Welcome To "Ask Chef Mario's"!

  • Ask and you shall receive! If you have the burning desire to ask a Culinary question, we're here for you!
  • To submit your question, just e-mail us at chefmario@bellsouth.net ! Put "Ask Chef Marios" in the subject line (but please don't be offended if we don't give you all our secret recipes!! :))
  • If we get questions that we think others would benefit from, we'll post it here on the web! See below for some questions that others have asked!
Just a typical day in the office!
Photo by the Amazing Tim Broyer
Your Questions Answered!
Q: Hello! I have always enjoyed cooking, but have recently really been trying to eat better, and therefore have been doing my best to fix and eat a LOT more vegetables. However, it seems like every time I go to cut the vegetables, I either don't have a knife that cuts them well OR they end up soggy after I wash them.
Do you all happen to have any recommendations for a fairly inexpensive knife (between $50-$100) that a NON-pro-but-avid-cooker-none-the-less should use?? Also, could you possibly give me a recommendation on a salad spinner type of machine that actually will get my veggies dry so my salad doesn't end up in an ocean of water??
Thanks so much!
And my third (and most important question!) is what are your price listings for the 5 serving custom menus?
Knightdale, NC

A: I'd be happy to give you some recommendations! First of all, a knife doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg to be good. In fact, one of Chef Mario's favorites was a freebie from Harris Teeter that is easily sharpened and has a good balance of weight between the handle and the knife blade. It also has a good sized handle which fits easily and securely in his hand when cutting- some have very small handles which are less comfortable to use and control. For a good all purpose knife, get an 8" French knife, ideally with the air pockets along the sides to help your veggies break free from the knife when cutting (those are the ones that have the small circles along the bottom of the blade). Also very useful for veggie prep is a paring knife which usually are around $30. Ceramic knives are nice but we haven't been able to prove the "never needs sharpening" claim and do require a wood block for storage. We're traditionalists with the steel knives overall and make sure you do not put them through your dishwasher. They probably won't rust but the banging around during the cycle will dull the heck out of your knife on a regular basis! In regards to brand, of course the classics are always good but pricy, but just make sure the knife has a full tang (metal goes all the way to the back of the handle) and fits comfortably in your hand. There is a fantastic knife shop called Becks that is reducing their storefront now in McGregor Village in Cary/Raleigh and if he's still there, he's giving great prices on his knives! Otherwise, you can pick them up just about anywhere.
Salad spinners! We use a commercial grade big boy, but there is a decent good grips one or you can always skirt the gadget and just saran wrap the top of a colander and shake it into the sink as well! Also, never wash your veggie prior to storage as it accelerates the spoilage process- cut and clean just prior to consumption for best results.
And lastly, for pricing on the custom packages, I'll direct you to the website to see the list of packages and pricing. We cook everything from scratch here starting with our chicken sticks and ending with the desserts and salad dressings and if you are an adventurous eater, you could go with a Chef's Choice package to start if you wanted! Or if you'd like the option to choose your own entrees, we can do that as well with the custom which also provides you more liberty with requests like double veggie, no starch, avoiding mushrooms etc! Of course all entrees come straight from our award winning commercial kitchen in Raleigh and are delivered right to your doorstep ready to heat and eat! NO cooking is required on your part which gives you the freedom to cook when you WANT to!
I'm going to direct you to the Frequently asked questions page and just let me know if you have any additional questions and I'm happy to assist!
There would be a $20 delivery fee to Knightdale but we can absolutely take care of you!
Link to PCS Q&A
Thank you so much Mary and we look forward to taking great care of you! Thank you for writing in!

My husband and I love to eat fish (we like most types…salmon, grouper, etc.), but, I find it difficult to prepare a tasty fish dish without drenching it in some sort of high calorie sauce that ends up overpowering the true taste of the fish.
Any suggestions on how to prepare fish that is full of flavor and doesn't require a heavy sauce?

Karen Stucker
Apex, NC

Dear Karen,
Thanks for contacting Ask Chef Mario.  First I would like to refer you to the question from Gwen (See Below) regarding sauced for fish in which a couple of recipes are included.  The simplest and healthiest sauce for fish is simply fresh squeezed lemon and/ or a little bit of extra virgin olive oil.
Vinaigrettes are increasingly popular with fish entrées.  Here is a simple Tomato Basil Vinaigrette that works great on salmon.

Tomato Basil Vinaigrette
In a blender add:
1/3 C red wine vinegar
1T Dijon Mustard
2T fresh basil
1T lemon juice
1 clove garlic
Pulse a few times to blend
Then slowly add to blender:
1C extra virgin olive oil
With blender running, add olive oil into mixture in a slow steady stream.  

Pour Vinaigrette into a medium bowl and add:
2C small diced fresh Roma tomatoes
2T fresh chop basil
Salt and pepper

Serve on fish

This will last 6-7 days in the refrigerator in a sealed container.  


I absoultely love chocolate, and I pretty much love the way it tastes on everything, and I know how to make lots of yummy chocolate desserts.  However, my boyfriend hates chocolate, so now I am out of luck with my recipes. The one thing I know he loves is Cheesecake. Can you give me a recipe for cheesecake (non chocolate of course) that will make his mouth water?  Help!

Haley, Raleigh NC

Hi Haley,
So your boyfriend hates chocolate?  Hmmm…  I didn’t think that was possible after all chocolate is the food of the Gods.
One of my favorite cheesecakes is called the “Northwest Cheesecake Supreme”.  This is simply a traditional cheesecake with cherry pie filling on top.

1C graham cracker crumbs
3T sugar
3T melted butter
Combine crumbs, sugar, and butter; press onto bottom of a 9” spring form pan (or glass pie plate.  Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes.  

4 (8oz) packages cream cheese, softened
1C sugar
3T flour
4 eggs
1C sour cream
1 ½ t vanilla
1 (21oz) can cheery pie filling
Combine cream cheese, sugar, and flour until well blended.  Add eggs ONE AT A TIME, mixing well after each addition.  Blend in sour cream and vanilla; pour over crust.  Bake at 425 degrees for 10-12 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees; continue baking 1 hour.  Loosen cake from rim of pan; cool before removing rim of pan.  Chill.  Top with pie filling.
**Variation:  Substitute 1 1/12 C finely chopped nuts and 2T sugar for graham cracker crumbs and sugar in crust.

Good Luck!!
Q. My sister, Erin Schawel, told me about your website, and I am so excited to have a place to ask my questions.  
Just like my sister, I love to bake, but I am having a hard time figuring out a good way to take some of the fat and calories out of cookies.  I have tried cutting down on a few things but they just don't seem to turn out right, and I don't like artificial sweetners.  Are there any healthy substitutions for the bad things that taste so good?  Do you have a recipe for yummy low fat chocolate chip cookies?

Rebecca, Raleigh NC

A. Hi Rebecca and thanks for writing in!! You're right it can be difficult to find ways to reduce the fat without leaving your cookies lifeless and limp. Some great ways to make cookies that are low fat and taste great...hrm...!
Consider adding a frut puree, which you can find in your local supermarkets, that can be added instead of oil. The back will have instructions on the label that can help you figure out how much to add and how much oil to hold back.
Using margarine instead of butter will help wothy the calories, but in my opinion, you will lose some of the flavor.
Another option is to pulse some oats in your food procesor until you have a fine flour and mixing it 50/50 with flour so boost the good carbs as well to balance out the sweet OR instead of chocolate chip cookies, make them oatmeal chocolate chp to add some fiber and give the cookies a healthy boost!
Try these low fat cookie recipes that I got from Weight Watchers, which tends to be a great source for balanced sweets that have more of a fiber base and healthy flair without tasting like a glorified rice cake. Let me know how they turn out!
Chef Mario

Apple Oatmeal Cookies
Makes 12 servings
Toast oats to bring out their nutty flavor
1 ½ C quick cooking rolled oats, toasted until lightly browned
½ C all purpose flour
½ t cinnamon
¼ t baking soda
¼ t salt
¼ C packed light brown sugar
¼ C reduced calorie tub margarine
1 apple, peeled, cored, and coarsely grated
1 egg
½ t vanilla extract
¼ C and 2T dark raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, spray 2 baking sheets with nonstick spray.
In a large bowl, combine the oats, flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt.
In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer on high speed, cream the brown sugar and margarine until pale and fluffy.  Add he apple, egg, and vanilla; beat until combined.  Add the oats mixture; stir to blend, then stir in the raisins.  
Drop the dough by tablespoons onto the baking sheets, forming 12 cookies on each sheet; flatten with the back of a spoon.  Bake until lightly browned, 12-15 minutes.  Cool completely on a rack.  Store in an airtight container.

Peanut Butter Cookies
Makes 12 servings

To make these cookies even more nutritious, substitute ½ C whole wheat pastry flour for ½ C of the all purpose flour.
1C and 2T all purpose flour
½ t baking soda
½ t salt
¼ C reduced calorie tub margarine
¼ C natural chunky peanut butter
¼ C and 2T packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
½ t vanilla extract
½ C peanut butter chips

Preheat oven to 350 degree, spray 2 baking sheets with nonstick spray.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.  In another medium bowl, with an electric mixer on high speed, cream the margarine and peanut butter.  Gradually beat in the brown sugar; add the egg and vanilla, beating until fluffy.  With the mixer on low speed, gradually beat in the flour mixture until blended.  Stir in the peanut butter chips.
Drop the dough by generous tablespoons onto the baking sheet; with the back of a fork, lightly press each cookie to flatten in a checkerboard pattern.  Bake until browned on the bottom, 12-15 minutes.  Cool completely on a rack.  Store in an airtight container.

Hi there!
It seemes every lasagna has ground meat in it. As a vegetarian, is there a good veggie lasagna that even my carnivorous friends will like?
Thank you!
Cary, NC

Hi Sabrina! Absolutely there is! We get that question more than you may think and we have a fabulous veggie lasagna that we'd be happy to share! Please let us know how it turns out for you!

Vegetable Lasagna
12 servings
2 small eggplant peeled and sliced
4C mushrooms sliced
4C red onion sliced
4 large portabella
5 zucchini cut lengthwise
5 summer squash cut lengthwise
5T olive oil
Salt and pepper
6C mama’s marinara
8 oz cream cheese
2C mozzarella

In a large bowl toss eggplant with 1T olive oil then in single layer place on foil lined ½ sheet pan, season with salt and pepper.  Roast for 30 minutes.  In same bowl, toss mushrooms and onions in another tablespoon olive oil and place on another foil lined ½ sheet pan, season with salt and pepper.  Roast for 30 minutes.  Place portabella on another foil lined sheet pan and drizzle about ½ t each with olive oil, season with salt and pepper.  Roast for 30 minutes.  In same bowl, toss zucchini and summer squash with 1T olive oil then in single layer place on separate foil lined ½ sheet pan, season with salt and pepper.  Roast for 20 minutes.  Let vegetables cool.  In ½ hotel pan add ½ C marinara spread on bottom of the pan.  Lay eggplant slices (overlapping slightly) over sauce.  Sprinkle mushrooms and onions over eggplant.  Dice portabellas and sprinkle over mushrooms and onions.  Spread 1C marinara over portabellas.  With your fingers pull pieces of cream cheese and place them evenly on top of the marinara.  Shingle squash over sauce and cheese, pour 2C marinara over squash, top with mozzarella.  Bake in 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes until cheese is golden and sides are bubbling.  Cool completely.  Cut lasagna into 12 portions (3x40 place portions in containers.

Q. Hello, Just wondering, in light of the recent e-coli scares....  How do you clean the various vegetables you use, lettuce especially.  
Erin, Holly Springs, NC

A. Hi Erin!
Absolutely! That all seems to be in the news a lot lately. We have always taken GREAT measures to wash all our produce thoroughly before serving and most of our legumes especially are washed, torn and washed again, then spun dry (think salad spinner). We also use a produce purveyor who stays on top of the scares, what bunches are potentially dangerous and they simply won’t sell it if they have even the remotest concern. When the spinach outbreak was high, we simply headed the warnings and eliminated the risk by not using any fresh spinach in anything until we got the “all clear”. We take any outbreak like that very seriously and have fielded many questions from our clients about what to do with produce they’re buying and serving in their homes as well. Just remember that some produce, lettuce especially, may or may not be washed ever before it hits the shelves since some is wrapped in the fields. All produce should get a good thorough bath before serving and if you ever question something you’ve purchased, we’d recommend erring on the side of caution.
Thank you so much for writing in!
Chef Mario

Q. I love salmon. When I lived in Los Angeles, the salmon I ordered in restaurants would have a wonderful sauce. If you could give me a recipe
for a sauce that would taste good with salmon, I would appreciate it.
Thank you
Raleigh, NC
Hi Gwen,
Thank you for your question.  Salmon is such a versatile dish, lending itself to a wide variety of sauces and garnishes.  Many restaurants like to serve salmon with rich sauces like a lemon butter sauce.  While tasty, these sauces are loaded in calories and not the healthiest culinary option.  I have a couple of sauce recommendations that are not only flavorful and colorful, but are also healthier than that eighty dollar dinner for two.  Roasted Red Pepper Olive Vinaigrette is my first sauce for a grilled salmon.  Vinaigrette… don’t let the name fool you… this vinaigrette more resembles a salsa or relish.

2-3 red bell peppers, peeled, seeded, or diced (about 1 cup).  You can use jarred roasted red peppers, but roasting the peppers yourself with yield better flavor.
1/2 C kalamata olives, pitted and sliced (about 15 olives)
3T olive oil
3T red wine vinegar
2T chopped fresh parsley
1T capers, drained
1 clove garlic, sliced
½ t sugar or honey
Zest of one orange
½ t salt
1/8 t cayenne pepper
Combine diced peppers in a large bowl along with the remaining ingredients, stir gently.  Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes to blend flavors.  Jus before serving, stir again and dollop some on your grilled, baked, or poached salmon.

Cucumber dill sauce… this is a cold and really easy sauce that tastes great on salmon or baked potatoes.

2 large cucumbers
½ C mayonnaise
¾ C sour cream
1 ½ T chopped fresh dill (or 2T dried dill weed)
¼ t salt
¼ t black pepper
Juice of ½ a lemon

Peel and seed the cucumbers and puree in a food processor.  Place puree in a mesh sieve or colander and squeeze out juice.  Mix together the sour cream and mayonnaise.  Add pureed cucumbers.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Refrigerate at least 4 hours before serving.

September 30th Cut-Off_____________________________________________
Q. I was getting ready to make some cookies...I have question for Chef Mario's.  What is the difference between using light brown sugar and dark brown sugar in baking?
A. Great Question! And the answer is there really isn't MUCH of a difference between the two, but listen to your recipes. Dark Brown sugar has more molasses in it, which will give it more flavor and deeper coloring, but light brown tends to be called for in most of the pastry applications (i.e. your cookies). Dark brown sugar will change the color and the taste to make the sweetness in the molasses more prominent. I hope that helps!
Thank you so much for writing in!

Q. We are without a microwave now, and I made chicken parmigiana last night and want to reheat it.  How should I reheat it in the oven and on what temp?  I want to make sure it doesn't get dry but that it also gets hot enough to be safe.
You are the best,
Erin Schawel, NYC
A. Hi Erin!
Great question! Nuking seems to be the traditional choice, but if you want it to taste closer to the way it did when you first took it out of the oven, then put it back in! I'd recommend reheating in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes. I'd cover it in foil if you're concerned about burining the cheese, but you can always take off the foil near the end (maybe 3 minutes before finished) and get the cheese melted again.
Have FUN!!!
Q. Good Morning Chef,
Please give a simple recipe for homemade Marinara sauce that would absolutely delight my family.  They LOVE any type of pasta and Marinara sauce is their favorite!
Beverly  Raleigh, NC

A. Hello Beverly!
Thanks for the great question. Marinara is a classic sauce for very good reasons; it’s easy, versatile and delicious. Your family will be impressed and grateful if you take a little time to make this beautiful Italian red sauce from scratch. Marinara can be served and used in many ways; from dipping sauce, to lasagna, spaghetti and stuffed bell peppers. Don’t forget it goes great with chicken and seafood! Here’s a solid marinara recipe that you can use and/or adjust to suit your tastes.

Italian Marinara Sauce
Makes 1 gallon
1 cup EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
4 white or yellow onions (Med. Large) finely diced
4 garlic cloves, minced (or 3-4 teaspoons)
4 celery stalks, rinsed, finely diced
4 carrots, finely chopped
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 28-32 ounce cans of good quality crushed tomatoes
4 bay leaves
Oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram or fennel seeds are all optional seasonings; always season lightly at first. Try with basic recipe initially and add as you play with it.

Read recipe fully and gather your ingredients and utensils

First, add EVOO to a 4-6 quart stock pot and sauté onions on med-high heat with garlic for 10 minutes. Add celery, carrots and salt and pepper and Sauté for approx 10 minutes. If adding aromatics (optional), add spices at this time.

Next, add crushed tomatoes, bay leaves and simmer 30-60 minutes. No more than 60 unless you like a really thick red reduction, but you want to simmer enough water out of the sauce to eliminate any watery run-off upon completion.

Once completed, cool sauce down below 40 degrees F within 3 hours. You can also freeze some marinara in ziplock bags or containers for up to 3 months.

If you want to “chef it up a bit”, consider adding olives sautéed in EVOO and crushed red pepper for a spicier marinara sauce. Let us know how it goes!

Q. All right, I know about cooking a roast at a low temp for a long time works great, but does that technique work the same for other meats? Take for instance a baked Chicken Cordon Bleu?

Eric  Raleigh, NC

A. Hi Eric,
Thanks for the question. Cooking meat is a huge subject. Many variables need to be considered including type of meat, cut of meat, the recipe, and final entrée. It’s no secret that different cuts of meats cook differently, but low and slow is great for MANY dishes. However, chicken cordon bleu is not one I’d recommend using the low and slow method for. In fact, when dealing with very lean meats, they have a tendency to dry out when cooked for extended periods of time and specifically chicken cordon bleu is made with  butter flied chicken breasts and it may make them mush drier that you intend. Instead, when working with chicken cordon bleu, traditionally it is seared in a skillet with a little olive oil (or butter if you’d prefer) on both sides until fully cooked.
For an even healthier version without compromising the tenderness or taste, consider spraying the cordon bleu with olive oil or cooking spray and baking in a 350 degree oven until an internal temp of 160-165 is reached (approx 20-25 minutes for a 6oz breast). I hope that helps!

Q. What is the best way to store a cake with fruit in it, such as a blueberry buckle? Does it keep better in the fridge or is it just as good out on the counter?...I just made one:)

Erin Schawel   Raleigh, NC

A. Hi Erin,
Thanks so much for your inquiry. Depending on how long something like blueberry buckle would last in YOUR house is the question. At my house? It would be devoured within 24-36 hours of its conception, therefore eliminating the need for the fridge...
But seriously…you could get away with a counter top for the first couple of days, as long as it is WELL COVERED to ward off creepy crawlies and alike. If it’s still around after that, I’d find some fridge space. The fridge will firm the cake as well, but I’d recommend bringing the cake back up to room temperature (slice by slice if you want) before serving. It will keep the texture and firmness you initially intended and fruit actually tastes better at room temp. To soften it, set it out on the counter for 30-45 minutes-covered- before serving. Sounds scrumptious! Thanks for writing!

Q. I know that cooking meat at low to medium temperature for extended periods of time tenderizes the meat and releases it from the bones.  What exactly happens during the process and what would be the optimum temperature and time to cook lets say a pork butt, 8 to 10 lbs?  Or, how about a whole hog, 100 to 125 lb?  How should I configure the hog in the pit and place the coals?  Where can I purchase a whole hog, 100 to 125 lbs +or- in the Raleigh-Durham area?  Do you have a good spice mix for rubbing the pork butt and can I just wrap it up in heavy foil?  Should I put in any liquid during the cooking process?  Can I put in molasses or honey alone or should it be mixed with another liquid?  Wine, water, vinegar, any suggestions?


Gerald Raleigh, NC

A. Dear Gerald,
Thanks for the great e-mail. Let me try to address your questions with the constraints of this forum.
First, cooking meat is a large and diverse subject. I’d recommend two fine texts for more information; “The Joy of Cooking”, and Steven Raichlen’s “How to Grill” .
How tender a particular meat is full of variables, such as type (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, etc). They type of cut (bone-in shoulder, sirloin, round) is a huge variable as meat is simply muscle and some parts are naturally more tender and others more tough. The last variable would be the recipe, whether it is Italian pot roast, fillet mignon or Carolina pulled pork.

Low and slow cooking is fine for tougher cuts of meat, like beef rounds, briskets or Boston Butt. Loins and tenderloins, with their fine, close grain would be naturally tender and possess fine texture and flavor. Whether grilling, smoking or roasting, heat serves to make meat tastier and more digestible. When the internal temperature of meat increases, muscle fibers shrink and water is lost. Low and slow cooking, like with pork butt, is one way to make a tough cut of meat more tender and tasty.
Cooking a pork butt depends partly on your method of cooking. An 8 pound butt in 300 degree oven will take 5-6 hours. In a charcoal vertical water smoker where the temperature rarely goes above 250, you’re talking 7-9 hours.
Cooking a whole hog is a little beyond the scope of this forum. I’d recommend reading “How to Barbeque a whole pig” in the Steven Raichlen book mentioned previously. As far as purchasing a whole hog in the RDU area, try the Farmer’s Market in Raleigh and checking with the local vendors to see who has the goods at the time.
As far as sauces and rubs, it varies greatly by individual taste, but here’s one of my personal recipes for a dry rub that I love!

Southern Dry Rub for Barbeque
1 cup dark brown sugar
3-4 teaspoons ground cumin
2 Tablespoons paprika
3 Tablespoons ground ancho chili pepper
2 Tablespoons crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoons grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup kosher salt
1 1/2  Tablespoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground red chipotle
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon roasted chili powder

Mix all ingredients well. Store in zip lock bag until ready to use.

I hope my reply clarifies your question for you! Feel free to stop by the kitchen and talk shop!!

Q. My grandson loves brussel sprouts.  I only know how to cook them one way, boiling.  What are some other ways to prepare them?

J Luebke  NC

A. First of all CONGRATS on having a grandson that eats brussel sprouts! Let’s see if we can help to keep them interesting so he’ll keep chowing on them! There are literally hundreds of ways to cook them and many ways to get creative. One thing to remember is that brussel sprouts are in the same family as cabbage, so any recipe that you’d usually use with cabbage can become a new home for your brussel sprouts! You can grill them with some olive oil, steam them, sauté them with a bit of garlic perhaps, top them with a cheese sauce, or even beer battered! That, of course, mostly negates the healthy benefits of the sprouts, but it is delicious none the less! Also, you may want to consider a corned beef and cabbage recipe and simply substitute the cabbage with your brussel sprouts. A GREAT website to check out for some ideas and decent cabbage recipes is www.epicurious.com. Also the www.foodnetwork.com can have some great ideas too. Thank you for your question!