Best Dining Moments 2017

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I’m usually not a fan of end-of-the-year roundups, especially because they tend to happen a few weeks before the end of the year. There’s still life to live, people.

Also, some of them tend to be dripping with nostalgia. I’m all for sentimentalism but sometimes it’s a little too much. I picture someone writing by candlelight, weeping, listening to the Charlie Brown Christmas song (or playing it on a tiny violin).

I’m going to try to steer clear of that in this roundup of Best Dining Moments 2017, but I might not be able to avoid it. There were too many times when delicious food made me cry this year. If you don’t believe me, you can ask someone of the people who were there to witness these moments (if you know them).

What surprises me most looking back on my best dining moments of 2017 is the sheer number and diversity. I forgot that I went to Chicago earlier this year and spent three days eating everything. I also can’t believe I visited that many new cities while juggling a new job.

Everywhere I went, though, I discovered new restaurants and dishes that I’ll never forget. I want to revisit some of the cities soon, at least ones that are within driving distance. For others, I’ll have to rely on my memories to hold me over until the next time I’m in town.

Another common theme of my year in dining was reconnection. I met up with old friends or family in almost every city I visited. I went to see my best friend in D.C., I hiked through Asheville with one of my best friends from grad school, and I saw my cousin in Los Angeles. We talked, ate good food, and reminisced. These moments mean as much to me as the dishes that I consumed.

ANYWAY. Before this gets too sappy, here is my list of Best Dining Moments 2017. It’s highly biased but I hope it gives you a guide for places to visit in the coming year. Here are my picks, in no particular order:

Sqirl

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Going to Sqirl was a dream come true for me. I’d wanted to visit since I read about Jessica Koslow’s creations in a food magazine a few years ago. Koslow’s food epitomizes L.A.: Fresh, flavorful, diverse, and fun. I love her baked items but one of my favorite dishes was a sorrel rice bowl with poached egg. I wish I could eat it everyday.

Plant

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I ate some of the best vegan food of my life at Plant in Asheville. My friend Lyndsey and I stopped by for dinner because I felt bad for dragging her to BBQ restaurants (she’s a vegetarian). I think it’s a testament to how good Plant’s food is that I didn’t miss meat at all while I was there. This applewood smoked portobello mushroom with millet cake was out of control.

Giant

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As I said before, I almost forgot that I went to Chicago this year. I had one of my best dining experiences ever at Giant. I showed up early and snagged a seat at the chef’s table, so I got to watch them make my entire dinner. I’ll never forget this sortallini guanciale with basil and pinenuts. It’s the perfect antidote to a Chicago winter night.

Please & Thank You

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My friend Lyndsey told me that she was going to take me to get the best chocolate chip cookie of my life when I visited her over the summer in Louisville. She wasn’t lying. Please & Thank You’s chocolate chip is so good, I want to marry it. That is not an exaggeration. Soft, melty chocolate chips, warm center…I’m weeping.

Vicia

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I would be remiss not to put Vicia on this list. The restaurant is one of St. Louis’s shining stars in its up-and-coming food scene. It’s getting national acclaim now, which it totally deserves. I came in before the hype last spring and had a three-course meal that blew my mind. I still think about the smoked Berkshire pork.

Puesto

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An old friend of mine from San Diego sent me to Puesto for tacos while I was in town and I’ll be eternally grateful. Puesto’s tacos are fresh, flavorful, spicy, and come with some of the best avocado I’ve ever tasted. I went to curl up with a plate of them right now. Also, can we talk about Puesto’s margaritas?

Antler Room

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I had one of the best dining experiences of the year, if not my life, at Antler Room in Kansas City. I define good dining experiences by how much each successive dish impresses me. In Antler Room’s case, the meal kept getting better and better. I did cry at the end but I tried to hide my tears from the waitress. I still dream about the vegetable pakora.

Parisi Bakery

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My friend Allison has been telling me about the chicken cutlet and prosciutto sandwich at Parisi Bakery in Manhattan for years. This fall, we finally went to get one together. I thought that I could eat a whole one by myself but Allison assured me that was impossible. After eating half of one, I can tell you she wasn’t lying.

Tiger Fork

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I will always remember Tiger Fork as the restaurant that made me realize that I like Chinese food. Cantonese food, to be more specific. I went with my friend Rachel when I visited her in D.C. this past fall. I loved every dish but I still think about the cheung fun with shrimp and flowering chives. The fish was fresh and it was fun to eat the rollups with chopsticks.

Lilia

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I spent two hours wandering around Brooklyn with my friend Tanya waiting for a table at Lilia but it was totally worth it. The service is impeccable and they have some of the best pasta I’ve tasted in my life. This mafaldini with Parmigiano Reggiano and pink peppercorns is addictive so you’ve been warned.

Erven

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Okay, I’ll admit it: I saved the best for last. I met my cousin at Erven my last night in L.A. and I was floored. Similar to Antler Room, each dish kept getting better and better. The service was warm and friendly. The restaurant represents everything that’s superior about California dining, which is to say, the ingredients and the presentation. Food at Erven is fresh, local, vibrant, and truly an art form (see: above photo and the one at the top of this post). I can’t wait to visit again soon.

 

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Sweet Potato Cheesy Grits with Fried Egg

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These sweet potato cheesy grits are one of the best dinners I’ve made in a while. I know I say that all the time but it’s true.

Maybe I should rephrase: These sweet potato cheesy grits are one of the best GRIT dishes I’ve had in a while. Can you get down with that?

I had some grits over the weekend at a new restaurant that opened in St. Louis called The Clover and the Bee. They were delicious and I really enjoyed them, which surprised me: I’m usually kind of iffy on polenta. I think it’s because I’ve overcooked it in the past so it gets way too thick and grainy.

That’s not the case with these sweet potato cheesy grits. O.m.g. They’re so creamy, light, and fluffy that they almost melt in your mouth. They have a little sweetness from the potatoes, some tanginess from the goat cheese, spice from the chili flakes, and crunch from the fried egg. The greens on top liven things up color-wise and balance the heavier elements in the bowl.

I used a different method to make my sweet potatoes than the one I’ve listed below. I did this because I wanted to have extra sweet potato to use this morning in my oatmeal.

Instead of mashing the sweet potato with goat cheese and milk, I mashed it with butter and mixed it into the polenta with the milk and goat cheese. But if you don’t care about having extra sweet potato and you want to use it all for this dish, I would highly recommend mashing the sweet potatoes with the goat cheese and milk.

This is the perfect dish for cold winter nights when you see how fast you can run from your car into your house to avoid being outside. It could also be good in the morning for breakfast or brunch, if you have extra time and you want to make yourself something fancy.

Here’s a song that reminds me of these grits. It doesn’t mess around. I like to put it on when I’m at the gym and I steal a weight-lifting machine away from a guy and pretend that it was an accident. Whoops.

Sweet Potato Cheesy Grits with Fried Egg

Ingredients

for the grits:
1 cup water
1 cup vegetable broth
1/2 cup dry polenta

for the sweet potatoes:
1/2 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 oz goat cheese
2 Tbsp whole milk
salt to taste

for toppings:
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
fried egg
red pepper flakes
micro greens

Directions

First, make the grits. Bring the water and the vegetable broth to a boil in a medium pot and then add the dry polenta. Stir until thickened and then bring the mixture down to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is very thick.

To make the sweet potatoes, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and then add the sweet potatoes. Cook for about 15 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are soft. Drain and return to the pot. Mash the potatoes with goat cheese, milk, and a little salt.

Once the grits are done, stir in the potato mixture. Fry an egg in vegetable oil and sprinkle it with red pepper flakes.

Assemble your bowl with the polenta on the bottom, an egg on top, micro greens as garnish, and extra red pepper flakes for spice. Enjoy!

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Blueberry Clafoutis

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Clafoutis is an under-appreciated French dessert, in my humble opinion. Maybe it’s appreciated more in France but in America, it doesn’t always get the face time it deserves. People are distracted by more popular French pastries like macarons and croissants.

Admittedly, it took me a while to come around to clafoutis. When I first moved to France, I went to a big concert near town square. They were handing out free dessert and even though I wanted a slice of tarte aux pommes, or apple tart, I ended up with a piece of clafoutis. It was still good, but it wasn’t the tarte aux pommes that my heart desired.

Flash forward to about a month ago when I went to get dessert at a French bakery that just opened in St. Louis, Comme À La Maison. I was trying to decide what to order and I deliberated between a madeleine, or sponge cake, and a slice of berry clafoutis. “Personally, I think you should get the clafoutis,” the French cashier told me. I took her advice and I wasn’t disappointed. Madeleines are relatively easy to find in America–clafoutis is not.

I decided to make a blueberry clafoutis to take to my boss’s holiday party on Saturday. Even though it seems like it would be difficult to make, it really is not. All you have to do is vigorously whisk (or blend) some eggs, milk, flour, and sugar, spread it into a greased baking dish, pile on some berries, and fill up the rest of the dish with batter.

I described the dish to people at the party as a French custard pie, which seems pretty accurate. I dusted the top of the clafoutis with powdered sugar once it cooled. It was the closest thing I had to snow over the weekend (I’m jealous of my friends on the East Coast and the South who already got snow).

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I’d highly recommend making this clafoutis, if not to bring to a party then just for your own enjoyment. It’s so easy to make but deceptively impressive. It looks like you spent three hours on it but really, it comes together in less than an hour.

Here’s a song that reminds me of this clafoutis. It’s also good for Monday mornings when you don’t want to get out of bed so you slide all the way under the covers to pretend like you don’t have to.

Blueberry Clafoutis 

Ingredients

Butter for pan
1 and 1/4 cups whole milk
⅔ cup granulated sugar, divided
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
1 pint blueberries, rinsed and well drained
Powdered sugar for topping

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a medium-sized baking dish that’s at least 1 and 1/2 inches deep. Set aside.

Blend the milk, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, salt, and flour in a blender on high until smooth and slightly frothy.

Pour 1/4 of the batter into the prepared baking dish. Place the dish on a stove burner on low heat and cook until the batter is set on the bottom. Remove the dish from heat.

Sprinkle berries and 1/3 cup sugar on the batter and then pour the remaining batter on top. Smooth the top with a spatula as needed.

Place the dish in the center of the oven and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a tester inserted into the middle of the clafoutis comes out clean.

Remove the dish from the oven and let cool. Once it’s room temperature, sprinkle on some powdered sugar. Enjoy!

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Dimanche (That Means Sunday)

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Welcome to this edition of Dimanche (That Means Sunday), a rundown of everything that caught my eye this past week.

The holidays went into high gear last week. I went to Clayton, a suburb of St. Louis, to get my haircut on Thursday and I ran into these Christmas lights as I looked for parking. I’ve always been a sucker for Christmas lights: The more, the merrier. I walked through this display, which wrapped around a small park, and took it all in. It definitely got me in the holiday spirit.

Then yesterday, I drove to one of my favorite neighborhoods in St. Louis to do some holiday shopping. Maplewood is an interesting place because in a lot of ways, it feels like it’s frozen in time. The downtown is equal parts charming and kitschy, with old storefronts and neon signs lingering from the 1950s and 1960s.

Still, in the last ten years or so the downtown has gone through some major changes. There are local shops selling everything from homemade bath salts and soaps to artisan chocolate. I like to take my time and walk through the downtown strip, popping into the stores and seeing what they have on display for the holidays.

I got a box of chocolates to take to my boss’s holiday party last night. I also got a couple ingredients to make clafoutis, or French custard pie, to take as a dessert. The holidays are an excuse to eat as many sweet things as humanly possible (if you need an excuse).

This time of year is also a time to reflect. I find myself drawn to news stories with human interest angles. Sure, I’m still fired up about politics and disillusioned by this country’s current political climate. I close my eyes whenever Trump comes on the TV at the gym, which has resulted in some near-death situations on the elliptical.

But now more than ever, I want to hear about people’s lives and how they’ve triumphed despite adversity. There’s never a wrong time to become inspired but dark times call for extra insight.

Without further ado, here is Dimanche:

Kakao is one of my favorite chocolate shops in St. Louis. The truffles are OUT OF CONTROL. I had a Turkish coffee flavor yesterday and I almost passed out in the middle of the store. How can anything be that good? I guess the answer is, because it can be.

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Spotify released its Top Songs of 2017 individualized playlist this week and mine took me by surprise. I listened to music for almost 64,000 minutes in 2017 (this is only counting Spotify), which elates and terrifies me. How did I listen to music for two months and still accomplish everything that I accomplished in 2017? Sometimes it’s better not to ask questions.

I read this article in The Washingtonian the other day about the insane lengths restaurants go to to identify food critics. The story talks about how restaurants do things like create dossiers on food critics and circulate them among other fine dining establishments in town. I’d highly recommend reading food critic Jonathan Gold’s take on the situation. His article predates this story but it still rings true.

Have you heard of Norman Fait Des Vidéos? If not, you should check out his YouTube page. He’s a French comedian but most of his videos are subtitled in English, so you can still enjoy them even if you don’t speak French. This video parodying raclette parties is one of my favorite things.

I randomly clicked on this story earlier this week and it ended up being one of the best things I read. It’s about an adopted black baby and the family who gave her up in the 1960s. The story is very compelling and thought-provoking. At one point, the grown woman questions if she would have been worse off if the white family had kept her.

So…lawmakers in Quebec just outlawed “Bonjour hi!” It’s the latest chapter in an ongoing battle to preserve French, which is the official language in the province. Shopkeepers now are required by law to just say “Bonjour,” when someone walks into their store. Some people are pissed, while others think it’s a good idea. You can read more about the situation here.

I got a haircut earlier this week (as I mentioned before) and I’m still amped about it. Kelsey at KINK Salon in Clayton, MO, is a GENIUS. I might start wearing my hair straight more often now, even though it requires a little more work than wearing it curly. If you’re on the fence about getting a haircut, I say go for it. A good haircut makes you feel great. Treat yourself.

Enjoy your week! I hope it brings lots of sweets, fun holiday parties, a few surprises, and good company. Here’s a song that I’ve been jamming out to this weekend. It’s good for dancing alone in your room when no one is watching, or, you know, whenever.

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Stuffed Sweet Potato with Kale Mint Salad

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This is one of the best vegan recipes I’ve ever made. I’m going to make it again and again for dinner because it’s so delicious and (relatively) easy.

I like stuffed sweet potatoes because they’re the vegetable equivalent of a one-pot meal. You roast it in the oven, crack it open, and put whatever you want on top. I’ve done arugula and lemon salads, chickpeas, and other toppings.

Last night I decided to make one with a kale/mint salad and tahini dressing. I had extra mint that I wanted to use up from the vegan shamrock smoothie that I made earlier this week. I also had extra kale and pomegranate seeds.

The best part about this dish is the combination of textures and flavors. I’ve said it a million times but I’m a big fan of multiple elements in food. I like soft and crunchy things together, and sweet and savory things. This sweet potato has sweet pomegranates, smokey roasted nuts, crunchy kale, crisp mint, and nutty tahini. If you don’t want to eat the potato after hearing all that, you never will.

My least favorite part about this recipe is waiting for the sweet potato to cook. I have no patience. Maybe you’re more patient than me, though. If you’re not, a trick is to poke the sweet potato with a fork a few times before you wrap it in tinfoil and put it in the oven. This will help the potato cook faster.

In other news, it’s the weekend and I’m very excited about it. I’m going to cook pasta with my sister tonight and then tomorrow night, I’m going to a holiday party at my boss’s house.

I’m using the latter event as an excuse to dress us. I’m going to wear a black dress that I haven’t put on in years. I don’t care if I’m the fanciest person there because it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed, in my opinion.

Here’s a song that describes my feelings for this sweet potato and the idea of getting dressed up for a party. It came on this morning while I was driving to work. I heard it for the first time a couple years ago after my sister recommended it. “It makes you feel victorious,” she said, and it’s true. Every time I listen to it, no matter what kind of day I’m having, I feel like I could run up the steps and bounce around like Rocky.

Stuffed Sweet Potato with Kale Mint Salad

Ingredients

for the sweet potato:
1 medium to large sweet potato
1 cup chopped kale
1/2 cup chopped mint
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup walnuts, roasted and chopped

for the tahini dressing:
juice from 1/2 a lemon
1/4 cup tahini
1 Tbsp warm water, or more as needed
pinch of sea salt
1 tsp maple syrup

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Prick a sweet potato a few times with a fork and then wrap in tinfoil. Place in the oven and cook for about one hour, or one and a half hours depending on how large it is.

Roast the walnuts in a small pan over medium high heat. Once they’re brown and fragrant, remove from heat, let cool slightly, and chop.

Mix the nuts, kale, mint, olive oil, and pomegranate seeds in a small bowl. Set aside.

Make the dressing by whisking together the lemon juice, tahini, warm water, sea salt, and maple syrup. You may have to add more warm water later to make the dressing thinner. It should be about the consistency of honey.

Once the potato is done cooking, cut it in a “T” shape. Fill it with the kale mint salad and sprinkle tahini dressing on top. Enjoy!

 

 

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Mushroom Thyme Crème Fraîche Pasta

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This mushroom thyme crème fraîche pasta is so good that I want to sing about it. Maybe I will, but first, I’ll tell you about how good it is.

I made this pasta last Friday night after I put off making it the whole week. Things are busy around the holidays so when I get home at night, I don’t always feel like putting extra effort into cooking. This pasta was the exception.

I stopped on the way home to pick up thyme, because I knew I didn’t have any at home. I already had the mushrooms, kale, crème fraîche, and shallot.

This pasta is perfect for a cold winter night when you want something quick, warming, and flavorful. My favorite elements are the caramelized shallot, mushrooms, and thyme.

Thyme is one of my favorite herbs because it’s so fragrant and fresh. It pairs well with almost anything but it goes especially well with sweet things (see: the caramelized shallot). It also complements earthy vegetables like mushrooms.

I ate two bowls of pasta in one sitting but I still had a vat of leftover noodles. I ended up eating it the next night for dinner. Sometimes pasta isn’t as good on day two but this pasta was still delicious. That’s when you know you’ve hit recipe gold.

Here’s a song that I’ve been jamming out to this morning. When I first saw it, I wrote it off as another weird Sufjan tune (even though I love weird Sufjan tunes). I listened to it and I thought it was beautiful, but I still didn’t get why he would write about Tonya Harding. Then I read this interview and it all made sense.

Mushroom Thyme Crème Fraîche Pasta

Ingredients

1 package of gigli pasta
olive oil for frying
1 medium shallot, chopped
6 mushrooms, sliced
2 cups of kale, torn into small-ish pieces
1 Tbsp thyme leaves
1/4 cup crème fraîche
1/2 cup pasta water
salt and ground black pepper
juice from 1/2 a lemon
thyme leaves and more black pepper for topping

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the shallot.  Once the shallot is slightly brown, add the mushrooms and sauté with some salt and pepper. Add the thyme leaves and sauté the mushrooms for a couple more minutes, or until they’re tender. Remove from heat.

In the meantime, make the pasta noodles. Heat a large pot of salted water over high heat until it comes to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions. A few minutes before the pasta is done cooking, when it’s slightly soft, add the kale leaves to the water.

Strain the pasta and kale, reserving about 1/2 a cup of pasta water. Add the pasta back into the pot you cooked it in and stir in the crème fraîche, pasta water, salt and pepper, lemon juice, and the cooked mushrooms.

Top the pasta with thyme leaves, black pepper, and some flaky sea salt if you desire. Enjoy!

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Maple Ginger Oatmeal

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When I was living in France, I chaperoned a school trip to London. It was one of the best and most exhausting experiences of my life: Best because I realized that I could keep track of 50 fifth-graders in a foreign country and still enjoy myself; most exhausting because I was trying to keep track of 50 fifth-graders in a foreign country and still enjoy myself.

I’ll never forget breakfast time. In France, kids usually have toast, cereal, or a pain au chocolat for breakfast. They don’t eat savory items as often.

There was a breakfast buffet at our hostel in London and the kids went CRAZY. They piled their plates with bacon, eggs, and sausage. They looked like they were on that game show where you’re allowed to run down the aisles of the grocery store and shove as many items as you can into a cart, except they were shoving as many pieces of bacon as they could onto a plate.

I stuck with cereal and toast. When I sat down with my food, all the teachers looked at me strangely. “Don’t you want bacon and eggs?” they asked. They assumed because I was American/English-speaking, I’d want a savory breakfast. “No,” I said. “I like sweet things in the morning.”

“You’re more French than American,” one of the teachers said. She wasn’t wrong.

Nowadays my breakfasts involve less bread and more fruit, but sometimes I get a pastry or make cereal. Oatmeal is an American breakfast but whenever I make it, I make it as sweet as possible.

For this dish, I used up extra minced ginger I had after making carrot turmeric soup. Then I topped it with some maple-glazed almonds and coconut that I had leftover, too.

I’d highly recommend adding some berries on top. The tartness and sweetness pairs well with the spicy ginger and the smoky maple flavors in the bowl.

I don’t have anything against savory breakfasts, per se. I just like to start my day with sweet things. I think you’ll enjoy this oatmeal as much as I did.

Here’s a song that reminds me of this oatmeal and of sweet breakfasts. It showed up on my Top Songs of 2017 playlist, which is honestly me in a playlist.

Maple Ginger Oatmeal

Ingredients

1 tsp minced ginger
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 cup almond milk
1 Tbsp maple syrup
pomegranate seeds, berries, and maple-glazed nuts for topping (get the recipe here)

Directions

Combine the ginger, oats, and milk in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook the oatmeal, stirring occasionally, until it’s thickened. Stir in the maple syrup.

Serve with pomegranate seeds, berries, and some maple-glazed nuts. Enjoy!

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