Free Range on Food: Staffers Solve Your Cooking Conundrums

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009; 1:00 PM

Free Range on Food is a forum for discussion of all things culinary. You can share your thoughts on the latest Washington Post Food section, get suggestions from fellow cooks and food lovers, or swap old-fashioned recipes the new-fashioned way. They were online Wednesday, May 13 at 1 p.m. ET.

Archive of past discussions

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, all, and welcome to today's Free Range, the chat that brings you a side of recipes with your lunchtime queries. What's on your plate, in your mixing bowl, stuck in the bottom of your food processor these days? Have you dusted off your grill yet?

Throw your questions at us (no curveballs, please), and we'll swing. (It is very dangerous for me to attempt sports analogies, so I'll stop.) Jane Black's on assignment today so not with us, and Leigh Lambert's on her honeymoon, so that leaves Bonnie and I to fend for ourselves, and you. We've got backup on the horn, so all should be well.

For our favorite posts, we have giveaway books: Aglaia Kremezi's "Mediterranean Hot and Spicy" and Renee Behnke's "Memorable Recipes to Share With Family and Friends."

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Bloomingdale: Love Barton Seaver's concept and can't wait to eat in his new restaurants. A few years ago at Hook, I had delicious fish that I think was called wahoo or woohoo or something fun to say like that. Is that something I can purchase around here? Is it good on the grill?

Bonnie Benwick: Wahoo it is. Good for grilling, sure.

BlackSalt fishmonger gets "incredible" wahoo out of the Carolinas but not that often. It has to be really fresh, he says; texturewise it doesn't hold up that well. Its seasonal availability's just around the corner, so check with him at 202-342-9101.

Joe Yonan: Barton concurs: "Great on the grill. A good fish store should be able to get it for you with a little advance notice. It is a fish that is caught all over the Gulf Coast, Caribbean and Pacific Coasts. Usually a sportfish, it has some commercial landings which do have some environmental impact due to bycatch issues. In order to mitigate that issue, demand pole-caught fish. It is related to tunas and it has the same luscious qualities when raw so eat as a crudo or cook to MR for the best results. And brine it for any cooked preparation."

Bonnie Benwick: Brining! There he goes again.

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D.C.: Nothing against your fine reporter, but Barton Seaver strikes me as a chef desperately scrambling to re-market himself and regain the spotlight he lost when he left Hook. So much of what he said sounds like spin and him trying to bash the customer over the head with what he thinks we should be thinking and doing and eating.

washingtonpost.com: Barton Seaver Has Something To Save (The Washington Post, May 13, 2009)

Joe Yonan: I disagree. If you've ever talked to Barton about these issues, he's incredibly earnest, and it's something he's very passionate -- and knowledgeable -- about. And I think sustainability is important; there are things we should be thinking and doing and eating if we want the ocean to continue to produce the seafood that we love.

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Washington, D.C.: It's too bad that Bart Seaver is the poster boy for the Washington, D.C. sustainable food movement. The guy has barely cooked in D.C.

There are fantastic chefs in this city that have been practicing this forever. Jeff Buben on the forefront, Roberto Donna, the late Jean Louis Palladin, the future of D.C., Cathal Armstrong, R.J. Cooper, Eric Ziebold, Johnny Monis, Carol Greenwood -- these chefs just don't talk about it, then live it every day in their kitchens.

A pretty face doesn't buy talent, it buys PR blitzes. Again another Seaver band wagon; he should prove himself before you all give him the credit.

Joe Yonan: This kind of sniping about Barton amuses me, the talk about whether someone has "the right" to talk about certain issues or not. The fact is, he knows a lot about this issue, and is continuing to study up all the time. That's why he got the fellowship at Blue Ocean Institute. I love all the chefs that you mention, but the fact is, the story was about someone who is trying to articulate this message to a wider audience than just those who happen to ask him about it in his kitchen. Living the issue at a restaurant is important, but so is talking about it.

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Arlington, Va.: Sustainable agriculture and eating local is great if you can afford it but, please, this is very elitist and anti family. Explain to me how a couple living in Lexington, Ky. with two young children making $60k a year has the time and can afford to do this? Yes a dink couple making $250k or a single Food section reporter for the WP making a $150k can, but 95% of the population can't afford to. Price the cost difference between a pound of hamburger or sustainable fish and non-sustainable. Advocates like your chef buddy need to find out what real life is like. Have Mr. Seaver ask his line cooks if they can afford his ideas. They can't! And his dishwasher sure can't!

Joe Yonan: I'm letting Barton weigh in on this, but before I do, can I say how amusing it is that you think a Post food reporter makes $150,000 a year? Jane is away on assignment, but I can't wait to see her reaction to that!

Generally, though, you make an important point, and here's what Barton says about it:

"Try fish like Mahi Mahi or Alaskan Pink Salmon. Both are usually sold for less that $5 per pound. There are lots of options that fit any budget such as mussels, clams, sardines, mackerel, and other species that provide good yield for the dollar. You can find nutritious and simple recipes for some of these fish in this very article You can find farmed oysters for 25 cents. Also, when you reduce portion size of your protein you not only increase the nutritional quality of your meal by replacing those calories with cheaper vegetables, you also significantly lower your meal cost as well. A pound of pink salmon at $4 will feed four people. So I understand the initial elitism thought but think that with a little digging you can participate in this ethic on any level of income. It is important to put in the effort on all levels, though I do agree, and that is why we are developing an aggressive food stamp program for our retail store. Sustainability is about people, ALL people."

