washingtonpost.com
Free Range on Food: Staffers solve your cooking conundrums

The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; 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.

A transcript of this week's chat follows.

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Check out the archive of past discussions. Read the Food section blog All We Can Eat. Follow the Food section on Twitter at @WaPoFood.

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, all, and welcome to Free Range, the chat that aims to solve your cooking dilemmas. Of course, you may have Easter on the brain, and for that we have had ideas in today's section ranging from Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarborough's take on brining and roasting a fresh ham to Mike Isabella's recipes for Greek specialties. Gastronomer Andreas Viestad waxed poetic about a newly invented sauce, and Paula Whyman ranted about the challenges of finding restaurant food that won't cause her to have an allergic reaction.

We've got Bruce and Paula in the room today to help answer your queries, and as always we'll have giveaway books to make things more interesting. One of our favorite two chatters today will get Bruce and Mark's "Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter," and the other will get "Eat What You Love" by Marlene Koch, source of Bonnie's Dinner in Minutes recipe today.

Let's do this thing!

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Fairfax Station, Va.: It's only Wednesday, and I'm already tired of Passover. Can you offer inspiration for dairy or parve main dishes I can put together after work? No kitnyot, please -- gebrokts okay.

Bonnie Benwick: Oy. Vegetable stir-fries and frittatas are a good way to go; I think I've seen some kosher sauces and condiments on the Passover aisle (sale prices on matzoh already in effect!) that can be used instead of soy sauce, etc. You also could make a version of this Salmon With Pink Peppercorn Sauce, using salmon fillets and half the sauce recipe. I like this Passover chicken salad, too; add it to a green salad. Jewish chatters, other ideas?

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Slow Cooking: How safe are slow cookers to leave on while I'm at work and there's no one in the house? I'd love to get one, but I'm a little worried about the possibility of a fire.

Joe Yonan: Funny that you ask about this, because I just bought my first one, and am testing for my cooking-for-one column next week. Don't worry, and dive in. If you use it properly, and it's new and not malfunctioning, it's perfectly safe. I suppose lots of things could malfunction and cause a fire -- your home is wired with electricity, after all -- but since they're operating at low temperatures they're considered safer than an oven or burners, that's for sure.

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Springfield, Va.: Where do you buy baby artichokes? I don't remember ever seeing them before, and there weren't any artichokes, baby or regular, at the farmers market when I went last week.

Bonnie Benwick: We found them in clamshell packs at Whole Foods Market (about 9 to a pack).

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Alexandria, Va.: Any recommendations for an Easter dessert that isn't chocolate, and can travel well in the car for 90 minutes? Should also be somewhat kid-friendly.

Leigh Lambert: Funny you should ask. Tomorrow I'm devoting my Flour Girl blog to various desserts you can make with the two parts of the egg. One of my favorite is meringue. This recipe for Lemon Meringues With Blueberries and Creme Fraiche transports well, assuming that you assemble at your destination.

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Passover Products: So I bought cake meal, potato starch, and matzo meal -- now what do I do with them? Also, I'd like to bring something I can enjoy to my in-laws for Easter. Any dessert suggestions? Throw into the mix everyone is on a diet and most have diabetes! Wahoo -- good times.

Paula Whyman: Mock chestnut torte--I found the recipe on Epicurious. It's a Passover dessert that doesn't taste like a Passover dessert, and is good for a number of occasions.

Bonnie Benwick: Diets and diabetes...maybe you should try Raspberry Goat Cheese Meringues or a Chocolate Angel Food Cake served with fresh fruit on the side. You mean this one, right, Paula? There's also Macaroon Brownies. You can use the potato starch as a thickener in some non-holiday recipes that call for cornstarch (gravies, etc.), and the matzoh meal and cake meal are good for coating baked or pan-fried chicken parts. Store in resealable plastic bags in the freezer and they'll keep till next year.

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Washington, D.C.: I read a Slate article last week indicating that the tomato variety used for most tomato paste and canned tomatoes is hard, bland, and able to bounce if it falls out of the truck. Yuck.

Short of buying expensive San Marzanos from Italy, can you recommend a good brand of canned tomatoes?

Joe Yonan: I like Muir Glen in the can and Pomi in the boxes.

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Reston, Va.: I made my yearly attempt at Russian Pascha bread this past weekend. It's been dry the past two years, so I tried cutting back on the baking time. (I also have a new oven that bakes a little faster than the old one.)

My question is, how do I know when the bread is done? I tried sticking a wooden skewer in, as I would for cakes and quickbreads, but is that appropriate for yeast breads? (FWIW, it came out clean.)

Paula Whyman: Someone can correct me on this, but for yeast breads, I always check the internal temperature before deciding whether they're done. I believe it should be between 90 and 120 depending on the bread. Most of the recipes I have specify a temperature.

Joe Yonan: Another way to tell when a yeast bread is done is by tapping on the bottom of it -- you're going for a hollow sound. If it doesn't sound hollow, it's too moist inside still.

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D.C.: Are you doing something new with the Post.com Food page, or is this week a mistake? Do you guys have any notion of how hard it is for a reader to figure out what articles are running (Style, which only lists all the section's articles on the Print page) or what they're about (Food, which seems to have just decided not to run summaries) with these new formats? The title "DISH: Dish" may mean something to you all, but it doesn't mean much to me. Why should I click on it?

It might be good for you guys to consult with some actual users before you make your next big change.

Joe Yonan: I've said this before. Please pay attention, all online users: Look for our Food content at this address: washingtonpost.com/food. Or go to the blue navigational bar, hover over ARTS/LIVING, then choose Food.

Don't click on "Today's Newspaper" and then scroll down to Food. That's a relic that I've been lobbying the PTB to get rid of -- it's just a basic listing of what was in the paper that day.

Our Food section front online has descriptions with each headline, and more pix, and links to recipes. It's a much better user experience, trust me. Please.

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Cakes, grilling and graduation: Love the chats! I'm hosting a BBQ in May for my graduation and hope for some suggestions. I plan to make several cakes the day ahead (including the crepe cake again!), marinate the meat for grilling. I'd also like to prepare empanadas. How far in advance can I make them? Can I make them and freeze them in advance and then just deep fry the day of the party? Any other suggestions? I'm hosting about 40 people.

Bonnie Benwick: Freeze away -- preferably on a baking sheet until firm, then transfer to freezer-worthy resealable plastic food storage bags.

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Passionfruit pulp/puree?: Does anyone know if this can be bought locally? I want to make some passionfruit curd for a cake, and I thought having unsweetened juice would be good, but the recipes I'm seeing call for a puree. What do you think? Can I just adapt a lemon curd recipe, or do I need the more specific ones for passion fruit? Thanks!

Leigh Lambert: That's an intriguing question. Certainly, as you've guessed, the consistency of juice vs. puree is going to affect the outcome. However, your idea of using passion fruit juice in place of lemon juice in making a lemon curd sounds like a good place to start.

Bonnie Benwick: Goya makes various fruit pulps that you can find on the frozen fruit aisle. Finding the passion fruit flavor can be hit or miss, but I've seen it most often at the Shoppers Food and Pharmacy at Potomac Yard (on Rt. 1).

Maybe you could make a slurry with arrowroot or cornstarch, then thicken over low heat?

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Des Moines, Iowa: Greetings! I have a dessert query. I am hosting an Easter dinner for 9 people, there are a variety of restrictions on the type of food guests are willing and/or able to eat. I think I am actually okay on the dinner (if a bit overwhelmed) -- but I need to get inspired to make a dessert that does not involve cheese, sour cream or yogurt, and is not presented in individual portions. Ideally it will have a bit of sophistication about it, but will not upstage a cheesecake being brought by a guest. I will make a fruit pie or tart if I have to, but I just can't seem to get excited at the prospect. Any ideas?

Paula Whyman: How about a berry clafoutis? There's a great recipe in the King Arthur Baker's Companion. I don't know if you need no dairy, or just without the specific dairy ingredients you mentioned, but I adapt mine to make it completely nondairy.

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Boynton Beach, Fla.: How long do you knead the dough to make flaky biscuits?

Leigh Lambert: It's sort of the opposite. In order to keep biscuits buttery and not activate the flour gluten you want to handle the dough as little as possible. Just enough to mix it and roll them out.

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Baby artichokes and passion fruit : For baby artichokes, I have seen them at Wegman's.

For the passion fruit puree, any mid-size Latin American store should carry it.

Bonnie Benwick: Thanks. I wish I lived closer to Wegmans.

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Fairfax, Va.:: Upcoming weather=picnic in my head. I'm going to try to have a picnic Friday afternoon with a friend, and I'm hoping to make something a little more sophisticated than the regular potato salad. Any suggestions?

Bonnie Benwick: I heart Real Entertaining columnist David Hagedorn's German Potato Salad. I make it several times a year.

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Boynton Beach, Fla.: Is soy milk a good substitute for milk? What other substitutes for milk can I use that is non-dairy?

Bonnie Benwick: What kind of recipe do you have? Coconut milk, almond milk and rice milk are options....

Paula Whyman: Hi--for drinking, like in cold cereal, I use rice milk, because I can't tolerate soy milk "straight." But for recipes as a dairy sub, I like plain soy milk. I've used it in pumpkin pie with great results, for instance.

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Casserole question: Is there such a thing as a vegetable casserole (no meat) that does not need cream or cheese to hold itself together? I would love to whip up some sort of veggie casserole, but not sure what to use as a base. Do you have any recipes?

Leigh Lambert: I don't have a recipe to reference, but it would seem you could use mashed potatoes as a binder or base for other veggies. Sort of a derivation on Shepherd's Pie.

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Yeah Joe!: Can't wait for your slow cooker article! I like to use mine, but avoid the "can o' cream o'" recipes found in the magazines. I use mine to make yogurt, apple butter, spaghetti sauce, soups. I'd love to know what cuts of cheap meat I can buy and how to make it tender in the slow cooker. Also cover how the new cookers run very hot and you can't really do chicken in them, it gets tough.

Joe Yonan: I've resisted for the longest time, but when I saw Beth Hensperger's "Slow Cooker Recipes for Two," for a smaller slow cooker, I thought I'd take the plunge. Basically, for the most part you should think of it as braising, so cook the cuts of meats that have lots of connective tissue and collagen that break down when cooked for a long time.

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What's to be tired?: Potato crust quiche, chicken roasted with dried cherry sauce, beef braised in left over Manischewitz, lamb cubes slow cooked in cilantro sauce (cilantro, chix broth, garlic, S and P), stuffed potato fritters (fill with ground beef cooked with raisins, olives and boiled egg), fruit anything, most fish anything, spicy sweet potato wedges/fries. And then matzoh cinnamon toast, matzoh danish (cream cheese and jam). Or chunks of dark chocolate, or strawberries dipped in dark...

Bonnie Benwick: I like that kind of talk.

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CORRECTING PAULA 120 is way too low: NONONONONO!

Yeast breads have to be between 190 and 210 to be done. They'd be soggy at 120.

Paula Whyman: Sorry! my bad, knew I had that wrong... I definitely need a recipe in front of me!

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Hey Joe, where is your red pen?: The correct term for removing bones from meat, poultry or fish is: BONING, not "deboning." As you may have noticed, in his video Bruce Weinstein does not say "deboning" or "deboned" either. Love hi spork book, got it as soon as I saw it in the store, use his other books too, most often "Cooking for Two." By the way, love today's Food section, all 8 pages, pure joy to read and plan next week's cooking. Thanks.

Joe Yonan: Sorry, but you're wrong. Either is correct. But glad you like the section!

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Potato salad alternative: If the picnicking poster happens to observe Lenten abstinence from meats (Good Friday), perhaps an elegant pasta salad would be nice instead of German (with bacon) potato salad. The colored pastas and some spring veggies would be fabulous, I'd think. Just my 2 cents

Bonnie Benwick: His recipe has no bacon, fyi. It gets its smoky flavor from smoked Spanish paprika.

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Boynton Beach,: My store ran out of cake meal. Can I substitute matzo meal?

Bonnie Benwick: Cake meal's a much finer grind, so try processing your matzoh meal in a food processor until it's as fine as a heavy flour.

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Alexandria, Va.: So excited for being outside this weekend in the sunshine! We're having guests over for dinner on Saturday, and we ordered a butter-flied leg of lamb from Steve, the fabulous butcher at Let's Meat in Alexandria. We'd love to do it on the grill -- should we marinate, or just leave it alone with some garlic or whatever inserted? I read somewhere about soaking rosemary and throwing it on the coals -- would that be good to try?

Also, any ideas for a spring cocktail to serve that would have an easy mocktail version? I'm pregnant and get easily jealous of other people's delicious drinks.

Paula Whyman: For the cocktails, how about mojitos? For mock version, just muddle the mint, add syrup, club soda, lime, and leave out the rum.

Jason Wilson: I think the best mocktails aren't just versions of drinks where you leave out the liquor, but rather real drinks on their own. Last spring, I wrote about a book called Preggatinis. Mocktails can be simple as a Salty Puppy (a version of the Salty Dog that subs tonic water for gin) or as complex as the Folic Fizz or the Dark Invader.

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D.C.: Okay, the Sangria cured ham recipe looks to die for -- my problem -- I don't have enough time to get the ingredients, prep, cure, rinse and roast before Easter! (insert quick plea to have complicated holiday recipes posted earlier). Any other ham preparation techniques you can think of that don't take as long? Usually I go with a oj/brown sugar glaze.

Bruce Weinstein: It's still not too late to brine a ham. You can get it in the brine tonight and then in water on Saturday and you're good to roast on Sunday. Otherwise, try roasting the ham without a brine. A fresh roast ham is a great thing. A Moroccan rub or even a maple syrup and butter glaze will make it a killer fresh ham roast.

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Post.com: I DID go to the correct Food page. It is back to normal now, but as of 10 a.m. it was two stories with photos on top and then just a bunch of headlines.

Joe Yonan: Strange. Sorry for the lecture, then. The page was looking fine last night and again this morning for me, so not sure what happened...

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Yeast bread temp #2: Was Paula using Celsius temps -- because her 98 degrees would be the equivalent of my 205F?

Paula Whyman: Actually, I was using Martian temp... Sorry!!

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Picnic Potato Salad: I'm not a big mayo fan, so I make dressing for potato salad with sour cream, goat cheese, and enough white wine vinegar to thin it. Mix with cooked, cut red skin potatoes (cool them before you mix, so you don't end up with mashed potatoes!) and plenty of dill and/or chives (with parsley or green onions, too, if I have them on hand), plus salt and pepper. I've also mixed in sautéed onions and garlic, to good effect.

Bonnie Benwick: Sounds good.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello! I am having an Easter brunch this Sunday. I have a typical brunch menu that I make - butterscotch pull-parts, fruit salad with homemade granola, egg/ham strata, and grits casserole. All are tried and true. However, I'm bored! What else could I make that still allows me to make it all ahead (except for the grits). Thanks.

Bruce Weinstein: There's a few ham casserole recipes in our new book you can make ahead and warm up that morning. Or try the Spanish ham and pasta salad I created for the Post in today's paper!

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Baking a "regular" ham: Loved the piece on brining a fresh ham! That's the kind of thing I really enjoy reading, just for the adventure of it all even if I never do it. And, in this case, I won't, at least not now. We bought a cured half ham on Monday for Easter. And I'm trying to figure out what to do with it. I am not a huge fan of ham except in sandwiches, but my husband wanted it for Easter. I have no experience in preparing ham except in warming ham steaks for our dinner. My mom can't stand it and is not a good one to consult. MIL is deceased, and all my husband can advise is, "I don't know, I guess you put it in the oven."

Sooo... for those of us not privileged to brine our own, any basic seasoning advice? Not wild about cherry pie filling on ham... Savory is more our boat, but a little sweet would be ok. (Or, just some basic principles to work with as to why and how one seasons a cured ham and how one bakes it.)

Thanks much. Happy Spring to everyone.

Bruce Weinstein: Well, there are plenty of ways to glaze that puppy. I love orange marmalade mixed with a little bourbon. But you know, a good smoked ham doesn't really need anything. You can serve it with some mango chutney, or even rub that on the outside for a glaze

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D.C.: Sorry, but the Print edition listing (at least for the Style section) is far superior because it actually lists every article AND their authors. I'm not sure why the Post decided that I'm only interested in reading six-eight articles and that I don't care who wrote them.

Joe Yonan: I'm talking about for Food.

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Cooking with Olive Oil: Last year when I was in Italy (actually it would have been this week, sigh)our guide and again during a tour of a fattoria producing wine and olive oil it was expressed that you don't cook with extra virgin olive olive that the heat destroys the flavor and balance. Is that true?

Bonnie Benwick: It's kinda funny. When I was in Israel, chefs and cooks told me they used extra-virgin olive oil for quick-frying all the time. According to the Olive Oil Source, a "high-quality" extra-virgin olive oil has a smoke point between 365 and 400 degrees F, which puts it in the same frying-friendly league as canola oil.

Joe Yonan: I would just add that I bet what your source was driving at is the idea that a particularly delicately flavored olive oil tastes best when used raw. (So if you're spending good money on one, it's worth saving for the uses that showcase its flavor.)

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Thai restaurant: Went to a Thai restaurant and ordered a bunch of apps, most of them salads and cold noodles with shrimp or chicken and larb gai. I was totally enchanted with the lime, cilantro-type dressing and can't figure out what other ingredients are being used. Would love to whip up my own Thai salad at home.

Joe Yonan: Try this Thai Shrimp Salad, or this Green Papaya Salad, or this Crab and Papaya Salad.

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Testing bread: Cook's Illustrated says that checking for hollow sound doesn't always work, and they like to take the internal temperature of the bread. But they don't say what the temp should be. Also, would this work for quick breads?

Paula Whyman: I was corrected on the internal bread temp for yeast breads: should be 190-210.

Quick breads are different--For those you do need a tester stick to make sure it's not wet in the middle.

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Ham ham and more ham: I just LOVED the article today about ham. I knew more after 10 mins of reading than in 55 years of living. I can't wait to make a brined ham. It will be a welcome change from the typical ham I had growing up - pineapple slices stuck on with cloves.

washingtonpost.com: For Easter, start fresh (including video) (Post, March 31)

Bonnie Benwick: I was mightily impressed with the recipe. Bruce and Mark know their hindquarters, so to speak.

And speaking of that recipe, the print edition left out the roasting temperature, which is 350 degrees and now included in the online version of the recipe

here

.

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Baltimore, Md.: You guys probably get this question often, but what type of frying pan or skillet, in your experience, is best against food sticking? I particularly like to cook omelets and, for the life of me, can never get a perfect one to come off the pan. I'm currently using a Teflon non-stick pan and have tried every solution I could find. I've used butter, oils, cooking sprays, lower temperatures... but nothing has ever worked. Thank you!

Paula Whyman: I use cast iron, and heat the pan before adding the food. But for me the key to anything not sticking is to leave it in place long enough that it forms a little crust, then it will separate from the pan without sticking. It can be hard to wait for it to happen, though!

Joe Yonan: And omelets are a special challenge. I use my steel crepe pan for them, to good effect. But if you want nonstick, I'd upgrade to something like Swiss Diamond.

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Pine Plains: For Passover, our solution to a dessert that wouldn't upstage the cheesecake is the easiest thing ever to make: chocolate with dried fruit and nuts, based on an Everyday Food recipe. Melt some good chocolate, drop tablespoons of it on parchment or waxed paper then sprinkle on chopped nuts and dried fruit. We used two combinations both with toasted pecans: apricots and raisins, dried sweetened cranberries and sweetened coconut flakes. Chill till firm. People love them and think they must be harder to make than they are.

Paula Whyman: This sounds great! We also do caramel-chocolate matzoh in our house: butter and brown sugar simmered together into a syrup, poured on sheets of matzoh and baked until it bubbles, remove from oven, sprinkle with chocolate chips, and spread as they melt. Then freeze it on a pan and break up into reasonable portions. I can make this nondairy, using the right kind of chocolate and margarine. Still earns its nickname: "matzoh crack."

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: Any wine recommendations for serving with the Easter ham? We'll have a savory mustard sauce with it rather than a sweet glaze.

Jason Wilson: Yeah, the Easter ham is challenging, since it's so salty, and then you've got the sweet glaze. For a white, I'd go with a dry German riesling or one from Washington state. Or perhaps an Austrian Gruner Veltliner. For reds, that's a tough one. One school of thought says big, high-alcohol, like a Zinfandel, but I think something softer like an Austrian Zweigelt would be good.

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Passionfruit: There's a syrup sold in bottles at Shemalis on New Mexico Ave NW (3301 New Mexico Ave). At least, it was there the last time I looked. If not, Rodman's would be a good place to check.

Bonnie Benwick: Good to know, thanks!

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Almond milk: How come almonds are high-calorie but almond milk is as little as 40 calories for 8 ozs? Is it just water with a teeny bit of almond flavoring?

Bonnie Benwick: Good question! We'll see whether Jane Touzalin, a.k.a. the Chat Leftovers queen, will answer that next week.

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Cathedral Heights: Hi, Bonnie,

Ginger juice? Do I make it or does it come in a jar? (If it's pre-made, where do I get it?)

Also, can I substitute scallions or garlic for the shallots, or is that a no-no?

Many thanks! After several disappointing tries, I've been wanting a good recipe for making salmon en papillote, and this looks like it'll do the trick! I'm even willing to shop for shallots if you think that's important.

Bonnie Benwick: Hey Cathedral. Ginger juice does indeed come in a small bottle, made by a company called The Ginger People (you can order online) and available at Whole Foods Market, Balducci's, MOM's and others. Scallions will get a little water-logged in this recipe, whereas the shallots retain a bit of crunch and have more oniony flavor. Your choice....

Joe Yonan: I grate my ginger using a little ceramic Japanese device, whose little teeth pull out all the pulp/fiber, leaving pure juice around the edges. If I were making Bonnie's recipe, and I think I will, that's what I'd use.

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Low and slow: So the funny thing about my slow cooker is that even the "low" setting seems to keep things at a boil. Is it just me? I don't feel comfortable leaving it on all day.

Bruce Weinstein: I have a number of slow cookers and one of them boils away on low while the other givers me a true low low. Yours might not be calibrated properly. Call the manufacturer or bring it back to the store.

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We like the Piggie!: I always laugh/moan that the overlap of my and my husband's tastes is ham! (He prefers beef, I prefer chicken.) But I worry about eating too much because of the sodium. Are there any ways to serve it that don't have too much sodium? I'm assuming that it is lower fat than it used to be and is not too too bad in that dept. I am always trying to find food that two people with two different tastes will both enjoy for dinner, lol!

Bruce Weinstein: You know, you can always go with a fresh ham.

No brining. No curing. No smoking.

It will be the best pork roast you've ever had.

Try it with an Italian rub. I'm doing that for Easter this weekend: garlic, rosemary, lemon, and olive oil.

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Boulder, Colo.: For the picnic-er, you should also do a search for a feature this food section did 2 or 3 years ago asking local caterers to come up with different picnic ideas at certain price points. There are some good recipes in that story and bonus, Carla from Top Chef was one of the contributors!

Bonnie Benwick: That was a fun feature.

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Not goaty enough: Bought a new type of chevre this week, and sadly, it has none of the tang I associate with goat cheese. It tastes a lot like Philly cream cheese, actually. So do I just spread it on my morning bagel, or do you have any other suggestions for me?

Not that there's anything wrong with Philly, it's just not what I wanted for the goat cheese, watercress, celery and walnut pesto sandwich recipe out of the 'wichcraft cookbook.

Bruce Weinstein: Well, I've just finished writing a goat cook book and half of it is about cheese. If you're chevre is mild, then herb it up with chopped fresh tarragon or basil and dot it on top of a pizza. Some anchovies and olives, roasted garlic, and eggplant will perk that cheese right up.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: My mother always served fresh ham at New Year and I have a few outstanding recipes, all of which involve brining/marinating for several days. At that time of year at least one grocery (usually Magruder's) features fresh ham. At this time of year smoked ham is available everywhere, but nary a mention of the fresh stuff. Unless you special order at some high end shop, I think you would be hard-pressed to serve the Food Section's featured meat this Sunday. (I live in Montgomery County, which means no Wegmans until 2011 or 2012.)

Bruce Weinstein: Well, if you can't find a fresh ham soon enough to brine it, you can always roast and serve it as a fresh ham. Still do the red wine and oranges in the pan and brush/glaze it with that. A fresh ham is a wonderful thing. Unbrined, uncured, the perfect back end roast of a pig.

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Sugar: Is sugar good forever, like honey? And they can be exchanged evenly in recipes -- a cup for a cup? Thank you.

