Saturday, July 20, 2019

Main St. Kitchen Fettuccine Alfredo with Broccoli Frozen Entree (Dollar Tree)

If you enjoy eating food for the flavor, pass this right on by.

The last time I was in the market for some frozen foods at Dollar Tree, was the first time I laid eyes on Main St. Kitchen: its sleek packaging standing out among the sea of poor-quality meats and other frozen dollar oddities. Now, a month or so later, I was in the market again, looking to grab a quick meal for work. And wouldn’t you know it that they had introduced not one, but two new flavors since then, including this fettuccine alfredo with broccoli, the first and only option I’ve seen from them that completely omits any form of meat whatsoever. How would this one fare?

My interest was piqued right off the bat after pulling out the microwaved entree, when I noticed that the sauce is generously spread over the noodles, which look as they should (like fettuccine noodles). There are also quite a few good-sized broccoli chunks spread throughout, making the overall appearance look rather appetizing for a cheap frozen meal.

Unfortunately, the taste is the tradeoff for the appealing initial impressions: the sauce is thin and tastes virtually nonexistent. Somehow, even though there appears to be a lot of sauce on the entrĂ©e, most bites still seem to taste like plain noodle, as if the sauce is merely a mirage that disappears the moment you put it in your mouth—the end result is as bland and disappointing as that makes it sound.

Alas, the real “star” of this dish is the broccoli, which is never a good sign…for anyone, really. (Think about it: what dish has ever made you say “Wow, this broccoli is really good!”) It’s cooked well, with a nice texture, a light touch of “crunch” (though not so much that it feels undercooked) and even a little bit of juiciness. That the veggie in the dish is not only the only thing giving it flavor, but the sole thing that prevents it from being a completely bland mess of nothingness, is a testament to just how...bleh this whole thing is.

At $1 per 9 oz package, which is an ounce more than similar name brands, this is a fairly decent deal, and at only 220 calories per package, it’s also a surprisingly decent choice for those watching their figures, at least as far as Dollar Tree frozen meals are concerned. And it doesn’t just stop there: one package contains just 3g of fat, 10mg of cholesterol, 3g of dietary fiber, and a whopping 11g of protein, which is pretty excellent for a TV dinner. Of course, the salt content (500 mg) is still pretty high, but lower than most regular name brands.

If you’re on a diet, or just looking for a healthy option, this might suffice; anyone looking for things like “flavor” or “deliciousness” should keep right on looking.

Overall: 4.5/10. An uninspiring—though somewhat healthy—frozen meal whose main noteworthy quality is an almost complete lack of flavor (save for the broccoli). It does have much less fat and cholesterol than many other TV dinners, and is probably the healthiest frozen thing inside a Dollar Tree store, though, so it potentially fills a niche. The $1 price point is pretty good for non-discerning folk—but for anyone who actually wants to enjoy the taste of their sodium-packed frozen sadness should pick up almost literally anything else.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Kroger Chocolate Toasted Oats Cereal (Kroger)

It's better than I thought it would be, but completely unnecessary.
Ever since I was a kid, I've always been into cereal, a fascination that continues even to this day. There is, arguably, no more versatile food on the face of this Earth: obviously, it's great for breakfast, but it's also equally effective as both a snack, or even as a quick meal when nothing else sounds good. Since most cereals have quite a bit of vitamins (which will help to offset the high sugar content of some of the kids-based ones), it's also a healthier alternative than other snacks, which is why we seem to have at least a dozen boxes on hand at any given time. (And that's not even taking into account its other uses, such as an ingredient in milkshakes, a topping for ice cream, a healthier breading for fried foods, etc.)

And ever since I was a kid, I've always loved the name brand “O”s cereal. I think most kids like the apple cinnamon and honey nut variants—which I always did, too—but I was one of the only kids I knew that loved the taste of the original, even without added sugar. Even today it seems most adults have to add a spoonful (or more) of sweetness in order to force it down, but I'm fine eating it right out of the box, or with a cut-up banana for some more natural sweetness.

I guess I'm out of the loop (pun intended!) but now it seems the classic cereal is always constantly being “updated” for modern tastes. Instead of just a couple varieties, now it seems a new version of “O's” are coming out weekly: there's multi-grain, and yogurt, and frosted, and fruity, and banana nut, and peanut butter, and strawberry banana, and's all rather overwhelming and unnecessary, especially since most of those flavors are very similar to, and executed better in, other cereals. And that's a big reason why I have avoided almost all of them like the plague, not taking so much as a second glance at any of them in the store, unless it was to scoff at the latest stupid addition to the seemingly neverending line.

Well apparently my mom has an affinity for buying cereal when it's on sale, and then never eating it: a couple times a year, we get a dozen or so unopened boxes of all different kinds, across all different brands, both corporate, and private label. In this latest batch, we received a box of Kroger's Chocolate Toasted Oat's cereal, and I have to say I couldn't be less thrilled to try it.

Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have, were it not for my two-year-old son, who is far more open-minded when it comes to cereals than I am (but shares his daddy's affection for the stuff). After giving him a choice of cereals based on pictures, of course the one he settled on was one of a couple that I really had no interest in eating (we always share a bowl of cereal together when we eat it, which is how I'm “locked in” to whatever his choice is; it's one of our little traditions). Unwilling to break his fragile little heart over something so trivial, I sucked it up and decided to give it a shot.

It's still stupid, and I won't ever buy a box for myself, but I honestly have to say it's better than I ever thought it could be. Dare I say, it hit the same flavor profiles for me as the Count's cereal; you know, the over-chocolated cereal with marshmallows that seems to only be available around the Halloween season. It's obviously not as sweet or as chocolatey as that cereal, but take away the marshmallows and I think it's closer than anyone would like to admit. I guess think of it as a “diet” version of that, with a good amount of chocolate flavor coming through that isn't overly sweet.

The issue for me is that there are dozens of other chocolate cereals on the market, and many of them still do the whole chocolate thing way better. Like “Cocoa Small Stones”, and “Cocoa Spheres”, or the aforementioned chocolate vampire: If I want a chocolate cereal, I want a cereal that's unabashedly chocolate, and that leaves the milk a dark shade of brown when you get to the bottom, rather than a browner shade of white. But that's just me: if you're on a diet, or otherwise hate the sweetness of typical chocolate cereals, then I guess this might fit the bill a little bit better for you.

Again, it's not at all a bad cereal: it's just another pointless addition to the ever-expanded "O's" line that seems to want to incorporate every possible flavor, fad or not, in an effort to stay relevant and drum up some contemporary business.

Overall: 6/10. I never really cared to try this cereal, but now that I have, it's kind of bittersweet for me: it's certainly better than I thought it would be, but I still don't think I'll ever get it again. The chocolate is strong enough, but not overly sweet the way a lot of other chocolate cereals are. Then again, that's more of a bad thing for me: if I want a chocolate cereal, I want a chocolate cereal, not one that seems like it doesn't want to fully commit to the idea (to wit, the milk is only a very light shade of brown when you get to the bottom). Beyond that, it's still another pointless addition to the “O's” line of cereals that seemingly keep churning out new flavors every single week, when their original lineup (original, honey nut, apple cinnamon) is already pretty perfect. I got these for free from my mom, so I'm not sure of the value proposition when purchased from the store, but regardless, as decent as they are, I wouldn't pay a dime for these when there are much better chocolate cereals around.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Friendly Farms Skyr Icelandic Style Blueberry Blended Yogurt (Aldi)

Oooh, a little too much bokeh on this here image. Still, you get the point.

I like the national brand skyr, but have to be in the mood for it, because it's much less sweet than the yogurts we typically tend to eat. So when I saw Aldi was offering some as a special buy, I was eager to give it a shot to see how it stacks up with that brand. So let's get down to business then, shall we?

Aaah, here we go: I think this one hits the nail on the head a little bit more in terms of the flavor being as…”dry” as the original (for lack of a better term). It does still hit the “sweet” part of the palate a little bit harder than the national brand... yep, the more and more I eat it, the sweeter it seems to get, like it slowly builds up through added bites. I still wouldn’t really describe it as “sweet”--it's not much at all like a traditional yogurt--and I don’t think it’s a strong as the strawberry was (which, to be fair, is a sweeter fruit overall), but I’d say this strikes a decent compromise between skyr and yogurt, coming closer to the former category, but with a sweet enough essence that it might appeal to yogurt fans who are turned off by the muted taste profile of regular skyr.

There is also some tartness that occasionally shines through, giving the whole combination a more “sour” taste than the strawberry which, again, isn't really a tart fruit. The tartness also became more and more pronounced the farther into the cup I got, with the accumulated tartness almost making me pucker a couple of times...that's how sour it can get. Personally, I'm not a fan of sour fruits, so it didn't quite appeal to me all that much, but for those (like my wife) who are, this will no doubt be a bigger win for you.

In terms of texture, this one is pretty darn close to the rich creaminess of the national brand skyr, with with the added benefit of having some decent-sized blueberry chunks stationed throughout. They don’t really add much to the flavor (which is already heavy on blueberry), but it’s a nice change of texture from the neverending smoothness of the skyr base.

Really, whether or not you like this will all come down to your willingness to “break away” from the “dry” flavor of the national brand skyr, as well as your fondness for tart things. It didn't really do much for me, but it's not a bad product, and coming in at $.99 it certainly provides some decent value over other brands.

Overall: 6/10. If you like the muted flavor of name brand skyr, then you probably won't like this; ditto if you aren't a fan of tart things. This has a slight sweetness that gets stronger and stronger with each accumulated bite, along with a tartness that just as gradually does the same—by the end of the cup, I nearly puckered a couple of times from the sour taste. That being said, this is all just a matter of personal preference: if you think regular skyr is too bland and boring, this offers a slightly sweeter flavor that might appeal to you, while still retaining the rich creamy texture. Either way, the $.99 price tag makes it a much cheaper option than the national brands, so it's affordable enough to give it a shot without breaking the bank. (And if you really don't like it, you can always take Aldi up on their money back guarantee!)

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Park Street Deli Loaded Baked Potato Salad (Aldi)

Aldi always carries the seasonal side basics for grilling, such as cole slaw, baked beans, and the two salads: macaroni and potato. This year, however, the brand name has switched over to Park Street Deli (from Little Salad Bar), and with it have come the addition of some new products. One of them is this loaded baked potato salad.

On paper it sounds pretty decent, offering up sour cream, bacon bits, cheddar cheese, and onion in a “blended dressing”. But how would that translate to the real world, where marketing speak takes a distant backseat to actual taste?

It’s not great. The texture is very similar to regular potato salad, with chunks of potatoes smothered in the creamy “blended dressing” the packaging alluded to. However, there’s a very…”manufactured” flavor, like an artificial taste, that creeps in toward the finish, as if it has to remind us that it’s factory-made, and not the result of some friend’s recipe.

Alternate view, so you know what you avoid if you approach from the top.
As if the disappointing flavor weren't enough, it also sits in the gut like a brick afterwards, which doesn’t typically happen to me with regular potato salad. I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to call it “disgusting”, but it's much closer to that than “good”: after a couple bites each, my wife and I were done with this, eating our grilled hamburgers without the benefit of a side dish. I waited until the next day to try it again, and got the same results, forcing down three or four bites before having to give up on it: three days later, and the mere thought of it makes my stomach turn, which is never good for a food item.

I get the idea behind it, and at least it makes sense (putting baked potato accouterments within a different potato-based vessel), but this isn’t a very appetizing way to pull it off. The space this occupies in-store could be replaced with a much more useful item.

Overall: 2/10. The idea behind this at least makes sense: swapping out the typical ingredients of a potato-based item for a different one (in this case, putting a loaded baked potato inside a potato salad), but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It all starts with the taste, which starts off okay, but then veers off into an artificial finish that is more off-putting than enticing. It also sits like a brick in the stomach for at least an hour after eating it, something that doesn't typically happen to me with other potato salads. Three days after eating this for the second time, my stomach turns at the mere thought of it, which means the rest is going in the trash can: never a “win” for a food product. Avoid this one like the plague.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Specially Selected Triple Layer Chocolate Cake (Aldi)

One glance is enough to make my mouth water...
You should never go to a supermarket when you’re hungry. That’s probably the #1 rule that everyone is taught before going grocery shopping for the first time. In fact, it’s probably the only rule that gets tossed around about supermarkets, because everyone’s pretty much trying to get the hell out of them as quickly as possible.

I have ignored this rule far too often than I would care to admit, and let me tell you, it’s every bit as terrible as the warnings indicate. It was in this mindset that I pretty much stared at this cake and drooled for damn near five minutes at an Aldi store a while back. Now I mentioned the hunger thing because cake is not something I normally need to have, generally because it’s too expensive for what you get (a whole lot of unnecessary sugar), but my stomach was ready for me to open it up and dive in right there. But I, a man of enormous willpower, managed to resist the temptation and leave the store without it.

Flash forward a couple nights later. My wife brought home a surprise, and guess what it was! This cake. Not being in the same mindset of hunger, I admit that I was less than enthused, and berated her for wasting money on something so completely unnecessary (it is, after all, $6.99). And yet I had to give it a taste. The cake wasn’t going to unpurchase itself, so I decided at that point that the only way to get our moneys’ worth was to dive in and eat it, no matter how average it may be.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. For starters, a lot of cakes feature icing that’s WAY too sweet, even for my tastes (and my tastes skewer towards sweet more than just about anyone I know), but this one has a perfectly rich, well-balanced flavor. It’s pretty sweet, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also balanced with a slight hint of bitterness, not to mention semi-sweet chocolate shavings, that really manage to help even things out. And the texture…oh God, the texture. It’s smooth, light, and ridiculously creamy…seriously, it’s a few steps above the frosting on most supermarket bakery cakes, which might not be saying much, but it's saying something. And considering how much cheaper it is compared to a vast majority of those, it says all that it needs to. Unfortunately, getting away from the icing and other accouterments, the cake itself is pretty average. It’s moist and chocolaty, sure, but it’s also really not much different than anything you could get out of a store-bought cake mix.

Which is a shame, because everything else is pretty outstanding.

Overall: 7.5/10. Though not a huge fan of cakes, this is one I can get behind. The cake itself is disappointingly average, but the frosting is the perfect balance of sweet-with-just-a-hint-of-bitter chocolate, and the accompanying semi-sweet chocolate shavings add to this flavor very nicely. But perhaps the only thing better than the icing’s flavor is its texture: You hear words like “silky” and “velvety” used to describe chocolate all the time in advertisements, but here, it’s actually applicable: It melts in your mouth, and threatens to be habit-forming. If you love chocolate cakes, or really just chocolate in general, this is one that you’ve pretty much got to check out, despite the $6.99 price tag.