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Friday, September 30, 2011

Trader Jacques' Macaron aux Framboises

This is only the second time Trader Joe's French chef friend, Jacques, has made an appearance on our blog, although we've clearly reviewed more than one other French-inspired culinary creation. Why he didn't take credit for the Boeuf Bourguignon or the Breakfast Scramble, which featured a fleur-de-lis on its box, for cryin' out loud, is beyond me. At any rate, he's back, and he's about to march on your tastebuds like Napoleon in Russia with these Raspberry Macaroons. They're not cheap, but they're truly gourmet, and they're très magnifique. In our review of Jacques' Ham and Cheese Croissants, I accused him of being arrogant. Not because he's French, of course, but because he was selling ham and cheese sandwiches that had a day's worth of fat for something like $6. Pretentious.

If you're going to wow me with highfalutin European fare, you'd better slap a couple words I can't pronounce onto the title of your food. "Macaron aux Framboises" sounds way more exotic than "Ham and Cheese." And then, you've still gotta back that food up with some pretty amazingly unique, exotic and taste-tastic textures and flavors. Which is exactly what Jacques did this time.

This incredible raspberry cake comes frozen, and it calls for something like 45 minutes thawing time. No heating or microwaving required. It's super easy. That is, if, unlike me, you have the willpower to wait 45 minutes before digging in to the mouth-watering "macaron." I think I was just beyond the 35 minute mark when I began to chow down on my section of the dessert. It was still a bit icy in parts, but the taste was amazing nonetheless. It's not a sticky sweet taste. It's a little more subtle than that. It's a very delicate, soft, spongy cake with fluffy vanilla cream and a tart twist from the raspberries. Sonia waited a full hour before she ate her part. She was kind enough to let me try a bite that had fully thawed. Excellent. If you can wait, it's probably not a bad idea to let it thaw for a full hour before you eat it. It's even more incredible that way. The cake is unbelievably soft for having so recently emerged from the freezer.

Between the shortcake-like almond biscuit, the creamy vanilla-ness and lip-smacking raspberries, this one was a big winner with both of us. Sonia thought it had a great balance of textures and flavors, and she happily gave it a 4.5. I concur. This was the best dessert we've had from Trader Joe's in a long time, and it will fall just shy of our Pantheon Level status. Jacques, my good man, très bien. Très bien.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Chile Relleno

Besides really piquing my interest about what went down at the local pseudo-Chotchkie's, Nathan's latest post brought to mind one of the greatest movies ever, Office Space. It's one of the few movies that I can say I've seen probably twenty times, and if I happened to see it on TV, I'd most likely stop whatever I was doing and watch it. That and The Princess Bride. Anyways, I don't want to bore you with the details of my job (which I generally enjoy, possibly more than one reasonably should, considering it's dealing with prescription insurances) but my job does kinda remind me of Office Space sometimes, especially how the main character, Peter, seems to continually repeat a daily work routine. Difference is, I generally like mine. I usually get in at right around the same time, clock in, blow off the first couple minutes BSing with my cubicle neighbors, make my usual pot of coffee while explaining to yet another coworker what a French press is and how it works, review a couple emails (on a good day, 1 out of 10 has lasting relevance for me), BS with the boss about whatever sports event happened the night before, and before I know it, it's about 15 minutes or so later, and it's time to start saving the world, one insurance fustercluck at a time. I like to think I'm good at it, and I like it, so if it's up to me I'll be sticking around for a while.

Short of gutting a fish on a pile of TPS reports or dragging a fax machine out into a field to play whack-a-mole, one way to add a little variety (note: a relative term) is for my lunch. For a while, I was definitely stuck in a rut. First, it was Chef Boyardee. I've eaten more of that for a work lunch than I ever care to admit. Then, for a while, add a bunch of the TJ noodle bowls, but those got old after a while, so those have been relegated to emergency lunch stockpile status for the time being. And I really don't like to go out and buy lunch somewhere, especially in a suburban jumble where the best inexpensive option is the Sheetz down the street (as good as it is, I cannot eat Chick-Fil-A every day...the wallet doesn't allow it). So I've been trying out some different TJ frozen lunches when there's no leftovers to snatch up in my out-the-door whirlwind. There's been some great, some pretty good, and one or two decent ones I've found, with no true clunkers yet (one close call, though).

I think I'll end up putting the Trader Joe's Chile Relleno somewhere in the decent to pretty good category. If you're not familiar with what a chile relleno is, it's a pretty basic Mexican dish comprised of usually a poblano pepper stuffed with some meat and cheese and topped off with salsa and more cheese. Now that sounds like it could be a spicy dish, but this particular incarnation really isn't. Poblanos are pretty mild by nature, and honestly, I've had regular bell peppers with more of a bite than the one that came with my box. I'd also rank the salsa as tasty but pretty tame, and any trace amount of heat gets more than compensated for by the Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses oozing here, there, and everywhere. Alas, there's no meat to be found here, which depending on your point of view can be a plus or minus. Tastewise, it's satisfying enough. Texturewise, well...for being plucked, roasted, stuffed, frozen, boxed, shipped, stocked, bought, then nuked, the poblano holds up pretty well (only semi-squishy), though if you have a knife, you'll want it to slice through the skin. All I had was a fork, and well, that didn't quite cut it. For me, I got a nice little treat when the work microwave (I swear, those things suck! I'd take those out to a field with a baseball bat any day) scorched some cheese mingled with a little salsa on the one edge of the tray, giving me a crispy bonus. I love burned cheese, and my lunch was much better with it. Thanks, work microwave, and thanks Trader Joe's, for making that possible...TJ's, are you trying to make up for something here? Thanks, you shouldn't have.

If you're familiar with my lovely wife's food rules, you'll know why she'll pass it up. Sorry all, we'll get back on board with her usual silliness and rankings very soon. This one's all me. So, it was fairly likable overall, I'd say, and with a couple side items made for a reasonable lunch in the belly-rumble quelling department. I wish it were a little spicier, and wish it had a little chorizo in the stuffing for a little added boost, but until I'm in charge, this is the way the chile relleno's gonna be, I guess. Somewhere around a 3.5 and a 4 seems in order, so let's say one of each.

Now, excuse me, but I believe you have my stapler...

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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Trader Joe's Chicken Serenada

Before I tell you anything about this chicken, let me lay it on the line: this chicken cost $6. (That's in Ardmore, PA. Prices vary from store to store). That might not seem that bad to you...and it's really not terrible, but if you consider you can get a decent chicken dish at a "Chotchkie's" type restaurant for eight or nine bucks, then this Serenada better change your life. When you buy frozen chicken at Trader Joe's, not only are you not getting side-dishes and service and a cute waitress with 15+ pieces of flair, but you have to heat it and prepare it yourself.

Do you remember Chotchkie's? It was a fictional knock-off of the TGI Friday's/Ruby Tuesday/Applebee's-genre of restaurants in the Mike Judge film Office Space. Right now, my favorite of those is Ruby Tuesday, as I've had excellent service and food there lately—at multiple locations. I know this has absolutely nothing to do with Trader Joe's food, but I'm going to seize this opportunity to use what little sway I have on this blog to stick it to Applebee's, whose revolting restaurants I've vowed to never set foot in again, primarily because of the jaw-droppingly awful service we received at their Havertown, PA location several months ago. Trust me, you don't wanna ask. I'm usually a kind, sympathetic human being, but I certainly wouldn't lose any sleep if the earth opened up and swallowed that particular location of that restaurant down into the bowels of the earth. I advised their regional manager to take that $25 Crapplebee's certificate that he offered me in compense for the horror I experienced, to gift it to his worst enemy and to tell him to use it in Havertown. I'm not bitter or anything, though...

Ahem, back to the Trader Joe's Chicken Serenada. Most bites were delicious. But some were better than others. The majority of the dish was nice, juicy white breast meat. A few bites were a bit stringy, and there were traces of skin. Some people, like my wife, are fans of chicken skin, and it doesn't bother them to get a bit mixed in with their meat. I'm not one of those people. Animal skin of any kind revolts me. It's not just the principle of the thing, it's the texture. Skin is so elastic...it's too chewy. But anyway, the bites with skin were just aberrations in an otherwise terrifically-textured plate of poultry.

Flavor-wise, the chicken itself tasted great, and the sauce was excellent. I'm not sure what all was in the sauce, but there appeared to be several different kinds and colors of peppers and onions. On about the third bite I took, there was this very magical moment in which my mouth became unusually, uncommonly, and abnormally happy. Way happier than usual. Not that it's usually unhappy...but there was just something about that particular bite. The experience repeated itself at least three more times throughout my consumption of the chicken. I tried to slow down and be aware of what I was shoveling into my mouth, so that I could pick out what was causing these sporadic occasions of noshing nirvana. I never did figure out what it was. My best guess is those green pepper-looking vegetables.

Anyway, that handful of magical bites was as close as I came to having this chicken change my life forever. But alas, it was too infrequent and irregular to call this chicken transcendent. Also, I should mention that the serving size was just barely enough for one person. Sonia and I shared it so we could both taste it and give it a score. Sonia liked it. She doesn't know where the dish came from. She says it's not Mexican, so we're guessing it's some kind of Spanish meal. "Chicken Serenada." It's like having a ballad written for you by a baked yardbird. I picture farm fowl dancing flamenco and clapping their wings together in unison. It's beautiful. But not to the point that I can overlook the stringy bites, the stunted serving size and the hefty price tag. I'll give it a 3.5. Sonia gives it a 4 for it's pleasant taste and texture. Not bad for a gourmet entree you can heat in the microwave.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Trader Joe's Baingan Bharta

On the surface, I seemed like a fairly normal kid growing up in most respects.* Let's see...loved Nintendo, did alright enough in school, had a paper route, got skiddish around dogs ever since a German shepherd bit me hard on the buns on said paper route, like swimming and biking, got in a few fisticuffs with the siblings, etc. But deep down, I knew I wasn't like most other kids I knew and heard about. It wasn't just my charming good looks, expansive intellect, and abject humility but also...I liked veggies. A lot. And not just the typical ones like carrots and corn and all that. Peas? Green beans? No problem. Spinach? More please! Broccoli? Okay, let me put a lil' cheese on it and you got yourself a deal. I even liked lima beans on the very few occasions my mom ever made them. Still, there were two veggies I can recall from growing up that I can't remember ever having and being somewhat scared of due to the playground horror stories of my second-grade classmates: Brussel sprouts and eggplant. Never had them, and I wasn't about to go beg my Ma for them either. In the coming months I'll be confronting Brussel sprouts** for the first time when our home garden ones are finally ready to go (late bloomers and we got started late to boot) and kinda looking forward to it. As for eggplant, it's still a work in progress. I've had it only a couple times that I'm aware of it, and while not overly minding it, I haven't been the biggest fan, either.

I guess that's why I was a little apprehensive to try out Trader Joe's Baingan Bharta, aka "Authentic Indian Eggplant Curry." Both Nathan and I have had some great luck with TJ-themed Indian dishes, so it wasn't that part. It was that scary word "eggplant." I truly didn't know what to expect, and so this hung out in the freezer for a couple weeks until I finally worked up the gumption to stuff into my man bag before another day of living in my cubicle.

After zapping it for about five minutes, it was finally done, and it definitely smelled good. And man, is it aromatic. There's the usual Indian season suspects of turmeric, coriander, garlic and cumin that a lot of depth to the flavor and spice of this dish. Appearancewise, the Baingan Bharta pretty closely resembles a plastic tray of brownish mush with some little green things that I presume are teeny bay leave bits here and there. As for taste, it's pretty good, and it tastes like all those seasonings listed above and not much else. About the only things that made me remember it was eggplant was the squishy-squashy texture and the couple seeds floating around (sorry, diverticultis sufferers, another TJ treat you can't have). It was good enough that I made an effort to scrape out every bit I could without looking like too much of a lunchroom freak.

That's not to say it was perfect. In fact, there were two kinda major flaws. First, perhaps this is more my American sensibility than anything, but it coulda used some rice along with it. TJ's gives you some rice with other good Indian lunches, why not this one? Altogether, the Bharta seemed a little, well, incomplete. Secondly, hmm, okay, how to put this delicately...let's just say I had to take an additional short break that afternoon to answer a call, and it wasn't from the collections agency calling for the woman who used to have my cellphone number, either. I like to think I have a fairly strong stomach (after all, I ate these and was fine) but this caused a little mild tummy trouble. That doesn't bother me too terribly much, but that may for others, I presume.

I cannot vouch for its authenticity, as I really don't know what Baingan Bharta is "supposed" to taste like. That's okay, I think. Probably Trader Joe's didn't sign off on this dish thinking it was just like what is made right in Punjab...it's offered to the typical American consumer, you and I, to hopefully introduce us to a type of dish we may not otherwise try, and if we like it, seek out a better version. Next time Sandy and I go to an Indian restaurant, I definitely won't be so adverse to try it if I see it, thanks to this lunch. For a smallscale cultural awakening and an alright lunch, there's worse ways to spend about $3 somewhere, though I'm not sure how quick I'd be to run out and buy this particular version again.

Sandy's a little more veggie adverse than I, so she decided to sit this one out and leave this all to me. I'm thinking she'd like it if she'd try it out, but, eh, what can ya do. Based on the two issues above, but otherwise enjoying this tray o' goodness, I think something like double 3's may be in order...yup, sounds good to me. What about you?

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*Dear friends and family members reading this, please note I used the qualifiers of "seemed" and "fairly." Share some dirt on me, be sure it'll come back on ya :).
**Or, as my neighbor calls this huge honkin' plants manhandling our raised bed out front, "Russell sprouts." Haha, never heard that one before...he recommends roasting in the oven with a little olive oil and salt. Any other recommendations? We're gonna have a lot of them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Trader Joe's Fruit & Nut Trek Mix Granola Bars

Relatively recently, we reviewed the Chocolate Chip Granola Bars, and a long time ago, we reviewed the Omega Trek Mix, neither of which were particularly successful. They weren't awful, but neither one even got our "really darn good" status. With this product, Trader Joe's combined two classic snack ideas into one. They dropped the "Omega" from the Trek Mix and they exchanged the chocolate for sweet cranberries and cherries, both of which were smart moves.

This product tasted healthy, yet naturally sweet. There was no nasty Omega 3 fatty acid aftertaste, and no weird, fakey sweetener to rot my teeth. The whole oat grains looked hearty and untouched, right down to the perfect split up their middles.

All of the fruits, though compacted and compressed, were moist and chewy, and they blended perfectly with the brown rice base and brown rice syrup that bonded all the ingredients together.

Trek mix and granola bars are both excellent choices for mid-hike pick-me-ups or for tide-me-over-until-dinner snacks. These bars are the best of both worlds, and they have the double-threat of simultaneous crispiness and chewiness going on full-force. Snacktacular.

As satisfied as I was with the fruits and grains, I should mention that these bars were a little lacking in the nut department. I suppose I did detect an almond or two, but considering that these bars have the word "nut" in their title, they could have been a little nuttier.

I can definitely see myself buying these reasonably-priced granola bars again. They didn't quite change my life or make me cry any happy tears, but they're a tasty, filling snack-food with a pleasant cranberry-ish flavor. I have absolutely no problems with chocolate, but I would recommend these over the Chocolate Chip Granola Bars any day. Sonia and I both give them 4's.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Trader Joe's S'mores

Everyone knows what a s'more is, right? Aside from Thin Mints and generations of courageous, confident, character-filled women (hey, it's in their mission statement), s'mores probably have to be one of Girl Scout's greatest contributions to society. It may be impossible to prove that Girl Scouts invented the timeless combination of hot fire-toasty marshmallow, semi-melty chocolate and crunchy graham cracker, but they definitely popularized the concept under the name of a "Some More" (as in, "Can I have some more, please?") before being colloquially shortened to just a s'more. Today, you can't go camping or even out to the woods for a campfire and not have them. Sandy and I definitely tracked down the ingredients before setting up a tent for the night at Joshua Tree National Park on our latest vacation which, between those, some TJ chicken sausages, grill-baked potatoes, and good cheap beer courtesy, once more, from TJs, made a great campfire dinner.

It's a little curious to me, then, that these frozen desserts are marketed under the name of "S'more." No, not "S'more Ice Cream Sandwich" or even "S'more Frozen Dessert." Just "S'more." That's it. Listen, Trader Joe's, you and I both know you didn't flambé these on a stick in the middle of nowhere, so it isn't a s'more. Call me a semantic purist but you whiffed there. Also, after hearing on and on about great these were after our latest ice cream sandwich review, and these finally being in stock, and getting home quickly thereafter and putting them in the freezer right away and waiting a day or two after to pull them from the otherwise frosty realm of our good ol' reliable Kenmore to finally eat....ugh. Somewhere along the way, whether in packaging or shipping or in-store handling, you muffed this package, because all the sandwiches were obviously melted then refrozen more or less back in shape, and that wasn't my fault. Don't mess with the reviewer's package, especially when he's the self-proclaimed ice cream expert!

Regardless, they were in okay-enough shape to get an accurate gauge on them. They're definitely different from the Sublime Ice Cream Sandwiches, so allow me to compare and contrast: For one thing, while the cookie on the Subliminals (can I call them that?) were the definite highlight, on the S'mores, they were not. That's not to say that they're bad. Like the Subliminals, they were of a softer variety, which I liked but were way smaller and thinner. I wanted more cookie for my sandwich, kinda like how the graham cracker in an actual s'more is a big part of the overall taste. Also, while the ice cream portion of the Subliminals is rather plain, for the S'mores, it's much richer. In fact, it's not even ice cream, but rather gelato (less butterfat and more sugar, which can also help explain the melting issue, but still...) and has lots of marshmallow swirled in. I'd actually say too much, as it seems out of proportion flavor-wise to an actual s'more. And while there's some good chocolate swirled in and flaked around, it doesn't quite cut it for me. Of course, I'm the guy who when crafting his own s'more likes graham crackers snapped a little bigger than necessary with a big ol' chunk of Hershey's in there, with marshmallow being more of a tertiary then primary flavor, so maybe it's just me, but overall they tasted more vaguely reminiscent of a s'more than actual all that s'mores-y.

Actually, it's not just me. Sandy agrees with that notion. "I liked them because they were ice cream-y, but that's about it," she said. I concur. Given a choice between these and the Subliminals, I'd choose the Subliminals nearly every time. I mean, these aren't awful by any stretch (I do like them overall) but to me, they just miss a little too much of the mark, and I'm glad my lovely wife stands in solidarity with me on this. "I'll give them like a 2 and a half," she said. That's exactly half of what she gave the Subliminals. Me? I can't go that low, but feel okay with a 3, a full Golden Spoon less than my Subliminal score. I'd be willing to give them a second chance...whenever they come back in stock...but I won't be holding my breath, either. Disagree? All good! Leave a comment and keep it civil!

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Trader Joe's Orange Peach Mango 100% Juice

I have a confession to make to you, dear readers. I have an addiction that I don't think I can stop. This isn't so different from you. We all have our little addictions (or perhaps, for the lighter stuff, "bad habits") ranging from pretty tame (say, like fingernail biting) to weird (teeth whitening) to just plain scary (plastic surgery, anyone?*). Way I look at it is, I'm not one to judge that much, especially because I got my own: juice. I freakin' love juice, especially the citrusy kinds. I've been known to drink a gallon of OJ by myself in a day and a half. I don't know if it's all the sugar or some deeply yet subliminally implanted fear of scurvy (probably both), but juice and me, we're good buddies. Ask Sandy. All too often, after shopping for the week and finding some alternative to water, milk or beer for our shelves, I guzzle down the entire jug with my poor wife getting nary a sprinkle of her own. Poor gal. Of course, though, we have slightly different tastes in juice. She's more a fan of different juicy blends so while I could absorb OJ on a constant drip, for her, it has to be mixed with something to make it drinkable. Otherwise, it's just too acidic and bitter for her. And oh, if it has pulp, forget about it.

Fortunately, Trader Joe's has a pretty decent juice selection ranging from sugary sweet to super healthy to, well, let's say unusual yet good. There's a lot of space for middle ground here. When Sandy and I shop, we don't always have to go the citrus route to satisfy my cravings, but when I'm really getting the DTs for a good liquid Vitamin C system shock, I know exactly what to reach for.

I love love love the Trader Joe's Orange Peach Mango 100% Juice. Love it, despite the weird placement of "100%" in its name. Love it, even though from a pure citrus standpoint it's not a be-all-end-all. Love it, even as I just polished off the carton moments before typing this, as I'm ready for more. It's really a blend of six juices from concentrate - besides the aforementioned orange, peach, and mango it also has apple (of course), grape (what doesn't have grape juice these days?) and pineapple. Altogether they form a nice orangey colored, thick, kinda cloudy free-flowing river of taste from my glass down into my belly. And the more I drink, the better it tastes. I love it. At first, the three citrus amigos are the prevalent flavor before smoothing into the peach and mango finish that erases any bitterness or acidic aftertones. I'm guessing it's grape's and apple's job to provide a good platform to make all this possible, and they do it well. The taste lingers for a while, too, if you allow it. It's good enough for me to enjoy it whether early in the morning or later in the evening. And for something like $3, definitely a good choice.

Sandy's not as big a fan as I am, but that's alright. She's enjoyed some glasses of it here and there, but I'm definitely the primary partaker of this preservative-free pasteurized potion at our homestead. In fact, I may or may not have drank the entire last carton without any spousal assistance...hrmmm...well, hopefully she won't be *too* mad. She at least recalled drinking enough of it at some point to go ahead and give it a 3, mostly because she wasn't nearly as much a fan of the citrusy aspects as I was. Other types of blends are much more to her liking. Me? I'm going with a 4.5. It doesn't completely satisfy my pure citrus cravings, but dang, it's good.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* I bet you thought that was gonna be Michael Jackson. Oh no. It gets a lot worse than him. Gadzooks!!!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Trader Joe's Beer Battered Vidalia Sweet Onion Rings

I'm not sure who came up with the idea of onion rings. Why not fried carrots or broccoli? In Asian restaurants, you'll find vegetable tempura, which is, I guess, as close as you'll get unless you want to buy a deep fat fryer and do it yourself. The fried potato has done very well in the form of French fries, tater tots and hash browns. And I guess fried zucchini has fairly widespread acceptance as a home-cooked food.

The thing about onion rings that really frustrates me is that since the onion has a smooth skin on it, it never really absorbs the fried-ness. The batter simply coats the onion slices and doesn't penetrate the skin of the onion, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. But when I try to eat the onion ring, I always have the problem of the piece of onion slipping right out of its "sleeve" of crispiness, and I find myself with a mouthful of nothing but warm onion. These rings were no exception.

We followed the cooking instructions on the bag, heated them in the oven, and still, we felt they weren't particularly crispy. They seemed to have larger slices of onion than most varieties I've tried. These Trader Joe's Onion Rings are like the steak fries of the onion ring world. They're thick and bulky. It really bothered Sonia, because she's used to onion rings being thin and crispy. That's certainly one way to have them, but I'm always open for something new. I thought the thickness made them heartier in a way. Not only were the onion slices bigger, but there seemed to be a thicker layer of batter on the outside, too, making them kind of doughy. They were more like a meal by themselves this way, as opposed to just a side dish. I think in part due to their size, they retained a greater amount of moisture than most onion rings. Not quite to the point of sogginess, but certainly to the point where it detracted from their crunch-factor.

Flavor-wise, what more could you want from onion rings? Big, sweet vidalia onions, covered in a really nice beer batter. They tasted great to both of us. We dipped them in some ranch dressing, which added a little bit of tang. Personally, I think the crème de la crème of the fried onion world is Outback Steakhouse's Bloomin' Onion. So good, it has its own Wikipedia page, yet so bad for you, it has an entire day's worth of calories. I've never been huge on Funyuns or really cheap onion rings. And I've been meaning to try White Castle's, after hearing some good things about them. But there again, they get a nutrition grade of D+. Trader Joe's Onion Rings have only 130 calories and 60 fat-cals per serving...oh, but wait, there are five servings in the bag. Hmmm, I would have guessed there were only about two and a half servings in the bag. That's tricky. Still not good for you, but maybe not quite as fattening as other brands.

Sonia gives these circular snacks 2.5 stars. I think that's a bit too low. I've gotta give 'em at least a 4. They tasted great to me, even if they were a little over-sized and lacking in the crispiness department. That'll earn them a final status of "not bad."

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Trader Joe's Caramelized Nut Trio

You probably don't need me to tell you that life doesn't always go as planned. Same holds true even when you go on vacation. Last Thursday, Sandy and I were in San Diego, hanging out with our friend Ashley downtown at Seaport Village, and planning to attend a "Taste of Downtown" event where we would get to sample tasty dishes from something like 50 different restaurants while touring different neighborhoods. Sounds like a great night, right? Well...you might've heard about it, but an Arizona utility worker had a different idea and set off a massive blackout at around 3:30, which pretty much cancelled everything in the city that night, our dinner plans included.* Well, what can you do, right? The three of us made our back to Ashley's apartment, rummaged out all the candles we could, got out the board games (three rounds of Life, anyone?) and gathered together all sorts of snacky foods. It turned out to be a fantastically fun night, though we were all a little bit relieved when the lights flickered back on at about 11 p.m.

It's kinda like that old saying: When life you gives you nuts, you might as well caramelize them. Or something like that. In the early parts of the blackout, we decided to break out the TJ's Caramelized Nut Trio, even though they were one of the very few readily accessible protein sources for God knew how long. Without power, you (or at least *I*) think about such things. It's survival, dangit.

As for the caramelly nuts - man, they're a great snack food. Very munchy and tasty, and kinda hard to stop grazing on. We were all dipping our paws into the bowl pretty often, though me perhaps a little more often than the two chicas. I loved the mix of walnuts, almonds, and cashews all covered in crunchy caramel coating - salty and sweet in a near perfect blend. To me, they definitely had a good solid crunch to them, though perhaps more due to the candy coating then the nuts themselves. I have no major complaints about them, but just a minor quibble - it'd be nice if a few peanuts were mixed in, too, but I'm glad it wasn't predominantly those nuts as other mixes usually are. I firmly approve, and think they'd be great by themselves or mixed with or put on top of something else.

Las chicas, though? Since there were three nuts in the mix (literally in the TJ trio and figuratively that night in San Diego), I'm soliciting not just Sandy but also, for our first ever celebrity guest judge, Ashley's opinion on the matter. Sandy liked munching on them some, too, but mentioned she wished the nuts themselves were a little harder and crunchier, kinda like the raw almonds we also had that night. Ashley sided a little bit more with me and enjoyed the Nut Trio quite a bit. "I just wish there were some other tastes or bits of something else in there so it's not the same taste over and over, though," she said. Not a bad idea, but not necessary to me, at least.

Okay, three of us, three scores to juggle. Let's be fair and give each of us 3.33 spoons to deal with, and kinda forget about that pesky .01 spoon leftover. For me, 3 out of 3.33 Golden Spoons for another nutty, tasty, irresistible TJ snack. Sandy went with 1.5, and Ashley chimed in with a solid 2.5. If I'm carrying the 1 and counting my toes right that's...let's see...a 7 out of 10. Not bad at all.

You stay classy, San Diego.** Link
Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*Fortunately, we went out the next night to Mama Testa Taqueria in Hillcrest...amazing. Check out their fresh salsa bar with like ten different homemade salsas, each one unique and delicious, and their "mividita" (fish tacos), simply put, were outstanding.
**Especially you, whoever smashed the window of our rental car that night. Fortunately, you made my day for two reasons: signed up for the damage waiver when I rented so it cost me nothing (actually got money back for returning the car a day early then). Also: you managed to somehow ignore the GPS, iPod, and camera flash that were in the glovebox and run off only with a bag with some of our, let's say, less desirable dirty laundry in it. Hope you enjoy that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Trader Joe's Sea Salt Brownie Petites

Last week, Sandy and I headed out west to California for our annual vacation. Let me tell you, what a trip, with all the sites and sights...Disneyland (fun as all heck)*, Joshua Tree National Park (stunningly, starkly beautiful - what a landscape), and all around San Diego (a zoo well worth the admission). Fantastic week, and when I woke up on Saturday, our last day of vacation, I seriously contemplated not jumping on the plane back to Pittsburgh. It was too much fun, and too great of an area to ever want to leave. Nathan, Sonia, why did you ever move to Pennsylvania from SoCal again? Moving closer to family and having four distinct seasons, was it? Bah. I'd never leave. Between all those fun things and as many animal-style double-doubles I could ever eat, I was trying to figure out how I could convince my work to relocate me to their nonexistent San Diego facility and if someone could ship our pooch out to us.

There's another thing that amazed me about California, and only to a slightly lesser extent: the size of your Trader Joe's. I mean, dang. They're the size of actual grocery stores out there, if not larger, with a much larger selection of foodstuffs that get shoehorned into our little teeny tiny almost afterthought of a shop here in Pittsburgh. Some of it has to do with being allowed to sell all types of booze (including a great price on Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale - only $3.99 for a bomber? It's twice that, easily, here) but there's so much more. For instance, at the Costa Mesa store we visited, it's a whole literal wall section of tortillas in all sorts of varieties I've never seen here on our one lonely shelf. I'm jealous, very, very jealous.

And there was something else there I'd never seen at our store: these Sea Salt Brownie Petites. Sandy, who had heard about them from a friend who lived in the area, started rummaging around in a frenzy as soon as we entered the store. "I HAVE TO FIND THEM!!!!," she practically wailed. "WHERE ARE THEY!?!?!?!"** I don't blame her for being so, um, enthusiastic to seek out and destroy a pack of them. Previously, we've had some tremendous luck with a TJ chocolate/sea salt combo that was pantheon-level great, and sweet/salty is generally a winning tandem for us, and since we needed some inexpensive snacks for all our adventures, I was all in.

I wish I could say the same for these brownie bites. First one I had was definitely a lot more sodium than brownie taste. How much more? Well, if the chocolate were Kate Moss, the salt would be Jabba the Hut - simply way out of ratio. Other ones weren't nearly as bad, and were actually pretty decent and full of cocoa-goodness, but others were way too reminiscent of the original. The sea salt was just too dominant and not enough of a complement, overall, I think. Also, all of mine were pretty dry and crumbly to the bite as they practically disintegrated into my mouth. That might not be a deterrent to some, but generally I'm much more of a moister brownie fan, and was hoping for something not quite as arid. Sandy, though? Loved them. Absolutely loved them. "All of mine tasted about right, and I loved the texture, too," she said. When I mentioned the dryness of mine, she said she had no such problem at all, and only wished they were a little bit bigger. Hmm, maybe she goldmined all the good bites to herself and left me with most of the undesirables.

I'm going to have a go a little low for my score and go with a 2. They were simply too much of a mixed bag for me - too many of them resembled dried-up brown salty cakes for me, and if I saw them again***, I'd say "Na" (get it?). It's another product that I'd totally get if others like more than I did, so when Sandy said she'd give them a solid 4, I shrugged and didn't argue. Somehow, perhaps because of my slight distaste for them, some of them survived our week and stayed with our friend Ashley in San Diego, who I think enjoys them, too. "If only there was enough room in our luggage..." Sandy grumbled. Well, between all the goodies we got at the 99 Ranch Market and Sandy's new little friend, there just wasn't the space. Oh, bother.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Congrats to Sandy on her best half-marathon yet (2 hrs 43 mins) she ran at Disneyland! Proud of ya, babe.
** Okay, an exaggeration. But only slight.
*** Might have seen them Sunday at the local shop. Seems like we get some stuff on rotation and whatever sells sticks, so if you're in the 'burgh and wanna give them a try, hurry up!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Trader Joe's Meat & Potatoes

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, in addition to a corporate prayer at church and a little personal time reflecting on the events of that day, Sonia and I decided to watch the season opener NY Giants vs. Washington Redskins, have a drink of our favorite beer from America's oldest brewery and eat some steak and potatoes. It doesn't get much more American than that. That was our way of being patriotic.

We were pleasantly surprised with the flavor of everything. Neither one of us is really a red meat type, except for the occasional craving. The potatoes were seasoned pretty well, and the meat had a good taste, although it could have used a fixin or two. In the absence of steak sauce, we dipped it in a leftover packet of Chick fil A barbeque sauce, which worked out quite nicely.

Our number one complaint was, predictably, a lack of beef. The bag was just barely enough for both of us, and the majority of that was potatoes. I know the average American doesn't need any more red meat in his diet than he already has, but if you're buying a bag of food that says "Meat & Potatoes" real big on the label, there's a good chance you have a hankering for some meat. That's been a recurring issue with many of TJ's frozen foods. Maybe that's one of the ways they keep their costs down, but at $4.99 per bag, I would think they could sneak a few more pieces of beef in there. The bag isn't unreasonable at that price, but I wouldn't call this one a bargain, either.

As tasty and tender as most bites were, I did discover one large piece of beef that was riddled with gristle and fat. There's just something about fatty beef that I find revolting. I chewed and chewed the rubbery meat, but I just couldn't get around to swallowing it. My gag reflex kicked in and I had to spit it into my napkin. But just to reiterate, that was only a single piece. The majority of the sirloin was soft and tender and not at all rubbery.

It's kind of hard to screw up meat and potatoes. Trader Joe certainly didn't do anything terribly wrong, but he didn't really do anything transcendent or innovative either. If Sonia and I had red meat dinners more often, this might have made our regular rotation, but as it stands, we probably won't revisit this one for a while. But if you're a red meat kind of guy (or girl) by all means, give it a shot and leave us a comment with your dissenting opinion below.

Sonia was most disappointed by the lack of sirloin beef. She gives it three and a half stars. I agree with her assessment, but I'll have to take off another half a star for that one big bite of freaky rubber meat. Three stars from me.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Trader José's Chipotle Pepper Hummus and Mini Pitas

"Oh, that Chipotle is so HOT right now!" And I mean that as a double entendre. First of all, it seems to be very "in" right now. What with a restaurant by the same name, products like this tasty salsa at the grocery store, and places like McDonald's dumping chipotle BBQ sauce on wraps and burgers, it seems impossible to escape it these days.

But I assure you, I had never even heard of chipotle peppers until 5 or 10 years ago. It looks like the chipotle pepper is having its day in the sun. And yes, I intend that as a double entendre as well. (Chipotles are often sun-dried or smoke-dried).

Not only are chipotles popular, but they're actually really, really hot. And there's the catch. A real, unadulterated chipotle pepper would burn the average American's tongue right off. They're really spicy. I think it has to do with the fact that a lot of our friends to the south have immigrated to the U.S. and they've brought many of their tasty eating habits with them. "But Señor José, there are still a lot of white people in America! How can they enjoy such a spicy pepper?" Easy. Just use it to flavor a myriad of other products without actually adding any whole peppers. And that's what we have here: another chipotle-flavored product without the full brunt of the spice.

It had just the right amount of kick to keep me interested, but not so much that it burned my mouth. It was a good, creamy hummus with plenty of flavor. The spice-factor was roughly the same caliber as Trader Joe's Spicy Hummus, only this was a different flavor. The only hummus I've had that could beat it hands down in a taste-test would be Sabra. I'm a big fan of their hummus, but TJ's is a not-too-distant second. Sonia agrees.

As for the mini-pitas...well, we've reviewed a few other kinds of Trader Joe's pitas like this and this. And these are, well um, smaller. They maybe seemed just a tad on the dry side, but really—it's quite convenient to have bite-sized pitas. It cuts down on the temptation to double-dip and such. They really need to come up with a good gluten-free pita substitute. If anyone knows of such a thing at Trader Joe's or elsewhere, please leave us a comment below.

Well, let's finalize our score here: Sonia gives four's to both products. I'll see that four on the hummus, but it's a tad too rich for my blood on the pitas. I'll give 'em a respectable 3.5.

Trader José's Chipotle Pepper Hummus. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.
Trader Joe's Mini Pitas. Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Sublime Ice Cream Sandwiches

There are some definite signs to the seasons here in Pittsburgh. In our neighborhood, one of the surest signs of summer is the ice cream truck slowly driving up and down the streets peddling its frozen delicious treats. Please understand, though, this is no normal ice cream truck. It's downright spooky. Imagine a medium gray van from the '70s, plastered with Yosemite Sam and random cartoon stars, a low growl from the engine only slightly covered over by Kidsong Muzak, driven by some crusty/skeevy looking dude in a faded ballcap. I swear I once saw Chris Hansen trailing right behind him. Every spring, once it's finally thawed out, it's this same van, over and over again, circling the neighborhood like clockwork. That's when I know it's just about summer, and I wouldn't change it for anything. That's my neighborhood, and I love it.

Of course, with Labor Day already past, summer's practically over. Some signs of that in Pittsburgh: cooler air in the morning, finally no palpable humidity, even more folks wearing Steelers' jerseys (not sure how that's possible - they're practically the dress code year-round here), and of course, the Pirates becoming increasingly irrelevant each passing game. Sandy and I figured we might as well enjoy these last few weeks by trying out yet another tasty TJ treat from the ice cream aisle, and opted for one of the all-time ice cream truck classics (Bomb Pops not withstanding, of course).

In case you can't tell from the picture, the Trader Joe's Sublime Ice Cream Sandwiches are more of the chipwich variety than the standard slab of vanilla ice cream planking between a couple chocolate wafers. That's what usually what I think of when I hear "ice cream sandwich." Instead of that, think of the best chipwich you've ever had. These, if not No. 1, will be a very very close runner-up. The real stand-out part of them is the two cookies - absolutely delicious. They seem to intentionally be a little half-baked so they're more soft and chewy and rich than hard and crunchy. Sandy said they taste a little cinnamony almost, but there's no cinnamon in them. I can't deny, though, that there seems to be a little something extra to them that makes 'em real tasty, and I'm just not sure what it is. I don't care, they're just good. The rest of the sandwich is pretty much standard issue - tasty chocolate chips, decent vanilla ice cream - and they're all good sized and absolutely delicious as a whole. I kinda wish the ice cream was a little richer or more flavorful, as it is pretty plain even by vanilla standards, but is the right consistency and keeps cold enough to not turn into a melty mess without chilling your chompers, either.

Both Sandy and I are fans. These, like the band who's name TJ's snuck into the product title, are definitely worthy of the summertime stamp of approval. Lovin's *What I Got* for these, as you can't go the *Wrong Way* with them. You won't ever find 'em at the *Pawn Shop*...okay, enough stupid song title puns, and on to the rankings. Sandy said she "might have to give them a five" for the overall package. Hrmm. To me, either something's a five or it isn't, but I choose to not delve into my wife's thinking pattern too deeply (much safer then) and roll with that five. I'm going to go with a 4 - almost perfect, that vanilla just has to step up its game a little. Regardless, if you pick up a couple four-packs of the TJ's chipwiches, in your freezer, you can have your own *40 oz. to Freedom*...uh, yeah, cuz the packages are 20 ounces each...

Sorry.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, September 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Dairy Free Mochi

About a year ago, I decided I was in love with mochi, the Asian ice cream you can eat with your hands. I was so blindly in love with it, that it inspired me to cheat and write the first ever What's Good at Trader Joe's post that wasn't about a Trader Joe's brand product, something that's only been done one other time in our 170 blog posts.

Well, Trader Joe finally got the hint. He decided to whip up a batch of his own mochis. And instead of offering a half dozen flavors in separate packages like the Mikawaya brand, he decided to bring us a sampler of sorts that showcases three fantastic flavors (although two of the three are much more fantastic than the other, but we'll get to the details in a moment). Not only that, but Trader Joe's version is perfect for true vegans and the lactose intolerant!

First of all, upon inspecting the box, a red flag immediately presented itself to me: there are very intricate designs on the mochis themselves...in some sort of leaf shape I think? The rice-based shell of most mochi would be way too soft to ever flaunt such a detailed insignia. "Oh please don't let these mochis feel and/or taste like plastic, Trader Joe!" I thought to myself. Red flag number two: why mango? Chocolate is pretty basic. It makes sense. Coconut makes sense since these dairy free ice creams are made with coconut milk. But the mango...the mango is what worried me, since Trader Joe's track record with mango products is full of hits like this and this, as well as big misses like this and this.

On a scale of general plasticity, with actual plastic being a 10 and Mikawaya's mochi shells being a 1, the shells of Trader Joe's mochis fall somewhere in between, but thankfully they're closer to Mikawaya mochi than to actual plastic...we'll say a 4. Surprisingly, despite my initial red flag, Sonia felt their plasticity was more bothersome than I did. They definitely have the firmest shells of any mochi that I know of (and yes, I have tried mochi from somewhere other than Trader Joe's) but their texture is still quite pleasant if you ask me.

As far as flavors go, I was absolutely thrilled with the coconut. It tastes like amazing, sweet, real coconut milk. The chocolate was also delicious, and it was an excellent approximation of actual chocolate ice cream made with dairy milk. Sonia liked chocolate the best, with coconut being a close second for her. Vice versa for me. The flavor of the chocolate was at least as good as Mikawaya's chocolate, but the coconut might have been the best tasting mochi I've ever had. And sure enough, we were both a little disappointed with mango. It was edible...but it tasted weird. Sonia thought it tasted too sour for mochi ice cream. She thinks it should have been sweeter. I agree. It was true to the taste of a real mango to some extent, but it could have used some more natural sugar.

Since the different flavors in the sampler inspired such different reactions, we're gonna go ahead and score them individually first. Sonia gives the mango flavor a 2.5 out of 5. She gives coconut a 4 and chocolate a 4.5. I'll give mango 3.5 stars. It wasn't that bad. And I give coconut a 4.5 and chocolate a 4.

So, here are our bottom lines, by flavor:
Dairy Free Coconut Mochi, bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.
Dairy Free Chocolate Mochi, bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.
Dairy Free Mango Mochi, bottom line: 6 out of 10.

But since they sell all three flavors together, we have to give you a single definitive score for the product. I'm breaking out my calculator about now....

Trader Joe's Dairy Free Mochi
Bottom line: 7.67 out of 10 stars.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Garbanzo Beans...and More

Yes, that's right, I'm going to write a review about a can of beans.

Why on earth would I do that? There's actually a few different reasons. First of all, Sandy and I like TJ's beans. The black beans are a staple in our diet for all sorts of tasty dishes. But we like black beans in almost any form (I said almost), so it'd be more of a challenge to be impressed by a different kinda bean altogether. Enter these Garbanzos (same thing as chickpeas, except much more fun to say). Secondly, with some good luck with some TJ's hummus, Sandy had the notion of trying to make some from home. Thirdly, when she didn't but instead spotted a recipe for fried chickpeas in the new I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook, she insisted we had to try them out, and not ever ever ever being one to argue, I said sure.

Well, not one to give away the recipe for them, but they're real easy to make. Indeed, as the cover suggests, it can't be effed up. Within just a few minutes we had a pretty large, tasty batch that we popped by the mouthful. Good stuff, with the crispy battered outside contrasting the warm, beany, fleshy insides. This may sound a little weird (indeed, when I said it to Sandy, she looked at me as if I confessed to parading around in her clothes when she wasn't home), but it kinda almost sorta brought to mind a certain kind of peanut butter-y-ness with the texture of the bean, the plain saltiness of the coating, and the overall kinda toastiness to them. After I explained that, her face returned to its normal pretty self as she shrugged and kinda got what I was going for. Two things I'd like to mention about this dish: First, much better when hot so eat 'em quick (once cold, they're not nearly as good), and second, a decent variation would probably be to add a little spice to the batter if you like that kinda of stuff.

I'd say it'a decent can o' beans, as cans o' beans go. However you like to enjoy your Garbanzos, these aren't a bad option. Sandy and I would give them a 3.5 each for being semi-exemplary yet not outstanding, just like a good legume should be.

But wait, there's more. There's another reason we're reviewing these. We went grocery shopping at TJ's last night (word of advice: don't go on Sunday nights. Shelves are literally 2/3 empty then. Couldn't even buy a decent pack of tortillas) and, despite our limited choices, the mood hit for an impromptu, easy to make, semi-authentic Indian feast at low, low prices. Garbanzos are a staple of the Indian diet, so we had these for an appetizer. Here's a few more things we picked up:

First up, some Trader Joe's Masala Dosa. Sandy and I have had these before when we met up with Nathan and Sonia for our blog summit dinner a little while back. These are a pretty straightforward Indian concoction, and fairly tasty. It's basically a rice crepe with onions and chunky potatoes and the usual Indian spices of turmeric, cumin, curry leaves and the like. They're fairly generously sized (several large bites at least) and kinda filling, too As a very nice little bonus, it includes a small package of coconut chutney to complement these guys, which adds a little sweet and a little spice to the mix. Pretty good, though both Sandy and I kinda remembered liking them more the first time we had them, and we think it has to do with preparation method. Sandy and Sonia fried them up in a little bit of oil while Nathan and I drank beer, which made them a lot crisper than when we baked them in the oven. Still, not bad, and a welcome addition. Definitely fry them, though. Sandy gives them a three, while I'll go for a four for remembering how good they can be, and for the bonus sauce.

Next up, some Trader Joe's Paneer Roll Aachari. It's not our first go around with some TJ-style paneer, so between that and the picture on the box we had some high, high hopes. Well, it didn't fully deliver, but that doesn't make it bad. Instead of nice big tasty cheese balls wading in a microwavable kiddie pool of red curry, the finished product resembled more of an semi-chunky ill-defined stew. I'm semi-convinced it's a different product picture on the box altogether. But no matter. The curry sauce is complex and spicy and delicious, with little paneer strands going here and there for an occasional stringy chewy bite. Its state made it ideal for dumping over the rice we made on the side (alas, not TJ's brand), which I scraped up every last bit I could. There was lots of the sauce to go around, too, which definitely is a big plus in my book. My only disappointment was it seemingly not being what was pictured - I'm not sure what the darker stuff is supposed to be that's pictured. I would've liked for my taste buds to find out. Sandy went with a 3.5 for this, and I'll rate it a solid 4.

Last but not least, some good old tasty Trader Joe's Malabari Paratha. You must forgive me of being of the notion that Indian bread kinda started and ended with naan. I'd honestly never heard of malabari paratha before. I wish I have! This may have been the show-stealer of the night dinner-wise for us. So simple to make - fry in a lightly oiled pan for about two minutes on each side, and voila! Your reward is a nice big tasty warm circle of flaky, melt-in-your-mouth bread that I'd imagine you can do anything with (I didn't complain when some of the aachari mingled its way on over), but it's good enough to munch it on down plain. Sandy loves her carbs and almost any bread-type product, and this was right up her alley. I heard lots of "mmms" from her side of the couch for sure. Flaky, crispy, slightly salty, a little doughy, and almost perfect. She went with a 4, while I'd say 4.5.

In conclusion, for a quick, easy, inexpensive make-at-home Indian-inspired feast, this was pretty decent. All dishes were vegetarian, and in the case of the masala dosa, vegan and gluten-free. And yeah, go figure, all are fairly high sodium if that kinda thing is a strike in your book. But in all, they're all fairly tasty and recommended for a dinner feast of your own. It's not the most authentic stuff you could ever have, but it's more close than not, and tough to beat for the rupees.

To conclude, here are our bottom lines:

Trader Joe's Garbanzo Beans: Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Masala Dosa: Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Paneer Roll Aachari: Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Malabari Paratha: Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons