Sunday, July 24, 2016

Specially Selected Pesto Macaroni & Cheese, Priano Roasted Garlic and Cheese Risotto (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED PESTO MACARONI AND CHEESE

Bland and salty.

I would say that I’m not that big of a fan of pesto, though the only times I’ve ever had it, involved buying it from the supermarket.  And that can be enough to ruin just about anything.  Yet I have reviewed both of Specially Selected’s other gourmet macaroni and cheese products (you can see those reviews here), so I figured I might as well go ahead and complete the trifecta.

True to form, I wasn’t really a big fan.  There’s just something about pesto that doesn’t do anything for me, which is certainly odd, considering I like just about all of the ingredients separately.  Of course, like I said, I’ve never had the fresh stuff, and I’m sure something is lost in the translation of shoving it into a boxed, factory-made macaroni and cheese product.

The pestos I’ve had can best be described as “bland and salty”, a combination that you don’t hear of too often; this one is certainly no different.  There’s definitely a cheese flavor, courtesy of the accompanying cheese powder packet, but this it gives way to a pesto flavor that consists largely of salt, maybe a hint of basil, and then that’s about it.  Maybe I’m just expecting too much from pesto; maybe it’s supposed to be a lighter flavor that just kind of shows up and just as quickly disappears.  I thought maybe Specially Selected would have the antidote for that kind of thought process; that they would have the first pesto recipe to truly wow me, and turn me into a believer.

They didn’t.

Overall: 4/10.  Take this review with a grain of salt, because I’m not a huge pesto fan, but I was not at all impressed with this dish.  I should mention I’ve only had pestos a few times, and all of them were in supermarket products; I was hoping Specially Selected would make me a believer of pesto, but they failed in the same regards as other ones I’ve had.  There’s some cheesiness, courtesy of the sauce packet, and then saltiness, followed by a hint of basil, and then…nothing.  That’s it.  Maybe it’s supposed to be like this, and I’m just expecting too much, but I was not a fan at all.

SPECIALLY SELECTED ROASTED GARLIC & CHEESE RISOTTO

Proof that some amazing things can come out of a box.

I’ve had risotto once in my life; ironically, it was at a fancy restaurant that specialized in “small plates”, and their risotto (bacon risotto with an egg cooked exactly to 62 ½ degrees) was ironically one of their most popular dishes. I figured that would be as good a way as any to get my first taste, so I plunked down $11 for the right to try it. It was easily the worst plate of the evening. But since that was my first try, I thought that maybe I just wasn’t into risotto.

This prejudice toward the food continued when my wife informed me she was buying a box of Priano’s Garlic and Cheese Risotto, an Italian Special Buy at Aldi stores. I merely scoffed, told her that risotto sucked, and that it was a waste of money, and then we continued our shopping trip, never speaking about it again.

Flash forward to about a week later, when my wife informed me while I was at work that she had made it--and that it was incredible. Again, I scoffed, but I did make sure to have her hold me a couple bites of that “incredible” risotto, which I knew would disappoint me and simply confirm my suspicions that risotto is simply not for me.

Now, before I go on, I must make a couple of slight disclaimers: 1.) My wife “livened up” this dish by grating fresh Asiago cheese into it, which no doubt heightens the flavor in its favor, and 2.) I ate it cold. I could have microwaved it to approximate the flavor right off the stove, but I was hungry and didn’t feel a need to necessitate such drastic action. But none of this stuff really matters, because this risotto is absolutely stupendous.

It really is. It’s salty, like all risotto is, but the balance of cheese and garlic is perfect, to the point that both leave their mark on the taste buds, but neither one overwhelms the other. This is a tough line to walk, especially with a flavor that can be as strong as garlic, but it perfectly walks that line. After one bite, I was addicted, and I lapped up the rest like a pig eating from a trough--it goes without saying that I would purchase this again without any hesitation.

I’m also speaking from actual experience when I say that we thought this was better than $11 risotto we’ve eaten from a fancy restaurant. We might be the only two people in the world that think that, and we’re certainly no experts on risotto, but taste buds don’t lie. If you like or love risotto, you should really give this a try. It won’t disappoint.

Overall: 9/10. My first (and only) previous experience with risotto was as a small plate from a fancy restaurant, that cost $11--and neither my wife nor I cared much for it. So I figured if high-end risotto didn’t do anything for me, then maybe I just wasn’t a risotto kind of guy. Well, at the urging of my wife, we picked up a box of Priano’s Garlic and Cheese Risotto--and it knocked our socks off. The balance of cheese and garlic is flawless, and after one bite, I was addicted. Neither of us would hesitate to get this again. For the sake of full disclosure, my wife livened it up by adding fresh Asiago cheese, which no doubt helps add to the flavor, but there’s no way the simple addition of cheese would make a bad product this good. If you like risotto, don’t hesitate to pick this up.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Specially Selected Chocolate Mousse Cups, Pueblo Lindo Rice Pudding (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CUPS

Quite a bit of money for not a lot of substance.

I generally don’t eat a lot of sweets--unless they happen to be in front of me.  To lessen the odds of that happening, I don’t often buy desserts (although I do tend to get in the mood for ice cream every couple of months, or so).  This is true especially when we’re forced to keep a close eye on what we spend on groceries--which we were doing on a recent shopping trip.  Still, you only live once, and so when I stumbled on Specially Selected’s Chocolate Mousse Cups, I decided to appease my wife by getting them.  Well, the fact I was shopping absolutely famished (a well-known no-no) definitely worked in her favor, as well.

How else can I justify paying $3 for two small cups of what is basically chocolate-infused air?  But it looked so good that I didn’t care if it put us in the poor house, and so we took these home, and eagerly finished our dinner in order to give these a shot.

Prepping them is insanely easy: leave them out to thaw, then serve.  Our thawing process was pretty quick, considering my wife just set them near the stove she used to cook up supper, and so by the time we were done eating, they were perfectly cool and ready to enjoy.  I dug in…and have to say that these did not ravish my taste buds the way they did my wife, who absolutely loved them.  The top layer, which is a milk chocolate mousse, was kind of bitter--chocolate fans will probably love it, but I like my chocolate on the sweet side, and so it didn’t appeal to me.  Or maybe it’s just that I don’t like mousse…maybe that could be the problem.  The white chocolate hearts that adorn the top are a nice touch, as these are clearly marketed as a Valentine’s Day treat (which also happens to be my birthday…the only time I will ever mention that depressing fact); as can be expected, they are too small to really contribute anything to the flavor.

It does get better as you go down…there’s a small layer of chocolate cake, some white chocolate mousse under that (which is better than the plain chocolate), some crunchy chocolate candy pieces under that, and the bottom is a plain chocolate mousse that rounds everything out.  I really enjoyed the sponge cake and the candy pieces, and while the white chocolate and plain chocolate layers were better than the milk that started everything off, it still didn’t have me craving any more, as I thought it would.

For $1.50 per cup, I’d file this away under “splurge”, and I would also be fine never getting these again.  I’m not going to say I “never” will, because my wife really loved them and so I could see myself surprising her with them at some point, but if this were the case, I would let her eat both of the cups--they just didn‘t do much for me.  Again, I’m not huge into sweets, so if you’re a chocolate connoisseur, like my wife is, then you will certainly like them a lot more than I did--it just becomes a matter of whether or not you want to pay $3 for two small cups of chocolate.  It's also a matter of finding them, as they are a Special Buy and only made available a couple of times a year.

Overall: 5.5/10. I wasn’t a big fan of these, though I would imagine chocolate lovers everywhere would love them more than I did--in fact, now that I think about it, it would have probably been smarter to have my wife review this as she likes chocolate more than I do.  Oh well.  The cup gets better as you go down, with the chocolate candies and white chocolate mousse layers my favorite, but these weren’t nearly as delectable as I was expecting them to be, considering they cost $3 (for just two small cups that an average adult will have gone in about five bites).  I thought they were overpriced and underwhelming, but if this is your kind of thing, and you don’t mind the price tag, then you might as well give them a chance.  They are a Special Buy, though, and thus only available occasionally.

PUEBLO LINDO RICE PUDDING

You've probably seen these under the Senor Rico label...same thing, only with a private label name.

[NOTE: I originally wrote this review when it was available as Senor Rico Rice Pudding, which was available in Aldi and Walmart stores across the U.S., but for whatever reason, put off posting the review.  Now, it is available under an Aldi house brand, but it's fairly obvious that it's pretty much the same product, though possibly shorn of an ounce, and still retailing for the same price (?).]

Prior to this, I had never had rice pudding before.  Well, maybe I’ve tried a couple spoonfuls at some point in my life, but it wasn’t enough to have any sort of profound effect on me; when I saw Aldi started carrying it at their stores, I shrugged and went on about my day.  My wife, on the other hand, is a huge fan of just about any kind of pudding (chocolate, rice, bread, etc.), and jumped at the chance to try it.  I will say, it was her extremely positive reaction to taking her first bite that initially piqued my interest; I tried a bite myself, likened the texture to tapioca pudding (ironically, one of the few puddings my wife has never tried) and that was that.

A couple weeks later, after sending her to purchase just a couple things from Aldi, she of course came back with a bag full of extra things that were not requested: chief among them, were several more cups of this rice pudding.  At first, I was annoyed; after all, there were several more useful things that our money could have gone toward, besides six cups of dessert.  However, I calmed down because I knew, unlike the vast majority of things my wife buys and then lets sit around for several months, she wouldn’t let these go to waste.  Sure enough, that evening, she cracked one open.  And once again, I asked for a bite…and then another.

Another view of the private label version, which is cut by a full ounce and still retails for the same price as the Senor Rico brand...
I can’t really compare this to any other rice pudding, because like I said before, I‘ve never tried another one, but the texture here is absolutely amazing.  Sure, you get plenty of rice bits, which are kind of weird to me, but the pudding itself has a ridiculously milky creaminess that stops just on the edge of sweetness.  But if you like sweet, like I do, don’t worry, because that comes in the form of a generous sprinkling of cinnamon that sits on the top.  Once you mix that in, this becomes an almost perfect dessert, as the cinnamon adds a much-needed dose of sugar that makes it absolutely mouthwatering.

I must say that the standard 8 oz. cup is too much for me. At the expense of sounding like a whiner, I must confess that I get sick of it by the time I reach the bottom; the excess I either save for later, or pass on to my wife, who‘s always more than willing to finish it off for me.  But this is definitely a sweet dessert that doesn’t disappoint, and one that I’m highly recommending to just about anyone with a sweet tooth.  And at 89 cents a cup, which seems kind of steep upon first glance, there's really a lot more in here than you think.

The main drawback, is that these used to be carried at Aldi stores under the Senor Rico label, which is a national brand distributed by Lakeview Farms (and based out of my home state of Ohio).  Now, they are carried under the Pueblo Lindo moniker, which is Aldi's new private-label line of authentic Mexican snacks and foods.  Okay, so there's nothing new with the idea of the national brand making a private label version specifically for Aldi--that's the case with a lot of the products in their stores.  What I have difficulty grasping, however, is that these are being offered for exactly the same price ($.89 per cup, up from $.85 earlier in the year) as Senor Rico's was, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  Why not just keep offering it as Senor Rico if you're not going to be able to lower the price any?  Maybe it's some kind of business agreement, and somewhere down the road we'll see some savings, but as of now, this whole switch from national brand to private label just seems completely pointless.

Another casualty of the change is apparently one whole ounce.  Apparently, Senor Rico cups are 9 oz., while Pueblo Lindo's tip the scales at 8 oz., making it even more questionable that it's being offered for the same price as Senor Rico, even while being shorn of an ounce.  What's here is good, don't get me wrong, but it almost has the curious feeling of a bait-and-switch tactic, coming from a company that usually presents itself as being more open and honest than others. And that might be the biggest disappointment of all.

Overall: 8/10.  In terms of the product itself, this is closer to a 10, but recently, Aldi started offering this under the Pueblo Lindo brand name, its private label umbrella for authentic Mexican products.  It replaced the same product available under the Senor Rico moniker, which was also available in Walmart stores nationwide.  Yet during the switch to Pueblo Lindo, the cup size was dropped from 9 oz. to 8 oz., and yet the price remains the same ($.89), making the switch seem doubly-bizarre.  Outside of that, though, this is a fantastic treat.  Unlike American puddings, or, to be more specific, popular American puddings, this isn’t really sweet at all on its own, with a taste that I can only best describe as “milky”.  But for those that are looking for some extra sweetness, it comes in the form of a generous sprinkling of cinnamon that sits at the top-- simply mix it in for a perfectly-balanced taste that quickly becomes addicting!  Aldi's bait-and-switch tactic, odd and uncharacteristic as it is, only slightly detracts from my overall enjoyment of it...these are absolutely fantastic, and a delicious treat I like to have on hand more often than not.




Tuesday, July 12, 2016

New "Features" Coming Soon!

Well I'm perfectly bored, so this is as good a time as any to unveil some things that I've been working on since the start of this month to make this blog even more user-friendly and easily navigable:

  • Alphabetical listing of products: All of the products that have been reviewed on this site, in alphabetical order (brand name first).  We do have a search feature on this site, but sometimes people might not know exactly what they are looking for, or just want to browse around to see what kind of stuff we have posted our opinions on; this will take care of that.  Of course, each product will be linked to their respective review, allowing the user to jump directly to whatever one he/she desires.  
  • Reviews by review rating: Want to read just reviews of crappy products?  Or great ones?  Well pretty soon, you'll be able to!  In a typical blog, where there's just one review per post, this would have been much simpler: simply tag in the review score, and users could click on that score to pull up all blog posts that feature that same score.  However, since our blog reviews two items per post, that eliminates the simplicity of tagging (and was something I never even took into consideration when starting this blog five years ago).

    With this new function, all scores will be listed, with the respective products that received that score all displayed in alphabetical order below it. This makes it easy to see, at a glance, the products that we're raving about, and the ones that we would highly urge you to avoid.
  • Improved tagging:  I started this blog on a whim five years ago, and honestly expected it to fizzle out and die within two years, so no time or effort was really put into thinking or planning anything out.  I also understood very little about blogging, and so all my tags were just individual words.  In some instances, this made sense, but in others, like tagging "Big Lots" as "big, lots", I was kind of missing the point.  I also apparently disabled the tags and never realized it...until now.  Oops.

    Nevertheless, I went through and greatly improved the tagging, allowing users to click on brand names and stores to find lists of products reviewed from that criteria.  And, most importantly, enabled the tags so that they are visible at the bottom of every post.
  • Domain name!: budgetfoodreview.com will be going live very soon!  This should give even more visibility to this site, which already gets a modest amount of activity, given that I never promote it--most friends and family members don't even know this site exists.  That means just about all traffic is literally people stumbling on it by accident through Google and other search engines.  Having its own domain name should increase traffic and the rankings in search results, while simultaneously giving it an added air of respectability that comes only from a website that has its own domain name.
These are all the updates being worked on now, and they will be available by the end of July, at which point this post will be removed.  In the future, I'll probably be looking to toggle with the look and feel of the blog--the text and look consist basically of default options, and I still have no logo or pictures in the header--but all that stuff will be for another day.  In the meantime, I hope you can appreciate the added functionality of the site.  If you have any other features you'd like to see, or any other comments or concerns, please feel free to let me know in the comments section.

And as always, thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Spring Bubbles Sweet Wine, Winking Owl Moscato

SPRING BUBBLES
Sounds delicious, but a little bland straight out of the bottle.

A while ago, at the start of the spring season, my wife purchased a bottle of Spring Bubbles from Aldi.  The plan was to get it nice and chilled, and enjoy it with our dinner, so to expedite the process, she put it in the freezer instead of the fridge.  We forgot all about it, and I came home from work the next day to an exploded bottle and frozen wine all over the place.  Needless to say, I was not too happy, given the $9 per bottle going rate.

Fast forward three months.  I really was curious to see how it tasted, so I decided to suck it up, and plunk down another $9; at the very least, we’d make sure we didn’t make the same mistake that we did last time!  Already learning our lesson, we placed it in the fridge instead of the freezer, gave it a good chill, and poured it a few hours later.

When they call it Spring Bubbles, they’re not exaggerating…this stuff is ridiculously carbonated.  This is an attribute I like with my wine, but we're talking that this is about on par with most sodas.  In other words, be careful, and be sure to pour it slow, because the faster you pour it, the frothier the head gets at the top--I ended up overflowing the top of a wine glass with the bubbles, and there was only about two inches of actual wine on the bottom.  Tastewise, I was really expecting something a lot sweeter, especially given the fact it’s billed as a “sweet wine” according to the bottle.  I would call it more tart than sweet, and I even caught a hint of dryness in there, though that might just be my taste buds, whose motto is “The sweeter the better”.

To liven it up, I plopped in a strawberry and a few blueberries, which gave it a nice taste.  It’s also cool to see the bubbles attack the fruit as it gets dropped in…it’s literally like dropping an Alka-Seltzer tablet in water, which is a pretty neat effect that you won't get with a lot of wines.  As a dissenting opinion, my wife, who prefers things a little dryer than I do, absolutely loved this stuff.  So I guess at the end of this all, the moral of the story is that taste is subjective, and these reviews, much like life itself, ultimately mean nothing.  

Overall: 5/10.  “Spring Bubbles” is right, as this is wine is aggressively carbonated--pour too fast, and you’ll have a glass full of bubbles with little-to-no-wine!  I was honestly expecting something much sweeter, given the fact it’s billed as a “sweet wine” on the side; I found it to be more tart than sweet, with a surprisingly dry finish.  On the other hand, my wife, who enjoys such things, thought it was one of the best wines we’ve ever purchased from Aldi.  So I guess this review, like every other review for everything else in the world, is rather inconclusive; it can go either way, depending on your tastes.


WINKING OWL MOSCATO

Couldn't have taken a gaudier pic of this if I tried.

Winking Owl has always had a wide variety of wines, but the wife and I were never that interested, because they never offered a Moscato.  My wife will drink other kinds, but never reds, and it seems that Winking Owl’s main offerings were of the red variety.  So despite the cheap price tag, we stayed away.  Well, until I saw in an Aldi ad that they would start carrying a Moscato after all.  Then I was first in line to try it!

I’m not sure if my local store was just getting ready for its arrival, or if it was popular right off the bat because the first few times I looked for it, there was a sign there, but no wine in its place.  Finally, after two or three weeks of this, they had a measly three bottles left one morning.  I decided to return later to buy it, when they were down to just two bottles.  Either our store doesn’t get much inventory, or they seem to be blowing off the shelves!

Unfortunately here in Ohio, state minimums seem to be incredibly high, compared to the rest of the Midwest, so a bottle of this stuff retails for $3.99 (I’ve seen Winking Owl go as low as $2.49 in other states, which honestly makes me a little jealous.)  But it’s all relative…since all wines are more expensive in Ohio, a $4 bottle is almost as cheap as it gets around these parts; I’ve heard great things about some of the other varieties in the line (my grandparents always seem to have some around, and even made a ridiculously cute ornament out of a Winking Owl wine cork) but have never tried them myself, and so I was eager to dig in.

One thing that pleased me right off the bat is that this wine has an ABV of 8%.  While that’s not really high, I’ve seen other sweet wines even lower than that, so there’s a decent bit of alcohol in the bottle, especially for under $5.  The packaging for all the wines in the Winking Owl series have been redone, and look more contemporary and modern, without sacrificing the cuteness of the titular animal doing the titular action.  I’m not a graphic artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to say that the color schemes and label design actually make it more enticing.

Another thing I love about Aldi wines are the information-packed labels.  As I’ve said a million times before, my tastes skewer heavily toward the sweet.  I hate dry wines, and won’t go near them, unless I’m looking to get a buzz at any cost, and something dry is all that's around.  The labels on most of Aldi’s wines rate the wine based on “style” (from light to full-bodied), “flavor” (from dry to sweet) and also mentions foods that it pairs the best with.  I usually like to separate my alcohol from food, but it’s still relevant information to have.  I immediately got excited when this wine was as “light” as possible, and also filled up the “sweet” meter…it was as down my alley as it gets!

Once we got it uncorked, just taking a brief sniff hinted that it was going to be super-sweet, and that got my mouth watering.  Sure enough, this wine is, maybe even moreso than most Moscato’s I’ve had.  It’s very fruity, with a slight carbonation if you let it settle on your tongue (according to my wife; I was too busy drinking it to play around with it like that).  In short, I absolutely loved it, and will be keeping a bottle of this on hand, as long as the supply will allow it.  As much as I enjoy liquors, sometimes all I want is to relax with my wife and a glass of wine, and for $4, this is excellent stuff, without the headaches caused by other cheap wines.

