After Hours: Accept These Substitutes

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX.com Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

Sometimes eating preferences mature in ways that leave a lot of longtime favorites behind. It's not always easy to let go; many of us have a fondness bordering on the cellular for prepared foods that we've been eating since childhood. Fortunately, alternatives to many old friends are on the rise. Whether your interest is lower sugar, lower fat, all-natural or organic, surprising substitutes await on the shelves of specialty and health food stores. Calling them substitutes isn't entirely fair, though. That label carries a sense of making do, and this month's recommendations do anything but.

Cooco for What?  (aka Cereal) / Freezer FindsMac & Cheese / Condiments / Cookies

Cooco for What?

Looking to cut refined sugar consumption? The natural cereal market abounds with palate-pleasing alternatives to many decades-old early-morning favorites. Mother's Groovy Grahams — dense, crunchy ribbons with a concentrated graham flavor that encourages out-of-the-box snacking -- are a molasses-sweetened answer to Golden Grahams. Mother's Cocoa Bumpers offer the same satisfying crunch as Cocoa Puffs, only with non-assaulting, natural cocoa that grows sweeter by the spoonful.

Another twist on Cocoa Puffs is Cocoa Organic Wild Puffs from Barbara's Bakery, which allow more of the underlying oat and corn flavors to come through. The Fruity Punch version of Wild Puffs combines natural fruit flavors (reminiscent of Kix) with fruit shapes and colors. Like Kellogg's Apple Jacks without the crunchy sugar coating, Barbara's organic Apple Cinnamon O's deliver robust cinnamon tones on impact, with a palpable and palatable assist from apple juice sweetening. Barbara's Puffins target Cap'n Crunch with large corn pillows that sidestep the Cap'n's distinctive sticks-in-the-tooth sweetness.

And if the name New Morning Cocoa Crispy Rice doesn't bring to mind Cocoa Crispies, the taste certainly will, only without the sugary backlash.

Freezer Finds

Amy's Kitchen Organic Toaster Pops retool the basic Pop Tarts concept with organic fillings and whole-wheat flour -- a combination that passed muster with both my adult and kid tasting assistants. Of the fruit-filled Pops, the strawberry and cheese version wowed my panel of picky preteens ("It tastes like a bagel!"), who praised the plain strawberry version for tasting like genuine fruit. Cheese Pizza Toaster Pops have universal appeal, cloaking a savory, cheesy tomato sauce in the novelty and convenience of a toaster pastry. (Look for the Pops in the cooler case, and be prepared to store them in the freezer at home.)

Meal-sized Pizza Pocket Sandwiches have more complex flavor meldings than the usual freezer food, without the grease-dripping perils of, say, Hot Pockets. The sandwiches come in three flavors: vegetarian, mozzarella, and soy cheese, which passed for "real" cheese with my tasters.

Mac & Cheese

Amy's Kitchen Mac and Cheese, which comes frozen, has the cheddary taste and slippery squish kids expect, be they chronological or inner; the soy cheese version won approval from my testers as well, who mistook its bolder flavor for nacho cheese. If you prefer the boil-and-stir convenience of boxed macaroni and cheese, the alternative of choice is Annie's Homegrown, which makes eight excellent all-natural varieties and seven that are certified organic. Organic Mild Mexican Shells and Cheddar, gently spiked with jalapeno and red pepper, is a standout.

Condiments

Westbrae Fruit Sweetened Ketchup and Annie's Naturals' Organic Ketchup are not merely the best-tasting of the natural and organic ketchups (which are otherwise prone to an unfortunate heavy-handedness with cloves); they hold their own against the mainstream products as well. Neither salty nor stridently sweet, Westbrae's has satisfying tomato tones, while Annie's Naturals' hits a perfect balance of flavors, spice and sweetness. Annie's Naturals produces successful organic versions of other standard condiments as well, notably a Dijon mustard with appropriately stoneground texture and a yellow mustard with a potency fit for any self-respecting ballpark frank.

Cookies

Options abound for those of us who heed the clarion call of cookie aisle.
Newman's Own Organics turns out consistently tasty replacements for three schools of favorites, all of which use a non-hydrogenated, cholesterol- and transfats-free oil called palm fruit. Champion Chip Cookies are six variations on the chocolate chip cookie that occupy an entirely different part of the universe from Toll House and Chips Ahoy! For one thing, Champion Chip Cookies are compact, crisp mounds, rather than soft expanses of chocolate-studded dough; for another, the flavors are stunningly deep and satisfying. (Just try to put down a bag of Orange Chocolate Chip.)

Fig Newmans are a response to Fig Newtons (and the name is, fear not, licensed from Kraft), in fat-free, low-fat and dairy-free versions with the denseness and chewiness the namesake have led us to expect. Newman-O's more than acceptably replicate the comforting dueling textures of, yes, Oreos, while managing to -- I know this will sound impossible -- improve the taste. Ginger-O's pairs the filling with an addictively spiced cookie in place of the chocolate tops and bottoms (which are sold on their own, for those times when you don't want the bother of licking off the créme). Even the credulity-defying wheat-free and dairy-free version leaves no sense of want.

Also in the sandwich cookie family are Nature's Morning Graham-Wiches, which the February 23, 2004 After Hours highlighted. In three flavors (chocolate graham with peanut butter créme, honey graham with peanut butter créme and honey graham and vanilla créme), Graham-Wiches, are an organic-grain improvement on Snackwells, without trans-fats, dairy ingredients or artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

ã Kathy Biehl 2005