30 September, 2010

Local Chicken

When was the last time you tasted chicken?  I'm not talking about the bloated, watery battery-raised birds from Perdue or Tyson here, I mean real, locally-raised and freshly-processed chicken, the kind your grandparents might have had back when most poultry was raised on small farms a stone's throw from their house.

Late last week, I stopped at Impoco Poultry Market to pick up a couple - of all things - beef tongues (more on that later) and while I was there I bought one of his locally-raised broilers for supper.  His chickens come from his own poultry farm right here in the Connecticut River Valley, and they are killed and dressed on the day of sale - minimal processing, no shrinkwrapping, and no sitting around a supermarket display case for days or more.  I took the bird home, cut it up, and grilled it over an applewood fire.

The difference between Tony's chicken and standard supermarket chicken is striking.  The juicy white meat is firm and solid, and the dark meat is dark the way it's supposed to be, not pale and limp.  And not to be a wiseass, but it tastes like chicken.  Factory agriculture might have done wonders for food production, but that often comes at the expense of flavor, and the washed-out flavor of commercially processed chicken is a great example of that.  And here's the kicker:  the price for one of Tony's awesome chooks is comparable to the supermarket variety.

Small markets like Impoco highlight the best reasons you can find for buying food grown in your own area.  I know that's not always practical - hell, if I had to rely on New England-only food, we wouldn't see a green vegetable on our plates from November to June - but every time you make a decision to buy veggies at the farm stand on your way home from work, or go a few minutes out of your way to a place like Impoco to buy a chicken, or stop at a neighborhood butcher for a couple pounds of fresh ground beef ground right there and not eight hundred miles away at E. Coli & Son's Industrial Meat Processing Plant, you are not only helping yourself eat better, you're helping your community by helping local agriculture remain viable.

About those beef tongues:

I've had a jones lately for corned tongue, but not a strong enough jones to pay $10.95 a pound for one at ShopRite (that's not a typo, that's the real price!)  Tony sometimes brings in specialty meats at the market and announces the availability on the store's Facebook page, and when he mentioned that he'd have fresh beef tongues for $2.00 a pound, I was there right after work, buying two.  

Right now, they're brining in the fridge.  In another couple days, I'll simmer one to perfection in a pot of broth, and smoke the other one to tender delightfulness.  And I'll have full instructions with plenty of photos for you in a brand new post.

29 September, 2010

Mixed Fruit Jam

One of the best things about my local Stop & Shop is their "markdown bin" where fruits and vegetables on the verge of being pitched into the dumpster are sold at deeply-cut prices.  I never shop there without checking the markdowns.  Sometimes I don't find anything that inspires me, but other times it's like a gold mine of delicious possibility.

Last week, I made quite a score.  Peaches, plums, kiwifruit, a few lemons, a couple of apples, and two pounds of strawberries, all mine for less than five dollars total.  It was amazing, and because it was a cool day, just right for making a batch of jam, the family and I sat down, peeled some fruit, and made five pints of delicious jam.

Mixed Fruit Jam
About 5 pints

6 fresh peaches
3 large kiwifruit
3 plums
1 apple
1 pound strawberries
Juice and zest from 1 lemon

Blanch the peaches, kiwifruit, and plums in boiling water and slip off the skins.  Chop fruit coarsely into a bowl.   Pare and core the apple, and chop that into the bowl as well.  Cap the strawberries, cut them up and add them to the bowl, too.  Stir in the juice and zest of the lemon.

Measure the fruit into a stainless steel stockpot, and add sugar equal to 3/4 the volume of the fruit.  For example, I had nine cups of fruit, so I added 7 cup of sugar.  Stir the sugar in well, over medium-high heat, until the sugar is completely liquified.  Turn the heat to medium and bring to a fast simmer.  Continue to cook the mixture, stirring occasionally.  Use a tablespoon or large serving spoon to remove scum from the surface of the jam a it cooks.

As the jam cooks, monitor its temperature with a candy thermometer or digital probe.  When the temperature reaches 220 F and doesn't cool way down when stirred, the jam has reached the "gelling" point and is ready to can.

Ladle the jam carefully into 1-pint jelly jars.  Cap and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.  Remove jars from the water-bath canner at the end of the processing time and store until needed.


28 September, 2010

Accidental Tomato Soup

The unseasonably warm weather last week was great for my tomato plants - a whole lot of them ripened up in a hurry, and I ended up last night with a bunch of them getting soft and in urgent need of being used.  I intended to make a basic tomato sauce, but by the time I was done I had ended up with an awesome pot of tomato soup.

Accidental Tomato Soup

1/4 cup olive oil
4 bell peppers, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
6 celery stalks, with leaves, chopped
1/2 pound carrots, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
3+ pounds of assorted ripe tomatoes, cut up
3 heads of fresh basil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup rich beef stock
Light cream

Heat olive oil in the bottom of a pressure cooker.  Add bell peppers, onion, celery, carrots, and garlic and saute them in the oil while you chop up the tomatoes.

Add the tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper to the pressure cooker.  Lock on the lid, turn the heat to medium-high and bring the pot up to pressure.  When the jiggler on the pot starts to dance, turn the fire down to medium and cook for 45 minutes.

Remove the pot from the heat and reduce the pressure under cold running water until the top can be removed.  Force the tomato sauce through a food mill or strainer to remove skins, seeds, celery strings, and so on.  

Bring the soup to a fast simmer and stir in the beef stock.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  For a richer Cream of Tomato soup, stir in light cream to taste just before serving.

You know what I love with tomato soup?  Grilled cheese sandwiches, made with cheap-ass orange American cheese.  Brings me right back to when I was ten years old.

Out of the Can: Barbecue Vienna Sausage

Check out that helical twist.  It would be awesome to see some Vienna sausage that are like three feet long, just to check out the spiral.

27 September, 2010

The Hartford Baking Co. Does It Right

New Park Avenue in West Hartford has seen some tough times in recent years.  A lot of the old businesses have folded or moved to new digs, and it's hard not to notice the many vacant and/or run-down buildings that line the road as you travel from Flatbush Ave to New Britain Ave.  Happily, however, there is some redevelopment going on in the area and new shops and storefronts are appearing.  

One such new store is the Hartford Baking Company at 625 New Britain Ave., an awesome new bakery and coffee bar recently opened by Scott Kluger and his mother Virginia.  I had gotten a "press release"-style email announcing the opening of the bakery from Scott early last week, and Maryanne, Lynnafred, and I had been looking forward to trying them out all week.

When we walked in on Sunday morning, we were immediately charmed by the bright and airy interior of the bakery; sunshine was pouring in through the front windows and the shop smelled mouthwateringly of baking bread and proofing yeast.  A wire rack behind the counter held crusty baguettes and rustic round loaves, and the display case beckoned with miniature baguettes, pumpkin muffins, ginger scones, sticky buns, and banana nut muffins.  We each wanted one of everything, but we settled for each getting a different item so we could "taste around" without making pigs of ourselves.  (Believe me - making pigs of ourselves would have been pretty easy here.)

Maryanne and I ordered coffees to go with our treats, and Lynnafred asked for a chai latte.  While we waited for the barista to prepare the drinks, I chatted with Scott.

"We've actually been open about three weeks," he said, "but we opened really soft, without any announcements or advertising.  We wanted to get everything just right before officially opening."

When our coffee and chai were ready, we carried everything over to a table in a corner of the seating area.  In dire need of immediate caffeine, Maryanne and I tried out our coffee before hitting the baked goods.  It was fair-trade Ethiopia Mordecofe, hearty and full-bodied without being burnt or bitter tasting.  It was so smooth, in fact, that we used somewhat less half-and-half than usual in the cup.  Meanwhile, Lynnafred sipped her chai latte and said, "That is the best chai I've ever had.  And you can make that a direct quote in the blog."

Awesome baked goods we sampled this time:

Banana Nut Muffin - delicately tender, bursting with banana flavor; as perfect a banana nut muffin as there ever could be.

Pumpkin Raisin Muffin - Rich pumpkin flavor, sweet and spicy, loaded with plump raisins.  It was perfect for a fall morning - like taking a bite of a harvest festival.

Ginger Scone - Delicious, tender and buttery and studded with chunks of candied ginger.  It was a great way to start off a Sunday morning.
As wonderful as all the breads looked, we had to pass on them, since we'd just picked up a couple of loaves at a bakery closer to home.  But you can be assured that we'll be stopping by again soon to sample them.  As we were leaving, Lynnafred said to me, "I can't wait until the next time I get together with my friends.  This place is on my Destination List."

26 September, 2010

Vintage Sunday: A Baking Contest & Antique Recipes

The Emily Dickinson House
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Emily Dickinson Museum's baking contest. in which participants were challenged to recreate their choice of four baked goods Ms. Dickinson is known to have prepared, using the recipes (if any) she was known to have used.

There were fourteen entrants in all (not bad for the first contest of its kind by a relatively small local museum.)  Three of the entries - including mine - were for "Rye and Indian Bread," a bread once common in New England which was made from rye flour and corn meal (aka Indian meal.) 

Ms. Dickinson won a Second Place prize for her Rye & Indian Bread at the Amherst Cattle Show in 1856.  Unfortunately. the actual recipe she used has not survived.  We were instructed to research antique recipes and come up with one that would be as authentic as possible.

As it turned out, each of us entereing the competition took a completely different approach to the problem and all of the results, while bearing little resemblance to each other, were reasonable and authentic solutions.  Each of the breads are shown below along with tasting notes.  Sorry for the dubious picture quality, but I was only able to take photos of the wrapped breads before the judging.

First Place went to a yeast-raised loaf which used a combination of cornmeal, rye flour, and whole-wheat flour (to incorporate enough gluten to allow for rising.)  The bread was dense and somewhat moist, with a pronounced rye flavor and a very tender crust.  The density of the bread made it very filling.

Second Place was claimed by a steamed bread very much akin to Boston Brown Bread.  Having been steamed in a pudding mold, it was cylindrical in shape.  The baker cut it into wedges for serving, but it really should have been served sliced into generous round slices.

Very moist and dense in texture, this bread was rich with the flavor of molasses.  Typical of steamed breads and puddings, it was very heavy and filling.  It would have been the perfect accompaniment for delicious homemade baked beans.  Unfortunately, it was an unseasonably hot day in Amherst - 90-plus F - and that dramatically reduced my enjoyment of this one.

Third Place, and therefore The Loser, was taken by my own interpretation, a pan-baked quickbread which relied on acidic ingredients (buttermilk and molasses) along with baking powder and baking soda to provide leavening power.  Not as heavy as the previous two entries, it was also not nearly as moist, coming out quite reminiscent of a modern cornbread (though with an interesting rye flavor tinged with molassesy sweetness.)

After the judging was over and the winners announced, the portions of the bread which hadn't been eaten by the judges were offered to attendees at the museum for general nomming.   The first and third place breads vanished the quickest (reflecting, as I noted earlier, the heat and oppressiveness of the day.)

Unfortunately, I wasn't given the opportunity to get a copy of the recipes my rivals used, but I can provide you with my own recipe if you'd like to try baking a batch of Rye & Indian Bread for yourself.

Third Place Rye & Indian Bread
9 servings

1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup rye flour
¼ cup brown sugar (NOT packed)
½ teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup molasses

Preheat oven to 425 F and grease an 8 x 8 x 2 baking dish.

In a large bowl, combine corn meal, rye flour, brown sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir well with a whisk until all the dry ingredients are uniformly blended.

In a small bowl, beat buttermilk, egg, oil, and molasses with a fork until thoroughly mixed. Pour liquid mixture all at once into dry ingredients and stir in just until the batter is thoroughly moistened.

Turn the batter out into the prepared baking dish and bake at 425 F for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

25 September, 2010

Fruit and cheese - an age-old combination that never seems to grow old.  Recently at Price Chopper I saw a kind of new take on it:  Cheese with the fruit built right in.  And - while not the most elegant or fancy of the cheeses I've enjoyed - they're good, solid products great for snacking.

Maple Leaf Brand Apple Harvest Cheddar Cheese with Cinnamon - in the top portion of the photo at left - is a medium-sharp orange cheddar with cinnamon and chunks of apple added.  The flavor was very good; the sweet-tart apple bits complimented the cheese and reminded me of the old New England tradition of having cheddar cheese and apple pie for breakfast.  Apple flavoring permeated the cheese in a good way, giving just a hint of the fruit in the background.  Great snackfodder.

We also liked the Rhapsody White Stilton with Rum and Raisins. Pressed into the cheese and imbuing it with flavor, the rum and the raisins both went really well with this very mild Stilton.  Unfortunately, the cheese itself was a bit "grainy" in texture.  Still a good choice for casual snacking with friends around an early fall evening fire.


Maple Leaf Cheese - An interesting and unobtrusive website telling the story of Maple Leaf Cheese, a farmer-owned Wisconsin dairy co-op since 1910.

I'd provide a link for Rhapsody, but there just isn't any info out there on the web, other than a couple of sales sites.  Sorry.

24 September, 2010

McDonald's McCafe Frozen Drinks

Lynnafred and i tried these drinks almost as soon as Mickey D's started selling them - and I forgot all about this picture, taken with my phone and promptly forgotten about back in July.

So I'm late to the party here, but I'm still going to offer a review of the once-new-but-now-familiar drinks.

Wild Berry Smoothie - Intensely fruity, smooth, icy and delicious.  Personally, I wouldn't order either of the smoothies as beverages, but I like them as a quick, frosty replacement for lunch on a damn hot day.

Strawberry Banana Smoothie - Lynnafred's favorite.  She loves them, I think any strawberry-banana combination just tastes like baby food so I'm not a fan.  I will say, though, that the strawberry and banana flavors are well-proportioned, and the quality of the drink is - just like the Wild Berry version - very high quality.

Mocha Frappe - Completely bitchin'.  A hint of coffee, a hint of chocolate, and not too sweet.  Reminded me a lot of Dunkin' Donuts' original Coolata, which I think is exactly what McDonald's was going for here.  Believe me, there is nothing like having one of these on a 90+ degree day as you take a drive in an old truck (like mine) that doesn't have air conditioning.

Caramel Frappe - Every bit as cold, refreshing, and capable of stealing business from Dunkin' Donuts as the mocha version, except that it's noticeably sweeter than the mocha and that made it sweeter than I like.  No matter, there are plenty of people who would love this flavor and I really can't blame them.

You know, I really don't blame McDonald's for going after such a rapidly-growing market such as specialty beverages.  And the results are truly spectacular.  But this makes yet another line of products under the Golden Arches that are better than the burgers upon which the empire was founded.

23 September, 2010

Seafood at the Asian Buffet

I'm not really a big fan of all-you-can-eat Asian buffets.  For one thing, the food is usually pretty ordinary and for another, I don't really like to gorge myself when I eat...not even when it's "all you can eat."  It never fails to amaze me how the human land yachts at AYCE buffets insist on getting enormously-piled plates for each trip up to the steam tables.  I mean, what the hell?  You can take as many trips up to the trough as you want - is it really necessary to take eight pounds of crab legs at a time?  Oink-feckin'-oink, dude.

But enough of that tangent.  What I really want to write about is how awesome the seafood is at the buffets around here.  When I get a jones for oysters or clams on the half shell and don't want to spend a bundle to satisfy it, I go to one of the nearby Asian buffets.  They all have very-good-or-better cherrystones and oysters (sometimes on the small side, but that's okay with me.  When I eat an oyster, I don't want to feel like I'm swallowing a baby.)  And peel-and-eat shrimp.  And fried shrimp, and a couple of kinds of fish, and various squid dishes and preparations, and on and on.  I'm perfectly happy to leave the average-quality lo mein, fried rice, and various incarnations of teriyaki alone and concentrate on the briny goodies.

Except for the aforementioned crab legs.  I don't know what it is about snow crab legs that is such a magnet for gluttons but hey, if a pan of crab legs will draw 'em off the rest of the buffet then cool.

22 September, 2010

Everything Likes To Eat Lobster. Even Lobsters.

Lynnafred took this pic of a lobster in the tank at Waldbaum's in West Hartford.  He was right in the middle of chowing down on his cellmate, whose partially-eaten corpse may be seen, belly-up, in the lower left corner of the picture.  Notice that the lobby has enough strength in his left "crusher" claw to open up a little despite the rubber band supposedly holding it shut.  That's just enough to be able to get a grip on an opponent who's too weak to resist.

You may not know it, but that is the real reason why lobsters are marketed with their claws held shut by rubber bands.  Fishermen already know how to handle lobsters without getting pinched.  Wholesalers and retailers really don't care all that much if some mook poking the bugs gets a claw-induced blood blister.  No, they clamp the claws because in the stress of the overcrowded holding tanks, the unfed and agitated lobsters turn on one another and would tear each other apart before they can be sold.

KFC's New Double Down Advertising

Students on a Louisville, Ky. university campus serve
as “human billboards, advertising the KFC Double Down
sandwich on the backsides of their sweat pants. Photo by KFC.
So I got a press release from KFC yesterday, announcing a new ad campaign for the Double Down sandwich.  The short version is:  KFC is advertising Double Downs by putting the logo on the asses of college girls.  The girls get bright red sweatpants, KFC gift certificates to distribute, and $500 for their trouble, and KFC gets to shout "DOUBLE DOWN!" at every guy on campus who ogles an ass.

LOUISVILLE, Ky., September 21, 2010 – Forget park benches, sky writing or on-blimp advertising. KFC is taking advertising to a whole new medium: the backsides of college sweat pants.
Via the creative on-clothing ad campaign, the chicken chain will recruit college co-eds to serve as “human billboards.” On select college campuses, female undergraduates will sport KFC Double Down branded sweat pants to encourage students to try the unique bun-less sandwich.
KFC launched the initiative this week in Louisville, Ky., where brand ambassadors sporting the one-of-a-kind Double Down clothing attracted fellow students across campus with KFC gift certificates.  Female students interested in becoming ambassadors at their schools may contact KFC on the company’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/kfc).  KFC will select students at three additional campuses and outfit them with the customized sweat pants, KFC gift checks to distribute and a $500 stipend for their involvement. 
“It’s hard to imagine anyone escaped the buzz of the Double Down earlier this year,” said John Cywinski, Chief Marketing and Food Innovation Officer for KFC. “But in an effort to reach consumers coast-to-coast, and especially our key target of young men, we’ve established yet another advertising first – one that’s fitting of the Double Down’s head-turning history.”
KFC also is encouraging Double Down fans to unite and show their loyalty to the one-of-a-kind sandwich by joining the “Order of the Double Down” via a new KFC Facebook page. There, fans are encouraged to profess their love of the sandwich, challenge their friends to eat the “Greater Food” and consult the Double Down Oracle. The Double Down Facebook page can be found at www.facebook.com/theorderofthedoubledown.

I went over to The Order of the Double Down on Facebook and said I'd love to be a "brand ambassador" too, but I don't think they're going to take me up on it.  Just as well, I guess.  My fat old ass wouldn't look that great in a pair of bright red sweatpants anyway.

21 September, 2010

Malted Milk Ball Cage Match: Whoppers vs Mighty Malts

Malted milk balls are a pretty basic treat:  Crunchy malted milk candy coated with chocolate.  So it should come as no surprise that there really isn't that much difference between New England's regionally-available Mighty Malts, produced by NECCO, and nationally-famous Whoppers, made by Hershey Foods.
Mighty Malts on the left, Whoppers on the right.
Mighty Malts are slightly larger than Whoppers. The malted milk interior is a bit darker in color and stronger in flavor, with a slightly "cultured" yogurtish taste.  There are tflavor differences with the outside "chocolatey" layer as well.  Whoppers taste like mild milk chocolate, while Mighty Malts have a heartier "cocoa" flavor. Also, because they are coated with confectioner's glaze, Mighty Malts are shiny and resist melting when held in the hand.

Regardless of their individual flavors, though, don't be calling either of these candies "chocolate coated" because they really aren't.  The outside candy on both is a slightly weird and waxy "mockolate" that contains no cocoa butter.

Anyway, when it comes right down to it, they're so similar (in make up as well as in price) that it really doesn't matter which one you choose in the local store.  Personally, I prefer the Mighty Malts for the richer cocoa taste, but I bet most kids wouldn't really care about such a subtle difference.  Mighty Malts are somewhat harder to find, while Whoppers are just about everywhere (NECCO is, after all, a much smaller company than Hershey.)

Special thanks to Foodette Reviews - Jess' review of Whoppers inspired this post.

Oh, by the way:  When I was writing this post, I wanted to check out an old version of the Whopper's label, back when the candy was still made by Leaf.  So I went over to Google's Image Search and typed in vintage whoppers.  Don't do that, especially with SafeSearch off.  Seriously.  Don't.

19 September, 2010

Organic Valley Vanilla Soy Milk

When I was drinking Organic Valley Vanilla Soy Milk I had to keep looking in my cup to make sure I was acutally drinking soy milk and not sipping liquified chalk. 

And yet, the taste was totally nostalgic.  Bear with me.

How's it goin'?
I am an Old Kid, and back in my day you young hoodlum we had a medicine called Kaopectate.  You may have heard of it.  You may have even seen it on the shelves of your favorite drugstore or supermarket.  But the Kaopectate of today is not the Kaopectate of my misspent youth.  Back then, Kaopectate was made of clay.

You heard me.  That's how it got the name - from the active ingredients.  Kao = kaolin (a type of clay) and pectate = pectin.  I guess the idea was to get you to eat a load of clay to soak up the extra buttjuice. They also used to put some kinds of flavoring in there, too, so it wouldn't taste so clayish.

I still remember the flavor of Kaopectate's original formula.  And when I drank that Organic Valley Vanilla Soy Milk, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, because the soy milk tastes 100% exactly like old school Kaopectate.

Bottoms up!

Vintage Sunday: The Swirl Mixer

New dog Iris is a bundle of energy who spends most of her day racing around the back yard romping and wrestling with Zim.  By the time nine p.m. rolls around, she's pretty much spent for the day.  She curls up on a blanket on my recliner and goes out like a light, sleeping so soundly that I can easily pose a piece of kitchenware on the side of her head and take my time getting a ridiculous picture.

The kitchenware in question is called a "swirl mixer," which was first introduced in the 1930's  by Rochow Swirl Mixer in Rochester NY.  The graduated aluminum cup is stamped with volume markers from 1/4 cup to a full cup, and the curved lid with the interesting spiral shape stamped into the lid fits the cup tightly.  The idea was to pour mixable liquids into the cup, cap it tightly with the lid, and give it a few shakes.  The spiral shape at the top supposedly encouraged the liquid to swirl and mix more thoroughly.

I'm sure they have a million uses, but I can tell you what they are excellent for:  Scrambling eggs.  Crack a couple of eggs into a Swirl Mixture, add a bit of milk or water as you wish, and give it a couple of good, hard shakes and you have perfectly blended eggs for scrambling.

As long as I can remember, there have been Swirl Mixers in my kitchen.  My grandmother had one.  My mother's got two of them: a one-cup size like the one shown above and a two-cup size.  When I was a kid, they were everywhere; I'd see them all the time at rummage and tag sales, selling for a dime or a quarter.  Although I don't see them quite as often as I used to, there are still millions of them out there. 

And what, you might ask, ever became of the Rochow Swirl Mixer company?

They're still in business, selling and distributing kitchen equipment in Rochester NY.  They don't maintain a website and they seem to concentrate mostly on imports. Up until a few years ago, you could buy a brand new Swirl Mixer from the Vermont Country Store, but the item seems to be discontinued now.

But no matter.  Keep your eyes open at the next church rummage sale if you're going to look for one.  Betcha you find one or more on the kitchenware table.

18 September, 2010

Snow Natural Soda

Photo by Snow Beverages
I was recently contacted by a rep from Snow Beverages, a small natural-beverage maker based in New York,asking if I'd be willing to review Snow Natural Soda as they stepped up distribution in my part of New England.  Since I am always looking for a decent alternative to the syrupy HFCS-laden stuff that the big bottlers make I agreed, and they sent along samples of all three Snow flavors:  Pure Cola, Cranberry Pomraz, and Lemon Lime.

Snow Natural Soda really is different than the standard big-label stuff.  It starts with the cans - taller and more slender than your average soda can - and goes on from there, with no artificial ingredients at all and a small boost of B vitamins.   All three flavors are lighter on the carbonation than most soda and, although they are sugar-sweetened, they contain less sugar than the average.  Twelve ounces of Snow Lemon-Lime Soda has 115 calories.  Twelve ounces of Mountain Dew Throwback (to compare a mass-market sugar-sweetened beverage) has 170 calories.

So, how does Snow taste?  Here's a rundown of our take on the flavors:

Pure Cola - If all the colas you've ever tasted have been the heavy brown syrupy Cokes and Pepsis of the world, you are in for quite a surprise.  Snow Pure Cola - while hanging on to the traditional deep brown cola color - is lighter in taste and a bit less fizzy.  It has a pronounced citrus note and a drier taste.  I found it very quenching and my wife Maryanne liked it as well (though she's still a Coca-Cola loyalist.)  Lynnafred, however, did not care a bit for it.  To her, the stronger citrus gave the cola an "off" flavor.

Cranberry Pomraz, on the other hand, was a universal hit.  The flavor was a delicious and well-balanced blend of cranberry, pomegranate, and raspberry.  The raspberry seemed to me to be the most pronounced of the flavors, but the other fruits gave it a tarter, fuller taste and there was just enough sugar to take the edge off.  The carbonation reminded me more of a sparkling wine than a soda pop.  All three of us thoroughly enjoyed it.

By the way, the color of the Cranberry Pomraz was so gorgeous that I had to take a picture of it.  It's amazing.  Pale, perfectly transparent cranberry red.  A treat for the eyes as well as the palate.

Lemon Lime - Perfectly clear and transparent, Snow Lemon Lime was also terrific.  The lower amount of sugar allows the bright, clean citrus taste to shine like it simply can't in a heavy corn-sweetened drink and the light fizz was very close to that of a traditional European lemonade. To Maryanne and I, the drink was a pleasant reminder of the locally-bottled "half-and-half" lemon/lime sodas that we used to get as a kid.

So - Is Snow Natural Soda for you?  Well, if you're looking for a very high-quality all-natural beverage that won't make you belch like a fat dog, you might want to give it a try.  We thought it was pretty aces.

Hey!  It's Another Cool Giveaway!

Do you want to try some Snow Natural Beverages for half price?  I've got some buy-one-get-one-free coupons for Snow that I'd like to send you.

The first SIX readers to send an email to me will recieve TWO buy-one-get-one-free coupons for your choice of Snow soda.  Send your emails to:

daves.cupboard [at] gmail [dot] com

The subject of your email should be SNOW, and the body of your email must include your name and mailing address.  Your personal information will not be retained after the coupons are mailed.  This blog post will be edited announcing the closing of the giveaway sometime after all the coupons are spoken for.

17 September, 2010

Banquet's Cheesy Smothered Charbroiled Patty Revisited

Almost exactly a year ago, I reviewed Banquet's Cheesy Smothered Meat Patty Meal.  It was, and remains, one of the worst things I have ever eaten.  Whenever I see them in the supermarket, I still can't believe that there is such a demand for them that they're still produced.

But they are.  And apparently, they are so popular that Banquet also packages them in a "Family Size" - six patties smothered in "cheesy" sauce.  Damn.  Six of those would be like six lifetime supplies of them for me.

Tasty Toasty Appetizers

My brother-in-law Walter Massa made these appetizers for a party at my sister's place a couple weeks ago.  They're completely delicious and will make your guests think you're a culinary badass even though they're pretty easy to make.  I don't know what he calls them...I'm going to call them "Margherita Toasts"  because that sounds better than "Those Toast Thingies Walter Made."

Margherita Toasts

1 crusty baguette, sliced into rounds (well, "ovals" really)
Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh basil leaves
Sun-dried tomatoes, cut in strips
Fresh mozzarella, sliced

Arrange the sliced bread on a cookie sheet and brush each slice with a bit of olive oil.  Top each slice with a fresh large basil leaf (the leaf should just about cover the entire slice of bread) then top that with a couple slices of sun-dried tomatoes.  Finally, add a slice of fresh mozzarella cheese to each.  Run the appetizers under a broiler just long enough to make the cheese bubbly with occasional spots of toasty brown.

Slide the toasts immediately to a serving platter and place in front of your guests, who will eat them ravenously.

By the way, I should mention that Walter is an accomplished and talented baker.  If I were ever sentenced to death, my last wish would be half an hour alone with a loaf of his rye bread and a quart of milk, I kid you not.

16 September, 2010

How to Turn Really Good Pepperoni into AWESOME Pepperoni

No matter which brand of pepperoni you like best, and no matter how delicious it is, there is something you can do with it that will increase it's awesomeness exponentially.  You need no special skills or experience to do it; you only need a stick of pepperoni (unsliced, none of that  sliced deli stuff or bagged slices) and a paper towel.

Start with a good brand of pepperoni, like Hormel Rosa Grande or Armour's Margherita. You can't get good results if you start with junk.  When you get it home, take the label and plastic wrap (if any) off and wrap the pepperoni stick loosely in a paper towel.  Now, put it on a shelf in the back of your fridge and leave it there for two weeks before you start slicing into it.


Regardless of how high the esteem in which you hold your favorite brand, the fact of the matter is companies just don't age their pepperonis as much as they really should before getting them to the market, and so many of them hit the shelves with a higher moisture content.  Over the years,  consumers have come to accept and even expect this.

Well, the manufacturers, with their tight production schedules and need to turn over product, might not have the time for an extra couple of weeks drying time, but at home we do.  And you'll be amazed by the difference it will make in your pepperoni.  Yes, it will be a little smaller (not that much - remember, the manufacturers considered the curing done before they shipped it)  but it will also be bolder tasting, richer, and a little dryer.  The basic flavor of the pepperoni won't have changed, but it will have more character.

Step by step:

  1. Wrap the pepperoni stick loosely in a paper towel and put it in the back of the fridge
  2. Check on it after the first week (unwrap it and look at it.)  Some red grease may be in the paper towel - don't worry about it, that's what the towel is there fore anyway.  Look for mold on the pepperoni.  There shouldn't be any, but if you find some, wipe it off with a paper towel dampened in vinegar.
  3. At the end of the second week, start slicing off pepperoni to enjoy.  With some of the moisture evaporated out of it, the flavor will have improved.
  4. You can keep the pepperoni out in the general refrigerator population, wrapped in the paper towel, as long as you want, even after you've started slicing it.  It will continue to dry.  If you feel like doing some experimentation, slice off a bit every three or four days until it's all gone to find out just how dry you prefer your pepperoni so you can get it "perfect" next time.
It's easy and delicious, you just have the patience not to OM NOM NOM that pepperoni every time you open the fridge and see it back there on the shelf, biding its time.

15 September, 2010

Good Health Cracked Pepper Olive Oil Potato Chips

Over the years, I have tried countless varieties of "cracked pepper" flavor potato chips.  I love the taste and smell of coarsely cracked black peppercorns, and it has long been a quest of mine to find a truly good Cracked Pepper potato chip.  But for some reason, not a single one of the major chip brands I've tried - and that includes Cape Cod, Utz, Herr's, Boulder, you name it - not one makes a black pepper chip that isn't loaded up with a bunch of other crap.  There's always whey powder, or garlic flavoring, or torula yeast, or who knows what else along with the pepper.  And the other flavors always overwhelm the pepper flavor and make the chips taste like some kind of bastardized dried soup mix.  I had almost given up on finding the ideal cracked pepper chip.

But then, at Ocean State Job Lot, I found Good Health brand Olive Oil Potato Chips in cracked pepper flavor, and finally found the chip I had been looking for.  Potatoes kettle-cooked in 100% olive oil, salt, and cracked black pepper, and that's it.

Hot damn, these chips are incredible.  I kind of expected an olive-oil-fried chip to be kind of heavy, but they're not.  They've got just the right amount of salt and they're generously seasoned with black pepper.  When you open the bag, the rich and fruity smell of cracked pepper rises to your nose completely unhindered by unwanted odors.  The chips are fresh-tasting with lots of kettle-cooked crunch and bold black pepper flavor accompanied by black pepper burn.  

Seriously, there is only one question here:  GREAT potato chip or GREATEST potato chip?


14 September, 2010

New Banquet Fruit Pies

Did you know that ConAgra, harnessing their vast Small Pie Technology developed over years of producing edible pot pies, have introduced a new line of fruit pies?  I'd noticed them a few months ago in Dollar Tree (ha!  What does that tell you?) but only recently decided to try them as they've started hitting the regular supermarkets in my area.

So I bought one of each variety - Apple, Cherry-Berry, and Peach - and a couple of nights ago, I cooked them up for Maryanne, Lynnafred, and myself.  They cooked up just fine, with the expected amount of ugliness around the edges.  I'm not going to hold that against Banquet; frozen stuff cracks and breaks with the jostling of transit, and broken pie edges leak a little when they heat up.  Hell, my homemade pies leak a little most of the time.  Trouble is, leaking at the edges is the least of the faults here.

Look back up at the pictures on the box.  Notice how the little pie cuts are simply bursting with fruit.  I know that cover art is not necessarily representative of the actual product, but in this case the cover art has little to do with reality.  None of the pies had more than the smallest amount of actual fruit - a few pieces at most swimming in a vast pool of starch-thickened juice.  And this isn't just a subjective observation; the apple and peach pies both had "lemon juice" listed before the apples or peaches, and the cherry berry pie listed cherry juice and wheat flour listed before the fruit.

We tried the Cherry Berry Pie first.  There were some blueberries and a couple of shriveled cherries floating in the sea of purply-red goop.  The flavor was odd; I thought it had a vaguely chemical aftertaste - Lynn said it tasted the way an electrical fire smelled.  Maryanne simply wrinkled her nose at it and said, "Well that one isn't very good."

The Peach Pie had better flavor - more like a "real" peach pie but still much less like anything I would intentionally buy and serve.  A small number of small square peach cuts wallowed in large amounts of thick sloppy syrup  There was so little actual fruit in it that the pie, divided into three, didn't have enough to go around:  Lynnafred's portion had but a single tiny peach morsel.

The Apple Pie seemed to be Banquet's way of combining the worst aspects of the other two, bringing the resinous aftertaste of the Cherry Berry type together with the near-total lack of fruit in the Peach Pie.  Kind of a shame because there's a fairly decent apple-vanilla thing going on in there that could have been enjoyable if only there was some, you know, apple in it.

Stretching for something positve to say about them, I will mention that they do not contain HFCS.  Bravo, ConAgra, you get a point for that one.

Banquet's Fruit Pies sell for about a buck a piece no matter where they are found, whether it's ShopRite, Save-A-Lot, or Dollar Tree.  This is one of the very few times that I've actually felt ripped off buying something to review for the blog - at half price, you still wouldn't be getting your money's worth.

Bonus:  Dave Rants About Bloggers Who Kiss Ass

If you plug "Banquet Fruit Pie" into a Google search, you will find LOADS of positive reviews of these sparsely-fruited nasties.  Apparently, a "mommy blogger" webportal called "Mom Central" teamed up with Banquet to buy a shitload of positive word-of-mouth.  Banquet provided coupons and Mom Central paid the bloggers with gift cards, and in return it looks like all of the bloggers wrote glowing articles about the pies.  Each of the articles includes - sometimes in tiny print - the following mandated disclaimer:

So.  Because all these bloggers took coupons and a gift card for writing up the pies, none of them had the balls to stand up and say "Thanks for the coupons, Banquet, but these pies suck and that's what I'm going to write."  Don't these people have any pride (or integrity?)

It's situations like this that made me grateful for the FCC rules that require bloggers to disclose when their posts are sponsored.  That simple little rule might not keep douchebags honest, but it will at least help clue you in that a given blog might not be totally unbiased.

And yes, I do accept coupons from manufacturers and samples for review.  I've been upfront about that since the blog opened (before the FCC rules were put into effect.)  But, as it states in my policies, the companies that take advantage of that do so at their own risk, because my blog entries aren't for sale, and stuff that sucks is going to get called out no matter who paid to put it on my table.

13 September, 2010

Fishy Delights 39: Reese Spiced Octopus in Seasoned Red Sauce

Of all the canned seafood I've eaten, I think octopus is one of my favorites.  There is something about the taste and texture of tinned octopus that just appeals to me:  tender yet resilient, mildly briny and shellfish-like, but with an almost buttery aspect to the taste.  I rarely pass up the opportunity to pick up a few cans of octopus or the similar-tasting cuttlefish when they're on sale.

Because Reese has pretty high quality standards - I've yet to get a bad product from them - I snapped up a couple cans of the Spiced Octopus in Seasoned Red Sauce when it turned up at Ocean State Job Lot.

Check out that big meaty chunk of octopus.
The octopus is indeed tender, and the sauce is pretty decent, if a bit oily:  tomatoes and spices present but not overwhelming.  There's just enough for a light lunch or to toss into a seafood salad, or stirred into a bowl of ramen.

One word of caution:  The top to these things have a pull ring, which tends to make the lid splash oily red sauce nearly everywhere when it comes off.  Be careful not to open it right next to your keyboard. (Yes. Personal experience talking.)


12 September, 2010

Dogs of Summer 10: Nathan's Natural Casing Hot Dogs

It took me forever to find Nathan's natural casing hot dogs.  For some reason, most of the supermarkets around here only carry the skinless variety and quite frankly, I can't stand them; The Handwerker family sold the company in 1987 and I swear they've done something to the recipe.  The skinless dogs taste like cheap salty grease to me and I refuse to buy them.  (My apologies to all of you out there who enjoy them.)

And yet, Nathan's is still an iconic brand, and before the natural casing franks disappeared from the stores around here, I used to like them.  So, when I finally found a package of them in ShopRite I bought them and took them home, excited at the prospect of finally tasting another Nathan's frank after so many years.

Nathan's natural casing franks are far better than the skinless ones.  For one thing, they're juicy without tasting as greasy or heavy as the skinless wieners. Also, the seasoning is very close to  how I remember them.  Unfortunately, like the skinless dogs they are too salty for my taste.  Overall  I guess they're  not all that bad and the basic beefy garlicy flavor is okay. I'm glad I found them and I'm glad I tried them, but I don't think I'll be buying them again.  We're like old friends who have grown apart over the years each with fond memories of the other but neither of us with a desire to get back together.

Vintage Sunday: Postcard Finds

I was at a Tailgate Sale yesterday.  A Tailgate Sale is when an organization - in this case a childcare center - organizes a sort of flea market.  Anyone can rent a space for small fee and sell stuff (supposedly out of the back of a station wagon or small pickup, hence the term "tailgate sale.")

Anyway, one of the vendors had a box of postcards and I poked through them, picking out two pretty cool bacon-related cards:

This card shows women working in the packaging room at Swift & Company, packaging and wrapping Swift Premium Bacon.  It dates from the mid-1930's.  The back of the card reads: 'In a room cooled by washed air, and without being touched by hand, Swift & Company's Premium Bacon is sliced and packaged at the rate of more than 200 packages a minute.'  Maybe the women packaging the bacon are wearing gloves or something, because that one in the foreground on the right sure looks like she touching the bacon with her hand.
This scene shows the operation of a "typical Wilson & Co. Sliced Bacon Unit."  This one was set up for public viewing at the Century of Progress Exposition (also known as the Chicago World's Fair) in 1933.  This one shows a few more details of the operation than the Swift photo above:  The bacon slices are coming down a conveyor on the right, packaged and placed on the roundabout near the center; next they're weighed at one of four weighing stations before being handed off to be wrapped.
I got a kick out of finding two old cards with pretty much the same subject on them.  They're not very rare, though.  I found several of them for sale on eBay

11 September, 2010

SPAM Golabki

I got this huge head of cabbage for a buck, which was really a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it must have weighed something like twelve pounds, so paying just a buck for it was a pretty awesome deal.  On the other hand, it must have weighed something like twelve pounds and that's a lot of cabbage to deal with at one time.  I usually buy smaller heads so it doesn't go to waste.

I didn't have a lot to work with - it had been a few days since we'd been to the store -  but I did have some ground beef, a can of Low Sodium SPAM, and rice.  There's always rice in the house.

SPAM Golabki
Makes 12 to 16 golabki

1 head of cabbage
1 can Low Sodium SPAM
1 pound ground beef
2 cups cold cooked rice
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon paprika (more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Tomato sauce

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and plunge in the head of cabbage long enough to wilt and loosen the outer leaves.  Remove the leaves and set aside; continue doing this until you have 12 to 16 cabbage leaves to roll into golabki; by the time you have that many, the remaining leaves in the head will be too small to use.

Remove the SPAM from the can and place in a large bowl.  With a fork, separate the SPAM into small bits.  Add the ground beef, rice, bell pepper, onion, paprika, and black pepper.  Also add a bit of salt to taste, but use your judgement - the SPAM is likely to have enough salt as it is.  Combine the mixture well.

Roll up small portions of the meat mixture in the cabbage leaves, and arrange the cabbage rolls in a lasagna pan or other large baking pan.  Spoon tomato sauce over the golabki to lightly cover them, then cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake in a 350 F oven for an hour.  Remove the foil and continue to bake for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve hot.  Green peas and mashed potatoes are fitting and appropriate sides.

Don't laugh.  These golabki came out awesome.

10 September, 2010

Pringles Strikes Again!

Pringles, the famous food-like potato-crisp-in-a-can, has a bunch of newish flavors that they're marketing as "Extreme" or as "Restaurant Cravers."  "Extremes" seem to be bold and/or spicy.  Well, not too spicy, but if you're a huge fan of regular ol' blando Pringles, the new varieties are likely to seem spicy to you.  Meanwhile, "Restaurant Cravers" are designed to taste like popular restaurant appetizers.

For review purposes, I bought "snack packs" of six different flavors.  These little mylar pouches each have a small serving of Pringles and are just the right size to tuck into a lunchbox.  The crisps within are slightly smaller than canned Pringles but a bit thicker, which gives them a somewhat different and more crunchy texture, but the flavors are the same whether from can or pouch.

Mozzarella Sticks & Marinara - A blend of cheeses and spices make these crisps taste almost exactly like the appetizer for which they are named.  Why "almost"?  Very little tomato flavor on the "marinara" side despite the hint of Italian spices.  Lynnafred loves these, I think they're pretty decent.

Mexican Layered Dip - This one, although not really my favorite of the six I'm reviewing, was certainly the most amazing because it really and truly does taste like Mexican layered dip, right down to the olives (and there are no olives in the ingredients, so it's entirely a trick of flavorings.)  Quite good.

Onion Blossom - Very good.  Robust sweet onion flavor dominates, with a slight tang of buttermilk and horseradish.  Quite authentic to the "onion blossom" appetizer.

Torchin' Tamale - The least successful of all the flavors I tried.  Tastes mostly like a spicy tomato-flavored crisp.  I almost compared it to a "barbecue" flavor, but without the smoke and the sugar.  Which, of course, makes the entire comparison fall apart.

Anyway, not much "torch" here, and not much "tamale" either.

Buffalo Wing - This was another of the flavors that amazed me with its authenticity - they really did taste like buffalo wings.  The cayenne sauce was very good, although like other mass-market "hot" items, not very hot, and there were back notes of vinegar and butter and just a hint of sweetness.  I would have liked them more if they were spicier, but I still enjoyed these for what they were.
Smokin' Hot Ranch - This one was the most disappointing to me.  The ranch flavor was was somewhat sugary and the heat level was very low.  In addition, strong artificial smoke flavoring and tomato powder made it much more like a barbecue flavor, which I really don't like at all.  Of all the flavors I tasted, this is the only one which I would not buy again.

09 September, 2010

Strange Gizzards

So I get my chicken home and pull out the gizzard bag from the cavity and open it up.  Every time I buy a chicken, that little bag is like a lottery ticket.  Most of the time, I get pretty much what I expect - a couple gizzards, a heart, a liver, and a neck.  But sometimes there's a bonus...extra livers maybe, or two necks.  This time there wasn't any liver or necks.  Just hearts.  Eleven of them.

Eleven hearts!  I got the One-Eyed Jack of chickens!