Sunday, November 25, 2018

Chef's Cupboard Chunky Baked Potato With Cheddar and Bacon Bits Canned Soup (Aldi)

It's decent, as far as mass-produced canned soups are concerned.
I have denounced at least a couple of Aldi's other soup offerings over the years, and yet here I am, sitting with a bowl of yet another one. Why, you ask? I wanted something simple to make, and if soup is one thing, it's very simple to make. We were at the end of a shopping trip and I realized I didn't have much in the cart for “just me”, that is, lazy stuff that I can make for myself when my wife is gone for the evening. I thought of the usual suspects-- a frozen pizza, TV dinner, sandwiches—but I'd had too many of all of those things lately. And so I ended up staring down several cans of soup, with wildly varying degrees of acceptance: that one looks too gross, that one only looks okay, etc. until one of them spoke back to me and said, “I am the one you should take home with you.”

The voice belonged to Chef's Cupboard's Baked Potato with Cheddar and Bacon Bits Soup. Potato soup by itself is a relatively straightforward affair, simple to make and hard to screw up. It's generally pretty light in flavor on its own, so this seemed like a solid combination, as the cheese and bacon bits could liven things up a little bit. Obviously, they were going for a “baked potato” kind of combination, which I wasn't expecting to translate entirely into soup form, but it seemed like it would at least be edible.

When I transferred it from the can to a bowl, I was kind of dismayed at how soft and liquidy it was. I expected the soup part to be a little bit thicker, like a chowder, but I guess “soup” is generally more runny than “chowder”. It also comes out a rather unappetizing hue of light brown...not quite in the color realm of “poop”, but kind of reminiscent of vomit, especially with the potato chunks. I'm not doing a good job of explaining this right now, am I?

Thankfully, this soup tastes better than its appearance lead me to believe, even if the cheddar flavor is pretty much nonexistent. Still, the bacon bits are clearly there, as are large chunks of potato, and the soup itself is more or less how I imagined it at the store: potato soup with bacon bits. Because of canned soup's natural propensity to be filled with salt, I did stop to think that the bacon would only add more, threatening to make this a sodium-filled mess. I'm sure it is (didn't even stop to look at the nutrition info, honestly), but it doesn't taste like one. Many soups give me that “sodium burn” from excessive salt, but I didn't really feel that with this, nor did I feel the threat of it coming on. Again, I'm sure there's a lot of sodium in here, but it's at least not super-noticeable on the tongue.

It's a shame that there's not really much in the way of cheese, because that could have really given the soup some added “oomph”. While the bacon bits are noticeable, they are so small, and swimming in so much soup, that they don't really add much to the flavor, which is kind of a letdown. With enough added cheddar to make an impact on the flavor, this might be something special; even as it is now, though, it's one of the better canned soups that I've had from Aldi. And you can always just grab a package of cheddar cheese while you're there and add some yourself.

Overall: 5.5/10. Canned soups aren't really my thing, but as far as they go, this one is pretty good. Sadly, the cheddar flavor is pretty much nonexistent, and so this reminded me simply of a potato soup, but with the addition of bacon bits. The bits don't add much flavor, but they do add a little extra texture in an otherwise dry, bland landscape of potatoes and soup. To its credit, it doesn't taste nearly as salt-filled as many other canned soups, so it earns points for that, while the $1.49 asking price is pretty reasonable for a heaping helping of the stuff. It's not going to win any awards, but it's something perfectly edible that you can store in your pantry and forget about it...until you're too lazy to go grocery shopping for a week and need to eat it out of desperation.

Chef's Cupboard Gourmet Butternut Squash and Red Pepper Canned Soup (Aldi)

More of a bisque...and a surprisingly delicious one at that.
I’m not really a soup fan, especially pre-canned ones, nor am I much of a fan of butternut squash. But after having a couple of teeth removed due to a massive infection beneath the gumline (perhaps a little TMI, but I don’t care if you don’t), I was naturally on a soft food diet for a few days. It’s times like these that make you realize just how few soft foods you have laying around the house at any given time.

Wanting some soup, but not really feeling like going out to get some, my wife was generous enough to offer me her Chef’s Cupboard Butternut Squash and Red Pepper soup. I was initially hesitant, for the specific reasons mentioned in the first sentence, but finally conceded when my laziness got the better of me. And boy am I glad I gave this a chance.

First off, I'd classify this more as a “bisque” than an actual soup, which is an idea I can get behind. And it’s a pretty darn good bisque, one that’s surprisingly rich, with the perfect texture: creamy, but with substantial thickness. As for the taste, there’s definitely some squash in there, as you can tell from the chunks floating around, but it’s balanced well with the red pepper, giving it some added flavor that the blandness of squash could never do on its own. The end result is a delicious, surprisingly addicting soup. Given all my qualms with it in the beginning, I’ll confess that I had no problems polishing off an entire bowl, and would gladly eat it again. If only laziness was always this rewarding!

Overall: 8/10. A very delicious, creamy bisque-like soup that won me over despite not really caring for butternut squash. The squash flavor is balanced well with the red peppers, and the end result is a perfectly-textured bisque that is thick, but not overly so. This unfortunately isn't always available, instead being relegated to "Special Buy" status, so if you ever see it in stores, gobble it up while you have the chance!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Season's Choice Curry and Vegetable Risotto (Aldi)

Sometimes, taking a chance yields expected results.
Well throughout some previous reviews, we learned that risotto is not a food I’m all that familiar with. Now I have to confess that Indian cuisine is something I’m far less experienced in. We even have a well-received Indian restaurant a few seconds from our house, but the fancy has never struck my wife or I enough to actually go and check it out. But since I tend to be more open-minded about foods, and my wife was off on vacation visiting her parents out-of-state, I figured this would be as good a time as any to see what vegetable and curry risotto was all about.

It might just be the culture shock, but I have to say that I’m not very crazy about it. The vegetables and rice are very good, but the curry just kind of ruins it for me. Again, I doubt that a frozen meal is going to feature 100% authentic curry, but I must confess that I don’t know exactly how typical curry tastes. It certainly did grow on me slightly from the beginning to the end (I ended up downing the whole container in one sitting), but it has a rather awkward taste that’s hard to describe…it’s neither sweet, nor bitter, but it also just doesn’t taste very good.

There’s still something intriguing about this dish, though, as the vegetables and rice are fantastic together (even the zucchini was delicious, and I usually don’t care for that). Part of the reason I ate so much is no doubt because I was rather buzzed and looking for something to toss in my stomach, and this fit the bill. But by the end, I have to admit that I didn’t nearly hate the curry as much as I did on the first bite, so that has to be saying something. However, would I purchase this again?

I can’t say I would, because it‘s way outside the limits of what my palate is used to, and while it did the job of filling up my stomach, it wasn‘t much of a pleasurable experience. But this experience has certainly opened my eyes to the potentials of Indian cuisine, and at the very least, I vow to make a trip to the Indian restaurant down the road at some point in the fairly near future. Maybe if that wins me over, I’ll be more apt to pick this up again. But as it stands, Season’s Choice Vegetable and Curry Risotto just isn’t for me, though if you enjoy curry, and you enjoy vegetables, and you enjoy rice, then it will probably be for you.

Overall: 5.5/10. Well you can't say you don't like something until you try it; I can officially say that curry is not my cup of tea. But if it's yours, then you will probably like this. The curry is strong, and balanced out by a solid combination of vegetables and rice that are pretty good for a frozen meal. If you don't like curry...well, this certainly won't change your mind.

Season's Choice Quinoa Crunch Southwest Veggie Burger (Aldi)

I think I'll just stick to their regular veggie burgers.
As you all probably know by now, my wife leans toward the vegetarian side of life. She'll eat meat if it's around and she's hungry (or if she gets a craving for a burger or steak), but generally avoids it, especially in pre-packaged foods. Even though I am not one, I’m always looking for things in Aldi ads that will appeal to her. My latest find is Season’s Choice Quinoa Crunch Southwest Burger, a veggie patty that, unlike their Veggie Burger and Chipotle Black Bean Burgers, are a limited time Special Buy at Aldi stores. I liked the Veggie Burger and absolutely love the Chipotle Black Bean, so these had some pretty big shoes to fill in my book.

