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

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

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

Seriously though, Russ: You go, boy!

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

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Trader Joe's Masters the Art of...Coq au Vin

And Nathan masters the art of...using the stovetop instead of the microwave.

That might be old hat for most of you culinary types that we've tricked into reading our blog, and maybe even for Russ, but for a foodie-hack like me, the stovetop is a mysterious instrument that's reserved for things like heating ramen when there's nothing else in the pantry and the frigid arctic winds and snowdrifts make it inconvenient to walk to the grocery store 30 yards from our condo for more TV dinners. But in case one of our readers is even more useless than I am, I feel I must mention that the cooking instructions on this product do, in fact, give a microwave option.

But foodie-hacks tend to learn that lesson the hard way.

After the recommended 20 minutes of cooking time, the "coq" was still quite frozen solid. In fact, the 20 minutes turned into 40 minutes before I was convinced the dish would even be permeable to my poor, feeble, silver amalgam-filled incisors. One of the problems with the stovetop is that "very low heat" is an extraordinarily relative term. "High heat" in the microwave is somewhat less subjective. I just press the number "9," and voila! I'm a master chef! Wolfgang Puck, eat your heart out.

Unfortunately, after the product thawed and cooked, I noticed what appeared to be mushrooms in the dish. Both Sonia and I are pseudo-allergic to fungi and get weird breathing and heart-palpitation issues when we eat them. I guess it pays to read the ingredients before purchasing a product at TJ's. And yes, I know there are pictures of them on the packaging, but it's amazing how unobservant I can be when I do my grocery shopping while hungry. 

But eat them I did, nonetheless. I have similar allergies to mold, yet I dove into a pile of autumn leaves with my two silly puppies last fall, with reckless abandon. Don't even try'n stop me! I'ma live my life on the edge, gangstas! What what!?

But getting back to the product at hand, I must admit, it was one of the most savory dishes I've ever had from Trader Joe's. The sauce was thick, salty, and full of the aforementioned mushrooms and those little bulbous oniony things that I love. It was pretty delish. The chicken was a bit chewy, considering I went to all that trouble to use that contraption above the oven instead of my magical radiation box, but all in all, the main attraction was passable, too. I suppose $7 is a bit steep for a dish that isn't perfect, but I always try to put it into perspective and figure I might pay double if I were in a fancy French restaurant. And if I make it at home, it's only that much easier to serve it with imported wine and not worry about driving while intoxicated, and we're only that much closer to indulging in the romantic impulses that so instinctively ensue when there's French stuff involved.

Here's a scary pic of the product in its frozen form, and here's one after heating.

I give this product 4 out of 5 stars. Sonia gives it a 3.5.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Trader Joe's Wild Salmon Jerky

In a way, I knew this purchase would be inevitable. I just knew it, unless I got lucky and Nathan would buy it instead, ingest as much as he could stand, then write a review. Salmon jerky just does not sound like a good idea. It's like a somewhat incomprehensible manifestation of my previously espoused "chocolate gum theory," which basically states that two things that are good separately are not necessarily good when combined. I mean, I really like salmon, or as I prefer to call it, the steak that swims. And jerky? Man, I love that too, and after a fairly good first go-'round with some TJ's turkey jerky a couple weeks back (and subsequent fairly mediocre rendezvous with the teriyaki turkey - tastes exactly the same), I figured now was as good as time as any. This was all despite my impending fear of purchase that ranked right up there among my worst of TJ's premonitions.

I promise you that I tried to like it. Really, I did. As proof, let me tell the positives...ummm, positive...first. The flavoring of the brine itself was good, and actually shone through admirably well. Brown sugar, molasses, sea salt and maple syrup make an excellent match - this would be really good on some turkey, and perhaps some other meats, like venison. I appreciate the full flavor without defaulting to sodium overloadium like so many other jerkies.

But that's about where this ends. It...just doesn't work. First, the smell. I opened the bag at work while at my desk, and immediately about the half the row gagged. And the smell lingers like, well, dead fish. I'm just glad I wasn't dragged down to HR for it. It kinda tastes like it smells, too, and it's extremely chewy and tough even by jerky standards. Plus, I definitely felt a little off afterwards.

Don't take my word for it? That's fine. I somehow cajoled three coworkers to try it, and here's their take.

Melanie: "It made my tummy hurt a little...It gives jerky a bad name. They should stop making that." Were you shot thru the heart and this jerky's to blame? Sounds like it... Her score (out of 5): 0.
Laurette: "It seems chewier than a normal jerky. Tastes more like tuna than salmon, and it smells like a drained fish tank...It's not horrible." She also added that no one would want to kiss you after eating some, so it may be an okay snack for a date-free night. She fits in very well at our office. Her score: 2.5.
Alan: "I would eat it again but not purchase...after the flavor had a chance to dissipate on my palate I received a smoky fish taste. It may be for some others but not for me." I would like to point out that one of Alan's main delicacies is days-oldasiago cheese bagels so I ever-so-slightly discount his somewhat strained positivity.  His score: 3.

Regardless, here's four jerky aficionados who were all not in favor of this flavor. Kinda an office downer, which is exactly what's needed on a busy Monday. Not.

I guess what it comes down to is, there's certain meats which jerky works for (perhaps even most meats) but salmon just isn't one of them. I don't think it matters that it's from chum salmon - apparently that's pretty low-grade stuff, but it's not like most jerky is made from the choicest cuts of meat either. Maybe this is really just made for a certain niche which I will never, ever join. It happens.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Wild Salmon Jerky: 3 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, January 27, 2014

Trader Joe's Roasted Red Pepper and Artichoke Tapenade

To the best of my knowledge, I've never had tapenade before this, except possibly on top of some bruschetta here and there. It's obviously not a stand-alone item. It needs something bready to be served on. It's more of a condiment than anything else.

If Sonia and I had been ambitious, we could have made our own bruschetta by toasting a crusty loaf of French or Italian bread in our oven and adding some olive oil and this tapenade. Or if I had been smart, I would have just picked up the Trader Joe's Pita Bite Crackers that were sitting next to the tapenade on their display, and then I could have made this a double review. BUT, just as I picked up the tapenade, I remembered that we had a big box of Ritz-type crackers that we ate with our Wine Country Chicken Salad slowly going stale on our shelf, and one of the more practical voices in my head told me to just use those up before purchasing any more crackers, knowing full well that the pita bite crackers would be consumed before the Ritz-type ones, thus rendering them even more stale, and risking a bit of food wastage. SO...we put them on the Ritz-type butter crackers.

Big mistake. The butteriness of that type of cracker did NOT go well with the pasty, peppery oiliness of the tapenade. For some reason both textures and tastes conflicted a little. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't terrible. It just wasn't the gourmet taste adventure that we discovered shortly thereafter.

We satisfied my frugal side by finishing up our butter crackers, and then we ran out to the grocery store next-door and got some Town House brand Pita Crackers with Mediterranean seasoning, and they were a much better match! 

Despite being full of peppers, the taste of the tapenade was pretty mild. I almost expected it to be salsa-like at first, but it was a delicate, oily, vegetabley flavor. The red peppers gave it just enough zip to keep it interesting. And somehow the herbs in the crackers perfectly complemented the relative subtlety of the tapenade. The dry graininess of pita crackers worked much better texture-wise, too. Sonia and I both agreed we'd never eat tapenade with butter crackers again.

So...be sure to stock up for Superbowl Sunday. Because there's nothin' like tapenade...and football...together.

I give the tapenade 4 out of 5 stars. Sonia gives it 3.5.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Trader Joe's Chocolate Kona Coffee Truffles

Alright now, everybody, don't worry. Just because I'm the guy who last posted about not one but two really healthy snacks doesn't mean I'm giving up on the really good TJ's bounty that always lurks around. I'm just the guy who's going to try and enjoy all that, in (semi) blessed moderation while mostly eating really healthy. Down almost ten pounds since the start of the year and it's just about time to punch a new hole in the belt. I can hear Sandy now; dear, belts are $20 and holes are free, I'm not buying a new one. Somehow, me talking moderation about sweet, sugary good stuff makes me think of Cookie Monster coming to the earth shattering conclusion that cookies are really only meant to be "sometimes foods." For further proof, check out this old post about chocolate covered potato chips AND cheesecake. Glutton.

Anyways, Trader Joe's Chocolate Kona Coffee Truffles seemed to offer a good opportunity to put my newfound resolve to a test. Little wrapped, delectable chocolate candies? In theory, I could eat these by the handful all night and wake up to Wilfred Brimley, a box from Liberty Mutual, and diabeetus in the mornin'. Emphasis on "in theory." My tastebuds live for this kinda stuff.

I'll admit these truffles are pretty good. I mean, they don't necessarily make my tastebuds get up and make whatever kind of dance/love these guys are making, but still, yumz abound. There's just layer upon layer of chocolate - milk, dark, and white - all melded together into an incredibly rich, decadent bite-sized chunk of pure delight. To fully enjoy, you gotta resist the urge to chomp right thru and instead just let it melt in your mouth (takes a minute or two, tops) and just let it wash all over. I swear I could taste each chocolate separately, but only in flavory flashes. This way you can also experience the tiny granules of Kona coffee in there - I'll admit they're too small and get lost in the sea of cocoacity (yes, new word) to really taste if they're "true Kona," "cheap Kona," or "Folgers." The coffee taste is also pretty easily missed if just chewed and swallowed, as was Sandy's main complaint. It's just a little too subtle, but man, otherwise, these are knockouts.

Also, the fact that they're so rich that honestly I'm good with just one or two of them is a major plus. I'd like to think that I can use these as a small reward for eating my fruits and veggies, etc, after a long day is a good idea. Not sure how much caffeine the coffee has, though, and I'm fairly caffeine sensitive. I had two the other night and got wrapped in a good book for a rare relaxing evening so I ended up staying up late. Not sure if that's more Trader Joe's or Alice Sebold's fault.

Sandy wishes they were more coffee-y. I kinda agree, but I'm glad TJ's erred on the side of subtlety here. Plus, man, that melty chocolate taste....We're talking about knocking on the very door of greatness here. For a $3.99 little baggie of treasures, it'd be hard to do much better.   

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chocolate Kona Coffee Truffles: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Trader Joe's Multigrain Triple Berry Instant Hot Cereal

I have a chia pet in my tummy.

At least that's what I imagine when I eat chia seeds. But I suppose they don't really produce long green sprouts when they're in my digestive system. Even though sometimes it feels that way.

Not so with this product. It was nice and light—yet still hearty. The serving size was perfect. And I added exactly 1/2 cup of soymilk to one packet and nuked it for two minutes as per the microwaving instructions, and the product emerged at the exact temperature and thickness that I like my oatmeal. Granted, the directions called for water, but I always find oatmeal
made with water is, well...watery. Unlike the Quick Cook Steel Cut Oats, the microwave was friendly to this hot cereal. Plus, I got the 900mg of Alpha-Linolenic Acid that my body craves! (I actually have no idea what that is. Perhaps a nutrition expert will enlighten us in the comment section below).

I was perfectly happy with the texture and taste of this oatmeal. Surprisingly, I was satisfied with its berry content, too, even though in the past, I've found TJ's berry oatmeals wanting in that department. All of the dried berries were teensy-tiny, but there were plenty of them, and after a vigorous stirring session, they were adequately distributed throughout my bowl. And partially because of the berries, this product was perfectly sweet for me. There was no need to add sugar, and for those of you who've been reading for a while, you know I have a mad sweet tooth. The seeds blended seamlessly with the grains of oats and added a subtle but noticeable element of texture to the cereal's mushiness.

Sonia's a huge fan of plain oatmeal. She eats it virtually everyday. In general, she doesn't like flavored oatmeals, but this was an exception to her rule...er, sort of. She couldn't muster quite as much enthusiasm as I could, but she generously gave this product a 3.5 star rating because it still tasted earthy and grainy like oatmeal should. I gave it 4 stars because it had all the wholesomeness of regular oatmeal, but it's significantly less boring. Perfect for these polar vortex mornings.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Trader Joe's Natural Turkey Jerky and Trader Joe's Sugar Snap Peas

You know what kills me every time I try to do any sort of diet or focus or weight loss? Idle snacking, especially at my job. If I don't snack at all, there'll be too much of a rumbly in my tumbly at the end of the day where I'll just eat whatever all night long, especially after the wife goes to bed. If I need to snack but neglect to bring one, that's when the vending machine gets hit up, or even worse, I'll get something from the work cafe. Actual menu item there (and keep in mind I work for a company that makes cardiac defibrillators): fries with chili, sour cream and cheese. Fortunately I haven't gone that far, but other stuff there isn't much better.

So, I need some healthy snacks, and to be honest, for some of them, they need to be the type I can eat however much of and not feel guilty about. The appetite is a monster that needs some slow taming. Pretzels would be okay, but eat too much of them (like I easily can) and the calories wrack up. Eat too little (or what most people would call a "serving") and I'm still hungry. I've tried baby carrots, and they work great, except after eating a couple bags over the course of nearly a week, I discovered I must have hit some critical mass milestone, and my mouth began itching all crazy, and there were what I'll call "other effects" which weren't terribly pleasant, either. Apparently that's a common thing. So, off I went to TJ's one day before work to try and figure out another snack option or two.

First up: Trader Joe's Natural Turkey Jerky. Jerky's been recommended to me by a coworker or two as it's fairly lean and low in calories, and I've mooched off them for a couple bites here and there, especially when someone brought in some venison jerky last week. That was awesome, awesome stuff. Overall, I like jerky okay, but wasn't completely sold just due to the skyhigh sodium intake. The TJ's brand may be changing my mind. There's multiple varieties - turkey, beef, even salmon for one day when I'm brave enough - with some different flavorings, but for whatever reason I chose the base turkey model.

The bag cost $5.49, which is low-to mid-price range for a four ounce bag. It's actually pretty decent - the chunk sizes are pretty manageable, and while tough and chewy like a good jerky should be, it's not all stringy either. My teeth are grateful for that fact. For flavor, it's pretty subdued - mostly meaty with a slight sweet tang, and definitely not all salty. In fact, look at the nutritionals and compare them to, say, Target Market Pantry brand that's a staple in my office, and there's half the sodium. While that's still a lot, it's still a big difference for the better. It's a good bite to add some protein to help tide you over, and the flavor, while good, isn't something tempting enough to make me want to devour the bag. My coworker Melanie (AKA the jerky enabler) agrees after she snatched some bites away, giving it "about a four." Sounds right to me.


And while I'd love to have it otherwise, man cannot live on jerky alone. So a good raw veggie that would stay okay, munch and crunch, and not make my teeth seethe seemed like a good thing. So, I got a bag of Trader Joe's Sugar Snap Peas. How the heck can someone review a particularly branded bag of sugar snap peas, you may think. Well, easy. Look at the picture of the two sugar snap peas on a Post-It. The bigger one, in the middle, is from my Trader Joe's bag. It cost $2.99 for the 12 ounces, so that's equivalent to $4 a pound. That short, shrively guy closer to the top left corner? That's from the local grocery store that touts themselves as having the best produce, where I bought a small handful the night before for a whopping $7 ($7!!!) a pound.

Now, I've had my share of issues with TJ's produce, but in every regard, TJ's won this battle of competing snow peas. I showed Melanie, and she at least feigned surprise. The TJs peas were firmer, fresher, crisper, and bigger than any of the sad, little pathetic guys I wasted my money on from the other store. I also noticed there the very fresh, tasty looking two-pack of celery hearts ($2.79 there vs. $4 elsewhere) and from buying enough baby carrot bags, I know that TJ's is a good value and, at the very least, comparable quality. So, TJ's may have won back some of my produce buying business, at least until it's time for farmer's markets and home veggie gardens once more. C'mon, spring.

Little changes add up a lot. With a few small changes like munching on healthier work snacks, drinking more water, watching serving sizes, and opting for a bowl of cereal over the drive-thru for a snacking vice, I've lost a few pounds already this year. And yes, I know, exercise, which is why I'm kicking myself back into shape doing c25k.* But enough about me. What's your favorite healthy stuff at TJ's? I'm all ears, or rather eyes, so leave a comment below!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Natural Turkey Jerky: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons  
Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sugar Snap Peas: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons 
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* Believe me, if you want a good exercise program to get yourself into shape, do c25k. I've done it already, a few years back, and am redoing it mostly to try and gain some speed while getting back into respectable 5k shape. If a fat, slow, flatfooted guy like me can run a 5k, so can you....and I once ran a 10k. Plenty of apps out there to help you out.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Flavor Natural Dog Treats

Everybody's favorite furry four-legged foodies are back! Alfred and Sadie just tried these peanut butter flavored treats and they're big fans. But at this point in their food reviewing career, they're not super picky.

We're pretty sure their final verdict would have been a perfect score, but Sonia and I had to dock a couple of pawprints since the cookie sizes are HUGE for little dogs. The box claims they're for "big & small" dogs, but I'm gonna go ahead and say that if your dogs are as small as ours, you'll probably wanna break up those cookies for Fido, unless he has a REALLY big mouth. They're shaped like bones, fire hydrants, shoes, squirrels, couches, and cars, because dogs LOVE biscuits shaped like things they enjoy chasing, chewing up, or peeing on.

But I'll stop rambling there...because I ramble some more in the video. Click here to read the dog treat ingredients list. Also check out Alfie and Sadie's review of TJ's Chicken Recipe Jerky Sticks.



Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Pawprints.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Trader Joe's Ruggedly Adventuresome Cowboy Bark

At last.

With a slight sigh, Cowboy Joe slumps down on the edge of his porch, his tired legs dangling over the edge. It's a good tired, the tired that means a good, hard day's work has been done, and done well, and now it's time for campfires and cheap beer or whatever it is that cowboys do on their downtime. It's well deserved, and if one were to need proof, just look at the bottom of his boots.

Or, more specifically, look at the mud there, caked on deep, like dark chocolate caught in the treads on the soles. It's thick and dried and crunchy, and carries little remnants from Cowboy Joe's day, and before he can go inside to wash up, he must scrape it off his boots. That makes Mrs. Cowboy Joe happy, and don't you dare make her otherwise.

Cowboy Joe takes a moment to look at what all that chocolatey mud collected. First, there's this toffee. Toffee. What a silly thing he had never heard of. When his slightly crazy mother-in-law asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and he replied "Tobacco and coffee", well, she must have seen this "toffee" concoction and thought it was some swell combination of the two. Or course, it's not even close, and he isn't sure it's something a real cowboy would admit to eating (like salsa from New York City), but still, it tasted alright and was secretly upset when he dropped some trying to hide it quick from his cowboy friends. They never noticed, but it got all up on his boots.

Next, broken pretzels. That morning he had some fence-mendin' to do on Pretzel Prairie, named after all the pretzel plants there, of course. Fortunately there's enough pretzel rods and grids laying around to make a respectable fence there, but all these other plants just can't help but get all trampled underfoot there.

And then, Joe-Joe rocks, as he likes to call them. There was a stray calf that ran up Cookie Mountain, which Cowboy Joe called "Joe-Joe's mountain" when he was just a young whippersnapper. It smells faintly of offbrand semi-generic sandwich cookies (hence the name), which isn't a bad thing by any stretch. As he climbed, bits and chunks of the mountain rocks got trapped in the mud on his boots and stuck on deep, but he was able to rescue the calf and place her back in her safely fenced in pasture at Pretzel Prairie.

Then, there's the nuts. He never really knows how those get there, and they're too small to tell one from the other. It could be from the short siesta he took over at Peanut Pond, or maybe from when he had to wrestle his cowboy hat back from one of those darn almondolopes who took off with it. He's not really sure, but sometimes, things go a little, well, nuts around these parts, and he's just glad to keep it all under control. 

He ponders all this as he scrapes that dried up mud off his boots. The shards break off in different sized pieces, some big, some tiny, some just little specks, into a pile, and, as is his custom, when no one is sure to be looking, Cowboy reaches down, grabs a handful, and shoves it in his mouth. With some bites his teeth struggle to easily to chomp their way through, and it seems an odd custom, but he does this to know one thing: to know what his day tasted like.

Off in the distance, a dog barks. With a satisfied smile, Cowboy Joe echos back the refrain.

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If this story isn't true, I have no idea why Trader Joe's would name this "Cowboy Bark." My only other theory is they didn't want their other "cowboy product" to be a lone ranger. Just like the story above, the actual Cowboy Bark is kinda jumbled, nonsensical, and questionably good at best just because it's so....not well planned. There's potential, but just not as it is. There's nothing overly wrong nor overly right about it. Sandy agrees, giving it a "two...maybe three at best." She'll probably say the same about this review when she reads it. I'm not all that lassoed in by this, either, and for the nearly $4 for the small bag, there's plenty of other goodies I'd rather get at TJ's anyways.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Ruggedly Adventuresome Cowboy Bark: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Trader Joe's Wine Country Chicken Salad

This is one of those rare items that has stood the test of time and has consistently been on TJ's shelves for years. After recently reviewing the Curried Chicken Salad, I was reminded of the Wine Country Chicken Salad, which at the time, I had completely forgotten about. After the memory jog, I did recall having it years ago back in California. It's one of those items that we've actually eaten, but somehow a review slipped through the cracks. So for many of you, this might be an "oldie but goodie." If you've never tried it, though, it's worth checking out.

Similar to the Curried Chicken Salad, it has big chunks of white meat chicken. It also has celery, cranberries, and pecans. The white sauce is just enough to make it scrump-dilly without taking anything away from the natural flavors of the other ingredients. It's great with bread, crackers, and honestly, once you open the tub, it's really hard to stop eating it. Although I wouldn't put such a feat of gluttony past me, I did NOT eat the entire tub by myself in one sitting. I had a little help from Sonia. She's a huge fan of it, too.

As the name suggests, it would pair beautifully with wine, probably a pinot grigio would go best. We wouldn't know, because our PA TJ's don't sell wine, and I didn't feel like making an extra stop after my last TJ's run, what with the sub-zero temperatures and all. Weirdly and unexpectedly though, there are vineyards just west of Philly, so there are plenty of local wineries we'll have to check out in the near future—that is if the vines survive this arctic vortex.

Sonia and I are big fans. 4.5 stars from each of us. We couldn't score it quite as high as the curried version because we're both spice hounds, and we crave that extra tingle on the tongue. But for a tame, creamy chicken salad, it doesn't get much better than this.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Trader Joe's Cioppino Seafood Stew

Well, it's a good thing I checked Wikipedia, or I would have really kinda embarrassed myself here.

You see, I thought cioppino was of Portugese (or at least Mediterranean) origin. A few years ago, through the generosity of my folks and the marvels of resort timeshare networks, Sandy and I honeymooned in Albufeira, Portugal, in the coastal Algarve region - an awesome week full of castle exploring, vinho verde drinking, and subtitled Simpsons watching - and we saw signs and menu listings for seafood stew everywhere, and it had some sort of fancy name. In my mind, it was cioppino. Anyways, we actually never tried it, because, well, when you're honeymooning on a preschool teacher and temp worker's salary, you gotta make small cuts somewhere (especially when factoring in dollars-to-Euro conversion), and man, chicken piri-piri is good anyways. Fastforward a few years later, and for an anniversary dinner we went to a fairly fancy Portugese/Mediterranean restaurant here in town, and here they had some sort of fish/seafood stew on the menu, which we both got, and it was awesome. In my mind, once again, it was cioppino.

Nope. Cioppino was actually invented by an old school Left Coaster here in the good ol' U.S. of A, and made from whatever leftover fish at the end of the day, and given a fancy enough name to fool me all these years later. So, while seeing Trader Joe's Cioppino Seafood Stew helped evoke some warm memories, I was a little disappointed to find they weren't entirely accurate.

Regardless, this is one tasty fishy stew. I'm not sure if it say more about the restaurant we were at, or our bag of soup from TJ's, but this stuff was as good as what I recall having there. I'll choose positivity here. There's little not to like, assuming you're a fan of assorted seafood. There's clams and shrimp and mussels and scallops and cod all up in this. And there's a lot of seafood too - it's far more generous than what's typically expected of a packaged product. I could have used another shrimp or two, but that's mostly just because I really like shrimp. No real complaints about seafood volume.

But, in an upside down turn of events, there's not enough of anything else. You see, the tomato-ey soup base is pretty darn good - somewhat spicy, very flavorful and rich but not overpowering, letting the freshness of the fish, etc really come out. It's pretty hearty and if it's tomato based and my wife likes it, you know it's darn good. Problem is, there's not enough of it. I mean, for me, half the fun of a good soup is enjoying all the broth at the end. Here, there's not enough of it to really enjoy - I'd say this is like 70% seafood and 30% broth. The picture I took above is somehow misleading. Maybe it's possible to add a little water to make more base without affecting overall taste quality all that much - it's not like all that sodium is going anywhere. Also, I got only one or two mushrooms and tomato chunks, which included all of Sandy's, so I'd be in favor of more of those, too.

I'd recommend getting a good, crusty hunk of bread (all the better to sop up whatever's left in the bowl) and a side salad along with a cup of this. Hmmm...even better idea - serve this inside a sourdough breadbowl. That'd be fantastic. Just know that a serving really doesn't stand alone as a meal. Honestly. both Sandy and I could have eaten an entire bagful each for lunch and not felt too bad until we saw the nutritionals on it. Still, for a $5-ish pickup, it's a good value because of the absolute abundance of nearly every consumable sea creature known to man present. If TJ's hadn't cheaped out on the cheap part, this cioppino would be even better, in our opinion. Sandy is going with a solid four, as am I.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cioppino Seafood Stew: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons  

Friday, January 3, 2014

Trader Joe's "Just Sauce" Turkey Bolognese

As the package boldly indicates, this is indeed "just sauce." And in case there's still some confusion about the issue, we'd just like to clarify that this item does NOT come with bread, it does NOT come with crackers, NOR does it come with any form of pasta. It's just sauce. But unless you enjoy eating sloppy joe filling by itself, you'll probably want to supply your own bread or bread-like substance. I suppose this dish could be likened to a beanless chili of some kind and consumed via spoon, but really...I recommend eating it with bread. Pasta would work, too.

In fact, Bolognese sauce traditionally pairs with pasta. As the name would suggest, it originates from Bologna, Italy. And that reminds me of my wife's childhood nickname: "Sonia Bologna," which I affectionately resurrect from time to time when I feel like I need to be smacked. But that's neither here nor there.

I liken this sauce more to a sloppy joe filling than to a pasta sauce since most pasta sauces I've experienced either have a tomato-esque flavor, as in Marinara sauce, or they're creamy, as in Alfredo sauce. This sauce is meaty. Turkey is definitely the main attraction here. The only other flavor that jumped out at me was licorice. Black licorice. 

I looked on the ingredients list, and of course, there's no black licorice. However, dried fennel is listed. I began Googling "fennel tastes like..." and just as I expected, the search box auto-completed my inquiry with "licorce" and "black licorice" before I even finished typing. Voila. I knew I tasted something licoricey. Granted, fennel and black licorice are not the same flavor, but they are extremely similar.

Here's a picture of the product by itself. It's not much to look at. It brings to mind things that should never ever be mentioned on a food review blog.

Try it on pasta if that floats your boat. But I say try it on bread. Just think of a decent sloppy joe, replace the beef with lean-ish turkey, and add black licorice flavoring, and that's pretty much what you have here. Both Sonia and I wished it had beans, onions, or some other substance to it, but I guess then it would be chili.

I give it 3 out of 5 stars. Sonia gives it 3.5.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.