30 November, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

29 November, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 November, 2010

Turkey Croquettes

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

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

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

Turkey Croquettes
Serves 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 November, 2010

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 November, 2010

The Pot Pie Buyer's Guide

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

20 November, 2010


Boniet is an Italian "spread" (for lack of a better word) made up from parsley and anchovies and garlic, finely chopped together.  It's kind of like a pesto, I guess, but without the strong and heady basil flavor.  

It's used most frequently as an appetizer, spread on crusty bread or on freshly sliced tomatoes.  I like it with small fresh mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, assorted olives, and thinly sliced red onion.  I make small, single-serving salads in little glass bowls, arranged around a central dollop of boniet that diners can use as they please.

Like many other Italian "family" recipes, there are probably a million ways to make boniet.  They all start with parsley, anchovies, garlic, and olive oil, but from there it seems that everyone has their own variations.  My family's version calls for a touch of basil and a little bit of tomato paste.


1 large bunch of parsley, leaves only
4 cloves garlic
12 non-pareil capers
2 or 3 sweet basil leaves
2 ounces anchovies (1 small can), drained (reserve the oil.)
1½ tablespoons tomato paste
Using a Chinese chef's knife
to chop the ingredients finely.
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Pick all the leaves off of the parsley and discard the stems.  Chop the parsley, garlic, capers, basil, adn anchovies together until the mixture is an homogenous paste. Stir in the reserved oil from the anchovies, the tomato paste, and the vinegar.  Store in the refrigerator overnight to allow the flavors to meld.

Allow boniet to come to room temperature before using.  Spread on toast, or use as a dressing on tomatoes, eggs, and salad or use like pesto on pasta or pizza.

Boniet really does make an awesome pizza sauce.  Spread your pizza dough with some boniet, then add cooked, sliced boneless/skinless chicken breast, slices of fresh mozzarella, and a generous sprinkling of grated smoked provolone cheese.

Buon appetito!

19 November, 2010

Jones Bacon Soda Holiday Pack

Photo by Jones Soda Co.
It's become a tradition of the Jones Soda Company to introduce special flavors for the holiday season.  Often, these flavors are not only unique but uniquely unpalatable, such as 2005's "Brussels Sprouts" variety (it tasted like Alka-Seltzer dissolved in the pot liquor from boiled cabbage - I could barely take a single swallow without gagging.)

This year, Jones teamed up with J&D's, the maker of Bacon Salt, to produce a supposedly bacon-flavored soda to be packaged in a holiday presentation along with three other J&D products: microwave popcorn, lip balm, and powdered gravy mix, all of them "bacon" flavored.

As soon as I heard of this holiday pack, I hopped onto Jones' website and ordered one.  It arrived yesterday, and the family and I did some sampling.  It should come as no surprise that not a single one of these products really tastes like bacon.  Most of them don't even come close.

This shouldn't have surprised me.  Despite J&D's quite successful marketing campaign,  their flagship product Bacon Salt doesn't taste anything like bacon either.  It simply tastes like smoke-flavor seasoned salt - which it is - with an extremely catchy and well-thought-out name.  Bacon Salt, and other J&D's smoke-flavored products, owe their existence and their sales to the Internet Bacon Meme,.  They never would have become such a success on the basis of their flavor alone.   And speaking of flavors:

Jones Bacon Flavor Soda - Singularly nasty.  It tastes like sweetened, carbonated liquid smoke with absolutely none of the subtle, complex flavor notes found in actual bacon.  Really vomitous. And yet, the horrid and gag-inducing taste is just the beginning.

Much as the way the smell of cigarette smoke clings to hair and clothing, the rank and somewhat stale smoke flavoring of the soda clings to the mouth and throat for hours after only a single swallow.  Not even brushing my teeth and taking a swig of Listerine could completely eliminate it.

The microwave popcorn was similarly unsuccessful. I have to admit that it smelled delicious as it popped - so good, in fact, that I actually held a faint hope that it wouldn't be too bad.  Alas, this was not to be.  The predominant flavor was - can you guess? - smoke, along with a subtle and sour dairy-like component that I suppose from the label ("Cheddar Bacon Pop") was meant to be cheese but came across mostly as reminiscent of baby puke.  To the manufacturer's credit, however, the popping oil was fairly high-quality and didn't coat my mouth like some other brands do.

I don't use lip balm, so I gave it to Lynnafred to try out.  She sniffed at it suspiciously and gave it a try, but was wiping it off in a few minutes.  She compared it to rubbing her lips with Vaseline that had been swirled around in an ashtray.

Last - and least, for all I care - is the "Bacon Gravy."   It's one of those dry-mix packets that you add to water and simmer for a few minutes.  There are a couple "country gravy" mixes like this that aren't too bad, but Bacon Gravy doesn't qualify.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record:  Not bacony.  Smoky.  Salty.  Artificial-tasting.  It's easy to make real bacon gravy from pan drippings if that's what you want.  When you're done frying bacon, pour off all but a tablespoon or so of the fat.  Blend in a couple of tablespoons of flour with the fat and drippings in the pan over low heat, and let it cook for a few minutes to eliminate the "raw flour" taste.  Then add a cup of milk, turn up the heat to medium and stir while the gravy thickens.  Taste and add seasonings to your liking, and you have real bacon gravy - that will taste like real bacon and not some shitty mix - in only a couple of minutes longer than the mix will take.

Let's just face some facts here, okay?  Bacon - real honest pigmeat bacon - is the product of an amazing process by which pork, curing, and smoke combine to create something far more than the sum of its parts.  The hunger for cured and smoked pork almost seems hardwired into our genetic makeup - bacon is such a sought-after flavor that people whose most deeply-held beliefs forbid them from eating it drive them to create substitutions and imitations of it.  It's completely understandable to me why someone would try to place that flavor into other products in an attempt to spread the joy.

The problem is this:  Every one of the many, many "bacon-flavored" products I've tasted relies on one specific characteristic of bacon for it's primary flavor component:  Smoke.  And that's a big problem, because  bacon doesn't taste like smoke alone.  Bacon has a complex flavor profile of which smoke is simply one component.  There's salt, and various sugars, and rich meaty pork, and other almost subliminal notes  which come from aromatics used in the brine or which result from curing, like lactose.  There simply is no way - short of adding bacon itself to a dish - that anyone is going to get a true and decent bacon "flavor" from salt, smoke, maltodextrin, and autolyzed yeast extract.

As of right now, I'm done with the fake bacon crap.  I'm not buying any more of it, and I'm not reviewing any more of it either unless a manufacturer or public relations firm spends their own coin to treat me to a sample.  And they've got to make a product that's a hell of a lot better than the usual junk if they expect a thumbs-up from me.

17 November, 2010

ALDI's Kirkwood Brand Frozen Fried Chicken

There are some products which I buy with the full knowledge that they aren't as good as most of the alternatives.  But I buy them anyway because of expedience, or price, or simply nostalgia because my mom used to get the stuff when I was a kid and they bring back fond memories.

Frozen fried chicken is like that, and when I buy it - which is very occasionally - it usually qualifies on all three points.  It's drop-dead easy to prepare (just chuck it in the oven for 45 minutes); it's cheap (under five bucks a box - sometimes well under if you're shopping a no-frills place like Save-A-Lot); and it's nostalgic for me because when I was a lad growing up in a somewhat poor household, frozen fried chicken was one of the cheapest easy-to-make things an 11-year-old could prepare with few cooking skills, so it was a regular item. (Mom worked nights and I babysat my younger sibs; I learned to cook as time went on because I was tired of living on frozen box food.)

Anyway, it was a raw and rainy night last night when I stopped at ALDI on my way home from work, and I was having a peculiar jones for cheap fried chicken.   A box of the frozen stuff would be just the thing, because I could take the chill off the kitchen by running the oven for awhile.  So I picked up one each of ALDI's Kirkwood Brand Original and Southern Style "Crispy Chicken."

The chicken performed exactly to specifications, which is to say that it wasn't excellent but it was acceptable and satisfying in a way that reminded me of sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework while the smell of oven-fried chicken filled the room.  

Objectively, though, I have to admit that it's pretty mediocre stuff.  The chicken is a little on the dry side, especially in the spots where the coating has come off at the factory and the meat has kind of dehydrated into a sort of fried chicken jerky.  There isn't much of a flavor difference between the two varieties, either.  The "Southern Style" has a lot of black pepper in the coating, while the "Original" doesn't.  On the other hand, each box contains six honest pieces of chicken - two drumsticks, two thighs, and two portions of split breast - and by "honest" I mean that they don't try to pass off a chunk of backbone with some spindly ribs hanging off it as "white meat."  Unfortunately, they also leave out the wings these days.  Back in the days before wings became a popular bar food, wings were plentiful in boxed chicken packs like these.  Now, however, wings are hugely profitable for processors so they're saved out for specialty products.

When all is said and done, I would probably buy ALDI's house brand of chicken again.  It was OK, and there really wasn't all that much difference between Kirkwood and ConAgra's Banquet frozen fried chicken.  No surprise there, either:  when I checked the USDA seal on the Kirkwood box, I found that the chicken had been prepared and packaged by Est. P-7131.  ConAgra Foods.

14 November, 2010

Archway's Incredible Holiday Cookies

On Friday - totally unannounced and out of the blue - a package arrived on the front porch.  I wasn't expecting anything, so imagine my surprise and delight to find that it was filled with samples of Archway's new holiday cookies!

As awesome as the people at Archway are for sending them, these new cookies are even more awesome.  Just in time for the holidays, they've gone and made a special line of cookies that are delicious enough to serve to guests.  Many of the labels say "just like homemade."  I know you've heard that before, but in this case it's true - the cookies are indeed just like homemade.  Let's try them out one by one, shall we?

Snow Tops are chocolate cookies with walnuts topped with a royal-icing-like frosting glaze.  They're as rich and chewy as fudge, bursting with chocolatey goodness with just the right amount of chopped walnuts baked in.  These quickly became a favorite here.

Archway's Pfeffernusse are a delicious variation of the German Christmas favorite.  Cloves and cinnamon are prominent in the cookie, which is just slightly soft and chewy and rolled in powdered sugar.

If you're a fan of Archway cookies at all, you'll remember their Cashew Nougat cookies.  A few years ago when the company was in dire straits, Cashew Nougats were discontinued.  But they're one of Archway's most beloved and fondly remembered product, and even the quickest of Google searches will turn up dozens of recipes attempting to duplicate them.

No need now, though - Archway has brought them back, and they are every bit as delicious now as they were back in the day.  Sweet just a bit brittle, they melt in your mouth.  The cashews are the perfect compliment to the nougat and the nuts' hint of saltiness makes the sweet cookies even more delectable. 

If your holiday traditions included a few packages of Cashew Nougats, you are not going to be disappointed.  And if your holiday traditions don't include them, it's a great time to start!

Wedding Cake cookies are a time-honored tradition in our family.  Ever since she was a wee lass of four summers, Lynnafred has spent time with her Nonnie (my mom) making Wedding Cakes just before Christmas.  It was an inexpensive way for Lynnafred to give everyone in the family a delicious Christmas treat, and it got her involved in the kitchen early on.  

We still make wedding cakes, but this year they'll be joined by Archway's Wedding Cake cookies.  Sweet and walnutty and delicious, they're another melt-in-your mouth delight.

Candy Cane cookies are another new addition to Archway's holiday lineup.  They're semisoft shortbread cookies, studded with peppermint morsels and drizzled with icing glaze.  They're cool and sweet and minty and taste like an eight-year-old's dream of Christmas morning, as painted by Norman Rockwell, with full stockings hanging from the mantle and candy canes hooked on the branches of the Christmas tree.

If I were expecting a visit from Santa Claus this year, these are the cookies I'd put on the plate for him.  After all,  I presume they're made with Essence of Kid's Christmas, which isn't actually on the label unless of course it's classified as a "natural flavor."

Even with all the other delicious offerings, the holidays just wouldn't be the same without gingerbread.  Archway's Iced Gingerbread cookies are soft and tender and fun to eat.  Yes, the icing has something to do with it, but then there are the red and green sprinkles studding the icing.  You can never go wrong with gingerbread.  Or icing.  Or sprinkles.  Especially sprinkles.

Last, but by no means least, are Archway's Holiday Gingerbread Man cookies.  They're very similar to gingersnaps, but in the form of happy little gingerbread men seemingly rapturous with the thought of being dipped into coffee and munched.

For more information about any of these cookies, visit Archway's website.  It includes a store locator you can use to find a retailer near you carrying them, so you can experience the awesomeness for yourself.

10 November, 2010

Thanksgiving Turkey: To Brine or Not to Brine?

Thanksgiving Day is a couple of weeks away, and food writers everywhere - newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV and radio - are passing along their "essential tips" for making the perfect roasted turkey.  Over the past few years, it seems like the most common piece of advice everyone gives is:  Brine The Turkey!

Brining, as everyone from Alton Brown to About-dot-com will tell you, helps a roasted turkey stay juicy and delicious.  The salt in the brine causes the meat to absorb water (and any flavorings you may have added) while partially breaking down proteins in the meat.  With more water in the bird to start with, the meat can lose moisture during the long cooking time without becoming dry or stringy.

For the past ten or twelve years, my family has sat down to a turkey dinner featuring delicious smoked turkey.  I use a hot smoking process, keeping the smoker at about 250 degrees F over pleasant fruitwood smoke (apple or citrus) until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reaches about 160 degrees F or even a little less.  (That whole 180-degree thing?  Yeah, that's  a holdover from the "Let's Cook The Living Shit Out Of Everything We Eat" culinary school of the early 20th century, and it's way too high a temp  if you don't want severely overdone bird.)

Generally, I brine everything that goes into the smoker.  Brining is a great method for curing pork cuts, bacon, tongues, corned beef, and so on, and there's no doubt that meats held over the heat for a long time don't dry out if they're tanked up with water to begin with.  The first few turkeys I smoked were brined.

And then one Thanksgiving, in the hectic swirl of preparations, I forgot to brine the damn bird.  I didn't realize it until I actually went into the fridge to fetch the turkey and put it into the smoker.  There was no help for it - the turkey had to go in right then to be on time for our dinner guests and there was no time for the luxury of a soak in a seasoned saltwater bath.

The turkey came out perfect nonetheless, and I think I know why.

First, I held the smoker at a low temperature, and I kept a pan of water just over the heat source.  The "moist heat" environment kept the bird from losing too much moisture over the 5-hour-or-so cooking time.

Second - and this is probably equally important - the turkey was "pre-brined" by the processor.  Take a look at the label of most supermarket turkeys and you'll find a statement in very fine print that tells you that the turkey "contains up to n% solution" with n varying depending on the brand.  Really, if the processor is already adding a brine to the turkey before it gets to the store, there isn't much point to me adding additional brining to it.

Since then, if I'm smoking a commercially processed turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, I don't bother with the brine.  I still brine it if I'm using a free-range or backyard flock bird.  But my advice to you is read the labels carefully.  The label will always note if the bird has an added solution or if there is a percentage of retained water from processing (and you should know that even some poultry labeled "minimally processed" can still contain retained water.

09 November, 2010

Benton's Best Maple Leaf Cream Cookies

Another quick review, this time for another ALDI store brand.

I couldn't believe how deliciously mapleicious these maple-creme-filled sandwich cookies are.  Truly awesome.

Also, truly 110 calories per cookie.  Sorry to be a spoilsport, but nothing good comes without a cost eh?

08 November, 2010

This "Markdown" Is No Deal

Seen on the Markdown/Clearance shelves at the local Big Y Supermarket, these Toy Story 3-themed Kleenex Pocket Pack tissues.

Big Y, the most expensive supermarket in town, uses their "markdown" shelves as a last resort to sell products that are last of a one-off, damaged, or slow-selling.  A day ago, the markdown area was crammed with piles of these Pocket Packs.  At $1.19 each,  I predict they're going to be there for a while. (8-count bundles of Kleenex Pocket Packs usually run around three dollars, even at non-discount places like Staples.)

07 November, 2010

Wye River Snack Mix

You may remember my glowing review of Wye River snacks, especially the Crabbers cheddar cheese snack crackers.  I thought the Crabbers would be an awesome component of a snack mix, and you know what?  I was right.

Thanks to a generous Maryland reader, I obtained a bottle of Wye River Original Red seasoning, and used it in the creation of this snack mix.  Try making a batch for yourself, and I bet you'll be delighted at the results.

Wye River Snack Mix
1 batch

1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1½ teaspoons soy sauce
1¼ teaspoons Wye River Original Red Seasoning
5 cups rice squares cereal (about half a box)
5 cups corn squares cereal (about half a box)
2 cups Wye River Cheddar Cheese Crabbers crackers (about half a box)
1 cup pretzels (about half of a 6-ounce bag)
1 cup roasted smoked almonds (about half of a 9-ounce tin)

Preheat oven to 275 F.

In a large roasting pan, melt the stick of butter and add the Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and the Wye River Original Red Seasoning.  Stir it well to combine, and add all remaining ingredients.  Use a spatula to stir and turn over the mixture until the snack ingredients are all evenly coated with the seasoned butter.

Bake in the 275 F oven for one hour, turning and stirring well every 15 minutes, to toast the snack mix.  

I usually make snack mix in double batches to use up all the ingredients.  Using a box of generic Corn Squares and Rice Squares cereal and a bag of Deutsche Kuche Pretzel Crackers from ALDI, and a  9-ounce can of generic roasted smoked almonds makes the mix very affordable, and believe me there is little if any difference between ALDI "squares" and genuine Chex cereal.

Wye River Original Red Seasoning is, by the way, a totally awesome seasoning mix. 

06 November, 2010

Stockmeyer Pea Soup

Good, honest pea soup is a sublime and simple pleasure.  Dried peas, an onion or two, and a handful of herbs, simmered for hours around a ham bone - or better yet, a couple of meaty smoked hocks - turn into a meal-in-a-bowl.  It's even better with a couple of diced potatoes and carrots thrown in to cook an hour or so before serving.  Unlike a stew, where a flour-based roux is often called for to thicken up the gravy, pea soup should be relatively thick as a result of it's ingredients.  I have friends who swear that pea soup isn't thick enough unless the spoon can stand up on its own when stabbed into the bowl.  My own view is not that extreme, but still, I understand the thinking behind it.  For me, the perfect pea soup is slightly thicker than gravy, with a good hammy flavor behind the peas; a hint of smoke from the pork, the kiss of onion and green herbs, and an occasional bit of potato.  If it's been made with smoked hocks, there should be shreds of meat mingled in.

Now, there isn't a canned soup made that can truly measure up to good homemade.  When I buy canned soup, it's for convenience, not for gourmet enjoyment.  All I ask is that it's "good enough" - it doesn't have to be excellent.  Unfortunately, Stockmeyer Pea Soup doesn't even make it to "good enough."  Not only was the soup surprisingly bland, but it had an odd texture that didn't seem right for a pea soup and which might have been due to the fact that it's thickened with modified wheat starch and guar gum.

Strangely, the label also listed "artificial flavoring (including eggs, soybeans, milk)."  I have no idea what kind of artificial flavoring is derived from "eggs, soybeans, milk" but  it seems to be a common listing on Stockmeyer soup ingredient panels.

This is one product I would not buy again.

05 November, 2010

Kellogg's Special K Red Berries

As a feature publisher for Foodbuzz, I participate in the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program, through which I'm occasionally sent samples of products to review.  Such was the case recently with Kellogg's Special K Red Berries cereal - Kellog's sent along two boxes of the cereal and asked that I try it out and let everyone know what I thought of it.

Maryanne, Lynnafred, and I all enjoy various cold cereals regardless of the time of year, so the Special K was a nice treat.  All of us liked the crunch and the sweet-tartness of the dehydrated strawberries that were sprinkled throughout the mix. Kellogg's is making a big deal of the nice big dose of fiber in every serving, which is hardly surprising since they've been emphasizing the healthy stool-moving qualities of dietary fiber for about a hundred years now, but when we buy a cereal we don't do it based on whether or not it will help us take a big healthy dump.  No, we look at these qualities:
  • Is it delicious?
  • Will it stay relatively crispy after the milk is poured?
  • Will it carry us over for the six-plus hours from breakfast to lunch?
I'm happy to say that  Special K Red Berries succeeds on all three counts.
  • It is delicious. The rice and wheat blend is quite tasty.and these grains are helped along by the generous amount of sugar (third on the ingredient list, just behind the rice and wheat) and seemingly-mandatory dollop of high-fructose corn syrup.  Even fans of Cap'n Crunch should need no added sugar to enjoy Red Berries.
  • We noticed the Special K Red Berries cereal resisted sogginess somewhat better than the usual cereal flakes.  The red berries, however, delighted in soaking up milk to create soft, flavorful (and quite milky) berries.
  • Special K Red Berries did a bang-up job of suppressing The Hungries all morning long.
Good stuff, and worth an addition to the morning lineup as long as you remember that these aren't in the same league as plain corn flakes or Cheerios.  I consider Special K Red Berries to be a "sugar cereal," and enjoy it as an occasional "treat" breakfast.

02 November, 2010

McDonald's Brings Back The McRib

McDonald's McRib is back - for a limited time - at participating restaurants.  Although the McRib has made limited regional appearances for some time, this is the first time it's been rolled out nationally in 16 years.  I think the last time I'd had a McRib was sometime in the mid-1980's, so I decided that I'd succumb to the heavy hype the McRib has been receiving for the past few weeks and pick one up on my way home from work.

Mickey D's takes a chopped-pork patty stamped into a bastard replica of a rack of ribs, quite literally drowns it in sauce, and then serves it on a soft split-top bun with chopped onions and sliced pickles.  Get extra napkins - or grab a couple of paper towels if you get it to go and take it home - because the McRib is one damn sloppy sandwich to eat.  When you open the clamshell box it comes in, sauce is everywhere: on the sandwich, inside the box, on the outside of the bun.  I watched the McD's crew member build them, and it seemed at the time that he was taking reasonable care not to be a slob when he was slapping them together, but I think it might be impossible to assemble these neatly.

Okay, so how do they taste?  Well...strange would be a good word to describe it.  The pork patty has a good porky flavor, and the onions are a nice touch.  And surprisingly, the sharpness of the pickles helps to cut some of the rather obnoxious sweetness of the barbecue sauce.  It's a pretty decent sandwich, but for one thing that I'm finding it hard to describe.  See, all of McDonald's burgers have this unique and immediately identifiable flavor to them.  It's got to be something in the seasoning blend they use, and the McRib uses the same seasoning.  So behind the pork, behind the sauce and onions and pickles, it still tastes like a McDonald's patty.  For some people, I guess that's a plus.  For me, it earns a shrug.  Since I can get very similar boneless analog-rib products anytime from Banquet and even ALDI, and I'm not all that fond of McDonald's non-breakfast items anyway, I'm not convinced that the McRib is really worth $4.00 and 16 years.

You know what's going to be really fun, though?  When some morons with fifty bucks and a video camera try to force a meme by combining McRibs with Double Downs, Whoppers, and Baconators and post a video of their puke-inducing 8000-calorie Dumbass Burger on YouTube.