Amid all the fat-free frozen dinners and funny-flavored fruit drinks, once in a while we serve The Spokesman-Review’s reader food panel some pretty decent stuff.
And if you look at it over a long enough period - say, the past year - you could actually put together a fairly respectable menu.
That’s exactly what we’ve done, coming up with the food panel’s “Greatest Hits of 1997” - the top-scoring snack, side dish, main dish, drink and dessert items sampled during the year.
The competition was close, and the results sometimes surprising.
Ritz Air Crisps Sour Cream and Onion crackers were the rather unlikely leader in the snack category, edging the ultra-rich Boursin herbed cream cheese from France and the homier Golden Grahams Treats.
Among main dishes, Lloyd’s tangy Barbeque Beef was a narrow winner over the creamy Marie Callender Fettuccine Primavera With Tortellini - particularly ironic, since both were served to the panel on the same memorable evening.
And for dessert, the stupendous Starbucks Biscotti Bliss Ice Cream - the only item this year to receive a perfect five-star rating across the board - still barely beat out the equally impressive Brown’s Sugarless Bakery Apple Pie (the best frozen pie we’ve ever tasted).
Scoring clearer victories in the side dish and drink categories were the garlicky Et Tu Caesar Salad Kit and the sophisticated Carnation Double Chocolate Meltdown hot chocolate mix, which also placed second in a recent Consumer Reports taste-off.
Unfortunately, the Double Chocolate Meltdown seems to have vanished from area store shelves since we sampled it last winter.
So be forewarned: If you have your heart set on some Biscotti Bliss, you’d better follow your bliss while you still can.
Ritz Air Crisps, Sour Cream and Onion
Price: $2.39 for 8-1/2 ounces (about 200 crackers).
Nutrition: 140 calories (32 percent fat calories); 340 milligrams sodium in 24 crackers.
Comments: “These are great! Light, crispy and excellent flavor. Watch out - you could eat the whole box.” - Beth Kowal
“Just enough sour cream and onion flavor to encourage ingestion of several more handfuls. Not overpowering. Perfect!” - Helen Span
Et Tu Caesar Original Caesar Salad Kit
Price: $1.99 for 4.7 ounces (plus 79 cents for lettuce); makes 5 (2-cup) servings.
Nutrition: 160 calories (70 percent fat calories); 290 milligrams sodium per serving.
Comments: “Tons o’ garlic! Wow! I wouldn’t call this a Caesar, but it’s a very good garlic salad.” - Sandy Davidson
“Dressing a little thick. Enough garlic so you don’t want to plan on loving someone after eating.” - Bob Bates
Lloyds Barbeque Sauce With Sliced Beef
Price: $5.99 for 2 pounds, or 16 (1/4-cup) servings.
Nutrition: 90 calories (22 percent fat calories); 350 milligrams sodium per serving.
Comments: “This is as good as it gets. The barbecue sauce is just right.” - Larry Kelly
“Tangy, sweet BBQ sauce; sliced beef that even looks like real beef. Great for a quick, easy meal.” - Madilyn Hutchison Foco
Carnation Double Chocolate Meltdown Hot Cocoa Mix
Price: $2.39 for 8 (1-cup) servings.
Nutrition: 150 calories (20 percent fat calories); 170 milligrams sodium per serving.
Comments: “Not your everyday hot chocolate! Less sweet, unique.” - Karen Buck
“European-style dark chocolate - not your average ‘milk chocolate’ drink. I liked it.” - Jim McGinty
Starbucks Biscotti Bliss Ice Cream
Price: $4.19 for 1 quart.
Nutrition: 250 calories (47 percent fat calories); 70 milligrams sodium in 1/2 cup.
Comments: “Creamy, rich, full-flavored and decadent! If you’re going to splurge on fat and calories, this is worth it!” - Beverly Smick
“Super-ultra heavenly flavor. This would never make it from the store to home … it’s too good.” - Jan Robison