food

Spaghetti-less At Costco

My barometer for when the economy is doing better is when I can afford to renew my Costco membership. This month I got the chance to do that and get some bulk items that I needed, such as the chocolate-chip muffins (dozen), garbage bags (90-count) and fish oil pills (500-count). The one thing that I wasn’t able to find was an eight-pack of spaghetti. The two local Costco stores had spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese, but no spaghetti to complete the meal.

My favorite Costco is on Coleman Ave in San Jose. Driving there is a bit tricky if you miss the left-hand turn off to the side street for the parking lot entrance. Miss the left-hand turn off and drive past Costco, you’re on the ramp to De La Cruz Boulevard that goes straight into downtown Santa Clara, where returning to Coleman wasn’t a simple U-turn due to the keeping driving straight signs. Getting out of the street maze of Santa Clara is a trick in itself.

Although I haven’t been at this location for several years, the store layout hasn’t changed much and I found the items I was looking for. Except for the spaghetti. I found the spaghetti sauce, Parmesan cheese, and the other pasta that goes better with Alfredo sauce. I walked up and down the food aisles looking for spaghetti.

Was spaghetti a seasonal item at Costco?

The Costco store in Sunnyvale is at the intersection of Lawrence Expressway and the Caltrain tracks that didn’t intersect. You have to make a tricky right-hand U-turn from Lawrence to get into the parking lot. If you want to practice your Christmas holiday shopping parking skills, come here as the parking lot is always full, the drivers are always ruthless and shoppers with their carts are always in the way.

I haven’t been to this particular location since my parents retired to Sacramento in the early 1990’s. The store layout has changed since then, and organized much differently than the Coleman store. Once I got into the food aisles, I found the Spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese. Still no spaghetti. There was an empty space that a pallet of spaghetti could go into. This store was so busy that I couldn’t find an employee to check the loading dock to see if such a pallet came in.

How can Costco sell Spaghetti sauce and Parmesan cheese without the spaghetti? No clue.

Post-Halloween Discounted Holiday M&M’s

Harvest Holiday M&M's CandiesBetween Halloween and Thanksgiving Day, I’m on the lookout for discounted bags of milk chocolate Harvest Holiday M&M’s candies at the local CVS store. I never pay full price for holiday-themed M&M’s because the bags are smaller and more expensive than regular M&M’s. The best price I got last year was before Thanksgiving Day with six bags at $0.42 USD each for 90% off. I’m getting off to a good start this year.

The day after Halloween I stopped off at the CVS store nearest to my home (there are at least five stores in a three-mile radius). Not surprisingly, the discount was 50% off and I picked up two bags for the price of one. I came into the same store the following week to find the discount at 75% off. A sudden drop in the discount wasn’t expected for another week. With each bag at a buck each, I bought out the entire stock of milk-chocolate M&M’s (six bags). Unless I find some bags at 90% somewhere else, this is probably my haul until after Christmas.

After I told my friend about the holiday M&M’s, he wanted to get his own haul of discounted M&M’s candies. We went to the CVS store where I got the 90% discount last year. The discount was still 50% two weeks after Halloween (should have been 75%). The milk chocolate M&M’s were long gone. My friend picked up two bags of the white chocolate “candy corn” M&M’s, and a bag of real candy corn. A strange combination.

Despite the Christmas-themed candies hitting the shelves after Halloween, I didn’t see any Christmas M&M’s that shouldn’t be available until after Thanksgiving Day. Unlike last year, I hope the Christmas M&M’s will last beyond mid-December and get restocked before Christmas Day. I can’t get discounted bags of M&M’s if they’re not available after the holiday.

One of the problems I noticed last season (Halloween 2013 to Easter Day 2014) was CVS stocking the next holiday-themed M&M’s after the last candy holiday. Valentine M&M’s after Christmas Day, Easter M&M’s after Valentine’s Day. By the time the actual holiday comes around, the holiday-themed M&M’s are long gone. I hope that’s not the case this season, as I buy M&M’s only after the holidays.

Chef Carla Hall @ Santana Row

Chef Carla Hall @ Santana RowMy friend and I were at Santana Row last Saturday evening when we walked into Sur La Table to pick up some cooking utensils, saw a display announcing that Chef Carla Hall, current co-host of the “The Chew” and former competitor in “Top Chef” (Season Five), was having a book signing. We both thought that this event was for later this month. A sales clerk informed us that the cooking demo was taking place outside, the book signing was inside, and that Carla was running late from being in Southern California that morning.

Since we had nothing better to do, my friend bought the book, “Carla’s Comfort Foods: Favorite Dishes from Around the World,” and we stuck around for a few hours.

I’ve been a big fan of “Top Chef” since Season One premiered in 2006 because it was new, different and fun for a Reality TV series. Alas, Season One was special because the chefs were new to competitive cooking, didn’t know what to expect, and put the focus on their cooking. Season Two was horrible as the focus was on the hijinks of the contestants and cooking took a backseat. Every season thereafter was on a downhill slide where I stopped caring about the show over the years. I didn’t watch Season Ten when it aired last year.

Season Five may have been the exception to this sad state of affairs. Carla was the runner-up for that season. Out of the many winners and losers over the years, she has maintained a higher visibility than most by trading in her catering business to become a celebrity chef. Before my car died from a blown head gasket last year, I used to hear her on KGO Radio’s “Cooking With Ryan Scott” from time to time. Since I generally don’t watch TV, I’m not familiar with her work on ABC’s “The Chew.”

Carla arrived an hour late, strolling out of the store and on to the mini stage, where a cooking table with an overhead mirror and prepped food was waiting for her. Caribbean-style music blared out from the restaurant behind her. With her headset on, she introduced herself as she prepared an Italian dish called caponata with eggplants, explained the international flavor of her new cookbook, and took questions about being on “The Chew” and “Top Chef.” She was quite funny and the caponata was quite tasty.

After the cooking demo, Carla went inside the store and my friend lined up outside for the book signing. I spent my time roaming around the store, looking at items and being thankful that I’m unemployed, broke and immune from buying any kitchen gadgets. One item in particular I was looking for was a grill press. Not the BBQ kind, but the ones used in commercial kitchens. I’m using a heavy pot lid to press my hamburger patties on the stove. Alas, the store only had the BBQ kind. My friend, meanwhile, got his book signed and had a picture taken with Carla.

The Hunt For Discounted Holiday M&M’s Candies

Holiday-themed M&M CandyAfter a major candy holiday—Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas—I cruise the local CVS stores to pick up bags of holiday milk M&M’s at a steep discount. The first week discount is 50%, the second week discount is 75%, and, if any bags are still available after two weeks, the final discount is 90%. I scored six bags of Halloween-themed M&M’s for $0.42 USD each a few months ago. That’s the best deal I ever gotten. But the hunt for discounted M&M’s may be coming to an end by the way CVS is stocking holiday candies.

The Christmas-themed M&M’s were put out after Thanksgiving Day, disappeared by mid-December, and weren’t available before Christmas. In fact, regular bags of M&M’s were on sale for 50% off since mid-December. I don’t buy holiday M&M’s at regular price as the bags are slightly smaller than regular bags by a few ounces, which makes waiting until after the holiday for the discounted prices worthwhile. Alas, I lucked out on getting any Christmas-themed M&M’s last year.

The Valentine’s Day-themed M&M’s were put out after Christmas and disappeared by New Year’s Day. I’ve never seen holiday M&M’s come out this early. I mourned the prospects of being candy-less after Valentine’s Day for the last month. Checking out the local CVS stores over the last few days, a limited quantity of Valentine’s Day-themed M&M’s were available. A slim-to-none chance that I may score some discounted bags after Valentine’s Day.

As for the Easter-themed M&M’s, CVS stocked the shelves a week before Valentine’s Day. Never mind that Valentine’s Day is around the corner and Easter isn’t until April. You could pick up bags of two different holiday M&M’s at full price for a short while. Mind-boggling. I’m expecting the Easter M&M’s to sell out in a few weeks and a limited quantity available before the holiday. The chances of picking up any discounted bags will probably be non-existent.

Since I was near a See’s Candies store the other day, I braved the pre-Valentine’s Day candy traffic to pick up a box of milk chocolate peppermints. This special treat I usually pick up while shopping for Christmas presents. Although I’m ready to cruise the CVS stores after Valentine’s Day and expecting disappointment, I may have to get another box of milk chocolate peppermints since I already ate the box that I just got.

The Great Butterball Turkey Shortage 2013

iStock_000018159844XSmallButterball announced that there will be a shortage of large fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving this year, implying that the national holiday was in jeopardy if the American family couldn’t buy a large fresh turkey the day before. Not quite. Most families buy a frozen turkey and thaw it out in the fridge for a week. The turkey shortage, which affects only Butterball and no other turkey producer, may have come from cutting back on a growth hormone that is banned in China, Europe and Russia.

Butterball exports 10% (~100 million pounds) of their turkeys to the world. (Since Butterball owns 20% of the market, the total market is five billion pounds of turkey each year.) If these countries are refusing to accept any product containing these growth hormones for their citizens, why is Butterball still selling turkeys with this growth hormone to American consumers?

As my late father like to explain every holiday season about cattle ranching in the old days, it took two years to raise and fatten a calf to go to the market. With modern antibiotics and growth hormones, it takes six months to get a calf to the market. I’m not sure how long it takes a turkey to get fattening up for Thanksgiving Day, but I’m sure the process is similar. Without the growth hormones, Butterball might have to allow nature to run its course and let the turkeys have more time to fatten up.

My observation at the grocery stores in Silicon Valley is that the frozen commercial turkeys are on the slim side, in smaller quantities and in fewer varieties than in recent years.

My roommate and I picked up a hormone- and antibiotic-free frozen turkey from Whole Foods, which is about three times more expensive than the hormone- and antibiotic-laden frozen turkeys found at the other stores. I normally wouldn’t pay $45 USD for a turkey under any circumstance, especially if I’m out of work for six weeks. My roommate insisted on having an organic turkey—and paid for the privilege. If an organic turkey is similar to the organic cheeses I have eaten, the turkey should taste better, have nicer texture and give me less gas than a Butterball turkey.