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What Separates Junk Food from the Real Stuff?

"This is a no-brainer. Junk food has calories, but little or no nutritional value," says pikawicca. "I think we all know it when we see it. Some examples are ice cream, potato chips, pork rinds, you get the idea." It seems obvious at first: Soda and candy bars are junk food, fresh spinach and mangoes are not. But what does it really mean to be junk food? Is it merely unhealthy?

"Take candy bars for example," says ipsedixit. "You might say a Snickers bar is junk, but what about a Snickers Dark, which is made out of dark chocolate? Dark chocolate is supposed to have antioxidant and other healthful benefits. And, aren't peanuts good for you, which all Snickers bars have? Junk?"

Are rice cakes junk food? "They certainly aren't harmful in the sense that they are full of transfats or high in sodium or sugar, but then they are essentially empty calories—offering only simple carbs and very little fiber. Junk?" wonders ipsedixit. "If cardboard had calories, we would just call them rice cakes and make the dictionary one word less voluminous."

For that matter, "is vodka or tequila a 'junk' beverage because its nutrients are minimal?" wonders beevod.

LauraGrace thinks the concept of "junk food" has more to do with the level of factory processing than unhealthiness. A lightly processed food could even be relatively unhealthy—high in fat, say, like heavy cream—and she wouldn't call it junk food. Highly-processed foods, like the aforementioned Snickers bar, would almost always get classified as junk food in LauraGrace's book, though. "Even something low fat, or low carb, or whatever, that bears no resemblance to any ingredient found in nature (fat-free Twinkies, light beer *wink*), I would label as 'junk' in almost every situation," she says. Her definition? "Junk food is anything that, through extensive processing, becomes a product whose component ingredients are unidentifiable."

Discuss: What counts as "junk food"?

Why Do People Always Order Ginger Ale When They Fly?

Why Do People Always Order Ginger Ale When They Fly?

We allow some flight attendants to speculate wildly. READ MORE

The Color of Red Wine

MGZ has a question about wine color: "Why is the $9 Italian we drank tonight so much deeper in color than the $30 Burgundy we had two nights ago?" For that matter, what variables affect the variation in wine color, even between wines made from the same variety of grape?

"Nearly all red wines get their colour from the grape skins, not the flesh (which, with very few exceptions, is white)," says carswell. "The longer the grape juice is in contact with the skins, the more pigments are extracted."

The temperature during extraction, and how long it's extracted, is also important. "Extraction is proportional (roughly) to time of fermentation, temperature of fermentation, and the all important mass of skins to volume of juice ratio," says Cary. But extracting for a long time or at a high temperature, though it creates a lovely dark, inky color, can extract other things along the way, like flavors and smells that many people find unpleasant. "Traditionalists and 'hands off' type wine makers will use (generally) lower temperatures, no water additions (or subtractions ... which increase skin-to-juice ratio), no enzymes, and native yeasts. All these things will, on average, lead to less inky, purple wines," says Cary.

And there's one more reason cheap wine might have better color than the expensive stuff: Some less-expensive wines, and what oolah calls "higher-end fruit bombs" use additives like Mega Purple to boost color. "Yet another reason to seek out wines from non-interventionist producers," says carswell.

Discuss: A question about depth of color?

What’s the Point of Food Trucks?

"It's hard not to notice the popularity—or more precisely, the frenzy—over food trucks," says ipsedixit. "My question is what, exactly, is the appeal of food trucks? Wouldn't one presume that food made out of a full-scale kitchen (i.e. a restaurant) would be better than one made from the back of a truck?"

Actually, there's no reason for restaurant food to automatically taste better than food from a truck, says Ruth Lafler. "Using the same logic, the food that comes out of a big hotel kitchen would be better than that at your neighborhood bistro," she says. "There are lots of really good restaurants that have tiny, limited, kitchens. What makes food good is not where it's prepared or the equipment that's used, it's the quality of the ingredients and the degree of attention that's given to conceiving and executing the dish."

Some people refer to a food truck as a "roach coach," but that's not particularly valid with modern taco trucks and other food trucks. "My recollection is that the traditional 'roach coach' wasn't preparing food to order," says Ruth Lafler. "It had premade sandwiches, breakfast pastries and snacks, and maybe some hot dogs in a water bath, but, again, the only similarity between a 'roach coach' and one of these modern mobile food vendors is that they're mobile." Modern food trucks can be mobile kitchens, preparing fresh food that might just be tastier than food from a big restaurant kitchen.

Part of the appeal is the personal connection between the food truck proprietor and patron. "Often the person who hands you the food is the person who made it, who is probably the chef/owner, and you can give him feedback on the spot," says Ruth Lafler. And food trucks offer a different package of services from restaurants: just food, not much else. "There's certainly an appeal to getting high-quality food without having to go into a restaurant, sit down, order, leave a tip, etc.," Ruth points out.

Discuss: What's the appeal of food trucks?

