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Free Range on Food: CulinAerie and Other Cooking Schools, Irish Soda Bread, NY-Style Pizza, Indian Cooking for Beginners and more

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At CulinAerie, a new recreational cooking school in Washington, D.C., co-owner Susan Holt teaches both young and old kitchen tips and techniques.Video by Whitney Shefte/washingtonpost.com

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, March 11, 2009; 1:00 PM

A chat with the Washington Post Food Section staff is a forum for discussion of all things culinary: food trends, recipes, ingredients, menus, gadgets and more. You can share your thoughts on the latest Food section, get suggestions from fellow cooks and food lovers, or swap old-fashioned recipes the new-fashioned way. The Food section staff goes Free Range on Food every Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.

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A transcript follows.

Transcripts of past chats

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, food people, and welcome to Free Range, where class is in session. Today we have the two Susans joining us: Holt and Watterson, co-owners of CulinAerie, one of the new cooking schools that Jane B writes about in the section today. They're here to help us help you, so get your typing fingers all limbered up and fire your questions our way.

I'll have two giveaway books for our favorite posts today: "Glorious One-Pot Meals" by Elizabeth Yarnell and "The Best Skillet Recipes" from the editor's of Cook's Illustrated.

Let's go!

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Washington, D.C.: Related to cooking schools -- I'm a young lawyer and relatively accomplished home cook and baker who may have time for a mini-sabbatical (say, 6 weeks or thereabouts) in the next few months, and want to spend it doing something food-related. Any ideas? If not a specific program, a general thought -- intensive coursework, seek an internship? I may eventually toy with a second career in food, so it could be with an eye towards that -- or just for fun. What would you do?

Jane Black: Oh wow. That sounds heavenly! There are a million things you could do and you have follow your heart. I personally wouldn't recommend an internship unless you're interested in restaurant cooking in future. You'll learn tricks of prepping and how to cook under fire, but those aren't necessarily skills you need as a home cook. To get ideas, your first stop should be Shaw Guides, which lists all the recreational culinary programs around the world. I think you can search by type or location. Places I've always wanted to go are the King Arthur baking school, which offers one-off and week-long classes, and Nimmy Paul's school in Kerala. But that's just me.

Joe Yonan: I sent my sister to a King Arthur weekend workshop, and it changed everything. Particularly her bread, which is everything to me (and her).

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Reston, Va.: Wow, I'm really excited to try the Flippin' Pizza that was reviewed. I'm a NY-area transplant and have found precisely one restaurant in northern Va. that has anything LIKE NY pizza. Bonus points for this place being within walking distance. It's great to see a review of a place that's not in DC!

Joe Yonan: Glad you liked it. But if you haven't seen enough reviews of takeout spots outside DC, you're not reading our Good to Go column closely enough, because we alternate DC, MD and VA -- or at least try to.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: Do you have any information about Bebo's cooking classes? We are considering signing up for a special occasion but haven't seen any "reviews" or students' experiences about the class. Or, are there any other restaurants that do lunchtime cooking classes? Thanks!

Susan Watterson: We do Lunchtime Lectures at CulinAerie on a wide variety of topics: wine trucs, kitchen science, the urban omnivore. They last for an hour and lunch is included. Nice break in the day and little food for thought.

Joe Yonan: I haven't heard a firsthand report from Bebo's classes -- have any chatters taken one? They don't look like lunchtime to me; they're evening here on the Web site.

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Cooking school story: Great story today about the new cooking places. For someone who's 18 and wants to learn basic cooking skills before moving into her own apt., which class at Cookology would you recommend?

Jane Black: I have to punt here. They offer so many different ones Check out the class list on Cookology's web site.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Loved the section today. I think the Food Section had a recipe for post-Thanksgiving hash a few years ago, which inspired our Friday breakfast tradition.

On another topic -- I have a question for Jason, if he's around. I'm planning a dinner party to celebrate our newfound family roots in Italy. Our region is known for a type of anisette and also has peach groves. I'm thinking the combination of the anisette and juice might be nice. But wouldn't a proper cocktail include another spirit? What would he suggest?

Jason Wilson: Interesting. I've been playing around with anisette, sambuca, and other anise-flavored spirits lately and have been enjoying a mix of equal parts anisette and pink grapefruit juice on ice in a highball glass, with maybe a splash of club soda. (I like Meletti brand anisette, btw) As for peach juice or nectar and anisette, that might work nicely as well. Remember, anisette is a bit syrupy, so I'd try to find a lighter peach juice. As far as being a "proper" cocktail" don't feel hemmed into that. You can always start by trying a mix of equal parts anisette and the peach juice or nectar, on ice, to see if it works. Maybe a dash of bitters, too? Fee Brothers makes a peach bitters (which I think you can find at Ace Beverage) or you could try orange or Angostura. Or maybe try a dash of Chartreuse in lieu of bitters -- that would work with the anisette and the fruit.

If you want to try something based more on a classic cocktail recipe, you could try a variation on the Yellow Parrot -- which is 3/4 oz. each of anisette, yellow Chartreuse, and apricot-flavored brandy, stirred with ice and strained into a cocktail glass. Perhaps you could substitute a peach liqueur for the apricot? I know it's not the same, but that would be the general path I'd stroll down. Try using a Creme de Peche (and whatever you do, avoid Peachtree Schnapps!).

Maybe I'll give something a try this weekend! Good luck!

