Free Range on Food: Store brands, neighborhood markets and more

Feb 26, 2014

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 chat!

What's on your mind? Cooking with store brands, as Bonnie wrote about today? Exploring some of DC's new wave of neighborhood groceries, as David Hagedorn's been doing? Shaking up a Gibson a la Carrie Allan?

David and Carrie join us today to help answer your q's, and who knows? We might even have a Jim "Smoke Signals" Shahin sighting! Make those q's good, btw -- somebody around here is going to win a cookbook before this is all over!

Let's get to it.

Hi! I seared a roast in my Dutch oven and for once followed the recipe to the letter and did 3 minutes per side. Mistake! The brown sugar in the rub burned and now I have black scorched stuff on the bottom of the pot. I scrubbed what I could and poured in vinegar to soak overnight, but it's still fairly black. Any ideas for my next move? Maybe heat it on the stove with vinegar or salt water in it? I don't want to use anything abrasive that would damage the enamel.

:( When I burn stuff like that, I boil a kettle of water and and pour it in, or boil water in the pot. Then let it soak, soak, soak. And I've used coarse kosher salt for scrubbing, to no ill effect. 

Joe, this is for you. I need some help now that I have changed my diet. I no longer eat red meat, chicken or dairy products. My family is in NY and I went for a visit this past weekend to celebrate my 65th birthday thinking that they would make me something I could eat at the small celebration. I gave them all the hints, tips, etc. Well to my surprise it was the attitude of this is what we eat and if you don't, sorry. So for my birthday dinner I had a green salad while they feasted on chicken wings, potato salad, spinach dip and mac and cheese. What I want to know is what can I take with me next time on the bus (4 hour ride) that I can eat over the weekend in NY? They live out on the Island and there are no stores close by. Thanks

Well, that's not very hospitable of them, is it? Especially since you let them know, and it was a celebration in honor of you?! Hmm. Well, onto the next time, I guess: Do you want things you can cook there, or do you want to do the cooking in advance and take those dishes?

If the latter, you could certainly make, for instance:

This lovely German-style potato salad (uses vinegar/oil instead of mayo).

Some spicy lentil taco filling (and serve/eat them with vegan cheese and soy yogurt if desired).

My recent Smoked Tofu Salad and some crusty bread to make sandwiches.

So many other possibilities!


Stephanie, this looks great, and I happen to have a couple of Seville oranges left over after a marmalade rampage. I think I can see how to substitute their juice in the marinade, but would they be too sour to use in the beans?

Marmalade rampage! Good band name. Stephanie says you could always add a little sugar if the oranges did turn out to be too sour.  (FYI, check the recipe online now;  it's been updated to include when orange segments go into the beans.)

You compared 9 different store brands of canned tomatoes and thought they were comparable. But, how do they compare to Whole Foods 365 brand, or Muir Glen or Cento or any other name brand? I've always been leery of trying the store brands for tomatoes.

I am a longtime user of both those brands. While I didn't do a straight, plain Spy v Spy taste test of crushed tomatoes (name vs private labels) -- I can say that lasagnas and pasta sauces and stews that I normally use those name brands for did not taste different.  The marketing guy at Red Gold told me that his company's own Tuttorosso label outsells all brands in the NJ-NY area -- even accounting for all the Italian import brands in stores there. And I think it's important to remember that manufacturers of private label products are in R&D to make their stuff taste as close to, or better, than popular name brands. 

My kitchen knives, which were purchased as a post-graduation-housewarming gift, are either dull or just bad. They were never super fancy knives, but seemed to be fine. But now they're just not working as they should. Do I invest in knife sharpening or just get new knives? And if new knives, what can you recommend? Thanks!

So many questions for you!

How old are they?

Have you ever had them sharpened?

Do you hone them on a honing steel regularly?

If they were nice and sharp, would you like them?

I ask for lots of reasons. First, though, it's important to know the difference between honing and sharpening. True sharpening puts a new edge on a knife, while honing is aimed at aligining the edge and maintaining sharpness. If the knives are several years old and you've never sharpened nor honed them, then it's perfectly normal for them to have gotten dull, and if you like them generally, you should just have them sharpened. Not sure where you're located, but options include Sur La Table stores, La Cuisine in Alexandria,  DC Sharp in Union Market and the online service KnifeSpa.

If you want to explore getting new knives, I have a couple of recommendations: First, don't fall for the set-of-knives idea, because most sets include things you really won't use that often, if at all, which means you're spending money where you don't need, instead of spending it on better-quality knives (a couple or three) that you'll use again and again. For my money, you can do 90% of your kitchen work with a chef's knife and a paring knife. Get a bread knife if you eat a lot of crusty whole loaves that you want to be able to easily cut, and/or a utility knife if you're a lover of slicing up soft fruits like tomatoes and peaches without smooshing them. Only think about such things as a filleting/boning knife if you do those things in your kitchen quite frequently, because a good paring knife can usually do the trick.

The other thing is possibly the most important: Only buy knives that you can hold in your hand and make sure they feel good and comfortable. If possible, take a knife skills class so you know how to hold them, and do this before you buy. If you go to a great store like La Cuisine, the Cuisinettes will let you handle knives and will offer great advice.


I recently learned that I could toast cumin seeds in a dry skillet and then grind them in a coffee grinder. The smell is absolutely intoxicating (and presumably legal). Are there other whole spices which would particularly benefit from this technique?

Other candidates would be cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves, fennel seed, peppercorns, star anise, coriander seed and mustard seed.

Whole chiles!

Hi! My partner is pescatarian, which I find wonderful and have fully embraced since I do have the goal of becoming vegetarian and this is a good first step for me. A couple of weeks ago, he got a new cat (an energetic male since he fears anything female loving him unconditionally). Most of the time it is great, but when I am cooking now, Bonkers goes, well, bonkers! I really don't want to give up fish and I don't think my partner does either, but are there ways - either through circulation/ventilation or maybe even through preparation that will allow me to not make the entire flat smell like fish and bring some peace back to my second-favorite thirty minutes of the day (cooking dinner)? Thanks for your help!


Fish aroma is always a problem, particularly in a small house or apartment that has poor ventilation. (Like mine!)


There are a number of things you can do to reduce, if not elimination fish odors. You could start with smaller, faster-cooking fish and remove the skin. You could also steam the fish. Both methods help reduce odor (though perhaps not enough to stop your kitty from going bonkers).

The method I'd try is cooking your fish en papillote in the oven. That's just a fancy way of saying to cook your fish in parchment paper, which keeps the flesh really moist and keeps many of the aromas trapped inside.


Here's a Halibut en Papillote from chef Esther Lee at Obelisk.

The recipe doesn't say what to do with the supremes (never heard orange sections referred to that way) after they are prepared. The photo shows them with the black beans, but when are they added?

D'oh, and I apologize. They are added after the beans are warmed through. The corrected recipe appears online. 

Thanks to David for today's article and the recipes his shopping inspired (which in turn inspired me). But it would have been very helpful to provide addresses for these places.

We were able to run a list of addresses in just one of our zones, but have a look at this map we built for everyone to see online. That will have everything you're looking for.

Hi free rangers, any suggestions for an awesome vegan dessert I can bring to a dinner party? Thanks!

Two thoughts, one more involved and one less:

Vegan Champagne Cupcakes With Passion Fruit Frosting: This is the more involved one, obviously, but c'mon, don't you want to make these? You can do them as a layer cake instead if the cupcake thing bugs ya.

Chocolate Beet Pots de Creme. Super easy, and really kinda brilliant. Here's my dirty little secret: Even though I'm a confessed beet obsessive, I have made these without the beet juice, and I love them that way, too! And you could drizzle a little fantastic olive oil (or walnut oil, or pistachio oil) on top, with a little sea salt, to take them over the top. Or, wait, REALLY over the top would be to put them in little vegan tart shells, right?


I have some chicken breast thawed for dinner tonight. I was going to make chicken a la king until my husband informed me he hates it. I have all the makings for it so any suggestions to spice it up or make it more desirable?

Here are 2 ways to go; chatters, have at it, too:

1. Poach or saute the chicken, preferably with your favorite seasoning, then add to the soup -- maybe toss in a little mushroom powder or fresh lime or lemon juice. 


2. Serve the soup as a separate first course, or save for a casserole.  Pound the chicken between 2 pieces of plastic wrap until it's quite thin.  Season them with salt and pepper. Saute those big flat pieces in a a little olive oil over med-high heat until just done and lightly crisped on the edges; toss in a little lemon juice and maybe capers or fresh sage leaves and a knob of butter at the end. Serve with wild rice. 

Hello: I miss Cowgirl Creamery. The cheeses were terrific and the staff knowledgeable and friendly. Do you know of any other cheese places like that in that neighborhood (Penn Quarter/Metro Center) or in the Tenleytown/Friendship Heights area? Whole Foods was okay but the staff, while friendly, weren't particularly knowledgeable. Thanks.

I know, that does leave a Swiss cheese-like hole in the neighborhood, doesn't it? My typical go-to chese recs are Cheesetique (in Virginia, alas) and Righteous Cheese (in Union Market). You could visit some of the markets highlighted in David's story that fit into your geographic parameters, including Broad Branch Market, Little Red Fox and Menu/MBK -- all of which told me they have cheese. Other options: Dean & Deluca, Calvert Woodley, Wagshal's and Cork Market. 

Joe, I made something similar to this for lunch this week, and my chickpea-spinach-coconut-curry combination was a real winner (to clean out the fridge, I also added cauliflower and a small, diced sweet potato and small, diced red potato). The benefit of spinach, I think, is that I took the pot off the heat before stirring it in, and so far this week it's retained its color and texture (and, I hope, vitamins) even after microwaving. This is a great alternative to stirfry for a week's lunches!

Sounds good! I am always a fan of the clean-out-the-fridge approach. Nice work!

Here's that Stir-Fried Spiced Collards and Chickpeas recipe for those of you following along at home -- or work.

Also, most hardware stores and Union Meat at Eastern Market


Was excited to another great review of your book in today's Boston Globe. Served as a reminder to order a copy for my single, student daughter.

Thanks much!

I did that to my dutch oven not to long ago and used Bar Keepers Friend - worked perfectly.

Ditto. Also, I feel like we've covered this well-scrubbed ground before, haven't we? Baking soda?

I wrote a couple of weeks ago to ask how one could tell if an egg was still good. It was mostly just out of curiosity; SURELY the carton in my fridge, which was a month beyond the expiration date, was useful only as a chemical weapon. But lo and behold--they they did not float. What the what?? How much food have I thrown away because I've only checked the expiration date without testing it first??

