I rrrrolled up the rrrrim…

…and winned! But all I won was a stupid cup of coffee.

free coffeeSo now I’m sitting here with this empty cup that’s worth a full cup. But that means I have to walk through the mall with it, through the Metro station, down to the other mall, and over to the Tim Horton’s kiosk. Then I have look like a total loser by waiting in line while holding the empty cup, and when my turn comes, I have to loudly announce that I am here to get my free cup of coffee.

Implicitly I’d be saying that I will sell my dignity for a buck and a half’s worth of Joe, that I’m a coupon clipper, that I’m a sucker for loyalty marketing tricks. That I’m like Oliver Twist begging for more soup.

On the other hand, at least I wouldn’t be as bad as Mike Holmes, who shills instant coffee every morning on television. Talk about selling your dignity. Come on, Mike. Make it right. Make it with a French press!

My crime

Not many comments this week, and my reader stats are down, plus this is Friday, so I suppose this is a good time for me to confess to a crime. My crime: I fed my sweetie a pre-packaged “ready to cook” meal last night.

OK, so it’s not the biggest crime ever. But loyal readers know that one of my main points of emphasis when I discuss food at the Blork Blog is the importance of avoiding “factory food” and of making things from scratch as much as possible. I stake this position from the points of view of health and flavor. Stuff you make yourself generally has fewer additives, and tastes better than anything from a package – unless your palate is hopelessly lost to the unholy trinity of too much salt, sugar, and grease, in which case food from a box will likely appeal to you very much.

But last night was an odd one. I generally plan the week’s meals in advance, but for some reason Thursday night was left blank. I didn’t realize it until well into the afternoon, and by then I could find no inspiration for one of my impromptu pantry-raiding escapades.

So I called the girl on the phone and we decided to resort to a frozen packaged meal (for two) that I bought a few weeks ago for just such emergencies. It was one of those new Knorr frozen pasta meals that they’ve been advertising on television recently in which they’re referred to as “f-BEEP’n” meals. The “f-word” in this case is “frozen.” I have to admit, I thought the ads were brilliant, so when I saw the packages at the IGA I decided to buy one.

I chose the Grilled Chicken Alfredo, because it’s the variety that’s most different from something I could normally whip up in ten minutes anyway. Before buying it I checked the ingredients – I was pleasantly surprised to see that the product is 99% food. There is hardly anything in there that I wouldn’t have used if I had made it from scratch. Specifically, here’s what’s in it, with the “iffy” things highlighted:

Alfredo sauce (cream, white wine, parmesan & pecorino romano sheep’s milk cheeses, Bechamel sauce [contains egg], water, onions & garlic, extra virgin olive oil, unsalted butter, spice, salt) Fettuccine pasta (durham wheat semolina, water, liquid whole egg, sunflower oil, salt), grilled seasoned chicken (chicken, water, soy protien isolate, salt, glucose, dehydrated onions & garlic, flavour, sodium phosphate, spice, portobello mushrooms, dehydrated tomatoes (tomatoes, calcium chloride), spice and sulphates.

Generally speaking, not bad. Pretty darn good, actually. I mean really – most of that stuff is actual food. No high fructose corn syrup, no weird gels and gums, no bizarre oils or weird things you can’t pronounce. There is some glucose and soy protein in the chicken, but probably not much – the chicken had the flavor and texture of chicken that had been freshly grilled and sliced.

Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect, so to help compensate in the event of a disaster, I whipped up a couple of antipasto plates of prosciutto (leftover from Saturday’s pizza adventure), some nice old Cheddar cheese, some spicy sun-dried tomato and olive tapenade, some white anchovies with home-made lemon sauce, and a big rosemary grissino. (So much for no impromptu pantry raid.) I also popped open a nice bottle of crisp French white wine from the Luberon, which is close enough to Italy to not provoke a fist fight. OK, so now I don’t feel so bad.

Then I cooked the Chicken Alfredo thing. It was ridiculously easy – I just dropped everything in the bag into a non-stick pan at low-medium heat and covered it. After five minutes I stirred it, and let it simmer for another five minutes. That was it.

The proof, as always, was is the eating. And the eating, I am both happy and sad to announce, was pretty good. I’m usually put off by “Alfredo” things, as I find them too rich and overly creamy (usually with fake food such as hydrogenated oils and corn starch), but this one was lightly creamy, and quite tasty. The chicken, as I mentioned above, tasted like chicken, and the chunks of mushrooms tasted like mushrooms. The pasta, while not as al-dente as it would be if I’d made this from scratch, was in reasonably good shape and didn’t suffer from the mushiness you usually find in frozen pasta dishes.

Good job. The real test, however, will be to see if they can maintain this high level of quality. As I have absolutely no faith in corporations (especially food corporations), I half expect to see “factory creep” in the ingredients if this product stays on the market, as well as an overall decline in quality. (It’s like a bait-and-switch; a product is great when it’s introduced, and once it develops a faithful following, it slides into decline.)

But maybe that’s just me and my sour cynicism. All I can say for sure is that this one was pretty good. Does it replace home-cooking? No. Would I buy it again for those rare days when I don’t feel like cooking? Hell, yeah!

(As per Blork’s endorsements & sponsorships policy, which you can find at the top of the sidebar under “More Blork,” I have not received any compensation or other consideration from Knorr for this discussion of their product.)

Choosing your lettuce: local vs. loco

(Note: see the updates at the bottom of this post…) 

Lettuce eaters in Quebec are familiar with the Mirabel brand of hydroponic butter lettuce that is available year-round. It comes in two varieties; the “Premium” lettuce is packaged in a semi-rigid plastic dome, and the less expensive “Classic” version is stuffed into a soft plastic bag.

The Premium version can be a bit more expensive than other lettuces, but the dome helps it keep its shape, and it always seems cleaner than the bagged type, which gives it the added convenience of not needing to be washed. (Both varieties claim to be grown without pesticides and fungicides.)

However, some of us balk at all that packaging. On the other hand, butter lettuce is notoriously delicate, so there is a question of quality, as the bagged version is usually (but not always) in fairly rough shape as compared to its domed cousin.

At Loblaws last weekend the price difference that day was only twenty cents. The Premium lettuce was clearly in much better shape than the Classic one, so I opted for the dome. They both use plastic packaging, and I’m not convinced the rigid plastic dome is any worse than the bag. I’m also more likely to recycle the rigid package.

But then there’s the question of transportation. I happily buy Mirabel lettuce knowing it’s the only lettuce product that is made year-round in Quebec. No cross-continent shipping there – even with the dome it has a much smaller ecological footprint than the bulk stuff that’s shipped in from California and Chile. It is unfortunate that we ecologically-minded people often fall victim to knee-jerk reactions: we’ll choose a loose head of lettuce that’s been flown in from California over a local product that’s packaged in five grams of recyclable plastic because we’re “against all that packaging.” Where’s the sense in that?

Still, I wasn’t fully convinced. After all, the Mirabel Classic lettuce presumably consumes less shipping fuel per unit because it is more compact.

I decided to take a closer look. Sure enough, the Premium lettuce is marked “Product of Canada.” The bagged Classic lettuce, however, surprised me. Even though it is the same product, from the same brand, it is marked “Product of Mexico.”

All this time I had assumed the bagged Classic version was more ecological than the domed Premium one. But the Classic lettuce has travelled almost 4000 kilometers to get to my table, whereas the Premium lettuce has travelled less than 50.

I have a new appreciation for the Premium lettuce. I also have a reinforced sense of the importance of reading labels and of understanding where my food comes from. Things are not always what they seem – even with all that (recyclable) plastic, the domed lettuce is local, while the bagged stuff comes all the way from Mexico, and that’s just plain loco.

(Note: I don’t know if all Classic lettuce comes from Mexico, nor if all Premium lettuce comes from Quebec. My inquiries to Hydroserre have thus far gone unanswered.)

Update, March 25/07: I saw Mirabel Classic lettuce in a different store today, and it was labeled “product of Canada.” It would seem that the Classic variety is produced in at least two locations (Quebec and Mexico). No word yet on the Premium, and whether or not it is exclusively local or also produced elsewhere.

Update, April 11/07: Today I saw the Boston Premium lettuce at Provigo, and it was marked “Product of Mexico.” So it seems that both varieties are produced in both locations. So you should check the package every time you are thinking of buying it, and I strongly encourage you to only buy the local one.

Arugula pizza!

A couple of weeks ago, Chef Nick posted some culinary reviews and photos from his recent trip to New York. One thing in particular stuck with me – a description of the arugula pizza from Luzzo’s on 1st Avenue in Manhattan, which he followed up with a photo.

Saturday was pizza day at chez nous, so I checked Nick’s description again and went shopping for the proper ingredients. (Tip: tread lightly when you go into your friendly neighbourhood Italian charcuterie and say “give me your best prosciutto!” At $60 per kilo, it gets pricey!)

As usual, we started with a pizza Margherita – zen-like in its delicious simplicity. That worked out quite well, so I was psyched to try the arugula pie.

I stretched out the second dough and spread it with my home-made sauce – a simple sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, a pinch of salt, a small scattering of basil, and a touch of garlic. I let it cook for no more than five minutes, and when it cools down I pour in a big slug of extra virgin olive oil.

Then I scattered on a handful of grated Friulano cheese (not too much), then some chunks of fresh mozzarella. I slid the pie into the oven (hot as I can make it; 550° F) and sat back to watch. The dough rose instantly and things in the middle were bubbling madly. When using a well-heated pizza stone, it takes only about six minutes to make a pizza in a 550° oven, so I had to be vigilant. When it was almost done, I pulled the pie out, scattered on some torn strips of prosciutto, and put it back in the oven for another minute.

Then I pulled the pie out of the oven and scattered a bunch of raw baby arugula across the top, followed by a handful of shaved parmiggiano cheese. The idea is that you don’t want to cook those last two ingredients, but the heat from the pizza warms them and releases their delicious aromas.

Here it is:

pizzaNot bad for a first attempt. It even looks a bit like Luzzo’s except that it’s way smaller and not so uniformly round. (My pizzas almost always take an odd shape.) It uses pretty much the same ingredients, except for the Friulano, which was my idea (I’ve used it before – it mixes nicely with mozz.)

And it tasted great! What an interesting combination of flavors. I will definitely make this one again. Thanks to Chef Nick and Luzzo’s for the inspiration!