Mmmmm…Liquid Hummus

Curried Lentil Soup … Okay, let’s just call it what it is: Liquid Hummus

Prior to last week’s heat wave in which the Bay Area was subjected to a confusing bout of popsicle and tank top weather, the falling temperatures typically expected after the autumnal equinox were actually getting me in the mood for some hearty soups and stews.

I was looking for something simple and healthy, and Bill and I agreed that a lentil soup was in order. My Internet search for “the best lentil soup ever” quickly directed me to a curried lentil soup thickened with a chickpea puree. Many reviewers lavished praise on this recipe, declaring it “the best lentil soup I have ever tasted” and “magnificent.” With such ringing endorsements, my search was over.

I was especially intrigued by the idea of thickening a soup with a chickpea puree. Bill came into the kitchen while the lentils were simmering and noticed the chickpea puree sitting on the counter next to the stove. When I explained that I was going to add the chickpea puree to thicken the soup, he said, “Oh, so you’re making liquid hummus.” I couldn’t argue with his highly apt soup classification.

Although most legume-based soups are unattractive, this soup was particularly hideous. For that reason, I will attempt to shield you from a full-on view. Here, the soup is artfully obscured behind a decorative bow:

Here, Bill offers a serving suggestion to hide the soup under crushed stale tortilla chips:

This was Bill’s bowl before he went back for more:

Curried Lentil Soup
(modified slightly from bon appetit)

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped, divided
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) curry powder
  • 1 cup French green lentils (I used non-French green lentils.)
  • 4 1/4 cups (or more) water, divided
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained, rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges

Directions

  1. Saute the onion and carrot in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When the onion is translucent, add half of the chopped garlic and cook for another minute or two. Add 2 tablespoons of curry powder to the vegetables, stirring until fragrant, about a minute.
  2. Add the lentils and 4 cups of water. Increase heat to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. (Note: I had to add another 2-3 cups of water while it was cooking to keep everything submerged.)
  3. While the lentils are cooking, puree the chickpeas, lemon juice, 1/4 cup water, remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and the remaining garlic in a food processor.
  4. Stir the chickpea puree into the lentil soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add additional curry powder if desired.
  5. You can adjust the consistency of the soup by adding water 1/4 cup at a time.
  6. Optional serving suggestion: Sprinkle thinly sliced green onions on top and serve with lemon wedges.
  7. Non-optional serving suggestion: Serve in a very dimly lit room.

Edibility Evaluation

This soup was relatively easy to make and turned out quite edible. Bill and I both happily ate our soup and went back for more. That being said, neither of us found it to be the best lentil soup we had ever tasted. Bill gave the soup an edibility score of 3.0, and I gave it a 3.5. We liked the thickness imparted by the chickpea puree, but the chickpea flavor came through slightly, reminding us that we were eating liquid hummus. I thought the flavor improved after a couple of days in the refrigerator. Unfortunately, its appearance remained the same.

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How to Bump up the Clump in Your Homemade Granola

A Granola Makeover Story

I have a confession to make. Although I am proud of the fact that I make my own granola, I am embarrassed to share it with others. “Why?” you might ask. Well, let’s just say that my granola lacks a certain “clump factor” that anyone who has purchased granola from the store has come to expect. I had long since resigned to eating from my secret stash of runny granola when my friend Lucy reminded me about a conversation we’d had about different strategies for making clumpy granola. The challenge piqued my interest, and I decided that it was time to tackle this problem once and for all.

I will now swallow my pride to reveal the “before” picture of my non-clumpy granola:

The Experiment

The challenge of getting granola to clump has been discussed on various online forums, and contributors have proposed a variety of solutions. I decided to test a few of the more popular methods. However, there are certain obvious ways to make granola clump, such as drenching it in absurd amounts of liquid sugar, that don’t jibe with my goal of healthy baking. Therefore, I had to set a few ground rules. First, I decided to keep the same basic recipe that I had been using, which calls for modest amounts of sugar and oil. Second, I wanted to find the simplest, least fussy solution – something that would be easy to do so that I wouldn’t be tempted to revert to my old recipe out of laziness.

Here are the methods I decided to test and their theoretical underpinnings:

Egg white method: Egg whites, which consist primarily of water and protein (mostly albumin), are used to coat the granola prior to baking. As the granola bakes, the egg whites denature and form an interconnected solid network. Oats that are in close proximity on the baking tray will be joined within this network of denatured protein, creating a cluster.

Oat bran method: Substituting ground oats (or oat bran) for some of the rolled oats is a technique that some people swear by for clumping their granola. Presumably, the ground oats soak up the sweetener and form somewhat of a glue that bridges adjacent oats.

The Recipes

Jamie’s Non-Clumpy Granola
(adapted from a recipe posted by The Kitchn)

Ingredients

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
  • ¼ cup sliced or slivered almonds
  • ¼ cup chia seeds
  • ½ cup raw sunflower seeds
  • ½ cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
  • 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300F and place rack in the center of the oven. Line a half sheet pan (18″ x 13″) or two smaller baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients (rolled oats, almonds, seeds, and shredded coconut).
  3. In a small sauce pan, stir together the oil and honey and heat gently. Take off heat and stir in vanilla. Pour this mixture over the dry ingredients and toss together, making sure all the dry ingredients are coated with the liquid.
  4. Spread the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet(s) in a thin layer and bake for about 30-45 minutes or until golden brown, stirring about every 15 minutes so that the mixture browns evenly.
  5. After removing the pan from the oven, place it on a wire rack (or the stove top) to cool. You will notice that the granola may still be sticky when it is removed from the oven, but it will become crisp and dry as it cools.
  6. Once the granola has completely cooled, store it in an airtight container or plastic bag. It will keep for several weeks. Store in the refrigerator or freezer for longer.

Variation 1: Egg white method

After coating the oats and seeds with the oil/honey/vanilla mixture, stir in two egg whites. (I didn’t beat or whip them before stirring into the granola, although some recipes suggest to do this.) Bake the granola as instructed in the original recipe, being careful not to overstir. (Update: Actually, not stirring at all produces the clumpiest granola.)

Variation 2: Oat bran method

Substitute oat bran for one-third of the rolled oats (i.e., 1 cup of oat bran + 2 cups of rolled oats) and combine with the dry ingredients. Prepare the recipe as instructed.

Results

The original recipe produces a crunchy, albeit non-clumpy granola. I typically sprinkle it over my oatmeal or muesli, so the lack of clusters is not a huge problem. However, I do have the problem that the smaller components (like the chia seeds) settle to the bottom of the container. You can see how the black chia seeds settle to the bottom of the mixture in this picture taken of the bottom of the bowl.

The egg white method was the clear winner of this competition. It produced nice granola clusters that bound up the smaller components, preventing the chia seeds from settling to the bottom of the bowl.

The oat bran method failed to clump the granola, presumably because my recipe lacks the amount of sugar necessary to generate an oat bran “glue.” You can see the oat bran dust and chia seeds that have settled to the bottom of the bowl.

In summary, the egg white method produced the desired clumpy granola.

When I showed Bill the different containers of granola I had made, his mouth was full of another type of cereal. He pointed at the clumpy one, nodding enthusiastically to indicate his approval. He then turned to the one made with oat bran, frowned, and shook his head disapprovingly. I tend to agree with his assessment.

And now, I triumphantly present the “after” picture of my granola makeover:

And it’s not a makeover story if there’s no “before and after” picture:

Although the egg white method worked reasonably well, there are some future refinements I might consider. First, I noticed that stirring the granola during baking broke up some of the clumps. However, stirring is necessary to ensure even cooking; otherwise, the outer edges will burn and the inside portions will not brown. One suggestion is to add the egg white to the granola halfway through the baking process and then discontinue stirring. Another suggestion is to add the egg white before baking and arrange the granola around the edges of the baking sheet, leaving the center of the sheet empty, as described here. Finally, I wonder if the same effect could be achieved using a “flax egg,” which is often used as a binder in vegan baking.

(Update: I made this again using the egg white method, and I found that it is actually possible to bake the granola without stirring it at all. Just watch it toward the end to prevent burning. The egg white/no stirring method is extremely effective in producing large sheets of granola.)

And finally, some granola tips:

  • Don’t leave the granola out to cool overnight! It will lose its crunchiness. Instead, just leave it out long enough to cool (about an hour or two), then seal it in a container or bag.
  • Please, please, please don’t bake dried fruit with your granola! This produces rock-hard, tooth-breaking, inedible pellets of burnt fruit. Just mix it in after the granola has baked and cooled. Thank you.

Farmers’ Market Finds

As summer gives way to autumn, the produce from these adjacent seasons is starting to intermingle. The strawberries, peaches, and watermelon remain, but now there are also apples, grapes, and figs at the farmers’ market.

I was less ambitious with the “surprise” ingredient this time, as I’m still recovering from the fennel follies. Here’s what I got:

The low-hanging fruit (i.e., stuff that we can eat with minimal preparation)

  • Summer squash and onion – Make not-so-artful arrangements, then grill them as usual.

  • Apples and Plums – I picked out an assortment of apples (mostly Fuji and Gala). The yellow ones are plums. I regret not getting more apples, as they are disappearing quickly.

  • Grapes and Corn – Eat them.

The experimental subject (i.e., stuff that will inspire new recipes)

  • Portabella mushrooms – Okay, you caught me! These were not from the farmers’ market. Also, they’re not a particularly challenging “surprise” ingredient, but there was a recipe I wanted to try with them. Stay tuned.

Fennel Follies

Roasted Fennel Tomato Sauce … and how NOT to chop fennel

You may recall from our trip to the farmers’ market that Bill and I picked out fennel as our “mystery ingredient.” My challenge was try to cook something with this new-to-me vegetable.

Prior to preparing this recipe, I had definitely heard of fennel and was vaguely aware of its various uses in gourmet cooking as a result of watching highly educational cooking shows such as Chopped and The Next Iron Chef. However, I had certainly never cooked with fennel before. In preparing this post, I gained some knowledge that probably would have been useful before attempting to chop the fennel. But more about that later. Let’s begin with some fun fennel facts I culled from the Internet.

  • Fennel is a plant species recognized by its yellow flowers and feathery leaves, or fronds.
  • Florence fennel is a variety of fennel with a swollen, bulbous stem base that is treated as a vegetable and can be eaten raw or cooked. (See the fennel anatomy diagram below.)
  • In addition to its bulb, several parts of the fennel plant are used in cooking, including the fronds (used as an edible garnish or herb), the seeds (used as a spice), and even the pollen (sometimes used in fine cuisine to impart a very potent flavor).
  • The fennel plant contains anethole, which is a volatile compound largely responsible for the characteristic sweet, licorice-like flavor of fennel and anise, a related plant. This flavor is particularly strong in raw fennel, but it mellows when the fennel is cooked.
  • As it is native to Europe and the Mediterranean, fennel is common in Mediterranean/Italian cuisine. Even if you’re not aware of having eaten fennel, you may recognize it in Italian sausage, which is flavored with fennel seeds. Fennel seeds are also used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.
  • Fennel is in season during the autumn through early spring. In salads, it is often paired with seasonal fruits like apples and oranges.
  • Fennel comes from the same family as the highly poisonous plant hemlock. Although they look similar, the way to tell them apart is that fennel smells strongly of licorice and is edible, whereas hemlock smells nasty and kills you.

I had wanted to use the fennel for multiple recipes to showcase its versatility. But then I became busy writing a grant, and the fennel languished in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for over a week. Finally, I settled on a recipe involving roasted fennel because it seemed easy, and it called for two fennel bulbs, which was exactly what I had. So, what, you ask, made my first experience with fennel such an adventure? The troubles began when the recipe instructed me to “chop and core the fennel.” Unfortunately, I found my Food Network culinary education grossly inadequate in preparing me to chop fennel. Here is how NOT to chop a fennel bulb:

As you can see, I chopped the bulb into slices only to find an amusing assortment of shapes in varying shades from white to green. Perplexed, I began searching in earnest for the part of the bulb that was the “fennel” to put in the roasting pan. As the recipe directed me to core and chop the fennel, I deduced that the solid white circles were the “core,” so I discarded them. I figured that the the light green concentric rings with a ribbed texture similar to celery had a good chance of being the “fennel” due to their sheer abundance, so I laboriously chopped each strip into half-inch squares. I also came across hairy green things that looked more like fronds, but they were inside the bulb, so I threw them into the pan for good measure – just in case they were the actual “fennel.” Here is my chopped fennel(?) in the baking dish:

Due to my insufficient preparation, I was skeptical that the recipe would be any good. If you plan to make this recipe, I would highly recommend watching this YouTube video before attempting to chop, slice, or dice fennel. He makes it look so easy! Interestingly, although fennel is related to celery, you treat the bulb more like an onion for chopping and slicing.

Roasted Fennel Tomato Sauce
(adapted from seriouseats.com)

Ingredients

  • 2 fennel bulbs, cored and sliced (I would strongly recommend watching this YouTube video if you haven’t chopped fennel before.)
  • 2 large onions, peeled and sliced
  • 8 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 1/4-1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional but recommended)
  • 2 tablespoons whole fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan (optional)
  • 1 pound pasta

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Roast the fennel, onion, garlic, oil, chili flakes, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper in a baking dish for 15 minutes. Stir once or twice during roasting.
  2. Add the whole tomatoes (including their juice) to the roasted fennel/onion/garlic mixture and stir them in, breaking them apart with a spoon. Return the mixture to the oven, and roast for an additional 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fennel has softened and is starting to brown. (Note: The original recipe said to roast for only 5-10 additional minutes with the tomatoes, but my fennel took longer than that to soften.)
  3. While the sauce finishes in the oven, cook the pasta in a large pot until al dente and drain. Reserve some cooking water
  4. Pour the sauce onto the pasta and stir to coat the pasta with sauce.
  5. Serve with shredded Parmesan cheese.

Edibility Evaluation

Despite the fennel follies and my skepticism that the recipe would turn out, Bill and I actually enjoyed it. I made the sauce in advance, and we had it with pasta for several nights. Bill had some extra hamburgers and Italian sausage he had grilled, so we crumbled hamburger in the first batch and made the second batch with sausage. The licorice flavor was noticeable but not overwhelming, and it gave the sauce a fresh taste and smell. The red pepper flakes were a nice addition, giving the dish some interest without being too hot. Bill said he would eat the sauce again and gave it an edibility score of 3.8. I agreed and gave it a 4.0.

From the sticky note files: Balls

Date and Nut Balls (or simply, “Balls”)

In this modern age of high-tech recipe organization, I have found myself reverting to the most primitive of recipe filing techniques. Yes, I am an avid user of MacGourmet, and I even back up my recipes in Dropbox in case of a computer catastrophe. But somehow, the recipes I like – the ones I make over and over and over again – have taken the form of scribbled-on sticky notes loosely corralled on my kitchen counter between the sink and the cereal boxes.

Along with these muffins, balls have become one of my snacking staples. They are inspired by Larabars, which are snack bars made from simple combinations of unsweetened fruits, nuts, and spices. Although the concept of processing mixtures of fruits and nuts into a bar seems very simple to replicate (and ultimately is), I managed to screw up my first few attempts. Initially, I found a source that suggested soaking the dates in water before combining them with the nuts. That produced wet, slimy bars that I ate anyway because I hate to waste food. I subsequently found more reliable recipes and began having more success. However, although it seems trivial, the recipe didn’t stick for me until I started making balls instead of bars.

Chocolate Mint Balls
(If you’re an avid food blog reader, you’ve probably seen recipes like this a kajillion times already. My recipe has evolved, but it was largely inspired by Chocolate-Covered Katie.)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup nuts (I typically use a mixture of unsalted roasted almonds and raw cashews, but you can experiment. Go nuts!)
  • 1 cup Medjool dates, pitted and halved (As a kid, I used to eat the pitted dates that come in a bag.  One day, I bought a container of normal dates entirely unaware that they had pits. Fortunately, my teeth remained intact.)
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt (optional, but recommended)
  • 1/8 teaspoon peppermint extract (Don’t use too much unless you want your balls to taste like toothpaste.)

