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Monday, January 31, 2011

Trader Joe's Shepherd's Pie

On our last trip to Trader Joe's, Sonia and I decided to brave the high school cafeteria classic, Shepherd's Pie. This dish can be a big hit or miss kind of deal: if it's done right, there's a nice blend of textures and flavors, and a whole balanced meal all mixed together for you right there in one food item. If it's done wrong, you can get a nasty pile of mush that resembles a cross section of your backyard compost heap.

The TJ's brand winds up somewhere in the middle. It seems to follow the formula we've seen in many of the previous items we've reviewed: a frozen item that thaws nicely, has a decent texture overall, but winds up tasting a little bland for some reason. The item is moderately priced at $3.99, and it manages to avoid any weird aftertastes or sub-par ingredients. It might not look very big, but it was plenty of food for both of us.

Our two biggest complaints were lack of flavor and the choice to use shredded beef instead of ground beef. The meat wasn't bad, but really, I can't figure out how you could possibly get red meat to taste so bland. And it was just a bit stringy. I think ground beef works best for Shepherd's Pie. Somehow, none of the ingredients were flavorful. Peas, carrots, corn, green beans, mashed potatoes and beef should simply have more taste than this Shepherd's Pie offers.

But wait! Trader Joe's JalapeƱo Pepper Hot Sauce to the rescue! Hot sauce helps anything. We figure this Shepherd's Pie must just be a shameless promotion for the TJ's hot sauce. We added salt and pepper, too, before we were really happy with the flavor. But, after the addition of said condiments, we really enjoyed our makeshift Mexican Shepherd's Pie.

We both give this a 3 out of 5. Shepherds are simple folk, and they might appreciate the lackluster taste of this dish. Cravers of more bold tastes might want to check it out to satisfy their curiosity, but they'll want to be heavily armed with hot sauce before they heat it up. Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Trader Joe-San's Tempura Chicken

Since becoming an amateur food-reviewing hack, I have become more and more aware of how little I know about food and its vocabulary. I realize I basically know nothing beyond the basics and American terms - like, okay, I get what a "burger" or "deep-fried and greasy" mean, but stuff from other cultures? Not so much.

Take, for instance, our Japanese friend Joe-San and his Tempura Chicken. A couple years ago, for the one and only time in my life, I went out for sushi and sampled many different types of rolls. California rolls were okay but didn't do too much for me, and I don't recall the names of any other type of roll I ate except some shrimp tempura ones. Sandy was pretty content to just stick to her fried rice. Those shrimp tempura rolls were pretty good, and I recall them being fairly spicy, so since then I have taken to assuming that the word "tempura" implies some level/type of spice. Well, turns out that's wrong as I found out after trying out this chicken. "Tempura" is actually a style meaning lightly battered and fried, with no implication of spicy hotness. Which, in turn, means that when I thought I was eating raw shrimp in the sushi, it was actually not, which means not all sushi is raw (to which Sandy says "duh"), which just leaves me a little confused, like I ventured a little too quickly down the rabbit hole.

Anyways, the tempura chicken .... meh. What caused me to look up the meaning of the word "tempura" was the flavor (or lack of existence thereof) of this particular dish. To make this stuff, you bake up a bagful of skimpily breaded chicken nuggets in the oven (you can also deep-fry, which I guess leaves it technically "tempura") and toss it around in some red sauce that comes in a packet you microwave and dunk in warm water. The chicken itself is decent - it turns out to be crispy and chickeny and all that good stuff. The sauce though - it doesn't do anything except put a coat of reddish goop on your dinner. It's just there and doesn't taste like anything. It's as worthless as a plot in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. I tried a little bit of it by itself, and there is a faint, barely distillable sweet-sour taste like the package proclaims, but when put on chicken, the taste of the actual chicken easily overpowers it. It was only slightly discernible when eaten with plain white rice (not like there was much to spare .... Joe-San is a stingy guy saucewise). After a few bites, just to give it some flavor, Sandy and I dumped a few sprinkles of crushed red pepper on there. On a positive note, texture-wise you do end up with a plateful of chicken chunks that mirror what you'd expect from a Chinese restaurant, so it does have redeeming qualities. Given the choice between the two, I'd definitely recommend TJ's Mandarin Orange Chicken if you're in the mood for an inexpensive, easy-to-make semi-Asian inspired dinner.

Both Sandy and I are in agreement about it: We'd get it again, and wouldn't necessarily mind it, but we definitely wouldn't be upset if we pass it up on a fairly regular basis. Next time, we'd probably modify the sauce a little before combining it with the chicken ... I'd imagine some various chili peppers, maybe some Chipotle, cumin, black pepper ... wait, those aren't really Asian, and Sandy would be semi-upset that it wouldn't be right (I have a tendency to just dump whatever spices in, and they have to be at least semi-thematic for her) ... I have much to learn. Sandy gives them a 2.5 out of 5, and I agree. The taste just isn't quite there enough to rate them any higher.

Bottom line: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Trader Joe's Soup & Oyster Crackers

These are some versatile little fella's. You can just snack on them by themselves, or they go great on salads, or in soups. The side of the box mentions you can use them with "chowdah," just like that, with the New England accent already built into the word...They should have just gone ahead and made them "Traydah Joe's Soup and Oystah Crackahs."

I'm gonna go ahead and say they're great for "chyowdeh," too. I think that's how a New Yorker would say it (for Manhattan clam chowder).

They're crunchy, crumbly, crispy, and they're nice and bready. They have a great salty flavor, like a saltine cracker, but a little more hearty. And they're only 4.714 calories per cracker. I did the math myself.

There's this whole long story thing on the back of the box that goes into great detail about different ways to eat them just with New England clam chowder. You can sprinkle them on top or chase a spoonful of chowder with one of the crackers...and these crackers apparently have some torrid love affair with soup, not unlike that weird thing Russ has going on with the TJ's Peanut Brittle.

Sonia and I have eaten them plain, on a salad, and with our favorite, Trader Joe's Organic Tomato Bisque. They passed with flying colors in all three applications.

Before we wrap up, a few questions, Trader Joe: first of all, what's with the windmill? It looks like Holland. You got the polder there with the Zuiderzee in the background. All you need is a little Dutch boy with big wooden clogs. What, are they making Netherlands clam chowder now, too?

And secondly, why are they called oyster crackers? Do people eat them with oysters? I've only tried an oyster once, and it didn't have one of these crackers with it. Maybe I would have liked it better if it did, because I wasn't a huge fan. Were they ever made to taste like oysters? I looked in the ingredients, and there isn't an ounce of oyster in them. Are we supposed to think they look like oysters? Because they don't. Oysters are all oblong-ish and sort of silver gray usually. Shouldn't they be clam crackers, wheat crackers, or chowder crackers?

I suppose none of that matters. The Trader Joe's brand Soup & Oyster Crackers are a good buy. 4.5 out of 5 from each of us. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.