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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Trader Joe's Cocoa Dusted Truffles with Toffee Bits

With a couple exceptions here or there, as a rule I don't write or talk too much about my kiddos on here. No particular reason why, except maybe I'm eternally grateful that my mom 'n dad didn't detail all my little kid foibles for all the world to know when I was wee lad. Well, today I'll let you in on a few little verbal treats that my older daughter, M, has laid on me recently. Keep in mind, she's still a couple months away from turning three. When I told her it was time to go brush her teeth: "Maybe you can go brush yo' teef by yo'self and I go hide." When I told her that she was going to wear tights on one particular day despite her protests but could wear pants the next: "Well maybe I will go pee-pee in my tights today so I can wear pants today." One last one, from when I said she would be a good mama one day because of how good care she took of her little sister (Baby B, just a few months old): "No I don't want to be a mama, cuz soon I will turn into a boy and then I will be Daniel Tiger!"

Seriously, that girl.

It was her cute toddler persistence that led us to buy these Trader Joe's Cocoa Dusted Truffles with toffee Bits. Every shopping trip we let her pick out a treat. I can only presume the packaging caught her eyes as she exclaimed "Oooooh I want that one! Pwease?" Of course, she can't read yet, so it might have contained sardines for all she knew. We asked her if she knew what it was. "No, but I like it already!" Well, okay, little love.

Turns out she knows how to pick them. These truffles were quite the hit over several nights at our house. In all, they're pretty basic: a milk chocolate candy shell with a cocoa coating, with rich choco-filling with a little hint of toffee here and there. I apologize for neglecting to take a picture of the actual candy, but for an adult they're pretty much bite sized - for M they were big enough for a multitude of nibbles and face smears. Eh, whatever. They certainly pack a pretty good chocolate wallop, especially with the filling. If the coating were dark chocolate (my general preference) instead of milk, these morsels would probably be too rich to truly enjoy. As they are, we were all usually happy enough to stop at one, maybe two for an after dinner treat.

Still, there's something missing: the toffee. It just wasn't all that present, and more of it would be a welcome addition for helping add a little more flavor depth and textural difference. When I happened across a crumble of it here and there, man, was it good - could just use more of it.

M, though? Loved them. They were her choice for an after-dinner treat every night we had them - "Can we have the treat I picked at Trader Joe's?" she'd ask in the sweetest way. For a little added parental bonus, these truffles were an awesome eat-your-dinner motivator. When asked after explaining to her the point scale, she gave these truffles an earnest five. Could be because that's also her favorite number. Eh, I'll take it. When asked what she liked about them, she exclaimed "Because they taste like blueberries! Hahahaha!" Err, well, okay then. Sandy and I enjoyed them too, just need some more toffee. Still, not a bad treat at all.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cocoa Dusted Truffles with Toffee Bits: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Trader Joe's Organic Fair Trade Breakfast Blend

It's funny, the ways parenthood changes you. All I've ever heard is "Kids change everything!" Oh, they do. Weekends continually being filled up with classmate birthday parties. Bank account continually depleted thanks to child care costs (seriously, more than my mortgage and car, put together!). Not being able to sleep past about quarter after 6. Having simultaneously more patience than believable, yet less than what is required. And on it goes.

One small thing that's changed: me and coffee. Now, coffee has almost been a morning need since the single bachelor days, especially during the work week. Key word: morning. Now, especially with Baby B making her debut back in the fall, coffee is now a morning and afternoon absolute necessity. Cannot function without. I used to have a strict rule to never drink coffee past about 11 a.m. unless I wanted to be up all night. Now I need one right around 3 or 4 p.m. unless I want my forehead to have an edge-of-desk shaped dent. Don't know which would be worse - the doctor visit or the meeting with the boss.

As you may be able to tell with my lovely cubicle corner and that voicemail I need to check serving as a typical corporate backdrop, Trader Joe's Organic Fair Trade Breakfast Blend has been my work brew of choice over the past week or so. It's probably tougher to tell, but my black mug there is a pretty nifty French press that I use to make my coffee in a single cup size. Pretty nifty.

Now for the coffee, it's not bad. But nothing too unique, either. I drink my coffee black, so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what exactly it tastes like: good, typical coffee. That's not a bad thing. My work has vending machines and pot downstairs that dispense tepid brown water that tastes like depression; this is obviously light years better. I'd agree with the package's assessment of being "mellow and smooth" but I wouldn't go for "sweet caramel notes" and "floral overtones" the write up on the side proclaims. If it's there, to be honest, I don't really taste it. Maybe some cream and sugar help bring those out, but I haven't tried it. I like my coffee to taste like coffee too much.

So, this breakfast blend isn't anything fancy, but it gets the job done. It's hot, it's wet, and it has caffeine, and when I need a change up from the darker roasts I find I'm beginning to enjoy more, this won't be a bad option. The fact that it's organic and fair trade is unquestionably a bonus, too, and I'm presuming that it was one of the lesser-priced TJ options because that's what I tend to choose for work consumption, saving the fancy stuff for at home with the wife. I wish it had little more something to it, but it keeps me awake, employed, and plausibly productive at the job so I can get home and see what those kiddos are going to be up to next. Like my older one likes to sometimes say with a little coaching, you can't argue with that logic.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Fair Trade Breakfast Blend: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, April 24, 2015

Trader Joe's South African Inspired Biltong Beef Jerky

Conceivably, there's any number of ways to start off a review regarding beef jerky, so let's do something a little unexpected here: respect for vegetarians. No, seriously, I mean it. Can't speak for all vegetarians, for their any number of reasons for deciding to eschew meat, but for me, who's dabbled in it: it's tough. At least was for me. I've given meat up for a length of time during Lent, and for also about a six month period a couple years back (primarily for weight loss reasons - I was a big boy), but it's just kept bringing me back. Fortunately, I've figured out a way that works for me to incorporate mucho carne* into my diet and still lose considerable weight - namely, Paleo. I get the arguments for a plant-based diet and I know that going Paleo, in careless application,  can mean too much meat overall, looking at it realistically from an evolutionary standpoint, but...I needed to find something that worked for me to get me healthier, which primarily for me means losing a lot of weight (I've lost about seventy since last August). Vegetarianism was great, in a lot of ways, but in the end wasn't for me. Paleo, despite forgoing lots of former favorites like cheese and bread (oh grilled cheese, how I miss you - if you're in/near the 'burgh, check out this place), does. If you're on a similar journey, I hope you find what works for you and you stick to it - lots of hard work but it's so, so worth it.

All this to say: palatable portable protein is a must for my busy schedule. I don't get it often, but I love good quality jerky, so when Trader Joe's debuts some South African Inspired Biltong Beef Jerky, I gotta give it a try.

This isn't quite like most jerkies I've had. Instead of indiscriminate chunks or (shudder) Slim Jim style, the beef for the biltong is cut into neat little strips. The write up on the back says it's from the rump, cut following the grain of the muscle. I'm not all that up on my cuts of meat to know if that's different than most jerky, but I will say this style is noticeably tougher and chewier than most. There's also not nearly as much fat as would be expected from bovine posterior,not that jerky has all that much usually anyways, resulting in lean, tough meat that will get your teeth working to get through. Almost more venison like in some ways. This is a plus - while I can easily overdose on other jerky, this was too much to eat more than couple strands at a time.

The seasoning's a bit different, too. Instead of being marinated in a bath of whatever with little to nothing on the exterior, each piece of the biltong is liberally coated with a thick dusting of spices - lots of pepper and garlic, and yes, salt. To my recollection, the seasoning tasted pretty similar to what's on the South African potato chips, but it seemed deeper and fuller with its beefy base.

As with most jerky I try, I had my work buddy, Alan, give it a try too. Now, he's actually been to southern Africa and has stated he lived on biltong and Coca-Cola for about three weeks, so I'll trust his opinion more than mine. "Hrmm," he said, giving the first bite a chew. "The texture's just about perfectly right, but the seasoning...." He looked on the back of the bag. "I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that where I was, there wasn't Worcestershire sauce. Or apple cider vinegar." Probably true. "Not bad, just needs some bloodborne pathogens and the occasional maggot, and it'd be somewhat close enough to what I got from the market in Africa. But it's been a while."

Well, he liked it, I like it, heck, even the wife (usually ambivalent about things like beef jerky) liked it too. "Heck, whenever you'll buy it, I'll eat it," she said, which is about as ringing an endorsement I could expect from her. Like most TJ jerkies, the biltong was in the roughly $6 range for the quarter-pound package. It won't be an everytime pickup, but this will definitely be in the work snack rotation going forward.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's South African Inspired Biltong Beef Jerky: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons 
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* Sorta. Still learning the whole "portion control" thing - have gotten much better, but still.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trader Joe's Tropical Mango Pineapple Salsa

One of the perks of my moonlight gig as one of the nation's foremast amateur-hack foodie reviewers of all-things-Trader-Joe's is getting to hear from friends, family and colleagues about whatever they've tried from TJ's. I get some of my best tips this way. In particular, I love hearing from recent Trader Joe's converts too - heck, anything they can get excited about, I figure it's worthwhile. The store hooked me with fake meat, of all things, so I'm willing to try most anything that gets a newbie's heartstrings.

Except...Trader Joe's Tropical Mango Pineapple Salsa. Chrissy, one of my supervisors at my real job, came up to me a few weeks back after visiting the new North Hills Pittsburgh TJ's all worked up about this particular dip. Unlike almost anything else she says (promise, Chrissy!), I kinda let this go in one ear, bounce off something hard, and go back out. I have theories for this: Was still working on the first cup of coffee. Heard "mango pineapple" which somehow translated to "peach" in my head (not a fan of the TJ's brand). Not a fan of fruity salsas in general anyways. Like my usual go-to too much to deviate too far off course. Had to get those TPS reports done before taking the printer out to the field with a baseball bat. You know how it is.

Alas, it ended up in my cart the other day anyways, courtesy of the wife. No tomatoes equals a winner in her book right off the bat, and she wanted a little "something different" to go with some chips, veggies, and sausages for dinner. Fine, I said. Sigh. Fine.

Man, was I wrong.

Listen, I'm not gonna say this is the best salsa I've ever had. But, coming from a guy who doesn't like fruity salsa, this stuff is freaking delish. Fo' reals. It's thick and chunky but soft and plenty goopy from the agave syrup base, which had me apprehensive at first. I mean, that's a lot of fruit to begin with, and add in a sugary base? I thought it'd taste like candy salsa. Nawww. There's plenty to balance out all the sweetness - good bite from cilantro, some onion pungency, good jalapeno spice - that it all works out really well. There's a lot of the sweet upfront but plenty of spice with hangtime, if you know what I mean.

Still, it seems to me that the agave syrup was a bit much, but that being said, I can't offer a viable alternative at the moment. There's just a smidge too much sugar in there that coats everything, but the rest is so good, and so fresh tasting, that I can't mount too much complaint. You'll find this for $2.99 in the refrigerated section, not with the jarred variety, and tastes like it'll be a constant companion for summery snacking. Chrissy, the boss lady, loves this stuff enough to give it a five, with only the small caveat she wished there was a little less onion but everything else was "perfectly balanced." My other boss lady, I mean my wife, states more or less the same giving it a four. My score would nestle itself somewhere in there as well, so with some fuzzy math, we're gonna call it almost Pantheon worthy.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Tropical Mango Pineapple Salsa: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Trader Joe's Rosemary & Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds

There's some food combinations out there that should be pretty obvious to put together. For instance, for a mac 'n cheese cookoff this past weekend to benefit a neighborhood race, I may have invented one: exploded pierogi mac. I mean, think about it: there's two main common ingredients, namely cheese and dough/noodle. There's no recipe out there, far as I can find, though, so I just pulled one out of an impolite place to mention on this here blog. So here's what I did - homemade pierogi dough cut up to bite-sized noodle bits, then boiled and fried (talk about a PITA process), bacon, onions, and a potatoey cheese sauce with a good dose of seasoning to top it all off, and baked for a while. Darn good stuff, if a bit indulgent. But good enough to win the People's Choice vote and some folks even wanted to take my picture - kinda weird, and not quite my fifteen minutes of fame, but it was a good solid five, at least. If so inclined you can read more about the event here with a new food blogger buddy I met at the event, Breelicious Bites.

Other combinations: not as obvious. Like coffee and garlic. Cheese and chocolate. Or these new-fangled snackers I discovered the other morning: Trader Joe's Rosemary & Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds.

Rosemary and thyme? Yes, that works. Maple and toffee? Absolutely. But all four? Well, well, well, that gets interesting, so let's get this as clear as we can by breaking it down. Maple syrup = basically sugar. Toffee = sugar + butter. And butter makes almost anything taste better, including a classic herbal pairing worthy of song and bad British TV. So really, we're talking a buttery rosemary and thyme concoction...only with lots of added sugar.

It's kinda weird, and I'm not sure if I'm completely on board with it...but it sure is intriguing, I'll give it that. But it works. Kinda. Maybe. I think. Part of the fun of this particular product is each bite tastes a little different - some bites are more herbaceous, others lean much more towards the maple and sugar. There's always some of each flavor present, just in different ratios, and there doesn't seem to be a discernible pattern to which way the flavors hit - sometimes it's savory first then sweet, other times vice versa. Just depends. Plenty of salty butteriness regardless, so it's almost like there's a trifold of flavors continually jostling for attention, with each one winning on occasion.

Everything else is remarkably tasty. Based on sheer texture, I could munch these for hours - the seeds are roasted thoroughly in the maple glaze to give them a light, airy, crispy snacky bite to each. And maybe by then I'd have an idea if these are actually, truly good, or just an intriguing oddity out there. I can't quite make my mind, and neither can the wifey, but as this point we'll grade them fairly positively. Also, the wifey wanted it to be mentioned that these would probably be a great addition to a salad - I can be on board with that.

Now, what do you think? Comment away!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Rosemary & Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Trader Joe's Hobo Bread

This product is called "Hobo Bread" because hobos used to make it during The Great Depression. They'd cook it in old tin cans, hence the cylindrical, tube-like formation. I imagine them baking the bread over large barrel fires under bridges and overpasses, feeding scraps to stray dogs...although dogs aren't supposed to eat raisins...and I'm not sure if the average hobo knows that. I mean, I don't want to sound arrogant. Hobos probably know as much as I do. Although, most of what I "know" comes from Wikipedia and Google searches. So really it probably boils down to whether the hobos have internet access or not. I guess most do if they use the library. But I mean, this is just silly, since nobody had internet access during The Great Depression. I bet it cost like a week's wage for internet service back then. Right?

Anyway, hobos no longer have to bake this bread themselves. They can buy it at TJ's for about $3. Not a bad deal since it's quite filling, plus there are 12 servings in the bag. It's a simple treat—moist bread filled with raisins, walnuts, brown sugar, and molasses. I've never been a huge fan of molasses, but in this case, it's not overwhelming. Noticeable, definitely...but bearable even for me.

The bread's not super sweet, but it's richer, denser, and "wetter" than traditional raisin bread. It crumbles apart very easily, and similar to the Irish soda bread, it would be difficult to heat it up in a toaster without losing a few chunks to the infernal abyss. Conventional oven or toaster oven? Go for it. But I preferred mine at room temperature, sans fixins. So did Sonia, who thinks the bread might have lost a bit of its signature softness and moistness had we eaten it heated. She's a much bigger admirer of molasses than I, and accordingly, she gives this Hobo Bread four stars. I'll throw out three.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Trader Joe's Soft & Juicy Mandarins

So, everyone has their own little pet irrational fears, right? I sure do. My big one is being buried alive. No idea where that one comes from...but just imagine the horror. No. Not going there. This scene from Kill Bill alternately inspires and scares the living bejeezus out of me. When I've shuffled off this mortal coil (or, aheam, appeared to have enough), cremate me, please. I wish to take no chances.

To a much lesser (though perhaps more realistic) extent: Scurvy. Not that I have a great grasp of what it actually is. But it just sounds so...unpleasant. And it can be deadly. Or maybe just mostly deadly, just enough for everyone to think you've crossed over to the other side, have your burial, just for you to wake up...ugh, there I go again.

Anyways, scurvy adversion must be high on my priority list, because I love me some citrus, especially mandarins and clementines and all sorts of goodies chock full of Vitamin C. At family meals where clementines are present (like a holiday brunch), it's not uncommon for me to chow down at least four while wondering how many more I can sneak without my mom or sister-in-law giving me the stinkeye. It's practically tradition at this point.

Here's another great way to enjoy them: Trader Joe's Soft & Juicy Mandarins. No peeling. No sticky fingers. No random juice puddles, and the chances of a stragglin' seed are pretty slim. No potentially offensive odors (I have a coworker who has a reaction to even the smell of oranges). Just soft, juicy, ultra sweet mandarin sections.

Each piece, though dried and tissue-y feeling on the outside, still has a fair amount of squish inside. It's not like the firm flesh of a fresh fruit, of course, but that nice dried feel, like a dried apricot. With a little imagination, like a big, soft jelly bean or so I told myself eating them over the past week or so while the coworkers were passing around the Jelly Bellies. A lot of the natural flavor comes through, too - so sweet and tart, like a fresh segment - despite the added sugar that I somehow missed in the initial version of this post. Ugh. Why do that to some perfectly good fruit? Or add sulfur to preserve? I'd prefer neither to be there, but the end result (unlike these abominations) is tasty enough that I don't wish to create a huge fuss about it either. Edit, note, and move on.

Anyways, it defintiely takes some restraint for me to not eat the whole bag over the course of just a shift or two at work. It's an easy reachable munchie that's pretty darn healthy, for a good price too (about $3). The soft 'n juicy mandarins are tentatively joining my usual work snack rotation - oh, if not for the added sugar... Sandy likes 'em quite a bit too just for their kinda-candy-but-not vibe and quick bite pick me up value.She gives them a four, while I have to slide in a little lower.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Soft & Juicy Mandarins: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Trader Joe's Chocolate Coconut Macaroons

Precisely what we need once Easter has passed and all the candy that we haven't devoured or the bunny hasn't doled out is now on clearance - another sweet treat review!!! Wilfred Brimley, just send me the box, stat, I'm gonna get me a case of the diabeetus any day now.

Yeah, a lot of fuss gets made this time of the year about Easter candy, like the peanut butter eggs (oh goodness), the jelly beans, the candy eggs, the chocolate bunnies. For me, and I know I'm weird and about to gross out 90% of you, but black jelly beans - those are where it's at. My absolute favorite. Aside from maybe Cadbury Creme Eggs. And anything Reese's-related.

But ever hear anything about Passover treats? No? Me neither. I guess in the name of equal opportunity sweet-samplin', when Sandy and I spotted the Trader Joe's Chocolate Coconut Macaroons with the "Kosher for Passover" label stamped right up top, we just had to try.

To get this out of the way right now, check this handy visual guide to distinguish between macarons and macaroons. These,with the double-o diphthong, are of the coconuttier non-sandwich variety. Or at least they're supposed to be. Honestly, you could tell me they were a special edition Entermann's concoction, and I would have believed you, because it's pretty much exactly what they taste like. Whereas almost every other macaroon I've ever had were chockfull of chewy coconut, these aren't. Instead these macaroons, while definitely having coconut flavor (and a good dash of citrusy orange peel, too), the overriding texture and taste is just super dense cake-y stuff. I don't really understand how that works, seeing as "shredded coconut" is the number one ingredient. I could understand if it were almond or coconut flour, because of the density, but honestly, there just wasn't that much shredded coconut in ours. Great, now I'm questioning my sanity. The chocolate coating tastes and feels just like the gas station packaged donut variety too - not bad, but nothing too terribly special either.

Anyways, Sandy and I weren't saddened to pick the macaroons up for the $3.99 they set us back. But a repeat purchase just isn't too likely. After I sampled two of them, I more than had my fill. The remaining ones slowly trickled away the next couple days and when I saw the empty container in the trash, I wasn't bitter. If you need some macaroons for a Passover partaking, or if you just have a good hankerin' for some, go to your local bakery instead - clear advantage even considering the "convenience cost" as well as potentially higher actual cost. Some things are okay to do halfway, others aren't. Speaking of halfway....

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chocolate Coconut Macaroons: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Speculoos Cookie Butter Filled Elephant Dung Espresso Beans

We sh...err, kid, you not.

I mean, talk about taking a real crapshoot with a product. It's not the first time that Big Joe has gambled big and sent us a product to sample and grade before hitting the markets...athough those salmon muffins didn't work due to spontaneous human combustion concerns, and that people food product last year just didn't get enough people's tails wagging, apparently. Not every product can create a splash.

Well, here's one that really pushes it to a new extreme: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Speculoos Cookie Butter Filled Elephant Dung Espresso Beans. Read it over again.

Yes.

That's right.

Elephant. Dung.

Okay, okay, okay. Don't poop yourself out over this. Relax. And allow us to drop these info nuggets on you.

Coffee beans and elephant dung are an actual thing. It's called Black Ivory Coffee, which, according to this article, is the world's most expensive coffee at north of $70 a cup. Apparently, the pachydermal digestive process sweetens the natural bitterness of coffee through some type of fermentation process that heightens the natural sugars within the bean itself. Interesting. And apparently pretty tasty.

That's all well and good, you say, but those coffee beans get cleaned up before making their way to the roaster. This is something else entirely. Well, we're trusting this isn't a load of bull, but we've heard that apparently there was an incident one day at the elephant reservation/coffee plantation that involved a cookie butter tanker being stampeded, overturned, and emptied by a herd of hangry over-caffeinated mastodons. The result? A day long bingefest on cookie butter, with only an occasional coffee break. Or, as we would probably call it, heaven. Now, when the time came to collect the passed coffee beans, one of the workers noticed that there was a very distinct aroma that was not the usual brand wafting around. It smelled...speculoosy. Even...gulp...deliciously speculoosy. He then had the brilliant insight that whatever goes in would be exactly what came out, and if the elephants had had only coffee beans and cookie butter, well...Out of the most daring taste test of all time, we now have these pootie pellets, only covered with dark chocolate to literally help sugarcoat the whole experience.

So, how does it taste?

Tastes like the bomb. You have good, kinda fruity, sweet coffee beans. There's the cookie butter, um, "filling" that tastes a lot like cookie butter, just a tad earthier and nuttier. And the dark chocolate helps bind it all together and serves as a remarkably convincing textural deceiver. There's no exact explanation for it all - just dare yourself and plop one in. You'll be well relieved afterwards, trust me.

Despite my initial hesitation, I'm glad I've decided to endure the manure and give these bowel-y bonbons a try. I mean, now we have definitive proof that cookie butter will make anything taste good. Next time someone tells me to go eat poop, well, I've got my go-to poo-poo. Literally. A five. Sandy, although she likes them, still can't quite get over the whole concept, and can give them nothing more than a solid number 2.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Speculoos Cookie Butter Filled Elephant Dung Espresso Beans: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons