Free Range on Food: Staffers Solve Your Cooking Conundrums

The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, May 27, 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. The Food section staff goes Free Range on Food every Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Archive of past discussions


Joe Yonan: Greetings, all, and welcome to today's chat. We've got soft shells on the brain today, for obvious reason: Jane's piece today exploring just why it has been that she's found them disappointing, and what it takes to get a great one worth the praise. We also have Gastronomer Andreas Viestad's bouillabaisse tutorial, and Jane's story on an innovative program to double the value of food stamps at farmers markets.

What's on your plate today?

For our favorite posts, we have giveaway books: The delectable "Real Cajun" by Donald Link, source of a delectable soft-shell crab recipe we ran today; and, because I'm going to Paris next Friday and am getting distracted by the very thought, "The Eiffel Tower Restaurant Cookbook."

Let's get to it.

Joe Yonan: Also, wasn't sure he could make it until just now, but we have Andreas in the house, at least for a bit -- so ask any and all bouillabaisse and other food-science questions, and we'll put him on it.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Good article on soft crabs. Agree completely that deep frying ruins good soft crabs. Prefer mine grilled; coat in olive oil and sprinkle some Old Bay over, with some fresh tarragon under the flaps, before cooking for just a couple minutes. Disagree that the smaller crabs are better. As with hard crabs, bigger is better.

Got some good soft crabs at Frank's Seafood in Jessup last weekend. Any recommendations on other places to get them?

Jane Black: I tasted the jumbos and thought they were very good. But chefs like the more delicate smaller ones. As for where, you mean to eat out? Chatters, any bayside favorites for soft-shells?


Chevy Chase: The article on soft-shell crabs didn't answer the most basic question I've always had. What does "cleaning" entail? Do they remove the lungs (which you wouldn't consume when eating hard-shelled crabs). What else is involved in "cleaning?"

I'm thinking that maybe we all ought to lay off crabs and crab cakes for a while -- at least those coming from the Chesapeake Bay -- to give the population a chance to recover. To date, the state governments have not had the political mettle to impose a moratorium or even serious restrictions. I realize this would be hard on the watermen, but as I understand it, they are making very, very little from crabbing and have to find other sources of income. Let's compensate them and give the crabs a chance to recover. They Had to Hand It to Me (The Washington Post, May 27, 2009)

Jane Black: Ah...that's the trouble with paper newspapers. We run out of space. This is what was in the original story and ran online. Sorry it got cut:

First, it's best to clean the soft-shells right before cooking. That will keep them juicy and light. And it's easy. Flip the crab on its back and pull off the lift-off flap called the apron. Next, turn it over and use scissors to snip off the front of the crab, about one-half inch behind the eyes. (It sounds scarier than it is.) Then lift the pointed end of the crab's outer shell and remove and discard the gills. Rinse the crab, and pat it dry.

Joe Yonan: We also included those instructions with the recipe for Crispy Soft-Shell Crab With Chili Glaze and Mint Coleslaw. So clean away!


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hey guys,

Have I missed the review of the new Deborah Madison book somehow? I'm the girl who keeps writing in about cooking alone conundrums, and I was pretty excited when you mentioned Deborah Madison, whose cookbooks I've treasured for years, has a book on the subject coming out. Is it as great as it sounds?

Joe Yonan: I just talked to Deborah on the phone for the piece that's running next week. The book is out, and I love it. Stay tuned until June 3 for more.


Flat burgers: Every time I make hamburger or turkey patties for the grill, they never come out nice and flat like when I buy the pre-shaped ones in the market (which also cost more). What's the trick that I'm obviously not doing?

Jane Black: A burger is going to shrink on the grill so maybe you need to make them a little bigger before you put them on. You also may be packing yours more loosely, which in the world of gourmet burgers is a good thing.

I'd just work on perfecting your shaping. The big guys have no tricks as far as I know.

Joe Yonan: They do have one, or at least Bobby Flay does: He makes in indentation in the middle of each uncooked patty with his thumb, and that way when it cooks and swells, it fills in to become flat, rather than saucer-shaped.

Jane Black: Shows what I know.


Baking question: So is Leigh back from her honeymoon? (And congratulations, btw.) I ask because I have a baking question. I've been asked to make whoopie pies for an upcoming picnic. The recipe I tried, the little cakes spread and were too thin and flimsy. Do you have any suggestions or better recipe?

Leigh Lambert: I don't have a specific recipe for you, but I'm wondering about the amount of leavener in the recipe you used. Try looking for one with more baking powder or a combo or baking powder and baking soda, usually found in more biscuit-like recipes. This should give it some structure.

Joe Yonan: You know we don't like to talk too much about a little newspaper to the north a few hours, but they did have a cool whoopie pie story recently, with this recipe. You might try it.


Dusting off the ice cream maker: I'd like to make a rich-tasting chocolate ice cream, but keep it on the low-fat side by using yogurt and/or low-fat milk. Can you help?

Jane Black: I just thumbed through David Lebovitz's Perfect Scoop -- an amazing book if you like to make ice cream. Nothing low-fat or with yogurt in there. Would a chocolate sorbet do?

Andreas Viestad: Fat is quite important if you want a nice smooth ice cream. If you want a low fat alternative I would go for a sherbet or an Italian semifreddo, where you use air (suspended in egg or egg whites) to ensure a smooth texture.


Metro Center, D.C.: Hi Food People!

I need some help with cooking tofu. In the past when I've made it, it seems to have always ended up flavorless and kinda limp. The last thing I tried involved a 10 minute marinade in soy sauce and sesame oil. I used extra firm tofu, cut into chunks and blotted them as best I could. Then cooked them over medium heat for about 5-10 minutes. Any insight for flavorful yummy (and not soggy) tofu? Thanks!!

Jane Black: Bonnie wrote a terrific story about a young Chinese chef who does great things with tofu. The story has a sidebar about how to best cook tofu.


Washington, D.C.: Broadening from our usual topic -- are you guys excited about the film version of Julie and Julia later this summer? I just finished the book, and I'm looking forward to seeing some of those delectable MtAoFC (as Julie calls Mastering the Art of French Cooking) recipes on screen.

Joe Yonan: There's really just one thing I'm interested in when it comes to this movie: Meryl as Julia.


Pine Plains, N.Y.: When Andreas says "store bought fish stock" does he mean fish store prepared stock? Is there any widely available and acceptable canned or frozen fish stock?

Also, should we expect the fish to fall apart or toughen when cooking during the final boiling?

Andreas Viestad: Since I improve the stock anyway I am not so picky about its origin, although I certainly prefer a stock that has been made in the fish store.

The interesting thing with the bouillabaisse is that it is made with different fish and that they all react differently: Some will firm up, some will fall apart and add to the thickness of the stock.


Columbus, Ohio: I just bought my first grill (propane), and I'd love to cook some steaks on it tonight. Are there any guidelines for length of time versus the thickness of the meat, a good temperature for cooking, etc.? Is there a way to tell that it's done without cutting into each steak? Do different cuts of beef require drastically different grilling techniques? Thanks from a grilling newbie!

Andreas Viestad: I just converted from coal to gas, and I love it! Much simpler, so it is easy to grill every day. Still, timing is always a challenge. It might be a good idea to use an electronic meat thermometer the first couple of times, to get used to it.


Silver Spring, Md.: What's the best way to store lettuce in the fridge? We can't go shopping every day, so we usually buy 2 heads of lettuce to last us through the week. What I can do to keep the lettuce from becoming moldy and turning brown?


Joe Yonan: Store them unwashed, and whole, in plastic bags, and store them away from apples and pears and bananas, whose gases can cause them to turn brown. According to the fabulous Aliza Green's "Field Guide to Produce," heartier lettuce such as romaine and iceberg should last a week, while more tender varieties (red leaf, Boston) will start to go after three or four days.

I've found, though, that another good way to store lettuce, especially if you're dealing with loose leaves such as mesclun mix, is to wash it and spin it dry in a salad spinner, and leave it in the spinner in the fridge. It demands a bit of space, but lettuce I store this way, especially if it's spun really dry, will last me a week.

If lettuce is limp, there are tricks to recrisping it. Just fill a bowl with warm water, and add some salt to taste. Let the lettuce (leaves, not heads) soak in it, and they'll come back to life.


Arlington, Va.: I was at my parents house for dinner last weekend and we made grilled scallops. They were delicious but we started talking and debating about which part of the scallop we were actually eating and how it relates to a mussel or an oyster. I'm hoping you guys can help answer the question. When we eat scallops are we just eating the part that attaches to the shell? Does anyone eat the rest of the scallop?

Jane Black: Americans generally only eat the white abductor muscle of the scallop. We shuck them and throw away the crescent shaped roe. The roe, if you haven't seen it, is red and considered a delicacy by European chefs. I went to culinary school in England and the fact that we don't eat the roe, my teacher informed me, is one more reason they think we're idiots over here.

Jane Black: One addition: When you clean a scallop, there is also a little black sac of innards. That gets thrown away anywhere. If you are shucking your own scallops, pry open the shell. Using your knife, gently pry away the black innards. They should remove cleanly from the muscle. Then release the scallop and/or or the roe.

Joe Yonan: You also want to take off this little muscle on the side of each scallop, which is too tough to eat.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think beet greens and bok choy (the leafy parts) would work together? Steamed or sauteed? The beets and bok choy stalks made a great salad last night.

Joe Yonan: Sure, they would. I'd saute them with lots of ginger and garlic, maybe a little mirin and rice vinegar to taste.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Is there a rule or guideline for how much dried pasta to prepare per person? We're having 10-ish people to dinner tonight, and the sauce is already made, but I'm not sure how many packages of bucatini to buy. Help!

Joe Yonan: Think 2-4 ounces of pasta per person, depending on what else you're serving. (Err on the smaller side if you'll have lots of apps and sides, etc., and on the larger side if you won't.)


Arlington, Va.: What are the best grilling cookbooks in your opinion, ones that have great recipes and teach you how to properly use your grill? I have a few, including ones by Bobby Flay and Mario Batali, but they're not as inspiring as I thought they'd be. Thanks for any suggestions.

Jane Black: I have never been lucky enough to have a grill. But I am going to answer anyway. Steven Raichlen's How to Grill or Chris Schlesinger's Thrill of the Grill. You cannot go wrong with these guys. They're terrific.

Joe Yonan: I'll add "Peace, Love and Barbecue" by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe and "The Barbecue Bible" by Raichlen.


Philadelphia, Pa.: So, I have a bunch of almost-ripe avocados, but am going out of town for several days. I've had them in a bag to ripen faster, then just out on the counter to ripen slowly -- can I put them in the fridge to halt ripening entirely? Any tricks to it?

(Also, any tips for using up a bunch of 'em other than guacamole?)

Joe Yonan: You can indeed refrigerate them, but this'll only extend them for a few days. As for recipes, Leigh wrote several blog items about using them in baking: There's the Green-on-Green Tart (like key lime, but not); Avocado Coffee Cake; and Glazed Chocolate-Avocado Cupcakes.


Cooking Classes: Son is getting married, and I'm thinking about giving the couple a gift of cooking classes. Suggestions for a moderately-priced series (not a culinary school)? She works in D.C., he in Falls Church, and they live in Ashburn, so somewhere convenient to after-work on the trail west preferable.

Jane Black: Why not a culinary school? There are plenty that do basic classes. Check out my recent story about the new culinary classes available around town.


Newton, Mass.: Not exactly a bouillabaisse question but about that rouille. The last and only time I made rouille, something very weird happened, I think from the raw garlic. I used the Julia Child's recipe and all those who ate it continued to excrete garlic from every pore -- literally, for several days. I use garlic all the time, never had it happen with anything else and wondered whether any of you have ever heard of this? Will make your bouillabaisse, but likely not the rouille.

Andreas Viestad: Garlic is very interesting; it reacts differently if you chop or crush it. When making a rouille you crush it to a fine paste which makes it very pungent. You could try using a lot less garlic -- although I think that takes away some of the fun.


Indentations in hamburgers: You can do the thumbprint in the middle, but from one of the cooking shows (I'm not sure, but I think it was ATK), they said that a regular imprint works a little better. So, get something like a small jar or the bottom of one of those metal condiment dishes to make the imprint. It should be no more than 1/3 to 1/2 the diameter and push in up to about 1/4 of the height of the burger. Then when it expands, it will flatten out the burger. If you do the thumbprint and are irregular, you can end up with an irregular dimple in the burger, which is fine, but if you want the presentation of a flat burger, go with a regular shape.

Jane Black: Cool. Thanks.


Langley, Va.: Hi all,

I had my first soft-shell crab at a local restaurant (that serves seafood, but isn't a seafood-only restaurant). It seemed okay -- a bit greasy and sort of unpleasantly crunchy.

How would I know if I ate an older crab? By the crunchiness factor?

It was served on a bun with lettuce and tartar sauce.

Mr. Kinkead and you all explained it well, but, if I wanted to have a very good chance of eating one as it is meant to be, are there any recommendations other than Black Salt?


Jane Black: You wouldn't really know. If it's crunchy, though, it's likely the crab may have started to grow a paper shell. As for the greasiness, that's the restaurant's fault.

To buy soft-shells in the area, I recommend Black Salt, River Falls Market in Potomac and M. Slavin & Sons in Arlington.


Joe Yonan: Bored writer alert: Spirits guru Jason Wilson came into the room, saw no one asking about grappa or anything else spirits-related, and is thinking about packing up his toys. Don't let him leave -- throw spirits questions his way!


re: tofu: I press out some of the water first and then marinate it like the poster said. But then I slice it and bake it in the oven til it gets nice and chewy. It goes great with this recipe (replacing the shrimp).

Joe Yonan: Thanks!


Arlington, Va.: Can't wait to try the bouillabaisse recipe -- I love fish stews and have made a version by Lidia Bastianich a few times for Christmas Eve dinner. But I have to say -- who on earth chose that photo to accompany the story? We got a good laugh over breakfast imagining bringing to the table a tureen with fish heads prominently displayed. Ugh.

My question is about preserving herbs. We grow a ton of different herbs every year but preserve few of them. This year, I'd like to try preserving in various forms -- drying, freezing, flavored oils and vinegars? Any tips are appreciated. I guess there are different "Peak" times to pick different herbs. We grow sage, thyme, basil, chives, mint, rosemary, cilantro, dill, parsley...


Jane Black: I don't mean to pick a fight but...what's wrong with seeing a fish head? Fish do have heads after all. I ask because I'm working on a story that relates to the idea that Americans want to pretend that the animals they eat never really were animals. Thoughts?

(I'll leave the herb questions to the experts.)

Andreas Viestad: Although the classic bouillabaisse is often served with whole fish, it doesn't have to. But in order to make the right rick stock you need to use the head, and bones and fins. And I happen to think that that fish is damn good-looking.

As for herbs I freeze most of the robust ones, like rosemary, thyme and sage. I feel that basil, parsley and chervil are much less cooperative so I try to use them in season. Chives can be left out all year but can also be preserved in oil with a reasonably good result.

Joe Yonan: And we chose that photo because we think it's gorgeous. But that's just us, I guess!


Silver Spring: Storing lettuce (and other vegetables):

A friend turned me on to the Green Bags (as seen on TV). They really do work. They come in two sizes and I use them all the time. They also have bread bags. I kid you not when I say that I had a store bought loaf of pumpernickel that was mold-free and soft after 3 weeks.

Joe Yonan: Would I also get a Sham-Wow with purchase?


Clarksburg, Md.: Chapel Hill: I'm replacing our old stove with a new gas one. Is all the hype about upscale stoves right? Will a Wolf or Thermador be so much better than a standard brand that it's worth the price differential? Or would I just be caving into peer pressure and keeping up with the Joneses?

I had Thermador cooktop in the center island with down draft exhaust and I loved it and I miss it sooo very much. It had the grill in the middle with four different BTU burners. We sold the house and bought another house which has Jennair or something else with black things -- I hate it. It so difficult to clean and not very appealing. If you need to grill the whole thing needs to be changed which is a pain.

Joe Yonan: Thanks, Clarksburg, for picking up on this question from last week -- Chapel Hill, are you reading this?


Petworth: I got six kinds of honey for Christmas (seriously). I've been thinking about making some of it into honey ice cream, maybe with vanilla. Or lavender. Or something else I haven't thought of yet.

Any thoughts on fabulous recipes or secret techniques? I love homemade ice cream (and have a machine), but am still perfecting my ice cream making abilities.

Jane Black: As I already had the Lebovitz ice cream book on my desk, I looked up lavender-honey ice cream. Here's the recipe -- and a tip. If you don't want lavender, skip the infusion step and crumble in one recipe of his honey-sesame brittle during the last few minutes of churning.

Lavender-Honey Ice Cream

Makes 1 Quart

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup dried or fresh lavender flowers

1-1/2 cup whole milk

1/4 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1-1/2 cups heavy cream

5 large egg yolks

Heat the honey and 2 tablespoons of lavender in a small saucepan. Once warm, remove the heat and set aside to steep at room temperature for one hour.

Warm the milk, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan. Pour the cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer on top. Pour the lavender-infused honey into the cream through the strainer and press to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the lavender and set the strainer back over the cream.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm mixture into the yolks, whisking constantly. Then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream. Add the remaining two teaspoons of lavender and stir until cool over an icebath.

Chill the mixture overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, before churning, strain the mixture again, pressing on the lavender flowers to extract their flavor. Discard the flowers and freeze according to manufacturers instructions.

Honey-Sesame Brittle

3 tbsp honey

1-1/2 cup sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with foil or a silicone baking mat.

In a skillet warm the honey. Remove from the heat and stir in the sesame seeds, coating them until they are just moist.

Spread the mixture evenly on the baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.


Yes! yes! chocolate sorbet!: Dunno about the other poster, but I'd like a chocolate sorbet recipe. Give it up!

Joe Yonan: This is one that I've made many times, to excellent effect. I got it from Francois Payard's Simply Sensational Desserts, but I see it here available at Food & Wine's Web site. What I love about chocolate sorbet is that there's no dairy (well, OK, there's SOME, but not much) to obscure the flavor of the chocolate. The better the chocolate, the better the sorbet.


Storing lettuce: A friend of mine who always takes his lunch with him to work gave me this great tip for saving "cut" lettuce, e.g. cut off the head. Once cut or chopped, take an airtight container (or Ziploc). Take a lightly dampened paper towel and put it on the bottom, put the lettuce in and then put another lightly dampened towel on top, then close. The lettuce will keep almost a week instead of just two days or so. You'll notice that the red stuff that often turns the edges of your lettuce will grow on the moist paper towels instead of on the lettuce. After a few days, if the paper towels have some of that red stuff, you can replace them and this should keep the cut lettuce up to a week in the fridge. Works great. Now I cut up my lettuce for salads that I take to work only once or twice a week and it makes preparing my lunch a lot easier in the mornings.

Joe Yonan: Lettuce say thanks.


Alexandria, Va.: Lemonade question here. I am hoping to add a little (non-alcoholic) sophistication to some lemonade at a party I am hosting. Would adding a tiny dash of vanilla extract send it into the bizarre zone?

Joe Yonan: How much time do you have? The idea of vanilla with lemon isn't bizarre, but I'd be more tempted to add vanilla-infused sugar. I always have some around, because when I scrape out vanilla beans I add the pods to a jar of sugar. It takes a few days to infuse. Another idea that might be more flavorful is basil.


Andreas - Gas v charcoal: Hardwood charcoal will get hotter than a gas grill. How could you recommend gas over charcoal for a steak!?! One thing all the great steakhouses have in common, over than cook around 800+ degrees.

Andreas Viestad: I like it because I can use it every day, so it is more an alternative to cooking on my stove. And I love to use it for vegetables and fish. I have got a pretty good one and the temperature is quite high, around 700 degrees. For my bistecca fiorentina I still pull out my old charcoal grill.


Avocados: Lately I've been really enjoying avocados with smoked salmon, laid on toast or crusty bread with a little bit of lemon juice and optional capers. It would probably also be fine to eat sashimi style on a plate.

Joe Yonan: I also took inspiration from Cork on 14th Street and for awhile -- all last summer, pretty much -- I made avocado-pistachio bruschetta. Just toast the bred, layer slices of avocado, drizzle with pistachio oil (or olive oil if you can't find or don't want to shell out the bucks for pistachio oil), chopped pistachios and sea salt.


Purple Basil: I just picked up a cute purple basil plant at my local grocery store. But, I have no idea what to do with it. Can I use it the same way as regular basil?

Joe Yonan: I need more information -- You might have opal basil (very dark color, smooth leaves, minty flavor), or purple ruffled basil (ruffled leaves, obviously), or maybe Thai basil (slender oval leaves, purple stems).

What would I do without my Aliza Green reference books (this one "The Field Guide to Herbs and Spices)?

If it's one of the first two I described, you can use it anywhere you would use sweet basil, depending on your taste. The Thai basil, though, is very peppery and not as good raw as in spicy Southeast Asian dishes, such as stir-fries and soups.


D.C.: The dressing sounds good for the cucumber salad, but I'm not a huge cucumber fan -- do you have suggestions for other vegetables this would work with?

Joe Yonan: You could certainly try it with zucchini; I think that would be nice.


Washington, D.C.: Saw artichokes in the Whole Foods market yesterday. I've been wanting to be adventurous and try them, but, aside from steaming and melted butter, what could I serve them with to make a meal? Wine pairing?

Thanks very much!

Jane Black: How about a simple pasta of artichokes, peas and parmesan?

As for pairings, that's a tough one. Artichokes are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. One sip and everything tastes chemical and bitter. But you could try a pinot grigio or a muller thurgau.


Tofu: Why can't people just accept tofu for what it is? Even extra-firm tofu won't be as firm or dry as tempeh or meat. "Extra-firm" also varies by brand. TJ's seems to have the most firm tofu.

Just as with meat, marinades don't fully penetrate tofu. Your best bet is to douse the dish with the sauce or marinade as you stir-fry. Or better yet, try baked tofu. Flavors and textures will vary among the brands. Freezing tofu will yield a chewier but spongy texture.

Joe Yonan: I second the baked-tofu idea. Much drier product, and easier to work with in many ways.


Fairfax: Hi foodies, love Wednesdays! My question is about lamb chops. I bought one of those big packs of them at Costco and they were terrific. Then, rushing to get home, I bought just a couple of them at a supermarket near my office and they were awful -- sinewy, very strong, took forever to cook through, a total waste of money. Does Costco get a better grade of meat than the market? If so, maybe I'll just buy a big pack and freeze it...

Jane Black: Hard to make a sweeping judgment about what you bought at the other grocery store. But Costco does have very good meat for the price. So if you eat a lot of lamb and liked what you got there, I'd stick with Costco.


Richmond: Give me a mixed drink made with Ginger Ale!

Jason Wilson: Well, ok, since you've asked so politely! You seem like maybe you need something right away, so why not try an E-Z highball of bourbon or scotch and ginger ale on ice. I actually prefer ginger beer as a cocktail ingredient, and there are some nice drinks such as a Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer, and lime) or a Dark n Stormy, which mixes rum, ginger beer, and lime. Here's a link.


Langley, Va. (again): Hi,

Thanks for the soft-shell info.

(Don't know if you want to print this next bit).

I'm a vet(erinarian). People DON'T like to think about where their food comes from, even vet students (I went to school with a girl who staunchly stood by the notion that meat came from Safeway in cellophane-wrapped packages).

Having done cattle work before switching to smaller critters, I KNOW that my steak was a living being (just prefer to have it raised free-range or organically, on the few occasions we eat meat, so that I can think that at least while it was alive, it had a decent quality of life).

Just my two cents.


Jane Black: I'm happy to hear your answer. And I appreciate your comment. Many Americans are starting to worry about how the animals they eat die, but most still don't think much about how they lived.

If people did make the connection between the live animals and what ends up their plate, many would make different choices about what they eat.


Re: Lemonade: Vanilla infused sugar? uhh... It was definitely going to be Country Time. I was thinking of floating blueberries in it in a punch bowl. Basil and blueberries? Sounds like that wouldn't be a match to me.

Joe Yonan: Oh! Sorry, when I think of lemonade, I think of ... lemons! (No offense.) You didn't mention the blueberry idea before, but now that you mention it, you're wrong that it wouldn't be a match. I recently tasted a basil-blueberry ice cream that Bonnie wrote about on our blog, and it was fab.


Washington, D.C.: How similar are bouillabaisse and cippionio? I apologize for the spelling!

Andreas Viestad: Flavor-wise there are many similarities between the French bouillabaisse and the Italian-American cioppino (from San Francisco). They are both fisherman's stews made with whatever fish were left over from the day's catch. The bouillabaisse is prepared using a pretty unique technique. I have never heard it used on other soups or stews.


Arlington, Va.: I posted the comment on the fish head picture, and didn't mean to offend! I do have small children who are not fans of fish, and there is no way they would ever eat ew-what-is-THAT if it were dinner! But Jane's comment was not far off the mark; I'm mostly vegetarian myself (eat fish) and so I guess something that looks like a real once-alive critter is more of a turn-off to me than to most!

Thank you for the comments on preserving herbs.

Jane Black: No offense taken! But it is a common reaction. Which just makes me think about how that fear/disgust/unfamiliarity affects our food choices as well as our health and the environment.


For Jason: Very basic question from a vodka novice -- I'd like a vodka that I can drink "neat" (more for my vodka-appreciating friends), and also will be a great mixer (more for me). Is there one single vodka that will fit the bill?

I'll keep it in the freezer so it always stays frigidly cold.

Which brand? Stoli? Grey Goose? Absolut?

Please let me know!

Jason Wilson: Ah, vodka. There is no more vexing spirit in the liquor store. So many you want a vodka from Kyrgyzstan? From Estonia? From Donald Trump? An organic vodka? Do you want one made from wheat? Potatoes? Do you want one made with the tears of virgins? With so many of the expensive vodkas on the market, you are merely buying a fancy frosted-glass bottle. To make it simple, just buy a bottle of Stolichnaya for about $18. If you want organic and want to pay a little more, try Square One. They'll work.


MD: So how is adding vanilla to lemonade sweetened with sugar any different than adding vanilla-infused sugar? Seriously? Why make things hard?

Jane Black: Vanilla infused sugar will be more subtle. How else were you thinking of doing it? Adding the bean straight to the lemonade? If you add vanilla extract to lemonade, it will add that alcohol/bitter flavor.

Joe Yonan: Basically, we set out to try to make things as hard as possible. Seriously? They asked us a question, and we gave the most thoughtful answer we could with what we have to work with. Sure, you could try glugging the vanilla extract into Country Time lemonade! Maybe it'd be amazing. Maybe not.


spirit?: Well I asked about velvet falernum a few weeks ago and nada!!! Still there?

Jason Wilson: Ah, sorry. I was out of town the other week and we posted the answer on our new blog All We Can Eat.


Washington, D.C.: Hi all.

Yes, I'm making the rounds of all of the cooking and food chats today to remind everyone that the Brainfood Grill-off is happening on June 11. Lots of local chefs, great food and the chance to see some of the skills our students have picked up this year. It's a great cause. More information here. Thanks.

Joe Yonan: Looks great -- thanks for keeping it on our radar!


what's wrong with seeing a fish head?: Well, a famous vegetarian motto is, "Don't eat anything with a face," so they presumably don't like seeing images of fish heads.

Jane Black: Yeah but it's not only vegetarians that feel that way.


Petworth: Thanks for the ice cream recipe!

In trade, let me offer two things: Strawberry is good in lemonade, as is mint, as is basil, as is a small bit of rosemary.

My favorite chocolate sorbet recipe ever is on Epicurious


2 1/4 cups (555 ml) water

1 cup (200 g) sugar

3/4 cup (75 g) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

Pinch of salt

6 ounces (170 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


In a large saucepan, whisk together 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the water with the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Let it boil, continuing to whisk, for 45 seconds.

Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until it's melted, then stir in the vanilla extract and the remaining 3/4 cup (180 ml) water. Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend for 15 seconds. Chill the mixture thoroughly, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. If the mixture has become too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it vigorously to thin it out.

Jane Black: Thanks!


Lower-Fat Ice Cream: I can't eat much fat, and I've done a little experimentation with reducing fat in homemade ice cream. The big problem is that fat keeps the ice cream from freezing into a solid brick -- but there are a few ways around that.

A little honey instead of part of the sugar can sometimes help keep the texture softer. Stirring in some liquor (either in a matching flavor or just a little plain vodka) just after the ice cream is first frozen will keep it scoopable. Or, bake some plain meringue until it's crisp, then crumble it finely and stir in (also, just after the stir-freezing). It'll dissolve so it's hardly noticeable, but will help keep the texture soft and pleasant.

I've also found that using a thickened/custard base with low-fat milk seems to add back some of the rich mouthfeel that would otherwise come from cream.

Finally, go for the gusto in terms of flavor: if the ice cream tastes better and brighter, a slightly weaker texture won't be noticed.

Joe Yonan: Thanks so much. These are great tips.


When life gives you lemons: Is it too obvious to suggest fresh mint? Gives a savory sharp tone.

Jane Black: Nothing is ever too obvious. Mint is delicious. As is ginger, which someone else suggested.


For Jason: No a question, but a recommendation. If you like grappa, you should try its Georgian cousin chacha. It's absolutely lovely. Unfortunately it's hard to find in stores around here, but you can sample it at the Russia House.

Jason Wilson: Oh, that sounds very interesting. If they have it at Russia House, I will definitely try it next time I'm there. In fact, in reference to the earlier vodka newbie question, Russia House is a great place to go to try a bunch of different vodkas (you can order a tasting flight from dozens on the menu) and make a side by side comparison.

Joe Yonan: I remember that night. Sort of.


My two cents on stoves: To follow-up on Chapel Hill's question: if you have the extra money for a Wolf or Thermador, go for it. Your stove will be a beauty and it will be fun to use. However, most home cooks don't need the amount of BTUs these types of cook tops generate, or don't know how to properly use that amount of heat. I cringe when I hear people justify the purchase of a high-end stove by saying it will make their cooking better. Some of the best cooks I know use really basic stoves, including electric. You don't need the high-end stove for good cooking, although again, they're really pretty to behold.

Joe Yonan: Thanks. I agree, mostly. I think having that kind of power -- at least on one or two of the burners -- can be very helpful in the kitchen. But you need the ventilation. I've found that more of a problem often is that some of the very powerful stoves can't handle LOW heat very well, so a simmer is impossible. One friend's stove has this super annoying click-on-and-off thing on his simmer burner that drives me absolutely batty when I cook on it.


Avocado: I love this avocado watercress salad from Gourmet. It's also vegan and is good to take to potlucks for that reason (gives the vegans something substantial to eat).

Jane Black: Sounds terrific. I like the idea of the apple in the dressing. Thanks for sharing.


Silver Spring: No Sham Wow. Another lettuce tip -- I use a ceramic knife to cut it and it doesn't turn brown. Especially important when you make a salad or tacos, etc for the next day.

Joe Yonan: Absolutely. Or just tear with your hands, of course.


whooopeee pies: I used "Two Brothers Chocolate Gobs" recipe by Paula Deen. Delicious and easy. Apparently I didn't make enough because they disappeared quickly.

Joe Yonan: Gobs of fun.


So how is adding vanilla to lemonade sweetened with sugar any different than adding vanilla-infused sugar? Seriously? Why make things hard?: They're using Country Time! Does it matter what is added?

Joe Yonan: Go back and read, please. They just said lemonade. I didn't know Country Time until their follow-up post, and then I responded in kind.


Alexandria, Va.: Re: Dark n Stormys: One thing that Post link doesn't address is that not all Ginger Beers are created equal. The one you need to use for the "classic" version, along with Gosling's, is Barritt's Ginger Beer, which can be hard to find but I've seen it at some Virginia ABC stores lately, and I think Ace Beverage in D.C. carries it. Other ginger beers can work okay, but they're never quite as good in my opinion.

Jason Wilson: It's true. I like Barrett's best. But Reed's isn't too bad either.


Pairing with artichokes: I've enjoyed artichokes with champagne. (But then again what doesn't taste good with champagne?)

Jane Black: So true.


Arlington, Va. S.: I usually bring back a bottle or two of grappa from Italy every time I visit, and have a couple of questions. I don't always have a good resource to knowing which ones are good. Regrettably, I'm frequently gifted so-so bottles from well meaning relatives who know I like the stuff. This limits the space in my luggage for grappas that I could seek out. So... these tend to take up the packing space in my luggage and I have to resort to duty-free due to airline liquid restrictions. What would you do in this case?

Second, do you know of a good local resource that stocks grappa, and even better has staff that is familiar with it?

I do have a book at grappa on home and need to remember to bring it with me. About half of it is descriptions and recommendations. Ideally I could find a tasting to try many of them at, but have never seen one in the area.

Jason Wilson: 1) When I travel, I'm usually pretty ruthless about only bringing home stuff I like and won't be able to find at home. But this is tough if friends and family are giving you bottles -- but honestly, I'd leave the bad stuff in the hotel room, or give it away before I go to the airport. Also, if I'm pretty sure I can find something in duty-free, I'll often wait until then to buy it.

2) Ace Beverage is a good go-to place for spirits that are a little off the beaten path.

Also, you can always try ordering hard-to-find brands from one of the online sellers like


Fish head: I no more would want to see a fish head in bouillabaisse than I would want to see tomato cores in tomato bisque.

Joe Yonan: That was a cooking shot, not a serving shot. The whole fish are strained out before serving.


grappa!: Why do so few Italian restaurants offer grappa? At one place, the owner said she wasn't "allowed" to sell it. Also, would it work in any drink recipe that calls for tequila?

Jason Wilson: I don't know why she was allowed to sell it, unless it was a homemade, moonshine sort of thing. It depends what tequila recipe, but it's worth a shot.


Joe Yonan: Well, You've pulled off our apron, snipped off our face and removed our gills, so you know what that means -- we're done. (Okay, actually it means that we're soft-shell crabs and we're ready to be cooked, but this was my favorite cooking instruction in this week's section, so there you go.)

Thanks to all for the great questions today, and to Jason and Andreas for helping us handle them. Next week, we'll have the fabulously talented and smart Bonnie Benwick back to answer, so we'll be able to get to more of your questions.

Now, for the book winners: The Langley vet who so eloquently wrote about the origins of our food will get "Real Cajun" -- plenty of dishes with faces in that one! And the chatter with all the great tips on lower-fat ice cream (including honey for softer texture) will get "The Eiffel Tower Restaurant Cookbook." Send your info to, and we'll get them out to you.

Until next week, happy cooking, eating and reading.


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