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Free Range on Food: Why we love vanilla, perfect brisket, food safety tips for the grilling season, andouille sausage and more

The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, May 26, 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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Bonnie Benwick: The sun's shining and aromas of brisket and vanilla are wafting in the breeze....it must be time to talk Food. Gastronomer Andreas Viestad, brisketeer Jim Shahin, Nourish columnist Stephanie "Sesame Noodle Salad" Sedgwick and Spirits guru Jason Wilson (who wrote the entertaining Soave piece) are waiting to answer your questions. Also, Lisa Jones of the Pennsylvania Beef Council is on hand to answer your meaty nutritional and food-safety queries, since the grilling season's roaring up this weekend.

Two lucky chatters will vie for copies of "Cook Italy," source of today's Dinner in Minutes recipe, and for "The Kansas City Barbecue Society Cookbook," which was my fave of this season's books on the subject.

We have an impressive early batch of questions already, so let's get rolling.

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re vanilla extract: Thanks for featuring vanilla in today's food section!

Maybe I missed it, but I didn't see any comparisons of different kinds of vanilla extract.

I bought some absurdly expensive such extract made in Madagascar but it doesn't taste better to me than store-brand extract.

I'd like to know what you think. Maybe you don't like extract at all ...?

Thanks.

Andreas Viestad: I don't mind extract. In many ways it is more convenient. Still, I think that it removes me from the bean. And I appreciate the texture, looks and feeling of a vanilla bean. I have no list of favorites when it comes to extract but with beans my favorites are Zanzibar, Reunion and Madagascar, not necessarily in that order.

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Vanilla Calories: What is the caloric content of vanilla? I've been adding ground vanilla to my Starbucks coffee and have wondered if it's the equivalent of sugar.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Best to check at Starbucks. I have a sample jar of vanilla powder and the label says it's ground vanilla in a dextrose (sugar) base. How much sugar, I'm not sure, since it wasn't labeled for retail sale.

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Arlington, VA (by Way of Austin): As a former Austinite (I was a staff reporter at the Austin American-Statesman), I have worshiped at all the high temples of barbecue in South-Central Texas. Here I have my own Texas smoker with offset firebox. One problem I have encountered here is getting a brisket with a nice fat cap. Most places, even Whole Foods, get briskets shipped that are pre-trimmed. Now, here is a shortcut that will shock purists, but works if you haven't 18 hours to slow smoke a brisket: slow cook dry-rubbed brisket for 4 or 5 hours in smoker at 250 degrees, using a drip pan to catch juices. Then wrap extremely rightly -- double wrap, even -- in heavy duty foil, pouring pan juices in before sealing, and roast on 300 for 2-3 hours. Meat will be juicy and succulent -- and you don't lose sleep.

Bonnie Benwick: Ordering from a butcher is the way to go, Arl. I picked up a beauty, with fat cap, from Wagshal's. And it wasn't cheap.

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Vanilla question: Because I do a lot of scratch baking, I recently splurged on a $10 bottle of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla instead of the McCormick brand I usually get. I have to say, though, that I couldn't really taste the difference. Was I suckered? Am I using it incorrectly by adding it to cookies and tarts?

Andreas Viestad: The price for vanilla varies quite a lot, even for what seems like the same bean. With vanilla extract it is even harder to judge what you get, since it it hard to know what they put in it. Therefore, and also because I like the feel and texture, I prefer vanilla beans.

I think it is a great idea to use the finest vanilla for cookies and tarts - you are worth it - but I would also recommend using it in savory dishes. I brings out a lot of other flavors and scents.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, I'm Carolyn Lochhead, the daughter of the founder of Cook's Vanilla (featured in the Shopping Cart today). Love this great story of vanilla and the mysteries of its complex, incomparable aroma. But Andreas, you say beans are picked "slightly unripe." Most are, but only because growers fear theft or need cash. Like any fruit or vegetable picked green, flavor is sacrificed. Our farmers pick ours fully ripened.

Andreas Viestad: Well, maybe this is a question of definition. This is how I understand this: If they are left until completely ripe, they will open. So, yes, you have to wait until they are perfectly ripe in order to produce the finest vanilla beans but not botanically ripe.

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Rockville, MD: Hello there! I'm curious about whether risotto can be prepped ahead and finished at the last minute. From the prevalence on restaurant menus and perhaps a vague memory of something from a cooking competition reality show, I have the impression that maybe it can be done to almost complete (maybe 15 minutes of the slowly adding hot stock and not the full 20 minutes) and then finished at the last minute. I'm hoping to add it to my dinner party repetoire, as opposed to regular dinners, and being able to spend minimal last minute time in the kitchen would be lovely. I figured you all would know such things. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Absolutely. Linda Carucci, one of my favorite cooking teachers, says you can cook the risotto halfway through (as in, cook up to the point when you've added half of the broth), then refrigerate up to 6 hours ahead. Add cheese just before serving. This keeps it quite creamy.

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Vanilla Bean Storage: How long can Vanilla Beans be stored? During a homemade ice-cream faze my husband purchased quite a few jars of the bean and then his interest faded before the beans were used. They have been in the back of the spice cupboard for several years now. Since I am not a baker, I don't use much vanilla, but that pork chop recipe looks really good.

Andreas Viestad: Vanilla beans will last for a long, long time. Last time I visited Zanzibar I bought two pounds of vanilla, which takes a wile to use. They become dry after a while but can be used nonetheless. I reconstitute them using a little brandy, and then they become fat and juicy and plump and they keep forever. I keep them in a jar. It is a joy every time I open that jar.

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Rockville: Hey food people. I'm attending a family reunion next month and my family is in charge of doing dinner for 40 people one night. Already spoken for meals are burgers and a potato bar. Any suggestions for a cheap and easy menu to satisfy the 18 adults and 22 kids (aged 0-16)? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: How about Pizza on the Grill? Big salad, some ice cream sandwiches and you're done.

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Meatless Mondays: Just a comment on last week's chat. Anyone who struggles to cook a dinner without meat has never been a grad student.

Bonnie Benwick: I like that you returned to add your 2 cents, MM.

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A real Texan: Interesting story about Texas smoked brisket today by a Yankee who lived in Texas. As a West Texan, however, I good-naturedly object to that wimpy, vinegary dippin' sauce that sounds more like what Carolina barbecuers use than Texans. At least in West Texas, if you're gonna use a little sauce on your smoked meat, it's tomato-based, thick and spicy. You might offer your readers a recipe for that.

washingtonpost.com: Brisket makes a Texan start smoking

Jim Shahin: Texas has a few identifiable different styles of barbecue, and, with those styles, different types of sauces. The story was about central Texas, or Hill Country style, the type you find in Lockhart and Taylor. You're absolutely right about the use of thick, red, spicy sauces in other parts of the state. The whole sauce thing gets folks to squabblin'. No squabble here. Eat it as you like it. If you want recipes, I recommend The Great BBQ Sauce Book: A Guide with Recipes by Artie Davis.

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Chicago, IL: Hey guys, I'm in need of your guidance!

Short story: What would you buy with a $50 Crate and Barrel gift card?

Long story: I got it as a birthday gift from my MIL, and I think it was supposed to be for a dutch oven, which I had talked about wanting. But there's no way that gift card will be enough for one at C&B, so now I'm trying to figure out what I want. I'm up for spending more than $50, maybe like throwing in an extra $20. I guess I'm looking for something that I will really use in my kitchen and is of good quality. I don't mind getting something I already have because to be truthful, I'm sure most of what I have isn't exactly the best. About the only thing I'm really happy with is my lone cast iron skillet. I'm big into baking but am not interested in cookie cutters and cutesy stuff like that. No coffee stuff, either. But other than that, I'm open to any ideas.

Oh, and does anyone actually spend $4 on this "cake tester"? It's a glorified toothpick!!!

Andreas Viestad: Do you bake? I would buy a baking stone.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Wow, that's a wide open question. You don't like what you have...start with a really great knife.

Bonnie Benwick: Chatters?

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Bethesda Mom: Greetings Food Gurus!

I loved the French toast filled with rhubarb recipe. I'm making a very early breakfast this weekend for post-prom teens and won't be at my sharpest, nor will I have time before then to find rhubarb and cook it. Would it be possible to substitute apple or pumpkin butter, or even strawberry jam for the rhubarb mixture? Could I make this in advance except for the baking?

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Baked French Toast With Rhubarb

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Sure, go ahead and make a substitution. The jam is probably a little on the sweet side, you might want to cut back on the sprinkled sugar.

The whole thing only takes 3 to 4 minutes to assemble if using a prepared filling. I won't even bother with making ahead.

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Richmond, VA: Andouille sausage seems to be mentioned a lot on cooking shows these days, but I've never had it. Sausage tends to be hit or miss with me. What would be a good recipe I could make to see if I like it?

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Love the stuff. You can find fresh andouille in the meat dept (with other raw sausage) or cured andouille at specialty/gourmet purveyors. Be advised that the fresh stuff yields a lot of fat (and glorious paprika color). Bet you'll like both this Chicken and Sausage Gumbo and Sweet Potato and Andouille Hash

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Vanilla crazy: I LOVED the article on vanilla usage by Andreas. I am fairly obsesssed with vanilla and have started a variety of extractions and samplings using beans from around the world. A great source for these (in bulk and cheap) is Vanilla Products. As an aside, vanilla can't be pollinated on Reunion not because it lacks a rich insect fauna, but just because one species of bee that has evolved to pollinate vanilla (sorry, I'm a botanist and couldn't resist!).

Andreas Viestad: Thanks for the precision. The great thing about the artificial pollination (still done by hand) is that it produces a much richer crop than even the most enthusiastic bees.

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Parsley: Hi there, I have a ton of curly parsley right now and am not sure what to do with it--e.g., can it be substituted in recipes that call for flat parsley, or is there that much of a difference? Thanks!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: This question seems to come up all the time. Who knew innocent little parsley could spark so much conversation, but it does.

I was taught in cooking school that flat-leaf was the best choice for cooking. My parsley-loving husband way prefers curly. He thinks it has a more pronounced parsley flavor. Bottom line: Taste and choose what you like to use. There's no wrong choice.

Bonnie Benwick: I do like it better for scampi-type dishes. It tends to have more body or crunch.

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cider vinegar chicken: would it be sacrilege to make this with skinless, boneless chicken breast?

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Absolutely not, go ahead but keep a few things in mind. The chicken will cook quicker. When the breasts are boned commercially, the tenderloins are removed and the breasts are subsequently flatter and weighs less. Also, without the fat from the skin, the finished sauce won't have the same taste. Still, I think you'll enjoy the dish, I know I did!

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vanilla beans: I like this article! Makes me think it's time to make one of my faves: vanilla bean cheesecake! Love the smell of the vanilla while I am making it!!

Bonnie Benwick: If only we'd been able to do a scratch-and-sniff section today.

