Thursday, December 10, 2009

012.Bonne Maman Chestnut Spread

Produced in Biars-sur-Cere, France
Distributed by American Marketing Team, Bloomfield, New Jersey
Claim: none
Ingredients: sugar, chestnut puree, cane sugar, vanilla.
$2.41 ("clearance" price) for 13 ounces

Biars is a village in the Lot region of southwest France. It's apparently something of a ville de confitures - a jam town. Bonne Maman, in spite of its rustic packaging, is an internationally famous preserve. American Marketing Team is the same group who bring us the Jules Destrooper biscuits.

I can't remember where I got my first taste of creme de maron. Some patisserie somewhere, lathered onto a croissant or something. I do recall our first encounter with chestnuts: Toulouse, New Year's Eve, in the place du Capitole, watching dark, handsome gents - their black curls drifting out from under their black, Gascon berets - roast whole chestnuts over steel barrels banked with hot coals. The smell was caustic, invigorating, of an ancient regime.

Chestnut spread is not jam. More like apple butter, a bit grainy and not too terribly sweet. It has a nuttiness that's invaded by some other nuance - something perfumed, maybe. It's hard to peg. But it tastes wonderful on toast.

011.Verde Valle Frijo Mayocoba Peruano

Claim: “Mexico’s #1 Brand of Beans”

Ingredients: mayocoba beans

99 cents for 1 pound

I stopped by Las Americas last Friday after work to pick up some carnitas to go. The thick chunks of pork shoulder, poached gently in a vat of their own fat, remind me of the duck confit of southwest France. It is a flavor I crave, often with a vengeance.

While there, I did a little shopping. (Las Americas is also a grocer.) It's enormous fun for me, strolling the aisles in search of nothing, led by a curiosity and a vague sense of recognition. I bought some McCormick strawberry ("Fresa") jam, some Guerrero tostadas - fried, whole tortillas, stacked in cellophane - a jug of Jumex mango nectar for the lads and a one-pound bag of green beans.

Not those green beans - whole, dried shell beans, similar in shape to pintos but clearly green-yellow in color, even through the murky package under dim light. This is the kind of stuff that drives the Aisles Project. What could these oddly-colored beans be? Aren't beans reddish brown, black or white?

I took them home and got them soaking, then went online and found a story that told not only of the bean's South American ancestry, but also of a tidy little turf war being waged in the name of the mayocoba. Here 'tis.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

010.Pride of Szeged Rib Rub

Produced (most likely) in Szeged, Hungary
Distributed by Spiceo, Avenel, New Jersey
Claim: “The World’s Best Seasoning” and "Always Fresh"
Ingredients: salt, paprika, garlic, mustard, sugar and spices.
$3.47 for 5 ounces

I seized on this one in a hurry, it being something of a rogue on the spice shelves, where most rubs hail from Texas or, oddly, New Jersey. (Distribution-wise, anyway. Jersey seems a popular point of embarkation for non-perishable anything.)

Szeged is the fourth-largest city in Hungary. There are names for Szeged in at least 10 other languages: Bulgarian, Croatian, German, Italian, Latin, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak and Turkish. The Hungarian coat of arms adorns the tin. Above the logo is an illustration of a very brow-furrowed, spotted pig.

Most of what I know about Hungary I learned from Eva Gabor playing Lisa Douglas. So, next to nothing. I don't really think of Hungary when I think of ribs — hungry, maybe — and I'm thinking that the raison d'etre for this rub is the paprika. Paprika being the house spice — and something for which Hungary is quite renowned — they just added some salt, sugar and stuff and labeled it rub for the Yanks.

Don't know if anybody's buying it. The bottom of my tin has rust bits around the edge. The way it's labeled, you get the feeling just saying "Pride of Szeged" is enough to convince folks, though I wonder how many souls roaming the aisles half-mindedly at Reasor's on a given Sunday know, off the tops of their rib-starved heads, the name of the fourth-largest city in Hungary. I mean, to the point of the label not at least saying Hungary. Ballsy.

As to the packaging — because I haven't taken Szeged out for a spin yet, ribs-wise, I got little else to talk about — the plastic lid is like an iron curtain, with a T-shaped seal that I had to dig out with my teeth in order to get a taste. Pride of Szeged tastes, well, salty.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

009.Cafe Du Monde Beignet Mix French Doughnuts

Produced in New Orleans
Claim: "Original French Market Coffee Stand"
Ingredients: Enriched wheat flour, enriched barley flour, milk, buttermilk, salt, sugar, leavening (baking powder, baking soda, and/or yeast), natural and artificial flavoring.
$2.99 for 28 ounces

Found this mix on the top shelf on the baking aisle, above the other flours. (Top shelf in a grocery store and top shelf at a well-stocked bar, of course, reflect quite different strategies.) I bought it because of the line drawing of Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square that towers in the background. It and other memories of the Big N.O. the box evoked.

Beignets, tradition goes, are an Acadian creation. Proper beignets, according to the box, are fried in cottonseed oil, flavored with powdered sugar and served alongside a cafe au lait. They are nothing more than a doughnut and must be prepared as deftly.

Hubert Fernandez bought the Cafe Du Monde from Fred Koeniger in 1942. Since, the Fernandez family has franchised more than 50 cafe locations, all of them in Japan. (Another handful of cafes are scattered about the New Orlean's metro area.)

The franchising page of the Web site carries on almost apologetic, we-told-you-so tone about it, meant to warn people off the apparently dodgy idea of bringing another Du Monde into the world. Invariably, the warning goes, such bright ideas are usually borne after a morning's coffee and beignets among hordes of tourists dropping dollars on doughnuts.

"Each Cafe Du Monde Coffee Stand," it goes, "has required a substantial capital outlay that the Fernandez family has been able to shoulder because of its business diversification over the years. Part of the Fernandez family's reluctance to franchise is that an individual would be ill prepared to shoulder the financial risk of opening an unsuccessful Cafe Du Monde. We do not wish to place another family in this position."

I brightened the boys' Cheerio morning by telling them beignets were on the rise. They dug them whole-heartedly, each wolfing four apiece. (They'd eat each other, I believe, if dredged extravagantly enough in powdered sugar.) The box instructs the cook to roll out the dough to one-eighth inch. My first go with beignets proved that more like a sixteenth is required to get the dough to puff. Most of my beignets fell rather flat.

And so, hence, my attempt to cook up a lost memory.

Friday, November 27, 2009

008.Colman's Double Superfine Mustard Powder

Produced by Colman's of Norwich
Distributed by Van den Bergh Foods, location mysterious
Claim: "Original English."
$3.29 for 2 ounces
Ingredients: mustard flour.

"By appointment to Her Majesty The Queen," the famous yellow tin leads from the top, just under the royal logo, "Van den Bergh Foods Ltd. Suppliers of Margarines, Low Fat Spreads, Mustards and Sauces."

Van den Bergh is a massive American food conglomerate launched in Lisle, Illinois, then gobbled up by Unilever. Van den Bergh has a plant, if not a headquarters, in Atlanta. It marries with the "appointment" text like tea and Boston Harbor water.

I am a sucker for old English foodstuffs that travel well — treacle, pickled walnuts, bitter ale, spicy gin, Worcestershire sauce, Twinings, etc. It's part of the colonial need for food preservation, which has a very bombastic aspect to it, historically, but in posterity seems nearly quaint. Plus, I love the tins.

Colman's was established in 1814 by Jeremiah Colman at Stoke Holy Cross. It's a blend of two mustard seeds, Brassica juncea (brown) and Sinapis alba (white), ground to form a pale yellow powder. Blended with water, its powers are released.

I buy Colman's because the odd brandade or braise will occasionally call for it. It's never occurred to me to actually prepare my own mustard from powder. Colman's is said to have a fairly fiery tone about it. But, then, I eat Dijon forte off my fingers, so hot may be relative.

007.Congelli Caramel Custard

Product of Mexico
Distributed by Vilore Foods Co., Laredo, Texas
Ingredients: sugar, corn starch, carrageenan, corn syrup, inverted sugar, water, iodized salt, caramel coloring, artificial flavoring, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40 Lake (preservatives: sodium benzoate, sodium propionate).
$0.99 for 6 ounces

When I told the lads we had Congelli for dessert, they said, "Yeah! … What is it!"

It's flan. Of course, I didn't tell them that. "It's Congelli!" I shouted in kind, and showed them the box. I told them it was like pudding.

Boxes of Congelli sit on the Mexican food shelf next to the Virgin Mary candles and corn starches. If Bill Cosby were Guillermo Cozbi, he'd have pushed Congelli. Maybe.

Congelli — congealed is a good name for this stuff - is a faster-than-lightning flan you cook stovetop with some milk. (Congelli is packaged in powdered form.) You top it with a caramel sauce that comes in a little pouch. It's got some funky ingredients, to be sure, among them carrageenan, though it's got more bark than bit. (Cooks have been using carrageenan, a natural seaweed thickener, for years.)

Jonas didn't like the the mouthfeel of Congelli; Lucas changed his mind and never even tried it. Me, I don't trust products that can't get the logo type in register during printing. For those reasons and more, Congelli may be custard's last stand.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

006.Jules Destrooper Virtuoso Belgian Chocolate Covered Cinnamon Biscuits

Produced in Lo, Belgium

Distributed by American Marketing Team, Bloomfield, New Jersey

Claim: “Purveyor to the Belgian Royal Household”

Ingredients: chocolate (60%) (sugar, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, cocoa mass, dextrose, emulsifier: lecithin), wheat flour, brown sugar, butter, eggs, sugar syrup, leavening: sodium bicarbonate, salt, cinnamon.

$2.95 for a 3.52-ounce box

"Reminds me of a Heath bar," chimed my missus, noting the shape and snap of the chocolate-coated ("enrobed," the Web site terms it) Virtuoso. But in lieu of a thin, crunchy toffee within it's a thinner, crispy cinnamon cookie.

The box contains 12 cookies. Nowhere is this on the box. Is that typical? I don't buy many cookies. At 24.5 cents per, I doubt I'll be buying many more of these.

In fact, it isn't the price that spooks me – and I adore the elegantly designed box, which stands as an invitation to a place of cobblestones and gnomes but, I'm sure, is a street (Gravestraat 5, to be precise) paved with more industrial passions – it's the chocolate.

Jules Destrooper began selling a crispy almond thin in 1886. It's hard to expect companies with such history to turn the boat around, given the inertia of success, but I should think this product could benefit from a less indifferent chocolate. It's 60-percent cacao, so says the box, but tastes as milk-chocolate as any candy bar I can imagine. It's not bad – it's just that I don't look to Belgium for not bad when it comes to chocolate (though I am learning).

What they do have is a bevy of enticing desserts that employ Destrooper's range of biscuits along the edges, like garnish.