Free Range on Food: Staffers Solve Your Cooking Conundrums

The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, July 29, 2009; 1:00 PM

Free Range on Food is a forum for discussion of all things culinary. You can share your thoughts on the latest Washington Post Food section, get suggestions from fellow cooks and food lovers, or swap old-fashioned recipes the new-fashioned way. They were online Wednesday, July 29 at 1 p.m. ET.

Archive of past discussions


Bonnie Benwick: Hi everybody. It's the Food section, reporting for our favorite hour of the week. Figured out where your next crab cake might come from? Jane Black wants to know (but I don't think she'll be enjoying any more of them anytime soon). Did Robin Shulman's piece on the screening of "Julie and Julia" get you psyched for the movie's opening next week? And that Ezra Klein, cutting back on his consumption of red meat...does he mean the good locally grown stuff, too?

Editor Joe's on assignment (read: working vacation) but we've got the fabulous cookbook author and vegetable expert Deborah Madison with us today, to take questions on cooking corn or just about anything, really. She's the best -- and already on the job.

A few cookbooks for giveaways at the end of the chat, which we will reveal, maddeningly, at the last minute. If you're chosen as a winner, be sure to send your contact info to


Washington, D.C.: A new romantic interest is cooking for me tomorrow night -- chimichurri flank steak, I'm told. I want to contribute something veggie-oriented, healthy and fresh, that could be a side-dish. Doing a basic Web search came back with beans and rices, but I would want them relatively authentic and not quite so heavy. Suggestions and recipes are appreciated. Thanks!

Deborah Madison: One way I like to have black beans is to cook them simply with a little onion and bay, then spoon them over rice that's cooked in coconut milk with a pinch of saffron and turmeric. While it's cooking, slice a red onion into rounds and toss it in white vinegar (your choice) to make them scarlet and mild, and use them to garnish the black beans and yellow rice. It will be good with the chimichurri sauce and pretty, too. But you might want to add some sliced tomatoes to the plate too, for something cool and fresh.


Pumpkin Muffins Pumpkin Muffins: What is the status?

Leigh Lambert: At long last we will unveil the pumpkin muffin-wanna-bes in my Flour Girl blog post tomorrow. It will be up first thing in the morning. Hold on, only a few more hours.


Risotto: I bought some arbarito rice and a box of vegetable stock. Now what do I do? All I know is that the stock has to be added in slowly and the mixture has to be constantly stirred. But do I have to saute the rice first and when do I add in the veggies? Could you please give me a step by step instructions for a first-timer? Also, what (no-meat) dish do I serve with risotto to make a full meal?

Jane Black: The basic technique for risotto is to heat up some butter or oil in a pan, then gently toast the arborio rice. (This should take about three minutes.) Then you slowly ladle in one cup of broth at a time, waiting and stirring until all the liquid is incorporated before adding the next batch. This allows the rice to plump slowly and not get starchy or stuck together. Add the chopped vegetables (whatever you like really) when the liquid has been added and the rice is not quite cooked through. Cook another 10 minutes or so until the vegetables are "tender crisp."

Now, a few other tips.

The key to good risotto is good stock. A box of vegetable stock will do but it's not going to make ethereal risotto. And if you're going to spend all that time stirring....

If you add onion, sautee it in the butter before you add the rice. Before you start adding stock, you might also consider adding some wine, which will give the risotto more depth of flavor.

If I were doing a vegetarian risotto meal I wouldn't look to pair it with another vegetarian dish; I'd just add a good selection and quantity of vegetables to the dish and serve it with a hearty salad.


Arlington, Va. S.: The corn omelet recipe looks interesting. I'm hoping that the blue jade corn growing in my yard that is just now starting to show it's silk will be productive and that I'll get to try the recipe. The colors should be a nice contrast. It's a perfect size for cooking for one, the seed catalog said 6 inch ears (and 4-6 ears per plant).

A question though -- the recipe is listed as an omelet but the technique seems to be that of a frittata. Is this just a preference? I thought that perhaps it was because of how thin the omelet looks, though I've seen frittata's of varying thickness. My other thought was that since few areas in Italy actually use fresh corn (I've only ever seen it in Bolzano), that you didn't want to give it an Italian name. :)

One other thing, the recipe in the paper doesn't say when to add the basil. I'm thinking after it is on the plate otherwise it might burn in the oven, but if using the flip technique then it might be added after the flip. I'm thinking parsley should also be good here if no basil is available?

Thank you much!

Deborah Madison: I believe thin omelets and frittatas are the same thing, but different than your usual folded, soft omelet, true. I make my corn omelet right on the stove and don't use the oven-I just invert it and slide the uncooked side back into the pan. Since it cooks quickly, I add the basil to the eggs before cooking, but a shower of fresh herb over the top is always welcome. Other herbs? Parsley would be great, as you suggest. So bright and clean. Dill, too. Lovage. Marjoram-its summery like basil, and always good with eggs.


Beef in the Old Dominion: Hi all! Great Gut Check as always. It's amazing how little changes can make such a big difference. I do want to point out though that not all beef is created equal. Raising/eating local grassfed beef is much less harmful to the environment than commercial beef. I worked on a small farm and have spent time with many a pastured steer -- the emit exponentially less methane than grain-fed. Seriously, they don't burp. They don't have the health, waste, or poor animal treatment problems of cattle raised in confinement. And if it's local, the environmental impact from transport is lessened. So, good stuff for meat-eaters. You can do both....go veg one day a week, go grassfed, be extra green! Tastes good too--make sure to cook it at slightly lower temps so it stays tender...

Jane Black: On Ezra's behalf, an excellent point.


Bonnie Benwick: And for a while, Spirits columnist Jason Wilson's in the house....


Pesto Question: The goat cheese and pesto bombe looks awesome, and a great use for all the basil I have growing in my little herb garden. Yay! One question--I make my pesto with pine nuts, which I thought was the traditional way. Is there a reason almonds are used instead in this recipe?

Bonnie Benwick: Yes, just because the author, Domenica Marchetti, has a daughter who's allergic to pine nuts.


Savory breakfast: My husband prefers savory over sweet foods for breakfast. I tend to make mainly eggs or grilled cheese sandwiches during the week and maybe frittata or roasted potatos on the weekend. I would love some new ideas please.

Bonnie Benwick: How about crepes? Easy to do (after that first dud in the pan). You can fill with sauteed mushrooms or anything, really. Here's a basic recipe. For a potato dish, try temptation. Your husband will hold you in highest estimation (not that he doesn't already). There's also Deborah Madison's lovely Omelet With Corn and Smoked Mozzarella and this, made with good potato chips. Seriously.

Deborah Madison: How about chilequiles for breakfast? Crisped strips of corn tortillas (or go for some good corn chips) cooked in a sauce-tomatilla sauce is my favorite- for just a few minutes, then a little cheese is added at the end. It's kind of a funky dish, but so good. Chilequiles was a favorite of one of our interviewees in What We Eat When We Eat Alone. He makes a ton of sauce then eats them all week!

Bonnie Benwick: Good one, Deborah!

Here's an Ed Bruske recipe from our deep archives:


6 servings

Tortilla chips, sauce, crema and cheese are compulsory components of chilaquiles. But there are certain liberties that individual cooks take; a fried or poached egg can be placed atop the assembled chilaquiles; or cooked, shredded chicken or fried chorizo may be tossed with the chips.

The crema should be thin enough to drizzle over the finished chilaquiles. If it is too thick, add buttermilk or cream as needed.

Tortilla Chips for Chilaquiles (recipe follows)

Refritos (also known as refried beans), canned or homemade (recipe follows)

Red or Green Sauce for Chilaquiles (recipe follows)

1/2 small white onion, very thinly sliced

1 cup crema*

1 1/2 cups crumbled queso fresco or queso anejo (sometimes called queso seco)

Coarsely chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

Shredded Napa cabbage for garnish

Sliced tomato for garnish

Sliced avocado for garnish

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Place the tortilla chips in a casserole dish or 9-inch square baking dish, cover loosely with aluminum foil and place in the oven.

Heat the refritos, stirring frequently, in a saucepan over low heat. Cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a skillet over medium heat, heat the sauce just until steaming. Add the warmed tortilla chips and toss until coated with sauce. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook for 1 minute. Stir in the onion and remove from the heat.

Spoon the sauced chips onto individual plates. Drizzle some crema over each serving, then sprinkle with cheese and cilantro. Spoon the refritos on the side and garnish each plate with cabbage, tomato and avocado. Serve immediately.

*NOTES: Crema is a Hispanic version of sour cream. You can find small cans of it on the Spanish food section at larger grocery stores and a variety of plastic containers of crema at Latin American markets. You may substitute sour cream that has been thinned down a little with cream.

Queso fresco, also called queso blanco, is a crumbly, salty, white cheese common in Mexican cooking. It is available in most Latin American markets.

Per serving (approximate, including chips, beans, sauce crema and cheese): 606 calories, 18 gm protein, 65 gm carbohydrates, 32 gm fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 15 gm saturated fat, 1,022 mg sodium, 12 gm dietary fiber

Tortilla Chips for Chilaquiles

6 servings

The chips can be made several days ahead of time and stored in resealable plastic bags.

Use three 5-inch corn (not wheat!) tortillas per person

About 3 tablespoons lard or vegetable oil, plus additional as needed

To fry the tortillas: Stack the tortillas and slice them into strips about 11/4 inch wide. Spread the strips on 1 or 2 baking sheets and leave out on the kitchen counter overnight (or, to speed the process, place in a 200-degree oven until the pieces stiffen and curl, about 1 hour).

In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, heat the lard or oil until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, place some of the dried tortilla strips in the oil, being careful not to crowd the skillet. Using tongs, turn the strips and stir them frequently until the pieces are just golden, 3 to 4 minutes. May need to reduce the heat slightly. Transfer to paper towels or a brown paper bag to drain. Repeat with the remaining strips, adding more lard or oil between batches as necessary.

To bake the tortillas: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly brush both sides of the tortillas with vegetable oil. Stack the tortillas and slice them into strips about 11/4 inches wide. Spread the strips on 1 or 2 baking sheets lined with foil and bake, turning the chips at least once, until they are just golden, 15 to 20 minutes total.

Per serving (approximate): 197 calories, 4 gm protein, 35 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, trace saturated fat, 121 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber


Dupont: I have a cookie recipe that calls for bread flour, but all I have at home at the moment is all-purpose. How much will it affect the consistency of the cookies if I substitute all-purpose flour? Is it worth it to go buy bread flour just for this recipe? And what's the difference between the two?

Leigh Lambert: With "specialty ingredients", and by that I mean anything you can't imagine using again in this lifetime, I am hesitant to buy in five-pound bags.

I would recommend buying only as much as you need from the bulk bins at a co-op/health food store.

Bread flour is worth using if a cookie recipe calls for it. It has a higher gluten content and produces a chewy, toothsome result.

Bonnie Benwick: You may find other uses for the bread flour -- you may prefer it in making chewy choco chippers, in fact. Remember you can store it in the freezer, in a freezer-safe plastic bag.


Bethesda: Corn broth! Who woulda thunk it!

My question is on the handling of corn. Is it better to store in the fridge or on the counter? In the husks or out?

And then... If you grill corn, is it best to keep it in the husk or take it out?

Bonnie Benwick: Better to buy it just before you use it. Store it in the fridge if you have to, but be advised that its sweetness maybe affected. Grillwise, it's a matter of preference. If you've got some cilantro-lime butter or coconut milk with palm sugar to slather it with, a husk can help keep the corn moist. If you like that slightly caramelized thing that happens, go for the naked ears. Corn on the brain now. Joe?


Zwieback: I hope you can help. Apparently Nabisco Zwieback crackers are no longer manufactured. I am supposed to make a torte recipe that has 6 oz of Zwieback crumbs in the batter. I have never had these, so haven't a clue what I can substitute? Graham crackers? Vanilla wafers? will these be too sweet? Help!

Deborah Madison: Zweiback (basically, it's dried bread) is pretty neutral tasting so I think graham crackers or vanilla wafers might contribute too much flavor and sweetness-as you suggest - to your recipe. Many tortes call for bread crumbs, so you might dry some pretty plain bread out in the oven or toaster oven until crisp, then make it into crumbs if that's what the recipe wants you to do. Or make the bread crumbs first, then dry them out in a slow oven. Hope you're not on a big deadline!

Jane Black: That's sad. I liked Zweiback. I haven't had one in years but I have this vague memory that when you chew them they get sweeter.


Baltimore, Md.: Hi Deborah. I loved your new book about eating alone and was wondering: What was the most unsavory food combo someone copped to eating alone, and what combination did you think was the most amazing?

Deborah Madison: Hands down the most unsavory -and baffling- combo was margarita mix poured over stale bread. It still makes me flinch. I loved the frittata with caramelized onions, spinach and black pepper from a young coo and I also loved Judy's eggs with bread crumbs because it takes such basic ingredients and gives them a terrific little twist.

Glad you liked the book!


Let 'em eat frosting: Hi foodies. Question for Leigh. I'm making a chocolate cake and I want a shiny glaze on top, but my glazes in the past never stay shiny. What's the secret?

Leigh Lambert: Ah, good question young grasshopper. Here's the follow-up question: are you OK with the glaze remaining sticky to the touch? It's sort of an either-or proposition. A standard ganache (cream and chocolate) poured over a cake should remain shiny. Of course, this also means that any flug (read: cat hair)can and will permanently affix to your cake.

Given this caveat, you can add a couple tablespoons of corn syrup for insurance to keep it silky.


Burke, Va.: I'm submitting this early because my day is just going to get busier. I've been buying corn two dozen at a time at the market to cream and freeze for later in the year, but I'm also interested in just cutting the corn off the cob and freezing it like that -- do I have to blanch it first, of can I just stick it in a freezer bag raw?

Bonnie Benwick: The consensus leans toward blanching, whether you keep the corn on the ear or cut off the kernels. Be sure it's fully cooled before freezing.


Hong Kong: So I finally got around to making the Gastronomer's roast chicken from weeks and weeks ago, and it was fantastic. So much faster than the Zuni Cafe method!

My question, though, is about the potatoes. They were tasty, but I expected them to be super crispy, and, apart from some of the edges, they weren't. Was it because they weren't in a single layer? (I only have one of those countertop convection ovens, which means small dishes.) Ideas for how I can get crispy potatoes next time? There -will- be a next time!

Bonnie Benwick: That chicken is killer good. The potatoes crisped in my non-convection oven, so next time, try stirring them several times to make sure they're all coated and get even exposure. The baking dish they're in shouldn't be too deep.


Celebrating Peruvian Independence: PLEASE tell me Jason is joining you all today!! If so, kudos to him for a fabulous article today on maraschino liquor, which my husband tracked down last summer in advance of our week at the beach to make Aviation cocktails and Papa Dobles all week long! And, a question... In making pisco sours (and using this recipe from the Post archives) can one substitute either powdered egg whites or the Egg Beaters carton of egg whites in lieu of fresh egg whites? The recipe says you can substitute powdered, but does it really work, or would the carton egg whites be better? Both are a sacrilege, I know, but I am making large batches for an office cocktail party tomorrow afternoon and need SOMETHING to make my life a little easier, rather than cracking and separating upwards of 3 dozen eggs.

Thanks guys!

Jason Wilson: Thanks - glad you're a maraschino fan! Well... Yes, not using real egg whites is kind of a sacrilege. And even with the powdered egg whites (which is what I'd stoop to in your situation, I guess) you're still going to have a lot of work ahead of you shaking up pisco sours for a entire office! How did you get roped into making that particular cocktail?

Jason Wilson: One more thing: Don't forget the Angostura bitters... Happy Peruvian Independence Day.


Washington, D.C.: Joe's corn stock idea is interesting -- definitely will have to give it a try and good use for parts that normally just get thrown away unused. I've had corn ice cream before and I'd be interested to try making corn sorbet or maybe buttermilk corn sherbet?

Any tips on working the corn stock idea into a corn chowder? Some of the recipes in the recipe finder call for simmering the cobs in milk. Do you think it would work to add the silk, husks, and cobs to the milk and then strain everything out? Or would you recommend making the corn stock with water and then adjusting the amount of milk used in the chowder?

Deborah Madison: I've been making corn cob stocks for years, but I've always used water. This may not be necessary, but sometimes corn can curdle milk, which is why some corn soups are so tricky to make.(You need some flour to keep that from happening.)

I don't think this would happen with a stock, however because there's so much less corn involved. I'd give it a try -add some celery, bay,thyme, onion or leeks-then strain and use it in your chowder. Or make it water, using half as much liquid so that it's more concentrated, then strain, measure, and make up the difference with milk. Does that make sense? Hope so!


Souffle: My husband complained that I have 36 eggs at home right now and I told him very matter of factly that I intend to use them to make a souffle. Of course he knows that I don't know how to do that... so I have to prove him wrong and make one. I was thinking a chocolate souffle would be a fun surprise for dessert. So could you tell me how to do it?

Jane Black: How about a bittersweet chocolate souffle? The pinch of espresso powder gives it depth.

Deborah Madison: And since you probably won't use all your 36 eggs in one souffle (are they from your chickens?), you might consider a savory souffle,too. A cheese souffle is always so good, especially when you make it with goat cheese, and so are all kinds of vegetable souffles. And they're easy to make!


Altoona, Pa.: My husband's birthday is today and he asked for a chocolate mousse pie. I was going to fill the crust with Janice's medicinal mousse which is tofu-based -- delicious, but maybe not as rich and creamy as he'd like. The alternative is chocolate pudding but it often turns out stiff for me. Can you help me achieve a softer, creamier chocolate mousse in the next few hours? Thanks.

Bonnie Benwick: Oh man. You should make Emily Luchetti's French Silk. It's kinda perfect. If it's too late, print it out for next year. Do you need the mousse to be tofu-based, particularly?


Capitol Hill - THANKS!: Just wanted to give Joe a big THANKS for the awesome corn recipes in today's section. I love that they are simple and the ingredient lists are pretty short - that is so key for me and ensures they are recipes I will actually try. Anyway, big props from a corn lover.

Bonnie Benwick: We'll send the love his way.


Philadelphia, Penn.: Helloooo, Free Rangers!!!

I love the (now totally cliche and overdone) roasted beet, goat cheese, and candied walnut salad that I get at restaurants. I got some baby beets in my CSA, so I'm planning to recreate it for dinner.

Can you give me a simple vinaigrette recipe to go along with this? I looked in the recipe finder, but I'm sort of boneheaded when it comes to determining what flavors go well with each other.

THANKS! You guys are awesome!

Deborah Madison: I'd choose a lemon vinaigrette, or just lemon juice plus a little olive oil rather than a proper vinaigrette, and for that you don't really need a recipe - just your tongue for tasting. Mostly beets want acid to balance their sweet and earthy notes. A squeeze of lime is good as well. If you like herbs, many are good with beets-parsley because it's clean and bright, cilantro, dill, and, a bit more unusual, anise hyssop.


Tbilisi, Georgia: Hello, I usually buy ready-made pastry dough for pie crusts. When I bake the pie crust-with our without filling-the crust becomes soggy and tough. How can I avoid that? Thank you.

Bonnie Benwick: Chatters, let's all wang chung on this one... First things I can think of are to use the pre-made crusts that come rolled, in the refrigerated case, instead of the frozen ones in their own tin pie plates. And be sure to dock the bottom with a fork (poke holes to let some steamy air escape)especially when baking the crust by itself (blind).


El Macua: Hi Jason,

That El Macua with the guava juice was just a taste of heaven for my summer. Thanks so much for the great recipe. Any other fruit flavored cocktails that I could try? I'm eager to shake things up.

Jason Wilson: So glad you like that one. Well, it's peach season right now. Why not try the Peach Ginger Julep I suggested a few weeks ago? Or a Bellini... Though I will be discussing them in my next column on Aug 12.


Long-distance love of crab cakes: I transplanted from Maryland to the Midwest more than 20 years ago. DH has heard me rave about fresh Maryland crab (rickety table at Capt. Billy's) but we've never been in the area at a time and appropriate occasion for him to try it. So, I thought crab cakes might be the next best thing. Do any of your "bests" ship out of state? (If I missed this in the original article, I beg forgiveness. I'm obviously an online reader, and sometimes it is easy to miss the good information you share.) Thanks!

Jane Black: Yep, G&M, one of our top picks, ships across the country.


Annapolis, Md.: I liked the article on corn in today's food section - I love fresh corn, but my husband's not so fond of it, so in season I often make some just for myself. There's a great, very simple, recipe in Patricia Well's "Vegetable Harvest" that I really like that can be easily adapted for any number of ears: 3 ears freshly shucked corn 1 tbl salted butter 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped zesty lemon salt (she has a recipe for this- I just use kosher salt and some grated lemon peel)

Scrape off the kernels from the cob, Melt the butter (or you could substitute olive oil) in a large skillet; cook the corn just until it's warmed through, tossing it in the skillet for about 1 minute. Transfer to bowl; season with cilantro and the lemon salt.

If you don't like cilantro, you could use any other fresh herb - she suggests parsley or chives. Suddenly, I've Become the Man of the Ear (Post, July 29)

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks for sharing. Wait, I'm just processing. Husband' of it?


Washington, D.C.: Please help! I have MORE cabbage from our CSA. I've already done Asian slaw, and it seems too hot for stuffed cabbage or soup, which are my other ideas. What's a girl to do?

Bonnie Benwick: How about Cabbage latkes or Chowchow or Kimchi Hotpot?


Chevy Chase: Sorry if you've already covered this question (and sorry, too, that I don't have time to read this chat on a regular basis) but have you had a discussion yet about pine-nut mouth? For several weeks, I've had an unpleasant bitter/metallic taste in my mouth. Thanks to Google, I come to find out that I'm not alone. It's been attributed to the consumption of pine nuts, and specifically, pine nuts imported from China. We eat a lot of home-made pesto and we of course use pine nuts. This condition first appeared in Europe in 2001. The U.K. Food Service Agency couldn't find anything wrong with the pine-nuts.

Where can I find pine nuts that didn't come from China?

Jane Black: There's been a lot of huge discussion about pine nut mouth and Chinese nuts on the Web for the last few months. From what I've read, there's no definitive answer on why this is happening -- a different type of nut, the way they are harvested, raw or toasted. It's a mystery. What is clear is that this isn't happening when people eat Mediterranean pine nuts. So, as you say, it's safer to buy them.

I've seen Mediterranean pine nuts sold in bulk at Middle Eastern stores; at one I was at last weekend (in NY), they had a choice of Chinese or Italian. I would think that a high-end grocer such as Balducci's would carry Mediterranean nuts but I've been on hold trying to ask them on your behalf for the last 15 minutes and have not yet found anyone who is capable of answering the question. You might also try Italian stores such as Vace or the Italian Store.

If there's no information at the store or the back of the package, you can also see a difference. The Asian pine nuts are stubbier and more triangular in shape while the Mediterranean ones are long and slim.


