Monday, March 25, 2013

Out of the Kitchen: Healthy Living or "Wealthy Living"?

[This is where the picture would have gone, if "No Photography" hadn't been posted by the doors of Healthy Living (seriously, what's the big secret that can't be photographed?).]

I went up to the new Healthy Living store today, thinking that maybe this would be a new, better place for me to do my grocery shopping. Would this be the grocery Mecca that local bloggers are making it out to be? Or would it be, like some Yelpers have written, more like "Wealthy Living," a waste of time and a paycheck? I went in with an open mind and an empty notebook page; I didn't need to pick up many things, but I figured I'd take notes on some items I often buy, just to see how the prices were.

The first thing I noticed was that Healthy Living has definitely learned some things about how to set up a store. I've been to their Burlington, Vt., home base, and it's really, really horrible to navigate -- it's a maze of cramped, crooked aisles running this way and that, a place where you can very easily get lost, literally, "where is the door again? and how the heck do I get back to that thing I saw a minute ago?" lost. It's just terrible. But the new store isn't that at all -- it's got reasonably spacious aisles that are laid out in rows, like a normal store. The layout presented no problems at all. Kudos for figuring that out.

I wandered through the store, and as I shopped, I noticed that their selection of less-common groceries is actually impressive: You won't find a lot of the brands and items you usually buy, but if you follow a restrictive diet plan -- you're a vegan, say, or have celiac disease -- you'll love this place. It's the kind of place where they have tofu on the hot bar and seitan in the deli sandwiches. (I'd imagine that the majority of average grocery shoppers don't even know what seitan is.)

They also have a good-sized bulk-ingredients section, which is nice: If I need, say, a half-cup of whole wheat pastry flour, I know where I can get it and not have to buy a huge package of it.

And they have an emphasis on farm-raised, local foods that's nice, though it's clearly a bit of a work in progress in spots, since they're still learning about local food sources. For instance, they sell pies from Champlain Orchards in Vermont, but there's no need to bring in Vermont pies when we've got a really good pie-baking orchard of our own only a few towns away from their store, at Smith Orchards in Charlton (and they do sell to stores -- you can find their pies at the Meat House).

But how about the prices? Well, that was an eye-opener. The store's owners have said in the local media that their prices are reasonable... but are they?

I rounded up some prices of things I buy frequently while at Healthy Living, then went over to the nearby Hannaford and checked their prices on the same or comparable items. I also went down to Trader Joe's later in the day, which is where I've been doing a lot of my food shopping since they opened (if for no other reason than TJ's has a wide variety of non-corn-syruped, non-chemical-laden bread products).

So here's the breakdown ("n/a" indicates that the store doesn't carry that product):
Healthy Living Hannaford Trader Joe's
Bananas $1.19/pound (fair trade) $0.79/pound (organic), $0.49/pound (conventional) $0.29 each (about $1 per pound) (organic)
Scallions $1.49/bunch $1.19/bunch $1.29/bunch
Applegate lunchmeat: Roast beef, 7 ounces $6.89 n/a $3.99
Applegate lunchmeat: Smoked turkey, 7 ounces $6.49 n/a $3.99
Applegate lunchmeat: Ham, 7 ounces $6.39 n/a $3.99
Boneless, skinless chicken breast $14.99/pound (organic) $5.49/pound (Nature's Place) $6.99/pound (organic)
Eggs, farm-raised, 1 dozen $3.69 $2.79 $2.99
Milk, Battenkill Creamery skim, one gallon $4.59 $3.99 n/a
Van's frozen waffles, 1 box $3.99 $2.99 n/a
Frozen blueberries, organic $4.99/8-ounce package ($0.62/ounce) (Cascadian Farms) n/a $3.99/12-ounce package ($0.33/ounce) (TJ's brand)
Ben & Jerry's ice cream $4.99/pint $3.79/pint n/a
Amy's Organic creamy tomato soup, 1 can $3.29 $2.99 n/a

Let's see what we've got here... I'll assume one pound of anything that's per-pound, and I'll leave out the blueberries, just to keep the math sane and fair (since the packages are different sizes)...

Total if I had bought all of these things at Healthy Living: $57.99
Total if I had bought all of these things at Hannaford and Trader Joe's: $35.99

That's a more than 61 percent markup! For the exact same products!

So what have we learned today? We've learned that Healthy Living's claim to have reasonable prices is a crock. Their prices are MUCH higher than those at other stores.

Perhaps one could justify a small markup, since they're a smaller company and have overhead costs and all of that. But more than 60 percent is hardly a reasonable markup -- if I can buy the same product elsewhere, sometimes just up the road, for 60 cents or a dollar or even multiple dollars less than you're charging, you're charging way too much.

This isn't to say that Healthy Living is completely useless: Like I said, their vegan/gluten-free selection is vast, so if you have a restricted diet and can't eat a lot of the stuff that most people typically buy for groceries, this might be the place for you. But know that if you're buying regular stuff there, or even organic stuff, chances are very good that you're spending way more money on groceries than you could be. If you've got that much money to waste in the name of one-stop shopping, go for it, but most of us don't. As for me, I walked out with an empty shopping bag.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Champagne cupcakes

Champagne cupcake

Since we started planning my friend's bridal shower, I'd been Googling around, stockpiling ideas, and one thing I came across was a recipe for a pink champagne cake. Pink wouldn't fit with our theme, but champagne, that might work nicely. So when I ended up being enlisted to make the cake, I revisited that idea, and after a bit of research and a bit of trial and error, I pulled together this recipe for champagne cupcakes. I'd say that they came out pretty good, if you like champagne -- I tasted the cake and frosting and the champagne I'd used, and the flavor did come across nicely. One small warning: While there's really not that much champagne in the frosting, once it's added, it's not cooked, so you might want to keep these away from the kids. (For them and for those who don't like champagne, I made some chocolate cupcakes for the occasion as well.)

The best thing about making these, I think, is that I'd been lacking a good recipe for vanilla buttercream, and now, I've found one -- I tasted this frosting before adding the champagne, and even then, without any vanilla extract, it tasted really good. (And yes, Swiss meringue buttercream is totally worth the extra effort, 'cause the taste and texture are so much better, so much smoother and lighter and fluffier, than that shortcut recipe a lot of people use.)

Champagne Cupcakes with Champagne Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from two different Sweetapolita recipes

3/4 c butter, softened
2 c sugar
3 c flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
6 egg whites, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 c champagne, room temperature, stirred until flat

5 egg whites
1 1/4 c sugar
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 c butter, softened, cut into pieces
1 to 4 tbsp champagne

1. Cream together the butter and sugar, then beat in the egg whites and vanilla.
2. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add this to the mixer, alternating with the champagne, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat just until combined.
3. Fill paper-lined or greased cupcake pan cups two-thirds full. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. De-pan and cool on a rack.
4. In the top of a double-boiler or a bowl that can sit on top of a saucepan filled with an inch or so of simmering water, beat together the egg whites, sugar and salt with a whisk. Continue to whisk gently and monitor the temperature of the mixture with a thermometer, cooking it until it reaches 150 degrees.
5. Pour the mixture into a mixer bowl (or use a hand mixer) and beat with the whisk attachment until it's thickened and glossy and forms a soft peak when you lift up the whisk.
6. Beat in the butter, one piece at a time, until it's all in there and combined. (It will probably start to look scary somewhere along the line, like it's curdling -- that's totally normal, just keep beating it and it will come together.)
7. Beat in the champagne, one tablespoon at a time, tasting after each addition, until the flavor is to your liking. Then, beat a bit more, until light and fluffy.
8. Frost cupcakes and serve.

Monday, March 18, 2013



It's not often that I get to make food for a party -- after all, my husband and I aren't really the party-throwing type, not to mention that our apartment is in a perpetual state of disorder bad enough that we just can't ever have people over. But this past weekend, I got to help throw a bridal shower for a dear friend, and we settled on a wine-and-cocktails emphasis. What goes well with wine? Cheese, so I'm told (I don't drink wine, since I have yet to meet a wine I actually like). Cheese and crackers would be boring... but gougères, now those looked classy, fancy enough for a party and plenty cheesey, too.

Of course, I forgot that choux pastry, better known as the stuff you usually use to make eclairs and cream puffs, is a pain to make, 'cause it requires forcing eggs into an incredibly sticky dough that doesn't want to take them. Also, fun fact: if you put it in a food processor, the dough is so thick and sticky that it actually climbs up under the blade, up in there where it's a total bitch to clean out later. But hey, it came together, anyway, and the results were pretty darned tasty. In fact, the bride threatened to kidnap me and make me her personal cheesy-poofs chef. :) I guess that means they were worth it.

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 c milk
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 tsp salt
Dash cayenne pepper
1 c flour
3 eggs
1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese, plus a little bit extra
1 1/2 c grated Gruyere cheese

1. Bring the milk, butter, salt and cayenne barely to a boil in a saucepan. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the flour until thoroughly combined -- it should come together into a dense ball.
2. Mix in the eggs until thoroughly combined, by any means you can think of. If you're lucky, you can force them together with a spoon. Or try a food processor, or perhaps a heavy-duty electric mixer. Beware: This stuff is seriously sticky -- it will stick to your fingers, the spoon, really anything it comes anywhere near.
3. Stir in the cheeses, then use a couple of small spoons to scoop, shape and drop table-spoon sized balls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet an inch or two apart. Sprinkle the little bit of extra Parmesan on the tops.
4. Bake at 375 degrees for about a half-hour, until browned and crisp. Serve warm or room-temperature.