30 March, 2011

A New Take on an Old Favorite

Peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff sandwiches - Fluffernutters - are a long-standing lunchtime favorite in New England, and no wonder because they're completely excellent.

But you know what's even more excellent?  Strawberry Fluff, with Peanut Butter & Co.'s Dark Chocolate Dreams peanut butter. It turns lunch into chocolate/strawberry AMAZEMENT.

28 March, 2011

Corned Beef Fail

Local readers get three guesses at which Longmeadow MA supermarket sold me this inedibly-fatty USDA Grade Shit corned beef.

Please don't tell me that corned beef is supposed to be fatty.  I took these slices from the leanest part of the cut, and this is the fat left after braising it in the oven all damn day.

Grocery Store Apps for Android

As smart phones become more common, supermarket chains are beginning to realize the marketing potential of mobile apps.  And it really is just beginning - at the time I'm writing this, I could only find three supermarket chains offering apps on the Android marketplace: Kroger, ShopRite, and Stop & Shop.  

I downloaded all three apps to give them a try and explore their functions - and see if they really did make grocery shopping easier and/or more interesting.  Some of them are more elaborate than others, but here's a quick review of these supermarket-specific apps:

Shop-Rite - The first time you run the app, you are asked to establish an account and sign in.  From there, you choose which stores you want the app to relate with for sales and specials.  There is no connection with your ShopRite savings card, so you are not able to set electronic coupons to your account for use at the checkout.

For the most part, the app is simply a ShopRite-specific shopping list; you can page through all of the specials in the current flyer for your store, and click on items to add them to your shopping list.  Once the list has been built, bring it up in the store and "check off" items from your list as you add them to the cart.

Completed shopping trips can be cleared with one button, and the shopping list function is ready to go for the next trip.  Old lists can't be archived directly within the app, but there is an "Email Shopping List" feature you can use to send the list to your email account for saving.  Saving old lists isn't very important to me, and I do use the list function when I'm shopping.

Other features include a store finder, and direct links to ShopRite's Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Stop & Shop - Running this app for the first time prompts you to either start a new account or, if you already have an account at stopandshop.com, to sign in. This app does link in with your Stop & Shop savings card, and the app gives you several useful ways to interact with your account.

After the splash screen, the menu will open up, with a "status screen" listing various aspects of your account: Year-to-date savings are shown, as well as how many reward points you've accumulated in whatever programs are currently running.  There are also links to detailed pages about your default Stop & Shop location and the current weekly flyer.

Bringing up the weekly flyer will show a detailed and categorized listing of everything on sale that week.  Like ShopRite, there is no way to link electronic coupons with your savings card.  Unlike ShopRite, however, there is no shopping list capability in this app (though you can select sale items for a more detailed look.) Too bad, because I found the shopping list to be very handy for ShopRite.

Other useful links from the "My Stop & Shop" page include a direct link to Peapod Mobile (Peapod is active in my area, though I've never used them) and a link to a page filled with customer service numbers for Stop & Shop.  All of the phone numbers are actually hotlinks and clicking on them will immediately dial them using the cell phone.  Wow.  I almost forgot that this thing in my hand can be used as a TELEPHONE too.  Far out.

Besides the lack of a shopping list function, though, the other most annoying thing about the Stop & Shop app is that it forces you to navigate entirely through the app screen - you can touch any of the links on screen, or use the "BACK" and "MENU" keys that appear at the top of each screen, but the "back" button on my phone is disabled.  True, it's a minor thing, but because almost every other app I have works with my phone's built-in touchkeys, having to change behaviors to use Stop & Shop's app is kind counter-intuitive.

Kroger - I live far outside of Kroger's market, but I took a look at their Android app anyway.  It has much of the same functions as Stop & Shop and ShopRite, but it also allows you to load "electronic coupons" onto your savings card. I would certainly take advantage of this if I were able.

In a few days, I'll take a look at some "orgainizational" apps for supermarket shopping - programs that range from simple shopping list compilers to coupon and "pantry inventory" programs.

26 March, 2011

Mama Cozzi's Pizza Kitchen Pizza at ALDI

In the mood for pizza, but not really in the mood to wait around for takeout, I swung by ALDI and bought a couple of their Mama Cozzi brand ready-to-bake 'zas for supper the other night. I picked up two 16-inchers: one pepperoni and one "four meat" for a total of about $15.

Just like with many other ALDI items, Mama Cozzi's pizza is pretty good, especially when judged fairly for what it is.  There's no way it would ever compare with the awesomeness of a Frank Pepe New Haven pizza, for example.  It's not as good as most neighborhood pizzas (notice I said "most." There are lots of really bad neighborhood pizza joints out there.)  But in comparison to the fast-food crap they sell at Domino's, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar's, or Papa Johns you'll be pleasantly surprised by both the lower price and far superior quality of the Mama Cozzi product over those ketchup-on-cardboard creations.

The "four meat" pizza, advertised as including pepperoni, sausage, bacon, and "seasoned beef," was better than I thought it was going to be from the looks.  The crust was thinnish and baked crispy on the bottom with some breadiness above (a nice balance,) generously spread with sauce, and had plenty of meat in every bite.  The pepperoni and bacon tended to get a little lost against the sausage and beef, but the overall flavor was better than average.

The pepperoni was my favorite of the two, though.  Covered with both slices and diced bits of pepperoni, the pizza was spicy and delicious. The pepperoni used was zesty and of high quality and I was favorably impressed.

These pizzas are never going to win awards, and I doubt anyone would choose one of them over a family-owned non-national-chain-produced pizza.  But I would certainly go with Mama Cozzi over Pizza Hut, any day.

Surf n Turf

24 March, 2011

Home-Cured Back Bacon

I had been thinking of making back bacon (also known in the US as "Canadian bacon") for some time. Though the cure and process is just about identical to the "regular" kind, back bacon is made from pork loin rather than belly.  I got an awesome deal on an untrimmed bone-in whole pork loin not too long ago, and after making a top-notch pork roast for dinner in the beginning of the week, I decided to use the center part of the cut for back bacon.  So, using a meat cleaver I took off a section of the whole roast that would yield about five pounds when the ribs were out.

The first step is removing the rib and chine bones from the loin. This is mad easy - using a long, sharp boning knife and the ribs themselves as a guide, cut between the loin and the ribs to remove them.

This shot is also a great way to look at the loin. That big round muscle on the left is the actual loin - the part you'd buy if you were buying a "boneless pork loin roast" (or, if you buy "bone less pork chops" you'd be getting that muscle cut into slices.)  The long muscle at the top of the cut, well sheathed in fat, is the "tail" of the cut and would normally be removed before curing back bacon.  I left it on so I could have a more UK-style bacon.

After the meat is trimmed of the bone, it's time for curing. For the five-pound loin, I used:

¼ cup Kosher salt
2 teaspoons InstaCure #1 ("pink salt")
¼ cup dry glaze packet swiped from a spiral ham (see  below)
3 tablespoons coarsely-ground black pepper
2 teaspoons dried thyme
3 bay leaves, broken up into tiny bits

The spiral ham glaze is made of sugar, dried powdered honey, and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and a hint of clove. I had bought a spiral ham at ALDI awhile ago and cooked it without the glaze, but when I read the glaze ingredients I thought it would be just the thing for a bacon cure and held on to it.  If I didn't have the glaze packet, I would have used a straight-up ¼ cup of brown sugar.  Mix the ingredients for the rub thoroughly together.

Put the loin into a plastic ziplock bag and massage it all over with every bit of the curing rub. Don't just dump the rub into the bag with the loin, either.  Put the cure in the bag a handful at a time and rub it into the meat as you go along.  When all the cure is used up, seal the plastic bag and set it into your refrigerator for 5 to 7 days.  It will look something like this when you first put it in...

...and it will look like this three days later when you pull it out of the fridge to give it a bit of a massage half-way through.  Notice how the rub has drawn some of the moisture out of the meat.  The cure is well underway.

Five days later, it's time to pull the meat out of the cure and finish it up.   Preheat your oven to 250 F.  Remove the meat from the refrigerator and take it out of the plastic bag.  Rinse it off well under cool running water, gently running your hand along the surface to knock off most of the clinging bits of herbs.  The meat might look a little grey, but that's nothing to worry about.  After rinsing, pat it dry with a paper towel and put it on a rack in a roasting pan.  Back bacon is usually unsmoked, so for this batch I just put it in the oven at 250 F with a temperature probe inserted in the thickest part of the loin muscle to indicate when the internal temperature got to 150 F.  This approximately five-pound chunk of pigmeat took about 3 hours.;  A nice low temperature is essential to cook the pork without melting out all of the treasured fat it contains.

The chunk of bacon is out of the oven and looks awesome.  This point, by the way, is the hardest part about making homemade bacon:  Not eating it before it's been wrapped and chilled.  Tightly wrapping the unsliced bacon and putting it in the refrigerator overnight sets the juices in the meat and makes it much easier to slice.  I cheated a little and cut off the barest sliver of bacon to taste it.  Cue choir of angels - it turned out incredible.  It was all I could do not to slice the whole thing up right then and there and NOM THE HELL OUT OF IT.  But no, I wrapped it up and quietly set it into the fridge to chill.

The next day, take the bacon out of the fridge and use a meat slicer or a sharp carving knife to pare off thin slices from the end.  On the rib side of the meat, the slices will look like wafer-thin pork chops, with a large round loin muscle and some belly fat and meat as a "tail." These slices were taken from the other side - the loin side of the cut - because I wanted some streaks of fat along with the big areas of lean.

 Brown the slices slowly over low heat in a dry skillet - the meat will caramelize and the fatty parts will brown and crisp up as some of the remaining fat is rendered.

My version, using the ALDI spiral ham glaze instead of brown sugar, was totally awesome.  The hints of cinnamon and clove in the glaze gave the bacon a flavor very reminiscent of Chinese char sui pork while still retaining the hamminess typical of back bacon.  It was a huge hit with the family (Huzzah! That gives me an excuse to do it again!)

23 March, 2011

Banquet Chicken Nugget Meal

Banquet's Chicken Nugget Meal is another one of those dollar-lunches-worth-a-dollar. You get five chicken nuggets, a scoop of whole-kernel corn, and a dollop of macaroni and cheese.  It almost seems designed with kids in mind, which is a little odd considering most school children don't have access to microwaves in school.  And while the build quality is definitely in the low-middle range here, it seems to be a pretty square deal: You actually do get a dollar's worth of food for your dollar.

Although only four nuggets are pictured here, you get five of them with this meal (whoops! I ate one before I remembered to take the picture!)  The corn is pretty standard ConAgra/Banquet fare: tasty but kind of tough and tooth-resistant yet still okay for all that. The macaroni and cheese was bland almost to the point of whybotherness. Luckily, I had a bunch of ketchup packets in my desk at work so I could drown them in Heinzy flavor.  Can't say they weren't moderately filling, though.

As for the nuggets...well...it would be so disingenuous to complain about nuggets being made of pulverized chickybits, so I just won't.  I don't expect handsome whole cuts of tender white breast meat in a cheap meal anyway, and neither should you.  You get a fairly typical handful of chicken meat patties, breaded with well-seasoned crumbs and fried. The texture is just a bit spongy, though still firmer than many of Banquet's other similar products, and the flavor is fairly decent - very much like Banquet's regular fried chicken.  If I had to bitch about anything, it would probably be that five nuggets is a pretty skimpy amount and it wouldn't kill ConAgra to put a few more in there.

Overall, though, you can do worse for a dollar lunch.  I'd buy them again, especially with the four dollars in coupons that are offered printed on the inside of the carton right now.

22 March, 2011

Fishy Delights 43: Sea Queen Crunchy Fish Fillets and a Tartar Sauce Recipe

Okay, I admit it:  I like fish sticks, and I don't really care how cheap or gnarly they are (as long as there aren't, like, bones or fins or a chunk of fish head staring out at me when I break the crispy crumb coating with my fork.)

Other people in the family, however, are more particular, so I always double-check labels to make sure that the breaded fish patty products I am purchasing are made from whole fillets and not "minced fish."

That's how I found out about ALDI's Sea Queen brand Crunchy Fish Fillets. I was actually shopping for larger fish patties - something I could use to make fish sandwiches - and I was conned by the box art to think I was getting sandwich-sized fish fillets.  What I actually got was a box of ten roughly trapezoidal-shaped fish portions, wider on one side than on the other, each with about two fishstick's-worth of material inside them.  So: fish fillet fail, but fishstick VICTORY.

As for the fish fillets themselves:  Judging against other fish sticks I've had, these are top-notch.  The fish within (Theragra chalcogramma, aka Alaska pollack or Walleye pollack) is flaky and tender.  They're covered with a crunchy crumb coating, also very good.

The flavor holds up well to both tartar sauce and cocktail sauce, so they're just as good on the plate as they are in a fish sandwich.  And if you have any leftovers, they reheat decently in the microwave.  (Personally, I don't bother reheating them - I love 'em cold right out of the fridge for a snack.)

Luckily, Crunchy Fish Fillets don't seem to be an ALDI "special purchase," so you can nearly always find them in the freezer case. I'm glad about that because we buy them fairly regularly.

Hey, speaking of tartar sauce, here's my recipe - I hate buying bottled tartar sauce, and this takes only a minute or so to whip up:

Tartar Sauce
Makes about half a cup

¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup sweet pickle relish
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
about a tablespoon of lemon juice (adjust to taste)
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
Salt to taste

Combine ingredients in a small bowl and serve with fish, or use as a condiment on fish sandwiches.  You can serve it immediately, or make it an hour or two ahead and let it sit (refrigerated) to allow the flavors to combine.

21 March, 2011

Pioneer Brand Country Gravy Mix

As packaged "country gravy" mixes go, Pioneer ain't that bad.  Ain't that good, neither. Actually, when I fished these out of the pantry and tried them out, I couldn't really remember why I'd bought them, since if I'm going to make country gravy at all, it's because I've cooked something which has left drippings behind that I can use, and I don't really need a packet.

Anyway, the original (blue label) is very bland with enough salt to really bring out the blandness.  It's laced with flecks of bland pepper, and it makes two cups of bland fake gravy.

The sausage flavor (red label) is more or less indistinguishable from the original, except that there are some very mild seasonings to make it bland in it's own special, though quiet, way.

Neither of them are offensive.  Neither of them are spectacular.  If you seek pouches of "meh" your quest is at an end.

20 March, 2011

Keebler Fudge Shoppe Merry Mint Patties

Left over from Christmas, these Fudge Shoppe Merry Mint Patties from Keebler were 4 boxes for a dollar at a nearby closeout grocer.  Let me tell you, it has been a long time since I have been able to buy something so awesome for a quarter.  Especially since when these cookies were generally available, a 7.5-ounce box containing 18 small cookies sold for about $3.00.

These little minty morsels are a clever build of shortbread cookie topped with creamy mint patty, dipped in chocolatey fudge and striped with green frosting ribbons.  They're incredible! They're like eating a cookie version of a York Peppermint Patty. They might even be better than Girl Scout Thin Mints. I can't believe there were enough left over from the holiday season that here we are in March and they're still trying to get rid of them.  And at four boxes for a buck, no less!

If Merry Mint Patties come around for another holiday season next year, I might even pick some up at full price.

19 March, 2011

Boulder Canyon Spinach & Artichoke Potato Chips

It's kind of funny how this works - the very idea of a "spinach and artichoke" flavored potato chip is just so repellent to me that I would never have even briefly considered buying this product had I run into it in a regular supermarket.  And yet, the same flavor, found as a remaindered item that the store is trying to dump, piques my interest enough that I drop a bag in my cart.  I guess it's just morbid curiosity.  After all, just how bad does a flavor have to be to get the price slashed to less than a third of the original ticket?  How desperate does a store have to be to mark a product down so low in hopes of recovering some bit - some tiny fraction - of the money they paid to put this on the shelf?

In this case, pretty bad.

The chips don't smell very much like spinach or artichoke.  They smell like garlic powder and dried sour cream, and some kind of powdered cheese, which is what a lot of flavored potato chips smell like these days. You wouldn't be able to tell from looking at the chips that they have any kind of vegetable flavorings at all, since there's no evidence of spinach or artichokes other than the very sparse occasional bit of dark green fleck on them which could be parsley or nori or green magic marker for all I could see.

And they don't taste much like spinach or artichoke, either.  Remember that garlicy sour creamy cheesy smell I described?  That's pretty much what they tasted like, too. Garlic, onion, a hint of sour cream, a bit of Parmesan cheese, but damn little artichoke or spinach.  Maybe they were going for the taste of dip?  I dunno, but they weren't very good and after the opened bag sat around for three or four days without being touched after the initial tasting, I took the family's hint and pitched 'em in the bin.  And nothing of value was lost.

Banquet Turkey Meal

If there's one thing you learn from eating Banquet frozen meals, it's this:  Not all one-dollar meals are alike - you know you're not going to get an awesome gourmet meal, but at the same time you're rolling the dice to not feel cheated out of your buck.

Most of Banquet's "Mexican" meals, for example, are a stellar deal for a dollar.  The Boneless Rib meal is a decent lunch at a  laughably low price, too.

And then there's Banquet's turkey meal.  Congratulations, you just rolled snake eyes.

Here's the meal.  Two semi-circular slices of "meat" - one light and one dark - over a sparse sprinkling of bread cube "dressing" in a pool of turkey gravy, with sides of peas and instant mashed.  In keeping with Banquet tradition, the instant mashed potatoes are actually pretty good and the peas are just typical frozen peas.  No complaints with any of the veggie side of the tray.

And then, you go over to the meat portion and suddenly things take a turn for the worse.

The very idea that ConAgra would find it necessary to create separate "white meat" and "dark meat" turkey loaf seems so ridiculous given that there seems to be absolutely no difference between the two slices other than color.  Seriously.  The generic sort-of-turkey flavor along with the molar-resistant plastic-like texture is identical between them and reminds you with every bite that this is a factory-made industrial product. And really, Banquet, scattering a dozen little breadcubes in the bottom of the tray to get sodden with - and nearly indistiguishable from - the gravy? That's your idea of "dressing?" Your grandma must be so proud.

But for all my suspicions that I'm gettting suckered here, I can't deny that I only paid a dollar for this lunch.  I can't even get an egg-salad sandwich out of the automat at work for less than $2.75. I know that I'm just getting what I paid for.  But it sure seems like those dice were loaded.

18 March, 2011

Pepsi and Mountain Dew Throwback Are Here To Stay

Good news, Throwback fans:  PepsiCo has announced that Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback are no longer "limited time only" beverages, having been added to the permanent lineup.

Both Throwback versions are made with real sugar, not with High-Fructose Corn Syrup, and taste just like the product did when I was a kid.  They're awesome.

Russian Soft Drinks 4: Birch Juice

Here in the Northeast, when the sap starts running at the break of winter into spring, we tend to think of maple trees and maple syrup.  In Eastern Europe, though, it's time to collect the sap of the birch tree.  Birch sap is a traditional beverage in Russia, where it's known as Берёзовый сок - birch juice or simply "juice" (сок.)  The flavor is hard to describe - faintly sweet, with the barest hint of wintergreen whispers and perhaps a bit of "green" flavor, a bit like leaves or grass.  Right now, with sap drawing in full swing, сок is relatively inexpensive and easy to find in Russian and Eastern European markets, but at other times of the year it can get expensive and more difficult to obtain.

Fresh сок is best if you can find it, but if not you may have to settle for the pasteurized variety. Pasteurization extends the shelf life of the drink (at the expense of a slight change in flavor, similar to the difference in fresh-pressed apple cider and pasteurized apple cider) but either way it's still delicious.  I was told by a Russian friend that drinking сок was "good for the blood."  I believe him because I want to and because I find it to be very quenching, but Eastern Europeans are quite insistent about the medicinal powers of birch juice. Here's a typical description of its properties from a Ukranian website:

Birch sap destroys urinary stones, is effective in treating ulcers of the stomach and duodenum, liver, gall bladder, headache, scurvy, bronchitis, coughs, and rheumatism, radiculitis, gout and arthritis, the body removes any harmful ballast harmful substances in infectious diseases. Useful it for skin diseases and inflammatory processes of different origin. In addition, berezovitsa clears blood-forming and has a regenerating effect and stimulates the exchange substances is also an excellent dietary and refreshing drink. Recently been found yet another feature of birch sap. It turns out that this is a good cure for impotence. Moreover, birch "tears" very bad effect on people during menopause. Doctors say that if you drink even a glass of juice a day, then disappear drowsiness, fatigue, irritability and other related phenomena.

As the number of Russians living in the US has grown, I've found other varieties of сок in the local ethnic markets, such as this variety with dogrose extract (giving it a more fruity and slightly floral taste) and another with extract of chamomile (which tastes a lot like tea, as you might expect.)

Before you go out and buy a gallon jar of it, I should warn you that birch juice might be considered an acquired taste, but since it's available in 1 litre tetra paks as well as in gallon jars, you can taste it inexpensively to see if you'd like it before you spring for a gallon.

17 March, 2011

Growers Savoury Hot Nuts

Here's another Asian grocery find: Growers brand Savoury Hot Nuts. Who can resist a mouthful of hot nuts, right?  Nah, forget it - I pretty much played out the nuts-in-mouth jokes when I reviewed Everybody's Nuts in February.

Growers nuts are a Philippine import.  They're dry roasted and seasoned, like our own homegrown Planters brand, but the seasoning is decidedly different - kind of curry-like with lots of umami and a hot spiciness that isn't really very strong if you're just noshing a quick handful of nuts, but which grows cumulatively as you chomp through the whole pouch.

And chomp through the whole pouch you will, because they're addicting and inexpensive to match.  This is one of those products that I wish would become better-known so it'd be easier to find.

16 March, 2011

Cape Cod Harvest Gold Potato Chips

Heads up, chip lovers...Cape Cod Potato Chips has a new variety hitting the shelves: Harvest Gold, made with Yukon Gold potatoes.

Lynnafred came home from the store with a bag of them the other day, excited because she's a big fan of Yukon Gold potatoes.  They're totally awesome - same hearty crunch as with Cape Cod's other kettle-cooked chips, but with a sweet and mellow taste that could almost be described as "buttery."  They're our new favorite unflavored chip.

Harlow's Sugar House, Putney VT

I can't remember the first time I visited Harlow's Sugar House, up in Putney VT on Bellows Falls Road (US 5.)  I think it might have been the first Spring after I got my driver's license.  Some friends and I were in Vermont doing some early-season camping (yes, we were insane at the time) and decided to stop on a whim.  The sugar house had the evaporatior running on one side of the barn, and a sales area right beside it.  The people running the place - the Harlow family - were friendly and inviting, and were happy to show us - three grubby teenagers who'd been living in the snowy woods for a week - how they turned maple sap into maple sugar.  I'd like to think it more than just salesmanship, even though I left with a jug of syrup and a box of maple candy for my grandmother (who adored maple sugar candy.)

That first visit of mine was back in 1977. This old postcard from the late 1960's is a fairly accurate representation of what Harlow's looked like when I was first there, though.  The picture was taken from the front yard of the big house across US 5 from the sugar house. At the time the postcard was printed, Harlow's really was still gathering at least some of their sap using sledges drawn by oxen and horses, though I don't remember seeing any teams on my visit.

Harlow's is somewhat larger these days.  The evaporator is now on an extension on the north side of the building, the original sugar house is a comfortable, rustic sales room., and there's a broad porch-like overhang running the length of the front.  But even if you've only seen the postcard above, you'd still be able to recognize it as you come around the bend from the south.  To me, the changes to the building have happened gradually over the years - I try to get up there at least once every sugar season - so I couldn't tell you when they added what.

Anyway, this past weekend I decided that a ride up to Harlow's would be a fun day trip for my granddaughters, so Maryanne and I shoved 'em along with their mother (my stepdaughter Jamie) into the back of the Exploder and we hit the road. I thought it might have been a bit early in the season yet, so we were relieved to see the steam from the evaporator pouring out of the vent on the roof of the building.  As it turns out, this was their first weekend of operation - they had just started boiling on Friday.

Harlow's is still a family-run operation, four generations on now from when they opened over 80 years ago, and everyone is just as friendly now as they were when I first stumbled upon the place back in the 70's.  They weren't too busy at the time - probably because it was so early in the season - and everyone had plenty of time to chat and make us feel welcome.  The two girls were invited in to see the evaporator running, and they stood in rapt wonder in an indoor cloud as the process was explained to them, culminating with a sip of still-warm syrup tapped right from the spigot at the end of the line. You can imagine how that made their day.  The kids each got a serving of sugar on snow and sat on the floor of the showroom getting the maple candy stuck to their teeth and watching a video about syrup production while their mom and Maryanne and I poked around the sales area.  I ended up buying a half gallon of first-of-the-season syrup and a bag of maple candies.  (My grandmother passed away a few years ago but sometimes I still find myself off on the road up north, holding a packet of maple sugar and saying to myself "Hey, I should bring back some sugar for Grandma Billie...oh, shit...")

Now, I know there are plenty of sugar houses in New England, and it would be easy enough for me to find one a lot closer to home. But Harlow's is kind of like an end-of-winter tradition for me, and it's one of the few places left in southern Vermont that still feels like the old, pre-hipster-and-douchebag-invasion true New England Vermont.  Also, US 5 north of Brattleboro is a fine and beautiful ride, even in winter.

You could do a lot worse for a day trip.

15 March, 2011

Juice Boxes Make Me Uncomfortable.

There's something vaguely creepy about the way Buzz is looking out from that label.  He seems just a little too eager to be a Belly Washer.

Get away from me, Buzz.  I'll wash my own damn belly.  Who comes up with these product names, anyway?

14 March, 2011

New Cheez-It Flavors

Photo of original Cheez-Its by Evan-Amos
Kellogg's Sunshine Biscuits has been aggressively working Cheez-Its lately.  It's impossible not to notice the large number of new flavors and flavor combinations that have been hitting the shelves.  Back when I was a kid, walking five miles to school barefoot in the snow under a blazing sun uphill, we only had one variety of Cheez-It, and that was "cheez."  Cheez, as you probably know, is a tangy bright orange product of vaguely dairy origin with a flavor reminiscent of cheap mild cheddar. For years, it was all we had.

Now, of course, there is some kind of corporate rule that doesn't allow anyone to sell less than three varieties of any single product.  That's why there are a dozen different flavors of Cheerios, for example. and that's why there are more than 15 different kinds of Cheez-Its these days including the obligatory stupid ones based on cartoon characters.  You might think that would be enough variety for anyone, but no, Sunshine has three new Cheez-It flavors and right now, those flavors are duking it out in a Snack Food Cage Match to determine which one will be introduced into the regular Cheez-It lineup.

I found out about this competition purely by chance; Lynnafred and I happened to be in Stop & Shop and passed by a big display of little boxes of Cheez-Its.  Each box, selling for a dollar, contains one small pouch of each of the new flavors: Colby, Asiago, and Romano.  Printed on the box is an invitation for the snacker to log onto Cheez-It's website and vote for their favorite flavor.

Pretty cool idea, and mad props to Sunshine for getting people to pay cash money for samples that they would once upon a time have given away free.

Here's what I thought of each of the flavors:
  • Romano - Quite authentic Romano cheese flavor backed up by a surprisingly strong buttery flavor throughout. Really took me by surprise because I don't ordinarily associate the two flavors very closely, yet here they were.
  • Asiago - Sharp and tangy, but not nearly as sharp and tangy as the real thing. I completely understand, too, because good Asiago can be an aggressive cheese, and I think most people who are used to encountering it in "five cheese Italian" blends aren't going to be ready to be slapped in the face by real Asiago cheese.  Anyway, I think it's a good choice for a cracker flavor.
  • Colby - Very much like the original Cheez flavor, but with a bit more depth to the cheese flavor. It's familiar and cheesy and kind of orange, so it wouldn't surprise me if Colby emerged as the winner in the voting.
You can click here to go to the Cheez-It website, where the voting screen is the default display at the time of this writing.  When I went over there, I was surprised at the number of votes each ad had gotten - they were in the millions! - but you'll soon find that the actual numbers are fairly meaningless, because Sunshine is giving people an opportunity to cast thousands of votes by doing things such as Liking them on Facebook.

13 March, 2011

Cut It Yourself.

Price Chopper was in no mood to sell partial cantaloupes today.

Scotch Broth

Despite my preference for homemade soups, there have always been a couple of "easy soups" the family and I enjoy.  One of these was Campbell's Scotch Broth, a very hearty barley soup made with lamb.

Unfortunately, Campbell's recently made a business decision to discontinue several of their soups which were based on relatively costly ingredients so they could concentrate on their various chicken noodle soups marketed at kids and based around their cheap and crappy chicken broth.  That's why, if you're a fan of Campbell's Lentil Soup or Bean With Bacon, you might be having trouble finding them since they're getting pushed aside for the astounding eleven varieties of chicken noodle swill aimed directly at kids.  (Seriously, Campbell's, does the market really need Disney Princess Soup?  Disney Pixar Cars Soup?  Spongebob Squarepants Soup?  Give me a damn break.)

Anyway, Scotch Broth is gone from the American market.  It's still available in Canada, so maybe I'll take a drive up to Quebec sometime and smuggle some back.  Until then, I'll have to be satisfied with making my own.

Scotch Broth
Makes about 2 quarts

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds of meaty lamb neck bones (see note)
1 large onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
6 whole peppercorns
1½ cups of barley
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste

Lamb neck bones have a lot of muttonylicious flavor with a decent charge of meat, but they aren't always easy to find.  You can substitute a couple of cheap lamb shoulder chops or a shank if you prefer.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch Oven and add the lamb bones. Over medium heat (be careful not to scorch the oil) brown the lamb well on all sides.  Add the onions and the carrots and stir over the heat until the onions are amber and translucent.  Pour in about two quarts of water (enough to cover the bones well and bring the soup to a simmer, adding the parsley, bay leaves and peppercorns.  Simmer for about four hours to make a very rich lamb stock, adding water now and then as needed.

Meanwhile, bring 4 cups of water to a full rolling boil in a separate pot.  Pour in the barley and simmer it for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the barley is plump and tender but still somewhat chewy.  Drain the barley well and then rinse it in cold running water to shock it from cooking further.  Put the cooked barley aside (perhaps in the refrigerator) until needed for the soup.

Back to the lamb stock:  When the meat is soft and falling off the bones, remove the stock from the heat.  Take out the bones and discard them, returning the meat to the pot.  Bring the stock back up to a simmer and add the barley, tomato paste, and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot.

12 March, 2011

Gummy Vitamins...for Adults?

I guess these appeal to the same middle-age demographic still wearing goddamn Spongebob T-shirts.

Ham Stock, Pea Soup, Lentil Soup - A Trio of Recipes

Photo by ALDI
As the calendar starts rolling toward Easter, hams start to appear on sale in the supermarkets.  The ALDI in my town had a great deal on their Appleton Farms spiral-cut hams a short time ago: $1.49 a pound for the ham, with $3.00 taken off the total at the register. I put a nice big one in my cart because if you're trying to stretch a tight budget (and we've been pretty tight lately) there are few things that give you as big a bang for your buck as a ham.  Besides the initial family dinner, a big ham will provide sandwiches for lunch, slices for breakfast, seasoning for peas and beans and such, and then there's stuff like chopped ham salad, ham-and-cheese omelets, croquettes, and hash.  Now, there's no need to eat ham for every meal until it's all gone, but seriously the $15 or so you'll lay out for a ham on sale really does go a long way.

And then, of course, there is SOUP.

Ham bones are laden with flavor and you can usually make enough stock for two pots of soup.  One night last week, that is exactly what I did.  From bone to bowl usually takes about eight hours, so you probably won't want to start at 4:00 in the afternoon after work like I did. But if it's, say, a rainy Sunday and you're not going anywhere anyway, you've got plenty of time on your hands to make a proper pot of slow-simmered soup.  (Yeah, for all the junk food and TV dinners I eat, the truth is I'm a big fan of Slow Food and I make most of our family meals from scratch.  Don't tell the Burger King, or he'll start creeping outside my windows again.)

Anyway.  Good soup starts with good stock, so let's start with ham stock.

Ham Stock
makes about 7 quarts

2 gallons of water
3 medium onions, chopped
3 or 4 large carrots, chopped
3 or 4 ribs of celery, including the leaves, chopped
1 ham bone with a little meat still on it.
Handful of parsley, whole
8 - 10 whole peppercorns
3 bay leaves

Put the water, onions, carrots, and celery into a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Add the ham bone, parsley, peppercorns and bay leaves.  Turn the heat down to simmer and allow the stock to simmer for 4 or 5 hours.  Add a bit of water now and then if too much boils off. Remove the bone from the pot at the end of the cooking time. Pick off the meat and reserve for inclusion in the soup, and toss the bone. (I usually save the cartilage, gristle, and other nasty little bits for the dogs.)

You may strain the veggies from the stock if you'd like. I take out the long stringy stalks of parsley, but generally leave the rest of it in.

You will now have somewhere between 6 and 8 quarts of ham stock - enough to make two pots of soup.  Or one huge pot if you're feeding a lot of people.

You can freeze stock for later use if you have the room in the freezer.  If you're the proud owner of a ham bone but lack the time to give it a proper soupination, you can freeze that for later too.  I had plenty of time on Soup Night, so I decided to just make two pots of soup side by side on the stove.

Green Split Pea Soup
Makes about 3 quarts
3 quarts of ham stock
2 carrots, chopped
2 onions, chopped
2 ribs celery, including leaves, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 pound green split peas
Salt, pepper, and seasonings to taste
Bring ham stock, carrots, onions, and celery to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer.  Add bay leaf and split peas and simmer for 2 hours, covered, stirring occasionally.

By the end of the two hours, the peas should be soft and starting to break down.  Add reserved ham bits from making the stock, some chopped parsley, and some ground black pepper.  Simmer uncovered for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally, to help thicken up the soup.

Half an hour before serving, taste to adjust the seasoning. At the very least, you should add salt to taste, but there are certain ingredients I always add to my soups to make them outstanding.  One of these is Maggi seasoning.  Not the crappy soy-saucy stuff you find in American and Asian groceries, but imported Maggi Würze from Switzerland. This is the original formulation as Nestle first developed it over 100 years ago, and the main component is an extract of lovage. It is amazing in soups and stews.  It's available online.  Another seasoning I use consistently is Vegeta, an eastern-European blend of herbs, seasoning, and MSG OMG.  Lynnafred calls it "magic powder" because it has such an incredible ability to flavorize soup and gravy.

