30 September, 2009

Stained Glass Jell-O

It's impossible to be bummed when eating Jell-O. It's true: the consumption of Jell-O drives away negative emotions. Just give a kid a bowl of Jell-O and you'll see what I mean. (And if you want real hilarity, show a kid how to suck Jell-O up through a straw. Better yet, serve Jell-O for dessert to your family, and give everyone at the table a straw to eat it with. I guarantee that all of you will be laughing like idiots by the time the last jiggly blobs are sucked up.)

Anyway, just plain old single-color Jell-O is fun. Can you imagine how much more fun Jell-O can be with four colors all tumbled together? More fun than a clown making balloon-animal hats, that's how much.

Stained Glass Jell-O, or Broken Glass Jell-O as it's also known, is an old recipe and there are a lot of versions in local fundraising cookbooks and on the internet. It's great for parties and potlucks because no one ever thinks to make Jell-O - especially not awesome multicolored überfun Jell-O.

Stained Glass Jell-O

4 3-ounce packages of Jell-O, all different colors
2 envelopes Knox unflavored gelatin
1 can sweetened condensed milk

Use any flavors of Jell-O you like. For the batch pictured in the photo, I used berry blue, peach, green apple (discontinued), and strawberry. Next time I'll replace the peach with pineapple or lemon - it looks too similar to strawberry.

Mix each flavor of Jell-O separately with one cup of boiling water, stirring to be sure everything dissolves completely (I've found that using a coffee mug for this step makes it very neat and easy.) Pour each flavor into it's own shallow pan (those small square disposable plastic food storage tubs like the ones on the left work great) and set them into the refrigerator to set (at least three hours.) When the Jell-O is firmly set, cut each flavor into cubes and tumble them all together in a 9-by-13 baking dish and set it aside in the fridge.

Sprinkle the two envelopes of unflavored gelatin over half a cup of cold water in a bowl and allow it to sit until the gelatin softens. Add 1½ cups of boiling water and stir until all the gelatin is completely dissolved, then stir in the can of sweetened condensed milk. Chill until this mixture is cooled, but not set.

Pour the milky gelatin over the pan of Jell-O blocks and gently smooth over the surface with a spatula to level any blocks that are sticking out over the white parts. Chill overnight until firm.

To serve, cut into blocks, exposing the brightly-colored transparent Jell-O throughout the opaque white parts.


28 September, 2009

Banquet Select Recipes Slow Cooked Beef

This Banquet meal was on clearance at my local Big Y supermarket, which kind of struck me as odd - how bad does an already-somewhat-mediocre frozen meal have to be to get marked down? - so, naturally, I gambled a dollar to find out. As it turns out, Banquet's Slow Cooked Beef really isn't all that heinous.

The meal consists of chunks of beef in gravy served on egg noodles, with a side of cut green beans. The noodles are pretty standard and not all that bad - they didn't turn out tough or leathery, and they were a huge improvement from the somewhat lesser-quality noodles I found in Banquet's Swedish Meatballs. Plopped in the middle of the noodle pile was a serving of beef cubes with gravy.

The beef was obviously slow-cooked; it was tender and flavorful (aided by various seasonings and whatever industrial culinary magic ConAgra could come up with) and quite obviously beef - not some kind of "mystery meat." The meat itself was actually somewhat enjoyable. Too bad it was combined with the gravy, which tasted absolutely loveless and artificial; I swear it was cheap bouillon (fake beef + salt) thickened up to mimic gravy.

The green beans were pretty much what I expected, which is to say a little overcooked, a little "grassy" tasting, but otherwise okay. (I never buy frozen green beans because I hate the way they cook up - green beans are one of the very few veggies that I actually buy in cans.)

I have to say that overall, though, this particular meal is one of the better Banquet offerings, and well worth picking up on sale.

27 September, 2009

Vintage Sunday: Food Club Salt

This late 1960's package of Food Club salt was one of three or four unopened boxes of salt my wife and I found in the pantry of our house when we moved in.

Check it out: Seven cents.

26 September, 2009

Frozen Lasagna - A Side-By-Side Taste Test

Note: This entry was updated on 04-21-2012 and 10-29-12.

Have you ever noticed how many companies make frozen lasagna meals? I have - in my area alone, there are eleven brands commonly found in the supermarkets here. Although at least one of them is a smaller Boston-based company, most of the others are national brands which can be found anywhere. So, much like I did recently with frozen Swedish Meatball meals, I decided to sample all the available brands and review them.

No frozen lasagna can hold a candle to homemade, so my expectations weren't too high going into this. But there were four characteristics in the frozen lasagnas upon which I based by reviews:
  1. At least three layers of pasta - Two sheets of wide noodles don't make a lasagna. There should be at least three layers of pasta, and the center layer should be separated from the top and the bottom by cheese.
  2. Good ricotta filling - Ricotta in a proper lasagna is light and fluffy. It's best if seasoned with a touch of parmesan or romano and some finely minced parsley, but I understand the limitations of quantity preparation and took no points off if the ricotta was plain. However, using cottage cheese instead of ricotta is not acceptable. Italian cuisine is not exotic or unfamiliar and there's no excuse for cottage cheese.
  3. Decent, flavorful sauce - The sauce should be tangy and tomatoey and robust with flavorful aromatics: garlic, onion, basil, oregano, marjoram - they don't all have to be there for the sauce to be authentic, but if serving the sauce to my Italian grandmother would embarass me, the lasagna lost points. Same goes for sauce that is thin, watery, bland, sugary, and/or contains a lot of cheap adulterants like carrot concentrate. A frozen lasagna meal shouldn't taste like Franco-American Spaghetti-Os.
  4. Honesty In Packaging - Of course I don't expect to be able to gorgeously plate a microwaved frozen lasagna the same way a corporate food stylist does. But if the food pic shows a generous spread of melted mozzarella oozing seductively across the top layer of saucy pasta, it had better be there when I take the laz' out of the microwave. And if the package says "Five Cheese Lasagna," three of those cheeses shouldn't be present in such a small amount that they have to appear in the ingredients under a special disclaimer.
So, with the ground rules set, let's take a look at frozen lasagna, from WORST to BEST.


Michelina's Lean Gourmet Five Cheese Lasagna by Bellisio Foods: Utter, irredeemable crap, this so-called "lasagna" consists of four layers of pasta glued to one another by the barest thin film of ricotta cheese, swimming in a bland and spiceless tomato sauce with a stingy sprinkle of tiny mozzarella shreds on top. It simply boggles the mind that the manufacturer, Bellisio Foods, has the temerity to label this as "five cheese" lasagna when a check of the ingredients panel reveals that three of the cheeses - parmesan, asiago, and romano - appear after a "contains less than 1% of" disclaimer. Less than one percent?? Are you kidding me? There is absolutely nothing "gourmet" about this stuff. Don't waste your money, this lasagna sucks.

Link: Michelina's website.

Mendelsohn's Lasagna - No ricotta - in fact, the only cheese here is the mozzarella on top. Tomato sauce contains so much sugar it tastes like syrup. Nasty.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones Traditional Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Heinz: Three layers of pasta separated by thin smears of ricotta cheese in a bland, oversweetened sauce that was augmented with carrot juice concentrate. It tasted like Franco-American canned pasta and sauce. Bits of meat in the "meat sauce" were soft and not identifiable. Decent mozzarella topping and a non-deceptive label boosted this lasagna above the inferior Michelina's. I would not buy this one again.

Link: Weight Watchers Smart Ones website.
Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Nestle: Despite the lovely photo on the box, Lean Cuisine is actually one of the stingiest of the pastas I tried. Although topped with an honestly-depicted sprinkle of mozzarella cheese, the three layers of pasta are separated only by sauce and the barest amount of flattened cottage cheese curds - hardly enough even to taste, it was like they were individually placed onto the noodles using a pair of tweezers. The small amount of meat also in the top layer was flavorful and had a good texture, but what really saved the Lean Cuisine from a worse rating was the sauce - tangy, spicy, and authentic, it tastes like the same sauce used on the far superior Stouffer's Homestyle Selects lasagne. Still, the higher price and abominable use of cottage cheese curds as a ricotta stand-in means Lean Cuisine still fails.

Link: Lean Cuisine website.


Amy's Cheese Lasagna by Amy's Kitchen: With lots of organic ingredients and costing $6 for a package a little over 10 ounces, I expected much better from this one. The pasta was good, not tough or chewy, but just like it would come out in a home kitchen, and the ricotta filling between pasta layers was fairly generous if somewhat underseasoned. But the sauce (described on the box as a "tangy marinara") was so plain it bordered on bland, and the small amount of mozzarella I was led by the package art to believe would be on top was completely subsumed by the ocean of sauce in the container. A little wet and watery on the bottom. Too bad - Amy's is a fairly high-quality product, but it's as bland as a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli.

Link: Amy's Kitchen website.
Boston Market Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Heinz: Bland sauce had some hints of basil, but was mostly just salty. there was a fair amount of ricotta between the sort-of-tough pasta layers, a little wet, but acceptable. I kind of liked the meat bits that were distributed throughout the sauce; they were sausagey in both taste and texture, though I found out from the ingredients panel that it was "seasoned beef" and not the pork that I half expected. Overall, while better than the Amy's product, it couldn't quite push out of the "meh" category.

Link: Boston Market Frozen Foods website.

Priano Vegetable Lasagna by ALDI: This was probably one of the strangest of all the frozen lasagnas I tried. Both the box art and the ingredients very clearly indicate that it should be made with spinach pasta, but this was not the case with the actual product, which was made with very good and al dente standard pasta sheets. Each layer was separated by decently-seasoned but rather pale tomato sauce with absolutely no cheese to be found. However, the top of the lasagna was a huge thick layer of mozzarella studded with bits of carrot, onion, and tiny broccoli florets. Failure to deliver any ricotta cheese at all, along with the lack of the advertised spinach pasta, kept this lasagna from breaking into the "GOOD" category, but I admit that I probably would buy it again.

Marie Callender's Meat Lasagna by ConAgra: This one cooks up really ugly; there was sauce and mozzarella on top when I put the tray into the microwave, but when it came out there was just sauce with a thin cheesy film. Unlike some of the other products which were made with "meat sauce" this one actually had a layer of seasoned beef/pork mixture along with some cheese between the bottom two pasta layers. On the "wet side" and kind of salty, but the sauce was authenically "Italian-tasting" and I'd buy it again if it were on sale.

Link: Marie Callender's Foods at ConAgra's site.
Stouffer's Homestyle Selects Lasagna Italiano by Nestle: With three layers of pasta, a generous amount of mozzarella topping, and excellent authentic sauce, Stouffer's is a decent frozen lasagna. The meat in the meat sauce was also good, nice and spicy and with a touch of fennel (unexpected and welcome.) But the bottom two layers of pasta are separated only by some sauce, not ricotta, which prevented it from getting a higher ranking. It was tough to decide whether Marie Callender's or Stouffer's lasagna was better, but in the end Stouffer's better sauce pushed it ahead. I'd buy it again.

Link: Stouffer's website.

Bremer Selects Vegetable Lasagna by ALDI: Layers of tomato sauce and cheese augmented with finely cut zucchini and carrot (the vegetable part) between pasta sheets. Just the right amount of authentically-flavored sauce keeps the lasagna from being soupy or runny. I took points off, however, for using cottage cheese instead of ricotta, which kept this lasagna from breaking out into the "very good" category.


Eating Right Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Lucerne Foods (the dairy division of Safeway Stores): Although not the cheesiest nor the meatiest of the lasagne I tried, the excellent sauce - robust and authentic, with flavorful notes of garlic, oregano, basil, and spicy heat - pushed this dish into the "Very Good" category above Stouffer's or Marie Callender's. Marketed as a "healthy" sort of meal, I gave it props for the sauce, for having more ricotta in the second layer than any other "lean" laz', and for cooking up better than most of the other lesser brands (notice in the photo how well it held its shape and how the pasta and cheese didn't get lost in a huge deep pool of runny sauce.) Meat layer was tasty, even though it turned out to be a sort of seasoned beef-and-TVP combo.

Note: At one time, Eating Right frozen foods were only available at Safeway-owned stores; they seem to be branching out and selling them in unaffiliated supermarkets here in New England.

Link: Safeway's "About Eating Right" page.

THE BEST (Three-Way Tie for First Place):

Each of the following lasagne landed in first place for different reasons.

Michael Angelo's Lasagna with Meat Sauce, by Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods: Obviously developed using a lot of time and care, Michael Angelo's lasagna is truly premium stuff. The mozzarella topping is generous and the sauce is well-seasoned and distinctive. I was surprised to find that the cooked product had some excess water in the bottom of the pan, but that might have been because I didn't let it rest long enough after heating it. Alone among the lasagne containing "meat," Michael Angelo's uses real, 100% ground beef - no TVP or any other filler. I would definitely buy this again.

Link: Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods
Mama Rosie's Cheese Lasagna by Mama Rosie's Co. : Three layers of pasta separated by thick layers of fluffy ricotta cheese and topped with a decent layer of mozzarella. Just the right amount of sauce - not too much, but not dry either - seasoned nearly perfectly. Not only is Mama Rosie's one of the best tasting frozen lasagne, it's priced extremely competitively (it goes on sale routinely for less than $2.00 a package) but a 10-ounce package has just 290 calories (that's cheaper and leaner than the lousy Lean Cuisine.

Link: Mama Rosie's Foods
Celentano Lasagne with Sauce by Rosina Food Products: A straightforward lasagna product with no frills - not even a mozzarella topping. It's also got one of the best-tasting sauces of any frozen laz', and - like Mama Rosie's - layers of delicious, fluffy ricotta just like you'd get if you were making it yourself. Though I didn't do it this time for the sake of the picture and the review, I like to top Celentano lasagna with some mozzarella before the final heating stage in the microwave.

Link: Rosina Products, Inc. website.

Even though I've got reviews of eleven different lasagne here, I wish that there had been more available in the stores around me (Michelina's, for example, makes at least two other varieties of lasagna that I would have liked to include but couldn't because the stores around me just don't carry it; that's too bad, because I'm betting that their "regular" lasagne would be hands-down better than that awful diet stuff.) But I think that this selection provides a pretty comprehensive overview of what's out there.

Edit: I'm really sorry about the wonky layout of this page. I absolutely hate the way Blogger handles tables, and there is no easy way to get a good layout for multiple picture/entry blog posts.


25 September, 2009

Pushing the seasons a little...

Here's the Seasonal Goods aisle at my local Stop & Shop. This is why it's impossible to throw a surprise birthday party for Jesus: The stores insist on putting the decorations and party favors out three months in advance. Tips Him off every time.

24 September, 2009

Dollar Store Tamales

The freezer section of my local Dollar Tree always contains such interesting surprises. Sometimes they're disgusting, but sometimes they can be pretty decent. So when I saw Sunny Acres Tamales (in my choice of pork or beef) I figured I'd take a chance. After all, even Banquet's frozen tamales aren't that bad.

As it turns out, I was very pleasantly surprised by just how good these tamales were. The pork version was smooth and bursting with piggy goodness; the beef ones were hearty and full-flavored, just exactly what you'd expect. Both were moderately seasoned (I'd say it was on the mild side of medium, but someone with less chile-heat tolerance might find them somewhat "zestier.") Each tamale weighed in at 2 ounces - a decent side-dish size, certainly no smaller than the Banquet version - and had generous amounts of meat filling. Best of all, there was a minimum of filler to the meat (some masa flour but absolutely no textured vegetable protein) making the eight-ounce packages a good value at a dollar each. I followed the microwave heating instructions on the package, and they came out perfectly. They made delicious lunches, and I had them with a very simple sauce made by simmering some canned stewed tomatoes with a few dollops of sofrito.

Pretty decent for cheap eats.


Sunny Acres is a brand owned by SmartPrice Sales & Marketing Inc., a supplier of perishable and non-perishable foods to "extreme value retailers" (as their website refers to them.) Their website says, "...when a consumer picks up one of our brands the reaction is always the same, 'Wow, what a fantastic value!'" and based on these tamales, that might not just be empty ad copy.

23 September, 2009

Ramen Review 12: Asia Specialties Sesame Teriyaki Fresh Noodle Bowl

Today's ramen review is going to be a bit different, because Asia Specialties Sesame Teriyaki Fresh Noodle Bowl doesn't start off as a dried product but rather as a "fresh" noodle. Unfortunately, "fresh" doesn't necessarily mean "better." Or even "good."

Ease of Preparation: 3/10
First, open the vegetable packet and dump it into the bottom of the provided bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of water, then open the noodle package and top the veggies with the noodles. Then open the sauce pack, top the noodles with the sauce, microwave for 2 minutes, stir, sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds, and enjoy. More steps than usual for ramen, but that isn't really the problem. The sauce packet is filled with thick, sticky sauce and it doesn't rip open evenly. I ended up with sauce on the edge of the bowl and all over my fingers. Messy.

Vegetable Packet: 2/10
Stingy. Even the cheapest standard Cup Noodles have a more generous veggie packet. This one contains green onions, a few bits of carrot, and a few tiny pieces of bell pepper. They got totally lost in the noodles.

Seasoning: 5/10
The sesame seeds lent a bit of nutty flavor, but the seasoning was almost exclusively found in the sauce packet - a thick, gummy drool of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and water.

Taste: 2/10
The heavy, overpowering sauce had more in common with a teriyaki glaze than with a true noodle sauce; it clung to the tough noodles and caused them to clump disgustingly. Vinegary sharpness was completely out of balance with the salty/sweet quasi-teriyaki notes, and the overall effect was like trying to eat some kind of bizarre candy-coated bundle of ropes.

Overall: 2/10 - Not Recommended
The worst noodles I've ever had, doubly disappointing because they're an ALDI house brand (the first ALDI product I've ever actively disliked.)

I hope the other Asia Specialties noodles are better than this, because I have two other flavors yet to review.

22 September, 2009

POMx Iced Coffee from PomWonderful

The folks at PomWonderful have done it again - found another delicious and refreshing way to deliver the antioxidant power of pomegranates, this time with POMx iced coffee.

PomWonderful recently sent me a few samples of POMx iced coffee, in the Cafe au Lait and Chocolate flavors. They're delicious and, of course, taste nothing like pomegranate. The Cafe au Lait flavor is smooth and rich-tasting with a sharp dark-roasted coffee kick. It's got just the right amount of sweetening, too - palateable but not syrupy. The Chocolate variety is brilliant - not bitter at all, with a nearly perfect balance of coffee and rich cocoa-like chocolate flavor. Each 10.5-ounce bottle delivers a dose of PomWonderful's patented POMx antioxidant pomegranate extract (along with 175mg of delicious savory caffeine.) I've been glad to have a couple bottles keeping me company the past few days working the midnight shift.

Right now, POMx iced coffee can be found in some northeastern US test markets; you can visit their website and punch in your zip code to see if it's available near you. I can't wait until it's widely available near me because I'm eager to try the vanilla version.


POMx iced Coffee website (Flash animated, with sound)

Information about the POMx extract, including POMx pills.

PomWonderful's website - Pomegranate juice, POM tea, and more! (Also Flash animated with sound.)


21 September, 2009

One for the Dogs: Alpo Chop House Originals

In a bit of a departure today, I'm going to review a dog food: Alpo Chop House Originals. Now, my dog Zim has been raised on Pedigree dry kibble with a dollop of Pedigree canned food mixed in and I rarely buy any other brand. I made an exception this time because of the interesting flavors - filet mignon, New York strip, and ribeye no less - and the fact that displayed prominently on the front of the can is a badge that says "WITH ANGUS BEEF" thereby officially signaling that this whole "Angus beef" thing has totally jumped the shark and needs to die right now.

Believe me, the parts of an Angus-breed cow that wind up in a can of dog food are not going to be significantly better than any other cow chunks. And as far as the fancy flavors go, the ingredient list tells a different story: Water, chicken and beef "by-products," soy, and cornmeal make up most of the composition. Way down the label, they list something called "filet mignon flavor," or "ribeye flavor," and so on. It's hard for me to believe that anything other than the label design is "premium" here. Alpo's website is of little help, by the way. I guess pet food companies aren't required to offer actual ingredient lists for their offerings the way human foods are.

By the way, I did taste the filet mignon variety. It wasn't anything special. It didn't taste all that "filet mignony" to me - more liver-like than anything, with lots of mealy grit mixed in. I couldn't get enthusiastic about it, but Zim got really excited by the smell; seems Alpo knows how to get a dog drooling.

Something in the mix didn't agree with the poor boy, though. The day after I started mixing Alpo with his kibble he started scratching all the time - a kind of ridiculous "stop in the middle of everything you're doing, stand there on three legs with a dumbass expression on your face, and scratch everything you can reach with that fourth leg" kind of scratch that was cramping his usual routine of chasing squirrels, barking at passing cats from the second floor windows, and sleeping on the couch. A couple days after going back to his usual rations, he was his old self again - we donated the leftover cans to the local food bank.

Alas, no more Alpo Chop House Originals for Zim, no matter how much he likes them. While I can't recommend them as a "premium" dog food (Alpo seems to be relying a lot on weasel words and hype to sell this line) I know the pooch really loved the flavor and his seeming allergic reaction to them is probably unique to him; so, if you can find it on sale, you might want to give it a try. I mean, your dog might want to give it a try.

Alpo's website.


20 September, 2009

Vintage Sunday: Moxie

I wouldn't normally feature a current product on Vintage Sunday, but I just have to make an exception for Moxie, the signature soft drink of New England.

Introduced in 1876 - ten years before Coca Cola - Moxie was one of the first mass-produced soft drinks in the US. It's distinctive bitter flavor comes from gentian root extractives, and it is very much an acquired taste (I've heard it described as "medicinal root beer" and "root beer + ass.")

Moxie was wildly popular in the early part of the 20th century, regularly outselling most other soft drinks, including Coke and Pepsi. But the drink's sales began to slip in the 1930's. The company, reacting to broad fluctuations in the sugar market, diverted money into its sugar reserves and away from advertising. It was a mistake from which the company never recovered.

Today, Moxie is found on store shelves mostly in New England. It's most common in Maine, New Hamphire, Vermont, and on Massachusetts' North Shore, but I've occasionally found it in Western Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island as well. Getting it elsewhere is spotty at best. I enjoy it because of its unusual flavor (especially Diet Moxie, in which the gentian flavor is even more strongly pronounced) but I'm the only one in my family who does. As I said, it's an acquired taste.

The bottle at right is an early-1960's Diet Moxie bottle; it's part of a small collection of antique, vintage, and local-company soft-drink bottles kept on display at the Hosmer Mountain Soda Shack in Manchester.


Moxie is owned by Cornucopia Beverages in New Hampshire. They, in turn, are owned by the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England, which in turn is owned not by Coke but by Kirin Holdings LTD of Japan (think: Kirin Beer.)

Hosmer Moutain Soda Shack from Steven Wood's Connecticut Museum Quest blog


19 September, 2009

Goya Sazon Liquido

If your local supermarket sells Goya's Sazon Liquido, you won't be able to miss it. Packaged in a tall plastic bottle with a long squeeze nozzle, it towers above the other seasoning and hot sauces on the shelf. Because I enjoy a variety of different hot sauces and seasoning blends in my cooking, Sazon Liquido immediately caught my eye - I'd never seen it before, and figured it might be a new product. Also, the "HOT - PICANTE" label sparked my curiosity, so I picked a bottle up.

The ingredients list includes tomatoes, green and red chile peppers, dehydrated jalapeno peppers, salt, MSG, and some spices - pretty standard fare for a seasoning and hot sauce.

Unfortunately, the only flavor element that comes through is salt. A lot of salt. And, despite the label, not a single bit of heat.

I was hoping that it would be like Goya's answer to Salsa Lizano (a not-very-hot but extremely flavorful sauce/seasoning made with spices, peppers, and pureed vegetables) but unfortunately the Goya product can't hold a candle to the richer-flavored Salsa Lizano.

I'm probably missing the point of Sazon Liquido; I thought the vegetables and aromatics in it would make it more versatile, but to me it just tastes like liquid salt, and I just don't have an application for it in my kitchen. I ended up giving the bottle to an Hispanic friend at work. She'd never heard of it either, but told me she'd probably use it instead of salt in stewed dishes like her fricase.

17 September, 2009

Seasonings Part Four: Pork Salt

We all have our little kitchen "secrets" - little things we do or seasonings we use that make our dishes unique. My mom's beef stew is a great example of that. I could never get my beef stew to taste as good as my mom's, no matter what I did. So one day, I asked her how she made her stew gravy so damn delicious.

"Stir in a couple of tablespoons of ketchup after you thicken it," she told me. "Nothing improves gravy like a hint of tomato."

She's right. Tomato is indeed a key component of awesome gravy. I nearly always include a tomato or two in with the "aromatics" when I make a non-poultry broth, stew, soup, or pot roast. If I'm in a hurry, though, I'll use canned tomatoes, ketchup, or a dab of tomato paste. If you've never tried it you should.

My own little secret is for pork. I keep a shaker of what my family calls "Pork Salt" by the stove, and use it as kind of a universal pigmeat seasoning. Roast, chops, ribs, whatever - it's a "base seasoning" for me that seems to bring out the best flavors of the meat, even if I'm later going to use the pork for chili verde, in a spaghetti sauce, or with barbecue sauce. I always use some Pork Salt for at least the initial browning.

Pork Salt
Makes about 1¼ cups.

1 cup salt
2 tablespoons Bell's Seasoning*
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 tablespoon powdered sage
1 tablespoon powdered thyme
1 teaspoon ground coriander

Mix all ingredients together in a jar or spice bottle with a shaker lid.

If the different spices and salt separate into layers because of non-uniform grain sizes, you can pulse them in a spice grinder or work them over with a mortar and pestle before putting them into the shaker.

Experiment with the blend to achieve your own favorite taste. Adding a bit of allspice and some powdered habanero pepper gives it a "jerk" taste. Or you could try adding cumin, chipotle powder and some powdered dried ancho peppers to give your seasoning a southwest flavor.


*Bell's Seasoning is a New England-made poultry seasoning; they've been around since 1867, and as long as I can remember my family's kitchens have had a box of Bell's in the cupboard ready for use. If you can't find it near you, there are links on Bell's website that will let you mail order it (or you can use your own favorite poultry seasoning blend. But I bet Bell's is better. LOL, alliteration.)


16 September, 2009

Long Lake Pickled Foods

Earlier this month, I reviewed delicious Bay View Pickled Pork Hocks after finding them (along with some other Bay View brand pickled specialties) at my local Price Chopper.

Well, it so turns out that Long Lake Pickled Foods, the good folks who put up Bay View products, have started their very own pickled food blog. Written in a casual, chatty, and informative way, the blog gives details about Long Lake's products, customer service contacts, trivia and info about their foods and the traditions of pickling, and so on. They even share recipes and techniques if you're looking to try making your own.

The blog has been open for less than a month, so it's still growing and "finding a voice," if you know what I mean. If you're interested in chaucuterie and old-fashioned methods of meat preservation, stop in and look around.

Link: Long Lake Pickled Foods Blog


McDonald's Angus Burgers Want Your Love

So McDonald's has opened a new website called "Angus Honors." Users can visit there and make up a two-word "headline" that gets placed into a banner display for McD's Angus Third Pounder burgers:

McDonald's calls it a "microsite," and this headline submission app is pretty much all that's there. You click on the "start now" button, enter your date of birth (if it's your first visit) and then get a template where you can enter a word on either side of a burger photo. Before submitting it, you need to fill out a short form with your name, a checkbox agreeing to "terms and conditions" and your email address if you want a link to you from the gallery where your creation will be stored and displayed.

There's no contest or sweepstakes involved and no prizes that I can see. So I thought I'd have a little fun:

I suspect that my submission won't be appearing in the gallery soon.

Remember those terms and conditions I mentioned earlier? Reading them reveals that anything you enter on the Angus Honors microsite become instantly and permanently the property of McDonald's USA for them to use any way they like without ever having to compensate you. Now that's a hell of a deal: you might have a great time coming up with a slogan, but if you hit gold with a phrase that McDonald's uses as a centerpiece of their next ad campaign, the fun you had is your only reward. If only their ad agencies worked so cheaply.


15 September, 2009

Cape Cod Potato Chips - New Flavors and Old Favorites

A short time ago, the friendly folks at Cape Cod Potato Chips sent me a box of assorted varieties of chips and popcorns to sample and review. The popcorn was a big hit with my friends and family. It took us a little longer to try all of the potato chip flavors - the package included old favorites as well as tasty new ones - but after sharing the deliciousness for the past couple of weeks, I'm ready to tell you about Cape Cod's flavors.

Classic and 40% Reduced Fat: When I was a kid, just learning how to cook, I heard the story about how potato chips were "invented." You've probably heard it too: George Crum, a chef in Saratoga Springs NY, was fed up with a restaurant patron who kept sending back his fried potatoes complaining they were too thick and soggy. Chef Crum, thoroughly pissed off, sliced the final batch paper-thin and fried them so crispy they couldn't be eaten with a fork. The diner loved them and "Saratoga Chips" were born. That story inspired me to try to make my own potato chips in the kitchen; they were pretty good but took a lot of work for an impatient teenager, so I only cooked my own a few times a year.

I was in my twenties when I first tried Cape Cod's Classic chips - thick cut and kettle cooked, with just the right amount of salt added to enhance the flavor. I think they were the first commercial "kettle" style potato chip I'd ever tried, and they were great. I'm happy to say that their quality has never wavered - every time I've opened a bag of Cape Cod Classic chips, they've been as good as the first bag I ever dug into in the mid-80's.

A couple of years ago, some friends suggested I try the 40% Reduced Fat version of the Classic chips. The Reduced Fat version is truly amazing; Cape Cod has managed to remove almost have the fat from their chip without any reduction at all in flavor, quality, or mouthfeel. Seriously, it is extremely difficult - if not impossible - to tell the difference between the two in a blind tasting. If you love your potato chips but need to cut down on your fat intake, Cape Cod's 40% Reduced Fat chips can help you.

Robust Russet: Russet potatoes, having a higher sugar content than some other varieties, cook up darker and more flavorful than regular chips. Cape Cod's Robust Russet chips are Lynnafred's favorites; she like the full-bodied flavor and strong crunch. I like them because the flavor stands up well and doesn't get "lost" when enjoying chips 'n' dips. If you're a fan of lightly cooked chips, leave these on the shelf. Cape Cod says people either "love them or hate them" and if you cant crunch into a darker chip without thinking "burnt," these just aren't for you.

New Buttermilk Ranch was an instant favorite with everyone who tried it. Not too salty with a delicious, tangy Ranch flavor, this was the first bag we opened (to accompany bacon-cheeseburgers for supper) and that bag never saw the dawn. I loved them with a simple sour cream dip - the chips magically turned it into Ranch dip! - while Lynnafred and my wife Maryanne enjoyed them right out of the bag. They were also pretty damn good added atop deli-sliced turkey in a turkey sandwich (adding both taste and crunch.) Don't give me that look - you know you're going to try it now that I gave you the idea.

Sea Salt and Vinegar: This is one of my all-time favorite potato chip flavors - I love the sharp, acidic taste of vinegar (and that's why I'm such a fan of all kinds of pickles.) Vinegar is a natural enhancement for potatoes, and Cape God gets the balance just right with these chips. There's just enough vinegar to "sharpen the edges" and not so much that the flavor overpowers the spuds. Probably my favorite of the flavored varieties.

Cheddar Jack and Sour Cream: These cheesy chips are one of Lynnafred's favorites. The combination of sour cream and cheddar works well together and give the chips a flavor very much like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

Sweet Mesquite Barbecue: Normally, I hate barbecue-flavored potato chips, and I can truly say that I would never - ever - have gone out and bought this variety if Cape Cod hadn't sent a bag for review. What a surprise to find out how good these were! Sweet and spicy, with a delicious tomato background, the smoky mesquite flavor is mellow and soft-edged. Smoke flavoring is too often applied with a heavy hand, leaving an "ashtray" flavor, but not with these chips. Maryanne mentioned that they'd be great with grilled burgers, and I agree. Sweet Mesquite Barbecue chips are winners.

Sea Salt and Cracked Black Pepper: There are a lot of flavor notes going on in these chips - sweet, salty, pepper, garlic I think, a hint of buttermilk - and I just don't understand why chip manufacturers can't simply make a chip with salt and black pepper and that's it. I would love a chip like that, but I haven't been able to find one (check the ingredient labels and you'll see.)

Parmesan and Roasted Garlic: From the instant the bag is opened, there is no doubt that mellow roasted garlic is the foremost flavor in this chip, and the parmesan cheese takes a back seat to it. I couldn't believe how polarizing this flavor was when I put them out at a party - people either loved them and went back for seconds by the handful, or they hated them - hated the very smell of them and wouldn't take more than a nibble for the sake of tasting a sample. I thought they were pretty good. They went great with a sliced-pork-roast sandwich.

Jalapeno and Aged Cheddar: I liked these. The cheddar flavor went nicely with the jalapeno heat, which gave a mild-to-medium burn and a long, lingering warm finish. (These chips weren't included with the review package I recieved, so I went out and bought a bag. Glad I did.)

I hope the new flavors are well-received and become as successful as the old favorites. Cape Cod makes great snacks and they're always a top choice when I'm looking for kettle chips.


Cape Cod Potato Chips website

Direct link to Cape Cod's potato chip page.


14 September, 2009

The Greatest Bank in the Connecticut River Valley

If Simsbury Bank had a branch closer to my house, I would move all of my banking to them. Any bank that chooses a steaming bowl of ramen noodles as their logo is A-OK in my book.


13 September, 2009

Vintage Sunday: Burns & Allen & SPAM

SPAM. First marketed by Hormel in 1937, it rose to fame thanks to relentless advertising from the very beginning - and being a non-rationed food during World War II certainly didn't hurt. George Burns and Gracie Allen were featured in a lot of 1940's and 1950's SPAM ads.

"SPAM 'n' eggs go great together!"

"So do SPAM 'n' waffles 'n' me!"

Whoa. Say goodnight, Gracie.


12 September, 2009

Banquet Cheesy Smothered Meat Patty Meal: One Of The Worst Frozen Meals Ever

When I first started this blog, my intention was to seek out and review bizarre, interesting, and unusual foods. As time has gone on, I've widened my focus quite a bit (what with making my own bacon, sharing recipes, and whatnot) but still, bizarre and unusual still have their appeal. A short time ago, I posted my "Holy Grail List" of weird things I'd like to try just so I can share the experience with readers.

And ever since Gregory Ng at Freezer Burns reviewed the Banquet Cheesy Smothered Meat Patty Meal (giving it a whopping half a star on a five-star scale!) that frozen comestible has been near the top of my Grail List.

It took me months to find. No stores in my area carry the complete line of Banquet frozen meals, and although there are several meals which everyone sells, the more unusual ones tend to be rotated in and out of stock. I guess that's so frequent Banquet customers (a pretty appalling concept all by itself) won't get bored with the same ol' stuff and take their business elsewhere. My persistence was finally rewarded last weekend when I found it at the ShopRite in Manchester CT.

I hardly even know where to begin with this one. For example, the term "meat patty" is pretty vague. It's not pure beef or pork and it sure doesn't taste like it either (though I'm sure there is real meat in there somewhere - I got several hard bits of ground cartilage as I was eating it.) The "meat" is wet and sticky and laden with TVP. There's some kind of weird oniony-mushroomy sort of flavor going on here, too. Reminds me of a really cheap-ass Salisbury steak. Nasty.

Nastier still is the "cheesy" sauce in which the patty is "smothered." Remember those ads in the back of comic books where you could buy novelty jokes like fake cat shit and whoopee cushions? They used to sell fake vomit made out of plastic that looked just like the sauce in the picture on the box. However horrifying (or amusing) you might find that, the reality in the serving tray is far more intense. Clotty, somewhat sour, and vaguely reminiscent of melty plastic, the sauce has a flavor that I would call "almost cheese" - it's salty, and yellow, and has kind of a shodowy milk-like background, but never really achieves true cheesehood. is sprinkled with bacon bits and spotted here and there with greasy puddles of oil.

Drowned as they are in this cheeselike morass, the bacon bits contribute little in the way of bacony goodness. Most of the flavor is lost in the orange plastic saltiness, though a certain amount of smokiness comes through.

Are there any redeeming features to this meal? The best I can say about it is the potatoes weren't disgusting (they were, when all is said and done, fairly standard prepared mashed potatoes) but I guess the entertainment value of this trainwreck of a meal was probably worth the dollar I paid for it. Besides, I can always look at it this way: I bought a portion of acceptable mashed potatoes from ConAgra for $1.00, and they threw in some kind of sticky unappealing side dish for free.

11 September, 2009

Heirloom Tomatoes

I'm beginning to think that when a supermarket is selling "heirloom tomatoes" the word "heirloom" is marketing code for "shaped like someone's ass."

10 September, 2009

Cape Cod Popcorn

The wonderful folks at Cape Cod Potato Chips recently sent a selection of their wonderful snacks to me for review. They've introduced a wide variety of new flavor chips and popcorn, and my family and I have been tasting and sharing and choosing our favorites. Today, I'm going to write about Cape Cod Popcorn.

Cape Cod is offering three varieties of popcorn: White Cheddar, Sweet Cream Butter, and Sweet & Salty. They are, quite simply, the best bagged popcorn ever. The bags are filled with big, puffy kernels of popcorn and hardly ever an unpopped kernel is found (in fact, in the three bags the family and I have polished off this week, there were no unpopped kernels at all.

White Cheddar: Delicious plump popcorn kernels, no "old maids," and no disgusting thick fake-cheese residue left behind on fingers when snacking. Cape Cod uses real cheddar cheese in their recipe with no finger-staining orange colors. Top-notch snack. Family and friends plowed through this bag so quickly I didn't even have a chance to take a picture of it!

Sweet Cream Butter: Big fluffy kernels, mouth-wateringly delicious - just the right amount of salt balanced with the barest hint of sweet, buttery with a subtle sharp edge thanks to a dash of buttermilk in the seasoning. Sweet Cream Butter instantly became my wife's favorite - she finally curled the bag closed and handed it to me saying, "Take these away from me before I eat the whole bag by myself." They really are that good - I was lucky to get this picture of the half-eaten bag before the remainder was OM NOM NOMed.

There are plenty of "butter flavored" ready-to-eat popcorns out there. None of them are as good as Cape Cod's Sweet Cream Butter flavor. Really.

Sweet & Salty: If you've ever gotten "Kettle Corn" at a country fair, you know how magical a light caramel coating on salty popcorn can be. Cape Cod has captured that flavor, bagged it, and put it in the supermarket so you can enjoy it even when the Kettle Corn guy is nowhere to be found. Light and floffy popcorn, fresh and delicious, is very lightly coated in slightly crunchy caramel coating. Halfway through the bag, Lynnafred called me on the phone: "This Sweet & Salty popcorn is amazing. Did you know there aren't any nasty unpopped bits in the bag? How do they do that?"

Obviously, it's magic.


Cape Cod Potato Chips website. Learn about the company and their products, and check out their factory tours if you're going to be on the Cape. Here's a direct link to the popcorn page.

Coming Soon: A review of Cape Cod's new potato chip flavors - look for it on Tuesday, September 15th!


09 September, 2009

My Grail List

 This post is no longer being updated.  To keep track of the Grail List, go to the tab bar just under the header and click on "The Grail List" for updates and current status.

I have what I call a "Grail List." It's a list of foods and/or culinary experiences (many of them bizarre) which I am endeavoring to taste or try. This list predates the start of Dave's Cupboard, so although I'll be writing about many of these items as I tick them off the list, some of them will be listed with a brief explanation but no individual blog entries. Entries in bold type are "checked off" and are moved to the bottom of the list as they are achieved.

  1. Shagbark Syrup - Made from the boiled bark of the shargbark hickory tree, this syrup is available commercially at an exorbitant price from the only commercial manufacturer of the product. However, it's relatively simple to make. I am currently searching for an openly-foragable shagbark tree or two. Gathering the bark will not harm the tree - it sheds it's bark, so foraging enough for a pot of syrup will do no harm at all to the tree itself.

  2. Oscar Mayer Liver Cheese - a luncheon loaf wrapped in sweet tasty lard. Actually, it doesn't even have to be Oscar Mayer if I find that another company makes it.

  3. Guycan Corned Mutton with Juices Added. From Uruguay via Bedessee Imports. Might have to mail order this.

  4. Kylmaenen Reindeer Paté

  5. Sweet Sue Whole Canned Chicken

  6. Balut - My local Asian supermarkets sell what they refer to as "baby chicken eggs" and "baby duck eggs." I need to find proper cooking instructions.

  7. The Annual Poutine Festival in Drummondville QC (thanks, Phillis!) I love poutine. A poutine festival would b e like a visit to heaven.

  8. Insects - I've eaten toasted mealworms (crunchy with a flavor vaguely reminiscent of toasted sesame seed, much more disgusting to look at than taste) and cricket. The cricket was at the center of a minty-flavored lollypop called a "Cricket Lick-It" and reminded me of a peanut and I would not describe it as "delicious," merely "okay." I'm not eager to try any large fleshy larvae or pupae, but since they're not all that different from snails, shrimp, or lobster when all's considered, I might do it anyway.

  9. Blind Robin Smoked Ocean Herring - these were easy to find because a local supermarket used to carry them regularly in the seafood section, and many stores around me still have smoked herring. I found them to be very salty and very heavily smoked, so much so that they tasted more like "ashtray" than "herring." There are other smoked fish I've enjoyed more.

  10. Musk Life Savers - Sweet, perfumy, and floral. If the only reference to them you're familiar with is from ignorant "worst food" lists posted to the internet by retards, you'd probably be surprised to find that Musk Life Savers aren't all that bad.

  11. Banquet Cheesy Smothered Meat Patty (Reviewed 12 September 2009)

  12. Tengu Clam Jerky - Delicious and rather tender morsels of semi-dried clam. Probably one of the best Asian dried fish snacks I've ever tried.

  13. Canned Pork Brains in Milk Gravy (Formerly made by Armour, but discontinued; it's now made by Rose, available in 5.5-ounce cans.) Done! Reviewed here.

  14. KFC's Double Down sandwich: Pepper jack cheese and bacon, between two fried chicken breast fillets which serve as the "bun." This is in test markets right now - including Providence RI which is fairly close to me. I hope to find a KFC selling it soon. Done! Reviewed here.

  15. Pickled Lamb's Tongue - I love these. I used to buy the jars of Rogers Brand Pickled Lambs tongue at a local supermarket, but I haven't seen them offered in years (since that particular market closed, in fact.) I've since found out that the Rogers Company went out of business a few years back; now I'm looking for a similar product.

    Update - 6 October 2009: Apparently, there are no companies in the US still making pickled lamb's tongue commercially. However, using a pork tongue recipe as a base, I have developed my own successful recipe for curing and pickling lamb's tongue, which you can find here.

  16. Trek'n Canned Cheeseburger - From what I can find out, this is available only in Germany and Austria, and no mailorder option is available for delivery to the United States. - Done! Blogged on 10 October 2009. Short version: It sucks.

  17. Banner Sausage -  Ewwww. I ate some in February 2010.