Tampa Bay Food Monster

...eating food since 1985.

White Chocolate Candy Corn M&Ms

white chocolate candy corn m&ms bag

okay, so if you’re anything like me, you’re just now realizing through a storm of facebook posts that TODAY is, in fact, the hallowed eve. that is to say, halloween. and that means one of two things: 1.) a bunch of disgusting children are going to be trespassing on your property this evening, dressed like FOOLS, or 2.) you’re ready to join them on the streets, “just passing” as young enough to be out there (nobody believes this, they give you nothing). either way, you’re going to end up buying a whole bunch of candy and eating it yourself. and what better time to do that than the day after halloween, when all that sweet sweet candy goes on sale??

so allow me to tell you about one candy you might want to avoid.

white chocolate candy corn m&ms*note: candy corn added for comparison; not actually included in bag of m&ms.

those jerks at m&ms think they can just crap out anything, and we’ll buy it from them. well… they’re right. this season’s disgusting new variant on an original that does not need to be improved upon is the white chocolate candy corn m&m. alright, so we’ve got a lot going on here. first of all, they are yellow, orange, and white, just like real candy corn! they’re a bit larger than normal m&ms, around the size of the peanut variety, but retaining that signature m&m spheroid shape. i also noticed my bag’s m&ms were a bit slimy, but i cannot say whether that was just my bag, or if they all suffer from this gross affliction. eh. regardless, visually, they did it. i get it – candy corn. mission accomplished.

taste… taste is another story.

inside the white chocolate candy corn m&m

what you have here is a densely packed, super-sweet white chocolate interior. the “artificial and natural flavors” they’ve chosen provide absolutely no hint of candy corn flavor (which should be simple – just add honey!!). so essentially we have just white chocolate m&ms, which would be fine if they just weren’t so damn sweet!! bleh. combine with a shell that seems a little thicker than a typical m&m shell, and a greasy slime coating (again, could be just my bag), and we have ourselves a worthless product that becomes inedible after half a handful.

as a sweet bonus, some of the m&ms tasted vaguely of alcohol?? an odd fermented flavor. maybe it was just the rotten caramel apple i ate for lunch, but, if not, this was hugely unpleasant.

so, in the informed opinion of a self-admitted lover of real candy corn (i’m sorry if you can no longer trust my tastes), this candy sucks. it’s not the worst thing i’ve put in my mouth this halloween, but it ranks up there. if you made the mistake of picking these up, do your damnedest to unload them on unsuspecting children – those kids will eat anything.

Firehouse Subs

DID YOU KNOW?? the submarine sandwich, originally known as the “filled zeppelin roll”, traces its origins back to the widely publicized and oft-lampooned hindenburg disaster. on the day of the disaster, the dining staff had run out of bread for sandwiches, and instead substituted long dinner rolls. after the hindenburg was destroyed, a plucky team of firefighters were called to the scene, and, once the fires were put out, the firefighters noticed a hauntingly delicious aroma – some of the uneaten sandwiches had been toasted during the accident, and the meat within steamed to perfection. the firefighters took the sandwiches back to the station and enjoyed them amongst themselves; thus, the intrinsic tie between firefighters and subs was made.

inside the house

i was recently invited to come out to the most respectable firehouse subs and meet their co-founder robin sorensen (inventor of the occasionally useful sorensen squeeze), while sampling some of their finest sandwiches. firehouse subs is a national chain, originating in jacksonville, florida, known for their meat and cheese steaming technology. this was not my first visit to firehouse subs, nor would it be the last.

this particular location was in largo (a part of the giant largo mall plaza/village, on ulmerton), and only just opened recently. it is set up as most locations are, with a counter from which to order (and behind which your food is prepared), a large dining section, and this:

soda maker

this monstrosity, “coke freestyle”, looking like a refrigerator capable of surviving a nuclear blast, is actually just a soda dispenser. (i’m probably a little late on this one, but let’s all imagine that no one has ever seen such a thing, and just humor me here.) “SODA? OUT OF THAT THING?? BUT HOW??!” yes, i hear you, desperately struggling to figure this out. so it’s a one-at-a-time, select-a-soda soda distribution system, through which you can select one of about 20 or so soda bases, and then are prompted to add a flavored syrup if you so desire. why, you could try raspberry coke zero! vanilla sprite! even standard orange soda! wakkie nu-nu.

