Free Range on Food: Gravlax, sushi-grade fish, almond filling vs. almond paste, office snacks, solo cooking

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, September 23, 2009; 1:00 PM

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

A transcript of this week's chat follows

Archive of past discussions

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, chatters, and welcome to Free Range, the chat that brings you a little gravlax and almond soda bread to enjoy on your lunch break. Oh, and some answers to your most burning questions, hopefully.

Today we have several guests, which takes the pressure off us regulars as we can defer to their expertise! We have Blake Gopnik, who wrote today's piece that looks at avant-garde cooking from an art critic's perspective; Andreas "Mr. Gastronomer" Viestad, who waxes poetic about gravlax; cookbook author and baker extraordinaire Lisa Yockelson, who loves to bake in the dark; and Jason Wilson, who no doubt is stirring but not shaking as you read this.

And of course we have giveaway books: For our favorite chatters today, we have "The Diabetes Seafood Cookbook" by Barbara Seelig-Brown, source of today's DinMin recipe; and "Baking Kids Love" by Cindy Mushet.

Let's cook.

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re: Gravlax: I heart Free Rangers.

Can I pick up salmon from my local supermarket like Safeway or Giant, or does it need to be more specialized and upscale like Whole Foods or even BlackSalt?

Bonnie Benwick: The Gastronomer may want to weigh in here, but I can tell you that for gravlax, you want to get the freshest, most parasite-free salmon you can find, because you'll be eating fish that is technically not cooked.

It's tricky to rely on a big chain grocery store for that kind of quality. Whole Foods might be okay; a dedicated fish market you trust is even better. How the fish was handled, how well it was iced are key considerations.

Andreas Viestad: it is a matter of trust. I would only make gravlax with high quality salmon, and Bonnie is right that a dedicated fish market is the best; there are many food safety issues.

That said, I have had very good supermarket salmon, and special order 50 dollars a pound salmon that was quite honestly horrific.

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A fish story: What, exactly, is "sushi-grade" fish? Is this something readily available at supermarkets or something I have to special order? What should I look for in a sushi-quality product?

Andreas Viestad: It is basically a product you would eat raw - because that, technically, is what you are doing. I have found that the salmon at fish markets and Whole Foods is often very good.

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Gravlax in Wash DC: Thanks for the quickie recipe, so much better than having the whole fillet sit in the refrigerator for 3 days like I used to do.

Question: The recipe says "refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours." What bad thing happens if it stays in the refrigerator more than 4 hours?

Also, I'd stopped making my old recipe because I need to slash my salt intake. Your recipe uses much less salt but still I wonder ... if I cut it out completely, will the salmon not cure?

Many thanks!

Andreas Viestad: If you cut all the salt it will just be very, very sweet. It might work to substitute soy sauce. I haven't tried it for this recipe but it should work.

Nothing bad happens if you leave it for more than four hours, but it might end up drawing out a little more moisture than you had hoped for.

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Almond Filling vs. Paste: What is the difference between almond filling and almond paste? I picked up a can of almond filling awhile ago, but am at a loss as to what I can use it in. I'm not inspired by the recipes on the label - would you happen to have any suggestions for me? Do you think I can use the filling in place of the paste the Almond Soda Bread recipe?

Lisa Yockelson: Almond paste contains almonds, sugar, occasionally glucose syrup, and occasionally water. It is firm enough to cut. I am unsure of what you are describing as "filling," as it could be a possible misnomer on the label--is that your visual understanding of the can? Filling, by description, is usually something that is quite soft and spreadable, so filling would be inappropriate to use in today's soda bread recipe. You should use almond PASTE.

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Alexandria, Va.: I enjoy Jason's column and would love to make more of his cocktails, but I often cannot purchase the spirits he recommends because VA ABCs don't carry them. Case in point - I tried making the Harvest Pear cocktail this weekend, but ended up using pear vodka since my local ABC doesn't carry either pear brandy or eau de vie. By the way, I've never seen Calvados at the ABCs either. So Jason, can you let us know where we can find the spirits you recommend much like Dave McIntyre does for the wines in his column?

Jason Wilson: I'm sorry that the VA ABC is making it so difficult to find these nice spirits. They REALLY need to improve their selection over there! What self-respecting liquor store doesn't stock at least one Calvados or pear brandy? Anyway, after just a 3-minute internet search, I can tell you that Ace Beverage, Central Liquor, Schneider's, and Calvert and Woodley all have both pear brandy (or eau-de-vie) and Calvados. It's difficult with spirits to know what is exactly stocked in your neighborhood store. I try to make sure that the spirit is available through a distributor in the area -- you can then always ask your local store to order it. And if you're really having trouble, you can always order most stuff online at sites like drinkupny.com or winechateau.com.

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Washington DC coffee follow-up: I was shocked -- shocked! -- last week by your coffee- brewing comments and those at the site you recommended (coffeegeek) for French press instructions. What I read left me with more questions, if you have time:

Where does one buy tiny amounts of just-roasted beans in DC? Should they be bought daily? Should I brace for doubled or tripled prices in return for higher quality? I've been getting tins or vacuum-sealed bags with 10-12 oz of whole beans and while the first cups are definitely better than the last ones, I thought this was a better option than buying from those big, open sacks or plastic bins.

What is a burr grinder, and if I've been happy with my blade grinder's powdered beans and now invest in a burr grinder, do you think I am likelier to discover how sublime coffee can be, or to have buyer's remorse over whatever amount of money I'll have spent on the burr? (I think of burrs as things that stick to one's clothes.)

Limit the amount of time the coffee is in touch with the water?! This was the biggest shock of all. I'd read somewhere that I should let the coffee brew/steep for 4 minutes ... in a French press!

Don't grind the beans into powder? Another shock. I always figured the sludge was part of coffee's character ...

Thanks for the education!

Joe Yonan: Glad to enlighten you! You don't have to buy coffee every day, now, but if you start to really get into things, you might even be tempted to roast your own beans at home. I've been meaning to experiment with this, and once I do you'll read about it. But you can stick with your 10-12-ounce purchases, but I'd just suggest that you transfer the beans to a truly airtight container, such as a big clamp top jar like the one I use.

A burr grinder crushes the beans rather than cutting them, and this results in a more even grind and less heating of the beans. I can't promise how you'd feel afterward, but I tend to never look back with regret; I don't know from buyer's remorse, which could be why I'm not a wealthy man. Anyway, you can use your former blade grinder for spices.

You're right that for French press you let the coffee steep for several minutes; that's why you grind it coarsely. The finer the grind, the less time you want the water to be in contact with the beans. That's why espresso, the fastest process of all, uses the finest grind.

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Washington, D.C.: I am responsible for bringing the snacks to a monthly office meeting. I'm not a great baker, but like to bring something homemade (i.e., I need clear, easy instructions and do not have a lot of equipment like a food processor). The snacks have to be easily transported and cannot require refrigeration because of my commute time using public transportation. Any suggestions? P.S. Your yogurt blueberry coffee cake was a big hit.

Lisa Yockelson: What about bar cookies, such as any oatmeal-based fruit and nut bar, like granola bars, or a similar press-in-the-pan treat? These can be packed with all kinds of dried fruit--and nuts if you like them.

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Cauliflower: Do you have any suggestions for an Italian-style dinner with cauliflower? I would use it as the main, rather than the side dish, as we don't eat meat. But I could throw some pasta on the side. I just wasn't sure how to cook and dress the cauliflower. When I think of Italian, I usually think of tomatoes, just not sure how.

Andreas Viestad: Cauliflower, olive oil, garlic and anchovies, perhaps some parmesan. Blanch the cauliflower and sauté the rest in olive oil, sprinkle with parmesan. It is simple and very good.

Joe Yonan: I love cauliflower with pasta. Just had a great one that included yellow raisins, pine nuts, red chili flakes, vinegar. Was at the new Bibiana, which I loved.

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Brownie mix: I recall one of the Free Rangers mentioning that she has a bunch of cake doctor books. I have a box of brownie mix and I was wondering if there was anything else I could make with it, aside from brownies. I won't be disappointed if not, as I love me some brownies, particularly the dark chocolate ones.

Leigh Lambert: I am the one for an affinity for the Cake Mix Doctor (Anne Byrn). She has a lot of ways to use brownie mix. I recall making some cookies. Without reference to her book here at work, I will direct you to one I found on-line. Given that there aren't too many ingredients, there's not that much room for variation, so it's close to the one I sampled.

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Washington, DC: My basil plants did so well this year, I have no idea what to do with all of it besides the usual pesto dishes. Any creative ideas?

Bonnie Benwick: I'm sure everybody's got good ideas. Here are two to get the ball rolling:

Make batches of basil-infused simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, boiled briefly then simmered with basil thrown in; strain the basil, cool the syrup and refrigerate), which will be good for cocktails as well as sweet sauces. It can last in the fridge for a long time. Good for gifting.

and

Basil Mayonnaise

Makes 2 1/2 cups

This recipe goes great on a grilled chicken sandwich -- or a tomato-cucumber salad or potato salad.

MAKE AHEAD: The mayonnaise can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

Leaves from 1 medium bunch basil (1 cup loosely packed)

Leaves from 1 medium bunch cilantro (1 cup loosely packed)

Juice of 1 lime (2 1/2 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 1/2 cups reduce fat olive-oil mayonnaise, such as Hellman's brand

1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine the basil, cilantro, lime juice, chili powder, mayonnaise and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the herbs are finely minced and incorporated into the mayonnaise, giving it a greenish cast.

Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate for up to 1 week.

Joe Yonan: You should read Jane Touzalin's recent blog post on using up a bumper crop of basil.

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Oven temp: Which is the hottest part of the oven, near the heat source at the bottom, or at top, where the heat rises?

Joe Yonan: I haven't tested this exactly, but unless you have a convection oven, where the fan evens out the heat, I'd say near the heat source at the bottom. That's why recipes sometimes call for baking pizza or pie dough down there, so the bottom of the pie gets crisp.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi - this is for your spirits expert . . . I am having a party and hope to serve a special cocktail in honor of a friend who just had a book published. I don't even know where to start - it's a group of women in our 30s & 40s. I'd love to make one up, but would settle for renaming a good one. I'm guessing sweeter/fruity is better - in the past we have liked Bellinis and sangria. I usually drink wine, so I'm at a bit of a loss. Any thoughts? Good websites? Thanks!

Jason Wilson: Congratulations to your friend! I just sold my first book, too, and I hope I have a friend as nice as you who will throw me a party to celebrate with a special cocktail.

Sticking with the Bellini/wine/festive theme, why not try one of the

sparkling wine cocktails

I recommended a few weeks back. Or, maybe try this one, called a

Brasserie Lebbe

which uses champagne, Licor 43, and pear brandy -- it's delicious.

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For Jason: My partner found a cocktail recipe on a Web site that I thought you'd like. They called it "the public option" (referring to the health care debate). It was a 1 oz vodka, 1 oz ginger liqueur, 1/2 oz absinthe, 2 oz grapefruit juice, and 3/4 oz simple syrup, with crush mint in the bottom of the glass. Very nice--potent but sweet and refreshing.

Jason Wilson: It's from The Daily Beast, isn't it? Looks pretty good to me. A healthy amount of absinthe, for sure, so I guess after a few of these the health care debate/argument might get interesting.

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Washington, DC: Do the chocolate bars freeze well? I like to mail homemade cookies to some out of town relatives and am looking for something chocolate.

Lisa Yockelson: The chocolate bars freeze beautifully for up to 6 weeks. Please note that there was some kind of transmission misprint in the amount of butter: THE CORRECT AMOUNT OF BUTTER is 3/4 pound (12 ounces), BUT THE AMOUNT (3 STICKS) is accurate. Pack the bars in single layers, with parchment paper separating the layers, in a tight-fitting, stable freezer container with a tight-fitting lid (minus the final dusting of confectioners' sugar, of course.)

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Fairfax, Va.: Hello.

I bought a jar of apple butter recently and am looking for baking recipes that use it. Do you have any suggestions? Bonus points if it's in a cobbler. I looked online quite a bit but could only find a recipe for cookies.

Thanks.

Leigh Lambert: It's not a cobbler, but it is one of the best pumpkin pies you will ever taste. I'm referring to my family's recipe that replaces half of the pumpkin with apple butter. A nice bonus is that you don't have to fool around with a lot of spices since the apple butter comes with loads of flavor.

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Muffin, Me: I've been tasked (willingly) with making a variety of scrumptious muffins specifically corn bread-based, blueberry, and chocolate chip. I've tried the cornbread in a box ones and haven't been happy with any of the results. Any excellent recipes I could get my hands on or can you direct me to where I might discover such recipes? Also, where can I find a muffin pan that is a similar size to the muffins you find in the grocery store? the cupcakes sized muffins just don't make the cut! Thank so much and this chat is the highlight of my Wednesdays!

Lisa Yockelson: Jumbo or Texas-size muffin pans are available at cookware stores and some home-centered stores. The individual cups are generally 4 inches in diameter and 1 3/4 inches deep, with a capacity of 1 1/8 cups. There are 6 cups in each pan. Mine are manufactured by Wilton, but a number of manufacturers are making them. (Also available: crown-top muffin pans.)

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Wine coolers: Jason, Would it be easy enough to make a wine cooler or wine based cocktail, with a fruit juice?

Jason Wilson: With wine and fruit, I guess your best bet will be to make a sangria. Here is a sangria recipe I like. And also some cool sangria ice cubes to try.

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Rockville, Md.: A while ago, I was in an Asian grocery (4 different kinds of baby bok choy!) and saw a bottle of fish sauce. I remembered that it was mentioned in a chat, so I bought it.

So, my question is, what do I do with it? It looks sort of like soy sauce, but is it as all purpose as soy sauce? And will it have to be refrigerated when it is opened? I can't read most of the label....

Joe Yonan: It's way more powerful than soy sauce: very pungent. So a little goes a long way. But it's amazing; I throw dashes of it into anything that I think needs a little more depth. It's salty and fishy, but in small doses you don't taste fish you just taste -- well, not to prompt too many more questions, but you taste umami. You don't have to refrigerate it. It'll survive a nuclear war. One of my favorite things to do with it is to make nam pla prik, a Thai condiment made of fish sauce and hot peppers that I keep in my fridge all the time and toss onto fried rice and other dishes. The magical thing about it: the peppers make the fish sauce milder, and the fish sauce does the same thing for the peppers. Here's how you make it:

Don food-safe gloves and stem about 1/2 cup of Thai/bird chili peppers, then mince. (Alternatively, place the peppers in a food processor and pulse a few times, being careful not to puree them.) Transfer the peppers, including seeds, to a glass container with a tight-fitting lid; add 1 cup of fish sauce. Close tightly and refrigerate indefinitely. (The longer the mixture keeps, the more both ingredients will mellow.) Serve in small condiment bowls.

Rather than make fresh batches, I just replenish my stash from time to time with additional fish sauce or chili peppers.

Bonnie Benwick: I refrigerate it!

Joe Yonan: Wow!

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Near Chicago: I have 12 ounces of semisweet chocolate that seized during preparations for a recent dessert party. I added oil, per Nick Maglieri's "Chocolate," but it refused to cooperate and un-seize. What, if anything, is it fit for now?

Lisa Yockelson: In my humble opinion: NOTHING.

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Baking in the dark: When a recipe calls for chopped up chocolate, I am tempted to use chocolate chips instead just for the sake of convenience. Does it make a difference if I use 60% cacoa chips instead of a bar of 60% cacoa chocolate that I have to cut up. Do they have different consistencies or melt differently?

Leigh Lambert: Lisa may disagree with me, but I think that 60% is 60%. Chips vs. bar shouldn't make a difference as far as additives are concerned. However, this does not mean all chips or all bars are created equal. Look for a premium brand, whichever form you choose to use.

Lisa Yockelson: Chips are made to retain their shape, so they are not my first choice to use in the melted state. However, if all you have are the 60% cacao content-chips, use them, but understand that a batter (such as my chocolate bar recipe in today's section) will be thicker, heavier, and tighter, and, on baking, a shade more dense. The bars might be fully baked 4 minutes or so before the suggested baking time. The resulting bar cookie may have a "crumb" that is a shade less silky.

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Swedish by marriage : I am all ready to try Mr. Viestad's gravlax recipe. I read with interest that you converted your skeptical friend with the acquired taste of rakfisk -- I am wondering if you have any similar wonders to work with the acquired taste of lutefisk? I married into a Swedish family and want to keep the traditions alive for my children, but it's certainly an acquired taste for me. I'm thinking we'll just stick to gravlax!

Andreas Viestad: I think that is a smart choice. Lutefisk is, in my opinion, a taste that it is very hard to acquire.

Garrison Keillor writes of lutefisk that "Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot."

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re: office treats: The Wash Post cranberry oat bar cookies are wonderful. They were originally featured as holiday cookies, but I think they would be great anytime.

washingtonpost.com: Cranberry Oat Bars

Bonnie Benwick: Those were a big hit.

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Gravlax made underground: Just curious, Mr. Viestad, did you ever try gravlax made this way, or make it yourself? If so, how was it?

Andreas Viestad: I have! But the result was so scary, smelly and not-like-food-at-all. I never ate it.

I might try it again, though.

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Suitland, Md.: When you grease a pan for baking a cake or bars do you grease the sides or does this keep it from rising?

Leigh Lambert: Unless specifically directed otherwise, you can safely assume you are to grease the sides of the pan. The only items that come to mind that would not require this would be angel food cake and soufflés.

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re: office snacks and brownies: My office loves these lemon cheesecake bars. They should be refrigerated at some point, but my commute is close to an hour, and they've been fine.

And regarding the brownie mix recipe, there's a similar recipe where you put a Reese's cup in the middle of the batter (similar recipe to the one provided). So delicious and another crowd-pleaser!

Leigh Lambert: What isn't made better by the addition of peanut butter chocolate cups?

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Speaking of coffee: Has anyone used a vintage-style Chemex? Are the new Bodum Danish-style knockoffs (called "Santos")essentially the same thing? I think Chemex requires filters but it looks like Bodum does not. Are either of them worth the storage space for home use?

Lastly, I am in a real need of a new drip coffee maker that is less than 13" tall. Does anyone have any recommendations? Everything I have seen online that I like is anywhere from 15" - 18" tall.

Joe Yonan: Yes, I used a Chemex. (I've pretty much used them all.) But I broke it while washing, as has happened to many a Chemex owner. But no, the Santos is a different beast entirely: It's a vacuum pot, which does use a filter (and a too-complicated-to-explain-here system), and many coffee geeks like the results of these types of pots. But I have to say, have you thought about a good low-tech dripper like this one? It's the sort of thing I and many other snobs have moved toward. It's great.

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French toast: Is there a secret to making french toast that doesn't taste overwhelmingly eggy?

Lisa Yockelson: Interestingly enough, if there is a little granulated sugar in the recipe (or you could add 1-2 tablespoons to your recipe), and the eggs are whisked with the sugar, before the milk is added, the mixture tastes less "eggy." Another trick is to use about 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract in the batter as a flavorful seasoning agent, and that would take undercut the "eggy" flavor.

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Salt Lake City, Utah: Do any of you have a favorite pepper grinder? I like pepper ground very finely, and the one grinder I have that gets it small enough to my liking is the standard 'twist the top' variety, and it takes a long time to get an appreciable amount -- it's fine for adding a pepper at the dinner table or a small amount to a recipe, but it would take me all day to get 1/2 tsp for a larger recipe.

Joe Yonan: I do: I love the Magnum, which I've given to many friends as a gift. Very easy to fill, holds a ton of peppercorns, great range of coarse/fine-ness, and the gears make it produce a ton of pepper with each turn. You'd get 1/2 teaspoon in seconds.

Andreas Viestad: I have had many pepper grinders - and hated most. Those marked Peugeot and Cole&Mason are the only ones I care about, and the only ones that still work.

Joe Yonan: That's just because you haven't tried a Magnum. ;-)

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Late Night Baking. The problem with night baking is that you have to stay up late enough to cool and wrap and put away. Once, I left a warm banana bread unwrapped on the counter, went to bed, and woke up to find it COVERED with ants. I imagine the other creatures of the night kitchen had fun too. My cousin just told me her dog ate the whole apple cake in the wee hours this week.

Lisa Yockelson: Oh dear!

The refrigerator is a good cool-down device for any bar cookies, and as the cool/cold weather approaches, baked goods lose their heat quickly.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm in the market for a new all-purpose (12" or so) nonstick pan. What can you tell me about the "green" versions out there? What are the brands, do they work well?

I've seen GreenPan at Crate and Barrel, but it doesn't have a lid, which I'd prefer. I think Cuisinart has a version, as well. Do any of the high-end companies (all-clad, calphalon) have versions?

Lisa Yockelson: Call me consciously old-fashioned, but the best "green" pan is--insert drumroll here--A WELL-SEASONED CAST IRON SKILLET!

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Massachusetts: Any ideas for making a broccoli-based main dish? I have about 2.5 lbs of broccoli and I was thinking of doing cream of broccoli soup, but I'd like to come up with something a little more exciting!

Thanks for your help.

Bonnie Benwick: I'm jumping the gun here, but what the heck -- we're such good friends. Next week in our package on lunch box options for school, we're running a Mollie Katzen recipe for penne with broccoli and pesto. Really, it's that simple:

1. Toss in 1.5 pounds of cut-up broccoli (including peeled, tender stems) into the boiling water with the pasta about 3 minutes before the penne finishes cooking.

2. Drain and reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Toss just-cooked pasta and broccoli with pesto and some olive oil, some of the pasta cooking water.

