Free Range on Food: Cheap eats, holiday cooking and beef

Dec 21, 2011

Today's topics: Can Washington compete with New York City when it comes to cheap eats? Also, cooking for Hanukkah and Christmas, heritage beef, and more.

Past Free Range on Food chats

Greetings, all, and welcome to Free Range! Today we led our section with this fun cheap eats "snackdown" between Ed Levine of Serious Eats and our own Tim Carman. Hope you got a kick out of it -- and that maybe it caused you to think about your favorites in each city, and how they stack up.

We also have Jim Shahin's love affair with the chestnut, particularly when it comes to grilling (that open fire, dontchaknow), and David Hagedorn's exploration of Randall Lineback beef, both with fantastic recipes. 

All of the above writers will be joining today's chat, along with Vered Guttman, whose Hanukkah doughnut recipe is simply divine.

So shoot your questions about these and any other topics our way, and we'll handle them as best we can. 

And to entice you, we have these giveaway books: a SIGNED copy of "Serious Eats: A Comprehensive Guide to Making & Eating Delicious Food Wherever You Are" by Ed and his team; and "Encyclopedia of Jewish Food" by Gil Marks.

Start your engines. Let's do this thing.

is what I ended up calling what happened last weekend when three intrepid friends and I tackled as many of the recipes from this year's Holiday Cookie Guide as we could stand. Nine hours later, we had well over two hundred of them; we managed the snickerdoodles (subbing cinnamon for the cardamom since we had none), the cherry pistachio oatmeals, Corean's oatmeals (some of which got ginger and nutmeg added to them, which was delicious!), the gingerbread tree, the salted Nutella thumbprints, and the white chocolate/cherry/almonds (which ended up being my personal favorites). They've been shipped off to their respective gift targets, and we sampled plenty of them along the way! I'm not sure I'd attempt something like this again, but it sure was fun to give it a go. Thank you, and happy holidays!!

Nice! So glad you enjoyed them.

Super excited to be invited to Italian-American neighbor's for feast of seven fishes on Christmas Eve. I've been ask to bring dessert. Help! I need a recipe or at least a suggestion for dessert. I've spent Christmas in Italy, but all I can think of is bringing Panteone and after dinner drinks based on my hazy memory of the end of the Christmas Eve dinner!

Lots of good-looking options in our database for Italian desserts. Of those results, I'd be most tempted by Torta Della Nonna (Grandmother's Torte) or Torta Divina.

Torta Divina

And if you can get your hands on a copy of Carol Field's "The Italian Baker," as I recently did, you will drool with the possibilities.

thanks for the easy doughnut recipe. If I made them a little bigger and fill a pastry bag with the jam can I fill the doughnuts with the jam, instead of using it as a dipping sauce? Would I have to puree the jam?

I wouldn’t make them much bigger, but up to 2” or less will be fine. And then you could fill them, but I would use a smooth jelly instead of the jam.

Wow, worlds are clashing this Wednesday! I love you Free Rangers and I love Serious Eats, what a treat to see you working together. Not sure if Ed is here for the chat but if so, are there any plans to launch Serious Eats DC???

It's certainly been discussed here at serious eats world hq. Erin Zimmer, our national editor, is a former dc resident (she went to Georgetown) so she's been pushing for it.

More of a general question: besides the Washington Post's website, what are your favorites for finding recipes? I use Bon Appetit frequently, but I'm looking for other recipe databases that are well-organized and easily searchable.

I like Epicurious, especially now that they've unveiled this really cool way to buy e-cookbooks and store the recipes in your personal file just like you can all the other recipes on the site. They've started with 75 titles from Random House (including -- shameless promotion alert -- my own book), and I think that if they got a lot of other publishers on board, this could be a game-changer. The display is beautiful, and the utility that it presents is impressive.

It is just two adults and a toddler at my house for Xmas this year. I'd like to make a festive holiday meal(s), but most of my holiday repertoire is for big crowds. I'm thinking about duck breasts, maybe, but I've never done them before. Please not cornish hens. Other menu/recipe ideas that are festive, quasi-healthy, and relatively easy to pull off for an competent cook (who is quite pregnant and doesn't want to be on her feet in the kitchen for hours and hours and hours)?? Thanks, and happy holidays.

I have a pet peeve about duck breast that appears on menus all over town. Most of the time, the skin is not rendered properly and you wind up with a chewy piece of undercooked meat with a thick rubber band on top of each slice. Some chefs get it right--I can think of Haider Karoum at Proof/Estadio off the top of my head.

To render the skin properly, you need to score it and then sear over medium low heat, preferably weighed down, for quite a while so that all thwe fat is renedered out and all that is left is a paper-thin, crunchy skin. Then finish cooking on the other side in a hot oven.

To make your life easier, remove the skin. Marinate the breasts for a couple of hours in some Worcestershire Sauce, soy sauce, a smashed garlic clove, some thyme, salt, pepper and a sprinkle of sugar and some olive oil. (you only need a drizzle of the liquids for 2 breast halves.)

Cut the skin into small cubes and render them on a small pan with some water (a cup). Let it boil, then cook over medium heat until the water evaporates and all that is left is duck fat and continue cooking over low heat until you have nice little crackilings. Transfer the cracklings to a paper towel and save the fat.

Use a little of the fat to sear the breasts (which you have brought to room temp and patted dry on paper towels.) on each side for a couple of minutes to brown them and finish cooking them in a 400 degree oven for maybe 5 minutes, until they are 125 degrees for medium rare. Let them rest for 10 minutes. Slice on the bias in wide 1/2-inch thick slices and serve with the incredible red wine balsamic butter you made using the recipe from my piece on Randall Lineback veal/beef that you undoubtedly read today. Garnish with those cracklings, if you've managed to not snack on all of them before dinnertime.

Couscous and wild rice pilaf would go nicely with this dish, along with some sauteed mushrooms,  asparagus, Brussels sprouts or sauteeed spinach.

Such a fun read!

We loved it, too. I'm afraid Tim distilled my essence and the essence of Serious Eats all too well. We are proud to be chronicled in such elegantly funny fashion.

We learned in the Travel Chat this week that Editor Joe is about to take leave for a year for a book project. While I know he leaves both domains of Travel and Food in excellent hands, I wanted to say good luck...and he will be missed. The chats offer an opportunity to get to know the staff, and it's been a pleasure chatting with Joe twice a week. I wish him every success...and a speedy return. Thank you.

Thanks! Appreciate it.

I'm responsible for feeding our family of 10 adults & teens dinner the day after Christmas, preferably something relatively easy to prepare and serve, but still festive and delicious. I was thinking about doing chili, since that's easy for each person to customize, but that seems heavy after two days of holiday fare. Restrictions: must be gluten-free or have GF options; no soup or pasta, since we're having those Christmas Eve; limited kitchen space (particularly refrigerator) since this will all be happening in the same kitchen as the previous 2 days preparations. Any ideas?

Just because you said "customize," I got the idea of a little make-your-own taco bar. Here are some recipes for inspiration. Particularly if you go for corn tortillas -- or have some available for those who want them -- you can easily go gluten-free. Have a few jars of salsa (I love the variety at Trader Joe's) and other garnishes (sour cream, pickled peppers) on hand; pre-cook your proteins (beans, chicken, fish, steak, whatever); have some fresh toppings ready to go or throw them together before you're serving (lettuce, tomatoes, onions).

Chicken Tacos With Black Beans and Lime Cream

Hello. So I live on the Hill in a very old house and my oven is one of those that the burner/heat source is on the top of the oven, not the bottom. So instead of the heat rising and circulating, whatever I am cooking only cooks on the top (like a broiler), even when I cover everything with foil (which I have to). This seriously messes up a lot of the things I prepare, especially roasts, etc, because I'm constantly having to open the oven, turn things over, and can never get an accurate read even with a digital thermometer. Is there anything you can suggest to help me get this old oven system down? I am a pretty good cook but I haven't been able to make a decent hunk of meat in the oven for quite while. Thanks!

You need to get a good pizza/baking stone and/or bricks, and put it on the bottom of the oven. (You might have to preheat the oven with the stone or bricks toward the top and then carefully move them to the bottom before cooking.) That, it seems to me, would go a long way toward getting the heat a little more even in your oven, because the stone/bricks would radiate from the bottom, too.

At a cousin's Batz Mitvah I finally tried some smoked Whitefish. I don't know how I've gone 36 years without this stuff but it's delicious! Ive been trying to find smoked whitefish in DC but have only found Whitefish Salad, not the same thing. Any ideas?

Welcome to the tribe! the Kosher Mart sells white fish, as well as the Iranian store, Yekta, both in Rockville.

I'm getting ambitious in my holiday cooking this year and want to make something that I'm a bit afraid of (mostly because I don't think I have my "good pizza safety net" on Christmas day)... I'm thinking of making a beef brisket. Do you have any tips on how to avoid screwing this up?

Don’t be nervous! Brisket is a forgiving cut. Just make sure it’s covered with liquid and you’ll do just fine.

Hi Joe, I have your book Serve Yourself. My goal in the New Year is to start cooking more. What recipes do you suggest in your book that would be good to start with but would also make enough to freeze for a later meal? As a complication, I am gluten-free so recipes that would be easy to convert would be best. or does anyone have any suggestions for easy meals that freeze well and are not pasta?

There are tons of g-f stuff in the book -- pretty much the entire taco chapter, for one! So in that vein, I'd look at the Yucan-Style Slow-Roasted Pork, which makes enough for 6-8 servings, is designed to freeze, and for which I give you several other recipes: Cochinita Pibil Tacos, Pulled Pork Sandwich with Green Mango Slaw (use g-f bread, obviously), and Faux-lognese with Pappardelle (use g-f pasta). You should also look at the sweet potato and black bean soup bases.

A thirty-something friend recently expressed an interest in finally learning how to cook (he dines out every night for dinner). Any recommendations for a good first cookbook that I could get him as a gift? Thanks!

What kind of stuff is he into? You could certainly get him a general one, but I find that it's fun to start somebody with a personality that they might find captivating. Helps inspire them.

1) Made the Cardamom-Brown Sugar Snickerdoodles - touchdown! Well, mostly - kid#2 didn't think they were snickerdooley enough. I'm guessing I can use the base recipe and sub cinnamon/cloves for the cardamon? 2) Tried the slow roasted duck breast. Fourth and long, had to punt. After almost 90 minutes the temp was 134! Oven really 200 or slightly higher? Also even though the skin got nice and brown there was still a serious amount of fat left. Maybe make the score marks a bit closer? Merry Christmas to all the Food Section elves!

Sure thing, cinnamon works -- that's the classic when it comes to snickerdoodles. (I'd leave out the cloves if I were you.) 

As for the duck breast, are you sure your oven was at 200? Maybe it was lower. Were the breasts 12 ounces? Maybe they were too big. Did you score 1/2-inch apart, and go almost to the meat when you cut, as directed? Molly's recipes are known for being foolproof.

Vered, thanks for the sufganiyot recipe. I love making fried foods on Chanukkah that aren't your average latke. I'm headed to a Chanukkah party this weekend and I want to bring something unexpected but am tired of my regular arsenal. I'd love some other suggestions if you have them.

Thank you! How about leek and beef latkes, or the Swiss chard latkes? Or add grated beets and/or yams to your regular potato latkes. Happy hanukkah!

I went into reading the Cheap Eats article with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, not really being a big fan of "but is it as good as NEW YORK?" articles (I live in NYC, so heaven knows I get enough of them.) But I really enjoyed it. The truth is you can get great, cheap things in both cities, but they're totally different things. NYC's Chinatown is stronger, but just try to find decent Ethiopian around here. It's fun to explore each city for what it does well, without focusing on direct comparison.

glad you liked it. I was leery of the comparison angle at first for the same reason, but Tim put the whole comparison thing in proper context. The story made me laugh out loud at myself.

Bought a yummy pancake mix that needs a complementary syrup or topping. Any suggestions?

Hm, toasted coconut pancakes... Maybe Ginger Syrup?

I'm sad to see Joe go but glad to hear he'll be back (and with some food books). Also very jealous at the idea of stealing away to Maine to write full time.


Can I prep (shred) brussels sprouts in advance (one day ahead)? I was planning to use my food processor for the task. Final dish will be a simple, quick saute and tossing with lemon juice, if that makes a difference. I don' t cook them often, so I'm not sure if the edges discolor, etc. when pre-sliced and stored. Thanks!

Yep, you can. They should be fine for a day in the fridge, covered.

Tim, Loved the cheap eats smackdown! You keep mentioning that you were curious if Ed Levine could be an impartial critic, but did you ever ask that of yourself? Sometimes I get the impression that the local critics are really striving to make DC a player in the food scene but it always feels forced to me. We have very good food here but I just don't believe we're competing with SFO or NYC quite yet. I think part of the reason NY dining is the way it is is due to its sheer size (more restaurants = more superb restaurants) and the culture of eating out it fosters (small apartments w/ miniscule/nonexistent kitchens, no huge grocery stores, many restaurants within walking distance, etc.). For the record I'm not from and have never lived in NY or SFO and I love DC and the food we have.

I asked myself that all the time. But I've also eaten around a lot in various cities in the U.S.: San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and many trips to NYC.  I think Washington's best restaurants compare favorably. I think we lack depth, and that's where places like NYC and SF still eat our lunch, so to speak.

My brother always has a Christmas in July party.Sadly he passed away recently. I'd like to honor his memory by starting my own Christmas in July tradition. I expect we will put up the tree, have some type of gift exchange, and hopefully roast chestnuts on an open fire. If I buy chestnuts now, what is the best way to store them for roasting in July?

I'm sorry to hear about your brother. If I might, I would suggest you have a tribute to him with chestnuts on Christmas day. 

The reason is this: chestnuts are at the tail end of their season, and so they are still in good condition. But the more time that goes on, the more their flavor degrades. Beyond that, it is a challenge to store chestnuts for long periods of time. They will hold for about a month or so, and there are various ways to keep them. But storing them for six months is a real challenge. 

There are very good packaged chestnuts. You might consider using those in July, and grind or chop them into something your brother would like. 

Snider's Market on Seminary Road just off Georgia ave inside the Beltway sells actual whitefish in several varieties. Good luck parking.

Hi, food gurus-- My dad asked for Italian-style pine nut cookies for Christmas. I had a recipe that worked great a few years ago, but (a) I've lost it, and (b) when I tried it last year, the dough wouldn't come together (too sticky and loose to hold its shape; more flour didn't solve the problem). Do you have a favorite recipe and/or any tips for making them? Thanks!

Check out this recipe from King Arthur flour. I haven't made it, but have heard that others like it.

They are different cities. Can we all just get over it?

C'mon, it's a harmless exercise. Besides, it gives people like you something to complain about.

Hello, I'm going to a friend's for a hanukah celebration. Can I make your donut batter ahead of time, and just fry it up there? Also, can you recommend a hanukah cookie?

Not really. What you can do is mix the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients separately, and combine them at your friend’s house, which will take a minute. As for a hanukkah cookie, I can’t think of any that is specifically for hanukkah. I guess as long as you avoid the green and red frosting you’ll be fine!

When I read the part of the recipe that says, "For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for about 5 or 6 seconds" I couldn't help but think the recipe-author or -tester was G. Gordon Liddy, as seen in this dramatization (start at 1:49 in, if you can)  -- or this one (start at 1:40) . I just had to share that with you. Happy holidays!

That's what you call putting a little skin in the game.


The best cheap eats are far out--Indian in Langley Park, Vietnamese and other SE Asian way out on Rt 50--isn't DC losing this cheap eats effort?

I can't answer that question for DC, but I can say that most often the best ethnic eats in nyc are not in midtown Manhattan either.

I agree with you that some of the best cheap eats lie in the 'burbs, where the rents are cheaper and where immigrants with strong culinary traditions have gained a foothold in the community. Chinese, Thai, Ethiopian, Vietnamese...we have lots of good, small eateries in our suburbs.

D.C. proper has become practically inhospitable for such small restaurateurs.

Glad to hear that DC took the prize over NYC for the better cheap eats burger but was wondering if Ray's Hell Burger was overlooked?

I can't speak for Tim, but we did put Ray's Hell Burger in the book. But if we had eaten the Palena burger when we were doing our "research" for the book, it would have definitely made its way into the book. I actually think the Palena burger is better than Ray's. I love the funky taste of the dry-aged beef trimmings.

It's mostly a matter of preference. I like Ray's Hell  Burger a lot -- when it's on. But have had problems in the past with consistency. I never have that problem with Palena's burger.

It was a pleasure to read Tim's piece this morning (New York, I miss you!) How were the challengers picked? I'm surprised the New York falafel pick wasn't Mamoun's or Taim.

We love Taim as well, but we wanted Tim to experience the King of Falafel, Freddy himself. But it could have just as easily been Taim.

In terms of how the challengers were chosen, Tim and I decided on the categories of food in advance and exchanged e-mails with our choices before we embarked on our eating explorations in both cities.

I talked with Joe Yonan and Bonnie Benwick about our picks. There were a couple of categories that were, frankly, difficult to find a decent pick, let alone a great pick. Like breakfast and bakeries. NYC still kills us in those areas.

Come on, now, there is nothing cheap about a $12 cheeseburger.

Agreed, but once you get into the territory of great burgers made with dry-aged beef trimmings you're certainly going to end up north of $10. If we had more time we could have done a $7 cheeseburger comparison. Oh well, there's always next time.

where is the chat?

You're in it, baby.

Hey, I baked the Amish-style sugar cookies from the WaPo recipe yesterday. I'd had to freeze the dough and then bake for an extra minute, per the directions. They only looked like the photo until I baked them, then they puffed up. They are kind of like a sweet, flat biscuit now. Don't get me wrong, they're still really tasty, but any ideas on what I did wrong?

Well, in the photo they do look rather thick. And the instructions say "the cookies should look like biscuits, with a thickness of about 1/2 inch" before you bake them...  I'm wondering if perhaps you overmeasured the leavening ingredients. It also doesn't hurt to verify your oven temperature.

Soft Amish-Style Sugar Cookies

I was all set to do the slow-roasted duck breast recipe you were good enough tp have here last week, even bought the duck. Then, some extra mouths announced for Christmas Eve dinner. When told we were having duck breast, they said, "great, we have some duck legs we'll bring." Question -- how to do both and have them ready at the same time with only one oven?" Any slow-roasted leg ideas where I can just throw the breast in at some point? P.S. Breasts need to be medium for this crowd. Thanks.

OK, so today is duck day, I see. At my former restaurant, Trumpets, I had a dish called Two-Way Duck (way back before that two-way this/three-way that label became so hackneyed). I confited the legs and marinated the breasts the way I suggested in a previous answer today. To order, I would crisp the leg's skin and warm the leg through in a hot oven (meaning you can make them wayyyy ahead of time), while searing and cooking the breast. I would fry cooked potato slices, toss them in some duck fat with chopped parsley and garlic oil, fan the breast slices in front of the potatoes and perch the leg on top of the potatoes. The other side dish was sauteed red cabbage with a touch of balsamic vinegar.

I ladled some reduced duck jus over the meat in lieu of a sauce.

I must say, this was one of my favorite all-time dishes.

This is worth taking the time to do and it is an all-day affair: Buy 4 ducks, remove the legs and the breasts and then take all of the skin, cut it into little cubes and render all the fat out of them, as I described in  the previous post. You can use this duck fat over and over for a long, long time (in the freezer). Then, make stock out of all the carcasses (just put them in a pot with mirepoix, thyme, peppercorns, bay leaf as you would a chicken stock, or take the extra time to raost the carcasses in a very hot oven to achieve a richer, bolder, browner stock). clarify and reduce the stock and freeze it in 2-cup batches for future uses.

These days, 1 leg is a portion or one breast half, so this would yield enough for 3 dinner parties for 4. It's worth the time and effort. Just having that fat on hand is worth the whole process.

for your party, confit the legs several days before and store them in the fat (refrigerated) until your are ready to finish them. When  you're ready to cook, heat the fat enough to remove the legs from it. Crisp the legs' skin in a hot saute pan. Set aside. Sear your breasts and put them everything on a sheet pan. Do all of this in the afternoon and leave them out, loosely covered. When dinnertime rolls around, pop the legs/breasts in a hot oven (450) for 5-10 minutes and then finish your plating.


Hi Rangers! Very excited to make the Tiny Tim Tarts for Xmas Eve dinner, but have two questions - one, can I cheat and use a pre-made 9 inch crust from which to cut the crusts or will the lack of cream cheese ruin it? Two, what size circle should be used for the mini muffin pan - 3 inch or smaller? Thanks for your help!!!!

You could cheat, sure. The crust won't be ruined; it just won't have that fabulous cream-cheese tartness and flakiness, probably. Not sure just how big to cut that dough offhand -- but here's how to figure it. Measure the length across the bottom of the muffin pan cup and then measure the depth, up one side. Multiple the depth times two, add it to the bottom measurement, and you have the diameter you should cut.

Jim, like your story on roasting chestnuts. Have you ever heard of chestnut beer? We're awash in chestnuts this year, for some reason.

Yes, I have heard of chestnut beer, but I haven't tasted it. It's popular in parts of northern Italy and Tuscany. If anybody knows where I can find it in the DC area, I would love to know. 

Probably I skimmed past it, but -- What were the price points for "cheap eats" in both cities, for the various meals? Thanks.

Except for the burger category, we didn't set a limit on the prices, since Ed and I both knew we were working generally in the cheap eats category. In retrospect, I think I should have angled to keep everything under a certain price point!

I bought my first container of Israeli leben the other day, and now haven't tried it yet, because I wasn't sure what to do with it. I had wondered if it was like a creme fraiche product. So I looked it up on wikipedia and saw this "(leben) considered, according to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food to be "old people's food." Great. I'm old. (I'm not interested in the prize, but I thought the book mention was rather coincidental. Joe has chosen me for several prizes in the past, so thanks again Joe and best of luck. You will be missed.)

Interesting description for the Leben... It’s basically a light yogurt product, a little more sour than the American yogurt, as the Mediterranean yogurts usually are. Not so much like creme fraiche. I would just eat it as it is, as you would with yogurt.

If Jason is in today, I have a question about measurements. My favorite cocktail book (the name of which escapes me at the moment) defines a "dash" as one quarter teaspoon. Based on that, the Seelbach recipe in today's Food section would contain more than a tablespoon of bitters. Is there another accepted equivalency for a dash?

Jason says:

When I say dash, it's not a totally precise measurement. Usually, it means, "whatever comes out of the spout when you dash the little bottle into the shaker." Angostura, Peychaud's and others have designed their spout and bottles to dash in a consistent amount. This is why, with bitters, you often want to experiment to find out what tastes best to you.

I'm wondering if Jim "Smoke Signals" Shahin has ever made smoked hummus. If you have, how do you do it and how did it come out? I know baba ghanouj uses smoke, but I'm a smoke fan and hummus guy.

At the risk of bringing down the wrath of my Lebanese mother, yes, I have smoked hummus. (She tends to be pretty traditional in these matters; she nearly killed me when I suggested grilling/smoking kibbee, which, by the way, I did, and to wonderful effect. But, uhm, mums the word, okay?)

Meanwhile, back to hummus. First, though, to baba ghanoush. To me, if it ain't smoked, it ain't baba. And it needs to be real smoke, not Liquid Smoke (which, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, I know is natural; still...). Wood smoke. On a grill. 

Same goes if you smoke hummus. I place the chick peas in a pan over indirect heat for, oh, about 10-15 minutes, using a light smoke (applewood), then make the hummus. It's mmmm-mmm good. Be careful not to over-smoke it, though. 

Enjoy. Oh, and don't tell my mom. 

I have been asked to make a green veg for Christmas Day. My sister-in-law is making ham, my mom is making squash casserole. I was thinking roasted broccoli with feta and red onion, but am open to suggestions! No Brussels sprouts -- I love them, but my brother hates them. Thanks!

How about sautéed Swiss chard with the same feta and red onion, drizzled with soem strong olive oil?

is like stiff Keffir. Just drink/eat it. Put it on fruit or cereal if you feel a compulsion to fuss.

Jason--business took me to Normandy, France, this fall. Came home with a bottle of Calvados, because that's what you're supposed to do--but really have no idea what to do with it, since while I was there, I drank more of the cider that part of France is known for. So my second question is whether you know of anywhere in the area where I can find that cider, which is typically bottled similarly to sparkling wine (750 ml, mushroom-shaped cork, etc)?

Jason says:


I like Calvados for a number of uses, including just having it straight after a meal in lieu of dessert. For cocktails, you could try the Apple Brandy Old-Fashioned, the Jack Rose, or even some of the cocktails suggested in today's column, like the Diamondback. As for cider, most of the larger liquor stores carry the bottles like you describe.


I'm not sure if this is the right chat - but you are the all-knowing food folks so I thought I would try. Can you please recommend a mail-order source for a gift of wine (preferably) along with gourmet treats - a sort of happy hour in a basket. If wine can't be included (it's going to New York), I will gladly take ideas for the food side of things. Not Dean & Deluca please. Or Zingermans. Both good but both done! Thanks so much in advance.

No wine, but...

I sent to some family in Florida a dinner for four from Katz's Delicatessen in New York: matzo ball soup, rye bread, 1 pound each of pastrami and corned beef, mustard, pickles, potato knishes, chocoalte babka. It arrived the day after I ordered it, to many raves. It cost $110, plus about $60 for overnighting. If your friends live in NYC, much less expensive to deliver. An amzing gift and a stroke of genius, thank you very much.

Or maybe just a stroke, considering the food choices there.

Another great gift were the cookies I sent from Momofuku's Milk Bar. 6 enormous corn cookies (the best cookie I have ever eaten) and 6 compost cookies cost $24, lus about $8 for postage and they arrived in CT the day after I ordered them. 

Dave McIntyre adds:

Most places are one or the other. But offers combo packages, and if you order today they can still arrive on time!

I know this is a question for Tom, but he's not hosting his discussion today and thought you might have some ideas. My family and I are planning on going out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. I know there are other places open on Christmas, but we're really in the mood for Chinese this year since I think the last time we had it was Christmas last year! In your opinion, who does the best Chinese food in the city?

I'm not sure what kind of Chinese food you are interested in, but here are some of my faves:

The Source:  It's high-end, chef-driven Chinese food, some of which is Chinese in flavor, not the dish.

China Bistro:  Great hand-made dumplings.

Great Wall Szechuan House: It just recently shed its hole in the wall status. Order from the ma la menu, which is reliably tasty.

Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville: So many good dishes here, so little time.

I tried several recipes from the cookie edition this year, and this one by far gave me the most grief. At the point where it went into the refrigerator, my dough more closely resembled batter. Should I have added more flour then? After refrigerating, I was able to roll it into balls, but doing so was a sticky mess. Then, of course, they came out very thin (and less attractively decorated with powdered sugar) after baking. Any ideas as to what went wrong? If it matters, I'm in Denver, so considerably higher altitude than DC, but that doesn't generally seem to affect my cookies, certainly not this much.

I just got off the phone with Mary Lee Montfort, who gave us that recipe. Her best guess was that something went awry in the refrigeration step. Was the dough in the fridge for at least 3 hours? She said after chilling it, you're practically scooping it out in balls. If that doesn't help, she said you can feel free to e-mail her at

This just in from tester Madonna Lebling:

I experienced some of the same issues with the consistency of the dough but the cookies did not turn out thin for me.  The cookie dough was not as thick as normal dough before it was refrigerated.  When it came out of the refrigerator it had almost a thick fudge quality.  Yes it was sticky when rolling into balls.  I learned from talking to other people that all of this is normal for this type of cookie.  And the cooked cookies themselves came out well.  (I was under the mistaken impression that they were supposed to remain balls when I first made them, but was assured they were supposed to bake down into regular looking cookies.  I wonder if she had the same impression?)  I hope this helps. 

I thought it was really cool for Smoke Signals to include a donation to the New Orleans-based charity/BBQ group Hogs for the Cause as one of his barbecue gift ideas. We too often only think about ourselves. Especially at this time it is very cool to see that. Just wanted to give props to Jim for thinking of others.

Shucks. Hogs for the Cause is a New Orleans non-profit that gives proceeds from a barbecue contest and music festival to families struggling with the financial burden of pediatric brain cancer.

I'm heading NYC for New Years Eve - it seems like most restaurants have quite high price points with fixed price menus that night. Any advice on how to suss out cheap eats during a holiday weekend, when a lot of restaurants stray from their normal menus? With so many options for restaurants and not having traveled much to New York, I don't know how or where to begin...

Try ethnic restaurants in Chinatown like Shanghai Cafe Deluxe or pizzerias like Motorino or Paulie Gee's. Hit up Parm during the day for a sandwich. Have breakfast at Maialino. It's expensive but so worth it.

I am makin a little Channukah dinner tonight at the request of my bed-ridden mom but I'm really not that great at the latke thing. I have done it with and without flour and my mom mentioned putting baking soda in as well. I'm starting with pre-shredded potatoes (I just dont have the time to peel & shredd tonight) and will throw them in the food processor to chop more, add onion, salt & pepper. Then transfer to a bowl and add flour & egg. What am I missing? Mine always end up really oily and fall apart. Help please.

Squeeze the potatoes and the onions as much as you can before adding the flour and eggs. You should aim for as dry as possible mixture.

We made Jacques Pepin's Braised Duck with Glazed Shallots and Honey Sweet Potatoes for the holiday last year and it was a big hit. It doesn't actually take long to make if you can do the stock/sauce the day before. Another comment is about what kind of duck people use makes a difference in successful fat rendering. Peking duck tends to have much less fat than moulard duck.

For the person who asked about Italian pine nut cookies, the WP food section printed an EXCELLENT recipe a few years back. Search the database for pignoli. You will love them!

Why, yes we did! Sorry I missed this on first check. Here you go: Anna Stellato's Pignoli.

I made Carolina style pulled pork in a slow cooker and it turned out really tender and pretty good , but the flavors weren't all there except the vinegar. Any good recipes you can recommend?

There's a recipe in the Serious Eats book that is easy and seriously delicious that our managing editor and food lab columnist Kenji Lopez-Alt created. Here's a link to it.

Do you have any gift ideas for the grill itself, Jim, not expensive, but useful? We have a 22 1/2" Weber.

Utensils are always welcome. (Somehow, they always end up lost or rusted.) Also, a grill mat under the grill, so the patio doesn't get greasy or the lawn doesn't burn. Finally, hinged cooking grates for easy addition of charcoal/wood.

It's lovely in cream sauces over meat.

I enjoyed the comparison article but you doomed the results of the gelato match by not choosing a gelato from Dolceeza (sp?) - the salted caramel is fabulous and in general the options are more sophisticated there than at the place you chose.

I prefer Pitango. I like Dolcezza -- but better for the flavors than the texture, IMHO. (And I like their sorbets best of all.)

We considered Dolcezza, but the consensus was that Pitango was superior. It's obviously a difference of opinion, given both take an artisanal approach to gelato.

Chestnuts and honey and mustard and it goes with cheese? I'm not having any luck finding recipes. So, do you have a recipe? And maybe serving suggestions?

There is a recipe for spiced-honey chestnuts in today's paper and online.

I use America's Test Kitchen (which also gives access to Cook's Country and Cook's Illustrated). Yes, they require a subscription for many recipes, but some are free and they are so often failsafe. And I'll admit, a lot comes up if you google the recipe title plus source for the various recipes that require a subscription....

Say it ain't so Joe, you're leaving the weekly Q&A's. Seriously you will be missed each week and best wishes on you're future ventures.


First, let me say that I really do like the Food Section. I think it does a great job of being interesting and informative. However, haven't we covered the NY v. DC scene enough? Somehow, it just wasn't that interesting, unless I am planning my next trip to NYC.

I think you'll find some dissenters here.

Can I ask why on many days you don't seem to put up new blog postings until 8 in the morning? By that time I and many other commuters are on our way to work. I know I can catch up from the office (sorry, boss!) but I really like having fresh food news with my morning coffee.

Thanks for that feedback. It sounds like we should start publishing our first item around 7 a.m., yes?

A fun read but c'mon, Tim. You took Ed Levine to Market Lunch, saying you appreciated them not cramming their authenticity down your throat? So Florida Ave. Grill, Ben's Chili Bowl or BMG Roast Beef for breakfast was out of the question because of their authenticity? Pancakes, grits and monster breakie sammiches are found in much better places here. To say nothing of old line (read: before food trucks) street food here, where was the burrito man on 15th and K st. that day? Maybe Ed might've given a better score to something he could relate to in his city. Taylor Gourmet? Okay but how about The Italian Store or even Fast Gourmet or Getty's, two newbies. C'mon Tim, if your choices rep the standards in DC you can shop around some more. Really.

I'm surprised it took this long for someone to really start fussing about our choices.

Me, too.

If there were no price limits, what qualified something as a "cheap" eat?

Except for the burger we didn't set strict price limits. This made the breakfast comparison unfair, I guess. Where we could we tried to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

Cheap is always relative, don't you think? My cheap is not your cheap. New York's cheap is not D.C.'s cheap.

For the most part, I think almost everything we ate was cheap or cheap-ish. I don't think you'd have to save money to visit most of these places. It's not like a trip to Komi or Citronelle or Per Se or Daniel.

I cook many types of pasta: dried and fresh, whole wheat and "regular." Many of my recipes invovle reserving some of the pasta cooking water for adding to the sauce. Do the various types of pasta mentioned above impact the usefullness/flavor of the reserved pasta water? (I haven't noticed any big differences, but have always been curious.) Sometimes fresh pasta only cooks for a minute, while some dried whole wheat types need 12 minutes - it just seems that there would be great variation in what's "emitted" into the water with such variation in cooking times and pasta types...

The reserved pasta cooking water is usually used to control the thickness of the sauce, since the cooking water has starch in it. It’s true that it doesn’t really add flavor.

Agree that many great cheap eats places are not in the heart of a downtown, but where NYC has us beat is that their outer boroughs where some of the good ethnic places are can be accessed via subway, but it's not so easy to get to Annandale for Korean or Langley Park for Indian here in DC on public transportation with having to take trains and switch to buses.

This is so very true -- and one of the great frustrations of the greater Washington area. We have cheap eats galore, many of them superb, but if you don't have transportation, you have to rent a Zip car, find a friend with wheels or lump it.

Throw Minneapolis into the you can't do it.

I'd love to throw Minneapolis or any other city for that matter into the mix. We might run out of stomach space, though.

I havent baked many cookies, but am going to do some tempting KArthur chocolate/molasses/gingerbread numbers. They chill for an hour in the fridge. How bad would it be to let them chill overnight? Is there a limit? Leavning is baking soda.

I would think it would be fine. But you know what? Just ask them. They are great about answering questions.

Do you have any favorite shrimp dip recipes?

Sub cooked chopped shrimp for crab in my deviled eggy crab dip, but cut down onthe Old Bay--I think it is a typo we need ot change. 1 tablespoon old Bay is too much--add a teaspoon and go from there.

Jim, your article on roasting chestnuts brought back memories of buying roasted chestnuts on street corners in Philadelphia - don't know if they can still do it now with all the "regulations", but they sure were good - glad to know people still enjoy them.

You're welcome for the memories. 

Another suggestion for a charcoal grill is a charcoal chimney, if the recipient doesn't already have one.

Hi David. I've been asking around, comparing various ideas to prepare a boneless 5 lb. strip roast for the holiday (along with duck breasts too.) I want to get it a perfect medium and serve it alongside dressing with a slightly thick gravy. Any recommendations for the roast?

As a matter of fact I do. This method, from Cathal Armstrong, is for a 2-3 bone, 5-pound rib roast, but it will work for your strip roast,too.

Preheat oven to 350. Season your roast well with coarse salt and cracked black pepper and sear it on all sides to brown medium, not dark. Place the roast on a flat rack set atop a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 50 minutes excatly. Turn the oven off and DO NOT open the door--leaving the roast for 70 minutes excatly. Remove and let the roast rest for 10 minutes before serving. It should be rosy all the way through, from edge to edge. (For medium, mayve roast for 55 minutes, but I think you'll be happy with it the way I suggested.)


I'd make gravy separately using stock made from browned meat scraps, roasted mirepoix, thyme, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaf, maybe rosemary. Reduce it to a jus (preferred in my opinion) or use the reduced jus to make gravy with roux or beurre manie.


Does our "Smoking" guru have any ideas for something grilled or smoked for Christmas dinner - one without a lot of fuss or worry? Thanks

Yes, and no. Yes, I have ideas. No, they don't come without fuss or worry. 

Actually, maybe one or two of them do. You could do steaks on the grill. Easy, fabulous. Close to fretless. 

You could smoke a goose. Very Christmasy. Alas, a bit of fret and worry. 

Is Hollywood East doing Dim Sum that day? I love their cart-delivered dim sum.

I just called Hollywood East and they will indeed be open on Christmas Day. They'll be serving dim sum from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Mmm, I love Hollywood East's dim sum!

Love your recipes! My mother used to make a dessert which involved cooking little pieces of dough in boiling honey and letting it cool, sometimes with nuts. I can't for the life of me remember what this is called. I looked through Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America, but didn't find it (perhaps because I couldn't remember the name)?

You’re looking for Zalabia recipe, I assume. Where is your mother from?
There are some recipes online, and for what I know you usually fry the dough in oil, and then cook it in sugar or honey syrup (made from equal parts water and sugar, and usually orange blossom water).

Or perhaps you're talking about teglach?

I will say Caroline's Cakes are f-ing incredible.

This one was new to me this year, and i was so grateful to be on the reciving end that i quickly got on line to be on the giving end:

Hello! Tasted a Brachetto wine in Florence earlier this year and have been looking for an excuse to find a bottle and relive the experience. Is Christmas dinner that opportunity? Our hostess is serving rack of lamb. Realizing the wine is sweeter and may not be appropriate for dinner, I thought it might be good with dessert? Is this is a good idea? If so where can I find a good bottle and how much can I expect to spend? If not, can you recommend a bottle of red that would go with lamb for around $20 that I can easily find at Total Wine or a grocery/ABC store in NoVa? Thanks for all your help and for the chats... they make my Wednesdays!

Dave McIntyre says:

Yes - Brachetto is great with chocolate desserts. I did a column on this idea for Valentines Day a couple years ago. Banfi's Rosa Regale is probably the most widely available, and should cost $20-$25.

Does DC have its own special bread that transplants to NYC might crave, like transplanted New Yorkers crave real bagels? Are real, NY bagels available fresh somewhere in DC? (That's DC -- not Rockville, Wheaton, etc.)

Bagels are a weak spot in D.C., not doubt about it. The best I've found are Goldberg's Bagels in Rockville and Silver Spring.

The era of hand-made artisan bagels is fading everywhere, however, as Ed can tell you.

Jim, loved the gift guide, but what about giving something a little bit bigger like a grill. Any suggestions - I'm thinking about charcoal rather than gas?

Depends on your budget. Basic, about $150: Weber kettle. Offset smoker, available in chain hardware stores, about $200. Up a notch, a great starter smoker (bullet-shaped), $300 or $400, depending on size you get: Weber Smokey Mountain. You can go up from there. Myron Mixon, the champion bbq celebrity, sells a smoker for $10,000. If you really love me...

My move to DC from New York was a reluctant one, and one of the things I knew I was going to miss was the incredible variety of food NYC had to offer. However, I've really enjoyed that DC has such enthusiastic champions for its own food scene, I've gotten to know some great places in my short time here. I say bring on the friendly rivalry!

As I wrote in the accompanying charticle, NYC is the gastronomic gold standard. No city likely can compete with it. But it's good to see how you stack up with NYC from time to time.

Whoops. Don't know how I missed that recipe. Thank you for your patience.

Does Smoke Signals know whether roasted chestnuts can be used for Chestnut paste?

Yes, they can. Just like using other chestnuts, only better, becasue they are grilled. 

Isn't it a bit much to expect a city with less than 1/10 the population of NYC to compare favorably? How about doing some future comparisons with other cities of comparable size? It's a bit much to think that we could be #1, but are we in the top 10? The top 5?

Do you think people care to read how D.C. food stacks up against, say, St. Louis? Everyone wants to know how they compare against NYC. For the obvious reasons.

I'll add a plug for Litteri and/or Mangialardo

Was just struggling at the sink when I remembered the food experts were available: is there an easy way to clean a mesh strainer? My current method is to impatiently poke at all the food bits stuck in the little holes as they refuse to respond to the stream of water from the tap, but there must be a better way!

I feel your frustration. Maybe try a dish-scrubbing brush to push the stuff out?

Jim, Read your article today and enjoyed it - question though - maybe I missed it, but where would one send money to help these kids? Thanks for any info.

Hi there, my Mom (now deceased) made the BEST beef soup ever, and alas, I don't know how she did it. She used soup bones, and I know it had barley in it. Any suggestions? I have a soup bone waiting!...thanks!

I just made a batch of terrific beef soup. Boil then simmer those soup bones in water to cover, plus a few bouillon cubes, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns, some halved onions, celery stalks. (Or use some beef broth instead of water.) Cook for 1-2 hours, until the meat is falling apart. Reserve the meat, pulled or cut into chunks. Strain the stock. Discard the veggies, bones (eat the marrow as a snack).

I like to cook the barley separately in salted water until it is al dente--it keepes the soup from getting too cloudy. Add chopped cubes, celery, carrots, sand onions ot the stock, lots of chopped garlic, some thyme, rosemary, oregano (whatver herbs you like), salt ,pepper, some tomato paste, crushed tomatoes and cook until the vegetables are almost cooked. Add the barley and continue cooking to meld all the flavors. Add the meat. Adjust seasoning. Aslo, add some baby spinach leaves at the end if you want. (You could leave the tomato products out if you don't want them--no hard and fast rules here.)

Well, you have cooked us for about 20 minutes or until our shells begin to scorch and pull away and our insides have turned golden, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great q's today, and thanks very much to Vered, Ed, and Jim for helping us handle them.

Now for the giveaway books: The chatter who's looking for "fried foods on Chanukkah that aren't your average latke" will get "Encyclopedia of Jewish Food." The one who asked re the cheap-eats smackdown if Tim Carman could be impartial will get "Serious Eats," signed by Ed himself.

Please send your mailing info to Becky at, and she'll see that you get your books.

Until next week, happy cooking, eating and reading!

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