31 March, 2010

The Peapod Fleet

I've seen the Peapod grocery delivery trucks on the streets in my area for a few years now without really knowing where they were based; there are Stop & Shop supermarkets all over the place around here, but we never see a Peapod truck loading up at the local store.

Mystery solved last Sunday, though - we were passing by the Stop & Shop in East Hartford and saw the fleet lined up in a far corner of the parking lot.


30 March, 2010

San Pellegrino Chinotto

Chinotto is a small, bitter citrus fruit common to southern Italy.  It's an important flavor compound in many Italian bitters and, along with some herbal extracts, is also the basis for a strongly-flavored cola-like drink of the same name.  There are several brands of chinotto sold in Italy, but the most common one found in the US is by San Pellegrino.  I love the stuff.  The rest of my family hates it.

Some people compare it to Coca-Cola, but that's not really a fair comparison to either beverage.  Coke is sweet and lighter in character; chinotto is bitter, with herbal notes and a hint of citrus behind it all.  If I were to compare it to anything it would be Moxie - that old New England favorite that is, much like chinotto, an acquired taste.


29 March, 2010

Things I Eat With Ketchup

Hamburger and Eggs.
  1. Burgers
  2. Roast Beef Hash, but not at breakfast
  3. Macaroni and Cheese
  4. Hamburger and Eggs
  5. Fries, sometimes.
  6. Meatloaf
  7. Stuffed peppers
 That's pretty much it.  Ketchup lasts a long time in my fridge.


28 March, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Cheese Grater

Years ago, I was at an estate sale in town.  It was on a small and quiet side street, at a modest little house on a small town lot.  There was a neatly tended garden alongside the house, and an old grape arbor made from iron pipes by the back door.  I found several wonderful and hard-to-find old kitchen gadgets for sale, and this cheese grater was one of them.

I remember my grandmother having a grater just like this, to process hard Italian table cheeses for cooking and pasta.  Chunks of cheese go into the throat at the top, and turning the handle rotates a perforated drum against which the cheese is grated.  Even though it's manually operated, it makes quick work of a block of cheese.  I usually grate enough at one time to fill a plastic deli tub so I don't have to drag it out very often, but every time I do I'm glad I have it.  It's one of those unique and handy tools that I'll probably hand down to my daughter when the time comes.

Every time I  use that grater,  I think of the woman from whose estate it came.  I never met her when she lived, nor even found out her name.  I knew her only from the items arrayed on the long tables in front of her house, and the furnishings and linens for sale inside.  She must have been quite a cook.  The canning jars, kettles, and tools spoke of jams and preserves and quarts of tomatoes.  She made her own pasta, judging from the heavy cast-aluminum hand-cranked pasta mill.  And she had dozens of recipes, written out in a small notebook, in Italian.

I bought a lot of the kitchenware that day - the family was letting it go at fire sale prices, and most of it was too cool and too useful for me to pass up.  I paid for the boxes of stuff, and the woman running the sale helped me carry them out to my truck.  As we put the boxes in the back, she tossed her grandmother's handwritten recipe notebook into one of the boxes.  

"Are you sure you want to throw that in?  It looks like those are your family recipes.  You might not want to part with them."

"Yeah, right," she said.  "None of us do any cooking.  I'm really glad you came along and bought all that kitchen junk.  We were afraid we'd have to throw it out."

"Um...thanks.  See ya," I replied.  What are you supposed to say to someone's casual disdain for their own family heritage?

So...thanks, nonna, whoever you were.  Some of your stuff found a good home.

27 March, 2010

Fishy Delights 32: Riga Sprats

These days, it's hard to find sardines that are both inexpensive and tiny and delicate.  Riga Sprats, packed in Latvia and found in many international-style markets, fit the bill nicely.  

Lightly smoked and packed in sunflower oil, Riga Sprats are the kind of high-quality delicious little fishies we grew up with.  Each tin contains a generous 5.6-ounce portion of fish, carefully laid in layers - ready for lunch, snacking, or canapes and recipes.  And they're very inexpensive - the local markets here carry them for $1.79 - $1.99 a can, and you can even find them on Amazon for $1.79 each.

The tiny fish are quite wonderful - scaleless and perfect, mildly fishy and with a hint of smokiness.  They're great on crackers with some thinkly-shaved sharp onion and some Turkish beyaz peynir (white farmer's cheese.)


25 March, 2010

Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles – Cheeseburger Macaroni

I freely admit that I like cheap boxed macaroni and cheese. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (known as Kraft Dinner in Canada) is the most famous example of the genre, but the generic and store-brand versions are just as good if not better. Part of the secret to the goodness is because I prepare the mix with real butter and whole milk, which bumps up the overall quality compared to the prep methods listed on the box. Also, I put ketchup on it (one of the very, very few foods I use ketchup on.)

So, given that I’m already predisposed to liking cheap-ass mac and cheese, I figured I’d give Hamburger Helper Microwave Singles Cheeseburger Macaroni a try. They were three for a dollar on sale, and that means three lunches for a dollar – a pretty much unbeatable price. So I dug some change out from under the cushions on the couch and bought a couple.

There's not much to look at inside the cup.  The directions say to stir in some hot water until the orange powder mix is blended in, then microwave the lot for 4 minutes until the macaroni is tender, then allow it to stand for another few minutes while the sauce thickens. Pretty straightforward. When I looked at the product boiling in the microwave, I understood why Betty Crocker put such a small-looking serving in the cup. When the stuff comes up to a boil, it rises in demonic orange rage and reaches perilously close to the rim of the cooking cup. It settles down again when the microwave shuts off, though, and by the time it’s ready to eat it looks like fairly standard macaroni and cheese, but with little bits of what appear to be meat distributed throughout.

What is that meat-like stuff, anyway? The label says “Made with Real Beef” and every forkful is studded with little nuggety bits of what appears to be crumbled ground beef. The ingredients list “freeze dried cooked seasoned ground beef (beef, salt, natural flavor)” but shortly after that one also finds “textured vegetable protein” on the list, so I’m pretty sure that ground beef has been adulterated. Not that it matters all that much – I swear there isn’t all that much a difference between the two in flavor or texture after all the processing they go through on their way to your mouth.

The cheese sauce’s flavor is predominately “tangy salt,” and it has modified food starch, xanthan gum, soybean oil, and coconut oil in it to help thicken and give it body. No big deal, really, but something about the texture seem weird to me; it’s got a slippery and artificial mouthfeel to it that I find vaguely unpleasant. Luckily, a liberal dressing with ketchup improved both the taste and the texture, and the final product wasn’t unbearable.

Overall, it was okay for what it was: a 35-cent lunch. But it was also totally underwhelming, not all that satisfying, and I don’t foresee myself ever buying it again.


24 March, 2010

High Fructose Corn Syrup: Bullshit Exposed

For the past two years, an advertising campaign by the Corn Refiners' Association has tried to convince the public that people who avoid high-fructose corn syrup are misinformed tongue-tied idiots.

You've seen these ads.
"You know what they say about high-fructose corn syrup..."

"What?  That it's identical to sugar?  That it's fine in moderation?"

"Uh, I...hurr hurrf durf durrp.  Duh.."

Well, here's a sweet surprise for the corn pimps at the CRA.

Photo by Denise Applewhite, courtesy of
Princeton University.
A research team at Princeton University has demonstrated a clear link between high fructose corn syrup and obesity.  The team - undergraduate Elyse Powell, psychology professor Bart Hoebel, visiting research associate Nicole Avena and graduate student Miriam Bocarsly, pictured at left  - published the results of two studies earlier this month.

In the first study,  one group of male rats were given water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup in addition to a standard diet of rat chow.  A second group of male rats received water sweetened with table sugar (sucrose,) with the standard diet.  Even though the HFCS solution was only half as concentrated as level to be found in most sodas, and the sugar in the sucrose solution was the same as found in soda, the high-fructose corn syrup-ged group gained much more weight

The second experiment monitored weight gain, body fat and triglyceride levels in rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup over a period of six months. Rats on a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup showed abnormal weight gain, elevated triglycerides, and increases in body fat compared to rats on a standard rat chow diet.  Animals with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained 48 percent more weight than those eating a normal diet.

In an article published on Princeton's website, psychology professor Bart Hoebel said:

"Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn't true, at least under the conditions of our tests.  When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they're becoming obese -- every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don't see this; they don't all gain extra weight."

Consumers, of course, have had a bad feeling about high-fructose corn syrup for years, which is why the Corn Refiners Association has to advertise the so-called "benefits" of HFCS to begin with.  And the backlash against HFCS is growing as shoppers read ingredient panels and realize just how prevalent the ingredient is.  How can something be used "in moderation" when it is virtually everywhere?

And companies are following the lead, giving customers what they want.  ConAgra has announced that starting in May 2010, Hunt's Ketchup will be reformulated with sugar rather than HFCS based on customer demand and the results of taste tests that have proven consumers can not only taste the difference between HFCS and sugar, but they prefer sugar.   Other companies moving from corn sweeteners to sugar include Del Monte Light Fruit, Kraft Foods' Wheat Thins, Oroweat breads, Pillsbury, Snapple, and PepsiCo's GatorAde.

The Corn Refiners Association isn't going to go down without a fight, though.  They realize that  customers are turning against them despite their best efforts at advertising and spin, so in January, they managed to convince the FDA to allow high-fructose corn syrup to be listed on ingredient labels simply as "corn syrup."  The FDA has since reconsidered and has decided to review that decision, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if you wrote or emailed the FDA letting them know what you think about that labeling rule.

Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Ave
Silver Spring, MD 20993-0002

Click here to go to the FDA's Contact Website


23 March, 2010

Five Guys Burgers and Fries Opens In Enfield!

For months, I've been passing by the construction site on my way to work, looking forward to the day the new Five Guys Burgers and Fries would be opening their doors for business.  Their reputation as a no-frills burger joint offering a good, solid burger at a fair price is firmly established, and they have a good location in town:  On a main road (CT 220) yet not shoulder-to-shoulder with the other fast food places in town (Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King, and Arby's are all crowded together at the foot of Exit 48 off Interstate 91.)  Is there room in town for yet another fast food place?  If there isn't, it will probably be the perpetually-empty Arby's that bites the dust.

We visited Five Guys on opening day at about 5:00 pm, which is usually the front end for the supper rush at fast food places in town.  The parking lot was pretty full and the line inside was long, but seemed to be moving pretty quickly.

I'm new to Five Guys, so it surprised me to see eight hundred pounds of potatoes stacked up across from the registers.  In Five-Guys specific packaging, no less.  A chalkboard near the register lets you know from which town in Idaho your fries are from.

Ordering is quick an easy.  A standard burger at Five Guys has two hand-formed patties, so if you have a smaller appetite, remember to order the "little" burger.   After specifying what kind of burger you want (hamburger, cheeseburger, bacon burger, or bacon burger with cheese) you order your choice of toppings at no extra charge.  Toppings include lettuce, tomatoes, onions, ketchup, mayo, mustard, relish, sliced jalapenos, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, and green peppers.  We each ordered bacon cheeseburgers with various toppings, and some standard fries and Cajun fries, to go, and stepped aside to watch the amazing assembly line-style grill area where the burgers are prepared.

The crew works quickly and efficiently.  One group tends the griddle, where the grilled toppings are cooked and the burgers fried.  All of the burgers at Five Guys are hand-formed from fresh ground beef (never frozen) and are cooked medium-well yet juicy. (I'll talk more about this a little later.)  As the burgers are taken off the griddle, they are handed forward to the assemblers, who put the burgers together to order, working in rows with each burger on a little square of aluminum foil:  buns, meat, add-ons and topping, wrap it up, bag it, and off it goes.  Even with the huge line for service, we were in and out within ten minutes; the service was that quick.

I'm really glad we ordered our meals to go.  There are a lot of hard surfaces in Five Guys (tile, glass, stainless steel, etc.) and nothing to absorb the noise from either the crowds of diners or the hectic-yet-organized kitchen, where every one of the crew calls out orders, instructions, and progress to their fellow workers.  To customers, this may seem bafflingly confusing, but if you've ever worked in a kitchen spend a few minutes listening to the seemingly-chaotic exchanges - you'll be able to follow any given service from the cash register to handing off the bag to the customer.  It's a great system and it works.well.

The fries are excellent, large diner-style fries cooked in peanut oil.  Standard fries are delicious, but the Cajun fries are outstanding with a nice medium-hot fire dusted onto them.

Now how about those burgers?

Awesome.  Being somewhat of a burger minimalist, I stuck with my basic favorite, a bacon cheeseburger with ketchup and mustard.  The burgers are put together on oversized sesame-seed buns to give plenty of room for the patties.  Notice that the burger appears to be a single massive burger, but in fact it's two patties cemented together by a layer of cheese.  The burgers are juicy and delicious and just slightly pink (medium well.).

I love red, bloody hamburgers cooked rare, and that's the way I make them for myself when I'm cooking with the ground beef that I buy from Caronna's, my local neighborhood market where they still grind their own.  Unfortunately there are virtually no restaurant or commercial dining establishements which I can truly trust to deliver safe and wholesome ground beef to the table, regardless of their good intentions.  I'm not placing any faith at all in industrially-processed mass chubs of ground beef from some anonymous slaughter mill in the midwest.  So I'm content to have the barely-pink, yet still juicy and wonderful burgers at Five Guys.

Are there other, perhaps better, burger places out there?  Of course:  David's Place on CT 85 in Montville, Connecticut not only serves awesome burgers but you can get some amazing whole-bellied fried clams there too.  And let us not forget Harry's Place in Colchester, CT. But for fast food burgers, Five Guys has replaced Burger King as my favorite.


22 March, 2010

Checking in on the Capicola

With daytime temperatures getting into the 70's over the past few days, it was definitely getting too warm in the attic to leave the capicola hanging up there.  I brought them downstairs and stacked them up on the top shelf of the spare fridge.  If the temps come down, they can go back up to the attic, but for now I'll just keep them here, restacking them every so often to make sure they continue to dry evenly.


21 March, 2010

Vintage Sunday: The Most Bad-Ass Kitchen Tool In Existence

One of the things I really love about rummage sales are the miscellaneous junk boxes that you always find near the back of the hall.  No one ever feels like sorting and pricing all the jumbled stuff in the boxes, so they just stick a sign on it like, "ANY ITEM 10 CENTS."  I could spend hours poking through those boxes.  They've always got such treasures in them.

Treasures like this:

Look at that baby.  The tapered, ergonomic handle that feels like it was custom-made just for my grip; the graceful sinuous curve of the bar below the handle; the sharply tapered tines at the leading end; the wicked conical teeth jutting from the bottom.  It looks like it was stolen from a Klingon kitchen.  Designed to make it easier to hold a roast steady as it's carved, this hardcore serving fork is so badass that ordinary kitchen utensils tremble with fear and piss themselves when confronted with its awesomeness.

You don't use this fork. You wield it.
They're like culinary knuckle dusters.  You think Bobby Flay would ever win a throwdown if his opponent had one of these?  Hell no.

I wish I knew more about this nifty wicked bodkin.  It's made of cast aluminum, with similar lines to a late-1940's cast aluminum ladle that was handed down to me by my grandmother, and the awesome Deco lines lead me to believe that the "fork" is about the same age.  There isn't a clue to be found on the tool itself other than an uninformative "Pat. Pending" mark near the handle.  So I dubbed it the Death Fork.

From a purely practical standpoint, the Death Fork can sometimes be hard to use.   Cuts with exterior bones (pork or beef rib roasts, for example) are difficult to hold with it because of the size of the spiked bar, and the fork tines are too short and stubby to get a good hold,  Likewise, the complex curves of a turkey and the small size of chickens make the Death Fork less useful for poultry.  Except in the case of Cornish game hens.  You should see the way you can destroy the hell out of a Cornish game hen with just a swipe or two of the Death Fork.

But for standard beef roasts, boneless pork cuts, hams, and joints with deep internal bones, nothing beats the Death Fork.  It completely dominates the meat and holds it rock-steady for slicing.  It's truly awesome.  Probably one of the best ten cents I've ever spent.

20 March, 2010

Sunchips Introduces First Eco-friendly Chip Bag

I love Sunchips. For a long time, they've been one of my favorite snack foods because they have the satisfaction of chips and the sweetness of the whole grains in them. Together, they conquer not only my appetite but also my craving for delicious chippy goodness.

On Earth Day this year, Frito-Lay introduced the first ever completely biodegradable chip bag. In thirteen weeks, this bag (made of completely renewable plant fibers,) will completely decompose. The chips inside are the same Sunchips you know and love; only the bag is different. However, this bag does have an extremely annoying quality to it: It's one loud bag. The fibers that make up the bag are all completely natural, so the construction of the bag makes it sound very much like a cross between a space blanket and a sheet of tinfoil.

Link: Sunchips Website

19 March, 2010

Last Days At Shaw's in Enfield

It's only a matter of days now until the Shaw's Supermarket in Enfield closes down.  For the past couple of weeks, non-perishables at the store have been running out of stock, though to their credit Shaw's had been maintaining their stock of dairy goods, vegetables, meat, and seafood.  By St. Patrick's Day, however, it was obvious the end was getting close.  There was no corned beef to be had in the store - just a meat case full of chickens with a big sign that read "NO CORNBEEF - WAREHOUSE STRIKE."  (Workers at Shaw's Methuen MA distribution center are striking, but with the supermarket pulling out of Connecticut, the news media here didn't think the story was worth carrying I guess.)

Thursday night, I stopped in on my way home to work to pick up some half-and-half for coffee and scope out the store.  I took some pictures as I wandered through.  Store closings are melancholy affairs, and Shaw's is no exception, especially because Shaw's is one of the few stores I've shopped where I have good memories, and funny memories, but no unpleasant memories.  I guess I just wanted to go through one more time so I could "say goodbye."  This is going to be a long and kind of rambling post, filled with some of those memories.

Most of the carriages were in the foyer when I visited.  Shaw's was always the least busy store in Enfield (which is why they're closing, I guess) but today most of the cars in the lot were employee's.  I was tempted to steal the little leaves from the logo, as a souvenir, but I didn't.

The bottle room was one of the last customer-service areas to close.  The self-service checkouts were taken offline almost two weeks ago.  Shortly after that, they stopped taking checks for payment (don't know why they did that - the Shaw's chain isn't going out of business, just the Connecticut stores.  You'd think they'd still take all kinds of payments.)  Today I found the bottle return area closed.

This was all that was left of the Produce Department.  All of the cases were empty except for a small eight-foot gondola in the foreground with apples, pears, and some citrus; and the corner display with some lettuce and peppers and a few root veggies, fresh juices, and tofu.

Shaw's had an amazing cheese shop - way more variety than Big Y, and in some ways better than Stop & Shop's.  For the past week, a lot of the cheeses had been clearance marked with orange "Manager's Special" tags and $2 prices, so there wasn't much left.  Some leftover packages of cocktail weenies and tubs of salsa took up some of the empty space.  The parts of the store where those items originally were found were empty.

The Deli was down to their last dozen or so lunchmeats, and those were mostly varieties of turkey.  I took a few minutes to chat with the young lady behind the counter, and she was pretty optimistic about the changeover to Shop Rite, even though no one at the store automatically got jobs with Shop Rite.  Shaw's employees had to put in job appications with Shop Rite, but pretty much anyone who applied was hired.  She also said that (for her, anyway) the salary and benefits were comparable.  So that was good news.

The Seafood Department had been cleared out over the weekend.  This was perhaps my favorite department here.

When this Shaw's first opened, one of my first purchases was some haddock in the Seafood Department, and when I got it home and unwrapped it, it stunk.  Bad.  I brought it back and for a long time I refused to buy any fish here.  Eventually, I came to trust them again, probably because even though I wouldn't buy fish from Shaw's, I would always buy clams, squid, lobsters, and just about any other seafood here.  Shaw's Seafood Department had several things going for them:  The employees behind the counter were top-notch, friendly, and helpful; they were the only store in town that sold quahogs at a reasonable price for chowders and stuffies; and they had the best lobster prices in town. 

I'm really going to miss coming here.

In a few aisles, products were getting boxed up for shipment to other stores.  There were several aisles like this one, where pallets of empty boxes stood ready for the packing crews.

The dairy cases were decimated.  A few creamers and single-serve containers were left.  The milk cases in the background still had some milk.  There were no juices or specialty products.

Around the corner from the dairy cases, the butter had been cleaned out, and all of the store-brand eggs were sold.  The only thing left were the higher-priced organic, "cage free" and Eggland's Best branded eggs.

Shaw's read aisle once ran from the front to the back of the store.  There was only a handful of product left - a few loaves of bread and half a dozen packages of English muffins.


All that was left in the bakery were a couple of sad-looking sheet cakes and the display model wedding cake.  After Seafood, I'll miss the Bakery most.  I never custom-ordered a cake there, but the breads that came out of those ovens were awesome.  Shaw's had the best in-store bakery of any of the supermarkets in town.  Only the uber-upscale Highland Park Market bakery was better.  Stop and Shop's bakery is okay, but I always preferred Shaw's.

This aisle was filled with Coke, Pepsi, and Polar products just a few days ago, because the bottling companies service the aisles themselves.  But with the deadline for closure rapidly approaching, most of the drinks have been pulled.  Only a few Shaw's brand items remain.


The way in which the manufacturer-serviced areas were cleared out seemed almost random; the very first things to be packed up and shipped out were the McCormick spices - the display racks were left behind, but the products disappeared from them almost immediately after the closings were announced.  The magazines and greeting cards were next, sort of.  The magazines were taken out very early on, and card manufacturer American Greetings had their all-occasion and birthday cards cleared out by the middle of last week.  St. Patrick's Day cards, however, were still on display right up until Sunday night, and now the Easter cards await purchase.


Even the register ends were stripped.  The small beverage coolers were empty, and there was only one cashier on duty.  I paid for my half-and-half and wished the cashier luck before going out the doors, perhaps for the last time.

Somehow, I don't think they're going to make it another seven days.

Goodbye, Shaw's.


18 March, 2010

Bresaola is Ready!

I went up to the attic last night to check on the meats - with the temps climbing toward the 60's during the day, I don't want to let the attic room get too warm - and found that the bresaola was ready to open.  Actually, I think it might have hung a few days too long because it seemed a little stiff to me.  So I brought it down to the kitchen for a tasting and photoshoot.

There it is, dried to a lovely nut-brown, wrapped in its casing.   The casing is a little drier and stiffer than I would have liked.  I suspect the curing room's humidity might be little low.  We'll see when we cut into it.

I cut a few lovely paper-thin slices.  They are absolutely delicious.  The beef has a rich and meaty flavor with a distinctive flavor of rosemary and hints of juniper.  I still think it could have hung three or four days less - especially considereing the temperature lately - but it was moist and yielding and the interior fat veins were creamy and not at all unpleasant (the way beef fat can so often be, coating one's mouth and so on.  That didn't happen here at all.)

However, it's obvious that I am going to have to start better regulating the humidity in the curing room.  The outer edges of the slices are very well-dried and dark, making sort of an edible "rind" on the meat which I prefer not to have.  I suspect I am going to find the same thing on the capicola when I take it down and this does not please me.  I haven't had this problem in the past but I think that the unusually cold winter we had this year affected the humidity levels in my attic and it will make this batch of cappy less glorious than my past efforts.

At any rate, despite the extra drying around the edges - which I will remedy next time - the bresaola came out quite acceptable (though not perfect.)  Slices of it will definitely be on the charcuterie plates this year.


17 March, 2010

Beanitos Bean Chips

Another kind of Benito.
Okay, I admit it: I bought these bags of Beanitos for the lulz because…well, because who the hell ever heard of a chip made of beans, right? I had no idea what they would taste like, or what kind of texture they’d have, or whether they’d stand up to dipping. All I knew was that one of them was made from black beans, and the other from pinto beans and flax seed. And the manufacturer gave them a name that reminded me of Il Duce.

Somewhat to my surprise, Beanitos are pretty good. The ingredient lists for either chip are short: The black bean version contains whole black beans, whole grain rice, vegetable oil, guar bean gum, and salt. The pinto bean version has whole pinto beans, whole brown flax seed, whole grain rice, vegetable oil, guar bean gum, and salt. That’s it – no unpronounceable ingredients at all unless you have trouble with “guar,” which is admittedly pretty odd. They’re light and very crispy, and they’re also strangely filling for a chip (I think that has something to do with the beans.) Not only do they dip without breaking, but the somewhat beany flavor actually goes pretty well with dips. I experienced a strange sort of “meta-bean” moment by using them to scoop up some hummus; using chips made of beans to eat a dip made of beans caused my appetite to divide by zero and disappear.

Using beans to scoop up beans.
This is also the second snack I’ve reviewed that is not only tasty, but good for you (remember Bhuja back in February?) Beanitos are low glycemic, gluten-free, high in fiber, and high in Omega-3a, and they contain no cholesterol or transfats. If we can keep them from stomping around in Ethiopia and get ‘em to make the trains run on time, I think we’ll have a winner here.


Beanitos Bean Chips webpage.


16 March, 2010

Salemville Amish Gorgonzola Cheese

I really enjoy blue cheese, and Salemville Amish Gorgonzola, a brand of the DCI Cheese Company of Wisconsin, is a good blue cheese.  Firm and a bit crumbly right out of the package, it melts in your mouth into a buttery creaminess with a somewhat mild blue flavor.  It's quite enjoyable, and relatively inexpensive.  I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone looking for a high-quality blue cheese.

The thing is, it's not a real Gorgonzola.  Real Gorgonzola is produced within a very specific Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) within Italy.  And because of that, other cheeses that call themselves Gorgonzola...well...aren't.  And they don't quite taste like it, either.  I've had imported Italian Gorgonzolas that were velvety soft and shot through with unholy-looking lacy green veins that tasted like they were handed down from Cheese Paradise.

The reason countries around the world adopt designations of origin has nothing to do with protectionism.  It has to do with quality assurance.  Champagne isn't just some sort of light fizzy white wine - it can't bear the name unless it comes from the Champagne region of France.  Same thing with cheese.  An American company shouldn't be allowed to label their Wisconsin-made blue cheese as "Gorgonzola" without some kind of qualifier.  "Gorgonzola Style" maybe.

Enough ranting.  Are you looking for a better-lhan-decent domestic bleu cheese?  Try the Salemville stuff - I bet you'll be pleased.

14 March, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Bringing Up Father

In 1913, cartoonist George McManus introduced a comic strip called Bringing Up Father.  It featured Jiggs, an Irish bricklayer and his washerwoman wife Maggie.  Jiggs, a recent immigrant to the US, wins the Irish Sweepstakes lottery and becomes an instant millionaire.  For all his money, however, Jiggs is still a simple soul who is thankful that he no longer has to be a laborer, but still wants nothing more than to visit the local tavern to drink and play cards with his buddies from the old neighborhood.  Maggie, however, is socially ambitious and eager to leave her humble origins behind.  She doesn't approve of Jiggs' drinking, or smoking in the parlor, or his favorite dinner:  boiled salt beef and cabbage - a cheap and filling meal that reminds her of their working-class past.

Click the image to view full size.
The reason Jiggs and Maggie are here on Vintage Sunday is because of that favorite dinner, which is more commonly known in the US these days as corned beef and cabbage, and has become an American traditional dinner for St. Patrick's Day.  In fact, it's a common American misconception that corned beef and cabbage is some sort of traditional ethnic Irish food, when it really isn't anything of the sort.

For most of Irish history, pork was actually the preferred meat.  Beef cattle were highly prized for the production of dairy goods and as a measure of wealth, not as meat.  Actually those who could afford beef at all would eat it fresh, not "corned" (which means "salted," owing to the use of coarse salt crystals the size of "corns," or grains, of wheat.)  Beef was already prohibitively expensive; adding pricey salt to it made the meat so dear that corned beef would be out of reach for the average Irish family except as a special holiday meal (usually Easter.)  The closest thing to a corned beef dinner in Ireland was a dish called "bacon and cabbage."  The "bacon" used was very similar to a cheap American ham, and it was soaked to draw off some of the salt and then braised with cabbage to be served in it's own juices.

When Irish immigrants came to America, however, they found that salted beef was cheap and widely available - boiled corned beef, cabbage, and root vegetables had a long history in the northeast where we've commonly called it "New England Boiled Dinner."  The dish was popular with the Irish in America because they were poor, not because corned beef and cabbage was Irish.

And that, my friends, is where Bringing Up Father comes in.

McManus' comic strip was an instant hit and quickly became hugely popular.  Jiggs was a likeable character, the strip was sophisticated and witty, and the draftsmanship was superb.  It's hard for us today, with so many forms of media competing for attention, to imagine just how influential Bringing Up Father was in its early years.  In the public mind, Jiggs' fondness for his favorite comfort food became unbreakably linked with his Irish ethnicity rather than his former poverty.  By the 1950's, when Jiggs' "Irishness" had faded and he became regarded as  just a rich but regular guy who liked to hang out with his old pals, the notion of corned beef and cabbage as an ethnic Irish dish had become a firm and lasting piece of American pop culture.


13 March, 2010

It's a Clam Digger, not a Bloody Mary

Mornings are usually pretty hectic around here.  Weekday or weekend, my days start early - usually by 0530 I'm up and around.  Monday through Friday, I get my morning chores done quickly so I can get out the door to work by 0715.  Saturday has it's own routine of household things to accomplish after morning chores are done, but Sundays...Sundays are lazier.  We take time to have a leisurely family breakfast and linger over coffee and an old movie on Turner Classic Movies, or a favorite cooking show like Gordon Ramsay's F-Word on BBC America.  And sometimes, those Sunday morning breakfasts start with a Clam Digger or two.  A Clam Digger is a variant of the Sunday brunch favorite Bloody Mary, flavored with a bit of clam juice and dosed unapologetically with enough vodka to create a mild drink that stimulates the appetite and set a casually relaxing mood.  Who gives a damn if it's 0930?  I've been up for almost four hours - and besides, the sun is over the yardarm somewhere in the world anyway.

I favor certain ingredients in my Clam Diggers for the extra flavors which add a certain measure of complexity to the overall taste profile.  I prefer V8 juice to plain tomato juice, for example, and although the recipe as I've written it below only calls for about a teaspoon of horseradish, I usually put nearly a tablespoon in my own drink because I like the flavor and kick of Root.  Oh, and I should also mention that you can leave the vodka out if you're skeevy about morning alcohol.

Clam Digger
1 tall drink

8 oz V8 Vegetable Juice
4 oz clam juice
2 oz vodka
1 rounded teaspoon of prepared grated horseradish (or more to taste)
A couple shakes of Worcestershire Sauce (about 1/2 teaspoon)
A couple dashes of Louisiana Hot Sauce (to taste)
A bit of coarsely-ground black pepper
Leafy celery stalk for garnish

Combine all ingredients but celery stalk in a tall 16-ounce glass and stir well; garnish with celery before serving.


12 March, 2010

Healthy Frozen Meals: Smart Ones Dragon Shrimp Lo Mein

Lynnafred here. Going back to school has made me miss a few things. One of those things is the ability to eat on a somewhat regualr schedule. Nowadays, I get up in the morning, chug a Mountain Dew, and that's about the extent to my food intake until I come home at about 2:00. I refuse to eat cafeteria food that has God-Knows-What in it, and the cafe's sandwiches run at something like $5 a pop, making them a bit pricier than I'd like for some turkey and cheese slapped between some bread. So when I get home, I pop some kind of frozen dinner in the microwave and it does a good job of holding me over until 5:30 or 6:00 when we eat dinner. And, I've got to admit, it's better than gorging myself on potato chips.

Foraging for a tasty frozen meal this afternoon, I found this Smart Ones Dragon Shrimp Lo Mein tucked in the freezer, so I figured I'd give it a try. It's supposed to be "tender shrimp in a mild soy-ginger sauce paired with Asian noodles tossed with sugar snap peas and carrots." And, it is mostly that. Mostly.

I'm once again delighted by how tender the shrimp were. Flavorful, sweet little shrimp were dotted throughout the meal, and were nestled in a little bed of noodles that looked, tasted, and had a mouthfeel more similar to spaghetti than to any "Asian noodle" I've ever eaten. A small handful of peas and shredded carrot were sprinkled in there, and apart coming out a tad soft (in spite of my reducing the cooking time by about two minutes) weren't too bad. What threw me, though, was the sheer amount of diced water chestnuts in here. They completely dominated the tiny amount of peas and carrot.

The sauce wasn't really much to rave about, either. While it had a spicy ginger kick and a sweet soy sauce note, I thought it odd that it tasted very much like gingery, garlicy chicken stock. And a look at the ingredients told me why. Chicken flavor is in the ingredient list, as well as chicken fat (twice, even!) and hydrolyzed chicken. Oh. So that's why it tasted like there was chicken broth in my shrimp meal. Because there was.

This probably isn't going to be something I ever get again. Not until they change the label to reflect what's really in there: "tender shrimp in a garlicy-gingery chicken broth paired with some spaghetti with diced water chestnuts."

Nutrition Facts:

Calories: 240 (35 from fat)
Total Fat: 4g
Sodium: 690mg

11 March, 2010

Chicken Breast Rings

I was in the supermarket the other day when these edible food items caught my eye in the freezer case.  Yummy Chicken Breast Rings.  Made by Canadian frozen food company Maxi Canada, they are chopped chicken breast and "rib meat," formed into rings, then coated with a seasoned crispy breading ready to cook and eat.

Wow.  How much further removed can a food be from its natural form?  There's no way I could resist buying a box of them.

Each ring weighs one ounce, and has 60 calories (about a third of which are from fat.)  Each ring also contains 200 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids, which was kind of a "WTF" sort of thing until I checked the ingredients and found that the breading contained flax meal.  The actual calories count of the rings I tried was probably a bit higher, because I fried them in a little peanut oil, turning them halfway through to brown both sides.

I have to admit, they're pretty tasty.  The outside is crunchy and flavorful, with a gentle amount of spiciness and a tiny bit too much salt.  Inside, they're soft but not spongy and obviously made of white meat chicken (the ingredient panel lists skinless chicken breast with rib meat as the primary ingredient.)  They're quite snackable even if they are a rather strange way to serve chicken.

You know what would be kind of cool?  Frying up a bunch of these and a bunch of those ready-to-cook onion rings, then tumbling them together in a bowl so you couldn't tell just by looking which ones were which.


Maxi Canada's website.  They make a bunch of other interestingly-shaped chicken bits as well.


10 March, 2010

Where Is Your Milk From?

I buy milk from a small dairy farm a couple of miles from my house:  Trinity Farm, on Oliver Road in Enfield CT, run by Mike and Dale Smyth and their children (and even grandchildren.)  The herd grazes in the pastures behind Trinity's yellow dairy barn, and the milk is pasteurized, homogenized, bottled in real glass milk bottles, and sold to the public right there at the farm.  I've toured the bottling line, been nuzzled by a few friendly Holsteins, and helped carry cases of milk into the salesroom a time or two when the place was real busy and the display fridges needed restocking.  I know and trust the Smyth family, and every time we pour a glass of milk or add some half-and-half to our coffee we're not only enjoying a superior product, we're helping keep local agriculture alive and well in our piece of the Valley.  We know exactly where our milk comes from.

Unfortunately, not everyone can say the same thing.  There might not be a dairy right down the road from you - and even if there is, most dairies sell their milk to big processors or co-ops and don't sell directly to consumers.  So how do you find out where your milk (and some other dairy products) are from?

On most dairy products, you'll find a code printed on the container alongside the sell-by date.  That code will reveal the source of the product, if only you had a way of decyphering it.  And now you do!

On the where is my milk from? website (http://whereismymilkfrom.com/) you can find out just about everything you need to know:  How to find the codes that will tell you about your dairy products; what the parts of the code mean; and how to enter them into the site for lookup.  where is my milk from?  makes finding the source of your milk products easy by using the FDA's IMS (Interstate Milk Shippers) List as a data source.  where is my milk from? even pinpoints the location using Google Maps whenever possible.

I plugged in a code from a plastic milk jug at Costco - 25-100 - and discovered that the milk actually came from Garelick Farms in Franklin, MA (a huge New England dairy company owned by Dean Foods.)

I also poked through my refrigerator to see what else I could track down, and found a couple of surprises:

Kirkland (Costco) brand butter - I buy butter at Costco because the price is very good and I couldn't detect a quality difference between it and national favorite Land O Lakes.  No surprise there - the code, 06-06, reveals that the butter is actually made by Land O Lakes Inc in Tulare CA.

Hood Sour Cream - I only buy sour cream that is made from cream and culture and perhaps some salt.  I refuse to buy it if it has fillers like xanthan gum or food starch.    Imagine my surprise when I found that the Hood Sour Cream code, 50-19, revealed it to have been made by the Cabot Co-Op Creamery in Cabot VT.  I never buy Cabot's own brand sour cream because it contains modified food starch, guar gum, carageenan, and locust bean gum.

Cabot Whipped Cream lists plant code 37-046, which comes back to Alamana Foods Inc of Burlington NC, a huge manufacturer of private label aerosol whipped creams.  How many people buy Cabot whipped cream thinking they're buying a product from a charming Vermont dairy farm?

Give it a try.  Find some dairy products in your fridge - cream, half-and-half, yogurt, whatever - and plug the codes into the where is my milk from? search box.  You might be surprised at what you find.


09 March, 2010

Fishy Delights 31: Beach Cliff Sardines

 As you probably know by now, Bumble Bee Foods has decided to close their Prospect Harbor ME sardine cannery - the last sardine cannery left in the United States and the home of Beach Cliff brand sardines.  I thought that I had reviewed Beach Cliff sardines at some point, but I found that I was mistaken.  I'm sorry I never got around to it, because this post - number 31 in my "fishy delights" series - is going to be more of eulogy than a review.  Once that factory is closed and remaining stock "in the pipeline" is sold off, whatever Bumble Bee brings out afterwards isn't going to be "Beach Cliff" any more.  That's really too bad, because the sardines Bumble Bee sells under it's own name are less than spectacular.

I wasn't able to try every variety of sardine produced by Beach Cliff because the stores in my area never carried every single kind.  But I was able to enjoy five flavors, and I've written up reviews for them.  Act quickly if you want to try them for yourself - the last cans will be rolling off the packing lines soon.

Sardines in Soybean Oil - Usually three or four sardine cuts in each can, in a decent-quality light soybean oil.  Flavorful without being too "fishy," the sardines were of excellent quality despite their larger size. And they were certainly fairly priced at about a dollar a can on sale (or about $1.25 a can at full price.)
Sardines in Tomato Sauce - Larger size sardines, as with the plain ones packed in soybean oil.  I liked the tomato sauce they were packed in - there were notes of garlic and horseradish and some herbs; the sauce was tangy and flavorful.
Sardines in Mustard Sauce - Plain and simple mustard sauce with no adornments.  There is something about the sharp flavor of mustard that is very complimentary to sardines, and this variety was excellent - the same high-quality wild-caught Gulf of Maine sardines as in the others.
Sardines in Louisiana Hot Sauce - Nothing packed in "hot sauce" or advertised to a mass market as being "extra spicy" is ever very spicy, and this variety was no exception.  That being said, however, this was my favorite of the five flavors I was able to find.  The hot sauce, despite its shortcomings, delivered a decent kick with a good pepper flavor behind it.  I'll miss this flavor most of all.
Sardines in Soybean Oil with Hot Green Chilies - Another flavor that didn't actually deliver the promised spice level (although there was indeed a little boost.)  But there's something about sardines and chilis that have a natural affinity, and because this was the hardest kind of Beach Cliff sardines for me to find, they were always a treat when I got ahold of them.
So there you have it.  A day late and a buck short, as my douchebag junior high gym coach used to say, but at least it can stand as a farewell to yet another bit of vanishing New England.