31 August, 2009

International Bacon Day 2009 Update

A few days ago, I poked some fun at International Bacon Day - it's celebrated on the Saturday before the US Labor Day, and I wondered why an "international" celebration would be keyed to an American holiday.

Alexa, the proprietor of the International Bacon Day blog, found my post and left a comment briefly explaining IBD's history: Bacon Day started when she was living in Colorado. Understanding that celebrants would need at least two days to recover from a full day of smoky pork debauchery, the day was carefully chosen to fall on a common American 3-day weekend. (With that criterion in mind, I think the choice of Labor Day was inspired. Early September weather is usually pretty decent, and Labor Day is a traditional day to throw a party saying goodbye to carefree summer.)

Since that first celebration, Alexa has moved to Australia, taking the Bacon Day idea with her, nurturing it, and growing it into an international event which, from what I can tell, is celebrated by people pretty much all over the world...and still on the Saturday before Labor Day.

As for me, I am celebrating International Bacon Day by testing a new seasoning for my homemade bacon. A couple of months ago, I added a few handfuls of mixed pickling spice to my bacon cure. The results were less than spectacular - the bacon cured well and the citruswood smoke was as delicious as ever, but the other flavors in the pickling spice (fennel, coriander, and caraway were the main culprits) are not so successful when used in a bacon cure.

Last week, I found some fat pork trimmings at a local grocery. they are big sheets of trimmings from loin roasts, and they have alternating layers of fat and lean, much like genuine pork belly. At 79 cents a pound, they were also a bargain. So I have them curing right now in my experimental seasoning - my standard brine cure, enhanced with black peppercorns, mustard seed, and crushed bay leaf. On International Bacon Day, I will slowly smoke this impromptu bacon over apple wood, and after chilling it to firm it up for slicing, I will enjoy thin slices of it - unfried, just the way it comes off the cutting board - with good black bread, the way the similar са́ло is enjoyed in Ukraine.


Would You Buy This Liver?

This is why I don't buy beef liver at the local Shaw's. Look at that mess. I swear they slice it with a Weed Whacker.

30 August, 2009

Vintage Sunday: Antoine's Restaurant Centennial Menu

Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans celebrated its centennial in 1940 and during that year, a special commemorative menu was used. Originals taken home as souvenirs that year are selling online for a wide range of prices - $30 to over $200 from what I've seen - but I found this one at an estate sale where I bought it in a box lot with a bunch of old cookbooks for a couple of dollars.

There are four pages to the menu, including the cover. To fit the format of the blog, they are displayed here in a rather small size, but clicking on them will open up a very large and clearly readable JPG file for your viewing entertainment.

Unfortunately, I no longer have this menu. Shortly after I made these scans, my dog's tail fanned the menu off of the low scanner table in my office and plopped it squarely into a slice of pizza, thus making all surviving copies of the menu incrementally more valuable.


29 August, 2009

Healthy Frozen Meals: Smart Ones Thai Style Chicken and Rice Noodles

After some careful deliberation and avoiding frozen foods for a few weeks, I decided that I'm going to write these up as I'm eating them. It'll make their review much more honest and make me procrastinate less on actually writing the thing up.

And today, I'm looking at Smart Ones Thai Style Chicken and Rice Noodles. The fine print under the flavor adds: In a zesty peanut sauce.

Before I jump into this review, I want to say right now that I don't like "sour" notes in my food. The flavor of vinegar to me is a complete turn-off. That's why I don't like pickles, or sauerkraut, or hot-and-sour soup, or most sweet-and-sour Asian dishes. So keep this in mind as you read my review, okay?

This meal smelled of peanut butter and vinegar, which was an immediate warning that I probably wouldn't like it. And the monotone, brown sludge that came out of the microwave wasn't very appealing. It looked kind of slimy.

The carrots are cut up into little stick-like shapes; there's not an overabundance of them but there's definitely a good handful, and the rice noodles are all clumped together. That's one of the reasons I'm not a huge fan of reheated rice noodles. Sure, they're delicious, but the damn things stick together like no one's business. I stir the contents up according to package instructions and take a small bite.

The "zesty peanut sauce" is kind of strange. Peanutty, kind of sweet, and with an odd kind of tomato flavor, like tomato soup. It has a very mild cayenne-pepper spiciness. And a definite vinegary sourness.

Remember what I said about me not liking sour. For me, the combination of the vinegar and the tomato made this meal taste like those vomit-flavored jelly beans that come in Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Bean. Objectively, this flavor combination probably works for a lot of people, but I just hate hate hate vinegar flavoring. Getting through this one bite of noodle is hard enough, and without Dave here to egg me on, I can't stomach much more of this. I can't even tell you what the carrots or the chicken is like, because I can't get past the one bite of it.

Other web reviews seem to be pretty positive, but I know I won't be buying it again.

Calories: 260
Calories From Fat: 35
Sodium: 570 mg; 24%

Dave has his say:

Smart Ones Thai Style Chicken and Rice Noodles is an interestingly-flavored example of cheapo Thai taste. The peanut/tomato/sweet-and-sour flavor of the sauce does have a vinegary tang to it, so it's really not something Lynnafred would have liked.

As for the meal itself: The rice noodles are tender and somewhat sticky, loosened with a mildly spicy peanut sauce that has shades of tomato, sweet, and sour elements. The flavor of the carrots in the dish is enhanced with the addition of concentrated carrot juice; unfortunately this had the effect of giving the sauce a kind of tomato soup taste.

The chicken was well seasoned and flavorful, and there was a fairly generous portion of large, firm chunks. The ingredients said "roasted chicken tenderloin" and I have no reason to doubt it.

Overall, the meal wasn't all that bad, and was a nice change from some of the more run-of-the-mill noodly frozen meals. Props to Heinz for a tasty faux-Thai lunch, even though the sour aspect might turn some people away.


28 August, 2009

International Bacon Day 2009

International Bacon Day is recognized by pig belly enthusiasts on the Saturday before Labor Day (which, considering Labor Day is an American holiday, makes me wonder just how "international" it is, but whatever.) In 2009, this day is September 5.

Doing a quick Google search on International Bacon Day will bring up page upon page of links. There's an official website for the "holiday" as well as tons of info related to it (parties, specialty items, T-shirts, and so on.)

You may not decide to party, fly a bacon flag, or paint your dog with pink and off-white stripes to resemble a slice of bacon in celebration of the day. I know that I'm not. But you might want to celebrate in a very personal and meaningful way: by making your own homemade bacon.

The process that transforms a fatty chunk of pigmeat into delicious bacon is indeed magical, but it's not that hard to do. If you've ever made an apple pie or cooked dinner for your family from a recipe, you can probably do it. The thing is, it takes some time. If you start today - locating and buying the necessary ingredients, including pork belly - and get your bacon curing within the next day or two, you can celebrate International Bacon Day in real style, by smoking your own home-cured bacon on Saturday morning, then enjoying it that very afternoon with family and friends in observance of the holiday.

So: Go forth and gather your supplies. Make some bacon. And on September 5, become a Titan Among Men as you share your homemade bacon with your friends, for they will taste it and worship you and raise mighty statues in your honor and sing your name in songs.

Here's my tutorial and recipes for making bacon at home.

Want to be more adventurous? Here's a tutorial about Whiskey-Cured Bacon.

Here's the official International Bacon Day website.


Hormel Pickled Pork

The very thought of pickled pork in a jar makes my wife shudder and my daughter gag, but I admit to having a certain fondness for this odd and somewhat out-of-place-in-these-health-conscious-times meaty condiment. Hormel cans several varieties of pickled pork, including pork hocks and "pork tidbits" (shown at left) and pig's feet (not pictured.)

I bought a jar each of the hocks and tidbits, partly from nostalgia because I haven't seen them in stores around me since my hometown A&P closed many years ago. Although in some ways they're just like I remembered them, there are a few differences, and overall I think the quality is a little lower than it used to be.

The pork hocks are boneless cross-sectional slices which include meat, cartilage, fat, and skin. They're cured, slow-cooked to render the cartilage deliciously soft, and packed in vinegar before the jars are sealed and processed. It's easy to fish out a whole slice and enjoy it meat, cartilage, and skin. The vinegar is unseasoned and strong, and it makes for a somewhat bland yet sharp and acidic flavor which almost overwhelms the porky taste but at the same time cuts the nastiest mouth effects of the fat and the flabby skin. That's a picture on the right of a typical slice of hock fresh from the jar. I admit that it looks pretty disgusting, but the taste isn't as bad as all that. I kind of enjoy them even though I don't remember them being as so strongly vinegared.

The tidbits, though, are another story. I bought them because I recalled randomly-cut but decent-sized chunks of pork (both meat and skin) with an overall larger proportion of meat to fat and skin. That's not anything like what I ended up with. Tidbits these days are tiny pieces of porky debris, mostly fat and skin with occasional bits of cured pork, in the same very strong vinegar solution used for the hocks. they were rather disappointing. I'd buy the pork hocks again, but I think I'll take a pass on the tidbits from now on.

27 August, 2009

Banquet Mexican Style Enchilada Meals - A Twofer

You'd think that I would have learned my lesson after eating that Banquet Enchilada Combo Meal back in July. You'd be wrong. There is something about bizarrely faux-Mexican frozen meals that compels me to try them. And so, my microwave recently hosted a matched set of Banquet Mexican Style meals: the Chicken Enchilada Meal and the Beef Enchilada Meal. And, while the enchiladas and tamales were not nearly as plump or attractive as those shown on the box covers, I must admit that they weren't all that bad - and certainly worth every cent of the whopping one dollar each that I paid for them.

The Chicken Enchilada Meal leaves out the rather nasty refried beans that I've encountered in other Banquet Mexican-Style meals, providing a double-sized portion of Banquet's standard Mexican-Style Rice instead. As usual, the rice grains are firm and cooked perfectly, sprinkled with finely chopped red and green bell pepper, and fairly swimming in a loose tomatoey sauce. Since I hate overcooked rice, I can tolerate this and it even kind of grows on you after awhile.

The chicken enchilada was almost identical to the one in the previous combo meal: A wet, mushy chicken paste with lots of thready chicken meat fibers rolled up in a thick wet corn tortilla. There is a pleasant but mild spiciness which I suspect comes from the ketchupy sauce that seems to be all over the enchilada and the serving pan.

Meanwhile, the Beef Enchilada Meal goes the other way with the side dishes: It leaves out the mediocre but tolerable Mexican-style rice and offers up a double portion of the refried beans, which unfortunately are wildly inconsistent in quality from one meal to the next. I've had decent, firm-but-thoroughly-cooked beans, and I've had nasty, soupy "refried bean sludge." Please, ConAgra: work on the quality control on the beans. (Tip: if you ignore the heating instructions that tell you to stir the beans halfway through the microwaving, your beans will be better. Yes, I admit that I've eaten enough of these meals to have discovered that hint.)

The enchilada, as expected, was also the same as before: a thin portion of meatlike granules folded into a thick, wet corn tortilla. There was the same ketchupy-sweet "enchilada sauce" as in the Chicken Meal, providing a touch of spice and a bit of flavor.

The big surprise in both meals, however, were the tasty tamales, especially considering their mysterious composition and rather off-putting look. There's a spicy, crumbly yet moist center part seemingly made up of corn flour, TVP, and really cheap beef surrounded by a thin film of cornmeal. I was fairly amazed by just how good they tasted! Corn, spices, beef, and even that kind of questionable sauce all lent flavor notes which combined into a delicious taste - truly the high point of these frozen meals and - regrettably - also the smallest components. Yeah, I'm a sucker for a cheap tamale.

So: Are these gourmet dining? Not by a long shot. Are they acceptable dollar lunches? Yeah, I think so. I'd buy them again.


26 August, 2009

Taylor Pork Roll

I was in the ShopRite supermarket in Manchester CT over the weekend, and look what I found! Taylor Pork Rolls! This is a rare treat up here in Northern Connecticut, though ShopRite (headquartered in Elizabeth NJ) would certainly be the place to look for one.

You see, pork roll is a New Jersey specialty, and one that's not found so much of a following outside the NJ/NYC/Philly area. That's a shame, because it's pretty damned awesome. Especially the John Taylor brand. Taylor invented the pork roll in the 1880's. He was a Trenton NJ wholesale grocer who got into the pork and beef packing business and founded Taylor Provision Co. Several other companies make pork roll nowadays but my favorite is the original Taylor Pork Roll - still made after 120-some-odd years by Taylor Provision in Trenton.

It's hard to describe pork roll. It's a kind of chopped and cured pork product, stuffed into cylindrical cotton bags for easy slicing; beyond that it gets difficult. Although the texture somewhat resembles SPAM, pork roll is firmer and less fatty. Pork roll's lactic acid cure makes it taste something like an unseasoned Genoa salami (but much less intense because salami's long curing time makes it much firmer than pork roll.)

The best way to cook it is just to slice it, (as thick or thin as you like it) right through the cotton casing, then peel the cotton off and fry it up. In Joisey they cut little 3/4-inch slits in from the edges to keep the slices from curling into little "cups" as it fries. I just stuck the slices under a bacon press to keep them flat and it seemed to work okay.

Serve your fried pork roll slices alongside eggs, toast, and home fried potatoes. The stuff is great - miles better than fried SPAM, which is not only greasier, but saltier and not as good-tasting.

For a classic "Jersey Breakfast," put slices of pork roll on a hard roll with egg and cheese. Delicious and satisfying.


I'd love to give Taylor Provisions a link here, but as far as I can tell, they don't have a website. The best I can do is send you over to Jersey Pork Roll, where you can check out Taylor Pork Roll and other NJ edibles. It's always best to see if you can find it locally first, though.


24 August, 2009

The Secrets of Chef Boyardee

The food aisle of the local Big Lots had a big display of Chef Boyardee cans. They were labeled "Spoon-Sized Pasta Shapes," but the labels were unusual - the usual photo showing the product (the "serving suggestion") was missing. Lynnafred picked up a can to take a closer look, and noticed a bil;ingual "Nutrition Facts" label (English/French) faintly showing through the red background next to Chef's picture. We decided to buy a can to see what was underneath.

At home, she carefully worked her way under the top label with a knife and then started peeling away the glued seam, revealing Chef Boyardee NHL Pasta. The pasta was shaped like little National Hockey League logos, and all the text was in English and French, for sale in Canada. The label was cluttered with graphics and information about a special contest; the lucky winner would receive tickets to the 2009 NHL All Star game!

The contest ended in December 2008. ConAgra must have found itself with thousands of unsold cans of Chef with obviously outdated labels and decided to cut their losses by sticking on a new label and sending the cans out to the remainder market.

So - the contest ran from September 29th to December 24th in 2008, and the NHL All-Star Game was on January 25, 2009. That pasta must have been pretty old, eh? Was ConAgra tarnishing the good name of Chef Boyardee by slapping on new labels and putting the stuff out at Big Lots?

Nope. Contest dates notwithstanding, the bottom of the can includes a quality assurance code and a "Best by" date of July 13, 2010. We're good until next summer if necessary.

23 August, 2009

Vintage Sunday: 1969 Kentucky Fried Chicken Bucket

Of all the strange things I've found at estate sales, this 1969 (yes, it's dated) Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket was perhaps the most unexpected. The estate sale was at a house that had more clutter than I'd ever seen before, and the sale organizers had simply opened up the house, set up a cashier's station at the front door, and let everyone sift through everything to find treasures.

I found the bucket in the attic, balanced on the bannister. I was gobsmacked to imagine that someone had finished a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken forty years ago and had actually taken the time to stash away the bucket rather than throw it away. This is true ephemera: it's an artifact of everyday life so common and so unappreciated that almost every example was thrown away after use.

Along the rim of the bucket, there are small spot illustrations suggesting situations where one might want to serve delicious Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Colonel knows that his chicken is perfect for Meetings, Guests, Parties, Traveling, Picnics, and "Mom's Day Off."

I love these little spot illustrations. Check out "Mom's Day Off," for example. That is amazing economy of line. The artist combined a bare minimum number of brushstrokes and a few splashes of red to define negative space and complete the drawings. And he made it look easy.

Also, he kind of made Mom look like some cape-and-cowled superhero launching herself into flight as she waves goodbye to the Good Citizens she has fed with chicken. Up, up, and AWAY!!

22 August, 2009

Burger King Sponsors Getafe CF, Awesome Shirts Ensue

Spanish soccer club Getafe has a new sponsor: Burger King! And as part of the sponsorship, their kit features the BK logo prominently on the front:

Now, it so happens that this sponsorship is creating something of a controversy in the world of Fútbol - not so much because of the big BK logo on the front (though that is kind of over-the-top, I admit) but because of what's printed inside the shirts:

The King is printed upside down on the inside of the shirt so players can pull the hem of the shirt over their heads and celebrate goals in stylish royal splendor. The shirts come with an "instruction sheet" which I find pretty hilarious:

If you read any footie-related message boards, you'll find that this idea is being met with some disparagement by many fans. But personally, as a fan of the King, I think these Getafe shirts are pretty damned awesome. I might even be tempted to click over to Univision to watch a Getafe match now and again in hopes of seeing a goal scored and the player royally celebrating.

And if anyone knows where I can get one of those shirts, please email me.


21 August, 2009

Why I'm Buying Imported Charcoal

I don't like using charcoal briquettes. It's not that I'm some kind of "barbecue snob" or anything, I just prefer plain hardwood charcoal (it's usually labeled as "lump charcoal" on the bag) because it burns hotter and cleaner and it's kind of cool to see real wood embers in the bottom of the grill or fire pit or whatever.

Last year, I wrote about my disappointment with a charcoal company that seemed to have some pretty low quality-control standards (I kept finding rocks in the bags of charcoal I was buying from them.) I stopped buying that brand and switched over to buying World Classics Trading Company lump charcoal and Kingsford Charwood. World Classics is pretty good stuff, I have to admit, but it's pricier than most of the other brands. And unfortunately Kingsford - the number-one brand of charcoal - seems to have quality-control problems of their own; they don't seem to be able to pack bags of charcoal without letting in chunks of firebrick. Cooking over live coals is expensive enough as it is without getting shorted because the bag has heavy chunks of brick hidden inside, and whether it's accidental or not, I still get irritated when I'm cleaning out the ashes and find rocks and firebrick.

But recently I found a brand that I can recommend without reservation: Amigos lump charcoal, manufactured by a company called Charcoal International, Inc. in Paraguay and imported to the US by the company's offices in Miami. I first gave them a try because of the price - a full 20-pound bag was around $12.00 at a local market, a good deal because it's hard to find lump charcoal in bags larger than 8 pounds around here. And unlike most of the other lump charcoals I've used, Amigos is made of natural wood: branches, logs, tree limbs. Not scrap oak flooring or old pallets or hunks of plywood (Yeah. Plywood. Quite a surprise the day I was pouring out some of that shitty Cowboy Charcoal and got a 9-inch by 18-inch piece of perfectly carbonized plywood, like some kind of fossilized Home Depot artifact.) Although I sometimes have to give the Amigos lumps a good whack to break them into pieces that will fit into my charcoal chimney, that minor inconvenience is more than compensated for by the natural purity of the product. Charcoal International products are guilt-free, too. The wood they use is sourced from environmentally responsible, sustainably-managed plantations and mill yards.

Check this out. It's a fairly typical example of what you get when you reach into a bag of Amigo charcoal. There's no sense of scale to that picture, but the big piece standing up on the left side of the pic was almost eight inches in diameter. The branch alongside was about 10 inches long and a little over three inches in diameter. There are plenty of smaller pieces and bits in the bag too, but the large hunk of obviously natural wood set this brand apart from most of the others I find in my area.


Charcoal International Company's website.

Kingsford Charcoal website - They're a great source of info for barbecue and grilling, including recipes if you need them. Click here to go to the Kingsford Charwood page directly.

World Classics Trading Company products - an info page at Big Y (a locally-owned supermarket chain in my region.) World Classics Trading Company maintains a "placeholder" site here, but you'll get more information by either clicking on my Big Y link or by checking with a supermarket near you that carries the brand.


20 August, 2009

The 4H Fair, and Cheeseburger Cake

My wife Maryanne and I went to the local 4H Fair last Saturday; it's the smallest of the regional agricultural fairs, but one that's important to us because the exhibitors are all kids from local farms showing off their budding skillz, and we want the kids to know that we appreciate their contribution to sustainable local farming.

We went through the livestock and poultry exhibits, playing with the chickens, petting the goats, and visiting with young dairy farmers and their prize cattle. My amazing Animal-Fu™ was at 100% power - the goats were being extra-friendly, most of the chickens came up to the edge of their cages to have their heads scratched, and even the cows wanted to nuzzle. Don't accuse me of being Dr. Doolittle, I can't understand a word they're saying, but I genuinely like beasts and they seem to like me most of the time, too.

The poultry exhibit was bigger this year than it's been for a few years. I love chickens, and we had a great time visiting the hens. Kids from a couple of local dairy farms were there with their cows, and there were a lot of goats. Mostly nannies, actually, because this area is seeing rising demand for goat's milk and goat's milk cheeses. We chatted with some of the young goatherds and gave the goats scritchies and belly rubs. The goats behave a lot like friendly dogs. Well, friendly dogs with hooves and big wobbly lactating udders who like to grab the edge of your sleeve and give it a nibble if you don't pay enough attention to them. I wonder if I'd be able to get away with keeping a goat on my half-acre suburban property?

When we were done with the animals, we checked out the garden produce and the "household arts" exhibits. The pickles and preserves were delicious-looking as usual and therfe was quite a selection of jams, jellies, pickles, and canned tomatoes. Maryanne and I put up a lot of stuff every year as local produce shows up in the garden and at farm stands, so we're always inrterested in what the kids choose to can and enter in the competition.

This year, the baking competition was particularly interesting. In addition to the usual sheet cakes and layer cakes, there was a great-looking Cheeseburger Cake - a cleverly-decorated layer cake with fondant "fixin's" presented on a sheet of McDonalds burger-wrapping paper. Well done, and it won a Best In Show ribbon.

If you enjoy local agricultural fairs, keep an eye open for your local 4H events. They draw significantly smaller crowds than the big "State Fairs" so they're easy to get around in, and it's easy to pass the time of day chatting with the young farmers and their parents. And you'll be showing the kids you care about their interests, local agriculture, and the future of farming in your region.


4-H website - Includes an interactive link to the 4-H organization for your region (it's not magic, a script on the page can tell your general location from your IP address.)

If you didn't understand that part in parentheses above, and want to know more about how a website knows where you're surfing from, click here.

4-H in Connecticut - Part of the UConn agricultural extension office.


19 August, 2009

Oscar Mayer No-Lean Bacon

Yeah, I know it's bacon and there's supposed to be fat, but I don't remember a "premium" brand like Oscar Mayer having quite this much.

18 August, 2009

Frozen Swedish Meatball CAGE MATCH

For the past couple of weeks, I've been having various frozen Swedish Meatball meals at lunchtime, trying to figure out which one of the various brands is the best. I've eaten five different brands, and let me tell you: There is a big difference in quality between the best and the worst of what's available in your supermarket "frozen meal" section.

The five Swedish Meatball meals I've chomped my way through are (in no particular order):
  • Stouffer's Homestyle Classics
  • Stouffer's Lean Cuisine
  • Weight Watchers Smart Ones
  • Boston Market
  • Banquet

We'll start with Banquet.

The noodles were huge, thick, and tough. They didn't like being chewed - in fact, it was like they were actively fighting against my molars the whole time.

The gravy was strange - sticky and kind of gummy. It tasted strongly of artificial beef flavoring, and there was a distinct sour note to it, and a close examination of the ingredients revealed that sour cream was a component (surprise!) Although the box illustration shows some kind of herb or something sprinkled throughout the noodles, I didn't find anything like that in the actual gravy.

Banquet was the stingiest of all the brands when it came to the meatballs. There were just four tiny meatballs in the tray, and they were spongy with TVP filler. As far as flavor goes, they were nothing special - fairly typical "frozen meatball in a bag" flavor.

The Boston Market Swedish Meatballs meal is a strange mixture of good and horrible. Like Banquet, the noodles were thick, tough, and resisted chewing. Big, He-Man noodles with a grudge against mastication. On the other hand, the gravy was close to being delicious. The taste was well-balanced with sour cream, beefy, and mushroom flavors all evident - and there was even a background kick from cayenne pepper in there.

Boston Market (made by Heinz) is also the most generous with the meatballs, offering nine big and rather tasty meatballs. Although they did have a certain amount of filler, the texture was firm and not at all spongy, and they tasted much more like homemade.

Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, put out by Nestle, had the best noodles of any of the meals. they were light, tender, and delicate - just like properly-made egg noodles from the cellophane bags in the grocery store. The gravy was also surprisingly tasty. No weird sour flavors, no artificial bouillony taste, just a rather run-of-the-mill "brown gravy" flavor that you might get from a middle-of-the-road canned gravy or packet mix. (Yes, I know, that might be objectionable in itself to many people, but after all, we're talking about frozen meals here. Lower your standards a little.)

Speaking of lowered standards, the six meatballs in the Lean Cuisine meal can only be described as "epic fail." Irregular blobs of grey matter, they look like they were carelessly pinched off a loaf of Acme Meat Ball Substance and tossed nonchalantly into the serving dish. The initial flavor wasn't bad (mushroom flavor and beef bouillon) but the texture was extremely off-putting. Kind of spongy, sticky, and almost slimy all at once.

I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with the meatballs at first, but eventually it occurred to me that they tasted a lot like my grandmother's meatloaf. Grandma never used breadcrumbs in her meatloaf, she used oatmeal. And oatmeal makes meatloaf disgustingly oozy and slimy. I scanned the ingredients panel on the side of the box, and sure enough: oatmeal, right next to the TVP. Gahh. Wretched slop.

As long as we're talking about Stouffer's meals, we might as well look at the non-lean Stouffer's Homestyle Classics Swedish Meatballs meal, because there was not all that much a difference between the regular Stouffer's and the Lean Cuisine. The noodles, for example, were pretty much the same as in the Lean Cuisine variety; not so curly and thin, but still recognizable egg noodles, tender and eggy and not tough.

The meatballs were also identical: disgusting blobs of oatmealy sludge. There were more of them in the package (eight instead of six) but they were identical in composition.

The real difference - and this was not in any way an improvement - was in the gravy. The Homestyle Classics gravy was thick and pasty. A clear yellowish liquid separated out of it during heating (turned out to be some kind of oil. Very unappetizing.) There were hints of mushroom and visible bits of parsley and just a hint of sour cream. The clotty gravy stuck to the noodles and bound them pretty tightly - stirring the mess just made it look even worse as the noodles tore up into smaller bits and the gravy just sat there in congealed lumps.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones Swedish Meatballs are, like Boston Market, made by Heinz, but the two brands could not be more dissimilar. The noodles, while not as tender and egg-noodley as the ones in the Stouffer's meals, were not as leathery and aggressive as the Banquet or Boston Market noodles. That might be the best thing I can say about these, though.

The gravy was pretty nasty. Mostly, it was a mushroomy slurry with sour cream notes. Loaded with xanthan gum, methylcellulose gum, and guar gum, this stuff had more gums than the mashed potato line at a nursing home. There were six meatballs: tiny, spongy masses of mostly filler that were devoid of any flavor beyond cheap beef bouillon.

My ratings, from best to worst:

  1. Boston Market - despite the tough, chewy noodles, the gravy was decent and there were plenty of big meaty flavorful meatballs. There was more there for the money - this was the largest portion of any of the meals - and the only one that left me satisfied from lunchtime to supper. If I weren't so damn sick of Swedish Meatballs after eating them for two weeks, I'd buy this Boston Market meal again.
  2. Banquet - Yes, believe it or not, Banquet came in second because despite the strangeness of the gravy, there was nothing actually offensive about the textures or the flavors. Damning with faint praise, to be sure, but the others were so bad that Banquet actually seemed good by comparison.
  3. A tie between Stouffer's Homestyle Classic and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine. I have a strong aversion to oatmeal as a meat filler, and there is nothing about either of these meals that can compensate for the lousy, sticky, mushy, disgusting oatmeal-filled meatballs.
  4. Weight Watchers Smart Ones - utterly unredeemable filth. There is no way I would ever buy this meal again. Ever.

17 August, 2009

Healthy Frozen Meals: Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers - Sweet & Spicy Orange Zest Chicken

When I picked this up at the supermarket the other day, I thought it would be pretty good. I love getting Orange Chicken at those Chinese fast food places in the mall, so I was thinking of something like that, but, well...healthy, I guess.

I was terribly, terribly wrong.

I chucked it in the microwave for the five minutes the package called for and as it steamed itself, I went and did other things that needed to be done. When I passed through the kitchen, I noticed the faint smell of mint, and while I thought that it was kind of odd, didn't pay too much attention to it.

When the microwave beeped after my five minutes had passed, I pulled the plastic wrap off of the top and was hit in the face with the strong smell of mint.

I flipped the package over and re-read it. Odd. Mint wasn't anywhere on the ingredient list, and if it had been I wouldn't have gotten it. (Mint in food always gives me heartburn.)

But I decided that it was probably just my imagination, because if there's no mint in the ingredients, there couldn't possibly be any mint in the actual product. So I dumped the contents of the steam tray into the sauce, stirred it up, and took a giant bite of rice and veggies.

And all I could taste was mint. There was no spicy, no sweet, no orange goodness. Nothing but mint.

The only thing that didn't taste like mint was the chunks of chicken, which were the same as the other chicken bits I had gotten in the last Healthy Choice meal: beefed up with soy protein, a bit chewy, and speckled with fake grill marks. But that was the best part of the whole ordeal.

The veggies in this one were all overdone. The peas were overcooked to the point of mushiness, while their strings were too tough to chew. The finely cubed carrots and bell peppers were also overdone to mush, while the rice managed to come out just a little on the underdone side. (Not that it mattered much, because the whole thing was inedible.)

I got through a few bites before having to get rid of it. It was seriously that bad.

Calories: 300
Calories From Fat: 40
Sodium: 380 mg; 16% DV

TOTAL PREP TIME: 5 minutes

Dave adds:

I thought Lynnafred was kidding me when she called me up and told me about the heavily minted flavor in this meal, but I got a taste later and she wasn't kidding. Tasted like it was made with toothpaste. Nasty. I wonder if there was some kind of mistake made on the manufacturing line...no other food blooger has noted this flavor in any other online review.


16 August, 2009

The Freshest Chicken You Can Buy

Welcome to a new feature at Dave's Cupboard: Vintage Sunday! Each Sunday we'll feature some type of bygone food- or cooking-related topic or item. It might be a cookbook, an old advertisement, a cool or unusual old kitchen gadget, or even an old handwritten recipe found tucked away by someone's grandma. Today's Vintage Sunday feature is a newspaper ad from the 1920's.

This ad appeared in the 25 April 1925 edition of the St. Petersburg [Florida] Times. Short of going out the back door to the family henhouse, you couldn't have asked for a fresher chicken.


15 August, 2009

Blast from the Past

Originally published on 7 July 1977. The Little Woman by Don Tobin was a popular syndicated newpaper comic from 1953 until late in the 1970's - with a book of collected strips being published in 1965.