Category Archives: Brands

Pizootz Peanuts

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As we all know, shelled peanuts that aren’t cross-contaminated with tree nuts are hard as hell to find. America’s Best Nut Co. makes some—the best, actually, end of story—but theirs are rather expensive, and I can’t justify shelling out $40 or so for a shipment each time I get a craving. For a once-in-a-while treat, America’s Best are absolutely perfect. But what about when I don’t want my peanuts to feel acutely like a finite resource? When I want to eat them by the handful, Planters-style, without being hounded by any sort of compulsion to calculate the cost per legume? When I want to bake them into some brownies, or sprinkle them atop some noodles? When I want, in general, to be reckless?

For that, I need access to plain old inexpensive, non-gourmet peanuts—ones I can pick up at an actual store in my actual area for, like, $3 a bag. And…with regard to that want, I’m still shit out of luck. But Pizootz are certainly a little cheaper, a little more accessible, a little more casual than America’s Best. It’s all in the names, really. America’s Best, refined and proper, might just sell America’s best peanuts; but Pizootz, with their playful  marketing and up-front flavors, is out there selling what I can only describe as a pizoot of a nut.

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A while back, I found a bag of Pizootz on a shelf in Chicago. (I’m a grocery-store tourist—whenever I go anywhere, I tour the regional grocery stores.) Right then and there, I sent Pizootz the same email I send to every company that looks like it might make safe peanuts, and within an hour (!!!), I’d heard back: “We do everything in house. No tree nuts. Only peanuts.” That was it. But that was, of course, all I needed to hear. So I went back and bought two bags, one of sea-salt-and-cracked-pepper peanuts, and one of dill-pickle peanuts.

Despite that word salad of a product description—seriously, click that last link, and let me know if you have any idea what those words are supposed to mean together, because they’ve bewildered me—the dill-pickle peanuts are excellent. Dill-pickle seasoning is usually too strong for me (see, for example, Halfpops), but the folks at Pizootz (or, uh, Dr. Alfred P. Pizootz himself, if we’re sticking to the lore) have somehow managed to get the proportions just right. These peanuts aren’t too briny, nor too dill’d up; they’re tangy, and they’re pickle-y, but they’re balanced, too. Plus, the flavoring is built-in, which means no dusty fingertips. Nice.

Those were the first Pizootz I tried, so it surprised me when the other flavors came bearing traces of the same tanginess. The cracked-pepper peanuts aren’t quite briny, nor are their plainer sea-salt cousins, but both are markedly tangier than your average peanut. The flavor isn’t unpleasant—there’s nothing wrong with it, really—but it’s something to be aware of, I guess. Personally, I happen to like it. For the most part. Most days.

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Anyway. When it comes to peanuts, dill-pickle flavoring is about as zany as I’ll go. (Originally, I’d bought those for Sam and only for Sam. I was shocked at how much I ended up liking them.) Otherwise, I’m a peanut purist—so for me the sea-salted peanuts, despite their untempered tang, are the way to go. Even the cracked pepper is too much for me, given the way it half-silences the peanuts’ actual, you know, peanut flavor. So sea salt it is. But that’s just me. Maybe you‘ve spent your whole life searching for safe Baja taco–inspired peanuts. And in that case, well…you’re in luck. (Look at that! Me, acknowledging any degree of subjectivity to food. Wild.)

Of course, these peanuts do come at a price—$19.99 per one-pound bag, to be exact. And while that price is, yes, pretty high, it isn’t actually all that crazy, given how long a pound of peanuts lasts (a long time, for me) and the fact that shipping’s free, always. So while Pizootz are certainly no Planters, I wouldn’t call them prohibitively expensive, either. I’d obviously prefer they were cheaper, or at least available in a store or two ’round these here parts, but…what can you do?

You can be grateful for what you’ve got, that’s what. Perhaps Pizootz is a little bit of a strange company. Perhaps their peanuts are a little small, a little feeble, a little lackluster. Perhaps they cost a little too much, or perhaps ordering them online is a little too much of a hassle. Perhaps their copy’s a little over-the-top, their handwritten notes (!!?!) a little too alliterative. Perhaps the flavor-infusion’s a little weird. Perhaps dusty fingertips aren’t so bad. But whatever your gripe—and I suppose I have plenty—you oughtn’t overlook Pizootz as an option. And a decent one, at that.

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CLIF Bar

Two CLIF Bars: one Coconut Chocolate Chip, and one Chocolate Brownie

When you live with food allergies for long enough, you inevitably come to associate certain visuals with danger—logos and packages that provoke in you not hunger or craving but fear, resentment, maybe even a sneer or two as you push your sorry cart down the aisle. Me, I have tons of such visual queues: the quadricolor KIND logo; the death nugget that is the Ferrero Rocher; those chicken stock–looking cartons of Almond Breeze; anything wrapped in that paleyellow color that (for whatever reason) evidently means “I contain almonds”; the plump, happy shape of a jar of Nutella

You have yours, too, I’m sure. Maybe the insistently “rugged” beige sack that holds the CLIF Bar is among them. It was for me, at least. But not anymore—because I’ve just found out that CLIF Bar & Company is actually a rather allergy-friendly brand with a very reliable labeling policy. Their website’s Dietary Considerations page has a column for “allergens: contains” and one for “allergens: may contain traces of,” and as I’ve been assured by a few different CLIF employees, you can assume that bars without nuts listed in either of those columns weren’t made on shared equipment with anything nutty, and that they should be safe from trace amounts of nuts, too. (Of course, you’ll always find the most up-to-date information on the label itself. If the label and the website disagree, the label absolutely takes precedence.)

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That—the fact that there are nut allergy–friendly CLIF Bars on this planet—is the good news. The bad news? There are only four nut-free flavors, and one’s seasonal. (There are some nut allergy–friendly Luna Bars, Zbars, and BUILDER’S Bars, too, but those aren’t the subject of this post, are they?) There’s Apricot, Chocolate Brownie, Coconut Chocolate Chip, and Hot Chocolate—the seasonal flavor that supposedly exists but that I’ve never actually seen (and believe me, I’ve looked). All four contain soy, and all may contain traces of wheat and dairy (with the exception of Apricot, which is dairy-free)—and all (like most CLIF products) are kosher, too. Not perfect for everyone, I guess, but pretty accommodating nonetheless.

As for taste, CLIF Bars are…well, they taste a lot like you’d expect. They’re marketed as that impossible triad: easy, healthy, and tasty (“CLIF BAR is a great-tasting energy bar made with a nutritious blend of organic rolled oats and wholesome ingredients for sustained energy”), but what are they, really? There’s no denying that they’re easy—to find, to cart around, to eat, whatever. Good for you, though? Well, not particularly. They’re packed with sugar—like, candy-bar levels of sugar, which means that if you’re looking for nutrition, you’re probably better off staying away. Actual nutritional-value aside, though, CLIF Bars do have a little of that health-food grit to them—but for what they are (or what they’re meant to be, I guess), CLIF Bars do taste pretty good.

I haven’t tried the Apricot bar (apricots tend to make my mouth itchy), but I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of the Chocolate Brownie and the Coconut Chocolate Chip, and I have to say, I definitely see the appeal. They’re sweet, but not too-too sweet, and both have a nice, chewy texture to them, too. Which I like better changes by the week, but right now I’m going to have to go with Chocolate Brownie (because, uh, I like cocoa). Preferences aside, though, both are pretty good. They’re ridiculously filling, at least. And I’m a sucker for the novelty of eating normal-people foods—especially those particular normal-people foods I’ve spent my life afraid of. So there’s that.

Find CLIF Bars wherever. (I buy them exclusively at NYU, with whatever Dining Dollars [i.e. campus currency that disappears at the end of the semester] I don’t spend on shampoo and Chick-fil-A, but they’re available at just about every store on the planet.)

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A Guide to Tree Nuts Made in Dedicated Facilities

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Like just about everyone else, I hate talking on the phone, especially when it involves trying to get straight, reliable answers out of people who are obviously trying to hide the fact that they have no idea what they’re talking about and who are, for whatever reason, weirdly resistant to the idea of going and finding out the answer to my questions—or, better yet, transferring my call to someone half-competent. Fortunately, though, running this blog has turned me into a call-making pro: I phrase my questions strategically. I push for the double-check. Sometimes I even—gasp—leave voicemails.

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SkinnyPop

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I can’t say I have a hard time finding nut allergy–friendly popcorn. As I’ve recently explained, I’m decidedly not of the call-every-company-about-every-product school, and most bagged popcorns I’ve found are indeed advisory label–free. Given all that, I’ve never had much trouble finding popcorn I’m comfortable with. Which means there’s no apparent reason, then, for me to be posting about SkinnyPop. I haven’t found anything unusual, nor anything game-changing—but this stuff is made in a nut-free facility, and I happen to be addicted to it, so. Here we go.

Before I get into anything else—and believe me, I have a lot of stupid shit to get into—I should probably go through allergens, etc. So: All of SkinnyPop’s products (popped popcorn, microwave popcorn, and popcorn cakes) are free from nuts, peanuts, dairy, soy, egg, and gluten. It’s all vegan, non-GMO (big whoop…), and kosher, and it’s free from preservatives, etc., too. SkinnyPop’s marketing really tries to play it off as healthy—it’s called SkinnyPop, after all—but as you probably already know if you’ve spent any time on this blog, that has approximately nothing to do with why I’m writing about this stuff.

