29 July, 2009

When Thick Sliced Ain't Thick Sliced

It's been hot and humid the past week, and native tomatoes are ripening on the vine. Naturally, it's time for BLTs! Oscar Mayer bacon is on sale this week at the local Stop & Shop, and it's a decent deal at $3.50 a pound. So I bought a couple packages of Hearty Thick Cut Oscar Mayer bacon - even though it didn't look all that much thicker than the regular stuff.

Turns out it really isn't any thicker than the regular stuff. It's a lot wider, though. Seriously. The strips are wide enough that only three or four will fit side-by-side in my frypan. But they're not one bit thicker than regular ol' Oscar Mayer bacon.

So they got me on a technicality. The package doesn't actually say "thick sliced." No. It's "thick cut." I guess that means that the pork belly the bacon is made from was itself cut thicker than usual, therefore yielding wider strips. Sneaky bastards. That's what I get for not paying full attention.

28 July, 2009

Foraging Suburbia: Sugar Plums

Forty years ago a shopping mall was built in my home town. It was anchored on one side by national discount retailer F W Woolworth's, and on the other side by local Connecticut department store Sage-Allen. Off to one side was a sparkling new free-standing First National supermarket. The architects designed a clean, modern-looking complex and planted the islands in the parking lot with beautiful flowering trees.

There have been a lot of changes at that mall over the past forty years. Woolworth's went out of business, and Sage-Allen followed. The supermarket building that once seemed so huge became tiny in comparison to the mega-supermarkets that have become today's trend, and First National abandoned it as they became Finast, then Edward's, and then sputtered into oblivion, absorbed by Dutch grocery giant Royal Ahold.

The mall saw some hard times. When most of the stores had finally closed, it was gutted and remodeled and turned into an open plaza with new tenants. The parking lots were repaved and repainted. New restaurants and buildings were added near the street and the new plaza thrived.

And through it all, the flowering trees prospered and grew. Their canopies spread over the freshly-striped parking spots. They budded and flowered in the spring, and the leaves fell and were removed in autumn, and the shoppers parked under them and brought out their parcels and went about their business, never really looking at the trees unless they were vying for a shady place to park in the heat of the summer.

Some of those trees are sugar plums. They're big, mature trees now and every summer around this time they're heavy with juicy little plums. So, every summer around this time, I park my truck under a couple of them and stand in the back so I can reach the fruit, usually picking six or seven pounds of sugar plums to munch or cook down into jam. People give me funny looks, but I don't care. The plums are "hiding in plain sight," so to speak, and they're only part of the bounty that's all around us if only we care to look.

Black raspberries should be ripening any time now. After that there'll be fat Concord grapes. And if I can get to them before the squirrels, I might be able to get a bushel of black walnuts soon. Stay tuned.

27 July, 2009

Paula Deen Peanuts

Did you know that Barnes & Noble sold snacks?? I didn't - not until the other day, when I was poking for bargains on the "red sticker" markdown table (75% off! Aces!) and found this can of Paula Deen Handcooked Virginia Peanuts.

Inside, I found delicious - and quite large - peanuts seasoned with a blend of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder. They were quite good, though not good enough that I would ever even think of buying them at the full price ($6.95 for 12 ounces? You've gotta be kidding me. Sorry, Paula, I'm not paying double the usual retail price for peanuts just because they've got your fancy vanity label on them.)

The markdown price was a bargain, though, at $1.75 - a deal made all the sweeter because of the big red sticker covering Paula Deen's face.


25 July, 2009

Cheeburger, Cheeburger, Egg Cream

In a market crowded with specialty burger restaurant chains, every place needs a gimmick. For Red Robin, it's "gourmet burgers" and "bottomless fries;" for Johnny Rockets it's a nostalgic, post-war-Norman-Rockwell-Americana theme. For Cheeburger Cheeburger it's a one-pound burger challenge, the ability to infinitely customize your own milkshake, and a really good egg cream despite being far away from New York City.

Friends and I recently visited the Cheeburger Cheeburger location in Columbia Maryland. Located in a shopping plaza storefront, the sign and facade are friendly and inviting, with large windows allowing passers-by a glimpse at the interior lit with old-fashioned "schoolhouse" style hanging lamps accented with warm red neon tubes.

Inside, the neon combines with glass block section dividers, chrome accents, and linoleum-topped tables to give a nostalgic faux-1950s feel to the restaurant. Lots of reproduction tin signs and other ephemera hang on the walls to enhance this atmosphere, and it has the desired effect: It's an absolutely modern restaurant with an obvious theme, but it still feels familiar and comfortable. Congratulations to Cheeburger Cheeburger's design team - they hit a bullseye.

Their menu is fairly extensive for a "burger joint," but our party concentrated on the burgers and traditional sides and the milkshakes. The burgers come in quite a range of sizes, from the 20-ounce-before-cooking "Famous Pounder" down to the 5.5-ounce-before-cooking "Classic." Finish a Famous Pounder, and the staff will take a snapshot of you in all your gluttonous glory to post on a bulletin board with other, uh, "winners" on a "Wall of Fame." Tempting as this chance at immortality seems, I opted to go with the more manageable yet still oversized 10-ounce-before-cooking "Serious" burger with cheddar cheese and bacon. It was delicious and juicy, topped generously with three thick-cut slices of bacon, and thoroughly enjoyable. I didn't bother with any ketchup or mustard (my usual burger condiments of choice) because I wanted to experience the full flavor of the beef, bacon, and cheese - all of which was excellent.

To compliment the burgers ordered round the table, we also got a "Best of Both" basket of fries and onion rings. The fries were fairly standard shoestring fries, cut with the skins on, and done quite nicely: crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. I wish I could say "creamy on the inside" but unfortunately Cheeburger Cheeburger seems to use mealy Russet potatoes for their fries and I prefer the waxier Eastern potatoes we grow here in New England and in the Canadian Maritimes. The onion rings, though, were outstanding. Big sweet onions, thinly sliced and batter-dipped, were light and delicious and not overly greasy. Best of all, it was obvious that the restaurant keeps it's frying oil fresh and cleam - there was not the slightest hint of "old oil" flavors in the basket. The fries were so good, in fact, that when the Best of Both basket was gone, we ordered a large side of just onion rings for our table of five - and that order disappeared just as quickly as the first.

As I mentioned in the beginning, one of the things that makes Cheeburger Cheeburger special is their "Invent Your Own" milkshakes. Their online menu lists 75 milkshake flavors (and there were others on the printed menu at the restaurant;) any of these can be combined in any way you like to produce a customized shake or malt. I can imagine some of the results coming out pretty heinous (Peanut Butter and Root Beer, anyone?) but the two ordered by my dining companions (Chocolate-Raspberry and Chocolate-Gingerbread-Cookie Dough) were decent and the portions generous enough that Cheeburger Cheeburger will cheerfully give you an extra glass for sharing.

For me, one of the best things about Cheeburger Cheeburger was their delicious egg cream. Made from milk, chocolate syrup, and seltzer (no eggs or cream!) good egg creams are hard to find outside of New York City. Cheeburger Cheeburger egg creams are mighty fine and quite authentic right down to the bit of chocolate that settles down at the bottom of the glass for a last-sip burst of flavor at the end (though I'm not sure they were using genuine Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup in the drink.) The egg creams alone would bring me in to this place if there were one in my area.

As for the service: our waitress seemed a little inexperienced, but she was still friendly and helpful, and enthusiastic without crossing over into obnoxiousness. Overall, we had great food and a great time. I wouldn't mind a franchise opening close enough to home to enjoy them more frequently.


Cheeburger Cheeburger's website - Check out their menu, read company news, and more.

New York Egg Cream - History and Recipe - The definitive page about real egg creams.


24 July, 2009

Easy Empanadillas

Empanadillas are a Puerto Rican specialty - small savory meat pies, fried crispy and golden brown. They're delicious, but they can be time-consuming to make - especially for me because I am a clumsy moron when it comes to making pie crusts. So, I came up with a quick, easy, and delicious recipe for empanadillas. There are two secrets to my quick method:
  • Ready-made empanada shells. Many brands are available, but one of the most common, even in non-ethnic markets, is Goya. Check the frozen foods department, in the section with other Hispanic foods.
  • Lutenica, that delicious Eastern-Mediterranean combination of sweet and hot peppers and tomatoes.
Brown the meat with a bit of minced onion, add lutenica and cumin to spice things up, then put the mixture into the ready-made shells and fry a few minutes on each side until crispy golden brown. It's as easy and delicious as can be. The recipe below will make four empanadillas, but it's easily scaled up to make as many as you'd like.

