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


17 September, 2012

State Fair Food at The Big E: Pulled Pork Stuffed Corn Cake

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

Lunchtime at a state fair is nothing if not a world of possibilities, and not all of those possibilities are deep-fried. Sometimes, you can find something interesting where you least expect it. 

As an example, we were passing through a section of the Big E fairgrounds on our way elsewhere, when Lynnafred stopped dead in her tracks, eyes wide. She was gazing at a cinnamon bun concession as she said, "Dad. Pulled pork stuffed corn cake. It looks...terrifying."  Terrifying things are often rewarding, though, so we approached for a closer look.

Each Pulled Pork Stuffed Corn Cake starts with a big scoop of sweet corn cake divoted down in the center to form a well. This is topped with a scoop of cole slaw, then piled high with slow-cooked pulled pork and squirted over with a big dose of Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce.

When I ordered, I asked that the slaw be put on the side, because I'm deeply suspicious of cole slaw that is not of my own creation lest it ruin the overall enjoyability of the dish. My suspicions were, however, unwarranted.

Each of the components of the pulled pork stuffed corn cake are very good:
  • The corn cake is actually a sweet corn cake, similar to the kind you can make from a mix available at the supermarket under Hormel's Chi-Chi's label. It's very moist and rich and studded with kernels of corn, and makes a good base for a dish like this.
  • The cole slaw is mostly slivered cabbage with a small amount of carrot, very little sugar, and a healthy shot of horseradish, making for a more savory than sweet slaw.
  • The pulled pork is very tender and nicely done, though it is a little on the light side when it comes to smoke flavoring. I have a feeling that it's done in an oven rather than in a barbecue pit, but I'm not going to complain because it's moist and porky and I'm eating it at a state fair, not at Little Bubba's  BBQ Pit somewhere.
  • The whole pile is topped with Sweet  Baby Ray's barbecue sauce, which isn't a super premium homemade sauce, but it isn't totally heinous.
So, what do you get when you take four kinda ordinary ingredients and combine them on a paper tray?  You get magic is what.

The overall effect is just awesome.  Every component of the dish works with the other parts in a way that makes them better than they are alone. Even the cole slaw was a great addition, because the sharp horseradish modulates the sweetness of the BBQ sauce and corn cake.

If you're looking for a break from the relentless parade of fried fair food, you could do a lot worse than this.

Pulled Pork Stuffed Corn Cake.  $10, Sold by Scirrotto's Cinnamon City at the 2012 Big E, at the southwest corner of the Young Building.

16 September, 2012

Quick Takes at The Big E

A few interesting things noticed at The Big E on Saturday...

The flower beds in front of the Brooks Building on the Big E grounds were filled with colorful pepper plants bordered with marigolds. The peppers were green, red, orange, and yellow and Lynnafred and I couldn't resist picking a few to see if they were edible. They were.

From their appearance, I figured they were Thai Hot Peppers, and a quick enquiry inside the Brooks Building confirmed this - they simply phoned up the groundskeepers and asked.

Unfortunately, these Thai Hots would have been better named "Thai Milds." They had the smoky peppery flavor of Thai peppers, but none of the heat. I even tried chewing a couple of the seeds, but to no avail.

We bumped into this very cool junk art statue of an ear of corn inside the New Hampshere building. The corn is made entirely of plastic milk jugs which have been painted pale yellow in the interest of realism and lulz.

And over in the Connecticut building, one of the central booths was dedicated to tobacco, which is perhaps our most famous crop. Special qualities of the soil and climate in the Connecticut River Valley make the area ideal for growing broadleaf tobacco, used to wrap some of the best cigars in the world.  At the exhibit, a young lady was busy hand-rolling the cigars which were for sale right there.


15 September, 2012

State Fair Food at the Big E: Fried Lasagna

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

It seems that every year, one particular food item at local state fairs catches a special buzz and becomes a highly-anticipated and sought-after treat. In years past, this has happened to deep-fried cookies and burgers served on glazed-donut buns. This year, the food which everyone is looking for at The Big E is the deep-fried lasagna.

A serving of fried lasagna consists of two "packets," each a little less than four inches or so square and about 1½ inches thick. The packets are made of long lasagna noodles, folded in thirds around a filling of seasoned ricotta cheese, then breaded and deep-fried to golden brown and served with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and a small tub of marinara sauce.

The outside coating is crispy while the lasagna noodles retain just the right amount yielding softness. Meanwhile, the ricotta filling is smooth and creamy (very creamy, actually, almost - but not quite - to the point of being wet.) There's no mozzarella cheese involved at all, and a minimal amount of seasoning in the ricotta; while the lasagna is tasty, this makes it almost bland.

And that is where the marinara dipping sauce comes in, and that stuff is so good, you could almost consider it a "secret ingredient." Not only is it a perfect accompaniment for the lasagna, but it was almost good enough to eat with a spoon. Look, I know those guys probably ladle that sauce out of a can or something, but I'm telling you I would love to know what company is filling the cans. That marinara tasted so tangy and so fresh that it was almost as though this fast-food joint was taking the time to cook down freshly-picked vine-ripened tomatoes.

Another great thing about the taste: There was no oil flavor whatsoever. With properly-prepared fried food, you'll taste the food and not the oil. But let's be completely frank about your typical deep-fried-junk-food palace, especially at a place where they're cooking as fast as they can all day to meet a huge demand: sometimes the oil doesn't get changed enough. And when you're cooking something with as subtle a flavor as fried pasta, any off-taste in the oil will come through strongly in the food. So a huge thumbs-up to Chicken Express (the sole Big E purveyor of fried lasagna) for not only keeping their oil fresh, but also for keeping their fryolators good and hot, ensuring that the outside crisps up rapidly and prevents the food from absorbing excess oil.

I think it's safe to say that I would totally recommend fried lasagna to anyone at the Big E.

Find deep-fried lasagna at Chicken Express in the Food Court.  One serving, as shown in the photo above, is $7.00. Maryanne and I found that one serving was enough for us to share, and the friendly, hardworking Chicken Express staff are perfectly happy to give you an extra fork if you ask nicely. 

14 September, 2012

The Big E is Back!

New Hampshire Agriculture at The Big E
It's time once again for The Big E - aka The Eastern States Exposition - aka New England's Great State Fair. this year, the family and I picked up 17-day unlimited admission passes, so I'll be spending a good chunk of time there over the next couple of weeks.

If there are any disgusting Fair Foods you'd like me to seek out and taste on your behalf, leave a comment or message me on Facebook letting me know. No State Fair Comestible is off limits no matter how filthy or unappealing.


Review: Alexian Duck Liver Mousse with Cognac

I'm a big fan of liver pâtés, so I was mighty pleased to see a few Alexian products in my local Big Y. You see, when you like pâté but live in a decidedly blue-collar town, your choices are limited to a few canned products in the potted-meat-and-vienna-sausage aisle of the local supermarket, or you make it yourself.

Alexian is well-known for the high quality of their stuff as well as the high ethical standards they set for themselves. I'll talk more about that later - first I want to tell you about how delicious this duck liver mousse is.

As with so many stunning and delicious foods, the ingredients are simple: duck liver, pork, mushrooms, spices, and cognac. The mousse has a wonderfully meaty and slightly livery flavor, deepened by the mushroom's umami and the hint of cognac that is quite detectable throughout. It melts in your mouth like butter, and it's just as smooth and creamy. Quite decadent-tasting, in fact. You could make a truly impressive appetizer by simply taking the mousse as is and packing it into a little stoneware terrine before putting it out with crackers for your guests.

Although I chose the duck liver mousse to review, all of Alexian's products are similarly awesome. They take pride in using the best ingredients with no artificial flavors or colors, no preservatives, and no fillers. And Alexian strives to do good as well. They've made a conscious effort to reduce the packaging they use for their products, and they made a big deal out of refusing to use foie gras in their pâtés and mousses. (Personally, I think this whole "no fois gras" thing is pretty silly, especially since I've seen how geese at "foie gras farms" eagerly line up for their "force feeding." But Alexian has their convictions, and they stick to them, and I grant them a grudging admiration for that.)

In my neck of the woods, Alexian's traditional-style terrines, pâtés, and mousses are available at Big Y. Check out their website here, where you will find a store locator to help you find them near you.


13 September, 2012

Beer Review: Wicked Pissa IPA

The other day, I bought a variety of beers and other alcoholic beverages. Each of them interested me at the time I bought them - some, because I had had other varieties of the same brand; others, because the product was in a category I enjoy; still others, because the labels were so cool and interesting that I wanted to find out what was locked up behind them.

And then there was this. Wicked Pissa IPA, which I bought solely because it was a novelty.

The label claims all of New England as its turf, but anyone really from New England knows differently. The only place the word "pissah" is used as a descriptive meaning "excellent" is Boston and its immediate vicinity, and there are few things the rest of New England likes less than Boston presuming to know what's good for all of us. Especially when "all of us" means "Massachusetts west of Worcester" (trust me, I grew up in Western Mass, and if there were a way we could form our own state and tell Boston to shove it, it would have been done forty years ago.) Also, notice that I spelled "pissah" with an "H" on the end,  because that's the way it's spelled. goddamnit.

In other words, everything on the label of this IPA points to someone having a shitload of contract-brewed beer to get rid of, so they slapped a misspelled label that sounded "New Englandy" on it and put it up for sale in the Northeast.

But it was still an IPA, and I like IPAs, so I figured the worst that could happen was I'd get to drink an IPA that had a stupid label on it.

Wicked Pissa pours out medium amber with a short-lived white head. The aroma is fairly complex - the usual IPA hoppiness, of course, but also something slightly green and floral. The flavor was dry and hoppy, with just a hint of that floral quality wafting around - a good, bold IPA taste. Unfortunately, there was also a profoundly skunked quality to it that I really didn't enjoy at all. I really can't give it more than about a 3 stars out of 5, and one of those stars is because they were able to induce enough curiosity in me to buy it in the first place.


12 September, 2012

Beer Review: Atwater Brewery's Vanilla Java Porter

I'm usually not a big fan of dark beers - I love IPAs, pilsners, and lagers. But on a recent trip to Yankee Spirits in Sturbridge, one of the largest package stores in New England with a selection of literally thousands of beers, Lynnafred (who is a big fan of dark beer) spotted Atwater Brewery's Vanilla Java Porter and asked if I was up to a bit of a challenge. I have to admit that the idea of a beer brewed with vanilla and coffee sounded kind of appealing, so we bought a sixpack to try with some friends.

Vanilla is the dominant element of this brew, and it's evident from the second you crack the tube. It's got a strong nose of vanilla and caramel, with just a hint of coffee coming through. It pours out with good body, though a little thinner than most other porters. The thin head dissipates quickly with very little lacing.

The flavor closely echos the aroma: strong on the vanilla, less so with the coffee, and backnotes of caramel and chocolate. It's a little on the sweet side as well, with a pleasant malty toasty finish.

Lynnafred and I both enjoyed this brew, as did the people we shared it with, who commented about how smooth and creamy it was. Two people actually told me that good enough "to be a dessert."

11 September, 2012

Review: J&D's Bacon Croutons

Almost two years ago, I swore I was never going to buy and review another fake-bacon-flavored product because every one of them I'd ever tried tasted more like shit than bacon. And yet, here I am again, this time with a package of J&D's Bacon Croutons.

You are probably familiar with J&D's; they're the folks who to took a cheap, smoke-flavored seasoned salt and made a fortune thanks to the genius marketing tactic of calling it "Bacon Salt" instead of the more honest "Ashtray Full of Autolyzed Yeast Salt." Then they capitalized on their success by marketing Bacon Lip Balm (which felt and tasted like campfire-tainted Vaseline), Bacon Microwave Popcorn (which tasted like smoke and baby puke), Jones Bacon Soda (probably the most vomitous Jones Soda flavor since Brussels Sprouts), and Baconnaise (an allegedly bacon-flavored mayo which no one can ever pay me enough money to put in my mouth.)

Well, they make these Bacon Croutons too, and in a fit of insanity, I bought a bag.

True to the J&D's credo there is no actual bacon in their Bacon Croutons, only the smoke flavoring, salt, spices like paprika, and of course autolyzed yeast which they rely on to remind your tastebuds of what bacon doesn't taste like.

At first bite, these croutons are not that offensive. The texture and crunch is perfect, and although they're a little salty, it's not overwhelming. The smoke, though, is very aggressive and - as is typical with everything I've ever tried by J&D's - bottom-of-the-barrel cheap-tasting. (For chrissake, J&D's, you're a real company, not two buddies mixing up crap in your garage. I'm pretty sure you can afford to develop a better-quality smoke flavoring process.) Anyway, the smokiness gets nastier and less-tolerable the more you munch, until about three croutons in none of us could stand to take another bite.

Too bad, because the taste of bacon is really awesome in salad. I just wish that there was some other way than shitty ashtray-croutons to add bacon flavor to my bowl of crunchy greens. Wouldn't it be great if it were possible to buy REAL pre-made bacon that you could just chop up and add to the salad bowl at the same time you were cutting up tomatoes and lettuce and cucumber? Or - and this is even better - if someone made real bacon that was already pre-cooked and crumbled so you could sprinkle it on stuff? Wow, that would be a dream come true! WHAT??? THESE PRODUCTS ALREADY EXIST? WELL HOLY SHIT WHY WOULD ANYONE BUY THESE SHITTY CROUTONS THEN???


09 September, 2012

Review: Carr's Salt & Cracked Pepper Flatbreads

Hey, remember a few years ago when flatbread crackers were all the rage until everyone realized that no matter what kind of seeds or salts or herbs you baked into them, they just tasted like fancy matzoh?

Carr's wants you to relive those glory days with their new Flatbreads Seasoned with Salt & Cracked Pepper, which - despite being quite liberally loaded with ground and NOT CRACKED black pepper - are spectacularly ordinary. And while the seasoning does add a small touch of peppery zing, it can't compete against the powerful Cardboard Flavor Jitsu of flatbread.

So, while they are perfectly adequate for moving pâté or cheese from the appetizer dish to your gob, there are so many other, more flavorful and better options in the cracker aisle that flatbreads just fall, you know...flat.

07 September, 2012

Who buys this stuff, anyway?

Here's a list of some questionable crap I've seen in stores lately. None of them are worth a blog post by themselves, but together they make for interesting snark...

Washcloths with LOLspeak embroidery.  OMG Y R U NOT BUYING THESE?????!!!!11!

Hey, Mom & Dad! You should purchase these fine washcloths for your offspring who are on their way to college! This is exactly that kind of "internet thing" all the COOL kids are into. They'll be the envy of the dorm!

Krugmann's Krugy is probably the most bizarrely-marketed alcoholic beverage I've ever seen. It's vanilla caramel cream liqueur packaged in sperm-shaped shooters (do yourself a favor and don't think about that too hard.) They look like they're packaged for a party, but I'm at a loss to imagine what life event anyone would want to celebrate by downing a drink meant to resemble semen from a hollow plastic sperm.

I'll bet these NO HEAT Sliced Jalapenos would be awesome with NO DAIRY nacho cheese and NO CRUNCH tortilla chips. Run 'em under a NO FIRE broiler and make the best NO DELICIOUSNESS nachos you've ever not eaten.

Here's a solution in a desperate, flailing search for a problem. A Stuffing Cage. Because every turkey has a perfectly uniform oval-shaped cavity into which this thing will effortlessly glide into and out of. It would not surprise me if the "rpi" in "rpi group" was an acronym for "really pathetic idea."  As a special bonus, here's a product description from someone on Amazon selling it:

"Vuala complete meal without the hassle." Vuala complete sentence without the grammar (and that French word that Americans use to suggest magical results is spelled voilà. Not "vuala," or "wallah," or "wahla," or "wa la.")

Imported Parmesan cheese is expensive. Cheese whey is cheap. Since Laubscher Cheese Co. pads out their table cheese with cheap crap, the final product should be inexpensive. Surprise! The price is so close to the real thing that I can't imagine anyone buying this junk instead.


06 September, 2012

Review: Sonoma Jack Extra Hot Habanero Cheese

Do you like Pepper Jack cheese? Have you found that your usual brands of Pepper Jack just don't seem to have the kick they used to? That's not the cheese's fault, you know - the more hot peppers you eat, the more your tolerance for chile-induced heat increases. Eat enough capsaicin-laced foods, and what used to set your entire face on fire will barely give you a glow.

When run-of-the-mill Jalapeno Jack cheese no longer gives you the fiery thrill you crave, try this Sonoma Jack Extra Hot Habanero Jack cheese. It's far and away the hottest Pepper Jack I've tried, even hotter than most other habanero cheeses.

Lynnafred has an admirable tolerance for chile heat. The first time she tried this stuff, she came into the room holding a slice with a bite taken out of it and asked me, "Am I losing my heat tolerance? I just took a bite of this cheese and it's kicking my ass."  I assured her that her reputation as a chilehead was safe - that cheese was born to kick ass.

The only thing I kind of don't like about it is the stickiness. I know that Jack cheese isn't as hard and dry as cheddar, but this stuff is almost as sticky as Velveeta. But damn! Dat burn! It's great stuff.


05 September, 2012

Sunscreen, anyone?

Sign at Hannaford's in Brattleboro, VT.

Stewed Heirloom Tomatoes

Late August / early September is primetime for home garden tomatoes. Every year at this time,  it seems like every tomato vine in my garden bursts forth with ripe fruit, and what was a steady supply of a couple of toms a day from about July or so becomes a flood of plump ripe tomatoes that need to be eaten or canned or else. Luckily, there are plenty of ways my family enjoys tomatoes both raw and cooked.  Last night, for example, I made a batch of stewed tomatoes as a supper side dish using a few heirlooms freshly snagged off the vines.

Stewed tomatoes are an easy thing to make - the ingredients are common, amounts are flexible, and you can pretty much toss it together and leave it to simmer on a back burner with minimal attention while you go about the rest of your meal prep. And as good as store-bought canned stewed tomatoes are, you just can't beat the fresher taste of homemade.

Start with three or four (or more) ripe tomatoes. Peel them by scalding them in boiling water, then cut them into big chunks and put them in a saucepan. (For this batch, I used all heirlooms: a Yellow Valencia, a White Beauty, a huge Cherokee Black, and a lovely red San Marzano.)

Chop half a medium onion, a green pepper, and a tender rib of celery (leaves and all.) Add these to the pot and put it over low heat.

Stir in a tablespoon or so of sugar, a good sprinkle of salt, and some chopped basil. Keep the pot over low heat and allow it to simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, until the onions are tender, giving it a stir now and then to keep it from scorching.  Taste it before serving - you'll probably want to adjust the salt before bringing it to the table.

Remember what I said about flexibility? You can play with this recipe a lot to get the flavors you desire. Add a clove of garlic if you like. I didn't use a green bell pepper last night, because I had a few (unfortunately mild) Anaheims from the garden ready to use. It's just that kind of recipe. There's the final result. It was awesome.


04 September, 2012

Review: Covered Bridge Sea Salt and Black Pepper Potato Chips

That's the West Dummerston VT covered bridge in the background.
Of all the potato chip flavors I've tried over the years, my favorite variety is (sea) salt and black pepper. The problem is finding one that's just salt and pepper. Most brands load up their salt-and-pepper chips with other, unwelcome flavors and ingredients like dextrose, garlic powder, whey, and other unnecessary ingredients. I don't understand how a chip maker can take such a simple concept - make potato chips, season with salt and pepper, sell them - and screw it up so badly by spraying on all the rest of that shit.

Anyway, Covered Bridge Sea Salt and Black Pepper potato chips are one of the chips that get it right. The ingredients are simple and straightforward: Potatoes, Oil (for frying), sea salt, black pepper.  They're kettle cooked using russet potatoes grown within just a few miles of the chip factory in Hartland, New Brunswick. The russets give the chips a beautiful deep golden color, and the black pepper gives 'em a good peppery kick.

Lucky Canadians can find Covered Bridge chips all across The Great White North, but down here in the States they're easiest to find in Upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and - I kid you not - California. I'm looking forward to trying some of their other varieties, and I would absolutely recommend that you try them out if you find them near you.


Covered Bridge Chips has a website. Who doesn't these days, eh?