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Monday, December 30, 2013

Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon

Listen, I'm not going to sit here and type up a review and pretend that I'm any sort of bourbon expert and attempt to give you a technical breakdown of Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon. That's just not in my wheelhouse, so if that's what you're looking for, check out a review like this one or this one. My sniffer's too stuffed to try and make up all those aroma descriptors anyways, and all those other terms...yeah, I can take a stab at what they mean, but it's better I don't.

But, courtesy of a good buddy of mine who doubled as a housemate back in my bachelor days several moons ago, I've drank enough bourbon to know what I like and to know what I don't. We'd go pick up whatever at the local state store (Pennsylvania's weird) and go thru a bottle every two or three weeks. What I like: good, balanced, strong flavor, with a little burn, and not too oaky. What I don't like: flavored and infused bourbons (like Red Stag when not used as a mixer) or bourbon that's oaky enough to pass off as some type of Ent secretion, or anything that tastes watered down or cheap. Just give me a good couple fingers of bourbon on the rocks, and I'm set.

That's almost precisely what TJ's bourbon is. There's nothing fancy or pretentious about it. It's very good, not superbly great, but honest, tasty bourbon. There's a little oak here, some sweetness there, and doesn't taste too medicinal like some of the cheap-o stuff tastes. It's a reasonably darkish amber color that also smells the part - a little sweet, a little boozy, etc. For the most part, it's a smooth, balanced flavor that goes down without too much trouble but does put a tickle in the back of your throat after a lingering finish, which I'll admit made me cough the first time. I'm kinda a wimp in that regard, but it's been a while. The ABV hits a more-than-respectable 45% so it's probably best to enjoy when at home and there's nowhere to go for a good while. The word on the webs says this is distilled by the good folks at Buffalo Trace, which I do remember as a bottle I liked to get back in the day, but not recently enough to do a straight-up comparison of the two.

The wife and I picked up the bottle when, on a whim, we hit up the Princeton, NJ shop over the weekend while visiting my folks. I've been to Trader Joe's in nine states (California, Utah, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and now New Jersey) but this was the first time I've stumbled across a TJ's with actual hard liquor and not just beer or wine in it, so we were pretty excited to crack it open with my folks and siblings and their spouses after all the kiddos finally went to bed one night. All of us guys had no problem with enjoying a glass or two on the rocks, while the ladies seemed to enjoy mixing theirs with Dr Pepper more. Good times were had by all.

If this were a $25 bottle, I'd be fairly content. If it were $20, I'd be downright pleased. But it's only $15! That makes me want to write my state senator to urge them to rewrite Pennsylvania's antediluvian alcohol bylaws so I could buy it without going on a nearly 700-mile roundtrip. Silly Quaker heritage. The general consensus of my brothers et al averaged about a four, so that's what I call it for them. For me, I just wish it were tad bit more distinctive somehow, but as is, I'm going 4.5. Nicely done, Trader Joe's. Nicely done.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons      

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Trader Joe's and the Astounding Multi-Flavor Joe-Joe's

I feel like that should have an exclamation point at the end of it: "Trader Joe's and the Astounding Multi-Flavor Joe-Joe's!" like some famous magician and his assistants or something. Trader Joe the Magnificent did indeed give us something magically-delicious and marvelously-packaged yet again. It's four new flavors of an old favorite, dressed up in chocolate coatings. 

Looking back through our extensive archives, I realized that we never reviewed just plain old Joe-Joe's, strangely enough. But if you're curious, I'll save you from using our newfangled and unimproved search tool toward the top of this page: we've looked at Joe-Joe's n' Cream Ice CreamDark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe-Joe's, Candy CaneHalloween, and Gluten Free varieties, and if I've missed any, I blame the search tool. But hey, at least this version of "Search This Blog" is functioning!

The package was filled with four individually-wrapped stacks of Joe-Joe's. Each of the four astounding flavors had a chocolate coating. The ginger cookies had a white chocolate coating, the peppermint ones were covered in dark chocolate, and peanut butter and double chocolate were covered in some kind of complementary milk chocolates.

Before I tried them, my main concern with the ginger Joe-Joe's is that they would be, well...weird. And they were. But not to the point that they were inedible. The white chocolate really saved them in my opinion. And I know a lot of our readers are dark chocolate snobs, so they might not feel the same. But I must point out that Sonia, who's definitely a bigger fan of dark chocolate than white chocolate, absolutely adored these cookies. She likes ginger in some scenarios, but she's not obsessed with it or anything like that. She felt that these cookies had just the right amount of ginger zing and just the right amount of white chocolate sweetness. She's definitely not wrong.

