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Friday, August 29, 2014

Trader Joe's Polenta Provencale

One thing I love about Trader Joe's is that they've exposed me to dozens of new dishes that I wouldn't have tried otherwise. Polenta is definitely one of those dishes. To the best of my recollection, I had never even heard of it before this. Sonia, who's even more widely traveled than I am, has not only tried polenta in her native Los Angeles, but also in Italy, where the dish apparently originates from. But despite her adventurous efforts, she's never been able to cultivate a deep appreciation for this corn-based dish.

The presence of corn (and absence of wheat) is great news for all you gluten-free folks. But for people like Sonia, it means an unusual texture that, in her own words, "feels like eating soap." I certainly see where she's coming from with that observation. The texture of the actual polenta balls is a little strange, especially if you're expecting it to feel just like traditional pasta. Now you've got me talking about balls and Russ chuckling about nut butter. I swear, people, this is a family-friendly blog.

Other than its lack of gluten and its vegetarian-ness, this product's other great strength lies in its vegetable medley, which includes peas, spinach, and tomato bits. The cream sauce is moderately spicy and lends a nice mixture of herbs to the dish, but its flavor certainly doesn't overpower that of the vegetables.

Flavor-wise, the polenta adds little. I found it to be very neutral in taste. There's a melodramatic spiel on the back of the bag describing Trader Joe's efforts to "liberate" polenta from its traditional Italian niche. So...if this isn't the way traditional polenta is served, then perhaps this entree would have been more successful as something entirely different? Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But Sonia and I both agree the least appetizing part of this dish is the polenta itself.

Another surprise was the overwhelming soupiness of the product, as pictured above. The photo on the bag depicts a mostly-dry dish served on a plate. I'm not really complaining, but we wound up eating our "polenta stew" from a bowl.

Since it's something unique and new-to-me—and because it tastes good overall, I'm giving this polenta provencale a 3.5. Despite admitting that she really liked the veggies, Sonia can't get past the texture of the polenta balls. She gives it 2.5 stars.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Trader Joe's Creamy Salted Cashew Butter

Okay, so I can keep a straight face while writing most of this review, but I gotta admit, I really had to restrain my inner Beavis and Butthead every time I thought about using the phrase "nut butter." Uh huh, huh huh huh indeed.

Anyways, I've been interested in following a paleo (or at least paleo-esque) diet for quite some time, right after I finish my next quesadilla. Finally, a couple weeks back, I decided to give the cavemen cuisine more of an honest try, with almost immediate dividends: With a little exercise mixed in, I've dropped over 5 pounds in the past two-plus weeks. Now, I'm not a paleo diet expert by any means, so I cannot ascertain how closely Trader Joe's Creamy Slated Cashew Butter aligns with it, but I know it's much closer than regular old peanut butter, which I love. So, I figured, why not give it a try as I learn the ropes?

I've gone back and forth about my feelings about this particular nut butter (Stop it, Beavis!) several times. A minus: It's very oily and drippy when opened, closer to a sauce than an actual butter. No amount of stirring will resolve that. Just my preference talking, but me no likey. A plus: After being refrigerated for a good long time, the butter does solidify quite nicely. Another plus: Lots of good, honest cashew flavor. Another minus: Tastes pretty salty at points, especially while swallowing,, would be better without as much. What's good - reasonable price for a pound of cashew butter, $6.99 vs $10+ bucks I've seen elsewhere. But you can make your own, as I have, for cheaper as long as you have a decent food processor. A one pound back of busted up raw cashews cost $5 at TJ's, so the extra two bucks goes towards grinding (easy enough with some patience) and adding extra stuff which like the salt, sunflower oil, and, of all things, almonds for who knows what reason. There's always a price for convenience. The butter tastes about what you'd expect a handful of salted cashews to taste like, overall, so not a bad product, but I kinda like what I can grind myself better.

Initially I thought about retuning for a refund but have since changed my mind.I hate drippy nut butter that much, and what I can make out of my Oster is chunkier, heavier, less oily, less salty, and shows off the natural goodness of a cashew than this jar of TJ nuttiness. The jar's gotten better as I' ve come along, though, and now I've put some in smoothies or dipped some apples into or spread atop some banana slices. I'm not crazy in love all Beyonce-style about this cashew butter, but I don't hate it either. Sandy's in much the same boat - she stated she liked but a half-hearted "ehhhh" is about what she said. Using my spousal translation skills to use, I think that means a 2.5. For me, I think it's a better butter to not be bitter about - it stays in my kitchen with a 3.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Creamy Salted Cashew Butter: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trader Joe's Organic Mango Lemonade

Several of our readers have suggested that this beverage is somehow "Disco Lemonade." Other than the line in the Marcy Playground song, I didn't think Disco Lemonade was a thing. Apparently, I am wrong yet again. There are two ways to make a Disco Lemonade cocktail, and though neither one involves this Trader Joe's beverage, I'm sure a little blue curacao and/or vodka mixed into this product would produce a tasty concoction—and an interesting version of the drink. But we didn't get a chance to find out with this bottle.

This is a highly chuggable, smooth, sweet, sassy lemonade right here. It's been around for quite a while in that TJ's beverage section. Not sure why we never checked it out until now. It has just the right amount of mangoiness. It's very sweet, but there's a hint of tanginess, too. Mango has a great flavor, but it can sometimes be overpowering and unpleasant. See Mango NectarMango Green Tea was similarly disappointing to Sandy and Russ. More successful were the Apocalypse Now Juice and the Orange Peach Mango mix.

This beverage is thin like lemonade, and it's ├╝ber-refreshing on a hot day. The flavor's a bit more interesting than plain old lemonade, but it has a similar calorie count and sugar content. I really can't think of a single complaint I have about this product. The price is reasonable at $3.49, considering it's "organic." I put quotes around "organic" to satisfy those grumpy people who want TJ's to spend millions of dollars to hire a third party to investigate all of their organic claims, effectively raising the price of every organic product in the store. I'm happy just to take their word for it and shell out less money, though I might pay for that cavalier attitude some decades hence.

On that cheerful note, we leave you with our final thoughts: this is some really good stuff. 4.5 stars from me. 4 stars from Sonia.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Dairy Free English Muffins

I know, I know...I get it. There's a case to be made that I shouldn't review gluten-free products, seeing as that I have no gluten sensitivities whatsoever, and haven't tried brands and offerings to really fairly stack Trader Joe's offerings against. See my low score for their GF rice mac 'n cheese - I got a lot of flak from the celiac/sympathizer crowd for that. But, the thing is, even for their relatively small amount of product offering, market a lot of gluten free products, most of them for a good price, and somebody has to review them, right?  Why not me? I'm a complete amateur-hack foodie blogger for the best darn TJ's site on the Interwebz, so if I can't, no one can, and perhaps there's only lonely celiac-sufferer out there, wondering to know where they can get something like an English muffin, and doggone it, if this review helps them, it's worth it.

The obvious comparison for Trader Joe's Gluten Free Dairy Free English Muffins is those famous Thomas fellows that all of us grew up on poking apart with our forks, making a mess on the floor much to our dog's delight and mother's chagrin. That's the only other English muffin out there I can rank TJ's against...and it's not close. They're almost completely different, just happening to share the same name, like this poor guy.

First, the TJ ones are much larger than their Thomas counterparts - at least twice, maybe closer to three times larger. That's an absurd size. Second, there's no forksplitting the TJ's, at least not easily - HELLO THAT"S HALF THE FUN GONE RIGHT THERE. There's no nooks and crannies or even crooks and nannies once cut - it's just silly, kinda sad looking bread circle. And for texture, they feel like lovechild offspring from a biscuit and a piece of cornbread - even after toasting, it's a pretty crumbly mess. "Light texture" it says on the bag - riiiight.  I mean, the taste seems about right, but that's about it.

Sandy and I made some breakfast sandwiches one evening for dinner using these, and by halfway through, I kinda regretted it. There was just too much bread and it wasn't that good - I felt like all I was eating was bread and not eggs and sausage too. Even Sandy agreed on that front. She tried one again a day or two later, this time just toasted with some butter and jam, and said it tasted and felt a little better going down, although both she and I rule out the notion of making English muffin pizzas with these - we both doubt the muffin would hold up.

