New England Food Day 1: IHOP!

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series New England Food

So, we’d just spent about 7 hours on a flight, and landed in Boston on a Saturday evening. Due to lightning, we were held on the parkway for 2 hours. I’m sure there was a good reason, but being made to sit inside a metal tube with a fair amount of aviation fuel still in the tanks while lightning played around us was a bit disconcerting.

The next morning, we were sure of two things:

  1. We were very, very tired from what had been a 20 hour day plus 8 hours or so of sleep
  2. We were hungry and wanted to explore Boston

Our source of restaurants was primarily Google maps and TripAdvisor, and where we were staying (in Cambridge, MA) there were some options, but lots that were the wrong direction, or closed (it was Sunday). We were also aware that we wanted to get on and explore, and not spend the whole of our first day sitting around.

A reasonable resolution was to choose IHOP. Those familiar with the US will know that this is a bit of a cheap-and-cheerful pancake and breakfast house chain. It’s not renowned for its quality, but it fit our requirements of being dependable, not expensive, hopefully quick and on our route into Boston.

We got one right. Maybe two.

Here’s an unnecessary shot of the menu:

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It sure looked good. As it happens, both Katherine and I love pancakes, of the American, fluffy style. Our normal way of having them is with bacon and maple syrup (bacon on the side, in my opinion, but Katherine likes to just lump it all together). So we were excited by the prospect of having them in their natural habitat.

Katherine ordered a stack of three, but I went for something a bit more substantial – a ‘big breakfast’ including egg, sausage, hash brown, ham and bacon, and then a side of turkey bacon. Yes, I felt that I had to top-up my bacon quota for the day.

In fact, I wanted to know what turkey bacon was like. Turkey’s a pretty healthy meat, and I guessed that this was the reason for its inclusion on the menu – for those health-conscious types who felt that they still wanted bacon. I was intrigued as to what it would taste like as well as its texture. And would it really be healthier?

Well, here’s what it all looked like:

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On the whole, it was very filling, and pretty reasonable quality.

The egg and pork bacon (I didn’t think I’d ever have to specifically refer to pork bacon) were just as you’d expect. For UK readers unfamiliar with how it works, in the US you don’t really get back bacon like you do in the UK – it’s all ‘streaky’ bacon. Back bacon is available, and is often called ‘Canadian bacon’, though this can be a bit different from what we think of as back bacon. But that aside, there wasn’t anything of note about these items.

The ham was a bit of ham – slightly thicker than our sandwich ham. It was fairly flabby and tasted like I was eating fried, thick sandwich ham. Not sure about the reason for this item, unless you’re worried that sausage, egg and bacon wasn’t sufficient to cover the protein and pork recommended daily amounts. I’d have left this out, no problem.

The hash browns were interesting. Here’s a bit of a close up of the main plate:

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The hash browns (out of focus at the back) were really just grated potatoes fried together. I’ve had them before in this manner, and they can be really flavoursome and good. But in this case they weren’t; they were undercooked and boring. Just carbohydrate filler; I’d probably have preferred toast.

The sausages were surprisingly good. Sarcastic readers will probably say because I’m used to British sausages which don’t contain much meat, but it was more than meat content – it was the interesting flavour. It was stuffed with herbs and some spices, and really well cooked – and as you can see, a bit more like a chipolata. Really good.

Which brings us onto the pancakes.

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All I can really say is that they were fine. As pancakes go, they were about the right consistency, though a bit thinner than I was used to. They had a nice fluffiness, but also a mass-produced feel. They were fine.

And then: TURKEY BACON.

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First off, it looked a lot like real bacon; this helped, and made it appealing to look at. It felt a bit like dry, crumbly bacon when I cut it; just about right but nothing wrong with it. And it tasted like turkey meat with bacon flavour and possibly bacon colouring. If I kind of focussed on something else and ate it quickly, I might have failed to notice it. But realistically, in a blind taste test, 10/10 times you’d pick out the turkey bacon. Still, it felt like I was eating something unhealthy and it was probably comparatively healthy, so there are some pluses.

All in all, the breakfast was filling, pretty tasty, and reasonable value. It wasn’t quite as cheap as I’d expected, and then there was the usual fretting about what to do with the tip. And it was slow. The breakfast took about 45 minutes to come from ordering, probably because everyone in Cambridge goes to IHOP on a Sunday morning. The restaurant was really busy.

We didn’t go to IHOP again, because we found somewhere better the next morning. But if I was there for a while, and I knew I’d want a decent breakfast and I didn’t want to faff around with choosing from various restaurants, I’d probably go there again.

And that turned out to be the only food we bought that day, because we were so filled that we survived until dinner, which we had at a friend’s house that evening. Otherwise, we survived on water as we walked around Boston’s Freedom Trail (recommended). Later in the afternoon we bought a quick bagel snack but I didn’t really eat any of it. So that brings us to the end of Day 1: the day in which I discovered Turkey Bacon and wasn’t entirely sure whether I disapproved or not.

New England food: Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series New England Food

The summer holiday this year was to the USA – specifically New England. I was excited not only to see the States, but to sample the food. New England is famous for seafood, and I was absolutely determined to enjoy as much as I could, but also try some variety. On my radar in addition was to have some good old fashioned favourites, like pancakes, burgers, fried chicken and pizza.

This series of posts will take each day individually and focus on the meals in the day. As I go through I’ll update this post to keep it like an index. Hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed eating the food, and please do comment on your thoughts!

Supermarket Sushi

I love sushi. It’s such a fantastic way of serving fish and a pretty good way of serving other tasty things too. It’s bite size, so you can try lots of different things in a meal. And I could probably also argue that it’s fairly healthy too, as you’re eating small bites rather than big ones, thereby making it slightly less likely that you would eat too much.

Ten or fifteen years ago sushi really caught on in supermarkets. You started being able to get little packs of sushi of different flavours, with soy sauce, ginger and wasabi included, and the British public welcomed it. So it became a Thing.

I remember trying my first supermarket sushi. It was from Sainsbury’s, and it was awful. The rice was cold and hard, the toppings were flavourless, and the price was wrong. It was terrible, not just as sushi but as food, and I felt sad that people around the UK were going to taste supermarket sushi and think this was reasonable sushi.

There is one aspect of sushi which isn’t ever going to work in supermarket sushi – raw fish. A trip to a good sushi restaurant really must include some tuna, perhaps some squid, some roe and other fish, sliced carefully and served on rice. And I understand that you can’t do this in supermarket sushi. But there are other options – tamago (omelette); king prawn; and some ‘california roll’ types of sushi with fairly authentic Japanese flavours. And you can do vegetarian rolls (maki) as well.

So back whenever I first tried supermarket sushi, I concluded that this was an experiment that wasn’t going to work in Britain. I was surprised that it kept going as long as it did, but people seem to like eating cold, hard rice with cold, rubbery smoked salmon on it.

Today I was shopping for food and I needed something small to add to my lunch. And so a little tray of sushi turned out to be just right in terms of size, so I thought I’d try it, without really looking at what was in it. But here it is.

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Reading the label carefully I was a little suspicious: the types of sushi included were

  • Hoisin duck
  • Chilli and ginger
  • Red cabbage
  • Sweet chilli chicken
  • Smoked salmon

None of these are something you’d find in a sushi restaurant.

Studying the components of my tray of sushi made me realise another reason why you don’t get that much sushi in the UK: the flavours aren’t strong enough. This is probably a controversial topic and the subject for another post.

Anyway, settling down to try my sushi, I must say I was actually pleasantly surprised – which is not to say that it was good sushi. On the whole, I would still recommend that people avoid these packs, because the flavours are just not that great, and a sandwich would probably taste better (and be cheaper). But they are not as bad as they used to be.

The main thing I noticed was that the rice was no longer cold and hard. This could be because it had been bought about half an hour beforehand, but I suspect that actually it was just cooked better than previously; this in turn helped the flavour.

The hoisin duck was very much like a hoisin duck wrap in rice. It was pretty sweet, and tasted okay, but the combination was a bit odd.

The red cabbage and sweet chilli chicken were similar. It felt like the rice was a vessel to eat those things, which made it a bit strange to eat. The flavours were fairly standard – nothing special. The chilli and ginger roll was mostly ginger, and this was probably the strangest one – why put plain ginger with a bit of chilli into a piece of sushi? Why not go a little more traditional and put cucumber, red pepper or egg?

The smoked salmon sushi was probably the best one. They used to put wafer thin smoked salmon on sushi, but this was a proper chunk of salmon. It would have been even better were it raw, but smoked was a pretty good alternative, and the salmon was tender and pretty tasty.

The pickled ginger on the side was quite good too, full of flavour though a bit too wet.

So my conclusion? The sushi tray was surprisingly reasonable, but still not great. It was nothing like real sushi, and the flavours they put in were quite arbitrary; it felt like a bit of an asian hodge-podge, which is a real shame, because you’re missing out on so many potentially interesting flavours. So while there has been improvement, it hasn’t come to the stage yet where I feel I would deliberately choose it.

Your move, supermarkets.

BBQ champ – the introduction

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series BBQ Champ

Well, lots of you know that I am a huge fan of grilling. Recently I got into it through visiting some North American relatives who had a book which put grilling beyond the open fire blackening of sausages and meats.

I’ve been taking it seriously for a couple of years now, and am a proud owner of a Weber MasterTouch 57cm and a Weber Smokey Mountain 47cm. I’ve also been frequent viewer of YouTube videos of barbecue and smoking technique, and a member of the British Barbecue Society forum. In fact, there I saw a form inviting applications to this new show revolving around barbecuing, and I briefly considered it before deciding that I didn’t have time this summer. Plus, I had no idea what it would be like!

But I can’t resist commenting on it as I watch it, so starting tonight, I’m going to be watching it, watching it on repeat, and then giving my thoughts.

Happy grilling!

Higgidy Pies review

In recent years there has been a bit of a spate of ‘home-made’, friendly, fun things to buy – and this is a good thing. Smaller food producers have the need to stand out from their larger, more established competition, and therefore often create interesting products, forcing the other companies to revisit their recipes or products.

Recently I bought such a product: Higgidy British Beef, Stilton and Sussex Ale pie. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It forms, in my mind at least, the thought of gentle cows on green British hills being looked after by a kindly farmer, wearing a flat cap; a hardworking cheese-maker who has honed his trade over a number of generations crafting the finest Stilton ever; and then perhaps all of them gathering together (including the cows) for a drink at the end of the day in a traditional Sussex pub.

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Super-yoghurt: is it worth it?

I follow food trends wherever I can, although I must say I don’t usually follow them to the point of trying all of them. But it’s interesting to see the trends.

The interesting food I’ve seen recently is Skyr, which is a so-called ‘super-yoghurt’ apparently from Iceland (although the website quickly informs us that it is made in Germany). I saw some big billboard ads that made it seem traditional (apparently it has been eaten for hundreds of years) and yet very healthy too. The main statement about its nutrition on the website is that it is “fat free, reduced sugar, high protein”.

I wanted to see what the fuss was about so I thought I’d get myself some and treat myself to a super-snack.

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How not to sell me whisky

Now, I love a good whisky. In fact, it was one of the things that gave me the idea that starting a blog about food’s finest things might be fun.

I was therefore amused by the way that someone tried to sell me whisky the other day.

I was in a big warehouse store where you tend to buy things in bulk. Not whisky, though; you buy it by the bottle. And on this particular day they were giving out free (tiny) samples of a whisky that was on sale. I honestly can’t remember the name and I’m not interested in commenting on it here. Because it was the sales pitch that was the most fun.

“This whisky is really good! It doesn’t taste too strong.” Hardly an appeal to the senses, then. So I tried a bit, and sure enough, it didn’t taste strong. In fact, it didn’t taste of much. It was slightly sweet and alcoholic. But the trump card had not yet been played.

“You see, sir, this is a fine whisky. It is endorsed by David Beckham!” His hand rose with a flourish to point out the large poster of Sir Beckham himself, with an expression that certainly looked like he was being paid to endorse something.

At this point I carefully placed the half empty sample cup in the bin. The assistant looked at me with incredulity. “You didn’t like it? It’s only £22!”

Perhaps I’m not the target market, but neither celebrity endorsement nor lack of strong taste nor a low price point are the main things I look for in a whisky. And they shouldn’t be for anyone.

Image: “A Glass of Whiskey on the Rocks” by Benjamin Thompson – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Breakfast Challenge Day 2: UP&GO

So the second day into my challenge, it was time to shake things up. It was inconceivable that a decent breakfast would fit into something so small, but here is a picture of my proposed breakfast for day 2:

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Once again, I stuck to the rules from the start of the challenge. At 09.20 I opened up (with a straw) and tasted my breakfast.

The first thing that hit me was incredible sweetness to the flavour. I don’t mind sweet things too much but this was…too much. And it was incredibly artificial, with a vanilla taste that doesn’t really exist in normal food.

After that, it started tasting of oats – and in fact, there was an oat texture to it. At this point it felt a bit like a watery porridge, but not in a bad way. To be honest, it took a fair amount of time to finish the breakfast (4 minutes or so), mostly because it wasn’t entirely appealing to drink. The fact that it was through a straw also slowed things down.

As for initial feelings, apart from the overwhelming sweetness and vanilla taste, I was fairly satisfied by this carton of breakfast. I was actually pleasantly surprised that it filled me up a fair bit.

Later on, I started to feel a bit hungry a bit earlier, but not terribly so. Once again I was able to resist the temptation to buy anything more for my lunch without much difficulty.

Nutrition

Ingredients: Skimmed Milk (reconstituted) (43%), Water, Wholegrain Oat Flour (3.2%), Sugar, Fructose, Inulin, Soy Protein, Maize Starch, Milk Protein Concentrate, Vegetable Oils (Sunflower, Rapeseed), Minerals (Tricalcium Phosphate, Sodium Polyphosphate), Acidity Regulator (E332), Stabilisers (E460, E466, E407), Flavouring, Dried Cream Extract, Salt, Vitamins (D, C, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, B6, Folic Acid, B12)

Now, this ingredients list is slightly worrying. My suspicion is that it’s long because it needs to have a certain consistency and longevity given that it is in liquid form in a carton, but I am the kind of person for whom the longer the ingredients list, the more worried I get. It just doesn’t feel right.

Summary

On the whole I was impressed by how full I felt from this breakfast in a bottle. It was quick (though not that enjoyable) to eat (drink?), and it didn’t involve any faff or cleaning up. And it kept me full, even if I felt a little light-headed from the sugar rush.

However, at £1.39 per day, this isn’t great value for money. Perhaps buying it in bulk would be better, but unless it got down to about 70 or 80p, I don’t think I could do this long term – not unless flavour and satisfaction were improved.

Scores

  • Convenience: 10/10
  • Taste: 6/10
  • Immediate satisfaction: 7/10
  • Long term satisfaction: 7/10
  • Value for money: 6/10

Breakfast Challenge: Day 1 – Oatso Simple Cuppa Porridge

As any scientist would tell you, if you’re going to change things, it’s best to have a benchmark for comparison – a control result. And so with my Breakfast Challenge I have started with the trusty, dependable Cuppa Porridge to give me something to compare against others.

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The concept is simple: you put the porridge into a mug, and you add hot water, and stir, and hopefully you get tasty porridge in a mug which is easy to eat and clean (you eat it with a spoon).

As ever, I prepared it at 09.20, the reason for which I mention in my other post. And, as predicted, it was easy to prepare – just 2 minutes and I was ready to eat my porridge.

The flavour I went for was apple and blueberry – again a tried and tested flavour. They’ve done well to go for these flavours – they’re sweet and appealing but quite easy to get into a pre-prepared breakfast without tasting artificial. So the aroma coming off the porridge was already great, and I must say the initial feelings on eating it were of satisfaction. It was a nice, hot breakfast to have and really hit the spot when I was getting a little hungry.

In terms of consistency, the feeling wasn’t so much of thick, oaty porridge which you’d have to chew – it felt more like ready brek (does that still exist?). It was almost smooth but had an oaty taste to it. Not unappealing at all, and I suppose you have to make do with the fact that you’re not cooking rolled oats for 15 minutes.

I was able to eat it while working pretty easily in about 5 minutes, and was on the whole just right for my hunger at that point. Within a couple of hours, I was starting to feel hungry but I didn’t feel the need to buy anything additional to my veg box at 11.30 and my lunch at 12.30. Perhaps later on, I was feeling a bit hungry again, but not to the point of having to supplement the meals of the day.

Nutrition

Ingredients: Quaker Wholegrain Rolled Oats (63%), Semi Skimmed Milk Powder, Sugar, Natural Flavouring

Summary

On the whole  it was a great way to start the day. And at £2.59 for 5 packs, it works out at 52p per pack, which is pretty good value. And the great thing here is that I can have this breakfast wherever I am, as long as there is hot water and a mug. The only real downside was washing up the mug afterwards, which was a little tricky (especially if you leave it for an hour – the porridge formed a crust which was surprisingly hard).

Scores

  • Convenience: 7/10
  • Taste: 9/10
  • Immediate satisfaction: 8/10
  • Long term satisfaction: 8/10
  • Value for money: 9/10
  • Nutrition:

Breakfast challenge: Introduction

Breakfast is always a challenge for me. My stomach wants something big, filling and greasy with a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee. My brain, however, is telling me to get on with it and go out the door and get on with the day. My, er, sleep gland is saying “whatever, as long as it doesn’t take too long”.

Growing up (there’s that phrase again – how much our attitudes to food are driven by how we grew up!) it would usually be some sort of healthy cereal like Weetabix or muesli. At university I ate in the college canteen – toast, sausage, egg, bacon each day all in a sandwich. Most days, anyway. And more recently I’ve been bouncing around different options – breakfast bars, cereals, porridge, toast, and…yes, McDonalds and even KFC breakfast.

So it was high time to get another one of my challenges underway. As my friend Mark would say, “it’s not a challenge if no-one is making you do it,” but ‘challenge’ sounds better than ‘series of reviews’, so I’ll stick with that.

What I’m looking for is a combination of:

  • How full I feel after eating it
  • How full I feel later on in the morning
  • How much it costs
  • How it tastes
  • How quick it is to make
  • Nutritional information (i.e. what it’s likely to do to my insides in the long term)

My default breakfast at the moment is Oatso Simple Porridge (either in microwave or cuppa porridge form), so I’ll start with that and compare it.

Obviously this isn’t a scientific study. The sample size is 1, and there are a lot of factors that could influence how I’m feeling breakfast wise: how much food I had the previous day; how active I was (and am); how much fluid I drink; how tired I am. But I’ll do my best to keep things as consistent as possible: I’ll eat my breakfast at 09.20 am, and then take ‘measurements’ until lunch.

Why 09.20 am? I get up and start work much earlier, but I found that if I eat when I get up I invariably get incredibly hungry around 10.30/11.00, and then end up supplementing my lunch because I think I’ll be hungry. I find that I can push through until 09.20 and then eat then as a kind of early morning break. Weird? Yeah, but it’s a psychological trick that seems to work.