Anyway. It’s taken me right around 20 years of life on this planet to realize that I hate most bagged popcorns: if it isn’t too “buttery,” it’s usually way too salty, and if it’s neither, it’s almost always way too bland. I know, I know: Get off your doughy ass and pop your own goddamn popcorn, you opinionated sluggard. I know! But popcorn is, to me, exclusively a no-effort snack. If I wanted to spend 10 minutes over the stove, I’d fry an egg or make some pasta. But I don’t. When I’m in a popcorn mood, I want to go straight from the cabinet to the most-sunken corner of my couch, and then I want to immediately start shoveling that popcorn, handful by handful, into the frightening chasm that is my open mouth.

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And you know what? SkinnyPop’s original just happens to be the perfect popcorn for such shoveling. There’s no squicky “butter” flavor, nor is there an overabundance of salt. In fact, SkinnyPop’s net moderate saltiness is probably my favorite thing about it. Most pieces are (just a little) under-salted, but every few handfuls, you’ll find a perfect piece or two. Now, if every piece were so “perfect” (read: salty as fuck), a handful or two of SkinnyPop would be overwhelming. But the “rarity” of the salty bits makes those salty bits cherish-worthy, and that‘s what keeps me shoveling this stuff into my mouth: I can’t help but chase the salt.

Here, because I’m an intellectual who’s read approximately 40% of the Nicomachean Ethics (and who’s just declared a minor in philosophy—please clap), I’m compelled to go into a whole hokey-jokey thing about how SkinnyPop, with its modest saltiness that rests precisely at the mean between the relevant extremes of under- and over-salt, teaches a popcorn-related sort of temperance. (After all, you really don’t need to be excessive when you’ve got SkinnyPop showing off the perks of moderation. I’d know—I’ve tried adding salt…)

When I eat this stuff, I feel like I’m honing in on virtue. And I enjoy it—it being both the lack of over-salt and the performing of the virtuous act—so thoroughly that I’ve no choice but to conclude that I must really be virtuous. Right? (Yada yada yada. This whole Aristotle thing was actually how I was planning on opening this post, so consider yourself lucky that I’ve downgraded it to a self-conscious interlude.)

Thing is, the whole virtuous-act thing is totally negated by the fact that this popcorn is particularly suited for binge-eating, precisely because of its fixture at the mean between the relevant extremes. I can’t plow through a bag of salt-corn or keep myself chewing on the bland stuff; I need SkinnyPop’s consistent inconsistency to rope me in and keep me shoveling. And while I don’t want to want to binge-eat, I certainly do want a popcorn that compels me to. And as I sit here—on that most-sunken couch cushion, where else?—trying not to pick too much at popcorn I’m supposed to be photographing, I can say with confidence that SkinnyPop does just that.

Find it just about everywhere: Duane Reade, Walgreens, CVS, 7-Eleven, Whole Foods, Food Emporium, Gristedes, D’Agostino, Key Food, Fairway, Target…I’ll stop.

[I realize, of course, that I’ve spent this whole post on just one of a total of fourteen SkinnyPop products. That’s because I’m somewhat of a popcorn purist, so I’ve never actually tried any of SkinnyPop’s more-colorful offerings. As for the popcorn cakes…they’re fine, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing. They’re too similar to rice cakes for my liking, but there’s nothing wrong with them, really.]

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Herr’s “Chocolate”-Covered Sourdough Pretzels

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A while back—when it was still cold out, of course—I decided it’d be a good idea to hop on an early-morning Chinatown bus to Philadelphia. I had no plan, nor anything to dabble in, so I ended up spending the whole day wandering. In the midst of those wanders, the wind got to me: my fingers and toes went numb, and so I decided to pop into some random supermarket to warm up (and gawk at food). It was there that I found these pretzels.

As a reflex, I pick up every bag (or tub, in this case) of chocolate-covered pretzels I see—and with the exception of Vermont Nut-Free’s, I’ve never come across one without a “may contain” warning for tree nuts. But as you’ve probably predicted, this tub of pretzels was unlike those others. It had no such warning, so I had no choice but to take it home.

In general, I’m one to go by labels. Unless I’ve found some specific cause for concern—the product in question is particularly high-risk, or it’s coming from a teeny-tiny company that makes a bunch of nut-containing products, too—I’ll dig right in to any packaged good whose label has no mention of tree nuts. I do that knowing full well that companies aren’t required to label for shared facilities, shared lines, etc., because…well, I’m just not a company-caller. (Many are—and if you got all your impressions from food allergy–themed online communities, you’d think that most were. But I really doubt the practice is all that widespread, especially among those who haven’t self-selected into allergy-related Facebook groups.)

The way I see it, if I adopted a set of food-safety standards so high that they required me to always confirm that a product comes from a nut-free facility before allowing myself to eat it—and if I were to really abide by that rule, and carry it out to its logical conclusion, which is some sort of obligation to make sure everything I put in my mouth is, as far as I can tell, free from all possible cross-contamination—I’d soon find that my standards were not only impossible to meet, but that they’d necessarily lead to something like a near-infinite regress of uncertainty, too. [Here, I will—for the first (and hopefully last) time—share a meme on this blog.]

Think about it. There’s just no way to confirm that a product is safe. What if the employee I spoke with was wrong? What if Nabisco has told me that my graham crackers come from a nut-free facility, but they don’t mention (or even know) that the flour that’s gone into those same graham crackers was itself processed on shared lines? What if a factory worker ate some almonds with his lunch? And what if I want to eat out? Am I going to ask a restaurant to provide me with a list of every single product that’s gone into my dish, and then proceed to call each and every one of those manufacturers before deciding whether to order? And what about that manufacturer’s suppliers?

Fuck no. All food comes with risk. I’ll survive. (Plus, my allergist’s on my side. So take that.) [Edit: For more on all this, read the comments on this post.]

Ingredient information on the back of a Herr's chocolate-covered pretzels tub

That all said—and yes, this whole post is just an excuse for the above demi-treatise—I did contact Herr’s about these pretzels—not as a precaution before eating, but as a precaution before sitting down to write this blog post. (Seems weird to throw a product post together without having spoken to the manufacturer. No matter how comfortable I feel at a restaurant, I wouldn’t publish a post on it without having gotten some summarizable allergen information out of one or two of its employees…or its website, I guess.) And eventually, I was able to find out that these chocolate-covered pretzels are, in fact, nut-free.

Originally, I was told (via email) that these particular chocolate-covered pretzels are made in a nut- and peanut-free facility, but that obviously wasn’t true, given that the label has a “may contain” statement for peanuts. I replied and said as much—and then, a day or two later, I got an unexpected phone call from a very apologetic (and very, very informed) Herr’s employee who’d evidently been tasked with setting the record straight. So: These pretzels—the ones that come in the red tub pictured at the top of this post—are made in a tree nut–free facility that does indeed handle peanuts, and they should be 100% safe for those with tree nut allergies.

By now, it’s beside the point, but the pretzels themselves are fine. They’re just about what you’d expect, really: thin, sour-ish pretzels, covered in a fair amount of sub-par “chocolate.” (It isn’t actually chocolate, but rather a chocolate-flavored coating.) They’re nothing to go out of your way for, but they’re nonetheless palatable. And even though they’re a little on the expensive side, they’re certainly less bank-breaking than Vermont Nut-Free’s. I don’t love them, and I’m not sure I’d buy them again, but…they’re chocolate-covered pretzels, and they’ve temporarily relieved me of my craving. I don’t ask for much more.

Anyway. I’m not actually sure where you can find these pretzels. (Remember: excuse, demi-treatise.) They aren’t listed on the Herr’s website, nor can I find much of anything about them online. With regard to potential allergens, the pretzels that come in the above-pictured red bucket aren’t necessarily the same as any of the other chocolate-covered pretzels sold by Herr’s. Rest assured, though, that these do exist, and that they (in particular) are safe.

They’re out there. I swear.

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SunButter

A Jar of Natural Crunch SunButter

I know what you’re thinking: “What’re you doing blogging about SunButter? It’s a peanut butter substitute, and you’re only allergic to tree nuts!” But you, who were almost certainly not thinking the above, can rest assured that I’m well aware of my ability to eat peanut butter. I’ve chosen to post about SunButter because it’s both (a) decidedly tree nut–free, too—and thus well within the scope of this blog—and (b) damn good, to the extent that I often freely choose to use it instead of its more-allergenic cousin.

Before we move on, though, let’s go back—to the school cafeteria that served me the majority of my age-3 to age-14 lunches. Toward the beginning of my time at that school, nuts weren’t banned. There’d be the occasional offering of nut-containing macaroons or baklava, and there was always peanut butter around, too. Eventually, the administration instituted a few peanut tables (at which you were required to sit if you wanted to eat peanuts), but that rule didn’t last long. By the time I was 7 or 8, they’d outlawed all nuts—but I never really thought of that change in terms of myself or my own allergies, really, given that there were never all that many tree nuts in their cooking to begin with. The only real day-to-day difference was the glaring absence of peanut butter.

But I liked peanut butter, so I was as annoyed as any of the nut-unallergic kids. (My grade had one other nut-allergic kid, whom I’d always look to—across the room, as we didn’t really know each other—for reassurance before I’d be willing to bite into my own serving of the school-birthday food in question. I don’t think he ever did find out that he was my food-allergy guinea pig. Oh well.) And my school’s introduction of SunButter did approximately nothing to make me feel better. In fact, I hated it. We all hated it. It tasted funny—like it’d been left out in the sun, we 2nd-Grade experts at observational comedy declared. And our school had us all scooping the stuff out of a big ol’ communal tub, too, which really didn’t help.