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Bread dough: A generic question - when converting recipes for bread dough from food processor to Kitchen Aid mixer with dough hook -- do you knead the dough for just a couple minutes, more? less? In the FP I used to knead for about 30-60 seconds after the dough would "clean the edge of the bowl." I want to convert my recipes to the mixer, which has a much larger capacity and will no longer tax my FP. After my first experiment it seems I must mix the liquids first with about a third of the flour, and continue adding flour until I have the consistency I need -- one recipe I checked said to knead in mixer for 10 minutes. Surely that was a mistake for a mixer? Thanks for your help.

Susan Watterson: The mixer works more slowly than the food processor so expect the mixing/kneading process to take longer. It's also much harder to over-knead the dough in the mixer than in the food processor, plus you can watch the changes in the dough as as they happen. As with any bread dough, go with your gut: you'll know it's ready if you've baked before. One tip: personally I never use the dough hook -- it just makes the dough run up the mixer. I think the paddle attachment does a much better job of both mixing and kneading the dough.

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Washington, D.C.: A few years ago I made tiny chocolate chip cookies based on a recipe I think I found in the Washington Post, but I can't find it in your recipe archives. As I recall the article compared them to petits fours in their daintiness. I think I found the same recipe on epicurious (from Gourmet), but hoped to find the Post's version in case it was tweaked at all since I had good luck with it. Can you help?

Jane Black: Looks like it is from Gourmet. It was in a 2004 article called "Recipes from Gourmet" which I'm sure made sense at the time. Here it is.

Tiny Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes about 12 1/2 dozen cookies

Active time: 45 minutes

Start to Finish: 45 minutes

"The chocolate chip cookie is an American icon, but it's never been considered refined or particularly beautiful. Until now. When it's much smaller than usual, it's somehow elevated to petit-fours status -- exquisite and almost jewel-like. And as far as taste goes, the secret ingredient in superior chocolate chip cookies is a humble one: salt. It bumps up the flavor of the chocolate and brings everything into perfect balance."

1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups (7 1/2 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

Put a rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Beat together butter, sugar, salt and baking soda in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour and mix at low speed until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.

Drop barely rounded 1/2 teaspoons of dough about 1 1/2 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake in batches until golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes per batch. Transfer cookies to racks to cool.

Cook's Note: The cookies keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Per cookie: 21 calories, trace protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 17 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

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Annapolis, Md.: I've really become interested in learning everything baking and cooking, and due to cost I tend to take my classes through my county's continuing education courses. I really want to learn better knife skills and I'm willing to spend a bit more money for the class. However, I'm vegetarian, and I don't want to learn how to debone a chicken or work with meat. Is there a knife class for me anywhere?

Susan Holt: The knife skills classes we teach at CulinAerie focus on a good deal more than simply deboning a chicken: the class covers types, styles and care of knives, different cuts and preparations of fruits and vegetables and why the different knives are appropriate. We encourage our students to let us know if they have vegetarian requests and we can always accommodate by giving them other raw products on which to work.

Joe Yonan: As someone who sat in on Susan H's knife-skills class, I can vouch for its usefulness!

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Arlington: Are there any classes offered on cooking w/a wok? We just bought one and would like to learn how to use it properly. Thanks for the advice.

Jane Black: Again, check out our list of cooking schools. You'll certainly find a wok cooking class at one of them.

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Richmond, Virginia: OMG, my dream vacation just got adjusted. Imagine a week at a cooking school! For me it would be Italian or French savories!

Jane Black: There are some amazing programs overseas. Faith Heller Willinger in Florence. Patricia Wells in Paris. (Though they are both very expensive.) I say, go for it.

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Avid Food fan: I love the Post food section, but I don't understand why I have to read the NY Times to find out about the First Lady's support of fresh, healthy food and exactly what went into that cream-less creamed spinach. I would think you guys would be all over that beat like white on rice. I know it's in your backyard, but we'd still like to know this stuff.

Jane Black: Actually, we did cover the story the day after it happened... but in the Style section. We are certainly trying to stay on the Obama food stories and will do our best to keep you avid foodies posted.

Joe Yonan: To clarify: The creamless spinach stuff came out of a different event, and we ran an AP version of that story on the website.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm really interested in taking some cooking classes. Something fun and not too expensive but I'm having trouble finding some good ones in the area. Any suggestions?

Jane Black: Well, one of the four new ones we wrote about might do the trick. Otherwise, check out our 2008 list of classes around the area.

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Passover right around the corner!: I know I'm early with this, but I just got invited to a Seder and volunteered dessert, not that I've ever made anything for Passover. I bought some potato starch that I'm guessing I can use... any suggestions besides a can of macaroons? Thank you!

Bonnie Benwick: Oh, you don't have to start with potato starch any more. We'll have something new for you in the April 1st Food section. Meanwhile, you can find some really outstanding PASSOVER DESSERT recipes if you use those 2 keywords in the Advanced Search fields of our Recipe Finder (to tempt you: Caramel-Coated Orange Flan, Chocolate Pistachio Cardamom Cake, Macaroon Brownies). And the Lucia's Walnut Cake recipe we ran last week is flourless and would make an easy holiday dessert: here you go.

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Fairfax, Va.: Posting early because of a darn meeting, but had to say I loved learning about the new Va. suburban cooking schools! And as a native New Yorker, I also have to defend our obsessiveness with pizza and say I'm glad to hear about the real thing in Reston.

Bonnie Benwick: We could run a pizza place review about every week, couldn't we? If you go, report back.

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Pine Plains, N.Y.: Markets have packages of corned beef brisket labeled thick cut, thin cut, flat cut and point cut, and then there's round. Which cut would you recommend?

Bonnie Benwick: Hi PP. Flat or point cut would work. Flavorwise, you may want something that looks like it has a fair amount of fat on the outside (which will simmer away).

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Chicago: I recently visited an Indian restaurant for the first time and fell in love with the cuisine. My friends were nice and let me try their dishes, too, so I got a pretty good sampling of the food. I have no idea what I was afraid of -- it's delicious! Now I'm addicted, of course, and would love to start cooking some of my own Indian food. However, I've done some research and it seems that 1) the food takes some special equipment (oh yeah, sure, I use my tandoor all the time) and 2) the actual cooking seems to be a bit tricky and lengthy. It's rare that I have an entire day to focus on cooking. Should I just start locating all the nearest Indian restaurants or is there a good way for a newbie to break into this cuisine? If it helps, some of the dishes I tried and loved were tikka masala, korma chicken and something with a spinach sauce. Also, I do have the benefit of having an Indian/Pakistani grocery store literally right across the street from me. Help!

Susan Watterson: I LOVE Indian food but I know exactly what you mean: when you read a typical Indian recipe it's like 3 pages long. Don't despair: much of the ingredient lists are spices which you can get at your market across the street (hopefully in bulk so you don't have to buy so much). The special equipment can be substituted mostly by what you have at home (with a few exceptions). If you read through the recipe carefully you'll most likely find you can condense many of the steps (toasting and grinding a mountain of spices for example). Break the recipe down into chunks and I think you'll find Indian cooking is not so complicated after all -- and well worth the effort.

Joe Yonan: And keep reading your Food section: Next month we'll have a package of stories on Indian cooking that we promise will make some of those flavors wonderfully accessible.

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Chesterfield, Va.: I've been trying to expand my finicky husband's range and it is working slowly. Interestingly enough, soups and stews have been successful (we think of kids not liking soup) -- maybe because he is most finicky about meat and meat in stews is mixed in with other stuff. So what are some lighter stews I can prep in the spring? It's time to retire some of the thicker winter stews (yippie spring!).

Susan Holt: If your husband does eat meat but is finicky about having lots of other heavy overcooked stuff along with it, try a classic spring stew: navarin of lamb. Take lamb shoulder (or leg), cut it in 1-inch cubes and braise in chicken stock with onion, carrot, celery, tomato, garlic. Strain out sauce and reduce it, then add spring vegetables that you've blanched ahead of time: peas, asparagus tips, morels, fiddleheads, etc. Much lighter than all those heavy root vegetables. Another way to lighten up a dish is to braise in white wine only, rather than red wine and/or tomato based sauces.

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Midwest: I was planning on making and freezing some casseroles this weekend. Dumb question, but when I go to cook them, do they need to thaw first or can I put them straight in the oven but for longer? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Care to give some examples of what you plan to cook? Kinda depends what the casseroles are made of (and what you freeze them in). For a lasagna-type dish, try defrosting in the fridge just until you can pierce the center with a knife. Bake with foil on top until the lasagna's bubbling, then remove the foil to get that good browning thing going. I usually put cold casseroles on a baking sheet in the oven, too... helps warm things faster.

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Anonymous: Do you or the chatters have a recipe for an "Irish" soda bread that uses all purpose flour? And can I omit the raisins? Please?

Thanks.

Susan Watterson: This is an authentic Irish Soda Bread from my Irish Aunt Nelly. It takes AP flour -- and raisins, which I guess you can omit if you hate them -- plus caraway seeds. Best eaten warm.

IRISH SODA BREAD

Ingredients:1+ 3/4 cups flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

1/4 cup sugar

pinch salt

3/4 cup milk

1 egg

1 tsp melted butter

3/4 cup dark raisins

2 tsp caraway seeds, or to taste

Procedure:

1.Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer.

2.Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add milk, egg and melted butter to the well. Stir until blended.

3.Mix in raisins and caraway seeds until combined. Pour batter into greased cake or bread tins and bake at 350 degree oven until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 to 45 minutes. Serve warm with plenty of butter.

Joe Yonan: We also have a recipe for Dark Irish Soda Bread from Elinor Klivans. No raisins!

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Washington, D.C.: I am planning on making Irish soda bread on Sunday. How do we feel about excluding caraway seeds from the recipe? I will toss some raisins into the dough. Do you have a "go to" recipe to share?

Jane Black: Bonnie has shared her go-to recipe. This "we" feels that you should leave out caraway seeds if you don't like them.

After all, you have to eat it.

Jane Black: Make that Susan Watterson that has shared her go-to recipe. Whoops.

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Maryland: Since today's food section was so focused on economy -- hash recipes, going out for a basics class instead of a sit-down dinner -- here is my number one money-saving tip: Get groceries at a supermarket catering to ethnic groups other than white Anglo, like Bestway or Panam. I don't know why, but when supermarkets have a white Anglo customer as their target, the prices are much higher for the same thing. The Bestway and Panam don't have everything, but the meat and produce are good and extremely inexpensive. Not organic, but some types of fruits and veggies don't have a lot of pesticides anyway. All those extra dollars per pound at the Whole Foods (where you can hardly ever get onions under $1.50/lb!) or even Safeway really add up when you use a lot of produce.

Jane Black: Thanks for passing this along.

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Potato crust: What is the secret to potato crusts? I've seen chicken breasts and fish served in restaurants with a nice, crispy-tender crust of seasoned potatoes on top -- either superthin slices or shreds similar to hash browns. But when I tried this at home I found that the fish or chicken ended up overcooked or the potatoes undercooked, and I couldn't get the potatoes to "stick" to the fish or chicken. Do I cook them separately? Is there some sort of press involved (as in weight, not as in media)? What is the secret? I'd like to try it tonight with a couple boneless chicken breasts that need to be freed from the freezer but I am leery of another mess.

Susan Watterson: The "secret" to potato crusts is twofold: the first is to use a special cutting tool called a mandoline. This will allow you to get the potatoes in thin enough sticks or sheets to wrap around the chicken or fish. You may also want to sear off the protein and allow it too cool first before applying the potato layer. The second thing is to keep the potatoes whole and raw and to cut them right before applying the crust: the potato starch should keep them stuck to the protein and to each other. Brush a little (clarified) butter on the surface of the spuds to keep them from getting too crispy. If you're still having trouble, "cheat" a little by brushing the chicken or fish with something sticky first, like mustard or honey or egg white. That should cement things!

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Alexandria: Thank you for the article on cooking classes. I would really like to learn to make a few Asian things - specifically fried rice, stir fry, and maybe how to recreate hibachi vegetables in my own home. Do any of these places offer classes like that? I'd really prefer something simple and practical rather than fancy food I'd never attempt on my own.

Bonnie Benwick: We run a list of local cooking classes in the fall each year; maybe you can find what you're after here.

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foccacia?: Can I use homemade pizza dough to make a foccacia-style bread? I have half a batch of pizza dough (Kim O'Donnel's) in the freezer. After it rose, I cut it in two, made a pizza with half, and froze the other half. I'm wondering if I have to roll it out for another pizza crust (which would be no great punshiment) or if there are other uses I can make of it (which would be fun and adventurous while I wait for a WARM SPRING here in the nort')

Thanks.

Susan Watterson: You can use the pizza dough for a foccacia-style bread: leave it thicker than you would for a pizza, place it in a sheet pan or something else with sides, dimple it with your fingers and drizzle it with olive oil and, if you like, sprinkle it with coarse salt and/or rosemary. Bake until a knife blade comes out clean in the center. It won't be as light as foccacia you've probably be had but it should be good!

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Colesville, Md.: I have a gas stove and tried to make a Sunday pot roast this past week. Even though I had the gas set on low/2 I still ended up using three times the recommended liquid (I improvised with wine, Diet Coke, and veg stock). Even with all that extra liquid and the low setting the meat was tender but dry after the 3.5 hour cooking time. Any recommendations as how to do better?

Bonnie Benwick: Diet Coke?

It's a little hard to diagnose without seeing the recipe, but you're on the right track, in terms of adding liquids as needed to keep the roast moist. You cooked it covered, right? Sometimes in braising, people add an extra layer of parchment paper to insulate (just under the lid).

Joe Yonan: The classical way I was taught to braise is to cover the food with a big piece of aluminum foil, pressing it all the way down to touch the surface of the food (and even the liquid), going up the sides of the pan, too, before putting the cover on. That way there's no place for the steam to go.

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Reston, Va.: Great article on the cooking schools. On one hand, I like to think that I'm an okay cook -- people generally like what I make. But I tend to do a lot of one-pot stuff, baked goods, and meats that are appropriate for grilling, so I'm missing a lot of basic skills like cooking and carving a whole chicken, doing a beef roast, things like that. The classes sound like they'd be ideal for someone like me. Thanks for the suggestions.

Jane Black: Yes. A basics class can take you a long way. Hope you find a great one.

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Alexandria, Va.: What is the best way to ripen green bananas?

Bonnie Benwick: Place them in a plastic food storage bag or brown paper bag, with cut pieces of apple or a tomato. They ripen faster in warm temps rather than cool ones.

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NY pizza: I really laughed at today's article about the NY pizza place in Reston. My husband is just like that guy in the article who goes on and on about the pizza of his home state. Guess I know where I'm taking him for his next pizza fix. Thanks!

Jane Black: Yes and did you see the previous comment from someone in Chicago that said Chicagoans know best? The debate continues!

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Re Flippin' Pizza: Your review says the crust is crisp. That is not NY style! I'm a recent transplant too and I love DC, but I hate that thin = crackery here. Why is it so hard to make a real NY style pizza?

Bonnie Benwick: It's the water.

Joe Yonan: At the risk of starting a pizza war, I disagree that crisp is not NY style. Let's turn to the experts. First up, Ed Levine ("Pizza: A Slice of Heaven," "New York Eats," and the fab web site Serious Eats). In "Pizza," he writes, "Then there is the crust, that centrally important component of the New York slice, crisp though pliant enough to bend, with a few bubbles in the dough." In a piece for the New York Times, before he was wine columnist, Eric Asimov wrote, "I'm talking about classic New York pizza: pies cooked quickly in extremely hot ovens, generally coal-fired, until the thin crust achieves a gloriously charred, smoky crispness."

Of course, maybe you're mistaken in equating crisp with crackery. Because Flippin' Pizza is not crackery, at least I don't think so from my reading of the review.

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Richmond, Va.: I finally replaced my 70s crock pot and now regret it! The new ones ARE hotter! So hot that I can't cook meat on low while I'm at work anymore -- it gets too tough. Why, oh why did they do that? Now all my all-day-at-work recipes don't work any more. Folks, head out to yard sales to get the old ones.

Susan Watterson: Before you pitch out your new crock pot: have you tried marinating the meat first in wine or something dairy (yogurt, buttermilk)? That will tenderize it first so it may not come out as tough in the end.

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cooking school: I have often wondered if taking a class or three would be a waste of time or make me better in the kitchen!?! I m a good cook and I have decent (I think) knife skills. I can break down a chicken without hacking thru bones, I can make a souffle, I can clean and filet a whole striped bass/rockfish (without a lot of waste) or pick out a fresh fish at market, I can cook a perfect steak, on the grill or on the stove/finish in oven. Roasting vegetables, making a bechamel, removing a tomato's skin for a paella or sauce are a few other random things I understand. Not sure what the next step (classes?) to becoming a better cook might be? Thanks

Susan Holt: Wow--your skills are impressive, congratulations! Are you interested in further refinements, such as classic sauces (Hollandaise, beurre blanc, sauce Espagnole), more complicated pastry techniques (pate feuillete--puff paste--for example)? If not it sounds as though you have ample foundation for continuing your pursuit of culinary knowledge. Unless you want to go work in a professional kitchen for someone who was trained in the manner of Escoffier--something I actually would recommend if you're that serious! One more question--do you clean as you go? :)

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Slow Cooker City: I would love to have a new idea or two for using my slow cooker (typically for when my husband is having poker night, so meat is a requirement). So far, I've done stew, pot roast, ropa vieja, BBQ, chili and a roast chicken. So...any other ideas?

Jane Black: You might want to check out the new book, Slow & Easy by Natalie Haughton. There are tons of easy ideas. Here's one that I think sounds good. It's not terribly low fat but I hope it serves as inspiration.

Thai Style Ribs with Peanut Sauce

Serves 5 to 6

3 1/2 pounds boneless pork loin country style ribs

1/2 cup Thai peanut sauce

1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter

3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk

1/4 to 1/2 tsp crushed hot red pepper

chopped scallions for garnish

Trim as much fat as possible from the ribs. Place them in a 4-quart electric slow cooker.

In a bowl, combine peanut sauce, peanut butter and 1/2 cup of the coconut milk. Whisk to blend well. Add to the slow cooker and toss with the meat.

Cover and cook on the low heat setting for 8 to 9 hours until the meat is very tnder. Stir in the remaining coconut milk and the hot pepper. Garnish with scallions.

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Montclair, Va: Any suggestions for classes that might cater more to those of us vegetarians or even vegans?

Susan Watterson: Yes, we have vegetarian classes at CulinAerie including Mexican, Middle Eastern and Indian. You will often find vegetarian classes under ethnic cuisine headings because their spices lend themselves so well to a meatless diet.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: If Budweiser's American Ale wins, the Beer Madness bracket will be rendered trivial. I'm still unclear how/why you chose the beers you did? It seems so random and arbitrary. What exactly does the winner gain as a title? "We're the most accessible out of 32 randomly selected beers"?

Jason Wilson: ...whereas if American Ale does not win, the Beer Madness bracket will offer a solution to war and poverty?

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Rockville, Md.: Is there a technical difference between baking and roasting? I know they're both methods of cooking with dry heat, but if I say I'm making baked chicken, it gives a very different mental image than making roast chicken. You'd never say you were roasting a cake, and you rarely hear anyone talk about baking a turkey or a piece of beef, but you can both bake and roast chicken or fish, and you roast pork but bake ham. Why? Thanks very much; this has been bugging me for months.

Joe Yonan: Well, the way I think of it, baking is a more generic term for cooking something in the oven, while roasting has more specific connotations: such as that the food being roasted will be uncovered. (According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the word "meant originally to cook by exposure to radiant heat in the open.") Roasting has come to also have the connotation that the food will be cooked at a higher temperature. But there are exceptions to all this that come to mind: What about "slow-roasting"? And what about "pot roasts"? Regarding baking, connotations and exceptions abound, too: When you read the term "baked goods," you think about cakes, pies, cookes, etc. But we also have baked beans.

Language is inexact, isn't it?

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wheat germ: What on earth can I do with nearly a pound of wheat germ (Bob's Red Mill if it matters)? I bought it on the suggestion of Sally Squires. I think the idea was to mix it into yogurt for extra nutrients at breakfast, etc. but found that I don't care for the texture. Are there ways to use it that will reduce or eliminate that sand-in-the-mouth feel?

I just rediscovered the bag in the course of cleaning out the kitchen. We are replacing the shelves in our small pantry in the kitchen as well as painting and reorganizing the shelves in our basement pantry (which stores food, wine, TP, paper towel, recycling bags and a host of other dry goods.)

This project was a planned part of our moderate kitchen re-do, but the timing worked nicely with Kim O'Donnel's "eat down the fridge/pantry challenge."

Thanks for listening... and telling me what to do with that blessed wheat germ.

washingtonpost.com: FYI - Kim's hosting a special Eating Down the Fridge Challenge chat tomorrow so do come back for that!

Joe Yonan: First question: Have you kept it in the fridge? You really should because of the oils in the germ (the heart of the wheat berry). If the texture bothers you, I'd think about adding it to baked goods, where it would be less noticeable, or blending it up into smoothies.

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Rockville: My almost-one year old has yet to have chocolate or egg whites. His birthday is next Saturday (!) and of course we want to see that chocolate smeared on his face. But what is the tastiest thing you can think to make that would be safe for him? I thought of vegan options, but any other ideas? Thanks!

Joe Yonan: My understanding is that you keep egg whites from children under 1 to avoid allergic reactions to the protein, and from children under 2 if there is a family history of allergy problems or related illnesses. With chocolate, I believe it's the other ingredients often used in the making of chocolate that are the problem, not the chocolate itself, so if you stick with something dark rather than milk, you'll be safe. And again, the advisories I've seen are about children under the age of 1 -- and your child is about to cross that threshold!

I think you could feel safe making a dessert that used yolks but no whites, and stick with a dark chocolate.

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Richmond: I made a nice beef stew Sunday. Last night the leftovers were tasty, but mushy. Did I cook it too long Sunday? Or should I not have frozen it?

Bonnie Benwick: Well, how long did you cook it on Sunday?

See the earlier post about a pot roast. Maybe the parchment paper trick will work for you, too. A dampened piece placed directly on the stew as it reheats (with the lid closed, too) will help keep moisture and steam circulating within the food.

