Free Range on Food: Crab feasts, mulberry foraging, crisp cold summer salads, starting a bar, dried hibiscus flowers, more

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The Food Section
of the Washington Post
Wednesday, June 9, 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.

Do you love the Food chat? Tell your friends about it!

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. Feeling crabby? I am, in more ways than one, but counting on a dose of public goodwill to pull me through... Hope you got into our crab feasts: David Hagedorn's and John Shields's, the latter channeled by Bonnie. And wasn't Jane's piece on behavioral economics in the school lunch line fascinating? I knew it was all about lighting.

We have David and (hopefully) chef Shields coming into the room to help answer anything crab-related. And we have giveaway books for our favorite comments/questions, naturally: There's "Drink This, Not That!" by David Zinczenko with Matt Goulding; and "Easy Vegan," source of Bonnie's DinMin goodness today.

Let's chat!

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Middlesex, Vt.: Hi:

Loved the article on the crab dinner, I just wish I was close enough to the bay to get those bushels of hard shells already steamed. I really miss that.(sigh) On the brighter side, we do get nice soft shells at a local fish market and I indulge every year around this time. While the asparagus is great, you should try soft shells with sauted fiddlehead ferns when the ferns are still in season - a real treat.

With that said, I have two questions. First, I usually saute soft shells, after dredging in just flour with some old bay mixed in, but I'm wondering what else can be done with a saute without adding so many other flavors or spices so that the delicate crab taste gets overwhelmed?

Soak in milk? Dredge in something else? I've seen a lot of ideas online but at the price I'm paying I'd like to not experiment too much. What are you're favorite tried and true methods?

Second, I'd love feedback from you and the chatters on a good recipe/mix for a Sidecar cocktail. I love them, have tried all kinds of different proportions in the mix, but I still can't seem to match what I had years ago in a restaurant in Sausilito. Not too sour, not too sweet, like the little bear's porridge - just right.

I intend to have a small dinner party on Friday that features both, so any and all help would be appreciated.

Thanks.

Jason Wilson: This is my basic Sidecar recipe: 1.5 oz. brandy; .75 oz. Cointreau; .75 oz. lemon juice, fresh squeezed. Shake well and strain into chilled cocktail glass.

However, there are so many variables here. Some people might like Grand Marnier better than Cointreau. Others would disagree over the type of brandy. A VSOP cognac is the standard (this is a French drink after all). I usually use Asbach Uralt, which is a German brandy -- a little cheaper and I think nicer for many mixing purposes. Other people like equals parts of all these ingredients. Others like to taste more brandy. You may never recapture how they did it in Sausalito all those years ago...but at least you tasted perfection once!

David Hagedorn: I'm with you about the fiddleheads, Middlesex. They are good with just about anything.

You don't have to dredge soft shells in flour to saute them. I like them sauteed nude (well, with pepper) and served Asian-style. I saute peppers, asparagus,shiitakes, ginger, garlic, mirin, soy sauce and some Thai red curry paste (I really just kind of make it up as I go along) and pour the lot over my sauteed crabs, which I keep warm in the oven until I need them. This may be too overwhelming for you, but I love them this way.

No need to soak the crabs in milk, even if you're dredging them. If I use flour, I like a light coating. (If you like more coating, dredge by all means.)

Rice flour is also good. Or tempura batter. Soft-shells are so versatile.

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Atlanta, GA: THANK YOU thank you thank you for all the wonderful crab recipes this week! Just reading them almost made tears come to my eyes for this homesick Washingtonian who didn't realize until now it's been WAY too long since I've had some lovely crab. I think I will console myself this weekend with some crab hush puppies and breadless crab cakes. Thanks David!!

washingtonpost.com: For a summer feast, crabs every which way

By stretching crab, you can save a bushel

David Hagedorn: Thanks for the kind words, Atlanta. By the way, I had leftover hush puppy batter and fried it up the next day. They were every bit as good the next day. And, as a bonus, I reheated the leftover cooked hush puppies in a 375-degree oven for 8 minutes or so and they were delicious, too. (Not quite as good as just out of the fryer, but good enough.)

And I also found out that Old Bayonnaise goes great on pork roast.

Bonnie Benwick: Or on a shoe.

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Peruvian Chicken: Hi,

Does anyone know what constitutes the "yellow sauce" that accompanies chicken at places like Crisp and Juicy? I love it and would like to try to recreate it at home to serve with chicken.

Bonnie Benwick: Alfredo Izurieta and Jorge Perez, co-owners of some C&J shops in the Washington area, tell me that of course the recipe's secret, but the sauce base is made from pureed canned Peruvian yellow peppers, with vegetable oil, garlic, salt and black pepper. Las Americas market in Rockville (310-424-9550) has several brands of the canned peppers, so at least you've got a fighting chance of experimenting at home.

Jane Black: The yellow pepper ubiquitous in Peruvian food is aji amarillo. Look for the peppers but you can also buy a ground powder. I picked some up on a trip to Lima last year. But I bet you can find it in Latin markets. The instructions on the packet say you simply mix it with chicken broth but I haven't tried it.

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Baltimore, MD: Thank you so much for the article about mulberry foraging! I have been trying for a few years to figure out what kind of berries were growing on a tree just at the edge of my yard and whether or not they were edible. I was thrown off by the fact that they were on a tree and not a bush or a vine, but now I'm pretty sure that it is a mulberry tree. I can't wait to go home and confirm and possibly taste some of this fruit that up until now I've been hesitant to try.

washingtonpost.com: In Washington, mulberry trees offer many immigrants a taste of home

Joe Yonan: The same thing happened to me. I was talking to a woman in my dog park just a couple weeks ago, and she was telling of all these blackberry trees around Rock Creek Park, and I said, "They're bushes, right?" And she said, "No, no, no, they're trees," and I said (nicely), "But blackberries don't grow on trees. Maybe they're just tall bushes?" And she said, "No, definitely trees." And then right on a nearby street corner I noticed the mulberries all over a tall tree, many of them squished on the ground, and realized that that was her mistake. Not to slam mulberries, but I prefer the extra tartness from blackberries...

Jane Black: They are sweet. Still, I was wishing I'd collected the ones from that tree and made...something out of them. Glad some people are out doing it!

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Washington, DC: I made a sheet cake for work today and have about a cup and a half of vanilla buttercream frosting left over. Any ideas for what I should do with it? I'd like to make something small for me and my husband to enjoy tonight. He gets mad when I make things for work and he doesn't get any.

Jane Black: How about a quick batch of cupcakes? You could make the Georgetown Cupcake Chocolate Cupcake recipe and use your buttercream.

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Salad days: This summer finds me rediscovering my love of crisp cold salads of barely pickled produce. I've eaten my way thru iterations and variations of my family classics; the cuccumber, the herbed califlower, the carrot-ginger-cumin. Doubtless a book on tsukemono is in my near future, but I was curious: what types of fresh, barely pickled veggie side dishes do you and the chatters love? I imagine we have some winners among this group.

Jane Black: I adore pickled carrots. A day in the pickling liquid is enough because I like to keep the crunch. My very informal recipe -- you'll note it's proportional not amounts -- comes from a chef-friend, Michael Schlow, who runs Via Matta in Boston. Use your common sense and it works. Here it is:

Cut carrots into rectangles approx 1/2 inch thick, 2-3 inches long, natural width of the carrot

For pickling liquid:

2/3 white vinegar
1/3 water
Salt
Sugar
Black peppercorns
Crushed red pepper
Thyme sprigs

Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, taste (it should be spicy and acidic) pour over carrots. Allow the carrots to cool in liquid. Store in liquid overnight and serve the next day.

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Reston, Va: During the summer I love to fix German Potato Salad. However, our son is avoiding meats this year. I've tried several of the imitation bacon bits, but haven't found a product that reproduces the bacon flavor yet. Any recommendations? Also, I use cream cheese instead of mayo.

Bonnie Benwick: I think I may recommend this recipe too often, but because it's one of David's and he's here today, what the heck. His German Potato Salad calls for smoked Spanish paprika and has no bacon or meat. It is fabulously good, with great picnic cloth-staining qualities.

Joe Yonan: You realize, right, that 99% of the time you ask us what product can help sub for bacon or smoke, we're going to say pimenton?

Jane Black: Or you could use a little smoked salt.

Joe Yonan: Smoked salt is the 1%.

Jane Black: Just trying to be difficult...I mean helpful.

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Mobile, AL: Hey guys! I need an opinion on an issue I had earlier this week. I usually buy all of our meat from a local butcher. The other day I was running late and the butcher had closed, so I went to the meat counter at Fresh Market and got a whole chicken. I got my roast chicken recipe from Kim O' Donnell and it includes cutting out the backbone. I normally do this myself and save it for stock, but I wanted to cut down on my prep time at home, so I requested the butcher do it there. For what it's worth, the butcher was one I'd never seen before. Anyway, when I got home I discovered she'd cut a considerable amount of thigh meat when she cut out the backbone--like to the point where I couldn't even insert a thermometer in what was left. She'd included the bones and I saw she'd cut them in two pieces (which was odd to me--I use my kitchen shears and get it in one piece). I roasted the part of the thigh I could salvage alongside the whole chicken, but I was really disturbed that she'd done such a poor job of cutting it.

Do I say something to the people at FM about it? I don't want my money back or anything, but I do want to make sure that their butchers know what they're doing!

Jane Black: Yes. Say something. Otherwise how will they know?

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Alexandria, VA: Hey Foodies, I absolutely love your chats! I was wondering if you could help me track down a topping that was dolloped on some fantastic Asian-seared scallops I recently had. It was kind of pearly white in color, and a bit tangy and salty. I feel like I have had it before but I can't quite put my finger on it. Thanks for any help!

Bonnie Benwick: Hard to say, but maybe white miso? Where did you have it?

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Arlington, VA: I baked peanut butter cookies over the weekend, and while the taste was spot-on, the texture was SO OFF-- they were completely flat. I definitely want to avoid that on my next batch, but I can't figure out exactly what I did wrong. Could any of these have been the cause? -Using reduced-fat peanut butter -Possibly old-ish baking powder -Saturday's humidity

Thanks so much for any guidance you can provide!

Joe Yonan: I choose door #2: the possibly old-ish baking powder. But I'm not crazy about door #1, either: PB cookies, IMHO, are not the place to be trying to cut down your fat intake.

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Arlington, VA: I just finished the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and it seems a popular Swedish breakfast is toast with marmalade and cheese (one character even added avocado). I had never heard of this combination before, but inspired by the book I tried sourdough with marmalade and sharp cheddar. It was surprisingly good. Do you have any thoughts on other bread and cheese combinations to try with marmalade for breakfast?

Bonnie Benwick: Love goat cheese and fruity dark bread (no raisins).
Fontina and strawberry preserves on seven-grain bread.

Joe Yonan: I have a ton of jam: strawberry-vanilla (as done Jane, cause we each made big batches this past weekend), plus plum-ginger left over from last year. I think the plum-ginger would be great with pecorino or ricotta salata, on toasted sourdough.

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Downtown DC: I'm the one who's whined a couple of times here about not being able to find tamarind paste for pad thai. Well, I found some! The Asian market on 7th Street, a door or two up from the CVS that's under renovation and across the street from Fado. It looks like a Chinese gift shop from the street, and it mostly is, but they've got a long aisle of grocery items, too. (As well as Asian herbal medicines.) The tamarind paste is on that aisle, almost at the back of the store. It's easy to miss--they only have one size and brand, and the clerk I asked said they didn't carry it. But it's there, and it's cheap--$1.99 for a 16-ounce jar.

Jane Black: Awesome. Thanks for the tip.

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Spirits for Beginners: A question for your spirits columnist, or for anyone else in the know. I don't have a bar at home but am ready, at the young age of 39, to move beyond wine and beer and into the world of spirits.

I live in Virginia, so I have to go to an ABC store for the basic ingredients. I'm not sure where I'll store the stuff, but I'm going to start by acquiring a few bottles of basics: bourbon, gin, scotch. I'm not sure what else you'd recommend. I'd like to get small bottles, in case a brand or type of liquor itself is is not to my liking. Small might also save me some money, which is always a concern.

Do the ABC stores carry prepackaged "starter kits" for people like me, or am I on my own? What do you recommend for newbies such as myself? Thanks for your help.

Jason Wilson: Well, hey, I'm 39, too...still hanging in on this side of 40!

I would recommend just getting full bottles. Gin, whiskey, etc are going to store for a long long time, years, so there's no reason to get half bottles of that stuff. But no, there's no starter kit -- you're on your own. Which is good, because you can tailor it to the types of cocktails you like. My advice is: Think about what cocktails you love to drinks and then start with those ingredients as building blocks. I did an article a few summers ago on how to stock a bar. Take a look at that. And do email me a follow up with specific questions.

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Crab broth: I'd like to try making my own crab broth. Do I boil whole crabs in the shell or just simmer the crab meat? Also, in your soup recipe, is it okay to omit okra or substitute something else for it? I happen to hate the mouth-feel of okra. Thank!

John Shields: It would be best to use the whole (cleaned) crabs. Take off the shell and some innards then make a stock/broth with onions, carrots etc. and simmer for about 45 minutes and strain. If you have whole steamed crabs, eat them first, saving the top shells and left over pieces. You'll still get a great broth, plus you just had a crab feast!

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Cleaning your grill grime: I just read the chat leftovers from last week. My uncle uses a charcoal kettle grill with steel grill grates, and has a clever way to keep them clean. After grilling, he puts the grill grate on the grass and leaves it overnight. The moisture in the grass and the morning dew serves to pre-soak the grime...in the morning it washes off easily.

Note this wouldn't work with cast iron grates because they would rust.

washingtonpost.com: Chat Leftovers: Grill grime

Bonnie Benwick: I like that. So natural and low-tech.

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Boston, MA: Hi all, I have a question about marinades. In general is it OK to use a marinade that you found for a steak recipe on other types of protein and vice versa? I have an Asian marinade that was for a beef stir-fry but I'd like to use it on some chicken this week. Are there any substitutions I should think of making? Are there certain ingredients that go better for marinating chicken, beef or seafood?

Thanks!

Jane Black: I think if you like a marinade you should be able to use it for beef and chicken. The thing to watch out for is that the flavors aren't too strong. For example, beef can stand up to a rich, sweeter hoisin sauce that a light delicate fish might be lost in. A general rule of thumb, the lighter the meat, the lighter the marinade.

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Flower Power: Does anyone know where you can get dried hibiscus flowers? I have seen a candy version at Trader Joe's but I want plain dried ones. Thanks!

Joe Yonan: I'm obsessed with them. I order mine online from this company in Truro, Mass. (or buy them in person when I visit every year). But they're also available on Amazon, and I'm sure you can get them in Latin stores. I've got a message out to our friend Patricia Jinich asking where she gets hers.

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Alexandria, VA: You often hear people on the west coast fawn about how Dungeoness crabs are the best there is, and you hear the same thing in the east about our beloved blue crabs. I'm from PA and am neutral and like them both, but what does the food staff think? If you were stranded on an island and could only have one or the other prepared however you would like would it be Dungeoness or Blue?

Joe Yonan: I like how you put the "dungeon" back in Dungeness, Alex. For me, the answer's easy. I'll take blues, please, for one simple reason: They're sold as soft shells, and Dungeness aren't. I love me some SS.

John Shields: It would absolutely be the blue crab. The west coast crab is fine (a little stringy) but does not have the texture or rich flavor of the blue crab.

Bonnie Benwick: Stringy, yes. Blue crabs win by a mile.

Jane Black: Wait for it. I'm not sure I've ever had Dungeness at its peak. I suppose I'll have to head west for some research.

David Hagedorn: I'm with John on this. Dungeness are delicious, but the texture isn't great for me. Blue crabs all the way!

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Lothian, MD: As a lifetime Maryland resident and crab lover, it took me years to try a softshell -- the vision of a softshell sandwich being eaten with the little fins dangling off the sides of the bread really repulsed me! However, once I discovered sauteed softshells, I was hooked. Thinly slice some garlic, add just a little butter and a dash of olive oil to your saute pan and saute garlic 'til golden. Remove the garlic (and eat it!) then add the cleaned naked softshells and saute for about 4 minutes per side -- perfect! Even more perfect are "velvet" shells -- the earliest stage of softshell before the shell begins to harden again.

Jane Black: I learned to love soft-shells last year after many years of not getting it. Here is the story of my education and a few good recipes.

John Shields: That's a great recipe. And the garlic snack - quite tasty and good for the blood - or at least that's what they say. The paper thin shells are perfect. Or at least to us. Watermen like the soft shells that are beginning to harden. They call them "buckrams" and often stew them.

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Clarksville, MD: Hi. I planted about 16 row feet of sugar snap peas. For the past two weeks my wife and I have been overwhelmed with the amount of sugar snap peas. We have sauteed them or stir fried them for every dinner in this time period and are looking for other options. Do you have any suggestions for changing up the way we cook these?

Bonnie Benwick: Love them roasted with garlic. And a puree would be lovely, served as a side dish or under a piece of roasted fish. Experiment with the herbs you like -- mint or tarragon are naturals. String/blanch the peas, then process with chicken or veg broth, the herbs, a little oil, maybe lemon juice or even a little Parm cheese. Once you're in PureeTown it's a short trip to Soup- or Sauceville.

Bonnie Benwick: And may I ask: How'd you come up with that original footage?

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Baltimore, MD: Re: Bacon substitutes. How about liquid smoke?

Joe Yonan: Why, yes.

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San Angelo, Texas: Does anyone make a microwave oven that opens to the left?

Joe Yonan: San Angelo? Really? Now I know this isn't my Mom, cause, well, she's a Luddite. And I don't think my stepdad, Vern, would be asking this question. It sounds sort of like my brother, Mike, but he's in Ballinger. Hmm.

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While we're on the topic: of Peruvian chicken...any tips on how to achieve it at home? It's been over three years since we've had El Pollo Rico (we moved :( ) and I'd love to be able to copy the flavor!

Bonnie Benwick: That's a really top-secret herb/spice blend. If you have the ability to rotiss for hours, you're way ahead of the game.

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Alexandria, VA: Any recipes you can suggest to make a respectable Naan without the Tandoori oven?

We've been getting into Indian cooking more, but saw that Rasika sells a couple of their curries at Whole Foods and wish I hadn't - so quick, so easy, so good... Heated one up the other day and threw in some leftover chicken that was roasted with chile and honey - yum!

Joe Yonan: When I was investigating pizza-making techniques recently, in one of Heston Blumenthal's books he describes a naan strategy that involves putting two baking stones in a V shape in the oven to approximate the heat (and walls) of a tandoor. He describes it in a video here.

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Bonnie Benwick: This just in -- BGR Burger Joint has jumped on the Stephen Strasburg bandwagon (Joe, he's the new Nat's phenom pitcher who debuted in a boffo way last night) with The Strasburger. A hot dog atop a burger smothered in aged Vermont cheddar. And 14 pickle slices -- one for each of his strikeouts. A hefty $10.99, a buck of which will be donated in the pitcher's name to the Children's Medical Center in D.C.

Joe Yonan: I'm not THAT out of it, Bonnie. Almost, but not quite.

Bonnie Benwick: Well, then, let's play two.

Joe Yonan: No.

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RE: angry hungry husbands: MY husband gets upset when I make treats for work and none for him, too! I mean, not REALLY upset, but I think he definitely feels put out. He claims one of the reasons he fell for me way back when was my confectionery abilities, and it seems like "bait and switch" when I make cake for others and none for him. Poor guys.

Jane Black: Can someone please get Carolyn Hax on the line? We have some jealousy issues here.

Bonnie Benwick: Are you still baking for him?

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Rockville, MD: I was intrigued by the foraging articles a couple of weeks ago, and by the article on picking mulberries in yesterday's metro section. Do you know of any local classes that will teach you how to identify edible wild plants, how to detoxify, if necessary, like the pokeweed example in the article, and how to cook what you gather like Gabe Mandel does?

I just don't want to poison myself...

Jane Black: I hear you. I can't vouch for any of these teachers but here's a link to a list of foraging experts by state, many of whom lead tours. there are several in DC, Virginia and Maryland.

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peanut butter cookies: Reduced-fat peanut butter is disgusting (in taste) and has no fewer calories. The fat is replaced by an emulsifier which does not translate well in baking. Also makes Asian peanut noodles taste off.

For your PB cookies, switch to skim milk and eat one fewer cookie if you are trying to cut fat. Or eat all the cookies you want and work out more.

Jane Black: God bless you, peanut butter cookies ranter. Glad I'm not the only one who gets frustrated with low-fat or no-fat ice creams and cookies. A satisfying dessert in a smaller portion is always my answer to how to get fewer calories.

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CSA food: Hi team, I have about 10 gorgeous, huge scallions from the CSA. Any ideas for incorporating them in some recipes? I have used them as garnishes on shrimp tacos, and mixed them in salads, but we are talking bulk here. I prefer them cooked so they're not so onion-y. Thanks!

Jane Black: Grilled! Just brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Eat them as a side dish.

Joe Yonan: I also like em braised/glazed.

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Grills: Hi Foodies. My husband and are not allowed to have charcoal or propane-fueled grills on our balcony. My husband is an excellent meat-preparer, and we want a grill! How do you feel about electric grills? And do you have one you'd recommend? Thanks.

David Hagedorn: I'd move.

Bonnie Benwick: My longtime DC apt friends had an electric Weber and it worked pretty well. Many happy memories of rooftop grilling. But come to think of it, they just moved.

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German Potato Salad: If you add roasted papitas or sunflower seeds you'll get the smoked flavor, the saltiness and some crunch like bacon.

Joe Yonan: Hmm. I love pepitas and SS, and can see the salt/crunch, but you won't really get the smoke.

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How about liquid smoke?: What is in that stuff? It scares me. I want to know what I'm putting in my food.

Bonnie Benwick: Don't be afraid. Your answer is here.

Joe Yonan: If it makes you feel better, even BBQ guru Steve Raichlen agrees that there's nothing to sniff at (or be afraid of) when it comes to LS.

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Quick Pickles!: I have discovered quick pickled sugar snap peas! Use your favorite pickling liquid and just pour over the peas. Add garlic, dill and dried hot peppers to your taste.

Bonnie Benwick: Awesome.

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55379: Hi!! I loved the article today about the blue crab and what to do to make the crab stretch in recipes, made my mouth water as I was reading it. I haven't been back east since 2005 but I coming in this July and I have so missed blue crab.

My question is what can be used if you can't get blue crab out here in the Midwest? Once in awhile I can find a can of pasteurized blue crab in the cold case section at (I will admit I do shop there) Sam's Club for around $17 for a 16 oz tub. The tins of crab meat in the grocery section where canned tuna is found is just not the same. One of the first items I am ordering when I get home to southern PA is a crab cake sandwich; makes the turkey sandwich that I brought for lunch look not so appetizing.

David Hagedorn: Hi, 55379. Forget the canned stuff you find in the tuna section. That stuff is maybe OK for an hors-d'oeuvre smish that's loaded with cream cheese and butter, but for crab cakes, you can have success with pasteurized crab meat, especially if it is lump crab or jumbo lump (preferable). Rinse it in quickly cold water to get the tinny taste off of it and squeeze the extra water out gently in batches, using my hands. Pick through it very well, season it well, and hope for the best.

John Shields: In a pinch use the pasteurized, but not the canned in the "tuna fish" section. Very much like making a crab cake with cat food. When you are making a crab cake with the pasteurized, the seasonings in the mix make you forget you're not using the fresh.

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Spice substition: Hello there. I have a recipe that calls for cardamom. It is 14.00 a bottle, so I'm wondering if there is a substitution? Also, when I lived in Texas, Central Market had a huge spice section where you could buy small amounts of spices instead of an entire bottle. Do you all know of any place like that in VA? Thanks.

Joe Yonan: I don't, but Penzey's sells various forms of cardamom in small enough amounts that you could spend less. Not sure where you are in VA, but there's a brick/mortar store in Falls Church if you don't have time for online.

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Washington, DC: Can you recommend a good BBQ sauce recipe or even brand that passes muster? I'd like something that doesn't have too much vinegar. Thanks!

David Hagedorn: Actually, I can recommend a good BBQ sauce. It's called leftover cofee barbecue sauce, it's a cinch to make and it doesn't have any vinegar in it.

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Arlington, VA: I had Alaskan King Crab legs for the first time in ages recently and had forgotten how amazingly good they are. A couple of questions - is it possible to buy fresh king crab around here or is it always going to be frozen (or does it even matter)? Also, any good recipes for preparing it, or is the standard steaming them/cracking them with drawn butter the only way to go?

John Shields: I've never seen them sold fresh, only frozen. Steaming is the usual preparation and the melted butter for dipping is perfect. To get a little variety add some flavor to the melted butter with maybe, a little roasted garlic & chopped basil or whatever you might like. Make your own signature butter sauce!

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Upper Marlboro, MD: I made cinnamon buns using McCormick cinnamon and was very disappointed. What is the best source for spices for DC/MD/VA cooks? What brands do you recommend? And, how long should they be stored?

Bonnie Benwick: You seem pretty convinced that inferior cinnamon was the culprit, so I'd say go with the bark-looking soft cinnamon you find at Latin markets -- most often it is really Sri Lankan cinnamon, or Cinnamomum zeylanicum. It's inexpensive. (I'm sure you can find Sri Lankan cinnamon online and bottled as Ceylon Cinnamon at Penzeys Spices.) I store it in jars in a cool dry pantry and grind it as I go. Recommended shelf life is 6 months to 2 years. Generally, if you can rub it between your fingers and it still has a strong aroma, you're good.

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Hibiscus: I get my dried hibiscus flowers at the Grand Mart. I make a mean hibiscus margarita.

Jane Black: Can you please bring some over. Do you know where the Post is located?

Joe Yonan: I do, too! So easy and addictive.

Pati Jinich says Panam grocery on 14th Street carries them. She likes Orale and Picante brands.

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Bacon subs: Don't forget chipotles or chipotles in adobo - I'll take that smokey, firey heat over bacon any day

Joe Yonan: I like chipotle, use it all the time, but bacon isn't fiery so I don't see this as a real sub.

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RE: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Cheese: Since it's Sweden I assume they're referring to quark, which is more like a greek yogurt in consistency, very mild and often served with breakfast. Not like what we think about when we think about cheese. Not to burst anyone's bubble.

Joe Yonan: Doesn't matter, really. Lots of cheeses are good with lots of jams on lots of breads. Soft, firm, in between, whatevs.

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LSAT *done*, back to cooking: My boyfriend (whom I love very much) has been doing most of the cooking around the house while I got ready for the LSAT. (We've had a lot of pasta!) Well, the LSAT was Monday, and now I'm back in charge of all things food- related. He's a meat-and-potatoes guy who likes just about nothing green, spicy, or "weird"; I'm an asian-fusion girl who prefers mostly vegetarian with lots of spice. Other than telling him to cook his own darn dinner, how can I reconcile our tastes and keep things healthy for both of us? Thank you!

Jane Black: Again, I'd refer you to Carolyn Hax. Or to my article that I wrote around Valentine's Day about couples who just don't agree on food. (He's just not that into your hamachi.) The truth is that some people just have different tastes and there's no convincing them to eat differently. But one strategy you could take is to do some cooking together. Find some recipes and make them *your* dishes. And the rest of the time, be content to eat separately.

Joe Yonan: God, that was a good headline. ;-)

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Mahogany Short Ribs: I was hesitant, but had the chance to buy some short ribs and made the recipe. It's addicting. I halved the amounts since we're only 2, but I should have kept the amount of marinade/sauce. Should have had leftovers, but after having a serving we grilled some bread and made sandwiches. Not that I suggest others do the same.

As for crab - I'll admit I'm hesitant to cook it at home, but same as in the past, the Food Section in the Post makes me want to run out and expand my meals. Thanks again!

washingtonpost.com: Mahogany Short Ribs

Jane Black: Hooray. Our work is done. Time to go home.

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New Smoker: A couple years ago you gave me a great URL for using the Weber Smokey Mtn. Smoker, now I am adding to my collection because my awesome wife is getting me a Big Green Egg smoker for my b-day, do you know of any similar sites for it? Thanks for always having great info.

Bonnie Benwick: Maybe your awesome wife will tack on the new "Big Green Egg Cookbook" (Andrews McMeel, $50) that's just out, completed with green textured cover.

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Washington, DC: I often cook for a relative who is a recovering alcoholic. Do you have any thoughts on how to substitute non-alcoholic ingredients when a recipe calls for wine or liquor? I know that MOST alcohol gets cooked away, but there is still some left as well as the flavor, so we want to avoid using it. For sauces or veggies, I use vegetable broth and a dash of vinegar (usually red wine or rice vinegar). Are there other options? Also, for baked goods, I'm really at a loss -- what to do for cakes and frostings that call for rum or other liquors? Are they just not an option for us?

Joe Yonan: There are so many recipes that don't call for liquor that I think you could easily just find something else, couldn't you? I do think your broth/vinegar idea is decent, of course. When it comes to baking, you could just leave the liquor out, and use scraped vanilla beans instead of extract. (Or look for non-alcoholic extract.) Or look at it this way: Replace the liquor with a non-alcoholic take on its base flavor. That is, a little orange juice instead of Cointreau, a little grape juice instead of sweet wine. It can get more involved than this, of course, as this list of substitutions demonstrates.

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Burke, VA: I'm wondering whether I should give your chat credit for a dish I made last week. I made a salad of avocado, orange, grilled onions and balsamic vinaigrette. It was a wonderful combination of flavors, but wasn't something I would normally have created--did you recently post a recipe like that?

Bonnie Benwick: Nope. Pat yourself on the back, Burke.

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scallions!: I love making pajeon (korean scallion pancakes) when I have extra scallions. This recipe works great.

Jane Black: Those sound great.

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Thanks for the book!: I wanted to thank you guys for the book from last week "Edible". I had some friends over this weekend and made one of the recipes in the book for sauteed bok choy with roasted corn and it was phenomenal (my wife told me it was a keeper) and well received by all.

For the record, you roast corn, then you saute bok choy with oil, ginger, garlic a little salt and pepper and then add oyster sauce (I was out and used hoisin sauce). Wonderful.

Bonnie Benwick: Excellent.

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Extra buttercream: Wow, at my house that issue wouldn't need anything other than a couple of spoons to resolve it!

Jane Black: I thought of that. But I was trying to be refined. :)

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Reheating cooked asparagus: Hi gurus:

I am planning to make a szechuan asparagus and tofu stirfry this evening and am hoping to enjoy the leftovers for lunch tomorrow. Will reheating the cooked asparagus make them unappealingly stringy/mushy?

Please advise -

Jane Black: If you don't overcook them tonight or nuke the hell out of them tomorrow, you should be okay.

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Hibiscus Answer: You mention hibiscus margaritas but don't add a recipe!? Please share (sounds delicious).

Joe Yonan: No.

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Re: small amounts of spice: Yes! stores sell spices by the ounce. You can just take what you need out of the jars and it is weighed at the check-out. No need to buy big jars of spices -- especially those used infrequently and might lose their flavor.

Joe Yonan: What stores, please?

Bonnie Benwick: For one, the Spice and Tea Exchange of Alexandria.

Joe Yonan: Thankyouverymuch.

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Wash, DC: Help! I need a fast, easy vegetarian meal that I can bring to a family with a new baby. Any ideas? I am drawing a blank and would rather avoid bringing a lasagna. Thanks.

Bonnie Benwick: How about today's Dinner in Minutes? Bring along steamed jasmine rice.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Food people,

I'm getting pretty tired of my daily lunch salad of lettuce, leftover grilled meat, and vegetables. I'm already planning to make a curried chicken salad, but I'd like something that isn't mayo-based for a change of pace. I saw something in a magazine recently about a wild rice and black bean salad, but (1) I can't find the recipe anymore, and (2) I don't care for black beans.

Any thoughts for a wild rice salad with some protein? I was thinking chick peas, but am not sure which direction to take for veggies and dressing. Suggestions would be most helpful. Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Love this one: Fruitty-Nutty Wild Rice and Turkey Salad. This one's good, too: Bluberry-Walnut Wild Rice Salad.

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Washington, D.C.: Those crab cakes look mighty yummy! But I don't have crab in the fridge. Can I use zucchini?

John Shields: Funny you should say that. Read another question about bringing a vegetarian dish to a friends house and the "I Can't Believe They're Not Crab "Crab Cakes" are just the thing. They are real simple: grate zucchini on the course side of a grater, about the volume of 1 pound of crabmeat. Lightly salt and place in a colander for about 30 minutes to allow excess water to drain. Squeeze out excess water with a towel. Place in a bowl. Make the crab cake batter of you choice (no crab please) and pour over the zucchini. Add bread crumbs (about 1/2 cup) and form into patties. Saute until crispy on both sides.

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Baking for husband: I've found that most cake recipes work just fine with a generous half-cup of batter diverted to a ramekin so my beloved isn't left out when I bake for office events.

Bonnie Benwick: Aw. I'm in scone mode. Keeps husband from buying the things at Starbucks. He seems grateful.

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Springfield,VA: On a recent visit to Lyon we discovered and have bcome hooked on St. Marcellin. Is this wonderful cheese available locally?

Jane Black: Yup. I think I even saw it at Costco.

