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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Chevy, Hamburgers, and Milkshakes

Posted on June 21, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, review | Tags: , , , , , , , |

The nice publicity people at Chevrolet offered to take me and a few other Pittsburgh food bloggers for a free ride in some of their 2012 vehicles. The clever people they are, they realized that just offering a free ride in a car wasn’t going to fill the seats, so they bribed us with hamburgers and milkshakes–also free. Well done, Chevy. Our Chevy Shakes and Sliders Crawl took us to three Pittsburgh spots for burgers and shakes: Brgr, The Sharp Edge Bistro downtown, and The Milkshake Factory/Edward Marc Chocolatier.

Brgr’s burgers have improved considerably since the last time I had one, which was shortly after the restaurant opened. My previous visit was a big disappointment, but this time it was delightful. It was clear in speaking with Chef Brian Pekarcik that he has a lot of pride in what he does. He was willing to listen and respond to early customer feedback. It takes cojones to admit you’re not putting out the best product you can, and Chef Pekarcik showed that by changing the way he makes his burgers. I’m impressed. The Button Buster burger was especially enjoyable: juicy angus beef, braised short ribs, cheese, belly rubs. Happy times. Brgr’s shakes were refreshing, but sadly only the King Shake (hello, Elvis!) was made with booze. This was odd, as boozy milkshakes are a big draw. I suppose this probably has something to do with a car company sponsoring our day out–boozy shakes and road tours aren’t an especially smart combination.

Our next stop, Sharp Edge Bistro, was a disappointment. Talk about trying too hard while not trying nearly hard enough. Sharp Edge is basically a mid-sized catering company masquerading as a restaurant. Almost all the food is prepared off-site in the corporate kitchen. It’s…sad. The Bistro Burger (50% bison, 50% beef, with some bacon mixed in) was way too salty. The Ostrich Burger (50% ostrich, 50% beef) was dry and mealy. The chef bragged about how lean the burger was. Great, but who wants a lean burger?! Please. The Duck Burger (50% duck, 50% beef) was OK, but the flavors didn’t quite work. Cherry in my burger? Why, Chef, why? Still, it was my favorite out of the bad bunch. Good thing Sharp Edge has the Beer Emporium in Friendship; I’ll still go there for the impressive selection of beer, but you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be eating anything. The crisp frites, while quite delicious, again highlighted the apparent ignorance at Sharp Edge. The chef bragged about how the fries were “twice fried,” as if that were something groundbreaking. Dude, almost all french fries are twice fried; it doesn’t matter if you call them frites or fries. (Unless you’re In and Out Hamburger, who only fry their fries once. And they’re quite well known for that because they deviate from the norm…)

The Milkshake Factory/Edward Marc was heavenly. This is a shining example of a local food business doing something so very very very right. The current owners are 4th generation family confectionists–they are in the business of making people happy. Happy happy happy. Oh happy. Milkshakes, ice cream, and chocolates. Seriously. I love my family and they are great and good, but couldn’t Grandpa Benji have opened an chocolate factory instead of working in corrugated cardboard?! We were offered 7 flavors of milkshake: PB&J, Cajun Chocolate, Carrot Cake, Classic Vanilla, Red Velvet, Strawberry Banana, and Chocolate Raspberry Truffle. The effusive (and perfectly named) Marc Edward explained why, in a mix of creative flavors, he offered us vanilla: “When someone gets a vanilla right, you know how good their milkshakes are.” Well, Mr. Edward, you make a pretty perfect vanilla shake. Your milkshakes are beyond good. Especially the Red Velvet shake. Although I might as well had been born southern in many of my favorite foodways, I’ve never quite understood the red velvet cake. Chocolate-like cake with red food dye? Confusing. Milkshake Factory, you have opened my eyes. This was…the best milkshake I have had in my life. Bold statement. True statement. It’s been over a week, and I’m still thinking about it.

Let’s talk cars. It’s the least I can do, since Chevy sponsored the event and everything. There were four cars for us to drive around in (Camero, Tahoe Hybrid, Equinox, and Cruze) and one for us to look at (Volt). Sadly, we didn’t get to test the Volt. Shame, because it looks pretty amazing. I’m a big fan of futuristic gadgets and gizmos that promise sustainability. Ah well. I’m also a fan of fast cars that unfortunately do not promote sustainability–cruising in the Camero was a good time! The Equinox is pretty badass, too. Well, as badass as you can be for a compact SUV. It gets great gas mileage, and the Bose noise-canceling system makes for a you-can-hear-a-pin-drop-quiet ride. I’m a bit more BLAH about the Tahoe Hybrid. It’s GIANT. Most people don’t need anything half as large as this machine, yet the Chevy product dude was pushing it hard. Yes, it gets better gas mileage than an old-timey SUV, but I still question the necessity of mass marketing such a giant. Overall, I’m glad Chevy is still making cars. Say what you will about the auto bailout (or don’t…it worked…), it’s a good thing people are making cars in America. I only spent a little bit of time in each car, but from what I can tell, these are pretty sweet machines. Even the massive Tahoe Hybrid. Also, the cars come equipped with OnStar, and it’s super-hilarious to call them for directions.

Not a bad way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.
If you’re wondering who else was there, check out:

Culinary Cory (Cory is also one of my classmates in the Food Studies program at Chatham University.)
I Heart PGH
Vanilla Icing
The most excellently named Mr. Bacon Pants

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Spring into Green Dinner

Posted on May 4, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, local, review, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

I celebrated my birthday by attending Wild Purveyors Spring Into Green dinner. The dinner was held in a barn at the Beechwood Farms Nature Preserve, and was a benefit for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. All the food was either foraged by Cavan and Tom from Wild Purveyors or sourced locally. Blackberry Meadows Farm provided much of the produce, and Horizon View Farms provided the beautiful grass fed ribeye steaks. Food was prepared by Restaurant Echo.

There were about 40 of us in the barn. It was a dreary late spring day, with temperatures in the mid 50s. Happily, we were warmed with beer, not-too-shabby locally made wine, and Boyd & Blair’s ramp infused vodka. The meal itself was a bit uneven; certain items (braised pork shoulder, luscious goldenrod honey sherbet, strawberry and rhubarb panna cotta, pickled wild ramps) really shined, while other items (I’m looking at you oddly savory and BabyFoodLike chilled pea soup) missed the mark. If the meal was uneven, why am I posting something about it? I’m not a restaurant reviewer, and it’s really not too terribly terribly interesting that I spent my birthday drinking and eating in a barn. Believe me, there are much crazier birthday stories.

I’m writing because the event itself was something important. Foraged food and respect for farmers. Each course was preceded by a little story about where the food came from. Although this might sound silly or boring to some people, it’s important. I’m not saying that every time you eat you need to hear a tale about sunlight, water conservation, and moonbeams. But it’s good to know where your food comes from. We live in a society that’s so disconnected from our food supply, and we’re not going to be able to change that unless we make an effort to connect those who eat with those who grow. And that’s what an event like this does. When you’re hearing stories about the heritage seed saving efforts of Blackberry Meadows or sitting next to the parents of the dudes who did the foraging, it’s hard not to be inspired to think more about where your dinner came from.

I should point out tickets to this were superduper expensive. I was lucky enough to be given a wonderful birthday gift and get to go for free. But the sad fact is most people who would benefit from a reconnection to their food wouldn’t be able to afford to go to something like this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fancy-pants parties, and for having those who can afford to attend them donate to support organizations like the Audubon Society. I’m not knocking it at all. It’s good. This was a super fun evening. People who can afford events like this need to be connected to their food too, and will hopefully use their economic and political influence to make the system better. But while we celebrate spring and foraging and rainbows and pickled wild ramps, we also need to make sure we’re working on solutions to the problems food deserts, cheap calorie processed foods, and educating people that meat doesn’t come pre-packaged in a Styrofoam tray. Change needs to happen from the top-down and the bottom-up.

Finally, an update on my quest to become a Less Picky Eater: I tried mushrooms. Three times in one night. Mostly without the “I’m Not Going to Like This” face. Foraged morels. They were…well, not too bad. In two cases, I more or less enjoyed them, though the aftertaste wasn’t quite as nice as the first bite. Would I try them again? I do believe I would.

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Lazy Potato Makes Me Mad

Posted on February 9, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, rant, review, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Sometimes I see things at the grocery store that make me mad. Alright, pretty much every time I go to the SuperDuperHyperMart I see something that makes me mad. Today it was potatoes.

Clever potato marketers have decided that we are so lazy or stupid we can’t bake a potato without help. If you’re so inclined, there are two items for sale that will (theoretically) make your potato baking endeavors ever so less taxing. Because potato baking is real tough stuff. Life sure is hard in America.

The first one is a “double washed for your convenience” potato wrapped in very shiny gold foil. Oh! Pretty! Saves so much time! You don’t have to wash your potato! Or perform any heavy lifting by wrapping it in foil! Hooray! Pretty! Sadly, all is not happy happy in the world of the super shiny potato. You have to remove the label that tells you how wonderful the potato is. Oooops. That’s as hard as washing a potato, and I thought I was buying the potato so that I didn’t have to go through the very troubling effort of getting my hands wet for 20 seconds. Also, this special potato takes just as long to bake as a potato that hasn’t been pre-wrapped for me. I still have to plan a whole 50 minutes in advance if I want a potato?! Holy hell, potato marketer, who do you think I am?

Good thing I can get a microwave ready potato. Sure, it’s only been washed one time. But hey, I still don’t have to get my hands wet. That would really suck. I don’t have to go through all the horrible trouble of removing a label. That’s good, removing labels is challenging. And it’s ready in 7 minutes. Life is looking up. Sure, I’m microwaving a potato unnecessarily wrapped in plastic, but I don’t care about my health, I care about having my potato as quick as I can.

Why is it that marketers constantly have to pretend to innovate while they’re actually doing nothing special except charging us an extra 20-30 cents per pound? I spent a fair amount of time thinking about value-added products, and these products certainly don’t add any value. Opposite. Shiny foil and microwave plastic put a physical and psychological barrier between us and our food. It’s sad, really. Baking a potato isn’t a chore, and it shouldn’t be looked at like it is. Baking a potato is one of the easiest things you can do in the kitchen. We don’t need pre-packaged potatoes. Just like an apple or a banana, potatoes already come individually wrapped. Plus a potato baked without all the silly bells & whistles shiny plastic wrap tastes better. Happy happy.

To bake a potato:
Heat oven to 425F
Rinse potato, dry it, and prick it a few times with a fork. (You can rub a little oil on the outside if you like, but I don’t.)
Put potato in oven.
Cook for 45 min – 1 hour. (Skin will be crisp, and you should be able to easily pass a fork through center.)
If you’re really super pressed for time, you can microwave a potato for 7-8 minutes. The skin won’t be all crispy and delicious, but it’s still tasty. No creepy plastic wrapping necessary.

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Frozen Food Test: Elio’s Pizza

Posted on November 18, 2010. Filed under: frozen, hodgepodge, review, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Ah, sweet youth. Elio’s brings back memories. It was my go-to frozen pizza option when I was a boy. And I thought it was pretty special. But how does it hold up as an adult? Will it be a horrible revelation, as my re-visit to Mama Celeste was? I was curious. And I was not sober. So I tried it.

Elio’s pizza was founded in 1963 in New Jersey. but it wasn’t until 1967 that the rectangular slices were introduced. In 1988, Elio’s was bought by Canadian frozen food company McCain Foods. It can be found in the freezer section nationwide.


  • Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, especially when it doesn’t disappoint you. 
  • The sauce, when you can taste it, is quite good. Strong tomato flavor, nice herb & spice kick.
  • 290 calories per two-slice serving is pretty good for a frozen pizza snack.
  • Made with real cheese. No preservatives.
  • 10 minutes freezer to plate.


  • You’re not actually going to have a 2 slice serving. The pizza is frozen into blocks of 3 slices. You can, of course, break them up. But you probably won’t. The one extra slice looks so sad & small by itself. So assume 435 calories per serving. Oh!
  • Bread/sauce/cheese ratio is rather imbalanced, favoring the bread part way too much. More sauce, please.
  • Conventionally grown ingredients. Conventional milk to make the cheese.


Elio’s isn’t the best frozen pizza on the market, but it hits the spot from time to time. There are improvements they could make, sure. A better balance of flavor would be nice. McCain should work toward using more sustainable ingredients. They should be more honest about the serving size. (The website blames the government for this!)


Would I have it again? Of course. Not very often, but I’ll be eating Elio’s as long as they make it.


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Frozen Food Test: Tandoor Chef Chicken Tikka Masala

Posted on August 19, 2010. Filed under: easy, frozen, review |

Trip to Pittsburgh was a success, except I’m living like a transient till the moving van arrives on Tuesday. So while I dream of spending quality time in my shiny new kitchen, I awake to the reality of a microwave, a barley humming electric stove, and the cheap tin pans of the Residence Inn. Fully jet lagged and with such limited resources, it seemed like the right time for a frozen foods test. Friends, meet Tandoor Chef Chicken Tikka Massala.

Tandor Chef is a subset of Deep Foods Inc, which as been family owned and operated since 1977. The company’s website relates the story of how Mrs. Bhagwati Amin’s passion for food from her homeland steadily developed into a business into a larger family affair. Son Deepak graduated Cornell with a degree in food science, and went on to create the product line Tandoor Chef, which is home to our Chicken Tikka Masala.

Deep Food’s small beginnings have grown to a company with 1,800 employees in 7 locations. In the spirit of generosity, Mr. and Mrs. Amin have founded a charity in India that helps children have greater access to education. While the website is rather tough to get through, the mission is clear. Kids need brains. And not just so the zombies can eat them.

Speaking of eating! Let’s talk about the chicken tikka massala. It’s one of my favorite dishes. Would it be enough to brighten my belly after a long day of travel:


  • Family business model. Way too much jibber-jabber today about how America is built on SMALL FAMILY BUSINESSES. In reality, it’s most built of massive corporations who occasionally buy a small(family) business. Mrs. Amin has done something worth praising. She is what the politicians should really be talking about- someone who takes a passion for the cuisine of her home, and figures out a way to make $$$ for a number of people, while sharing that passion with many new customers. (And then convincing them to try more products…)
  • The sauce is excellent. Perfectly balanced with enough heat to pack a punch. Nice blend of ingredients. Better than some masala sauces I’ve had at restaurants.
  • Rice is tasty. Buttery flavor, good texture.
  • Price is right at $4.49
  • Only 400 calories.


  • Just four tiny pieces of processed chicken. Four! Man. This was more a snack than a meal.
  • Fairly high in saturated fat. I suppose the delicious buttery flavor has to come from somewhere…
  • 710 mg sodium. Oh boy. That’s a lot of sodium. Too much.


The sauce and the rice were very good. But the chicken, which should be the main focus of the dish, was pretty mediocre. Not that it really mattered, because there was hardly any of it.

Would I get it again? Probably not. I might try another option from Deep Foods, perhaps something vegetarian.

Time to buy some fancy pans for my new fancy-pants kitchen.

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Nature’s Pride Meets Toasty Goodness

Posted on October 7, 2009. Filed under: recipe, review |

My friends at Foodbuzz sent me a few loaves of Nature’s Pride bread. I am not a fan of commercial sliced bread, as it is usually filled with chemicals, filler, and air. So I was prepared to write a nasty “worst thing since sliced bread” review. Much to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed the bread- especially the 100% Whole Wheat.

Nature’s Pride bread manages to maintain decent shelf life stability (it kept fresh in my pantry for one week), without the addition of preservatives and stabilizers. There is a subtle sweetness to the bread, achieved with only 4g sugar (sugar, honey, brown sugar, molasses, and concentrated raisin juice form the sugar blend). A touch of vinegar balances the sweetness, and helps bring out the great malty flavor of the wheat.

Best of all, the slices are generously thick, without being too overwhelming. In fact, they are the perfect thickness for a toasty sandwich. So, Nature’s Pride 100% Whole Wheat…meet my favorite open faced sandwich:

To build the sandwich, layer:
One Slice Nature’s Pride 100% Whole Wheat
Spicy Apricot Dippin’ Sauce
2 Slices Rosemary Ham
1-2 Slices Swiss Cheese
Dijon Mustard
2 Slices Rosemary Ham
Grated Parmegiano Reggiano Chese

Toast until cheese begins to brown, about 6 minutes.

*I was also given a sample of the 12 Grain bread. The flavor was nice. However, I’m not a big fan of bits of seed and grain in my bread. If you like that sort of thing, go for it. I’ll stick with the smooth bread.

*Interstate Bakeries, the owners of Nature’s Pride, also make Wonder Bread. Wonder Bread, of course, is the bread that’s most symbolic of the collapse of good bread in America. Strange. But impressive. This represents a step in the right direction; A massive (often low quality) bread company introducing a line of bread with high quality ingredients will allow more people to have the choice to eat Good Food. That’s the key- the choice. You need to read the labels, and choose bread made with wholesome ingredients.

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GiGi’s Farmers’ Market

Posted on May 12, 2009. Filed under: hodgepodge, review |

What do you get when you take a handful of food vendors and pair it with a production designer? GiGi’s Farmers’ Market.

Every Saturday from 10AM to 2PM, the Americana at Brand plays host to GiGi’s Farmers’ Market. Award winning production designer Kelly Van Patter was hired to create “an atmosphere that conjures the spirit of European marketplaces.” From a design perspective, at least, Van Patter’s work is a great success.

The market, named after developer Rick Caruso’s daughter, is, undoubtedly, the prettiest farmers’ market in Los Angeles. The vendors’ stalls are clean and bright, overflowing with beautiful looking food. The European homage is unmistakable. It looks as if the market is a permanent fixture, rather than a passing four hour fancy on Saturday afternoons.

Although the market is pretty, the uniformity takes a bit away from a true farmers’ market experience. It’s hard to imagine individual small farms, when all the vendors are wearing “GiGi’s Farmers’ Market” aprons. The illusion is further broken by having some of the Americana’s corporate tenants setting up stalls beside the family farms. It’s a very pleasant atmosphere, but, personally, I’m a bigger fan of the discordant hubbub of Sunday’s Hollywood market.

Diversity seemed to be the key word in choosing vendors for the market. In addition to the standard fruit & vegetable offering, shoppers at GiGi’s Farmers’ Market can expect to find French pastries, organic poultry, fresh fish, preserved and prepared foods, and a small spattering of hand-crafted items. Prices match those found at other Los Angeles farmers’ markets. 

Overall, the Americana’s addition of GiGi’s Farmers’ Market is a big plus. Sure, it might be a little more slick in design than other Los Angeles area farmers’ markets.  But, by being located in an open air mall, the market will attracted a huge amount of people who otherwise might never experience a farmers’ market. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy their experience enough to find other local farmers’ markets and pay them a visit.

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Buitoni Riserva Wild Mushroom Agnolotti

Posted on April 24, 2009. Filed under: hodgepodge, review |

From time to time, the good people at Foodbuzz send me free samples. The idea is that since I (theoretically!) have good taste, I can report back to the vendors about their products. I like this. Free things are nice, and I do (actually) have pretty good taste. However, sometimes the enjoyment of reviewing free samples meets an impassible boundary. In this case, it’s my deep dislike of mushrooms.

So when the good folks at Buitoni sent me a sample of their Wild Mushroom Agnolotti, I was in a jam. Must do my duty as free sample reviewer, mustn’t eat hated mushrooms. I decided to solve this problem by splitting the task- I would do everything but the eating.

The cooking directions for the agnolotti – basically a large ravioli with a fancy name – are simple, boil for 4-6 minutes. I like the quick cooking time, but I don’t like that Buitoni suggests adding oil to the pasta water- it’s a big no no in pasta cooking. Step two of the Buitoni process states that “our premium pastas are do delicious, just toss with extra virgin olive oil,” so that’s what I did. Simple.

On to the taste tester. Tester reported that mushroom flavor was pronounced and very earthy. They found the flavor generally balanced, but a little on the salty side. Texture was good, especially considering the pasta was made to be refrigerated for a fairly long time period. They thought the just serve with olive oil claim was a bit bold, it could have used at least a little garlic. (To be fair, the olive oil instruction does end with “or one of our fine Buitoni sauces,” but, if you’re going to make a claim that simply oil works, you better back it up!) “Better than your average refrigerator case pasta” was the final verdict.

The “Riserva” brand is Buitoni’s high-end line, and that’s reflected in the Wild Mushroom Agnolotti ingredients. Everything looks to be of good quality- there are actually a lot of mushrooms in it, and there is a noticeable lack of high fructose corn syrup & preservatives. Good for you Buitoni! It is a very rich dish, however (6g saturated fat, 25% of your daily cholesterol), so I’d suggest either serving in smaller portions or only enjoying occasionally.

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Pin-Up Pastries is Sweet

Posted on April 20, 2009. Filed under: hodgepodge, review |

It’s always exciting to see one of your friends do something fantastic. I’ve been friends with Erin Garcia, the owner and executive pastry chef of Pin-Up Pastries for quite a few years now. After working as a personal chef, and in many of New York’s top kitchens, she’s now running the show in her tasty new sweets shop.

Garcia’s pastries totally hit the mark. What I like best about them is that they’re not cloyingly sweet. By using high quality ingredients & amazing technique, Garcia is able to make satisfying deserts that don’t overwhelm. Especially impressive are her macrons, which come in a variety of exciting flavors.

The store, decorated with namesake pin-up photos, is located at 13944 Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks. Check it out!

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