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Friday, March 27, 2020

Trader Joe's Chile & Garlic Cashews

Cashews have never been cheap. I grew up in a home full of nuts. And I mean that as a double entendre. All three of us in the home were nuts, and likewise, we frequently consumed nuts. All manner of nuts: pecans, pistachios, almonds, macadamias, and of course, cashews were very often our go-to snacks. 

I can recall, sometime in the middle of college, or perhaps shortly after graduating, getting a craving for cashews rather out of the blue. I walked into a convenience store in downtown State College, PA and tracked down a little bag of cashews. I don't remember exactly how much they were, but it was enough that I immediately dismissed the cashew craving and opted for a fifty cent bag of peanuts instead. My parents weren't wealthy people. Not sure how we afforded things like macadamia nuts and cashews on the regular. No wonder my dad had trouble paying the mortgage throughout my childhood.

But regardless of financial status, you've gotta splurge once in a while. These particular cashews are a good choice in our opinions. Six bucks for the bag is a little steep, but they are oh-so-tasty.

On top of the classic flavor of salted cashews, the blend of chile powder, garlic powder, and onion powder makes them even more savory, flavorful, and full of a spicy kick. It tingles the tongue and warms the back of the throat and begs to be chased by a cold beverage. These cashews will definitely make you thirsty. Sonia and I both absolutely love their flavor. 

They're roasted to perfection, pleasantly crunchy, and not too salty. There's a decent amount of sodium and fat, but you'll find that with many nut mixes. It's mostly "good fat" or so I'm told. 

I'd complain about them being imported all the way from India, but apparently there are very few places in the United States with a warm enough climate for cashew farming, so "buy American" can't really apply here. That's probably the main reason for the hefty price tags.

Sonia's going to try adding these to a stir fry. I'm sure they'll blend in seamlessly. We'll report back if anybody's interested...

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

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Trader Joe's Battered Halibut

Any other year, right around now, the most happenin' spots in Western PA on a Friday night are at the local Catholic church, school, or fire hall.

That's right, grab your pierogi tight and hold hope for haluski, we're talking fish fry dinners!

It's the best around here. So much fried fish, so little time. They're all over the place, with fillets so big it's questionable if it came from a regular fish or humpback whale. Mobbed with people, with long lines.... yeah, those ain't going on this year any more. We got to one, first Friday a few weeks back. See ya next year, we hope.

Doesn't mean you can't have a little consolation while hunkering down in fish fry-solation.

Is making a batch of Trader Joe's Battered Halibut the same as whatever Lenten sorcery that makes fish fry fish so good? No, of course not. There's certainly not the same ambiance, unless you happen to have a stash of cheap faded plastic lunch trays from the 1980s stashed at your house. Those definitely help.

But you know what? It's darn good fish. My lovely bride and I snagged a couple boxes for our at-home fish fry for our crew. Coulda baked them. Coulda put them in air fryer and baked the fries...or air fry the fries, and deep fry fish on our own in my trusty cast iron. Sacrifice tastes best when deep fried, so that's exactly what we did. If the Good Lord wants our hearts, He may as well have our arteries as well.

There's much good to be had here. Love the batter - it's neither too much with too many crunchies a la KFC chicken, nor too skimpy. It's just right, and crisps up nicely and evenly when fried, in a warm, happy glow. Tastes great too...and gluten free! Corn and rice flour, apparently. Whatever, it works, and works great.

The fish is pretty tasty too. The halibut is mild and fresh, and plenty fleshy. Admittedly there's not much flavor in the fish itself, as it seems mostly derived from the batter. That's no matter, it works really well, or can easily stand up to having a little hot sauce, or tartar, or squeeze of lemon, or whatever.

In other words, these halibut fillets are a perfectly good substitute for an at-home fish feast, and as bonus, there's no priest around asking for donations for the school AC that's been broke since 1975. No 50/50s either though.

And of course it should go without saying that you don't have to enjoy them the way we did. Fish 'n chips? Baked? Just eat 'em without thinking about 'em too much? Sure thing to all that and more!

There's seven fillets per box, each being probably four to five large bites, and a serving considered two fillets. At $8.99 for the halibut, it's not exactly cheap but enough for 3 folks, and the average fish fry dinner costs at least that much each, so for us there's some value there. In a rare move, it got a thumbs up from everyone in our little family. Nothing wrong with a little comfort in some trying times. Life is better when you focus on what you have and not on what you don't. Thanks for getting our backs, TJ's.

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

Monday, March 23, 2020

Trader Joe's Organic Sparkling Yerba Mate Beverage

Yerba mate. Ginkgo biloba. Myocardial infarction. Antidisestablishmentarianism.

There are some words and phrases I don't get to say on a daily basis, but I wish I did. Dispensational premillennialism, for example.

I guess I should have been a theologian, herbalist, or doctor if I really wanted to say those words. 

Wait. Does anyone really get to say "antidisestablishmentarianism" on a regular basis? Pretty sure they just made up that word for the purposes of fun facts and spelling bees. Anyway, I wish I had occasion to say it more often. 

On the other hand, meh. The grass is always greener, methinks. I should just be grateful I get to say "yerba mate" a few times on this glorious day...another day of social distancing and elbow bumps instead of handshakes. A day full of other wonderful phrases like "shelter in place," "toilet paper hoarders," "hydrochloroquine," and "cytokine storm" --things I never imagined I'd come to say on the regular. Yet here we are. It's a brave new world of weird new phrases.

Can't say I know much about yerba mate. I've had a yerba mate hot tea or two, thanks to the lovely Sonia, a veritable tea aficionado. It has an earthy and faintly bitter tea-ish flavor. I guess it has antioxidants or something like that, too. Sounds good. I like antioxidants. I'm quite certain it's a placebo effect, but I always feel better when I eat and drink stuff that's rich in antioxidants.

This tea is no exception. Maybe it's the caffeine, but it's invigorating somehow. It's super refreshing and the flavor is light, flowery, and faintly citrusy. It's a very interesting flavor, especially considering there's no sugar and zero calories. The carbonation is a nice touch. It's bubbly, but not overly so. And I love me some carbonation. It makes everything that much fancier. Take water, for example. It comes out of your tap, basically for free. Add carbonation, some weak flavoring, and stick it in a can? Suddenly you can sell an 8 pack for $3.38 at the local Walmart.

I think carbonated iced teas are the future. I hope to see more drinks like Trader Joe's Organic Sparkling Yerba Mate Beverage. $1.49 per bottle. I give it four stars. I was quite certain Sonia would like it even more than I did, but she wasn't blown away by the taste. She expressed a desire for a stronger flavor—more hibiscus in particular. Three stars from her.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Trader Joe's Organic Cold Pressed Orange Juice

Lots of things seem backwards and out of order these days. You don't need me telling you that.

But man...if I can't even make sense out of a product name, that's when I know I'm in trouble.

See this: Is this Trader Joe's Organic Cold Pressed Orange Juice? That's a logical name to me. But that's not what the label says. It says: Trader Joe's Organic Orange Juice Cold Pressed from top to bottom. If a little punctuation were tossed in, say, to make it Organic Orange Juice - Cold Pressed or even Organic Orange Juice, Cold Pressed, those make sense to me too. But not as it is. And since my teachers always urged me to think outside the box, I'm not relying on the green background rhombi for too much clarity, and instead will name this product based solely on what makes most sense to me.

Call it focusing on what I can control. It's what I (we?) all need right now, even in small instances.

Whatever this OJ is actually called, it's good! Cold pressed juices always seem to get the very best out of its ingredients. I don't profess to know the magic behind it, but man, love the results, time and time again.

TJ's cold pressed OJ, new out, is no exception. It's of medium consistency, with some pulp but not too much. Most folks would find it accessible in that regard, I think. And it's nothing but oranges either - no added sugar or water or anything, so results may vary bottle to bottle. But it tastes like pure, unadulterated orange - tangy, ripe, sweet but not too much of any of those - in a bright, citrusy fashion Tasty enough to savor despite my inner compulsion to chug.

The price is a little debatable, or could be to some. Cold pressed juices tend to be pricier, and at $1.99 for a small single serving bottle, you can make out of that as you will. It strikes me as fair enough, but not a price that I'd willingly stock up on for every day use.

And of course, it's got all the vitamins and minerals and goodie-goodies. Loads of Vitamin C - it's nearly twice the daily recommended in just one bottle. And that even in "normal" times isn't a bad thing. Scurvy anyone? No thanks.

But I enjoyed my bottle full, and kinda hoping that the extra one I bought theoretically for my lovely bride will be ignored over the next couple days to the point where I wouldn't feel guilty partaking of it. That's not under my control, naturally, but then again, what really is when it comes down to it?

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Cold Pressed Orange Juice: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Trader Joe's Vegan Mac

Like...couldn't you just make vegan cheese by getting milk from vegan cows? Y'know? Just feed the cows, like, only grass and hay and plants and other vegan stuff. Then you'd have milk from vegan cows, which, logically would be vegan milk, right? Why'd Trader Joe's have to go and use coconut milk and stuff?

Hopefully it goes without saying that I'm joking. But, unfortunately, in this day and age, it doesn't.

I'm here to tell you that even if you're not vegan or lactose-intolerant, this mac is edible, if nothing else. If the coronapocalypse shoppers have cleaned the local TJ's out of Joe's Diner Mac and Cheese and all the other lactose-laden varieties, you can go ahead and buy this one and at least give it a whirl. It doesn't quite have the comfort food quality of real mac and cheese, but there's a distinct creaminess and faint butternut squash flavor that's fairly pleasant in my opinion.

For vegans and dairy-free folks, this might be a game-changer. Sonia and I have tried "mozzarella" non-cheese before that we both found utterly revolting. That's not the case here at all. The unique blend of coconut milk, butternut squash, and various oils yields something unusual and cheese-esque, without trying too hard to make cheese out of stuff that is clearly not cheese.

Sonia noticed a slight oddness to the taste right at the finish. She said it wasn't like a lingering aftertaste, but just a hint of something that was a little out of place. I guess I might have noticed it, too, but it's extremely subtle. You'll get that when you mix five kinds of oils together. I'm telling you we just need to start milking vegan cows...

The macaroni were shell-shaped and larger than I'm used to in mac and cheese. They might have been slightly softer than most mac, too. You can heat on the skillet or in the microwave. We tried each one, both yielding very similar results.  

Trader Joe's Vegan Mac doesn't have a super long shelf life and needs to be refrigerated, so it's not like it's great apocalypse food. Eat that perishable stuff while you still can. After the third week of rice and beans, people will start killing for stuff like fresh mac, vegan or not. $4.49 for the tub. I think you could get four good servings out of it, honestly, especially if it's just a side accompanying a larger meal. 

Scoring this as lactose-loving non-vegans, we'll go with three and a half stars a piece.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Trader Joe's Kung Pao Chicken Mochi Balls

I've said before I'm an eater, not a foodie. This means I'm not necessarily all that well educated in different food terms. Longtime readers of this blog probably know that already.


As far as I knew, mochi was only a term for ice cream treats! You know what I mean - those little rice dough covered balls of frozen deliciousness. A little chewy and odd on the outside, creamy and delicious in the middle, and once accustomed to them they make an awesome snack. That's all what I ever knew mochi to be without ever having much reason to look into it further. I knew I liked mochi already.

So imagine my initial reaction when I heard of the new Trader Joe's Kung Pao Chicken Mochi Balls.

Intriguing? Yes! are they gonna incorporate ice cream into that?

Obviously, there's no ice cream here. Mochi is just a general term, more or less, for the rice dough balls which can be served in a variety of ways. TIL.

But anyways on to the mochi - oh goodness.

I can say that in relation to a lot of different factors here. That rice dough? It's a marvel, especially when cooked in an air fryer! Dry, dusty, crusty on the the outer shell, but that's just so, so shallow a layer that somehow hold plenty of crisp with a little crunch. The flipside (the innards) is completely different - wet, doughy, moist. Yes, I hate that word too. But it all suggest a slight bit of almost sauciness - that's the wrong word, but I don't know what else to use - when interacting with the rest of the set up. More on that coming up next paragraph. But really, for so thin a shell, the mochi is AMAZING with two very different, very enjoyable experiences. I'd suggest to maximize it use an air fryer instead of oven if you have it - about 10 minutes at 400 made 'em just right.

And the filling? Wow. It's HOT.

As in spicy? Yes. Kung pao usually has a couple heat notches. All the spices and peppers and whatnot combine into a pretty potent punch. It won't be the spiciest thing you'll ever eat, but I don't feel as though they're for the faint of tongue, either.  Despite that, I can still taste the chicken and garlic too. I love when spice enhances and doesn't overpower other foods, and that seems the case here.

But it's also HOT in the physical sense. As in, not cold. Those mochi shells hold some heat! I cracked one open and tried to let it cool for a few minutes before eating - still burned my tongue a little. Have a glass of water nearby, or prepare to let us sit and cool for quite some time.

I love 'em. My only complaint is I wish there was a bit more filling as the package picture implies - however I'm glad it's also not that magenta glow either. So there's that. The kung pao mochi has a fair price point too I'd say - it's $3.49 for a pack of eight golf ball sized dumplin's. My lovely bride enjoys them too, and they ought to be in the regular Asian-inspired dinner rotation. 4.5 from me and a solid 4 from her.

Save the ice cream for after!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Kung Pao Chicken Mochi Balls: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, March 13, 2020

Trader Joe's Mandarin Style Orange Chicken Bowl

While Sonia and I were on the road, traveling almost every day sometimes for weeks on end, we'd often take advantage of Walmart parking lots for quick overnight stops. Most locations welcomed RVers with open arms for up to 24 hours. Many were adjacent to strip malls, mini malls, and occasionally classic indoor malls. And, of course, many of these malls had a Panda Express as part of their lineup of eateries and shops. 

At this point I should mention I've been referring to Panda Express as "Poison Panda" since college. No, I'm not racist against Asians. I have cute little nicknames for every fast food chain including Toxic Bell, Booger King, Pizza Butt, and Jack in the Crack. Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that, perhaps part of some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, not once but twice, Sonia and I fell ill after eating Poison Panda on the road. We had running water in our RV, but for those of you familiar with RVing, it's very limited. You can't take 30 minute long showers, use a gallon of water for each flush, and run the sink the whole time you brush your teeth. You have to dump your tanks and refill your fresh water often unless you're extremely frugal with your usage. All that to say, if you're sick in an RV, it's not fun, and I'm not a fan of Panda since. Maybe I should just stop calling them "Poison Panda," and I'll have better luck. Law of Attraction and all that.

Fortunately, now I can get my orange chicken fix without going to a restaurant. Yes, I know there are decent orange chicken offerings that come frozen in bags and can be made on the skillet, but if you're pressed for time or want a decent break room lunch-at-work type of deal, this selection is quite satisfying.

Prep is simple. 4-5 minutes in microwave, thaw sauce in warm water, mix, serve. It's pretty close to restaurant quality as far as taste, but it's pert near impossible to make any kind of breaded chicken come out perfectly in the microwave. It's on par with Poison Panda orange chicken after you reheat the leftovers. I was surprised how much food there was in the bowl. It was actually filled to the brim. Maybe it's because we eat way less meat these days, but we were also impressed with the plentiful amounts of chicken in the mix. I might ask for more carrots, peas, and broccoli in place of some of the rice, but it was still a decent ratio as it was.

The included orange ginger sauce alone is adequate as far as condiments are concerned. I wouldn't have minded a tad more of it, but there's enough in the packet to coat the pieces of chicken and even some of the veggies and rice. You could throw in some soy sauce or sriracha if you were so inclined. I added a clove of raw garlic to mine, because I LOVE me some garlic and it has tons of health benefits. Also, I hate vampires. Go Team Jacob.

$3.99 for the bowl. Four and a half stars from Sonia. Four from me.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Pizza Dough

So, what kinda pizza crust do you prefer?

Thin, airy, crispy, and crackery? Delicious.

That thin but incredibly flexible New York style, that somehow hold everything together though it defies logic? Noooommmmm.

Deep dish, with some burned edges, with a required tenacity to chew and chomp? Thinking about you, Chicago and Detroit. Oh goodness yes.

That typical cardboard stuff for half the freezer pizzas out there? Yeah, not so much.

My preference? When I was young, I asked my grandma which grandkid was her favorite. She simply replied "Whichever one I'm looking at." Similarly, my favorite pizza crust is generally the one I am eating, unless it's one of those aformentioned frozen pies that I wish were something else.

Well, the other night, for the first time and at the urging of the good peeps at the North Hills/McCandless Crossing (Pittsburgh) store, I had Trader Joe's Gluten Free Pizza Dough.

As you can see by the second photo, my lovely bride and I cheated a bit by making breadsticks with the dough to go alongside oour pasta dinner. Mmm, carbs with carbs. It's a successful enough business model for both Olive Garden and Panera, so don't judge.

Still...surprisingly, it worked. Texture and moutfeel is huge for dough, and gluten free stuff can miss the mark. Not so much here, on one condition: if you can be open to slightly chewy dough. That'd be the best word. Nah, it wasn't quite rubbery, and the edges that got hit with a little extra EVOO did get a litle toasty and crunchy, but really, the main feel was chewy, in a way that worked.

Other than that, this TJ's gluten free dough didn't particularly stand out in any way. That's kinda compliment, in its own way. The taste seemed right on, enough that I wouldn't have necessarily guess gluten free if I didn't know it was. Plain yet comforting. I like it.

The main ingedients are tapioca and rice. Well, that explains the chewiness a bit. A bit plain, for sure - a litlte rosemary or herb wouldn't be uncalled for, but not everyone likes that kinda deal either. The dough was simple enough to work with as well - it took a bit to flatten down and I have my doubts whether or not it's make a full 12 inch circle like the directions say it will. However, I didn't allow for ther full 30 minute warm to room temp time either, cuz man, on weeknights, who's got THAT kinda time? I sure don't.

Good dough, and good call from the peeps at my favorite TJ's. Overall I like this dough much better than the cauliflower crust kinda dealie TJ has. I'm not sure I could make it my everytime go-to pizza dough, but it can be in the rotation for sure. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Gluten Free Pizza Dough: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Trader Joe's Sparkling Strawberry Juice Beverage

I've always been a tinfoil hatter. I won't get into my specific beliefs or reveal my true level of crazy because 1) this isn't a conspiracy blog and 2) your well-intentioned requests for me to seek professional help will fall on deaf ears and be a big waste of time for both of us.

But in light of coronavirus doom and stock market doom, I have to start factoring in "prep-value" for these various items we're picking up at Trader Joe's. We'll see if the powers that be throw in a world war and go for the ultimate trifecta of doom. Either way, it can't hurt to have a deep pantry. 

Anyway, things like shelf life, nutritional value, cost, and even stackability have always been factors that I've considered, but may focus on more so nowadays. I like square or cube-shaped packages because they utilize limited space so efficiently. However, most preppers would argue that things like...I dunno...maybe like water would be something to look into before strawberry soda. So the whole premise of this review and lack of an appropriate segue means you just wasted a bunch of time reading these first three paragraphs and I wasted even more than that writing them. Hey, I mentioned I was crazy all the way back at the beginning.

Appropriate for the end of days or not, Trader Joe's Sparkling Strawberry Soda is unique and refreshing, if nothing else. In terms of packaging style, sweetness level, carbonation, and overall intensity of flavor, it's very similar to the watermelon juice we saw last year. It's a subtle flavor compared to, say, strawberry-flavored Fanta, and not nearly as sugary. I'm perfectly fine with the lack of syrupy sweetness here.

Trader Joe's also put out an offering a couple years back that flaunted both strawberry and rhubarb flavor that was reminiscent of this beverage. I liked the rhubarb element more than I thought I would, and I kind of miss it here. Still, plain old strawberry has always been a great flavor for everything from pies to jams to ice cream, and I think it's highly underrated in the world of soda. I'll take a strawberry carbonated beverage over a cola any day of the week.

The product costs about four bucks, and you get four small (8.45 oz) cans. While the pricing isn't outrageous, it's not a particularly great value in my book, especially since I could down all four cans in one sitting after a half a mile hike on a warm day. In general, pretty packaging and quality ingredients don't come cheap.

Sonia loves the flavor and would happily purchase another box. Four and a half stars from her. While I'm okay with the taste, I think I'd opt for the more exotic strawberry rhubarb soda if I had a choice between the two. Finding a way to keep the cost down would also be a big plus for me. Three and a half stars from this guy.

I don't think anything super doomy will happen soon, but even mentions "drought, pestilence, bandits" and "zombie apocalypse" at the bottom of each and every product description page. Could they be sending us a message?

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Trader Joe's Soft-Baked Snickerdoodles

Sometimes, there's just the easy choices.

For Career Day at my daughter's school, I could either talk about my fulltime day job - insurance verifications and authorizations for a medical equipment company. It's good enough work, for sure, but, well, kinda talking about it even bores me.

Or....I could talk about this here fine blog you're now reading and win them over with a treat.

Clear choice. Cookies always win.

Of course, since it's kids with any myriad of food allergies or senstivities, and you don't want to leave anyone out, gotta make sure you have something easy, safe and tasty for everyone. On recommendation from Debi, another great member of the crew at the McCandless Crossing / North Hills store, I picked up several boxes of Trader Joe's Soft Baked Snickerdoodles. Look at them...if you're allergic to anything in there, I'm sorry, I can't help you. Easy choice.

And here's yet another one: would you rather have me do a full usual review, which Nathan covered admirably well in our blog's fledgling stage...or hear what all those pretty awesome second graders had to say?

Right, I figured. So here we go, actual student quotes. No names or anything for privacy's sake. But all are accurate. Here we go, with occasional commentary by me.

Me: "Everyone, you know how grownups are always right, right?" Mixed response ensues. "Well, plenty of grownups have told me how good these cookies are, but here's a chance for anyone to say what they did or did not like about these cookies!"

The Good

"They're really good. They taste like they have cinnamon in them."

"I like everything about them, especially the cinnamon."

"It was delicious because of the cinnamon."

"I liked the chewy texture. I liked that it was a chewy cookie."

"I liked that they were soft and squishy. I don't like hard cookies."

"I can taste the pumpkin in it."

Apparently we hit a home run with the cinnamon fans! And no, there's no pumpkins in the cookies, but there is kinda a mild pumpin pie spice vibe to them, so I get where that student was coming from.

The Mixed 

"There's a little bit too much cinnamon" said one student, to which his friend immediately replied "You can never have too much cinnamon!"

"I would say it's a little bit good and a little bad because the only thing I can taste is cinnamon."

"It's a little bit bad because there's too much sweetness."

"I liked it but it tasted kinda sandy."

Fixated on the cinnamon still, apparently. Sweet and sandy? Sounds like my lovely bride!

The Bad

"I don't like them at all. Too much sugar!"

"The cookie made my throat hurt."

The "too much sugar" comment came from a student dressed up as a baker. I'll assume that she knows her stuff. There was no elaboration on the throat comment, but perhaps that was to say they were a bit dry. Agreed, some milk would pair nicely.

Special Bonus Quote from the School Nurse while Reviewing Ingredients for Any Possible Allergens

"Well, if they don't have any of that stuff in there, what is in here? Hmm, dates, flaxseed, sorghum...yeah, these will make ya have to go. Ooh, rosemary too? In a cookie? That's...unusual. But nice. Yeah, these will be fine."

There we have it. Most comments and insights aligned pretty closely to all the good comments, and when asked for Golden Spoon grading, nearly everyone wanted to give them a perfect ten. That's pretty overwhelming. A few wanted to go lower, with the lowest from the future baker who said she'd only give them a four. A four?!?! She must make really good cookies then.

All around winner and a fun day back in second grade.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Soft Baked Snickerdoodles: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Special thanks to Debi, Marlin and the entire crew at the McCandless Crossing/North Hills Pittsburgh TJ's location for their kind donation of the cookies. Once again, the best thing at Trader Joe's is absolutely the crew! You all are the reason why we come back. 

Also special thanks to the teachers and administration of my daughter's school for allowing me to come in and have in a great time in the classroom!

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Trader Giotto's Gnocchi al Gorgonzola

Unfortunately, I've never had the pleasure of trying gnocchi from an Italian restaurant. Maggiano's, Buca di Beppo, Olive Garden—been to them all numerous times and I'm not even sure if they sell gnocchi, honestly. Probably better off trying it from a mom and pop's place rather than any of those chains, anyway. I would have sampled it long ago if someone would have drawn my attention to it. 

But as far as I can recollect, the only gnocchi I've ever had has been from Trader Joe's. Frozen grocery store fare is the extent of my experiential knowledge of the subject. To wit, I'm no expert. Sonia's got a slightly better reference point since she's had a gnocchi dish or two in some elegant Los Angeles eatery, the name of which escapes her, before we ever met.

At this fine, nameless Italian establishment, she recalls the gnocchi being "puffy," "fluffy," and nearly "airy." She thinks it tasted and felt primarily potato-based, possibly with some egg. The pasta here, while it does contain potato, is doughy, dense, and slightly chewy. The primary ingredient is durum wheat semolina. It's not unappetizing by any means. It's certainly not "rubbery"—nor would we use the word "gummy." Chewy? Yes. A little.

In my relative ignorance, I happily chomped away on the dish, thinking the texture was just fine. It wasn't hard to overlook its imperfections, because the cheese sauce stole the show. It wasn't an intense flavor, but it was complex, creamy, and savory. If you like fancy Italian cheeses, this easy-to-prepare pasta dish is worth a looksee just to sample a bit of this gourmet gorgonzola.

If only because of my subliminal repulsion to fungi, I probably would have enjoyed the cheese significantly less had I been cognizant of the fact that gorgonzola is a type of "blue cheese," i.e., it's made with veins of blue-green mold growing through it. There's no indication of its mold-factor when looking at the odd, angular chunks of frozen cheese that come in this bag. They're just a solid, creamy off-white. 

Since the cover art on the packaging does approximate the actual look of the final product—minus those weird dark flecks of god-knows-what on top, I opted to show you what it looks like straight out of the freezer. Those big bricks melt and seamlessly coat each piece of gnocchi by the end of the preparation process.

Tasty cheese. Pasta that doesn't exactly melt in the mouth. Super easy prep. $2.99. We're looking at about four stars from me on Trader Giotto's Gnocchi al Gorgonzola. Put Sonia down for three and a half.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Trader Joe's Limone Alfredo Sauce

Ay yi yi.

A couple weeks ago, my lovely bride was mildly displeased with me. There could be any multitude of reasons why, but this one stuck out to me: on a busy night, she quickly roasted some veggies (Brussel spouts or green beans or something, doesn't matter) and sprinkled some garlic salt atop. She then mentioned how good they tasted. I, before tasting them, wished to put some Asian crushed chilis on my portion for a treat. This notion was somewhat offputting to her as I "didn't even taste" her "creation" before dumping whatever I felt like on it. Mmmkay. Disney version of what happened next: I deferred, as perhaps there's not some battles really worth waging...right dear? I love you.

Fastforward to late last week, when on another busy night, I made some quick chicken alfredo using the newish Trader Joe's Limone Alfredo Sauce. Just the sauce, some penne, and chicken. Sure, it was nothing fancy, but a creation of some sort nonetheless, plus as a targeted review item I wanted to have an honest opinion of the unaltered product....

What does my lovely bride do? Before tasting, she sprinkles some black pepper atop hers. I noticed and said nothing, but brought it up before writing this review. "It's because I know I like pepper on my alfredo," she said. Well...okay.

I'd give her a harder time about it, but man, that was a good idea. The Limone Alredo sauce (can I just call it "lemon alfredo" from here on out?) was a pretty great little sauce. Good stuff. Creamy and cheesy, rich with parmesan reggiano, with a little twist of lemon just to brighten everything up without going too tart or sour, well balanced...but it just needed a little extra something. And lo and behold, a little sprinkle of black pepper would be just about right. My wife is pretty smart and intuitive.

Alfredo sauce, in general, isn't a big deal with me. I can be either way, but this TJ's lemon-tinged one definitely strikes me as a good one, and is much preferable over a plain one. For my noods I'd rather go with a good marinara or a lighter melt some butter/sprinkle some cheese approach, but I can swayed to this again. I'd imagine it'd work well in any variety of alfredo-inspired dishes, with various proteins and veggies and whatnot. I'd love to slather some on some zucchini, in fact, but that'll be a next time kinda deal.

With her expert insight and addition, Sandy gives this sauce a solid 4.5, and only that because she, in her own words, "rarely gives anything a 5." Good deal. I can't say I'm as huge a fan, but maybe if I put some of those Asian crushed chilis on it...I kid, I kid. I'll do a 3.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Limone Alfredo Sauce: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, February 28, 2020

Trader Joe's Vegan Chicken-Less Seasoning Salt

I find it kinda funny how they decided to market this particular blend of spices. I wouldn't limit myself to only using this seasoning with vegan dishes...unless, of course, I were vegan. And I would think just about any spice would be considered vegan to begin with, unless it contained cheese—like the elote blend.

Anyway, onion, garlic, and turmeric are some of my favorite flavors on earth, so how do they go together? Quite well, just as I'd assumed. Tastes like chicken? Hmm. Well, lots of things do—particularly other non-red meats. This product? Not so much. Again, I'm totally fine with that, I just can't get over the marketing wizardry at play here.

I mean, it does sorta taste like the broth you get with chicken-flavored ramen soup. It's much more potent and flavorful than that, and a lot better quality, too. I don't think they put a lot of turmeric in ten cent fake chicken ramen, although maybe they should. Not only does the flavor go well with most soups, but it flaunts loads of health benefits, as well.

The flavor is somewhat salt-forward, by my estimation, but it's hard to stifle the savory flavors of garlic, onion, and turmeric together. None are significantly bolder than the others. Combined, they add a nice pungent zest to foods that otherwise might be on the bland side. We tried it with some potatoes and green beans and weren't disappointed. We had it with salmon, too, and were pleasantly surprised. 

I think this product is significantly more versatile than the aforementioned elote seasoning that we looked at earlier this week. Almost anywhere you'd want garlic, it's not going to hurt to have sea salt, onion, and turmeric as well. This seasoning just brings a broader spectrum of taste than any single one of its constituent parts. Sonia agrees and gives the product a thumbs up. She immediately compared it to Knorr Chicken Flavor Bouillon, something she grew up with. She likes this blend at least as much as Knorr's, so I think we're looking at four stars a piece here.

January and February 2020 have been long months. I think tonight we'll get warm, watch a movie, and have some chicken-less soup for the soul.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Trader Joe's Pearl Sugar Cookies

Um, sorry. Just sitting down to write this review, and I realize it's potentially very bad timing for some of you. It's gonna be the start of Lent when this gets published, it's a common deal to give up sweets...and here we are, leading off with a review of Trader Joe's Pearl Sugar Cookies.

My bad.

Let's get less awkward and just talk cookies. After all, if you're still reading this, you're either not observing a no-sweets Lent, or you feel pretty strong in your resolve, which is important so early in the game.

Mmm, pearl sugar. The only other experience I have with pearl sugar is with Belgian liege waffles, which are AMAZING. So, forgive me, but I really wanted these cookies to taste like Belgian liege waffles. I wanted them to magically be Belgian liege waffles but only in cookie form.

Spoiler: they're not. What these cookies are, though, are very decadent sugar cookies. Extremely. They may have been soft and crumbly when we first bought, but then by some voodoo I forgot we had them while my lovely bride was out of town for a week, so they sat atop our fridge until her return. That's the likely reason my most recent experiences with the cookies have been that they're still plenty bite-able but absolutely kinda dense and chewy, not the advertised "soft" word.

The batter itself is pretty rich. You can tell by the taste that there's a lot of eggs and butter ugh margarine in it, maybe enough to make Paula Deen repent. Sugar cookies aren't my favorite type - it'd take a extremely good sugar cookie to pass by an above-average chocolate chip, in my opinion - but if you're into sugar cookies, you'll like these quite a bit, I'm sure.

And then there's the pearl sugar, of course. Big ol' sugar beads are studded everywhere about the cookies. There's a really fun crunch to them, as one may expect, but with not as quite as sweet, sugary taste. It's...more refined than standard refined sugar? I don't know how to say that right. But it's different, if you've never experienced. And it's goood.

Good cookies. Just one seems more than enough. And if you're doing a no sweets Lent but all this sounds so good, here's a pro tip to run by your local priest: right now it's 46 days until Easter. Lent is supposed to be 40 days. Why the discrepancy? Because on Sundays, you're supposed to take a Sabbath from all work...including your fast. Lent has built in "cheat days." So go to TJ's, grab a box, and wait til the weekend. Cookies were $4 or $5, well worth the cost for a dozen. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Pearl Sugar Cookies: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, February 24, 2020

Trader Joe's Everything but the Elote Seasoning

Circa 2008, while living in California, Sonia and I and some of our friends took a Saturday afternoon to visit the L.A. Zoo. We'd all been there before, but the zoo was just one of those things we'd do if we were bored since it was close-by and not too expensive. It paled in comparison to the San Diego Zoo, but the two hour drive and heftier price tag made our visits there slightly less frequent. We'd had our fill of Disneyland that summer, so the local zoo was decided upon. 

After watching some listless, despondent animals and groups of tourists reenacting the Three's Company intro, we started to get hungry. We rounded a corner somewhere near the hippos, and spotted an unassuming Latina lady with a big metal cart. One of our friends shouted, "Let's get elote!"

I had to turn to Sonia and ask what elote was. Moments later, I was watching the other members of our crew slather mayonnaise onto corn on the cob. "You put mayo on corn on the cob?"

And not just mayo. But cotija cheese, sour cream, lime juice, and generous amounts of red chili powder. For a moment, I thought it strange. But after I tasted it? Love at first bite. I'd eaten corn on the cob my whole life, and all I could think was, "Why didn't white people think of this?" 

Salt, pepper, and butter seemed so boring after having my first taste of real elote, but since it's not readily available on street corners outside the Southland, we haven't had true elote in a while. But let me throw my initial thoughts about this product out there to start things off: 

Is Trader Joe's Everything But the Elote Seasoning a unique, delicious condiment? Absolutely. 

Does it taste like actual elote? Well...kinda.

There are definitely detectable amounts of tangy cheese, spicy chili, chipotle, and salt, all of which I consider good and authentic as far as elote flavor goes. But I'm a little mystified as to why sugar is the number one ingredient—and you can taste it. It's definitely much sweeter than any other elote flavored thing I've ever had. Sonia's guess is that it's emulating the sweetness of sweet corn, or trying to at least. I still feel like the product would have been a tad stronger had it not been so sweet. I also wish there were a little more lime flavor. There's some "citric acid" on the ingredients, but nothing really lemony or limey comes through. I guess we could always mix it with the chile lime seasoning since it's a bit more lime-a-licious.

It's definitely a little spicy. There's an almost immediate warming sensation on the tongue, and if you eat a good bit of it, you feel it in your tummy, too. It's not super intense, but it's noticeable. I think you have to enjoy spicy heat to some degree to really get into this product. Sonia and I both love a little flavorful spice.

We found it went well with popcorn. Just sprinkle a good amount on the top of a bowl and it will cascade off the top layer and coat the kernels farther down. It's also great with actual corn niblets. We heated up a plastic baggie of Bird's Eye and tried it that way. It's a little more authentic when you have real corn. We squeezed a lime wedge into the mix and found it helped with the flavor immensely. My mother-in-law made some sopa de fideo con pollo with this seasoning. She felt like the Everything But the Elote made it much more flavorful and interesting, and she's been eating authentic elote for decades. 

For us, the final test will come when we can get our hands on some local corn on the cob, not in season in the northern midwest right now. Come August-September, we'll definitely try it and report back. Or somebody who can secure good corn on the cob this time of year leave a comment below.

Zero calories. I'm guessing since you sprinkle such a relatively small amount on the food, that you're looking at like half a calorie per serving or so, and there's some FDA loophole that allows them to round down to nothing. I'm sure some food scientist will enlighten us in the comments below while finding a way to make me sound stupid for not understanding the comprehensive FDA rules and regs for food labels. I'm just making an off-handed observation that I find puzzling, since sugar obviously contains some calories. No biggie.

My biggest complaint is the sweetness. Sonia's main reservation is the flavor of the parmesan cheese vs what real elote tastes like with cotija and sour cream. In general, though, we like it and will be experimenting more in the coming days and weeks. We're thinking we'll pair it with tortilla soup, beans, white fish tacos, and maybe even shrimp...? 

At the very least, it's a neat idea, and it yields some pretty unusual flavors of corn and popcorn. Three and three quarters stars each from Sonia and me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Trader Joe's Scalloped Potato Chips

Well, here's a pic of a rare sight: a full bag of chips in our household.

That's a rarity because a) We next to never buy chips because 2) When we do they get opened and inhaled almost immediately which leads to d) deep, deep disppointment from my lovely bride and darling kiddos as they get left in the crumby wake of my work. Yes, I'm talking about me. I'm a chip monster for whom there is little hope except avoid, avoid, avoid. Love chips. Can't help it, can only hope to manage it.

Such is much the same with Trader Joe's Scalloped Potato Chips. I'm guilty of eating nearly the whole dang thing myself. It's not my fault, it's Sandy's for buying them. She knew what she was getting into.

Cheesy scalloped potatoes is such an obvious taste choice for a chip. Why is it that I didn't think of it first? And maybe this is my ignorance, but I'm unaware of any other "scalloped" flavor for chips out there.

It's not the flavor that draws me in. Don't get me wrong, the five-pronged throng of cheese tastes mighty fine with no complaints. I wish when it come to cheese blends I could differentiate them better, like to say here, I taste the points of parmesan, the charge of the cheddar, the accents of asiago tinged with romantic flourishes of romano, and, well, provolone. Hooray provolone. Yippee. I just can't, not in general, and not here. It's certainly a complex enough taste to be appreciated though, that much I can say. There's a little garlic, salt and spices mixed in, as would be expected, but the cheese blend really takes the center stage.

Nah, it's really the feel and the crunch of these scalloped chips. The chips seem a little extra thick and crunchy, but not in a kettle-cooked kinda way. Nah. They're a little extra hard and crunchy for sure but not overly greast. I can't recall another chip that felt much like these.

I like 'em, I like 'em enough to know I should probably avoid them as I do most other chips. Sandy, who scowled as she reminded me she had less than a full serving, stated much the same as I did. Yumz, good chips. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Scalloped Potato Chips: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Trader Joe's Organic Acai Bowl

I've rambled on before about how I'm a fan of acai and I used to down multiple acai smoothies every week. The smoothie joints I frequented sold acai bowls, too, but I always stuck to smoothies for a number of reasons, most notably that the bowls were a little pricier—in the ballpark of $7 a pop.

So at $3.99, this selection was a bargain. It had a good mix of the acai base, berries, and granola topping. Fruit-wise, there were lots of big strawberry slices, nice plump whole blueberries, but I didn't notice as many banana slices in my bowl. They were far and few between, and I wouldn't have minded a good bit more of them. There was, however, plenty of granola for my taste—just enough to make things crunchy. The coconut slivers added a bit of...well, coconuttiness, I guess, and it all blended together pretty well with the lightly sweetened, rich acai berry flavor.

The most frustrating aspect of this product was preparing it. I wish I'd thought ahead and used the refrigerator method of defrosting: just take out of the freezer and let thaw in fridge overnight. The preparation instructions for procrastinators like me involved popping the product in and out of the microwave numerous times, stirring it the first time, and then checking to see whether it's thawed or not on each subsequent occasion. It specifies to heat "in 15 second intervals" after an initial period of 45 seconds. I felt like I was walking a thin line between an ice cold solid block of frozen fruits and a piping hot bowl of acai soup. But I did manage to end the process somewhere in the middle, although the acai base was much more thawed than the fruit chunks. Throw room-temperature granola into the mix, and you've got three distinct climates in one tiny bowl. A lot of stirring seemed to abate that issue, for the most part anyway.

There aren't many breakfast foods I can think of that would pack more nutrition and energy into a single serving than Trader Joe's Organic Acai Bowl. It's extremely filling for so relatively few calories. Obviously fruits and granola are great for sustained energy and nutrition, and acai is known to be high in fiber and it contains a natural stimulant that provides energy without the typical "caffeine crash." All things considered, I'm a fan.

Sonia sat this one out. She would have liked it if I had saved any for her.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Trader Joe's Broccoli & Cauliflower Saute Kit

Alright, I dont  get it.  At all. Nope.

Seriously...Trader Joe's Broccoli & Cauliflower Saute Kit? What gives?

Alright, alright, alright. I can hear it right away. Major convenience points. Hey I've let quite a few items slide by based soley on that factor before - caulifower rice, anyone? - but what is this really saving here? A couple quick chops off a crown on the cutting board? Big whoop. I'm a busy boy and all, but man, if I don't have time to guillotine a couple trees and whittle them down to sizable chunks during dinner prep, it calls to question if I really have time for dinner at home or not. It takes literally no time.

As a quick aside for something purporting to both broccoli and cauliflower, there was almost all broccoli here. I like both. I want both. And perhaps it was luck of the draw more than anything else but I didn't feel like I got both. Not when there was only one sizable stalk and a couple tidbits of cauli. Not representing the caluli love there.

Ok, so what else is in the kit, because maybe that'll make up for it, right? That's a valid train of thought that unfortunately derailed once it left the station. After sauteing for a couple minutes in some BYO EVOO, there's a "marinade" packet to add and toss the veggies in. Never mind the fact that the veggies never actually marinate in the marinade, but it tastes like nothing. Nada. Tasteless. Tasted my BYO EVOO more than whatever the heck it was I added in from TJ's.

Forgot to mention the walnuts. That's alright, I almost forgot to taste them. Why walnuts? I have no answer for that. Definitely when quick cooking a 92% broccoli/8% cauliflower mix, walnuts are about 187th on my list of things I'd toss in...

...which is way higher than I'd consider tossing on croutons when it's time to serve. And then it'd have to really good croutons, like parmesany and garlicy with some character and spice, right? Definitely not boring old super generic croutons that taste like dried out stale bread and not much else. Definitely not the ultra basic bland croutons that you'd feed your kid when the only thing worse than listening to them crunch on them was whatever noise they were making previously. Definitely not any sort of crouton like, like, like....the ones present here. Disappointment croutons. Boring croutons. Crappy croutons. IRS croutons. Ugh. 

I don't understand this TJ's offering. I can buy into many things they try, and at least say an A for effort, but this? Nope. When the biggest props I can say is the veggies were still fresh and good two days before their best-by date, that's not a ringing endorsement. I don't know how much this cost. I don't want  to know (though one of your kind readers can please mention in the comments for the sake of your TJ's brethren?). But whatever it was, I know it coulda been better spent on some fresh veggies and a couple dashes of actual flavor courtesy of my spice rack.

Don't dig it. At all. The saute kit doesn't make a terrible product - our veggie chompin' crew ate it happily enough - but there's nothing here that suggest it should be a standalone product. I'm thumbing down with a one. My lovely bride, as always the more graceful one of us, will be nice and give it a two.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Broccoli & Cauliflower Saute Kit: 3 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, February 14, 2020

Trader Joe's Honey Baguette

Valentine's Day. Bread is a way more appropriate gift than chocolates or jewelry for Sonia. She's just a bread and butter kind of gal. And French things are always fitting when it comes to romancey stuff, right? Oui. We don't really call each other "honey," but if we did, this product would be even more relevant for V.D.

Confession: we ate this yesterday, a day before Valentine's, just so we could have the review up for you all today. You're welcome.

Sonia's had many baguettes before, including a few during her visit to Paris. This one doesn't quite compare to those, but for $1.79 and the convenience of not having to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, it's not too shabby.

There's just a hint of honey sweetness and lots of rich, dense doughiness. We both feel like this loaf might be a tad denser than other baguettes we've tried. It wants to crumble a lot, too.

We picked up two loaves, because why not? For the first one we just ripped off pieces straight out of the bag. We tried it plain, with butter, and with some provolone cheese slices. But this bread really only shines after being warmed up. I nuked a few small pieces of the bread for 10-15 seconds, and they came out soft and just warm enough to melt a pat of butter on each little square of bread.

When heeding the preparation instructions on the bag, 400° for 4-6 minutes, it yields a crispy outer crust, which we did with our second loaf. The heating really releases the flavors of the bread, and the texture becomes a bit more appetizing.

Honestly, though, I think I preferred the my improvised microwave heating method over the oven. The soft outer crust might not be as authentically baguette-ish as a crispier crust, but it worked for me.

Found in Trader Joe's bakery section, this honey baguette is certainly more interesting than Wonder Bread, and it's well worth a try for less than two bucks. We didn't make any sandwiches with ours, but it could definitely serve that purpose. If you've got a bread-loving S.O., it's still not too late to swing by TJ's on the way home from work to pick up one of these, some exotic cheese, and maybe some flowers, too. 

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.