Free Range on Food cooking Q&A: Skills and recipes readers picked up during the pandemic

Oct 21, 2020

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Past Free Range on Food chats

Food writer Cathy Barrow made a confession recently: She had ambitious goals for the months cooped up at home, including learning how to cross-stich and how to speak Italian.  

“I don’t know what happened to all those months, but I can’t speak Italian and I haven’t sewn one stitch,” she wrote.

I bet you can guess what she did do. She learned to make a food she had always wanted to master: flour tortillas.

And thank goodness for us she did. Now, we have step-by-step instructions for making flour tortillas at home, from making the simple dough, to rolling and cooking them until they are just blistered.

Have you mastered any new cooking skills since the pandemic forced you to cook, cook, cook at home?

Tell us about them. Or, better yet, tell us what you would love to learn to cook. Maybe we can help you out.

In the last six months, we have published stories about making bread, including sourdough (of course) and getting the most of out that discard. Cathy, who plans to join us for the chat this afternoon, took the mystery out of canning tomatoes and making jam. Becky scrambled a lot of eggs and gave advice and got advice from readers. Marian Liu taught us how to make bubble tea, or boba, from scratch.  Just this week, Tim Carman taught us how to make an excellent coffee pour-over at home.  

What else do you want to learn to do? Let’s talk about that, your holiday planning or anything else food-related that’s on your mind.

Please note: We will give away a free, 30-day subscription to The Washington Post to the person who sends in our favorite comment of the week! (Already a subscriber? You can give the free month to a friend.)

I am buying a big bird this year. This is the year for me to experiment. I am envisioning breaking down the bird and fixing it, traditional baking, on the grill, smoking, etc. Then I can freeze the majority of the cooked turkey for January and February dishes like chili, meat pies, curries, soups. Working from home nothing is better than taking some grilled cooked turkey smother it in a bourbon BBQ sauce topped with bacon on a roll for dinner. Yea go get a huge bird and be happy in 2021.

Sounds like you have a plan. (Is this message in response to this story by Laura Reilly: Turkey farmers fear that, this year, they’ve bred too many big birds?)

Thanksgiving leftovers are the best, aren't they? Last year, Becky wrote: How to use Thanksgiving leftovers.

Turkey Tortilla Soup sounds scrumptious.

I love a turkey has, too, like this one: Southwest-Style Turkey Hash

What else does everyone make with their turkey leftovers?

Just a thank you to Joe Yonan for the Lentil Mushroom Farmer pie recipe. Love his Cool Beans cookbook.

Oh, so glad you like the recipe and the book!

Here's that recipe for others to peruse:

Lentil Mushroom Farmer's Pie With Turmeric Cauliflower Mash


I'm the OP who wrote about my husband hating cauliflower. I roasted the cauliflower for sandwiches (which was delicious to me, by the way), but my sweetie wasn't impressed. I guess I'll just have to accept that he will never appreciate cauliflower, and that leaves more for me! I can't really complain - he didn't eat cole slaw, lima beans, broccoli, and lentils when we got married. Now, he eats them all (cole slaw with a vinegar base), and requests them if I haven't fixed them in a while.

At least he is willing to try it! And, look how many different things he now enjoys.

I heard somewhere that you palate changes every few years, so keep trying! And glad he was willing to give it a go. 

My toddler really, really wanted a pumpkin "for cooking" (distinct from the ones on our front step that I told her were "for decorating"), so now I have a WHOLE PUMPKIN sitting on my counter. Are there any toddler-friendly recipes you could suggest?

Totally! Just bake like any other squash (split in half, put in the oven till soft), and you'll have pumpkin puree that can become a pasta sauce, a soup, cookies, pie, a very nice loaf cake, and more!

Hi Rangers! Submitting in advance bc I'm not available during the live chat. A food-adjacent question for you - we just purchased a home which currently has an electric stovetop. We could run a gas line into the kitchen for a gas range, but were also thinking of maybe going the induction route. I've never cooked on induction, so I'd love to hear your thoughts / pros / cons. This house may become a vacation rental down the road, so that's also a consideration (open flame of gas vs. induction which may be unfamiliar to renters). Thanks!

I'm the resident induction fan! I was in a similar situation with a previous home -- loved it, but only electric was available. I made a deal that if they replaced the regular electric stove with induction, I was in. They did, and I did, and I loved that stove.

It takes a little getting used to, because people have held onto the idea that they need to see that flame, which I totally get. Also, induction is so responsive that turning it up or down results in a noticeable change instantaneously, which can require you to adjust your own cooking rhythm. Boils water in a flash. You do have to make sure your pots/pans are induction-compatible, but that's getting easier and easier as the stoves are growing in popularity.

We have an induction cooktop in our Food Lab, and it's been a little more finicky than my home range was -- particularly, one of the burners will sometimes shut off if there's a heavy (cast-iron) skillet or pot over high heat for very long. It triggers this safety mechanism that senses when the glass gets too hot. The interesting thing is that the glass is getting hot only because of contact with the pot/skillet. Generally, induction works by turning the metal in the pot itself into the heating element, activated by the magnetic field.

As I have written recently, I've been having problems with an older gas stove recently, releasing carbon monoxide, and so am planning to replace it with induction. When I went to Consumer Reports to look up ratings on ranges, I was reminded that the highest scores all go to induction -- higher, even, than the pro-style gas ranges.

And then there are the environmental benefits: Induction is the most energy-efficient way of cooking, because a much higher percentage of the energy goes directly into the heat in the pot, rather than into the air. That also means that induction doesn't add nearly as much heat to the kitchen.

For your renters, I don't think it would be too much of a hurdle -- certainly nothing that a basic info sheet couldn't take care of!

Help. When I food shop, I wear my mask, distance, take wipes and my shopping list. I get in the store and become Covid panic. Any suggestions would help. Do I not got down aisle that have more then two people? Do I need to wipe the cart even it was already wiped? What about the produce that is in open bins. Should I not buy these? As you can see I go into covid panic mode when in the store. Finally how often to shop, once a week or every two weeks.

Hey, it's difficult to manage all of this. We get it. It sounds like you are doing what you can to stay safe and keep others safe.  (I try to shop for my home just once a week. That's the best I can manage.)

You can stay up to date on grocery shopping guidelines at the CDC websites. It's a great resource, offering practical tips. Also, follow the posted signs in your store.

I buy fruit and vegetables in open bins and wash them before eating as I normally do. I try to maintain 6 feet of distance as best I can at the store.

One key the CDC and other experts stress is not touching your face until you have a chance to wash your hands. 

The CDC also notes: "If you are at higher risk for severe illness, find out if the store has special hours for people at higher risk. If they do, try to shop during those hours."

Ann also wrote a guide here to grocery shopping in a pandemic, as well as tips on how to go every two weeks

As for your questions, I wouldn't say you have to avoid aisles with more than two people, or wipe down an already wiped cart, but if it's something that will help alleviate that anxiety, then go ahead. 

Coronavirus is not a foodborne virus, so open produce is fine. Just wash with water when you get home (do not wash your food with soap!). I still wash all my produce and wipe down all my cans/boxes. 

Also, please take care with yourself. Covid anxiety and stress can take a toll. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can, and that is more than enough! 

We ordered takeout from our favorite Indian restaurant - we ordered it mild as we share it with our kids even though we prefer it medium/medium hot. On this occasion it was way too spicy for the kids and over spiced for us. It was a back of throat spicy that was somewhat unpleasant. We tried to salvage the dishes (paneer tikka masala, chicken curry) by adding coconut milk to try to tame it, but it was still too spicy for our family. Is there something else we could have done?

You had the right idea with diluting it! Sometimes it can be even too spicy for that. 

You can also try serving with yogurt. Yogurt is cooling and like other dairy products, helps mitigate spice. That why raita exists, to cool everything down! 

Joe, you've mentioned October or Cranberry Beans in cooking. I love them but where can I buy them locally? I used to get them at Shopper's but now they're out of business. Before the pandemic I'd also stock up on visits to relatives in West Virginia but that's out too now.

I see them under Bob's Red Mill brand at Mom's sometimes, but you should also know that they're the same as borlotti beans, and those are usually available at Italian markets. Of course, the interwebs are another story!

I got some Rancho Gordo cranberry beans at Each Peach Market in NW DC recently!

Do you have any tips on what to look for or favorite brands? There is such a huge price range. Basic decisions seem to be analog or digital, and there is the straight versus foldable design. I already have a classic candy/deep fry thermometer that you can clip to the side of a pan. I would be using it mostly for baking or liquids since I rarely cook meat. Thanks!

I like to check in with America's Test Kitchen when I'm considering items like this. Watch this Youtube video.
(I'm happy with my Taylor digital. It folds and seems accurate.)

It's more of a splurge ($99), but I really love my Thermapen Mk4, which is the ATK pick. It's fast, accurate, has a back-light and has a sleep and quick-to-wake mode if you don't fold it up and just leave it on the counter. They frequently run specials that can bring the price down somewhat, maybe into the $70s. For a budget pick, ATK liked the $34 ThermoPop, also from ThermoWorks.

ARTICLE: Take the guesswork out of cooking with an instant-read thermometer

Joe - I bought walnuts for some vegetarian recipe of yours - likely a bean or lentil thing. I vaguely remember it as tacos or sloppy joes or something like that, but can't find it. I know this is a shot in the dark, but any thoughts on what it might have been?

If it was a recipe in the Post, it could be this:

Walnut Tacos

or this:

Mushroom Walnut "Meatballs"

Or if it was in "Cool Beans," it could have been the Mushroom-Kidney Bean Burgers, or perhaps the Chickpea and Quinoa "Chorizo"?

My sourdough bakin, which had been going fine, has encountered a problem. The starter the autolyse, and the bulk rise seemed fine. When I shape my bread it is as though all of the strength has gone out of the dough. I’m clearly doing something wrong between bulk rise and shaping but I can’t figure out what it is. Any ideas?

How are you shaping your bread? Is your home too hot or too cold? When you say all the strength has gone out, do you mean you're not able to build tension, that the dough seems slack, that the dough gets sticky? More details please!

Agree with Kari, more details might help. It's possible you're also overproofing during bulk. Are you doing folds during bulk? Is bulk at room temp or the fridge? What type of flour are you using?

I found a muffin recipe I want to make, and it calls for white whole wheat flour. I have AP flour and whole wheat flour, and no desire to buy yet another kind! Best way to sub?

I'm willing to bet if you do half-and-half, it'll work out just fine! Let us know how you make out.

We've had great luck with curbside pick-up orders - understandably, this doesn't work for everyone, but usually it's free or very inexpensive, and it's great on the budget because you just plan out what you want in advance and buy it through the store's app. We've done it for our local grocery store and for Target. Then we drive up and they put it in our trunk when the order is ready. It has really helped alleviate that extra stress.

That's an especially good idea for those who have health issues or have anxieties. Thanks.

I'd like some inspiration. I'm feeling cooked-out at the moment, despite a well-stocked freezer and pantry. What do you suggest to reinvigorate my tastebuds and love of cooking? Only caveat - I live in rural northwest CT, so many ingredients that I' d have easy access to in NY or that my son in suburban DC can get are simply unavailable here.

One thing I would suggest is to experiment with condiments you haven't tried -- or haven't used in some time. 
Here are some ideas: Staff picks: 8 condiments we swear by and how to use them. Recipe ideas in this as well.

What are some foods/ingredients/cuisines you like? Let us know so we can find something more tailored to your needs and tastes!

Last summer I blanched and froze green beans in one pound packages. I just found the last bag. I'm tired of steaming them, they are just come out soggy. Do you think I could roast them like I do fresh green beans? Or, what else could I try?

I often blanch and freeze beans every summer and my standard treatment is to start with shallot sauteed in a little olive oil, add the green beans and cook on high until slightly blistered. Finish with some lemon zest and toasted slivered almonds.

Why haven’t Apple peel salads become a thing?

You could also toss them with cinnamon sugar and bake in a low-heat oven (300) until they're crispy. Great snack for kiddos.

A thermopop was the best gift request I made one year. A good price and it works for preserves, bread, oil, and I've taken to using it to see how close my water is to boiling temp. Cranberry beans- I first ate those about a decade ago FRESH from my local farmers market. Unfortunately, that vendor stopped coming not long after and I haven't had them other than dried since. I keep hoping they will show up again.

Thermapen, I think?

And, wow, fresh cranberry beans -- I can only dream.

Are "capons" no longer available? It's the season for roast birds, and I remember feasting on plump, tasty capons years ago. If they can be obtained locally, where? And how? Special order only? And a couple of recipes would be invaluable. Wonderful Wednesdays go with the Food section. So many of us look forward to your features and recipes. The opportunity to "chat" is an added bonus. Peggy in Potomac

I have seen them available online, but have not seen them in grocery stores either back home in LA or here in D.C.. I'm betting a good butcher could order them for you. I looked and we have not written about them in recent years. Good idea to try them again, especially this year.

Kosher butchers should have capons, but call first to see if they've got them in stock.

Hi there beloved Food section! This has probably occurred to other people before, but only crossed my mind as I was trying to get through a lot of dark leafy greens this past week. I love kale/collards/etc ribs, and generally put them in recipes even if they say not too - just cook them for about 5 minutes before putting leaves in. But! With multiple bunches in my fridge (what with the limited shopping trips at this time), I realized that I could use the leaves from 2 bunches on a Sunday, and keep the ribs in a colander for a later day (say, Tuesday). My sense is that leaves tend to go to seed before ribs, right? I was pretty tickled with myself for figuring this out. FWIW I was making a vegan mac n cheese w/ greens that I added berbere to for a smoky flavor, and it was very delicious. The end.

Good idea! You can also wash and blanch them all at once and stick them in the freezer. Easy to snap off the amount you want and toss into literally anything to reheat quickly.

I just did a huge pantry waiting-for-the-next-pandemic-shutdown clean-out and organization. I found 2 cans of Libby's pumpkin with expirations dates of December 2019. I probably bought them for Thanksgiving 2018 and didn't use them. Are these still ok to use? The cans aren't dented or have that bubble at the lid which makes something suspect. I am feeling the need to make a pumpkin bread. Thank you!

Yes, they're fine. Those dates are a "best by" date, really, and canned foods like that are at fine quality for three to five years if the can is undamaged.

Hi Free Rangers - Do you have suggestions for dips that can be frozen? I have a 1 year old, and need easy day care snacks. So far steamed carrots with hummus seem to be a hit. Wondering which dips i can freeze in tiny portions to make lunch packing easier. (And on a related note, thoughts on fruits/ veggies besides carrots and apples that hold up to freezing after steaming?)

My first thought was all sorts of bean dips freeze well. Here's a good formula. Broccoli florets last five days  in the fridge after steaming. Edamame might be a good option, as are sugar snap peas, which are so crunchy and sweet. 

It is Thermopop -- like lollipop?

I knew I should have looked that up! That's a relatively new entry to the Thermoworks lineup. Looks great!

Good morning. I have recently found on the clearance rack in my supermarket cans of Yehuda Matzos Cake Meal. At 90% off, I could not resist buying quite a few thinking, I don't know where that came from, that it resembles Wondra flour in texture. So far, it worked only for cream puffs but ruined every other recipe. I would be very grateful for your thoughts and suggestions on this issue (of so little importance in the times of pandemic but of some importance for my pantry space). With appreciation for Food section.

Matzoh meal is basically ground-up matzoh (cake meal means it's more finely ground that regular matzoh meal). So think of it more like breadcrumbs than flour, the big difference with breadcrumbs being that matzo is unleavened bread, so it's pretty much ground-up crackers. Since it's already been mixed with water and baked, it won't behave like flour. It won't form gluten and help things rise, which is why your results have been disappointing. You can use matzoh meal as more of a binder, although it can work in some baking capacities -- you just need recipes designed for it. 

Definitely look for Passover-specific dishes. These are similar to your cream puffs, in which things are pre-cooked. I've made them and they work.

Passover Popover Rolls

RECIPE: Passover Popover Rolls

A few more:

Puffed Matzoh Meal Pancakes (Bimuelos de Masa)

RECIPE: Puffed Matzoh Meal Pancakes (Bimuelos de Masa)

Passover Apple Crisp

RECIPE: Passover Apple Crisp

Poppi's Spongecake

RECIPE: Poppi's Spongecake

Lemon Layer Cake

RECIPE: Lemon Layer Cake

It is supposed to be cloyingly sweet? I found a jar of pumpkin butter in the back of the cabinet. Cheers. Seems the season, right? Well it is so sweet that I can barely taste anything else. Pumpkin is the first ingredient, but sugar is next and honey is third. So who knows if the honey and sugar together would be first if they were combined? I'm not sure it is usable this sweet. I sure wouldn't put it on toast. Any ideas? Other than check the label the next time.

I do find a lot of these fruit butters, especially commercially made ones, to be very sweet, too much so for my taste, at least for eating straight.

How about pairing it with something particularly savory, like a great blue or goat cheese? That would tame it, and could make for a nice snack -- tartines spread with pumpkin butter and topped with blue cheese and arugula? I'd eat that.

I have a bunch of cookbooks for one (including Joe's) but still frequently end up on the internet looking for inspiration/recipes. I've found individual recipes on bigger sites/blogs like TheKitchn and SmittenKitchen etc, but I'm looking for a reliable regular source for ideas for one. Sometimes the ideas from the sites I do follow lead me to search for recipe equivalents for one/two and then modify as needed.

Have you looked at One Dish Kitchen?

Can the dough balls for the tortillas in today's article be made ahead of time? I saw that they need to rest for 1-2 hours, but I'd like to make them in the morning or the night before.

I've let them rest for 12 hours, covered tightly on the counter. If you refrigerate them, they will be difficult to roll out until they come to room temperature. When I spoke to Pati Jinich she mentioned that it's common for Sonorons to make the dough in the morning and cook the tortillas at dinner time. A rest is very important!

The Joy of Cooking folks were able to produce this recipe from an old edition, it made me curious about the origins of Viennese Giraffe Cake - and I found this link. Interested in hearing whether anyone has made the recipe.

I upgraded my stand mixer and have gone all in on bread making now that I don't have to do the kneading. What are some of your favorite bread baking cookbooks (blogs work as well), especially those that really focus on the science of why you do what you do?

Some good ones:

- "Bread" by Jeffrey Hammelman

- "The Bread Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum

- "Living Bread" by Daniel Leader and Lauren Chattman

- people also swear by James Beard's "Beard on Bread" 

- Andrew Janjigian's new newsletter, Wordloaf

- "Flour Water Salt Yeast" by Ken Forkish

- "Breaking Bread" by Martin Philip

That's just a few. What else do other people like?

I am generally more of a cook, but do enjoy baking (especially when GBBO is on). My pandemic goal was to conquer croissants - which I did make, pretty successfully, but also decided that I should probably just leave them to the pros. Sourdough is something that was in my rotation already; beyond tortillas, what should be my new food goal?

I've had many projects -- let me lead you down some rabbit holes. Pelmeni/pierogies! Puff pastry! Crepes! Crullers! I've also sharpened (heh) some skills -- knife sharpening, for instance.

I learned the hard way that if your mouth and throat are "on fire" from chili peppers, it's a really bad idea to drink water, which seems to spread the heat. Instead, you should eat bread, rice or tortillas to soak up the hot stuff.

hi there i was all set to make some butternut squash soup when i realized i don't have any celery (i like to start soups with a mirepoix of onion, carrot and celery) and i don't want to go to the store just for one item. could/should i use celery seed instead or should i just leave it out? and if i use celery seed, how much? thank you for being my food-sanity check!!

I faced this quandry just last week. I was making stock and wanted celery but had none, even in that bag of old veggies I keep in the freezer for stock. On a whim, I added 1/2 teaspoon of celery seed which was just fine. I still prefer celery, but this seed can certainly be used in a pinch, or a pandemic.

Not sure if the OP meant toddler-friendly for them to help make or to eat. I would suggest something like King Arthur's pumpkin yeast bread because bread is something toddlers can help make and can eat easily. Otherwise, one of our go-to meals with pumpkin is soups. Nestle has a vegged out pumpkin black bean that I always sub fresh cooked puree instead of canned. There's also a great pumpkin red lentil soup I printed out years ago from the internet, but not being at home, I can't tell where. It's thick enough to sit on a spoon, a big consideration for soups when my daughter was young.

Good point! OP, if you're looking for things your toddler can help with, Chop Chop Magazine might have some kid-friendly recipes for you! Just did a search for pumpkin on their site

Every year on NYE, I pick a food I've been wanting to learn how to make and focus on perfecting it over the coming year (pizza, pie, layer cakes, etc.). This year was soufflé. Any guesses on how many soufflés I've made this year? Bah humbug, 2020.

I love this idea. Anyone else do this? Any successes in 2020? Plans for 2021? Now, I'm thinking about making a NY food skill resolution.

Thinking ahead to Thanksgiving, where yes I could make my own cocktail, but this gives me a chance to try something new or with different ingredients than I typically have. What would go well with a traditionally based and/or any other holiday meals? Would it be better to stick to wine by the can, or a hard cider or beer?

Wine by the can can be great. You can also get a range of wines by the half-bottle, from inexpensive to luxury. I'm also a fan of splits of champagne if you're having a glass each for two people as a starter. I also love cans of the Long Drink, a very light and fresh canned cocktail that I first tried at the Finnish embassy a couple of years ago and just recently became available in the US. I'm a fan of a late-18th century cocktail of 1 part Madeira and 3 parts aged rum mixed with a little simple syrup and bitters. It's astringent and strong, which cuts through the richness of Thanksgiving food. Here's the video with a recipe card at the end

What’s your go-to for greasing muffin tins when not using paper liners?

Butter and flour, or for chocolate cake, butter and cocoa powder. I also really like baking spray, which is nonstick spray with flour in it. Shortening is also great (some people like to make a paste with shortening and flour, too).

My fridge died over the summer in what we refer to as the appliance apocalypse, along with the dishwasher and hot water heater. Some friends took all the stored food and I managed to snag the last fridge at the big box store but it took a week and a half to get it delivered. There's nothing like starting over with an empty fridge and freezer to figure out what you do and don't need and what you actually eat over time vs. letting it sit indefinitely. Going forward I'm freezing fewer random bags of leftovers, more cooking building blocks like spice pastes and sauces, and frozen emergency/quick meal foods that people really like as opposed to what's on sale. Turns out my husband would rather go hungry than eat California Mix frozen vegetables.

Smart of you to put a positive spin on a not so great experience. Good for you.

It also depends on where you live. Where I am, we lose power on a regular basis. It is wonderful being able to use a match to light the top burners, and be able to make a warm dinner.

Really good point! My childhood home got a lot of power outages (thanks to poorly rooted trees), and an electric stove, so my dad would light up the grill to make his morning tea before we hightailed it to an aunt's house. 

I used your pot roast recipe on Monday. Sort of: my roast was a 2 lb. bone-in, my wine isn’t what you’d consider dry (it was all I had), and the potatoes were full size, so I quartered them. It was done in three hours — fell right off the bone — and there weren’t enough drippings to cook down, but man was it delicious! I’d call it quite versatile.

I'm so delighted that you love it! And I think the wine you used is just fine - the idea is to not get super hung up on it. I love this recipe, too, which I why I wanted to share it. I love its simplicity and what you get back is SO much more than what you've put in. Credit for its genius goes to Leah Koenig, from whose book I adapted it.

Thinking ahead for holiday gifts, any recommendations from you or chatters on the best food (or alcohol)-related online subscription services? A whole year, or just a handful of months?

There are tons of good ones and I love this gift idea for 2021, as we all need something to look forward to. How long the subscription is depends on your budget and appetite. My best advice is to go with a company that curates well. Zingerman's in Michigan has never failed me, and they have cheese subscriptions, bread, olive oil (great for vegans), etc. Also Jenni's ice cream does a subscription, as does the legendary Murray's Cheese in NYC, Driftaway coffee. Along the same vein, I've gone crazy on advent calendars this year, simply as a way of telling what day it is (the calendars and gifts are secular, although advent is not) and giving them as early holiday gifts. Whisky advent calendars, little pots of jams, wine, hot sauce, pork rinds, etc.

About washing your food when ypu get home -- I bought a couple of pounds of grapes. If I wash them all now, they'll go bad much sooner than if I rinse them bunch by bunch just before eating. So is it okay to stick them in the 'fridge unwashed?

Yeah you're probably fine. 

We've been mixing mashed cauliflower (we use Trader Joe's frozen) half and half with instant potatoes, and it's wonderful! I used to shun instant potatoes until I saw a WA state program on our local PBS station on how they're made. The cauliflower/potato mixture doesn't taste at all like cauliflower, but it makes the potatoes taste amazing.

Good tip. I bet it tastes fresher.

Hi! My husband is a vegetarian who is trying to eat more healthfully. I would like to try to keep some vegetarian "mains" on hand for him. Ideally, these can be frozen in single-serving portions, but something that would last a week or two in the fridge would be great, too. So far, recently, I've made Bobby Flay's Gigante beans, Joe's tofu chorizo and WaPo's mapo tofu. Any other suggestions? Thank you!

May I direct you to Joe's weekly Weeknight Vegetarian column? So many delicious things, including its most recent, Za'atar Cacio e Pepe!

We hosted a distanced dinner in our backyard Saturday night, paired with bourbons and scotch. To keep things as safe as we could, we plated each of our 5 courses indoors and our 10 and 13yo (dressed to the 9s and earning extra cash for the help) brought the plates out to a serving station. We had the 1st and 2nd courses covered (pate with local blackberry preserves, baguette, and cornichon; fig, ricotta, and parm "flatbread" on puff pastry (my own invention, birthed out of a need to use up fig preserves a few weeks ago), and needed a light, fast pasta for the 3rd...(including recipe sources b/c I know I always get such inspiration from other chatters!) Enter the lemon butter pasta! As I'd sliced my thumb with a mandoline the day before, I needed said offspring to help - they set the lemon butter sauce going, whisked in the pasta water and the parm. They even zested lemon and cracked pepper over the plated servings. It was a huge hit with everyone, even getting requests for seconds! If anyone is looking for a simple dish that wows and I honestly can't imagine a single person who wouldn't like it...this is it! We rounded out the dinner with local grilled lamb loin chops and farmer's wife's potatoes (Jacques Pepin) cause of the sliced thumb), and finished off with salted caramel pretzel blondies (smitten kitchen) and vanilla ice cream. I recognize everyone has to find their own comfort and safety levels, but the other point of my post is that, even in these times and with the cooking fatigue even the most happiest cooks of us feel, putting together a distanced, safe, and heartwarming dinner. Frankly, we could've served takeout and the friends would've been happy to be together, but the bit of homey pomp and circumstance made everyone - including our young servers - lighten their step a bit and leave in a better place than when they came through our side gate. Thank you again for your work to put out recipes and advice both simple and complex, and always thoughtful and accessible.

This is awesome! This is such a fun way to have a dinner party! 

This is the pasta for y'all who want to try it: Lemon-Butter Pasta With Parmesan

Thank you so much for sharing this story! I miss cooking and eating food with friends so, so much. I've been thinking of making things like chili (serving in individual mugs), these barbecue "baked" lentils (maybe packing in containers and sharing, potluck-style) or a sheet cake, sliced and plated, with neighbors, outside, when possible.

I’ve begun making ice cream and salad dressings; expanded my baking repertoire — biscuits and dinner rolls; cobblers; bread, skillet breads and desserts, and more! — and am generally trying at least one new dinner recipe each week. And I am way more open to experimentation.

That's a pretty amazing lineup of th ings you've tackled. Contgratulations!

Now that we're talking about these, I'm recalling I've got some dried in my pantry. What are favorite ways to prepare? (Vegetarian/gluten-free please.)

According to Dorie Greenspan, in the NYTimes, Julia Childs "craved" simple foods like tuna fish sandwiches when she ate at home. I'm with her 100%. Stuck at home, relying on grocery delivery and my own cooking skills, I find the older, tried-and-true recipes to be most satisfying. (Also, I'm allergic to hot peppers.) Why doesn't WaPo feature more traditional recipes with the ingredients we all are familiar with?

I didn't have a tuna sandwich until I was 24, so what ingredients are you familiar with that you would like recipes for? Please be more specific. 

Would like to echo Kari's query as different people have different ingredients familiar to them. I didn't grow up eating yogurt rice with mango pickle, but my Indian friends in college introduced me to it, and now it's a staple comfort food for me.

Funnily enough, Olga was the one who made me my first tuna sandwich.

The problem here, of course, is in the definition of "we all," isn't it?

Still, I think you'll find that you can get plenty of American classics here among our other recipes. Some examples:

Caramel Apples

Fried Green Tomatoes

Dutch Baby

Crab Cakes

Wine-Braised Chicken With Mushrooms

Upgrades to five classic sandwiches

Here's an analogy that might help. Think about accents. Someone who speaks differently than you do has an accent because it's different from your *personal* perspective, but you have an accent to them. It's just a matter of where you're standing. Same goes with ingredients. There is no one unifying "we." We is *you,* or whoever is reading.

Also, I haven't read the reference you're talking about, but I think this is not the logical conclusion that Dorie, who many of us have worked with, or even Julia would come to. There's a difference between simple -- easy to throw together, fast, although even simple is hard to universally define -- and traditional, which is, again, from the perspective of whoever's making it. Traditional to you is different from someone else's definition. I don't think "simple" means ruling out ingredients or cuisines that are different.

I don't go to the trouble of splitting it 'cause that can be dangerous, so I put it on a rimmed baking sheet and roast it till it's soft.

We have another winner! We liked it a lot so I think your suggested servings (6!) might be off. Maybe we’re just pigs but for the two of us it was just enough with leftovers enough for one meal. We added some sambal oelek and that took it to the next level. I wish I had some for lunch today.

So glad to hear that! I hear you on servings. The book said 4 servings originally, but with all the RICH liquid, I felt comfortable stretching it a bit. I found it really filling! Then again, it's very easy to just eat a lot in one sitting since it is so tasty. Great recipe from Leela Punyaratabandhu.

Kaeng Khiao Wan Nuea (Green Curry With Beef and Thai Eggplant)

RECIPE: Kaeng Khiao Wan Nuea (Green Curry With Beef and Thai Eggplant)

I tried Ina Garten’s fresh fig and ricotta cake recipe, and while the end result was delicious, my figs sank to middle of the batter rather than staying on top of the cake and caramelizing as they should. I’m planning to give it another try - any suggestions for keeping the figs on top? I’ve thought about sprinkling with flour, or maybe slicing them thinly instead of quartering them, as the recipe states. I’d appreciate any tried-and-true method!

The flour-tossing technique works -- as long as the batter isn't TOO thin/loose. Try both that and slicing, and I bet you'll be in business. (Or if you don't mind making it another two times, try one and then the other strategy!)

The families in our neighborhood socialize with some frequency but now we're only gathering outdoors, of course. Can you suggest a few cold-weather menus and serving ideas for potluck food and drinks that we could safely enjoy outdoors while bundled up in the winter? These social interactions keep us all sane. Thank you!

What a great question!

Others can feel free to weigh in -- and we'd love advice from chatters, too -- but here are some thoughts for things that feel cozy and can either be easily portioned (I could imagine heated bowls for soups/stews), or are already individually divided, as in the hand pies and apples.

Instant Pot Beef Stew

Walnut- and Date-Stuffed Baked Apples

Muffin Tin Deep Dish Pizzas

Fried Sweet Cherry Pies

Pork Chili Verde

Tuscan Bean and Kale Soup

Barbecue "Baked" Lentils

I usually make a large casserole on Sunday or Monday and eat it through the rest of the week because I'm tired of cooking every dang day. Does anyone here have a favorite casserole or casserole-ish dish they like to make or eat? Especially one that holds up well after being nuked? (just to clarify - after making the casserole, I portion it out into 4 or 5 Tupperwares and I nuke each portion before eating it, so I'm not reheating the whole thing over and over.)

I do this too! My favorites are lasagna and enchiladas. Both nuke well, but I always save some extra sauce to serve on the side in case they start to dry out.


Afternoon lovely Free Range people! I made a brioche loaf from the Joy of Cooking cookbook this past week and it was just "meh." In fact, it didn't really taste like anything. I used table salt (the recipe just said "salt") and 2% milk instead of whole milk - could that have been the problem? I was expecting it to come out something like Trader Joe's delicious brioche that I use for French Toast but it was a bit dry and tasted, like I said, like nothing. Any suggestions?

Oh no, that's a shame! Brioche should taste lightly sweet and very buttery. Not enough salt or sugar might contribute to the issue, as would not enough fat. But I hope you put the loaf to good use in French toast or bread pudding!

I've been playing with the snake method of smoking on a charcoal grill. It's the most messy and simultaneously anal-retentive cooking method I've found. But it does work. I have been hot smoking salmon, and the results have been good. They are not as smoky as they would on my old slowly-rusting water smoker. Easy access to the grill certainly helps. As the outside temperature drops, I'm finding that I need to pile on more coals for the snake to get the internal temp right. It's finicky, and a learning process. I will have to replace that smoker in a few years, and I'm looking for what the replacement might be. The easier options just don't smoke as well. I like the idea of the pellet smokers, but they're expensive, and again, don't do as good a job at imparting smoke flavor.

I've never used the snake method, but it's fascinating. It really should be called the Domino Method, because the fire chases a line of charcoal briquettes that you snake around the outer edge of the grill, like a falling row of dominoes. If you're curious, here's a video on the method.

My kids love pumpkin mini muffins (I use a recipe that is at oat and almond flour base with chocolate chips) and pancakes.

Lots of recipes call for peeling and chopping before cooking. If I leave the peel on (because I get contact dermatitis from it in its raw form), do I need to adjust anything else, like cooking time? Also, squash seeds -- save or scrap?

No, if it's already in pieces, I don't think you need to adjust much else if there's some peel on one side. Obviously check for doneness, but the flesh should soften fine.

Definitely save those seeds! You can toss them with oil and spices and roast for a snack.

My goal with the pandemic was to finally figure out how to make light, fluffy biscuits, and a flaky pie crust. About a month ago I finally got the biscuits right, my boyfriend said they were better than Popeyes, which is a huge compliment coming from a Popeyes fanatic. I can bake layer cakes with my eyes closed, but my biscuits always previously came out dense, even when I understood the technique, I just couldn't get it right. And now that we're in pie season, it's time to start on the pie crust.

BIG congrats! Biscuits can be so tricky (I speak from experience). Good luck with your pies, you'll do great :)

Pie crusts can be challenging, but try this recipe -- it really is foolproof. 

Stay tuned for a huge pie package come Thanksgiving!

And if you want any more biscuit insight, here's my biscuit project from the other year.

Becky, Your very helpful article about the many roles sugar plays in baking didn't discuss sugar substitutes except for a mention of honey. Please write a follow-up article about them. Thanks in advance.

Yes, I hope to tackle that at some point! It deserves its own article and not to be shoehorned into an already-packed piece.

We had a great chat today. So many great ideas. We hope we helped some of you with your queries, too. Looks like folks are in the throes of Thanksgiving 2020 planning as are we.

Regular chatters know we pick a favorite comment each week. This week we loved the one titled: "Outdoor dining with neighbors," which asked about "ideas for potluck food and drinks that we could safely enjoy outdoors while bundled up in the winter?" You've inspired us. We're going to try to come up with evem more great suggestions for you. Check back  here in the weeks to come.

Also, if you're the author of that query, please send an email to to get your free, 30-day subscription to The Washington Post. (Already a subscriber? You can give the free month to a friend.)

And, if you need tips for late fall and winter entertaining, check this out: How to safely — and graciously — host friends and family as the weather gets colder

See you next week!

In This Chat
Ann Maloney
Ann Maloney is the Food team recipes editor.
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Post and author of "Cool Beans." He writes the Weeknight Vegetarian column.
Cathy Barrow
Cathy Barrow is the author of multiple cookbooks, including "Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry" and "When Pies Fly." She wrote this week's primer on making fruit jam.
Tim Carman
Tim Carman is a staff reporter for Food and writes a weekly column on casual dining.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is a staff food writer at the Post.
Kari Sonde
Kari Sonde is the Food editorial aide.
Mary Beth Albright
Mary Beth Albright is the Host and Editor of Food Video at The Washington Post.
Daniela Galarza
Daniela is a Food staff writer.
Olga Massov
Massov is a Food team assignment editor.
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