Let’s hear it for charoset!

Seder plate, photo by Edsel Little via Flickr Creative Commons

Seder plate, photo by Edsel Little via Flickr Creative Commons

Jews all over the world are getting ready for Passover, which starts this year on the evening of April 22.

As an aside, you may wonder why this holiday, which normally starts betwen late March and mid-April, is so late this year. It has to do with the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, with months of 28 or 29 days. This means that every year, the lunar calendar dates are approximately 11 days earlier than they were the year before on the coinciding Gregorian calendar.

Many Jewish festivals, including Passover, are tied to a particular time of year. It wouldn’t do to have Passover fall in February! So to keep the calendar kosher, so to speak, we periodically insert a “leap month” into it. This happens seven times in 19 years. You have to admire the people who figured this out!

This is a leap month. After the month of Adar in February-March, we had “Second Adar.” This pushes the next month, Nisan, back to where it belongs. The earliest date Passover can start is March 25. The latest is April 25.

As we’re cleaning our houses and shopping for Passover food,  we’re also planning our seders, the ceremonial meals that take place on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday.

The centerpiece of the seder table is the seder plate, which holds the ceremonial foods used in the meal: greens, bitter herbs, a roasted egg, a roasted shankbone, salt water and charoset.

European-style charoset, photo via Wikimedia.

European-style charoset, photo via Wikimedia.

What’s charoset?

What is charoset?

First of all it’s pronounced to rhyme with “Pa HOSE sit,” with a guttural “ch” to start.

It’s a paste made of fruit, nuts, spices and wine and is meant to symbolize the mortar that the ancient Hebrews used to hold together the bricks they made as slaves in Egypt. The word may come from the Hebrew “cheres,” meaning clay. The Passover festival celebrates the Hebrews’ freedom from hundreds of years of captivity in Egypt.

You eat charoset with the bitter herbs during the ceremonial part of the seder, and then as a relish for the festive meal that follows.

There are just about as many versions of charoset as there are countries where Jews have lived.

In America, the most common type of charoset uses chopped or grated apples, chopped nuts, sweet wine and maybe a little cinnamon, because those were the ingredients available to our ancestors in Central and Eastern Europe.

Many, many varieties

Jews in other countries used dates and other dried fruits and honey. Some incorporated oranges and bananas. The only constants seem to be some sort of fruit and some sort of nuts. The mixture should be sweet.

For years I made the standard apples-and-nuts mixture.

Then I got a copy of Gloria Kaufer Greene’s fabulous Jewish Holiday Cookbook – not to be confused with Joan Nathan’s equally fabulous Jewish Holiday Kitchen.  Greene offers recipes for Moroccan-Style Charoset, Israeli-Style Charoset, Turkish-Style Charoset, Sephardic-Style Date Charoset, and Yemenite-Style Charoset. I also have in my recipe stash charoset recipes from Persia, Venice and Surinam.

I like the traditional apple-and-nut charoset, but it’s a little boring. And what do you do with the leftovers? It’s not easy to spread on matzoh because the apples make it runny, and it doesn’t keep more than a few days in the fridge.

So I tried this recipe for Moroccan-Style Charoset, which you can serve in a bowl as a paste or make into little balls. It keeps for weeks in the fridge, which is good because the recipe makes a large amount (you may want to halve it if you’re not serving a horde). My kids loved it; they thought it was candy!

Give this a try, even if you’re not Jewish and getting ready for a seder. It’s a nice dessert, lunchox snack or party item.

Moroccan-Style Charoset

Moroccan-Style Charoset

Ingredients

  • 2 cups walnut pieces
  • 1 cup blanched slivered or whole almonds
  • 25 pitted dates, halved
  • 10 large, brown Calimyrna figs, stems removed, quartered
  • 20 dried apricots, halved
  • 10 large pitted prunes, halved
  • ½ cup shelled pistachios
  • ¼ cup sweet red Passover wine, as needed
  • Ground cinnamon

Instructions

  1. Put all the nuts and dried fruit through the fine blade of a food grinder or finely grind them together in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, in batches if necessary.
  2. Mix in just enough wine to make a smooth paste that is soft and malleable. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls. If desired, sprinkle the balls lightly with cinnamon.
  3. Store the balls in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
  4. For best flavor, bring to room temperature before serving.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/charoset/

 

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Categories: Desserts

A seder and a symbolic carrot salad for Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah seder foods; photo by Alona Lerman via Flickr Creative Commons

Rosh Hashanah seder foods; photo by Alona Lerman via Flickr Creative Commons

Rabbi Sasson Natan is getting ready for his family’s seder.

Hold on a minute, you’re probably saying. Even if you’re not Jewish, you know that Passover is in the spring. Even the lesser-known Tu b’Shevat seder, which I wrote about last year in Feed the Spirit, isn’t until February.

Ah yes, but the rabbi, spiritual leader of Keter Torah Synagogue in suburban Detroit, is preparing for the Jewish year’s third seder, the Rosh Hashanah seder, a custom widely practiced by Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews.

Bet you thought the main groups of Jews were Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. There’s one other big dividing line, and it goes back to the 1400s and even earlier.

A capsule Jewish geography

After Rome completely conquered Judea (what is now Israel) in the year 72 CE, Jews scattered throughout the Middle East and beyond. Those who stayed in the Middle East–Palestine (as the Romans renamed Judea, and where there has always been a Jewish presence), Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, India–became known as “Mizrachi” Jews, meaning from the East. A large number of Jews settled in Spain, where they flourished for hundreds of years until Ferdinand and Isabella expelled them all in 1492. This group were known as Sephardi Jews, from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad. After the expulsion, many went to North Africa, joining well established Jewish communities.

Rosh Hashanah seder foods, photo by Susie Lubell via Flickr Creative Commons

Rosh Hashanah seder foods, photo by Susie Lubell via Flickr Creative Commons

Most American Jews are of Ashkenazi heritage, whose ancestors settled in central and eastern Europe. The word comes from the Hebrew word for Germany, Ashkenaz.

Although each country’s Jewish community had its unique customs, those of the Mizrachi and Sephardi communities are similar in many ways, as are those of Ashkenazi Jews, and the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi practices are often striking. Even though they say the same prayers, Sephardi synagogue services sound very different from Ashkenazi services because they use different chants and tunes.

Many Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews also eat symbolic foods at Rosh Hashanah, but I’ve never heard anyone call it a “seder” before.

The practice comes from the Talmud, the collection of Jewish laws and traditions said Rabbi Sasson, a native of Iraq who likes to be called by his first name. On both nights of Rosh Hashanah, after the blessings over wine and bread but before the festive meal, celebrants eat a variety of foods to symbolize their hopes for a good new year.

Seder means “order”

Seder simply means “order;” it’s a way of celebrating a holiday using specific foods with an associated, ritual meaning. Different Sephardi and Mizrachi communities follow different orders and may eat slightly different foods.

In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. God reviews everything we’ve done in the past year and decides our fate; the decree is sealed 10 days later on Yom Kippur.

At the heart of the Rosh Hashanah seder, said the rabbi, are wishes we request God to grant us in the coming year.

“On Erev Rosh Hashanah (the evening, when the holiday starts), we know that the next day we will go to court before God the judge, and our enemies will come to the court with files and files against us,” said Rabbi Sasson. We use various foods to symbolize our pleas for our enemies to be vanquished and for us to have blessings, he said.

The seeds of the pomegranate remind us of God's commandments (photo by dingoshoes via Flickr Creative Commons).

The seeds of the pomegranate remind us of God’s commandments (photo by dingoshoes via Flickr Creative Commons).

The eight Rosh Hashanah seder foods are  called simanim – symbols – because the Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic word for that food is associated with another Hebrew word that can extend into a wish for the new year. These include:

  • Dates, with a wish that our enemies will be consumed.
  • Beets, with a wish that our enemies will run away.
  • Leeks, with a wish that our enemies be chopped up.
  • Long green beans, called “rubia” in Arabic–Rabbi Sasson uses black-eyed peas–with a wish that our merits increase.
  • Zucchini or similar squash, with a wish that any evil verdicts against us be ripped up and that our merits be announced before God.
  • Pomegranate, with a wish that we be filled with mitzvot (God’s commandments) like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. (Some say the number of seeds in a pomegranate equals the number of mitzvot in the Torah: 613.)
  • A fish head or sheep’s head, with a wish that God will make us like the head and not the tail. (If a sheep’s head is used, it also reminds us of the binding of Isaac, which we read about on Rosh Hashanah.)
  • Apple and honey, with a wish that God will renew for us a good and sweet year.

The basis for delicious dishes

Often the foods are made into delicious salads or other dishes that serve as appetizers to the main meal. Rabbi Sasson says for the beet portion of the seder, his wife stuffs beet leaves with minced meat, a dish similar to stuffed grape leaves.

The seder leader holds each food in the right hand while explaining the meaning of the food and reciting the blessing for the food and the wish associated with it. The entire ceremony takes only about 15 or 20 minutes, said the rabbi.

Almost all Jews, even those who don’t do a seder ceremony, eat apples and honey as a way of wishing for a good and sweet year to come. Here is a link to a more detailed article about the Rosh Hashanah seder by a woman who was born in Calcutta.

Food puns as symbols

Ants on a log -- raisins stuck to celery with peanut butter -- symbolize a wish for a "raise in salary" (photo by kjmhanley via Flickr Creative Commons).

Ants on a log — raisins stuck to celery with peanut butter — symbolize a wish for a “raise in salary” (photo by kjmhanley via Flickr Creative Commons).

Some have adopted the idea of simanim using languages other than Hebrew and Arabic. Many Ashkenazi Jews eat carrots in place of black-eyed peas, because in Yiddish (for centuries the language of the Ashkenazi Jews) the word for “carrots”–mehren–sounds a lot like the Yiddish word for “more”–mehr.

In fact, says Bessie Krapfman in an article about Rosh Hashanah foods, it’s even better for simanim to be puns from one’s native language. “My sister-in-law is very strict to make certain that there is a stick of celery and some raisins on the table,” says Krapfman. “She always takes the celery together with the raisins and loudly requests of God that he give us all a ‘raise in our salary.’ That is always good for a few laughs, but this is really what we are supposed to do, laughs aside.”

In addition to the raisins and celery (glued together with peanut butter), my son-in-law recently started serving dried fruits wrapped in toilet paper, as a wish that his guests will be “fruitful and multi-ply” (appropriate for those still building their families). I suggested that they might want to puree some cooked peas and serve them with a wish for “whirled peas” (world peace, get it?) Even better, top the peas with a dollop of grits and ask for “whirled peas and hominy.”

What kind of puns can you think of involving food and good wishes?

For your gustatory delight, I offer this recipe for an Israeli carrot, pomegranate and parsley salad, which uses two simanim, carrots and pomegranate. It’s a bit of a bother to pull the leaves off the parsley and get the seeds out of the pomegranate, but after that, it’s a snap to make, and it’s oh-so-pretty as well as tasty. (Helpful hint: quarter the pomegranate and then put the pieces into a large bowl of water before breaking them apart. The seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the pith will float to the top. Skim off the pith, and then drain the seeds in a strainer or colander.)

Israeli Carrot and Pomegranate Salad

Israeli Carrot and Pomegranate Salad

Ingredients

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 bunch stemmed flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled
  • 2 Tbs. lemon juice
  • 2 Tbs. orange juice
  • 4 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • Seeds of 1 pomegranate

Instructions

  1. Place the garlic and all but 2 Tbs. of the parsley in the bowl of a food processor and chop well.
  2. Add the carrots, lemon juice, orange juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
  3. Pulse until the carrots are chopped into small pieces but not pureed.
  4. Mix with raisins and pomegranate seeds and sprinkle with reserved parsley.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/a-seder-and-a-symbolic-carrot-salad-for-rosh-hashanah/

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Categories: Salads

It’s not Passover without matzoh balls!

Most Passover seders involve lots of family and friends. Photo by EKS4003 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Most Passover seders involve lots of family and friends. Photo by EKS4003 via Flickr Creative Commons.

It usually happens in early- to mid-March. I’m in my local supermarket, quietly doing my normal shopping, and there it is—a display of Passover foods. Immediately my heart starts to beat a little faster and I feel an impending sense of doom.

Why should the anticipation of Passover—one of the most joyous celebrations in the Hebrew calendar and a time for family togetherness second only to Thanksgiving—cause me such tzuris (a great Yiddish term meaning troubles or woes)?

I’ll tell you why: For those of us who keep kosher, Passover is a whole other dimension!

An 18th century etching of a Portugese seder

An 18th century etching of a Portugese seder

Eat matzoh for seven days!

It all starts with the Book of Exodus 12:15: Seven days shall you eat flatbread. The very first day you shall expunge leaven from your houses, for whosoever eats leavened bread, that person shall be cut off from Israel from the first day to the seventh day.

From this simple command we developed a system of religious practices that include:

  • cleaning your house thoroughly, from top to bottom, to rid it of anything that might contain any trace of anything leavened.
  • making sure any packaged or processed foods are not only kosher but “certified kosher-for-Passover,” with no ingredients that are leavened or that could become leavened.
  • packing away all the dishes, silverware, pots and pans and small appliances you use all year round and replacing them with “Passover” dishes and utensils that you use only during the eight-day festival (it’s still seven days in Israel, eight days everywhere else). Often these are stored in the basement or garage and the changeover involves much schlepping. And when you keep kosher, you need separate sets of everything for milk and meat. Unless you go vegetarian, this means two sets of Passover dishes, utensils and pots.

Those of us who host the festive seder meal on one or both of the first two nights of Passover usually have many guests, requiring a mammoth amount of cooking. But the cooking can’t start until all the “regular” dishes have been put away and the Passover dishes brought out.

Spring cleaning on steroids

And we can’t bring out the Passover dishes until we’ve thoroughly cleaned every room where we’ve had food during the year. In the kitchen, we have to scour every nook and cranny, including the refrigerator, freezer, oven, stovetop, microwave, cabinets and countertops. It’s spring cleaning on steroids! Once the kitchen is “kashered” (made kosher) for Passover, we can no longer eat “regular” food there, so we have to carefully plan our menus for the week leading up to the holiday. Although fruits and vegetables, kosher meat, fish, eggs and many dairy products do not require special Passover certification, it still takes effort to keep the “Passover” separate from the “regular.”

So there’s no cooking and freezing for the big meal weeks in advance like we can do for other holidays. Usually the kitchen isn’t Passover-ready until a day or two before the holiday starts, and then there’s a frenzy of cooking and baking in the few days leading up to the seder.

As I write this, my stomach starts to clench, along with my jaw.

Even in households where the husband is super-supportive, the wife is the chief executive officer of Passover prep, making the to-do lists and issuing orders to anyone else unfortunate enough to live there. Most of us women start the holiday exhausted.

Many years ago I worked for a hospice that served an interfaith population and was encouraging “cultural competency” among the staff. As Passover approached, I wrote a piece for the employee newsletter about what the care staff might expect to see in a Jewish home as Passover approached.

The staff rabbi thought it was funny because it showed such a female perspective. I wrote about cleaning and food, nothing about the wonderful spiritual aspects of the holiday. “Hmph,” I thought, “only the men have the luxury to think about the spiritual aspects of this holiday!” And furthermore, I thought, his wife was probably as overwhelmed as I was!

Matzoh balls cooking; photo by Food Mayhem via Flickr Creative Commons.

Matzoh balls cooking; photo by Food Mayhem via Flickr Creative Commons.

A time to celebrate at last!

But once the food has been cooked and the family and friends gather around the festive table, we are able to relax. Then Passover changes from a dire burden to my favorite holiday of the year. Then I can enjoy the seder, which is a retelling of the reason for the festival: We were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us forth with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and now we are free.

The quintessential Passover food, besides matzoh itself, is matzoh balls, also known as knaydlach (just one is a knaydl)—which is Yiddish so you can spell it any way you want in English: knaidlach, kneydlach, kneidlach. They are so good we eat them year-round, something that can be said about very few kosher-for-Passover foods.

Here is my recipe for matzoh balls, but let me give you a caveat. You need to get a feel for the mixture before you let it rest. It can’t be too loose or your matzoh balls will fall apart. It can’t be too hard, or your matzoh balls will be rubbery instead of fluffy.

If the mixture seems a little too soupy after you’ve added the matzoh meal, sprinkle in a few teaspoons more, but realize that the mixture will thicken quite a bit as it rests. When you first make up the mixture, it should not be stiff enough to form balls.

I recommend starting with the stated amounts for the ingredients. When you’ve made matzoh balls a few times, you’ll be able to tell if the consistency feels right or needs adjustment.

One more note: rendered chicken fat makes the best matzoh balls, but I realize that few of us have chicken fat on hand these days. You can use solid vegetable shortening or margarine instead.

You can make the matzoh balls any size you like. I like them large, one per person, and this recipe will make about eight large balls. If you want to serve two per person, just make them smaller.

This recipe can easily be halved if there are just a few of you, or doubled to serve a crowd.

Enjoy the matzoh balls in a steaming bowl of chicken soup. (The photo with the recipe is by Hot Hungarian Chef via Flickr Creative Commons.)

Matzoh Balls

Matzoh Balls

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs at room temperature
  • 4 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. chicken fat, shortening or margarine, melted and cooled a bit
  • 4 Tbs. chicken soup or water
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. fresh parsley, finely chopped, or 1/2 tsp. dried parsley, optional
  • 1 cup matzoh meal
  • 4 quarts of water for cooking

Instructions

  1. Beat the eggs.
  2. Beat in the melted chicken fat, shortening or margarine, chicken soup or water, salt and parsley if you use it.
  3. Sprinkle in the matzoh meal and stir quickly with a fork so that there are no lumps. Add a little more matzoh meal if the mixture seems too loose (remember that it will thicken as it rests).
  4. Place plastic wrap on the surface of the mixture and press down to remove air.
  5. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  6. Boil at least 4 quarts of water in a Dutch oven.
  7. Wet your hands and form the mixture into balls (note that the balls will increase in size as they cook). You can drop them in the soup as you make them, or you can put them on a plate or board until you've formed all the balls.
  8. The matzoh balls should float to the top of the water after just a minute or two. If any are stuck to the bottom, loosen gently with a wooden spoon.
  9. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot loosely, and cook for 40 minutes.
  10. Using a slotted spoon, move the matzoh balls into a pot of chicken soup and reheat just before serving. If your soup isn't ready yet, you can store the matzoh balls in the refrigerator; cover them with water in an airtight container.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/passover-without-matzoh-balls/

 

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Categories: Appetizers

Celebrate Tu B’Shevat with an Israeli salad

 

Fruits for a Tu B'Shevat Seder; photo by Meg Stewart

Fruits for a Tu B’Shevat Seder; photo by Meg Stewart

Thursday on the Hebrew calendar is Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It’s generally known as “the new year of trees.” As you can read elsewhere in Read the Spirit, it’s a celebration of all things botanical in connection with the land of Israel.

It’s a minor holiday–not a holy day when work is prohibited and special prayers are recited. When I went to Hebrew school as a child, the only thing I can remember about Tu B’Shevat is being given a piece of “bokser”–a dried carob pod–to celebrate the day. The “bokser” (also known as St. John’s bread) was disgusting; it had the texture of shoe leather and tasted like old sweat socks. None of the kids would eat it.

A seder to celebrate

Photo courtesy Food Alliance for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy Food Alliance for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

These days, the holiday is being celebrated more and more often with a special Tu B’Shevat seder. Everyone thinks of Passover when they hear the word “seder,” but all that term really means is: a meal incorporating a certain order of foods and wine (the word “seder” means “order”).

At a Tu B’Shevat seder, like at a Passover seder, celebrants drink four cups of wine, but they start with a cup of all white wine (or grape juice), then add a little red to the cup, then a little more so it’s half and half, and finally drink a cup of all red.

The four cups symbolize the four seasons and also four mystical dimensions: emanation, formation and birth, creation and fire (the “divine spark” within every human being).

The foods include the “seven species” mentioned in the Bible. Deuteronomy 8:7-8 says, “For the Lord your God is bringing you to a rich land, a land of streams, of springs and underground waters gushing out in hill and valley, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, fig-trees, and pomegranates, a land of olives, oil and honey.” (Note: That’s the New English Bible translation. You may count eight things there. The translation in Jewish tradition is “olive oil” not “olives”-comma-“oil.”)

Fruits with mystical meanings

In addition, celebrants eat fruits of different types: those with a hard inedible shell, such as nuts; those with a pit in the center, such as dates, apricots or peaches; those that are completely edible, such as berries and grapes; and those that have a tough skin on the outside but are sweet and soft inside, such as bananas, mangoes or pineapple. Like the cups of wine, each has a symbolic or mystical meaning.

Here is a script and explanation for a Tu B’Shevat seder.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has its roots in Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Jewish study that developed in S’fat, in northern Israel in the medieval period. Here is a script for a more Kabbalistic version of a Tu B’Shevat seder.

Since the 1970s, some modern Jews have given an ecological twist to the Tu B’Shevat seder, using it as a form to advance the idea of sustainable agriculture.  “Trees are so important in Jewish thought that the Torah itself is called ‘a tree of life.’ Perhaps this Torah wisdom can help us think more wisely about using these resources carefully and living in a more sustainable way,” write Dr. Akiva Wolff and Rabbi Yonatan Neri in their article “Trees, Torah, and Caring for the Earth” as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment.”

In honor of Tu B’Shevat, I offer a recipe for a delicious spinach salad that uses dates, almonds, wheat (in the form of pita) and olives (in the form of oil), all of which are used to celebrate the holiday. It’s from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Jerusalem Spinach Salad

Yield: Serves 4

Jerusalem Spinach Salad

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbs. white vinegar
  • ½ medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • ¼ lb. pitted dates
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 small pitas (or one large one) roughly torn into 1½-inch pieces
  • ½ cup unsalted almonds, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tsp. sumac (available in Middle Eastern groceries or gourmet spice shops)
  • ½ tsp. chili flakes
  • 5 oz. (half a standard-sized package) baby spinach
  • 2 Tbs. lemon juice
  • Salt

Instructions

  1. Put the vinegar, onions and dates in a small bowl. Add a pinch of salt and mix well with your hands. Allow to marinate for 20 minutes, then drain out any residual vinegar and discard.
  2. Heat the 3 Tbs. olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add the pita and almonds and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, stirring all the time, until the pita is crunchy and golden brown.
  3. Remove from the heat and mix in the sumac, chili flakes and ¼ tsp. salt. Set aside to cool.
  4. Just before serving, toss the spinach leaves with the pita mix in a large mixing bowl.
  5. Add the dates and red onion, the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil, the lemon juice and another pinch of salt.
https://www.readthespirit.com/feed-the-spirit/celebrate-tu-bshevat-israeli-salad/

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Categories: Salads