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Pickling: I found a recipe in a Tyler Florence cookbook that is 1 cup of medjool dates cut in half, one English cucumber sliced into rounds, 1/2 cup of rice wine vinegar, and 1/4 cup of sugar. Mix the vinegar and sugar, drop in the dates and cucumber and honestly in about 15 minutes you have the perfect refreshing side dish. I think there is the option of dropping a finely chopped hot pepper too. I've gotten lots of rave reviews and it's ready to go in no time. The cookbook recommends it as a side dish for salmon, but we just make it as a side dish any time we need something quick, refreshing, and easy.

Jane Black: That does sound good.

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Hong Kong: A question on making lasagna to freeze: Is it better to bake, cool and freeze, or assemble and freeze, then bake? I'm making one for some friends who are having a baby, and I want to make it easiest on them.

Bonnie Benwick: Bake, cool, wrap, freeze. Preferably in portions.

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PB Cookie Maker: In all fairness...maybe the poster only had reduced fat peanut butter in the house. For what it's worth, I don't mind the taste of reduced fat peanut butter. As a veteran baker, I'm inclined to say it was likely old baking soda.

Joe Yonan: Yes, but in all fairness, the poster listed the PB as one of the possible problems that s/he was putting before us.

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Soup Question: When cooking cream soups, like Cream of Garlic, creamy mushroom, bisques, etc., what are the considerations for the milk used? Is it just the amount of liquid, fat and protein? Emulsion properties? What?

John Shields: You're basically using the milk to provide the correct thickness or give a light texture to the soup. You choose. If you use 3/4 stock base in the soup only a little milk (1/4 part)or cream is needed, thus a lighter (and less fatty)soup. For a rich creamy soup use a 1/2 and 1/2 ratio and live it up!

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Arlington: I have a challenge that I need help with. I am working at a remote site a couple days a week for the next couple months. Because there is nothing around I need to take my lunch, but the problem is I don't have anyway of keeping things cold. With the warmer weather this is important. I have a insulated lunch bag but it doesn't really work. Do you or any of your readers have suggestions for good lunch ideas that don't need refrigeration? I am tired of chips, fruit and peanut butter sandwiches. It might be nice to have some of these suggestions for outdoor picnics and cookouts this summer too.

Bonnie Benwick: Bean salads and those with ingredients that hold their crunch would be good. We've been talking about just such things here at Food HQ. Look for a special batch of recipes at the end of June.

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Arlington, Va S: The photo of the grilled soft shell crabs on the front page of the food section (I'm so old fashioned, I still get the paper delivered daily, though it frequently lands in my herb garden!) got me thinking...

I know that I've read from Tom Sietsema that when he's had restaurant reviews that include a photo of a recognizably cooked animal (rabbit, etc), that he has received a number of complaints about this to the point where he tries to avoid using these types of photos. I like seeing these photos, but I spent some childhood years out of country and was used to seeing cooked whole rabbit, small game birds, fish with the head on, etc.

Do you ever get complaints about showing pictures of cooked whole crabs (or lobsters, or other)?

Joe Yonan: No, we haven't. They must not be cute enough. ;-)

Bonnie Benwick: And when we do, we might just have to shut down operations.

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Re: Spices: I meant "Yes!" stores -- the small natural food chain in DC.

Joe Yonan: Gotcha. Thanks!

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Flower Power: For the person looking for dried hibiscus, I recently purchased dried lavender at Penzey's on Rockville Pike. Might be worth a try. For what its worth, when I used the dried lavender in a recipe, I thought it smelled like bubble bath.

Joe Yonan: I haven't seen hibiscus at Penzey's. At least not listed online.

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re: Hibiscus Flowers: I saw dried hibiscus flowers in the Super H or Grand Mart on Little River Tpke off of I-395.

Joe Yonan: Great, thanks!

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you won't really get the smoke. : yah, you need BACON for that! lol

Joe Yonan: Exactly. Here's a thought: If you don't have bacon, get some uncured pork belly, then CURE AND SMOKE IT. ;-)

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Hibiscus & Peruvian Yellow Sauce: I suspect the Crisp & Juicy yellow sauce is made similarly to an aioli/mayo, only with the special pepper paste added to it. I keep meaning to try this out, but have not done it yet.

Hibiscus tea (dried hibiscus flowers) is a well-known tea in Croatia if anyone has access to an Eastern European market. Here is a link for 20 bags at $2.19.

Joe Yonan: Thanks -- but I think for most purposes you'd rather have big bags of just the dried flowers, not all chopped up into individual tea bags.

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Veg/ nonveg couple: I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and my husband is, uh, NOT. We usually eat separately, at least during the week, although he will often eat what I make, probably because it's easier than making his own food. Pizza is always good, usually appeals to everyone. My husband is fortunately not picky, has no objection to tofu or pretty much anything else, though, so it's probably easier for us than for some other couples.

Jane Black: Yup. It's definitely tricky. The real problems come when you have two picky eaters with different taste.

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Crabcakes!: How come no one's mentioned crabcakes? Please tell me you have a recipe for amazing, fool proof crabcakes. Also, how do I cook them without charring the outside and leaving the inside undercooked, and without them falling apart? My husband's not a fan of egg as a binding agent, so I'm at a loss as to how to proceed. Flour just seems so heavy.

David Hagedorn:
Um, here is a terrific article about the subject you mentioned and it includes a recipe for crabcakes. If you don't wish to use the eggs, leave them out and sub some breadcrumbs, about 2 tablespoons per pound of crab.

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Too many sugar snap peas: This is a problem we should all have...but there's a solution. Epicurious has a great recipe for pickled sugar snap peas. They keep for months in the refrigerator, and I dare say if you process them properly you can leave them on the shelf.

Jane Black: I just had this terrific salad. Julienne of watermelon radishes, sliced snap peas and feta in a lemony dressing. It was so pretty, pink and green and white. I could eat a vat of it.

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native of Berkeley CA: Dungeness crabs are about a million times better than blue crabs. But I guess it's what you grow up with. Our Christmas Eve dinner was always cracked Dungeness crabs with garlic butter, sourdough bread and a big salad. Compare that with eating half a pint of your own blood mixed with Old Bay seasoning as you try desperately to glean even a morsel of crab from your big bushel of blues and I think you can see my side.

David Hagedorn: Well, you have a point about the gleaning. I don't bother eating Blue crabs unless they are extra large or jumbo.

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Feeding a crowd: Hi. A couple of weeks ago you suggested that I make pizza on the grill for my family reunion party of 40. That seems like it would take a lot of time, yes? If not, how could I make it go faster with a normal-sized grill? Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Goes pretty fast, actually. You can do 3-4 pizza dough bases at a time, and they take literally a few minutes. It's a good production-line type activity.

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Albemarle, VA: Hi, we're trying to "up" our dried bean intake, and the Cilantro-Lime Black Bean Salad looks great for these hot days. I'd like to make it as a main, though -- over rice? in a tortilla? How would you round it out?

Joe Yonan: Well, I'd make tacos, but I pretty much make tacos as often as possible. Saute some shrimp, and add some heat to the salad and treat it as a salsa: chopped jalapeno or serrano, plus maybe some goat cheese or feta would be nice, I think.

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New Mexico: For the poster looking for more affordable cardamom: I buy mine at an Indian or Middle Eastern market in the pod, although sometimes they are sold in jars of just the seed. I grind the seeds, not pods, in a designated coffee grinder, not necessarily a new idea, but one that will make many spices affordable as well as more fresh tasting.

Joe Yonan: Yeppers.

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Washington, DC: The pictures of the mulberries in the Post's article look luscious. My reason for not plucking mulberries from the trees to eat is due to the really tiny little bugs that crawl all over them. They're like mulberry lice.

Did you not experience this?

Jane Black: Um, no. And now I'm not sure I'm ever going to eat mulberries again.

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Jam and cheese: My usual nighttime snack is a slice of whole wheat bread (homemade) with a spread of either apricot jam, marmalade, or mango chutney, and a really sharp cheese. Not just for breakfast!

I'm sure you get this question every spring, but what do I do with garlic ramps? I've put them on pizza and stir fry, but still have some left. I also got a lot of bok choy from my CSA -- love it in stir-fry, but is there anything else I can do with it (vegetarian ideas, please). Thanks!

Bonnie Benwick: Pickle them. Just like a taking a picture, they'll last longer.

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Joe Yonan: OK, OK. I can't do it. I said no to someone asking for a recipe that I actually have, just to see if it would feel good. And it did. At first. And then it nagged at me. So I can't do it. Here's the recipe I've used for years to make hibiscus margaritas. Although I have to admit, I followed it maybe only the first time, and always have winged it since.

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To Joe:: Re: mulberry's. That's so funny. You must take your dog to Walter Pierce Park. We live across the street and walk through the park too and from work each day. Every year when we start to notice the squished berry's underneath our feet my husband reminds me of his story of the worst stomach-ache is has ever had when he ate WAY too many mulberries from the tree on their farm as a child. As a now vegan who grew up on a hog farm the mulberries may be the only product of the farm he might still be able to eat. :-)

Joe Yonan: Nope I go to a different dog park -- but I know WPP. Looks like there are mulberries everywhere!

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Dietary Odd Couple: My wife eats mostly vegetarian, while I still eat meat a couple times a week. Our meal solution is to make vegetarian dishes and I have a small side of chicken or steak as an accompaniment rather than the star. I end up eating less meat and more veggies.

For the German potato salad, if fish is not off-limits, consider some finely chopped smoked salmon in place of bacon.

Jane Black: And they lived happily ever after.
(Good for you.)

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B'More Cat and Vanilla Lover: Why did I wait?

Last week, in prep for hosting Sunday Brunch for 20 people, I used a real vanilla bean in cooking for the first time in my life. (Made Rhubarb Compote from SmittenKitchen to fill mini homemade pop-tarts, also suggested by SmittenKitchen.) The smell while cooking was amazing and the compote tasted great. Glowing reviews on the mini pop-tarts too.

Why did I wait so long? What should I make now with the remaining half of a bean? Thanks.

Bonnie Benwick: Toss it in a small container of sugar and you'll have...vanilla sugar. Or scrape out the seeds and ramp up a savory dish, a la Gastronomer recipes of a few weeks back such as Curried Duck With Vanilla.

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Turbot: My husband and I went to the fish counter with the intention of buying a white fish. We went home with Turbot. It was delicious! Rich, somewhat dense texture but very moist. I liked it better than cod or tilapia. Is this fish 'catching' on? Any drawbacks to it?

Jane Black: No drawbacks. Seafood Watch recommends it as an alternative to halibut. Only negative I can think of is the price.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Just want to say you guys are really on your game today. Smart, helpful, funny.

Joe Yonan: Aw, shucks.

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Joe Yonan: Well, you've grilled us until there are no traces of blue left on our pincers, so you know what that means: We're done!

Thanks for the great q's today, all, and thanks to David Hagedorn and the inimitable John Shields for helping us answer all of them. Hope you got some good tips! And guess what: I'm felling less crabby already...

Now for the giveaway books. The chatter who originally asked about substitutes for bacon, since it prompted such back and forth, will get "Easy Vegan," naturally. And the chatter who asked about the peanut butter cookies (and confessed to old baking soda and reduced-fat peanut butter) will get "Drink This, Not That!"

Send your mailing address to us at food@washpost.com, and we'll get the books to you.

Until next week, happy steaming, crab-picking, and reading.

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