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Springfield: My husband is a fantastic dad and he loves the Carribean. For Father's Day I want to make him a Carribean themed meal (with a 2 year old, we are not getting there anytime soon). For the main course I am thinking jerk chicken or pork. Any suggestions for sides? And maybe a beverage other than Red Stripe? Thanks!

Jason Wilson: For a Caribbean beverage, how about a Pina Colada with real pureed pineapple (and none of that "cream of coconut" nonsense). Or perhaps that other easy Caribbean classic, the Dark n Stormy?

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Kensington, MD: Substitution question - In 2005, you printed a fantastic recipe for a sour cream coffee cake. I clipped it from the paper and it is my go to recipe for coffee cake. I want to make it this weekend for my inlaws who are visiting. I happen to have creme fraiche on hand and am wondering if a straight subsitution of the creme fraiche for the sour cream will work. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Is that the Rose Levy Beranbaum recipe? She's pretty good about answering q's on her Web site, but I think the substitution could work here (2/3 cup).

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Washington, DC: Thank you so much for the wonderfully informative article about vanilla this morning. I've been a big vanilla fan for a long time and have wanted to try some savory recipes with it. The pork chops sound great--I don't have a grill though, so I'd probably do this in a pan and just make sure the seed pod bits don't make it onto the plate. Do you have any fish recipes? I would think there'd be a good sauce for white fish that would use vanilla. Just a thought.

Andreas Viestad: I have enjoyed vanilla with cod and with salmon. My favorite is still the one I got on Reunion, Trout with Rum and Vanilla. The idea was simple, fry the fish with salt and vanilla, flambe with rum and that's it. I'd like to add that the village where I got this was called Hell Bourg, and the cook's name was Scholastique Javel. What a place!

Bonnie Benwick: I bet if you had a salmon recipe that called for a gingery marinade, a little vanilla bean added to it would be just loverly.

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Ballston, VA: Help I need a recipe for taco meat made with unhealthly ground beef. I really don't want to use the prepackaged seasoning mix. Help me please. A link , a recipe or something I am desparate

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: I make my tacos using Penzey's taco seasoning. It's delicious and saves me having to buy a ton of spices. They have a retail store in Rockville and one in Falls Church or you can order online at penzeys.com

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Baltimore: Hello

I am having a BBQ on Monday. Some of the guests are vegetarian. Do you have any suggestions for something I could throw on the grill for them? They will eat seafood. Thanks.

Jim Shahin: A nice plate of mixed vegetables might include zucchini, eggplant, thick slices of onion, red bell pepper. Grill over moderately-hot coals a few minutes on each side. Remove from the grill, place on a platter and dress with a little extra-virgin olive oil, some balsamic (or even just white wine) vinegar, some minced garlic, chopped oregano, salt, and pepper. Some folks prefer to brush some oil on the vegetables before putting on the grill. That's fine, too. As for seafood, skewered shrimp is easy and takes only a few minutes; dress with extra-virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of crushed red pepper, some kosher salt, a dash of black pepper, and a splash or two of lemon. Any firm fish filet works well - swordfish, for example.

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Annandale, Virginia: The article on vanilla was particularly interesing to me, since I'm planing on making homemade vanilla extract. Rather than make plain vanilla, I'm going to use light rum for the base, and possibly add lemon and/or orange zest to one batch. Any suggestions for how many vanilla beans to a bottle of rum? Good places to buy vanilla beans in bulk? Would dark rum be better, or would it be too "rummy"?

If this works out, I'll be giving rum vanilla extract for Christmas. If not, I may be asking for vanilla rum cocktail recipes.

Andreas Viestad: Rum and vanilla - a perfect marriage. I'd use simple rum, not too dark, preferably what the French call Rhum Agricole.

I would leave the bean in, and not add too many per bottle. That way you can fish out the bean and use that, too.

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Raw beef?: Hi Lisa, my husband says it's OK to put raw beef on a plate, take it to the grill, grill it, and then put the cooked meat back on the same (unwashed) plate. Is he right?

Lisa Jones: I know most men like to be right but in this circumstance he is not. Never have raw food come in contact with cooked food. Afterall, we want to prevent foodborne illness.

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Sampling andouille sausage: I would recommend a sizzling shrimp and sausage dish. There was one featured a while back on the PBS show cultivating life. The closest I could find is this.

You can add some sliced andouille to it (I do this frequently). Then you can sample the andouille and if you don't like it, you can have the shrimp. However, the wonderful spices from the andouille will still flavor the shrimp. I think this is a good way to sample the andouille and if one person isn't as fond of it, they can eat around it and others can eat the sausage.

Bonnie Benwick: Yum.

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Another reason to like vanilla beans: Vanilla sugar. The nice thing about vanilla beans is they can be "recycled" by adding the pods to an air-tight container of (granulated) sugar and set aside. In a couple of weeks, you'll have delicious vanilla sugar for coffee, baking, etc. I add pods to my vanilla sugar canister whenever I can and only use extract when I'm truly rushed.

Andreas Viestad: That's the best way to do it.

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Virginia: What does caviar taste like? Is it really a delicacy or a fad that was blown out of proportion?

Andreas Viestad: If you haven't tasted it, it is hard to describe: It is wonderful and strange and a bit perverse, salty and fatty and fishy. Like a wonderful painting or an opera you don't have to like it to appreciate that it is very special.

It is very, very expensive. I am not sure it is worth the price but this is how it has been most of the time. It is hard to call it a fad, for a fad can't last for centuries, can it?

Bonnie Benwick: Texture's part of the experience, too.

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Vegetable Cookbook: I'm trying to increase the amount of vegetables I eat. Not going vegetarian but I'm looking for vegetable recipes. All I find in the book store are vegetarian cookbooks are these the best ones for vegetable recipes or is there a specific cookbook or website you can recommend? Thank you!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: My favorite primers for vegetable cooking are Marcella Hazan's early books. They include basic Italian methods for cooking the most common vegetables. Sometimes the basic recipes are the best ones.

Bonnie Benwick: You could start tonight by making the Dinner in Minutes: Penne With Roasted Vegetables.

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Loudoun County, VA: Hi! Enjoy the weekly sessions and find I now have a question - hope you can help.

I was recently diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure and as such I have to eat a low sodium/low fat diet. This isn't a real problem - I get to eat a lot because many of the things I enjoy are good for me - fresh fruits, veggies etc.

The problem I am having is taste. Everything is so bland - no salt butter helps as do things such as all natural peanut butter and chocolate -low sodium, not so low fat I suppose] but I miss taste and I don't like Mrs. Dash etc.

Any suggestions on how to up the savory flavor of my meals -especially dinner] without the added sodium? I really am not worried about the fat part as I have continued to lose weight and seem to need to actually put weight on.

Thanks!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: The three biggest flavor boosters I use are citrus, fresh herbs and spices. I'd say my favorite is citrus because orange, lime and lemon all bring so much to the table, especially when you use the zest. Chopped herbs are the next one and 'tis the season. Next, of course, are the dry spices which you'll have to experiment with.

The key to low-salt cooking is to limt, not eliminate the salt. Usually a pich of salt is enough to round out flavors as long as there's some flavor to round out.

Lisa Jones: Try the following to season your food:

Tart-lemon or lime juice

Hot-peppers are low in sodium; hot sauce has salt, but if you use just a drop or two it will not add up to much

Herbs and spices-onions, garlic, other salt-free seasonings like Mrs. Dash.

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Washington, DC: Hello, can you tell me how to repair a cast iron grill that has rust on it? Thanks

Bonnie Benwick: Experts tend to recommended a fine grade of steel wool to remove any rust that is not too deep. Use soap to remove all traces, then dry. You have to re-season the skillet (heat, oil, etc).

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Paul, Commerce Twp, MI: I was surprised that no one mentioned Tahiti and French Polynesia as a source of Vanilla-we toured vanilla plantations on several islands thru the Marquesas. It is interesting to note that the product of each island and plantation is distinctly different, though all are of the highest quality.

Andreas Viestad: Bourbon and Tahiti vanilla are two different varieties. They are both very good. It is often said that the Tahiti vanilla is more upfront, with a little higher vanillin content and a little less of the dark, complex aromas. I prefer Bourbon vanilla but have nothing against Tahiti. And, as you say, it also depends a lot on the farm and the location.

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Alexandria, VA: Do you know if the powder form of the vanilla you were discussing in the food section has sugar in it? I have been looking for pure vanilla powder that won't color an otherwise white icing and I think this may do it. Thank you!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Yes, the vanilla powder is perfect for flavoring without coloring. The sample I have is from Cook's.

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curly leaf parsley: My MIL would always garnish her dinner plates with sprigs of parsley. My FIL would pop his into his mouth after he finished his meal, saying "Ah, nature's breath freshener." Sorry for the personal stroll down Memory Lane.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: That's okay. My grandmother always served my grandfather his dinner followed by a small bowl of parsley. Guess it was the an old world way of breath freshening after the meal.

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Washington, DC: I love vanilla, thanks so much for the recipes!

I wonder if you can help with one more --- for salmon with vanilla:

A few years ago, I made a fabulous recipe for vanilla-infused or -marinated salmon that I'd heard on a morning news program. It was possibly the best salmon I've ever had. Unfortunately, I lost the recipe and have been unable to locate or recreate it. Any ideas?

It was probably baked in foil but I don't really remember.

Thanks so much!

washingtonpost.com: The Magic Bean

Andreas Viestad: When I make salmon with vanilla I season it with vanilla, salt, pepper, maybe a light dusting of curry. I add a splash of white wine and wrap (or cover) with foil.

This time of year I'd serve with asparagus.

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Vanilla love: Last summer I made a big batch of apricot jam, and added a vanilla bean to the jam while it was cooking. Oh man, amazing flavor! I only gave that jam away to my most favorite people who I knew would appreciate it, and I have only two jars left, and am hoarding them until apricots come back into season.

Bonnie Benwick: Apricot and vanilla are a great match. Then again, almond and hazelnut are, too.

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Reston, Va: There was a display of dried mangoes on sale and I purchased a couple of packages. At first I thought of making a dried fruit snack, but now I am wondering if I could soak them in white wine and then combine them with onions and herbs to make a chutney. Would it be a good idea to try that?

Bonnie Benwick: I find that dried mango's very sweet. So if you like your chutney on the sweet side, have at it.

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Crate and Barrel gift card: Your MIL's $50 gift will go almost twice as far if you use it in a Crate & Barrel outlet, I won't be surprised if there is one in your area,

Bonnie Benwick: That might be one busy place on a holiday weekend.

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Arlington, VA: While I am totally aware of the fact that fresh vegetables are much better tasting and perhaps more nutritious than the frozen ones. But for me it becomes hard to keep buying fresh produce every second day! Going to the grocery store is not easy for me. We (Family of 4) eat a lot of veggie dishes. I would like to know if it is okay (at least it is healthy) to cook, serve and eat frozen veggies. Thanks for your advice.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Go right ahead. Many frozen vegetables are higher in nutritional content than fresh as they're flash frozen in a plant on or next to the fields. Just take care not ruin nature and man's good work by overcooking them.

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Kitchen cleanliness: Hi Lisa, I try to be vigilant about keeping our chopping/cooking surfaces clean after handling raw meat, especially chicken, but I worry about our wood cutting board. I wash it with soap and hot water after it's had raw meat on it. Is that enough? Or should I switch to plastic?

Lisa Jones: Wood cutting boards do absorb more stains and bacteria but if that is your preference keep using it! You are doing the first step by wiping it down with a sponge and hot, soapy water immediately after use. You could also sprinkle table salt on the affected area and rub with a lemon wedge. If you have a tougher stain use an abrasive antibacterial cleaner and scouring pad. Fine sandpaper can be used if it is a severe stain (rub along the grain of the wood though). Make sure to rinse the board well and wipe off excess water with a clean towel and lean the board against the countertop for proper drying. Hope this helps

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Alexandria, VA: I have this recipe that calls for morels, but my goodness they are very expensive. Is there something that is more price-friendly that I can substitute or do I spend $40 for an ounce of dried morels?

Bonnie Benwick: Find a pal who knows how to forage for them?

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Paul, Commerce Twp, MI: Q for Jim Shahin: Have you even done BBQ on a Holland Grill? It is set to cook at about 450f, but if you fill the drip tray with water it lowers the temp to 250. You can achive a smoke ring on initial cooking using wood chips prior to lowering the temp by filling the drip tray for slow cooking. The burner is gas fired.

Jim Shahin: I have never cooked on a Holland Grill. I've had food prepared on them, and always enjoyed the meal. We get into a whole philosophical thing here, though. A lot of rigs these days are gas-fired. They use pellets or a hunk of log. Increasingly, large versions of these ovens are being used in barbecue restaurants. They get the job done, and they do it without all the hassle. But, for me, anyway, there is something lost in barbecuing that way. I'm a throwback that way - I like the smell of the smoke, the figuring which size of wood to put on the fire, the ritual of the old ways. Wha..? Sorry. Was drifting off there in a romantic haze. Short answer: nope, haven't cooked with a Holland - or any other gas-fired rig.

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Vanilla Brandy: So, would you explain a little about reconstituting the beans with brandy? Do you pour the brandy in the jar and leave them to soak? And about the brandy - how does that taste? Maybe pour it over pound cake.

Andreas Viestad: To reconstitute I'd just add a few drops and leave it to soak. If you want a surplus, to be used in a pound cake, just add a bit more. It is delicious.

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Arlington VA: It's definitely a BBQ kind of weekend. In addition to the burgers, we're making chicken kabobs. The original recipe has the chicken chunks wrapped in bacon then skewered with pineapple and mushrooms, marinated/basted in a sweet sauce. What other veggies would work on the skewer that to add both flavor and color? I was thinking vidalia onions, but anything else more colorful? Thanks!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: I'm not a huge fan of mixing vegetables and meat on the same skewer. The vegetable just don't get cooked. The pienapple will be fine, but grill the mushrooms and whatever else you'd like (zucchini's great on the grill) separately.

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Eastern Market: Hi food gurus! This makes me very sad to submit, because every single recipe I've tried from the WP has been fantastic. I was REALLY looking forward to making the mahogany shortribs, because I know they're a food section favorite. But I made them this weekend and they were not good. At all. They tasted like regular beef in teriyaki sauce - like a bad stirfry at home. I didn't get any depth from the prune juice - they were just salty and odd-tasting.

Thankfully, I rescued them by shredding the meat and making a quite delicious ropa vieja.

So, my question - did I do something wrong? I followed the recipe to a T (I think). Is it just my taste buds? What are they SUPPOSED to taste like?

Thanks! :)

washingtonpost.com: Mahogany Short Ribs

Bonnie Benwick: Sorry, Eastern. Maybe it's best if you call us directly (202-334-7575) so we can go over the crime scene. It's been a ridicuously popular recipe over the years.

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re; brisket with a nice fat cap: Do you have any friends that own a restaurant ? If not make friends with one! There several places called restaurant depot in the ares(one in Alexandria, Va and one in Capital Heights, MD). You can get a whole brisket that has a fat cap they will need a trim.

Bonnie Benwick: Good idea. Or borrow your resto friend's Depot card to get in.

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Late Arriving Guests: I have two guests arriving at Dulles from Europe at 7 pm, which will be 1 am on their body clocks. By the time they clear customs and luggage and we get home, it will be close to 9. What can I feed them (to be hospitable) that my husband can prepare while we're en route? He's prettty adventuresome as a cook, but I don't want anything heavy or too complicated, given that they will probably want to crash.

Bonnie Benwick: Eggs always go over easy. For your particular situation, I'm a fan of making poached chicken sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a little mayo, Dijon mustard and black pepper. Cut them in half. Betcha can't eat just one.

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For "Parsley": Try French Potato Salad:

Boil potatoes till nearly done. While they're cooking, wash and chop prodigious quantities of parsley (curly or flat). Slice potatoes thin. In a semi-shallow serving bowl (I use a pasta platter), - place a layer of potato slices, sprinkle lightly with vinegar: oil (1:3) mixed with a couple diced garlic cloves, S&P to taste, then toss on handfuls of parsley. Repeat from - several times. Do NOT TOSS the potatoes, as they'll start to fall apart. Cover and refrigerate till chilled, or until ready to serve (if longer).

Jane Black: Sounds delicious.

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Arlington, VA: If you don't have the patience or skill to smoke your own brisket, and your craving justifies any shipping charges, Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX will ship their oh so delicious brisket right to your door.

