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Trader Joe’s does it again with Black Forest Bacon

It seems like every week when we visit Trader Joe’s for a family grocery shopping experience, there are new products that catch my attention and somehow become pulled by gravity into the shopping cart. This can be good and bad–good because more often than not, it’s something delicious and unique or both. Bad because it’s typically something we want to eat and not stop eating.

Such is the case with Trader Joe’s Black Forest Bacon. You know what’s crazy though? There is almost no information on this stuff online. It’s like they are sort of trying to keep it top-secret. Which is fine, because that means more for me and for my wife. But mostly for me (shhhhh). I did find this contest on Food & Wine and while there are some TJ’s bacons on here, I don’t have to try anything on this list to know that the Black Label will whip their bacon asses all up and down that page.

Why is it so good? Well, it crisps up beautifully, meaning it’s tender and the fat becomes something of a liquid pork rind (which is, well, what it is), and the bacon slice itself is bursting with flavor and crispness. It also has no fake taste whatsoever, as it’s real smoked and uncured and has a nice dry rub, but it’s even more remarkable that even if you slightly burn it (which you almost have to to get it crisp), it doesn’t even taste burnt. I don’t know how they do it, but they do, and they do so in my house almost every day lately. We now buy two packs at a time, and might ramp up to three this weekend. I mean, you never know when you will have a bacon emergency, right?

Product review: Power Crunch protein energy bars

I’m a sucker for sweet and crispy wafers, such as Kit-Kats, those Belgian wafers you can find in the candy aisle, and the really-bad-for-us ones in the cookie aisle–you know, the ones that are usually “value” brand and are strangely colored to resemble vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. But of course, what makes these crispy and creamy snacks so delicious are the combination of fat (butter or oil or both) and sugar–lots of sugar. And that means eating too many of these things makes us fat at an exponential rate.

I also am constantly mesmerized by packaging and as my wife will attest, I gravitate to new products and HAVE to try them. It’s in my DNA or something. And when I’m trying to eat healthy, these items call out to me even more. Well, there are protein bars, right? Well, most of the time, stuff like South Beach, Zone and Cliff Bars are all nice options that are low in sugar, high in protein. But most of those just taste terrible–they have this protein powder-ish after taste, sort of like a combo of yogurt and ricotta in powder or nougat form.

Hence when I saw Power Crunch Protein Energy Bars in Trader Joe’s, I was skeptical but had to try them. The package made this bar to look akin to a Kit-Kat, and I picked up a vanilla and a chocolate bar. And when I was hungry later in the day, I grabbed a vanilla bar, and I suddenly heard a choir in my head as if I’d found the meaning of life. Could it be? A delicious crunch bar that was low in sugar? Yes! These bars are incredible–and are high in protein, low in sugar (14 grams of protein/5 grams of sugar), and the first ingredient is whey protein isolate blend. They have 12 grams of fat, from palm oil mostly, but if you are going low carb that’s usually not an issue. Is there an aftertaste? Well, ever so slightly but it’s not anything like those bars I mentioned earlier. And when it tastes this good and seems sweet, it doesn’t matter.

I went and bought a case of vanilla, chocolate and cookies N cream online–and the fine folks at Power Crunch sent me a box of peanut butter creme and berry creme. I also tried the chocolate fudge flavor from the store, but that was the only one I wasn’t crazy about. And the vanilla and chocolate are still my faves, and I can tell you they have a customer for life in me.

Hopefully you will find these bars too–you will be glad you did, I promise!

Mikey’s Beef Fried Rice

I’ve been on a mission lately to find Chinese roast pork in the grocery store. And I don’t think it’s gonna happen. One day I will stop being lazy and just pick up a container of it from the local takeout place and make my own fried rice with it. Because lately I can’t seem to find good fried rice. It’s either bland, too yellow and not brown enough, has too many onions or green onions, not enough meat, or all of the above.

So yesterday I was in the grocery store and saw these really nice stir fry beef strips. The last thing we had on our weekly menu (yes, Mrs. Mikey and I try to do that) was fish, and I had not thawed it, and want to be especially careful thawing seafood. So now then. I suddenly had a vision in my head for fried rice. Basically watching a lot of “Chopped” and “Top Chef” has made me try to think more creatively than usual lately.

So I took the beef strips and marinated then in teriyaki sauce for 15-20 minutes or until I prepped the other ingredients–Trader Joe’s frozen brown rice (poke a few holes in the bag and nuke for 3 minutes for absolutely perfectly sticky and delicious brown rice), carrots, 1/2 an onion, some snow peas, ginger, canola oil, sherry, soy sauce, sesame oil, sriracha, some cilantro, a lime, and a couple of eggs. I chopped the ginger up fine, chopped the carrots (I used baby carrots) and the onion, and then sliced the snow peas into slivers. I put about a tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet and when hot to the 2-inches-away touch, put the veggies in the pan and stirred, adding a bit of salt and pepper. After the onion just started to brown I removed the vegetables to a plate and added the beef to the pan, with some salt and pepper. The beef started to brown but I wanted it to be slightly charred in spots, or in this case a bit overdone to make it like a sponge for the teriyaki sauce if that makes sense.

Then I put the beef on a plate, and poured a little bit of sherry and soy sauce in the pan to deglaze it. I added a touch more canola oil, a sprinkling more of sherry and soy, a few drops of sriracha and a few drops of sesame oil. I put the veggies back in, chopped the beef into small pieces and added them to the pan, followed by the rice. Then I stirred, and added a little more teriyaki sauce and set aside to keep warm. Meanwhile, I heated a small nonstick skillet over medium heat and cracked two eggs in it. I put the rice in two bowls, topped each with a sunny side up egg, some chopped cilantro and a lime wedge, and there you have it….Mikey’s Beef Fried Rice!

My only regret is I forgot to snap a picture. But I will say it was some of the best fried rice I’ve ever made, and Mrs. Mikey agreed. Damn, now I’m hungry again.

Mmmmm breakfast

I’m especially hungry today, probably because I ate cereal for breakfast. Carbs of any kind make you want to eat more carbs. But here is a photo of what I ate yesterday:

Do you see a face? I kind of see a cartoon martian face, albeit one without a mouth, or maybe the bread is like a tongue sticking out. Let me know what you think it looks like, as I know you’re feeling creative today, right?

As for what it tasted like? Delicious. It’s a slice of Trader Joe’s whole wheat toast (a really great whole grain bread that has no chemicals or annoying preservatives), with two turkey sausage patties, topped by two sunny-side up eggs. And I will say this–I wasn’t craving carbs an hour later.

Mikey’s This and That

A few random food observations on a snowy Madison Thursday afternoon…..

*Is there a reason why many canned soups have this gummy, almost plastic sheen of a taste these days? This is particularly true of so-called diet soups which I think use gummy fillers to make up for the loss of fat–i.e. loss of flavor. But they wind up making a chemical concoction that has totally turned me off of canned soup. I’ve been trying to make more of my own, which always tastes better, but it’s not always easy to find the time. Thankfully football season is over (well not really thankfully) which means more cooking for the week on Sundays with the wife.

*Salads just are not appealing in the winter. I sometimes find myself not getting enough vegetables in the winter, and a big reason is that I have almost no desire to eat healthy salads. That’s a summer thing, right? Maybe I need to make more soups. Where have I heard that before?

*I can’t believe Kristen fell on a sword on Top Chef: Seattle last week and didn’t throw Josie under the bus as she should have. I pegged her as the potential winner. I haven’t watched Last Chance Kitchen…but maybe she still can win if she won her LCK battle. But wow, Josie. Please go away.

*Speaking of Food TV, did you guys catch the first episode of that Rachel vs. Guy Celebrity cook off show on Food Network? That’s one of those reality shows that grabs its players from the depths of wherever they get contestants for Celebrity Fit Club. This season they’ve got the likes of Carney Wilson, Hines Ward and an actress and a socialite I’ve never heard of. And then there was Gilbert Gottfried. The poor dude doesn’t know how to boil water. So the first episode, he makes a peanut butter sandwich. Then, as he’s battling another contestant for elimination in the same episode, he makes a peanut butter sandwich AGAIN. Dude, who is your agent and why would they put you through that?

*I often profess my love for Trader Joe’s on here. But I’ve come across something that’s amazing even by their standards. This Speculoos Cookie Spread. It won their award for customer favorite product of 2012, so I bought a jar. Holy smokes. It’s like peanut butter-like crack in a jar. I don’t even know what it is made out of…but it’s like a “butter” that is sweet and has cookie pieces and hints of cinnamon and….well, just go try it, and if you don’t love it, then you don’t like food. It’s impossible to not like it.

My new friend–fish

Chef JimI won’t go into too much detail about why I never cared much for seafood. I think that it’s because of the awful smell when my mom would take me into fish markets on Long Island. Ewww. And the beady eyes on those things. But I’ve tasted some seafood and have liked some things at times–crabcakes and shrimp cocktail to name a few. And I’ve had fish a few times too, especially at wine dinner events or special all inclusive “chef’s dinners” that my wife and I have gone to, like at Graham Elliot in Chicago. Well, there, I went into detail.

Anyway, I always notice how nice the frozen fish looks at Trader Joe’s, our favorite grocery store. And I keep thinking I want to give fish a chance. So last week we got some–a fish called Cape Capensis, a mild white fish from the coast of South Africa. Yeah, that’s a long way from Madison, but there it is. And last night, we tried it. And by we, I mean that I cooked and ate fish for the first time in my life. I won’t say it was my favorite thing ever, but it was tasty for sure and I’d make it again. The recipe was one I found on a site called The Fish Bus. (note: The Fish Bus name reminded me of this hilarious rap written by my wife’s friend Aly). I substituted panko bread crumbs for the corn chip crumbs and it seemed to taste fine.

So there you have it. My wife and sister are proud of me. My parents will likely faint when I tell them.

A delicious lunch–burger and spicy ketchup

I have a confession to make. I have many items that were sent to me that I have on tap to review, and I will start hammering those out in the next couple of weeks. Good for all of you for content, good for me for content, and good for my publicist friends who are being patient!

Now, I have another confession to make. I love burgers, and I found these most excellent Kobe beef burgers at Trader Joe’s. You let them defrost for a day in your fridge (or under cold water in the package if you have less time), and either grill or make in a skillet on your stove. Yesterday I remembered that I bought some Melinda’s Habanero Ketchup, and so I paired the two items for lunch. Even better, I picked up a nice big kaiser roll at the grocery store to put it on. Man, I’m getting hungry again.

So since it was about 95 degrees at lunchtime, and my deck is right in direct sun, I cooked this burger inside, with a dome over the pan to keep the steam and juices all locked in. And for some burgers, you just can’t load on lettuce, tomato or even (gasp!) cheese. So I did this the way I like it–a little salt on the burger, and then just the ketchup on both sides. And I lucked out too by cooking the burger perfectly–a little pink in the middle, and with the juices intact. And with the spicy tang of the ketchup, it was a masterpiece.

The downside? I had to finish working rather than take a long nap.

Pink slime–no, thanks

It’s become a buzzword/term in 2012–pink slime.

Like you, I had no idea what it was until I read an article two months ago in Mother Jones. This is how the article describes it: “the cheeky nickname for scraps of slaughtered cow that have been pulverized, defatted, subjected to ammonia steam to kill pathogens, and congealed into a filler for ground beef.” It goes on to say that McDonald’s was using it but planned to stop doing so, along with Taco Bell and Burger King, who also succumbed to the public outcry.

But pink slime is apparently in school lunch ground beef. It’s in packaged and frozen burgers, and even in commercially sold ground beef. Wow. How the hell do you get around that if you eat and enjoy burgers, meatballs, meat loaf or other ground meat products?

I know what I”m doing. I’m not eating fast food ground meat. I’m thinking twice before ordering something made with ground beef in a restaurant. For home use, we buy ground beef from a local farm (at the farmer’s market here in Madison) that we know is organic and high quality, or from Trader Joe’s, which states on its website that their ground meat does not contain pink slime. We are not ready to give up meat entirely, but what we are also doing is trying to eat one or two vegetarian meals per week.

I am not naive enough to think that there isn’t crap like this in many foods–or pesticides or whatever. But pink slime? It’s vile, it’s scary and it has no place on my plate or on my family’s plates.

Pimento Cheese Grilled Cheese

I think I first had pimento cheese on a burger when I lived in Nashville. It was like crack on a bun, and I usually order it when I see it on a menu, no matter what form that it’s in. Well, you all know my favorite grocery store is Trader Joe’s, and last week I found two things to help celebrate Grilled Cheese Month–pimento cheese and these kickass ciabatta rolls. The rolls are those half baked ones that you finish in the oven, giving you the impression that you just baked them from scratch. Pimento cheese, if you haven’t had it before, is more of a spread–it’s usually make with a combination of cream cheese, cheddar, pimentos, and other spices and flavorings. And best of all, it melts into oozy goodness.

Today I tried to create some mini grilled cheese sandwiches using these items. I baked two rolls, cut them in half, and sprayed the outsides of them with olive oil spray. I then spread pimento cheese on the insides of both rolls, and added some salami slices to one of them. I cooked them in a skillet as if I was making a grilled cheese. This also meant I had to flatten them slightly with a spatula and cover the pan for a minute or so in order for the cheese to melt. It only took a minute or minute and a half on each side, but the result was amazing for both sandwiches. If you can find pimento cheese, grab it and try some version of this sandwich–you will thank me later!

Easy Awesomeness: Trader Joe’s Bacon Wrapped Dates

You are likely getting tired of hearing me pimp Trader Joe’s, but their awesomeness became even more awesome when my wife got me a Trader Joe’s Companion Cookbook for my birthday. Then last week we got the Trader Joe’s cookbook, the bigger one. And the recipes are insanely good. We tried a few already but one that is truly great and easy is the bacon wrapped dates.

I found a link to the recipe at a gluten free website, which is interesting because we are researching a gluten free diet as a possibility for our son with autism. And hey, he loves bacon too, so maybe he would like this recipe, as picky of an eater as he is.

Seriously though, I made some of these the other day and they are as good as they look and as good as they sound. Make sure you have foil under the rack so that the grease drips down onto something disposable. And you don’t have to shop at Trader Joe’s to make these, although the dates they sell are perfect for this recipe.

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