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.

005.Oregon Fruit Products Gooseberries in Light Syrup

Distributed in Salem, Oregon

Claim: “Packed at Its Peak”

Ingredients: gooseberries, water and sugar

$2.35 for a 15-ounce can

After an extremely sappy poem, of all things, that begs for a gooseberry pie recipe (she’s 88 and used to get it off the label), the copy on the can reads, “Not to worry Mrs. B., we are glad to help you dazzle your friends and family with the best-darn pie in Tulsa.”

It directs said B to the inside label where, sure enough, a pie how-to is printed. As impressed as I am by two-sided printing, I am even moreso by the guerilla marketing employed by Oregon Fruit canners. There can't be many Tulsa bakers are zeroing in on the darnedest gooseberry pie ever, but Oregon don't care.

Less impressed am I by the flavor. A gooseberry – a relative of the currant, somehow – is one of those fruits that require some assistance to be palatable. If you add sugar to strawberries, prepare to overwhelm your gooseberries, 'cause you'll have to sugar them like you salt a slug in order to get a reaction. They are some tart little monsters.

Gooseberries have this little seed at the end that needs either to be chomped or spit. The can smells of pickling. The berries are mushy and somewhat sad. I don't know if this is the berry or the canning. I suspect the latter but the former can't be far behind.

The gooseberry's claim to fame is an English dessert called fool. Anybody can make a fool – you just fold cooked, strained fruit into whipped cream – and, anymore, any fruit can be fooled. But, thank Devon, it's the gooseberry what started it all.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

004.Lea & Perrins Thick Classic Worcestershire Sauce

Made by Lea & Perrins, Inc., Fair Lawn, New Jersey
Claim: "Same premium quality since 1835"
$2.87 for a 10-ounce bottle
Ingredients: distilled white vinegar, tomato puree (tomato paste, water), Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce concentrate (distilled white vinegar, onions, anchovies, salt, garlic, tamarind concentrate, water, cloves, natural flavorings, chili pepper extract), high fructose corn syrup, molasses, modified corn starch, roasted onion puree (onions, high maltose corn syrup, salt), roasted garlic puree (garlic, high maltose corn syrup), xanthum gum.
Best by: 03/28/2011.

The Aisles Project does not shy from the classics. Sometimes, in spite of their often centuries of doing business, some products fall out of the buyer's periphery. We look at them, then through them, thinking we know all there is to know.

You may or may not know that it was aging – then in glass jars, on a neglected shelf of failed efforts; now in wooden casks, like a single malt Scotch or a vinaigre de Jerez – that gives the sauce of John Lea and William Perrins, Broad Street, Worcester, England, it's complexity and savor. The secret to the success is no secret. It is a marriage of good things over time.

"Contains Anchovies," reads a piece of bold type under Lea & Perrins Thick ingredients list, for some kind of emphasis, in the way typical of a disclaimer. To me, it reads like a sales pitch. Anchovies aging in a wooden barrel recalls the Roman garum, the earliest fish sauce, used to season just about everything the Romans could sink their teeth into. Anchovies, vinegar, molasses, tomato puree, roasted garlic … Worcestershire is nothing more than one big umami bomb.

The distilled white vinegar and the corn syrup are American intrusions. (The English version subs malt vinegar and sugar.) This thick version came out in late summer. It's hotter than I recall the thin version to be, which could be a nod toward edgier palates numbed somewhat over the last half-century by salsas and, in England's case, decades of fiery curries. (Dart-throwing, lager-tipping Keith Talent, of Martin Amis' London Fields being by far the most insatiable of that staple.)

Taste for the tamarind. It's palpable. It's that super tangy-sweet explosion at the end.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

003.Choc 'Last Laugh' American White Ale

Choc Beer Company
Produced in Krebs, Oklahoma
Claim: "The Tradition Continues"
$7.99, before taxes, for six 12-ounces bottles
5% alcohol by volume (4.9 b
Ingredients: malted barley, malted and unmalted red wheat, American Cascade and Centennial hops, Indian coriander.

And water, presumably.

"Malt beverage brewed with coriander seed," reads the fine print. The style of American White is a curious one. It's essentially an Americanized version of the classic Belgian white style, of which Hoegaarden and, later, Austin-based Celis White are two hallmarks (both, by the way, the product of Pierre Celis; Celis White is now part of the Michigan Brewing Company arsenal).

I don't normally buy beer at Reasor's but steak would soon get cooking, as would the Yanks and Phils, and the cupboard was bare.

Note the 5 percent alcohol by volume. That's above the legal limit (3.2) that Oklahoma grocers are allowed to sell. I can't imagine that Choc is brewing both a liquor shop and grocery version of its ales. But I'll check.

"Last Laugh" is a somewhat pale version of the style. Admittedly, the bar was set high by Hoegaarden. The Choc beer has little of the bouquet of its model, and only a hint of the intense flavor. An unfiltered wheat beer, Belgian white has a somewhat tart acidity mellowed by fruity esters. It's head tends toward pure white and the body is an opaque yellow. Choc's forms little head and remains, for the most part, clear.

As for the alcohol, I drank about two and half bottles and was well enough within my capacities to realize that the Yankees had an answer for just about everything the Phillies threw at them. Namely Johnny Damon.

The "tradition continues" line is a storyline developed by Choc to sell its rather interesting back story. Pietro Piegari – later to become Pete Prichard – went to jail twice in the 1930s for selling ale out of his Krebs restaurant, Pete's Place. While the food has edged toward pedestrian over the years, the brewery at Krebs – in the hands of brewmaster Michael Lalli – has grown in stature and recognition. It's Signature Dubbel, a Belgian Abbey ale, won gold at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival.