Tag: Review (page 1 of 2)

Candy Club Subscription Box Review

This is NOT a sponsored post. I am not a part of the Candy Club Affiliate Program, nor was I approached by Candy Club to try their subscription box service. We paid for our own order. This post does contain a referral link that every subscriber receives which gives him or her the ability to refer five people, earning a free box for each party. 

I’m obsessed with subscription boxes.

It’s been three years since I’ve even subscribed to a subscription box service, but I love keeping up with the latest drama; who sends fantastic boxes, who is taking people’s money and running, and who is sending erratic emails to customers.

One box that’s fascinated me for a while is Candy Club. Their variety of sour and chewy candies grabbed my attention more so than other candy box companies, plus you can choose your own candies.

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I Wanna Eat Croissants In This Club: Sheraton Chicago Review

I was provided with a hotel stay at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers to facilitate my review. All thoughts are 100% honest and my own.

We stayed at the Sheraton Chicago and spent a lot of time in their Club. Our clubbing experience mostly involved quietly drinking sodas and eating granola bars.

Sheraton provided our group with two rooms connected by a door, each with two queen beds and a bathroom and access to the Club Lounge, hence all of the club references.

We flew into the O’Hare airport and took the train to the hotel’s closest stop. From the train stop, we walked for about 10-15 minutes through downtown Chicago. Parking in Chicago can be difficult, especially in downtown Chicago. If you are driving to Chicago and want to stay in a downtown hotel, expect to budget anywhere from $40-$60 a day for parking. Really, it’s easiest not to have a car if you want to stay downtown. Our train tickets cost $5 from the airport to the hotel and about $2.50 vice versa. O’Hare and the train stop closest to the Sheridan are on opposite ends of the line, but it’s an easy 30-minute ride. There are lots of stops, but the ride goes by quickly. We noticed a lot of people carrying luggage through the downtown area, so don’t feel sheepish about doing so.

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The hotel is massive and the lobby is attractive. You’ll find many sitting areas, big glass containers of fruit-infused water, and flowers. At least two conferences occurred in the hotel during our stay.

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I’m one of those people who is OK with my own filth, but totally freaked out by other people’s. But in all honesty, I found the hotel to be very clean. Obviously, the hotel staff was aware they were hosting bloggers, but I didn’t notice anything untidy from the lobby bathroom to the elevators.

Here’s the view from our room:

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And glimpses of our bedrooms and bathrooms:

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Who doesn’t love artwork above the toilet?

As a word of caution, your hotel room may contain a motion-activated tray of tempting la cart snacks. This little jar of cookies was so cute that I grabbed it after noticing the sign that said guests are charged for snacks lifted from the tray. If you or your child accidentally picked up one of the snacks, you could try talking to the staff like we did. I’m sure this happens all of the time.

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We stayed at the Sheraton for one night. One of our trip coordinators has a connection with the hotel who surprised us with some evening snacks. I don’t turn down free champagne.

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We spent a lot of time in the Club Lounge located at the 33rd Floor.

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The Club Lounge is a beautiful space equipped with comfortable furniture, granola bars and fruit, chilled sodas and bottled water, wifi, pool tables, televisions, coffee and espresso. According to the website, the lounge also provides business travelers with meeting space and some office supplies. The view’s nice too.

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Guests with Club Lounge access are invited to enjoy a continental breakfast and evening appetizers. We caught the last half of the appetizer hour on Thursday evening and found chips and salsa, mini egg rolls, beef skewers, and cheese platters. I think guests can order beer, wine, and cocktails from the server for an additional charge. If you want to catch the food at its freshest from the kitchen, arrive near the beginning.

PicMonkey Collage

The lounge breakfast included pastries, fruit, granola & greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, bagels (toaster provided), and a steaming kettle of hot oatmeal. I especially liked the coffee, yogurt and granola & mini croissants.

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I loved how these croissants tasted like real butter and had some lacquer on the outside. I’m experiencing croissant withdrawal and ate my fair share.

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Overall, I found breakfast thoughtful and adequate. If you have Club Lounge access, you’d be wise to grab breakfast here. The evening appetizers are pretty substantial and could provide a light meal.

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So how does one get Club Lounge access? It appears the Sheraton Chicago provides a lounge access upgrade with room reservations. I searched for reservations on a random June weeknight for a similar room with Club Lounge access and found it cost about $395 prepaid & $418/night with a flexible reservation. The Club Lounge access upgrade might cost about $44 more per day. This upgrade could be worth it for those sharing a room with at least one additional person who plan to take advantage of all of the food options, and business travelers. Starwood Preferred Guests also get free club access if they are platinum members (meaning they booked 25 stays in a calendar year).

Keep in mind that if you are not a Starwood Hotels & Resorts preferred guest, internet is not included in your room rate and will cost an extra $15-19 per day. As far as I can tell, you can receive the free internet as a preferred guest by registering online and booking your room through their website or app.

In conclusion, I enjoyed my stay at the Sheraton Chicago and can’t describe anything I didn’t like. Obviously, the hotel was expecting bloggers. The space was beautiful, staff greeted us warmly, and treated us to perks we weren’t expecting like Club Lounge Access and champagne.

The only drawbacks I can think to mention are that the trays of snacks in your room are motion-activated and that the hotel could be cost prohibitive to travelers who can’t or don’t wish to spend $300+ per night. Jake and I have found that hotels accessible to touristy areas of downtown Chicago (or any large city) provide smaller rooms, cost more per night, and don’t include as many amenities in their basic nightly rate. If you want to stay within walking distance of Navy Pier, Millennium Park and Michigan Ave, the reality is that you’re going to pay more for this convenience. Plus, there’s the whole cost to park your own car downtown. Expect to pay $60 a day for valet parking or at least $40 to self park in a downtown ramp. It’s really easier not to have a car if you are staying here. The public transportation to and from the airport is affordable and easy to navigate.

If the Sheraton Chicago is within your budget and you want to stay downtown, I feel confident telling you to go for it! If it’s not, there are lots of hotels and bed and breakfast in cool neighborhoods near the downtown area that provide good values and amenities, too.

Thank you to the staff at the Sheraton Chicago for hosting our group and giving us full access to the hotel’s amenities. 

Taste Testing Four Retro School Cafeteria Foods

We’re a little stir crazy, so we decided to taste test retro food products.

I want to complain about the snow, but also feel pride that this weather makes us tougher. When 20 degrees rolls around, I’ll be gleefully running errands without a hat while people in warmer states will shiver at the thought.

Yesterday read -6 with a doomsday windchill. The snowflakes remind me of the fake snow found in department store displays. It’s so light and fluffy that the winds whip it into white outs. Our little dog is stir crazy, too. Yesterday, I asked him if he wanted to head outside and go to the bathroom.

Trayse Collage Blizzard

Well, OK then. I suppose I wouldn’t want to either.

How does one fend off cabin fever during a week when school’s cancelled due to the cold? Taste test wacky retro products, of course. For this project, I visited Fareway‘s meat counter and Martin Bros. Food Market in Mason City, Iowa. I appreciate how the butchers at Fareway treat every product with the same dignity, from ribeye steaks to processed Mr. Rib patties. They carefully measure each item and wrap them tidy little packages with brown paper.

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Martin Brothers sells bulk foods and party supplies. You’ll find items like big bags of vegetables and every fried appetizer you could possibly imagine in their coolers.

I selected four items that harkened back to my grade school cafeteria days: Pizza Patties, BBQ Rib Patties, and Chicken Crispitos from Fareway and Mexican Pizzas from Martin Bros.

Pizza Patty: I fondly remember “Pizza Burgers” from grade school. Of course, that was over two decades ago, but, then again, I still like corn dogs so there’s that. I remember our Pizza Burgers looking a lot different from this patty, but wanted to try it anyway. Think of the pizza patty as the center of a butcher wrap blossom. $1.66/each

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Meet the Crispito. Back when I wrote a post about school cafeteria memories, I noticed a funny thing. Minnesotans raved about Italian Dunker Day while Iowans fondly remembered Crispitos. I bought two of the chicken variety. Price $1 each

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Hello there BBQ Rib Patty. Why our school never called this Mrs. Rib, I don’t know, but I won’t fight the gentlemen for this honor. You’ve got to appreciate the artistry that went into creating the pressed and formed rib shape complete with three rib nubs and painted on grill marks. I can only compare this product to my grade school memories, for I have never eaten a McRib. $1.25 each

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And finally, who remembers Mexican Pizzas? Our elementary school offered pizza once a week and always listed them as “Tony’s Pizza.” Pizza day was special because we could choose from big rectangles of cheese, pepperoni or sausage pizza or this hexagonal oddity, the Fiestada.

I was surprised to find bags of Fiestadas at Martin Bros. In fact, they carried bags of the other pizza rectangles, too. I did some research and home and read Martin Bros. sources this Mexican Pizza from Schwan’s who sources them from Tony’s (or something like that), meaning they’re the closest I’ll get to the real deal. $0.83 each

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I baked the products at 375℉ until pizza was bubbly and the Crispito was, well, crispy.

Taste Testing Verdict:
Drumroll. . .

Everything Labeled

Pizza Patty: A reader mentioned this product is best fried. It crisped in the oven and oozed cheese. Long story short, this wasn’t our thing because we didn’t enjoy the strong sausage flavor. There’s a lonely Pizza Patty, whom I shall call Patty, chilling in our fridge. Any takers?

Mr. Rib: This was our favorite item. Baking the patty gave it a firmer texture while the sauce formed a glaze. We split the patty in half and them in small buns with dill pickle chips. Jake commented Fareway’s tastes better than the McRib. It’s so naughty-good we’re going to eat the second Mr. Rib. Sorry if you’ve gotten attached to him Miss Pizza Patty.

Crispito: When I first pulled the tubular Crispito from its wrapping, I knew my main goal was to make it crisp. Afterall, it is a Crispito, right? What appeared to be a corn tortilla shell did, in fact, crisp up in the oven. I have no idea what comprises the filling, but it tastes similar to the El Monterey Taquitos my mom used to purchase. Jake and I dipped each half into salsa and concluded the product tasted pretty good. If you like Taquitos, there’s really nothing objectionable about this. Jake still prefers Taquitos, but I prefer Crispitos.

*Some friends added Fareway’s Crispitos taste closest to the ones served in their school cafeterias while others nominated Martin Bros‘s.

Mexican Pizza/Fiestada: This hexagonal wonder still tastes like it did in grade school.

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The only difference is the crust seems puffier. According to Schwan’s website, the crust contains 51% whole grains (not just 50%, but 51% lol) which lends a heartier texture.

“It tastes good. No wonder it’s still around,” observed Jake. While we want to space out our Fiestada consumption, we won’t cry over the five left in our freezer.

And this concludes my foray into revisiting school cafeteria foods. Is there a specific food you’d like to revisit or leave in the past?

Wini Moranville’s Pork Meatballs With Dijon Cream Sauce Are Too Good

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Wini Moranville & was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wini’s Pork Meatballs With Dijon Cream Sauce are too good, it’s true.

Jake and I know we’ve hit the dinner jackpot when we battle over leftovers. In this case, Jake won.

Wini is a writer, Des Moines Register columnist, and blogger who wrote French Cookbook La Chez Bonne Femme and The Braiser Cookbook. Last fall, I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Iowa Food & Lifestyle Blogger gathering in Iowa City. When she generously offered to let us enjoy her newest cookbook and choose a recipe to share, I jumped at the opportunity.

Braiser Cookbook Cover

The Braiser Cookbook is an e-book available on Amazon and it’s a steal at $2.99 (as of 10/18/14). I appreciate how all of the recipes are both elegant and approachable for the home cook. There really isn’t a recipe in this book that I’m too intimidated to try in my own kitchen. And guess what? I don’t even own a braiser. All of these recipes can be prepared at home without a braiser, and Wini provides advice for adapting them accordingly.

Jake and I have experienced a busier than any other in recent memory. We’re out-of-town more weekends than we’re home and crave warm, homecooked food after work. I gravitated towards Wini’s meat balls recipe because they were simple to prepare on a weeknight. The Baked Cabbage With Bacon and Apples she suggested as a side dish was also a breeze to prepare, but you’ll have to get her book for that recipe. I can’t be giving away all of Wini’s secrets.

The meatballs are actually made without any breading or filler. I was surprised by how moist and tender they tasted, since I’ve never prepared a ground meat dish without bread crumbs or oatmeal. They are delicate so Wini recommends flipping them gently with a large tablespoon. The sauce is rich with cream, but not overly so, as it is reduced with white wine and tangy mustard. Plus, the full cup of parsley adds a bright note. I bought ground pork at my favorite butcher shop Louie’s Custom Meats in Clear Lake, Iowa. It’s worth the drive from Mason City.

I only took one photo of these meatballs after we had filled our plates. We enjoyed our dinner so much that there was just no time to pause for photos. “I’ll take more tomorrow, when the lighting’s better,” I swore. But alas, when I came home from work they were gone. I could hardly blame Jake, though, because if I had beaten him home from work, I would have eaten them too. The lesson we learned from this dish is that if you really love something don’t ever let it go.

For more photos, check out In The Kitchen With Jenny’s post.

Pork Meat Balls With Dijon Cream Sauce
This recipe is a collaboration between Wini Moranville & Chef David Baruthio of Baru 66 in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Wini's Pork Meatballs text

Ingredients:
1-1/2 pounds ground pork
1 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 egg
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or grated
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1-1/2 cups heavy cream

Instructions: 

  1. In a bowl, mix together the pork, parsley, egg, garlic, salt & pepper. Go easy on the salt because the mustard is salty and tangy. I added about 1/2 teaspoon. Shape into about 12 meatballs.
  2. Heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a 3 1/2 quart braiser until the oil shimmers. I used a large saucepan with deep sides and a lid.
  3. Add the meatballs to the hot oil and cook until lightly browned. Flip and cook the other side of the meatballs until they are also lightly browned. This should take about six minutes total.
  4. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook the meatballs, turning occasionally until they are browned on each side.
  5. Remove meatballs from pan and drain off all of the oil except for a sheen.
  6. Increase temperature to medium
  7. Cook onions until tender but not brown.
  8. Add the wine and cook, stirring up the loose bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce wine to about 1/4 cup which should take about three minutes.
  9. Whisk in the mustard. Add heavy cream and cook, stirring until the sauce is reduced to about one cup.
  10. Return meatballs to pan and simmer until they are cooked through (160℉).
  11. Per Wini’s recommendation, I served the meatballs with her Baked Cabbage With Bacon & Apples. It’s also easy to whip together. Let the cabbage bake while you cook the meatballs. I like to add splashes of red wine vinegar for some tang.

Connect With Wini:
Facebook for DSM Food Lovers: All Things Food DSM – Wini Moranville
Facebook for France Lovers: Chez Bonne Femme
Blog: ChezBonneFemme.com
Twitter: @winimoranville

Things We Ate At The Minnesota State Fair 2014

The Great Minnesota Get-Together is like a statewide family reunion.

On this Labor Day Weekend Saturday, Jake and I attended the Minnesota State Fair with his brother and my dad. The afternoon was hot and sunny and the density of people was literally shoulder-to-shoulder. You couldn’t find somewhere to sit even if you wanted to. Earlier in the day, the lines to popular food vendors were intimidating, but the fair opened up a bit as the evening approached. The cool evening air helped, too.

We laughed at ourselves as we grumbled about the crowds and the heat and the lines. They’re still all a part of the fair experience that we love and we’d always return, nevertheless.

The Minnesota State Fair vendors’ competitive spirit of food ingenuity builds momentum and makes this fair especially unique. I prepare for our visit each year by studying Heavy Table and Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s opening-day reviews of the new fair foods. Part of the tradition is trying the much-talked-about new foods for yourself and comparing your notes with others. Two people will love and hate the same food with equal passion and that’s what makes it fun.

On this year’s visit, sharing foods between four people was much nicer than sharing it between two, though we still had limited stomach space. Here’s what we ate this year:

The Blue Barn
The Blue Barn is a stunning new fair restaurant from the restauranteurs that own the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. We arrived hungry and stopped here first.

Blue Barn

The line was long but moved quickly. We were impressed by how the barn was open for business from both sides.

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From Left to Right: Chicken in a Waffle, Blue Cheese & Corn Fritz, Meatloaf on a Stick

Chicken in a Waffle: I was most curious about this food because of all of the positive feedback.

This food annoyed me. First, the item was $9.75. $9.75! Nothing was technically wrong with the item; the sausage gravy was flavorful and the chicken pieces were crispy and pleasantly spicy. But I had expected the chicken to taste freshly battered or breaded and have more of a buffalo kick. Instead, it reminded me of a frozen popcorn chicken product.

Jake and forgotten to order the Chicken in a Waffle without the malted milk ball in the bottom of the cone. He ended up eating this last bite and described it as “interesting,” in true Minnesotan fashion.

Placing a malted milk ball in the cone reminds me of something a panicked Chopped competitor would do. I have this mental picture of a chef saying, “Oh crap, I have fried chicken, an ice cream cone, sausage, and malted milk balls. I forgot to use the candy and have a minute left on the clock. I know, I’ll drop the milk ball inside the ice cream cone!”

The two brothers really enjoyed this food and gave it high marks, while it was too spicy for my dad who has no heat tolerance. Jake thought the popcorn chicken was noticeably higher in quality and flavor than generic popcorn chicken, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. I say this time and time again only because I mean it: To each his or her own ☺

I think I might be alone on this one and that’s ok.

Blue Cheese and Corn Fritz: A Heavy Table staff member gave these fritters a dismal rating, writing that he ordered them “to the garbage heap.” In contrast, this was my favorite fair food. I’m not sure if Blue Barn changed their recipe or execution since opening day, but I found them delightfully crispy, corny puffballs. They had a gentle corn flavor with a very mild blue cheese presence, which might disappoint those who wish for a stronger blue cheese flavor. Together, the fritters and accompanying chimichurri sauce tasted refreshing and herby, hitting all of my favorite sweet and savory notes.

Meatloaf on a Stick: The meatloaf’s price made me cringe at $8.25, but we all enjoyed it. The portion really wasn’t large enough to justify the price, but we found the meatloaf flavorful and moist and liked the sweet and spicy sauce. I always glaze my homemade meatloaf with a similar sweet and spicy sauce, so it was right up my alley.

Corn Roast
The corn roast. Oh, the corn roast. We never miss the corn roast.

Corn

Jake takes his State Fair corn seriously.

This massive ear of sweet corn tasted perfectly toasty and dripped with real butter. Jake is the master of seasoning it with the perfect amount of salt and pepper.

Mini-Donut Beer by Lift Bridge Brewing Company & Indeed’s Sweet Yamma Jamma Ale
Jake and his brother enjoy trying different craft beers and made a point to try these two special varieties at the Ballpark Cafe. Lift Bridge introduced this fair only Mini-Donut beer last summer and brought it back. This was our first taste.

Donut Beer

Lift Bridge Mini-Donut Beer

Jake wasn’t a huge fan of the beer because of its sweetness and his preference for bitter IPA’s. Considering that Lift Bridge was attempting to mimic a mini donut, he felt they executed it well. I like smooth, light beers and thought it tasted pleasant, but neither of us liked the sugar coating around the glass’ rim.

I should preface these thoughts by explaining that when the brothers had first returned from the Ballpark with the beers, one of them handed it to me saying, “Try this!” I took a big sip without asking what kind of beer it was and was not prepared for a mouth full of sugar.

We all enjoyed the Slamma Jamma ale brewed with sweet potatoes. The ale didn’t taste distinguishably of sweet potatoes, but we liked its smooth and subtle pumpkin spice flavor. Mmmm. . . fall.

Mouth Trap Cheese Curds, Food Building
Like the roasted corn, Mouth Trap cheese curds are one of our annual fair traditions.

We’ve tried both cheese curd vendors and prefer the Mouth Trap. The stand is run so efficiently, it’s like a machine and the curds STILL cost $5 a boat. No matter how long the line is, you’ll collect your cheese curds within minutes. I wanted to salute them.

Cheese Curds 2014

The thin, crispy batter rocks and the cheese basically squeaks even after spending time in the fryer.

Other Things We Ate (Not Pictured):

Gyro from Demetri’s Greek FoodJake always visits Demitri’s for a respectable and well-constructed gyro. The meat is sliced nicely, the yogurt sauce tastes fresh, and we appreciate the slivers of fresh tomato and onions.

Fried Jalapeno Cheese on a Stick: Once upon a time in grade school, I ordered cheese on a stick at Valley Fair and it was a crushing disappointment I’ve never forgotten. I thought the batter-covered American cheese was just gross. On the flip side, Jake and his brother fondly remember Valley Fair’s cheese on a stick.

Jake’s brother passed around Fried Jalapeno Cheese on a Stick and I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop eating it. It was still made with white American cheese, but the batter was super crunchy, and, for whatever reason, the salty, gooey American cheesiness just worked (for me, at least).

Pronto Pup
One of my fair food traditions is grabbing a Pronto Pup or corn dog from the vendor closest to the fair’s exit. I love how an employee at this stand carefully brushes your choice of ketchup or mustard on the Pronto Pup. It just feels more special than pumping your own.

pronto pup

I wore this hat all the way home.

This year, we tried a few new foods and returned for many of our favorites. Each year’s food trends may come and go and we may continue to live in different parts of the Midwest, but we’ll always look forward to visiting the Great Minnesota Get-Together with our families.

What were your favorite and least favorite fair foods this year? What do you always get at any summer fair?

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