Jim Shahin: Other good mail-order sources: Snow's Barbecue in Lexington, TX, voted number one in Texas Monthly's quintennial survey of the state's best barbecue joints. Kreuz Market, Smitty's, both in Lockhart, TX, which ranked in Texas Monthly's top five. Cooper's, from Llano, TX, is excellent as well; didn't make the Top 5 this last go-round, but gets five stars from Yelp and is widely regarded as one of the state's finest.

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Arlington, VA: Enjoyed Jane Black's "acidic test." You are so right, Jane, fruit vinegars need to be measured by drops, or 1/4 tea spoonfuls, not 1/4 of 1/3 cupfuls which can make the best salad inedible. (Been there, done that!) By the way, the last time I was at IKEA I picked up two kinds of vinegar made in Sweden; the more expensive one, if I recall correctly, about $15, was immediately "confiscated" by my daughter, who fell in love with it, and remaining bottle of a considerably cheaper one "appelvinager med lingon" (apple wine vinegar with lingonberry) has just a few spoonfuls left. Must buy more.

washingtonpost.com: The acid test

Jane Black: Funny. I have one of the cheaper IKEA one -- appelvinager med lingon -- on my desk (courtesy of Bonnie). It's nice but I it's apple vinegar infused with lingonberries, not made from them. I say splurge on the good stuff!

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vinegar question: I adore vinegars of all type and usually skip the oil when dressing a salad, prefering just vinegar and herbs. my husband, however, doesn't like the assertive taste of vinegar, prefering creamy ranch-like salad dressings (blech!). is there any way when preparing a salad dressing to tame the vinegariness or the vinegar (barring adding a ton of oil). or, is there a type of vinegar that might be more mellow?

Jane Black: You can't make vinegar taste as creamy as ranch dressing. Just not going to happen. My go-to vinaigrette is Dijon mustard, wine vinegar and oil. But you need some oil to get that creamier consistency and to tame the taste. As for a mellower vinegar: balsamic or a fruit vinegar might do the trick.

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Stovetop frittata?: I like to oven-bake little frittatas in my 6-inch cast iron skillet. If I have something else going in the oven, can I do the frittata on the stovetop instead? If so, would it take more or less time to cook?

Jane Black: You can absolutely do it on the stovetop. I believe in doing frittatas at a pretty low heat -- it keeps the eggs creamy. So it might take a bit longer than in the oven.

Bonnie Benwick: If you think it's a little soupy or not quite set on the top, you can always flip it TV-chef style, or use a plate to invert.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: Will I ever be able to achieve great homemade BBQ if I don't have a backyard?

Jane Black: I'm going to go out on a limb here and say no. You really can't smoke meats well inside. Or maybe I'm just saying that because I don't have a backyard so that's my excuse.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Even if you could, which you can't, your home would smell like a smokehouse for days. I think your love of the barbecue would fade pretty quickly.

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More parsley: Graham Kerr ("The Galloping Gourmet") used to claim on his shows that parsley was an aphrodisiac, so people should eat it even when it was just the garnish on the dinner plate. I suspect this was partly just to incentivize people to eat their parsley, but considering how nutritious the stuff is, the ends justify the means! Besides, it couldn't hurt, could it?

Bonnie Benwick: I believe he was always slightly inebriated on that show.

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Reviving cast iron: I have not tried this personally, but I have a friend who buys cast iron pans at yard sales for $1 or so, then puts them in the oven on the self-clean mode. They come out free of rust, then she simply re-seasons them before using.

Bonnie Benwick: Oh, I've heard of that. Nice to know it works.

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Vegetarian AND low carb: Hi Rangers, hoping you can help me out. I have been making more and more meatless meals for dinner recently in an effort to cut back on meat consumption (environment, health, horrible animal conditions, etc) and it's been going great. Until my other half decided he wanted to cut dramatically back on carbs to lose some weight. So: can your team offer suggestions for meat-less and low-carb dinners? I've found it's really difficult to combine both restrictions since I've been augmenting our meatless meals with noodles, rice, etc. FWIW, I'm not counting carbs in vegetables, just the obvious ones like bread, noodles, beans, etc. Thanks so much

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: You guys may be on food restriction overload.

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Comment and question: Bonnie, for your favorite cooking teacher, where can we find her and learn from Linda too? Or will this cause all of us to rush to her classes and better keep her a secret?

For the person asking about the glorified toothpick, my mom bought me something similar. Yes, its a glorified toothpick but it adds a bit of sophistication (if that's the word I'm looking for)--not that anyone sees it but I enjoy using it over a toothpick. So if someone gets it for you, great.

For the husband wanting to put raw and cooked meat on the same plate (or use the same utensils that have touched raw/cooked meat), please don't. I got salmonella poisoning this way and its not pretty.

Thanks for the chats. I don't always get to read them but am enjoying all the vanilla talk.

Bonnie Benwick: Linda's in California, but every now and then she comes to teach at the Sur la Table in Pentagon Row. You should get her book, "Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks," and check out her Web site. She has such a good counter-side manner, as it were. And knows it all.

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Arlington, VA: For the person grilling for pescetarians - grill up some fish of your choice and make fish tacos (there's a great recipe in the Weber "Way to Grill" book. Or grill up some cajun catfish sandwiches. Marinate catfish fillets in a cajun mix (Zatarain's and oil works fine), grill them up, toast some crusty sub rolls on the grill at the end, then serve with lettuce, tomato, and mayo.

Jim Shahin: Love fish tacos, and this version sounds great. For a different take, replace the lettuce, tomato, and mayo with shredded cabbage, diced onion, some lime juice, and maybe a little cilantro. Serve on a corn tortilla. Mmmmm.

