Free Range on Food: Reinventing the lunch box, beets, cauliflower, charcuterie parties, tomato-basil soup

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, September 30, 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, all, and welcome to today's chat! We hope you enjoyed the fantastic Lunch Bunch graphic, full of a month's worth of ideas and recipes for your kids' brown-bagging pleasure. We have special guest Lisa Barnes of Petit Appetit with us today to help tackle all your lunch-box (and other) questions, so hit us with all you've got.

We have three great books for our favorite questions/comments today: Lisa's "Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry"; Jennifer McCann's "Vegan Lunch Box Around the World"; and Mollie Katzen's "Get Cooking."

Also, you should note that if your question didn't get answered, we might just tackle it later on our blog, All We Can Eat, where Jane Touzalin is following up every Wednesday with a

Free Range leftover

.

Now, let's get started. Ask away!

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Washington, DC: How can I find the school lunch recipes published today online? I tried searching the recipes page by checking "kid-friendly" and searching September 2009, but only 4 results came back.

Bonnie Benwick: Well, try it now! I get 9 results for September 2009.

Joe Yonan: Also, of course, you can start on the page I linked to in the chat intro. That graphic on line includes links to all the recipes mentioned.

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Kids and food: Thanks for the lunch box stuff. it'll be helpful for me (who ate another bland turkey lunchmeat sammie for lunch) and my son.

Quick (unrelated) question, my son wants to go as a chef for Halloween and I'm looking for a chef's hat. I'd rather get a real hat than a cheap plasticy one at the party stores. Do restaurant supply stores have them?

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: You're welcome. Today's month' worth of options are for the whole family. As for the toques, you can usually find them at hardware stores with substantial kitchen departments. Are you local? I just called Bruce Variety in Bethesda (301-656-7543), which is one of those old have-everything stores. They're just out of the cloth chef's hats, but they do have good-looking paper ones for $3.49. And some chefs do use those!

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Reedville, Va. re: Cauliflower Magic: Roasted Cauliflower is just about one of my favorite starters because it is so versatile! Roasted then drizzled with brown butter, almond slivers & capers, or else a dijon vinaigrette to foreshadow a French entree; cumin, oregano and a bit of allspice&clove for Mediterranean, or changed to cumin & chilies for Mexican, or a curry seasoning as mentioned. I use florets tossed w/neutral or olive oil, a little sugar to help the carmelization along and salt into a 450 oven for about 10 minutes, making sure there is room between the florets. All but the brown butter one work at room temp, so there is no last minute flurry.

Bonnie Benwick: I like your variations. Chatters, Reedville is responding to Jane Touzalin's All We Can Eat blogpost about ways to bake or roast cauliflower. Feel free to add your faves to the discussion today.

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Warrenton, Va.: I've been told that when broiling (I have an electric oven which may require a different technique than gas) you should leave the door to the stove open just a crack. Is that correct?

Bonnie Benwick: Why, Jane Touzalin just covered this territory in an All We Can Eat blog post last week. In short, the door-ajar technique's good for electric ovens...

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Cupcake city: Hi there. A bit embarrassed to ask this question, but I'm at a loss. I can't manage to find a recipe for homemade cupcakes that are similar to the store bought cupcakes. For some reason I REALLY like the simple white cupcake and frosting they use in grocery stores all over the US, but I just can't seem to recreate that at home. Any suggestions? Thanks!!

Bonnie Benwick: I think these will do it for you: Best Buns Vanilla Cupcakes.

Leigh Lambert: The Best Buns cupcakes are great, but what your tastebuds may be longing for is a mix. I know, perish the thought. Most grocery store bakeries don't bake from scratch. I will be blogging about the Cake Mix Doctor's latest book ("The Cake Mix Doctor Returns!") in next Thursday's Flour Girl.

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Alexandria, Va.: I just redid my kitchen and bought a new oven with a convection feature. I love it, but I feel a little like I am learning how to cook again. Any tips for making the adjustment to convection cooking?

Bonnie Benwick: I'm surprised the oven didn't come with a booklet that has just the info you seek -- but then again, I know that supplementary stuff can get lost when you're putting in new appliances, etc. When I owned a convection oven, I used it mainly for breads and baked dessert goods. They browned evenly, and the oven did not have the tricky hot spots my current (ancient) oven has. It didn't seem to make a huge difference in the casserole department. Chicken roasted faster but not better. Chatters, what's your experience? Alexandria, you may want to check out Epicurious.com, which has a pretty straightforward explanation, with helpful tips on cooking times.

Lisa Barnes: I too just remodeled a kitchen and now have my first convection. I find it best for baking - especially cookies and pizza dough (great crisp and golden brown bottoms). But there is a difference in cooking times. Being new to this too, I tend to check twice as often as the recipe says and often my cooking time on baked goods is cut in half.

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Capitol Hill: I decided to start making my stocks and tomato sauces from scratch and I have a couple of questions. I made my first tomato sauce from scratch, but I'm not much of a white wine drinker and the bottle I used seemed to have an overwhelming taste. Do you have any suggestions for the next time I do it? Also, I am about to tackle chicken stock, but don't laugh, I have no idea where I should get my chicken from. I have friends who tell me to buy a rotisserie from the local supermarket, but I wondered if I could go to Eastern Market and just ask for a few lbs of less desirable cuts. Thanks in advance!

Joe Yonan: Hmm... Red wine goes better in tomato sauce, really, so you might try that next time. The key is, only use a wine you like to drink. (It doesn't have to be expensive, but something fruity and full-bodied would work well.) As for chicken stock, I find that the easiest thing to use is wings, since they're available so readily and are cheap. But you can certainly ask for backs, necks, carcasses...

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Pecan pie: Could I make mini pecan pie by using roll out refrigerator dough and using muffin tins? What would be the time and temp on this?

Bonnie Benwick: Sure. Are you using a standard pecan pie recipe for the filling? For mini-muffin size, try baking at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes. For cupcake-size muffin wells, try 350 degrees, maybe a few minutes less. You'll want the pecans on top, and the crust, to be lightly browned at the edges. The filling should be just set.

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NW, DC: Two questions:

(1) Do you know of a bakery/other source where I can find Portuguese sweet bread? (Preferably DC or close-in Maryland.) I could find this in Boston and San Francisco, but am having a hard time here in DC.

(2) I discovered a jar of whole vanilla beans in my pantry that have been there since last Christmas. These came in a gift basket. Are they still good/usable? What do I do with them? (I'm not a baker.)

Thanks for your help.

Bonnie Benwick: 1. Are you looking for bread or rolls? Majestic Cafe Bakery in Manassas makes Portuguese sweet bread on the weekends, mostly in roll size (not close to DC or MD, I know). But you can call them to order what you need: 703-330-4447. Heller's in Mount Pleasant (202-265-1169) makes conchas, which are on the sweet side. And Heller's will do custom orders -- if you have a good Portuguese sweet bread recipe you like, they may just make it for you.

You might find a similar bread at your closest Latino bakery. Also, I've been told that King's Hawaiian Bread is pretty close in flavor. That brand's bread and rolls are carried at most larger Giant stores.

2. Your vanilla beans should be fine. Did you open and breathe in a prominent vanilla aroma? If you don't bake, split the bean lengthwise and scrape the insides into the makings of a custard, ice cream, a simple syrup for cocktails, any savory fruit sauces for roast meats, fruit salads, crepes or applesauce. I know I'm leaving out whole categories....chatters?

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Arlington, Va.: I have been seeing beets at the farmer's market. Do you have any recipes for someone that would like to try something new? Thanks.

Jane Black: We have a ton of recipes for beets in our database. Some of my favorites include the balsamic glazed baby beets; the gorgeous beet rhubarb jam and the pink potato salad with capers and radishes. Take a look through and don't miss the beet mojito!

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Hi there, I'm planning on throwing a charcuterie party. I've never done this and I was wondering if you had any suggestions for pairing cheeses with cured meats, which meats to use, side dishes (eg cornichons, mustards, greens), etc. Thanks so much!

Jane Black: You'll want a range of meats and cheeses. So one good way to start is to think about countries. If you're getting jamon (spanish ham) or chorizo, you might think about getting a manchego cheese or an idiazabal or even an roncal. If you're partial to prosciutto, perhaps a parmesan, a pecorino and a gorgonzola or robiola. Of course, you can mix hams and cheeses from different countries -- a little selle sur cher, my favorite aged goat cheese -- never hurt any cheese plate as far as I'm concerned.

For accompaniments, I'd get olives, cornichon and perhaps some chutneys and or jams. A tart apricot condiment goes nicely with pecorino. I also think pear chutney goes well with rich triple cream cheeses. Cowgirl Creamery and Whole Foods, along with other grocery stores, will have a good selection to brighten the plates and your palates.

Bonnie Benwick: Dried fruits, champagne grapes and onion jam will go great at your party, and don't forget to stock up on really good crusty bread, and maybe the fancy kinds of crackers you find in good cheese shops.

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Suggestion for the person making chicken stock: Talk to your farmer's market vendors or the people at the eastern market and find out if they have stewing hens. Most of the chickens you would get at the store are too young to give any flavor. I know Smith Meadows has them usually has a few at each market - but go early as they tend to go fast.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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Lisa Barnes: Thank you for having me over for a chat.

Before we started I received an email regarding the menion of organic ingredients in the Lunch Bunch article and recipes and the concern of the cost and that many may not be able to afford.

I certainly understand and want people to know that you will still get great results from these tips and recipes whether you use organic or conventional ingredients. The importance is using fresh, whole foods rather than reaching for processed snack and lunch items. Also I tell parents to buy organic if they can afford on those items that make the most impact (have the highest pesticide and herbicide residual). The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) calls these "the dirty dozen".

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Dupont Circle, DC: I'm thrilled with your tomato-basil soup since I'm equally obsessed with both Cosi and Trader Joe's version and thought it simple enough to make at home. However I'm willing to go four star with this. What's the best way to make it Michelin-worthy? I'm willing to go full-fat, cooking all day Sunday for a really awesome chunky, creamy tomato basil soup.

Bonnie Benwick: Well, that's certainly a different response than we're used to these days! This is Mollie Katzen's recipe (who, sadly, couldn't join our chat today), but I'd think you could go 50-50 on the dairy, subbing 3/4 cup half-and-half. And to finish, stir in some crème fraiche. Have a happy Sunday.

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Alexandria, Va.: Can shredded (sweetened) coconut be frozen? I often find that recipes call for considerably less than the standard bag they sell at the grocery store. I just needed 1/2 cup for some banana bread - can I freeze the rest for holiday cookies?

Bonnie Benwick: Absolutely. That's where mine is. It's best to enclose it in a freezer-worthy resealable plastic food storage bag, too, with as much air pressed out as possible.