After adjusting the seasoning to your taste, simmer briefly, stirring to distribute the flavors, and serve hot.
You can use any kind of lentil you like in this lentil soup.  My favorite are the tiny green Puy lentils from France. They take a little longer to cook because unlike common brown lentils they need to be soaked before using. However, they hold their shape even after having been cooked for hours and hours.  This quality gives the soup a heartier character.  You can find Puy lentils in the "gourmet" section of your local supermarket, or you can get them in bulk at many"health food" stores.

Lentil Soup
Makes about 3 quarts

1½ pounds tiny Puy lentils
3 quarts ham stock
2 or 3 carrots
2 onions
2 ribs of celery
2 bay leaves
1 can (14½ ounces) diced tomatoes
1 bag (16 ounces) frozen cut leaf spinach
Salt, pepper, and seasonings to taste.

Several hours before you start to actually cook, put the lentils to soak in plenty of cold water. (I start soaking the lentils when I put the ham bone into the pot to make the stock.)

Bring the ham stock to a boil with the carrots, onions, celery, and bay leaves.  Turn the heat down to a simmer and add the soaked lentils, stirring as you pour the lentils in.  Add the diced tomatoes and cover the pot, simmering for three to four hours.

Add the frozen spinach to the pot, and continue to simmer as you season the soup.  I use salt, pepper, Vegeta seasoning, and Maggi - at the least, you should add salt and pepper to taste.  When the spinach is tender, the soup is ready to serve.

Bon Appetit!

Relax - Cap'n Crunch Is Sticking Around

Picture credit: Quaker Oats
Rumors have been flying all over the internet that PepsiCo, the parent company of Quaker Oats, is planning to discontinue Cap'n Crunch, the popular line of cereals introduced in the 1960's.

Apparently, an article published on DailyFinance.com noted that the cartoon-character mascot hasn't appeared in advertising since 2007 and speculated that perhaps PepsiCo was "retiring" him.  In typical Internet Grapevine style this became distorted in the retelling until the stories became that Quaker was going to cease production of the cereal.  

But fear not:  Cap'n Crunch will still be available to rip up the roof of your mouth for years to come, according to PepsiCo, which has this message from the Cap'n on his official website:

Thanks to everyone who was asking about me! I was out on the seas but don't worry, I'm back and not going anywhere. I'm excited to be on Facebook and Twitter - a brand new adventure for me!

According to marketing data, Cap'n Crunch is no longer the single most popular pre-sweetened cereal line out there (private labels and - believe it or not - new sugary versions of Cheerios have that distinction) but Quaker has no plans to ease the Cap'n into drydock.  Take a stroll down any supermarket aisle and you'll see.  The Cap'n Crunch lineup takes up more shelf space than the rest of the entire Quaker lineup combined.


The Cap'n on Facebook - bewareof imitators, there are about a million people with "Cap'n Crunch" Facebook pages.

09 March, 2011

Banquet Chicken Fried Beef Steak Meal

I must have this inner masochistic streak that manifests itself whenever I go into the frozen foods aisle at the supermarket.  I just can't resist the urge to buy cheap Banquet frozen meals. So what if they're not even Denny's-quality kibble?  It's a hot lunch for a buck or less and they're usually under 400 calories to boot.  

Today's culinary adventure is Banquet's Chicken Fried Beef Steak Meal.  This particular meal was irresistible to me because I simply had to find out what that big breaded patty was actually going to be - you just know that for 88 cents on sale (seriously) you're not going to get anything that remotely resembles a real "beef steak."

The centerpiece of the meal is a somewhat irregularly-shaped breaded patty which ConAgra lists in the ingredients as a "Beef Patty Fritter" made primarily of beef, water, breading, and textured soy protein.  It's hard to tell where the breading ends and the beef begins, and cutting into it offers no further clues; it's sort of like those strange "veal patties" you sometimes get when you order veal parmigiana at a low-rent Italian restaurant, except with a lot more bread.  The texture is somewhat loose and wet and would be disconcerting anywhere except in a Banquet meal, but the flavor is tasty - somewhat beefy, a little salty, but well-seasoned and even a bit spicy, just like you'd expect from a decent fried chicken.  The patty is accompanied by a bargain-bin "country gravy" which is flavorful enough to be tasty and bland enough to cut some of the salt in the patty.  It's roughly equivalent to any powdered country gravy mix you've tried, and I have to admit some fondness for it.

Sides are typical of Banquet meals - standard-issue yellow corn, tender but still manly enough to fight back a little when you try to chew it; and a small plop of reconstituted dehydrated potatoes, which are - as always - delicious.  I love it when I get a Banquet meal with mashed potatoes as the side dish because I freely admit that I love the flavor of instant mashed potatoes.

When all is said and done, I can accept this meal and the "Beef Steak Patty" it's built around on its own terms and enjoy it for the cheap, tasty, and relatively fast lunch it provides.  I'd buy it again.

But you know what I'd really like?  A frozen Banquet meal with nothing but a big-ass pile of those mashed potatoes and a sea of that white gravy.  ConAgra, if you're reading this:  How about it? 'Cos I'd buy that for a dollar!