Free Range on Food: The lunch issue -- Building better sandwiches, office lunch etiquette, best containers and more

Aug 28, 2019

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

How about today's Food section? Some of the most stunning, nearly full-page photography that I've ever seen in a daily newspaper! 

 

That's the good news. The bad news is that Editor Joe is on vacation. Bonnie has retired. Becky is (mostly) in the Lab. Congress is not in session. Animals are going extinct. And I'm here flying solo. Well, not exactly solo. Becky will be chiming in from the Lab, to talk about sandwiches, olive oil cakes and anything else you'd like. 

 

Kristen Hartke will also join us to talk about the best eco-friendly containers to keep your lunch fresh. 

Jacob Brogan will be here, too, to discuss his essay on the changing nature of lunch etiquette in the office.

 

I can talk about anything from my panzanella recipe to Olive Garden to the new lawsuit against Jose Andres and Mercado Little Spain. 

 

Remember: The PostPoints program is kaput. (All together now: Waaaah!)

 

So let's get started!

Are there any cakes that can't be frozen after baking (and cooling)? Specifically looking at the funfetti you posted in last week's chat, you mention freezing the icing, but not the cake.

Glad you're interested in the recipe! It's a good one.

I have found that most cake and buttercream combinations freeze well. I would not freeze anything with more delicate things, such as whipped cream or mousse.

You should also think about possibly freezing the components separately so that everything will look top-notch and have the best texture in the end. Freeze the buttercream flat in a zip-top back. It will defrost quickly. Then rewhip before using.

Rainbow Sprinkle Birthday Cake

RECIPE: Rainbow Sprinkle Birthday Cake

I assume I could tweak the cooking time but use the same basic flavors if I substituted other chicken parts for the wings (not using as an appetizer). Yes?

Maybe. I am thinking that if you're cooking chicken breast, you probably want to let the sauce simmer and thicken a bit before adding the white meat. With thighs/drumsticks/legs, you can plop them in and should be fine. 

I wrote in last week asking for a recipe for Cupcakes that tasted like a wedding cake and you suggested the Royal Wedding Cake recipe. Tried it and it was a huge hit. The cake was wonderful but the buttercream frosting was out of this world. My wife was more then happy and I thank you for such a great suggestion.

Wow, thanks! You just made my day. I remember when I published that recipe, I did hear from other folks who did them as cupcakes too. Love it.

Royal Wedding Cake

RECIPE: Royal Wedding Cake

Not a question, just a seconding of the amazing lunches those badgers in Bread and Jam for Frances brought to school! It's possible my favorite part of flying first class for the first time was the little salt and pepper shakers, because it reminded me of the little salt Frances's friend brought to go with his hard-boiled egg.

I know! I remember, as a little girl, really wanting to emulate those lunches that Frances and her friends brought to school, but I got some serious side-eye from my classmates.

Is it true this great NOVA institution has closed forever? Do you all know why? They are/were the best butcher shop in the DC area by far. And they only took cash.

I went to a Facebook page for WFM. There's a lot of anguish for the closure, but no explanation.

 

Rangers, do you know anything?

I was sorry to read Maura Judkis's tweet about the vitriol she deals with on Twitter. Not surprised, I guess, but sorry -- for her & for all the colleagues on this chat.

Hi, thank you, I appreciate that. I decided to post some of those messages because I was feeling grumpy about the Bret Stephens fracas -- so many other women journalists I know were aghast because we get mean messages from readers on a pretty regular basis, but we brush it off and move on with our day because we know it's just part of having a public-facing job (and probably would face greater consequences for a retaliatory stunt like he tried to pull). I definitely don't have it as bad as women who write about politics, and I think it's often worse for people of color and LGBTQ reporters. We welcome emails from readers who disagree with us, and who want to have a discussion, and we're happy to engage with criticism.  I just think there are a lot of people who might not realize that, for journalists who aren't straight white men and/or Bret Stephens, that correspondence can be really ugly stuff, and I wanted to call attention to how disproportionate his response was.

Hi Tim: I recently saw the movie Wasted (about food waste) and became aware of Toast beer made from leftover bread. I'd like to get a hold of it for a tasting however doesn't appear it is sold at the retail level in the DMV. Are you or any other rangers aware of another beer in the area made from waste bread? Such a cool concept!

Fritz Hahn, The Post's beer guru has some thoughts:

 

I thought I'd seen Toast in D.C. (not Md. or Va.), specifically at Whole Foods. Toast was actually inspired by Babylone, an ale from the Brussels Beer Project. (I've had it at the source, and it's kinda chewy, with a nice rye-ish bitterness.) You can find Brussels Beer Project beers at Brasserie Beck, for sure. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of local beers that use leftover grain in their bread. In a similar pro-recycling vein, Atlas Brew Works's Ugly and Stoned is a sour ale that uses "ugly" (ie blemished and therefore unsold) stonefruit from Mom's Organic Market, while DC Brau has an annual project where its spent grain is sent to Pizzeria Paradiso and turned into pizza dough, with profits going to Bread for the City.

TV news reports it's been withdrawn from the menu effective immediately. Was it really that good? And if it was, why stop selling it? Or is this just a rumor?

That's not quiiiite accurate -- they've just taken it off temporarily because they have run out of chicken. 

 

Yes, let's pause for a minute and contemplate the absurdity of Popeyes running out of chicken. 

 

Anyway, this is an update I received from the company yesterday: 

 

We have seen an extraordinary demand for the new Popeyes Chicken Sandwich following our nationwide launch on August 12. It has been amazing to see our guests share their love for our brand and for the new Chicken Sandwich on social media and beyond, and we are truly humbled and grateful for their support. The demand for the new Chicken Sandwich in the first few weeks following launch far exceeded our very optimistic expectations. In fact, Popeyes aggressively forecasted demand through the end of September and has already sold through that inventory. As a result, Popeyes restaurants across the country are expected to sell out of the Chicken Sandwich by the end of this week. We, along with our suppliers, are working tirelessly to bring the new sandwich back to guests as soon as possible.

To be among the first to know when the Chicken Sandwich is available, download the Popeyes app in the App Store [apps.apple.com] or Google Play [play.google.com] and sign up for push notifications.

 

And yes, for a fast food chicken sandwich, it really is good

I am lucky enough to have some fresh figs from the community garden. What are some ways to use them, other than in baked sweets and on a salad? Savory (e.g., non-dessert) recipes preferred, please!

You are very lucky! Because figs are so naturally sweet, they pair particularly well with salty, rich foods, which is why you often find them accompanied by blue cheese or roasted meats. They are, of course, fantastic on pizza, and I love to split them open, pop them under the broiler for a couple of minutes, and then drizzle them with a robust olive oil (like a kalamata olive oil) and sprinkle them with salt. Here are a few recipes that might be fun to experiment with: 

Spiced Fig Gravy

 

Charred Fig and Spinach Salad With Lemon Tofu Feta

 

Roasted Fig Salad With Grilled Lamb

If you wait til tomorrow when the next Nourish recipe goes up, you'll have yourself a delicious salad involving figs. ;-)

Any recommendations on where to find Diamond Kosher salt, preferably in the 3lb box? I think of it as the standard for recipe testers but am finding it impossible to track it down. I've checked Whole Foods, Harris Teeter and Safeway in Logan Circle and Bethesda. I ordered it before from Amazon but want to avoid as I ended up with 2 boxes which is a lot for a house! Thanks!

Sigh... that is seriously has been the biggest conundrum for me as well! I've looked near and far in the DMV area, to no avail. So, as a grumpy New Yorker, I bit the bullet and ordered 3 (3-lb) boxes on amazon. I don't regret this decision even a tiny bit :) I know it's annoying to have to have that much salt in a small space, but I've found no other alternative thus far.

I know Joe is away but want to ask - for a veg version what do you suggest? I'm leaning towards tempeh.

Tempeh would be a nice protein to try here. You could also do beans (!) which I think would lend themselves rather nicely to this smoky sauce

For DMVers on the MD side (or willing to drive), the Penzey's on Rockville Pike ALWAYS has a big stock of the 3lb boxes. Bonus: you get to stock up on their Greek Spice, which is the spice mix we use on EVERYTHING in our house.

FYI: There is also a Penzey's in Falls Church, 513 W Broad St. Phone is 703-534-7770.

Did you feature this story about *one* person's complaint in order to be "even-handed" in coverage, making it clear you'll criticize anyone? I don't mean to suggest I disbelieve the charge that a NYC restaurant owned or co-owned by Jose Andres screwed up on a bartender's pay; I worked in a restaurant and know this kind of thing happens, unintentionlly or intentionally. But I wouldn't leap to suggest Jose Andres is personally responsible, which the headline kind of does. Even the plaintiff's attorney "said it was standard practice to name an individual — in this case Andrés, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee — in this type of lawsuit" as "'a good way to make sure a company will make good on their debts.'” Why the rushto publish this? August news doldrums?

We discussed this lawsuit before writing about it. But it's a lawsuit, filed in federal court, by a major New York attorney who handles many of these type of cases. It's news, whether you like it or not.

 

Andres was also named in the lawsuit personally. I exchanged notes this morning with a friend who also specializes in employment law. She said adding an individual's name is a "famous" tactic used by plaintiff's attorneys to drive publicity, among other things.

 

ARTICLE: Lawsuit accuses Jose Andres and Mercado Little Spain of minimum wage and overtime violations

 

I've worked in an office environment all my adult life. I discovered many years ago that if I avoided bread and sandwiches for lunch, I avoided the afternoon sleepiness around 2:00pm. I bring a lunch bowl with veggies, some kind of grain (rice, quinoa, or buckwheat), and meat or beans for protein. I cook a big batch of onions, mushrooms, other veggies on Sunday afternoons for the week.

You are clearly a meal-prep expert! I work from home, but my husband takes lunch to work every day and, although he loves sandwiches in general, doesn't like to take them to work either. I typically cook enough dinner each night to provide leftovers for him the next day, but after I explored lunch containers for my most recent WaPo story, he's kind of hooked on the Oxo salad container that allows for different items to be stored separately and then mixed together, to retain optimum texture and crunch. 

 

ARTICLE:  The best eco-friendly containers to save you from Sad Desk lunch syndrome

Hi, I'm planning on making this for a crowd this weekend! Can I substitute walnuts for the pine nuts? Thanks!

Our fearless leader Joe is on vacation, but I am certain he would say an unequivocal "yes" to that question. Pine nuts are amazingly buttery and rich (I made the dish at home for my family and my 4 year old deemed it 'excellent' - his words!) but walnuts are delicious and have a lovely, earthy quality to them and would pair beautifully with the tomatoes.

I just stumbled upon a jar of sour cherries marinating in vodka and sugar for what was originally planned for 3 months marinating to have as a liquor/cordial, but sad to say they've been soaking for 14 months now. Is it safe to consume or do I need to pitch it? It's been in a dark closet the entire time.... Thanks!

As long as they were prepped in a hygienic manner (i.e. jar was clean and sterile when the cordial was made and stored), I think you're probably fine and it'll likely be delish. The higher the alcohol content, too, the more likely the stuff is safe. But if you see any questionable color or smell anything off, pitch it.

I understand the cultural implications you mentioned about policing POC's foods in the microwave, but there is a limit. I worked with the WASPiest person on earth and she regularly had to be told not to microwave her leftover fish-&-cabbage soup in the office, because it was literally nauseating, especially to her pregnant co-workers. Second, I was disappointed to see so much space in today's Food section given over to gigantic photos of sandwiches. Save the ink and give us more words, please.

Where food odors are concerned, I think it can be difficult to discern what will be unpleasant to whom, as I write in my piece on the etiquette of packing your lunch. It's difficult, if not impossible, to impose a blanket edict on odors that isn't either arbitrary or, potentially, exclusionary. That said, it is, of course, also always worth trying to be aware of — and respectful to — the sensitivities of your coworkers.  

Have you done a review of mesh produce bags? There are many different kinds and the online reviews are contradictory. I would love some guidance on this one.

I have used several different kinds and it's definitely tricky. I have come to the conclusion that it makes sense to carry reusable produce bags to the store or farmers market, so that I don't use disposable plastic ones, but, once I get home, I generally don't store my produce in those bags. Instead, I usually just store my produce loose in the crisper drawers, using one for vegetables and one for fruit. Small items, like cherry tomatoes, go into storage containers so they don't roll around the drawer. I also use Food Huggers (silicone caps that slip onto the ends of cut fruits and vegetables) and Fresh Paper to help keep items fresher for longer.

If you're looking for more ideas, I wrote a story about my food storage journey .

 

ARTICLE: How to break your plastic, foil and paper addiction in the kitchen

I enjoyed Maura's chicken-sandwich taste test, but is it OK, after all the dust settles in the Chick Fil A vs. Popeye's battle, if I just settle for my beloved Wendy's Spicy Chicken sandwich (which, sadly, was not included in Maura's taste test)?

Considering you can't even get a Popeyes sandwich anywhere in the country right now, Wendy's is probably the best place to go to satisfy your craving! 

Loved this essay! Work is dispiriting enough, why not enjoy? Very glad I can cook fish or curry or reheat just about anything. It makes it much easier to "eat up" the freezer. I think the only exception to this is natto, and I love Japan and Japanese food in general, but natto, not so much!

Natto is so polarizing. I admit, I'm not a fan either, but I also don't know anyone who brings it for lunch :)

The Food home-page link goes to last week's Free Range chat. For a moment, I wondered why there were so many repeat questions .. and how thre were so very many posts already.

Sorry, fixed now! Kari usually does this but she's out this week. :)

I've volunteered to bring a meal to a neighbor this weekend and I'm doing baked chicken (legs and thighs). I will need to make it in advance and am looking for advice in making it juicy (and crispy, if it's not too much to ask) when it is reheated by the recipient. He is going through some health problems so I need to keep it on the non-spicy side of things - maybe lemon and light garlic? My biggest concern is keeping it from drying out. Thanks for any suggestions!

I would cook it low and slow, confit-style, at maybe 300 degrees. It won't be crispy when it's done, but you can always advise your friend to crisp it up while warming it in a pan. I'd give it a couple of hours and plenty of fat (olive oil, schmaltz, what have you!) -- lemon and garlic are classic for a reason and would make an elegant dish. Lucky friend! And we hope they are feeling better!

My 3 year old is begging to make banana bread for dinner. The recipe he saw (https://assets.wholefoodsmarket.com/www/healthy-eating/parents-and-kids/pbskids/Daniel_Recipe_BananaBread.pdf) calls for a cup of sugar, which is a lot given that there's not a lot of eggs or oil to balance it out. Do you have lower sugar recommendations?

I bake a lot but use less sugar than most recipes call for -- usually it's really not going to impact the baking that much to just reduce the amount. The recipe below might be worth checking out, as it calls for only 1/2 cup sugar total -- and the combination of granulated and brown sugar provides more depth of flavor. Chocolate drizzle optional!

 

RECIPE: Banana Bread With Chocolate Drizzle

I got a German Christmas cookbook, and one of the recipes is for Christmas cookies. It says to roll out the dough, and cut out circles, placing them on a cookie. So far, so good. But, then is says to turn each round upside-down, and put a drop of water in the center. Um, why? And, no mention of whether I should flip it back over, or leave it water drop side up. I would assume that if that was the case, I could have just put the water on the rounds without flipping them in the first place. But, then, I could have just put the water on them to being with, and then flipped them. The odd direction is causing me to really overthink this, lol. Any thoughts? I'm confused!

I have a few German Christmas cookbooks, so I'm curious to know which book and the specific recipe. Off the top of my head, water and cookie dough generally go together to create steam in the oven for more even spreading, but it's hard to know without reading the entire recipe. I'm very interested by the direction!