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Indian/Pakistani grocery store literally right across the street: Then it's easy. For me what works is those awesome spice boxes that cost about a dollar. They are all mixed together for a specific dish, with the ingredients and recipe on the back. If you actually follow the recipe precisely, you will be amazed how well it compares to the restaurant. This is much easier and cheaper than buying multiple spices in bulk, especially if you don't cook Indian all the time so it would take you several years to finish off an 8-oz bag of brown mustard seeds...

Jane Black: Thanks. Good tip.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi! Thanks for taking my question. I have been making this dessert since high school (with a few years off in between since I had forgotten the recipe), that resembles a coffee cake and has guava paste in between layers (so it is like a guava paste, sandwiched between a buttery cakey batter). I was hoping I could change it up a little with some light cheese. I was thinking of mascarpone. Do you think this would work? Do I need to do anything with the mascarpone (sweeten it)? I am planning to do it without the guava paste and just the cheese. Any suggestions? THANK YOU!

Susan Watterson: I have had something very similar to what you describe -- a Puerto Rican friend says her Mom makes it all the time. I like the guava paste and I think that would go great with the mascarpone (add a little bit of sugar to the cheese, just so you know it's there). But if you're tired of the guava and just want to go with the cheese, I would sweeten it up considerably and add some citrus zest for more flavor. Or switch to a different type of fruit: use raspberry jam, for example, or orange marmalade. Could be good.

Joe Yonan: I think, Philly, you're talking about a recipe in which the guava slices get put in between the raw batter, right? And then they melt as the batter cooks around them? I asked baking maven Lisa Yockelson about this, and she agreed with my first thought that mascarpone might be an iffy substitute. The guava paste is pretty firm and stable, while the mascarpone isn't... so Lisa thinks the cake's crumb might be compromised if the cheese combines with the batter in a way that the guava paste wouldn't.

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Richmond, Va.: A lot of recipes I see involve sauteing something and then moving the pan to the oven. I think I need to buy a Dutch oven? Or would a oven-safe skillet be more using long term?

Bonnie Benwick: You don't need to buy a Dutch oven for that particular maneuver... an ovenproof skillet's a good thing to have, particularly for finishing seared steaks and fish.

Joe Yonan: And remember that just about the cheapest ovenproof skillet you can buy is good old cast iron.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend doesn't cook very much. He can bake well, makes a mean mac and cheese, and eats a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. At times he says he would like to cook more often, but just doesn't have the basics down. I'm not sure he's up for cooking lessons -- I usually try to give him some tips when I'm cooking. I'm trying to think of a resource for him, or cookbooks that describe the process well. (I feel like many cookbooks now aren't well tested -- the time to publication is so short, and there are so many cookbooks published, i.e., 500 cupcake recipes, 500 cookie recipes, etc.). Do you have any suggestions? I was considering a subscription to Cooks Illustrated or one of their cookbooks (hint hint), but I just wonder if there's something better out there.

Jane Black: If he's one of those guys who likes directions, Cooks Illustrated might be just the thing. Otherwise, I'd look for a book with a lot of things that he would like to eat/make. That might lure him in the kitchen more than a basics book. Just my 2 cents. Anyone else?

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Arroz con pollo -- help!: Hi -- thanks for taking my question!

I am having serious issues when it comes to arroz con pollo. My holy grail is tender rice that is infused with chicken flavor and tender flavorful meat. Recipes that I've used tend to leave me with greasy, mushy rice, chicken that tastes close to boiled chicken, and a flavor that doesn't challenge my tastebuds. There's enough salt, but not a whole lot else going on in the pot.

My friend swears she gave me her mom's recipe, but I think mom is holding out! (or maybe she just has this down and I'm a cooking disaster.) The basics are:

1. Brown skin-on cut chicken (seasoned with salt, pepper and dry garlic) in a few tablespoons of oil. Remove. 2. Saute vegetables (onion, celery, green pepper, fresh tomato and a minced jalapeno) in drippings until tender. Salt, then add long-grain rice and stir. Add water to come 2 inches above the level of the rice, drop heat and cover till rice is halfway done. 3. Open pot and make sure there is still some "juice" in the pot. Add partially-done chicken pieces. Cover pot again and continue to cook until done.

What would you change/tweak about this recipe? Or do you have a good one to suggest? Couldn't find one with a search on Washington Post, but please direct me if I missed it.

Thanks! You'll help me satisfy a major craving....

Susan Holt: Two things right off the bat: use homemade chicken stock rather than water, and get a "stewing chicken" if at all possible (one that hasn't gone from egg to slaughter in a matter of a few short weeks). If you really want it to be perfect, braise the chicken separately in the homemade chicken stock until tender, then remove the pieces. Saute the vegetables in some fresh butter, then wash the rice and add it to the veggies. Add the braising liquid in a 2:1 ratio, stock to rice, bring to a simmer and cook until tender, THEN add the chicken back to it just to reheat. And kudos to you for using enough salt!

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Vienna, Va.: I need help with sauces for pasta. I know you did a great spread a few weeks back, and I've tried most of them out! I try to make a lighter pasta at the end of the week, with penne, some veggies and either canned tuna or crabmeat and I usually make a butter sauce with it. Is there anything healthier you can suggest? Only caveat is, can't have cream or cheese. Thanks for the great articles on cooking classes! Will have to try some!

Susan Watterson: How about whisking together some roasted garlic, olive oil and chile flakes? Or olive oil with fresh herbs (basil, oregano, marjoram)? Or make a cheese-less sundried tomato pesto with the tomatoes, their oil, some basil, pinenuts, pureed all together? You could do the same sort of thing with olives as well. If you want something with a little more body, add some of the pasta cooking water to thicken things up.

