Monthly Archives: January 2013

Love Greek yogurt? You might want to try skyr.

siggi's strawberry skyr

Do you like your strawberries really sour?

The incredible popularity of Greek yogurt in the United States has resulted in the introduction of some interesting similar foods from other countries that we otherwise may never have experienced. One such food is skyr, a dairy product from Iceland that is technically a cheese but offers many of the same characteristics that have made Greek yogurt so popular.

Like Greek yogurt, skyr is a relatively dense product packed with more protein, less sugar and very low milkfat content compared to traditional yogurt, but the degree of these differences really depends on which skyr you buy.

I’ve only tried — and seen, for that matter — two brands of skyr: siggi’s and skyr.is. The former has quite a following in the northeast especially in the Tri-State metropolitan area, being a New York-based artisan company with distribution that has expanded to the point of taking up space on shelves in Target’s grocery section! That’s actually where I first saw siggi’s products.

On the other hand, skyr.is is a relatively new product in the United States market with a more limited distribution to certain regions of the country through the Whole Foods chain. Unlike siggi’s offering, which is made in “upstate” Chenango County based on traditional family recipes from founder Siggi Hilmarsson, who set up shop in the region so he could source his product with milk from local family farms that feed their cows grass and don’t pump them full of growth hormones, skyr.is sells authentic Icelandic skyr actually produced in Iceland and imported to the U.S.

Skyr.is is by far the more accessible of the two brands with a consistency and tartness similar to Chobani. It really is quite delicious, but it’s a tad on the expensive side relative to the Greek yogurt brands and even siggi’s whose fans are now starting to benefit from the brand’s growing popularity: I have to pay almost $3 for a single cup of skyr.is at Whole Foods compared to the $2.20 I pay for siggi’s (which is even cheaper at Target at about $1.90 per cup).

Siggi’s is definitely more of an acquired taste with a biting tang that will probably take a lot of people by surprise. Siggi himself said that the reason he decided to make skyr was because the traditional yogurt in America was too sweet for his tastes, and his recipe uses absolutely no artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose with only organic agave nectar, a low glycemic index natural sweetner great for us diabetics, to contribute sweetness (siggi’s has only a little more than half the carbs of skyr.is and less than half the sugar content).

The challenge is that the tartness of siggi’s is overwhelming such that it can be difficult to taste any other aspect of the skyr’s flavor. The strawberry variety tastes like really, really, really sour strawberries… at least I thought it did until I tried acai & mixed berry and then peach and realized that they kind of all taste the same to me because the flavors of the fruits are lost in the tang.

Nevertheless, the more I eat of siggi’s the more I like it despite my initial reactions. It’s not my favorite of the Greek yogurt “class” of foods, but I’m starting to grow accustomed to the whole other level of sour it offers so I’ll have a cup every so often to mix things up a bit… and it certainly helps that it’s probably one of the healthiest options in the category with the highest quality ingredients.

The only flavor I’ve tried that I haven’t been able to take is the orange & ginger which is just harsh: much respect to anyone who can finish one of those because I had to give up halfway through.

Vietnamese rice noodle soup at Kam Man supermarket

Vietnamese rice noodle soup with eye round beef

Hot and spicy… perfect on a cold winter day!

Despite being Chinese I’m not particularly fond of Chinese food for the most part so I’m rarely thrilled when we shop at Kam Man (“Golden Gate”), a branch of the Chinese supermarket chain located in East Hanover, New Jersey.

That said, there’s a great little food counter at the north end of the store (the section near the Home Depot in the same East Hanover Center plaza) called Miss Saigon Express that serves a number of Vietnamese dishes including rice noodle soups.

My favorite variety is their Rice Noodle Soup with Eye Round, a delicious mix of Vietnamese rice noodles, thinly sliced eye round beef, plenty of cilantro, chopped scallions, and sliced onions in a meaty broth. I ask for mine spicy, which I suspect means they just toss in some sriracha or chili garlic sauce since the soup comes out a bold red color instead of its normal light brown.

The soup actually isn’t terribly spicy, but it’s got enough kick that when served hot on a cold winter day (like we’ve been having on the East Coast lately) all your problems just melt away in a crimson flood of savory, noodley heaven.

Panera’s Fuji Apple Chicken Salad

Panera Bread's Fuji Apple Chicken Salad

Fuji Apple Chicken Salad: chicken, romaine, field greens, tomatoes, red onions, pecans, Gorgonzola, and Fuji apple chips

My co-worker and I go to the Panera Bread on 5th Avenue in Manhattan near Bryant Park almost every day for lunch. It’s gotten so that a few of the cashiers there know my typical lunch order by heart (You Pick 2: Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad and Sonoma Chicken Stew), and my co-worker was shocked when someone stole the Foursquare mayorship from me.

He’s also fairly consistent in what he orders for lunch there — he swears by the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad (with a different soup each time) so I decided to try it out for dinner at the Panera location near my house to taste for myself what he raves about.

My verdict after having tried this particular salad is that while it tastes pretty great, it’s personally not one that I could eat on a more frequent basis.

There isn’t any sort of “hint” of apple flavor in this salad — we’re talking full blown, in your face apple flavor from not just the mountain of dried Fuji apple chips sitting atop the chicken breast, romaine lettuce, field greens, tomatoes, red onions, pecans, and Gorgonzola crumbles but also the balsamic Fuji apple vinaigrette they douse all those ingredients in. Make no mistake about it: this is one sweet salad!

That’s not to say that it’s not a delicious salad — it’s really more about my love-hate relationship with apples (I have a relatively mild allergic reaction to many varieties of apples with Fujis being one of the few exceptions) and my overall aversion to sweeter salads (I’m more of a savory salad type of guy) that makes this particular entree a little bit of a challenge.

However, seeing as how most of the the ingredients blend together pretty well — the mild sweetness of the apple chips works quite nicely with the nutty flavor of the pecans and the sharp accent of the red onions to complement the savory goodness of the chicken and Gorgonzola — I think this could work for me if I requested that they reduce the amount of dressing… or even eliminate the vinaigrette altogether.

Despite my own taste preferences I have no qualms about recommending this to other Panera patrons, especially those with a love for Fuji apples, as it really is a flavorful salad with some great ingredients.

Strawberry Greek yogurt throwdown

Several brands of Greek yogurt with strawberries

The delicious competitors: Chobani, Voskos, Yoplait, Fage Total 2%, Fage Total 0%, Liberté

So I was at my local ShopRite the other day walking down the dairy aisle when I thought it might be fun to run through a few different strawberry Greek yogurts in a sort of taste test. I went with Chobani, Voskos, Yoplait, Liberté, and both the 0% and 2% varieties of Fage (which I recently learned was pronounced fa-yeh… I was way off on that one LOL). The only brands available at the store that I didn’t pick up were Oikos and ShopRite’s own store brand. No particular reason for this… I guess I just didn’t feel like having more than six cups of yogurt in a day.

Of the six yogurts I tried, I only found one to be unappealing enough to never eat again. On the other hand, I was also pleasantly surprised by the broadly appealing flavor of another. It was a lot of yogurt to eat in one day, though… ended up skipping out yesterday to hopefully rebalance myself.

Voskos

Voskos offers one of the only blended Greek yogurts on the market. I’m not a huge fan of blended yogurts myself — my typical plan of attack with most yogurts is to stir up the fruit from the bottom only a few times so I can experience that heavenly contrast of sweet fruit on a tangy yogurt backdrop in every bite.

That said, I didn’t hate Voskos’ Wild Strawberry. The sourness of the base yogurt was pretty strong, and unlike with the typical fruit-on-the-bottom varieties there wasn’t a whole lot of sweetness to the strawberry component to offset that tang. However, the overall resulting flavor wasn’t bad at all, and in fact would probably be quite compatible with palates more tuned towards the tart end of the yogurt spectrum.

I wouldn’t mind some Voskos now and again.

Yoplait

I would, however, mind eating another serving of Yoplait’s Greek yogurt. I couldn’t find anything I liked about it whether it was the peculiar kind-of-yet-not-really sweet note that overlaid the plain yogurt itself or the intensely artificial flavor and sticky thickness of the strawberry syrup that reminded me of some sort of candy that I vaguely remember not enjoying as a kid.

I thought that blending the two more than I normally would with other brands might help the situation, but somehow it made the yogurt taste even worse. It was all I could do to finish the cup before downing a tall glass of water to wash the bad memories away.

Fage Total 0%

After that previous experience it was nice to come back to something I was a bit more familiar with. Fage Total 0% Strawberry was one of the first Greek yogurts I had ever tried so I pretty much knew going in what to expect.

The yogurt is quite smooth with a pretty creamy texture and has a fairly acidic tang — the best way I can think of to describe it is to say that the sourness tips its toe gently on the salty side of the taste boundaries and teases a visit to bitter territory without ever quite making it over.

The strawberry topping resides in a smaller compartment off to the side which can be “flipped” over to theoretically dump its contents into the yogurt — practically, however, it just makes it a little easier to try to spoon the stuff out. I believe Fage was the first of the Greek yogurt brands to offer this sort of packaging, and it must have taken off because Chobani offers a line of products that utilize a similar concept.

There are some small pieces of strawberry in there, but the mix-in is primarily made up of a thick syrup of sorts that’s reminiscent of jelly or compote. While Yoplait’s seems more like the low rent stuff you might get out of a plastic squeeze bottle, this is better enough quality that you could imagine it at least comes in a glass jar and sits pretty in the peanut butter and jelly aisle rather than the ice cream toppings shelf in the frozen foods section.

When the two components are combined, the tartness of the yogurt and the sweetness of the strawberry topping do a decent job of masking what I consider to be the less appealing aspects of each flavor resulting in a taste experience that isn’t half bad. I couldn’t eat the yogurt plain — although I do have acquaintances that swear by the stuff — but with the strawberry mixed in I could certainly enjoy this as an occasional diversion.

Fage Total 2%

I decided to have Fage’s 0% and 2% yogurts at the same time so I could more accurately compare them. I couldn’t actually detect any difference between the two as far as the tastes of the yogurt or the strawberry topping were concerned. The 2% yogurt was, however, slightly creamier and richer resulting in what I suppose is a somewhat improved yogurt eating experience. Nonetheless, the variations were not significant enough that I would go out of my way to try to get one variety over the other, and I guess that this would make it easier for those concerned about fat intake to go with the 0% option since there isn’t much of a sacrifice there.

Liberté

I think Liberté is a relatively new brand of Greek yogurt at least in the mainstream retail market. I see potential for some serious growth — I think their product is more accessible to consumers who might otherwise be turned off by a high level of tartness since their base yogurt has a significantly milder tang than most Greek yogurts. I also like that the strawberry inclusion doesn’t have that artificial looking bright red color but rather a duller, more subdued hue that implies a more natural and “real” substance. The two flavor aspects work together very well to produce a mildly sweet taste experience that could be mistaken as a dessert rather than a healthy breakfast: indeed, the resulting flavor and consistency is not too far off from a soft strawberry cheesecake.

Chobani

As tasty as Liberté was, Chobani still reigns at number one atop my list of favorite Greek yogurts. It has enough tartness that it still tastes like a yogurt without being so sharp as to become overpowering. Similarly the strawberry filling is sweet enough to make a delicious complement to the yogurt’s tang and notably not artificially sweet to the point of introducing a saccharine veil over the inherent yogurt flavor: no wagon red tinge in this product! Finally, the texture provides a more natural and “raw” mouthfeel complete with clumps and inconsistencies as opposed to the often overly smooth texture of some other yogurts.

These different qualities add up to what I personally think is the overall best yogurt eating experience offered on the market today. Sometimes the most popular thing isn’t the best, but in this case I think of all the Greek yogurt brands Chobani is most deserving of the public’s adulation.

Panera’s Chopped Steak and Bleu Cheese Salad

Panera's Steak & Bleu Cheese Chopped Salad

Sirloin, Gorgonzola, tomatoes & French fried onions… all the ingredients for a tasty meal

I love beef.

Whether it’s a juicy hamburger hot off the grill on the Fourth of July, a perfectly broiled ribeye steak still sizzling on the plate or a plump meatball on top of spaghetti all covered with cheese, beef has always been a central part of my diet.

Sure, I’ve had to cut back on red meat in the past few months, but I still vastly prefer the taste of good ol’ 100% all-American, USDA grade A beef to a piece of poultry.

That’s why it was a bit of a surprise to me that I wasn’t thrilled with Panera’s Chopped Steak and Bleu Cheese Salad, which I tried for the first time last night for dinner. It’s one of their Premium Signature menu items so I went in expecting something that would blow me away as much as the Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad or the Steak & White Cheddar Panini did.

Don’t get me wrong. The salad tastes good and is packed with tender slices of beef that have been cooked just enough — nice and pink in the middle like any good piece of roasted beef should be — so it’s certainly not the quality of the ingredients.

There’s just something about this particular combination of tastes that just didn’t dazzle me. Or maybe it’s just beef steak in salad in general… honestly, it’s not something I’m used to so that may have been a factor. Or perhaps it’s just that the Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad is so damn perfect that this one simply couldn’t compare and was running a losing race from the get-go.

Whatever the reason it’s just not something that I would choose ahead of my fave 9 times out of 10. I certainly wouldn’t have any qualms about recommending it to anyone who loves beef like I do… just don’t try the Cobb salad first.

Steel cut oats have been an important part of a healthier diet

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with oatmeal for my whole life. It was big for me as a child since my mother would always cook up a bowl whenever I came down with something.

My friends and co-workers would get grossed out when I told them my penchant for using salt instead of sweeteners like sugar, cinnamon, honey or fruits. I think my preferences stem from oatmeal’s similarity to congee, a cultural staple that is always served salty or savory with ingredients like pork, chicken and/or dried scallops.

In short, I was never able to get into sweetened varieties of oatmeal when I was younger, but I’m finding the idea of mixing in fruits and other sweet ingredients more palatable nowadays with my new love of steel cut oatmeal.

Steel cut oats are the whole grain inner portion of the oat kernel which are minimally processed and thus require more cooking time than the more popular rolled oats that Quaker sells in tremendous quantities throughout the U.S.

Despite this additional processing, steel cut oats are surprisingly not much healthier or diabetes-friendly than other varieties of oatmeal. The logical assumption is that the additional step of processing that turns cut oats into thin sheets of flattened grains would eradicate some of the nutrients, but in reality the two varieties are almost identical in nutritional content.

Further, while the glycemic index of steel cut oats is indeed lower than that of rolled oats both types fall into the “low glycemic impact” range and thus are very good sources of complex carbohydrates for diabetics and others who are watching their sugar intake.

What it really boils down to is taste and texture. Steel cut oats have a nuttier, bolder flavor as well as a chewier consistency which in my opinion provides a better mouthfeel than the mushier, more “porridge-like” texture of rolled oats.

Panera Bread's steel cut oats with strawberries, cinnamon & pecans on the side

Panera’s steel cut oats are great as long as I keep the strawberries, cinnamon & pecans on the side

I personally like Panera Bread’s steel cut oatmeal offering which currently comes in just one variety — strawberries with cinnamon and pecans — although they have seasonal options during the year as well. I of course make sure to get all of the toppings on the side so I can control the amount of additional carbs I consume.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jamba Juice’s steel cut oatmeal which has an unappetizingly soggy consistency and an inordinate amount of cinnamon sugar blended in. The end result is a dark brown, somewhat slimy, overly sweet quagmire of glucose overload. I love Jamba Juice’s all fruit smoothies, but I highly recommend avoiding the oatmeal there.

For a do-it-yourself option, I highly recommend Quaker’s steel cut oats which when prepared exactly as instructed on the packaging produces a delicious equivalent to Panera’s nutty, chewy oatmeal. I recently purchased a can of Trader Joe’s steel cut oats, but I have yet to try them: I’ll post a thought or two when I have a chance to cook ’em up.

Crazy about Greek yogurt

My refrigerator full of Greek yogurt

“I love Greek yogurt” is an understatement

I discovered Greek yogurt about a year ago not too long after its popularity in the U.S. market exploded. I had always been partial to yogurt as a pretty healthy breakfast or mid-afternoon snack, but truly this style of yogurt blows its more traditional cousin right out of the water.

There’s a good reason why Greek yogurt is all the craze right now: the Mediterranean originated process of straining the yogurt in order to remove the whey results in a yogurt that is thicker, richer and creamier in texture with a lot less sugar (roughly half the content) and significantly more protein (up to double the amount) for about the same number of calories.

It’s no wonder that Greek yogurt is selling like hotcakes with the most popular brand, Chobani, sitting pretty in the number one spot among all yogurts. Chobani’s fruit-on-the-bottom strawberry yogurt was the first variety I ever tried, and to this day it remains my favorite flavor from my favorite brand because the sourness of the yogurt is not overpowering like it is with some other brands and the fruit has more substance with actual chunks of strawberries instead of just a sugary sweet syrup.

The skyrocketing popularity of Greek yogurt has led to many companies jumping into the market which has been great for my wallet. Brands like Chobani, Oikos and Fage are frequently on sale at my local ShopRite — I can’t remember the last time I paid more than $1.25 for a 6 oz. cup of Chobani — and I can buy bulk pack of 12 cups of Chobani or Fage at Costco.

Rather than being a food fad that will pass in another year or two, I think Greek yogurt is just the evolution of the yogurt culture in this country. The affordability, availability and greater health benefits means it can be a key staple in a healthy diet, and the delicious taste makes it a good snack or dessert choice even for people who don’t need to count their calories or watch their sugar intake.