Category Archives: Kosher

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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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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Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery

Yohan Schimmel Knish Bakery's storefront

Before I begin, let me make one thing perfectly clear: The spelling of Yonah Schimmel’s last name varies. “Schimmel” is the more popular option—and it’s the one that the bakery’s own website uses—but the goddamn sign (well, the main one, at least) says “Shimmel,” so I don’t know what to tell you. I’m aware that none of this matters, and that at a certain point, discrepancies like this one just give way to a suite of dead-end philosophical questions (à la “what really determines a name?”)…but shit, man. Look closely at the above photo and you’ll find two votes for “Shimmel” and two for “Schimmel.” That alone makes me dizzy—but the trouble’s everywhere. Compare the Wikipedia page‘s title to its first few words, then join me in my discomfort. (As if.)

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I’ve settled on “Schimmel.” Now that I’ve stopped twitching, let’s begin:

I grew up knish-less. I ate my first ever at Katz’s, and that was a Coney Island (i.e. square) knish, which a purist would certainly dismiss as inferior. I like my square knishes, though, so I figured I might as well try some round knishes, too. And where better to try my first proper knish than Yonah Schimmel, America’s first (and most famous) knishery?

The menu’s small—there are knishes, bagels, and (on the weekends) latkes—so I figured I’d probably be safe. To be sure, though, I did call in, at which point I was told that there aren’t any nuts present in the kitchen. The bagels aren’t made in house (apparently, they come from a place called Natural Produce, which I haven’t been able to find online), but the knishes and latkes are indeed safe. (Safe in theory, at least. There are a few dessert-like knishes that I prefer to avoid, but that’s only for my own peace of mind, really. It’s not that I think I’d react; it’s that I think I’d spend the meal stressing. No point.)

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Anyway. My feelings about this place are so, so mixed. There’s a certain appeal to the fact that the Schimmel family—yes, they’re still in charge—have been serving up these same knishes since 1910. Plus, despite the knishery’s fame, it’s managed to avoid the sort of hype that’s been known to take away from places like Katz’s. (I love Katz’s. But long lines and hordes of tourists? Not so much.) Yonah Schimmel certainly isn’t unknown, but it isn’t exactly a high-traffic spot, either. And despite all the knish-brags that cover its walls, it’s actually a humble little place: teeny-tiny and unapologetically cluttered, with a few tables that don’t quite seem like they’re meant to be sat at. And it’s calm and quiet, too; there’s hardly ever anyone inside.

Here’s the thing, though: The knishes blow. I want to love them. I really do. But they just don’t do it for me, and that’s around 95% due to the fact that the folks at Yonah Schimmel think it’s okay to fucking microwave them. Heads up: IT ISN’T. Without fail, the microwaving absolutely ruins whatever texture these knishes might’ve had—but I can’t really speak to that texture, because I’ve never had an un-microwaved Yonah Schimmel knish. (I’ve shown up early-ish, late-ish, and at whatever hour’s in between the two, but I’ve yet to end up at Yonah Schimmel at fresh-knish time. But I shouldn’t have to show up at some nebulous time of day to ensure that my food will be un-terrible.)

The flavor’s good, though—in most of the knishes I’ve tried, at least. The potato’s very plain, but a little mustard solves that problem; and mushroom (pictured in the foreground of the photo immediately above) and broccoli are both all right, too. Mixed vegetable (pictured below) is a little weird—it comes off like someone emptied the “vegetable” contents of a Cup Noodles into a knish—and they’ve been out of cheese knishes every single time I’ve ever stopped by, but whaddaya gonna do? (It’s not as if I really want a microwaved cheese knish, anyway.)

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I will say, though, that I love the latkes. Microwaved, they’re just as soggy as you’d imagine, but the flavor’s spot-on, and they’re huge, too. I suppose you could take a few home and reheat them properly, but that seems like a whole lot of work for something that’s meant to be a grab-and-go sort of snackmeal. (The same goes for the knishes. I’m just not that motivated. But maybe you are.)

Maybe this stuff is great when it’s fresh. Maybe the knishes are moist; maybe the outer layers of dough stay crisp. Maybe the vegetables become, um…less canned. That’s what I have to tell myself, else I’d have to hate Yonah Schimmel—and that’s just not something I want to do. So that leaves me in a little bit of a weird position, I guess: I’d never recommend going out of your way for one of these knishes, nor would I necessarily recommend stopping in for one if you happen to be passing by. But I don’t know, man. There’s just something about this place.

…And I know it’s totally pointless for me to say that without offering any sort of elaboration, but it isn’t just a turn of speech; I really don’t know what it is about Yonah Schimmel that so softens me. Guess I’ll just have to keep going back, then—if not expressly in the hopes of getting my hands on a good knish, then in the hopes of figuring out why I’m so decidedly un-angry at these shitty ones.

Find Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery at 137 Houston Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge. Bring cash—and if you want any latkes, be sure it’s a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. (By the way, Yonah Schimmel is kosher-certified, but they’re open from 9:30am to 7pm every day.)

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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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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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The Pickle Guys

An employee scooping up some pickled vegetables at The Pickle Guys

A pickle’s just a pickle, right? Wrong. So wrong. These pickles are special, and I already know I’m not going to be able to do them justice. Here’s to trying, though.

When I started eating at Katz’s—and believe me, I started—I stopped eating pickles. Theirs are beautiful, but I just can’t deny how bad they taste. Their new pickles are basically just unadulterated cucumbers (ick! not for me), and their full-sours are just too sour for human consumption. I know, of course, that there are better pickles out there, but…I don’t know. The ones at Katz’s totally demoralized me, so I’ve been off pickles for a while now.

But whenever I walk over to Kossar’s—home of some of the best bagels ever—I can’t help but gaze longingly at The Pickle Guys, a real-deal Lower East Side institution that sells—can you guess?—pickles, and lots of them. But cucumbers are not the only thing The Pickle Guys brine; they also do olives, tomatoes, pineapples, mangoes, beets, peppers, okra, string beans, garlic, turnips, and a whole bunch of other shit, too. (Plus, come Passover, the employees grab their gas masks and head out to the sidewalk to grind up absurd amounts of horseradish. I don’t know about you, but happen to think that’s pretty badass.)

Part of the menu at The Pickle Guys

After walking by enough times (and after doing some Pickle Guys–related reading), I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer. I’d have to stop by, and soon. Before I could, though, I (of course) had to make sure their food wouldn’t kill me—so I sent them an email, asking whether they might have any nuts on-site. Within a day or two, I had my answer: “No we don’t use any tree nuts. We used to carry Almond Stuffed Olives but that was over 2 years ago.” Sweet. (Sour?…I’ll see myself out.)

Anyway, I stopped by on the first day of Sukkot, which meant the store would be closing at 4pm, rather than the usual 6pm. Despite that—or maybe because of it—there was a line out the door and a moderately large crowd of pickle-suckers beside it. (They were loud. The suckers, I mean. I think they were on one of those godforsaken “food tours.” It was disconcerting, on multiple levels.) Really, though, I didn’t mind the crowding (and neither did Sam, who might just love pickles two or three times as much as he loves me). Nothing was going to come between us and our brined produce.

In we went, then.

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Inside, there is not a single frill in sight. The bulk of the teeny-tiny space is occupied by big, red barrels, each carrying a different sort of pickle. One wall’s exposed brick; the other, painted white, bears a menu, above which a single sentence is printed in all caps: “PLEASE KEEP HANDS OUT OF BARRELS.” Noted. There’s a slight breeze (fan-sourced) and a strong, strong smell of all things pickley. Employees move quickly and take orders via shout, scooping pickles into plastic containers, pausing only to offer samples and to poke fun at customers.

The employees are obviously proud of their product, and the customers all seem to know that something good’s about to come their way, so one seems much to mind all the chaos. (Plus, it’s not all that chaotic. The whole affair actually runs rather smoothly, despite its disorganized appearance. It’s quick, easy, and painless—plus, you walk out with pickles. Good deal.)

Though the line was long, it moved quickly—so quickly, in fact, that by the time our turn came, we hadn’t yet decided what to order. I decided to wing it, which resulted in my ending up with a whole bunch of shit: a new pickle, a full-sour, a half-sour, a quart of three-quarter-sours, some sweet gherkins, some Greek olives, a lot of grape tomatoes, and a particularly overstuffed quart of string beans.

Once we’d paid, Sam and I headed over to a nearby park bench for some sampling (and some photos that apparently couldn’t wait. Sorry. For the extra-lame photos and for how much of Sam’s fingers you’re about to see).

First, we ate our singular pickles, beginning with the mildest. Here, from left to right, is a new pickle, a half-sour, and a full-sour:

Three pickles from The Pickle Guys

Now, I’ve literally never enjoyed a new pickle. I have a rule: “fuck the flavor of cucumber.” But I’m happy to make an exception for these pickles. I think I like them so much because they aren’t just cucumber-y; they’re also just salty enough, just sour enough, just far enough from your average cucumber that they’ve actually been able to win me over. And like the rest of The Pickle Guys’s pickles, these have a snap (and spray!) that’s straight-up absurd. Like, holy shit. I’ve never bit into a pickle so satisfying.

The half-sours and three-quarter-sours are great, too. Naturally, they’re just what you’d expect: a sourer (and sourer yet) version of the new pickle I so loved. I don’t really have a preference between the two—which I’d rather eat probably depends on little more than my mood—so I’ll leave it at this: Both are good. So good.

With regard to the full-sour…well, it was my least favorite of the bunch, but I blame that on the facts that (a) I ate it last, when I was probably a little pickled out; (b) I ate it alone (that is, without the sort of grease-soaked entree such a sour pickle usually balances out; and (c) I spilled some of its (near-overabundant) juice on my pants, which, um, gave me a little bit of a bias, I guess. Still, a great pickle (if you’re into full-sours), and a worthy companion to a deliciously greasy meal.

But we didn’t stop there. (How could we have?!) Below (clockwise, beginning on the upper left) is a pint of string beans, a half-pint of Greek olives, a half-pint of sweet gherkins, and a half-pint of grape tomatoes:

Pickled string beans, Greek olives, grape tomatoes, and

The string beans are nice and snappy, but thinner and more manageable than a regular pickle, were delicious, and the grape tomatoes, which seriously taste like they were fresh from the farmers’ market, are even better. Sam and I liked them so much, in fact, that we ended up re-braving the line to get our hands on an additional pint (which was also when we picked up the pint—yes, pint—of three-quarter-sours).

That was where our fun ended, though. Neither of us much enjoyed the sweet gherkins (too sweet!), nor were we able to find much use for the Greek olives (too salty!), so we ended up giving them away. Honestly, neither product was bad; they just weren’t…to our tastes, though I’m sure they’d be fine in the right hands (or dish).

There are still approximately half a billion Pickle Guys products I want to try: pineapples, bread & butter pickles, tomatoes (both sliced and unsliced), and some other types of olives, to name a few. But it’ll be a while, because at the moment, my fridge is well over its pickle capacity. They keep for a while, though—and I can’t stop eating them—so I’m really not all that worried.

In any case, if I haven’t yet made it clear enough: The Pickle Guys is a lovely, lovely, store, and their pickles are practically unbeatable.

Find The Pickle Guys at 49 Essex Street, between Grand and Hester. They’re strictly kosher, though—so don’t even think of stopping by on the Sabbath.

P.S. Here‘s some awesome pickle-related fiction, which I highly recommend.

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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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Sensational Sweets

An assortment of Chippers from Sensational Sweets

Despite my nut allergy, I’ve always felt pretty satisfied with the chocolate at my disposal. There are so many nut-free brands—Vermont Nut Free, PASCHA Chocolate, Dean’s Sweets, Videri Chocolate Factory—and there are tons of regular (i.e. not allergen-free) brands that work for me, too. So it’s not as if I spend much time scouring the Internet for more safe chocolate. (In fact, I intentionally abstain from any such scouring, precisely because I have way more than enough chocolate in my life.)

How did I find Sensational Sweets, then? Well…I didn’t. Sensational Sweets found me—but I’m actually really glad they did. A few weeks ago, one of their employees sent me a message, and—medium-length story short—I now have a box of samples sitting on my coffee table. (Yes, free samples, though I did pay for shipping. Of course, I’ll still be giving my honest opinion—and only my honest opinion.)

Allergen information first, though. Fortunately, at Sensational Sweets (and at Creative Cookie, which is owned by the same folks) there really isn’t much to go over. Their entire facility is nut-free and kosher-certified, and they have some gluten-free products, too. (Here‘s their catalog, which has the words “nut-free” all over it. And here‘s Creative Cookie’s.)

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Onto the products themselves, though. They offer a whole bunch of different stuff, all made to order: Chippers (tiny pieces of white chocolate bark), fudge bites, chocolate-drizzled popcorn, chocolate-covered Oreos, chocolate “pizzas,” chocolate-covered pretzels, Tropical Fruit Crunch (trail mix, but pretzel-based), and Pollylops (chocolate on a stick, basically). And over at Creative Cookie, there are fortune cookies, microwave cakes, microwave fudge, and, um, chip dips. (Don’t ask.)

Out of all those, they sent me some popcorn, a mini-pizza, some fudge bites, a microwavable cake mix, and a whole bunch of Chippers. And to my (admittedly mild) amusement, pretty much nothing was as I expected it to be.

The first thing I tried was the drizzled popcorn (pictured immediately above—as if you don’t know which of the photos in this post is the one of popcorn). Honestly, I’d expected it to be really boring; it’s just chocolate-drizzled popcorn—how good could it be? But for real, this stuff isn’t the slightest bit boring. Somehow, each piece is perfectly sweet, salty, and buttery. None of the flavors ever overwhelm the others, and none of the ingredients taste stale, which isn’t something I get to say anywhere near often enough. Definitely a product I would (and probably soon will) pay for.

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Next came the mini-pizza (rather, the Pizza Patty with Pizzazz—pictured immediately above), another product for which my expectations were totally, totally misguided. I don’t know what I’d imagined. Something bad, no doubt. I guess I expected it to be too sweet, too hard, or too busy, flavor-wise, but it just isn’t any of the above. The chocolate itself—sweet, but not absurdly so—is high-quality, and the texture of the popcorn works surprisingly well with the rest of the “pizza.”

To my absolute astonishment, I ended up really loving this thing (as did Sam—I shared, but only begrudgingly). We agreed: More, please. (And I have a feeling we’re going to end up ordering another at some point in the near-ish future—perhaps even a full-sized “pie,” if I can ever manage to get over the shame I’d feel for paying for such an absurd product.)

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Then, there was cakeMicrowavable birthday cake, which comes with everything needed to make it, cookware (and party supplies) included. It takes maybe five minutes to make—well, it took me five minutes, because I didn’t let it cool before icing—and the whole process is ridiculously easy, too. You just add water to the mix, microwave it (in the container it comes in!), “make” the frosting (more water-adding—this time, with an absurdly small and shallow spoon), and then frost the cake. That’s it.

The final product, pictured immediately above, actually isn’t half bad…for a cake that was five minutes ago literally just two types of powder. It’s nothing special (and why should it be?), but it holds its own against your average cake-mix cake, if you ask me. Plus, it takes a fraction of the effort. No pans dirtied—score.

After the cake, I moved on to the fudge bites—they’re nice and fudgy (duh) with super-moist centers—and then it was time for (what I expected to be) the grand finale: the Chippers tasting.

Pictured below are a bunch of teeny-tiny bags of Chippers, each containing a different flavor: salted caramel, lemon, lime, pumpkin, orange, peach-mango, raspberry, blueberry, grape, espresso, peppermint, and pomegranate. (Honestly, if it had been up to me, I never would’ve ordered any sort of fruity bark—but it wasn’t, so fruity bark I ate.)

