26 November, 2008

Bistro Cuisine Chicken Pot Pie

I love pot pies. When I was a kid, it was always a treat when there were pot pies for supper, especially if they were the cheap-ass Banquet Pot Pies that we could get for something like 15c each.

Truth is, those cheap-ass Banquet pies are still my favorite, but every now and then I try other brands as well. Lately, our local Shaw's had a freezer full of these Bistro Cuisine Chicken Pies on sale as a "manager's special," so I brought a bunch home.

Preparation was a snap: The pie went into the microwave for four minutes, and I allowed it to stand for another three minutes as the instructions stated. (Although pot pies have adapted well to microwave "cooking," and it certainly is convenient, I sometimes get a little nostalgic for the little aluminum tins they used to come in. The kitchen always smelled so good when there was a tray of little pot pies baking in the oven. It's just not the same with the microwave.)

The top crust is a circle of puff pastry which comes out of the microwave flaky and tender. There are lots of large, meaty chunks of white-meat chicken, accented with veggies (peas, corn, and carrots) without allowing the vegetables to predominate. The gravy, while deliciously flavorful (made with chicken broth and finely minced celery, onion, and carrots) is a little on the thick side to my taste - and yet, it is never gluey or unpleasant; I just happen to prefer my gravy a little runnier. Bistro Cuisine has done a really good job here - the Nutrition Facts on the box shows good, honest ingredients without a bunch of additives or preservatives. It made for a satisfying lunch that tasted a lot closer to homemade than the average frozen pot pie.

Bistro Cuisine Chicken Pies are made by Budd Foods in Manchester, NH. Click here to visit their website.

25 November, 2008

Fishy Delights 19: Sunny Sea Sardines in Tomato Sauce

Sunny Sea sardines are yet another in a long line of substandard tinned fish products I inexplicably continue to purchase at job lot stores.

We can start with the can. I just don't understand why companies stopped putting "keys" on sardine tins so they can open easily. Pull tabs are messy, and standard square cans have these small-radius rounded corners that can openers just aren't able to navigate well. It's messy and frustrating.

The fish inside are thick-bodied but short; the ends of the sardines don't come anywhere near the ends of the can, and there are only four of them, swimming in a salty but otherwise very bland tomato sauce. Oh well, I've had big sardines before and the size isn't necessarily an indicator of quality, so I was still willing to give them a fair try.

But then I popped a piece into my mouth and that was STRIKE THREE. The goddamn company left the scales on the fish. I don't have words for how much I hate that.

Sunny Sea sardines are little better than dog food.

Golden Beach, Inc. is the company responsible for this crap. Click here to go to their website, where you can see photos of other products of theirs you can avoid.

23 November, 2008

Blue Hubbard Squash

That big blue-green football-shaped thing in the picture at left is a Blue Hubbard squash. It's almost 24 inches long, weighs about twenty pounds or so, and it's sitting in my kitchen sink because I just finished rinsing the field mud off of it so I can roast it in the oven.

I love winter squash of all kinds, but Blue Hubbard is my favorite variety. It's often grown along with pumpkins here in the Connecticut River valley and sold as an autumn ornamental gourd (just like pumpkins) because over the years, people have stopped eating it and just use it to decorate the front of their house, along with dried ears of "indian corn," pumpkins, and cornstalks.

Having it widely available as an ornamental works out pretty good for me. The farms in South Hadley MA where we buy our winter vegetables for long-term storage sell a lot of Blue Hubbards, for about $3.00 each. So every year we buy two or three of these monsters, roast them, and freeze the ready-to-eat portions for easy use through the year. A huge, twenty-pound squash sounds like a lot, but after the seeds are scooped out and the hard rind is trimmed off, there's somewhat less to package.

Processing a Blue Hubbard squash is a daunting task if you've never done it before, what with that big intimidating rock-hard blue shell, but in reality it's not that difficult. Start by giving the gourd a light scrubbing under clear running water - like pumpkins, Hubbards are heavy and field-grown and often have a thick crust of dirt on the ground-contact side. After the bath, put the squash on a heavy cutting board and use a strong meat cleaver to deliver a fast, hard strike dead center. Don't be afraid, and don't pull your punch, and THE SQUASH WILL SPLIT IN TWO LIKE THE SKULL OF YOUR ENEMY AS YOU CLEAVE HIS HELM WITH YOUR BROADSWORD.

Inside, the Blue Hubbard consists of hard, brittle, golden-yellow flesh surrounding a central fibrous core loaded with thick-hulled seeds. Scoop out the fibers and seeds. You can roast and eat the seeds just like pumpkin seeds if you like, but the thick hulls are kind of brittle and nasty. Give them to your chickens (if you have them) or just leave the seed mass in a pile under your bird feeder for the squirrels.

Once the seeds are scooped out wield thy cleaver once again, using sharp, fast strikes to split the squash into several manageable chunks. Put the chunks into a roasting pan and pop them into a 375 F oven for about 90 minutes or so, until the hard pulp is fork-tender and the color has darkened a shade. Don't add water to the roasting pan - Hubbard squash is notoriously "wet" despite its brick-like appearance, and if there's water in the roasting pan the squash will be less likely to evaporate out some of the water in the pulp.

When the cooking is done, you can serve the chunks right out of the pan - scrape the pulp out of the inedible shell as you eat. Or, allow the squash to cool enough to handle comfortably and pare the skin and rind from the flesh with a sharp knife and freeze the pulpy chunks for later.

You can also steam Hubbard squash, but I don't like that method so much because of how much water the stuff absorbs when it's over steam.

18 November, 2008

Mr. Z Beef Jerky

A month or so ago, Snackgirl over at Second Rate Snacks did a head-to-head comparison of Mr. Z to Jack Link (click here to check it out.) Her review was generally favorable, so I started to keep half an eye out for Mr. Z.

As it happens, I soon found a couple packages of Mr. Z Peppered beef jerky at one of the local job-lot places. It was a good price, and it turned out to be pretty decent jerky - real slices of real beef, and not any of that chopped and formed stuff that looks like it's been put in a blender and poured out to dry like some kind of barbecue-flavored Fruit Roll-Ups.

And then over the weekend, I hit the jackpot over at Dollar Tree: the full line of Mr. Z jerky, in full-sized four-ounce packages, for just a dollar each!

My first impression of Mr. Z was borne out as I tried the other flavors. Very high-quality beef jerky. The pieces were cut a little small, but they were still real slices of meat and not some bastardized puree. The label touts that the jerky is made from "grass-fed beef" which is probably meant to imply "free range" without actually saying so, but realistically, you'll never be able to tell the difference after all the processing is done and the spices and flavorings are added.

So, how is this stuff? Here's the run-down:

  • Original Flavor is pretty standard beef jerky. Snackgirl noted that there wasn't much difference between this and Jack Link, and she was right, but it also wasn't all that much different from Oberto or Jeff Foxworthy's, either.
  • Peppered is excellent. Very pronounced beefyness, loaded with delicious fruity-smelling fresh cracked pepper. Lots of black-pepper heat and a subtle sweetness behind it all. This is so much better than cheaper "peppered" jerkies I've had.
  • Teriyaki - Another winning flavor; delicious soy and ginger flavors shine through.
  • Sweet and Hot - Quite interesting. This flavor seemed to be lightly glazed with brown sugar and it had a very subtle cayenne-style pepper heat behind it. The sweet predominates at first, with the hot barely noticeable, but after eating more than one or two pieces, the heat begins to build and balance out the taste. Diehard chiliheads won't find this anything to scream about, and neither will pepper wusses (at first.) It's the cumulative effect that gets ya.
If you like jerky and you've a Dollar Tree nearby, get over there and check it out. But do it quick - the stuff is selling fast!

16 November, 2008

Taking it for granted

About two years ago, my oven crapped out. Something to do with the "safety valve," which keeps the propane from flowing to the burner when the pilot or ignitor isn't working - only in this case, there was nothing wrong with the pilot. The stove was a sixty-year-old Magee with a space heater built into the side, and we had a hell of a time finding an affordable source of parts.

For two years, we sort of limped along without a full-sized working oven. We used a large toaster oven for some things, but in many cases I just learned workarounds - using my smoker or grill, for example, and did you know many beanpots will fit into a crockpot's heat housing if you take the ceramic insert off? So I could still make baked beans using that "mini-oven" setup - but still, it wasn't the same.

A couple of weeks back, though, we pretty much found what we were looking for. We were in Salem, CT on our way to Mystic Seaport when we noticed that Habitat for Humanity of Southeastern Connecticut had opened a ReStore on Route 85. Because I buy a lot of building supplies and hardware from the ReStore in Springfield MA I wanted to see what sort of stuff this Salem store had, so we pulled in to take a look.

As it happened, the Salem store sells appliances. And they had a beautiful two-year-old GE Profile gas stove - already set up for propane, used but in immaculate shape - on the showroom floor for less than $200. My friend Roger and I picked it up later that week, scrapped the old Magee, and installed the "new" GE, which works beautifully. Needless to say, we've been busy baking for the past couple of weeks; all the stuff it was difficult or impossible to do for the past two years: pies, popovers, cakes, baked apples, bread, cookies, roasted veggies, you name it. It's really great to have an oven again.

So here's what I want you to do: Go into your kitchen and look at your oven and remind yourself how great it is to have one. Bake some cookies, or a pan of brownies, or a tray of fishsticks - anything you like as long as it's something you really love to eat - and don't take your oven for granted.

Plugs and Links:

Habitat for Humanity does a lot of good in a lot of communities, and most local chapters are worthy of your support (some are less worthy than others - Charity Navigator can give you the details.) In addition to their work in actually building affordable housing around the country, many local Habitat chapters operate "ReStores" which sell donated and/or salvaged building materials, appliances, tools, and more to the general public. The ReStores in my area have made it very affordable for me to do a variety of projects around the house, including plumbing, electrical, appliances, construction, fencing, and more. The ReStore in New Britain CT sells discounted Stanley brand tools donated by the company.