The double chocolate Joe-Joe's were just that: chocolate cookies covered in milk chocolate. And they're part of the reason my skin broke out this holiday season. Chocolate sandwich cookies covered in chocolate? Hmmm. Hey TJ's, dontcha think you should deep fry 'em next time? 

Sonia and I never bought the aforementioned Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe-Joe's by themselves, but based on Russ's review, I'm guessing the ones in this package are basically the same animal: tasty, minty, and holiday-riffic.

I think my favorite "act" in this incredible show of flavors was the peanut butter Joe-Joe's. They were rich, peanut buttery, and had a Reese's type thing going on. We've established that chocolate and peanut butter is pretty hard to screw up completely, and TJ's has displayed prowess with this particular combo in the past. And thanks to the commutative and associative properties of snacktasticality, we can offer this simple proof: peanut butter + chocolate + Joe-Joe's = yum.

There's a lot going on in this box, and it's a pretty good value for what you get. Again, neither Sonia nor I are really "sandwich cookie people," but we still can't see this box of magic getting fewer than four stars a piece.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Trader Joe's Edamame Rangoons

Toddlers. Yeeeahhh.

There was a time, several months ago, that as Baby M (from now on, we're just gonna call her M) was beginning to eat regular food, she'd inhale everything in sight. There was little to no persuasion involved. I mean, sure, she had her favorites like frozen waffles and whatnot. It was awesome, and after seeing some of the pickiness of her older cousins, I thought, hey, just maaaaybe we dodged a bullet.

Ha. Hahahaha. Nope.

These days, if it's not cheese, a cheap carb, or some type of fruit, good luck. We can occasionally get some fake chicken in her. Some dinners are a downright disaster with her. I'm scared she may be developing her own set of "food rules" like her mama has....is that kind of stuff genetic?

That's why both Sandy and I were a little bit surprised a few weeks back when we went shopping at TJ's. The sample that day was these Trader Joe's Edamame Rangoons. M loved them. I mean...wow. She gulped down the couple bites and spent the rest of the excursion earnestly, desperately, making the "more" and "please" sign, so we felt inclined to make the purchase for the three or four bucks for the box.

Naturally, when we finally made them the other night, she couldn't be interested less in them. Like I said, toddlers.

As for Sandy and I, well, they're okay. I'd suspect the rangoons would be much better fried than baked. The crownish top parts crisped up fairly well, though, in our oven, as did the rest of the wrapper despite our lack of the recommended parchment paper. A little cooking spray more or less did the trick.

It's the innards that are a little, well, iffy to me. The dominant flavor by far is the cream cheese filling. It's really sweet, much like what one would expect from a cheese rangoon (which are not terribly high on my list of preferred Chinese takeout cuisine). So, fairly typical so far, The edamame mixed in is mishmash of some whole and some squishy ones, kinda as if were a soybean paintball, and helps fill it all out a little bit. That "hint" of wasabi? It's more like a "whisper of the slightest suggestion, not meant to inconvenience anyone." I mean, it's just not really there. I looked at the ingredients and wasabi powder is listed last, so obviously it wasn't much of a priority.

So, yeah, they're okay. The rangoons made an decent-enough complement to our wonton/sweet-and-sour soup and rice dinner. We could buy them again and I wouldn't care. We could never buy them again and I wouldn't care. If they were marketed at Trader Ming vs Trader Joe, then maybe I'd hold them in sightly higher regard, mostly because I miss that dude. As it is, I think a 6 is more than fair. M is unavailable for comment.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Edamame Rangoons: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trader Joe's Egg Nog Ice Cream

As I mentioned in a post long, long ago: I. LOVE. EGGNOG. To me, sipping a smooth glass of eggnog is like drinking liquid Christmas. Southern Comfort brand eggnog is still at the top of my recommendations list, but I'm also a fan of Hood now, too. And as I mentioned before, Trader Joe's brand falls somewhere in the middle of that list.

All of those brands come sans alcohol, including SoCo, and I've always thought that liquor kind of ruined the thick, golden goodness of the 'nog...that is, until I discovered Jägnog. Rum, whiskey, and bourbon are all too harsh to mix with eggnog. If you're debating what to mix with your holiday beverage, it's Jägermeister all the way. Trust me.

And if you're debating about which eggnog ice cream to go with, as much as I want to recommend this Trader Joe's brand, I simply can't get behind it wholeheartedly. I've only ever had eggnog ice cream once or twice before this TJ's pint, and the only other brand name I can recall having for sure is Turkey Hill. Given the choice between the two, I'd have to choose TH.

Sonia's only developed an appreciation for eggnog in the past few years, but she's come a long way since her days of eggnog-less-ness. She now recognizes it as the nectar of the gods that it is. She's also found a way to embrace our friend Joe's "Super Premium" eggnog ice cream even more than I have.

What do I have against it? Well, it's hard to put my finger on...but it's just kinda boring. I feel like the flavor lacks spices. The ingredients testify that there are indeed nutmeg and vanilla bourbon flavorings present, but it just doesn't taste that way to me. It's just a big vat of yellowish sweetness with a few flecks of something or other floating through it. And I guess all eggnog is bad for you, but ohmygoodness look at the nutrition information. 

It does taste like eggnog—but it's a very bubblegummy eggnog. I realize most eggnogs taste similar to bubblegum, but if they added a little pink coloring, I feel like this could pass as "Trader Joe's Bubblegum Ice Cream." And my biggest problem is the aftertaste. I don't remember TJ's Premium Egg Nog having any aftertaste at all, but this stuff lingers like pine needles through the living room carpet in January. Sonia says she didn't notice it. I'm curious if I'm alone here. Who's right? Me? Or my beautiful wife? Yes, yes, we know the wife "is right," but I mean who's really right? If you've tried this ice cream, leave a comment below to fuel our good-natured spousal disagreement.

Sonia gives this eggnog ice cream 4 stars. I give it 2.5.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew

I realize I may be placing myself into a somewhat narrow age bracket here, but do any of you remember Trogdor from Strong Bad's emails on Homestar Runner? Anyone? You know, "burninating the countryside" and all that? If you're not familiar or just feeling a little nostalgic, just go ahead and click that link. You can always come back to see my skills of a blogger here.

Now, see, when not burninating the countryside and/or the peasants, a dragon has to drink something, right? Running around breathing fire seems like a thirsty business. But I can't picture Trogdor drinking just some milk or water or some random juice. Nah. Maybe Mountain Dew. But I'd like to think it'd be a drink that offers a little refreshment while still giving a little bit of a burn on the way down, deep in the back of the throat, where your fire glands or whatever are, because you last thing you want is for those to get extinguished.

It's for this reason I picture Trogdor drinking something much like Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew. This isn't grandad's ol' ginger ale in a fancy lookin' swingcap bottle. It's much more fierce, and to me, requires some easy sippin'. Each sip starts out pleasant enough for most anyone - a little ginger, a little honey, a little sweetness, a little carbonation, all fairly well balanced. But then it descends. All those sweet little niceties give away to dropping a ginger bomb on the tastebuds that's full and rich (like most of TJ's triple ginger products) that leaves a burn on the way down. Sandy likened it to liquefied ginger candy (which, as much as I like ginger, I despised TJ's version) and initially she didn't like it. We're currently hosting a Chinese high school student, Jack, and when he tried it, he kinda shook his head and slowly backed away. The ginger shock was a bit much for me at first, too, but as I continued my glass, my appreciation for it grew. After a while, not that there's cinnamon in it, but there seemed to be a cinnamon-esque quality to it, though admittedly on the stronger side (not quite this strong though). I'd say the purchase of this ($3) comes with an obvious caveat: If you don't really like ginger, stay away. It's kind a deep-cut B side of a band like say the Doors - if you love the Doors, you'll probably love it; if not, then you don't stand a chance.

I actually have come to like it quite a bit. One suggestion to soften the blow: have it with dessert. One night we had it for a drink alongside some strawberry cheesecake, and the ginger brew seemed to be more of a good, crisp palette cleanser than fire liquid.

Plus, this sounds silly, but the bottle's pretty cool, too. Trogdor probably agrees. I feel kinda bad just recycling it, so I'm hoping to figure out a spouse-approvable second use. Not sure if it could be used for home brew or not, but maybe. Maybe some of you have an ideas. Feel free to share at will. 

I naturally forgot to ask the wife for her input, but I can tell she likes it well enough, but not quite as much as I do. Take our score from below and split as you see fit. And oh, no dumping the ginger brew on your keyboards.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Trader Giotto's Panettone Classico

Since panettones were originally holiday treats from Milan, Italy, I decided to write my praises for them in the Italian terza rima poetic style. It's in near-perfect iambic pentameter, too, just FYI. Wanna hear it? Here it goes:

This single panettone looked really great, 
And though the box suggested "eat alone," 
The look on my wife's face said "Heck no, Nate."

I'd suffer wrath from Sonia's shrieks and moans.
We shared this yummy treat from Italy. 
I like it more than all of TJ's scones

Its soft and flaky crust was buttery. 
The candied orange peels and raisins did 
Bring such great joy to us, my wife and me. 

Inside the bread the dried fruits deeply hid, 
But plentiful they were, not one alone. 
A grown-up taste, yet sweet enough for kids. 

I recommend this scrumptious panettone 
That comes from off the shelves at Trader Joe's. 

Sonia was actually not as impressed as I was, mostly because she's had panettones before. Kind of like Russ and the poutine I guess. It's much easier to impress us when we don't have anything to compare TJ's product to. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Sonia thought the orange peels made it taste too citrusy. I'm usually not big on eating orange rinds, but I thought they worked in this instance. 

So yeah, the last two lines in that third stanza aren't entirely true. Ever heard of poetic license? I give the panettone a 4. Sonia gives it a 3.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Trader Joe's Poutine

If you're not familiar with poutine, Canada's most popular contribution to gluttonous cuisine, it's simply fries and cheese curds topped with gravy, and occasionally some other stuff. Apparently, with its status as a cult favorite of sorts in Quebec, it's growing in popularity as McDonald's just recently announced they will start selling it Canada-wide. I'm certainly not doggy-paddling across Lake Erie or driving up to Niagara Falls (about four or five hours from the 'burgh) just to try a big ol' McMess, but I've had poutine a few other times, most notably at a pretty sweet little neighborhood restaurant. Although I'm not the biggest fan, I'd like to think that I have some sort of idea of what poutine ought to taste like, so when Sandy spotted a freezer bag full of Trader Joe's Poutine and put on her "OOOOOOOO PLEEEEEASE" face, well, I guess we just had to try.

Not gonna lie: We're both a little disappointed. The disappointment certainly isn't on the scale of something like, say those silly Chicken Parmypops or whatever they were called, but still. Each individual component kinda underwhelms. There's nothing too special about the fries, but to us they were the standout. They're the big, soft inside, slightly crispy outside type, though I wish they got crispier on the outside to withstand the gravy and cheese curds a little better. The gravy? Meh, which seems to be the norm for TJ's gravy. Those cheese curds though...listen, I may not know any better, so if I offend some cheese curd superfans out there, I apologize in advance. But these were not good. The bag kinda touts them as a "mild cheddar" but the curds are much closer in taste to a fresh mozzarella. That part's okay. The part that isn't is, these are big, rubbery, chewy chunks. The size doesn't bother me as much as the texture. If they were a little softer and creamier, the curds would stand a chance of being fantastic. Instead they just seem like cheese blubber, with emphasis on the blubber. Even my cheese-lovin' toddler tried to eat a little teeny piece, made a face, and spit it out. I wouldn't go that far, but I don't blame her either.

Plus, the part that gets me a little is the preparation. It's pretty standard oven-heating for the fries. But the cheese curds and gravy? You're supposed to keep them in the bag, heat a small pot of water, put them in the pot on the stove while continuing to heat. Most other TJ's dishes that come with a frozen packet of sauce or whatever don't have you actually "cook" the packet, and there's something about doing so that gives me the skeevy-jeevies a little bit. I'll trust that they're BPA-free, so that's not quite it. But there is something there.

Anyways, as I've stated, although we're not poutine experts, we're underwhelmed. I'd go as far to say that if this were my first experience with poutine ever, I'd be fairly unlikely to try again. That's the blessing and curse of TJ's - they make so many "exotic" dishes so well that when one misses the mark, it seems overly disappointing. If you really want to try poutine, scrounge up a couple extra bucks (TJ's version cost $4, we got "fancy poutine" for $8) and find some on a local menu somewhere, and probably skip the McD's too. Sandy kinda agrees and gave 'em a two, maybe more out of pity than much else. I'll go one and a half.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Poutine: 3.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate Orange

Since we'll be harping on about the joys of Christmas for the next few weeks, let me throw this out there now before it's too late: Happy Hanukkah! Who knew it came so early this year? For our kosher readers: if you can find it, check out the fruit and nut log before the Festival of Lights is over! 

And now, on to my mandatory semantical pondering of the day: shouldn't this product be orange chocolate? I mean it's chocolate that tastes like orange. It's not an actual orange covered in chocolate. Just sayin'. 

Leave it to a Japanese YouTube channel to enlighten me about real chocolate-covered oranges. And leave it to the Germanic peoples of northern Europe to give us Christmas classics like pfeffernüsse, which you can find at Trader Joe's, along with festive American offerings like chocolate peppermint cupcakes and eggnog.

Since I've furnished you with enough snarkiness to last us through December, I won't even mention TJ's advent calendars, although I will say that the chocolates in the one we bought this year taste vastly better than the first one we tried. I think the calendar we used in 2011 might have had chocolate from 2010 or 2009 in it. As much as I appreciate vintage wines, and in some cases aged cheeses, I don't think chocolate works that way.

But that was one of the strengths of this chocolate orange. The chocolate just tasted fresh. The orange flavor helped give it a little extra splash of tartness that tingled the tongue and enhanced the milk chocolate sweetness. Similar to Terry's famous chocolate orange, you must whack this one on the counter to separate the 20 thin slices. In fact, it's so similar to the Terry's oranges I've had, I'm wondering if this is just a re-packaging of Terry's brand...? Don't quote me on that. It's just one of my speculative musings about the secret world of Trader Joe's suppliers. Either way, this is a pretty good product if I can't tell the difference between TJ's brand and the original.

I guess this is something you're supposed to get as a stocking stuffer on Christmas morning. Sonia and I didn't wait. The review wouldn't do you much good after the holidays are over, now would it? Despite Sonia's slight aversion to eating plain chocolate, she managed to muster enough enthusiasm for three and a half stars. I think I'll give it four and a half.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 stars.
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And yes, that is Yoda in a Santa suit next to the chocolate orange under our Christmas tree.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Triple Ginger Snaps

Since it's December and Turkey Day has now passed, it's officially time to start enjoying the Christmas season and to look forward to all the goodies ahead. That's not to discount Thanksgiving at all - quite the opposite actually - I'm just a one-holiday-at-a-time kinda guy. I love the Christmas season for so many reasons, but most pertinently to this post, the cookies. And I must say this: this is entirely because of my mother, who each and every year, literally pours her heart and soul into making batch upon batch upon batch upon batch of dozens of different cookie types. Chocolate mint? Check. Anise seed? Check. Jelly thumbprints? Candy cane? Cranberry lemon creme? Homemade biscotti in dazzling arrays of flavors? Yes, yes, and yes, and yes to so many more. She will not settle for anyone placing his/her foot in her house without an absolute abundance of at least nine of their favorite ten varieties of cookies ready for mass consumption on a whim's notice. It's absurdly delicious and so, so appreciated, more than what I can put words to. Now that's something to be thankful for and eager about at the same time, so, yeah, it's all timely here.

Naturally, it's pretty unfair to hold some store-bought confectionery trinkets up to this measure. Regardless, in their own way, Trader Joe's this time of year shines, with some of their best seasonal work. And it's never a bad idea to take something so-so (which the Triple Ginger Snaps are certainly much better than) and coat it in dark chocolate just to see what will happen - sometimes it's absolutely transformative.

Sadly, the Dark Chocolate Triple Ginger Snaps are also a transformative experience, but that's not meant in glowing terms. Changes and twists aren't always good, and here's an example. You might think that this product is simply one of the regular ginger snaps coated in dark chocolate, but while that's technically true, I s'pose, it doesn't exactly tell the story. There's something about the dark chocolate that robs the ginger snap of its two main alluring qualities. First, in quite literal terms, it sugarcoats the balance-yet-spicy ginger bite from the snaps. It's too smooth, too unbalanced, too much chocolate and not enough ginger. I know how good those ginger snaps can taste - I want to taste them! And I want them to crunch the way their naked forefathers did. That's the second thing. My presumption is that in the non-choc'ed-up ones, the crystallized ginger adds slight bit of stiff occasional chewiness to an otherwise tough, crunchy cookie that works so, so well. That all gets lost with these guys, and so they're texturally pretty boring.

Other than that, well, they're a decent enough cookie. I mean, my arm didn't have to be twisted to eat them. But the sleeve of maybe about twenty of them lasted around the house for almost two weeks, so my tastebuds weren't exactly clamoring for them, either. Nor were Sandy's, who noted much of the above, shrugged, and gave 'em a three. That sounds just about right to me as well. They could worth a pickup for the office holiday lunch potluck - for about four bucks a box, you could do worse - but they certainly do not belong at the centerpiece of any holiday cookie spread. Don't believe me? That's fine. Just ask my mom.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Triple Ginger Snaps: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons