Dear Martha: I am having trouble finding an appropriate-size runner for my long, oval table. What do you suggest?
A: There is no proper size for a table runner. Anything goes. You can lay a shorter runner down the center of the table so there's space at both ends to set two places. The runner can also match the length of the table exactly, or you can look for one that hangs down about 20 inches from each end.
Another option is to sew one yourself. Find a beautiful piece of fabric that's slightly larger than the dimensions of the tabletop. Using a sewing machine, create a nice edge around the cloth so that it fits like a custom-made top. For a rectangular table, I often lay two runners down each side and set all the plates on top of them. There are infinite possibilities.
Dear Martha: How do I determine where to hang a mirror that's about 4 feet by 3 feet, and what hardware do I need to secure it to the wall?
A: Mirrors are tricky. They have to be hung at just the right height; otherwise, you may see only a partial reflection of yourself. Have an average-size person stand in front of the mirror, and hold it up at an appropriate level, leaning it on a table or stool if necessary. Then decide where it should go. If you have a big mantel, it can hang horizontally over it.
To ensure that you get the correct hardware, tell the person at the home-supply store what type of wall you have and how heavy the mirror is. Two hangers, one on each side, are better than one. If the mirror is backed with wood, look for Z clips, which are interlocking metal strips. Screw one strip into the wall and the other into the back of the mirror. The pieces fit into each other, allowing the mirror to sit flush against the wall. I've used these on mirrors in my house. You can find them at hardware stores, home-supply stores and online.
Dear Martha: What is a good technique for grilling eggplant without overcooking it?
A: First, thinly slice the eggplant. Salt both sides of the pieces, and let them sit for an hour. Wipe off excess salt, and gently squeeze to drain the liquid. I brush my eggplant with flavorful, fresh olive oil, and season it with pepper. Set the grill to medium heat, with the grill rack positioned quite a few inches higher than the heat. I think the big mistake people make when grilling is that they rush and use high flames. We're not charring; we're grilling.
Cook each slice for 2 minutes to 3 minutes on one side, rotating 90 degrees halfway through to make a crisscross pattern if you like. Repeat on the other side. You can also grill bread with mozzarella or Robiola cheese on top. Add the delicious eggplant that you've just cooked, plus a tablespoon or two of marinara sauce and some Parmesan cheese. That is a wonderful first course.
Dear Martha: How can I clean a burned-on spill on my enamel stove top? I've tried nonaggressive methods without luck.
A: Try applying hot compresses to the stain. Get the cloths really hot; you can even dip them carefully in boiling water. Lay them down on top, pouring a little extra water on them if needed. See if that softens up the burned-on food. If not, look for an oven cleaner that is safe to use on enamel stove tops.
Dear Martha: What exactly is Old Bay seasoning, and how is it best used?
A: Named for the seafood-rich Chesapeake Bay, in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, this distinctive blend of seasonings was created in 1939 by Gustav Brunn, a German immigrant who settled in Baltimore. Locals used it to flavor the area's delicious blue crabs. Today it can be found in spice cabinets across the country. Although the exact recipe remains a secret, the blend includes more than a dozen herbs and spices, including celery salt, mustard seeds, red and black peppers, bay leaves, ginger, cloves, cardamom and paprika.
Old Bay not only enhances shellfish and other seafood but also lends an unexpected tang to beef, chicken and vegetable dishes. To enliven old favorites, sprinkle Old Bay on French fries, popcorn or mixed nuts. *