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Friday, September 25, 2020

Trader Joe's Organic Spicy Pozole Verde

May 5, 1999, I was sitting in a now defunct Chi-Chi's restaurant in State College, PA with some friends and acquaintances after classes. We were celebrating Cinco de Mayo. I didn't know a lick of Spanish back then. "I wonder what Cinco de Mayo means..." I mused in my ignorance.

"Fifth of May," replied Stacy.

"I know when it is, but I mean what does the phrase 'Cinco de Mayo' literally mean?" I asked.

"Fifth of May," she persisted. "It's like Fourth of July for Mexicans."

My head exploded. "So it's the Mexican Independence Day? Whoa. I never knew that."

Many years later, I'd learn that it was not, in fact, the Mexican Independence Day. I'd also learn that the phrase "chi-chi's" is actually a slang term for "breasts" or "nipples" in Spanish. And here I thought it was a family restaurant. I always wondered what went on in that 21+ bar area.

The actual Mexican Independence Day is September 16, just over a week ago. There was a decisive battle against the French in Mexico on May 5, 1862, but the day they declared independence from Spain was actually September 16, 1810. I guess "Dieciséis de Septiembre" doesn't quite roll off a Yankee's tongue like "Cinco de Mayo."


At any rate, Mexican Independence Day is a good excuse to eat pozole, as are other special occasions like Christmas and New Year's. Sonia grew up with it. She explained that it usually takes a while to make, so it's often reserved for holidays and celebrations, not unlike tamales or menudo. It's usually served with pork or chicken, while Sonia grew up with a version with beef.

This variety is vegetarian—vegan, in fact, and doesn't suffer from want of meat, at least not in our opinions. There's a good bit of hominy and beans to give the soup a hearty texture. It's full of green chiles and onions, too. There's a nice, even, moderate spiciness in the mixture, as well. I'd put it at a 4 or 5 on the spice-o-meter, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Complaints: some of the onion slices are very long, spindly strands of onion that are a little difficult to eat. I found the plastic seal very difficult to remove and thought maybe the "onion" Sonia was finding was actually pieces of plastic that didn't stay attached to the rest of the covering. Upon further inspection, we determined that they were, in fact, pieces of onion. And I mean, we both love onions. Sonia also wanted more hominy. She's a big fan of the puffy kernels of corn. I don't know that I've had much hominy in my lifetime, but I really liked it here and wouldn't have minded a tad more of it.


The soup isn't much to look at. I think it resembles Eowyn's stew from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers...minus the strand of hair. But hey, looks aren't everything.

You can put it in a pot and heat it on the stovetop or just puncture the plastic covering and put it in the microwave for 3 minutes. It's very easy to prepare. $3.99 for the 2.5 serving container—probably 2 servings in actual practice.

All things considered, this product gets a thumbs up from both a gringo who's never really had pozole before and a Latina who's been eating it her whole life. We're not vegan, but we're always happy when we find vegetarian and vegan products that have enough "meatiness" and flavor without the dead animals. Four and a half stars from Sonia. Three and a half stars from me.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Trader Joe's Apple Fruit Snacks Mango Jalapeño

While not quite completely in love with the analogy, it does make the point so I'm just gonna roll with it. 

If my house were a prison, and my family the inmates, fruit snacks would likely be the equivalent of cigarettes. This excludes my lovely bride, which works because if we're going this way with with the metaphor I may as well just call her the warden. Just don't put me in solitary, babe.

Fruit snacks are not just for bribery or trade. As evidenced by the occasional trove of found and opened wrappers, we all got a stash somewhere that gets sourced from the large Costco box in the basement. I work down here all day, so when I need an early afternoon sugar hit, it's the easy get. We've found them in couch cushions, in kid's beds, stuffed in pockets at laundry time, tucked away inconspicuously in the trash, beside the beer fridge...you name it. But there's a bit of the code: don't touch my stash, I won't touch yours.  Not that there's not temptation to do so.

With the introduction of Trader Joe's Apple Fruit Snacks Mango Jalapeño, we may have found a basis for a truce. In the words of the great James Brown, papa's got a brand new bag. 

The magic word here is "jalapeño." My kids see that, figure they're way too spicy, and spicy fruit snacks sound weird anyways, so they'll just pass without question, leaving me with the whole bag to consume at my speed and not worrying about little grubby hands sneaking in. 

That being said, the jalapeño really does add a nice little touch, more on the backside of the flavor experience. It takes few chews to kinda get it going, as the fruits take first turn. These fruit snacks are primarily fruit based, with natural fiber and just a touch of pectin, instead of corn syrups and starches and whatever else, so there's legit verifiable actual apple and mango going in here, which balance out each other well in a sweet, understated yet flavorful way. The little specks of jalapeño add just the smidgiest of amounts of noticeable heat. It's delicious, kinda like a decent simple fruit salsa in fruit snack form, if that makes any sense. 

Going back to the ingredients, this shouldn't be a surprise, but if you were expecting/hoping for the big soft gummy kinda of fruit snacks, these are not them. Move along. Instead, the snacks are more of a tougher, more fibrous variety, kinda like fruit leather chunked up instead of rolled out. Those with dental work, be appropriately cautious. At least they're not really all that sticky or anything. I just noticed all the mango jalapeño guys are actually shaped like little hot peppers. That's so cute! I love it.

I think the pouch was only about $2 or maybe $3 at most, which is a decent enough deal for the 5ish servings each contain. That's good enough of a deal to make them a regular buy. Not sure what all else to say, so time to lock down this review. Double fours. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Apple Fruit Snacks Mango Jalapeño: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

 


Monday, September 21, 2020

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Empanadas

I always thought of empanadas as a uniquely South American food. There was a great Argentinian restaurant within walking distance of my Hollyweird apartment, and I'd always get the empanadas there. I've seen them on the menu at Brazilian places, too. But apparently Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, the Philippines, and pretty much every Latin American country does empanadas.

Mexico does empanadas for sure, but Sonia isn't particularly familiar with them. She grew up eating more sauce and cheese-based foods typical of southern Mexico, where her family is from. She thinks empanadas are probably more popular with the Norteños.

And now Trader Joe's is getting in on the empanada action, and since it's almost fall, they went with pumpkin. Who could have seen that coming?


Thank goodness it's a pumpkin empanada and not a pumpkin spice empanada. Or is it? In my opinion, it's walking a fine line between the two. 

They could have gone in the dessert direction and made something akin to the legendary caramel apple empanada from Taco Bell. They could have made it super sweet, glazed it with sugar, and packed it with loads of pumpkin pie spice. Or they could have gone the savory route and filled the empanada with butternut squash and veggies.

But what we have here is a pastry shell filled with super smooth, semi-sweet pumpkin filling, and most of the requisite pumpkin spices like cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and ginger. I don't think it's quite sweet enough to be considered a dessert item, although some may disagree. Since pumpkin puree is the number one ingredient, there's enough actual pumpkin flavor to offset the brown sugar sweetness.

The outer shell is excellent. The crust is just firm and flaky enough, yet supple and soft. It's crispy, but slightly doughy, and it has a nice bready taste. Also, it isn't oily or greasy—another plus.

These would function pretty well as appetizers, or as a side dish with a fall-themed meal. $3.99 for four empanadas. 1 empanada = 1 serving. They were fun to try, but we probably won't be picking them up again on our next TJ's run. Something like three and a quarter stars a piece...

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Trader Joe's Brazilian Style Cheese Bread

Over these past few crazy months, I've come to realize that a quality metric I use to judge how my day is going is how much I play Candy Crush on my phone. That's kinda my default "bored, don't feel motivated, nothing else going on" thing to do, so needless to say, the more Candy Crush I play on a given day, the usually more kinda blah day it is. And i won't say what level I'm on, but there's four digits and the first one is kinda curvy. So yeah, not so great these past few months. 

My lovely bride also plays a fair amount of Candy Crush, but apparently also likes some other game called Kitchen Craze or something along those lines. I'm not sure of the point of the game - seems even more arbitrary than matching three same colored candies to make stuff go boom - but when playing she'll tap to cook stuff, serve customers, do dishes, deal with crappy tips. I guess you try not to burn stuff and run some sort of functional restaurant and serve all sorts of food, including some Brazilian-inspired cheese rolls which I had no other frame of reference for until picking up Trader Joe's Brazilian Style Cheese Bread.

There's more involved to prepping them than just tapping your smartphone screen. Of course, we'll see how that comment ages over the next decade or so... but anyways. A frozen dozen comes boxed up and ready to plop on a baking sheet, just heat at 350 degrees for a few minutes, and done. You can even crush some candies while doing so if you want. 

Oddly, I'm in the minority of my family for the TJ's Brazilian cheese bread. Everyone else loves them, Both Sandy and our verifiable troop of kiddos gobbled them down for lunch the other day, yumming and oohing and aahing. Our five year old also made her own PB&J's with them, which strikes me as fairly weird but she was happy. But me? Ehhhhhhh....

There's just this odd taste to them that develops about midway thru your third bite. I'm not sure how to explain it. But it's kinda funky and bitter and dour and not exactly gag inducing, but is kinda unwelcome. Sandy posits it has something to do with how the tapioca flour and Parmesan interplay. Maybe, but I side with it being more towards eggs and white pepper that seem off. Maybe it's all four of them, maybe just three, maybe she's just right (as usual)...but still. It's just when I would expect the flavor to start going towards warmy carby cheesy comfort, I instead get a mouthful of questions. 

It's kinda a shame. Otherwise these are some pretty tasty treats. The first few bites, before that funk comes into play, are on point with its doughy Parmesan taste. If every bite tasted like the first few, I could probably nosh on these all day. Each piece is roughly golf ball sized, and when baked have a slightly crispy, not greasy exterior that quickly gives way to a soft, chewy inside. There's so much Parmesan around too that's impossible to get a bite without any, even if you tried. These are some excellent bites in that regard, I just wish they stayed that way. Maybe if I had some sauce to dip them in, I'd like 'em better. 

Since everyone else loved them and they're at a reasonable price ($3 to $4) I'm thinking it'll be a likely repurchase despite my misgivings. I mean, whatever works these days, right? Even if I won't be the one crushing them. Meh. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Brazilian Style Cheese Bread: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons



Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Trader Joe's Dairy-Free Cold Brew Almond Macadamia Latte Coffee Beverage

Like most Americans, Sonia and I are hopelessly addicted to caffeine. She's a big coffee drinker and a connoisseur of all things derived from the brewed bean: mocha, latte, cappuccino, you name it. I'm more of an energy drink guy myself. Throughout my misspent youth, I'd drink sodas like Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper for caffeine, and then switched over to energy drinks after the advent of Red Bull, Rockstar, and Monster.

At any rate, we both get headaches after just 24 hours without a heavy dose of the common stimulant. If coffee is the only source of caffeine around, I'll drink it. Once in a while I'll get desperate enough to drink regular cola again in the absence of other caffeinated beverages, despite a severe aversion to HFCS these days. This stuff, on the other hand? You'd have to twist my arm pretty hard to get me to take another sip of this drink, let alone a whole bottle.

Right after taking an initial sip, I had Sonia try it, desperately trying to mask my disgust so as to elicit an unbiased reaction from her. She reacted similarly. We decided to check the "best by" date just to be sure it hadn't turned. According to the little stamp on the side of the bottle, we had one day to spare. 

I mean, it's not like we don't enjoy nut milks. The combo of almond and macadamia sounded fairly alluring to both of us, especially to my better half. And you can taste a decent amount of nuttiness underneath an acrid coffee flavor, initially. But immediately after detecting the earthy vegan coffee blend in this beverage, there's a fairly intense bitterness that washes over your palate.

We get it. They were going for a healthy beverage without much in the way of sweetener. But this brew needs a little something. And by "a little something," I mean a LOT of something. It's full of protein and decidedly devoid of bad stuff, but neither of us could really get into the taste. Sonia was good enough to finish the bottle, and she noted that by the end, it wasn't quite as revolting as the first few swigs. I noped out after about a sip and a half. 

$2.99 for the bottle. Two stars from me. Two and a half from Sonia. Not a repeat purchase.

Bottom line: 4.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Trader Joe's Ginger Turmeric Granola

"It is frequently asserted that somewhere between 75 and 95 % of what we commonly think of as taste actually comes from the sense of smell. However, empirical evidence in support of such a precise-sounding quantitative claim is rarely, if ever, cited."

So says no less an authority than the Flavour Journal. They sound pretty legit, or legit enough to be the top result if you Google something like "how much is smell a part of taste," so you know what? I'm just gonna roll with it. Makes sense - if I'm a little stuffed up, food doesn't seem to have the same flavor as it usually does, but that's not to say that smell is the only, or sometimes even the most reliable, indicator of taste. 


Mentioning all of this because of Trader Joe's Ginger Turmeric Granola, in the slight offchance you haven't gotten that figured out by now. In my legitimately faulty memory, I'm not sure if I've even been taken aback so much by the initial aroma of a product when first opening the package, just because of it being so unexpected. This granola smells strong and pungent and, well, super-de-duper gingery. Add in some wafts of turmeric (it's palpable) and it's almost more like a curry-type smell. There's no other option for it to smack the ol' olfactories, which is really kinda bizarre to say for a granola, of all things.


Yet...that's not exactly how the taste plays out.


Both the ginger and the turmeric seem to be held in check by the earthy crunch of the rolled oats, and the respective sweetnesses of the brown rice syrup and coconut pieces balance it all out pretty well. That's not to say that some ginger burn doesn't sneak thru here or there, because it does, but not as much as I presumed from initial impression. The turmeric adds more of a warmth than a flavor punch as well. 

As proof it can't be strongly spicy or harsh or anything, my youngest kiddo likes it. She's the first to blush at anything remotely spicy. If she can handle it, so can you. 


As it's getting cooler finally and summer fades into fall, I kinda see this being a seasonal kinda treat. It tastes autumnal without going the pumpkin spice or maple route. Splash in some milk, add some banana, sprinkle in some yogurt...you know, however you usually do yogurt and it'll likely work just fine. I'd recommend giving it a try for the $4ish bucks it set back, and hopefully you'll find it up to snuff as well. 


Bottom line: Trader Joe's Ginger Turmeric Granola: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons  

Friday, September 11, 2020

Trader Joe's No Bake Nut Butter Bar Mix

In addition to 80's movies, I'm also an appreciator of fine post-apocalyptic cinema—not just influential films like The Road and Mad Max, but lesser known indie flicks like Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse, Light of My Life, and EMP 333 Days. Speaking of EMP's, you could theoretically make these treats even after a massive electromagnetic pulse. No bake! I love it.

I mean, sure, they want you to put the mix in the freezer for 20 minutes to let it coagulate for a spell. But if it's winter time, you could just put the pan outside for a while to achieve the same effect. Also, some of you might argue that you'll still have the ability to bake in such a situation since gas lines will still function after an EMP. Sure, that will be true for a time, but unfortunately a long term grid failure will mean losing natural gas and running water soon after the electricity goes out.

But if you thought ahead, you'll still be snacking on Trader Joe's No Bake Nut Butter Bars. What a luxury these will be in the Apocalypse. Nut butters, honey, and maple syrup are all great things to stock up on.


The recipe calls for a cup of any nut butter of your choice and half a cup of either honey or maple syrup, along with the included mix. I used peanut butter and honey, probably the least exotic combo possible, but also quite possibly the safest. 

It turned out surprisingly well. I used chunky pb, which might have thrown off the intended solid to liquid ratio and made my mixture a little less viscous than it was intended to be. I found it hard to coat all of the mix with my pb/honey blend.

But they came out super crunchy, which Sonia and I both loved. The honey was more than adequate as a sweetener, and the mix added even more nuttiness to the flavor. Peanut butter was still the dominant flavor, but the almond, oats, and rice from the base could still be detected in the background. My favorite part of the Trader Joe's mix were tiny little spheres of what I assume are puffed rice..? They moved the texture even further in the direction of "bar," rather than "wad of edible Play-Doh," and added a crispness that's very pleasant.

Sonia seemed a little more captivated by the finished bars than I was. She thinks she'll make another batch with almond butter and maple syrup very soon. I'm sure they'll be at least as good as the first batch.

$3.49 for the mix. Will most likely be a repeat purchase. Four and a half stars from Sonia. Three and a half from me.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Trader Joe's Non-Dairy Maple Oat Beverage

Ah yes, it's that time of year at last.

Warm summer afternoons fade into cool nights. There's small incremental tinges of oranges and reds and yellows in the leaves. The kids are finally back at school...kinda, but in our dining room...at least there's no mad morning rush to catch the bus this year...still, I digress. Crockpots are being taken out of storage, football is about to be back, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have a less than 1% chance of making the playoffs. All of these are sure signs that fall is peeking just around the corner.

There's one last autumnal harbinger, one that's kinda a big deal for most of you, but that I detest: it's pumpkin spice season. Blahhhh.

I'm sure in the litany of this blog I've posted a lengthy tirade against pumpkin spice everything at some point. I lack the energy or desire to do so again. Plus there's too much other animosity out there these days. I've made my peace with pumpkin spice - if you enjoy your pumpkin spice lattes and enchiladas and TP and who knows what else, go for it, I won't be partaking so there's more for you.

And meanwhile I'll be focusing on maple. Yes, I know maple season is really late winter into spring when the sap is collected and boiled...but there's almost always more maple products this time of year. I guess it has something to do with it being a tree flavor.

New to the maple lineup this year is Trader Joe's Non-Dairy Maple Oat Beverage. granted, oat milk isn't the first thing I'd think to add a hint of maple too...but it's a good concept, right? Oatmeal by itself is kinda plain, but adding milk and maple syrup turns it into a verifiable treat. Now you can get some of the residual tasty treeat without the big bowl of oatmeal first.

Or something like that. Indeed, that's really what the TJ's maple oat beverage tastes like - the milk left over in the bottom of the bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup and milk. Less chunky, of course, and that's a good thing. It's still creamy, however, like a decent "regular" milk but with a slight touch of graininess mixed in. It's neither distracting nor unpleasant, but occasionally noticeable.

The maple flavor itself is actually scarcely more than a small hint. I think that adds some versatility to the product - use as a regular drink, pour over a wide variety of cereals (not Pumpkin Spice O's though), add a splash to coffee instead of creamer and sugar. The maple beverage isn't an all out maplicious sugarbomb of a treat, but more of a subtle pleasure. Me personally? I'm not much of a milk person in any way, shape or form, so while I've tried it I'm not going to be guzzling down this beverage by any means. But it's still a legit treat. Gotta love anything maple.

My lovely bride is more gungho than I. She's been scheming different ways to use the milk, as well as already lamenting its eventual seasonal rotation out. Til then, she'll be using a lot in her coffee as she helps oversee a couple kids navigating elementary school on Zoom calls and iPads. You know, like the good ol' days. Or something. Her only maple oat drink-related wish would be for it to be a touch more maple-y, but she's in love as is. Four from her, and I'll tack on a few of my own.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Non-Dairy Maple Oat Beverage: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons






Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Trader Joe's Corn & Green Chile Pepper Quiche


I've been watching a bunch of 80's movies on Amazon Prime lately. What a weird decade. I mean, it was so carefree compared to today. Everything was loud and goofy, from music to clothing to hairstyles. It's such a stark contrast to 2020, which is why I've been finding it so refreshing to bask in all the gaudy glory of 1980's American cinema. Plus, there's not a lot I want to see in the way of new stuff right now, and it still costs $20 just to rent the third installment of Bill and Ted.

Also from the 80's: a book called Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. I mean, it's apparently satirizing the idea that certain things are more masculine to consume than others, but still...I must admit I don't know many dudes obsessed with quiche. In defense of my own masculinity: the three quiches I've reviewed on this blog represent more than half the quiche I've consumed in my entire lifetime. And so far, all of those specimens have fallen into a kind of "take it or leave it" status with me and the wifey.


As is standard for a quiche, this one's primarily made of eggs. I heated ours for 25 minutes in the oven rather than the microwave, and the insides came out surprisingly mushy, especially when one considers the outsides were extremely crispy. I know quiche should be soft, but I felt like the insides had an excess of moisture and the outsides were, if anything, a little too dry. 

Sonia pointed out that there was a decided lack of veggies, corn in particular, in the filling. We were expecting a whole bunch of corn kernels as well as more substantial chunks of chile, too. I guess we were pining for a sort of savory corn and veggie pie rather than a quiche.

Flavor-wise, it's eggy and quichey—not overly salty, sweet, or cheesy. It begs for a little help, honestly. Some salsa and/or hot sauce is definitely in order here. We had no trouble finishing it, but for two thirds of your daily saturated fat and 98% of your cholesterol, I was hoping for just a tad more piquancy. More green chile peppers would have unquestionably made it more memorable for Sonia and me.

$4.99 for the 9 oz quiche. Probably not a repeat purchase for us. Three stars a piece.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Bar Thins


Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Bar Thins are a small, quick, easy, simple fun little treat. No rocket surgery here. So let's do this review in much the same manner.

Take the requsite high quality TJ's dark chocolate. If you've had anything with TJ's dark chocolate, you know what I'm talking about. They (or more accurately, their supplier) really got this stuff nailed. However one inserts a small reservoir of salted caramel goo into it and make a thin wafery bar, they do. That's it, that simple. And so good.

Pros: There's three such bars in the package. Each bar is segmented and snaps easily into three segments. It's a perfect format for a light bite or for sharing easily. No drama there.Each bite is well balanced between the chocolate and caramel to give a rich but no overwhelming flavor that's ideal for a quick sugar rush. Since it's Belgian, could we get a speculoos variety please?


Cons: Uh...not many? I didn't taste THAT much salt in the salted caramel, which isn't all that negative. Perhaps the thin set up makes it harder for the bite of salt to stand out.

Really good, and worth a quick pickup for the maybe $2 without overthinking it. Just like this review.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Bar Thins: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons