Friday, August 19, 2011

Review: Hodgson Mill Brownie Mix

My mother has recently commenced a super-healthy, vegan, vitamin-supplemented diet due to some health issues, and it's got me thinking a lot about what we should be putting into our bodies. A lot of people confuse a "healthy" diet with products that are low-fat, fat-free, sugar-free, low-calorie, or otherwise "diet" or "lite." This truly is not the case, and I'm surprised, with all of the good press now out about raw and whole food diets, that this confusion still happens.

My mother and I define healthy food as food in its most raw, unprocessed form--fruits, vegetables, and grains, but also sugars and fats. At home, we drink full-fat raw milk and use raw cane sugar and agave nectar to sweeten coffee, plain yogurt, etc. Counting calories is important in some cases, but what is really crucial is thinking about where your food comes from, how it is being processed, and how that processing is affecting our health, the environment, and the economy. Other people have written manifestos on this topic, so I won't here. (Please refer yourself to anything written by Michael Pollan, and check out Jamie Oliver's food revolution.)

I am a proponent of the idea that junk food should be junk food. If you're going to have sweets, have the full-fat, full-sugar, full-flavored variety and just eat it more infrequently, and less of it. But I'm also curious about "healthier" junk food--not junk food that is low in calorie, but which rather substitutes more raw, whole, unprocessed ingredients for the typical white sugar and flour. My first investigatory efforts are with brownie mixes. Can gluten-free, whole wheat, cane sugar, even black bean brownies stand up to Duncan Hines?

Hodgson Mill's Brownie Mix was my first experiment. This dry mix contains just five ingredients: turbinado sugar, whole wheat pastry flour, cocoa, milled flax seed, and salt. The added wet ingredients are eggs, oil, and butter.

The verdict: these brownies have great real chocolate flavor; they definitely didn't skimp on the cocoa. They are, however, incredibly coarse, dense, and filling. I felt like I had ingested one of those science fictiony, Willy Wonka whole-meal-in-one-bite things. With whole wheat flour and flax seed, it may as well be a meal substitute bar. They were better warm and gooey than cold. The wheat flavor and course texture were more noticeable once they had cooled. My fiance didn't like them, but one of our more health-conscious, vegetarian friends did. I think this dessert is good as long as you know what you're getting yourself into. If you expect whole-grain and healthy, you won't be disappointed. But if you're expecting ooey-gooey Duncan Hines, you'll have a sad reality check.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Vietnamese Cuisine: Bánh Mì

My first date with my now fiancé was at a local Vietnamese restaurant. Laid back, BYOB, and gourmet or simple depending on your mood, it's still one of our favorite places. We usually order rice vermicelli bowls because they're one of the cheapest entrees.

The dish, in Vietnamese, is bún thịt nướng, and consists of grilled meat and rice vermicelli noodles over a bed of greens and bean sprouts. The bowl can be topped with chopped egg rolls, spring onions, and peanuts, and is served with a side of nước chấm, a basic term for a thin dipping sauce that often includes vinegar, fish sauce, and sugar. The dish bursts with flavor, primarily because Vietnamese cuisine often attempts a balance among five "spices" (spicy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet) and five colors (white, green, yellow, red, black) which correspond to the five elements. The grilled meat is salty and rich, the greens and bean sprouts are fresh and crunchy, and the sauce is tangy and sweet.

Other Vietnamese specialties include phở, a dish similar to rice vermicelli bowls, but in soup form, and, the actual subject of this post, bánh mì. The bánh mì is the delicious result of French colonialism in southeast Asia; the French brought baguettes, mayonnaise, and pâté, and someone combined them with traditional Vietnamese ingredients like the ones described above. This new creation, a hearty sandwich filled with cold cuts or roasted meat, cilantro, peppers, pickled carrots, fish sauce, and even noodles, has become one of the most globally marketable Vietnamese dishes because of its ease of preparation and consumption.

You can watch Anthony Bourdain sample one of these authentic Vietnamese hoagies here, and this article explains how the sandwich is quickly taking over the once mighty panini's fifteen minutes of fame. Europe is so last decade: bring on Asia!

A new Vietnamese cafe recently opened within walking distance of my fiancé's apartment. This shop, owned by the same family as the first restaurant, concentrates on easier, takeout Vietnamese fare: phở, bánh mìs, noodle bowls, egg rolls, and the ever confusing bubble tea. On our first visit, which won't be our last, we ordered jicama rolls, bún thịt nướng (noodle bowl) and a pork bánh mì. The rolls were served with a rich peanut sauce, and we added sriracha and hoisin sauces to our entrees. The service was a bit slow because the shop is still new, and they've decorated their walls with chintzy LED light strings, but I loved the new venture into Vietnamese cuisine. Need more bánh mì!

Monday, May 9, 2011


School is over. Sleep and square meals have meaning again. Today I went to Wegmans, 30+ minutes away, just because I had the time. I didn't need anything in particular. It's just there. I always look like a nut when I go to supermarkets like this, because I rarely shop with a list, and today I was furtively snapping photos with my iPod, so even if customers didn't think I looked weird meandering the aisles, the employees probably thought I was from a competing grocery chain doing secretive research. At any rate, no one stopped me, and here are some of the shots I took.

Grocery shopping, for me, is like going to an art museum. I see the ingredients I read about in magazines and marvel at their celebrity. Granted, many negative things have come from the celebration of food in this country, but the items in the spotlight are equivalent to Top 40 pop music: gaudy, saccharine, and pre-packaged. I go to Wegmans to look at real art in the form of beautiful raw ingredients: Dutch cheeses, smoked salmon, wildflower honey, whole grains, artichokes, clotted cream, Irish butter. This is the real celebration of food. I came home with riccioli pasta, pomodoro sauce, and the smallest block I could find of parmigiano reggiano to combine for lunch. Delicious.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Siggi's Yogurt

 My grocery shopping and eating habits encompass both frugality and excess. I love finding good deals, especially on unique ingredients and local restaurants, but I am also tempted by luxury. With some exceptions, the principle that "you get what you pay for" is usually true of food. Higher prices often mean greater quality; therefore, sometimes I buy food simply because it's more expensive. Paying a higher price often means you're supporting a privately owned enterprise instead of a huge corporation, too, and I definitely believe in supporting entrepreneurs and local business. Sometimes though, like today, I am entranced by the sheer hedonism of a particular food product.

I was rushed in the supermarket this morning, trying to pick up coffee (necessity) and lunch before racing to school, but I hadn't eaten breakfast. As I passed the organic dairy aisle on my way to pick up my beloved Annie Chun's noodle bowl, I spotted yogurt. Perfect. But as I reached for some 89-cent soy yogurt (already kind of expensive, but after Europe, I don't mess around with yogurt), a new product caught my eye: Siggi's Icelandic style skyr, strained non-fat yogurt. It was $1.99 for 2 ounces. I had to have it. The astronomical price proved its quality.

It comes in a gorgeous little paper container with a peel-off silver foil top. Whoever designed this creamy white, streamlined image was a genius. It practically reeks of purity. As you can see in the image, the packaging states clearly what it does NOT contain: basically, anything fake and/or otherwise nasty. The ingredients? Absolutely natural. My vanilla-flavored cup contained skim milk, agave nectar, Madagascar bourbon vanilla, live active cultures, and vegetable rennet.

The texture was unbelievably thick and coated my mouth instantly. It was very lightly sweetened and very tangy. Flecks of vanilla bean were clearly visible. The overwhelming combination of these factors made me stop halfway through and come back to it. I compare it to Greek yogurt, as it's made with a similar straining process, only perhaps even thicker. The quality was certainly unsurpassed by any other yogurt I've had. However, I wouldn't buy this on a regular basis. This isn't an everyday breakfast yogurt, especially at $2 per serving. But it was a worthwhile indulgence, and I'm happy to support a company that's bringing a distinctly cultural product to a wider audience.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Magnum Ice Cream Bars

A miracle has happened. Walking through Target, I noticed a freezer case ahead, lighting up magically as I approached (no really--Target's coolers have motion sensors), and I beheld... Magnum ice cream bars.

First, a brief narrative. When I lived in Europe, I was sadly disappointed by the quality of pre-packaged ice cream treats: the European equivalents of fudgsicles and Nutty Buddies. The "ice cream" was light on the tongue, almost foamy, a far cry from the dense, rich American ice cream I was used to. One day (late in my year, sadly), I was lamenting this disappointment to an American friend, when she asked, "Wait, haven't you ever had a Magnum bar?" No, I hadn't. Fortunately, one was available for purchase at that location.

I was instantly overcome and in love. Not only did the Magnum live up to my hopes of dense, creamy goodness--it surpassed them. The Magnum ice cream bar is the best ice cream bar I have eaten to date, American or European, hands down. The classic Magnum is vanilla ice cream robed in thick milk chocolate. The only thing better than discovering the Magnum was discovering the Double Chocolate Magnum, which is a milk chocolate ice cream bar surrounded by a double wall of ganache and chocolate.

And now, apparently, they have made their journey across the pond and landed in Target. They are pricey--$4 for three bars--but I didn't care. I bought two boxes, Double Chocolate and Double Caramel, and I think I plan to share...maybe.

 According to Wikipedia, Magnum is manufactured by the British/Dutch company Unilever, and has just debuted in the U.S. this year. Cheers! Whistles! Applause! Now go get your own box.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Peanut Butter Noodles

Because I spend so much time out of the house, I've started buying microwaveable meals to take to school. After trying a few varieties, I've settled on two reasonably priced brands from the organic aisle: McDougall's soups and Annie Chun's noodle bowls. My favorite noodle bowl flavor is Peanut Sesame, and this dish, combined with a vague memory of eating peanut butter noodles from a Chinese or Thai restaurant, inspired me to search for my own peanut butter noodle recipe.

I found an extremely well-reviewed recipe on AllRecipes and made it for lunch on Sunday. It was wonderful. I'll post the recipe below, from Amy Barthelemy, and then tell you my variations.

(Serves 4-5 people as a side, 3-4 as an entree.)

Peanut Butter Noodles


  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger root
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons peanut butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons hot chile paste (optional)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 ounces Udon noodles
  • 1/4 cup chopped green onions
  • 1/4 cup chopped peanuts


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until tender according to package directions. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, combine chicken broth, ginger, soy sauce, peanut butter, honey, chili paste, and garlic in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until peanut butter melts and is heated through. Add noodles, and toss to coat. Garnish with green onions and peanuts.

Crystal's Variations and Notes
This recipe is beautifully constructed, and I tweaked it a little when I shouldn't have. I wanted a robust peanut flavor, so I added an extra tablespoon of peanut butter to the sauce, but once I tasted the finished product, I realized it would have been fine without. I found only one brand of udon noodles at the grocery store, but they were perfect. I briefly considered not buying the chili paste (found in the sauce section of the Asian aisle), but I'm so glad I did. The two optional teaspoons in the recipe add just the right amount of spice, and you could easily kick it up with a few more teaspoons if you were so inclined. The chopped peanuts and diced green onions are an attractive garnish. To make this a complete meal, I sauteed some boneless, skinless chicken breasts with a little oil, soy sauce, ginger, and freshly ground sea salt and black pepper, and sliced and served them on top of the noodles. Heading out to warm some up for lunch instead of settling for Annie Chun's...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Fogo de Chão

Vegetarians, turn away now. While I sympathize with your cause, and enjoy vegetarian food on a regular basis, my next post requires me to sing the praises of meat. Seared, slow-roasted, smoky, dripping meat.

This past weekend, I was treated to one of the most glorious meals of my life at Fogo de Chão in center city Philadelphia. Fogo de Chão is a chain of Brazilian steakhouses, but they are located only in major cities in the U.S. and Brazil.

Although this is a fine dining establishment, it functions on a very interesting rest
aurant model. They serve a set menu for a fixed price, all you can eat. The meal is served in three sections: salad bar, family-style side dishes, and...the meat.

First, the salad
bar. Magnificent. It was like having one of my favorite culinary magazines manifested on my plate. I started with a base of typical spring greens, but my horizons were soon significantly expanded. What followed was a string of high-quality ingredients called for in recipes from the likes of Food & Wine, items I rarely buy because of their expense. Whole halves of sun-dried tomatoes. Lightly blanched asparagus, broccoli, artichokes, hearts of palm. Shitake mushrooms. Roasted redskin potatoes. Belgian endive. Prosciutto, smoked salmon, thick-cut salami. Fresh mozzarella, aged Manchego, and a giant wheel of genuine Parmigiano Reggiano (basically the only real parmesan--all others are imitations). I thoroughly relished my plate, wishing I could smuggle bags of tomatoes and parmesan out the door, before turning to the next phase of the meal.

The three standard sides were brought family-style to the table on small silver platters: garlic mashed potatoes, fried polenta, and caramelized fried bananas. Each was delicious, but I particularly en
joyed the mashed potatoes--smooth, thick, and savory. Before I was finished with the salad and sides, others at the table began ordering their meats, and I was soon overtaken by the rich, smoky scent.

Once you're read
y for the meat, you don't have to leave your chair. You simply flip the colored chip given to each person at the beginning of the meal from red to green to start the nonstop table service. At the sight of the green chip, the waiters begin swarming your table, each with a different cut of fresh meat on a skewer. They slide nimbly between you and your dining partner and ask politely if you would like their cut of meat--top sirloin? bottom sirloin? filet mignon? ribeye? beef ribs? pork ribs? lamb chops? roast chicken? pork loin? sausage?--and you accept or decline. If you accept, they ask which doneness you prefer (medium is the brownest you're going to get), they fresh-slice it, and you pick it up with your own pair of tongs. My favorite cuts, the bottom sirloin and filet mignon, were perfectly seasoned, tender, and ridiculously juicy.

Since this dinner was a treat, and even
Fogo de Chão's website doesn't tell you the menu prices, I can't tell you how much my food cost. But I would venture that it was probably the most expensive meal I've eaten, and I'm kind of glad. All you can eat meat should cost that much, so it's done sparingly. Go only on a special occasion, or if your bill is paid for you, and enjoy thoroughly. It's totally worth it, every once in a while.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


At some point during my senior year of college, my friend Sarah introduced me to polenta. She bought a premade package of it, fried it in slices, and served it to me with marinara sauce. It was delicious, but completely unfamiliar to me. The only thing it reminded me of was Pennsylvania Dutch cornmeal mush, which is also served fried by the slice, but then slathered with syrup and eaten for breakfast. It was aptly named, and I hated the "mush." Polenta was much more to my liking. The grits were coarser, and the corn flavor was enhanced, rather than drowned, by the savory cheese and tomato sauce.

I recently picked up a bag of corn grits with which to make polenta, and I have decided for sure: I freakin' love polenta.

Polenta is stupidly simple to make: boil water and salt it, add grits gradually, and simmer while stirring for five minutes. This is the soft cereal version, which I really like, but you can also cook it until the mixture is thicker, pour it into a pan, let sit, cut into slices, and fry or bake.

The most common recipes I've seen include herbs and parmesan, and a good marinara sauce is a classic topper. I shook in some pre-grated parmesan and romano, added some dried basil and minced onion, and used Belletieri's tomato pasta sauce, which is made locally.

The result is pure comfort food. It's pasta without being pasta and hot cereal without being breakfast. You can make it as salty, savory, buttery, or cheesy as you like; the grits are a sturdy and mild base for many flavors.

And it's cheap! I bought a bag of good quality Bob's Red Mill organic corn grits in the Giant natural and organic aisle. A half cup of grits makes 2 portions or an extra large single portion, and this is a 24 oz. bag, for which I paid somewhere around $3.50. A filling and economical meal.