Free Range on Food: Staffers Solve Your Cooking Conundrums

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, July 8, 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

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Bonnie Benwick: Sun is shining, birds are singing, folks everywhere are canning...Good afternoon, fellow Free Rangers! We're hoping today's section and blog posts at All We Can Eat will spur you to make the most of the season's produce. Editor Joe may sneak in before we're through, but chef Stefano Frigerio of the Copper Pot Food Co. is on hand to answer your fruit-filled questions.

For giveaways, call us crazy but a copy of that hefty Greek bible of recipes, "Vefa's Kitchen," can be yours (source of today's Dinner in Minutes), or perhaps "Eating for Pregnancy" (2nd Edition) by Catherine Jones and Rose Ann Hudson RD LD. We'll post winners at the end of the chat; remember to send your contact info to food@washpost.com.

I hear the chanting...Yes-We-Can. Yes-We-Can...

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Madison, Wis.: I loved the article on canning. I started making jams last year and am having lots of fun. I just wanted to put a plug in for the Orchard Field Preserves recipe that you published last summer -- it's so good! The natural pectin in the orange gives it a good thick texture and the combination of fruits in great. I only wish I lived someplace where all of those fruits grow locally, but for now I am content buying my oranges and apricots at the store and using local strawberries and rhubarb. So, just wanted to say thanks!

Stefano Frigerio: The recipe does sound fantastic. Another fruit that has a very high level of pectin to try is apples. In fact, much of the pectin sold in stores in made from apple skin. Apple jam is one of my favorites, even more so because the apples are the most fun fruit to harvest. My family takes a couple days to pick apples in Markham, Virginia in the fall for our Orchard-Fresh Apple Jam, and it is a lot of fun!

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Source for canning fruit/veggies: Submitting early due to a meeting. Loved the articles on canning -- I canned several jars of salsa, tomato sauce, and apple butter for the first time last summer and fall, and it was fantastic! We just finished our apple butter last week, and our sauce lasted well into the winter.

I bought three cases of canning jars on eBay for cheap this winter and want to can more, but it only seems worth it if I can get cheap, local produce. I've seen Butler's Orchard's bushel of canning tomatoes (you know, the ugly ones) for $15, and I saw the story about the Upper Marlboro farm where members could pick all the tomatoes they wanted. We belong to a CSA, but usually eat all the veggies. Any one else know of a source for maybe ugly fruit/veggies that go for cheap toward the end of the season? I'm interested in any fruits or vegetables as we love pretty much all veggies and fruit. I know farmer's markets will have it, but it's hit or miss, and I guess I'm thinking closer to the source (like a farm trying to get rid of a dearth of tomatoes). Any thoughts? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Good for you, and good question. Liz Falk, director of Common Good City Farm that sells at Ledroit Park, tells me you're more likely to find seconds at the end of the season at farmers markets, or when there's an abundance of something (like tomatoes). Boxes of "seconds" can usually be found under the tables there. Some grocery stores have bins of slightly damaged produce, such as Harris Teeters. And if you want to go straight to the source, try calling some of these pick your own farms, not too far from Washington.

Stefano Frigerio: I understand the issue of cost-effectiveness. One way to get great produce for canning is to be sure you are looking for produce at the peak of its season. Ask farmers at the markets to hold damaged produce for you. Often if you let them know a couple weeks in advance, they can put together boxes of less-than-beautiful produce and bring it to the markets for a great price. Also, I am sitting here with Ann Yonkers of FreshFarm Markets who recommends visiting localharvest.org, who provides a listing by regions of the US of farms that sell directly. She mentions that the best way to get cost-effective produce is to choose harvest when it's abundant.

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Facebo, OK: I saw in the most recent chat that you have a Facebook fan page. Darned if I could find it, at least not under "Free Range on Food." Could you please include a link on the Free Range discussion page?

Thanks!

Jane Black: Ah we tricked you. It's called Washington Post Food, not Free Range. Here's the link to our facebook page. Join us!

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On the Lamb: Hi Foodies! Made my first rack of lamb last weekend, and it was fabulous -- seared on top of the stove, coated with herbs du Provence, then in the oven for 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees.

My question is, before cooking, should I have trimmed off the long block of fat that runs across the outside curve of the ribs at the meaty end? Or is that where all the flavor comes from?

Bonnie Benwick: Trim, yes, especially if you want those herbs to do their work on the meat. Check this out.

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Suburban organic farming: Submitting super early because I know I'll lose this link, but here's an article you might be interested in about organic farms being an asset to suburban communities.

Jane Black: I did see that in the Times. I recommend it, too. Anyone around here know of communities that are offering organic farms (or farms in general) as an amenity?

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NoLo, D.C.: Thanks for all the canning articles today! I've been threatening to my partner for years that I'm going to start canning, but I never do. Instead I just buy huge quantities of tomatoes, make sauce, and freeze it for the winter.

Maybe this will actually get me to go out give this a try!

Bonnie Benwick: Tomatoes! The duck has come down, as Groucho used to say. Reminds me to urge you and all your pals to enter our Top Tomato recipe contest. Details are here. We've gotten some fine entries thus far -- just not enough!

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Lassi/ayran: I've been really into plain salt lassi this summer. It is the same stuff called ayran in Turkey. This is the most refreshing drink. Yum. You just whisk plain yogurt with a little bit of salt until the yogurt is smooth, then whisk in one to two times as much chilled water (amount depends how thin you like it), then whisk some ice cubes around in it to get it even colder. If you usually think good dairy means it's really thick, you will surprised how delicious the water makes it! There are a million Internet suggestions for spices and other flavorings to add, but plain is very traditional and really tasty.

Jane Black: Sounds fabulous. Thanks for sharing.

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Boston: As a long-time canner I really appreciated the articles in today's food section...three great articles. However, since many people are new to canning and food preserving, it's important to stress safety in every article.

The piece on Stefano Frigerio mentioned that he uses sterilized jars, but doesn't generally use a water bath to seal them. (There was a parenthetical comment saying the Ball Jar company recommends a water bath.) The jars will almost always seal without a water bath, and if they don't they may need a new lid...but the water bath isn't to seal the jars. The jars are sterilized, and the hot jam is sterilized, and the water bath is meant to sterilize the air space left in the jar, which believe it or not can contain bacteria that can spoil your food.

There's a purpose to every step in canning, and none should be skipped.

Stefano Frigerio: All of the Copper Pot's jars do go through the water bath process, as mentioned in today's article. Our jars are sterilized in boiling water and then sealed in boiling water. The flip process is something I use when canning personally, not for public sale. Regarding that process, when the jar, jam and lid are boiling hot, the jar is flipped upside down for 5 minutes. This process creates pressure which expels all air bubbles and the lid pops. All bacteria are eliminated.

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Boston: My mother always made her own jam from scratch. She would go to a pick-your-own berry place and pick a huge amount (while my brother and I usually ate our weight in berries). In a matter of days there would be a huge pot filled with deliciously fragrant jam bubbling on the stove. I remember one year she stumbled on some wild grapes during a walk which were quickly turned into grape jam. She always said it was so easy, and yet I have never done it myself. After reading the article today, I am thinking I need to pick Mom's brain about all her jam-making exploits.

Bonnie Benwick: You are correct! That makes us happy.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hey Rangers! In this week's CSA box, I got peaches, plums and apricots. Help! I was thinking some of the stone fruit might be okay in a grain salad (quinoa, Israeli cous cous or the like), but that's as far as I've gotten. Can I put any of them on the grill?

Jane Touzalin: Sounds like a wonderful predicament to me! Yes, you can grill them, as long as they're not too ripe. (If they are too soft, they'll just disintegrate in the heat.) Keep reading to find links for Grilled Peaches With Basil Mascarpone, a dessert, and Grilled Spice-Rubbed Peaches, which can be a dessert AND a side dish. Apricots could be treated in the same way.

I made a wonderful and unbelievably easy plum dessert from Bon Appetit last week: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Cut 6 plums (any kind) in half lengthwise and remove the pits. In a nonstick skillet with an ovenproof handle, cook 1/2 cup of packed dark brown sugar, 1/4 cup of honey, 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) of unsalted butter and 1/2 cup of fresh thyme sprigs over high heat for 2 minutes. The mixture should start bubbling and the butter should be melted. Add the plums, cut side down, with any accumulated juices and cook without stirring for 2 minutes (lower the heat if you think there's danger of burning). Flip the plums over, transfer the skillet to the oven and roast for 4 minutes, until the sauce is a deep color. I served these with crème fraiche on top and wow, they were wonderful.

Now here are those recipes I promised:

Bonnie Benwick: Here and here. And Jane says: You can turn all of that fruit into great summer salsas, too.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: We love the Copper Pot jams! The blackberry ginger has become a morning-must in my house. Any new flavors we can look forward to?

Stefano Frigerio: Thank you! I am so glad you like what we are doing. We are always experimenting with new flavors. Every week brings a new ingredient to the market, and we are always evolving. My neighbor at the 14th & U Saturday Market had some great duck last week, and we have a new duck confit ravioli as a result. With our jams, some combination work, some don't. We've had some winning experiments recently (Apricot Rosemary) and some bums (Rhubarb & Honey, not pretty). When working with Joe for today's Post article, we created a great Red Beet and Rhubarb that I will be bringing to market in the next week or two.

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Charleston, S.C.: Vefa is one of my favorite people. She has had a daily TV show for years. A majestic blond, she has an immense knowledge of Greek cooking and a very personable way about her. I have some of her books in Greek, which didn't help me much, but am eager to get this one. Thanks for reviewing it.

washingtonpost.com: 'Vefa's Kitchen': Their Big Fat Greek Cookbook

Bonnie Benwick: Might this be the fabulous Ms. Dupree? Vefa's done a fine job with this cookbook. A bible, indeed.

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Food Allergy: Sorry to submit so early, but I am desperate. I suffer from Oral Allergy Syndrome, which means the fruits I love the most cause me much discomfort. The experts say that cooking the fruit makes it easier for the allergy sufferer to enjoy. My problem is that I all the recipes I can find are more dessert-like. The reason I love fruit is because it is a healthy choice. I would love a recommendation for something that isn't super sweet, healthy, and leaves the fruit as the focus. Can you or any of your readers suggest some healthy cooked fruit recipes? Thanks! Love the chats, I have learned so much from you and the fellow chatters.

Stefano Frigerio: Fruit is very versatile and can be done in several great savory presentations. Purees and soups are good options that come to mind. Fruit can easily be cooked and pureed and served with a savory ingredient; chicken with roasted grapes or the Scandinavian tradition of meatballs with lingonberries (as Ann Yonkers just mentioned). Soups are a very easy way to enjoy cooked fruit as well. At Copper Pot, I do a apricot rosemary jam, which could easily be turned into a soup. Roast or grill apricots with some fresh rosemary blend with cream.

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Washington, D.C.: Hoping you can help!

After hosting several gatherings the past few weeks I now have a plethora of unopened orange juice sitting in my fridge. Any good cocktail recipes or food recipes that would help me fix this 'problem'?

Thanks!

Jane Black: We've conferred and have two suggestions. Freeze it, with or without alcohol, and scrape it to make a granita. Or make Bonnie's favorite made-up Mexican chicken recipe. Marinate boneless, skinless chicken thighs in orange juice, onions, cumin (and whatever else strikes your fancy. Some Adobo might be nice if you have it.) Let it sit overnight, then throw the chicken on the grill.

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Kensington, Md.: Hi everyone. In the strawberry-vanilla jam recipe, I was surprised to see it says only to put the two-piece lids in a pan of hot water, not to boil them. Does he mean just let them soak in a pan of hot tap water? I'm confused -- I thought you had to boil everything to be safe. I have always wanted to try making my own jams and preserves, but am terrified that I will do something wrong and give everybody botulism in the process. Some words of encouragement, please!

Stefano Frigerio: The Strawberry-Vanilla Jam is one of my family's favorites. In my hometown of Como, Italy, there is a Pasticceria that makes a great raspberry-vanilla jam and one of my kids only eats Strawberries. It just came together.

Regarding the seals, the two piece lids do need to be boiled. They should be placed in a pan, covered in hot water and boiled.

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Ashburn, Va.: How can I find out when Stefano will be hiring?

Stefano Frigerio: Where were you when I was pitting over a thousand apricots last night!

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Dinner in 25 minutes: The grilled zucchini salad in today's Food section looks delicious. I am always looking for new zucchini recipes, especially toward the end of the summer when they are so incredibly cheap at the farmer's market. (I'm especially fond of the zucchini "crab" cakes that Kim O'Donnell turned me on to.) I was curious about the cheese. I have never heard of it before, and I'm wondering what it tastes like. Is there something to compare it to? Though I haven't met a cheese I don't like.

Bonnie Benwick: Halloumi? It's fairly salty, but not as much as feta. Once grilled, the cheese can "squeak" against your teeth. I find the sensation oddly appealing. Lightly brushed with olive oil, it can pick up a little color and flavor just as easily in a grill pan, a sauté pan or under the broiler.

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D.C.: Just a friendly reminder that you said last week you would tell us how to work with the Weber Smokey Mountain Smoker re: the fact it has no temperature gauge and how to easily put more coals in. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Do you have a thermometer on your regular grill? If so, you could pull it out and stick it in through the top vent holes of the Smoker (if vents need to be closed at the top, just close them as much as you can). Or use a remote thermometer.

As for adding coals, there should be a side door at the bottom for doing just that. Be careful; it's hot to handle. And you can pour more water into the drip pan from that door as well. Have you checked out this smoker support Web site?

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Food and Travel for Joe?: What a surprise on Monday to see Joe moderating the travel chat. I was confused at first, but it seems they've added work to your plate, I'm assuming to cut costs. Food and travel are two of my favorite things so if you ever need a helper, I'm volunteering!

Bonnie Benwick: Yes, editor Joe is a multi-tasker extraordinaire these days. He used to be a travel writer at the Globe (and a damn good one, at that), so Post editors were smart enough to direct his expertise here. We'll pass along your offer.

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Strawberry-Vanilla jam?: I didn't see the recipe in the paper....this sounds divine! Please share!

Bonnie Benwick: It ran online: Stefano's Strawberry Vanilla Jam.

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Petworth: Thanks, Food Folks, for the fabulous pieces on canning today.

My project this year is jams and other preserves, but in the past we've done fruits (with booze), vegetables, pasta sauce, and even salsa.

Farmers' market produce and jars combined with a bit of your time make fabulous Christmas presents!

Bonnie Benwick: Right you are. Could be a good year for homemade gifts...

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Charlotte, N.C.: In trying to reach the proper temperature, can preserves overcook if it takes to long to reach 240 degrees? I tried to make strawberry preserves and when it took an incredibly long time to reach 240 degrees, my resulting jam was unspreadable it was so thick.

Stefano Frigerio: Are you adding water when cooking? Adding water can generally create this kind of issue as the water boils at a different time than the fruit. I recommend macerating the fruit with sugar and letting it heat on medium high heat until it boils. Macerating the fruit will release natural waters and sugars. After it has reached boiling point, turn down the heat to medium-low and allow it to simmer on a low-boil.

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Orange juice overload: For starters, how about getting some Galliano and making Harvey Wallbangers? It's such a fun name to say.

Then for the main course, reduce the OJ in a wide shallow pan on the stove top and use it as a glaze on roasted poultry.

Finally, for dessert, incorporate the orange reduction into a spectacular flaming crepes suzette!

Also, stir a reduction into plain yogurt, incorporate into a choc/vanilla pudding recipe, pour over vanilla/chocolate ice cream, etc. Roasted almonds would be great as toppings.

Bonnie Benwick: Harvey W's! There's a name I haven't heard since my bell bottoms were thiiiis wide.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hello, Foodies. I have two completely unrelated questions for you:

1. I'd like to grill fish this weekend. Any suggestions on what fish stands up to the grilling process pretty well?

2. I'd really like to cook my way through a cookbook -- much like "Julie" did in the upcoming movie (from the book) "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Kitchen". However, I don't really want to use the Art of French Cooking. Any other recommendations for a classic type of cuisine or cookbook that I could work my way through?

Thanks!

Joe Yonan: Okay, but if you make any money off this idea, I DEMAND a consultant's fee. I've often thought a fun one to do this with would be the Time/Life Foods of the World series. That's a lot of books, and I'd love to see how well they hold up. I'm a collector.

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Homemade jams: Hi,

I made a homemade jam of sorts over the weekend, since I had fresh local blueberries, strawberries and raspberries that were overripe and about to go bad. I didn't add much sugar, just some honey and the juice of a lemon, with several diced pieces of candied ginger.

So, it's delicious -- we used it on some buttered wheat pancakes the day after making. I've put it an airtight container in the fridge. How long will this last before going bad?

Joe Yonan: How much did you make? Did you actually cook it? You'd be fine for a couple of weeks, I'm sure. You can also freeze it for many months.

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Pine Plains: Two pieces of equipment that are very helpful when canning are a Silpat and an relatively inexpensive induction hot plate. The Silpat in a half sheet pan helps you safely move hot jars from canner to wherever they need to go (they don't slide around).

The induction burner heats only the pot and its contents, not itself or the room. It also frees up a burner on your stove, which is great for corn season, too.

Joe Yonan: I have induction envy.

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Bethesda, Md.: Will you profile the upcoming local chefs that will be featured on Top Chef?

Jane Black: I don't know if we'll profile them. Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick and Mike Isabella of Zaytinya in Penn Quarter are well-known around here. But I am -- as we speak -- getting comments from our local boys about their experiences with the show so far. (Or at least what they can tell me. Cheftestants are required to stay mum about almost everything until after the finale.)

Top Chef fans should also look out for Michael Voltaggio in the new season. He is Bryan's brother and chef de cuisine at Jose Andres's new Los Angeles restaurant, Bazaar.

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Pine Plains: 240 degrees? Yikes. According to Bell, the gel point is 8 degrees above boiling, or 220 if water boils at 212 degrees at your altitude.

Joe Yonan: Yep, I would've chimed in with that if I had been in the room at the time. (I'm chatting from a break in jury duty! Love technology.) 220 is exactly right, as I write in my blog post today about my latest jam obsession: Blueberry-Lemon Jam.

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New to canning: I have wanted to make my own jam for a while, and after reading today's articles I might do it except I'm scared about the actually canning process. From what I understand, you sterilize the jars, then while they are still in the warm water you put the jam into them. The apricot recipe says to run a utensil between the jar and the jam. I'm assuming you mean down the sides?

Then I put the lids on top and let cool. Is that all I need to do to seal the jars and get that 'pop' when I open it for the first time? It almost sounded like I would need to invert the closed jar to get it really sealed. Can you tell me if I'm on the right track?

Thanks, I know I have a lot of questions, but I'd really like to do this.

Stefano Frigerio: No worries. Ask away!

Run the utensil along top edges of the jar (around the rim). What this does is eliminates any possible air bubbles. Be quick with the utensil, keeping in mind that the jar and lid have to piping hot for the sealing process to work. Once air bubbles have been eliminated screw on the HOT lid. From there you can either turn the jar upside down for 5 minutes (again, this only works if the jar, jam and lid are boiling hot) or place the jars in a boiling water bath to get that click.

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Petworth: Not only do the snap lids not need to be boiled, you can damage them if you do boil them.

Old jars with rubber rings, yes, you boiled the rings, but that is not so with the new lids.

When in doubt, check the package or refer to the Blue Book.

Joe Yonan: Yes. Boiling them can compromise the seal. You should boil the jars or otherwise sterilize them (I use the dishwasher), but merely make sure the modern snap lids are clean -- I put them in hot water but make sure not to boil.

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Chicago, Ill: In the Greek "Bible" discussed, is there a recipe for giant lima beans stewed in tomato sauce? My father-in-law (who is from Greece) and I have been trying to make this dish for the past two years. Either the tomato sauce is off. The beans are hard (even with soaking for 36 hours). There has to be some trick to making this dish. Can you help?

Bonnie Benwick: There is. It calls for 12 1/4 hours prep time, including soaking, and 1 3/4 hours of cooking time.

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Dale City, Va.: I loved the article on canning, and the one on the Mormon Cannery. I, too, am Mormon and have been able to stock up on some basics there as well.

A little advice for new canners...only can things that you will use. I started canning last summer and didn't need to buy any new jars because I emptied out my mom's shelves. My mom had things that had been canned 30 years before. Most home canning items don't last that long. It was nice for me because I just emptied jars out, washed and reused them, so very little start-up cost for me.

Also, newbies should try things like freezer jams first because they're pretty much no fail. But be warned, you'll get spoiled with them, my husband won't use store bought jam anymore.

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks twice (including the advice).

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Campfire cook from last week: Hi Rangers, I wanted to thank you and the crowd for all the helpful suggestions for campfire cooking last week. My boyfriend brought his grandmother's cast-iron skillet, and we used it to cook Polyface sausages in the fire. We also did a foil packet with rosemary potatoes and another with brussel sprouts flavored with one of the sausage links. For dessert, we took your advice and bought peaches in Frederick that we cooked in the iron skillet at the end. They were so delicious and buttery!

Bonnie Benwick: Excellent.

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I'm trying to find new things to do this summer: I want something different for all the vegetables I bring home from the market. Someone suggested Moussaka, but the only ones I've ever seen are heavy and have lamb. Does anyone out there have a recipe for one without a cream sauce, preferably vegetarian? I'm thinking just more vegetables and maybe a little extra cheese, but am open to any other suggestions.

Bonnie Benwick: How about hitting the grill with one of these in mind -- Grilled Vegetable Packets, Herbed Grilled Vegetables or Arugula With Grilled Vegetables?

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Charleston, S.C.: To the person who asked where to buy cheap vegetables that belongs to a CSA, that is the first place you should start. Give them a call and ask them if they have culls you can purchase more cheaply. Tomatoes freeze easily -- just freeze them separately on a shelf and when frozen toss them together in a plastic bag or container -- and then when you have a sufficiency you can do the canning. Oranges and lemons freeze equally easily, by the way.

Joe Yonan: Yes, absolutely. Some farms, too, as Kelly Dinardo wrote in her piece about the Bitten Word guys today, have special, free pick-as-much-as-you-want days for CSA subscribers.

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Tampa, Fla.: Hi, Rangers -- I have a question about leeks. I cooked with them for the first time last week, and think I either got a bad batch or did something wrong. I quartered the leeks, like I read you were supposed to do. But the middle part was really tough and woody -- it was almost impossible to cut through! Then, no matter how long I cooked it, that middle part remained tough. Do leeks have a core that you're supposed to discard? Or did I just get some weird leeks? This experience made me sad because I love leeks and would like to cook with them more frequently.

Bonnie Benwick: Bummer. Those leeks were probably way past their prime. I remember "The Victory Garden Cookbook" mentioning something about being able to tell whether leeks might be that way inside...if the root/bulbs were large? Next time you cut into leeks with woody insides (and maybe they had outer leaves that looked dry, too?), take them back where you got them.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, all. I seem to recall the Food section running a list of seasonal pick-your-own fruit places. Has one been done yet this summer? I would love to find a place to pick some berries for jam. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: The Weekend section used to publish that annually. See the previous question for a link to the list that ran in 2007.

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All over the world... : Why is Kim O'Donnel's blog (A Mighty Appetite) being dropped from the Post? I suppose there is no answer to that question, but I think it is worth noting that Kim developed not just readers over the years, but a real community. She helped to convey what food should and can be: nourishment for the human BE-ing not just the body. We will miss her. We appreciate what the Food section delivers each week, and will continue to read it for those valuable contents, but it will be missing an essential ingredient, a savory note, an enriching technique, with Kim's absence.

Thanks for listening.

washingtonpost.com: A Mighty Appetite

Bonnie Benwick: It's answerable, and it was Kim's decision to move on. We agree she's been a key food voice for washingtonpost.com. She has indeed created a community, and we wish her all the best.

Joe Yonan: I'm sad to see her go, too. I say, the more the merrier when it comes to Food coverage. But we'll try our best to ramp up own own blog so that Kim's fans will not feel quite so abandoned...

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Cucumbers: What is a good way to use up two cucumbers? I'm not fond of them, but received them in our CSA share. I'm guessing raw is better than cooked. Pickling/soaking in vinegar ends up just sitting in our fridge. Seeding and sprinkling with salt is my usual, but I can't eat two cukes that way.

Bonnie Benwick: If you can hang on until Monday, we'll have a nice braising recipe posted at All We Can Eat.

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Maybe this is more a question for Miss Manners, but...: ...if a hostess invites a guest to a small lunch at her home who happens to be a vegetarian, and the hostess doesn't inquire on general principles whether her guest has any dietary restrictions (and the guest forgets to tell the hostess), is the guest obligated by etiquette to eat the meat main course against her principles? Surely a guest wouldn't be expected to eat, say, a food she's allergic to or that her doctor has banned for medical reasons. I inquire because there's a raging debate (this is going on at a blog I visit). I say the vegetarian guest should not have to eat the meat, just the non-meat parts of the entree and the meatless side dishes, but others claim that's being rude. Your call?

Jane Touzalin: The rude people here are the ones who insist that the vegetarian should violate her principles. All the guest has to do is explain the problem apologetically and eat what she can. No harm done all around.

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Public canning kitchens: Did you know that there are public canning kitchens where you can take your produce and can it in large amounts (much more convenient and less mess than in your own kitchen) for very little money? Check out www.pickyourown.org for a list of some of them.

Bonnie Benwick: Awesome.

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Hint re making jam/jelly from fruit low in natural pectin: Years ago, a neighbor allowed me to gather gallons of lovely dark mulberries from her trees to make jelly. Although I used commercial pectin (and followed the directions for blackberries, since they're similar looking), the jelly didn't jell, so I wound up with a big batch of mulberry syrup. In desperation the next day I poured my syrup back into the pan, added as many boxes of pectin as I'd used the first day (i.e., doubling the total amount), and the stuff did jell. When I later made jelly from super-ripe plums (which I'd had trouble with before), I used double the commercial pectin called for, and the jelly jelled just fine. We've never noticed any off-taste doing this, incidentally.

Joe Yonan: Thanks for the tip. I prefer not using pectin, and I've had luck re-jamming something that didn't jell. Last year, when I made peach-cardamom jam, the first go-round was too runny -- just couldn't get the thing up to temperature. And the culprit was in doing such a large batch in such a large pot. When I redid them, working in smaller batches, that did the trick.

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Washington, D.C.: The sun is shining, the temperature is rising, and I am craving...soup. Seriously. Any suggestions for light, summer-appropriate-as-possible soups? Just to clarify, I am talking hot soups (unless you happen to have the recipe for Jaleo's gazpacho laying around).

Bonnie Benwick: Don't mean to be a tease, but can you wait till next week for the Dinner in Minutes soup with mussels, shrimp and a coconut-lime broth?

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Anonymous: What is a CSA?

Joe Yonan: A farm subscription. Stands for community-supported agriculture.

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Pregnant in Virginia: I hope this doesn't come off as a desperate attempt at your pregnancy cookbook, but I am curious whether it includes ideas for drinking while pregnant? At almost 6 months, I'm getting tired of the obvious choices (fruit juices, sparkling waters, etc.) and could use some inspiration. I recall reading your column a few months ago about non-alcoholic cocktails, which was a great help. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: We've seen a few of those specialty cocktail books come through this spring. This one does not have a drinks-designated chapter.

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Other cooked fruit: May not meet the chatter's emphasis to "keep the fruit as the focus", but I like to reheat cooked chicken sausages in a sauté pan with a little olive oil and then cook slices of apple in the leftover brown bits, throwing in a quarter-cup of water or vermouth to de-glaze, and seasoning with sage or cayenne pepper or whatever's handy.

There is also a delicious recipe in All About Braising for sausages cooked in plums and red wine.

Joe Yonan: That sounds nice. There are so many good recipes in AAB.

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Ex-College Park, Md.: I think the statute of limitations has probably run out on this crime, but back in fall of 1971 when we were impoverished college students, we took a midweek day trip down to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park. There we came across a small abandoned apple orchard with very old, unkempt trees that still bore fruit (smallish, imperfect, but unsprayed). Evidently the orchard was part of one of the family farms that had been bought up back when the Park was created. Although it was illegal to pick the apples, we didn't see anyone around, so filled several paper grocery bags with gleaned fruit, which I turned into applesauce and canned the next day after we got home. Despite the longevity of apple trees, I suppose after another 38 years those trees are no longer alive, or at least no longer produce fruit.

Joe Yonan: You applesauce-making scofflaws, you. And here I am in a courthouse. Should I file charges?

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: I'm terrified of canning. Help me get over my fear! Is there maybe a class I could take? No one I know has a background in canning, no canning grandma to call. Assuming I have a large stockpot, what are the essential tools I need to put up some tomatoes and pickled veggies for the winter?

Jane Touzalin: I went searching for local classes for you and had high hopes. But the one class I found isn't being held this year. Bad timing! If ever there were a time to teach people how to preserve food, this is it.

Maybe other chatters know of some?

Meanwhile, the Ball canning folks have a wonderful Web site with step-by-step instructions and even videos. It looks pretty good. Here's a link:

Bonnie Benwick: FreshPreserving.com.

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Chutney: I don't often can, but I do like to make lemon chutney and preserve it. I have an old Laurie Colwin recipe from a long-ago Gourmet, and it is sublime stuff. My ex-husband frequently requests that I make it. It is better as it ages, but can be eaten right away, too.

Joe Yonan: Holy-moly. Recipe, please.

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To Alexandria: Have you considered cooking your way through one of Marcella Hazan's cookbooks? Or the Romagnoli's Table?

Joe Yonan: I like the Marcella Hazan idea. Of course, for me, Diana Kennedy would be fun, too.

Bonnie Benwick: Fun? Diana Kennedy?

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Washington, D.C.: I swear, I was just wondering yesterday -- as I dipped into even more hummus -- if I couldn't make it with avocados instead of garbanzos! Great minds, great mouths ...But I'm also wondering, is there some way to replicate the taste of tahini without all the calories? Thank you!

Jane Black: So glad to help! As for fewer calories, I'm not sure. The oil in the tahini is what makes it taste so good. I did a quick Google search and some people say that you can substitute natural peanut butter for tahini but I think that was to avoid going out and buying it, not for calories or fat. (And frankly, I can't imagine avocado and peanut butter together, but who knows?)

Certainly, you could reduce the tahini to taste.

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Eastern Market, D.C.: Just two quick thumbs up:

This week's front cover is absolutely gorgeous -- beautiful photos! Can't wait to read the stories inside.

Also, love the idea of the new Gut Check column. Last week's was fantastic -- very balanced. Looking forward to next week's!

Thanks for all your hard work! Love the section.

Joe Yonan: Your check is in the mail. ;-)

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Gallery Place: Can live lobster be put on the grill and if so, how?

Joe Yonan: You should kill it first, really. I do this every year on the Cape. Plunge knife through the head and then down through the center of the body. Pull off the claws, cut off the tail, and crack the claws and tail a little bit. Then grill until bright red. It's fantastic this way.

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Scared of fish: I want to start cooking and eating more fish, for all kinds of reasons. But I'm scared of it. Terrified of overcooking it, mainly -- and it tends to be expensive, so that's usually a costly mistake. Any relatively fool-proof recipes to try? Good places to buy fairly-priced fish in upper NW D.C.? Thanks a lot.

Bonnie Benwick: Andreas Viestad, our Gastronomer, provided a foolproof (and fairly odor-free) method last year in his column on poaching. Link to this and you'll also find his related recipes for Spice-Flavored Poached Cod and Unilateral Salmon With Leek and Wasabi Puree. Northwest D.C. is about to get a new fish market, which Jane Black wrote about in April. As for other sources, sometimes I'm happy with the seafood I get at Whole Foods, and sometimes not so much. I love the service and seafood at Black Salt's fish market; to me it's worth the price. I think A and H Gourmet and Seafood Market in Bethesda is great; I've also had good luck with The Fishery Seafood Market on Connecticut Ave. NW (202-686-1068), and M. Slavin and Sons in Arlington, which really isn't all that far to drive.

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Red Velvet lover: Hi there! I have been craving some red velvet cupcakes and want to give them a shot myself. Does anyone have a great recipe they'd like to recommend? Thank you!

Bonnie Benwick: I used the Cook's Illustrated recipe last week. It was light, but not necessarily moist. Chatters?

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Centreville, Va.: So we are trying to get pregnant (but I'm not yet), and I love to cook and eat. I'm trying to figure out what I want to over-indulge in, so to speak, now that I can't have once we succeed. The list so far includes wine, sushi, and unripened cheeses. What else will I have to be avoiding then that I want to get my fill of now? Obviously the mention of the pregnancy-themed book caught my attention!

Stefano Frigerio: I'm no health expert, but we have 3 kids and my wife always gripes about not getting foie gras, carpaccio or tuna tartar when pregnant. I'd add those to the list.

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Sonoma, Calif.: Hi, guys! I am spending a couple weeks out in the wine country of California and am looking forward to hitting the farmer's market this weekend. What's available in California that you always wish you could get in D.C.? I've never had really good fresh apricots, so I'm hoping I can score those, but other than that, I guess my plan is just to grab whatever looks good...

Joe Yonan: Yep, those apricots are definitely something to have. Also, I'm not sure of the season off the top of my head, but what was one of the biggest revelations to me the last time I was in San Francisco were the fresh grapes. So much more flavor, so complex.

Jane Black: It may be too early for them, but last time I was out there I found fresh dates in the market. I'd never seen a fresh date. Neat.

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Petworth: I hate cold soup. Or so I thought. Then this year Domku (8th & Upshur NW) began making this soup called chlodnik.

Anyhow, it's buttermilk and beets and cucumbers and carrots and very delicious. Maybe that would make the soup person happy?

Bonnie Benwick: Yum.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you have any advice for a new cook? I'm a college junior this year, so I'm freeing myself from my school's dining plan, and off on my own (without the home cooking) starting this fall.

I want to cook really healthy, nutritious meals. Any cook books you might suggest? Or how to get off the ground running? I want to learn some basic cooking techniques first and branch out with creativity from there (later!).

Jane Black: This is a common question. I like to recommend Mark Bittman's "How To Cook Everything," though I think it's stronger on savory foods than baking recipes. Still, it has excellent explanations of techniques and works as a good resource (if, say, you pull a recipe from a magazine or newspaper) as well as a cookbook.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Thanks for the information about the water -- which the recipe did have-- and the temperature. I suppose the temperature was a typo in the book I was using. Grr. I tried it twice!

Stefano Frigerio: Very rarely will you ever need water when making jam. Fruits have so much natural water, you should be good to go. Good luck on the next batch!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi. Good afternoon. So, I purchased the cold-brew Toddy contraption of which Joe is so fond. My question: where in D.C. (Metro accessible) should I buy my beans? I can only drink decaf, and it's really hard to find good quality; it seems like an afterthought at most places. Thanks!

Joe Yonan: You might try Zeke's beans from Pitango Gelato, or the great Counter Culture beans from Pitango Espresso on Capitol Hill and some other shops (or mail order, natch). They also carry one of the CC varieties at Whole Foods -- it's this shade-grown coffee in a light-green bag that's not obviously labeled Counter Culture until you look closely.

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Burke, Va.: I'm ready to chuck the next delivery of chard from my CSA. The last batch I braised with sautéed onions and seasoned with nutmeg, lime juice and pine nuts -- and it still tasted nasty-bitter. Any other suggestions? The best I seem to be able to do is, "Well, that wasn't inedible."

Joe Yonan: Bummer! Well, you might try blanching it first, and then squeezing it dry and then braising. I've done it that way from a recipe in the fab "A16: Food + Wine" book, and it rocks. Of course, the fact that you braise in a soffrito made of long-cooked garlic and anchovies in oil helps.

The other possibility is to just combine it with some other milder-tasting greens and see if that helps.

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Avocados: I have four ripe avocados left over from guacamole making last weekend. Can I remove the skins and freeze the flesh? Add lemon juice to avoid discoloration? I hate to throw them out, and I can't eat them all at once!

Jane Touzalin: Just cutting avocados in half, peeling, pitting and freezing doesn't work so well. (Do not, I am warning you, fall for the boxes of frozen avocado halves at a certain national specialty chain store that shall remain nameless. They are horrible.) Instead, turn the flesh into puree and freeze that way. For every 2 avocados, add about a tablespoon of lemon juice. I put mine in a plastic bag and squeeze out all the air I can to minimize discoloration.

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Vanilla: I have a bottle of incredible vanilla from St. Lucia. How much extract does 12 beans equal? Just to taste? I assume the taste fades with heat?

Leigh Lambert: The good thing about vanilla is that it's a flavoring and not a crucial chemical component, so you can adjust to taste for the most part. Typically you could substitute a teaspoon for one vanilla bean.

That being said, any recipe that calls for 12 vanilla beans packs a huge punch of flavor, and you're obviously looking at a LOT of extract, which would likely have an effect on the batter. Just for reference, 12 teaspoons equals 1/4 cup. When you're talking about that much liquid, you could alter the chemical balance.

The cooking won't necessarily lessen the flavor. In fact, heating can intensify it. So, in the final analysis, use a lot, but I would say no more than 2 tablespoons.

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Washington, D.C.: In Vefa's book, is there a recipe for a Greek bread salad? When I was a kid, there was a Greek diner we used to go to, and I could just eat buckets of a bread salad they had. Although I make panzanellas frequently, they aren't the same (probably because Italian does not equal Greek).

Bonnie Benwick: Yes!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi! It's your empanada-friend from a few weeks ago. I found frozen dough at Whole Foods and used the saltinas recipe you gave me to make delicious empanadas! Now that I'm good on the frozen dough thing, any ideas from you or the Greek cookbook for easy-to-medium difficulty spanokopita?

Jane Black: Good for you. (I always say I'm going to do things, but then I never do.) We're out of time. Send me your email at food@washpost.com...and I'll send it out to you.

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Bonnie Benwick: Well, we've been cooled and our lids are slightly concave (and editor Joe's about to go back into the jury box) so we'll wrap it up for today.

"Vefa's Kitchen" goes to Alexandria, Va., who would be happy to cook her/his way through it; and "Eating for Pregnancy" goes to Pregnant in Virginia, for, well, you know. Remember to send your contact info/address to food@washpost.com.

Next week, we celebrate Walla Walla onions, among many other things in Food. Happy cooking and eating!

Bonnie Benwick: Where are my manners! Thanks to chef Stefano Frigerio for joining us today. Yes-We-Can. Yes-We-Can...

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