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Silver Spring--Dutch Oven or Caldero?: Hi, I've been looking at Dutch Ovens (which are serious investment-cookware), and haven't yet settled on the proper size.

But while perusing, the Caldero's caught my eye.. they are similar, but apparently made of heavy aluminum and cost considerably less (so I could get TWO sizes!)

Have you (or your readers) cooked with one of these? They are marketed for Latino cooking.... so should hold up, no?

Thanks for the input.

Joe Yonan: I have seen these -- I'd be tempted to buy one that's enamel-coated, because some acidic foods react with aluminum to cause leeching of the metal, not to mention discoloring. There has been some debate over the health risks of using (exposed) aluminum cookware, too.

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Washington, D.C.: What's a good substitute for honey in recipes? I have little use for honey and don't like to use it because it is sticky. If the recipe matters, I most recently was making your balsamic chicken recipe which called for honey.

Bonnie Benwick: You could try agave nectar.

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Butternut squash: Which butternut squash would have more flavor, the larger or the smaller ones? I normally peel it, cut it into 1 inch cubes, sprinkle cajun spice on, and bake it in the oven. Any other ideas? I'm not big on curried squash though.

Joe Yonan: It's not as simple as that -- I've had more and less flavorful ones big and small. It's interesting you ask about size, cause my Cooking for One column next week is on small vegetables, particularly some that farmers are growing just so that single cooks can not face the behemoths (and days of squash leftovers). Unfortunately for you, my recipe (for risotto) using squash does indeed include curry, but you could leave it out. Another thing I often do, based on a Mark Bittman recipe, is peel, then run it across the coarse side of a box grater, then cook that in, say, brown butter and sage, then toss with penne: The slivers of squash work their way into the pasta.

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Lunch box changes: My husband and I just bought the bento/thermos lunch boxes from H-mart and they are great - especially for when he has to take lunch to work and dinner to school. Often I'll use two of them for a meal and then one for a mid afternoon snack.

Bonnie Benwick: Smart.

Lisa Barnes: Great idea! They work for all ages and anyone on-the-go. I have these for my kids' lunches. Not only do they reduce waste (which is a big issue in schools today), but it also helps with portion control and convenient packing.

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Beets: If you are still grilling, beets work great on the grill. Peel and slice, put them into a foil pocket with some rosemary and a dab of butter or olive oil and put the foil pocket on the grill until the beets get soft. The thinner you slice them, the faster they will cook... likewise, if you have time you can just roast them on the grill as you would potatoes. Or, scrub and trim them but don't peel, put them in a cast-iron skillet in a hot oven and roast. When they cool, the skins will slide right off and the beets will keep for days for inclusion in other recipes. And by all means, use the greens! They are marvelous.

Joe Yonan: I love me some beets.

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Halloween: Chef's coats and toques are pretty easy to find online at a range of price points. Combine with clogs or croc shoes and checkered or wacky pants and you've got a great Halloween costume. It's what I wore for years walking my kids around the neighborhood. (It's a great recyclable costume.) I also carried a novelty-item rubber chicken with me! Great costume, as you can layer underneath if weather is chilly. My son wore it one year when he was a cook from Sendak's "In The Night Kitchen."

Jane Black: Good tips. Thanks.

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Almond filling-from last week: Last week, someone asked about almond filling. I believe you had a recipe that called for almond paste, and the questioner wondered if these products are the same. Almond filling, if that is what the can says, is most likely intended for use in baked goods such as Hungarian Butter Horns. These are a Christmas tradition in my husband's family, and a fairly involved cookie (cake yeast, rolling out, rising, rolling out, cutting, filling, shaping, etc.) The fillings are traditionally homemade but canned do exist. (The favorites around here seem to be a nut blend and... of all things... prune... not my family's favorite, but a regional leader).

Leigh Lambert: You know your almonds (in and out of a can!). And as I recall the difference between almond paste and almond filling is the sugar content. Sort of like buying tomato sauce with or without the Italian seasoning already added. Almond paste gives you more control over how much sugar you add.

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For the cooking with wine person...: I don't always want to finish off a bottle of wine after cooking with it. So my pantry is stocked with little four-packs (8 oz or so) of mini wine bottles in white and red. They have them at most liquor stores. The quality is decent.

Likewise, before I had a child I rarely had whole milk on hand but often needed it for a recipe. So I always kept shelf-stable kiddie milk boxes (organic at Whole Foods!) on hand for cooking. Same with single-serving applesauces for baking.

Joe Yonan: Yes. For other ideas, see the piece I wrote on using up leftover wine.

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Mount Pleasant: Hello! I was wondering where would be the best/closest place to find thai basil. I have an easy, 4-ingredient chicken recipe that is far improved using thai basil instead of regular basil but I haven't had any luck finding it. Thanks!

Jane Black: I checked with Yes Organic Market near you and no dice. They sometimes have it at Whole Foods but I wonder if the farmers market isn't your best bet. I've seen it at 14th and U. Maybe they have it at the Mt. Pleasant market too? Chatters? Any other thoughts?

Joe Yonan: The big Asian stores, such as H Mart, Super H and the like, always have it...

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Tomato Sauce: Adding to your recommendation that the poster with the overwhelming wine task in the tomato sauce use red wine (I agree) I would also recommend adding the wine to the sautéed veggies and cooking for a few minutes before adding the tomatoes. This helps the alcohol burn off and mellow/round out the taste. The raw wine taste can be a little harsh.

Joe Yonan: Yes -- thanks!

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Chicken nuggets: My freezer is full of chicken nuggets and fish sticks. Can I make these from scratch and then freeze them so I'm not giving my little guy so much artificial fillers and additives?

Lisa Barnes: Yes. You can definitely make these yourself and cut down on the additives and preservatives. You can make your own breading with breadcrumbs or cereal (see recipe for fish sticks below) or panko (japanese breadcrumbs).

From The Petit Appetit Cookbook - Mrs. Barnes Fishsticks

Use a mild white fish such as cod or halibut for this recipe. Serve a variety of dipping options such as ketchup, malt vinegar and tartar sauce.

1/2 cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 cup oat O's cereal (or other favorite)

2 tablespoons unbleached flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 pound skinless, boneless fish fillet

1/4 cup expeller pressed canola oil

In a shallow dish beat together milk and egg. Put one cup O's cereal in a food processor and pulse to crumbs. On a flat plate, combine O's, flour and salt. Cut fish into 8 equal size pieces. Dip fish into milk-egg mixture, then dredge in O' mixture to coat.

Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add fish sticks to pan and reduce heat if there is too much splattering. Cook 3 - 4 minutes on each side, turning with a spatula, until brown and crispy outside, and fish is cooked and flaky inside. Pat fish sticks with paper towels to soak up excess oil.

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Beets: Another suggestion for beets...I had a few that I had roasted and put in the freezer. I don't always like how freezing can make vegetables mushy so I pureed a couple and added them to a vegan risotto as the last step in the cooking process. Gorgeously colored risotto and delicious. Hubby requested more. Luckily I still have a couple of the beets in the freezer.

Jane Black: Nice idea. Beets make everything so beautiful.

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Cinnamon bread: My family has requested cinnamon bread for toast in the morning... a loaf baked with a cinnamon swirl. We are not raisin people, so I am not looking for cinnamon raisin bread. I am reasonably good at yeast breads, but not sure how I'd work the cinnamon into this. Can I use a cinnamon-raisin bread recipe and just omit the little bugs? If so, is there a recipe you recommend. Thanks.

Joe Yonan: This no-knead version from our friend Nancy Baggett is mighty fine. You're a kindred spirit, btw: Both Bonnie and I are raisin haters, too, so we appreciate your description of these as "little bugs." Absolutely, leave em out.

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Cambridge, Mass.: The other night I made a blueberry tart, making a pastry cream filling that I cooked on the stove (a filling that does not need to be baked). After putting the filling in the refrigerator to let it cool, I filled the (already fully baked) crust, then put the berries on top. The tart, however, did not stay firm; it was more like the consistency of thick ice cream. Any suggestions? Thank you.

Bonnie Benwick: Hmmm ... Can we take a look at the recipe for the filling (and crust)?

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I know this is really early: But Farmer's Market orders for turkeys will be here soon. It's the first time I'm organizing Thanksgiving and I have no idea what size to get. We're having 8 adults who eat meat and 2 kids under 5. I'm thinking a 15 lb bird would give me enough to feed everyone and have leftovers - but I could be completely off.

Bonnie Benwick: Not too early for me! My head has been in Thanksgiving mode since August. You are right on track with your cipherin'. If you add a few guests between now and November, think about ordering two 12-pound birds instead of going larger on the one. Smaller birds are easier to deal with.

Jane Black: Bonnie's right. In general, the rule is about 1 pound per person if you're buying a whole bird. (And of course, you want to build in leftovers.)

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Arlington, Va.: For the person asking about beets. a Chocolate beet cake is FANTASTIC. I have a recipe if anyone is interested. Sounds weird, but is the BEST chocolate cake!!

Jane Black: Send it in!

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Chicago: We buy our meat from a local farm as part of a meat CSA. I have completely run out of ideas for what to do with the whole chickens. We roast them and sometimes poach them then use their meat for other dishes, but I'm not a huge fan of dark meat. Do you have any other creative ideas for what we can do with the whole chickens?

Lisa Barnes: I sometimes buy whole chickens and just cut them up. They're usually less expensive and I find they're more versatile if cut, and give me more options (with quicker cooking times, too).

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Clifton, Va.: Joe

Sorry, disagree with you kind of on wine for tomato sauces. A quick tomato sauce made with fresh tomatoes and herbs etc one should use a light bodied white wine like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc(sic). Even Mario B uses white wine for his Bolognanese sauce.

For a longer cooked tomato sauce made with canned tomatoes and maybe sausages and meatballs etc a nice medium bodied red i.e.. a chianti works best. Although a white wine will also work if it doesn't have too much oak!

Now we can discuss which cheese to use: Parm or a nice sheep's milk and then which olive oil form which region works best.

Joe Yonan: Yep, I'm sure you can sometimes use white wine to good effect, Clinton, but the chatter, remember, started by saying that he/she's not a white wine person. If you don't like to drink it, don't use it.

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Oatmeal bars: Do you have a recipe for oatmeal bars that uses oatmeal flour? I need to get through my canister of oatmeal. Thanks!

Leigh Lambert: This recipe for Cranberry Oat Bars does not use oatmeal flour, but does call for some oats. It may get you part-way through your canister.

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Best Dutch oven ever: My Lodge cast iron one. I cook on top of stove in it for stews, pop it in the oven to roast, bake (I have done bread in it), and it is nonstick, as all good cast iron should be if you treat it will. I love the thing.