Overheard on the General Topics Boards

"As an American-born Bengali, I am learning something new here! I do eat in exactly the order you mentioned, but I never thought about it or was taught to do it that way. How bizarre to hear people explain my lifelong eating habits on the Internet." - Pia, on the correct way to eat South Asian food

"When I accidentally added too much oregano to my pizza sauce tonight and didn't feel like milling more whole San Marzanos, I finally opened up the Luigi Vitellis (strained). I was so pleasantly surprised by the bright, fresh flavor!" - Olive123, on canned tomatoes

"Which European nation (including Eastern Europe, of course, but not Turkey or the Caucasus) has the strongest predilection for truly piquant food? Hungary naturally springs to mind, but it occurs to me that the unassuming Brits, doubtless because of the continued cultural reverberations of the Raj, have a taste for the hot n' spicy and may give the Hungarians a run for the money." - Perilagu Khan

Sniffing Out Superior General Gau

General Gau's chicken is a dish that goes by many names: General Tso's, General Tao's, General Tsao's. In fact, it wasn't invented by any of those guys and, no matter what name it goes by, it's usually boneless chunks of deep-fried chicken with a spicy/sweet sauce, and superkame has a craving for it. Here are the places bandied about on the boards as having good versions:

• Great Chow in Quincy.
• JoJo Tai Pei, "though it's got a non-obvious name, something like 'crispy spicy country style chicken,'" says Allstonian. "There is a very good chance the waiter will say something along the lines of 'You know that's just General Gau's chicken, right?' Assure him that you're aware of that," says BarmyFotheringayPhipps.
• FuLoon, where it is "mind-altering" according to lergnom, and served in both "authentic" and regular (read: Americanized) versions.
• Mary Chung, where "it is neither super sweet nor soggy," says jgg13.

Great Chow [South Shore]
17 Beale Street, Quincy
617-328-8918

JoJo Tai Pei [Allston]
103 Brighton Avenue, Boston
617-254-8887

FuLoon [North of Boston]
375 Main Street, Malden
781-388-3338

Mary Chung Restaurant [Cambridge]
464 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
617-864-1991

Discuss: Best General Gau/Tao Chicken?

An Izakaya Experience in a Sushi Bar Town

Shiki, a Japanese restaurant in Coolidge Corner, gets polarizing reviews on the boards. On one hand, yumyum sums it up as "middling" and says that "for every highlight there seems to be an accompanying misstep." But, then, gourmaniac says, "In the 3–4 times I've been there, there has always been something special and unexpected that I've only had in Japan." Shiki offers an experience that's quite distinct from run-of-the-mill sushi bars.

So how to get the latter experience instead of the former? First, unless you're really craving sushi, go light on these orders and lean towards the specials menu: "It feels they just have stuff like sushi and tonkatsu on the menu out of a sense of duty and put their energy into the specials," says skordalia. In fact, throw away your expectations of what a Japanese meal should be like, because Shiki, unlike other Japanese restaurants in Boston, specializes in the izakaya style of eating (small bites to have with drinks). The broiled fish, eel mille-feuille, chirashi sushi sampler, and sake tasting flight are all reliable orders.

Shiki [South Shore]
9 Babcock Street, Brookline
617-738-0200

Discuss: Duozo, or Shiki, or .....?
A mixed bag at Shiki

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It … TIME TO PANIC!

Gawker has done a nice job of capturing the uniquely East Coast festival of hysteria that seems to sweep through the population anytime more than a half inch of snow is forecast: the semi-annual Looting of the Supermarket. If you live on the right coast, you're familiar with the drill: Snow is forecast, all the frickin' bread and milk is swept off the shelves, snow falls, people dig their cars out, and life goes on. Minus bread and milk.

As Gawker (covering the DC-area blizzard) puts it:

"Naturally, the capitol is preparing for the impending blizzard by hoarding Lunchables, half & half and Chunky Monkey."

Image source: Flickr member House of Sims under Creative Commons

Stalking the Best Bar Pizza

Bar pizza is a South Shore classic, but what differentiates it from all the other styles to be found? cannedmilkandfruitypebbles breaks it down: "[Bar] pizzas are small, thin crusted, should have a crispy crust (some are almost buttery cracker-like) and sauce and cheese should not distract from the crust. They're baked in small pans, which ensures the crisp crust. The cheese is typically a blend and some use cheddar cheese as well as mozzarella."

It generally comes in between two paper plates in a bag, and its primary purpose is soaking up beer. So where can you find this booze-deflecting treat? Spots mentioned as a favorite by multiple hounds include Cape Cod Cafe in Brockton, New Brown Jug in Chelsea, Newtowne Grille in Cambridge ("Cheese pizza and a pitcher of Pabst for $11.99," says rknrll), and the Lynwood Cafe in Randolph.

Cape Cod Cafe [South Shore]
979 Main Street, Brockton
508-583-9420

The New Brown Jug [North Shore]
24 Adams Street, Chelsea
617-884-9579

Newtowne Grille Food & Spirits [Cambridge]
1945 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
617-661-0706

Lynwood Cafe [South Shore]
320 Center Street, Randolph
781-963-3100

Discuss: What is Bar Pizza?
Decent Bar Pizza Around Everett, Revere, Lynn, Salem, Peabody?

Overheard on the Boston Boards

"The Boston Shaker should have Trader Tiki orgeat this week I believe. Small batch, high quality made by a bartender in the Oregon who I got to meet at Tales of the Cocktail last year." - yarm

"I called The Butcher Shop in the South End and they were able to get me a wild boar shoulder in just a couple days' time. They charged me what they paid for it from the purveyor. At that time, it was around 10 bucks a pound for the shoulder." - ecwashere7

"I'm a huge fan of the hot and sour at Peach Farm. It's got big chunks of pork and tofu in it, and it's definitely both hot and sour. The best part is if you go for lunch, it comes with with lunch special which will run you less than $6 for a dish, rice, a side, and the aforementioned hot and sour soup." - tysonmcneely