30 September, 2011

Harvesting Black Walnuts

My house was built by Maryanne's grandfather in 1926. We have pictures of it, standing new and proud, surrounded by...nothing, for even though we live in the middle of a densely populated area today, in the 1920's this was farmland, only two blocks away from downtown Thompsonville.

Today, on the south side of the house, just the other side of the driveway, stands a magnificent old black walnut tree.  It's somewhere around fifty years old or so, wide enough around that I can't embrace it, and taller than the peak of the house.  In our family, no one alive today knows how it got there - whether it was planted, or grew from a seedling, unnoticed and unmolested until it was too large to bother with.  There are several disadvantages to having a black walnut so close.  They're filthy bastard trees that make a mess around them - twigs are always falling, and they have enormous compound leaves radiate from a stem that is heavy enough to be a twig in its own right.  Anything the leaves or fruit touch gets stained black and that includes the paint on my truck. And the tree itself emits a chemical compound called juglone, which poisons the ground around the tree and prevents many other plant species from growing well. Juglone is present in every bit of the tree and, while harmless to humans, can be deadly to horses and dogs - even to the point that black walnut shavings shouldn't be used in animal bedding.  And it ensures that I have to bag up the rakings from under the tree and put them out at the curb for the town to pick up (all my other yard waste is composted out back.)

For all that though, I enjoy my black walnut tree.  It's large, spreading, and handsome and provides a lot of shade in the summer which keeps the house cooler (south side, remember?) And then there are the walnuts.

Once upon a time, black walnuts were more common than English walnuts in New England. They have a richer and deeper flavor than English walnuts and today they are very pricey when you can find them for sale commercially.  Because the heavy, dense wood is prized for things like furniture and gunstocks, black walnut trees are a lot less common now than they once were (though small stands of them are still found here and there.) I have a feeling that these days, more black walnuts are harvested by foragers like me (and squirrels) than by the commercial segment.

Right now - late fall - is the time to be gathering and processing the nuts.  By now, most of the nuts have fallen to the ground, and the ones still on the trees can be easily shaken loose.  And so, I present to you this primer about how to gather and process black walnuts. Beware: it's a lot of work.

First of all, before I say anything else:  If you intend to go through with this, be aware that it is MESSY.  Before you go forward, get a good pair of heavy rubber gloves to protect your hands from the juices produced by hulling and handling the nuts.  Black walnut juice is initially kind of a yellowy-green, but it quickly oxides to a dark brown, and it PERMANENTLY STAINS clothing, processing materials, and - especially - skin. Seriously. The first time I did this stuff, I used some shitty disposable nitrile gloves while hulling the nuts. The gloves leaked and I ended up with deeply stained brown hands that stayed that way for weeks.

OK, here we go:

1. Harvesting the nuts

Black walnuts, ripening on the tree, look like slightly small green tennis balls. While they are green, they are immature and the nuts within will be of inferior quality.  About in the middle of September, the tree's leaves will start falling and the nuts will finally be ripe enough to harvest. The hulls turn a lighter color - sort of yellowish green, and will develop brown spots. And you will easily be able to dent the hull by pressing it with your thumb.  Gather the newly-fallen nuts from the ground or pick them from the tree at this point. Gather as many as you care to process, and as long as you don't mind the work, you will never have too many. It takes about a pound of unshelled nuts to make a cup of nutmeats.

2. Removing the Hulls

Here's where those gloves are essential.

The hull is a little tough, but it cracks open easily. An easy way to do it is to simply put the nuts on a hard surface like a sidewalk and step on them. The hull will split open and you can remove the nut.  Put the nuts in a bucket and put the hulls in a trash bag for disposal. Don't leave them out where your dog will find them and chew them, and don't compost them, remember?

Other ways you can remove the hulls:

 - My favorite way it to put the nuts on the dropped tailgate of my truck and press them with the heel of my (gloved) hand. It works just as well as stepping on them and seems faster.

- Fill your driveway with nuts and drive back and forth over them until all the hulls are split. Your car tires will do nothing to harm the actual nut, but will split and remove the hulls.  Don't laugh. There are several agricultural extension offices that actually recommend this.

3. Washing the Hulled Nuts

Keep your gloves on.  Put the hulled nuts into a pail or bucket and spray them well with the garden hose. When the bucket fills up with water, agitate it so the nuts knock and rub up against each other - this will help remove the remaining hull fibers.  A few nuts might float to the top of the water - those are no good; pick them out and throw them out. Pour off the water (which will be stained dark brown) and refill the bucket and repeat the process.  After three or four times, the water will start running clear and the nuts are clean enough to cure.

4. Curing

The nuts need to thoroughly dry and cure for two weeks or so before they can be shelled and stored.  They should be spread out with plenty of air circulation in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. Traditionally, black walnuts were put into loosely-woven burlap sacks and hung from the rafters of the attic.  However, I prefer to set up an old screen door on a couple of sawhorses in my cellar and spread the nuts out on them to dry, but there are other methods you can use if you don't happen to have an old screen door or some burlap sacks handy. You can spread them no more than a couple layers deep on racks, or put them in wicker baskets according to some sources. In a few weeks, they'll look like the picture to the left, and they'll be ready to shell and store.

5. Shelling and Storage

Black walnuts are damn hard to crack. They have a thick shell, and they are nearly impossible to break with handheld nutcrackers - and even most lever-action crackers will quickly become destroyed trying to break them open. You can hit them with a hammer (which has to be done carefully to avoid smashing the nutmeats to tiny bits) or you can slowly squeeze them in a bench vise until they split.  Best of all, though, is a device called the Master Nut Cracker, invented by a gentleman named Gerald Gardner in Sarcoxie, MO and made in the USA from very high-quality parts. This cracker, which Mr. Gardner sells on eBay and from his website, has the muscle required to split all sorts of very tough-shelled nuts like black walnuts, butternuts, hickories, and macadamias.

The Master Nut Cracker. Photo by Gerald Gardner.

After the nuts have been shelled, pick the nutmeats from them and store them in the refrigerator. They'll keep in the fridge for three months or so, but remember that nutmeats are filled with oil that easily goes rancid, so they won't keep forever. For long term storage, nutmeats should be frozen.

I told you it was a lot of work. But I think it's worth it.

28 September, 2011

A Sack Of Frozen Pancakes???

Really, now...is it that difficult to make pancakes?

No, of course it isn't.  And homemade pancakes are a small fraction of the price of bagged, and they taste better, and they don't take all that much time to whip up.

Now, you really should have a pancake recipe somewhere in your recipe collection, but just in case you don't, here's the one Maryanne uses.  It's easy to remember, too, because the ingredients are "a symphony of ones."

Maryanne's Pancakes
Makes about 10 4-inch pancakes
Recipe may be doubled

1 cup of flour
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 egg, beaten
1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a large bowl, stir the flour, sugar, and baking powder together.  In a smaller bowl, beat the egg, milk, and oil together.  Stir the milk mixture into the flour mixture with a fork just long enough to make a smooth batter.  Set it aside for a few minutes to allow the baking powder to start to work.

Heat up a skillet until drops of water flicked off your fingers onto the skillet dance around and sizzle. If you have a non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron skillet, you will not need any grease, otherwise grease the skillet lightly.  Pour batter by the ladle onto the skillet and allow the pancakes to cook until the edges are kind of dry and the top surface is studded with little bubble craters.  Turn the pancakes and cook briefly to brown off the top.

Blueberry option: After the batter is mixed, stir in half a cup or more of blueberries.

27 September, 2011

Doritos Creator Arch West Dies at Age 97

Photo courtesy of the West family.

Arch West was a marketing vice president for Frito Lay, Inc. in 1964 when he took a family vacation to San Diego that would change the snack food industry forever.

Hungry for road munchies, the family pulled up to a roadside stand and bought a bag of tortillas which had been cut up and fried to greasy, crispy awesomeness.  Arch knew with one bite that he had stumbled upon an epic snack.

Back on the job, Arch pitched his idea to his corporate overlords:  a thin tortilla chip - heartier than the company's best-selling Lays Potato Chips, lighter than Frito's Corn Chips.  The company was skeptical, but when they agreed to do some consumer testing and found that the chips were very well-received, the new snack dubbed Doritos were introduced to California test markets in 1966.  They were so popular that Frito Lay rolled them out nationwide in 1967, and Doritos have been unstoppable ever since.

Today's Doritos are a little different than the originals.  Besides being available in a wide variety of regular flavors, Frito Lay brings out a stream of special flavors and packages every year. And in a mid-1990's revamp of the recipe, the chips were made a little thinner, a little larger, and given rounded corners.

Mr. West was born in Indianapolis in 1914 and graduated Franklin College where he was a member of the Delta Rho fraternity. He served as a Lieutenant in the US Navy during WW2 and worked in advertising on Madison Avenue in NY before being lured to Texas by the Frito Company, which offered him a vice presidency in marketing.  After retirement, he and his late wife Charlotte served as volunteers on his local FEMA's disaster relief team.  He's survived by three sons, two daughters, and eighteen grand- and great-grandchildren.  The family plans an October 1 service and burial, and daughter Jana Hacker says the family plans to sprinkle the grave with Doritos before lowering his remains to rest.

View Mr. West's obituary on legacy.com here.

Various news stories were used as sources for this post.

25 September, 2011

Marie Callender's Baking Mixes: Honey Butter Corn Bread

I bought an assortment of Marie Callender's baking mixes a little while ago - back when the weather cooled down and I thought that autumn was finally here and I'd be running the oven more.  Here it is a week later, and it's been kind of warm and humid again, much more like summer, and I only had time to make one of the mixes before the weather turned.  So I've decided to review the mixes one at a time, as we make them, rather than go on a baking bender and review all of them at once.  This review - for Marie Callender's Honey Butter Corn Bread Mix - will be the first of four reviews over the coming weeks.

First, though, let me explain a little about the difference between Northern corn bread and Southern corn bread.

Northern-style (or New England style, if you prefer) corn bread is generally moist, rather dense, and somewhat on the sweet side. Some of my Southern friends have described it as being more like a cake.  I never thought of it as particularly sweet - at least, it wasn't all that sweet the way my mother made hers, but it is certainly sweeter than most Southern recipes.

Southern-style cornbread calls for less sugar, has a drier and more delicate texture, and crumbles more easily.

Which variety you prefer seems to depend entirely upon where you grew up and what kind of cornbread your mother made. Serving a pan of each variety to a mixed crowd of Yankees and Southerners can be a real hoot: the Southerners mock the Northern corn bread for being a cakey dessert, while the Northerners choke and grab for glasses of milk to wash down "that dry-ass Southern stuff."

Now, the reason I've gone off on such a long tangent about types of corn bread is because Marie Callender's Corn Bread Mix produces a dense, sweet, and very moist corn bread - Northern style - and I want to forewarn Southern readers that they might want to skip it because it's not going to be anything like you've come to expect.  On the other hand, it's wicked easy to whip up - just add water to the mix and stir, then pour the batter into an 8 x 8-inch brownie pan and bake - and it makes quite an excellent corn bread (to my New England palate.)

Speaking of tangents:

As far as I can tell, there are at least three entities out there in Corporate Food Land, operating more or less independently under the Marie Callender's name:  

  • The original California restaurant chain, Marie Callender's Restaurant and Bakery
  • A line of frozen foods produced under license and made since 1993 by ConAgra, who purchased the frozen food company and retained the rights to the name, and
  • Marie Callender's Gourmet Products, which make the baking mixes.
Other than the name, I don't think the companies have much in common. It's all very confusing.

