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Friday, January 28, 2022

Trader Joe's Graham Cracker Squares

During these coldest days of winter, certain rooms in our house remain a bit chilly even with the furnace on, so I dusted off our trusty Buddy Heater from our full-time RVing days. We always have a few small propane tanks on hand in case of a power outage, so I put one on the Buddy and fired it up to raise the temp in our office a few degrees.

Then it occurred to me that using the propane-generated flame simply for heat might be a bit wasteful. I mean, it's not exactly a wood fire at a campsite, but there's easily enough heat there to toast a marshmallow, or at least to get it nice and gooey on the inside. Fortunately we had marshmallows stashed away in the pantry...and right next to them a chocolate bar.

"Man, if only we had graham crackers, we could make s'mores right in the office," I thought to myself. The beautiful wifey reminded me that not only did we have graham crackers, but we had Trader Joe's Graham Cracker Squares in our "maybe to be reviewed" section. Sweet.


If we're talking actual graham crackers and not cutesy little animal-shaped graham cookies, I think the only ones I've ever had were the traditional Nabisco or Kellogg's brand or maybe a generic store-brand imitation. There's nothing wrong with regular graham crackers, especially if you're using them for s'mores. They have little perforation lines so you can snap them in half or in quarters. They're pretty flat, slightly honey sweet, and crunchy.

But Trader Joe's offering is significantly puffier. They're not soft, they're still crunchy, but they're a little more three-dimensional. They come in perfect s'more-optimized squares—hence the name Graham Cracker Squares. Taste-wise, they're pretty much what you'd expect. No tricks. No gimmicks. No reinvention of the wheel here.

Taste-wise, there's not much of a difference between TJ's squares and traditional Honey Maid or what have you, but I like the format of these a little more. Traditional graham crackers might get three and a half stars from me and four from Sonia, so we'll go half a star higher for these.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Trader Joe's Criollo Chocolate


 Living in a 100-plus year old house, I often dream of finding some hidden treasure somewhere in here. Like...it'd be awesome to find an old stash of historic collectibles or coins or, well, just something old and cool, right?

It's not nearly the same, but I was hoping I struck some gold when we cleaned out the fridge and found this nicely preserved, newer era Trader Joe's Criollo Chocolate Bar. 

Sounds fancy, eh? I had no idea we even had it or when we bought it or if it's even still a thing but, well, here we are. 


I really have no idea what criollo means, but according to the wrapper, its some fancy cocoa beans. I'm down with that. But honestly...as a fan of dark chocolate, this bar doesn't do it for me. The dark stuff is supposed to be bittersweet, which I like, but this...not enough bitter, a bit too much sweet. it's a careful balance that has to be done well. By no means is the criollo anything approaching like milk chocolate or anything - 80% is a plenty dark - but there's this little added tinge of sweet. Some other reviews I stumbled across mention a "hint of cherry" which maybe is what they're referring to, but I don't taste cherry. it's more just a meh than any specific flavor. 

It's smooth enough, and is okay, but there's other bars I'd be going for. Not even sure if rebuying is an option, but if it were, i'd likely pass. Just meh. 

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

Monday, January 24, 2022

Trader Joe's Indian Fare Kitchari

Sonia and I both love Indian food and have been to numerous Indian restaurants in numerous cities, so I thought it odd that neither of us had heard of kitchari before this. Apparently, the way it's pronounced rhymes with "stitchery" or "witchery," and it's a dish frequently used for cleansing or anti-inflammatory purposes. Here's a good article on the subject.

We've seen these convenient microwavable pouches of Indian Fare from Trader Joe's before. Nuke for about a minute, dump on rice, and voila, an extremely cheap and easy Indian meal. 
The smell of this dish was wonderful straight out of the microwave. There was a rich earthiness under a fragrant spice blend including ginger, fennel, cardamom, and turmeric. Upon tasting it, we were both somewhat unimpressed. We both agreed it didn't taste as bold as it smelled, and we wished there had been more whole peas or beans or something to bite down on. The texture was quite mushy.


The split mung beans by themselves didn't do much for us in the flavor department, and the spice blend, though pleasant, wasn't as pungent as we'd hoped. We certainly liked it overall, but didn't love it by any means, especially when compared to the vast majority of amazingly flavorful Indian products we've tried from TJ's over the years.

But then I decided to do some internet recon on the dish. That's when I stumbled upon that article I linked to in the first paragraph. It seems like maybe kitchari is more of a medicinal dish than the typical wild ride for the taste buds that East Indian cuisine can often be. Apparently, it's mushy by design, and that makes it super easy to digest. Other properties of the mung beans help remove toxins from the digestive system. Also the spice blend is so mild that even young children and old folks can consume it, according to that article.


As fate should have it, my stomach had been upset for a day or two prior to trying the kitchari. And...as fate should have it, the kitchari helped. It helped a lot actually. I noticed an almost immediate improvement with my gastrointestinal grumblings.

So...if you're looking for a scrumptious Indian dish, click right here and scroll through 12 years of reviews. I'd put this one near the bottom of the pack if scoring on taste and texture alone, but I can't deny there are definite detox qualities here...and again, it's not bad tasting by any means. $2.29 for the single serving pack. It's not explicitly labeled as "vegan" for some reason, but I can't see why it wouldn't be.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Trader Joe's Pizza Seasoned Bread Cheese


 Now, cheese bread is an easy enough concept to understand. That's bread with cheese in it. But...bread cheese?

No, it's not cheese with bread in it, as the name may initially suggest. That'd be kinda odd but fun. Instead, it's cheese that's apparently baked in some sort of process that carmelizes the sugars and makes a bread like crust. No actual bread involved. Well hmm. Technology these days...

Trader Joe's Pizza Seasoned Bread Cheese, to my knowledge, is my first go around with bread cheese. Cookable cheese isn't a new concept to me - halloumi, anyone? - but still it feels a bit weird to cube up some cheese to saute. No EVOO or anything needed, it's got it's own grease, for sure. 

If eaten as is, not heated, the bread cheese is kinda firm, with a curdlike squeaky feel to it. No bad, but not my favorite. Once warmed up, though, everything softens, and it's kinda hard to not imagine eating an actual slice of pizza. Sure, there's not the saucy vibrancy of an actual quality pie, but the seasonings, with tomato flakes and onion and garlic and whatnot do a surprisingly okay job of mimicing it. And perhaps I was trying to hard but...there actually kinda almost tasted like there was some sort of crust, too. Just a bit, like the outer layer of crust without any doughiness or crisp or anything to really fill it out. 


And the cheese itself? Deeeelish. it gets all soft and melty, and is really pretty mild - not as much as a mozzarella, but close, with a little more edge to it. The whole flavor and feel, with some of that aformentioned grease, make the whole illusion pretty complete. 

It's a fun cheese. Fun to cook, fun to eat, fun to pass around the dinner table. We got us a whole family thumbs up here. And it's all at a pretty good price - maybe $4 for the half pound chunk? Good stuff, and no complaints. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Pizza Seasoned Bread Cheese: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Trader Joe's Focaccia Bread Mix


I often depict myself as a barely-functional buffoon in the kitchen on this blog. I imagine it's more fun to read about some fool who is scarcely able to read baking instructions than a Julia Child protege that has his act entirely together.

Like most jokes, the idea that I'm not great in the kitchen is certainly rooted in truth—the worst grade I ever received as a student was in Home Ec, and I may be a little too comfortable improvising when no improvisation is called for. Although at this point, I'm probably average-ish at baking and cooking among American men in my age group...but for the sake of entertainment, I'll continue to write as if I'm the moron who can't measure quantities correctly or handle red hot baking sheets while cartoonishly clanging pots and pans around and spilling ingredients on the floor, upsetting my wife and pets with my gross incompetence.


I was left unsupervised for the mixing and baking of this bread, as the beautiful wifey got stuck on a late work call last evening. All too familiar with those unprompted improvisations mentioned above, she reminded me before I began baking that "the dough has to rise before you put it in the oven," knowing that my impatience might impel me to skip that step altogether.

"Of course I'll let it rise," I replied.

The directions specify letting it rise "in a warm area." Not knowing whether the ambient winter temperature of our kitchen qualified as "warm," I helped the mixture along by placing it in front of a space heater. But that was my only improvisation. Well, okay, I subbed avocado oil for extra virgin olive oil since it was the only cooking oil we had on hand.

Honestly, the bread came out pretty good. I might have left it in the oven a few minutes too long, as the crust around the edges got just a tad too dark and firm. The herbs were nice and flavorful, but not overbearing. The bread itself was wonderfully soft, dense, and slightly doughy on the inside, while just a shade firmer than that on the outside. I thought they might have overdone it with the sea salt in the mixture. That I can blame on Trader Joe's, since I added absolutely no extra salt or seasonings other than what came in the pack.

$2.99 for 12 servings of focaccia bread. Considering the only additional ingredients called for are oil and water, that's a pretty good value, and it's easy enough for this dummy to make without adult supervision. Would buy again.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Trader Joe's Cheeseburger Burrito

 

I've always had a dicey relationship with condiments. Whereas barbeque sauce, hot sauce and salsa generally get a free pass, others are generally a nope when given the option. Mayo? Hard no. Mustard? Well, okay, maybe sometimes, but usually no. And ketchup? No. No no no. Hate that stuff. Even as a kid, even now as I'm approaching 40. Can't stand it, and don't even think of shaking a ketchup bottle near me. 

See the key words though? "When given the option"? Essentially....on the rare occasions I'd grab a fast food burger and one of those condiments is a default topping, I'll just for it and eat it. I'd never subtract them, yet never add them either. Make any sense? No, not at all. But such as it is. 

So, with Trader Joe's Cheeseburger Burrito, at first glance I was relieved to not see any of those aforementioned sauces as present. I can handle an okay relish, maybe. But then, in the ingredients, they there were, lurking. Mustard. Mayo. Ketchup. And unfortunately not in little side packets I could skimp out on. 

As it is, that unholy trinity is melded all together into some somewhat oily, creamy, sweet, vinegary, tangy, oddball sauce that's not distinctly different from the melted cheddar cheese. it's just all mixed up and, to my taste, just isn't that delicious. It's...just kinda like glop. With the pickles and onions, the end result isn't all that much different than a fastfood burger - maybe slightly more towards Wendy's than McD's - but in all it's kinda a mess of a sauce. 

As for the beef? Here's some further crumbling. Ha, get it, because it's "beef crumbles? A singular oblong patty or two would have been a better choice, except I'd guess that'd veer everything more towards snack wrap than burrito...but anyways. There's enough meat in here for sure. Not any skimpage, which is always appreciated. But there's also not really enough to get a full handle on the quality. It's not like mushy el cheapo carne, but instead is...chewy? A touch rubbery? A bite more to the bite than expected? Sure, it tastes fine enough, but also just doesn't quite have the right feel. 

All together, the TJ's cheeseburger burrito makes an okay grab, if burgers that try to outplay their hand are your kinda thing. Not delicious, not awful, maybe could use another little something, or maybe less of those pesky condimental conglomeration...and yeah, it's a nutritional abomination. Whatcha gonna do? I'm not 100% on the price but I figure is in the $4ish range. My lovely bride saw it and kindly noped her way out - all this "trying to not garbage" nonsense she's always talking to me about. Likely the burgerito won't be another pickup for me. Thanks, though, to Debi at the Pittsburgh North Hills TJ's for suggesting giving it a try when asked about anything new in this particularly slow time of year for new TJ's stuff. You're always appreciated! This particular thing, not so much. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cheeseburger Burrito: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons


Friday, January 14, 2022

Trader Joe's Cheese Empanadas with Cassava Crust


I suppose if they can make tortilla chips out of a nutty, starchy root vegetable like cassava, then empanada crust shouldn't be out of the question either. The texture of this cassava isn't chewy per se, but it's just a smidge less crispy than traditional crust. It didn't bother me at all. In fact, I was surprised how much I liked it. It tasted like...well, a nutty, starchy root vegetable, but yet strangely similar to a normal, wheat-based bread.

Sonia made two odd comments about the product when she tried it. The first was that as soon as she cut hers open, it smelled like fish fillet. Um. Okay. I didn't get that at all. I assumed that meant she didn't like it, but the next words out of her mouth were something about enjoying the product a lot and that it was really good.


The second strange comment from the wifey was something about really wanting a dipping sauce, specifically a tamarind-based one. Yikes. I certainly wasn't thinking of any fixins here—despite the fact that I'm usually the condiment-craver between the two of us—and tamarind was about the last thing I would have thought of as a dipping sauce.

Some might think the filling here is a smidge on the boring, plain side I suppose, but we both loved the ricotta, onion, and spinach combo. To me, it was almost like a cheese-based spinach dip. That's why I didn't crave a dipping sauce I think. Spinach dip is already a condiment, and you don't dip a condiment in another condiment, right?


Two empanadas come in the pack. They're a bit smaller than other empanadas we've seen from Trader Joe's, but at about $3 for the box, they're a bit cheaper, too. No meat. No gluten. We'd buy them again. Four stars from Sonia. Three and a half from yours truly.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Trader Joe's Kalua Pork Spring Rolls

Yes, dear, I left the air fryer on the counter.

I know we've been trying hard to do better about keeping everything cleaner and uncluttered. And I know that, on first impression, it makes no sense to have the air fryer out as we just had the crockpot there after that delicious lasagna you made last night. I put that....mostly away before getting out the air fryer. The crock still needs to be cleaned fully and is soaking in the kitchen sink if I recall correctly. 

So here's why the air fryer is out...I needed to write a review of the new Trader Joe's Kalua Pork Spring Rolls.

Yes, I know, we ate them as a part of lunch the other day, and we both generally liked them. But, I kinda forgot what they tasted like, so this morning, before you awoke, to try and write the review, I made and ate one at like 5am. Hence the airfryer out, it needs to be cleaned, I'll take care of it, and don't worry, there's still some spring rolls for you too. I hope all that satisfies you. 

Remember how good these are, though? I mean, as far as greasy, delicious comfort, it's tough to beat a good spring roll at times. Especially when it's full of soft, tasty pulled pork, and mixed in with glass noodles and the usual veggie suspects like carrots, green onions and cabbage. The noodles have just a touch of that mung bean taste to add a little sly funk, and of course there's pretty ample soy sauce to help tie everything together. The garlic and black pepper on top on all that...chef's kiss. 

That and I'm not sure how I forgot about the hickory smoke taste. It's...kinda the dividing line on the product. On one hand, it's a nice added touch and is definitely, unmistakably present in every bite. But, it's definitely an added flavor, as in, the pork itself wasn't hickory smoked (which would have been delicious) but is instead an added smoke flavor. As a result, long after the spirng roll is down the hatch, that smokey taste lingers on. Granted, it's not overkill like way too many liquid smoke-infused foods that made me more or elss swear them off and only go for actual smoked stuff ten times out of ten, but still. It's done well enough that I'll sign off on them, but I'd still opt for actually smoked meat, not meat splashed with "natural hickory smoke flavor."

Anyways, love, I'll get to that airfryer on my coffee break, and next time we go to TJ's if you want more of these I won't complain. They were what, $3ish a box for four rolls for us to share? Meanwhile if served these at a restaurant they'd be at least twice as much and justifiably so. Worthy of another go, I'd say, and I think you'd say the same. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Kalua Pork Spring Rolls: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons


  

 

Monday, January 10, 2022

Trader Joe's Baked Lemon Ricotta Cheese

That cheese section at TJ's can be dangerous. There are so many interesting choices, it would be very much within the realm of possibility to blow your entire grocery budget before even getting out of the cheese department. I mean, good cheese isn't exactly cheap, and it's getting even pricier these days. I generally just steer clear altogether. That's why I have ordained the lovely Sonia with the title: Resident Fromager de Chateau Rodgers.

Apparently this item has been around for a number of years. I wasn't aware. Shows how much time I spend in Trader Joe's cheese area. I probably would have picked it up sooner since I'm generally more of a lemonophile than the wifey...although fruit-flavored cheeses aren't necessarily something I'd gravitate towards. What this is: a mild cheese with a modest amount of lemon flavor. What it isn't: a stand-alone dessert food.

The texture is almost spongy, yet creamy. It's nice and soft, supple, and not very dense. The rind is, of course, significantly darker and firmer than the inner portions of the wedge. The picture included might have an inordinate amount of rind represented (the brown parts) but at least you get an idea of what the cheese itself looks like.

I could see this working well in baking applications. You could easily create some kind of lemon pastry by baking this stuff into something bready and topping with lemon curd or some other type of citrusy icing.

Surprisingly, Sonia liked this cheese more than I did. She was fine snacking on it plain. We both had some on crackers. It worked okay with any type of neutrally-flavored crackers like water crackers and butter crackers. I think it would have clashed with anything with seeds or garlicky flavors or anything like that.

Next time, we'll have to get more adventurous in the kitchen and see if we can whip up something lemontastic despite our lack of mad baking skills. Four stars from Sonia. Three and a half from me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Trader Joe's Organic Cacio e Pepe Puffs

Poor little thing never really stood a chance. 

On one hand, it's not at fault. Things like Pirate Booty and anything else we could generally call "baby popcorn" get devoured on the regular in our house. It's one of our favorite go-to snackies, whether it's after work or school or during a lazy movie night. When it's in the house, it's a daily grazer. 

On the other hand...why did Trader Joe's Organic Cacio e Pepe Puffs have to be so incredibly good?

First off, there's the bite. There's an extra crispity-crunch to these little nuggets that make them stand up more than a usual puffed corn. I love that crumbly texture, but the mouthfeel of these particular peppery puffies was a welcome change up. It must be the rice flour added in, which also made them not too terribly greasy. Each bite had a certain satisfaction to it. Me likey. 

And then, the taste! Yums abound. Somehow, in some way, each puff held a respectable amount of cacio e pepe i.e. cheese and pepper flavor without being overly greasy or dusty. Nah, it was more a dry dust feel. But that didn't translate to a skimp on taste by any stretch. Mild at first then gradually growing, each bite had a distinct romano/cheddar blend that was creamy and delicious, with some pepper spiked in to give it just a hint of spice. It's really well balanced, though i could have done without the white pepper personally. Not sure how to define it, but white pepper also leaves an uncertain taste in my mouth - I'm quite sure I don't hate it, but not sure I'd choose it either, if that makes sense. 

Anyways, needless to say, my lovely bride, our ravenous pack of munchkins, and I devoured the whole bag easily at snacktime the other day. Gone, without a thought. Goodbye, farewell, gone. Ciao. And we all wanted more, so that says to me if I see these again at TJ's (pleasepleaseplease) I should probably pick up at least two bags. At  about $2 for the bag that's not a bad deal at all. 

Thumbs up all around. Next round, you've been warned. We're gonna go double fours. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Cacio e Pepe Puffs: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Trader Joe's Vegan Thai Green Curry


Well here's something I definitely can't heat in the air fryer. Looks like a tasty, convenient, work-friendly microwave meal, and fortunately, I have a hankerin' for some Thai today. Let's dive in.

Like I mentioned, this is a microwavable meal. No other heating options are given. And for the second time in a row, I'm looking at a product that took LESS time to heat than was suggested on the packaging. The instructions say to heat for 3 minutes, then stir, and then heat for 2-3 more minutes. At about the 5 minute mark, the product began to boil over the side of the tray and onto the microwave carousel lazy Susan thing. Our microwave is filthy at the moment. Will the wife even notice if I leave a few little pools of green curry in there?


The tray easily bends in the middle in case you want to try to simply fold the curry compartment onto the rice compartment. I was wary of spillage, so I mostly just flicked the curry over with my fork. Or you could be fancy and put the whole thing in an Asian-style bowl, of course.

It's a tasty product, for sure. If there's any difference between the curry they used here and the epic Thai Green Curry Simmer Sauce, neither Sonia nor I could detect it, flavor-wise, although I think this curry was a tad thinner in texture.

Swimming around in the curry were carrots, eggplant chunks, and tofu sheets. The tofu "sheets" are more like wads of tofu by the time they're heated, transferred to the rice, and scooped up by a fork or spoon. I've never tried tofu in this format before. It yields a less chewy texture by virtue of its thinness. I'm fine with it this way, while Sonia prefers tofu cubes. The veggies weren't chewy or rubbery or anything, so we were good with those, too.

99% of the flavor of this dish is coming from the curry. That's not a bad thing, because it's an outstanding complex, coconutty, salty, spicy, savory flavor. At $3.99 for the single serving, Sonia thinks it would be much wiser to grab a jar of the curry itself for half the price, heat up your own rice, and mix in whatever veggies or additions you choose. You're absolutely paying for the convenience factor here. Guess we can't punish it too harshly for that since that's apparently what TJ's is going for. You'll find it in the frozen section. Vegan.

So...something like three and a half stars a piece on this product.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Trader Joe's Green & Red Hatch Chile Flakes

 

Hatch chiles. So hot right now. 

Well...not precisely, actually. 

See, there's the new Trader Joe's Green & Red Hatch Chile Flakes. So yeah, there's likely a small buzz about the peppers of the Gods on TJ's related social media and little bloggies like ours. Not a bad thing at all. 

But, well, if you're not overly familiar with hatch chiles, first of all, they're not in season right now - their heyday seems to be late summer/early fall AKA pumpkin spice season - and second, well, hatch chiles aren't really all that hot or spicy. 

Hatch chiles deliver more on a sweet/smoky/little touch of heat level, in ways I've never directly experienced but have had others describe as absolutely transcendent. I'm not getting that out of the shaker here. Sweet, mild, little smoke, a little heat? Sure, and a welcome change up from the usual crushed red pepper flakes. Out of body/out of world experience? Nah. Maybe save that for the Hatch Harvest festivities that go on at peak season from what I hear. 

Use them as you'd use any pepper sprinkle - eggs, pizza, soup, salad, veggies, meat, anything that could use a little oomph - and it's nice for TJ's to offer a versatile condiment that help convey at least a fraction of the whole hatch experience. I'm not in love but I certainly won't mind getting these on the regular when available. Tasty flakes. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Green & Red Hatch Chile Flakes: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons