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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Trader Joe's Ramen Soup

Might not yet be back-to-school time for all the pre-college crowd, but university arrival is in full swing out here in the 'burgh. As home to several major schools in close proximity to each other, the local Targets and WalMarts are overflooded right now with masses of aspiring scholars getting their futons and table lamps and God knows whatever else.

And chances are, ramen noodles too. Need your stockpile.

Amazing I didn't suffer from malnourishment during college, as for three years I literally lived off of ramen and Papa John's pizza. Can barely touch ramen since, let alone it's slightly fancier cousin, that Cup o' Noodle feller.

There's a new twig on the ramen family tree: Trader Joe's Ramen Soup. There's presently two varieties as you can see: miso and chicken. Not that typically "flavors" matter for ramen - it's supersalty cheap carbs. It's only a matter of what color the seasoning packet is, right?

Well, I've admittedly only tried the chicken variant, but even from it, I can tell these soup cups are a decent buy. There's not just a seasoning (read: salt) packet inside, but also a small flavoring oil baggie, which when mixed with hot water makes a frothier, almost "creamier", slightly richer soup broth. The noodles are pretty basic ramen, with nothing too fancy about them, so the decent broth is a real nice plus.

A word about the noodles, though: There's two ways these can be prepped. You can either pour in tap water and microwave, or pour in hot water and let it sit. Sandy said the second non-nuking method seems to work better, as the noodles seem to "cook" better and have a better texture to them.

At a little over a buck each, these TJ ramen cups seem a little pricier than any I'd remember from college...then again, everything's more expensive than 15 years ago and I was being spoiled by 1o packages of ramen for a buck back then, too. Haven't really kept tabs on ramen market prices since then. We'll be picking these up, especially as the weather finally begins to cool, for a quick and easy lunch / small carbo-loading boost at work type deal. It's not the fanciest in the world but for what they are, they're pretty good. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Ramen Soups: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Mac & Cheese

This isn't the first gluten free mac and cheese we've looked at on this blog, but this is the first frozen gluten free mac and cheese at which we have looked.

If you've been reading this blog for a long time, you'll know that Sonia and I consider ourselves "gluten-sensitive" but haven't been diagnosed with any actual conditions that would warrant a strict gluten-free diet—although non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a legit condition, and eating bread can cause schizophrenia, apparently, among other things, in just about anyone. Every once in a while, we'll choose gluten free because we're not anxious to feel any uncomfortable bloating, but after reading articles like this one, I'm thinking it might not be a terrible idea to avoid gluten as often as possible.

But still, there's the matter of taste. It's hard to eat something that doesn't taste good or have the right texture. All four of us at WG@TJ's are more than happy to take one for the team and try gluten free and vegan items not out of necessity, but for the sake of intrepid food blogging. We know many of you have more dietary restrictions than we do, and we respect that. Plus, we can provide a comparison to the "normal" counterpart of any special diet items. How does this offering fare? Read on.

I'll tell you right now Sonia is a huge fan of this product. I have mostly positive sentiments, but I do have my share of reservations. Let's start with the good stuff first.

What they got right: the four cheese combo. The cheese here is delicious, and there's plenty of it. They didn't skimp. Every piece of pasta is slathered in that scrumptious blend of cheddar, swiss, havarti, and gouda.

It's a good thing, too, because the pasta itself doesn't bring as much to the table in terms of flavor. It's pretty bland. Not sure why wheat pasta tastes a little better than this corn and rice-based offering. Maybe we're just more used to wheat. Or maybe it's all that yummy, schizophrenia-inducing gluten. Or maybe it's just the voices in my head telling me that wheat pasta tastes better.

As far as texture is concerned, Sonia says this pasta is slightly more rigid than traditional pasta, and that regular wheat pasta is "more chewy than this." I felt the texture of this pasta was not unlike that of wet paper—thick wet paper, mind you, but wet paper-esque, nonetheless, however, not to the point where the dish became unpleasant or difficult to eat. It simply had a texture I'm not used to.

Finally, we noticed that, despite a generous amount of flavorful cheese, there was very little oil or grease in the product. I mean, there's plenty of fat in there. But I'm always turned off when it's the kind of fat I can actually see pooling up on the top of my food.

All in all, we'll both recommend it, but Sonia will do so much more heartily than I will. We might purchase it regularly if it were just a bit cheaper, too. $3.49 for the frozen, microwaveable meal.

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

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Trader Joe's Chocolate Chunk Cantuccini

As I'm offically entering the later part of my thirties, I'm learning more and more that adulthood is a series of learning to embrace and enjoy different shades and forms of bitterness. It's not exactly a bad thing. Like coffee, for instance. Or alcohol. Or, even, disappointment. Those are all cups from which I drink often.

I'm on a small disappointment streak with TJ's products, and Trader Joe's Chocolate Chunk Cantuccini are just a continuation of that trend. I can partially pin all this on me. The other night, while semi-listening to my lovely bride prattle on about her most recent TJ's trip, I heard her say "blahblahblah chocolate something-chini biscotti blahlblahblah" which my mind instantly, without though, translated into chocolate zucchini bread-inspired biscotti. Now that sounds intriguing and seasonally appropriate, and maybe something zany that ol' Joe would whip up. If you haven't had good zucchini bread ever, I don't know what to tell you.

So, imagine my disappointment when I popped one of these kinda Italian mini biscuits in my mouth...and tasted just a regular old chocolate chip biscotti. Except smaller.


Cantuccini is what I should have heard, not zucchini. Not familiar with the term? Me neither, but apparently it's an almost interchangable term with biscotti (i.e., biscuit), except cantucci are apparently more from Tuscany, and the -ini means they're smaller. Meh.

It's small chocolate chip biscotti. Nothing more, nothing less. Kinda almondy and earthy, with a vague sweetness, without quite the flavor of a full blown chocolate chip cookie...yup. No icing or any extras, with only a few small chocolate bits to vainly try to break the monotony. And they're smaller, making them less handy to dunk into coffee or tea or milk or anything. They also seem crunchier, maybe due to their condensed size. Sandy said they didn't seem to soften up when dunked either.

Blah. Disappointment. I really wanted to love these bitty biskies, but nope. There's nothing special about them, nothing to set them apart. In a word, they're boring. I'm disappointed. But I can embrace that, I guess, along with some coffee. Such is life. Matching twos from our house to yours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chocolate Chunk Cantuccini: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Trader Joe's Sun Dried Apricots

Every time I eat apricots, I think of my childhood pet, Apricot. She was an apricot-colored miniature poodle. I called her Apricot because she was, well, apricot...and I'm a writer.

In my defense, though, I was only 6 years old when I named her. Also, for those of you who think poodles are sissy might be right. But they're also hypoallergenic for people like my mom who had a sensitivity to most breeds' fur and dander. I was just an elementary school kid who was very happy to have a dog at all. Apricot was my best friend until she passed away many years later while I was off at college.

Maybe that's why I don't eat apricots all that often. So sad. Apricot.

But these apricots are sun-dried, packaged in bright colors, and flaunt fun graphics and a whimsical font—one of the most cheerful-looking products I've seen in a while. There are three sections that break apart for easy travel with a peel-away top. Each little container has about 8-10 dried apricots, each roughly the size of a quarter. And to be honest, the packaging is the best part of the product.

Most of the apricots look pleasant enough, but Sonia and I both immediately observed that they're a bit more leathery than other dried apricots we've had. I know dried apricots tend to be a tad chewy, but I felt this offering was just a little too tough—not to the point where they were hard to chew once you had a piece in your mouth, but tearing off sections felt a bit too much like eating stiff beef jerky.

Flavor-wise, they were plenty sweet. There was nothing unpleasant about the taste at first, but we both agreed there was a slight odd aftertaste, almost as if there were a little too much of the "sulfur dioxide," which I assume is there as a preservative.

The three sections are super-convenient, and the price is reasonable at $1.49. If you need a blood sugar boosting snack that will easily fit in a small pocket, this isn't a bad product to reach for. We just can't tell you we were madly in love with these apricots. Three stars a piece here.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Trader Joe's Cold Brew Coffee Bags

Hot coffee in the hot summer time? Who does that?

Not me. Just can't. There's so little worse than it being hot and sticky, only to get hotter and stickier by ingesting copius amounts of anything warm. I'd personally be happy to not eat or drink anything that wasn't hovering around frozen from June to a week or so into September. We don't have AC, so don't judge.

Still gotta drink coffee cold brew does it. Gets pricy buying it one cup at a time. Source: my barren bank account. Sandy and I bought a mason jar filter contraption for make-at-home cold brew, which works well, but we'll sometimes resort to concentration-type concoction, or in this case, Trader Joe's Cold Brew Coffee Bags.

It's a simple concept, really. Put seven cups of water into a pitcher, stick in a couple of these coffee beanie bags, let it steep and chill overnight. It's premeasured and convenient and all that - it should be idiot proof. We know enough from experience now that if ratio of bean to liquid is off, it'll ruin the whole cup.

And by coffee beanie bag, I mean, think of a tea bag, or some coffee grounds sealed inside a filter. Works, right? Right?


I'll say this. It's a good concept, but not the best results. Neither Sandy nor I really enjoyed the coffee. It just tasted flat, dull and like dirt, which I wasn't fully expecting from the write up on the bag. It sounds like pretty premium beans. And I'd expect more flavor and depth and character, I guess, based on my at-home or at-coffee shop expereinces.

Then it hit me. The fatal flaw. And it's rather obvious. The coffee is pre-ground and has been ground for days if not weeks or longer by the time we're using it. You can't beat fresh ground coffee beans, which is what I'm used to. Actually, you can, if you also roast your own, as my dad does, but that's another story. It's not to say that these are stale, gross coffee - it's not - but there's a lot that's lost to time here.

All that being said, if you're the type who tends to doctor up your cuppa joe all orange mocha frappucino type, or add loads of cream and sugar and whatnot, this might be an okay base. It's not like you really taste coffee then anyways. But if you drink it black, as I do, you'd be better off with one of those aforementioned filter guys for an at-home batch. It's just as easy and convenient.

Eh well. These TJ cold brew pods cost like $5 for the four pack, which is enough for two large batches. So it's a decent value, but it's unlikely to be a repeat buy. Double twos here.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cold Brew Coffee Bags: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Trader Joe's Toasties

On some mornings, I stumble out of bed feeling like a complete wreck of a human being—like using the term "hot mess" to describe myself would simply fail to capture the sheer magnitude of all the insecurities and secret vulnerabilities I hide from the world with marginal success on a daily basis. It's nothing unique to me—at least I hope it's not. And it's definitely not all the time. But certain steamy Tuesday mornings in August, I'm just not ready to face all those minute little challenges that life dishes out from all directions: from those work files that just magically disappear from Google Drive, to my uncanny knack of grabbing the shopping cart with the squeaky wheel, to my unfortunate inability to spread butter on a piece of toast without destroying the bread—and a similar ineptitude at splitting bready products like this one right down their middles. 

In fact, that's really my only complaint about this product: each piece should be just a tad thicker, and they should come pre-sliced. That was Sonia's first comment as well. There's a thin seam along the outside edge of the toasties that indicates that they might be pre-sliced, but upon further inspection, one finds that they most definitely have not been.

I have problems cutting bagels down the middle, let alone something this thin. Yes, I know they make bagel slicers, but I don't consume bagels with enough regularity to justify buying one. These "toasties" are even thinner than English muffins. And splitting English muffins has always been one of those life challenges that makes me wish I'd stayed in bed instead of braving the kitchen in search of breakfast. "You've failed as a human being, Nathan Rodgers," that little voice whispers, as bread crumbs and muffin chunks spill across the counter and onto the floor. As far as this product is concerned, we'll just say that the picture of the product in the middle of this post wasn't my first attempt at slicing and buttering these happy sweet bread rounds.

Now eating this bread is another experience entirely. After tasting it, I stopped feeling pathetic and frustrated, and began enjoying my day. 

There's a bright, tart, citrusy flavor, and a nutty whole wheat taste, as well. I'm not a huge fan of orange peel by itself, but it works here since it's subtle and faint, and is mostly overshadowed by the cranberries. The sunflower seeds are a nice touch. It's like they baked a trail mix into a loaf of bread.

The consistency of this product is more similar to a regular loaf of wheat bread than it is to either English muffins or bagels, but I guess those keep coming to mind because of the comparable round shape. It's nice and soft, and it toasts well—as long as you can manage to keep each slice in one piece.

I liked mine with plain old butter as the only topping. There's plenty of flavor present in the bread, even without any condiments. Sonia experimented with various jellies we had around the house—I don't think she was quite as thrilled with the flavor as I was, but in the end, she'll give the product a thumbs up as well. Four stars from her. Four from me. $2.49 for six toasties.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Trader Joe's Big Soft Pretzels

Show me a person who says s/he doesn't like soft pretzels, and I'll show you a liar.

It's impossible to not enjoy a quality soft pretzel. I mean...salty carbs, what else do you need, right? Some folks say that Philadelphia is the capital of soft pretzels, but even though I'm from that area, I disagree to an extent. Philly-style soft pretzels are often cold, a bit stale-ish, a bit more "hard" than "soft", and if bought from a street vendor who hasn't had a health department inspection in a while, who know what "extras." I mean, given the opportunity, I'll down close to my weight in them - soft pretzel party platters from these guys are the devil - but an actual warm, soft, slightly chewy pretzel with a slightly crispy outer shell? Give me that all day long.

That's what we got with Trader Joe's Big Soft Pretzels. Straight up, there's nothing too fancy about them. At $2.49 for a frozen foursome of handsized dough knots, it's a respectable value but nothing to get too crazed about...

...except, man, as any good pretzel, they're freakin' delish. To prep, you may choose to either heat for a couple minutes in the oven, or let thaw for about an hour or so. Most other frozen soft pretzels say to microwave them, which is a cardinal sin. That makes the pretzels hard and tough and generally not as enjoyable.

Sandy made these TJ's softies as part of a light "snacky" dinner the other night using both methods. The pretzels heated in the oven were softier and almost flufflier on the inside than the one we let thaw out, which makes sense. It's a pretty plain dough, with slight eggy flavor from the shell, and both types had that requisite chewiness. Couldn't seem to really get the salt to stick to the thawed out one, though, as much as we tried.

Oh. Salt. There's plenty of it, in the typical big grain crunchy crystal variety. I'm not even sure we used 10% of it. The rest is going into the winter sidewalk deicing stash for sure.

Not much else to really say, it's a good pretzel. Eat as is, melt some cheese on top, dip into whatever you'd'll all work. Can't exactly go wrong. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Big Soft Pretzel: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Trader Joe's Neapolitan Joe-Joe's

When I first heard Neapolitan Joe-Joe's were a thing, I thought maybe there were chocolate Joe-Joe's, vanilla Joe-Joe's, and strawberry Joe-Joe's all in one package, kinda like the ice cream. But when I realized all three flavors were present in each Joe-Joe, I was even more curious. Which flavor would dominate? Wouldn't all three flavors be at odds with one another, kicking, biting, and scratching their way to beat the other two to your taste buds like a cutthroat free-for-all of flavors?

The short answer to that question is "no." They actually work together. But if you're wondering which flavor would have won that hypothetical miniature battle royale, I'll just go ahead and say in my humble opinion, strawberry would have. Strawberry creme. Heck yes. Sonia agrees.

Chocolate comes in second in this equation. I think that I, personally, might have enjoyed these cookies slightly more if they had gone with two vanilla cookies on either side of the strawberry creme and simply called them Trader Joe's Strawberry Joe-Joe's. That would have allowed the sweet, delicious strawberry flavor to shine even more. 

The chocolate cookie part of a sandwich cookie is usually not bad, but it rarely impresses me either. The chocolate cookies have a slightly more pungent taste than the vanilla cookies, but they blend well enough with the strawberry flavor that I didn't mind them much at all. After all, chocolate and strawberry is an excellent flavor combo.

We've tried a lot of Joe-Joe's and Joe-Joe derivatives throughout the years, and these are among the best. $2.99 for a pound of cookies. 3 rows of 11, all wrapped together in plastic and cellophane. I suppose it would add some cost and a little extra packaging, but individually wrapping each row might help keep some of the cookies fresher longer in case you're not planning on eating 33 cookies in one sitting—but for the sake of being "green" I guess we can put the remainder in ziplock baggies that we already have around the house. 

Double fours.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.