26 February, 2011

Russian Soft Drinks 2: Baikal

Baikal (байкл) is a Russian carbonated soft drink that was first produced in 1969 as a sort of Soviet knock-off of Pepsi Cola. In the early 1970's, Pepsi officially entered the USSR market, and Baikal was reformulated into a more herbal soda which, while still retaining some cola-like properties, was less Westernized and more in line with traditional Russian tastes.  Forty years later, Baikal is a top-selling flavor in Russia and a popular drink in Russian markets here in the US.

The taste is hard to describe, and most brands of Baikal aren't any more helpful in terms of ingredients than American sodas, most of them listing only "natural herbal flavoring BAIKAL" on the label. I've heard people describe it as "kind of like Dr. Pepper," though to me it has a lot more in common with Moxie than it does Dr. Pepper.  The first time I tasted it, I noticed a whiff of eucalyptus - not overpowering, or heavy in an "air freshener" or "cough drop" way, but used rather as a flavor accent that helped bring out other pleasant, earthy tastes. As it turns out, "natural herbal flavoring BAIKAL" contains essential oils from bay laurel, lemon, eucalyptus, St. John's wort (hypericum), Russian licorice, and Siberian ginseng.

I find it very refreshing; Baikal isn't usually as sweet as American soda pop, and the herbal extracts offer a novel flavor profile. It kind of reminds me of old, traditional brewed root beer, back when root beer was made of roots and birch shoots rather than artificial flavors and corn syrup.  While it's not as easy to find as tarkhun, if you find it I recommend picking up a bottle to try. 

Regarding Cheerios

Back when I was a kid, Cheerios were these little rings that tasted like they were made out of cardboard. People used to feed them to infants, apparently because not only are toddlers fascinated by them, but little cardboardy rings are hard for them to choke on.

Nowadays, Cheerios are still sold to people who want edible entertainment for their small children. But they are also sold to aging people as some sort of cardiac tonic, General Mills having managed to convince people that eating cereal and milk will cleanse their arteries of cholesterol.  I think it has something to do with "sympathetic magic."  The little rings represent cross-sections of unclogged arteries, and their powerful juju keeps the user healthy or something.

Anyway, in an effort to wring every last possible dollar out of an aging brand, General Mills has been introducing new Cheerios flavors willy-nilly.  I've tried them all, and even though I don't believe in magic, I have to admit that they taste good - even the ones that seem like knock-offs of competitors' products.  There are currently twelve varieties of Cheerios, two of which are Banana Nut and Chocolate.

And that is what this post is about: while Banana Nut and Chocolate Cheerios are individually pretty damn good, when they are mixed together in the bowl they are AWESOME.

24 February, 2011

Awesome Blog Alert!

Clearance Cuisine is a great new blog reviewing delicious (and sometimes not-so-delicious) food items found in job lot stores and remainder bins.  The photos are great, the writing is intelligent and witty, and if authors Marisa and Ben ever come out to Connecticut, I'm going to invite them over for a dinner of food I pick up at Ocean State Job Lot.  Check it out.

Chocovine - A Bottle Full of Bizarre.

It started out as a fairly standard visit to a package store.  The family and I went in to buy some Mike's Hard Lemonade and a couple of sixpacks of beer, but on the way out a big display of wine bottles filled with brown stuff caught our eyes.

It was Chocovine.  The display read, "The Great Taste of Dutch Chocolate and Fine Red Wine."

Lynnafred, Maryanne, and I looked at the display for a long time.  We felt like the simian protohumans staring at the Monolith in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eventually, curiosity got the best of me, and I put a bottle on the belt at the register.  "I can't believe you're going to buy that," Lynnafred said. "You know it's going to suck."

"I know," I replied, "And I'm going to find out just how badly.  Besides, look at it.  It's chocolate and red wine and there's a windmill and tulips on the label. This is kitsch at its drunken finest."

Because this is an alcoholic beverage, there's no requirement to list ingredients on the label, but the back of the bottle does mention that Chocovine is "Grape wine with artificial flavor, cream, and artificial colors."  Even diluted with the cream in the bottle, Chocovine comes in at 28 proof, so I kind of doubt that they're using any extra-fine quality ingredients.  Weasel words like "The taste of dutch chocolate" (instead of, you know, "real dutch chocolate") and the mention of artificial flavors pretty much guaranteed that we were in for more lulz than lusciousness.

And that's exactly what you get.  Chocovine tastes like cheap chocolate milk spiked with cherry cough syrup and vodka.  Good, I guess, for a tossing a shot of dessert, or for mixing some kind of sticky cocktail that the "bartender" could serve in a martini glass and call an insert-douchey-drink-name-here-tini.

Chocovine's website tells about the awards they've won and the fine Cabernet wine they select to blend into their product.  I'm sure every word is the truth. Most laughable of all, though, is this quote:
The right chocolate paired with the perfect wine can create a near-orgasmic taste experience. But the wrong wine opposite a too-sweet chocolate creates nothing but horror. Many have taken the challenge...and have failed.
I promise you I'm not making that up..  

We did manage to find a food pairing that seemed to work as well as could be expected: Yes, that's a DOUBLE DOWN there.

22 February, 2011

Russian Soft Drinks 1: Tarkhun

The very first post here at Dave's Cupboard when I started the blog in 2006 was about the Russian beverage tarkhun (тархун), a soft drink based on tarragon extract.  Tarkhun is very popular in Russia, and there are several companies that produce, bottle, and import it into the United States.  Each brand has it's own original formula and because of this, each brand has its own distinctive flavor profile.  For the most part, though, they all have about the same shade of green.

In the local Russian supermarkets here, there are three readily-available brands of tarkhun.  We've tried all of them, and here are our impressions of each of them.
Rosinka is Lynnafred's favorite tarkhun.  This is partially because it was the first one she'd ever tried and partially because it's the brand that is the most like an American soft drink.  Rosinka has plenty of carbonation, is somewhat sweeter than the other brands, and has a mild tarragon flavor with slight notes of citrus and licorice (fairly typical of tarkhun, actually.) It's sold in a variety of sizes, including 1- and 2-litre bottles.

Ostankino Drinks - This brand of tarkhun is more fragrant and herbal than Rosinka.but still sweet and fizzy.  There are notes of licorice and vanilla and just the smallest hint of a medicinal quality, kind of like the one you get with a Riccola herbal cough drop. Ostankino actually makes two varieties of tarkhun, one bottled in plastic and one bottled in glass which they call "Ostankino Drinks Extra."  I haven't been able to tell the difference between the two except that the plastic-bottled variety seems to go flat faster after it's been opened.

Napitki iz Chernogolovki - bottled by Russian beverage giant Ost Company, this brand is strongly herbal-tasting, almost to the point of spiciness.  It is by far the brand most like an old-style "tonic" beverage and least like a modern soft drink (not to say it isn't sweet and carbonated, just that this tarkhun might be more of an acquired taste for Westerners unfamiliar with the beverage.)

Finding tarkhun near you:  Although everyone I know who has ever tried it likes it, tarkhun has never really caught on in the US, and there are no domestic bottlers here that I know of. It's unlikely that you will find it in any mainstream supermarket or convenience store, either.  Look for ethnic Russian or Eastern European markets near you - that will be your best bet.

21 February, 2011

Uncle Ben

Is it just me, or are they going out of their way to make Uncle Ben as creepy as possible?

20 February, 2011

Better Oats Oatmeal

I've said it before: I am not really all that fond of oatmeal. When I was a kid, my mother would sometimes make oatmeal for breakfast for us - based on the theory, I guess, that thick gummy porridge-like sludge was Good For You and would Start Your Day Off Right.  Euurgh.  Until a few years ago, I had no use for the stuff except for making oatmeal-raisin cookies.

After I was married, I discovered with horror that Maryanne actually liked oatmeal for breakfast.  Luckily, she didn't  prepare it using the "thick lumpen mass" method my mother was fond of, and over the course of several years I learned to tolerate (though never really enjoy) the groaty gruel.

Until McDonald's came out with their Fruit & Maple Oatmeal, I never thought the stuff could be actually enjoyable. But if nothing else, Micky D's made me realize that a good-quality flavored oatmeal might be more than just tolerable.

And that brings me to the subject of today's review, Better Oats Oatmeal. A relatively new product, the family of oatmeal brands under the Better Oats umbrella caught my eye in the store mostly because of the huge variety of flavor and "mixture" choices available.  Better Oats has oatmeal aimed directly at kids, for example, with their Oat Heads brand (which, by the way, is totally delicious - never thought I'd hear myself saying that) and their Abundance brand, with other whole grains including flax seed, appealing to very health-conscious people.  

There are so many varieties, in fact, that I found it impossible to buy every single variety available.  So, I gathered up a huge armload of varieties I thought would appeal to me and the family and just bought those. I bought something like fifteen boxes of oatmeal (not all of them would fit in the picture above.) For the most part, I was not disappointed.

Before I talk about the various flavors, let me tell you about Better Oats' innovative packaging.  The oats are packaged in single-serving paper pouches.  Each pouch also serves as a measuring cup for water.  Tear the pouch open, empty the oats into a bowl, then use the pouch to measure half a cup of water into the oatmeal.  Microwave the water/oat mixture for a couple minutes, and you're ready to eat.  I should add that emptying the oats into a bowl, adding half a cup of boiling water, and allowing it to sit for a couple minutes (just like making ramen!) also works just fine.  Remember to use a traditional measuring cup, though. The paper pouch doesn't work so well for boiling water.

Anyway, here I am telling you with a completely straight face and no ironic intent that Better Oats really are better oats, and if you're in the market for some pretty awesome oatmeal, I can give you a nudge and say, "Hey, how about some Better Oats?" and not be pulling your chain.

And now, on to a quick list of the flavors and varieties I have actually eaten with my own mouth, along with some quick capsule reviews:

Oat Heads: Maple Syrup and Berry Blast flavors: Funky, colorful packaging attracted me, but it was the actual oatmeal inside that got me hooked. The Maple Syrup flavor (which contains artificial as well as natural flavors) has the perfect texture and taste, just as though there was maple syrup stirred in.  And the Berry Blast contains actual dehydrated berries, not those nasty sugar-starch-flavoring balls that you get in cheap baking mixes, or dyed-and-flavored apple bits.  Both of these varieties are pre-sweetened to appeal to kids, but I didn't find them to be cloying or obnoxious. Actually, I like the berry flavors in Berry Blast so much that it's near the top of my list of favorites.

Product photos by Better Oats.

Oat Revolution Flavors: There are so many of these I can barely keep track.  I wasn't all that crazy about the "Classic" flavor, which is just unadorned oatmeal. But the fruit-flavored varieties, all of which contained real dehydrated fruit, are awesome.  My favorites include Peaches & Cream, Strawberries & Cream, Apple & Cinnamon, and Raisins & Cinnamon, and there are other varieties I haven't gotten around to trying yet, like Maple & Brown Sugar, Cinnamon Roll, and Cinnamon Spice.  I'm fairly confident that the others are going to be just as good, though.

Product photo by Better Oats

Blueberry Muffin and Maple Streusel are the flavors featured in the mmm...Muffins brand.  Both of them are excellent and favorites of Lynnafred, who said that the Blueberry Muffin version tasted just like...well...a blueberry muffin.

Product photo by Better Oats
I could go on and on about Better Oats' lineup, but I really don't have to.  It doesn't matter which one you choose, if you find a flavor that you think you're going to like, you can't lose by choosing it.  The only variety I didn't care for - out of all of the ones I tried - was Raw Pure & Simple Bare.  "Pure", "simple," and "bare" are not really descriptive of the Raw line, since a serving also includes quinoa, barley, wheat, rye, and flaxseed.  One spoonful brought me immediately back to my childhood, sitting at the breakfast table facing down a bowl of nasty oatmeal gruel, every spoonful of sludge triggering a gag reflex.  I really hate porridge and this variety is wicked porridgey.

Product photo by Better Oats

Here in the Western Massachusetts/Northern Connecticut area, you can find Better Oatmeal stuff at many Target and Stop & Shop stores. You can also visit their website and use the provided "store finder" to locate a place near you that sells it.


Better Oats website

19 February, 2011

Whippers Twisted Smoothies

There have been many times that I've found and reviewed products only to discover that they have been failures in the marketplace and I may have been tasting one of the last remaining examples.  Most of the time, the products in question are crap and the marketplace has done it's job well in expunging them.

Other times, however, the products don't seem to be that sucky and I  don't understand what  went wrong.  Such is the case with Whippers Twisted Smoothies.

They were introduced last year as a low-calorie drink for active kids, and were made with fruit juices, skim milk, natural flavorings and colors, a bit of sugar and a bit of stevia for sweetening.  Lynnafred and I found all three of the Whippers flavors recently, tried them, and were really impressed by their quality.

Orange Cream - Tastes just like a slightly soured melted Creamsicle (but,  of course, thinner in texture.)Thee was hint of an artificial sweetener aftertaste, but it wasn't very strong.  It was okay, but strange.  Maybe a bit too strange.

Blueberry Acai - Since acai tastes like Extract Of Sour Ass, I wasn't optimistic that the Blueberry Acai flavor was going to be any good.  Surprise!  Because the blend was heavy on the blueberry and light on the assberry, the overall flavor was pleasant, if not quite delicious, and there was less of an aftertaste than there was with the Orange Cream.

Strawberries and Cream - This one was the best of all three, with a smooth and well-balanced flavor profile that minimized the artificial-sweetener aftertaste. Lynnafred sniffed at the bottle, took a sip and said, "This smells and tastes just like strawberry PEZ.  And that's awesome."

So, I guess, one out of three ain't bad, right?

After our taste tests, I decided to see if we could find more Whippers online (I had never seen them in the supermarkets and knew there wasn't going to be a local source.)  The side of the bottle gave three sources:

Buy Whippers on-line at thirstmonger.com - Thirstmonger is an awesome site for fans of hard-to-find and unusual beverages. They have a huge inventory of stuff from everywhere, and using their search function to find Whippers will quickly bring up product pages for all three flavors.  Clicking on them, however, will reveal them to be Out Of Stock.

Their Facebook page - Drink Whippers - hasn't had any activity since January 2010.  And their Twitter account is a digital ghost town: 4 followers, 0 Tweets, 0 Following, 0 Listed.

Special Note:

Turns out Jess reviewed this very same product almost exactly a year ago for her blog, Foodette Reviews.  Click on over and see how she hated them a lot more deeply than I did. 

17 February, 2011

Quick Review: Tour Eiffel Pork Pate

Tour Eiffel Pork Pate is fairly good stuff for a lowishly-priced pate.  Even though it's made of pork, it has a delicate flavor much more in common with finer poultry-based products. It probably has something to do with the truffles that are in it (even though I strongly suspect that the amount of actual truffles in the mix would have to be spotted with a magnifying glass.)

Anyway, the 7-ounce package it comes in is just the right amount when paired with other appetizers for 4 to 6 people, it's good enough to leave you wanting more, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg.

Made by Charcuterie La Tour Eiffel Inc. in Quebec. Thanks, Canada!

Laughing Cow Light Queso Fresco & Chipotle Cheese

No one could miss the huge trendiness of chipotle peppers over the past couple of years - the term "chipotle" has become a marketing buzzword, and while a true chipotle is a smoke-dried ripe jalapeno pepper, the flavor has been pretty thoroughly hijacked by marketers who seem to use it for anything with a bit of chile heat and a touch of smokiness.

But you can really tell when a flavoring has jumped the shark when it starts showing up in inoffensively bland triangles of sticky cheese. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Light Queso Fresco & Chipotle Laughing Cow cheese wedges.

I'm kind of apathetic about Laughing Cow cheese.  Kind of wet, kind of sticky-soft, kind of plastic-y, they're okay for stuffing celery or making some cheap and lulzy appetizers, but I'd never just unwrap one of the triangles and chomp on it because the texture is just not to my taste.  There always seems to be some in the house though, because Maryanne and Lynnafred enjoy it. And so it was that a container of this chipotle variety found it's way into the Cheese Drawer of the fridge (what, you don't have an entire section of your fridge devoted to cheese? Whyever not?) assisted by coupons in the Sunday paper and Lynnafred's delight at spotting something with chipotle as an ingredient.

If you already like Laughing Cow cheeses, you will probably like this one.  The texture, consistency, and mouthfeel is identical to all the other varieties. If the label didn't specifically mention queso fresco, you'd never know it was there.  The chipotle is detectable in a vague, hmm-I-think-there-might-be-some-kind-of-spice-in-here way, but it certainly adds nothing in the way of spicy excitement - there is barely enough there to tinge the flavor and I guarantee you won't be dipping your tongue in icewater and crying for momma.

No, I won't be actively seeking this out any too soon.  But I bet that a few days after the pictured box of cheese is gone, there will be other one in the Cheese Drawer when either Lynnafred or Maryanne buys a replacement.

16 February, 2011

Best Store Name Ever.

The perfect name for a place that exists solely to sell Snacks.  Every city should have one. This one's on Park Street in Hartford CT.

14 February, 2011

Cake, With Asses

Hearts?  Balloons?  No, ASSES.

Prepackaged Turducken

Found in the Hannaford supermarket in Brattleboro Vermont last Saturday:

Yeah, a ready-to-cook fifteen-pound turducken.  The price tag was $49.95.  No, I didn't buy it.  I've had enough turducken for the time being.

13 February, 2011

Farmland Smoked Pork Jowl

"Pork jowl," for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is a fatty cut of pig that runs along the side of the head to the neck of the animal.  Most of them are used for making sausage, but they are also available as whole cuts, either "as is" cut from the pork, or cured and smoked like bacon.

Jowl has a similar composition to traditional bacon: it's often sold with the "rind" on, and there are layers of fat and lean within the cut. But there are differences as well: jowls are a smaller cut than pig bellies so they are usually sold as whole cuts; they also tend to be a "bulkier" cut which resembles a roast rather than a flat, "brisket"-like shape.  And unlike bacon, with its familiar streaks of fat and lean, there are often small lines of cartilage running through the jowl. 

Jowl usually has a higher moisture content than traditional bacon, though, so when it's sliced and fried it should be done over low heat to allow some of the water to try out and evaporate.  I like to use a bacon press to weight it down and keep it from curling when I cook it.

Farmland's smoked pork jowl is typical of the product, and like most other Farmland products, it's of pretty high quality.  It can be chunked and cooked with beans, used to flavor greens, or just sliced and fried and eaten on sandwiches or for breakfast like bacon.  It's a little less salty than regular bacon as well without sacrificing any flavor.

Given a choice of the Cumberland Gap jowl bacon I reviewed previously and Farmland, I'd have to choose the Farmland if only for the ease of preparation.

12 February, 2011

Sparkling ICE

I received an email last week, telling me about Sparkling ICE, a naturally-flavored sparkling beverage made with mountain spring water and fruit juice.  The folks who make Sparkling ICE are promoting their pink and red beverages as a great choice for a Valentine's Day refresher.  We requested samples for review, and they came in a few days later.

We received three flavors to try: Pomegranate Berry, Pink Grapefruit, and Lemon Lime.  I thought the inclusion of Lemon Lime was a bit curious, given how the email mentioned their "red" flavors (Pomegranate, Grapefruit, and Black Raspberry) as Valentine's Day-themed colors, but our tasting panel (Lynnafred, Maryanne, my stepdaughter Jamie, and my granddaughter Emily) didn't seem to mind the incongruity.

Lemon-Lime was our first pour and - as it turned out - the weakest of the three flavors.  I have yet to try a naturally-flavored lemon-lime beverage which contains real lemon juice and doesn't taste like some sort of household cleaning fluid.  The blame for this is probably on the cleaning products industry which has for decades poured lemon oil into every damn solvent and polish they can get their hands on,  This has left my family - and probably millions of others - with an immediate negative reaction to an entire flavor category of soft drink.  Every one of the tasters, right down to the 8-year-old, wrinkled their nose at the lemon-lime ICE and said, "Eeww.  Furniture polish."

The Grapefruit flavored Sparkling ICE was lots better.  I was favorably impressed even before taking a sip: when I opened the bottle, it was like peeling a ripe, delicious ruby red grapefruit in my hands - the aroma was that perfect and real.  The flavor was truly grapefruity - more accurate and authentic than Fresca.  None of us tasted much of a sucralose aftertaste, either, which is a credit to the flavormeisters at Sparkling ICE.  Good stuff.

The crowd favorite was the Pomegranate Berry.  Its medium-red color was highly suggestive of its namesake fruit, though most of us agreed that the pomegranate flavor wasn't the primary note (a look at the ingredients panel revealed that there was, in fact, no pomegranate juice at all in the blend - the taste profile was created by apple juice concentrate and "natural flavors.") Still, the flavor was pleasant and fruity and highly drinkable if not really very much like pomegranate.

Y'know, Sparkling ICE does have a bunch of things going for it.  Their mountain spring water is a huge plus, and so are the natural flavors.  There are no calories.  They throw in antioxidants and a handful of vitamins, so a 17-ounce bottle provides you with 20% of your recommended daily dose of vitamins B2, B3, B5, B6, D3, and Biotin - and an awesome 200% of vitamin B12 - and even manage to make the stuff taste pretty good.  So I'm afraid they might be shooting themselves in the foot with the marketing campaign that was pitched in their first email to me:

Nothing makes a person feel sexier and more confident than making healthy food and drink choices. This Valentine’s Day, skip the box of chocolates, pink and red colored candies, and festive sugary drinks and toast Cupid with a delicious glass of Sparkling ICE! . . . Stock up with Sparkling ICE and you’ll be hearing those three special words in no time!

Dudes.  You have got to be kidding me.  Skip the box of chocolates and give the Better Half a bottle of diet soda??  I might as well bring the pillows and blankets to the couch right now, because the only "three special words" a strategy like that will earn me are, "SO I'M FAT????"

Starbucks vs. Beaumont - Ready To Drink Coffee Review

Lynnafred's been a fan of those little Starbucks "Frappuccinos" for awhile now - she'll often pick up a single from the refrigerated "impulse cases" at the supermarket checkouts for a quick pick-me-up, and sometimes she takes home a four-pack (especially if we've got a coupon.)

When the local ALDI opened up in town, she started buying their Beaumont Coffee house brand "Iced Coffee."  Same bottle size, but a lot lower in price. This week, we happened to have bottles of both in the house, and it was the perfect time for a head-to-head taste test.  Would the Starbucks frappuccino reign supreme in a blind tasting?

It should be noted, for those of you who've never had the bottled-for-supermarkets Starbucks product, that it bears very little resemblance to the strong and overroasted brew they sell at their coffee shops.  The bottled frappuccinos are sweet and milky and mild and very different than something you'd expect to get at a Starbucks shop.
Anyway, we poured out unmarked samples and set them out for tasting.

Lynnafred, who has been drinking the Starbucks product for years...preferred the taste of the Beaumont, as did two other adults present.  Maryanne, who drinks her hot coffee without sweetener and never purchases chilled ready-to-drink bottled coffee drinks, liked Starbucks better.  Everyone who tasted them noted that there was a definite difference in the taste - the Beaumont is a version of bottled iced coffee, not a clone of the frappuccino.

If you're a fan of the Starbucks bottled frappuccinos and you're looking for a less-costly alternative, you may want to stop into an ALDI and try Beaumont Iced Coffee.

11 February, 2011

Chickie Babies

What do you do when you're making deviled eggs and a couple of the eggs break stupidly when you're trying to peel them?

I gave them to my granddaughter Leslie, who added a few peppercorns and slivers of carrot to make baby "chicks."

10 February, 2011

Fishy Delights 41: Ready-To-Eat Crispy Squid Heads

Ready-to-Eat Crispy Squid Heads.  I can't even begin to tell you how delighted I was to find this snack on my latest excursion to A. Dong Supermarket in West Hartford.  I just looked at the photo on the package and was overwhelmed with the urge to buy it.

I got home and ripped open the package.  A strong but clean aroma of fried clams slapped me in the face, and I peered inside the bag to find it filled with lightly breaded squid tentacle bunches, fried until crispy, fairly beckoning me to reach in and GRAB THEM AND NOM.

I managed to control myself long enough to take some pictures.  

You can see how deliciously delicate the tentacles are.  They're covered, as I said, in a light crunchy breading.  And they are scrumptious, though not in the way that I expected them to be.

Because when I smelled their calamarish perfume and saw that they were indeed actual squid tentacles, I expected an assertive squid flavor, which is not actually what I got.  No, the flavor is subtle and almost ethereal rather than bold and clammy. These tasty morsels are close cousins to those tins of French-fried onions that people dump out onto green beans at Thanksgiving time, only with a hint of seafood flavor replacing the onion taste.

Despite the gentleness of the squid taste, I found myself really enjoying them.  They were crunchy and satisfying and there was just enough in the package to make a perfect snack.  I am really glad that I bought two of them while I was there, so I can treat myself to them again without having to make the road trip out to West Hartford for them.

07 February, 2011

Homemade Stock Concentrate

Some time ago, I bought a small jar of chicken stock concentrate by a company called Savory Basics.  It was the best stock concentrate EVER.  A little bit added to a homemade gravy really kicked up the flavor, and if I needed a really fast stock that truly tasted homemade, a spoonful dissolved in some simmering water yielded an instant broth that tasted like it had been cooking all day on a back burner. Wicked high quality, but as you can imagine, mad expensive for that little five-ounce jar - almost seven dollars.

Eventually, I used it all up, but I kept the jar for information purposes as I searched in vain for another one.  The company which made it, Sarliz LLC, has apparently gone out of business; their website clicks over to one of those "domain parking" pages, and when I dialed their phone number it came up as disconnected.  Too bad, because this was a really bitchin' product that I truly loved.

[Slight tangent:  Sarliz LLC was founded by former Nestle VP Bob Greene.  Mr. Greene, if you're out there reading this, I'm really sorry the marketplace didn't properly reward the awesomeness of Savory Basics stock.]

Anyway, for a long time I've pondered upon how to make a similar stock concentrate at home.  I wanted it to be somewhat shelf-stable but would settle for refrigerator-stable (something that could have a refrigerated shelf life measurable in months.)  I was thinking along the lines of a demi-glace on steroids, but because any single roasted meal usually produced such a limited amount of drippings with which to work, my ideas never got much past the planning phase.

Until I cooked that turducken. The long roasting time, triple-shot of poultry products, and loads of savory stuffing ingredients left me with a whopping quart and a half of rich and flavorful drippings topped with a massive load of poultry fat.  When the frankenbird had been removed from the roaster and carved and served with gravy made from a separate pot of poultry stock from the birds' bones and trimmings, I poured off the accumulated drippings into a big bowl and realized that I had enough to try making my own stock concentrate.

I started by removing most of the fat from the bowl of drippings, setting the fat aside for later use.  I deglazed the pan with the minimum amount of water needed for the job, then poured that off into a large round cake pan, to which I added the drippings, whisking all the while to make a smooth blend.  It was about the consistency of heavy cream.  From there, the cake pan went into the oven at 200F.

It stayed there for about five hours.  Every hour or so I would slide it out of the oven and poke at it with a spoon to check the consistency and make sure that it was simply evaporating and not burning.  I was finally left with a cake pan filled with a dark, tarry paste which was slightly tacky to the touch.  I tasted the smallest bit of it, smeared on the tip of a spoon.

It tasted amazing.  There was no bitterness from long cooking, no hint of char. I called Maryanne and Lynnafred in and they each tasted a bit.  Maryanne's eyes widened: "Wow.  That's rich."

"It's like you took all the flavor from all three birds and packed it into that pan," Lynnafred observed.  She hit it right on the head - that was exactly what I was going for.  Although a much darker color than the Savory Basics stock concentrate that I missed so much, I managed to capture the same effect.

The next step was a little trickier.  I scraped the concentrate back into a bowl and began working in salt and poultry fat, tasting tiny amounts smeared on the back of the spoon every so often to monitor the progress.  I wanted enough salt to act as a preservative and make the concentrate useful as a soup base and a seasoning, but not so much as to render it inedible.  It was trial and error and I had to go slowly because I didn't have more to fall back on if I made a mistake.   It took some time, but eventually the proper balance of rich roasted poultry flavor and salt was reached.  I tested it by stirring a teaspoon of the concentrate into a cup of boiling water and...it was perfect, giving me a cup of delicious, full-flavored poultry stock.  Huzzah!

When I packed away my homemade stock concentrate, it filled a half-pint jelly jar.  I've used it now and again, bringing a quick boost of additional flavor and awesomeness to soups, gravies, and sauces, and it never disappoints.  I use it sparingly, the same way I used my treasured Savory Basics stock concentrate, and it is serving me well.  I hope that when I finally run out I'm able to do it again.

05 February, 2011

Hell Of A Deal Ya Got There, Big Y

There's a supermarket chain in my area called "Big Y." They operate 60 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  One of the incentives they use to keep customers coming back is a "coin reward" program, in which shoppers who also have a Big Y loyalty card are given silver and gold coins which can then be exchanged for discounts.  Silver coins are usually redeemable for discounts; gold coins are often redeemable for freebies.  Loyal Big Y shoppers - and there are a lot of them - eagerly seek out goid coins.

So it's no surprise that Big Y uses the program to drive sales.  Take, for example, the promotion at right which appeared in this week's Big Y sale flyer: For every $300 a customer spends through the end of February, the customer receives a gold coin.

And what can you get in exchange for that gold coin?

For each gold coin, you can get ONE of the following:
  • A Free 48-ounce carton of Big Y brand ice cream
  • A loaf of bread
  • One pound of Big Y brand bacon
Now that, my friends is one damn generous promotion.  Spend $300, get a three-dollar pound of bacon.  Or a loaf of bread!  Holy shit, if you spend six hundred bucks you can make bacon sandwiches for free! 

03 February, 2011

Tasting Everybody's Nuts.

Pistachios.  Man, I love 'em.  Put those nuts in a sack and stamp them with a clever name, and I'll buy 'em.  On sale, of course, and with a coupon.

Take Everybody's Nuts, for example.  Got a dollar off coupon for them out of Sunday's paper, went over to P-Chops where they were on sale for $4.99 a bag, and pretty soon I was putting Everybody's Nuts in my mouth. Tasted kinda salty.

Actually, Everybody's Nuts brand pistachios come in a variety of seasoned flavors, one of which is "Salt & Pepper," which is the variety we decided to buy.  It's a fairly decent seasoning blend and not nearly as salty as one might think.  Unfortunately, there's a lot less pepper than one might think as well, which I considered a weakness.  The fruity, cracked-peppercorn flavor was extremely subtle, existing more as an aroma as we chewed, rather than a seasoning flavor.  Needless to say, there wasn't much (if any) peppery spiciness.

Everybody's Nuts tagline, printed on every bag, is "Big. Open. Pistachios." They say that their pistachios are "absolutely the biggest pistachios in the world."  Yeah, whatever.  That's such blatant marketing bullshittery that I hardly need to address it.

The "Open" part, though, I can agree with. In the whole 13-ounce bag, I think there were maybe three nuts that weren't split and open and ready to nom, and that is far fewer than I usually find in other nutsacks.  So, props to them for not making me bust my teeth trying to mouthcrack unsplit pistachios.