Oct 27, 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.

Well, the weather's crummy (hot, humid, fall?) but we've got flaming desserts and root beer with  our pork chops to keep us happy.  Good afternoon, Free Rangers, and welcome to the chat guaranteed to make you hungry -- even at lunchtime.  With us today are Stephanie Sedgwick, who added to her Nourish duties this week by cooking and baking with root beer; also David Hagedorn, the Real Entertaining columnist who managed a multi-themed party you could pull off this weekend and created a hurt-me good menu. Editor Joe just arrived and Spirits columnist Jason Wilson may drop in.

For giveaways, we've got Ming Tsai's new "Simply Ming One-Pot Meals" and "What to Cook and How to Cook It" by Jane Hornby.  As always, we'll announce winners at the end of the session.

On with the show....

 

This looks so good, I almost don't mind that summer's over!

Thanks! Summer may be gone, but fall has its charms.

These look delicious. I can almost smell them from the computer but one question: can you substitute actual root beer for the root beer extract? I keep trying to find these extracts (lemon/orange/root beer etc) but I live in Northern VA and usually end up paying as much in shipping as the extract costs. I'd love to try this out though!

You don't need to mail order. You can get locally at:

Fran’s Cake & Candy Supplies, $8.50/4 ounces
10927 Main Street
Fairfax; 703-352-1471

The cake is delicious!

I want to thank you for the root beer recipes, and beyond that, for waking me up to the idea that root beer can be used in cooking! I love the stuff, even the calorie-free version I drink nowadays. Two cooking questions: Can sugar-free root beer be substituted for the sugar-laden version? And -- For those of us who don't eat pork, would that recipe work with beef or lamb? Thank you.

I know this is a tired answer but...try it with chicken. I think it'd be great. Sugar-free root beer-I think you'll be okay in this dish.

Root beer link in the intro goes to the New Orleans article.

Thanks! We fixed now.

I have an abundance of sweet potatoes/yams from my CSA and I'm looking for something to do with them all in one fell swoop (I'm moving this weekend and would really prefer not to lug them around). It needs to be vegetarian but also, if possible, include some form of protein. Thanks!

Hmm, one fell swoop....dice some into your fave chili recipe, or roast slices and make a vegetable lasagne. Roast the rest, cool and freeze the puree. You're heading into the season where a surplus of sweet pots is a good thing!

For those in a similar position but who AREN'T moving this weekend, don't forget that they store really well (the clean/dry place advice applies here). Our special Sunday T-giving section on Nov. 21 will have a good sweet-potato story with some good recipes.

Not all cooking sprays are non-stick - you have to check the label before you buy. I discovered this after wondering why my scrambled eggs were sticking to the pan, when they never did before.

Seriously? Which ones are nonstick?

They're only as nonstick as a film of oil would be, right?

Back home in PA, I knew people that raised them for food. But where do you get rabbit nowadays? Grocery stores don't carry them, barely can find cornish game hens. Thanks!

For the rabbit gumbo in today's Food, I bought the rabbit at the Safeway in Georgetown. They come from D'Artagnan, which sells high quality gourmet products. Also, Whitmore Farm sells them at the Georgetown farmers market on Wisconsin Avenue on  Saturdays. You may want to contact them ahead of time to make sure they have them or will reserve them for you. While you're at it, reserve some of their amazing eggs.

The best root beeer ever used to be sold at the Philadelphia Zoo; I really wish I knew what brand it was. In the meantime, though, can I use the extract to make my own soda? If so, how? Thanks for the root beer memories . . .

The extract won't work on its own because it's not sweet, but don't give up. There are many kits out there for making root beer at home. Any search engine will come up with a few. My young friend Clara made her own root beer in Paris using one her mom ordered online.

The recipe states you need 12 tablespoons (two sticks) – a stick has 8 tablespoons. So, is 2 sticks or 12 tablespoons the correct amount? Would love to make this but know the amount of butter will make a difference in how it comes out. Thanks!

It's 1 cup butter which is 8 ounces, 2 sticks or 16 tablespoons. Choose the measurement you prefer-it's all the same.

It's fixed now.

Hi all. I asked you guys earlier about preserving tomatoes (thanks for the tips, I got the Ball cookbook.) Unfortunately I got cold feet when it came to the final steps plus I liked the sweetness of the sauce, omitting the lemon juice. I've frozen most of it, my question is how long can I keep 3 or 4 pint jars refrigerated in the coldest part of the refrigerator?

You should make sure your fridge is under 38 degrees, or you could be at risk for botulism. (I researched and wrote about this very issue when pondering my own preserved-tomato recipe.) If it is, I think the toms would be fine for a few months.

You'd need to alter the sugar and liquid content to use real root beer, wouldn't you? And I personally try to avoid high-fructose corn syrup, which is what your sugar content would be most of.

You need sugar for baking but if you're just using the root beer in a quick braise, I think you'll be okay.

I noted the "Sifted" teaser on the front of the food section today and was curious enough to ask what the focus will be. I was initially excited by the "Flour Girl" posts on your blog, but later didn't read it much because the focus was almost exclusively sweets. As a baker who likes savory goods, including yeast breads, quick breads, pizza, and casseroles, I'm hoping that "Sifted" will also include these and related items. This isn't a complaint, you do cover these items, I'm just curious if I should look to this seasonal series for my interests. Thank you.

Ace bread baker Peter Reinhart's one of the experts; how great is that? We've gotten great q's so far from readers. Feel free to send yours to food@washpost.com.

Thing blew up. Nobody hurt, plaster was a wreck. Who makes a good pressure cooker that won't explode? Nothing from China please. US pressure cooker.

I swear by my Kuhn-Rikon cooker. It's Swiss-made and I haven't ever had a problem. It's pricey, but mine's 12 years old and all I've had to do is replace the rubber sealer ring (less than $10) once.

I don't think I've ever had a root beer (is that weird?) and I don't eat pork and now you've got me craving root beer soaked onions. I will try it with chicken. I have no idea why but it sounds really good. Would it be too much to serve the rootbeer chicken/porkchop with rootbeer bundt cakes? I must have a dinner party immediately.

I smell a theme party -- don't forget the vanilla ice cream.

The poultry vendor (the avid Redskins fan) at Eastern Market also sells rabbit.

I've seen rabbit sold at the Amish market in Laurel---in the booth with the poultry.

Thanks for taking my question! Which of these dishes would you cook the night before Thanksgiving: bread stuffing (no meat, probably following the recipe on the box of croutons) or roasted carrots? Would it be possible to cook both the day before Thanksgiving?

May I just say that I love getting q's about the holiday already. Seriously. I'm into it.

Stuffing's good to do in advance. Carrots may not look as nice but you can always rehydrate a little with stock or a splash of vinegar or apple cider, then reheat. So yes to both.

This isn't so much a cooking question as a shopping question. Are you finding it harder and harder to find vegetables that aren't pre-bagged? For example, I like spinach, but in my closest grocery store, it seems they've done away with the spinach that isn't in bags or containers. And unbagged lettuce has a limited selection. On my last trip, they didn't have normal celery, only celery hearts. Unpackaged vegetables are of course cheaper. From what I've read, I believe they also tend to be more nutritious and safer from contamination scares.

Yep, I think you're onto something. Can I ask what store in particular you've noticed this at? This could be a good topic for a story. I'd be interested in finding out why stores are moving in this direction -- it could be that it's easier for them to store/transport, but I'm with you in that I prefer the unbagged stuff.

Today in the Food section, you focus on root beer and recipes, as well as providing where to find root beer extract in the area. They all sound great and I can't wait to try them. And, it reminded me that I've heard that there is a root beer liqueur out there that is quite good, but I don't know where to find it. Do you know if it is available at any stores in the area, or only online?

Thanks for the feedback. We tried a root beer flavored vodka and just hated it. Root beer's a little medicinal (licorice, mint, vanilla flavors) so added to vodka, which can also be medicinal tasting , it made a cocktail that tasted like something a hawkster brewed up to cure my backache at a country fair in 1880.

or 2. Balducci's usually has them and Broadbranch Market in Chevy Chase/DC will get them for you.

Please come to my garden with your shotgun. The damn things eat every tomato and tulip they can get their paws on.

Is this Artie from "The Sopranos"?

This is my first winter with a slow cooker and I'm excited to get tons of use out of it. Two quick questions. 1. some recipes specify what size slow cooker - if the recipe calls for a 4 qt and I have a 6 qt do I need to make adjustments to the recipe? 2. are there general rules for changing a slow stovetop simmer recipe to a slow cooker? Thanks!

If you have a 6-qt, the 4-qt recipes you have will work just fine. As to adapting the recipes, different slow cooker cookbooks suggest various ways. It's hard to generalize unless you have a specific recipe in mind....

This one is always a favorite. I got it originally from the Vegetarian Epicure.

German Apple Pancake

3 large eggs

¾ cup milk

¾ cup flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ tablespoons butter

1 pound apples, sliced

¼ cup butter cinnamon, nutmeg & powdered sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 350.

Beat together the eggs, flour, milk and salt.

In Kit's really big covered skillet, saute apples in 1/4 cup of butter, set aside. Heat the skillet, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter in the skillet and add the batter.

Bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Transfer the pancake to a serving platter and fill with the cooked apples, sprinkle with sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon. Fold the pancake and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Thanks -- but who's Kit?

I believe you can also get the extracts locally at Little Bitts in Wheaton.

A friend of mine recently visited Okinawa, and she brought me back a gift of a small Marmite clay pot. The instructions for using the pot, or more specifically, how not to use the pot, are written in very broken English. Do you have any suggestions for using the pot? I understand the pot must be "prepared" before use, which involves some type of simmering process for 12 hours? Can we use the pot on a gas flame stove-top? What can I cook in the pot? What is the advantage of using this pot over using conventional pots that I already have? And finally, how do I clean and store the pot? Thanks for your answers!

Might it be a donabe? The thing about most clay pots is that they do require some preparation before use, and you usually need to heat them up slowly; it's the rapid temperature changes that can cause breakage. I looked through Paula Wolfer's great "Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking," and she doesn't mention Japanese pots particularly, but she talks about Chinese sandpots -- I'm not sure how similar your pot is to this or not -- and suggests soaking them in water for a day before the first use, and then again for a few minutes just before using.  But instructions I see for donabes caution that the outside should always be dry before cooking, or they can crack. I think you should follow all those instructions -- soak and thoroughly dry, use on the gas stovetop but heat VERY gradually first (using a flame-tamer might be a good idea), and not leaving it unattended. As for what you can do with them, you should get Wolfert's book: She makes the case so eloquently. What's so great about them is how well they hold the heat, gently, which makes them good for stews, beans, etc., but there's really a world of things you can do with them.

My yard is full of acorns. Is there any way to make them palatable? Squirrels seem to like them.

You'd have to find out whether the kind you have are edible, and I think we humans get kinda sick when we eat them raw.  You could take a few samples to your local extension service agent or even to a county gardener who has a table at a local farmers market.

I'm trying to get me and my husband to change our eating habit to more "clean" and less processed but I'm at a loss on what to make. The problem is I don't get home from work until 7:30 and don't want to be cooking for 40 minutes to eat after 8 since I'm in bed at 10 (I'm up at 5). I tried to make meals over the weekend for the entire week but that didn't work since I just didn't have time (we were always on the go since we just moved into a new house). What do you suggest for quick, somewhat healthy meal that doesn't leave me slaving over the stove.

Honestly, it's hard cooking anything in under 30 minutes. Pasta's about all you can really do in 1/2 hour. You might look into the wealth of ready-to-cook items now be offered at supermarkets. Many of them look pretty wholesome to me. It just might be the best bet for you.

I am surprised you did not explore the longstanding tradition of homemade root beer, which is still alive and well in Amish Country. In fact, some of the best extracts (Old Hickory brand, Shank's, Stoltzfus) are primarily used for making the beverage and probably taste better for baking than something mass produced from California. Some of those manufacturers also make a birch beer extract, if anyone really wants to pursue the medicinal-tasting baked goods path. YUM!

For the person with too many sweet potatoes, you can roast some (cut into smallish chinks) in the oven with some onion (olive oil, salt & pepper). Mix with some black beans (canned work great) and some chopped red pepper. Make a dressing with olive oil, lots of lime, some cumin and chili powder, salt & pepper, and mix it all together. Delicious!

In my experience this is much less of a problem at ethnic supermarkets, especially those catering to an East Asian clientele.

Agreed.

I'm a little Swiss, so that will work. Holes in cheese better than holes in the plaster work. Price is no object. The last one was real expensive.

I highly recommend Fagor's line of pressure cookers. Millions of Spanish cooks can't be wrong!

Please give me something expert sounding to tell my mother-in-law so that she doesn't cook EVERYTHING, including the turkey, the weekend before Thanksgiving. Some things you can make ahead and re-heat but somethings, like the turkey, should be sacrosanct. P.S. I am going down two days early to help.

I just purchased a food processor and now want to put it to good use, but besides the hummus i plan to make with it, I am not really sure of all of its capabilities. Can you suggest a recipie that will let me use it to its full potential and confirm that it was a good investment. (It is an 11-cup Cuisinart, with tons of attachments).

Mazel tov.  Use it to make pie dough. Pull out the shredder attachment and make fresh coleslaw or carrot salad or potatoes for latkes (pancakes). Puree batches of soup and pesto. Make your own nut flours.  I'll bet that in  just about any savory recipe with more than 10 ingredients, you could find a need to employ your Cuisinart.

For the person looking for it, you can find who sells it on their website. http://www.artintheage.com/spirits-aita/ They used to only sell it at a few bars in Philly, but I think they have wider distribution now. A friend gave some to my husband for Christmas last year and he really likes it.

The other night in an effort to save some cauliflower that had lost it's texture due to a too cold spot in the fridge, I cooked and mashed it roughly with some sweet potatoes to use another night. So... it tastes OK, though I will probably add some herbs and grated Parmesan if I eat it on it's own. I was maybe thinking of a casserole though. Add a couple of eggs, the herbs and cheese, cover with bread crumbs and butter, and bake for 30 min? Sound OK? Any suggestions?

Trying to rescue less-than-perfect, cabbagey foods is a risky business. A soup would probably be your best option. Trouble is you may be spending more money trying to salvage that cauliflower than it's worth.

Could you use ginger beer in place of root beer? I have some leftover form making Dark & Stormy's this summer.

If you like the flavor-sure, why not?

I always get my extracts AND spices from Penzeys Spices; there's one in Falls Church.

I sometimes pre-cook chicken breasts, generally in chunks, to have to put on salads for dinner during the week. Boring as all get out, but when you get home late it works. The question is this. How do I get the chicken to be less dried out? I know that having it in the fridge for a few days is not ideal, but I get the feeling I'm doing it wrong at the start. I try to make sure the pan is good and hot so that the outside sears fairly quickly. I try not to over load the pan so that it doesn't get cooled off too much by the chicken. I often feel like I have to put a lid on for a while to make sure it is cooked through, and when I do that, there is all that lovely juice that comes pouring out. Can I really get it cooked all the way through without any time under a cover? Any other ideas?

Unless I'm missing something, sounds like you are not poaching them? That's what I'd do. An uncut chicken breast  half will stay more moist than chunks.  And maybe marinate some of the chicken, then cook it just before you grill or saute it for the salad.  We all use chicken because it cooks so quickly and can take on so many flavors...seems like you'd have more flexibility that way.

No firing guns in the garden dopes. Set traps. Is that so hard. Some people, I tell you. TV brain drain.

Help, Free Rangers. I bought some citrus (orange) pesto at the farmers market and I don't know how to cook with it. It's a little sweet, but I think it would be good with pasta if I could only figure out the right mix to throw in with it. The suggested pairing of fish is out for me (vegetarian), and I can't eat it all as a dip. Thanks much!

Sounds like it'd be nice on roasted sweet potatoes. Say....where's that other chatter with the surplus?

I have to bring one for Thanksgiving. Should I go sweet or spicy? (and yes I'm thinking about this already!). Maybe root beer should figure in...?

A root beer syrup might work (root beer extract flavored sugar syrup) as a a glaze for a sweet version, but my favorite way is to skip the casserole. I bake the sweet potatoes until tender, mash in the mixer with sour cream, a little butter, chopped scallions and lots of pepper. You could keep warm, covered with foil, in a 200 degree oven while you finsh the rest of the meal. Very delicious, very fresh...

I love making one pot meals. I love the simplicity of them, and I absolutely love the flavor that they often provide. The problem is, my spouse grew up in a family where there are almost always 3 or 4 side dishes at every dinner. Beyond the timing problems and extra dishes this presents, I'm just not good at planning a full menu like this. Is there a way to make a one pot meal attractive to someone used to having 4 different things on his or her plate, or do I need to keep working on my menu planning and side dish repertoire?

Was this also a household with kitchen help? Pulling together a salad or two is fairly easy to do, and complements a one-pot entree.  You can also pickle things (onions, mushrooms); even without the fuss of proper canning, they keep in the fridge for a long time and can be the basis of a quick melange with other cut-up vegetables.

You also might want to tell the chatter that he/she should inspect the rubber seal occasionally to ensure it doesn't dry out and cause accidents.

Newer slow cookers cook hotter than the older models. For the first try of a new recipe, I make it on the weekend so I can monitor for doneness.

When I'm in a rush, my go-to is broiled (or grilled) meat with a veggie stir-fry. Wegmans sells a frozen pepper-and-onion blend (no sauces, just quick-frozen veggies) that's pretty good, and you can customize the stir-fry to include whatever veggies you like or have on hand. Not the most gourmet choice, but it's quick and easy. Sometimes I cook some orzo or rice in chicken broth and keep it in the fridge so I can mix a cup of it in with the veggies if we want something a little heartier.

Jeez, I thought the humor-impaired only posted to Gene Weingarten's chat.

I recently made a creamy soup that called for roasted garlic but not any of the other vegatables to be roasted. Is there any advantage to roasting non-garlic vegatables for cream soups or is garlic special in that regard?

I love to roast vegetables, especially as a base for soups, but for me the idea is not to have to add cream. The roasting brings so much complexity-you don't need the cream.

I bought canned pumpkin puree to make a pie but then our neighbor brought us one! So nice! But now I'm not sure how to use my puree - loaf, muffins, cake? What have you had the most luck with. Bonus if it does NOT involve cream cheese frosting which is not popular in my house.

Make soup, pancakes, muffins, pudding, filling for ravioli, filling for enchiladas, sauce for pasta...if you search our Recipe Finder database with words "pumpkin puree," these recipes will come up!

Indeed. What I would have put in that cauli-yam mix is curry or some individual Indian-type spices like cumin and fenugreek. Serve w/chopped cilantro on top.

Makes excellent soups...

Lots of salads complement the heaviness of many one-pot meals. Try some slaws, rice salad, lettuce salads. Also, try making some kind of "dipping thing" i.e. cornbread or pita. If you have the time (and the hands), this can add a wonderful element to any simple meal.

Bake or roast, them mash them with a couple chipotles in adobo. Add a litte of the adobo sauce, remembering a little goes a long way. I'm pretty sure I first got this from Alton Brown. It was a *huge* hit, and a nice break from the marshmallow/syrupy tradition.

Two things - one, let your store manager know that you are looking for fresh lettuce, or fresh whatever vegetables you want. Managers will respond to customer requests in many cases. Two, start shopping somewhere else - perhaps where there are others, like yourself, who want uncut/unprocessed fresh vegetables. One other point - the incidents of E. coli in fresh produce have been found predominantly in bagged products - the excess human handling appears to be one reason for the transmission of the bacteria.

So, have you gotten a thank you for featuring Virgina wines two weeks in a row?

Actually, four weeks: for Virginia Wine Month. And, nope, I don't think we did. Not from the person who had complained, anyway...

Add vitamins to mac n cheese by putting pumpkin in instead of part of the cheese sauce. Don't tell the kids and they won't know.

A certain Other Newspaper had an article recently describing in detail how to prepare acorns for consumption, specifically in order to prepare a Korean delicacy called "dotorimuk" or acorn jelly. The main trouble involves leaching out the tannins in flowing/replenished water over the course of a couple of weeks, but the results can be quite tasty!

So, we tried a recipe for a vegetarian burger that used harissa as part of the garnish. We liked the harissa (but not the veggie burger so much). However, we would like to know what else we could do with the harissa? Do you have any recipes or suggestions? Thanks.!

You can add a teaspoon or tablespoon to any red sauce or stew or soup recipe in which you'd like a little depth of heat. I've also added to dips, and used it to layer flavor into casseroles and fillings for stuffed peppers, etc.

I recently saw olive oil in an aseptic package. The "bottle" was foil cardboard, similar to aseptic packages of broth/stock. It said (on the package) that this type of packaging protected the olive oil (from light, I guess). Last week you said that among competing food concerns (organic, fair trade, etc.) that in olive oil you value freshness most. What do you think of this type of packaging?

The thing that would interest me most in packaging is the freshness date on the label. I've now developed a taste for  fresh olive oil and don't think I can go back! The aseptic packaging in general seems like it'd be a little more prone to fluctuations in temperature. Stored in a cool cabinet, I can't say it'd be different from dark glass.

I totally hear you! I love to cook but am usually exhausted at the end of the day. I have a few go-to recipes that don't require a lot of putzing around the kitchen--Asian stir fry (the cutting the vegetables can be kind of time consuming but you get good at it and can do it in about 15-20 minutes). With the stir fry, I usually make a sauce with soy sauce, some fish sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and sriacha. Saute the cut veggies with garlic in a pan and a little oil and add some tofu until it all warms up. Sometimes I make some soba or rice noodles to go with it. 30 minutes. Seriously. I also find that frittatas are super easy, as is Mexican night--prepping meat (or fake meat) for tacos are super easy and you can have all the sides prepared--salsa, sour cream, cheese, rinsed canned beans, some guacamole. Super easy. Just create a repertoire of go to meals and they will become really easy and mindless.

Here's my tip for everyone who struggles to prepare dinner because they get home so late. Do as much of the prep in the morning before you leave for work as you can. 15 minutes of cutting in the a.m. will give you a big head start when you get home and are tired out. You're also more likely to cook the meal if you've already put in some prep time.

At most big chains, though, IME, they will tell you they are controled by a central system that doesn't let them change. That's happened to me at both Safeway and Giant. I'm always tempted to ask them what they actually manage.

Try making Alton Brown's Chipotle Smashed Sweet Potatoes recipe - yum!

I have a ton of beets from my CSA and NO idea what to do with them! (to be honest, I don't even know how to get at the actual beet) Any ideas?

Beets-the bane of CSA life!!!! Wrap the unpeeled beets in aluminum foil and roast in a 375 degree oiven (time will vary by the size of the beets) until tender. Let them  cool a little and they'll slip right out of the skin. The beets will now keep for 3 days in the refrigerator. Slice and eat as is, dress with a vinaigrette, or dice and add to salads.

I sometimes do a small plate of raw veggie (baby carrots, zuchinne) for a quick side to a stew. Also: hard boiled egg halves.

Hi, I wrote in before my recent 3-week vacation to Turkey asking for some suggestions of things to make and freeze for my return home. I made the lemon, chicken & rice casserole & while it's very tasty, it did not hold its shape at all and is more like a stew now. Perhaps my eye-balling of ingredients yielded a larger amount that should've cooked longer? My 8x8 glass dish was almost overflowing. Second, having now been to Turkey, where I was bowled over by the amazing food (and now regret not buying more nuts), I hope to get the cookbook you recently reviewed. In your opinion, how achievable is Turkish cuisine for the amateur, at-home cook who doesn't want to hunt down unusual ingredients that won't get used up? thanks

It does help to track down the right ingredients, like the red pepper paste. Totally achievable for the home cook -- that's the thing about Turkish recipes. Get the book!

Hello. We're having family over for Thanksgiving dinner this year; there will be eight of us in all. I need to serve something for dinner the night before, but I'd rather it didn't reference anything that we're having the next day (all the usual suspects). A five-year old and a toddler will be dining with us. Any thoughts about an appropriate dish? Thanks much!

I'd keep it simple and do a big stew-y pot of something. Either the liquid or some of the stew ingredients would work for the young'un. Stephanie offered up a family-friendly beef and potato stew recently. Also, this Whole-Grain Spaghetti With Caramelized Onion Sauce would fill the bill, with a salad.

In preparation for Thanksgiving, I've seen a lot of good brines being bandied about but have a question: Do they freeze/store well, so that I can make a lot and use portions later?

I suppose you could freeze a brine, but it seems like a lot of trouble to me. You'd have to defrost a large quantity just to brine something. (My freezer's usually at max capacity as is.) They come together as quickly as it takes to dissolve the salt and sugar, basically.

If someone is too terrified to use a stove-top pressure cooker, the electronic ones maintain the right pressure and won't blow up.

Love today's section on dinner drama, I think I will give it a try for my fiance's next birthday! I do have a question though, does anybody know where I can get some French cider? My friend brought me a bottle of Cider Ecusson, but I haven't had any luck around my area. Thanks!

Reminds me I need to break out the ciders I brought back from Quebec this summer. Pearson's in DC (202-333-666)  carries one French cider: Duche de Longueville.

I've found the quickest, best tasting clean meal is a boneless skinless chicken breast, sprayed with cooking spray, dusted with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and curry powder (if you like - otherwise leave off) and thrown into a George Forman grill that heats up in the time you take to season the chicken. Serve over arugula you've tossed lightly with a bit of balsamic and parmesan and blanch some brocolli. Really, a George Forman grill is a god send for quick cooking chicken breasts so that they turn out very juicy but thoroughly cooked in under 10 minutes. Also great for thin pork chops and fish fillets. And don't sneer - I'm a pretty serious cook but that's a great kitchen tool and perfect for this.

I've also sometimes found McCormick Root Beer Extract at random grocery stores and always stock up on a bottle or two if I do spot it.

We usually order pizza-- totally different from the next day.

I've been fortunate to enjoy their chocolate chocolate chip cookies in NYC. I've been trying to duplicate that pleasure here, but believe that there are one or two more tricks needed to be successful. Have you sampled them, and can offer any more insight to get that crusty on the outside chewy on the inside goodness? Thanks, Stoker

People keep trying to make cookies like the Levain bakers, and I applaud their efforts. I think it really has to do with the audacious amount of dough per cookie and the way it bakes up, but tell you what:  We have a new seasonal feature, baking q&a's with experts, that starts next week, and I'll forward this to one of them and see what they say.

