A recent online special guest was culinary instructor and cookbook author Linda Carucci. Here are edited excerpts from that chat. Recipes whose names are capitalized can be found in our Recipe Finder at washingtonpost. com/recipes.
Q: I'm making a lasagna and bought fresh pasta sheets. I've read conflicting stories about whether you need to pre-boil these, which I've always done in the past, but if I can avoid that mess, I'd certainly be thankful. Is it necessary? They do get bigger when you boil; I'm concerned that that wouldn't happen if I didn't.
A: I've discovered that as long as you use enough (as in extra) sauce, you really don't have to precook any lasagna sheets.
Be sure to put one cup of sauce in a 13-by-9-inch baking pan before adding the first layer of pasta. And I'd add a cup of extra sauce to each layer. Be sure not to overlap the pasta pieces.
- Linda Carucci
Q: My daughter, who is vegetarian, is home from school for three weeks. What are your favorite vegetarian dinner recipes? We've had lots of pasta and cheese dishes and would like something lower in calories, especially since we've been munching on too many holiday cookies.
A: Tacos With Tofu Chorizo and Potatoes is one of my favorites, and the tofu chorizo is super versatile. Other suggestions: Eggplant Steaks With Salsa Verde; Shakshuka With Swiss Chard; Sweet Potato and Pistachio Cakes; Apricot and Red Lentil Soup; or browse the more than 500 meatless main dishes in our Recipe Finder.
- Kara Elder
Q: To make sweet potato latkes, we tried swapping in sweet potato for regular, and the results weren't great: The latkes didn't hold together and the sweet potato taste didn't shine. We're wondering how to make them as good as they should be. We can't have wheat gluten, so please recommend something else to use as a binder.
A: Raw sweet potato has less moisture than raw russets, for example. I usually do a combo of both - or at least I'll increase the amount of grated onion in the sweet potato mix. Potato starch plus egg should bind it nicely.
- Bonnie S. Benwick
Q: A friend introduced me to flavored balsamic vinegars, something I'd never heard of. She has them in flavors from coffee to peach and is experimenting with them for everything from flavoring fizzy water to glazing salmon steaks. The results are mixed, as she's just guessing at what will taste good and what quantities to use. If you'd offer a few pointers, I'll share them with her, and I might try experimenting with it, too.
A: I use them with olive oil or walnut oil on salads made of fresh farmers market greens. Now I'm using cranberry-pear white balsamic in salads with sliced pears, blue cheese, pecans and dried cranberries; sprinkle in a little Trader Joe's garlic powder for that je ne sais quoi factor. In summer, I love the peach vinegar with a nectarine, smoked chicken and wild rice salad.
Q: Any particular reason to call out "Trader Joe's garlic powder" instead of just garlic powder?
A: TJ's garlic powder is a bit granulated, as opposed to talcum-powdery fine. The latter kind almost becomes airborne when you sprinkle it. TJ's lands where you direct it. I teach cooking all over the place, and I find that when I request granulated garlic powder, the cooking school tends to get a coarser, more granular powder, which I find can be too strong in certain applications.
Q: I plan on making a turkey potpie this weekend from the leftovers of a roasted bird. However, I make the same recipe each time I have leftover fowl. Do you have some ideas on how to liven up this dish?
A: I think I'd go Tex-Mex and add black beans, cilantro, sour cream and lime juice. Two recipes that are other ways to go: Turkey Breast and Vegetable Potpie in a Biscuit Crust; Thai Chicken Potpies. Or how about adding your turkey to Mushroom and Stout Potpies With Sweet Potato Crusts?