Chef and grilling expert Elizabeth Karmel recently joined The Washington Post Food section staff in answering questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.
Q: Lately I've seen some great coffee cake recipes but my coworkers will be more likely to eat it if I make muffins instead. Is there any reason why I could not pour the batter into muffin tins and bake for less time? Should I adjust the temperature?
A: I love mini coffee cakes! You should be able to bake your coffee cake recipe in a muffin tin or mini bundt pan. Don't adjust the temperature, but do adjust the time. It will take much less time to bake. And remember not to overfill the muffin tin - no more than two-thirds full is my rule.
- Elizabeth Karmel
Q: A friend just gifted me a bottle of cucumber and lemon white balsamic vinegar. I tasted it straight and wow is it good! I would love to make a simple salad dressing with it but whenever I make salad dressing they're usually hearty and heavy on spices - garlic, mustard, onion, etc. Any recommendations for making one that would be lighter so those wonderful flavors shine through? And would light olive oil be a better choice than extra virgin olive oil, or is there a better oil to use?
A: I think you'll probably still be fine with extra-virgin olive oil, although you could try something more neutral like grapeseed. As to what else to put in there, I think a little honey (like a squirt) would balance flavors and help emulsify the dressing, and you could think about adding lemon zest to complement the vinegar, and maybe a light and bright herb such as dill, basil or mint. And salt, obviously.
- Becky Krystal
Q: Settle a debate between my husband and me - raw meat juices don't "burn off" to a point of decontamination, right? He used one fork to put a slab of steak on the grill, then (allegedly) accidentally) touched the same fork to some asparagus we had grilling on the other side. I freaked out, he claims it's fine, but what say the experts? I'm also a *bit* of a hypochondriac when it comes to food safety, raw meat, safe cooking temp thresholds, etc.
A: I have a trick that might help you. It's a DIY project too. Buy two pairs of locking chef tongs. Put green duck tape on one pair and red duck tape on the other pair. I call these my stop and go tongs and I travel with a pair myself. Red means stop, raw food touched these. Green means go, cooked food touched these.
Q: I've tried, but I just can't get on the rose bandwagon. Almost every one I've tried tastes bitter. If there is not a bitter aftertaste, then the wine is so light I might as well be drinking pink water. There is either something wrong with my tastebuds, or I've just not tasted the right rose.
A: Try Whispering Angel rose. It is a classic French rose that is not sweet, not bitter, but very balanced and lovely to drink all summer long.
A: Are you ok drinking lighter reds? If so, you could try roses from Tavel (they're more saturated in color) or darker roses, which will taste more robust than their pale cousins.
- Olga Massov
Q: I inadvertently lost most of my cookbooks in a downsizing cleanout. Which do you consider must-have cookbooks?
A: Everyone is different, and I hope everyone here weighs in on theirs. For me, the first one that comes to mind is the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which I've used so much, I'm on my second copy. I'm also a huge fan of Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking." I love the Lee Bailey cookbooks not only for the recipes but his style and joie de vivre; Breakfast book by Marion Cunningham is a favorite in our house, especially for her raised waffles; Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop.... I am not thinking of a few (but i love me a cookbook).
- Olga Massov
A: Would recommend getting literally any of Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks!
- Kari Sonde
Q: I have a pint container of pearl onions that I'd love to make something with. But I dread the chore of peeling them. Is there a quick way, such as cutting an X at the bottom and blanching/steaming them? Or would that waste too much?
A: A pint's worth goes pretty fast, to be honest (better than fava beans). When I do several pounds for Thanksgiving, I do the bottom-X/blanching routine, with no waste.