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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Niman Ranch: Pulled Pork with Barbecue Sauce

Oh, barbecue. Or, as I will be referring to it through the remainder of this post, BBQ. One of the staple American foods. Though its form may vary throughout the country, one thing remains true: it's usually pretty @#*%&$ing amazing. Oh, and there is one other unfortunate truth: commercially, it usually comes with gluten-laden soy sauce. Gah! So, you can imagine how intrigued I was when, while trolling my local Whole Foods for dinner ideas, I spotted a tub of Niman Ranch's BBQ pulled pork, with the "Gluten-Free" tag prominently displayed on the packaging. "Why, hello," I thought. "Wouldn't it be interesting to try you... especially on one of Canyon Bakehouse's fantastic buns?" Dinner plans made!

So, who are these guys? Well, from what I can gather, Niman's food animals have it pretty good. Until, you know, they are killed and turned into BBQ. But before that point, their animals are kept relatively uncaged, fed vegetarian-only feed, and never injected with hormones. Of course, that latter talking point is slightly dispelled by an admission that "Federal Regulations prohibit the use of hormones in pork." One assumes that even if that were not true, Niman would not be going crazy with the stuff. The takeaway? This isn't ordinary meat. Cool!

Preparing the BBQ is pretty easy. It comes in a pouch within a tub. You slit some holes in the pouch, rest the pouch in the tub, and nuke it for 4-5 minutes. You then let it rest, dump it out of the pouch, and you're good to go. Since 4-5 minutes is usually how long it takes me to toast a hamburger bun, the timing worked out splendidly. While it was cooking, I checked out the ingredients a little to see what type of BBQ I was dealing with. The result: tomatoes, brown sugar, vinegar, soy sauce... the closest BBQ-variant seems to be Texan. Suits me fine- I'm not as big of a fan of Kansas City's BBQ, and the Carolina mustard-based sauces can be hit-or-miss. Carolina's other BBQ style, the vinegar sauce, on the other hand... DROOOOOOOOOOOL... Er... anyway. The smell that wafted out of the microwave was very enticing, and I had my sights set on good times. I was not disappointed. I would not call the taste of the BBQ sauce "complicated," but I would call it very tasty. As I inferred, the first two ingredients listed for the sauce are tomato puree and brown sugar. No surprise, they're the two most-prevalent taste elements present. If you're not a fan of tomato/brown sugar BBQ, you won't like this. I am a fan. Case closed. The pork, meanwhile was nice and tender and was pulled enough that there were few large, sandwich-busting chunks present. However, there were the occasional chunks of straight fat in there, and those had to be fished out. I know fat is responsible for a lot of beautiful tastes, but I am not a fan of large globules. Get rid of those, and my list of complaints drops to... well, none.

Of course, there is the nutrition issue. It's BBQ, and no one expects a pulled pork sandwich to be the most healthy of delicacies. That said, I am pleasantly surprised by the nutrition info, here. The serving size is a reasonable 1/4 cup (which seems about how much I put in my sandwich). In that quarter-cup, you're getting 110 calories (40 from fat), which is not tremendous. But you're also getting 4.5g fat (1.5g sat fat, 0g trans fat), which seems reasonable, 30mg cholesterol, which is maybe a bit much, and 210mg sodium, which is... okay. So, kind of a mixed bag, here, is what I'm saying. Still, given the usual bomb o' unhealthiness that makes up a typical American BBQ, these stats are pretty good. So, if you want a quick BBQ dinner, check out Niman's Pulled Pork!

Read on!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ruth's Chia Goodness Apple Almond Cinnamon

Ah, breakfast, that most important meal of the day. Yet, it naturally occurs during the time in the day when my personal mental acuity is at its ebb. And, during the work week, it's something I want to be done with ASAP. Given all that, can you imagine how excited I was to find a breakfast item that promised easy preparation and fantastic nutrition? Well, okay, I wasn't jumping up and down or anything, but I was intrigued, to say the least. Well, let's talk first about the food involved here, or rather, the "superfood." That food is Salvia Hispanica, more commonly known as "Chia." Yes, Chia. As in, Chia Pets. That Chia. Yes, apparently the fuel behind all those Porky Pigs has been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years (especially by the Aztecs), and according to Ruth's packaging, is "quite possibly the most nutritious seed ever." Really? That seems difficult to quantify. What has been quantified is that chia seeds are high in calcium, protein, fiber, magnesium, and an Omega-3 fatty acid known as ALA. Trustworthy studies on the benefits of eating chia seeds are thin on the ground, unfortunately, so the full effects of this food are unknown. That didn't stop "Dr. Oz" from the Oprah Winfrey show from endorsing these seeds, rather predictably leading to their current surge in popularity.

In their particular application, Ruth's have paired their chia seeds with buckwheat and hemp for more seedy goodness; they've also thrown in almonds, raisins, and dried apples for flavor. I've noted before that I have a weakness for apple cinnamon as a taste concept-- would that weakness lead me to loving this food?

Well, let's first talk about the way this stuff is prepared. According to the directions, it couldn't be any easier! Just mix 2T of seed mix with 1/4 cup of water (hot or cold water, even), stir, and let set for 3-5 minutes. While you wait, the mixture is supposed to "thicken." This particular bit led me to think that the resulting meal would be similar to grits in its consistency. Spoiler alert: not so much! The first time I tried making it, I went with the "cold water" approach. I measured, poured, stirred, and waited. After waiting the requisite five minutes, all I had was a not-entirely-appealing-looking layer of watery sludge in the bottom of my bowl (see the pic). I steeled myself, and took a bite. The flavor wasn't too bad. The seeds all tasted, well, seedy, but the apple-cinnamon almond combination was fairly decent. I also didn't mind the presence of the raisins, as I am normally wont to do. However, when considering the dish's texture, well, there was one rather unrelenting problem: chia seeds, apparently, when they get get, get slimy. So I was eating something whose major mass was cold and slimy. I'm not going to lie to you. It was gross. I got through most of the bowl, but I couldn't quite finish it. Cold, slimy, and watery? Blech. Also: raisins. On the plus side, though, I didn't get as hungry as I'd feared, especially given that 2T seeds + 1/4 cup water = not much food. But I didn't get even the slightest bit peckish for the rest of the morning. Bonus!

I knew, though, that in the interests of fairness, I was going to have to try again, this time with hot water. So, once I had convinced myself I was ready, I did just that. Again I measured the seeds, again I poured the water, again I waited. Again, the stuff failed to "set" in any meaningful way (the picture above, actually, is from the second attempt). Was it a better eating experience? Slightly. Using warm water instead of cold meant that the chia seeds were now warm and slimy rather than cold and slimy. However, they were still slimy. And "slimy" is just not a quality I want in my food. For full disclosure's sake, I decided to make the meal one last time, this time being absolutely sure to get the measurements right. Maybe the reason the stuff failed to set was because there was just too much water in it? Turns out, not so much. The third attempt, with my carefully-controlled measurements, was actually the worst of all in terms of cohesiveness. It went in the trash.

Salvia hispanica may, in fact, be one of the most powerfully nutritious seeds out there, but this is a bad vehicle for it. If you're interested in reaping its benefits, The GF Critic suggests buying the seeds in bulk and using them as addons; perhaps sprinkling them into a smoothie or into some yogurt. Meanwhile, I'll be continuing my search for the perfect breakfast food.

Read on!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Conte's Margherita Pizza with Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil

When I made my previous pizza post, I declared myself to be something of a "traditionalist" as it comes to pizza pie. This is very true! It is also generally true that I tend to prefer my pizzas with meat on them. And yet! I believe I have found the perfect gluten-free frozen pizza, and its face is meatless! Can it truly be so? Well, yes. Conte's foods have been popping up in the freezer sections of Albuquerque's finer groceries for... maybe a year, now? Suffice to say, I've a few things to get cracking on, review-wise! But let's talk pizza.

I'll admit, I didn't know what a Margherita pizza was before I tried Conte's. I mean, it sounds like something one should order on the rocks, rather than from their local Whole Foods. So eating this pizza was both delicious, and educational! More than that, it was long-lasting. Why? Well, it's a big pizza. I don't have pictures to back me up, unfortuately, but unlike other pizzas I have reviewed, these are about a foot in diameter, so either dine with a friend or you're going to have leftovers. The composition of the pizza is somewhat non-surprising: thin crust, thin layer of sauce, thin layer of cheese, but... the sauce! The sauce is lovely. The crust is nicely pliable. The cheese is... cheese. It's hard to screw up cheese. Now, the two ingredients called out especially by the box are garlic and olive oil. The garlic, well, you can tell it's there. It's also delicious. I don't know quite how it is present, I'll admit. There aren't any specs of material in the pizza that say "hey, I'm garlic!" Possibly I am ignorant in the ways of garlic. But... yeah, I just don't know. And the olive oil? I'm sure it does a great job, but its presence is not particularity keen. But these are minor quibbles. The point is, the pizza is great.

Of course, that greatness comes with a price. Conte's defines one of their servings as a quarter of the pizza. And in that quarter toy get... 220 calories, 80 of those from fat, 30 from saturated fat. There's 9g fat (3.5 saturated, 0.5g polyunsaturated, 4g monounsaturated... but no trans fat), and 35mg cholesterol. You're also looking at 550mg sodium and 25g carbs. But hey! 20% of your daily calcium dose is included, as well! Sweet!

In the eyes of this critic, Conte's has delivered a rather fantastic pizza experience. Soon, it will be time to put their other products to the test! Stay tuned...

Read on!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kinnikinnick S'moreables Graham Style Crackers

There are two types of crackers whose emulation seem to be most sought-after when it comes to the gluten-free market: Ritz, and Graham. Ritz crackers, I think, have been fairly well copped to (at least as far as I can tell), but the graham has been a somewhat more elusive target... until now. Okay, let me back up just a little bit, because talking about Graham crackers (or Graham-style crackers) lets me point out the interesting life of Sylvester Graham, progenitor of said crackers. Seriously, check out that wiki page. Dude carved his entire lifestyle around "curbing lust." Betcha didn't know graham crackers were associated with such things!

Okay, now for the actual review. Kinnikinnick have been around for the while, though their actual in-store presence is somewhat limited, at least in my neck of the woods. I guess that's not entirely surprising, as they are a Canadian company, and I'm in Albuquerque, but... anyway.

So, the crackers. Usually, I am loathe to compare a gluten-free product to it's "real" version, but I think it helps in getting the basics down, here. So if you compare S'moreables to "normal" graham crackers, you'll find that S'moreables are smaller, slightly thicker, and somewhat less crisp than your traditional graham. On the other hand, they taste great, and their thickness gives them an edge when you are trying to spread peanut butter on them. This is not to say they won't break while you're using them (and indeed, not only will they break, but they will NEVER break along the little groove they have at their midpoints), but you can deal with them in a manner befitting a good, solid cracker.

Being short on campfires and suitable campfire equipment, I have not been able to try a S'moreable in the way their name suggests they should be consumed-- that is, in a s'more. Their dimensions might make for tricky s'more-making, but at the same time, consuming the s'mores would be easier... well, unless molten marshmallow started dripping over the sides. Hmmmm. The S'moreables box, you'll note, suggests that you chop each individual cracker in half for optimal s'morage. That's just not going to work.

Aside from being gluten-free, they're also dairy and nut-free, and they're rather remarkably healthy. Each cracker (the nutrition facts actually label them as "cookies," which is odd) runs you 60 calories, 2g fat, 60mg sodium, 9g carbs. Not bad att all!

If you're a recent convert to the gluten-free life who misses their graham crackers, or if you're looking for a good snack/light meal option, OR if you've got a camping session planned in the near future, grab a box of S'moreables! They're worth it.

Read on!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lundberg Creamy Parmesan Risotto

Today I thought I'd take a little departure from the breakfast-and-snack fare of late to review... a risotto. This might seem a little strange-- after all, risotto is a rice dish, and as such, should be gluten-free. But sadly, not all the world's food providers share this Utopian vision, leading gluten-free adherents to perusing the GF menu at certain chain steak restaurants and finding that the pilaf is not recommended. NOT THAT I AM BITTER AT ALL. No, not all dishes that should be gluten-free actually turn out to be gluten-free, so I feel it is my duty to point out those wonderful companies that deliver gluten-free-for-reals food. And that brings me to today's review.

Lundberg Farms are a group that seems to specialize in rice products. Aside from their many varieties of risotto, you can find various forms of raw rice, rice cakes, rice chips, rice pasts... the list goes on. Many of these other rice products have the courtesy of being gluten-free! Good job, guys! Many of their dishes are also "eco farmed," which seems to mean that it is farmed using sustainable practices. I can also tell you that much (if not all?) of Lundberg's rice is grown right here in America! So... U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Ahem. Sorry.

So, after all that preamble, let's move on to the dish itself. Cooking the risotto is fairly simple. You can do so on the stovetop or in the microwave; FYI, I always choose the latter. It takes the same amount of time (~20 minutes) either way. I can dig that. The microwave version is fairly simple. Assemble the rice, flavoring mix, water, and a little olive oil in your container of choice. The flavoring powder, like all similar powders, seems to prefer "large clumps" as its habitat of choice. Fortunately, you don't have to go too nuts breaking those things apart. Once you've got everything together, cover the whole thing, nuke it for 10 minutes, remove the cover, stir, and nuke it for another 10 minutes. Ta-da! Delicious risotto! Once it's finished cooking, it looks like so:

Once you let it cool, fluff it up a bit, and plate it, you get this:


The consistency tends towards the sticky side, with the rice itself being soft, but not mushy. And the taste! The words "creamy parmesan" are, in fact, completely apt. The texture combines with the "creamy" side of the taste for a melt-in-your mouth goodness, while the "parmesan" is wonderfully present without being overbearing. Add it all up and it's a wonderful, easy-to-make dish!

That said, let's talk nutrition and portions. The Lundberg box advertises their risotto as being "low-fat." And yes, that description seems accurate- they clock in at 1.5g of fat per serving. 0.5g of that is saturated fat. Not too shabby! You're also looking at 140 calories, 5mg cholesterol... and a somewhat unfortunate 490mg sodium. Again, that's per serving. And what is a serving? Well, in their calculations, a serving is 1/2 of a cup, cooked. To be honest, I think most people will find that to be on the small side. I certainly do, but... that could just be me. It's something to keep in mind, though. However, the amount of risotto you do get from one box makes this perfect for singles or couples. Full families may want to do multiple boxes at a time. Just saying.

In the end, if you're looking for a side to go with your dinner, the Gluten-Free Critic heartily endorses this creamy, delectable, risotto. Read on!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Whole Foods Banana Bread

It occurred to me recently, while I was perusing the shelves at Whole Foods, that up to this point, I had neglected to talk about the people who really started it all in terms of getting not only large quantities of gluten-free products on store shelves, but in concentrated areas that made for easier shopping. That company? Whole Foods themselves! Whole Foods have had, for years and years now, a freezer case in their stores dedicated to gluten-free food (mostly breakfast and dessert options). With the vast majority of the offerings coming from their own label! And by that I don't mean their usual "365" brand, but a "Whole Foods Gluten Free Bakehouse" label that produces everything from bread to scones, to muffins, to biscuits, to cupcakes... it's an impressive and extensive list.

But you didn't come to hear me gush about Whole Foods, you came to hear me talk about their gluten free banana bread. Well, here's the short version: it's pretty good! Their take on banana bread comes in a loaf approximately one foot long by four inches wide by four inches tall. That doesn't make for large slices, but that's okay. The density of each slice is high enough that there's going to be a fair amount of banana-related goodness on your plate. And not just banana-related goodness: pecan-related goodness, as well! Yes, the banana bread is infused with pecans, which have to be about the perfect nut to use for such things. The amount of pecans is just right, though most are sprinkled along the top of the loaf, where they can become easily dislodged during preparation. The rest are in the body of the bread, and are enough to find easily, but not too numerous to make the bread difficult to slice. You have to slice it, by the way, so you have full control over the thickness of your meal!

One negative I will point out: the bread tends ever-so-slightly towards the dry side. Then again, that's nothing a little margarine can't solve! (And then again, how many problems CAN'T a little margarine solve? Anyway.) It's not that big of a deal, but I thought I should try and bring a teensy bit of critique to this... critique. Oh, and there's the nutritional information, too. Parsing the info from the Whole Foods website is a bit difficult (they don't provide a nutrition label graphic), but I can tell you that a "serving" holds 220 calories (100 from fat), which is... okay. You'll also get 11g fat (4.5g saturated), and 28g carbs; that last number seems low to me. Rounding out the important stats, we have 55mg cholesterol and 170mg sodium. This is all from a serving size of "About 2oz/57g." I have no idea how much banana bread that is, but they seem to think that each loaf will run you nine servings. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The bottom line is, if you're a fan of banana bread (and aren't allergic to pecans), head on over to Whole Foods. You'll be glad you did!

Read on!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Udi's Double-Chocolate Muffins

Pop quiz: what's the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? When you think about it, the line between the two foodstuffs comes down to intent; cupcakes are like a special, flashy, dessert sub-set of muffins that you can ice, whereas muffins are the utilitarian "part of a complete breakfast" super-set, which usually take butter and perhaps a jam or jelly. Well, now the folks over at Udi's have come up with a way to confuse the hell out of everyone: double-chocolate muffins. Finding these muffins in my local Whole Foods was, I'll admit, something of a pleasant surprise. While I was composing my last Udi's post, I came across the entry for these and thought "I've never seen these in my store. A week later, and boom! Awesome.

So, the double chocolate part. This basically means that the cupcakesmuffins are chocolate-based, with chocolate chips sprinkled throughout. And this is supposed to be something one eats for breakfast? Well, that's what I did, anyway. My findings? First, if you're familiar with any of Udi's baked goods, you'll find that these muffins are a little denser than their standard fare, but they still retain the basic consistency. For the uninitiated, we're talking about interior surfaces with lots of air bubbles and the like. Once you have heated them (I put mine in the toaster oven, but I do that with everything, so your mileage may vary), you'll find that the chocolate chips make for delicious pockets of liquid chocolate. Make these pools too hot, and you might not be as enthralled.

"Yes that's all well and good," you say, "but what of the taste?" Well, I think here, the muffins have made a concession towards being not-cupcakes. They're certainly chocolatey, don't gt me wrong, but their taste has... a certain edge to it that is difficult to explain. It's just a teensy bit of bitterness that keeps the muffins from being a full-blast chocolate extravaganza. Does it ruin the experience? Well, no, but it is puzzling. The best I can figure is the muffins need something to keep them tethered to the realm of actual breakfast products. And if that "something" turns out to be a slight increase in the rice flour ratio, well so be it.

As for the whole "part of this complete breakfast" business, you'd do well to pair these with something that's on the healthier side. I know that you shouldn't expect too much from something that's already billed as being "double-chocolate," but these things are rocking 350 calories, 15g fat, 80mg cholesterol, 250mg sodium, and 52 total carbs, per muffin. On the plus side: no trans fat!

Bottom line, I think these muffins are... okay. If any of you are absolutely jonesing for a more chocolate-based breakfast (or brunch or what have you), I certainly won't tell you not to go for it. For my money, though, I'm not sure I'd choose these again over the multitude of other breakfast options available to me. Read on!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Signs that the Gluten-Free Life is Spreading

You know that gluten-free food is really starting to permeate the market place when... dispensers start labeling their ketchup as gluten-free. Behold!

I'm not sure if the people at Twister's saw me taking this shot. Even if they did... worth it.
Read on!