Columnist Jim Shahin recently joined The Washington Post staff to answer questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.
Q: I know next to nothing about grilling. I would love to learn, without ruining food in the process. What tips can you give me? We have a new grill, one that allows us to set temperatures.
A: A thermometer is essential. As for other basics, you should typically build an indirect fire (fire on one side, no fire on the other) so that you can move things around, as needed. For tools, have long-handled tongs. For a good basic book, Steven Raichlen’s “The Barbecue Bible” is terrific. — Jim Shahin
Q: Someone made for me a fantastic lentil salad, but there was way too much of it, so I put the leftovers in the freezer. I defrosted the rest this weekend and the lentils are still the perfect texture. What kind of lentils are these? They’re blackish-brownish-green and about the size of a peppercorn, and they held their shape.
A: I’m guessing they’re black lentils, a variety that, as long as you pay moderate attention, is very difficult to overcook and holds its shape extremely well. — Kara Elder
Q: Frequently when cutting ripe avocados, I find black blemish spots inside. Are these similar to the bruises on bananas, not pretty, but safe to eat?
A: Avocado growers say they are caused by concentrations of oil content, over-ripening or bruising. I cut them out, and that’s what the growers recommend, too. But when there’s a lot of discoloration — brown spots and striations in the flesh — chances are good that the avocado won’t taste as good. So they recommend not eating that stuff. — Bonnie S. Benwick
Q: What’s the secret to getting sweet potato fries crispy? Is there a method that doesn’t involve extraneous equipment I’ll have to wash?
A: Give them a good spritz of olive oil cooking spray and bake in a single layer (on a baking sheet lined with foil). — B.S.B.
Q: At a family barbecue I was able to rescue the corn from a boiling pot of water and introduced grilling corn to this side of the family. It was a big hit! I did notice that some of the kernels got smoky gray almost instantly — so even when evenly roasted, didn’t look as good as some ears — any tips? We always fully shuck the corn, so put it directly on the grill to cook.
A: First wrap the ears in foil with ice and steam them, then remove the foil and place them on the grill to give the corn some color. The kernels remain plump and juicy this way. — Tim Carman
Q: I read somewhere about the minimalist kitchen. Since I’ll be moving soon, I’m starting to look at my kitchen. I admit, when I don’t know what to get my husband, I’ll get him a kitchen tool. But as a result, our kitchen is overrun with tools we only use once a year… if ever. I’m looking at everything, though, and have no idea what to keep or throw away. Do you have any suggestions for multi-use tools? For instance, do I really need a zester or a strainer or can I throw those out? A potato masher? A mandolin? I’m at a loss! How do you keep your kitchen pared down?
A: I would keep the zester (microplane?) and strainer. Both are pretty handy. How else to easily get citrus zest, or grate garlic or ginger? And a strainer you can use when making broth or custard or flavored oil. The potato masher might be expendable, because you can use a wooden spoon or fork, although I use my potato masher for beans more than potatoes. I don’t own a mandoline and I’ve gotten along fine with out it.
How do I keep my kitchen pared down? I kind of don’t. Although I do try to limit big appliances. — Becky Krystal
Q: My boyfriend smoked two racks of ribs this weekend. They were delicious, but the sauce burnt/got stuck to the aluminum foil. Do you have any tips on how to prevent the burnt crust/sticking to the foil?
A: Add the sauce only in the last 10 minutes and without the foil. — J.S.