It’s not very often that I review products on Grocery Gal, but I was recently introduced to a product I fell in love with – organic Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and organic Olio Nuovo, or “new” olive oil, by Park Ridge based Villa Gabriella. Many years ago, I was in Italy for the Italian Grand Prix, with grandiose plans to also make it to Modena to visit the Ferrari museum as well as enjoy copious amounts of true Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Unfortunately, time fell short and I never made it to the lovely town. Not until I tried Villa Gabriella’s Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, did I realize what a mistake I made.

Grocery Gal Villa Gabriella Gift Set Mother's DayWhen the package arrived, the first thing I thought was what a great hostess, housewarming or foodie gift this would make. Oh, yeah, and a gift for myself, too! I was so excited to see everything beautifully packaged, including bonus recipes and story behind Villa Gabriella and their products. I realized I wasn’t alone in thinking what a great gift this was when I saw they has a special sale for Mother’s Day on their website (hint: place your order now and thank me later).

Villa Gabriella Gift Set balsamic vinegar olio nuevoWe’ve all tried balsamic vinegar before, and it’s great. However, have you ever tried true Balsamic Vinegar of Modena? I thought I had when the price of a bottle started going into double digits, but really, I hadn’t. Villa Gabriella’s balsamic is like liquid heaven. Its made with organic Lambrusco and Trebbiano Italian grapes and only natural sulphites; perfect for me and my focus to eat as natural as possible. It’s not as thick nor as sweet as a balsamic glaze, but almost as thick. A little goes a long way, and you definitely want to use right before serving.

I was surprised how their Olio Nuovo, new olive oil, was lighter in both taste and color than other extra virgin olive oils I’ve tried. Upon further reading I found that these olives were from a 2013 harvest, which could explain the extremely fresh flavor and lighter colors. It’s perfect to be dipped in warm, fresh bread with maybe a little fresh pepper added.

I combined their products with a minced shallot and some Austrian Lustenauer Rheintaler Bauernsenf (I’d be a millionaire if I could import this stuff) for a delicious vinaigrette. How good was it? Well, my family ate all the salad before I even had a chance to take a photo!

Villa Gabriella Gift Set balsamic vinegar olio nuevo recipeWhen I have foods as deluxe as Villa Gabriella’s in my kitchen, I sometimes stress out about finding something worthy enough to cook. Villa Gabriella must’ve sensed my fear, because their gift set comes with beautiful recipe cards to inspire cooks at all levels. Spaghetti Alle Vongole (Spaghetti with Clam Sauce) is an easy to make meal with their clear, simple instructions. Side dishes such as Cipolle al Aceto Balsamico (Onions in Balsamic Vinegar) and desserts like Mandarini al Aceto Balsamico (Clementines with Balsamic Vinegar and Pepper) are perfect options for my restricted AIP diet.

Villa Gabriella also offers organic red wines that currently aren’t for sale on their website yet. I can’t wait to try those, or even better yet, for them to have a storefront that I could stop by in Park Ridge. For now, you’ll have to enjoy their products through the web, and it’s absolutely worth it. Shipping prices are extremely reasonable, too. So reasonable, that I’m placing an order for my stepmom right now…!

Villa Gabriella. 847-232-2828

 


Where to begin? I am pretty sure I first tried Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa in 1997. I was vacationing in Albuquerque and took a walk to the neighborhood grocery store, because I knew there had to be something local and delicious that I’d never find in Chicago. At this time, my palate for heat was pretty minimal, so I kept it simple and looked for salsas. While I liked the new flavors of traditional New Mexican red or green chile, I couldn’t handle the heat without adding loads of sour cream (side note: fortunately, my tolerance for heat expanded, and my need for sour cream diminished.). A green jar with a dancing cartoon red chile on front caught my eye. It proudly announced that it was a blue medal winner at the New Mexico State Fair, so I knew it would be my purchase: Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa.

Grocery Gal Merlie's Salsa Mail Order New Mexico Label

Original and New Labels

Fast forward almost 17, yes, 17 years later, and Merlie’s is still the only salsa I’ll buy. Granted, my salsa needs have diminished over the past few years, but I’m still a very faithful customer. Why? Well, once you’ve had green chiles from Hatch, New Mexico, you realize nothing else compares. Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa is just filled with green chilies — so many that it’s the first item on the ingredients list.

Grocery Gal Blog Merlie's Blue Ribbon Hatch Green Chile salsaSpeaking of ingredients, it’s Merlie’s homemade recipe that makes her salsa just the best: Green chilies from Hatch New Mexico, jalapeños, tomatoes, onion, garlic, salt and spices. Everyone who has tried her salsa (and I ration it out pretty sparingly to my guests) always raves about the fresh taste, and how it tastes like no other salsa they’ve tried before. That’s exactly why I send Merlie an email approximately every 9 months to order my case of hot salsa for $77 over so many years. That’s a little over $6 for a jar of insanely delicious salsa. An important note: this salsa is ONLY for eating. This is not something you’d put in a layered dip, add to a dish, or season meat or tofu in. It’s so good it should only be eaten straight out of the jar with chips, in a taco, or even a spoon!

Grocery Gal Merlie's Salsa Mail Order New Mexico DeliveryI’ve always wanted to find a boutique grocery store to carry Merlie’s salsa in Chicago. It’s just that good. Maybe a grocer like Gene’s Sausage Shop, Paulina Market or even Harvestime Foods come across this write up and give Merlie’s a try. I’d love to see more people in Chicago get introduced to this amazing salsa.

I wish I could make it out to Albuquerque to meet Merlie in person. However, I feel like her and I are old pals though my regular orders. Once, she suggested I add a jar or two of her Blue Ribbon Green Chile to my order and it was just delicious. More often than not, red and green chile is enjoyed fresh in people’s homes and isn’t available canned. Merlie’s Green Chile helps bring that taste of New Mexico to anyone in the US. I think the green chile probably goes best with chicken, but since my husband is a vegetarian, I’ve held off on buying some in my last order. But wait… I could put it in some cheese enchiladas — what was I thinking?

Merlie’s products are very well packaged. Over all the years I’ve ordered from her, I’ve never had a jar break on me. She jars are well packed, along with a second layer of packing peanuts to make it safely to Chicago.

If you’re not ready to commit to buying an entire case of Merlie’s Blue Ribbon Salsa, don’t fret – she also offers starter packs that include 2 jars of salsa and 2 jars of canned green chile for only $35 which includes shipping. You can also just split a case with a friend or two. Your choices come in Medium or Hot, because there’s no such thing as mild in New Mexican cooking.

Grocery Gal Merlie's Salsa Mail Order New Mexico Green ChileMerlie’s Blue Ribbon Chile and Salsa. 888-873-3966.

 

 


When the days shorten and the temperatures begin to drop, I think about a few things: wearing tights, turning on the seat warmers in my grocery getter, and making soup. My only problem with making soups, as previously written, is I can’t make a small batch. The monthly Chicago Food Swap has helped me distribute some of that extra soup, but how do I handle a last minute soup craving during the workweek?  That’s when Frontier Soups come to the rescue!

Frontier Soups are a family based business located in Waukegan and offer a variety of soups with state and regional themes. They also offer heartier meals, dips and other items, all for sale on their website, online retailers and locally at Sunset Foods, Jewel and Whole Foods. They were introducing their new gluten-free West Coast Kale & Quinoa Vegetable Soup, and asked that I give it a try.  I loved seeing all the ingredients of the soup in a clear pouch – filled with good-for-you stuff. I needed to add a can of tomatoes (which I bought on sale at HarvesTime Foods), a butternut squash (picked up an organic one for $1.50 at Amish Farmers) and some vegetable broth.

Grocery Gal Frontier Soup Kale & Quinoa SoupThey suggested cooking the butternut squash first in a microwave. I live in a microwave-free home, so I cooked it the old fashioned way – I just simmered the squash in the broth first for 10 minutes and then added the rest of the ingredients.