A bunch of Sensational Sweets Chippers

Now, these…are strange. They’re just fragments of white chocolate peppered with what really, really taste like crushed Dum-Dums (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the candy bits were crushed Dum-Dums, given that Dum-Dums are top 8–free). Some flavors are all right—I particularly liked salted caramel, peach-mango, and blueberry—but plenty suck. (I guess that’s to be expected, though, as I did try every single flavor, including the ones I never, ever would’ve chosen on my own.)

Grape is unmistakably medicinal, and espresso tastes like Dunkin Donuts smells (not a compliment). Lime tastes like Mr. Clean (not sure whether Mr. Clean is nut-free, so the jury’s still out on that one), and peppermint is absurdly artificial, even compared to the other super-artificial flavors. But the chocolate itself is fine—I’m a big fan of white chocolate, which helps—so the fruitless Chippers are definitely tolerable, at the very least. (Salted caramel is my favorite, mostly because it’s the simplest.)

Anyway. I wish I could say I spaced all this chocolate-sampling over the course of a few days, but I didn’t. I ate it all in a single afternoon, then ordered a pizza before sitting down to write this post. The whole thing was genuinely shameful…but overstuffed as I am, I can’t deny that Sensational Sweets makes some damn good chocolate. With the exception of the Chippers, their sweets (well, those that I’ve tried) are indeed sensational, and I strongly recommend them to anyone who’s into (sugar-intensive, but not intolerably sugary) chocolate.

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Better Bites Bakery

A Sun Better Cookie Dō Bite from Better Bites BakeryI don’t think I’m capable of walking into Whole Foods without discovering a new nut-free product. This time, it’s Better Bites Bakery’s Cookie Dō Bites, which are, according to their packaging, vegan, kosher, and they’re made in a dedicated facility that’s free of the top 8 allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans, for those of you keeping score at home).

Their other products—cakes, cake balls, standard cupcakes, and imitation Hostess CupCakes—are top 8–free, too (with the exception of coconut, which is used in a few of their products and which is classified by the FDA as a tree nut), even though they don’t quite look nut-free online. (Better Bites’s website is currently under construction, but if you poke around, you’ll see some photos of baked goods that clearly contain nuts—don’t worry, though. A representative assured me that those photos are, in fact, out of date, hence the site’s being under construction.)

I’ve only ever tried the Cookie Dō Bites—and only the Sunbetter (i.e. sunflower seed butter) ones, at that—but I sort of liked them…for what they are, at least. They come in plain (chocolate chip) and Snickerdoodle varieties, too, but given how much I like sunflower seeds, I had to go with the Sunbetter (and at $10 per small box, getting two was out of the question).

I ate one straight out of the fridge and was pretty disappointed. It was cold (duh), hard, and gritty, with a waxy chocolate coating and a very bland filling. I let the rest sit on the counter for a little while, though, and once they’d warmed up a bit, they were worlds better. The chocolate coating (that’s Enjoy Life chocolate, by the way) lost most of its waxiness, and the filling softened up and actually took on the texture of cookie dough, which was a relief. The SunButter flavor’s strong as hell, for sure—but I like SunButter, so it’s not as if that put me off.

Once they’d spent some time out of the fridge, I actually sort of began to enjoy those Cookie Dō Bites. It’s very rare that I like a product that’s free from so many allergens, so I suppose I have to give Better Bites some props for these. Now, that’s not to say that I’m ready to start eating Cookie Dō Bites on a regular basis—I’m not. They are top 8–free, and their taste (and especially their texture) do reflect that. But for what they are, they’re pretty good. (Except for the macron over the o in ; I want to know who decided the product’s name needed to be stylized that way.)

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find Better Bites at Whole Foods. I picked my Cookie Dō Bites up at the new one in Williamsburg, but they should be available at the chain’s other locations, too. Beware, though: Better Bites’s pricing is downright absurd—like, $10-for-a-handful-of-cookie-dough absurd.

[Edit: Better Bites’s website is no longer under construction. Go forth. Frolic.]

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