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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Trader Joe's Loaded Fruit & Nut Gluten Free Granola

It's been quite a while since Sonia and I reviewed a Trader Joe's brand cold cereal. The Shellys were thoroughly impressed with TJ's Mango Passion Granola about 2 years back, and I recently reviewed Archer Farms Pecan Sticky Bun Granola and Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti cereals on my other blog. But I figure it's high time we check out another TJ's breakfast food—one that's gluten free!

It's a bag of granola that's not necessarily intended to be eaten with milk. The bag suggests trying it on yogurt or eating it straight out of the bag, both of which we did. But I think Sonia and I agreed that neither of the two latter cases would be regular occurrences in our home.

Most of the mixture was made up of dime-sized, corn-based, circular flakes, many of which had bits of nuts, fruits, and sesame seeds fused to them, presumably with honey or evaporated cane juice. The flakes were very dry and super-crunchy. They were actually kinda hard, too. They ripped up the tops of our mouths a bit when we ate too much at once. At the bottom of the bag, underneath layers of the aforementioned flakes, there was nothing but free-floating seeds, nut-bits, and crumbs.

The overall taste was that of corn flour, walnuts, sesame seeds, and raisins. The ingredients mentioned hazelnuts, almonds, coconut, apricots, and Brazil nuts, too, among other things, but I felt like many of the ingredients didn't really contribute as much to the product's flavor. Both Sonia and I thought there were way too many sesame seeds. They're potent enough in limited quantities, and I wouldn't have minded TJ's removing them from the mix altogether. We both thought there should have been more fruit, too. Raisins are the only fruit we noticed in any significant numbers, and even they were sparse compared to the corn flakes and sesame seeds.

I feel like Trader Joe's wanted to make this a sweeter product. They included coconut, honey, cane juice, and some dried fruits. But they didn't quite commit to that end. I don't think it was intended to be a candy-licious kid cereal, but if they would have left out things like sesame seeds, flax seeds, and Brazil nuts, I think they could have made this a better, more dessert-like breakfast food, while still maintaining the overall wholesomeness of the product. If you're on a gluten-free diet, by all means, try it. It's definitely not a thumbs-down, but Sonia and I feel like it failed to live up to its full potential. 3's from both of us.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Trader Joe's Quick Cook Steel Cut Oats

In a change from my usual tack, I'm gonna be real upfront with you right off the bat: Trader Joe's Quick Cook Steel Cut Oats will be the very first product, in the nearly 400 reviews on this blog to date, to earn two different scores on the very same review. It is equally true that this particular oatmeal is very, extremely delicious (you know, as oatmeal goes) and yet....ugh. It all depends how you make it.

I've heard that "it all depends how you make it" statement made about many things, upto and including those gawd-awful turkey meatloaf muffins. Apparently, if you ignore the stated "preferred method" notes (as I didn't), bake them twice as long as need be, broil them, slather them in cheese, deepfry them, add gravy, wrap in a wonton then saute in some olive oil and hot sauce and top with a cherry while singing loudly to Justin Bieber, they're good. Or something like that. Why the heck they're still available, I have no idea.

But I digress. Back to the oatmeal. Here's the breakdown:

Trader Joe's Quick Cook Steel Cut Oatmeal is GOOD when: you make it on the stove top. Oh yes, very good, indeed. Sandy and I made up a couple bowlfuls (pictured) this past weekend to have for breakfast along with a fresh French press full o' coffee. I added some grade B maple syrup and toasted almond slivers to mine. Deeeeeee-lish. Extremely good, and very easy to make, taking roughly the eight minutes or so the package says it takes. It's kinda fun watching the little oatmeal granules take in the water and turn into mush. Which brings to mind: why the big deal about oatmeal being "steel cut"? I suppose, living in Pittsburgh and all, that ought to make me proud in a way, but what does it matter what oatmeal is cut with? What if it were cut with titanium? Or adamantium? Or if it were just repeatedly crushed by a Thwomp Brother? I just see those clever marketng buzz words "steel cut oatmeal" all the time. I guess if you can't make oatmeal sexy, make it sound exotic. Or something. Regardless, yes, stove top prep method = healthy nomnomnom.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons when cooked in a pot
Trader Joe's Quick Cook Steel Cut Oatmeal is NOT GOOD when: you use the microwave. Nope. Believe me, I've tried, three times, with three different methods, and they all have failed. The first time, and this was probably my underestimating of the matter, I had my quarter cup of steel cut oatty bittybits, three quarters cup of water from the hot water tap at work (you know, what you'd use to make tea), put it in roughly a container with a two cup volume, and nuked it for three minutes. My visual estimation was, after only three minutes, roughly 60% of the oatmeal and water boiled over, causing a huge mess. I took two dish towels to clean up. I didn't dare nuke it again, and so instead ate what was left with almonds and berries. Ugh. Definitely not cooked all the way - all grainy and mushy and kinda chewy. Okay, I said to myself, I need a bigger container. So the next morning, I used roughly a container with roughly a six cup volume. After three minutes, there was no boil over....instead, all the water evaporated and left a dry, crusty oatmeal reside layer. The word that comes to mind is bird suet. It was inedible. Okay, I said, maybe a smaller container, with a smaller surface area but still tall enough to handle the boil-over potential. So I got a Chinese delivery quart size container (like one for wonton soup) and tried that, and I guess a little mindful of the last round of squirrel bait I made, added just a the tiniest of smidges of extra water. Nope, it boiled over, again after just two and a half minutes, leaving me with halfcooked breakfast and a mess. This time I guess it was about 20 percent, and it took one dish towel. After that, I quit. Back to my usual Clif bar for a midmorning at work snack.

Bottom line: 1 out of 10 Golden Spoons when cooked in a microwave

So, there you have it. Stove = good. Microwave = blecch. When made right, it's good enough I'm willing to bump it into our semi-regular weekend breakfast rotation, as both Sandy and I enjoyed ours. I can also see this working well for something like a backpacking trip, as it makes a good, simple, stick-to-your-ribs meal. I just wish it'd be a viable solution for work. Maybe you're a microwave master and can tell me how to do it. No, I'm not going to cook it for realz at home then reheat at work. Tell me how to do it, and you'll be my hero. It's $2.49 for the can.

Bottom Bottom line: Use the stovetop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Trader Joe's Spicy Seaweed Ramen

TJ's has offered us a number of unusual, but surprisingly good soups over the years. I'm thinking Lentil Soup with Ancient Grains and Tomato and Red Pepper Soup. But, they've also offered a number of so-so selections like the Rice Noodle Soup Bowls.

In several past posts, I've mentioned that I love seaweed. And at least once I've mentioned that I hate kimchi and sauerkraut—the whole rotted cabbage deal just isn't my thing. Well, this dish has both seaweed and kimchi, but as the product's name would suggest, seaweed is more prominent in the soup. There's little more than a few kimchi flakes in the whole package. Thank goodness. But I do have to admit that they added a hint of excitement to an otherwise unremarkable broth.

The noodles are really good. They're thick and soft—but not too soft, depending on how long you cook them—and they've got about as much flavor as you can expect a ramen noodle to have. There seemed to be an excess of broth when we added the prescribed amount of water. Two cups I think. And less water would have meant a slightly stronger flavor in the broth, which I wouldn't have minded one bit. It was sorta spicy as it was, but I could have stood it being doubly so.

I also wouldn't have minded more seaweed. I liked the way the noodles and seaweed paired up, but I still had half my noodles left when the little green leaves started getting scarce. This product is a really easy, inexpensive international snack, but it's also unsubstantial and would benefit from a stronger broth and more seaweed. All in all, not a bad value, but probably not something we'll buy on a regular basis. I give it 3.5 stars. Sonia gives it an even 3. 

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10

Here's a photo of the prepared product, with some of the broth drained out. We didn't waste the excess liquid. We used it in a culinary experiment so shameful, that I shan't mention it on this blog for fear you'll downgrade me from a "foodie-hack" to a "person who shouldn't be allowed to eat at all." 

Okay, you twisted my arm. I'll tell you. We added chicken hot dogs to make an Asian-American fusion dish. Please, kids, don't try it at home.