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Rockville, Md.: I hope you can help me understand hamburger making. Most recipes say to gently form the patty, that overworking it will make it dry. Why would it make it dry? The fat is still in there. I find when I gently form the patties, they break apart on the grill.

I note that kebabs, which can also be made with ground meat, are kneaded so that the patty is cohesive and I have found them to remain juicy.

Thanks.

Bonnie Benwick: R'ville, that depends on what kind of meat you're using and what its fat content is. Ground beef that's 80-20 is good for burgers, if you can go that route. When you squeeze and compress too much, the meat's juices don't get a chance to be evenly distributed. Feel free to form the patties enough for them to hold together, certainly.

And try the Bobby Flay trick of using your thumb to make a slight indentation in the center of each uncooked burger. He does it to keep the burgers from becoming "flying-saucer"-shaped; when the meat expands as it cooks, it fills the indentation to give you a nicely shaped burger.

Kebabwise, I'd say any ground meat you've had on a skewer probably also contained vegetables, various moisteners or even breading that helped keep it cohesive and juicy.

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Washington, D.C.: I need your help with thoughts for stir fry. I recognize it as a relatively healthy meal (depending on preparation, of course) and it is a wonderful way to get vegetables, but I just cannot get excited about making it for dinner. Do you have thoughts for healthful sauces that we can make or other ways to spice things up? Our protein is either chicken or tofu and then whatever vegetables.

Bonnie Benwick: What, is it all the chopping? I usually like throwing nuts into stir-fries; they add flavor and texture. Try combining or playing with small amounts of these stir-fry-friendly pantry ingredients: dry sherry or rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, toasted sesame oil, crushed red pepper flakes, dried mushrooms, fermented black bean sauce. How about this Caramelized Tofu Stir-Fry? It'll surprise you, I bet.

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Baltimore, Md.: We are having a cookout for 25 or so people, mostly adults though it's for my son's first birthday. I'd like to go beyond the usual hamburgers and hot dogs, but I don't want too much more work. As creative as I usually am in the kitchen, I'm drawing a blank here. Grill usage and fork-and-knife avoidance are probably best. My mother suggested kebabs, but I don't know -- I just can't get excited about that. Thoughts?

Bonnie Benwick: Your mom's onto something. David Hagedorn can help you get excited about kebabs. He will offer many fine recipes and tips in his Real Entertaining column next week. Vegetarians will be able to jump up and down (in a good way) too. Of course, you could grill pizza...lots of ideas and recipes related to Tony Rosenfeld's story that ran in Food last year.

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Leftovers La,ND: Foodsters:

In the last week, I've turned my leftover canned tomatoes into a fiery soup garnished with avocado, cilantro and sour cream. I've turned half of a can of black beans and leftover rice into a chorizo, black bean and rice dish. I've turned my leftover steak into fajitas. Are you seeing the pattern here? I'm like a less talented and less attractive version of Bobby Flay (minus the blue corn fixation). Help me out of this Tex-Mex, cumin-fueled rut! What other kitchen staples can I seek out to mix up the leftovers dishes in differently influenced cuisines?

Bonnie Benwick: Miso.

Lentils.

Whole grains such as bulgur and quinoa.

Hard cheeses.

Spice blends of Indian and Asian persuasions.

Joe Yonan: Chickpeas.

Pomegranate molasses.

Preserved lemons.

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Silver Spring, Md.: A good friend of mine was recently told that, for health reasons, she needs to cut her salt intake. Like, to zero. She has decided to learn to cook for herself, so she can use fresh ingredients and control the amount of salt in her food. She's doing great, and has developed a small repertoire of dishes that she's comfortable making. I've invited her over for an afternoon of stock-making, so she can learn to make low-to-no-salt chicken, veggie, and other stocks. Do you have any other ideas to encourage her, like recipe resources? Can you recommend good salt substitutes or other ways to enhance flavors of her food?

Bonnie Benwick: Good for her that's she's doing so well, and that she has a good friend in you. A small, tied bouquet of fresh herbs in those stocks you're making should make up the no-salt flavor diff.

I'm sure chatters have lots to add here. I suggest four things to start:

1. Eating fresh food, which has naturally good flavor.

2. Toasted nuts, either ground finely for sauces or chopped for side dishes, as a coating for fish and chicken fillets.

3. no-salt spice blends such as five-spice powder, and blends made for chicken, etc., by Penzeys and other good spice companies.

4. Citrus juices, especially that old spritz of lemon or lime juice on a finished dish.

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Rohnert Park, Calif.: Looking for cheesecake recipe that called for 10" Springform pan, 10 eggs + 2 yolks, was N.Y. style, "King of the Cheesecakes". Hunted this for almost 10 years now, think it was put out by Family Circle Mag. HELP!

Bonnie Benwick: We'll release this to the chatters and see what they sniff out for you.

Joe Yonan: Did you look at the Family Circle web site? They have several pages of cheesecake recipes; none are labeled "King of the Cheesecakes" in the title, but if you haven't browsed through these to see if any seem to be what you're looking for, you should.

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Frederick, Md.: I'm wondering if anyone has ideas for quick vegetable sides using dark greens (spinach, kale, chard, collards) without using meat, dairy or eggs. My husband is vegan and I'm at a loss for how to get these nutritional powerhouses into our diet more frequently. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Well, the quickest thing you can do is stir-fries. Toss in what you like; kale and chard work surprisingly well. Or you could saute spinach, then add raisins, pine nuts, olive oil -- do the Catalan thing. Or combine spinach with green beans in this Ris Lacoste side dish. These Collard Green Won Tons might be something different for your house. Or you could adapt this stuffed mushroom recipe to side-dish portions. It uses chard in the filling. Got good reviews from the staff here!

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Capitol Hill: You guys are doing a great job. Don't listen to the sniping. It's important for us to learn about sustainable choices -- even if we feel we can't afford them. Sometimes it opens our eyes and shows us that we can, in fact, afford them (as Barton says). Other times, it shows us that it's something worth cutting out of our diet altogether! Keep up the good work!

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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Silver Spring - leftovers: Tomatoes can go Italian with some herbs. Beans and rice can go Indian with an assortment of spices or just give up and use curry powder. I won't report you to the spice police.

Bonnie Benwick: And neither will we.

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buckwheat pancakes: In last week's chat, someone asked about buckwheat pancakes. If you are not opposed to mixes, try Bob's Red Mill 10-grain pancake mix. It is now the only one we use. The pancakes are wonderful without the "heavy" taste or texture that multigrain cakes can sometimes have. I think Bob's Red Mill also has a buckwheat variety, but I have not tried that.

Good luck!

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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Where's your blog?: I know the food section started a blog, but when I looked at the Food & Dining page today, I can't find a link to it. Don't get me started on how badly designed and cumbersome the Post website is, but it would seem like a link to a new blog shouldn't be too hard for your IT guys to accomplish.

Joe Yonan: The link is right at the top of the page, above the main story. (There's three links up there: to All We Can Eat on the left, Sietsema's Table in the middle, and A Mighty Appetite on the right.) Of course, once you find it, you should subscribe to the RSS feed, then you'll be all set! In the meantime, here's the link right to it.

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Washington, D.C.: I know you guys work hard, and I usually really enjoy the food articles you publish, but why must you only do it once a week?!? I need my food article fix more than that. Now I know this is standard at most major papers, but I know there is at least one, possibly based out of New York, that adds new articles more frequently. I just can't get enough!

Joe Yonan: Fear not, we're planning a move in that direction. But are you reading our blog? Several times a day!

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Washington, D.C.: Your article on sauvignon blanc today was so timely for me. When I drink white wine, I pretty much always have chardonnay, but last night I decided I need to branch out more, so at dinner I ordered sauvignon blanc. Frankly, it was just okay, and I didn't care for the aftertaste, which lingered hours after having even brushed/gargled. It struck me as having a melon-like flavor, although your description of it being grassy seems to fit too. Should I give it another try -- perhaps with the California style you highlighted?

washingtonpost.com: Sauvignon Blanc's American Makeover (The Washington Post, May 13, 2009)

Joe Yonan: Dave McIntyre says:

"Although wine lovers prize a wine with a long finish, it is extremely unusual for any wine to have an aftertaste that lingers for hours, even after brushing and gargling! It is possible the wine you tried was faulty in some way (for example, corked). So yes, I would encourage you to give sauvignon blanc another try. And pay attention to where it's from, because it is quite possible that you would love a minerally Sancerre but object to an aggressively grassy sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

"But there are also many other white varieties that will give you a change of pace from chardonnay. Look for Albarino from Spain, Viognier from Virginia or the south of France, Torrontes from Argentina, or Riesling from just about anywhere."

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Washington, D.C.: I am a wonderful cook and love to do it with all my heart. I was wondering how can you cook for others things that do not taste good to you? I entertain a lot and would love to know how things are supposed to taste if it is something that does not make your tongue sing. I only cook what I think tastes good. I do not like swordfish. How am I to cook something and not know if it is good or not because I do not like it? Help me be a better cook.

Bonnie Benwick: Cook what you love, D.C., and people will be happy. Are the ones you're entertaining missing their favorite foods? Are they complaining? Not sure who's confronted you with the challenge of swordfish, but I'd say this: Approach it and master it with the same skills that make you a wonderful cook, either by finding good recipes or getting good instruction from those who cook fish. Good cooks taste what they send out, so if you can't bring yourself to do that much, stick with what you like. Or designate a taster among your friends when you're cooking something you don't like...if what you've created makes them happy, you can rest easy.

That said, I don't make broccoli at home much (because I don't like it), yet I know my husband likes it. And he's forgiven me.

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Vegan ideas for greens: Kale, chard and spinach all work well in a stew with chickpeas and tomatoes and spices like saffron or cumin. I also love kale and white bean stew with rosemary. And my mom makes a good Indian lentil dish with chard. Just start all of them with a saute of onion and garlic and go from there. Endless varieties!

Bonnie Benwick: Yes, yes.

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Warrenton, Va.: I have some bowls that say they are "top shelf dishwasher safe". Why do they say that? What's different between the top and bottom shelves?

Some are too big to fit on top, and I've put them on the bottom and never seen any problem. My husband guesses that the heater for drying is on the bottom and these items shouldn't get too close (so since we never use the heated dry it doesn't matter).

Jane Touzalin: Your husband guesses right. Most dishwashers have a heating element on the bottom that activates during the drying cycle and could melt or deform some plastics if they're placed too close.

It's possible some of those elements also come on during the wash cycle, to get the water a little hotter. That doesn't seem to be the case with your washer, though, if so far your bowls haven't come out looking like Dali watches.

Bonnie Benwick: I have a nice set of Dali bowwlsss.

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Brining question: We've tried brining a few times, with lackluster results. The food may be okay fresh off the grill/out of the oven, but leftovers taste of little but the brine. Is this typical, or are we doing something wrong? And either way, I end up really thirsty after such a meal.

Got any ideas on how to improve things? We like the improved moisture of the meats, just not the rest of the package.

Bonnie Benwick: Are you brining too long, perhaps? Based on the way chef Seaver recommends brining fish, for example, as blogged about today in All We Can Eat, it should really depend on the texture of what you're starting out with. The brine for that mahi-mahi made the fish taste like it just came from the sea. Leftovers, I can't help you with. There were none.

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Petworth: Joe, you suggested pomegranate molasses. I bought some of that on a whim a while back, and am not sure what to use it in. Actually, I got some fig molasses too. Thoughts on how I can use them?

And as for the person complaining that sustainable is expensive -- no, it doesn't have to be. This is why co-ops exist. Pick-your-own farms are good for this too. It requires thought, it requires care, but it does not require tons o' money.

Joe Yonan: Pomegranate molasses was one of the ingredients we spotlighted in our Space Invaders feature last year. We suggested adding it to champagne for a cocktail, drizzling over ice cream (I would add Greek yogurt, of course), or as the basis for a vinaigrette. Oh, and there are these four recipes that call for it.

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Polenta: Thanks for the polenta recipe in the section today. I was surprised that the polenta just needs a few minutes to cook. Is that because it's quick cooking? I have yet to find that in stores. I have Bob's Red Mill Polenta and I feel like it needs a really long time to cook. Even so I can never get it to taste quite right. Any hints?

washingtonpost.com: Polenta With Poached Egg, Feta and Radicchio (The Washington Post, May 13, 2009)

Bonnie Benwick: Use the quick-cooking kind. The butter, Parmesan cheese and runny egg yolk help, too. For the slower-cooking kind, I find it's best to taste and season as you go. Do you use milk or chicken stock? What doesn't taste right about it, specifically (guess I should have asked that first).

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For Baltimore Cookout: For a recent back-yard dinner, I made shrimp with sesame noodles. The night before, I marinated shrimp in lemon, garlic, and olive oil. The morning of, I put the shrimp on skewers, made the sesame noodles, and let them hang out at room temp. Then, when everyone was assembled for the party, we grilled the shrimp and placed the skewers over the sesame noodles. Served it with a salad of spinach, strawberries, and mango. It was delicious, almost all done in advance, and got raves. Oh, and Paula Deen's Thai Fried Bananas for dessert!

Bonnie Benwick: I'm with you, except for the overnight/shrimp marinade. They don't need quite that long. Sounds like a fun event, though!

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Mixing up leftovers: I tend to fall into the Tex-Mex rut too, but having a couple other things on hand helps me mix it up. Wasabi powder and soy sauce for Asian, rogan josh or curry for Indian, feta for Greek. The best way to find your way out is just to experiment! I made awesome semi-Moroccan stuffed peppers by mixing some already-cooked cranberry-bread stuffing with beef and raisins and nuts, tossing in a little cinnamon and hot chile, and putting it into a yellow pepper. Mixing sweet with savory is a good way to break up the garlic/chile/cumin rut.

Bonnie Benwick: More help for the Dark Greens chatter.

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Lemon Confit Help: After completing stage one (layering) of the lemon confit recipe from a couple weeks ago, I realized that I made a mistake. I didn't have kosher salt, but I know I can replace it with half the volume of table salt. I also halved the recipe. Of course, my lemon-sized brain only remembered to halve the salt amount once, so I ended up using 2-1/2 T of table salt for 3 lemons. Have I ruined the confit? Is there some way to rescue it if I have? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Lemon Confit (The Washington Post, April 29, 2009)

Joe Yonan: I think you're fine. Too much salt won't ruin this.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Have you guys seen the Twitter recipes yet? I'm thinking of writing an angry letter to Entertainment Weekly, who had someone try a couple of the recipes and mostly just whined about how hard they were to understand. For example, he wasn't sure whether "can coconut" meant shredded coconut or coconut milk, but it was a satay recipe so I think most people who cook would understand coconut milk was called for.

Anyway, I've got my ire up, and am just wondering if I'm overreacting. Other things he complained about were not knowing how much onion and garlic to add, and then in another recipe for pasta, that it was too simple (dude, it's 140 characters including spaces).

Joe Yonan: I think it's a pretty fun thing. I haven't cooked one yet, but lots of people I'm following have issued recipe tweets. I have, too, just this one, a couple months ago:

blackened salsa: broil 1jalap,2shallot,4unpeeledgarlic,1/2pint cherrytoms til black, peel garlic, puree all w/2 tsp sherry vin, salt, h20

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Washington, D.C.: Last week everyone was talking about "starters" and I'm suspecting I'm not the only one who was in the dark. Some woman talked about having one in her fridge for 30 years? YIKES??!?! Can you clarify?

Jane Touzalin: Those were sourdough starters, which are living "sponges" of yeast (in a brew of flour and water) that are used to make sourdough products in place of regular yeast granules or cakes that you buy in the store. By keeping the starter in your fridge and feeding it once a month, you can have bread, pancakes, etc., with a great, tangy sourdough taste, and the starter lasts indefinitely. Some families hand it down like heirlooms.

But don't take my word for it. Go back and read our story. Link follows!

Joe Yonan: Here's the starter story. And here's Jane's fun blog post on her own struggles with starters during the testing process.

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Polenta: It never tastes as rich or creamy as when I buy it pre made. But I never tried an egg yolk! I have experimented with different quantities of butter, cheese and water.

Bonnie Benwick: Ah, to clarify: The egg yolk runneth o'er the top, as in today's shamelessly overwritten Dinner in Minutes recipe.

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Pomegranate molasses.: Ha, that's a staple?

Joe Yonan: I believe the chatter asked for things to keep on hand to jazz up leftovers. Anything's a staple if you make it such. The stuff costs a couple bucks for a bottle that lasts forever.

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Preparing Summer Greens: For collard greens/kale/etc. brown some chopped onion. When the onion is cooked add some chopped garlic, chopped greens and a Tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. Add some chili flakes on top and you have the most delicious, healthy side dish.

I also really like making spicy lentils with kale. Sautee carrot, celery, onion and mushrooms and sweet Hungarian paprika. Add cooked lentils and chopped greens and you've got a meal with the health benefits of greens and lentils.

Bonnie Benwick: You guys are great. Our Dark Greens chatter is all about Copy and Paste right now, I bet.

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Dark Greens: A regular go-to winter meal in our house is roasted sweet potato, topped with kale sauted with onions and garlic, topped with black beans that I cook with whatever seasoning I'm feeling at the moment

In the spring I like this one: saute onions and garlic in olive oil to start, add rosemary, crushed red pepper, salt and pepper all to taste (or any flavors you might want there) and then toss in kale cut into pieces about 2-3 inches long. Saute until kale is wilted and the fold in a few cups of white beans.

Bonnie Benwick: Nice.

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Lothian, Md.: On Sunday, my neighbor gave me a great piece of rockfish her husband had caught Saturday. Stopped by the "Fresh Asparagus" truck on 4 South (he picks each morning) and that was dinner Sunday evening -- roasted both (divided by foil separator) at same time and it was probably the best meal I've had in a long time. So glad the moratorium on rockfish is over!

Joe Yonan: Nice! Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: I find it hilarious that the posters above think that doing the right thing by controlling commercial fishing is 'elitist,' and that doing your part and looking for sustainable fishing sources is for the rich only.

I make about $50,000 a year and I really do try to focus on buying meats, fish and even veggies that come from ethical/local/renewable sources. Do I succeed every time? No, sometimes I have to hit up the grocery store and buy what they have, but I appreciate the Post for putting someone like Bart Seaver out there and for educating us on what the options are in our area if we want to incorporate this in our lives.

Doing good is EVERYONE's responsibility to the earth, the oceans and the animals that sustain us. Take a moment to look at Mr. Seaver's advice and see how you can incorporate it into your life so it works for you.

Great work to all of you!

Joe Yonan: Thanks. I do think these are decisions that we all have to make for ourselves, given our own limitations. Thanks for the voice of reason.

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Boston: My friends and I are going to have a fondue night this weekend -- cheese and chocolate. I've enjoyed cheese fondue made with beer and the traditional route with white wine. Do you have a tried-and-true recipe that we can try for this group? We're adventurous!

Bonnie Benwick: Sure. This one's quite nice: Mediterranean Holiday Fondue.

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Dry Burger Solution: Mix some mango chutney into your burger recipe, along with some cumin and cilantro, and then form your patties. You will get moist burgers bursting with flavor.

Bonnie Benwick: Once you start with the add-ins, you wander out of true burger territory, I'm afraid.

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Las Cruces, N.M.: Am in D.C. for a conference. Craving the lifeblood of New Mexico cuisine, fresh green chile! Any local sources for my addiction? I've tried two supermarkets and can find poblanos and jalepenos, but I need the real deal, baby! Gonna pay a hotel chef to make me a relleno. Black beans, diced tomatoes, arroz, pico de gallo. Mmmmh!

Jane Touzalin: Whatever happened to "When in Rome"? Hey, Las Cruces, you can get all the fresh green chile you want back home. When in Washington, why not explore the local food instead of sticking with what you know? Get out there, find some good Southern or ethnic restaurants and EAT, dude!

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Petworth: Can that lemon confit recipe be canned (pressure or hot water) so it would keep longer and could be given as gifts?

Joe Yonan: It sure can! (I believe you could do hot water rather than pressure because of the acidity of the lemons, but don't quote me on that.)

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Two tips for no-salt cooking: Although I hate to be a product pusher, I've found that Mrs. Dash's does work pretty well for seasoning without salt.

For flavoring chicken, brown the meat with the skin on to render the fat and it will add flavor (especially if you use the fond on the bottom of the dish). After browning, throw out the skin and it keeps it relatively low fat but also flavorful. And you don't need salt for this.

