Originally created 05/28/03

Small portions

Vanilla beans

Vanilla beans, prized by pastry chefs for their intense true flavor, are pricey, so it is important to take care of them properly. Vanilla experts recommend that beans be stored in tightly sealed container at room temperature, not in the freezer or refrigerator where added moisture can turn them moldy.

Be fish-flexible

Although there are more farm-raised fish in the market, seafood is still wild, for the most part. That means you can't always count on a specific type of fish being in the market. Experienced cooks know that the key to enjoying fish is not to be rigid about specific species but to look for quality. Choose pristine-looking, firm fillets free of any gaping or strong aromas. For example, if you have a recipe for red snapper and that fish looks a little tired in the market, it's best to substitute a similar white-fleshed fish, like black bass, wolffish or grouper.

Potent mint

Of all the fresh herbs, mint's taste varies the most. One bunch can be mild and another positively brisk, so it's important to taste the herb before using. Trust your judgment and adjust your recipe depending on the potency of the mint.

Apricot time

Highly perishable and seasonal, apricots need to be grabbed and savored at their precious prime. In the United States, that means mostly at the time of the California harvest - they're the first of the summer fruit, available from mid-May through mid-July.

The blushing ripe fruit tastes good simply eaten out of hand, of course, but apricots also can be added to salads and drinks, or baked in desserts.

Another way to offer apricots is to add them to the cookout menu on the grill. Just before serving, brush apricot halves with oil and grill each side for about one minute. They make a juicy accompaniment to grilled chicken, served with green salad.

Pudding proof

Think again if your image of rice pudding is a simple milk-and-rice dessert, fondly related to childhood memories.

Rice to Riches, a new "dessert emporium" in downtown Manhattan's SoHo district, focuses only on rice pudding - but offers an enterprising variety of flavors that could inspire a home cook to new heights.

About 18 rice puddings are featured on the store's menu any given day, for eat-in or takeout. Other recent rice-puddings options: maple with sundried blueberries, chocolate with dark raisins, melon with lemon, banana with coconut, and mango with lime.

Lobster lingo

Things to keep in mind if you are buying a fresh Maine lobster:

  • Look for a lobster that moves around, holds its claws up and curls its tail underneath its body.
  • Color doesn't affect taste or texture. Lobsters come in a wide variety, from the more common greenish-brown through yellow or even white.
  • Don't be put off by black marks or holes in a lobster's shell. They're just the result of wear and tear and are not harmful.
  • Trying to decide between hard- and new-shell lobsters? Here's the scoop:
  • Hard-shell lobsters are fuller because they've spent many months growing into their shells - but you need utensils and a bit of patience to get at the meat.

    New-shell lobsters have recently molted, and their new, larger shells are hardening to protect them from the natural environment. When they have been cooked, these shells are easy to crack by hand, making it unnecessary to use any tools to extract the meat.

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