Grocery Gal Frontier Soup West Coast Kale SoupIn about 30 minutes I had a great tasting, super healthy soup for dinner! One package serves 4-6 people, so I had some leftovers which I froze in jars for lunch, and I was going to bring one jar to a friend who was a little under the weather.

Why do I freeze my soups if it takes a day to defrost? Probably because I can’t can them. Canning is something I want to try, but I’m totally intimidated by it. I pour my hot soup into glass jars and the heat does a good job of almost sealing it, but I know it needs to be frozen to stay fresh. I’d love to show up to the Chicago Food Swap with a variety of soups I made and canned, but as close as I can get to that (right now) is filling my soups in a Ball mason jar and telling people to freeze or eat it within 2 days.

Since the soup was a for a friend and not for my lunch, I felt sheepish pouring it into an old salsa jar. I felt I had to class it up a notch with by putting it in a beautiful Ball Heritage Collection jar.

Grocery Gal Ball Hertiage JarWhat is the Ball Heritage Collection, you ask? They’re limited edition jars from Ball which celebrate 100 years of mason jar designs by the Ball brothers. They’re the same quality you know and love from Ball, but in a vintage style and wonderful colors. They first were launched in 2013 with the blue “Perfect Mason” jar, which I need to order for when my kitchen is redone one day. I’d love to have quart size jars on display filled with my different gluten-free flours, but I didn’t find out about them until the larger jars were sold out. I guess I’ll have to search eBay for those. 2014’s spring green jar is called “Perfection” which goes well with Grocery Gal’s current website colors, I might add! I loved the raised letters and the period-correct reproduction of “PERFECTION” on the front of the jar.  I can’t wait to see what they launch for 2015 – I’m wondering if it will be yellow/amber/red colored glass?

Grocery Gal Ball Perfection American Heritage Mason JarIn the end, I brought my friend a delicious, hearty soup that took little effort to make in a beautiful vessel. She loved it, so I hope she’ll return the favor by trying a different Frontier Soup (I’m hoping Illinois Prairie Corn Chowder or New Mexico Mesa Spicy Fiesta Soup Mix) and bringing me a batch in the same jar!

Frontier Soups. Locally made in Waukegan, Illinois.

Ball Heritage Collection.


I love food. I’m definitely more of a savory person than a sweet one, but who doesn’t love something sweet once in a while? I heard about Nutwhats, an Arizona based company that uses green chile and beer in their sweets and I just had to try it!

They offer two types of products: a traditional Nutwhat Britty which similar to a traditional brittle, but with much more exciting taste combinations like Pecan, Almond, Cinna Walnut Oat and Jalapeno Beer. The Green Chile Beer Britty had the perfect hint of green chile with the peanuts; and the beer made it not too sweet. It was just perfect. You can taste the butter without it being too overwhelming.

Grocery Gal Nutwhats Bitty  Brittle

Just a sampling of the Nutwhats choices

The more sweet confection in their offering is Scribbles. The ingredients in the incredible Cashew Coconut scribble seems simple enough: cashews, coconut, sugar, sweet cream butter, Belgian dark chocolate, sea salt, pure vanilla, but I don’t think I could ever come up with something this tasty on my own. I’m normally not a milk chocolate fan, but the type they’re using in their Peanut Pretzel Scribble super-deluxe enough for my dark-chocolate palate.

Grocery Gal Nutwhats Bitty  Scribble

Their Scribble secret is Belgian chocolate

Nutwhats Britty and Scribbles taste like they were made by hand with a lot of love. I liked having something sweet that was heavily nut-based where I would happily eat each ingredient on its own.

Nutwhats grocery gal bitty brittle scribble

Photo courtesy of Nutwhats

If you’re a Grocery Gal fan living in Arizona, go pick these up at specialty grocery stores. For those of us in Chicagoland, we’re limited to mail order at this time.

Nutwhats. 1.855.688.9428


Before the internet, there was mail order. Growing up in the late 70’s/early 80’s I’d love to get catalogs in the mail, addressed to me of course, from places like Current, Lillian Vernon and the chocolate motherload: Swiss Colony.

I didn’t know or care where the Swiss Colony was located. I would dream every year that maybe this was the year my mom would buy me a solid chocolate Chris Mouse, mint chocolate twelve layer log cake, or a box of petit fours for my birthday. What would I get? Some European style cake with real whipped cream  with a hazelnut or real fruit filling that everyone but me loved. In hindsight, her choices were much smarter and healthier, but as a kid all I wanted was buttercream.

Swiss Colony Chris Mouse Grocery Gal

Chris Mouse welcoming me to Swiss Colony’s signature gifts

Years passed with never a package arriving from the Swiss Colony. Packages from Austria came instead, filled with rich chocolates that I didn’t like, but I was still hopeful that one day a special red and white striped package would arrive addressed to me.

Fast forward years, no… decades, later and I’m heading off to New Glarus, Wisconsin. Better known as Little Switzerland, I drove a few hours from Chicago to camp with my husband and see the New Glarus Brewery. The town was great; structures built by Swiss settlers in the 19th century and, despite some expected touristy kitchiness, were the real deal. Driving through the region, we stopped in Monroe, Wisconsin to get some provisions for dinner. Along the way in a random strip mall, I read the words: “The Swiss Colony.” Those three words pulled at my heartstrings and brought childhood memories rushing in. I begged my husband to pull into the strip mall, and finally, I was going to make my childhood dreams a reality.

Swiss Colony Outlet Monroe Wisconsin petit four

The familiar logo from my childhood

Get this, it was an outlet store, to boot! I hoped they took credit cards, because I had big plans on stocking up. I walked into the cheese portion of the store and had a variety of soft pub style cheese to choose from. Port wine and cheddar was calling my name, so I grabbed one and put it in my basket.

Grocery Gal Swiss Colony cheese Chicago

Soft cheeses – including ones with Port Wine – from the Swiss Colony

What next? I didn’t want to waste much time; I was on a hunt for the evening’s dessert, but saw my favorite American-made cheese, Grand Cru by Roth, for 50% off. I first came across this amazing alpine-style cheese at the Whole Foods in Milwaukee (shhh, yes, I occasionally shop there), and it was the closest cheese I have found in the US to my beloved Bergkäse from Austria. That went into the basket next.

Roth cheese Grand cru swiss colony grocery gal

Roth Cheese at 50% off – the hidden gem inside the Swiss Colony outlet store

I then switched over to the next room which focused on Swiss Colony’s signature desserts. A bag of 25-30 random petit fours looked tempting, but I instead focused on the nicely packaged assortment of 9, 5 in vanilla and 4 in chocolate, for $1.99. They were also buy one get one free, so how could I resist? I exercised some discretion and passed on the layered mint cake. With it being May, there weren’t any Chris Mouse chocolates; I guess I’d have to come back closer to Christmas.

Grocery Gal Swiss colony mint chocolate toret

The mint chocolate layered torte I always dreamt of getting for a birthday cake

Happy with my bounty, I paid for my goods and excitedly waited for that night’s special dessert. A few hours later, I carefully opened up the package of petit fours and sat down to enjoy the dessert I had been waiting at least 30 years for. I took a bite, and was… disgusted.

Grocery Gal Swiss Colony Petit Four

I waited over 25 years to finally get these. I should’ve gotten them back in the 80’s

My childhood pastry dreams were shattered! It tasted super sweet, synthetic and somewhat stale. Ok, maybe that’s just the vanilla one. Maybe the chocolate one was better? Maybe it was because I bought these at the outlet store in May…?

How could this be? I took a look at the ingredients and found natural, but a lot of artificial ingredients. This couldn’t have been how they made them when I was a kid? Or did they, and that’s why my mom never bought them?

However, Swiss Colony fans, don’t fret; it is just my opinion. I brought the second unopened box of petit fours to work. The last Friday of the month is enthusiastically called “Food Friday,” where everyone brings in snacks to share. I was wondering if anyone would eat these discarded cakes of mine? Well, guess what, they were the hit of the day! My coworkers loved them so much that they quietly rationed them amongst the themselves and hid them from the other departments. When I offered to bring the other opened box on Monday, everyone eagerly said yes.

So, maybe I just have a selective palate and don’t like things super sweet? Then it’s just more petit fours for everyone else. While my childhood dreams of pastries from the Swiss Colony didn’t live up to my adult expectations, the price on the Grand Cru made it all worth while. See, there’s something for everyone. You might just have to drive up to the outlet mall and find out which is your preference.

Swiss Colony Monroe Outlet Store. 652 8th St, Monroe, WI 53566 www.swisscolony.com


As a first generation American from European parents, there was always chocolates in my house. They were usually from Austria, Switzerland or Germany and unless they were Edelbitter, better known as dark chocolate, I hated it. My mom grew up in the same part of Austria where Milka hails from. Despite their cute purple and white cows and packaging geared toward kids, I never liked their chocolate. How could a child not love such delicious gifts from the cocoa gods? The milk chocolate was too creamy and the everything tasted like nougat, aka hazelnuts, to me. Yuck.

Fast forward many years, and now dark chocolate is in vogue with it’s health benefits being high in antioxidants all while reducing the risk of heart attacks. Who knew Grocery Gal was so ahead of the game? While I enjoy picking up an occasional bar of dark chocolate at Aldi or any European-style markets I shop at, I recently came across a brand that stopped me in my tracks.

I was unable to attend the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago this year because it feel during the work week, but Marich Premium Chocolates out of California offered to send me some samples. It’s a second generation business of candy makers, and while they don’t offer your traditional box of chocolates where you bite into something and hope you like it, they offer chocolate covered items, which means you know exactly what you’re getting into. The box arrived and I felt like it was my birthday!

Marich Chocolate Grocery Gal packaging

Who wouldn’t love to get this in the mail?

The packaging was absolutely gorgeous. What a great gift for a client (I used to work in real estate marketing), hostess gift or just a gift for myself?

Grocery Gal Marich Premium Chocolates

Hey, that’s me!

I was floored. The attention to detail was something you don’t see nowadays. I loved seeing my name and reading a bit more about the family in their coversheet; a variety of chocolate goodness tempting me beneath the semi-transparent sheet. When I finally removed the sheet, the cocoa gods were finally smiling on me: a variety of chocolate covered almonds, cashews, sea-salt caramels and chipotle almonds…. ALL IN DARK CHOCOLATE!

Grocery gal dark chocolate marich california

dark, dark and more dark chocolate

Now, don’t worry. If you prefer milk or even white chocolate, Marich has you covered. But for so many years I’ve had to pass on deluxe chocolates from Godiva, Guylian, Lindt, hell, even Fannie Mae, because I don’t like milk chocolate.

And the taste? Wow. Most dark chocolate is considered bitter, which I love, but Marich has this decadent cocoa butter taste in every bite, which is heavenly. I started with the sea salt caramels. I skimmed the nutritional label and saw “3” and “serving” so I rationed them out three at a time. Boy, did I enjoy them! Each piece melted in my mouth and had a rich cocoa butter flavor; not the creamy, nougart-y taste I despised. I was making them last for a long time with my 3 caramels per night… until I took a closer look at the packaging.  I read, “three servings per box?!?” so I gobbled up the remaining 10 or so caramels without hesitation or guilt.

Marich offers a variety of chocolate covered fruit (cherries, strawberries, blueberries), nuts (macadamias, cashews, almonds) flavors like chipotle and coconut curry!!, caramels, toffee, and espresso beans. Not a chocolate fan? They also offer jelly beans and licorice. Their flavors are all-natural and they also offer sugar-free varieties, too. What about prices? There are tons of options under $10, including snack packs at $2.50 each. I was surprised at the pricing and will definitely use Marich as my go-to place for gift boxes.  I’ll throw in a few extra things for me, too. You could give someone a delicious gift with a good variety for under $25. Make that two gifts and a little something for you, and Marich will ship it for free (orders over $55)!

Marich Premium Chocolates. 2101 Bert Drive, Hollister, CA 95023. 800-624-7055. www.marich.com