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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Trader Joe's Fully Cooked Pork Belly

Mmmm.... bacon bacon bacon. Bacon. Bacon!! I've consumed a lot of bacon over the past few months - at least a couple times a week. That's part of the glory of a paleo diet - eat bacon as often as you want! It works, too - I'm down nearly 45 pounds since August, even after pillaging my mom's and mother-in-law's holiday cookie spreads in a couple days of unbridled Christmassy sugar gluttony.

But dare I say it but - bacon gets kinda old after a while. Like, it's still delicious and all, but a good change up is needed. Fortunately my dad cures and smokes his own bacon, and is only too happy to share (Maple bourbon bacon? Yes please!) but when that runs out, well, a little variety would be welcome.

Fortunately, there's an alternative to get my inner Gimli all fired up again - Trader Joe's Fully Cooked Pork Belly. There's a train of thought that fresh pork belly, when prepared properly, is better than any salty, cured bacon. This being my first foray into pork belly world, I'm not ready to stake that claim, but I can see where it comes from.

Pork belly is, of course, the slab of meat from which bacon is made. Our particular cut seemed to be almost more of a pork roast/bacon hybrid, as it was certainly meatier looking than most bacons I've ever had. And by cut, I mean it's a solid piece - despite the thick cut slabs pictured on the completely unnecessary box, it's a solid chunk that you must cut yourself either before or after cooking. Since we wanted it for a potato soup topping, and I wasn't sure what to expect, I sliced up a few pieces then started dicing the remaining bit once my fingers were beginning to get in potential harm's way.

My goodness, the end result was delicious. It took a while over some low heat, but eventually we got crispy, chunky, savory, melty-in-yo'-mouthy baconlicious bites that even our normally meat-averse toddler couldn't help but gobble right on up. The thicker cut chunks that got crispy on the outside but remained tender on the inside - oh man, oh man. I'm not sure if there was just more greasy gristle, or the meatier girth, but whatever it was, this pork belly had it. If you even remotely like bacon, you'll probably love this. Just be careful during cooking - the extra fat makes some extra-aggressive spatter when provoked - wearing one of these Quailman style might not be a bad idea. 

A quick Google search of pork belly recipes seems to imply that cooking and prepping your own from raw to edible takes quite a bit of work and/or time (couple hours, minimum from what I see) so this is definitely a fully cooked convenience pack, perhaps not made for the connoisseurs but instead to introduce the masses. Well, consider me hooked - I think I just might start trying to make my own. In the meantime, if I get a real hankerin', this TJ's version will make a quick sub at a fairly reasonable price of $6.49 for the package. The wife and I agree: deeeeeeeeeeelish. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Fully Cooked Pork Belly: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, December 29, 2014

Trader Joe's Petite Fig, Pear and Cranberry Tart

So far this holiday season, I've seen some incredible Christmas lights, had some excellent beer and great food, played some fun games, watched some classic movies, and read a great, inspiring book. And unlike certain eventful Christmases past, my family members came and went without anyone wishing eternal hellfire on anyone else. 

It's been a whirlwind of awesomeness, and it's not over yet. At the moment, I'm so content, I'm not overflowing with that cynical, sarcastic sense of humor that graces so many of my reviews here on this blog. It's a weird feeling, actually—but not entirely unwelcome.

This year was the first year my wife and I hosted Christmas at our house, so naturally, we tried to impress people with decent food. This tartastic little product was one of the desserts we had on hand. It's not exactly what we expected, but it's certainly not bad.

It's spongy, not flaky. In my mind, and apparently in the minds of Sonia and my parents alike, the word "flaky" signifies a pie crust-style breading. However, this crust is more like a sponge cake than a pie crust. And that's our biggest complaint. It was tasty enough, but we felt the description was a tad misleading. "Buttery," yes. Soft, yes. "Flaky," not so much.

The filling was pleasantly tart and sour. It's also slightly sweet, but nowhere close to a traditional pie filling. Even the sweetness of the pears is overshadowed by the tartness of the cranberries. And there's not much "jelly." It's mostly actual fruit. The overall effect is satisfying, yet lighter and subtler than most desserts.

My dad seemed to like it a bit more than the rest of us, but we all settled on a consensus of 8 out of 10, which puts this squarely in our really darn good category. In our humble opinions, it's worth checking out.

If I don't get another review out before 2015, let me say "Happy New Year!" and thanks for reading!

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Trader Joe's Mini Gingerbread Men

In the South, they say "y'all." In Pittsburgh, they say "yinz." Here in Jersey and most other places, they say "you guys" or some variation of that. Let's face it: "you people" is somehow offensive. But every once in a while, when I use the phrase "you guys," I get criticized for leaving out the women folk. So let's just agree right here and right now that "you guys" currently means "you persons," "you humans," or "you (plural)." Just as Spanish words like "niƱos" can mean both male and female children together, or it can mean just boys.

In that same vein, Sonia wonders why there can't be gingerbread women included in this box of merry holiday cookies. Why is it always gingerbread men? Or are we to assume they're genderless gingerbread persons? 

Sonia's whimsical musing isn't necessarily out of a desire for political correctness. It's more because she wishes to see happy cookie couples pairing off with one another to face the excitement and uncertainty of being consumed together, rather than solitary male cookies heading off to the great beyond all by their lonesome, like so many brave soldiers being whisked away to war. However, I sense that this metaphor will very quickly devolve into absurdity within the next few sentences here, so I'm going to abruptly transition to the actual food review. Ready?

Here goes. The cookies are covered in white fudge icing. I like that. Finally, something NOT covered in dark chocolate. They're not too hard and not too soft. I like that, too. Their flavor is gingerbready, sweet, and spicy. There're enough gingerbreadish spices to warm the back of your throat slightly, thus prompting you to clear your throat excessively, which in turn may cause some slightly awkward social situations. Yet the cookies are good enough that you'll continue eating them, which may cause said awkward social situation to escalate into a nightmarish episode of outright public embarrassment. Not really. I'm exaggerating. But no seriously though, they really do kind of tingle at the back of your throat a bit.

I'm not sure what it is about cookie butter that makes it so amazing. It tastes very much like gingerbread, but so much better. If we had any on hand, I would definitely try making gingerbread sandwich cookies with two of these little men and some cookie butter in between. As tasty as these cookies are, I can't really even put them in the same ballpark as most of those cookie butter products, score-wise. They're good, but they're not that good. Plus, I get hyper when I have too many cookies. Three and a half stars from me. Four from Sonia. 

You guys excited Santa is coming next week?

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Trader Joe's Embrace Your Inner Bean

Straight from the folks who previously brought you oddly inspired snack sticks with groan-worthy puns for names comes....Trader Joe's Embrace Your Inner Bean! What's next in this line of veggie tranquility inspired munchies? Some Lettuce Be? Romaine Calm? Bay Leaf in Yourself?

Why can I come up with only puns for shrubbery-esque veggies? I dunno, leaf me alone!

Regardless, before branching out to any other snacks of this ilk, TJ's really needs to buckle down their craft. Just like those Inner Peas were borderline good but missing a little somethin'-somethin', so do these beanie bad boys. They're just on the cusp of being really darn tasty but just don't get there. It's not the texture - a little foamy, but reasonably crunchy but it's the taste itself. First, they're made with rice flour, which doesn't have the same supporting flavor of a regular corn or tortilla chip. I'm not a fan of rice flour at all, I guess, despite its gluten-free properties....wait a minute...these aren't gluten-free? Well, let's read the ingredients...no gluten in any of that...hold on..."May contain traces of wheat, milk, soy, fish, and shrimp"???? What the heck kinda of cross-allergen control polices are in place at that manufacturer? Bad enough that their product cannot reasonably be labelled as either gluten-free or vegetarian/vegan? This is a snack whose main ingredients are beans, rice, and salt. Ay-yi-freakin'-yi. That's some serious point dockage there.

In case you can still ingest these, like I can, the flavor profile also kinda lacks. Silly as it sounds, these sticks might taste too much like black beans (over 60%, says the blurb on the back) and black beans, taste like, well, not much. That's why if we're making them up for some tacos or making a black bean soup, we're sure to add lots of stuff like cumin, which perhaps tricks us into thinking we like black beans more than we actually do. There's a little salt here, which is kinda boring tasting - really, a little cumin or paprika or slight chile powder dusting would have been better, in my opinion.

Anyways, these Inner Beans make an okay dip stick - I dunked some of them into a little homemade guacamole I made and was reasonably happy with the results. Yet, after a few bites, the flavor just kinda goes back to the rice flour more than anything, and I can't shake that lingering essence off my molars. Meh.

Sandy enjoys these kinda things more than I do, usually, and this time was not an exception. "I'd get these for a car trip or something for a light snack," she said. But I can tell she's not overly enamored, especially when she gave them a half-hearted three.That's more generous than I can go. As is appropriate for their buck-fifty price tag, I'm going 1.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Embrace Your Inner Bean: 4.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Trader Joe's Jingle Jangle

I thought $7 for Cookie Butter Cheesecake was pretty steep, even though, admittedly, it was worth every penny. Well, this stuff was $9 at the Marlton TJ's. You'd think for that price, they'd at least give it some highfalutin name like "Extra-ordinary Random Chocolate Covered Nonsense of the Finest Collection," like that weirdness that Russ checked out recently, or something pretentious like that. Nope. Just Jingle Jangle.

There were milk and dark chocolate covered pretzels, mini peanut butter cups, Joe-Joe's, M&M-like things, and dark chocolate covered caramel corn—the latter of which was about the only novel element in the mix. Everything else felt like something I'd had before. To my great disappointment, there were no white chocolate covered items, although some of the pretzels had a wee bit of white chocolate drizzle on top. It was practically untasteable, though—more for decoration than anything else.

The tin was filled to the brim with the aforementioned goodies and was actually quite heavy. If you're battling rain or snow as you carry it out of the store in one of TJ's famous paper bags, be wary that the bottom doesn't drop out on you. It's a good bit of food and a great lot of calories, but in my opinion, the five species of candy in the tin still aren't enough variety to justify the price. They get old pretty quickly. It's definitely a product you'd want to consider for large office parties, big family gatherings, and grand soirees. It's not to be shared by one lonely couple and two pets who can't have chocolate. Thank goodness we'll have some company later in the month to help us finish it.

As someone who's not a huge fan of dark chocolate, I'm just not sure this is the best way to spend $9 at Christmas time. The quality of the ingredients is fine. I wouldn't call that into question. But hey, you dark chocolate fans, wouldn't you rather enjoy the flinty undertones of your sophisticated candy alone in a bar form, rather than coated all over a generic Oreo? There was some milk chocolate, but not nearly enough to suit me. If it weren't for the joyous holiday spirit soothing my cynical soul right this moment, I might have snubbed this product even worse, but I'll be Christmassy and throw out three stars. Sonia likes dark chocolate, so she'll muster enough enthusiasm for three and a half.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Trader Joe's Cookies Beyond the Pail

And now for today's lesson in rarely used English idioms: "beyond the pale." Basically, it means outside an acceptable bounds, such as my language and use of middle digits during rush hour traffic. Deplorable. Disgraceful. Disgusting. Like the driving actions of others that facilitate my own improper response during said rush hour. But where does this expression come from? Um, here's a pretty lengthy breakdown...something about stakes and Ireland and colonial resentment...I'll admit I stopped less than halfway through.

What the h-e-double-bendi-straw does that expression have to do with the naming of Trader Joe's Cookies Beyond the Pail? These aren't cookies gone wild or behaving badly. No bleeps. No blurs. Just some butter cookies hanging out in the bucket with a windmill on it. Yeah, fine, there's the "pail" they come in, and the chance to make a stupid pun (which I always appreciate), so perhaps we'll just to settle for that.

Butter cookies are always everywhere this time of year, usually in fancy tins that I feel guilty about tossing but foolish for wanting to hang on. In lieu of festive decorative packaging, to get us all more in the spirit, focus more on the beautiful LL Bean table wreath my folks sent us a few days ago. At least Big Girl M is already excited about the prospect of having a "cookie bucket" to play with when we're all said and done, and it won't look all that ridiculous.

Packaging aside, there's four types of butter cookies here: pretzel shaped with vanilla-y crystals, snickerdoodles, almond bars, and chocolate chip. Each are pretty representative of the general butter cookie genre in their own right - good bite, crumbly, sugary, rich but not too much so, nothing too fancy but yet so satisfying. I prefer the vanilla pretzels the most, as they seem a little tougher and crunchier than the rest, but man, those almond bars practically melt...Not a huge fan of the chocolate chip ones, though. There's only a few chips in each cookie, and any chocolate flavor is so muted compared to the rest of the cookie that if I didn't see them, I wouldn't know they were there. The snickerdoodles could use a tad more cinnamon, too, in my opinion, but they're pretty decent as is.

I'd rank them in this order of preference: vanilla pretzel, almond bars, snickerdoodles, chocolate chip. It's funny and probably very beneficial for the two of us that Sandy's list would go the complete opposite, so we can each focus on the cookies we like best. There's nothing too above and beyond about these nominally brash buttery bites, but man, we like them, and for the price (big bucket for like $4, cheaper than most!) they're definitely worth checking out.



Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cookies Beyond the Pail: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Trader Joe's Extraordinary Bark of the Finest Collection

Well, like Nathan said recently, it's Christmas time, so we best be gettin' on to to reviewing all sorts of holiday treats. To me, Christmas season begins with Advent, ends on Epiphany, and interrupts itself whenever I hear the opening chords of "Christmas Shoes" - I just can't help but get mad at that grifting little kiddie conniver, the many faces of Rob Lowe be damned. No matter, to me, this is the time of year that Trader Joe's shines brightest of all, with all those holiday goodies - thanks for putting them in the produce aisle this year, forcing me to walk by them, by the way. Good thing my cohort got to review the gingerbread pancakes first, though - those were a disaster awaiting re-experimentation in our test kitchen here. Taste was okay, occasionally a little too heavy on the ginger as mentioned, but man, with following instructions carefully, they were a runny mess that stuck to our pans, and believe me, we know how to cook pancakes. Meh.

On to Trader Joe's Extraordinary Bark of the Finest Collection. What a goofy, overly honorific, and pretty much unearned name. There's nothing all that special here. Okay, so dark chocolate...I've been getting more and more used to the darker stuff recently (Lindt's 90% bar? Love it!) so the chocolate base layer actually tastes a little too sweet to me. Take that for what it's worth, my scale might be whacked. That's not the problem here.

No, the issue is with all the little stuff added on. And I do mean "little". There's a billion itsy bitsy almond and pretzel shards, which is okay but kinda run-of-the-mill by itself. All the other stuff, like the mini peanut butter cups, and popcorn, and the unlabelled-upfront-but-definitely-there Joe-Joe cookies? Few and far between. There were maybe four or five Reese knockoffs in the entire six serving bar - not good enough. A few more of those, and a couple more bites of cookie, and more than three pieces of popcorn would have been pretty good. Although, I'd personally kick off the Joe-Joes altogether and get more PB cups and popcorn on there, because the barky bites with those, with the little added crunch of the nuts and pretzels, and if the cocoa-drizzle on top were just right - mmm mmm mmm mmmmmm. Those were good, not "too much" on there, and certainly not too little either. The entire package needed to be like that, not just a few choice morsels in an otherwise sparsely chunkified choco-wasteland.

The repeat purchase potential for this extra ordinary (definitely not extraordinary) product depends completely on the level of effort I wish to bring forth to the next office holiday food day - that is, if I wish to bring something more than my usual case of ginger ale but lack desire to much more than plunker down another four bucks. For the first seasonal foray into the world of TJ's Christmassy treats, both Sandy and I were a little disappointed, but in the end not overly, I guess, and I guess we're just gonna have to keep on going back. Got a particular holiday treat we need to get our grubs on? Recommend away!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Extraordinary Bark of the Finest Collection: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons  


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Trader Joe's Gingerbread Pancake Mix

I'm going to kick off this review by comparing these pancakes to a cereal we reviewed earlier this year. First, they're both for breakfast. Second, we prepared both of them with milk (although the instructions for these pancakes said to just add water). Thirdly and most importantly, they were both just too gingery for us. Or rather, certain bites were just too gingery for us in both cases.

The ginger bits in the batter had a tendency to sink down to the bottom of our mixing bowl, so the first few pancakes we made were just like regular flapjacks but with a mild to moderate gingerbreadishness about them. Really pleasant overall. With butter and maple syrup, they tasted really good, and the gingerbread vibe was a nice holiday twist. However, the last few pancakes had at least one hunk of "crystallized" ginger in every bite. 

You can chalk it up to user error and say we should have fluffed up the batter a bit before each pancake hit the skillet—and in hindsight, that might have solved the problem. But even then, I think there would have been too much ginger. It might have been a blessing in disguise that the first half of our pancake batch was relatively ginger free. Because the ones with ginger were WAY too gingery, even dressed up with butter and syrup.

Each ginger chunk was about the size of the piece of pimento you might find in an olive. That might not sound very big, but the flavor of ginger is so potent, it overshadowed everything else. We were expecting something that tasted like gingerbread, not raw ginger. Ginger's great as a spice, but it's just too much for Sonia and I when it becomes the main attraction.

This pancake mix isn't a complete fail, in my opinion, but you really have to love the taste and texture of actual ginger for them to be considered a win. Sonia's only other comment: "Not terribly impressed." She gives them 2.5 stars. I'll be the slightly less grinchy Grinch this time and give a 3.5.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Trader Joe's Mini Peppermint Waffle Cookies

December's finally here, so I think we can go ahead and start eating Christmas-type cookies without feeling like we've jumped the holiday gun. This blog has certainly seen a couple of successful peppermint cookies and other treats. But in general, I'm starting to feel like I'm simply not a fan of  pepperminty desserts. I want my candy canes separated from my baked goods.

First impressions: they remind me of other miniature waffle cookies I've had in terms of size and texture. But these little guys have the added crunch of candy cane bits. Not a huge fan of biting down on hard candy (but my dentist loves it because he gets richer every time I do it). There's a good bit of chocolate here. In fact, according to the ingredients, there's more chocolate going on than waffle. And my inner-alcoholic absolutely loves that the number one sub-ingredient is chocolate liquor. Between the liquor and the mint, it's a bit like rinsing one's palate with a festive holiday mouthwash. But seriously though, there really is a nice little chunk of chocolate on every piece, which makes these tiny cookies rich and serotonin-inducing, if not delicious.

The waffle element is crispy enough, and I suspect these cookies are fairly stale-resistant. If I ever have grandchildren, when they come to visit, I'll put stuff like this out in a little dish on the coffee table the way my elders did with red and green M&M's at Christmas time. I mean, maybe if I were 7 again, I would want to shovel these things down by the handful, but I think for most people they're just going to be a "one here, another there" type of holiday mood-setting appetizer more than an actual dessert or snack.

Sonia was happy that she had minty-fresh breath after consuming these wintery treats, but she wishes the waffles were thicker. She gives them 3.5 stars. I give 'em 3.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Trader Joe's Fancy Medjool Dates

In our house, we consider "fancy dates" ones on which we don't go shopping at Target. Who knew there was such a thing, albeit a different kinda meaning, right in the Trader Joe's refrigerated produce section?

Yup, we're talking TJ's Fancy Medjool Dates. I don't see what's so fancy about them...no bowties or bejewels or bling or anything. It's just a box of wrinkly, pitted dates.

But oh, the possibilities! I kid you not. First off, these dates were an absolute joy to just eat right out of the box. Sandy, Big Girl M, and I happily spent one morning late last week chomping thru nearly half the container, all of us together partaking in the slightly sticky, little bit gooey, totally tasterrific natural morsels of delight. I'm not too experienced when it comes to dates (my high school was too busy with video games and Creed - oh wait, wrong kind again) but I can't imagine these medjool munchies to be much if any different than most.

Of course, though, with a little work and adaptation there's so much more you can do. Everytime I mention my primarily paleo to a fellow caveperson wannabe, they mention "Bacon wrapped medjool dates!" as if the skies parted and angels streamed down whenever these were consumed. I have failed to make those thus far, but did happen to have some cooked bacon on hand that morning we had a family munch time. Even from my semi-half buttcheeked approximation, I could tell this was a match worthy of the raves. Yum-yum-yummy in my tum-tum-tummy. Yes I watch too much kid programming these days.

Even better still: Paleo pecan pie. I kid you not. That's the number one reason I got these dates, and dangit, to me, it's just not Thanksgiving without pecan pie. This is the recipe I used (easy as can be! - though I used just a regular egg, I'm not crunchy enough to know what a "flax egg" is) and while texturally the pie was much different than it's usual corn-syrupy incarnation (oh so good!), the taste itself was almost spot on, with the dates supplying all the sugary sweetness. The pie was so good, with the dates being such an easy, key ingredient, that I got another box of them in the fridge now just waiting to be turned into my next pie. Truth be told, at the risk of being labelled a heretic, I enjoyed the pie much more than the cookie butter cheesecake, although that was pretty good as well.

I say medjool dates at the big local chain being sold for something like $7 a pound, so this box for $4.49 strikes me as a pretty reasonable deal. I'm sure we'll continue to buy these - nothing wrong with a new fruit that all of us can enjoy together. Nothing too much more to say, just give 'em a try if you haven't already, and always, we're open to suggestions if you leave a comment or two.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Fancy Medjool Dates: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, November 21, 2014

Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie Butter Cheesecake

I was wrong. The next fiendish play in Trader Joe's diabolical plan to take over the world/make me fat (or fatter, depending on your perspective) wasn't Cookie Butter and Cocoa Swirl Ice Cream. It was cheesecake. We shoulda seen that comin'. But man. This stuff blindsided me like an 18-wheeler at a complicated New Jersey intersection with "jughandles" and no left turns and such.

Except way more awesome than getting T-boned by a semi. WAY more awesome. Apparently, this stuff showed up at the Marlton TJ's just last night, and like half the staff has already tried it. I'm lucky there were any packages left. Really lucky.

Because this stuff tastes like heaven. Imagine cookie butter. But cheesecake. I know that's not particularly informative. You've probably already gathered those two bits of information by now. But...it actually tastes like what you want it to taste like. It's basically really amazing plain cheesecake crowned with a cookie butter spread on top. And the crust is made of speculoos cookie material! It's cinnamony, it's creamy, and it's just about perfect.

It better be. Because it's seven friggin' dollars a box! But as a once-in-a-while or whenever-TJ's-can-keep-it-in-stock treat, it's worth it. Seriously. I speak the truth.

And, well, truth be told, I didn't wait the full two hours for thawage to occur for my first piece. But it was still amazing. Just as amazing as my second piece, which was fully thawed. The only difference was how cold and firm the first piece was. I'm pretty sure I'd be happy eating this stuff straight out of the freezer. Or off the blistering concrete on a hot summer day. I don't mean to sound desperate. It's just...BECAUSE COOKIE BUTTER CHEESECAKE.
The only thing I can think of that would be meaner than offering another incredible cookie butter product right now before the holidays would be something along the lines of Trader Joe's getting together with Big Pharma and offering prescriptions for cookie butter I.V. bags.

It's been a while since a perfect score, and Sonia and I are both on board this time. This is an incredibly delicious product. Even in light of its price tag and its not-so-much-for-folks-on-diets style nutrition info—this puppy gets a perfect 10.

Bottom line: 10 out of 10.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Caramel Sauce

We're just gonna slip in one more pumpkin product review before Thanksgiving comes, and then I think we'll be good until next October or so. We've taken a two week break since our last pumpkin product, but I suspect I'm still in that pumpkin-overload zone. Both Sonia's and my skin is a little more orange than usual, and we need to go ahead and move on—which we will. Soon. I promise.

Back when the Shelly household was only two members strong instead of four, they tried a fleur de sel caramel sauce that impressed Russ well enough. So just imagine dumping a decent amount of pumpkin butter in that caramel sauce, and that's pretty much what we have here. Also, we ate this pumpkin caramel with the same French vanilla ice cream reviewed alongside the fleur de sel. I can't imagine this stuff going well with anything other than vanilla ice cream, but maybe I'm just not using my imagination.

To cut to the chase, we both enjoyed this ice cream topping, but Sonia definitely liked it more than I did. It's sweet and it tastes like, well, pumpkin and caramel. Imagine that. I felt that the pumpkin spices burned my throat on occasion. And I don't mean they burned my mouth like hot sauce might. I really mean that they tingled excessively in the back of my throat...all that ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. I found myself coughing while eating this after a number of sauce-rich spoonfuls. But I think the takeaway here isn't necessarily that this product is too pumpkin-spicey—it's that you should use it sparingly. A little bit goes a long way. Sonia is always wise in that regard, and she rarely overdoes it with sauces, icings, or frostings. Maybe that's part of why she liked the product more than I did. But even when I used it in much lesser quantities, it sat very heavy in my stomach, and it just wasn't my favorite ice cream topping. It's unique, seasonal, and it certainly doesn't taste bad...it's just that it's not what I would go for in terms of pumpkin ice cream. I'd turn to the Pumpkin Pie Mochis—and I'm still anxious to try the elusive Ginger Pumpkin Mouthfuls—before I'd pick up another $3 jar of this sauce.

I always try to pick out my score for these products in my head before I know Sonia's score, so as to keep my opinion unbiased. In this particular case, I was shocked that her score was an unexpectedly-high 4.5. I had decided beforehand that I would give it 3.5 stars, but after I heard Sonia's score, I was tempted to give it even less, so as to pull it down out of the "really darn good" category, because in my opinion, it doesn't really belong there. But there it shall stand nonetheless.

In the comments below, let us know what you've done with this product other than put it on vanilla ice cream!

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Trader Joe's Southwestern Style Chicken Poppers

As mentioned in my previous post, the Pittsburgh branch of WGaTJ's is now a family of four with the arrival of Baby B. Toddler/Big Girl M is so pretty enamored with her little sister, which is awesome, and makes being back home and trying to get settled in so much easier. We've been home a bit now, with me taking off work for a while for all the late night snuggles and constant butt wiping. And naturally, I'm the main chef right now for the three of us capable of solid food, and fortunately we've planned well. Between a meat stockpile from a great local farm and a bunch of homemade freezer meals we've prepped well in advance thanks to my wife's cousin and her work, and along with a bunch of fresh fruit and veggies to help round out our meals, a couple Trader Joe's easy dinner options have taken real good care of us thus far.

That's how we got involved with Trader Joe's Southwestern Style Chicken Poppers. Let's see here....chicken, tortilla crumbles, cheese, peppers....hrmm, this sounds vaguely familiar...aha! There were those southwestern stuffed chicken breasts we had a few months back. These pollo poppers are kinda similar to those in concept, just in a much more snackable form with corn and black beans added in for a heartier bite. I suppose these cowboy croquets are meant more as an appetizer, but in our maverick ways, Sandy and I made them for lunch the other day, which we'll tip or cap to as a worthy enough meal.

Looking back now that a few days have passed, there's nothing overly memorable about them, which doesn't mean they were bad. The crumbled tortilla chip shell actually held up surprisingly well - no spouts or leakages during baking. And each bite consisted of an adequate enough distribution of white chicken chunks, corn, and beans, with a little jack cheese and seasoning (mostly, yeah, seasoned salt) mixed in, with some little traces of spinach in both the crust and filling. "Spicy" is not a word I'd associate with them, although if you're super spice sensitive, like the dragons in M's favorite new book (thanks, Uncle Dan and Maymay!), you *might* have a small issue with 'em.

In all, I'd pick these up again without much hesitation, which is a lot more than I can say for our previous clucky appetizer find. I'm sure with a little hot sauce or guacamole, I can make those flavors pop a little more. As is, though, not bad, not bad.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Southwestern Style Chicken Poppers: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Trader Joe's Giant Peruvian Inca Corn

Years ago, during college, I had the privilege of going to Peru for a week to help participate in some medical and humanitarian work. Tell you what: awesome experiences all week long. From getting schooled by seven year olds in soccer to teaching them English words like "poop" to having real, honest conversations with folks half a world and a culture apart from anything I had ever experienced before, it was fantastic. The food wasn't half bad, either. Fried plaintains every day for breakfast, lunch on the go (usually pb&j washed down with a Inca Kola*). and a homecooked dinner every night - usually chicken and rice with a variety of hot sauces to mix in - it was really good. Our last night before flying out of Lima, my gringo posse hit up a fancyish restaurant for one last Peruvian feast - oh man. I personally plowed thru a platter of anticuchos and rice, while most of my friends guzzled chicha morada, a bluish/purplish corn juice that I personally didn't care for. That worked out for me - as most of them discovered thousands of feet in the air on the way to Houston, it can have a decidedly laxative effect for the uninitiated.

That's been my one real experience with Peruvian cuisine. There's a pretty decent place in Pittsburgh's Strip District called Chicken Latino, where I can still fulfill my occasional anticuchos and Inca Kola hankerin'. Also, as a side, they have these ginomontrosities of corn kernels, which kinda taste more or less like normal white corn, just a lot bigger, like I suddenly grew a set of baby hands or something.

These Trader Joe's Giant Peruvian Inca Corn kernels are a lot like those, with an oddball American junkfood twist. Yes, I'm speaking of Corn Nuts, which I'll admit I'm not all that familiar with. And at first blush, these corney kernels taste much like a convenience classic I'm well acquainted with - namely, Fritos. I mean, it's corn, palm oil, and salt, so that can't be too surprising. After a couple crispy chomps, though, as the salt dissolves, the taste transforms to something a little more a-maize-ing...okay, not exactly "amazing" but definitely cornier. It's kinda like a Frito mixed with a super puffy popcorn widow. Not a bad snack, but kinda mundane after a while. I'll admit, it's not like I expected more flavor from them, but wanted it anyways, if only for remembering how good the chow in Peru was. I'm a little disappointed, but not overly.

Sandy, though? She loved these, and there's a perfectly good reason why. Notice the background of these pics, that bluish vinylish material that looks like a really uncomfortable hospital recliner? Well, that's exactly what it is! We have just welcomed our second daughter, Baby B, into the world in the past week or so, so I spent a lot of time in that chair, and these corny poofs made a pretty nice little snack on repeated occasion. Both Mama and Baby are doing wonderful, thank you. Snack and junk food after having a baby has gotta taste awesome, right? Although, Sandy even thought the severely oversteamed hospital broccoli tasted wonderful, so take her opinion as you will.

Anyways, I'd imagine we'll be picking these eternal kernels up again, if only mainly for her. Whatever she wants right now, she's got it. Sandy liked them well enough to give them a four, and while I'm not overly enamored with them, at least these are tied to some pretty nice little memories.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Giant Peruvian Inca Corn: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons  
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* Looks like Mountain Dew, tastes like Bazooka Joe

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Trader Joe's Uncured Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage

It's November...you know that what means! Crunchy leaves falling. A cool chill in the air. The end of political attack ads for a couple weeks. And of course....it's almost turkey time!

There's a billboard around town here' in the 'burgh for the local gas station promoting the Pilgrim - a roast turkey sub piled high with cranberries, gravy and trimmings on a "stuffing bread." That sounds as awesome as it sounds gutbursting. There's all sorts of other turkey wraps and sandwiches around, including TJ's somewhat disappointing one from last year.

But a totally tubular Thanksgiving turkey treat, and not in the '80s' sense? For me, unheard of...until now, Trader Joe's Uncured Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage.

Turkey as an alternate meat can either work pretty well or not so great when trying to emulate other protein products. See: turkey bacon. Pork sausage is usually pretty greasy, so a drier, leaner meat like turkey has to be done well to make an acceptable swap-out in my eyes.

Well, Trader Joe's tried. They really, really tried. But as an old wise little short green man once told me, "Do or do not. There is no try." So, TJ's did not. There's just enough not flavor or execution here. First, they're pretty dry. And then, the turkey itself is fairly bland. "Well, that's why they'd add some cranberry and apple, that oughtta fix that," you're now thinking to yourself. You'd be right except...it doesn't. In one of Sandy's sausages there was a deep, large well of red that I presume was the cranberry. That's the only discernible cranberry any of us had in the whole package of five we cooked up. There were little chunks of what I presume were apple (kinda gray/tan/light colored) but they didn't add much of anything one way or the other. In the end, they just kinda lacked.