Funny -- A couple of weeks ago you told us they were "slightly past-due eggs," not a month! Anyway, not sure why they didn't float, but I wouldn't take it as gospel that this means that they're not old, obviously. I wouldn't chance it.

And now for your reading pleasure: the piece Jane Black wrote for us a few months back about efforts to streamline the sell-by/use-by system and make it more useful and consistent.

I like kale. My family does not. They don't like it as chips or in salad. They don't like it sauteed with garlic or finished with tahini. I've had success with soups involving meat. Give me your best vegetarian kale recipes, please!

Have they had it massaged for a salad? I have a recipe in my book for a Spicy Kale Salad With Miso-Mushroom Omelet that I have yet to serve to anyone who doesn't love it.

Or you could go in the other direction, and do something hot and gooey and satisfying, like:

Kale and Butternut Squash Gratin

Celery Root-Kale Gratin With Walnut Bread Crumbs


I am hoping to make the Ottolenghi lamb rib chops with walnut, fig, and goat cheese salad this weekend. But can I find fresh figs in the grocery store now? If not, is there something you suggest I replace the fresh figs with? Thanks!

Nope. I haven't seen fresh figs in awhile in stores. Wait -- I did see some at La Boqueria in Barcelona last week, but that might be a bit far to go for this recipe, eh? I'd be tempted to use dried figs that you rehydrate in a little red wine.

Collards? Yes. Chickpeas? YES. Appropriate spices? YESSS. Joe, I think we have a winner for tonight!


This is a frequent problem for me - I like corn tortillas for fish tacos, enchiladas, et cetera, but I can never use a whole package before they go bad! I sometimes throw them in the freezer, but never have time to separate them all so they don't become one big lump. Any creative ideas for using them up? Bonus if the final product freezes well!

Assuming you mean the refrigerated rounds in a bag? Brush with a little oil, season with salt and cut them into strips; they crisp up pretty well on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven or in a very quick fry of hot oil. Or leave them whole and do the same; you can slather on everything from Nutella to mascarpone and caramelized fruit or simply dust with smoked paprika or cinnamon sugar and snack away. But here are a few use-ups: 

* Quesadillas/tostadas. So many ways to go. Chorizo, Tangy Guac and Fresh Cheese; Potato;  Corn, Bean and Red Onion; take a spin through our Recipe Finder, why don't ya.

* Tortilla soup. They make a perfect thickener; see here

* Chilaquiles. Cut into triangles then toast in the oven at 350 until crisp -- the basis for a Breakfast of champions.  

* Tortilla Pie. Riff a little. 

Good day! After some somewhat disconcerting medical results last year, I started making an effort to really focus on more natural and raw foods in my diet. It was amazing how much better my health became in such a short period. Anyway, in the past couple of months work has really heated up and I have found myself picking up more prepared meals. I figure it's better to eat something moderately healthy than going to bed hungry, right? But, it's still disheartening to look at the label and see things like sulfur dioxide, calcium propronate, sodium fellate, and sorbic acid going into my body. Plus I can tell it is starting to affect my health again. Are there some steps I can take to be able to eat clean foods even when totally crimped for time? Thanks for your ideas!

The key, IMHO, is to get in the habit of making building blocks of dishes on the weekends when you have more time and then pull them into quick, fresh-tasting meals on busy weeknights. So, roast pans of vegetables, make pots of beans, make brown rice. Refrigerate or freeze in individual containers so you can quickly thaw and use them to make quick pasta dishes, stir-fries, soups.

The local Ace hardware store sharpened mine for $5 or $7 vs other kitchen stores that charge by the size. Ace will also sharpen your scissors to. I also second what Joe said about knive sets and focusing on just a few. I always use my chef knife, bread knife and paring knife. I got a tomatoe knife as a wedding present and LOVE it. I would recomend getting one of those if you eat a lot of tomatoes but otherwise, I don't use other knives.


I need to replace the formica counters in my kitchen and am wondering whether there's a consensus here on what is the best material for counters if one is concerned only with function (that is, my main concern is the best surface for working on but also ease of cleaning). I do the normal sorts of cooking and make all my bread by hand. The formica has been fine but it's wearing out. I don't particularly care about looks.

Lots of opinions, I'm sure, and there's also the price and availability factors, right? If all else were equal (price, availability, etc.), I'd probably do stainless steel for much of it, plus a section of butcher block. But that's me.

Hi Foodies, I bought some truffle oil in 2010 and haven't opened it. It's been kept in a cupboard since then, hence why I keep forgetting about it. Is it still good? If so, any recommendations on what I could use it for? I initially bought it for dipping bread into but like I said, always forget about it. I'm having friends over in a couple of weeks and would like to use it then if there are different options (dipping bread, cooking, etc). I'm open to any and all suggestions since I obviously don't want it sitting there for another couple of months. Thank you!

I'd pitch it.  Best-case scenario (optimum cool, steady storage without a lot of heat or light), the bottle would last a year. Hope it's a small one. 

No idea if this works, but Ask Heloise recommends denture tablets for a lot of tough cleaning jobs. I'm going to buy some this weekend to try to clean a badly stained thermos.

Can a honing steel be worn out? If you sharpen a knife regularly with the honing steel will it still need to be sharpened professionally occasionally? We have a high quality carving knife that doesn't seem as sharp now, even though we use the honing steel regularly. We have had the knife about 7 years and we use it quite a bit, not just at holidays for carving big things.

Yes, the honing steel will take you only so far -- eventually you need to actually sharpen the knife. It's not that the honing steel is worn out, it's that the edge of the knife has worn down, despite all the regular honing. That is normal. Get it sharpened and keep up the honing, and you'll get much more life out of it, I bet.

I've recently gone full vegetarian and I've been liking recipes that use lentils as a substitute for what would traditionally be meat. I'm pretty sure that I could do the substitution in a lot of recipes that call for, say, ground beef, but I'm wondering about amounts. Beef is usually called for in lbs, and lentils are by volume. Any idea how many cups of cooked ground beef you get out of a pound?

Oh, boy, a little math! Not sure I can gin up a meat amount in terms of volume (my usual sources only do weight). How about knowing how many lentils will correspond to a pound of beef? According to this chart from the USDA, you can expect about a 69 percent cooked yield from ground beef. So 1 pound will get you about 11 ounces cooked; 11 ounces is about 311 grams. According to our nutritional system, 1 cup of cooked lentils is 198 grams. So about 1 2/3 cups of cooked lentils will equal, in weight, the amount of cooked ground beef from a pound of raw ground beef.

Make sense? Anyone have other thoughts?

One thought to add: Experiment!

Thanks for answering my fig question. Could you give me a little more direction around rehydrating them? Is that just soaking them or would I simmer them in the wine? Thanks again!

Sure. Put them in a small saucepan and pour in just enough red wine to barely cover. Bring it to a boil, cover the pan, remove from the heat, and let them sit for an hour or two. Strain them, and then use the wine for something like  Mulled Red Wine Syrup.

I don't feel a need to buy name brand foods. What I DO feel is a need to know about the food itself. That is, how is it grown? How is it processed? Can I feel safe eating it? Some store brands provide this information. So many don't. I'd be a LOT more inclined to shop at a place like Aldi if I could get information about the food.

I hear that. While Aldi and other store brands might not provide info much beyond "made in the USA," they do carry all-natural and organic foods. There'd be less guesswork involved about processing. Just about every store brand label has a consumer 800 number on it these days; it takes a few minutes on your part to call and do the research. 

Dear David, First, which of the markets that you mention in today's Food section sell really nice bread? Do they bake it themselves or buy from a local baker? Or more generally, where can we get a really nice baguette in the DC area? Nothing I've tried seems to come close to the Eric Kayser baguettes I am used to in Paris. And second question, can you recommend a wine to go with that delicious looking recipe of yours of glazed salmon on a pea puree also in the Food section today? Many thanks.

I'm happy to say that they all carry decent bread, which they are buying local bakers such as  St. Michel,  Lyon Bakery, Panorama Bakery and Baguette Republic. For my money, Baguette Republic makes the superior loaf. Menu MBK carries it. (We are all awaiting the opening of Bread Furst, Mark Furstenberg's new bakery due to open in Van Ness in April. Mark considers the baguette the hallmark of great baking, so his entry  will likely be a contender in the Best Of category.)

As to wine paring with the salmon, I served this dish at a dinner party last Saturday (but with an addition of a caviar smattering)and we opened up a couple of bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse to go with it. I think a Meursault would also be a great match or Chablis.   Also not against Pinot Noir with salmon.

For the person who suggested denture tablets and mentioned a badly stained thermos. If the thermos is stainless steel, dump some baking soda into it (a generous amount) then fill it with hydrogen peroxide. Let it sit a while, swish with a bottle brush, and be pleasantly surprised. This is the only way we found to clean a stainless steel coffee carafe (that was a "work anniversary" gift and still the best thing I got from that job...). The denture tablets might work on ceramic or plastic, but the combo of NAHCO3 and H202 saved the day for stainless.

I feel so bad for the birthday person! What an inconsiderate family--and he/she sounds very forgiving. Congratulations on the new eating habits. I've been wanting to tell someone lately how much I like the BBQ tofu from Veganomicon. It would probably travel well and is easy to make also, should you decide to cook at your destination.


How long does buttermilk typically last beyond the "sell by" date? The stores where I shop seem to have large containers, 1 quart, and I usually need only a small amount, maybe a cup. Do you have any recipes that would use up my leftover buttermilk?


One of my favorites is Pecan-Chocolate-Espresso Coffee Cake (making it this weekend, I think!).

Pecan-Chocolate-Espresso Coffee Cake

Or maybe Buttermilk Cheesecake?

And of course, any number of waffle, pancake or biscuit recipes.

Love my Cambria (quartz). Low maintenance, doesn't need to be sealed, cleans easily. Plus it comes in cool colors! It is more on the pricey side, but we have a small kitchen and quotes can vary widely between retailers.

I have had good lucking boiling water in the pan with a heavy sprinkle of baking soda!

Hi, Bonnie! I'm so jealous that you'll get to interview the Barefoot Contessa when she comes to town! Any chance she'll be bringing her Numero Uno Amigo Miguel with her? Aye aye aye! He can make the centerpiece for me and my partner any day! Ciao!