I probably could have gotten a much better crunch on these if I had the patience to make them in the oven…but I don’t, so I settled for a much limper patty, courtesy of the ultra-convenient (and quick) microwave prep method. The dusting of quinoa on the outside is evident right from the get-go, as the texture eschews the standard softness with one that feels like the breading on a typical chicken sandwich. Again, it didn’t add much of a crunch to mine, since I prepped it in the microwave, but it still added a rougher texture that I actually found more inviting than some of the smooth vegetable patties out there.

Honestly, I was expecting a lot more out of these. There’s a slight “southwestern” flavor in there, I guess, courtesy of some spices that seem to be thrown in as an afterthought, but given the intense taste explosion of Season’s Choice own Chipotle Black Bean Burgers, I was bracing myself for something special. Instead, we get a typical veggie burger, with some added crunch, and a price tag that’s somehow $1.20 more than their typical, year ’round veggie burger offerings (is quinoa really that expensive of an ingredient?).

This isn’t at all to say they are bad, because there’s some decent flavor in there. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that, had I not had the Chipotle Black Bean Burgers before, I probably would have liked these a whole lot more. But I have, and there’s no denying that those offer much more intense flavor for over a dollar less. For this reason, I really don’t think I could see myself buying these again, at least not in the near future.

Overall: 5/10. This is just a case of Aldi shooting themselves in the foot: There’s technically nothing wrong with Season’s Choice Quinoa Crunch Southwest Burger, besides a rather weak flavor that I’d hesitate to call “southwest”, but the texture, featuring some crunchy quinoa (that, not surprisingly, didn’t get crunchy in the microwave, but which I have a feeling probably would have in the oven) is more akin to an actual meat patty. Still, I had these shortly after trying their black bean veggie burgers, which provide a whole lot more flavor for about a dollar less per package, and so I was expecting a lot more out of these. Not a bad vegetable product, but not one I'm really eager to try again.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Nature's Nectar 100% Juice Mango Tangerine (Aldi)

This is a nice, flavorful change of pace from more "standard" juice fare.
Lately, I’ve been trying to be a little more health-conscious, especially when it comes to juices. Nothing too extreme, because I figure every little bit helps (so I don‘t require anything organic), but whereas I used to just purchase whatever was cheapest, now I don’t mind spending a couple extra quarters to get full juice content. This way, I at least tend to avoid the plethora of added sugars that come with the “juice cocktail” territory.

I’ve been pretty impressed with all of Aldi’s juices (most, if not all, of which are released under the “Nature’s Nectar” brand name) and make sure to have a little something on hand at any given time, either for straight-up enjoyment (apple, grape juices), or as a mixer in cocktails. So when I see them offering new varieties and flavors, I don’t usually hesitate to pick them up. Enter Nature’s Nectar 100% Mango Tangerine Juice.

I’ve only recently become a mango fan, after having tried one when I was very young and hating the taste and texture. It wasn’t until about two decades later that my wife talked me into giving them another shot. I still don’t love them, but I like the texture and the taste enough for it to be a “left-of-center” option when I tire of all the standard fruits. I wasn’t sure how it would pair with the tangerine (or the apple and white grape concentrates that are also contained herein), but I figured it would be good.

“Good” is an understatement, because this stuff smacks you right in the mouth the moment you start to chug some. I always find that many juices tend to have subdued flavors, especially ones where the main ingredient is “filtered water” (as it is in this one, which makes me wonder how it can be 100% juice if it’s swimming in water, but that’s a question for another day). This stuff attacks the taste buds immediately, with a mix of tang and sweetness that exhausts me before I have a chance to drink too much. And, in case you are confused by this odd description, I mean that in a good way. It’s got a good balance of tart and sweet that really quenches the thirst, but is strong enough that I don’t need to down a whole bottle to feel like I’m getting any flavor…the taste even lingers for a while after taking a swig.

This used to be only available occasionally as a Special Buy, but Aldi has since added it to their permanent stock, meaning that it should always be available whenever you crave the thirst-quenching combination of mango and tangerine. Which, after you try this, just may be more often than you think. Also, quick thought off the top of my head: this would also make an excellent mixer in a cocktail, and could probably stand up to even stronger liquors.

Overall: 8/10. A very strong, fruity flavor is balanced with a delicious tanginess that attacks the taste buds upon the first sip. I think a lot of juices tend to taste a little subdued, especially when they’re made from concentrate, but this stuff has a very strong kick that quenches my thirst without having to drink a whole lot. One of the best Aldi juices I’ve had, and that’s saying a lot considering I can’t recall ever having a bad one. Even better, it's a part of their permanent inventory, so it's available for year 'round chugging!

Nature's Nectar 100% Frozen From Concentrate Orange Juice (Aldi)

Not great, but still good to have on hand as a backup for when you run out of refrigerated juice.
I won’t bore you with personal details, but let’s just say that my wife and I have been looking at ways to cut costs recently. Whereas we used to be able to spend whatever we wanted at Aldi, now we’ve been reduced to using gift certificates my parents bought for us, and keeping our food budget to the bare minimum. One of the ways that we decided to do this, was to purchase frozen orange juice, instead of the pre-bottled kind, which would save us at least a couple of quarters per shopping trip.

The end result was a mixed bag: She ended up loving the frozen kind, which isn’t surprising considering I found it to be more tart than OJ in a bottle (or carton), and she’s all over anything that’s tart. On top of it being too sour for me, I also thought it tasted more watered down than normal, which could be a side effect of having to add water to the non-concentrated pillar that comes out of the container. Even sniffing it doesn’t result in the smell of fresh oranges, like it does in the containers, despite the assurance on the container that this is 100% orange juice.

The only situation where I can see this coming in handy, and where we will still probably continue to purchase it, is as a backup for when our regular juice supply runs out. Having a two-year-old means we go through juice (and milk, and food, and diapers...) at an alarming rate; it's actually not uncommon for me to buy multiple juice containers, and then less than two weeks later realize I'm pouring the last drop, with no chance to get to a store. For this reason, it's a good thing to have on hand, especially since it obviously keeps much, much longer than refrigerated juices.

Outside of that, there are some areas where I don’t mind cutting costs, but I don’t think this is going to be one of them. While the frozen kind is just 99 cents, certainly a respectable price considering it makes a good pitcher’s worth, there’s something that’s lost in the translation. Maybe my wife added too much water, but even then, the pre-bottled containers give you plenty for around a dollar more. And as broke as we are, I don’t think a dollar or two is going to completely break the bank. Not a fan.

Overall: 5/10. It’s still 100% juice, if the label can be trusted, but I thought that it was too tart and watered down for my liking, though for what it’s worth, my wife really enjoyed it. We purchased this to cut back on some costs, but I’m going to pony up the extra buck or two and purchase the pre-bottled (or cartoned) kind instead, which tastes a lot fresher, has more sweetness to it, and provides around the same amount of OJ. It was an interesting experiment, but not one that I'm terribly interested in. Its one redeeming quality: this is great to have on hand as an emergency backup for when regular juice supplies run out, especially with a demanding two-year-old in tow.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mama Cozzi's Tomato Mozzarella and Pesto 16" Extra Large Thin Crust Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

This is a tasty special buy.
My wife was sick a little while back, and nothing sounded good to her. Understandably, this means she didn't feel like cooking, and I wanted something that we could both possibly eat, so I grabbed this instead of my favorite Mama Cozzi take and bake variety: sausage and pepperoni. I figured that the tomato and mozzarella would keep the flavor a little lighter, while the thin crust would cut back on the heavy starch. She said it sounded good, took a couple of bites, and then got sick later (an event clearly unlinked to this pizza). So much for that. On the plus side, that just means I got to eat the whole thing, spread out over two days.

I have to say that this exceeded both of our expectations, and my wife was actually bummed that she couldn’t keep it down. The tomatoes are juicy and wonderfully flavorful…I’d dare to say that they are pretty close to the taste of “fresh” tomatoes, at least as far as refrigerated, factory-made pizza is concerned. The mozzarella is also good, although I don’t think there has ever been a time in recorded history that mozzarella cheese has ever been less than “good”. The pesto sauce, which is a wise replacement for a tomato-based sauce, is also good, and is also rather generously used.

This obviously won’t replace your favorite local pizza shop that uses only locally-sourced fresh ingredients, and has bizarre toppings like “tuna” on the menu, but my wife and I both agreed that this was equally on par--and in many cases, better than-- any similar pizza you can get from a chain pizzeria. The cracker-thin crust also works really well here, keeping it relatively light by cutting out any excessive dough while blessing it with a delicious crunch. It's one of those rare instances where I can’t see it working nearly as well with a traditional crust.

All in all, this is a pretty good pizza, and at $6, there’s definitely value to be had. While I prefer the taste of thin crust pizzas, I generally lean toward the traditional crusts simply because I feel like you get more for your money, but this is one variety where the cracker-thin crust really helps with the flavor. If you see it, and it is a special buy so you might not, you should definitely pounce on it and see for yourself, assuming you like this kind of thing, of course.

Overall: 8/10. If you're looking for a nice, meatless pizza variety, Mama Cozzi comes through with her tomato and mozzarella take and bake, which layers on generous helpings of both titular ingredients. The tomatoes are as close to “fresh” as refrigerated tomatoes can be, while the mozzarella is good as always. A nice, homemade flavor for $6? Count me in. The wife, who is much harder to please than I, even agreed that this is on par, and if not better than, similar offerings from the pizza chains. And for around half the price, too! It's a special buy and not always offered, so if you see it you should be sure to check it out—you probably won't be disappointed.

Mama Cozzi's Sausage and Pepperoni Extra Large Thin Crust Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

As delicious as it is salty and greasy.
In the midst of a large fight with my wife, in which she left to clear her mind and hang out with family members and friends for a little while, I was abandoned at home with very little food in the house, and very little money in the bank account to get any. I brandied about the idea of getting a “hot and ready” pizza from Little Caesar’s, which I don’t mind eating once in a while, but since I already had to pick up a couple other groceries from Aldi, I just decided to pick up one of their take and bakes. Best of all, with a recent price cut just in time for the “big game”, most of their extra-large pizzas, which are two inches bigger than a similar pizza from Little Caesar’s, are the same price. Sounded like a no-brainer.

Now I’ve had Mama Cozzi’s plain pizzas before, and as you can see from some previous reviews, I eat far too many of these things. While I think they tend to “hit” more than “miss”, we really have to be in the mood for them in order to get them. But I was hungry and wanted something that I could just quickly toss in the oven and forget about, and this fit the bill.

Unsurprisingly, cooking this pup was very easy: as with all of their pizzas, you simply take it out of the plastic and place in the oven. I don’t know if I tend to get pizzas with a ton of toppings, but usually the pizzas I end up with take anywhere from 13-20 minutes to cook, on 400 degrees or higher. That’s why I was pretty taken aback to see that this pizza requires a mere 7-9 minutes at 375. Given the amount of meats involved, I was expecting it to take longer.

Anyway, I don’t know if I was just super-hungry, but this pizza really freakin’ hit the spot. I grabbed a slice right out of the oven, in all its drippy, greasy glory (and this thing is greasy), and all the flavors just blended really well. The pepperoni is pretty standard, which is to say that it’s delicious by default, but the sausage is really where it‘s at. They use large chunks, rather than the standard small crumbles, and each one is bursting with flavor. It really takes it above the normal store brand take and bakes. The crust was also nice and buttery, and was delicious enough on its own that I didn’t even need to dip it in ranch (which I always tend to do). I left it in the oven for slightly longer than the recommended 9 minutes, but the outer edges were nice and toasty while the middle was a little flimsy, which I like. There’s also plenty of the meat toppings to go around, especially at this price point.

The biggest drawback is that all the toppings are just dumped in the middle of the pizza by default, so some time has to be spent moving everything around. Since it isn’t a frozen pizza, it’s not so much of a big deal, as none of the toppings are stuck to the pizza, but it’s still kind of an annoyance to have to do that. Cheese lovers will also probably be disappointed, as they seem to cut back a little bit on the cheese.

Overall: 9/10. I don’t know if I was just hungry, but this really hit the spot. After about 11 minutes in the oven, this puppy was ready to go in all its drippy, delicious glory! The cheese is lacking a little bit, and there’s “some assembly required” if you want toppings all throughout, as the factory seems to just dump them all in the middle of the pizza, but it doesn’t take long to spread them around. The crust was buttery and delicious, without the necessary addition of ranch, which I always like to dip my crusts in. The sausage is excellent, while the pepperoni is just pepperoni (there’s also a bunch of small pepperoni bits on top of the standard circular peps, which really bring out that flavor). Of course, it’s pretty salty, but I didn’t even notice because the meat flavor was even stronger. One of my fave take and bakes that Aldi offers, for sure.