The New Home Economics


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This year, let’s plant for bees

It seems like the Save the Bees Movement has really gained traction this winter, doesn’t it? And thank God. I’ve had so many people ask me about what they should plant to attract bees and butterflies to their yard!

So, let’s start with some basics… First, what are bees and what are wasps? This one’s easy. Bees are fuzzy, wasps are shiny. Both are beneficial, but only one is a “pollinator.” Here are some images that should help:

Wasp on milkweed in MinnesotaHere is a wasp on some milkweed in my back yard. Notice that it’s shiny. Wasps may not pollinate our fruit and vegetable plants, but they do eat the insects that eat our fruits and vegetables. I once killed a nest of yellowjackets in my yard, but not until after my kids suffered several stings each. You have to use your best judgement on what you’re willing to tolerate as far as wasps are concerned, and be sure of what you have before you whip out the pesticide. Also, follow the label instructions to the letter. If you don’t, you’re not only breaking the law, but you could cause undue pain to a local honeybee keeper. In short, try a little tolerance.

Bee on Anise HyssopHere is a bee on some anise hyssop in my back yard. Sorry this picture is less than ideal, but you can see that it’s fuzzy. If you look from a different angle you’d also notice that its hairy legs are covered with yellow pollen. Bees eat pollen, and in the process they give us fruit, vegetables, tree nuts and honey.

Minnesota has more than 350 native bee species, and most of them live in the ground or in hollow stems of trees. So one thing you could do to help bees would be to make a bee hotel. Click here for 1 million + ideas.

But more importantly, we need to diversify our monoculture landscapes. Lawns=monoculture. Corn and soybeans=monoculture. And putting in non-native sterile nursery plants like tulips, marigolds, and daylilies (I’m guilty of having tulips) does not help, since they don’t provide pollen. Buying plants from big box stores is even worse, since many of these are treated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that stays in the plant for… the U of M is currently embarking on research to find out how long. Neonics kill every insect that partakes of the plant, beneficial or not. Read local food writer Dara Grumdahl’s excellent Panic in Bloom for more on neonicotinoids.

Good news: it is now getting easier to find nursery plants that are neonic-free. The Friends School Plant Sale is 100% neonic-free. Bachmann’s recently announced that they are going neonic-free. The Hennepin Master Gardeners plant sale is neonic-free by design, since the plants are dug up from our own yards. Mother Earth Gardens in south and NE Minneapolis is also neonic-free. If none of these places are near you, go to a nursery. ASK QUESTIONS. If they are unable to tell you whether the plant is neonic-free, do not buy. I can’t say enough about the importance of avoiding big box stores for your plants (and not just because of pesticides; the plants are lower quality). Real nurseries will know what they have and be able to talk about it. Here is a helpful index of bee-friendly plant retailers in the Twin Cities.

So, now that we’ve covered all those topics, we get to the fun one: what should you plant? In a nutshell, go native. Most every wildflower that is native to our area will have some benefit for pollinators. Many non-natives do as well; I can think of several including dandelions, clover, dill, fennel, and the various vegetable plants that bees love to visit. Seed clover in your lawn! It will feed your grass (clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which feeds grass) AND benefit bees.

If you’re really a gardening newbie, you could consider buying a butterfly or pollinator package, such as this delightful one from the Friends Sale. It’s a great place to start, since most plants that are beneficial to butterflies are also beneficial to bees. I would recommend buying and planting actual seedlings over one of those ubiquitous, cheap “butterfly garden in a can”-type seed packages. If you are newer to gardening it will be difficult to tell, especially with native seedlings, what is a weed.

The University of Minnesota Bee Lab also has a really nice list of native plants that help bees, and the required site conditions for each. Here’s another PDF from The Xerces Society that talks about both native and non-native plants for bees.

Great St. Jon's WortMany native flowers are stunningly beautiful as well as beneficial, such as this Great St. John’s Wort, also in my back yard.

If you’re adding pollinator plants for the first time, start small and simple. You don’t have to tear out your whole yard. But try a little plot with, say, some milkweed, bee balm, a couple of sunflowers, anise hyssop, and maybe an early spring ephemeral such as bloodroot. Note this spot must be full sun to part shade for these to thrive. And THRIVE they will; they are all very easy to grow. There’s a reason why milkweed has the word weed in its name. But I like easy, quite honestly, and I like this even more:

Anneke with MonarchQuestions? Ideas? Let’s save some bees! (Well, and let’s save the monarchs too, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

 


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Signs of life

School bean plant gone crazy!Wonders never cease. Rowan brought home a kidney bean plant he’d started in a styrofoam cup at school. We re-potted it a few weeks ago, expecting it to die at any time. It flowered; I told him not to expect beans. IT GOT BEANS. Did our cat pollinate this thing? My best guess is that I brushed the flowers several times while opening and shutting the curtains and that must have been enough.

Playing by Minnehaha CreekCan you find two faces in this picture? I stayed home with the kids on Thursday, and before the snowstorm hit they spent some quality time in their tree stump fort by Minnehaha Creek. Who says city kids don’t get out in nature? This is only 4 blocks from our house!

Venison jerkyWe truly still have a ridiculous amount of venison left, so today Adam tried venison jerky. We used this recipe, minus the liquid smoke, and will again. This batch, from the buck he got on bowhunting opener, was delicious. I’m curious to see if jerky will make the doe that he got later in the season taste better. Everything we’ve made from the doe has been (to my palate) overly gamey, and we’ve tried A LOT of different things. So, we’ll see if jerky can kill the gamey flavor.

PieThe co-op has had frozen fruit on sale quite often lately, so we got treated to a mixed berry pie this weekend. I often wish Adam was on permanent spring break.

happyfrogThe tank was finally thawed out enough today to plant lettuce, yippee! We applied a nice layer of Happy Frog soil conditioner—this stuff is magical and the kids loved putting their hands in bat guano. We pick it up, like most of our gardening supplies, at Mother Earth Gardens.

Lettuce planted for Spring 2014!The kids helped me sow arugula, cilantro, kale, bull’s blood beets, and more lettuce seeds around the seedlings we put in today. We were all so excited to be out there working, we ended up stripping down to t-shirts. (Yes, t-shirts in the snow, that’s how we roll in Minnesota.) Of course I had to put the hoop house back on the tank for now, but the temperature is not supposed to dip below freezing for a few nights so these should settle in quite nicely.

Garden season is heating up in a major way. I got my Friends School Plant Sale catalog last week and the kids and I have been circling plants we want to try. I am SO impressed by their commitment to only offering plants that are neonicotinoid-free. I’m also teaching the first Spanish Gardening Class of the year at Sabathani community center next weekend. HERE WE GO!


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FINALLY!

Spring is in the air! It’s currently 42 outside and feels like absolute heaven. The garage is flooding again and we have a 6 inch deep puddle the entire length of our front sidewalk, but you know me, I can’t complain.

Hiking in early MarchWe went hiking at Richardson Nature Center yesterday and the sky was big and beautiful over the still-frozen wetland.

Maple tree tappingThey’ve already got taps in several of their maple trees, but it was a little too cold for sap to be flowing yesterday (we had a high of about 30). I bet those taps started dripping today! March is the time of year when my most desperate wish is for lots of maple trees and the spare time for sap boiling.

Hoop house is in place!We crawled through 2-3 foot deep snow to get the cover on our hoop house this afternoon. My lettuce seedlings are getting big in their basement setup, so I’m hoping that putting the cover on this tank will expedite the snow melting process so I can plant them outside before the end of March. (Depending on the weather, of course.) Also: my winter sowing milk jugs have re-appeared!

Fleece bootlinersFinally, I don’t know who dreamed up the idea of fleece rain boot liners, but these are fantastic. Adam ordered them for me from this Etsy shop and I’ve been wearing them all weekend. Perfect for this sloppy snow melting weather. Dare I hope to get back on my bike this week?

Happy, happy, happy SPRING!


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Overwintering

Here we are. That point when even the most hardy Minnesotans are completely fed up with winter. Last weekend we had some gorgeous weather, and I started some seeds both indoors and out.

Outdoor seed sowingThis is my third time trying outdoor seed sowing. The first was a total failure, but last year I had some success with plants that would tend to reseed themselves anyway, such as calendula and nasturtium. So this year I planted chamomile, calendula, nasturtium, morning glories and moonflowers.

Outdoor seed sowing one week laterMy group of milk jugs, one week later. Sigh. I’m glad they are covered with an insulating blanket of snow, though, because we’re supposed to get another round of arctic air this week.

Indoor seed startingI started my lettuce and kale seeds indoors last weekend as well. It’s too early for anything else. Lettuce and kale seeds/seedlings do better in a really cool environment, so I have this in the basement now and the plants are significantly less leggy than they used to be on top of the refrigerator. I hope to plant these out in the hoop house in late March or early April, depending on what sort of spring we have.

Sprouted lettuce!My lettuce and kale seedlings, this morning. The tin foil, in case you’re wondering, reflects the light to spread it around; otherwise the plants in the middle tend to grow much faster. I’ve also started using these little terra cotta pots for starting seeds. I’ve tried MANY different things, and I like the results I’m getting with these, plus they fit the “must be reusable, recycled, or compostable” bill.

Fits and starts, right? That’s spring in Minnesota. Watering these little greenies every day has brought me a little joy every day this week.


Today is the fifth anniversary of my very first post on this blog. I can’t believe it’s been five years! This started as a comment I made on Snarkmarket about baking bread and growing your own food, and morphed into a chapter that I was VERY honored to write for the book, The New Liberal Arts (free PDF download here). Since then, my life has changed a bit. I got a different job, I became a Hennepin County Master Gardener, I went through at least 3 bikes; really, it goes on and on. More than that, though, look how much my twin kids changed:

My kids, Feb 2009Enjoying the outdoors during a rare thawing day in February 2009.

My kids, Feb 20145 years later, still playing outside all winter long.

Cheers! Here’s to another five years. Thanks for reading.


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Crazy Garden 2014

We reached a point in this past year where the kids simultaneously became more interested in gardening and less interested in trying new foods. We haven’t eaten mushrooms in ages! Oh, I miss them so. Last fall, in an attempt to tempt them into something new, I started buying only the crazy-colored vegetables at the farmers market. Orange cauliflower. Purple broccoli. Golden beets. Then we all got an idea: what if we planned our next year’s garden around crazy vegetables?! I give you our 2014 garden plan:

A kid-friendly garden for 2014(click to enlarge)

We still have some standards in there, like bush beans, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. But we’re really going to try and mix things up this year. Here are some of the new things we’re trying:

Romanesco Broccoli

Romanesco Broccoli (click image for source)

Cheddar cauliflower

Cheddar cauliflower (click image for source)

Purple Kohlrabi

Purple Kohlrabi (click image for source)

Golden beets

Golden beets (click image for source)

Rainbow chard

Rainbow chard (click image for source)

Dragon carrots

Dragon carrots (click image for source)

Easter egg radishes

Easter egg radishes (click image for source)

Red noodle bean / yard long bean

Red noodle bean, aka yard long bean.

I’ve grown some of these before, including the easter egg radishes, rainbow chard, and dragon carrots, but never a whole garden full. You’ll also notice on the plan that I’ve included a 10′x20′ plot at Sabathani with Long Island Cheese pumpkins, potatoes, and brussels sprouts. I’m applying for a permanent plot there this year—last year my friend CJ and I filled a spare 10′x20′ plot full of pumpkins and squash, and our relative success has me inspired to make this a permanent thing. I can’t get there every day, so I have to choose plants that can survive a few days without weeding/watering/harvesting. I’m very excited about this development!

Our three stock tank gardens in the back won’t change significantly this year, although Anneke really wants to try elephants’ ears in hers. I’m letting the kids pick out their plants for their tanks when we get the Friends School catalog in a few weeks. Of course I’d love it if they planted edibles, but I’m not going to force them. My large stock tank will be planted in greens hopefully in very early April. (Or late March? Dare I hope?)

So there you have it! Our edible garden plans for 2014. Of course I have “landscape” garden plans too, as always. My prairie garden in my boulevard still has about a 10′x6′ space to fill, and I may add another currant bush somewhere. When there’s this much snow on the ground it’s easy to get carried away. Happy garden planning season, everyone!


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Waste Not

It’s been a busy month since my last post. I’d like to say it’s all been joyous merrymaking, but, well I’m not going to bore you with the details. Suffice to say: strikes and gutters.

Christmas tree branches as mulchI took out our Christmas tree this week, and Adam cut off all the branches. I put them along the bottom of this fence, which we put up in October in hopes of defending my raspberries from rabbits. I didn’t spring for chicken wire because this stuff was cheaper, and those holes are really small. However, the varmints are getting in. I watched one hop right through the fence Friday night, to feast on my precious canes.

There’s actually not a whole lot I can do at this point except hope that my Christmas tree branch blockade will at least confuse them while Adam prepares for some very local rabbit hunting. He’s set up a little food stand in one part of the yard to bait them. We’ll see how it goes.

Christmas tree firewoodInstead of hauling the newly-bare Christmas tree trunk out to the alley, Adam sawed it into a few pieces and threw it on the wood pile. We’re currently heading a into record cold snap, which, by the way, is not all bad! Apparently there’s a good chance of emerald ash borer die-off. Silver lining, right?

Homemade suet for birdsWe still have just over half the pork fat left from two hogs my family purchased this fall. So Adam used the last of an old bag of bird seed and made some suet. The squirrels have been sniffing very curiously at this but so far I haven’t seen any birds on it. I’ve hardly seen any birds around AT ALL, though, so perhaps it will take a few days for them to discover it.

Venison sausageAdam’s making venison sausage on a regular basis now—and we still haven’t gotten through our store of ground venison or pork fat. I’m anxious to try this new one, which included Gamle Ode “Holiday” Aquavit. We gave some away to family and friends, so we went through our initial batches quickly.

Swiffer with chenille clothFor several months now, we’ve been using this chenille cleaning cloth on our swiffer sweeper, instead of buying the cloths. Take it outside and shake it out a few times while cleaning, then throw it in the wash when done. As far as I can tell it works the same. One less thing to buy, check!

Orange cleanerI’m also trying this suggestion for citrus-infused cleaning vinegar. I’m guessing a little of the orange oil gets into the vinegar too, which would make it ideal for cleaning our wood floors. On the left, some peels that we’re drying for adding to herbal tea.

KnittingFinally, I received a bag of yarn from Adam’s grandma who died almost three years ago, and am using it to teach Anneke to knit. (Rowan’s not interested, for now.) She picked it up really quickly, and I like to imagine how happy it would make Grandma Miller to see her great-granddaughter using up her old yarn.

Anyway, there’s a handful of positive developments around here. Happy New Year!


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A Homemade Christmas

We’ve been elving quite a bit around here lately. Here’s a sample:

Rewiring the deerMost of the lights on Anneke’s doe were no longer working, so Adam and Rowan re-wired it with brand new lights and lots of zip ties (she had intentions of helping, but was too busy with some art project).

Popcorn and finger knitting decorate the treeThe kids have been really into finger-knitting, so we have finger-knit garland on the tree, as well as some popcorn that they strung Thanksgiving weekend.

Making calendula lotionAnneke infused some almond oil with dried calendula flowers from her garden for about 8 weeks this fall. Then she strained it and we made some homemade lotion with it. This recipe makes a slightly greasy but very effective lotion, and the calendula gave it a nice yellow color (we used lavender essential oil). Here are some more calendula-based recipes.

Homemade lip balm and lotion for ChristmasAs long as we were making lotion (finished product in ready-to-gift containers is on the right), I decided to try SouleMama’s peppermint lip balm recipe too (left). I love this lip balm! We’ve been using it for a couple weeks now, and we also made extra to give away.

Homemade toffeeYesterday we tried making toffee for the first time, with this simple recipe from Twin Cities Mix. It’s not a terribly hard thing to make, but be sure you have a working candy thermometer first.

