'Cooking' at work, federal cafeterias, using up CSA veggies, summer cocktails and more on Free Range on Food

Jul 14, 2010

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.

Greetings, all, and welcome to today's chat. If you're a federal worker, you no doubt have thoughts about our roundup review of a baker's half-dozen of Uncle Sam's cafeterias. Jane Black led the charge, but she's traveling today, so Bonnie (who went to a couple herself) and I (who escaped cafeteria duties because I was working on my own lunch story, on "cooking" in the office kitchenette) will do our best to answer your q's. Of course, you can ask us about all manner of other food-related issues, too.

We have giveaway books, as usual, for our favorite two chatters: There's "The Great Big Cheese Cookbook," source of today's DinMin recipe for a fantastic Asiago and Corn Risotto; and "Cooking for Two" by America's Test Kitchen.

If you didn't catch a glimpse of that risotto, here's a vision for you:

 

Let's roll!

I love the fact that two of today's Food section articles merged into a solution for a problem I've been having. I work at the Department of Labor and our cafeteria is awful. Not only is there a really heavy reliance on fried foods generally (and does anyone really need three chicken wing options?), I'm a vegetarian and the only option for me besides limp salads or cheese sandwiches is mac and cheese. Worse, we aren't located in an area with a lot of quick, close options for healthier food. So I'm going to start cooking in my office! I never thought about getting the angel hair pasta nests to keep on hand. Obviously, I'll leave out the sardines, but I'm sure I can keep a few other things on hand to throw in.

I'm so glad I inspired you! I was a little worried that people would read that piece and say (or think), "He's crazy. No way would I ever do that." So you've restored my faith.

You know one vegetarian product I've been liking lately that you might get to keep in an office fridge? It's the faux meats by Field Roast, particularly the sausages. I'm a carnivore, but these are actually good -- especially if you don't think of them as subs. But you also might look at that pre-marinated baked or smoked tofu. Keeps better than the fresher kind, and great to throw into salads, etc.

I want to bake cookies with miniature peanut butter cups. Any idea where I can find some? No luck at my Harris Teeter. Thanks!

Strangely enough, you may have luck at dollar stores, which buy lots of Halloween candy. Also, try the candy stores in the mall -- Tysons or Montgomery.

We have a dunkin donuts and a subway in our federal building so we win.

Your definition of victory is mine of defeat. But to each his own (lunch).

I can't find this in any of my grocery stores! Do I really need to find some specialty shop to buy it? Seems like it should be a basic in the baking aisles, but I'm not having much luck.

We've seen it at Giant stores, but here's another tip: Look for it at (or call) liquor stores, which often sell it as bar sugar. Or, of course, order it from, yes, specialty purveyors such as King Arthur Flour.

It's usually around more in high baking season (late fall through december). What specifically do you need it for? In a pinch, a lesser option might be to whiz granulated sugar in your food processor. It's not as good, but....

How do you feel about ramen noodles? I mean minus the flavoring packets that are 99 percent salt. Would they be an acceptable lunch-hour pasta? Or is angel hair nutritionally or otherwise superior? Thanks.

I think ramen's a fine idea -- as you say, without that packet. There's also rice noodles; those would work well.

I often make a balsamic reduction for my caprese salad, but never know how long it will keep for? Balsamic vinegar lasts pretty much forever in the cabinet, but is it the same once it's been reduced? Any advice on how to store it & for how long? Thanks!

Refrigerate it in a tightly sealed container for weeks.

Hi Food Staff - Thanks for your great columns. I look forward to reading today's chat while unfortunately eating my boring turkey sandwich at my desk. Hopefully Joe's article inspires me to make some changes for next week. Anyway, I recently got married and received a great set of Global Knives, which I love. I've never had a nice knife set, so I want to make sure I take proper care of them. What is the best way to clean them after use? So far, I've rinsed them with warm soapy water and dried them with a clean kitchen towel right after use. Am I on the right track? Thanks!

By jove, you've got it.

By far the best cafeteria in the Federal Government has to be at the NRO.

Do tell. Say more!

I just started at the USDA last week and I fully agree with your cafeteria review. It's the same company that also does the World Bank cafeterias, so why such a difference in quality? The cafeteria at the World Bank Headquarters is really good! Now it is sad to say that I am happy to eat at my desk. : (

Step away from your desk, and take back your lunch!

I have about 8 bottles of Yingling beer in my fridge. I don't like beer and my husband doesn't care for Yingling. I don't want to get rid of it, so any good recipes I can make with it? I already have a beef marinade, chili and a pulled bbq pork. Granted it's summer but I'd love to make french onion soup - can I use this beer?? Recipe?? Any other foods you'd recommend?

Coincidence! I baked a beer cake that'll be posted in tomorrow's All We Can Eat blog. It's kind of a poundcake, but the beer makes it lighter. There's also the world of beer cocktails....Jason? Boozehound, are you there?

Yes, Bonnie, there are indeed some wonderful beer cocktails! In fact, I wrote a column about this topic not too long ago! Yuengling wouldn't be my first choice for cocktails, but the Oranj-a-Bloom could work. There's also always the "classic" Boilermaker (drop a shot of whiskey in in your glass of beer).

oranj-a-bloom

Hi, Is it really possible to substitute unsweetened applesauce for oil and butter in baking? That's the claim made at a site I was pointed to; here's the relevant excerpt:

Tip # 4: Eat Cake Another tasty way to slim down recipes for muffins, cakes, cupcakes and cookies is to substitute equal parts applesauce for the oil or butter. For every tablespoon of applesauce, you'll save almost 100 calories and 14 grams of fat. The best part is you won't even taste the difference. Just make sure to use a smooth no-sugar-added applesauce to reduce calories and avoid mysterious chunks in your cupcakes.

I have not found this to be universally true, but then again, if I was on a restricted diet and this was the way I could bake treats, maybe I'd like it better. That said, readers loved these  Applesauce Chocolate Chip Bars

.

We love ramen noodles. If you live close to an Asian market I would suggest stopping by to see all the noodle bowls they import. I forget the name but there are several different brands that are much lower in sodium then the stuff found at big boxes. In fact the one we like is halal and is out of Thailand. Be leery of anything made in China.

Your article strikes fear in my heart! As a DoD employee scheduled to move to the new Mark Center building, I got to thinking today if our only on-site food option would be from one of those government run cafeterias, and now I'm scared to be doomed to a never-ending work life of packing lunches. I hope someone high up on the food chain (pun intended) reads your article and institutes an overhaul before next summer. Thanks for the read!

For the newlywed with new knives. After every washing and drying I leave my knives out for my husband to hone with a steel. It makes him feel all manly, and always having sharp knives is an absolute joy.

This is a weird question. I like to roast corn on the cob in the oven, with the husks still on. Yesterday I bought a few ears at the farmer's market that were marked "grown without pesticides -- so you may find a worm or two inside." If I don't unwrap the corn and throw it in the oven, and there are worms in any of the ears ... well, that's just a bad idea, right? If I unwrap it to check for worms, but still want to roast it, should I wrap it in something else, or leave it bare? And will it be as good that way? (I always figured the leaves and silk imparted a certain something in the roasting process.)

Just strip the husks back but not completely off -- leaving them attached at the bottom. Check for worms, then pull the husks back around the corn. If you want the tusks to fit more tightly, you could tie with kitchen string, or wrap with foil around the husks.

Not that I've done any of this, mind you. I'm just thinking about a grill technique.

Actually, let me add one more thing: Wouldn't it be great to add some butter, salt and pepper to the corn before you rewrap in the husks? Or take a cue from this fantastic recipe and brush some coconut milk on them?

Have you had lots of worm probs with corn?

I realize to the FR chatters quiche is not a super complicated dish (esp with a prepared pie crust!), but I'm still a pretty novice cook so I wanted to ask a couple of questions: 1 - If I make the quiche the night before I'm serving it, do I bake it only partially and then finish up the next day? 2 - This question seems especially silly, but since I'm using a prepared pie crust do I just bake it in the container it comes in or should I put it in a pie pan? Or just put it on a cookie sheet? Thank you for your help!

We especially like uncomplicated questions! Are  you using a pie crust dough that comes in an aluminum pan, you mean? Sure, it'd probably be best to bake the quiche right in that. Bake it all the way through, cool, refrigerate for the next day.

I've worked at NIH for 35 years, and there always seems to be something better to do with the budget than investing in the health of employees. To access the cafeteria you have to push through a blizzard of minatory signage encouraging you to eat healthily and then...fast food is what they are offering?? The fitness center for the 18,000 people on campus is a cramped dingy room in the 3rd basement plus a double-wide trailer. But at least they have banned cigarettes-which didn't cost them anything. Good thing it's a great place to work otherwise.

Trader Joe's has some AMAZING teeny tiny PB cups! Yum!

But then how will we read the chat?!?

SO TRUE!

I must work in the same building as this chatter. And I agree, a Federal building with a Dunkins always wins. Much better than the horrible starbucks attached to transportation.

You can also take regular sugar and run it through a food processor to make it, if not SUPERfine, pretty darn fine.

Is there an echo in here? ;-)

With a little advanced prep of chopping and whipping up a sauce, spring rolls should come together pretty easily in an office setting. Once you have the veggies and rice noodles together, which you can prep at home the night before, all you really need is a bowl of warm water to soak the rice paper in. In my opinion, it beats chicken wings any day of the week.

Love it. Nice!

I have a few pounds of cucumbers - both Kirby's and Asian "burpless" - and I'd love to make homemade dill pickles. Do you happen to have a relatively easy recipe? Thanks in advance.

These are pretty darn simple, with almost immediate satisfaction: Dad's Microwave Bread-and-Butter Pickles.

My husband came home with two boxes of peach juice. Do you think a little rum and a simple sugar would be good with it? Any other ideas for a summer drink?

I think rum would work okay, if it's dark or got a little age. White rum wouldn't be my first choice. Bourbon and peaches, however, now that's a winner for me. We published a recipe for a Ginger Peach Julep last year that was a fantastic summer drink. With very little experimenting, you could replace the peach slices with your peach juice.

Sardines in the office microwave? Your co-workers will hate you.

Sigh. Doesn't anybody actually read anything anymore?

"Preparing food at work comes with etiquette issues, the types of behaviors that prompt those 'Your Mother Doesn't Work Here' signs. I keep things clean enough, but I've been worried about those sardines. After all, I've been in some offices that specifically forbid fish in the microwave, because the device has a way of carrying the odor across time and space. But with a paper towel over the fish and just enough time to heat the small amount I use, I've avoided the wrath of others."

I had one, once, and it was a pain to wash and clean and maintain. Is there a good low-tech or easy-maintainance version I can look for? Like a cheap art-supply brush?

These days, feathery-looking silicone brushes can stand in for many of the same functions that real pastry brushes are used for. You can buy them at kitchen stores. 

Very interesting article. I've eaten at a number of Government cafeterias over the years. I have found Commerce's cafeteria to be the best. They have the widest selection of tasty hot food, an extensive fresh salad bar, and inexpensive sandwiches. Other than the salad bar, I can't really attest to "healthy" food. Transportation has decent food. Their burgers and fries are great. But the salad bar and other selections are really lacking. I'd love to see the Post review more Government cafeterias.

I like to cook up the noodles with just a pinch of the flavor packet, and then I use them for making a batch of Vietnamese summer rolls. Tasty !

FYI - that looks AMAZING! Can't wait to make it with all my leftover corn - tonight! Also, love the addition of the pictures the chats - they really add something. Thanks!

I have also seen super fine sugar in the cake baking section of craft stores.

You can make amazing beer cheese soups, which are loaded with vegetables to offset the cheese-and-beer awesomeness. Beer breads are a simple, quick fix as well, and you can take them either a savory or sweet route with the addition of various mix-ins. Meats braised in beer... beer-battered fish (cod or halibut = scrumptious)... I've seen recipes for beer ice cream even. Oh, and you can do a beer fondue!

For farm-fresh corn, it's better to remove the silks anyway before you roast/grill them. You simply peel the husk "petals" back on themselves, one at a time, until they're below the bottom third of the corn. Keep on doing this until you get to the kernels, when you can remove the silks and inspect for any worms. Add seasonings if you'd like (brushed butter or dunked in coconut milk = heavenly), then fold the husk petals back up in the reverse order. They should cover up again nicely, and it will make for a quick table-side shucking experience without needing to deal with silk. I had never done it this way until the 4th of July, but a friend showed me the technique (she learned it from her Native-American grandmother) and it worked amazingly well.

I must be going crazy, because I could SWEAR that this is pretty much what I suggested, isn't it?

I highly recommend putting the aluminum pan on a cookie sheet (ideally a pre-heated cookie sheet). The pans the frozen crusts come in can be flimsy (and so hard to manage when you're putting it in the oven), plus the pan will catch any spills. (I also recommend covering the crusts with thin strips of aluminum foil; I find they get too brown too quickly otherwise.) (Clearly, I use a lot of frozen pie crusts--my crust of choice until I married a man who makes his own crusts!)

I make them in double-water with the flavour pack already added and then drain off almost all the water. Removes the salt-water, but the noodles do get some flavour.

I love making a twist on tabouleh at work. I chop the parsley, tomatoes, feta, etc. at home, then bring some uncooked bulgur wheat. About an hour before lunch, I warm up the kettle and cover the bulgur with water (covering to let it steam). Then at lunch i toss all the veggies in with the bulgur, and add some homemade vinaigrette (which I transport in old spice containers and keep in the fridge). Cheap, FRESH, and doable at work!

Beautiful!

Joe - GREAT article. Loved the story and the recipes. Monthly column, maybe?

Thanks! I take it you mean a cooking-at-work column? Because that was actually an entry in my monthly cooking for one column!

Thanks for another great column, Jason. Last January I made the mistake of buying Goslings 151 rather than the regular Black Seal (the only difference is the "151" on the label which is easy to miss). My Dark and Stormies and hot Buttered rums tasted awful and hit me so hard and I just couldn't figure out why until my wife pointed to the little number on the label... ouch.

That's funny. The same thing happened to a bartender friend of mine. The bar had accidentally stocked the wrong Gosling's, and he poured several Dark n Stormies for regular with the 151. The regular started getting really beligerent and then sick. They were like, "What's wrong with this guy?" And then suddenly...they realized...

Interesting article! I have what might be an obvious question. Why not just cook at home and nuke the food at work? Is it to get a break from the desk, explore strange new worlds?

Exactly! Plus I want it to be fresh. AND, I so often forget my lunch at home.

"For someone like me who finds the kitchen the most meditative room in the house, it's still almost as soothing to cobble together something in our office's kitchenette as it is to chop, heat, slice and stir at home."

I'm going to an engagement party this Saturday. It is being hosted outdoors. I have been asked to bring a side dish to accompany bbq ribs, hotdogs, hamburgers, pasta salad, the usual bbq munchies... I was hoping to bring chicken salad. I have surfed the web for some different recipes, however, maybe someone has a delicious chicken salad recipe that is fairly timeless..

Timeless, as in classic:  Not-So-Basic Chicken Salad, Tarragon Chicken Salad With Hazelnuts.

Timeless, as in you lose yourself in the flavor to the extent that night falls into day: Tangy Chicken Salad With Celery 3 Ways, Mango Chicken Salad With Mango Dressing.

 

Would that my place of employment believed in kitchenettes! I'm in academia, and we have literally turned closets into faculty offices around here - the kitchenette is a long-extinct species. (But we have a decent cafeteria.) That said, if you don't like the dull paring knife in the company kitchen, put yourself in charge of office party supplies and keep a big knife suitable for cutting cake in your party-supply drawer. (This is also an excellent excuse for keeping a corkscrew and/or bottle opener handy.)

Posting early due to travel plans, but hope you can help me. I have decided I would like a mezzaluna. I have no idea where to start as far as brands, size or style, since no one I know has one. Do the "Free Rangers" use them and if so, is this a "must have" piece of equipment for someone who has just about every other piece of equipment available? My knife skills are somewhat weak, and I figured this would help make chopping easier. Thanks for your input.

I don't have one, but I've played around with them. I'm not going to say you shouldn't get one, because if you want to, go for it, but if I were you I'd take a knife skills class first. If you have a good cook's knife whose blade is somewhat curved, you can use the same rocking motion as with a mezzaluna. To my mind, a m-l is best for a huge pile of herbs, which you can rock right through, but, really, how often do you face that? Moreover, don't you want to improve your skills at all those other knife tasks beyond chopping?

Even with a paper towel over forces me to select you to test the newest IED detection device in Afghanistan in a old American car painted with a big American flag on the hood and pictures of the prophet Mohammed on the doors. You get to wear a Captain America costume and the device is low bid Joe. Thats what would happen in our office. Chances you survive testing these low bid devices slim. Pick out your box.

Aw, you say the nicest things! I'm sorry you work in such a hazard zone. The fact is, you could make this recipe without nuking the sardines, of course...

For those perhaps even without a kettle at work, there are several varieties of rice noodles that really only need to be soaked in hot water (a lot of offices now have a "near boiling" tap on the sink), or just throw some water on the noodles and microwave, I was surprised to find this does not compromise the texture of the noodles at all (or not as far as I can tell). I do this almost daily with a little really good soy sauce. Also it has been a while since I've been able to read this discussion, I love the little pictures!

truly, anything added to corn I just bought at the farmer's market is a waste of those ingredients and the ruin of the corn. I got some last weekend that had been picked that morning and immediately cut the kernels off, froze half, and microwaved the other half for 30 seconds. I ate them with a spoon. You can toss them with fresh herbs and tomatoes, too, but really, butter and spices just cover the corn flavor.

I make them at home and wrap them with a damp paper towel, then put them in a baggie or storage container, they are fine at lunch. You need to experiment with the level of paper towel wetness to avoid getting rolls that are dry and chewy at the ends.

Beer Shrimp Boil! This was easy and delicious. I used Claire Robinson's recipe.

In hot weather, the Madison Hotel on Connecticut Ave keeps a big dispenser of cool water with cucumber slices near the entrance, with disposable cups for patrons. It's quite refreshing. Any idea if I can replicate this by just putting some thin-sliced cukes in water? Or do you have a recipe for making something similar?

I'm sorry, but are you asking if you can replicate cucumber-slices-in-water by putting ... cucumber slices in water? Why, yes, you can!

So I'm reading a lot of cookbooks trying to improve my cooking. After frying or sauteing meat or chicken in a pan I have fond on the bottom. I deglaze with a little bit of wine and pour over the food. However...my sauce is always so watery. Even if I let it reduce to a minuscule amount, it is like pouring water over my food and spreads all over the plate. What am I doing wrong?

Not sure what amounts of meat/chicken we're talking about, but you can go 2 ways: turn the heat up to evaporate a little of the liquid (if there seems to be too much) or add small increments of butter, whisking, to make the sauce a lustrous thing.

I'd much rather the toaster oven my office has than the cafeteria. For breakfast I bring muffins that I have made at home wrapped in foil and heat them up slowly in the toaster oven still wrapped for a just-out-of-the-oven taste (unwrapped frozen muffins in the microwave would work in a pinch). I've made roasted green beans by placing them in foil I brought from home and toasting them there - just brown bag your ingredients. My colleagues bring in sandwich ingredients and toast the entire sandwich to perfection almost like a hot panini. I realize that not all offices have toaster ovens available, but they should!

Yes, I couldn't agree more. We have a toaster oven, and love it. Bonnie and I have talked about operating a little panini cafe, even...

I'll be over later to take those off your hands...

I'll split them with you.

OK, so first a blatantly obvious ploy: You guys are, literally, my favorite food section and the first resource I go to when trying to come up with new meals to make for my husband and me (why yes, what a coincidence! Two of us!) I actually just made your Spanish almond pepper dip - yummy! And fairly easy, although I forgot to roast the peppers first and sliced them up raw and threw them in the food processor with everything else. Luckily I remembered in time and happened to have a jar of roasted peppers on hand, but man, digging all the raw peppers out was no fun! Now then, for my actual question. Everyone on here always talks about how easy it is to chop garlic, but I must be missing out on something because I have the hardest time with it! It's so sticky it just sticks to the knife and my fingers and I can't get it to stay on the cutting board. I've changed a lot of my cooking ways after reading you guys, but I have to admit - I'm still clinging to my garlic press. So, is there some nifty technique I just don't know about?

We learn a lot from you guys as well.

Unless your recipe would be adversely affected, add a small pinch of kosher salt to the initial pile of coarsely chopped garlic. Keep going; the salt will help break it down and keep it from gathering on your smooth-edged knife.

Hi there. I'm trying to use less shortening in my cooking. Is it possible to simply substitute butter? Thanks.

What are you making?

Looking forward to trying today's risotto recipe. Have you tried making risotto in a pressure cooker? I got the idea from a Lorna Sass cookbook and haven't made it the regular way since. It takes less than 10 minutes and is delicious. I am a pressure cooker convert and risotto is one of my go-to sides. Thanks!

I have. Love Lorna and her pressure cooker recipes. I am a believer.  That said, the last time I pulled out my pc was months ago.

Oops! Yes, meant monthly cooking-at-work column. Maybe that's too much. Once a quarter? Regardless, great idea and one that's applicable to so many of us!

Gotcha. OK, I'll try to revisit this from time to time, indeed. Thanks!

No cafeteria, only private services in the Trade Center. We could walk to Commerce, but that's 15 minutes from my office. The private services...bland, corporate and unhealthy. And we can't drink the water at EPA. Signs up in the bathrooms warn it's for external use only.

I meant: Could it really be as simple as just cucumber slices in water, or were there probably other ingredients, too. But good to know it's probably just water and cukes. Now I wonder why I never saw it before ...

That's all it is. You've obviously not been to a high-end spa, cause this is a staple there.

If you smash it with the edge of your knife (also an easy way to get the pesky peel off), it tends to stay still. Use a big knife that rocks back and forth easily.

I'm a USDA employee and couldn't agree more (with the exception that the tuna isn't mayo-laden). They switched vendors a few years ago and the quality of the food really went downhill, even as the prices climbed. They also tout "local sourcing;" usually the only things sourced locally are mushrooms (from Pennsylvania, mushroom capital of the US) and milk. And worst of all, there is NOTHING close to eat at as an alternative. At least we have the half-smoke vendors!

I love making egg noodles but hate having to go through all that work each time. Is there any way to freeze or dry the noodles out so I can make a larger batch and use them later?

You can freeze them uncooked, sure. Place in a food-safe plastic storage bag, maybe with a little semolina tossed in (or whatever you use) to keep them from sticking.

Hi Rangers, I'm out in SF, where summer feels like fall & it's never too hot to roast a whole chicken. So that's what I did last weekend. I had a layer of chunks of onion, celery, potatoes & carrots on the bottom of the roasting pan & thought these veggies would be edible, but they turned out really bland and unappetizing. 1) is there anything I can do in the future to improve these results; 2) is there anything I can do with these near-tasteless veggies or are they compost? thank you!

SF'er, you needed some herbs and spices and even citrus. Some whole cloves of garlic, rosemary and thyme sprigs, and sliced lemon, and you'd have been golden, I think. And did you give it all a healthy sprinkling of good salt? You can certainly resurrect some flavor from these veggies. Are they really really tender? If so, I'd be tempted to roast some garlic, then squeeze the cloves into a pot with these veggies and chicken stock, then heat, season with some fresh herbs -- parsley, cilantro, basil or tarragon, perhaps -- and puree it. You could add some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to finish, maybe a little drizzle of olive oil.

Since it's summer, my dad has been asking me to make some no-cook, "summery" meals. My mom and I had been wanted to try gazpacho for some time, but we never had. So I made Gazpacho and long story short...no one was digging it. To me it tasted like salsa and I was not a fan. Any ideas for what to do with the remaining soup? I was thinking maybe mixing it in with some mexican rice, putting it over chicken, or maybe just dipping some chips into it. I would hate to throw it away. Thanks!

What was in it?

They can't drink the water at the *Environmental Protection Agency*? What is wrong with that sentence?!?

I know, right?

I enjoy warm, slightly charred bread from my oven but wonder which is better to use: butter or olive oil?

I'd go for the olive oil.

Candy section at most Targets or Walgreens or other chain drugstores.

That Ginger Peach Julep looks delicious. There's probably no way to cheat on the ginger syrup, is there? I just don't know what I'm going to do with a cup and a half of ginger syrup after making one. I suppose I could start with less sugar and water and just watch closely to make sure I don't overcook with the lesser amount?

Oh, you don't need to make that much. Just remember equals parts sugar and water, and then adjust the ginger slices accordingly. You could try muddling the ginger and sugar with everything else, too, but the syrup is better.

What are your storage recommendations for fresh summer fruit? I bought a pound of organic strawberries that got gushy and not-so-tasty after two days in the 'fridge. Bummer. Similar experience with plums. I'm hoping if I buy a watermelon, planning to eat it over the course of a week, I won't end up tossing most of it on the compost heap. Or should I just buy pre-sliced? Thanks for your advice.

You didn't wash those strawberries, did you? That'll speed up their death. But I have to say, you've got only a couple days with the really great local berries: They're more delicate than those monsters bred for hardiness and shipping, not flavor. And were the plums ripe when you bought them? If not, leave them at room temperature until they're rip, then refrigerate them. Your watermelon should be fine -- just cover the cut part in plastic wrap before putting in the fridge.

Any suggestions for an easy pork loin recipe for the grill to go with it? My parents are coming over for dinner tonight...

The Commerce cafeteria is pretty good, and has gotten better in the last few years. Too many people that come here, however, end up in the soul food section, which, while great food, is horrible for you. The Border Patrol guys seem to be in line for soul food just about every time I'm in the cafeteria. For the EPA folks, go the other direction and head to the old post office pavilion. It's not the greatest food in the world, but a step up from the Reagan Building. Plus, the okra at the Indian food restaurant on Fridays is excellent.

From lots of practice chopping garlic...if you chop the ends of the clove off and then pop the entire clove into the microwave for 5 seconds or less, the outer layer peels right off. I then smash and chop. Also, to get rid of the smell, a squeeze some lemon juice on your hands, ala eating seafood.

For the chatter asking about ramen noodles, you should try soba noodles too! Those are made of buckwheat so they are modestly healthier due to more fiber, and they have such a delicious nutty taste. They make a good summer meal served chilled with dipping sauce.

I have had great success using a combination of drying and freezing with my egg noodles to keep them for later. I also use quite a bit of flour to keep them from sticking during the drying process. If you do use flour, it is critical to rinse your noodles after washing and draining to remove any gooey flour mess on the noodles.

Cookies, mostly. My favorite oatmeal cookies have shortening in them and I'd just rather not use it.

You could. You'll get a crisper texture, but give it a shot and see what happens. Not sure if your recipe uses brown sugar, but if it doesn't, I'd try switching to that, which will make them chewier. If you want to send the recipe to us at food@washpost.com, we can send it to one of our baking experts and get back to you.

You could also make the full recipe and freeze the rest in an ice cube tray. It doesn't freeze quite solid, but close enough.

If your watermelon does get squishy and overripe, make agua fresca (watermelon juice, strained, water, some lime juice and sugar to taste). Completely refreshing and apparently best when the watermelon is super ripe.

That I'm reading this chat to live vicariously through people who have the opportunity to cook. Moving in a week means we've been fridge-foraging and it's getting scary. So looking forward to being able to buy groceries again! So thanks, all. :-)

This works for all melons. As soon as you get it home, cut it into big chunks and put in tupperware (I have a giant one I use). Then, every time you serve yourself, pour some of the juice on the bottom into your bowl. It keeps for a week and is a whole lot easier to store in the fridge than a melon.

This months Food & Wine has a recipe for blueberry syrup that they say will keep in the fridge for 6 months. The instructions say: pour the syrup into just-cleaned bottles. Seal and refrigerate for up to 6 months. In this case, what does "seal" mean?? Tightly close the screw-cap? Some sort of pressure sealing like for canning? A wax seal? Help!

Well, the best source for questions about a recipe is that recipe's author, but we can help you here. Your clue is that they say to refrigerate it. That means that you're not really canning it, with pressure, wax or anything else, a process designed to make things shelf-stable. You're just tightly closing it, indeed.

I have had to change/eliminate food from my diet to help my new baby get over reflux/colic/food intolerance while I breastfeed. I've eliminated dairy, soy and beef for potential intolerance, and also try to skip gas-causing foods like cabbage, greens, broccoli, cucumber, peppers, melon, etc. We also keep kosher which eliminates pork, shellfish and most creative meat options like chicken or turkey sausage - I can't get them where I am. Before baby, I ate everything so it's been hard sticking to just chicken, turkey, fish, green beans, carrots and zucchini. Maybe there's a couple more items but you get the idea. I'm getting bored with what I know - can you suggest some main course dishes to help me keep meals interesting? Thanks!

Maybe a global mindset would be helpful, and by that I mean trading up spices and flavoring. For chicken, do a curry, then a tinga, then a marinade for kebabs. For vegetables,  think grilling, ratatouille, a puree, a baked souffle. For fish, think a tomato-based soup, a green sauce, some packet cooking in the oven with fresh herbs and lemon and maybe even a drop of Pernod (baby won't mind). Get the idea?

Hi guys, Followed your advice to grill some halloumi for my vegetarian BBQ guests- it was amazing! Thanks so much. Question: Is there a cheaper source for Halloumi than my local supermarket (Harris Teeter), which charges $10 for what I'd say is two small servings? Or is that about what it goes for? Thanks again!

Domenica Marchetti, our favorite cheese maven, says:

"I think the halloumi at Mediterranean Bakery may be a couple of dollars cheaper than that, though I don't know the exact price. They have a couple of different brands, too. I would say the price range would be somewhere between 7 and 10 dollars for one of those 'bricks'. The writer might want to try Middle Eastern or international markets, where prices are sometimes better for such products."

I was reading the ginger peach julep recipe, and it brought to mind my puzzlement over various drink recipes I've seen - there doesn't seem to be much to them. For example, the julep has 3oz of liquid plus whatever comes out of the peach when muddled. That just doesn't seem to be enough to me. When I encounter drinks like this, I usually add a bit of club soda or tonic to fill the rest of the glass. I'm wondering if "it's just me" or if it is common to supplement like that. PS - the accompanying picture with the julep looks to be more than 3oz, even taking into account it is filled with crushed ice.

It's more like about 5+ ounces of liquid before the ice dilution (remember, you've got peach juice you're muddling, too).  This will usually fill up an ice-filled highball glass. I mean, you can always double the recipe or, you know, make a second drink? I think people have become accustomed to the way drinks are poured in many bars and restaurants now, in gigantic glasses. Bars can charge more for bigger drinks, and they're more time efficient bartenders at busy places. But those drinks end up getting pretty warm and/or diluted by the end.  Almost all traditional cocktail recipes are based on, say, 4-6 ounces of liquid. But if you want a bigger drink, double, triple or quadruple it -- just keep the ratios the same.

I tried making pastry cream for a fruit tart and it didn't go well. It was fairly thick and had tiny lumps in it...from the cornstarch I'm guessing. Do you usually have to strain pastry cream? Can you suggest a good recipe please? Thanks.

This one's from our archives and should be, nay will be, in our database soon. It makes slightly more than you need for a 9-inch tart, and is more along the lines of a classic French recipe (no cornstarch):

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean
5 large egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup  flour

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk with the vanilla bean until the milk just starts to simmer. Remove from the heat and let infuse for 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until they are thickened and a slightly more pale-yellow color. Whisk the flour into the egg mixture until the flour is combined, then whisk in the milk, including the vanilla bean.

Transfer the mixture to the saucepan over medium-low heat and bring to a gentle boil, stirring constantly. Let the pastry cream boil for 2 minutes--it will thin out slightly, then thicken again--to cook the flour so there is no residual flour taste. Remove from the heat and immediately transfer the pastry cream to a clean bowl to cool. Leave the vanilla bean in the pastry cream throughout the cooking process and remove it just before using the cream.

Some of your recipes call for a grill pan. I don't have one but it recently occurred to me that I do have one of those indoor George Foreman grilling machine things, that I got as a wedding present and never knew what to do with it. Do you think that could stand in for a grill pan, if I only put the food on one side of it?

Not sure you'd have the control over temperature, and from what I can tell, the Foreman machine and its ilk needs that pressing action from the top plate to make the grilling/heat suffice. Chatters?

but the Brooking Institute has an amazing cafeteria, open to the public.

hands down - the Pentagon. I have my choice of literally anything I want - not to mention shopping in the middle!!

I'm having friends over for dinner this weekend and will be preparing fajitas (maybe chicken, maybe beef). I'd like to serve a somewhat healthful veggie side. I was thinking of doing a corn and black bean salad, but I've never actually made one. Do you have any recipes or a better side dish ideas?

Start with this Cilantro and Black Bean Salad, which is healthful and a winner. You could grill some corn and add it, if you like.

black bean salad

I use leftover beer (yes, sorry, I sometimes have such a thing) for slow-cooker barbecue. Roughly chop two onions and put them in the bottom of the cooker. Salt and pepper your favorite not-too-lean meat (I like boneless country ribs or chicken thighs), then place the meat on top of the onions. Whisk together equal parts beer and BBQ sauce (enough to cover the meat) and pour over. Cook on low for about 8.5 hours. The onions are soft and super-flavorful, and the meat is tender enough to pull apart with a fork. Serve on rolls/buns like pulled pork, or dish it up over rice, orzo, or even spaghetti.

Good one.  Chili's where mine goes.

I have a question for Jason, which isn't meant to be nosey and rude, rather I'm just curious. I realize foodies have to be careful to not overeat to keep their weight in check and chefs have to spend a lot of time cooking to experiment and create new dishes. How does it work for someone whose business is to know alcohol and drinks, so that you know the best spots and the newest drinks, you can invent some of your own possibly, but you stay safe and don't become dependent on the buzz or the practice of drinking?

Yeah, that's a good question. It's a problem faced by sommeliers and bartenders too. The simple answer is: One has to be careful. It's not as if I'm out drinking every night -- it's different than if I were a restaurant critic. When I'm testing recipes, I measure these drinks carefully and keep a limit on the amount of tasting in an evening. And I drink a lot of water, at least a full glass for every drink. But yeah, it's something to always be mindful of.

I mean the side of your knife. Not the edge. Argh.

It had tomatos, green and red bell peppers, cucumber, onion, olive oil, vinegar, and tomato juice. It was chunky, not smooth.

Seems like you could add some cumin, smoked paprika or chopped chipotle en adobo, blend it into a sauce, cook it for a bit, then add shredded chicken. Tostadaville.

I haven't done this, but I recall that once Alton Brown cooked eggs in his electric water kettle. You do need to get a wide mouthed one that doesn't have the heating element in direct contact with the water (it should be in the base), but it might be a good option for cooking that requires continuous boiling water rather than pouring boiling water over the food. I've been meaning to try it, but haven't gotten around to it yet.

Wow -- I'll have to look that up! Seems like it would create some cleanup issues, wouldn't it? I do like that I don't have to scrub out that kettle all the time, just rinse.

My oven died but my stovetop is still functional. My family is vegetarian and I'm suddenly feeling at a loss of what to make, probably the shock of the oven not working. We made carrots and potatos over rice for dinner last night, and I'm rather stumped for tonight. We have a number of green peppers in the crisper.

Our time  here grows short, so I'll just say: Stir-fry's your friend.

Well, you've divided us among wide, shallow bowls, and then sprinkled us with black pepper, chives and shavings of asiago cheese, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great q's today; hope you liked the a's, or at least found them useful.

Now for the cookbook giveaways: The Chicago chatter who made the shameless bid for the "Cooking for Two" book will get ... the "Cooking for Two" book! Big shock there. And the chatter who asked about roasting corn and dealing with worms will get "The Great Big Cheese Cookbook."

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

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading!

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