Free Range on Food

Dec 24, 2013

Special Tuesday time! Bring us your last-minute Christmas cooking questions.
Every Wednesday at noon, Food section staff members and guests answer your burning culinary questions.
Past Free Range on Food chats

Greetings, all, and welcome to today's special Christmas Eve edition of Free Range!

Tell us what's on your mind, and we'll do our best to help out!

As always, we have books to give away: "The Washington Post Cookbook: Reader Favorites" edited (and signed!) by Bonnie, and "Eat Your Vegetables" written (and of course also signed!) by yours truly. Anyone needing last-minute Christmas gifts can just swing by and pick up this afternoon, even! (Or, of course, we'll mail...)

Let's do this!

How long will my cookies last? I made minty short bread cookies last weekend to give as gifts. My boss has been out sick so I couldn't give them to her when I wanted to and she won't be back until after new years. Will the cookies I left on her desk still be good?

Shortbread can handle about a week in an airtight  tin. They won't turn into a health hazard -- their texture might suffer a bit.  If they're sitting on a paper plate, maybe there will be a grease spot. :) It's the thought that counts. 

No question, just a big "thank you" to all the Free Rangers for doing these chats. Even when I can't view them in real time, I always check them later and have learned so much from them.

You're welcome! We learn a lot from doing them, too -- y'all keep us on our toes!

I have a recipe I want to try for an Italian sausage and kale gratin. But, it has goat cheese in it and my family members can sniff that out from miles away--they hate it. I was thinking maybe use a good ricotta, but that doesn't sound exactly right to me. Do you have a suggestion? Thanks.

"The Food Substitutions Bible" suggests cream cheese -- which was going to be my first recommendation -- or mascarpone.

I am leaning towards Macy's ANALON, but was wondering if others have any other recommendations. I am not a gourmet/connoisseur and need a skillet just for basic cooking. Thank you.

I'm not a big fan of Analon. I recommend a basic Martha Stewart stainless steel skillet (11 inches), which you can find at Macy's, I think. Under $30. Easy to clean, distributes heat well yet it feels heavy-duty. Nonstick's another story...#gotakitchenSanta?

Are they only available as juice?

White cranberry juice is made from berries that are picked a few weeks earlier than usual, before the cranberries develop their characteristic color. But I've never seen them as whole berries, no. Any chatters have a different experience?

Happy holidays and thank you for working on Christmas Eve to liven things up! I'm starting the new year on a low carb liquid diet (medical reasons, not a resolution gone wild). Any festive broth options? I was going to say soup, but who are we kidding.

Well, you could take inspiration from this piece I wrote awhile back on the intersection of smoothies and soups. These particular recipes might not work for you because of the carbs, but you could probably see ways to shave those numbers.

I love the sound of this Thai Hot and Spicy Broth (Gaeng Prik). It's the kind of soup I crave when I'm not well enough for heavy food.

Last night when I opened the freezer on the top of the fridge, a bag of shrimp and several other things fell on me. Enough! i cut a piece of gripper shelf liner, laid it over the top of the pile and placed the fallen items on it. They stayed in place! Problem solved. Merry Christmas to you all and many thanks for the gifts you've given us all year long.

This tip could not have come at a better time for me. I just moved into a new house with a new fridge/freezer, and a friend JUST gave me a few rolls of gripper shelf liner!

Have you seen this? I would love for you to check this out and let us know what you think. I'm so tempted to get one, even though I don't have a problem shaping my pizza dough and, come to think of it, I usually make my pizza square.

The link you provided wasn't working, but are you talking about this gadget? I'd not heard of it before, but I'm with you -- I feel like my hands and rolling pin work just fine, and these days I am loath to add anything to my already overflowing kitchen! Has anyone tried it and liked it enough to convince us otherwise?

It's just two of us for Christmas this year and the store only had turkey breast chops. Any advice/recipes? I'm making a mint pea risotto and a kale salad on the side.

Good morning and Merry Christmas! As always, thanks so much for all that you do. I've submitted many questions and you have never lead me astray. I am looking for something to eat tomorrow morning, but would like to do the bulk of the prep tonight. We are a bit sweet-heavy right now (the salted Nutella thumbprints are in the oven right now!) so I would like to stick to savory. I can make a pretty good strata or breakfast casserole, but my fiance is not a real fan. I would like to try making a savory bun, perhaps with cheese and herbs instead of the cinnamon and sugar? Can I use my regular recipe and just add these ingredients? Could I make them this afternoon and bake them tomorrow? Thanks again for the great chats!

You're welcome! Glad you found us today -- and excellent choice on the cookies.  If you're up for a little recipe rehab? I love this recipe for Saffron Buns. They are beautiful and smell like holiday heaven in the oven. You could simply not fill them, or change the 6 ounces of almond paste to a mixture of herbs and farmer cheese.  You could let them rise slowly overnight in the refrigerator, then let them rise a second time for the 30-45 mins before you bake them.


These sweet potato rolls would be great  to herb-up, too.  You can bake ahead and freeze, then reheat as directed. 


And then for Something Completely Diffferent, bake up a batch of Cheesy Popcorn Bread.  

Goat cheese is one of those foods I'm convinced people only pretend to like because it's "in." People go on about the texture, but face it, people, along with the texture is the vey distinctive flavor of "goat!" Not that goats aren't lovely animals, and I don't even particularly mind the way that they smell. But I DON'T want to EAT that smell. Perhaps there is some chemical in goat cheese that only certain people can detect (like cilantro or Brussels sprouts) that makes them loath it? It's the only thing I can think of that could make people able to stomach the stuff.

I love goat cheese and have for ages. Not because it's "in," because ... well, it hasn't always been so "in," right?

I want to brine a turkey for the first time, and am following Alton Brown's basic brine recipe. He calls for allspice berries, which I don't have. What other spices can I throw in there?

Whatcha got?  Whole clove would be stronger but you could use that. Or just leave it out. You don't want to use ground spices, I think. 

Star anise?

I'm cooking a small (5 pounds) PRIME prime rib first time by myself for Christmas dinner for my daughter & myself this year. My husband used to do the kosher salt slow roast thing and I'm thinking about doing it this year the same way. Other (full-proof) suggestions?

Chef Cathal Armstrong suggests this method in his forthcoming book, "My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve," (Ten Speed Press, March 11, 2014). It's both a foolproof method as well as a shameless plug, since I co-authored the book with him.
Cathal's father taught him this method (roasting in a cold oven), which yields slices that are medium rare from edge to edge rather than a medium rare  center surrounded by a gray flap of meat.

This is for 1 (5-pound) bone-in beef roast (2 to 3 ribs)

 Trim the roast: Using a boning knife, trim excess fat from the roast, leaving a 1/4-inch layer on top. Cut the trimmed fat into approximately 1-inch pieces and reserve them for rendering later. French the roast by cutting away all of the meat around and between the ends of the ribs to completely denude 2 inches of the bones. Cut the scraps into 1-inch pieces and reserve them to make a sauce later.
Sear the roast: Generously season the roast on all sides with salt and pepper. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons of canola oil until it shimmers. Place the roast in the pan and sear it for about 1 minute on each side and on the top until it is medium (not dark) brown.

Do not preheat the oven. Transfer the roast to a flat rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet and put it on the lower oven rack. Turn the oven to 350°F and bake the roast for exactly 50 minutes. Turn the oven off, and leave the roast inside for 70 minutes exactly. DO NOT open the oven door. When this time has elapsed, remove the roast from the oven. 

The roast will have rested in the oven and can therefore be sliced immediately. The rendered fat from the trimmings is used to make Yorkshire Pudding, of course. 

I really enjoyed the review of La Fromagerie, one of my favorite spots in Alexandria. The beef cheek sandwich is amazing. On a bargain-hunting note, right as you enter, they have a table with wines on sale for $10 - it's become my go-to wine-buying spot.

Tim is out, but I'm going to thank you on his behalf. I've walked by that place for years now thinking I ought to go in. And now I definitely will! Soon.

Decades ago, a mathematician was talking about his wife's goats. He was about to tell us the secret to goat milk and cheese that doesn't taste "goaty", but then he suddenly became lost in thought. Never did find out the answer.

If I make the slow-cooker turkey breast w/gravy that is in your database, will it be terribly marred by my removing the skin and broiling it separately to make some gorgeous dark, crispy, bacon-like turkey skin for my huband? Will the breast end up being dry? Tx. This SF reader loves your food section better than all the rest.

Thank you, SF reader! I didn't test it that way...if you want to try it, maybe soak cheesecloth in olive oil/white wine then drape it over the nakedness. That should ward off dryness. Or invert the breast so it's in the liquid. 


Are you up for trying the Extremely Slow-Roasted Turkey Breast? That way he'd get the skin and you'd be one happy cook.  It's a great way to go. 

I bought a jar of fig butter at Trader Joe's and, aside from schmearing it on toast with a little cottage cheese, wondered if I could cook with it and, if so, what? Are there any recipes for a fig newton type cookie that can be made at home? Anything else that comes to mind? I find a little goes a long way when eating it 'straight' from the jar.

I've used that fig butter on pizza and grilled cheese. You could also try David's recipe for Asian Pear Gingerbread Newtons and swap out the filling.

Asian Pear Gingerbread Newtons

And here's another recipe option from Serious Eats.

Could I go a completely opposite direction? Fennel seeds? I'm open to any and all suggestions.

I gotta say, I'm a no-frills briner. I don't even bother to boil it first. I put some garlic cloves in a large bag, smash them with a hammer or meat cleaver, add some bay leaves, thyme sprigs, peppercorns (maybe some rosemary) and salt (I never measure it), add some water and seal the bag. I massage the salt to dissolve it. Then I put whatever I'm brining in the bag, which I have set in a large bowl to stabilize it. You could add whatever else you wanted: allspice, juniper, star anise, fennel seeds as you suggest...but I prefer to keep it all fairly neutral. If the turkey is too big for a bag, I use a large pot. I aslo add ice cubes to make sure it's all extra cold.  I don't use sugar, by the way, but feel free to.

I am doing a scalloped sweet potato / russet potato dish and would like to prepare tonight and bake tomorrow. Do you see any issues with that? Also, I'd like mine fairly cheesy with lots of herbs. Any particular suggestions? Also should I do a breadcrumb on top? Thanks enjoy your holidays...You guys deserve it!! Thanks for your insight!

Overnight refrigeration should be fine. I'd wrap it tightly with plastic wrap. If you like it cheesy, I'd hold that bread crumb thought and stick with a fresh, shredded topcoat of your favorite melty/brown-y cheese in the last 20 mins of baking. Although the crumb topping that was on the Ottolenghi fennel gratin is unexpected and pretty fabtastic. 

My in-laws will be coming into town tonight. Typically for Christmas eve and Christmas day, they provide snacks and we nosh all day. For tonight, we'll have shrimp cocktail and tomorrow we'll have ham, rolls, and a crab dip. But we need some side dishes. Any ideas for relatively easy side dishes that would go with shrimp cocktail tonight and with ham and crab dip tomorrow?

For tomorrow, how about Wild Rice and Quinoa Pilaf With Toasted Pecans and Dried Cranberries? Or Sweet and Sour Pumpkin? Or good old Mac and Cheese?

For tonight, hmm...

Honestly, I can't stop thinking about John Martin Taylor's Blue Cheese Straws, because a certain guest brought them to our annual holiday party at my new place over the weekend and I couldn't control myself. They're amazing. And pretty simple, actually. They would be SO GOOD with the shrimp cocktail, I would think.

The other possibility, naturally, would be nuts, nuts, nuts! How about the Spicy Cashews that we are all so enamored of over here? Might not be the easiest thing to get the kaffir lime leaves on short notice, though, so maybe the Walnut-Stuffed Dates instead?

And I can't help but think that it might be fun to add another of our favorite, easiest snacks: Chocolate Grapes! Always a fun surprise for people.

i am making short ribs tomorrow and the recipe calls for horseradish mixed w/ creme fraiche to put over the top. Sounds delicious to me. My boyfriend is white condiment averse (mayo and sour cream may never cross his lips), but I'd love him to at least try the horseradish creme fraiche. As cooking experts, can you help me on the differences between sour cream and creme fraiche that would help sell him on trying it as something new? Thanks. (and in the new year, we can work on getting him to try mushrooms. I've accomplished zucchini this year, which is enough!)

Tell your BF that creme fraiche is designer sour cream. It's got a slight tang, and tastes richer and creamier. Because he's WCA (a new one on me), why not stir in a little beet juice or paprika? Prob solved. 


Re the mushroom thing: I was that way once upon a time -- I chalk it up to knowing only the canned slices of rubber in my youth. Take the BF to whichever farmers market Ferial Welsh, The Mushroom Lady is at. Buy him a salad with her freshly fried, meaty mushrooms nestled on top (might have to skip the accompanying goat cheese). He will come around. 

For reasons too silly to go into, I have a big round of queso fresco. What interesting can I do with it? Preferably soup-ish or stew-ish or bread-ish

I tend to think of queso fresco as a garnish. So you could use it on top of this Latin Black Bean Soup or perhaps these Southwestern Grits With Queso Fresco, Cilantro and Lime.

Southwestern Grits With Queso Fresco, Cilantro and Lime

Other ideas?

If I take a whole turkey breast (with bones) out of the freezer now and put it in the fridge, will it be thawed in time to start cooking it tomorrow afternoon?

TAMAR HASPEL: Probably not, but never fear.  Fill your sink, or a large vessel, with cold water tomorrow, about an hour (or possibly two, depending on how big it is) before you're planning to cook.  Submerge the bird breast (put it in a ziploc bag if it's not already packaged in a waterproof way), and it will finish thawing quickly and safely, and you will turn it into something delicious.

You CAN roast the thing frozen. It will just take longer. Consult the handy FSIS online guide.

I dread the day my 20-yr-old hard-anodized aluminum pots, pans, and skillets (both Calphalon and Calphalon-copies) give up the ghost. They are going strong, but some are starting to show a little silvery. I love how heavy/solid they are, I love how they go from stove to oven, I love how they are naturally non-stick (those black stains are SEASONING), and I don't even mind hand-washing. I have a couple of well-seasoned cast iron skillets that are in rotation, but they aren't all truly interchangeable. Does ANYONE still produce that hard-anodized aluminum both inside and out? I hate non-stick. Am I just going to have to go stainless at some point and learn to moderate the heat ??

If you love Calphalon, why don't you just get more? They still make the hard-anodized stuff...

Hi Rangers - thanks for doing a chat this week! Just wondering - what do all of you have for your Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals? We're having chicken divan tonight and roast beef tomorrow. Merry Christmas and thanks for a great year of FOOD

For once, my husband and I are staying in town for the holidays, which I love. There is nothing better than an emptied-out DC during holday periods.  Also a first for me for Christmas Eve--we are eating dinner out, in a lovely restaurant, though no doubt we will be stuffed before we get there with the party mix that is in the oven right now. Turkey dinner tomorrow afternoon at my sister's house. I have a rib roast dry-aging in the refrigerator, but have no idea yet when we will eat it. I'm sure prospective guests will avail themselves of the opportunity within the next few days.

Tonight: burritos. Tomorrow: Chinese takeout. As you can imagine, we are not of the Christmas-celebrating population. So probably not the answer you were looking for. :-)

I'm usually with family, but this year because of my move (and because all my recent book travels left me without any more vacation time!), I'm sticking close to home. I'm sorta craving Toki Underground, so might do that tonight. Tomorrow, going with the BF and a friend to another friend's relatively chaotic household for a potluck. I'm taking a bunch of cookies left over from my party the other day, and also making a big puff pastry tart topped with roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions, Brussels sprouts, walnuts and blue cheese. Should be fun!

We are grateful you found us today. Love the chat and our chatters and our readers -- we really learn a lot from you guys, too.


I think Christmas is a real roast beef/beast holiday -- I applaud your choice. Tonight I'll be baking Christmas cookies for a friend who's under the weather. Tomorrow, TWO movies with Chinese food in between. (And scraping the royal icing off the table.)


That gadget looks like it might be useful for smaller things such as wraps, scallion pancake, samosas, etc.

Good thinking! If anyone tries it, I'd love a report.

Help! I am looking for a good gingerbread roll cake recipe for tomorrow! I thought I had one, but now I can't find it. Do you all have a tried and true recipe or a trusted source?

You have unwittingly discovered a blank space in our Recipe Finder where a gingerbread roll cake should be! We will try to take care of that for next year. This recipe looks okay, although I think I'd cut back on the whipped cream. Happy baking! 

"Turn the oven to 350°F and bake the roast for exactly 50 minutes. Turn the oven off, and leave the roast inside for 70 minutes exactly." So, 20 more minutes for a total of 70, or 50 followed by 70 for a total of 120?

50 + 70. A total of 120.

How does one make savory shortbread? I have made ginger shortbread in the past, and topped it with goat cheese whipped with cherry preserves, and curry shortbread, topped with cream cheese whipped with chutney. I'd like to expand that list, but my shortbread recipes, and all the shortbread recipes I can find are just a bit too sweet for most of my ideas. Any advice?

Thanks for joining us today -- happy holidays, everyone!

Now for the cookbook winners: The chatter who asked about what to make for side dishes for tonight and tomorrow will get "Eat Your Vegetables." The one who asked about thawing a turkey breast will get "The Washington Post Cookbook." Send your mailing info to Becky at, and we'll get you your (signed) books!

NOTE: We'll do this again next week, chatting a day early on Tuesday, Dec. 31, instead of Wednesday the 1st. So mark your calendars.

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is editor of the Food section; joining us today are deputy editor Bonnie Benwick and editorial aide Becky Krystal. Guest: Food section contributor David Hagedorn; Unearthed columnist Tamar Haspel.
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