19 August, 2012

Review: Taco Bell's Cantina Menu

Taco Bell has been making a big deal of their new "Cantina Bell" menu, which they're touting as some sort of "gourmet" version of Taco Bell.  Lynnafred and I tried it out.

The Cantina Bowl is citrus-herb marinated chicken, black beans, guacamole, roasted corn-and-pepper salsa, creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, served on a bed of cilantro rice. Lynnafred enjoyed it - the chicken was flavorful and tender, the salsa was well-seasoned, and the cilantro rice was relatively easy on the cilantro (a good thing for those of us who experience cilantro as overwhelmingly "soap-flavored.")

She also said they are nearly identical to the "Burrito Bowls" sold by the more upscale Chipotle Mexican Grill, at about half the price.

On the other hand, I was totally unimpressed with my Cantina Burrito, which sports the same ingredients as the bowl, except that the whole pile of shit was rolled up in a flour tortilla. It was enormous - I took a pic of it next to a standard full-sized fork to give you an idea of scale - and weighed in at about a pound of food. 

Again, the chicken is moist and flavorful, the salsa is good, the rice is mild on the soapweed aka cilantro, and even the guacamole wasn't bad, but take the whole damn mess and roll it into what amounts to a flour diaper and it's just a jumbled mass of garbage, the appeal of which is totally goddamn lost on me.

Cantina sides are decent, if a little bland. I've already mentioned the roasted corn and pepper salsa, which both Lynnafred and I enjoyed. The Pico de Gallo (pictured) was freshly prepared, but far underseasoned and dead bland. The store-made tortilla chips almost saved the day, though, with their light crispiness and fresh flavor.

For all the crowing Taco Bell is doing about having OMG Famous Latina Chef Lorena Garcia in the kitchen developing recipes, you'd think this Cantina Bell stuff would be so awesome it would knock your sombrero off. While it might be a step in a new direction for Taco Bell and their traditional faux-Mexican menu, I get the distinct impression that Chef Garcia has been putting in some pretty short days.

18 August, 2012

Review: Banquet Pepperoni Stuffed Breadsticks

Here we go again, with another cheap, microwave-ready frozen snack from ConAgra's Banquet brand. This time, it's Pepperoni Stuffed Breadsticks with Marinara Dipping Sauce.

Before cooking.
Right out of the package, the frozen breadsticks look almost like real pepperoni wrapped in dough. Pay close attention to the product, though, and you'll see that the "reduced fat pepperoni stick" is actually an extrusion of red paste. 

The ingredients panel on the box horrifyingly reveals that the "reduced fat pepperoni" is in fact made of dough, "meat blend" made of beef and pork, textured vegetable protein, "restricted melt cheese," "substitute mozzarella cheese," and a Monsanto inventory's worth of various chemicals.

After cooking.
It's quite a stretch for Banquet to call it a "stick" at all, since after cooking the pepperoni-dough core of the breadsticks melts and spreads and bonds with the plain bread dough exterior. The overall effect is soft, chewy and doughy, like a nicely-baked soft breadstick but without any real type of crust.

The marinara dipping sauce that comes with the breadsticks is fairly standard stuff, strongly flavored with oregano and seasoned with crushed garlic, onion, and other Italian-style herbs. While certainly not ground-breaking or very exciting, it is completely authentic-tasting.

Just like with the previously-reviewed Beef & Cheese Quesadillas from Banquet, the Pepperoni Stuffed Breadsticks are - despite their Frankensteinian origins - totally delicious.  I would absolutely buy them again.

17 August, 2012

Review: Banquet Beef & Cheese Quesadillas

So, there are a couple of cheap new additions to the Banquet section at the local Save-A-Lot, and both of them were looking pretty irresistible the other day. Today, we're taking a look at Banquet's Beef and Cheese Quesadillas.

The package shows two plump quesadillas bursting with beef and cheese, toasted all light and crispy with a cup of sauce for dipping.  The actual package contents aren't presented nearly so well:

The difference between carefully-styled package art and actual contents is an old story, and one on which I'm not going to dwell. As nice at would be to just once find the actual food match the box illustration, ain't never going to happen.

Anyway. The quesadillas are not at all light and crispy. They're thick, heavy, doughy, and chewy. The insides are thinly spread with a mixture that has little business even being called "food," let alone anything as specific as "beef" and "cheese." The ingredients include "substitute cheddar cheese," "cheddar cheese type flavor," "mozzarella type cheese powder," "substitute mozzarella cheese," and "hamburger [ground beef, salt, spice, hydrolyzed corn protein, natural grill flavor, flavorings]." This recipe is from the laboratory, not the kitchen.

The "zesty taco dipping sauce" is just boring and reminded me more of an unsweetened ketchup sauce than anything else.

And yet, for all the seemingly industrial-grade components used to put this horrible anti-food together, I  have to say....

...they're delicious.

I feel dirty and ashamed for saying that. But it's true, and they're only a buck.

16 August, 2012

My New Tenant Is A Mud Dauber Wasp

Lynnafred went out the back door this afternoon to let the dogs out and got bumped in the forehead by a mud dauber wasp which was building her nest on the lintel above the back door to the mud room off the kitchen.

Although Lynnafred was startled, she wasn't stung. The wasp corrected course and went out the exterior door on whatever waspy business she had, while Lynnafred sat on the back steps and supervised the dogs.

She called me at work to ask if we had any wasp spray, but we don't, so I just advised her to keep clear of the nest if she could and I'd take care of it when I got home.

I did some research about mud dauber wasps in the meantime, though, and now I'm not sure I'm going to do any killin'.

Mud daubers are fairly docile - at least as docile as European honeybees - and they do not become aggressive in defense of their nests. They might clumsily fly into a human if one happens to cross their flight path, but they very rarely sting, preferring to back up and change their course to fly off in another direction.

They are voracious insect predators, and they especially love to capture spiders, which they stuff into their nests as a living food bank for their eggs.

After a quick family discussion over dinner, we decided to live and let live with the wasp, at least for the time being. You see, the nest is in the mud room. Not actually in the house, but still on the wrong side of a door for reliable outdoor access. I'm not sure our new tenant will be totally okay with being trapped in the mud room a lot of the time.

On the other hand, if we close the exterior door while the wasp is out hunting, it will have no problem seeking somewhere else to live. Mud daubers, if denied access to their nest, don't get pissed off and stabby about it. They just go somewhere else and start over again.

Review: KFC Original Recipe Bites

Seems like fast food chicken merchants just can't make enough little bite-sized things to eat.  Maybe it started with McDonald's and their Chicken McNuggets, which seems to have gone through several recipes in their long life. I don't know - but I do know that virtually everyone who sells chicken sells at least one littlebit version.

And thus we have Kentucky Fried Chicken and their Original Recipe Bites. They're pretty simple: smallish chunks of white meat coated in KFC's Original Recipe breading. Nothing fancy, and they're pretty good: moist, tender, tasty especially if you like Original Recipe, and pop-in-the-mouthable.

Because I figured everyone would want to try them, I picked up a large order of them at the local KFC, which was supposed to be a "ten-piece." I think they may fill the orders by weight or handful or something other than an actual count, though, because when I got them home there were way more than ten of them in the package. That was pretty fortunate, since everyone really liked them and they were gone in no time.

10 August, 2012

Review: Bove's Vodka Sauce

It's been a couple months since I reviewed Bove's All Natural Roasted Tomato sauce. Since then, I've been keeping my eye open for other Bove's varieties, and not very long ago, I found Bove's All Natural Vodka Sauce in the a local Geissler's supermarket/

Lynnafred is a big fan of vodka sauce, but not a big fan of the often greatly-inflated price of commercial vodka sauces. A quart of good commercial vodka sauce can cost twice as much as a quart of the same brand's marinara. When we were wandering down the pasta/sauce aisle at the market, she pointed out her discovery of several varieties of Bove's sauces, including the Vodka variety.

"Check it out," she said, "They're carrying Bove's. And they've got vodka sauce!" She took a jar down from the shelf. "Whoa. This is the same price as their regular sauce.  I love vodka sauce. Let's get it," she added, putting the bottle into the shopping cart.

At first glance, Bove's Vodka Sauce doesn't look any different from any other good-quality tomato cream sauce. It's a milky-pink color, and tiny bits of herbs can be seen suspended in the sauce here and there. But even a single taste highlights the difference. The smoothness of the cream sauce is offset by the richer tomato flavors, distinctive herbal notes, and fiery pepper kick at the finish. We enjoyed it with penne pasta and homemade meatballs, where the spiciness of the sauce was a welcome counterpoint to the relative tameness of the meatballs.

This is another Bove's product I can unhesitatingly recommend.

06 August, 2012

Review: Polar Diet Cola

I enjoy soft drinks, but I don't enjoy the hundreds of empty calories in sugar-sweetened beverages. And because I also like the taste of cola, I'm always trying sugarless colas to find something I like.

Now, I want to be totally upfront with you all and say this right away: I hate Diet Coke. I know that it is probably the most popular diet cola on the market, and I accept that plenty of you out there have made it your diet soft drink of choice. But accepting that and understanding it are two very different things. To me, Diet Coke tastes thin, weak, and acidic - and nothing at all like a sugarless version of Coca-Cola.  I was so happy when Coke Zero came out, because it actually tastes like Coca-Cola. Coke Zero is what I think a "diet Coke" should be.

Anyway, because I won't drink sucky Diet Coke, my two favorite diet colas have been Polar Diet Cola and Coke Zero, in that order. Yes - I have always loved Polar Diet Colal, and even Zero could not knock it out of its first place standing. 

Imagine my horror, then, to find that apparently Polar has changed the formula for Polar Diet Cola!

In the past week, I've had twelve cans of Polar Diet Cola, and every single one of them has tasted like a copy of Diet Coke: thin, watery-weak, and acidic, with very little cola flavor. Hence this review.

If you are looking for a less-expensive alternative to Diet Coke, try a can of Polar Diet Cola. I think you'll be amazed by the flavor profile similarity.

If you hate Diet Coke and want something that tastes like cola...I think you might have to scratch Polar Diet Cola off your list. Too bad.

International Foods at Stop & Shop

Behold the awesomeness of the International Foods selection at my hometown Stop & Shop supermarket:

Frozen mini-egg rolls, meatballs, mini-tacos, burritos, pizza rolls, and of course Smucker's peanut butter-and-jelly "Uncrustables." It's like being in some bizarre parallel universe where all the Chinese foods are sold in cans by LaChoy and all the Italian foods are made by Chef Boy-R-Dee.

05 August, 2012

Low Priced Lobsters...Maybe.

You may have been hearing about record low lobster prices - reportedly as low at $1.25 a pound in some unnamed places - and figured it might be a good time for buying some bugs. But you need to be aware that these low prices are the ones being paid by wholesalers to the fishermen, and the savings aren't always being passed along the chain of middlemen to retail buyers like you, visiting the lobster pound or shopping at the fish market.

My wife Maryanne and I recently took a drive up the southern Maine coast from Kittery to a little north of Portland. The news had been reporting lobsters at record low prices, and we thought we'd combine a pleasant day trip with some bug buying (cryovac'd or packed tightly in freezer containers, cooked lobster meat freezes well, and if prices were really as low as the chatter indicated, I figured we'd buy a dozen or so lobsters to cook, pick, and freeze.)

Prices for lobsters vary widely, and if you're a New Englander hoping to get some really cheap bugs at the shore, you may be just as well off buying lobsters on sale at your local supermarket. In my area, over an hour inland, lobsters are running on sale at $4.99 a pound - and despite everything you might have heard on the news, that's about what you're going to pay at the lobster pounds in Maine.

There are three terms you need to be familiar with when you're buying lobster at a pound:

Culls - These are lobsters that have lost one of their large claws.

Soft-shells - Lobsters moult annually, losing their hardened shells and growing a new one. The new shell is thin and soft enough to be torn away with your fingers - no crackers needed! - but it is also much larger than the meat inside, because the lobster needs enough room inside the new shell to grow for the coming year. Just remember that when you buy a soft-shell lobster, there's not as much meat inside as it looks.  Check out the picture at left: I took a photo of a soft-shelled lobster claw against a bright light. The dark area in the shell is the shadow of the meat the shell actually contains.

Hard-shells - Lobsters contain the most meat when their shells are thick and hard - they have grown into the shell they created when they last moulted. Lots of meat, but it's more difficult to get out because the shell is thick and hard and needs to be cracked open with a cracker or even a crab mallet.  Here's a picture of the meat from a hardshell claw.  See how much larger it is, and how it fills the shell? But you can also see that the shell was about ¼-inch thick - I needed a hammer to get into it!

Okay, lesson over - back to the story about lobster prices. We found that the lowest prices - anywhere from $2.99 to about $4 a pound - were for small, soft-shelled culls weighing about a pound, and for small whole lobsters up to about 1¼ pounds.

Pound-and-a-half lobsters - the size you most often find in restaurant lobster dinners - were ranging from $3.75 to about $5 a pound for softshells.

As the sizes got larger, the prices increased steeply. One lobster pound in Portland, ME started their prices at $7.95 a pound for small softshells.

No matter where we were, hard-shell lobsters were about a dollar a pound more expensive.

Our biggest surprise, though, was the price of lobster dinners in restaurants, which averaged about $16.95 with a couple of places charging upwards of $24. Clearly, diners are not seeing the benefits of the lower lobster prices on the dock.

If you're heading for the coast in search of a New England Shore Dinner, welcome! You will find some good deals if you take some time and look around.

04 August, 2012

Nightmare Creamer

I'm guessing that this ceramic creamer spotted at a local thrift shop is supposed to be some kind of singer and that he's holding a microphone for radio station KOW - a crooner creamer! - but did it have to be so creepy-looking?

No, I didn't buy it. If I ever open my refrigerator to find Zuul The Gatekeeper inside, I prefer it to look more like Sigourney Weaver and less like a rectangular murder machine.

03 August, 2012

Review: Herr's Deep Dish Pizza Cheese Curls

Looks like we're on a roll with the Herr's cheese curls - seeing as I bought a number of varieties last week, I figured I might as well make a series out of the reviews.

Deep Dish Pizza curls are truly worthy of inclusion in the series. Like the Jalapeno Poppers flavor, they capture the essence of the food they are imitating, and do it in a crazy simple way: coating the surface with different blends of powdered cheeses and spices.

Thanks to noticeable notes of romano cheese and oregano,  the curls have a very authentic taste. Herr's even manages to fool our tastebuds into thinking there might be some kind of tomato involved in the charade, but I checked the ingredients panel and found that there were no tomato-based ingredients (like tomato powder, for example) used - although maybe that came under the umbrella heading of "spices" or "flavors."

Regardless of tomato inclusion status, Herr's Deep Dish Pizza cheese curls accomplish what they set out to do: Delivering a crunchy and addicting pizza flavor while simultaneously coloring your fingers orange.

02 August, 2012

Review: Herr's Jalapeno Poppers Cheese Curls

Have you ever tried to eat just a single cheese curl? It can't be done. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that the basic unit of cheese curl measurement isn't the single curl, but rather the handful.

And so it is, I guess, with reviews of cheese curls - specifically, Herr's cheese curls. You see, I found this huge variety of Herr's curls over at Ocean State Job Lot one afternoon, and I could not make up my mind which one or two to buy. So I just said "the hell with it," and bought a bag of every flavor they had. Yesterday I reviewed the authentically-flavored but parchingly over-salted Nacho Cheese; today we take a handful of the Jalapeno Poppers variety.

As I pointed out before, all cheese curls share a common structure - the differences between flavors are usually larger than the differences between brands (not always, though - I'm sure you've tasted really cheap curls that leave your mouth feeling greasy.)  While Herr's Nacho Cheese flavor was totally dominated by the saltiness, Herr's Jalapeno Poppers curls are dominated by awesomeness.

As soon as you open the bag, you know you are in for jalapenal delight. You can actually smell the roasted jalapeno pepper aroma.  Taking a bite just confims it: Full-bodied pepper flavor, a mild fire on the tongue that builds steadily as you dig into the bag, and delicious cheese backing up the whole thing. These cheese curls fully deliver on the flavor experience of eating jalapeno poppers.

Well played, Herr's.  Well played indeed.

01 August, 2012

Review: Herr's Nacho Cheese Curls

How do I review a bag of cheese curls? Every cheese curl ever made has the same basic crispy, puffy, cheesy structure.

Herr's Nacho Cheese Curls are:
  1. Crunchy
  2. Melt-in-your-mouth
  3. Taste exactly like nacho cheese
  4. Are pretty damn salty


One of the cheese curls on the label looks just like a boner.