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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Pear Cinnamon Cider

"If it's clear and yella, you've got juice there, fella. If it's tangy and brown, you're in Cider Town."

A bit of Ned Flanders wisdom there...tangy and brown indeed. But this isn't apple cider. This is pear cider. Pear Cinnamon Cider to be exact. Tasty.

Now, I've always been a fan of cider. And I'm also a big advocate of the pear. It is, in my humble opinion, the most underrated fruit in the whole pantheon of sweet natural foods. I've got no problem with apples. It's just that I think they've had their day in the sun. Now it's pear's turn to shine. And this cider is a great place to start.

If you look at the ingredients on a lot of those 100% juice drinks that Dole and Ocean Spray and some of those other folks put out, especially the non-citrus flavors, you'll notice that quite often pear juice is one of the main ingredients, even if it's not one of the fruits mentioned in the title of the beverage. That's because it's naturally sweet. They don't need to use sugar or corn syrup if they use pear juice. Those juice brands unjustly deny the pear its due recognition, and instead attribute the flavor of the beverage to more popular fruits.

I've tried heating this, and it's not bad as a hot cider. But I think it's best when chilled. It has a really nice balance between the pear's sweetness and the cinnamon's spiciness. It's just a really refreshing drink. But it does have that sort of Autumnal vibe going on. Definitely want to have this again in 8 months when the leaves are just starting to turn colors.

Before I tried this, I had an idea in my head of what the perfect cold cider should taste like. Up to this point, all of the ciders I've tried throughout my life have been mere reflections - or shadows, if you will - of this: the ultimate cider. No other cider developer has come this close because most have striven to perfect a cider that comes from an apple. This beverage proves that cider was meant to come from a pear.

Sonia doesn't even like cider generally, but she really liked this. She gives it a 4. As a cider-lover, I say it's as close to cider perfection as you're gonna come this side of eternity. I give it a 5. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Baked Jalapeño Cheese Crunchies

So, this morning, for the first time since getting them from the Pennfield Middle School vending machine in roughly seventh grade, I ate an Andy Capps Hot Fry. One of my coworkers inexplicably bought a bag of them somewhere and was eating them for breakfast. It wasn't even 8 a.m. yet. I saw this, recalled not really liking them that much even in my more pimply faced days, and was just intrigued enough by the sight of my otherwise normal, relatively sane coworker munching down on them. This wasn't the first time I've seen people eating this type of stuff for breakfast. Six or seven summers ago, I came to Pittsburgh to work for the summer at an innercity youth day camp, and there was a sizable contingent of kids who would ignore the breakfast made for them and instead plow through small, quarter-priced bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Anyways, I hate those, and when I crunched down on that Andy Capps Hot Fry, I was pretty glad to have some boss-bought chocolate chip cookies on hand to get that taste out.

And right around then, I remembered why I like TJ's Baked Jalapeño Cheese Crunchies so much.

Don't get me wrong, I love hot, spicy stuff. Ask any survivors of my death chili, they can attest to that. But too often, when attempted to be formulated into crunchy snack form, as in the case of the Capp fries and Flamin' Cheetos, the results are not so good. Instead of actual heat, they're just overly salted with red junk, or even worse, blasted with vinegary crap. I can pass up that stuff any time and not feel anything amiss in my life.

TJ's crunchy guys get the job done, and they do it right. The smallish jalapeño bits add just enough heat to be noticeable without trying to assault the tastebuds. Definitely some bits are more blasted with the green goodies than others, but it's balanced enough. I'd say they'd be agreeable to most palates heatwise, which I think is one of the major strengths of them. It's easy to be too spicy or not spicy enough, and alienate an audience either way. It's much tougher to try and strike the right balance, and Trader Joe does just that in this instance. As far as other flavor goes, it seems they opt to feature the jalapeño more than whatever type of cheese is on there, so if you're expecting a Cheeto clone in this regard, well, you may be disappointed. But in pretty much every other way, they're very Cheeto-like in appearance and crunch, which makes it pretty easy to gobble down more than intended. As a plus, there's no fake orangey dusty residue to scrub off or get all over your paperwork later. They're just a good, honest, crunchy, semi-hot snack.

Both Sandy and I like these quite a bit, and get them fairly often. With them being baked, they are a decent alternative healthwise to chips while still being a little naughty ... so yeah, they're a winner in these parts. Anything that tastes good and can make a claim to be healthyish (or at least "healthier" than an alternative) without sacrificing taste and goodness is something we'll continually deem worthy of our grocery dollars. That's how we roll.

When I asked Sandy for her rating, she simply said "Mmmmmm .... four." That seems a pretty worthy rating. If the cheese flavor was a little stronger, it'd be enough to bump the rating up another notch or two, but they're good enough as is to not quibble too much.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Trader Joe's Chicken Tikka Masala

Loved it!!!

How about calling this Trader Jograj's Chicken Tikka Masala? It tastes just as authentic as the food from the best Indian restaurants I've been to. And that's saying a lot. I really like Indian food, and there are some killer Indian restaurants back in L.A., so my standard was set pretty high.

TJ's really went above and beyond with this dish. Everything down to the Basmati rice was phenomenal. The texture of the chicken is excellent, there's a good amount of sauce, and the real kicker is that they got the flavor right. The Indian spices that give Chicken Tikka Masala that unique taste were all present in the proper amounts and proportions. There might be some Indian restaurants in this country that can do slightly better with fresh ingredients and a hefty price tag, but if you're looking for better frozen, microwaveable Indian food than this, I think you're searching in vain.

Our side dish was Trader Joe's Channa Masala. This item is a noble effort on TJ's part, indeed, but I'm not quite as impressed with it as I was with the chicken. There's plenty of tasty masala sauce, and the chick peas are plentiful (or "Garbanzo beans," if you prefer), but they were a little too hard. They tasted fine, but they were just a bit stiff. I know I'm being pretty picky. It's a pretty tall order to ask for microwaveable Indian food that's on par with a gourmet restaurant. I think TJ's did the impossible with the Chicken Tikka Masala, and they came darn close with the Channa.

Trader Joe's Whole Wheat Tandoori Naan bread is in the same league as the masala dishes. It's almost too good to be true. Some huge Indian food connoisseurs might tell you the naan is better at their favorite 5 star Indian eatery, but again, we're talking about a grocery store product that's a fraction of the price that can be heated in the oven or microwave. I really can't complain. It's whole wheat, so it's good for you. It's a bit thicker than the naan I'm used to from Indian restaurants. I wouldn't say that's a weakness for it, though. It might not be identical to the most authentic naan's, but it's puffy and thick, and that gives it a heartier quality.

All in all, I'd say if you love Indian food, you'll love Trader Joe's, er, Trader Jograj's offerings. I highly recommend them...even if you're not familiar with Indian food, TJ's might be a good place to try out different dishes without making the same monetary investment you would at a fancy restaurant.

Trader Joe's Chicken Tikka Masala gets a 5 out of 5 from me. Sonia gives it a 4.5. Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Channa Masala, the Garbanzo bean dish, gets a 4 from me. 4 from Sonia. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Whole Wheat Tandoori Naan gets a 4.5 from me and a 5 from Sonia. Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10.