Oct 20, 2010

Free Range on Food is a forum for discussion of all things culinary. You can share your thoughts on the latest Washington Post Food section, get suggestions from fellow cooks and food lovers, or swap old-fashioned recipes the new-fashioned way.

Greetings, nation, and welcome to Free Range, the chat that brings you cooking and eating tips right when you've got food on the brain: at lunchtime.

Today I'm kicking myself for not hitting Palena last night, before Jane's great profile of Frank Ruta ran today. It's always at the top of my list; I have truly never had a less-than-stellar meal there, so I'm excited that he finally, after 3 years (!), agreed to be profiled.

But you may have other things on your agenda: Virginia wine and restaurant wine lists, perhaps? Or the strategies of an 11-year-old who manages to get food on her family's table several times a month? Or anything else that you'd like to throw our way, of course.

We don't have quite as much help with the chat today as we usually do: Jane has left the building (sniff), and Jim Shahin is on an airplane. Dave McIntyre might be able to answer remotely, and Jason Wilson -- well, he'll probably show himself at some point.

We'll have giveaway books, naturally: There's Dorie Greenspan's fabulous "Around My French Table," which Bonnie featured in her DinMin column today (and will blog about more tomorrow). And also "Soups, Stews & Chilies" from the Cook's Illustrated folks.

So what can we help you with?

When a recipe calls for a ham hock or small ham bone, it really shouldn't have the "meatless" tag in your database That said, thanks for the article on Ruta. I've eaten at Palena a couple of times and it's a wonderful experience. Nice to learn more about the chef after all this time!

Right you are, of course, on the recipe. A mistake, and we've fixed. Thanks! And glad you liked Jane's piece (her last as a staff writer, sadly); we've wanted to write about Frank for a looooooooong time.

I tried your version of basic hummus and it didn't come out so well. It was the right consistency but had a grainy taste. Especially after you swallowed. I used fresh chick peas that I had soaked overnight and then cooked for roughly 90 minutes a few days before. I had refrigerated those chick peas until making the hummus. Any ideas on what went wrong? I used a mini food processor and cut the recipe in half. Thanks!

There is nothing grainy about the consistency of that hummus. Maybe the tahini you used? It needs a lot of whirring in the processor; it will lighten in color.

Another thought: Were your chickpeas cooked until tender?

How could you skip a question entitled "Pork butt safety"? So, last week I started to cook a pork butt by browning it all over. Then, when it came time to put it in the slow cooker, it was too big. So, I sawed it in half and put half of it in the slow cooker (turned out great) and the other half back in the freezer, well-wrapped. My question now is: is it still safe to cook that half, and, if so, what's the best way to do it? Many thanks!

Aiyeee. I'd pitch it.  Re-cooking partially cooked meat that's raised just to a temperature where bacteria frolic about for an unknown amount of time is not something I recommend.

I asked for suggestions on how to make these lemon. I think it was Joe who suggested Lemon Oil and the zest of a lemon in place of the vanilla. It worked out WONDERFULLY! They were a huge hit and now my new favorite recipe. Thanks guys!

Yay! So glad that worked out.

I bought a jar of tahini, but now that it's open how do I store it? Should it be refrigerated? It's in the fridge now just in case, but the jar didn't state whether or not to refrigerate.

Best to refrigerate. After a while the oil may separate and become a layer on top; simply stir in before using, like you would with natural peanut butter. It's made from sesame seeds, which can go off.  That's assuming you've got a good brand without preservatives....

We're celebrating our anniversary over lunch (taking advantage of daycare as a babysitter!) What restaurant has the best lunch? Anything in your dining guide great for lunch?

I'd steer you toward Proof or Bibiana for lunch. Those are at the top of my list these days.

Hi all! This isn't really a food question but I thought you all might have some insight anyway. I see on Top Chef every season they go to a Restaurant Depot which looks like it would be a really cool place to shop. I researched and see that there are some in the area but they require you to have a business license. Are there any other Restaurant Depot type places that you recommend that don't require a business license? Or, another way to get into RD without a license?

Do you have a friend who owns a restaurant or shops for one? If so, he or she will  have a card (like a Costco membership card) to get in. Borrow it and go shopping; that's what I do.  If you want equipment and not food, it's always fun to poke around at Best Supply in NE DC (2o2-544-2525).

The Post is running four simultaneous chats at noon today, three of which I'd like to join (including this one). I will have to read each after the fact. I know you think noon is a better time to attract people, but at present you are competing with yourself, which reduced the potential audience. I wish you would go back to staggering them throughout the day. Thank you.

No, thank you! Glad you want to chat with us. We knew when we switched this one to noon we would be competing with Reliable Source, so we are considering switching back. Just wanted to give it a while to see how the numbers go. Stay tuned!

...you promised that you'd try to get it in September when you had time...any luck? Thanks! (p.s. - love the chats and learning about new things out there. Who knew that Hatch Chiles were such a cult classic!)

I did promise, but have fallen short. Come back next week? It's on my to-do list. Again.

Hope you can help me out - I haven't had time to browse cookbooks recently! I am looking for a good resource or two for everyday French cooking - love Julia Child, but it's a bit complicated (for me, anyway) for most weeknight cooking, though I love to experiment on the weekends. Is there anything on the shelves that might help - would also love a good resource on French wines...many, many thanks! With two little ones, we are unlikely to visit France anytime soon...sigh.

Is this a not-so-subtle plea for Dorie's book?

I would love it if you went back to the 1 PM time slot. I live an hour behind...read Tom's Chat first and then had a little time to switch over to this one and I could go pickup lunch if necessary. Sometime I like to read Reliable Source, but 99.5% of the time read this one. I miss half and don't have enough time to comment anymore. Minneapolis, MN

I wish we could be on all the time!

Hi, fellow foodies, Just following up to ask if you managed to get hold of the recipe for eggplant in garlic sauce requested last week. My mouth waters just thinking of it. Thanks!

I tried by phone; I have to go in person and ask. I could not make my goal clear enough for them to figure out.

I have a cast iron skillet and I've noticed that it does not brown evenly. Some spots brown better than others. Is this normal or do I have a faulty pan?

It's normal. It's a myth that cast-iron pans heat evenly, especially on the stovetop. The fact is, iron is not a great conductor of heat, especially compared to copper or aluminum, and so experts say the best way to heat it evenly is in the oven. On the stovetop, the unevenness is more apparent when you have a gas burner, especially a small burner, because the iron overheats where the gas is touching the pan.

Hi Food People. (Posting early because Wednesday is laundry day.) I am entering a chili cook-off on Saturday. I like my chili, but I don't think there's anything spectacular about it. It's your standard ground beef, kidney beans, and spices. Any suggestions on how to jazz it up and make it stand out a bit more? Thanks!

Think of ways to add complexity/depth of flavor -- if it has onions, caramelize them like crazy. Toast the spices in a dry skillet first to release their oils and fragrance. If it calls for beer, experiment with seasonal brews.  Try a variety of beans and dried chili peppers of various sweet/heat. And if Editor Joe were answering this, he'd say: "Beans?"

Beans? Ground beef? ;-) How about going with a traditional Texas chili con carne?

One thing missing from Jane's otherwise excellent article on Chef Ruta is the acknowledgment that Palena is one of the best lighted restaurants in town. Keeping the lights low while providing sufficient illumination to permit us middle-aged people to read the menu is a true art - and I understand that Palena (or Palena's decorator) hired a lighting designer for that purpose. I just hope the new space will also be so well-lit. Can you think of other well-lit restaurants? Tosca comes to mind but I'm stumped on others.

We had plenty of other things to get into in that piece, obviously, but thanks for the point about the lighting. Jane is one of those who appreciates such a thing, as she's made clear in her rant about it. I think Cork has pretty nice lighting.

When we lived in the UK, I got into soup-making, and learned to make Scotch broth, using everywhere-available lamb bouillon cubes. But now that we're back in the US, I cannot find lamb bouillon in stores or online. Any suggestions?

I just tried the first 6 markets i could think of and came up with nothing. Maybe get some bones from the butcher, roast, then make your own? It'll have less sodium, for sure.

Look at Ina Garten's cookbooks. If I want to make something specific, I typically compare her recipe with Julia Childs to find ways to save time.

I need some new ideas for cabbage beyond slaws and stuffed cabbage (which I'm not a big fan of).

How about this Warm Ginger, Apple and Cabbage Slaw? It immediately entered my regular rotation, especially in the fall. Nice and bright.


Good afternoon! I have some leftover tahini from a can that I bought at the Middle Eastern store. I usually buy the jarred kind that I can store for a long time, however with the canned I know you have to transfer it to a different container- so it's currently in a pyrex in the fridge. My question is- how long will it last in the fridge? Should I freeze it, or should I use it up fast? Anything to do with it other than make (more) babaghanoush? Need ideas- that one can was expensive and I don't want to waste it!

Is it Tahini Day? Sealed tight in the fridge it should last for months.  Drizzle it over ice cream -- revelational.

The poster who wants to read (and participate in?) simultaneous chats can simply open separate tabs for each chat and click among them as they refresh. Easy and quick.


Wonder why Dave McIntyre didn't note in today's piece that the premier local food event in DC--Freshfarm Markets Farmland Feast--is featuring all local wines this year? Just seems like a missed opportunity to not highlight an event that is supporting local wineries in addition to the restaurants mentioned in his piece.

Dave's not free to answer, but thanks for mentioning the FF. An event is a different animal than a permanent wine list on a restaurant; it's great that they're doing it, but the point of his piece was to highlight the difficulties vineyards have in getting restaurants to play along.

Will Palena be open during the expansion of the restaurant?


Hi guys, I love to bake, and I love gingerbread, but have not yet actually made it. Now that it's getting closer to winter, I'm thinking about throwing a gingerbread tasting party, so I can test and make a few gingerbread recipes and have friends help me decide which one is the best. Do you have any gingerbread or gingercake recipes that you particularly love and that you'd recommend I try?

I like that idea. It just so happens we have a range of gingerbread recipes in our database that speak to different tastes. Raenne's Gingerbread cookies are firm and perfect for decorating with icing. Not too sweet. Gingerbread-Hazelnut Rum Balls offer a little boozy hit. Nancy Baggett's take on soft gingerbread cookies are an updated classic with a good balance of gingery heat. And of course there's always a recipe whose mere name makes you want to try it: Warm Gingerbread Pudding Cake.

I made chili for the second time yesterday and I think the chipotle en adobo made all the difference! I minced 3 chipotle peppers and added a few teaspoons of the adobo sauce. Also, after a disappointing first attempt with kidney beans, I switched to black beans for this version, and I know I won't be going back!

I do like those smoky chipotles in chili.

Those look delicious except for the fact that I don't like zucchini or artichoke hearts. Could I substitute carrots an/or something else for the zucchini and artichoke hearts. What about cabbage?

Absolutely you can sub the veggies. That's the beauty of the recipe: customization. Cabbage would work --  maybe with a little liquid to help it cook down a bit.

Every Sunday I lovingly make my family pancakes or waffles, I usually use the recipes from KAF baking cookbook. The past two Sundays, there is a distinct sense of ennui rising from the table. Any suggestions for a jazzier breakfast? Must be vegetarian and they do prefer sweet and starchy. I love the ritual of getting up first and having the kitchen to myself not to mention the idea that the rest of the family wakes to the lovely smells of breakfast. I am prepared to try nearly anything, yeasty treats, casseroles, whatever you recommend!

Here's an overnight sensation: Baked French Toast With Strawberry Sauce. (Recipe calls for butter and milk, which  you can sub out if needed.)  You could do a mess o' crepes as well, with a range of fillings. No one ever gets bored with them.

How about finely shredded and lightly stir-fried with a little oil and some cilantro as a side dish? Still crunchy, warm and with some simple flavors.

No. I only have 1 hour for my lunch break. I can move between chats fine, don't even have to read that fast. If I start chatting during the work day, I'll lost my job!

Restaurant-goers need to open their minds to Virginia wines, many are fantastic and highly rated. I moved out of the DC area several years ago, but make a point to purchase a few bottles when in town on business.

Good for you!

Appreciate your response on the focus of Dave's piece and completely understand. That said, these high profile events have the potential to change people's perspectives about what they should be asking for more of at restaurants. Thank you!


Hi All. your link - Virginia wine and restaurant wine lists - in your entry paragraph is broken.

Thanks! Fixed.

I'm thinking about roasting my whole turkey and grilling my whole turkey breast the day before Thanksgiving. Letting it cool after cooking, refrigerate and then it will be oh so easy to slice the day of. Questions: Is this a good idea? If so should i bring the birds to room temp, slice and serve or should it be heated and if so before or after slicing and what would be the best way to do this without drying out the bird. Or is this just a lousy idea? Thanks so much.

If  you're reheating, it's best to NOT slice the turkey until after it's warmed through -- especially the white meat. You'd want to keep it as moist as possible. In general, I'd say it's tough to retain crisped skin when you do the whole bird ahead. Is timing/oven space an issue?


Where can I get a pumpkin spice latte besides Starbucks?

I have no idea, but if I were you, I'd try this DIY version from The Kitchn. I love them.

I agree with the post about keeping it this time. Make a poll next week?


Seattle's Best has one! I think they're at Borders?

Hi Free Rangers, I am hosting Thanksgiving this year with family staying for about a week. I'm most concerned about having easy dinners I can make ahead and pop in the dinner easily after a day out at the museums/monuments. We will have a 4 year old in the mix, so it should also be kid friendly. I was thinking of assembling a turkey meatloaf the week ahead, freezing it uncooked and then being about to just pop in the oven. Would this work? Would I have to adjust the cooking time or defrost in the fridge before putting in the oven?

Defrost overnight in the fridge is a good strategy for meatloaf, preferably on a dish where it can sweat/drain some moisture. Wrap in plastic wrap, then foil. Pop that into a loaf pan and freeze just until firm, then take out the loafpan. The meatloaf will hold its shape. Defrost, still wrapped, back in the loaf pan. Unwrap before baking.

Also check out local non-chain coffee joints--they usually have an option like this. Plus it'll be more lovingly made and support local business!

I'd actually refer the poster to Julia Child's The Way to Cook. It's a simpler, updated version of the classic original. I've learned so much about good cooking techniques that I don't even have to refer to it much, as she emphasizes learning how to adjust recipes for fresh ingredients etc. Love it.

Try variations on your staples i.e. cornmeal pancakes or german pancakes Jazz up your topping selection and experiment with new flavors. Make sure you only use stale challah bread for your french toast--really elevates it.

For the bored breakfast maker in search of a tasty change to breakfast, try cinnamon buns. Dorie Greenspan (ironically enough) has a delicious pecan honey sticky bun. Start the night before to get things going early.

It's not really a full-on cabbage recipe, but I always put cabbage into my broth-based soups with red meat (beef vegetable, etc.). It gives the soup a great tangy flavor that screams homemade.

If you take a poll during the chat, you will only be polling those who can participate at that time. A better test would be to compare the participation from the previous time to the new time, and see which gets a bigger audience. And note, as the original poster on this, I did not ask that THIS chat be moved....I asked that all the chats not compete with each other. (Another chat could change times.) And I posted the same comment on the other three chats.

Thanks. An yes, we're watching the numbers; don't worry.

I've missed Free Range in the last few weeks and I'm so glad to be back. I love walking away at the end with many great ideas to try when I get home! Keep up the good work!


Enjoyed your piece on VA. wine. One issue--and one I think is key--is the question of price v. value. Va. wines, while often times quite good, don't compare well to Calf., French or Italian wines at the same price point. I think Barboursville makes tasty wine. But their Nebbiolo Reserva is priced on their website for $31.99 and thier flagship Octagon is $39.99. Would you reccomend these to a friend who asked "I want to spend $40 for a bottle of wine, what is a good value?" I wouldn't.

You're not the only one who has raised this issue. When I was at Blue Duck Tavern yesterday, I looked at their all-Virginia-wine page, and noticed that the prices were more reasonable than I expected. The reason? They're marking them up less than they usually do. I think that's great.

I really want to try baking bread but feel its so time consuming/difficult. Any good beginner recipes?

Yep. You need no-knead. (Or maybe: You don't need knead.) Check out Nancy Baggett's piece from a few years ago about the technique of making bread without kneading it. And then try one of her recipes: Slow-Rise, No-Knead White Bread, Cinnamon-Raisin Bread, or Caraway-Beer Bread.

I've used carrots a number of ways, and every time I cook them, they seem to lose flavor, especially in soups, or when baked with other veggies. Should I try roasting them separately before peeling, like a bell pepper?

Hmm.  Coat the peeled carrots with a little olive oil before roasting them.  When I put cut carrots directly into liquids of soups or stews, they do tend to get watery when they're cooked too long. Maybe add them later in the recipe, or, better yet, add a pinch of sugar to a soup with carrots. That will help bring out their natural sweetness.

To me, the best two recipes for gingerbread are found in Laurie Colwyn's masterpiece "Home Cooking" (or maybe they were in vol. 2, "More Home Cooking").

That's what makes these chats so great. The gingerbread partyer will add them to her/his list!

Here's one of them:

Butter (for the pan)

1 1/2 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

1 heaping tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup dark or light brown sugar

1/2 cup molasses (preferably Steen's brand)

2 eggs

2 teaspoons lemon brandy or vanilla extract

1/2 cup buttermilk (or milk with a little yogurt beaten into it)

1. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-inch round cake pan.

2. In a bowl combine the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. Stir to combine them.

3. In an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the molasses, followed by the eggs, one by one.

4. With the mixer set on low, blend in the flour mixture, followed by the brandy or vanilla. Blend in the buttermilk until the mixture is smooth. Transfer it to the cake pan.

5. Bake the cake for 20 to 30 minutes, checking it after 20 minutes, until a broom straw or toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Cool on a rack.

Adapted from "Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen

Thanks for supplying!

I've never met Chef Ruta but admire his work and restaurant and the classy, quiet way in which he has been a wonderful chef/citizen/neighbor. I look forward to the expansion, especially as I think I've helped finance it with the many dinners I've enjoyed and paid for there. I like the idea of chef profiles, especially of those who are not so PR'd/gone national. Who might you interview next?

Yep, I'm with you in loving a good profile. As for who will be next, you'll just have to wait and see (and read)! But let me turn it around on all you chatters: What figures in DC (chef or otherwise) would you like to see us profile?

It looks great, but, really, half a head of cabbage? That is ridiculous. You have to use the whole thing or throw it out.

No, you don't.

Replace the kidney beans with pinto beans. I find kidney meals more mealy and the pintos have more flavor.

First of all, I'm the one who asked for cabbage ideas so thanks! Second, 1/2 a head of cabbage, if stored properly can actually last a while (for produce). I typically wrap in in paper towels and put in a Ziploc bag. If the end browns a little, just sliver that part off and its good to go.


To the person entering the chili cookoff, the winning recipes of all of the past Terlingua International Chili Championships going back to 1988 are posted on the Chili Appreciation Society's website. You could look there for inspiration on how to tweak your recipe; the link is here: http://www.chili.org/recipes.html

Great idea!

AT Graves Mountain lodge last weekend I had apple fritters that were AMAZING!!! you can buy their batter mix and they have lots of recipes on their Web site. Man, I can't stop thinking about those things!

Oh, if we want to get into the frying arena, there's a world of wonder, like these seasonally inspired Apple Cider Doughnuts.

When we have folks in to visit from out of town, we generally try to get in a day of wine touring around the Charlottesville area (local to us). You would be amazed how many people are surprised by the delicious wines available. I think DC restaurants would be wise to offer VA wines during restaurant week or in combination with some mid-week dining experience (discount) if they are worried about diners having the impression of being served less than superior wines. For more fun, make those wines "anonymous" a la wine competitions and see how folks' impressions are changed.

Love it! When we had a blind tasting here at the Post, some sommeliers themselves were surprised.

You posters who can chat for 2 hours and THEN go have lunch?


Just brought it out of storage for the summer to make my first batch of chili and I'm loving the ease of it. Any good recipes? Preferably vegetarian. Thanks!

This one is  award-winning, and vegan to boot.

I loved that article. I always had my girls (only have girls) in the kitchen when they were able to stand on a stool. They stirred, learned to use a knife properly/safely (many parents don't let their kids do this) and now at the ages of 15 and 19, they both can cook a decent, healthy, a little complicated and tasty meal from scratch. The 11 year old's parents need to be thanked for letting their child learn to cook. Too many parents out there do their kids a dis-service by not teaching and encouraging their kids to cook. They are left making microwaved mac and cheese or boiling hotdogs.

Thanks much.  Grace had so much composure in the kitchen.

Something my mom always used to do with tahini was to make a lemon-tahini sauce for veggie stir fry. It was absolutely delicious! Here's something quite similar.

Love it.

I visit VA winerys a few times each year. I want to support them and help them grow, but in all honesty, very few can match up to a $10 bottle from a mass market supermarket either cost wise or taste wise. Hopefully it is a matter of letting the vines and wine makers mature.

Add a few chocolate kisses, they add depth

I add my homemade barbecue sauce to my chili, which gives it great flavor (a vegetable-heavy chili with ground meat, onions, and red and green bell peppers). The sauce is a mix of tomato sauce, worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, seasoned salt, spices (whatever you like, but pepper of course and smoked paprika), and liquid smoke.

Store it upside down. When you need to use it, flip it right side up and let sit for a little bit and you won't have to stir too much.

Everytime I do that, I end up with Fridge Ooze.

Try adding sweet potato to your chili. I experimented when my boyfriend became a vegetarian & used sweet potato to give my chili some "heft" and now very rarely use meat when I make it. In fact, I made a batch in the crockpot over this past weekend and have brought it for lunches this week. I've had multiple people here at the office ask for the recipe.

Very good idea.

Joe Yonan wrote: What figures in DC (chef or otherwise) would you like to see us profile? I think the owner of Acacia in Van Ness would be interesting. When we've been in, he seems like a guy with a good story. Have the Birch & Barley couple been profiled yet? If not, them. It might be interesting to profile owners of small local chains--places like Mei Wah or Guapos--and how they see themselves in comparison to national chains and standalone places. Finally, I bet you could do a fun cloak-and-dagger profile of your restaurant critic.

Thanks! We won't be profiling our own employees, but appreciate the other ideas!

This might be too close to cabbage rolls, but I like making cabbage casserole, where I take casserole recipes and replace the rice or other starch with cabbage. As you can imagine, they taste very different from the original recipe, but usually very good! I think it would work well with the lemon chicken casserole from a while back.

Am I the only person who comes to the home page, looks for the link to this chat, and seeing "Dish" in the Reliable Source chat title, pulls that one up by mistake? It's happened at least three times. It's easy to recover from the mistake, but that word "dish," used as a verb instead of a noun, has a tendency to throw me.

You never know what is going to throw people! Glad you eventually find us...

Here's her follow-up article:

After years of hands-on experience, I have come to three conclusions about gingerbread. First, the ground ginger must be fresh. If your half-consumed jar of ginger has dust all over it, throw it out and buy a new one -- ginger loses its power after it has been sitting around for nine months or so. Second, most recipes are very timid about the quantity of ginger. You may start out mild and wind up tripling the amount. I like a heaping tablespoon, which may be too much for some people but not enough for others. This is a matter of taste. Third, never use ordinary molasses. It is simply too bitter -- not what you want. Pure cane syrup is the name of the game, and I whole-heartedly endorse that made by the C. S. Steen Syrup Mill of Abbeville, LA. British recipes often call for black treacle, for which Steen's cane syrup is a good substitute, or light treacle, for which I use Lyle's Golden Syrup, an English standby that can now be found in many supermarkets and fancy food shops.

After much trial and error, I have come across two recipes that are sublime. Nevertheless, I realize hundreds more are out there, yet untried. The first comes from a British Penguin book, The Farmhouse Kitchen by Mary Norwak. It is easy and sensational.

Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. and line the bottom of a buttered 8-inch round tin (2 inches deep) with parchment paper.

2. Melt 1/2 cup cane syrup or black treacle with 6 tablespoons butter.

3. Beat 1 egg with 4 tablespoons buttermilk.

4. Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 heaping tea-spoons ground ginger, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar, and a pinch of salt. Mix in 3/4 cup dried currants or raisins.

5. Add the egg mixture, then add the syrup mixture and mix well.

6. Bake 10 minutes in the 375-degree oven, turn the heat down to 325 degrees F. and bake 35 to 40 minutes more. A few crumbs stick to a tester when the cake is done.

The above recipe is an all-around hit and combines many of gingerbread's virtues. It is spicy, heartwarming, and cake-like. You do not need to add one thing: no ice cream, no icing, no poached fruit on the side. It is really and truly good by itself. For some time it displaced all others in my kitchen, but people on quests are not easily satisfied. After a while, I began to long for something new, and in another English book, Delia Smith's Book of Cakes, I found what I was looking for. It is not sticky, but moist and velvety. The name describes it perfectly:

Damp Gingerbread

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch round tin (2 inches deep) and line the bottom with parchment paper.

2. Melt 9 tablespoons butter with 12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) Lyle's Golden Syrup.

3. Into a bowl sift 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 3/4 teaspoon baking soda, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 1/2 tea- spoon ground cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon.

4. Pour the syrup and butter onto the dry ingredients and mix well.

5. Add 1 beaten egg and 1 cup milk. Beat well. The batter, Ms. Smith tells us, will be very liquid, and it is. Pour it into the tin and bake at 350 degrees F. for about 50 to 55 minutes. (The middle should be just set, with the edge pulling away from the pan, and a tester will bring out a few crumbs.) Cool the cake in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out.

I have a great cast iron my dad gave me, a wonderful stainless steel set I bought myself and also a couple nonstick ones. Which should I use when? Is there a good rule of thumb for which pan is best to use?

A seasoned cast-iron skillet will love you back if you use it a lot and take care of it. A beautiful patina beats just about any nonstick I know.  I like using stainless steel for searing cuts of meat, then transferring to the oven. Try not to use the cast-iron when cooking acidic ingredients (although chili cooked in a cast-iron pot is good eats).

I've looked at a bunch of French cookbooks, but most of them are pretty limited when it comes to veggie-friendly options. Is that just what French cuisine is like, or am I looking at the wrong books? I don't necessarily need something that's strictly vegetarian (I eat seafood, but not frequently), but I don't want to buy a cookbook that's overwhelmingly meat-oriented, like most of the French cookbooks I've looked at. Any recommendations?

The French love their meat, it's true. Dorie has a nice big vegetable chapter in hers, though...

Can you give me some good ideas for pumpkin pie spice flavor in any other dessert than pie? What's in pumpkin pie spice? I can make my own, right? And, btw, your colleagues in the "On Love" section have a guest whose book mentions pumpkin pie spice as an aphrodisiac . Hmmmm. Thanksgiving is getting better and better!

Can be a mix or variation of clove, allspice, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon. Can't go wrong with ginger, either.  I just tested a Christmas cookie issue (DECEMBER 8) recipe that adds cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg to a chocolate shortbread type. Yum.  Those spices are nice in cheesecake, in pots de creme, in baked apples and pears.

This one is a great one.


Hate to break it to you, but Seattle's Best is now owned by Starbucks. Where is Jane off to that this is her last staff article??

Yep, I knew that, re Seattle's Worst -- er, I mean Best. Jane is off to West Virginia for six months to work on a book project with her husband. Then to NYC. You'll see her byline return to the section on a freelance basis from time to time.

A little late as a response to an earlier post, but Jacques Pepin is always a great source for French cooking and his Fast Food My Way book seems to fit this request perfectly. To get a taste, you can also check out the PBS show on Create (one of the free, public TV HD channels) every night at 7.

Love him, love the show.

Hey, as the original gingerbread poster, I wanted to say thanks. I'm now up to, um, eleven gingerbread recipes that I desperately want to try. Maybe I should make more friends, so I can invite more people to the party?

Indeed! You could assign friends to make some of the recipes and have a taste test. Just make sure to report back to us on the results.

Sweet potato pancakes... both sweet and starchy and totally different from regular pancakes. Gingerbread pancakes are also stellar this time of year.

Do avocados have a season? I just figured that they are grown year round in Mexico but the avocados I have been buying lately are watery and lacking that avocadoey goodness. So when is avocado season and when might they start tasting better?

Avocados are harvested from early winter through spring. That  might be why the avocado councils tend to push guacamole as THE snack food for Super Bowl parties.  Some are more buttery-tasting than others. I tend to like Hass, the pebbly skinned variety, which falls in that category.

Add some cocoa powder and cinnamon..it really adds an interesting dynamic.

Be careful with the cinnamon. Once it's cooked into the chili, it tends to pick up intensity after a day's refrigeration and then you've got that Cincinnati thing happening.

Last week someone asked about fruitcake recipes. I have the UK Be-Ro (a brand of flour) recipe from 50+ years ago. It's long and involved, including homemade marzipan and royal icing, but the cake part is moist. My MIL said that using Trader Joes fruit was wonderful, since it was fresher than what she could find in the UK.

Hello Food Gurus! I have been using my slow cooker quite a bit, and so has my husband (lucky me). Actually, he just sent me a message to say that a pot roast was in, and would be ready when I get home. I typically make a stew out of the leftover roast, but still end up with a ton left over that doesn't seem to age well. How would you suggest storing something like that & how long can it conceivably last if it's say, frozen? I've been experimenting with buying season-end seconds from farmers & making big batches of cooked tomatoes, corn etc but would love any tips you could give. I could live off soup! Thank you

You mean repurposing the stew, or just the meat? You can make homemade meat pies/pasties with leftover stew --  use less of the sauce. I like shredding the meat from leftover stews, adding wine and tomato sauce to create a Sunday gravy situation. That can be used to fill homemade ravioli.

I have a couple of questions for you. First, if a recipe uses less than an entire can of pumpkin puree, can you freeze the remaining pumpkin to be used at a later time? Second, can your Italian-Style Chicken Packets, which sound delicious, be assembled and refrigerated one evening and then cooked the following evening?

You can freeze the pumpkin puree. For the packets, I'd probably do the chopping one night and place those ingreds in separate resealable plastic food storage bags.  Assemble just before serving. If you prepped the chicken a day in advance, you could be marinating with the  herbs and a little olive oil...or whatever suits your fancy.

That's an interesting combination east of the Mississippi. You'd be run out the town in Texas for using such in a Texas chili contest, speaking on behalf of Texans.

As a Texan, I agree. I don't even put tomatoes in mine.

Oh.. I keep my tahini in the pantry, but I do keep a paper towel under it just in case. We go through it fast enough (sesame noodles, hummus, dressing ingredient)...

I decided to buy Julia's MTAofFC to teach myself how to cook. It was a slow process--I've never been to France, I don't know what the dishes are supposed to taste like, smell, like, look like, and in some cases, I can't even pronounce them. However, I persevered and eventually make some great meals. But, I still struggle with a few of the more specialty items (like risotto). I followed her directions and it was horrible. Could you direct me to a restaurant that would allow me to sample some of the more exotic ingredients (like truffles, livers, etc.) so that I know what I'm supposed to be aiming for? Thanks much.

I think we've made advances in risotto technique/technology since then.  It's white truffle season...I think Jose Andres-owned restos in DC are offering some of that taste.  You can pick up/sample various pates and spreads made with liver at area farmers markets where Copper Pot products are sold.

Seems like the leftover tahini question comes in every week. The Takoma Park Co-op sells tahini in bulk. You can buy one teaspoon if that's all you need.

Eh, I tend to shy away from bulk bins of anything. How long has the ingred been bulk-stored? At what temp?

Dino in Cleveland Park has them!

I'm the one who mentioned the cinnamon and cocoa---I've been to a few Chili Cook Offs in TX and have seen some pretty weird and out of the ordinary things there too...

I like to add some roasted butternut squash to mine, in chunks, but have been meaning to try a can of pumpkin now that it's available again. Esp. amazing with the chipotles in adobo!

Well, you've opened us carefully to allow our steam to escape, then transferred us to individual plates, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great q's today; Bonnie and I were typing as fast as we could!

Now for the book winners. The chatter who first asked about accessible French cookbooks will, of course, get "Around My French Table" by Dorie Greenspan. And the one who asked about ideas for jazzing up chili for a cookoff will get "Soups, Stews & Chilis." Send your mailing information to food@washpost.com, and we'll get them out to you.

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading!

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