Tag Archives: Food

American ‘candy’!

As I faced the possibility this summer that our American adventure might be coming to an end, it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t fully explored the wealth of American candy out there. As you can see from the photo below, not all American candy is unfamiliar to the British eye. Both countries have access to Mars products like Snickers, Twix and MnMs, and I’ve definitely come across Reese’s cups in the UK. But look closely and you’ll see that American Milky Ways don’t look quite the same as British ones, and then there’s the puzzle of the intriguingly named 3 Musketeers…

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So for the good cause of this blog, I carried out some research into all the chocolate that was unfamiliar to me. I may have to wait a few months for my waistline to recover before I repeat the experiment for non-chocolate candy (or as we say in the UK, sweets)! Anyway, while I’m sure I’ve missed plenty, the preliminary results are now in. I now have a good idea what the different sorts of candy are, and which I would walk to the store to buy in the event of a sugar crisis. In other words, I’ve tasted a variety of Hersheys and other products, and scored them (highly subjectively) out of 5.

Firstly, I can report that, in fact:

  • US Milky Ways are actually like Mars Bars (I’d give them 4/5).
  • And the 3 Musketeers bars are, in a pleasantly surprising way, what UK milky ways used to be like in the 80s/early 90s (these score a perfect 5/5, partly for the nostalgia value).

Another one that made me nostalgic was the Heath bar, which I discovered is like the UK’s dime bar! Toffee in the US is pretty much always hard. Unfortunately this is Hershey’s – I don’t like the after-taste of their chocolate – so I can only score it 2/5.

The York Peppermint Patty is famous from Charlie Brown cartoons. It’s pretty good, not too sweet, and comes in mini or standard sizes. 5/5

There are a few brands that come in boxes, and seem to have been popular cinema snacks:

  •  Milk duds – not at all what I expected from the name. These are like the chocolate covered toffee you get in a tub of Quality street. After a while all the chewing gets tiring (2/5).
  • Junior mints – nice, small chocolate covered mint creams. Pleasant, but not much to write home about (4/5).
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These were devoured before I remembered to take photos…

As you might know, there’s a wealth of peanut themed sweets in the US, so I thought I’d give them their own section. Here’s my observations so far:

  • Reese’s Cups – I always loved these when I could get them in the UK. Chocolate over peanut butter cream – how can you go wrong? In the US they don’t just come in the original sized cups, but also in a large cup, and as mini-cups (eat a whole bag of these and you’ll feel very sick). Sometimes you can find them in dark chocolate. At Halloween they made pumpkin shaped cups, and for Valentines they were heart-shaped (tasty and versatile, always a good bet – 5/5).
  • Reese’s Nutrageous bar – might be my favourite. A bar of peanut butter cream plus actual peanuts, covered in chocolate (5/5).
  • Reese’s pieces – these look like MnMs, but are disappointing. They could actually do with some chocolate as they’re just sweet peanut cream in sweet candy shells (2/5)
  • Butterfinger – again, these come in regular and mini, and they recently brought out a cup version to compete with Reese’s. These remind me slightly of the old peanut cracknell that used to be in Quality Street, but I’m not sure this works so well in a large size (4/5 – mainly for the minis)
  • Baby Ruth – Seemed to me to be basically just like a Snickers, which is not bad (4/5)
  • Mr. Good bar – this is just a Hershey bar with peanuts, and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not a fan of Hershey’s chocolate (1/5)
  • Payday – salty peanuts in a sweet corn syrup paste. This was actually rather unpleasant. (zero)
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I’m not sure what it is the York peppermint patty has 70% less fat than – a stick of butter?

Happily, as you might know if you’re a regular reader of my blog, our American adventure did not come to an end this autumn – our new visas were approved – so I still have time to try more American candy! There’s always plenty to choose from, including the seasonal treats surrounding Valentines Day, Easter, and Halloween. So if you know of an American candy bar I’ve not tried yet, do let me know. Which are your favourites?

A trip to Costco

I think we have Costco in the UK, but in the US, for some families, it seems to be a religion.

A really great ex-colleague of my husband’s is a member and decided that we had to have this religious experience ourselves at least once while we were out here. I was a bit skeptical, as we might not be around for very long and it didn’t seem the time to buy in bulk, but that skepticism vanished pretty much as soon as we walked in. I don’t think I have quite the words to describe the experience, so I’m going to let my photos speak more or less for themselves.

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The never-ending warehouse…
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So much pie!
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Above: Shrimp for lunch anyone? Below: More shrimp! And so so much meat.

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I’m a bit ashamed to say that we couldn’t resist the cheap meat, and left with enough chicken to feed us for about six weeks, along with cans and cans of tuna, olives and anchovies! Oh – and a very good-value bottle of gin…

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Chin-chin!

Getting Chinese take-out in DC

Growing up, takeaways (as we call take-out in the UK) were always a special treat. They would only be bought on special occasions, or on the way home from the beach if we had stayed too late to think about cooking. Sometimes on these evenings it was fish and chips, but my favourite was always Chinese. We would come home, call to order our usual dishes (chicken and cashew, chicken chow mein, prawn chop suey, egg fried rice), and then about 15 minutes later my parents would head out to collect it, leaving my sister and me in a frenzy of excitement, listening for the car in the driveway and the sound of the back gate to announce that dinner had arrived. My parents would dish everything out fairly, piling food on top of the rice (except in my sister’s case – she had her rice separately, in a bowl), and we would sit, in front of a film, enjoying that post-beach feeling of sun-baked skin and sleepiness along with the salty goodness of gravy-soaked noodles and rice. Sometimes, when the takeaway was in honor of guests, we’d add another dish, like sweet and sour chicken balls. Later on I remember they started adding free prawn crackers to our order. As I moved away from home, to university and then to London, I discovered the wide range of Chinese dishes available – and that they could be delivered straight to your door. But however different they might have been, they still retained that special quality of a rare and happy occasion.

In the States it’s so much more usual to get take-out than it was when I was young in the UK. The other day the boy I tutor said that he had picked up a Subway sandwich for his dinner; a couple of weeks before his mother picked him up a Chipotle burrito when she dropped me back at the metro. But so far it’s been difficult to get hold of the same sort of Chinese takeaways as we got in the UK. Perhaps it’s because so much of the Chinese food in the UK is specifically Cantonese food, whereas here it’s more likely to be Szechuan or some other variety. There also seems to have been a turn to healthy Chinese in some DC restaurants and you’re more likely to find steamed rice and broccoli than fried noodles and chicken balls. I also heard that much of the DC Chinese population moved out to Virginia and Maryland, and that you’re therefore more likely to find good Chinese a bit further out of the city.

As I have mentioned here before, prawn crackers do not seem to be an American thing. A neighbour of mine, hearing of how traumatic I was finding this withdrawal recently made them for me – which was completely amazing. Sadly, she was not converted and described them as prawn flavoured cardboard. I find the deep-fried noodle crisp things DC takeaways serve instead of prawn crackers far more tasteless, but I guess it’s what you’re used to.

One thing I had expected here – and had been somewhat looking forward to – was Chinese food in cardboard cartons, like they get in the West Wing.

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But so far I’ve not found this – I wonder if anywhere still does it or if they’ve all gone over to microwaveable plastic containers…

What DC takeaways have in their favour is value. Many of the restaurants do incredible meal deals, where you can get a double serving of soup, a spring roll and a large main course with rice for under $10 (£7). All main dishes come with complimentary rice, which you can substitute with fried rice for about a dollar. And once you realise that you can ask for dishes to be made ‘extra spicy’, they’re really very tasty.

Finally, at the end of the year, with R’s family, we followed a friend’s advice and found a pretty good restaurant. And I found myself ringing in 2015 with that communal Chinese takeaway I remembered.

Seafood in the States

Before I moved here, when I thought of American food, I thought of burgers and pizza, and diners serving pancakes. I didn’t think of seafood. But since I’ve lived here and traveled around a bit, I’ve discovered that seafood in America can be found all over, in all sorts of places, and is not only delicious but also excellent value.

In the UK you’d probably think twice about having oysters in a pub – unless the pub was very much in the area for them and was known to be good. Probably you wouldn’t be able to find oysters on most pub menus. But here on the East Coast you’ll find them fresh by the dozen or fried in a po-boy in all sorts of pubs and bars, and it’s a safe bet to go for them. Even our local sports bar on 18th Street advertises oysters for a dollar each.

I had difficulty working out how to organize this piece, as we’ve had such good seafood on so many wonderful parts of the east coast, and each experience reminds me of another. But in the end I decided to take each type of seafood in turn.

Lobster 

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Enjoying lobster my two favourite ways in Maine.

I mentioned the lobster shacks of Maine in a recent post. Lobster certainly is plentiful in this state! You could get it in lobster rolls of slightly sweet brioche-type bread stuffed with cold sweet meat and slathered with mayo. Or steamed and served hot with melted butter, with biscuits and corn cobs on the side. Or even as an ingredient in Mac and Cheese. This was probably my least favourite way to treat lobster – while I can’t really choose between lobster rolls and steamed. But if I thought this was just a Maine thing, I was corrected when we went to Boston and I discovered that you could get a lobster roll for a comparable price at Faneuil Hall, along with excellent clam chowder (I wrote about our trip to Boston here). I’ve also heard that the lobster is similarly great in Connecticut, though they make their lobster rolls with warm meat, tossed in melted butter.

Clams (more specifically, clam chowder)

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When we were in Maine we decided to try to find the best clam chowder. We tried an award-winning one in a small cafe in Freeport (home of the outdoors store LL Bean), but in actual fact found one in a small pub in Boothbay harbour that beat it in our opinion. Both were creamy and had plenty of clam meat in them, but both also had slightly too much bacon taste for us. And we couldn’t seem to find any that used whole clams. Finally the clam chowder in a bread bowl from Fanueil Hall in Boston came into our lives and turned every other clam chowder into a distant memory. It might just have been that we were cold and needed it – but I don’t think so.

Incidentally, when we got back from Maine I found this recipe for clam chowder which I always use now. I like the fact that it doesn’t use cream (always a flavour-killer in my experience) and that it gives such clear instructions for really cleaning the clams to avoid your diners crunching on sand and silt. We had some really badly-cleaned sandy large clams in Maine (they’re known as Steamers because they’re just steamed), and that almost put me off clams for life.

Crab

So I wrote a while ago about how I am enamoured of crab, especially in crab cakes and crab dip. Here in DC we live pretty much on the Chesapeake, so crab is a local delicacy. Everywhere serves crab dip, and crab cakes are a very usual alternative to a burger in many bars in the area. Recently though, R and I discovered the fun that is beating up whole crabs to eat their legs like lolly-pops. We learnt the art of hammering and cracking and fishing about in the shards of shell for tiny morsels of sweet, sweet crab meat on the dock of a water-side bar in Deale on the Chesapeake. Just an hour away from DC, after a day on the beach, we felt like we were on holiday as we ate and drank beer in this beautiful spot. We ordered half a dozen medium crabs, along with a side of hush puppies, and were delighted when the crabs arrived covered in old bay seasoning. While it was hard work (especially when the sun had set) for not very much meat, what we got out of them was completely delicious.

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Oysters

We discovered oysters in Boston. Did you know that oysters from different places taste different? Well we’d never found this until we went to Boston and found that oyster menus are more like wine menus, practically coming with tasting notes. We have learnt that the more Northern oysters from the coast are usually saltier than the ones that come from the Chesapeake or the Virginia river estuaries. Once we’d had our education in Boston (at their Legal Seafood and the wonderful Neptune Oyster) we found that Pop’s Seabar on our street in DC also has fresh oysters daily in at least three varieties, so we’ve been continuing to enjoy tastings.

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The oysters and the water they came from – on the Chesapeake. (Beer goes surprisingly well with oysters we’ve found.)

The rest

We haven’t made such a comprehensive survey of other seafood such as scallops, shrimp and mussels. And I’ve not really had much straight fish. However, we’ve had excellent meals including scallops, in both DC and Boston. Cashion’s Eat Place does nice things with scallops but it was at Boston’s tiny Neptune Oyster that we had the stand-out dish of our time here. R had amazing scallops tossed with perfectly cooked sprouts, and I had one of the best seafood stews I’ve had outside of France.

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I have noticed a tendency in DC to overcook mussels. This was not a problem at Neptune Oyster.

One place we have not visited yet is New Orleans, where I’m told they have amazing shrimp. So far the shrimp I’ve had in shrimp and grits has been excellent, but I’ve heard that in New Orleans they get Gulf Shrimp, which I need to try. I’m also looking forward to finally travelling to the West coast this fall – R has been and has brought back reports of amazing sushi and fish dishes.

There’s probably lots of American seafood we still haven’t tried – the combination of a lot of coast and numerous culinary styles is a guarantee of that. I just hope the fish stocks hold out. Luckily there are some fish so plentiful they’re actually considered a pest – a local seafood bar hosts a regular all-you-can-eat blue catfish night to do its bit to ‘save the seas’ (see their facebook page). I think I need to get down there!

Fast Food Nation?

The founder of Chipotle has reportedly predicted the end of traditional fast food restaurants as a result of the premium fast food phenomenon. Premium fast food chains are certainly well represented in DC. Five Guys and Shake Shack have a number of outlets as do Chipotle and District Taco. Recently I read that a DC chef is hoping his new concept of vegetable-focused fast food will take off.

There are advantages to premium fast food, especially if it lives up to its premium billing. However I have to admit that I think there’s still a place for McDonalds and Burger King – and I’d be sad if I never had the chance to experience those chains I heard about before I came to the States, like Wendy’s and Taco Bell.

Surpringly it was six months before I experienced McDonalds in the states, and nearly seven before I got to a Burger King. The closest I got was in Toronto when it seemed I couldn’t help but go to a Tim Hortons. I actually loved this chain; when you say you want to make your sandwich a meal, rather than handing you a cardboard cup and throwing some cardboard fries at you, they assume you want to add a coffee and your choice of doughnut – my kind of place.

To be honest, the McDonalds and Burger King in my area of DC, Adams Morgan, are not the most attractive destinations. They are cheap certainly but look old and rather grubby and their doorways are usually dogged by panhandlers. It makes sense – if anyone actually gives the local guy the 20 dollars he demands from passers by, he could buy two burgers and still have 15 dollars left to spend on wine. You can get a cheeseburger for a dollar – that’s 62 British pence.

When I finally got to a Burger King I was disappointed by the fries, but amazed by the portion size. In McDonalds I was pretty much happy with everything but baffled by the idea that anyone would ever need to order 50 chicken nuggets – one of the choices I was given. When I opted for a portion of six, I was given a happy meal.

But it’s getting hard to find these traditional fast food chains in city centers. When I was in Charlotte for a conference all I wanted my first night there was to avoid costly room service with a cheap burger. I was on my own, it was already 8.30pm and I just wanted something quick and cheap before heading back to the hotel to watch tv in bed. Unfortunately for me though, Uptown Charlotte (apparently they thought that sounded more positive than downtown) is a cosmopolitan playground for young professionals, full of expensive restaurants, cool sports bars and premium fast food joints. The only uptown McDonalds was in a mall that closed at 7pm and the only Burger King was on the wrong side of the tracks down a quiet, badly-lit road. The only place I could find where I could avoid a service charge and not look weird eating alone was a Five Guys.

Now everyone seems to like Five Guys – they plaster the walls with positive reviews telling you this. Their gimmick of free peanuts makes them popular with everyone – except of course mothers of kids with peanut allergies who steer well clear (I think they also cook their fries in peanut oil). However, I’ve tried them twice now and been thoroughly disappointed both times. The burgers have been thin and pretty tasteless, unable to stand up to the artificial tasting cheese slice. Also, if you take advantage of their free toppings and get the burger ‘with everything’ the resultant sandwich lacks integrity to such an extent that it threatens to fall to pieces in your hands. The only plus I can find is that if you like your ‘chips’ a little soggier than the usual American fries, this is the place for you. For me though, this doesn’t justify the hype or premium price tag, and I probably won’t be going back.

Shake Shack and Chipotle though, I love. I’ll happily spend that little extra for freshness and taste. Chipotle is a quick and healthy feeling lunch/dinner: you can get the burrito with veggies, a choice of beans and rice, and you can get it as a traditional burrito or as a salad bowl. Meanwhile Shake Shack has become one of those places we just have to take our UK friends when they visit. Here they experience the tasty secret sauce, proper medium-rare burgers and the perfect American milkshakes – and all in sensible portion sizes. They can also pair the food with a beer if they want, and enjoy the game on the big screen.

So, all in all, I’m not surprised that these premium chains are replacing McDonalds but I wouldn’t want to call time on the old favourites just yet.