THE WASHINGTON POST – Each week, Aaron Hutcherson and Becky Krystal answer questions and provide practical cooking advice in a chat with readers.
Aaron and Becky write and test recipes for Voraciously, The Washington Post’s team dedicated to help people cook with confidence. Recently they were joined by recipes editor Ann Maloney.
Q: Can I freeze ground paprika to extend its shelf life? It loses flavor almost immediately after I open the package, and I hate throwing it away after using only a few tablespoons.
A: A lot of the advice I’m finding seems to indicate freezing spices isn’t ideal due to the condensation and humidity that can be introduced, especially with constant opening and closing. Try not to buy more than you need and store in a cool, dark spot in a good jar or airtight container. That would help some. Another option would be to buy a mild dried pepper you like, and toast and grind those so you have a fresh paprika stand-in to use as needed. – Becky Krystal (BK)
Q: I bought a loaf of multi-grain bread featuring sprouted wheat. It came pre-sliced. For the first time ever in my bread-loving life, the slices were too thick to use successfully in sandwiches because all I tasted was the bread and the bread is too soft to slice thinner. I suppose I could make open-face sandwiches and eat them with a fork and knife but then they’re more of a sit-down meal. I bet you have suggestions!
A: A few other ways to use the bread might include French toast, bread pudding and stratas, or turning it into croutons or breadcrumbs. – Aaron Hutcherson (AH)
Q: How do I grill shell-on shrimp without the shell sticking to the meat?
A: A few things could be causing this: Smallish or older shrimp, a not-hot-enough grill and overcooking come to mind.
I love to grill shrimp in the shell because it protects the tender meat and keeps it moist. I have a few tips that might help with sticking. First, bigger is better. I prefer jumbo shrimp, but large will do. Just get the biggest, freshest shrimp you can afford.
Cover and preheat your grill to medium, about 350 to 450 degrees. You want it nice and hot before you start.
Then, watch your cooking time. Shrimp cook quickly, ranging from about three to seven minutes, depending on how large they are, so keep a close eye on them. The shrimp should turn pinkish and the meat inside should be opaque. As soon as you see this happening, pull a shrimp off and test it for doneness. Then, quickly remove the shrimp to a platter. (If you boil shrimp and overcook them, they will stick as well).
Are you threading them on skewers? If so, only thread through the thickest part of the shrimp. (You also can use a grilling basket, which is a nice option and keeps the shell intact).
You’ve inspired me. I’m going to retest my favourite recipe and share it soon. Hope this is helpful. – Ann Maloney (AM)
Q: I’d like to find some homemade adaptations for the “taco pie” I knew as a kid, the one that uses pop-the-tube crescent rolls as the crust. My aim is something that still delivers the taco experience but holds together better for eating (serving a person with some dexterity challenges that make tacos in flour tortillas frustrating at best). Would it work to use regular biscuits or cornbread as a base? Should I parbake either/both before adding the taco meat and other stuff?
A: It’s hard to give suggestions without knowing the taco pie recipe you grew up with, but I would think that biscuits could be swapped in for crescent rolls without having to make any other changes. – AH
Q: I sometimes make up a batch of chunks of cooked chicken to have to add to veggie sides to make a complete meal. I cut breasts into chunks, add some sort of spice or herb blend and some salt and cook in a regular pan. When I finish cooking, they seem fine. I make sure the centre is cooked through with a thermometer. If I grab a few chunks right then, it seems fine. I put the rest in a tight container in the fridge and every time thereafter, the chicken is tough and dry. I reheat in the microwave. Not too long. It is pretty clear that I am overcooking the chunks in the first place. What is the internal temperature they should reach so they are cooked enough to be okay to eat after just a warm up, but not tough and dry? I eat it anyway because who wants to toss perfectly okay food, but it isn’t as nice as the freshly cooked pieces.
A: Chicken does not experience the same kind of carry-over cooking like other meats, so the USDA recommends 165 as the safe minimum internal temp for all poultry. I do find that refrigeration doesn’t always keep chicken as tender and juicy as when it’s first made. I would recommend trying a different method with more moist heat. Poaching in liquid is one great option, and you can even use broth or flavor the water in other ways for added value. I’m also a fan of steaming chicken – I often doing this in my pressure cooker.
You could try skipping the reheat, if the setting makes sense, such as on a salad or cold sandwich. That might stop the meat from drying out. Or cover and reheat with a little liquid in the microwave. – BK
Q: In my elder years garlic has become a spice I must avoid, sadly. Do you have substitution recommendation for recipes that call for garlic as a primary flavour agent?
A: They’ll all be a little different, but shallots, leeks, onions and scallions are all good possibilities depending on the recipe! – BK
Q: How do you know if a watermelon is ripe – before you buy it? A grocery store employee told me the ripe ones are yellow at one end. I thought green meant ripe (with watermelons only). The melons were too big for me to pick up and knock, and I’m not sure what a watermelon should sound like anyway. What say you?
A: Watermelon may be the one with the most lore attached to it. Slap it and listen for a hollow sound? Amy Goldman and others don’t think this subjective test is a reliable indicator, though if it sounds sloshy, it’s overripe. Instead, Goldman suggests looking for a yellow, not white or light green, spot on the underside of the melon where it rested on the ground. If the darker green stripes or spots are tinged too yellow, that’s an indication of sunburn and a sign that the melon has sat outside too long. A good watermelon should be gently rounded on the ends with a dull, not overly shiny, skin. It should be heavy for its size. – BK
Q: I have a few smoothie recipes that I like that use some avocado but not a whole one. They are on the sweet side. All the instructions that I have found for freezing avocado say to add lemon juice. Would that ruin the flavor of the smoothie? If so how can I store the unused portion?
A: I think lemon would be right at home in a smoothie, I doubt it would be so prominent to come through anyway. You can also just leave the remaining avocado half intact and just treat the surface with a little lemon juice before wrapping or placing in an airtight container. That should hold you for a day or two, and a little surface browning from oxidation, if you get anything, is not going to be too bad once you blend everything together. – BK
Q: I currently have no interest in cooking for myself and would love some ways to get going with simple, tasty recipes.
A: For simple and tasty recipes, I always turn to pantry meals. While yes, this is a bit of self-promotion for the pantry recipes that I regularly share , it’s actually something that I do regularly. Just last night I scoured my fridge, freezer and cupboards to make dinner instead of ordering delivery (which I do far too often) – I ended up making pasta with sausage, beans from a can, garlic, and frozen broccoli. – AH