Any suggestions for what to do with lots of basil, except pesto?

You can always freeze individual leaves or dry them. The brightness of flavor will be a bit lost, but it's a good way to preserve your bounty. In our house, we've been eating a ton of burrata with peaches, basil and evoo -- a kind of spin on a caprese.

your potato chip testing was very timely. My husband and I are at odds over which brand to buy, so we have decided to each get our own. This also means I don't eat all of his during that one week of the month. My local grocery store carries Cape Cod, and better still, Cape Cod Original with 40% less fat, which is definitely better (to my palate) than the original (we also buy the reduced-fat Triscuits).

Ha, so glad our taste test could solve a small marital dispute! Now I know what it feels like to be Carolyn Hax. 

Hi, love the chat! I live alone and am always looking for deserts that can be sized down ('cuz while I certainly can eat a whole cake that just wouldn't be good). I made individual dark and stormy icebox cake using a popover tin cutting the recipe by 1/3rd (a muffin tin would also work). Fan-freakin-tastic! I had lined the cups with plastic wrap and froze them, then popped them out of the cup and wrapped each one in foil. They thaw quickly and are delicious! I'm planning on experimenting with using some greek yogurt mixed with the cream. It's great having something small and ready for the times that I just want/need desert!

That seems like a fun idea! I imagine the challenge would be getting enough layers in there to ensure the textural and taste contrast, but I'm tempted to try this as well. For what it's worth, the rainbow sprinkles icebox cake recipe is also incredibly good. I think you'll want to make the full size version.

Also has a great website, with quick delivery. If you get on their email list, you'll get all the very frequent sales and special offers, too.

Based on Maura's review, we went to Popeyes on Friday and got our chicken sandwiches. It was actually fun just to see so many happy people. They were out of pickles and fries but we got our sandwiches and I was very pleased with it. I never go to Popeyes but I will now.

Wow, so glad you had a great experience! I know a lot of people have been frustrated with the long lines and sold-out sandwiches, and non-stop talk about Chicken Sandwich Madness. But I feel like it's the perfect goofy late-summer thing that brings people together. 

Despite all the millions of recipes on the web, I still can't decide what to make for supper. What are you guys planning to have?

I'm teaching myself to like quinoa this week, so yesterday I cooked it in white wine with tomatoes and garlic and it was a hit. I'm going back at it again tonight but I think I'm going to spice it up with some jalapeños and stuff it into poblano peppers -- I have a lot of peppers from the community garden to use up this week!

If I didn't want to spring for a jar of vanilla paste is there an easy substitution conversion for extract? That is if the pastry cream recipe calls for 1 teaspoon paste how much extract to use?

I'd start with 2 teaspoons and I think you should be ok. I don't want to mess too much with the pastry cream texture... the flavor won't as intense as it is with paste, but it will be there.

I fell for these today at the farmers market. Normally butternut is not a favorite due to the sweetness but these were just so darned cute. Any clever ideas? Preferably paired with some spice...curry, chiles, along those lines?

I looooove honey nut squash -- they are adorable, right? I love to just split them in half and roast them in the oven with olive oil, dried chili flakes, and salt. They are also terrific with soy sauce, or rubbed with curry powder or cumin and then seared in a hot pan. Experiment and have fun with them, and here's a handy guide by Becky Krystal about all things winter squash: 

 

ARTICLE: How to peel, prep and cook all the winter squash this season

Posting early in case am stuck in meeting. For a church BBQ lunch that will include pulled pork and chicken and mac and cheese, I need to come up with coleslaw for 325 folks and am trying to figure out how many servings/lb. Thnik most will use to top their BBQ buns, which to me would suggest slightly smaller helpings per person. Have recipe idea (thinking slightly creamy as have industrial fridge at hand) but suggestions on that would be great too. Thanks so much.

To scale the recipe, just figure out how much per person -- say 1/4 to 1/2 cup? -- and then multiply that figure by 325. That's roughly 160 cups of cole slaw, or 80 pounds. From there, you can use an online recipe conversion calculator to figure out how much you'll need of each ingredient. Creamy cole slaw is always nice with barbecue, but you might consider one that's more vinegary since you've already got the richness of pulled pork and mac and cheese going on at the BBQ!  Here's a few ideas from the WaPo recipe archives:

 

ARTICLE 6 quick slaws to satisfy all the mayo haters out there

is there a difference in results when using an all yolk, an all white or a whole egg wash?

Different egg washes will give you a different result in color and shine. Here's a handy guide from Fine Cooking magazine.

I regularly get the chapchae appetizer at a local Korean carryout (chapchae is how they render the name) and can't wait to try this on my own!

I'm sure Joe would thank YOU for trying his recipe.

I just got a German Christmas cookbook, that has some cookie recipes. One calls for rolling out the dough, cutting out circles, and placing them on a cookie sheet. Then it gets confusing. It says to flip each piece of dough over, and put a drop of water in the center of it. No other explanation. What purpose does the water serve? Do I flip the cookie back over? I'm assuming so, otherwise you could just put the water on the cookies as they are placed on the pan. I'm totally baffled by this. Any ideas?

What kind of cookies are these? Do they have a name?

I made this recently and it was delicious, a good way to use up lots of basil. I'm in no way affiliated with wherever this came from.  

I have a bounty of thai basil but I don't want to freeze it in olive oil - Would any neutral oil work?

Absolutely -- you can use any neutral vegetable oil and it should work fine.

or other on weekends, so you don't feel quite as bad about driving out to one with no other reason to be in the area.

For those not living near a Penzey's store, their website offers kosher flake salt in a 1-lb bag. This has been a convenient size for my household.

Jacob, I'm happy to report your article provoked a lively and hilarious conversation in our office. We decided your microwave fish comment required an asterisk: go ahead and microwave fish... as long as you don't nuke frozen fish fingers or yesterdays food truck fried fish for breakfast.

Hah! I suppose the important thing is that people are talking to each other about lunch. Especially if it's delicious. 

Sandwiches aside, let's hear it for KFC's vegan fried chicken, which sold out in 5 hours yesterday, during the test run in Atlanta!

Yes! I am really looking forward to trying this when it rolls out nationwide. 

Why not just use Morton’s, which is widely available ( says this former New Yorker, who grew up with it)? Many recipes give measurements for both .

Swoon - beans - oh yes!

I like to slice them in half and broil them with a little dollop of gorgonzola or blue cheese on top. Then drizzle with honey once hot/melty.

Having heard about this for the last week and having a son who is a Popeyes aficionado, I broke out my deep Le Creuset last night and made a batch of Grace Parisi’s buttermilk fried chicken from Food & Wine magazine. It is far superior to any fast food version. Leftovers today were even delicious. I highly recommend.

I'm just impressed that a 3 year old is looking at recipes.

For the person with the fresh figs, there is a recipe from Bobby Flay for grilled asparagus with figs and blue cheese. It's fantastic. It's in one of his cookbooks (I can't remember which) but you might be able to find it online.

Classic Brit - with stilton, a staple over The Holidays.

Well, that hour went by in a flash. Thank you to Kristen and Jacob for joining us today. And to all the regulars -- Olga, Becky, Maura, Carrie -- to your answers. Brilliant all.

 

We'll be back next week for more. In the meantime, the chatter who asked about how to use figs, you are our cookbook winner this week. The book is TBD. But please contact our editorial aide, Kari Sonde, at kari.sonde@washpost.com.  She'll respond to you when she's back in the office.

In This Chat
Maura Judkis
Maura is a staff food writer at The Post.
Becky Krystal
Becky is the lead writer for Voraciously.
Tim Carman
Tim is a staff reporter for Food and writes a weekly column on casual dining for Weekend.
Olga Massov
Olga is a food editor at The Post.
Carrie Allan
Carrie is The Post's Spirits columnist.
Jacob Brogan
Jacob Brogan is an assistant editor with Outlook and PostEverything at The Washington Post. He wrote this week's story about office lunch etiquette.
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