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What's Cooking

You ask, Rach answers ... about her favorite recipes, secret ingredients, cooking tips and insider how-tos.


Q: You seem to use a lot of gruyère cheese, which is hard to come by (and expensive!) in my area. What's a good substitute that won't compromise the taste of the recipes? -Barbara Vinson, Cheyenne, WY
A: Swiss is a good substitute, and you can find it everywhere.

Q: When do you use vegetable oil instead of EVOO? -Sharron Craft, Reno, NV
A: I go with EVOO for most everything. Vegetable oil is great when food has to be screaming hot, like stir-fry.

Q: How do you grill a burger without drying it out? -Rachel Garza, Gilberts, IL
A: It's not what you put on a burger, it's what you put in it. If you stuff ingredients like veggies and herbs inside, then they create moisture for the meat. That's the key.

Q: What do you do to get rid of food smells in your kitchen? -Amanda Marchand, Canton, OH
A: Open a window. Ventilation is the key -- buy a small fan, keep the windows open while you're cooking and dine al fresco.

Q: Do you have any tips on combining ingredients that people would never think to use together? -Brandon Smith, Orrick, MO
A: I love adding bitter chocolate or coffee to chili, and cooking rice, grains or pasta in wine, then mixing in fresh grapes. Any mix of savory and sweet -- like a savory waffle with spicy syrup -- is good, too. Bottom line: Opposites attract!

Q: My dorm kitchen is limited to a toaster oven and a George Foreman grill. How I can make a good meal? -Rebecca Oden, Jacksonville, TX
A: Panini, panini, panini! Also, you can marinate and grill chicken 1,000 ways for wraps and salads, plus the grill is great for quesadillas, fish and kebabs. In the toaster oven, try French bread (or english muffin) pizzas and baked burritos.

Q: Every time I chop an onion I cry my eyes out. How do you do it? Any tips for us weepers? -Sheri Sievert, Morris, IL
A: Nope. I cry, too.

Q: I would really like to make the Individual Beef Wellingtons in "30-Minute Meals" (November/December 2005) for my husband's birthday celebration. Can I do some of the preparation ahead of time? -Denise Breuninger, Holland, PA
A: There's really no need. This is super-simple to make. It may be part of your personality that you like to be ahead of the game, so go ahead and cook the mushrooms the day before. Other than that, there's very little cooking here -- only assembly.


Q: Are you thinking about doing a vegetarian cookbook? You have some great veggie recipes, and it'd be wonderful to have them all (or at least a lot of them) in one place. -Stacie Kopecki, College Station, TX
A: There's a vegetarian section in my latest one, Big Orange Book. Check it out!

Q: How often do you think up a new recipe? -Chesley Sheffield, Deer Park, TX
A: I think of several every day. I carry a notebook, and that's what I do to and from work and in between shows. It's my hobby: virtual cooking.

Q: How many times do you modify a recipe before it's print-ready? -Carie Hove, Richfield, MN
A: I rarely have to change them. I write recipes for myself -- the food is very familiar!

Q: How do you come up with all your different burger recipes? -Jonna Craft, Mesa, AZ
A: Everything influences me, from my travels to what looks good in the market.

Q: Are you ever worried you'll run out of recipes? -Jennifer Stringham, Naperville, IL
A: Think of all the ingredients in the world. There are limitless combinations!

Q: Where do you get your inspiration for new dishes? -Haylie Wilkerson, Pasadena, TX
A: I love to eat! Some dishes are quick versions of meals I ate growing up; others are inspired by dishes I've eaten in restaurants. Plus, people stop me all the time on the street or at the grocery store and give me new ideas.

Q: How many times do you try out a new recipe before it's just the way you want it? -Josen Serrano, Ventura, CA
A: Because I cook virtually in my head, I rarely have to make something over and over -- it's usually good to go.

Q: What do you do if you forget part of a recipe while cooking? -Megan Howard, Woodstock, GA
A: The recipe just comes out differently, and then you have a new recipe!

Q: Have you ever cooked up a weird concoction that raised eyebrows at first but turned out to be a big hit? -Rita Quick, Port Jervis, NY
A: That'd be half my recipes!


Q: What kind of cheese do you use most often? -Lucia Jutsum, Fairport, NY
A: With all my Italian recipes, I probably use grated parmesan the most, but I'll give any cheese a chance!

Q: What's the one ingredient you couldn't live without? -Zachary Luker, Baton Rouge, LA
A: EVOO, of course!

Q: What dish do you love to eat but hate to prepare? -Sandra Kafka, Arcadia, CA
A: Sushi and sashimi. I leave it to my favorite sushi chef, Ken Oringer (of Uni, in Boston, 617-536-7200).

Q: What recipe are you the proudest to serve? -Linda Krogstad, Hillsboro, OR
A: Anything I serve my family, because it's made with the most love and my sharpest attention.

Q: I know you don't like to bake (neither do I), but do you have a go-to recipe for when you need cookies fast? -Gail Sorci, Lombard, IL
A: I call the bakery! My husband's favorite cookies are Tate's chocolate chip (Tate's Bake Shop). My best go-to recipe is my Fabulous 5-Minute Fudge Wreath.


Q: What's your signature dish? -Olivia Hasham, Merrimac, MA
A: I don't have one -- everyone loves something different. Some like my burgers, some like my pastas, and my mother likes my soups. I'm happy to make anyone's favorite anytime.

Q: If you had only $10 to your name, what would you buy at the grocery store? -Tabitha Sutton, Corydon, KY
A: Bread, cheese and tomatoes.


Q: What do you do when you're midway through making a recipe and realize you're missing an ingredient? -Chris Shellenberger, Easton, PA
A: If I'm at my place in the country, I just have to improvise. If I'm in the city, though, I send my husband to the store!

Q: You chop so quickly! How long did it take you to learn? -Doris Duran, Pueblo, CO
A: I've never thought about it -- I just hack away! Everyone just has to find a rhythm.

Q: After eating at a restaurant, are you able to replicate a dish just by having tasted it? -Jordan Adcock, Decatur, AL
A: Pretty close. I can replicate the flavors, but I try to turn it into a faster recipe and put my own spin on it.

Q: Which do you think is harder, cooking for the camera or cooking for your family? -Katie, Age 12, Newtown Square, PA
A: Cooking is fun -- in both cases!

Q: You chop so quickly. How often do you cut yourself? -Erika Zenchak, Brookfield, IL
A: I cut myself a lot -- but not when I'm chopping. It usually happens when I'm holding a knife and talking with my hands!

Q: When you're cooking on 30-Minute Meals, how do you resist the temptation to pop a morsel into your mouth? -Paula Young, Tiffin, OH
A: What do you think happens during those commercial breaks?

Q: Do you ever have "off" days when even dishes you've made many times before just don't turn out right? -Nina Woodard, Cleveland, NY
A: Nothing ever turns out exactly the same way twice, but I'm not looking for perfection in any part of my life -- especially in my food. I just appreciate that food has a mind of its own sometimes, and I go with the flow.

Q: Has Italian culture shaped the way you cook? -Ashley Lorenzo, Oneonta, NY
A: A great deal, since I learned how to cook primarily from Italians. I'm a very emotional cook!

Q: Are there ever days when you get home and just want to throw a frozen pizza in the oven? Do you ever not feel like cooking? -Jackie Hoff, Wahpeton, ND
A: Only when I'm sick. Instead of a frozen pizza, I'll make French bread pizza. There are nights when we'll have takeout (we have great pizza joints in New York City!), but those nights are few and far between.

Q: Since you're not a fan of mayo, how do you make tuna salad? -Diane Hernandez, Anaheim, CA
A: I swap lemon juice and EVOO for the mayo.


Q: You come up with fantastic recipes -- a lot of them. What was your biggest failed recipe? -Kimberly Sunick, South Dayton, NY
A: My last failure in the kitchen was as a child, baking a cake for my mother -- let's just say it wasn't pretty.

Q: Have you ever set anything on fire in your kitchen? -Dorothy Abramson, Monroe Township, NJ
A: Me, my hair, my clothes, a wooden spoon, pot holders, towels...


Q: How do you store garlic? -Tammy Mikesell, Franklinton, NC
A: Only use fresh garlic: Keep it in a cool, dark place (like where you keep onions) and don't refrigerate or freeze it.

Q: I'm totally confused about salt. I've used good old table salt for years, but I always see you using kosher salt. When should I use this? -Suzanne Felton, Coppell, TX
A: Easy: I use kosher and ground sea salt for everything. (And I throw it over my shoulder for good luck, too!)

Q: If you only had enough room in your garden to plant three fresh herbs, what would be your must-haves? -Liz Mescher, Osgood, OH
A: I don't have a green thumb, but my husband does. He plants basil, rosemary and thyme.

Q: I bought fresh basil and fresh rosemary at the farmers' market. How can I store herbs for short-term use and freeze them for long-term use? -Leonora Allum, Chaska, MN
A: I never freeze fresh herbs. They don't taste the same after freezing to me at all. If I'm trying to use up garden finds like bushes of basil, I'll prepare pesto sauces and freeze the sauce rather than the whole herb. Day-to-day, I find that most herbs (especially rosemary) will last a couple of weeks if kept cold and dry. I buy basil at the last minute, the day I use it.

Q: I'd like to give my mom a set of dried herbs and spices. What essentials do you stock in your spice rack? -Karlee Meibauer, Oceanport, NJ
A: My staples are thyme, sage, bay leaves, coriander, paprika, smoked paprika, cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper, dry mustard, fennel seeds, whole nutmeg, plus celery salt for my Bloody Marys!


Q: You seem to only use one type of knife. Why do you love that one? -Brittany Clark, Pickens, SC
A: It's a Santoku-style knife that I designed with Furi. I love the comfy grips on the handle and, of course, it's orange!

Q: What's your most valued kitchen appliance? -Kristin VanBeek, De Pere, WI
A: The sturdy, old-time gas stove in my New York City apartment. I have one on my 30-Minute Meals set too. Hot! Hot! Hot!

Q: I've noticed you don't wear an apron. Do you use one at home? -Linda Mitchell, Albuquerque, NM
A: I'm too short for an apron -- my legs get wound up in it!


Q: My husband refuses to try new things! Despite my attempts to mix things up with shrimp scampi and stir-fry, he'd still be happiest eating Hamburger Helper. I need to change his taste buds. Any advice would be appreciated! -Chris Kelly, Claremore, OK
A: A hungry person will generally eat anything -- starve him out! Make sure he eats a light lunch the day you want him to be adventurous. In the meantime, add more vegetables to the dishes he loves.

Q: I dislike vegetables and I could live on carbs. How can I learn to love food that's good for me? -Ange Saser, New Paris, OH
A: Try a mixture of 50-50. Mix your vegetables with your pasta, then cover them with sauce and cheese. I don't know about you, but I'd eat pretty much anything under those circumstances.

Q: My kids, ages 2 and 5, are so picky. Mac and cheese and PB&J are getting pretty old at our house. Please help! -Amy Bartell, Waconia, MN
A: I've got several tips: First, keep the kids in the kitchen when you're cooking. It makes them feel like part of the process. When they ask, "What's in that?" say the grossest thing possible, like "dinosaur guts and bug brains." Then laugh and move along. Also, let the kids stir, mix and do whatever they can to feel a part of making the meal. It'll be a matter of their personal pride to taste at least one bite. And if there's something they won't eat (like all vegetables), mix them with pasta or hide them in tortillas or bread. Good luck and happy eating!

Q: How would you suggest incorporating (or hiding!) veggies into kids' meals? -Jackie Mejia, Hobbs, NM
A: Putting 'em under cheese or in a tortilla works every time!

Q: I've never liked fish, but I'm trying to eat more healthfully. What type of fish and preparation do you recommend for a slightly wary eater? -Grace Lewandowski, Aurora, IL
A: Swordfish, cod, haddock and tuna are all good options. Try cooking them with herbs that you like. Any one of those fish will pick up the flavor of the seasonings you're using.

Q: My 6-year-old niece refuses to eat vegetables. How can I get her to try some? -Brittany Kern,, Benton, MO
A: Grind them up and stir them into anything (like Jessica Seinfeld does). Hide them under cheese or in a tortilla!


Q: I've heard that you shouldn't cook with chardonnay because of its oaky taste. What type of white wine do you use? -Sandie Tilque, Green Bay, WI
A: Not every chardonnay is oaky. Use any dry white wine for cooking?pinot grigio is an affordable and easy-to-find wine. For more wine suggestions, check out our Wine, Beer + Food Pairings.

Q: At the grocery store, do you buy ingredients for recipes or just buy what looks good, then develop recipes? -Amy Garbrick, Masontown, WV
A: Both. Sometimes I take a recipe with me, or I'll just build one from what appeals to me in the store. I usually wind up with groceries for two nights.

Q: Do you grocery shop with a list or just wing it? -Beth Hamm, Palmdale, CA
A: Worse! I use my cookbooks. I hide them so people don't see me walking around with a photo of myself!

Q: My husband's family is from Ischia, Italy. Each time we visit the island, we bring home the best limoncello. Where can I find the good stuff in the States? -Julianne Saso, Palos Verdes Estates, CA
A: In any large wineshop. Even when I'm in upstate New York, in "the sticks," I can find a bottle at the larger stores. If all else fails, call a fine Italian restaurant near your home and ask them for a source. P.S.: Good call marrying an Ischian! No need to plan your vacations!


Q: I'm always looking for new lunch ideas. What was your favorite brown-bag lunch as a kid? -Stefana, Age 13, Boston
A: Anything left over from last night's dinner between two pieces of bread


Q: My brother and his wife are expecting their first child, and I'd like to make some freezer meals for them, so they don't have to cook once the baby is born. Can you recommend any good recipes? -Robert Corder, Chicago
A: Lasagna, lasagna, lasagna. People with babies love lasagna. Also try chili, stew, mac 'n' cheese, and chicken or pork in salsa verde. Basically, make anything you'd find in the frozen-food section of the grocery store! And what a fantastic gift?when you cook for people, they talk about it forever.

Q: I'm a vegetarian, but my husband and kids aren't. Know any dinners we all can love? -Barbara Rhoads, Hurst, TX
A: Sure! Try my Frilled Mushroom "Burgers" on Polenta "Buns" or Vegetable Not-Zagna Pasta Toss.

Q: What's one dish your family loves you to prepare that you dread cooking? -Kimberly Cooley, Chattanooga, TN
A: I wouldn't cook it if I dreaded it!

Q: Have any of your neighbors ever come to your home asking for advice on a dish they were preparing? -Nina Ruff, Spring Lake, NC
A: Not yet, but a couple of them do come over for dinner -- often!


Q: How do you handle being served a meal you don't like? -Nathan Madison, Toledo, OH
A: I don't eat it. That's rare, though -- I'll eat pretty much anything.

Q: When I've prepared a meal, I'm really bothered when people salt it before they taste it. What's your line on this? -Melanie Chalou, Warrenton, VA
A: I love salt. I can't get enough of it. It's a personal thing.