Leigh Lambert: Theoretically, sugar will stay good indefinitely. However, I've found it can pick up some "off" flavors from the cupboard, etc. It won't hurt you; just use your judgment if it smells odd.

Sugar and honey need to be used differently in recipes. The moisture in honey needs to be accounted when considering the other wet ingredients. Also, honey is a good bit sweeter than white sugar so it is not a one for one exchange.

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Slow cooker: Please tell the chatter that they are safe as long as you don't have anything near them. The outside can get hot and will melt plastic (like a bread bag -- don't ask how I know). It is great to come home to dinner already cooked. When I use mine I have everything in it ready to go and just pull the insert out of the fridge and pop it in the actual cooking element part, turn it on low and go.

Joe Yonan: Yes, indeed!

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Re: veggie casserole: I've seen veggie casseroles using polenta as a base/crust, which you then fill (Moosewood cookbook, I think). Or, how about a strata (assuming eggs and cheese are OK)? You could probably find one that includes lots of veggies. I've done one with tomatoes and spinach -- from Marthastewart.com, I think. Finally, a fritatta or quiche would have that same casserole feel, maybe, though quiches can be heavy on milk/cheese.

Leigh Lambert: Polenta! Brilliant thought.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a non-Easter, non-Passover question for you. I have to cook dinner on Saturday for 5 grownups and 6 kids. Our guests have been incredible hosts to us on many occasions, and are great cooks, so we want to cook something nice. The trick is, I can't be on my feet for too long (I'm pregnant -- doctor's orders). Any suggestions for something that's springy, kid-friendly, and tasty, but could mostly be cooked in the oven and doesn't require tons and tons of chopping? Or am I pushing my luck?

Paula Whyman: If it doesn't have to be fancy or formal, when it's a combo of adults and kids, I often do personal pizzas. I can make all the pizza dough and half bake the crusts in advance. Pre-prep toppings, including fancy ones for adults (prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes, etc) and simpler ones for the kids, then everyone tops their own pizza. People seem to love it.

Bonnie Benwick: Two suggestions: This Spaghetti With Curried Chicken Meatballs won't take too much time on your feet and it's mild enough that kids would like it. And Fettuccine With Creamy Zucchini Sauce can handle various add-ins -- you could make half of it as is and add grilled chicken or shrimp.

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Napa Valley: A question for Dave McIntyre: My boyfriend and I will be attending a wedding in May in Napa Valley, in the northern part near Calistoga. Winery tours are on our agenda, but with so many in the area we were hoping for some recommendations. We drink whites and reds, though usually prefer whites. One friend recommended Robert Mondavi as a good starting place. Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

Jason Wilson: If you're going to start at Robert Mondavi, another nice one nearby is Far Niente. I also like Spring Mountain Vineyard and Pride Mountain Vineyard, which are close to one another. And also Joseph Phelps, and then Schramsberg for sparkling wine. I had a nice visit to Hoenig a while back, too, but I think you'll have to call ahead to make an appointment.

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Twin Cities, Minn.: What can be substituted for smoke in sauces or meat, I am allergic to smoke additives and some wood smoke. I adore barbeque sauce but the commercially prepared and some restaurant-served ones leave me not breathing too well(anaphylaxis) and have landed me in the ER. I make my own BBQ sauce but it just doesn't have the special taste. Ideas? Thanks!

Leigh Lambert: Try smoked paprika. It lends a very earthy tone.

Bruce Weinstein: I always feel that if you are unable to eat a certain thing, it's best to just leave it out and eat other things rather try and find substitutions. Problem here is that all smoky tasting things including a killer new smoked olive oil I've been guzzling is made with real wood smoke. You can always roast a few peppers on your stove top or under the broiler. the charred taste will add depth without any wood components to make you sick.

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've transferred us to a cutting board and let us stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before carving, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great questions and answers today, and thanks to Bruce and Paula for helping us handle them. Now for the giveaway book winners: The Fairfax chatter who got us on a potato salad jag will get "Eat What You Love" by Marlene Koch, and the chatter who called him/herself "Ham ham and more ham" will get ... "Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter" by Bruce and Mark Scarbrough. Send your mailing info to us at food@washpost.com, and we'll get you your books.

Until next time, happy brining, baking, eating and reading.

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