Here are edited excerpts from our most recent online chat:
Q. We'd like to liven up French toast without adding something fattening, like half-and-half. What should we try besides cinnamon or vanilla? We already experiment with different breads and different toppings but would like to get some sort of additional new taste in the batter — the kind that makes people go, "Wow, I don't know what you put in this, but I love it!"
A. Try adding a little Grand Marnier to your French toast soaking liquid. It's amazing how much flavor a tablespoon or two will bring.
_ Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
Q. What is the purpose of cream in a Bolognese sauce? Does it just add richness, or does it help to thicken, or something else? Is there an alternative? I hate buying a container of cream only to use a little bit and then throw the rest out. I would also rather leave out those calories if I can.
A. I think whole milk, not cream, is the usual way to go. It's not even a great amount of milk, at that. And I've seen plenty of recipes that call themselves Bolognese and skip the dairy. So that solves your problem, right? According to an Italian chefs' Web site, the introduction of dairy may originally have helped tenderize the meat in the sauce; added at the end of cooking, it lends a bit of sweetness. And you'll notice that there's not a lot of tomato in a true Bolognese recipe; the milk might have been used because it was a more prevalent ingredient.
We like a version from the Canal House kitchen goddesses; go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes and search for "Ragu Bolognese."
_ Bonnie S. Benwick
Q. I bought a beef tenderloin about a year ago; it went straight into the freezer and has been languishing there ever since. Am I doomed to throw it out, or can I still (finally) do something with it?
A. A year is about the limit for beef, and because of that, we'll run you through the diagnostics: How's the color? Any freezer burn? If it was well wrapped and survives a thaw in the fridge, there's no need to toss it.
Q. Many recipes call for red onions, presumably because they are milder. But I have never once had a red onion that was not unpleasantly bitter. Right now I have a bowlful of pico de gallo that is going to be fed to the garbage disposal because the onion killed it. Is there something I'm missing about selection, or should I just give up and chop a shallot or a vidalia instead?
A. I love red onions and their piquant, aromatic qualities. But I understand that an onion's bitterness is not for everyone. The great food scientist Harold McGee has this suggestion: "Chopped alliums to be eaten raw — as a garnish or in an uncooked sauce — are best rinsed to remove all the sulfur compounds from the damaged surfaces, since these tend to become harsher with time and exposure to the air." Give that a try next time, perhaps, when a recipe calls for red onion.
_ Tim Carman
Q. I'm trying to be better about planning meals through the week, so I don't get home late and scramble for ingredients and end up cooking the same old standbys. I've never really done it, though, and I'm struggling with the mechanics of it. It's me and a vegetarian live-in boyfriend, so we eat a lot of beans and grains for main courses. How do people do this? Do we just sit down on a Sunday afternoon and plot the week?
A. Yes, planning is key. That's pretty much what my husband and I do. Sometimes we bellyache over having to think ahead for the week, especially when we just want to blob out on the couch over the weekend, but it pays off. Sit down, plan the menu and do your shopping. Maybe even do some cooking! We've gotten in the habit of doing that, and it makes weeknights so much better. Our preferred make-aheads include soup, bean burritos and dal.
_ Becky Krystal
Q. Can I substitute Greek yogurt for sour cream in a recipe for mushroom soup? I plan to make it with vegetable broth.
A. You can, but you're going to get a different taste and a slightly different look. Sour cream is less assertive and has more body. I'd try the yogurt first in small bowl of the soup and see what happens. I'm hooked on sour cream, but you may prefer the yogurt.
Q. I bought a baguette for tomorrow's dinner, and I'm worried that leaving it out will make it get dry and hard. Should I store it in the fridge overnight?
A. You could wrap the bread in foil and freeze it overnight, then reheat in a 300-degree oven. But since it's only a day or two, I'd follow advice from baking expert Marcy Goldman and leave it on the counter, wrapped in a clean dish towel. That will help preserve a crisp crust. If that's not an issue, you can cut the bread to fit inside the largest resealable zip-top bag you have, pressing out all the air.
Q. After opening Sriracha and tahini, how do you store them?
A. I refrigerate both, but that's partly because I have a big fridge and a pantry that heats up a lot in the summer. Tahini is okay at a cool room temperature, although the longer you keep it, the more it may separate (oil) and need to be stirred/emulsified before you use it. Before I use my chilled tahini, I let it sit at room temp so it loosens up. Maybe if I used it more often, I'd keep it in a cupboard.
I think I'm prolonging the quality of the hot sauce by refrigerating it. Lots of people, and restaurants, don't do so.
Q. I made a batch of vegetarian baked beans for an event that was canceled. How long should I expect them to keep in the fridge? It's navy/pea beans, onion, dry mustard, molasses, brown sugar, salt and pepper.
A. According to the Web site ShelfLifeAdvice.com, baked beans tend to keep longer than other cooked items because the dish has little moisture, which is the breeding ground for bacteria. It seems you can store it covered in the fridge for a week or longer.
Q. I want to make peanut butter and jelly cutout cookies, but I need to keep the sugar levels pretty low. I have a great shortbread recipe that only uses 1/4 cup of sugar to 2 cups of flour and 3/4 cup of butter. Can I just substitute peanut butter for half of the butter? I assume I would spread a little fruit preserves between two layers of dough before baking; does that sound okay? If I do it right, I think my kids will love these.
A. We consulted ace baker and Friend of Food Nancy Baggett, who, of course, is so smart about this. She says:
"Your plan may work, but there are some problems with it. For example, even though peanut butter has a lot of fat, it doesn't bake up the same way as butter, so it won't really compensate for reducing the butter. Also, even though peanut butter has some sugar in it, adding it is going to make the cookies seem less sweet. So, for tasty, tender cookies, you shouldn't try to reduce the sugar much. (Sugar helps tenderize as well as sweeten.)
Trying to add jam/preserves between layers of dough before baking is a bit tricky. Unless you very carefully and firmly press together the two cookie edges alI the way around, the preserves will probably leak out and cause burning. Brushing the interior edges with egg white as you work (a pastry chef trick) would help seal the layers together. Another easier option: baking the cookies individually and then forming sandwiches by adding the preserves between pairs of cookies afterward.
Still another option: Skip the cutout idea completely and make thumbprint cookies by shaping the dough into balls, pressing a well into the centers of the balls, and putting some jam into the wells before baking. Don't overfill the wells, though, or the preserves will bubble up over the sides and burn on the baking sheet. Good luck!"
Q. What's the best type of cheese for French onion soup?
A. My hands-down favorite is Swiss Gruyere, but I also have had success with French Comte, a Swiss-style cheese from across the border.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun