Most readers think of this blog as a movie site: a place where I expound on the virtues of some of the better, generally small, often foreign films and TV series available on DVD. But it has always been my intention to include the occasional food find, which is where the ‘pans2’ ( as in 'pots and pans') comes into play.
While I’ve included a food fav or two through the years, I’ve never actually devoted a full post to food finds until now. Over the past few weeks I’ve asked readers, friends and family to pass on their favorites, adding them to my own list. Some may be available in your area, others, not. But there’s a lot to choose from, and hopefully, you’ll come away with a whole list of exciting new products to check out. With that in mind, let's take Mr. Hammerstein's advice and "..start at the very beginning—a very good place to start."
Are you a cereal person? Let me recommend Kroger’s Muesli with raisins, dates and almonds (190 calories). This store brand costs about half as much as its big brand competitors, and is on sale more often than not. Moistened with a bit of cold milk, it is a great way to start the day.
Ever think of giving someone cereal as a gift? Probably not. But think again. Meandgoji.com offers top-quality, artisanal cereals that you can mix and match to create the perfect blend. You can even name the concoction. Include a favorite photo with your on-line order, and the meandgoji folks will put it right on the label. I did just that when I sent my brother Harry a box of “Harry’s Hoops” for his birthday.
Aside from the clever packaging, the Meandgoji folks deliver a quality product made of all-natural ingredients that are as healthy as they are interesting. Why not check out their website and take a look around?
Not a big cereal eater? One New England reader recommends Chobani [Greek style] Peach Yogurt. Individual servings sell for about $1.49.
BREAD & JAM
If you’re more of a toast and coffee person, save your pennies and buy a loaf of Pane Turano Italian Bread from the Campagna-Turano Bakery Company. The two-pound, over-sized, gloriously round, crusty loaf comes pre-sliced. Put it in your freezer and take out a slice or two at a time. It is delicious toasted and topped with a favorite preserve and/or Fresh Market’s Lightly Salted Butter ($3.29 a pound), which, to my mind is a good bit better than its pricier Irish and European-style counterparts. Pane Turano Italian Bread comes packaged in a large see-through bag, and sells for just under six dollars a loaf.
Another Fresh Market favorite is their seeded rye. Baked on the premises, it is as close to the cracked crust rye bread of my youth as I can find in this area. A reader who grew up in Chicago is a fan of this aromatic bread for much the same reason.
Rather have a bagel? Try Pepperidge Farms Bagel Thins. These slender little pre-sliced rounds weigh in at 150 calories, as opposed to the oversized, exceedingly plump 250-plus-calorie bagels that seem to have taken over the country. While they don’t have the chewiness of boiled bagels (the kind you can still find in major city Jewish bakeries), and don’t deliver as much flavor as their full-blown, hip-hugging counterparts, they toast beautifully, stay warm longer and melt the butter or cream cheese right off your knife. While I generally go for poppy seed or pain full-sized bagels, I prefer the “Everything” variety of these Bagel Thins. Matched with a cup of hot coffee, they are a guilt-free canvas on which to spread your favorite spread.
But wait – there’s more! A Melrose Park, PA. reader begins her day with a Borreli Italian Cracker or two, over which she spreads a glistening layer of Sarabeth’s Apricot-Orange Marmalade. Discovered on a visit to Sarabeth's Manhattan eatery years ago, she immediately became a fan. Lucky for us, this made-in-Manhattan favorite is now available throughout the country.
It seems that there are quite a few good jams, jellies and preserves out there. From Sarasota comes word of an exceptional Croatian product known as Dalmatia Sour Cherry Spread. Filled with tiny cherries, our reader suggests that, in addition to spreading it over some good bread, you try drizzling a spoonful or two over ice cream, angel food cake or pancakes.
Earlier this year a friend gifted me with a jar his favorite spread: Bonne Maman Four-fruit Preserves. I have to admit that it was mighty tasty. My all-time personal favorite comes from Greaves of Historic Niagara, a family-owned business in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. I came across it years ago, at a now-defunct country inn, where it sat glistening in a round little jam bowl beside a basket of freshly-baked scones, a tub of sweet butter, and a pot of breakfast tea. While the rest of the Greaves line-up including their orange marmalade is fine, it is the Orange, Grapefruit and Lemon Marmalade I crave. In true Goldilocks fashion, it is just right—not too sweet and not too tart or bitter like some marmalades I’ve known. Hot out of the toaster, and matched with a lightly buttered English muffin, it is quite exceptional. Not going to Canada any time soon? No problem. Greaves products are available on Amazon.com for just under six dollars a jar.
For the bakers among you, comes word that Simon Fischer’s Golden Apricot butter and Lekvar Prune Butter (from Solo Industries) are not to be missed. My sister says they take pastries, cookies, hamentashen, rugelach and twists to a whole new level. She buys them by the case. According to Solo's website, you'll find them in supermarkets from one end of the country to the other. Major outlets include Kroger, Safeway, Publix, Albertsons, Acme, Giant, ShopRite, WinnDixie, and Ralph’s.
STARTERS AND SIDES
Longing for a schtickle of pickle? Puckers Pickle Company, Barrel Select Kosher Crunchy Deli Dills taste very much like the pickles of my youth; the ones my mother used to pluck from the pickle barrel in our neighborhood delicatessen. Crisp and crunchy, these pickles taste less like cukes and more like pickles – a good thing, in my opinion. You’ll find them in the refrigerated case in the Kosher food section of your supermarket. Whole or in spears, these chunky little dills are joy in a jar.
Like Pucker’s, Raffetto Chut Nut Chutney can add a little zip to an otherwise common meal, and is unlike any chutney I have had before or since I first tried it, It hasn’t been available in this city for some time, but it can be found with some ease on the eastern seaboard, and is just a call away from being shipped to your door.
I remember it with great fondness, sandwiched inside two slices of good bread and some home made roasted turkey or chicken. The company was purchased some years ago, and if you read consumer comments on the Internet, there is some question as to whether the chutney is made the same way it was before the sale. If you care to give it a try call IVB Foods at 1-877-IB Foods, 908-359-4050. While the product itself sells for around $5.00 a jar, the shipping (a minimum of $11,00, depending where you live), can make it cost-prohibitive. As with many mail-order food products, it pays to buy in bulk.
Into salsa? Who isn’t these days. Years ago – I’m talking twenty-plus years ago – I held a “blind” bottled salsa taste test. Tasters shuttled from one brand to the next – rating the spicy collection in order of preference. There were at least eight brands – maybe as many as ten to choose from, all decked out in festive bowls so as not to reveal their identity. The clear winner? Newman’s Own Medium Salsa. Not the pineapple version or other exotic alternates, this is the one that started it all. Please note: If you adore cilantro, Newman’s Own is not for you. That said, ice cold and married to a bowl of Dorito’s Nacho Cheese chips, it is, for my money, one of the best jarred salsas around.
NIBBLES AND BITS
And while we’re in the business of munching, may I suggest Fresh Market’s rice-stuffed grape leaves and red cherry peppers, which you’ll find along with a variety of olives and marinated this and that in their antipasto bar. The cigar-shaped rice packages are perfect for staving off hunger pangs before a formal dinner, and the peppers are both ‘lovely to look at”, and sweeter than the kind you’ll find in the majority of jarred peppers. I use them to perk up pasta, rice, salads, deli sandwiches and subs. If something needs a little kick, these cherry-red cherry-reds always seem to do the trick.
CHEESE AND CRACKERS
Cheese prices have really zoomed upwards over the past year or two, but who can resist a bite of extra sharp Cheddar or Swiss, a slice of creamy Brie, or a salad dressing made with a favorite blue? The next time you go for the gold, add a wedge of Morbier to your cheese plate. This French, semi-soft, cow’s milk cheese looks as good as it tastes, with a thin smoky ribbon of ash stretching delicately across its middle. Rich and creamy, with a hint of a bitter after-taste, it spreads well, and stands up to some of the more flavor-intense crackers.
Which brings me to a tasty little seeded 8-grain by Dare. Packaged in a bright red box, Vinta Original Flavor Crackers can be found at your local supermarket. Modestly priced (I recently found them sale-priced at two for four dollars), these wonderful crackers pump up the flavor when paired with everything from Boursin’s Garlic and Herb Cheese Spread to a fancy shmantzy canapé. They are, without a doubt, my cracker of choice for all things savory.
Looking for something a bit more exotic? Margaret’s Roasted Garlic and Chive Artisan Flatbread is one of the best. Rest a slice of your favorite cheese on this bumpy but beautiful flatbread and prepare to swoon. Packaged in near foot-long pieces, you can break them up and arrange them artfully into a bread bowl, or just eat them right out of their see-through bag.
When I was a girl, vinegar was vinegar. Clear, cheap and magnificent when mixed with vegetable oil and a little garlic salt, celery salt and pepper. Admittedly, that was in the Dark Ages, long before Martha and Bobby and Rachael shunned it in favor of more exciting options. Over the years I added cider and wine vinegar to my pantry, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to balsamic vinegar that I found my true love.
I can remember our first meeting. I was in a trendy little Italian restaurant, seated at a table overlooking the first floor. My eyes drifted away from the who’s who below, and rested upon a little bottle of the mysterious liquid. I had to ask the waiter what it was, and what one would do with it. Now this was some twenty-plus years ago, before the Food Network turned us all into top chefs, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. But once smitten, I never looked back.
If you haven’t tried balsamic vinegar – real balsamic vinegar, you’re long overdue. It is richer and sweeter and – for want of a better word—thicker than other vinegars, which makes it a perfect addition to salads, soups, sauces and marinades.
To qualify as real balsamic vinegar it must come from Modena, Italy, and be at least 10 years old. You’ll find lots of cheaper caramel-colored look-alikes on your local supermarket shelf, but be forewarned. Real balsamic and fake balsamic vinegar have little in common. It’s kind of like the difference between butter and margarine.
My favorite among the brands that don't require taking out a loan, is Lapeana Balsamic Vinegar. It's not cheap, (somewhere around $17.00 for 8.4 ounces) but it is so worth it—especially when compared to white distilled vinegar. But here’s the thing: It is delicious. Truly delicious. What’s more, this particular brand of balsamic vinegar comes in a charming round glass bottle that once empty, makes a perfect vase you’ll enjoy using for years to come.
FROZEN CHICKEN WINGS AND DINNERS
Lunch time, dinner time, party time, anytime is a good time for hot wings, though I’m about to recommend an unlikely choice. Banquet (yes, Banquet) Hot & Spicy Wings cost about two dollars less than Friday’s offering, while delivering a lot more chicken, and just as much, if not more flavor. For less than $4.00 a box you get 15-to-16 good-sized pieces that bake up crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Serve them with blue cheese or ranch dressing and celery and carrot sticks, or all by their lonesome. They reheat nicely, and at 270 calories for 4 wings, they’re a tasty alterative to their fast-food cousins.
Looking for something a little spicier? Zateran’s Frozen Blackened Chicken and Pasta Dinner fills the bill. I’m not generally a fan of New Orlean’s-type fare, but along with Cherchere’s seasoning, this hearty microwavable entrée delivers the goods. The pieces of chicken are fairly sizeable and loaded with flavor. Served with a salad, it sets the bar for frozen chicken entrees.
Pizza lover? Who isn’t. Today’s frozen pies are a far cry from their cardboard forefathers, many of them as good or better than those served at your local pizzeria. Yet and still, if you’re looking for something a little different, I urge you to try American Flatbread’s Ionian Awakening, a marvelous combination of tomato sauce, four cheeses, red onion, Kalamata olives, garlic and rosemary. A 9-inch, individual-size pie is a party for one. Available in health food stores and larger supermarkets for somewhere around $8.49, you need only look at the ingredients to understand why it costs more than other pies of their size. Year before I found them, A New York Times food aficionado noted that American Flatbread was the best frozen pizza out there. They come in two sizes, depending upon the toppings, and are packed in white pizza boxes with colorful artwork on top.
While you may not think of Walmart as the gourmet capital of the world, I found a very tasty tilapia dinner in their frozen fish section. Fishin’ Forever’s Tilapia Mango Tango from their Delitefuls collection, is a fragrant combination of tilapia, white rice, red pepper, snap peas and edamname in a tangy mango sauce. Boasting 17g of protein, and zero grams of transfat, it is satisfying while weighing in at a skinny 250 calories! With two separately-wrapped portions per package, and priced to please, Tilapia Mango Tango far outshines Delitefuls’ other entrees which run the gamut (in my not-so-humble opinion) from “okay” to “no way.”
Crazy about Sole food? One reader is hooked on Oven Poppers Crab Stuffed Sole, which, like the afore-mentioned Tilapia, delivers two individually-wrapped portions per package. She buys them at Schnuck’s (A St. Louis-based chain), but according to their home office, aside from Florida and Wisconsin, you’ll find them at BJ’s Wholesale Clubs, Price Choppers, Stop & Shop, Giant, Eagle and Dominics and a bunch of smaller stores around the country.
Like shrimp? While you’re shopping for stuffed grape leaves, cherry peppers, bread and butter at Fresh Market, head over to the seafood counter and buy a handful of their frozen large or jumbo pre-cooked shrimp. I don’t know where they get them – but they’re big and firm and succulent and loaded with flavor. I keep a supply in the freezer, and when I don’t feel like cooking or turning on the oven, I just run some cold water over them, pop them into a big bowl, hit them with a splash of fresh lemon juice and, if I’m in the mood, sprinkle a little Tony Chechere’s Creole Seasoning over them. After that it’s just a matter of dipping them into some tried and true Heinz Cocktail Sauce. Four stars.
Our last fish find isn’t for everyone, as gefilte fish is one of those foods that is, to say the least, an acquired taste. If you didn’t grown up eating gefilte fish (pronounced gah-fil-tah), chances are you are not going to like it. But – if you did, and do, have I got a jar for you!
Meal Mart Gefilte Fish is unique in that, unlike most other brands, you don’t have to doctor it. It tastes absolutely great as is. Just put it in the frig and let it chill. Served with a square of crisp fresh buttered matzo and some red beet horseradish, you’ve got a meal to remember.
Pronounced "keen-wa", this healthy grain has apparently been around forever, although I hadn't heard of it until my sister mentioned it in passing recently. Her brand of choice is Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta, which she vows is a tasty, low fat, low-sodium alternative to spaghetti. The company’s website notes that “Quinoa contains more protein than any other grain; an average of 16.2 percent compared with 7.5 percent for rice, 9.9 percent for millet, and 14 percent for wheat.” Epicurious.com reports that many in the culinary community refer to it as the ‘super grain of the future.’ It isn’t often that something that’s good for you tastes good too. Try it, and let me know what you think.
I know that summer is fast approaching, but I had to include this most unlikely find. If, like me, you like an occasional bowl of chili but don’t want to go to all the trouble of starting from scratch, pick up a can of Bush’s Best Chili Magic Chili Starter (Traditional mild). It, along with a pound of browned ground chuck, makes great chili in no time, and when topped with some shredded sharp cheddar and a dollop of sour cream, the results are extremely satisfying. Spice it up for more of a kick, or eat it as-is. Die-hard chili fans, will undoubtedly be horrified by the very thought of using a pre-packaged mix, but I’ll tell you, on a cold rainy or snowy day, it really hits the spot.
BEVERAGES WELL WORTH THE SIP
So Cal, Low Cal or No-Cal, the carbonated beverage market has exploded, with more brands than you can shake a bottle at. Last year I discovered an amazing melon-flavored soda at a speciality market, only to find that it had been discontinued shortly thereafter. This next ‘find’ is far less trendy than the afore mentioned melon variety, but it tastes great and it's a great buy.
I'm talking about Kroger's Dr. K Diet Soda , and obvious knock-off of Dr. Pepper's no-cal product. It looks and tastes remarkably like the original, but is a good bit cheaper. Their diet grape—if you can find it— isn’t bad either.
While you’re at Kroger, head over to the refrigerated beverage case, where you’ll find a jug of their Apple Juice. In my thirsty opinion, this juice is a far better than any of the brands I grew up with. And because it’s a store brand, it goes on sale all the time. What’s more, it goes down cool on a hot summer day, and isn’t overly sweet, like some brands I know.
Back in late March or early April, I was disspointed to find that my local market was out of Dunkin' Donuts Original Blend coffee . While that section of the shelf was empty, the next row, featuring their new Dunkin' Donuts Turbo coffee was well-stocked. I decided to give it a try.
It instantly became a 'must-have' - even though the price is a bit daunting. I spent a lot of years trying store brands, coffee shop grinds, and major old-time favorites. I ground my own beans, ordered online, and used some gift cards to get what had to be the most expensive pound of coffee ever - and the most bitter - at the largest sit-down-and-spend-your-entire fortune coffee shops in the world.
None of these blends came anywhere near Turbo's rich, full taste. The fact that it's not bitter, and goes with just about everything, is worth the price. The Duncan Donuts folks have been pushing it pretty hard on TV lately. But I'm proud to say that in this case, I was the first kid on the block to try it. If you like coffee, you'll love Turbo. Despite its name, I don't believe it has any more caffiene than the other guys. And it is unbeleivably good. By the way - it's at least a dollar cheaper - often more - at Walmart.
As the days grow longer and hotter, we tend to put hot tea on the back burner. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two of my favorite blends. The first, PG TIPS is advertised as "Britain’s top selling tea” – and rightly so. It’s a pure tea, which is to say that unless you keep the teabag in your cup or pot overnight, it won’t be bitter. I love it with a bit of Australian honey instead of sugar or sugar substitute.
I am also a fan of The Republic of Tea, but like so many things these days, you have to take out a second mortgage to by a tin of these round little teabags. However, if you truly love a good cuppa, you might want to invest in a tin of their Ginger Peach longevity tea. I’m not a big ginger person, but it is so subtle, and so perfect, I can’t imagine it any other way. Their Wild Berry Plum tea bags are also a favorite of mine, but I don’t think there’s a bad batch in the bunch, which includes a wide variety of regular and decafinated white, red, green and black tea.
SNACKS & DESSERTS
Who doesn’t love ice cream? We all have our favorites. A year or so ago I cued you in to GAGA ice cream (no relation to Lady G). I still think they make a great product, but I have to say that Graeter’s Dark Raspberry Chip is even better. It just became available in this area, but you can buy it online if you’re feeling flush, or in one of their stores, if you live in Ohio, Minneapolis or Indiana, where it is a household word. I grew up with Breyers, and still love Bryers Vanilla Fudge Twirl and Peach. I'm also nuts about Haagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond. They're all delicious, and fairly weighty. A half a cup of Haagen Daz will cost you 300 calories. Graeters weighs in at 260.
If you’re looking for something less caloric, a Boston reader recommends Skinny Cow Chocolate Truffle bars. She says she’s addicted, but at just 100-calories per bar, and 3 grams of fiber, who cares? Pick up a pack of six. And remember, you’re not getting wider, you’re getting healthier. Here – have two!
With more than forty products to temp your taste buds, I think you'll be busy trying new and exciting finds for
a good while. But, before I wrap things up, I have one more find to pass along as we say good-bye to May: a time when barbecue fans around the world head for Memphis, for the International Barbecue Contest.
I came across Neely’s Memphis Style Honey Kissed Barbeque Sauce quite by accident a few weeks ago, as I poked around the "Bent and Dent" section of my neighborhood supermarket. Manufactured by the Neely family (stars of one of the Food Network's most popular shows), it called to me. Over the years I’ve found some wonderful products in the Bent and Dent section: products I would have never otherwise known about or tried.
That bottle sat in my cupboard until this afternoon, waiting patiently for me to remember it was there. I had been trying to decide what to do with a half-rack of ribs I’d brought home for the holiday weekend, finally deciding to go back to a recipe I’d tried years ago from Sylvia’s Soul Food cookbook. The last and only time I’d made the recipe was on an overnight camping trip, when we’d cooked our ribs over a grill. I say ‘camping trip' – we stayed in a cabin, but it was in the woods, and the grill was one of those permanent outdoorsy numbers that makes you feel like you’ve really got pork “chops.”
Anyway, Sylvia’s sauce was delicious, as were the ribs it was slathered over, but as I surveyed my cabinets, I came up short on several fronts. Not enough this. Outdated that. It clearly wasn’t going to work. And then, I remembered the Neely’s sauce, and decided to marry Sylvia's marinade and rub with the Neely's sauce. The results were spectacular.
First, I cleaned the ribs, removing the thin white connective tissue on the back with the tip of a paring knife. Then I seasoned them on both sides with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes – being careful not to overdo the flakes.
I wrapped the ribs in foil, and put them back in the frig for about 5 hours. Sylvia’s recipe called for them to hang in there overnight, but since I wanted to eat them for dinner tonight, that just wasn’t possible. No matter, five hours turned out to be more than enough time.
Just before I was ready to cook the ribs, I turned the oven to 450 degrees, and while I was waiting for it to reach the desired temperature I took out a metal pan, and lined it (sides and all) with heavy-duty foil for easy clean-up. Then I put the ribs in the pan, and poured enough apple cider vinegar around them to go about half way up the sides. Sylvia’s original recipe called for white wine vinegar, but I didn’t have white wine vinegar, and the apple cider vinegar worked wonderfully.
After about 40 minutes, I took the pan out of the oven, and turned the ribs over. As I was only making half a rack, they were already well on their way to being ready for the next step. So, after ten more minutes (instead of Sylvia’s hour-and-a-half) I turned the oven down to 400, took the pan of ribs out, poured out the vinegar, and poured a little Neely’s barbeque sauce over both sides of the ribs. Then I put the ribs back in the oven, meaty side, up. Ten minutes later I took them out and poured a little more sauce on top before popping them back in the oven for a final ten-minute bake.
They were so good. I mean, really good. "Let-me-write-the-recipe-down-so-that-I-can-make-them again" good. Try them out and see how they fit. I know I haven't given you an exact amount of salt, pepper, flakes or vinegar, but the thing is, it depends on how many ribs you're cooking, and how spicy you like them. All I can tell you is, that at least on this day, at this time, with this sauce and this method, the pork was so tender, it came clear off the bone with no trouble at all.
So that's it. I want to thank those of you who shared your favorite food finds. Hope to see you here next time, when I’ll be back with another DVD selection. Meanwhile, I suggest you cook up a slab or two of those pork ribs, and pig out.
Till the next time…