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Washington, DC: Hi. Today's focus on vanilla is a fortuitous coincidence; I was already planning to post a question about the price of vanilla. It cost me $13 for a large bottle of regular vanilla extract at Safeway last weekend. I don't remember it ever being that high. Is there a global shortage or something else we should know? How did you choose vanilla as the star ingredient this week? Thanks!

Andreas Viestad: I have never understood the pricing of vanilla extract, and I am always uncertain of what I am actually getting. Therefore I go for the whole bean.

Bonnie Benwick: Each month, The Gastronomer takes us where his curiosities lead him. Sometimes we collaborate on ideas, but this was all him. And a good thing. Did I mention that fudge sauce? You must make it.

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Grilling rut: I find that I am grilling the same things every week - salmon with a reduction, flank steak with garlic teriyaki, chicken wings, sliders. I am in dire need of inspiration. Suggestions?

Jane Black: Does it have to be a main course? I overheard Bonnie talking about this terrific dessert recipe for Grilled Pineapple that we ran a few years back and remembered how good it is.

Instead of drizzling with lime syrup, you could simply grill the pineapple, chop and toss with lime juice, a little chili and serve with grilled pork or chicken.

Any other go-tos for the grill folks?

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Grilled Veggies: Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: I'm not a huge fan of mixing vegetables and meat on the same skewer. The vegetable just don't get cooked. The pienapple will be fine, but grill the mushrooms and whatever else you'd like (zucchini's great on the grill) separately.

Really? I find my multi colored -yellow, red and green] peppers cook just great next to chicken or beef. Tomatoes are the only thing I don't trust as they cook too fast.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: I guess it's a personal preference. I'm always looking for the most successful method. Cooking separately is the percentage play here.

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Washington, D.C.: Heading to the first Jazz in the Garden this Friday, and everyone in the group is bringing an appetizer type dish to share while we listen to jazz in the (hopefully) glorious sunshine. Any suggestions on things that taste good cold? My office has a fridge, but not an oven. I thought of making some kind of cous cous salad, but not everyone in the group is an adventurous eater ... Thanks!

Jane Black: I made these simple Thai-inspired Peanut Noodles out of our database a week or so ago. I added peppers, snap peas and chicken to make it a full meal. But as it, it's a great side dish. Delicious.

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Gallery Place: I am making a shepherd's pie for a friend who has had a hard time lately and this is her favorite comfort food (with lamb, not beef of course). This is kind of heavy for this time of year, what would you suggest that I serve with it that might be a bit more inspired than a tossed salad and what to make for dessert that will also provide comfort?

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Make a tossed salad, just make it better then average which is pretty easy this time of year. Baby arugula, baby greens, fresh herbs, strawberries-all this and more is available at your local farmers market to help you make a wonderful salad.

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Crepes: Hi gang! I'm having friends over for brunch this weekend and want to make crepes. Can I make them ahead of time, so that I don't have to be constantly cooking as people are arriving? If so, what should I do to keep them fresh and ready to fill when it's time to eat? Thank you!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: You sure can. You can even make and freeze until ready to serve. I make the crepes and lay them out on a sheet of aluminum foil to cool. Once cool (it only takes minutes)I stack, layering wax paper or plastic wrap in between the crepes. Wrap the stack in plastic and then aluminum foil. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 days, or freeze for up to 4 weeks.

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Pine Plains: I want to thank Stephanie for her take on cold sesame noodles - perfect for this very hot day and simple enough for my husband to make (I'm recovering from surgery and a twisted hip from trying to leave the operating room while unconscious and during...). In your recipe search, is "fast" as close as it gets to "easy"? Could "easy" or "beginner" be added some day?

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: Glad you like it.

Problem with "easy" is that it's so subjective, but we'll talk about it.

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Food for jazz in the sculpture garden: Hi Foodies, I hope you can help. Fri we're celebrating a friends birthday by going to the Sculpture Garden and listening to some jazz. Since its for her bday I'd like to make something special. Any recommendations for something I can make Thurs night and won't be too tough to carry around (especially since we'll go out after jazz and I don't want to have to carry a huge tupperware container)? I was thinking cupcakes or making a cake and bring slices of it but I could also bring a salad/app that you recommend. Please help!

Jane Black: Cupcakes are always celebratory and easy to transport. But you will need some kind of carrier for them as well. Unless...you bring them un-frosted. Wrap them in foil and bring the frosting separately (in a small container) and a few little sprinkles and let it be a decorate-your-own cupcake party!

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Vegetarians at a BBQ: You might also throw some polenta slices on the grill. They would be a nice accompaniment to the grilled vegetables. Grilled potato slices would also be nice.

Jane Black: Yep. Yep. I also like grilled sweet potatoes because they caramelize and add a nice bit of color.

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Oakton, VA: BK Miller liquors in Clinton, MD has whole briskets.

You can order a whole Wagyu Kobe brisket from Paradise Locker Meats over the internet. Not too expensive, considering it's top quality!

Jim Shahin: You can also get brisket with the fat cap on it from Union Meats in Eastern Market. Not wagyu. But delicious nonetheless.

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Cooking vegetables: Several posters today have asked about cooking vegetables...whether or not they are vegetarian. Deborah Madison's 'Greens' cookbook is highly recommended, whether or not you are vegetarian. Some of their recipes fit the low-carb profile too, although bear in mind vegetable should be considered good carbs.

Jane Black: Deborah's books are great.

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State College, PA: Good afternoon! I'm looking for a recipe for a salmon sandwich filling I could use for a baby shower I'm hosting. Someone sent me a recipe using poached and smoked salmon. It looks wonderful, but contains raw eggs and I'd like to avoid that. Any thoughts? Thanks; love the chats.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: I can't think of an obvious reason why you'd have raw eggs in a salmon filling for sandwiches. Without seeing the recipe, all I can say is skip the raw egg. If it was used as a binder try some mayonnaise. It's old-fashioned but it still works.

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Silver Spring, MD: Gift cert. to Crate & Barrel: a good knife would certainly top my list if you haven't one already. And Lodge cast- iron dutch ovens are in that price range. They're just not enameled. No coffee stuff, but do you do tea? I use my electric tea kettle any time I'm boiling a quantity of water for cooking, because it's so much faster. (Fill the kettle, put a little in the pot to start, combine when the kettle's done, invariably before an equivalent amount in the pot...)

Otherwise, I'd just advise that the purchases that have made me happiest in the kitchen and the ones I've kept using over the years are made out of repeated frustration with something that just isn't quite what I'd like it to be, or something I don't have that I think of -often-. My pie plate, the giant saute pan, a good quality basic pot and soup kettle, -really good knives-, etc. Don't skimp on the stuff you use all the time.

Jane Black: Yeah, I love my electrical kettle. I learned to love them in England where you drink tea all day. Silver Spring is right, thought. A good rule of thumb: spend money on the things you use most.

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Shepherd Park, DC: Hi, Right now I'm on a salad on top of toast kick (sort of bruschetta-ish). Easy, healthy and fresh end-of-the-school year meals for this teacher!

I've tried sauteed eggplant and onion mixed with fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil and balsamic. I am also thinking of doing something with preserved lemons since I have a stash (lemons, green olives, harissa, fish, arugula, maybe?). Any other ideas for chunky salad type dishes that would go on toast in this way?

Thanks!

Jane Black: White beans, sauteed chard (or kale) and shavings of parmesan cheese. Broiled or grilled asparagus topped with chopped hardboiled egg. I'm loving the strawberries right now so if you can deal with something sweeter you could do a mix of argula, goat cheese, strawberries and mint with a touch of balsamic.

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Mellow Vinegar: Try rice vinegar on salads (or rice, or just about anything.) It's not as acidic, but it very nicely stands on its own.

Jane Black: Good idea.

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Favorite vinegar: Champagne vinegar from the Point Reyes in CA - makes an awesome salad dressing.

Jane Black: Who's the manufacturer?

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Clifton, VA: I have shopped at Wegman's since they opened their store in Fairfax, VA. Over the last 6mos I have noticed a big drop in the quality of their produce and fresh seafood. Also their help which used to be great now is surly and has an attitude especially the young ones. Their fresh scallops and shrimp are now hit and miss. What used to be a real selling point now maybe false advertising. I have serious doubts that they are selling dayboat fresh scallops or even real scallops. Fresh shrimp maybe some days but it's not every day despite the claims it's fresh and not frozen. Produce they are often out of cremini mushrooms and large yellow onions since it seems they allow various restaurants to come in and buy in bulk when their own deliveries aren't satisfactory. I have seen the employees from these restaurants buying in bulk etc and leaving me and other customers with the dregs in creminis, green and red peppers, strawberries, and large yellow onions. And the help used to be their strong point. Now these kids just blow you off and treat you as a fool. Even the young managers. Forget "I am sorry sir what can I do to help?"

I sent emails and called their customer service but got a formatted response. We are sorry please shop with us again.

Someone at Wegman's made the call to cut costs and destroy what made Wegman's stand out as different.

Bye, bye Wegman's you lost me as a customer.

Jane Black: That's surprising. They do have a good reputation for service. I can't add anything since there are none near me. Chatters? Thoughts?

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Kensington: Yes, it was the Beranbaum recipe. The link you provided isn't working but I'll probably be able to find her website.

Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: RealBakingWithRose.com

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Culinary Schools: Hello! I'm seriously considering a change of career. I have always had a passion for food. Are there any local, and reputable culinary schools in the Washington, DC area? I know of the Art Institute of Washington, but the tuition there is ridiculously expensive. Thanks!

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: There are many good programs, but they're all pricey. Before I started writing the checks, I'd spend some time working as an apprentice or at a part-time job in the industry. I ran a small restaurant for kids at a resort before I went to cooking school, still I wasn't prepared for the manual labor and sheer drudgery of a restaurant kitchen.

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vanilla milkshake?: Pretty much my favorite childhood food was the vanilla milkshake. Do you have a recipe, or maybe more than one, so I can prepare full-fat, low-fat and maybe non-fat versions?

By the way, I tried to make a vanilla milkshake with almond milk (60-calories for 8 ounces) and it was really bad.

Stephanie Witt Sedgwick: I loved vanilla milkshakes as a kid, but now they're just too thick and rich for me. I go for smoothies now-you can make a pretty decent one with frozen yogurt, a banana, some lowfat milk and ice-a splash of vanilla could only make it better.

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Bonnie Benwick: Well, now I'm hungry enough to have a second lunch. Thanks to Jim, Andreas, Stephanie, Jason and Lisa for joining us. Our chat winners: Rockville, who asked about risotto in advance and the folo-up q, will get "Cook Italy." And Paul, Commerce Twp, MI, gets "The Kansas City Barbecue Society Cookbook." Send your mailing address to food@washpost.com so we can get those prizes to you.

Next week, we'll have two tix to the upcoming SAVOR event in June to give away, so alert your fellow beer lovers. Get out there and grill something for Memorial Day!

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