30 April, 2011

Final Fantasy Elixirs

Characters pictured, L to R: Serrah Farron,
Obera Yun Fang, Lightning
Pictured at right: Three cans of what might be the most sought-after beverage among RPG* video gamers - Final Fantasy XIII Elixir. Randomly-selected cans sell online and at cons for as much as ten bucks each (though they can also be found on Amazon for as "little" as five dollars a can.)  They were a birthday gift to Lynnafred from her awesome friend Andy, who made her promise that they'd get reviewed here.

Lynnafred and her friend Ashley were delighted with the cans and the exceptional quality of the litho artwork, which are essentially cropped-to-fit versions of Square Enix's official hi-res character publicity images. An interesting touch was the irridescent pigment used for the apparently-white backgrounds on the cans - tipping the can against the light revealed a rainbow of colors (quite a cool effect for a beverage can.)  Just for the sake of the artwork alone, the cans have become prized by gamers and can collectors.

We weren't sure of what to expect when we opened the can. Amazon puts FF13 Elixir in their "energy drinks" category, which is kind of funny in a geeky "OMG IT'S ELIXIR SO IT'S MAGIC" kind of way. We wondered what color it would be ("I hope it's a cool glowing blue," Lynnafred said) and what it would taste like. It's bottled in Japan by Suntory, and Japanese soft drinks are often flavored in unusual and interesting ways.

So, after oohing and ahhing over the can design, and much speculation over what might be inside, we popped a can open and poured it out into cups for tasting.

It was colorless, and tasted like...Suntory lemon-lime soda. Quite anticlimactic.

* - That's Role Playing Game, not Rocket-Propelled Grenades.

28 April, 2011

Lance's New Cracker Creations Sandwich Crackers

There's a new sandwich cracker hitting the shelves right now.  They're called Cracker Creations and they're made by the snackmeisters at Lance.  Lance calls them "premium seasoned sandwich crackers," and that's as good a description as any, because they are pretty amazing.

There are two flavors, Garden Vegetable and Parmesan Herb. Lance has baked the veggies, herbs, and cheese right into the crackers and put them together with real cream cheese filling. They sent a box of each variety to me for review, and when the packages got here I opened them up and left them on the dining room table for the family to enjoy.

Cracker Creations are packaged in neat little two-sandwich envelopes which Maryanne found to be the perfect size for tucking into her lunch bag. Each of the sandwiches are almost twice the size of Lance's regular sandwich crackers.

Garden Vegetable - Delicious, savory crackers with tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions in the mix, balancing beautifully with the cream cheese filling. Lynnafred remarked that it was one of the best-tasting crackers she'd ever had, and Maryanne said that they were perfect for taking the hungry edge off of the afternoon at work.

Parmesan Herb - Buttery and yet sharp, the Parmesan Herb flavor was every bit as good as the Garden Vegetable and won high praise from everyone.  "These are completely NOMMable," Lynnafred said.

Although they're marketed as a snack, I can tell you first-hand that they are awesome with a bowl of tomato soup on a chilly evening.

Other information you may find useful:  they've got 0 grams of trans fat, no preservatives, and they are not made with any high-fructose corn syrup.  (My special thanks to Lance for that.)  The info that Lance sent along with our samples said that they'll be available at major supermarkets and Walmart, and I've been keeping my eye open for them.  They are definitely on the list of Stuff To Buy More Of. (If you are an English major, you may place it upon your list of Stuff Of Which To Buy More.)


Go over to the Cracker Creations website - they will be offering a $1 off coupon soon, and you can get more info about the crackers there.

Check out which of your other favorite snacks are made by Lance here, at their main website.

And, of course, you can check out their Facebook page!

27 April, 2011

Burger King's New Chicken Tenders

For quite a while now, Burger King's chicken nuggety-things have been vaguely crown shaped, mostly non-descript breaded chicken pulp.  Other than shaping them like crowns,  it never seemed like BK was putting much effort into them. No one really cared, because BK didn't put much marketing into them either as they concentrated on selling burgers and sending the King out to spook people with his creepiness.

And I think people still wouldn't care about Burger King's Chicken Tenders if BK hadn't gone around pointing at them and yelling about how great the New And Improved Chicken Tenders are.  Thing is, they're not all that "new and improved," they're just "different from how they were."

It's clear that BK is trying to mimic McDonald's Chicken McNuggets with their new Tenders. They've given up the sorta-crown in favor of the slightly randomized blobtangle shape Mickey D's has used forever. BK and McDonald's both can call it "white meat" all they want. There are a lot of inferior places on the top end of a bird where you can find "white meat," and because the Tenders are made with chopped and formed chicken, I'd say chances are pretty good that both the King and the Clown are already familiar with some of those places.

Both products share that "kind-of-like-chicken-but-more-like-bouillon" flavor that lots of fast-food chopped/formed chicken has, and there are other similarities to the McNugget as well. The Chicken Tenders are drier and less spongy in texture than their McDonald's counterpart, but the coating is quite similar: The seasoning seems to be (lots of) salt, a little pepper, and that's it.  Burger King really isn't trying all that hard here.

I should probably also mention the sauces that are available, but they're every bit as "meh" as the chicken.  There's generic "Ranch," Burger King's standard "BBQ Sauce" (cheap, smoke-flavored corn syrup), "Sweet and Sour" (not even as good as those little packets the Chinese take-out tosses into your bag by the handful), "Zesty" (a completely WTF flavor that defies definition - also, it's orange), "Buffalo" without the heat, and "Honey Mustard" (like dollar-store honey mustard poured right out of the jar.) It's like Burger King was going out of their way to be unremarkable.

24 April, 2011

On the Five Guys Bulletin Board

To the anonymous artist ("JP") who left this badass sketch on the bulletin board at the Five Guys in Enfield CT:  Nice.

Making Hard Boiled Eggs Fun!

Remember back when we were talking about single-use appliances and kitchen gadgets?  Well, I found a single-use gadget that takes up so little room and is so ridiculous and fun to use that I had to buy it.  It's a hard-boiled egg mold - actually a pair of them - by Kotobuki of Japan, and they are a hoot.

The set I bought has two molds, one of a bunny head and the other a teddy bear head. Each will hold one (shelled) hard boiled egg snugly - so snugly, in fact, that when the egg is released from the mold, it holds the shape the mold impresses upon it.  I took a picture of the bunny mold in action and posted it at right.

I've had these things since February. They work really great and they're a lot of fun, especially if you have kids.  I haven't been able to find them locally, but they're available on Amazon for $3.99 for the pair, and I've supplied a link below if you want to check them out. Before you click over to buy them, though, there are a couple things I want to tell you about them.

First off, the instructions are in Japanese, so it isn't immediately obvious how to use them.  To get the bet results, you should peel the eggs when they are still rather hot.  Take them out of the pan, give them a quick rinse in cold water just long enough to make them handleable, and then peel them quickly.  Put the very warm egg into the mold, snap it closed around the egg, and then plunge the whole thing into cold water and let it sit for a few minutes to chill.  Putting the egg in hot and letting it chill before releasing it from the mold gives the best results and the egg will hold its shape better that way. Also, use a large egg.  Larger sizes will be way too big and even though the mold looks like it's on the small size, smaller egg sizes won't fill up the whole mold. 

Click here to go to the Amazon product page (Kotobuki Plastic Egg Mold, Rabbit and Bear.)

23 April, 2011

Campbell's Soup

If you're a fan of some of Campbell's Soups more out-of-the-ordinary varieties (such as Chicken Gumbo, Scotch Broth, and Pepper Pot) the photo at right will go a long way towards explaining why you can't find your favorites any more.

Fourteen spaces on that display are devoted to varieties of chicken noodle soup marketed directly to children.  All of them are based on the same cheap and kind of nasty chicken broth and the only difference between them is the shape of the noodles.  But because they are extremely inexpensive to produce and kids are highly susceptible to advertising, Campbell's has found them to be highly profitable.

Years ago, Campbell's outsourced the production of some costly soups to their Canadian division.  Scotch Broth and Pepper Pot were two examples.  But they began getting scarce in New England markets late last summer, until finally they became completely unavailable.

For now, Pepper Pot and Scotch Broth are still in production in Canada and available in supermarkets there.  I don't know what happened to Chicken Gumbo.

22 April, 2011

A Basket Full of Chocolate

Easter Sunday for many children will be a time of celebratory gluttony centered around candy and chocolate treats ostensibly hidden around their houses by a sentient rabbit.  And gentlemen, if you are clever, you can use this custom to offer the Important Women in your life a fun  and delicious token of your affection that won't kick the hell out of your wallet.

I'm talking about chocolate, of course.  Everyone loves chocolate. If you were to take a small Easter basket and tastefully arrange in it an assortment of delicious choccies for your sweetie, it would be an enormously appreciated gesture.

And now I'm going to let you in on a little secret that will help you get awesome European chocolates at an amazingly low price:  Go to ALDI.  I'm not kidding.  No matter what you think of the rest of their offerings, you should know that their specialty jelly beans (available right now as a seasonal Easter item) are made by Jelly Belly but will cost you half the price, and their chocolate is made in Germany, Belgium, and sometimes Italy and it is the equal of any European chocolate I've had at any price. Seriously.

There are several styles of milk chocolate bunnies to choose from, wrapped in colorfully lithoed foil, as well as foil wrapped chocolate chicks, and eggs of various kinds.  ALDI also has Easter-themed gummi bears, and they're made in Germany as well.  (By the way, there really is a difference between the flavor and texture of gummies made in Germany and those made anywhere else in the world.  The German ones are better.)

Most of the foil-wrapped chocolates are delightfully retro in design and will remind you of the stuff you used to get back when you were a kid. Some of them might remind your grandparents of stuff they enjoyed when they were little.  And, of course, the selection isn't limited to kid-targeted chocolate novelties - as fun as they might be to fill out a basket with.

Look for ALDI's Grandessa line of chocolates made with adults in mind - like these miniature egg-shaped truffles.  And keep an eye open for ALDI's Moser-Roth brand of awesome specialty chocolate bars.

So there you have it.  Today is Friday.  You have two days to put something together for your sweetheart and impress her with your thoughtfulness on Sunday morning. Get to it, guys.

21 April, 2011

Confectionary "Cigarettes"

American-made candy cigarettes are pretty much a disgrace. Not only are they thin, gnarly lines of extruded white sugar that look nothing whatsoever like a cigarette, but the packaging is horrible - crudely printed cardboard boxes, bare of foil insert and without cellophane wrapper or any other semblance of the "real thing."

Our domestic candy cig packaging is an embarassment when compared to these varieties from Holland.  To protect the confection inside, the inner core of the package is made of corrugated paper, but from there out they're quite authentic, and the build quality is awesome. Nicely printed paper labels around foil paper inside, complete with a seal at the top and cellophane wrapper.  These are believable mockups.

Okay, I'll grant you that "Aerobica" - with its illustration of an 80's-era Exercise Chick on the front - is pretty laughable, but YO! LOOK AT THAT PACKAGING! And check out the chocolate cigarettes you can shake out of the pack just like granddad.  They're wrapped in white paper!

I was within wheezing distance of saying that these candy ciggiebutts are something you can be proud to give your kids to show them how cool and badass they can look while pretending to smoke. But then I actually tasted the chocolate and regretted not having read the label more closely.  It's not real chocolate at all - it's mockolate, made with "hardened vegetable oil" and cocoa powder, and it leaves a greasy film on the roof of my mouth. Eww. These things should come with warning labels.

19 April, 2011

John Morrell Skinless Smoked Sausage Links

Well, looky here, we got ourselves another Dollar Store Meat Treat.  This time, it's John Morrell Smoked Sausage.  There are eight links in the package for a dollar, and each link is just over an ounce in weight.

The label says "made with chicken, pork, beef;" squeamish people can stop reading right here, before finding out that the meats referred to are mechanically separated chicken, pork hearts, and beef hearts.

Don't get all grossed out because these skinless dogs taste pretty good - meaty with a touch of smoke. And although they're just as cheap as other "junk franks" like Ballpark, I think they're better tasting.

18 April, 2011

Out Of The Can: Snow's Clam Chowder

The cylinder of condensed soup slid out of the can and into the pot with a wet sucking sound. Most of the jiggling bar of soup was made up of a kind of clammy gel, but a pool of clear, sticky fluid also ran to the bottom of the saucepan.  I added a can's measure of milk and stirred the chowder over a low flame, and rediscovered why I really hate Snow's clam chowder and hardly ever buy it.  

It's that clammy gel.  The stuff never really blends with the milk.  You stir it in, and it separates into chunks of gel; the chunks would be perfectly happy to remain just like that - big globby things that float around in the milk with their sick slimy mouthfeel and low tide taste profile. Eww. I always wind up taking the whisk to Snow's chowder and even then all that does is break up the gel into smaller and smaller gel bits - it never blends.

It wasn't always like this, you know.  I remember when Snow's was made here in New England and it was still good. There was always a can or two in the pantry at my Mom's house. Snow's Chowder was the standard against which all condensed canned clam chowders were measured from the time the company was founded in 1920. But by the 1990's,  (right about the time their corporate overlord Borden was being taken over by private equity firm KKR) I noticed that the quality and flavor of the product had changed.  Snow's Clam Chowder stopped being a pantry staple for me as the quality really started to slide.  

Nasty crap tuna.
Still, I buy a can now and again hoping that maybe the Snow's I knew as a kid will be eased back into production.  Unfortunately, the Snow's brand is owned by Bumble Bee now, so I  sincerely believe it's never ever going to return to its former deliciousness.  Bumble Bee are the  makers of the worst canned tuna on the market and it's the company that shut down the last remaining US sardine cannery after promising not to do so less than a year earlier.

17 April, 2011

Crystal Light Pure

Kraft Foods recently sent along three boxes of their new Crystal Light Pure drink mix flavors, in Lemonade, Mixed Berry, and Grape flavors. I was excited to give them a try, because I am a huge fan of using stevia as calorie-free natural sweetener and I'm always eager to try new beverages which take advantage of stevia.

Crystal Light Pure is not a calorie-free beverage.  Kraft has chosen to use a small amount of sugar in the mix to supplement and perhaps to help round off the non-sugar-aftertaste corners of the Truvia brand stevia extract it uses.  While I would have preferred to have a stevia-only mix, I understand their caution and daughter Lynnafred, wife Maryanne, and I were soon trying out the packets in a number of situations, including as an accompaniment to meals, as a takealong in the car and on walks with the dogs, at our desks at work, and for just general enjoyable hydration.  

Grape: My favorite of the three, the grape flavor was a like a combination of Concord grape juice and KoolAid. Yes, it sounds odd, but it works.  Lynnafred, accustomed to more assertive flavor profiles, thought it a little weak, but Maryanne and I enjoyed it.

Mixed Berry: We found this flavor confusing. It smelled like delicious mixed berries, and it was the right color, but the taste was..."incorrect," I guess, for lack of a better word.  It was watery and sharp and tasted more akin to lemonade (without any, you know, actual lemon flavor in there.) It's an acceptable thirst quencher, but all of us wanted to like it a lot better than we actually did.  Lynnafred hit the nail on the head: "The more I drank it, the less I liked it."

Lemonade: My very first sip of the Lemonade mix reminded me of Country Time Lemonade (which is another Kraft product, by the way, so I guess this should come as no surprise eh?) As powdered lemonades go, I like it (sharper than KoolAid and milder than hand-squeezed fruit-based lemonade,) and because it's made with stevia, I can totally get behind it.

Probability of our buying Crystal Light Pure:
  • Mixed Berry:  25% - The sour sharpness and vague flavor work too efficiently against it.
  • Grape: 70% - Maryanne and I both liked it and would get it again.  I've been getting used to the idea of tossing a couple packets into my tote bag before leaving for work. 
  • Lemonade: 90% - I like lemonade mix in warm weather. While there are many competitors for my money in this category, Kraft's decision to use stevia in the mix absolutely tips my wallet over to them.

15 April, 2011

Extreme Couponing on TLC. Fact or Fraud?

I am a big believer in coupons. I clip and sort them every week, I download them from internet coupon sites, and I carefully check out the sale flyers from the local stores.  I often cut more than 40% off my total at the supermarket, and there have been some weeks when I've done even better. I think the best percentage savings I ever got was 75% one week.  Pretty cool.

So naturally I was interested in TLC's new show, Extreme Couponing.  Everyone has heard stories about shoppers who have parlayed clever coupon use into 98% savings, and I thought it would be kind of cool to see it in action.  Was it really possible to get massive savings like that?  Would TLC actually show how to do it?  I probably spend a couple of hours a week getting ready for my ubersavings shopping trips - I wanted to see if that was what these other guys were doing, or if they used a different organizational system than I do.

I was pretty disappointed.

Screencap from TLC's Extreme Couponing
For starters, it seems to me that most of these Extreme Couponers are just highly-organized hoarders.  Instead of piles of shit and randomly stacked boxes and stuff all over their house, they have neat shelves lining cellars, garages, and storage rooms where they stack 500 multipacks of toilet paper, 4000 tubes of toothpaste, and 800 bottles of mustard.  They spend almost as much time organizing, collecting coupon flyers, and planning as I do at my regular job every week. And I was struck by how some of them are just plain selfish bastards, cleaning out the shelves at the grocery store so they can score 300 toothbrushes for a total of a dollar three-eighty. How impressive: an entire community gets to have rainchecks so some obsessive pennypincher can get a Savings Boner.

As it turns out, despite TLC's show description ("In Extreme Couponing, meet the everyday people who save hundreds of dollars in a single trip to the store") most everyday people will not reap the huge savings that the featured shoppers take in.  One woman on the show needed to check out in 18 separate transactions in order to loophole around store policies regarding quantity and coupon limits. The producers of the show arranged the trip with the store manager and with permission of the store's corporate office.  And many of the awesome victories on the show also rely on double and triple coupons - sometimes at stores that don't usually multiply coupon values, but which agreed to do so for the publicity value of being in the show. Think you have enough clout to get a store to chuck their policies without a network's PR muscle behind you?

And now it turns out that at least one of the people on the show seems to have used fraudulent techniques in order to pare her supermarket bills down to next to nothing. In an April 8 blog entry, couponing expert Jill Cataldo devotes a large number of column-inches detailing how one of the shoppers featured on the show (Jaime Kerlew) may have been taking fraudulent advantage of technical loopholes in the way coupons are scanned at the register. Jill explains how this particular kind of coupon fraud works and then analyzes the alleged perpetration  using screencaps and visuals from the actual show. Check out the blog entry here.

Dollar Store Scrapple

I never know what is going to turn up in the refrigerated section of Dollar Tree. This is the first time I found scrapple there.

Checking the label reveals that this scrapple was made at USDA Establishment No. 9520, aka Leidys, Inc of Souderton PA.  Take a look at some of the small-brand and store-brand scrapples in various supermarkets, and you will find USDA Est. No. 9520 on many of them.

The stuff cooks up pretty well - it doesn't get too runny or liquid as it fries - and it has a pleasantly peppery zing to it.  Good stuff.  But it's also an excellent example of how dollar store shopping isn't always the awesome deal that it might seem to be.

This five-ounce pack of scrapple cost a dollar, meaning that I'd need to pay $3.00 for 15 ounces (just shy of a pound) of it.  But scrapple made by Leidys can be found  in full one-pound packages in many supermarkets for about $2.50 or sometimes less. Everything at the dollar store might be a dollar, but not everything is going to be worth a dollar.

14 April, 2011

What's Up With This Carrot?

This carrot looked completely normal in the fridge and as I peeled it.  But when I sliced it, I noticed it had these hollow "veins" running through it.

It didn't taste any different than any other carrot, but Lynnafred was a little skeeved out by it and wouldn't let me put the hollow slices in the stew.

Kate's Real Buttermilk

How many of you use buttermilk in your kitchen?  Cultured buttermilk is a versatile product - great for helping coat fried foods, and delicious as the liquid in baked products like biscuits and pancakes, where the acidity helps activate the leavening.

What you may not know is the commercial buttermilk you normally buy in the store isn't actually real buttermilk at all, and hasn't been for more than 60 years. When you buy a quart of "buttermilk" at the grocery store, you normally get cultured skim milk. It tastes like very thin, sharp sour cream, but it doesn't taste like real buttermilk.

Buttermilk - real, honest buttermilk - is a thin and milky liquid whey that is left over when the fat in cream has been churned into butter.  The buttermilk is cultured to thicken it and develop the flavor.  Just about the only way to get real buttermilk today is to own your own cow or find a specialty dairy that still produces it. 

Here in New England, there is just such a dairy - Kate's Homemade Butter in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Kate's is a family-run operation, large enough to be able to distribute regionally for the northeast, but small enough to still take the time and care necessary to produce butter and buttermilk the way they once were produced by everyone.

If the only buttermilk you've ever tried has been the treated-and-thickened skim milk variety, you will be awed by the flavor difference between that and real buttermilk. Real buttermilk is not quite as thick as the manufactured variety, but it's smoother and less "grainy."  Rather than the bland, sour-yogurt flavor of factory buttermilk, real buttermilk has a pleasant bite to it, a little like kefir but with a delicious butter flavor added.  If you live in the Northeast, you can find Kate's at Stop & Shop (where I buy it), Hannaford, Shaw's, Big Y, Whole Foods, Roche Brothers, and Market Basket.

12 April, 2011

Stupid Small Appliances

Right next door to the Island of Misfit Toys is the Island of Misfit Appliances.  It's filled with all of those stupid single-use appliances that seem so cool and so must-haveable at first glance, but which eventually get pushed aside to clutter cabinets and countertops before finally being abandoned to rummage sales and landfills.  Join me on a tour of local thrift shops as we find and mock some of these ridiculous items...

...Like this toaster oven, for example.  It's not really a toaster oven. It's a hot dog cooker.  Using the rollers at the top, up to four hot dogs can be cooked while warming up four hot dog rolls underneath.

Although I'm sure that there will be wiener-eaters out there rushing to it's defense, this is ultimately one of the dumbest of the  single-use appliances I've seen.  It takes up over 1½ square feet of counter space for the sole purpose of cooking four hot dogs - something you can easily do with a small skillet or, if you prefer steamed dogs, with the steamer basket you've probably already got in your cupboard. And it goes without saying that if you've got a family, there's no way this thing is going to be big enough to make dogs for all.

On the other hand, maybe the wiener oven isn't quite the dumbest appliance after all, when compared to this one.  The Pancake Factory is a clamshell waffle-iron type of device with only one function: to make a matching pair of pancakes. Yes, I'm sure you'd much rather have a Pancake Factory than a skillet and a spatula.

Here is one of the most derided small appliances ever made: The Presto Salad Shooter.  I bought one of these at a tag sale for a dollar a few years ago, thinking it might make it easier to slice vast amounts of cucumbers for making pickles, but it didn't really save any time or effort.  Many of the items you might want to slice or grate with the Salad Shooter aren't the right size to fit effortlessly through the feed chute, and some sliceable stuff shouldn't be run through it at all (it makes a mess of bananas, tomatoes and onions for example.) Additionally, stuff tends to get cockeyed in the feed tube, making the slices unevenly oblong as they hit the rotating slicer drums.  After farting around with it for several sessions (I was trying to give it an honest trial) I pitched the damn thing into a donation box and went back to slicing veggies by hand.  Seriously, if you have a cutting board and a knife there's no reason to own a Salad Shooter.  (If you do decide that you need one, be patient and haunt rummage and tag sales in your area.  I see them all the time for five bucks or less there, and they usually aren't more than $10 at thrift stores like Saver's, Goodwill, or Salvation Army.  Still not too bad considering that they run $35 and up new.

Electric skillets are wonderfully versatile in the kitchen. They're great for pot roasts and other long-simmering dishes when you don't want to tie up a burner on the stove.  And because they can hold a constant, steady temperature they can be used for deep frying too. When I was a kid, my mom always packed the electric skillet and brought it along on vacation, because she could use it in the motel room to make pancakes or eggs for breakfast.

And then there's the Toastmaster Brunch Pan, a 9-inch electric saute pan big enough to cook a single omelet or grilled cheese sandwich.  I see them occasionally at thrift store, but apparently, most people realized that they had an actual cooktop and 9-inch skillet in their kitchen already, because the Brunch Pan is no longer being made.

Photo by Amazon
I have a confession to make.  I own a Presto Tater Twister.  It's only good for one thing: spiral cutting potatoes into either ribbon fries, curly fries, or thin potato straws.  Most of the time it sits quietly in the kitchen closet, but every now and then we bring it out and make a batch of curly fries.

So, tell me - do you have a ridiculous single use appliance lurking in your cupboards? 

09 April, 2011

Belly Flops

Did you know that Jelly Belly saves up their gourmet-jelly-bean rejects, packages them up under the name "Belly Flops," and then sells them at a steep discount from the usual price?
They have the same awesome Jelly Belly flavors, but instead of being the perfect little beans one expects from Jelly Belly, they are imperfect in one of many ways. Some of them are "compound beans," made up of a lot of beans that came off the line fused together. Some are too small, or have a shape that deviates too much from the Jelly Belly standard. Others have serious gaps in their coating. Like Quasimodo, abandoned to the bell tower of Notre Dame because of his hideous face and hump, these beans have been cast from the gourmet shops solely because of their looks.

But regardless of how ugly they look, they're still genuine Jelly Belly jelly beans, with their well-deserved reputation for creative and delicious flavors.  Also, the "fun factor" of having weird and unusual shapes should not be overlooked. When we were kids, my sibs and I would seek out "doubles" and other deformed pieces in a bag of jelly beans - the unique, nonbean shapes were highly prized because they so rarely slipped past the factory's quality control measures.  We imagined that they tasted even better than their conformist cousins in the bag. We would have had a great time with a bag of Belly Flops.

08 April, 2011

Even Paula Deen Can't Take Paula Deen Seriously Sometimes

When you click onto Paula Deen's Food Network page, there is a video montage that starts playing when the page loads.  The video leads off with a segment where Paula shows how to prepare deep-fried macaroni and cheese - squares of mac-and-cheese wrapped with bacon, then coated with crumbs and deep fried.  It's a simple-to-make yet ridiculously over-the-top recipe.

The video is available on YouTube; I've embedded it here so you can watch it.  Pay close attention as Paula prepares this snack - when Lynnafred and I watched it, we had to wonder whether she actually wanted to film it or whether someone put her up to it.  There are a couple places where she can't even keep a straight face:
  • Watch at 0:11 when she first says she's going wrap squares of mac and cheese in bacon and deep fry it. She has to cover her face with her hand to keep from laughing.
  • At 0:47, she glances over at the cameraman and almost starts laughing again as she peels off a strip of bacon to wrap the square.
  • And finally, at 3:01, watch as she takes a bite of her handiwork.  Despite saying that "This is really, really good," she makes an unmistakable DO NOT WANT face when she takes that first mouthful (hit the pause button on the playback to see her candid reaction.  It's priceless.)

Bon appetit, y'all.

On Golden Corral

You've probably heard of, or been to, Golden Corral.  It's a chain of inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants that are short on frills but offer fairly decent food.  We visit only occasionally because like many restaurants of their kind, they are loud, crowded, and teeming with kids, and to be honest, with Lynnafred now in her early 20s we've more or less outgrown the genre.

And yet...

While they do have their shortcomings, Golden Corral does do a bunch of things very well - better even than some more expensive places.
  • Their spare ribs are very good - big, meaty St. Louis-style ribs, tender and crispy from the grill, with just the right amount of tasty barbecue sauce.
  • Top sirloin steak is always on the menu, and while that isn't  at the level of porterhouse or NY strip, it's decent quality and they cut it an inch or so thick. The guys at the grill station are friendly and pleasant, and will cook your steak exactly to order.  You want the living hell cooked out of it?  No problem. You want it barely seared, red and bloody inside? No problem there, either.
  • Golden Corral's yeast bread rolls are heavenly - soft and pillowy and always warm from the oven. You have no idea how hard it is for me - keeping an eye on the carbs - to resist eating a plate of those delicious bastards.
  • When their fried chicken is good, it's awesome. Sometimes they cook it a little too long, though, and it gets a little dried out, especially the wings.
  • Their panko fried shrimp are fantastic.
  • The black pepper flounder (fish fillets breaded in a heavily-black pepper-seasoned crumb coating) is totally aces.
  • The servers - who lift empty plates from the tables and offer free drink refills as they flit from table to table - are always friendly and kind despite being subjected to some really rude, demanding, and douchey customers. 
  • Their baked desserts are excellent, and as far as I know, they're all made in-house. Try their brownies, they're like fudgy squares of heaven.
What are the not-so-good things?  Well, there's the crowds of rude, demanding and douchey customers for one thing.  The food stations sometimes get longish lines.  And there always seem to be kids running around underfoot.

The Seafood Newburg.
Oh, yeah...and don't get the seafood newburg. It wasn't spoiled or anything...it was just nasty.

07 April, 2011

Blue Chip Casino Potato Chips

Lynnafred discovered these chips during our last Big Lots safari.  We'd never seen a potato chip - or any snack, for that matter - specifically designed for a casino before, so it piqued our interest.  Then we found from reading the back of the bag that Blue Chip Casino apparently gives out these chips as a gift to people who sign up for their rewards program to prove that they are, as the front of the package says, "all that and a bag of chips."

The casino/resort is located in Indiana, so there's little chance that we'd be joining one of their programs.  But we decided to buy a bag of chips just to see what manner of snack a high-end resort would think is a worthy standard bearer.

As it happens, Blue Chip Casino potato chips are exceptionally good!  They're thicker than regular chips, but thinner than standard kettle-style chips.  Yet their superior crunch and flavor tag them as probably kettle-cooked - a unique hybrid chip, bursting with spudliness and a hearty crunch but at the same time rather light and delicate. I would certainly classify them as a premium product.  I just wonder how they found their way to Big Lots.


This is Blue Chip Casino's website, detailing their extensive amenities.  Couldn't find any mention of potato chips, though.  Actually, I couldn't find any mention of these potato chips anywhere on the web at all.

06 April, 2011

Prairie Belt Vienna Sausages

I found these at Big Lots and immediately purchased them because of the very cool retro label.

Later on, I found that they're made by Armour and that they're as good as the regular Armour-labeled viennas.

I wonder if the kid on the label has a name.  I think we should name him "Scooter."  He looks remarkably Scooterish to me.

05 April, 2011

Enfield Target's New Fresh Grocery

The Target anchor store in the Enfield Square shopping mall recently underwent a big addition/facelift. They added a new "Fresh Grocery" section.

There are a lot of supermarkets and small grocers in and around Enfield. Competition is fierce. I really don't know why Target would think it's a good idea to open yet another place to buy the same old handful of national brands, when Big Y, Stop & Shop, ShopRite, ALDI, Price Chopper, and Geissler's are already beating each over the head every week. It certainly isn't because Target can do groceries better than the local supermarkets. If anything, Target is showing off their comparative weakness when stacked up against real grocers.

Take produce, for example. I like supermarkets and small green grocers where I have my choice of a wide variety of fresh fruits and veggies, all out on display so I can check them out. Everything in Target is portioned and packaged; there's no real opportunity to take a good look at what's available.

There are a lot of ridiculous pre-packaged items as well.  Individually-wrapped apple slices?  Seriously?

My biggest pet peeve is the meat, though. Nasty-looking fatless cuts pumped up with saltwater and nitrates and sealed up in some sort of sick-looking "pillow pack" advertised as "leakproof."  Holy shit, are people so scared of their food they worry about a little leakage from a package of beef?

There are a few Target-branded "Archer Farms" items that I will probably go in for occasionally - the same items that Target has carried for years without the big Fresh Grocery addition.  I'm not going to bother with the rest of it.  I'm not interested in lowest-common-denominator meats, overpackaged vegetables, or five thousand variations on American cheese.

04 April, 2011

Stuff I Laugh At

I don't know what's funnier:  That the guy's name is McANALLY, or that the first cut is "Only Passing Through."  My inner 12-year-old thinks this is a riot.

Yeah, I know he's an award-winning country singer/songwriter and probably doesn't pronounce his name that way.  Don't care, though.

Archway Introduces Three New Awesome Cookies

Archway Cookies, the Official Cookie of Dave's Childhood, has introduced three additions to their delicious cookie lineup:  Shortcake, Triple Chocolate, and Peanut Butter.

Last week, the folks at Archway sent me a package of each of these new varieties and asked me if I could rate their Awesomeness Factor.  I broke out a big bottle of milk, gathered the family around the table, and passed around the Archways.

The Triple Chocolate cookies are wonderful. Soft and chewy, they have the texture of rich fudgy brownies. Each cookie is generously studded with white, dark, and milk chocolate morsels, and every bite is a satisfying rush of chocolate flavor. They're probably the best commercial chocolate cookie I've ever had.

Peanut butter lovers will really go for the Archway Peanut Butter cookies, studded with chopped peanuts and filled with peanut butter deliciousness. Like their chocolate cousins, they're rich and fudgy in texture.

Everyone and their Uncle Reese knows how great peanut butter and chocolate taste together. We made some simple sandwich cookies by spreading the flat side of an Archway Triple Chocolate cookie with some Peanut Butter & Co's White Chocolate Peanut Butter and then topping it with an Archway Peanut Butter cookies.  The kids enjoyed them carefully, lest the cookie's awesomeness cause a rift in the Snack Continuum.

There were no such snacktime shenanigans performed with the Archway Shortbread cookies, however.  They were far too excellent to fiddle with. In fact, they delivered the perfect shortbread experience: Rich, meltingly tender butter crumb with a huge finish trailing off to just the barest hint of saltiness at the end to accent and tie the flavors together.  "When life sucks," Lynnafred observed, "nothing makes it better like a couple of shortbread cookies and a hot cup of tea.  They're the perfect comfort snack. And these are the perfect shortbread cookies."

These brand-new varieties have been hitting the store shelves over the past few weeks.  If your favorite store hasn't stocked them yet, be patient - they surely will soon.  Or, you could be impatient and ask the store manager if they can get them in more quickly.


Archway Cookies website.

03 April, 2011

A Delicious Bag Of Crunchy, Salty Bigoted Lulz

Back in 2008, UK supermarket chain Tesco redesigned their tortilla chip packaging to feature an over-the-top Mexican "bandito" character as a representation of their various chip flavors.  Every so often, someone "rediscovers" the design and posts a photo or two on the web, usually with some variant of a "holy shit is this really real?"-type comment.

The UK has fewer than 1 million Hispanic residents, which is probably why the package hardly ever stirs up more than a brief WTF and shake of the head.  After all, here in the US, where the number of Hispanic people is approaching 50 million (about 16% of the total US population) we wouldn't think of using such a blatantly offensive stereotype to sell a few bags of chips.

Well, we probably wouldn't use such a blatantly offensive stereotype to sell a few bags of chips, now that Frito-Lay has sent the Frito Bandito off into retirement.

Oh, wait, there's Mi Ranchito tortilla chips with Señior Pancho on the front.  I found these at Big Lots last Saturday.

Señior Pancho??  Seriously?