Bonnie Benwick: That's a good one. Thanks.

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New Orleans: I like my refried beans creamy, like you'll frequently find in authentic Mexican restaurants. I soak and cook dried pinto beans (not canned), saute some onions til they are soft, add Mexican spices, then fry the beans and mash them up. But they never have that creaminess that I like. Is it because I'm using vegetable oil and not lard? If so, is there a decent lard substitute I could use?

Joe Yonan: I recently made Diana Kennedy's frijoles refritos from the classic "The Cuisines of Mexico" for a dinner party recently, and they were amazing. OK, they used lard, but I've also made them successfully with olive oil.

The trick is, I think, to mash the beans gradually, to use enough liquid (the cooking liquid from making them from scratch), and to cook them long enough that they thicken. For every 1/2 pound of beans, she uses 1/4 cup of lard, but again, olive oil is fine. She says fry the onion over low heat for about a minute or until transparent, then turn the heat to medium-high, add a cupful of the beans and their broth and mash. Repeat, mashing and incorporating, until the mixture is a thick paste and you can see the pan bottom as you stir.

Diana, by the way, taught me (and many others) the true meaning of the term frijoles refritos. It's commonly translated as refried beans, which has led to many a joke and confusion (aren't they fried just once)? She pointed out that it's really "well-fried beans," which makes so much sense.

Hope you can now well-fry your beans.

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Del Ray, Va.: My younger sister is getting married and as a wedding present to them, I want to create a cookbook that compiles all of my tried-and-true recipes with notes as well as stories interspersed throughout.

I'd like it to be nicely bound hardcover book. Do you know how I could go about doing this? Vendors? Websites?

Bonnie Benwick: Check out this article Jane Black wrote last year about create-you-own-cookbooks. Sounds like maybe TasteBook.com, Lulu.com or Blurb.com might work for you.

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Washington, D.C.: I want to start making my own pasta, but I've never done this before. Do you suggest taking a class? I've looked around and haven't seen anything in the metro area. Or, is this something worth experimenting with on my own?

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: You can do it, D.C., and it's worth the effort. Here's the contact info for a private instructor from our cooking class listings: La Cucina di Adele Adele Verdino, 703-912-4819.

Chatters, I bet you've got some great advice for D.C., based on your years of pasta making. Issue forth!

And here are 2 recipes from the archives, for a hand-shaped pasta and for ravioli. It's nice to have a pasta machine for rolling the latter. (I tested the ravioli recipe for The Washington Post Magazine in 2007.)

Orecchiette

Makes about 320 orecchiette or 4 first-course servings

The translation for orecchiette, "little ears," makes sense once you see the finished pasta. These shapes are quite simple to make once you get the hang of it, but it does take time. Either grab someone to help you or get into the Zen of the repetitive process.

11/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus additional for the work surface

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

About 1/2 cup cold water

To make the dough in a food processor: In a food processor, briefly process both flours and the salt. With the machine still running, add the oil through the feeding tube. Gradually add the water through the tube, adding just enough until a ball of dough begins to form.

To make the dough by hand: In a large bowl, combine both flours and the salt. Gradually stir in the oil and then gradually sprinkle the water over the dough as you stir, adding just enough until a ball of dough begins to form.

To shape the orecchiette: Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic and set aside to rest for about an hour (when I'm in a rush I skip the resting part).

Break off a golf-ball-size piece of dough and rewrap the rest so it does not dry out. Roll the piece of dough into a rope about the thickness of a finger. Cut the rope crosswise into small pieces, each about the size of a hazelnut (between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick). Working 1 at a time, roll each piece of dough between your palms to form a ball. With the thumb of 1 hand, press the ball into the middle of the palm of your other hand to form a deep indentation in the dough. Rotate the dough and repeat the pressing once or twice, rotating the dough after each impression. You want to create a deep saucer-shaped portion of dough. If the dough sticks, dip your thumb in a little flour (I keep a little dipping bowl filled with flour nearby for this).

Place the finished orecchiette on a floured baking sheet or towel and cover. Repeat with the remaining dough. You should have about 320 orecchiette.

Per serving (based on 4): 257 calories, 6 gm protein, 48 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 292 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Nana's Ravioli

Adapted from Pasta Tecnica by Pasquale Bruno Jr.

Makes 24 ravioli

To use up all the filling, double the dough recipe. Otherwise, Debra Bruno says, the leftover filling can be refrigerated for up to 3 days and used in lasagna or stuffed shell recipes. Bruno acknowledges that 24 ravioli can easily be eaten by just 2 people in her household, although others might want to serve them as an appetizer course for 4 guests.

You'll need a pasta machine, like an Atlas, for the dough, and a ravioli tray to form the pasta.

For the dough

1 extra-large egg

3/4 cup flour, plus more for dusting

Warm water

Cornmeal, for dusting

For the filling

1 1/2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese, drained

1/2 cup grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 large egg

Dash freshly grated nutmeg

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

To make dough: Place the egg and flour in the food processor and begin processing. As the machine is running, dribble in a little warm water just until the dough begins to clump together. Turn off the processor; dust hands with flour and press the dough together to form a large ball.

Dust dough and work surface with flour. Form the dough into a rectangle. Clamp the pasta machine to a table or work surface and set it to the widest position (position 1 on Atlas machine). While turning the handle, feed dough through machine. Fold the flattened dough into thirds and press together; dust with flour. Feed it through the machine again. Do this six or seven times until the dough feels smooth and satiny. If the dough seems sticky, dust it with a little flour. (You don't want the dough to stick, but too much flour will make it dry.)

Change the setting one notch to the next position (position 2 on the Atlas). While turning the handle, feed the dough through once. Cut dough in half so it's more manageable. Change the setting to the next position (Atlas position 3) and feed each half of the dough through the machine. Dust the dough lightly with flour, if needed. Change setting (Atlas position 4) and feed each piece of dough through the machine. The dough is now stretching and thinning. If you prefer a thicker dough, similar to store-bought, you can stop at the fourth position. For a thinner dough, feed dough through on fifth setting; for the thinnest possible dough, continue to sixth setting. When dough is at desired thickness, lay both sheets on clean, flat surface and cover with towel so they don't dry out.

To make filling: Combine the cheeses, parsley, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste in large mixing bowl and mix thoroughly.

To make ravioli: Dust one sheet of dough lightly with flour and lay on ravioli tray. Dough should be slightly longer and wider than tray. Trim off extra dough so sheet fits the tray. Press down gently with top part of tray to form indentations for filling in the dough. In each indentation, add 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling. Lay second sheet of dough on top of tray. Cut off excess. Take rolling pin and roll over the top, rolling back and forth to seal the top layer of dough to the bottom until jagged cutting edges of the ravioli tray are visible through the dough. Trim away any excess scraps of dough from around the edges of the tray.

Dust a baking sheet with cornmeal. Tilt ravioli tray onto baking sheet so individual ravioli fall onto sheet (you may need to push out a few that stick). You can now freeze the ravioli (in freezer bags they'll last up to two months), refrigerate (covered) for up to 3 hours, or cook immediately. To cook, add to salted, boiling water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. (If frozen, boil for 8 to 10 minutes.)

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Arlington, Va.: I know this isn't in your usual purview, but shoot, Tom is off this week and I need help!

My dad is playing Carnegie Hall on Sunday the 17th and I need a reasonable lunch place to eat at before the concert. No more than about $20/head and no more than a couple of blocks away, since we'll be with a very elderly but very spry lady of 91.

Hope you can help!

Joe Yonan: What about Cafe2 at MOMA? You have to add the price of admission, which is in itself $20 for nonmember adults and $16 for seniors, but you could go early and spend an hour or two taking in the art before you sit for lunch. I had a delightful lunch there for under your price point, with a trio of bruschetta. They have really great panini and salads and cheeses. It's about five blocks away, but you're in New York -- that's what they have cabs for!

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brining: You all ran a story not very long ago about how utterly ineffective marinating was. Why would brining be any different?

Joe Yonan: Because salt is a very powerful thing.

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Washington, D.C.: I make stir fry about every other week. I often try to emulate my favorite Chinese dishes but with much less fat and sugar. For example, I make a stir-fried version of General Tso's chicken with a sauce of chicken stock, dry sherry, reduced sodium soy sauce, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and sugar substitute (I know, not for everyone, but I'm cutting calories), and a bit of corn starch to thicken it. I add lots of vegetables. I also do something similar for kung pao chicken. It's much less greasy and sugary than the often deep fried restaurant versions of these favorites.

Joe Yonan: Thanks -- sounds like you're on a good run.

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More on spinach and kale: The dark greens work well in fillings. Try chopping and wilting dark greens with mushrooms, soft cheeses, petite diced (and drained) tomatoes, various nuts, favorite spices and anything else that comes to mind. Then stuff into dumpling skins for Asian dumplings or as ravioli. Into puff pastry for Spanikopita style turnovers. Topping off mushroom caps, tomato halves, bell peppers and more. You can use plain or with various sauces (butter and sage, tomato based sauces, garlic, onion and olive oil) and more! Lots of mix and match ideas here.

Bonnie Benwick: Outstanding. Chatters, give yourselves a pat on the back for Dark Green assists today.

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Colesville, Md.: I am something of a fishaphobe. My mom never cooked it because my dad is not a fan. I find that I tend to overcook the fish when I bake it and I have no idea which ones you are supposed to pan fry or grill. Recently we bought a steamer because I am trying to do a Mediterranean diet approach to losing weight. Up until now I have only steamed vegetables, but last night I had a breakthrough. I bought a whole striped bass at the market and had it cleaned for me. I put it in the steamer and instead of water I used chicken stock with cilantro in it. It was great. I also made a sauce using mirin, light soy, white wine, and ginger puree. My question is this, can you steam fillets? Did I just get lucky and have it come out good or am I on the right track? Oh, and a word of advice, have the fishmonger remove the head because when steamed, the eye clouds up and you feel like you are in a horror movie full of zombie fish.

Bonnie Benwick: Sure, Colesville, you can steam them. Might smell up your kitchen for a while, though. Did you ever read The Gastronomer's method for poaching fish? I think you'd like it. Also, our Recipe Finder has various ways to cook fish in parchment paper or foil packets in the oven. These are pretty foolproof, with good results.

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Alexandria: Hi there. I'm wondering if you can explain to me why my bread tasted funny this weekend. I made whole wheat sandwich bread, and the book I was using (How to Cook Everything) told me that I could just let it rise over night and then cook it the next morning without issue. That is what I did, but the baked bread tasted -- I don't know -- a bit metallic, or a bit chemical -- some taste that was hard to describe. Something like when you leave olives in a can in a fridge, and they take on a different taste than the freshly opened olives. Any ideas? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Um, was there an open can of olives in your fridge?

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Arlington, Va. S.: I enjoyed the article on Barton Seaver, but found myself with a couple of lingering questions. Early in the article Mr. Seaver mentions that "eating a farm-raised Chesapeake oyster supports the most productive marine ecosystem in the world. When I eat a delicious oyster, it's one of the most ecologically friendly acts that a person can take." However, reasons supporting this statement were not apparent to me in the article, with the exception of needing to eat local as well as not eating excessive portions of animal-based foods.

Can you expand on how this type of diet is ecologically friendly (and if you have the time, contrast with a more typical American diet and/or vegetarian diet)?

Thank you.

Joe Yonan: Sure thing. Here's Barton's explanation:

"Oysters filter our waterways because they feed by passing water though the body. At one point there were so many oysters in the Chesapeake that the entire bay was filtered every two days. Oyster reefs so large that they were navigation hazards to early mariners. They are the keystone species upon which the health of the entire Eco system is balanced.

"Now eating a farm-raised oyster helps because the wild populations have dropped so low as to be less than 1 percent of the original biomass. A oyster farm reintroduces the benefits of the filtering, all the while creating sustainable economic development for hard-hit coastal communities who are struggling with declining wild fish stocks. And, because they are filter feeders, oysters are a net gain of protein for consumption as they require no fish protein as input.

"So, saving American jobs. Filtering our nation's waterways. Creating food for the masses. I am in!"

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Creamy Polenta: I've seen a chef make polenta for dinner service. If you saw the amount of butter and cream that went into it, you'd understand why it tastes so creamy. Maybe it should be called polenta-y butter and cream.

Bonnie Benwick: Or you can just give it a hit of both at the end, and eat it before it congeals into a golden hockey puck.

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Congrats!: You two are doing an admirable job of keeping things moving today.

Bonnie Benwick: Thank you. We've gotten fewer of those involved catering-a-brunch kind of q's today; that helps.

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Re: Cookbook gift: Probably too late on this but don't do Tastebook, it can get pricey and you can do the very same all on your own. My husband and I did these as our wedding favors and our guests raved.

Just type up the recipes you want to include (we did a little paragraph blurb about why the recipe was important to us, how it was handed down, etc.) the ingredient list and then the instructions.

It took time but it was well worth it. Then we just took it to Office Depot and had it printed and bound.

Just a different suggestion if you don't want to go the Tastebook route.

Bonnie Benwick: Best advice is from someone who's been there. Thanks.

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kale, etc. for vegan: A simple, killer dish is beans, kale and sausage pasta. Will your husband eat veggie sausages? There are so many great ones in UK but less here.

I like to put a lot herbs when cooking the beans -- gives flavor. I also reserve juice for sauce. I also like farfalle for this dish.

Start sauteing the cut up sausages, add beans and some reserved juice/water/wine. Add kale cover and cook until kale wilts. Stir in pasta and let all the tastes meld for a minute or two. It's to die for and hearty.

Bonnie Benwick: Consider this added to the pile o' suggestions.

I bet few husbands will knowingly eat veggie sausages.

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Silver Spring: If I wanted to buy a pork loin or roast (from the butcher, not cryovac'd) planned for the rotisserie on Saturday/Sunday, what is the earliest in the week it could be bought, and remain safe/fresh? Then if it is bought any sooner than that, do I freeze it, only to remove it from the freezer by the time it is completely frozen to allow time to thaw?

Bonnie Benwick: You could buy on Thursday and keep it refrigerated.

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Arlington, Va.: I am looking for powdered sugar WITHOUT cornstarch or any kind of starch. Do you know where I can get it? Someone said I can make my own using a food processor, but how would I do that? Any ideas for either?

Bonnie Benwick: King Arthur sells a Glazing Sugar made without cornstarch. See their online catalog.

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If you just do the research it's not that hard, or expensive: In spring-fall we eat primarily from the farmers market (which we go to on Saturdays) and I spend LESS money than I do at the grocery store in the winter. One of the reasons, we eat less meat now and more things like beans or eggs. When we do eat meat, it's sustainable and local.

Also, grow something -- Barbara Kingsolver's family basically grew all their produced on 1/4 of an acre, so it doesn't require that much land to supplement your food habits.

Joe Yonan: Another voice of reason. Much appreciated.

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Twitter Recipes: New to Twitter and still trying to figure out how to find fun things. How do you find these recipes? Is there someone in particular that you follow?

Joe Yonan: The one who's doing it full-time is here.

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've placed us on half-shells and garnished us with a julienne of mint, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great questions and comments, as usual. It takes a village!

Now for the book winners: "Leftovers Land" (who asked about staples that can get him/her out of a Tex-Mex rut) will get "Mediterranean Hot and Spicy." (That should open up another world of flavors, hopefully...) And the Silver Spring chatter who asked about low-sodium recipes for a friend will get "Memorable Recipes to Share With Family and Friends." Just send you mailing info to food@washpost.com, and we'll get you your book.

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading!

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