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Back in my early days as a cub reporter, I never thought that someday I would get paid to eat.
And with the avalanche of products that arrived on my desk nearly every day for the duration of our 2013 Editors’ Picks contest, I was earning my salary and then some.
I’ve been a food industry journalist for more than a decade, and I’ve been receiving food samples pretty steadily during that time. But I don’t think I was truly prepared for the volume of product that this year’s contest elicited from our readership. Eventually, your thoughts go from “How am I going to eat it all?” to “Where am I going to put it all?” – especially for frozen products.
Now that it’s all over – at least for about nine months or so, before the 2014 entries start arriving – I thought I’d reflect on some of my experiences and deeply held convictions in reviewing some of the tastiest and most innovative new food products of the past year.
These were in the last box of about two dozen parcels I opened one day. By this time, opening shipments was consuming about half my day, provoking somewhat colorful outburst that I’m sure annoyed or perhaps entertained my officemates: What the heck is THIS now? Why did they send so much? There is NO SPACE LEFT in the freezer for this!
So by the time I got to the last box, I had pretty much had it. Then I opened the package, and suddenly all stress drained away, as I discovered not only the pouches of cookie mix, but a boxful of each variety of cookie, ready for sampling, so delicious and comforting – the impact of which on my mental well-being could never be fully known by their senders. A clean label and a great brand story just put them over the top.
I just friggin’ love charcuterie – there, I said it. I don’t really keep it a secret, except maybe from the MyFitnessPal app on my smartphone.
I am a pizza snob. Living in the greatest metro area for pizza, you have to be. So any pizza that I encounter is going to be judged against the Chicago South Side tavern-cut, thin-crust ’zas of my youth. For the nutritional profile they’re aiming for, B4U does a nice job with its frozen pizza, and extra credit for offering the crust separately for home chefs.
Hot dogs are part of the holy trinity of Chicago food (the other branches being pizza and Italian beef), but when you reach 40 and spend a lifetime battling your waistline, it’s nice to see a lower-fat frank come along that still tastes good. I’d run these beef dogs through my garden any day.
Hot fudge in microwavable, reclosable, stand-up pouches? I really didn’t even need to have the product in my hands to know this would be a winner. Major points for huge convenience qualities.
We had the neighborhood PTA ladies over to my house as sort of a focus group when we tested these. Yada-yada-yada, they really liked ’em. I hear some are still buying their own, a great testament to a new product. Me? I’m still buying Bud’s Black Crown, a very nice lager. In our official print review, I called it “Bud all grown up” and I meant it.
There are certain foods that I designate as “I could eat this every day,” and this tri tip certainly ranks highly among them. It also holds a warm place in my heart because it marks one of my better grilling moments; I didn't cremate it, as I have been known to do. Seriously, I could have eaten this whole thing by myself.
I could probably eat these every day, too – so decadent and on-trend. I always enjoyed getting deliveries from Ciao Bella when I was editor of Dairy Field and Dairy Foods, so it was nice to have them grace my desk again.
I gotta be honest – these almost didn’t win. But that would have been my own fault, since I didn’t eat these properly right out of the gate. Don’t chew them – let them melt in your mouth, and they really are sweet-tart and delicious.
When so many flavors are offered, you’d think they couldn’t all possibly be on the money. But I found these to all be authentic representations of their given profiles, from Buffalo-style and Jamaican jerk to Italian and Andouille. Chicken-based, they’re lower in fat but no less a real sausage experience. Thanks for letting me enjoy encased meats while trying to eat better.
I just friggin’ love meat snacks, too. It was hard pulling me away from the Duke’s booth at this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo, so I was glad to see them enter our contest. I really enjoyed these shorty sausages, and the pork strips are so tender and succulent.
These are really clever – perfect for spur-of-the-moment entertaining. Just bake for 4 minutes and fill with pretty much any sweet or savory filling. We used instant pudding and some of the Cool Whip Frosting that also won this contest. They’re best when freshly made; they do tend to lose crispness as they absorb moisture from the filling.
I’m a bit of a pretzel freak, and I was not immediately sold on these. But all the PTA ladies at our evening focus group loved these things to death. I was ultimately won over by their hearty crunch and intense garlic flavor that would surely keep vampires miles away.
Another awesome encased meat profile using chicken to ease up on the fat content. The brat is a great example of the German wurst, while the hot Looziana variety has a nice spice. Thanks for further expanding the circle of sausages that all but the most die-hard food Gestapo agents would say it’s OK to eat.
This will surely encourage more home cooks and grillers to get more adventurous. It’s so easy to use – just stab the meat a couple dozen times and squeeze – and it was fun to watch my pork shoulder inflate at each injection point. One caveat: Overflowed marinade will burn on the grill, but the resultant blackening was not objectionable. Just be sure to use indirect heat when cooking outdoors.
Call me a rigid traditionalist, but I’ve always been a staunch opponent of chicken on pizza. But Schwan’s may have changed my mind with this tasty frozen pie, a nice change of pace from the same-old. And there’s bacon on it, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.
Just about everything Hammond’s makes is fantastic, and their creativity is a wonder to behold. Nothing not to like about Pigs ’n Taters – a chocolate bar with bacon and potato chips in it. I mean, come on … and chocolate-covered peanut brittle, cashew brittle, and all manner of candied nuts. Then I just found out some friends of ours just got back from Denver, where they took the Hammond’s factory tour … jealous.
Cryovac has been hawking this skin-seal technology for a few years now, and my question to them at trade shows is always the same: Who’s using it in the marketplace? This product is my answer. It’s really cool to see a fully plated entrée on what resembled designer dinnerware suddenly become hot and ready to eat before your eyes. Taste and convenience is where this is at. OK, Cryovac, now what else can be done with this stuff?
Did everything with bacon in it win this contest? Um … maybe. But that doesn’t mean it’s not all good. Inglehoffer, known for its fine condiments, scored big with the great taste and texture of bacon added to fine mustard. Fat and calorie expenses are minimal for the substantial taste return. I put it on hot dogs. I put it on some of the sausages that won this contest. I dipped pretzels in it. I will soon need more.
Jack Link is the George Washington of jerky. Those folks up in northern Wisconsin are always coming up with new spins on the meat snack and rarely come up with a bad idea. I first saw the Big Dippers at the Sweets & Snacks Expo and thought they were a great concept, and the meat sticks with cheese, barbecue or ranch dips went over well at our office. And the whole Squatch campaign is a cool, hip grab for a younger demographic. I tell you this, my 22-year-old cousin not only likes the snacks, but the Squatch T-shirt from the press kit is in his regular rotation.
Speaking of my 22-year-old cousin: He has rarely met the green vegetable he doesn’t hate. So it was a shock when he, first, actually agreed to try this product and, second, said he actually liked it. And that’s a good thing, for someone whose diet is about 80 percent hot dogs. I found it tasty and refreshing, and really liked that it’s blended with apple juice; despite my fondness for most things dairy, I find milk- or yogurt-based smoothies to be too heavy for my tastes.
I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for this brand, made by the folks at Oregon Ice Cream Co., out in Eugene, where Animal House was filmed, who took an old-school dairy plant (which it was my honor to visit as editor of Dairy Foods) and turned it into one of the top manufacturers of branded and private-label specialty and organic frozen desserts. The Julie’s brand (named for the wife of company president Tom Gleason) is topnotch, and these new flavors are on-trend and delightful.
My wife likes Cinnamon Jacks. My daughter likes Cinnamon Jacks. Sometimes I think they’re both 9. But I also like Cinnamon Jacks, and I’ve never been mistaken for 9, even when I was 9, back when I was eating Special K, which my wife doesn’t really like. But she loves the new Special K Multi-Grain. And so do I. Kellogg’s keeps getting it right all over the demographic landscape.
I have never eaten a Pop-Tart.
But the Pop-Tart stalwarts in my house and on our neighborhood focus group loved these new peanut butter and chocolate varieties. So much so that they gobbled them all up.
As such, I still have not ever eaten a Pop-Tart.
I love kettle chips. I love bacon. I love sweet and salty together. Case closed on Kettle’s new Maple Bacon chips. And kudos to Kettle Brand for its baked line – the Cheddar & Roasted Tomato baked chips are truly excellent, some of the best non-fried chips I’ve eaten.
I never really drank Kool-Aid as a kid. We were a Wyler’s lemonade house when I was growing up, so my limited exposure to Kool-Aid came from friends’ birthday parties and special events at school, when they didn’t have that big plastic jug of McDonald’s orange drink. But these Kool-Aid squeezable water enhancers were my go-to beverages at the office for a couple of weeks – a calorie-free way to capture an insufficiently slaked bit of my childhood.
I’m the only one in my house who likes onions, so keeping actual onions on hand can be a hassle. But this Onion Crunch stuff is fantastic. I’m putting it on practically everything – salads, sandwiches, pasta, eggs … a tasty crunch with a relatively clean label.
A big score for portion control and stretching the reach of these iconic brands – keep them coming, Mars.
These have been my go-to salad dressings since they arrived at the office. Going through them one by one on my salads at home. The light versions are a nice compromise between typical fat-free Italians and full-fat offerings.
My wife loves Miracle Whip. I don’t. But yet, I’m the one who really likes these dipping sauces. Another great extension of an iconic brand across multiple uses, and a tasty way to do it.
This is really tasty yogurt. I picked this up myself a while ago at my neighborhood Mariano’s. The two-chamber Corner container is a cute, gimmicky way to show off the quality of the fruit puree and let users distribute it as they see fit. The layer of fruit mousse on the FrütUp is silky smooth and delicious, a great enhancement to the cultured product beneath. It’s really good – it’s just weird to think Pepsi makes yogurt, but PepsiCo sure knows how to diversify and do it well.
Everybody in my house likes these – me the Cranberry Orange, my wife and daughter the Cinnamon Raisin. I like them plain or with a little cream cheese; my girls like to spread peanut butter on everything. Thumbs up to Flowers Foods for continuing to innovate in the bread aisle with healthful and tasty options.
Amid a vast ocean of Greek yogurt comes this rich, velvety-smooth Australian-style product. The per-serving calorie count is on the high side at 170 (I’d like to see it come in a single-serve container instead of a two-serving tub), but it is just delicious. I love the lemon variety, blended with fresh lemon curd – it’s like eating cultured lemon pie.
I’ve never cared for Brussels sprouts. Well, really, we never had them in my house growing up, and they never really caught on with my taste buds as an adult. But this product has made me a believer. The easy-prep steamable packaging is brilliant, allowing for simple seasoning and quick cooking. I like to take the sautéed sprouts and further sauté or grill them. My wife, who grew up eating sprouts, loved these. And so does our daughter, the little omnivore.
These are basically flat-bottomed soft taco shells that free up a hand during prep – cool. Easy to fill, easy to eat.
I keep a steady supply of these tasty, crunchy cookies stashed in my desk at work – at 80 cals a pop, they make for smart snacking, the perfect dose of sweet and crunchy. The chipotle with the dark chocolate is a brilliant combination. Kosher biscotti – neat.
My wife and daughter wigged out when I came home with these cases full of Party Cake, Bubble Gum and Sweet Lemonade Peeps. They loved ‘em, my daughter’s school and scout friends loved ‘em, the PTA ladies loved ‘em. Me? Well … gotta admit, never been a huge fan of Peeps, but the Lemonade ones are pretty nice.
I thought these turnkey deli solutions were so cool when I saw them at Perdue’s booth at the IDDBA show in Orlando. For the chicken burgers, Perdue provides grocers with merchandising materials and foil bags to market the low-fat sliders alongside rotisserie birds. Demoed on King’s Hawaiian rolls, they were juicy and tasty. The pre-trussed breast roast delivers the part of the bird folks want most and takes shrink almost entirely out of the equation.
Uber-tender, boldly flavored, low in fat, high in protein – a perfect snack, in my book.
My wife LOVES Baci – she’s been enjoyed the original version for years. So when I brought home the new white chocolate version, she practically shrieked with glee. I hope that if I keep bringing her Baci she’ll keep giving me baci.
I’ll wait while you consult Google translator …
Pretzels also rank high on my can’t-do-without list. These Pretzilla bites are a great innovation on the pretzel roll and were widely used at the last IDDBA show as the vehicle for sampled dips and spreads. And while pretzel rolls aren’t new, Miller Baking executes them famously.
I may occasionally enjoy a meat-free meal, but I could never be mistaken for a vegan. Quite honestly, most of the vegan products that cross my desk fail to impress me or the sweeping herds of carnivores that roam the halls here at Stagnito Media. But this apple-based “honey” really fills a niche with fine style and great taste.
I grabbed these up on sale at my local Mariano’s long before our contest, so I was glad to see them enter. No wonder they’re a top seller in Italy, and if they lead the market over there, where they know their stuff, they have to be good. These pastas and sauces are of supreme quality, peak freshness and great flavor. My wife is an Alfredo freak, and Rana’s is now her favorite. All the ravioli and tortellini have been amazing, regardless of filling.
Here’s another company that can do no wrong in my book. I first encountered them two years ago, when you couldn’t pull me away from their table at the IDDBA show in New Orleans. Everything they make that I’ve tasted is good. These cookies take the excellence of their petite Moravian cookies to a slightly larger scale. Their taste and texture is just perfect.
I’m really more of a salty snack junkie, but this is that rare sweet snack that I could just sit and eat by the bagful. It’s got that CRUNCH I love so much, and the new salted caramel variety crosses that boundary for me.
Hatch Green Chile Fiesta Mix – it did not last long in my hands. This is one amazingly tasty and addictive snack mix. And the Sea Salt & Turbinado Dark Chocolate Almonds brought it home for me as well with their sweet-salty hybrid profile.
Purple bread? Weird, but a great product. Sunsweet is busy reinventing prunes as dried plums, or in this case, Plus Amazins, which this bread kinda is. The plums add a rich moistness to the bread, made of purple wheat and corn, which toasts up nice; cream cheese makes a great complement. Something about that purple grain must extend shelf life, too, because this bread lasted quite some time at our house (my wife and daughter passed on it – their loss – so I was on my own to consume the loaf) without any discernible slip in quality. Enjoyed the portion-controlled 100-calorie brownies, too.
The folks at Turkey Hill are truly gifted when it comes to making RTD chilled beverages. Something so simple like lemonade, yet so perfectly executed in tart vs. sweet. The Turkey Hill booth has become a saving grace at the IDDBA shows when, after hours of consuming salty snack samples, their lemonades, teas and drinks are like that first sip of water after crossing the desert.
We had fun making this at my house. It’s designed to be prepared in mass quantities using supermarket deli equipment, so we had to jigger the portion and cooking time a bit for our tiny home deep fryer. Tyson does fried chicken well – a visit to their test kitchens once left me full and a bit greasy about the mouth – and this product is on-trend and should be a boon to in-store deli operators.
Making pork so easy to enjoy is probably dangerous to someone like me, a bacon-swilling hulk of Eastern European stock whose family slogan is, “It’s a pork fat thing.” We tossed it in the slow cooker for a few hours and it pretty much falls apart – so tender and flavorful. Crisp it up, toss it on tortillas with some queso fresco and pico – that’s freakishly good eatin’.
Huge pickle fan, am I. I love this line from Vlasic. It just looks classy, for one – the mason jars, the hunks of carrot and garlic along with the cukes in the jars. Plus, these delicious pickles rank almost nil on the calorie scale, which is good for me, to help balance out everything else I eat. Shelf-stable, but I recommend chilling them before eating. I may use the empty jars to make my own pickles – oh, but then that would defeat the purpose of having such a great product to buy in the store.
We got a bunch of “sprouted” snacks this year and these were indeed the best of the bunch. This flavor is amazing – at once both sweet and spicy. No need for dipping – perfect as-is.
I love good guac, and these portion-controlled packs are perfect for taking on the road as well as keeping your intake in check. We packed these on a picnic – just toss ‘em in a cooler.
Guess that’s the end of my guac and spiel.