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Friday, April 27, 2012

A Visit to Assi

On Tuesday, the Bucks County Chapter of the USPCA took a field trip to Assi, an international (mostly Asian) supermarket in North Wales.  Yes, I know it sounds a little goofy for us to visit a grocery store, but believe me, it was an interesting place and we had a lot of fun.  That's what us food people do.

Assi is full of produce and ingredients that you just can't find anywhere else in our area.  There were plenty of ingredients that were a little bit familiar from cooking Asian foods--things like fish sauce, oyster sauce, various noodles (there was a whole aisle of noodles), etc.  But there were also plenty of things that were way out of our realm of familiarity.

No, not worms--fresh turmeric.
For many of the packaged items, we had to read the ingredient list to have some idea of what the product was.  Things like dried anchovy fillet with sesame seeds, boiled silkworms, dried white fungus, basil seed drinks with honey (they looked like lava lamps), and much more.  Sometimes the ingredient list didn't help much.  For example, there was "Dried Vegetable" in a bag.  It looked like steel wool, so I checked the ingredients to find out what was in it.  It said, "INGREDIENTS: Dried Vegetable".  That was helpful.

The meat section was a little more familiar.  Despite a number of pork innards, black chicken, chicken and duck feet and the like, the meats were mostly what you would find in your supermarket.  Most of it looked really wonderful--dark red and marbled beef, fresh looking poultry, pork, etc. 

A big pile of Jackfruit.
The seafood section, however, was not typical for an American grocer.  Familiar fish like cod, striped bass and flounder (including live ones) were offered.  But so were things like sea squirt, cuttlefish, large squid and more exotic fish.  Many creatures were either frozen or dried (or both) as well as fresh.  Most of the fish was sold whole, although they did have fillets of some.

The frozen section had all sorts of things from frozen bonbon-type sherbet coated in sweet rice dough to octopus, meat-filled buns to big bags of "mixed frozen seafood". 

Probably the neatest part of the store for me was the produce.  In addition to the usual stuff, there's just a load of unusual and exotic things.  Fresh turmeric, banana flowers, bitter melon, fuzzy squash, huge jackfruit, alien-like dragonfruit, yard-long daikon radishes, all sorts of tubers, fresh sugar cane, unusual greens, fresh and dried mushrooms, etc etc. 

Spicy Seafood Soup.
Oh, to top it off, they have a small food court that has really great food.  We shared a Spicy Seafood Soup, Spicy Kimchi Noodle Bowl and Korean BBQ Beef.  All of them were really tasty and made to order.  I just need to work on my chop stick use.  I tried to hide my plastic fork from the Asian folks sitting near us. 

It's definitely worth the trip just to see some of these interesting foods.  But if you're in need of Asian ingredients--even more common things like soy sauce, fish sauce, curry paste--the prices are great.  It's sort of like an Asian Costco for many products.  And if you need something more unusual, I'll bet that they have it in stock.

OK, maybe you don't need to spend 3 1/2 hours there like we did, but you'll be sorry if you don't stop in just to look around for a while sometime.  And to get some lunch.

Assi is located at 1222 Welsh Rd. in North Wales.  To see more pictures, go to the Dinner's Done Facebook page.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Where's the Beef?

Are you a beef eater?  Even if you are, if you're like many Americans, you are eating less beef than you did previously.

Maybe you're trying to eat healthier by cutting back on red meats--and eating chicken, bison or going vegtarian.  It could be that you're simply trying to cut back on the amount that you pay for food.

Prices of beef have been rising for a number of reasons.  The price of raising the livestock--fuel, shipping, etc--has been rising, just as it has for all of us.  I've written previously how the drought in Texas and other cattle-raising areas has created terrible conditions for the grazing cattle.  And that, in turn, has caused prices to go up.

You can get statistics about the decline in beef consumption and more information about what beef producers are doing to survive this downturn in this article from Reuters.

Of cousre, if you're going to spend good money for beef, why not make it local (from such places as Haring Brothers or Tussock Sedge Farm)?  It's healthier, tastier and helps out the local economy (sorry, Texas). 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hungry Kids

I've written about this topic before (see my Bucks County Taste article from last year by clicking here).  But after seeing the Food Network's special "Hunger Hits Home" the other night, I had to comment again.

First, if you have not seen the show, you should.  Click here to view the program and to see how you can help out. 

Any American going hungry is a travesty, but hungry kids are simply something this country needs to be ashamed of.  There are about 16 million kids in this country who don't know where their next meal will come from.  That's a big number--so big that it's hard to picture how many it really is.  Well, it's about the total population of Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago combined.  16 million kids hungry in the US in 2012?  How can that be?

It's not just a rural or urban problem.  It's not just an unemployed problem or a homeless problem.  It's a problem that runs rampant throughout all our communities.  Meanwhile, kids who do not get the proper nutrition are affected physically, cognitively, behaviorally and emotionally.  The TV program shows many successful school breakfast and lunch programs that create students who can concentrate better during the school day because they had a good meal to start the day.

There are those who think that families like this need to get jobs or stop "playing the system" by living off of food stamps and the like.  Many families who use local food pantries are employed--but simply can't afford all the necessities of life.  And according to the Food Network program, food stamps cover about $1 per person per meal per day.  So a family of four "living" off of food stamps gets about $4 per meal.  Some meal, huh?

Fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce for many hungry families, especially in urban areas.  So they spend what little they have on food that is cheap and accessible: items often with little or no nutritional value.  Just the cheapest way to fill bellies.  Ramen noodles are a constant theme of the families profiled in "Hunger Hits Home".  Families literally eat them every day--sometimes for more than one meal. 

Luckily, there are those who are trying to help.  The program profiles a CSA that brings fresh produce to those who can't get it and sells it to them cheap--allowing parents to provide much-needed nutrition to their kids.  Food pantries all over the country are there to help families keep food on their shelves.  (The Texas food pantry featured in the program is especially inspiring.)  Even big corporations are helping by donating food to pantries.  Some give money when you buy certain products.  (Some of the commercials run during the show promoted these kinds of programs.  Unfortunately, many of the food you have to buy to have the donation given are processed junk.)

Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) hit the nail on the head when he said in the program that hunger in the US is not an economic problem.  It is a political problem.  We have billions going toward wars and political campaigns.  A fraction of that money could literally solve the problem. 

What can we do?  Donate to food pantries, school meal programs (which are doing amazing work in many states) and other organizations fighting hunger in the US.  Be aware of the problem--learn more about it by going to sites such as Share Our Strength, Feeding America, Pennsylvania Association of Regional Food Banks and the sites of your local food pantry.  And let your Congressmen know that you want more funding for the valuable government programs that help to take away the fear that so many kids have--that they will go to bed hungry. 

This problem has to be solved.  And it can be if we all work together to make it happen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Shelf Life

I think that there are different kinds of people when it comes to worrying about if food is bad or not. 

There are those who throw away food as soon as it reaches the dates that's printed on it--maybe even before.  They're constantly thinking that food smells funny or looks a little different.  I once knew someone who threw away jelly beans for fear that they would go bad after a period of time--even though they have a half-life similar to uranium.

Then there are those who push the envelope a little bit and keep things as long as they can.  This can be smart in some cases--stupid in others. 

Ideally, though, being somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is probably best. 

There are 3 dates that are typically used on food: SELL BY, BEST BY (or BEST IF USED BY) and USE BY.  Interestingly, the use of these dates is not federally required on any food except infant formula and baby food.  And stores are not legally required to remove the food once the date has passed.  It's up to you to decide whether or not to buy it.

SELL BY dates are the closest to an "expiration" date that we have.  Foods like meat, seafood, poultry, dairy--anything perishable--will carry these dates.  If a date has passed, don't buy the product.  But you can store the item at home past the date--as long as you use safe storage procedures.  Keep these items at the bottom of the fridge (that's where it's the coldest) or freeze it if not using it in a few days. 

BEST BY means that the food producer thinks that the flavor or quality can be compromised after this date, but doesn't mean that it's not safe to eat.  These are mostly found on foods that are shelf-stable (things like mayo, peanut butter, other condiments, etc). 

USE BY are basically the last day that the producer will stand by the product's quality.  Food can be safe and edible after this date. 

Most experts say (and I agree with them) that these dates are quite conservative and that you should use your senses to determine whether or not to toss some food or not.  Your milk's date is yesterday, but it still smells fine--drink it!  No sense wasting food that's still safe and tastes fine.  Have a steak that looks and smells a little funny, but isn't dated for another couple days?  Use your discretion--if you're in doubt, throw it out.  (You might even want to tell the store where you bought it.  If it's bad that early, it probably was handled improperly.  Maybe you can get a refund.)

For more information, check out this article that gives some basics for some common food items.  Also, bookmark http://www.stilltasty.com/, a great resource for guidance about how long to keep food.