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Monday, September 26, 2011

Trader Joe's Baingan Bharta

On the surface, I seemed like a fairly normal kid growing up in most respects.* Let's see...loved Nintendo, did alright enough in school, had a paper route, got skiddish around dogs ever since a German shepherd bit me hard on the buns on said paper route, like swimming and biking, got in a few fisticuffs with the siblings, etc. But deep down, I knew I wasn't like most other kids I knew and heard about. It wasn't just my charming good looks, expansive intellect, and abject humility but also...I liked veggies. A lot. And not just the typical ones like carrots and corn and all that. Peas? Green beans? No problem. Spinach? More please! Broccoli? Okay, let me put a lil' cheese on it and you got yourself a deal. I even liked lima beans on the very few occasions my mom ever made them. Still, there were two veggies I can recall from growing up that I can't remember ever having and being somewhat scared of due to the playground horror stories of my second-grade classmates: Brussel sprouts and eggplant. Never had them, and I wasn't about to go beg my Ma for them either. In the coming months I'll be confronting Brussel sprouts** for the first time when our home garden ones are finally ready to go (late bloomers and we got started late to boot) and kinda looking forward to it. As for eggplant, it's still a work in progress. I've had it only a couple times that I'm aware of it, and while not overly minding it, I haven't been the biggest fan, either.

I guess that's why I was a little apprehensive to try out Trader Joe's Baingan Bharta, aka "Authentic Indian Eggplant Curry." Both Nathan and I have had some great luck with TJ-themed Indian dishes, so it wasn't that part. It was that scary word "eggplant." I truly didn't know what to expect, and so this hung out in the freezer for a couple weeks until I finally worked up the gumption to stuff into my man bag before another day of living in my cubicle.

After zapping it for about five minutes, it was finally done, and it definitely smelled good. And man, is it aromatic. There's the usual Indian season suspects of turmeric, coriander, garlic and cumin that a lot of depth to the flavor and spice of this dish. Appearancewise, the Baingan Bharta pretty closely resembles a plastic tray of brownish mush with some little green things that I presume are teeny bay leave bits here and there. As for taste, it's pretty good, and it tastes like all those seasonings listed above and not much else. About the only things that made me remember it was eggplant was the squishy-squashy texture and the couple seeds floating around (sorry, diverticultis sufferers, another TJ treat you can't have). It was good enough that I made an effort to scrape out every bit I could without looking like too much of a lunchroom freak.

That's not to say it was perfect. In fact, there were two kinda major flaws. First, perhaps this is more my American sensibility than anything, but it coulda used some rice along with it. TJ's gives you some rice with other good Indian lunches, why not this one? Altogether, the Bharta seemed a little, well, incomplete. Secondly, hmm, okay, how to put this delicately...let's just say I had to take an additional short break that afternoon to answer a call, and it wasn't from the collections agency calling for the woman who used to have my cellphone number, either. I like to think I have a fairly strong stomach (after all, I ate these and was fine) but this caused a little mild tummy trouble. That doesn't bother me too terribly much, but that may for others, I presume.

I cannot vouch for its authenticity, as I really don't know what Baingan Bharta is "supposed" to taste like. That's okay, I think. Probably Trader Joe's didn't sign off on this dish thinking it was just like what is made right in Punjab...it's offered to the typical American consumer, you and I, to hopefully introduce us to a type of dish we may not otherwise try, and if we like it, seek out a better version. Next time Sandy and I go to an Indian restaurant, I definitely won't be so adverse to try it if I see it, thanks to this lunch. For a smallscale cultural awakening and an alright lunch, there's worse ways to spend about $3 somewhere, though I'm not sure how quick I'd be to run out and buy this particular version again.

Sandy's a little more veggie adverse than I, so she decided to sit this one out and leave this all to me. I'm thinking she'd like it if she'd try it out, but, eh, what can ya do. Based on the two issues above, but otherwise enjoying this tray o' goodness, I think something like double 3's may be in order...yup, sounds good to me. What about you?

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*Dear friends and family members reading this, please note I used the qualifiers of "seemed" and "fairly." Share some dirt on me, be sure it'll come back on ya :).
**Or, as my neighbor calls this huge honkin' plants manhandling our raised bed out front, "Russell sprouts." Haha, never heard that one before...he recommends roasting in the oven with a little olive oil and salt. Any other recommendations? We're gonna have a lot of them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Trader Joe's Fruit & Nut Trek Mix Granola Bars

Relatively recently, we reviewed the Chocolate Chip Granola Bars, and a long time ago, we reviewed the Omega Trek Mix, neither of which were particularly successful. They weren't awful, but neither one even got our "really darn good" status. With this product, Trader Joe's combined two classic snack ideas into one. They dropped the "Omega" from the Trek Mix and they exchanged the chocolate for sweet cranberries and cherries, both of which were smart moves.

This product tasted healthy, yet naturally sweet. There was no nasty Omega 3 fatty acid aftertaste, and no weird, fakey sweetener to rot my teeth. The whole oat grains looked hearty and untouched, right down to the perfect split up their middles.

All of the fruits, though compacted and compressed, were moist and chewy, and they blended perfectly with the brown rice base and brown rice syrup that bonded all the ingredients together.

Trek mix and granola bars are both excellent choices for mid-hike pick-me-ups or for tide-me-over-until-dinner snacks. These bars are the best of both worlds, and they have the double-threat of simultaneous crispiness and chewiness going on full-force. Snacktacular.

As satisfied as I was with the fruits and grains, I should mention that these bars were a little lacking in the nut department. I suppose I did detect an almond or two, but considering that these bars have the word "nut" in their title, they could have been a little nuttier.

I can definitely see myself buying these reasonably-priced granola bars again. They didn't quite change my life or make me cry any happy tears, but they're a tasty, filling snack-food with a pleasant cranberry-ish flavor. I have absolutely no problems with chocolate, but I would recommend these over the Chocolate Chip Granola Bars any day. Sonia and I both give them 4's.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Trader Joe's S'mores

Everyone knows what a s'more is, right? Aside from Thin Mints and generations of courageous, confident, character-filled women (hey, it's in their mission statement), s'mores probably have to be one of Girl Scout's greatest contributions to society. It may be impossible to prove that Girl Scouts invented the timeless combination of hot fire-toasty marshmallow, semi-melty chocolate and crunchy graham cracker, but they definitely popularized the concept under the name of a "Some More" (as in, "Can I have some more, please?") before being colloquially shortened to just a s'more. Today, you can't go camping or even out to the woods for a campfire and not have them. Sandy and I definitely tracked down the ingredients before setting up a tent for the night at Joshua Tree National Park on our latest vacation which, between those, some TJ chicken sausages, grill-baked potatoes, and good cheap beer courtesy, once more, from TJs, made a great campfire dinner.

It's a little curious to me, then, that these frozen desserts are marketed under the name of "S'more." No, not "S'more Ice Cream Sandwich" or even "S'more Frozen Dessert." Just "S'more." That's it. Listen, Trader Joe's, you and I both know you didn't flambé these on a stick in the middle of nowhere, so it isn't a s'more. Call me a semantic purist but you whiffed there. Also, after hearing on and on about great these were after our latest ice cream sandwich review, and these finally being in stock, and getting home quickly thereafter and putting them in the freezer right away and waiting a day or two after to pull them from the otherwise frosty realm of our good ol' reliable Kenmore to finally eat....ugh. Somewhere along the way, whether in packaging or shipping or in-store handling, you muffed this package, because all the sandwiches were obviously melted then refrozen more or less back in shape, and that wasn't my fault. Don't mess with the reviewer's package, especially when he's the self-proclaimed ice cream expert!

Regardless, they were in okay-enough shape to get an accurate gauge on them. They're definitely different from the Sublime Ice Cream Sandwiches, so allow me to compare and contrast: For one thing, while the cookie on the Subliminals (can I call them that?) were the definite highlight, on the S'mores, they were not. That's not to say that they're bad. Like the Subliminals, they were of a softer variety, which I liked but were way smaller and thinner. I wanted more cookie for my sandwich, kinda like how the graham cracker in an actual s'more is a big part of the overall taste. Also, while the ice cream portion of the Subliminals is rather plain, for the S'mores, it's much richer. In fact, it's not even ice cream, but rather gelato (less butterfat and more sugar, which can also help explain the melting issue, but still...) and has lots of marshmallow swirled in. I'd actually say too much, as it seems out of proportion flavor-wise to an actual s'more. And while there's some good chocolate swirled in and flaked around, it doesn't quite cut it for me. Of course, I'm the guy who when crafting his own s'more likes graham crackers snapped a little bigger than necessary with a big ol' chunk of Hershey's in there, with marshmallow being more of a tertiary then primary flavor, so maybe it's just me, but overall they tasted more vaguely reminiscent of a s'more than actual all that s'mores-y.

Actually, it's not just me. Sandy agrees with that notion. "I liked them because they were ice cream-y, but that's about it," she said. I concur. Given a choice between these and the Subliminals, I'd choose the Subliminals nearly every time. I mean, these aren't awful by any stretch (I do like them overall) but to me, they just miss a little too much of the mark, and I'm glad my lovely wife stands in solidarity with me on this. "I'll give them like a 2 and a half," she said. That's exactly half of what she gave the Subliminals. Me? I can't go that low, but feel okay with a 3, a full Golden Spoon less than my Subliminal score. I'd be willing to give them a second chance...whenever they come back in stock...but I won't be holding my breath, either. Disagree? All good! Leave a comment and keep it civil!

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons