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The soupiest month

February always feels to me like a funny limbo period. Winter has gone sort of tired and stale, but still, short sleeves are a little way away. Over most of the northern globe, it’s nippy, damp, and grim. February is the shortest month, the Valentine’s month, the scant sum of four weeks of frost and fog and those funky, crumbly candy hearts. It isn’t much to speak of, quite honestly, except for all the soup.

The way I see it, February is the soupiest month. The giddy hubbub of holiday cooking is behind us, and summer barbeques feel like pure fantasy. So here in the middle, in Limbo Land, it’s high time for soup. All I want these days is a bowl and spoon – and soup at noon, stew for supper, stock in the fridge, broth on the stove, soup soup soup! What with all the spoonable meals around here, you’d think I’d had some sort of major oral surgery. But nah, it’s just Old February, sticking its fingers in the stockpot again.

And take it from me: when it does that, it’s best not to resist. If I were you, I’d fire up the stove, throw a few potatoes its way, and call it locro de papas.

Mine looks nothing like the photograph in this month’s Gourmet, but I don’t care one bit, because this Andean potato stew is a deep-winter dream. It’s warming, rustic, and immeasurably soothing, the sort of soup that makes you want to dock your spoon at the bottom of the bowl and hang out, right there, for a little while. I can think of many worse ways to spend February – can’t you? – than in the company of potatoes like these, stewed into a mellow, cumin-scented broth and smoothed with milk and crumbly Mexican cheese. Creamy and subtle, topped with crescents of avocado, it’s a little homey, a little homely, and quietly delicious – in other words, just the kind of food for February.

Now, that said, I should warn you, however, that this is not Saint Valentine’s fare. That’s not what it’s for. There are plenty of other, sexier dishes to spoon delicately into someone else’s mouth. (Ding, ding! Hello, chocolate!) This one is just for you. It’s for a gray day, to be eaten in a cool room, and with a wool blanket across your lap. I’ve been doing just that since late last week, and I’m not the least bit sick of it yet. In fact, I’d be happy to drop anchor here indefinitely – (Can you tell we watched both Pirates of the Caribbean movies this weekend? Argh, matey.) – so long as the supply of avocado holds up. Or until the end of the month, whichever comes first.

Locro de papas
Adapted from Gourmet, February 2007

Fancy it ain’t, but pay no mind, because this potato stew is a keeper. The only tricky thing about this recipe is the annatto – also known as achiote – seeds. They’re small, triangular, rust-colored pellets that bring a red color and earthy, resinous flavor to many Latin American, Caribbean, and Filipino dishes. That means, unfortunately, that they’re a little tough to find in the typical American grocery store. I bought mine at World Spice, but you could probably find them at your local Latin American or Mexican grocery, or at Penzey’s.

And while we’re on the topic of annatto, a word to the wise: when you make your annatto oil, below, use a stainless (or other light-colored) saucepan or skillet. I made the mistake of reaching for our well-seasoned omelet pan, which is black as tar and therefore made it damn near impossible for me to gauge the color of the oil as it steeped. And judging by the fact that my soup looks nothing like the sweetly burnished red-orange business in Gourmet, I think it’s safe to assume that I didn’t let my oil get red enough. Or that Gourmet did some sort of tricky retouching. Either way, don’t use a dark pan, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

2 tsp. annatto (achiote) seeds
2 Tbsp. olive oil
3 ½ lb. russet (baking) potatoes
1 cup chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium)
Rounded ½ tsp. ground cumin
2 ¼ tsp. salt
A few grinds black pepper
7 cups water
1 cup whole milk
1 ¼ cups coarsely grated queso fresco or queso blanco
2 firm-ripe avocados

In a small saucepan or skillet, heat the annatto seeds and oil over low heat, swirling the pan often, until the oil is bright red-orange and barely simmering, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and set aside to rest for 10 minutes.

While the annatto oil is resting, fill a large bowl with cold water. Peel the potatoes and cut them into ¾-inch chunks, dropping them into the bowl of water as you go. The water will help to prevent discoloration.

Pour the annatto oil through a fine-mesh sieve into a large (7-8 quart) pot, discarding the seeds. Warm the oil over medium-high heat, and add the onions and half of the potatoes. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened, about 4-5 minutes. Add the cumin, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Add the water, stir to scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes are very tender, about 25-30 minutes; then mash the potatoes into the broth. (You could do this with a potato masher, I assume, but I couldn’t find ours – the kitchen utensils drawer is a madhouse – so I used my immersion blender instead.) Remove the remaining potatoes from their bowl of water, drain them well, and add them to the pot. Simmer, partially covered, until they are tender, about 20 minutes more. Stir in the milk and the cheese, and increase the heat to bring the pot to a simmer again, stirring. Remove from the heat.

Cut the avocados into small cubes or slices. Ladle the soup into bowls, top with avocado, and serve.

Yield: About 6 servings


Blogger hannah said...

i am a firm believer of putting avacado slices on just about anything. there is something so good and satisfying about a simple potato soup. my mom has a few colombian numbers floating around the house, time to up the count one more.

6:22 PM, February 05, 2007  
Anonymous Alicia A. said...

Ok, Molly- I'm all over this one. I'll have to run to Penzey's in the morn. Maybe a nice potato soup will help with the funk I'm in.

6:58 PM, February 05, 2007  
Blogger Julie said...

I saw that recipe and wondered how it would turn out...looks hearty and warming. This reminds me of a chicken and lime soup with avocado that I made a while ago. It is lighter, but for February in Florida, that might be just perfect. My favorite part of both recipes are the avocados; I had never imagined them in a soup before, but they're wonderful this way.

7:30 PM, February 05, 2007  
Anonymous Luisa said...

Ooooh, I am LOVING your inky black napkins. Chic, chic, chic.

7:32 PM, February 05, 2007  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

Those avocado slices wouldn't make it to the soup with my wife...she'd just eat it straight up

7:36 PM, February 05, 2007  
Blogger Shari said...

queso fresco and avocados? i'm in! i'm sending this recipe with tom when he goes to work at the co-op tomorrow. if all works as planned, soup will be simmering around six. ;) xo shari

8:24 PM, February 05, 2007  
Anonymous maia said...

Gorgeous, Molly. My mom just made this soup on Friday. It's heavenly, isn't it? So soothing, yet so hearty.

8:36 PM, February 05, 2007  
Blogger iamchanelle said...

the way you are able to expound on such a simple, hearty soup makes me feel as though i have donned my favourite sweater and curled up with a good read on a blustery day - one of the best feelings in the world!

(and your photo - way better than gourmet's. shhh, don't tell anyone i said that.)

9:01 PM, February 05, 2007  
Anonymous kayenne said...

I'm tickled to find a reference to annatto seeds or achuete(as filipinos call it) in your recipe. just a suggestion, whenever i don't have time to get some annatto seeds, i substitute it with a bit of tomato paste and cooking it in the oil... works almost the same. plus you get the health benefits of lycopene.

11:36 PM, February 05, 2007  
Blogger amisha said...

oh, this sounds so soothing and wonderful. and i'm with shari-- queso fresco + avocados = pure happiness :)

6:48 AM, February 06, 2007  
Anonymous Caroline said...

Yum! How did you know I was wondering what to do with those potatoes I got at the Farmer's Market last weekend?

Thank you Kayenne for the tomato paste substitution-- I'm dying to find out what these annatto seeds taste like, but the grocery stores in Northern VA really are lacking in unusual (and even somewhat common) ingredients.

7:08 AM, February 06, 2007  
Anonymous amy dawn rose said...

this looks wonderful. i just finished a bowl of the celery root soup recipe you posted recently- like velvet in a bowl. thanks for the inspiration. i can't wait until your cookbook comes out. do you have a title yet?

9:25 AM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger Kristel said...

I couldn't agree more about February -- my fridge and freezer are also overflowing with soups and stocks. At last count I have carrot ginger soup, veggie chilli, turkey rice soup, potato and leek soup, tortilla soup, shrimp stock, and chicken stock rattling around my fridge and freezer.

And, of course, another dozen soup ideas bouncing through my mind. Yours was just added to the mix...now *thirteen* soup ideas :)

I guess my blog will live up to its name...


11:17 AM, February 06, 2007  
Anonymous kayenne said...

Sorry to butt in again, Molly. I received a question about the tomato paste substitution. I'd recommend starting with 1 tsp tomato paste and see how much it colors/dissolves into the oil. Add more if needed.

Achuete is used primarily for color. Gives the oil a bright, clear, transparent orangey-red hue(like the orange text in my blog). Flavour/smell, if any, is very weak, almost nonexistent. Keep out of light and heat. I don't like the powdered form.

You can also microwave the oil with the seeds for a minute or so in a glass or white china bowl, instead of stovetop. And be careful... it stains clothes. Badly.

11:39 AM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger Anali said...

I sooooooo agree that February is the soupiest month! I just can't seem to warm up! I made soup last night and after I end this comment, I'm going to heat some up!

2:11 PM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger Anita said...

Mmm...your writing is so langorous and dreamy - perfect for potato soup and a chilly winter day:)

2:50 PM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger E said...

I'm trying this as soon as possible

7:17 PM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Hannah, I hear you on the avocados. I want to put them on everything. So, hey, might you be able to wangle one of your mom's potato soup recipes out of her? And into the recipe box?

Alicia, this soup is very, very good for a funk. Trust me, I know. I was in a bit of one myself when I first made it. There's nothing that cumin, potatoes, and cheese can't cure.

Julie, hearty and warming is right! Have you written about that chicken and lime soup? I'd love to try it. ..

Luisa, ma cherie, you are too kind. I bought these napkins in 2000, when I was getting ready to move into my senior-year apartment with my friend Keaton. I was quite deep into my punk-ish phase, hence the solid black. It didn't even occur to me that someone might think they were chic! I still love them today, except for the fact that they look dirty almost instantly. Argh.

Wheresmymind, I like your wife! You chose well.

Shari, I'll bet you and Tom would love this. Let me know if you do wind up trying it... xo

Maia, your photograph of this soup is beautiful! Yours looks much more like Gourmet's than mine does. Such a pretty, red-orange color! Lovely.

Aww, iamchanelle, that's so nice. Thank you!

Kayenne, you've given us some great words of wisdom on annatto here. Thank you, thank you! You know it much better than I do. Just one question: do you think the flavor of the tomato paste will come through in the soup? That would be my only worry...

It is supremely soothing, Amisha. If you try it, please let me know what you think.

Caroline, I had a feeling there might be someone out there with some stray potatoes running around! Happy to help give them a purpose.

amy dawn rose, I'm so happy to hear that you liked the celery root soup. "Like velvet in a bowl" - I love that! As for my book, I'm sorry to say that it's going to be a little while. The manuscript is due on December 15, and the publication date is sometime in fall '08. It sounds like a long time, I know, but I've got a lot to write! Whew. Its tentative title is Orangette: The Stories My Kitchen Tells Me.

Kristel, it sounds like you and I are on the very same page. I just made a big batch of chicken stock, so there's even more soup on the horizon...

Anali, what kind of soup did you make? Do tell.

Thank you, Anita!

Do it, E! Hop to it.

10:14 PM, February 06, 2007  
Blogger Tony said...

HI Molly,

Now I know what to do with the achiote seeds left in the cupboard! (I used them previously for making a Yucatecan achiote paste-grind these little orange "stones" to a powder with garlic, oregano, cumin, allspice, vinegar and seville organge juice for a paste with which to rub pork, fish or chicken prior to grilling).

The soup sounds a winner. I agree with Julie that it is a little like the chicken avocado and lime soup from Mexico/Carribean.

Will have to wait for our February in August or hope for a cold rainy day....

10:44 PM, February 06, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This looked like something for you!


12:34 AM, February 07, 2007  
Blogger Anali said...

Hi Molly! I made a Florentine Cream of Salmon soup. It tasted better in my head than in real life, but it's not bad. I'm still working on the recipe.

9:46 AM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Megan said...

Thanks for the tip about annatto. I had tried to find it for another recipe and never did.

12:25 PM, February 07, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Tony, you always give me the best ideas. That Yucatecan achiote paste sounds so good! What kind of vinegar do you use in it, if I may ask?

Thanks for the link, Anonymous! The one time I made orangettes, I tempered the chocolate incorrectly, and they were heinously ugly. But with this timely nudge, I might just have to try again. (Probably minus the tempering. Ugh.)

I'm impressed with your creative soup ideas, Anali - I would have never thought of a cream of salmon!

Happy to help, Megan - or, in this case, to let Kayenne help! I haven't yet tried her tomato paste trick, but if anyone else does, please report back. And keep in mind, too, that you could always just leave out the annatto step. I don't think it's crucial to the soup's flavor, or anyway, it doesn't change it much.

1:43 PM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Max said...

I wrote about soup on my blog last week (tomato basil... mmm)! February definitely a "soupy" month. Anything with avocado appeals to me and this soup is no different. I'll definitely have to try it.

1:59 PM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a silly question - but where do you buy whole milk? I googled it and discovered it's full fat milk but does that mean I should look for the milk that says "heavy whipping cream?"

I only know of low fat or nonfat milk.

2:58 PM, February 07, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Max, your soup sounds wonderful. I always love a good bowl of tomato-basil. I'm going to file away the recipe for summer, when the best tomatoes come out...

And Anonymous, not to worry! Whole milk is very easy to find. It should be in most any grocery store, near the nonfat and lowfat milks. Most of the time, it is labeled "Vitamin D Milk," although sometimes it will say simply "Whole Milk." Basically, it is the "whole milk" - meaning that it is milk from which no butterfat has been removed. If you look at the nutrition label (in the U.S., at least), it should show that it contains 8 grams of fat per cup. Heavy cream, on the other hand, is composed of the layer of higher-butterfat stuff that can be skimmed from the top of milk before it is homogenized. It has something like 5 grams of fat per tablespoon - much more than whole milk.

I hope that's not to confusing - and that it helps!

3:27 PM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Stephanie said...

I've always had a bit of a problem with avocado served even remotely warm... but your picture is totally compelling and the flavours sound divine.

6:53 PM, February 07, 2007  
Anonymous Amanda said...


Are we long lost sisters? Your taste never fails to match mine. Avocados and cheese is a match made in heaven.

To Caroline above--there should be lots of Latin American food shops in Northern Virginia. I seem to remember one on Main St. in Fairfax. Whole Foods might have annatto too. There's a Whole Foods in Vienna if you're nearby. Good luck!

7:20 PM, February 07, 2007  
Blogger kickpleat said...

mmmm, i'm in soup heaven. time to head to the grocers and pick up some avocados!

11:35 PM, February 07, 2007  
Blogger Tony said...

The Yucatecan Achiote paste recipe is (I didn't remember it quite the way it is!):

2 tbsp achiote seeds
2 tsp allspice berries
1 tsp black pepper
1.5 tsp dried oregano
3 tbsp cider vinegar
6 garlic cloves peeled
1 tsp salt

grind achiote and then add other ingredients also ground (I don't think the achiote will grind properly if all is mixed together at the beginning). Moisten with cider vinegar and mix and grind chopped garlic with salt in a mortar and pestle.

Really good to marinade meat or turkey prior to grilling......

or combined with seville orange or lime as a marinade for fish or pork...


4:20 AM, February 08, 2007  
Anonymous Marieke said...

I was just bringing an ode to the avocado om my blog and now I see this tasty recipe..more avocado inspiration and with my favorite potatoes...

9:12 AM, February 09, 2007  
Blogger Melindy said...

YEs molly indeed soup...at my camp- I made my first bean soup/stew. White bean butternut ginger stew. This helped my ailing boyfriend- I hope.
I shall have to try this. I/we LOVE avocados
Pass the soup please-

12:43 PM, February 09, 2007  
Blogger Catherine said...

Wow...that's my first lusty response to a soup photo!

7:18 PM, February 09, 2007  
Blogger D-man said...

Slipping a wee bit o' fruit in the soup are we?
Check this if you want to see two orange others make it into one......
Congrats on the recent job upgrade!

7:40 PM, February 09, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

Yum! We're going to try this tomorrow afternoon, on the happy occasion of a good friend making her way out to the big bad farm from cozy DC.

This post makes me think of ... "In February it will be/ My snowman's anniversary/ With cake for him and soup for me!/ Happy once, happy twice ... " You know the rest?

peace -- Lisa

2:14 PM, February 10, 2007  
Blogger d. chedwick bryant said...

I never would have thought of avocado in soup-- and I love avocado. I have added your blog to my link list as my food blog-- you're great.

5:11 PM, February 10, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Stephanie, I have to admit that the avocado does get a touch warm here, so proceed with caution! It's so good, though, that you might not even notice...

Amanda, thanks so much for those Northern Virginia suggestions. There's got to be some annatto out there somewhere! Or I hope so, at least.

Kickpleat, speaking of soup heaven, the chicken soup recipe you posted this week looks and sounds so, so good. It might have to be next on my soups-to-do list...

Tony, you're wonderful! I can't wait to try that marinade. Thank you, thank you.

Marieke, what's the URL for your blog? I'd love to see your ode to avocado.

Melindy, your soup sounds wonderful. I love the idea of it. Yes, please, pass the soup!

Catherine, just wait till you taste it...

Thanks, Dylan!

Got it, Lisa! "Happy once, happy twice, happy chicken soup with rice!" Love that. Happy souping to you and yours.

And thank you, d. chedwick bryant!

5:37 PM, February 10, 2007  
Anonymous gaylourdes said...

Dear molly, when my dad renovated our kitchen, he eliminated drawers for that very same kitchen-utensils-drawer-is-a-madhouse reason! Instead, there are lots of little hooks on the inside of the cupboard doors.

And the soup looks divine, which is just as well, because Sydney has just dived into early autumnal rain.


4:21 PM, February 11, 2007  
Blogger rai said...

Hi Molly- It's soup month over at my blog too, hosting Switzerland's first soup swap in a week. Come check it out, I think you might like the yemenite chicken soup I've been hooked on lately.

9:51 AM, February 12, 2007  
Blogger the veggie paparazzo said...

I made the soup--thanks for sharing the recipe! It was definitely both homey and delicious. Mine had a nice orange color to it. I looked it up in Gourmet, and I'm not sure if the difference in appearance is due to a potato masher (which would leave the oil more separate from the potato than an immersion blender, which I also used) or if they tossed in some extra oil at the end for the photo.

Delicious, either way. I did have to hit an international farmer's market to find the seeds, though!

3:53 PM, February 12, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

gaylourdes, whenever Brandon and I wrangle up the money to buy a house - and first, of course, decide which city to do that in - I will remember your dad's idea. I love the thought of cabinet doors lined with little hooks! So smart.

Rai, I'm hopping over right now to check out this soup swap of yours...

And veggie paparazzo, I'm so glad you liked the soup! I saw your photo, and it looked beautiful - much prettier and more orangey than mine. I do wonder if a potato masher isn't the key. I have since found ours - Brandon had taken it to a ceramics class - so I might just have to try it again and see.

5:40 PM, February 12, 2007  
Blogger Bekah said...

Mmmmm...lovely photos!

And, I really can't wait to check out World Spice I have heard such great things...


8:23 PM, February 12, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hiya ... just reporting back. Yum, yum. And the man and I have been enjoying it nearly every meal since (slurped up the last of it for lunch today) and, like lots of things, it got better every time.

2:43 PM, February 13, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Bekah, World Spice is wonderful - and it smells wonderful too. Hurry up!

So glad you liked it, dear Lisa! I would hate to ever let you down...

7:12 PM, February 13, 2007  
Blogger Christina said...

Try ajiaco if you like potato soups. It's the national dish of Colombia. It's like chicken soup, in that it comes in many forms. My recipe, you cook a chicken (with a bay leaf, a lttle salt & pepper, and a little onion,) and set it aside to cool. Skim the broth, and cook poataoes in it, along with guascas if you can get it, and cilantro if you can't. Take about half the potatoes and blend them. Add broth until you like the texture. Add the chicken meat, corn, onions, salt, pepper, maybe a little more cilantro or guascas, and the bay leaf from earlier, and then cook until the onion is tender. Throw the rest of the potatoes back in.

Serve with heavy cream, sliced avocado, and capers. Pour in the cream until the stew is more soup-like. The potato stew, avocado, and cream all have a rich, smooth flavor, and the capers adds a sharp counterpoint.


4:01 PM, February 15, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Wow, Christina, that sounds SO good. Thank you for sharing your formula! I love the thought of the chicken and corn in there. One question, though: what is guascas? Is it an herb? Help!

9:52 AM, February 16, 2007  
Blogger Christina said...

I usually substitute cilantro for the guascas, because it is a major pain to get in the states.
The above link describes guascas, and has a recipe similar to mine. (It's like chicken soup, no two are exactly the same.) I get my guascas when Dad goes back to Latin America for a trip. ;>

Hmmm... And I didn't mention before, but traditional ajiaco has as many kinds of potatos as you can get. In the Andes, 8-10 varieties are easy to come by. I must warn you, though, that purple potatoes will turn your ajiaco an odd grey color. It still tastes dandy, but the color is ... interesting.

10:58 AM, February 17, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks for the explanation of guascas, Christina, and for the additional information on ajiaco. I'm fascinated by all these variations on a simple potato-based soup...

12:39 PM, February 17, 2007  
Blogger Christina said...

The Latin American variations are particularly interesting to me. That's where potatoes started, and for some reason they just have the best variations on the theme. ;> Not bland. Smooth and rich and flavourful instead of stodgy and boring.

5:04 PM, February 17, 2007  
Anonymous Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

I've made this soup and loved it . . . but now I've been diagnosed with a dairy allergy (along with wheat, soy, and others). Any suggestions for a substitution for the whole milk?

10:05 AM, September 01, 2007  
Blogger Molly said...

My apologies for taking so long to reply to your question, Sally! But I've been thinking about it, and you know, I just don't know that there's a good way to make this soup dairy-free. Its flavor and texture are so dependent on both the milk and the cheese - I'm afraid it's not worth the trouble to try to get around them. If you do find a way, though, please let me know! I'd love to hear...

3:55 PM, September 07, 2007  
Blogger Melissa said...

In rifling around the internet looking for an interesting soup to make with my turkey leftovers, I came across this post. I remember seeing the recipe when it came out in Gourmet, but my family is from Ecuador and I grew up eating and making locro at least every other week in the winter. Some notes from our house...You can heat the oil and achiote in the microwave for a couple of minutes on med-low (I use a Pyrex measuring cup so I can judge the color and pour it straight through the strainer into the pot). And I have successfully used skim milk and whatever random bits of cheese are in the fridge. I just cook the soup down until the potatoes fall apart, but with some chunks left. Mashing a little with the wooden spoon is as far as I go. Also, it's traditionally served with rice cakes--just leftover cold rice mixed with beaten egg, salt & pepper, and pan fried (like fritters). One more really nice addition is some quick pickled red onions. Slice a red onion thinly, and stir in the juice of a lemon and a bit of water. Cover and microwave for about a minute. Chill until ready to serve. We ladle up the soup, and everyone helps themselves to the condiments: avocados, rice cakes and onions.

It's also nice to use chicken broth (preferably from a chicken roasted with plenty of cumin), leave the soup a little brothy and chunky, and add some toasted tiny bowtie pasta near the end.

Everyone eats this soup--from my narrow-minded grandfather who believed potatoes came from Ireland, not South America, to picky children who usually subsist on chicken nuggets and the occasional grape. Glad you tried it!

2:49 PM, December 01, 2011  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

Molly! I love your blog and have been reading through the archives because I only discovered it a few years ago. I am so happy to see this recipe! I was an exchange student to Ecuador when I was in high school (many, many years ago...ahem...), and Locro was one of my favorite foods there. I have not eaten it for 23 years! I will very happily try out this recipe soon. Thank you!

2:21 PM, June 24, 2015  

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