brussel sprouts. I'm still learning to like those little buggers and I confess that I am not trying very hard. Bacon can't even make those little cabbage heads worth eating.
   Surprisingly, the fairly astringent flavor and blank-page look of cauliflower can transform into something almost unrecognizable from its God given form. In addition to being consumed raw, the florets can be transfigured through just about every cooking method imaginable, including: baking, boiling, braising, deep-frying, puréeing, roasting, sautéing, simmering, and steaming.

My kitchen table is covered almost entirely with a week's worth of fruits and veggies.
   The metamorphosis is complete when you see in front of you carbless "faux" mashed potatoes, rice, cous cous, and even bagels (who would of ever thought?). This is a dream come true for people who are fighting the good fight against consuming gluten and heavily industrialized processed food. It's hard though because we've been sold a bill of goods of how low-fat diets are good for us, including heavy helpings of cereal grains and legumes. What is abundantly clear is that our nation is not healthy and the benefactors of our populaces' food addictions and subsequent health problems are big pharma and big agriculture. Change will only come as a bi-product of individuals making better choices for themselves and their families.

   After consuming cauliflower in just about every way possible, including making the bagels, my favorite preparation, besides simply roasting florets in a very hot oven, is quickly shocking "riced" cauliflower in boiling water, then quickly stopping the cooking process in a cold water bath. This is the method I will use in the future when making cauli-rice for any dish, whether it's playing a supporting role for a stir fry, or is the lead ingredient for a side dish, such as this post for a cous cous inspired salad. If I try anything else cauliflower-wise in the near future I do believe my family will revolt.

Cauli-Rice Cous Cous Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette

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