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Ask Kirstin: Lemon Zesting; Yam vs. Sweet Potato


How do I zest a lemon and what is zest? — Jack P.

The very outermost part of any citrus fruit is called zest, and it is packed with citrus aroma, without the tartness or moisture. So, if you want a boost of citrus flavor, you add the zest as well as the juice. To add a little sparkle try adding lemon zest to short bread cookies, vinaigrettes and sauces. To zest any kind of citrus, first scrub the fruit well, then use a fine grater or microplane to remove only the yellow part of the skin. The white part is not very tasty so leave that behind.


What is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam? — Cazzie D.

The world of the sweet potato is a crazy one and get this — most people in this country have never eaten a true yam! Potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams are not family members. What we usually think of when we say yam, and what our grocery stores call yams, the tubers with the dark skin and the sweet orange flesh, are actually sweet potatoes, as are the lighter skinned not-so-sweet ones. So to avoid confusion, but to really confuse me, they just call the orange sweet potato a yam. Even though a true yam is really a huge starchy tropical tuber that you probably won’t see in your regular supermarket. So, just remember this, in a grocery store because the sweetpotato is sweet, it has a nickname, I Yam sweet.


What is the difference between an onion and a shallot, can I exchange one for the other in a recipe? — Steven R.

Generally, an onion is a single growing bulb, usually roundish with papery white, tan or red skin. Shallots are smaller, they grow in clusters almost like garlic cloves, they have tan papery skin and are usually oblong or teardrop shaped. You can exchange one for the other, just bear in mind that shallots do have a distinctive flavor that is a little sweeter, with a hint of garlic.


Cornmeal, cornflour, corn starch, grits and polenta…are they all the same? — O.T.C.

The nitty gritty is they are all made from the same thing, corn, but they are ground in different ways, and sometimes made from different types of corn. Cornstarch is very finely milled and great as a thickener in gravies, stir fries and pudding. Cornflour is a little coarser, good for baked goods and coating some tasty fried food. The difference between cornmeal, grits and polenta is a little trickier, most times they are the almost the same and you can use them interchangeably (just don’t get the instant kind). However sometimes grits are made from Hominy grits, or white grits, which is made with corn that has been cooked in an alkaline solution before grinding, and sometimes polenta is made from a different type of corn, but the fact is if you are standing in the supermarket and all they have is corn meal or grits, and you want to make polenta, go ahead and buy it, stir it in a big pot and enjoy it.


I am vacationing on the western coast of Denmark. The oysters there are said to be some of the finest to be found. Once I have collected them, how shall I prepare them? — Your brother Henrik

Hey bette bror! How so very lucky are you? First, make very sure the oysters are both in season and safe to harvest (check online). Once you have blown in from the cold with your oysters, scrub them clean with a brush. Oyster shells are very sharp, so fold a kitchen towel to use as a protective glove. Hold the oyster curved side down in your toweled hand, so that when you open it, the deep shell will catch the oyster’s juices. Wedge your oyster knife (a short, strong knife with a blunt point) into the hinge that connects the shells. Then turn the knife gently. As you turn the knife, there will be a “pop” as the joint gives way. Now slide the knife between the shells to cut away the muscle that holds the shells together. Remove the upper shell. Carefully run the knife under the meat to release it. The first time you do this will take a few minutes, but it will get easier (and remember your big sister when you find a pearl).

Once you have opened your oysters the best way to serve them is immediately, raw and very cold, on a platter crushed ice with sliced lemons, hot sauce, grated horseradish and cocktail sauce or serve them like the french do just with a simple Mignonette vinaigrette (just mix together 1/2 cup champagne or red wine vinegar, 1 medium shallot finely minced, and salt and pepper to taste, and then let sit for 20 minutes).


Any ideas for substituting cheese in recipes? Cheese is in everything and tastes and also looks great…but I am watching my cholesterol intake! — Mark C.

First of all, if you just want to cut back — that is, get some of the good cheese flavor and less of the fat — use less, but use an extra sharp flavored cheese like a blue cheese, an aged cheddar or goat cheese. If you don’t want to use cheese at all and you are making a casserole/lasagna you can make a puree of cooked white beans or almonds with a little garlic, parsley, salt and lemon juice and use this instead of the cheese to add layers of “creaminess” and protein to the dish.

An old frugal (and delicious) Italian trick was to toast bread crumbs with chopped garlic, olive oil and a little lemon juice to use as a crunchy savory topping for pasta instead of parmesan cheese. There are also now a bunch of vegan cheeses that can melt, once mixed with other ingredients you might not even know they are not made from dairy.


Why does everyone like to use a Slow Cooker or crock pot versus cooking in the oven? I don’t have a Slow Cooker and was going to buy one! — Muriel T.

The slow cooker is like a little electric personal chef that cooks for you while you are away at work, then when you come home, you step into the warm smells of a home cooked dinner. All you need to do is set it up with the right ingredients in it before you leave (we have a great recipe for slooooow cooker curry in our book). The advantage a slow cooker has is that it can simmer unattended for hours. However, if you are like me and like spending the afternoon in the kitchen, braising in the oven or stovetop will probably make you happier, and in that case don’t bother getting the extra appliance.


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