Free Range on Food: Staffers Solve Your Cooking Conundrums

The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, July 22, 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.

Archive of past discussions


Joe Yonan: Greetings, all, and welcome to Free Range! What's on your mind? We're here to help. We have special guest David Hagedorn, the ever-Entertaining writer who this month brings you instructions on a backyard clambake. And we stand at the ready to answer anything else you might ask.

As usual, for our favorite posts, we'll have giveaway books, which will remain anonymous until the announcement at the end of the chat.


New York: The article on a clambake using your grill made my mouth water! I am getting an error message when I go to the "recipes" link for the article, though.

Also, I do have a question about cooking mollusks like clams, mussels, and oysters. In your article, and in most things I've read, it states that any of the clams, etc. that don't open should be discarded, because they may have been dead before cooking.

But, in that other newspaper's food section, Mark Bittman wrote something curious in an article about mussels:

"A word about cleaning and selecting mussels: If their shells are broken, discard them; if their shells are open and don't close at least a little when tapped against the counter, discard them (they're dead); if their shells contain mud rather than meat, discard them.

Otherwise, they're safe, and if the shells of a couple don't open when cooked, pry them open and eat 'em anyway."

Could it be true that if I take every precaution before hand, it's okay to pry the stubborn ones open afterward? I always hate throwing away the couple that don't open, but I'd hate food poisoning even more.

I also remember reading once that sometimes clams, etc. will open on the grill, and then close back up if not removed right away, but I don't remember where, and I can't find any other mention of it. Has that ever happened in you experience?

Finally, should the lobster be killed first before grilling?


David Hagedorn: Thanks, New York. Mark Bittman does know everything about everything, but l'il ole I, who knows a lot about nothing, would not ever force a mussel open, having made this mistake once at a fine restaurant in San Francisco, resulting in a three-day stay in the bathroom.

I had not heard about the clams closing up again, but that has happened to me with clams I knew to be ultra-fresh, having dug them myself. In this case, if you know for sure they are fresh, cook them again on the stove, just enough to open them again.

Lobsters should be alive when cooked. If you are grilling them over direct heat, pith them through the brain with the point of a chef's knife, then finish cutting them in half lengthwise, unless you have ethical misgivings about such practices.


Washington, D.C.: Loved the clambake recipes today, but I have a question. We actually do have a beach area on the Chesapeake Bay. We don't have seaweed, but we have a lot of seagrass that washes up on to the shore. Can that be used in place of seaweed for a nice authentic clambake? We have a bonfire almost every weekend, so that sounds like something fun and different.

David Hagedorn: Seagrass is fine, but it does not retain water as much as seaweed or rockweed. Soak it in water for several hours before using it.


Buffalo, N.Y.: How do I connect with your Food Day's recipe for Braised Cucumbers With Salmon and Crème Fraiche? The link is not working.

Joe Yonan: Here you go. And the link's fixed. Thanks for letting us know.


Fairfax, Va.: Alright, you got me interested in checking out Local Flavor. How do I do so? I looked online but didn't see a website, and I didn't see any contact information in the article.

Joe Yonan: Good old Google! Here is their Web site.


Crock Pot vs. Pressure Cooker: A few weeks ago we were discussing the merits of slow cooking, and whether it was worth buying a pressure cooker or a crock pot. I know lots of dishes can be cooked in a crock pot, but aside form cooking dried beans, what can I do with my pressure cooker? Can I do full meals in a pressure cooker, like a crock pot, or is it only for quickly boiling beans and potatoes?

Bonnie Benwick: Full meals? Not all at once....I saw Jacques Pepin do a nice meaty soup/stew recently using a pressure cooker. You can braise meats, make soups, vegetables, make rice pudding for dessert and oatmeal for breakfast. But you do have to learn how to use the p.c. properly.

Joe Yonan: My favorite thing to do with a pressure cooker is to cook tough whole grains, such as brown rice.


Frederick, Md.: Good morning,

I have made homemade ricotta several times using a recipe similar to the one in today's Post. We had good friends over for dinner one night and the hors d'oeuvres was my ricotta with grilled bread and some assorted toppings. The gentleman, who is of Italian descent, insisted on calling it "the best cottage cheese I've ever had," implying that is what it was and not truly ricotta. I did a little research and found that ricotta is actually a byproduct of mozzarella making. So are we wrong in referring to this as "ricotta" and it's really just cottage cheese? Or is it all just a matter of semantics? Also, I'm curious how there can be anything leftover in the whey to make ricotta after making mozzarella. Thanks if you can clear this up for me.

Bonnie Benwick: Domenica Marchetti (who wrote the recipe and the blogpost) says "Strictly speaking, it is not true ricotta. As I explained in the blog entry, true ricotta is made from the whey that is left from the making of other cheeses, such as mozzarella or pecorino.

"I haven't made cottage cheese, but I looked it up and the process appears to be similar, though some cottage cheese recipes also call for rennet, which apparently makes a larger curd (I haven't done this, though, so I don't know). It seems to me that homemade ricotta made from milk, cottage cheese, and paneer, and even farmers cheese, are more or less the same recipe, though some like farmers cheese and paneer are drained and pressed to form a firmer cheese.

"On the whey question: Even after the initial cheesemaking process, some casein (protein) remain in the whey (mostly albumin). When the whey is reheated and made more acidic through the addition of lemon juice, vinegar, or buttermilk, new curds form. That is true ricotta."


Rusty skewers?: What do you think about using rusty skewers for kabobs? By "rusty" I mean the length of them were visibly orange. The host's logic was that "it's just more iron for your diet."

David Hagedorn: And leave the burned bits on the grill grate and in the bottoms of scorched pans, too. It's just carbon. We used to truck water to our lake house because we didn't have city water, and what came from the pipes left the sinks stained. Can you imagine what it would have done to our insides? Above the sink, there was a drawing of a little boy peeing in a lake and a frog on the bank, choking. The caption read, "Don't drink the water."

Clean the skewers.


Manassas, Va.: Basil question: I love the taste of fresh basil with fresh raw tomatoes a little garlic, olive oil and salt. When I try to use basil in a tomato-based dish that is cooked, I can't seem to get much basil flavor. I have tried adding it near the end of simmering, but the dish usually just picks up a hint of basil. Am I just not using enough? I would like to avoid eating it raw with all the stories you hear about salmonella, but I miss the fresh flavor.

David Hagedorn: I think we go a little overboard with the salmonella fear-mongering, but a good compromise here would be to blanch the basil for a few seconds in boiling water. (Experts will say a few seconds is not long enough, but how effective do you think that cursory rinsing you give apples is?) If you're not getting enough taste bang, use more, as you suggest. More is more.


Salmon, Farmed vs. Wild?: Food Section, help! I realize there may be no definitive answer, but which is better in terms of mercury and who-knows-what-else content -- farmed salmon or wild? I thought I'd read/heard wild, but then yesterday I saw something that said to go for farmed over wild!


Jane Black: Wild. Wild. Wild. There may be some toxins in wild salmon, but they generally considered healthier than farmed. Equally important, they does not contribute to the problem of a polluted ocean. For more information, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium salmon page.


Reese's chips: I have a bag of Reese's peanut butter chips, and I have no idea what to do with them because so many parties need to be nut-free these days. So if I just use them for home consumption, what can I make? Sticking them in brownies or a chocolate chip cookie is the most obvious, but I wanted to do something more interesting.

Leigh Lambert: First of all, what's up with all the sudden nut allergies? But, that's not what you asked. I love those peanut butter chips. Because of their sweetness I like to use them as a foil. For something super easy, try melting and dipping pretzels in them. Be careful when melting them. They will burn easily, so do it in 10 to 15 second bursts in the microwave or in a double boiler. The chips will hold their shape even once soft. Stir after each "micro burst" to see if they are melted.


Chantilly, Va.: When mixing cookie dough, I often chill it in the refrigerator anywhere from a couple hours to overnight. Lately, when I bake cookies, they turn out flat. I've used these same recipes over the years. The oven temperature is correct; the baking soda is fresh; the baking sheets aren't greased or just lightly greased if called for. I've baked thousands of cookies over the years with success, and now I can't get them to turn out right. Usually chilling the dough keeps the cookies from spreading too much, but could the refrigeration be "killing" the baking soda rising factor?

Leigh Lambert: I would have thought, like you, that refrigerating the dough would keep your cookies high and lofty. Hmmm... have you gone back to an experimental batch right after mixing the dough to test your theory? I don't know of any changes in butter, salt or eggs, etc. that would cause flattening of your cookies.


Des Moines, Iowa: I do a fair amount of baking and have been curious about the difference between salted and unsalted butter. Typically, the ingredients for salted butter are listed as: sweet cream and salt. While the ingredients for unsalted butter are listed as sweet Cream and natural Flavoring. What is this "natural flavoring"? Should I be attempting to find unsalted butter that does not contain this mysterious ingredient?

Bonnie Benwick: Are you looking at a Land O' Lakes package? The company's consumer hotline says that "natural flavoring" is just lactic acid. It gives the unsalted butter a little more of a cultured butter flavor. Seems like they'd be better off stating the plain fact rather than making us guess!


Cookie monster: A Starbucks outrageous oatmeal cookie and coffee -- my drive-thru breakfast of choice. Thanks for getting us the recipe.

Bonnie Benwick: You are welcome. If only I liked raisins....


Re: oatmeal cookies: You lovebugs must have been reading my mind because I was totally going to ask you for an oatmeal cookie recipe for me to add fruits and nuts to. Thank you.

Bonnie Benwick: Funny.


Favorite Baking Cookbook: Do you guys have a favorite go-to baking cookbook for when you need to make everyday stuff like muffins, brownies, cookies, coffee cake, etc.? I usually look around various websites like KAF and Joy of Baking, but would love to get a one-stop shop baking cookbook. Any thoughts?

Leigh Lambert: Tough question, mostly because I love the excuse to have loads of lush baking books on my shelf. But if I were to recommend one that has straight forward as well as upscale options, I would suggest Dorie Greenspan's "Baking: From My Home to Yours" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006).

She's cooked with the greats - Julia Child and Pierre Herme - and really knows her stuff, as well as having exceptional taste.


Joe Yonan: Attention, all: Cocktail guru Jason Wilson has entered the room. Spirits questions welcome.


Baking diva: G'morning foodies. Posting early before camp carpool, but just wanted to say a big Thank You for the outrageous oatmeal cookie recipe. They've been my secret Starbucks vice for a while. My question: Would dried cherries work for the dried cranberries? And why not instant oats?

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks to Candy Sagon, who was obsessed enough to track it down. Dried cherries would work, but instant oats are a no-go. They don't hydrate properly in the recipe; they've been pre-cooked and dehydrated. They won't give you that chewy texture.


Colesville, Md.: I really like the idea of being a seasonal cook. This is the first year that I have heavily relied on farmer's markets. It has changed me from someone who reads a recipe and buys all the ingredients to someone who looks at what's available and decides what to make from those. Is there a way to do this year round? I know it's only July, but I am already dreading the farmer's markets closing.

Jane Black: The Dupont and Arlington markets are open year round. (And possibly some others; take a look at our farmers market map.) You certainly can cook seasonally all year round but it gets harder, or at least more monotonous, unless you put in the time now to can or preserve summer fruits and vegetables.


Alexandria, Va.: I am hosting a dinner party for 10 in honor of my husband's birthday, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a menu. The parameters are: gluten-free, not super meaty (although some is fine), and I have an incredibly tiny kitchen. In fact, it is ridiculously small. Nevertheless, I consider myself an accomplished cook and have hosted larger parties out of the tiny space. I need some ideas! Thanks so much.

David Hagedorn: I'm lunching with Erin Hartigan, editor of Daily Candy, who eats gluten-free and also hosted a lovely dinner with her significant other, Marc, on Sunday. She suggests starting with a nice, refreshing gazpacho (theirs was stunning), something Italian, like a ratatouille or polenta, any sort of vegetable (they made a terrific kale salad with tahini and pine nuts), and then do a sundae bar for dessert.


U Street, D.C.: One of my favorite summer treats is a lobster roll. I wanted to save some money and make them at home this year. But for the life of me, I can not find the split top rolls that help make a lobster roll a lobster roll. Where can you find them in D.C.?

Bonnie Benwick: Chatters? In the meantime, you could use Balducci's hot dog buns, which do not come pre-cut.


Basil: I've noticed that grocery stores sometimes sell basil, stored in water, and other times it comes with a pouch of dirt. Can I put the dirt in a container and expect my basil to last in the kitchen window, or is it still really only for immediate use?

Bonnie Benwick: The ones in dirt should last about 2 weeks on the windowsill, with proper watering.


Peach Desserts: I have about seven peaches remaining from my farm pickings. I've already made cobbler, and I would love a few suggestions for other desserts, please.

David Hagedorn: There is a delicious peach ice cream recipe online today which includes a recipe the cherry sauce with cassis.

Jane Black: Peach ice cream. Peach shortcake. Grilled peaches with mascarpone. All top answers in a search of our recipe database.


Stuff on a Stick: I am thinking about starting a catering business out of a truck. My concept is everything can be eaten off of a stick. One of my ideas is salad on a stick. Can there truly be salad on a stick, or is it, as my friend says, just a vegetable skewer? I was also thinking about fried catfish on a stick, but my friends said fish is too flaky and would crumble while customers were eating it. Do you have any advice for me? Thanks.

Leigh Lambert: I love the idea of themed food truck. Why not salad on a stick? First piece of advice would to be more hush-hush about your brilliant ideas. Devise and develop in private. However, given that you've "gone public" I would say think of keeping things bite-size, i.e. fried fish nuggets, and then "stick 'em". Salad is a challenge, but much of it is in the naming. So what if it is a veggie kabob? Add some lettuce chunks and call it a salad to go with the theme.

Joe Yonan: You should get to the Minnesota State Fair, where they serve everything on a stick. When I was there, I had spaghetti. Seriously.


Chevy Chase, Md.: I've just come back from the Bethesda Farm market with a bounty of wonderful vegetables, especially some beautiful tomatoes. I'd love a good recipe for Italian bread salad (panzanella, I think it's called) which can sit on a buffet table for a couple of hours this weekend. Thanks -- love the chats, by the way.

Jane Black: Here it is from our database: tomato panzanella salad.


Bethesda, Md.: My daughter's baptism is next Saturday at 5:00 p.m. We will be having at least 18 adults and 20 kids (under the age of 15) back to our house for a cookout. Any ideas for food that won't take a long time to serve after we get back from mass? I'm sure by 6:30 p.m. all of the kids will be starving, and I don't want to have to cook the food when I get home. Any ideas that still go with the cookout theme that can be cooked ahead of time? No lasagna, pasta, etc... I'm desperate and will have to do all of the cooking myself. Help!

Jane Black: I don't understand. So are you cooking out when you get home -- skewers/burgers/whatever on the grill -- and you want other side dishes that can be prepped to go with it? Or do you want all the food prepared in advance? The word "cookout" is throwing me.


Re: frozen chicken stock: I want to make wonton soup with my frozen chicken stock (from chicken bones). Would it work to reboil it with ginger and garlic and then add frozen pork dumplings to get the same effect?

David Hagedorn: The same effect as what?

Simmer the stock with ginger and garlic, cook the dumplings separately in boiling, salted water, then add them to the soup. (If you cook them directly in the soup, it will turn the broth cloudy.) I'd add chopped scallion and cilantro just before serving.


Chicago: I think I might be one of the world's slowest cooks. I've figured out that I usually have to double the time a recipe gives to make the food, and the main culprit is my chopping (non)skills.

Are there tricks to chopping, mincing, dicing, etc.? Peeling onions and garlic? Peeling potatoes? It'd be nice if I could make a 20-minute meal in 20 minutes, not an hour. Thanks!

Jane Black: Um. Yeah. Cutting and dicing is a skill. I recommend signing up for a knife skills class; there are bound to be loads in Chicago. On the other hand, don't kick yourself too hard for not coming in under the time limit. Chefs do a lot of prep before they start their "30-minute" meals.


Asian markets: Hi Food Crew, I am going to make my favorite Thai meal: Drunken Noodles. I live in D.C. and was wondering if you or the chatters knew of any Asian markets where I could get the noodles and sauces needed for this dish. D.C. and metro accessible places would be great, but anywhere in Montgomery County or northern parts of Virginia would work. Thanks for your help!

Jane Black: Super H marts are in Maryland and Virginia.


Maryland: To Jason: All things in moderation, dear. Your hangover isn't the result of what you drink. It is the result of how much and how quickly you drink it.

Jason Wilson: ...including moderation, right? Certainly what you cite are the biggest factors in a hangover. But there is scientific study that supports the "Don't Mix" theory. Each type of booze introduces its own congeners into your system. The more different types of congeners in your system, the harder it is for your body to process them.


Baltimore, Md.: I'm going to a potluck party this weekend, and I'm at a loss about what to bring. I know I want to make a savory main dish. I'm not worried about calories or fat grams because the whole idea is to indulge a little. I don't want to do a lot of work when I get to the host's house, beyond reheating. Vegetarian or meat-based, it's fine either way. My cooking skills are pretty good, so I can deal with a challenge but easy is fine, too.

With those guidelines, do you have any recipe suggestions? I'd love to make a dish that incorporates summer vegetables, but I don't have my heart set on it.

Jane Black: Well, almost anything fits that category. My advice would be to browse our recipe database and see what appeals. I just did that and these chicken-stuffed poblanos sounded pretty good.


Washington, D.C.: Your Jamaican Banana Bread recipe of several weeks ago was excellent, one of the best recipes ever for banana bread. The recipe is easily amenable to improvisation -- wherever you culinary creativity might take you -- with a likely good result. Only problem -- I can't find my clipped copy. Please provide link if this is in your recipe database.

Bonnie Benwick: Um, we're not quite remembering Jamaican Banana Bread.


Shortcut cook: The honey-mustard chicken recipe looks delicious. Could I use prepared honey-mustard and add wine for a quicker version?

Bonnie Benwick: I didn't try it that way. This recipe has a nice balance of flavor, and the real honey makes for that little bit of caramelization.... (Care to be a tester?)


Chevy Chase, Md. : Re: Honey mustard chicken breast. Why does the recipe require skin and bone on the chicken? It's so much nicer to have boneless and skinless breast. Thanks.

Bonnie Benwick: I guess I'd quibble with "nicer." Cooking chicken on the bone gives the meat more flavor. Crisped chicken skin, especially when treated to the honey mustard marinade here, sure tastes good. I'm sure you can amend the process to use boneless skinless chicken breasts, maybe less marinating time and less time in the oven. Let us know how it turns out!


Washington, D.C.: Last week someone wrote in with a question regarding ribs getting dry in the crock pot. I think BBQ sauce may not have quite enough liquid in it. We mix a regular size container of BBQ sauce with 1 cup of orange juice and then pour it on top of the ribs. We get moist delicious ribs every time (people always want to know my "secret" recipe, but I'm embarrassed by how simple it is). We use the same recipe in both the oven and the crock pot.

Joe Yonan: Thanks for the advice. Hopefully the rib-cooker is reading.


Manassas, Va.: Peach dessert: slice them and soak them is red wine (or white) in the fridge all day. Serve cold. There is no better dinner dessert in summer!

Jane Black: Another idea.


Richmond, Va.: Crock Pot vs. Pressure Cooker? I can make yogurt in my crock pot (thanks to the WaPo Fitness newsletter!). Also: stuffing & broth, to name a few foods you don't normally associate with the slow cooker.

Bonnie Benwick: It's a debate for The Ages.


for Jason: Loved your article on hangovers-- might have to try some of those remedies.

Have you heard anything about the newish trend of a liquor shower? I don't think they're actually called that, but the general idea is a shower for the couple to help stock their liquor cabinet. It's generally for couples who already live together and don't need a mop or plates or anything like that. I think it'd make an interesting story, and we're considering doing something like that.

Jason Wilson: Thanks! Though hopefully you'll avoid hangovers and not need them? I haven't heard about that trend, but it sounds like a good one to me and will look into it. I'd kind of like someone to throw me a liquor shower.

Joe Yonan: A liquor shower sounds dangerous. And wet.


Funniest food on a stick: I cut this crazy recipe out of my local paper: cook ramen noodles, wrap around a stick and...wait for it...dip in caramel!

Joe Yonan: And then what -- use it as a weapon?


Arlington, Va.: Great section. Loved the hangover cures (and the fact that the author was too hung over to attend a hangover seminar!) and Tom's review of bad, bad Bistro Bistro. Best surprise: The Starbucks recipe! Now I can save money by making them at home.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!


Bonnie Benwick: Chefs may do prep before their 30-minute meals, but Dinner in Minutes recipes we run each week are start to finish, with a timer as I'm chopping.


Upstate N.Y.: Colesville needs to read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver to learn more about being a seasonal cook year-round. It really makes you appreciate local, seasonal food and what goes into producing it.

Joe Yonan: Absolutely. Good idea. There are also winter CSAs that one can join.


Aioli searching: I am looking for a good aioli with a kick to top various broiled salmon concoctions I have been playing around with. Any suggestions?

Jane Black: From Michel Richard

Serves 4

1 medium Yukon Gold potato, rinsed and patted dry, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 1 cup)

4 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 large egg yolk

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Prepare the aioli: Place a steamer basket in a medium saucepan filled with 1 inch of water. Over medium-high heat, bring the water barely to a boil. Place the potato cubes in the basket, cover and cook/steam for about 20 minutes, until completely tender when pierced with a knife. Transfer the potatoes to a food processor. Add the garlic, egg yolk and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to allow the blade to turn; process until the mixture is smooth. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the remaining oil, stopping to scrape down the sides as necessary. Season the aioli to taste with salt, cayenne pepper and lemon juice. (If the aioli seems too heavy, lighten it by adding a tablespoon of water.) Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before serving (30 minutes).

Store aioli in the fridge up to three days.


Maryland: I'm trying to reconcile your "eat local" article with the "it's not really a local thing, but do this 'cause its fun and exciting."

When I'm in Maine, I eat lobster and steamers until I'm about to burst. When I'm home, Maryland crabs do quite nicely, thanks.

Given so many locals aren't from here, why not focus instead on how to correctly cook and eat crabs? Yeah, we've seen it before. But oddly when I go out I still see tons of people not quite sure what to do. Local crabs and local corn this time of year is going to beat any northern imported cuisine no matter how it is cooked.

David Hagedorn: Good point, Maryland. In fact, so good, the thought occurred to us before deciding on the subject. First of all, the crab story has been covered pretty well recently, but more importantly, in the scheme of things, lobsters from New England are local. There is such a glut this year, exacerbated by the state of the economy, that buying lobsters is practically a patriotic act. It is good to support the locals, but we must retain perspective.


Washington, D.C.: Have you been to the UDC farmer's market, and if so, was it worthwhile? I went to the Chevy Chase one over the weekend, which had lovely tomatoes, but it was a bit of a hike from my house (UDC is much closer).

Jane Black: Tossing this out to chatters. Any reports on the UDC farmers market?


Everything on a stick: Please take into consideration the vegetarians out there. Thanks you!

Joe Yonan: I think the post that started this whole conversation was about salad on a stick, wasn't it?


Pressure cooker: Hi Rangers, just wanted to jump in and reiterate my love of your pressure cooker carnitas. They are unbelievable.

Also, when I lived in India the pressure cookers had little trays inside so people made a whole bunch of different beans and grains at one time.

As much as I love my pressure cooker though, the crock pot is probably more useful for coming home to a finished meal.

Joe Yonan: A split vote?


Arlington, Va.: Hi,

In my quest never to waste anything, I have leftover curried sour cream that I made last night to go with beet chips. What else could I do with the curried sour cream?


Leigh Lambert: Yum! How about dolloping (love that word) on top of dahl or a corn chowder?

Joe Yonan: Or as a condiment to give chicken tacos an Indian twist.


Creamy grilled polenta: I am addicted to the grilled cheddar jalapeno polenta at Legal Seafoods. I have tried to make an equivalent at home without success. Mine ends up being grainy/gritty. How do you make polenta creamy?

Bonnie Benwick: Stir, stir, stir, over heat that is not too high. Milk or cream instead of water or broth works, too. Add cheese right at the end.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, guys! Love your chats weekly, they get me through the day!

My boyfriend thinks I am a not-so-great cook. I tend to make home cookin' type meals that my mom used to make (lasagna, casseroles, grilled or baked chicken and the like), and I can cook the heck out of just about any recipe. But I think my lack of knowledge on the 'basics' of cooking is giving him the impression of a lack of 'skill.' Can you recommend a book or website that will help me with my basic cooking knowledge?

I have a 'Joy of Cooking,' and I do use it as a reference, but it's too big to really read through to learn stuff. Or is the answer just practice, practice, practice?

Thanks again!

Leigh Lambert: Might I suggest a new dining partner who appreciates your efforts in the kitchen? Okay, I realize that wasn't the question, but geesh, anything cooked with love should be accepted in the same vain. I feel better. Now, back to good sources for basics... You might enjoy any/all of the Cook's Illustrated publications. Their magazine is good for a surprise recipe finds and their books are solid references with step-by-step directions for almost anything you can think of.


Washington, D.C.: Re: top split hot dog buns. I'm pretty sure I've seen them at Brookville in Cleveland Park.

Bonnie Benwick: Shoot, just called and they don't have them.


How to eat a crab correctly: Another controversial vote: Maryland mallets v. Virginia nutcrackers! (I vote for the finesse of the nutcracker, but hey, I'm a Virginian!)

Jane Black: Mallets!

Joe Yonan: Mallets, absolutely. Much more fun.


Vegi-tacos: I bought a taco dinner kit, and now I'm wondering what to mix the taco spice mixture into because we don't eat meat. Would it work just to mix it into beans, or would that be gross? I feel like it needs something else.

David Hagedorn: Sounds incredible!

Bonnie Benwick: That taco stuff usually calls for water and/or tomato sauce to be added, right? It's got a lot of sodium in it. Try following directions as is, replacing the protein.


Going Plum Crazy: Help! I have a surplus of plums from my CSA. They are probably the only fruit I don't like, at least not to just eat out of hand. Do you have any good recipes to use them up? Could you make a freezer jam with them?

Jane Black: God, I'm jealous. I say make freezer jam -- I'll let our guru Joe weigh in on how/when/etc -- or drop them off for your friendly food staff at the Post.

Joe Yonan: Oh, so I get the hard part? Thanks, Jane! Actually, I've only made fully canned jam with plums -- last year, cooked down a flat of them with sugar and a lot of powdered ginger, and it was fantastic. Start with 4 ounces of sugar to every pound of plums, add 2 tablespoons of powdered ginger, taste and adjust.


For Jason: What do you think of Firefly sweet tea vodka? We were at a outdoor family get-together, and they served an adult version of an Arnold Palmer using it -- it was great.

Jason Wilson: That's weird: You're the second person in two days who's told me the same thing about the Arnold Palmer cocktail. I've tasted the sweet tea vodka by itself and thought it was okay, but the problem is I'm not a huge fan of sweet tea to begin with. But maybe I need to revisit it in an Arnold Palmer.


Washington, D.C.: What's the scoop on Foodbuzz? A friend introduced me and I was wondering what you thought of it. I think it could be useful, but I find it difficult to navigate and utilize.

Jane Black: I've never used it. Looks interesting though. Chatters? Thoughts?


Washington, D.C.: I had some scones that I loved -- they were more spread out then most scones and were crunchy around the edges. The town where I had them is at a high elevation, and I'm wondering if that is why.

Is there anyway to tweak leavening/time/temperature to recreate high elevation here in D.C.?

Bonnie Benwick: Or maybe the baker just left out the baking powder and/or baking soda, as I did recently. My scones turned out just as you describe.

Leigh Lambert: Sounds like a butter to flour ratio issue. Most scones include more or less the same ingredients: flour, sugar, cream or buttermilk, butter, and leavener. The difference being, of course, how much of each. If you like "the spread", look for recipes with higher amounts of butter.


Boston: Loved the article on clambakes today! I got a big chuckle out of the section discussing what to put in. I did say "No way!" to shrimp in a clambake. It is just not New England. We're pretty lucky up here, in that getting the ingredients for a true clambake won't set you back that much. There are some great places in Massachusetts and Maine that will pack fresh lobster in dry ice and ship it to you. But I just drive up to Gloucester and get the ones fresh off the boat!

David Hagedorn: I'm as green as tomallaey with envy, and I hear you about the shrimp. But they are so good!


salad on a stick: Couldn't you score iceberg lettuce? Then dip it in bluecheese and bacon bits like an ice cream cone? Oh my, this sounds amazing!

Jane Black: Hilarious.


Salad on a Stick: How about strips of a long leaf lettuce, like romaine, wrap up a slice of cuke, wrap around a bit of blue cheese, wrap around any salad veggie and then alternate with cherry tomato and onion pieces on the stick?

Joe Yonan: It amuses me that people are actually giving serious thought to this.


Washington, D.C.: I have once again found myself offering to host a group of 10-15 Friday evening, about 1-2 hours after I get home from work. I think I may order pizzas for proper meal food, but do you have any suggestions for appetizer-like munchies I can set out beforehand? I can do about every dip on the face of the earth, and I'm a fiend for cheese and accompaniments, but I'd love an idea for a new appetizer that I could make the day before, or the night of, that isn't the norm. (Did a tortilla espanola last time too.) Help! Thanks!

Jane Black: Salad on a stick?


Dry brownies: Hi Leigh, I find I have better luck with moist brownies when I bake them in a disposable tin pan, than in my glass Pyrex dish. Any ideas why?

Leigh Lambert: Glass Pyrex pans don't conduct heat as well as your disposable ones. In fact, some recipes note baking dishes in glass longer by 15 minutes or at 25 degrees higher (note: not both). The lack of insulation in your throw-away tin might give it "flash" heat that seals in moisture and creates a chewier texture. Just a guess.


Columbia, Md.: Might have missed this in the clambake article, but where do you suggest getting all this stuff? I want it!

I live really close to Frank's Seafood in Jessup -- is that good?

David Hagedorn: Sure, just call first to make sure they have everything you need. I got everything at Slavin's in Alexandria, but it bothered me to pay so much for seaweed that the lobsters come packed in anyway. Also, everything is available at the Maine Ave. stores in D.C.


New England: I really liked the clambake article, but I must quibble with the author. A true New England clambake really does have to begin with clam chowder. It's just not a clambake without it. Everyone has their own recipe, but mine includes bacon and a splash Worcester sauce. I served it as a party appetizer in mugs in colder weather. But there's nothing like sitting ocean side with a warm bowl of chowder. Yum.

David Hagedorn: Vive la difference!


An idea for plums: At Posto a few weeks ago I had the most wonderful dessert of red wine soaked plums with a creamy pecorino. Oh. My. Gosh. It was so delicious!

Jane Black: Sounds fabulous. (If you don't know how to do that, simply poach the plums in sugar and red wine. You want them to hold their shape so don't overcook.) If you don't like/have creamy pecorino, ice cream would do pretty well here. (Then again, where would it not?)


Lawrence, Kan.: I am a novice baker and would like to know a general rule of thumb for making extra cookie dough/pie crust/other pastry dough and freezing it to bake on a later date. Can you do this for basically any dough/batter? Thanks!

Leigh Lambert: You certainly can, and it's usually worth making double as long as you're up and going that way. In fact, I just made a tart dough and have the second half waiting in the fridge for further inspiration.

If you freeze dough (which you want to do if you're not going to bake it that week) you'll need to move it from the freezer to the fridge to defrost before baking. When baking from the fridge, add a couple of minutes to the recipe time.

Wrap all doughs snuggly in plastic wrap or a zip lock bag. Most doughs will be fine for a few months in the freezer.


Washington, D.C.: I had asked about the pumpkin muffins at Firehook, and you said that they don't release their recipes but that the you might try to recreate something similar. Anything more on that? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: This might be a job for the fab Flour Girl. How soon do you need pumpkin muffins in your life?

Leigh Lambert: I like a mission. Sorry I let this proverbial muffin drop. I will head out this afternoon to do a little tasting recognizance.


Madison, Wis.: Quite a while ago, I read somewhere that you should try to find a butcher or deli counter willing to sell you their proscuitto hocks so that you could do... well, something wonderful and delicious, I'm sure. I finally found a proscuitto hock this weekend, but now I cannot remember where I found the original reference that prompted my search. The hock I have is quite big and has a lot of meat left on it. Do you have any ideas on what I should do with it? Thank you!

David Hagedorn: Throw it into a pot of beans or lentils, southern-style.


Firefly: Jason -- I've had a Pimm's Cup made with Firefly and really liked it. I've also done the Arnold Palmer route, but with lots of fresh mint. Firefly is crazy popular in the South (and on college campuses). Supposedly the company made a mediocre vodka, but redeemed themselves when they added the sweet tea. You should check it out for a column. I bet you could come up with a great new recipe using it.

Jason Wilson: That would make sense about sweet tea vodka being popular in the South. The Pimm's Cup seems like an interesting idea, and I am a very big Pimm's Cup fan.


re: pressure cooker: That reminds me...You were going to find out for me which pressure cooker Jacques Pepin uses. Any luck?

Joe Yonan: I did, long ago, and awaited your return. It was Fagor, according to his producers.


Brownie secret: No one asked, but I discovered how to cut brownies without the crumbling: a plastic knife. Thought it was crazy when I read it, but it works!

Leigh Lambert: Of course we asked. Just maybe not out loud. Great discovery. The plastic doesn't have the same "drag" attraction that metal does.


Rockville, Md.: Couple of responses and a question for Jason:

I have found split topped buns at Trader Joe's. I think they call them hot dog buns.

For the person looking for Thai spices, H Marts may have what you want, but they're Korean-owned and may not have a variety of Thai sauces, etc. There is a small store in Wheaton on Univ. Blvd near Max's Deli called Asia something. The owners are Thai and have lots of Thai products. A bonus is that the store is close to the outstanding Ruan Thai and Nava Thai restaurants.

Jason, I'm going to the beach and need a summery gin-based cocktail. My go-to has always been the gin and tonic but last year, added the Tom Collins. Drink has to require few ingredients. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Call update: Trader Joe's in Washington and Bethesda does not have them, either.

Jason Wilson: Two words: Gin Fizz


Chocolate Muffins: I would be so appreciative if anyone has a truly great chocolate muffin recipe to share. I've tried a few different recipes, but they're just not moist.

Bonnie Benwick: This one's plenty moist. Can you handle a little zucchini in your chocolate muffins?


Arlington, Va.: Thank you thank you thank you! for the local food article today. I just watched Food Inc. last night, and you've saved me from doing a lot of research on where to buy more of my food locally (other than farmer's markets).

Joe Yonan: Good!


re: Hangovers: I always thought a hangover was due to dehydration, thus the headache. And if you drank plenty of water after to stay hydrated you'd be okay. Not sure about the nausea, though.

Jason Wilson: Dehydration is one of three problems. You've also got toxins floating through your body and withdrawal symptoms messing with your central nervous system. Drinking a lot of water is an excellent idea -- at least one glass for every alcoholic beverage you consume. But it's not going to fix everything.


For Plum Crazy: Try making Plum Kuchen -- yummm!

Joe Yonan: Yum.


Drunken Noodles: Best rice noodles -- China Boy in Chinatown. Many Asian markets sell it too, but it's freshest directly from their store.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!


Tiny Cookies: I make these tiny cookie buttons -- they're a "Cooking Light" quasi-shortbread (butter, 10x sugar, flour in a food processor) -- flavored with lemon zest. I've branched out recently to doing lemon zest and basil (awesome) and lime and mint (zingy!). But I'd like to try other flavors (grapefruit zest and black pepper emphatically did not work)... what do you suggest as pairings that would be unusual but great? Thanks!

Jane Black: Orange cardamom. Lemon fennel (or anise hyssop). Lemon or lime coconut. Orange and date (if you are willing to go beyond herbs and spices.)


Veggie Casseroles: Could you please offer me a few ideas for no-meat casseroles for dinner? I would probably make them a day or two ahead, or at least in the morning.

Jane Black: This South African casserole has zucchini, carrots and peanut butter. Might be a fun place to start.


Liquor on a stick!: I want to get married all over again, just so I can register at the ABC store AND the Minnesota State Fair.

I think the only way you could do liquor on a stick would be to have it frozen, or gelatinous. Or possibly in the stick, if the stick were, say, bamboo.

Leigh Lambert: Or ALL of the above. I like the way you think. Is it 5 o'clock yet?

Joe Yonan: You know what they say -- it's 5 o'clock somewhere.


