Hello. My name's Nathan, and I love Trader Joe's. My wife Sonia does too. She's a great shopper, has excellent taste and knows good value when she comes across it. As many of you know, Trader Joe's is unsurpassed in the world of good-value grocery stores, so we spend a lot of our time and money there. Although the store fairly consistently delivers great taste with its own unique line of food products, there are definitely some big-hits, and unfortunately, there are some misses...

After doing a couple of internet searches for reviews of TJ's food items, Sonia discerned an apparent dearth of good, quality reviews for the store's offerings. So, at her suggestion, we decided to embark on a journey of systematically reviewing every Trader Joe's product, resulting in the blog you are about to read...

A couple of months into our Trader Joe's rating adventure, an old college friend, Russ, who unbeknownst to me had been following our TJ's blog, decided that I had been slacking in my blogging duties (which, of course, I was) so he decided to contribute his own original TJ's reviews to the blog, thus enhancing it, making it more complete and adding to it a flavor of his own. He and his wife Sandy are also avid TJ's fans and, as you will soon discover, he is an excellent writer and is nearly as clever, witty and humble as I am.

Seriously though, Russ: You go, boy!

So here it is: "What's Good at Trader Joe's?"

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Apocryphal Pita and Roasted Garlic Hummus

Trader Joe's sure is a little funny sometimes with their marketing and branding, if you haven't noticed.

It goes beyond their creation of different character names depending on the product inspiration and their pretty uneven utilization, which I find endlessly fascinating for whatever reason. Why are only some Chinese products Trader Ming but not others? Is Thai Joe a one-trick pony? Who determines this? And some of the product names...some are pretty long-winded and over the top, no doubt. The illustrations on some packages are kinda weird, too. I think it all adds to the allure of the place and the shopping experience. For me, I find a certain level of entertainment in it all.

I had another reminder of this when Sandy and I started poking around the first aisle of the local shop in search of a good snack to share for the week. TJ's has a great selection of different chips and salsas which we've inventoried and digested a fair amount of, but we found ourselves wanting something kinda different for a change. The bread shelves are the first ones to smack your eyeballs when wandering in where we go, so we figured that'd be a good enough place to look.

Hey, look, we found ourselves some pitas! But not just any pitas. Trader Joe's is only too happy to tell us they're apocryphal, too! Sounds fancy, but what's that mean? I'm usually not too much of one to use a big fancy word when a diminutive one will do, so I have to admit, I had to look it up to remember what it meant. Apparently, it means "of questionable origin." Hmm. Way to go, TJ's, in making us feel confident about this purchase of ours. I don't really expect a bag of pitas I get in the middle of Pittsburgh to be exactly the same as the ones from a Turkish street vendor (in some ways those could be more questionable ...) but at least keep the facade in play, please. I kinda liked the picture of the guy in monkish garb apparently training for some Middle Eastern World's Strongest Man competition, though, and despite the lack of the letter s, there are, in fact, a plural amount present per sellable unit.

They're decent too. Made out of 100% whole wheat so I guess they fit the bill healthwise if your tummy can bear that. A little flaky, a little doughy, sturdy, a little chewy, and definitely pretty tasty, though kinda unremarkable overall. I think that's about the best you can expect from a pita. They're not to be the star, but instead the stage for whatever tasty creation you're prepping to cram on in. So, sensing this was an incomplete tide-me-over tidbit, we peered across the aisle and saw ...

Hummus! I don't think I've ever bought hummus before, though I've been known to eat in mass quantity when I spy it on a snack table somewhere. It is one high quality foodstuff on which to mooch. The Roasted Garlic Hummus resonated with me as not quite being the best I've ever had, but far from the worst (there was this Wal-Mart stuff one time ...). I recall it being smooth and creamy without too much of the graininess some hummus can have (I don't mind that, but I can do without). I guess I was a little disappointed with the overall taste, as it's not as garlicky as I would've hoped. When I want something that predominantly features garlic, I want it to be potent enough to fend off any vampires and bubonic plague viruses lurking anywhere in the tri-state region. The only exception to that is when my grandmother made garlic bread ... she's been known to go just a little overboard. Anyways, I've never roasted a stinking rose bulb on the barby in the back, but if I did, I'd imagine it tasting stronger than this (despite the lid saying mild), and not nearly as sweet. Yes, sweet. Sandy said she thought the sweetness more came from the pita when combined with the hummus, and though that may have accentuated it, I could taste it when I tried some of the hummus by itself. Garlic is supposed to be vigorous enough to render your breath downright offensive for a spell, not leave you pondering its sweetness. Overall, it's agreeable enough, I'd say, but it's not quite what I expected.

Anyways, the pitas and hummus made for some pretty decent, easy snacks for us, and worked quite well for a couple quick-bite-on-the-way-out-the-door scenarios. I think Sandy enjoyed it a little bit more than I did, though, mostly because she seemed to like the hummus a tad or two more than me. That's her, ever the gracious one. I didn't exactly get her rankings for these, and know it's not always the wisest to presume it's okay to speak for one's spouse, but I'll give it a shot and try to represent her opinions and thought process as fairly and accurately as possible. I'll go first and grant a four for the pitas and a 3.5 for the hummus. Pretty fair grade for some pretty fair chow. For Sandy, the pitas aren't bad, pretty yummy, she likes them and the hummus is really yummy, not yucky like it coulda been and about the only way it could be better would be if it were pink and sparkly and came packaged with a free penguin or puppy or a puppy and a penguin and baseball tickets. Or something pretty close to that ... I'm wagering that's a matching four for the pitas and a 4.5 for the hummus.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons for both the Apocryphal Pita and the Roasted Garlic Hummus

Hey .... c'mon now ... don't forget about this!!! Seriously, please.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trader Giotto's Grated Parmesan & Romano Cheese

Next up in our "We really need to make a TJ's run" series: grated parmesan cheese.

This stuff always enhances pizza. In pizza places, it's usually right next to the big red pepper flakes in a glass shaker with a shiny aluminum screw-on top with little holes. It's one of our top two favorite pizza-related condiments. It's also good for pasta. And our good buddy Trader Giotto hooked it up with not just parmesan cheese, but another Italian classic: Romano cheese. Booyah!

As the container directs, one must sprinkle this cheese with gusto onto his or her food. A lack of gusto may diqualify you from further use of this product. Mama Mia.

The dispenser has one of those twisty-turny tops where you can choose to put the little holes over the opening in the top of the container if you want to gently sprinkle the product onto your pizza, or you can choose the huge gaping hole if you want to just dump a giant pile of cheese on your food.

I might also mention that this is imported cheese. Really. That's what the container says. Why can't we make a decent parmesan cheese here in the US? I don't know. Maybe the flavor is enhanced in transit somewhere between here and the cheese's unspecified origin, which of course we are led to believe is Italy. At any rate, it is tasty.

But really, what can you do to make a parmesan cheese better than any other run-of-the-mill parmesan cheese? Add Romano. That's what TJ's did. It's that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that puts TJ's versions ahead of any other brand. Good job. We like it. Double 4's.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trader Joe's Paneer Tikka Masala

So, my last review got me thinking about the whole classes of vegetarianism thing, and like any good, curious fellow in this age and time, I went straight to the infallible, omnipotent source of all knowledge readily available on the interwebs ... yup, Wikipedia (Nathan sure got our unspoken WGATJ creed right). Turns out there's a lot of denominations within vegetarianism, enough to make my head spin. There's the vegans, who are pretty simple to understand - no animal product of any type. Raw vegans take it a step further - only raw, uncooked fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc. Fruitarians go even more out on a limb and eat only such things that when harvested don't "harm" the plant (some of them don't even eat seeds because it "kills" future plants), but it's unclear to me if they can cook stuff or not ... maybe once it's fallen off the tree, do with it what you will? Going back towards the center, there's all the vegetarian classifications like pescetarianism, which allows for seafood, pollo-pescetarianism (seafood, poultry and white meat ... basically, Sandy's diet except the occasional burger), and so on. I kinda get all that, but then start seeing stuff like ovo vegetarianism (eggs okay, dairy not) and lacto-vegetarianism (dairy okay, eggs not), and think of all the label reading and care those following these diets must undergo to make sure they're not accidentally eating something that violates the tenets of their chosen food gospel ... I mean, I'm kinda just used to sticking whatever tastes good in my mouth and going with it. I'd like to try to pay some more attention to what I'm eating, maybe. Seems more purposeful somehow.

So let's start with this, Trader Joe's Paneer Tikka Masala. Okay, let's take a look at it ... I see cheese, rice, sauce and spices ... that's four of my major food groups right there that are good for me in moderation. Off to a good start. No meat ... no eggs ... hey, even gluten-free (like some other fine TJ treats) ... but it does have cheese. So this is lacto-vegetarian, then, right? Well, yes, but only because paneer (that's the cheese) isn't produced with rennet, an animal-byproduct enzyme that does something or other to pretty much every other cheese in the world. Apparently those lacto-vegetarians aren't down with that (also, no gelatin is given the green light ... c'mon, no Jello?). With all that and no eggs to boot, I can imagine it being tough to follow that kind of diet.

I'm sure it'd be easier if everything tasted this good.

Contrary to the picture on the box, the tikka masala comes in a compartmentalized plastic tray with the rice on one side, the cheesy saucy chunks on the other, with some plastic film on top that you poke a couple breathing holes in before nuking for about four minutes to heat on up from its normative frozen state. When taken out and film peeled away, the sweet-'n-spicy aroma will definitely draw the attention of your white bread coworkers, like mine who stare in wonder at my French press every morning while I make my coffee. It smells delicious and intoxicating and once the fragrance hit my olfactory receptors, my immediate thought was, game on. I tackled the paneer side first. The paneer comes in little tiny cubey chunks bathing in reddish-orangish creamy tomato sauce. I scooped up a couple and took them in, and was immediately pretty happy. The cheese bits were okay, nothing too special, kind of like the lovechild of tofu and soft, mild mozzarella in both taste and texture. But the sauce ... dare I say majestic? It was a little sweet and definitely creamy (enough to make me think there might be coconut milk involved - nope), light, and has a good little kick to it, too. The turmeric really stands out to me, at least. Though not exactly the same, it reminded me of some good Thai curries I've had. It definitely tastes warm and I could feel my taste buds dancing around when I slathered them with tasty spoonful after tasty spoonful. Really, really good - I wish TJ's or someone would bottle it, and I'd be tempted to put it on just about anything. The spinach rice was decent, too, but not all that noteworthy. Except when the sauce mingled its way on over, that is.

I'm a fan of this, and judging by the beeline Sandy makes for this when perusing the freezer section, she is too. Considering the first two ingredients are tomatoes and onions (two of her least favorite foods), that speaks volumes to its overall goodness. Sandy said she has to refrain herself from picking up the tray and licking out every last bit of the sauce every time she has it for lunch. I scraped out every trace I could with my spoon and wiped some more out with my finger when no one was looking. Just so good. Not sure how it stacks up overall compared to the chicken variation of the dish, but I was pretty well pleased.

The only truly negative thing I'd say about the dish is, although the paneer isn't all that spectacular, it's good enough that I wish there were more of it. I'm guesstimating there were maybe a dozen minute chunks of it in my lunch. Sandy echoed the sentiment and said she'd be lucky if she had that many. Because of the paucity of cheesy chunks I'd say it might be slightly overpriced at $2.99 but you can certainly spend a lot more on something else and not get something quite this good for a workplace lunch.

The two of us are pretty solidly in agreement that overall, this is one pretty darn worthwhile lunchtime pick up, especially if you enjoy Indian food. That sauce .... mmm. We love it enough to both grade the whole dish a sturdy four out of five, and award it a regular spot in our work lunch rotation.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
p.s - Don't forget about our contest ... please don't let Nathan win!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Brownie Baking Mix

Over the past 4 months or so, Sonia and I have been slowly trying to phase gluten out of our diets. We noticed that eating normal wheat products makes us feel nasty and bloated. I know from having food allergies as a kid that eating the same things over and over every day can actually cause sensitivity to those foods, and wheat is one of those ubiquitous ingredients that just seems impossible to avoid completely.

We still have some wheat and gluten in our diet as of now, but we've been on a mission to figure out what foods, if any, we can find legitimate gluten-free substitutes for. We both agree that we feel better when we don't eat gluten, so we're hoping to have as little as possible.

Anyway, it's not like we have brownies a lot to begin with, but we thought we'd try a gluten-free dessert. This bag o' brownie seemed like it was worth a shot.

Sonia added an egg, oil, and water, as per the instructions on  the bag. She also got adventurous and threw in some Trader Joe's Sliced Almonds. She wound up baking it for 40 minutes (10 minutes more than the package recommends) and then we sliced it up and ate it with some Trader Joe's Vanilla Ice Cream.

My first impression was that these were the funkiest brownies I had ever eaten. Not too shabby in the flavor department, but the texture was ... hmmm ... just a little abnormal. The words "chewy" and "gummy" came to mind. The almonds added a familiar crunchiness that really helped the overall consistency of the product. I highly recommend adding nuts if you ever try making these.

But still, squeezing the brownies with my fingers, cutting through them with a fork, or biting into them all pointed to the same conclusion: that these brownies wanted to be something other than brownies. I wasn't sure what they wanted to be...little brown sponges? tiny sections of weird skin for monster makeup? big chocolatey marshmallows?

In the end, I decided that they felt like marshmallows. Partly because the other people partaking of them with me at the time agreed with that assessment, and partly because that mode of thinking still allowed me to mentally file these brownies under "appetizing."

Sonia didn't mind the funkiness as much as I did. She certainly noticed it, but it didn't ruin the experience for her. And, as I mentioned before, they came pretty close to nailing the flavor of a good non-gluten-free brownie (or "glutenful" brownie, if you prefer) and Sonia agrees. She gives them a 4. I gotta go a little lower and give them a 3. These brownies are a respectable accomplishment in gluten-free science, but they've got a ways to go before I'd ever recommend them to someone over a normal brownie. Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Something a Little Different ... With a Contest Attached!

So, you probably know by now that we here at WGATJ's usually like to take up 5 to 10 minutes of your web-browsing day by posting reviews filled to the brim with tangents, non sequiturs, absurdity, randomness, and a healthy dose of snarkiness mixed in with whatever we think of the latest thing we bit and chewed from TJ's. Today's a little different. I cannot speak much for Nate, but I, Russ, like Sears, have a softer side.

This week is my granny's birthday. That's her, over there, holding my nephew a few months after he was born, in one of the last "good" pictures I could find of her. You see, it's more accurate to say this week would have been her birthday. She passed away early last May after nearly a 30 year battle against multiple sclerosis (MS). I'm fortunate and lucky in a lot of ways, because I had the unique privilege while growing up of having my granny live with my family on a side apartment my parents built for her. I got to see her literally everyday. She instilled a lot of things in me - she taught me everything I knew about Scrabble, and she taught me what it means to be a devoted fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, which wasn't always the easiest in the post-Mike Schmidt/pre-butt-kickin' years.

But she taught me much more than that. I'm just old enough to remember her having the ability to walk with the assistance of a walker or cane, and her having the mobility to go places on a motorized scooter. We actually went up the street sometimes on her scooter, just the two of us, to go get some ice cream. Slowly, as the MS sapped her strength, she became wheelchair bound, then to her bed, then to a nursing home, to specialized wheelchair after specialized wheelchair, and finally (almost exclusively) to a bed. It's hard to see someone who you love so much go through all of that. But my granny did, and she did so without questioning or complaining or wondering "Why me?" and without self pity. In fact, she focused almost exclusively on what she had - a strong faith, a family that cared for her deeply and visited often with news, her needs provided for, Harry Kalas on the Phillies broadcast - and not what she didn't - use of one side of her body, muscle strength, the ability to fully take care of herself. It is not only her life but also the way she lived that has taught me about love, faith, courage, and what the Sunday School lyric of "(we) are weak but He is strong" truly means. I love her and miss her dearly, but I know now, free from the shackles of her body, she is truly in a better place, laughing and dancing and looking out over her family still.

It's in honor of my granny's memory and legacy that this June, I'm participating in the Western PA chapter of the National MS Society's BikeMS: Escape to the Lake, a two-day, 135 mile bike ride benefit event. Yes, it's kind of a crazy event which I've been training for, but my participation in the event is not about me. It's about funding research to try and find a prevention or cure for this debilitating disease that affects hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. alone, over 7000 of whom reside in southwest PA. It's about the providing for them the treatment and equipment they need to make through their day and their lives. Most of all, it's about being a part of something that says to the individuals and families affected by MS that there's a community out there who knows about the pains and trials of the disease, and who loves and supports them and wants to offer them hope.

I know with these times and current events that there's a lot of great causes vying for your hard-earned money, but as this is one that has struck me, I would like to ask that you consider supporting me for my ride. There's a link at the end of this that is my personal fundraising page that also offers some more details on what I'm undertaking here. Please, consider it, and any amount you could give will go towards making a significant difference. Seriously, even if everyone reading this gave the $6 I told you to not waste on the turkey meatloaf muffins ... I cannot fathom the positive change that would affect in this world.

To entice you (this is where the contest part comes in ...), anyone who donates gets entered into a drawing, and whoever wins can pick out literally ANY Trader Joe product and as long as I can track it down, I will review it. Nominate your favorite, or something you're curious about, or something you think is gawd-awful and want me to tear a new one on, go for it. It can't be any worse than those meatloaf muffins ... can it? Deadline for this contest is through the end of this month, though I believe donations can be accepted up through the start of the bike ride, which is the second weekend of June.

Anyways, thank you for reading our blog, for reading this entry in particular, and for considering donating towards this cause. Together, we can help rid the world of MS, once and for all.

Peace,

Russ

Fundraising webpage link: Click here

Trader Joe's Red Chili Pepper

Well, it's been a hot minute since our last TJ's run, as you may have guessed by the seemingly trivial nature of today's product review. But hey, it's a Trader Joe's brand food product...and we do have a category dedicated to condiments, thus it meets all the necessary criteria and we shall review it. I thought about skipping another day. Russ picked up my slack last week, and even on days when there's no new entry, we're still getting some hits. We're still providing extensive info about TJ's foods with our impressive backlog of reviews and suggestions...

But no, that's not good enough. Today, I decided there would be a new review. I scoured the kitchen for a product that I had been overlooking. I rummaged through the cupboards searching...seeking...hunting for something to review. I remembered our unspoken creed:

"We are husbands and sons, and wives and daughters (Russ and I aren't wives or daughters so much, but Sandy and Sonia, while not official bloggers, totally help us out with this site), who everyday go about our lives with keen taste buds, discerning palates, and a limited knowledge of the culinary arts which is often supplemented by Google searches and visits to Wikipedia. And neither faulty internet connections, nor computer crashes, nor busy schedules, nor gloom of dissheveled kitchen, nor the winds of change in the stockroom at the local Trader Joe's, nor a nation divided by ridiculous partisan politics, will stay us from the swift completion of our somewhat regular 3-5 blog entries per week. Usually."

And those inspiring words rose up in my heart, just as I triumphantly grasped this bottle of TJ's Red Chili Pepper and resolved to blog, blog, wholeheartedly blog!

Anyway, these pepper flakes are OK I guess.

Actually, I'm just joking. They're really quite good. I mean...I remember being at one of the original, oldschool freestanding Pizza Hut's back in the 1980's. I got my free grease-laden personal pan cheese pizza for reading some Amelia Bedelia and Berenstein Bears through the "Book It!" program. The pizza was the best thing I had ever tasted. And when I dumped some of the big red pepper flakes from that sparkly glass shaker on top of my pizza pie, it tasted even better. Sure, my tongue burned and my eyes watered, but I was too happy to care.

Well, these flakes are a throwback to those Pizza Hut pepper flakes from the 80's. I suppose they still serve big red pepper flakes at Pizza Hut, but I haven't been there in forever, and I know if I would return, it wouldn't be as good as it was back then and I'd be disappointed.

Furthermore, the sleek black and gold label on the TJ's version bestows words of deep wisdom, such as "Crushed Red Peppers are hot and should be used with discretion." The same font they used on that Spanish treasure map in "The Goonies" boasts that this Red Chili Pepper is part of the "Spices of the World" collection...not to be missed by any world traveler or Trader Joe's aficianado.

Delicious. Exotic. Worldly. Adventurous. Try some.

Sonia gives it a 4. I give it a 4.5. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10. Really darn good.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Trader Joe's Coconut Shrimp

So a little while ago I made a list of things that didn't make sense to me. I'd like to add two more things, and in fact, I can't believe they didn't make the original rundown ... somehow they musta slipped my mind. Anyways, two things: First, who thought it was a good idea to position the number zero and the letter O right-freakin'-on-top of each other on your keyboard. At work where I mash buttons indiscriminately all day, I find myself continually pushing the wrong one mucking things up. Stupid nonsensical QWERTY keyboards. Secondly: how are fish and shrimp, clams, lobsters, etc, not universally considered meat? I'm not talking about the Lent/Catholicism/religious tradition issue as much as there seems to be different classes of vegetarianism where, depending on what you choose to believe, seafood either is or is not meat. I've asked several vegetarian friends* of mine about this, and they either stare blankly at me and really don't explain it, or I get an explanation that fish don't feel pain, they don't have blood, so it doesn't harm them. That sounds a little, well, fishy to me. To me, it's clearcut ... all those creatures have mom and dads, they were born/hatched at some point, they lived, breathed, ate, and pooped. At some point, somebody caught them and they died en route to my dinner plate. I don't know how we can determine that one type of animal feels pain while another doesn't, and as far as I know with my very limited zoological knowledge, fish gotta have at least some sort of blood-type system to keep them ticking. It was an animal. Animals are made of meat. Ergo, when I am eating a fish, I am eating meat.

Except ... enough people consider them not to be to create a loophole I will exploit. And Sandy agrees enough to allow us seafood while abstaining from meat during Lent. It's getting towards the end, I miss meat more than just about anything (I've told Sandy I want cheeseburgers, not jelly beans in my Easter basket), so I've been trying to check out some different Trader Joe seafood stuffs. When we went shopping on Monday, I definitely felt too strong an urge to not leave the store without something that used to have a face. Shrimp has always been my far-and-away favorite ocean animal to chomp on down on, so spotting this battered tasty-looking Coconut Shrimp required little to no thought.

Well, it's not bad, but it's definitely a little weird/not quite what we expected it to be. We've had coconut-battered shrimp before, and it's always been the shaved coconut mixed in with the breadcrumbs variety. The Trader Joe's tastes like coconut milk was either used as a base for the batter, or that the shrimpy guys were heavily saturated with it prior to crumbing it up. The result of this is this interesting mix of textures ... the fleshy-ness of the shrimp, the creaminess of the milk, and the crispy greasiness of the batter. It's definitely strange, especially the first bite when it's not expected. I didn't mind it too much, but Sandy was a little put off by it. But the taste itself is fairly gratifying. I've come to really enjoy things like rice prepared with coconut milk (coincidentally our side dish last night, with the mango-from-the-picture's cousin chopped up and mixed in) as it adds this creamy, slightly sweet, kinda ethereal dimension of flavor. The coconut with the shrimp did much of the same .... decently good, though when mingled with the batter I found myself wondering if the whole combination was the best idea. I thought the shrimp itself was good, not great. Each one was about a bite-and-a-half sized, definitely fresh and clean tasting, and not too salty/mushy/gritty like I've tasted with other store brands at other places. Sandy said she had one that tasted pretty fishy to her, though. I didn't notice that for any of mine, but the fact that she let me finish her allotment up told me she wasn't the biggest fan. I was so hungry for anything resembling meat I plowed them all down (mostly because I doubted they'd be any better reheated), and I think I managed to eat a tail or two by mistake. Yuck.

I can see us giving these a try again sometime to see if we like them any better then, now that we know a little more what to expect. Still, for now, Sandy could muster up giving them only a 2 because of the oddball texture and fishy tidbit. I'll grade them a little higher, but pantheon-bound these are not. The milky/creamy thing docks them down a little, not just because of the texture but also because it made the batter not stick to the shrimp as well as it should have, causing some half-naked pieces and extra scrubbing for the baking sheet. Also, I appreciated the product overall, but just wasn't left with enough of a glowing impression to recommend them too highly. I found myself enjoying the rice side dish more than my shrimp ration, and if you had any idea how much rice we've eaten recently ... Sounds like a 3.5 from me, though I'd totally get if you think we rated these too low.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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*I think some (not all) of my vegetarian friends ascribe to the theory that it is okay to only eat animals that cannot be considered cute and/or cuddly. I've heard people describe pigs, cows, and even chickens (though they are nasty little birds) as such, but never heard of anyone wanting to cuddle up with a fish or lobster or crab. So perhaps that's an argument for being cool with eating meat that swims. Hey, whatever works.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Mango Passion Granola Cereal

So last Thursday, Sandy and I both took off from work for the day to go to the Pittsburgh Pirates' home opener. The two of us are both pretty hardcore baseball fans, especially when going to see games in person. Our friend Ryan, however, is probably the biggest, most hardcore Pirates aficionado in the entire metro area, and he organized a pregame tailgate for the game where Sandy and I, some of our mutual friends, and some of his coworkers were invited. Beautiful day, so Sandy and I decided to add to the fun by biking down to the game as we live only a handful of miles down a rec path from the stadium. Also, to make sure we had something we could eat while tailgating (keeping true to the meat-free Lent kick we've been on), we brought some veggie burgers along to grill up. When we got there, I immediately and self-consciously came to the realization that we were making an interesting first impression to Ryan's coworkers, who are mostly relatively straight-laced accountant-types. First, the bikes. Then, the vegetarian fare (aside from the burgers, I continually quality-checked the hummus). Add in my fairly bushy beard, and that's three major hippie/hipster* stereotypes we fit. If we only wore skinny jeans, had some Pabst in my pack and started gushing about the Avett Brothers the same way that a fifth grade girl would openly worship Justin Bieber ... anyways, I made the joke that we're not hipsters or hippies, I showered that morning, so on and so forth. It ended up being a pretty great time, though the Pirates' highlight was when the drunk college kid ran on the field in the ninth inning. Typical Pirates.

Anyways, to keep the notion of our non-hipster/hippie ways in play, it was probably best I didn't mention that earlier in the week I fell back in love with granola.

Seriously, Trader Joe's Mango Passion granola is really stupendously good, with the caveat that to enjoy it, you really have to like mangoes. I wouldn't say a fullout passion for them would be a prerequisite like the name suggests, but it definitely helps to have a good, healthy respect and affinity for mango goodness. I personally love mangoes and pretty much anything mango-flavored. This is one power-packed bowl of goodness. The granola itself is my picture of perfection - not too dry or hard, and the rolled oats are perfect in taste and texture. They're nutty, oatty, kinda earthy, wholesome-tasting, a little chewy like granola should be, with some bite to it. They're neither too sweet nor too plain - just the right balance. In the past I've bought granola from the bulk foods section at Whole Foods, and while some were pretty good, others were just too wrong. Not this stuff. The freeze-dried mango bits are pretty tasty too. I kinda wish there were more of them, but if you enjoy them in the fashion I prefer and pour some milk over it, I guess some of the sugars dissolve into the cow juice and spread out the sweetness so it permeates every crunch, while not overbearing the granola bits at all. I haven't read the ingredients list, so not sure what kind of extra stuff may have been put in, but the natural mango taste really seems to come through. The taste in each bite is just so consistently good. If you're a yogurt and granola type person, I'd imagine it'd be just as good, though not sure how the mango taste would spread out if at all. A dry handful was pretty satisfactory as well.

This stuff is filling as all heck too. You know that 10 a.m. test I described a few posts back? This granola completely wrecked the curve for that. Both days I had it last week, I felt a slight grumble in my gut maybe around 11 a.m. but even by my lunch break around noon or 12:30, I wasn't as hungry as all get out. Sure, I was glad when it was lunch (even gladder on the day I enjoyed one of my new lunchtime favorites) but I could've waited longer and been okay. That's a rare event for me, and for the granola to ace it two days in a row ... amazing.

Sandy loves it too. She packed some up for a morning snack. That night, we began talking about it. "It just tasted so ... so ... I don't know," she said, her face scrunching up in thought.

"Happy," I chimed in. "It tastes happy."

A light turned on. "Yes! Happy! That's it! I love it!"

This notion was reinforced tonight when I asked her to take the artful pic you see above. She was legitimately happy to snap the photo of "the box of sunshine and rainbows." I asked her if puppies belonged in there too. "Ooooh, yes, puppies too! And unicorns." So yes, if I had to choose one adjective to describe this product, I'd go with happy, and apparently Sandy agrees. This stuff is like the Michael Franti** of cereal ... Satisfyingly good, good for you, and keeps you full and energized, and definitely positive and happy. Sandy gives it a perfect five, and was pretty shocked when I mentioned I was considering scoring it just a slight notch below that. My only complaint is, as is about anything good, was that there wasn't more of it. The two of us got two breakfasts each out of the box, so four total ... then again, you shouldn't have to eat as much granola as you do regular cereal because it's that much more filling, and I got myself two large bowls of it, so that's more on me than the granola. I find myself agreeing with the wifey. Perfect five from me. In retrospect ... why the heck didn't we get this last night on our shopping trip? Hmmm ....

Bottom line: 10 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Though I'm sure they're technically different, I use the terms hipster and hippie interchangeably. I just call it as I see it.
** Sandy and I saw him in concert a few months back ... amazing show. One of the best concerts I've ever been to ... the only one that tops it in my mind was when I saw George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic back in college. Dang ... maybe I really am a hippie/hipster at heart.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Trader Giotto's 100% Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

I don't think I've ever had pizza on a whole wheat crust before. I've had veggie pizza, meat-lovers pizza, pizza with cheese inside the crust, New York-style, Chicago-style, margherita pizza (white pizza), pizza from the oldest brick oven in the U.S. (Lombardi's), pizza-flavored chips, pizza-flavored pretzel sticks, microwave pizza, Lunchables pizza, pizza bites, pizza poppers, and pizza burgers. I love pizza, and I've had just about every kind of pizza there is...in the U.S. at least.

But this Trader Giotto's Pizza Dough was unlike any pizza product I've ever had.

Sonia and I wrangled up a bunch of different pizza ingredients from the local TJ's, and decided to bake a 100% Trader Joe's pizza, with this dough as the base. Even before putting it in the oven, we could tell it was...well, different. First of all, it's darker than most pizza dough. It was a bit grainy -- and stiffer than ordinary white dough.

After baking, we immediately noticed that the pizza crust was unlike the norm. It was leathery. The bottom of the pizza felt a bit like smooth human skin. Not particularly appetizing, but our hunger compelled us to try some. It was definitely chewier than regular pizza dough, but not to the point that it was difficult or awkward to eat. The flavor was more earthy...and richer than a normal pizza crust. That was to be expected, as whole grains tend to produce more bold, raw flavors than processed, bleached flours. The inner parts of the crust were lighter than the outside. They looked raw-ish. The dough sat heavy in our stomachs. It filled us up fast.

On top of the pizza, we put Trader Giotto's Tomato Basil Marinara sauce. It was good. Sonia pointed out that it's a tad on the thin side. If you're looking for pizza sauce with a whole lot of body, you might want to try something else, although I was quite pleased with this sauce's flavor. I'm sure it would be excellent on pasta or mozzarella sticks or what have you.

Speaking of mozzarella, we also threw on some Trader Joe's Shredded Mozarella Cheese. I thought mozarella was Italian. Why didn't they call it Trader Giotto's Mozarella Cheese? We could have made an entirely Trader Giotto's pizza...

Oh well. We have used this shredded mozarella on tacos, salads, and nachos, too. It's always good -- and not too expensive.


All in all, the ingredients blended well. We've actually made this pizza twice now. The second time, I think we put a little more marinara sauce on it. I prefer it with lots of sauce. I really don't like tomatoes, but strangely enough, I love almost anything derived from tomatoes. The bold taste of the pizza sauce just barely manages to balance out the strong presence of the whole-grain dough. The cheese tends to melt in your mouth long before you're done chewing the dough. It's a unique pizza experience.

One other thing I might mention is that the dough...well, er, um...how do I say this tactfully without grossing anyone out? It had a slight laxative effect on both of us. I mean, all whole grains are supposed to do that, but this stuff...well, let's just say it was a tad more potent than most whole-grain products. Ahem, moving along...

In summary, Trader Giotto's 100% Whole Wheat Pizza Dough is good, but different. Don't try this if you want a safe, normal pizza. Try it if you're feeling adventurous. It's hard to describe completely.

Both Trader Giotto's Tomato Basil Marinara sauce and Trader Joe's Shredded Mozarella Cheese are quality ingredients that can be used not only to make Trader Joe's pizzas, but they come in handy for a plethora of culinary occasions.

As for the Trader Giotto's Whole Wheat Pizza Dough, Sonia gives it a 3.5. Me too. Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Trader Giotto's Tomato Basil Marinara. Sonia gives it a 4. As do I. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Shredded Mozarella Cheese. Sonia gives it a 4. I give it a 4.5. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Trader Joe's Seedless Blackberry Preserves

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this product. I think of the blackberry as a sort of raspberry-esque fruit, but perhaps a bit bolder or more robust - and I'm usually a fan of raspberry products. I've always liked preserves because they taste like actual fruit. They usually don't need to be dressed up too much to sweeten a biscuit or piece of bread.

So it stands to reason that I would enjoy these Trader Joe's Blackberry Preserves...and I did, but not as much as I had hoped.

First of all, there are no chunks of fruit in the spread. It's all a very even, gelatinous consistency. It feels fake. It feels too smooth almost. Secondly, I noted in the ingredients that Trader Joe's not only resorted to adding sugar, but they added corn syrup as well. So it seems as if the blackberry's natural flavor isn't quite sweet enough to make good preserves on its own. TJ's decided it needed some dressing up...and it was still a hair on the bland side in my opinion. Perhaps I overestimated the blackberry.

Please note that plain corn syrup is still better for the body than high-fructose corn syrup, as high-fructose corn syrup is actually a preservative that's created by adding artificial compounds to regular corn syrup that make it even sweeter and give it those preservative properties. (I still have 2 and a half glasses of Pepsi, which is chock full of high-fructose corn syrup like all regular sodas, when I go out to eat. I'm not so big a health nut that I've cut it out completely, I'm just saying it's pretty nasty when you think about it.)

Back to the point: I guess if you want a really natural jam or jelly, you need to buy something that says "100% all-fruit spread." Preserves are not necessarily that.

We ate the preserves with a little butter on Food for Life's brown rice bread, available at TJ's, but unfortunately not a TJ's brand product. Food for Life also makes a great millet bread, for the gluten-intolerant, and they're also the makers of Ezekiel 4:9 bread, inspired by a recipe in the Bible. We're fans.

Overall, the preserves were an adequate jam-like substance for our toast, but I felt that it failed to go way above and beyond like many TJ's products do. I give it 3 out of 5 stars. Sonia liked that it wasn't too sweet. She was a bigger fan than I. She was going to give it a 4, but when she found out about the addition of both sugar and corn syrup, she lowered her score to 3.5. Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Veggie Sausage Patties

So a few posts ago I shared a little about giving up meat for Lent, and Trader Joe's has already really pleasantly surprised me with their soy meat products, so when they had their Veggie Sausage Patties at the sample station a week or so ago, it made for a natural pick up. It also led Sandy to think a little, like "Okay, we like Trader Joe's goods overall, but how do they compare against rival brands?" So this post, I'm going to do something a little different than the usual.

< insert Michael Buffer >

Ladies and gentlemen, today you are about to witness history, the first head-to-head heavyweight championship of frozen vegetable sausage patties. The Soysage Showdown. One brand, known throughout the land, the undisputed champion. The challenger, an underdog, with a devoted following, its quality known to its devotees. Only one can prevail. Are ... you ... ready?

I said .... are .... you .... ready ....

LLLLLLLLLLLLet's get ready to crrrrrrrrrrrrrrumble!!

< /end Michael Buffer >

Ringside Introductions: In the left corner, the defending world champion, in the green box, from Battle Creek, Michigan, weighing in at 228 grams, costing $3.39, it's MorningStar Farms' Original Sausage Patties! (applause)

On the right, the plucky underdog challenger, in the white and light blue box, from Monrovia, California, weighing in at 227 grams, costing $3.29, it's Trader Joe's Veggie Sausage Patties! (mild smattering of hand claps)

Round One: First Impressions: The picture on the Morningstar box shows a serving suggestion of just tossing them on a plate. Also, one singular serving is clearly and consistently referred to as a "pattie." Hrmm. Trader Joe's shows them on top of some awesome looking openfaced sandwich with tomatoes and spinach and some sort of cheese/dressing. I get hungry just looking at it. And they call it a patty. I like the fonts they use better, too. Judges' decision: Trader Joe's

Round Two: Nutrition: M'star has less fat and more protein. That's good. TJ's has less calories and sodium. Also good. But in wondering what all has to be done to a scoopful of beans to make them meat-like, I began to look at the ingredients. TJ's has something called carboxymethycellulose in it, and carrageenan in it. Don't know what those do, and don't want to. I can pronounce everything else in it though. M'star though has tasty stuff like tripolyphosphate, hexametaphosphate, disodium inosinate, and loads of other stuff the spell check underlines in a red squiggly. So, this could be wrong but, my thoughts ... Judges' decision: Trader Joe's

Round Three: Appearance and Preparation: The patties of both brands are roughly the same size (M'star maybe a little thicker, TJ's maybe a little larger circumference). Both are strangely fairly not-that-cold when taken out of the freezer. The M'star patties look browned and ready to eat, except frozen, whereas TJ's has more of an icy sheen that quickly cooks off. M'star looks a little "meatier" where as TJ's looks a little ... I don't know ... indistinct? I'll go with that. Preparation of both is pretty identical, and sizzle up within a couple minutes, smelling sausage-y enough in the process. Judges' decision: MorningStar Farms

Round Four: Texture: Okay, for both, not bad, but not nearly as good as the real thing. I think I may have slightly overcooked them (not necessarily a bad thing) so the outsides of both got a little browned and crisped up. The insides ... eh. M'star is definitely meatier in texture, but it strikes me as akin to a well-done burger made of slighty chunky firm mush. Which is more or less what it was. TJ's didn't have as much of a meaty bite (definitely more towards the mush end of the spectrum, this makes it sound worse than it was, but don't know how else to describe it) and was more greasy, though not over-abundantly so. Both were decent enough in their own way. Judges' decision: MorningStar Farms

Final Round: Taste: This is always what it comes down to, isn't it? For me, at least, it is. M'star definitely decided to go the well-done burger route and make a meaty, kinda smokey, solid, but kinda plain tasting patty, er, "pattie." TJ's starts off tasting roughly the same, but mid-bite there's like this savory inflection that introduces itself to the flavor that makes it taste more authentically sausage-like. Mind you, it doesn't taste just like it, but a reasonable facsimile for a bunch of beans. I think it's the extra 1.5 gram of fat that the TJ's has to give it just a little more greasy breakfast meat essence. First time we chomped down, Sandy and I made "Soysage Egg McMuffins" and thought the TJ's was the winner, hands-down. I resampled both tonight with my dinner, and realized the taste was closer than originally thought. They're both good, but in their own distinct way. Depends what you like more. For Sandy and I, the choice was still simple. Judges' decision: Trader Joe's

Winner, and new world champion, by judges' decision .... Trader Joe's!!!

Post-Fight Wrap Up: Again, I was pretty surprised with the quality of a soy-meat Trader Joe product. Maybe it was the lack of real meat playing with my mind, but while enjoying the sausage patties, it wasn't as easy to recall I wasn't chomping my way through the real deal. MorningStar, while decent, was too unsausage-like despite its meatier appearance and texture to have the same effect. I think even if I sampled both in a blindfolded taste test, I'd choose the Trader Joe's. Sandy usually isn't too big of a sausage fan, but she legitimately liked the TJ's more than the MorningStar as well. "It just tastes better," she said. "If you told me we'd make some muffin sandwiches with the MorningStar patties, I wouldn't be like 'Bllllllllaaaaaahhhhhherrrrrrggggggahhhhhhhhhh' but I'd be happier with the TJ's." I wish I took a picture of the face she made while making that noise I cannot hope to ever replicate. She said if she were grading both brands, she'd give MorningStar a three ("solid, okay, but not great") but give the Trader Joe's a whopping five out of five. "Savory. Mmmm." Well, I wouldn't quite give it a five, but I recognize its goodness and understand it cannot ever be as good as the real thing. I can appreciate it for it is, though. It's the closest I've tasted, and definitely closer than MorningStar. I'm only grading the TJ's ...

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Trader Joe's 100% Kauai Coffee Beans

If it's alright with you folks, I'll review the coffee that is produced by percolating hot water through these coffee beans, rather than the coffee beans themselves, as I have never eaten the beans au naturale, and I imagine you don't intend to either.

Well, at first glance, you can be pretty certain this stuff's from Hawaii. I'm sure they wanted to dress each can in its own button-down Hawaiian luau style shirt, but decided that would unnecessarily raise the cost of the product. So instead, they just covered the label with stereotypical Hawaiian flowers, palm trees in the background against a lovely orange Hawaiian sunset. Legend has it this beautiful cove is where some of the writers of "Lost" hid after the final episode aired to avoid the wrath of disgruntled fans, furious about that cop-out ending to the series.

Kauai is indeed the northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, and they apparently grow the best coffee beans there...on the "leeward" side of the island. To save you from Googling "leeward definition," like I had to, I'll go ahead and let you know that "leeward" is a nautical term meaning "the direction in which the wind is blowing."

The can boasts that these medium-roasted beans are "aromatic, earthy, and sweet," and that's exactly what they are - or rather, what the coffee derived from these beans is. I'm not used to coffee being so bold, and yet so sweet. There's usually an unpleasant bitterness that I need to cover up with cream and sugar in any "bold" coffee. Not so with this magical island blend. I imagine the beans were grown and harvested by the Menehune's themselves - that's part of what gives the coffee such unusual properties...oh, no wait...it's the volcanic soil, according to the can. But of course, Trader Joe's can't claim publicly that they're exploiting the Menehune's. So it's probably both. Both volcanic soil and magic from the Menehune's. The Menehune's were on that episode of "Full House" where Danny Tanner took the whole fam to Hawaii; that's how I know about them. Man, that show ended way better than "Lost" did. I'm really bitter about "Lost." That whole debacle really tainted my feelings about Hawaii.

But, thankfully, this coffee is among the things that are restoring my opinion of our great 50th state. Remembering that episode of "Full House" didn't hurt either.

Anyway, the coffee is good. 4 from me. 4 from Sonia. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Yogurt Wildberry Probiotic Smoothie

If you're a fan of Dannon's "Frusion," you'll probably like Trader Joe's Yogurt Smoothies. They taste great, they're very smooth, made with real fruit and yogurt. Unlike Dannon's, these are organic and contain probiotics.

All yogurt has "yogurt cultures," which, I understand, help your digestive system. Their little yogurt civilization travels from its container into your gastrointestinal areas, where they set up shop helping you digest other foods and regulating the flow of foods into the intestines...or something like that.

Probiotics go one step further. They are helpful, microscopic little dudes that usually get added to the already helpful yogurt cultures, and they all work together to achieve gastrointestinal regularity. If the normal yogurt cultures are the army and navy, these little probiotic fellows are the marines. I don't think any microorganisms are sophisticated enough to have an air force yet.

Anyway, I'm not a biologist or a doctor, so please disregard the two previous paragraphs completely. Unless you're a doctor and you would like to correct my silly probiotic analogy, in which case, you may do so in the form of a comment below. I never took many biology or medical classes in school because I was far too squeamish. I would have fainted at the first discussion of blood-borne pathogens or communicable diseases. The hypochondriac in me would have immediately began drawing similarities between said diseases and the symptoms of my last cold, and it would have made me quite miserable and paranoid.

On the downside, Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Yogurt Wildberry Probiotic Smoothies are not ultra-filling like the cream yogurts and the bottles are incredibly small. I could easily polish off all four drinks in one sitting. They are one or two gulps-worth a piece. Somehow my wife can draw out the consumption of these things for 20 minutes or so, but that's really not saying much. I once saw her - and I am not exaggerating at all - take two entire days to drink a single can of diet soda. She carried it with her sometimes, she'd put it in the fridge, then take it back out...then she'd have it on her desk. I must've asked her if she was done with the can like half a dozen times, and she would say "no." Apparently, she enjoys flat soda as much or more than fresh soda. But anyway, my point is that if you're a really, really slow drinker, you can nurse these probiotic smoothies for a few minutes max. They're very small and not very filling, and they're not dirt-cheap, either. We payed something like $3.79 for the 4-pack.

We also tried the strawberry version. It's good, too, but Sonia and I agree that Wildberry is ever so slightly better, though.

In review, TJ's yogurt smoothies are delicious and good-for-you, but there's not enough in the bottle. Sonia gives them a 4.5. I would have been tempted to give them a 5 if the serving size were bigger. 4 from me. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.