Q: At the store my options for quinoa were uncooked organic but packaged in non-recyclable plastic or preprocessed in a box, with the ingredient palm oil.

Which is the better choice for the environment? Please don’t suggest I go to my nearest coop, it’s 2 hours away. In N.Y., I buy it unpackaged but that doesn’t seem to be available in Florida. Thank you!

A: When choosing between poor options, pick the one that’s healthiest for you. Unrecyclable plastic is distressing, but preprocessed quinoa is more likely to be inedible and palm oil is rarely sustainably harvested. If you use a lot of quinoa, Amazon has a 1.5-pound tub of organic, which would at least be reusable.

(Before you order, use the chat function to get your account marked as preferring non-plastic sustainable packaging on your Amazon orders. If they send plastic packaging anyway, set it aside to drop off at your locally owned shipping store for reuse. Most antique or artisan markets will happily take packing materials as well.)

Q: What is the appropriate tip for take-out food one picks up in the restaurant?

A: On a drink or snack, a dollar is fine. If you’re picking up a meal, $5 or 10%, whichever is larger.

Q: Do you recommend dredging stew meat in flour before browning (like I usually do for stove top stew) when doing an Instant Pot stew? What about putting in ¼ cup barley? Would that be a problem?

A: Starch in the IP can be tricky — it settles to the bottom and scorches, or insulates the sensor so it doesn’t work properly. Better to brown seasoned meat without flour, then thicken your stew with a slurry of flour and water or pureed veg at the end

Barley will be fine as long as there’s plenty of liquid. I’d use a natural release or wait at least 10 minutes to vent because barley can foam up and clog the vent.

Q: In Boston, milk cartons are not recyclable. We’re leaving town in a week and I need a quart of milk for my morning coffee before we go. Should I buy conventional milk in a recyclable plastic container or ethically raised organic milk in a container that’s destined for a landfill? This question has paralyzed me in the past, so I really do need help.

A: In many things, I’ll buy conventional in a recyclable or reusable container over organic in a landfill container. Dairy is not one of those things, because conventional dairy is rubbish. If the larger size of organic milk comes in a recyclable container, you might buy that and freeze what you can’t use.

Q: Help! I wish I could figure out how to make cauliflower cheese soup without making the whole house smell horrible.

A: A patio, porch or backyard is an excellent location for that kind of cooking project. All you need is a work surface, a power source and a cooking appliance. I’d use the Instant Pot, but a slow cooker or a camp stove and a pot would work just fine.

Stinky foods aside, this is a great thing to remember for summer — I have one neighbor who moves her toaster oven outside as soon as it warms up and another who sets up her solar oven.

Q: I’m not sure how to phrase as a question, but I’m curious about low-carb baking; namely, which alternative flours and sweeteners you’d recommend.

A: Low-carb baking isn’t really my area — I’d suggest following Lil Doylie Cooks on Facebook, where local cooking instructor Laura Doyle is working her way through every alternative flour you can think of. I do have a few suggestions for low-carb eating however!

Almost anything that could go on a pizza crust or in a burrito is delicious in an omelet.

Sausage gravy is mighty good over a bowl of vegetables instead of biscuits.

Tuna salad is delicious and relatively easy to eat like a sandwich when tucked into lettuce leaves. (Burgers, on the other hand, are not. Use a fork.)

Cauliflower is actually a delightful substitute for macaroni in mac ’n’ cheese.

Cauliflower, well cooked and pureed with cream and butter, also makes an excellent mashed potato alternative. By the same token, it’s a really superior shepherd’s pie topper.

There’s a tendency in Paleo diets to lean heavily on deli meats, which have been linked to some health problems. Avoid that, and save a pretty penny to boot, by cooking ahead for the week (or the freezer.) A turkey breast is a good start — see my recipe in the March 15, 2017 issue of The Enterprise https://www.davisenterprise.com/features/food-and-drink/food-fairy-cooking-up-childhood-memories/.

Q: Does it really make a difference if you use specifically agar or corn starch or arrowroot in recipes or are they really kinda interchangeable?

A: Each thickener has a slightly different texture, which may affect how sensitive eaters feel about the dish. Thickeners also have different properties as far as how fast they thicken and how they react to boiling and reheating. Those factors aside, mix and match based on your pantry.

Q: What’s your favorite squash?

A: Honey nut, a smaller sweeter variety of butternut, is my absolute favorite, but it can be hard to find. Butternut is a close second, and a regular player at my house for soups or pureed veg. I just made a really excellent stuffed pumpkin from a Dorrie Greenspan recipe with the entrancing name of “Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good,” which can be found at Epicurious.com or linked on my The New Home Ec Facebook page.

Q: Am I wasting my time peeling delicata and other hard squash? Any tips for peeling lumpy squash and retaining fingertips? Delicata usually doesn’t pose a problem but warty winter squash confound me.

A: You can technically serve winter squash with thin skin like delicata and acorn skin-on, but I find the bits of skin distracting in some preparations. (I was scarred in childhood by hippies who didn’t peel the potatoes for Thanksgiving mashers.) You should leave the skin on if you’re serving stuffed halves of squash so they don’t disintegrate. Otherwise I peel before cooking for squash served in chunks, or roast whole and scoop from the skin for purees and soups.

For peeling, I prefer a sharp knife and a steady hand, using the same technique one uses to peel a melon: cut a flat surface to stand it on, then slice off the rind towards the cutting board. If that makes you nervous, a reader suggests pressure cooking the squash whole for a minute to soften the skin, then letting it cool down before peeling.

Q: In Yolo County, we can put our cardboard in either the compost bin or the recycling bin. Which one is better for the environment as a whole? I know well enough to put anything with cheese or oil drippings in the compost. But if that isn’t the case, I’m not sure which should be my default.

A: Cardboard can sold for re-processing, so it’s both reused and a source of income that offsets some of the collection costs. Also, if you put your cardboard in the recycling, the landfill can always add it to the compost if they need to do so.

Q: What’s the deal with heating the pan before the oil, or the oil before you put in the thing-to-be-cooked?

A: Heating a metal pan makes the metal expand, filling in little cracks and scratches. Adding the oil after the metal has expanded gives you the smoothest possible cooking surface without risking overheating the oil.

Q: Can you give me some stuffed vegetable recipes to tempt my kid?

A: In addition to the Stuffed Pumpkin above, here are a couple that have always been popular:

Twice Baked Stuffed Sweet Potatoes


2 large, similarly sized sweet potatoes that are rounded more than pointed at the ends
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
(2 strips of crumbled cooked bacon)
¼ cup plain yogurt
green onions, sliced into thin circles

Putting it together:

Bake the sweet potatoes at 350 degrees for about 35-50 minutes, depending on the size. The bigger the potato, the longer it takes. Don’t bake to the point of them being extremely soft to the touch. They should bend at the touch but not squish. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes.

When cool, slice the sweet potatoes length wise. Scoop out the flesh into a large bowl. Make sure there is about a ½-inch perimeter left in the sweet potato wall. Mix the scooped sweet potato with all the remaining ingredients.

Fill each sweet potato half with this mixture. Bake for another 10-15 minutes until hot through and browned.

Stuffed Zucchini


4 small or 6 tiny zucchini
¼ cup finely chopped onion
¼ cup finely chopped pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large tomato
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
½ tsp salt
1 cup cooked rice

any or all of:
(¼ cup grated jack cheese)
(1 tablespoon diced green chilies)
(2 slices cooked bacon)
(3 ounces cooked ground beef)
(3 ounces crumbled tofu)

Putting it together:

Wash zucchini and drop in boiling water for 6 minutes. Drain and let cool. Sauté onions and bell peppers in oil until tender. Add garlic and cook briefly. Remove from heat. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise, and use a spoon to scoop out insides, leaving a thin shell. Chop insides. Mix together all ingredients except zucchini shells. Mound filling generously into shells. Place in lightly oiled baking pan and bake, uncovered, at 350° about 20 minutes.

— Want to Just Ask Julie something? Email jacross@dcn.org or visit her Facebook page at The New Home Ec. Questions may be edited for clarity or kindness, and not all questions can be answered (especially math) or published.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on February 18, 2020 | Printed in the February 19, 2020 edition on page A7