The reason it sucked, though, was because it was peanut butter we unallergic were after. SunButter isn’t made from peanuts; it’s made from sunflower seeds, and it tastes like it’s made from sunflower seeds. I don’t know what it’s like for people who’ve never eaten peanut butter (or for people who haven’t had peanut butter in years), but I do know this: If you have a decent sense of what peanut butter tastes like, and you’re expecting SunButter to taste the same, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s approximately the same—the texture’s essentially identical, and the flavor is rather similar—but the difference is noticeable enough to produce that dreaded effect of off-ness that you’ll get from nearly every single allergen(s)-replaced product out there.

So because of that—because I was a little repulsed by SunButter as it comes across when it’s meant to pass for peanut butter—I’ve spent the better part of the last decade staying far, far away from the stuff. Last year, though, when I gave Free2b’s sun cups a try, I was forced to reconsider. I absolutely loved the sunflower-seed butter they’d used—and it tastes just like the SunButter I used to hate. Something had to give.

The deal, I think, was that I’d recently grown to appreciate sunflower seeds, so when I bit into that sunflower-butter cup, it was a sunflower-y flavor I was hoping for. I wasn’t expecting peanut butter, nor was I expecting a seamless substitute; I was expecting ground-up sunflower seeds, and that expectation made all the difference. And sure enough, when I (for science) closed my eyes and forced myself to expect a Reese’s Cup, the Free2b cup turned unpleasant.

I guess what I’m trying to say, then, is that if you treat SunButter like a specialty item—if you go into it expecting something decidedly different from peanut butter, that is—then 10 times out of 10, it’ll taste great. You have to want all the differences, though. Compared to peanut butter, SunButter is earthier, sourer. Deeper, more nuanced. And ever-so-slightly funky, too. Truly, it tastes just like sunflower seeds—and once you’ve come to terms with that (ultimately delightful) fact, this stuff really starts to rival peanut butter.

A SunButter-and-jelly sandwich

I like it fine on its own, and it’s good on bananas, too, but in my always-humble opinion, SunButter performs best in an SB&J (that’s a SunButter-and-jelly sandwich—keep up). The sandwich, like (well, because of) the SunButter itself, won’t taste right if it’s specifically peanut butter you’re after, but again: If you expect somewhat of a riff on a PB&J—and if you’ve really, truly gotten yourself ready to accept the sunflower seed as your Lord and Savior—then you’ll be handsomely rewarded with what I’m going to have to insist is an objectively superior sandwich. (Sorry. Can’t explain why. It’s just better.)

Anyway. SunButter comes in all your standard peanut-butter varieties—natural, creamy, crunchy, organic, and no sugar added—and each and every one is entirely free from peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, dairy, egg, sesame, and soy. I like the crunchy best (though it only comes “natural,” and so it does separate), but all are fine, really—provided you, like me, have turned yourself over to the Almighty Sunflower.

Find SunButter at Whole Foods, Best Market, Target, Walmart, Fairway, or Foodtown. Grab a coupon, though, because this stuff is expensive.

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Cava Grill

A nut-freemeatball-and-falafel pita from Cava Grill

Cava is both like and unlike the sorts of places I’m usually most into. The nut-free kitchen, the proximity to NYU, and the assembly line–style ordering are all qualities we all know I stand no chance against, but Cava’s exclusive focus on Mediterranean cuisine and its potential to be so decidedly healthy are both pretty foreign to the Nut-Free New York world. (I just scrolled through my list of restaurants, and I guess I’m even more into junky, fatty food than I’d thought. Go figure.)

This place is a lot like Chipotle, but for Greek food. (If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone liken a fast-casual restaurant to Chipotle, I’d have enough for more than one double-protein entree at Cava. It’s just a lazy way of saying that the restaurant is predicated on a build-your-own-dish concept. But Cava really is a lot like the “Mexican Grill” I’ve grown so disillusioned with.) Five or six employees stand shoulder-to-shoulder at a long counter, taking turns scooping measured heaps of whatever you want into your bowl. You’ll choose your base, your protein, your spread(s), your toppings, and your sauce, and then you’ll exchange your $10-ish for the right to dig in. It’s quick, easy, and painless, and pretty much all the food is great.

Allergen information first, though. Before I even got to Cava’s contact form, I came across their allergen charts, below which the following magical sentence is posted: “We use no peanuts, tree nuts, or any other kind of nuts in our food.” (By the way, those same allergen charts are printed on the back of every menu. A nice touch.) I wondered—though a bit idly—about individual ingredients and whether they might’ve been cross-contaminated, so I sent Cava an email, and the response I received was as follows:

We can confirm that all of our restaurants are a nut-free facility. However, our cookies are produced in a kitchen that has a possibility of cross-contamination…Our pita is made on equipment that also processes sesame seeds and soy, but not tree nuts.

Which brings me to my next point of celebration: Cava isn’t just a restaurant—it’s a manufacturer, too. So a bunch of the ingredients they use in their restaurants (their pita and their tahini, for example, as well as a whole bunch of their spreads) are actually products that are made in Cava’s own facilities. That information did a whole bunch to allay any cross-contamination concerns I had—and by now, I’m entirely comfortable eating at Cava. (I’ve still decided not to categorize the chain as “truly nut-free,” as I haven’t found any reason to believe that they require all their ingredients to be contamination-free. Still, though.)

A pita from Cava

Anyway. There’s a ton of variety at Cava, which leaves you with lots of room to play around. And really, that’s what makes this place so much fun: the fact that you can get whatever the hell you want. A big-ass bowl of black lentils topped with grilled chicken, red-pepper hummus, some cabbage slaw, a scoop of tomato-and-cucumber salad, a sprig of mint, and a squirt of green-harissa dressing? You got it. A warm pita spread with hummus and tzatziki, then filled with a mix of meatballs and falafel, a generous heap of pickled onions, some tomato-and-onion salad, a handful of shredded romaine, a few crumbles of feta, and a whole lot of both lemon-herb tahini and yogurt-dill dressing? Sure thing. (Can you guess which of the two is my order? Hint: It’s the one with all the gluten.)

That, yes, is my signature order. I’ve actually never seen anyone else order a pita at Cava, but I just can’t get enough of them. They’re just so warm and fluffy—and in my eyes, at least, forking my way through a bowl is guaranteed to be a lot less fun than chewing away at an overstuffed pita. As for Cava’s protein options, it’s tough to go wrong. I’m equally into the grilled chicken, the grilled beef meatballs, and the falafel—I haven’t yet tried any of the others, actually—and I’ll typically go half-and-half (which is the way to go at Cava, if you ask me).

The falafel are a little weird, but I really do like them. They shed whole chickpeas like nobody’s business, and they don’t have much of that signature falafel flavor, but what flavor they do have meshes well with pretty much all of Cava’s spreads and toppings. (Plus, if you stop by during high-traffic hours, there’s a good chance they’ll be crispy, which makes all the difference.)

The chicken’s a little more flavorful than the falafel—the salt helps, for sure—and the beef meatballs are some of my all-time favorite meatballs, for whatever that’s worth. (Not so much, probably. I really don’t like meatballs. But these, on a good day, are essentially just juicy little balls of medium-rare steak, and I love them. Bonus meatball photo below.)

A Cava pita bearing a meatball

As for the spreads, toppings, and dressings, there isn’t all that much to say. Each and every one of the spreads is good—I like to keep it simple, but they have plenty of interesting options, like Crazy (i.e. jalapeño-filled) Feta, or eggplant-and-red-pepper dip—and the same is true of the dressings, too. Plus, all the ingredients that go into the toppings taste high-quality and fresh, and there’s absolutely nothing I’d warn against getting.

And that, too, is a big part of the fun: The fact that there’s nothing avoid-worthy on the Cava menu. I may not be the biggest fan of lentils or beds of greens or cabbage or cucumber, but that’s the beauty of this place, isn’t it? I get to have whatever I want (and when what I want just happens to be a calorie bomb, the folks at Cava don’t care). So I’m in. So, so in—and so grateful to have found something that’s so dissimilar, flavor-wise, from my usual haunts.

Oh, and by the way, Cava is the only restaurant I’ve ever come across that has a Maine Root machine. Serious, serious selling point. Maine Root’s Mexicane Cola is my all-time favorite bottled soda, and the fountain version is even better. I’m pretty much incapable of stopping by Cava without grabbing some Mexicane Cola, and I’m not ashamed in the slightest.

Find Cava at 143 4th Avenue, between 13th and 14th. (That’s their only NYC location, but they have a bunch in other states, too.)

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Sweet Middles

Three crème brulée Sweet Middles

I find a lot of decidedly nut-free nonsense in the bowels of this city’s low-end supermarkets. Lofthouse cookies, Everyday Favorites (i.e. Maplehurstcupcakes, box after box of shitty (nut-free) donuts…there’s no shortage. I hardly ever buy any of it, because I’m well aware that all of it is sub-par and way, way, way too sugary—but every once in a while, I “forget” all about that and let myself be marketed to.That’s how I end up with something like a box of Sweet Middles on my kitchen counter. Waiting to be sampled. Waiting to be photographed. Waiting to be written about. Waiting. Waiting.

…Well, now I’m here.

Most of Our Specialty‘s products—cakes, flatbreads, pizzas—aren’t made in a nut- and peanut-free environment, but Sweet Middles are, lucky us. There’s no allergen information to get into, really: just a little nut- and peanut-free logo on each box. And for better or for worse, that’s all it takes to get me to pull out my wallet. So now, I’m the proud owner of my very own box of crème brulée Sweet Middles.