24 September, 2011

Rob's Really Good Beverages Are Really Just So-So

So, back in June I wrote a review of Rob's Really Good Chocolate, and found it not only Really Ordinary, but also really dickish for calling itself "life changing."  In the comments, a representative of Rob's offered to send me some of their beverages to review to see if they could make me stop thinking they're douchebags for claiming that their overpriced processed food products are "life changing."  I didn't take them up on that offer - I went out and bought a selection of Rob's Really Good drinks on my own.

My selection, from left to right:  Blueberry Iced Tea, Agave Mate, Iced Tea with Lemon, and something called, I shit you not, "Drink Your Salad."

Blueberry Iced Tea  wasn't bad.  The blueberry and black tea flavors were well balanced and it was adequately sweetened. There's no actual blueberries or juice in it, though, just something called "blueberry essence" and otherwise-unnamed "natural flavors." Overall it was no better or worse than other flavored teas we've had.

Agave Mate - Stripped of their starry-eyed marketing,  mate is just another crumbled dried leaf and agave syrup is nothing more than fructose syrup made from a cactus. So it should come as no surprise that if you don't buy into all the nonsense that's been written about the ingredients,  Rob's Really Good Agave Mate tastes like Really Nothing Special Sweet Tea. 

Iced Tea with Lemon was, well, iced tea with lemon. Like the other teas, there was nothing singular or exceptional about it - if you've had Arizona or Peace Tea or home-brewed iced tea, you already know what to expect.

Okay, now it's time for the star of the show, Drink Your Salad, which is labeled as "Celery, Pear & Spinach Light Salad Drink." It sounds almost horrifying, and indeed Lynnafred took one look at it and said, "Dad, this one is right up your alley and I don't want anything to do with it."  All the way home from the store, we speculated on what it might taste like.  Celery was listed first - would it taste like an uncarbonated version of Cel-Ray soda?  Or would it be more spinachy?  Or maybe it would be like pear juice but with a strange vegetable backnote?  We opened it and took nervous, tentative sips, and found that it was a perfectly ordinary, somewhat bland, pear-flavored sugarwater that was completely lacking in any kind of vegetative character at all.

Note the added citric acid,
without which there would be
approximately 0% dv Vitamin C
And no wonder.  The primary ingredients are purified water and cane sugar.  The juices in the drink - pear juice concentrate, sweet potato juice concentrate, spinach juice concentrate, celery juice concentrate, and carrot juice concentrate - comprise less than 2% of the total blend (or about 1½ teaspoons worth per 14 ounce bottle) and are further overwhelmed by the natural pear flavor added.  Seriously:  Less than 2% veggie juices, it tastes like nothing but cheapass pear Kool-Aid, and Rob's Really Good calls it a Light Salad Drink?  That is some heavyweight marketing bullshit right there.

Just like the chocolate, these beverages are labeled "Life Changing," While I'm sure Rob's life has been changed by his company's success, the hubris and entitlement of bottling mediocrity and then elevating it to the level of, say, losing your virginity or holding your grandmother's hand through her last breath (both of which are actually life changing) still makes him a douchebag.

21 September, 2011

Loathesome People on Extreme Couponing

Screen cap from TLC's Extreme Couponing
Says Extreme Couponer Michele from North Carolina: "Yes, I'm a shelf clearer...You should have beat me to the store. Sorry! tee hee hee"

Beat you to the store?  No thanks. It would be far more satisfying to beat you to the curb, bitch.

Cascal Light Red Fermented Natural Soda

Chances are you've heard about Cascal Fermented Soda kind of recently, what with Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern helping to promote them and all.  I'd heard of it, but not tried it yet. Cascal is a Whole Foods kind of company, and I'm really not a Whole Foods kinda guy.

So when I found Cascal at my local downmarket Big Lots, I grabbed a four-pack so I could check out what all the buzz is about.  Although Cascal has a variety of pretentiously-named flavors (the names are designed to be evocative of wine, so there's an apple flavor called "Fine Dry," a honey and malt flavor called "Fine Dark," a cherry/chocolate/rose flavor named "Ripe Rouge," and so on) only the "Light Red" was on the shelf.  On the front label, Light Red claims "notes of Black Currant and Mirabelle."

Most of the time, when you think of "fermentation," you think of alcohol (or spoilage, right?) Cascal's fermentation develops flavor, but the drink is non-alcoholic. It's kind of a wine-ish flavored sody-pop.

But it's obvious with the very first sip that this is no ordinary sody-pop.  There is no sugary sweetness, only a dry and crisp flavor of red summer fruit with a slightly tart aftertaste. The carbonation gives Cascal a bit of fizz, but it's light compared with Coke and Pepsi's belch engines.  Maryanne and I both found it to be snappy and refreshing - much more so than heavier sugary pops.

The back label tells the story. Cascal is 19% juice, and the ingredient panel lists no preservatives, no added sugar, no added acids - nothing but sparkling water, fermented barley malt, and a variety of different fruit juices (almost all of them from concentrate, and most of them fermented.) The final result is sparkly, fruity and quenching, and only 60 calories for the bottle (compare that to 140 calories for the same amount of Coca-Cola.)

Cascal Light Red is pretty good stuff. I might even try some of the other flavors.

19 September, 2011

New Wheat Thins Smoky BBQ Flavor

Nabisco is introducing a new Wheat Thins flavor this week - it shows up in stores today - called Wheat Thins Smoky BBQ.  A couple of weeks ago, Nabisco sent us a sample for review, and we've been chomping on them ever since.

They're good.  Really good.  Surprisingly good, actually, because I don't usually like BBQ flavored snack crunchies and yet Wheat Thins Smoky BBQ won me over with well-balanced spices and flavorings and a subtle waft of smoke. (This is such a contrast to most barbecue-flavored chips which tend to kick you in the mouth with a ton of tomato powder and really cheap, strong smoke flavor.)  Beware, though: if you are a die-hard anti-BBQ-flavorist, they might not be for you. In an informal guys-around-the-break-table-at-work test, seven guys loved them, two liked them, and two said they didn't like stuff that tasted like smoke. (Take this study with a greain of salt however, because it's well known that you can take anything at all even remotely edible to the company breakroom, put it out on a table, and the vultures you work with will have it stripped to a skeleton within minutes.)

Despite this universal appeal, out-of-the-box snacking is not where Wheat Thins shine. As thin and crunchy as they are, they're still a cracker and the Smoky BBQ variety is especially well-suited for enhancement.  Cheese especially, whether it's a dab of cream cheese, a squirt of aerosol Easy Cheese, or a slice of spicy pepper jack, Smoky BBQ Wheat Thins and cheese are a natural together.  They're pretty awesome paired with a hearty dip, too.  

Anyway, today's the official release date. GET SOME.

17 September, 2011

Pop-Tarts Mini Crisps

Bought on a lark at Big Lots!: Pop-Tarts Mini Crisps.  They're thin, crispy little cookies made to resemble tiny Pop-Tarts - the frosting is there, but instead of a filling, the cookies are studded with little flavor bits. And they taste exactly like Pop-Tarts.  Seriously.

This may not appeal to you, but it certainly does to me, because I really like Pop-Tarts.  And the packaging - little 100-calorie packets - appeal to Lynnafred, because she can drop one in her purse and have a light snack between classes at school.

12 September, 2011

It's National Milkshake Day!

You know what that means, right?

Well, it might mean something entirely different for you. For me, and Holyoke Community College, that means that today is Free Smoothie/Milkshake Day, sponsored by our Student Activities office and the folks at f'real Milkshakes and their rolling Milkshake Wagon. (Note: I have no idea if it's really called the Milkshake Wagon. It just sounded good.)

If you had been in line with me, you would have heard
students of all ages grumbling about wanting
that damn smoothie "NOW, DAMMIT."
f'real milkshakes started showing up this semester in HCC's cafeteria at a whopping $3.79 a pop, but you can find them using f'real's store finder and they'll cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.50.

So, are these milkshakes any good? In a word, yes. Creamy, smooth, and made with a thickness that you get to choose, these shakes start with ice cream in a cup and are blended to the way you want them. (More or less, of course. There's three settings to choose from: less thick, regular, and more thick. Less thick is a little runny, regular is like a standard milkshake, and more thick is more like the still-mostly-ice-cream 'shakes you get at McDonalds.)

Their smoothies are even better. Creamy, fruity, and subtly sweet, the smoothies are my favorite of the bunch. Made the same way as the shakes are, plug them into the machine, select your thickness, and away you go.

The smoothies and shakes are made with a standalone, ready-to-use blender that operates with a fully integrated LCD touchscreen. Its sensors know when you've placed a milkshake cup in it, and bring up the prompt for thickness. Select what you're craving, and that's it. Sometimes the screen plays an animation, sometimes it does something else like give company history or little trivia bits. Either way, in about 45 seconds, the machine is done and so is your shake. And the blender is self-cleaning after every blend, so you never have to worry about cross-shake contamination.

But seriously, with ten regular flavors from milkshakes to smoothies to frozen cappuccinos, and two limited edition flavors (Reese's peanut butter cup and mint chocolate) you really can't go wrong. You'll have a tasty smoothie or shake every time.

So go out there and celebrate National Milkshake Day. Go get a f'real shake and go make yourself happy.

f'real Main Website - the epicenter of delicious frozen drinks

Disclaimer: This is NOT a sponsored post. I'm not being paid by f'real Milkshakes for advertisement, or by Holyoke Community College. I just freaking LOVE milkshakes.

10 September, 2011

Mexican Coca-Cola

Look what I found in my local ShopRite store today:  Mexican Coca-Cola! This is very cool - previously, the only place around here where Mexican Coke is sold was Costco (cheaper than ShopRite, I will admit, but at Costco one can only buy the stuff by the case whereas at a grocery store you can buy singles.)

Anyway, there are a ton of people like me who remember what Coca-Cola is supposed to taste like, and the corn-syrup-sweetened swill they peddle to Americans these days ain't it.  Prior to the mid-1980's, The Real Thing was made with sugar.  Nowadays, the only way to get Coke with sugar is to wait until Passover and stock up on the specially made Kosher for Passover variety, or to buy Coca-Cola imported from Mexico.

But it isn't just the taste that's nostalgic about MexiCoke. The real glass bottles retain the classic Coke shape and pale-green tint, and they have to be cracked with an opener - there are no twist-tops on these babies.

If there's a store near you selling Mexican Coke, pick up a bottle and do your own taste test.  See if you can tell the difference between the two, and see which one you prefer.

08 September, 2011

Brew Review: Boddingtons Pub Ale

I'm not really all that much of a beer drinker, and when I do it's usually a lager, pilsner, or IPA. But my brother-in-law Nick had been gifted with a case of Boddintons Pub Ale recently, and I couldn't resist giving it a try.

Boddington's is imported to the US in nitro-cans, the same type of container that allows Guinness to pour successfully even when not drawn from a proper tap.  And let me tell you, it is a gorgeous pour - the same tumbling cascade of rich creamy foam, perhaps a bit less dramatic than a Guinness pour because the head roils and builds against a honey-golden backdrop instead of the deep chocolate color of Guinness.  After a moment or two, the head settles to a thick top layer about an inch or so thick, ready to sip through.

The ale itself is surprisingly mild, and almost bland. Malty sweetness hides behind a strong cereal flavor tinged with a touch of grassy hops, and when the initial nitro-charged creaminess fades after the pour, Boddingtons winds up a little on the thin side.  But for all that, it was still a decent and refreshing brew and went quite well with the marinated London broil and barbecued chicken which Nick was serving from the grill.

07 September, 2011

Marie Callender's Frozen Lasagna - And How ConAgra Dun Goof'd

Back in 2009 I did a comparative review of frozen lasagna, tasting and ranking eleven different products. Marie Callender's Meat lasagna was one of those products. I ranked it in the middle of the pack in the "Good" category - not outstanding, but not bad.  It was a little wet, a little salty, and much sparser with the cheese than the package art would suggest, but the sauce was fairly authentic-tasting, and I said I would buy it again if it were on sale.

Yesterday morning I stopped in ShopRite on my way to work, looking for a frozen meal I could take for lunch. I noticed that the Marie Callender's Lasagna label had changed - ConAgra was touting a new recipe and claiming that this new "three meat and four cheese" lasagna was "preferred over the leading meat lasagna." I decided to give it a try.  Little did I know while I was eating lunch and taking notes that this very product (or at least ConAgra's marketing of it) was starting to go viral.  More on that later - first, the review.

On the surface, very little has changed with Marie Callender's lasagna. It is still very wet and overly salty and the package art still hugely overrepresents the amount of cheese found in the pan.  There are still the same number of noodle layers, and they are still thick and a little tough.  There is no question that the recipe has changed, though.  The sauce is spicier, with a subtle but noticeable hot pepper kick.  And there is a heavy sprinkle of very green, very grassy-tasting parsley on top (so grassy-tasting, in fact, that it's almost distracting. Quite strange.)  The ingredients claim there to be three meats - pork, beef, and sausage - but I couldn't really tell which granules were which because all I could taste was the sausage.  I can't possibly understand how it can be "preferred over the leading meat lasagna," unless the leader is something really awful like Chef Boy-R-Dee Lasagna in a can.  If this Marie Callender's recipe had been on the market in 2009 when I wrote the original rankings, it would fall solidly in the "Unremarkable" category, below Boston Market's Lasagna With Beef Sauce.

So, given this totally "meh" product, what could ConAgra do with it that would cause them to take so much heat from bloggers?

As reported in the New York Times today, ConAgra tried to pull a fast one on a group of bloggers in New York City.  The bloggers were invited to try out an "intimate Italian restaurant" puportedly run by the host of TLC's Ultimate Cake Off, celebrity chef George Duran. What the bloggers didn't know was that they were actually served Marie Callender's new frozen lasagna while being taped by hidden cameras. The idea was to use what they hoped would be the diners' "OMG THIS IS FROZEN CRAP??? IT'S SO GOOD I THOUGHT I WAS EATING INTIMATE ITALIAN FOOD!!" reactions in an ad campaign.

The plan backfired, as explained here on the Brandnoise blog. Most of the bloggers involved are upset that they were tricked into eating mediocre frozen lasagna by the promise of a specially-prepared meal by a celebrity chef.  But some of them, I think, are most upset by not being able to tell the difference.  (In all fairness, however, the photos on Chubby's New York Food Diary [link no longer working] seem to indicate that there was more than a little food styling going on before the lasagna was plated and served.)

The end result? Most of the bloggers wouldn't sign the releases ConAgra needed to use their hidden camera footage and the NYC food blogosphere is abuzz with harsh feelings for the company and their PR firm. ConAgra, ya dun goof'd.

06 September, 2011

Al Gore Fruit Snacks

Don't be fooled by the label on these fruit snacks.  Toy Story is only part of the picture here. Take a look at the snack shapes on the front label.  Especially that blue one.

Somehow, the molds for the Buzz Lightyear shapes were tampered with, turning them into Al Gore Fruit Snacks.

Not to worry, though, I'm sure they have a very small carbon footprint.

04 September, 2011

Stuffed Cherry Pepper Appetizers

Looking for a something a little different to serve at your Labor Day end-of-summer party?  How about a traditional Italian antipasto treat: stuffed cherry peppers?  You can make them with either sweet or hot cherry peppers and they're easy to put together.

Here's what you'll need:

  • A jar or two of cherry peppers, sweet or hot or both as you prefer
  • A block of mild cheese: I prefer fontina for stuffing peppers, but provolone is traditional and monterey jack is good, too.
  • Thinly-sliced prosciutto
And the method:
  • With the point of a sharp knife, cut around the stem of the pepper to remove it. Pull the stem out so the seed cluster comes out with it. Use the rounded end of a butter knife to scoop out any remaining seeds.
  • Take a chunk of cheese small enough to fit inside the cavity of the pepper and wrap it in a strip of prosciutto (not a whole slice of prosciutto, just a strip torn from the slice.)
  • Stuff the wrapped cheese into the pepper, tucking any loose ends of prosciutto inside the edge of the pepper.
  • Repeat until you have made the desired number of stuffed peppers (or until you run out of one of the ingredients!)

I make stuffed cherry peppers a few times a year - whenever we're having a big family get together - as part of a veggie dip platter, but you can put a bowl of them out all by themselves. Keep the jar of pickle juice from the peppers, because if you have leftovers, the stuffed peppers can be dropped back into the jar and, in the pickle juice and kept in the fridge, they'll stay edible for a few more weeks.

02 September, 2011

Herr's Pizza Flavored Potato Chips

This is just a week for Herr's potato chips, I guess.

Thanks to a tip from J. Astro, I sought out and found some Herr's Pizza Flavored Potato Chips. I was a bit skeptical; I'm not a fan of tomato powder seasoning and it was hard for me to imagine that a chip purporting to taste like a pizza could pull it off without something to simulate the flavor of the sauce.  Still, Astro knows his snacks as well as he knows his cheesy horror flicks (more on that later) so the hunt was on.

Amazingly, I found some for sale almost immediately at Ocean State Job Lot and took a bag home, resolving not to even look at the ingredients panel until after tasting so as not to influence our opinions.  

I have to admit, they do taste a lot like a pizza.  Not exactly, mind you, but as much like a pizza as, say, pizza flavored Combos or TGIFriday's Cheese Pizza Chips.  And they do it without tomato powder.  A few different cheeses (including Romano,) some spices, and extract of paprika for a peppery flavor and a red color combine for a strangely authentic flavor that everyone really enjoyed.  In fact, we just about killed the whole bag - something that rarely happens when we set out to sample something for a review.  I'd certainly buy these again if I found them, which sadly is not guaranteed since Herr's distribution network is still a little spotty in New England.

And speaking of J. Astro and his horror movie connoisseurship, if you're a fan of eclectically bizarre films (B-movies, horror, cult films, cut-out bin trash, and general cinematic sleaze) check out his blog Screen Grab! with J. Astro.  Full disclosure: it's NSFW and you'll have to click through a content warning, but it's worth it.

01 September, 2011

Herr's Kansas City Prime Steak Flavor Potato Chips

Hey, as long as we're talking about Herr's chips, allow me to present one of the most unique concepts for a potato chip ever: Kansas City Prime Steak Flavor.

One look at these babies and I knew they'd be coming home with me - how could I possibly resist?  Steak flavor chips?  WHAT SORCERY IS THIS, HERR'S?

No sorcery at all, as it turns out, and to be honest, not much steak flavor either. The ingredients list things like torula yeast and onion powder and so on, and when we opened the bag, our first impression was "Lipton French Onion Soup Mix!"  And that's pretty much what they taste like, too.  Not much steak flavor unless you happen to like your steak completely smothered in onions (and salt - Kansas City Prime chips are probably the saltiest-tasting chips anyone in the family had ever eaten, though the saltiness is mitigated somewhat if you dip them into sour cream as you nosh.)

They're probably one of the best onion-flavored chips the family has ever had, though we all agreed that they're a total failure when it comes to steak flavor.  Nevertheless, Maryanne, Lynnafred and I decided that Herr's Kansas City Prime chips were one of our all-time favorites.