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Friday, October 7, 2011

Trader Joe's Garlic Potatoes with Parmesan Sauce

Things I love about garlic: it tastes good, it's good for you, it repels vampires. Things I don't like about garlic: its nickname is apparently "the stinking rose," too much of it can cause an upset stomach, it makes your breath bad.

But have you ever noticed that when you AND the person you're kissing have recently eaten garlic, you can't really tell that they have bad breath because yours is exactly the same? It's like they cancel each other out. That's why Sonia and I always have garlic at the same time.

"Hey Sonia, I'm eating some of these garlic potatoes, do you want some?"

"Um, no, not right now...I'm....<sniff, sniff>...well, actually maybe I will try some..."

Sonia will be the first one to tell you that she has a poor sense of smell. But garlic is just one of those scents that's pungent enough to punch through the poorest of olfactory appendages. So we both had some. Not that we made out while we were eating or anything. Even though the garlic-breath situation wasn't an issue, I just have this thing with kissing while eating. You remember that scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon and Minnie Driver kiss at that diner, and Minnie Driver's character says, "I just got some of your pickle" or something like that? NASTY. I almost hurled. I don't even want to take the slightest chance of ingesting food that's been masticated by someone other than myself, even if it is my wonderful wife.

Anyhow, on with the review of the potatoes. We've seen TJ's do LOTS of stuff with potatoes. Everything from Russ's beloved Potato Tots to Trader Joe's Breakfast Scramble, TJ's has generally done more right than wrong with their potato dishes. Of all the items I've had from Trader Joe's that involve potatoes, I would say these are most similar to the potatoes in Trader Joe's Meat & Potatoes, but with more garlic, of course. But actually, not much more. The garlic in this product was certainly not overpowering. It's a subtle garlic flavor. They're a little salty, but there again, it's not overpowering at all. The product mentions parmesan in the title, but neither Sonia nor I tasted much, if any. And, well, the only flavor that's left is potato. You could certainly tell that you were eating potatoes, but they weren't bursting with flavor of any kind. They went well with ketchup...but, they really needed the ketchup if you know what I mean.

All in all, this is not a good stand-alone food. Even as a side-dish, most people will still want to dress it up with ketchup and maybe a little salt. The texture was nice. Similar to home-fries. No complaints there. But because these are little more than plain potatoes in a bag that you could chop up and cook yourself, Sonia is giving them a 2.5. I thought they were convenient, and they certainly didn't taste bad...their flavors were just kinda subtle. I'll be generous and give them a 3.5.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix and Organic Maple Agave Syrup Blend

Hooray it's fall. That means: ever encroaching dusks, cooler temps, leaves changing, playoff baseball, football on TV at least four nights a week (much to Sandy's chagrin), and Sandy hogging all the blankets every night (much to mine). Fortunately, for all involved, it also marks the return of all things pumpkin. Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin coffee. Pumpkin beer. Pumpkin bread. Pumpkin seeds. Peanut butter pumpkins. Pumpkin everything. I know lots of people who, like Linus, await the return of the Great Pumpkin every year, except instead of sitting in a field with a blockhead, they're just waiting for shelves everywhere to be stocked with pumpkin-related goodies. Me? Meh. I like them and all (especially my mom's pumpkin pie), but tend not to go berserk and light up Facebook with pics of the Dunkin Donuts Pumpkin Latte sign the first morning it appears like some of my dear friends (you know who you are). I can appreciate a good pumpkin-related treat here and there, as can Sandy, but I'm more eager for the holiday goodies up around the bend. Til then, though, pumpkin overkill, here we go.

Well, we already know thanks to Nathan that Trader Joe's makes a decent pancake mix. What's it like if we get in the seasonal mood and toss in some pumpkin? The Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix kinda scraps the "all purpose" facade (what do you mean, it can't fix the teeny leak in my roof?) and goes for the pumpkin jugular. Or so you'd think, if your Trader Joe's is anything like ours, where boxes are prominently piled near the entrance and hailed as the newest and greatest thing since, well, last week. Sandy and I decided to give it the old college try a few nights back to see if it was worth the hype.

First, the mix definitely smells pumpkinny, like pumpkin potpourri, almost. I'm half-tempted to sprinkle some in my car for air freshener. It smells good. Taste...well, almost. You get the sense of it, and there's a little tinge of nutmeg and cinnamon and allspice and ginger, and it's just enough to remind you that you're eating something slapped with the pumpkin label. But it could be a lot more, well, pumpkin-like. We've actually had it twice now. The first time, Sandy made some crepes for us and our friend Lisa, and while good, we all felt like there was something a little amiss. Maybe it was because they were thin crepes, we said. Well, to test our hypothesis, and to see just how easy they are to make, I, Russ, took it upon myself to make a batch of regular-style ones for tonight. I've never made pancakes before, and like my reviewing counterpart, while I can make lots of good food, there's some stuff I need some grace on kitchenwise. Anyways, my initial fears aside, it's enough to mix up with some milk, melted butter and an egg, and managed to not set off the smoke alarm and make some pretty darn respectable flapjacks for dinner if I may say so myself. This time around, our dinner was a little more pumpkinny, but it still sided more on the under-toned part of the scale.

And of course, you can't have pancakes without some syrup to drench them in. Trader Joe's does have some pretty decent maple syrup, but that Joe, he just has to experiment a little, doesn't he? Enter his Organic Maple Agave Syrup Blend. I'm by no means an all-out syrup snob, but generally speaking, I strongly dislike the fake Aunt Jemima junk and much prefer the real stuff (kinda partial to Vermont origin, but Canadian-born is acceptable, too). Okay, maybe I'm a semi-snob. Well, this semi-snob doesn't know all that much about agave syrup except Trader Joe's has another organic blue agave syrup that Sandy gets every once in a while to mix in coffee instead of sugar. That and usually it's Mexican. Our neighbors to the north and south apparently then tagteamed each other in making this syrup, and it's okay. It's not as thick as 100% pure maple syrup, of course, and is definitely more sugary and sweet than amber-y and maple-y. I suppose we should have figured that. For three bucks, it's okay I guess, but for another buck or two, you can do better at TJ's. Much better.

Still, make some pumpkin pancakes and slather on some maple agave syrup, and it makes a good meal. Kinda like the recently retired REM's discography (and exactly the opposite of this year's Philadelphia Eagles squad*), when taken altogether, it's greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe I'm trying too hard to get into the autumn mood, or maybe I just really really really liked the cinnamon honey butter that Sandy whipped up, but I liked the combination both times around more than I liked either the pancakes and syrup separately.

Sandy, who usually is more into pumpkin and funky goodies than me, had more or less the same reaction both times around. The pancakes could taste more like pumpkin, and the syrup could taste more like maple instead of maple/sugar goopy water. Without too much hesitation, she branded each with a three. I'm inclined to agree with her on the maple agave syrup (I'm betting it'll sit in the fridge for a long time) but, when thinking of my two pancake dinners in the past three nights and reasonably enjoying each one, I think the pancake mix gets a four. For me, I guess if I had to decide between "too much" and "not enough" pumpkin flavor, I'd go with "not enough." It certainly beats getting another rock in your trick-or-treat bag, Charlie Brown.

Bottom lines: Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons Trader Joe's Organic Maple Agave Syrup Blend: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*I can say this only because I'm from the Phily area and have been an Eagles fan since the Randall Cunningham era. Randall-freakin'-Cunningham. I will allow no other smack talk about my team from anyone else who is not an Eagles fan. I guess, though, that we can add "delusions of grandeur" to Vince Young's psychological issues.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Trader Joe's Lemon Bars

In general, desserts do very well on our blog. They often have an above-average number of pageviews from our readers, but even more often than that, they score above average in our 0-10 points rating system. In fact, the last two additions to the Pantheon have been desserts. The Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Bar and Lemon Ginger Ice Cream, both reviewed by Russ and Sandy, were the latest sweet treats well-deserving of our elite-eats label. Out of the past five Pantheon foods, three have been desserts. And Sonia and I enjoyed the Raspberry Macaroon Cake enough to give it a 9 out of 10.

I think all four WG@TJs reviewers have a sweet tooth to some degree or another. I know I certainly do. So when I did our TJ's shopping this past week, I managed to make half of my purchases dessert foods, much to the chagrin of my wife, who is slightly more health-conscious than I am.

But anyway, these lemon bars, like the Macaron aux Framboises, come frozen, and they require a thawing time of approximately 45 minutes. They're fairly small, but they're heavy and rich. When I popped the first one into my mouth, I wanted to shout "Lemony Snicket!"

I'm aware that's the name of an author of children's books and not something to shout after eating a citrusy dessert, but it certainly seemed appropriate at the time. I then proceeded to refer to the desserts themselves as "Lemony Snickets." "Sonia, would you like another Lemony Snicket?" and so on. And indeed, they are quite lemony. They're highly sweet and extremely tart. Their texture varies greatly upon the amount of time they've been allowed to thaw. Right at 45 minutes seems to be the ideal time for consumption. Before that, they're too cold and icy. Wait too long after that, and they get very mushy, to the point you can't eat them without getting messy or using a spoon, especially if it's hot out.

There was a curious sheet of white confection on the top of each piece. It was like a very thin layer of powdered sugar or something. It dissolved on the tongue instantly, and it was very sweet. Occasionally, the sheet would frustrate me by sliding off the lemon bar and landing on the floor or my lap, at which point it became nearly impossible to salvage intact.

I felt the bars had a nice balance of tart lemoniness and sugary sweetness. Sonia agreed. She pointed out that the bottom cake-ish layer could have been a bit firmer. It tasted great, but it was quite flimsy, especially once it had been thawing beyond an hour or so. The custard section was very creamy and good. Just what I was hoping it would be. We're going to give these lemon bars double 4's. I'd say they're a must-try for lemon-lovers.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.