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

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

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

Seriously though, Russ: You go, boy!

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

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Trader Joe's Kona Coffee Shortbread Cookies

Okay, you probably know by know that we're just a couple amateur-hack food reviewers, which we proudly proclaim. But exactly how amateur-hack are we? While Nathan proclaims his love of 80 cent chicken pot pies, I'll admit that I have no idea how Kona coffee actually tastes. Never had it. I know it's supposed to be among the best coffee-types in the world, and there is a particular variant available at your friendly neighborhood Trader Joe's. And I know that costs about $20 a canister, which may or may not be a fair price for such sacred roasted beans, and while there's at least some folks who say it's good, I think I've heard or there that it's not worth the price. Normally, this would be something I'd investigate for the benefit of you all (like Nathan tackling that birdless bird last week - did it have vegan tryptophan for authenticity's sake?), but to be frank, I have better things to drop a Jackson on these days with a growing baby in the house. Plus, if you read enough of my other coffee reviews, you'll see I don't know much about coffee to begin with, so I'd have no intelligible opinion anyways.

But cookies? Yup, got those down. And when Trader Joe's has something with the long, tastebud-tingly name of "Kona Coffee Creamy Half-Dipped Shortbread Cookies," well, I can take the ol' college try and attempt to say something smart. Let's have a go, shall we?

I like them okay. But I want to like them more. Like, I really want to like them a lot more than I do. Really. The shortbread cookie part, by itself? Fantastic. Like the finest of shortbread cookie bounty upon the earth, these are melt-in-your-mouth crumbly wonders that satisfy the deepest of sweet tooth cravings. Absolutely, deliciously, sugarfully confection perfection. Love them. That's for the naked half. For the part clothed by the cream frosting....meh. Best way I can think of to describe it is, it's like when you pour too much cream into your coffee, so the cream:coffee ration is way out of whack and it leaves that sickly sweet-creamy flavor in your mouth. That's what I get on that side. All the good brought forth by the cookie gets lost in the frosting. I almost wanted to scrape it off. I probably should have. As for the "Kona coffee" part, both the cookie and the cream have actual ground Kona beans in them. This might be more an indication of my ignorance than an indictment of one of Hawaii's finest offerings, but it doesn't sway me much. There's certainly a nice coffee flavor in the shortbread, which I love, but you could tell me it's Folgers and I wouldn't bat an eye. Perhaps I lack the training to enjoy the nuances and subtlety. Or perhaps one cannot reasonably expect to experience all that is Kona coffee through a relatively simple cookie. Call that one as you see it.

All that being said, the package didn't lasted less than 24 hours in the house once Sandy and I cracked it. Given how yummerific the portion unspoiled by creamy excess is, we could probably binge out on them if we weren't sticking to the ascribed two-at-a-time. "They're just so good and crumbly, the texture's just so good," Sandy said. She also agreed with me about the creamy frosting, though, making it the only demerit in her mind. She says a four. Me? Drop a spoon lower. That's how* this particular cookie crumbles.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Kona Coffee Shortbread Cookies: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Do people still make the "*removes sunglasses*" joke?   

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Trader Joe's Peppermint Pretzel Slims



Although it's not quite December yet, it has officially been declared the Christmas season. And, for your reading pleasure, it's time to start reviewing some Christmassy items. Trader Joe's has a ton of holiday-related items, and we've already reviewed a few crowd favorites like Candy Cane Joe-Joe's. Despite the fact that our scores might not always be in exact agreement with the general consensus, we do our best to be objective, even in cases where the product already has its own Facebook page

Now, most of the time, when our initial reaction to a product is negative, it stays that way. Occasionally, I have to downgrade my score just slightly from my initial reaction, as was the case with Trader Joe's Mexicaine Quiche. But with this product, both Sonia and I weren't feeling it at first, perhaps due to the fact that we had both just brushed our teeth. But it grew on us big time. Especially me. If you like pretzels and peppermint bark, you'll love these peppermint pretzel slims. They're like traditional peppermint bark, only saltier.