To be fair, I suppose if one were to purchase and prepare these not with the though of festive fall flavors but instead a reasonably healthy sausage option, these links wouldn't seem nearly as disappointing. That's a more than valid thought. Sodium's kinda high, but uncured, low fat, heck, not even preservatives - they're practically paleo which works for me.

Sandy made a face when I mentioned I'd be reviewing these. "Ugh, if we never got those again, that'd be more than okay with me - I just didn't really like them," she said. She seemed to verbally waiver between around a two, so that's what we're going with for her, which sounds just 'bout right to me.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Uncured Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Trader Joe's Cheese Blintzes

Apparently blintzes are Eastern European in origin and were brought to the states by Jewish immigrants from that region. And they're apparently traditionally consumed on big holidays like Hanukkah. And at the risk of sounding like another very articulate Pennsylvanian, I'll refrain from using the word "apparently" for the rest of this post.

I'm actually like 1/16th Jewish through my father's mother's branch of the family, by way of Germany. And Hanukkah starts in just over a month. So they may not have the seasonal appeal of pumpkin or pecan, but I just want you all to know that it's not entirely inappropriate for me to review these tasty wrapped pastry pancakes now, particularly for those of you who want to try some foreign-inspired cuisine this holiday season.

The blintzes, or "blini," are wrapped in a crepe-like shell that fries up nicely in a pan with oil or butter. I found myself heating them for a few extra minutes than what the instructions indicated, but maybe I wasn't using enough heat. As I've mentioned before, I'm not particularly skilled in the kitchen. But at any rate, they turned out to be pretty scrumptious. I just waited until the middle was soft and the outside medium-brown and then took them out of the skillet.

The filling is something like a sweetened cottage cheese, although much more tasty than that probably sounds. It was like the illegitimate lovechild of cottage cheese and cream cheese, with a little sugar all up in the mix. Although these little guys are rolled up like some funky foreign hot pockets, the overall effect is like a dessert crepe. I haven't tried it yet, but I bet these would be killer with some homemade fresh fruit jam or pie filling on top.

Sonia's down with these kosher blini, despite a slight aversion to the texture of the cottage cheesiness. She gives them three and a half stars. I'll raise her half a star. Four from me. Can't stop the blintz.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Rolls

Back in the summer of 2011, Sonia and I were involved in an embarrassing debacle involving a tube of aggressive cinnamon rolls. We were accused of being inexperienced, un-American, and unintelligent. Admittedly, I did erroneously state that there were six rolls in the tube, rather than five, multiple times throughout the post. But the comments on that review weren't just typical trollery. Maybe they hurt my pride so much because they actually pointed out legitimate criticisms along the lines of "Why were you and your wife expecting to store some of the rolls in the tube after opening it?" and "Why did you run out of frosting when most people have a bunch left over?" Perhaps I don't feel the proper amount of shame for my gluttonous frosting hoggery. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in Home Ec when we baked pre-packaged biscuits in the oven—an assignment for which I received an S- for "barely satisfactory." The look of scorn shot at our group by our instructor should have been sufficiently severe castigation all by itself, but she also forced us to eat our culinary abominations in front of the rest of the class. I should have learned my lesson then. 

But in our defense, Sonia and I really didn't grow up baking these things—Trader Joe's brand, Pillsbury, or otherwise. Sonia's family was a family of immigrants. And they chose to spend their hard-earned dollars on more familiar foods like churros and conchas, neither of which involve perplexing packaging or exploding tubes. My family was plagued with food allergies to wheat and sugar, among many others. So ready-to-bake pastries were unheard of in my childhood home. All this to say, please don't judge us too harshly when I tell you that we experienced the same difficulties with the packaging of this product. That's still Sonia's biggest complaint. She doesn't like the tube dealie.

But at any rate, the product within was good. And there were five little pumpkin rolls, not six. The bread was slightly cinnamony, but not particularly pumpkinny. The icing was by far the most pumpkin-riffic element of the product, with a taste falling somewhere in between melted pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin butter. The texture of the pumpkin icing was not unlike that of the sweet white frosting that came with those notorious cinnamon rolls. And like the original cinnamon roll icing, we used every last drop of it—and probably wouldn't have minded a tad more. It's a product most pumpkinophiles will surely enjoy.

In the end, though, I'd probably pick the original cinnamon rolls over these, while Sonia enjoyed these pumpkin-flavored ones a bit more—and our scores reflect those sentiments.


Nathan: 3.5 stars.
Sonia: 4 stars.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Trader Joe's Pecan Pie Ice Cream

On several occasions I have declared my absolute love of pecan pie, especially my Aunt Brenda's. And in my brazen youth, I have crowned myself as an ice cream expert, and though I am older, wiser, and not as brash these days, I still think I know what I'm talking about...sorta, at least, anyways.

So a) why was it such a surprise to see a bucket of Trader Joe's Pecan Pie Ice Cream nestled in the freezer? 2) Why have I never tried this? and d) Why, so soon after throwing me a bone, does TJ's have to do THIS to me in the midst of my diet? Arrrrrrrrgh.

Once spotted, there was no question that this quart of potential frozen yummy nirvana was coming home. I locked eyes with Sandy and put up the requisite hesitancy, might have even lightly stomped my foot some in some oddball show of supposed defiance, but no, really, this was going to my freezer and to my belly no matter what.

It's pretty decent stuff. Take your not-so-basic French vanilla ice cream (TJ's is spectacular!), add in some big swirls of pecan pie filling in all its brown-sugary / molassesy magic, and a couple pecans and a small handful of shortbread pie crust crumbles, and there you go. Tasty combo? No doubt. But notice the problem? While the pie filling portions are tasty and appropriately plentiful (so much better than the caramel ice cream reviewed way back in the day), there's just not enough nuts and pie crust for my liking. Realistically, to me, there's about half of what there should be. Digging through a particularly rich filling vein the other night, there were only three, maybe four partial pecans and no discernible crusties. Obviously, nuts are kinda pricey and all, but a few more would really be killer - the ones in there maintained their nutty texture extremely well, offering a great crumbly crunch amidst all the creaminess. It's all possible that with the rest of the ice cream being so rich, with shortbread such a comparatively muted flavor, that only the bigger bits were noticed - in that case, make 'em bigger, TJ's!

All that being said, after it being in the house for a couple nights, with some great restraint there's at least half of the quart left in the freezer, and gosh darn it, I'd love to house every last little bit of right now, then blame its disappearance on the teenage exchange student living with us, who mysteriously drank all of our coffee cream the other day. Apparently I now have this thing called "willpower." Hrmmm. Amazing.

For the wifey's take, she's kinda opposite of me: she thinks there's an acceptable amount of pecans while not enough crust, while I'm vice versa. Maybe we mined the wrong scoops and shoulda switched bowls, I don't know. We both agree that, potential blasphemy aside, the pecan pie ice cream is so much better than any pumpkin ice cream TJ's can offer, except those delicious little cookie sandwiches. Overall, for $4.49, we're fairly happy.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Pecan Pie Ice Cream: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Trader Joe's Harvest Blend Herbal Tea

This awesome autumn season isn't over yet, but it never hurts to venture outside the pumpkin patch once in a while to see what other goodies are out there in TJ's land. But don't worry, the 73% of you that love pumpkin won't be disappointed. Stay tuned for more pumpkintasticality next month! I just had to try this harvest blend because I've been looking for a nice caffeine-free way to wind down at night. Plus, whenever you see an animal on a Trader Joe's brand box of tea, you know you're in for a treat. I'm thinking elephantslemurs, and now foxes.

This beverage is almost like a subtle cinnamon cider mixed with chamomile tea. And it actually has apple in the ingredients! Like an apple cider, it works both hot or iced, although I think you get more of that soothing chamomile effect when it's nice and steamy. Perfect for those long, dark late autumn nights—which reminds me, don't forget to "fall back" this weekend, folks!

The flavors are balanced beautifully, with a calm core of chamomile rounded out by flavors like ginger, hibiscus, chicory, and orange peel. The cinnamon isn't overbearing, and believe it or not, you can totally taste that aforementioned apple. I've never heard of such a thing before. Apple in tea. It's an understated essence, but it lends a nice hint of faint fruitiness to an otherwise herbal aroma.

Sonia and I both like it, and I must confess, I'm not the biggest fan of chamomile. But in this context, it's absolutely welcome. This is a very relaxing, delicious tea. Have a hit of the Harvest for homely hibernation. It's a four and a four for the fabulous Mr. Fox.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Trader Joe's 100% Honey Crisp Apple Cider

It's like I've been heard by the Trader Joe gods, who have chosen to smile upon me.

As a voice calling out from the pumpkin-goodie riddled wilderness, I, Russ, the increasingly long-bearded prophet, have stood firm against the gourd-gorging ways of society that befall every autumn. Okay, with that one exception - more gingerly than pumpkinny, but anyways...Moving along...I have cried out for the need of a fall-time product that is delicious and satisfying and has nothing to do with any silly orange thing that grows on a vine. Additionally, I've mentioned  my love of honey crisp apples, and have referenced my semi-adhered-to Paleo diet far too often, and have hoped that somehow, some way, Big Joe would hook a brother up.

BOOM.

Trader Joe's 100% Honey Crisp Apple Cider. That's right. All juice. No added sugar. No sweeteners. Not from concentrate. Nothing added. Nothing taken away. No nothing except the sweet, sweet nectar of God's most delicious apple. Caveman friendly (though, like most things, not in excess). There's few things more delicious in the world than chomping into a sweet, crunchy, juicy honey crisp apple right off the tree - as a family, we ate half a peck in just over a week and our jonesin' for more. So darn delicious that I salivate just at the thought.

And this cider? Listen, it's not the same...but it's close. It's everything except that satisfying bite, without the resulting stickiness in the aforementioned facial hair from excess juice. It's tart yet sweet, and very clean and smooth tasting since it's just one apple variety, not a blend like a lot of other ciders. The cider tastes wonderful both cold right out of the fridge and hot in a mug - it's a delicious, satisfying beverage that paired well from dishes from a lamb stew I made the other night to a simple chicken/sweet potato fry dinner from a Target bag - really, for $2.99, it's real good stuff.

I'm not here to say the TJ's can compete with the local, fresh-pressed stuff from an area farm or a place like Cold Hollow up in Vermont, because I don't think it can, but for a cider that's commercially mass-produced, it's pretty darn good. Almost perfect, I'd say. Sandy enjoyed the cider as well, saying after we polished off the last of the bottle that she wished she had the chance to infuse some with a little cinnamon. Well, when we go back to TJ's, I know what we're putting in our cart, so dear, you'll get your chance. Definitely worth a repeat buy all fall long.  

Bottom line: Trader Joe's 100% Honey Crisp Apple Cider: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons