22 November, 2012

Happy Thankgiving!

Not too much time to write because I've got two turkeys in the smokehouse, sides to whip up, and guests coming in a couple hours. But I've got a bunch of new posts coming soon - probably starting tomorrow.  See ya soon!

Yeah, Thanksgiving dinner at HoJo's was just $2.95 in 1963.

02 November, 2012

Out of The Can: Hormel Black Label Canned Ham

Dat Ham

Canned hams have a terrible reputation, and if you've ever had a bite of a really cheap and nasty slice of canned ham, you'd feel that the reputation is actually too kind. I know because I've had some totally unpleasant canned hams.

And now, you're looking at that picture above or a Hormel Black Label canned ham and thinking to yourself, "What a nasty-looking chunk of pink meat." You might even be inspired to try vegetarianism, thanks to that photo.

Well, I have got news for you, my friend. Hormel's Black Label canned ham is surprisingly good - I might even say very good. I prepared it just as described on the label and although it still wasn't much to look at when it came out of the oven, it sliced beautifully. If you've ever had a really expensive deli ham - say, a Boar's Head or Krakus ham - you'll know what to expect from the Black Label. It was firm and delicious, and quite similar to a traditional cured pig laig.

Kudos, then, to Hormel. Finally, I get to review a canned meat that is worthy enough to be actually eaten rather than enter long-term storage in a bomb/zombie apocalypse shelter as a survival food of last resort. We had the ham with peas and scalloped potatoes and it was a great family meal.


01 November, 2012

This time you've gone too far, ALDI

Candy Corn M&Ms

So finally, two seasons after they were introduced, I finally managed to find a bag of White Chocolate Candy Corn M&Ms. And they SUCK.

  1. The only reason they're called "Candy Corn" M&Ms is because they're coated in white, yellow, or orange shells. They have no actual candy corn flavor. And they're certainly not shaped like candy corn. They're still round.
  2. I doubt they're made of white chocolate. White chocolate is made with cocoa butter, which imparts a faint aroma and flavor of chocolate. There's nothing like that here. Just a cheap-ass artificial vanilla flavor that overpowers everything. It's like eating chunks of hard vanilla cake frosting.
Very disappointing, not worth the time I spent looking for them, and not worth the three bucks I paid for them.


Real Apple Cider

I can not buy apple cider at the supermarket. Every major brand of apple cider, even the ones that are locally or regionally produced, are pasteurized now and pasteurized cider doesn't have the fresh apple snap that cider should have. It tastes like liquid applesauce, and cider should instead taste just like taking a bite out of a fresh-picked apple (minus the crunch.)

For years, I've taken a nearly weekly drive south to Portland CT, to Gotta's, a farm stand on Route 17, which still presses and bottles cider from their own apples. Fresh cider. Unpasteurized, complete with the state-mandated warning label that the cider is unprocessed and might be "bad" for me.

Last week the family and I drove north to Hadley MA and found apple cider from Pine Hill Orchards at one of the farm stands there. This cider is excellent - fresh and snappy and unpasteurized, just like cider should be - and it's also just as sterile as the pasteurized variety.  They do this by exposing the cider to UV radiation as it's bottled.

It would be so awesome if more processors could adopt the UV sterilization process. So many more ciders would taste fresh and snappy again, instead of cooked.

If you have the opportunity to try an unprocessed or UV treated cider, jump at it. You'll be amazed at the freshness of the taste, and you might never settle for pasteurized cider again.


31 October, 2012

Review: Dominique's Snapper Turtle Soup

My only previous experience with turtle soup was the poem in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland:

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, 
Waiting in a hot tureen! 
Who for such dainties would not stoop? 
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup! 
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

So, you can see that I'm totally unqualified to review this stuff in comparison to any other canned or homemade turtle soup (not that that's ever stopped me from reviewing anything else I've found on a grocery store shelf.)

Anyway, as a total Snapper Turtle Soup N00b, I had no idea what to expect. I read the ingredient panel and found stuff like beef stock, celery, carrots, wine, and snapper turtle meat and figured it couldn't be all that bad. So I gambled a couple of bucks and bought a can to give it a try.

Dominique's Snapper Turtle Soup is condensed, so it requires the addition of one can-measure of water before heating. I opened up the can and poured the soup out into a saucepan to find a thick, gelatinous glob the consistency of slightly warming Jell-O, which dropped into the pan with a wet slap. I added the canful of water and stirred with little effect - the brown glue just didn't want to combine with the water. Eventually, I was able to stir it together and put it over the fire. I heated and stirred, but the soup never thinned out. (I've found out since then that snapper turtle soup is supposed to be thick like a gravy, so I guess that's the way it was actually intended to be.)

Mon dieu.
With the soup heated up and ready to eat, I sat down to try it out. It was, in a word, disgusting.

It was thicker than gravy, brown and viscous, swimming with tiny bits of what were probably vegetables, and small squares of spongy, flavorless meat which I think was supposed to be turtle. The flavor was sickening - slightly sour, as though they used the cheapest industrial-cleaning-fluid-grade wine they could find. It took a concerted effort to eat more than the first couple spoonfuls, but it didn't take me long to just give up.

Personally, I would never buy this again. And if this is an example of what snapper turtle soup is like, I'd never order it out, either.


30 October, 2012

REVIEW: McDonald's New CBO (Cheddar Bacon Onion) Sandwiches

A strange thing happened over the weekend: Maryanne and I were out wandering in the car at lunchtime, and found ourselves looking for a quick bite to eat at the very moment that a McDonald's appeared on the road ahead.

Now, you guys all know how much I like McDonald's breakfast and bakery offerings. But you also know I am somewhat less-than-enthusiastic about their burgers. Maryanne kind of half-heartedly said, "There's a McDonald's up on the right," and I think I really surprised her when I replied, "Cool. Let's try out the new CBOs they introduced last week."

We got two sandwiches - one made with crispy chicken, and the other made on an Angus Third Pounder - and cut them in half so we could each try both sandwiches, and added a large fries to share and large coffees.

Out of the two sandwiches, the Crispy Chicken CBO was hands-down our favorite. The cheese and bacon were worthy complements to the chicken patty, and the caramelized onion brought a welcome touch of sweetness to counterbalance the salty bacon (and salty chicken coating.) It reminded us (favorably) of KFC's Double Down, but on a roll.

The Angus Third Pounder CBO was somewhat less successful. For one thing, the patty is far too dry. And because bacon-cheeseburgers have become a fairly standard offering for many a fast-food chain, finding one at McDonald's just isn't that special, even if there is caramelized onions sprinkled atop the patty. (C'mon, there's already an Angus Bacon & Cheese burger on the menu which is almost identical to the CBO.) And though the beef version of the CBO is larger than the chicken, we found it less satisfying because of its ordinariness. When we were done eating, both of wished we'd ordered our own Crispy Chicken CBOs and left the beef ones behind.

A couple of other notes about the ingredients:

  • McDonald's bacon is decent - better than the bacon served on sandwiches at most other chains (I'm lookin' at you, Wendy) but it would be even better if they used thick-sliced bacon instead of standard. 
  • I can't figure out what is so special about their "white cheddar" cheese since it tastes exactly like the orange cheddar that McDonald's uses on every other burger. 
  • The so-called "creamy mustard sauce" is so bland that it might as well be generic Ranch Dressing straight from a supermarket bottle.
My recommendation: Check out the Crispy Chicken CBO (or the Grilled Chicken CBO, for a slightly different take on it) and forget the Angus variety.


28 October, 2012

REVIEW: Mendelsohn's Frozen Lasagna

Single-serve frozen lasagna is one of my favorite lunches, and I'm always looking for new brands to try. So naturally, I grabbed a couple of boxes of Mendelsohn's Lasagna when I found it at The Barn in Greenfield MA.

This is a very simple lasagna - four layers of noodles each separated by a miniscule sprinkling of mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce, topped with a generous portion of more mozzarella, and not a bit of ricotta cheese to be found anywhere.

So basically., this "lasagna" is actually just pasta and cheese with some sauce.  And bad sauce it is, with so much sugar it's like eating candied pasta. Too bad, really, because despite the other shortcomings, I would be inclined to buy Mendelsohn's Lasagna again if it weren't for that awful tomato syrup.

On the positive side, it's the only frozen lasagna I've found which is certified Kosher. I guess you should consider that a warning - if you're keeping Kosher and you're relying on Mendelsohn's Lasagna for lunchtime deliciousness you will find only disappointment.

24 October, 2012

Review: Columbus Salame Secchi

If there's one thing I find hard to resist, it's a good salami. (Stop snickering, I didn't mean it that way.) And when I'm browsing along the deli counter at a supermarket and find one I haven't tried before, it's fairly certain that cured meat stick is coming home with me.

And that's how I met this Columbus Salame Secchi, made by San Francisco's Columbus Salame (aka Columbus Manufacturing, Inc.) they've been making cured Italian meats on the west coast since 1917, and Secchi was one of their first products.

It's truly an awesome dry-cured salame, mellow and meaty. It's a great addition to an Italian sandwich, and it's perfect alongside some sharp table cheese, olives, and giardiniera for a snack platter.


Columbus Salame website
Columbus Salame on Facebook

23 October, 2012

Review: Great Midwest Apple Cinnamon Cheddar Cheese

In theory, this should be a delicious cheddar cheese. Apples and cheddar just go together so well, as many old New Englanders will tell you as they enjoy a piece of apple pie topped with a thick slice of Vermont cheddar cheese.

Unfortunately, theory and practice don't quite meet up in Great Midwest's Apple Cinnamon Cheddar. It's a little weird-tasting, like there's something not quite right about the combination of cheese, apple, and sweet spices. The apple tasted artificial, and the of cheese they used is very mild, almost as bland as boring old American cheese and a bit on the squishy side like a processed Jack. If only Great Midwest had chosen a good, aged, hard, sharp cheddar instead this could possibly have been great.

Wanna give it a try for yourself? Right now, Great Midwest is offering a 75-cent coupon for any of their cheeses on their website.  Links:

Get the coupon here - This coupon expires on 1/31/2013

Great Midwest cheese can be found at Price Chopper stores.


22 October, 2012

Burger King Onion Rings Revisited

I last wrote about Burger King onion rings almost exactly a year ago. They sucked. But because I never seem to learn my goddamn lesson, there I was in Burger King last night ordering onion rings again. I couldn't help it. I really love onion rings, and the BK I was in was pushing them hard, and I thought to myself, "Self," (which is what I call myself) "Self," I said, "It's been awhile since we gave those onion rings a try. What say we give 'em one last chance?" So, even though I know full well it's not going to be the last chance really, I ordered the rings. And a tub of Zesty Sauce to go with them.

Well, guess what? Just like last time, the onion rings were okay when they were first handed over to me and then quickly deteriorated into slippery, greasy, artificial-tasting nastiness. The only thing that saved them was the Zesty dipping sauce, which I had never tried before but decided to get this time, figuring that if the rings were as bad as ever at least I'd have something to mask the shittiness.

Commercially-produced sauces labeled "Zesty" are usually not very zesty at all, but I was pleasantly surprised. Strong horseradish and hot pepper notes are prevalent - it's quite obviously a clone of the stuff that less-casual restaurants serve with "blooming onion" appetizers.

The Zesty Sauce was also pretty good for dipping BK's popcorn chicken, which is good to know because BK's Kung Pao sauce is crappy soy sauce-flavored corn syrup. Thanks to my new friend Zesty, the onion rings were a little more tolerable.  But they do still suck.


21 October, 2012

ALDI Deutsche Küche Paprika Potato Chips

Good ol' ALDI and their Deutsche Küche line of imported German treats. If it weren't for them, I never would have found these Paprika Potato Chips.

Quite an interesting flavor, actually, and not purely paprika - onion, garlic, tomato, cheese, and yeast powders are all used along with the paprika to create a blend in which no one individual taste (other than the paprika of course) comes through.

Deutsche Küche Paprika Potato Chips are another one of those limited-time-only items at ALDI and may not be available at your local store at this very moment. As you know, though, ALDI cycles their specialty items on and off the shelves, so if you can't find them now, you may be able to in a few weeks (or, you can always ask your local store manager if she can bring them in for you.)


20 October, 2012

Pumpkin Spice Invasion At ALDI

It has come to pass that the fall season is now synonymous with pumpkin and pumpkin spice flavoring in foods and beverages. What started out as a trickle of specialty products a few years ago has become a flood, and it's not limited to coffee shops and full-service supermarkets any more - even discount supermarkets like ALDI are riding the gravy train.

On a recent trip to ALDI, I rounded up a selection of pumpkin products for review. Unless otherwise noted, all of the brand names mentioned are ALDI house brands. All, if not most, of these products should be available in your local ALDI through the autumn season:

Clockwise, from top left: Pumpkin Spice Milk, Pumpkin Cider, Pumpkin Spice Bark, Pumpkin Spice Iced Coffee, Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows
Friendly Farms Pumpkin Spice Milk: Practically indistinguishable from eggnog, except for a slight pumpkin flavor added and, of course, orange coloring. Even the ingredients (cream, egg yolk solids, etc.) are identical to most other commercial eggnogs. Sweet and thick. Good as a vehicle for rum or brandy or as a coffee creamer, but if you are not a nog fan you're not going to like this stuff.

Nature's Nectar Pumpkin Cider: This is one of those sick products that make shopping at ALDI an adventure. Put up in resealable ceramic-cork beer bottles for extra coolness points, Pumpkin Cider is made of sweet apple cider, pumpkin flavoring, ginger, and spices. It tastes rather like ginger ale made with a cider base and a hint of nutmeg. Unfortunately, they also add a ton of sugar so it's sickeningly sweet. They would have a much better product had they simply allowed the apple cider to provide the sweetness.

Specially Selected Pumpkin Spice Bark: Thick slabs of white confection swirled with orange coloring and sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg. The makers want to evoke white chocolate here but there isn't any cocoa butter to be found, leaving us with bars of what is basically solid white cinnamon/nutmeg flavored frosting. Pleasant enough in it's own bland way, but not very exciting.

Beaumont Pumpkin Spice Iced Coffee: Beaumont bottled iced coffees are very high quality and stand up well to the pricier Starbucks versions they are intended to imitate. This Pumpkin Spice version is mild and smooth, with decent pumpkin flavor and well-proportioned spice flavors. Lynnafred, a fan of bottled ice coffee, thought this Beaumont flavor was very good.

Baker's Corner Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows: They're soft and squishy and they taste like oversweetened pumpkin pie - fairly typical for marshmallows, actually.


16 October, 2012

Review: Fire Cider Herbal Tonic

Fire Cider is a sort of traditional herbal folk remedy. If you listen to herbal medicine enthusiasts, you'll come away thinking that a daily dose of the stuff will turn you into superman.  A quick Google search will reveal a bunch of recipes for whipping up a batch or two...or, if you live close to the hill towns of Western Massachusetts, you can get it from Shire City Herbals in Pittsfield.  The bottle pictured at right is from Shire City. I bought it at The Big E from a pleasant young man who had set up shop on a rainy Thursday night right outside the Massachusetts Building at the fair.

He was offering small samples of Fire Cider in little plastic cups. I sniffed at it tentatively and it seemed safe enough, so I tossed it back like a boss.

It was an experience.

You see, Fire Cider is based on organic apple cider vinegar, in which various aromatic and allegedly medicinal herbs have been steeped. Like horseradish, garlic, and hot peppers.  Shire City also adds honey, which helps take the sharpest edges off of the vinegar.

Anyway, that little shot kicked me in the face, but at the same time I kind of liked it. I have an affinity for strong flavors, but I also could recognize that this stuff has potential for kitchen use as well (more on that later.) I bought two bottles.

As a medicine or a tonic or a panacea, I'm undecided. I'll be honest, I don't put a whole lot of belief in many herbal remedies. It's not that I don't think any of them work - I know that a lot of them do - it's just that I'm really leery of the almost fanatical enthusiasm that true devotees often display, especially on line. It reminds me of Frank Zappa's Cosmik Debris

The mystery man got nervous
And he fidget around a bit
He reached in the pocket of his mystery robe
And he whipped out a shaving kit
Now I thought it was a razor
And a can of foaming goo
But he told me right then when the top popped open
There was nothin’ his box won’t do
With the oil of aphrodite,
and the dust of the grand wazoo
He said you might not believe this, little fella
But it’ll cure your asthma too
I will say one thing about the possible medicinal properties of Fire Cider: I had a nasty sore throat and took a shot of the stuff, and it totally kicked that sore throat's ass, like a good folk remedy should - just like the common lemon-and-honey home remedy I'm sure everybody's heard about.

But not surprisingly, I'm more impressed with the culinary uses I've found for Fire Cider.

It makes a great basis for a barbecue mop. Very tasty, especially with the horseradish and ginger in there.

A jigger of Fire Cider in a vinaigrette salad dressing really kicks it up a couple of notches.

It's really good in cole slaw dressing - just a splash really wakes it up.

I've only started experimenting with Fire Cider, and I expect I'm going to find a bunch of other ways to use it. I doubt I'm going to toss back a shot of it every day as a preventative tonic, but you never know. I'm open-minded enough about it that when flu season starts up in earnest, I might just start tossing down a daily dose.


Shire City Herbals' website is www.firecider.com

13 October, 2012

Out of the Can: Senora Verde's Beef Tamales

The pale- and incredibly foul-looking cylinders of evil pictured above are the contents of a can of Senora Verde Beef Tamales,  directly as emptied onto a paper plate. Some of them retained their paper sleeves as the can was tipped, others slipped from them like vile giant larvae shedding their outgrown skin. They were supposedly packed in "sauce," but that proved to be merely a watery tomato-flavored bile with a thick film of bright red grease floating on top. The "sauce" was easily disposed of, but globs of the grease stuck sort of randomly to everything else (including the plate, my fingers, and the walls of the microwave when I heated up this mess at work.)

Fast and cheap beef tamales don't have to be bad. I've picked up packages of them at the dollar store that were pretty decent. But these...things...were hideous.

Despite the illustration on the label showing a thick meaty center surrounded by a layer of corn, the tamales that actually writhed from the can were much more heavily maize-based. It was difficult to tell exactly where the cornmeal stopped and the meat began, but it was immediately apparent when I cut through the center of one that the beef filling was little more than a thin line running down the middle of each flaccid cornwobble. 

Sometimes I get a product that looks terrible, but then redeems itself with an enjoyable flavor. Not so with these tamales. Eating them only made the experience worse. The texture was disgusting - slippery and about as resilient as melty gelatine - and the greasy globs that clung to everything gave a tallowy coating to the roof of my mouth. The tallow carried through in the flavor, but there were also backnotes of rancid corn and slightly "off" canner-grade beef with the overall sourness of tomato sauce that has just started to go bad.  I managed to eat two or three bites before tipping the whole pile of shit into the bin, which is two or three bites more than anyone should ever have to eat of these goddamn yellow turds.


10 October, 2012

Review: Pepperidge Farm Strawberry Banana Swirl Bread

Maryanne starts every work day with a light breakfast of toast and coffee. Her favorites are flavored breads, like raisin or cinnamon swirl. She saw an ad for Pepperidge Farm's new Swirl Bread and immediately requested that I pick up a loaf on my next trip to the supermarket.

It took a little longer than the very next visit, though, because for at least a couple of weeks, it seemed that every time I got to the store they were sold out of Strawberry Banana bread. Finally, after what seemed like countless shopping trips, I found some in the local ShopRite and took it home to her.

The next morning she opened up the package and an awesomely delicious aroma of strawberries and bananas filled the kitchen. She dropped slices of bread into the toaster with great anticipation.

A few minutes later, she was at the table with her freshly buttered toast, hot and golden, and a cup of coffee. She took a bite of toast and looked...confused.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"This is the Strawberry Banana bread, right?" she said.

"Yeah, why?"

"It doesn't taste like Strawberry Banana.  It doesn't taste like anything but plain old cinnamon swirl bread."

I took a bite and she was right. There was so little fruit flavor in the bread that - as she noted - it might as well have been any ol' swirled flavored bread. Pretty disappointing for four bucks.


09 October, 2012

Review: Celentano Stuffed Shells

If you've got an available microwave, there are few lunches as satisfying as frozen pasta dishes. I've found good (and bad) inexpensive Italian dishes in the freezer case at the supermarket, and there are a couple of brands that I know will almost always be good enough to buy more than once.

Celentano is one of these brands. I've mentioned their eggplant parmesan as one of my regular choices, and their lasagna is one brand in a three-way tie for best in a comparison of eleven different varieties I taste-tested a few years ago.

Stuffed shells are the perfect lunch for someone who loves ricotta cheese, and Celentano delivers in a big way. The freezer tray you buy contains six jumbo pasta shells, plump with seasoned ricotta stuffing, dressed with Celentano's delicious-though-basic tomato sauce. If you're wicked hungry, you won't have any problem eating all six shells. If your appetite is lighter and you're having lunch with a friend, you can have three each and a small salad and you're good until supper time.  And if you're a Mom-Dad-and-Junior nuclear family, you can dish out two each as a side dish with, say, oven-roasted chicken breasts and a tossed salad.

Any way you decide to go with these stuffed shells, you won't go wrong. They're great.


08 October, 2012

Review: Pride of Szeged Rib Rub

I can not remember a time in my life when the word "paprika" was not virtually synonymous in my kitchen with the tall red-and-white tins, imported from Hungary, containing Pride of Szeged brand paprika. Both my mother and Maryanne's always had a tin of it in the kitchen - in the refrigerator door in case it "spoiled" before it could all be used - and when we got married, we kept up the tradition. Well, not the part about the refrigerator. There's never any question of our paprika going stale - we use it up far too quickly to worry about that.

Over the years, the Pride of Szeged brand has expanded to include other products, all of which are seemingly packaged in the same sort of traditional tall spice tin (for while other companies, including those in the US, have long since turned to cheap plastic bottles, Pride of Szeged continues to use lithographed spice tins with pretty much the same graphic design that they've always had.) There are rubs for beef, pork, chicken, and fish, as well as something they call "Pisa," which is a pretty damn delightful oregano-heavy Italian seasoning.

Yesterday, I found myself with three racks of ribs and no rub to season them with. Worse, I was short a few ingredients in the pantry, so I couldn't just make up a batch from scratch. Maryanne, Lynnafred, and I headed out to the supermarket to pick up what we needed, but those plans were immediately abandoned when we passed down the spice aisle and found a full selection of Pride of Szeged, including Rib Rub. The ingredients looked good and simple (Salt, Paprika, Garlic, Mustard, Sugar, Spices) and although I couldn't bust a tin open and give it a sniff, my lifelong reliance on Pride of Szeged as the House Paprika helped me decide to give it a try.

I rubbed each rack of ribs generously with the spice blend and let it sit for about an hour as I got the smokehouse preheated and ready. When the box had heated up to about 250 F and the smoke generator was pumping out a good stream of hickory smoke, I put the ribs in for the long, slow cooking time that would turn them into tender delicacies. It took about three hours.

I was very happy with the results. The Pride of Szeged Rib Rub is flavorful and enhances the pork without covering up the flavor - a nice mustard flavor, not too spicy despite the paprika, and not too sweet despite the sugar. At first taste, it does seem to be a bit heavy on the salt, but after an application of good barbecue sauce and some crisping time on a hot grill, the saltiness also blends into the overall flavor and comes into balance.

It's fairly economical as well. The five-ounce tin I bought was more than enough to liberally coat all three full racks of ribs with enough left over to do a couple more, for a little less than four dollars. I'm saving the rest to mix with some Bell's poultry seasoning and apply to a bone-in pork loin roast. I bet it will be awesome.


06 October, 2012

Fishy Delights 49: Brunswick Flavored Sardines

I've liked sardines as long as I can remember, and even though they seem to have fallen out of favor in the past 20 years or so, I still enjoy them and seek them out. There's been a lot of buyouts and consolidations in the sardine business as the years have gone by - that, and the huge decline in the Atlantic herring population, has pretty much killed off the American sardine industry, with the last US cannery closing in 2010. These days, the sardines available in your local supermarkets come from Morocco, Poland, Norway, and - like these Brunswick flavored sardines - Canada.

These are not the million-or-so-sardines-to-a-can tiny fish most of us think of when we think of sardines, but average 3 to 5 largish fish per can. Although they're bigger, the fish are no less tender and delicious as the tiny ones. All three varieties had that in common.

Soybean Oil with Hot Peppers - Packed with slices of hot chili peppers which infused the fish and the oil with noticeable but mild spicy heat. I found the heat level to be rather mild; if you're not into chili spice, you may find it a little more kicky. Very good.

Tomato and Basil Sauce - Sardines have been packed in tomato sauce since forever. The difference here is the savoriness of the sauce. Instead of just some simple unadorned tomato sauce, Brunswick uses a sauce that's heavy on the basil and sprinkled with a few other Italian herbs as well. This results in a surprisingly good (albeit fishy) tomato sauce with a certain hearty character.

Mustard and Dill Sauce - The mustard is very mild - even milder than out-of-the-jar yellow mustard - and is loaded with dill. Too loaded for me, because dill is my least favorite of all herbs (I like it dill pickles and that's about where it stops.) Because I particularly loathe the flavor of fish with dill, I didn't like these at all. Do you like dill? Then you might like these.


03 October, 2012

Review: Farmer's Pride Pickled Bologna

Late last week, I got a heads-up from Steve Wood, who writes Connecticut Museum Quest, a top-notch Connecticut blog that is about so much more than just museums. He alerted me to a new product at Ocean State Job Lot: Farmer's Pride Snack Bologna (which just so happened to be featured in OSJL's "internet coupon" selection.)

Holy shit, pickled bologna! How could I resist?

Lynnafred found the jars at our local Ocean State. She picked one up - it was the size of a largish peanut butter jar - and peered at the "bologna" within: they were in the form of huge, fat Vienna sausages (and according to the ingredient panel, they're composed of pretty much the same stuff.) The jars were plastic and sealed with soft plastic lids, and as Lynnafred looked through the brine at the bologna she said, "Eww. These are grey. Are they supposed to look like that?" After looking at a dozen other jars, and finding all of them containing somewhat greyish weiners sealed within, we concluded that the answer was probably Yes, they are supposed to look like that. The coupon said that there was a limit of 12 jars per family, but we curbed our enthusiasm and held ourselves to the purchase of a single jar which, at $1.20, seemed to be a fair price.

Let me start the actual review by saying that I can not believe that Farmer's Pride pickled bologna is a regularly-produced consumer good. Every single component of this product screams "DISPOSE OF CHEAP SHIT!!"  The jars are flimsy plastic, the lids seem to be made of the same quality plastic as imported dollar-store toys from China, the labels look like they were run off on a laser printer. Most of the jars at the store had sticky label residue clinging to the non-labeled areas, telling me that these snacks were probably rejected by the company which originally contracted them, leading the manufacturer to hastily peel the original label and rebrand them for the "remainder market" (i.e. dollar stores and job lot joints like OSJL.) And then, of course, there is the actual bologna itself:

That is one nasty-ass piece of tubesteak right there. Check out the gradations of coloring, from a kind of brownish-grey at the ends to rather pinkish in the middle. I swear I used no filtering or image manipulation to change those colors - that is exactly how they come out of the jar. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture the true beauty of the grey lines that run from tip to tip on the wieners, especially where the meat was in contact with the sides of the jar. These things are truly ghastly to look at.

At least when we cut into the wiener we found that the grey color doesn't go all the way through - once you get a little way into the surface, everything kind of turns pink again. I guess that means that they're okay to eat. Honestly, eyeballs are all we have to go by for safety, because there are absolutely no olfactory cues here. No scent of spices, no aroma of meat - nothing at all except the pungency of strong vinegar stabbing at our nostrils like fleets of aromatic daggers. The manufacturer (Monogram Meat Snacks LLC, USDA EST 795) could not possibly have made the brine any more unpleasantly sharp.

And the wieners are just as unpleasant to eat as they are to look at. The texture is firm and smooth, but there is little flavor beyond the powerful vinegar brine, which is so acidic that it actually produces a burning sensation in the mouth and throat. And - worst of all to me - the meat leaves a disgusting tallowy film coating the mouth and tongue. These things are grossly misnamed - they should be called "Farmer's Shame."

As with so many other oddball snacks we've tried over the years, Farmer's Pride Snack Bologna proved to be pretty popular with the dogs, though I didn't dare give them all they wanted due to the acidity of the pickle (the last thing I want to do is spend an afternoon scrubbing dog puke out of the dining room rug.)

So there you have it. Cheap, shitty, only marginally edible, and obviously close to the end of its shelf life - Look for 'em at a dollar store near you - and pass them up in favor of almost anything else you find.


01 October, 2012

Review: Nutmeg Brand Kielbasa

I don't remembrer liking kielbasa much when I was a kid. - I remember it being kind of aggressively greasy and harshly spiced. And it always seemed "tough," somehow like, sure, it's a sausage but it's not like breakfast sausage or Italian sausage, it's kind of like pepperoni because it's kind of hard and more difficult to cut.

That's because my mother, who barely had two nickels to rub together, usually bought an already-inexpensive national brand made even more inexpensive with coupons. It was cheap and shitty and tasted it.

It wasn't until I got older that I discovered how good kielbasa could be, and that was thanks to the big variety of locally-made brands I discovered starting when I was in my teens and continuing even now.

Like Nutmeg Brand, for example. I had never tried Nutmeg before, which is distributed by Manchester Packing Company/Bogner Meats. (Once upon a time, it was made by them, too, but these days most of Bogner's meat processing is done under contract by Hummel Brothers in New Haven using Bogner's recipes.) I'd left Nutmeg alone because it was so pale looking that I thought it was a fresh kielbasa as opposed to a smoked kielbasa, which I prefer.

Anyway, on a recent visit to Bogner, Maryanne and I were looking for something relatively quick we could make for supper, and she suggested a kielbasa. "I dunno," I said, "These look like fresh kielbasas. I thought we both prefered them smoked."

"When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to get both kinds," Maryanne told me. "Especially at Easter, because they used to like fresh kielbasa for cutting up into our borscht, and smoked to eat on our plate. They were both good. Go ahead and get one."

So we did.

Surprise! Nutmeg Kielbasa is smoked! Just not, apparently, as heavily or for as long a time as most of the other commercial kielbasas we've had in the past. There is smoke enough to give the sausage a decent and hearty flavor.  The meat is finely ground without any of the coarser chunks I often find in other locally-made brands, and there seems to be a pleasant-enough level of fat used in the blend (by that I mean that the kielbasa isn't excessively greasy, but on the other hand the meat isn't dry or crumbly either. They've done a good job.)

Served with potato salad and greens, it made for a very pleasant late-summer dinner, and it holds up well to my long-standing local favorite, Janik.


29 September, 2012

Shopping For Ready-to-Use Stuffing

A good majority of the time, I make stuffing from scratch. It only takes 20 minutes or so, and most of that time is waiting for the onions to start caramelizing. But there are times, I admit, when stuffing out of a box (like Stove Top) is mighty appealing - maybe I don't have enough bread on hand, or even the short 20 minutes it takes to make stuffing feels like a squeeze - so I usually have an Emergency Box Of Stuffing in the pantry. (Seasoned stuffing is good for croutons too, by the way.)

There are minor differences in the tastes of the prepared boxed stuffings, but to me they all pretty much taste the same.  So I make my decision based on a criterion I use for some other food purchases: Do any of them contain high-fructose corn syrup?

(Yeah, I know, "sugar is sugar," just like the corn industry keeps telling us, and we can believe them because they have no vested interest in selling as many corn products as possible. And even if you're okay with HFCS, are you okay with it in every goddamn thing you eat, even if you can't think of a single reason why something should contain - and in some cases, be based upon - corn syrup?)

Okay, so here's a couple of snapshots of the stuffing display at a typical local supermarket (Stop & Shop, in this case.)

A fairly typical assortment. There are a million different varieties of Kraft's Stove Top (the category leader) and a narrower selection of flavors by Arnold and Pepperidge Farm. You'll also find Stop & Shop's store brand, and Bell's, which is made by the same company that brings you New England's beloved Bell's Poultry Seasoning.

Which brands are HFCS free?

Bell's.  It's the only one with no high fructose corn syrup hidden inside.


27 September, 2012

Fulton's Harvest Pumpkin Pie Cream Liqueur

Autumn is upon us, and you know what that means: a torrent of foods and beverages either tainted or enhanced with the flavor of pumpkin (depending upon your point of view.)

Personally, I find this whole "put pumpkin into everything in autumn" thing to be rather silly. In New England, pumpkins are goddamn everywhere, starting the day after Labor Day and going right through Christmas, thanks to the Pilgrims, who survived the horrible winter of 1621 by carving out a gigantic pumpkin the local Indians called "Squanto" and huddling inside, sheltered from blizzards and sustaining themselves on Squanto's seeds which they roasted over a smoldering fire built from corn cobs. Ever since then, pumpkins in New England have been symbolic of the harvest and Thanksgiving, and lately it seems that they're also symbolic of the clever ways marketers and flavor engineers use to separate us from our discretionary income.

This wouldn't be happening, by the way, if more people got off their asses and cooked a real, honest-to-god pumpkin pie, instead of settling for the flavorless shit precooked and frozen in the supermarket. Consumers aren't longing for the flavor of pumpkin, they're experiencing nostalgia for the flavorful pies that their Moms or Grandmas used to make, when they'd come home from school and find that the whole house smelled like spiced pumpkin because of that freshly-baked pie cooling on a wire rack in the kitchen. 

So anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Fulton's Harvest Pumpkin Pie Cream Liqueur. It's delicious, really, and tastes like pumpkin pie-infused Bailey's Irish Cream. Lynnafred adores the stuff and particularly likes it poured into Green Mountain Pumpkin Spice coffee; she's also working on a few cocktails using it as a featured ingredient.

I will say only that if you enjoy cream liqueurs and you like pumpkin flavored stuff, Fulton's Harvest is right up your alley.


25 September, 2012

State Fair Food at the Big E: Big E Cream Puffs

Sixth in a series about State Fair Food as served at the 2012 Big E (New England's Great State Fair)

For many people who attend the Big E, the signature food of the fair is not a donut-padded bacon cheeseburger or a batter-dipped deep fried monstrosity. It's a cream puff.

First introduced at the fair in 2002, the Big E Cream Puff was intended to be the "signature dessert" of the 17-day event, and it achieved that goal almost immediately - they were a huge hit that first year and have remained enormously popular ever since (the bakery sells more than 60,000 thousand of them during the run of the fair.) And it's easy to see why - the pastry is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the cream filling isn't some cheap-ass lard-and-sugar bastardization, it's real 42% butterfat cream, sweetened and whipped to within a few minutes of turning into butter. It's decadent and gorgeous and velvety smooth, and I buy one a year, which my wife Maryanne and I share.

I think that the quality of the ingredients is only one of the factors involved in the cream puffs' popularity. The Big built a state-of-the-art bakery into the west side of The New England Center building where the cream puffs and their companion pastries, The Big Eclair, are made from scratch. That bakery is fronted on three sides by big glass windows that allow patrons of the fair to watch the pastries being made from beginning to end. It attracts quite a crowd, of both onlookers and buyers.

And it doesn't seem to matter what time of day you get there to buy your cream puff fix - there seems always to be a line (although, to be fair, the folks behind the counter at the bakery are friendly and efficient and the line moves fairly quickly.)

Cream puffs are $3.75 each and are available individually to eat right there at one of the surrounding picnic tables and benches, or you can get a bunch of them boxed to take home.

24 September, 2012

Fall Magazine Overview

Standing in the checkout line at Stop & Shop yesterday, I took a look at the magazines:

Bon Appetit - Grown-up Comfort Food Comes Home For Fall

Better Homes & Gardens Good & Fresh - Comfort Food Favorites Made Healthy!

Woman's Day - Fall Comfort Food

Everyday with Rahael Ray - It's Comfort Food Season

Obviously, Autumn is for comfort food. (As opposed to summer, which is for discomfort foods like poison ivy salads and sour little green berries that give you the shits.)


23 September, 2012

State Fair Food at the Big E: Fried Cheese Curds

Fifth in a series about State Fair food as served at the 2012 Big E (New England's Great State Fair)

If you live in New England or the Midwest US you probably know what cheese curds are and you've probably eaten them a time or two. For the rest of you, I'm faced with the task of trying to describe them. I guess the best way is to just call them "immature cheese." Cheese curds are the solid bits of curdling milk which, when processed and pressed together and aged, eventually become the sliced cheese you're more familiar with.

Really fresh cheese curds are kind of weird to eat. They're mild and milky-tasting, and very soft. They squeak against your teeth when you chew them - it's kind of cool, and also kind of creepy. But that squeak is also the key to knowing how fresh the curds are - as they age, the squeakiness fades and finally vanishes (and that can happen in as little as a day!) That's why when you buy cheese curds in a sealed plastic bag from the supermarket they're usually not really soft or squeaky.

Anyway, this whole lesson in the freshness of cheese curds is solely so you have a frame of reference for the fried cheese curds sold by The Big Cheese at the Big E. As we were strolling along the concession-laden boulevard between the Better Living Center and the Avenue of the States,The Big Cheese caught Lynnafred's eye because cheese curds are one of her favorite snacks. We've had fried cheese curds at KFC before and they were okay but never awesome, because at KFC the curds are soft and mild but never fresh enough to squeak.

Ah, but not the fried curds from The Big Cheese. They're lightly coated in batter and quickly fried until they're soft and warm inside but crispy and golden outside. And they squeak! Awesome!


21 September, 2012

Roma Ketchup

This industrial-sized tank of ketchup was on the condiment table at one of the burger-n-fries joints at The Big E:

I took a picture of it because, knowing nothing about ketchup labeling standards, the idea that ketchup could be "33% Fancy" amused me.  I guess the other two-thirds of the stuff in the can was, what? Ordinary? Floor sweepings?

The USDA took the lulz out of the label, though. The "33% Fancy" is simply a USDA ketchup grade.  There are three USDA grades for ketchup: Standard, with 25% total tomato solids; Extra Standard, with 29% total tomato solids; and Fancy, with 33% total tomato solids.

In case you're wondering, Roma's 33% Fancy Tomato Ketchup is every bit as good as Heinz.


20 September, 2012

Review: Angry Orchard Crisp Apple Hard Cider

There has been a huge explosion in the number of hard ciders available in the past ten years. I remember when they were kind of hard to find. Now, I can find a couple brands in supermarkets, and huge numbers more in package stores.

I decided to try Angry Orchard cider because of their cool label (what else is new, right?) A gnarly, pissed-off looking apple tree glares from the label like some demonic Ent. But despite the name and the graphics, Angry Orchard is refreshing, smooth, and carries over a lot of apple character with it (with very little actual sweetness - this is not an alcopop.)

There are three varieties in Angry Orchard's line: Traditional Dry, Crisp Apple, and Apple Ginger. I decided to go with the Crisp Apple for this initial tasting, because I wanted Lynnafred to give it a try. She isn't a fan of hard cider the way I am and I thought the Crisp Apple would have more raw apple flavor remaining to entice her, rather than the more abstract applish flavor that characterizes most drier ciders.

And there is no denying that Crisp Apple has that fresh apple thing going for it. While it doesn't taste anything at all like supermarket apple juice or apple soda, there is a subtle hint of sweetness in the background with, well, crispy apple and yeasty flavors wrapping around it.  With its interesting combination of sweet start and tart, dry, beery finish, I thought Angry Orchard Crisp Apple to be a decent, middle-range hard cider.

PS - If you're wondering if Lynnafred liked it, that is a negative. She took a swig, wrinked her nose, and said, "I'm not a fan of hard cider."


19 September, 2012

State Fair Food at the Big E: Deep-Fried Shepherd's Pie

Fourth in a series about State Fair food as served at the 2012 Big E (New England's Great State Fair.)

We were tipped off to the existence of this food by a friend of Lynnafred's, and immediately went in search of it. Luckily, it seems like many of the strangest foods at The Big E are tightly grouped at the Food Court near the midway, and we found it at EB's Food For Fun, where it's rhymingly marketed as "Country Fry Shepherd's Pie."

As you can see, Country Fry Shepherd's Pie is served in the form of five rather average-sized "meatballs," breaded and fried and topped with brown gravy.

Inside, they're only a little scary, with cooked ground beef mixed with mashed potato binder and a few kernels of sweet corn sprinkled randomly throughout.  They aren't all that bad, crispy on the outside and soft and moist through the middle, and fairly well-seasoned. The only complaint we had about them was that the frying oil needed desperately to be changed - it was old and gross, and gave the food a vague aftertaste of oldness and grossness. I think EB's could do a little better with that, especially since they were getting $6.50 for it.

Oh, and one more pedantic little note: There wasn't any lamb or mutton in them, so they weren't Country Fry Shepherd's Pie, they were Country Fry Cottage Pies.  Listen up, America: Shepherd's Pie has lamb/mutton/sheep in it. Shepherd's Pie, get it? Shepherd? Sheep? See?? (OK, I'm done now.)


18 September, 2012

Help McDonald's Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Egg McMuffin!

Photo courtesy of McDonald's
It's a 40th birthday party for the Egg McMuffin at McDonald's restaurants in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts - and we're all invited to the celebration!

For one day only - tomorrow, September 19th, during regular McDonald's breakfast hours - Egg McMuffins will be sold for the special birthday price of just 40 cents.

This is one of the best, healthiest, complete-meal items on the McDonald's menu and McMuffins are one of my favorite ways to start the day. You can bet I'll be there - will I see you there, too?


State Fair Food at the Big E: Bizarre Burgers

Third in a series about State Fair foods as served at the 2012 Big E (New England's Great State Fair.)

The hamburger is the quintessential American sandwich, and no series about State Fair food would be complete without looking at the various types of hamburgers served by the concessions around the fairgrounds.  We sampled four different and unique burgers by three different vendors at the Big E:

Alligator Burger and Kangaroo Burger, at Yankee Boy:

Yankee Boy is a catch-all sort of eatery at the east end of the fairgrounds between the Young Building and the Better Living Center, between Gate 7 and Gate 9A. They have a large and varied menu which includes lobster dinners and other seafood, slow-cooked barbecue, burgers, and more. The burgers they offer include alligator and kangaroo, which are the ones we tried.

Left: Alligator Burger.  Right: Kangaroo Burger.
The kangaroo burger was probably the most disgusting burger I have ever eaten in my life. The meat had been so finely ground it was more like a pressed collection of fiber than meat, cooked to within an inch of inedibility, and had a strong livery flavor component that went well beyond gamey and bordered on roadkill. I've had kangaroo before, and it's not supposed to taste like this. Incredibly, it was tough as well.  How the hell does anyone manage to make a ground meat patty tough? Wolverine would have had trouble chewing this shit with his adamantium teeth. This was the one burger at the Big E that I wish I hadn't bought. A complete and total waste of $9.25.

The alligator burger was only marginally better. It was soft and spongy in texture, and loaded with so many fillers, seasonings, and hot spices that it was impossible to tell whether one was eating alligator or just some elaborately-formulated bread patty. Okay, so I did detect bits of what looked like alligator meat in the mix, but as Maryanne remarked after taking a bite: "I might as well be eating stuffing from a turkey for all the filler here." This was another waste of $9.25 - We had three adults and two kids sitting around our table, and not a single person was willing to choke down anything past a sample bite of either sandwich. We carried most of the two burgers home as dog treats.

The Craz-E Burger

The Craz-E Burger was introduced at the Big E in 2009 to be the "signature burger" of the fair. It is available only at the Big EZ Cafe, outside Door 7 of the Better Living Center, and costs $6.00. The Big EZ Cafe is an easy place to find, because they cover the cafe sign with a "Craz-E Burger" banner.

The Craz-E Burger is a bacon-cheeseburger served on a split glazed donut instead of a standard bun, and is a familiar sight to foodies and fairgoers, since it swept the state fair circuit after its introduction in 2005 at a Decatur, GA bar.

The Big E's version uses a previously-frozen machine-formed burger patty topped with American cheese and two slices of bacon sandwiched between halves of generic glazed donuts (the original called for Krispy Kremes.)

The overall flavor effect of the Craz-E Burger is pretty decent. Everyone already knows how well beef, bacon, and cheese combine - the glazed donut complements and enhances the other flavors, especially that of the bacon. Our biggest problem with the burger was the low quality of the Big E's choice of hamburger puck and the overall greasy, wet, soggy texture of the whole thing. Glazed donuts really aren't the ideal bun for a cheeseburger - they're soft and squishy and fragile and they really haven't got the body to hold up to the job. In addition, the donuts halves are grilled and the heat makes the glaze melt. We wound up being served squishy, greasy, sticky burgers that were admittedly pretty good-tasting, but a disgusting nightmare to eat. A shame, really, because with a little more advance planning, Craz-E Burgers could be really decent: Use a hand-formed patty with lower fat content, a sharper cheese, and a donut with a little more body.

Or, you can just say the hell with the Craz-E burger, and head to the Food Court booth of local burger joint White Hut, where you will find the sandwich that the Craz-E Burger desperately wants to be, but never will:

The White Hut Waffle Burger

The White Hut burger restaurant has been in business on Memorial Drive in West Springfield since the 1930's, and they still make their usual burgers in the 1930's fashion using thin, quickly-grilled patties. Their own signature burger is served loaded with a big pile of lightly caramelized onions, and they're wildly popular - it's impossible to get near the place at lunchtime.

At the Big E, though, White Hut operates a walk-up in the Food Court and the lines to get their food are more orderly and manageable. You can order a standard White Hut burger from them...or you can go for their Waffle Burger.

The Waffle Burger is a double bacon cheeseburger served on two Belgian waffles in place of a bun. There is no syrup or glazing involved, but there is an inherent sweetness baked into the waffles that adds to the flavor without covering your fingers in sticky goo.  Although the burger patties are thin, the experienced burgertarians at White Hut know how to not overcook them, so they are juicy and flavorful and provide a good composite patty when topped with cheese and doubled up. They also use bacon strips formed into a round shape to better fit the sandwich.

As it turns out, using waffles instead of a donut is a brilliant idea. The waffles have a donut-like texture and flavor, but hold up so much better under their beef and bacon cargo. White Hut serves them up for the same price as Big EZ's Craz-E Burger - $6.00 - but they are so much better.


  • Yankee Boy Alligator Burger - wet patty with more filler than gator. Highway robbery at $9.25
  • Yankee Boy Kangaroo Burger - Overcooked, bad texture, save your $9.25 and your appetite for something worth eating.
  • Big E's Craz-E Burger - greasy, sticky, squishy, economy-grade beef, $6.00
  • White Hut's Waffle Burger - Best of the bunch, $6.00