Category Archives: Product Review

Your Next Apartment Kitchen Miracle: The 5 QT Cast Iron Dutch Oven

The idea of a kitchen miracle probably doesn’t conjure images of a 5-quart cast iron dutch oven.

But it should.

I live in a small apartment in the city complete with a kitchen in which Barbie would feel cramped. I have a gas stove, 4-top range with an oven that works beautifully, but I don’t have much in the way of space to either prep, clean, or store a ton of pots and pans.

 

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Tall sides help prevent messes and make it easy to stir-fry.

 

I’ve always been a fan of cast iron cooking, but after a few weeks of digging around and trying to manage my limited space, I decided it was time to simply and embrace a paradigm shift.

From now on, I would primarily rely on one or two pans for cooking and adapt my recipes to these pans as best I could. I kept a small nonstick pan handy for making eggs and made my dutch oven the centerpiece of my cooking experience.

Here are a few reasons why you might want to incorporate a dutch oven into your routine, even if you do have plenty of space:

  1. Versatility. You can cook just about anything with a dutch oven. Stovetop or oven, it’s ready for anything.
  2. Simplicity. I’m a big fan of stir frying because it requires little in the way of prep, is relatively healthy, and I can switch up the veggies and meat as I need. I come home from work, throw my ingredients in a hot pan, and in a few minutes my dinner is ready.
  3. Makes clean-up a snap. The sides of the 5-qt dutch oven are tall, which helps me avoid making a mess. It reduces splatters from the oil and reduces the chance that my veggies will fly out of the pan.
  4. Look cool. After the dutch oven is cool, rinse it out, wipe it down, and leave it on the stove. People will know you’re a hard core cast-iron aficionado. They will love you for it.

I don’t get any credit for promoting them, but my favorite dutch ovens and other cookware all come from Lodge Cast Iron.

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At work on the stove

Product Review – Huel

 

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My desktop at work. Huel is my go-to for a quick breakfast.

Virtues

  • Balanced, plant-based nutrition.
  • Affordability. Huel can definitely make a positive impact on your food budget.
  • Versatility. Lots of ways to use the product and plenty of good recipes.
  • Great marketing. The company makes a compelling case for Huel’s role in reducing food waste, helping people stay healthy, and providing a convenient alternative to eating junk food.

Limitations

  • Digestive discomfort. I found this to be a minimal–but noticeable–characteristic. Not a deal breaker in my book.
  • Lack of variation. Requires some effort to avoid product fatigue.
  • Food without complexity. Not nearly as satisfying as real food. I love crunch and texture. Not easy to replicate with Huel.

What brought me to Huel

Some weeks ago I did a survey of my eating habits and realized that, nutritionally speaking, my diet was not a pretty picture. This came as something of a surprise to me because I’ve always loved fresh vegetables and fruits, I prefer a low-meat diet, and I generally avoid the most unhealthy fast food and snack items. My impression of my eating habits was something along the lines of I’m no saint when it comes to eat healthy, but I’m not a total sinner, either. 

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. My diet was a wreck!

It’s not that I don’t want to eat healthy, but between my schedule (I work two jobs) and the awkwardness of cooking for one, there were just too many opportunities and excuses for me to take the easy route and make some bad dietary choices. Sometimes the issue was money. Often it was convenience. Whatever! Time to try something new.

I began thinking about some of the meal replacement options that are out there. Many of them are branded for fitness buffs (which I am not) or people who are trying to lose weight (meh, I could do to lose a few pounds, but I’m comfortable with who I am.)

After doing a little research on a few brands, I decided to go with HUEL. Here’s what appealed to me about the product:

  1. The quality of the ingredients. Huel is plant-based, so it’s a vegan product and although I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, I know that incorporating more plant-based nutrition into my diet is good for me and the plant. Plus, no animals are harmed in the making of this product.
  2. Balanced nutrition. This was the main impetus behind my decision to try Huel. It’s not some crazy, lop-sided nutritional supplement that promises to help me shred my body or give me the energy of a psychotic baboon during the mating season.
  3. Protein & Fiber. Huel provides both without throwing my diet out of whack. The fiber component was especially important to me, because I often don’t get optimal levels of fiber. I want fiber without the excessive carbs, and Huel gets the ratio right.
  4. Budget. Depending on how you use Huel and how often, it can definitely provide a great ROI with regard to your food budget.
  5. Convenience. I keep a bag of Huel and the provided mixer at my work desk. For days when I don’t have time for real breakfast (ok that’s everyday) I can mix up a shake at my desk with no mess. 500 calorie breakfast, no problem.

My Experience

I’ve been eating (as opposed to just using) Huel for about 3 months. At first, I followed the recommendations and only ate Huel once a day for about 2 weeks. I used it almost always for breakfast. I definitely felt more energized and took great satisfaction in knowing that I was finally eating well.

The only downside of my initial experience was GI discomfort. Sorry to get too graphic or personal, but Huel did make me gassy and sometimes made me feel bloated. Both effects diminished on the weekends, when I didn’t consume the product.

After my initial experience, I started to modify my use so that I only used Huel three days a week. This was helpful, but the side effects remained. This is not a deal breaker in my book, and it may very well be the result of eating more fiber and better nutrition than my poor GI is used to handling.

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Incorporating Huel with other foods has worked best for me.

As of today, I use Huel a little differently. Instead of mixing up a shake each morning that is comprised of three scoops of Huel powder and water, I make a shake of a mixture of fruits and veggies, and add 1 to 2 scoops of Huel. This is both more flavorful and more agreeable to my digestive system.

I still use Huel from time to time as a full meal replacement on its own. I just don’t do so each day. I’m also fond of using it as my post-workout replenishment drink.

Verdict & Recommendations

I like Huel.

It’s a helpful part of my nutritional routine and I feel good about eating it. The company’s branding strategy is well designed and feels genuine. As long as they keep their promise to be part of a holistic solution to nutrition and food scarcity issues, I’ll be a believer.

What I want to see are more products in the Huel line. I know they’ve recently introduced Huel bars, but that’s not in the U.S. at this time. They need to keep it interesting and innovative.

For those of you considering Huel, here is my advice:

Figure out how the product works best for you, and use it in that capacity. Also, be prepared to create your own recipes in order to avoid fatigue with the product. I like to whip up a shake full of fresh greens, and then throw a scoop or two of Huel in for good measure. But from time to time I will still just mix up a shaker of Huel and use that as a substitute for a meal.

It’s good stuff, taken in the amount that’s right for you.

 

 

 

Remaking the Metro Market

I love thinking about marketing and branding.

I’m especially fond of watching retailers reinvent themselves (or at least their stores) in order to stay ahead of consumer trends and remain competitive. So I have watched with great interest as my local grocery store, the Metro Market, underwent an extensive renovation in the winter of 2017-2018.

For those who may not be familiar with Metro Market, here’s some background:

Metro Market is one of a handful of store brands used by the Wisconsin and Illinois-based Roundy’s Supermarket chain. Roundy’s is also known from its many Pick’ n Save locations as well as its Chicago flagship store, Mariano’s Fresh Market. Roundy’s was bought by the Kroger company in 2015 but the Roundy’s branding has remained mostly intact.

 

Metro Markets are located in middle class, urban neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Madison, and thus their primary competitors have been Whole Foods Market, Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market, and to some extent Sendik’s Food Market. In the case of my local store, the three closest competitors are Whole Foods (2 miles), Fresh Thyme (0.8 miles), and Glorioso’s Italian Market (0.6 miles). 

In order to remain competitive with these other local stores, the Metro Market branding strategy has incorporated two primary objectives:

  1. Distinguish the Metro Market from the Pic’ N Save stores. Pic’ N Save stores are  usually located in suburbs or less affluent neighborhoods, and their aesthetic can be best described as a 90’s-era, average supermarket theme conveyed by a sterile atmosphere and an emphasis on cost-savings. Overall, the Pic N’ Save locations are bland and boring. You know the type: white floors, white ceilings, and row after row of shelves packed with a few different brands.
  2. Tap into the urban middle class appetite for a “market experience.” This means an emphasis on locally-sourced and organically grown foods, a warm (perhaps even earthy) atmosphere, and a store that feels less like a monolithic supermarket with only one vendor and more like a communal retail space shared by a variety of merchants and their unique brands.

So how did they do?

It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the rejuvenated Metro Market definitely feels warmer and more upscale, and the aesthetics of the place are greatly improved. On the other hand, the branding changes don’t go beyond the surface to offer shoppers much that is new. Of course, offering shoppers something “new” was never the point: it was about making it feel new. Here’s what was accomplished:

First, shoppers will notice the most dramatic changes in the produce, deli, meat, and bakery departments. Each is now branded separately (at least nominally so) in order to give the emulate an experience such as that of shopping at the Milwaukee Public Market.

The floors have been resurfaced in dark wood, the outdated lighting fixtures have been replaced by trendier models, and each section of the counter boasts its own superficial signage. The bakery counter is now “Badger Baking,” the liquor aisle is called “Cork & Cask,” and the deli counter is being billed as the “Van Buren Deli” and “Todds BBQ” (sic).  The missing apostrophe in Todd’s BBQ really stuck out to me, but that’s my issue as an English teacher. 

In addition to the store’s facelift and the use of multiple “brands” to break up the monotony of the shopping experience, there are some new additions. There’s a juice bar (“Squeezed”), a Starbucks location, and a beer and wine vending area so you can have a drink in the store. There’s also a gourmet popcorn counter, a gelato case, and an expanded Asian-themed counter.

These changes are welcome and in some cases they are substantial improvements. But overall, the renovation and rebranding are largely about aesthetics and not about the way Metro Market is doing business. Once shoppers wind their way past all the new signs and the wine bar, they will see a familiar sight:

 

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This part of the store has received updated signage but has otherwise remain unchanged.

 

So that’s my short review. Metro Market is still my closest grocery store, and I’ll continue to shop there as long as that’s the case. I’m pleased that the store received a much-needed facelift, but I’ll continue to long for the day when my location (and budget!) will allow me to shop more frequently at grocers that truly offer a closer connection to the food I eat.