rosmgtibatgs: kona coffee creamy half-dipped shortbread cookies

It’s been too long since I’ve ventured into Reviews of Some Maybe Gross Things I Bought at the Grocery Store. But nothing says “maybe gross” like “Trader Joe’s kona coffee creamy half-dipped shortbread cookies,” and hey, look what I’ve got.

Seeing as how I am probably the internet’s leading expert in what makes something Maybe Gross, allow me to break this down further for you. First, the most cut-and-dried terms:

Trader Joe’s” – is a phrase that should immediately signal to you that the product you’re about to consume May, indeed, Be Gross. But we’ve talked about this.

Kona Coffee” – This is fine. In general, coffee can probably only be a good thing. I suspect Joe will make me rue saying this in the future.

Cookies” – while the word denotes good things, there is a complicating factor here: the fact that we’re reading it from a box. While I don’t personally know any people that are such bad bakers that I’d hesitate to accept offers of cookies from them, I have met plenty of boxes I’ve regretted accepting cookies from.

When it comes to Trader Joe’s cookies specifically, there are some that I will happily eat (caramel cashew, triple ginger, candy cane joe-joes), some that I will sometimes happily eat (maple leaf sandwiches, which are tooth-achingly sweet, but reassuring in the right context), a lot that I tried and threw out and will never eat again (chocolate hazelnut, vanilla meringues), and many that you will never get me to eat even once (kettle corn, “chocolatey cats cookies”).

But let’s move on to the words on this box that are potentially more troubling.

Shortbread” – Man, do I love shortbread. Shortbread is one of the world’s most perfect foods. Of course, a strongly-felt opinion like this of any food often leads to disappointment when faced with a packaged version of said food. But actually, these cookies are pretty OK. And look, I really don’t want to say that about a shortbread that somehow contains precisely no butter. (How, why.†) But shortbread and coffee are so nice together, and these are maybe not shortbread exactly, but they’re not so far off, and they somehow taste pretty good despite their disturbing lack. They’re awfully crumbly—in the shortbread world, they’re not alone in this, but it does present an issue that we’ll get to in a minute.

For now, let’s take a closer look.

Normally, I do try to neaten things up a little for pictures. But, as you should have noted by now, there are crumbs everywhere in these photos. For one (actually two) thing(s), they are legion, and they are unwrangleable. For another, I decided the crumbs are in fact such a part of the experience that it would be dishonest to exclude them.

So, there’s only one thing left here to tackle:

Creamy half-dipped” – Oh, fuck me. There it is. Chills ran down my spine as I picked this up from the shelf and tried to wrap my head around this. I couldn’t resist, despite (or OK, maybe owing to) the fact that what immediately resounded in my skull in a native, free-associative sorta way, was: “spunk bath.”

To go against type a bit, I’m just going to let that sit there. By the by, how do you expect something to taste that was originally going to be white chocolate, until that proved to be too expensive and was replaced by a substance that Legal decided could only be labeled “creamy”? I mean. Joe, it’s fine. We all know cocoa butter is pricy stuff. I’m just not sure “creamy half-dip” was the best descriptor you could’ve come up with.

Not surprisingly, this creamy half-dip is the cookie’s downfall. It’s cloying and gratuitous and just a touch plasticky.

So, about that crumbliness. Do you see the not-altogether-appetizing tray imprint in that creamy half-dip? These cookies rest creamy half-dip side down in their tray, and at least in my box, they are basically glued in place by it. Perhaps my box was just not stored at the correct temperature, but whether intentional or not, I guess it would have the happy consequence of keeping the cookies from banging around and crumbling in transit. It did not, however, keep them from crumbling between my fingers every time I tried to loosen one from its creamy-half-dip-and-plastic shackles.

I’d say that despite my best efforts at caution, I’ve already lost 2 cookies’ worth of crumbs to the bottom of the tray and my kitchen counter and floor. And of course, it’s not the creamy half-dipped portion that’s crumbling to dust—it’s the decent part.

So I can’t really recommend these, unless you’re a fan of fakey icing. I’m not judging.

But while we’re on the topic of shortbready things and coffee, I do have a recipe to share.

NB: it’s been brought to my attention that these do contain butter, which I apparently missed despite scanning the ingredients for it multiple times, because I’m a smart person. Read the comments below for more info on Buttergate!

It’s right here.

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NTBPB: the internet is the
worst thing

If you only know me through this blog, then you may or may not know that I tend to worry that I’ve basically rendered myself a caricature over time, and that I now have to preface 80% of my thoughts with the phrase “Not to be predictable, but…” because I’m very self-conscious about the way everything I say might just be playing completely to type.

I say you “may or may not” know this because there’s a very real chance that this has absolutely bled over into my blog, but I’d rather not know either way, so I won’t be checking.

Anyway, ever since blogging stopped being something I did a few times a week when I had something I wanted to write about, and became something that I do several times a day because I’ve made a commitment to populate an actual food blog with a certain amount of interesting and/or useful content each day, I spend an absurd amount of time interacting with the internet. Otherwise, I’d never come up with this many food-related things to say each day—at least not things that I could predictably expect any other person to care about.

And, well, NTBPB: the internet is not a place where anyone should spend this much time. Let’s talk about what I did today. I ended up reading at least 3 different things about Guy Fieri (GUY FIERI.) because that is the thing the internet decided was important today. And to clarify, that was just what got through my “I’m going to try not to waste any more time on this Guy Fieri thing” filter—there were probably thousands of items generated on the guy today. If you were in the camp that was gleefully tracking that story today, you definitely couldn’t have kept up.

But really, the worst thing about the internet for me is the same thing that has always made blogging a slightly uncomfortable fit for me: I don’t actually love spilling my internal monologue. When everyone gets together en masse in 2012 to hammer out where we all stand on something like Guy Fieri, my cringing is so often informed by the thought, “haven’t we all worked this whole thing out long ago?” But no, of course everyone hasn’t. Everyone else hasn’t quietly, constantly, almost subconsciously been mulling over their opinion of everything they’ve ever encountered, even if that thing is Guy Fieri.

But I have done that, so allow me to tell you where this lands: Guy Fieri is a vapid shell of a shill, who happened to luck into a show that can actually be sort of appealing in spite of him. His restaurants are chain concepts whether they’re chained together or not. While he remains a human being and therefore must actually relate to some other people on this planet in other ways, to most of us, he’s better thought of as just another corporate entity. There’s nothing else there.

Most importantly, does everyone else honestly believe that Pete Wells’ review was actually that funny? It wasn’t entirely without its snickers, but for someone who keeps a catalogue in her brain of these things, who can easily recall times when Wells has turned a phrase about food that made her genuinely laugh or vehemently disagree or even blush… well, this left me pretty dry.

And even if you really do think that the review was a brilliant takedown, can anyone really feel good about how many words we’ve now collectively scrawled today on GUY FIERI? I do not, and I fully appreciate the irony here, except that’s the other, really worst thing about the internet: it’s fully inured most of us to its awfulness. It’s now possible to justify to yourself the act of blogging about how you would’ve preferred not to see so many blog posts about something.

All of this, of course, to illustrate why I struggle with spitting out my internal monologue in public.

(ALL OF THAT SAID: this Eater post is the one thing on the entire internet today that gets a pass for actually making me laugh and for the sheer “how long did that take?” wonder of it all. Also, it should probably be said that the only other thing I came across today that I enjoyed was this Gawker thing about Grindr and Florida, so joke’s on you if you’ve ever attributed even one shred of credibility to me.)

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on being too tired not to make pie

Between things like my dog‘s recent emergency surgery (and subsequent weeks of round-the-clock dogsitting) and the fact that I’ve been writing stuff like this for a local alt weekly and the fact that I am a poor person, I’ll admit that any energy and resources I might’ve had for personal blogging have been a bit drained of late.

I haven’t been going out. I’ve mostly been cooking on autopilot. I’ve been even less likely than usual to pick up a camera. My junky Trader Joe’s purchases have been (mostly) limited to things I actually know I like*. The other day I ate a pile of chrusciki for breakfast. You know.

But what I have been doing is making pies, obviously, and that made me think I should share my pie crust recipe, because I think it’s awfully good. (As an aside, while baking a pie from scratch is a universal signifier of unreasonable toil, the act assumes a somewhat droopier meaning when you’re doing it only because you don’t want to walk the three blocks to the nearest pie shop.)

It’s also worth noting that pie is not really very hard to make at all. It might take a number of tries and tweaks to get the pastry exactly where you want it, but really, even the initial not-quites are still pie. And when you get it right, you’ll feel like some sort of competent adult.

So, what I’ve settled on is a mixture of shortening and butter, as well as a mixture of AP and whole spelt flours. The flour thing is just a personal preference—I like the texture, flavor, and substance—though it is lower in gluten than wheat flour, so I can’t promise you won’t need to tweak a bit further if you go AP-only.

I don’t use vodka, because I don’t keep vodka around and already love the pie crust I make without it, so it seems unnecessary to start buying the stuff now. While I love pie crusts made with lard and think good lard is a beautiful thing, shortening works for me and is cheaper and easier to obtain here, plus it keeps on the shelf for an awfully long time. (I use this organic, non-hydrogenated stuff, which I mention only for the sake of completeness, because I don’t know if its pertinent qualities are identical to those of Crisco.)

If you’re wondering whether or not you can make pie crust without a food processor: of course you can, but it’s not the most fun you’re ever going to have. You’ll have to cut everything in by hand, either with a pastry cutter or knives or your actual hands. (Hey, if it worked for Marion Cunningham, it works for me). I use the processor because it’s infinitely quicker, and because I tend toward hot hands. But I do usually finish the cutting-in process with my hands, to get a better feel for exactly where I’m at and sniff out any particularly large chunks of butter.

Now, the saddest pie fact of all: Pie (like most baked goods, if you ask me) is better if you let it cool for hours. In fact, it’s usually better the next day. Warm pie sounds nice, but in reality it usually means runny filling and a crust that, while good, hasn’t quite relaxed into its best self. So ideally, you’ll go back and make it yesterday, so that you can eat pie now.

* The ROSMGTIBATGS that will sadly never happen: all Trader Joe’s ice creams, ever. Why are they so bad? Pumpkin and the lemon-gingersnap one are especially offensive, but mediocre is as good as it gets in that freezer case.

Keep reading for the recipe and instructions.

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No Reservations: Austin was
kind of a huge bummer

Throughout last night’s season 9 premiere of No Reservations, which took us to Austin during South by Southwest, Anthony Bourdain kept expressing some gnawing discomfort about the premise of the episode—or at least recognition of the absurdity of it. He’s too old to cover hipsters at SXSW, he says over and over; he feels like someone’s “perverted uncle” hanging out with these kids. He keeps calling them “nice.” He seems impressed by the food he shares with them, but maybe also a little disappointed that all of them seem so sophisticated and food-obsessed.

It’s easy to want to roll your eyes at this, because like it or not, Bourdain has long been a hipster god. I almost cringe at the setup for that reason, except that when he ribs himself for being old, it rings too true. It probably explains why this episode failed to resonate with me at all. I won’t say it was a bad episode, because the food was great, and the cinematography was top-notch as we’ve come to expect. I’m sure, to people who are not me, the featured music was a huge draw. But ultimately, it was as if Bourdain knew he never had this episode fully under his control, and so it never quite came together. It was like a compilation of all the moments in a life that suddenly make you feel your age.

The episode that ran after the premiere was a rerun of the Ozarks episode, which I could (and do) watch again and again, and which only seemed to highlight the shortcomings of the Austin episode. Seeing Bourdain bullshitting with hunters is purely fun. Watching him tagging along with Jim Harrison in Montana was captivating. This, last night, was more jarring, arhythmic—but without any of the sex or drugs that would seem to imply.

The show’s first segment pairs Bourdain with local band Ume. We see (beautiful) live footage of the band, and they share a meal with the host at Bryce Gilmore’s Barley Swine. The food, of course, looks awesome. They tear through a succession of dishes, from a plate of soft-scrambled eggs to braised goat’s neck to a dish of sweetbreads and (be still, my heart) a chicken-fried egg. But the conversation feels stilted. When served chicken testicles, everyone giggles about balls—because balls are funny, but also because the easiest way to smooth over an age difference is for everyone to act like they’re 10 years old.

But when Anthony asks them about road food, fully expecting that it is terrible, the worst frontwoman Lauren Larson can muster up is Cracker Barrel (OK, that is sort of dismal). She starts talking about tasso ham and turnip greens. When Bourdain says this all seems pretty ambitious, that even he usually just falls back on things like Popeye’s—the band members balk. They say it’s “disgusting.” Tony Bourdain’s day-to-day habits don’t live up to the standards of the guitar-rock band he’s eating dinner with. The meal started with Bourdain playing the part of the parent paying a college visit, taking these hard-living kids out for a good meal as a charitable gesture. But by the end, a very different picture’s been painted.

When Tony meets up with Sleigh Bells, things get a little awkward again. The band is “nice,” their rented suburban digs look… nice, and they are feasting on a whole pig and a massive crawfish boil. They travel with a cook. They play it cool, of course, but they are clearly starstruck. If Tony feels like their perverted uncle, they seem to feel they’re being granted a rare visit from a father they’ve built up in their minds to mythical proportions. They teach him to shotgun a beer (Tony does so slowly, and it looks oddly like he’s taking hits off an inhaler). Alexis Krauss giggles like an adolescent at something that sounds sexual. They eat too well. They’re probably not younger than me, but through Tony, I feel like I do when I encounter a precocious child. Despite all the niceties, I’m relieved when the scene ends.

Later, we see Tony downing beers at the Drafthouse with yet another local band, The Sword. As if to nail home in no uncertain terms that Tony is not a hipster but these dudes in the band definitely are, Bourdain actually uses the word “rawk,” and then the guys list their influences as “Van Halen, Ozzy, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, and Hall and Oates.”

Moving on to Quality Seafood Market, they eat fish tacos and gulf oysters on the half-shell. They dress these in the band’s own hot sauce, called “Trail of Tears.” The band. Bottles their own hot sauce. I don’t know, anymore, what this is. They eat “crack pie” and the conversation turns mercifully sophomoric again. At least, in these eating-with-the-band segments, there is a comfortable cadence developing.

Next, it’s electronic artist Neon Indian (né Alan Paloma) drinking bloody mojitos with Tony at a Christmas-themed bar called Lala’s. Again, this kid seems… nice, though his music fills me with dread. He takes Tony for Mexican sweet breads, and there are more tacos. The conversation is not what I’d call TV-ready. I actually prefer this, and thankfully, Paloma doesn’t seem nearly as food snobby as some of the other people on this episode are coming across. But unfortunately, regardless of how this kid may be in real life, the bland conversation set against the backgrounds of a kitschy bar and an all-night Mexican bakery kind of reinforces the oft-repeated idea that hipsters rely on the quirky places they frequent and the trappings of their “obsessions” to convey upon them a personality that they’re lacking. Sometimes, things that are “nice” to those that live them just don’t make for great TV. I feel, more and more, like this is one of those episodes that was a lot of fun to make, but the fun isn’t translating.

And to be clear, I do know that this isn’t how all kids in bands are. I know plenty of kids in bands, and they’re not above Jack in the Box. I also know that some of these musicians will take great offense at being called kids, which would be entirely warranted. Some of these people are older than me; they’re married, have gone to grad school. But they are kids compared to Bourdain, the narration keeps reminding me. And regardless of what these people and these bands may actually be, the show sort of comes off as a bunch of young hipster foodie bands excited to show off to Anthony fucking Bourdain what hipster foodie bands they are. I’m sure they’re drunk and having an awesome time. They want to be hospitable, and good for them. Idealist me wants people to eat as responsibly and as well as they can. Reactionary me feels how Bourdain looks like he feels at times during this episode: like, what the fuck happened to kids?

Of course, that’s not all the episode is. There are some welcome moments of low-key quiet, though I never felt like they quite meshed with the rest of the episode. One quick breather comes in the form of Tony eating tacos, alone, at a taco truck set up in the parking lot of a laundromat. Barbacoa tacos and enchiladas con guilota (crispy-fried dove) at a place called El Taco Rico. It’s brief, but it makes me feel less itchy.

There is also cabrito with Alejandro Escovedo, and chili and more conversation that doesn’t quite get where it’s going with Golden Boys. But food-wise, the highlight of Austin is barbecue. Tremendous barbecue. First, at Franklin BBQ, it’s just Bourdain and a blogger eating some really spectacular brisket. After all the accolades heaped upon the place (throughout the segment, it’s called “the best in the world,” “the best of the best,” and “a religious experience in barbecue”), I’m really a little surprised to see that Aaron Franklin also sort of looks like a kid. (For the record, he’s actually in his mid-thirties.) It’s just salt and pepper and oak and one stand-out sequence showing the pitmaster at work, caught during a freak pre-dawn rainstorm, that feels like an 80s hair band video. There’s a 3-hour-long line, beef hearts in the sausage, and some serious collagen porn. In other words, it’s great.

In the second barbecue segment, Bourdain visits JMueller BBQ, where they’re serving outrageous-looking beef short ribs, sausages that may haunt my dreams, and an unorthodox sauce (“like a pepperpot soup,” according to Bourdain). It’s too brief; there’s talk of some potential darkness in the owner’s past and rivalry with Aaron Franklin, who used to work for Mueller, but the thrust of the segment is the rib. And that’s not a bad thing.

The conclusion of the episode feels very rushed and somewhat tacked-on. To be fair, this episode was filmed during SXSW, where Bourdain was in town to give a festival talk ostensibly about social media. So we were already in slightly weird territory. Perhaps the crew simply had too much fun in Austin and tried to pack so much into the hour that everything felt a bit disjointed and more glossed-over than usual. The wrap-up is a brief soliloquy about Austin and expectations, ending with the comment that “This is the real America.” And yes, this is really a part of America, but I don’t think a narrative ever really coalesced here, and the ending is fittingly quick and vague.

The city of Austin comes off well, anyway. Here’s hoping for a return to form with next week’s episode, which takes Bourdain to Sydney.

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shell.fish.sue

Update: Far be it from me to tell you to stop reading my blog and go elsewhere, but it’s worth noting that Shell.Fish.Sue has finally gotten a website up since I wrote this, and it doesn’t seem quite right that this comes up in a search so far in advance of their official online presence. And wouldn’t you know, they’ve already added a few new things to their menu. So try this for the most up-to-date info: http://shellfishsue.com/

First things first: look, I don’t know why the name of the place is stylized that way, either. To be honest, we mostly call it “selfish shoe” around here, and that usually not on purpose.

Anyway, Lansdale has this newish seafood place. It’s been open maybe a month, maybe a little less. It’s one of those really casual hybrid places, with a takeout counter and plastic cutlery and a cooler full of self-serve sodas, but you can also eat there, which I have now done a couple of times.

This is not necessarily destination dining. I mean, suburban types who are well-accustomed to driving everywhere they go shouldn’t think twice about driving a little ways to get there, but it’s largely a neighborhood spot—which is incredibly welcome in Lansdale, where Main Street is still populated mostly by pizza places and diners.

The food is, frankly, a lot better than I expected it to be. I say that only because very early on, when I hadn’t so much as seen a menu but every dish I had heard anyone else mention was fried, I had my doubts. I mean, not that I would ever take issue with a chip shop; it just wasn’t what I imagined when the sign first went up. And yeah, it turned out that the bulk of the opening menu is deep-fried or crusted. So I was surprised at what a light touch their chef has with it.

The first time I went, I tried the fish and chips. For sticklers, this is tempura-battered fish with french fries, not “fish and chips” in any proper British sense. (This place hardly owns that particular semantic issue, though.)  The portion is smallish, as it should be, given that it’s priced at all of $10. I tried it with cod, and it was fresh and a little creamy with a very crisp, non-greasy coating. The only problem with it, if you could call it that, is that there are so many more interesting things on the menu.

This shrimp po’ boy was among the more compelling options. (“Po’ boy,” of course, is another one of those regionalisms people can quibble about,but I’m not here to speak to that. It was a good sandwich. And yes, I took this with my cellphone, so I apologize for the photo quality.) Jarred got another sandwich earlier, an Italian affair with breaded cod, which he was very happy with, but this po’ boy was more my speed. That is to say, it incorporated lots of pickled things and some heat, which is the direction I tend to want to go in when fried seafood’s involved. Smoked tomatoes, interestingly enough, were on both sandwiches but took on entirely different character from one appearance to another.

Below, I’ve got the current menu, because I can tell from google searches that locals are anxious to see it. The shell.fish.sue facebook page has a version up, but this is more complete; it’s the full menu currently available in the restaurant. Even so, you might want to take the menu as a suggestion. They’re still adding to it, there are usually about 4 or 5 specials available on the board, and they won’t always have everything on the menu. (But really, you should be suspicious of any seafood place that’s never out of anything. And note that the lobster mac and cheese and the bread pudding are only available during Friday and Saturday during dinner hours, though the menu only says “Friday and Saturday” with no hours specified in the first case, and is totally mute in the second.)

I think uncertainty and surprises are a nice part of the small neighborhood dining experience. But if you’ve got dietary restrictions or are just particular about knowing exactly what’s going to be on your plate, you might want to ask a lot of questions, because the menu doesn’t accurately reflect every single detail. Jarred tried to order a tuna salad at lunch, for instance, and they didn’t have tuna that day. He considered the mac and cheese, which is how we learned that that’s not around at lunch. Some off-menu skate was then recommended, and when he asked how it was prepared, the guy responded, “Oh, however. We could fry it or crust it…” and when he opted for a lemon-basil crust, no other variables were discussed. The on-menu crusted fishes come “with two sides,” which I took to mean you could choose between the few on the menu (fries, potato salad, slaw), but the actual plating turned out to be more thoughtful than that: Jarred’s skate showed up with slaw, a smear of mushy peas, and a scoop of the potato salad that had been seared (!) as if it were a potato pancake.

And here’s the thing: it was all seriously good. (The skate, which sometimes seems to confound people, was perfectly cooked.) None of the surprises have concerned us, but others reading this might like to know. The place is new, and there are a lot of little details that make the place interesting but also weren’t likely to be fully ironed out in a mere matter of weeks (oh, by the way, they have 6 different salts for your fries). The slaw, by the by, is pretty unique: I’d describe it as tasting more pickled than simply dressed. By the evening hours, it’s garlicky and a little hot and can almost take on a bit of kimchi-style funk. In other words, it’s awesome.

But one thing that is really important to know is this: They take credit cards, but because it is “primarily set up as a takeout place,” per the woman who rang us up last time, their credit card slips don’t give you an opportunity to tip them. While tipping in cash is always a nice idea, here you’ll really, really want to have at least enough cash for a tip. Unless you want to have someone wait on you and then awkwardly realize after the fact that there’s no way to tip them. Which totally happened to us, in case that wasn’t obvious.

Oh well. Next time. After the break: the menu.

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