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Free Range on Food

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, October 3, 2007; 1:00 PM

A chat with the Food section staff is a chance for you to ask questions, offer suggestions and share information with other cooks and food lovers. It is a forum for discussion of food trends, ingredients, menus, gadgets and anything else food-related.

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Each chat, we will focus on topics from the day's Food section. You can also read the transcripts of past chats. Do you have a question about a particular recipe or a food-related anecdote to share? The Food section staff goes Free Range on Food every Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET. Read about the staff of the Food section.

The transcript follows.


Joe: Welcome to the chat today, everyone. Thanks for logging on. I hope we inspired you to hit us with some good questions today, perhaps about Jane's interesting piece on restaurant staff struggles, or maybe Stephanie's look at apples (is anyone else dying for those gorgeous Cottage Pancakes about now)? Or, did Bonnie's take on the nifty new Sechuan buttons (or this video I shot of Post reporters, including Walter, tasting it and reacting -- at times almost screaming!) make you crave a taste?

Before we get started with the chat, here are the giveaway books we'll send to the sources of our favorite posts: "Kitchen Memories: A Legacy of Family Recipes From Around the World" by Anne Snape Parsons and Alexandra Greeley, and "New England Soup Factory Cookbook" by Marjorie Druker and Clara Silverstein.

Now, fire away!


"Staff crunch worry chefs" from New York : Every other week people "Ask Tom" where DC rates amoug top food cities in the country. "Ask Tom", constantly rates DC 4th ish, behind New York, San Franciso and Chicago(i think?). Do you think any of Mario Batali s(similar to Cathal Armstrong s places)lines are operating missing 15-20% of the cooks? I think we can say the same for Rick Bayles Frontera Grill(Topolobambo)in Chicago or Michael Mina s or Gary Danko s in San Francisco.

Furthermore today during "Ask Tom" more than

50% of the posted topics were about unhappy customers in restaurants(food and service). This begs what is good food and good service?!?! Poor service is poor service, waiting 5 or 10 before someone takes your drink order is not the end of the world. But rude or uncaring service is pretty clear. The other aspect; food. One can be a great chef and may please the palettes of thousands of foodies v a person with not much culinary experience may not care for a particular dish prepared a specific way. So i take a grain of salt on reviews regarding food.

The Food industry is extremely labor intensive(both front and back of the house) as you know. Without the basic labor force, its hard(impossible) to produce a constant superior product. Due to DC s restrictions in the restaurant labor force, where would you(s) rate DC restaurants on a national scene?

I asked Tom the same question, but he failed to answer.

Jane Black: Interesting question. I tried to answer whether this was a problem in New York, LA and Chicago in my reporting. I can't say for sure but anecdotally it seems like it's not quite as tough.

The reason: Those are historically big restaurant towns, with populations of immigrants and low-wage workers who have long seen restaurants as a career. Here, we don't have that and the recent explosion of restaurants has stretched the workforce to the limit.

As for service, you're right. It's just as important. But front-of-house managers I talked to said they weren't having that tough a time getting staff as the back-of-house managers. The fact that people complain about service may mean those managers need to work harder to find good staff but, to be honest, at least part of it is that people love to gripe about service. I've lived in San Francisco, New York, Boston, London and elsewhere and in every single place, diners have complained about service. It's something DC and everywhere else needs to work on.


Clifton, Va.: Interesting article on restaurants having trouble finding line cooks. Maybe the restaurants should pay more or send perspective students to various cooking schools on their dime. Lexus, Mercedes and BMW BTW pay for students to attend training schools and when they graduate after two years they are guaranteed a job making approx $50k a year in a dealership with no debt other than any money spent to buy tools which can cost approx $10 to 15k. A journeyman level mechanic works a 40hr work week and bils about 50 hrs a week. And a Mercedes, Lexus or BMW dealship in this area

after about 5 years will make over a $100k or get half the hourly labor rate. A line cook is skilled position restaurants and chefs should pay their help. Not tyr to keep it all for themselfs.