If it's one thing that TJ's has taught us, it's that salty and sweet go great together. In this case, it's salty, sweet, and minty. The mint part is what threw us off initially. They're really minty. It's a candy cane extravaganza. I don't recommend using these snacks as an alternative to brushing your teeth, but after eating your first handful, you might feel like you could. And definitely don't eat them right after brushing your teeth with Crest Pro-Health Clinical Gum Protection Toothpaste - 4 / 5.8 oz. Your mouth goes numb, and then it's like those commercials where that gum makes an arctic wind come flying out of your face. I think it's Dentyne Ice Sugarless Gum, Peppermint Flavor, 12 Pieces/Pack, 12. But after munching on these little peppermint guys throughout the day, I decided they were a really refreshing snack, and a nice break from regular chocolate-covered pretzels.

Also, the "slimness" of the pretzels caught us by surprise. Even though it's right there on the label. They're actually hard pretzels...but flat. Rather than tubular strands of crunchy, bready goodness, they're pressed flat—still in a pretzel shape, but smooth on one side, and very thin overall. It didn't affect the texture or taste of the product, and in a way, made it easier to shovel more into our mouths at one time, and that's a bonus for gluttons like us.

Sonia's a fan. She wishes there were more in a bag. She gives them 4 stars out of 5. I agree with that assessment. 4 out of 5 from me too.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Trader Joe's Cocoa Drizzled Kettle Corn

My beautiful, lovely wife Sandy, with whom I have just celebrated three years of married bliss, usually has a lot of really good ideas, but a somewhat enigmatic sense of timing with them. A recent, classic example of this is her recent push for us to join Weight Watchers. We're both packing a few extra pounds these days - she with the completely, 100% valid reason of shedding off a few more stubborn pounds after having our baby a few months back, and me with the not-as-completely, perhaps 50% valid reason of too many sympathy cheeseburgers along throughout the pregnancy. Now, I'm not opposed to joining Weight Watchers - I know it's done well for a lot of folks and hey, I could use the help - but really, talking about it the week leading up to Thanksgiving, with holiday parties and Christmas right around the corner? I mean, she knows what our moms are capable of around the holidays when the family's all together, and there's no way that's conducive to anything resembling a weight loss management plan. There's a reason why people wait until New Year's Day until to really start making a concerted effort about such things. Now, if she would have said, "Hey, let's start trying to watch what we eat, eat some stuff in moderation, mix in a salad every so often, blahblahblah" and then after Christmas drop in the bit about Weight Watchers, then there's a good chance I wouldn't consider the timing as odd.

Of course, perhaps it wouldn't strike me as odd at all if at the same time she wasn't downright adamant that we snag a bag of Trader Joe's Cocoa Drizzled Kettle Corn. Popcorn by itself is a perfectly healthy, tasty treat, and probably kettle corn isn't all that bad for you, either. And maybe even putting little chocolate stripies on kettle corn isn't the worst thing in the world, but it just seems a little, I don't know...the word "gratuitous" comes to mind. I don't think it's needed to have a little treat that's perfectly fine on it's own. At least, so I thought.

As it turns out...this is pretty darn tasty popcorn. Solely considering the "sans cocoa" portion of the kettle corn, it's pretty standard fare. It's got the right texture and the right crunch to it, with a little sweet and a little salt. There's not much to write home about it, though, which doesn't mean it's not good (because it certainly is), it just isn't amazing or even all that noteworthy. But drizzle on a little milk chocolate, and now we're talking. Unlike other salty choco-covered snackies at TJ's, there's not too much chocolate, so you can still taste the slightly salty sweetness of the popcorn while enjoying the Hershey-fied goodness. One thing about the chocolate, though, and this can be viewed as a plus or a minus: like a second degree burn or a broken-down Dalek, it's very sensitive to the touch. In just the few seconds to transfer each bit from bag to mouth via hand, the chocolate got melty enough to leave brown spotty residue all over our hands. The positive spin is, think of it as built-in portion control as grabbing it by the handful would create a mess. On the other hand, well, in the wrong hands there will be a mess to deal with. Judge as you will.

I forgot to ask Sandy how she would score this. If there's anything I've learned over the past fourish months, it's: Don't wake up the baby ever and don't wake up the mama until absolutely necessary. Asking her for her score doesn't make the cut, so I'll just have to guess it for her. Hmmm...well, despite our much-conversed about healthy eating aspirations, we both kinda housed the bag in two short sessions of watching Dr. Who (hence the Dalek reference) and I can tell we both enjoyed it roughly equally, except perhaps one of us more than the other, though I'm not sure which one of us that would be. Eh well. Split as you see fit.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cocoa Drizzled Kettle Corn: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Greek Yogurt

This pumpkin-tastic season isn't over yet. So when Sonia heard the buzz about a "delicious" new kind of yogurt at TJ's via Instagram, she rushed out to get some for a review. She heard rave review after rave review as people posted pics of the product repeatedly. Pumpkin yogurt sounded weird to me, but I'll try almost anything once.

Sonia's facial expressions are frequently enigmatic and very difficult to translate, even after 3 years of marriage. And her reaction to this stuff was no different. She blankly stared into space and smacked her lips. The blankness slowly became a grimace. I tasted it myself. It struck me that this pumpkin yogurt wasn't as thick as most Greek yogurts, which, I must admit, I don't really like. I thought this "Greek" yogurt had the consistency of a normal yogurt instead. Sonia agreed, and added that although most Greek yogurts are low-fat, the fact that this Greek yogurt was non-fat might have contributed to its thinner-than-expected consistency. 

I'm not sure what facial expressions I usually make when I try stuff, but I'm pretty sure I grimaced just like Sonia. To me, it tasted like aspartame. There's no aspartame on the ingredients list, to be sure, but I still swear it tasted like it. Sonia said it was too sour. We checked to make sure it hadn't gone bad. There was a month left until the expiration date. There was very little flavor. It tasted vaguely of sourness, nutmeg, and cloves, all in a small tub of plain yogurt. 

After all the expectation, all the hype, we felt pretty let-down. Especially Sonia. And again, maybe our taste buds are just numb to pumpkin after too many seasonal treats (most of which were way too sweet for our own good), but we weren't feelin' this Pumpkin Greek Yogurt at all. So once again, it was Pumpkin Butter to the rescue. The sweetness of the pumpkin butter made the yogurt much more palatable, and we were able to finish the little tub fairly quickly after that. But we're really reviewing these products for themselves, not for how well they mix with other Trader Joe's products. All in all, we felt this Greek yogurt was a big fail. But there are plenty of dissenting opinions out there. Let us know what you think of it in a comment below. Thanks! And happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Argh, I feel like a terrible person for putting up a negative review on Thanksgiving Day. Forgive me.

1.5 out of 5 stars from Sonia. 2.5 stars from me.

Bottom line: 4 out of 10.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Trader Joe's Turkey-less Stuffed Roast with Gravy

I've eaten plenty of veggie burgers in my day. I've had delicious meatless chicken nuggets. And I love plenty of vegetarian dishes. But I've never had tofurkey, and I've certainly never had a vegetarian Thanksgiving before. So, like many of you, I was thoroughly skeptical about this Turkey-less Roast. Especially with a price tag of approximately $10 per package, it's a bit of an investment just to find out whether it's edible or not. That's why Sonia and I took the risk. So you don't have to. You may thank us in the comments below.

This past week, we had a bit of a pre-Thanksgiving, just the two of us. And we decided to take one for the team and feast on this forgery of a fowl from TJ's. We grazed on this goofy gobbler. We bit down on a bogus bird. We tasted a tricky turkey. But honestly, it wasn't bad at all. I think it's worth the cost. I think most vegetarians can go ahead and dive right in. My guess is that you'll love it. Does it taste exactly like turkey? No. So you red-blooded, meat-lovin' Archie Bunker types might want to have some dead bird on stand-by just in case. But really, overall, I'm diggin' it. The stuffing was great, the gravy was delicious. The soy-based fake turkey wasn't bad, but I'll be honest: the imitation beef and chicken dishes I've had would fool me way before this stuff would. It's hearty enough to fool your tummy into thinking that you've eaten something meatful, but not quite succulent enough to trick the taste buds. Texture-wise, it's a tad firmer than turkey meat, and there's a sort of crust that forms on the outside of the roast that fails to emulate real turkey. Taste-wise, it's a bit more beany. All in all, it's a decent approximation of traditional turkey, but it's not a dead ringer for the real thing.

Sonia pointed out that the product was a bit too rich with rosemary. The herb was over-represented in the roast for sure, but it didn't bother me quite as much as Sonia. However, she raved about the stuffing and gravy even more than I did, but agreed that the turkey-less turkey was the weakest element of the meal. She thought the texture was reminiscent of firmer-than-usual pâté, and added that when reheated, it got very dry on the sides.

Despite a few weaknesses, our final verdict is a thumbs-up. The price tag is hefty, but there're at least 4 good servings in there. (The label says 6, but you know how they exaggerate). It's not going to replace a real turkey at my family's Thanksgiving dinner this year, but I wouldn't be completely heartbroken if it did. 4 stars from Sonia. 3.5 from me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trader Joe's Fresh Noodles and Gourmet Buffalo Chicken Meatballs

Ever make homemade spaghetti noodles? No, I'm not talking about using a Ronco presto-pesto auto-al dente pasta maker or even a Kitchen Aid mixer attachment (however in the h-e-double bendi-straw that would work) either. Sandy and I did once, using some old school handcranked pasta dough flattener/noodle cutter that should've been bolted to a work bench. That thing was a beast, and if we had any Italian grandmothers, I'm sure they would've been well pleased. But honestly, we weren't so enamored with the results. I mean, for all that work,I'd hope for something marginally better than the dried boxed variety, but alas, it was not to be.

So while homemade may always be the best, freshest option for just about anything, sometimes it's not a bad idea to leave it to the pros and try to settle for a second best option. Sandy and I bought Trader Joe's Fresh Noodles  with that at least partially in mind. I'm sure these have been around for a bit, but I've never spotted them until our last trip. TJ's apparently is making another experiment in noodle technology, this time to make a completely vegan noodle. Now, if they could make a organic, gluten-free vegan noodle...is that even possible, aside from subbing in some strips of tree bark? Anyways for these vegan delights, this naturally means no eggs, which is one the base ingredients for just about any type of dough. I guess that's why they tasted a little different. I don't mean different in a bad way, just....different. They're a little plainer tasting than even their usual semolina brethren, a little doughier, and while soggier isn't the right word, they seemed to somehow retain water a little differently, making them perhaps a little denser. I'm not sure that "al dente" is an option with these noodles, although even after our generously-sized dinners we have a full half of the package to experiment with. I'm not sure these will become a regular purchase of ours, but still, they're not a stray from the norm we regret. Maybe that Popeil fella's on to something after all.

Meanwhile, I'm almost positive that Trader Joe's Gourmet Spicy Buffalo Style with Blue Cheese Chicken Meatballs has to be a new product, because anything that has "Buffalo" and "Chicken" in its title increases its likelihood of purchase to nearly 100%. Seriously, if I saw Buffalo Chicken Owl Pellets for sale somewhere, I'd buy them and not think twice. Anyways, these meatballs, like most of TJ's spherical carne offerings, did not disappoint. They're fully cooked as is, and are in the fresh refrigerated section as opposed to the freezer aisles, and so all that's needed to get these ready for dinner is a few minutes in the oven. Although kinda dry and dusty-lookin' on the outside, inside the ground chicken remains just juicy enough, and also maintains a lot of freshness. Not only that, but they're fairly spicy as well. Granted, at the risk of alienation of some of the masses, they could be just a tad spicier, but that's not too much of a demerit in my mind. Too many times when there's bleu/blue cheese that gets tossed into the Buffalo chicken product at the factory level, the overwhelming flavor is the cheese. Not with these albóndigas de pollo picante. The blue cheese is more of a sidenote/accessory flavor while the spiciness takes center stage. That's the way it oughtta be. Count me as a fan.

I got in the habit during college of just splashing some Frank's Red Hot on a bowl of noodles and calling that and a beer "dinner." Somehow this has lasted all the way into my married life, with Sandy completely joining in, so our noodle 'n spicy chicken meatball dinner was something right up our respective alleys. To be fair, it could have used something, like a little mozzarella or some extra hot sauce, but we don't have much of a problem with the respective components as is. Sandy gives a "three...no, maybe three 'n a half" for the "not bad" eggless wonder noodles, while giving the Buf-fowl-o balls a four "because they could be a little spicier." I'll match her on the noodles and up by half a spoon for the meatballs.

Bottom lines:
Trader Joe's Fresh Noodles: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Gourmet Spicy Buffalo Style with Blue Cheese Chicken Meatballs: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
     

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Trader Joe's Chunky Minestrone Soup

This soup's got big chunks of vegetables and spiral-type noodles. It's hearty. The tomato-based broth is delicious, but not as much as TJ's Tomato Bisque which, I'm told, has been discontinued. The minestrone broth has nearly as much flavor, but not half of the rich texture of the bisque. For those of you who've not tried Trader Joe's Tomato Bisque, and sadly may never do so, unless Trader Joe hears our cries of re-continuation, it was simply the best tomato-based broth I've ever had. By far. But this minestrone broth might take a distant second place, which, in the grand scheme of things, is still really darn good.

In addition to the silver-medal broth, there're thick pieces of swirly, carb-rich, rotini-esque pasta-things, carrots, green beans, peas, bits of cabbage, lima beans, celery, and potato, among other things, at least according to the packaging. My wife and I didn't notice some of the ingredients mentioned on the can, including bell peppers and leeks, but that doesn't mean they weren't there. We're occasionally not-so-observant, especially on a Sunday evening right before the beginning of a long workweek.

This soup is vegetarian. And, well, for vegetarians, that's of course good news. But for us omnivores, it's an area for potential improvement. A touch of beef could have made this side dish a bit more like a meal. I guess honest-to-goodness traditional minestrone doesn't necessarily have meat in it, but experimentation is a good thing sometimes. And, as TJ's has done in the past with other products, it couldn't hurt to offer both meatless and meatful options. 

Sonia would like to give this soup a 4, stating that "It's really hearty and tasty, especially for being vegetarian. It's better than Progresso and most brands." Like me, she does wish that it had a bit of meat, though. I'll give it 3.5 stars. It's on the chunkier, heartier side of meatlessness.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Trader Joe's Mesquite Smoked Seasoned Almonds

Sometimes I don't really know how to start a review. This is one of those times. I asked Sandy how I should as she sits beside me making a Pittsburgh Steelers-themed tutu for lil Baby M, and she said, "Awwwwww nuts." So, boom, there we go.

Anyways, Trader Joe's Mesquite Smoked Seasoned Almonds. The best way I can think of to describe these is, imagine Sam Elliot personally shaking out his mustache over each and every bag of roasted almonds, and that approximates how these taste. Minus the whiskers, of course. That'd be a pretty big Golden Spoon deduction. These are some pretty intense nuts as far as flavor goes. I'll be honest, I'm not able to identify all the different spices that each almond is liberally dusted with, because it's literally everywhere. You know that one Cheeto in the bottom of the bag that has all the extra Cheeto dust? Each and every nut is kinda like that - my tastebuds are literally overwhelmed by the bombardment of spices and flavors, but all of them definitely flow along the line of "mesquite" and "smoked". And salty. I mean, real salty. Seasoned salt has to be one of the big ingredients, and literally after a small handful or two, I find myself pretty darn thirsty, maybe for some more of that good sarsaparilla. Thanks, Sam Elliot.They're flavorful and dust-coated enough that I'd actually recommend sticking to eating them more or less by themselves - put them in some trail mix or Chex Mix or something, and they'd probably overpower everything else.

They're about 5 bucks for the pounder bag, which isn't bad for a bag of nuts these days. I probably ate about 90%  of the package, which is okay with Sandy as she kept herself busy with her sackful of pumpkin seeds. She liked them well enough, though. "They're very mesquite-y, and super crunchy," she said. "Like, you know how sometimes almonds aren't crunchy and they're kinda, like, soggy instead?" Soggy almonds? No dear, I don't know what you mean. Sometimes almonds are crunchier than other times, but I've never once had something that I'd describe as a "soggy" almond. Perhaps you have, though, and my wife wants to assure you that will not be the case here. She'll give them a three, saying the nuts can be a bit too much after just a small handful or two. I agree they could take a small step back and actually stand to gain from that. Other than that, I like the crunch and I like that just a handful or two will keep the stomach grumbles away for a good spell. Something around a four seems right.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Mesquite Smoked Seasoned Almonds: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons    

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Trader Joe's Pecan Pumpkin Oatmeal

Let's face it: in our modern society, pumpkins and pumpkin-flavored stuff is available year round, or at least it could be. All of the pumpkinnery you see at this time of year is more due to the demand for it, rather than the seasonal availability of pumpkins.

But I'm not really complaining. There's something about pumpkin that's only really good between October and December. Pumpkin's not really a February/March kind of flavor. And it's definitely not a June/July kind of flavor. So every year, at the beginning of the season, I begin consuming massive quantities of pumpkin-flavored things that I wouldn't normally buy. That way, the novelty-factor of said pumpkin-items is very high through the middle of November or so, and yet, by the end of December, I'm so sick of pumpkin that I can go for another 9 months without missing it at all.

Now, we've been pretty heavy on the pumpkin this year so far, and we're almost reaching that midway point through the 3-month season of acceptable pumpkin-consumption. I'd like to tell you I'm not pumpkinned out at all yet, and that our scores are thoroughly fair, unbiased, and objective, but realistically, the Pumpkin Macarons might have had a bit of an advantage over this oatmeal. We're not taking back our perfect score on the macarons just yet, but I feel like maybe we might have given this oatmeal a slightly higher score had we tried it right at the beginning of October.

Our biggest complaint about this product is its lack of rich pumpkin flavor. We found that a spoonful of TJ's Pumpkin Butter added a nice little extra dose of pumpkinny goodness. Without it, there's a hint of pumpkin, but not much more. (It is possible that our tastebuds have achieved some sort of pumpkin-overload at this point and that we simply can't taste it as much as the average consumer anymore). However, the pecan flavor and a few actual pecans gave the oatmeal a really nice texture and taste—a little above and beyond what we expect from traditional oatmeal.

All in all, it's a decent buy if you think pecan oatmeal sounds good. If you're really craving pumpkin, however, don't expect too much. Sonia, a self-proclaimed oatmeal connoisseur, gives it 3.5 stars. I dabble in oatmeal from time to time, but I'm far from an expert. I'll give it a respectable 3 stars.

Bottom line 6.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Trader Joe's In Shell Pumpkin Seeds

Just over five years ago, Sandy and I had our first unofficial date, and me being the euphemistically labelled romantic guy, I still have us a little souvenir from the first magical night: a plastic baggie of pumpkin seeds. It was a few weeks before Halloween and I figured, why not carve pumpkins with this cute chick who I just somehow convinced to start talking with me? This, of course, was kinda neglecting the fact that when I get nervous, my hands get all sweaty, thereby making holding sharp objects not that best of ideas, but, well, you know, gotta do what you gotta do, right?

Anyways, yeah, I still have the seeds we roasted from that first pumpkin. What I thought I'd eventually eat as a nice little snack just may end up as a family heirloom. I'm sure my almost four-month old daughter can't wait for those! We've roasted pumpkin seeds plenty of times since then, only to eat them in quick succession. That's a lot of work though - cutting the hole, scooping out, pulling the orangey goo strands from the seeds, roasting them, etc - that between everything this past fall, we just haven't done so yet, much to our chagrin. Homemade are always the best.

Well, for a consolation prize we got Trader Joe's In Shell Pumpkin Seeds. They're pretty much what one should expect from a bag of pumpkin seeds. All they are is dry-roasted with a little salt, so nothing too utterly special. There's the usual good qualities of roasted seeds - a little nutty, a little earthy, even a little sweet like pumpkin seeds ought to be. There's a few of them still with a little pumpkin gut still attached and charred on, but much less than what you'd have in a typical homemade batch. The one thing I liked about them that I didn't expect is how fresh they taste. Seriously, I've bought some before which were so stale I could've confused with my daughter's inheritance. That's not the case here. They're highly munchable, and a snack equally as good for either pairing with a beer or having in the car for a driving snack....just don't do all three at a time. Drive safe, all.

There's been times I've witnessed Sandy glancing squinty-eyed all over the pumpkin patch while diabolically uttering the phrase "I want your seeds, man", so believe me when I say she likes pumpkin seeds. She's said most of what I said above, but noted that when they're homemade, she likes roasting them a scant more to ever-so-slightly burn them for slightly bigger crunch. She'll shell out a 4 for these while gently reminding me that hey, we gotta make our own soon. Yes, love. In the meantime, I'll munch on these fairly happily and give them a 3.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's In Shell Pumpkin Seeds: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Trader Joe's Sliced Smoked Gouda and Artisan Reserve Vermont Cheddar

So there's this shirt that I wear pretty often on casual Fridays at work that's absolutely ridiculous and a constant conversation starter. It's black, with a big white printed logo on it that says "Wisconsin Cheese Cupid." "Cheese Cupid?," people ask all the time. "What the heck does that mean?" It's the name of some cheese pairing app that was giving away free shirts on Facebook yonder back that I just happened to stumble across and against better judgment click on only to completely forget about until the package arrived on my doorstep about three months later. The shirt's been a showstopper since. As for the app...well...it seems to indicate that every type of Wisconsin-originated cheese goes with just about everything, so, to me at least, it doesn't appear all that helpful.

In part because of this shirt, and in part because of my unabashed love of Trader Joe's (which does have a pretty great cheese selection), a lot of folks around me seem to think that I'm some sort of residential cheese expert. Far from it, I say. I know what I like and I know what I don't. I like the fresh mozzarella balls from places like PennMac right down the street from me in Pittsburgh's Strip District. I don't like Kraft singles and their various generic knockoffs. As far as TJ's stuff, though, to be honest, I haven't branched out much from the pretty typical sliced and shredded options. Admittedly, most of the few times I have, whether it's been this incredulous mad scientist concoction, or some waxy hole-y colby-esque grossness, I haven't been too impressed.

Until recently, at least. Let's start with the Trader Joe's Sliced Smoked Gouda. Oh man. This, friends, puts the good in gouda. Let me count the ways. Melted on top a freshly grilled burger? Yes. How about over a bowl of homemade potato soup? Absolutely. Straight as is? No doubt. But the very best way I found to enjoy this has to be as a grilled cheese sandwich with a little raspberry mango jam spread over top. Absolutely heavenly. I love the deep, smokey, rich flavor, I love the thick-cut slices, I love how the wax holds all the melty goodness in place so none goes to waste. Heck, I even love the price. $2.99 for a half pound? That's about the going rate for the cheapie yellow American at the local chain's deli counter, and this is much, much, much better. If you like gouda, this is a surefire winner. I don't really have the right vocab to really explain how good it is, or what exactly makes it so good, but I know good gouda when I taste it, and I'm tasting it with each bite of this.  There is not a single complaint that can be made here that I can think of. 

As for Trader Joe's Artisan Reserve Vermont Cheddar, I go a little back and forth. It's far from being bad cheese, no doubt, but as one of my coworkers stated today, "it sounds an awful lot of fancy marketing for just a hunk of cheese." I think she may be right. I've been to the Cabot factory and outlet stores in Vermont and eaten enough of their free samples to know what to expect from a chunk of Green Mountain state Cheddar, and this just isn't quite it. It's seems to me it should be a lot sharper for purportedly being aged for three years, and it also strikes me as being kinda creamy-tasting. Don't get me wrong, it's plenty sharp, but I've had a lot sharper in my day. I know there's a bazillion decent uses for a block of cheese like this, but so far Sandy and I have just sliced ourselves little bits to chomp them on down. If not for opting for the gouda in the aforementioned potato soup, some of this all shredded up would have been a fairly delectable option. It's the same price as the gouda, which makes it almost an equally good value in my book.    

Sandy's about an equal fan of both, giving them a three each. "I don't have a lot else I can compare them with, so I think they're both pretty good, I just don't know how good," she said. Fair enough, I suppose, although I occasionally hear her randomly utter about the gouda. Me? I gotta go with a full-handed five for the gouda, and I'll play nice and say a four for the cheddar.

Bottom lines:
Trader Joe's Sliced Smoked Gouda: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Artisan Reserve Vermont Cheddar: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons