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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Apocryphal Pita and Roasted Garlic Hummus

Trader Joe's sure is a little funny sometimes with their marketing and branding, if you haven't noticed.

It goes beyond their creation of different character names depending on the product inspiration and their pretty uneven utilization, which I find endlessly fascinating for whatever reason. Why are only some Chinese products Trader Ming but not others? Is Thai Joe a one-trick pony? Who determines this? And some of the product names...some are pretty long-winded and over the top, no doubt. The illustrations on some packages are kinda weird, too. I think it all adds to the allure of the place and the shopping experience. For me, I find a certain level of entertainment in it all.

I had another reminder of this when Sandy and I started poking around the first aisle of the local shop in search of a good snack to share for the week. TJ's has a great selection of different chips and salsas which we've inventoried and digested a fair amount of, but we found ourselves wanting something kinda different for a change. The bread shelves are the first ones to smack your eyeballs when wandering in where we go, so we figured that'd be a good enough place to look.

Hey, look, we found ourselves some pitas! But not just any pitas. Trader Joe's is only too happy to tell us they're apocryphal, too! Sounds fancy, but what's that mean? I'm usually not too much of one to use a big fancy word when a diminutive one will do, so I have to admit, I had to look it up to remember what it meant. Apparently, it means "of questionable origin." Hmm. Way to go, TJ's, in making us feel confident about this purchase of ours. I don't really expect a bag of pitas I get in the middle of Pittsburgh to be exactly the same as the ones from a Turkish street vendor (in some ways those could be more questionable ...) but at least keep the facade in play, please. I kinda liked the picture of the guy in monkish garb apparently training for some Middle Eastern World's Strongest Man competition, though, and despite the lack of the letter s, there are, in fact, a plural amount present per sellable unit.

They're decent too. Made out of 100% whole wheat so I guess they fit the bill healthwise if your tummy can bear that. A little flaky, a little doughy, sturdy, a little chewy, and definitely pretty tasty, though kinda unremarkable overall. I think that's about the best you can expect from a pita. They're not to be the star, but instead the stage for whatever tasty creation you're prepping to cram on in. So, sensing this was an incomplete tide-me-over tidbit, we peered across the aisle and saw ...

Hummus! I don't think I've ever bought hummus before, though I've been known to eat in mass quantity when I spy it on a snack table somewhere. It is one high quality foodstuff on which to mooch. The Roasted Garlic Hummus resonated with me as not quite being the best I've ever had, but far from the worst (there was this Wal-Mart stuff one time ...). I recall it being smooth and creamy without too much of the graininess some hummus can have (I don't mind that, but I can do without). I guess I was a little disappointed with the overall taste, as it's not as garlicky as I would've hoped. When I want something that predominantly features garlic, I want it to be potent enough to fend off any vampires and bubonic plague viruses lurking anywhere in the tri-state region. The only exception to that is when my grandmother made garlic bread ... she's been known to go just a little overboard. Anyways, I've never roasted a stinking rose bulb on the barby in the back, but if I did, I'd imagine it tasting stronger than this (despite the lid saying mild), and not nearly as sweet. Yes, sweet. Sandy said she thought the sweetness more came from the pita when combined with the hummus, and though that may have accentuated it, I could taste it when I tried some of the hummus by itself. Garlic is supposed to be vigorous enough to render your breath downright offensive for a spell, not leave you pondering its sweetness. Overall, it's agreeable enough, I'd say, but it's not quite what I expected.

Anyways, the pitas and hummus made for some pretty decent, easy snacks for us, and worked quite well for a couple quick-bite-on-the-way-out-the-door scenarios. I think Sandy enjoyed it a little bit more than I did, though, mostly because she seemed to like the hummus a tad or two more than me. That's her, ever the gracious one. I didn't exactly get her rankings for these, and know it's not always the wisest to presume it's okay to speak for one's spouse, but I'll give it a shot and try to represent her opinions and thought process as fairly and accurately as possible. I'll go first and grant a four for the pitas and a 3.5 for the hummus. Pretty fair grade for some pretty fair chow. For Sandy, the pitas aren't bad, pretty yummy, she likes them and the hummus is really yummy, not yucky like it coulda been and about the only way it could be better would be if it were pink and sparkly and came packaged with a free penguin or puppy or a puppy and a penguin and baseball tickets. Or something pretty close to that ... I'm wagering that's a matching four for the pitas and a 4.5 for the hummus.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons for both the Apocryphal Pita and the Roasted Garlic Hummus

Hey .... c'mon now ... don't forget about this!!! Seriously, please.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trader Giotto's Grated Parmesan & Romano Cheese

Next up in our "We really need to make a TJ's run" series: grated parmesan cheese.

This stuff always enhances pizza. In pizza places, it's usually right next to the big red pepper flakes in a glass shaker with a shiny aluminum screw-on top with little holes. It's one of our top two favorite pizza-related condiments. It's also good for pasta. And our good buddy Trader Giotto hooked it up with not just parmesan cheese, but another Italian classic: Romano cheese. Booyah!

As the container directs, one must sprinkle this cheese with gusto onto his or her food. A lack of gusto may diqualify you from further use of this product. Mama Mia.

The dispenser has one of those twisty-turny tops where you can choose to put the little holes over the opening in the top of the container if you want to gently sprinkle the product onto your pizza, or you can choose the huge gaping hole if you want to just dump a giant pile of cheese on your food.

I might also mention that this is imported cheese. Really. That's what the container says. Why can't we make a decent parmesan cheese here in the US? I don't know. Maybe the flavor is enhanced in transit somewhere between here and the cheese's unspecified origin, which of course we are led to believe is Italy. At any rate, it is tasty.

But really, what can you do to make a parmesan cheese better than any other run-of-the-mill parmesan cheese? Add Romano. That's what TJ's did. It's that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that puts TJ's versions ahead of any other brand. Good job. We like it. Double 4's.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trader Joe's Paneer Tikka Masala

So, my last review got me thinking about the whole classes of vegetarianism thing, and like any good, curious fellow in this age and time, I went straight to the infallible, omnipotent source of all knowledge readily available on the interwebs ... yup, Wikipedia (Nathan sure got our unspoken WGATJ creed right). Turns out there's a lot of denominations within vegetarianism, enough to make my head spin. There's the vegans, who are pretty simple to understand - no animal product of any type. Raw vegans take it a step further - only raw, uncooked fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc. Fruitarians go even more out on a limb and eat only such things that when harvested don't "harm" the plant (some of them don't even eat seeds because it "kills" future plants), but it's unclear to me if they can cook stuff or not ... maybe once it's fallen off the tree, do with it what you will? Going back towards the center, there's all the vegetarian classifications like pescetarianism, which allows for seafood, pollo-pescetarianism (seafood, poultry and white meat ... basically, Sandy's diet except the occasional burger), and so on. I kinda get all that, but then start seeing stuff like ovo vegetarianism (eggs okay, dairy not) and lacto-vegetarianism (dairy okay, eggs not), and think of all the label reading and care those following these diets must undergo to make sure they're not accidentally eating something that violates the tenets of their chosen food gospel ... I mean, I'm kinda just used to sticking whatever tastes good in my mouth and going with it. I'd like to try to pay some more attention to what I'm eating, maybe. Seems more purposeful somehow.

So let's start with this, Trader Joe's Paneer Tikka Masala. Okay, let's take a look at it ... I see cheese, rice, sauce and spices ... that's four of my major food groups right there that are good for me in moderation. Off to a good start. No meat ... no eggs ... hey, even gluten-free (like some other fine TJ treats) ... but it does have cheese. So this is lacto-vegetarian, then, right? Well, yes, but only because paneer (that's the cheese) isn't produced with rennet, an animal-byproduct enzyme that does something or other to pretty much every other cheese in the world. Apparently those lacto-vegetarians aren't down with that (also, no gelatin is given the green light ... c'mon, no Jello?). With all that and no eggs to boot, I can imagine it being tough to follow that kind of diet.

I'm sure it'd be easier if everything tasted this good.

Contrary to the picture on the box, the tikka masala comes in a compartmentalized plastic tray with the rice on one side, the cheesy saucy chunks on the other, with some plastic film on top that you poke a couple breathing holes in before nuking for about four minutes to heat on up from its normative frozen state. When taken out and film peeled away, the sweet-'n-spicy aroma will definitely draw the attention of your white bread coworkers, like mine who stare in wonder at my French press every morning while I make my coffee. It smells delicious and intoxicating and once the fragrance hit my olfactory receptors, my immediate thought was, game on. I tackled the paneer side first. The paneer comes in little tiny cubey chunks bathing in reddish-orangish creamy tomato sauce. I scooped up a couple and took them in, and was immediately pretty happy. The cheese bits were okay, nothing too special, kind of like the lovechild of tofu and soft, mild mozzarella in both taste and texture. But the sauce ... dare I say majestic? It was a little sweet and definitely creamy (enough to make me think there might be coconut milk involved - nope), light, and has a good little kick to it, too. The turmeric really stands out to me, at least. Though not exactly the same, it reminded me of some good Thai curries I've had. It definitely tastes warm and I could feel my taste buds dancing around when I slathered them with tasty spoonful after tasty spoonful. Really, really good - I wish TJ's or someone would bottle it, and I'd be tempted to put it on just about anything. The spinach rice was decent, too, but not all that noteworthy. Except when the sauce mingled its way on over, that is.

I'm a fan of this, and judging by the beeline Sandy makes for this when perusing the freezer section, she is too. Considering the first two ingredients are tomatoes and onions (two of her least favorite foods), that speaks volumes to its overall goodness. Sandy said she has to refrain herself from picking up the tray and licking out every last bit of the sauce every time she has it for lunch. I scraped out every trace I could with my spoon and wiped some more out with my finger when no one was looking. Just so good. Not sure how it stacks up overall compared to the chicken variation of the dish, but I was pretty well pleased.

The only truly negative thing I'd say about the dish is, although the paneer isn't all that spectacular, it's good enough that I wish there were more of it. I'm guesstimating there were maybe a dozen minute chunks of it in my lunch. Sandy echoed the sentiment and said she'd be lucky if she had that many. Because of the paucity of cheesy chunks I'd say it might be slightly overpriced at $2.99 but you can certainly spend a lot more on something else and not get something quite this good for a workplace lunch.

The two of us are pretty solidly in agreement that overall, this is one pretty darn worthwhile lunchtime pick up, especially if you enjoy Indian food. That sauce .... mmm. We love it enough to both grade the whole dish a sturdy four out of five, and award it a regular spot in our work lunch rotation.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
p.s - Don't forget about our contest ... please don't let Nathan win!