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Baltimore, Md.: Interesting story on the cooking schools. In researching the article, did you come across any similar cooking schools in the Baltimore area?

Also, I have a recipe for dal that calls for yellow split peas in addition to red lentils. I can never get the split peas done, even though I don't add any salt to begin. I'm tempted to just leave out the peas and double the lentils, but I'm willing to give it one more try. Would soaking the peas help? How long would I need to soak them?

Jane Black: I'm not familiar with Baltimore cooking schools but this one, For the Love of Food seems similar to the ones we wrote about. Might be worth looking into.

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Frozen bananas: I froze some bananas and noticed their starting to liquify (ew, didn't know they did that) -- before they turn to banana juice, can I make banana bread or something else with them?

Susan Watterson: Absolutely: they'll make great banana bread once thawed (include the juice in there) or chuck them frozen in the blender with some yogurt and fruit for a quick smoothie.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the class rotation like at CulinAerie? I would love to take the knife skills class you have on Friday but will be out of town. Will this be offered again in April or May?

Susan Holt: Thank you for your question. We offer the knife skills class at least once a month and try to alternate different times. The next one coming up is Monday night April 6, from 6:30 - 9:30, and there will most likely be another one offered on a Saturday morning a few weeks after that.

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re cooking school: I HATE a messy kitchen and can't work in one, I clean as I go, unless my wife is willing to give me (the sink) a helping hand...

Susan Holt: You belong in a professional kitchen, and your wife is lucky to have you!

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Cooking classes: I suppose I should try it before I knock it, but I don't get cooking classes. What can you learn from a class that you can't learn from a cookbook, especially now that there are cookbooks with pictures, like Julia Child's "The Way to Cook"?

Susan Holt: Is reading "Hamlet" the same thing as seeing it on stage? Of course I'm going to tell you that you experience something so much better when you see it done properly by someone who knows how! It really is the same with cooking: even after two years of culinary school and a year working as a cook, I had barely scratched the surface of what I could learn from the cooks, chefs, even the potwasher and prep people I've worked with in my career. And having cooked now professionally for 22 years, I learn something new almost every day. Just try a bite, as my mother would say, and if you don't like it . . .

Joe Yonan: I agree, as much as I love a good cookbook, there's really nothing like hands-on training and experience. I wouldn't trade my culinary-school year for anything. Think about it this way, to extend your Julia metaphor. If Julia were still with us (how I wish!), and you won a prize, and it consisted of a choice between a signed copy of "The Way to Cook" OR a series of lessons with Julia herself walking you through the recipes, which would you pick? Would you even hesitate? OK, maybe the analogy really should be that she teaches you and a dozen friends, but still...

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Gas Stove Braising -- suggestion: Might I suggest braising in your oven, if you have one that works properly? I found that on a gas stove in my old apartment, the lowest setting that kept a steady flame was still too high for a good, slow braise. That's when I started plunking things in the oven instead -- 300-350 F -- and started finding out the joy of tender, slow-and-even-simmered stews that didn't need extra liquid or babysitting (e.g. Did the burner flame go out? Is it scorching on the bottom? Probably the number of times I'd open the pot to make sure it was OK meant I lost moisture from the dish...)

Give it a try -- I hope this helps, along with the other suggestions!

washingtonpost.com: I second this -- I made the famous Mahogany Short Ribs in the oven instead of on the stovetop and they worked out great. - Elizabeth

Joe Yonan: I will third it.

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My holy grail is tender rice that is infused with chicken flavor and tender flavorful meat. Recipes that I've used tend to leave me with greasy, mushy rice, chicken that tastes close to boiled chicken, and a flavor that doesn't challenge my tastebuds. There's enough salt, but not a whole lot else going on in the pot. : Wow. That is the EXACT same wording Cooks Illustrated used in their feature on ... wait for it... arroz con pollo.

Joe Yonan: We have a plagiarist in our midst?

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Pastry School: I am a lifelong baker with pretty good skills, but I have always dreamed of going to school to learn proper technique and expand my skills. I am also a college professor who will have a sabbatical leave (one year) in the near future, so I will have significant time to devote to this. I live in the Washington area. Are there any pastry programs that are geared toward someone like me who is not looking for future employment in the industry?

Jane Black: L'Academie de Cuisine has a 20-week baking techniques program that meets once a week. That might be perfect for you.

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RE: Beer Madness solving war and poverty: Ha! No... I guess my point is what is the point of Beer Madness? There are whole leagues of digital citizens tracking and ranking truly astonishing, great and easy-to-find beer out there. If the point is just simply to mimic the March Madness bracket using beer and hopefully expose new beers to people that's great but again: why those beers? Some would say that Bud is the McDonald's of beer but you guys wouldn't highlight McD's in a best burgers forum. Just sayin...

Joe Yonan: Well, if McDonald's introduced a special gourmet burger that it marketed as just as good as the best chef-made, handcrafted burgers out there, and we were doing a 32-burger countdown, we just might include it, yes. Look, keep in mind that one of the tenets of Beer Madness is that we feature ALL NEW beers with the exception of the previous year's Final Four, and one of the other tenets is that we like to have fun. Including this much-hyped beer seems perfectly appropriate to me. And for all the beer people that are taking issue with the decisions of the panel, all I can say is, try to get on the panel next year, taste these beers BLIND and see how different it is. Just sayin'...

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Washington, D.C.: For the Passover dessert person, a friend of mine makes a giant meringue that is somewhat bowl shaped. I think she coats the inside bowl part with chocolate then piles on the whipped cream. You could skip the chocolate and put fresh fruit and whipped cream in the middle.

Jane Black: Meringue with fruit and cream is a classic Pavlova. It's a great idea.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for posting the hash recipes. They remind me of "skillet" meals my family used to get for brunch as a kid. I had two follow-up questions -- How long do you steam potatoes so they are tender enough for sauteing but not too soft? And, is there a quick and easy alternative to the 4-hour cooking of the corned beef (i.e. an acceptable already made substitute)?

Bonnie Benwick: Best way is to cut up the potatoes and check them often for doneness. If you like a little extra texture in your hash, keep the peel on the potatoes, which will help the spuds remain intact.

As for the corned beef, buy in bulk from a neighborhood deli that makes its own.

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"getting" cooking classes: I'm one of the many people who learns better from watching and listening than from reading. Sometimes diagrams are just weird, or sometimes there's an unfamiliar term in the book and no one to ask.

I'd never have learned to knit if someone hadn't sat down and showed me how; some cooking techniques escape me in writing and photos just like knitting used to. I can't wait to try one out.

Jane Black: Yes, it definitely helps. And hands on is so different than watching it on TV. Enjoy.

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Columbia, Md.: Hello foodies. I need your help. I'm a 45 yr. old single woman who hates cooking. I can follow a recipe, if it has less than 8 ingredients, anything more and my eyes glaze over. My mom learned to cook from Betty Crocker's cookbook, and I guess she figured I would, too. Interestingly, I enjoy watching Top Chef and other cooking competition shows. I'm fascinated by people who love to cook and turn out great food.

I usually eat out, or eat simply at home (PBJ sandwiches, soup, Lean Cuisine). My palate is fairly simple, and I don't need to cook elaborate meals. Because I'm a diabetic with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, I would do better eating more home-cooked meals.

I read the article about cooking classes, and I think I'd like to take one, to build some confidence in the kitchen. Unfortunately, none of them are near me. Does anyone teach basic cooking skills in or around Howard County?

Do you have any other suggestions for me?

Thanks in advance!

Jane Black: I'm not familiar with any of the classes/schools out that way personally but again, I encourage you to check out our list of classes.

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re: CulinAerie prices: Why are the cooking classes more expensive at CulinAerie than at L'Academie de Cuisine? Is this just a D.C. location thing?

Susan Holt: Thank you for your inquiry, and we appreciate your question. In short, our classes are more expensive because 1. we have a brand-new buildout with state-of-the-art equipment, including flat screens for optimal viewing, and 2. the convenience factor we offer by being downtown costs us more to operate. We feel that our price points are justified given the three-hour experience our students receive, and we've had this feeling confirmed many times over in the last four months by a number of repeat students.

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Washington, D.C.: We always get forgotten -- but TasteDC, www.tastedc.com, holds cooking classes at bakeries and other small restaurants - we have an upcoming Pizza Making 101 class on April 19th at Mia's Pizza in Bethesda.

Joe Yonan: You're not forgotten -- the story was about NEW cooking schools. But thanks for the update.

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Madison, Wisconsin: Hi, As cooks extraordinaire, could you please share how you store and keep track of the many spices you have (often purchased in different sized and shaped containers, I assume)? Our spice cupboard overfloweth... Thanks!

Susan Holt: Buy whole spices when you can and grind them as you need them. If you have any ground spices that are older than a year, 86 'em. [That's restaurant parlance for get rid of them.]

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D.C.: I LOVE the pumpkin muffins at Firehook, any chance that the recipe is available??

Bonnie Benwick: We'll try to find out for you. Check back next week.

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Banana-free smoothies?: Bananas add "substance" to smoothies. Only problem is that I can't stand them. Both taste and texture are the culprits. What else can be used to add some heft to a fruit smoothie? I'm supposed to give up dairy, so I can't just add yogurt any more.

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Mango puree, or there are some decent soy yogurts. Or coconut milk?

Susan Watterson: I use frozen fruit straight from the bag in the freezer: strawberries, peaches, that sort of thing (don't like the blackberries or raspberries so much -- the seeds get annoying). You need a pretty hefty blender for that, though.

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Pesto preparation: The one time I saw pesto made, it was an hours-long affair involving simmering basil and pine nuts in olive oil and stirring, stirring, stirring.

Now I've been told that all I need to do is throw some basil and olive oil in a blender (or better, a food processor -- but I don't have one), grind it all up with a little salt, and add it to pasta -- No cooking.

Is it really that easy? The stuff in a jar isn't very good so I would like a make-at-home option.

Bonnie Benwick: You may have stumped the panel. We're not familiar with long-cooking pestos. We grant you liberation! Chop, blend/puree, eat. We have plenty of recipes at www.washingtonpost.com for you to try.

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Class with Julia or signed cookbook: That depends - are we talking 1960s fun Julia or 1990s hunched over having Jacques Pepin do all the work Julia? Oh heck, I'd pick the class even if she were whisper-barking at me from a wheelchair.

Susan Holt: You sound fun--you need to come take a class at CulinAerie. We could have a Julia retrospective night . . . 6 dishes from 6 decades of Julia!

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've cooked us undisturbed until we're wilted, so you know what that means -- we're done. Class dismissed!

Thanks for all the great questions as usual, and thanks to the two Susans for the help in answering everything.

Now for the giveaway books. The chatter who reminded us that you can braise in the oven rather than the stovetop will get, naturally, "Glorious One-Pot Meals." And the Rockville chatter who asked about baking vs. roasting will get a cookbook that calls for neither: "The Best Skillet Recipes." Send your mailing information to us at food@washpost.com, and we'll get you your book.

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading.

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