Free Range on Food: Asian pears, Squirrel Fest, Compost Cab and more

Nov 28, 2012

Every Wednesday at noon, Food section staff members and guests answer your burning culinary questions. Past Free Range on Food chats

Good afternoon! Asian pears,  compost, pecans, squirrel . . . are we doing it all, or what? Welcome to your food hour of power: Free Range. In addition to regulars Tim Carman, Jane Touzalin, Becky Krystal, Spirits columnist Jason Wilson and (later on) Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin, we welcome guests Jeremy Brosowsky, of Compost Cab, Cal "Bigg Riggs" Riggleman of Squirrel Fest and The Process columnist David Hagedorn. I expect a lively session! 

 

Chat prizes (2), awarded to the best-food-gift-you-ever-received comment: "Waffles" by Dawn Yanagihara, source of today's Dinner in Minutes, and "Pecans" by Kathleen Purvis. We'll announce winners at the end of the hour.  Let's do it. 

We recently received a piece of pork belly (frozen, big enough for two dinner servings) in our meat CSA shipment. Any recipes you can recommend to do it justice? I've never cooked this cut before, but have enjoyed it at restaurants pretty much any way it's been prepared. BTW, our experience with the North Mountain Pastures CSA has just been fantastic. One of the best aspects is that we really try use all parts of the meat we receive (bones for stock, scraps for soups, stir-fries, etc.).

It's great to slow roast it in white wine, with garlic, thyme and carrots.

I found a box of phyllo sheets in my freezer so I made apple strudel instead of apple pie for Thanksgiving. However, that only used up 5 of the sheets. What else can I do with phyllo? My internet research only came up with baklava and spanikopita. Are there other dinner ideas out there?

You might want to try the Chicken Bistilla recipe we ran recently.

Chicken Bistilla

Shiitake Beef Wellingtons and Spinach and Walnut Tarts sound promising as well.

Spinach and Walnut Tarts

I have a bunch of fresh thyme leftover from Thanksgiving. How do I dry the leaves? I don't have any fancy gadgets, so dry in a low oven or just lay out and let air and mother nature take care of it?

Just tie the stems together at the bottom -- you can use twine, or a rubber band, or even a twist-tie. Then just hang them (stem-side up) somewhere out of the way and give them a few days to dry out.

And don't forget to compost the stems when you're done!

I have received a giant pork loin. This baby is 21 inches long and 9.1 lbs. I'm thinking Christmas dinner, but am not sure this will even fit in my oven. I've done smaller pork roasts in my crockpot but this sure won't fit. Do i butcher it, or use our gas grill. I'm afraid it will dry out no matter what I do. Please help!

 

If you can fit the shoulder in the oven, I would highly recommend David Guas's Cuban Pork Roast, which calls for a pork shoulder between 10 and 14 lbs.  But as the recipe notes, if you use a smaller cut (say, you decide you need to trim it to fit your oven), you can cut down the roasting time to 30 minutes per pound. I think you will be thrilled with the deep, rich and aromatic flavors of this dish.

The recipe for the cornmeal and cheese waffles sounds delicious and I have a canister of cornmeal in my fridge that needs using (any other ideas btw). But I do not have waffle iron. Can these be made into pancakes?

It's a pretty thick batter. Keep your 'cakes on the small side (like blinis) and your expectations in the area of fritters (or delicious hockey pucks) and you'd be fine. OR you could try adding a lot more baking powder (2 or 3 tablespoons?) and more liquid to thin the batter. But then you're talking about a different recipe. I like the thickness of these; helps suspend the scallions and cheese and chipotle bits, ya know? 

Love the food section and this chat! The cornmeal waffles in the breakfast-for-dinner category looked right up my alley. I do have a question about preparing the batter beforehand. When I was making cornbread for stuffing for Thanksgiving, I mixed the batter and then let it sit for about 2 hours before baking (per instructions). While it worked perfectly fine for stuffing, as stand alone cornbread, I thought it was a bit grainy and dry. Does the cornmeal absorb too much of the buttermilk? More to the point: could I make this waffle batter in the morning, let it sit in the fridge, and make waffles when I get home from work? Or will letting it sit compromise the texture? Thanks!

Honestly, I didn't let the batter sit either time I tried these. It is quite thick (see earlier answer).  If you're really pressed for time when you come home,  you can prep the scallions and chipotle and add to the buttermilk; whisk together the dry ingredients (and you could put the cheese in there; refrigerate). Melt the butter in advance so it'll just take seconds to liquefy in the microwave. 

My husband is a fantastic cook! So great, in fact, that over the years, I've done less and less of the cooking and let him handle it since his food always tastes better. Now I'm feeling a bit guilty and want to do my share. But the truth is that I'm a beginner & am not sure how to gain my confidence in the kitchen. Any tips or is it ok to always be the dishwasher?

The way I see it, you've got a classic chicken-or-egg situation. You'll never get your confidence up if you don't cook more, and you'll never cook more if you don't get your confidence up. So carpe dinner! Start simple. Put together a nice salad. Make pancakes for breakfast. Try a basic stir-fry. These are the kinds of things that will build your skill set. Yes, you might fail. We all do. But, as my husband says, you can always order a pizza.

You might also enjoy some cooking classes, especially if you go to them with your husband.

Good luck!

I know that Cheddar is a lot moister than Parmesan, and I'm guessing that this is why Parm can be grated/shredded into discrete, non-sticky piles and sprinkled onto food, while grated/shredded Cheddar sticks together in an unwieldy mass. But restaurants have served me dishes crowned in lovely loose shreds of Cheddar ... or maybe a Cheddar-like substance. And when I buy bags of pre-shredded cheese it retains a certain amount of looseness. It's only when I shred it myself that this happens. Can you explain? Do they dust the cheese with No-Stik(tm), or maybe with cornstarch? Or maybe dry it out before serving or packaging? Augh.

As Sargento, the commercial cheese giant, notes on its FAQ page, the company uses powdered cellulose in packages of shredded cheese to prevent clumping. Same for other brands, too. Better living through chemistry.

Whatever happened to the Copper Pot Food Company? They used to sell at a lot of local farmers markets. I haven't seen then in about a year and there's no word on where he went.

That's a good question! I checked with Copper Pot chef/owner Stefano Frigerio's wife, Dusty Lockhart, who does his PR. She writes:

"Copper Pot is still in business but on temporary hiatus. Stefano hopes to be back in some markets by Spring with some new items. "

 

This is good news. Copper Pot's jams, pastas and sauces, often produced with locally sourced ingredients, are among the very best "value-added" products at farmers markets.

 

We also hear that Stefano may be doing some private chef work.

Hi Foodies, I'm not going to be able to participate in the discussion but I hope you or the chatters will be able to help me. My husband wants a ravioli maker (we have a pasta machine) for Christmas and I would like to get him a pasta cookbook that has recipes for making a variety of pastas: gnocchi, ravioli, soba noodles, etc. I looked at the recommendations on Amazon but some focus more on making sauces than pastas, are too basic or don't offer substitutions or suggestions if you can't get a certain type of flour (when they say they include this). Do you or the chatters know of a good cookbook that focuses on making different types of pasta? My husband is a good cook so he doesn't need a beginner book. Thanks for your assistance.

Got two good ones for you/him: "Making Artisan Pasta" by Aliza Green; very hands-on, tutorial, lots of step by step photos without being too basic. And then there's "The Glorious Pasta of Italy" by Domenica Marchetti, with lovely writing, a good resource list and dishes that will make you drool. 

Aside from eating them as is, my favorite way to use Asian pears is as a garnish in naengmyun, the Korean dish of cold buckwheat noodles in a beef broth with added splash of vinegar and hot mustard. It also works well in the spicy version, too.

I looked that dish up just now and it sound amazing. I'll have to try it. I can see how Asian pear would be a perfect garnish for it, to balance zestiness and provide that lovely crunch to compliment the noodles.

Bonnie's Cornmeal Waffles sound like a dynamite weeknight dinner. I have a clarifying question for the recipe. I wasn't clear on what 1 tbsp. of chipotles in adobo would be. When I bought this before, it was whole chipotle chiles in a sauce. Do you mean to use just the sauce or to chop up 1 tbsp. of the chile pepper? Thanks.

They've hit a chord, I see! I mean chop up 1 tablespoon of the chipotle, which will have some sauce clinging to it. I can try to make that clearer in the online version of the recipe. 

I made the pumpkin/apple butter pie for Thanksgiving and really enjoyed its flavor. I was concerned about the lack of traditional spices, but the apple butter more than made up for them. I have a question about pie crust. I made Chris Kimball's full proof pie crust. The dough rolled out nicely. I let it rest in the freezer for 30 minutes before baking. The blind baking did me in. The sides slide down so the crust was very shallow. I baked it for 20 minutes with foil and rice on the bottom then removed the foil and let the crust bake for another 10 minutes. That is when the sides really melted away, which is usually when pie crust goes bad for me. Any suggestions on how to avoid this? Fortunately, I had the other half of crust so baked it along with the pie filling.

You know what? I tried that pie crust recipe out this year, too, to make a pecan pie and a banana cream pie. The latter required a pre-baked pie shell.

I did exactly what you did: rolled it out (so easily!) and froze it for half an hour. The first time, I used foil, even though I suspected it would be a problem. and it was. It stuck to the dough and I had to remake it. 

Luckily, there was enough dough left over to make a third crust. It turned out beautifully with very minimal shrinkage—a real testament to the quality of the dough because the scraps from two crusts made a still tender crust. 

I froze that crust (pricked all over) for 30 minutes and lined it with parchment paper and rice—really filled it up and pushed the rice into the corners of the crust, folding the parchment to get a good fit.

When I crimp, I kind of push the crust well over the rim and then under it a little bit so it grabs hold long enough for the crust to set.

I blind-bake at 400F. 20-25 minutes. Don't remove the parchment until the dough seems set. The parchment should lift out with no resistance at all. Then finish for another 10 minutes or so, to desired brownness. (I cover the crust loosely with foil for the last 10 minutes.)

I say try it again. It worked for me.

I know someone who is trying to eat a little healthier and is starting to make some more of her own food. I plan to give her a Pain de Mie Pan (Pullman Loaf Pan) so that she can make her own "sandwich" bread for herself and her kids to bring to school. I was thinking of also getting her something to easily cut the bread in uniform slices. Some web sites talk about a no-longer made bread slicing guide, and some others talk about a fiddle bow bread knife, but those are a litlte pricey for cutting bread for lunch. Do you have any suggestions for where I might go to find something that could help out (including those outside of DC, since I'm in the Richmond area)? Thanks!

I'm seeing some stuff you may be able to order online anyway. Target sells this slicer from Norpro and Linens N Things has a wood one from Harold Imports. Many options on Amazon too.

You can pretty much stuff them with anything - I've done spinach and feta; black beans, veggies, and taco seasoned beef; even calzone-like stuff (pizza sauce, cheese and favorite pizza toppings).

Thanks! These are great make ahead suggestions. I look forward to trying this with a poached egg on top.

I've been tasked with baking a few dozen Christmas cookies and bringing them to a relative's house. The problem is that I'm flying. What's the best way to pack cookies for minimum breakage? They'll be in my carry-on; I'm thinking of wrapping them in plastic wrap and then putting them into plastic containers. Any suggestions would be very welcome. Thanks.

Lots of people have their own ways of doing this. Here's what we recommend: If you really don't want ANY breakage, be obsessive. Wrap the cookies individually in plastic wrap (or if they are thin cookies, maybe stack a few in a paper cupcake liner then wrap that), then place them inside an airtight tin or non-crushable container that has plenty of packing material (paper or bubble wrap or those cardboard dividers).  You can tell when you've gone an OCD kind of job when you shake the container and nothing moves. 

 

A little less obsessive: Use wax paper between single layers of cookies that are sturdy enough to touch each other without crumbling. 

Every year, as we enter December, I try to eat down the contents of my cabinets and freezer/fridge so I can start fresh in the new year. I started my inventory of my freezer last night. BUt I'm left with some items that I'm at a loss on how to use....for instance, frozen artichoke hearts. ANy suggestions?

Boy, I might defrost, heat in broth and puree them with a complementary vegetable. Chatters, ideas? 

Quarter, saute in garlic and oil, some chili flakes at the end, and serve over penne rigate or farfalle or some such. Won't give you the same mouthfeel as fresh, but still delish!

Okay. Jeremy wins. 

Not a food gift directly, but my mom and grandmother spent dozens of hours over the years patiently teaching me how to make and can jams, jelly, and applesauce. Every time I make them -as- gifts now, I think of the time they spent with me, making sure I could do it right.

Totally a food gift. A really good one. 

So I have several yummy sugar cookie recipes. I roll out the dough, use my cookie cutters but when the dough bakes everything puffs up and you no longer can tell what the shape was suppose to be (hey! its a Stocking! No. Wait. Its a Blob!)- got any good sugar cookie recipes that can be rolled, cut and baked with it retaining its shape?

Heather Chittum's Sugar Cookies sound like they would fit the bill.

Heather Chittum's Sugar Cookies

Also have a look at Linda Brooks's Best-Tasting Sugar Cookies.

I had the good fortune of going to Zingerman's deli in MI this weekend and spent a good half an hour at their cheese counter with their amazing staff. Now I have two questions: 1. They had a crazy good berry mustard compote that they put on cheddar. Any idea how I could make that?, and 2. I brought home some aged Remeker cheese that tastes slightly like butterscoth at the end. Again, to die for. Have you seen it anywhere around DC?

1. You might like this  Tart Cherry Mustard; easy to make. Fun to eat. 

2. Cheesetique in Alexandria says it carries a four-year Gouda made by Boerrenkaas, the Dutch producer that makes your Remeker. The shop might be able to order it for you. 

I received a gift of a dinner at the Inn at Little Washington. The rabbit loins were the best meat I had ever eaten.

Nice.  Editor Joe and I had that rabbit preparation there a few years ago....speaking of, Joe's due back Jan. 2. 

May I suggest that you wrap them carefully, put them in a tin, and put the tin into a Priority Mail box? (If it fits, it ships...). Mail them the day before or the day you leave. They'll get there in 2 days (you can track online) and you don't have to hassle with carryign them through the airport, subjecting your package to the vagaries of overhead bins and fellow passengers, etc. And, the cookies get where they are going, fresh and intact. There are some GREAT tips for packing cookies to stay intact and fresh during shippping -- look online, or go get an old cookie cookbook from you local library. Many of the old cookie books spent pages detailing how to ship cookies to soldiers, college students, etc.

....for taking my question! Posting early because of work--I have some leftover mashed sweet potatoes made with whipping cream, eggs, spices, and butter (I think). They're delicious as-is, but I'm wondering if they could be made into some sort of fritter or pan-fried cake, just to do something different with them? And if so, how does one go about doing this? Do I need to add anything? Or just smoosh them down and throw them in the pan? Thanks, Rangers!

Perhaps it's because I'm still thinking about the great knish I got from Gina Chersevani at Buffalo & Bergen in Union Market, but what about making a kind of sweet mini knish? You could maybe use wonton wrappers. If you'd like to try them your way, I might add some flour to give the thing  more body, for frying. 

My pumpkin bread recipe calls for 1 cup of pumpkin puree. What is the best way to store the remainder of a 15 ounce can?

I just put mine in a plastic container with a pretty tight lid. Try to use it in the next few days. I like to stir it into yogurt.

Do not hit "store" but go straight to this recipe: Pasta With Creamy Pumpkin Sauce

-Immersion blender my sister gave me one year -"The Cherry Republic" gift pack I traditionally receive from my godmother who lives in Michigan (for anyone who likes cherries, I highly recommend checking them out - they have oodles of delicious items) -Usinger's gift packages that I have sent have always been well received by recipients (the Wisconsin based company has been making German style sausages for years)

A coworker once brought some vegan pistachio-and-rosewater cupcakes to work on a cruddy rainy "retail hell" Sunday, which knocked me on my butt. They completely changed my perception of vegan baking/desserts, and inspired me to run out and buy the cookbook that contained the recipe. Of course, I haven't made them yet, because I will promptly eat them all when I do, but good god they were delicious.

Like that. We've had the same reaction to some vegan cupcake recipes 'round here. 

I receive the classic Harry and David fruit of the month as a gift from my brother. The pears are fantastic, and they come twice a year. The apricots were wonderful as well. Some of the other fruit is hit or miss but it's always fun to have a box arrive at the door and wonder what fruit it will be.

We used chipotles in adobo to make a pepper cheese spread. I take 1 can (4 oz? don't remember) and pulse it in the mini processor. LEAVE the lid on for a while to let the aerosolized pepper settle. Then just scrape all the goodness into a small container with an airtight lid. It keeps in the fridge forever and can be spooned out 1 TBSP (or other measure) at a time. I suppose you could also dollop it onto a parchment sheet to freeze it in chunks but I've never seen the need. The miniprocessor makes the chopping really easy and eliminates the red stains on the chopping block -- but I have also done it by hand with great results.

Sad but true: I was stationed for a long time in Mexico, the historic home of chocolate, but they didn't make milk chocolate there like I was used to buying in the States -- So I'd ask colleagues to bring me Cadbury's, Lindt, even Nestle and Hershey's chocolate bars, and I savored each bite as "an exquisite pleasure" akin to Proust's madeleine. But perhaps most amazing was the cocktail party where the hosts, just returned from a States-side visit, had placed a bowl filled with M&Ms on the table -- and responded to my sighs of delight by giving me some to take home. (PS -- M&Ms _do_ melt in your hand if you hold them too long, but they're still delicious. Even if they have a little pocket lint.)

We here at WaPoFood love the M's. And if you promise not to send him a case, I could mention that a certain fabulous food critic says it's his favorite candy. 

After a long hiatus, I took out my Farberware electric pressure cooker and discovered mice had nibbled on the inside edge of the gasket. When I called their customer service, I was told they no longer make that appliance and don't carry gaskets for it. I've never heard of a pressure cooker company abandoning their customers like this. Do you know if there are such things as universal pressure cooker gaskets? Fortunately for me, I tested the gasket and it didn't leak steam, so I'm good for now. Too bad since it's a good multipurpose appliance - brown, steam, warm and pressure. Cuisinart makes one that may be similar. BTW, pressure cooked lentil soup cooked with with a cheesecloth bag of aromatics were the best I ever made.

I see by the trusty Internet that there are such things as universal gaskets, but I also see that they might not really be universal, which is understandable considering the variety of pressure cookers out there. I once went looking for universal blender jar plastic rings and found them at the indispensable Ayers Variety in Arlington; maybe a store like that, which sells a little of everything, would be a good place to look. Failing that, think about adopting a cat to take care of those mice.

My parents took my sisters and me Apple Picking in Virginia every year growing up - it allowed us to support local farmers and taught us why buying food in season really does taste best. My sisters and I are all now good home cooks as well as customers in our local farmer's markets. And, the memories are great.......

Aw. Getting verklempt all up in here. 

Cake, that is. My mom is an angel, herself, and bakes an angel food cake (hers is the best I've ever devoured) and sends it via mail every year for my birthday. It's always arrives delightfully smooshed and lasts about 2 seconds. She bakes cakes for all her kids - every year - no matter where we are!

Does she share her recipe? 

My best food gift was from my grandma who sent me a small box of figs from the tree in her back yard, each one wrapped in a paper towel and fedex'd to my college dorm my freshman year. They were perfect, I still think about how beautiful they smelled when I opened the box.

Whenever I read recipes for roasted beets, they always make it sound like peeling the beets is really easy. Like the skin should just slip off with the merest glance. Well, Ha! I find it a real pain to peel beets and it takes me forever, even when they are nice and soft from roasting. Could I be doing it wrong? Should I be using a peeler instead of my fingers?

We always boil beet first but leave leaves about 1 inch long so beets don't bleed as bad. They peel very easy then try roasting. Or try roasting them wrapped in foil so they don't dry out. 

My wife is the real beet-roasting expert, but I think the real question is: why peel?

Here's how we do it:

1. Scrub. Not rinse. I mean really scrub, with a Dobie pad or some other semi-abrasive sink tool.If you do a good enough job of scrubbing, you shouldn't need to peel.

2. Trim (and don't forget to compost!).

3. Quarter or halve.

4. Oil, sprinkle of coarse sea salt, or kosher salt.

5. Roast at 375 until perfect!

6. Garnish with finely chopped mint, parsely, or whatever strikes your fancy.

 

Last week I decided to make some caramel sauce to help finish off the last of the vanilla ice cream we had in the house. As I gathered the ingredients, I realized I didn't have quite enough sugar and ran out of corn syrup, so I grabbed my baggie that I always have of cinnamon sugar for those last-minute snickerdoodles (yes, I'm from the Midwest) to top off the measuring cup. Then I realized I didn't have milk or cream, so I grabbed the Baileys. It turned out better than I could've imagined! My fiance said it was the best caramel he's ever had, so I think we'll now make Cinnamon Baileys Caramel a staple around the house. Just thought I'd share!

Warms the cockles of my heart, this story. Recipe developers o'er the world understand how these things work. Congratulations! 

The best I've ever received was when I moved to Atlanta, Georgia a few years ago. My then-fiance-now-husband purchased our first home but had to wait a few weeks to get appliances delivered. We mentioned this in passing to a neighbor and she dropped off a hot meal for us every few days. It was all pretty typical Southern fare: fried chicken, some kind of crab casserole, shrimp and grits. The food was delicious, but what stands out more was her kindness towards a pair of strangers. I will remember it forever.

I'm working on my Christmas list (yes, for myself!) but I'm at a loss at what kitchen-related items I would like this year. Any top cookbooks of 2012 you recommend? What kitchen gifts would you guys like to receive this year? Thanks!

If you like Latin cooking, I would highly recommend Gran Cocina Latina by chef Maricel E. Presilla. It's an exhaustive, authoritative tome on Latin American cooking.

 

As for kitchen items, I run hot and cold on the latest, faddish gadgets, which you might use once or twice and then toss in a drawer with the rest of the neglected tools that you HAD to own. Do you have a good pair of salt and pepper mills? I find them invaluable in the kitchen. I love mine and use them every time I cook. (Thank you, my dear Carrie for the mills!)

A vacuum sealer helps save space and food storage life is increased.

Le Creuset baking dishes. In cherry, please.

If you can wait a little longer, stay tuned for our cookbook roundup, which is running next week. Of the many books I sorted through recently, I'd most want Nancy Baggett's "Simply Sensational Cookies," "Baked Elements" by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito and any of the books Bonnie reviewed in her canning story. Not a cookbook, but I also highly recommend the new Julia Child biography, "Dearie," by Bob Spitz.

Gadgets? I should not even contemplate any new gadgets. I'm afraid a family member will read this and buy it for me. My kitchen is too small!

Does a backyard pizza oven count as kitchen gift? Too bad my husband does not read these chats. But he's Been Made Aware. 

In the winter when we were kids, we used to love to sit by the fireplace. My mom used to always put beets, turnips and potatoes wrapped individually in foil, into the fireplace. Nothing was better than unwrapping that package to a perfectly roasted vegetable. and no need to turn on the oven!

Hi, I'm submitting early because I might sadly be busy during the chat. For Christmas, I'm planning to make my grandparents make-ahead dishes for their freezer. However, one casserole is way too much food for the two of them, so I was planning to split each dish into two pans. How would this affect the later cooking time? Thanks!

Hmm....does this sound dumb? How about lining the casserole with aluminum foil, creating a "wall" that splits ingredients in two. That way you wouldnt have to adjust the cooking time, and you could pull out already portioned, baked sections for storing. 

The commenter asked about pork loin, not pork shoulder. I prefer thick cut pork chops grilled. The commenter could slice the pork loin in half. Roast one half of it and then create pork chops from the rest of the loin which would be grilled. The diners at the party could then choose which version of pork loin they prefer.

 

Oh boy, my bad. I really need to drink more coffee!.

 

Okay, pork loin. That's a montrous cut you have. I think I would portion it into three-pound sections (or one six-pound section and a three-pound section). Freeze whatever sections you don't use.  That way, you could use your loin for Cuban sandwiches or Ginger-Plum Glazed Pork Skewers (for a party, given the number of skewers you'd make) or even use the six-pound portion for this Roast Pork Loin With Apricot Plum Sauce.

I have incredible success with the flour paste pie crust in the first Joy of Cooking. I use Earth Balance and still get raves.

Had some frozen fish...defrosted it in fridge...but didn't get to use it. I put it back in the freezer so it wouldn't spoil, but I"m not sure that it's OK to rethaw and eat, now. Your thoughts? (we won't be killing ourselves, will we??!)

The USDA says it's safe to refreeze defrosted fish, "although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through thawing." The caveat is that it must have been defrosted in the fridge, not at room temperature. (Looks like you did that.) I'd bet that your fish will be a little mushy, so try to use it in a recipe where a loose texture won't matter.

This technique for firming up fish from our old Gastronomer, Andreas Viestad, might come in handy. 

On one of his shows, Jacques Pepin happened to slice a loaf of bread. He set it on its side to cut it rather than from the top down. He didn't even comment on this. I've tried it, and yes, it does make cutting even slices easier.

If it's good enough for Jacques...

A co-worker's mom used to send us goodies regularly. She always packed them in popcorn and nothing was ever broken--made it from NJ to CA intact. Plus, we could eat the packing material.

Talk about biodegradable packing materials!

The cookbook prize made me think of something I've been looking for to no avail. Do you know where I can find MALTED waffle batter/mix? I've had it at hotel breakfast bars and it is much different than regular mix and significantly better but I cannot find it in stores.

Looks like Amazon's got it. 

My former neighbor once gave me a dish of the most amazing cookies I had ever eaten. She told me they were called Wedding Cookies (I had never seen them before, but then realized they're quite popular). I have had them since, from many bakers, but her literally melted in your mouth. The most amazing cookie I have ever had, I still dream about these things. She refused to tell me her secret, except for 2 hints, lots of butter and dont squish too much. She passed away a couple of years ago, and I will forever try to replicate that recipe.

That's a really sweet story, and I'm sorry you never got the recipe from her. Maybe Heather Chittum's Wedding Cookies would be an acceptable stand-in?

Heather Chittum's Wedding Cookies

Several cuisines/cultures have their own versions of Wedding Cookies. I lovelovelove them all -- especially Heather's. 

The secret to packing cookies, either for transport or shipping, is pretty much decided up front - it's in which cookies you bake. Fragile butter cookies are going to fall apart pretty much no matter what you do, and the same with flat crispy discs. Bar cookies like brownies transport best, and fudge never falls apart in transit. Sounds like the original poster today might not have a choice, if particular family cookies were requested, but if the whole world of holiday cookies is open to you, consider Russian teacakes, soft gingersnaps, or my family's favorite, whiskey cookies made with red and green maraschino cherries. (You make 'em a week ahead and the longer they sit, the better they taste.)

What's your all-time favorite recipe?

Easy. My mother-in-law's, which is now my wife's. They're both from Texas, which I think makes a difference. 

The pie is gooey, but slices beautifully, with its wedges staying intact. It is not too sweet. And it has a hint of salt. 

Virginia Willis gave us this one in 2008, from her first cookbook. (Did you catch her on "Chopped" last night btw? She was great.) It has the perfect nut-to-goo ratio, as we like to say. This year I had David Guas's, which was also pretty darn wonderful. 

Just form patties with what you have and put in a black iron skillet with olive oil. Cook until crusty on one side, then flip and repeat. My mom did this with regular mashed potatoes every time we had them--she made too many just for this reason.

I forget the name of it, but I read about it here, Domaine something or other? Anyway, just wanted to say thanks!! It is excellent in hot apple cider spiced with cinnamon, cloves & nutmeg.

That would be Domaine de Canton. It's a great mixer, as you've discovered.

Confidence inthe kitchen comes from being able to laugh off the many mistakes that you will inevitably make in the learning process. My wife has a hard time doing this. I do not mind failing. As such, I have more confidence in the kitchen and wind up doing most of the cooking.

Well said. Laughing is good, although occasionally there will be tears. (Guilty!)

I hate failing too, but mostly because it can mean a waste of time, money and calories. My wife hates failing too. Now granted, I have to admit that our definition of "failing" can be fairly high. We love to turn out attractively plated food that tastes good and has a bit of personal flair. We miss the mark on those points on a semi-regular basis. But I don't think it destroys our confidence. Having standards is a good thing. Some of the best chefs in the world hate mistakes, theirs and others.

I am a lackluster and mostly a failure at composting so I love the idea of a composting service. Just wish I lived in DC. And the leaves, I wish someone would collect and gather all bags of leaves sitting curbside in my town. Anyway, have any tips to be a successful home composter especially using kitchen scraps?

First off, don't beat yourself up. It's awesome that you want to compost. But it's just like cooking -- sometimes you try a recipe and it just doesn't work out the way you want it to. Learn from it, move on, and don't make the same mistake twice.

We actually get this question a lot, and sadly the existing resources online are a little thin, which is why we're putting together a DIY Composting at Home guide. In the meantime, this should prove at least a little helpful.

Compost is a recipe: air, water, carbon, nitrogen. Whatever system you're using, the key is making sure you have the right amount of each. Good luck! And stick with it -- fewer than 3% of Americans compost, so you're way ahead of the curve.

I having my husbands family over for a lunch next month. I was thinking of serving some sort of alcoholic punch, but is that too much booze too early in the day? Also, is there any sort of guideline for how many dishes to serve for a buffet meal? Like one protein, one salad, and three sides...

I think a lower proof punch would work for lunch. Here are a few ideas: the Boston Club punch is a nice light option, with a rum, white wine, and Grand Marnier base and topped with sparkling wine. If you have martini drinkers, Gin Punch is a good option. Finally, the Light Guard Punch, with cognac, Sauternes and sherry is lovely.

My brother gave me a complete set of cast iron pots and pans including a grill pan. He has become my favorite brother since then. I use them all the time and can't help remembering him as I cook.

Wow, how can I get on your brother's gift list? :)

Food/kitchen gifts -- the kind that don't get eaten -- can serve as sweet reminders of people in your life. A friend's elderly dad gave me a great little gizmo for opening too-tight jar lids. He has since died. Every single time I use it, I say out loud, "Thanks, Al," and think of him with a smile.

Rather than look for the waffle mix, you could always add malted barley powder or syrup (King Arthur is one vendor) to your regular mix.

Dingdingding.

They didn't abandon their customers so much as they were bought out by another company. Even if the present company wanted to replace your gasket, it probably wouldn't fit as they've changed the shapes of the FW cookeware.

My most memorable and meaningful food gift comes from my husband's sweet Grandmother. She made us a batch of molasses cookies. But in the basket, she included a jar of her very own homemade molasses, as well as the familiy recipe she uses for the cookies. It was a sort of passing of the baton. I was honored.

My mother-in -law makes the absolutely most amazing bread and butter pickles anywhere on the planet, her pickled turnips are unequalled. She has been extrememly generous to me over the years, in many many ways, but these are the absolutely best food gift ever even more so since they have been paired with the recipes (although mine are still not as wonderful as hers).

Williams-Sonoma also wells malted waffle mix - definitely online, and I think in their stores, too.

Ah well, Thanksgiving has come and gone and again my family loved their canned cranberry sauce, dried out turkey and overcooked collards. Did they take me up on my offer to try my vegetarian butternut squash and macaroni casserole? Nope, as they served themselves they said "oh that's the food ___ brought" and then would pass it right by and serve themselves the butter, sugar laden meal they made. Maybe I should have made waffles - they like those. Its family and I love them dearly.

As long as your good humor remains intact. . . . 

I'm trying to go dairy free and breakfast seems to be the real sticking point. I've been using almond milk for cereal, really miss butter in my scrambled eggs not to mention cheese. I'm not interested in soy cheese products and figure i can just use pam for the eggs. But I feel like I'm missing options that could be breakfast foods. Like foods from Asia or India. I know they don't eat the typical American breakfast of a bowl of cereal. Please help me out. I want a dairy-free (and gluten-free) breakfast that has a bit of protein and will last through the morning. Any suggestions?

The dish may not be for everyone, but I love a good bowl of congee, particulary at this time of year. I wrote about the dish almost a year ago to the day. You might take a look and see if it appeals to you.

Thanks for those (I'm not the OP), as I also am constantly searching for the perfect sugar cookie. Do you have some that don't use royal icing for the frosting though? I really don't like the texture and flavor. Or could I just use a butter cream type on one of those recipes (I'm not a super decorator)?

Definitely go for a buttercream if that's what you like. 

NOt one that I received, but one that I gave....I love to cook and bake and have a friend who is very intimidated by the whole process but eager to learn. I went through my cookbooks and recipes and made her a personalized cookbook of my favorite recipes (crediting the authors of course) with my own notes. It was a huge hit and she continues to use it!

I really like the personalized cookbook thing.

A few years ago our friends taught us how to make sushi as a gift. In the years since I have taught several other friends and my sister as well. As part of the gift, I would give the basic ingredients and tools to make basic sushi along with a japanese cook book.

I love that. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving. You might add one more thing to your gift (sorry to be so PC here, but it's important): A guide to sustainable seafood, like the ones available from Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Calvin, how do you come up with recipes for the wild game you serve at squirrel fest? I read that you also served raccon and rabbit this year. Very interesting! But not something you find recipes for in your average cookbook.

For the most part watching my mom growing up. The raccoon was a new one for us. We talked to a few old timers from the good old days on how to prepare the raccoon. You have to boil it for a good while to get the fat off of them. Then can use as you would chicken or turkey it's a dark meat. 

FYI, Cal is sending us some squirrel so we can test his gravy recipe. 

I love chicken soup! My children don't. I discovered after having leftovers taco seasoned chicken that they do like a southwestern flavored chicken soup. I think they might also like/be willing to eat a chicken soup if it were asian inspired, but I don't know how to get that in a soup. Ideas? Also, I am making asian pear butter as we speak, using the pears my kids think are too soft to eat (they seem fine to me, but I can't eat that many).

I add some Asian flair to chicken soup by adding some lemongrass (very finely chopped), some freshly grated ginger and chopped cilantro stems and scallions at the very end. You can also stir in some Thai yellow or red curry paste. Also some coconut milk.

I lived in Ventura, Ca, My aunt lived in Pasadena CA. She loved figs, so I'd buy them at the Wednesday farmer's market and UPS them to her (there was a UPS warehouse in Ventura and I went there to ship). I could get them ripe and about to burst and she still had them in time to eat them before they went bad.

Yes, Jane, we did just that! No more mice problems. Of course, I have to feed two predators as payment for this service, but it's worth it and who doesn't love purrs?

Agreed! A happy ending for you and the cats.

Can you cook dinner together? This might not work given people's personalities. But both my parents were great cooks and they got me in kitchen really young (picture three year old girl on step stool in front of sink washing salad). I didn't realize how much I just picked up from them about cooking helping out. The best part, though, was it was great bonding time with mum or dad. Is that something you think would fit your personalities?

Let's hope so. I like cooking with my husband a lot.

So I tried to make the boiled cider we were talking about a few weeks back, and through inattention and starting with a smaller quantity than the recipe called for, by the time I turned off the heat it had reduced about twice as much as needed and is basically a sticky caramel instead of a thick syrup. Do you think it would work to put it back in water and un-reduce it, or should I just throw it out? If I tried to eat it as is, I fear losing a filling.

I've done this before. Just add water back in until you achieve the desired consistency (or apple juice, even better), then decide if you like the flavor of it. I happen to like the slightly burnt carmelized profile. If you don't like the taste, start over.

I make a free form sort of apple cranberry "pie" with my extra phyllo as I am pie dough challenged. It's pretty simple. I start with a cookie sheet, and I layer buttered sheets of phyllo, with about half of each sheet overlapping in the center and the outer half spread around sort of like a flower. I usually have at least 10-15 layers or so in the middle to make it strong enough. I slice apples, put them in a bowl, and add cranberries, chopped nuts and some cinnamon or 5-spice sugar, and toss. No specific amounts of anything, just what I have on hand and what looks roughly pie filling sized. The amount of sugar depends on whether you used tart apples or like things sweeter. I tend to stay on the tart side, so it's usually not more than 1-2T. Put the apple mix into the center of the phyllo. To make sure things cook all the way through, I don't layer the apples too deeply. Add a few dabs of butter on top of the apples. Then, gather up the loose ends and fold them back over the filling. You may not get full coverage of the apples, but that's ok. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. When all is golden and the apples are soft, take the pan out and let it cool a bit. Cut into wedges and serve with ice cream. This disappeared much faster than the cream puffs and cookies, which took a lot longer to make. .

Great suggestion.

Stellar on pizza ... .

Good comments today. This is another one. 

I'm trying to expand the cocktails I make for myself (and guests). I frequently end my evenings with a book and an old fashioned, an Italian amaro, or a short glass of grappa. If I'm reading awhile and I don't necessarily want to get loopy and lose focus, if I want a second drink I'll usually switch to a beer of average strength. I'm thinking that if I made a tall cocktail that perhaps I wouldn't need a second drink. What I'm looking for is inspiration. What do you think would be good to try?

What sorts of books do you read? Maybe that would help with the pairing. For a long drink, perhaps try something with an aged rum. I'm a fan of Dark n' Stormies, and I like this variation, called the Anejo Highball. One last idea is a recipe I ran recently, which is simply fresh pressed grape juice and rum, called the Henry 'Box' Brown.

Yes, I've been asked to make specific cookies. One's a slice-and-bake style, so they're very stackable. I'm a bit more worried about the pignoli. Oh, and did I mention it's a transatlantic flight? Now I'm worried about the customs agents. eek.

They'll be fine, and the agents will keep their mitts off of them. 

Well, you didn't eat mine but I'm making them for the first time to send to family members for Christmas. Now I know they may love them instead of just like them :)

I worked in Nicaragua in the 1980s, when political, economic and agricultural problems meant there wasn't much food to buy in the markets besides rice and beans and tropical fruits. Everyone from abroad had a wish list, ranging from wine to peanut butter to tubes of toothpaste. But there was one "dream" menu that everybody from the United States, or who had lived in the United States, agreed on, and that was bagels with cream cheese and a side of the Sunday newspapers, both the Washington Post and the New York Times. We used to chatter excitedly about the successful business someone hopefully would start, flying in the fresh supplies to a hungry international corps of reporters, development experts and diplomats. A spirit of generosity prevailed, so that when someone did arrive bearing these gifts, they were shared. Each of those occasions generated a joy approximating that of a childhood Christmas morning when the presents were spotted under the tree.

I know this is outrageously corny - but my husband's appreciation of my cooking (and his honesty when it's not to his taste). Cooking dinner and baking is a way I show my love - and it's a great gift to me that he enjoys that type of love.

Corny but a ring of truth. Does his appreciation include cleanup? :)

I was once gifted four flavored salts (one is bacon, one is rose, one is lavender, and I don't remember the other) and they sit on my stove, unused. Any ideas? I WANT to use them, but overlook them.

The rose and lavender salts in mixed nuts or on top of brittle or shortbread cookie dough....bacon salt for meatloaf and savory corn muffins. 

Hello! I know we just got throughout Thanksgiving, but I'm starting to stress about hosting Christmas this year and I need some help planning a menu for a Christmas lunch/ dinner for my family and in laws. My sister in law is vegetarian , so I thought I'd make this baked mushroom risotto from thekitchn.com. I'm struggling as to what to go with it. Definitely a green salad. But I would like another veggie side and a main, which I was thinking could be fish. My in laws are slightly picky and not very adventurous eaters - no onions no garlic, nothing too spicy, nothing with green bits, etc. so I'm a little stumped since the first thing I do when I make anything is chop an onion and add some red pepper flakes. Any thoughts on a side and a fish that would be simple, but flavorful? And for my sake, slightly impressive and seasonal would be a bonus. And if I were feeling subversive, something exotic, but familiar tasting. (Family therapy through cooking, anyone?) Thanks! These chats are great!

Whole fish roasted in salt crust. Impressive to serve, hard to ruin, simple but delish. Make it!

I'm trying to incorporate more seafood into my diet (athough i'm not the greatest fan) on a whim at trader joes last night, I purchased the frozen seafood mix (scallops, shrimp and calamari rings) but have NO idea on how to use it. I'm thinking something with pasta? HELP!

Seems like they would be good in cioppino/stew, soup, chowder, gumbo or pasta sauce. Has anyone else bought these?

I did a favor for a colleague years ago. She mentioned she grew up in Switzerland and I mentioned my favorite chocolates from there. Imagine my surprise when a few months later I received a whole case! of those chocolates. It really was too much and I ended up sharing with family & friends.

Now that's my kind of gift. Chocolate is practically a food group for me.

Comes from knowing it's not the end of the world when you cut or burn yourself. As I look at my bandaged finger and realize that I will have a funky scar and the mandolin won, in this case, the tip of my finger.

Another Christmas gift question: where to get good steak knives? I've looked online but they all seem to be pretty expensive, i.e. $200 for 4. Is this standard or an absurd price? I looked at Macy's and other major department stores, thinking they would be more affordable but perhaps I am looking in the wrong places. Thanks for your help!

Serious Eats has a decent primer on steak knives, including some very affordable options. Check it out.

I have a smoothie with soy yogurt (Whole Foods has it). Banana, frozen berries, frozen kale, ground flax seed, yogurt. Blend. Done. On really hungry days, I add a multigrain bagel with PB.

For my birthday a couple years ago, my husband re-created one of my favorite meals from the Cheesecake Factory. I realize that this is not foodie nirvana, but it was really good and I especially appreciated the fact that he knew what I liked and took the time to make it. :-)

I'm thinking a riff on latkes - grate potatoes. I think this needs some texture and bulk to be a fritter.

I'm hoping Jason is with us today because I have a booze question. My fiance and I discovered last year that we like port - or at least the ports we've had. We've only had two, one from a VA winery and one from MD. Both were slightly sweet. We'd like to branch out and try some new ones, and have a good one handy for the holidays, but don't want to spend the money if we end up not liking it. I'm not sure where to begin. Are there any good "beginner ports" out there within the $20-30 range? Are there places that sell mini bottles of port so we can sample? Chatters favorites would also be helpful!

Port is great! But keep in mind that what you got in VA and MD were technically port, which can only come the Douro Valley in Portugal and aged in the city of Porto (thus the name). Your best bet for value is to stick to producers like Taylors and Grahams and go for a 10-20 yr tawny or a late bottle vintage. For true value, there are some new-wave styles of young, fresh ports like Noval Black at Warre's Ottima 10 yr old that wrote about earlier this year. Both are those you can find for under $20 and they're enjoyable even as an aperitif.

I attended a pot-luck dinner party where one couple simply put whole pecans (in the shell) in the microwave oven, and they came out amazingly sweet. Too bad I didn't find out the specifics -- 50% or 100% power? How long? Might you offer instructions on how to do this? Thanks in advance.

I've done that before, but just to loosen them in the shells (a childhood of cracking them in northern Fla). Try LOW for 10-15 second increments. 

My roommate recently made these mushroom, walnut, and gruyere filled phyllo dough rolls that were absolutely delicious. She just cooked the mushrooms with some butter and spices, added a splash of cooking wine, and then reduced the mixture until it was completely dry. Then she added toasted walnuts and shredded gruyere, and spooned it onto the center of phyllo sheets and rolled up the edges to form a roll. Then they went into the oven at 350 degrees until golden brown. Absolutely delicious...

For 3 years, I did the cookie of the month club for certain servicemen I knew stationed in the war zones--finished when they returned safely home. Otherwise, I fill a Priority Mail Box with what my friend in the UK wants and cannot get (B & N Beans, pumpkin puree, onion soup mix...) I once filled one of those boxes with candy as remembered--Hershey kisses, chunky bars, fireballs--not available there. We sometimes get the reverse--Malteasers, UK Smarties, Dairy Milk bars, chocolate digestives.

I would love to see a primal/paleo focused article with recipes. I don't eat grains, flour or sugar - wont get all preachy on the reasons why but it would be nice to see recipes that don't include lots of grains.

Oh shoot. We can't get preachy? :(

It's just about the easiest way to green your home. We're a family of 6. We have one bag of trash per week, two tops.

Please don't give up on seafood if this mix proves disappointing. I tried something similar years ago (for a cioppinin-ish dish, in fact) and found that the textures were terrible. I am not sure those three would cook at the same speed/temp when fresh, so that may be why it was less successful frozen. But, I didn't give up and have found other ways to enjoy.

I love giving jars of really rich stocks, an assortment of veal, chicken, turkey and beef. Also, one year I made an enormous batch of basic Toll house cookie dough, divided it into 5 and added different goodies to them. Then I used the Glad sticky wrap as cryrovac to make 12 portioned, giant cookies, froze them and mailed them to friends and family. As it was wintertime, I didn't have to worry about them spoiling. 

I second the request! I'm always looking for good paleo and primal recipes!

Every year, my grandmother gives my family a tin of her most-loved treats. We all love every goody in there, but we have our favorites. My dad and I fight over the chocolate fudge, peanut brittle, and peanut butter fudge. My brother goes nuts over these crescent cookies dusted in powedered sugar, and my mom loves the peanut butter cookies. The tin's contents usually disappear in about an hour. One of the best parts of Christmas is receiving that tin. Another is seeing the joy in her face (and ours) when we've eaten all of it! Now that I'm married, I'm hoping she'll make a second one for my husband and me!

Five years ago my mother gave my sister and me each a cookbook in which she had handwritten all of our family's favorite recipes, including all of the dessert and baked goods recipes she's used for 25 years in her small baking business. Each time I open it I think of her and the times she's made treats or homecooked meals for us. And the fact that it's in her handwriting makes it all the more dear to me. It's my favorite gift, ever.

There is almond cheese sold at whole foods which melts like mozzerella and tastes like cheese, not like almonds. its comes as brick or shredded.Not international , but not dairy.

I have good soup recipes for both ingredients. For the seafood mix, a cioppino-like recipe from "Moosewood Cooks at Home": sauteed onions, garlic, bell peppers; large can of tomatoes; white wine & vegetable broth for the liquid. Simmer till all is soft, then add 1 lb. mixed seafood just 5 minutes before serving. For artichokes: sauteed onions, chicken broth, artichokes, white wine, dash of lemon juice.

Well, judging from the food gift comments today,  I have to say: what a bunch of very, very thoughtful chatters you are.  It seems that homemade, personal food gifts are the ones we remember most. Thanks to Cal and Jeremy, David, Jason and Jim for joining us. 

It was hard to pick just two cookbook winners, but here you go: the chatter whose grandma used to send figs wins "Waffles"; the chatter who was gifted with jam instruction from her relatives wins "Pecans." Send your mailing address to krystalr@washpost.com and Becky will get those prizes out asap. Till next week, happy cooking and eating! 

In This Chat
Bonnie Benwick
Bonnie Benwick is interim editor of the Food section; joining us today are interim recipe editor Jane Touzalin, staff writer Tim Carman, editorial aide Becky Krystal, Spirits columnist Jason Wilson, Process columnist David Hagedorn and Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin. Guests: Jeremy Brosowsky, founder of Compost Cab; Calvin Riggleman, founder of Squirrel Fest in Romney, W.Va.
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