Joe Yonan: Yes, yes, yes.

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Today's Tomato-Basil Soup: I love a good tomato-basil soup, so I was eager to look at today's recipe. The photo, however, appears not to have any dairy in it, especially given that the recipe calls for 1.5 cups of milk. It would at least be pinker than this, no?

I find that tomato juice is a great vegetarian ingredient for thinning a tomato soup puree, plus it gives the soup that extra tang in the sides of your lower jaw, mmm. And nothing finishes off this kind of soup as nicely as a little butter towards the end of cooking.

I agree with you on the sodium content of canned tomatoes. I tend to look for the lowest sodium levels and then add salt to taste. The cans of fire-roasted tomatoes are also good in a soup like this, though I'm not sure of their sodium content.

Bonnie Benwick: The photo's just as the soup turns out -- maybe because that particular batch of soup was made with low-fat milk. Muir Glen brands include a no-salt-added fire-roasted diced-tomato option. So many hyphens.

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Leftover Wine..another idea: We've purchased a case or two of 1/2 bottles over the course of the years and I've saved numerous bottles to 're-cant' any leftover wine-be it from cooking or drinking. Less air in the bottle means the quality will remain as well. Just a suggestion.

Joe Yonan: Absolutely. You don't have to do it in wine bottles, either -- you can pour them into small plastic bottles, up to the top.

Jane Black: How clever. The smaller bottle will make it last longer in theory. Have you seen it in practice? I'm curious.

Joe Yonan: Yep, I do this sometimes. It's the same science at work as the vacuum devices: getting rid of the oxygen.

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Washington DC : A question about organic vs non-organic, for kiddies and grown-ups ...

When I was a child, we thought that by washing or even rinsing our fruits and veggies before eating or cooking, we removed the pesticides, which - after all - were sprayed on the outside of the plant or mixed in the soil that touched the outside. When we were really cautious, we peeled the apple or carrot and discarded that outside layer.

When I lived in the developing world as an adult, belief was that soaking these foods in an iodine solution nullified any toxic substances ranging from pesticides to waste-waters.

I am still not sure if either of these beliefs is correct, or if the pesticides and toxins go all the way through the food.

Also, I don't know if children and the elderly are more susceptible than adults to any dangers from these substances.

Would you be so good as to clarify? My grocery bill (organic vs non-organic) depends on your advice. Many, many thanks.

Lisa Barnes: When making food for the younger and elderly you need to be more cautious with food handling and food safety tips.

Washing produce is the best way to rid of bacteria, soil, dirt, pests etc. There are many vegetable wash products which are simply a citrus extract (made from grapefruit or lemon). These do not necessarily make your produce any cleaner, but they make sure you really rinse, as there is a soapy film when you apply these products. Others I know use a mixture of white vinegar and water. Using cold running water and using your fingers and/or vegetable brush and washing thoroughly should be fine.

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Alexandria, Va.: I will be getting fresh lobsters from Maine soon and would love some suggestions as to what side items I should serve with them. Already have a good potato salad recipe, but what else? If it helps, there will be 7 of us total eating 10 lobsters. Also, can I keep them in a cooler of ice for about 5 - 6 hours before I cook them or do I need to put them in the fridge?

Jane Black: The lobster should be the star so I'd keep it simple. Corn is a classic accompaniment; if you can still find some around, I'd grab that. A crisp green salad would also be nice. I'd keep it simple with some radishes, cucumber and a simple vinaigrette. If you're going all out, some fresh rolls would be nice too. For dessert, apple pie?

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typo?: Mollie Katzen's cumin lime dressing (online lunch list) contains cilantro but no cumin, so I think either the title or ingredients list is wrong. No need to post, just FYI.

Bonnie Benwick: Oh, nuts. Add 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin....

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Convection learning curve: I too am new to convection cooking. I reduce the temperature by 25 degrees and the cooking time by 25%, which tends to work.

I found that with pizza from scratch using my pizza stone, I still don't have it down. I use a thin crust (dough) and pre-heat the stone, but I have to watch the pizza like a hawk on 325-350 or the cheese will brown before the crust is fully baked.

For most other things, however, that rule of thumb above has worked out quite well.

The infrared broiler, on the other hand, is not my friend at the moment!

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks for sharing.

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Washington, DC: I need help with pizza dough. I've been buying the pre-made (not frozen) dough from Trader Joe's. My wife and I love making pizzas together, but we really struggle to form a pizza crust out of the dough. It always clumps up or sticks to everything. We use flour, but are there any other tricks? Would making homemade dough work better?

Lisa Barnes: You may need to allow the dough to rest more. Taking it from refrigerator to rolling will spring back or be too sticky. And you need to use lots of flour, on all surfaces, rolling pin and your hands. I've worked specifically with the Trader Joe's dough and find bringing it to room temperature (about 20 minutes) before rolling and shaping is helpful.

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re Portuguese bread: These may not be the "sweet" bread you want, but SuperFresh carries Portuguese rolls that are now my favorite white bread, and I used to see Portuguese muffins, that looked like bigger English muffins, at the recently-departed Sutton Place/Balduccis on New Mexico Ave NW, and I think also at Rodman's.

Bonnie Benwick: Those rolls might be made by Texeira Bakery of NJ, a wholesaler that sells to grocery stores in our area.

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Storage of baked/iced cakes...: I'm going to be baking a TON this weekend...what's the best way to store my cakes?

Leigh Lambert: Depending on how far ahead you intend to make them: cool the cakes completely, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to a week. Or wrap again in foil and freeze for up to a month. Don't bother frosting anything until you're ready to serve it (a day ahead is fine). If any of the frostings have cream cheese you'll want to refrigerate them lightly covered or in a cake saver.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi there! I have always wanted to make perfect fried chicken at home. I hear that the key is to first soak the chicken in buttermilk. The problem is that I keep kosher, so I can't mix a dairy product with meat. Is there a non-dairy alternative to buttermilk that will help me produce the same results? Thanks!!!

Bonnie Benwick: There are so many kinds of perfect fried chicken! For starters, take a look at these, none of which call for dairy: Francine's, Marguerite's and Japanese-Style. And don't forget: If you use kosher birds, you shouldn't brine them (that poultry's already gone through a similar process).

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re: cinnamon bread: If the poster is in a hurry, pepperidge farm makes a raisin free cinnamon swirl bread. It's lovely toasted with a tiny bit of butter. A little gift for us who think raisins have no business in our food.

Joe Yonan: Thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I love butternut squash. I just cut them in half, scrape out the seeds and bake (face down on a cookie sheet with a tad of water) until soft. Then I flip it, rub with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon then put it under the broiler to brown. Delicious. It goes beautifully with salmon or pork.

Joe Yonan: Yum.

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Atlanta, Ga.: How long can you really keep grilled chicken in the fridge properly wrapped? It's hard to get a clear cut answer esp when it still looks and smells fresh?

Bonnie Benwick: Most cooked food = three days.

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Rockville, Md.: Is it ok to freeze fresh herbs? I love the flavor I get when I use them, but then invariably, I will go into the vegetable bin a few weeks later having forgotten about the herbs and they will have spoiled...

Bonnie Benwick: You can blanch basil and process with a little water, then freeze in ice cube trays. This Web site has pix that show how rosemary and thyme were frozen on the stem! I've not had that much luck, however.

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Broiling with the Door Open: I did that, too, as that's the way my mother also did it. But, a warning: If your oven knobs are on the front just above the door, don't do it. I have the partially-melted knobs to prove it.

Jane Black: Oh no! Bad luck. Thanks for sharing your life lessons.

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More Beet Ideas: I had a salad last weekend that had beets, greens, and pecans. The pecan/beet flavor was wonderful.

Jane Black: That sounds delicious. I'm on a candied pecan kick at the moment. Good with beets, apples and pears too.

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Montgomery Village, Md. mom: I thought the lunch bunch graphic was really great. My kids 9 and 7 decide which days of the week based on the school menu whether they want to pack lunch or buy. If they choose to pack lunch we involve them in the menu planning, grocery shopping and the actual making and packing of the lunches. It has been really successful, I can't wait to share these ideas with them!

Also wanted to mention that recently my daughter the 9 year old was at school and her teacher asked what they wanted to be when they grew up and she said " a chef." She loves cooking and we watch a lot of food network shows like dinner impossible, iron chef etc. Her teacher thought that was great and passed it along to us. The problem, we still have times where she still turns her nose up at unfamiliar foods. Besides the age old, repeat servings until it becomes familiar-- are there other ways to get kids to try new foods? Thanks for all the great info in the food section--loved today's section!

Bonnie Benwick: If she's already appreciating chefs, why not take her to reasonably priced restaurants that feature different ethnic foods, and let her taste bits of what the chefs make there? Chefs are so accommodating these days, maybe he or she would come out to the table and chat, or recommend foods for your youngster to try.

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Lunch Ideas: I get bored really easily with the lunches I bring to work, so today's lunch box ideas are great. Today I had a pita with red pepper hummus, cheese, and cucumbers. What are some other veggies and condiments to add/replace to this sandwich, particularly to make it more filling? Thanks!

Lisa Barnes: Great! Now you can look forward to lunch.

Lisa Barnes: Oops! There was a question in there. Sorry I sent so soon. Here are a few other ideas for fillings:

cream cheese or goat cheese

pesto

other hummus (made with black beans or white beans)

avocado or guacamole

tuna salad

egg slices or egg salad

tofu

left-over cooked meats - chicken, turkey, steak

other veggie options - lettuce, sprouts, spinach, carrot, jicama, pepper, thinly sliced zucchini

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Orzo lady from last week: Hi all. Unfortunately I can't be here for the live chats as it's Wednesday: laundry day. Anyway, I asked about amping up the flavor in a baked orzo. Yes, it had mozzarella cheese and sour cream mixed in. It wasn't dryness that was an issue; it was simply blandness. Thoughts? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Welcome back, OL. You could start by cooking the orzo in chicken or vegetable broth instead of salted water. I'd sauté some onions, shallots and/or other vegetables and season them with something flavorful -- herbes de Provence or mix of fresh chopped herbs. Maybe sub the sour cream with a little olive oil or pesto? And cherry or grape tomatoes go a long way.

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Baltimore, Md.: A rice question: I cooked a pot of brown rice using a can of coconut milk instead of water. It was delicious with Indian food, but too sweet when paired with other foods. I'd like to find some other liquids I can use in place of water(some of it or all of it) when I cook rice, to get some interesting flavors. I've tried chicken bouillon, too.

Jane Black: Chicken or vegetable broth (or half broth/half water) will definitely add depth to rice. Use low sodium broth. Adding a little bit of saffron will give color and flavor too.

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Bakes cauliflower again: Do you cut off any brown spots on the florets, or leave them be? I can't recall seeing a cauliflower that didn't have them. Thanks!

Jane Touzalin: I tend to scrape 'em off if I'm roasting a whole head, or cut 'em off if I'm dealing with florets.

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Agave nectar: Expect you could do whole column on agave nectar or sugar/honey substitutes, but what is general guideline for agave? I bought it because my sister (who was here visiting) uses it in her tea and now I have this lightly used squeeze bottle of it in my pantry. What's the story on agave nectar?

Leigh Lambert: You're right, we could do a whole article devoted to "alternative" sweeteners. Baking with it can be tricky if you are not using a recipe designed for it. Generally speaking you can substitute it for a recipe calling for honey or replace it for the sugar in a recipe also listing a liquid ingredient, in which case you would decrease the liquid amount by a quarter. Like I said, this is not an exact science and can be frustrating.

If you are leery of experimenting, stick with no-bake options, such as fruit salad or hot cereal.

Leigh Lambert: Bonnie wrote about them (a whole article, as it turns out):

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corn husks...: Silly question, maybe... but can I save the husks from fresh corn and use them to make tamales? I have never made tamales, but thought they might work nicely as a make-and-freeze for work lunches/dinners later in the year. Tricks and tips?

Joe Yonan: Not silly -- some regions in Mexico feature tamale recipes that indeed use fresh instead of dried corn husks. Absolutely. Tamale-making has too many tricks/tips to get into in the last quarter of the chat, but I'd say you should look at Diana Kennedy and/or Rick Bayless recipes as a starting point.

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Beets: I like to grate them and use them raw in a "salad" with toasted walnuts. I like to dress it with olive oil, fresh orange juice (you can use orange sections in the salad if you like), salt, and pepper. I will sometimes add goat cheese. Yum.

Jane Black: I like raw beets too. Grating or slicing them with a mandolin is a great way to use them. Subtle flavor and crunch. Thanks.

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Sacramento, Calif.: Simple question: what is meant by a "dressed" chicken? My local farmer's market now features a locally grown, free-range, organic (yada, yada, yada) poultry and as I was checking out the offerings, I noticed the sign that said whole "dressed" chickens. The line was too long for me to ask so what does that mean? Thanks in advance. Love the chats and online food section-very rarely get a chance to participate in real time.

Bonnie Benwick: Stop by anytime, Sacramento. Dressed usually means it's ready for cooking -- no feathers or innards. Sometimes that includes trimming of excess fat and skin around the drumsticks.

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Washington, D.C.: I cleaned out my kitchen cabinets this weekend and have a lot of canned and jarred items, as well as various forms of salt. How long are these good for? Many of the items are several years old and some have expiration dates, but I wonder if that's more for legal purposes. In addition to the salt, I have chickpeas, salsa, spaghetti sauce, corn, and the like. Are these safe to use? If they are not that desirable for everyday use, could they be saved as part of my nuclear holocaust shelter in place kit?

Bonnie Benwick: Way to go! That's always a time-consuming task.

If the cans and jars have dates you can make sense of, heed them. If not, it's best to go to the Web sites or call the consumer toll-free numbers of each brand and ask for specific information. The salt should be good. If it's clumpy, transfer it to containers or packaging that is more air-tight.

Generally, undamaged cans of food are built to last 2 to 5 years. There are several survival-type Web sites that offer explanations of various manufacturers' codes, and they list shelf life lengths, too. (Some sites even sell cans packed especially for long-term shelf life, such as freeze-dried foods.)

Storage conditions (temperature, light, humidity) -- even for canned goods -- may affect whether the containers are safe to open and use. And if the foods are not "desirable for everyday use," then I don't think you'll want them around in a nuclear holocaust -- unless it's to help insulate your underground shelter.

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pop-up ad gripe: Please tell the advertising folks or whoever oversees these things that it's really annoying to have pop-up ads make it impossible to click to the Food section because they "pop up" exactly where I'm about to click, and they don't go away!

Thank you!

Joe Yonan: We will pass that along, absolutely. Does your browser include a pop-up blocker option? Mine does.

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Petworth: Whole Vanilla Beans for the non-baker:

Get one of those diner-style sugar things and put a bean or two in the sugar. Let sit for a few weeks, then use the vanilla sugar in place of plain sugar. When it's empty, you can refill it, using the same beans several times.

Infuse rum! Put several beans, split, into a bottle of rum (I like amber rum for this.) Wait a few weeks. Use in place of regular rum. (excellent in hot chocolate.) (If you forget and leave it really really long, it becomes an excellent home made vanilla extract.)

Leigh Lambert: That is very frugal and delicious sounding.

Bonnie Benwick: There you go.

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Arlington, Va.: I can send the chocolate beet cake recipe in later today when I get home. What e-mail address? When you make it you won't be disappointed. I have one for green tomato cake too that is wonderful.

Jane Black: Send it to food@washpost.com. Maybe, just maybe, flour girl will give it a whirl. Or at the very least, we'll pass it on to chatters next week. Thanks.

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Baltimore: A food safety question about lunches: I have been tempted when packing lunches the night before, to pack them into insulated lunch boxes and leave them in the fridge instead of leaving the lunch components in a pile in the fridge outside the box and packing it all in the morning. Does leaving the lunch in the lunch box in the fridge create a food safety issue since food may not reach the proper temp inside the box?

Bonnie Benwick: Boy, there's something about this q that sounds so existential/philosphical -- if a lunch is packed and sits in the fridge....I can't imagine the food in the insulated lunch box will be harmed or have to remain at an unsafe temperature while it's in the fridge. But just to cover all bets, put containers in the insulated lunch box but DONT CLOSE/SEAL it. How's that?

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Arlington, Va.: I hope I can get in quickly here...I'm looking for whole grain mustard for a recipe....What is it? Can I just use yellow mustard instead? If not where can I find it?

Leigh Lambert: You can substitute regular mustard (Dijon, not hot dog-style). But you can find the grainer type, sometimes called "country style" in the condiment aisle. It will give a less refined, rustic quality to a dish.

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Hey foodies: Please don't forget to post the most popular recipes online of the month. I love seeing the ones most people liked and found successful.

Bonnie Benwick: It's already in the queue. Hint: The top recipe for September was fowl.

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Frederick, Md.: Where can I buy dutch process cocoa? I've gone to 5 local grocery stores and cannot find it anywhere! Do I have to drive to DC and go to a fancy grocery store to find it? Or, is there a substitution I can use?

Leigh Lambert: I have found it regularly, but if you can't you might look on-line at King Arthur Flour, or the like. Also, a kitchen store, such as Sur la Table or Williams-Sonoma should have it.

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SW scorcher: My electric oven has a bad temper when it comes to the temperature. it can be off by 50-75 degrees. I have a hanging thermometer inside to find the right temp but I have to preheat it and make sure it stabilizes before I cook anything. Sometimes it gets to the right temp and keeps on heating up. Is there a quick fix (change the heating coil in the bottom) or do I need to replace the whole oven?

Bonnie Benwick: Try a visit from the appliance doctor first, who can attempt recalibrating your oven.

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For the orzo lady: Pam Anderson's How to Cook without a Book has a really nice chapter about seven or eight good flavorful orzo recipes.

My fave has feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, and some herbs.

Bonnie Benwick: Yes! Love her.

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freezing herbs: Just remember that they will be saturated so the taste and the texture will be different. This will affect how you use them - casserole is fine, pesto - not so much ... .

Bonnie Benwick: Gotcha.

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CubiclelaND: Thank you so much for the lunch planning guide! I'm trying to bring lunch more often, and I like looking at the bento pages and such for ideas, but it's great to get more recipes and assembled ideas. My question is really about how to efficiently plan for a week without a ton of labor. Do you have some suggestions about how to use some of the same base ingredients, but zest them up in different ways for variety's sake? Like, start on Sunday with a bunch of brown rice, and make it into a salad like X for Monday, like Y for Tuesday...

Lisa Barnes: Left-overs can take you a long ways when you vary the bread (wrap, sandwich, tortilla), create a salad, a noodle dish and a soup. Here's an example of Sunday Dinner of a roast chicken, wild rice and roasted veggies:

Lunches

Mon. - chicken sandwich with wild rice salad (just add some currents and cranberries)

Tues. - chicken with greens and a bit of rice and chopped veggies

Wed. - chicken wrapped in tortilla with beans and cheese and veggies

Thurs. - noodle with chicken and veggies and pesto sauce

Fri. - Chicken and rice soup - rest of left-overs chicken, rice, noodles, veggies and broth.

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Thai basil nearest Mt. Pleasant: There's a thai grocery in downtown Silver Spring across from the Safeway on Thayer.

About seven blocks from Metro.

Jane Black: Good thought. It's called Thai Market. 902 Thayer Ave

Silver Spring, (301) 495-2779.

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chicken nuggets: My kids favorite recipe is when I use Progresso bread crumbs with parmesan cheese added in. I mix it in a ziploc. cut the breast meat into chunks, dip it in beaten egg, drop it into the ziploc and shake. Once it's coated, put it onto a cookie sheet spayed with PAM, then give the top a quick spray and bake for about 20 minutes at 350.

Bonnie Benwick: For the nuggeteers.

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Pesticide follow-up: Thank you, Lisa Barnes, for your response. I want to be sure I understood: The bad stuff stays on the outside, so unless it's something really porous like strawberries, I don't need to buy organic as long as I clean things well? Thanks again!

Lisa Barnes: My answer was with respects to washing all produce whether organic or conventional - it should all be washed. Even if you're not planning on eating the apple peel, you should wash before peeling as you may force any dirt or bacteria from the outside of the fruit or veggie to the inside with the peeler or knife.

You will not be able to wash off pesticides if buying conventional. Thus there are certain fruits and vegetables which should be bought organic because they are either treated more heavily than other crops or they hold in more pesticides and chemicals because of more porous or thin skin. Here is the list from the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) of the dirty dozen:

apple

peach

bell pepper

celery

nectarines

strawberries

cherries

kale

lettuce

grapes (imported)

carrot pear

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've spread us with black bean spread, arranged plantain wedges on top of us, then rolled us up like burritos, tucking in the ends as you went, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great questions today, and many thanks to Lisa Barnes for helping us handle them all.

Now for the giveaway books:

The DC chatter who wants to spend a Sunday on tomato-basil soup will get Mollie Katzen's "Get Cooking." The one who asked about making chicken nuggets will get "Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink and Be Merry." And the one who asked about organic vs. non-organic will get "Vegan Lunch Box Around the World." Send your mailing info to food@washpost.com, and we'll get them out to you.

Until next week, happy cooking, eating and reading.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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