David, loved the article about throwing a mystery bash. I've been thinking about throwing a dinner party for some time, but I've got two big obstacles: My dining table is tiny and, perhaps the biggest obstacle, my friends and I are all in our 20s and we just don't DO dinner parties. Sure, someone will throw a cook out every now and then, but it just seems so awkward to invite everyone to a fancy dinner party. I like the idea of doing something fun with it, but I'm still not sure a mystery dinner party is up their alley. Any ideas on a way to make it more comfortable for people who've never done this? As for the table, I do have a larger fold up table, but it's too big for my small dining area. Would it be weird to set it up in my living room or kitchen area?

If you are in your 20s, it's about time for all of you to start DOING dinner parties. Use what you have. When I lived in a small apartment, I would sometimes turn the whole apartment into a restaurant, setting up little tables with whatever I had: various sized card,  side and dining tables, mismatched tableclothes, napkins, glassware and silverware, differect candles. I'd have tables of 2, 3 or 4 all over and break up couples for the seating. The place was small enough that everyone could converse anyway. You have to serve plated meals this way, but you could set up a buffet in the kitchen ad enlist people to help you put plates together and serve. No one really cares that everything isn't from a magazine; the pint is to get people together with food, wine and cocktails and have fun. It doesn't have to take vast resources for that.

After a lifelong aversion to sardines, I'm convinced of the health benefits and am willing to give them a try. Can you offer up some suggestions for a rookie? Do you eat them with crackers, on toast, can you incorporate them into recipes? I'd love some ideas; thanks!

Kinda love this stuffed sardines recipe.

I've saved your Bananas Foster Charlotte recipe as it looks marvelous, but I have to ask why the extra cup of sugar in the rum that you sprinkle the ladyfingers with? Aren't rum and ladyfingers sweet as it is? I'd skip the sugar and just use a high-quality rum, and save the 151-proof for the flambe-ing.

You could try that, sure.

I like simple, one-pot meals I can make on a weekend and divide into portions for weekday lunches. (hint: The Ming Tsai book would be very welcome!) I love Indian and Asian foods, and I am trying to follow a mostly vegan diet. Madhur Jaffrey's new book has several dals I want to try -- what other high protein, non-dairy/vegetarian ethnic foods should I consider that can be stored a few days, frozen or in the fridge?

The simmer sauces you can find in Trader Joe's and the ones made by Rasika (resto in downtown  DC) are nice to have on hand. Add fresh vegetables and rice, and a meal can come together pdq. Chickpea dishes are always great -- check our database for a Lebanese soup whose leftovers can be used as a base for a foloup sauce.

I know it's New Orleans, but any way to cut down on that fat in the pompano recipe?

As a matter of fact, I already had cut way down on the fat from the New Orleans versions! But you could make the sauce with low-fat milk or skim evaporated milk.

Last year had a hard time finding Dutch processed Cocoa and really good vanilla beans that did not cost an arm and a leg for holiday baking. Last week (got too ambitious or too greedy) scored three one-and-a-half pound containers of Dutch Cocoa processed in France (under $9 each) and surprisingly wonderful Vanilla beans at Costco. Now I think I got way too much cocoa. I have no intention to return it, I would much rather increase my repertoire. Any interesting ideas for special treats to make? Less sugar is good, but please don't exclude recipes requiring time and effort as "quick and easy" goodies often stay on the plate and then in the fridge or cupboard the longest. Thanks.

Boy that's a lot of cocoa. Hot chocolate party? We do have our cookie issue just weeks away (Dec. 8).  Send an email to food@washpost.com and I'll give you some specific suggestions....

So wasn't the question I hoped. How can I make things from one pot meals not so grayish and blah? This has happened to (an adapted) coq au vin, cassoulet, etc. They all taste good, but don't look as fab.

Add vegetables!!!!! Carrots go a long way to perking up a drab dish. Celery's good as well. Add peas right before serving. Chopped fresh herbs, added right before serving, bring color and flavor.

Using some tomato puree in your cooking liquid also gives a more lively tone to a stew.

At Christmas time my family and I always make toffee and we order the chocolate in bulk on-line. Lately we have been wanting to try more candies dipped in chocolate but haven't had much luck finding bulk melting chocolate. Any suggestions on where to find it without mail-ordering? We like it to be high quality dark chocolate (none of those gross melting discs). Any ideas?

Where are you? The cake/candy stores in Fairfax City (Fran's) and Wheaton (Little Bitts) are great sources for large amounts. Also, Dean and Deluca in Georgetown has  big blocks of chocolate -- prepare for sticker shock.

For the chatter who wants fast weeknight meals, take a look at the Create channel on WETA (26-2 on HDTV). It includes the Martha Stewart Everyday series, the Jacques Pepin Cooking My Way and even some of the recipes on America's Test Kitchen are designed to be under 30 (or sometimes 40) minutes of prep time. Also, Sarah Moulton's weeknight meals. All great ways to cook reasonably healthy in a short amount of time after work.

Like you always say - brine brine brine.....

I have found that poaching them with white wine (about 1/3 of the liquid) gives them a nice flavor. Also putting a little of the liquid in the stoage bags is good too, although if you bag them hot, it isn't needed.

I usually try to do a lot of it (or the prep at least) on Sundays. It makes throwing dishes together during the week much easier!

Do beet chips? Cut in thin slices (with a mandoline or food processor). Roast with olive oil and salt. Eat in a salad with goat cheese. I didn't like beets before discovering beet chips (same goes for kale).

If the greens are in good shape, you can eat them, too. I usually steam them, add a litte olive oil and vinegar, and use them as a bed for the cooked beets.

Madhur Jaffrey has a new book out? Running out the door with my Borders coupon

Beet caviar is really tasty.

Much easier to set up buffet style and have friends mill about your house, chatting. Don't get intimidated by the label and think it's a fancy affair. It's just dinner. Then you can work your way up to a fancy shindig.

ALL acorns are edible. This can be complicated or simple; I've done it all. Refer to Euell Gibbons or Jean Craighead George ('My Side of the the Mountain"). The best way: gather acorns. Put in water. Discard floaters (these have been infested with worms). Pour boiling water over the rest. This will make them MUCH easier to shell. Drain. Spread on anold sheet. Walk on them to break shells. Discard shells. Grind in meat grinder on coarse setting. Put in COLD water. The water will turn brown as tannic acid leaches out. Change water. Do this several times. You will never get all the tannin out, but eventually you'll get sick of the cold water changes. Tannin content varies by oak variety. I do 5 to 7 changes. It is ok to leave them in the cold water for days. Grind acorns in meat grinder on finer setting. The dripping water stains, so put rags down. Spread on rimmed cookie sheet and roast at 350 until chocolate brown. Your house will smell like maple syrup. Stir frequently. When everything is dry and toasted, grind into powder. Don't forget that this is a NUT flour, not an actual flour. You need to add other flours for muffins and such. It is delicious!

all? Even from trees that are heavily sprayed with  pesticides or growth-retardants?

Trader Joe's has big blocks of chocolate suitable for melting.

Also, make sure you're using a non-reactive pan. Seriously, that can make you food look grey.

Or, if you want to do a sit-down, enlist friends to set the table, help pass appetizers, carry dishes out to the kitchen between dinner & dessert, etc. They'll catch the spirit and next thing you know you'll all be doing dinner parties.

For the one-pot meal cooker who wants to add sides, get some of the microwave veggie bags...you microwave in the bag and in under 5 minutes, you pour into a bag and voila...side dish. There are also sometimes rice pilafs or potato dishes that will work the same way. Some dishes like friend rice can be made ahead of time, stored in the fridge and then tossed in a pan for a few minutes to reheat (with a little more oil) an be out on the table quickly. And you can make something that needs to be baked (like a potato au grain or mac and cheese) the night before, put it in the fridge and then pop in the oven when you start cooking your one pot meal and it will be ready about the same time.

Where do you get it, and what brands do you get?

I use a Californian kind that I get at Cowgirl Creamery. Last year I brought back a bunch of fresh oil from Israel and ran through that...There's also a Greek vendor at the farmers market in Fairfax City whose family presses its own oil, and  I buy that. 'Tis the harvest season  now!

Try the dark E. Guittard varieties - available at Sur La Table. I personally like El Rey best; that can be found at most Whole Foods stores ($10/lb or so).

Maybe you're overcooking?

Well, you will of course need to use common sense when eating acorns. You wouldn't want to eat those from a tree with obvious blight. Or heavily sprayed with pesticide. Or covered in dog poo.... Or close to a railroad (a lot of herbicides there) or a major highway (runoff from roads). But botanically, they are all safe to eat.

There are three recepies in NOLA cooking: fried, with lots of butter or with lots of cream. Some mixing and matching can occur, but that's the basis. Healthy and NOLA don't go together; that's why the best cardiologists in the South are in Lake Charles.

Well, you've poured rum over our topping then used a long fireplace match to light the rum, so you know what that means -- we're done! (And how!) Thanks for the great questions today; hope you got some use our of our answers.

Now for the giveaway books: The chatter who asked about finding non-bagged vegetables will get "What to Cook and How to Cook It," and the chatter who asked about making one-pot meals attractive will get "Simply Ming One-Pot Meals." Send your mailing info to us at food@washpost.com, and we'll get you your books.

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading!

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