Washington, D.C.: I want to make the Boulevardier, but Campari looks big and expensive (and like something I wouldn't use often). Is there something I could substitute? What exactly is Campari?

Jason Wilson: Campari is a bitter aperitif, an infusion of herbs, plants, aromatics, and some fruit, and it's relatively low in alcohol at 28%. It's proprietary and a secret recipe, and there's really nothing like it available in the U.S. There are some other companies with bitter aperitif versions in Italy (including one by Martini & Rossi) but Campari is pretty much the only one in the U.S. It's slightly pricey at around $25, but it's worth it, and I consider it an essential in my bar. You can make all those Negroni variations, as well as enjoying a simple, refreshing Campari and soda with a slice of orange.


Crabs: Mallets squish the meat. I like the nutcrackers 'cause the meat stays in big lumps.

Joe Yonan: Gotcha. But you don't get to pound!


For gluten-free and minimal meat: Thai food! You can start with Tom Ka soup (coconut, lemongrass soup, galangal -- yum) and then do a rice noodle dish with lots of broccoli. One thing to be careful with is soy sauce. Tamari is wheat-free, but regular soy sauce has gluten in it. You can also do summer rolls, mango and sticky rice, or that yummy taro root custard for dessert. I'm hungry!

Joe Yonan: Thanks!


New York: Hi,

Do you have any suggestions on how to get picky eaters to expand the range of vegetables they eat? I'm used to making a wide variety of vegetable-based dishes and making extra non-vegetable heavy dishes for my beau if I choose one he doesn't like (his list is roughly 5 veggies long.) He was just diagnosed with high cholesterol, and I feel the need to cater to his tastes more now, but I'm so bored! Help? (Acceptable: tomato, green bean, pepper, spinach, artichoke, onion, garlic, potato. Unacceptable: Anything else that doesn't come in a box.)

Joe Yonan: Your beau has the quirkiest lineup of acceptable vegetables I've ever seen. You'd think somebody who likes spinach and artichokes would like just about everything. Having said that, how about combining some of the things he likes with a few that he doesn't? Such as, a gazpacho with tomato, onion and garlic, but with a little roasted corn thrown in. Or, you could do what all those parents have been taught, and try, try, try again. Just reintroduce until he finally gives in.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm headed out to Wolftrap tomorrow and need something to throw together tonight to take with us. I was going to marinate and grill some chicken drumsticks, but I need a side I can make tonight that will still be good tomorrow and doesn't need a ton or refrigeration. Any ideas?

Also, my husband and I had two wine "showers" before we got married. People hosted wine tastings for us, and all the guests brought a bottle to stock the cellar. We are still reaping the benefits, so to speak. Highly recommended.

Jane Black: A basic potato salad would be nice. Or string beans in a mustard vinaigrette. Couscous, which is super fast, would work too. Stud it with cherry tomatoes and herbs.


Vienna, Va. with CD: My toddler was just diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Is it easy to make homemade chicken nuggets with cornmeal and freeze them? The store-bought ones are so expensive. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: It is easy. And I think Ian's brand makes gluten-free nuggets.


Fish Cakes: What's a sturdy, white fish to use for a fish cake? Jacques Pepin uses salmon, but that's a bit expensive. It should be an oily fish, right?

Bonnie Benwick: Doesn't have to be oily; depends on the recipe. Try cod or halibut.


Pumpkin muffins: Leigh should get Wegman's to spill the recipe for their pumpkin muffins. They are amazing (and made with white whole wheat flour). The guy there said they originally were only going to sell them in the fall, but when they stopped offering them, everyone yelled so much (including me!) that they brought them back year-round.

Leigh Lambert: I smell a bake-off.


Bethesda Baptism, Md.: Yes, cooked in advanced. Cookout type food since we will be outside -- I guess I mean cooked on the grill, not baked in the oven.

Jane Black: I'd just marinate and grill some chicken in advance. Refrigerate while you're gone and bring to room temp while everyone is arriving. Serve it with a fresh corn salad (kernels off the cob, a little butter microwaved when you get home and herbs of your choice. I like cilantro with my corn. Or basil.) Potato salad. Grilled vegetable platter (zucchini, peppers, portobello mushrooms). Drizzle with balsamic before serving. Storebought ice cream for dessert with fresh berries or chocolate sauce.


Bonnie Rocks!: Just have to say, anyone who can work "pish tush" into a food book review and not have it sound precious is a #1 in my book!

Bonnie Benwick: LOL.


Connecticut: A lobster roll bun should not be that difficult to find. It's just a hotdog bun. Truly. Though if I my suggest to the chatter that they might try a Connecticut-style lobster roll, which, unlike every other variety, is not mayo-based and is served hot. You take cooked lobster and put it in drawn butter so that it's warm, on a grilled bun with a little lettuce. Heaven.

Bonnie Benwick: Well, a lobster roll/bun is slightly better than a regular hot dog bun, because it has a deeper pocket for more filling, and creates less spillage out the sides.


Joe Yonan: Well, you've picked each of us up by the tail, held us over a bowl or sink, and allowed water to drain through our claws, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great questions today, and thanks to Jason Wilson and David Hagedorn for helping us answer them.

And now for the giveaway books. The chatter who asked about eating local year-round will get "Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life" by Sophie Uliano. And the Maryland chatter who talked about lobster vs. crabs will get "Simply Bishop's" by John Bishop and Dennis Green.

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading.


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