it results in over 120 different options, including firehouse subs’ cherry limeade, which actually just kind of dispenses a super-sweet cherry syrup type liquid that you’re supposed to squeeze limes into. i can’t really recommend that, unless you cut it with a bunch of sprite or something.

the spicy

firehouse subs restaurants also feature a nice wall of hot sauces, from which you are free to select whatever looks good to you, douse your sandwich in it, and promptly toss it in the garbage because you ruined it with waaay too much hot sauce. use in moderation. OR don’t use it at all, because your other option is this:

datil pepper hot sauce

firehouse subs also has their very own sauce, a datil hot pepper sauce named for the founders’ father. this stuff is pretty remarkable, with a brown sugar sweetness perfectly balancing a light warm burn born from the datil pepper (similar to the habanero but much more playful, largely produced in st. augustine). the sauce is a must for pretty much any sandwich they serve, and blows all the other hot sauces they have out of the water.

fireman robin sorensen

the fireman himself, robin sorensen, spoke with us at length as we ate, about he and his brother founding their own restaurant rather than picking up a franchise (in order to “kick the butt” of said franchise), their focus on the customers and full flavored sandwiches (rather than pansy-ass health food), and their public safety foundation, providing funding and equipment to fire departments, disaster relief, and educational opportunities. he’s very involved with the restaurant on a lot of levels, and his passion comes through quite clearly.

we were subjected to sandwich after sandwich, in almost a rapid-fire succession. honestly, i barely survived the night, largely because i felt obligated to eat each sandwich in its entirety, because they were so damn good.

hook & ladder

Smoked turkey breast, Virginia honey ham, and melted Monterey Jack, served Fully Involved.

(for those not in the know, “fully involved” means with lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, mayonnaise, and a pickle served on the side)

this is the standard, their best seller, with its delicious steamed meats playing perfectly against the crispy toasted bread. the quality of the meat is great, the combo is classic, and adding the datil hot pepper sauce makes it perfect.

italian

Genoa salami, pepperoni, ham, melted provolone, Italian dressing, and seasonings, served Fully Involved.

the italian, another classic. though it’s always a great combination of meats, i feel like the italian kind of pales in comparison to the other sandwiches here. it’s solid, but it’s not something special. perhaps these meats were never meant to be steamed? it is unclear.

new york steamer

Corned beef brisket, pastrami, melted provolone, mustard, mayo, and Italian dressing.

this is my order at firehouse subs. i love corned beef. i love pastrami. the combination is divine. and these meats feel like they were made to be steamed. throw in mild melted provolone that melds perfectly with the mayo and mustard, add a light seasoning from the italian dressing, and you have something quiet and beautiful that will just melt in your mouth. slather it with cap’n datil’s patented spicy sauce, and you have yourself the sandwich god would eat if it could understand our “pathetic human reliance on food”.

smokehouse beef & cheddar brisket

USDA Choice beef brisket smoked for 10+ hours, melted cheddar, and special sauces.

and i would have been happy with my standard order of the new york steamer every time i came to firehouse subs, if they hadn’t forced me to eat this thing. this… this sandwich. awesome, smoked, beautiful brisket. it’s hickory smoked for 16 to 18 hours, made to order for firehouse, and tastes like the most incredible barbecue you’ll ever taste. something in the steaming process really brings this meat to life, and it combines with the messy union of sweet baby ray’s barbecue sauce, the cheddar cheese, and the mayonnaise, to give you one of the best sandwiches i’ve ever had at a chain in my entire life. it seriously blew the others out of the water, and will likely be the only thing i ever order from firehouse again.

do yourself a favor, and try the beef and cheddar brisket.

pickle

each other their sandwiches was served with a quartered dill pickle, perfectly seasoned crisp pickles shipped from the bronx in little pickle buckets that they sell to raise money for their foundation. the pickles are fantastic, made by the same people who supply carnegie deli with theirs. so i mean it’s ferrealz. ferrealz, guys.

we were also treated to some delicious cookies, as a nice little dessert and send off. as i said before, i was a fool and stuffed myself full to the point of bursting with those sandwiches, so it was all i could do to waddle out appreciatively, shake the founder’s hand, don a children’s plastic firefighter hat, and drive off into the the night. i have since returned for more of their delicious beef and cheddar brisket, and purchased some of their sauce for my own personal use.

firehouse subs would never have to have invited me to the restaurant for me to recommend them, and now that i’ve had the beef brisket, i have even more reason to do so. so visit, eat, enjoy. i now leave you with this mural, as displayed in one of the many firehouse subs locations across the country. may it haunt your dreams as it does mine.

Seasons 52 Fall Menu 2012

as the summer ends and we bury those loved ones we’ve lost to the intense florida heat, the leaves turn slightly less green, the temperature drops to a brisk 82 degrees, and stars enter their ominous autumnal positions. thus begins fall, and along with the seasonal change comes the change of menus at seasons 52. finally, we can embrace the cozy food stylings of pumpkins and apples, cinnamon and cinna mon.

once again, i was invited out to the special “num num super tasting ‘012″ event, to sample all the delicious foods and drinks, as imagineered by our favorite wacky duo, chef clifford pleau and wineman george miliotes. they were in good spirits, as ever, ending their pre-food presentation with pleau treating us to a special rendition of the major-general’s song, with particular phrases replaced by rhyming food references, and miliotes drinking heavily, slumped in a corner just off camera for the majority of the performance. sadly, sexy crowd favorite enrique iglesias was not available for his endorsement.

portobello mushroom flatbread

we began the evening, as always, with a bunch of flatbread and wine to get us ready for… lots more wine and food. the flatbread this time around was the portobello mushroom flatbread, flavor-blasted with all the cheese (specifically, gorgonzola, mozzarella, and blue cheese). there was also garlic and truffle cream. the mushrooms were nice and tender, and the garlic was pretty great (a clear and strong player), but the flatbread was a bit overwhelmed by the cheese, specifically the blue cheese. i just can’t take too much blue cheese! it just ruins my day. not their best flatbread; that title still belongs to the barbecue chicken flatbread.

the wine we began with was the vista hills orange pinot gris, an interesting, full flavor wine which i cannot seem to find anywhere outside of seasons 52 (internet, thou hast failed me). this guy was an intense, tart, acidic beast almost reminiscent of my father’s homemade wines. it also had the magic touch; that is, the more you drink it, the more the intensity drops, and the more you enjoy it! always a good sign.

hummusi

we were also treated to a delightful pair of hummusi, the “double hummus special” as i’m pretty sure they called it. there was a roasted red pepper, and a green edamame mint. i had the clear foresight to note the edamame mint was “fatty, wet” and the red pepper was “spiced, good, simple clean”. so, rather than getting bogged down in flavors and taste, let’s say the clear winner here was the edamame mint for being green.

cider-glazed grilled chicken skewers

our meal began with the cider-glazed grilled chicken skewers, which instantly appealed to me. what we have here, if you’re not able to see or infer from the name of the dish, is meat on a stick. meat on a stick, as we all know, was the ORIGINAL meal, as invented by keyrock selmon, cave man and master chef. it is simple and effective. this variant featured a lightly applied savory sweet mustard/cider glaze on moist, tender chicken, grilled, and set atop a tart bed of apple/cranberry/pumpkin slaw. it was an excellent combination, and really worked for me. the slaw was a great contrast to the chicken, both in consistency and flavor. the only thing i could ask of it is more glaze on the chicken.

the skewers were paired with the farrier andiron semillon, which was a nice tart and fruity wine, and a bit sweet. it seemed to be on the brink sparkling, and played well against the chicken (though not an intensely special pairing by any means).

maple leaf farms sesame duck salad

next was the maple leaf farms sesame duck salad. now, i love duck. lord love a duck. duck is the bird king. so i basically, by default, had to love this salad. and they did not make that hard for me. the dressing was amazing, a spicy/sweet ginger sesame, providing a mild slow, lasting burn. the duck – delicious, tender and juicy, practically a beef steak, and not oily (as some duck can be). there were pecans, giving it a nice nuttiness. overall impression: this is a great, spicy salad, all parts in a perfect balance.

the salad was accompanied by avanthia godello, a light, crisp, sparkling white wine. the wine was alright, but did not really blow me away at all, and again the pairing with the salad was pleasant but nothing illuminating.

piedmontese steak

and then they brought out this – the piedmontese steak! a fine addition to the autumn menu. it is a great piece of meat, as i explained last time i reviewed seasons 52. long and short of it – it’s a good steak and it’s healthy. and that’s the reason they kept it for this season’s menu from last season. BUT. i wish they had just stuck it on their regular menu and put something else on their seasonal menu. because that’s the whole point of having a constantly changing menu! not that steak doesn’t work any time of the year, any time of the day, but it’s just a missed opportunity. and unless the species of cattle responsible for this steak is quickly going extinct, it doesn’t really need to be stuck on any sort of limited-time list.

the wine was tilia bonarda, velvety smooth, nicely dry red. almost too dry on the finish, but not so much to ruin it. just lovely.

baby broccoli and mashed sweet potatoes

however, there was one difference between the steak this time and last – the sides. before, and as pictured with the steak, the sides consisted of asparagus and fingerling potatoes. but when brought out in group portions, the sides change to what’s shown above: mashed sweet potatoes and “broccolini”, which is a corporate name (it is generically referred to as “baby broccoli”, despite the fact that it is not baby anything). it is a hybrid between what we know as standard broccoli, and the chinese kai-lan, some leafy thing. i had never seen or heard of this monstrosity before, so this is all news to me. the result of the melding? nothing special. the flavor is broccoli meets asparagus in a boring explosion of meh. the sweet potatoes, however, were delightful, fluffy and deliciously sweet (but nothing over the top). it was a really solid side, and a good choice to bring this dish somewhat in line with my autumnal expectations.

manchester farms all-natural grilled quail

and our final contender for the evening was the exciting manchester farms all-natural grilled quail (seasons 52 apparently prides itself on name dropping). it’s quail! grilled quail. little bird. similar to pigeon. i like the idea. it’s beautiful. a fancy bird, for sure. but… they went a bit crazy on the seasoning here. the bird is a tiny thing, so much so that just eating it and maintaining some semblance of dignity is a difficult task for anyone who might call themselves a “food monster”, and it seems to really take on the flavor of anything that touches it. it was salted and given a balsamic glaze, but all i got was salt. the meat was tender, and i’m sure nice, but it was so salty that i was reminded of KFC’s fried chicken. and that is not a good thing.

however, it was accompanied by an awesome risotto, soft savory and warm, with a wonderful mushroom and garlic flavor. sweet chef pleau was totally flipping out over this risotto, punctuating its introduction in the webcast by jumping into a kiddie pool full of the dish, and crying as he rubbed it into his face. and he was right to – it was amazing. as i’ve said before, risotto just has a feel good, home-cooked aura about it, like a comfort food. always good. there was also sauteed spinach, which is another kind of homey-type food, which was nice and light, though the onions wee a bit mushy, which truly enraged me.

and instead of one wine, we were treated to two distinctly different reds, the michael david petite petit, and the glenelly cabernet sauvignon. each provided and example of a style, the former new world, and the latter old world (possibly spelled ‘worlde’). both were good wines. surprisingly, they each started up rather similarly, with a deep, dark fruitiness, but they finished on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. the petite petit was a bit smoother and sweeter, with only a slightly dry finish, and a bit of an astringent edge. the cabernet sauvignon was much a more serious, dry and intense finish, which i definitely preferred. neither had a significant interaction with the quail.

pumpkin pie mini-indulgence

and, as always, we finish with the mini indulgence desserts. the new addition for fall was something just short of the food of the gods: pumpkin pie. accompanied by two gingersnap cookies (one on top, and one plopped in the center to ensure cookie throughout), the pumpkin pie was spot on, a bit smoother than a real pie, but the precise flavor. the ginger snaps, not too hard but not too soft, played against the sweet pie and whipped topping extremely well, and brought out the spices in the pumpkin. i also had the german chocolate cake, which was super rich and had beautiful toasted coconut. the indulgences are always extraordinary.

coming away from the evening, i felt a bit let down. of course, all the food was enjoyable, and the duck salad and chicken skewers were particularly good, but i can’t help but feel the season was not nearly as well articulated through the food as it ordinarily is. which is disappointing, as fall is my favorite season. pumpkin pie, hot apple cider, butternut squash soup… turkey?? the holy grail of food holidays right at the end of fall! and i was disappointed by the reappearance of the steak, despite the fact that it’s delicious. and the wine pairing, for me at least, never seemed as impressive as my first visit in spring, when each wine shed new light on every dish. nevertheless, a good evening, always a good time, at a good restaurant.

Seasons 52 on Urbanspoon

Michael Angelo’s Microwavable Meals

ahhh the TV dinner. the most convenient way to enjoy a full meal, and the reason the microwave was invented. how many countless evenings were saved by opting to nuke one of the many varieties of frozen foodstuffs, rather than consume whatever else was at hand (cats, for example)? yes, truly the best alternative to eating cats were tiny trays of frozen food, preferably presented to you by a penguin and his polar bear chef friend:

…i don’t know exactly what the relationship between those two was, but i’m assuming they were partners in every sense of the term. oh, and of course they were retired at some point and replaced with younger, cooler, more extreme/radical versions of themselves (i think the bear died in a snowboarding accident). alas, my love affair with those kooky anthropomorphic cartoon animals ended the day i entered puberty, and went from being a mere hungry boy to a full-on hungry man.

it went on like that for years, until eventually my tastes became far too refined for the likes of hungry mans and kid cuisines, and i began eating real food. hell, i began cooking! and thus, my transformation into a “grown-up” was complete. surely there is no frozen meal authentic enough, fresh enough, high-quality enough, home-style enough to be fit for mature adult consumption. surely not!

…or is there?

michael angelo chicken parmesan box

i was contacted by renowned artist and literal (in the literal sense) renaissance man michelangelo, who is credited not only as the sculptor of david, but with the invention of the microwave dinner. his company, michael angelo’s, pioneers the “microwavable meals that may pass for real food” category, priding themselves in using fresh, real ingredients, small batch preparation, and using only recipes written by michelangelo’s mom, sara.

michael angelo baked ziti and meatballs box

true to their word, quick perusal of their dish’s ingredients reveals really boring stuff, like eggs, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, missing out on family favorites such as delicious high fructose corn syrup and yellow 5. really, what it looks like they’re trying to do is send you leftovers, which you could easily just find in your grandma’s fridge. why microwave something that you already might have available to you, when you could just have THIS??

chicken parmesan frozen

so michelangelo sent me some coupons to pick up a smattering of his frozen delights, and i did just that. our first sampling (my senior assistant/PR specialist and myself) consisted of the chicken parmesan and the baked ziti with meatballs. pictured above is the frozen chicken parmesan, in all its glory.

instructions

now, we were given the option to go with either microwave or conventional oven as our method of heating. being a busy man about town, i clearly have no time for such things as a conventional oven. even the microwave is pushing it, what with their additional 5 minutes standing time. had this not been for review, i would have just tackled the beast frozen, but i am sure that’s not their preferred method of delivery, so i went ahead and…

cooking

nuked that bastard back to the hell from whence it came.

chicken parmesan cooked

this was taken directly after cooking, and i believe it shows. note the signature tiny holes burnt into the sauce and cheese, a hallmark of microwaving technology. mysterious. but after a good stirring, it’s as though it never underwent such treatment, and could even resemble something prepared by a real human!

baked ziti and meatballs frozen

baked ziti and meatballs cooked

the baked ziti was cooked the same way, resulting in what you see above.

now, again, michael angelo’s strives to present you with that home cooked feeling in every meal. the preparation is there (well, on their end, at least), so all that’s left is the presentation. with a bit of effort and a few simple touches, VOILĂ€!

romantic dinner for two

accompanied by my father’s fine wine, we have ourselves a romantic dinner for two, and a potential date is none the wiser! WHY, YES. OF COURSE I AM AN ACCLAIMED ITALIAN CHEF. I THOUGHT YOU KNEW! *looks at camera, winks*

as for the meals, they were better than your average TV dinner fare. the sauce michael angelo uses is actually quite good, with noticeable effort put in it. there’s a clear, almost fresh tomato taste that somehow survives the harsh barrage of microwaves, which is pretty impressive. the cheese is good, though the mozzarella cubes occasionally don’t cook all the way through. but the meat and pasta is where you realize this is still a microwaved dinner.

the pasta tastes like something you might find in stouffer’s box. the ziti less so, but the spaghetti packaged with the chicken parmesan was not impressive. it was not tough or anything, but it just had that not-quite-real feeling to it. and the meat – the meatballs were lackluster, which i mostly attribute to their being microwaved, but also think that their consistency was not quite meaty enough. too much ball. the chicken parmesan, too, was much as a standard microwave chicken patty might be. there’s no way to prepare anything fried properly in a microwave; it just doesn’t work. the flavors were there, though, which is a plus.

i think perhaps these meals would have turned out better had i bit the bullet and oven cooked them, but i figured this is the most likely way a consumer will make them. i actually have had michael angelo’s lasagna before, cooked in the oven, and it really did turn out quite well. just something to consider.

michael angelo lasagna with sausage box

i also tried the lasagna with sausage the next day. of all the available products i found at publix when purchasing these meals, the lasagna with sausage was the one that had been clearly favored by the public, with a mere four boxes remaining versus the typical endless grocer’s freezer supply. i thought this was a good sign.

lasagna with sausage frozen

lasagna with sausage cooked

as it turns out, the public was right. this was far superior to both the chicken parmesan and the baked ziti, featuring the same quality sauce, mozzarella, and some ricotta cheese that i somehow enjoyed (typically, i don’t). the pasta actually came together well here, perhaps due to its stacking with cheese and merging with all around it. the sausage, again arguably the downfall of the dish, really appealed to me, carrying similar notes to sausages of all the greatest cardboard pizzas past. it seemed to lack that “real meat” quality, but still had good flavor. it was pork, as reported by the ingredients list, and it convinced me that all lasagna should be prepared with sausage. the overall result of the lasagna was quite solid, seriously reminiscent of a homemade meal, reheated in the microwave. just like grandma!!

what brought this opportunity to me in the first place was an upcoming celebrity chef cooking class, where the REAL MICHELANGELO (michael angelo) and his REAL MOTHER SARA (sara) will be imparting the ways of the force on all young padawans in attendance. it’s coming up soon, this thursday night (october 18th) at the citrus park publix on gunn highway. you can get more information here, and make reservations by calling 813-926-4465.

you should probably just do it. i mean, how often do you get a chance to meet one of the ninja turtles??

The Sweetie Apple

“GIMME A TASTE OF YO’ SWEETIE”

yes, this is the clever marketing campaign of the new sweetie apple, brought to you by the fine folks at first fruits, makers of the excellent opal apple i reviewed earlier this year. or, at least it would be, if they chose me as their new PR dude/ad man (i’m right here guys, ready and waiting). here are a couple more potential advertisements right off the top of my head:

“no more crapple in your apple!”

“cram this sweetie in your pie”

“bob for this!” *points to crotch*

yeah, i know, i’m a genius. send me an email and i’ll work for you.

so no, they don’t really have any awesome ad campaigns like this out there yet, and that’s why they sent me some of these apples – so i can spread the gospel for them.

sweetie

here we are. this is the sweetie apple. she is beautiful, born from the forbidden union of the gala and the braeburn apples, and borrowing key aspects from each. they are fairly solid, and i’d say throwing one at someone’s face would result in a hard hit rather than explosion, unless that person had a soft skull, in which case there may be an explosion anyway. i believe this is the truest test of an apple.

sweetie bite

so this guy is called a sweetie, but honestly that is not the name i would go with (unless they mean sweet with regards to disposition, which i guess fits but i mean come on who’s ever heard of a sour apple oh i just got that). that is to say this isn’t the sweetest apple i’ve ever stuck in my gob, so the name is a bit misleading. the problem here being i am an american, and i enjoy things sweet. fruit, as i see it, is merely a candy substitute for when the doctor finally tells me i have diabetes, so having an apple that is not as sweet as, say, a bag of sugar is not something i really need to waste my time on. that being said, this is still a pretty good apple despite its less-than-teeth-rotting sweetness.

the flavor actually is a bit sweet, but nothing like the opal apple was, and it fades into an almost lightly spicy finish, which is really nice. that leads me to believe that this apple would be great for a pie, or any situation that might need a balance for sweetness (caramelized fried apples, perhaps). these guys are fairly crisp and quite juicy, all held together by a skin that is not super tough, but thicker than some, which hopefully will help it deal when i say it’s good, but not my favorite apple ever.

“eatie a sweetie!”

GOD HOW AM I NOT GETTING PAID FOR THIS??