Cookbook author Jeff Koehler recently joined The Washington Post food staff to answer questions about all things edible. The following are edited excerpts. Recipes whose names are capitalized can be found in the Recipe Finder at washingtonpost.com/recipes.
Q: We’re visiting my dad next week; he lives about 400 miles away. I know he would love some tomatoes from my garden. What’s the best way to bring them in the car? Would an ice pack be beneficial or detrimental? Any suggestions welcome!
A: The answer depends on how ripe they are. If they’re not quite ripe, I’d just keep them at room temperature in the car, in a paper bag. If they’re just ripe, I’d think perhaps about a way to carry them in one layer so they don’t bruise one another. If they’re very ripe/getting soft, I’d pack them in one layer in a cooler with an ice pack to prevent further ripening. – Joe Yonan
Q: I once bought harissa in a little tin from the cheese section at Whole Foods Market. How do you rate that preparation, if you’ve tried it, compared to home-made or in a tube? I recall the flavor didn’t seem complex to me but maybe there was something else at play, like whatever I ate it with.
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A: While I can’t say I have tasted that exact one, I have used some commercial tins/tubes of harissa that are less dynamic than others. With those, first dolloping some into a bowl and whisk in a bit of olive oil to loosen it up. That’s key. Then taste with a piece of bread and begin adjusting to your taste if feel it needs more kick or depth by adding in some spices – caraway, ground coriander seeds, even some cumin. – Jeff Koehler
Q: What is the purpose of oil in marinades? Seems that every recipe I see calls for non-trivial amounts of oil so it must be important for the marinade to work. What role does oil play in marination?
A: I’d say it coats well, carries fat-soluble flavors and helps keep in moisture. – Bonnie Benwick
Q: I have grown the most phenomenal basil plant this year, but I’m on a doctor-prescribed diet that doesn’t allow nuts, cheese, or significant amounts of oil. I’d like to make pesto out of my basil, but I’m not sure the best way to preserve it until I’ll be able to eat it (about three months from now). Can I freeze it? How?
A: Yes, you can freeze it – just don’t add the cheese. (I say this because that’s what I’ve been told, but now that I’m writing this, I’m not sure why you couldn’t add a little cheese? I’ve frozen hard cheese before and it was fine...)
In any case, I usually freeze herbs-blended-with-oil-and-nuts in ice cube trays and then transfer the frozen cubes to a zip-top bag for longer storage. You can then add cheese later, after defrosting. Or serve whatever you’re making with cheese grated on top. – Kara Elder
A: I’ll weigh in on the cheese thing. You don’t really have to leave it out when freezing pesto! –Yonan
Q: I was just gifted 400g of Turkish apricot paste. What do I do with it?
A: Looks like you can chop it up into bits and use like dried apricots, but the paste is very handy for melting into sauces or melting to use as a glaze, as well as cutting into slabs that go into pastries. I have seen little cubes of it served on a cheese platter. –Benwick
Q: We have an unopened 5-pound bag of King Arthur AP flour that’s been in the refrigerator since it was purchased and is marked best to use by August 10 ... 2016. Do you think it’ll work for banana bread?
A: Yes. The fact that you refrigerated it this whole time means you should be able to count on it being much fresher than had it been at room temperature. I think you could use it for anything, provided it looks fine when you open it. – Yonan
Q: I overbought buttermilk due to what was available at the store. I use it predominately for making pancakes/waffles once per week and (very rarely) for marinating or breading. With these uses in mind, can I freeze it without loss of quality in the final products?
A: You can freeze it, sure. Defrost it overnight in the refrigerator, and then use an immersion (stick) blender or pop it in a blender to re-incorporate the solids/why separation that will most likely occur. – Benwick
Q: I made a really good vegetable lasagna this week and had enough extra to make one for the freezer. My question for you – I put foil down in the glass casserole dish before freezing, but now I’m worried that when I try to defrost and bake it, the foil will become an issue in the bottom of the pan. Any suggestions, or am I overthinking this? (Novice cook here!)
A: I don’t see why the foil would be a problem. –Yonan