JIM MAKES: Boterkoek

Boterkoek (Butter cake) is a delicious treat from The Netherlands.

My favorite thing about it is its texture. It’s dense, but not hard. You’ve had pound cake before, yeah? You’ve had shortbread before, yeah? Boterkoek is somewhere between the two: not crunchy like a cookie, but solid enough that you can pick up a piece and eat it like a brownie, no fork or plate needed.

What’s more, the denseness of the cake means that it keeps for quite a while, so long as it’s kept in the fridge. I had a two-week old slice for dessert tonight and it was as good as the day I baked it!

But the best part of boterkoek is, anyone can make it. Trust me – I’m the worst baker in the world, and I can do this:

SOFTWARE

1 cup good butter, softened
1½ cups white sugar
2 beaten eggs
1 tablespoon almond extract
2½ cups AP flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

HARDWARE

1 electric mixer
1 small bowl
1 medium bowl
1 large bowl
1 spatula
1 fork or whisk
2 round 8″ cake pans (or even better, glass pie plates)

NOTES: Take the butter out of your fridge a few hours before you want to make the cake. Also, this is a terrific recipe to splurge on some nice European butter. Cultured butters from Ireland, France and Finland are readily available near me, and at Lidl and Aldi they’re competitively priced, too. Take the hint. Lastly, if you only have one pan or pie plate, fear not: later, when dividing the dough in half to make two cakes, simply put one half in a zip-top bag and put it in the fridge – it’ll be good for a couple days. You could probably freeze it too, but don’t quote me on that!

1) Preheat your oven to 350F.

2) Put the sugar and butter in the large bowl, then use the electric mixer to cream them. Don’t know what “creaming” is? Watch this:

You don’t need a stand mixer to do this – any electric hand mixer will work, you just have to move the mixer around in the bowl.

3) Beat the eggs in a small bowl, then add almost all of it to the butter and sugar (we need a tiny bit for the last step, so save a little). Mix for a few seconds with the mixer until incorporated, then add the almond extract and mix for a few seconds more. Put the mixer aside and use the spatula to scrape as much dough off the forks as you can.

4) Add the flour and baking powder to the medium bowl, and stir well with a whisk or fork to mix.

5) Slowly add the flour to the dough, adding a little bit, then stirring with a heavy-duty spoon, then repeating until the flour has been incorporated completely. As a warning, the dough will look very dry.

6) Grease the pans (or use Pam, if you’re lazy). Put half the dough in each pan or pie plate and press it into place.

7) Remember the leftover egg? Brush it across the top of the cakes. If you forgot to save some egg, just beat another one and brush it across the top of the cakes. Don’t go crazy though: a little bit is all you need!

8) OPTIONAL: You can put sliced almonds on the top, if you wish. It’s also traditional to drag a fork across the top of the cake, creating a design a bit like this:

Boterkoek

9) Bake at 350F for around 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and delicious!

Jim's Boterkoek

Let cool completely before serving. Keeps amazingly well in the fridge – just take a piece out just as you sit down to dinner and it’ll be delicious by dessert time!

 

 

JIM MAKES: Carbonade Flamande

Carbonade flamande is a classic Belgian stew. I must admit that, even though I’ve been to Belgium, I didn’t have carbonade flamande while there – I was too busy eating all the mussels in Brussels! But I saw the dish in an episode of Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations and just had to try it! I did a test run a couple months ago, and have tweaked the recipe slightly. Try it out some time – you just might like it!

1-2 DAYS BEFORE

The first thing we need is… gingerbread. Yes, gingerbread. Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense later. If you’re really motivated, you can google “Belgian grandma gingerbread recipe” and make it from scratch. If you’re not quite up for that, you can call around to local bakeries and see if they have any. But if you’re lazy like me, you can just go to your local grocery store and pick up a box of Betty Crocker gingerbread mix:

Carbonnade Flamande 01

It couldn’t be easier: just dump the mix into a large bowl, add one egg and 1½ cups water, and stir with a whisk for a couple minutes until the batter is smooth. Then pour into a greased 8×8″ glass pan and bake for around 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean:

Let the gingerbread cool completely, then cover with aluminum foil.

THE NIGHT BEFORE

The night before you want to make the stew, you need to make the marinade:

You can be super lazy and buy 3 pounds of stew meat, but for best results use 3 pounds of chuck roast instead. Cut a block off the roast, cut the block into cubes, then cut those cubes into bite-size cubes, trimming any excess fat as you go.

See the red plastic container in the above picture? Yeah, that wasn’t big enough for the meat and marinade, so I put the beef cubes in a gallon-size pitcher, along with 3 crushed cloves of garlic, two bay leaves and two 11.2 oz. bottles of Belgian ale. I used Gauloise, a blonde ale available at my local Lidl. It’s not the best Belgian beer you’ve ever tasted, but at $6.49 for a four-pack you can’t go wrong. Of course, if you have a preferred brand, you can use that… especially a sour Belgian ale, which is the traditional beer for this dish.

Put the meat + marinade in your fridge until the next day. The pitcher actually worked out really well – it was roomy, and the waterproof seal made it easy to turn the pitcher over and mix everything up, which is something you should do a couple times while marinating.

IT’S STEW TIME!

The next day, drain the beef but keep the marinade! Seriously, the liquid is important, so don’t throw it out:

Pat the beef dry with paper towels. Heat a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil in a French oven and brown the beef in small batches:

Why small batches? We want to fry the beef, so that it’s golden brown and delicious. If we threw all the beef into the pan at once, it would steam instead of fry, and we don’t want that. So take your time and do it right!

While the beef is cooking, stack 4 slices of bacon on top of each other, then cut into pieces. Also, slice three medium to large onions.

I totally spaced on taking pictures here, but once the beef is done, set it aside and drain any water in the pan. Add the bacon and cook until crispy, then remove. Leaving the bacon grease in the pan, cook the onions for about 10 minutes, until decently caramelized.

Once the onions turn brown and delicious, add 1½ cups of beef broth to the pan and scrape off the fond – the dark brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan – with a wooden spoon. When you’re done with that, you should have something like this:

It’s finally starting to come together! Add the marinade, beef and bacon to the pot, along with several springs of thyme:

Now… we could cook this on the stovetop for a couple hours. But I don’t wanna do that. The whole point of using a French oven is so that we could put this in the oven. So do that: put the lid on your French oven and cook the stew in your oven for around an hour at 325F. It should look like this:

So… remember the gingerbread? If you used an 8×8″ pan, cut the gingerbread in half, then cut it in half again, then turn each piece on its side and cut those in half. What we’re aiming for is four pieces of gingerbread, each about the size of a slice of bread. Put a total of two or three heaping tablespoons of real French Dijon mustard (don’t cheap out now!) on some of the slices… or divide it between all the slices, it doesn’t really matter. Just spread the mustard on the bread, as if you were making a sandwich.

Add a tablespoon of packed dark brown sugar to the stew along with a handful of parsley and stir well. Then add the gingerbread slices, mustard side down:

Put the lid back on and return to the oven for another hour, stirring the stew every so often. You’ll end up with something like this:

I’ll grant that it doesn’t photograph well, and might not look that appealing:

But trust me, it’s damn tasty! The beef was outrageously tender without being “mushy”, and there’s just something about the interplay between the ale and the gingerbread that’s just soooooo goood! You might find the sweetness from the gingerbread a bit too much – if so, some salt & pepper should fix that right up.

Carbonade flamande is traditionally served in a bowl with Belgian-style fries or roasted potatoes on the side. But there’s nothing stopping you from serving this over rice or egg noodles if you want.

“Passport to Flavor” Chips, Reviewed

For the past several years, Lay’s has held its “Do Us a Flavor” contest, where people from all over the United States submit flavor ideas to the company. The ideas are narrowed down to four and made into actual products consumers vote for. And thus, “Cheesy Garlic Bread”, “Wasabi Ginger” and “Southern Biscuits & Gravy” became actual potato chip flavors.

This year, however, Lay’s is doing something a little bit different. This year it’s “Passport to Flavor”, four exotic flavors from around the world. Which nation’s cuisine will reign supreme? Let’s find out, from worst to first!

Passport To Flavor chips

#4 Brazilian Picanha – Picanha is technically a cut of meat called a “rump cover” in the US. Although largely unknown in the US, it’s a highly-prized cut in Brazil, and is often grilled and served with chimichurri, a green sauce made of parsley, garlic, oil, oregano and vinegar.

THE TASTE: These mostly taste like sour cream & onion chips, with occasional bursts of generic “steak” flavor. If you’ve ever had Herr’s Kansas City Prime Steak chips, it’s a very similar taste, but a bit more… refined, for lack of a better word. To me, the steak flavor of the Herr’s chips is IN YOUR FACE and totally artificial; the Lay’s chips somehow taste a wee bit more authentic. But there’s not enough of it. And when the almost non-existent chimichurri flavor kicks in, it’s almost as if there was some kind of flavor mix-up at the factory, as if someone accidentally added a small amount of salt & vinegar flavoring to sour cream & onion chips. They’re not bad, exactly. I’d eat them again if I had to. They’re just kind of… underwhelming.

#3 Greek Tzatziki – I love gyros as much as the next guy. And a big part of that is the yummy tzatziki sauce that comes on them. I normally don’t care for yogurt and cucumbers individually, but put ’em together, and you’ve got deliciousness, buddy!

THE TASTE: What’s the opposite of underwhelming?  Oh yeah – overwhelming, which is how I’d describe the cucumber taste of these chips. I don’t get any garlic or dill at all – just ALL CUCUMBER, ALL THE TIME. I watched a YouTube review where a guy said all he could taste was “creamy dill”. I don’t know what planet that guy lives on, but all I get from these chips is cucumber, with a tiny note of some kind of cream\yogurt taste in the background. These wavy chips are so flavorful it’s almost unpleasant. I’d eat these again if I was at a sub shop and these were the only chips they had left. Otherwise I’ll pass. But at least they deliver on some flavor, which is more than you can say about the picanha chips.

#2 Indian Tikka Masala – I love Indian food, and one of my favorite Indian (okay, fine: Anglo-Indian) dishes is tikka masala. The lovely exotic spices. The tomato tang. The lush decadence of the cream. It’s all there, and it’s all good. Some folks like to say that tikka masala has replaced fish & chips as Britain’s national dish. And they’re not wrong – it’s that popular in the UK because it’s just that good.

THE TASTE: Man, I really, really, really wanted to love these chips. First, they’re kettle chips, which are always awesome. Second, I love tikka masala. But while these chips mostly hit the right flavor notes, there’s just something really, really, really “off” about one particular flavor note. When you first put one in your mouth, you get a kind of “generic curry” taste. Which is OK, I suppose. But then there’s this… godawful note of rancid chicken. I kid you not. The missus and I once accidentally forgot a pork tenderloin in the fridge. It was a couple weeks past its expiration date, but I decided to open the vacuum-sealed pouch to see if it still might be edible. As soon as the knife pierced the plastic, the kitchen filled with a smell that was partly vinegary, partly gamey, and partly the sweet smell of rot. It was not pleasant. And these tikka masala chips have a flavor note that, just for a second, tastes almost exactly like how that bad pork tenderloin smelled. If you can get past that – and the more chips I ate, the less I was able to do so – then you’re rewarded with a complex melange of flavors that do, in fact, taste like tikka masala. But that sour chicken note… blech! It’s like the stormtrooper hitting his head on the doorway in the original Star Wars: you might have watched the film a hundred times and never noticed it. But now that it’s been pointed out to you, you cannot not see it every time.