This afternoon, we’re making more venison sausage. Have you been making anything homemade for the Holidays this year? Please share links to recipes or projects if so!

 


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Two soups, one method

Last winter, we made both Ramen (Japanese, we used the Momofuku recipe) and Pho (Vietnamese, this recipe) for the first time. Now that we’ve made both quite a few times, we’ve refined and simplified our method. The versions we currently make are not as authentic as the original recipes we used, but they make for very easy weeknight suppers—as long as you’re willing to plan ahead.

Both soups start out the same. I’ve written before about making homemade stock, so these soups both start off as any soup in our house does: dumping a bunch of frozen stuff into the slow cooker. We have a few gallon size freezer bags in the freezer into which get thrown chicken carcasses, onion and carrot ends, and anything else that might taste good in a soup. Do NOT throw out your turkey carcass this week! Turkey carcass stock is one of my favorites.

Making homemade stockThis one featured a bunch of extra leeks.

The night before you wish to eat Pho or Ramen, fill your slow cooker (mine is a large 5 qt one) at least half full. I like beef bones for pho and pork for ramen, but we usually throw a chicken carcass in too. I also add two chicken feet for good luck and good nutrition. Add in vegetable ends, or, if you don’t have any, cut up an onion and add it. Cover with water, add a splash of vinegar, and turn on low.

Let it simmer in the slow cooker all night long. The next morning:

Ramen: do nothing
Pho: add 1 cinnamon stick, 4-5 pieces dried star anise, a handful of peppercorns, some sliced fresh ginger.

Let it continue to simmer all day long. When you get home, turn off the slow cooker and strain the stock into a stock pot. Set on the stove over medium heat. What’s left of the bones can be composted or thrown out.

Here’s where the two recipes part ways slightly.

For Ramen: add 3 or 4 sheets of kombu—dried seaweed which can be purchased in Asian food stores or health food stores—to your stock and bring to a boil. Don’t fear the kombu. Your soup won’t taste like seaweed; it merely adds an “umami” undertone. Boil for at least 15-20 minutes and let it reduce a bit, concentrating the flavor. While it’s boiling, cook a package of udon noodles and prepare any other toppings you might like.

Taste your stock. It will likely need some salt. Adam also adds a tablespoon or two of tamari (or soy sauce) and the same of fish sauce.

When you’re ready to eat, place some noodles in each bowl, pour the stock over, and add your toppings.

Homemade slow cooker ramenThis one featured a little of the meat that was on the bones, a poached egg, a torn-up nori sheet, and some shredded cabbage.

For Pho: bring stock to a low boil and maintain the boil while you thinly slice a small piece of frozen beef—we usually use a cheap steak. It’s easier to use a frozen one because you want the slices to be paper thin if possible. Cook a package of rice noodles and prepare any other toppings you might like.

Taste the stock and add salt and/or tamari (soy sauce) if it seems like it needs it.

To serve, place some of the cooked noodles in your bowl, top with sliced beef, then pour boiling stock in. It’s important to have it boiling so that it cooks the meat instantly. Add your toppings.

Homemade slow cooker PhoYou can see the meat is a bit on the rare side on this one; the stock wasn’t quite boiling and we had sliced it a bit too thickly. I like rare meat, so it wasn’t a problem for me.

These soups are really just two variations on a theme, but the star anise and cinnamon give the Pho a unique flavor. The best part is that we always have at least three pints of stock left over. We freeze it and then just re-heat it and cook more noodles for a simple lunch.

A 6YO enthusiastically eats ramenOur two six-year-olds LOVE both of these soups, and they are full of nourishing goodness. I’m so glad we’ve figured out a way to include them in our busy schedule!

Here’s a final ingredient list. Each of these recipes generously feeds my family of four.

Pho
Beef bones
Chicken or turkey carcass and/or feet (optional)
1 package of rice noodles
1 cinnamon stick
4-5 star anise pods
Peppercorns, 1/4 c. or so
A cheap steak or small cut of beef, frozen

Ramen
Pork bones
Chicken or turkey carcass and/or feet (optional)
1 package of udon or soba noodles
4-5 sheets of kombu
Eggs for poaching (optional, but it’s much more filling if you include an egg)

Toppings that work for both: sliced radishes (daikon or any, really), thai basil leaves, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, sriracha sauce, sliced fresh or pickled jalapenos, toasted nori sheets, hoisin sauce, green onions, lime wedges, fresh chives or green onions.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone.


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Venison sausage

This fall, his second year of bowhunting, Adam got a small buck and a doe. We’ve been itching to try our hands at sausage-making for a long time, so we borrowed the scary-looking family heirloom equipment from Adam’s parents and got to it.

I’m not going to re-post the recipe, because we used this one verbatim for our first batches. For the second, third, and yes FOURTH batches, we varied the herbs but not the basic ratio: 4 lbs of ground venison and one lb of pork fat. The only thing we omitted was the Instacure (pink salt) after being assured by the Seward Co-op meat guys (they were very patient with me and my questions) that it was unnecessary.

A pound of pork fatYes, that is a pound of pork fat. The same week Adam got his first deer, my family split up all the meat from two hogs which my dad had purchased for us. Nobody else wanted any of the fat so I got all the fat from both animals. Seriously, we have a ton of pork fat in our freezer, so if you live in Minneapolis and want some, I’m happy to share. We had the butcher grind up the fat for us, so it’s super easy to use.

Local ginThe recipe calls for gin, so we found this locally-produced one and it was fantastic. We had no trouble finishing off that bottle in the following days.

Mixing sausage ingredientsWe got quite a few packages of ground venison trimmings from the guy who cut up Adam’s deer for him, so the grinding part was done, which made the process faster. Mixing it all up took a little practice. The amount was really too much for our mixer (imagine pork fat chunks and chunks of raw venison hitting the walls of the kitchen). So we mixed it by hand. Because everything needs to be ICE COLD, mixing it with your hands kinda hurts! But Adam powered through.

Tasting the sausageNext, fry up a little patty and sample it. Delicious.

Stuffing sausagesNow it was time to load Ye Olde Sausage Stuffer, with the casings (from Seward Co-op) and start making some sausage! The kids were fascinated and impressed. I was horrified and amused.

Making the linksAfter stuffing you twist the long sausage into individual links.

Hanging the sausages overnightFinally, you hang it to dry in a refrigerator overnight. We were lucky that our small basement refrigerator came with this wine rack built right in. We’ve never used it for wine but it works great for this!

The next day, we wrapped up packages of four links in butcher paper and froze them. We gave some to family, and have eaten plenty too. It’s delicious!

I have the book Charcuterie by Mark Ruhlman from the library right now, and it has some different venison sausage recipes that I would also like to try. Rather than pork fat, Ruhlman uses a ratio of 3 lbs ground venison to 2 lbs ground pork meat. He also hot-smokes his sausages, a process which intimidates me a little bit, honestly.

On the other hand, we’ll probably also make several more batches with this recipe, because what else are we going to do with all this pork fat? Any favorite venison sausage recipes you’d like to share?


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A harvest supper

Stuffed butternut squashWe harvested the tiny butternut squashes from our community garden plot this weekend. I also wanted to use up some of the kale that’s still in the garden, so we made plans to have squash, greens and bacon, and wild rice, but when the squash came out of the oven, we thought: why not combine them all and make stuffed squash?  Alas that, in my eagerness to eat, I only took this low-quality cellphone picture.

Recreate this ultimate October in Minnesota meal:

Find some small squashes. Whatever kind you like. While they’re baking, start some wild rice cooking on the stove. Fry some bacon, chop it up, set it aside. Then saute some onion and whatever greens you have on hand in the bacon fat. Toss in a few tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and a few hot pepper flakes. (See full recipe for bacon and greens.) When the wild rice is done cooking, toss with some olive oil, salt and pepper. When the squash are done, stuff the hole of each with a generous spoonful of wild rice, then top with the greens, then the bacon. Drizzle a small amount of maple syrup over the whole thing.

Wow. Even Miss Ultra Picky 6YO Who Will Basically Only Eat Venison At This Point ate this enthusiastically. Well, she didn’t throw a tantrum anyway.

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