31 December, 2010

Top 10 Fast-Food Introductions of 2010 - The Best And The Worst

What better time than New Year's Eve for looking back at the waning year from a fast-food perspective?  Here's a list - placed according to highly subjective criteria from "worst" to "best" - of what I consider the top 10 fast-food menu item introductions of 2010.  Note that some items which received a good deal of internet buzz - like Carl Jr.'s foot-long burger, for example - didn't make this list.  That's because they may have been test-market-only products that never made it nationwide, or because franchises featuring the foods just don't exist in the Hartford CT/Springfield MA market (my home turf.)

10 - Burger King Ribs:  Although a Time Magazine article called Burger King Ribs "a success," I have to disagree.  Tiny, overpriced, with a strange spongy texture and odd salty aftertaste,  there was nothing especially worthy about these ribs that made them worth standing in line for.   In fact, if it weren't for this post I bet you'd already forgotten about them.  Props to BK, though, for the balls it took to try something so completely outside the standard fast-food norm.

9 - Wendy's Natural Cut Fries with Sea Salt:  Perennial burger joint also-ran Wendy's scored a huge victory for mediocrity by introducing these spectacularly ordinary boardwalk-style fries to their menu.

8 - Friendly's Grilled Cheese Burger Melt: Lynnafred had this at Friendly's a few weeks ago, but hasn't gotten around to writing a review.  The waitress gave her a funny look when she ordered it, so when it came to the table, Lynnafred asked her if it was a popular item.  "Yeah," the waitress replied, "We sell a lot of them to stoners, and you don't really look the part."  It should come as no surprise that the actual sandwich looks nothing like the idealized photo at left, but more closely resembles "a pile of lunch," as Lynnafred said.  She also reported that the sandwich fed her and two friends, was difficult to eat without a knife and fork, and was mostly "a sloppy, greasy mess."

7 - BK Breakfast Muffin:  Burger King's lame attempt at copying McDonald's Sausage McMuffin with Egg is an abject failure, doomed by bland sausage and a tiny portion of scrambled egg.  On the positive side, though, the  television advertisement for the Breakfast Muffin was made of Win wrapped in Awesome.

6 - Dunkin' Donuts Sausage Pancake Bites:  Cheap, greasy sausage wrapped in a batter that has more in common with corn dogs than it does with pancakes.  My review for them is in the post queue - look for it to go live in a couple of days.

5 and 4 - McDonald's Frappes and Smoothies: I'm giving McDonald's McCafe offereing two spots on the list because they're two distinct products.  The smoothies are awesome, and the frappes are destined to give Dunkin' Donuts Coolatas a run for their money.

3 - McDonald's Fruit and Maple Oatmeal:  Even though I'm not really a big fan of oatmeal, I found this new offering by McDonald's to be pretty awesome.  Order it without the brown sugar - you won't be missing anything but an extra load of calories.

2 - The Reintroduction of McDonald's McRib: Back nationwide after a 16-year hiatus, the McRib made a big splash with the press and fans alike.  Made of chopped and formed pork slathered in so much sauce it practically required gloves and a bib to eat, it was nonetheless tasty.  Lynnafred, who is too young to have remembered the last time McRibs were widely available, said "I could eat these every day."

1 - KFC's Double Down - The single most badassed fast food sandwich EVER, the Double Down went national in April 2010 (clicking on the link provided will bring you, however, to my full review from October 2009 when we first encountered them in the Rhode Island test market.)  The Double Down truly deserves the top spot on this list; not only does it encompass sweepingly vast expanses of awesomeness, but it set the stage for all of the bizarre and over-the-top offerings which followed it.

Do you notice that four of the five top spots - worthy and delicious products all - are from McDonald's?  Think what you will of them, this kind of careful product development combined with Micky D's powerhouse marketing strategies are why they're the leader in the fast-food market.

30 December, 2010

"French Leftover Beef"

I've got nothing but leftovers in the fridge, the family is hungry, and I'm just not feeling all that creative.  WAT DO??

Turn for help from the internet, of course.

It really is amazing what Google will turn up in a simple search for "leftover beef recipe."  Mostly it's amazing because it seems like there are an awful lot of people out there who think "hash" when they think of leftover beef, and I've done that to death.

And then I ran into "French Leftover Beef" - A blog post which was published in 2005 on a blog called Mantia's Musings. As blog author Alyce tells it, the recipe is derived from boeuf miroton, a French dish which is specifically about using up leftover beef, and was originally published in "a women's magazine years ago."  Alyce's description of the dish sounded delicious and I knew right away I had found what I was going to make for supper. 

Such a recipe is enormously flexible, and so I made a few tweaks of my own to the ingredients.  I think it turned out great, and so did the rest of the family.  Except the dogs.  They never got to try it.  The gravy is heavy on the onions, and onions are not at all healthy for dogs.

French Leftover Beef
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 smallish onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup chardonnay
1/2 cup beef stock, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon Gravy Master
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups leftover cooked beef, cut into cubes

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven and add the sliced onions. Sautee until the onions are soft and beginning to caramelize. Stir in the flour and continue to cook until the flour is lightly browned, then stir in the chardonnay, beef stock, tomato paste and paprika.  Continue to stir over the heat until the mixture thickens, darkening the color of the mix as you wish with the Gravy Master.  

Cover the gravy and simmer it over very low heat for 10 minutes, adding more beef stock as necessary to prevent the gravy from getting too thick and scorching the dutch oven.

Stir in the meat and simmer, covered, for an additional 20 minutes (adding broth when needed as before.)  Serve with a tossed green salad and cheese toasts.

Alyce suggests serving Cheese Toast with French Leftover Beef, and I agree.  It's easy to make: just butter some slices of ciabatta or French bread, sprinkle it with grated Parmesan cheese, and run it under the broiler for a few minutes to toast the cheese and make the bread crispy.

29 December, 2010

More Horror At Dollar Tree

Who designs this stuff, anyway?

"In the meadow, we can build a snowman
And pretend that he's a murderous clown
He'll say, "Am I funny?"
We'll say, "No, man!"
And then we'll run off screaming through the town..."

Lyrics by Lynnafred.

28 December, 2010

McDonald's New Fruit & Maple Oatmeal

I'll be honest:  Oatmeal is not my favorite food.  When I was a kid and my mother used to make oatmeal for breakfast, it had the magic power to turn my stomach on the second spoonful.

These days, oatmeal seems to have developed other magic powers, like doing good stuff to one's cholesterol levels and having lots of fiber so you can live the American dream of having bowels that move with clockwork regularity. 

I don't really care about those things, though.  As I've gotten older, I've found that I can actually enjoy oatmeal now and then, especially if it's not served in a thick, sticky, overcooked lump with milk poured over it the way my mother used to do it. 

Anyway, McDondald's sent me a few coupons for their new Fruit & Maple Oatmeal and asked me to give it a try.  I agreed because although McDonald's is making this product an all-day offering, I associate oatmeal with breakfast and McDonald's breakfasts are pretty much universally awesome.  I thought that maybe some of that awesomeness would rub off on the oatmeal, even though I wasn't very optomistic.

So, Sunday morning, my wife Maryanne and I each sat down to a serving of Fruit & Maple Oatmeal courtesy of Mickey D's.  Each cup contained a generous portion of lightly sweetened oatmeal with a touch of maple flavor, topped with brown raisins, golden raisins, diced red and green apples, and dried cranberries.  There was a generous amount of fruit - enough that we didn't need to ration it out as we ate to insure that there would be some in every bite - and the sweetness was very mild and not at all cloying.  There was just enough maple flavor to be noticeable without being overwhelming, so the overall flavor profile was exceptionally good.

I'm not sure if McDonald's is using a "cooked" oatmeal or an "instant," but in this case it didn't matter because it didn't taste like instant.  The cereal was hearty with big grains and reminded me of good steel-cut oats.  It had that familiar oatmeal texture without being lumpy or gluey.  And it was extraordinarily satisfying: the portion size was just right.

Maryanne, who is a big fan of oatmeal to begin with, loved it.  I expected that.  What I didn't expect was that I liked it too.  I went into this thinking "Eww, oatmeal" but came away with the impression that McDonald's potentially has a winning product here.  I'm not sure how many cups of oatmeal they're going to sell during traditional lunch and supper times, but at breakfast I can see this stuff being a big hit.

So here's something I never thought would happen:  I'm actually going to give a thumbs-up to oatmeal - specifically, McDonald's Fruit & Maple Oatmeal.  If you're out for a fast-food breakfast but not really up for a McMuffin (more words I never thought would flow through my pen) this might be just what you're looking for.  I'd buy it again (just don't tell my mom.)

The Fire Goes Out at Backyard BBQ in Enfield

Back in April 2010, I wrote about a brand new barbecue place that had opened up in my hometown.  It was called Backyard BBQ.  Their pulled pork was outstanding, and they also made the best barbecue baked beans anywhere, hands down.

Unfortunately, I headed that way last week - just before Christmas - to find the store dark with a sign in the window reading:
"To all our loyal customers! We are closing due to economic hardship. Thank you so much for supporting our business, and hopefully we can open up again when the market gets better."


Backyard BBQ had attracted some decent attention in the press.  Reviews in both the Hartford Courant and the Hartford Advocate were generally positive, and by the end of summer they seemed to be fairly busy.  I guess looks aren't everything, though.  I'm sorry to see them go.

26 December, 2010


There's a winter storm on the way.  The National Weather Service says we should see maybe a foot of snow before it's all over.  Not too shabby.  Twelve inches of snow makes for a little inconvenience  in the way of shoveling and so on, but the temperature is cold enough that the snow should be powdery and easy to move.  However it works out, I'm not about to worry about it.

Plenty of people are worried about it, though, driven by hyperbolic "meteorologists" on local TV news stations that pump people into a panic to keep them glued to the newscasts (and the newscast's advertisements.)  I decided to check out the local Stop & Shop and see what was selling in advance of the storm.

O noes, better fill up that gas tank!  You never know when the town will get around to plowing the streets.  Don't want to get caught snowed in with an empty tank!  Every single pump had a five-car line.

Where's all the bread go?

Sorry We are out of Eggs

There was a run on ground beef.
Here's something I never figured would be rushed because of snow:  Cat food.

Oddly enough, there was plenty of milk - but the half-and-half and coffee creamer was decimated, and the bottled water aisle was hit heavily but not cleaned out.

It's been more than thirty years since a winter storm caused Connecticut to shut down, and that was in the days before so many people owned front-wheel drive and 4WD SUVs.  Yet, whenever a snowstorm starts sniffing around New England, we get panic buying like this.  *sigh*

17 December, 2010

Horse Cookies

Maryanne and I give a lot of gifts from our kitchen, as you might imagine.  We spend time during the year making jams, preserves, and jellies from seasonal fruits, and we do a fair amount of pickling and preserving the vegetables we grow.  And then, of course, there's the holiday baking - cookies, breads, pies and so on.  For the past few days, I've been baking cookies...but not for the people on our list.  No, this time around we decided to bake cookies for the various animals in the family.  I'll be sharing my recipes for animal treats here over the coming week, and today we'll start with horse cookies.

One of my sisters has a couple of horses and I thought it would be kind of cool to come up with something they'd enjoy.  Horses like sweet and chewy treats - one of their favorites is big, sweet oversized carrots - so I wanted to come up with something the horses would love and that my sister could carry in her pocket out to the barn.  I came up with this recipe, which horses really do seem to love.

Horse Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen 2-inch treats

4 cups whole wheat flour, plus more for kneading
3 cups uncooked quick oats
¼ cup brown sugar
1 egg
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup molasses
1 cup applesauce
¾ cup apple cider (approximately)

Preheat your oven to 300 F.

Stir the flour and oats together with the brown sugar in a large bowl.  Whisk together the egg, oil, molasses and applesauce until well combined, then dump the mixture into the flour and oats and work it in with a strong wooden spoon.  Gradually add cider, kneading it in to make a rather sticky dough.

Turn out the dough onto a heavily-floured surface (I used whole wheat flour for this, too) and knead for several minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking too much to your hands and the surface, until the dough is stiff, somewhat tacky, and easy to form.  This can take half a cup or more of additional flour.

Roll the dough out approximately half an inch thick and cut into cookies with a 2-inch round biscuit cutter.   Scraps should be briefly kneaded into a solid mass, then rerolled and cut.  Arrange the cookies on baking sheets prepared either by greasing them or by lining them with baking parchment.  Bake for 1 hour at 300 F, then shut the oven off and leave the cookies on the pans in the oven as it cools for several hours to help dry them out.

When the cookies are completely cooled, they can be stored in an airtight container to use as needed.

I sampled one of them after the initial baking and before the drying time, and they're pretty tasty (though not exactly my idea of a snack, my sister's horses are going to love them.)

12 December, 2010

Wendy's Natural-Cut Fries with Sea Salt

So, Wendy's is rolling out this "new style" of french fries which they're calling "Natural Cut Fries With Sea Salt."  Russet spuds, peels left on, shoestring cut (fairly standard "Boardwalk Fries" if you know what I mean) sprinkled with "sea salt" as if that's going to make a big flavor difference on a handful of greasy fried taters.

It shouldn't come as a big surprise that the new fries aren't any better - or even substantially different - than any other burger joint fries.  They're okay thirty seconds out of the fryer and they go downhill fast from there, at first getting kind of soggy in their own steam and then just getting tough and cold and nasty when the heat leaves.  Hey, even McDonald's fries - supposedly the industry leader - suck when they get cold.  Wendy's fries are going to continue to run a distant third in the Fast Food Wars, if only because they don't have to get cold all the way through before they suck.

I really don't understand what the hell Wendy's was thinking here.  What was so wrong with their fries the way they were?  I've never heard anyone ever complain about them, so it isn't like there was some huge public outcry to have a "new improved" fried potato on the menu.  Won't surprise me a bit if regular Wendy's customers raise hell about these new fries, though.

11 December, 2010

Free Coffee at Pride Gas Stations

This post is mostly going to be of interest to my home-turf readers in the Western Mass / Northern CT area.  Pride is a small (16 store) chain of locally-owned gas stations in Western Massachusetts and during the month of December, they're trying to drum up a little more business by offering free 16-ounce cups of coffee - no purchase required - at all of their stations.

Thursday night was one of those really trying nights.  I had come home from work to find the distribution blower in my pellet stove had stopped working and the house temp was in the low 50's  The service center that handles warranty work on my stove closes at 7 pm on Thursday, so I got right to work removing the old blower so I could swap it out for a new one.  By the time I got to the service center it was 15 minutes before closing, but I got the part I needed.  It was 7F/14C outside, I still had to stop at the hardware store for electrical connectors and foil tape to finish the repairs, and my car's gas tank was just about empty.

Pride to the rescue!  Cheapest gas in town and free hot fresh coffee.  Totally awesome.

Well, not totally to the rescue.  I still had to get home and install the blower.

09 December, 2010

Victory Toast!

Victory Toast!  A triumph of crispy, buttery, savory deliciousness the ingredients for which snatch value from the jaws of wastefulness!  VICTORY TOAST!!

Okay, so I admit that's pretty lame, but I couldn't think of anything really catchy this morning, so we're stuck with it.

Anyway, remember back in May, when I reviewed Kraft Spaghetti Classics - that nasty quasi-Italian crap-in-a-box which has remained unchanged for 50 years?  I still had a couple of boxes of it laying around the pantry and they needed to be used up. I boiled up the nasty grey non-semolina spaghetti for the dogs - both of them love pasta and sauce - but that still left me with strange Kraft "seasoning" and two pouches of Kraft Parmesan cheese.

So I made the best of it.  

Victory Toast

Sliced ciabatta bread
Kraft Spaghetti Classics Seasoning Pouch
Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese

Lightly butter both sides of each slice of bread.  In a skillet over medium heat, grill one side of the bread just until it begins to turn golden brown - don't let it toast completely.  Turn the bread so the other side can grill, and sprinkle the lightly brown face-up side with Kraft Spaghetti Classics Seasoning to taste.  Then sprinkle it with Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese.  When the skillet side of the bread is nicely browned, flip the toast over again and grill the cheese side briefly, just long enough to toast the cheese.  Kraft's pouched Parmesan cheese is so low in moisture you won;t have to worry about it scorching and burning as long as you're reasonably careful.  Serve hot and crispy!

Feel free to improve this recipe by substituting your favorite Italian seasoning blend and freshly grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese.

More Ridiculous Hanukkah Advertising

Stop & Shop says Happy Chanukah!  Celebrate by cooking a delicious fresh pork shoulder, on sale now for just 99 cents a pound!

08 December, 2010

Domo Toys At Taco Bell!


Taco Bell kids' meals currently include one of five toys featuring Domo-Kun.  How cool is that??  Personally, I'd go for the sticker dispenser.

Southgate Beef Stew

I bought this at Dollar Tree as one of those "what the hell" purchases.  Lynnafred and I were ther to buy some cheap holiday-themed paper dessert plates (which were out of stock) and on our way out Southgate Beef Stew caught my eye.  Despite her protests - "Damn it, Dad, you and your crappy dollar store food!" - the label promised beef stew with textured vegetable protein added, and the ingredients panel seemed pretty straightforward:  Water, beef, potatoes, carrots, TVP, modified food starch, tomato paste, dehydrated celery and onion, sugar, caramel powder, paprika, black pepper, celery seed.  Nothing really outrageous there.  My expectations were actually pretty low, so I wouldn't be very easy to disappoint, you know?

And therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by how decent Southgate Beef Stew is considering that it's a canned beef stew.  Big hearty chunks of potato and a fair quantity of beef.  Real beef in chunks of various size, and by "real" I mean that it isn't some sort of bastardized loaf product made of beef and TVP mixed up, cooked, and cut in blocks for the stew.  The TVP was there, but separately, in little hamburger-like crumbles of their own, not trying at all to convince you that it was anything but crumbly TVP bits.  The gravy was also good, too.  Only a little hint of grease, not too salty with a beefy flavor and a hint of tomato and carrot, just like you'd get if you made your own.

All told, it was a pretty solid and satisfying lunch and a good deal for a buck.

Info and Link:
The Southgate brand is one of a number of brands produced by Choice Food of America, a company which has gathered many small labels and their recipes under a single corporate umbrella.  They produce and pack their own product rather than contracting it out to other companies and they're proud enough of what they make to put their name and address prominently on each label. I'm obsessive about reading labels and you'd be surprised how many times I've had to search the fine print on some brands to get a mailing address - some companies make it as difficult as possible to find out who's responsible for getting that can or box onto the supermarket shelf.  I've emailed Choice Foods to find out more about them and the brands they market, and hope to be able to write more about them in the future.

04 December, 2010

David Glass Sells Out In Two Hours!

David Glass and his wife, Vivie - dessert makers par excellence - have opened a "pop-up bakery" in subleased space in South Windsor, CT.  Baking during the week to satisfy demand, "Vivie and David Glass' Delicious Desserts" is opening on Saturdays only from 9 am to 4:30 pm with tastings and retail sales.

Saturday December 4th was the first day of retail operation.  Maryanne and I had planned to be there at the opening, but a prior engagement meant that we didn't arrive until about noon.

400 Chapel Street in South Windsor is one of those small light-industrial condos that have cropped up here and there all over the Connecticut River Valley in recent years.  The facilities look almost like a strip mall, but there are fewer windows and barely enough parking for employees.  There was a steady of stream of cars into the entrance and although no signs were posted, one of the "storefronts" had a door standing open.  It had to be the place; there were a lot of folks milling around, but as many of them were leaving - emptyhanded - as were coming in.  I walked in to find a somewhat embarrassed man (not David Glass) explaining that the five hundred desserts the Glasses had prepared were sold out before 11 am and there was nothing left to purchase at the shop.  There was a sign on the door:

If there were any doubts that the Greater Hartford area appreciates and misses the Glasses' baked treats, Saturday should be sufficient to quell them.  Disappointed customers being turned away were told that next week, the Glasses plan to have "three times" as many desserts with them.

Unfortunately, we have another prior engagement next Saturday as well.  If any of you manage to score a Delicious Dessert by Vivie and David Glass, feel free to send me a gloating email detailing the exquisiteness of your tasty morsel.

Bacon Prices Continue to Go Insane

It was "sticker shock" at the supermarket this week, where bacon prices have continued to go through the roof.  Look at that:  $6.69 a pound for Oscar Mayer bacon at Stop & Shop, where even the generic no-name crap bacon (the "Guaranteed Value" brand") is now $2.99 a pound - a 50% increase from last year.

I first noticed bacon prices rising in August, but a summertime price bump isn't unusual.  August is when everyone's backyard tomatoes are in their full glory, and bacon prices often tick up a bit then as loads of people buy it to make the archetypal summer sandwich, the BLT.  This year, however, summer prices didn't drift back down.

According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index, bacon prices have been climbing for seven straight months as of October (the last month for which there is data.)  As of right now, bacon prices are up an average of 33% over last year at this time.

There's a combination of factors at work here.  Remember the H1N1 Swine Flu scare last year?  That caused an overall reduction in hog herds.  Higher feed prices and overall recessionary conditions also helped make raising hogs a money-losing proposition for a lot of farmers.  And because pork bellies (the pigmeat from which we get bacon) is a traded commodity, market pressure from speculators has helped keep bacon prices higher than other pork cuts.

In this August article in the Birmingham [AL] News,  Business Editor Stan Diel said, "The good news for those who like bacon with their eggs in the morning is that it doesn't take nearly as long for farmers to raise new hogs, increasing supply, as it does to raise cattle. And with hogs once again profitable, farmers are raising more of them."  Unfortunately, since then bacon prices have still risen about 7% a month, and my own price surveys in the supermarkets haven't shown any downward trend.

In recent weeks, many of the supermarkets around me have started to run sales on bacon, which is taking some of the sting away.  But when you're starting at a regular price getting close to seven bucks a pound, even the sale prices are expensive compared to last year.

02 December, 2010

Steaz Organic Teaz

Anytime something is spelled wrong on a label, I get thinking.  I wonder why the hell people can't spell things normally, for starters. And I never think "Hey, that's really clever," no, I usually consider pluralizing with a z or spelling things with an initial K instead of  C to be an irritatingly cutesy (if not plain stupid) marketing gimmick for something that probably sucks.

Allow me to present Steaz Organic Iced Teaz.

Steaz bottled teas are usually pretty good, for the record. I'm not talking about Teaz® here, I'm talking about the plural of the word tea. I've had their regular black tea and it's been good, and the white tea is good enough that I don't ask myself why I didn't make my own damn tea, but as soon as they're slapping pictures of happy tea farmers on the can and adding fruit to it, something happens. It gets nasty.

Steaz Organic Fruit Teaz come in six varieties: Green tea with Blueberry Pomegranate Acai, Green Tea with Peach, Black Tea with Lemon, and White tea with Pomegranate and Lime, unsweetened Green Tea with Lemon, and Green Tea with Mint. I'll be reviewing the first four here, because that's all I could find.

Where do I even start? I'll start with Green Tea Peach. The flavor was certainly that of green tea, but Dave and I found only the barest hint of peach flavor to it. Dave actually described it as, "Like someone walked a peach by it." And that's fairly accurate. The peach flavor was there, but it was more of an "essence" than a real "flavor." My mother, on the other hand, thought that it was "very peachy." She also likes things more subtly flavored than Dave and I, so maybe we're just the wrong market for theze Teaz.

The Green Tea with Blueberry Pomegranate Acai wasn't much better.  There was the typical green tea astringency with a vague fruit flavor there, but the blueberry and pomegranate flavors just sort of muddied each other together without letting either of them be distinct enough to really enjoy.  Acai might have been in the mix, but it was indistinguishable.

Next up was the White Tea with Pomegranate and Lime. My friend Jess was over when I cracked this one open, and I let her take the first sip of it. She described it as "Gymbag Tea." This time, the White Tea's natural flavor was overpowered by a flavor reminiscent of dirt, artificial limes, and something kind of soapy. It was such a completely nasty tea that I ended up dumping  it out, and nothing of value was lost. Everyone in the house who tried it had the same expression on their face: ( ゚д゚)

The best of the ones we found was the Black Tea with Lemon, but even this was flawed.  The lemon flavor was completely out of proportion with the tea, and it tasted more like a blend of lemonade and tea than a tea flavored with lemon.  Props for the tea not being heavily sweetened - there was just a touch of "evaporated cane juice" to take the sharp edges off the lemon and tea, but not enough to make a sickly-sweet Liptonesque concoction - but otherwise still not what I was expecting.


01 December, 2010

David Glass Is Back!

Photo from www.davidglass.com
According to this story by Korky Vann at ctnow.com, David Glass is back - for now, at least - in a "pop-up" bakery in South Windsor.  Glass and his wife Vivie are calling the new shop "Vivie and David Glass' Delicious Desserts," and will be the only employees, baking during the week and opening to the public for tastings and sales on Saturdays through December 18.

This Saturday, December 4, will the first tasting and sale with the bakery open from 9 am to 4 pm.  The new location is at 400 Chapel Road in South Windsor.  For more information, click the link on the beginning of this post to go to the ctnow.com article.

30 November, 2010

Fishy Delights 40: Del Sol Octopus In "Marine" Sauce

You know what seafood I find just about irresistible?  Canned octopus.  There are good brands and mediocre brands, but I've never had a bad one.

Take this very inexpensive brand, Del Sol, which is produced in Spain. It's amusingly labeled in both Spanish and English:  Pulpo a la Marinera / Octopus in Marine Sauce.  Heh.

Anyway, the moist cooking-in-the-can process that pasteurizes and seals the can isobviously an excellent way to prepare octopus, because just like every other tinned octopodes I've tried, the meat is tender yet firm, somewhat al dente, and just a bit resistant to chewing (but not at all rubbery.)  The sauce was nothing special - very oily, not much of a tomato flavor (not much of any flavor, actually) but still carrying a subtle hint of spiciness that complimented the meat.  Most remarkable of all to me was how very much this octopus reminded me of lobster.  No kidding, it had about the same level of chewiness as chunks of lobster tail, and the flavor was similar as well, though not exact.  I bet if I had rinsed some of the sauce off, pounded the chunks of meat to "loosen" them up a little, and dressed the bits in mayo, they'd have made a decent Mock Lobster Roll.

Normally, tinned octopus is cut into slices before being packed.  I think that someone on the packing line dropped their knife as this can rolled by their work station.  Pretty awesome, no?

29 November, 2010

Murry's Pick-Up Stix - Dollar Store "Chicken"

I went in to Dollar Tree just before Thanksgiving hoping to find some cheap holiday-themed paper dessert plates - and struck out; the Thanksgiving stuff was gone, already replaced by Christmas cultch.  The trip wasn't a total washout, though, since they had a freezer case full of Murry's Pick-Up Stix.  How could I resist seven ounces of mechanically separated chicken, extruded into long thin strings and breaded with delicious crispiness?  I'm only human you know.

On Thanksgiving Day, wanting a relatively quick finger-food breakfast to nosh while cooking, I heated up a bit of lard left over from making pie crusts and pan fried the Pick-Up Stix.

They're kind of salty with a kind of cheap chicken flavor in the background.  Not incredibly meaty. In cross-section, they show a core of spongily-textured and bubbly mechanically separated chicken which gradually gives way to the breaded coating. Strangely, there doesn't seem to be a clear dividing line between the inside and the coating.  Pan-frying them in the lard gave them a marvelous crunchy texture which helped make up for the rather uninspired taste.

They remind me of something a school cafeteria would serve while trying to convince the kids that they were getting a special treat.  In fact, when I offered some to Lynnafred she looked at me horrified:  "No.  Those look like the same shitty 'chicken fries' they used to give us in Fourth Grade. There's a reason I used to bring my own lunch to school every day, dad, and crap like that is a big part of it."  I guess she's not far enough removed from the trauma of school lunches to feel nostalgic for them.

Despite Lynnafred's disparaging comments, however, the Stix did not disappoint.  They tasted okay in that sort of salty potato-chip way.  They were easy to munch as I worked in the kitchen.  They were filling - my seven-ounce portion killed my hunger and kept me going right up until I got the feast on the table much later that day.  And they were cheap, so there's a bonus point.  I'm not going to make a regular habit of them, but the Stix are okay for an occasional cheap salty snack.  Like popcorn, only with meat.

I've heard tell of folks who buy products like this and eat them as is, still frozen, right out of the bag like some sort of sodium-spiked meatsicle treat.  These would be folks of the non-me persuasion, for  although I eat, and even sometimes enjoy, industrially-produced food, I don't trust any of it until it's been heat-sterilized.  If anyone reading this decides that eating Pick-Up Stix out of the bag is a good idea, keep in mind that it says on the label that they are uncooked.

27 November, 2010

Turkey Croquettes

So, Thanksgiving is over and the Festival of Leftovers has begun.  I'm actually a little short on turkey at the moment, because a houseful of family and friends pretty much wiped out my 23-pound bird - which came out awesome, by the way, thanks for asking.

When I was a kid, my grandmother - Grandma Billie - always made turkey croquettes from leftover turkey on the day after Thanksgiving.  I decided to dig out her recipe and honor tradition by making croquettes myself on Friday.

Actually, the recipe I'm going to share with you is my adaptation of her version.  Grandma Billie was a great cook, but her croquettes were a little bland.  Also, I like to crumb fried stuff with panko for extra crispiness, and she just used to use dry bread crumbs.

Turkey Croquettes
Serves 6

6 tablespoons butter
½ cup flour
1 cup milk
1 cup turkey or chicken broth
a handful of chopped parsley
1 small onion, grated, include the juice from grating
½ teaspoon Bell's poultry seasoning (or other poultry seasoning)
½ teaspoon celery salt
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Freshly ground pepper to taste
4 cups cooked turkey, ground
2 eggs, beaten with milk to make an egg wash

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, then blend in the flour to make a roux.  Cook the roux for a few minutes, then add the milk and broth and whisk over medium heat occasionally as the mixture begins to thicken and bubble.  Stir in the parsley, onion, and seasonings and turn off the heat under the pan when the gravy thickens up.  Set the gravy aside to cool.

Meanwhile, run leftover turkey through your food chopper to make 4 cups of ground cooked turkey.  Mix up light meat and dark for best flavor.

In a large bowl, fold the gravy into the turkey and mix well, like you would a batter.  When the ingredients are thoroughly combined, refrigerate the mixture until it is well chilled.  This is important, because the croquettes will fall apart in the pan if they are not well chilled before being fried.

Wet your hands and form the croquette mixture into small cylinders.  (I know cone shapes are traditional, but really, cylinders are so much easier to work with.)  Roll each cylinder in panko crumbs, then swirl it around in the egg wash and finally, roll around in the panko again.  Fry the croquettes in shallow oil, turning frequently to brown evenly, until crispy golden-brown.  Drain on paper, and serve with turkey gravy.

After making the croquettes, I have even more admiration for Grandma Billie than the considerable amount I had before.  Those little bastards are a lot of work. I think they take even more effort than making the turkey to begin with.

24 November, 2010

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is tomorrow, and like most Americans we'll be having a large dinner with family and friends.  In recent years, I've taken over the cooking and hosting duties from my mother, and as in years past we'll be enjoying a smoked turkey.

This time around, we're having more people in for dinner than usual.  In addition to family members, several friends are joining us.  I like to send everyone home with some leftovers, so when I started looking for a bird, I kept my eye open for something a little larger than our usual 16- to 18-pounder.

I wound up with a very decently-sized 23-pound turkey which was gifted to me by a friend.  Because it's a natural bird without any injected "solutions," I have it on the porch right now, brining in preparation for tomorrow's slow roast in the smoker.  I use a very simple brine for my turkey: to every gallon of water required, I add 1 cup of kosher salt, ½ cup of brown sugar, ¼ cup of mixed pickling spice, and 2 tablespoons of peppercorns.  This year's bird required three gallons of brine to cover it, and to make sure it brines evenly, I give the bird a turn each time I pass by the cooler.

But a complication arose:  I wanted to make sure that the bigger turkey would fit into my smoker, and when I tested it, I found that with the turkey in standard position on the rack, the door of the smoker won't close.  O NOES!!1!  WAT DO??

Photo by
Spectrum Diversified
I decided to stand the turkey on end for the roasting time, but wasn't quite sure about how to do it.  I keep a spool of heavy-gauge baling wire on hand to custom-make hanging hooks and racks for smoking, but I was worried about properly supporting the full weight of the bird hanging from a rack in the smoker.  Obviously, the best thing would be a vertical roasting rack , but I'm not sure anyone locally has them in stock and besides, the 30- to 40-dollar price tag of those contraptions rubbed my penny-pinching, broke-ass fur the wrong way.   But a company called Spectrum Diversified makes a simple and inexpensive nickel-plated paper towel holder of steel rod which they sell online and at Bed Bath & Beyond.  It is very sturdy, tall enough that the central loop passes all the way through from the base to the neck cavity of the dressed bird, and stable enough to keep the bird from tipping over during the cooking time.  I bought one last night at the local BB&B and tested it out, and it looks like that will do the trick.

I've had my smoker for several years now and I'm fairly happy with it.  Only in the past couple of years has it begun to seem a little small for my needs, but this kind of gave me the incentive to move up to a larger size.  Looks like I'll finally be doing something about it - I've got the design for a much bigger and more versatile smoker in my head, and if the weather holds up, I'll probably start working on it after the holiday.

22 November, 2010

The Pot Pie Buyer's Guide

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved pot pies.  Back then, my mom used to buy Banquet pies because they were infinitely cheap - something like 20 cents apiece, on sale - and a bunch of hungry kids could be fed for a couple of bucks.  Although Banquet pies aren't anything like the best on the market, I still buy them now and then.  We had them often enough as kids that they're comfort food.

Anyway, over the past couple of months, I've been buying and eating various brands of commercial pot pies in an effort to rank them by taste and quality.  Price and overall quality are pretty closely related with pot pies, so when you go shopping for any of the brands I've reviewed you'd be safe in assuming that the lowest-ranked pies are going to make the smallest dent in your lunch budget.  But even with that in mind, you should know that any of them, even the worst of the bunch, are still enjoyable in their own way. With only one perhaps surprising exception, I liked every pie I tried and would buy them again.

So, let's take a look, starting at the bottom.


Sharing last place are Valu-Time (made for and distributed by Topco,) Banquet (made by ConAgra,) and Bremer (one of ALDI's house brands) 7-ounce frozen pies, which are so similar that they are virtually indistinguishable.  All three have top and bottom crusts, a large amount of salty, artificial-tasting gravy, and little squares of soft spongy "meat" which are actually cut-up bits of processed, pressed, and formed poultry loaf.  The meat also varies in color from light to dark, simulating actual white and dark meat from poultry. Vegetables include potatoes, carrots, and peas, but like the meat, they are in small pieces, thinly distributed.  Although the crusts of  these pies are thin, the top crusts at least cook up fairly flaky.   I've found that the bottom crusts, of the Valu-Time and Banquet pies seem to  have a tendency to remain undercooked and a little gooey even after the rest of the pie is ready when the pies are prepared in a microwave.  For all their faults, however, I still keep coming back to these cheap pies - especially Banquet - for nostalgia's sake. 

Banquet pot pies can be found just about everywhere, usually for about a dollar when they're not on sale.  Valu-Time pot pies can be found at any supermarket that sells Topco products, such as Big Y, Harris Teeter, and Price Chopper.  The price varies depending on the store, but Big Y was selling them for under a dollar and I suspect that's close to the going rate.  And Bremer pies, of course, can be found at ALDI in the frozen prepared foods section.  When I bought them, they were a pretty good deal at 85 cents each.


There isn't a lot of difference between the Swanson 7-ounce pot pie and the low-quality pies I've already mentioned.  The crust is just about the same and the fillings are similar.  But the gravy in the Swanson pie seemed thicker and more natural-tasting to me, so I thought it should be in a slightly better category.

However, all things being equal, I pass up the Swanson for the Banquet most of the time because Swanson is priced higher, and the difference in quality is not at all commensurate with the difference in price.


Marie Callender's 7 ounce pies are made by ConAgra - just like the Banquet pies - but the difference is so striking that you'd never guess they were produced by the same company!  These pies have white meat only (still cut from formed loaves) in much larger cuts and more generous distribution, and much better gravy.  These pies also have top and bottom crusts, but the pastry is thicker, flakier, and just overall better than the low quality versions.

These 7-ounce pies can be a bit harder to find than their slightly-larger 10-ounce version, but you can usually find them in multi-packs at Costco.

Marie Callender's 10-ounce pies are exactly the same composition as the smaller 7-ounce version.  The same good gravy, the same big chunks of white meat and larger vegetable cuts, the same flaky pastry - just 3 ounces more of it.  Ten-ounce pies are easier to find in the stores than the 7-ounce sizes.

Bremer Select 10-ounce pies (by ALDI) are sold in 4-pack boxes only. They are 2-crust pies with excellent pastry (thick and flaky) good chicken gravy, large chunks of real white-meat chicken, and generous vegetables.  I was pretty impressed by the quality of these pies, but while I consider them to be superior to the Marie Callender pies, they are similar enough to share a rating.


Boston Market 16 oz pie, top and bottom crust.  The pie has lots of meat (white and dark) but also seems to have odd chunks of cartilage.  The gravy is quite good, and the vegetables - carrot, corn, and green bean. - are generous and fresh-tasting. The crust is flaky and decent, even on the bottom. This pie should be a winner, but there is something about the Boston Market pies I've tried that almost nauseates me. The  gravy has a "slippery" mouthfeel, a vague and unpleasant gumminess that triggers my gag reflex. Because the other aspects of the pie are so good, though, I'm willing to give Boston Market the benefit of the doubt - it's possible that there's something about the recipe that I don't care for, but you won't mind.  So here it is, in the "Very Good" category.

Meanwhile, the Stouffer's 16-ounce pot pie is really great.  It's loaded with lots of big pieces of white-meat chicken, great veggies, and the gravy tastes, no kidding, like homemade.  The crust is just the right thickness, delicious tender and flaky.  I guess the only fault with it would be that it's a bit saltier than the Boston Market (still less salty than the bottom-rated pies, though.)


It is a testament to the outstanding attention to quality at Budd Foods of Manchester New Hampshire that all three of the pies rated "Excellent" are their products.

Bistro Cuisine chicken pot pies are made by Budd and advertised as "The World's Finest Chicken Pie."  That's not too much of an exaggeration. The single crust on top is a generous circle of awesome puff pastry which sits atop delicious gravy, true white meat chicken, and vegetables including corn, peas, and carrots.  My only complaint about Bistro Cuisine was that the gravy was very thick - thicker than I like it - but the other qualities of the pie are so outstanding that I can't take points off.

Mrs. Budd's Fully Baked White Meat Chicken Pie is usually sold in the refrigerated prepared meats section.  All they require is a thorough heating in the oven and they're good to go, but they do include microwave instructions.  After our local Shaw's supermarket closed, I hadn't realized Mrs. Budd's were still available around here until I got a Tweet from Sproffee one afternoon:  "This microwave pot pie is surprisingly and delightfully delicious."  She pretty much summed up Mrs. Budd's pies right there.  Big chunks of chicken breast meat, fresh-tasting veggies, and homestyle gravy bubbling under a delicious shortcrust pastry.  Well worth the $3.50 or so at the store.

I have similar high praise for Mrs. Budd's Fully Cooked White Meat Chicken Pie with broccoli, carrots, and pearl onions.  Once again, this is a single-crust pie which is topped with an excellent, flaky, tender disk of shortcrust pastry.  The homestyle gravy is just as delicious in this pie as in the other Mrs. Budd's offering, though it has a bit of a greenish tinge to it from the broccoli.  There are big chunks of white meat, and the broccoli isn't in tiny little mushy bits but rather in two or three generous florets which still maintain their shape and their almost-crispy texture.  I was quite favorably surprised at that (I expected soft and squishy overcooked broccoli.)  The only problem I had was that I just couldn't find any pearl onions in either of the pies I bought.  Maybe they melted away into the gravy during the cooking time?  No matter what happened to those elusive onions, though, it won't stop me from recommending the pies.


As I said in the beginning of this post, I really like pot pies and I'd gladly enjoy even the worst ones on this list.  But there is one brand I tried that is head and shoulders above the rest.  It is also by far the most expensive of the pies - but remember, I did warn you that quality and price are quite intimately related when it comes to pot pie selection.

Willow Tree Chicken Pot Pie, made in Attleboro MA and distributed primarily in New England, is a top-crust-only pie which comes frozen in an aluminum pie pan and must be baked in either a conventional or a toaster oven, no microwaves allowed.  The crust is gorgeous and tastes homemade, and so does the splendid chicken gravy.  But what is most noticeable about Willow Tree pies is what's missing.  There are no vegetables or filler of any kind in them, they're just meat, gravy, and crust.

There are no tricks here, no compressing white chicken meat into an easily-portioned rectangular mass, not even any slipping in smaller irregular bits to round out the weight for the packing scale.  The picture speaks for itself and shows you exactly what you get under that pastry: big chunks of chicken breast meat, cooked absolutely perfectly, with a generous portion of gravy (enough to dress a scoop of mashed potatoes) and a delicious circle of pastry as well.  This pie truly deserves its "Best In Show" honors.