Free Range on Food: Top Tomato contest, the hype around San Marzanos and more

Aug 14, 2013

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! We've got tomatoes on the brain, ripening on the counter, bubbling away on the stovetop, whirring inside a blender, even chilling in an ice cream maker today. It's our annual Top Tomato issue, wherein we print the results of our contest. We asked readers to submit their favorite original tomato-focused recipe, and we tested, tasted (yes!) and picked our winners.

Bonnie did a beautiful job directing the contest this year, and found some really fantastic recipes from readers. Who says people don't cook? We would beg to differ.

To prove that these cooks have plenty of wisdom to share, we invited two of our top three winners -- champion Sara Leibman, she of the Frozen Fattoush; and second-place winner Sandhya Babu, inventor of Top Tomato Ramen -- to help us handle your questions today. So ask them anything (especially anything tomato-y, of course).

The rest of us are here to help handle anything you might toss our way. If you've always been curious about San Marzanos but don't know why they're always hyped so much, Tim Carman's piece this week is a must-read, and he of course can talk about that and just about anything else.

And to tempt you to throw your best our way, we'll have giveaway books: "The Ultimate Panini Press Cookbook" by Kathy Strahs, plus SIGNED copies of "The Washington Post Cookbook" edited by Ms. Benwick and my very own "Eat Your Vegetables," just out last week.

Let's do this thing!

Sara, How much does the quality of the tomato matter to the success of the Frozen Fattoush recipe? I am frequently disappointed by the tomatoes I buy and wondering if it will ruin the dish to use a mealy or less flavorful tomato.

Unfortunately, the quality of the tomatoes is all important for this dish, meaning that it can only be made in July in August in the DC area. I've found some excellent tomatoes at farm stands, but it's really been touch and go this year.

Good afternoon! I'm helping to plan a party for which the menu is currently pulled pork sandwiches and various sides. I'd like to add some sort of vegetarian sandwich filling for those who don't eat meat (myself included!). Any ideas? I was thinking maybe some sort of lentil mixture, or maybe seitan (although I've never been too successful cooking the latter) but can't seem to find a good recipe. Thanks in advance!

I grew bitter melon this year but now don't know what to do with it. I am told it is bitter and an acquired taste. Any recipes?

There are many Indian recipes that involve a lot of ingredients in preparing bitter melon. A good option would be to deep fry it and season it with salt and chili powder. The bitter melon should be cut into rings. You can leave the seeds in if you want; it gives it a very crunchy texture. 

Joe-- in your article on chiles rellenos today, you asked for thoughts about streamlining the process, possibly by not charring and peeling the peppers. Been there, done that, don't like. The skin of a poblano is particulary thick and somewhat bitter. But I have found an easy, breezy way to peel those chiles, thanks to Alton Brown. I have repurposed and dedicated a metal folding steaming basked as a chili charrer. I open it and put it over a gas burner, lay three or four chiles on it and turn them occasionally while doing other things in the kitchen. It's easy to keep an eye on them--if I do it in the oven or in the barbq I invariable forget about them and end up with chile charcoal. Of course all bets are off if you have an electric stove.


Yep, I do it over the burner grates sometimes, too -- but stopped putting that in recipes because so many people have electric or induction! But yes, it does work!

I am going to a sort of open-house picnic in NJ on Saturday and need to take a "snack." Can you suggest a finger food that would make the most of in-season fruit? I would love to use the great peaches or ginger gold apples I got from Kingsbury's orchard last weekend. A favorite recipe is a brown-butter peach tart which I could make in individual tartlets, but tha's not healthful. It should be something that requires no more than a napkin. Any suggestions?

How about Apple Chips or Apple Crisps?

Apple Crisps

Do you guys have any storage tips for your kitchen equipment? Between the ice cream machine, food processor, various pots, wok, pans and servingware, I feel a little overrun in my condo. Other than maybe the ice cream machine in the winter, I use all of these pretty much once a week or every other week, so it's not ideal to put them back in a box and in another room or closet, and my pantry is stocked full of everything else, like baking ingredients and spices.

This is a major problem for us too, and we have a pretty big kitchen. One thing that has really helped is picking out a single cabinet for all the big appliances (mixer, blender, ice cream maker) and keeping the larger, heavier ones in the back. We also attached magnetic strips to the wall and keep all our knives on them, which has saved space in the drawers or on the counter.

You know what? I have been wanting to win one. But no luck till now! Tell me, what question do I post to win this :)

Something more imaginative than this, I'm afraid! ;-)

Hi there, you all always have good suggestions so hope you can help me here. I will be moving 4 hrs. away from my husband and 7yo son for work, but will be coming home most weekends. I'm the main cook in the house (hubby can boil pasta and will make salads, but not much more), and would like to prepare healthy dishes during the week that I can take home so they have good things to eat during the week. Any ideas on 1) best way to transport food? (e.g., freeze? Use Food Saver?) 2) dishes that are easy for hubby to get ready? and 3) any other ideas? (Fortunately, son eats most things, hubby is somewhat less adventurous.) Thanks much!

I make lots of stews (beef, lamb, lentil) and freeze them. They are incredibly easy to thaw, heat up and serve.

Last weekend I was visiting a friend and we decided to make some goat cheese dill biscuits. She didn't have a Silpat or parchment paper, or Pam like spray, so we went with very lightly coating the bottom of the pan with oil on one tray and foil plus light coating on another. Both came out slightly burned on the bottom, although still very edible and tasty. Not quite company-worthy however. What would you guys do? Add some flour maybe?

I'd put a second baking sheet under the one with the biscuits for some added insulation. That's what a lot of our database recipes recommend.

Love you guys/gals! For the first time ever (shocking I know!) this summer I have been making my own salad dressing. I keep it in the fridge at work and I am finding that the olive oil is clumping together when chilled - just like it does in the bottle by itself. I have to take the dressing out about 15-30 minutes ahead of time (If I remember!) to let it warm up and then shake it up again. Is that normal? How come this does not happen to the bottles of salad dressing that I purchase? Are my quantities off? Any direction or suggestions would be great. I admit i have been using my own mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, olive juice, garlic, mustard, and honey. It is delish! Thx!

That's normal. The reason it doesn't happen with the commercial dressings is that they put in emulsifiers and stabilizers to prevent it. Do you have a microwave at work? If you store the oil in a glass jar, you could put it in the microwave for just a few seconds, repeating a few seconds at a time, until it's liquid. Will be a flash. Or you could boil water in a teakettle, pour it into a bowl, and put the jar in there for a minute or two.

I agree with Joe. I love the way my homemade salad dressings clump together when refrigerated. It seems to concentrate the flavors. Like Joe, I microwave them for a few seconds or wait for them to warm up on their own (but not too much).

Sara - how did you get the idea to use tahini in the ice cream?

I had some in the fridge and the ice cream was just calling out for something to give it more substance. It's not really part of a traditional fattoush salad, but I figured it was in the Lebanese theme, so just added it.

Brilliant, right?

If 10 years ago, or even 5, you told me I ate a raw tomato at dinner last night, I would have laughed in your face. But I was slowly won over by cherry and grape tomatoes, and this summer the farmers market tomatoes have been so good that a sprinkle of salt is all that's needed for an amazing flavor sensation. Adding fresh mozzarella and basil and really good olive oil and balsamic from Ah Love Oil & Vinegar has just been deliciously gilding the lily. I'm a happy camper and my mom is so proud of me.

Bravo. I was the same way for a long time, but not now. I do love the oils and vinegars at Ah Love.

Another suggestion for streamlining the process, which I neglected to include in my earlier post, is to use a grapefruit spoon with a serrated tip for removing the seeds.

Thanks! (But in my experience nothing beats fingers.)

Joe--this topic might work as a useful article, one that I would have loved to read. I eventually figured it out by trial and error, but a lot of expensive basil got thrown away and a lot of pesto turned an unappetizing grey color along the way. Treat basil like fresh flowers. Never refrigerate it! When you get home from the market, trim the ends of the stems, and place in a vase or tall drinking glass with cool water. Loosely cover the leaves with a clear plastic bag. Change the water every couple of days. I keep my vase of basil near the sink. To prevent pesto from turning grey in the bowl while you are eating it, add a handful of spinach leaves to the the basil leaves while processing. (I've used frozen, fresh blanched and squeezed, and raw leaves and all worked equally well.) Many recipes suggest using parsley, which doesn't work as well. The oxalic acid in the spinach leaves is what keeps the pesto from oxidizing, I think, so sorrel would work, too.

I would only add -- like with fresh flowers, also recut the stems every day or so. Appreciate it!

Joe, Thank you for your recent recipes and articles. I've found them especially pertinent to my recent eating and cooking behaviors. I've been gradually gravitating towards a more healthful and mostly vegetarian diet, with a slant towards vegan and gluten-free foods. I also cook mostly for just one or two and appreciate recipes for dishes sized so I won't be eating the same thing for 13 meals in a row of the same leftover. I'm looking forward to checking out your cookbooks, both old and new. I have a question for you about using tempeh as an ingredient. I love Teaism's vegetarian bento box which includes delicious bars of marinated organic tempeh --- they're more filling for me than a granola bar! I'd like to try using tempeh in dishes I prepare myself, but haven't found any good recipes yet. The Post's Recipe Finder turned up a scant three recipes using tempeh. Your Smoky Cabbage and Udon Slaw looks delish, but is a winter recipe. Do you have more suggestions for using tempeh? Or a cookbook reference? Thank you!

Thanks for the question -- glad you've been liking the recipes!

I love pan-frying and then glazing tempeh, like I do in that cabbage/udon slaw, which you should totally make because ... why do you see it as a winter recipe? Good for grilling season, can be eaten cold -- both those things say summer to me! And that's the season I intended it for.

As for a cookbook reference, you should look at Kim O'Donnel's "Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook." She's the source of our Tempeh Hoagie-letta recipe.

Was away last week so just read the chat and saw the post from the disappointed chatter about her blackened basil. I'm wondering if she had placed it in the fridge? Basil doesn't like cold temps-the best way to keep it is to trim the cut ends, place in a glass of water and place on the counter. But cilantro and dill do love the cooler temps, so the best way to prolong the life of those herbs is to trim ends, place in a glass and then cover glasswith a plastic bag loosely tied and place in fridge. Btw, parsely also likes the fridge. For all herbs, change the water at least every other day. Hope the chatter has better luck with her/his next batch of basil for pesto!

That's right -- thanks for the advice!

I don't have an ice cream maker. Is there some other way to make this recipe?

You can make it more like a granita - put the mixture in a baking pan with sides and freeze, breaking up the chunks by raking with a fork every half hour or so. It will come out icier than the ice cream maker variety, but still good.

I'm having a friend over and want to make a relatively simple but tasty meal. Considering risotto - that's all I got. Any suggestions of what to make with it?

You might want to try a strawberry risotto.  It's not sweet, alittle out of the ordinary and lovely with a salad. Prepare your fave risotto recipe (using white wine and shallots, I hope) and stir in chopped strawberries right at the end.

For the shrimp and tomato recipe, can I leave out the coconut? Or use something else for a substitute? I just really don't like it, but the recipe sounds like a great weeknight meal.

The coconut kinda makes this dish sing, I think. If you try it without it, let us know how that worked out. 

Hi All, What was Julia Childs 1st recipe to Washington Post? And When? Will be great if you can share the archive :)

What a question! I just did some searching, and while I wouldn't necessarily bet my life on it, I found a menu with recipes that The Post published from Ms. Julia on Oct. 19, 1961. So it may very well be the first -- and if not, it's pretty darn close. The recipes are for roast leg of lamb, chicken liver mousse, scalloped potatoes with meat stock and cheese, and peas braised with lettuce and onions. Because it's in PDF format, I can't post it here, but if you'd like to see the article, e-mail me at and I can send it along.

"I happen to think that I -- just I -- am worth the bother." Bravo, Joe, for asserting the single diner's right to enjoy quality meals! I'm wondering if your new book includes approximate prep and cooking times for the recipes. I think it would be a good gift for a vegetarian who's just about to move into her own place but who's going to be busy with law school so may want to choose some recipes by how long they take. Also, can the recipes be doubled when company is over? Where can I get it in time to take to her going-away party this week? Thanks, and congratulations!

Thanks! I don't include prep/cooking times in the recipes, but I can tell you that most of them take under 30 minutes. (And you don't have to take my word for it -- this is the estimate given by reviewer T. Susan Chang in her great CookShelf app. She also puts it at skill level 2, out of 5.) And absolutely, doubling or tripling is super-easy. As for where to get it, I know it's definitely at Busboys/Poets, Politics & Prose, and Salt & Sundry. (And of course online!)

I couldn't resist the corn at the farmer's market on Sunday but we haven't been able to eat it. Help me with some ideas to use the delicous corn. Thanks.

The simplest is to peel back the husk and silk and directly roast it over a flame. Then rub salt and lemon juice or any seasoning of your choice.

Other ideas; corn relish, potato corn chowder, corn au gratin

It's been way too long since we recommended the stellar Cambodian Grilled Corn, so there you go. And don't worry -- you can leave out that pandan or bay leaf with very little detriment to the fabulosity of this recipe.

Also, I'm pretty enamored of a recipe for Fusilli With Corn Sauce from my new book; you cut off kernels from one cob and grate the kernels from another, to get all that milky pulp, and make a very quick, fresh sauce with that. With basil and Parm, it's a winner, if I do say so myself.

Are San Marzano tomatoes less acidic?

Yes, they are less acidic than many varieties of tomatoes, which is one reason why chefs like them.

I'll tell you what my go-to veggie sandwich is. I warn you, it's not impressive or particularly unique, but if plain and simple is OK, give it a shot. Vidalia onion (or other sweet onion), green pepper, cucumber, a couple kinds of cheese (swiss/provolone, or ...), and a slathering of pesto sauce. Good cold or heated up. They're fun in pitas, but I'll confess, I usually just use plain old wheat bread.


Last weekend we had a sandwich which was goat cheese, pesto, and roasted peppers on whole grain bread. Absolutely delicious. They also did a grilled gouda and tomato which was great as well.

I have some kasha on hand, and I'm trying to figure out what I can do with it that doesn't involve a huge grocery trip (I'm moving in a couple of weeks and don't want to move with food). I've been munching on it raw, which is fine, but I'm hoping to make a meal out of it, or at least a side dish. The Kasha Potato Salad on your site looks good...any other suggestions?

I sometimes use kasha as a binder in homemade veggie burgers, or you can always make kasha varnishkas (perhaps Joe has a recipe).

We have this Kasha Pilaf With Chicken, Mushrooms and Onions, which is Stephanie Witt Sedgwick's riff on varnishkes.

Kasha Pilaf With Chicken, Mushrooms and Onions

Maybe next year I'll submit when I've finally tweaked the recipe to perfection, but my favorite tomato dish by far is just tomato and eggs. Extremely simple, but so comforting and delicious. I first had it in Beijing, and Joe's Noodle House in Rockville does a great version. Unfortunately the secret in Beijing was MSG and the secret at Joe's is their aged and spiced woks. I promise not to give up though!

We get a few shakshukah/tomato-egg recipes every year. Hard to go wrong with that combo. We'll be on the lookout for you next year! 

What are your thoughts about the so-called "lab-grown" beef being written about a lot this week? From a taste perspective, sounds like it needs work, but more broadly, I wonder if it really would have advantages. I'm skeptical about creating food from something that isn't actually "living," at least in the sense we've always thought of until now.

I think there are many reasons to encourage this kind of research: growing meat in labs, starting from stem cells. It could cut down on the greenhouse gases produced by traditional livestock production. It would help local rivers and streams, which often are contamination from run0ff from livestock facilities.


With that said, researchers still have a long way to go. First off, the beef has not fat. It's only muscle tissue, which affects the flavor and mouthfeel of the lab beef, as the Post noted in a recent story. The costs of producing such meat are also astronomical. I suspect all of that will change, though, as the research progresses.

Sara, the fattoush sounds delicious, but I can't quite wrap my mind around cucumbers served with ice cold sorbet. Could I substitute in pine nuts or something that has less water content?

Pine nuts sound like a really good substitute. That's the way I cook too - if a recipe has something that doesn't sound good to me, I find something to replace it or just leave it out. The cucumbers aren't very watery when diced and mixed with oregano and olive oil, and the little Persian ones worked well for this dish. But, I think pine nuts would be good too.

Sounds like it is time for your hubby to learn to cook. How about a nice cookbook as a gift to him?

This looks fabulous! I love this style of spicing, and make plum puddings for Christmas every year with a similar profile. With tomatoes it should be killer. But a question ... over time I've modified my plum pudding recipe to make it vegetarian, possibly even vegan. Do you think I can just leave out the meat (at which point it would become Spicy Tomato Preserves or some such)? And at that point would it be acidic enough for hot-water canning?

Green Tomato Mincemeat

Well, the meat is what makes it mincemeat, I guess. But there's not all that much of it, once you apportion into quarts. It definitely adds flavor. As long as you were freezing it or pressure canning, why not try soy crumbles instead?

It seems timely to ask on Tomato Wednesday, but did you ever have any luck getting that tomato fondutta recipe from 2Amys? Inquiring (and hungry) minds want to know. :)

Oh dear, oh dear I meant to call. Had it in my head on Monday. I will do so TODAY. Please  call 202 334 7575 at 5 pm and I'll do my best to have an answer. 

Any secrets for picking the best tomatoes at the farm stand? Inevitably I don't buy enough of the ones that are fabulous and buy too many of the mealey ones. What should I look for?

If you're going to cook immediately  with the tomatoes, you want to make sure you're buying the freshest ones. Look for tomatoes that are free of blemishes. The skin should be smooth and fairly taunt. It should have some weight to it. But most important of all, it should have a little give when you press the flesh. If it's too tight, it's not ripe enough.

Given focus on sugar, can you share if you're doing anything to reduce eliminate sugar in your diet and cooking?

Cook with fresh foods, not packaged ones, and you'll be way ahead of the game.

Sara - can you suggest a variation on your dish to make it gluten-free? What should I use in place of the pita chips?

My twin sister, Rachel, just made this dish for a friend who doesn't eat gluten. She used rice chips in place of the pita chips and they all agreed it was delicious. So far as I know, the rest of the recipe ingredients do not contain gluten.

This is for the OP from last week who doesn't like the slime of okra. One way to cook okra without getting any slime is to toss the okra with olive oil and salt and roast at 450 until brown. It is so good and has no slime.

Love roasted everything! Well, almost everything. Thanks much.

I'd love to look at your book but I do have to usually cook for more than one. That shouldn't stop me, right? Can I expand the recipes pretty easily? I loved your piece last week, fwiw, even though I'm not cooking for just one usually...I certainly do sometimes and have a lot in the past, and I really appreciate your words of wisdom.

No, it shouldn't stop you from enjoying "Eat Your Vegetables," of course! These recipes can easily be treated as side dishes, or a couple could split one easily by adding a salad or a soup to start, or of course you could double or triple them easily. You could even treat them as a collection of small plates for a dinner party!

I imagine these are close to back in season. I understand they can sometimes be found at area Wegman's. Know of any local farmers markets where I might score some?

Bonnie usually keeps tabs on the Hatch whereabouts, so she might have other thoughts, but you won't find them at farmers markets. Why not? Well, because Hatch chilies are so named because they're grown in/around Hatch, N.M. Farmers markets carry locally grown produce, of course.

I have info from Melissa's Worldwide Produce, 'tis true. I'll post online soon! Wegmans, Giant, Harris Teeter and maybe Whole Foods will have Hatch chilies and some of those stores will be roasting them. Figure on finding them in stores till early September.  (Farmers markets in Texas and NM and L.A., sure!)

Joe - Can you tell me if your new book includes nutritional information? I hope so! That's so important to me when I buy new cookbooks. I'm really looking forward to checking yours out!

Sorry to break it to you, but I'm afraid it doesn't...

How about good, old-fashioned pimiento cheese?

I like it. Here's one recipe.

Pimento Cheese

So, this has always stumped me: When I buy a really nice cured salami (unrefrigerated), it has a casing on it. I assume you are supposed to remove it before eating, but it's often very difficult to do so. Any tips? Is it easier to get off after slicing? At room temp?

I usually just slice it into rings. Most of the time, the casing will practically slip off in the process. If not, you can remove it with your fingers.

I got a new herb - new to me - in my mystery farm box last week. It's called Nepitella and grows wild in Italy. It's kind of a cross between mint and oregano. I think it would be good in Sara's salad since the recipe uses both mint and oregano. One thing though - every time I open the fridge, the kitchen smells like a cannabis plantation!

I've never heard of Nepitella, but will have to look for it. Don't open the fridge when the police are visiting!

Tim, Thanks for the great article on San Marzano tomatoes. I have long wondered why they were the recommended tomato in so many recipes. Honestly, I thought it was because of "groupthink" or marketing but am glad to know a little more of the back story.

Thank you! It does seem a little silly to pay so much for San Marzanos when you can find equally good plum tomatoes at a fraction of the cost.

My brother and sister-in-law recently moved abroad and I got the contents of their pantry. Do you know what to do with black cumin seeds? Bonus if you know what to do with Baobab fruit powder? This seems to be a 'super food' to add to smoothies but can I use it in cooking?

Black cumin reminds me of caraway seeds, with that anise flavor. I often make a Syrian pepper paste called Harissa using caraway seeds. It can also be used in German preparations like sauerkraut and some of their breads. 

Black cumin is the same as Nigella. So that might help you think about it. Try adding a teaspoon or so, toasted and ground, to the spice mixture in your next Moroccan tagine -- or make one for the first time!

I've seen baobab on packages (yes, powder for nutritional supplement/drinks), but that's about it. Have you tasted it? That would provide some clues.

Local writer Monica Bhide (can't remember if I saw this in one of her cookbooks or articles) roasts okra as the chatter suggests, and tosses it with chaat masala afterwards. I've always struggled with okra in my CSA deliveries and now that I've discovered this technique, I always end up making it this way. It's great.

Fabulous. Thanks.

The recipe specifies to freeze in freezer bags. Is there any reason not to freeze in half-pint Mason straight-sided jars? Thx.

Because the bags can lie flat, and because that would be a lot of half-pint jars to stash in the freezer. Be sure to follow special guidelines for freezing in jars. 

For the first time ever, I've successfully grown something other than basil. And now that most of my jalapenos are ripening, I'm hoping to get some guidance on recipes and other ways to make the most of my jalapenos. How long will they last in my fridge after picking? I like spicy food, but tend to use one or two at a time in a dish and I now have tons! Thanks!

Keep them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to a week.

Pickle those puppies!

I always enjoy the tomato issue and you've provided several great recipes I'll be trying soon. But now I am plum out of ideas for eggplants and they're growing like crazy. I made a cold Asian flavored eggplant salad that was good and baba ganoush that was just meh. Any interesting new recipes to try?

A variation on baba ganoush; mix the smoked eggplant pulp with some thick yogurt[strained yogurt, like Chobani] minced galic, salt and garnish of cilantro.

In India we cook  tomatoes, onions, green chilies and tamarind puree and add to smoked eggplant. Garnish with cilantro. Serve over rice

So far you've taken 31 questions on vegetarianism, veganism, fruit and vegetable preparation, salad dressings, and herbs; and only two on meat and one on seafood. This is really disappointing. This evangelism to the meat-eating damned is grinding enough in the feature articles, but it's made the chat almost totally useless to me.

We're answering what we're being asked. So if you have a meat question, please ask! We have plenty of carnivores here to help. I'm sad that the very presence of a vegetable question upsets you, and that you resort to counting, btw...

But he is taking care of the child 100% all week.

Like the previous poster, I hate hate hate the taste of coconut and coconut milk. I love to cook and have always wondered if there is a go-to sub for both when they are in a recipe. For coconut, I usually omit it or substitute pecans or walnuts or almonds. I am stumped when a recipe calls for coconut milk. Please help! (PS- hope my question wins me a Post cookbook!)

Almond milk can be a good substitute at least as far as non baking recipes go.

I thought the meat in mincemeat could also refer to nutmeat.

Sometimes nuts are included in mincemeat recipes, but I think it's just that modern-day mincemeat recipes tend to leave out the meat (and/or suet) entirely. 

I got a bottle of smoked maple syrup that smells AMAZING. I was thinking it might be good in salad dressings or dipping sauces. Any other suggestions? I don't see this going on my pancakes. Or do I?

I've never tried that, but it sounds amazing for grilling salmon or pork.

I feel like it has been a pretty bad year for tomatoes in DC this year. Do you have a sense that the cool spring (esp cool morning temps) and the downpours in July have affected this year's crop?

A couple of weeks ago, I might have agreed with you. But recently I've tasted some really fantastic farmers market tomatoes.


Personally, I think this year's peach crop was terrible.

Stone fruit has been a mixed bag, yes. Have gotten some good nectarines and apricots, but the peaches have been a disappointment so far. But we'll see how the rest of the year goes.

I love them and frankly don't understand why people bother to buy them at the supermarket. Most frequently I make oil and vinegar concoctions with garlic, herbs and Dijon but I've recently fallen for this buttermilk based dressing. You still need to shake before serving!

Thanks for sharing the recipe. I couldn't agree more with you about homemade dressings. I can whip up a balsamic vinaigrette in a matter of minutes, and it will taste fresher and more alive than anything out of a bottle.

Hey rangers - we made amazing lemongrass chicken tacos with quick pickled carrots, radishes and cukes at the end of last week, but the actual cooking of the chicken thighs - stovetop cooking for about 6 mins on each side after marinading - resulted in the crustiest pan I ever remember having. Do you have any tips for removing that crust without destroying the pan? It's a smallish (10") all-clad saute pan, if that helps. Thank you!!!

Heat up a little soapy water in it, and cover and let it soak until the water cools. Then I bet you can scrape up those bits witha plastic pastry scraper or get them up with a scrubber.

Good afternoon. I bought some lamb chops to have for dinner next week but I rarely eat lamb and have never made it before. Could you suggest an easy and delicious recipe? P.S. I'm making this for my boyfriend so I feel the need to make something impressive! Thank you.

I heart lamb. What kind do you have? No matter; of the 13 recipes in our Recipe Finder, I'd say this one with mint salsa's a fine way to go. Of course, the backyard figs are so fantastic right now you could just marinate the chops in a oil/vine/herb mix, then grill with figs. 

When my husband was working in Munich and we were living in England (well, it's less than 4 hours away), I made a weekly menu and posted it on the refrigerator door. I planned all the meals ahead of time. This meant I also had the ingredients on hand (which would mean your husband would have the ingredients on hand). Planning the meals was one of the hardest parts of preparing meals from the distance and our children were at the pizza and chicken nuggets stage. This kept our meals more healthy. If you are driving and planning to cook during the week to fill the time you would be using to do so at home, invest in a lot of Pyrex that can be thawed in the fridge during the day (or overnight) and heated up when your husband and child get home. If this is frozen, take a cooler the appropriate size and buy enough blue ice packs to cover the top layer. Except in blazing summers, everything should get between your two kitchens safely .


Congratulations to the tomato recipe winners! There was an amazing amount of creativity in the dishes. The fattoush is especially intriguing and I'd love to making a dessert with tomatoes. Also love the Asian-inspired dishes. I'm going to have to up my game next year. I thought my recipe was tasty, but perhaps too pedestrian.

Sara's dish hit all the right, interesting notes; glad you agree.  It's obvious that readers stepped up their game this year -- let that inspire you, not intimidate. 

Try BBQ seitan or BBQ tofu. BBQ flavor would probably work well with the pulled pork and sides. Cut setian into bite-sized pieces. Toss in a little cornstarch or flour, and brown in an oiled pan. I like to get them pretty well browned, but not burned. Then toss in BBQ sauce. Same process for tofu (drain first!), but I often broil tofu instead. Or maybe a sloppy joe made with beans?

Hi! My boyfriend and I are contemplating a move to a bigger apartment, but most of the places we've looked at so far have electric stoves, which i've never cooked on. Are there advantages of an electric stove over a gas stove? I feel like there's less control over the heat, and I imagine I can't char vegetables over an electric stove (I just discovered this technique and love it! I highly recommend this baba ganoush: but there must be a reason they're so prevalent, and I don't want to pass up on an otherwise nice apartment. What are your thoughts on electric stoves for the serious cook?

Electric stoves are the devil!


Okay, I exaggerate. I have cooked on one for years, and for the most part, it works just fine. You can't char things on one, but that's why I have a grill/smoker. (Well, one reason why I have a grill/smoker.) You also have less control over heat -- or I should say less precise control. But you learn to live with it.

If you can install a metal pull out fixture and one of your cabinets you can pull out heavier items that are only used occasionally

Don't make fun of me: peanut butter and tomato. Toast up some whole wheat pitas, use whatever pb and tomato you like. I discovered this from my friend's father, I gross everyone out when I eat it; but since discovering the fruity types of heirloom tomatoes and my husband's hatred of pb, I crave it all the time. (I eat it when he's not around!)


I love to cook, but unfortunately, I have no talent for it. I learned to competently play the piano when young, but could never "jam" - I needed to follow notes or memorize a piece. Now, I'm much the same in the kitchen. I cook regularly, I have some things I can now make well because I've made them many times before, I eat out and try new things, I'm familiar with most ingredients, and I can make almost anything from a good recipe, even tricky things... but if faced with a fully-stocked pantry, refrigerator, and garden, I can't improvise. Do you have any suggestions on how to learn to bravely put together things I'm actually familiar with, but have never combined before?

That's not really a bad thing. I could never be a real chef because I lack the discipline to plan or follow recipes. I like the invention process much better. But, it does help to be fearless about ruining things. Sometimes it just doesn't work and you have to throw it away and start anew. Or start small with improvising - change one or two ingredients in a trusted recipe for things that taste similar to you (except for baking, which requires exact measurements).

Maybe you could prepare things like turkey burgers and keep them in the freezer, and then your husband can grill them during the week. Or he could grill kebabs - veggie, chicken, steak, shrimp. That wouldn't be too much cooking.

My friend just gave me some! I like it in a simple soup with tofu. The broth kind of dilutes the bitter taste a bit. Garlic, ginger, five spice powder if you have it, the broth (I'm vegan so No-Chicken Better than Bouillon for me), and tofu. Last night, I made a stir-fry with tofu. Hoisin sauce kind of offsets the bitterness a bit.

The comment about slimy okra is interesting. I haven't eaten a lot of okra in my live, but I've had it twice recently. The first time it was pickled and yes, it was slimy on the inside. I just had it grilled for lunch (from Kushi) and it wasn't really slimy at all (and really delicious). Does high heat cut the slime?

High heat dries it out, so, yes, will be less slimy...

Joe, congratulations on your new book. While I'm not a vegetarian, I'm a vegetable lover and CSA customer so I'm always looking for new ways to prepare veg-centric meals. When not using meat to flavor dishes, I find I'm using more herbs, spices, and sauces. For example, I just discovered that mushroom powder, made from dried mushrooms, adds an earthy taste to dishes. What are your flavor go-tos these days?

Well, kimchi, always, as most readers have realized. ;-) I'm a big fan of global spice blends these days, too -- za'atar, 5-spice, and dukkah (stay tuned for a recipe that uses the latter in a couple of weeks).

Put some baking soda and water in the pot, put it on the stove and heat until almost boiling. Let it sit for 20 minutes or so, and all of the burnedy stuff will lift right off.

I'm moving back to MD after spending a year in San Diego without my smoker! So I cannot wait to get back to meat! However well I've done with meat, I cannot figure out how to smoke cheese. It just ends up sticking to the cheesecloth, totally losing the smokey outside. Any tips?

I've smoked cheese at home, but it's been awhile. One of the tricks I remember is to skip the cheesecloth. I just placed the cheese on a sheet pan. You can cut your cheese into smaller pieces, which will ensure a smoky flavor in every bite.  Another tip: Don't oversmoke it. In other words, don't smoke it until it turns brown. It will take on a certain bitterness that you don't want.

The salad dressing question reminded me - i have commercial red wine vinegar that I store in the cabinet over my stove. Went to use it recently and saw that there was a solid cloud of.... something in there. Is this natural? Is the vinegar still okay to use? What is that stuff??

That's the vinegar "mother." perfectly fine.

What's the best way to use tomatoes that are a little mealy and past their prime? Soups, sauces or baking them in the oven?

Try a chutney, all those spices and cooking it down will mask the texture.

Another suggestion is to blanch and extract broth, which can be use to poach fish etc., and in soups.

I'm last week's stir fry newbie OP. Just following up with some thanks. After last week's chat I took all the advice and chopped veggies until my motivation ran out and gave it a whirl. It wasn't perfect, but it was tastier than I had any right to expect. This seems so easy and versatile that I'm not sure why it took this long for me to try it, but I'm definitely going to play with it from now on! (And also try to come up with new and exciting places to use the sambal oelek I bought for the occasion, since I'm pretty sure I'm in love.)

Way to go!

I've always found that using half a lemon and a scrubber works really well. It doesn't scratch the pan but it more gritty than the soft side of a sponge.

ajvar. you're welcome.

Yep, it was on my list! That's the spread...

Hello Food Rangers - I hope you can get to my question this week. I have a new basic Frigidaire with two bottom crisper a/k/a rotter drawers. I want to use one for veggies and one for meat because the tiny "deli" drawer is woefully inadequate. What humidity settings should I set the drawers on? Right now they are at factory default right in the middle. I usually am keeping mushrooms, carrots, maybe a zucchini, half an onion, in the veggie drawer, and uncooked chicken/steak/hotdogs/bacon in the other drawer. Thanks for your assistance.

Basically, you want low humidity for fruit/veggies that emit ethylene and can rot, and high humidity for leafy greens and things that need a little moisture to keep from wilting. As for meat? I'd guess you don't need humidity for that.

I am usually starving by the time I leave the office, and often end up snacking on chips, crackers, and other easy-to-reach calories in the pre-dinner hours. It cancels out my attempts to eat well in the evening. I already eat almonds when I'm hungry at work, but by the end of the day another handful of nuts just isn't appetizing. Any healthful ideas for reinventing my appetizer routine?

How about some hummus with crudites?

I have lived in Indiana, NJ and California and my family has always had a fights over where the best tomatoes are grown. I say Indiana!!! California doesn't stand a chance, though the dry farm tomatoes this time of year are scrumptious. Any opinions out there?

My mom, who is sitting next to me, says Indiana definitely wins! That's where we're from, and I have to agree.

Does it give info re how long food can safely be stored, and under what circumstances (frozen, refrigerator, counter)?

Alas, no. That's my next book. 

I followed the recipe as printed in the paper. The ice cream formed fine and had a good texture. However it was inedible. I served it to some guests who took one bite and then stopped eating it. This was the first recipe from the Post that people did not care for. Any idea about what might have gone wrong?

send me a direct email ( and we'll figure it out. 

It's called: add meat to a veggie dish. Bake chicken, grill salmon, cut up some hot dogs. It is really not that hard. I do the same thing with meat dishes: get rid of the meat if you don't like it. Not that hard!

I do what the previous poster does; put stems in water. This also works for parsley and some other herbs. Also, with basil, rinse and chop it only at the very last minute. I prep the nuts,cheeses, etc, before I rinse the basil and toss it in. When I have enough basil in my garden for a batch of pesto, I do all the rest before I even pick it! By the way, I always make a double batch of pesto -- cleanup once -- and freeze in ice cube trays, store in freezer baggies.

Question for Joe, and sorry if you've already covered this, but is your book all veggie or recipes that are mostly veggies but have some meat? If it's the latter, do you think the recipes are easily adaptable to take out the meat? I'm in a mixed household of veg, pescetarian and carnivore, so it's preferable to either have all veg or easily adaptable. I find adding meat for just the carnivore is easier than modifying to take out.

It's all veggies! Well, there are maybe 2 recipes that include an optional anchovy. No other meat or seafood.

Right now, the absolute best vegie sandwich I can think of would have to be a Tomato Sandwich!!! Add anything you like to it nothing can beat a fresh tomato sandwich.

I'm okay with the zip-locs, but why couldn't the preserves be frozen for longer than three months?

They can; those guidelines are for optimum quality.

I note that on several of the recipes in today's section (mince and jam) you recommended pressure canning but did not give time and pressure information. Is that information available? Because it's not really helpful without that information.

We didnt provide the information because we didn't test it that way; many folks don't go there. Check this link at the National Center for Home Food Preservation for the right procedure for the mincemeat. As for Mama's Tomato Preserves, there's just not enough acidity to ensure safe canning -- although the finalist tells me her family's been eating the preserves that way for years. 

I've got some pork belly that I'd like to turn into bacon. Would a cure involving five spice, and maybe some orange peel, be too jarring or is it just crazy enough to work? This question brought to you by Edward Lee's pork ribs and sauerkraut recipe.

It sounds like an excellent Asian-oriented preparation to me. I'd give it a shot. Do you have the ability/time to try two different approaches to the cure, just in case you don't like the five-spice version?

When I pick out green beans in the supermarket or farmer's market, I never know whether I'm getting something that will cook up into tender-crisp deliciousness, or fibrous inedibility. Any hints for picking a winner, other than just shelling out for the French beans?

I snap a bean [maybe not the right thing to do at the super market] and see if it snaps clean and crisp, and the snapped end is juicy, then I assume the batch is good.

Thanks for sharing the recipes! That tomato jam is going to be appearing on a sandwich in my kitchen very soon!

Mama's Tomato Preserves

Good taste you have, in Yodaspeak.

I've been getting my peaches from Twin Springs in PA - they're quite good in my opinion. In the newsletter they send out they mentioned that many peach growers in states further south have gotten too much water, resulting in less flavorful peaches. I agree that the local tomatoes have also been good. Been growing my own but I may have to resort to picking and using them green as the chipmunks always take them as they start to ripen... boo.

I've read that keeping tomatoes in the refrigerator destroys their flavor-- any tricks to keeping them fresh for longer?

The University of California Ag Department has some very good tips on storing tomatoes at room temperature. Check them out here.

For the poster who doesn't want to use coconut: would chopped cashews or peanuts be a good substitute?

If I have found some vinegar mother at the bottom of the bottle of red wine vinegar, when the vinegar is almost gone, I'll top up the bottle with some red wine and let it sit for a couple of weeks. Voila--more wine vinegar. It's a good way to use up the dregs of an unfinished bottle on the rare occasion that happens, or use some red wine that wasn't all that wonderful.

In my CSA basket today I got some fresh cranberry beans. Now what do I do with them? Other than peas, I've never used shell beans before. Thanks,

You use them in any way you would use dried beans, except they cook MUCH faster. Since shell beans can be expensive, and they're so flavorful, I like to simply cook them in a little water with garlic and onion and oil, and then cook off the liquid and fold in a little butter. They're great in cold salads, too. And many other preparations.

Make garlic hot pepper jam. It's delicious. Serve it with cheese, on grilled cheese sandwiches, on chicken or turkey sandwiches, on top of mac and cheese, with you bagel...

Is there any trick to removing the orangey stain that tomato products (soups, sauces, etc.) can leave in my plastic storage containers? I guess one answer would be to use glass, but I'd like to be able to salvage what I already have rather than buy new stuff. Thanks.

A quick scan of the ol' InterWebz shows methods that include denture table soaking; drying out containers in several hours of full sun; spraying the inside of said containers BEFOREhand with cooking oil spray; a mix of baking soda, dish soap and water; using products designed to clean coffee and tea stains; a bleach-water solution. Chatters, any luck with any of those?

I want to do a snacks & drinks deal for my housewarming party. Thoughts on things that are delicious but not too messy/hard to eat. New carpets, you know. ;)

Why refrigerate it? It will certainly last a week at room temp, so if you're making larger quantites, store it in the fridge till Monday morning, then bring a week's worth in a jar and keep it in your office. Tastes better at room temp, too. If you emulsify it when you make it I would think it would stay emulsified. Mine does, but I don't refrigerate it; I just use it within a couple of weeks.

You need to refrigerate if the vinaigrette contains fresh herbs or garlic or shallots, for example. You can always let it sit at room temp before shaking to re-emulsify. 

Did you all see any trends with the tomato recipes submitted? How many caprese salads did you get?

Hmm. I think we had more grain salads this year; every year we get a fair amount of fresh tomato sauces. I think we received only 3 or 4 Caprese-type recipes. 

Good idea. I'll slice the pork belly in half, or maybe take off a third, and experiment with the smaller half. Thanks!

I would move other things that are taking up space into the crisper drawer and buy either green bags or other small storage devices for veggies in the rest of the fridge. I use the crisper for things like sauces/salad dressings that I've made, flour, and of course, wine and beer. :)

What about a vegetable or protein smoothie? Cheese stick? Dried fruit like mango? Piece of fruit? Hard-boiled egg? I have the same problem, so I like to keep snacks that are less than 100 calories around. In my experience the higher protein snacks usually work better.

Uh-oh. For a basic vinaigrette, do I need to store it in the fridge? I haven't been.

As long as you use a basic oil (not a nut oil, which goes rancid quicker), vinegar, s&p, you wouldn't have to refrigerate. Sometimes I will even if I have added a little Dijon mustard (that has been in the fridge), just to be on the safe side. 

After seeing goat meat on "Chopped" recently, I bought a 2 lb. bag of frozen, bone-in goat meat chunks at an Indian grocery store. The recipe on the bag says to brown them, then cook in a large pot with liquid for two hours. Do you think a slow cooker would work? How about grilling them?

Goat can be extremely chewy if not cooked properly. I'm familiar with those goat chunks you have. I would braise them to make sure you break down the muscles and fibers into a soft, succulent texture. You could also try marinading the bone-in pieces for several hours to start the breaking-down process, then grill them for 30-45 minutes or so.

Try this..Mumbai Marathi style cooking- mom's recipe. 1 medium potato for one bitter melon. Cut the potatoes into 1/8 inch thickness by 1 inch pieces. Cut the melon into semi-circles.. heat Oil, crushed garlic, add ½ tsp turmeric..add the bitter melon pieces..cover and let them cook for 10 minutes..then add the potato slices and let them cook for another 10 minutes..add salt and cook till everything is cooked and slightly crispy..tastes great! The potatoes taste great absorbing the flavors of the melon and turmeric.

I'm going to make basic tomato pasta sauce tonight, but I want to toss in something to add protein. Do you have suggestions for things other than meat? Would crumbled tofu work?

We sometimes use pre-made vege sausages (lots of grocery stores have them either in the fresh or frozen section). They're OK, but not as good as the real thing. I'm not sure sure crumbled tofu would work - it might look like curdled eggs when you're done.

I want to make smoky mac & cheese this weekend. Other than smoked cheddar, are there other smoked cheeses you'd recommend using? Thanks.

Smoked gouda and smoked mozz are two favorites. Those would both be good, I think.

Once they've simmered a little bit and are ready to eat, I'd saute some garlic in oil, add a little dice tomato (basically you're making a sauce) along with a rosemary sprig and one of sage (or sage leaves). Once the tomatoes have broken down a bit, add the beans and cook a little while longer so the beans absorb some of the liquid (add a bit of water if it dries out). Cook on low to preserve the flavor of the herbs. Once ready, take out the rosemary and sage sprigs and serve.

Would you be able to have a chat session just focused on home-prep school lunches / lunch box container strategy / etc? This parent of a kid entering kindergarten needs it something bad.

Good idea, perhaps late for this year (already, gah). Have you seen J.M. Hirsch's new book, "Beating the Lunch Box Blues"? Fun stuff, lots of photos. Sounds like it's right up your alley. 

Are there people who cultivate a taste for that ala green tomatoes?

Absolutely. I kind of prefer a slightly green banana to a really ripe one. And I know plenty of people who like an unripe pear,  myself included. Other things, like peaches and nectarines? I'm sure there are devotees.

This is a question that Tom S. often gets in his chat, but I'm not sure I've seen the Food section staff tackle it. Restaurant Week is right around the corner. Do you all recommend any of the Virginia options? I'm thinking of finally trying 2941, but anywhere in the Fairfax area would be great.

I would grab a reservation at Vermilion or Willow.

Do you have suggestions on the best way to freeze herbs that I am growing in my backyard?

Check this out. 

Do you have to cook/temper the egg yolks for use in ice-cream or can they be raw (assuming no health issues for eaters)? Not all recipes are clear on it. I figure if my kids are eating ice-cream adding eggs makes it healthier, no? HAHA!

Uncooked eggs make me -- and food safety officials! -- very nervous, so immune-compromised or not, you really should be cooking those eggs. No one wants to get salmonella. Also, cooking the yolks gets you a thick, creamy custard base. If you don't want to deal with eggs at all, I'd steer you to Philadelphia-style ice creams, which don't use egg yolks. "Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home" is egg-free.

Well, you've divided small scoops of us among individual bowls or dishes and topped us with cucumber, feta and pita chips and drizzled us with pomegranate molasses, so you know what that means -- we're done!

Thanks for the great q's today -- and to Sara and Sandhya for their help answering them.

Now for our giveaway books. The chatter who asked about veg options or a sandwich party in the works will get "The Ultimate Panini Press Cookbook." The one who asked about olive oil solidifying in a homemade vinaigrette with get my "Eat Your Vegetables." And the one who asked about Julia Child's first recipe in WaPoFood will get "The Washington Post Cookbook." Send your mailing info to Becky at, and she'll get you your book!

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 Food editor Bonnie Benwick, staff writer Tim Carman and editorial aide Becky Krystal. Guests: Top Tomato contest winners Sara Leibman and Sandhya Babu/
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