KITCHEN SHRINK: Solving culinary crises

Inquiring readers want to know everything from putting the skids on pasty pasta to going on a quest for a lactose-free cheese. Your queries are now being answered.

Q: Is Buffalo Mozzarella lactose free?

A: Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, traditional cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo near Naples, Italy (called buffalo mozzarella in these parts) is a soft delicate treat that dials up salads, pastas, sandwiches and flatbreads. Most cheeses (particularly aged ones) have only trace levels of lactose since this milk sugar is drained off in the liquid whey during the cheese making process.

Although fresh cheeses like buffalo mozzarella contain more lactose than aged ones, as part of the lactose remains in the curd, the levels are still low (1.1 gram of lactose/100 grams of cheese). This amount can easily be tolerated by those with lactose sensitivities. Also, the lactose in buffalo milk tends to be lower than that in cow’s milk.

Q: What does it mean to shock vegetables?

A: So that cooked vegetables (usually green ones) stay crisp, crunchy and brightly colored after they are cooked, they are first blanched in a pot of boiling salted water, then soaked in an ice bath until cooled. This shocks or halts the cooking process so the veggies are done to perfection.

Q: How can I fine-tune my baking skills so that my piecrusts are flaky, not chewy like pizza crusts?

A: Go slow and steady when mixing your batters and doughs. Mixing flour too aggressively will activate the gluten protein, causing a firm and elastic texture to your baked goods. So don’t be heavy-handed whether using an electric mixer or food processor. Keep the speed on low, and don’t over blend.

Q: I store tomatoes in the fridge, but they become soft and mushy in a day or two. How can this be prevented?

A: Tomatoes are fragile fruits with delicate cells that get easily damaged by cold temperatures that also break down the flavor-producing enzyme making them soft, mealy and insipid. This is a simple fix. Store tomatoes on a platter, single file on the kitchen counter away from direct sunlight for up to three days. If not used within this time, you must refrigerate.

Q: How do I prevent my pasta from turning into a sticky ball of mush?

A: After straining the pasta, toss it with a drizzle of sauce or olive oil to prevent clumping. If you won’t be eating for a while, rinse in cold water to remove any excess starch, and later reheat the pasta in the sauce.

Q: How can you prevent cut avocadoes from turning brown?

A: This super fruit has a store of healthy fats, minerals and vitamins from the stress-busting B’s, immune boosting C’s and skin healthy A’s and E’s to body balancing potassium, magnesium, copper and iron. But one flaw: they turn brown when exposed to the air thanks to an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. While culinary wizards have suggested solutions, nothing is foolproof, so eat the avocado soon after cutting. Otherwise, try these tips: squirt with some lemon or lime juice, cover tightly with plastic wrap or place in an airtight container with a half cut onion … and always leave the pit intact.

Q: I bought a watermelon that refused to ripen even after two weeks in a large paper bag. Any suggestions?

A: Certain fruits and vegetables continue to ripen after picking, while others should be ripe at the time of picking. No prodding, pampering, massaging or cajoling will further ripen them. When buying the latter, especially watermelons, citrus, cherries, peppers and grapes, make sure they are ripe before placing them in your grocery cart. To test for watermelon ripeness tap on it. If it has a nice, deep resonance, then it’s ripe. Also look for a creamy yellow belly

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