A chile mystery, how to roast carrots, and other food questions answered

If you find your carrots are browning too quickly in the oven, cover them with foil to help the cooking but slow the browning. PHOTO: TNP FILE
If you find your carrots are browning too quickly in the oven, cover them with foil to help the cooking but slow the browning. PHOTO: TNP FILE

(WASHINGTON POST) - The Washington Post Food staff recently answered questions about all things edible.

The following are edited excerpts. Recipes whose names are capitalised can be found in the Recipe Finder at washingtonpost.com/recipes.

Q: I've noticed that as consumers have become more savvy about ingredients and options for particular foods have increased, the marketing of food products has become more specific. For example, where "paprika" might have once been sufficient on a spice bottle, today we see "sweet", "Hungarian," and "smoked" varieties, among others, that were not so common 10 to 20 years ago.

One thing I see that is still sold pretty generically is red chile pepper flakes. With the increasingly wide variety of chile peppers available at even a typical grocery store, what exactly are red chile pepper flakes? Do they come from a particular chile? Are there different varieties sold by more specialty brands?

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A: The grocery store kinds of crushed red pepper flakes - let's use McCormick's as an example - are the dried peppers and seeds identified as your basic domesticated Solanaceae capsicum annuum grown in North and South America. They are a generic, balanced mix of sweet and heat.

When you see a brand that looks like it has more seeds than another, figure the one with more seeds will be more intense. But because there has been such a growth of variety and consumer awareness of the specific flavours and spice levels that specific dried peppers bring to the table, we're more aware of their differences: fruity, smoky, etc.

I've seen more specialty ground varieties than crushed (Aleppo and piment d'Espelette come to mind). I tend to keep a few kinds of dried peppers on hand (Thai/small red, guajillo, ancho) and whiz them in my spice grinder as needed. - Bonnie S. Benwick

Q: Two questions: First, I like blackberries when they're sweetish. But they're often sour or bitter. And they can vary within the same batch. Is there a way to identify the good ones?

A: I find the supermarket blackberries to be so inconsistent, and usually too sour, that I rarely buy them. Instead, I wait for blackberries at farmers markets, when they're bursting with flavour and more likely to have that fabulous sweet-tart balance. I don't believe there's any way to tell what's going to have that, short of tasting. Another great reason to shop at farmers markets - you can taste anything. - Joe Yonan

Q: Any suggestions for a first-time user of jicama beyond chopping it up raw and putting it in a salad? One came in my Hungry Harvest box and I have no idea what to do with it.

A: Make the Jicama, Apple and Chayote Salad With Pepita-Avocado Dressing from our Recipe Finder. Sure, it's a salad, but it has such a great combination of crunches with a creamy sauce. Also know that sticks of jicama dipped in a chile flakes or powder (something fruity like guajillo or Urfa), lime zest and a smidgen of coarse salt make a nice snack. - Kara Elder

Q: Last week I bought two bottles of Tanqueray gin to take advantage of a discount. I'd never tried Tanqueray, so it was a roll of the dice. The good news is that I loved my first taste. The bad news is that, the next night, I accidentally opened the second bottle. So now I have two open bottles of gin. I had planned to get through these bottles slowly over time. Will the second bottle go bad? I know gin isn't like wine, but how long do I have before the gin might taste off?

A: You're totally fine. Gin is shelf-stable. You may experience changes over the next decade, but no need for a major binge session. - M. Carrie Allan

Q: Is there a good way to keep vegetables submerged in the brine when you're pickling? I use circular fermenting weights, which work great, but because of their size I can only use them in certain containers. I've heard of people using plastic bags filled with water, but I'm always concerned about the safety of those. How you can determine if a plastic bag is safe/food grade?

A: Floating pickles are very aggravating. I use zip-top bags filled with the same brine that is in the jar so that if the bag breaks, it won't water down the brine. I figure that these bags are food safe. After all, I keep food in them. - Cathy Barrow

Q: Is there a good guide to roasting vegetables? I roasted carrots last night in longish pieces because I was being lazy. They practically burned before they got soft. Are cubes always the best way to go?

A: I love roasting carrots in long pieces. I think they're so attractive that way. I cut them in half lengthwise, and if they're really fat, will cut them again lengthwise, into quarters. If they're coated well in olive oil, I haven't had the experience of them burning before getting soft.

But you said "practically burned," and I have to confess: I love "practically burned". Little spots of char add that much more flavour, in my opinion. Having said that, you might try turning down your oven. I love to go 230 to 235 degrees Celsius for this, but you could go lower, down to 200 - 225 degrees Celsius. And don't forget, you can always cover them with aluminum foil once they start to brown if they're not getting soft enough for you, and that'll speed up the softening (steam) while protecting against further browning (at least on the top; they will still brown further on the bottom, because of contact with the pan). - J.Y.

Q: I love limeade! I want to make some for a luncheon next week. I wonder if you can recommend an ingredient I might add to my standard recipe to make it special. Can't be alcoholic, but it is for adults.

A: Ginger. - J.Y.

A: Blueberries. - C.B.

A: Peaches. - Tim Carman

Q: We have tons of baby lettuces and other lovely little greens. Is there a trick to dressing these flavourfully but lightly, so they don't wilt and drown under the weight of the dressing?

A: A few things come to mind. First, use a light vinaigrette, not a heavy Caesar-type dressing, and dress them right before serving.

Second, season with a little salt and pepper before you dress them. This keeps you from feeling like you need to heavily dress to get flavour in there.

Third, use your hands - your "impeccably clean hands," as Julia Child would say - to toss the greens with the dressing. Trust me: Nothing works better to keep from crushing them and to fully coat them.

One last idea: dress with simple vinegar and oil, applied separately. Do the vinegar first. Believe it or not, it's oil that will wilt lettuce, not vinegar.- J.Y.

Q: I'm looking for a simple but delicious bean recipe that I can make on a regular basis and keep in the fridge. Maybe a rice and beans recipe? Could be any variety. Just want to start eating healthier.

A: The best thing to do is to get in the habit of making a big pot of beans over the weekend and store them in their liquid in the fridge (or in zip-top bags in the freezer). Then you've got fabulous beans to throw into weeknight recipes.

Once that's done you can quickly saute onion and garlic with some smoked paprika, cumin and red chile flakes and make refried beans (mashing them up with more of that liquid than you might imagine); drain and rinse them and put them on a salad; throw a few cups of rinsed kidney beans into a cabbage/radish/carrot slaw with a basil vinaigrette. And so much more.

For more fully prepared dishes that you can have around for a week or so to use at a moment's notice, look at Smoky Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili or Curried Red Lentils With Coconut Milk.

And if you don't want to cook a pot of beans, there is nothing wrong with keeping different varieties of canned beans in the pantry. - J.Y.