Easy Empanadillas
Makes 4

2 tablespoons oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 pound ground beef
1 teaspoon cumin
2 to 3 tablespoons lutenica, to taste
Salt and black pepper to taste
4 empanada shells (thawed if frozen)
oil sufficient for shallow frying

In a medium skillet, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil until soft and amber but not browned. Add beef and cumin, stirring as you brown the beef to coat everything with the cumin. When beef is brown, pour off excess fat if necessary, then stir in lutenica over low heat unil well-combined. Season to taste if necessary with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Divide the filling into four parts. Spoon each part into the center of an empanada shell, then fold the shell over and seal the edge by pressing with the tines of a fork. Fry in medium-hot oil a few minutes on each side until crisp and golden brown; serve hot.

22 July, 2009

R.I.P. Little Taco Bell Chihuahua

Former Taco Bell spokespooch Gidget has died following a stroke on Tuesday, according to a news item on PeoplePets.com. She became famous during the Yo Quiero Taco Bell ad campaign, where she appeared in commercials with an overdubbed male voice.

She was 15 years old, a good solid advanced age for a dog, and those ads used to crack me up. For years, my own dog had a little plushy Taco Bell Chihuahua that would say, "¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!" when it was squeezed. He'd chomp down on it to hear the noise.

Adios, Gidget.

20 July, 2009

Banquet Enchilada Combo Meal

Because I actually kind of liked the Banquet Smothered Burrito meal I reviewed back in June, I didn't even think twice about picking up the Banquet Enchilada Combo Meal for lunch. Even though Banquet's quality runs hot and cold, I figured the worst I could get was an edible lunch for under $2.00.

Turns out that's exactly what I got.

The refried beans (a soupy pool of earth-flavored sludge) and the "Mexican-style rice" (firm medium grain rice studded with bits of red and green bell pepper but drooly with a slightly-spicy runny red sauce) were both pretty much identical to the sides offered with the Smothered Burrito. But the main course was far inferior.

I know that pictures on box labels are carefully staged and styled "Serving Suggestions" which usually have little in common with the actual food in the container, but in this case the reality is so far removed from the photographic fantasy that it's hard for me to believe that the food stylist was working for the same company as the packaging plant.

Those round, plump "Authentic Hand-Rolled Tortillas" bursting with meaty filling, topped with chili sauce and a sprinkling of cheese are nowhere to be found in the box. There are a couple of flattened folded corn tortillas, each with a bare smear of filling inside, plopped sadly into a thin brownish chili sauce. The "beef" enchilada was pretty awful; there didn't seem to be much beef in it. It was more like some sort of greasy red film studded with unidentified tiny chunks. Although the "chicken" one wasn't much better, there were recognizable thready-looking fibers of chicken meeat in amongst the "structured vegetable protein" filler. And it seems to me that corn tortillas are particularly unsuited to precooked reheatable meals: these had turned thick, wet, and soggy. As the meal heated up in the microwave, it smelled incredibly awesome - mouthwatering, even - but the reality just couldn't match it. The Enchilada Combo Meal is truly a horrid experience.

18 July, 2009

Otakon 2009

I'm in Baltimore this weekend attending Otakon, the huge anime/manga/video game conference that attracts tens of thousands of cosplayers, fans, and otaku to Charm City every year around this time. Those guys in the picture below are dressed up as characters from the popular video game Team Fortress 2.

Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of food to write about at Otakon, unless you count crappy reheated chicken tenders for $9.00 a serving, or a 10-ounce bottle of Japanese Ramune soda pop for three bucks. So let's step outside the Baltimore Convention Center - right across the street, actually - to The Nest on Pratt Street for lunch, where we can get an ice-cold beer and a delicious sandwich and watch the world walk by our shady outdoor table.

Check out this BLT. They call it a "Brother Pudge" for good reason. Crispy lettuce, delicious locally-grown tomatoes, and about half a pound of perfectly cooked crispy bacon.

Yeah. Otakon is fun, but half a pound of bacon in a BLT? That's reason enough to come to Baltimore.

15 July, 2009

Banquet Chicken Fried Chicken

Congratulations, ConAgra. You've managed to give one of your Banquet meals perhaps the stupidest names I've ever seen. "Chicken Fried Chicken." Nice going.

The Chicken Fried Chicken Meal consists of a boneless fried chicken patty with country-style gravy, mashed potatoes, and corn. It's a fairly standard lunch plate and should be easy for Banquet to get right. And yet, the far weirder Banquet Smothered Burrito was actually better in many ways.

The boneless chicken patty in this meal is a strange thing. It's nicely breaded, and flavorful in it's way, but it's got a strange texture. Very artificial; it reminded me of the really cheap chicken "cutlet" thingies they used to serve in the school cafeteria when I was a kid. It's not really recognizable as "chicken" when cut open. There's ground meat in there, and blobby-looking stuff, and the inside sort of fades into seasoned crumbs as you get closer to the surface. The patty sits in a pool of "country-style gravy" which isn't too bad, there just isn't enough of it (not enough to cover the patty, not enough to have some on your mashed potatoes, and especially not enough to keep the microwave from cooking it until it turns into some strange sort of gelatinous resin in the tray.)

The corn was fairly decent. Don't look for meltingly tender kernels or candycorn sweetness here: Banquet chooses a manly corn indeed, dense and chewy with deep corn flavor. It's actually pretty good, despite needing a sprinkle of salt. The mashed potatoes were also up to par though, like I mentioned earlier, it would have been nice to have enough gravy to dress them up a bit.

Overall, worth every penny of the $1.25 I paid (damning with faint praise, as they say.) Too bad that the weak point in this frozen meal is the main course.

11 July, 2009

McDonald's Angus Third Pounder

After extensive test marketing in California and New York, McDonald's has introduced their Angus Third Pounder burgers to the rest of the Northeast. I tried one today: the Bacon and Cheese variety. Here's a screencap of the official McDonald's Serving Suggestion burger on their website:

And here's an actual photo of the burger. As usual, it's a little less glamorous than the illustration - but unlike so many other fast food burgers I've reviewed - the real life burger does come close to the ideal picture, for a change.

McDonald's starts with what they advertise as a 100% Angus beef burger with a pre-cooked weight of one-third pound. The bacon-and-cheese version gets topped with thick slices of bacon, a slice of cheese, a few rings of red onions, and a generous layer of crinkle-cut pickles.

I liked the thick-cut bacon. There was a generous amount of it, too, more than one usually finds on fast-food burgers, and the combined flavors of burgers and bacon is always a winner, especially when paired with McDonald's cheese (which is a special mild cheddar made under contract for McD by Kraft.) I'm certain that they're crinkle-cutting the pickles to emphasize the difference between them and their standard pickles. This crinkle-cut ones taste almost like deli half-sours. And the red onion slices, sharper and more flavorful than standard yellow onions, were a good choice as well. The beef seems to be a slightly coarser grind and has a heartier mouthfeel than the familiar Quarter Pounder. It's a pretty decent burger - not decent enough to make McDonald's my first choice for a fast-food burger, but certainly better than almost anything else on their post-breakfast menu.

Unfortunately, there's more to the Angus Third Pounder than meets the eye.

Every other McDonald's burger sandwich starts with the same ingredient, listed in the McDonalds ingredients list as a "100% Beef Patty." The ingredients for said beef patty are "100% pure USDA inspected beef; no fillers, no extenders. Prepared with grill seasoning (salt, black pepper)." Beef, salt, pepper, that's it. But the Angus Patty is very different:
"100% Angus beef. Prepared with Grill Seasoning (salt, black pepper) and Angus Burger Seasoning: Salt, sugar, dextrose, onion powder, maltodextrin, natural butter flavor (dairy source), autolyzed yeast extract, spices, garlic powder, vegetable protein (hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat), natural (animal, plant and botanical source) and artificial flavors, dried beef broth, sunflower oil, caramel color, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, gum arabic, soy sauce solids (wheat, soybean, salt, maltodextrin, caramel color), palm oil, worcestershire sauce powder [distilled vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, natural flavor (fruit source)], beef fat, annatto and turmeric (color), calcium silicate and soybean oil (prevent caking)."
Wow. Damn. That's quite a shopping list. How come McDonald's has to put all that stuff into their Angus patties?

Well, part of the reason is because they're using the term "Angus Beef" to coattail on the well-known and very familiar Certified Angus Beef® advertising by the American Angus Association. "Angus" is not a cut of meat, it's a breed of cattle which can be raised by anyone interested in keeping a beefer. Only a small percentage of beef from Angus cattle is selected by the American Angus Association to carry the Certified Angus Beef® brand. The Association has been almost too successful in their advertising campaign - it seems to have raised consumer awareness of all beef from Angus cattle, whether or not that beef is the Certified brand. So McDonald's - and Burger King, and the rest - buy generic Angus-derived beef, make a big deal of labeling it as "100% pure Angus beef" and trust that most consumers aren't going to notice the difference in taste or wording. I suspect that the extra seasoning cocktail Mickey D's dumps into the mix is to create a flavor difference between the "Angus" and the standard patties, helping reinforce their "special" status in the minds of consumers.

McDonald's Links:

McDonald's Angus Third Pounder website.

McDonald's USA website.

McDonald's USA Ingredients Listing for Popular Menu Items. This is a PDF file, so you'll need the Adobe Acrobat Reader to check it out.

Learn About Certified Angus Beef®:

The Certified Angus Beef® website explains what makes the brand special.

The American Angus Association website. More technical and business-related, but loaded with great resources about Angus cattle and beef.

09 July, 2009

Salami Fighting Association

Remember when you were in school, how much fun it was when you got to watch a movie or a video instead of doing actual school work? I do. So today, allow me to present the following movie I found on YouTube. It's even food related. Sort of. Well, as food-related as a video of two bacon-skirted gladiators duking it out with sausage links can be. Enjoy.


08 July, 2009

Pork Bits

One of the reasons Stop & Shop has become my favorite local supermarket is because they are "sausage-friendly." Unlike any other store in the area, they always have sausage casings available in the meat case. And I never have to go from store to store looking for pork fat trimmings because the meat department at Stop & Shop packages their trimmings and sets them out in the meat case for .79 a pound.

I get a lot of mileage out of a couple packages of those trimmings, too, because most of the time they have lots of meaty parts that I trim from the fat and use for various pork dishes. The first time I did it, I simply seasoned the pieces of meat and pan fried them with garlic and onions. It was delicious, and quite a hit with my daughter, who dubbed them "Pork Bits." Since then, I've found Bits to be very versatile: they're great strung on skewers and done on the grill, or simmered in pörkölt, or made into a great chili verde.

When I was a kid, my mom used to make pork chops by covering them with barbecue sauce, placing a slice of onion on each one, and baking them until done. It was one of my favorites - still is - and it's easy to do with Pork Bits for a quick-to-prepare main course. Now, I realize that your local store might not carry Bits. No problem, just get "boneless country-style spare ribs" and cut them into roughly one-inch cubes: instant Bits!

Preheat your oven to 350 F.

Put the Bits in a shallow baking dish and pour in about half a cup of your favorite barbecue sauce for every pound of Bits you have. Stir them around to coat them well, and then arrange them until you have a single layer in the dish.

Cover the Bits with thin slices of sweet onions. Vidalias are great for this; so are sweet Spanish onions. You'll need at least one full onion for this, but you might end up needing more.

Put the Bits in the oven for about 45 minutes.

Delicious. The Bits will be nicely browned and glazed with your sauce, and the onions will be kind of a soft, sweet "al dente."

Oven-baked Bits are great served with leafy greens like spinach or beet greens, and they go good with potato salad, too.


07 July, 2009

Clam Chowder

Every now and then I get a jones for New England clam chowder. Sometimes I order it at restaurants, but restaurant chowder is too often overthickened with gluey gums and wheat-starch pastes that lets the commercial commissary serve a "thick" chowder that is pretty damn thin when it comes to real ingredients like milk and potatoes and clams.

No, the best way is to make it yourself. It takes some time but the end result is so much better.

The recipe that follows is what I made this past weekend. We'd had a Fourth of July party and when all was said and done I had leftover corn on the cob and a bunch of baked potatoes. So instead of a straight clam chowder I made this kind of hybrid corn/clam/mushroom chowder that was outstanding.

Dave's Clam and Corn Chowder
Makes about 2 quarts

6 HUGE quahog clams
1 quart water
2 ears leftover corn on the cob
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 large onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
3 or 4 Baby Bella mushrooms, finely diced
1 sprig of fresh thyme, or 1/4 tsp dried
1 bay leaf
2 leftover baked potatoes
3 to 4 cups milk
2 tbsp butter
1/3 cup flour
Salt, pepper, and paprika to taste

Steam the quahogs in the quart of water just until they're opened. Reserve the clam broth. Remove the clam meats from the shells and chop them coarsely. Set the meat aside separately from the broth.

Cut the kernels from the ears of corn and then scrape the cob. Set the cut and scraped corn aside and discard the cobs.

Melt the bacon fat in a large heavy stockpot. Add the onion, celery, and mushroom and cook gently over medium-low heat until the onions are tender and amber, but not browned. Add the reserved clam broth to the pot with the thyme and bay leaf and simmer for a few minutes to bring out the flavor of the herbs. Add the corn to the pot and continue to simmer over low heat. Meanwhile, pare off the skin from the baked potatoes and cut the spuds into more-or-less half-inch cubes. Add the potatoes to the pot and turn off the heat.

With the heat off, stir in the milk and the clams and set the chowder aside for a few minutes.

In a small sautee pan, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter, and over low heat, work the 1/3 cup butter into the flour until the mixture is well-combined. This roux will be dry and crumbly. Cook it over low heat for a few minutes, stirring it frequently, to cook out the "raw flour" taste. Put the chowder back over the fire and slowly bring it up just to the simmering point. Don't boil it or the milk will curdle and separate out. With the chowder barely simmering, sprinkle in most of the roux, stirring all the while. Continue to cook and stir for three or four minutes until the chowder thickens slightly. It should be thinner than a gravy but still have some body. Add more roux if necessary but you might not need to use it all. Add salt, pepper, and good Hungarian paprika, seasoning to taste.

Omit the corn and, perhaps, the mushrooms for a more standard clam chowder.

06 July, 2009

Mama Miro's Restaurant, Enfield CT

Mama Miro's, on Hazard Avenue (CT Rt 190) in Enfield is a recently-opened Italian restaurant and pizza joint. After hearing good things about the food and service from friends, my wife and I decided to give it a try last weekend. We weren't disappointed.

From the outside, the building looks barely large enough to hold a commercial kitchen - much less a full restaurant - but looks can be deceiving. Inside, Mama Miro's is cozy and inviting, with lots of warm wood tones, ten roomy and comfortable tables, and an open view of the pizza prep area and ovens. We were greeted as we walked in by owner and hostess Kathy Miro, who offered us a menu and chatted with us as we made our selections.

The menu has a decent variety. The appetizers are fairly standard (fried mozzarella with sauce, chicken tenders, cheese fries, garlic bread, calamari, etc.) but there are a lot to choose from, and the salad selection shows quite a bit of variety for such a small place. The pizza menu highlights 16 different specialty pizzas, or you can "build your own." There's also a wide variety of "Italian sandwiches," which in most of New England are normally called grinders. On Mama Miro's menu, though, they're called heros, probably a reflection of New York origins. The prices are reasonable, especially on the kid's menu (for 12 and under) - all kid's meals are $5.50 and include an 8-ounce soda.

We wanted to get sort of a general idea of what the food was like, so we ordered Mama's Sampler for an appetizer (chicken tenders, beer-battered onion rings, fried ravioli, fried mozzarella with sauces) and a World's Fair Pizza (fresh mozzarella, pepperoni, sweet sausage, mushrooms, peppers, meatballs, bacon, olives, and onions.) We always try to get an appetizer like fried mozz when we're trying a pizza place for the first time. Not very exciting, I know, but it's usually served with a dipper of the house marinara sauce, and the quality of the marinara is usually a good indicator of the overall qualtiy of the food.

After a few minutes, Karen came to our table and told us that they were out of chicken tenders on the Mama's Sampler - would we mind if they subbed Buffalo wings? We agreed immediately, and I was glad we did. We got five big, meaty wings in an excellent mildly hot sauce which I enjoyed for what it was: a well-balanced blend of vinegar and sweet with a spicy kick that my non-chilehead wife thought was pretty hot (hahaha.) The two fried cheese ravioli in the sampler were huge and tender and lightly breaded with seasoned crumbs. They quickly became a favorite of my daughter. The fried mozzarella was a generous slice of loaf mozzarella, equal to perhaps three mozzarella "sticks" as served by most other places. That made it harder to share, but it also allowed a more delicate crumb coating, since the bigger piece of cheese was less likely to get too melty in the fryer and burst out all over the plate. And the marinara sauce that was offered for dipping was very good - fresh-tasting and tangy and nicely spiced. The only thing that was less-than-optimal were the beer-battered onion rings, which we thought were a little too heavy with oil. Maybe the fry-o-lator wasn't hot enough?

Our pizza was great as well. We were pleased by the New York-style thin crust, which held up well under the toppings and didn't get too soft in the center. There was a generous amount of toppings as well. The sausage was flavorful and the meatballs very much like homemade.

Their weakness, however, is speed of service. On our first visit, our pizza had come out of the oven ten minutes before our sampler had even hit the fryers. On other visits, we're routinely had to wait 45 minutes, even for simple grinders.

We'll go back again because the food is good, but we plan to call in our order first.

Mama Miro's Pizzeria Restaurant
117 Hazard Avenue
Enfield CT 06082
FAX: 860-265-3801

Lunch and dinner, delivery available.

Mama Miro's didn't have a website at the time of this review.


05 July, 2009

Job Lot Watermelons

I'm used to finding all sorts of foodstuffs at the job lot stores I haunt, but today was the first time I've ever seen watermelon.

Black Jewell Microwave Popcorn

I'm not really big on microwave popcorn. For me, the best popcorn still comes out of a pan on the stovetop, shaken over the fire until the lid of the pot lifts off from the volume of the fluffy, steamy popped kernels.

Occasionally, however, a microwave popcorn comes out that is pretty decent. Black Jewell Premium Microwave Popcorn is one of them. The actual kernels in the bag are very small, with inky-black hulls; they pop up fairly fluffy and as starkly white as anything you've ever seen. They're not a perfect substitute for traditional popcorn - the kernels are still tougher than kettle-popped - but they're pretty good.


Black Jewell's website.


04 July, 2009

Zevia "Carbonated Stevia Supplement"

When is a soft drink not a soft drink? When it's sweetened with stevia leaf. Stevia, despite a long and world-wide history of use as a non-sugar sweetener, is not approved for use as a sweetener in the US, but has been grudgingly approved by the FDA as a "supplement." So stevia-sweetened beverages like Zevia Natural Ginger Root Beer have to be sold as "carbonated stevia supplements."

If you think this is stupid, consider this: the FDA has approved steviol glycoside-based sweeteners Truvia and PureVia for use as an additive (i.e. okay for companies to use as an artificial sweetener) even though the plant itself isn't "safe." Maybe that's because Truvia is backed by Coca-Cola and PureVia by PepsiCo. No, that couldn't possibly be it.

Anyway. This post wasn't intended to be a rant against ridiculous government regulations, it's a review of Zevia Natural Ginger Root Beer, albeit a somewhat mixed review.

The flavor is very good. Somewhat herbal and not very gingery, it's immediately identifyable as a root beer. But it lacks the thickish body we've come to expect of a good root beer, the color is more of a dark amber than a true brown, and there is virtually no head when it's poured out. Zevia is best served cold, because the flavor seems to be fragile and easily diluted out by melting ice (personally, I don't consider that a defect because I rather prefer a more subtlely-flavored beverage.) Sweetness is just about right for a root beer - that is, sweeter than a cola but not quite as much as a fruit flavor (orange or grape, for example.) There is a hint of bitter aftertaste to the stevia leaf sweetening, but far less than saccharine or aspartame; to my palate it's comparable to Splenda or Ace-K.

I like it, and I'll buy it when I find it.


Zevia's website.
Product information and some info about stevia as well.

03 July, 2009

Dietz & Watson's Bacon Lover's Turkey Breast

Even though Dietz & Watson introduced their Bacon Lovers Turkey Breast back in 2003, I hadn't noticed it in local supermarket delis until just recently. The name, of course, caught my eye right away, so I got a quarter-pound of it to try.

I had no idea what to expect. Turns out that it's a high-quality-but-otherwise-pretty-standard lean turkey breast with a lot more smoke flavor than the usual bland deli lunchmeat turkey breast.

What is it with everything that's been smoked or smoke-flavored getting marketed as "Bacon Lover's"? This stuff doesn't have anything to do with bacon. But I gotta hand it to D&W: it just tastes like you'd expect real smoked turkey to taste: like you did it yourself in the smoker for Thanksgiving. And it does make a nice change of pace from the usual deli fare.


Dietz & Watson's website.

02 July, 2009

Pemmican Beef Jerky - Marinades

Ever since I was a kid, Pemmican has been like the Filet Mignon of beef jerky. Wicked high quality, nicely-defined slices of beef with a minimum of crumbs and annoying shreds in the bottom of the bag, and decent flavors that weren't overly high in salt.

Recently, Jack Link's has been giving Pemmican a run for their money - especially with some of the very cool new varieties coming out - but still, Pemmican endures, and even brings in a few surprises now and again. Like their "Marinades" line of jerky flavors. I bought a couple bags of the Marinades recently and decided to see how they stacked up against each other. We tried "Steak Fajita" and "Steakhouse Style." I enjoyed both of them, but each for very different reasons.

Steak Fajita - The first thing that impressed me about this variety was the smell. As soon as I tore the pouch open, I was hit by the most delicious aroma of searing beef, roasting green bell peppers and caramelizing onions. It was amazing - like someone had placed a sizzling platter of fajita beef down in front of me. The taste, unfortunately, was not as intense as the aroma - alas! - but still, the pepper, onion, and "grill" flavors were all there to a degree, making this jerky one of the best and most interesting ones I've tried in quite awhile. Top notch all the way.

Steakhouse Style - When I was nine or ten years old, my parents would sometimes take us out to eat at Ponderosa, the big steakhouse chain that has since pretty much disappeared from New England. There was some kind of cheap-meal deal there so they could feed four kids fairly inexpensively. The steaks were thin, and kind of USDA-Not-Choice, and they had that softish texture that chemical tenderization gives beef. And also, they had a "flavor enhancement" that my nine-year-old self sort of liked despite being mildly suspicious of it. I hadn't thought about Ponderosa or their "marinated" steak in years, and they were still far from my mental radar when I bought the Pemmican Steakhouse Syle variety. Only after opening the bag did all those memories of Thursday night out at the Ponderosa Steakhouse find their way back. The smell of the jerky was so familiar...it was...damn, the memory was so close, but so fleeting, and I just couldn't pin it down, until I put a piece into my mouth and suddenly it all came back to me, and I was nine years old again eating a 3/8-inch-thick marinated sheet of beef. I should bring some over to my sister's house. We can reminisce about the flavor and I can flick peas into her hair again, just like when we were kids.

01 July, 2009

What To Do With A Big Bowl of Bug Heads

One of our regular stops when we head to Maine is the Bedrock Lobster Pound on US1 in York. It's an unassuming little buiding set back from the road, with the best lobster prices on the coast. When we're staying a few days, we'll drop in on the way back to the camper or the cabin and pick up a few bugs for supper. When we're on the way home, though, we go for something no less delicious, but a lot less elegant: Lobster bodies, aka "bugheads."

Not all of a lobster's deliciousness is found in the claws and tail, and some lobster pounds that provide restaurants and roadside clamshacks with tails and claws for lobster rolls don't just throw the bodies to the seagulls. Bedrock, for example, bags lobster bodies in lots of twelve, which this week were selling for $2.00 a bag. We bought two bags and stuck them in the cooler to keep them fresh on the ride home.

The next day, my wife Maryanne and I set to work picking our $4.00 bargain. We started by stripping off all of the little legs. The meat in the legs comes out easily if you break off each joint individually from the base to the tip. Once that was done we removed the carapace, or red shell segment, from each body. Inside the carapace, you'll find the creamy green liver, called the "tomalley." We scooped all the tomalley and all the jelly-like white fat from inside the bodies into a bowl along with any red coral (lobster roe) that we found. Tomalley is delicious all by itself spread on toast, but it can also be used to give lobster flavor to dips and spreads.

As we emptied the shells, we broke them up into little pieces and put them in a stockpot to make lobster stock.

And that left us with a pile of shelled, legless bodies. This is the tedious part: Maryanne and I spent about an hour and a half breaking the bodies open down the middle and picking out the meat in the little "pockets" along the belly. In an average pound-and-a-half sized lobster, there are two large chunks of meat where the large arms meet the body, and eight smaller chunks - one in each of the pockets where the smaller legs meet the body. When all was said and done, we ended up with about five cups of picked meat, and about two cups of tomalley/body fat/roe.


Tomalley Croutons / Tomalley Butter

1 teaspoon garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons onion, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/2 cup lobster tomalley
salt, pepper, and paprika to taste
1 crusty French baguette

Sauté the garlic and onion in 1 tablespoon butter. Allow to cool, then mix with the remaining butter and parsley. Use a fork to blend in the tomalley, then season to taste with salt, pepper, and paprika.

Slice the baguette 3/8 inch thick and toast on both sides. Spread each slice with the tomalley-butter mixture. Place on a sheetpan and run under the broiler just until the croutons are crispy and hot; the tomalley butter will melt deliciously into the crouton. Serve hot and cris;y.

You can make a bigger batch of tomalley butter if you have more than the tomalleys from two lobsters; just scale the rest of the ingredients accordingly.

If you decide not to make tomalley croutons, try taking a big dab of the tomalley butter and spreading it to melt over a grilled steak. As surprising as this sounds, this tastes absolutely amazing.

Lobster Salad
Makes 2 servings

1 cup picked lobster meat
3 tablespoons finely chopped sweet onions
3 tablespoons finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish
Mayonnaise sufficient to moisten
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and mix with a fork. Serve in sandwiches, or on crackers, or in the center of a scooped-out fresh tomato.

Lobster Stock
Makes 2 quarts

Lobster shells
1 large onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
2 bay leaves
8 or 10 peppercorns
a handful of parsley

Break the lobster shells into pieces and cram as many as you can into a 10-quart stockpot. Add onions, celery, carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns, and parsley then cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the fire down low and simmer for several hours. Strain stock through cheesecloth and refrigerate or freeze until needed.

To make a broth rather than a stock, return the stock to the pot after straining and simmer over medium heat until the stock has been reduced by half.

Season stock or broth to taste after simmering is finished to avoid concentrating the salt.