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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Trader Joe's Arancini Bites

I'm lucky enough to have many things in life to be thankful for, and somewhere on that list is freezers and how forgiving they can be at times. Sandy and I have the occasional bad habit of buying perishable food and forgetting about it until a while later (which just might be the very definition of the term "first world problem"), which without a freezer can go bad. We've had enough produce like that at times. You bet she makes me take care of the clean-up for that. But freezers? Yup, you better believe we freeze our chicken and all, and with the usual stockpile of various work lunches and ice cream and similar sweets (hey, she's pregnant, it's dangerous to say no), means the freezer can get a little crowded. That's the state we found after our most recent trip and we needed to make just a little bit more room. Fortunately, I found a tub of chicken stock from who knows when ago that I used to make some of the best potato soup ever...and we also found these, Trader Joe's Arancini Bites. It's been at least a month or so since we've bought these, but they still appeared to be in good shape, making me pretty happy that we didn't end up wasting the three bucks or less we paid for 'em (I don't exactly recall the cost, sorry).

I baked these up for a late snack the other night for a chillaxin' evening of half-paying attention to Intervention on Netflix. I hate that show...so intrusive...but yet somehow interesting enough for background noise...kinda like Storage Wars in that regard...I'm glad we don't have cable...I digress. As I brought out a plate of them to the living room, Sandy exclaimed "Oooooh cheesy and bitey!" Well said, gorgeous. As you can see, I may have overbaked them a little as most of the bites had a little melty cheese cape on them, but meh. Basically, each cheesy ball is comprised of some fontina cheese rolled up with some rice-dough type stuff (with a couple actual grains here and there) with a panko breadcrumb coat. I don't really recall any other instances of having fontina cheese, but it struck me as kinda like parmesan and mozzarella, except better. I'll assume that's about on par, and the cheese melted into every bite. Theoretically, I could've made up some marinara for a side dipping sauce, but we ate them plain as is and every arancini bite was delicious. It is important to note that these are NOT considered vegetarian as there's chicken broth used as flavoring in these, although I didn't really taste that.

I just remembered part of the reason why it took us long to get around to eating these. I kept thinking of and seeing the word "arancini" and twisting around the letters in my head to something like "arachnid" and thinking of these as "arachnid bites." Not that I'm afraid of spiders or anything - you should see some of them at my grandparents' cabin - but ask Peter Parker how that arachnid bite worked out for him. That's something I don't need on my plate right now, figuratively and literally. Plus, my wife is way prettier than Kirsten Dunst, who just looks perpetually hungry to me. Maybe she should stock up on these, too.

Anyways, I'm glad we finally got around to chomping these down. "They're kinda like fried mozzarella sticks, except for grownups, and they're baked, so they're healthier for us then, right? Right?" Sandy asked. Umm, yes. "I don't want to see the box on these," she said. Oh, they're not so bad, darling, but there's a reason I followed these up with an Asian pear for another snack. Trader Joe's Arancini Bites carry some solid spoon power for the two of us. Sandy's going with a four, and I'll up that another half, as, man, I wish I had some of these left right now. Yup, they're that good.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Arancini Bites: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, February 27, 2012

Trader Joe's Thai Style Chicken Flatbread Pizza

Pizza pretty much speaks for itself, so I'm not going into some big ol' thing about it. I love pizza, you probably at least like it, enough said. Also, I think I've expressed my thoughts about Thai food in enough other reviews around here that I'm not going to go rehash all them. Bottom line is, I also love Thai food, and I *hope* that you at least like it, too.

But...combining them? Now there's an interesting concept that I haven't had before. Is it really a surprise that once I saw this on the fresh pizza shelf, I thought, "Sandy and I have to have this?" Nah, not at all, especially given our previous tasty experience with one of TJ's fresh flatbread pizzas (which mercifully came back in stock after being absent for months, I thought it was a goner) balanced with our general ambivalence towards the TJ freezer pizza line. For only $3.99 (which is less than the $4.28 we paid for a cheese pizza on clearance the previous night at Target*), it's worth the shot. Oh, the things I do for this blog...

Tell ya what: Trader Joe's Thai Style Chicken Flatbread Pizza works, and works well. The pizza portion bakes in the oven for only about 5 or 6 minutes (I might have baked our more like 7 or 8) right on the oven rack. That stuff in the cup and baggie you see in the pic? That's basically like a fresh slaw of cabbage, carrots and red bell pepper bits that you mix in a bowl with some peanut sauce and spread atop the pizza once baked. All the veggies are firm and crunchy, and the peanut sauce is more or less a basic pad thai sauce, which means I like it. The flatbread is a little thick and flaky, but definitely good, and its covered with a plum sauce that from the little I could taste of it seemed good. It has all these other things like soy sauce and vinegar and five spice in it, and it's really not spicy at all. There's a little too little of the chicken, naturally, but that too is good, and it's topped off with provolone and mozzarella cheese - hmm, that might be the most Italian part of the whole pie.

That leads me to this, so follow me here. The directions on the back of this say that after you bake the pizza and spread the slaw, you should cut the pizza in half then "fold each half taco-style." So what this is telling me is, as an American, I should prepare this Thai/Italian fusion product and enjoy like a Mexican food. Interesting, and very fully culturally inclusive of them. I have no doubt that this would be enjoyed without folding it in half, but if that's what they recommend, can it really be called pizza? Not that you can't fold a pizza slice in half, but the outcome of this is more like a baked sandwich (closest thing I could think of is a baked panini). Of course, if it's marketed under "pizza looking thing that really you fold into a sandwich," well, that just might confuse everybody. Maybe it's better to call it a "pizza" that you eat like a "taco," which invariably brings this to mind. Believe me, I've thought about this way too much in the 24 hours or so that it's been between my eating of this product and the writing of this review. It felt good to let that all out.

Anyhoose, both the wifey and I enjoyed our respective nibbles, which with some chips and salsa made a more-than-adequate late Saturday lunch. The flatbread on my half folded over quite nicely, whereas hers busted in half which led to a collateral slaw pile on her plate. I mistook that for her not liking the slaw - she's veggie-sensitive at times - but nah, she said she liked it just fine. In fact, a little less slaw might be preferable for some, as I kept all mine on and it seemed to be the predominant taste. Not that's it bad, but I couldn't get as accurate a gauge on the rest of the Thaitalian taco as I would've liked. As a whole, it seems to edge more towards the fresh and savory side of Thai-ish cuisine instead of spicy, which is okay and a change-up for me, at least. Sandy's on board with a good solid four for the chicken pizza, and I concur.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Thai Style Chicken Flatbread Pizza: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*Clearance freezer pizza? Interesting concept. It was a Newman's Own, which for late night after a long Friday during Lent, worked just fine.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Filled Pretzels

Peanut butter pretzels. It'd be pretty hard to screw these up. Pretzels = good. Peanut butter = good. Peanut butter pretzels = good x 2. I have met a handful of people that don't like peanut butter in my day, though. I'm guessing these wouldn't be winners with those special people. But other than that...of course these are gonna be good. But ... the question is: how good?

Well, as I've mentioned many times before, we've come to expect more from TJ's than just meeting expectations. If regular grocery store brands could make a decent peanut butter filled pretzel, then we expect TJ's to make something absolutely killer. Trader Joe's does offer both salted and unsalted varieties of this product. (We're only reviewing the salty kind right now). But just the fact that TJ's thought of people on low sodium diets shows that their thinking is a little different. A good different.

But to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure they did everything they could with these. They could have messed around with the texture of the peanut butter a bit. Each pretzel had a sort of peanut butter nugget-thing inside of it. It wasn't particularly creamy. It was just kind of a ball of semi-firm peanut butteriness. And the pretzels were...just pretzels. Nothing particularly special.

Now, in their defense, there's really nothing in particular wrong with them either. I've eaten these in my car on my way to work now just about every day for the past month or so. They're bite-sized, highly snackable, happy little morsels. So, it might seem like I'm being harsh on a perfectly tasty product, which I am...but if these were among the best of the best TJ's products, I would certainly not have been nibbling on a few of them each day for a month...because they would never have lasted in our pantry for more than a day or two. All in all, you get peanut butter in a pretzel. No more, no less. If you're at TJ's and you have a particular hankerin' for some peanut butter-filled pretzels, by all means, you should pick some of these puppies up...But don't make a special trip for them.

I give them a 3. Sonia does, too. (She has tried the unsalted kind and likes those slightly better for some strange reason).

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 stars.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trader Joe's Baked Onion Rings

Ah, junk food. You and I, we go back a long ways. You know how it is. You're easy, cheap, convenient, and although really not all that satisfying, you do just enough to keep me coming back for more, as much as I try to resist.

Lucky for me, even though Trader Joe's has lots of great, healthy items, there's lots of junky goodies all over the store. Lots of impulsive-buy type stuff. But some of them, while still not great for you, provide an at least semi-healthier alternative than the items they emulate, like these crunchy spicy cheesy guys. And these, Trader Joe's Baked Onion Rings, too.

Yeah, the obvious comparison for these baked o-rings is that omnipresent vending machine bag o' Funyuns. I'll admit it, every once in a great while, they're one of my vices. Truth be told, these Trader Joe imitators are pretty similar in texture and crunch overall. I'd imagine that they're made in much of the same process except that a little rice flour gets mixed in for a some added lightness and then, obviously, they're baked instead of fried. That part matters not, the TJ's rings still have all the bite and crunch necessary, and also makes them a smidge healthier. Or at least I tell that to myself. It's the other things where the two competitors part ways. Where Funyuns are a greasy, salty dustfest waiting to muck up your fingertips, the Trader Joe's ones have much less stuff on them. Sure, your digits won't come out of the encounter without needing a little attention, but not as much. Also, the TJ's try to emphasize the certain levels of sweetness some onions like vidalia ones can have, and so they up the sweetness while comparatively scaling back on the garlic and sodium, although, yes, there's plenty enough of that too. I can hear the salt police about it from here - "Too much! Toooo muuuuuch!" Well, to them I say, you're not gonna eat these anyways, and leave me alone.

Overall, I gotta say I like these better than Funyuns, I think. It's not that they're even all that overly good, but I munch on one or two, and it takes a little willpower to remove myself. These aren't my favorite TJ trigger food, or even my favorite ring-shaped onion product, but in the right time and circumstance, yeah, I could put a fair amount of these down.

Both Sandy and I munched on these as a pseudo-appetizer while making one of our favorite dinners the other night. I don't have a problem with that, and I'm pretty sure I can refrain from eating all of them myself. For under $2 a bag, they can be in the house every once in a while as an alternative to our usual chip and salsa-style snacking. Sandy was munching on these just as eagerly (if not slightly more so) than I was. "I'll give them a three, three and a half, maybe," she said. "I'd give them a little higher if they had just a little more taste to them." Indeed, they are much more subtle than the competition, but I think it's to their credit, so I'm rounding up for her and giving these a four of my own.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Baked Onion Rings: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Trader Joe's True Thai Vegetable Curries

In a previous post or two, I've mentioned that 'm just not a lunch guy. It's like a necessary evil for me. Eating lunch more likely than not means I'm at work with about 5 hours of headaches in the bag and at least 3 more coming up, and honestly I just want to be alone more times than not just so I don't have to blabber about something or other. I don't *think* I'm anti-social, but I need that time to just unplug for a bit, even though I'd rather be eating with people. To me, that's about half the point of meals. It's certainly not about zeroing in to find your own table so you can blankly gaze into your iPhone while your coworkers think you're some lonely, kinda stinky jerkface who could use a shave. Eh well. It's what I do.

One thing I also do is Thai food. Love it. Trader Joe's has had some mild success with it over the years...there's only one miss I can think of (certainly not "slap another person worthy"...wait, what?)...with a big win or two (even though I'm convinced that this Thai Joe character is just a one trick pony). I guess if TJ's can make a viable, easy Thai lunch option, then I may as well check it out. Gotta eat somethin', and a little variety to the usual stuff would be great.

There's these two new True Thai Vegetable Curry options - Panang and Green. They're similar enough I'll tackle 'em both here (the panang is the one with all the pics). They're both easy to grab in a rush, cheap ($1.99 each), and both can remain in your manbag or desk drawer to keep lunch thieves away. Yes, I'm still bitter about that. For both, the curry sauce is the real star - the panang is a little spicier than the mellower green - but have rich coconut milk undertones with the usual Thai spicy suspects. Dee-lish. Both have about the same veggies in them - carrots, little babycorn buttons, cauliflower, etc, which are all kinda mushy. Not the biggest fan, although the green curry adds crunchier bamboo sticks, which make me feel like a happy chubby lil' panda gnawing away on them. Each are pretty decent with a little rice to mix in (as pictured) and zap up within a few minutes in the microwave. I suppose that, like the package says, one could mix in a little meat and they'd be good (the sauce is pretty darn good) but to me, that's not necessary to enjoy these. All in all, not a bad deal.

It's kinda funny though...I really never looked at the nutritional info on these until I started writing this post and loaded on the label pic. Is all Thai food this bad for you, with all the fat, saturated fat and sodium? Yikes. I had no idea. Must be the orice you pay for all that tasty spicy coconut milk. I guess you're gonna hafta have a real healthy dinner if you pick up one of these, like some flavored air or something.

Anyways, I'd ask Sandy her opinion on them, as a fellow Thai food lover, but the veggie mushfest that makes up the bulk of these curry cups make 'em a no-go for her. I would literally have to pin her down and clamp her nose shut to get her to try a spoonful of either one. Even though she'd probably like curry sauce itself, that's a little on the impolite side for me to do. So it's all on me this time around. I think, when all said and done, I'd rate the panang curry and green curry as about equals. I like how the panang's a little spicier, but the bamboo makes a huge difference for the green. If they were less mushy and a little more spicy, respectively...Both are about as equally bad for you, and this won't be the first time I make a nutritional knock for something. All things considered, both curries are far from the best you'll ever have, but they're good for what they are as an easy, inexpensive lunch option. I speak for both when I say...

Bottom line: Trader Joe's True Thai Vegetable Panang and Vegetable Green Curry: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, February 20, 2012

Trader Joe's Sesame Honey Almonds


Sonia loved these. I wasn't as thrilled. I love almonds. I love honey. And I feel fairly positive about sesame seeds. They work great on hamburger buns—the way Mickey D's does it. It's not overwhelming. I've had some buns from the grocery store, though, at summer barbecues and such that were simply riddled with sesame seeds. They don't have a particularly powerful taste, but when they band together in massive hordes, it's pretty hard to ignore them. Which isn't bad, except that they're usually eaten with something else—in the case of the hamburger bun, you're generally eating them: A) with a soft, white bread roll type baked good and B) with a nice big slab of dead cow or veggie patty or maybe chicken breast or something like that. Plus condiments and whatever else—my POINT being...you should taste the actual burger first in that case, and secondly taste the bread, and then maybe some mustard or ketchup—IF you taste the sesame seeds at all, it should be VERY subtle.


In this particular case, the sesame seeds are being eaten with almonds. In my opinion, almonds should be the "burger" of this snack, and the sesame seeds should always play second fiddle. They're just a little too sesame-ish to me. Again, I enjoy sesame seeds—but they're supposed to be...well, supporting cast members. Like Jay and Silent Bob. They make great background characters...characters that make cute, vulgar little cameos and then go away. In the case of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, it's just way too much Jay and Silent Bob. They should stay in the background. Sesame seeds are similar. But in this case, I think they overstepped their bounds a bit. Sonia disagrees.

