Friday, November 15, 2019

Chef Ernesto Battered Mushrooms (Dollar Tree)

These are pretty good for what they are...dollar-store mushrooms. (source: ChooseVeg)

I do not like mushrooms all that much, but I do like revisiting such foods every once in a while, just to see if (or how) my tastes have changed. In this case, my acceptance of mushrooms was precipitated by having a bowl of mushroom soup at a fancy restaurant a couple of years ago…the broth the soup was cooked in was so rich and creamy that even when I got to the huge chunks of mushroom at the bottom, I eagerly slurped them down like a homeless man at a soup kitchen. 

A lot of people are turned off by the texture--mushrooms are, after all, often incredibly slimy--but that’s never really bothered me so much as the taste. I just do not like the earthiness, and don’t feel like it pairs well with many things. But then the alternative to a slimy mushroom, like the dry ones offered as a topping at many pizza chains, are too dry, and feel like the equivalent of eating wood shards.

I first caught a glimpse of Chef Ernesto’s Battered Mushrooms a while ago at Dollar Tree. I saw the box, probably made a disgusted face, and then moved on, without contemplating them or giving them so much as another glance. But lately, thanks to my wife who likes to stay away from meat as much as possible, I have a newfound appreciation for vegetarian foods; after trying Chef Ernesto’s Veggie Burgers and absolutely loving them, all of a sudden the mushrooms started looking better and better with each passing trip. Finally, I grabbed them.

The first thing that shocked me were the size and portion of the mushrooms. Given the fact I only paid a dollar, I was expecting small pieces of mushroom outcasts that would have otherwise ended up in the trash can had Chef Ernesto himself not saved them from certain doom. But I was shocked to see that many of them were about the same size you would get if ordered as an appetizer at a restaurant. Beyond that, you get quite a bit of them…easily enough for two people (though the four servings per box allotted on the nutrition label is a bit of a stretch), making it the perfect size for an appetizer.

Cooking was quick and easy: pop them in an oven preheated to 350, wait about ten minutes, and you’re good to go. Honestly, they didn’t get as crisp in the oven as I was expecting after the allotted time, so we broiled them for a couple minutes. That helped a little bit, but there was still no noticeable “crunch”. Maybe I’m just expecting too much from dollar-store mushrooms, but it's still worth mentioning.

Right out of the oven, the first thing I noticed just how greasy they are, which is kind of humorous, considering the back of the box touts them as a “healthy snack” (every 2 oz. serving contains 25% of your daily fat content and 18% sodium, so I wouldn‘t buy that at all). Still, they looked pretty inviting, and I was looking forward to digging in. Since I’m not a fan of mushroom as a rule, I decided to “enhance” the flavor by dipping them in buttermilk ranch dressing (adding to the healthiness).

Wow. I have to say that the combination was very close to restaurant quality. Of course, we’re not talking a high-end restaurant, but if you’ve ever had fried mushrooms from a bar and grill, these will more than likely remind you of those, and for a fraction of the price. Now, keep in mind that this is with the addition of ranch; without it, the combination is somewhat bland: the batter really doesn’t add too much flavor, and as we all know, mushrooms aren’t the tastiest things in the world on their own. But dipping them really took them to a whole ‘nother level, to the extent that I would definitely get these again. Color me impressed.

Another side note: they sit heavy on the stomach. I already felt ten pounds heavier after only eating a few, so these would not make a good appetizer or side for a heavy meal--the grease really does do a number on you. But hey, at least there's no cholesterol! That has to count for something.

Overall: 7/10. I’m not a big fan of mushrooms, but for some reason really wanted to try these. On their own, they’re a little boring (as mushrooms tend to be), but after dipping them in some ranch to enhance the flavor, it really took them to the next level; taste wise, I would seriously say these are close to restaurant quality (low-end restaurant, but restaurant nonetheless). The batter really doesn’t add much flavor, and doesn’t even get that crispy in the oven, but somehow it‘s good enough. You also get quite a bit for a dollar, so there's some value in spades. The main drawback is the grease...there's so much of it, that these really sit heavy in the stomach after only a couple, making it more suited as a snack or accompaniment to a lighter meal. This also relegates it to a very infrequent buy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Little Journey Organics Apple Pear Spinach Baby Food Puree (Aldi)

Not nearly as disgusting as you'd fact, it's quite good.
Are there any combinations of fruit and veggies that those freaks at Little Journey Organics won’t blend together and put out for sale? There have been some real good, straightforward ones (apple banana strawberry, for example), but then every once in a while they seem to get a little bored, and force things together that shouldn’t be combined at all (who’s swell idea was it to put prune in any of these?!) Would apple pear spinach fall into that category? Or, against all odds, would it actually be palatable?

I’m convinced that this is about as perfect as a combination of these fruits and vegetables, in their natural form, can be. Yes, there are “fruit and veggie” juices out there that add in juices and purees from all kinds of vegetables, but those are generally sweetened to the point that you can’t even tell there is any vegetable concentrate in it at all. This is just straight up apple, pear, and spinach purees, with no added sugars or sweeteners (take that back, there is “lemon juice concentrate”, but those are in all of these varieties, so it's probably used for added tartness).

The end result is…surprisingly neutral in flavor, with neither the fruit or vegetable flavors "winning" by overpowering the other. There is a little bit of sweetness from the apple, which is immediately negated by some tartness from the pear, and it’s finished off by the savory spinach, which brings it all full circle, taking it back into unsweet territory. It never becomes too sweet or too tart, or too “spinachy”…it’s combined at the perfect amount to make it as palatable as possible for everyone. Even if you hate spinach—unless you have an absurd sensitivity to the flavor, or see the packaging nearby—you probably won’t even notice it’s there.

This is fantastic, and a solid flavor that might even be a good way to introduce baby to vegetables and tastes that aren't overly sweet. Also, like many of the other Little Journey Organics pouches, this one has a great amount of vitamin C (150%) which makes it even better. And at $.79 per 4 oz. pouch? For an organic baby product? I don't think you're going to find anything similar for under a dollar anywhere else.

Overall: 7.5/10. It's about as good as a natural combination of all three titular tastes can be, as the flavors run a complete lap around your tastebuds: There's the sweetness of the apple, which is then neutralized by the tartness of the pear, which is then canceled out by the “savory” spinach. The end flavor is...completely neutral, with no lingering tastes of any of them. That can be a good thing, as even those with a hatred for spinach will probably be able to tolerate this, and maybe even (subconsciously?) get acclimated to it. The usual praises of products in the Little Journey Organics line (high vitamin C content, all organic ingredients except for added vitamin C, $.79 per 4 oz. pouch) still apply here, making it an incredible value on top of a surprisingly great taste.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Benton's Delights The Original Triple Chocolate Australian Cookie (Aldi)

I may have to take up heroin just to quit these.
I think I've mentioned before that I enjoy trying things from other countries that Aldi carries. Yes, most of them are probably “Americanized” to some degree, but it's still a fun way to try some flavor combinations that I otherwise wouldn't really be interested in trying. It's resulted in some weird things (Deutsche Kuche's Peanut Puffs), some terrible things (Deutsche Kuche's Dominoes), and some good things (Journey to Greece Rosemary and Feta Kettle Chips), but no matter the outcome, I like to think that I'm a better man for having tried the experience.

And so I hesitated only momentarily when I saw Benton's Delights on the shelves of our newly-remodeled Aldi store. A triple chocolate cookie? I'm in. An Australian triple-chocolate cookie? Why, how would that be any different from the junk food that lines our own supermarket shelves? I also noticed the price: $1.99. Seemed a little expensive for some cookies that would probably be pretty standard, but I wanted something sweet, and these were in the right place at the right time. My wife's surprising indifference to them (she's usually more into these kinds of things than I am, and didn't care if we got them at all) gave me yet another moment's pause for thought; I quickly swiped away all doubts and added them to the cart.

Intrigued, and more than a little hungry, I cracked these open the moment I got into my wife's brand new (well, to her) 2013 Nissan Murano. I popped one in my mouth, knowing exactly what to expect...and I got it. And then some.

Holy mother of shit these things are ridiculously delicious. Have you ever had a product that you swear was made solely for you? That's what these cookies are to me. In case you are unfamiliar (as I was before seeing them for the first time), these consist of a cocoa cookie, filled with cocoa creme, and covered in a layer of milk chocolate on the outside. But even though I like chocolate, there are a large number of ways such an overly chocolated product can miss the mark: being too sweet, or having overly cheap, plasticky chocolate are but two of them. Benton's cookies avoid both of those issues, at least as far as my palate is concerned: they're sweet, no doubt, but to me, the semi-sweet cocoa helps to neutralize the rich, melty extra-sweet milk chocolate layer that finishes everything off, effectively preventing it from being too overbearing. (As a counterpoint, my wife did not share the same affection for these as I did, even challenging my own viewpoint by simply saying they were “too sweet”; she's wrong.)

The appearance of the cookie reminds me of double-stacked chocolate covered graham crackers, with an initial taste that's reminiscent of those, before the layer of crème filling adds another dimension of richness. A serving size is two cookies, which might seem a little small on paper, but considering these cookies are actually pretty big, and considering how much chocolate is packed into each one, that will turn out to be just the right amount for most.

The only drawback is that each 7 oz. package has an odd 11 cookies inside, meaning someone's either going to have to sacrifice one cookie from a serving size, or someone else is going to have to eat an extra one. And I'd be pissed if I was the one in the former position.

Overall: 10/10. Dear Lord this just might be an example of a perfect mass-produced cookie, courtesy of our Australian friends. A cocoa cookie is covered in milk chocolate with a layer of chocolate crème in the middle: on paper, sounds like a chocolate overdose...and it is. But it's an overload in the best way possible: the semi-sweetness of the cocoa helps to taper the headstrong sweetness of the milk chocolate coating, perfectly balancing things out. I like cookies and chocolate—there's no doubt about that—but I generally have no problems bypassing them at the store, or limiting myself to one or two pieces when I do get the craving for one. These, though, rank right up there with thin mints and peanut butter cups as examples of sweets that almost possess me once I eat one, forcing me to continue eating them until I either get sick of them, or run out. And at $1.99 for an 11-count package (the odd number being the only true complaint), it's an addiction that's sadly all-too-affordable.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Moiselle Sparkling Moscato Wine (Aldi)

If you like "sparkling" and "sweet" in your wine, then you're probably going to love this.
I like me some occasional wine, but it has to be sweet, or else I’m not interested. If it’s sweet and sparkling, however, then sign me up instantly! Aldi has carried the Moiselle line of wines for quite some time now, consisting of pink and white Moscatos, but we had never noticed their sparkling Moscato offering until recently. Retailing for a mere $5.99 in Ohio (price may vary elsewhere), we just knew we had to try it…and I'm certainly glad we did.

My nose cannot differentiate aromas professionally at all (hell, it frequently has problems detecting anything at all), so please forgive me when I describe the smell as being “similar to just about every other Moscato I’ve ever sniffed". It does smell crisp and inviting; the bottle alludes to "flavors of pineapple and other tropical fruits"…I’m not sure I can specifically detect any of those on the nose, but there’s certainly an enticing, lingering sweetness present. The “sparkling” description is strongly evident right from the pour, as this has a lot of bubbles that's reminiscent of pouring a soda out of a two liter...that’s how many bubbles accumulate at the top. We had this wine for about a week before finishing it off, and expected it to be flat by the last glass; much to our surprise, even the last glass we poured had plenty of bubbles in it. It wasn’t quite as exaggerated as it was after the first couple of days, but there was still a noticeable bit of carbonation on the tongue, which I thought was impressive, considering we had no way to completely seal it back up.

The taste, though, is where this is at. This might be my favorite wine that I’ve ever tried from the German discount superstore. It’s sweet, but never manages to be overly so, and finishes with a little bit of dryness that acts as the perfect balancing component. The tropical flavors dance on the tongue, and immediately made my mouth water; I couldn’t wait to down some more. I usually have no problems stopping after a glass or two of any wine, but I could easily down this entire bottle (and maybe one more) all in one sitting with absolutely no problems (besides maybe a headache afterwards). Quady’s Electra is by far my favorite dessert wine, and while this doesn’t come all that close to matching it in terms of taste (it is a completely different kind of wine, after all), the flavor profile strikes me as very similar, while the price is a third less.

Surprisingly, the wife and I haven’t tried any of the other Moiselle offerings, but just based on this one, we are eager to check out the rest. That is, if we can even bring ourselves to give any of the others a shot, instead of just loading up on these every time we go. It’s an excellent-tasting sweet wine, for a very excellent price.

Overall: 9/10. When it says it’s “sparkling”, it’s not lying: pouring a glass of this is strongly reminiscent of pouring a cup of soda from a two-liter bottle. So many bubbles accumulated at the top of the glass that I even had to wait for them to subside to finish pouring. There were even bubbles (though not as many) a week after we opened the bottle, which was very surprising to us, considering we had no way to seal it up between servings. The taste itself is absolutely phenomenal, though; a magnificent blend of tropical fruit sweetness with just a little hint of dryness in the finish, which prevents this from being too cloying. And at 9% ABV, there's a decent amount of alcohol to be had, too, making it a good wine to pair with food, or just as an after-dinner treat. We haven't tried a whole lot of their offerings, but this one might have become our go-to Aldi wine.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Clancy's Stackerz Cheddar Cheese Potato Crisps (Aldi)

Tastes as cheap as the cardboard packaging feels.
Aldi has carried the name brand potato crisp snack for quite a while now; so long, in fact, that I have completely started ignoring them. That's one problem I've been noticing with Aldi recently, and that's that they are slowly giving in to more and more “mainstream” American supermarket staples, such as having an increased number of name brands taking up their aisles. I know in the past, they have gone on record saying that the only name brands they consistently carried (special buys excluded) were products they couldn't find a suitable private label alternative for, which is admirable. But lately, in some cases (such as with their excellent "Infuse" sports drink line), the national brand product has actually replaced their own store versions. I read the reasoning for that is that some customers are loyal to certain brands, so Aldi wanted to become more of a "one-stop shop" by including these items in their inventory, to dissuade people from going somewhere else. I get it, and I guess that's smart business, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. And I don't.

Anyway, the Aldi version of the canned chip is called Stackerz. No, that's not a typo, that's just the sign of an out-of-touch company trying to seem “hip” and “cool” in today's millennial-dominated world, another cue Aldi is apparently taking from the competition. There's also something I don't like about the can, and it has nothing to do with the picture of two chips—complete with sunglasses and facial features—sunbathing; in fact, I must admit to finding that picture kind of humorous. Instead, I find the cans to look—unappealing. I don't know if it's the muted, boringcolors they use; or the sloppy, cheap way that the label seems put on, with seams clearly visible in some cans; or the way it feels like it could just fall apart in your hands from the slightest touch; or a combination of all three, but everything about it screams "low quality" to me. It's rare that packaging to a product turns me off to the actual product, but I have to say that this is one of them.

Before I get down to the nitty-gritty, let me preface this by saying DO NOT EXPECT THIS to be a knockoff of the national brand that starts with a “P” and rhymes with “shingles”. I made that mistake, since that's the name brand I was alluding to in the opening sentence of this review, and was rather put-off by the difference in taste and texture. Actually, don't expect it to be a knockoff of anything—I have seen others say that it's more a knockoff of the other name-brand knockoff—the one that starts with “S” and rhymes with “racks”--but I don't even think that's the case. The cheese here tastes old to me, and not in a delicious “aged cheddar” kind of way, but in a “let's just get rid of some expired cheese” kind of way. The texture is also a ways off: the name brands almost melt in your mouth, while these seem thicker and almost grainy as you chew them. It's really an undesirable experience all around, which is a shame, because I'd get these pretty often if the quality was even remotely in the same ballpark as the brands it's ripping off.

The price point ($.99 per 5.5 oz tube) is okay, but you can generally get the (rhymes with) “racks” brand for around the same price; and while those aren't nearly as good as  the (rhymes with)“shingles” brand, either option is still loads better than this. Even our two year old son, who eats pretty much anything, won't touch these things; that might say even more about them than my own personal opinion.

Overall: 2/10. The score feels a little harsh, but I can't think of anything all that positive about the experience of eating these; in fact, on the rare occasions I've bought them, I don't think we've ever finished off a whole can. The packaging looks and feels cheap (minus the semi-cute and slightly humorous picture on the front), the chip's texture is way off, and it tastes like a mix of salt, and post-expiration cheddar cheese. The $.99 price tag might be its sole saving grace, but it's still not even enough to make it worth a purchase. One of the worst products I've had the misfortune of eating in quite a while from an Aldi store. Given their propensity for pulling their own private label brands off the shelves in favor of national brands lately, I can't see why these are still on store shelves.