Free Range on Food: Making bacon, tipping in restaurants and more

Jim Shahin joins us to talk about how to make your own bacon.
Apr 15, 2015

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

Greetings, and welcome to the chat!

We've got lots of fun DIY stuff to talk about today: Jim Shahin's call for curing and smoking your own bacon; and Cathy "Mrs. Wheel-" Barrow's take on a new countertop canner -- and the delicious ways you can make mango jam etc. in it. 

We also have Maura Judkis's deep dive into the world of tipping (and why some restaurants are getting rid of it).

Jim and Cathy will join us today, and Maura may drop by, too, if y'all want to talk tipping.

You Post Points members, here's today's code: Remember, you have to enter it by midnight tonight at the PP site under Claim My Points to get credit for it. FR 2056

As always, we'll have giveaway books for our favorite chatters, so let's get to it!

 

Is there some reason the Post doesn't allow user reviews of recipes? I find the star ratings from users not to be very helpful because you don't know whether the person actually made the recipe or is just saying they like the look of it. I find reviews on sites like epicurious to help me decide whether to make a recipe (except for the ones where they say "This recipe was perfect! I just substituted chicken for the beef, doubled the lemons, added some paprika, reduced the cooking time by a third, . . . .").

Actually, our regularly story-comments function is active on recipes, but it's not tied into the star-rating function, and it's at the bottom of the screen, below even the other recommended recipes, so I can understand why readers aren't seeing and using it! We're hoping to make it more intuitive/useful at some point.

I have canned in tiny college-student kitchens and dream kitchens, using a large pot which I also serves for cooking pasta and soup stock. Not sure what I think about the electric canner in terms of utility, but they lost me on the space-saving argument - because it's a big, honking, one-use item you would need to store, and real estate is the biggest challenge in a kitchen. I do like the spigot. If anyone tries this gadget, please report back.

 

ARTICLE: Finally, an appliance that can help newbies and pros alike get canning

The appliance stores with the base inside the pot, making it a total 12" high. It's also great for soups, stews, serving hot cider and (something I'm planning to do) blanching. I have canned on hot plates in college and in tiny apartments, so I hear you, but for people with glass topped stoves, particularly, or with apartment stoves that will not hold two large pots easily, this canner is the bomb. I posted the article to my facebook page and several people left comments telling me they have been using it and love it, even veteran canners. Those long time, big time canners plan to put it in their canning kitchen (often separate from their everyday kitchen.) 

Those plantain tacos look great. I actually bought plantains at the grocery store for the first time this week, intending to sauté them as a side dish for dinner tomorrow. I love this simple side you sometimes get at Mexican restaurants, and wanted to try making them myself. What I'm a little unclear on is whether I made a good choice in what I selected and how to store the plantains until they are ready to use. At the grocery store Saturday afternoon there were two big piles: one green and one yellow. I assumed the yellow ones were ripe and might not be good in 5 days, so I chose two of the green ones. I left them out on the counter in the plastic produce bag. They've stayed pretty green until this morning--they now appear to be getting slightly yellow. However, I'm concerned about brown spots that have appeared on them, including a few that look a little moldly. I almost tossed them this morning, but thought I should ask your advice first. Appreciate any thoughts on selecting and storing them. Thanks.

RECIPE Tacos With Grilled Plantains

Glad you like the look of those tacos -- I'm loving that filling, obviously.

You did the right thing in storing the plantains on the counter. Best to do that rather than refrigerate them, which damages them (unless they're fully black and ripe, at which point they can be refrigerated). As plantains ripen, they go from green to yellow to black, with lots of combinations of those color in between stages. So yellow with the brown/black spots are usually fine, although that moldyness could be a problem if it's really mold.

Is your bag fully closed? If they're moist and the bag is closed and they can't breathe, that could cause some mold, I'd think. Better to take them out of the bag, or at least leave the bag open so they can breathe. 

As for selecting them, it all depends on how you want to use them. When they're green and firm, that means they're unripe and used more like you would a potato, roasting or boiling or deep frying them. As they turn yellow and then start to blacken, they're sweeter and you can cook them more quickly, as in the taco recipe. When they turn fully black, they're soft and sweet and best eaten as a dessert

Oh, one more thought: It can take several weeks for them to go from fully green to fully black, so you usually have a nice window of time in which to use them in various ways.

My family often puts unopened food and beverages in the Fridge, which I then must move to a cabinet to make room in the Fridge for items that clearly need to be refrigerated. Is this ok? In particular, I am thinking about things like applesauce. If you move soda, does it affect the carbonation?

Moving unopened items from the refrigerator back to room-temp storage is okay, in general. But your soda will stay carbonated longer when you keep it cold. 

 

How 'bout a second/secondhand fridge? 

I just returned from a trip to Morocco and now I want to make a tagine, which is a big part of Moroccan cooking. Where can I find preserved lemon? I checked my local Whole Foods but didn't see it.

Whole Foods should have it (at least) on the olive bar near the cheese/deli section. And I've also seen preserved lemon in jars on the pickle aisle. You can find the lemon at Mediterranean markets and at Rodman's (DC/MD), I think, too. 

And, of course, you can make them yourself! Here's a recipe for a shortcut technique.

Does eating smoked salmon, or lox, count as eating salmon, nutritionally? Or is that like equating, say, eating carrot cake with eating carrots?

Smoked salmon (or lox) still retains many of its nutrients. Its primary issue is sodium, which is sky high, because the fish is brined before smoking. Check out this story for information on smoked salmon nutrients.

 

Then again, scientists are beginning to change their tune on salt and its effect on human health.

I have almost a full can (probably 12 oz) of coconut milk left over from a recipe. I want to use it to make a quick curry sauce to serve over veggies. Other ingredients on hand include tomato juice, curry (obviously), basil, ground ginger... and most basic staples but nothing fancy. What should I include in my sauce/how should I make it? Any help is appreciated! I'm not sure how to proportion the ingredients.

I'd add a diced, small white onion or a few minced shallots; a minced/seeded small green chili pepper; a few cloves of minced garlic and fresh ginger; cashews; maybe a good pinch of brown sugar. Cook the aromatic stuff (onion/shallot, garlic, pepper) first in a little oil, then add the curry/seasonings and vegetables. Cook them until almost tender, then toss in the coconut milk and a splash of tomato juice, or fresh lime juice. What time's dinner? 

Wonkblog did an article on how much energy is wasted from old refrigerators which are placed in a basement or garage when the main kitchen fridge is replaced with a new energy efficient model.

Did I say that it needed to be an *old* refrigerator?

I'm getting ready to plant my balcony container herb garden for the year. Last year was my first time doing this (and you were very helpful several times with questions, thank you). One of the things I noticed last year was that the herbs didn't grow much at first, an in fact, the basil died. I planted them in mid-April, and as you'll recall, it was atypically cold last April. So I'm thinking of waiting until the end of the month or beginning of May. Do you agree or would you go ahead and plant now, as we seem to be having fairy decent weather lately.

It's best to do two plantings of herbs. The tough, perennial herbs like chives, parsley, rosemary and thyme are happy to be planted now. The soil is too cold for basil until closer to Memorial Day.

Many recipes for vegan cheese and sauces require nuts being soaked in water and then ground in a food processor. Since I don' have a food processor I've wondered if nut butters could be used instead.

Nope. Most of those recipes also call for the ground nuts/water to then be drained in cheesecloth. You're just not going to get that same result with nut butters.

I'm going to make the vegetarian meatloaf recipe that you linked last week. Can I sub white miso paste in for the red? I know that each type of miso paste has a slightly different flavor, so I'm not sure if I make the swap if I should also include something else to make up for the missing flavor.

Editor Joe tested the recipe, but I can say that the red miso offers more of that savory umami flavor than your white miso will. With all the other stuff going on in this meatloaf, though, would you miss it? Maybe not. You've got 8 ounces of creminis in there; you could perhaps add another ounce? Or a teaspoon of dried mushroom powder.

I agree with all of that!

I grew up in era when potatoes (always russets) were thoroughly peeled, diced into one-inch cubes, boiled in what I considered too much water and then whipped completely smooth via a cake beater and loaded with a stick of butter, whole milk and/or cream. The potatoes always (to me) looked so water logged in the cooking pan and devoid of nutrition as to have been rendered tasteless if not for the massive amounts of butter, whole milk and cream. As soon as I was on my own and cooking for myself I have used small, uniform-sized Yukon golds, not cut or peeled and cooked in the least amount of water possible and mashed with an old fashion potato masher with no more than a tablespoon each of soy milk and vegan margerine and sometimes vegan sour cream with sea salt and coarse black pepper. They are delicious (at least to me) and taste like potatoes. But I continue to see recipes calling for the old preparation method (peeled, diced small and boiled in lots of water) and have Facebook friends who feel the need to post their meals in progress, including potatoes prepared this way. I alway cringe, but have wondered if am I being too hard on this method? Does it really cook all the nutrients and natual potato flavor out or is that my imagination?

I know what you mean! I peel and cut the potatoes into chunks and boil them in salted water, but here's my favorite tip: Try returning them to an empty pot and cooking them, stirring, to dry them out and get rid of any extra water. That really helps them absorb the additions. 

There's absolutely nothing wrong with boiling them whole -- I just find it goes so much faster to cut them. And the salted water helps season them from the outset. Rather than beat them, I use a potato ricer, and I like to heat up the milk and melt the butter in it to help the potatoes soak it up and stay warm.

Trust me, they taste like potatoes!

Here's a piece (along with video) we did on just this topic last fall:

Thanksgiving FAQs: How to make perfect mashed potatoes

For the Man of the Q: In thinking about bacon I was thinking of my woodpile: it's filled with all kinds of random woods but what I've been told is mostly hickory and oak. Is there any sure fire way to tell which is what? I'd like to use them but don't want to risk throwing something in there that may not be right that gives my BBQ Essence of Pine Sol. Also, is there a place around DC that I can buy wood splits but not at restaurant volumes? I'm getting pretty fed up driving out to Home Depot to get them. Thanks in advance.

It is possible to identify the different woods by their bark  - google for images and see if you can figure it out. T W Perry lumberyard (near the beltway on Connecticut Avenue) has wood splits.

    Yes, you can tell the difference between woods by their bark, and by their grain and color. This past weekend, I sorted my splits and, when I wasn't certain, scrutinized the bark. If you have mostly hickory and oak, no worries, you're not going to get Essence of Pine Sol because you don't have pine. The worst that will happen is that you end up using too much hickory, which is stronger than the mild-flavored oak, and you get maybe a touch stronger smoke on your food than you want. Not a bad problem. 

    As for wood, truth is, I hope chatters can help here. I had a great supplier in MD, but he went out of business. Now, I order online from Fruta (www.frutawoodchunks.com), which is excellent, but pricey, and from East Coast Smokinwood (www.eastcoastsmokinwood), also excellent, but pricey. 

      As it happens, I just Sunday, a buddy of mine brought me a cache of great wood, so I'm set for awhile. But finding a good supplier of seasoned hardwood, cut to your needs, is a treasure.

The brunch article gives the impression that brunch is about having a late breakfast with "bottomless mimosas" and many area restaurants seem to agree. For me, it's about the opportunity to combine breakfast and lunch foods without apologizing and to graze to my heart's -- and stomach's -- content, to watch while my omelet is made to order and see the chef swirl in the fillings I pointed out, to select the freshest-looking pineapple slice and the biggest strawberry and the muffin with just the right amount of crown, and maybe decide to take the teensy bit of roast beef that's lying in the carving board juices because brunch always meant a buffet or smorgasbord until I moved from NYC to DC. Here, people seem to think I should be thrilled to pay $14 and up for just an indifferent omelet and another $6 for a tiny bit of orange juice simply because it's no longer early morning and I can wash it all down with a bloody mary instead of the free coffee refill I would much prefer. When there is a buffet, the all-inclusive price assumes I'll be guzzling champagne cocktails and obliges me to pay as much as the people who will drink until they relive their frat party days. Please, where can a non-drinker go? McDonald's and iHop aren't known for their fresh-baked muffins, fresh-sliced fruits, omelet stations and nova as in Nova Scotia salmon, not as in suburban Virginia. Where can the kiddies get the Christmas-window awe of walking by beautiful displays of food and getting to put some of it put on their plates, without the grandparents having to slide a bunch of $20s to the parents to help cover the cost?

 

ARTICLE How brunch became the most delicious -- and divisive -- meal in Ameria

I think the days of the cheap brunch are over, unless you're staying at the Days Inn for the free continental breakfast. :)

 

That said, I'm a fan of Liberty Tavern's "all-you-can-eat" weekend brunch in Arlington. It's a generous spread for $21.95, and kids eat for only $8.50. Here's a sample menu.

 

Chatters, do you have other suggestions?

Kudos to M. Carrie for the article on Tiki drinks! It brought back fond memories of a church mission I took to Tonga many, many years ago. We stopped in Waikiki on our way there, and went to the Chart House for a celebration. I'd never been much of a drinker, and later that night after in the parking lot I felt the touch of another man for the first time. I may have been the missionary, but I sure was converted that night! Anyway, since then I've always had a fondness for both the kitsch and complexity of Tiki drinks but was deterred by their complexity and hard-to-get ingredients, but you've convinced me I need to find a way to make these drinks my own. Thanks!

Carrie's traveling this week and can't join us, but she'll be glad to hear this!

ARTICLE Here's a 'beach bum' who's serious about one thing: Tiki cocktails

I love pork-based ramen, but I recently shifted to ordering/buying pork only when I know the pig has been humanely raised. Do you know if any of the local ramen shops fit the bill?

The kindly employee who answered the phone at Daikaya in Chinatown told me they buy their meats from verified suppliers where "the animals were well taken care of." 

 

Just FYI: Daikaya sells Sapporo-style ramen, in which the broth is built from chicken, pork and beef.

I decided to zap a package of frozen, this-side-up brussels sprouts "in a light cheese sauce" in the evening, so I could take it with me the next day to munch on and not need to cook it. But I forgot it in the microwave overnight after it cooked. I ate it and am fine. But was it risky to eat it?

Technically, it was risky, yeah. Food that's considered potentially hazardous -- and that includes cooked vegetables and cheese, your primary ingredients here -- shouldn't be left for more than two hours in what's called the "temperature danger zone" (40 to 140 degrees). But just because it's potentially hazardous and just because these are ripe conditions for bacteria that can cause foodborne illness to grow doesn't mean it happens every single time, hence the fact that you ate these cheesy sprouts and are fine. Different people are willing to accept different levels of risk -- and you'll sure hear plenty of argument on this topic from people who remember what their mothers and grandmothers and European friends etc. do and did and how nothing ever went wrong. (I'm sure we'll hear some of that in reaction to this answer, in fact!)

From a Puerto Rican reader who cooks with plantains often: Don't store plantains in plastic! Transfer to a paper ripening bag when you get home- I've always found that storing them in plastic makes them mold substantially faster- they're just really moist fruits when ripe. Black spots are fine and normal- that's what color ripe plantains are, and it looks like that recipe calls for "semi-ripe," so you're looking for mostly yellow with some black spots. If you're seeing fuzzy white mold, that's a problem. (Though I still just cut off moldy bits- hopefully it won't ever kill me.)

Thanks!

Dear free-rangers: like most working parents, I struggle to get dinner on the table in about 45 minutes every night (ideally with part of dinner available for a ravenous toddler while the rest of dinner cooks). We tend to get in a rut of quick cooking protein + veggies, stir fry (if I have time to chop the night before), and various freeze-ahead casseroles that the toddler won’t eat. Is there anything to help me figure out some more mix and match dinners? I want a better sense of “if I make x on day 1, I can make y on day 3 with the leftovers.” I did leftover chicken enchiladas last week (major brainstorm there), but would love some more easy/fast options. I love dinner in minutes, but that’s still only a one time deal. I’m envisioning something like your (amazing!) ice cream flow chart. Any suggestions/ideas?

We'll look into doing something like that, thanks for the idea! For now, though, you can make other quick things besides stir-fries -- meals that don't take a lot of prep. 

1. PACKET COOKING (individual portions baked in parchment/foil) This recipe from a Takoma Park tween should give you  ideas....everybody can customize their own packet. They go in the oven and cook fairly quickly, depending on the protein used.

2. TACO/TORTILLAS/QUESADILLAS Make fillings on the weekend and you're set for easy turnaround at dinnertime during the week. This link to what's in our Recipe Finder will show you plenty of options.

3. EGGS They are not just for breakfast! Nobody can turn down a savory omelet, which could take you 5 minutes to prepare. For frittatas and more, check here.

Last night I assembled a savory bread pudding and it's in my fridge right now, waiting to be baked tonight. The confidence I had last night in assembling it (without a recipe) is GONE. The bread (as expected) soaked up the egg mixture, but should there still be egg mixture level to the top of the bread (there isn't). I put it in a 9x9 pan, and now am at a loss for temperature and baking time. My mom's old recipe for a 9x13 pan was 350 for 55 minutes. Any wisdom? Here's what I threw in the pan: Half a dried out baguette; Six eggs; 1 cup milk; 1 can green chiles; 1 cup cheddar (on top). PS: I want some bacon!

No need to panic. The custard (egg/milk mixture) will be absorbed by the bread. But the bread should be pretty squishy if you poke at it. I would still cook it for the same time at the same temperature, but check after 45 minutes. Insert a knife into the center. It should come out clean and hot to the touch. It's not too late to add some cooked bacon! Or ham! Or chorizo!

I just recently purchased a cookbook overseas which has gram measurements. Where may I find a conversion chart?

GOG. (That's Good Old Google -- where else?)

I enjoyed this morning's article about Jeff Berry. I'm curious about tiki cocktails and would like to learn more. What exactly defines a tiki drink? I think of them as being fruity rum drinks, but can they be other spirits or not necessarily fruity? Also, you mentioned Berry has an app and some books--any in particular you would recommend? Thanks.

 

Carrie's not here, but here's a definition of tiki from her predecessor, Jason Wilson: "Most tiki drinks have a citrus component and are rum-based, and a hallmark is the blending of numerous rum styles. You'll often find three or more types of rum -- a light, a dark, an aged, a smoky Guyanese Demerara -- all called for in the same recipe."

I am one of the "big time" canners you mentioned who built a separate kitchen so we could more easily can stuff. I like that the canner is not a unitasker and could be used for something like hot cider. I still make a mess on the counter every time I try to ladle hot cider from a crock pot to a mug. But the price tag still seems pretty steep for a limited use appliance. Can it only can pints? No quarts jars?

The electric waterbath canner will hold up to 7 quart jars. It's a great size, and seems gauged to current canning recipes, most of which are "small batch." (My crushed tomato recipe makes 7 quarts, for instance.) I was ready to write this appliance off, but I am totally sold. It's much quieter, doesn't make the house as hot, and heats the water really quickly. I expect it will get a lot of use this season. And I totally agree with you about the ladle/cider issue. What's that about?

My son and his fiancé are about 4 hours from me so I try, every so often, to spend a few days there and prepare good meals for them (they are both graduate students with limited time). I just want to thank the Washington Post for your Recipe Finder as it has been so helpful to me with this endeavor. I always ask them what type of food they are interested in and then go to the Finder and do a search, coming up with several options. Last month, when my son-in-law-to-be requested "definitely something healthy, maybe with salmon and spinach," I discovered your recipe for Salmon and Spinach Risotto with Red Wine Glaze. It was perfect! Thanks again so much for making me look good to my "boys!"

That's great to hear. Love that recipe.

Jim--is it necessary to have an offset smoker? I plan to get one, but meantime I'm afraid I can't figure out how to keep the temperature low enough in my bbq rig to avoid hot smoking anything I put in there.

     No need for an offset smoker. In fact, I smoke my bacon on a regular Weber kettle. Just put your cured pork belly on the cool side of an indirect medium-hot fire. Remember, all you're doing is giving is some smoke flavor, not cooking it. So, although my recipe says to smoke with the lid on for an hour, you can check after a half-hour. Give the pork belly the sniff test. If you think it's smoky enough, then pull it off the grate. You'll get the hang of it after the first couple of tries.

Oh dear, it looks like we bought too early - we bought the previous model of the Ball canner. We like it except for the capacity and limited recipes. I checked the Ball site but couldn't tell how much water it takes for pints and half-pints. Is the canner heavy to move when you fill it with water? My other question is about Mrs. Wheelbarrow's recipe for spiced pickles green beans that was in WAPO. We made some last summer but didn't open a jar till last night. The flavor was interesting, but the beans were too salty. Was that the standard amount of salt required for a pickling brine? Can I dilute the brine now with boiled water? If so, will it make the beans less salty?

Hi, let me take these questions one at a time. The new canner takes quite a bit of water and it can be heavy, but I plugged it in on the counter next to the sink, used the faucet to fill it, and the spigot to empty it. I never needed to lift the canner, which made me especially happy. 

About those beans. The brine is a classic ratio, so I am surprised to hear they are too salty. Did you use kosher salt? Table salt could be too salty in this application. Did you make the entire recipe, or halve it or double it?  

If you followed the recipe and find the recipe too salty, in the future, weigh your salt instead. Aim for 35 grams (1/4 cup.)

Why do these recipes call for soaking the nuts in water? Is it really necessary if one has a high powered blender?

It's to facilitate a finer emulsion. You're right, if you have a Vitamix or the like, you can *probably* skip that.

Can you do a reader poll like Gene Weingarten does? I'd love to know if people would rather just pay a bit more and not deal with calculating tip. Like most people I'm shamed into leaving 18-20% regardless of service. I'd rather just round up to the even dollar amount on the bill and be done with it.

 

ARTICLE Why some restaurants are doing away with tipping

Personally, I like the idea that restaurants are trying to equalize pay between front and back of the house employees. Often, the floor staff makes more than the kitchen workers who work just as hard. Pooled tips evens this out some, depending on how it's split.