#1 Chinese Szechuan Chicken – Everyone has had Szechuan chicken at some point in their lives, right? Well, except the poor girl working at the Lake Wylie Publix I asked while looking for these chips. She also didn’t know what gyros were, much less that tzatziki sauce you put on them. I didn’t have the heart to ask her about picanha and tikka masala. Anyway, Szechuan chicken is one of the cornerstones of American Chinese restaurants. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Chinese place that didn’t have this on the menu.

THE TASTE: Nailed it. These chips taste almost exactly like the Szechuan chicken you’d order from your local Chinese take-out place. I mean, Lay’s captured every aspect of the taste. Funny thing about these chips: I was able to find large bags of the other flavors during a routine trip to Walmart. But my local Walmart didn’t have these. While out running errands, I stopped at a different Walmart and happened to see the small bags of these chips near the front of the store. I got two small bags instead of walking all the way to the back of the store to find a large bag. When I got home last night, I kept telling myself to slow down, that I needed to save a few chips for writing this article today. I inhaled that small bag. They were that good, and that addictive. Having said all that, I’m not entirely sure these are a flavor with staying power. Seems like these would clash with a lot of dishes normally eaten with chips (like sandwiches and hot dogs). It’s almost like they’re too specific. If someone was just eating the chips by themselves, then these are a good option. With something else? I’m not sure. But I’ll enjoy them while they’re here – they’re delicious!

Crock Pot Blackeyed Peas

I know this isn’t much of a “recipe”.. but I had these at a family potluck a few weeks ago and have made them TWICE since!

Software

1 16oz. bag dried blackeyed peas
3 packets Goya Ham Flavor Concentrate
Non-stick spray

Hardware

1 paper plate (see below)
1 mesh strainer (see below)
1 large spoon
1 Crock Pot

1) Go through the peas and remove any deformed peas or debris like pebbles or twigs. I pour about a quarter of the bag onto a paper plate, go through them, dump them into a mesh strainer, then repeat with remaining peas until done. But that’s just me.

2) Once you’ve gone through all the peas, rinse them thoroughly in a mesh strainer or colander.

3) Spray the inside of a Crock Pot with non-stick spray, then dump the peas in. Fill with water until the peas are covered by approximately 2 inches of water.

4) Add the three packs of Goya seasoning, then stir well to dissolve.

5) Cook on HIGH for two hours. Every so often check that the water level is OK, and add more if necessary. Give them a stir around once an hour.

6) After two hours, taste them. You may find them a bit too hard for your liking; if so, continue cooking for another hour or so, until done. If they’re close to being done, turn the heat down to LOW and cook for an additional 30 minutes or so.

We usually eat around 6:00 at my house, so I start these around 3:30. By 5:00 they’re nearly done, so I turn the heat down to LOW and let them go for around another 30-40 minutes before eating.

The Great Cheese War of 1935

Kids are funny: they do stupid stuff over and over again until they’re hurt or humiliated, and it’s only then that they learn not to do it again. All of us probably remember being repeatedly told “not to play on the railing, ‘cos you’ll fall off and get hurt” or “don’t run with scissors in your hand” and totally ignoring that advice… until you fell off the railing and broke your arm, or fell with the scissors and cut yourself.

This isn’t quite the same thing, but I had a similar thing with Limburger cheese.

Originally from Duchy of Limburg, an interesting corner of the Holy Roman Empire where modern day Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet, Limburger cheese is one of the foulest-smelling foods ever invented. When fresh, it’s a harmless hard cheese, not unlike feta. But then a bacteria is added which actually decomposes it into a creamy cheese… that positively reeks of ammonia. It smells… well, I can’t even describe it. Imagine if a soldier or homeless person wore the same boots for 6 months without taking them off once. Now, imagine the soldier or homeless person taking the boots off and sticking them into a giant pile of monkey diarrhea… while getting a perm… in a slaughterhouse. It’s about that bad, really.

German and Belgian immigrants brought Limburger with them to the US in the early 1880s… and Americans started making fun of it immediately, Seriously: it’s possible that the very first Limburger cheese joke was made on Ellis Island. It was called “the cheese you can find in the dark”. Vaudeville acts of German or Yiddish immigrants – even young Groucho Marx – were said to speak “Limburger English”. Mark Twain used Limburger in a short piece called “The Invalid’s Story”, in which a man wants to take a dead friend home by train, but is mistakenly given a box full of guns. The box is placed next to a shipment of Limburger, which begins to stink… so the protagonist thinks it’s his dead friend stinking up the rail car.

In real life, an Irish woman in New York City tried to commit suicide in 1895 because her German husband ate Limburger all the time and tried to “get amorous” with her with it on his breath. That same year, a strike broke out at a dairy in Newark when a Swedish worker smeared Limburger all over some equipment as a prank, causing anti-Swedish sentiment to boil over, which caused the Swedes to walk off the job.

Speaking of pranks, for decades comedies and cartoons had Limburger whenever something foul-smelling was needed, especially in Warner Brothers cartoons. Penelope Pussycat tried to escape from Pepé Le Pew by hiding in a Limburger factory to throw off her scent. A cartoon dog had Limburger dumped on him while reading the “a rose by any other name” line from Shakespeare in 1949’s A Ham in a Role, the “last cartoon of the Golden Age of American Animation”. And, of course, Tom and Jerry had Limburger in damn near every episode.

Kraft Limburger
Kraft Limburger makes an appearance in “Our Gang”.

For some reason, this cheese was available everywhere when I was a kid. No joke: you could go to a Piggly Wiggly on Route 207 in East Bumble, Alabama, and they’d have it by the lunch meat (next to the Oscar Mayer braunschweiger, which I actually like, but never see anyone buy, either). And every single time I saw it, I just had to smell it.

“It can’t be as bad as I remember it,” I’d think. But it always was. Worse even.

Continue reading “The Great Cheese War of 1935”

Green Tabasco

From the “Holy Crap… I meant to post this four months ago!” Department:

Life is full of little mysteries, like where lost socks go, or what happened to those car keys I lost back in 1993. Some times the mysteries remain unsolved. But some times you actually get answers!

Back in the early 90s, the McIlhenny Company, makers of Tabasco sauce, released their first new sauce in what was then the 122 year history of the company. It was a green sauce, made from jalapeno peppers, and it was delicious! I bought a couple bottles, but the sauce then disappeared from store shelves. I kind of forgot about it for a time, then saw it again at my local Publix:

tabasco_green

But it seemed different somehow. To me, it lacked some of the “kick” I remembered. And for the life of me, I could swear that the bottle originally said “jalapeno sauce” instead of “green pepper sauce”.

Alas, no one else seemed to remember (or care) if the sauce had changed. Every so often I’d think of it, and do a Google search for “Tabasco Jalapeno sauce”. But Tabasco Jalapeno sauce came out a few years before the Internet, so I never really found anything about it. That is, until this past September. I once again did a Google search, only this time I found a picture of one of the original bottles:

tabasco_jalapeno

But why the name change? And did the company just change the name? Did they change the recipe, too? I sent the company a comment via their website, and then almost immediately forgot about it. I mean, how often do you leave a company a comment and never hear anything in return?

So I was surprised when Shane K. Bernard, the “Historian & Curator” of the McIlhenny Company (cool job!), emailed me a few days later. According to Bernard, former president and CEO Paul McIlhenny told him that the company did focus group testing on the new sauce and found that the public believed that “Tabasco jalapeno sauce” must be very hot, even hotter than original Tabasco sauce. Which was actually the exact opposite of what the company intended: a sauce milder than original Tabasco. So the company changed the name to make it seem less hot to the public.

But what about the recipe? According to Bernard:

“As for the taste, it should not have changed, since I believe it was still the same sauce, just re-branded.”

So… there ya go. Mystery solved!

MY $3 DINNER: Jamaican Beef Patties

The second in a continuing series of reviews of frozen food from Dollar Tree. If you like, you may read this review of Dollar Tree dim sum.

I can’t remember the date, but I’ll never forget the day. I was a junior or senior in high school, and one day I accompanied my mother to our local Kroger. Oh, I wasn’t doing that to be a “nice son” and help mom with the chores. I was doing it because my mom isn’t a “snacker”. To her a “snack” was lima beans and mayonnaise or cornbread drenched in buttermilk. She almost never bought Twinkies or Fritos on her own, so my going to the store with mom was the only way my sister and I’d get Little Debbies, Hot Pockets, microwave popcorn, and all of the other delicious junk food crap we craved as teenagers.

It was while mom was looking at the meat counter that I spied them. In one of those “casket freezers”, I spotted “Tower Isles Spicy Jamaican Beef Patties”. They looked good, so I got a box. And, a few days later, I fell in love. The spicy, curry-infused meat filling, the tumeric-laden crust… it was all good!

One of the downsides to moving to Charlotte was that I couldn’t find Jamaican beef patties anywhere, aside from Caribbean specialty stores on the other side of town. But then, one glorious day, I found that my local Walmart carrying them! $2.58 for a box of two patties! And, a year or two later, my local Dollar Tree finally put in a freezer section, and had them for only $1 each!

beef_patties_01

Heating them up is easy. You can either tear the package down the side and heat it up in the microwave for 2 minutes (there’s a “crisper sleeve” on the inside of the package), or you can put them in a 375F oven for 16-20 minutes. I prefer using a conventional oven because I like my patties crispy. It’s worth the wait, I think.

Here are the patties, ready to eat:

beef_patties_02

I normally get beef patties, but this time I decided to get two beef and two chicken. And they’re delicious! One thing, though: I’m not sure if Golden Krust makes their “spicy” beef patty milder than Tower Isles, or if I’ve just become so accustomed to spicy foods that my tolerance level is that high, but they’re just not spicy enough for me. I often drown them in my homemade West Indies Hot Sauce. Oh, and I actually like the chicken ones, too! They’re not nearly as spicy as the beef ones, but they have a great curry flavor that I just love! Mmmmm.. curry!

THE VERDICT: Would I eat them again? Hell, I’d eat them every day!

For the nitpickers out there: I normally buy four patties (as shown in the pictures), but I almost always only eat three for dinner. The fourth one is a leftover for snacks. So it’s still a “$3 dinner”.

QUICK REVIEW: Campbell’s Slow Cooked Sauces

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a picture of some Korean-style barbeque she’d made. She’d made it with a new product called Campbell’s Slow Cooked Sauces. Oddly, Campbell’s doesn’t seem to mention them on any of their websites, so I had to get more info about them from Amazon. In doing so I found this:

campbells_luau

I’m a sucker for anything “Hawaiian” or “luau” related. I just had to track some of this stuff down and try it out. For some reason, though, I kept forgetting to look for them at the store. It took several trips for me to remember, but I finally found them last week at Walmart. Just so ya know, they come in several other flavors: my friend’s Sweet Korean BBQ (for beef), Moroccan Spice (for chicken), Tavern Style Pot Roast (for beef), Mexican Red Chile (for beef, for tacos) and Apple Bourbon BBQ (for pork).

I can’t speak for the other sauces, but preparing the Hawaiian Luau couldn’t be simpler: just put a pork roast in a slow cooker (pro tip: use liners to make clean-up easier), then pour the sauce over the meat, set your Crock Pot to 8 hours… and that’s just about it! The instructions tell you to shred the pork just before serving, which I was kind of nervous about: I didn’t want to pull the meat from the Crock Pot (and make a giant mess), but if I left the meat in the Pot I was afraid the forks would shred the liner and make a huge mess… which is why I used a liner in the first place… ya know? Thankfully, the meat was so tender that brute force wasn’t needed – the pork shredded very easily when it was done.

So… how is it? Pretty good! I liked the “Hawaiian” flavors of pineapple and mango. It was well balanced with the pork and was very… harmonious. One thing, though: either 8 hours was too long to cook the meat, or my Crock Pot runs hot… because some of the sauce burned. I don’t mind the taste (burnt ends are the best part of the brisket, in my opinion), but it you have any family members who are “sensitive” to burnt tastes, you might want to keep an eye on the Crock Pot and add some water or pineapple juice halfway through cooking to keep any burning to a minimum.

Other than that little quibble, I really liked the dish. What I didn’t like, however, was the price. The actual sauce mix is only $1.98 at my local Wally World, but it seems that most of the sauces are intended for 2-3 pounds of meat. I got a 3 pound pork roast from Walmart for around $9.77, making the total cost of the meal $12.24 (this includes 49¢ for the liner, but not sales tax or the electricity needed to power the Crock Pot for 8 hours, or the side of white rice I made to accompany the meal). $12.24 is a bit spendy for me, since I’m the only one in the house that’d eat it. Of course, for a family of four, it would be a much more reasonable $3.06 per person. And I did make two meals and a couple of snacks out it, so perhaps I should think of it as $3.06/meal, too. Still, as the only one in the house who eats meat, it seems expensive to throw down almost $15 for a meal. I wish they made the sauces in smaller portions, so you could cook, say, a pound of pork chops instead of a three pound roast. I’d be much more likely to buy them that way.

MY $3 DINNER: Dim Sum

Back in July, I posted this piece about a ribeye “steak” for sale at my local Dollar Tree. A week later, my sister Facebooked a cell phone pic of a poster advertising the same “steaks” at her local Dollar Tree. I commented on her pic, and suggested that I review all the frozen food Dollar Tree sells. My sis thought it was funny… and so… here we are.

The missus and I go to Dollar Tree every few weeks to pick up various odds and ends, like shower curtain liners, tealight candles, C batteries, circus peanuts (don’t judge!) and Utz Crab Chips (every store in Charlotte sells Utz chips, but only Dollar Tree sells the Crab Chip flavor for some reason). Also, my local Dollar Tree recently installed a freezer, allowing this particular location to sell frozen food items for the first time. I almost always check out the frozen foods, and often pick up a few Golden Krust Jamaican beef patties, ‘cos they’re $2.58 for 2 at Walmart, but only $1 each at Dollar Tree.

On our most recent trip, the missus pointed out a bag of frozen pot stickers. I gave ’em a look, and was surprised that they were a 7 oz pack (compared to some of the other laughably small frozen items they sell). But then I spied another Chinese food item: cha siu bao, a bun stuffed with barbequed pork! Considering that this was a Dollar Tree in Belmont, North Carolina I was well and truly shocked! I know of only a couple of places to buy them in Charlotte, and those are restaurants. The notion of buying frozen ones – and for only a dollar no less! – was just… amazing!

I gleefully grabbed a pack of pot stickers (pork, naturally) and 2 bao. And last night was the night they became my $3 dinner:

dt_dim_sum_01
(click to enlarge)

Although microwave instructions were provided for both items, I decided to go the traditional route and steam them. That meant getting out the double boiler and filling it halfway up with water. I then sprayed the top “rack” of the boiler with Pam, added the pot stickers and, when the water began to boil, put the rack on the boiler and covered. I let those cook for 9 minutes before adding the bao, as they (allegedly) only required 5 minutes of steaming. Come to find out, the bao were still slightly frozen inside after 6 minutes of steaming, so I plated the pot stickers and nuked the bao for a minute in the microwave. When the bao were done, it was time to eat:

dt_dim_sum_02
(Click to enlarge)

So… how were they?

Well, as soon as I opened the bag of pot stickers I noticed how pungent they were… and I mean that in a good way. They smelled almost exactly like the ones I get from my local Chinese restaurant. So that was a good sign. But it wasn’t until they’d steamed that I realized just how thin the wrappers are on these things. The wrappers my local Chinese place uses for pot stickers are thick, almost as thick as a Kraft cheese slice. These, on the other hand, were paper thin. I almost tore the first couple in half as I pulled them out of the steam basket. What’s more, these diminutive dumplings only had a teaspoon of filling each, compared to the tablespoon (and a half?) stuffed in the ones from my local Chinese place. Having said all that, all the right tastes were there. They might be small, but they sure tasted almost exactly like the ones from my favorite Chinese restaurant. And actually, when it comes to copying the taste of Chinese restaurant pot stickers, these actually put Trader Joe’s pot stickers to shame! If I had to choose between these and restaurant ones, I’d certainly choose the restaurant ones any day. But these are a perfectly serviceable substitute. I’d be happy to keep a couple packs in the freezer for football games and snacks. And they certainly have my local Chinese place beat on price: I could almost buy 5 bags of the things for what New China charges for a single order of pot stickers!

And then there were the bao. One thing I don’t like about bao generally is the inconsistent sweetness of the bun. At some places, the bun is nearly tasteless. At others there’s a faint sweet taste, as if they misted it with sugar water after steaming. But then some places seem to dunk the buns in high fructose corn syrup after steaming. Gross. So yeah – I’m not a fan of the sweeter buns, and thankfully these only had a slight sweetness to them.

I was also impressed by the ratio of filling to bun: many bao have a tiny amount of filling in a giant bun. If you’ve ever had chicken and dumplings with drop dumplings, imagine a baseball-sized dumpling with a tiny teaspoon of filling inside. These were perfectly balanced – not too much bun, not too much filling. And guess what? The filling had plenty of pork in it! If you’ve ever looked at the picture of a Hot Pocket on the front of the box – where they’re almost bursting with pepperoni or ham or whatever – then bit in to one to find mostly air… you have nothing to worry about here!

My only problem was that there was an odd sweetness to the barbeque pork that seemed to build as I ate the buns. Sugar (or corn syrup) is not listed as ingredient in the buns, but the oyster sauce and hoisin sauce both have sugar as a main ingredient. Still, it’s a minor quibble. These aren’t quite as good as the ones you’d get in a dim sum house… but they’re really, really good for a frozen product. Just steam them for at least 10 minutes, not the 5 listed on the instructions.

THE VERDICT: Two thumbs up – would eat both again!

The Saddest Thing Ever

Dollar Tree is a chain of variety stores in the US where most everything sells for $1, much like Poundland in the UK.

Most of the products sold at Dollar Tree are private label items; walk down the hardware, kitchen gadget or toy aisles and you’ll find that almost everything is “imported by Greenbrier International”, the Dollar Tree subsidiary that purchases and distributes those items. Dollar Tree also sells a lot of “faded brands” like Fabuloso and Bon Ami cleaners, Aim and Ultrabrite toothpaste, Lavoris mouthwash, Sunbeam batteries, and so on. They also sell a variety of off-brand grocery items, mostly stuff like canned chili or dried pasta that wouldn’t sell for much more than a dollar at a regular grocery store. And when dollar stores started really taking off in the mid 1990s, high profile manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Johnson Wax started making goods especially for them. So where a local grocery store might sell a box of 30 Ziploc brand bags for $2.79, Dollar Tree might sell a box of 10 for $1.

But there are some goods which just don’t belong in a dollar store. I was at my local Dollar Tree today, checking out the new freezer case, when I spotted a “Ribeye Steak” for only a buck. I knew there HAD to be a catch, so I opened up the freezer to check it out:

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Yeah… let’s turn this thing over:

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Wow. That’s… one teeny tiny steak ya got there. Look how thin it is compared to my finger:

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Good Lord, it’s barely enough for a single cheesesteak sandwich, and that’s not even counting the “up to thirty percent solution” of salt water added to the meat to bulk it out.

Jesus… I almost feel sorry for the cow, ya know? The poor thing ended up as a Dollar Tree steak… and you know no cow ever dreams of that. I bet when most cows are young they hope to one day become steaks at Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s or Peter Luger. But maybe some cows hit middle age and become resigned to the fact that they’re going to end up at Outback or LongHorn, and they’re OK with that. Cows that don’t give a damn and smoke and drink too much (Bukowski cows, they’re called) end up at Denny’s and Waffle House. Sickly cows end up in dog food. But what kind of sad cow ends up as a Dollar Tree steak?