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Friday 20 September 2013

True Snacks: Buzzing on a Sugar Trip ...It's Pop-Tarts!

So there I was, innocently shopping for household necessities (ahem... and a cake to take to my parents' house for dinner) in my local branch of mini-Tesco, when I found my eyes unaccountably drawn to something colourful in the breakfast aisle.

Lo, and Behold: Pop-Tarts... and not just any Pop-Tarts - that branch of Tesco has frequently stocked them in the mundane chocolate and strawberry flavours for absolutely yonks. These were strangely re-labelled boxes, bearing either a white or a blue sticker on the front, and the entire side covered over with a large white sticker bearing laser-printed details. What sorcery was this?

A closer inspection, both of the genuine packaging and the printed label addition, revealed that they are American products, arriving at Tesco via a Slough-based importer. Also, most amusingly, those oblong labels on the front - whether by accident or design, I know not, but can certainly guess - cover up Kellogg US's claim that Pop-Tarts are a "Good source of 7 Vitamins & Minerals", which suggest that UK food standards deny such manipulations of the truth.

Here's a comparison of the laser-printed label versus the original packaging:
Absolutely no mention of such things as
vitamins and minerals, though they are
listedin the ingredients
Large, colourful pronouncements about
alleged healthy eating benefits. FOUR whole
B Vitamins? That must be good!
But, hey, this blog is called snacks & the single man, and I can't pass up an opportunity like this... Normally you'd have to go to a specialist shop to pick up sugary treats like these.

So, ignoring the laughable 'benefits' of this product, they turn out to be exactly as I expected: cloyingly sweet, sticky fillings in a crumbly substance that probably shouldn't be called 'pastry'. Neither had a clearly defined flavour because they were just so damned sweet, but they both tasted OK.

I'm not sure they could be recommended  for breakfast unless neither diabetes nor the idea of bouncing off the walls and twitching like a maniac for a few hours until the sugar buzz wears off hold any fear for you.

Also probably a good idea to keep a bottle of water handy, or you may find your teeth sticking together and your throat clogging up.
Mmm... Sugary goodness... I'm sure you can feel your heart
lurch, just looking at these things. I know mine did!

Quick Joint Roundup

And after cupcakes, nothing says "Sorry for continuing to neglect you like the very bad person I am" like... er... great slabs of meat?

Following my thoroughly delicious experience with a Waitrose beef brisket and a thrilling exercise in using up the leftovers, I have revisited Waitrose every so often, picking up both more of the same and experimenting with other options in their range of slow cooked packaged meats. Some have been better than others (the beef brisket is hard to beat, to be honest) but there's one nagging concern with all of them: they're pretty expensive, averaging about £7 - £9 based on weight.

Now that I know I like that kind of thing - and, more importantly, can actually eat a whole one over the course of a couple of days if not in one sitting - there are other shops selling similar things, equally worthy of a sampling... And so, here we have a roundup of the joints I've tried, and which joints I found 'em in:

Sainsbury's 'Just Cook' Spiced Lamb Shoulder with Pomegranate Blossom Honey Glaze
Straight off the bat, I need to point out that I failed to notice the large bone visible in the packaging photo and entirely failed to consider that a 'lamb shoulder' might actually involve bone. I am not a fan of meat on the bone because bone - all too often - means gristle and other such unpalatable rubbish. On the upside, that was certainly not the case with this product.

To be honest, I probably only picked this up because 'Pomegranate Blossom Honey Glaze' just sounds ridiculously pretentious and specific. Does honey even get that specific? (Perhaps I should learn to Google before asking such silly questions because obviously, it does) Thing is, whenever a really impressive sounding glaze is added to meat, it generally doesn't have a particularly great effect... I mean, it's a glaze. It sits on top. If you're lucky.

I'm also not a great fan of Lamb, finding the taste bordering on unpleasant at the best of times, though a joint is a very different thing to the sort of mince they put in a shepherd's pie. It has been so long since I had, for example, slices of roast lamb (positively drenched in mint sauce to disguise the flavour) for a Sunday dinner, so I figured it would be worth giving this product a try, just to be sure.

Like several other joints I've picked up recently, this comes bagged in a helping of its juices, supposedly to help with cooking, and a separate sachet of glaze to be added towards the end of the cooking time. The instructions are simple enough - cut open the main bag and decant the joint and juices into a roasting tin or casserole dish, cook for 40 minutes, add the glaze, then cook for the remaining ten minutes. There is a small but key difference between this and the instructions given on the products below: this one doesn't mention tipping away the juices before adding the glaze - all the others do. The net result of this was that I ended up with a very thin layer of glaze over parts of the joint, while the bulk of the glaze ran uselessly into the dish, there to mingle with the juices.

On the upside, the meat was tender and succulent and, where the glaze remained, it made a fairly tasty addition to meat that tasted almost exactly as I remember it. The whole thing almost literally fell off the bone, with remarkably little wastage due to fatty bits and absolutely no gristle. Filter all of the negative comments here through the fact that I admit to disliking lamb and, if you like lamb, you'll almost certainly like this.
530g @ £6

'The Butcher's Selection at Asda' Sticky BBQ Beef Brisket
I find it immediately intriguing that beef gets a 'sticky' BBQ sauce and pork (below) gets a 'sweet' BBQ sauce. Are the two now mutually exclusive, or must one choose only the most prominent quality to include in the name and/or description?

Well, I'll get to something approaching the reasoning for these subgroupings of BBQ a little later... For now, I'd just like to give Asda credit where credit's due, because they say quite plainly on their packaging "Prime brisket with added water for extra succulence". Here's the thing: these days, I think we all know that supermarkets add water to their meats (or milk in the case of chicken), not so much to bring out the best in them, but to give the punters what they expect - decent, succulent meat - at prices that won't make them feel hard done by. On the flipside, I'm not sure anyone expects the supermarkets to openly admit it any further than they already do (which is to say, not very far and not very often), so for Asda to open their description with that phrase, placed right under the name of the product, is both brave and smart... especially in the wake of the 'horsemeat scandal'.

Now, I've ranted on before about the concept of 'barbecue' or 'BBQ' and the way it invariably just means slathering it with some variant on HP Sauce rather than anything tasting truly 'barbecued'. Any aficionado of the open barbecue scene will tell you that, without some kind of seasoning or glaze, cooking meat on a barbecue doesn't actually affect the flavour that dramatically, and the kinds of sauce folks insist on piling on will invariably be mustard or ketchup, so the idea of 'barbecue sauce' is all kinds of bizarre anyway.

However, there are ways of doing it right, and I'm pleased to report that this is one such example.

The packaging for this has a photographic example of the brisket within, neatly sliced and drizzed with the sauce, but I just went with the easy option in serving this up - I shredded it with a pair of forks. Since careful planning of a main course just ain't my thing, the meat was served up with my usual accompaniment - mixed veg (microwaved from frozen) and potato waffles. From the first mouthful, I was more than pleasantly surprised - the glaze has a rich, fruity, powerfully spicy flavour. So spicy, in fact, that I ended up getting the kind of head sweat that's normally associated with a good curry. Even after the temperature of the meat began to cool, the glaze kept up its own warming sensation all the way.

While the sauce wasn't especially sticky - perhaps it could have done with a little longer in the oven? - the flavour was very impressive. I many never fully understand this concept of 'barbecue sauce', but I can certainly appreciate a good one! What's more, whenever I buy a joint of meat, I expect a certain amount of wastage due to great chunks of fat. This joint was surprisingly lean considering its price.
400g @ £3 (2 for £6 offer)

'The Butcher's Selection at Asda' Sweet BBQ Pulled Pork
In many ways, there's not a great deal to add here, after the beef version above. Obviously, the meat is different, and so the flavour and texture aren't going to be identical... but the main difference is in the sauce.

The difference seems to be that the emphasis in the 'sticky' glaze is on spiciness, while the emphasis in the 'sweet' glaze is far more subtle and tending more toward fruity. I guess the rationale is that pork is often served with a fruity accompaniment (apple sauce, for example) whereas beef tends to come with something spicier (mustard or, more traditionally, horseradish).

As far as quality of meat goes, pork joints do tend to be less lean than beef - almost making a virtue of their vast tracts of fat and, granted, for some pork roasts, that can be a good thing (my father will always sing the praises of "a nice bit of cracklin'."... then again, he'll also wax lyrical about beef drippin' at any opportunity). It's less desirable in this sort of thing, so I was pleasantly surprised to find far less fatty stuff to dispose of than I'd expected.

Amusingly, the photo on the packaging depicts the product shredded and served in sub rolls with leafy, salady stuff... though I ended up sticking this with my usual mixed veg and couple of hash browns. It later occurred to me that it would have been suited to things like corn on the cob (preferably roasted and generously buttered). I used just over half the pork for dinner and refrigerated the remainder, reheating it the next day to pile into a sandwich for lunch.

Like the beef above, I suspect it could have done with a bit longer in the oven, to ensure the glaze properly glazed... or at least that it might have done better if it had been spread out in a larger container. As it was, though, it turned out pretty good... though my personal preference is for the beef version.
380g @ £3 ('Roll Back' from £4, allegedly)

'The Butcher's Selection at Asda' Bourbon Beef Brisket
I left this one for last because I'm a horrible tease. While I've been very impressed with all three of the Asda options I've tried thusfar, this one is undoubtedly and unequivocally the best. Obviously, the meat is basically the same as with the Sticky BBQ Beef Brisket above (even down to having its 'added water for extra succulence' declared on the packaging), so it's really only the sauce that makes the difference. When I said the Sticky BBQ sauce was [whatever], I really meant it... But the sauce that comes with this one is in a completely different league.

As with both of the previous Asda options, I ended up shredding the meat after draining the juices - slicing it does seem like an awful faff when you're working with a tiny casserole dish. The first thing that hit me, the moment I opened the sauce sachet, was how potent the bourbon sauce was. The smell of it quite literally slapped me about the face. I had to check the ingredients list to confirm that, yes, they've used real bourbon whiskey (making up a positively scandalous 6%, according to the listing) because if an artificial bourbon flavouring had this kind of effect, it'd be the abso-fucking-lutely most impressive bourbon flavouring I've ever encountered.

But what effect am I blathering about? OK, if you've ever drunk whiskey, you'll know what I'm about to describe here... if you haven't... well, seriously, try some. You may not like it, but you'll certainly never forget it!

When you pour yourself a good dram (because any self-respecting whiskey drinker would never settle for anything less than a good dram, and it's a scientifically precise measure, obviously), and you bring the glass close to your lips, and you catch that first breath of whiskey vapour, there's a pleasant burning sensation. The moment you open your mouth, edging the glass ever closer, that sensation is amplified as the vapour hits your tongue and the roof of your mouth. For some, it's an almost erotic warmth... for others, it'll just set them off coughing. That, gentle reader, is the effect I'm blathering about, and that is the effect I got from this small sachet of sauce.

For reals, people.

I managed just enough self-restraint to pour the entire sachet over the drained meat, mix it in - all the while breathing that damn-near aphrodisiac vapour - and slam it back into the oven for the last five minutes. When it came out, the smell was still there, virtually unaffected by the high temperature of the oven.

Now... I'm embarrassed to admit that I was unprepared for this level of culinary delight, and my idea had been to just dump a load of the shredded, glazed meat into a couple of buns I had lying around in my breadbin. I paused, considering the injustice I was about to heap upon this sticky, boozy, beefy delight, even as I heaped it into the buns...

But I had nothing else prepared...

I've since picked up another of these (the last one on the shelves at my last visit) and will endeavour to serve it up with something a bit more impressive next time... I'm thinking something a bit on the leafy side and some corn on the cob, smothered with butter.

Do yourself a favour, splash out three pounds on one of these boxes. Each one would serve two if shredded (three or four assuming smaller appetites or lots of accompanying veg), and possibly more if sliced efficiently. That first Waitrose brisket I tried was good... but compared to this - significantly cheaper - option from Asda, it's actually pretty dull. This Bourbon Beef Brisket is easily one of the finest things I have ever purchased in a supermarket.
400g @ £3

So, there's the roundup. Four products, and one clear winner. Not only that, it's changed my opinion on (a) Supermarket food generally and (b) Asda specifically. My nearest Asda of a decent size is a 2-zone train ride away, but that's a journey I'll willingly and happily make if it means I can do a cheap weekly shop including products like these. While I have endeavoured to scoff an entire portion in one sitting, the Sweet BBQ Pork was both the meat component of a normal dinner and a sandwich filling the next day. At £3 each, they present excellent value for a dinner... but when they can be stretched out for a couple of days, their value for money is increased.

Or, since I seem to be in an alliterative frame of mind right now, 'many meaty morsels, but the bourbon beef brisket is the best of the bunch'.