The back of a box of crème brulée Sweet Middles

And what is there to say, really? They’re exactly what they look like: ridiculously over-sweet (and overpriced) supermarket “cookies” that I would’ve been guaranteed to love at age 9 or 10, but that sort of just hurt my teeth and make me feel bad about myself at 20. They’re basically just semi-hardened globs of super-sugary icing wedged between sets of soft-baked cookie-ish things. I haven’t been able to detect any crème brulée flavor (nor any flavor beyond that of pure sugar, really), but it’s possible that it’s there, I guess. (And it’s possible, too, that the other flavors are better…but I’m inclined to doubt.)

Honestly, though—and I’m so, so ashamed of this—I don’t quite hate them. While they’re, yes, so sweet that I haven’t been able to bring myself to take even a single full-sized bite, there’s definitely something that’s keeping me coming back for additional nibbles. And after a few days of on-and-off wrestling with these stupid things, I’ve figured out what it is: their striking similarity to the Mrs. Fields cookies of my pre–careful eating childhood. (As a kid, I was obsessed with both the Mrs. Fields cookie-and-icing sandwiches and the Auntie Anne’s pretzel bites that you’ll find at, like, every single mall on the planet. But neither of those vendors is allergy-friendly in the slightest, so I’ve since decided to abstain.)

With a lot of water—and I mean a lot—I can even get through a whole serving (that’s one cookie, I think). Slowly, slowly, slowly, I will make my way through this $6 box of shame. And then I’ll be free. To never, ever, ever buy a box of Sweet Middles ever, ever again. But then, I’ve learned this before. A million times, at least. So really, between you and me, I’m not feeling all that hopeful about the whole well-at-least-I’ll-learn-from-this thing. Oh well.

Find these half-delicious, half-painful cookie monsters at Key Food, Gristedes, D’Agostino, or Fairway. (Actually: 2% delicious, 18% genuinely painful, and 80% just plain bad.)

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Ghirardelli Chocolate Chips

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I have no idea what possessed me to go out and buy a bag of Ghirardelli’s milk-chocolate chocolate chips—maybe it was the pressure I felt to get on with it and finally buy something from the brand-new Target that recently opened near my apartment, or maybe it was the downright vitriolic Ghirardelli-related debate I came across in one of the many horrifying allergy-related Facebook groups I like to browse when I’m feeling particularly masochistic. Whatever the reasons, I bought a bag. And ate its contents. Then bought another. And another. And now I’m here, weeks later, still hooked, blogging.

The Facebook argument—and I’m probably aggregating three or four arguments here, because, like most special-interest online forums, these Facebook groups make me lose (a) my mind and (b) my desire to get it back—was, of course, about whether Ghirardelli’s chocolate chips are safe for those with nut allergies. I love myself, so I didn’t weigh in, but I guess now’s my time.

After reaching out to Ghirardelli, I received the following reply (which is 100% consistent with everything I’ve been able to find online, too):

Ghirardelli Bars and Squares are made in a facility and on shared equipment with products containing the following tree nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, cashews and coconut. Peanuts are no used in the manufacturing of our Bars and Squares.

The chocolate chips (60% Bittersweet, Semi-Sweet, Mini Semi-Sweet, Double Chocolate and Milk Chocolate) do not contain tree nuts or peanuts; moreover, the chocolate chips line does not make products containing tree nuts or peanuts. However, our chips are produced in the same facility as our Bars and Squares.

The Classic White Chips are produced in a facility and on equipment that makes products containing peanuts and tree nuts.

So while I probably wouldn’t risk it with Ghirardelli’s bars or squares, I’m entirely comfortable with their chocolate chips (with the unfortunate exception of the Classic White). Of course, these chips aren’t made in a dedicated facility—but they are made on dedicated lines, which is good enough for me. (Plus, with how good these chips are, I can’t even fathom opting to use a dedicated-facility brand like Enjoy Life. There just isn’t any competition between the two products—especially if your only allergy is to nuts.)

Of course, you should always defer to the label for the most up-to-date information. Ghirardelli’s great about labeling issuing “may contain” warnings whenever there’s any sort of cause for concern, so the allergen statement will be sure to let you know if the above information has, for some reason, changed.

Anyway, I should probably get to talking about chocolate. Ghirardelli’s is great, and these days, I straight-up refuse to bake with any other chips. The semi-sweet chips are absolutely perfect for brownies—last week, I used them in this recipe, and the brownies ended up being some of the best I’ve ever had—but the milk-chocolate chips are the ones I’ll eat by the handful. They’re smooth and sweet, but not at all cloying—and they are, of course, totally free from that artificial Hershey-esque flavor all reasonable people hate so much.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s an open bag of chocolate chips in one of my cabinets, and I have to, um…get to that.

Find Ghirardelli products just about everywhere.

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Eleni’s: NYC’s Only Nut-Free Bakery

A wall of nut-free cookies at Eleni's

[Edit: As of the new year—that’s 2017—Eleni’s has closed its Chelsea Market storefront. Everything’s still available through their website, though.]

Eleni’s just might be New York City’s most well-known nut-free establishment. At the very least, it’s the city’s only full-fledged nut-free bakery. And, it’s (to my dismay…) one of the first few Google results for “nut-free New York”—or it was a few months ago, before Google decided to start kissing my ass and showing me (and me alone) my own blog above all else. In any case, Eleni’s is important, so I figured it was about time I write about it.

Boring stuff out of the way first, though. Eleni’s is 100% nut-free, in the most legitimate sense of the term. There are no peanuts or tree nuts allowed in their bakery, and they require allergen statements from all of their vendors, too. They also test periodically for the presence of nuts in both their bakery and their Chelsea Market storefront. (And by the way, all their products are kosher, too.)

img_6613Nut-free chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting from Eleni's

Located within Chelsea Market, Eleni’s is sort of out of the way. On the bright side, though, it’s maybe a 30-second walk from Los Tacos No. 1, which consistently churns out some of the best tacos in this city. That place is seriously delightful, and actually motivates me to deal with the straight-up horrors of Chelsea Market. But I’m here to talk about Eleni’s, so I’d better, um…get to doing that.

Eleni’s sells a pretty wide array of products—cupcakes (traditional and mason-jarred), brownies, popcorn, whoopie pies, chocolate-covered pretzels, and, of course, cookies: hand-iced cookies, soft cookies, crisp cookies, photo-printed cookies, and even colorable cookies. Very obviously, the place is geared toward children—which would be fine by me if its products were good enough to pass the adult (or quasi-adult) taste test. Unfortunately, though, most aren’t.

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Cupcakes and cookies are clearly the bakery’s main focus, so you might expect those, at least, to be good. But they aren’t. The cupcakes, though cute-as-can-be, are ridiculously sweet, and the cookies…well, they’re hit-or-miss. The boxed cookies (i.e. the crisp cookies, which are, I think, the only Eleni’s product sold in grocery stores) are good, but the hand-iced cookies are, again, too sweet (and too expensive). For (what I hope to be) obvious reasons, I’ve never tried the Color Me! cookies, but they seem to be nearly the same as the hand-iced cookies, minus some color. And then there are the soft cookies—good when they’re soft, but rock-hard (and pretty bad) by the end of the day.

Still, the cupcakes (and the super-sweet cookies) are absolutely perfect for children. As a kid, I know I would’ve loved each and every one of Eleni’s cupcakes, should they ever have found their way into my greedy, sticky five-year-old paws. But they didn’t, and now I’m 20, with a palate that’s (only a little) less tolerant of absurd amounts of sugar, so I have a hard time getting through even a single Eleni’s cupcake. Oh well.

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The brownies, though, are another story. They’re rich and chocolatey, without being overly sweet—and all the varieties (chocolate chip, cheesecake, salted caramel, and s’mores) are pretty damn good. Beware, though: they, too, transform into something else by the end of the day, having lost all their moisture (and having become rather icky indeed). If you can manage to snag one early, though, I’d certainly recommend doing so, as it’s not easy to find nut-free brownies as good as these.

I also love, love, love the chocolate-covered pretzels. I don’t have much to say about them—they’re just your average, run-of-the-mill chocolate-covered pretzels, with (fortunately) no frills or added “bonuses”—but I have a special place in my heart for them, given how difficult it is to find nut-free chocolate-covered pretzels. (Seriously. Try looking for safe ones in stores. You won’t find any.) They’re grotesquely overpriced, sure. But they’re safe, and they’re tasty, so I buy them.

Aside from the brownies and the pretzels, though, there isn’t much at Eleni’s that I buy often. I always want a cupcake or two, but I (sort of) know better than to spend any more money on a product I know I don’t like, so usually, I find the self-control to abstain. The same goes for the whoopie pies—I know they’re too sweet, but I always, always want one. As long as I can quickly redirect myself toward the brownies, though, things tend to turn out all right.

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I’ve been pretty mean to Eleni’s, I know. It isn’t my fault their bakers are so heavy on the sugar, obviously—but I do feel bad for hating on the place, given its lovely mission. I mean, come on: it’s a decidedly nut-free bakery. How many of those exist in the entire world, even? New York City has The Donut Pub and Everybody Eats, sure—but the former’s a one-trick pony, and the latter’s gluten-free (and focused almost exclusively on bread, anyway). Eleni’s is, as far as I know, the only nearby business of its kind—so what kind of a person would I be if I weren’t grateful for its existence?

Anyway, I’m (sort of) sorry for trash-talking the place. For those of you who need to steer clear of nuts—which is only, like, 60% of my readership, for reasons that are totally beyond me—I’d say Eleni’s is definitely worth a try. Especially if you’re really into sugar (and especially-especially if you have children).

Find Eleni’s inside of Chelsea Market, which is itself located at 75 9th Avenue, between 15th and 16th Streets. (Or, if it’s just the boxed cookies you’re after, check out Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, Gourmet Garage, Grace’s Marketplace, or Morton Williams.)

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