Thursday, September 30, 2010

Taste Eat Enjoy

The title -- and motto -- of today's post comes from a sign hanging over the outdoor cafe at Millennium Park in Chicago, one of several signs there that relate to relishing one's food and drink. From a hearty breakfast to unbelievably good coffee, and from free chocolate to burgers, follow along on Tom's and my Friday Feasting from last week ....

After our amazing Thai dinner the night before, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the Corner Bakery. Yeah, it's a chain and neither of us is too keen on those cookie cutter entities vs. the "mom 'n' pop"s; on the other hand, the chains still employ people who need jobs.

Since I was only eating a granola-yogurt-fruit parfait and Tom had scrambled eggs with bacon and tomato and avocado, along with toast and fried potatoes, I didn't bother to take a photo ... which is too bad, 'cause it was actually pretty good. But this was just a pit stop so I wasn't in "food blogger" mode at that moment.

And just why was this only a pit stop, you ask??? I'll tell you: we were on our way to Mecca -- Intelligentsia Coffee. I'm not an extraordinary coffee snob, but I do refuse to drink swill like Folger's or Maxwell House unless I'm truly desperate and semi-conscious. I adore the Beowulf Blend from Oren's Daily Roast in New York. I love the Dharma Beans and Deadman's Reach from Raven's Brew in Alaska. But we were in Chicago, so we indulged every one of our senses in the experience of Intelligentsia.

Walk in the door and you immediately notice the open and airy but simultaneously crowded and congested atmosphere. The staff bustles about efficiently, and you can actually watch as your pour-over is made. (I didn't photograph the entire process 'cause it kinda felt intrusive to be 2' from the barista and to be using him as a photo op.) Wet the filters to reduce the papery taste ... pour water through to heat the carafes, which are also on a heated grid, then rinse them out and let them drain ... freshly grind the beans (which have descriptives written about them making you feel as though you're reading about a bottle of wine with impeccable vintage!) ... slowly pour the water over the coffee to let it steep ... watch as your coffee is poured and carefully presented to you, a thing of beauty in every way ... :)

Tom had never been to Intelligentsia before, though I'd brought him some coffee from Jeremy's and my trip to Chicago in June. I think he felt as though he'd reached Nirvana; before even finishing his first cup there, he'd determined that we would go back again in the afternoon for more!

As we walked back to Michigan Avenue, a young man (well, a guy in his 20s -- that's young, to me!) wearing a pink shirt came up to us and asked if we'd like some chocolate. But, of course!!! He was promoting Ritter Sport chocolates, and handed us each 2 samples in addition to a card advocating for breast cancer research.

Two of our 4 treats were milk chocolate filled with strawberry yogurt; one was hazelnut; and the last was dark chocolate with marzipan, one of my favorite foods on Earth. I thanked him, watched a couple of other people gather their own goodies, personally witnessed someone refusing the offer -- ?!?!? -- and we walked off as I repeated my thanks and told the man that he had a great job -- he was dispensing happiness.

After a morning of wandering and meandering and stumbling upon the topic of tomorrow's post (shhh, it's a secret!), it was time for lunch. And a good, hearty, filling, sturdy, Chicago-worthy lunch, too -- burgers at Miller's Pub.

Dark wood, a noisy bar, crowds of happy eaters ... this is what we were immersed in as we walked up the stairs to the maitre d' on the second floor. He initially seated us at a table right in the midst of everything, which was simply too overwhelming to contemplate; so when I caught sight of a quiet (quieter) table in a corner, near the upstairs bar and next to the banister overlooking the main floor, I asked if we could move. And we did.

I excused myself for a trek to the ladies room, and when I came back Tom told me a most entertaining story about the three older gentlemen at the bar just a few feet away. Reminiscent of my father and his retiree buddies, these guys were telling their tales for oh, what? the 84th time??? They met, they reminisced, they embellished, they relished their time together, as they were clearly in their 80s and who knew which of them might not make the next lunch meeting? And one of them told a story about going into a whorehouse in Paris ... ah, the war stories!

We'd been on a mission to find a good burger, so this was actually one time when the decision-making process was fairly easy. Tom ordered a plain ol'-fashioned burger with lettuce, tomato and onion, served along with cole slaw and fries. When it was all put together, it was quite the enormous sight! A disciplined eater who doesn't usually indulge in so much fat and salt and lack of nutrition, Tom actually seemed to enjoy himself as he ate this ... :) Yes, one has to eat all things in moderation and try to watch out for one's health. At the same time, you can't be afraid of your food; sometimes you just have to have some fun for yourself.

I took a bit of a detour and ordered the Patty Melt: a burger patty on toasted rye bread with grilled onions and Swiss cheese. It was huge, it was greasy, it was fatty ... and oh, man, was it good!!! The pickle was a nice "old" one with lots of flavor, rather than the "new" ones that are too bright and still too cucumber-y. The cole slaw was creamy and very good; I'll eat virtually any kind, though I tend to prefer the vinegar types, so I was very happy to find that this sampling was too stingy and that I wished they'd served me more.

The fries were hot and crisp -- a little more golden brown would have been nice, but these certainly were a good complement to the sandwich. But clearly, the star of the show was the burger, which truly could have served for two meals had Tom and I split it. Does that make me a glutton, that I finished it all??? I was walking a lot! I was on vacation! I was hungry! And I just simply enjoyed it so much that I don't care what anyone thinks of my lack of restraint. Ha!

The afternoon was spent looking at obscure art exhibits, walking some more, drinking yet more Intelligentsia coffee, checking out The Bean in the sunlight, and generally meandering through Chicago. By dinnertime, we needed some sort of food but weren't extraordinarily hungry after our enormous lunchtime feast.

So I took Tom to my favorite gourmet food store -- Fox and Obel. Oh, the spices! The pastas! The jams! The chocolates! The ice creams! The crackers! The cheeses! I bounce around the store like a pinball -- here, there and everywhere.

Since there is a prepared foods counter, we decided to get something simple to eat there: a lovely Greek vegetable salad, since we were feeling a bit nutrition-deprived after those lunchtime burgers, paired with a rich whitefish spread and some crisp crackers. Oh, and don't forget the absolutely luscious cinnamon pound cake, too! That could have been dinner alone ... :) It was rich and buttery but still light, with a streusel that had sunk to the bottom. Sigh ....

So, that was how we spent our Friday -- eating, walking, walking, and eating. Not a bad little vacation, methinks!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nearly Wordless Wednesday -- Scenes of Chicago, From Differing Perspectives

"Cloud Gate" (a.k.a.: The Bean) ....

The Bean, from below ....

Millennium Park (The Art Institute, The Bean and The Pritzker Bandshell) represented in the Chicago Model City

The Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Bandshell

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thai for Two and Two for Thai

Tom and I arrived in Chicago on Thursday evening, just in time for dinner. And we already knew where we were headed -- one of Tom's favorite restaurants, Big Bowl.

The big bowls are, indeed, enormous -- they're about the size of a cantaloupe! And while you can use them to pick meats and vegetables and sauces for a stir-fry that the chefs will cook up for you on a blazingly hot griddle, there are also menu options to choose from so that you can just stay in your seat and enjoy the ambiance and the presentation and the aromas and the flavors and all the wonderful sensual experiences of the restaurant.

Now, we all know that decision-making -- when faced with a menu, at least -- is not my strongsuit; I'm too good an eater and I like too many things, and I can hear everything calling to me, trying to seduce me. So first I perused the griddle options ... then I looked over the Thai dishes ... then the Chinese ones vied for attention ... I could hear the Yellow Curry dish whispering to me, beckoning me ... then the appetizers, designed for sharing, sang their Siren song ... then my head started to spin. I always want one of everything, but even I can't eat that much!

So Tom guided me towards the shared dishes, and we ordered the mandatory potstickers that he has eaten before when he's taken his daughter, Cassidy, to the restaurant. They were so fat and happy, almost over-stuffed with chicken and vegetables; and it was just utterly impossible to determine whether they were more luscious dipped into the sweet-and-sour sauce, or the mustard sauce, or the fruity mustardy sauce, or some combination thereof. An exceptional start to what turned out to be a truly memorable and extraordinary meal!

Our waitress was friendly and charming, and asked if we'd ever been to the restaurant before. I explained that Tom had but I hadn't ... and a few moments later, she brought the lovely dish pictured at the top: Chicken Summer Rolls. One luscious tidbit for each of us, nestled in a warm (spice-wise, rather than temperature) peanut-chili sauce -- a taste to sample for the newcomer and her handsome date. They were fabulous, stuffed with lots of fresh vegetables and featuring distinctive tastes of chicken, wrapped in perfectly cooked (not sticky, as they can sometimes be) rice paper wrappers ... sigh.

And everything else we ate and drank that night rose to the same level of excellence. We tried a fresh ginger drink that I stupidly forgot to photograph in my giddiness, which was clear rather than yellow-tinted and lacking in carbonation. It came in a tall, simple yet elegantly distinctive glass, and was almost like drinking a gingery water -- highly recommended, it's a festive drink for those who don't imbibe.

Dinner itself, for which we'd chosen two dishes to share, consisted of more summer rolls (which we'd decided upon even before receiving our lovely sample); this time we relished vegetable and salmon ones for more taste opportunities, and I truly don't know whether I could decide upon a favorite among the three varieties I tried. Crispy, crunchy, astoundingly fresh, perfectly cooked, utterly delectable ... they were amazing dipped into the plum and sweet-and-sour sauces provided. They were also divinely delicious when dipped into a bit of the leftover peanut-chili sauce from the sample plate, which I ended up putting on everything I ate!

Our other dinner option was a deceptively simple platter of chicken-vegetable lettuce wraps. A very generous serving of the filling -- with layers of flavor and a variety of soft and crunchy textures -- is offered with crispy rice noodles and gorgeous lettuce leaves; you then take as much or as little of the filling as you want, drizzle it with a bit of the hoisin sauce, perhaps add a bit of crunch with some noodles, and wrap it all up in a beautiful leaf of fresh lettuce. I've made something similar before, but not for many years ... I'd forgotten how much fun and how delicious it could be!

Big Bowl provided one of the most lovely meals I've ever enjoyed -- a perfect welcome to Chicago, a wonderful new place to enjoy when I go back to the city again, and an ideal place for a date when you're on a weekend escape (our first trip together, no less) with your sweetie ... :) I absolutely cannot recommend it highly enough!

Tuesday Tag-Along

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To-the-TOP Tuesday

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Train Trip Treats

I love peanut butter and jelly! No matter how old I am, these two entities will always, always have a special place in my heart ... and in Tom's, too. No wonder we're such a cute couple, with our devotion to each other and to our peanut butter and jelly! It was the perfect choice for a totable lunch to eat as we rode the train to Chicago. These sandwiches aren't terribly pretty, but that's not what matters.

First, there is the tantalizing aroma of the peanut butter, luring you in. It's smooth, creamy, delectable. Frankly, who even needs the bread??? Just dip in an apple or a spoon -- even just a finger will do! -- and you've got a perfect vehicle to simply lick pure peanut butter without anything intruding upon the experience.

But then, of course, there is the jelly -- it isn't a necessity, as peanut butter is quite seductive all on its own; and yet, spread liberally it certainly enhances the experience, doesn't it? Jelly can help to ease a bit of the dryness.

I had made some jam myself a few weeks ago, with concord grapes; Tom and I found them at the store one day, and he told me that in one of the many places he lived while growing up (his family moved from rented house to rented house quite frequently), there had been grapes growing in the yard. Coupled with our beloved Koeze's peanut butter, made right here in Michigan, and spread on some good whole wheat bread ... the sandwiches were simple, yet wonderfully satisfying.

Of course, being a good eater, sandwiches were not sufficient for a 5-hour trip before the Thai dinner Tom had his heart set on sharing with me at one of his favorite restaurants -- Big Bowl. So we also brought along chips (de rigueur for Tom) -- some exceptionally crunchy ones flavored with rosemary. Almonds for a quick snack ... exceptional Honeycrisp apples which are just coming into their glory ... juicy oranges ... and Tom's cup of coffee (addict that he is!) to get through the afternoon. Nothing grand, just good ol'-fashioned wholesome treats. But don't worry -- we didn't eat everything in sight! Some of this was saved for the trip home, too.

I even found some time to make chocolate chip cookies to enjoy along the way. Just like with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, there's nothing fancy here -- just delicious cookies made more nutritious with whole wheat flour. If you're going to ride through the countryside to get to the big city, it's hard to beat a traditional favorite cookie!

Stay tuned through the week for posts about all the other goodies we enjoyed -- from Thai to breakfast sandwiches to indescribably amazing coffee to free chocolate samples to cinnamon pound cake ... sigh ... :)

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Walnuts

3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 eggs
2 cups white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1-1/4 cups chocolate chips
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a cookie sheet.

In a large bowl, combine sugar, brown and butter; mix well. Add vanilla and cinnamon, then stir in eggs. Add flour, baking soda and salt; mix well. Stir in chocolate chips and walnuts.

Scoop dough by generous teaspoons, and place onto the cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes until done around the edges and golden, but not browned. Remove to a rack and cool completely.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Long Weekend

Just saying "Hi" and letting everyone know that I'm a-goin' on vacation -- I've got 2 days off and am headed to Chicago with Tom. Plans to eat, to walk, to see the Art Institute, to eat some more ... and oh, did I mention that I plan to eat a lot??? As Alex Witchel once wrote in Gourmet: "... the only danger I want to confront on vacation is not fitting into my pants when it's over."

Be back here on Monday, maybe, but possibly Tuesday. I've got so many ideas for posts, so many themes and plans and such; I just need the time to put it all together. I've done enough quickie posts lately ... it's time to get back to being verbose and long-winded, and really investing more of myself into my writing.

So look for write-ups about our Train Trip Treats, the Thai dinner Tom has picked for our first night in Chicago, and the mandatory trip to Intelligentsia for coffee. I'm also pondering the prospect of making recipes from some of my quaint and quirky decades-old cookbooks ... a cupcake challenge among bakeries here in Ann Arbor ... prospects for a mushroom recipe contest ... oh, if only I had a benefactor who would support me while I spend my days cooking and baking and writing!

Have a fabulous weekend, and I'll catch up with everyone soon!!!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thursday Thirteen -- 13 Food Items That Irk Me

This little diatribe has been brewing for awhile. So, why not share my testy thoughts with my readers, and see who's a kindred spirit??? I haven't managed to write a coherent essay without ranting and sounding as though I've lost all sanity and rational thought, so this is the best I can offer.

Okay, here goes -- 13 Food Items That Irk Me to Varying Degrees (in no particular order, with the exception of the grand prize winner at #1):

13. Pre-cut zucchini and summer squash. I will readily pay extra for pre-cut winter squashes -- they're hard as rocks, they wobble like Weebles, and it's truly a miracle attributable to some future saint who's waiting to be canonized that I haven't hacked off part of a finger when I've tried to cut them myself. But the warm weather varieties??? Oh, come on! They're soft, they're thin-skinned, and it takes a whole whoppin' 30 seconds or so to slice one. Do we really need this much convenience??? Oy ....

12. Food that is spicy for the sake of being painful and attracting attention, rather than for the sake of being flavorful.

11. Burgers with 87 different things on them. I want a burger with a patty, lettuce, onion, tomato and ketchup ... pickles can be placed on top, but I'll just pick them off and eat them separately. I might toss on some Swiss and some mayonnaise; or perhaps I might stuff the patty with blue cheese once in awhile. I make a fabulous burger -- that was Jeremy's idea, to his credit! -- with crumbled bacon and grated Swiss cheese mixed into the ground beef. But I don't want ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise and barbecue sauce and chimichurri and wasabi, topped with chili and sprinkles and walnuts, with a 54-ingredient "special sauce" slathered on the bun that's been baked with its own 19-ingredient topping and a birthday cake thrown into the mix for festivity and visual appeal. I just want a burger!!!

10. Is it really too much trouble to boil water these days???

9. Tofu ... bleah! No matter how it's marinated, how long it soaks for, or what method is used for cooking it -- even if the silken variety is pureed into chocolate pudding -- it is not food. I do not like it, Sam I Am! I will use soy milk and/or flour for baking, I encourage the eating of edamame (even though I'm not too keen on them), and I know that there are extraordinary health benefits to eating soy. But tofu is not edible. Period.

8. Trader Joe's instant oatmeal. Not to make this a "Let's beat up on Trader Joe's" post -- I love most of their goodies. (God knows I've eaten enough of 'em!) But the stuff doesn't really become oatmeal; it's just oats sitting in colored/scented creamy liquid. No matter how much or how little water I use or how much I stir, they don't become a happy unified entity. So I just buy 47 other things when I go there, rather than the oatmeal, and eat them for breakfast instead!

7. Kim Chee. When I was in grad school (2 whole semesters that I despised, but I was still there!), one of my neighbors regularly made it in his room. Oh, my God, the stench!!! I have actually never tried it, I admit, because I simply can't get past the horrific memory of that cooking process.

6. Smuckers Uncrustables. If ya can't spread some peanut butter and some jelly on a coupla slices of bread for your kid, then there's really something wrong in your life. Truly.

5. Natural peanut butters, with the significant and notable exception of Koeze's -- which just happens to be made in Grand Rapids, Michigan! -- which is an exceptional product in every possible way. The others are flavorless, first of all. And then there's the layer of grease that you're supposed to stir in to the peanut mass that has hardened at the bottom of the jar. Except that there's no room in the jar for stirring, and when you try to insert a knife into the jar the grease oozes down the sides and onto your knuckles. And it never really smoothes out into peanut butter, which is truly one of the great foods in the universe, but rather remains a grease-laden blob of brown goo ... ick.

4. Carob. No matter how you try to disguise it or how many times you tell me it's a good substitute for chocolate, it's not. Uh uh.

3. Gefilte fish, which looks like little mini brains which could be used for a science fair display. I've often thought I'd like to try making my own -- taking something lovely, perhaps, like salmon to mince with the matzah meal and some seasoning (Tom's favorite, dill, maybe???). But the grey globs found in jars at the grocery store??? Let's have a collective "Ewwww!!!"

2. Frosting that tastes like chemicals instead of like butter and sugar. And cakes with too little frosting. Frosting is the most important part of a cake or a cupcake! It needs to be made with the proper ingredients, and there need to be copious quantities of it.

And ...

drum roll ...

1. Batter Blaster organic spray-on pancake batter. Oh, for God's sake!!! Do I care that it's organic? Nope. It's still pancake batter in a canister, to be sprayed on like hair mousse. Is it really that hard for people to stir flour, baking powder, an egg and some milk together and -- horrors! -- use a scoop to pour it onto the skillet or griddle themselves??? Sheesh! If you're so incapacitated that you can't stand up while mixing your own pancake batter, then you should be sitting back on a chaise while someone brings you chicken soup and hot tea and performs Last Rites over you. And if your life is so chaotic and frazzled that you require this kind of convenience product in order to save time, then you need to re-prioritize and cut back on work hours or extracurricular activities or something else. Every time I see this, the rant starts forming in my brain ... "Slowly I turned ...."

Okay, taking a deep breath now ...!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Oatmeal Raisin ... Nope -- Not Cookies!

On Sunday morning, I was in the mood to bake. This is a fairly frequent occurrence on Sunday mornings, while I'm still in my jammies and waiting for my coffee to brew. And now that the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are over, I didn't even have to go in to work ... whew!

Of course, tonight begins yet another major Jewish holiday: Sukkot [sooh-KOTE], a harvest and pilgrimage festival. The tradition is to build a sukkah [SOO-kuh], a temporary structure with 3 sides and a roof made of natural materials, which is reminiscent of the flimsy housing the Israelites relied upon during their wandering in the desert. Sukkot (not just the name of the holiday, but also the plural of "sukkah") are decorated, and it is customary to spend as much time as possible -- particularly eating meals -- in them during the course of the 8-day holiday.

And so, how does this all relate??? On Sunday morning I baked Oatmeal Raisin Muffins, which would be perfect treats to enjoy in the sukkah -- as a light breakfast with coffee, as a snack with tea or cocoa, as an offering to friends who come to visit and share the holiday with you ... or even if you're just sitting in your jammies on a Sunday morning, whether you're celebrating Sukkot or not.

Hag Sameach! [HAHG sah-MAY-ack] = Happy Holiday!

Oatmeal Raisin Muffins

1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1/4 cup unbleached white flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1-1/3 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

Place the oats into a skillet and toast them, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat just until they're fragrant and slightly golden; place into a large mixing bowl.

Add whole wheat flour, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.

In a large measuring cup, combine buttermilk, oil, egg and vanilla; pour over oat mixture and stir to mix. Stir in raisins.

Divide batter among the muffin tins and bake for 20-25 minutes, until a tester comes out clean.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hail to the Maize 'n' Blue ... Corn with Blue Cheese, That Is

I read Melissa Clark's article last week in The New York Times, which contained a recipe for a creamed corn dish that was deemed "much too good to share." She selfishly gorged on it herself, unable to control her glee at having created something so amazingly delicious.

Being a fan of fresh corn, Gorgonzola, cream, and all the other wonderfully rich, luscious ingredients required, how could I resist??? I forwarded the article to both Jeremy and Tom -- devotees of such goodies themselves -- and we determined that it must be made, and made soon.

So then Tom and I were at Arbor Farms (a health food grocery store), and found a display right by the front door of corn on the cob that had been grown just down the road in Whitmore Lake ... God was sending a message, telling me "Make the corn dish. Now." I'm often fairly obtuse when it comes to interpreting what God wants from me, but this communication was pretty clear!

I picked up some of the corn, and then proceeded to meander through the store looking for the rest of the ingredients. I knew the recipe had required cream, but I thought perhaps that decadent buttermilk from local mainstay Calder Dairy might be better. I bought some Amish blue cheese. I was ready.

Since I didn't bother to look up the recipe before I started cooking and was relying upon my increasingly-feeble memory (a.k.a.: "The Sieve That Is My Brain"), I didn't remember that I was supposed to serve the corn on sliced tomatoes ... and I had freshly picked tomatoes from my garden, too. I also didn't remember the toasted pine nuts, which I adore. And I forgot the basil, even though I have 3 plants of it in my backyard.

But you know what? The corn didn't need any of it. I'm sure it would have been lovely with these additions -- as well as with some crumbled bacon, rather than just bacon fat saved from previous indulgences -- but it was also virtually addictive without them.

Truth be told, Jeremy thought the corn tasted like soap ... whaddya gonna do??? Tom liked it very much, though, so all the more for both of us!

And oh, isn't this just the perfect Maize 'n' Blue -- ha! -- dish to serve at a University of Michigan tailgate here in Ann Arbor, land of renewed excitement about football with our #21 team??? Yeah!!!

Creamed Corn with Blue Cheese

3 ears fresh corn, uncooked
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 ounces crumbled blue cheese

Cut corn from the ears. Melt the bacon fat in a large skillet.

Add the corn; saute for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the corn is starting to turn golden brown. Add salt and pepper, and stir to mix.

Stir in the buttermilk and cook for 3 minutes until much -- but not all -- of the buttermilk is absorbed.

Stir in the cheese, stirring to break up lumps and make sure that the cheese melts.

When everything is creamy, it's ready to serve


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