Directions

  1. Grind up the nuts coarsely in the food processor.  (Just a few pulses will do. Don’t go nuts, or else you’ll end up with nut butter.)
  2. Add the dates to the food processor and process with the nuts until it forms a loose, crumbly, sticky mixture. You should be able to take a little sample and pinch it together into a solid mass.
  3. Add the cocoa powder, vanilla extract, salt, and peppermint extract and process just long enough to mix everything in.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a medium-sized bowl and knead the mixture together into one big blob. (Note: If it doesn’t come together easily, you can add a little water to the mixture. This seems to do the trick.)
  5. Find a diversion that does not require using your hands (music, TV, podcasts, etc.) and laboriously roll small balls between your palms. Your hands will become very sticky by the end.
  6. Lick the delicious, sticky mixture off of your hands. If you’re unsure of how to do this, watch a dog licking something s/he deems delicious, and emulate his/her thoroughness and extreme attention to detail.
  7. Store the balls in the refrigerator in a closed container. They keep for several weeks but are best in the first few days, as they dry out over time.

Edibility Evaluation

What I like about balls is that the deliciousness of the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. Dates are okay but perhaps a bit cloying. Nuts are nuts. Unsweetened cocoa powder is bitter and gross. But when they’re combined, through some magical synergy, they become a truly delicious snack. Any recipe that earns a place in my sticky note pile is going to do pretty well on the edibility scale as far as I’m concerned.  I give the balls a solid 4.75. Even Bill, who used to oppose the existence of dates, thinks the balls are pretty good and places them at an impressive 4.25.

Note

  • If you don’t like chocolate and/or mint, fell free to experiment. If you have a favorite Larabar flavor, just look at the ingredients and try to replicate it. But make balls instead of bars. I don’t know why, but balls just taste better.

A Trip to the Farmers’ Market…

“…to pick out food I don’t want.”

After exploring my produce purchasing options in a recent post, I decided to give the farmers’ market a try for a while in lieu of produce box deliveries. Always supportive, Bill agreed to accompany me. To maintain a “surprise” element and to continue experimenting with new-to-me fruits and vegetables, we agreed to look for something new and interesting. When I reminded Bill on Sunday morning that it was time to go to the farmers’ market, he summarized his job as follows: “to help carry things and pick out food I don’t want.” But he was a good sport, and he was actually the one who found our mystery ingredient for the week.

The low-hanging fruit (i.e., stuff that we can eat with minimal preparation)

  • Summer squash – We got these in the produce box last week, and they were really good grilled. I learned that this squash is sometimes called pattypan squash, but I think they should be called “flying saucer” squash.

  • Tomatoes – We went a little overboard with tomatoes. But they’re so, so good. I picked out the large, red and green one because it looks like it has several more tomatoes growing out of the bottom – that’s good value for your money.

  • Grapes – These are from the Topete Family Farm, and I think they are Autumn Royal grapes. They are very sweet and delicious, and they’re quite different in flavor from the grapes at the store.

  • Peaches, Nectarines, and Corn – Eat them, and enjoy summer produce while it lasts!
  • Celery – Ants on a log, of course!
  • Potatoes – Make Hasselback potatoes as Bill’s reward for going to to the farmers’ market with me.

The experimental subject (i.e., stuff that will inspire new recipes)

  • Fennel – I realize that fennel is more of an autumn/winter vegetable, but it was at the farmers’ market. Stay tuned for a fennel frenzy.

They’re Like Hot Pockets but Classier

But how do they fare against the real thing in a stuffed sandwich showdown?

I’ve been looking for interesting grilling recipes lately, and I recently came across these grilled stuffed flatbreads. I found the idea intriguing, but I couldn’t get past their similarity to Hot Pockets. I must confess that I placed Hot Pockets in a very unflattering position on my edibility scale (edibility score of 2 – mildly inedible) without having ever tried one. Hot Pockets have been the butt of many jokes and are generally derided by the culinary community. Yet, these convenient stuffed sandwiches have held their own in the freezer section of grocery stores since the 1970s. My prejudgement of Hot Pockets was weighing on my culinary conscience, so I decided to give them a fair chance in a pocket-to-pocket comparison.

Part I: Flatbread Stuffed with Curried Potatoes, Spinach, and Chickpeas
(adapted from The Kitchn / makes 8 stuffed flatbreads)

For the Flatbread: (I used a whole wheat pizza dough recipe from the America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook.)

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) instant or rapid-rise yeast
  • 11 ounces bread flour
  • 11 ounces whole wheat flour (I ground my own from hard white wheat berries, but you can just buy wheat flour from the store like a sane person.)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

  1. Combine the dry ingredients (yeast, flour, and salt).
  2. Slowly stir in the water and olive oil until the mixture comes together into a ball of dough. (I just put everything into my bread machine and ran the beginning of the dough cycle, but you can make it by hand in a bowl or in a stand mixer with a dough attachment.)
  3. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes, adding water or flour as necessary.
  4. Form the dough into a ball and allow to rise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours in a lightly oiled bowl covered with plastic wrap.
  5. Punch down the dough and use it immediately to assemble the stuffed flatbreads, or wrap it in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for a few hours.

For the Curry: (adapted from Orangette’s Chana Masala)

Ingredients

  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 pound red potatoes (4-5 egg-sized potatoes), diced
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced or grated on a microplane
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional but recommended)
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons salt
  • 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 10 ounces baby spinach (I used frozen chopped spinach)

Directions

  1. Saute the diced onion in about a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat.
  2. Once the onion has begun to brown, add the diced potatoes and a pinch of salt. Cook until the potatoes have begun to soften but are not entirely cooked through.
  3. Clear a space in the middle of the pan and add the spices: garlic, ginger, cumin, garam masala, cayenne, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook the spices for about 30 seconds (or until fragrant), and then stir them into the potatoes and onions.
  4. Add the diced tomatoes (undrained) and bring the curry to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Once the potatoes are cooked through, stir in the chickpeas and spinach.
  5. Continue to simmer until thickened. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. The curry can be made up to three days in advance.

Assemble and Bake the Stuffed Flatbreads:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425F.
  2. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. On a floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a circle about 1/4 inch thick.
  3. Spread one-eighth of the filling in the center of the dough, then fold the dough in half and pinch the edges to seal.
  4. Place the stuffed flatbreads on a parchment-lined baking sheet and coat the tops with a thin layer of olive oil. Poke holes in the dough to prevent an unfortunate curry explosion in your oven.
  5. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown. There’s no need to flip them during baking.

Part II: Lean Pockets Culinary Creations with Spinach, Artichoke, & Chicken

I was surprised by how many options there were for Hot Pocket flavors at the grocery store. In addition to Hot Pockets, which are offered in a variety of pizza-inspired flavors, they sell Lean Pockets® brand “Culinary Creations.” I decided that these “culinary masterpieces” (actual quote from their website) would serve as the best comparison with the stuffed flatbread. There was no “curried potatoes, spinach, and chickpeas” flavor, so I picked out the flavor most similar to the stuffed flatbread recipe – “spinach, artichoke, and chicken” (because they both contain spinach and a proteinaceous ingredient starting with “chick”).

Ingredients
(laboriously transcribed from the side of the box)

Water, Unbleached Enriched Flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Grilled White Meat Chicken (white meat chicken, water, isolated soy protein, modified rice starch, chicken flavor [dehydrated chicken broth, chicken powder, natural flavor], sodium phosphate, salt), Artichokes, Low Fat Mozzarella Cheese ([pasteurized part skim milk, cultures, salt, enzymes], non-fat milk, modified food starch*, *ingredient not in regular mozzarella cheese), Chopped Spinach, Yellow Corn Flour, Contains less than 2% of: Isolated Oat Product, Seasoning (nonfat milk solids, buttermilk powder, whey, coconut oil, salt, sugar, wheat flour, corn maltodextrin, torula yeast, methylcellulose, onion powder, titanium dioxide, xanthan gum, natural flavor, locust bean gum, spice, sodium caseinate, disodium inosinate & guanylate, butter [cream, salt], extractives of annatto, extractives of turmeric), Parmesan and Asiago Cheese With Flavor (parmesan and asiago cheeses [cultured milk, salt, enzymes], flavor [enzyme modified parmesan cheese (cultured milk, salt, enzymes)], whey, salt, cellulose), Margarine (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, palm oil, water, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, sugar, mono- and diglycerides, artificial flavor, soybean lecithin, potassium sorbate and citric acid [preservatives], colored with annatto and turmeric, vitamin A palmitate), Sugar, Modified Food Starch, Vegetable Herb Whole Grain Topping (whole grain bread crumb [whole wheat flour, sugar, salt, yeast, canola oil], dehydrated garlic, dehydrated carrot, spice, paprika, salt, red bell pepper, spinach powder, sugar, soybean oil, citric acid), Salt, Palm Oil (with soy lecithin, artificial flavor, beta carotene), Cheese Seasoning (maltodextrin, parmesan cheese [cultured pasteurized part skim milk, salt enzymes], romano cheese [cultured pasteurized part skim milk, salt, enzymes], cheddar cheese [cultured pasteurized milk, salt, enzymes], salt, milk protein concentrate, disodium phosphate, natural flavor), Partially Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil (with soy lecithin), Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Dough Conditioner (calcium sulfate, salt, L-cysteine hydrochloride, garlic powder, tricalcium phosphate, enzymes), Yeast, Soy Lecithin, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Artificial Butter Flavor (maltodextrin, artificial flavors, modified corn starch, medium chain triglycerides), Methylcellulose, Dried Whey, Soy Flour, Dried Egg Whites

Directions

  1. Store the product frozen.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F and remove the product from its wrapper. Place on a baking sheet.
  3. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 165F.
  4. Let stand for two minutes.

Taste Test and Edibility Evaluation

Bill and I approached the taste test with eager anticipation. Would the classy stuffed flatbread wow us with the wholesomeness that can only be achieved through the slow cooking of fresh, whole foods? Or would the Lean Pocket’s unique blend of 89 ingredients (including chicken powder, methylcellulose, and sodium stearoyl lactylate), optimized through decades of industrial recipe development, catapult it into sandwich stardom? It was anyone’s guess.

I decided to bake the stuffed flatbreads rather than grill them, primarily because I was afraid they would fall apart on the grill. Although the recommended cooking method for Lean Pocket is a quick nuke in the microwave using the provided space-age “crisping sleeve,” I opted for the oven baking directions to ensure a fair comparison.

Stuffed Flatbread:

The stuffed flatbreads smelled of freshly baked bread and Indian spices when they came out of the oven. Since I used a whole wheat dough recipe that tends to be somewhat stiff, I was not surprised to see that they had split apart at the seams a bit. Nonetheless, they remained largely structurally intact. Their pale, bloated appearance left something to be desired, though, which posed an insurmountable challenge to my rudimentary food photography skills.

Bill and I were both pleased with the taste and texture of the stuffed flatbreads. I thought they were good as-is but could be improved, so I appropriately awarded them an edibility score of 4.0. Bill was eating a grilled steak, so he just took a couple of bites. Although I knew the stuffed flatbread wouldn’t hold a candle to steak in Bill’s book, he enjoyed the Indian spices in the filing as well as the texture imparted by the chunks of potatoes and chickpeas. Although he agreed that they could be improved, he said he would eat them again and gave them an edibility score of 3.5.

Lean Pocket:

I caught a waft of fake cheese when I took the Lean Pocket out of the oven. You might argue that my choice of the term “fake cheese” is a little harsh, but the ingredient list on the box actually states that the mozzarella cheese contains an “ingredient not in regular mozzarella cheese.” The appearance of the Lean Pocket did not change at all as a result of cooking in the oven. As far as dough-wrapped sandwiches go, the Lean Pocket was quite attractive due to the industrial assembly process that formed a perfect, rectangular pillow, its golden surface adorned with a “vegetable herb whole grain topping.”

However, its flavor and texture were less endearing. Cutting into the Lean Pocket with a fork and knife, I initially noticed its flaky but tough crust. I had to cut farther in before I actually encountered filling. The filling was off-putting, both in appearance and taste. It reminded me of a gluey version of chicken pot pie filling and was very salty and cheesy. Bill was mildly annoyed that he had to pause from eating a perfectly good steak to taste the Lean Pocket. His reaction was nonverbal, consisting of mouth puckering and vigorous head shaking. Together, we decided that the Lean Pocket should remain in the “Mildly Inedible” range of the edibility scale (score of 2.0).