Here are some excerpts from an online chat that included as a guest, chef Victor Albisu, who opened his new restaurant, Del Campo, in Washington recently:
Q. Having missed ramps season last year, I was pleased to find piles of ramps at the (D.C.) farmers market this past weekend. How long are they expected to be available this year? I don't know if the weird weather we've been having will have shortened the season.
A. Our sources at Fresh Farm Markets say we should see them for another few weeks. Have you ever pickled them? That's one of my favorite ways to use them -- that, and with slow-scrambled eggs a la Patrick O'Connell.
— Joe Yonan
Q. I read something recently about using avocado instead of butter in bread dough or muffin batter, to cut down on bad fats. Does that sound possible?
A. Interesting idea, but I think avocados are inconsistent in composition and would be tough to use as a substitute for something like butter in baking. But avocado is a great substitute for butter on bread, especially when it's grilled.
— Victor Albisu
Q. A good friend who rarely cooks asked if she could come watch me make dinner sometime. She said TV cooking shows and blogs don't really help her because she wants to be able to ask questions and see a real kitchen. I agreed, but now I'm at a loss to find something good to make. I learned to cook gradually from watching my mom (and making a lot of mistakes of my own).
Also, I'm picking up a copy of the new Washington Post cookbook today; should I get one for her? Would you say it's a good choice for beginners?
A. It is tricky to have someone watch your every move in the kitchen, but it's a compliment to your cooking that she asked. Of course I am biased, but the cookbook's good for a range of kitchen expertise. None of the recipes are too tricky -- perhaps because readers helped to choose them! Seems like you might want to pick a recipe that includes some knife work. The Provencal Tian is from a Frenchwoman I interviewed for a Washington Cooks column. It's not hard to assemble, and it looks and tastes great.
— Bonnie S. Benwick
Q. I bought a lot of fresh mint at the grocery store last week, as I've been in a real "mint mood" lately. I love it in salads and cocktails. How would it work in pesto? Any other ideas?
A. Mint is great in pestos, salsa verdes and even chimichurris. For a quick mint recipe, combine 1 bunch mint and parsley, 1 shallot, 1 clove of garlic, 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor; or rough chop. Serve with roasted or grilled lamb.
Add 3 chopped anchovies to the recipe for a nice tomato salad viniagrette.
Q. I've always been a fan of Breyers ice cream, since they usually worked with natural ingredients, but when I went to buy Breyers at my local store recently I was surprised to see that instead of being labeled as "ice cream," every container now says "frozen dairy dessert." Do you know if Breyers has changed their product?
A. Yes, Breyers did change the formulation for some of its products. You can find an explanation of "frozen dairy dessert" on the company's Web site at www.breyers.com/home/about.
— Becky Krystal
Q. A long time ago, I got tandoori chicken and watched the person put the chicken on the side of a hot clay pot. The skin was so crackled and good, and I can still remember the taste after 20 years. I was wondering: Is there any place in Washington where they use that clay pot, or is everything done in the oven now?
A. Atul Bhola, owner of one of my favorite Indian restaurants, Masala Art, says most Indian restaurants that sell tandoori chicken are actually using a clay pot oven (otherwise known as a tandoor). Many years ago, he says, that wasn't the case. and restaurants used a regular kitchen oven. But tandoors are now widely available and used at Indian restaurants.
— Tim Carman
Q. Do you think it's worth taking your knives to a store to get them sharpened, vs. having a sharpener of your own? Would a store give better results? I know my sharpener at home works very well; I got a little eager chopping green onions after sharpening one knife and cut off a bit of my finger -- ouch!
A. I think it depends on your home method. True knife-sharpening geeks tend to frown on the commercial, electric sharpeners. They prefer stones, and their methods for proper sharpening are complicated.
I have to say, I think you need a mentor to learn how to use a stone properly. I've scratched up some good knives with my fumbling use of a stone.