James Beard Award-winning author Crescent Dragonwagon recently joined The Washington Post Food staff to answer questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.
Q: For anyone who can’t leave their house, what would you mix up as a “quarantini”?
A: Given that we’ll run out of fresh citrus soon and may stop going to the grocery stores for more, use it while you have it! After that, go to nice stirred drinks like Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Martinis, Vieux Carres. Chartreuse is thought to be a cure-all, but mostly it is a cure for sobriety, which I suppose is its own reward in these troubled times. Do not use hand sanitizer as a mixer, but feel free to use high-proof vodkas to disinfect the house.
— M. Carrie Allan
Q: Any tips for grating ginger so that most of it doesn’t just stay stuck to my box grater?
A: Freeze it and use a Microplane zester!
— Becky Krystal
Q: I have two essentially identical recipes for soda bread: same amounts of flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, buttermilk, and egg. But one of them also calls for a half stick of butter (as well as currants, but I figure that’s incidental). How will the end results differ? I’m really interested generally in how slight changes in ingredients affect a recipe — but I’ve also never made either recipe before and don’t know how to choose one.
A: The one with butter will be more tender! And might rise a bit more.
Q: We have a volunteer patch of asparagus by our garage (apparently they like the lime in the concrete foundation), but it produces very irregularly. I go out every morning to break off one or two but haven’t yet found a method of cooking them satisfactorily — getting out the steamer for two spears is a lot of trouble, nuking them doesn’t work because of the small volume, or at least I can’t figure it out. What to do? Chop and saute?
A: I would probably go with slice-on-an-angle and saute. When I lived in Vermont I started an asparagus patch and of course it takes three or four years before you get a major harvest. So I did stir-fries at first, and I think once did an omelet with morels, ramps, my couple of measly asparagus spears, and fiddleheads — all about the same time.
— Crescent Dragonwagon
Q: Do lentils cause gastric distress in some people like beans do?
A: They are one of the legumes lower in the indigestible sugars that cause flatulence, which I assume is what you mean by gastric distress) than most beans, so the answer is a qualified no. The other qualification: if the beans are relatively fresh. Any legume that has been sitting on your shelf for four or five years will not cook up nicely and creamily, and will be harder to digest and less pleasant all around.
Q: When baking, I am careful to measure everything and follow recipes. But, when cooking most other things, I rarely follow recipes, or just use them for general ideas. I just throw together what seems to go together, is the best way I can describe it. This annoys my friends who don’t cook this way, but, I’m not sure I could change if I wanted to. Are you all recipe followers when it comes to cooking?
A: When cooking at home for myself, I’m like you — “free-range” except for baking.
But when developing a recipe for publication I measure every ingredient, and test it as measured. Part of what makes doing a cookbook or even blog post much more work than just getting in the kitchen and freestyling according to mood and ingredients on hand.
A: Exactly. When I develop recipes, I usually do one and then the other: To be creative, I freestyle, then I try to remember everything and write it all down. Then I try to make it again with my own notes.
— Joe Yonan