3. Add some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Serve warm or cold.

My son and his pals came home late from a concert last night and ate, ate, ate this up. I barely have enough today to photograph for the paper.

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Lentil question: What is the difference (besides the obvious) between dark greenish-brown lentils and the bright orange ones?

Bonnie Benwick: The main difference is presence of a seed coat: French/European lentils have it and the red/orange ones don't. So the latter take less time to cook.

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Beets, beets, beets: Beets are the stars of my farmers market, but I'm not sure how to jazz them up. Any vegetarian suggestions? I can always make good use of the greens, but the actual beets tend to go soft on me while I puzzle over recipes. Help!

Andreas Viestad: How about a vegetarian borsch, beets, onions, vegetable stock, a bay leaf. Boil until soft, puree (or not) and serve with sour cream and dill.

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Sticky dough: Is there a dough that my 3 1/2 year old can help me knead that isn't so sticky that it's hanging off the cupboards? I am a novice baker so an easy recipe would be great for me too. I ask for one to do with my son because frankly, my time is not my own, so I would have to do it when he is around. Yes, I could do it when he is napping, but then would I be able to catch up with NCIS online?

Lisa Yockelson: The dough in my Golden Nutmeg Buns in today's food piece (see the recipe on-line), is a pleasure to work with, and is not ultra-sticky.

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Singlecookville, DC: Submitted this last week, but y'all didn't get to it, so wanted to try again. I am looking for a good cookbook for a single cook. I love to cook, but have trouble scaling down recipes. Would also love if the book had some tips for grocery shopping...its awfully hard sometime to cook for one. Need a couple sprigs of basil, gotta buy a bunch. Couple broccoli florets, gotta buy the whole head. I am used to cooking for four, but am on my own and am struggling with ideas and logistics. Please help!

Joe Yonan: Since we're all bragging about our book deals today (ahem), I'll pimp mine, too! Set for spring 2011 by Ten Speed Press, on just this topic: cooking for one. Are you reading my monthly column? As for books that might inspire, take a look at Jane Doerfer's "Going Solo in the Kitchen," Joyce Goldstein's "Solo Suppers," Suzanne Pirret's fun and ironic "The Pleasure is All Mine," Deborah Madison's delightful recent "What We Eat When We Eat Alone," and Joyce Jones' upcoming "The Pleasures of Cooking for One."

Bonnie Benwick: You mean Judith Jones's "Pleasures," right Editor Joe?

Joe Yonan: Of course! Sorry, Joyce Jones is a Postie -- I mean the famous Judith, discoverer of Julia and many others.

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RE: Cauliflower: Try roasting the cauliflower with garlic until it browns, then toss it with your pasta with some good olive oil and a little white wine. It's lovely.

Joe Yonan: Thanks! I love high-heat-roasted cauliflower. I like the heat a cast-iron skillet first, cut the cauliflower into slices, toss in olive oil, s&p, and roast at 500. The cut edges that are touching the surface of the skillet get nice and browned.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: OK, so I need help for my dinner tonight, and because you guys are the best, I thought I'd ask you all! (Was that enough flattery? You really are the best, though.)

Anyways, I bought a pair of T-Bone steaks on sale at the grocery store but am not sure of the best way to cook them. The last time I bought expensive meat at the store, I ruined them (tasted like the tough, chewy and icky stuff I can get for $2 a pound). Pretty sure I overcooked it, but I want to make sure my money does not go down the drain again. So - what's the best way? We don't have a grill, so that's out, but we do have a broiler and all the other usual items. My husband's a bit of a steak purist, so probably just seasoning and no more. And if I do broil/bake/cook it, what are the approximate times? Thanks so much!

Andreas Viestad: Do you have a grill pan? If not, a cast iron skillet and very high heat (and a really good kitchen fan) is what you need. If you buy an electronic meat thermometer you will make it a lot easier for yourself; look for a core temperature of around 135 degrees. The time varies according to the thickness of the meat.

Bonnie Benwick: How thick is your steak -- 2 inches or so?

I like the start-it-on-the-stovetop-finish-in-the-oven technique:

1. Preheat the oven to 450 or so.

2. Heat a tablespoon of vegetable or peanut oil in a skillet (preferably cast-iron; definitely oven-proof).

3. Trim excess fat; season the steaks with salt and pepper and both sides.

4. Sear on each side (undisturbed; no shoving or poking) for 3-4 minutes; use tongs and not a fork to turn the steaks over.

5. Transfer the oven-proof skillet to the oven and roast for about 4 minutes (medium-rare).

6. Let the meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

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Almond Filling again: The product is an almond 'cake and pastry filling' made by Solo. I've never used it before, so I have no idea what the consistency is like.

Lisa Yockelson: This could be almond paste. Do you have the can nearby to read the ingredient list? Open the can and if it is firm, a consistency like VERY FIRM modeling clay, then it is close to almond paste. If it is spreadable, it cannot be used in today's soda bread recipe.

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Fish market: So can you recommend a good fish market? I live in Silver Spring but willing to travel for good quality fresh fish. I would especially like to find shrimp that is not farm raised.

Bonnie Benwick: You could try Cameron's (8603 16th St. NW). I've gotten shrimp there that is not farm-raised.

Joe Yonan: That phone number: (301) 585-5555

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Clifton, Va.: Wegman's Fairfax has the freshest seafood in NOVA. Their fish is always fresher than Whole Paycheck. They carry sushi grade tuna and always have fresh never frozen shrimp not farm raised available!

Joe Yonan: I (heart) Wegmans. My only complaint is that they're not closer to me in NW DC.

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Pepper Grinder: Thanks for the pepper grinder tip! I've been wanting a really good one, as I've become dissatisfied with the ones I have. The plastic for-the-table one I have grinds too large and the kind that looks like a globe and you squeeze the two handles on top together takes too long.

Joe Yonan: Oh, I tried that rabbit-ear-squeezing one. HATED it.

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Enriched dough: I would like to make an enriched dough, and thought you might have a recipe I could try to start. Thanks!

Lisa Yockelson: If by enriched, you mean the addition of butter and eggs to a yeast-risen dough, let me turn you to my GOLDEN NUTMEG BUNS, in today's food section (you can access it on-line).

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NoLo, DC: I went ahead and made last week's tarte tatin/carrot cake for a second-night Rosh Hashanah dinner and just have to say that, while it was a fair amount of work, it was by far the best apple cake I've ever eaten.

The family was clamoring for repeat performances in years to come.

Per David's suggestion last week that the cake would survive three days on the counter, I went ahead and baked it Thursday night, cooled it, and then wrapped it tightly. It was perfect come Saturday evening.

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Excellent.

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San Francisco: I seem to cook a lot of dishes that call for lemon zest, not very many that call for lemon juice. So, I end up with these shaved lemons and have nothing to with them, except put a slice in every glass of water I drink. Any suggestions for preserving or using up these sad lemons? Note: I live alone so I can't just cook willy-nilly to use up ingredients; that just leads to a bigger waste. Thanks.

Leigh Lambert: We all tend toward certain flavors and if you don't think of using lemon, they will likely die a slow death in your vegetable drawer. Other than lemonade and salad dressing, you can juice and freeze in a freezer tray, then release the frozen juice and store in a freezer-bag until inspiration strikes.

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Second the Magnum: I have one of these as well and it will likely be the last pepper grinder I ever own. So much ground for little effort.

Joe Yonan: Nice.

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Home-roast coffee: It might be tricky to roast coffee at home but please do tell if you figure out a way. I used to walk past a coffee- roaster's every day -- mmmmm, what a wonderful aroma! -- and they had a machine that constantly scooped and stirred and turned the beans. It looked kind of like a giant cotton-candy machine, if I remember correctly.

BTW I think the shop used just one kind of bean and how long they were roasted and at what temperature determined what they were called and how the beans tasted: Italian roast, American, espresso, mild or what. Which left me wondering if the provenance of the bean is nearly as important as the preparation.

Joe Yonan: Yes, I need to try it. I'm just worried about my (lack of) ventilation. See the next comment, which echoes things I've heard before ...

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Pine Plains: We tried roasting our own coffee for a while, but there is one big problem: it stinks while it roasts. The aroma is nothing like the luscious smell the coffee will have after it's been roasted. You need a lot of ventilation. The stinky roasting smell has caused problems in gentrified neighborhoods that come with pre-existing coffee companies.

Joe Yonan: Interesting. This could be a problem.

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Rockville, Md.: My boyfriend is coming to visit next week, and I want to make him his favorite dish: shepard's pie. Problem: I am a TERRIBLE cook. Do you have an easy, fool-proof recipe that I can try before he gets here? Is it always made with ground lamb?? Thanks soo much!!

Bonnie Benwick: Irish recipes often call for lamb, but you can substitute ground beef or turkey and season it with a good blend of spices you like. Don't forget the onions and another kind of vegetable or two. Try this traditional recipe, which is not hard to make.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I enjoy your food articles, but I wonder why you feel it is necessary to include sarcasm and religious insensitivity in a description of preparing a brisket, as happened last week? There is enough room in Style for humor, let Food be food information.

washingtonpost.com: New Year, New Brisket (Post, Sept. 16)

Bonnie Benwick: Shana tovah, Silver Spring. It's a shame you came away with an impression of sarcasm. That was not David's intended tone. He tried to explain the ways in which his own non-observant family celebrated the High Holidays with food, and I believe he took some care in trying not to put a foot wrong in the process. (He did hear from lots of people who said his experience was similar to their own.) And he went over the recipes thoroughly.

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Ciabatta rolls: Why does ciabatta have to be made with bread flour, when other French and Italian breads can be made with AP flour?

Lisa Yockelson: The higher protein content in bread flour encourages a chewier, more fully developed "crumb" than all-purpose flour.

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Dutch processed cocoa and brownies: Last weekend, I turned to the mancatcher brownie recipe that everyone loves to rustle up a batch.

On taking down a new tin of cocoa I thought 'Oh B---er' - it was 50% natural processed and 50% dutch processed cocoa and it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged to use only natural processed in brownies.

They were the best ever. They were great. I have never had such reactions to my brownies. Everyone loves them and can't get over how good they are.

So ... 50/50 on the cocoa processing seems to be the way to go. I thought I'd spread the word!

Leigh Lambert: Well, thank you for that. I didn't even know such a think existed. Very enlightening.

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Rockville, Md.: Last night I made a baked orzo dish with broccoli and red peppers. I love the idea of it, but it was really bland. I am horrible at knowing what to put in it to make it tastier; any suggestions for me? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Need a little more info...since you baked it, what kind of moisture and/or cheese was included?

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Chinatown: I made a great lunch sandwich yesterday: goat cheese, thinly sliced apples, honey, and lettuce. It was a great change from my normal PBJ or cheese and lettuce. Can you offer suggestions on other great vegetarian sandwiches I can bring to work with me? Thanks!

Leigh Lambert: The veggie sandwich I brought for lunch today (and the previous two) has a lot going on, but you could pick and choose according to taste and availability:

mushroom pate (no meat. I got it at Roots Market)

artichoke spread (or sliced artichoke hearts. I got the spread at the Italian Store)

pickles

aged cheddar (leave out for vegan)

romaine lettuce

pickled peppers

mustard/mayo

Oh man, is this good.

Joe Yonan: For the sandwich piece I did awhile back, I fell for this great chickpea sandwich from Tom Colicchio's 'witchcraft book.

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Sushi grade salmon: You can find sushi-grade salmon at Lotte Asian markets, and for a very decent price.

Bonnie Benwick: We'll take your word for it.

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For T-Bone!!: Rule no. 1:

Never attempt to grill a steak that just came out of the icebox.

Let that badboy get as warm as you're comfortable with (I leave my high quality steaks out to warm to room temp for at least 45 minutes and I've never had any issues).

Then, when you cook it, you're not fighting against a stone cold center (which means you won't have to abuse your poor poor steak in order to get that center temp to 135.

Joe Yonan: Yes. Room temp all the way.

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Shepherd Park, DC: I once heard that there's a tradition of breaking the yom kippur fast with poppy seed cookies (the poppy seeds symbolize the first stars in the sky, telling us that the fast can be broken). I'd love to bring this tradition to my home. Do you have any good recipes for poppy seed cookies? I'd like them to be roll out so I can cut them out with a star shaped cookie cutter. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Love these mun cookies, and they're good for a break-fast because they contain no dairy. Don't let them get too brown on the bottom.

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re: oatmeal bars: Lisa, Do you have a recipe for fairly simple oatmeal bars, that don't call for ingredients that may not be common in everyone's pantry (ie. bran, wheat germ, etc.).

Lisa Yockelson: From an earlier book of mine, BROWNIES AND BLONDIES, comes this recipe: Spiced Oatmeal and Coconut Blondies:

1 cup all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 cup dark raisins

8 TB. butter, softened

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 extra-large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup quick-cooking rolled oats

1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Quick method: Sift dry ingredients. Cream butter and sugars 3 minutes on moderate speed. Beat in egg and vanilla. Stir in remaining ingredients. Scrape mixture into butter and and floured 8-inch square pan. Bake in preheated 350 oven for 30 minutes, or until set. Cool, cut into squares or bars, and store in an airtight tin.

Joe Yonan: OK, yum!

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Logan Circle: We bought a goat leg from the farmers market last week. What do we do with it? The people at the market said to cook it like lamb, but I feel like most of the time when I've had goat it's been shredded - in tacos, gyros, something like that. Any ideas on what to do with it, or how to get Johnny Monis to come over and cook it for us?

Andreas Viestad: Roasted leg of goat can be wonderful, and can be prepared much the same way as a leg of lamb.

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Richmond, Va.: Any ideas for QUICK weeknight LOW SODIUM dinners for vegetarians?

Bonnie Benwick: Have you performed an Advanced Search in our Recipe Finder database? Click the FAST, MEATLESS and MAIN COURSE features. I just did and got 82 recipes to peruse. Give it a try.

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upstate, NY: My boss brought in a very large bag (72 oz.!) of chocolate chips for me today! What do I do with all of them besides make cookies?

Lisa Yockelson: Chocolate chips can be added to a scone dough, some butter cake batters (that are dense enough for suspending the chips), and many bar cookie batters.

Bonnie Benwick: Freeze them in smaller batches.

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Another Query for FROF: Is instant polenta worth it or should I stick with the tried-and-true? I noticed a box (Colavita brand) on a store shelf and it got me wondering. Before I experiment, thought I'd ask.

Lisa Yockelson: I am a big fan of polenta, and love the LONG-cooking variety, though the instant permutation is not horrible, it does lack a certain earthiness.

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Anonymous: Cameron's on 16th is in Maryland.

For the fish challenged: shop at Whole Foods, BlackSalt, Wagshal's, or Slavin and Sons.

Joe Yonan: Yep, it's in Silver Spring. That's why Bonnie suggested it to the person who lives in ... Silver Spring.

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We're finally getting a deep freezer: which means I can make stock to my hearts content and actually have a bunch of different ones at all times.

So far I'm going to make: Chicken, Turkey (after thanksgiving), Veal Stock, Beef Stock, Pho Base, Vegetable Stock, Mushroom Stock

I almost never use seafood or ham stock, so if I make them they'll be in a tiny batch - any other suggestions?

Bonnie Benwick: Maybe a court bouillon? Reduce some of those meat stocks with Madeira or sherry to make demi-glace...the stuff is murderously expensive in the grocery store. You'll be the envy of all cooks in your 'hood.

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Solo cooking - shopping tips: One of the best ways to manage ingredients when cooking for one is to get friendly with your freezer. Either make larger batches and freeze dishes individually (which only works for some dishes) or freeze ingredients that are sold in larger quantities than your recipe calls for (like that broccoli). Also consider shopping the salad bar at your local grocery when you need smaller amounts of produce (again, like that broccoli). Honestly it is tricky even when cooking for less than a crowd, like just for two, though not quite as bad.

Joe Yonan: Yes, it does help. I have also gotten in the habit of making condiments and pickles and other longer-lasting versions of things, such as caramelized onions, pickled cabbage, and a recent favorite: peperonata. Not only does it use up a lot of peppers, but it lasts for weeks in the fridge. Turn about-to-go herbs into pestos or sauces. Also, my upcoming column focuses on smaller veggies being grown by farmers who are thinking about just these issues.

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Washington, DC: My boyfriend and I are planning a "French" night and are looking for some fun, slightly-adventurous French recipes. We both eat pretty much everything. We'd especially like to find a few seasonal recipes that aren't too difficult to make. Ideally, we'd like to try out multiple courses. Any ideas? Thanks in advance!

Andreas Viestad: Might this not be a time to find the dusty old Mastering the Art of French Cooking?

I just had some sweetbreads, that's very French and very good, and not something you get every day. And a good coq au vin is a lot of work, and well worth the effort.

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Washington, DC: What do you all do when you are uninspired for a dinner menu? Or are you never uninspired? The family gets tired of my chicken breasts 20 ways.

Lisa Yockelson: For inspiration with basic ingredients on hand, I look to credible Italian cookbook authors, such as Marcella Hazan, for recipes that used boxed pasta, such as penne, spaghetti, and rigatoni. As well, her son, Giuliano, has a new pasta book just published! (FYI--full disclosure, Marcella is a longtime friend of mine!)

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Cooking for One, Part Deux: I'm single and love to cook. I never understood the Cooking for One concept. If I like something enough to cook it, I'm glad to have the leftovers! I enjoy making a pot of soup or a casserole on the weekend, then dipping into it during the week.

I agree that herbs for one is an issue. For veggies, consider the salad bar in the grocery store, or bags of chopped veggies they sell for stir fries.

Joe Yonan: Good -- Glad that you found what works for you. I, too, like having leftovers here and there, but I also love making different things all the time, and recipes that are scaled to one help me not be a slave to leftovers. Trust me, there are many issues to cover here.

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re: VA ABC stores: I live outside of Richmond and our local ABC store has a catalog behind the counter (manager said they all have it - you may have to ask to see it) and any item in there can be special ordered. Not sure how factual this since we've got a well-stocked store, but it's worth a shot to check into.

Jason Wilson: Good advice. Most good stores will order anything that has distribution in the state.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hope I'm not too late! Quick--recommend the best make-ahead party dip recipe you can think of for 30 - 40 people; adults & kids. I need to add one thing to my menu.

Bonnie Benwick: You are going to love this one: Manchurian Dip.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Foodies. I'm having about 8 people over for dinner this weekend. I'm feeling like roasting a chicken. Any ideas about yummy, in-season sides that could go along with it? And a great dessert? Thanks.

Lisa Yockelson: Dessert? Did anyone say dessert!? Today's chocolate bars, with perhaps a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a little hot fudge sauce. Or plain, with whipped cream? BONUS: the bars can be made in advance.

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Clifton, Va.: Joe,

You need to talk to DC Council about that! Your local govt is bowing to pressure from the unions to keep Wegman's out just like Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County. You aren't alone. Wegman's is non union.

My advice: move out to Fairfax where taxes are lower and are govt slightly less corrupt.

And you are missing the six different kinds of lobster tails from all over the world Wegman's has during the holidays. You all should do a taste test on your boss's credit card.

Bonnie Benwick: Um, isn't a big Wegmans planned for Alexandria? And Columbia (okay, that's Howard County) is getting one. Don't you think space is an issue, too? Where would an airport-size grocery store go in DC?

Joe Yonan: These are not my problems -- I don't want to move, I don't want to go to Alexandria (although I surely will), I don't want to solve the political problems of the DC council. I just want a Wegmans near me, and I'll take a smaller-than-airport-sized one.

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Roasting coffee at home: You can do this with an air-pop popcorn popper. I've done it with good results. Seriously. Instructions can be found online.

Joe Yonan: Yes, I know. There's very much talk of this online...

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For Silver Spring shrimp-seeker: The fishmonger at the Kensington farmers' market on Saturdays has had wild-caught shrimp the past several weeks. Very good fish, too.

Bonnie Benwick: Is that Vernon Lingenfelter? He is THE BEST! Just the best. That's the Silver Spring chatter's tip o' the day. (He comes to the Bethesda Central Farm Market on Sundays, too.)

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Instant polenta: Oh! I just bought a box of this myself, out of experimentation. There's no way I'll cook the entire slab at once, but the box doesn't say if I need to refrigerate the unused portion once it's opened. Do I?

Bonnie Benwick: If it's a box of dried polenta, store at room temp in a resealable plastic food storage bag and it should be fine.

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Grinders: (No, I don't mean hero sandwiches ...) I'm wondering if you wise folks think a mocajete, the rough- surfaced mortar-and-pestle that Mexicans use to grind almost everything, might be good for grinding coffee or pepper ... or both? It'd be nice not to hear the whines of electric machines for a change, and I'm guessing there's something satisfying about smashing your own beans and peppercorns.

Joe Yonan: Pepper, maybe, but I think coffee would be a bear to do in a molcajete (and I have a great one). I will say that for electricity-free grind, look for one of those fantastic Zassenhaus coffee mills, hand-cranked. The gears are incredible, and the grind is very even (and adjustable).

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've covered us directly with plastic wrap and refrigerated for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours, so you know what that means -- we're cured!

Thanks for the great questions today, and thanks to Andreas Viestad, Lisa Yockelson and Jason Wilson for helping us answer them. Now for the giveaway books: The chatter who asked about the difference in baking with 60% cacao chips and 60% cacao bars will get "Baking Kids Love." The chatter from Clifton who recommended Wegmans for fish will get "The Diabetes Seafood Cookbook." Send your mailing information to food@washpost.com, and we'll get you your book.

Thanks again for joining us. Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading.

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