Overall: 9/10.  It’s super-sweet, but this is my kind of Moscato!  It’s very light and very fruity, making it the perfect wine to wind down over after a long day at work, or to just chill and drink on weekends, or to…hell, who am I kidding, I’ll be drinking this stuff all the time!  And for $3.99 a bottle (in OH; less most everywhere else) it tastes like a splurge without having the price tag of one.  This stuff will have a constant presence in our home, assuming our local Aldi can keep them in stock.  Excellent wine for the price, though the sweetness, which is even more blatant than other Moscato’s I’ve had, will no doubt turn some people off.  Very glad that Winking Owl has finally added Moscato to their ever-growing list of wine varieties!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Nature's Nectar Tropical Boost, and Multi-Vitamin Orange Smoothies

NATURE'S NECTAR TROPICAL BOOST SMOOTHIE

It's an accurate replica of the national brand...which in this case is rather unfortunate.

All thanks to Aldi, I've gotten into Bolthouse Farms smoothies: they started carrying their Green Goodness flavor over a year ago, for a ridiculously good price, and so I made a point to buy them frequently. Even now, with the price having gone up a full 40 cents (from $2.95 to $3.35), it's still a pretty good deal for the 32 oz. drinks; while looking for them at a supermarket, I was appalled to find that the typical retail price of the large bottles is around $4.50.
 
Well the main plus to when Aldi parades around a name-brand product, is that we can generally plan on seeing an Aldi-brand version of it arrive sooner or later: true-to-form, they began rolling out their own private-label recreations of these smoothies late last year. Perhaps a little surprisingly, the flavors have been largely hit-or-miss, with some tasting very similarly to their name-brand counterpart (and keep in mind, I'm assuming that Bolthouse is the supplier simply based on both the similar packaging, and only a vague idea of how they work as a company), and others failing rather wildly. As of now, all of their smoothies are Special Buy's, meaning that once they sell out, they're gone until the next cycle, but maybe that will also change in the future.

Since I go crazy for these (the Aldi versions sell for $2.49 per 32 oz. bottle, which is ridiculously cheap for this kind of stuff), I perked up when I saw two more would be available about a month ago. Either my store never got them in, or I completely missed them over the span of a few trips, because I never once saw them. Flash-forward to this past ad, when the adverts revealed two additional flavors being offered: I was a little nervous, since I never saw the last batch, but found these relatively easy, and about a week early. Without hesitation, I bought both of them to try them out.

First up we have the Tropical Boost, a flavor that I've actually tried in the national brand, thanks to Aldi offering those as a Special Buy at some point last year. I've mentioned before that one of the easiest ways to get me interested in something, is simply to throw the word “Tropical” on the label somewhere; that's what suckered me in here.

The base scent is strongly of coconut, along with a lot of other vague scents that I guess smell a little tropical-y. It's still inviting enough, so I threw it back. The flavor is pretty heavy on coconut, but overall it tastes very similar to how it smells: like a mess of indistinguishable juices. There's also something about the whole concoction that tastes kind of...watered-down on the back end, like it's building up to an epic flavor that just isn't there. Looking back on it, this was actually the exact same problem I had with the national brand, so it's not an Aldi-specific problem; the taste itself is highly accurate in comparison to the main stuff.

Basically, if you enjoy Bolthouse's version of this, you will like this one, because it's pretty much an exact replica. I, on the other hand, am not a huge fan, so I didn't really enjoy this all that much. It does get some extra points for value, because 32 oz. are a mere $2.49 (a price that you generally can't even get the smaller bottles of the national stuff for), but even at that price point, I probably won't pick this up again.

Overall: 5/10. It tastes just like the national brand, which I'm pretty sure it's also made by, but even by those standards, this is one of my least-favorite flavors. The coconut comes through in both the aroma, and the taste, but all the flavors surrounding it are pretty indistinguishable, in my opinion (without cheating and reading the ingredients, anyway). By having the coconut come through first, which is a pretty weak taste on its own, it hints at a stronger blast of flavors that never come, making the end result taste kind of watered-down and disappointing. The $2.49 price point for a 32 oz. bottle makes this an excellent deal in terms of price, but what's value if the taste just isn't there?  Not one of my favorites of Nature's Nectar's smoothie line, but it's drinkable in a pinch, though I would never intentionally seek it out.

NATURE'S NECTAR MULTI-VITAMIN ORANGE SMOOTHIE

"Multi-vitamin" is not merely a catchphrase...this is LOADED with good stuff!

I just took a look at the Tropical Boost smoothie from Nature's Nectar, so now it's time to turn our attention to the other one available during the same Special Buy cycle: Multi-Vitamin Orange. I have yet to try this in the national brand, and so I really didn't know what to expect of it before trying it. I mean, even amateur sleuths can see that it's going to have something to do with orange, but given all the different fruits that go into these drinks, along with the assertion that there are “multiple vitamins” in the title, that can sometimes skewer the taste into something that's only vaguely like the title suggests (just look at the tropical mess that the Tropical Boost turned out to be).

This one took me a few servings to really sink in and allow me to wrap my head around all that it has to offer. The first serving was all about taste, though that was kind of unfair, because I tried it right after sampling the Tropical Boost one above, which I really did not care for all that much. With this knowledge now bestowed upon you, it's no wonder that I was ready to rave about this after nothing more than my initial tasting.

The next one took place the following day, as I was just casually perusing the refrigerator for something to drink. Remembering that this was pretty good, I took another swig...and without the fresh failure of the Tropical Boost in my mouth, was far less than impressed. I felt that it had a similar pepper aftertaste to the abomination that was Nature's Nectar's Mango smoothie. It wasn't nearly as overwhelming (that stuff was undrinkable because of it), but I felt like it was still lingering unnecessarily in the background, and it was enough to kind of turn me off to this drink, relegating it to something I'd throw down once every other variety of refrigerated liquid in our house was gone. And in the refrigerator it stayed, untouched, for, like, three whole days.

Then I was starting to come down with a cold, which my wife had just gotten over.  I felt the stuffed nose coming on, the sniffling, and even slightly feverish, even though hers did not come with a fever. In an attempt to fight it off, I brought a carafe of orange juice with me to work...then forgot to bring it home with me. Still feeling like slight junk, with much more junk about to pile on, I aggressively started pawing through the fridge, looking for something with enough vitamin C to fight it off. And that's when my wife suggested this.
We made eye contact, then I looked away, favoring some other beverage that I was using as mixers for alcohol. Not wanting to waste a mixer while sober, I decided to take a closer look at this Multi-Vitamin Orange that I had cast aside. Just how many vitamins did this thing have in it, after all?  I realized that I hadn't even looked.  I expected the typical: loads of Vitamin C and maybe small amounts of a handful of others, but after just one glance at the label, I was blown away. 150% of Vitamins A, and C; 100% of Vitamins B6, B12, D, E, and K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, and Biotin. Less than 5% of calcium and iron. 32% fiber, 12% potassium. And all these numbers, of course, are per 8 oz. serving, meaning a whole bottle will multiply this by four. This wasn't something that was just masquerading as a healthy drink...it literally was. I downed the rest in the hopes that it would completely stave off my cold, or at least knock it down to a manageable level, which it did.

So the moral of the story, it might have the greatest taste (although the taste is predominantly orange and nothing bad), but what it lacks in flavor, it more than makes up for in vitamins and nutritional content. Even the sugar content (19g) is relatively low, especially when you consider that none is added. I think I would prefer this to something like Emergen-C, simply because it tastes better, has a more-rounded amount of vitamins, and is far cheaper, at $2.49 per 32 oz. bottle.
Moral of this long-winded review: taste isn't always everything.

Overall: 7.5/10. At first I was turned off by this stuff, dismissing it as just an average-tasting orange smoothie. Why drink this when I could just drink orange juice? And after feeling the pings of an early cold coming on, that's exactly what I did, taking my orange juice with me to work. Only, I forgot to bring it home. Frantically searching for something in the fridge that could fight this off, I kept ignoring this, until my wife suggested I give it a shot. Only then did I read the label, and only then were my socks completely blown off...this isn't just a product that throws the word “vitamin” on the label to trick you into thinking it's healthy when it's not. It's a full-on vitaminal attack, with at least 100% of 13 different vitamins, and lesser quantities of several others. All this, for just $2.49 per 32 oz. serving? That's quite a deal, no matter which way you look at it. Despite my initial misgivings, I would definitely buy this stuff again. It works great as a vitamin drink, and to combat colds, and tastes good enough to do it without tasting like a medicine. I'll get this again any time it's available.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Specially Selected Milk Chocolate Butter Cookies, Specially Selected Triple Chocolate Ice Cream Bars (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED MILK CHOCOLATE BUTTER COOKIES

Not as good as Godiva's, but palatable for far, far cheaper.

I had never heard of anything like these until I stumbled on them at, of all places, a Godiva shop inside a mall.  For whatever reason, I bought them (they certainly weren‘t cheap, and thus would normally be off my radar), and instantly fell in love with the creamy chocolate and perfectly buttery biscuit.  Imagine my surprise when a couple weeks later, I saw a similar product at Aldi!

That was two years ago.  A lot of things have changed since then, most notably the aforementioned Godiva shop closing down, taking with it my memories of their delicious (if ridiculously overpriced) dark chocolate shakes and these very biscuits.  Thankfully, however, Aldi has not shut down, and my wife suggested that we pick these up during a shopping trip.  Not usually one to argue against chocolate, I happily ceded, eager to try them for the first time in a rather long time.

While the taste is nowhere near the level of decadence reached by the boutique chocolatier‘s version (and how could it be?), this is still a pretty delicious little cookie.  The chocolate is made of Utz-certified cocoa; I have no idea what that means, but it’s promoted on the packaging, so it must be a big deal and make sense to a lot of other people.  My biggest gripe has to do with the chocolate, though:  There’s something not quite smooth about the taste; it strikes me as being slightly bitter.  I could understand that if these were dark chocolate, but the fact that it’s supposedly the generally sweeter “milk” variety kind of baffles me.  On the texture front, it gets high marks: it’s a very soft chocolate, and starts melting in your mouth almost instantly.  The butter cookie is also very good on its own; it’s not very crunchy, but it’s not too soft, either, and has a flavor typical of what you would expect of a butter cookie.

I don’t find these to be as addicting as some chocolate products can be, but that ended up being a good thing for me:  After eating one, or two at the most (which is the actual serving size), I was satisfied and had no problems putting them down, at least until the next day.  Of course, that won’t be the case with everyone, but for me, it’s a good little snack when I just want a little bit of chocolate, and don’t want to get carried away.

Overall: 6.5/10.  They’re rather large, and fairly inexpensive, though you only get eight in a package, which is kind of a bummer.  I thought the chocolate, which had a great consistency and texture, and starts melting in your mouth right away, was a little too bitter for me; maybe it’s the interplay between the chocolate and the cookie, but it just tasted a little “cheap”.  Not nearly the best of the chocolate butter cookies I’ve had, but passable for the price, and serviceable as an occasional treat.  It should be noted that these are constantly available as part of Aldi's permanent inventory, so they'll be there whenever you fancy them.


SPECIALLY SELECTED TRIPLE CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM BARS

Pretty tasty stuff.

I’ve actually never had the ice cream bars that these are knocking off (a hint if you’re truly lost: they share the same name as a brand of condom), and the only person I know that tried them thought they were overpriced for what they were, and said they would never buy them again.  Even at Aldi, where they were available for $2.49, I thought they were a little steep, so even though the very sight of them made my mouth water, I postponed buying them.

Well, after Aldi pulled the trigger and marked these down a mere fifty cents, from the regular price of $2.49, down to $1.99, I caved in.  Not that the fifty-cent reduction really made much of a difference in terms of value, but it gave me the nudge I needed to “get off the fence”, so to speak.

It wasn’t until we took the box home that I noticed our $2 investment only contained three ice cream bars.  Who in the hell offers products that can’t be evenly split these days?  Especially when said product is an ice cream bar?  Did focus groups really draw the line at, “I’d pay $2.50 for three, but $3.29 for four is exorbitant.”?  It just seems like an odd thing to do, especially since desserts tend to be shared.  Anyway, still eager to dig in, we opened the box and each took one out, taking us immediately to Disappointment #2: These things are not the “enlarged to show texture” monster-size as depicted on the front cover box.  I say that mainly in jest, because the picture displayed on the outside is bigger than the box itself, so they wouldn't be able to fit one inside, let alone three.  But what is a problem, at least initially, is that the picture, while clearly and obviously exaggerated, does hint that each bar will be pretty large--but they are not.  "Teeny" would be quite an understatement, but they are smaller than the average fudge bar, and with those you get tons in a package, and still for under $2.  They do manage to make up for some of that by being thicker than the average ice cream bar, but I expected bars that cost 83 cents apiece (at full retail price) and are made up largely of ice cream, to be a lot larger than they are.  Whatever.  Though there were some red flags going off, we still weren’t completely deterred, so we dove right in.

Wow…it doesn’t take but a bite for the decadent flavors to sink into your mouth; the sweet, supposedly Belgian chocolate (not saying it ain’t, just saying there are enough lies and half-truths on packaging to fill an encyclopedia-sized volume) strikes a perfect chord with the semi-bittersweet ice cream to create a blissful harmony of deliciousness.  But if you read the name of the product, and chances are good that you have, you know there has to be more.  After all, this is a triple chocolate bar, and I’ve only named two kinds of chocolate.  Well, you would be correct, because inside the ice cream are irresistible morsels of milk chocolate chips.  Altogether, these bars are ridiculously good, and definitely a notch or two above the average fudgecicle, whose price I just compared them to in an earlier paragraph.

About halfway through eating this tasty treat, at least one of my concerns disappeared:  The size of the bar was no longer relevant, because these things are really rich; I had a problem downing all of it, especially with no milk to help wash it down (though this was my fault; I was simply too lazy to get up and take the ten steps required to reach the fridge).  Thanks to a Herculean effort on my part, though, I managed to eat it all…and then another one a couple of nights later.  If they were any larger, I'd be completely overwhelmed with chocolate by the time I got to the end.  For the record, though, I'm no chocoholic, so for those of you that enjoy chocolate more than I do, these might still leave you wanting more.

I still have a small gripe with the price…I know, it’s at least a dollar cheaper than the name brand is, and it’s really, really good, but I’m accustomed to getting a lot more than three of an ice cream product at this price.  It is a special buy, and therefore only available occasionally at Aldi stores, but even if they were available year-’round, I would only pick them up a couple of times per year, as sort of a special treat.  That, and they’re simply too rich for constant consumption, at least as far as I'm concerned.  But they are very good, and should be considered a required buy for even casual fans of chocolate.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Only three bars per box?  For $2.49?  Those were my initial thoughts, but trying them at least eased some of the pain (so, too, did the markdown they took, lowering the price to a slightly-better $1.99):  Rich, Belgian chocolate on the outside, met with a semi-bittersweet chocolate ice cream, and some deliciously rich chocolate chips.  They also allayed my thoughts that the bars were too small; all the chocolate makes them incredibly rich and almost hard to finish without some milk to wash them down.  I'm not always a fan of these "chocolate overload" products, because they either seem to be too sweet, or too bitter, but these strike a solid balance between both sides of the spectrum, making these a delicious little treat, and the perfect example of why a product should be relegated to Special Buy cycles.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fit & Active Southwestern Fresca, and Sesame Lo Mein (Aldi)

FIT & ACTIVE SOUTHWESTERN FRESCA

A pretty solid dish for the price.

When I saw these in an ad, I knew my wife would want to check at least one of these out. I had my eyes on the Southwestern Fresca; not surprisingly, she opted for the Sesame Lo Mein. Also not surprisingly, she was disappointed with her dish; it was with this mindset that I approached mine.

Prepwork is as easy as it can possibly be. I remember actually having to slice open the plastic film covering the food, if not removing it outright. But that was in the old days of television dinners…nowadays, you literally just pull it out of the plastic packaging, and toss it into the microwave as is, film and all. Around three minutes later, and you have yourself a tasty little meal (or in my case, snack), perfectly steamed and ready to eat.

Contrary to my wife’s opinion about hers, I actually really liked mine. There is a nice spicy kick, thanks to the southwestern sauce, while the combination of noodles, vegetables, and beans was surprisingly delicious, not to mention a little more filling than I was expecting. I let her try a bite, as well, and she was pleasantly surprised, mentioning that it was way better than her Sesame Lo Mein. The vegetables taste somewhat fresh, though there’s little doubt that they’ve been frozen, but they still manage to be very flavorful.

For $1.69 (in a 9 oz. package), I think this is some pretty good value, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick this up again. There’s a lot of flavor, not to mention a decent amount of food, for the price, and the 3 minute microwave time makes it a meal suitable for an on-the-go lifestyle. If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat, this is a good option, though there is still quite a bit of sodium (26% of the recommended daily allowance per package), so I’m not sure that it’s entirely for “Fit & Active” folks, like the brand name implies. But to counter that, there is also quite a lot of dietary fiber (a whopping 44% worth), as well as a healthy dose of Vitamin A (50%). In other words, you could do a lot worse, especially around this price point.

Overall: 7/10. I’m honestly thinking about grabbing a couple this weekend, to make sure I get a couple more before they sell out. This 9 oz. package packs some serious flavor for what amounts to peanuts ($1.69). The sauce provides a nice blast of heat, while the beans and veggies combine to be a surprisingly tasty tandem. There’s quite a bit of sodium in this, but that’s also counterbalanced with about half of your daily dietary fiber and vitamin A recommendations, so those leading active lifestyles will no doubt work off a lot of the “bad“ calories. The quick convenience of preparation also makes this the perfect snack for those that are too busy to prepare a sit-down meal. Pretty good stuff for the price, and well-above average as far as frozen meals go.

FIT & ACTIVE SESAME LO MEIN

Meh. It's edible. And pretty cheap. That's as far as "praise" goes.

This bowl has a few things that I’m not super crazy about, but just for the sake of covering the whole line, I opted to get it. As you can partially see from the above review, I enjoyed the Southwestern Fresca version (though my wife surprisingly did not) and although I wasn’t really looking forward to this one, I was hungry and figured there wasn’t going to be a time where I’d be more open-minded to this, so I jumped on the opportunity. 

This basically is a stir fry, with noodles in it. The teriyaki-style sauce has a little bit of a kick to it…I can’t tell if it’s added spices, or if it’s just a lot of salt, but I’m pretty sure it’s the former, but then there’s also some sweetness to it, which I really enjoyed. The vegetables, for the most part, steam up nice and good in the microwave, and so they taste fairly fresh, taking into consideration the fact that this is a frozen meal.

I don’t like that the sauce is so watery, though…there’s a puddle on the bottom that is kind of off-putting, and that makes the mushrooms extra slimy and gross. They taste okay, but the texture alone makes it feel like you’re eating a slug, which generally isn’t a good thing. The water chestnuts are also pretty bland (which they are naturally), but offer a decent crunch, which helps to offset some of the general sogginess of the rest of the dish (thanks in large part to the noodles). I’m also a big fan of pineapple in Asian dishes, and so the couple slices of pineapple included help to give it a nice little touch of depth, courtesy of the added sweetness.

I’d have to say that, in the end, this was better than I thought it would be, and I would more than likely get it again. I think the Southwestern-style wins in a head-to-head competition between the two products, but if you want something a little less spicy, this provides a capable alternative with a good amount of teriyaki flavor.

Overall: 6/10. I would take the Southwestern Fresca variety of this same product just about any day of the week, but the Sesame Lo Mein provides a pretty well-balanced flavor. The sauce is way too watery for my liking (there was a puddle of it sitting at the bottom, which was not very appetizing), but it has just a little bit of kick to offset the sweetness, so it tastes pretty good. Since this is a steamable dish (pop it in the microwave film and all), it suits the vegetables well, which cook up nice and are pretty flavorful given it's a frozen meal. Neither teriyaki nor lo mein are high on my list of favorite things—I was only called in to eat this after my wife hated it and I didn't want it to go to waste—but I have to say that it's better than I thought it'd be. Taste gets repetitive and the soggy texture is kind of off-putting, though. Edible and inexpensive.