You sound like a committed fan of her show! It's a quick trip for the Contessa, accompanied by one assistant, for her appearance at the Lisner Auditorium on March 5. What should I ask her? 

Yes, yes, yes! I greatly admire Mr. Hagedorn, but have one little quibble about today's article. I've been seeing the use of "curate" in descriptions, usually self-descriptions, of a store's goods, any kind of goods. Seems a tad pretentious and now overused.

I have to agree with you about that word. I generally avoid using it,  but in this case I chose it exactly because of the subject matter.  Otherwise I would have stayed well above pretension, as usual.

My hubby is about to leave on a 2 month trip and I'm planning to cook (for one) through the cabinets and use up all the stuff that's been sitting there for a while. I have a lot of lentil dishes in my future :) Wish me luck!

Good luck!

I love the fire-roasted canned tomatoes, haven't noticed any store brands offering this. Have you? Or is there some way I can achieve that taste with the store brands? (Liquid smoke doesn't do it for me.)

I like those too. I can only assume that somewhere, some private-label manufacturer's coming up with an alternative. Have you tried spreading diced tomatoes, minus juices, on a baking sheet under the broiler? maybe sprinkle them with a touch of smoked paprika. 

Rangers, my wallet and waistline have taken a hit from my love of the chicken bowls at Chipotle, so I'd like to re-create something healthier in my own kitchen. Any suggestions on re-creating the chicken, including the crack-like seasoning they use? Thanks!

Looks like someone's done the legwork for you already. Waistlinewise, think about portion size and less/no sour cream/guac/etc.?

elbow grease, bon ami, and a dobie are surefire ways. It may take several soaks, but I've never had an issue cleaning my pots, and I ALWAYS get stuff stuck/burnt on in them.

With warm weather coming, I'll be able to get my smoker going for long periods of time (it isn't insulated well). Didn't realize how much I have missed BBQ over the winter. Any new tools, recipies, or otherwise exciting in the smoking world that I should try or buy?

        Man, I know! It has been a long, cold, lonely bbq winter, hasn't it?

        There are always new gadgets coming out. Me, I figure I have plenty enough of the old ones. 

         There is a new cookbook due out this spring called "Grill to Perfection" by the championship bbq buys and chef  that gave us the book "Wicked Good Barbecue," a different and interesting take on bbq. 

         If you've got oodles of bucks, high-end Kalamazoo Outdoor Grill is coming out with an Argentina-style grill.

         On the restaurant scene, it's a trek, but Top Chef alum Kevin Gillespie, who authored the fabulous "Fire In My Belly:Real Cooking" in 2012 is said to be opening a highly anticipated barbecue restaurant in the Atlanta area.

         That should get you started. Let us know of any new stuff you come across.  

Posting early because I really need a great dessert idea for a party. Those vegan champagne cupcakes look absolutely delish! Does it matter what kind of champagne I use? I have heard extra dry doesn't work well when baking but I usually don't have Brut around since I am vegan. I can't wait to try them. Three of my favorite things - champagne, cupcakes, and passion fruit! Wow!

Hmm. I've read about how some wines don't meet the vegan standard because winemakers sometimes use animal products to "fine" the wine (that is, to get particles to settle on the bottom of a barrel). But I don't think it's that brut champagnes are never vegan, right? I read here that Domaine Carneros makes vegan sparkling wines, including a Brut.

I think if the type of sparkler mattered in making these cupcakes, Sticky Fingers' Doron Petersan would've said...

I have composite - mine is Zodiaq, we also looked at Silestone. The great thing about composite is that would can do bread/pastry/cookie dough right on it. Also, you can set hot pans on it. It looks good and cleans easily.

I use it as spinach - so put it in a lasagna or a baked ziti.

Enchiladas freeze beautifully. Also, make "Mexican Lasgna," which is really nothing but stacked enchiladas. It also freezes, and can be baked straight from the freezer.

I really like granite because you can set a hot pot/pan right on the counter. I think quartz has that same quality.

I am interested in doing a CSA this year (finally!). Will you be updating a list soon? I was interested in one, but found out they won't be dropping off in VA this year.

Yes, I'll probably push the update out on this page today. We're still trying to work out some kinks on the map, but at this point we figure something is better than nothing!

All Natural - what does that mean. I think people believe that a product that says "natural" is healthy and we know that's not true, yes?

Yes. The term "natural" is not regulated the same way "organic" is by the FDA. Here's what the agency has to say:

From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

Hi Rangers, I'm hoping you or a chatter can help. I'm planning our next holiday meal, namely, St. Patrick's day. I plan on making a Dublin Coddle, using this recipe, accompanied by soda bread and beer, of course. Do you know anywhere in NoVA that I might find authentic Irish sausages? Thanks!

Chef Cathal Armstrong says you need Irish breakfast sausages to make an authentic Dublin Coddle. He says the links have the right flavor (with sage and mustard) and texture (emulsified) for the dish.


I made the mistake of asking Armstrong where to buy such sausages in the D.C. market. "There's a little place called Society Fair," which is the chef''s specialty shop in Alexandria (and now taking over the former Eamonn's chipper in Arlington).

 The shop sells the Irish breakfast sausages for $4.95 a pound. When I called  to see if Society Fair had any, the employee on the phone said they did not. But they could make some on special order, if you want. I'd give them a call a day or two ahead of time at 703-683-3247.

I'm shocked that Cathal did not take the opportunity to shamelessly plug his book, "My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve," (Ten Speed Press) which comes out on March 11 and is avialable for sale right now online at Amazon, Politics and Prose and The book includes a rib-tickling recipe for Dublin Coddle, by the way.

I co-authored the book with him and so have absolutely no problem doing the heavy-lifting in the self-promotion department. 

Nigella Lawson has a recipe for roast chicken that marinates in 2 cups of buttermilk. Google's very easy and delicious.

How are you doing your honing? I've read that what we see chefs do on TV (the very, very fast swiping) doesn't actually hone the blade. Alton Brown has a pretty good tutorial on the proper way to hone knives.

It's not hard to do -- just keep the knife at about a 15-degree angle. I don't think it needs to be slow -- the chefs do it quickly because they've done it for so many, many years and so often. I think the fact that the OP's knife didn't start to dull until year SEVEN is a good indicator that they were honing well. Still, I think you should probably get your knives professionally sharpened every year or so.

I have had good luck using cream of tartar in boiling water. Still need to use a plastic scrubber but it has saved me pots, both aluminum and stainless steel. Ceramic surfaces are tricky, but so expensive it is worth a try.

Society Fair has excellent bread - several different varieties.

Argh, so right. I failed to mention Society Fair's excellent bread program, so thanks! They make all of theirs in-house.

If you have access to a farm stand with reasonable prices for tomatoes in high season, can your own crushed tomatoes. They last a long, long time if kept in a cool, dark place. Last night I used some from 2010 for a pasta sauce, and it was delicious.

Of course! About a year or two at most for shelf life, though, right? That's what's recommended. And I guess one who cans tomatoes at home might have to be sure about introducing acid to correct pH levels depending on the type of tomato you used. 

The 365 Brand (Whole Foods) has the fire roasted canned tomatoes. What I wish is that they had the unsalted fire roasted ones.

I'm with you.

Love that you included Menu MBK in your article of neighborhood markets. Yes, it's expensive, but it definitely fills a huge void in Penn Quarter. I haven't had too many of the prepared foods due to the price, but it's great for picking up last-minute ingredients like milk or eggs. Also, their lattes are pretty cheap compared to other area options!

I ventured into Menu MBK last week for the first time and was fairly impressed by the market selection, from meats to pastas to some fresh produce.


I'll be curious to see if locals in Penn Quarter gravitate more to Menu or the newly opened Red Apron. Both have sandwiches and dry goods and meats.

except that NONE of the cans at trader joe's have BPA (that's the right chemical, right?) - but many other cans are still made with it from what I understand. The organic brands, I believe, are not made with it either. so I'd be leary of buying those canned tomatoes...

From what I understand, some of Trader Joe's cans are not BPA-free; where'd you get  your info? I talked with Red Gold about the issue and that private-label manufacturer is constantly testing to find BPA-free packaging. It also tests regularly on potential leeching (risk has been found not to be significant). That aseptic/cardboard type packaging is an alternative you find in more and more store brands, btw. 

I've had my Silestone counters for nearly 10 years now and they still look just as great as the day they were installed. They stay cool (for rolling out pastry), they don't stain, they clean up easy with anything, they can take heat. One of the best purchases I ever made.

I have everything I need to make this tonight, except for ancho chile powder. What could I substitute instead?

Got any other ground chili? Or any whole chilies? You can grind your own. Or use a little pimenton plus cayenne. Or crushed red pepper flakes.

What am I doing wrong? When I smoke a pork butt 8 hrs/225 degrees, I still get lots of gross fat-chunks (inedible bits) that need to be picked out when I chop or pull the meat. Is it better to leave the pork butt large or cut it to more evenly sized pieces? I've been leaving it in the 3-5lb chunk.

        Sometimes it's just the luck of the draw: you get a fattier pork butt than other times.      

    It's possible that the pork butt you've been buying still has its layer of fatback. Make sure to cut that off. Another suggestion: cut the butt in half. If you see gobs of fat, trim it off. One last suggestion: buy your pork butt from somewhere else and see if it makes a difference.  

I have had good luck with store-brand jellies, tomatoes, canned beans, frozen vegetables . . . but peanut butter MUST be Peter Pan creamy.

I haven't found a suitable Grape-Nuts substitute, and I tend to stick with Domino's sugar. But hey, you might want to try that Harris Teeter creamy peanut butter. Person I interviewed in the story said her husband was, er,  nuts about it. 

My family, too, puts up kale resistance. I've found a half kale/half spinach mixture makes a really wonderful 'palak' paneer if you like indian food. Here is one recipe; there are only about a million out there on the web:


Your freezer is your friend: frozen veggies for an all vegetable stir fry, etc. The chemicals are preservatives. If you can't cook ahead and freeze your own, look at the ingredients on stuff that is frozen. It may not be chemical free, but it will have less than the stuff in boxes or bottles of the refrigerated section.

Good thoughts, thanks.

The best bread is Talking Bread (Taking Bread, Facebook) is sold at the SS Market on Saturdays. Her scones are to die for and so is her raisin cinnamon bread. I'm there first thing before my favorite scones are gone.

I haven't tried it, but will now! Thanks for the tip.

I'd like to prep the materials for stir fries before my second baby arrives. Would I cook the meat beforehand, and then put that in a bag with the cut up veggies? Cut up the meat and store in a separate bag from the cut up (uncooked) veggies? Thanks.

Freeze raw, cut-up beef or chicken or pork in its marinade, in bags or containers separate from the cut-up raw vegetables. Defrost the meat in the refrigerator during the day; it'll be ready to go by dinnertime.


Buttermilk comes in a paper carton, and I find the carton molds before the product goes bad. I've started transferring my open buttermilk to a glass quart jar and it has lasted months. Try it and see.


I bought a little electric knife sharpener awhile ago. A hundred bucks or so, but well worth the investment. Loved the article on neighborhood markets, by the way. I tried to drop by the one on 11th Street East whenever we visit our friend on Capitol Hill.

I've used this recipe from the Pillsbury Kitchen cookbook for years ( Usually I just use chicken breasts, and I've added whatever vegetable/spice/herb in the kitchen at the time.

Update for Tim Carman - they have daily specials to save a little money. If you go on Wednesdays, they do not charge a corkage fee for any bottle on the shelves. (I think they also have a $5 glass of house wine day).

I really like that place. Relaxed and refined, with some very fine sandwiches and wines. The staff knows its stuff, too. I reviewed it back in December.

For the guy traveling to Long Island and getting shafted at meal time, what about traveling with a small packet of lentils and some smoked fish (salmon, whitefish)? Assuming the family has vegetables and bread available, you can make lentil salad or soup. Eat the smoked fish on bread, on the lentil salad, mixed with pasta, etc.

I decided to try my hand at making chicken stock. I used a bones and leftovers from a roast chicken and I had made, along with the veggies, herbs, onion etc. After simmering, skimming, straining, and cooling overnight I unfortunately ended up with chicken flavored jello. How do I prevent it from happening again? Just use raw chicken? And anything I can do to fix or use the jello?

There's gold in that thar jello!  Gelatin comes from collagen and bones are full of the stuff. It' why stock gets syrupy when you reduce them. Because you used chicken bones that were already cooked, you should not  have cooked this stock (a secondary stock, really, because the bones had already been cooked once) for much longer than, say, 15 minutes. There was just not that much extra flavor to be had. Overcooking stock or having a large ratio of bones to liquid can yield an overly gelatinous product. Taste the stock and see if it has an objectionable flavor. I don't usually find this to be the case, so I  just dilute with some water when this happens and proceed as usual.

My favorite -- Splash some sherry in lentil soup, even canned soup. Sublime. Any sherry will do the trick.

I swear, I had 2 hard returns between each URL in the buttermilk ice cream response, yet they are gone. PLEASE, please, please, allow us some formatting. Please?

I wish I could say this is our highest priority, but, well...

I love to make a big kettle of popcorn on my stove, but I don't love the unpleasant odor left in the kettle after I'm done. Also, if I leave some of the popcorn behind when I first pour it out, I find it takes on an unpleasant odor and is inedible within half an hour. I'm wondering if the vegetable oil I use isn't up to the high cooking temperature. What type of oil should I be using to avoid this? I'd love to know before my Oscar-watching party. Thanks!

Have you tried peanut oil? Serious popcorn connoisseurs say it does a better job many oils: Peanut oil has a higher smoke point than many fats, so all the corn kernels get popped before the oil starts to burn and impart any off flavors. Give it a try and see what you think.

This is just a response to the person who stopped eating meat and dairy, and expected their wings and mac-n-cheese loving family to adapt overnight: That was an unrealistic expectation, unfortunately! Yes, their reaction and actions were not very hospitable, but clearly they love their unhealthy food and they wouldn't know a lentil soup or kale salad if it hit them upside the head. I presume the writer didn't alter his/her diet overnight, and didn't learn great new recipes and habits overnight, either. I stopped eating gluten 2 years ago, and my mom still doesn't completely get, I can relate.

Rodman's has canned figs if you are looking for something closer to a fresh fig than the dried.

I like my CSA, but they keep giving us mushy, mealy apples- guessing they've been sitting around for a while, although even in the fall they weren't that good! Other than applesauce (which I've made a lot of), any suggestions on how to use them up?

Fruit leather?

Cook them into a curry. 

I am always eager to try new recipes, until the moment comes to actually cook them; or if they seem to have too many ingredients; or use 1/4 tsp. of fish sauce which I would have to buy specially for that recipe. What, if anything, can you advise to get me off my usual? (I do find it easier in the summer when I can use any combination of fresh veggies with grains and cheeses.)

I say buy that fish sauce; it's a jumping-off point.  Look for the smallest bottle of good-quality stuff you can find (I like Red Boat brand). Then peruse  a recipe source/database and find ways to use it. This could open up a world of new dishes for you. 

I made some soup in the crock pot. and it's great, but there's a lot of it. I put potatoes in it...and when I freeze potatoes, well, when they unfreeze they are kinda awful. Is there some trick? or should I just not put potatoes in the soup (too late now)?

Yeah, that can happen. Not putting potatoes in will solve the problem in the future, of course. Other suggestions I've seen online include undercooking the stew a bit, so when you thaw and reheat, the potatoes don't totally disintegrate.

Other tips?

Maybe they weren't thoughtless as much as clueless. Next time tell them what you want to eat, not just a label such as "vegetarian". I know that may sound weird these days, but perhaps they really don't have a clue.

Couldn't the poster also make their own buttermilk in the quantity needed? Am I recollecting correctly that you can add something to regular milk to make buttermilk? Then the poster wouldn't have to worry about wasting excess if they can just make what is needed.

Yes, you can clabber about a cup of milk with a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar. Buttermilk powder is also available. That stuff keeps forever in the fridge.

A good synopsis (and yup, many of trader joe's canned products are BPA-free, but not all):

Thanks for sharing. 

I was so excited to see she was coming to DC but disheartened by the ticket prices....seems high for an hour discussion plus Q & A. I love her recipes, in fact making one tonight for beef and barley soup. I know you don't have control over ticket prices, but I would have totally gone if the tickets where more in the $40-50 range. Hope it goes well!

You're not the first Ina fan I've heard from who shares your opinion on the ticket price. Send your thoughts to the folks at the Metropolitan Cooking Show! 

Soooo I guess there won't be any sharing of yours and Cathal's recipe then? Is it at all similar to the link I sent or will my version be an abomination to Dublin Coddles everywhere??

Here is Cathal Armstrong's Dublin Coddle recipe from  "My Irish Table." It comes from the manuscript.


Dublin Coddle


This is a classic, Dublin peasant dish that Ma made occasionally and we all hated it growing up. It wasn’t anything more than breakfast sausage and bacon cooked with milk. So my version is more like a French blanquette, a rich and elegant cream-based stew, with potatoes added, of course. This recipe doesn’t call for salt because the bacon we use supplies all that is necessary. If yours doesn’t, add 1/2 teaspoon of it. 


The coddle can be made a day ahead and gently reheated on the stove or in a 300°F oven for 30 minutes.  


Serves 6


2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 yellow onion, diced 

8 (1/4-inch-thick) slices streaky (American) bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces 

1 large russet potato, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

8 Irish Breakfast Sausages, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup chicken stock 

2 cups heavy cream

3 large fresh bay leaves

1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

Crusty bread, for serving

Cracked black pepper, for garnish (optional)


Sweat the onions: In a medium-sized flameproof casserole over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions to the pot and let them sweat for about 8 minutes, until they are soft but not browned at all. (Because this is a white stew, you don’t want the onions to take on any color.) 


Cook the coddle: Once the onions are translucent, add the bacon and continue to cook over low heat until the bacon is pale pink and a few tablespoons of the fat have rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, sausage, stock, cream, and bay leaves. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and cook slowly until the potatoes are cooked through, about 30 minutes. 


Add the herbs and serve: Remove the coddle from the heat, stir in the parsley and thyme and serve immediately with lots of crusty bread. If you wish, sprinkle a little bit of cracked black pepper on top.


I have a question about salting and can't remember whether it was covered in your recent article which I couldn't find. (Search for salt...) When should you salt meat such as a steak you're going to pan fry? Will it brown as well if salted just before cooking? Same with meat you're going to either lightly coat with flour and saute (paillard) or heavily coat and fry or bake?

With cooking chemistry questions like this, I like to turn to J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats. Based on his tests, he says to salt either right before cooking or at least 40 minutes ahead of time.




It has to do with the chemistry of brining and what salt does to meat juices. Read all about it here.

i got that information from a trader joe's employee, as I was trying to buy canned tomatoes. Not happy right now.

I use buttermilk (or, really - the 'leftover' after making 'greek' yogurt with my yogurt, that I freeze) in just about any recipe that uses milk in it. Yes, you can freeze it - but isn't buttermilk just spoiled milk anyway?

 Not quite. Traditional buttermilk is what's left after making butter. Cultured buttermilk -- what most of us buy in the store -- is milk that has been treated with specific bacteria to replicate the traditional stuff. But I guess if you want to call that spoiled milk, that's up to you!

I frequently put a leftover chicken carcass in my slow cooker overnight to make stock. Why are you recommending not cooking used chicken bones for more than 15 mintues?

Because they are already cooked and therefore just don't have that much flavor-power left in them. If you're satisfied with your stock this way, then by all means continue!

I overbought on portabella mushrooms. I probably have two pounds. Can you recommend a plant-based dinner idea to use them up?

Running out of time, but one of my favorite things to do is marinate them in balsamic vinegar and then grill (outside or on the grill pan) for sandwiches.

I have used eggs that were WAY over a month past the expiration date. They were fine. Rather than reflexively toss stuff out, which is wasteful, use your senses to tell you whether it's good.

This is a complicated issue. Here's some decent advice on the issue of egg expiration dates.

I really appreciated the article on store brands, because as a young 20-something on a budget, every little way I can save a few pennies helps! The test on the crushed tomatoes was really helpful, but are there certain store-brand products that you would still avoid? Certain kinds of beans, for example? Thanks!

You're welcome! I gave a rundown of what I found after cooking with Aldi products; we're running outta time today so either e-mail me at or check back next week! 

Well, you've loosely covered us with foil while we rest, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great q's today, and thanks to David and Jim for helping us handle them.

Now for the giveaway book: I can't help but take pity on the chatter whose family didn't accommodate a new diet even on a birthday weekend, and am offering as a consolation prize my book, "Eat Your Vegetables." Hopefully you'll get some ideas of what to take on that next NY weekend. Send your mailing address to, and she'll get you the signed copy.

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading!

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