Sunday, May 10, 2015

Fusia General Tso's Chicken; Sweet and Sour Chicken (Aldi)

FUSIA GENERAL TSO'S CHICKEN
This is my third or fourth review of Aldi’s frozen Chinese offerings, and rather than dwelling on how depressing that is, let’s focus on how they can be hit or miss. 

Fusia’s General Tso’s Chicken is definitely more the former, and it’s a good addition to the frozen Asian line.  The chicken, which is cooked in the oven, as opposed to in the microwave or on the stove top, is shockingly crispy, with a breading that suits it well.  A quick sniff gives you the impression that it’s going to be spicy, and this dish definitely has some kick to it.  Of course, since it’s a ‘mainstream’ entrée, and thus must appeal to a wide variety of tastes, you’re not going to get anything that’s going to make your eyes water, but the spices definitely put a little heat in your mouth.

The sauce is a fairly straightforward Americanized Chinese sauce, in that it pretty much resembles a sweet and sour sauce.  But then again, you wouldn’t go in to a frozen supermarket meal expecting anything gourmet now, would you?  Still, it’s good for what it is, and definitely won’t put a damper on your dining experience any more than the fact you‘re eating frozen Chinese food already will.

My main complaint with the Fusia line still pertains here, and that’s that the chicken on the bottom of the bowl gets pretty darn soggy after a while.  It’s like this with every chicken dish I’ve ever tried from their line.  I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten soggy chicken, but it’s about as appetizing as it sounds.  It becomes limp and uninviting, two adjectives you should never want to hear describe your food.

All that comes in the package is the chicken and sauce packet, so you will have to add your rice, but it makes quite a large portion of chicken.  I went in really hungry, and only managed to polish off about half of it before I started feeling full.  And just like takeout, frozen Chinese tastes just as good the next day!  Still though, that means it’s under $3 a serving, and you can’t beat that.  I would imagine there would be enough here to fill up a family of four, assuming they aren’t teenagers or overly starved, so you really get some bang for your buck. 

Overall: 7/10.  If you like frozen Chinese food, you’ll get some mileage out of this.  Since it doesn’t come with rice, all you’re paying for is the chicken and sauce, and for $5, you get a lot of each.  Made in the oven, the battered chicken comes out surprisingly crispy.  The sauce is more a spicy sweet and sour, and while it’s nothing to write home about, it does have a perfect amount of kick and some good flavor.  The standard ‘is it really chicken?’ complaints apply, as something just doesn’t feel quite right about the meat.  But hey, that’s processed food for ya!  Some good bang for your buck, too, as there’s probably enough here to feed a family of four, assuming none are teenagers or overly hungry.  It’s obviously nothing gourmet, but it’s good for what it is, and that’s reason enough for me to recommend it.

FUSIA SWEET AND SOUR CHICKEN
Item on the left is what I'm reviewing here, ladies and gentlemen.
I have reviewed at least a couple items from Fusia’s Asian-themed line, and find them to be decent values for the price.  Of course, you’re not going to get authenticity out of any of their frozen dishes; all of them seem to be formulated with American taste buds in mind.  But for what they are, they tend to be on par with cheap Chinese fast food establishments (i.e. Panda Express, and similarly terrible places).

Their Sweet and Sour Chicken entrée is no exception. 

Now, the one thing that confuses me, is sometimes I’ve seen their entrees come with rice, and other times, the rice is absent.  Even more baffling is that the ones that come with rice seem to be $1 cheaper, yet are just as filling.  Anyway, this is one of them that does NOT come with rice, so you’re looking at $4.99 for what amounts to a bunch of chicken, with a generous pouch of sweet and sour sauce.

Out of the oven, the chicken is pretty crispy, though visually it’s just as off-putting and questionable as most Chinese chicken products are.  The included sweet and sour sauce is more sweet than sour, but goes down easy and tastes good.  Just like most mass-produced Chinese dishes (including those from the aforementioned “fast food“ Asian places), the sauce isn’t anywhere near memorable, but it’s not supposed to be; it’s simply made straightforward and safe so as to appeal to the most amount of people possible.

The chicken, by itself, is rather bland, but I guess the whole point is to douse it in the sauce, which certainly makes it more palatable.  As I mentioned earlier, there are generous helpings of the sauce. I tend to eat half of the dish right out of the oven, and then save the rest for tomorrow, and there is always enough sauce leftover to re-douse the rest of the chicken the following day.  Honestly, I feel like this tasted even better reheated a day later, though that just could have been due to my intense hunger.  The main downside to reheating it is that the chicken gets soggy and even more questionable, but at least all the flavors are still there.

Overall: 6.5/10.  It’s filling, there’s lots of food here, and also a generous amount of sweet and sour sauce.  I’m recommending this for people who just want something quick and easy; it tastes good, and can be thrown together in under twenty minutes.  It’s just that this is nothing more than dime-a-dozen frozen Chinese food.  The sweet and sour is more sweet than sour, and reminiscent of millions of Chinese restaurants the world over.  The chicken is questionable to begin with and, the longer it goes uneaten, gets soggy and even more questionable.  It also doesn’t come with rice, like some of the Fusia entrees do, yet costs a dollar more than those.  Granted, there’s a lot of chicken here (I had enough for two servings), and rice isn’t expensive, but still something to be aware of. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Red Rain Downpour & Big Jak Iced Energy Drinks (Big Lots)

RED RAIN DOWNPOUR (CHERRY LIMEADE) ENERGY DRINK

Why is it called "Red Rain"?  Sorry, just thinking out loud.
Though it’s probably not the best idea, I’ve been getting back into energy drinks lately.  I used to drink them all the time (well, one a day), but then started getting heart palpitations.  Then, I noticed I was drinking so many that they stopped giving me any form of energy whatsoever, so that made the decision to give them up for good pretty easy.

But that was about five years ago.  Since that time, I’ve cut back on overall caffeine consumption immensely, going from at least one soda a day to maybe one a week, on average.  I had been using my hour lunch at work to take naps (did that for the better part of seven years), but between waking up very groggy more often than not, and trying to be more productive, I figured that I’d just drink some for a month or so, just to help me stay awake; as weird as it sounds, quitting seven years of almost daily naps isn’t easy to quit cold-turkey.

Due to my now low tolerance for caffeine, I’ve found that a full 16 oz. can of most energy drinks will last me two full days, and sometimes even three.  This way, I can get the right amount to gear up for the afternoon, without feeling like I’ve gone overboard.  And hopefully, without wearing out the effects of caffeine altogether.

To gear up for my latest work week, I grabbed a handful of various energy drinks from Big Lots.  One that I was most excited for was Red Rain’s Downpour, a cherry limeade-flavored concoction.  My wife bought this several months back, and I really liked the sip I tried; she also really enjoyed it, so my expectations were set pretty high.

Well let’s just say it’s not nearly as good as I remember.  Of course, for $.50 a can, you shouldn’t be expecting any “real” ingredients, so true-to-form, this contains no actual cherry or lime juices.  The scent is fakey and strong, but it’s unmistakably cherry--there’s not much of a hint of lime, at least to the nose.

Flavorwise, the cherry dominates, so the scent does not lie, though lime does poke through slightly in the background.  What I don’t remember from the previous sampling, is just how syrupy it is; it literally reminded me of cough syrup going down, and even goes so far as to leave a mediciney aftertaste.  To sum up, it’s fake as crap, and not really all that enjoyable to drink.  But points must be given because it certainly gave me a boost of energy, and each can is only $.50 at Big Lots, a price point that you really can’t beat.  I’d recommend it for those on a budget as a cheap burst of energy, but it’s certainly nothing special, as far as energy drinks go.

Overall: 5/10.  It did what I wanted it to do (gave me energy), and is very cheap (fifty cents a can), so I’ve got to give it some credit.  But the chemical-induced artificial flavoring (it has no cherry or lime juices) is overly fake, and gives off a mediciney aftertaste to go along with a texture of heavy syrup.  If you need a burst of energy on the cheap, this will give it to you, but if flavor matters, there are definitely better energy drinks out on the market…but not many at this price point.

BIG JAK ICED ENERGY DRINK
Boy is Big Lots a great place to get energy-providing beverages!  On the same haul that produced the Red Rain drink featured in the above review, I also found Big Jak Iced which, as the name implies, is an iced tea/energy drink hybrid.

This one also has a very fakey flavor that consists of peach and iced tea.  It really tastes like a bad canned tea knockoff, but it goes down easy and doesn’t have a bad aftertaste, so I have to give it some recognition for that.  I also just realized that it has no sugar, and only 5 calories per 8 oz. serving (or 10 in the whole 16 oz. can).  It’s sweetened with sucralose, which I’m sure is linked to cancer somehow, as every artificial sweetener seems to be, but this at least partially forgives the flavor, as it essentially makes it a diet tea.  I’m actually pretty shocked they don’t make a bigger point of mentioning this anywhere on the can (at least, not anywhere I noticed) as it could be a big selling point these days.

At $.50 a can at Big Lots stores, presumably while supplies last, this is quite a value.  It’s not nearly as smooth as Arizona’s Drive (also available at Big Lots, and for the same price), but where it may lack in smoothness, it makes up for in caffeine:  There’s 120 mg…per 8 oz. serving.  Since there’s two servings in here, that means there’s a whopping 240 mg inside a whole can.  For fifty cents?!  It’s certainly a super-cheap way to get a big boost.  Due to my low tolerance for caffeine (see above), it only took me half a can to get super-hyped, so that took my savings even further, as I only paid a quarter per sitting.  Easily an amazing value in the world of energy drinks!

Overall: 8/10.  I could do without the intensely fake peach flavoring, but the tea part is very good and it goes down easy, with no medicine aftertaste.  There’s a lot of caffeine (240 mg per can) in here for not a lot of dough ($.50 per can at Big Lots stores), so this provides an excellent source of value for those looking to get a nice energy rush on a budget.  It only took me a few sips before I started feeling it, and I only needed half the can to really get going, so it works.  I would get it again, for sure.  It does what it’s supposed to do, does it well, and only costs two quarters…what’s not to like?  Besides the ultra-lame peach flavoring, that is.

 NOTE: Will add picture of this product on my next trip to Big Lots.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mama Cozzi's BBQ Chicken & Spinach and Feta Take and Bake Pizzas (Aldi)

MAMA COZZI'S BBQ CHICKEN TAKE AND BAKE PIZZA

Do yourself a favor and don't read the ingredients.
Well here we go with the pizzas again, as I apparently have some need to try all of them (with the exception of the recently offered Philly Cheesesteak pizza, which made me gag at the mere thought of it; I couldn’t bring myself to pay $9 just to hate it, so I didn’t).  This one, however, has a bit of history with my wife and I, because it’s one of the few Mama Cozzi’s take and bakes that we absolutely hated.  So why try it again?  That was at least two years ago, and taste buds, as well as Aldi’s recipes change, so we opted to give it another go.

As the title implies, this pizza replaces the typical tomato sauce found on pizzas, with barbecue.  We were absolutely huge fans of this tradeoff for their Hawaiian take and bakes, which we couldn’t get enough of.  Even though this is technically that exact same pizza, only with chicken replacing pineapple, I wasn’t as crazy about it here, though part of it might have been due to reading off the ingredient list before eating it.  Don’t do that, or else you’ll find the chicken in question is chicken rib meat, along with “natural flavors” and “chicken powder”.  That’s disgusting.

Of course, modern science has advanced to the point that it looks, and tastes, just like a normal chicken, but I must confess to being a little disappointed to find that it‘s not.  I was also expecting a sweeter barbecue…it didn’t taste the same to me as the addicting stuff used in the Hawaiian pizza, though to be fair, it’s very possible that the sweetness from the pineapple only added to that.  On its own, with partially fake chicken, I didn’t think it was nearly as memorable.

Those two quibbles aside, the Gouda cheese that tops it all off is really, really good, and compliments everything nicely.  I’m not usually one for cheese, but I could have just eaten nothing but sauce with the Gouda, and that’s saying a lot.  I thought it was really fantastic (a though that my wife concurred with). The crust, which I burned, also tasted better than usual, and the crispiness was a welcome addition to the pizza.   Honestly, these two things really carried the pizza for me, and are responsible for pretty much its entire score. 

So this review is kind of bittersweet in a way:  While it put to rest the godawful memories I had of this pizza, it still wasn’t really all that great.  I would technically get it again in the future, but given the number of excellent take and bake pizzas Aldi offers, both as special buys, and as part of their year ‘round lineups, it’s safe to say this one will probably get lost in the shuffle for a little while.

Overall: 6/10.  While it’s way better than I remember it being, it’s still not one of my favorite of Aldi’s take and bake pizzas, a category that I am sadly becoming an expert in.  The Gouda cheese is fantastic, as is the crust, but the partially fake chicken pieces mixed with an average barbecue sauce just really didn’t do it for me.  Still, if you end up picking this up, you could do far worse.

MAMA COZZI'S SPINICH AND FETA THIN CRUST TAKE AND BAKE PIZZA
A nice change of pace from Aldi's normal take and bake options.
This story starts off the way it usually does:  The wife and I at Aldi, looking for something to eat for dinner.  We were about to settle for a frozen pizza, or (gasp) hot dogs, when I remembered seeing an ad for a spinach and feta take and bake pizza in a recent Aldi ad.  We were there a few days before the ad took effect, so I wasn’t sure if they’d have it, but thankfully they did!  Great.

Mama Cozzi’s take and bake pizzas do not have much of a history of disappointing us, and this one continues in that trend.  The spinach is good, and the mozzarella cheese that tops it off tastes even better than usual.  But what really shined, at least for me, is the feta cheese--I couldn’t get enough of it.  I’m tempted to say that I didn’t feel like there was a substantial amount of feta on this pizza, but I don’t know if that’s the truth, or if there was actually plenty, and I just wanted more.  Either way, it was a perfect, and inspired, addition.

I think my biggest gripe is that this pizza actually used tomato sauce.  While it still tasted really good, and combined well with the ingredients, I still feel like this could have benefited from a different kind of sauce, though one I can’t quite put my fingers on.  Perhaps pesto, or a garlic cream?  Or maybe no sauce at all?  I’m just thinking aloud, but I was expecting a lighter sauce to allow the spinach and feta to stand out even more. 

I also wish more of Mama Cozzi’s take and bake pizzas were available in thin crust versions, like this one is.  While they admittedly don’t feel to me like they’re quite as filling (I mean, they have at least a third less crust), the cracker-thin crust cooks up crisp much quicker than those with traditional crusts, and there’s just something about it that makes it more appetizing to me.  I’m not saying get rid of the thicker crusts altogether, but maybe rotating between the two would please fans of both kinds of crusts.

Still, this is a welcome change from Mama Cozzi’s typical take and bake fare, which tend to feature meats of some kind.  While I’m not at all opposed to meat on a pizza, I definitely appreciated just how much flavor could be packed into one without it; this is every bit as flavorful as most take and bakes I’ve had, and though it’s not without its flaws, it still deserves recommendation.

Overall: 7.5/10.  This was a welcome change from Mama Cozzi’s usual pizzas, which always seem to feature meat of some kind.  Here, we have spinach and feta with mozzarella cheese, in a tomato-based pizza sauce.  That’s it, and it’s actually kind of refreshing.  The spinach and cheese are really good, and the feta is top notch…I just wish there were bigger chunks, as the taste seems to get lost in the other ingredients.  I also think the combination could have been better without a typical pizza sauce, instead substituting a garlic cream, or perhaps even a pesto of some kind.  Despite those quibbles, this is a great pizza, and one you should definitely pick up.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ripples Onion Blossom & Bacon Cheeseburger Sliders Potato Chips (Big Lots)

RIPPLES ONION BLOSSOM POTATO CHIPS
Tastes nothing like onion blossoms, but not as bad as you'd think.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, I eat potato chips just about every day at work, for the simple fact they’re easy to pack and go great with sandwiches.  Needless to say, the same ol’ chips over and over again get really old, so I tend to seek out the unique stuff.  When I saw onion ring flavored chips at Big Lots, they had me hook, line, and sinker.  Of course, there are other chips with similar flavors (a certain kind whose name is a combination of “fun” and “onion” immediately springs to mind), but I’ve never seen them available in a rippled chip format, so I was anxious to give these a try.

First taste reaction:  These are actually pretty good, and definitely hit the “different” spot of the ol’ taste buds.  But they also taste nothing like onion rings.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a very strong, unmistakable taste of onion (if you’re eating these in public, be sure to have plenty of gum on hand), but it reminds me more of a French onion dip than an actual onion ring.  There is a generous amount of seasoning on every chip, though, so that’s definitely a good thing--I can’t stand it when there’s uneven flavor distribution throughout a bag.

At the full retail point of $3.79, these are not worth it.  But then again, I wouldn’t pay that much for name brand chips; I guess what I’m saying is, no bag of chips is worth paying close to four dollars for, especially considering most chip bags are more air than anything else.  Thankfully, I found these at Big Lots for just $2, which is certainly more in line with what I’m willing to pay.  I wouldn’t say they’re as good as the name brand onion ring chip, but they are good, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the usual.

A side note:  This is but one style in a line of appetizer-inspired chips that, according to the Ripples company website, were “designed by a panel of culinary experts”, something I find to be WAY farfetched (would a culinary “expert” really be satisfied with an onion ring chip that tastes like French onion dip, and work with an unheard-of potato chip company?).  Needless to say, the remaining chips in the line range from Buffalo Wing and Blue Cheese, to a Chicken Artichoke Flatbread.  Hey, variety is the spice of life!

Overall: 7/10.  They taste absolutely nothing like the titular appetizer upon which they are based, instead resembling more of a French onion, but these hit the spot when I was looking for something a little different.  At their normal retail price of $3.79, they, like all other chips, are a massive gyp.  But at $2 a bag, which they are at Big Lots stores, there’s a bit more value there.  These chips are more circus curiosity piece than anything I could eat all the time, but they tasted good and were cheap, and sometimes that’s good enough for me.


RIPPLES BACON CHEESEBURGER SLIDERS POTATO CHIPS
Everyone responsible should be killed.
Okay, okay, I knew going into this bag that these chips were going to be complete junk.  I mean, how can a potato chip accurately portray all the flavors in a bacon cheeesburger?  Moreover, why would one even try, and why would anyone buy it?  Still, I tried Ripples’ Onion Blossom chips (review above) and they weren’t too bad, so I decided to give these the benefit of the doubt.

First things first, they are terrible.  Like, probably even worse than I was expecting.  But the main problem I have is that the flavor doesn’t necessarily fail in the way you would expect it to.  It’s such a bona fide failure because one has to dig to even find any hint of bacon or cheddar flavors whatsoever.  It would have been better marketed as a hot dog chip, as a heavy relish flavor gives way to a subtle smokiness, as well as a complex mix of other flavors (I think I got a hint of ketchup in there somewhere).  Now keep in mind “complex” is used in the loosest of terms--I think they just threw a bunch of chemicals and potaotes in a vat and prayed something resembling a cheeseburger would come out--but there really is a lot going on in each bite.  The curious (and ironic) thing about the cheese flavor being so hidden is that it’s just about the only “real” ingredient in the entire thing, and you can’t even taste it.  That’s pretty depressing.

If I were to give Ripples, the potato chip company responsible for this atrocity, any advice, it would simply be:  If you’re going to make a bacon cheeseburger chip, focus on getting bacon and cheese flavors in here.  Everything else should be secondary, and relish shouldn’t even be in here at all.  I mean, have the “culinary experts” that assisted in this atrocity, ever actually eaten a bacon cheeseburger?  Honestly, I was just expecting the flavor of Tato Skins in potato chip form, an idea that still isn’t even that appealing.  Yet it’s loads better than what I actually got.

The only plus side, if anything can even be considered a “plus” at this point, is that a bag was only $2 at Big Lots.  But if you make the same mistake I did and actually try a bag of these, you’ll quickly find that any nominal feelings of value will be quickly squandered when you realize just how offensively bad these chips are.

Overall: 1/10.  Ever wanted to know what dog food tastes like?  This is probably a close approximation, only worse.  A bacon cheeseburger with no bacon or cheese flavors to be found; instead, you get a bunch of condiments, including relish (?) and ketchup.  Supposedly, actual “culinary experts“ helped in the creation of this mess; if that‘s the truth, they should be killed.  I thought the only products this bad were required by law to have Larry the Cable Guy’s face on them, but I guess I was sadly mistaken.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Specially Selected Truffle Macaroni and Cheese; Mascarpone and Sun-Dried Tomato Mac and Cheese (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED TRUFFLE MACARONI AND CHEESE
Definitely not the blue-box macaroni and cheese you grew accustomed to!
It should only take you one, maybe two reviews before you realize that I do not have anything close to a refined palate.  I can’t pick apart certain flavors when given a complex dish, nor can I swish around wine and tell what vintage it is.  The only way I know to enjoy food is to put it in my mouth and rely on what my blue-collar taste buds tell me.  At least, that’s usually how it works.

I’ve eaten half of the bowl, and I still can’t even tell what I think of Specially Selected’s Truffle Macaroni and Cheese.  I will say that it cooks up nice and creamy on the stovetop, thanks partly to the packet of cheese powder and dried mushrooms that comes inside the box.  As you probably know, “truffle” is basically code for “mushrooms”, and while I’m not a fan of mushrooms, I felt like the combination could be pretty delicious.  And as the cheese sauce starts to thicken a bit more, it seems to explode with more flavor.  This definitely isn’t your typical boxed macaroni and cheese, as the cheese isn’t so cartoonishly exaggerated; there’s plenty of it here, but it’s also offset by the earthy taste of the mushrooms, so those looking for a cheese overload would do best to look somewhere else.

Even though I can’t exactly describe this flavor as “addicting”, it’s different enough that I keep getting urges to take another bite, so that certainly has to account for something.  The texture, between the soft noodles and the creaminess of the cheese, is a big reason for that; but you definitely can’t ignore the taste…I’ve seriously never had a macaroni and cheese like it, boxed or otherwise, and while I definitely won’t be getting this again any time soon, I certainly would get it again at some point in the future.

Points must also be awarded for value.  Given the “Specially Selected” label, I was figuring that the box would make even less than a typical box of national brand mac and cheese, but it ended up making the same amount, which was definitely enough to fill me up.  A box of this costs $1.99, which I initially thought was pretty affordable; after tasting it and seeing just how much it makes, I have to conclude that it’s a pretty solid deal, especially since it’s only a couple quarters more than the national brand of shells and cheese, yet packs in a much more unique cheese flavor.  If you’re tired of the same ol’ macaroni and cheese, and don’t mind a little fungus in your food, you should definitely scope this one out.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Tired of “typical” macaroni and cheeses?  This is definitely a step in the opposite direction!  I’m not a huge fan of mushroom, but decided to give this a shot anyway, and I’m glad I did.  The mushrooms provide a nice, earthy taste that coexists with the rich, creamy cheese; the end result is a surprisingly addictive twist on an all-time American classic!


SPECIALLY SELECTED MASCARPONE AND SUN-DRIED TOMATO MAC AND CHEESE
A few days ago I tried Specially Selected’s Truffle Macaroni and Cheese, a review which you will find paired up with this one.  But the one I was secretly most excited for was this one, which my wife picked up during the same trip.  I’m not one for mushroom (though I did end up liking it quite a bit), but the combination of cheese and tomatoes have never let down anyone.

I’m not too familiar with my cheeses, especially “exotic” ones like mascarpone, so I can’t say with exact certainty that’s what this smells like, but this dish is packed with an overwhelming smell of cheesiness.  Like the truffle mac, once cooked, it’s smothered in cheese, with the added benefit of having little bits of sun-dried tomatoes, instead of mushrooms.  But this isn’t just one of those women that are just good looks and no personality…no, this has the taste to match.

It’s absolutely exploding with a decadent cheesy flavor, and “decadent” is a word I usually reserve for desserts at fancy restaurants.  The tomatoes actually play a key role here, helping to offset the mascarpone explosion, by balancing it out with a hint of sweetness.  For being completely dried out, the tomatoes manage to taste at least somewhat fresh in the finished dish, and have a nice, soft texture.

Now one thing I will say, is for this one, my wife added the recommended, but optional, additions of butter and grated parmesan cheese, something I did not do while preparing the truffle mac.  So that no doubt helped to make this even creamier and more delicious.  I have no doubts it would taste pretty darn good even without those additions, so if you don’t have butter or parmesan on hand, you’ll still be left with a delicious, and at least somewhat healthier, entrée.

Overall: 8/10.  We wouldn’t hesitate to get this again.  A ridiculously cheesy macaroni with bits of sun-dried tomatoes…how could you go wrong?  As this dish proves, you can’t.  If you like really any kind of cheese, but especially mascarpone, you owe it to yourself to check this out.  I should note that we did prepare this with the recommended additions of butter and grated parmesan cheese, which no doubt made it even creamier (and even less healthy) than it would normally be, but I also wouldn’t think twice to try it the way it is right out of the box.  It’s a Special Buy at Aldi stores, meaning once it’s gone, it’s gone until the next time, so time is of the essence!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cooking Concepts Digital Timer; Jot Permanent Markers (Dollar Tree)

COOKING CONCEPTS DIGITAL TIMER
Need a basic timer?  This is a handy little thing for the price.
It seems I’m always using a timer for something, whether it be games, or cooking, so I always need to have one on hand.  The last one I had, a digital one from Taylor, lasted me about five years, but finally started to become too much of a hassle to operate as the buttons starting wonking out. 

Even though Taylor’s aren’t very expensive, I had heard good things about the digital timers at Dollar Tree, and decided to give one a shot.  After all, it’s not like they require a large investment, so if it was terrible, I could just pitch it, and spend a couple more dollars and get a name brand one.

Right out of the package, there was some frustration:  The minute key didn’t work very well.  Over one year later, and it still doesn’t.  I was going to get another one to see if it had the same problem, but I’ve gotten used to working around it, as it just requires a little extra force to get it moving.  Thankfully, the second button works with minimal effort, so it very well might be limited to mine.

Working it is simple:  Press the minute button to advance the minute, and the second button to advance the seconds.  To reset, simply press both the minute and second buttons at the same time.  Pressing the “Start” button after time expires recalls the last minute entered, which is a feature that I’m glad was included, as I often use the same time over and over.  The beep when time expires is suitably loud (but not too loud) and easily audible even when I’m on a different floor.

Even though I would recommend these to anyone with a use for them, and yes, even though I realize these are only a dollar and I shouldn’t expect much for so little, I do still have a couple minor quibbles:  1.) The screen is rather small, so if you want to read the countdown, you will have to get very close to it, and 2.) There are no additional features.  Again, that is not an issue for me, but others that might need their timer to, say, count up, will definitely be at a loss.  There is also no way to turn it off, which can be kind of annoying.  It's still held up for over two years, so it's not that big of a deal, but it'd be nice to have the option of stretching its life out even more by being able to shut it off when not in use.

Overall: 7/10.  The screen is pretty small and special features are pretty much non-existent (except for a memory function that remembers the last time entered), but for a no-frills timer, you really can’t go wrong.  My minute key does require some excessive force to get it going, so I’m not sure if that’s just limited to mine, or a constant occurrence, but either way, this functions about as admirably as you could expect from a dollar timer.  I’ve also had it for going on two years now, and it’s still functioning, so chalk a point up for longevity.  Well worth looking into.


JOT PERMANENT MARKERS
8 markers for a buck?!  Best of all, they even work!
I go through phases where I burn lots of CD’s (or DVD’s), and then don‘t burn anything for a few months.  The only reason I ever need markers are to label the discs.  For this reason, my last set of markers, two Sharpie fine points, lasted me almost five years.  But once they finally ran out, it was time to look for a replacement.  I easily could have just taken some from work, and I did that for a bit, but ended up losing them, or disliking the quality, so I figured I would just see if I could find some on the cheap.

Well I did, on a trip to Dollar Tree, where I discovered an 8-pack of Jot’s Permanent Markers.  Not surprisingly, I had never heard of the brand, but considering a single name-brand marker is upwards of a dollar by itself, I figured they would be worth a shot…even if I only could label a handful of CDs with each one, that would get me through at least 100, which would last me well over a year.

I can’t say how long they’ll last me, as I’ve only had them about three months, long enough to only label about ten CDs, but I figured I would post some early thoughts, then adjust the score as the months wear on, and the markers wear out.  Do I have enough dedication to remember to do this?  Probably not, but it’s worth a shot.

The cool thing are the range of colors that come with these markers.  For a dollar, you don’t just get 8 blacks, or 8 of a single color; you get an entire rainbow, ranging from red, to black, and just about every main color in between.  The markers themselves look very vibrant and inviting…but how do they look when used? 

The main difference I noticed is that, at least on the face of a disc, the colors are much lighter than they appear, and don‘t have much “pop“, at least compared to the national brand.  This didn’t bother me much whatsoever, but instead of a crisp, dark blue, the blue is rather bland, and much lighter than the outside color would suggest.  This isn’t just limited to blue--this is a problem across the board.  I will say that this could simply be due to the glossiness of the disc, as they did seem to perform much better on paper, but the national brands also seem to work much better on disc surfaces.

I’ve seen online reviews of this where people have complained one (or more) of the colors are dry upon opening.  I have to say that all of mine worked perfectly right out of the package, but it’s worth tossing out there that there may be some quality control issues (which shouldn’t be too surprising given the price point).  Still, even if half of them didn’t work, you’ve only ended up paying a quarter per marker, which still isn’t a bad deal at all.

Overall: 8/10.  This review is subject to updates, given the markers’ long-term performances, but right out of the package, color me impressed; all eight of the markers worked, and are perfect for labeling discs.  The colors are a bit weaker when used on a CD, but perform much better on paper, so it might just be on glossy surfaces.  The ink dries quickly and doesn’t smear, two required characteristics of a “permanent” marker.  For $1, this is an outstanding deal.  I wish they would be available in fine-tip, but given the price point, I won’t complain much about that.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mama Cozzi's Game Day Sampler; Breakfast Best Sausage and Bacon Breakfast Pizza (Aldi)

MAMA COZZI'S GAME DAY SAMPLER
I don't even think the homeless would eat this crap.
I reviewed two of Mama Cozzi’s other Super Bowl offerings right before the “Big Game“, but they still had these left over in March, so we decided to pick them up as a cheap dinner.

The Game Day combo consists of a 14” take and bake pepperoni pizza, along with a small order of cheesesticks, and a marinara sauce.  So basically, everything you need to watch a sporting event, apparently.  But what’s most striking is the modest price of $5.49, which is certainly about half of what you would expect to pay at an average pizza shop for both items.  Not too shabby at all.

In case you’re new here, I’ve reviewed quite a few of the items in Mama Cozzi’s take and bake pizza line lately, and they’ve pretty much all been positive.  In fact, I can’t remember the last of their pizza items that really disappointed me (I’m not counting their calzones and wings, the other two Super Bowl items I reviewed, which were pretty bad, but also aren’t technically “pizza items”).  Until now, that is.  While most of their take and bake pizzas at least resemble something that could have been handmade in a deli, this one, at least when fully cooked, resembles nothing more than a frozen pizza.  It more or less tastes like it, too.  There’s nothing here that stands out, from the bland cheese, to the boring sauce, to the cardboard crust; it all comes together to form a massive disappointment.

The cheesesticks were okay, but also nothing that I would consider actually “good”, while the marinara sauce tasted like it had been sitting around for a while.  Which it probably had, considering these pizzas were released as Special Buys a month ago for the Super Bowl, but they were still being sold at full price and seemed to be within their expiration dates, so that’s certainly not my problem.  It’s hard to believe that I was disappointed that these sold out last year before I could get my hands on one…but it should have been telling that we’re a month removed from the Super Bowl this year and there were still plenty left at my local Aldi.  Stay far away from this one.

Overall: 2/10. Even at $5.49, this was a huge waste of money, especially considering Aldi offers much better take and bake pizzas for roughly the same price.  Most of Mama Cozzi’s similar pizza offerings at least somewhat resemble “fresh” bakery-style pizzas, but with this one, you’re much better off paying a little more at your local Little Caesar’s; the enclosed cheesesticks were only okay, while the marinara sauce was what failure would taste like, if it had a taste.  All of Mama Cozzi’s Super Bowl offerings were below-average, but this takes the cake as the worst of the bunch.  Get any of their other standard take and bake pizzas instead.

BREAKFAST BEST BACON AND SAUSAGE PIZZA
If only more pizza places offered breakfast pizzas, I probably wouldn't be so excited about a frozen one.
In this day and age, where pretty much everything is available with a flick of the wrist, it baffles me how certain things still manage to be so hard-to-find.  For example, there are about 100 pizza shops, both chain and mom-and-pop, every 500 feet in Ohio.  And yet, finding any kind of breakfast pizza in any of them is next to impossible.  Of course, I was exaggerating with the number of pizza shops there are here, but not really exaggerating about the breakfast pizza part; why a chain restaurant hasn’t added them to their menu is beyond me, as they would have the breakfast pizza market cornered.  But I guess the marketing firms they pay millions of dollars to to think for them, have decided it wouldn’t be worth the investment.

Anyway, in Illinois (birthplace of my mother and current home to my grandmother; my grandfather died late last year) they have a gas station/convenience store called Casey’s General Store, and of all places, this is their go-to place for breakfast pizzas; it’s for good reason, because the eggs are light and fluffy, the sausage and/or bacon is perfectly cooked, and the melty cheese compliments it all perfectly.  I don’t know if that’s a testament to Casey’s pizza experts, or more an indication of how easy these are to make, but either way, they are fantastic.

Of course, expecting a frozen supermarket pizza to be just as good as a fresh-made breakfast pizza is pretty ludicrous, but these things hold their own.  For starters, most breakfast pizzas I’ve had have been either sausage OR bacon; Breakfast Best’s consists of both, on the same pizza, and let me just say the combination is every bit as delicious as you’re expecting.  It’s also every bit as unhealthy as you were worried about, but hey, you deserve to indulge every once in a while!  Instead of the standard pizza sauce, which would be pretty gross with eggs, we get a thin layer of cheese sauce that actually blends really well with all the other ingredients.  My main complaint is that the crust is rather bland, but that can be fixed with a little dash of your favorite sauce.

These pizzas retail for $3.99 each, which I think is a pretty good deal for what you get.   Even if you’re on a smaller budget (and I know I’ve been there), this would be a good “splurge”, assuming you like this kind of thing.  It’s definitely nowhere near a fresh breakfast pizza, but considering my nearest Aldi store is about five minutes away, it’s well worth that trip.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Of all the pizza shops and chains in the world, why do so few sell breakfast pizzas?  I wish they would carry these year ’round at Aldi, considering finding fresh made breakfast pizzas are hard-to-find, but Breakfast Best’s Sausage and Bacon Breakfast Pizza is well worth the $4 asking price.  It doesn’t come close to matching a fresh-made one (how could it?), but all the individual parts come together to make a solid whole.  As you can expect, these are pretty darn unhealthy (sausage AND bacon is never a good mix), but if you like this kind of thing, you should definitely scoop one up before they run out!