Jane Black: That's an interesting suggestion. I'm not sure small independent restaurants have as much cash to spare as BMW and Lexus dealers but the idea of investing in staff -- either by helping them through cooking school or by training them at low pay but ensuring they move up in the organization -- is an important one.

It used to be that line cooks started at low pay but that was their training. There were no culinary school bills. They stayed with one chef for a long time -- a sort of apprenticeship -- and then moved up or out after several years. Now these kids have big bills to pay but still need a certain amount of training on how restaurants work and chefs don't feel they should have to pay high rates for someone who is still learning the ropes.

In my opinion, in order to make it work, both the restaurant and the young cook need to commit to each other for a period of time so that they both benefit. And in a very competitive environment, where cooks have so many opportunities, that's hard to pull off.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Tom S suggested I ask you this (I asked during his chat).

re: the article in Food on the difficulty of finding people to work in restaurants (even Resturant Eve!) One chef goes to cooking schools in Europe to recruit, it reported, but it did not mention the visa issue. I imagine it would be very cost ineffective to recruit and train, only to have your workers have to leave after a year because of immigration laws.

Jane Black: Good question. And you're right visas are tough to obtain. Perhaps there's some sort of work study plan that Robert Weidmaier thought he could make use of? (If you're really interested, we could find out.) In the end, Weidmaier was able to hire staff here but I thought it was worth mentioning that he traveled to Europe because he was so worried he wouldn't have staff at all.


Washington 20008: Hey, Rangers!

This was one of the best issues ever! Every recipe looks like a winner and they all sound ideal for the cooler weather to come. (Chicken and apples; chicken and squash-- great combos!)You are gonna keep me busy in the kitchen for some time.

Happy cooking!

Joe: Thanks! (And your bribe check is the mail...)


Bethesda, Md.: Wonderful article on apples, but I'm confused. We used to get the Black Twig in southern Ohio and it was a wonderfully tart, smallish apple with a deep burgundy skin, not the "large, green apple with red stripes and a rich, winey flavor" described by Tom Buford. Different variety?


Jane Touzalin: Black Twig apples can differ widely in appearance, according to several Web sites I looked at. The most common colors mentioned are dark red (like the ones you remember) and red-and-green striped (like the ones Tom Buford talked about). So -- both could be the same variety. They were first grown in the early 1800s.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Food Crew - Urgent Request here. I desperately need to overnight express some Louisiana comfort food to misplaced family currently residing in California. Last year (I think) there was a great article in the Post around Thanksgiving time (I think) that listed and compared various options for ordering prepared Louisiana/gulf coast foods (gumbo, jambalaya, etc) Unfortunately, I can no longer find the article and am hesistant to order online without any reviews. Does this sound familiar and, if so, can you by some chance provide a link? My hungry peeps would thank you!!!!!

Joe: An urgent request gets an urgent reply. We sure do remember this feature, by "Food Finds" co-author Peggy Engel, especially since we got to sample the Roman chewing candy, coffee, shrimp and more when she conducted test-orders. Good for you for providing for your hungry peeps while supporting efforts to rebuild the Gulf.


Chinatown, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question: are you aware of any produce markets, or supermarkets in Chinatown that stock a variety of items? I pass by the neighborhood everyday, and it would be nice to pick up ingredients on the way home. Thanks, love the chat.

Walter: Unfortunately, there are no longer any food markets in Chinatown.


Champaign, Il: Hi! First, off, thanks for the chat, I'm a born and raised Washingtonian that has been transplanted to the midwest and I read the Post food section religiously.

I am a medical student and we're trying to run a weekly muffin sale to raise some money for our various med-school related charities and activities. I have a number of very good muffin recipes, but in the name of health, we would like to offer some healthier, but still tasty muffin choices. Do you guys have any great, healthy, muffin recipes? (Bonus points if I can freeze them up to a week ahead of time to be cooked the morning of the bake-sale)


Joe: Coming right up: How do Oat Bran Muffins With Walnuts and Blueberries sound? Three super-foods in one tasty muffin. And hand over those bonus points, cause the recipe indeed includes instructions for freezing and thawing for those who want to make in advance.

By the way, stay tuned for our upcoming Chef on Call installment, scheduled for Oct. 24: It's pastry chefs pairing up with Girl Scouts who want to raise their bake-sale game. We can't promise the recipes will be particularly healthful, but we will be including some expert advice on how to make such sales financially successful.


Washington, D.C.: I have tons of cans of coconut milk, and after making coconut curry shrimp, coconut curry green beans, and coconut curry zucchini and squash; I'm fed up with coconut curry. Can I use coconut milk in dessert or use it in some vegetable concotion without curry?

Joe: No, you MUST combine it with curry. ;-) Now, fess up: Did you buy a whole pallet at Costco?

Of course, there are lots of great things to do with coconut milk that don't involve the Indian blend of spices. One of my faves is a coconut sorbet from "Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home With a Four-Star Chef" (Broadway Books, 1998), the first collaboration of J-G Vongerichten and Mark Bittman. This is just so unbelievably easy. Some might say we're coming out of ice cream season, but I say it's a year-round thing...

Coconut Sorbet

Makes 4 servings

2 (13.5-ounce) cans coconut milk

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon rum

Combine the coconut milk and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat; whisk until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the rum, and remove from the heat.

Chill in a refrigerator for at last two hours or until very cold, then freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions.


But that's not all. Our Recipe Finder lists many other possibilities that would seem to fit your bill. First up, a couple vegetarian options: 30-Minute Red Lentil Soup, or perhaps Plantain Coconut Stew.

For a drink to get you in the holiday spirit, a Puerto Rican take on eggnog: Coquito.

For another dessert, International Rice Pudding. That should put a dent in your stash!


Silver Spring, Md. Today's article on Laura Werlin's book has inspired me to throw a cheese-themed birthday party for my significant other during the baseball playoff on Sunday. I want to try me hand at gougeres but am rather intimidated by the pate a choux. Any advice/reliable recipes? Thanks!

Bonnie: These really work: Cheese Puffs (Gougeres)


Ashburn, Va.: I always look forward to Stephanie Witt Sedgwick's articles and especially her recipes. The chicken scallopine idea is brilliant! I'm going to try it tonite for dinner. Thanks!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Thanks for reading, it's great to have fans!


Albany, NY: My husband and I are traveling to Old montreal for a night this weekend for our anniversary and are looking for dinner suggestions. We're going all out on the hotel so we don't have a big budget for food. We want to stay right in Old Montreal since we will be there for only one night. Any suggestions?

Joe: Where are you staying: Nelligan? Hotel St-Paul? The great thing about Montreal is how compact it is, so even if you're staying there you certainly don't have to eat there. Having said that, my favorite place to eat when I've had a room with a Vieux (sorry) is Chez L'Epicier, which is not exactly cheap. But it's your anniversary -- you can't scrimp, can you?

OK, maybe you can. In that case I would be tempted to go to L'Express in the Latin Quarter, an old standby for its fantastic bistro food, at real bistro prices. And if the weather's nice, it's a perfectly respectable walk from the Old Port -- maybe a half hour. Or you could of course take a 5-minute cab ride, or ride the amazingly efficient subway.

One other suggestion in the Old Port, perhaps for a lunch picnic before you head back home? It might make up for the scrimping... Europea Espace Boutique is a gourmet shop with unbelievably good box lunches and perfect pastry.

Happy travels, and happy anniversary!

Joe: This just in, from Bill O'Brian, a colleague at the Post Magazine who frequents Montreal:

"Virtually anywhere along Rue Duluth between St. Laurent and St. Denis is good, altough one great restaurant (Au Pied de Cochon) is probably above budget. Aux Petit Oignons is particularly good, if you like French food.

"By the way, along Duluth (or anyplace else in Montreal) 'Apportez votre vin' means 'Bring your own wine,' which can be bought at a very reasonable price any nearby deli (or, in French, depanneur).

"One other very good, inexpensive Montreal restaurant is Stromboli on Mont-Royal Ave. in the Plateau neighborhood."