There's one of these left currently, and I'm thinking that chances are good it'll end up as duck food at the local creek this weekend. I've been trying to avoid carbs anyways for the most part, so for me, this is not a worthy indulgence.  Sandy was slightly more in favor of them than I, giving them a three while noting their inherent dryness. I counter with a two. Perhaps for some, this is a viable alternative (if so, leave a comment so we know!), but if there's no need to have a gluten free diet, there's no need to pick up these up.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Gluten Free Dairy Free English Muffins: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Trader Joe's BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Coffee & Garlic

Coffee and garlic...together? Unless we're talking about two sanguivoriphobes on a first date, this just can't be a good idea, can it?

No doubt, I was pretty skeptical. I mean, the thought of garlic in my coffee makes my stomach turn. Garlic is good in its own realm, coffee is in its own...this should be a separation so obvious that it shouldn't even be referenced for a case example for my chocolate gum theory.

But then Trader Joe's put them together for their BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Coffee & Garlic...and my brother and his wife tried it and swore by it...and then I saw Nathan get all squirrelly over caramel and cheese popcorn mixed together (granted, not one of my fave combos, either)...so, out of obligation to you, our reader, I decided to take on the burden of trying this out. I mean, if I can choke down a turkey meatloaf muffin or swig nearly a six pack of some gawd-awful swill for you, I can do this, right?

Please pardon my underestimation.

It's good. It actually works. I don't know how, and can't quite explain how, but it works. Sandy prepped some steaks the other night that I slapped on the grill once I got home. Open the canister and the first whiff is unmistakably coffee-laden, seemingly a darker blend but tough to exactly determine what type. Might be all the garlic and paprika in the way, don't know, because those are definitely present. I'll admit that I tried a small pinch or two by itself, and it's, well, unique to say the least. The ground coffee serves as an earthly base which underlies all the other flavors, and is fairly mild itself, which is a good thing. As for the garlic, it also seems pretty tame - I mean, there's no mistaking its presence, and it will make your breath reek - but it's not too out of bounds. There's actually a fair amount of brown sugar which seems to help keep everything in check, while still letting the slightly spicy bite of paprika through. And although a little salty tasting, there's not an overabundance of it, either. When seared into our steaks, I didn't notice the coffee as much as a sweet, somewhat spicy garlic taste which made every bite pretty enjoyable overall. I wasn't expecting that.

I don't think this is an everyday kinda rub or spice. But once a week or so...sure, why not? I'll admit I'm still partial to the 21 Seasoning Salute which goes awesomely on anything I put it on thus far - my favorite's been sauteed peppers and zucchini straight from the garden with some chicken. My brother and his wife swear when they made some grilled pork with this rub, it was the best chunk of meat they'd had in some time. We're not huge pork eaters (exception: bacon) but I could see that working well, along with chicken and maybe certain kinds of fleshier, milder fish. My only issue is it is kinda weird, and my stomach felt a little odd afterwards - not uncomfortable, no, but I was glad to have a couple bites of TJ's newest ice cream sensation to help placate the ol' Russ tank. Plus, that wasn't necessarily the rub either, and maybe I'm just being a little too sensitive for once. It's only a $1.99 for the canister, so it's worth a try if you're on the fence. Both Sandy and I waver between a three and four, so let's call it one of each.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Coffee & Garlic: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Trader Joe's Chicago Style Popcorn Mix

I am and always have been a food separatist. I'm not an extreme separatist, mind you. I don't dislike turkey mixed with stuffing mixed with gravy or anything like that. But cheese mixed with caramel is a little weird to me. I thought I got that "food separatist" terminology from Seinfeld or some other popular TV show, but when I Googled the phrase, all that came up were obscure blog posts about picky eaters and recent news articles about the Ukrainian separatists that just happened to contain the word "food" for one reason or another.

I like caramel corn, and cheddar popcorn is okay, but I'm not thrilled at the idea of eating them together. The bag says it's the perfect combo of salty and sweet. If you could just take yummy sweet things and mix them up with yummy salty things all willy nilly like that, then why doesn't Trader Joe's sell Cookie Butter Ice Cream and Curried Chicken Salad together in one tub?

You remember those giant tins of plain popcorn, cheese popcorn, and caramel corn that you'd get from Aunt Edna at Christmas time? They had little paper dividers in between the flavors. There was a reason for those dividers. Food separation. It wasn't a big deal if you ate plain with cheese or even caramel with plain. But the one thing you always had to be careful to avoid was mixing the caramel with the cheese. Now I'm sure many of you will chime in and be like "I've always eaten cheese popcorn with caramel corn..." Well, good for you. Maybe you're just a bit more open-minded than I am when it comes to mixing races of popcorn together. I may be a little old-fashioned in that way. But to put them together in one bag with no dividers on purpose?

Does everyone in the Windy City have such flagrant disregard for proper food separation? Folks 'round here love their cheesesteaks and their water ice, but Rita's has had the good sense to avoid a beef and cheez whiz flavored gelati. Now, I'm probably getting a little carried away with my food separation hang-up and putting a negative spin on an otherwise perfectly decent product. After all, there are large, puffy pieces of popcorn, and individually, the coatings are quite tasty. And it's not the end of the world if you have to pick out all the brown pieces and eat them first before you start on the orange pieces, or vice versa. But in the end, there's really not enough in this product to elevate it above the myriad brands of flavored popcorn that already exist—except for maybe some spiffy packaging and reasonably not-bad-for-you ingredients. When it's all said and done, I can't go higher than three stars. Sonia gives this product three and a half stars. She's fine with this bizarre combo. If you're into the whole Trader Joe's popcorn thing, check out Cocoa Drizzled and Herbs and Spices varieties too, assuming they are both still available...

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Trader Joe's Salad with BBQ Flavored Chicken

After all that cookie butter ice cream you've no doubt been cramming down since Nathan's last post, you surely think you oughtta go get a salad, right?

I wish I could say the stomach volume displacement value of Trader Joe's Salad with BBQ Flavored Chicken was at least some variant of equality, but it's not. There's a lot of promise - beans, cheese, tortillas, spicy chicken, all of which are right up my alley - but in actuality, the spork on the front sticker should've been a key tipoff: this is one salad that can't decide what it is or what it wants to be. Kinda like freshman year, I suppose. It's an okay lunch pick-up, but there's too much that's off to make it worth a regular rotation spot.

Let's count the ways. First, the chicken. The word "flavored" in the title should have been another hint that I whiffed on. The chicken is not barbecued, nor is it, technically, BBQ flavored. Instead, the BBQ flavor comes from a mini bucket of some invented product called "BBQ Vinaigrette." Let's be serious here - have any of you ever encountered the existence of such a product before? There's no such item listed for sale on Amazon, which means, to me, it's not real. It's kinda tangy and BBQy but definitely tastes like watered down sauce, but watered down with vinegar. Okay, but not that great. The ranch dressing is only semi-awful and doesn't add a lot. And the beans? Well, they're mixed in with some corn and diced red pepper, which is okay, but instead of being at least somewhat fresh, it's more of the canned variety, with some sort of goop coating them that makes them taste a little pickled, almost. With the two different dressings and the beans etc, that makes for not one, not two, but three (!) little cups inside that take up a lot of space in both the salad container and your friendly local landfill. Seriously, there's got to be a better way.

On the plus side: Lettuce is fresh and crispy, has that "just chopped" feel to it. The MJ cheese seemed particularly good (though perhaps an overstatement - first cheese I've had in a while) and the tortilla chip strips add a good little crunch. If you happen to like the dressings, a little goes a long way - I barely blipped mine in, gave it a good mix, and still had a couple small pools at the bottom. That helps cut down the more unsavory nutritionals too, of course.

Getting back to that point of "not knowing what it is": it's just a weird mix. If it wants to be a BBQ chicken salad, then put in actual BBQ chicken, some greens, some cheese, maybe a pepper or two, and skip the black beans and corn and whatnot. If you want to keep the beans and corn, nix the BBQ and go for a chipotle ranch dressing. Or maybe even better, just skip both dressings, or maybe just skip this salad altogether. Perhaps I'm being harsh after a long, frustrating day, but I'd prefer more tastiness for something that looked like it held enough promise for me to drop a hard-earned $4.49 on it - I could have gotten a buffalo chicken salad from the work cafe for the same price and been much happier. I'll try to be kind, but in the end, best case scenario to me, it has "meh" stamped all over it.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Salad with BBQ Flavored Chicken: 4.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, August 11, 2014

Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie Butter Ice Cream

What hath Trader Joe's wrought?

Cookie butter ice cream...is a thing. I repeat: there exists at Trader Joe's a product which is both speculoos cookie butter...and ice cream.

Now I can die a happy man. A morbidly obese, yet happy man. It has a vanilla-esque base and it's full of speculoos cookie flavor. There are big globs of actual cookie butter throughout it. I couldn't figure out if it was the smooth variety or the crunchy. It strikes me as being somewhere in between the two, perhaps, but no...it's actually probably original. It's just firmer than usual because it's cold. Does it really matter? They make cookie butter ice cream. I repeat: the product in these pictures is real...and it's speculoos cookie butter flavored ice cream.

What's next in TJ's diabolical plan? Cookie and Cocoa Swirl Ice Cream? Slap the words "cookie butter" on a Trader Joe's product, and you pretty much have a big winner every time...with maybe one exception so far. I started shaking when I heard the news. Sonia and I started calling all the TJ's in our region to see who had it in stock. As I mentioned in my last post, Sonia and I just moved. And thanks to the customer service wizards at Comcast, we were without internet for a few days. A big thanks to Russ for holding down the fort during our transition. We're still buried beneath boxes and swamped with address changes, phone calls to realtors, and new utility accounts, but the magic of the interwebs floweth once more to bring you good tidings of great cookie butter.

This ice cream is on par with the discontinued classic Lemon Triple Gingersnap Ice Cream—and maybe even exceeds it in some ways. It's a legend, in every way fit for the halls of the Pantheon. It really actually honestly seriously tastes just like the original cookie butter, and it blends perfectly with the sweet ice cream surrounding it. Sonia says it could use just a bit more in that gingersnappy, cinnamony department. And I agree, it does err on the side of sweet, rather than spicy, but I think it works. I think the flavor is perfect. If a madman held a gun to my head and forced me to make a complaint about this product, I'd simply ask for larger globs of cookie butter in the mix. But until that hypothetical lunatic starts waving his Glock in my direction, I'm sticking with my story that this is a near-perfect product that just needed to be here on Earth right now...even in light of its $5 price tag. From the bottom of my heart, Trader Joe, thank you for making Cookie Butter Ice Cream. I give it a perfect 5. Sonia gives it four and a half.

Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Trader Joe's Zesty Southwestern Style Stuffed Chicken Breasts

"The pig is an amazing animal. You feed a pig an apple, it makes bacon. The pig is turning an apple - essentially garbage - into bacon! That's magic! Or the most successful recycling program ever!"

That's not the joke about pigs and apples from comedic genius Jim Gaffigan I had in mind while sitting down to write this review; however, Google failed me. He once threw out a line about feeling bad for the pigs at a pig roast, because one minute they're happily eating an apple, next minute they're up on the spit, apple still there. With that second joke in mind, I took one look at Trader Joe's Zesty Southwestern Style Stuffed Chicken Breasts - must've been an interesting though perhaps tragic nacho night at the chicken coop.

There's a lot of good stuff going on here. In the case of our package (which Sandy referred to as a "meat splurge", given the price tag and rarity we buy things like this) there were two pretty good sized chicken chunks, one a little bigger than the other. The two of us and our semi-meat-adverse toddler probably could've split a single breast and been reasonably satiated, but we were both pretty hungry, and our kiddo actually ate her fair share, too, in an upset. Everywhere you look, there's corn tortilla chip shards - literally everywhere, covering the breasts liberally, some stuffed inside, excess ones spilling out of the package everywhere. Mix in some nacho cheddar cheese chunks (which oddly melted inside the chicken but not outside - what kind of sorcery is that?) and peppers (presumably poblano) and a couple oddly placed black olive slices, and it's pretty nacho-licious. I kinda wish the chips got a lot a little more crispy while baking - some did, while others remained a little soggy, perhaps understandably. In all, these plucky pollo fellas made a very hearty, filling dinner almost entirely by themselves.

Still, there's a little something missing. Hmmm...let's start with the ingredients and nutritional info, shall we? I know packaged meat doesn't always carry all that info, but with all the added ingredients, it sure would've been nice. There was no such sticker on our package, not even on the reverse side of the main label (I checked). Not sure if that was a QC misfire or the norm; regardless, I can't provide a snapshot of ingredients and nutrition like we normally do. Also, while I'd call the chicken "flavorful" and "tasty," I would not use "zesty" to describe it. There's no real spice. I've had bell peppers with more wallop than the pale green hombres in here. Prior to sticking in the oven, I *thought* I saw something like a light salsa glaze thru the chippy coating on the chicken, and while the chicken was lightly marinated in something, it wasn't that, nor was it overly apparent or stuck out. As much of a cliche as it is at this point, a little chipotle action, or some included salsa, or a little extra spice akin to previous southwestern-inspired offerings would have been a real bonus.

Not going to quibble too much though. One could reasonably expect to pay at least $11 or $12 at a restaurant for one something similar to one of these breasts and a side or two, so $5.99 a pound strikes me as a decent value. In all likelihood, we'll purchase again but will have to keep in mind adding a little something extra to kick it up a notch. Sandy enjoyed it all, except the peppers - she and cooked veggies have a strained relationship at best, so that's not too surprising nor is it a poor reflection. In her book, these merit a 3.5, while I come in a notch lower.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Zesty Southwestern Style Stuffed Chicken Breasts: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons  

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Trader Joe's Peanutters

It's not exactly rocket surgery, but I think I figured out, finally, the allure of smaller, mini foods that used to kinda be weird to me. Naturally, allow me to illustrate with a short story. A couple years ago, Sandy and I were on vacation up to Boston and Maine, and were heading towards my grandparents' cabin for a couple days of peace and quiet when we decided to stop at Tim Horton's for a big box of Timbits to bring with us for nibbling for a few days. Great plan...except the lady in front of us bought every single last one in the store, leaving us to buy regular sized doughnuts instead. Eating a few gobfulls of donut holes over a couple days? Not a problem. Eating a half dozen full sized donuts though? That seems...so gluttonous. It's perception. Plus people with this "self control" thing I keep hearing about can enjoy a small bite too.

And right now you're probably saying "Duh." Well, thanks for waiting for me.

It comes to mind for Trader Joe's Peanutters because they're teeny little cookies that, if full sized, would probably seem to be an overly decadent treat. Kinda like Little Mac, they pack a lot of punch for such a small guy. Unlike most peanut butter cookies that come to mind, each cookie is light, crispy and crumbly upon first bite, practically melting in your mouth. While the peanut bits more or less meld in without much notice, once the teeth hit some peanut butter chips, it's a smooth, silky, effortless glide that feels so right. It's like magic...with peanut butter! Equally as impressive is the amount of yumminess packed in - these nutty buddies taste just like how I'd imagine cookie-fied PB that's slightly on the chunky side. Perfect with milk, too, of course, and Sandy mentioned she'd love to make a pie shell out of them, a la Nilla Wafer style. For a little extra special treat, eating these with a little of your favorite jam or some dark chocolate...the words have not yet been invented, but man, that'd be goooood. 

I can't think of a single complaint, except once I have one, I have to try very, very hard to stop. "In control," I have to say....with about as much success. If they were bigger (each is bite sized) stopping after just one would be so much easier, but with them being so small, I can eat ten and barely notice - that's no good. Last thing I need is another trigger food, but that's on me, not the cookies. . Sandy's in love with both the taste and the texture, as am I. A package runs about $3 or $4, and it's well spent, as long as you don't mind the probably rapid disappearance of your investment.

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