Free Range on Food: Grocery store hot bars, cooking on a budget and more

Feb 27, 2013

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

Greetings, all, and welcome to Free Range, where we will answer questions by the pound and ring you up in the Express Lane as soon as you're ready. Did you appreciate Tim's supermarket hot bar story today, and our comparison chart? Agree or disagree with our findings? We'd love to hear your own stories of supermarket hot bars, good and bad -- strategies, favorite and least favorite items, and more. Weigh in (pun unable to be resisted), and our favorite responses will win a cookbook! (Today's prizes will remain a secret until the end of the chat...)

We can talk about other topics, of course -- Jim "Smoke Signals" Shahin will be in the room to discuss all things 'cue, including today's piece on a return to real wood in the city. And hopefully Jason "Spirits" Wilson will stop by to defend his take on Maker's Mark and help you mix up a bourbon cocktail more deliciously.

So there you have it. What's on your mind?

I love that the food buffets at Whole Foods allow me to sample new grains and salads before trying to make them at home. The variety and convenience of these buffets is a big plus, obviously. Do you think that stand alone places like Boston Market and Chicken out will eventually lose their appeal? I'm thinking of the demise of EatZi's - same concept of ready made foods, but they fizzled.

Yes, EatZi's was ahead of its time. It was also apparently saddled with a lot of debt, according to Supermarket News. The debt reportedly caused the company to shutter its stores. Now, why the company was saddled with debt, who knows.  Expanded too quickly? There has been a lot of speculation online (where speculations are like mold spores) about Whole Foods killing off the EatZi's brand. I suspect it's more complicated than that.

 

The Boston Market chain was already losing ground before the major surge in supermarket hot bars. But recent speculation (again, like mold spores and just as bad to your health) is that there is room in the market for stores like Boston Market.

I recently bought a toaster oven and have been cooking for one in foil pouches. Often it's just a simple mix of chicken and potatoes with garlic and rosemary, but I do like to mix it up occasionally. Do you have any good recipes to share? My search of "en papillote" in the recipe search only brought up two hits! Thanks you!

I came across this recipe just now while looking to answer another chatter's question. Maybe you could scale it down to work in your toaster oven?

Funghi al Cartoccio al Forno (Baked Mushrooms in a Bag)

Funghi al Cartoccio al Forno (Baked Mushrooms in a Bag)

Others that might work:

Chicken Packets, Italian-Style

Chicken Packets, Italian-Style

Early Spring Salmon Packets

Early Spring Salmon Packets

Pompano en Papillotte With Crawfish Sauce (another one to be scaled down)

Pompano en Papillotte With Crawfish Sauce

I recently started making vinaigrette, usually weekly, and wondered if it needs to be refrigerated? I assume yes and usually it's fine, depending upon how much oil is in there, but just wondered, especially if most of the ingredients themselves are not in the refrigerator.

A simple oil and vinegar w/ mustard could stay at room temperature. But once you've got add-ins, like minced garlic or fresh herbs or fresh juice, I'd refrigerate. The oil warms up quick enough with a quick whisk or 15 mins on the counter. 

I have successfully roasted napa cabbage, chopping it, tossing in olive oil, and roasting for 5-10 minutes. I tried this with purple cabbage and it did not soften. Now I have a bowl of too-hard, oily cabbage. Is there a way to salvage this? It isn't sliced finely enough to make cole slaw.

Just turn back on the oven and roast it some more, until it gets where you want it. It'll soften, believe me -- it's just that it obviously takes a little longer than Napa, which is more delicate.

What happens to the food from the hot bar at the end of the day? Are they donated to local charities/shelters? I sure hope its not wasted, or put out the next day!

I've made contact with a few sources at grocery stores and plan to write an short follow-up later today. Thanks for the excellent question.

I woke up this morning wanting to make some muffins for breakfast, but all I had in the pantry was a box of pancake and waffle mix, no plain flour. Could I use pancake mix to make muffins? Thanks!

Any chance you're referring to a certain mix that starts with "Bis" and ends in "quick"? If so, they do have some recipes on their site...

Bonnie, those budget recipes look great, but I was a little disappointed that you didn't include more vegetarian options. I guess it's commonly known that eating vegetarian is more budget-friendly when eating meat, but my repertoire of cheap veggie eats could always use a boost.

Well, I hate disappointing people. Prepare for two-part, win-win justification! 

1) You hit on part of it -- because eating vegetarian can be more budget-friendly, as you say, I thought it might be more helpful to show a range of options. 

2) Next week, we've got an all-vegetarian issue. Every recipe, including Dinner in Minutes and the Mindful Makeover.  Not all are necessarily cheap, but I promise that the recipe selection will be appealing. Or at least Editor Joe thought so.  

 

How's that?

 

 

Someone told me I should rinse eggs prior to using them, is this true?

Nope. Here's info from the USDA:

It's not necessary or recommended for consumers to wash eggs and may actually increase the risk of contamination because the wash water can be "sucked" into the egg through the pores in the shell When the chicken lays the egg, a protective coating is put on the outside by the hen. Government regulations require that USDA-graded eggs be carefully washed and sanitized using only compounds meeting FDA regulations for processing foods.

Hi, guys -- My mom gave me a pair of doughnut pans for my birthday, primarily because I expressed interest in making the Ina Garten baked cinnamon doughnuts that Bonnie wrote about. But since my kids hate cinnamon, I decided to try a different recipe and wound up using your recipe for buttermilk doughnuts with Nutella glaze. However, I must have done something wrong. Although I waited the hour and a half for the dough to rise, it never really poofed up. I didn't have to punch it down, like the recipe suggested. And the end result was pretty dense and dough-y. I used rapid rise yeast...do you think that was the problem? Or was I supposed to bloom the yeast before adding? I'd love to try again...my kids still devoured the end result, but they'd eat cardboard if it was dipped in Nutella.

 

I'm happy to answer any q that allows me to insert photos of doughnuts.  I think you could leave the cinnamon out of Ina's recipe and it would work just fine.  (And yes, serve with Nutella!) Shulie's recipe is a bit of a different animal: the texture is denser, closer to brioche. Not fluffy and light.  Offhand I'd say it does sound like a yeast problem. 

I have a recipe that calls for a 6 quart dutch oven. I do not have the cash to buy a $350 Le Creuset, or for that matter, the space in my apartment kitchen to store a relatively rarely used item. Can I use an aluminum stock pot just as well, or are there other improvisation techniques I can use? Alternatively, does a dutch oven truly have enough uses in the kitchen that I should make the investment of cash and shelf space? Many thanks.

I love my dutch oven. Its seasoned cast iron cooks food like few other pots in my arsenal.

 

That said, however, it's not indispensable. Without seeing the recipe, I suspect the reason it calls for a Dutch oven is because you need to stick the pot in the oven for a period. Any oven-safe pot will do the stick.  I stick my Calphalon hard-anondized pots in the oven all the time. If you don't have an oven-safe pot, you can also start on the stovetop and transfer your ingredients to a casserole dish or baking dish.

I enjoy cooking, but I live alone. While I would like to make old stand-bys like lasagne, meatloaf and real mac n cheese, the portions are way too big (I don't like leftovers & some of these things don't reheat well anyway). I have no problem inviting people to share my food, but mac n cheese and meatloaf isn't exactly dinner party fare. How do a cure my cravings for comfort food for one?

I feel your pain! I disagree a bit, though, that mac/cheese and meatloaf aren't dinner-party-worthy. You just need the right guests! (And the right mac/cheese and meatloaf, natch.) As the resident CF1 guy (even though, truth be told, I'm cooking for two more often than not these days), I think you just need to recalibrate your thinking about some of these dishes. Often, for instance, you can make pieces of them in advance and then freeze/refrigerate and have on hand to finish in smaller amounts. I'm thinking about mac/cheese here -- why not boil half a pound of macaroni, and then combine one portion of it with milk, cheese, a little flour, and bake in a toaster oven? (Or in the microwave, as in the nuke-it-in-a-mug version I did on NPR on Monday.)

A few years back, I wrote about making a Spicy Mini Meatloaf (below); you make them in four ramekins, freeze three and bake off one at a time.

And lasagne would've been a good candidate for Project Downscale back when I was doing that one. You could take a cue from my way with Baby Eggplant Parm (below) and deconstruct it, cutting squares from store-bought pasta sheets and layering it in muffin tins, you know?

Wait a minute! This just in. We actually have a recipe for a lasagna that's perfect for one! Check it out: Free-Form Lasagna With Wild Mushrooms and Parmesan Cream.

Thank you for the link to Stephanie's recipes on the food page.. These are a few of my favorite things. They are in the menu rotation, easy and so good! I don't know how to add the links. Help me out Food Page techs. Chili-Crusted Flank Steak With Mango Salsa, Spaghetti With Garlicky Shrimp and Broccoli, Roasted Pork Tenderloin With Dried Fruit Compote.

Chili-Crusted Flank Steak With Mango Salsa

You're welcome! And thanks for sharing your favorites.

I am on a super-tight budget and have been eating down my frig and freezer. Trying to use 10-lbs. of potatoes before they rot. Have not had good luck freezing stews with potato chunks. Would mashed potatoes freeze better? {Don't have time to make potato pancakes, FYI.}

Depends a bit on the kind of potatoes; some have more water content than others. (Yukon Golds freeze well; waxy red bliss, less successful.). Figure on subjecting spuds you want to freeze long-term to some sort of cooking or blanching. Mashed potatoes, with something else in them, should freeze just fine (up to 6 months). 

Jason, if you are on today, I just bought a bottle of Catoctin Creek's Mosby's Spirit, an 80 proof "white whiskey." Any cocktail suggestions for someone who likes gin-based cocktails with herbal liqueurs?

Really like the Catoctin Creek whiskey. I did a column about white whiskey a while back. Two of my favorite cocktails are the White Manhattan (whiskey, Benedictine, and bianco vermouth) and the Silver Queen Daisy (white whiskey, St-Germain, lemon, orange bitters, and fresh corn...though you may have to wait for summer for that one).

I've cooked lovely, thick bean and lentil soups all winter and now, for a change of pace would like to cook an Asian Noodle Soup with buckwheat or other noodles and either chicken or shrimp. My husband is allergic to fish so I can't use the Fish Sauce called for in many of the recipes I've seen. (he can eat shrimp and other shell fish) Any suggestions would really be appreciated. Thank you so much.

I've been making lots of ice cream lately and am a little "creamed out." I'd like to make a simple fruit dessert--maybe something with pears or apples--but not as involved as a pie. Any suggestions? Thanks.

Bonnie--excellent! Can't wait for next week. I knew you guys wouldn't keep me disappointed for long :)

Whew. 

I on occasion enjoy making (and eating!) angel food cakes. However, I am stumped trying to figure out how to use my 10-12 egg yolks that are left over. This most recent time I made a double batch of chocolate pots de creme (using in total a full quart of heavy cream) and still had four egg yolks left over. Most recipes that call for egg yolks require either a lot of cream, or a nearly corresponding number of egg whites. Any suggestions for some ways to use the egg yolks that won't crash the healthier eating plan?

See if anything from Jane's egg yolk blog post works for you.

I'm making cheese fondue later this week. My recipe calls for "dry white wine." Any recommendations on what specific varietal would be best?

Try a  good sauvignon blanc.  Or you can get crafty and look up the wine affinities for the cheeses you are fondue-ing. Maybe even vermouth! 

Do you have any favorite recipes that use coconut oil? If I have an existing recipe that calls for something like vegetable, is it correct that I substitute coconut in the same amount - i.e. 1/2 cup liquid vegetable oil = 1/2 solid coconut oil?

I've got this on my list of things to write about at some point so it's on my mind. Honestly, my favorite thing to do with coconut oil is to mash it into a roasted sweet potato with walnuts, dates, and coconut flakes. I do think it takes very well to the flavors of sweet potatoes (you can toss cubes/wedges in coconut oil before roasting), and shrimp. So much more is possible, though. I use it in my granola recipe (which also uses two kinds of coconut flakes, almonds, and dried cherries), sometimes put a little in oatmeal, and have tried it in baked goods to good effect. I think it'd be great on all sorts of roasted vegetables, like my favorites in the brassica family: Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage...

And yes, for the most part I'd think you'd sub in equal amounts. What recipe are you thinking of?

Is it safe to use sour or "spoiled milk" in baked products. I recall my mother putting aside the soured milk for use in muffins and certain cakes. None of us were any worse for the wear, but I'm wondering if this is still considered ok, especially since some recently baked Irish soda bread, made with spoiled/sour milk, had a weird smell to it.

This is a tough question, particularly because I'm not a master baker. I'm a part-time bread baker with limited knowledge. So take this information with a grain of Fleur de sel.

 

My understandin is that there is a difference between "sour milk" (ie: milk soured with an acid) and "spoiled milk," which is milk that has just gone bad. The differences are further complicated by the widespread pasteurization process used with American milks. Pasteurization kills off all the bacteria that might result in a good sour milk for baking. So my guess is that spoiled milk in the fridge is best bound for the trash, not any baked treats.

Loved recipe for the meatballs, chick peas, lentils, and Greek yogurt. It seems that if I eliminated the meatballs, it would still be tasty, but what spices would you add to bump it up?

Hmm. Not sure I agree, but hey, it'll be your own creation. (I do think chicken or turkey meatballs would be good, tho.) There's a sweetness in the spinach, and the dill works with the yogurt and spinach. I might add some fresh oregano, maybe aleppo pepper. 

A dutch oven doesn't necessary mean purchasing a #350 Le Creuset. I have a cast iron (black) one that I picked up with lid for around $50-60. Seasoned and oiled while storing..it is my go to pot for most of my dishes and not always for putting in the oven.

That's right -- they don't have to all be enamel-coated! Thanks for the reminder.

I have a Lodge enamel-covered dutch oven and it works great and looks beautiful. It is $54 for a six quart dutch oven on Amazon.com.

Yes, I have the same one. It's a monster of a pot, but it's my kind of monster.

February and March are the most excruciating months. If I look at another stalk of broccoli, I'm going to scream. Any ideas on how to get through to April/May?

Why don't you try making pupusas? Masa is widely available. You can find good Salvadoran cheese in most stores these days. You can add pork or hamburger or anything really. Just don't make the filling too moist or the pupusa will fall apart.

 

Plus, making pupusas is fun. Here's my story, with a recipe, from last year.

what is the reason some recipes call for fresh bread crumbs and some call for dry? I assume it might have to do with moisture level, maybe? I would like to cook more off the cuff and am wondering if there's a 'rule' here to follow.

It's a texture thing as well, maybe. Fresh bread crumbs are good at adding bulk to the interior of recipes and varying levels of crunch to the exterior. Dried bread crumbs can add a crisp, even crunch to the outside of things; and as a slight binder for a mixture. They sure brown differently in the oven! 

Do I need to rinse chicken prior to cooking it? Growing up I always saw my mom doing it; however, to me I'm thinking as long as the internal temp gets high enough it's all good.

We were just talking about this the other week. No need to rinse your chicken, according to the USDA.

Washing raw poultry before cooking it is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. This is called cross-contamination. Rinsing or soaking chicken does not destroy bacteria. Only cooking will destroy any bacteria that might be present on fresh chicken. 

I'm looking for a healthy and low calorie muffin recipe for a high school kid's quick breakfast. Blueberries are a big plus!

Here you go. These are made with applesauce, walnuts and oat bran. 

What a pleasure to open my paper this morning and find myself called an idiot for preferring Maker's Mark and thinking it might have something to do with the way it's made. Apparently it was just my imagination that Wild Turkey 101 tasted like it had more alcohol. And I guess I can't tell the difference between 60 Minute IPA and 90 Minute IPA either. But then again, maybe it's more fun to dump on your paying readers than to criticize your buddies in the industry, who are apparently running their business poorly.

Well, I believe that I criticized the company for its short-sightedness, and then its wishy-washy response. And I don't believe I used the word "idiot," nor did I question anyone's preference for Maker's Mark. My point is that Maker's Mark had to make some kind of change, or you likely would not be enjoying Maker's Mark anymore, since you would see it less and less on the shelves of your local store. So yes, I find it a little silly that brand loyalists like yourself -- many of whom took to social media --  couldn't see that a minor drop in proof (6 points, 3 percentage points) was the lesser of several evils. If they begin using younger whiskeys in the blend now, the taste will change a heck of a lot more than if they just dropped the proof. As for your other point, Wild Turkey and Maker's Mark are apples and oranges. You MIGHT be able to tell the difference between a 101 proof spirit and a 90 proof spirit -- but with those two you're more likely perceiving the fact that Wild Turkey is made with rye, which is spicier, and Maker's Mark is made with wheat, which is be softer and rounder. In any case, please know I don't think you're an idiot.

To the chatter who said mac and cheese and meatloaf aren't dinner party fare, please, invite me over for them! To this midwest-raised guy, these former staples are as exotic as Vietnamese and Ethiopian were to past generations. But I love them all and will gladly help you eat them.

While I LOVE them, by the time you take a little taste of everything you want, it's a $20 meal. I would LOVE to see a container with say 9 (3x3) little compartments, so that saucy stuff doesn't touch other flavors. And to Joe, I soooo agree. I've found that most people who drink Makers Mark (or bourbon under $23/bottle) mix it or pour it over ice and would never have noticed the difference anyhow. The whole mishegas was ridiculous. BTW, have you been out to Catoctin Creek in Purcellville?

I've seen some compartmental containers at Whole Foods, but for the most part, these hot bars rely on those compostable square containers -- like the hipster's Chinese take-out box.  If you mix and match your hot-bar choices in one container, you can end up with Pantry Delight by the time you get home.

Really, eating vegetarian is not budget friendly; if you live in an area were the fresh veg season is short or climate is not conducive to many locally grown veggies. Once transportation and greenhouse cost add in buying fresh vegetables blows the budget.

There have been lots of studies of this issue of which diet costs more. It's so variable: Meat can certainly be expensive, and more so than, say, tofu. You're right that fresh produce can also be pricey, but there is no cheaper source of protein than dried beans.

In am attempt to eat better and eat more of my own cooking I am trying to shop ahead. I recently bought some meats that I hope to make meals for the month. I know I need to freeze some. I am not sure of the best way to do this. Should I remove the meat from the store package and put it in freezer bags? What about meat that is vacuum sealed such as the organic meats at Wegmans? Can I leave that meat in the wrapper and just put in the freezer? Final question that has been asked a lot. How long will the meats keep in my freezer?

Good for you! Vacuum-sealed meat can go straight to the freezer.  I always de-package boneless skinless chicken breast halves and ground beef and lamb and chuck roasts; the few minutes it takes to wrap them separately in plastic wrap and then in a big, freezer-safe zip-top bag (date/labeled) will save you $$ in the long run. 

 

Re the time of freezer storage: Check out the one-page freezer guide we did a while back, which has a permanent link on our Food homepage. Basically, a year for chops/roasts/steaks/chicken;  4 months for ground beef and pre-made patties; 3 months for cooked meats. 

 

 

I have tried and tried to love mushrooms, but I just don't. What can I substitute for mushies in recipes?

That's a tough one -- nothing is really like a mushroom. They're a category unto themselves. I'm a fan, so maybe that's why it's hard to imagine what you would actually substitute for mushrooms in a recipe. Depends on the dish, and on the role the mushrooms are playing, but I'd be tempted to just bulk up on other hearty vegetables. If, for instance, you're talking flank steak tacos with mushrooms and peppers, I'd just leave them out and add more peppers, maybe onions. But if it's mushroom tacos? You gotta reconceive entirely, or look for another recipe, right?

As hard as it is for me to believe, my baby is approaching his first birthday already! Thought I'd do a celebratory brunch, since that's the easiest for fellow parents and kids. Any suggestions for brunch favorites that could be a hit with the adults, the kids, or both? I'll probably do biscuits and sausage gravy as one of the options. And for the cake... all my favorite cake options have booze or strong flavors (chili-chocolate) so I'm looking for a suggestion there too!

I made chili with beans last night, and used only one or two of the chipotles and some of the adobo sauce, now I have a mostly full can leftover, any suggestions to use the rest? Does it freeze?

Freezes great, stays in the refrigerator for quite a while, too. For freezing, I suggest portioning the rest of it into standard amounts (tablespoons / quarter-cup), which will make subsequent cooking easier. 

 

Uses: You can stir a little into sour cream to make a dip/taco dressing. We featured a savory waffle recipe in which you stirred in some chipotle en adobo with scallions and cheese. That was good, I tell ya. You could add a bit to your favorite chili or grilled cheese recipe. Also loved it in this Mexican-Style Pasta With Tomato Sauce and Chorizo from FOF Pati Jinich.  Chatters, how 'bout you? 

We have Whole Foods, Wegmans, and Boston Market nearby. Problems with hot food: the staff who empty the dregs of one tray of food into a new tray of the same item. I see it far too often. It leaves me cold--and not very open to buying any of it.

You should tell the manager at the store that the practice bugs you and prevents you from purchasing hot bar items.  Seems like if enough people complained, they might change the practice. Wasting a little food is probably better than losing a good number of sales. (Particularly at $8.49 a pound!)

I have been buying Brussels Sprouts on the stalk lately - they seem much better and fresher than the tired net bags of sprouts. But I can't possibly use so many at once. When picking off the sprouts to cook for dinner, should I start at the big end, or the small end? Does it make a difference? Thoughts?

I don't think it would make a difference which end you cut from, no. They would last longer than cut ones, but it's also probably a matter of how fresh they are to begin with, yes: The net bags I see in Whole Foods these days come from Mexico. Where do the ones on the stalk that you're buying come from?

No one wants to make those food you listed any more because we're getting too fat from the leftovers. If you can actually make those delicious things, please invite me so I can eat your homemade foods and have my one serving. I'll bring the bourbon.

I'm hosting a small dinner party and would like to serve an Italian dish featuring beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp that I could prep in advance with minimal last-minute effort. I'd like something different from my usual lasagna, bolognese, and eggplant parmesan dishes. Any suggestions?

There's always good old Pork Ragu for a Crowd!

My little sister is due to have a baby any day now. I'm going to go up north to her house and spend a day in her kitchen cooking a bunch of things to stock up her freezer. I'm thinking soups and casseroles and other things that freeze well, but I would love some tips for other things you can freeze!

Many possibilities in our Make It, Freeze It, Take It collection. And do explore our freezer guide.

From my classes, I was taught that the regular pasteurization process for milk (not for the UHT boxed milk) kills germs that make you sick, but not the germs that spoil the milk - hence why milk will still spoil. I've baked with sour/spoiled milk quite a bit - mostly pancakes/quick breads. I wouldn't use it if it's been too long, but if it's just turned a day or two ago I have no qualms.

Thanks for chiming in. You may be right. I don't know myself. Any scientists out there?

 

Some have suggested that home bakers rely on the old Sniff Test on whether to use sour milk from the fridge in a recipe. I usually trust the Sniff Test myself. But then again, I'm a test subject of one.

I think the original poster was really bringing up two different points. First, the cost of a an expensive dutch oven, which several people have already addressed. Second, the amount of available space in a small apartment. This is an important consideration! We solved this issue in one apartment by storing our dutch oven in the oven. We learned the hard way to remove the oven knob when storing things in the oven, but it was very convenient. Now, we store paper plates and plastic ware in the dutch oven and use it as a storage vessel.

Yes, space is a consideration. My wife and I have gotten to the place where we won't buy any more major kitchen gadgets unless we ditch something else.

Reynold's website has a surprising number of recipes for cooking in foil - some of them are pretty tasty.

Good thought.

I was so excited to see my old hometown in the Post today, Bedford Stuyvesant and such a positive story. Love that more people are getting involved in eating healthy. I was home this weekend and watched my family shop and they shop strictly by price. They buy the cheapest and have no interest in reading labels.. They said it takes too much time and their is if it tastes good then it's good for you. I have tried and tried to work with them on changing their way of thinking to no avail so I just go with the flow when I am there. As far as hot bars Wegmans deserves the highest marks as their hot bar food is super tasty and as soon as we get there my mouth starts watering - not always the healthiest but surely the tastiest. P.S. time for me to renew my Washington Post subscription and I decided not to and thought of you guys in the print section and the answer was "oh yes love reading you guys in print" while on the train. Keep up the excellent work.

The one item I have a hard time with when cooking for one is a good prime rib or other roast. I like a nice center slice that is a perfect medium. Re-heating can never do it justice. The only alternative seems to be a steak.

You're right -- steaks and chops are the CF1 answer to roasts. Nothing wrong with that!

A lot of times the mushrooms are there for added umami. My husband has the same problem as the OP (it's a texture thing), and when mushrooms are in a soffrito role I often substitute finely diced celery. It's definitely not the same, but it helps.

Interesting -- celery has zero umami as far as I can tell, but if it works, it works! You can always use dried mushroom powder to get umami without that texture, and then of course there are other umami-packed ingredients, like tomatoes, anchovies, Parmesan and other cheeses...

I got a box of pears recently, annd while I love them they seem to go from rock hard to overripe so quickly. Any ideas of what I can do with the ones that are starting to overripen. I was thinking of a pearsauce (like applesauce).

If you were thinking ahead and froze any fresh cranberries, Pear Cranberry Sauce sounds good.

Pear Cranberry Sauce

You could also try Pear, Lime and Cardamom Sauce.

Pear, Lime and Cardamom Sauce

or at least some similar places will survive. The quality is higher than supermarket bars because they concentrate on a smaller number of items and control the recipes better, and you can sit and eat in those places unlike (many) supermarkets. Eatzi's was too expensive, I think. Besides whatever fiscal mismanagement the company went through.

I was extremely surprised to catch a blurb on the radio this morning about a program a Philadelphia high school is trying called eatiquette. They are doing things like substituting roasted fennel for french fries. Sounds delicious and I love fennel, but a bulb costs me $3.99 in my local grocery. No school I know of could afford that for 800 students. I often find it difficult to balance my budget with eating healthier and we are not a low income family. There should be a class available for everyone!

Can you explain why some onions seem to have mildew between layers or under the skin? Does it have to do with the onion itself or with storage, and are they safe to eat anyway (after removing the mildew, if that is what it is)? If not, I'd have to throw out a lot of onions.

I think sometimes when the onions have been in cool/cold storage before they get to the supermarket, moisture gets trapped between layers and that ashy-looking stuff can develop. I cut it out/around it. Still living and breathing am I! 

can excess cooked lentils be frozen? How would you defrost them, if so? Thanks.

Sure, lentils -- all beans, really -- freeze well. Freeze them in their cooking liquid in quart-sized ziplock bags, getting out as much air and freezing them flat for easy storage. That also makes them easy to thaw -- either just in the fridge for a day or overnight, or soaked in warm water for a bit. Shouldn't take long if they're frozen in shallow bags.

As always, I enjoyed Tim Carman's article, but I can't help wondering who were the "judges" he refers to. No, I don't want their names or ages, but it would be nice to know whether they have the so called "educated palates" or they are regular consumers of commercially prepared fast food

Thank you!

 

It's no secret who the judges were. We just didn't really have the space to name them: They included Joe, Bonnie, me and Zofia Smardz, the deputy Travel editor who graciously stopped at the Social Safeway to pick up the hot bar food. Zofia has an excellent palate by the way.

Didn't they sell to the Beam Corporation (as in Jim Beam)? They lost it when they're not hand crafting the product as we all fell in love with it.

Isn't that often the sad story of small, virtuous brands and corporate America? I think if that bothers you (and I'm not saying it shouldn't) there are lots of small, craft-distilled whiskeys on the market now. In fact, we are living in a golden age of American whiskey.

My favorite thing about Wegmans is that they are so free with the prepared food recipes they use - so if I see something that looks great, but prefer to make it myself (which I do 99.99% of the time), they make it ridiculously easy to do so. As my best friend noted - it's a grocery store that appeals to people who love to cook AND people who love to eat. My personal Graceland!

Yes, I admire Wegmans for its willingness to share recipes. The chain understands that sharing recipes is not a path to immiment death and destruction. They even include the recipes in their seasonal magazines.

How about some suggestions for bean burger recipes (or other veg burgers) for your friends across the pond who are wary of ground meat these days?

Here's my take on the veggie-burger challenge, with two recipes...

I'm with Joe on this. You should be eating your veggies anyway, so what you're really doing is switching out beef/chicken/fish (insert any other animal here) for something else. Your options for more protein-centric stuff includes eggs, beans, cheese, and nuts. The first two are very cheap in comparison to meat and the last two compare favorably (though it depends on the kind).

I can see the writers reluctance, as I experienced it once too. But now I use my dutch oven all the time. In the winter time its perfect for all styles of soup--meat and bean soups and soups that get pureed with an immersion blender especially. I recently made Jacques Pepin's beef stew in it, which starts on the stove and finishes in the oven. It's also perfect for making risotto. I really recommend getting one. You don't have to shell out for Le Crueset either, although people rave about them. I bought Lodge, which is less expensive but very durable.

As I noted previously, I love my Lodge oven too. But it's huge and heavy. Not easy to store.

FYI: Just watch if you make something to acidic in it (like spaghetti sauce)...sometimes the sauce will taste a little metallic.

Right. That's the reason for that enameled coating, to make the pan nonreactive...

I have some good cabernet I have kept too long, so expect will probably be vinegar when I open it. Is this good to use as a wine vinegar for salad dressings, etc.?

It actually takes quite a while for wine to really turn to vinegar -- and it needs air to do it. So if your cab has been bottled, it will start to go south pretty quickly, and even begin to sour and not be great for drinking, but it takes weeks and even months for vinegar to happen. Check out this piece on the subject of DIY vinegar we ran a few years ago. You can certainly turn that wine to vinegar with a few adjustments, and patience.

Until then, you can make one of my favorite things: mulled red wine syrup.

It's not that hard to eat healthily on a budget, and not take that much time to do it. The issues are: being organized in your shopping and cooking - and knowing basic cooking. There is help out there, and it's an initial investment of time, but with some application you can do it - eat healthily on a budget and not take much time making the meals.

Look up or find a cookbook on campfire food, or scouting (boys and girls) food. I was trained by the Girl Scouts (adult) to be certified in campfire cooking (safety rules were mandatory). I have made breakfast, lunch, dinner and desserts in foil packets.

I feel like wheat germ was one of the first "health foods" I was aware of, as a kid in the 70s. I recently read the nutrition information on a jar of it and realized it would be a great addition to foods for my 9-yr-old who has a healthy appetite but does not eat meat or vegetables (believe me, we've tried). I threw some into homemade granola, which worked great, and I'm wondering if he'd notice or care if I snuck it into his daily pbj on whole-grain bread. Any other ideas of where I can add it where it won't alter the flavor/texture too much?

My mom always had a jar in the cupboard, too. You could work it into banana bread, waffle and cookie recipes. I've had it in spaghetti sauce, even. 

Love the convenience, hate the price. $8.50 a pound for beans or broccoli? Really? Or for what turns out to be one chicken leg? Or for less rice than the Chinese delivery throws in for free? So I try to find foods that look like they're worth the price. And I get sticker-shock at check-out. Why don't they put different, lower prices on the low-cost foods?

I suspect it's far easier to do a one-price-fits-all approach. It would probably slow the line down to have a cashier punch in different codes for different hot bar items. (Though, to your point, they already do that for produce.)

 

I've walked out of Whole Foods with quite a bit of food for $12, more than enough for a single meal. I don't know if I consider that a deal. But I don't feel like I'm being ripped off, either. Good ingredients are expensive. 

Speaking of vinaigrette, my 8 yr old son has recently expressed an interest in salad. I want to encourage this and was wondering if you have any recipes or ideas for oil/vinegar/herb combos that we can try. He and I are about the same skill level as far as the salad making goes, we can use any advice you have. Right now we use a CI recipe that is mustard, mayo (to make it emulsify easier) salt, pepper and then we use olive oil and white wine vinegar.

I think the mustard and a good shake is enough emulsifier power, so you could skip the mayo. Vinaigrette is fun for kids to make.  Once you've got the basic oil:vinegar ratio taken care of (3:1) , he should set up separate jars/beakers (mad scientist style) and drop in different flavoring elements, such as finely chopped crystallized ginger, blood orange juice, pomegranate syrup, cashew butter or tahini, shallot, apricot or fig preserves, maple syrup, smoked Spanish paprika, Parm cheese. He could have fun with different flavors of vinegar, too. Hours of fun. 

I use my dutch oven for everything - soups, beans, stews, cooking rice, braising. But you don't have to buy a LeCreuset, Lodge cast iron is much less expensive and just as good. One alternative to a dutch over is a roasting pan covered tightly with foil.

Hi all, I thought if anyone could help out with this you guys could. I'm having a dinner party to celebrate my birthday this Saturday and on the menu is smittenkitchen's mushroom lasagna (bechamel only, no tomatoes). I need a salad of some bitter greens and no onions (one guest is allergic). Do you have a recommendation? Also any recommendation for a cake with a buttercream frosting? Thanks so much!

These Bitter Greens With Shaved Radish, Almond, and Anchovy Vinaigrette would do the trick. Just leave out the shallots if those qualify.

And here's a showstopping cake for you: Orange Layer Cake (see related recipes for apricot-orange filling and orange buttercream).

The reason given at the time was the lowering of the proof was so they could have enough supply for the demand. That reason should not have tampered with the product that built demand. Yes, I understand the demand has shortened the supply, but instead of messing with the product; a better reaction would to expand the processing facilities for a long-term solution, ignore the demand for a little bit so the anticipation would grow and then be met. Lowering the quality that Maker's Mark built IS bad publicity which will cause the demand for the product to decline. That will cause a worse outcome, no demand, no product because the brand died.

I think there are a number of faulty assertions and assumptions here. First of all, you can't just make more whiskey tomorrow. Maker's is living with decisions it made at least 6 or more years ago right now. The "long-term" you talk about is like a decade away. Second, "watering down" would not necessarily mean "lower quality"...since all bourbon is watered down. Yes, it would mean a SLIGHTLY different product. Third...I'm not understanding how the brand would have "died'? Did Jack Daniels suffer as it lowered its proof from 90 to 80 over the years? I think Jack Daniels still sells pretty well.

I think the big issue here for consumers is this: Beware of who you throw your brand loyalty to. Maker's Mark is an international brand that sells over a million cases a year. It long ago left behind its "overalls" and its standing as a small, handcrafted brand. I find it hard to believe that American consumers in 2013 would be shocked by a large company making decisions based on profits.

you have to read the labels carefully. I eat at them all over the country because I travel a lot for work and it's an easy way to get something tasty in small portions and get fresh and simple vegetables. I have found however that dishes get mislabeled...particularly vegetarian-highlighted items that list chicken stock as an ingredient and vegan items that list cheese.

Good advice! Thank you.

It's just a buttermilk pancake and waffle mix that says nothing on the box about being good for muffins, too, unlike the Bis-etc. But what is the difference between pancake mix and muffin mix? If I add more leavening and maybe sift it, what are the odds it'd work as muffins?

I really have no idea! I guess you could always try it, but I'd be too worried about the unknown proportions of ingredients.

Do not throw spoiled milk away! It is totally salvageable for cakes and pancakes and quick breads. If it is sour tasting, but not curdled use 100% in recipes. If it is curdled and separated, mix it with fresh milk 50/50. I will just use the whey if the curds are too solid and won't be beaten into smaller pieces making the recipe. I consider sour milk my secret ingredient in my very requested chocolate cake recipe!

It seems like we might have a future story idea here!

What I like best is not having to decide on a type of restaurant. I have one taste sensation in mind, one child has another, and the other child will never want what either of us want, so we can just hit the grocery store. Worst: the Springfield Whole Foods has the frozen foods section right next to the takeout section, so dessert is too easy. Harris Teeter is not so bad either, although the selection is limited. But if I am dropping my kids off in Alexandria on a Friday night, it is most convenient. Their desserts are pretty good. My favorite takeout is from the Giant near my house--rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes, and a broccoli slaw. No desserts, as they don't have good ones near the takeout food, and I can regain my self-control by the time I get to the better desserts. Bonus is all that leftover chicken (and bones)--so there is your dinner for some other night soon.

Homey but delicious and unusual - sausages and plums braised in red wine. Make it the night before, reheat and serve over polenta for the dinner party. So delicious. It's in Molly Stevens' excellent All About Braising. I believe there's also a variation with grapes instead of plums.

For what it's worth, the Catoctin Creek website has *tons* of cocktail recipes.

Good to know: http://catoctincreekdistilling.com/

I've been making this recipe for years: Wheat Germ and Banana Muffins.

Reading responses to today's questions it appeared to me that WaPo management owns a gold mine but instead of tapping into it ignores it. Do they realize what an authoritative voice you guys have developed? Unlike sports (I have nothing against them, please don't start WW3) food affects every single person every single day. Our ancestors learned that food can kill and that it can heal. 99% of poisons have been removed from our food supply. Now overabundance and misuse of "safe" convenience foods is killing many of those who don't use food properly. Every Wednesday I open WaPo wondering whether the FOOD is still 6 pages. (Yet SPORTS is there every day) I happen to think that, like Sports, FOOD should be discussed every day on WaPo pages if it plans to remain a serious newspaper. People need reliable authoritative food info as much as they need sport news.

Thanks! We're doing fine over here -- don't worry about that 6-page check, we're not going anywhere. But thanks for the love.

In addition to the sniff test, I often pour a small amount of milk into a juice glass to do a taste test. The milk that collects around the neck of the bottle will go first, so you may smell that while the milk down below still has a day or two left.

Good point.

I had a wonderful first visit to Union Market over the weekend. At one of the stores, I picked up a variety of cocktail bitters (lime, chocolate, cardamom) and shrubs (grapefruit, celery and habanero). I'm excited to make drinks with these ingredients, but I'm inexperienced. Apart from looking at the manufacturers' websites, do you have any suggestions for good recipes or source to find good recipes? Are there general ways to use these ingredients I should know about? Thanks.

You know, it's funny. There are so many bitters and shrubs on the market, but not as many applications as you'd think. Right now, the manufacturers' sites may be your best hope. However, in the next couple months, I'm planning a feature on what to do with all these new bitters on the market, you stay tuned!

What is up with all of the reports of horse meat getting into burgers and meatballs? Are there really places that process both horse and cattle in the same factory? Or, is this an issue of really going for the cheapest possible food products. Can we trust any of our food to be what we think it is?

That's a complicated question, one that requires far more research than I can apply during our chat.

 

Bottom line opinion: It seems to me that this is just another example of the problems of an underregulated food chain. I don't want to get all preachy here, but the we're living in a very strange time: We want cheap food, but we want quality cheap food. With each passing day, those two desires are harder to marry.

I'm planning a baby shower and sometimes the amount of recipes out there is just overwhelming. So I thought I'd ask - what are some of your favorite apps/small bites to see on a party buffet table?

Word.

Little onion/cheese tarts always cheer me up.  A good hummus always goes over well; I like serving the straight-up kind with crumbles of spiced/cooked ground turkey and toasted pine nuts and a drizzle of a lemony olive oil on top. Or sometimes you can stir a carrot puree into a good store-bought hummus, which is nice. Rustic-looking homemade crackers are easy and beautiful.  Dates stuffed with goat cheese. Little squares of watermelon with herbs and coarse sea salt on them. Let's not forget Sherley's Parmesan Puffs, in today's budget-friendly recipe roundup. 

I love their hot food bar, but when you're buying heavy food, the lbs add up quick making it an expensive meal!

Yes, and with Wegmans, so many things activate my saliva glands there that I would over-purchase every time.

This wine has never been open, high tannin cabernet, most probably laid down too long, several bottles from 1978, and 1982, fairly decently stored. Trying to find a suitable use should it be vinegarly when opened.

Like I said, it might be vinegarly, but I really don't think it'll actually be vinegar. But it would make a fabulous one, so read that story I linked to and follow the instrux!

Ha ha - I get them at the Giant, but that's not what your are looking for, is it? I don't have any idea where they come from... Will have to look at the label next time.

Thanks! I'm curious...

Thanks for the good suggestions. I'll take a look at the recipes for the swordfish stew and ragu. Also, the suggestion from the Molly Stevens' cookbook is awesome. I just happen to have All About Braising on my bookshelf but have never made the sausages and plums. Thanks.

For the mom who wanted to add more wheat germ to her son's diet, Blueberry & White Chocolate Chunk Ginger Cookies. These are very good.

Hello Rangers! I was looking at your Polvorones recipe and noticed that it's missing the "Note" referred to when discussing pecans. Just thought you would want to know, given the extremely helpful and quality recipes you put out for us! Thanks, by the way; at least half of my favorite "impress me" recipes are from WaPo!

We'll get on that, thanks for letting us know! 

I do each vegetables, but we need the protein and beans are NOT allowed in a few of my family for medical reasons. I pay $2.99-$3.50 for a head of broccoli, tofu is expensive too its $4.00 to $5.00 for a carton of it. And IF I shop and Whole Foods or the like, the label organic dramatically raises the price of the vegetables and you get less. Not really budget friendly as I said. A 8 lb bag of boneless skinless chicken costs me $20.00 = $2.50/lb. Tofu is at 5.33/lb. Sorry that isn't budget friendly.

I live in a very small condo, alone, but find the space to keep several dutch ovens in assorted sizes. I use the large one 8 qt for soups, stews, and for no-knead bread. Le Creseut has a metal knob to replace the Bakelite knob for extended periods in a very hot oven. I bought a set of LeCreuset on ebay 12 yrs ago for less than a single piece would cost now. Best investment I've ever made. And, yes, they are heavy, but I would not trade them for anything.

What's the shelf life of an opened jar of tahini?

Several months, properly covered.  I tend to stash it in the refrigerator but you don't have to, as long as there is enough oil in the mix to form/coat the top. 

My turkish roommate used to use this a lot in her cooking and I loved it. I want to buy some. Hers came in a small can like for tomato paste. Are there different brands or any you recommend? Can I buy it at a "normal" grocery store, or are the better options at specialty stores?

There is a new spice vendor at Union Market in the warehouse district off Florida Avenue. They have a wide variety of spices and spice mixtures. I don't know if they have harissa specifically, but you can probably find a blend that suits your tastes. You can also check out Penzeys stores, which carry a huge line of spices and blends.

Well, you have scooped us into compostable containers, put us through the self-serve scanner, and toted us to your eating place, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great q's today. Hope you appreciated the a's. And now for the giveaway books: The chatter who first asked about Dutch ovens will get "One-Pot Wonders" by Clifford A. Wright as inspiration for what to do with them. And the person who asked for vegetarian budget-friendly recipes will get "How to Boil an Egg" by Rose Bakery (unless you're vegan, in which case we'll send you something else!). Just send your mailing info to krystalb@washpost.com, and we'll get you your books!

Until next time, happy cooking, eating, SHOPPING, and reading.

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is editor of the Food section; joining us today are deputy editor Bonnie Benwick, staff writer Tim Carman, editorial aide Becky Krystal, Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin and Spirits columnist Jason Wilson.
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