Green, Green, Green

March 23, 2013


On our third day of our trip, we bid good bye to the busy port city of Ensenada and headed south.  Noisy traffic gave way to the wide open road.  For the most part Highway 1 was in good condition, in places even with nice wide shoulders. Going through small towns, we expanded our vocabulary to include those words we saw over and over:

Topes – speed bumps leading into every small town forcing you to slow down. This is why you should double the amount of driving time for any distance from what you would calculate in the states.

 Yonke – finally figured out this meant “junk yard”

telesecundaria – rural elementary school in every town where kids are taught classes via satellite.

vado – dip in the road

curva peligrosa – dangerous curve

Shortly after leaving Ensenada we entered the lush Santo Tomas valley, Baja California Norte’s agricultural heart and home to the oldest winery in Baja California.  You don’t think of “green” when you think of Baja, but it was incredibly green, maybe because it’s the end of the rainy season, or maybe because of the crops grown there.  We will see when we return in May.

After a comfortable and easy 3 hour drive or so, we drove through the small towns of San Quintin and Lazaro Cardenas, turned down a dirt road heading towards the Bay of San Quintin and found the beautiful oasis of Jardines Baja.  Photos do not do this lovely hotel justice.  We also had a delicious dinner at the hotel restaurant next door.  John had fettucine with shrimp and poblano peppers in a chardonnay sauce and I had sea bass stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and sauced with a white-win shrimp sauce.  Yumm.  So good, I forgot to take pictures! shame on me.Image




What a difference a day makes! – mexican shrimp cocktail recipe

March 22, 2013



What a difference a day makes!  Tuesday, when we arrived, Ensenada was serene and quiet.  Wednesday is cruise ship day.  We strolled down to the malecon and saw the Carnival cruise ship docked in port.  Plenty of families with young children in town for the day.  Many of the restaurants, which were closed the previous day, were now open and crowded.  Loud music blared from Papas and Beer and we saw our share of drunk spring breakers spill out onto the sidewalk.  We fled the crowds for the fish market, which was lined with modest seafood restaurants, the birthplace of the famous Baja fish taco.  We settled on Gordos, right on the water.  We asked the waiter if we could sit upstairs on the outside deck for a better view and he obliged. Poor guy, we didn’t realize that the Ensenada seafood dining tradition is to line the table with at least a dozen containers of salsa and several more with condiments.  The upstairs tables were not set and he ran up and down the stairs with bottle after bottle, jar after jar, dish after dish to ensure that we were not for want of salsa.ImageImage

John ordered a whole fried fish – excellent choice.


I had fish tacos and a shrimp cocktail.  The shrimp cocktail tasted as I remembered, except that the goblet was so huge the shrimp were swimming in the sauce.  There was plenty of shrimp -no complaints there, but I wish they had added some cucumber and avocado to make it more chunky.  Here’s my recipe for Mexican Shrimp Cocktail:

24 oz Clamato (tomato-clam cocktail)
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup freshly-squeezed orange juice
juice of one lime
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
Tabasco sauce to taste
1/2 cup peeled sweet onion (Walla Walla, Texas sweet, etc), chopped1 pound arge shrimp, peeled, deveined

2 avocados, pitted, peeled and diced
2 cucumbers, seeded and diced
limes, quartered

Combine clamato, ketchup, orange and lime juices, cilantro, onion and tabasco. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour, up to 2 hours.
Heat a pot of water to boiling.  Place shrimp in a steamer basket and steam covered just until shrimp turn pink (only 2-3 minutes).  Immediately plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking.  Cover and refrigerate at least 1/2 hour, up to 2 hours.
Gently combine cooled shrimp, avocado and cucumber.  Add enough sauce to cover the shrimp mixture but don’t make it soupy.  Serve with limes.  Buen provecho!

After lunch we strolled through the market and I was in heaven!  The fish!  The fresh seafood!  The prices.  The prices are in pesos 12 pesos to 1 U.S. dollar.  Weights are in kilos 1 kilo = 2.2 pounds.  Do the math.


Sigh, if only I had access to a kitchen.  I’ll have to wait till we get to La Paz.  Tomorrow, through the San Tomas Valley and on to the Bay of San Quintin!

The Mexican adventure begins!

March 20, 2013

Squirrel Mama is back!  About a year ago, John had been retired for about six months. We started discussing returning to my ex pat roots and living abroad.  We thought it’d be fun to live a couple of months in a country and then try another one, seeing if we’d like to settle elsewhere or just be global Bedouins.  The dream became a doable plan when I modified my work so I can work from anywhere there is a good internet connection.  I plan to continue working part time, while exploring other countries.

A friend suggested international house sitting, and we signed up for several international house-sitting sites.  One of the first replies we received was from a documentary film maker with a home in El Centenario, a sleepy town just outside of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. 

The El Centenario house-sit didn’t work out for this Spring (though we have a potential to house sit there late this year) but it sparked our interest in Mexico as the first country to exploreImage.  John had worked in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico for 10 months in 2008.  Most of you probably know that Ciudad Juarez has the highest murder rate in Mexico, and in much of the world, due to the narco wars.  Although he survived his experience physically unscathed (although he was “patient zero” for the H1N1 virus) he was not keen on returning to Mexico.  It has taken about four months to convince him that this was a trip worth taking.  First it was “I’m never going to Mexico.”  Then it was “I’m never driving to Mexico.”  Now it’s “Okay with Baja, but not going the mainland.”  We shall see! 

As for me, I’ve driven down to Baja (from Seattle!) many times in the 1980’s.  I’ve driven all the way down the Peninsula to Cabo San Lucas with friends (again in the 1980’s) and have fond memories of the road trip.  So this was a chance to relive my law school days when I was first introduced to Mexico by my friend Sandra, whose family lived in Ensenada.

We found short-term renters for our house in San Pedro for considerably more rent than we will pay to rent in La Paz.   Although we have nothing booked in La Paz until the end of the month, our renters needed to move in March 19, so our plan was to hit the road for the border March 19 in the a.m. and slowly make our way down to La Paz over the week.

Murphy’s law definitely applies to our travels.  it seems every time we are about to leave on a trip, something happens.  Once a water pipe developed a pinhole leak behind the wall.  Another time, water started leaking under the sink (this is why we always want the house occupied while gone). This time, that nasty “Homeland Security ransomeware virus” overtook my computer yesterday morning.  Fortunately, doing a system restore to March 17 seemed to fix the problem.  But it did set us back a few hours from our planned departure time.

The trip to the border was far less eventful.  We flew down the 73 toll road past San Diego to the border town of San Ysidro, where we filled the gas tank and made a pit stop.  Then it was into the lane of “no return” to the Mexican border.  Easy crossing, we weren’t even stopped by immigration officials, just waved through – John remarked how there were a lot fewer armed soldiers at the border than he used to see in Juarez.  Once crossing the border, however, we realized we were in the wrong line because, unlike those just going in for a few days, we needed to stop at immigration to get our tourist cards and our passports stamped.  We waved an immigration official down, who guided us the wrong way (against incoming traffic) to the customs building, told us to park and escorted us into the building (again against customs traffic) into a tiny office.  The building itself was very new, very shiny and very empty.  There was no line in the immigration office.  The very friendly and helpful immigration official helped us complete the tourist cards (very tiny type, John couldn’t read it – the eyes are the second thing to go), took the entry fee (you used to have to walk to a Bank to pay it) stamped our passports, gave us our half of the tourist  card and we were back on the road.

I had downloaded a map to get us from the border to the toll road, avoiding going into  Tijuana proper.  The first 1/2 mile goes directly along the Mexican side of the ugly border fence US border control has put up.  To the left (Mexico) are ugly concrete buildings with tin roofs, billboards and lots of construction activity.  On the right (U.S.) is a patch of bare land.  In the distance in the hills you can see the large tract homes with their immaculate lawns.  The biggest contrast in economic disparity at any international border, I’m told.

We almost missed the turnoff to the toll road to Ensenada (swerving into the left lane at the last minute).  They accepted U.S. dollars at the toll booths, giving us change in dollars and then we were on our way!  The road was in excellent condition (if narrower than US roads), two lanes each way.  In some parts the median was beautifully landscaped but there was no shoulder to speak of.  You absolutely had to keep your eyes on the road (and away from the gorgeous scenery unfolding) to avoid going off the six-inch edge and overturning the car.

Once on the highway, the ugly buildings disappeared and the landscape unfolded with one gated community, highrise or beach resort after another.  This area really didn’t look much different from southern California. Between communities we would see one beautiful ocean vista after another.

We rolled into Ensenada about 1 1/2 hours after crossing the border.  It was cloudy and cool (temps in the 60’s).  We checked into the the Best Western El Cid for $67/night (taxes inc).  It’s an older very Mexican looking hotel.  rustic and charming with lots of tile, dark wood, wrought iron, stained glass, molded stucco and Mexican artesenal artwork throughout the rooms.  The walls are VERY thin, though.  Our neighbors were having sex last night and I could have sworn then were right in our room. The ones upstairs sounded like they were playing basketball in their room.

The city itself has cleaned up tremendously from my college days.  The main drag is spotless and the cobblestoned sidewalksImage gleam.  Being a Tuesday, with no cruise ship in town, it was very quiet.  I could see a lot of empty store fronts and can see how the economy is hurting, not only from the worldwide downturn but also tourists scared over media reports of narco-violence.  But somethings never changed. It’s always been my tradition to hit Cantina Hussongs, a western-looking dive bar that has been in Ensenada since 1892.  Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen have all hung out there.  We walked it and it looked the same.  We were hungry though, and told the waiter we’d be back.  The taco stand next door was still there, with same menu and we had $1.35 tacos washed down with dark beer and agua de jamaica (hibiscus punch).  Returning to Hussongs (the only visible face lift was the clean bathrooms with self-flushing toilets and no smoking indoors).  Four beers and two tequilas later (and $12 poorer), we concluded day 1 of our Mexican adventure.

Homemade Greek Yogurt

July 20, 2012

After much too long an absence, Squirrel Mama is back with new recipes to share.  I’ve been cooking with my next-door neighbor Alexandra, and she mentioned a friend makes home-made yogurt and it’s easy.  So after some research, I embarked on the journey myself and she’s right, it’s really easy.  The yogurt pictured below was my second attempt.  My first attempt came out perfect except a day later, Johnny said the yogurt was a bit watery.  So the second time around, I folded the straining cloths over the yogurt and placed a bag of dry beans on top.  I over strained it and came up with yogurt cheese (labneh) instead.  It was still delicious, I used it as a substitute for cream cheese in a smoked salmon spread (recipe later).  But to thin it back to Greek Yogurt consistency, I simply added back some of the whey, used my Cuisinart immersion blender to blend everything back together and voila Greek yogurt again.



½ gallon pasteurized (not ultra pasteurized) milk (can be homogenized) (I used 1 percent low-fat milk)

½ cup yogurt with live cultures (I used Fage 2 percent reduced-fat Greek yogurt)

IMPORTANT: use an accurate thermometer that can read temperatures between 110 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pour milk into a slow cooker (“Crockpot”) set on the high setting and cover and heat to 180 degrees.  In my cooker, it took about 2 hours, I started checking after 1 ½ hours.  When the milk reaches 180 degrees.  Turn the cooker off, unplug it and uncover the pot.  Let milk cool to 110 degrees (plus or minus 5 degrees is OK but do not go higher or you will kill the yogurt cultures, or lower in which you will inhibit coagulation).  In my cooker, this took about an hour.

When the milk reaches 110 degrees, put the ½ cup yogurt (“starter”) into a small bowl and ladle in about 1 cup of milk. Whisk well and return the yogurt-milk mixture to the warm milk .  Whisk well again and cover the pot.  Wrap the pot in two thick bath towels and leave on the counter top for 6-7 hours.

Unwrap the towels and set them aside.  Lift the lid and you should have yogurt.  Stir it well. Set aside ½ cup of the yogurt in a small clean covered container to use as a “starter” for your next batch.  Line a colander set in a bowl (or if you have a metal steamer bowl insert that fits over a pot you can use that) with a two clean pillow cases or six-eight layers of cheese cloth.  Ladle the yogurt into the cloth lined colander/steamer insert.  Cover it and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning you will have thick Greek-style yogurt in the colander.  Spoon it into clean containers.  It will keep for ten days or ore.  Drain off any liquid (whey) that may collect from resting, or you can mix it back in.  You can wash the straining cloths in mild detergent and reuse them.  Do not use any fabric softener when you wash or dry them.

The whey (liquid) that collects under the colander is high in protein can be added to smoothies, used to make bread or you can drink it flavored with spices. I made a wonderful multigrain bread with it and the recipe will appear in a couple of days. You can also feed the whey to your dog (they are supposed to love it).

½ gallon of milk makes about 1 quart of Greek yogurt, so it gets reduced to about on half its original volume.  YES IT’S THAT EASY TO MAKE, and a lot cheaper than Greek yogurt from the store.  You can even make it with organic milk and it will still be cheaper than non-organic Greek yogurt.  For those interested in food safety and troubleshooting here’s an excellent link.

© Lisa L. Pan, all rights reserved.


Sloppy Junzos

August 4, 2010

This is an Asian variation of Sloppy Joes.  I named is “Sloppy Junzos” after the husband of my friend Masaye Okano.

  • 1 bunch green onions, roots removed and chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 small green pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1/2 cup teriyaki sauce
  • ¼ cup sherry
  • 1 ½ cups water
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 pound cleaned baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • Six hamburger buns (preferably King’s Hawaiian bread)
  • Sesame seeds


Heat 1 tsp canola oil in a wok or sauté pan over medium high heat.  Add white part of green onions, carrot and green pepper and sauté until vegetables are soft.  Add ground pork, garlic and ginger and keep stirring until pork loses its pink color.  Blend teriyaki sauce, sherry, water and cornstarch, and chopped green onions (green part) until cornstarch is dissolved.  Add liquid to the pan and keep stirring until thickened.  Add sesame oil.  Scoop mixture into a bowl and keep warm.  Wipe the pan clean, heat up the canola oil over high heat and stir fry the spinach until just wilted.

Top bottom of each bun half with 1/6 of the sautéed spinach and then the pork mixture.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds and top with the other bun half.  Serve immediately.  Makes 6 servings.

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Shrimp stuffed artichoke

August 4, 2010

Okay, so I cheated and used pre-made shrimp salad from Costco.  A very easy dinner for a warm summer night.

  • 4 large fresh artichokes
  • 1 large lemon or two small lemons
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 pound pre made shrimp salad
  • 1 roma tomato, cored and diced
  • 4 oz prewashed mixed salad greens
  • Olives and ground paprika for garnish


Cut the stem end of the artichokes so they will sit flat.  Turn each artichoke on its side and cut off ½ inch of the top parallel to the cut on the bottom.  Using kitchen scissors, snip of the sharp tips of the remaining leaves.  Put the artichokes top side down in a pot just wide enough to accommodate them wedged together to prevent them from floating freely in the water.  Cover artichokes with water.  Cut the large lemon in half (or one small lemon ) squeeze the juice from one half of the large lemon or from both halves of the small lemon into the water and toss in the rind.  Bring the artichokes to boil and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until you can pierce the bottoms with a knife but they are still firm.  Remove artichokes from the water and drain them upside down on a rack.  When drained put them in a covered dish and refrigerate them till dinner time.

Squeeze juice from remaining lemon and combine well with garlic, Dijon mustard and olive oil.  Dice tomatoes.

At dinner time, gently pull the leaves of each artichoke open and and use spoon to scoop out the fuzzy centers and some of the small center leaves, leaving a “bowl”  Drizzle about half of the dressing over the insides of the artichokes and fill with shrimp salad.  Toss the greens with the remaining dressing and tomatoes.  Line 4 dinner plates with the salad mixture, top with a filled artichoke and garnish the shrimp salad with ground paprika and one olive.

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Italian Stuffed Meatloaf

August 4, 2010

A Sicilian dish.

Loaf ingredients

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup Italian bread crumbs (whirl stale Italian bread chunks in a food processor)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp ground pepper
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 green pepper, stemmed and finely chopped
  • 1 hot pepper (jalapeno), stemmed and finely chopped (use vinyl gloves)
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 ½ pounds each ground beef and pork
  • 8 oz tomato sauce


Sauce ingredients

  • ½ cup fresh parsley
  • 1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves (discard stems)
  • ½ cup packed basil leaves (discard stems)
  • 1 tbsp rinsed and drained capers
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 garlic clove peeled
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • Freshly ground pepper

Hard cook 4 of the eggs.  Put them in a small sauce pan in cold water to generously cover.  Bring the water to a rapid boil.  Turn off the water and cover and let sit for 10 minutes.  Drain and let eggs cool.  Cooking eggs this way prevents that dreaded green-gray ring from forming around the eggs. When eggs are cool, peel them and set them aside.

 Combine bread crumbs, salt, pepper, oregano, vegetables, cheese and mix well.  Add meats, two uncooked eggs and tomato sauce and mix well with your hands (For sanitary reasons, I like to use the vinyl gloves I wore stemming the hot pepper, the meat can be rather cold too and the gloves help to keep your hands from going numb.)  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lay a broiler pan on your work surface in profile layout .  cover it with plastic wrap with about 3 inches of extra wrap dangling on the end of the pan closest to you.  Put the meatloaf mixture into the pan and pat it out to a uniform thickness to conform to the interior coutours of the pan.  You will have a large rectangle.  Lay the 4 hard cooked eggs end to end about 2 inches from the edge closest to you, forming a horizontal row.  Lift up the plastic wrap closest to you to roll the meat up over and enclosing the eggs.  Keep rolling, making sure the plastic wrap does not end up inside the meat, until you have a nice compact log.  Seal the ends and make sure the log is of even thickness.

Using the plastic wrap, lift the log and set it aside on the counter.  Line the broiler pan with foil.  Cover it with the broiler rack, sprayed with non-stick spray.  Put the loaf in the middle of the rack and discard the plastic wrap.

Bake the loaf in a preheated oven for 35-50 minutes or until it is firm.  Let rest 10 minutes.  Whirl the sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor and pour into a serving dish .  Slice the meatloaf crosswise into large “disks.”  With the exception of the end pieces, you will have a “coin” of hard-cooked egg in the center of each slice.  Serve with sauce on the side.

Serves 8

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Grilled Yellowfin Tuna with Avocado Salsa

August 4, 2010

  • 4 yellowfin tuna steaks
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp ground pepper
  • 1 ripe avocado,
  • ¼ cup defrosted corn kernels
  • ½ roma tomato cored, seeded and diced
  • Juice of ½ lemon


Combine oil, mustard, garlic powder and pepper.  Brush mixture on both sides of tuna steaks.

Grill tuna on very high heat until seared on both sides but still rare inside.

While tuna is grilling, Cut avocado in half, remove and discard the pit.  Use a knife to score criss crosses in the flesh and the scoop cubes out with a large spoon.  Combine with remaining ingredients.

Serve steaks topped with the avocado salsa.  I added cheesy polenta and butter peas and garnished the plate with fresh mint from my garden.

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Chicken Breast Prince Orloff

August 4, 2010

I made this for my friend Vladis’s 92nd Birthday.  It’s not diet food but you’re only 92 once!

  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
  • 6 very thin slices of ham
  • 12 oz cheese (I used muenster), half cut into 6 even logs*, about 3 inches long; the other half coarsely grated
  • 2 cups chopped sweet onions
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • Salt and ground pepper to taste
  • 1 cup non fat half and half
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh tarragon
  • Ground paprika


Put each chicken breast half between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet until chicken is an even 1/4” thick.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper on both sides.  Repeat with remaining chicken breast halves. Lay a slice of ham over each chicken breast.  Lay the chicken breast in profile layout.  Put a log of cheese crosswise on the end closest to you and roll the breast over the cheese into a tight log.  Secure with toothpicks.  Repeat with remaining chicken breasts until all chicken, ham and cheese logs are used up.  Lightly spray a baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Put the breast in the baking pan, seam side down, making sure they don’t touch.  Bake chicken breasts in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

 While chicken is baking, chop onions.  Melt butter in a sauce pan and add onions.  Cook over medium heat until onions are translucent.  Add butter and stir for about 1 minute.  Gradually add half and half, whisking constantly.  Boil for 1 minute.  Add grate cheese and continue whisking until cheese is melted.  Add minced tarragon and set sauce aside.

 When chicken is cooked, remove toothpicks. Lay one chicken piece on a plate and stop with sauce.   Sprinkle with paprika and garnish with fresh tarragon sprigs.

Serve with cooked vegetables and starch or your choice.  Makes six servings.

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*For a lighter and different dish, you can substitute 6 hearts of palm, rinsed and drained, for the six cheese logs.

Chicken marsala with quinoa pilaf

August 4, 2010

Quinoa is a whole grain from South America.  It has a slightly nutty, bitter taste.  You can get rid of the bitterness by rinsing it in water and draining it before cooking it.  Costco sells bags of quinoa already rinsed.


  • 1 cup quinoa (rinsed well and drained if not prerinsed)
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tsp butter
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • ¼ cup dried cranberries
  • 2 tbsp toasted pine nuts
  • 2 tbsp snipped chives
  • 8 oz fresh or frozen green beans.



  • 1 oz dried gourmet mushrooms
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • Salt and pepper
  • flour
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • ¼ cup marsala
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • ½ tsp chicken stock base
  • 1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves


Put mushrooms in a large glass measuring cup.  Cover with 1 cup water and microwave for 2 minutes.  Set aside to soften.

Combine quinoa, broth and butter in a sauce pan and bring to boil.  Cover and lower heat to low.  Cook 15 minutes turn off the heat and set aside.

While quinoa is cooking, season chicken thighs and dust with flour.  Heat up 1 tbsp butter in a non-stick sautee pan, when butter is foaming add chicken thighs and brown well on both sides.  Drain the mushrooms, saving the liquid.  Add chicken base to ½ the liquid and add the liquid to the pan.  Turn heat to low and cover the pan and cook for about 10 minutes, or until chicken is no longer pink inside. Remove chicken to a warm plate and set aside.  Turn heat to high.  Add remaining butter and sauté the mushrooms.  Combine marsala with remaining mushroom liquid, cornstarch and rosemary.  When mushrooms start to brown, add the marsala mixture, stir until a thick sauce develops.

Stir cranberries, pine nuts and chives into the quinoa.

Put thighs on serving plates and cover with mushroom mixture.  Serve with quinoa pilaf and steamed green beans.  Makes 4 servings.

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