Falls Church, Va.: I'm expecting my first baby in December (it's a boy!), and I'm hoping to make and freeze a batch of casseroles so that the husband and I have some relatively healthy meals to rely on in those first few hectic weeks. I'm looking for a good cookbook, and it would help if it's neither too complicated (as many of the Cook's Illustrated recipes in their "Cover and Bake" cookbook tend to be) nor too processed-food heavy (as so many web-based recipes tend to be-- think Campbell's Soup and French's fried onions). Does anyone have a go-to favorite for these kinds of recipes? Thanks so much-- you guys are lifesavers!

Jane Black: Congrats -- on the baby and your amazing ability to plan ahead. I wish I had a casserole to recommend! But like you, I don't have a standby. What I do freeze to use later are lasagnas and curries. The benefit of curries is you can use all the lovely summer and fall vegetables and enjoy them in December. Here are two recipes from the database to get you started.

Gruyere Spinach Mushroom Lasagna

Vegetable curry

Jane Black: Just re-read the question and realized you were looking for a cookbook. Sorry. Any other chatters out there have a favorite casserole cookbook?


Washington, D.C.: I tried your baked macaroni and cheese, that I found in the WP recipe bank and it was so easy to make and I loved that there was no need for flour or bread crumbs. I'm wondering if there is a way to make it creamy, rather than hard and cutable, but still without having to make a sauce with flour and milk or use breadcrumbs?

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: There's one easy way, but I'm not sure it's what you have in mind. It's a real throw-back ingredient: Velveeta. It makes a very creamy mac and cheese with no added flour or butter.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Food Staff!

I'd like to know if making batter or dough (say for cornbread) in advance and refrigerating it for a few hours will have any impact on quality. Will quickbreads still rise?

Leigh: Refrigerating batter or dough for a few hours will not harm its rising ability, but you will need to add a few minutes to the baking time to compensate for the chill of the fridge.


Flagstaff, AZ: With the colder weather we're starting to make more stews and soups--I want to make chicken pot pie, but my recipe calls for thyme (only a small amount, maybe 1/4 tsp. for a 9x13 dish) and I've come to realize that I really can't stand the stuff. It just takes over in chicken dishes! What would be a good alternative?

Bonnie: What else is in the pot pie? Maybe think about rosemary, a little crumbled sage, a lemon pepper or my fave, tarragon.


Vienna, Va.: Hey Rangers!

I asked about the meatloaf recipe last week, though I didnt get a chance to make it yet, it's noted in my recipe box to do so soon and will let you know! My question this week is, is there a good recipe for a meatloaf made with ground turkey? It's a healthier option but since there's less fat, how will I complete the flavors? Thanks so much for your help as always! Loved this weeks recipes on the apples!

Joe: Sure! How bout this intriguingly named Pastor's in Trouble Meatloaf?


Washington, D.C.: I have a question about "heirlooms" - what makes something an heirloom, whether an apple or a tomato or a bean? and, for that matter, I recently was given some dried heirloom navy beans. what should I do with them?

Jane Black: An heirloom variety is a plant -- ie, not bred for agriculture -- that was commonly grown before industrial agriculture took over. According to one source, in 1872, there were 1,100 varieties of apples grown in America. Today, you're likely to find only 10 varieties in stores, selected not only based on taste but because they look pretty and have long shelf lives.

Heirlooms have been embraced by the "foodie" set and, though it may not always be true, they have a reputation for being more flavorful than more modern cross-breeds.

As for your navy beans, use them for whatever you would normally use them for and see if you can taste the difference.


Ashburn, Va.: I love this chat and the food section, it makes me look forward to Wednesdays!

I'm the poster from last week that had a stand mixer follow me home... So far, I've ground my own beef for hamburgers (so good! will never buy pre-ground beef again!), made the meringue with lemon, blueberries and creme fraiche that you guys suggested (to die for!), and attempted some english muffins from Beth Hensperger's book. Let's chalk that one up to the learning curve...

I have some leftover creme fraiche opened on Thursday. Is it still good? Suggestions for something savory to use it up? Sweets are ok, but I much prefer something salty, creamy, and cheesy.


Jane Black: Check the date on the creme fraiche but I would think that if you bought it late last week, it's fine to eat now. Why not just stir the creme fraiche into a soup? I've been making a lot of zucchini soup lately but use whatever you like or have on hand. For something more upscale, try this delicious avocado soup with a crab garnish that we ran last year.

Chilled avocado soup with peekytoe crab


Apple lover: A friend brought me a sack of apples. My husband wants one of those apple pies with a crumb topping, but I'm wondering if you have a version that isn't quite so high in fat. So many of the recipes I've looked at call for a whole stick of butter or worse for the topping.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Nothing will compare...but how about trying an old-fashioned alternative? Baked apples can be made with no added fat and are a wonderful way to enjoy the flavors of a roasted apple. Core the apples, place in pan coated with nonstick spray. Sprinkle with brown sugar or maple syrup and top with some cinnamon, fill the core with raisins and moisten with a little juice, ginger ale or water. Cover and bake until tender in a 350 degree oven.


Rockville, Md.: The Food section used to run an annual list of cooking classes offered in the DC area. Did I miss it and if so, can you tell me the date it ran so I can search for it? The Post's search feature is pretty awful for most purposes (by the way...) but I don't remember seeing the cooking classes rundown in recent years so maybe it has been discontinued? If it has, can you tell me a good source to check for a listing of food classes? Thanks!

Joe: No searching needed: We're keeping the list right on the Food section page of the web site (under Special Reports, and right under Wine). We posted it on the Web several weeks ago so that we could devote the newsprint to a bunch of recipes from three teachers who took part in a little farmers market challenge for us.

But no need to hunt it down: The list is right here.


Washington, D.C.: I came across an old copy of Random House Microwave Cookbook that someone had discarded in our apartment building shared bookshelf. I saw recipes for carrot cake and fudge and brownies and crumb cake and the pictures all looked wonderful. What are your experiences in "baking" desserts in the microwave? Do they work out well? Are they reliable? And do you have a favorite that you go back to every summer while you're sworn off using the oven?

Jane Touzalin: I'm sure the pictures looked great, but the proof of the microwave pudding is in the tasting. Why not give it a try, though I've never had much luck with those kinds of microwave desserts. You don't see a lot of people making them, do you? So there must be a reason for that.....

However, it's also possible that I just haven't tried the right recipe. So let's hear what other chatters have to say. There must be a few good microwave cake/brownie recipes out there.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi everyone, I am the captain of my team on the job in charge of losing weight. We have various teams and there are lots of prizes for those of us who lose the most weight. I want to get into soups but nothing high in sodium or fat. I have a little baby and husband at home so very little time to cook. Can you give me some suggestion?

Joe: Take a look at this list from our Recipe Finder of 10 healthful soups. (That means they have less than 250 calories, 10 g total fat, 3 g sat fat, 300 mg sodium, 40 mg cholesterol. In some cases, much less!)


Silver Spring, Md.: The recipe for Baked Apple, Smoked Turkey and Cheddar Strata, calls for 4 c. half and half. I hate nonfat half and half (what is it???). What can I substitute that lowers the fat content? Can I get away with 1% milk?

Bonnie: You hate it to cook with, or use in coffee and such? Nonfat half-and-half is a blend of nonfat milk, corn syrup and thickeners (according to Food Lover's Companion), with half the calories and twice the sodium of full-on half-and-half.

So, your 1-percent milk would be fine, with maybe some potato starch slurry added in, then heated, to make up for the lack of thickeners.


Washington, D.C.: A friend is having a beer tasting dinner party soon. I was thinking about trying to put together a nice cheese plate for a starter. I'm ok with pairing cheese and wine, but am not sure what kinds of cheese would be suitable for fall beers. Any ideas? Thanks.

Jane Black: I think you'd need to define "fall beers" in order for me to recommend any specific cheeses. (Do you mean amber ales or pumpkin brews?) But the art and science are the same. Look for contrasts and similarities -- a sharp cheddar with a Pale ale, a nuttier cheese with a dark porter.

One place to do further research is a Web site called beercook.com. The writer conducts frequent beer and cheese tastings and offers lots of advice.


Washington, D.C.: I recently made a fabulous hummus, but although I used an entire head of roasted garlic, it didn't have any roasted garlic flavor. Could the lemon juice have overpowered it? What proportion would I use next time?

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: You described it as fabulous so why worry about the garlic? Frankly many a hummus has beed ruined by overzealous use of garlic! Enjoy your success.


Beef Stew in Bethesda: Hello! I have a nice tri trip roast in my freezer - and with it being October, I was thinking of making beef stew. Could I use the tri tip? Do you have any other yummy ideas?


Joe: Save that tri-tip for an actual roast. Since it comes from the loin section, home of sirloin and other loin steaks, you don't want to treat it to a stewing technique, which is better for those tougher cuts of meat that are full of connective tissue and get all meltingly fabulous when stewed, braised, or slow-roasted.

For the tri-tip, how big is it? They're usually 1.5-2 pounds, and roast up in only 30-40 minutes at 425 degrees. I'd tend to keep any marinade/flavoring relatively simple, such as lemon, garlic, and olive oil; or perhaps lime, cumin and olive oil. Or you could cut it into steaks and broil...


Lasagna: Sorry I couldn't check the reply for Lasagna recipe last week. Thanks for the butternut squash version.

But i did mean pumpkin Lasagna. It came in the "Dinner in 20 Minutes" section and used canned pumpkin as the main ingredient. It also used some baby spinach for the final layer.I still haven't had any luck finding the clipping.

Jane Touzalin: This might just be one of those recipes that's lost to the ages. Several of us searched the archives and couldn't find it. So if it turns up, let us know and we'll add it to our Recipe Finder on the Web site.


Silver Spring, Md.: So exactly where can you get these "Szechuan Buttons" locally?

And on a related topic of strange food items, I recently heard about something called "Miracle Fruit" a.k.a. synsepalum dulcificum, that turns sour tastes to sweet on the tongue. Where does that one rank on Esquire's list?

Jane Black: I've tasted the miracle fruit. It is, indeed, a miracle. They look like oblong cranberries and have a proportionally large pit. You chew it and then, for about an hour afterwards, everything tastes sweet. You can suck on a sour lemon and it tastes like it's encrusted in sugar. Great red wine is ruined and you can, literally, drink vinegar.

There's a farmer down in Florida who is trying to market them; he thinks they're the answer for kids with diabetes. You can special order them and he'll fed ex them to you. It's pricey but a cool party trick. I can find out if he wants me to publish his phone/address if you're interested in trying them.

Bonnie: You can only experience them in a restaurant dish -- right now, that's at Poste and Equinox. Koppert Cress (the company) is talking with a cannot-be-named-yet large organic grocery about selling some of its products, so maybe they'll show up in the produce department someday soon.


Washington, D.C.: I have some heavy whipping cream that I had to freeze before it went bad (left on a trip). I've read that it won't whip once it's been frozen. What can I do with it now? Dessert ideas get an extra star.

Jane Touzalin: You can use it in soups and in pasta dishes, for starters. Let it thaw, and shake it up before using. I've never used it in desserts; it wouldn't work in any dessert where the cream is supposed to achieve volume -- it definitely won't whip.


Silver Spring, Md.: Can you settle this once and for all please? What is the difference (if there is one) between a yam and a sweet potato? Thanks!

Bonnie: Yam = diff plant species than sweet potato, they have more natural sugar and a higher moisture content. Not as rich in vitamins A and C as sweet potatoes. Popular in South and Central America, the West Indies and parts of Asia and Africa. You may find real yams in Latin American markets.

Sweet potatoes = of the morning glory family; some of the darker-skinned varieties are called yams to distinguish them from their lighter-skinned counterparts. The ones with light-colored flesh aren't really that sweet, and can be substituted for regular potatoes in many recipes. Canned sweet potatoes are often labeled as yams. There's your source of confusion!


FYI Oat Bran Muffins: The Oat Bran cum Walnuts and Blueberries is a great recipe. It was a weekly standard in my kitchen last winter. I did, however, add one half cup of brown sugar to the ingredients which alone call for no sweetener. It needed that bit of sweetness to push it over the almost-too-bland hurdle.

Joe: Thanks for the tip!


Colesville, Md.: Good Afternoon,

We are leaving for a trip to Thailand in a week. I enjoy Thai food but have never cooked it. Any advice for things to buy over there that might be useful for cooking when I get home? I'm thinking clay pot but would love ideas. Thanks.

Walter: Everything you need for cooking Thai is available at Thai and Asian markets in our area. You don't need to lug it home. Those clay pots, by the way, break easily and are hard to clean. How about a Thai cooking class instead. All major hotels offer them these days.


Washington, D.C.: From the story today, it doesn't appear that there's a shortage of line cooks in the area-- rather, it appears that the chefs interviewed aren't willing to pay the going wage. ($10 an hour? that's what day laborers at a pick-up corner in the exurbs make!)And without insurance or other benefits? A barista at Starbucks eventually gets insurance, vacation, etc--and most probably make in that same $10-$15 per hour range. The company that paid $17 per hour plus benefits had no problem filling 40 jobs. If a restaurant's business model essentially requires paying starvation wages that won't attract workers, then the business model needs revisiting.

Joe: Chefs, are you reading?


Baltimore, Md. My husband and I are throwing a party to welcome some of his new colleagues. We'll have beer and wine. But I'm pregnant and would like to make a pitcher of some non-alcoholic drinks. Something fall-like, maybe with cranberry juice or cider-based? Any suggestions?

Jane Black: Sparkling cider is always festive and a good substitute for champagne and ginger is a lovely fall pairing. Here's a recipe I've used that I got off the Martinelli sparkling cider Web site. You can, of course, use any brand.

Ginger Apple Sparkler

Makes about 8

2 cups water

4 inch knob of ginger, thinly sliced

1/2 cup sugar

1 bottle Martinelli's Sparkling Cider

Combine the water and ginger in a heavy small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and steep 30 minutes. Add the sugar and bring to a boil again, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Strain. Cool then refrigerate until well-chilled.

Fill Champagne flutes half-way with the ginger syrup. Top off the flutes with cider.


Arlington, Va.: Beer / Cheese matching. Try checking out the excellent book by Garrett Oliver, "the brewmasters table". He lists many beer and food pairings, including cheeses.

In fact, he often will do a competition with a wine expert, pitting a selection of beers vs wines for a set of cheeses and usually wins.

There's the classic stilton with barley wine (a winter beer), but stouts work oddly well with blue cheeses. I find that most belgian browns and saisons work well with any cheese that you'd pair with apples or pears.

Fall beers should mean marzens I think (the oktoberfest beer), a little sweet, with a touch of the hop.

Joe: Indeed, many people say beer is a better natural fit for most food than wine is. And I agree, with many cheeses, it's a magical combination. And Garrett's book is great!


Louisville, KY: Help please! My boyfriend is adament about making caramel apples this season. We have tried twice in the past month, but we can't seem to achieve perfect caramel gooiness. I think the key is to use a candy thermometer and bring the mixture to a certain temperature. He thinks we have to get the correct heavy cream to sugar ratio. We are working from a Martha Stewart recipe and the first time the caramel was hard as a rock. The second time we added more cream and the caramel is too soft. What are we doing wrong so we can stop wasting apples?

Jane Touzalin: By all means, use a candy thermometer. I wouldn't make caramel without one. And I would respect Martha's ratio of ingredients if they seem similar to those in other caramel recipes you can find. If you're not already doing this, have a glass of cold water right next to your pan, and when you think the caramel is getting close, drop a blob of it into the water. Then fish it out with your fingers immediately and check it for consistency.

You may be wasting apples, but you're not wasting the candy. Caramel that's too hard or too soft can always be used as a hot topping for ice cream. Microwave gently, and even the hard-as-a-rock stuff will get gooier -- but once it hits the cold ice cream, you need to eat it fast!


processed foods: What is evaporated milk? Is it processed? Is there a substitute for this milk in a can, that is more fresh?

Joe: Yep, it's processed -- that's how they get it into the can and remove so much of the liquid, dontcha know. The heat processing guards against spoilage. Now, let's see, the fresh substitute for this milk-in-a-can would be ... (drumroll, please) ... fresh milk! In a carton, not a can!


Rockville, Md.: Do you have any recommendations for yougurt makers, or does it make just as much sense to make it with the stove top and oven method? Or for that matter, is making homemade yogurt really even worth it? Thanks!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: My Dad still has his from the 70's if you want to try. He's famous in our family for buying appliances we never used. He's also got an apple peeling machine and a deli-style slicer gathering dust somewhere.

I grind my own meat and make my own applesauce, but they are too many really good yogurts out there to bother with making your own!


Washington, D.C.: I tried a gorgonzola cheeze sauce recipe. The flavor was just a bit stronger than I like. What cheese could be substituted for part of the gorgonzola to tone down the flavor?

Bonnie: Note which gorgonzola you used, because it comes in different flavor strengths (dolce, piccante). Maybe try one of the creamier ones, such as Montbriac, Cambozola, Saga Blue or Blue Castello. I've already learned a lot from Werlin's book.


Washington, D.C.: hello, i went apple picking this past weekend and got carried away. we now have 12 lbs of apples at home. thanks for all the recipes this week! i'm wondering how you feel about crisco vs. butter in pie crusts. and what are the different outcomes in using the 2 ingredients? thank you thank you.

Joe: Butter crusts are tastier and I think flakier, and shortening versions are more tender, since the shortening has more fat and less water than butter. I use a combination, a la Julia Child, of mostly butter but with a few tablespoons of shortening, too.


re: apples!: This time of year reminds me of an easy dessert we used to make when I was a kid. You take a fairly tart apple, clean it well and then core it, leaving about 1/4-1/2 inches at the bottom. Into the core, put about 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, a tablespoon of butter, and 6-8 red hots (more if you like things really spicy). Wrap with foil, and then put on a hot grill for about 15 minutes (or, if its too cold, skip the foil, put the apple in a baking pan with the cut side up, and bake at 375 for about 15 minutes) Yum!

Joe: Red Hots, as in the candy? Fun!


pyrex: I have a pyrex casserole dish that says, microwave, no broiler, no stovetop. Can I use this in the oven to bake a lasagna or casserole?

Joe: Yep -- that was its original intent, even.


McLean, Va.: Hello,

I had lunch twice last week at a Sardinian restaurant in Florence and one of the "secret" ingredients seemed to be the smoked Pecorino.

My chef/cooking instructor mother warned me that it would be hard to find but I'm not really even finding a lot of references to it online. Has anyone seen it somewhere locally?


Walter: Cheesetique (2403 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-706-5300)does not have smoked Pecorino. But they would be happy to track some down for you.


frozen bananas: I froze brown bananas and then thawed in fridge to use in banana bread. There is liquid with the thawed bananas. Should this be disposed of or can it be used in the recipe?

Leigh: Go ahead and throw it all in.


re: caramel: Is there a simple way to make a caramel topping for popcorn?

Bonnie: Microwave a mixture of butter, brown sugar, light corn syrup and maybe a little vanilla extract. Let it boil and thicken, stir carefully, then pour.


Joe: We're fresh out of time today, everyone -- but thanks for the great questions, as always.

Now for our book winners: The Washington chatter who is sending Gulf Coast foodstuffs to displaced family will get "Kitchen Memories: A Legacy of Family Recipes From Around the World." And the Silver Spring chatter who is leading a group trying to lose weight will get "New England Soup Factory Cookbook." (There are lots of lighter options in there...) Just email your mailing information to food@washpost.com, and we'll get you your books.

Until next week, happy eating, cooking and reading!


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