Archive for March, 2012

Frozen Food Test: Trader Joe’s “Reduced Guilt” Baked Ziti

Posted on March 28, 2012. Filed under: frozen, review | Tags: , , , , |

It’s been quite some time since I’ve conducted a Frozen Food Test. I suppose that sometimes a bright idea falls by the wayside in the midst of trying to complete graduate school. Well, as Thesis Madness comes to a head, I figured it would be an opportune time to test a convenience food–hopefully the result would be a palatable and nutritious meal. Trader Joe’s has had a pretty solid track record in my previous tests, so off I went to try their baked ziti.


  • The pasta has a surprisingly enjoyable texture; good mouthfeel, and cooked al dente. I was surprised a frozen pasta could reheat so nicely.
  • Chemical free–all of the ingredients listed were actual food!
  • Only 320 calories. 12g protein.


  • Almost no cheese. What’s the point of baked ziti if there is no cheese? Also, if you microwave it, the cheese doesn’t get toasty. Fail.
  • Small serving size. This is more of a snack or side dish than a meal.
  • High in sodium.
  • Not an immense time saver if you cook it in the oven.


This was OK. It wasn’t terrible for a microwaved side dish, but serving it as a side means I     have to either cook or reheat something else, so I doubt it would save a ton of time (I had mine with leftover grilled chicken). The flavor is decent, but it pales in comparison to my own baked ziti (that’s a link to me cooking the ziti–check it out!). Would I have it again? Doubtful, only because it’s a sin to call something “baked ziti” and not have a layer of golden, melty cheese on top. It’s a good thing cooking is my favorite form of procrastinating.

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Gorging on Cal-Mexican Food: An Brief Look at Food and Place

Posted on March 8, 2012. Filed under: hodgepodge, rant | Tags: , , , , , |

My father pointed out that I came home with a bag of leftovers every day on my trip home to Northern California. “You seem a little bit obsessed with Mexican food, Hal B,” he said.

Big Art was correct. My Mexican binge was totally by design. I made a point to have a meal at a local Cal-Mex restaurant each day I was home, and I also made it a point to order more food than I needed; pozole, two tacos, a burrito all ended up wrapped and saved for a late-night snack. I stopped at a (pre-trendy) taco truck ON MY WAY to lunch–I could see the restaurant from the street where my hands were dripping with chile verde. My belly bulged on the flight home.

I think it’s terrific that, in this period of globalization, regional specialty food still plays prominently on the palate. Although there is a remarkable pizza maker just outside of Pittsburgh (and another delightful one just down the block from me), New York still haunts my dreams. Good BBQ is simply smoke, spice, and meat, and a exceptionally enjoyable one has just opened in Pittsburgh. Yet, the truly transcendent joints are the ones that perfume the air south of the Mason-Dixon line. And, for me, Mexican food is best from a strip mall/truck/hole-in-the-wall in California.

Why? People argue it’s the water that makes a New York pizza special. However, “imported” water, though not commonplace, feeds dough outside of New York. The pizza isn’t any better because of it.

A lot of this has to do with the food you “grew up” on. I have a deep preference for East Coast Angle-Chinese food; the greasy kind with iconic dishes. I judge by wonton soup and chicken & broccoli. My brother, who was 3 years younger when we left New York, has the opposite reaction. He prefers the authentic* Chinese food of the Pacific Coast. Less grease, thinner wontons, more seafood. This isn’t limited to childhood memory, either–though childhood influence in generally the strongest.

Specific geography can play a part in flavoring food. The first oysters I had were grown in the cold-water of Tamales Bay. Small, briny, deep mineral flavor. They FLOORED me. I figured I’d love all oysters after that, but that wasn’t at all true. The large, warm-water Gulf oyster didn’t make me dance inside. I learned that the size and flavor of an oyster are directly affected by the ecology of the local waters and the breeds that can grow in it.

I also think a lot of this has to do with the food-culture of the place. There was a recent New York Times article written by a vegetarian complaining about the lack of vegetarian food in Kansas City. He made some valid points, but he missed the big one–it’s a beef town. He went on to complain about the lack of “ethnic” restaurants in the city, ignoring the fact that Kansas City hasn’t been a historic center of multi-ethnic immigration. Does he think that “ethnic” should be ubiquitous? What a dink.

I’m fascinated between the connection between food and place. It’s an issue that I’m going to continue to explore. I hope you will, too. Share your stories.

*Authenticity is a complex concept, so I won’t spent too much time on it here. For the sake of this piece, let’s just say that it’s generally agreed that the Chinese food in San Francisco is characterized as “more authentic” than the food on the East Coast because it’s more directly connected to the foodways of China. There are holes to be poked in this argument–not to mention the fact that I’m totally lumping a heterogenous culture into one cuisine called “Chinese food”–but that’s the basic idea. 

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Catching Up

Posted on March 1, 2012. Filed under: hodgepodge |

Things have been busy lately: I’m working on a few stories, traveling, and creating new recipes…and there’s that whole master’s degree in Food Studies thesis to finish. Look for a new post early next week. For now, check out what I’ve been doing elsewhere:

I’ve had a few stories on The Allegheny Front:
A chat with “The High Priest of Permaculture,” David Jacke.
Exploring the connection between food and nature with Michael Pollan. Yup…that Michael Pollan.
(If you haven’t had a listen to my feature on Parma Sausage Company, you should do that too!)

I’m still writing “On the Rocks” for Pittsburgh City Paper. Hooray for local libations!

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