I'm screaming for ice-cream: Is there anyway to make ice cream without a store-bought ice cream maker or rock salt for that matter? Just freezing won't do, eh?

Jane Black: You can do it. It won't have that creamy texture you're looking for but you can do it. Here, ice cream guru David Lebovitz explains how.


Rabbit meat in D.C. or Virginia: Hi all,

I was hoping you could help me with a birthday dinner I am planning for my boyfriend who is French.

I am planning on making rabbit with mustard sauce, a mixed green salad, a vegetable side, and a tarte tatin.

1) Do you know where I could find rabbit meat in the D.C. or Northern Virginia area. Do you also have any tips on working with rabbit meat? I found a recipe for rabbit with mustard sauce from epicurious, but would be welcome to any other recipe suggestions.

2) Any suggestions for a vegetable side with this. I was thinking a potato gratin, but that might be a bit heavy, maybe sauteed mustard greens?

3) Any suggestions for an appropriate wine with rabbit?

Thanks so very much! I love your chat!

Bonnie Benwick: Many questions.

1) I've just seen rabbit at the Balducci's in Alexandria. I know the flavor's rather delicate and can be overwhelmed. Meat experts want us to buy wild rabbit (better flavor) rather than farmed, but it's not so easy to come by. Cook the rabbit just until it's tender, but not flaky or stringy. Browning the pieces in a saute pan first will add flavor, too (maybe add a little pancetta).

2) sauteed greens, glazed carrots or caramelized/balsamic onions would be great with your main course.

3) hopefully a wine answer's on the way from Dave McIntyre. Check back in a bit!


Storing cookies: I'm baking your outrageous oatmeal cookies this morning for tomorrow's playgroup and I have a question about storage. I recall reading over Christmas that cookies should be cooled completely, and even left out overnight to get rid of all moisture before storing them. My question is, wouldn't this call for them to dry out and go stale faster?

Leigh Lambert: I suppose it depends on the cookie. Sugar cookies and others crisp in nature would probably benefit from being left out overnight (though D.C. is so humid, this is a debatable result), but for chewy and rich cookies I would recommend cooling them to room temperature and then storing in a tin.

Bonnie Benwick: Are you sure Christmas cookies aren't left out overnight just for, you know, the guy in the red suit?


Bethesda, Md.: My husband and I recently purchased an ice cream maker and have been experimenting with recipes. Many include an egg. What is the purpose of the egg? If we leave it out, should we include something else instead? Thanks!

Jane Black: The egg is a binder. It's what creates a custard base and gives your ice cream that creamy texture. Without it, it's really ice milk or a sorbet. If you go to the trouble of making homemade ice cream, I wouldn't leave it out.


Using Panko as a binder: Hi Rangers!

Questions about using panko as a binder for cake-like items, like crabcakes, meatballs, etc... Does it really affect the texture of the cakes if you sub in regular breadcrumbs for this application?

I do love panko, and love the crispiness it adds to exterior coatings. It is however, quite expensive in my neck of the woods, and want to use it where it counts. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Panko tends to be lighter and give a little more body without getting soggy. Try toasting your homemade fresh bread crumbs and letting them cool before pulverizing in the food processor.


Corn omelette question: Hi Ms. Madison---I love your cookbooks and use them often.

One question: where are you finding vegetarian mozzarella because I cannot find any in the D.C. area. It all is made with "enzymes" (read: rennet). Is there a brand that uses agar or something else? Thanks much! (I have the same problem with parm, so never can use it in risotto)

Deborah Madison: I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I use fresh mozzarella no doubt made with the dreaded rennet. I'm sure you've looked in Whole Foods or some equivalent natural food store? I'm afraid I'm not familiar with what stores are in your area, but if it exists, I would guess that it shows up in such a store. Good luck finding it!


Indian appetizer: I'm cooking an Indian dinner soon, and am looking for a good appetizer to enjoy over drinks, not at the table. All of my favorites are not really finger food. Samosas just seem as though they'll be so heavy, considering how much food is to come. Any thoughts?

Jane Black: Check out this article that Monica Bhide did for us in April on Indian appetizers.


re: souffle: I got the eggs for $0.99 for an 18 count container and I couldn't resist the sale.

Re: chocolate souffle Is there a substitute for instant or quick-mixing flour (Wondra)? Can I use AP flour?

Re: savory souffle Do I just add in shredded cheese in place of the chocolate?

I was under the impression that souffles needed a bath when baking (like cheesecakes).

Jane Black: Wondra is a lighter cake flour, which is why the recipe calls for it. It won't weigh down the souffle. You could probably substitute AP but ... souffles are finicky things so if you're a first-timer I wouldn't start adapting. And no, you can't just replace chocolate with cheese -- what about the espresso? And no, no water bath necessary.


Near Chicago: My question regards roast potatoes. When I make a roast beef, I like to roast potatoes in the pan with it so they soak in that marvelous flavor and get all crispy/beefy. Is there any way to replicate that flavor/texture if I am not making a roast beef?

Jane Black: You'd have to roast them in beef fat (that you happen to have lying around, of course.) Duck fat would also make them delicious.


D.C.-er: Most unsavory "alone" food: My boyfriend recently made this, swearing I'd love it. He calls it "the trough". -Cook 1 box of ziti -microwave some frozen veggies (peas and carrots) -cook 2 hot dogs and dice -put all ingredients in a huge bowl and top with American cheese. -cover bowl with a plate to allow the cheese to melt. -consume.

It's the most disgusting bachelor food around, but he loves it.

Jane Black: I'm with you. That sounds awful. But to each his own.


Stuffed Zucchini: Do you have a recipe? I need to utilize all the vegetables coming in. Thank you!

Bonnie Benwick: That's really one a creation you don't need a recipe for. Finely chop some onion and whatever vegetables you have...saute until just tender. You can let them cool and add bread crumbs or cooked brown rice or even something like cooked ground lamb. Season with fresh herbs and what you like best. Maybe sprinkle a little Parmesan on top and bake until the zukes look darker and have softened.

I've seen lots more globe zucchini at the farmers markets this year, and they are particularly nice for stuffing.


Pittsburgh: Vegetarian here, who's dined at Greens along the Marina at old Fort Mason on two trips to San Francisco -- and I must say those are two of the finest meals of my entire life!

Did you know that this is National Lasagne Day? Do you have some tips for making a successful zucchini lasagne?

Deborah Madison: Oh my gosh! National lasagna day? I had no idea?

Well, for a zucchini lasagna, I think the most important thing to do is to

get the excess water out of the squash. So, whether you choose to have it long,broad strips (like a lasagna noodle) or grated, toss it with salt and let it sit for 30 minutes, then, in the case of shredded zucchini, squeeze out as much liquid as you can, and in the case of the other, blot it dry. That way it won't give out a lot of liquid while baking. I see zucchini with ricotta and marjoram and a very light, fresh tomato sauce, but don't have a recipe. Improvise!


Storing Cookies info: Cooling cookies before storing them keeps them from having the moisture mold loves to grow with. If you store them loose, then it's not so important. If you are packing to ship (my experience is with shipping to war zones), then cool them completely but don't freeze before wrapping them flat sides together in plastic wrap to put into a plastic storage box to ship.

Bonnie Benwick: A voice of experience, sounds like.


Reston reader: Really interesting section today. My question is for Mr. Klein and his belief that avoiding beef once a week would help the environment. What about chicken? All those huge, stinky chicken farms where the runoff pollutes the chesapeake-- what about them?

Jane Touzalin: Hi, Reston. I think maybe you read the column too fast! The recommendation is about not eating MEAT one day a week, not just avoiding beef. He wrote, "A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week." So: no beef, no pork, no lamb, no chicken, etc. That's the concept.

Bonnie Benwick: Did we mention that Jane is our ace copy editor?


Appreciative in D.C.: Deborah Madison, you are wonderful. Eating at greens as a teenager reaffirmed my love for vegetables, and I rely on your books for inspiration today. Just wanted to let you know that you have a lasting impact on those who love food.

(And sincere thanks to all the food staff at the Post, should you feel left out.)

Deborah Madison: Thank you so very much for your kind words-I really appreciate them, and they inspire me to get back to using my own books!


I know you'll get a zillion of these, but I had to...: "New York has pizza. Chicago has hot dogs. But perhaps no city has embraced a regional dish the way Washington has the crab cake."

How about Baltimore to the crab cake? Or even the Eastern shore to the crab cake?

D.C. can claim a title to the most varied, international food scene in the U.S., but not the crab cake. I thought this would be clear when you asked about crab cakes in D.C. at a chat and everyone threw out Baltimore crabcake places? The idea isn't to ignore all that and find the handful of D.C. restaurants that serve crab cakes and write a story on that. Baltimore's really not that far away.

Jane Black: I suppose we should have said that considering Baltimore owns crab cakes, Washington has tried to make them their own. I swear there's hardly a restaurant in town that doesn't have one.

As for Baltimore. It is not that far away but is well-covered when it comes to crab cakes. We tried to help readers who live here to find the good ones that much closer by.


Washington, D.C.: Greetings Food Gurus! I asked two weeks ago about a recipe for the melon and feta salad at Black's Bar and Kitchen. You pointed me towards a few recipes on your Web site, but while they look tasty, they use watermelon, not cantaloupe and are pretty different.

I'm leaving D.C. this weekend to go back to Chicago (my stint as a summer associate is over!) so won't have a chance to go back and test the dish again. Any chance you could help a poor girl out? Many thanks!

Jane Black: I just called Black's. Indeed, they had it as a special. It's really easy: diced cantaloupe, crumbled feta and a chiffonade of basil. It was lightly dressed with olive oil and sea salt and touch of balsamic glaze (though very good, old balsamic will do just fine too.)

In my humble opinion, mint would be lovely with this too.


Atlanta: Dear Foodies -- I need some smooth/cream soup recipes for a vegetarian houseguest/sister-in-law who can only eat "smooth" food post-surgery. Really want to help her to recover by providing good food -- but this is not the kind of food I eat. Any ideas? I love that we get to help her recover, but I feel lost about what to do. Thanks.

Bonnie Benwick: Do you have a blender or food processor or even an immersion (stick) blender? Cream's not required to make lots of things smooth. Do eggs count as smooth food?


Arlington, Va.: Any advice on how to use coconut oil? I made peach-corn muffins from the new vegan/mostly gluten-free Babycakes cookbook and they are pretty tasty, but greasy. There's conflicting advice out there about melting the oil or using it in the solid form it comes in, and nothing in the book about it. I measured the amount called for and then microwaved it for 10 seconds, which gave it a somewhat fluid consistency. If I use the oil again, I think I will try to mimic the consistency of whatever the substitute is (so, solid for butter, liquid for oil). What do you think?

Leigh Lambert: Actually your greasiness is probably coming more from quantity than solid vs. melted consistency. Unlike butter, coconut oil contains no water. So, if you replace it by weight/volume you're getting that much more fat in your recipe. Try reducing the amount called for by a quarter when using coconut oil.


Anonymous: As someone else with a ton of cabbage from a CSA, two ideas--

Just saute cabbage with sausage. Easy and fast meal.

The cabbage roll casserole from All Recipes here . It does take oven time, but not nearly as much stove-top time. And if you use a lot of cabbage, it's not as heavy as cabbage rolls can be.

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks! Or saute some cabbage with cooked egg noodles and celery seed.


Washington, D.C.: Patty pan squash--How to choose it and how to cook it?

Deborah Madison: As with all summer squash, smaller is better, but it needn't be tiny-those so-called (expensive) baby summer squashes don't have very well developed flavor.

Look for a medium sized squash that's nice and shiny and firm, then cook it using any recipe that you'd use for zucchini. It tastes the same and goes with all the accompaniments and sauces you'd use for zucchini. It's really pretty sliced crosswise, then sauteed, grilled, or steamed.

Bonnie Benwick: Boy, she really is the expert.


Re: cheese without rennet: Try looking for kosher cheese, that shouldn't have any animal rennet in it. I don't know what the poster is, but Brookville in Cleveland Park has kosher cheese.

Bonnie Benwick: Interesting. Good tip.


Alexandria, Va.: Rabbit is also available at Wegmans.

Bonnie Benwick: Sigh. I wish I lived closer to Wegmans. Shouldn't they be coming to suburban Maryland soon?


All starches get sweeeter when you chew them: Jane: it's a basic fact of mouth chemistry. We did the experiment in junior high - chew a saltine, and it gets sweet after it's in your mouth for a while, as saliva breaks starches down into sugars.

Jane Black: Yeah, okay. But I have a distinct memory of that with Zwieback. Maybe that's because I was a toddler and really chewing on them.


Grill Pan: I'm excited about a grill pan I just bought. I was hoping you could give me a few tips to cooking boneless skinless chicken, salmon and veggies on it. Do I have to be concerned about smoke? I live in a high rise and bringing in the fire department is seriously frowned upon.

Deborah Madison: When my husband cooks some greasy lamb chop or rib-eye, it smokes. High heat and fat will do it. I cook vegetables in a grill pan as well -just last night I finished some fingerling potatoes I had boiled first, then halved and brushed with olive oil. Nice grill marks. Good flavor. Low heat and no smoke. It's great for vegetables and doesn't seem to be a problem if you keep your fat and heat in check. Have fun with it!


Woodbridge, Va.: Do you have any good cucumber (besides pickles) recipes? My garden is about to explode with cukes.

Jane Black: Okay. I know this is silly but I am currently obsessed with cucumber water. Just slice up half a cucumber for a big pitcher (you can even fill it twice) and you have a lovely summer quencher. But you could also make a cucumber salad with feta, olive oil and thyme. Or, here's a lovely recipe for cucumber avocado soup


Cooking Rabbit!: I just took a cooking class in Provence with a Provencal chef and the entree we prepared was rabbit! I learned a few things: first, while rabbit cooks quickly, it can be tough and stringy. To prevent that, our teacher browned the rabbit pieces quickly in a dutch oven, deglazed the pan with muscat, then added spices and additional liquid and braised the rabbit pieces for an additional few hours. It created a delicious and tender dish. For vegetable sides, we had a bunch of different things, but the most interesting was zucchini, sliced very thin and quickly sauteed over a hot stove with whole slices of lemon. We also had a sort of tomato-and-eggplant confit -- less rustic than a ratatoulli, but similar. It was absolutely delicious. Our very French start to the meal was crostini with olive tapenades, both green and black, prepared with our teacher's olive oil from his own olive trees. For wine, we drank rose and then a light red (I'm sorry I can't remember the name). I've been dying to recreate this meal -- good luck!

Bonnie Benwick: I'd call you a showoff, but that just would be the Envy talking. Thanks for the advice!


Philadelphia: Ooh, a vegetable expert! Just what I need. I know someone who is trying to find a cooking project, like a French Laundry at Home or Julie-Julia Project type undertaking, but wants it to be healthy. I was thinking a great project would be to find a list of vegetables and cook every single one. The phrase "From Amaranth to Zucchini" stuck in my head -- is that a book? Would it work for this project?

(And I figured if she can't get access to every single vegetable, maybe she could set a goal of 25 or 50 or 88 or whatever by X date.)

Deborah Madison: Well, I do know that there are a few books called "Asparagus to Zucchini" but I haven't heard of one that starts with Amaranth. Hope she plans to feature the greens!

Bonnie Benwick: Yep, it's a nice reference book by Elizabeth Schneider (William Morrow, 2001). There were many greens recipes.


I already saw the Julia Child movie: at a special screening and thought it was wonderful. In fact, I plan to go again when it officially opens in August.

I'm surprised that the crab cakes at Clyde's were not part of the survey. That's where I always have mine - they are excellent.

Bonnie Benwick: We limited the search to seafood restaurants, is all.


More on cabbage: Make runzas (Kansas meat pies) -- sauteed cabbage mixed with ground beef and rolled into bread dough.

Make colcannon.

Jane Black: More suggestions. Colcannan, if you're not familiar with it, is an old Irish dish of mashed potatoes mixed with cooked onions and cabbage. Heavy for summer but delicious.

Jane Black: Whoops. Colcannon.


For Deborah Madison: Why do you think some people have a big liking for certain vegetables but a strange dislike of others?

Deborah Madison: Could be many things. Childhood experiences that turn into prejudices (my mother always did this to spinach and it was awful so therefore I wont' eat yours), for one. Excess may be another. I can't stand pesto because I used to make it by the gallon for years at Greens. And then there are some real physical responses. For some reason my throat seizes up when I try to eat a tamarillo -it just does. It's completely involuntary. Other people have that reaction to cilantro-it's not just a dislike, but a reflex. I'm sure there are other reasons, too. And people often say they dislike what they don't know and have never tried because they don't like to try new things. It might be a kind of preservation instinct, who knows?


Ashton: Posting early: How successfully can one freeze gazpacho? It just multiplied exponentially in the processor and bowl...can't possibly be finished in the next few days. Thanks!

Jane Touzalin: I've never done it, and I'd worry about the veggies getting mushy. But if you're faced with throwing out the excess, there's no reason not to try it. And let us know the verdict!

If the gazpacho thaws with an undesirable texture, you can always cook it and add it to a tomato sauce for pasta. No harm done, and at least you've tried something new.


Ice Cream: There are plenty of ice cream recipes without egg -- try The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz. Custard-style ice creams are great but so are Philadelphia-style.

Jane Black: I need to go to Philly more. I consider myself corrected.


Silver Spring: For the person looking for a Thai grocery store near Metro, there's on in downtown Silver Spring on Bonifant across from the Safeway, only three blocks from Metro.

Not as good as some Asian grocery stores for produce, but excellent for everything else.

Jane Black: A suggestion for our Thai grocery seeker.


non-Chinese pine nuts: You can order Lebanese ones from Kalustyan's in NY (same shop?) but be warned they are crazy expensive. Much easier to make your homemade pesto with walnuts, pecans, almonds, macadamias even.

Jane Black: Yes. Kalustyans is great. The store I was in was Sahadi's. They ship some things online but don't seem to offer pine nuts.


Silver Spring: Just wanted to tell Deborah how much fun I've had with her cookbook "I Can't Believe It's Tofu" - good useful recipes for vegetarian friends, AND a little playfulness too.

Deborah Madison: Thank you so much. Yes, we do tend to get way to serious about tofu!


Side Dish help in Md.: I'm having people over this weekend and I plan to grill some salmon with a soy/ginger/brown sugar sauce. I'd like to have a hearty salad or two on the side, but it must be gluten-free so no pasta or couscous. Corn? Rice? Beans? I'm not really sure what would go well with that sweet/sour sauce on the fish.

Jane Black: I think snap peas would be nice and add some pretty color to the plate. Maybe a saute of corn and snap peas? A brown rice with ginger and diced vegetables would also keep with the theme.


Crab Cakes: Nice article! I think you left out Indique in Cleveland park and I believe Indique Heights in Chevy Chase have a terrific crab cake with jalapeno and a few other spices in it.

Jane Black: We only did seafood restaurants. If we had included every single restaurant that had a crab cake, we would have been researching for years!

Thanks for the tip though.


MD Crab Cake: For the record, G and M is in Lithicum, which is a BALTIMORE suburb (served by Light Rail) not a D.C. suburb.

Jane Black: Yes, yes. BUT it is in the Washington Post delivery area. Sigh. We never were going to please everybody.


From the blogosphere: Here's another use for large round zucchini -- as bowls for zucchini soup. Recipe from: (my new most favorite cooking website!)

Courgette and mint soup

Ingredients Serves 6 2 oz/50 g butter 2 medium onions, chopped 2 lbs/900 g courgettes, chopped into chunks 24 fl oz/700 ml home made chicken stock 2 handfuls mint leaves plus extra for garnishing salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the onions on a low heat until soft - about 10 minutes. Add the courgettes and cook for a further 5 minutes.

2. Add the chicken stock, 1 handful of mint leaves and salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes. Leave to cool.

3. Blend in a food processor with the remaining handful of mint leaves.

4. Serve chilled, garnished with the extra mint finely chopped.

Jane Black: Another idea for round zucchini. Thanks for sending that in and sharing the site.


Chicago: When I cook salmon, usually roasting but also sometimes on the stove top, sometimes a white liquid starts to seep out of the fish's flesh. It's rather unappetizing. What is this liquid (is it the fish's cooked blood?) and how do I prevent it from showing up?

Jane Touzalin: Scott Weinstein, the fishmonger at BlackSalt Fish Market, assures me that what you're seeing is not blood, but fat. "It's overcooking that makes it come out," he says. So when you see the white stuff, stop cooking. Better yet, stop cooking it before it happens!


Corn dough: Not quite on the subject of FRESH corn, but in the family, i.e., cornmeal. Can you point me to a recipe for a dough made from corn meal that could be used like a calzone dough? (Or, as a second choice, a corn-meal sandwich roll) I'd like to make some chili, sloppy joe or other mixes, then freeze them into sandwiches for my husband's work lunches. The idea would be to use the corn-based calzone-ish dough to enfold the sandwich filling, bake it, then freeze it. The alternative would be a sandwich roll.

Deborah Madison: When using corn meal in recipes that call for wheat flour, I use about 1/3rd to 1/2 as much corn meal as wheat since at least some of the gluten that wheat provides is needed for most adapted recipes to work, whether you're making crackers, crepes, bread or rolls.


Cocktail rec needed: Hi Jason. Love reading your columns, if not for the recipes, then just for the interesting history behind the ingredients. My question: Been dating a guy for a month now and he's been (gently) teasing me about the girly, outdated cosmo I keep ordering. He's a scotch guy, a liquor I detest. So what nongirly drink could I order that most bartenders would know how to make? (For example, last week I ordered a Pimm's Cup because you had mentioned it and the bartender thought I was making it up.)

Jason Wilson: That's funny about the Pimm's Cup! Ok, so you don't want the Cosmo anymore, but you don't like scotch. Why not try bourbon then, and order an Old-Fashioned? He won't call you girly anymore, but you'll still have a relatively sweet drink to work with. At any rate, no bartender will accuse you of making up and Old Fashioned!

Another one that's not girly, and still has a little of the Cointreau and citrus of the Cosmo is the Sidecar: Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice.

If you want to keep things reddish and pretty, you could order a Negroni, which most bartenders can make: equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. But that might be a little on the bitter side for a fallen away Cosmo drinker, but you should give it shot!


Bonnie Benwick: Well, you've boiled our husks, silks and cobs then strained us as a golden you know what that means. Thanks to Jason and Deborah Madison for joining us today. And a virtual handshake to you, too, chatters.

Chat winners are our newly aware Provencal rabbit cook (the 2009 Maryland Buy Local Cookout Recipe Book)and the ever-patient pumpkin muffin chatter, who will be rewarded both today (with "Cupcakes, Cupcakes and More Cupcakes!" by Lilach German). Be sure to send your mailing info to

And blight or no, our Top Tomato Contest issue is delivered next week! Until then, keep on cooking.


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