Reliably Perfect Beans

                             Dried Beans Are Best When Brined

Brining Beans For Tenderness

Autumn’s fog, wind and rain makes hearty soups especially appealing. The soup pot is almost always on the stove these days; right now, dried beans shelled by my grandkids (they love hands-on tasks like this) are simmering away. Later, the tender beans will be added to sauteed vegetables, chopped apple, and turkey stock with a piece of Parmesan cheese rind to make a hearty minestrone. I enjoy trying out new ideas and experimenting with old favorites, but I can’t seem to make a SMALL pot of soup to save my life. Thus, I feel blessed to live in a community where soup sharing is part of the culture. If anyone is known to be feeling under the weather, soups will appear on stoops and porches. It’s culturally correct to offer soup in glass jars or yogurt tubs or anything that doesn’t need to be returned, so the recipient can simply enjoy the gift with no strings.

This year, my small garden produced surprisingly generous crops of green beans as well as golden wax beans. I also harvested lots of lovely soup beans, which cook up buttery and tender without broken skins. Store-bought beans may have been in storage for a long time, and such beans don’t always cook properly. It’s frustrating to go through the bother of soaking and simmering only to end up with mealy or tough-skinned results. I love beans and was delighted to find the solution to bean problems in Harold McGee’s fascinating kitchen classic, On Food And Cooking; the science and lore of the kitchen. If you aren’t familiar this book, see if your local library can lend you a copy. (Ask them to buy this book if they don’t have it, as it’s a must for curious cooks.) In a lengthy article on the ways beans are used in various cultures, McGee lists many reasons for them to turn out tough, hard, or mushy. He suggests that brining-soaking them in salted water-before cooking can help. It also reduces the oligosaccharides that cause uncomfortable intestinal gas in some people, so it’s a very helpful technique.

A Salty Soaking

To ensure tender, easily digestible beans, soak dry beans in salted water over night, then soak again in plain water and rinse them well before cooking them in plain (unsalted) water. Dried beans will absorb about half the water they are going to in a couple of hours, but need a slow 10-12 hour soaking to fully hydrate. One they’ve had their overnight bath and rinse cycle, they cook up quickly and are perfectly tender, with whole skins and a pleasing texture. In fact, if you use a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, brined beans can cook up in as little as 10 minutes.

The rule of thumb is to add 2-3 tablespoons of kosher salt to a gallon of soaking water. Stir in the salt until fully dissolved, then add the dry beans and let them sit overnight. The next day, turn them out in a colander, rinse them, then soak them briefly (3-5 minutes) in cold water, and rinse again. Since excess cooking liquid leaches out bean flavor, just put them in a pot with water to cover by about an inch. Bring to a low boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender. Depending on how dry (or large) the beans were, this could be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

Flavor Infusions

Adding salt at this point will help bring out the bean’s flavor without causing toughness. However, I find beans taste better when I add some shoyu or soy sauce instead, especially if I store beans in the fridge for a day or two, since the flavors will meld intriguingly. For a less-salty but still luscious flavor, try adding coconut aminos instead. This yummy stuff is something like Bragg’s, but is soy free and according to the label, it contains 65% less sodium than soy sauce. I use a kind called Coconut Secret Raw Coconut Aminos which lists as ingredients only organic coconut sap and sea salt but has a magical, complex flavor that my whole household is crazy about. It’s stupendous on steamed cauliflower or roasted turnips or in salad dressings or pretty much anything you can think of.

You can also build bean flavor by adding chopped shallots, garlic, or onions at the very end of the cooking time, along with fresh or dried herbs. I like to add thyme to red beans, rosemary to white beans, and oregano to pinto beans, while summer savory (Satureja hortensis) is a classic herb for fresh or dried beans. Savory is easy to grow and fresh or dried, it tastes a bit like a blend of thyme, parsley, oregano and basil and is often used in Herbs de Provence blends. You can also borrow a tip from French cooks and drizzle cooked beans or bean soups with a little lemon- or garlic-infused olive oil and some finely chopped apple. Other delicious bean garnishes include garlic croutons, fresh cilantro and soft goat cheese or skinny ribbons of fresh basil and chopped cherry tomatoes in summer or roasted pumpkin seeds tossed with curry or chili powder.

A Hearty Italian Bean Soup

Make this flavorful white bean soup as chunky or smooth as you prefer by using an immersion blender, which can puree most soups without any need to add thickening agents. It’s far easier to clean than a blender or food processor, but be sure to keep the blade under the soup’s surface or you’ll have splatters everywhere!

Italian Cannellini Bean Soup With Garlic Croutons

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 shallots or garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
2 cups cauliflower florets
3 cups cooked Cannellini beans (or any) with cooking liquid
1-2 tablespoons garlic-infused olive oil
1/2 cup garlic croutons (see below)

In a soup pot, heat oil, onion and salt over medium high heat and cook for 2 minutes. Add garlic and rosemary and cook to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add potatoes, carrots, and cauliflower, reduce heat to low, cover pan and cook for 5 minutes to sweat vegetables. Add water to cover vegetables by half an inch, cover pan and cook until vegetables are tender (10-15 minutes) Stir in beans and their liquid, bring to a simmer and simmer for 15-20 minutes to meld. Puree to desired consistency with an immersion blender or use a potato masher. Serve hot, garnished with garlic-infused oil and croutons. Serves 4-6.

Crunchiest Croutons

Who doesn’t love the crunch and savor of herb and garlic flavored croutons? Homemade croutons are a snap to make and taste much better than store bought ones (which are apt to be a bit stale, if not rancid). I often make a batch when the oven is in use; any bread ends or rolls will make good croutons, and if you don’t care for rosemary, just leave it out….

Crunchy Garlic Croutons

2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
2-3 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon rosemary, minced (optional)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups cubed day-old (or older) bread

Pour oil into a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with garlic, rosemary (if using) and sea salt. Gently toss the bread cubes and any crumbs in the oil with your hands to coat fairly evenly. Bake at 225 degrees F for an hour, at 350 for 15-20 minutes, or at 400 for 8-10 minutes or to desired crispness. Store in a tightly sealed container (preferably glass) for up to a week. Makes about 2 cups.

Posted in fall/winter crops, Gardening With Children, Hardy Herbs, Nutrition, Recipes, Vegan Recipes | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Habits And Highlights

A pandemic quilt in progress

Potato Leek Soup, With Gratitude

As a child, I always enjoyed the way that autumn and early winter seasons are spangled with holidays that brighten the darkening days and lengthening nights. However, as I’ve been reading historical accounts and memoirs lately to balance the dailiness of the news, I’m struck by how little revelry there really was between the ancient Saturnalia kinds of festivities and the excesses of the Victorian/Dickensian era. It sounds like those ancient revels were more about drinking, story telling, and singing in the dark, cold night than about feasting, especially when harvests were scanty. If the Elizabethan holiday “groaning board” celebrated excess for the favored few, the vast majority of humanity had little to spare on frivolous festivities. Eventually the slow rise of the middle class brought relative prosperity to more people, but inequity has always made holidays very different affairs for the haves and have nots, as we certainly see today.

This year, between the pandemic shut downs, layoffs, business closures and the evaporation of stimulus and relief programs, millions, even billions of people are seeking new ways to hold holidays. My observant Jewish friends are quick to point out the practical ways they’ve found to celebrate holy and happy holidays despite increasing restrictions on gathering. Millions of people observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September, taking two days for reflection and repentance, and Sukkot, the harvest thanksgiving, in October, using all sorts of platforms to share time, thoughts, music, games and activities while physically distanced. Hopefully that clear example leads more of us to try new ways to come together in spirit if not physically.

Thanksgiving And Thoughtfulness

As the holiday season arrives, I’m thinking hard about what really counts as celebration. Since we can’t come together in person, does the value lie in listening to beloved voices, seeing dear faces, hearing stories, catching up? For a lot of people, Thanksgiving is all about food; Mom’s stuffing, Dad’s gravy, Grandma’s pie. I get that, but personally, I’m far more in the mood for a national day of atonement and repentance than for a day of indulgent over-eating (maybe because less-than-optimal eating is clearly becoming the new normal for those who can afford it). Last Thursday, as I entered my 70th year, Johns Hopkins University announced 185,759 new infection cases in the United States, our all-time daily high and a low point in my lifetime. If we as a nation will take time for thoughtful reflection THIS Thursday, perhaps we have a chance of changing direction. Perhaps. Small wonder so many of us are feeling vulnerable and so deeply sad.

That said, I’m still finding glimmers of hope every day, largely because I’m making a point of looking for and recording them. Laughing kids zipping by on skateboards. Gorgeous morning clouds tinted miracle-pink. Little birds hopping in the garden. My daily walk yields golden fans from a Gingko, round, smudgy purple leaves from Cotinus x Grace, and spiky-fingered, flame colored sweetgum foliage. On my desk, a small vase holds a sprig of beautyberry, its clustered purple berries firm and bright. There’s also a rosy camellia that usually blooms in April, and a few unseasonal primroses as well as coral-pink River Lilies (Hesperantha-formerly Schizostylis coccinea Oregon Sunset). In my garden, a young Angels’ Fishing Rod (Dierama pulcherrimum) is also budding and blooming out of time, its pale flowers glimmering in the soft grey fog. Across the narrow street, I can smell the sultry sweetness of climbing sweetpeas planted in my neighbor’s deep window boxes, still bravely blooming despite frosty nights and chilly days.

Covid Creativity

We gardeners are fortunate indeed to have an endless source of hope and happiness, but many friends are also using this pandemic down-time to create music and poetry, stories and plays, capturing this unprecedented period of history for the future. Others are making and mending, knitting and sewing, spinning and weaving, sculpting and building. Back in March, Washington State was the epicenter of the virus in America. When the pandemic was first announced, my friend Windy began recording daily events and thoughts on squares of batik fabric, sewing them into strips, then joining them into a quilt top. Recently she shifted from daily squares to weekly ones, as the quilt was getting way too large.

Looking at her quilt, I see dark days and joyful ones, sad days and glad ones, broken days and whole ones. If I can’t truly know the story that’s sewn and drawn and embroidered into this quilt-book, I can still read it, even from here. It’s a story about dealing with what is, about trauma and transformation, about love and loss, about making and mending. I can see that adorable Olive feels right at home in the middle of this story that her human keeps chronicling, and that Olive is definitely one of the bright spots. A dear friend recently told me that the family dog keeps them all sane. Around here, our cats anchor us. Maybe your lifeline is writing, or dreaming, or singing, or cooking. Whether we are grounded by plants or pets or poetry, it’s good practice to honor that role with gratitude.

Thankful Alphabet Soup

When my grandkids spent the night (remember those far-off days?) after a bedtime story and a song, we’d snuggle up by candlelight and play the Alphabet Gratitude game. There are lots of ways to do it; picking topics like people or birds, songs or books, flowers or food and listing our favorites letter by letter; seeing who can come up with the most favorites per letter; taking turns with each letter; starting with A, starting with Z…. I practice this game at bedtime myself quite often, starting anywhere and letting the gratitudes stream out, one leading to another and another and another.

A Lovely Potato Leek Soup

While tidying up in the little back garden, I turned up a hill of overlooked potatoes. I picked a handful of kale, several leeks, and some garlic greens and made this simple, satisfying soup, just right for a blustery, drizzly day like this one. Making a self-broth of water keeps this soup very light and fresh tasting, while broth makes it richer. If you like, add a splash of fresh lemon juice and a few chopped walnuts for extra zip.

Vegan Potato Leek Soup

2 tablespoons avocado or olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 leeks, sliced (white and palest green parts only)
1/2-+ teaspoon basil salt or sea salt
few grinds pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons stemmed rosemary, chopped
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme
2 cups shredded kale
4 medium golden potatoes, sliced
1 quart broth or water
1/4 cup chopped garlic greens

In a soup pot, combine oil, garlic, leeks, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme over medium heat and cook to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add kale and potatoes and stir to coat. Add water or broth to cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer until very tender. Puree with an immersion blender, adjust seasoning and serve, garnished with garlic greens. Serves 2-3.



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Having A Pandemic Holiday

A Candle For Hope And Renewal

Sharing Gratitude and Hope

As winter approaches, millions of people are rethinking their usual holiday habits. With the pandemic picking up speed, with thousands of new cases announced daily, November is shaping to be the worst month yet. Worst of all, small indoor gatherings are being called out as major sources of infection. Just writing that makes me so sad; even my weekly gardening group, the intrepid Friday Tidies, has been told to step down for the duration. After some 22 years with very few missed weeks, we probably won’t stop gardening, but we will sadly work alone and forgo our usual masked and distanced check-ins.

This weekend, Washington State’s Governor Inslee called for a four week moratorium on gatherings, including meeting with extended family in our own homes. I doubt that many people were surprised, and indeed, most people I know had already made the decision not to celebrate winter holidays in person with family and friends. After a sunny summer when outdoor meetings felt safe, our little family bubbles are drawing in closer again. Like so many other folks, I’m talking with family about ways to stay connected while staying safely apart. Several friends have been meeting virtually for months now, whether weekly for lunch or even nightly for cocktails. I deeply enjoy Saturday morning tea with my ASOBI sisters (ASOBI stands for Aging Solo On Bainbridge Island. We talked about letting guys in but decided that they should start their own group and call it ADOBI for Aging Dudes…).

Holiday Table For One?

Over the years, I’ve spent quite a number of holidays alone, sometimes sadly, sometimes happily, sometimes with quiet relief. These days, my daughter and I are often the only ones at the holiday table, and we are both quite contented with our extremely low key revels. As I’ve aged, many of the lively traditions that felt wonderful to my younger self have been replaced by more contemplative practices. When scattered family made for ever-smaller gatherings, I found places to serve holiday meals to homeless folks instead. When decorating the house started to feel like a chore, my daughter and I chose our favorite items, offered boxes of holiday decor to family, and donated the rest to a local charitable thrift shop. I still enjoy making seasonal wreaths with garden gleanings, delighting in the brisk scents of pine and fir, rosemary and oregano. Some I share, while others remain outdoors as garden decorations, held together with clumps of moss instead of wire so they can be tossed into the compost or allowed to molder in place to nourish the garden soil.

Even when alone, I liked to observe at least a few of the traditional markers of the holidays. At my table for one, I’d set an empty chair for whatever unexpected guest might come along. Some families similarly reserve a chair at celebrations to honor those who have died, someone who might be estranged, or travelers who are far from home and family. I often set an extra plate as well, with a big beeswax candle on it. My daughter and I still do that now, and that flickering flame reminds us silently of our dear ones, distant or departed.

But What About Food?

For many (perhaps most) of us, holiday traditions center around beloved foods as much as specific activities. That concept can certainly stand to be re-examined in light of our current situation. If our gatherings are reduced to a handful or even fewer, cooking a huge turkey and masses of side dishes seems both daunting and a bit silly. What could underline the paucity of the guest list more than an over-abundance of food, especially when we know that so many families are struggling as jobs are limited or vanishing? It seems only sensible to consider serving game hens or a plump chicken instead. Even more to the point, it’s a good time to focus on having a few favorite dishes instead of the usual things considered obligatory by some traditional standard.

Now I can laugh at the memory of the first Thanksgiving after my husband died on Halloween night, but it sure wasn’t funny then. Still shocked by grief, I wasn’t up for cooking and planned to get a lovely meal for my mom from a local restaurant. At the last minute (as in Thursday morning), Mom decided that she NEEDED me to make the whole enormous traditional meal for the two of us plus my daughter. I found a fresh turkey, caramelized onions, made cranberry relish, mashed potatoes, made mushroom and bacon gravy, and steamed broccoli and green beans. I even made a pumpkin pie and whipped some cream. My daughter, who was caring for mom, helped me carry it all into her kitchen and get the table set. We sat down and I served everyone a full plate, at which my mom stared for a minute before saying, “Where’s the stuffing?”. I’m still proud that instead of replying, “Get stuffed,” I merely said, “Mom, want to try that again? And maybe start with ‘thank you’?”

We Gather More Or Less Together

This year, our celebration table will have an empty plate with a candle. When we sit, we’ll extinguish all the lights, have a moment of recollection for all we have lost, then light the candle to remind us of what we still have in abundance and what will remain when we ourselves are gone. For me, thanksgiving is really about sharing gratitude and celebrating belonging–to family, community, or the fellowship of humanity. I’m deeply grateful and relieved beyond measure to be able to look forward to a new team in the White House and a healthy, wholesome new direction for America. I’m grateful that I can talk to family and friends on the phone or make a zoom call and see their faces and hear beloved voices. I’m grateful for our modest home in a comfortable, accepting neighborhood. I’m even grateful to my mom for the many-layered stories she engendered and the deep lessons I learned. Onward, right?

Here are some scaled-down versions of recipes that were voted in this year, including my own favorite combination of roasted vegetables, a spritely salad, and an old fashioned, not-too-sweet pumpkin pie.

Roasted Cauliflower, Sweet Potato, & Cranberries

2 cups cauliflower florets
1 small sweet potato, peeled and sliced (1/4 inch)
1 tablespoon avocado or high temperature oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup raw cranberries, washed and picked over

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss vegetables with oil and spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and roast for 20 minutes. Stir with a spatula, add cranberries and roast until well caramelized (15-20 minutes). Serves 2-3.

Sparkling Winter Salad

1 cup Savoy cabbage, finely chopped
1 cup Napa cabbage, finely shredded
1 cup shaved Florence fennel
1 small satsuma, sectioned
1 cup chopped Opal apple
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds (optional)
2 tablespoons stemmed cilantro
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
1-2 teaspoons fruit vinegar (Plum or nectarine are nice)

Toss all ingredients and serve. Serves 2-3.

Andrew’s Pumpkin Pie

This dairy- and sugar-free version tastes rich and old fashioned, perhaps much like the early Thanksgiving pies made when sugar was scarce.

1/2 cup dark molasses or maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon each cinnamon, coriander and ginger
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups (or a 15-ounce can) cooked pumpkin pulp
1-1/4 cups plain almond, coconut, or hazelnut milk
1 unbaked crust

In a large bowl, combine all but crust and blend well. Spoon into unbaked crust and bake at 425 degrees F. for 15 minutes, reduce heat to 350 and bake until set (40-50 minutes). Let stand for an hour or more before serving. Serves at least one.


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Lessons From The Compost Heap

Bidens still going strong after our first frost

Time For Real Change

As the dust settles after the most explosive, contentious election of my lifetime, I find myself slowly unwinding, releasing tensions I wasn’t even aware of. After four years of fear and fury, anxiety and outrage, many of us have been tied up in knots so long that it may take a while for us to unfurl. I’m balancing daily meditations with stretching sessions that open up shoulders and chest, starting with gentle arm rotations and ending in the ancient posture of supplication called “orante.” Done sitting or standing, this involves tilting the head back and looking upward while reaching up with both arms outstretched, hands open and fingers spread to the sky. Once there, we can sway gently back and forth (listening to Grateful Dead tunes helps), opening the back and spine. Ahhhh. Letting go of the accumulated tension is a great start as we take a little time to relax, refresh and renew ourselves for the work ahead.

There is definitely work ahead and it’s not going to be easy or quickly done. For some 75 million Americans, the election outcome feels like a huge but costly victory; while it’s a tremendous relief to be poised to begin repairs for all the damage of the past four years, it is also horrifying to realize that at least 70 million of our family, friends and neighbors wanted another four years of the current regime. About 239 million Americans were eligible to vote this year, and about 160 million people did, which means around 79 million didn’t. By that reckoning, there are around 154 million of us who are not happy, or feeling disenfranchised or unrepresented, or perhaps not interested in participating in democracy. To me, that suggests that American is way overdue for an overhaul. We need not just to rebuild but to build anew, to make a new and very different country for ourselves, one where we all feel safe, welcome, and able to make a good life for ourselves and our families.

A Revolution Of Kindness

Getting to there from here looks like a high mountain to climb, but yesterday a friend made me think about the path in a new way. When I wondered how we would ever reach reconciliation, he pointed out that if each of us befriended one or two people with very different views from ours, we could help change their world and our own. That’s not just happy talk; there is solid research to prove that kindness can change minds and hearts and make friends out of enemies. Bill pints out that there’s little sense in seeking out a violent skinhead to woo, but plenty of opportunity to learn more about a co-worker or a neighbor. Getting to know one or two people isn’t that daunting a challenge; the current issue of YES Magazine offers a clever comic/primer showing how kindness can create positive, lasting change for you and the recipient:

Some Kind of Wonderful

Transformational Change

I am convinced transformational change is possible after reading Rising Out Of Hatred: The Awakening Of A Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow. It’s the story of Derek Black, godson of David Duke and heir apparent to the nation’s largest white nationalist movement. When Black began classes at New College of Florida, his roommates engaged him socially and intellectually despite (or perhaps because of) having widely different world-views. To his own astonishment (and the horror of his family), within two years Black had a total change of mind. In a New York Times Op/Ed he wrote: “Several years ago, I began attending a liberal college where my presence prompted huge controversy. Through many talks with devoted and diverse people there — people who chose to invite me into their dorms and conversations rather than ostracize me — I began to realize the damage I had done. Ever since, I have been trying to make up for it.”

How could that even happen? “His transformation is so huge: to go from being the future heir to this movement to now being a rising anti-racist activist,” Saslow said. “Doing that in short form, it almost stretches believability. It’s hard…to do real justice to that transformation.” For me, that magnitude of change reminds me of what happens when we put the last of the slumping pumpkins, garden detritus, food scraps and slimy fallen leaves into the compost tumbler and give it a whirl. The first turn doesn’t do much, but over time-turn, turn, turn-everything gets mixed up. The heat of dissolution and the addition of fresh air turns sullen clumps of rotting glop into sweet smelling, fluffy compost. The rejected, festering materials are now rich in nutrients and ready to nurture plants and soil.

Transforming Pumpkins

The last of the jack-o-lanterns are on their way to becoming compost, but we still have a few baby sugar pumpkins left over. Baked or roasted, each yields about 2 cups of cooked pulp and despite the many savory meals to make with pumpkin mash, right now we all seem to be wanting soothing sweetness. Pumpkin bread was a family favorite for years, but when I started experimenting with pumpkin muffins, allegiance shifted definitively. The recipe I now use was developed when I ran out of All Purpose flour; fortunately, whole wheat pastry flour turned out to be a winner. With less gluten than AP flour, pastry flour creates a tender crumb and adds to the rich flavor of these intriguingly spicy treats, which is delicious when the muffins are warm and even better the next day. The whole neighborhood loves these muffins so they go like the wind, but they will keep and freeze very well.

Practically Perfect Pumpkin Muffins

1 cup cooked pumpkin pulp
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, cardamom,
coriander and ginger
2 large eggs
1/2 cup avocado oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1-2/3 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or AP)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (or chopped nuts)

Preheat oven to bake 350 degrees F and line a muffin pan with papers. In a bowl, stir together the pumpkin, brown sugar, maple syrup, eggs, oil, and buttermilk, set aside. Sift dry ingredients together and stir quickly into the pumpkin mixture. Stir in chocolate chips and pumpkin seeds and spoon into muffin cups, filling them 2/3 full. Bake until set and golden (about 20-25 minutes). Makes 12 standard muffins.

Trumpkin with a black eye

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