Quick Bite: The Joy of Junk Food
My magnum opus "The Joy of Junk Food: Nutrition Has Nothing to Do With It," is the cover story for the August-September 2006 issue of My Table, a dining magazine with some of the most consistently lively writing around, on any topic. Read the teaser in the online table of contents.
Highlights of the 2006 New York Fancy Food Show
Every summer, a couple of themes emerge from the mad whirl that is the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade's Fancy Food Show in NYC. This year, the big one signaled itself not just outside the building, but across 11th Avenue, where a smiling minion with a well-stocked cooler was handing out the first of many variations on water. If the half dozen or so brands of bottled water already on the grocery store shelves strike you as unexciting, rest assured: water with all manner of flavors (not to mention alleged properties) is flooding the consumer market.
Water, Water Everywhere
The street side freebie was Metromint, a clear, filtered water that is flavored (quite strongly, but pleasantly) by mint leaves - the samples by spearmint, the original by peppermint. Its competitors inside the doors included Snow Sparking Beverage, a pepperminty, cane-sugar sweetened sparkling water, whose handlers were touting its suitability as an ice cream float or cocktail base. Peppermint is also in the product line-up of Hint, which has nearly a dozen varieties, including a refreshing raspberry lime, that rely entirely on natural flavorings (such as oils in some instances, rinds in others) without the aid of sweeteners. Hint is appropriately named; the flavors are detectable but subtle.
The same is true of O Water, which offers the purity of two-passes of reverse osmosis, as well as a "twist" of real fruit. Hi Ball Energy combines natural flavors with taurine, guarana, Ginseng, B vitamins and caffeine for energy. (What's that sound? Why, a sub-theme is beginning.) The flavors have a club soda base; Hi Ball makes an energetically enhanced tonic water as well. (Hi Ball deserves bonus points, by the way, for how deftly and unflinchingly its rep fielded my opening question, "What makes your product different from the four or five flavored waters I've already seen at this show?")
Hi Ball wasn't the only proponent of "energy." It's a feature of a new line of Jelly Bellies, of all things. Jelly Belly Sports Beans, to be exact, which boast carbs (no!), electrolytes and vitamins B and C, for portable power. Think sweetened high-calorie Gatorade in chewable pellet form. (Excuse my Boomer roots for showing, but I prefer the Soda Pop Shoppe collection, which creates A&W Root Beer and Sparkling Vanilla, Dr Pepper, 7-Up, and Orange and Grape Crush. Those you have to eat one at a time; mixing flavors obscures the point and reduces the effect to a blur of undefined sweetness.)
Juices & More
Bringing electrolyte replacement back to beverages, where the concept began, is what Purity Organic has done with a tangerine and mango, which the beverage-cum-produce company claims is the only organic "enhanced" drink.
Preserving traditional, healthy and diverse beverage recipes is the mission of Adina World Beat Drinks. The idea began when company president and co-founder Magatte Wade-Marchand returned to her native Senegal and found that old familiar drinks had been supplanted by colas. Aldina's drinks are juice-based coolers, each of which elaborates on a specific country's recipe, such as a Jamaica-style ginger cooler and a lime mint Mojita that packs a happy punch without need for the rum of its Cuban namesake, the mojito.
Another drink line with international roots was Pixie Maté, which is adapting South American Yerba Maté for our latitudes. Yerba Maté (the second syllable is voiced; MAH-tay) is brewed from a leaf, like tea. Pixie Maté's has a smoother, more palatable flavor (i.e., not smoky and harsh) than many available varieties because it uses leaves that have been air-dried. The company produces an array of flavors to speak to the spectrum of the American palate, such as a rich Maté Latte and delicate Maté Limón, which takes its sweetness from lemongrass and lemon verbena. The line also speaks to the spectrum of preferences for convenience by producing mate in loose leaf, tea bag or concentrate form. The company name has a slightly different aim. "Pixie" not only invokes the magical nature of the creature, but is also a nod to a specific pixie, which is depicted atop a maté leaf on a sign at the farm from which the company buys its leaves.
TeaTech's InstaGreen green tea extract (just add water) (no kidding!) boasts eight times the antioxidants of regular green tea, not to mention Jackie Chan as its advertising icon. More importantly, the drink has a genuinely enjoyable flavor with no hint of bitterness, thanks to a cold water fusion process that takes the tea out of fresh-picked leaves. (Look for it at GNC and Vitamin World.)
Unsweetened - and perfectly refreshing -- bottled green and black teas are among the new organic, fair trade certified releases among Honest Tea's new flavors. Others include an agave-sweetened 10-Calorie Tangerine Green Tea, which lays claim to being the first organic diet beverage, and Honest Ade Pomegranate Blue, which achieves a strong blueberry flavor without crossing into cloying.
Inko's bottled white teas (named for the chief doggie officer) come in nine flavors, including two unsweetened (honeysuckle and hint o'mint) and a subtle, delightful cherry vanilla. White is also the base of one of Numi Tea's organic iced teas, Tropical White, which comes in flow-through pouches and imparts fruit flavors without oils by using freeze-dried pineapple, strawberry, mango and orange peel.
Republic of Tea's latest releases include flavorful Be Well Red Teas, with names that get to the point (such as "get charged," for energy, "get relief," for digestion, and "get some zzz's," for guess what) and a mildly fruity Pomegranate Bottled Iced Tea. New among the tea squares - a three-quart box suitable for taking outdoors (camping, boating, concert-going) or storing in the fridge - is unsweetened Raspberry Quince, an adult iced tea that speaks to those of us who like our iced black tea straight.
And for those who don't, there's Sweet Leaf Tea, which uses cane sugar or honey for its bottled teas. The original stirred pleasant memories of the bracingly sweet iced tea a high school friend's mother used to serve us after school. Sweet Leaf's raspberry is happy-making, too.
A fun change of pace for salads is Annie's Naturals Woodstock dressing, which combines tahini, tomatoes and nutritional yeast - shades of the 70s! (And without the fashions.) Other distinctive newcomers are O Olive Oil's white wine vinegar and clementine olive oil; which takes its rind-y flavor not by infusion, but by whole fruit that is pressed along with the olives.
For exquisite alternatives to grape jelly, strawberry preserves and other common fruit flavors, explore the Armenian grown-and-made preserves from Harvest Song. The company's tagline is "Sun, Seed & Soil," but I wouldn't overlook the influences of the stars, which have been smiling mightily on this barely 18-month-old company. Even though production started only this year, its pectin-free preserves have already landed space at Zabar's and prestigious hotels, and its Apricot Preserves took first place in the Outstanding Jam/Preserve Category at the show. Each taste at this booth was an indulgence, which made it one of the hardest to leave. The ones that stand out in memory are a chunky Apricot and White Cherry and enchanting Tea-Rose Petal Preserves, which use about 300 tea roses per 18.9 oz. jar.
Nirmala's Kitchen is expanding from exotic spices to ethnic convenience foods. Look starting this fall for tahini in a squeeze bottle, curry sauces containing first press organic coconut milk from Thailand (and pressed by kitchen head Nirmala Narine), and a bread mix that can be used for many, many non-Western varieties, among them chapatti, puri, and paratha.
Highlights in the rubs and sauces department
Rub with Love, from Seattle chef Tom Douglas, has four new formulations, including a flavorful African peri peri and an herby, paprika'd exotic mushroom. Fischer & Wieser has taken the fruit + chipotle template, which has worked so well for its flagship raspberry sauce, into more exotic territory. Pomegranate and mango chipotle sauce is engagingly smoky on its own, but cut it with an equal part of chicken stock for use as a glaze, or with the same amount of lime juice for a fish marinade. F&W has also lent its name and credibility to a line of sauces that made my eyebrow go up, until I tasted them. The Beverly Hillbillies line, produced in partnership with Max Baer, Jr. (who played Jethro), features four sauces, one for each main character, and each of which has a distinctive flavor profile that corresponds to its namesake, such as Jethro's Heapin' Helpin' Steak Sauce and Granny's Peach 'n' Pepper Pourin' Sauce. The funny thing is… regardless of what you think of the show, or of the tie-in, these sauces have good taste.
Making wholesome foods more accessible to people with busy schedules was a mini-theme of the show. Eden Foods has introduced a half dozen varieties of organic rice and beans in a can. The rice is Lundberg short grain brown rice, and the beans include garbanzo, kidney, and black. Open, heat, and spoon onto a tortilla. Adding to the convenience factor, Eden Foods' online store sells each by the case (12 cans), as well as in a sampler of six. Melissa's, which has a mission of bringing new horizons in produce into American kitchens, has expanded its line of vacuum-sealed bags of prepared items. This year's releases are steamed lentils and sliced carrots, the first of which saves up to a couple of hours preparation and cooking time.
Dufour Pastry Kitchens' elegant hors d'oeuvres are always reliable for a quick assist to party preparation. Dufour's latest retail offerings (the company has a sizeable food service component as well) include a phyllo star with the well-melded flavors of pear, blue cheese and mint and an asparagus polenta terrine with a smile-provoking fleck of roasted red pepper. Best of all: an herbed blueberry and goat cheese phyllo triangle, which contains berries that have been infused with fresh thyme and rosemary and, as a result, leaves a magical aftermath.
Lesser Evil, which was handing out garishly colored "snaccident violation" cards at the show (and whose Snaccident Prevention Vehicle has been burning rubber around Manhattan this summer) has two new flavors of its amazingly low-fat kettle corn. One of them, Maple Pecan, goes to the top of the list.
Annie's Homegrown's organic answer to Goldfish has new flavors as well, Sour Cream & Onion Cheddar Bunnies and White Cheddar Bunnies. Sounds twee; isn't.
Good news for the sweet tooth looking out for cholesterol: There are no transfats in Dancing Deer Baking Company's new crispy, subtly flavored lemon daisy cookies.
Anette's Chocolate Factory uses wines and microbrews from Napa Valley to transform peanut brittle into adult treats, Brent's Beer Brittle and Chardonnay Wine Brittle.
And as for new chocolates, much will be revealed in the 2006 Holiday Gift Guide to come this fall. Until then, ponder these previews: in Knipschildt Chocolatier indulges its penchant for beauty in chocolate fairy tales, in which Hans Christian Andersen stories grace the boxes of 16 thematically decorated chocolates.
And not that any right-thinking connoisseur of fine chocolate would ever suggest putting it in the fridge…but you'll get a helluva gourmet fudge pop from chilling Sweet Bliss' Bliss on a Stick, faux miniature fudgsicles that come in such flavors as maple walnut, rum raisin and coffee swirl (complete with accent coffee beans and gold dusting.) (Be kind to your teeth, and don't freeze the nougat. Just don't.)
Best hats: Brazilian scarves topped with bunches of cloth bananas and accented by dangling banana earrings.
Backstory of the show: Bellata Gold durum pasta from Australia, which takes the concept of family-owned to an unrivaled length. One family controls ever step of the pasta's production, from farming the durum wheat (using sustainable farming practices), to storing it in a segregated, chemical-free system, to milling the grain and processing it into pasta. With a stronger, earthier flavor than the norm, the pasta comes in a variety of thicknesses and shapes, including kangaroo-like Bellaroos.
Crime against nature: The slogan "Value-Added Snacks." I did not explore.
What made me fall speechless: Not Blizzard's Bones, white mints shaped like guess what so you can "kiss your dog with fresh breath." No, the cause of my coming up absolutely short on words - and even sound -- was a sonogram cookie. A cookie with a photo transfer of a sonogram. My reaction was so flabbergasted that the sales associate who'd so proudly flourished it walked away silently from me. Even now, all I can say is: If this exists, there must be demand.
Modern miracle: Well-flavored near beer, a non-alcoholic Hefe Weisse (the only one, it claims) from the Bavarian brewer Neumarkter Lammsbräu. The trick? In place of yeast, it uses same bacteria that's used to make yogurt.
Prediction for best seller: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything reduced to 55 recipe cards (large school) in a box, to be published by Chronicle Books. [see also his previous related book, How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food (Paperback)]
Copyright 2006 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.