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Friday, November 17, 2017

Trader Joe's Almond Nog

Sonia's first words after taking a sip of this beverage: "WOW! I definitely like this better than regular egg nog."

If it's not obvious already, I'll go ahead and tell you she's not a true lover of traditional egg nog, while I most definitely am.

My first words after trying this drink: "Hmm. Yeah. I definitely don't like this as much as normal egg nog."

They should have called this Trader Joe's *Almost* Nog. Only two letters' difference. 

Surprisingly though, I didn't hate it—but it's absolutely within the realm of possibility that other egg nog connoisseurs won't even tolerate this almond-based nogoff.

Now I'm fine with almond milk in place of dairy. Flavored almond milk? Sometimes it works in my opinion, and sometimes it doesn't. Sonia and I were similarly divided when it came to last year's pumpkin spice almond beverage, with the wife giving it a solid thumbs up, and me, not so much.

I'm not nearly as enthused about egg nog-flavored things as I am about egg nog itself. Even egg nog ice cream pales in comparison to the real deal in my book.

Here, we have not a true alternative to egg nog, but a beverage that is merely egg nog-flavored. I mean, for vegans, the lactose-intolerant, and people with egg allergies, this must be a dream come true. For the rest of us...meh.

The texture is far too thin to compare with traditional nog. If you look at the picture, you'll see the myriad tiny bubbles that result when you "shake well" as per the instructions on the carton. It's just a tad thicker than water. Flavor-wise, it's distinctly egg noggish, but with a greater level of nuttiness, and less of...pretty much everything else. I think they could have stepped up the spice game a notch here, which would have not only offered a bolder flavor, but perhaps masked what I perceive to be other slight weaknesses in the taste department. Of course, if one were so inclined, he could add his own spices...not to mention other additives of the "spirited" variety that might help cover up said shortcomings of this seasonal potation.

And to those of you who think we're jumping the Christmas season gun by reviewing this overtly Yuletidey product before Thanksgiving, I'll just say this: I associate egg nog not only with Christmas, but also with Thanksgiving. Sure, the whole Christmas thing encroaches on earlier months more and more each year it seems. I mean, we did a bit of Black Friday shopping this year a full two weeks before Black Friday, because now there are "pre-Black Friday sales," which promise great deals with only a fraction of the physical confrontations and full-contact shopping experience. But I digress. What I'm trying to say is that we're trying to give you our opinions now so that you'll be informed before you make those holiday TJ's runs.

Just for kicks and giggles, I compared the nutrition info of this product to a carton of actual egg nog. Yeah. Ordinary nog has nearly four times the calories and six times the fat. So...there's that to consider.

Sonia gives this almond nog four stars. I'm torn between two and a half and three—but I'll go with three for the benefit of those who cannot or will not enjoy actual egg nog this holiday season. It's absolutely worth a try if you're not into milk, eggs, the thick texture of traditional nog, excessive fat and calories, or the joys of seasonal obesity.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Trader Joe's Hasselback Potatoes

Now for something completely exciting...potatoes.

When packing a lunch for school for our kindergartner M, either Sandy or I like to draw her a little note for her to see at lunch time. A little something to make her laugh or think is cute or whatever to let her know we're thinking about her. And by either Sandy or I, I usually mean Sandy, because I can't draw worth a crap. Recently, we've been on a Thanksgiving theme kick, and just so happened that I had to do one for her last week on a particularly busy morning...

I drew her a potato.

I mean, kinda cute one, maybe...or at least recognizable as potato, with haphazard Kawaii style eyes, a smile, with the words MASH ME. M at least said she liked it and smiled when I asked her, but yeah, she was not too excited about her potato.

We're not all that excited about these Trader Joe's Hasselback Potatoes, either.

It's not that it's a bad potato. It's....just a potato. I don't get it. I don't understand what the deal is. Maybe I'm unenlightened and all that...but seriously, these hback taters seem to be nothing more than a spud half-slashed by Wolverine and stuck in a box and frozen. Sure, a little butter and salt, but the outcome tastes not unlike a regular baked potato that you may or may not want to dress up a little more yourself.

Unlike other prepared veggie side dishes, you can't even really make a convenience argument here. Here's how to make your own for a fraction of the cost. That...doesn't really look complicated at all. Granted, these TJ taters take about half the time, so they must be at least partially baked before getting iced over...which reminds me. If you do buy these, bake for a little longer than the instructed 30 minutes. My spuds had some ice-cold nether regions on them still after half an hour. No bueno.

Kids liked them, we liked them...we're partially Irish, of course we're gonna like potatoes. But there's nothing special or cool or Trader Joe's-y or anything about these taters. Not even like a funky/cool spice blend. They're just partially baked/partially sliced potatoes, in a freezer box, and I'll be darned if their existence didn't make me try to think of potato/David Hasselhoff puns for at least half an hour and I can't think of a single one. Do you understand how frustrating that is? There's got to be at least one. Please. Help me.

Not a complete failure, but far from a success. Between all of us here, can't muster any excitement or a higher score. Matching 2s.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Hasselback Potatoes: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Trader Joe's Stelle Di Notte

If you "Search This Blog" for the word "cookies," you'll get 10 pages of results. Granted, those results include items like cookie butter, which aren't actual cookies per se—but I still counted in the ballpark of FIFTY types of actual Trader Joe's brand cookies reviewed on this blog. And for those of you who know your Joe, you'll know that we're barely keeping pace with the new cookie varieties as TJ's rolls them out.

That's especially true this time of year. In case you haven't noticed, there's an international conspiracy to make us Americans fatter during the holiday season. 

Even the Italians are in on the action. So they exported these Stelle Di Notte (stars at night) cookies just in time for the season of overeating.

They have a nice cocoa-ish flavor. I thought maybe the stars would function as marshmallows "floating" in the cocoa, but they're basically just there for decoration.

These cookies are crispy, light, and brittle. There's a dryness about them that just begs for a complimentary beverage. I've had them with both cold milk and hot coffee, and they go great with either.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with these chocolatey treats, but there's not much to set them far ahead of the many, many other cookie offerings we've tried from Trader Joe's, either. If you like cocoa-flavored crispy cookies, check these out. They seem somewhat festive, as there's a nice wintry theme going on here, although as far as I can tell, it's not particularly attached to any one religious holiday. If I worked for TJ's marketing department, I might have named them "Trader Joe's Jovial Non-Denominational Winter Cocoa Dunkers" 

...which is probably one of the many reasons why I'll never work for Trader Joe's product marketing department.

Sonia and I give these cookies three and a half "stelle" a piece.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Trader Joe's Sweet Potato & Marshmallow Pixie Pie Mix

According to my lovely wife, with whom I am about to celebrate eight years of mostly happy-occasionally stubborn marriage, there are some very questionable Google results out there if you were to search for the words "pixie pie" on the interwebs. I'm just gonna take her word for it, and perhaps try to lessen anyone's chance of coming across any, by writing this review here of Trader Joe's Sweet Potato & Marshmallow Pixie Pie Mix.

Mmm...pixie pie...I never heard of it. What is it?

Well, can't find out without doing that web search. Oh well.

Anyways, we'll go with the box description, which says something to the effect of "magical treat" and "little pick me up" and all that jazz. Sounds good. We'll go with that.

Unlike our last baking expedition, I didn't help this time around, but from what I hear, it's simple enough to make. Inside the box are three mix packets: one for crust, one for potato filling, one for marshmallow fluff, Good lord, there's a lot of marshmallow, almost like a cross between the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and a crime scene. All you need to add is a little butter and "maybe" a little water and an egg, follow the simple instructions, and voila, in about half an hour's's pixie pie time!

It's a really tasty dessert. Boasting a classic graham cracker crust, the shell gets rigid and buttery and solid actually surprisingly well. All the better to hold all the gooey innards, I'd say. The sweet potatoes get warm and smooshy and offer so, so much comfort vibe with some brown sugary goodness, it's almost off the charts. And those marshmallows...I swear. Sandy said she put in less than half the packet. I almost can't believe that, because of how well the fluff covered and caramelized on top, while switching up layers and selfblending with the potato portion. All that gives up a sugary binge that verges on being overwhelming before melding well with the other tastes of the pie.

Altogether, the pie tastes something like a blondie, and has a not-quite-brownie, not-quite-usual-pie feel. It might be worth a shot to throw in some chopped pecans to approximate a pecan pie, if that's your thing. Actually, if there was some way to Frankenstein together this pie with those maple pecan bites from a few weeks back, there might be the most perfect dessert ever! Even as is, the pie is pretty rich and fairly decadent - take too big a piece, you'll want a nap.

Needless to say, the pie is a total, complete, ineffable calorie bomb. That's our biggest thing. Like, eat a slice, and it's salad for the next three days. Sandy, the more healthy bean-counter out of us, has no other complaints than that, and in act of solidarity, me neither. Darn good dessert, and for only $2.99! Nice! Matching fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sweet Potato & Marshmallow Pixie Pie Mix: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Trader Joe's Pain Au Lait

It's not unusual for me to devour the majority of a delicious Trader Joe's product before Sonia even realizes it's in the house. But it's very unusual for the reverse to happen.

Yet happen it did with this pain au lait. 

As my wife will attest, those French sure know their breads: baguettes, brioche, croissants, and of course, French toast—which might not actually be French—but we give them the credit anyway because it sounds lame to call it "eggy bread."

Add pain au lait to that list of delicious French breads. And in this case, the "pain" is indeed a product of France, imported across the pond for our enjoyment. Thanks, Trader Jacques—er, Trader Joe.

They're chock full o' milk, sugar, butter, and eggs. That's why they're so delicious. And fattening. They taste slightly sweeter than traditional breads, but not to the extreme that they're doughnut-esque or exclusively dessert-ish. Despite their sweetness and butteriness, they're surprisingly soft, airy, and addictive.

They remind me of one of the complimentary breads they serve at a particular chain restaurant, but I can't remember for certain which one: was it Outback? Cheesecake Factory? I haven't been to any of those places lately so I can't put my finger on it—but it was a bread so tasty, that I'd deliberately eat my fill so that when my meal came, I'd take a few bites and then pack the rest up to take home, thus stretching one meal into at least two. It definitely wasn't authentic pain au lait, but it was reminiscent of this offering in terms of sweetness and softness.

Serving sizes here are relatively small, in case you're worried about portion control. Each piece is perfect for dunking in coffee, or your hot beverage of choice. They went great with the hot chocolate we looked at recently. They're simply awesome with some butter and jelly, or even just butter. And honestly, both Sonia and I were fine just snagging these little guys out of the bag and eating them by themselves like cookies.

Three dollars for eight rolls. This could be a repeat buy. Sonia says she could eat the whole bag in one sitting. She'll throw out her first perfect five star score in a long time. I genuinely liked them too, but perhaps I'm not quite as enthused because I'm waiting for a bread that's optimized for dunking in energy drinks. Just kidding. That would be gross.

...or would it?

But for all you coffee connoisseurs out there, meet your new best breakfast friend. Four stars from me.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Trader Joe's Bourbon Barrel Aged Coffee

Come on now, sing it with me!

"Roll out the barrels, we'll have a barrel of fun...."

Wait, you're not singing. What's the matter? Not awake enough and need more coffee? Or not "loose" enough and need a stiff drink?

Well, why not have both? Here's a fresh mug of Trader Joe's Bourbon Barrel Aged Coffee.

Of course, this new TJ's boozy barrel inspired brew is non-alcoholic...but man, is that tough to tell from all appearances. Most bourbonic products are plagued by a decided subtlety that leaves hardly a trace of Kentucky's finest contribution to man this side of George Clooney and Louisville sluggers.

But, not here. No, not at all. The beans themselves weren't overly aromatic in a boozy way, but once Sandy and I had our steaming cups...whoa. I'd be scared to make this at work for fear of being called down to HR. One wrong waft sent awry and someone would report it, it's that strong.

Tastes that strong too. I'd say brewing the coffee at suggested strength tasted like a whole shot was poured into each mug. The outcome leaves something to be desired. The coffee itself is mellow and smooth, a little on the sweet side without offering too much if any bitterness that either coffee or bourbon can have. But it's absolutely heavy on the bourbon notes, really heavy, which brings me to my next point...

This coffee's discombobulating. I swear, it plays mind tricks with me. I taste booze, my mind senses it and tells my body I must be drinking booze, even though I'm not...thereby helping negate any positive lift I may get from drinking my coffee. I need my coffee for caffeine, dang it.

At least there's not a decaf version as of yet. That'd be really pointless. Bourbon inspired coffee without either alcohol or caffeine? Pass!

There's a whole write up on the side about how it's a two-year aging process with careful bean rotation to ensure each bean comes in contact with the bourbon barrels...sounds a bit OCD and overboard, but hey, the process worked. I cannot imagine a coffee tasting any more like bourbon, or bourbon tasting any more like coffee. It's a weird, imperfect marriage.

Sandy and I had high hopes, and while not completely crashed, we're both down on the bourbon coffee at this time. There's some potential if we mix some regular coffee beans in, we'll have a more pleasant experience. Also, instead of a morning cup, this has more of an afternoon/after dinner kinda feel to it. More mellow. Made poor Sandy feel a little ill afterwards, though she did say she'd be willing to try again.

Anyways, not an awful speculative buy at $10 for the canister, which is mid-range for TJ's prices. If you don't like it, you can always return, no problem. We are considering it but want to experiment first. Any suggestions, please share. Until then, we're going with some low marks here.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Bourbon Barrel Aged Coffee: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, November 3, 2017

Trader Joe's Organic Hot Cocoa Mix

Aside from a few 70 degree days here and there, it's finally starting to feel like fall and cooling down here in the northeast. When it first happened a week or two ago, it was such a shock to our systems after so many weeks and months of heat, that we kind of forgot what wearing long pants and long sleeves was like...

So I'm doing an experiment: I'm going to see how late into the fall/winter I can go while only wearing shorts and t-shirts, while still only turning the heat on sporadically. I'm thinking hot beverages are going to play heavily into my strategy of staying warm without extra layers.

Also hats. It's amazing how much difference a good hat can make—especially for follicly-challenged folks like me.

Ahem, but, back to the hot beverages... This stuff's nice and sweet, and it tastes quite a bit like other leading brands of hot chocolate mix, although I'd swear it tastes better when made with nothing but water—and it flaunts USDA certified organic ingredients. We like it. Sonia will elaborate a bit more in this short video review:

Four stars a piece.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Trader Joe's Riced Cauliflower Stuffing

As any TJ's fan worth their Hawaiian shirt knows by now, cauliflower can do a lot of stuff. The real question is, can cauliflower do stuffing?

Well, guess we're gonna find out with Trader Joe's Riced Cauliflower Stuffing.

There's a lot to like about the concept here. Gluten free, vegan, no carbs for all you cave people out there. That's not an insult, I dabble with the Paleo diet here and there. But, when November rolls around, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, there's something to be said for good ol' traditional stuffing, whatever that means to you and your memories.

And there's something just a little amiss here with the TJ's cauli-stuffin'. It's hard to pin down completely what it is, but both Sandy and I noticed it.

Our best guess is, the stuff doesn't taste or feel like stuffing. It's...almost more like a pilaf. The cauliflower rice never loses its inherent ricey-ness and feels grainy, not soft and warm and inviting like stuffing. That being said, there's a lot to like. The product really tries hard to replicate traditional stuffing tastewise, and it almost pulls it off. The carrots, celery, and onion are on point, and there's copious handfuls of tart dried cranberries that make an excellent little touch - better than raisins or apples.

Still, it's off...and again I point to the cauliflower. Perhaps cauliflower has a "cleaner" taste than most bread, so all the flavors that are normally somewhat tempered poke through just a wee bit more. That seemed most noticeable with the onions. Also, look at the ingredient list and some unusual suspects. Tomato paste? Maple syrup? Never seen those in a stuffing recipe before. And they're not particularly noticeable, per se, but maybe they knock the flavor just off kilter enough.

This stuffing's decent enough, though. If you want an alternative to the usual salty carb bomb that is traditional stuffing, by all means, go for it. No denying it's healthier and more nutritious and all that - I mean, it's all veggies - and it's almost as good as the "real deal." But there's too much comfort vibe missing here. I think that's what it comes down to. It's only a few bucks in the freezer section, if you're lucky enough to find it - been a hot seller from what I hear - so I'd love to hear some more takes if you've tried it. But for me and Sandy, we just can't muster much enthusiasm.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Riced Cauliflower Stuffing: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, October 30, 2017

Trader Joe's Bamba Peanut Snacks

Walking into our Trader Joe's this past rainy weekend, "La Bamba" was playing on the store's radio.

🎶 "Para bailar la Bamba..." 🎶 

You all know the song.

It has nothing to do with these Bamba Peanut Snacks, by the way, which hail from Israel rather than Mexico—but we still wonder: were you planting subliminal messages in our head with that song, Big Joe? You sneaky marketing genius, you. Well, your fiendish plan worked, and we picked up two 99 cent bags of the peanutty treats.

Not long ago, I ran across Simply Balanced Peanut Butter Baked Corn Puffs at Target and reviewed them. I liked them overall, and of course, the first comment about them mentioned their similarity to "Bambas." I looked them up, and sure enough, everything about the original Israeli snacks sounded extremely similar to Target's version.

Didn't take Trader Joe's long to jump on that bandwagon. 

Well—okay, I guess it did—since these have been popular in the Holy Land for well over 50 years. And I like that they're actually using the original "Bamba" moniker at TJ's, just so there's no ambiguity. I've seen a few tweets indicating that they might not be exactly the same as Israel's version, but I've also seen tweets indicating that they definitely are, and that TJ's supplier is indeed Osem, the same people that make the original, authentic peanut snacks. Please note: I'm not making any official claims here, I'm just reporting what I've read on the interwebs...and you know how that goes.

They are in every way like cheesy poofs, except for the fact guessed it: they have "peanut paste" instead of goofy orange cheese. So they are, for all intents and purposes, "peanut butter poofs." If that sounds good to you, you will LOVE these.

Trader Joe's offering strikes me as being slightly less sweet, softer, and fresher than the Target version I tried. The peanut flavoring is still kind of subtle if you ask me, I mean, compared to, say, a spoonful of actual peanut butter—but it builds up on your tongue as you shovel puff after puff into your mouth. It's not a super heavy snack at all, but it's uber-satisfying. Just a bit salty, nice and crispy...why are these just arriving in the US now? C'mon, Israeli-Americans. You've been holding out on us all these years. Why'd it take you so long to share these things with us? 

The packaging here is not resealable like Simply Balanced's product, but you most likely won't need to worry about the bag sitting around long enough to get stale once it's open. The ingredients are simple, few, and easy to pronounce. I could see vending machines being stocked full of peanut snacks here in the US in just a few years if these catch on. 

I can't think of a single reason why they wouldn't.

Four and a half stars from me. Four and a half from Sonia.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Trader Joe's Pistachio Cranberry Bites

What. A. Week. Mentioned in my last post that I was wrapping up a weekend of solo Dad wasn't completely honest. Yes, I did have the kiddos all to myself last weekend. And it's continued this entire week, too. Sandy's off on a trip of a lifetime halfway across the world (no joke), so I've taken some extra duties this week of getting kids to school, packing lunches, rushing out doors in the morning, making dinners and all at night, etc. This is on top of a crazy modified work schedule I'm doing so the kids can continue to go do their after school activities and homework, and actually see one of their parents, all while I'm trying to reserve all vacation time I can at work. It's all worked pretty well so far, have had a wonderful and supportive cast to help back up some logistical details and fill a couple gaps, and hey, I'm used to crazy mornings and giving the kids baths and tucking them in and stuff like that...

Except, man, I haven't had time once this week to eat breakfast before ducking out the door. Not. Once. Too busy packing lunches and stuff - I know I should do that the night before, but where's the challenge then? I'd rather be watching the World Series anyways, to be honest. So it's not really a complaint, but knowing this about me in advance, I picked up Trader Joe's Pistachio Cranberry Bites for an easy, on the go, healthyish bite as I zigzag the family minivan here, there, and everywhere across town.

It's a good thought. The nut/berry bites are a pretty straightforward construct - roasted pistachios, sweetened dried cranberries, all held together by some rice syrup and magic and all that. The agave syrup adds a slightly sweet and sticky touch, but it's certainly not enough to override the earthy nutty goodness of the pistachios (one of my favorite nuts). The pistachios are the dominant taste, with the cranberries being very second fiddle. I wish they were a little tarter to stand out more.

But man...the bites aren't enough. Not at all. Each bar is maybe two measly bites. Shoulda figured - the front of the bag says each bite weighs only 20 grams, which isn't exactly a lot - but I guess I was hoping it'd be a hefty 20 grams. No dice. I ended eating three within about an hour's time to try and have some semblance of not being hungry, and it didn't work.

Also, as an empty complaint, I hate the fact that they come individually wrapped inside a bigger package. Seems excessive. I mean, I get it, they're all sticky...but shouldn't be a way to cut down on all this? I offer no great solution, so, as I said, it's a pretty empty complaint.

I brought them into work, and in place of my lovely wife six time zones away right now, I'm going to have one of my coworkers, Fred, chime in. As one can reasonably expect from a guy named Fred, he tells it as it is. "They're good but..." he said, pausing as thoughtfully as a guy named Fred can, "I need to snack like a man. Those things? They're like two bites! I like the pistachios, though."Agreed, hombre. A fuller bar version, even for a higher price (nuts ain't cheap, these were like $3) would have been a better snack.

It's hard work making a living to financially support a family. It's hard work keeping everyone moving and on time and laundry and meals and dance lessons and...the list goes on. It's hard work trying to balance both. God bless whatever your duty is - I have newfound appreciation for it all this past week. Just wish I picked a more fulfilling snack to help back me up. Eh well.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Pistachio Cranberry Bites: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Trader Joe's Butternut Squash & Creamed Spinach Gratin

Unable to procure the popular, recently-released Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese, reviewed by my esteemed colleague, Sonia and I chose this interesting dish on our last TJ's run. It's slightly reminiscent of another understated Trader Joe's find from two years ago: Butternut Squash Parmigiana. The main difference, of course, being that the parmigiana was significantly sweeter...and also "ovenable."

This product is microwavable. No other heating instructions are given, although Sonia and I will now assert that it is indeed "stovetoppable." At the moment, Sonia and I are sans microwave yet again. Well, okay, I take that back. We still have a microwave, but it's in our RV, and I wasn't about to fire up the generator on Tiago the Tioga just to heat our lunch. So we tossed this refrigerated—not frozen—food item in a skillet and stirred it around until heated evenly, and the whole thing worked out beautifully...or at least deliciously, anyway.

Sonia immediately mentioned that the product lacked "sauce." I think she was talking about the creamed well as the parmesan cheese? I thought there was plenty of creamed spinach, but I guess our chosen method of preparation kind of ruined the "gratin-ness" of the dish. Since we didn't microwave the product, I'm guessing we just stirred all the browned, grated cheese right into the rest of the foodstuffs. Flavor-wise, it worked, although the presentation might have suffered a bit as a result. Eh. We were both hungry, so we wouldn't have spent very long gawking at the dish before shoveling it into our mouths anyway. You're lucky we paused to take a picture at all.

Sonia also asserted her absolute approval of the trio of flavors here: butternut squash, spinach, and parmesan cheese—she just wanted a tad more spinach and parmesan. I concur that the flavor combo worked on some level, but I felt that the subtle natural sweetness of the squash worked better with amaretto cookie crunch in the aforementioned parmigiana, and that elements like spinach and parmesan cheese mix better with salty, savory vegetable dishes, such as the classic potatoes au gratin.

Sonia liked that it walked the line between savory and sweet, whereas I generally prefer one or the other. And it's always possible my palate's a little off, or that I'm going insane, but I thought the butternut squash in this instance in particular, was unusually sweet. No biggie. I still give it a solid three and a half stars and think most butternut squash fans will like it. Sonia gives it a full four.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Trader Joe's Maple Pecan Shortbread Bar Mix

At time of writing, I'm wrapping up an entire weekend of solo Dada duty while Sandy's out of town on a business trip. Just me and my girls. Going into this, I had some big plans - camping, hiking, maybe even playing on a lakeside beach somewhere (late October, yes, but it's in the 70s) - but alas it was not to be. Had a pretty bad tendonitis flare up so have been hobbling around and haven't wanted to over do anything.

Which kinda worked out, anyways. Asked the kids what they wanted to do - "Ride bikes! Play games! Go to playground!" - so that's what we've been doing. Sounds kinda dull, in some ways, but honestly, it's been awesome. Just goes to show it doesn't always have to be some big adventure to have a great time. Don't just take my word for it, here's a take from another Russell.

So, it kinda means something when I asked M, our five year old, what her favorite part of the day was just a few minutes ago, she said "Helping you make our treat." And our treat was, you guessed it, Trader Joe's Maple Pecan Shortbread Bar Mix.

It's a really simple mix to do. Almost Dad-proof. Add some butter, an egg, a little water, that's it. It's a two-part deal - the crust and the filling. Beat the crust mix with butter in a mixer, then press into place in an 8x8. That's the part me and the kids really got into - squishing crumbs into place is a total blast with little fingers. it's also where we goofed the most - the crust didn't need to be nearly as up the sides as we made it, but I had no idea, and the box gave no indication. Bake up the crust, and be aware it also surprisingly poofs up quite well. Mix up the filling (again, fun for little ones to stir, hard to goof up) then pour into crust and bake again. Cool, slice, eat. Yum?

Yeah, it ain't bad. Not terribly special, but it's solid. Think typical pecan bar, or imagine pecan pie with much smaller bits of nuts. That sweet, thick, sugary molasses pecan goopy goodness? It's all there. And the shortbread crust gets crumbly and a little greasy and holds the whole shebang together admirably. I may or may not have eaten a quarter of the pan already.

But...what about the maple? I mean, it says it's a maple pecan bar! There's...just not that much. If I didn't know it was supposed to be there, I wouldn't have tasted it. It's just subtle and easy to miss with the sugar and molasses, etc. Needs more maple.

Worth a try if an easy autumnal-type treat is needed. I'm not sure we'll make a repeat purchase, as they seem pretty par for the course, not special, not awful. So, in all, pretty solid. My kids really liked 'em though, so there's that. Easy Dad win, hard to properly quantify that, but I'll take it. Let's just say pretty darn good overall.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Maple Pecan Shortbread Mix: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trader Joe's Spud Crunchies

For a moment after opening the bag, I thought, "Oh, bummer! There's no resealable ziplock on this package." A moment later, I realized why. These things won't last long enough to get stale. Oh, and that whole "4 servings per container" there on the nutrition info IS A BIG FAT LIE.

You'll be lucky to get two servings here. Especially if there's more than one person involved. Not just because two people eat twice as much, but because eating the bag becomes a race against the other person. If you snooze, you'll lose your share.

And I should mention that the picture right below this paragraph was taken near the end of the bag. I had opened the package with every intention of taking a picture right out of the gate, but we actually plowed through nearly the whole thing before we remembered we hadn't taken a picture. As a result, the crunchies you see here aren't perfectly representative of the ones in the bag—they're somewhat smaller than the average sticks you actually get.

A long time ago, there was a mini-discussion about another TJ's product that emulated "zombified McDonald's French fries," Trader Joe's Veggie Sticks. We were a fan of those snacks, but somehow, by some miracle of science, Trader Joe's got their hands on an even better product.

There are significantly fewer ingredients here. These snacks feel even more potato-y because they're not made of potato flour, wheat flour, and other weird vegetable "powders." These delightful, snacktastic sons of mothers are made with "potato," and in my opinion, they even more accurately approximate an age-old McDonald's fry, but miraculously, they do it with more flavor.

They're quite salty, which totally works here. As mentioned before, they're also very potato-y, and you can taste and feel the canola oil as well. Texture-wise they're definitely similar to an ancient fry, but ever so slightly in the direction of a potato chip. They're less starchy than long-forgotten fast food fries, and perhaps slightly more crispy.

This is just a fun, tasty snack all around. Would make a great after-hike treat. Two bucks at the local Joe's. I'd buy 'em again.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trader Joe's Extra Hot Habanero Ghost Pepper Salsa

It's that time of year again. There's so much to love about weather, baseball playoffs, crockpot dinners, hoodie sweatshirts, pumpkin patches. So on and so forth. It's my favorite season of the year by far.

But, it's not perfect. There's the one big thing that always comes, always stands in the way, the one thing I cannot avoid or shake no matter what.

Pity me. It's man cold season.

Starting around now, and ending sometime in April, I will almost always have a cold, or at least some semblance of one. The sneezing, the cough, the know what I'm talking about. Between now and Easter I'll probably guzzle a pallet of DayQuil. No matter what,  though, I can never shake it.

But I maybe have a secret weapon now: Trader Joe's Extra Hot Habanero Ghost Pepper Salsa.

This may be a bit premature, but I may be cured only about 8 days into man cold funk season, all thanks to this super spicy salsa. The cactus  on the package has it right - this is some fiery sauce. I will admit, I was a little scared to try it. But once I did, the sinuses cleared. The head unfogged. Even the cough went away. Musta been burned out of me. And it's stayed out.

The salsa doesn't smell too intimidating, with an almost more chipotle kind of essence than anything else. It's almost enough to lull you into a false sense of safety, as the heat kicks up right from the first bite. It's not upfront - since it's refrigerated, the physical coolness of the salsa kinda tempers it a bit - but right as it's going down the hatch, the spice ramps up. Pure heat - enough to make you cough or have your eyes tear up. But the thing is, unlike some spicy fare, the heat doesn't seem to build and build with successive bites. Instead, it plateaus from the start - granted, a pretty high plateau. Which is a good thing, as it makes it much more snackable than the salsa would appear at first bite.

Aside from the habenero and ghost peppers, there's plenty to like. There's a very fresh feel to the salsa overall, almost as if it were almost homemade. It's not quite chunky, but not quite smooth either. There's some tomatoey sweetness and a little garlic and some other bits of flavor here and there, but even with the spice, it's not enough to completely overpower your food. That being said, I'd advise using sparingly.

Both Sandy and I enjoy the super hot salsa enough to make this a probable repeat purchase, especially if it can keep those cold symptoms at bay. Look for the tub in the refrigerated section, and if I recall correctly, it's about 3 bucks. Cheaper and tastier than DayQuil, for sure.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Extra Hot Habanero Ghost Pepper Salsa: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trader Joe's Curried Carrot & Cashew Dip

I think the pumpkin craze may have finally reached its apex and is starting to experience a bit of backlash. Can't put up a pumpkin review these days without at least one person remarking "I'm so sick of pumpkin!" With pumpkin spice hummuspumpkin flavored dog treats, and even pumpkin spice cough drops on the market, it's pretty clear society has reached a saturation point. Even Trader Joe's seems to have slowed down the release of new pumpkin products this year. There are definitely a few additions, but on our last TJ's run, all we saw were the same sixty items that were available last year. So we'll just take a breather...for today, anyway.

So we turn our sights to another unique orange concoction: Trader Joe's Curried Carrot & Cashew Dip

It's NOT what I expected.

Our last adventure involving a tub of Trader Joe's curried veggies was surprisingly successful in my book, as have most of our other forays into the Indian-inspired land of curry-laden culinary creations. This one...I, personally, am not nearly as enthused about.

There aren't any suggestions for how to serve this condiment. It's packaged in one of those distinctive, clear, round hummus containers. Are we to smear it on a piece of warm pita? Is it a chip dip? Or is it a marinade for meats on the grill? 

We tried it as a chip dip. Interesting. But I wouldn't go out of my way to buy it again for that purpose. On bread? Okay, I can see it taking the place of hummus, but I'll take most hummus over this dip any day. Served with veggies, riced cauliflower, and chicken? Better still. But again nothing I'd crave over a "normal" condiment. 

I was expecting the curry flavor to dominate this product, but it certainly doesn't. In fact, carrot is the primary flavor coming through. It's essentially a tub of creamed carrots, with a few miscellaneous spices and vague cashew flavor throughout...not sweet. Certainly not what I was hoping for. I swear there's a strange, funky, almost mildewy essence in our tub. Sonia doesn't detect it at all.

To make matters worse, there was a single white glob of....something in our container. At first, we thought it might have been a cashew. But it wasn't. It was fairly firm, somewhat powdery, and...not at all like anything else anywhere in the tub. Sonia suggested it might be a ball of corn starch, as corn starch does indeed appear on the ingredients list. She seemed perfectly fine with that notion and proceeded to eat around the object in question. I began referring to it as "the tumor" and like any good amateur scientist decided to dissect it. Its middle looked like something in between white meat chicken and the inside of a nut of some kind, though much too large to be a single cashew. You can see it in two halves there toward the right side of the product photograph. 

I dared Sonia to eat a piece of the mystery blob—which, shockingly, she did with remarkably little coaxing. She just popped it in her mouth, shrugged, and said "it's fine."

I couldn't let her be a braver eater than I am, so I hesitantly cut a little bit with my fork and tasted it. It felt like a curd of cottage cheese and tasted completely flavorless. I still don't know what that thing was, but it grosses me out just thinking about it.

Unfazed by the incident, Sonia continued dipping various foods into the little tub and mixing it into her food. She said, "I enjoy it. What do you think?"

"I'm not feeling it," I muttered, backing away from the table.

I might have mustered two stars if not for that...wad of...stuff. One and a half stars from me. I haven't disagreed with the wife this strongly on a TJ's product in a long time. Four stars from Sonia.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Trader Joe's Boneless, Stuffed Pork Chops with Apple Almond Stuffing

"Impulse meat."

Yeah, those are some quasi-cringe worthy words...but that's exactly what Sandy and I had on our shopping list for TJ's the other night. What it meant was, we didn't want to dip once more into our Costco sausage stockpile or have chicken again or anything too ho-hum. Nah, we wanted something that looked good and sounded tasty and not in our normal rotation, something that our not-terribly-carnivorous would probably eat without much complaint. Something we could all enjoy.

Something, apparently, like Trader Joe's Boneless, Stuffed Pork Chops with Apple Almond Stuffing. Spotted. Acquired. Prepared. Consumed. Mmmm, impulse meat. At risk of sounding like that gravelly voiced Arby's guy, it's instinct.

And now, reviewed.

Easy enough to prepare, despite my demonstrably limited cooking talent. The instructions say to brown on each side before baking for 25 minutes. I, um, made the executive decision that they'd taste better a little blackened...yeah, that's it. No matter, the end product still tasted pretty great. the pork chops themselves were meaty and tender, and certainly weren't too tough or stringy. Aside from the natural goodness of the pork, there was a slightly sweet flavor, as if the chops were marinaded in some apple cider or something of the sort.

And, of course, stuffing on the inside. I'm not gonna stretch the truth a bit and say it's super high quality stuffing that Martha Stewart would sign off on. Decidedly, it's more on the Stove Top end of the spectrum. Doesn't mean it can't be tasty. Growing up, my mom would sometimes cut up apples and put them in Stove Top, other times raisins. So maybe it's more nostalgia then actual critical quality, but man, I liked it. The slivered almonds added small, earthy, crunchy bite that worked very well with the soft stuffing and meat.

It's $6.49 a pound, which isn't an awful deal. Our package seemed representative with two large medallions which were more than enough for the two of us and our girls. In all, they made for a good autumnal dinner alongside some squash mac and roasted Brussel sprouts. The stuffed chops might not be a regular buy, but for an impulse, not bad, not bad at all. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Boneless, Stuffed Pork Chops with Apple Almond Stuffing: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Trader Joe's Cocoa Filled Pinwheel Cookies

It's what's inside that counts...

And in this case, "what's inside" is Nutella-esque deliciousness. 

Trader Joe's does offer their own jar of Nutella-esque deliciousness, although it's almond-based, rather than hazelnut-based like the original. However, these happy, round little roulette-looking fellows boast a hazelnut cocoa cream, virtually indistinguishable from actual Nutella. I'm a big fan of both hazelnuts and almonds, and in the end, I couldn't care less which nuts are in my cocoa long as it tastes like cocoa...and it does.

So if you like cocoa cream, you'll like the filling in these. 

It's what's outside that I wasn't as big a fan of. The cookies were more crumbly than "crispy" in my humble opinion, and a tad dry apart from their scrumptious centers. The outer cookie layer is slightly sweet, but overall not particularly flavorful, rich, or memorable in any way. I must confess I didn't attempt dipping them in coffee or milk or anything—and I should have. I could see them being highly dunkable, which might have greatly benefited these cookies in terms of their slight dryness and dullness.

Sonia didn't mind the outer cookie layer as much, and she thinks it blended well with the cocoa filling. She's certainly not wrong there, but I'd just as soon take any other decent crispy cookie or shortbread cookie and slather them with cocoa spread, rather than return to these elegantly-packaged and pleasantly-presented "pinwheels."

But don't get me wrong, I'm not hatin'. They're still delicious on the inside—worth every penny of $1.79. I had forgotten they were so inexpensive. 

The lovely Sonia shall bestow these pinwheels with four out of five stars. Put me down for three. 

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Trader Joe's Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese

For a few months off and on now, we've been making a big deal of how versatile cauliflower can be. Who knew a vegetable I detested as a child could have so many tasty applications? Not me. Cauliflower has absolutely redeemed itself.

Now that it's fall...can we turn our attention to butternut squash?

Squash is something I hated as a kid. Don't know why, and can't recall ever really eating any growing up. I think it was one of those horrors I heard about from other kids, like not being allowed to watch The Simpsons or listen to MC Hammer, or even worse, being forced to go to dance recitals. Though I was stuck going to my older bro's marching band competitions. Blahh.

Anyways, back to squash. The past few autumns have featured some squashy-themed deals from our favorite grocery store (some good, some not), and this year has a new entry: Trader Joe's Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese.

One word: Yummmmmmmmmmm. So much comfort going on here.

Everything about this dish screams "hearty." The rigatoni is big and reasonably firm for a frozen entree, and is kinda underrated, but enough about that. Let's talk that cheese sauce. It's really something else. Made with a holy trio of gouda, cheddar and parmesan cheeses, it's thick and creamy and oozes that comfort vibe. It's a hint smoky and ever so slightly sharp, and accented with some pepper and cayenne that add a small, welcome, savory kick. So good as is, I feel no need to add anything else to it. This TJ's mac is legit.

Almost makes me forget there's butternut squash pureed in to the sauce. Seems to add an extra hearty, earthy oomph, but the squash is otherwise unobtrusive overall. My kids had no idea it was in there.

It's $4.99 for the tray, which given the premium cheeses and whatnot involved, seems to be a reasonable value. It's easily enough for two folks in there. And all it takes is a few minutes in the microwave or oven, and a good stir to get that tasty sauce out everywhere. Convenient and comfy, this may be a fall freezer staple. Make room, cauliflower - you got some company.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons