July 30, 2010

Trader Joe's Chicken-less Stuffed Cutlet

A few months back, I did this review, for Trader Joe's Chicken-less Chicken Strips. These were incredibly gross. Jason commented about a stuffed cutlet product that is made from the same stuff. He describes them as, "a violation, abomination, and unnecessary disruption to an otherwise pleasant day". With such high praise, how could I pass them up? I'm nothing if not thorough.

Before I get into my own experience, we need to explore the other end of the hyperbolic spectrum. Let's hear what the product packaging has to say about this item.

Trader Joe's Chicken-less Stuffed Cutlets feature the same great tasting "chicken-less" chicken found in our Chicken-less Strips. They're stuffed with black beans, corn and jalapeƱo peppers in a spicy (but not too spicy) tomato sauce. A little rice, maybe a salad… dinner's on the table in less then five minutes!

Ooh… that's all they have to say about it? Usually you can count on the package to really hype up the product. They can't even get excited about building a meal out of it. Such ambivalence.

So with terror in my heart, I busted this package open. This is some weird stuff. Two meat-ish blobs, and two pockets of sauce, all separated and vacuum sealed. The directions indicated that the microwave was the best option for preparing these, and who am I to argue? If I'm going to have to put these in my mouth, I guess I'd better give them the best possible chance, thus hopefully avoiding some random commenter telling me I did it wrong and that's why it tasted so gross. I followed the directions exactly. No way would I have to redo this one.

Okay… "pierce bag" - even the sauce? Won't that result in sauce pouring out all over the place? Better put it on a plate. Oh - "place bag on dish" - they're way ahead of me. "Heat on high 2 minutes". Okay - done. Now I have four super-hot steamy pouches. (I was planning on torturing my wife with this as well, so I prepared both cutlets in one go.) I removed the first cutlet from the packaging as well as I could, spilling some unidentified juice from the pouch all over the plate in the process. The tomato sauce did, in fact, ooze out all over the plate, so I scraped that up and smeared it on top of the cutlet. This did not look anything like the picture on the front of the box. I considered taking a picture, but decided against it. You're welcome. Then, before preparing the second cutlet, I decided to give it a taste. If it was completely inedible, I'd save myself the effort.

I cut into it with a fork, which took considerably more effort than I was expecting. This chicken-less chicken was TOUGH! Super springy, if that makes sense. I succeeded, eventually, in carving off a bite, and popped it into my mouth. The texture made more sense to my teeth than it did to my fork, but it still wasn't great. You could maybe replicate that texture if you had some really tough, overcooked chicken, but I don't think I've ever messed up chicken that badly. The flavor, however, was very similar to how I remember the Chicken-less Chicken Strips. In other words - totally gross. However, I didn't get much filling or sauce with that first bite. So, I went in again. I prepared a forkful with a bunch of filling and a bunch of sauce (which, by the way, tasted very good on its own), and reluctantly put it in my mouth. Much to my surprise, with enough other stuff, the flavor of the chicken-less chicken was mostly muted. Not gone, but muted. However, there was not enough filling or sauce to maintain that ratio all the way through the cutlet.

While picking at the rest of my (mercifully tiny) cutlet, I tried the filling on its own, just to see what it was like. Unfortunately, it had absorbed too much of the chicken-less chicken flavor to be good alone. Plus, the beans in it were super mushy, the corn was flavorless, and I couldn't taste the alleged jalapeƱos, which was fine with me. The sauce was great. I wouldn't call it a spicy sauce, though, even with my very weak spice tolerance.

Sorry, Trader Joe's - that's another lackluster performance with your name on it. Try again!

The experience:
Texture - super tough and springy cutlet portion, mushy filling
Flavor - cutlet - ew; filling - blah and ew; sauce - delicious!

And yes, I did make my wife eat her cutlet. Because I didn't finish mine, I gave her all my extra sauce. I'm such a good wife!

Final grade for this attempt: D

July 23, 2010

Dominex Eggplant Burgers

Things are starting to get weird now. Brace yourselves. This week, I'm reviewing a new veggie burger: Dominex Eggplant Burger. They claim to be "a healthy alternative to both conventional and meatless burgers". I'm not a big eggplant eater, but hey - antioxidants and low-fat/high-fiber things are good, right?

First thing I noticed were the painted-on grill marks. Man - these crack me up. I'm not sure why, but they do. The stove-top directions said to cook the burgers in a skillet with a little oil for 8-10 minutes, flipping occasionally. No way would these have been edible if I'd cooked them that long. I actually timed it, this time, and I cooked it for precisely four minutes, at which point it was definitely hot. If I'd continued cooking it for another four to six minutes, it would have been totally charred. So be aware - these will not take as long as the box says.

I still had some onion buns left over from the Sunshine Burgers experiment, so I toasted one up. Sooner than expected, the burger was done, and I put it all together. Like before, I tasted a bit of the burger alone before eating it with my awesome onion bun, just to get an idea. It actually tasted pretty good. One of the ingredients (which cracks me up about as much as the painted-on grill marks) is "natural grill flavor". If you're curious, this consists of maltodextrin and flavor from vegetable oil, whatever that means. I think this flavor contributed to the initial deliciousness. It had kind of a smokiness that I liked. So I sat down to devour the rest of the burger.

As I got further in, each bite had more and more of a strange off-flavor. I don't know how to describe it other than by saying it had a sort of sharpness to it. Mildly unpleasant, but not overwhelmingly so. Maybe that flavor came from the seeds and skins they brag so much about having in their burgers.

In any case, the odd flavor didn't stop me from eating the rest of my burger, but once they're gone, I probably won't pick these up again. There are other veggie burgers that I liked a lot more, and that I don't have to make a special trip to a co-op to find. If you really like eggplant, though, you might want to give these a try.

The experience:
Texture - nothing special - not much else to say about it
Flavor - nicely smoky at first, but turns sharper with each subsequent bite

Final grade for this attempt: B-

July 16, 2010

It's Friday again... more excuses

Sorry for no fake meat review again today, everybody. I tested out something new this week, but am unable to write about it as my brain is in the process of exploding. We just found out yesterday that we're going to be hosting a foreign exchange student from Japan this upcoming school year. For most people, this isn't such a sudden surprise, but we only applied last Saturday, so things are moving pretty quickly.

It's possible that I'll write up something later today, but more likely that I'll just skip this week. But I've got something big in the works. It's been almost a year (!) since I started this thing, and I'm doing a special series for the entire month of August to celebrate. There will be recipes! And pictures! Stay tuned!

July 9, 2010

Original Sunshine Burger, original flavor

We're heading deep into hippie territory this week with the Original Sunshine Burger. The ingredient list on these is ridiculous: brown rice, sunflower seeds, carrots, herbs, and sea salt. That's it. Also, according to the packaging, these burgers are not intended to be a beef imitation, but instead an "excellent flavor sensation of their own." Let's see if they can live up to the hype.

To prepare to receive this flavor sensation, I made some fresh burger buns. I used the King Arthur Flour recipe for Onion Buns, because I saw it a while back and recognized this as a golden opportunity to try them out. They came out looking gorgeous, and my whole house, in addition to the awesome freshly-baked bread aroma, smelled like onion, which is a plus. More on how they tasted later.

Once dinner time rolled around, I tossed the burgers into a skillet. These come three to a package, so I just cooked up all three. The box said "no oil needed" but after they thawed out, they started sticking pretty badly to my pan, so I put a little oil in there, just to keep them from being completely destroyed. As they approached the "desired warmness" (yes - the box says that - "All our burgers are fully precooked. Please do not overcook, just heat to desired warmness."), they started to become very fragile. Two of them broke in half when I tried to flip them. That was a little frustrating. Eventually, we got the three patties on some onion buns.

I tried a piece of burger plain, first, to make sure the bun didn't artificially inflate the grade. It was… okay. A little dry, a little crumbly, and tasted very much of sunflower seeds. Pretty much only sunflower seeds. That was probably the "sun" part of Sunshine Burger. They might as well have called it Sunflower Burgers. It wasn't bad, if you like sunflower seeds. But it wasn't exciting either.

Then I tried it on the bun. Way better now - the onion flavor matched the sunflower seed flavor pretty well. Still dry though. I added a slice of cheese (Velveeta singles… don't hate me! They have superior meltability!) Now I had something… The gumminess of the cheese helped hold the burger together, keeping it from being too crumbly in my mouth. But it still needed a little something. I squirted on some ketchup. And then some more, as the awesome bun absorbed it all, and I couldn't actually taste it. Finally, I had something that I could consider dinner.

The flavor experience was a little weird - first onion and ketchup, then the cheese flavor creeped in, and once those faded, all that was left was sunflower seeds. Not unpleasant, but it was a little weird. This brand has other varieties that I might check out in the future, including a southwest burger,  breakfast patty, and a barbecue burger. I'm intrigued...

The experience:
Texture - Dry and crumbly until it had some dairy to hold it together
Flavor - Imagine a mouthful of sunflower seeds - yep - that's about it.

Final grade for this attempt: C+

July 2, 2010

Tofurky Deli Slices, Oven Roasted

Before I get started on this review, I need to explain whatever crazy stuff I may end up writing. I started a new job last week in a bakery. Bakeries have weird hours. I get to work at three o'clock in the morning and stay there until eleven o'clock in the morning. Then I come home and try to nap. I got home from work a little early today, haven't gotten my nap yet, and thus am writing this post in a strange mental state. I apologize if anything seems too weird… Just bear with me while I'm adjusting to my new schedule.

Okay, now to the good stuff. This week, I'm reviewing Tofurky Oven Roasted Deli Slices. That link is as precise as the Tofurky website gets. Gotta say, I'm kind of excited to someday try out the "Philly-Style" Steak Deli Slices. Not a lot of steak-imitators out there. And I'm always up for some "'Philly-Style' cheese-steak fun"! Does anyone know what stores carry it? I don't think I've seen it any of the places I go. Anyway… time to focus.

A little back story - I actually first tested these out maybe a month ago, on some crackers with some Swiss cheese. I'll get to my impressions of that in a second. I kind of felt like I hadn't given it a fair trial, so I was going to make a sandwich or something with it to see if it fared any better. Just a couple days ago, I got together the fixings for what would have been an amazing sandwich - a homemade whole wheat pita, some lettuce and tomato, and some homemade ranch dressing. My house is awesome! But then once I got out the fake turkey, I realized I had delayed too long, and the poor deli slices were totally moldy! Noooo! Of course, I couldn't let those sandwich fixings go to waste, so I cooked up a couple slices of bacon and made myself a killer BLT. But that's not what you came here to read about. The point is, I only have one deli slice experiment to base my rating on. And here goes…

Something weird about me is that I'm not that into sandwiches as a food-delivery method. I don't know what it is about them - I just can't get that excited about a sandwich. (unless it's a grilled cheese sandwich - that's a whole other category) So what I usually do with lunchmeats is put them on crackers with cheese, a la Lunchables. My favorite cracker to do this with is Triscuits because they only have three (3!) ingredients, and that makes me feel good about myself.* So, since that's what I typically like to do, that's how I decided to test out these deli slices. I got my crackers and cheese ready to go, and started trying to peel apart the slices. It's been a little while since I last saw the package, but if I remember right, they made a big deal about having thinner slices, and more of them! This tells me that the package size is the same as it used to be, it's just more work for me to separate the slices, and they can probably charge more than they used to. I'm so jaded.

I sampled a little of the fake turkey, plain, just to get an idea of what we were working with. The texture was pretty turkey-lunchmeat-like, but the flavor had an off-note to it. Probably that gluten-flavor that brings down so many other products' ratings, but fairly muted. But lunchmeats aren't meant to be eaten solo, so I stacked it up with some cheese on the cracker. Eaten this way, any flavors the fake turkey may have had melted away into the strong flavors of Swiss cheese and salty whole wheat. This makes me wonder if maybe some of the flavored deli slices may do better. I played around with different fake-meat:cheese:cracker ratios, but the more fake meat I used, the more I could taste that not-awesome flavor. So, as a cheese and cracker accompaniment, I'd say it was that one group member who doesn't contribute anything but puts his name on the finished project anyway. How's that metaphor working for you?

I wanted, as I said earlier, to try it out in a more standard sandwich situation, but that just didn't work out this time. I'd like to try some of the other varieties of Tofurky deli slices. Hopefully they'll have more of a presence when combined with other components.

The experience:
Texture - No complaints here - very lunchmeat-y. No odd chewiness or unpleasant mushiness - just your standard deli slice
Flavor - Not much to say about it - not very tasty on its own, underwhelming when combined with other elements.

Final grade for this attempt: B

* Side note, nobody's paying me for anything I write. I sort of feel like I should do something about that one of these days…