Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why Does My Produce Department Think It's a Rain Forest?

In my previous post about frozen and fresh veggies, my friend Jill mentioned how irked she gets when her produce department pipes in the sound of thunder and rain over the loudspeakers whenever the misters are activated.

My local supermarket does the same. And now that she's mentioned it, that little ploy perturbs me as well. Particularly when I see some senior citizens scattering about, rushing to unfold their umbrellas and don their overcoats whenever the first clap of thunder roars over the PA system. I even saw one octogenarian, in an effort to keep her obviously just-styled hair from getting drenched, tear a plastic bag off the spool next to the green peppers and yank it down over her head. Fortunately, I was there to yank it back off when she started turning blue.

Why do supermarkets do this? Is it to make us think that these veggies are so fresh even the rain followed them inside? Is it a ploy to keep us from picking up the produce and squeezing it? (After all, who wants to squeeze anything in a thunderstorm, unless of course you're trying to squeeze your butt into a bus stop filled with thirteen other people who got there first?) Or perhaps it's an attempt to engage all of our senses in the shopping experience - thus making it more pleasurable?

I think it's the latter. One popular Florida supermarket chain even claimed the tag line: "Publix Market: Where Shopping Is a Pleasure." They plastered this motto on the front of their stores, on their shopping carts, and on their bags. Even the nametags on the bag boys proclaim it. Now I don't know about you, but I can think of at least a half-dozen deliciously pleasurable experiences right off the top of my head, and grocery shopping is not one of them.

But I imagine that in their desire to make shopping as pleasurable as, say, dining on a delicious gourmet meal, savoring a fine single malt scotch, or wild unbridled sex with your soul mate, supermarkets have chosen to engage all of our senses with the sounds of rumbling thunder and misty rain.

Of course, my question is: Why stop at the produce department? Why not have clucking poultry and the pungent smell of chicken poop piped in at the meat department? Or the smell of wet hay and cow manure in the dairy department? And think of how your bread-buying experience would be enhanced if all of the ladies behind the bakery counter were pleasantly plump, sported cheeks the color of rose petals, and spoke in a dialect that could only be described as rural Sicilian?

And how about the deli department? Imagine how authentic it would be if they piped in the sound of old lady Sussman berating the poor slob behind the counter because her order of sliced pastrami was 1/8 of an ounce off? Oh, wait; old lady Sussman already does that on a regular basis in my store. Never mind.

Hmm, now that I've thought some more about it, I'm convinced that the reason they pipe in the rain forest soundtrack is to engage all of our senses: to make a mundane, weekly chore, a pleasure.

And in a way it worked. I now count grocery shopping as a highly pleasurable experience, just a notch below dining on a delicious gourmet meal, savoring a fine single malt scotch, or wild unbridled sex with my soul mate. And also a notch below feeding the dog, changing a tire, and scratching an itch when no one is looking.

So here's to the pleasures of shopping. May all of us find in it a happy ending. But only when no one is looking.

Bon Appetit!


Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Are Frozen Veggies like Count Dracula? They Both Suck.

Okay. Maybe I'm overstating my case. Let me backtrack.

I love frozen vegetables.

Really. I do.

I've been recommending them as a viable (and sometimes better) alternative to the fresh vegetables in the produce section, especially if the fresh veggies in the market are under-ripe or way past their prime. In that case, frozen veggies, because they are picked and frozen right after harvesting, may provide better flavor and nutrients than some of the items you find in the produce section. Of course I realize that some frozen veggies don't translate well in the "crispness" department (think broccoli, squash, carrots), but if you're looking for healthy vegetables without added salt or preservatives, frozen is the way to go. Besides, they can be uber-affordable if you buy them when your supermarket offers a buy-one-get-one-free special.

Segue: Check this out. In our local supermarket the lights in the frozen food display cases don't turn on until someone approaches them. Is that cool or what? I know they do it to save electricity, but for those of us without television it's truly a fun night out. I remember how my kids would jump all over, begging me to take them to the grocery store so they could run up and down the aisle and play with the lights. It was a lot like playing gooney golf except there were no golf clubs, large dinosaurs, or that Asian guy behind the register watching cable TV from Beijing. Not to mention I saved six bucks per kid...

Now where was I? Oh yeah. So why do I say frozen veggies suck?

Here's why.

I recently realized that my local supermarket's frozen food section has been going through a metamorphosis. At one time the freezer shelves were filled with bags and bags of 16-ounce frozen veggies from a half-dozen different producers: Birds Eye, Green Giant, PictSweet, McKenzies, the store brand, etc. But lately I've noticed that these same shelves of plain veggies are being crowded out by newer offerings: 12-ounce bags with all matter of sauces and spices added. Oh, and then there's the newest kid on the block: 12-ounce steam-fresh veggies. Here's how one national brand describes them:

"...a specially designed bag and advanced steaming technology, Steamfresh® is a revolutionary way to prepare perfectly cooked vegetables, rice and pasta blends right in your microwave."

My question? I had no trouble perfectly cooking the old version of frozen vegetables by nuking them in the microwave or steaming them on the stove, so why create something new? Could it be that these companies want to charge us more money for less product? Hmmm. What's so revolutionary about that? (Remember when canned tomatoes were 16 ounces or when ice cream came in half-gallon containers?)

So, I guess I'll head down to the grocery store and stock up on a few cases of the pre-revolutionary frozen vegetables. You may want to do the same.

Then one day we can let our grandkids crawl up on our knees while we pine about the olden days, when 16-ounce bags of frozen vegetables were exactly just that: frozen vegetables. This is one time when I will not join the masses out on street to chant "Vive la revolution!"

I'll see you in the frozen food aisle.

Bon appetit!


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday Redux - And a Killer Stew

Back in 2005, Jacksonville, Florida hosted the Super Bowl. I imagine the intent was to show off the city, and, as a result, attract a bevy of business suitors and new residents. They spent a lot of time and money sprucing up downtown, but doing so was like a friend showing off her newly-shaven armpits. Sure, they might look better than they did before, but they are still armpits.

The Friday before the big event I bundled up to go for a walk at lunch. It was too cold to stroll the Riverwalk. The temperature was rapidly falling. Bone chill. The air so brittle I could almost hear it cracking as I moved forward. This was a typical deep-winter day in Northeast Florida. It's much more forgiving than her New England cousin, but the frigid wind blowing in off the ocean still seemed to tease as she sneered, "Welcome to the Sunshine State."

Flashback: Chicago, 2000. Jerry and I trudging through Old Town in mid-February. Ash-gray snow piled high on the curbs. Luminescent halos surrounding the streetlights. We're hunched over, challenging a wind that seems determined to keep us walking in place.

It's nearly 11 PM when we push open the doors to the Second City and shake off the bitter cold. We join our party in the upstairs lobby where handshakes and hugs flow freely. A loud thunk, like that of a human body striking steel, draws our attention. We turn to see a drunk-to-the-gills college student trying to navigate his way down the curved iron stairway. He falls again amid the roar of laughter from several dozen bystanders. He grasps the banister like a pole vaulter grabs his pole and hoists himself back up, only to tumble down a few more steps. Obviously thinking the better of it, he opts to crawl the rest of the way down. Perhaps some good Samaritan should let him know when he gets to the bottom. I almost volunteer, but the show is about to start.

Jump Cut: I'm back in Jacksonville continuing my stroll. I was waiting for the light when a blond and curvaceous woman appeared beside me and asked directions to an ATM machine.

I almost pointed out the nearest one.

Instead, I nodded at a tall building in the distance and said, "I think there's one at the bank." We walked for blocks, engaged in good conversation and laughter. The wind picked up and she slipped her arm in mine. She told me that she just relocated to the area after a messy divorce and a year at massage therapy school and now works at a Chevy dealership on the Westside giving massages to people who are waiting for their cars to be fixed. Who knew such jobs existed? I thought about my 12-year old car and decided where I'm taking it for repairs from now on. We finally came to a teller machine and said goodbye. She thanked me with a kiss on the cheek and turned to walk away. As I watched her skip across Julia, I wondered what she'd think when she passes some ATMs on her return trip. Somehow, I don't think she'll mind.

I turned up Laura to see a crowd of people gathered at the park. I wandered over and worked my way in to get a better look at what everyone else is watching. In the center of the park a group of big burly guys moved in a way that could only be described as Tai Chi. The crowd watched in wonder as these monstrous men went through their syncronized routine without missing a beat. I nudged the guy next to me and said, "I've read about pro football players learning ballet, but this is the first time I've seen them take up Tai Chi." The man turned and squinted, "What do mean, Tai Chi? They ain't doing Tai Chi. They're rehearsing for the slow motion replays for the big game."

I wiggled my way out of the crowd and headed over to The Landing, Jacksonville's ode to New Urbanism. This riverfront mall opened in the 80's to revitalize downtown. High-end shops like Banana Republic, the Sharper Image, and Coach moved in with great fanfare, only to move out a year later with barely a whisper. It seemed that everyone involved in the project was so giddy and enthusiastic that they forgot to include a parking lot in the master plan. A few restaurants have survived serving the downtown lunch crowd, but save for a teenage clothing store and knick-knack shop, most of the storefronts sit empty. Until Super Bowl week. Since we were the hosts the Landing was packed and it seemed that every vacant space had been turned into a temporary Super Bowl store filled with officially licensed NFL paraphernalia - which meant that $100 team jackets could now sell for $500. I decided to hold out for the unoffially licensed gear; creative entrepeneurs would be hawking them out of car trunks down near La Villa and Brooklyn.

I left the warmth of the Landing and made my way up Main toward my office when the sounds of blaring sirens grabbed my attention. I turned to see the Patriots coming across the Main Street Bridge. A half-dozen black limos and two Greyhound buses were chasing some unseen rabbit, flanked for an aft by motorcycle cops, their sirens screaming and lights flashing. Overhead, two police helicopters hovered and dipped. The sound shook the ground and rattled the windows of the surrounding buildings. A homeless man approached, pushing a Winn Dixie cart filled with aluminum cans. "Hell," he said as he passed. "They're just football players not the goddam second coming." I nodded in agreement and it looked like he enjoyed this brief moment of camaraderie.

I headed north then turned east on Church Street where I noticed a freshly poured concrete sidewalk and I'm suddenly nine years old again. I glanced around. Not a soul in sight. I stepped forward and heard a slight crunch under my soles. I started to walk, my wingtips leaving gentle imprints. I turned, smiled, and admired my handiwork. I bent down, pulled a pen from my jacket pocket, and etched my initials in the gray ooze next to my footprints. My legacy for the ages, stamped in concrete, and more permanent than the random thoughts I commit to this blog.

Well, it's one legacy. The other is this Super Bowl Sunday Stew. This recipe will serve way more than two because it is just to good not to share. Enjoy!



Start this around noon and it will be ready for the big game. I'm making this with beef, but I've also made it with venison (thanks, Rusty!), pork, and a mixture of meats.

Prep Time: 20 minutes       Cook Time: 1 hour      Serves: 6


2 teaspoons olive or canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
5 stalks celery, diced (include the leaves)
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 32-oz bottle tomato or V8 juice (I use V8 'cuz we always have it on hand)
4 teaspoons beef base (Tones, Better than Bullion, etc) 
3 carrots, peeled and sliced thin
1 28-oz can chopped tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
1-1/2 pound chuck roast, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes
1-1/2 teaspoons Kitchen Bouquet or Maggi
2 medium-sized red or yukon gold potatoes, diced
Salt and pepper to taste


1. Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and celery and saute until onions are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and saute an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Pour vegetables into a small bowl and set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the flour and stir constantly to make a smooth paste and begins to turn tan, about 3 to 5 minutes. Slowly pour in the tomato or V8 juice. Stir until smooth and slightly thickened. Add the beef base and stir to dissolve.  Bring to a boil and add the onion/celery mixture, carrots, tomatoes and bay leaf. Return to a boil, lower heat, and simmer covered for about 30 minutes.
3. In the meantime, heat the olive or canola oil in the 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef in batches and saute until brown. Drain the meat and set aside. Deglaze the pan with a little beef broth or red wine to dissolve the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Add this to the meat.
4. When the vegetables have simmered for 30 minutes, add the beef and Kitchen Bouquet and simmer for 1 hour. Add the potatoes and simmer an additional 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Taste for salt (you may not need much depending on how much salt is in the tomato/V8 juice).

Serve with lots of crusty bread.