Friday, 26 July 2013

Hungry-Man Limited Edition Smokin' Backyard Barbeque Dinner

I love mechanically deboned meat. Not just the concept but the phrase itself. It rolls off the tongue like a boneless picnic pork shoulder off a slaughterhouse conveyor belt. I guess the proper term these days is mechanically separated but for me deboned has a nicer ring, like a Shakespearean soliloquy delivered to or from the balcony of a star-crossed love. And if the object of that love is a man (or woman for boneless meat knows no gender), hungry for all things worldly, whether they be of the flesh, blood, soul or a nice plate of pork brains in milk gravy, then we have the makings of a beautiful Romeo and Juliet story but with lots of meat to push the drama to the precipice of tragedy. Because if the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but not with a scalpel and retractor as some would think, then the only other way for Juliet to land her man is with a Hungry-Man dinner. After she gets rid of her family of course, since they stand in the way of her true love so she has to kill them all and he has to kill off all his family also because they too block the path of the couple's pure boneless meat desires and then they have to kill off all their friends and the townsfolk as well because no one will sell them Hungry-Man dinners and, well, you catch my drift. It's a veritable bloodbath and that's before even any animals are slaughtered and then mechanically separated into a thick, aromatic slime to prepare it for prefabricated meat patty production. Are you following me because I'm not. I guess that's what happens when you mix NyQuil with a bowl of Sugar Pops. Anyway, what I mean to say is I'm a man and I'm hungry and what does a hungry man love more than a backyard barbeque. But the thought that I can have that backyard barbeque without having to barbeque anything or even have a backyard to not barbeque anything in in the first place (did I mention that along with not having a backyard I also don't own a barbeque so I'm really ahead of the game) is an amazing example of the forward progress of contemporary society and the leaps and bounds we have made in the food sciences. To put it more succinctly, as a hungry man with a boundless appetite I thoroughly embrace mechanically deboned meat since it eliminates the bones and fat and other debris that reduce the efficiency of my feeding, thus hampering my gorging abilities and the speed with which I can consume my proteins. And making these proteins into barbeque-styled offerings through the use of various esoteric additives and flavourings and presenting them in an attractive microwaveable tray makes me believe that I have finally joined the space age that was promised to me so long ago during an episode of My Favorite Martian.
So, getting to the deboned meat of the matter I was more than anxious to get this Hungry-Man dinner into the microwave. I put on George Jones singing The Cold Hard Truth because what goes better with a backyard barbeque than bitter regrets and flammable hairdos. Opening the Hungry-Man Dinner box my hands shook with anticipation more than that time when I was trying to unwrap an inflatable sex doll that I had ordered online. Directions were a bit more complicated than my usual microwavable material (or the sex doll for that matter), asking for partial heating, then removal of the brownie and then more reheating of the meat and mashed potatoes with various slits made in the film wrap or the film wrap to be folded back completely in some sections but I was up for the task and in seven minutes my barbeque dinner was ready, hot and steaming and wafting an aromatic if not a slightly acrid BBQ sauce vapour that burned the eyes like too much chlorine in a public pool.
There are two meat offerings in this dinner package that befit any backyard barbeque-a grilled chicken cutlette and a pork rib shaped cutlette. I like the word cutlette almost as much as I like the words mechanically deboned. It conjures up a sense of symmetry and tidiness, an effort to define and reflect shape in a world that seems mainly shapeless, messy and unpredictable at the best of times. With a cutlette you know where you stand and you can count on its uniformity to bring a sense of order to your chaotic life. That being said these cutlettes had a disturbing presence. Maybe it was the swamp of BBQ sauce that they were drowning in. The facsimile ribs had some appealing faux-grill marks but their boneless melding together had a conjoined twins quality that was a bit disturbing. Or, if you squinted your eyes it was almost like Jenga blocks made of meat placed side by side. Nevertheless I was willing to forgo these visual evocations  if only the taste and texture was in place. Unfortunately, like Jenga blocks, the interior had the taste and texture of wood. Actually particle board to be more exact, which means Jenga blocks would probably taste better. This rib-shaped pork slime cutlette was not so much boneless as spineless and though the BBQ sauce tried hard to cover the meat's shortcomings, the sauce itself was so sickly sweet it was if I was eating a funeral bouquet. Off the coffin itself.
As for the chicken cutlette, it was alarmingly white and blubbery, more like sea life than poultry. Which made it able to at least breathe in its BBQ sauce ocean. Alive, I would not be surprised to find gills on this creature along with a beak. Why did the chicken cross the road? To return to the ocean of course. Jacques Cousteau would've won the Nobel Prize in science if he'd discovered this monstrosity. But the meat beneath the pallid, bloated belly of this species that lay like a dead chicken/fish entity on a BBQ sauce shoreline was not entirely disgusting. There was a kind of tenderness to the meat, even if that tenderness was reminiscent of an abusive spouse stroking your hair after they've just informed you that you're no better than a worm and you're crying into the lap of their sweatpants stained with rum and Cokes, aerosol cheese and nosebleeds. There was definitely a chicken-like consistency to the cutlette although on the flavour front it was hard tell since, again, the BBQ sauce drowned out everything like white noise on the taste buds. I have to say, the corn held up nicely with crisp kernels and a sweet flavour as if you'd just microwaved Mother Nature and she lived to tell about it. I don't even know what the mashed potatoes were made out of but they're equally adaptable to caulking your bathtub or eating and I came to admire them for their duplicity and multi-purpose nature. I'm not sure they were mashed so much as whipped into dehydrated submission, which actually goes along with the whole sadomasochistic nature of this meal. Did I mention the brownie? It was actually not bad but so tiny that not even a mouse could get a cavity from this thing. Which makes me think that of mice and men, with the Hungry-Man dinner, it's a crap shoot whether either rodent or human could finish this meal. Maybe they should rename this thing the John Steinbeck Dust Bowl Barbeque and actually add some mice to the menu. It could only improve the flavour and as a marketing plan, you'd have the unions eating out of your hand and the plastic trays  too. This is a limited edition summer offering so get them while they're hot, to be enjoyed in your lawn chair amidst all the surrounding dead grass, the scent of a nearby Porta-Potty mixing with the magnolias and motor oil and the summer sun smoking off your bald spot.    
Anyone up for a tailgate party? It's as easy as 1-2-3 with no barbeque required, just a long extension cord to plug in the microwave, even if you have to run it through your neighbour's backyard since your own electricity was cut off.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Hardbite Kettle-Cooked Jalapeno Potato Chips

Why take a hard bite out of a leg or a head when you can have some Hardbite Chips instead.
Being a bit of a couch potato it seems ironic to review a healthy potato chip that features imagery of people engaging in all sorts of adventurous outdoor activity on its packaging. But if there's such a thing as armchair traveling, why not armchair extreme sporting, feeling the curl of the big wave beneath my surfboard or biking the rickety trestle bridges of the Kettle Valley Railroad, all the while with my feet planted firmly on my food and beverage-stained ottoman, my recliner chair tipped back to a comfortable 45 degree angle and all my snack foods and drinks at my fingertips, a kind of sedentary efficiency I find comparable to Captain Kirk's bridge chair on the Enterprise. Press a button, goodbye Klingons. Another button, goodbye Romulans. Another button and it's hello, green-skinned alien space-babe in a negligee with devil eyebrows and a beehive hairdo, serving up some forbidden fruit from Zogtar 6 as a prelude to some interplanetary foreplay and supernova lovemaking. With me supplying the potato chips of course. And if I had to pick just one chip to impress another race of beings from a far-off galaxy, especially if I was looking to make time with one of their fetching ladies, these Hardbite Jalapeno chips would be at the top of my list. You could say I wear my pride on my chest because that's where all the debris from these BC made potato chips came to rest during my snack fest and as a Vancouverite, I felt the weight of their importance, both as a locally made healthy snack food and a boost to the BC economy, rising and falling with each breath beneath my creaky ribcage. And if I wear my pride on my chest I also wear my heart on my sleeve because that's where I wipe off all the potato chip grease and looking at those smudges sends a surge of patriotism through my veins along with a whack-load of fat into my arteries. Or so you would think but remember, these are healthy potato chips. No trans fats, no cholesterol, no MSG, no GMO's, gluten free, the only thing these chips haven't done is solve global warming. Made from 'taters grown on the company's 600-acre farm, you could say every chip is vouched for from the dirt to the bag. And that's what truly had me marveling at these things. Every chip was permeated with this earthy flavour and the taste of potato was front row centre and not trying to hide in the back row of the spud theatre, making out in the dark with some unwholesome ingredients. Thus the jalapeno powder patina speckling these crispy critters was not overpowering but lay in wait like spicy snipers taking potshots at the taste buds and letting the heat build gradually. This was first degree spud burn in a good way. And the package image of the mountain biker navigating the tricky trestle of the Kettle Valley Railroad satisfied all my armchair adventure ambitions. Check the website,, for all the flavour variations and a chance to win some kind of Hardbite adventure. And with these health-conscious chips I can finally wear my heart on my sleeve without risking a heart attack except for the fact I did eat these things with a huge bacon cheeseburger that produced more grease pools than at a drag strip race track. Luckily I keep up a daily regimen of recliner-chair calisthenics to keep me in tip-top sedentary shape and help the old ticker stay pumping with the vigor of an irrigation pipe, ready for another day of snacking and steadying me during the tenser moments in Star Trek. 
The Headless Hula Dancer of Halfmoon Bay and her zombie henchman are getting ready for a luau pig roast and some Hardbite Jalapeno chips.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Michelina's Signature General Tao Chicken

Considering that Marco Polo visited China back in 1266, you'd think in this day and age you could get a decent plate of Chinese food somewhere in Italy. But that's not the case. Back when I visited Florence, I found one Chinese food restaurant and every dish tasted like olive oil and the chow mein noodles were spaghetti. And when I asked for chopsticks there was a general murmuring before a hush fell across the room as I maneuvered the food to my mouth and it felt as if I had just proclaimed that the Medici were just a bunch of fart-sniffing miscreants with good taste in art, pantaloons and snazzy skullcaps. With this memory still fresh in my misfiring synapses after all these many years, I realized it was best to sit back and let the Italian/Chinese food come to me rather than me go to it. Why be Marco Polo when I could be Mark the Couch Potato and reap the rewards of other people's efforts? Which is why I had high hopes for Mama Michelina and her new line of Asian-inspired frozen entrees. If any Italian could do Chinese food right, Michelina, a division of Bellisio Foods, started by Jeno Paulucci (Michelina was his mother's name) in Minnesota, could. On further investigation of Mr. Paulucci, I was amazed to discover that he started the Chun King line of canned Chinese foods back in the 1940's and my immediate reaction was "Holy Toledo, this is the Italian Chinese food I never managed to find in Italy but it was right under my very nose all this time." I actually spoke these words out loud to the computer screen like the moron that I am. In a note of irony, Mr. Paulucci was criticized for moving his pizza roll plant (another of his food creations) and the 1200 jobs that went with it from Duluth, Minnesota to Jackson, Ohio, which is only 89 miles from Toledo, Ohio (about 1 hour and 28 minutes driving time), so when I exclaimed "Holy Toledo," it was almost like a bit of post-foreshadowing of past history that I was yet to discover only minutes later in my research. But pizza rolls are one thing and Chinese food another and I wasn't going to hold it against Mr. Paulucci (now deceased) for his pizza roll indiscretions when General Tao's Chicken was on the menu. I'm a big fan of this chicken dish that oddly, no one in China has ever heard of, but seems to have begun in New York City with roots in Hunan cooking by two different expatriate cooks, both who still vie for bragging rights as the originator the dish. It's a tale of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, steeped in history and bitter rivalry, a veritable Great Gatsby of poultry if Gatsby had been a Chinese immigrant and the Jazz Age were replaced with 70's Times Square topless bars and disco music. And spicy-sweet chicken of course. I was intrigued to see the package spelling as General Tao as opposed to General Tso, the name I'm more familiar with on the $4.99 lunch menu at some of the hole-in-the-walls I frequent, but I'll take Tao over Tso any day because one is just a name and the other reflects an enlightened path and a way of being, even if that pure way simply results in deep-fried breaded chicken. All I can say is that I think General Tso or Tao, a Qing Dynasty bigwig from Hunan Province in the 1800's, would be amazed to this day to find that his name is affiliated with sweet and spicy poultry invented in New York City. Such is the intriguing weave of history and the fact that that history has led to the ultimate homage in the realm of food production in the form of a frozen entree available to millions, certainly leading General Tao (if he were still alive today) to believe he had truly conquered the world. So as I popped this thing in the microwave it was with humility and reverence for all that has gone before me, the march of time, the Tao of poultry and the humble origins of one of the greatest Asian dishes to find its way into the hearts and minds of hungry North Americans. That's a big reputation for Mama Michelina to live up to and so I wasn't surprised when she fell somewhat short of the mark. Nevertheless, it was a valiant effort and I was left somewhat surprised, considering how the dish first looked as it emerged from the microwave. Firstly, there wasn't enough broccoli to keep a pygmy rabbit happy. Two tiny droopy pieces fighting for their lives amongst the sauce and rice. Those pygmy rabbits would be pleased though with the carrot shards which were far more plentiful and even retained a bit of crunchiness. I wish I could say the same for the chicken, which, I'm given to understand regarding this dish, is supposed to have a crispy coating enclosing the tender, succulent poultry inside. And the chicken should be front and centre, not standing offstage like a bitter understudy, limp with despair and hopeless rage, huddled together with a few of its equally despairing breaded chicken brothers, mumbling about their lousy plight in the food tray and the fact that they'll never see the limelight. For this chicken, or what could be found of it, had a mucilage-like texture to its breading, reminiscent of a snail's underbelly, although the interior, the actual meat of the matter did a good job of portraying actual chicken breast but the offering was so measly in size it could've sat up and sang the Star Spangled Banner and I wouldn't have batted an eye. It was actually the sauce that was the big surprise. Advertising its sweet and spicy attributes on the package, this sauce had a considerable spicy kick and managed to herd the other feeble ingredients together into an integrated fighting force where illusion was the key, something General Tao, in his warfare days, might have utilized himself to conquer the enemy. I'll also say that the rice managed to wipe away any preconceived notions I had about microwaved starch grains as each grain of rice was as crisp and clear as a Vermeer painting, both in texture and taste. Michelina has some other new varieties in their signature Asian food lineup that I'm keen to try if only to see if I survive. Each one of them is sure to be an adventure, kind of like Marco Polo traveling to Asia by way of Minnesota. One thing I do know now is I think I can finally answer that age-old question about why the chicken crossed the road. Obviously to get away from the dynamic duo of General Tao and Mama Michelina.