31 May, 2010

Utz Onion & Garlic Potato Chips

I really like Utz potato chips.  Utz always maintains a very high level of quality, they have a great assortment of snacks to choose from, and they're a growing company that still remembers their roots as a small Pennsylvania outfit.  I was really happy when they started expanding their distribution network into my corner of New England, because the Connecticut Valley lost it's only local chip company some time ago - a victim of the suburbanization of much of the farmland they depended upon for their spuds.

Anyway, when I see a chip flavor I haven't tried before, I usually pick up a bag to give it a try.  I happened upon Utz Onion and Garlic chips and thought they sounded interesting...and they were.   The onion flavor is dominant, leaving the garlic as a faint hint in the background (not necessarily objectionable, depending upon how you feel about "garlic breath") but the most pronounced flavor I got from them was "sweet."    Yes, along with the onion and garlic powders, the ingredients include sugar and dextrose.  Straight from the bag, alongside a burger, the sweet taste was a little off-putting, like it didn't really belong.

On the other hand, served with a dip as a snack, the sweeter taste worked really well.  The sweet and onion flavors combined together to make a plain sour cream dip as delicious as a custom-blended onion dip.

So I guess I'm of two minds about these chips.  I don't think I'd want to just serve them up with dogs or burgers as a straight side chip.  But on the snack table at a cookout, set by a couple of bowls of dip, they'd be pretty awesome.

30 May, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Hormel Chili Con Carne

From a 1940 newspaper advertisement
I was poking around the internet t'other day and discovered that 2010 is the 75th anniversary of Hormel Chili Con Carne.  I love the original label, shown above in that vintage ad:  "Chili Con Carne With Beans and Meat Food Products."

Back in the day, Hormel's Chili Con Carne was highly esteemed; writer Richard Gehman in his 1966 book The Haphazard Gourmet refers to it as "excellent" and after giving his own personal recipe for chili, mentions that the homemade is "nowhere near the equal" of Hormel's.

Personally, I don't care for it very much, but hey, I'm not about to trash-talk a senior citizen on its birthday.  Happy 75th to Hormel Chili Con Carne!

Later edit - 31 May 2010 - It's come to my attention that Hormel has been sponsoring blog posts about the 75th anniversary of the introduction of their chili and their Dinty Moore line of prepared foods.  Please note that this is not a sponsored post.

29 May, 2010

Kosciusko Beer Mustard

Looking for a mustardy change of pace?  This might be just the thing you're looking for.  Kosciusko Beer Mustard is a spicy brown mustard which is 45% amber lager beer.  It comes in a grey plastic spoonable "jar," and it's pretty damn awesome.

I was in Ocean State Job Lot at the beginning of the week trying to find mustard.  Spcifically, I was trying to find Roland Dijon mustard, which is imported from France, absolutely delicious, and approximately 34 times better than Grey Poupon.  Unfortunately, my local OSJL didn't have any Dijon mustard.  But they did have Kosciusko, which is made by Plochman's.  Lynnafred spotted it and tossed me a jar.  "Have you ever heard of 'beer mustard?'" she asked.

Well, I hadn't, not until right then that is, but I knew I had to bring some home.

There is no mistaking this mustard for any other kind.  The beer aroma is strong when the jar is opened, and a small taste confirms it:  Plochman really does use beer to make it, and although they don't specify what brand, they're obviously using a real brew and not some crappy keg dregs.  You can taste the hops and the malt with every bite, and it's truly unique.  And truly delicious on almost every variety of tubesteak I've tried it on.


Plochman's Mustard website - Includes a webstore where you can buy Beer Mustard, along with other Plochman products.

28 May, 2010

Dinty Moore Italian Vegetable Stew with Meatballs

Are my tastes changing, or are these packaged "quicky meals" getting somewhat better?  A couple  weeks ago, I tried Kid's Kitchen Cheezy Mac 'n Cheese by Hormel,  and found it to be pretty good - a bit on the salty side, but fairly honest ingredients and decent flavor.  This time, I tried out Dinty Moore Meals Italian Style Vegetable Stew - another Hormel product - and once again I find myself pleasantly surprised.

That's not to say Dinty didn't get a little weird with the ingredients - big chunks of potatoes and carrots in tomato sauce with pasta?? - but once I got through my initial surprise I found myself enjoying it.  

The potatoes are decent - not mealy or crumbly, but good, creamy waxy potatoes that hold up well to the cooking and heating process.  The chunks of carrot are sweet and distinct and add a richness and body to the tomato sauce, which itself is tangy and well-balanced - seasoned carefully and very flavorful.  The meatballs, although fairly standard canned-food fare containing a good dose of filler, are also delicious in their own way and have a good texture.  And the soft-cooked beans compliment the meal as well.

Even though I thought the pasta was actually the weak part of the meal - cut a bit too small, and kind of mushy for my taste - the meal actually comes across more like Pasta e Fagioli with added potatoes than it does "vegetable stew."  That little microwaveable bowl turned out to contain a fairly satisfying lunch.

And one more thing:  If you're careful about limiting your intake of high-fructose corn syrup, you have nothing to worry about here - there isn't any.  Thank you, Hormel.

P.S.  My inner 12-year-old giggles like hell every time he reads the label.  "Big Bowls."  You know what they say about Big Bowls, right?  They have Big Bowl Movements!  [tee hee hee]


27 May, 2010

Check Out the Veggie Garden

C'mon and take a look at this year's veggie garden.  I built raised beds using a bunch of recycled landscape timbers, and I'm using some discarded low-sidewall tires as planters, too.  The soil is a mixture of locally-produced compost from a nearby dairy farm, Canadian peat moss (a renewable resource that nature produces faster than it can be harvested,) and a bit topsoil cadged from a local construction site.  (My own compost pile doesn't produce nearly enough material fast enough for a project this size.)

Along the back of the house, we've got three varieties of peas.  From left to right: standard "English" peas, sugar snap peas ("mangetouts",) and snow peas.  On the far left, hidden by the pea vines, is a fourth planter growing spinach.  We've been enjoying fresh spinach sproutlings in our salads for a few weeks now, as I thin the bed.

All of these plants are growing in planters made by laying discarded tires on their side and filling them with our soil blend.  I originally was training the pea vines on old tomato cages, but they've long since gotten too big for that, and they're on their way up some bamboo poles - they're nearly six feet tall now!

This is one of two ridiculous "Topsy Turvy" tomato planters I have hanging from a pole in the sunniest part of the yard.  You've seen the TV ads where someone is growing a thousand pounds of tomatoes on a vine out the bottom.  I bought the planters on sale at Walgreens in the middle of winter, and now I have regular cherry tomatoes growing out of one and yellow cherry tomatoes in the other.  Not wanting to waste any planting space, I have creeping thyme growing out of the top of one, and oregano covering the top of the other.  Having ground-cover herbs in the tops of the pots will cut down on moisture evaporation and provide the kitchen with some fresh flavor through the summer.  Because thyme is pretty hardy, when fall comes around I plan to take it out from the planter and put it in the ground near the back door of the house, where I'm hoping it will establish itself as an edible ground cover.

On the same pole as the Topsy Turvys, we've got a hanging basket of Tumbling Tom cherry tomatoes.  These will cascade over the sides of the pot to hang about two feet and will be filled with clusters of small tomatoes.  I got it at the farmer's market last weekend, and it's already covered with blossoms.  With any luck, we'll have some tomatoes early from this one.

Here's a peek inside the potato barrel.  After drilling drainage holes in the bottom of an old oak barrel, we lined the bottom with rocks and about 6 inches of rich composted soil, then placed our seed potatoes and covered them with soil.  As the potato plants grow, we will keep adding soil and burying them until the barrel is filled.  The plants will grow out the top of the barrel, while the long roots we've developed below will develop new spuds all along the length.  This is the first year we're trying this - if it works out well, we'll do several barrels next year instead of just one.

More tomatoes in the tomato bed.  That's wire fencing in racks above the plants. As they grow, they'll grow through the racks and support themselves - I won't have to tie them or try to train them.

Varieties we're growing:  Beefsteak, early girl, Mr. Stripey (orange with red stripes - an heirloom variety), Black Prince (a deep red/brown Russian heirloom,) big boy, lemon yellow, Roma, and Celebrity.

There are a lot of plants, and they'll produce a huge amount of tomatoes. But we keep the canning kettle going all through the growing season, putting up salsa, sauce, whole tomatoes, and stewed tomatoes as well as providing fresh toms to our extended family, so nothing goes to waste.

In the next bed, we have bell and cubanelle peppers along with two varieties of eggplant (Japanese and European.)  I'm only growing sweet peppers this year - in the past, I've always raised a few hot pepper varieties as well, but that was mostly back when hot peppers were hard to find in the grocery store.  Now that they're readily available, it makes less sense for me to harvest a big load of them that I can't use up before they spoil. 

This bed has four pickling cucumber hills.  There's plenty of room for them to grow on the bed and up the trellis made from an old piece of cattle fence.  We use a lot of cucumbers for our bread-and-butter pickles, half-sours, relish, piccalilli, and of course just eating.

This last bed has Boston lettuce and red leaf lettuce, along with onions, carrots, and Italian broad beans.  It runs perpendicular with the others, and is about twice as long as the other three.

Hey look, another tire.  This one is home to a hill of zucchini.  We like zucchini, but it's really prolific, and this one small hill will produce almost more than we can use.  i guarantee at least one of the damned things will get forgotten on the vine and grow up to be the size of a watermelon.  When they get that big, my mom grabs them and makes them into zucchini bread and squash patties.

There's Zim, lounging around in the grass while I do all the work.  He likes nothing better than to hang around outside, snoozing in the sun, especially if someone is out there with him.  He's not really part of the garden, but he spends as much time out there as I do.


26 May, 2010

The Dogs of Summer 2 - Virginia Smoked Link Sausage

Virginia Smoked Link Sausages aren't really "hot dogs."  They're short, fat, bright red sausage links made by T. O. Williams Inc. in Portsmouth, Virginia, and there are three of them in a nine-ounce package, for a dollar at Dollar Tree - that works out to $1.44 per pound - a real bargain.

The ingredients are kind of sketchy - the list includes mechanically separated turkey and pork spleens - and although they have casings I doubt that they're natural hog or sheep casing from the way they almost instantly char and curl over the coals.  But it may surprise you to find that they really aren't all that bad.  

I wasn't sure what to expect from these cheap red-hots.  I've had pork spleen - it's very commonly available at Asian markets in the fresh meat case - and it tastes very much like liver, but with a slightly different texture.  Made into Virginia Smoked Links, though, the livery taste disappears.  Combined with the other spices - including some kind of red pepper which gives them a pleasant spicy burn in the back of the mouth - the overall flavor is quite standard.

T, O, Williams labels them "The Red One!" and that is no exaggeration.  They're as red as can be, from the skins to the center.  On a hot grill, the outside browns quickly and chars easily, developing an enjoyable smokiness.  They were very good served with a decent brown mustard.  I'd buy them again.

Checking for T. O. Williams online didn't lead to a website, so unfortunately I can't provide a link (no pun intended ha ha.)


25 May, 2010

Introducing The Pickled Pig

If you're into charcuterie, check out this brand-new blog:  The Pickled Pig.  Blogger Cole Marvin's stated goal is to cure his way through Ruhlman's Charcuterie, one recipe at a time, kind of like Julie & Julia only with lots of pigmeat and without annoying, whiney Amy Adams.

A noble effort, indeed, and one well worth the time (both for Cole, and for us as we follow along.)   Now's a great time to start following, too, because The Pickled Pig is only a few posts out from it's launch - we're getting in on the ground floor.  Also, Cole is making bacon, a subject which is always interesting.
You'll find The Pickled Pig from the link up in the first line of this post, and there's a permanent link on my blogroll in the right-hand sidebar (blogs with new posts always go to the top of the roll, so you can stay up to date easily.) 


New Pretzel M&Ms

Okay, so I picked up a couple packages of new Pretzel M&Ms the other day, and they are totally underwhelming. Little round pretzel balls, coated with chocolate and the trademark M'ed candy coating. The texture is almost identical to malted milk balls, but the flavor is just incredibly boring.  Chocolate, crunch, hint of salt.  Well, "hint" might be too strong a word.  More like "vague innuendo" of salt.

Honestly, I don't really understand the current popularity of this variety. It took me forever to find them - they seem to be sold out everywhere I go - and when I did find them, there were only two little bags left.  But they're so thoroughly "meh" that I'm not sure it was worth the effort it took to get them.


24 May, 2010

Alternative Golabki

Back in April, I reviewed Square brand canned golabki.  It wasn't as good as homemade (of course) but there were flavor elements to the filling that I found interesting and even enjoyable.  The most pronounced of these was a "cured meat" flavor akin to corned beef.  It got me thinking about how I could get that kind of taste in a homemade golabki.

It turned out to be easier than I thought; I just started out with our standard family recipe and did some tweaking to the ingredients.  To get the right texture and taste to the filling, I used a can of corned beef that I got at Big Lots! for two bucks - if you're going to try making golabki this way (and they're delicious, so I highly recommend doing it at least once!) don't buy the tin of corned beef at the supermarket if you can help it.  Go to Price/Rite, Big Lots! or some other deep-discount place and get the cheap stuff.  It works great.

Alternative Golabki

1 can (1 lb) tinned corned beef
1 lb ground pork
1 generous cup cooked rice
3/4 cup minced onion
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp good Hungarian paprika
1/2 tsp ground coriander, or more to taste
Dash of salt
1 average-sized head of cabbage
1 can (28 ounces) tomato puree 
Set a big kettle of water on to boil while making the filling for the golabki.

Use a fork to shred the tinned corn beef, then mix it thoroughly with the ground pork, rice, and onion. Season the meat mixture with black pepper, Hungarian paprika, coriander and salt, mixing well to distribute the seasonings.

(At this point, I pinched off a small lump of the mixture and cooked it in the microwave - about a minute is all it takes - and tasted it to check the seasonings.  I suggest you do this, too, and adjust them as you see fit.)

By now the kettle of water will be boiling.  After trimming off any "bad" outside leaves on the cabbage, plunge it into the water for a few minutes to wilt and parcook the outer leaves. This will make them easy to remove from the head and supple enough to wrap around the filling.  Continue plunging the cabbage into the boiling water and peeling off leaves until you have a sufficient number of leaves to use up the stuffing.

Stuff the cabbage leaves by taking up a lump of the filling enough to make a small burger, and form it into an oblong shape. Wrap the oblong in a cabbage leaf by folding the sides of the leaf up, then rolling the rest of the golabki up in the ends of the leaf, much the same way you'd wrap a burrito. As each is wrapped, place them in a lasagna pan or large baking pan.  Pour the tomato sauce evenly over all the cabbage rolls.  Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake in a 350 F oven for 45 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 8 minutes to reduce and slightly brown the sauce.

Serve hot with mashed potatoes.

23 May, 2010

Vintage Sunday: A Handful of Old Bacon Recipes

Thanks to the Internet Bacon Meme, people seem to think that the intense interest in bacon is a recent phenomenon.  The variety of old recipes featuring bacon may surprise you.

From an original photo by carla fealy choate
Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Take, for example Chicken Fried Bacon.  The Wikipedia article about it says it was introduced in Texas in the early 1990's, but an incredibly similar recipe appeared in the Sarasota [FL] Herald nearly 60 years earlier, on 29 December 1937:

Breaded Luncheon Bacon

Have a well beaten egg in one plate and finely crushed cracker crumbs in anohter. Have bacon sliced thin and cut the strips in two for easier handling. Dip each slice of bacon first in the egg, then in the cracker crumbs and brown in hot fat in a skillet. Watch and turn carefully as it burns easily.

A recipe for Bacon Corn Bread appeared in that issue as well.  It looks pretty good, but personally I think it could use a bit more bacon:

Bacon Corn Bread
From the Sarasota [FL] Herald, 29 December 1937
1 cup corn meal
1 cup white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 egg, well beaten
1 cup sweet milk
¼ cup diced bacon

Sift flour, measure and sift with baking powder and salt. Add corn meal. Combine egg, milk and bacon which has been crisped. Add dry ingredients. Fill well-oiled muffin tins 2/3 full. Bake in hot oven (450 F) 15 minutes.

Here's another delicious bacon recipe, this one from the Miami News, 8 January 1937:

Bacon and Oyster Sandwich

Place one raw oyster and a strip of partially broiled bacon on each lightly toasted round of bread and toast the sandwich under the broiler flame unitl lightly browned. Serve while hot with mayonnaise.

This crappy out-of-focus picture
was the best I could do with the
lousy camera in my cell phone.
This old classic, Anchovy Bacon Rolls, is from my grandmother's favorite cookbook, the Woman's Home Companion Cookbook, 1941 edition:

Anchovy Bacon Rolls

Lay one or two anchovy fillets along each slice of bacon; roll tightly jelly-roll fashion and fasten with a toothpick. Broil until bacon is crisp and browned. Remove toothpick and insert a fresh one. Serve hot.

Anchovy bacon rolls are really delicious, but between the fishies and the cured pigmeat, they're pretty salty.


22 May, 2010

The Dogs Of Summer 1 - Snappy Grillers

Summertime is hot dog time.  Even though I love hot dogs and eat them all year 'round, I have to admit that my favorite method of cooking them is outdoors over coals.  With the weather getting nicer every day, and my grill getting fired up more and more often, I thought this would be an appropriate time of year to start a series about the different wiener varieties available around here.

I have some definite dog preferences that I'll be using as guidelines throughout the series:
  • Natural-casing franks only - no "skinless" hot dogs; I find them fairly nasty.  I may make exceptions for this if I buy a prepared hot dog out somewhere, like at Cumberland Farms or a local hot dog stand, but for cook-em-at-home hot dogs, this rule will always apply.
  • No national brands.  That means you won't find Oscar Mayer wieners here - just as well, because they've changed the recipe a few times since I was a kid and now taste like heavily-salted crap - or Hebrew Nationals or Nathan's. The best hot dogs are locally made; I have a bunch of hot dog makers in my area, and surrounding regions have them, too.  Those are the ones I'll be focusing on.
  • I prefer hot dogs grilled, but my second choice is steamed; I'll probably note in the review if one method makes the wieners actually taste better.
  • I also prefer New England-style hot dog buns.  They're the kind that are split on top, yielding two sides that can be toasted over the coals or buttered and browned on a hot griddle.
  • Although you may certainly put whatever you want on your hotdog, the only acceptable condiments on mine are mustard and sometimes relish and/or minced raw onion and/or "hot dog sauce"/"chili sauce"  (or whatever your local name for that stuff is.)  I'll also eat 'em at a hot dog joint the way the house serves them - at least once - because that's usually the way the joint got famous, and trademarks deserve respect and a fair shake.  More than once, I've been pleasantly surprised.
So, with the ground rules out of the way, let's start with an upstate New York specialty, Snappy Grillers.  They're made in Syracuse by Hofmann, and they are nothing at all like the usual New England wiener.  They are a natural casing frank hold a savory mixture of pork, veal, egg white, and nonfat dry milk along with spices which, judging by the flavor and aroma,  probably include white pepper and allspice or mace and cayenne pepper.

Snappy Grillers have just a hint of firey spice as well - enough to be noticed, but not enough to be uncomfortable, even if you're eating two or three.  I just recently found out about them, thanks to a post over at The Ridiculous Food Society of Upstate New York by fellow blogger Mr. Dave (no relation) but despite this recent revelation, they are already a favorite of mine.  Normally, I would have to go on a road trip to the Albany area to find them, but my local Price Chopper carries many New York State specialties, including Snappy Grillers, making it easy for me to get my fix.

I've tried them both steamed and grilled, and true to their name, they are best grilled until nicely browned all around. Grilling really brings out the full flavor of the dogs, especially when served up on a fresh bun toasted over the coals with the wieners.

I can't wait for the next cookout I go to.  I'm bringing a big ol' package of Snappy Grillers with me to introduce them to my friends.  They'll be a nice contrast to our usual local brands.

Sign at P-Chops: I dunno LOL ¯\(°_o)/¯

21 May, 2010

Fishy Delights 38: G'Day Gourmet Tuna - Tomato Salsa flavor.

G'Day Gourmet Tomato Salsa tuna has a rich, full tomato flavor with hints of red and green bell peppers and onions, and black pepper sprinkled throughout. It's really good, and not too 'fishy' the way tuna sometimes is. I really liked this particular flavored tuna.

 They call this "Australian style savoury tuna."  Are flavored tunas common in Oz?


Out of the Can: Corned Beef


20 May, 2010

Healthy Choice Complete Meals: Shrimp Diavolo

The first impression I had when I took the film off after heating my Healthy Choice Shrimp Diavolo was this: "Eew, cherry-berry crisp in my shrimp," but you need some backstory before you'll know what I'm talking about.  So let's skip to my second impression and take it from there:  I was amazed at the amount of shrimp that I got in this. I counted twelve in the dish. The shrimp were tender and sweet and were nestled on a bed of pasta and covered in a spicy marinara sauce that lives up to its name: a generous amount of crushed red pepper mingles within the sauce, giving it a pleasant, flavorful peppery burn. Delicious. The best thing? There wasn't an overabundance of sauce. There was a 'just right' amount.

The veggie section - industry standard carrots and broccoli - were cooked very well. The carrots were actually really sweet, instead of kind of woody and 'carroty' in this one. I was shocked.

What was left of the "crisp" after it
erupted all over my microwave.
And then we had dessert. The crisp...except in reality, that crisp isn't so crisp. It's more like a 'soggy' actually. Made with blueberries and cherries, this cherry-berry thing wasn't really bad, but I hesitate to call it "good." The oats at the top get soggy and kind of fall into suspended animation in the middle of a sticky sauce pod that has little dots of berries in it here and there. And because its cooking time is actually less than the rest of the meal, it turned into this little molten goopot spewing...stuff...all over the microwave. And, to be frank, it's always these little fruit-flavored goopods that deter me from spending the extra bucks for a "complete meal" instead of just a one-dish thing. But anyway, the "crisp" was tart, in an unripened cherry sort of way, and had little blueberry flavor at all. And the gummy oats didn't help the texture much, either. I think that if I get this again, I'll just skip dessert and have a scoop of shebert from my own freezer, instead. Other than that, though, this meal's a winner. Mostly.

There's a few problems with this meal other than the cherry-berry crisp, so don't go away talking about my shining review yet.

Problem one is the cooking time. Remember the molten cherry-berry goo I was telling you about? The stuff that's supposed to be crisp? Well, I had a hard time cooking the rest of the entree because that goo had started to boil over from the tray and get all over everything. The microwave, the plastic film, my shrimp...you get the idea. So, I did what anyone else would do: take the meal out. Bad move, though. My shrimp entree is still frozen on the inside, even though I stirred it up like the directions told me to. So I pulled the now-sticky, disgusting film off, chucked it, and threw it in the microwave uncovered for another thirty seconds, watching it like a hawk the entire time. When the dessert - that "crisp" - started to boil over again, I finally said "To hell with it," took the meal out, and ate the now-slightly-crunchy shrimp first.

Problem two was the packaging. I'm not talking about the box it came in; that was fine. I'm talking about whatever machine was on the assembly line, spitting out food into trays. It got some cherry-berry goo-mixture crisp in my shrimp meal, and some things are just not made to go together. Like cherry-berry crisp and spicy shrimp. I ended up picking out a rogue cherry and scooping out a clump of goo with it. And then, I'd get a sugary-sweet tang in my spicy marinara. Eew.

Problem two may be atypical case though. Maybe the Quality Assurance department was out getting some coffee, or something, and this one happened to slip through. Overall, this is a pretty tasty meal, and the super generous amount of shrimp you get in here is well-worth another purchase as far as I'm concerned. I just hope that I don't get any of that cherry stuff in my shrimp next time.

Nutrition facts:
Calories: 250 (25 from fat)
Total Fat: 2.5g
Sodium: 550mg

19 May, 2010

Duncan Hines Frosting FAIL

Maybe it's just me, but when the label indicates cream cheese frosting, that's what I expect to find in the tub.  Not with Duncan Hines.

Ingredients: Sugar, vegetable oil shortening, water, corn syrup, contains 2% or less of: corn starch, salt, colored with (titanium dioxide, yellow 5, red 40) preservatives (potassium sorbate), natural and artificial flavors [milk], lactic acid, sodium acid pyrophosphate, citric acid, sodium citrate.

Notice anything missing there?  NO CREAM CHEESE.  Hell, milk is listed as a "natural and artificial flavor," so WTF is up with that?

Cream cheese frosting should taste slightly tangy and noticeably like cream cheese.  This crap tastes like...nothing.  Just plain old slightly yellow frosting.

Just for the record, here's my grandmother's recipe for cream cheese frosting.

Grandma Billie's Cream Cheese Frosting
Enough to frost 2 8-inch layers

1/3 cup cream cheese
1/4 cup cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
2½ cups confectioner's sugar, sifted

Soften cream cheese with milk and add salt.   Gradually add enough confectioner's sugar to give a good spreading consistency; beat until creamy.

It's easy.  The cream cheese replaces the butterfat from the traditional butter frosting.  You'd think a big company like Duncan Hines would know that.  Or maybe they do and they're just more concerned with putting out cheap, low-qualtiy, deceptively-labeled shit.

18 May, 2010

Beverage Flavored Dessert Toppings?

Spotted these "Dessert Toppers" at Price Chopper the other day.  Somehow, pouring Dr. Pepper Cherry syrup on anything doesn't really appeal to me (same goes for Orange Crush and even A&W Root Beer.) They're basically a blend of corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings.  This is one strange product that I will probably never review, but if any of you have tried it, feel free to leave a comment.

17 May, 2010

Stone Ridge Creamery's Awesome New Flavors

I love this retro-1940's logo.
Stone Ridge Creamery, as you might know, is the brand name used by SUPERVALU Stores for their house-label ice cream.  I have always been mighty impressed by the quality of the product - they deliver premium-brand quality at store-brand prices - and originally wrote about them over a year ago.  SUPERVALU operates a number of regional supermarket chains, including Acme, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s/Star Market, Shop ‘n Save, and Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, so chances are you've got one nearby.  Stone Ridge Creamery ice cream is one of the reasons I really miss having a Shaw's in town.  It was always great.

Recently, I was contacted by SUPERVALU.  Knowing how much I love Stone Ridge Creamery ice cream, they sent along a press release about three new ice cream flavors that were created as a result of an employee contest.  Pretty cool.

Here's the backstory:  SUPERVALU sponsored a sweepstakes for their employees called the "Stone Ridge Creamery Name Your Dream Flavor Sweepstakes."  Associates were asked to submit their "dream" ice cream flavor, and three flavors would be selected for addition to the Stone Ridge Creamery lineup.  Not only would the winhners see their dream flavors put into actual production, but they'd also get their charicatures featured on the carton, a $500 gift card, and  - most awesome of all - free ice cream for a year.

The winners, announced on April 29, 2010 and listed along with their caricatures, were:

Tom Lindberg, retail technology specialist for SUPERVALU’s supply chain services northern region in Minneapolis, for his “Twisted Pretzel” flavor;

Amy Youngblood, senior business support specialist at SUPERVALU’s innovation center in Minneapolis, for her “Red Velvet Cake” flavor; and

Joe Agrusa, direct store delivery receiver at the Albertsons store in Chula Vista, Calif., for his “Italian Bliss” flavor.

Along with the press release, SUPERVALU also sent me a container of each of the new flavors to try out, and let me tell you:  these ice creams are awesome.  Maryanne, Lynnafred, and I have been enjoying them for a few days now, and all three of them are incredible.  We've tried to pick our favorites, but each of them is so good in its own way that we're finding it impossible to chose.  So, without any further gushing, here's our reviews of each one:

Tom's Twisted Pretzel - Chocolatey-covered pretzel bits swirled with caramel in caramel ice cream.  Although the pretzel bits had a bit of a problem staying absolutely crunchy in the ice cream mix, this flavor is a truly unique winner.  The caramel ice cream is made even more rich and decadent with the ribbons of caramel running through it, and the addition of the chocolatey pretzels was just ingenious.  Besides the crunch and chocolate hit, the nuggets of salt here and there make for a fantastic flavor contrast and a wonderful enhancement.  "Sweet and salty" is a combination that seems only recently to have gained a wider acceptance, and treats like this one just serve to confirm how delicious it can be.  In fact, the saltiness was one of the things that Lynnafred liked best, and I agree.

Joe's Italian Bliss - Hazelnut flavored ice cream with ribbons of hazlenut fudge and chocolately chips.  The first time Lynnafred tasted this one, she just closed her eyes, smiled, and sighed.  If you could wave a magic wand and turn chocolate hazlenut truffles into ice cream, this is what you would end up with. Joe's Italian Bliss is so good, you could turn this into a dinner party dessert just by adding a few wafer cookies and a dot of freshly whipped cream.  Maryanne loved the texture contrasts between the crunchy thin ribbons of fudge and the smooth, creamy ice cream.

Amy's Red Velvet Cake - Red velvet and vanilla bean ice cream, swirled with cream cheese frosting.  Lynnafred and Maryanne both thought that this ice cream was perfect.  "It tastes exactly like a red velvet cake!" Lynnafred said,  "So much better than those 'birthday cake' flavored ice creams that are out there."  Maryanne agreed.  The red velevet and vanilla bean ice creams are perfect compliments to one another, and the cream cheese frosting swirls give it the crowning touch.   Maryanne baked a red velvet cake yesterday because this ice cream awakened a "red velvet cake craving" in her.

Stone Ridge Creamery has hit three consecutive home runs with these new flavors.  No matter which one you try, you won't be disappointed.


SUPERVALU Brands website - check out other SUPERVALU house brands.


16 May, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Hot Dog Ads

Notwithstanding the past week of damn cold temperatures, the weather is getting warmer, and that means it's hot dog season.  I admit to enjoying hot dogs (locally-made natural casing franks, please) all year 'round, but summer is special because hot dogs are at their best when they're cooked over coals outside.

According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, more than 730 million packages of hot dogs were sold last year at retail (this is based on an analysis of supermarket scanner data, and it's a low estimate, since it doesn't include sales at non-reporting stores like Walmart.)  More than 21 million hot dogs were eaten at ballparks last season, and American soldiers stationed at military bases around the world ate an additional two and a half million wieners.  And of all those hot dogs, nearly 40% of them were eaten between Memorial Day and Labor Day - Hot Dog Season.
And so, I thought it would be kind of cool to share a few old hot dog advertisements with you.   These were published by the Table Supply grocery store chain in the Palm Beach [FL] Post newspaper in the 1930's.


14 May, 2010

Kraft Spaghetti Classics: A Time Capsule of Crap

You know, it is really easy and fairly cheap to make a good spaghetti dinner.  There is plenty of decent and inexpensive pasta on the shelves of your local grocery store - chances are, even the store brand is made of 100% Durhum  wheat flour - and even if you haven't got time to make your own sauce you can get a bottle of Ragu for a couple of bucks.  (And yes, I occasionally use Ragu sauce.  Despite what some outdated websites might tell you, most Ragu sauces contain no HFCS and the ingredient list is pretty close to what I put in my homemade spaghetti sauce anyway.  Read labels.)  Anyway, the point is that a really authentic and delicious spaghetti dinner is so easy to make and so cheap to put on the table that I have to wonder why anyone would bother with Kraft Spaghetti Classics.  It takes more time to make than the real thing, and even a can of Chef Boyardee tastes better.

Actually, it was the very preposterousness of this stuff that made me buy it to begin with.  They might be calling it "Kraft Spaghetti Classics" today, but the product itself is actually the horrid "Kraft Spaghetti Dinner" from the 1950's with updated graphics on the box. 

This newspaper ad originally appeared in October 1958.
Everything about Kraft Spaghetti Classics is a throwback to the 1950's - a time in culinary history when Italian food was apparently still viewed as "ethnic" and "exotic."  Even the preparation instructions are unchanged:
  1. Bring water to a boil and add the spaghetti, cooking until tender (10 - 12 minutes.)
  2. Meanwhile, mix the Italian Spice Mix, a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, and two cans (12 ounces) of water in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil on medium heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Drain the spaghetti and tip it onto a serving platter.  Top with the sauce, then sprinkle with the enclosed grated Parmesan cheese.
The spaghetti in the package is really low-grade.  Good pasta is made from 100% Durum semolina flour - a hard wheat flour that stands up well to boiling, and produces a firm yet tender pasta with a slight pale yellow tint.  Kraft's spaghetti is made from regular flour which leaches gluey starch into the cooking water.  It cooks up sticky, bland, and flaccid and the color is a rather unappealing greyish-white.  Although we monitored the cooking carefully, and pulled strands out to check doneness frequently, the pasta still came out soft and slippery.  Even giving it a rinse before serving didn't help.  The texture was just awful and the flavor was - not surprisingly - closer to boiled flour than to boiled pasta.

Adding two can-measures of water to a can of tomato paste makes for a mighty thin sauce, as Lynnafred noticed during the sauce prep.  As the sauce came up to a simmer, she added the Tangy Italian Spice Mix and stirred it in.  The sauce thickened in minutes - thanks to the modified food starch in the Spice Mix.

The resulting sauce is sharp-edged and very rough.  I could be charitable and call it "tangy," but the tang is a byproduct of the unsophisticated "dump in some powdered stuff" method of preparation.  Even the most basic supermarket sauce in a jar has a depth of flavor that comes from long simmering.  Kraft's "quicky" method with the limited flavorings in the Spice Mix results in a harshly underseasoned sauce which tastes exactly like what it is:  tomato paste and pixie dust.

The final ingredient pouch in the kit was the Kraft 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese, and it's kind of sad that the cheese was the best component of the assembly.  For me, I suppose that's partly out of nostalgia; when I was growing up, my mom always had a container of Kraft Parmesan Cheese in the fridge (probably because it was inexpensive and easy to find back then, in the years before every supermarket had a huge WORLD OF CHEESE display by the deli counter.)  It's not my first choice for grated table cheese, but I confess that it is adequate.  In keeping with the spirit of our 1950's faux-Italian experience, we sprinkled the Parmesan cheese atop the spaghetti and dug in.

The presence of sauce and cheese did absolutely nothing to improve the taste or, especially, the texture of the pasta, which continued to be gummy and gluelike and thoroughly nasty, only twice as bad because it was topped with that awful sauce.  We actually had tons of leftovers that night - unusual for Spaghetti Night.

Kraft Spaghetti Classics?  Never, ever again.

13 May, 2010

Why My Front Yard Temporarily Looks Like Hell

Ipherion uniflorum,
Every year around this time, I stop cutting the grass in front of the house for a couple of weeks.  The yard looks pretty shabby but I don't mind, because the Spring Starflowers in the grass are in bloom.  They infest the front yard in little clumps; throughout most of the year, they look and behave just like grass - thin green leaves in clusters that continually need mowing to keep them trimmed.  But when the middle of May rolls around, the plant send out stalks about six to eight inches tall which blossom into small white flowers shaped like stars.  Despite the inconvenience of letting the neighbors tsk tsk at my lax lawn care, I love the little bastards and stop cutting the grass while they're flowering.

A couple years ago, when we first moved here, I did a little research about them.  Their botanical name is  Ipherion uniflorum, they're native to South America, and they grow from clumps of tiny little bulbs.  Apparently, many gardeners hate them because they spread so readily from their bedded areas.  Plant them as a border, and you'll soon find them all over the lawn (I think that's how they wound up all over the front yard - Maryanne's grandmother probably had them bordering the daffodils along the front porch.)  The only way to get rid of them - not that I ever would - is to dig up the clumps and thoroughly sift through the surrounding soil to remove all the bulbs.  Rototilling and reseeding the yard won't help a bit: the tiny bulbs slip between the tines of a rototiller and become spread out to form new clumps.  Tilling may actually make the invasion worse!

If I could find more of them, I'd plant them all through the yard in a heartbeat.  When their flowering season is over, the plants look like ordinary grass and they're relatively drought-resistant, staying green through dry spells much better than many kinds of grass.

And besides, I have all summer to keep the front yard trimmed.

Why The KFC Double Down Isn't As Bad For You As the Media Wants You To Believe

An Editorial by Lynnafred

On April 12th, KFC's Double Down rolled out across America after having been a test-market-only sandwich in Summer 2009. By this time, the Double Down needs no introduction, but if you haven't heard of it yet, it's two boneless chicken breasts, two slices of cheese, three strips of bacon, and a spicy mayonnaise sandwiched together, with no bun. This breadless sandwich has created quite the media splash - and I'm astonished at how much of it is negative. Statements such as "Look at the calories in that thing; it's an artery clogger," "I felt myself getting bloated as I ate it," and "I saw it in the store and was so disgusted I couldn't bring myself to buy one, but I know it's gross," are extremely common in the buzz about Double Downs.

But how bad is the Double Down for you, really, in comparison to other fast foods that people consume on a semi-regular basis? I did some digging to find out, studying nutrition information and taking personal interviews from people who work in fast food, and then stacked it against the "evil" Double Down. And my results are interesting and, at times, shocking. (At least, they were to me.) I learned that compared to commonly ordered items from fast food giants like Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, and even Dunkin' Donuts, a breadless chicken sandwich could really be considered the least of your concerns, as far as eating habits go.

That doesn't mean that I'm preaching that the Double Down is the best thing out there for you. It doesn't even mean that you should go get one. I'm just trying to relay that, perhaps, the Double Down isn't the Satan's Sandwich the media has made it out to be. And where better to start than with the specs of the Double Down itself?

The Fried Double Down is a pretty hefty sandwich. It weighs in at at least 1/3 lb. It's got 540 calories, 32 grams of fat, and 1380mg of sodium. But the sandwich has hardly any carbs (11g for the regular DD and only 3g for the grilled) due to its lack of bread, and has 53 g protein because of all the meat.

Okay, so now to put those numbers into perspective. A friend of mine who works at a local McDonald's said that the item he sees selling most is a large Big Mac combo. That Big Mac has 540 calories, 29 total grams of fat, and 1040mg of sodium. The fries have 500 calories, 25 total grams of fat, and 350mg of sodium. Add that up, and you get a total of 1040 calories, 54 total grams of fat, and 1390mg of sodium, and none of that is including your drink. You also get 108 grams of carbs in that meal.

But that doesn't affect you, because you're a salad person. Okay, fine. According to Burger King's nutrition facts, found on their website, a Tendercrisp garden salad has 410 calories, 23g of fat, and 1000mg of sodium, and that's without your dressing. A Tendergrill chicken salad is only marginally better for you, with 210 calories, 7 total grams of fat, and 780mg of sodium. But as soon as you add dressing onto that, however healthy you were trying to be goes right out the window. At only 50 calories, the best dressing you could get would be the fat free ranch, but you'd be sacrificing the rest of your daily sodium count. With 740mg of sodium, that brings your Tendergrill salad up to 1520mg of sodium, and your Tendercrisp salad up to a whopping 1740mg of sodium.

According to the manager of a local Dunkin' Donuts, the two most popular non-donut food items  his location sells are a sausage, egg, and cheese on a croissant, and the turkey, cheddar, and bacon flatbreads. Those have 640 calories, 43g of fat, 1250mg of sodium and 410 calories, 20 grams of fat, and 1110mg of sodium, respectively. By themselves.

Suddenly, that Double Down doesn't look so bad, huh?

But the Double Down does take up a little over 1/4 of your daily calories, if you're on a 2,000 calorie diet. And that's assuming you're eating three square meals a day. Many people nowadays rely on heavily processed foods from the grocer's freezer section, and frozen "dieter's meals" like Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine, and Smart Ones are all loaded with added sodium to compensate for the lack of fat (and, therefore, flavor.) But, if you only eat, say, twice a day, a Double Down may not be as bad for you as you think it might be. I'll use myself as an example. Three days of the week, I get up at about 6:30, and by 7:30 I'm on the road to school. I don't have time for a breakfast, unless you count the Mtn Dew I chug on the road. I have classes almost back-to-back throughout the day (except for the campus-wide "activity period" from 11-12), and I don't eat again until I get home at about 2:45. So, if I took my activity period and ran up to the nearest KFC, getting a Double Down wouldn't hurt me. I'm not saying I'd want to get one every day, but getting one every now and then certainly wouldn't lead to my demise.

As the saying goes, "everything in moderation." If the sodium content bothers you that much, you should really take a good, hard look at what you eat on a regular basis. You'll be shocked at the amount of sodium tucked away in the things people eat every day. And, after a good look at the rest of the fast food world, you'll see that a breadless chicken sandwich should really be the least of anyone's fast food concerns.

Links/Worls Cited:

KFC's Nutrition Facts website
Burger King Nutrition Facts
McDonalds Nutrition Facts
Dunkin' Donuts Nutrition Facts
Consumerist.com's 10 Fast Food Items Worse For You Than The Double Down

12 May, 2010

Homemade Breakfast Sausage

The Stop & Shop in my town is one of the most sausage-friendly stores in the area.  They always carry natural hog casings, and they're really good about carrying inexpensive cuts of pork for grinding up batches of homemade sausage.  And they're the only store in town that routinely sells pork fat, an essential ingredient for good sausage. (You can talk about lean sausage all you want, but I guarantee that you wouldn't like the stuff if it were less than 20% fat.  It's a fact of life.)

Last weekend, I scored a nice batch of Stop & Shop's pork fat that was slightly more meat than fat; since the ratio looked so good, I decided to just grind it as is and make some breakfast sausage from it.   I broke out my ol' faithful meat grinder - a massive Porkert No. 10 - and threw both the grinder and the pork trimmings into the freezer to condition them for processing.  Partially freezing the pork makes it grind much easier and better, and putting the huge, heavy grinder into the freezer gives me about half an hour or more of thoroughly chilled equipment for perfect grinding.

After mixing in the spices and letting the flavors blend for a few hours in the fridge, I stuffed the sausage meat into the casings, twisted them off into links, and set them back into the fridge overnight.  We fried them up the next day.  They were awesome.

Breakfast Sausage
Makes 2 pounds of sausage

2 pounds of fatty ground pork - 20% minimum, 30% is better
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
3/4 teaspoon rubbed sage
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon MSG

Mix the ground meat with the remaining ingredients and allow to rest, refrigerated, for a couple of hours for the flavors to blend.  Stuff into casings for sausage links, or just form into patties and fry.

  • Use less ground black pepper for a milder sausage.
  • I used Turkish Aleppo pepper instead of the crushed red pepper flakes. You could also sub hot Hungarian paprika or cayenne pepper if you wish
  • Skip the MSG if you want.  I've tried it both ways, and I definitely prefer the MSG version.
These really should be stuffed into a small-diameter natural sheep casing, but all I had was the wider-diameter hog casings.  So they came out the same diameter as Italian sausage.  They were still delicious, though.

Sizzle, sizzle.

11 May, 2010

Hormel Kid's Kitchen Cheezy Mac 'n Cheese

If a handful of these Hormel heat-and-eat lunch tubs hadn't been on markdown over at Stop & Shop last week, I never would have tried them.  But they were priced to move at 50 cents each, so I tossed a couple into the cart on impulse as I went past.

I guess the packaging is designed so that kids with little kitchen experience can heat it up themselves in the microwave.  Pop the metal top off, give it a stir, put the plastic lid on and nuke it for a minute. Then stir again and eat.  Pretty basic.  

The ingredients are pretty basic as well, mostly macaroni and cheese (well, pasteurized processed American cheese but it still counts) with other stuff like butter, cream cheese, milk, and water.  And salt and flavorings.  I give Hormel props for bucking the usual practice in processed foods, however:  this product contains no high-fructose corn syrup.  It's fairly light in calories (230 for the tub) but there's a heavy sodium load at 750 mg.

So, enough of this nutritional jibber jabber.  Let's get to the important stuff:  Taste.

The sauce is decidedly Velveeta-like: orange, mild, with actual cheese flavoring more predominant than saltiness.  Although it was smooth and creamy, it's strong processed-cheese flavor actually worked against it for me (I would have preferred a more complex cheese sauce flavor with perhaps a bit of blue cheese or even a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce in the pot to liven it up) but this is a common mistake with big food conglomerates - they assume that kids have wooden palates and deliver kind of bland food to them, training them to continue having wooden palates.

Also, there's a ton of it.  Stir the pot after taking it out of the microwave, and you reveal a huge amount of cheesy orange lava below the top surface of macaroni.  The little macaroni tubes are swimming in a seemingly vast amount of it.  I know that when Lynnafred was about 10 years old, this would have been like a meal from Paradise to her, but I got ahold of a spoon and ladled some of that stuff right out.   Once the surplus cheese was removed and I got to douse it in ketchup like I do with all macaroni and cheese, it wasn't all that bad.  I might even give it to a kid for a snack, as long as I kept an eye on how much salt they were going to take in for the rest of the day.