Maybe my slight aversion to sesame seeds comes from these little candies my parents used to give me all the time. I wasn't able to have sugar candies back then, due to food allergies and sensitivities. These candies came from the local health food store and they were basically just sesame seeds glued together into these hard-candy-esque little rectangular dealies. I think they were sweetened with honey. I'm not sure what held them in their rectangular shape. It couldn't have just been honey because they were hard. When I'd put one in my mouth, I'd taste the sweet honey flavor, and I wanted more, so I'd try and suck all the sweet out of it. But the sweet went away quickly, and all I'd taste would be a big glob of soggy sesame seed. I didn't waste the sesame seeds, I'd eat them. A year or two later, I eventually got sick of these candies and decided never to eat them again. I just kinda suddenly woke up one day with this extreme aversion to masses of sesame seeds in my mouth all at once. All that to say that I'm probably a bit biased against masses of sesame seeds.

And these almonds have masses of sesame seeds glued onto them with honey. If there were fewer sesame seeds, I would have rated these much higher. It's a really good idea...just maybe not so much for people who hate masses of sesame seeds. Again, I don't hate sesame seeds. Just multitudes of them. I don't like them when they gang up on me. Individually, and in limited doses, they're quite lovely. Sonia gives these Sesame Honey Almonds a 4.5, noting that they are her favorite TJ's food this year so far. She likes them because they're extremely filling, slightly sweet, and a good source of protein. I give them a 2.5. That makes this product our biggest scoring-discrepancy in a long time.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 stars.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Trader Joe's Chicken-Less Mandarin Orange Morsels

Look it up on here if ya want: Trader Joe's has a pretty good rep with us for fake meat products. Soy chorizo? Veggie sausage? Beefless ground beef? Meatless corn dogs? All winners with us. Another winner with us is the inaugural member of the WGaTJ pantheon: Trader Ming's Mandarin Orange Chicken. Nathan and Sonia gave it a 9.5 way back in the day, and Sandy and I would give it at least that many in Golden Spoonage. Not everyone feels that way, though. Just read the comments there...I won't repeat them here because some of them's are naughty words...but yeah, there's a couple complaints about the quality of chicken for those. My take is, if it's not unhealthy/bad for you type stuff, and you can overcompensate by making it extra tasty with some great flavoring, well, why not? Use what's usable. Not every clucker ought there is destined for Chick-Fila glory, for goodness sake, and sincerely doubt those or any other Trader Joe's product was made from whatever it is in the picture of pinkish glop that McNuggets are made out of (that's been mostly disproven, anyways). Anyways, let's do an experiment here...combine one of Trader Joe's strengths in fake meat technology, and replace the component most often criticized in one of their otherwise universally successful dishes, and what do you get? Trader Joe's Chicken-Less Mandarin Orange Morsels, of course. Sandy and I saw it, and we were immediately intrigued enough to purchase it ($2.99, I think) and make it that night for dinner.

Making it is easy - it's the same process as the regular ol' chicken-full mandarin orange morsels. Dump the frozen bits out of the bag onto a cookie sheet and slide into the oven until they're done, then stir them up in a bowl with the orange sauce to get each piece coated. Serve over rice (at least that's what we do). Tastewise, I have absolutely no issue with the pollo dementira part - it's some combination of quinoa and grains and what not made up who-know-how into a fine tasting chunk of what would pass off as decent chicken - not the best, certainly, but really good. In fact, I'd say I wouldn't have thought it'd be fake unless I saw the bag. The problem I have is with the sauce - it's not nearly as good as what comes with the real mandarin chicken. It's thinner, runnier, and not nearly as strong flavored. I'm not sure what the difference is (maybe the vegan recipe lacks a key component) but it just doesn't work as well. What's left is this thin, vaguely sweet, watered-down orange soda-y type taste. Like other sauces that lack something, I was pretty tempted to try and add something to what TJ's had provided but...

...there was another issue. On the chicken-less orange morsel bag, it clearly says that there's two servings, approximately ten pieces each. That says to me that anything less than 18 fake chicken chunks would be a ripoff and any more than 21 would be a bonus. In our bag, there were only 15. That's unacceptable, even though all were fairly sized. That left us with the classic problem of "too much for one, too little for two" that some other TJ products suffer from. I also find it kinda disheartening that TJ's habit of meat skimping is making it's way towards the meat substitute product line, too. Anyways, I felt like I didn't have enough to really experiment with, so between that and being hobbled by tendonitis, I just stayed put.

Sandy loved it though, but not as much as the regular one, mostly because of the sauce-y lack factor. "The sauce kinda sucks for this one," she said. I agree. It does suck. So does the paucity of chickenless nuggets in the bag. Throw a few more in, and fix the sauce, and there's another pantheon contender out there. As is, Sandy gave it a four and I decided to go a tad low with a 2.5. To me, for having two major problems, it can't rank any higher than "not bad" no matter how good the rest of the dish is.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chicken-Less Mandarin Orange Morsels: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Trader Joe's Pomegranate and Lime Juice in a Box

When I see the name of this product, I should think of a jack in the box toy or the Jack in the Box fast food chain, but unfortunately, I think of the musical stylings of Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg on Saturday Night Live a couple years back. I can't help it. "It's my juice in a box! My juice in a box babe. It's my juice in a box! Ooh, my juice in a box, girl..." Except, if you know the song, they weren't singing about juice. Terrible.

It's been a while since Sonia and I have done a beverage review. And you should know before you read this review, as I've mentioned many times in past posts, that I love sweet beverages. I'm like a hummingbird. Not because I'm tiny and fast—I'm quite awkward, really. I'm like a hummingbird because they like nectars and so do I. Sonia doesn't like super-sweet drinks. Her tastes are more refined.

Not sure why TJ's decided to put juice in a box. This article points out some interesting advantages and disadvantages of juice boxes. Apparently there's some debate as to whether they're better or worse for the environment than traditional packaging. Either way, I suppose I should rate the product rather than the container, but considering that the word "BOX" is the second biggest word on the label, it is worth mentioning. Now, on to the taste...

Sonia liked it. It's tart. Tangy. It's surprisingly clear. It's not a thick juice. It looks and tastes a bit like Juicy Juice, like certain other Trader Joe's juice products that we've reviewed. This tastes pretty light going down, but I feel like it leaves an aftertaste and some kind of sticky residue in my mouth. It's not overwhelming, but it's the worst of both worlds if you ask me. I'd prefer a drink that has some real bite going down, but that finishes clean. I can't really identify pomegranate and lime juices when I taste this product. They could slap any number of random fruit names on the label that could describe the taste just as accurately (or inaccurately, depending on how you look at it).

Not every sweet-tart juice blend can be a big winner. I'm going to give exactly half of my 5 coveted stars. 2.5 from me. Sonia gives it a 3.


Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 stars.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Trader Joe's Chocolate Cheddar Cheese

Want to know the best thing about having a pregnancy in the household, besides the obvious impending joy of welcoming a child into the world and the ongoing daily discussions about the comfort of your spouse's pants? The power of suggestion, especially for food, is so strong. Sandy will just be reading something that mentions a cookie, and she'll say "Mmm, I want a cookie!" That was definitely the case with one of Nathan's latest cupcake reviews and so we got the same tasty ones just a day or two later. But I definitely have this power as well. A few weeks back, for no other reason than that I'm a guy, I really wanted a buffalo chicken pizza. Pre-pregancy, this *might* be open for debate - "Where from?""What do we have here?""Can't we just get pepperoni?" - but with the bun in the oven, immediately once I said it, Sandy's eyes lit up and said YES. Bingo, we ordered Pizza Hut that night. But like Uncle Ben told Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility, so I try to not pull off that trick too often. I also try to be fair and indulge most of hers, which are limited mainly to things like tasty fries.

There's the every-so-often Trader Joe's indulgence as well, of course. So many crazy things in that store...We were perusing the cheese selection when she saw the TJ's Chocolate Cheddar Cheese. Kinda like the Yeti, I've heard rumors of such things but had never seen it, 'til right then in my wife's hand with the all-too-familiar pretty-please look in her eye. Truth to be told, it didn't sound like a good idea to me, but she had found the smallest chunk (good thing, it's 10 bucks a pound, our piece cost like $2.80), and well, I guess I owe it to you all, too, so I said sure.

There's only a few things out there that I'd find too weird to enjoy, but this is definitely one of them. I like the cheddar part of it, quite a bit actually. I'm not exactly a cheddar aficionado, but have had enough of the good (like Cabot's - I've been to their factory!) and not so good (can you say Valu-Time?) to know what the good stuff tastes like. This is good stuff. It's sharp, rich, crumbly cheddar at first taste...which totally falls apart once the dark chocolate kicks in. I suppose it's good chocolate, as most TJ's dark stuff is, but I find it just muddies up the overall flavor. At the end, my mouth and tongue just feel perplexed and not remotely satisfied, and my stomach's definitely discombobulated. The dark sweetness just contrasts the sharp bite of cheddar way too much. There's not an over-abundance of chocolate taste, but what's in there just ruins it all for me. It might be better if the cheddar wasn't as sharp as it is. Blecch.

I have a theory I think I've mentioned before called my "chocolate gum theory," which actually has two applications. They are 1. Just because two things are good separately doesn't mean they're good together. Also see: Mick Jagger and David Bowie. 2. Just because something is good in theory doesn't mean it's good in practice. Also see: Subaru cupholders (that's the least controversial example I can think of). This chocolate cheddar cheese fits both corollaries of my theory well - separate good, together bad and could be tasty in thought, but it just isn't. It's just not a winner for me.

Sandy, though, with her pregnancy hormones and whatnot? She actually likes it, but not overly, and I think it's because she said she can't taste the chocolate as much. "I mean, I kinda do taste it, but not really," she said. "It's okay for a bite here and there but I don't think I could make a whole snack around it." Indeed, I was kinda glad that after we sampled it, her craving switched to a small bowl of mint chip ice cream. She took a slightly positive middle-of-the-roadish 3.5. Me? Generally speaking, I think this is probably a love or hate item for most folks, my lovely wife not included. I think I've made it clear where I stand. I just hope Sandy eats enough of it so it won't get all moldy in the fridge. I'll give it a 1.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chocolate Cheddar Cheese: 4.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Chips

TJ's track record with sweet potato products is pretty stellar. Probably because it's pretty hard to screw up the sweet potato. Fry it, mash it, bake it...it's aaall goood. So far Sonia and I have checked out the Sweet Potato Pie Bites, and Russ and Sandy tried the Sweet Potato Frites. These products garnered scores of 8.5 and 9, respectively. Not bad. We're tough graders. Now, I'm not exactly sure where the term "frites" came from. I would have assumed it's some British nonsense, but I know that they generally call their fries "chips," and they call their chips "crisps." Well anyway, these are "chips" in the American sense of the word. Ridge cut chips, a la Ruffles brand.

These have a lot of good sweet potato flavor. They're nice and crunchable. Yes, "crunchable." As in "crunchable chipses." As in, that's what Gollum would call them. As in, I wish it were December already so I could watch the new Hobbit movie. But alas, I'm off on one of my notorious rabbit-trails.

Sonia says these chips are a good alternative to regular chips. If you're a chip kind of person, these do break up the monotony of regular old potato chips. And they're not super-sweet. If TJ's had decided to add some kind of brown sugar or mapley flavoring to boost the sweetness level, these would have been much more dessert-like and confection-ish. In my opinion, that would not have been a terrible idea—but I do have a bigger sweet tooth than the average bear. Sonia likes them just the way they are. There's just a hint of salt. When I think of them in my mind, though, I think of them as being more salty than they actually are. Not sure why. They're just... so... chip-ish, and chips tend to be salty.

My only complaint would be that they're not super sweet, and they're not super salty. They do taste natural, which is good. But for me, when I crave a snack, I'm usually looking for a sweet snack like a cookie, or a salty snack like regular chips. These kind of get lost in the middle somehow, and I don't find myself actually craving them ever, although they're absolutely snacktastic if you're down for something slightly salty, slightly sweet. I give them a 3. Sonia gives them a 3.5. If you're on the fence about trying them, and this review didn't sway you either way, I'd say that if you like sweet potatoes or sweet potato products at all, these are absolutely worth a try.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Trader Joe's Corn Penne Pasta

Although I know it's kinda ridiculous to, I feel kinda bad for people with celiac disease or who are otherwise gluten-intolerant. I know it's not pity that those people want, but guess it's just a mild case of inherent self-guilt that while I can eat pretty much anything I want to, those with different allergies and intolerances just can't, and dangit, gluten is pretty much in everything and anything, and, from the outside looking in, that sucks for you all. In a purely jesting way, it doesn't seem that glamorous to have - the most well known celiac celebrity is Keith Olbermann, for goodness sake, and when I think glamorous, I do not think Keith Olbermann. Although, both Drew Brees and Posh Spice make the gluten-free list, so there's some hope, I guess. I also guess that Trader Joe's does a better job than most shops for having a gluten-free selection but my experiences have been kinda hit and miss. Maybe that's because, in my recollection, I've found only one passable treat (Nathan found a great one), I once tried the TJ's rice flour tortillas and, oh goodness, those were so gawd-awful I cringe thinking of them. Just take my word: YUCK. BLAHHH. DISGUSTING. Enough said about those, let's talk about something much tastier...say some Trader Joe's Corn Pasta Penne?

Corn's used for pretty much anything and everything these days, but this is the first I've seen it used to make pasta. That seems like such a simple, yet semi-brilliant, idea, despite the slightly redundant name. Other than the packaging, there's pretty much no indication that this isn't the normal semolina fare. The penne seems perhaps a little thicker and slightly more yellow than the standard, but it'd be hard telling them apart in a police line-up. I'd also say they take a little bit longer to cook. Other than that, boil some up and put on some sauce and whatever else (pictured here with the roasted garlic marinara [meh] and meatless meatballs [see this for my general thoughts on them, it's close enough])*, and you got a plate or bowl full of a pretty tasty dinner. Sandy swore she could taste the difference - "It kinda slides in here and there, and tastes kinda-but-not-really like a corn chip," she says - but me? Nah. It looks and tastes so close to the "real thing" that it's tough for me to draw the distinction. I think that's a pretty high compliment.

There's not really anything bad I can say about the corn penne, and in fact I hope TJ's extends the line to include other pasta types. Really, I could see these taking off, and for $1.39 for a pounder, they're reasonably priced. They're that good, and who knows, maybe they're a game changer for the gluten-free crowd. That's not to say I'll rate them among the stars. Sandy, as usual, said it best. "I'd rate them higher except...well, they're not 'special' enough," she said. "Like I wish they were a little more different from normal pasta that they stood out more." That's a pretty accurate statement, and I think a pair of matching fours from the two of us fit the bill pretty well.


Bottom line: Trader Joe's Corn Penne Pasta: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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*Let's see, for dinner I ate pasta made from corn and meatballs made from, well, something not meat. If the sauce wasn't made from tomatoes, I *do not* want to know what it was.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Trader Jose's Spicy Hot Cocoa

Uhoh. Trader Joe's is at it again with their flavor-mixin' ways. While I'm a fan of most of them, there's been a couple that I've been pretty impartial to downright depressed by. And in this particular case of mixing sweet classic cocoa taste and spicy cayenne pepper, they decided to market under "Trader Jose" just in case it didn't work out right. I'm convinced they do that. Hence, upon a Facebook tipoff from one of our loyal readers (and the fact there was a huge honkin' end cap full of it when we made our weekly trip), when Sandy and I saw the Trader Jose's Spicy Hot Cocoa (put in the "organic" and "fair trade" as you will), we knew it made for a natural investigation, especially as we're both fans and semi-amateur connoisseurs of a good steamy mug of Mexican hot chocolate. For $4.79, it was worth a taste.

And daaaaaaaaang....I'm glad we did. I'm not going to lie, I love it. Upon cracking the foil seal I took a big whiff of the cocoa powder waiting to for hot milk to dissolve its every granule. It smells absolutely delicious, and pretty similar to Nestle's Abuelita, which is the closest approximation we've found stateside to the hot chocolate we've enjoyed in Mexico. Imagine classic cocoa-roma with a healthy dose of cinnamon, and yes, a tinge of cayenne. A few minutes later I got to pour in some hot milk and stir it up and take a sip...it doesn't hit you right at first, as evidenced by Sandy's reaction. "It's not so spicy...oh wait...*cough* it is," she said with a slight pain-free grimace. For some, that first hit might be a little much, but trust me, it gets better as tastebuds adjust. The spicy cocoa has the classic hot chocolate taste of "too rich to be milk chocolate, too sweet to be dark chocolate" with a heavy, heavy dose of cinnamon, like there's a full stick of it right in your cup. I'm almost convinced that's what most of the "spice" comes from, except there's enough cayenne to throw its weight around in there without getting out of whack. This cocoa's absolutely delicious from first sip to last gulp.

There's a few things I could quibble about, I suppose. First, $4.79 strikes me as perhaps a little high for hot cocoa mix, especially given the size and the directions to use a couple tablespoons (which is a wee overboard) for each cup. I would say something more about that, except somebody on our Facebook page said they spent three times as much on a comparable brand that wasn't nearly as good, so maybe it's not a bad deal after all. And secondly, this is dumb, but man, I hate heating milk. Don't get me wrong, milk makes waaay better hot cocoa than water ever will, and I can't imagine this being any good with water, but I actually have to pay attention while heating milk instead of waiting for a whistlin' kettle as I'm blocking all of my mom's Frontierville requests. Also, you can't heat milk as hot so it cools off faster, meaning I had to enjoy this a little quicker than I prefer. Other than that, I literally have no complaints about the cocoa picante. And as always, bonus points for being both organic and fair trade.

Sandy's not a huge fan, which to me is kinda surprising. If one were to make an action figure of her, her accessories would be, in this order: 1. iPhone 2. A book 3. A warm blanket or four and 4. Some type of hot beverage. That's how she survives these winter months, and since she's off coffee and craving sweets (the joys of pregnancy), I though this would be right up her alley. "Meh" is about what she says. "I wouldn't make a point of making it, but if you were making it I wouldn't mind having some." Possible interpretation: Heating milk bothers her way more than it bothers me. No matter, she gave it a three and she's sticking to it. That's way too low in my book. If it were up to solely me, we'd have another pantheon member, or at least the TJ spicy hot chocolate would be knockin' on heaven's door for it. At least I can say I got it as close as I could with a perfect five.

Bottom line: Trader Jose's Spicy Hot Cocoa: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, February 6, 2012

Trader Joe's Pasta with Sockeye Salmon & Asparagus

This is the fishiest thing I've had in a long time. Maybe ever. And relatively recently, I've had some day-old scallop soup from an all-you-can-eat buffet in Atlantic City that made me puke a couple hours later. In defense of this Trader Joe's concoction, it did NOT make me puke. But quite honestly, the semi-rancid scallop soup tasted a heck of a lot better on the way down.

The word "sockeye" doesn't sound particularly appetizing to me. Of course, salmon is almost always delicious. Sonia has always been a huge fan of salmon. I like fish in general, and pretty much any sort of seafood or swimmy animal meat (except for acquatic mammals, of course, but I don't think people really eat them anyway). Mahi-mahi, or "dolphin-fish," is not really dolphin. It's fish. But that's neither here nor there, so let's get back to this revolting, fishy pasta medley.

It's not the pasta or the veggies that ruined this dish. Not by a longshot. The pasta, veggies, and sauce were completely forgettable. Which is good in a way. If they had been any worse, I might have been tempted to stop shopping at TJ's altogether for fear of ever having another product as revolting as this one could have been. But if they had been significantly better, it would have been a crying shame that they were so utterly ruined by the fishiness of the fish they were packaged with.

The only thing that was really terrible about this dish was the fish. I've never had such fishy salmon. I've never had such fishy fish. Ever. And I've eaten Shark, Tilapia, Trout, Sunfish, Mahi-mahi, Salmon, Anchovies, Tuna, Halibut, and probably dozens of other varieties of fish. Sonia and I debated whether or not the stray cats in the neighborhood, who are no doubt on the verge of starvation here in the middle of a Pennsylvania winter (albeit a very mild one) would eat this most fishiest of fish meat to save their scrawny hides from a sad, slow, and painful death. We never came to a definitive conclusion.

My advice is that unless you have some really bizarre proclivity for unbelievably fishy-tasting things, that you should avoid this product at all costs. This is the most disappointing salmon I've ever had. Period. The salmon in $2.00 Lean Cuisine frozen meals is pure gourmet, top-shelf delectability compared to this. When asked what she had to say about the product, Sonia simply replied, "disgusting." She gives it 1 star out of 5. I was tempted to give it less than one full star, but I'll give it a 1 since the non-fish ingredients weren't terrible. But overall, this is an epic fish FAIL.

Bottom line: 2 out of 10 stars.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Trader Joe's Roasted Plantain Chips

I like how certain types of food can remind one of particular times or places, Whether it's a slice of good pizza that makes you think of that place in Brooklyn or Chicago, a good crab cake that brings to mind Baltimore, or for me, Ramen noodles (or anything like them on the rare occasions I still eat them) reminding me of malnourished collegiate days gone by, it's just a cool thing that food easily does to tie things together and connect them.

Whenever I have anything with plantains, I think immediately of my trip back in '03 to the dry coastal region of Peru for a college missions trip. Literally every morning we had fried plantains for breakfast (along with healthy doses of Inca Kola, which if you're not familiar with it, looks like Mountain Dew and tastes like Bazooka Joe), which you think would get old but surprisingly didn't. I loved it, and I've tried and failed miserably several times since to make them Peruvian style at home. Still, when I do, I like to think of the week I spent getting my butt handed to me by a bunch of 10-year old futbolistos on the hard soccer courts and teaching them all sorts of English words, up to and including "poop."

Anyways, when I saw a tall bag of Trader Joe's Roasted Plantain Chips for $1.69, I figured they were worth a munch and crunch. I knew they wouldn't replace my long-gone Peruvian pleasures (after all, those were more plank-like while these are chips), but hey, you do what you can. And you know what? They're pretty decent. If you're not familiar with plantains, think of them as kinda starchier, semi-potatoey bananas. That's about the best explanation I got. The texture of them still comes across well even after being fried in sunflower oil - think banana chips but less waxy with a softer crunch, like if they got crossed with a ruffled potato chip. Tastewise, they're more or less on the money. The chips definitely taste a little roasty, a little nutty, a little earthy, and also a little saltier then I'd think by glancing at the nutritional rundown. And really, just a regular handful of them go a long ways towards satisfying a rumbly in the tumbly. I've had other plantain chips that seemed more potato chip like than these guys, so I guess the TJ plantains are a little truer than most, which I appreciate.

Sandy's not quite as enamored with them as I am. She took a small handful and chomped them down, but afterwards said something to the effect of general indifference towards them. "I mean, I'd eat them if they were around, but give me a choice between these and potato chips, I'd take the regular chips," she said. She's going with a three. Me? I like them, they make a great on-the-sly office cubicle snack (especially if you work in an office with at least one rampant lunch thief, like my workplace*), and I'll give them extra credit for the lemur on the package and the fact that these were made in Peru. It's probably a notch or two high, but dangit, these get a 4.5 from me.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Roasted Plantain Chips: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*Someone seriously stole my homemade chili for which my niece gave me the mix for my Christmas present. Seriously, wtf? I'll take the high road and assume they needed food more than I do, but still, I think they should get one of these.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Trader Ming's Chicken & Vegetable Wonton Soup

This wonton soup isn't quite up to par with wonton from a good Chinese restaurant. It's certainly not bad, though. Again, we're talking about something that's ready in minutes in the microwave, and since there are very few other frozen grocery store versions of this type of dish, we wind up comparing it with restaurant food—which, of course, gives the Trader Joe's product a distinct disadvantage. Poor TJ's.

But quite often, their frozen dishes somehow find themselves in the same league as restaurant-quality foods. This happy little bowl of Asian soup is definitely much better than something I'd expect from a frozen microwave dish, but it's not quite as good as soup I'd expect from the local Chinese place (the good local Chinese place, not the sketchy place on the corner that's been shut down for selling cat-meat).

The wontons were actually the best part of this stuff. I can tell there's actually some chicken in the dumplings, and I've no complaints about the dough. The broth is what you'd expect - probably the hardest aspect of the soup to screw up: it's salty and a little miso-esque. What I thought fell a little short of the mark were the vegetables. They simply tasted like they had recently been frozen...which of course, they had, but because we know TJ's can do the impossible, we want them to do it all of the time. The veggies certainly weren't bad, but they just didn't taste fresh to me. Perhaps a slightly different array of greens would allow its recent frozenness to be masked a bit more by the salty broth and microwave magic. It seems to me that it's a bit difficult to mask an unfresh pod of peas. They're sooo tasty when they're fresh...and just so...mediocre when they're not.

Sonia gives it a 3. I'm torn between a 3 and a 3.5. But I think I'll go with a 3.5, just because TJ's used the name "Trader Ming" and not just plain old "Trader Joe." I like it when they use those unique ethnic names. They should use them more often.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 stars.