Monday, April 23, 2012

Rainbow Peppercorns

This stuff right here, Rainbow Peppercorns, manages to be both a material representation of why I love Trader Joe's so much and my kids' absolute worst culinary nightmare.
Let's begin with the former: What a fantastic product this is. For starters, it's unusual. In a good way. It's the kind of unassuming yet exciting little food item that makes so much sense and gets so much use in my home that I wonder where it's been all my life and what I did without it. "Why has no one combined four varieties of peppercorn until now?" is the kind of question begged by Rainbow Peppercorns. (Or maybe this combination of peppercorns has been done before...? Even so, it's certainly not ubiquitous to grocery-store spice aisles, right? Correct me if I'm wrong!)
Yes, the pepper bottle in this photo is nearly empty.
Rainbow peppercorns go quickly here at Chez Mo!
The taste is really fresh, thanks to the built-in grinder, and spicy and a bit hot, and bold. It's like freshly ground black pepper dialed up several notches and with a little extra zing ground in. I LOVE IT. There's really nothing it can't enhance: eggs, a green salad, soups, chicken, pasta, rice, cooked vegetables, tuna salad, a turkey sandwich...I use it almost daily.
My kids, on the other hand, are revolted by the very idea of freshly ground pepper. Why would Mom taint a perfectly good, perfectly bland, perfectly uniform gob of mashed potatoes with this crap? they wonder. They look on, aghast, as I aggressively grind and grind and grind the pepper onto everything on my plate. And if I'm off my game one night and accidentally season the family's veggies---let's say broccoli---BEFORE dishing out their portions, Maya and Hunter both freak out and point to the offending pepper specks that are poisoning their food: "It's got the black stuff! The black stuff! GET THE BLACK STUFF OFF MY BROCCOLI TREES!!!"
...which, maybe, now that I'm really pondering it, is another reason Rainbow Peppercorns delight me so much: They annoy my children! I am all for annoying my children in small doses.
Keep on doin' your thing, Rainbow Peppercorns!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Reduced Guilt Mac and Cheese

Mac and cheese is a big deal in my household. For better or worse, it is a staple of my kids' diets: they eat it several times per week, it is their go-to menu item when dining out, and it's one of the few fairly nutritious foods they'll talk about with earnest reverence and near-zealotry. ("Yay! MAC AND CHEESE!!" they'll shout when I whip some up in the microwave, as if they hadn't just eaten it 48 hours before. And 48 hours before that.)
So when we happen upon a mac and cheese that's both quick-cooking AND exceptional in flavor and texture, that's something to get excited about over here at Chez Mo.
Reduced < Guilt Mac & Cheese is indeed exceptional in flavor and texture for a prepared, microwaveable mac and cheese entrée that's relatively low in fat. (Plus, there's a "less than" sign right there in the name of the product, which is, frankly, adorable, and earns it a couple of bonus points in my judgment.)
I cannot abide a mac and cheese whose sauce is thin, watery, bland, and lacking in strong cheese flavor. What's the point? Rather, a respectable mac and cheese must include a robust, gooey, perfectly cheesy, flavorful sauce. That kind of sauce is, after all, what separates a homemade mac and cheese from its boxed, instant-powdered-cheese-sauce counterparts.
I am pleased to report that Reduced < Guilt Mac & Cheese is fast-cooking and as easy as pushing a few microwave buttons, yet it reads more like a homemade mac and cheese than a boxed variety. And 3.5 grams of saturated fat for the entire tray (about two entrée-sized servings) is really very good. I can feed this to my family without feeling like I'm causing their arteries to instantly harden.
Pair it with some broccoli (which Maya will devour and Hunter will gingerly pick at) and an apple, and you really could do much worse for a kid-friendly, wholesome meal.
...and at the end of the meal, when the kids have bolted from the table and my husband and I are absentmindedly eating the remaining food off their plates while venting about work and bills and our perpetually messy house, we get a nice, comforting couple of mouthfuls of mac and cheese minus the sky-high fat content. Not too shabby!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Sweet Apple Chicken Sausage

A caveat: These sausages aren't going to change your life or anything.

But, it occurred to me the other day while grabbing a couple of packages from the TJ's meat cooler for probably the 100th time since I first became a TJ's shopper that these humble Sweet Apple Chicken Sausages deserved a post on this blog. Here's why: They have become a reliable, highly valued staple of my (admittedly limited) meal-prep repertoire. Their versatility and quick cooking time come in SO handy on hectic, time-crunched weekdays, yet they're equally useful on a weekend morning. Plus---the importance of this cannot be overstated---MY ENTIRE FAMILY LIKES THESE SAUSAGES AND WILL HAPPILY EAT THEM. If you're a parent or friend of any small, highly particular, frustratingly ambivalent children, you understand my choice of all caps there.
We often eat these sausages butterflied and pan-fried for dinner, with rice and a vegetable on the side. Simple as that. We get a well-rounded meal of basic, not-too-bold flavors that everyone enjoys. Sometimes we'll make them part of a "breakfast dinner" and serve them alongside fried eggs, fresh fruit, and toast. They also work beautifully on a weekend morning as a protein to go with a stack of pancakes.
What makes these sausages so kid-friendly, besides their mild, sweet flavor, is the absence of a casing. So they're as easy to eat as hot dogs, but way better. (Love the juicy little apple chunks tucked inside!) And nutritionally, they seem pretty reasonable: no nitrates or nitrites, all recognizable ingredients, and a decent amount of protein.
Oh! They're precooked, too, which is a bonus for those of us who live in constant fear of undercooking our poultry and poisoning everyone in our homes with Salmonella.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Frozen Steelcut Oatmeal

You know what I like to do when work is shitty, my taxes aren't done, my living room needs vacuuming, and I have no clean laundry? Blog about Joe's Frozen Steelcut Oatmeal, that's what!
I so enjoy oatmeal (or "oapmeal," as Maya insists on calling it. Made from 100% whole-grain oaps!) Oapmeal is comforting, isn't it? But not bad comforting, like the Reese's peanut-butter chocolate egg I just scarfed down a moment ago. The nice thing about oapmeal is that not only does it feel cozy and satisfying on a chilly morning, it's also so jam-packed with nutrition, you feel downright virtuous for eating it. It's a win-win kind of food.
Really the only downside of oatmeal is the inconvenience of cooking it on a weekday morning. Oatmeal Complete is, of course, a super-quick, healthful, yummy solution to this problem. However, if the texture skeeves you out, or you're looking for a more-generous serving size, or steelcut oats are your preference, may I introduce you to Frozen Steelcut Oatmeal (flavored with brown sugar and maple syrup)?
This oatmeal is GOOD. My husband loves it, my good friend Carie loves it, Maya loves it...I don't know anyone who's tried it who didn't like it. It's the closest thing to homemade oatmeal you're going to get in a box.
The way this oatmeal works is that it is already cooked, then frozen into pucks and individually shrink-wrapped. You can't deny the fun factor here: Oatmeal pucks! My kids always want to touch the frozen pucks before I pop them into bowls and zap 'em in the microwave. (It's gotten me wondering, too, whether this could be done from scratch. Couldn't I cook up some steelcut oatmeal on a weekend, then freeze it in small Tupperware bowls for future weekday breakfasts...?)
Anyway, you take the puck out of its wrapper, drop it into a bowl, cook the thing in the microwave for a couple of minutes, remove it and stir, cook it another minute or so, and you're done: Very thick, very hearty, very delicious steelcut oatmeal with a mild sweetness that is just right.
Which do you prefer, btw: steelcut oats or rolled? I prefer rolled when I'm making granola, but I like either for oatmeal. I like that steelcut oatmeal makes you work a little bit---the grains are chewy; your jaw gets some exercise.
I should mention that we recently tried Fresh and Easy's version of this product, and it was disappointing. The pucks were tiny---maybe 2 ounces of oatmeal---and there were things on the ingredient list that didn't need to be there, like milk and butter. (If I want to add milk and/or butter, I'll do it myself!)
Sorry Fresh and Easy, the winner of this round is TJ's!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Organic Greek Style Nonfat Yogurt Vanilla

Wow, that name is a mouthful right there: Organic Greek Style Nonfat Yogurt Vanilla (and I even left out the "0% Milkfat" part)! Good lord. I eat this yogurt almost daily, but I'd never noticed its awkward, rambling nomenclature until studying the photo just now. I always just seek out the squat purple-and-white containers in TJ's aforementioned huge yogurt section, chuck them into my cart, and move along.
So anyway, here's the thing about Greek yogurt in general: I am conflicted. On one hand, the texture is thick and dense and creamy and perfect. I remember taking my first bite of Fage about a year ago and being like, "Oh. OH. So THIS is what yogurt really is. Right. OK. I stand corrected. Got it."
On the other hand, having been raised on Yoplait and Dannon and accustomed to such sugar-bombed flavors as "Key-Lime Pie" and "Raspberry Chiffon," I haven't yet been able to enjoy the taste of plain, unflavored Greek yogurt. I actually find it kind of revolting, honestly. It's just too "sour cream meets unidentifiable musky note" for me at this point in time. I'll keep trying, but so far, no thank you.
So what's fantastic about TJ's vanilla-flavored Greek is that you get the dreamy, super-satisfying texture and mouthfeel of Greek yogurt but ALSO just a smidge of sweetness and vanilla flavor. Enough to make this yogurt seriously delicious and the perfect partner for fruit and granola, but not enough to overpower the tart or dairy flavors or make you feel like you've just eaten dessert.
Also, for what it's worth, OGSNYV contains 12 grams of protein, which is about double that of typical American (or, I guess,"non-Greek-style"?) yogurts---a boon for those of us who don't eat a ton of meat and could therefore use extra protein grams wherever we can get them.
I am always interested in new ways to get even more yogurt into my life, so I'd love to know how others eat it. Here's my preferred method:
1. Dump a container of OGSNYV into a medium-sized bowl.
2. Slice strawberries and bananas into it.
3. Sprinkle generously with granola (preferably homemade!) or whatever other crunchy thing I have available: Grape-Nuts, Joe's O's (review to come!), etc.

P.S. Maya (age 6) loves this yogurt concoction, too, which kind of blows my mind apart, considering her other favorite foods include such paragons of nutrition as corn dogs, mac and cheese (packaged, mind you), and Chicken McNuggets.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cocoa Powder Unsweetened

Thanks to Joe, I can make a warm, comforting, decadent-tasting mug of hot cocoa and feel very little guilt about it. Trader Joe's Cocoa Powder Unsweetened is the only cocoa powder I've come across that isn't "processed with alkali" and that contains literally nothing but cocoa powder. At 20 calories per tablespoon and one gram of fat, this fine, silky cocoa powder feels almost healthful to me, in that it's likely delivering the benefits of chocolate without all the saturated fat and sugar.
For homemade hot cocoa, I just pour milk (usually 2%) into a mug, heat it in the microwave for 2 minutes or so, then add a couple of heaping teaspoons of the cocoa powder. I stir a LOT and for a LONG time to fully blend the powder into the milk and break up most of the little lumps. Then I add sugar to taste, usually not much more than a teaspoon or so, because I like bitterness.
And that's it! I make it for my kids, too, of course, and they enjoy it. (Don't get me wrong---they'll suck down that Swiss Miss crap just as fast, but they certainly don't turn up their noses at the homemade stuff.)
I should mention that I haven't used this cocoa powder for baking, much, mostly because I don't bake chocolate cakes and the like all that often. My friend and mother-in-law, Lala, did use it for brownies the last time she visited us, and oh my, those brownies did not disappoint! They were perfectly rich and chocolatey. Mmmm.