Ask Chef Rachael - October 2011

Q. I have some old spices in my cabinet. How long do spices really last?
A. The unfortunate answer is "it depends." It depends on how it is stored, used and the particular spice you are concerned about. Generally use your nose as a guide—if you pour a bit in your hand and can smell it from about chest height, it's probably okay. Spices don't really go "bad"; they just lose pungency and flavor as they lose essential oils/moisture. A leading national manufacturer claims ground spices should be good at least 2 years and whole spices at least 3. If you've had them much longer than that, it might be a good time to replace them. If you want to maximize the life expectancy of your spices, try freezing them.

Q. How can I pick a good olive oil?
A. I get asked this question a lot. I think "good" olive oil is subjective, the way you might personally like a particular wine that someone else may not. Like so many things, if you like it, it's good. Keeping with my wine analogy, a big-ticket bottle may not always be the best choice. I recommend buying several in your price range and trying them at home. Once you know you like one, it can be your go-to bottle forever. It is important to buy extra virgin oil if you are going to taste the oil uncooked, as in a salad dressing or as a finishing or dipping oil, because it’s fruitier and fresher tasting than regular "non-virgin" oil. Extra virgin oil results from the first cold pressing of the olives, whereas regular olive oil is later processed using heat to extract the olives' remaining oil. This is why the oil has a less "bright" taste. Because it is usually more expensive, some people reserve their extra virgin oil and use a less pricey bottle of regular olive oil for cooking (especially where more is often needed). It's fine to do so, but if you cook with extra virgin oil it will taste more like regular oil due to being heated.

Q. What is the best way to remove an apple core?
A. Though I am usually not a gadget girl, I think an apple corer is the only way to go here, but I offer a unique tip: Before using the corer, slice off a very thin piece of apple across the bottom of the fruit to give it a nice, stable base when it's sitting on the cutting board. This will make it easy to line up the corer and keep the apple from rocking and rolling across the board while you push down. If you prefer to go old-school, I recommend slicing through the core of the apple with a sharp chef's knife and placing the apple cut-side-down on the board. Slice down through the apple on either side as close as possible to the core, then turn the apple onto one of the newly cut sides and repeat. Do the same to the other half.

Q. Can I cook with a carving pumpkin?
A. If you have carved it, no. The cut flesh is ideal for bacterial growth. Additionally, there are probably better choices than the rather enormous pumpkins sold for carving. As with most members of the squash family, the bigger they are, the less sweet they are. Larger pumpkins may also be a bit more mealy and watery, not to mention too big! Try a smaller size for cooking. But your jack-o-lantern can provide a wonderful treat – you can make a delicious snack from the pumpkin seeds. Clean them well and dry them as much as possible. Toss them with 1 tbsp. of olive oil, 1 tsp. of kosher salt and 1 tsp. of garlic powder (do not use fresh garlic because it will burn). Roast these on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper in a preheated 375° oven until dark golden brown (about 15 min.), stirring once or twice. Allow them to cool so you don’t burn yourself, but also because they will get crunchier as they stand. Add more salt if desired. If you're feeling creative, you can customize your seeds by adding one or more of the following before baking: cayenne pepper, chili powder, cumin, fresh herbs, citrus zest or Parmesan cheese.

Q. My soft taco shells never taste "right." Any tips?
A. My family loves tacos. We eat them several times a month, sometimes several times a week – even breakfast! – and we're picky about our soft taco shells, too. We like them warm and soft, but this can be tricky to achieve. Oven-warming foil-wrapped flour tortillas is a commonly recommended method but can take a long time, and if they're not expertly wrapped, they'll get crispy and dried out. The microwave is faster, but if you don’t wrap them, they not only dry out, they turn into tostadas after a minute or two out of the microwave. Our favorite way to warm soft flour tortillas is to roll them up in a slightly dampened, clean kitchen towel (particularly a large tea towel) and heat them 4–6 at a time in the microwave on high for 30–40 seconds. The moisture from the towel steams the tortillas and keeps them from drying out. Keep them wrapped until just before you fill them, and warm them a few at a time as you need/eat them for optimum results.

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