Food writers Cathy Barrow and Tamar Haspel recently joined The Washington Post staff to answer questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.
Recipes whose names are capitalized can be found in the Post’s Recipe Finder at washingtonpost.com/recipes.
Q: I purchased the smallest package of cotija cheese I could find to use in a Mexican street corn recipe. Any other suggestions for using up the rest? Or can I freeze it in smaller portions? I have at least two cups left.
A: You can use it where you would use feta or Parmigiano-Reggiano — so, with watermelon in a salad, or crumbled over pasta, or shaved over leafy greens, or scattered atop toast, for example. And yes, I think it would freeze fine. — Kara Elder
Q: What can I do to use up nutritional yeast?
A: There are lots of things to do with “nooch.” A lot of recipes call for it as a vegan substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. — Joe Yonan
Q: Does homemade vanilla extract go bad? Three years ago I made a big batch and still have some left. It looks and smells fine, and I see no visible mold or particulate matter except for the seeds.
A: I’ve had some homemade vanilla going for at least four years now, and it’s still good. As long as yours smells and looks good, then you should be fine. — K.E.
Q: What is your view on organic and nonorganic food? Is it always better to eat organic food, or should we be selective?
A: The short answer is that organic foods don’t really have advantages for the people who eat them (although there is disagreement about whether pesticide residues pose a human health risk, my read of the evidence is that they generally don’t). Organic foods aren’t more nutritious. Organic agriculture does have some advantages for the environment (such as generally healthier soil), but it also has disadvantages (most organic farmers till, and that creates erosion and runoff of fertilizer).
If you can afford it, and you want to support farmers who practice organic farming, go for it! If you find that it’s expensive, or that the advantages just aren’t compelling for you, be confident that conventional produce is perfectly wholesome and safe. — Tamar Haspel
Q: Can I just buy vanilla beans and stick them into a bottle of vodka to make homemade vanilla? That sounds like fun.
A: Yep. Cathy might have some more tips, but I just sliced them in half lengthwise, dropped the beans in a small bottle, topped with vodka and let it sit in a cool-ish, dark spot for several months. (I also periodically add a bean and some more alcohol as I use it up — so now it’s a mix of rum, vodka and bourbon.) — Kara Elder
A: That’s been my modus operandi, too. Any old booze, used beans and plenty of time. — Cathy Barrow
Q: Isn’t there a risk of a lack of uniformity with homemade vanilla compared to commercial pure vanilla extract? How do you adjust recipes whose vanilla measurement is predicated on the commercial product?
A: Vanilla isn’t that consistent, and recipes don’t call for enormous amounts. I treat my homemade vanilla as I might treat salt, tasting and adjusting if I feel more is needed. — C.B.
Q: I have a gift of lemon curd, and don’t know what to do with it. I do not bake.
A: Buy things — biscuits, store-bought pound cake — to warm and smear it on. Or make little parfaits with lemon curd, yogurt or whipped cream, berries, granola — or turn it in to a trifle with cubed store-bought cake and a little sweetened booze for soaking. — J.Y.
Q: I’m currently very bored with my rotation of vegetarian protein sources (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, tempeh, tofu). Any suggestions for how I can spice things up or try something new?
A: Keep in mind that you’re getting protein from grains, too, so if you’re not already, work more of those in? Also, don’t scoff at seitan — there are some really nicely made versions out there. I like Upton’s Naturals, especially the stripped-down version so I can add my own spices/flavors. And every now and then you can throw in something like a Beyond Burger — I don’t eat them often, but from time to time it’s nice for a change. — J.Y.