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Monday, January 31, 2011

Trader Joe's Shepherd's Pie

On our last trip to Trader Joe's, Sonia and I decided to brave the high school cafeteria classic, Shepherd's Pie. This dish can be a big hit or miss kind of deal: if it's done right, there's a nice blend of textures and flavors, and a whole balanced meal all mixed together for you right there in one food item. If it's done wrong, you can get a nasty pile of mush that resembles a cross section of your backyard compost heap.

The TJ's brand winds up somewhere in the middle. It seems to follow the formula we've seen in many of the previous items we've reviewed: a frozen item that thaws nicely, has a decent texture overall, but winds up tasting a little bland for some reason. The item is moderately priced at $3.99, and it manages to avoid any weird aftertastes or sub-par ingredients. It might not look very big, but it was plenty of food for both of us.

Our two biggest complaints were lack of flavor and the choice to use shredded beef instead of ground beef. The meat wasn't bad, but really, I can't figure out how you could possibly get red meat to taste so bland. And it was just a bit stringy. I think ground beef works best for Shepherd's Pie. Somehow, none of the ingredients were flavorful. Peas, carrots, corn, green beans, mashed potatoes and beef should simply have more taste than this Shepherd's Pie offers.

But wait! Trader Joe's Jalapeño Pepper Hot Sauce to the rescue! Hot sauce helps anything. We figure this Shepherd's Pie must just be a shameless promotion for the TJ's hot sauce. We added salt and pepper, too, before we were really happy with the flavor. But, after the addition of said condiments, we really enjoyed our makeshift Mexican Shepherd's Pie.

We both give this a 3 out of 5. Shepherds are simple folk, and they might appreciate the lackluster taste of this dish. Cravers of more bold tastes might want to check it out to satisfy their curiosity, but they'll want to be heavily armed with hot sauce before they heat it up. Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Trader Joe-San's Tempura Chicken

Since becoming an amateur food-reviewing hack, I have become more and more aware of how little I know about food and its vocabulary. I realize I basically know nothing beyond the basics and American terms - like, okay, I get what a "burger" or "deep-fried and greasy" mean, but stuff from other cultures? Not so much.

Take, for instance, our Japanese friend Joe-San and his Tempura Chicken. A couple years ago, for the one and only time in my life, I went out for sushi and sampled many different types of rolls. California rolls were okay but didn't do too much for me, and I don't recall the names of any other type of roll I ate except some shrimp tempura ones. Sandy was pretty content to just stick to her fried rice. Those shrimp tempura rolls were pretty good, and I recall them being fairly spicy, so since then I have taken to assuming that the word "tempura" implies some level/type of spice. Well, turns out that's wrong as I found out after trying out this chicken. "Tempura" is actually a style meaning lightly battered and fried, with no implication of spicy hotness. Which, in turn, means that when I thought I was eating raw shrimp in the sushi, it was actually not, which means not all sushi is raw (to which Sandy says "duh"), which just leaves me a little confused, like I ventured a little too quickly down the rabbit hole.

Anyways, the tempura chicken .... meh. What caused me to look up the meaning of the word "tempura" was the flavor (or lack of existence thereof) of this particular dish. To make this stuff, you bake up a bagful of skimpily breaded chicken nuggets in the oven (you can also deep-fry, which I guess leaves it technically "tempura") and toss it around in some red sauce that comes in a packet you microwave and dunk in warm water. The chicken itself is decent - it turns out to be crispy and chickeny and all that good stuff. The sauce though - it doesn't do anything except put a coat of reddish goop on your dinner. It's just there and doesn't taste like anything. It's as worthless as a plot in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. I tried a little bit of it by itself, and there is a faint, barely distillable sweet-sour taste like the package proclaims, but when put on chicken, the taste of the actual chicken easily overpowers it. It was only slightly discernible when eaten with plain white rice (not like there was much to spare .... Joe-San is a stingy guy saucewise). After a few bites, just to give it some flavor, Sandy and I dumped a few sprinkles of crushed red pepper on there. On a positive note, texture-wise you do end up with a plateful of chicken chunks that mirror what you'd expect from a Chinese restaurant, so it does have redeeming qualities. Given the choice between the two, I'd definitely recommend TJ's Mandarin Orange Chicken if you're in the mood for an inexpensive, easy-to-make semi-Asian inspired dinner.

Both Sandy and I are in agreement about it: We'd get it again, and wouldn't necessarily mind it, but we definitely wouldn't be upset if we pass it up on a fairly regular basis. Next time, we'd probably modify the sauce a little before combining it with the chicken ... I'd imagine some various chili peppers, maybe some Chipotle, cumin, black pepper ... wait, those aren't really Asian, and Sandy would be semi-upset that it wouldn't be right (I have a tendency to just dump whatever spices in, and they have to be at least semi-thematic for her) ... I have much to learn. Sandy gives them a 2.5 out of 5, and I agree. The taste just isn't quite there enough to rate them any higher.

Bottom line: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Trader Joe's Soup & Oyster Crackers

These are some versatile little fella's. You can just snack on them by themselves, or they go great on salads, or in soups. The side of the box mentions you can use them with "chowdah," just like that, with the New England accent already built into the word...They should have just gone ahead and made them "Traydah Joe's Soup and Oystah Crackahs."

I'm gonna go ahead and say they're great for "chyowdeh," too. I think that's how a New Yorker would say it (for Manhattan clam chowder).

They're crunchy, crumbly, crispy, and they're nice and bready. They have a great salty flavor, like a saltine cracker, but a little more hearty. And they're only 4.714 calories per cracker. I did the math myself.

There's this whole long story thing on the back of the box that goes into great detail about different ways to eat them just with New England clam chowder. You can sprinkle them on top or chase a spoonful of chowder with one of the crackers...and these crackers apparently have some torrid love affair with soup, not unlike that weird thing Russ has going on with the TJ's Peanut Brittle.

Sonia and I have eaten them plain, on a salad, and with our favorite, Trader Joe's Organic Tomato Bisque. They passed with flying colors in all three applications.

Before we wrap up, a few questions, Trader Joe: first of all, what's with the windmill? It looks like Holland. You got the polder there with the Zuiderzee in the background. All you need is a little Dutch boy with big wooden clogs. What, are they making Netherlands clam chowder now, too?

And secondly, why are they called oyster crackers? Do people eat them with oysters? I've only tried an oyster once, and it didn't have one of these crackers with it. Maybe I would have liked it better if it did, because I wasn't a huge fan. Were they ever made to taste like oysters? I looked in the ingredients, and there isn't an ounce of oyster in them. Are we supposed to think they look like oysters? Because they don't. Oysters are all oblong-ish and sort of silver gray usually. Shouldn't they be clam crackers, wheat crackers, or chowder crackers?

I suppose none of that matters. The Trader Joe's brand Soup & Oyster Crackers are a good buy. 4.5 out of 5 from each of us. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Trader Joe's Peanut Brittle

Dear Trader Joe's Peanut Brittle,

Um, I'm always terribly awkward when it comes to stuff like this. I haven't been trying to avoid you. I know you see me whenever I pass by in the grocery aisle, and probably want to get my attention, but I barely glance over and acknowledge you. I don't find you untasty or undesirable or anything like that - quite the opposite, in fact - but, I guess, because of me and who I am, I just need to move along. It's not you, certainly not you, it's ... just me.

Let me attempt to explain. I remember the first time I saw you, on a wooden shelf brimming of promise of tastiness and extra large peanuts. You simply looked marvelous and I could not resist grabbing a boxful and bringing you home as my wife-allotted "one treat" for the week. But then, once you came home, it was back to another wooden shelf. I let you get lost in a time of homemade cookies and treats and sweets and all sorts of great deliciousness the holiday season brings. I almost forgot about you - I mean, I knew you were there, but there were snickerdoodles and buckeyes and pizzelles and chocolate mint guys and, and .... and all this other stuff. I know you're technically not just a holiday treat, but I regarded you as an afterthought. Please forgive me for that. I mean, I know you're mass-produced for profit, not lovingly, thoughtfully handcrafted like others, but that doesn't mean you can't be amazingly delicious as well.

I remember when I first saw and experienced you for what you truly are. Sandy and I had munched our way through most of our cookies but needed some other treat to crunch on for one of our lazy couch-puppy-Netflix nights. She's the one who said, you know, maybe it's about time we gave you a try. I remember opening the box and foil package inside and then seeing you, beautiful, sweet, thick, nutty, salty, crunchy you, big pieces worthy of several mouthfuls mixed with small delightful bites. I have never seen a peanut brittle that looked like you. And your taste - oh, how it filled me with wonder, with salty-sweet comfort, with the thought of some how, some way, everything was just right with the universe at that moment (inside my mouth, at least). Amazing, like you meant for only me, except by the look in Sandy's eyes I knew she was having the same experience. Here I am, a former journalism major, one who trained and learned how to try and convey thoughts and truths into words on a page, and yet I feel a struggle to even words that sound like what I thought at that moment and time.

I know this sounds over-dramatic, and perhaps a little silly because our time together was so short (was it even ten minutes before Sandy and I ate every bit of you we had?), but I think I love you. No, I do. I do love you. You are perfect, absolutely perfect, and for those brief moments we truly shared, I will treasure forever.

But there's me here too. I know it may be tough for you to understand, being an inanimate food product and all, but I cannot buy you again, at least not on a regular basis. I just don't feel like I can control myself around you. If I buy you again, you'd be gone before I parallel-parked the Subaru outside my front door. There's a reasonable chance you might not make it through the checkout line. Mothers shopping there would have to shield the eyes of their small children from the sight of the wild-eyed, red bearded guy who could not stop from shoving you into my mouth. Sandy would have to decide between grabbing her own boxful or taking me on in a Hunger Games-esque death match for you. And we just can't have that. That, and I'm not sure how well you fit in a healthy balanced diet that I try to delude myself into thinking that I eat.

It's not you. It's me. It's a cliche, I know, but so true. I want you but know I cannot have you.

Please understand if next time I go to Trader Joe's, I don't buy you. I'll try to at least smile and nod in your direction, but even that, I fear, may tempt me beyond my boundaries. Please know what you have meant to me, and know that as long as I walk this earth, I will probably never ever find a peanut brittle as delicious, crunchy, nutty and satisfying as you. Never change.

From my heart,


Seriously, this stuff is the shiznit. Buy at your own risk. Double fives.

Bottom line: 10 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, January 24, 2011

Trader Joe's Jalapeño Pepper Hot Sauce

In our household, Tapatío has always been the prevailing hot sauce. I like Cholula and Texas Pete just as well, but I think my Hispanic wife really likes the Mexican man in the big sombrero on the Tapatío brand's bottle. He's a handsome little devil, isn't he?

Now, we have a new challenger. Trader Joe's Jalapeño Pepper Hot Sauce steps into the ring. Let's check him out.

Yet again, we gotta call TJ's out on the inconsistency of the brand name. This is a Mexican-inspired food product, so it should be from Trader José. If a dude named Joe offers me a jalapeño hot sauce and a different dude named José offers me another hot sauce, you can bet your burro's bottom I'm gonna pick the one José recommends.

And secondly, aren't jalapeños usually green? Then why are they red on the bottle? Maybe there are red jalapeños. The ones at Subway are always green and the ones on my nachos are always green. If there are red ones, I've never seen them.

But anyway. This sauce packs a potent punch. There's a little chili pepper meter on the side of the bottle, and it's like 7/8 red. That means it's 7/8 hot. The other 1/8 must be vinegar. Which is its only weakness.

It's got true jalapeño pepper flavor and it is most definitely spicy. It's not deathly spicy, though. It won't kill you. Even if you're a white person.

But if you totally don't like spiciness, then this isn't for you...not for the faint of heart, indeed. I can handle moderate quantities of it. I've become a little immune to hot stuff, but I definitely have my breaking point. And I've got some advice for you singles out there: if you're going to marry into a Mexican family, LIKE SPICY FOOD.

We've noticed that in PA there is a much lower tolerance to spice than in CA. All the German and English heritage around here has propagated a love of bland-ish foods. Bratwurst, sauerkraut, and beer is probably the boldest meal the Quakers and the Pennsylvania Dutch can handle. Although...I don't think either one of those groups drinks beer at all...hmmm...So there's that, then.

Getting back to the topic, this hot sauce is tasty and spicy and it pretty much does what it's supposed to do. Not sure if we've seen him upset our reigning champ, Tapatío, quite yet. But he's a contender, that's for sure.

Use it to give your nachos some extra kick. Or your burrito...or your...whatever. You get the idea. Sonia gives it 4 out of 5 Stars. Same here. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Apple Sauce

No complaints on this one. I guess if it's really organic, and it's really apples, there's not a whole lot you can do with this product....other than add cinnamon. There's also Trader Joe's Organic Apple Sauce with Cinnamon.

The texture is just a bit a good way. It's not like you're getting huge apple pieces in there, but the sauce isn't perfectly smooth, either. It's got some substance.

4 little cups are $1.99. That's a little cheaper than what you'd get in a normal grocery store, and the leading brands aren't organic as far as I know. I like the cinnamon version waaaay better than the plain. Not that the plain is's just plain.

Sonia likes the plain better. She likes that it's so stripped down and has nothing added, except for some "organic natural flavor." Hmmm...What exactly does that mean, TJ? It could be bugs for all we know.

Great for a snack. Or to put on your porkchops or whatever.

Sonia gives the Trader Joe's (plain) Organic Apple Sauce a 4.5. I give it a 3.5, for a bottom line of: 8 out of 10.

I give Trader Joe's Organic Apple Sauce with Cinnamon a 4.5. Sonia gives it a 4. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Mmm. Applicious.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Trader Joe's Oven Ready Breaded Cod Fillets

Well, 'allo guv'ner! Do I fancy these fish fillets? They're rawther lovely, I say!

I felt like I was in a British pub when we cooked up our Trader Joe's fish and chips meal last night. It consisted of these cod fillets, Trader Joe's Crinkle Wedge Potatoes, and Trader Joe's Tartar Sauce. The only thing we needed was a pint of lager, but alas, until the great commonwealth of Pennsylvania reforms their laws about liquor licenses, TJ's doesn't sell beer at any of their Keystone State we made due with Diet Pepsi.

Anyhow, I was a big fan. I like fish. But I don't like fish to taste fishy. It should be flakey, light, and soft. And that's exactly how these cod fillets were. If tuna is the chicken of the sea, then this stuff is...I dunno, turkey breast of the sea? It may not lend itself to a proper Jessica Simpson-confounding land animal metaphor, but its taste and texture make up for that, and then some.

Next, let's look at the potato wedge dealies...So technically, they're "Trader Joe's Pacific Northwest Crinkle Wedge Potatoes." The "Pacific Northwest" part doesn't really work with our British fish and chips theme, but I liked them nonetheless. I really liked them, actually. They weren't greasy at all, just crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and lots of fresh potato taste. Scrump-dilly-icious. I ate mine with ketchup, but they're fine without it, too.

Sonia mentioned a strange aftertaste from these fries that I most certainly did not experience. Maybe she has more sensitive taste buds than I do. I really can't complain about their taste at all.

And finally, we tried the Trader Joe's Tartar Sauce.

That clipper ship on the bottle sure looks like it could be headed back to Great Britain, loaded up with treasures from faraway lands. I imagine the captain of her majesty's ship kneeling down at the Queen's throne and handing her this bottle: a royal condiment for the royal fish n' chips dinner.

Now, I haven't tried many name brand tartar sauces. And if I have, I haven't taken notice of which brands they were. Tartar sauce is certainly not my favorite condiment. The only time I ever eat it is with fish fillets. But all I can say is that this is the best tartar sauce I ever remember trying. As far as I'm concerned, it is indeed suited for royalty...and slovenly middle-class American dudes that like fatty fixins on their fried fish.

So, for the Trader Joe's Oven Ready Breaded Cod Fillets: I give them a 4.5 out of 5. Sonia gives them a 4. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

As for the Trader Joe's Pacific Northwest Crinkle Wedge Potatoes, I give them a 4.5 out of 5. Sonia gives them a 3.5. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

And the Trader Joe's Tartar Sauce gets a 5 out of 5 from me. Sonia gives it a 4. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Trader Joe's Fat Free Caribbean Fruit Floes

If you're one of those people that doesn't like to eat frozen treats in the winter because it's too cold, to you I say just turn up the heat and pretend you're on vacation in the Caribbean, kick back, and enjoy some Trader Joe's popsicles.

I know they're not really popsicles. They're "floes." Whoever Flo is, I'm not sure. Maybe Flo-rida? The state? The rapper? "Trader Joe's Fruit Floes" does rhyme. This time the jingle should be reggae-style, and they should have a singing monkey and a lady in one of those tall fruit hat things like the one the Chiquita banana girl wears.

At any rate, these "floes" come on wooden popsicle sticks, they have chunks of fruit, but are mostly frozen fruit juice. Sounds just like a popsicle to me. But a very good popsicle, I must admit.

If you've ever tried the Caribbean popsicles from Target (the Archer Farms brand), these are exactly the same thing. I like them both. They're very natural, pretty much all fruit bits and fruit juices, and as the label suggests, there's no fat! There's pear juice, orange juice, bits of mango, guava, pineapple, and strawberries. They're basically the orange-yellow color you see on the box. And they taste that way, too. They taste orange-yellow. Not like artificial color-style orange-yellow taste, but all natural-style orange-yellow taste...if that makes any sense.

Get 4 for $1.99.

I give them a 4.5 out of 5. Sonia didn't try them because I was under the impression she wasn't interested in guava-based Caribbean treat thingies. That, and I'm a gluttonous popsicle hog. I believe Russ has set a precedent to simply double up on points when only a single reviewer has tasted the product, so we'll just go ahead and do that. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Trader Joe's Peach and Blueberry Panna Cotta

Shouldn't this be part of the Trader Giotto's line? It's Italian, isn't it?

I like to call these "Pannacotta Warriors" (ya'know, like the Terracotta Warriors from China?) Except these ominous soldiers of dessert ward off the sweet tooth munchies instead of potential tomb-robbers.

At 270 calories and 13g of fat, they're not exactly a "lite" dessert option, but they're not terrible, considering what you get...

There are peaches and blueberries, each covered in a delectable syrupy sauce, and then there's that creamy white really tastes like high-quality custard. Considering it comes frozen, and that it only costs about $3 for two, it's surprisingly delicious.

You're supposed to defrost them for a while in the fridge, and then turn them upside down to pop them out of their little black plastic molds. I like to eat them straight out of the plastic. It's kind of like fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, but waaaay more tasty and more fattening. I also like them only partially thawed. They're half way between ice cream and pudding that way.

My favorite side is the blueberry side. Although, the peach is nothing to complain about. Sonia likes them both equally.

$3 might seem expensive in grocery land, but if you'd buy these guys at an Italian restaurant, you'd pay at least twice as much, and you'd be lucky if you got something tastier than this. I give them Four and a half Stars out of Five, and Sonia gives them the same. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Trader Joe's Honey Wheat Pretzel Sticks

So Nathan and I, along with our much better looking wives, are pretty major Trader Joe's fans if you haven't picked up on it by now. But not everyone shares our fandom of the nation's best grocery store. As any other major corporation (which, make no mistake, TJ's definitely is), they certainly have their share of critics. One large critique I have heard is, for a company that boasts a lot about its healthy and organic food, they are pretty opaque about their food origins, down to the point that they're pretty tight-lipped about which food companies even manufacture their food and slap a Trader Joe label on it for them. I think this is pretty understandable. Sandy and I just Netflixed up "Food Inc." last week - tremendous documentary about food origins and how separated we, as society are from the sources of our meals. It's easy to think a steak came from the plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray at the store, not a cow forcefed feed that isn't natural for them while ankledeep in, well, let's say fertilizer. Most companies who purport themselves to be healthy and organic and freerange (I sum this up in one word: "happy") are much more transparent about where and how their food is prepared. This prompted me to march down to TJ's in look for answers. I wanted to know where at least one thing came from.

Well, lo and behold, I actually found an answer.

It's Ludwig! Ludwig makes Trader Joe branded pretzels! It even says so right on the bag, in plain print, that Ludwig is Trader Joe's head pretzel guy! Beyond that, this Ludwig guy seems pretty cool - very happy, orthodontically sound, and immensely talented. I mean, look at that cool pretzel balancing act he does. I think I'd like to hang out with a guy like this and knock back a Bierstiefel or two of dopple bock, though considering his outfit, I'd pick the bar. But if he brought his trademark Honey Wheat Pretzel Sticks, after a few steins of Rheinheitsgebot goodness and rounds of Ein Prosit, I'd forgive his lederhosened and purple-garbed self and have one heckuva time. Zicke zacke zicke zacke hoi hoi hoi indeed.

Semi-questionable German origins aside, these are pretty darn good pretzels. Much better than their hard multigrain pretzel disasters, whose only good use I have found is to grind them down and use as traction for your car when stuck on ice. Sorry, Ludwig, those were a misfire. But these, man, these are good. Good, crunchy bite to them, and not hard or dried out at all, just right for a good pretzelicious snack. The wheat taste is definitely present but not overwhelmingly so, and there's a good, subtle salt-to-honey ratio whose flavor doesn't linger long but is just so appealing. They're low-fat and relatively low sodium for pretzels, so that's a plus. They're just all around, good-in-pretty-much-every-way pretzel sticks, and the best I've found so far at TJ's.

I'd imagine, all jokes aside, that they would be pretty good matched up with a variety of brews. Sandy and I regularly pick these up, mostly for me to pack along with lunches, so I haven't had much opportunity to test that theory because I plow through them so quickly. Sandy's just glad to have had a chance to try them out because again, the bag rarely lasts too long and by the time she's in the mood for them, they're usually gone. When I gave her a handful of sticks to try out, after a few bites she intoned "These are goooood" and gave me a smile which I took to mean that she understood why I usually kept them for myself. We decided just on our weekly TJ run this morning that we were each going to get our own cereal, and I wouldn't be surprised if we may have to end up getting our own bags of pretzels too. Well, probably not, but we both really enjoyed them and munched about a third of a bag between the two of us while I wrote this review. Sandy gives them a four out of five, which I think is just about right.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, January 14, 2011

Trader Jacques' Ham and Cheese Croissant Sandwiches

Yay! Another "international" TJ's product. This time it's from Joe's arrogant French chef friend, Jacques. No, I don't think all French are arrogant. Of the many French people I've met, only one or two were arrogant, and the rest were friendly, down-to-earth folk.

However, we know that this Jacques fellow is an arrogant jerk. Just look at that fancy type-face on the box. It's a ham and cheese sandwich for cryin' out loud. You stick it in a croissant, and what, you think we're eating gourmet all of a sudden!? At $4.69 for two of them, they darn well better be gourmet...2 frozen ham and cheese sandwiches for $5...<huff> the arrogance! Pretentious Frenchious.

(Again, I have no problems with the French. I've been to Paris, and I thought the people were lovely.)

And what kind of person puts 95% of the US RDA for saturated fat in ONE ham and cheese sandwich!!?? An arrogant one, that's for sure! No ham and cheese sandwich is worth that much fat, not even one as scrumptious as this. Maybe the French national RDA for saturated fats is much higher than ours...? Somehow I doubt it.

But they are pretty yummy. Their taste almost justifies their fattiness. The cheese and croissant bread are pretty indulgent, and they come out soft and fluffy. But, there's not nearly enough ham inside. It's like they took one single ham cold cut slice and hid it beneath layers of bread and cheese. (Oh, but it's "Black Forest Ham," straight from the Schwarzwald of Bavaria, I'm sure.) Wait, isn't that in Germany? Shouldn't Jacques have chosen Bayonne Ham instead?

There aren't any cooking options that don't involve the oven. You may thaw it in the microwave, but you've got to fire up that big bad boy and bake it proper for at least 30 minutes.

These might be an option if you're really looking for a once-in-a-great-while kind of treat...but at 34g of fat (19 of which is saturated fat), and 550 calories per sandwich, it's just not worth it, in my opinion. Also, the 30+ minutes to cook them and the nearly $5 price tag make these puffy little pastry sandwiches a pass.

I give them 3 out of 5 Stars. Sonia gives them a 3 as well. Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Trader Joe's Twigs, Flakes & Clusters

Growing up in my family, it was pretty easy to tell which parent made the grocery store trek for the week simply based on the cereal on the pantry shelf. If my mom made the trip, we’d be stock full of Cheerios, Chex, Special K, and stuff like that. If she felt wild and crazy, it meant it was time for Crispix. My dad, on the other hand, loved his Cocoa Puffs and would always snag a box when given the chance. One time, he must have found one heckuva coupon and came back with at least six boxes of them, a boatload of Trix, and who knows what other kind of sugary goodness galore. I’m sure he got at least a good Marge Simpson-esque groan when my mom found out. One of my favorite memories from growing up is, on my birthday one year before my mom woke up, my dad made me an awesome ice cream sundae with all the fixings and added Cheerios so we could semi-truthfully tell her that I had Cheerios for breakfast. It’s kind of how my folks were, and they’ve peacefully coexisted and enjoyed each other’s company for 35-plus years despite not always seeing eye-to-eye on breakfast cereal choice.

I kinda am beginning to see a similar pattern developing with Sandy and I, with the two of us playing the same roles. Sandy loves her healthy, plain, simple cereals. I, on the other hand, immensely enjoy chomping down on pretty much any cereal with chocolate, marshmallows, copious amounts of sugar, and/or a deluge of artificial food color and flavor (i.e., anything with “Froot” in its name). If it makes my teeth hurt afterwards, all the better. This is what you get when you have sundaes with cereal for breakfast in your formative years. This isn’t to say that sometimes Sandy doesn’t get a little swayed into having a bowl or baggie of my choice of stuff, or that I can’t enjoy some of the healthy stuff, but when making our cereal choices, we both definitely have our tendencies. We found a happy medium at TJ's with the Honey Nut O’s, but my buddy Nathan already reviewed them, and though his post is relatively pretty short compared to even this one so far, I agree with it enough to not step on his toes and re-review it. So on our latest Trader Joe trip, Sandy and I set out to find another cereal to try out for this week.

It was kinda hiding in an almost-embarrassed kind of way on the bottom shelf, but my eyes spotted the box of Twigs, Flakes & Clusters and thought it just might be worth the try. There were no cartoon characters trying to tempt me into rotting my teeth out, so I’m not sure why it did, but it did and Sandy thought it sounded good to her, the ever sensible one, too.

The Twigs, Flakes & Clusters aren’t too bad. I’ll start with the positives. As far as cereal goes, it’s pretty healthy - lots of fiber, protein, important stuff like that. Low sodium, too. Usually when I wake up, I have the appetite of a bear coming out of hibernation and when cereal is on the breakfast menu, I eat one-and-a-half decent sized bowls of whatever. Because this stuff is so fiber dense, it filled me up with eating a lot less, and it carried through from about 6:30 a.m. when I ate it to about 11:30 a.m., which is a personal record. That’s a big plus, and I liked the fact it was crunchy all the way to the last bite instead of degenerating into mushy nastiness. A rough, pre-caffeine content analysis says this stuff is probably about 75% Twigs, 20% Flakes, and 5% Clusters. Though I certainly would have liked more of the tasty oat clusters, I didn’t mind all the Twigs because they’re what maintained the crunchiness (think Chinese-ish lo mein noodles from a canister, and they’re roughly like them, except better), while the flakes drowned and sank in the milk by the end.

As for the downside … they don’t necessarily taste bad, but they could be better. The twigs, flakes and clusters actually have some decent flavor by themselves to them that could have been enhanced by maybe a little sugar or some honey. I was thinking that maybe some nuts or berries might have helped, but then, they’d probably have to opt for a different name (think about it). After glancing at the ingredients, I think it’s a matter of them trying to be a little fancy. Instead of one of the aforementioned choices, TJ”s opted to try to sweeten them with stuff like pineapple juice. Also it lists “organic evaporated cane juice” - I realize that’s probably different then the overly refined, bleached granules you can pour out of a bag of Domino’s, but still, that’s sugar. Actually, I know it’s different because of the overall aftertaste - between that and the pineapple juice, it’s vaguely sweet, almost tinny, and definitely weird because the twigs, etc, don’t taste all that sweet when biting in - a little sweet, sure, but enough to warrant such an aftertaste. For me, it’s somewhat off-putting, and while it may not prohibit me from getting another bowl, the jury’s out in regards to another box.

True to form, Sandy likes this stuff a fair amount. It’s the healthy aura, the crunch, and the fact that it also filled her up for a full morning as well. She had nothing negative to say about the taste, so maybe it’s just me, but she didn’t say anything overwhelmingly positive about it either. She claims one of her kids at the school she teaches at loves this stuff, or at least twigs in general. She gives the Twigs, Flakes & Clusters a solid 3.5 out of 5. I can’t quite say the same but I’ll give them some extra credit for the texture where the taste falls short to give them a respectable 2.5.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Trader Joe's Seasoned Beef Sirloin Carne Asada

When Sonia made tacos last night, she chopped up little pieces of peppers to add to our carne asada. Don't let the package deceive you: there's nothing but meat in this $7 bag o' beef.

Overall, our taco dinner wasn't bad. But we dressed it up with tortillas, salsa, the aforementioned peppers, and some refried pinto beans, and we still found it slightly wanting.

The quality of the meat simply doesn't warrant its price tag. If you're going to buy carne asada, TJ's might not be the first place to do it. Again, it's not terrible, but for $7, I want something I can create a ficticious adjective for and put a few exclamations after ("Tastetastic!!!" or "Stupidelicious!!!"). "Not terrible" just isn't good enough. The texture of the meat wasn't really an issue for either of us, it was more its lack of flavor. Maybe the guy on the assembly line that was supposed to add the seasoning to the "seasoned beef" called in sick the day they packaged our bag. The poor cow that gave its life for last night's taco dinner died in vain. Rest in peace, Bessy.

To be fair, we should mention that the 12 oz. bag did provide well more than enough food for the two of us. There are still leftovers in the fridge.

The tortillas that served as the soft taco shells were decent. Trader Jose's Reduced Carb Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas are light and healthy, but again, I would complain that they're not super-flavorful. Some whole wheat products can really add a grainy, almost nutty taste. These didn't add or detract much in the flavor department, but their texture is near-perfect, they're a nice size for filling with taco ingredients, and they don't fall apart as you eat them.

The refried pinto beans are good. Sonia says a lot of other brands of refried beans have a bunch of preservatives and additives, but Trader Jose's Low Fat Vegetarian Refried Pinto Beans are all natural. (Please note: your meal no longer qualifies as vegetarian if you eat this with carne asada.) I like the taste. Just as good as anything else I've tried in the refried bean department.

And finally, we'd like to take a look at the sauce we used: Trader Jose's Habanero and Lime Salsa. The package says "Medium Hot" but Sonia and I both say it's mild. It's a tad vinegar-y for our taste, but it's got that dash of lime "sabor," and it's something different than the run-of-the-mill tomato-based salsa. It's got bits of vegetable matter, but it can't really be considered chunky.

So, let's review: First we looked at Trader Joe's Seasoned Beef Sirloin Carne Asada: Sonia gives it 3.5 Stars and I give it 3, for a bottom line of 6.5 out of 10.

Then, we talked about the Trader Jose's Reduced Carb Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas. They get a 4 from Sonia and a 3.5 from me, yielding a bottom line of 7.5 out of 10.

Next up: Trader Jose's Low Fat Vegetarian Refried Pinto Beans. 4 from Sonia, 4.5 from me. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

And finally, Trader Jose's Habanero and Lime Salsa. Sonia gives it a 3, and so do I. Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Oats and Flax Instant Oatmeal

Toot toot! Hear that? I was pretty sure that was the whistle blowin' on the train headed for Blandville. And I was pretty sure this Oats and Flax nonsense was going to be my ticket there.

However, I wound up in a much more pleasant town. We'll call it Tastyburg. Mayor: Trader Joe, Points of interest: flavor and whole grain goodness.

Silly, I know. But it's high time we reviewed this oatmeal. Sonia's been eating it for months now. I was a little reluctant...a little scared even. I just tried it for the first time today, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Sonia and I both make ours with milk and water, although the box only calls for water (Who makes oatmeal with just water? Blech.) Texture-wise, it's got enough body to keep your teeth busy; it's not just a bunch of mush. There's a pleasant mix of flax seeds in with the oats. It's "hardy." ...or is it "hearty"? Well, it's one of get the idea.

The flavor was what I was really worried about. I like brightly-colored, fancy oatmeals and breakfast cereals with fluorescent, fruit-shaped pieces made of high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils. But it is the new year and that resolution about being healthier is still fresh in my brain, so I braved the oats and flax.

It was surprisingly sweet. They do add cane juice solids to liven it up a bit. It was a little nutty, too. It reminded me of the maple and brown sugar flavored oatmeal that Quaker offers, but I actually liked this one even more. It made me feel all warm inside and gave me a good start to the day. If that Wilford Brimley guy had ever tried this stuff, he surely would have ditched Quaker and started doing commercials for TJ's brand. Is he still alive? C'mon, somebody get Wilford Brimley's agent on the phone!

Anyway, Sonia gives it Four and a half Stars out of Five. I give it Four out of Five Stars. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Enchilada Sauce

Okay, for at least one post, I'm done with super-long fancy named products. I needed something quiet, unassuming, and ego-less (it's tiring to type them out, making sure words are in the right order and whatnot), and Trader Joe's Enchilada Sauce is about the simplest, most humbly named product I could scrum up. They didn't even go for the Trader Jose name to market it under, but TJ"s did opt for ALL CAPS in its labeling design. Gotta do something, I guess.

Anyways, enchilada sauce. Mmm. It's no secret that Sandy and I love Mexican food, or at the very least bastardized Americanized versions of Mexican fare. We've been to the country twice, and while eating some terrific authentic cuisine in remote mountain villages and small mom-and-pop storefront shops in Mexico City (i.e., when we didn't go to Pizza Hut and Starbucks), we've also had some, well ... not to sound ungracious, but sometimes tortillas with rice were the most viable option. That's kind of like going to Italy and eating plain spaghetti noodles, or Ben and Jerry's and getting a vanilla in a dish, no cone. In a lot of ways, you're missing out on something potentially life-alteringly good, but there's just something to be said for the safe option if the other choices are unfamiliar. (Editor's note: This is a horrible analogy. Everything Ben and Jerry's makes is wonderful, and if you go to Italy and eat plain pasta, I will smack you. Just pretend being presented with a bowl of very fresh-smelling cow tripe and a platter of tortillas and rice. Yeah, thought so). That's why we like our Americanized Mexican-style food - it's Mexican enough to delude us into thinking it actually is, while still being tailored much closer to our tastes and preferences.

TJ's Enchilada Sauce is kind of like that. Don't get me wrong, it's good stuff. It's thick, a little goopy, I'd almost say creamy except it isn't, but it invokes creaminess in some way I can't quite explain. The reddish-orange fiery color gives off some visual cues that this might be some pretty spicy stuff. Strangely, no artificial colors are listed in its ingredients. Well, it has a good kick, and like any good meal-time edible accessory, it does its job - namely, it adds to and accentuates flavor without much, if any, subtraction. I used to love overly spicy sauces and spices until I realized how much of the time their heat masked the inherent good taste of the food I used them on. This sauce doesn't - it's not until you've had the first bite or two that you begin to experience the smoky, slightly heated sensation it gives in the back of your throat, but that's where it stays, leaving your tongue and taste buds free to sink into the actual dish. That's the cumin and cayenne doing what they ought - to be present, but not to interfere. We (well, okay, Sandy) made some pretty basic enchiladas with tortillas, black beans, soy chorizo, Mexican shredded cheese and the sauce to share with my brother and his girlfriend for lunch on Sunday, and it was fantastic. The leftover enchiladas were nearly as good reheated for my lunch today. Again, stupid work microwave.

But how good is the sauce really? How authentic, or at least how inspired? I didn't even consider that question until I asked Sandy for her Golden Spoon ranking. I was all ready to give it a four, maybe more (yes, sometimes I weight my grade based on Sandy's), and in a very wise moment, she said, "Well, it's good, but we have nothing to compare it to. I don't think we've ever had actual enchiladas before." I did a mental inventory, and she's probably right ... no, not probably, she is. I married myself one smart cookie. I probably don't know what enchilada sauce is supposed to taste like, and without reference it's somewhat tough to put it into proper perspective.

Of course, will that being the case for us, it's probably the case for a lot of Trader Joe consumers, and I'd imagine many if not most similarly palate-experienced Americans would overall be fairly satisfied with the enchilada sauce. The heat might be a little much for some sissies and little girls ... go eat your tortillas and rice then. Sandy and I definitely enjoy it - we actually had it for the first time about a month ago, and in anticipation of our Sunday lunch, we got two bottles to make sure we'd have some on hand for our next Tex Mex culinary romp. Some benefit of the doubt is involved, but Sandy gave it a three and a half. All things considered, that's a pretty fair grade, and since she blinded me with science in giving her assessment, I feel compelled to concur. As I said, una chica inteligente.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Whole Grain Hard Pretzel Sticks

Okay, let me cut to the chase here:

These SUCK. Do NOT, under circumstance, get these. Whole grain pretzel sticks look like they might be a good premise, a good healthy snack. Well, they might be healthy, but they are horrible, horrendous, and just plain disgusting.

How bad are they? If pretzels were Willie Mays, these would be wearing a Mets uniform. If they were Sly Stallone, these guys would be "starring" alongside Dolly Parton in "Rhinestone." If they were the Beatles, ... well, let's just say Yoko Ono would be involved. These pretzels take something so good, so pure and enjoyable, and turn it into crap.

I mean, I love pretzels. Any kind of pretzel - sticks, rods, nuggets, those little grid-like guys, soft, extra dark, splits, sourdough, honey wheat, soft pretzels, flavored bits and pieces, pretzel buns, anything remotely pretzel-like. I went through high school eating two soft pretzels for lunch everyday (well, except taco day, okay). Sandy made awesome homemade soft pretzels a few days ago that once I polished them off I was begging for more. They are definitely one of my favorite snack food groups, partly because they're healthy compared to chips and cheesy doodles, and also because they're just good.

And these guys ... blah. I tried to like them. I really did. I wanted to like them. But there's nothing redeeming about them. They're bland, tasteless sticks of particle board. They're sparingly salted, which is okay, but there's no flavor to them otherwise, except burned. I took a look inside a stick I halfway crunched, and there's an orange-brownish ring surrounding a teeny white core. So they are just overbaked - I guess maybe that's to help them boast about their claim to be "hard", but they're really not - they're really not any more crunchy than any other pretzel stick. But they are much drier, which makes all the saw dust they leave in your mouth much trickier to swallow. After only two or three I needed a drink to literally wash them down.

I guess it's part of the whole grain curse. Whole grain foods, when made right, taste wonderful and nutty and delicious and help fill you up healthfully. But when made wrong ... man, I don't care how good they might be for you if they don't taste good. The marginal health benefits don't outweigh the taste experience for me. And these pretzels are about the best example I can think of for this.

I had Sandy try one. She munched down half a stick, made a face, went to the fridge and got out a jar of peanut butter to dip the other half in. That sounds like an epoxy recipe to me. "They're better with something," she said. I can buy that, but then that pretty much defeats the whole purpose of having a healthy snack. It's like making broccoli to eat healthy but dumping molten Velveeta on it - having to add something unhealthy to make an otherwise good-for-you food edible seems counterproductive and deceptive.

Anyways, I cannot find anything good about them. I considered returning them to the store, but maybe I'll save them for our dog when we run out of his treats. He wouldn't know the difference. Sandy is a little more forgiving than me, and she said she'd give them a two, "maybe a three," so that sounds like a two-and-a-half to me. Well, that's all they're gonna get. Absolute zero from me.

Bottom line: 2.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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