I also don't like that diners can arbitrarily decide how much to pay someone based on the "quality" of the service. Anyone who has worked a restaurant floor knows how demanding and hard to please some diners can be. A server may forget to refill a water glass once and suffer the consequences. Such an arbitrary arrangement goes against my sense of fairness. Let's just pay these hard-working folks a decent salary.

Does the age of an egg affect its poachability (is that a word?)? I have been following Joe Yonan's instructions, and I thought I had the hang of it, but my last two poaching attempts were kind of a mess. The eggs in the carton are at least 2 weeks old.

Hmm. Interesting question. How were these a mess? One thing that might be playing into this is that whites thin out as eggs age, so you'll be left with more streamers when you poach, unless you use the slotted-spoon technique advanced by Michael Ruhlman (it lets you drain off the thinner part of the whites, leaving the thicker part and resulting in neater poached eggs).

The most amazing thing about that question to me is that the chatter moved from NYC to DC and is complaining about DC prices-was it really cheaper to eat brunch in NYC?

Yeah, I'd like to know where those brunches are!

Why would people not want to can on glass-topped stoves? I have one (included in the home I purchased, but I much prefer gas) that is in a teeny tiny kitchen and I have canned on it. Not a lot, but I've done it. Is it just because you can crack the glass if you drop something on it? (That was the first thing I did when I moved in. Not fun.)

Manufacturers of glass topped stoves do not recommend them for canning. A large pot of water with full jars is too heavy for most glass topped stoves and will crack the surface. Now, if you made three jars of jam and processed in a small stockpot, it's not so much of an issue. But 10 quarts of tomatoes? A different story altogether. 

I'm not a huge fan of brunch (I'm famished if I don't have breakfast shortly after I get up), but when I do go I hate the buffet. First off, in contrast to the brunch person above, I feel that most of the food seems to be mediocre to bad (partly based on the heating trays, partly due to what's being made and the use of the weeks leftovers in the dishes). Second, as the person above noted, you're expected to avail yourself of the whole buffet. If I don't want bottomless mimosas or to overstuff myself, the buffet tends to be a horrible bargain. Brunch, I think, can be good when the meal is made to order because it is more likely not to have the issues I mention above. The more a la carte items the better.

Generally, I agree with you, but I've also feasted at some well-maintained buffets, where the food is quickly refreshed when it starts to go downhill.

 

The benefit of buffets, of course, is speed. You can eat fast and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

At dinner a few weeks ago, I had a delicious, green nettle risotto that I've been dreaming about ever since. I'm determined to recreate the recipe... but I've never seen a 'nettle' in the store. Any idea where I could find them? If not, can you recommend a substitute? Thank you!

Stinging nettle is an herbaceous green that you sometimes find at farmers markets, not supermarkets. It lives up to its name: Its leaves have tiny little hairs that prick your hands with histamines, so you should use gloves to handle -- but this bite is immediately eliminated when you cook them.

It's warm now and it's time to reacquaint myself with my grill. What are the easiest and best vegetables to cook on the grill?

    My guess is that a lot of folks, including my colleagues at WaPo and chatters alike, will have an opinion on this. Here's mine. 

      First, best? Whatever you like. Seriously. I can't think of a vegetable offhand that doesn't take well to a turn over the fire. 

       Now, easiest? Depends. I love making smoked salsa, using a vegetable basket. It is so quick and easy to put some teardrop tomatoes, jalapeños, onion, and garlic in there, shake the basket up a little or turn the veggies with a spatula, then bring in, chop up, squirt with lime (which could also be grilled), and done. 

       This past weekend, I had a hankering for a grilled antipasto, so I bought zucchini, eggplant, red bell pepper, and an onion. Sliced them up (except for the pepper, which I charred whole), added a little olive oil, oregano, wine vinegar and salt, and I had a terrific spring appetizer that was easy to make and served a number of purposes through the week.

      There is a lot of argument about whether to oil the grate, the vegetable, or both. I'm a veg-oiler. But that's me. I have no strong opinion on the matter. Just as long as you oil something. That way, the veggies don't stick to the grate.

       A week or so ago, I made a grilled Caesar salad. Lightly brushed romaine lettuce, halved lengthwise, gave it about 2-3 minutes over the coals, then poured a Caesar dressing on it. Super easy. 

        I guess what I'm saying is that, pretty much all vegetables take well to the fire. But watch out for the tomatoes; they'll fall through the grates unless you put them in a basket or watch them carefully. 

I have and love Beach Bum Berry Remixed. It's a combination of two earlier Tiki drink books. Not only does Remixed have recipes, but it goes into the history of individual drinks, notes where Mr. Berry has updated from earlier editions, plus handy glossaries of the many types of rums and liquors used in tiki drinks. Even the photos of drinks in vintage tiki mugs are great.

I am so excited you bought this to my attention. The reviews look great but they all seem to be by experienced canners. I'm a skilled and experienced cooked, but a newbie canner - just done it a few times. Right now I informally pickle vegetables on the stovetop and then my husband and I eat them over a week or so. We love picked veggies. I am thinking of getting the canner - your further thoughts on newbies like me using it gratefully received.

I think this appliance is like holding the hand of an experienced canner. It's simple to use and the included instructions are very clear. 

Hi Rangers! I'm trying to re-create a green juice recipe that my husband and I had while on our honeymoon in Mexico. The closest recipe I can find calls for pineapple, parsley, spinach, celery, orange juice, and...cactus leaves or prickly pear. Any idea where I could find that, preferably in Northern VA? Or maybe there's a more easily found substitute out there?

Cactus leaves = nopales. Easier to find than you might think. Some Harris Teeter stores carry fresh cactus paddles (call the one nearest you, or your nearest Latino grocer), as does New Grand Mart (703-533-1700) in Falls Church.  

I'd be fine with doing away with restaurant tipping. Tipping in general is just such an odd thing if you stop and think about which services receive a tip and which do not. And the argument for maintaining tipping as an incentive for good service just doesn't hold water. Let management and the market sort that out, as they do for quality of service at most other types of service-oriented businesses. I expect good food when I go to restaurants, yet I never tip the cooks or the chef, since that's not done. At the hotel, I expect good service from the front desk, yet it's the person who sometimes holds my suitcase when the room isn't ready that gets a tip. I expect good service at the bank and the grocery store--these people don't get tips ever. I'd rather see restaurant servers get good wages, the consistency of which would probably be more likely to attract top talent.

Amen.

I would love to end the practice of leaving a tip. Just tell me how much I owe. Charge me a fair price and let the manager pay the employees a fair price. The way I see it, tips are not an issue of time or effort but price of the meal. If two people dine at the same restaurant and one orders the least expensive meal and the other orders the most expensive meal, if the server makes the same number of trips to each table, their effort is the same, but for some magical reason, the customer who ordered the most expensive item is expected to leave a larger tip. Why?

I haven't pondered that discrepancy before. It's a fair question. I suspect it has to do with economics. If every diner came through the door and ordered the lowest-priced dish, the tips generated likely wouldn't be enough to provide a decent living. (So then the employer would have to supplement the tips up to the minimum wage.)

 

So the diner who spends more (and may have more discretionary income) is paying a higher portion of the server's salary. I'm not saying that's fair, either. Just thinking out loud.

I don't have the book in arm's reach, but I'm pretty sure The Joy of Cooking has a bunch of conversion charts toward the back of the book. If you have that book, take a quick look to see.

Per your recommendation, I made Jim Shahin's Grilled Butterflied Leg o' Lamb for Easter. It was super easy, not too expensive, a big hit and tasted great. I served it with an orzo salad, grilled asparagus, tzatziki sauce and pita. Yum!

      Man, I should have eaten Easter dinner at your house! Glad it worked out, and thanks for letting us know. 

Yes, LOTS of streamers, so much that I ended up with a yolk and very little else.

Interesting! I haven't had that happen, but I must say, I do tend to poach very fresh eggs. In fact, I mostly always buy farmers market eggs, which are MUCH fresher than those at the supermarket, which are several weeks old by the time you buy them. Now, eggs last a long time, but I wonder if you have discovered a real downside to older ones indeed.

I did use kosher salt, but maybe a different brand. Thanks for the proper weight. I wish all canning recipes stated the proper weight.

Diamond Crystal weighs less than Morton's. Here's a story I found interesting.

...in small spaces. Is there a way we can do this on our apartment balcony with the tiny smoker we have, or is this something we should put off until we live somewhere a little bigger/we can convince a friend to lend us their backyard for an afternoon?

    I don't know what sort of grill you have on your balcony. If you can smoke (and apparently you can), you can make bacon. Maybe just cut the recipe in half to fit the pork belly on your tiny smoker. And smoke for less time. Me, I would definitely try it. But, then, I am not the landlord or the fire marshall. 

Any suggestions for some easy menu items for a casual Kentucky Derby party with 20 adults and 20 kids? Thanks!

While we're on the subject: While in Vancouver Island back in November, I had a delicious cheddar cheesecake with apple compote that haunts my dreams. All the recipes I find for cheddar cheesecakes are for savory applications. Would my cheesecake batter be ruined if I added shredded cheddar cheese?

it would not; but you might have wanted to cut back on the sugar, right? and that might cause issues.

I frequently come across various methods of testing how old an egg is, but how useful are any of them, really? I pay zero attention to the age of eggs and just eat them whenever. They live in my fridge in the egg compartment so any date they may have had is long gone, or never known, if they came from my sister's hens. The only time I throw out an egg is if it's been cracked for unknown period of time. Maybe I'm lucky, but I have yet to come across a bad egg. (but I also don't eat them runny so maybe that helps?)

You're a lucky egg eater! Your egg maintenance goes against science and general practices.

I had no idea! Thanks so much for answering what I thought was going to be an airhead question. I only canned small jars of lemon chutney, but am really glad to know I shouldn't can anything heavier. And now I'm really bummed that I no longer have a gas stove. Cracking that glass top was a total pain.

Beans (the legume) are great for this. I prefer dry beans but you can of course use canned. Chili one night, on pasta another night, soup another. While on that subject, when sautéing the meat for chile - how about making more, taking it out and using it for fajitas another night? It's already seasoned nicely, you can just just heat it up and adjust the seasoning, making it brighter. About those peppers you cooked for your fajitas - maybe you want to add them to a frittata another night. You get the picture - think about where else you can slot in main ingredients, already cooked, that transforms them.

I wonder if it has to do with the rapidity of the boil. I'd think that you don't necessarily want to have the water too excited... Also, make sure you're close to the water surface when you drop the egg in. I've seen many use a spoon or small cup to try to "shape" the egg as it's dropped, as well.

Hello, I've been searching for a real good cupcake cookbook that would fit someone who is a beginner or someone who bakes a lot. I did not want a book that had alot of seasonal cupcakes that has recipes devoted to decortations. I'm just looking for a book that has alot of good basic recipes like peanut butter, dark chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, etc. I was thinking of one from a bakery that also had different types of desserts I would like to try. What are your recommedations?

Running out of time, but our Friend of Food, the reliable Elinor Klivans, published "Cupcakes!" in 2005. Might be a good start. 

Beaten Biscuits & Country Ham Devilled Eggs Benedictine Spread with your veggies Derby Pie (or, really, make your own and call it Not-Derby Pie ;) ) Or do it like we locals do and have a great big backyard barbeque (think, barbeque chicken, potato salad, etc) with mint juleps, bourbon cocktails, a copy of the program, and impromptu betting all day.

Hot Browns! Burgoo (feeds lots of people)! Jam Cake!

I use a standard sized aluminum canner which will accept 7 quarts or pints on my glass topped stove-and have done so for the last 10 years-with no problems. That said, I am interested in purchasing the free standing option for when I have double batches of produce I am canning to move thing along! On another topic, what are your views on multicookers (Phillips, Kitchen Aid, etc)? Can they really do it all?

I don't have any experience with these other multi-cookers. But this canner is also a multi-cooker, for stews, soups, keeping drinks hot, and so on. Maybe this will answer all your needs.

I'd love to see it go away in favor of a system that is more fair to all involved. One system I didn't see in the article is what I've experienced in Italy. There, when there is an additional service charge, it is per person and is a set price. It's not based on the price of your meal. It's generally pretty small and I think it is supposed to reflect the cost of extra labor (at a bar, using a table rather than getting your coffee at the bar) and other expenses (bread, laundering of linens, etc.). Any reason why this isn't in play to replace tipping here? Thanks!

Multiple reasons, but a tipped system in general gives diners the impression that the restaurant costs are lower than they really are.

Well, you've fried us in slices in a skillet until crisp, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for all the great q's, and thanks to Jim and Cathy for helping us answer them!

Now for the giveaways: The chatter who asked about mold on plantains will get "Living the Farm Sanctuary Life" by Gene Baur, source of that plantain-taco recipe. And the one who asked about mix-and-match cooking will get "Better on Toast" by Jill Donenfeld, source of this week's DinMin recipe. Send your mailing info to Kara.Elder@washpost.com, and she'll get them to you!

Until next time, happy cooking, eating and reading!

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Food editor of The Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
Bonnie Benwick
Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew. ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes.
Cathy Barrow
Cathy Barrow's first cookbook is "Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving" (W.W. Norton). She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com.
Tim Carman
Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is a staff writer and former Food section editorial aide.
Jim Shahin
Jim Shahin writes the monthly Smoke Signals column on barbecue.
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