Can you please tell me how to prevent fine pasta from clumping and separating from the sauce and other ingredients? S. Poole
I once lived in a share house where one of the housemates, a notoriously appalling cook, made sure the pasta never clumped by frying the cooked noodles in oil. Italian-cooking doyenne Marcella Hazan recommends draining pasta just before it's correctly done as it will continue to cook a little after it has been removed from the boiling water. She recommends serving pasta immediately, which means having the sauce, table and diners ready to go. She writes that tossing is essential and should be done by twisting a fork to mix the pasta, sauce, butter or oil. For pasta that clumps, some pundits recommend pouring the hot cooking water over the pasta in a colander as you tease it out with tongs. Tossing the cooked pasta before adding the sauce and then the oil or butter will help it cling. Most important is choosing the correct pasta for the appropriate sauce.
A lot of Malaysian recipes call for belachan (prawn paste) to be dry-roasted. What is the best method and is it essential? C. Hyde
It's the smell that puts most people off using belachan. It's a thick, often putty-like, paste made by taking small prawns, drying them and fermenting them with salt. During this fermentation, enzymes from halophilic (salt-loving) bacteria break down protein into amino acids. Humans love the taste of amino acids - which we experience as a pleasing, mouth-filling savouriness - which allays our natural suspicion of the aroma of decaying prawns. Malaysian-born chef and restaurateur Thomas Lee, of Melbourne's Chef Lagenda, recommends, in most cases, that belachan be dry-roasted before use. He suggests cutting it fine, laying it on a tray and roasting for 15-20 minutes in an oven at 100 degrees. ''This makes it smell much nicer,'' Lee says. ''But one time I was cooking in a restaurant in the eastern suburbs and every time we cooked the belachan, the smell would go everywhere and the neighbours would complain.'' Once dry-roasted, belachan can be crumbled between the fingers and fried with minced onion and garlic. Belachan adds a lot of depth to dishes and, cooked in this manner with greens, creates a truly wonderful dish.
How do I dry herbs? J. Moore
After a good hit of summer sun and before they go to seed, fresh herbs are packed with essential oils. The word ''essential'' refers to the essence or aroma compounds contained in the plant's oil, not something you simply can't live without. Take long pieces of woody-stemmed aromatic herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, sage and thyme, tie them by the stems and hang them upside down in a shaded, dry, airy space. I dry mine by hanging them from the roof in the front porch for several weeks. You can also strip the leaves, place them in a paper bag and leave them in a warm place for a fortnight. Test them for dryness by plucking some of the dried leaves off, placing them in a glass jar and sealing the lid. If water condenses on the glass, they need more drying. Freshly dried herbs are generally more potent than fresh herbs but lack that green zing.
A chastened pan handler
Recently in this column, I suggested that while steel baking tins must be hand-washed and dried thoroughly in a cool oven, aluminium tins could be thrown into the dishwasher. This was a personal statement deriding aluminium cookware. I apologise unreservedly to owners of aluminium cookware who were offended by my comments. As one reader wrote, if aluminium pans are cleaned in a dishwasher, ''they'll come out ruined''.
She continued: ''Aluminium pans deserve respect and can be washed in hot water with detergent, and even scrubbed with soapy steel wool, before being rinsed well with hot water, leaving them shiny and beautiful.
''Aluminium pans which have been mistreated by machine dishwashing can generally be made respectable again by giving them the steel-wool treatment. I don't want Richard Cornish anywhere near my cake tins.'' Thank you, Mrs D. Filshie.