The Jungle Stand: Italian biscuit edition

photo(34)“Boxes” are all the rage these days: pay a few dollars a month and people will send you boxes of all sorts of things. Jess is a fan of Birch Box, a monthly grab-bag of sample-size fancy toiletries, but although my friend Joel DiPippa swears by the men’s version, I lack the skill, knowledge, or confidence to know what the heck to do with a box of fancy stuff to wear.

Not to fear, though — there are boxes out there for folks like me who wear Mountain Dew t-shirts and like to eat in bed, and today I got my first one from The Jungle Stand, a site that promises a “tasting bar” in every month’s box (for only $9.92). This month’s theme was “Taste of Italy,” the taste in question being several varieties of Italian-style biscuits of both the sweet and savory nature. Jess and I dug right in and found the selection to be quite good for the most part. Here’s a run-down of what we tried:

*Sfogliatine: This was an airy, crispy pastry puff that was lightly sugared and had a fine texture due to its many layers. This was one of our favorite bites from the box, so delicate as to almost melt on the tongue with each bite. Delicious.

*Krumiri: These were a dry biscuit made for dipping into a beverage. Prepared without water, the texture was similar to Scottish shortbread, although not nearly as buttery. This version was made with hazelnuts and vanilla, and had a nice, subtle flavor perfect for pairing with a cup of tea or medium-brewed coffee.

*Amaretti: These little anonymous-looking cookies were the stand-out taste in the box. Beneath that tame exterior was a powerful punch of almond and amaretto flavor that was almost shocking at first bite. Sweet, slightly bitter, and delightfully crunchy, these treats were among some of the best little cookies we’ve ever had.

*Cantuccini: What I would call a biscotti. These were infused with raisins and gave a nice, sweet bite that was quite crunchy. Not so great by themselves, but these would be perfect with a strong cuppa for breakfast. (UPDATE: The aforementioned Mr. DiPippa, who is my go-to source for things Italian says that “biscotti” is baked twice, hence the difference.)

*Biscuit with Mediterranean Herbs: The first savory biscuit, and the first one with no actual Italian name. These were some pretty lame little crackers with a strong taste of tomato bouillon and oregano. Seemed more like filler for the box than anything actually Italian.

*Srack Griss: I Googled “srack griss” and came up with nothing. These are little breadsticks with a strong flavor of tomato and basil. More assertively flavored than the other savory biscuit, these little bites were superior yet still not comparable to the sweet treats. Still, the light, crisp breadsticks would make a fine bar snack, and so I give them a pass. (UPDATE II: Joel says “griss” is colloquial term for “bread,” so these are srack breadsticks.)

In the end, our 6-flavor “tasting bar” was a solid 4/6 for success. I admire The Jungle Stand for attempting to include so many different flavors, from the light sweetness of the sfogliantine to the deeper, bittersweet flavor of the amaretti, to the less successful savory options. For our first box, we were well-pleased, and look forward to sharing what we get in next month’s shipment.

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Snack Time: Sam’s Oriental Grocery

Hi, kids, it’s time once again for your old pal Michael to eat some snacks and tell you how they are!  Today’s treats were purchased from one of my favorite stores in Little Rock, Sam’s Oriental Grocery on South University.  I’ve been shopping at Sam’s for years, and it’s my go-to place for inexpensive sauces, sea salt, fresh produce, and tasty noodles.  They’ve also got a pretty wide variety of imported snack food available, and while I usually just content myself with boxes of delicious Pocky and cans of wasabi-coated green peas, I decided to branch out and try a few things that caught my eye.  The results, as always, were mixed, but I hope this will inspire some of you to branch out and try different things.

Mei Yuan Green Tea Dried Seedless Prune – At first blush, this should be the perfect snack for me, because I like green tea and I like prunes.  The texture of these was unlike the prunes found around here – instead of being dense and sticky, these were light and almost feathery.  I popped one into my mouth, and as I began to chew I thought I had discovered a brand new favorite snack: tart, chewy, with just the right hint of bitterness from the green tea to add some layers to the flavor.  And then it hit me like a tanker truck full of diet soda – an artificial sweetener taste so strong that I almost spit the prune right out.  I tried another one, and the shock wasn’t as bad since I was prepared for it but there it was again, that sickly sweet artificial taste overwhelming everything else.  Flipping the package over, I discovered that one of the main ingredients in these things is aspartame, and trust me, that aspartame jumps right up and says “howdy.”  It occurs to me that you’re perhaps supposed to steep these in hot water like tea, in which case the artificial flavor might not be so bad; I’ll have to try that.  I’m going to look for a brand of these that doesn’t have the artificial sweetener – other than that, they were great.

Kasugai Lychee Gummy – With this one, I almost felt like I was cheating, because I’m pretty familiar with the Kasugai family of gummy candies.  Anybody that knows me knows that I’m a gummy freak, and there aren’t many candies of this nature that I don’t enjoy.  I picked the lychee flavor to try, though, because the lychee (or soapberry) isn’t a very common flavoring for American candy.  Lychees are sweet, fragrant, and have a touch of piney musk to them that I really like.  The individually wrapped gummies did a good job capturing that flavor in a perfectly textured candy.  Kasugai gummies are awesome, and I highly recommend them.

Shing Shang Crispy Wasabi Coated Anchovy – And believe it or not, I’m rather familiar with the original flavor of these crispy anchovies, and I’m actually quite fond of them.  This was the first time I’d tried the wasabi flavor.  Fair warning, though, opening a canister of these is like sticking your nose into a jar of wasabi-flavored goldfish food.  The taste is sweet, salty, and fairly fishy, and while there’s a nice bit of wasabi spice to them, I was disappointed in the heat level altogether.  These are probably fishier than most folks want to eat, but if you like that sort of thing, there are several varieties of these around.  They’re healthier than potato chips, and you can be sure that nobody will steal them from you if left in a company cabinet.

Stick Man Fish Cake – I bought these compressed sausages of cheese and pollock based mostly on the sheer excellence of the name.  My hopes for Stick Man Fish Cake were that it either be so secretly delicious, like a sort of fishy Korean Slim Jim, that I would be singing its praises to all of you – or that it be so horrendously awful that I could make some fabulous jokes about this insane fish sausage that I found.  Unfortunately, the sheer mediocrity of this snack doesn’t nearly do justice to the name.  Stick Man Fish Cake has a taste and texture very much like fake crab – not surprising, since pollock is usually the main fish used for such applications.  It’s chewy, rubbery, but actually very mild in flavor; slightly sweet with an aftertaste reminiscent of burping after swallowing a fish oil capsule.  It won’t make you run screaming, but it certainly didn’t make me as happy as the caped Stick Man on the package.

All in all, this snacking adventure was a good, solid 2-for-4 on snacks I’d eat again.  The gummies and the anchovies were tasty, while the prunes and fish sausage left some to be desired.  Next time, I’ll try to pick up a package of the durian paste I saw, and maybe then I’ll have some extreme reactions for you.  Cheers!

Snack Time: Dulces Mexicanos

I’ve been of a mind to do a series of snack reviews here on the blog for two main reasons: I need stuff to write about, and more importantly, I love snacks – especially candy.  Of course, it wouldn’t make much sense to review common snacks like Doritos or Snickers bars since pretty much everybody with a steady body temperature knows what those taste like. So instead, I’m seeking out some less well-known snacks; and since the owner of the local gas station I frequent has decided to stock an entire section of candy straight from Mexico, that’s where we’ll begin.

El Azteca Palanqueta de Cacahuate, or as the translation so helpfully puts it: “Peanuts Patty.”  This is basically peanut brittle, although the caramelized sugar that holds the peanuts together has a richer, more toasted favor to it than most American peanut brittle which I found to be rather tasty.  It wasn’t quite as crisp as a piece of peanut brittle, though, and it could have used that little extra crunch.  I’m not the biggest fan of peanut brittle, but this wasn’t bad at all, although the large disk shape makes for awkward eating – biting it means picking up four hundred thousand sticky peanuts off your shirt, while breaking it up in the package means picking those same peanuts up off the floor as soon as you open it.

Skwinkles Clasicos – This was my favorite out of all the candy I tried.  The ones pictured above are “chamoy” flavor (a flavor derived from pickled fruit) – but in this case the flavor was the classic “red” flavor – not quite cherry, not really strawberry, just “red.”  In appearance, the Skwinkles look like sour punch straws, but on closer inspection flecks of what look like red pepper can be detected – which is exactly what’s going on here: a sour punch straw with a kick of chili heat to match the sweet/tart flavor of the candy.  These have earned a permanent spot in my candy repertoire.

Mazapan Azteca, or as I like to call it, “vaguely peanut flavored sadness.”  I’m still not quite sure what to make of this candy.  The texture is soft, crumbly, and for lack of a better word, dusty.  To put it another way, Mazapan Azteca is like eating peanut butter dirt.  I dug around on YouTube and found a commercial for this stuff – there’s a kid at the end who takes a big bite of candy and says “Mmm! Me gusta!” That kid is obviously insane.  Give this stuff out for Halloween only if you have an insurance policy that pays double if your house is firebombed by angry kids in Star Wars costumes.

Lucas Gusano Hot Liquid Candy – And here I’ve saved the strangest for last.  I’m not even sure what to say about these bottles of liquid candy.  I’m not even sure that they are candy, despite the bottle’s assurances.  I purchased two flavors of Lucas Gusano Hot Liquid Candy, chamoy (which worked out so well with the Skwinkles) and tamarind, a flavor based on a type of date.  And the taste?  Salty, slightly spicy, sweet, sour – sort of like drinking the tears of a diabetic Satan.  This tastes like the result of a bunch of drunk people running low on liquor and deciding to just mix everything they’ve got left with the remains of the ice in the cooler and call it punch – whiskey, beer, bong water, Worcestershire sauce, expired orange juice, Love’s Baby Soft perfume, and that bottle of pink Himalayan salt mom was saving to use on “something special.”  My best recommendation for the Lucas Gusano is to keep a bottle in your pocket the next time you know you’re going to be playing “Truth or Dare.”  Just be sure to use it on somebody you didn’t want to remain friends with.

Well there you have it, an overview of a few South-of-the-Border treats.  My final results are mixed: the Skwinkles were awesome and I highly recommend them.  The Peanut Patty wasn’t quite my thing, but it was still tasty and perfect for peanut brittle lovers.  Mazapan Azteca wasn’t disgusting, it was just so bland and flavorless that I don’t see the point – you could easily get the same effect by making a peanut butter sandwich with old chalkboard erasers in place of the bread.  The Lucas Gusano was nothing less than a horrid Island of Dr. Moreau perversion of a candy that should be avoided at all costs.  Stick around, though, as I’m constantly on the look out for new snacks to try – and I think my next visit is going to be to the local Asian market.  Stay tuned!