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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Trader Joe's Frosted Maple & Brown Sugar Shredded Bite Size Wheats

There's certain things parents always say to kids when growing up. Eat your vegetables. Do your homework. Stop hitting your sister. My parents weren't an exception. There was a common mantra growing up that either my mom or dad said every morning and every night right before bed; "Brush your teeth, wash your face, comb your hair." Good advice for the morning, for sure. But at night? I'm definitely an advocate of brushing twice a day and I'd tack on the addendum to see the dentist twice a year ... in not following the second part of the rule for, oh, seven years or so I currently have three root canals going on. Blah. And washing your face twice a day, well, I guess look good all day and don't dirty your pillow at night, so that's sound enough advice. But combing your hair ... right before bed? Isn't that pointless? I mean, your hair gets messed up all night usually, and even if it somehow remains perfunctory til the rooster crows, you'd have it comb it all over again in the morning before going off to school or wherever. I can only guess that my folks' rationale was if the Bogeyman was going to get you, you might as well look good.

One sensible thing my parental units succeeded in instilling in me was the importance of a good breakfast, y'know, the "most important meal of the day." In an ideal world, I'd have eggs and bacon and pancakes and hashbrowns and coffee and orange juice every morning. As amazing that'd be, Sandy's not waking up at 6 a.m. every day to make that for me, and I'm not either. During the week, that's leaves me vacuuming down a bowl of cereal as quickly as possible before luring the dog into a crate with a cookie, grabbing lunch, manbag, and keys and speeding off to my cubicle.

That leaves me with the idea that whatever cereal I'm going to shove down my throat, I need to like it and it's got to keep me going until lunch. If it's healthy, well, all the better.

Enter Trader Joe's Frosted Maple & Brown Sugar Shredded Bite Size Wheats. Dang, that is one long name. But as a counter-acting dang, this stuff is pretty dang decent. The name pretty well sums them up. The biscuits themselves are good, bite-sized chunks of shredded wheat that are crispy from first bite to last. I especially like the last few in the milk puddle - soggy on the outside, crunchy in the middle. And they're definitely wholesome in the wheatiest of ways. And the frosting is pretty jim-dandy too. Taking a glimpse at it, it's definitely light brown with a couple different shades for the maple and brown sugar, like a mini work of art. The maple is the prevailing taste, but the brown sugar makes a great undertone taste, which is how come it tastes so good. I personally love the taste of this stuff as it indulges my kidlike sugar jonesing and my adult sensibilities.

But how full does it keep me? I'm going to employ what I call the "10 a.m. test" in gauging this; namely, how hungry am I at 10 a.m. after chowing down a bowlful at landspeed record time at 7 a.m.? Most cereals fail this test miserably, and in fact seem to make me hungrier than I would be skipping breakfast altogether. As for this, well ... it does better than most. I was able to fend off a coworker's very aggressive offering of a doughnut this morning because I wasn't hungry enough for it. Other days (I'd say about half the time), I get some moderate pangs, but haven't felt an out-and-out rumbly in the tumbly, which is commonplace with other bowled breakfast bounty. I'd say it passes well because I'm deciding to grade on a curve.

According to Sandy, I like this too much. Out of the latest box, she's gotten only a handful or two, mostly because she prefers other breakfast cereal to pack along (that and she's lucky enough to have a breakfast option provided for her at work ... ah, the perks of being a topnotch early childhood educator. Don't you dare call it daycare). Sandy's had some opportunity to fully enjoy the mini-wheats, and she has here and there, but said she didn't feel like she could give it an informed grade other than to say "it's maple-y." Something about me hogging it too much or something. Probably at least partially true. Anyways, I'll pull out the old trick of doubling my grade sans the wifey score ... I feel a little extra insecure when doing this, the weight of responsibility and all .... eh, screw it, eight and a half, which I think is about as high I can rank any cereal. This has been and will be a regular in the pantry rotation.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Trader Joe's Lavash Flat Bread

Am I wrong, but there's something to be said for good, cheap carbs, right?

Probably the most famous cheap carb is the beloved Ramen noodle package. Well, "beloved" might be a stretch, but it's a pretty universal experience for college kids to subsist on them for long stretches of time. I certainly was one of them. My sophomore year, I sincerely doubt I went a day without a meal that involved either Ramen or leftover pizza from the dinner shift at Papa John's. It certainly helped that they were 10 for a buck at the local grocery shop. Some nights I'd eat two packages, other nights I'd mix in some frozen veggies and maybe make a piece of chicken. But man, all the Ramen ... I don't know how I didn't die from malnutrition. Once I was really, truly, ineffably sick of them, my grandmother came to the rescue and sent me a Ramen noodle cookbook. I had no idea about all the different possible uses for Ramen ... all the different stir-fries and noodle-based dishes, and even things like salads and pizza (using the noodles as a crust). That kept me going on them throughout the rest of my college years until I could finally routinely afford better starchy goods, like shells and cheese.

Anyways, I love me some carbs. I could never be a legit vegetarian because I like meat waaay too much, and Dr. Atkins and I would never be dietary BFFs because he'd be slapping bagels out of my hands way too often. And the more ways I can use a single form of carb (like the Ramen noodles) the better.

That's why I like Trader Joe's Lavash so much. It's a pretty simple product, it's just a legal-document sized ( 9.5 x 13) rectangle of rather plain baked dough. But, like the package says, this is some fairly versatile stuff, and there's a lot of it. The first time Sandy and I broke it out, we used it as a crust for a thin crust basil pesto pizza. It was good enough that we've used it a couple more times as a crust since then. When baked, it gets really crispy and crackery when the sides and corners get browned and curled up. I'd definitely recommend if using it for a pizza, let it bake for a little while longer than you'd figure otherwise as the middle can get a little sogged down with sauce, etc, but rebounds nicely if given the proper oven lovin' time. But that's not the only good use of the lavash. I've made a breakfast wrap or two with it, and it held up with the eggs and cheese well. Sandy's taken it to work a couple times and used it like a tortilla with some rice and beans, and reported satisfactory results. The great thing is, there's six of them in a package ($2.19, so a decent value), so there's plenty of it with which to experiment. I'd imagine they'd be pretty good cut and baked to munch on like a pita chip, or maybe even buttered, sugared, and cinnamoned, then cut into strips and baked for a dessert. Or maybe make some garlic breadsticks out of them in a similar fashion ... the possibilities may be endless.

The form of the lavash is pretty pliable, too. We tend to keep bread in the fridge to extend the shelf life some. I just wolfed down the last two-week old half-sheet remnant a few minutes ago, and it was as soft, floury, and flexible as the first time we used it. I could literally bend it any which way, and it wasn't stiffened enough to crack or break. Yet, it easily rips in a straight-enough line if you ask it to. I have to say, I'm pretty impressed overall.

Sandy gives it a 4.5 overall. "Mmm ... carbs ... it's good and it works. Not much else to be said," she says. Considering that I find myself craving a lavash-crust pizza once or twice a week, I'm inclined to be in the same ballpark. Part of me wishes it had a bit more flavor, like some sesame or poppy seeds mixed in (that's pretty common in Middle Eastern countries, from where this was inspired), but its plainness lends itself better to the overall versatility to use it to make it part of something of your own creation. Sounds like a 4.5 to me as well.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Soy & Flaxseed Tortilla Chips

Yellow corn, soy, and flaxseeds make up these chips. They're a structurally-sound, crunchy breed of chip. They taste a little different than regular yellow corn chips, but the taste is not so foreign that you won't be able to appreciate them on your first try. They're a little bit more massive than regular chips, which makes them highly dippable. And I do tend to either choose flavored chips, or chips that work particularly well with salsa or queso of some kind. These chips fall into the latter category, although if you're one who appreciates tortilla chips by themselves with no fixins or sauces, I'm sure these would be a fine choice for you, as they possess a nice salty, nutty quality you might expect from the 3 aforementioned main ingredients.

The bag boasts that the chips are a good source of protein, omega 3 fatty acids, and fiber. All in all, they're a nice balance of wholesome grains, crunchy snackability, and good-for-you bonuses. Our dip of choice for these chips was Trader Joe's Taco Seasoned Beef, Bean, & Cheese Dip with salsa and sour cream.

The beef wasn't as prominent as I was hoping. While eating the dip, I was really only aware of beans, cheese, and some sour cream. The salsa and beef kind of failed to push through the mishmash of other ingredients. The flavor could have been bolder, especially for a product with "taco seasoned" in its title. It was slightly bland in a way, but certainly not terrible.

This particular chip & dip combo worked pretty well, since lesser chips may well have buckled under the weight of the multi-layer dip. Any flavored chips might have clashed with the taste of the dip...and since the dip was slightly wanting in the flavor department, it's conceivable that a flavored chip would have completely overshadowed the taste of the dip...which in my opinion, completely defeats the purpose of using a dip or salsa in the first place.

In conclusion, Trader Joe's Soy & Flaxseed Tortilla Chips are a lovely, crunchable, multi-grain experience. Sonia gives them a 4. I concur. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Taco Seasoned Beef, Bean, & Cheese Dip is not the flavor-extravaganza I had hoped for, but its subtle taste and textures are enough to garner modest 3.5's from both Sonia and I. Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Trader Joe's Cherry Cider

There's nothing like a sticky sweet, nectar-like beverage on a warm spring day after a nice round of tennis. Green Plant Beverage? Please. You can keep your algae-juice or whatever it is. The 13-year-old trapped inside this 31-year-old's body wants a sugar-shockin' rush of yummy red liquid confection.

And that's exactly what this is, unfortunately for those of you who thought this was actually cherry cider. As we discussed in an earlier post about a different cider, this kind of drink should be "tangy and brown." Now, I'm not sure how the color is on your computer monitor, nor am I certain that my camera was properly color-balanced, but the liquid in the glass is definitely red. It's a deep red, approaching brown, but it is not brown. The packaging, too, hints that the drink within is bold red. And the beverage's subtle tartness is overshadowed by its Juicy Juice-like sweetness.

I think the color red has come to be a symbol of classic sweet drinks. Coke cans are red. Everybody knows red Kool-Aid is the best Kool-Aid. When the makers of Mountain Dew decided their green beverage too greatly resembled a health drink, they introduced Code Red to make sure everybody knew they stood for rapid tooth decay and higher rates of diabetes death.

This cherry-flavored beverage is, thankfully, very natural. They didn't dump cups of high-fructose corn syrup into it. It's actually just apple, cherry, plum, and pineapple juices from concentrate.

My only complaint about this product is its incredibly misleading name. It is not cider. This is Trader Joe's version of Code Red, sans the carbonation and artificial nonsense. It's totally for kids...and for old dudes like me that like to drink kids' beverages. After drinking a glass, there's a syrupy reside on the tongue that lingers for a while. Not sure how I feel about that...

Sonia shocked me almost as much as the candied-kick of the drink when she gave it a 4. I expected her to say it was too sweet. I give it a 4 as well, docking a point because it's not really what it says it is. But overall, it's a highly-chuggable, refreshing treat. If you like Juicy Juice, you'll want to check this stuff out.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Trader Joe's Lentil Soup with Ancient Grains

So, if you've paying close attention to my (Russ) posts over the past two weeks or so, you may have noticed that I've been featuring a lot of vegetarian/meat-free meals and options. This is because, in homage to Sandy's Catholic upbringing (and as a sort of experiment), the two of us decided to give up meat for Lent this year. Not just on Fridays, but for the entirety of the season (except for me, on Sundays, as taking a break from a Lenten fast is allowed then - hey, the Pope and Wikipedia are cool with it, so am I). It's been kinda tough - it's not like I've been getting the meat DTs - but as being accustomed to a certain level of carnivoredom worthy of my high position in the food chain, there's been times I've noticed a little meat could help make a decent meal even better.

Fortunately, Trader Joe's seems to have a fair amount of decent vegetarian lunch options, so I've been taking it as an opportunity to explore some mealtime choices I wouldn't otherwise. There's been some really pleasant surprises so far, and each new found good treat makes it a little easier.

Take this lentil soup for an example. I don't think I've ever had lentil soup before and the whole "ancient grains" part makes it sound like some sort of primordial stew that only hippies in Volkswagen toaster vans would enjoy. If not in search of cuddly animal-less lunches, I probably would never have found this, or may have even roundly rejected the notion when Sandy spotted it and put it in the cart. "We should try it," she said, and since she's always right, we did.

Fantastic. This is some heavy, serious stuff. Sandy siphoned some off one morning into some Tupperware for her lunch, and gave me the rest for mine. I am continually of a large appetite, and the roughly half a container I had more than filled me up with the assistance of an apple and handful of pretzels. It was kind of tough for me to discern what all was in there, it was so loaded. Definitely a lot of lentils, but texturally nothing stood out - not even all the veggies like carrots, onions and celery. I presume the "ancient grains" refer mostly to the quinoa (of which I'm slowly building an appreciation for) and millet, and maybe the flax seeds. The broth (if you can call it that, it's so thick) tastes mostly like cumin to me, though it's got some garlic here, some pepper and paprika there. It's spicy, but not in a spicy hot way ... it's more like a spicy full-flavored tastiness. And thick is the operative word - this stuff is dense and heavy, not all watered down like other soup options. I really, truly enjoyed this, and while spooning my way through this, I could actually ignore/not be envious of the guys sitting a few tables over plowing through their daily ration of buffalo wings. If you know me, that says a lot. This definitely the kind of stuff that'd be great on a colder day to stick inside you to warm and fill you up, but I think it'd pass muster even as the temps finally get a little warmer out here. And as a bonus, unlike some otherwise pretty decent TJ lunch options, it gives me a container (with a lid!) to keep and reuse and not draw too much spousal ire, though at this writing, I don't know if Sandy knows I still have it or not. Sometimes it's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission.

I'm huge enough of a fan of it to go ahead and give it a perfect five. It's just that ridiculously good. Sandy surprised me when she said she'd offer it only a three, as she looked genuinely disappointed on Monday when we shopped and they were out of it. "It's good, but I just like my soup to be more soup-like, not all thick like it was," she said. Eh, to each their own, I guess. Even after Lent's up, I'll be checking the shelf still for it.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Trader Joe's Old-Fashioned Sourdough Hard Pretzels

So, in other posts I've gone on about how much I love pretzels. It's just part of growing up in southeast Pennsylvania, which I think is to pretzels as Alaska is to salmon or the Dominican Republic is to cigars. Sure, other areas produce these goods, and can do so quite admirably, but if you had to pinpoint one area that's known for having the best, you'd know where to say. That's southeast PA. In the area we have Utz, Snyders of Hanover, Snyder's of Berlin, Unique, Martin's ... all of them pretty darn good. Growing up, there used to be the "Charlie Chip" man that would come by and deliver loads of pretzels and chips to my grandmother who lived with my family. I was kinda saddened today when I tried to look them up and found out that they went out of business some years ago.

Anyways, out of all pretzel types, my overall favorite probably has to be sourdough hard pretzels. They're just big, hard, super crunchy, encrusted with mini-rock salt crystals, and make you endlessly thirsty for a tall glass of lemonade or beer of your choice. I was pretty excited when on a recent Trader Joe's trip I saw these, and even a little more when I read on the side that they're "made in Pennsylvania, right in the heart of pretzel country." Boo yeah.

First, a note about the box, and namely its decoration. Most of the pretzels made in PA are done by the Mennonite/Pennsylvanian Dutch crowd, or at least their ancestors, and are based on a tradition of simplicity and humility. You just get a sense of it from their products and packaging. But not these guys. First there's a pair of cherubim doublefisting straight trumpets, and then a couple lions seeming to mount a mega pretzel in the middle coat of arms style. It just seems kinda odd and boastful-esque, I don't know. For whatever reason, the analogy that came to mind was rolling through Amish country windows down, woofers up blaring Ludacris or some Biggie. Just because there isn't a law against it doesn't make it right. I'm probably making more of a deal of this than necessary.

Anyways, the pretzels themselves are pretty decent. They definitely get a lot more right than they don't. They're the right size, with the right knots and exterior cracks and gashes in the dough. At first, to me at least, the crunch wasn't exactly right ... kind of almost like they were "too fresh", because they seemed to pack some level of relatively light crispiness. After a few days, though, they were right on the target. It's not a matter of getting them stale ... I don't know how to explain it right, but after being opened for a couple days that crispiness gave way to a whole 'nother level of crunch right on the money with the best. And make no mistake, these guys are super crunchy. It got to the point where Sandy and I had to eat them at the same time if we were in the same room so our own crunching muffled out each others. I think Sandy yelled at me once or twice to "stop crunching so loud on purpose, you crunchy pretzel mouth man" (or something to that effect) when she was giving her jaw a break from them, not realizing her own munching noises reminded me of a woodchipper (love you, darlin'). That's the beauty of the hearth baking process to just make the biggest, hardest, crunchiest pretzel you'll ever have.

After weighing their taste against other sourdough pretzels I've had, I found these TJ delights a little bit wanting. Sandy thought they could use a little more salt. I disagree - they have about the right amount, and it's the good, big, grainy stuff. The dough with which these were made is just a little plain for my taste. It's all just basically wheat flour, salt and yeast. I'm not aware of any pretzel purity laws, and the recipe for these may well be the "old-fashioned" way of making them. I compared the ingredients to one of my favorites, Utz (whose logo is a very simple cartoon lass, thank you very much) and saw that Utz put in a lot more stuff, like buttermilk solids and butter flavor (and of course, this being America, corn syrup). Hmm. Maybe it's the Utz-style taste to which I've grown too accustomed to enjoy this Trader Joe offering as much as I otherwise should, but I just wish they offered a little more flavor, especially for something purporting to be sourdough. Amanda, one of our Facebook fans, noted that these are pretty great when dipped in some hot and spicy mustard, and I can definitely see some dip helping their cause, though generally I prefer pretzels straight from the source with no pitstops in the middle.

The pretzels are definitely more right than wrong, so I'll give Trader Joe's some credit. Sandy gives them a 3 ("more salt!!!!" is basically what she said), and I'll see that and raise another spoon. At least at our local shop, the sourdough pretzels are in only sporadically, and it'd be nice to have them as a consistent offering, because then I'd be consistently crunching on them.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trader Joe's Double Roasted Salsa

The beautiful adobe hacienda on the bottle of this salsa is apparently located in Monrovia, CA, and is home to a Mexican-American family that toils day and night, roasting fresh green peppers over an open fire, then peeling them, and then roasting them again for this fine semi-spicy salsa. It's a shame we never went to visit it while we still lived in Cali.

I really like the packaging for some Trader Joe's products. This is definitely one of them. The picture on the label makes me want to fly down and visit my wife's family in Oaxaca, Mexico immediately. I don't know if it looks anything like the picture on the bottle, but I imagine that it does. I have been brushing up on my español lately. I even know how to type "ñ" now on a US keyboard. That little thingy on top isn't a "squiggle," I've learned, but rather it is a "tilde," as in Tilda Swinton. And I'm hoping, since this blog shows up fairly well on Google searches, that certain unsuspecting individuals who are searching for info on how to type that "ñ" will wind up stumbling upon our page, falling in love with our unique style of epic first-person narrative food reviews, and becoming big fans of our blog. So for those good people, I throw the following bone: simply hold down "alt" and then type "164" on your number pad. Voila: ñ.

Another aspect of TJ's packaging that I'm a fan of is their special spice-o-meter in the shape of a little chili pepper that appears on most of thier salsas and hot sauces, despite it's occasional inaccuracy. This will be the third product we've reviewed that has such a spice-o-meter, following in the footsteps of the jalapeño hot sauce and the chunky salsa. This one falls in between the first two, and appears to be approximately 2/3 red. Sonia and I think that's an overestimation of this salsa's spiciness. I'd put it somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2.

There is significant cider vinegar taste in the sauce. I thought I detected a pickle type flavor, but there are no pickles or cucumbers in the ingredients. It does also taste like roasted peppers, however, my taste buds are not sophisticated enough to distinguish between single roasted peppers and double roasted ones. There's a bit of a limey tang as well.

The ingredients are all remarkably simple and natural, without any bizarre-o chemicals or preservatives. There are vegetable bits present, but not chunks. It's good for chip-dipping, and it would probably be good for topping off enchiladas or tacos, too.

All in all, a decent salsa. I could stand it with less pickliness, and I prefer big chunks of tomato and pepper. Sonia's assessment was basically the same as mine. We both give it 3.5's, placing it solidly within the "not bad" category.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Trader Joe's True Thai Vegetable Pad Thai

So sue us, we didn't review any beer for St. Patrick's Day. How terribly un-festive of us. The title of the previous post did contain the word "green" twice. And anyway, we'd have to travel into another state for a Trader Joe's that sells beer. Just go back and read this post. It's Mexican beer, so what? They're a Catholic country that has green on their flag, too.

Anyway, let's get down to business shall we? Today we'll be talking about fine vegetarian Thai cuisine...oh, and this Trader Joe's Vegetable Pad Thai, too.

In L.A., there's an amazing restaurant at Orlando and Beverly called Vegan Glory. Everything they serve is, as the name would indicate, free of animal products of any kind. They serve mostly Thai-themed food...and honestly, this is not only the BEST vegan or vegetarian food I've ever had anywhere, but it's one of my favorite restaurants period. I'm certainly not a vegan, but anyone I've ever known that's open-minded enough to try it instantly becomes a fan, regardless of how much meat-lust lingers in their stomach. If you ever decide to stop in, I recommend the pineapple fried rice with soy chicken nuggets. Put a little hot sauce on it, and WOW...meatless Thai food that'll blow your mind for a totally reasonable price--not to mention good, friendly service from people whom I think are actually from Thailand. (Most of them speak good English, though.)

Now, if Trader Joe's can make a killer meatless corn dog, you would expect them to make a killer meatless pad thai. I mean, that is, given TJ's generally good track record with Asian style food products, as well as their wide array of tasty vegetarian and vegan foods, one would think that a Thai entree as basic as Pad Thai would be an easy one to knock out of the ballpark. Lots of Thai foods are vegetarian or vegan anyway. Meat seems more intrinsically necessary for the success of a corn dog than that of Pad Thai.

However, I've gotta say - and maybe it's just because I was spoiled by Vegan Glory - this Pad Thai misses the mark. The noodles are too chewy - almost rubbery. The sprouts are stringy, and the little chunks of tofu, which were actually my favorite part, were too far and few between. Even though their texture was nice and their flavor wasn't awful, I found myself pining for real chicken pieces. I would say I was craving better quality tofu thingies, but there was something about these little guys that made me NOT want anything vegetarian. Because they were so unlike real meat, they reminded me of why I like meat in the first place. A good veggie Thai dish shouldn't leave you wanting real meat. Again, they aren't bad in and of themselves, but they're not nearly as good as real chicken. And I've had plenty of vegetarian dishes that completely quell any meat cravings - including a good many Trader Joe's products.

The sauce on the dish is certainly palatable. No complaints there, except that there could be a little more of it.

Sonia kind of surprised me with a higher-than-expected rating. She gave it a 3.5. I'm going to have to be the bad guy on this one and give it a 2.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Trader Joe's All Natural Pasteurized Green Plant Green Food Beverage

About two months ago or so, Sandy and I started going to a spin class at the gym together. She's using it as crosstraining for a couple half-marathons this year, and I'm crazy enough to think I can do a 150-mile bike ride for the National MS Society this June. Anyways, we've always heard that spinning is a tough, tough class, so we were a little apprehensive about our first class. The instructor, who was this fairly young, scrawny, probably college-aged kid who looked like a hardcore cyclist, came in. Forty-five minutes later, we walked out, thinking, "Well, that wasn't too tough." Sure, we broke a sweat, but it seemed pretty easy and well within our range of capability without too much challenge. We went back the next week, although at a different time for whatever reason, for another one, which had a different instructor. This guy came in, and honestly, I couldn't imagine him being tough. He was easily mid-to-late thirties, balding, and not that I'm one to talk, big ol' hang-low-wobble-to-and-fro gut (I am unsure about any knot or bow-tying capabilities, but I'd assume no). I tell you the truth ... that guy was tough. High intensity climbs and runs, lots of sprinting, lots of quick up/down intervals ... it was ten times harder than the previous week. Easily. We've made it a point to go to his classes and get our butts kicked on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings.

Why do I tell you this? To make a point: appearances can lie. Don't judge based on them.

It was with this in mind that we decided to pick up and try out this incredibly long-named product this week. For brevity*, I'll just refer to it as the green plant juice. Appearance-wise, it just looks weird and freaky and not so delicious. Green juice doesn't exactly have an illustrious history to my knowledge - the only semi-successful that comes to mind is Ecto-Cooler ... mmm, green orange juice. Combine that color with its murky, slimy, chunky appearance, and the green plant juice is something else. I actually made a list of what it reminds me of:
1. Swamp Thing, melted
2. Something you'd look at under a microscope in seventh grade
3. Pond scum
4. Bathwater for Oscar the Grouch
5. What you'd find in Oscar the Grouch's trashcan
6. Springfield River water, home of Blinky, the three-eyed fish **
And smellwise, to be honest, reminds me of jarred babyfood. So not off to the best of starts. I was definitely a little apprehensive about trying it.

It's actually pretty decent. It's not sugary sweet like some other reviewers in this blog would probably go nuts over, but it's kinda like pear juice, although there's no pears in it. But there's pretty much everything else - apple and pineapple juice, pureed peaches, bananas, and mangoes. Even has barley grass, spinach and and broccoli in it. Seems almost like a gym smoothie, without the smooth part. Texture-wise, it is a little bit of a challenge at first. Think orange juice with lots of pulp but a little softer, and you're on the right path. It also leaves some funky slimy film in your glass that's a little water-resistant. I'd say overall, if I were blindfolded and tasted this, not ever tasting it before, and afterwards I were asked what color I thought it was, I'd definitely go with green. I'd also wonder what the heck I just put in my mouth. Wouldn't be too upset, though.

This oddball beverage also has some green superfood-type stuff like spirulina and chlorella in it. What do those do? Glad you asked, and gladder that Wikipedia knows. They're both algae (so that pond scum thought wasn't too far from the truth) that are supposed to be loaded with protein (yet the nutrition label says the plant juice contains no protein. Hmm). Anyways, besides that, they both are chock full of other nutrients and minerals that made them an attractive food source at one point in time or another. In fact, the Aztecs loved spirulina so much, they called it Tecuitlatl, which apparently (and delicately) means stone excrement. Yum. Chlorella wasn't as lucky to be so beloved. In the World War II era, it was extensively researched as a potential untapped gold mine of nutrition for the exploding European and American population, until it was discovered how much of an expensive pain in the butt it'd be to grow in large enough batches to make it worthwhile. Today, these are still touted as champion green super-healthy food products, though probably only nutrition wackos (and now you) have ever heard of them. I didn't until trying this out.

Sandy said she kinda liked it overall. I knew she had at least a little affinity for it as she tried it the day before I did and said she'd drink a cup with me as I tried it. We might try to mix it up in a smoothie with some other stuff to try and make the texture not stand out as much. It's definitely not anything we can just gulp on down like some other juices and beverages out there. I like it okay too - drank some before spinning tonight, and poured myself another small glass to sip on while writing this. I think, for now at least, we'll both give it a three, and we'll probably pick this crazy green plant juice stuff up here and there at the very least.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

* Brevity? Me? Yeah right.
**Despite the legend in the Pittsburgh area, there's no truth to the rumor that Blinky was inspired by the polluted waters of the Monongahela. Regardless, I bet he'd fit right in.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Baker Josef's Cinnamon Crumb Coffee Cake Mix

I am still in awe of the righteous new labeling system that Russ recently implemented on this site. So, to honor that system, I very thoughtfully considered which category(ies) to put this crumbcake in. Please follow my process of logic:

-Coffee helps one wake up and is thus a morning beverage.
-This cake is to be associated with coffee.
-Therefore, this cake can, at least part of the time, be considered a morning food.

Hence, it is filed under breakfast.

But it is also cake, and cake is very often eaten as dessert, ergo it should also be categorized as dessert, under "snacks and desserts."

And we shall spend the remainder of this blog entry discussing the categorization of the item under its third and final heading of "Not Bad."

Indeed, this is a prime example of a "Not Bad" Trader Joe's product. A week or two ago, we examined TJ's Chocolate Cake and Frosting Mixes, which are, in all respects, Pantheon Level foods. Those products surpassed expectations in every way, and in my life, they shall evermore be the standards by which all chocolate cakes and chocolate icings shall be measured.

This cake, however, can not be placed in such high esteem. It tasted pretty good...but it was sort of...uneven. The ribbon of cinnamoniness was the biggest offender. Instead of coming out like the photo on the box, which depicts a thin layer of soft, cinnamonish goodness evenly spread throughout each piece, there were large clumps of a harder, chewier cinnamon-based substance, unevenly and haphazardly dispersed about the cake. The cinnamon parts tasted overly sugary, and they left a slightly unpleasant aftertaste. The texture of the cake was fine, but any bites that contained this cinnamon ribbon were contaminated with a gritty feeling that cheapened the fluffiness of the main cake material.

Despite my complaints, this product was still among the best coffee cakes I've tried. (Although, truth be told, I haven't eaten many different coffee cakes. The nasty, pre-packaged vending machine variety doesn't count). The cake does go well with coffee, and it's certain to satisfy any sweet-tooth cravings you might encounter during your break.

If you're a huge fan of coffee cake, this is surely worth a try, but if you're just looking for a random cake mix to whip up for dessert or a special occasion, we recommend getting the chocolate cake first.

One last thought: who came up with the idea of crumb cake, anyway? Aren't our lives complicated enough without someone deliberately trying to make food that falls apart when we eat it? Not only do we have to spend time baking, preparing, and serving this stuff, but we have to wash dishes, clear the table, and on top of it all, break out the dust buster now, too. No thanks. One more reason to stick with the chocolate cake.

Sonia gives it 3 out of 5 stars. I'm definitely a bigger fan of sugary breakfast foods than she is. I give it a 3.5 out of 5. Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Trader Joe's Ricotta & Spinach Tortelloni with Red Pesto

Want to know one of my favorite things about Trader Joe's?

The cashiers.


At the local store, at least, they are routinely some of the friendliest, knowledgeable, and conversational retail workers I've ever encountered. Most of them are quick to give a quick, honest opinion whether good or bad (like the clerk giving me a knowing nod and slightly uneasy "yeah" when returning these catastrophes) and just genuinely nice. Compare and contrast to the way I usually feel "tolerated" by the cashiers at the local big chain. On one of my last shopping trips there (because TJ's, unfortunately, doesn't carry everything) the clerk was literally slamming and throwing my groceries through the scanner and down the belt because she was "tired" and "felt like (unprintable)" ... if I hadn't spent half an hour in line and just wanted to go home, I would have reported her to management. I'll do something more effective and choose not to spend my dollars there. It's sad when your most courteous service comes from the self checkout that insists you have to put your item in the bag and have it "settle"in there in five seconds or the alarm goes off.

I mention this because on our last trip, I picked this package of tortelloni, and the clerk happily chirped that this was her favorite of the burgeoning microwavable pasta selection TJ's offers. This started a nice friendly little conversation about this blog, and if you, Mrs Nice TJ's cashier, are reading this, I dedicate it to you.

Okay, the tortelloni ... how's that different than tortellini? And shouldn't this really be Trader Giotto's goods? I'm glad I'm not the only one who forgets about him. Questions aside, this is some decent stuff. I'm not the biggest fan of ricotta and related cheeses. I'm sure it's not exactly Grade A creamy matter they stuff the pasta with, but it's gets my stamp of approval, with a caveat. Not sure if it was the work microwave's fault, but some of the stuff seemed to get a little overzapped and grainy in small pockets here and there. But it's pretty passable even for someone on the fence like me, and it helps that the pasta good and firm, not limp like some other stuff.. The pesto sauce is fairly zesty with all the basil and Italian spices, and even has a little kick. The veggies in it are decent - they definitely taste grilled, and are quite flavorful, but they're kinda squishy. It'd be nice if zucchini and peppers were a little crisper, but I guess between grilling, freezing and nuking there's only so much that can be expected. You get a fairly generous portion, even for someone with a larger appetite like me. Between this and an apple, I was pretty satisfied the rest of my work day. Pretty simple to make, too - just take off the surrounding cardboard, peel a corner of the top film off, zap it, and three minutes later you got lunch. Good tasting stuff.

But I have a complaint to make. I hope it's at least somewhat valid. But I love containers, simply because they can "contain" things. What things? Anything! And if you get them for free somehow, like with a food purchase, even better. Chinese takeout Tupperware is the king of this. I routinely save any and all beer case boxes to store stuff in the basement. Sandy, when preparing to move in, had to take quite some time convincing me it was okay to throw out the stack of clementine crates I had accumulated and saved over many a scurvy-busting session. It didn't matter that the crates were empty and had been for months - they could hold something and be useful and just didn't belong in a landfill when they're perfectly fine. Seriously, I was nearing Hoarders-level obsession with this kind of stuff - my house was going to turn into a literal container of containers. I'm getting better (thanks, wife), but still ... this stuff comes in a plastic squarish bowl thing. It doesn't have a lid (just that film over top) and it's kinda flimsy-ish (suitable enough to get your lunch from the freezer to your belly), but it's just solid enough to suggest (to me, at least) that it shouldn't just be tossed and to instead find another use. I knew I couldn't bring it home or Sandy would give me the stink eye for sure. I tried to think of what I could put in it for work - about the only thing I could think of was paper clips, and I've used three of those in the last year, so that didn't seem too beneficial. And since it was lidless, it'd be tougher to re-use as a food container. To compound the issue, for whatever reason, my work doesn't have lunchroom recycling, so it wasn't a matter of just tossing it in a bin. I was genuinely conflicted about what to do ... environmental responsibility vs psychological/obsessive-compulsive indulgence vs domestic tranquility ... well, I won't say what I did, but I feel ashamed. Lunch shouldn't make you feel that way. Good thing it was tasty.

Sandy hasn't tried this and never will. There's not only cherry tomatoes in it, but also they're deliberately cut in half to spread their tomatoey guts everywhere. It's a nonstarter for her. So I'll just double my score ... I'll give it a solid seven overall. Give me a real lid for it, and we'll revisit this.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trader José's Mildly Spiced Vegetable Burritos

Two or three times each winter, I make up a huge pot of chili. It's something I take pretty seriously, actually. I spend a decent chunk of time shopping for and chopping up a bunch of vegetables, browning up the meat, digging thru the spice shelf to toss whatever looks good in there, and drinking beer while doing so. Sometimes I'll skip the meat, pile in some extra beans and onions and peppers and make a mean vegetarian batch that even Chuck Norris would approve of. I don't make wimpy stuff. That's a good, fun evening that's tough to beat and usually reserve for when the Mrs. is out of town or having a girl's night. After I prep everything I let it simmer in the crockpot for a minimum of 24 hours just to let all the flavors seep in, cook up and mingle all together. It just doesn't taste the same if it doesn't - I don't know how to quantify it exactly, but the flavor just seems fuller, maybe a little smokier somehow, and just more complete. A good crockpotful lasts me at least two weeks of work lunches (my coworkers are ever so pleased) and the occasional bachelor dinner. Homemade chili is by far my favorite thing to cook, and one of my favorite things to eat ever. Sandy won't come near touching the stuff, which doesn't bother me any - more for me.

Why do I mention this?

The stuff inside these burritos is nearly as good as my homemade vegetarian chili.

Oh, it's different, for sure. It doesn't have all the chunks, certainly not all the hot peppers, and not all the random spices. But it what it does have is fantastic. These guys are loaded with black and kidney beans, potatoes, some peppers and corn which makes 'em pretty hearty. The base sauce is, as the label suggests, mildly spiced with some garlic, onion, and a hint of jalapeno and chilepepper, but certainly had more heat than anticipated. I will admit when I saw the words "mildly spiced" I presumed these would be tame enough for a baby kitten to munch on. Not so much. Granted, as someone who loves the hot stuff, I would have preferred more heat, but these weren't too sissy, and I probably could have just as easily added some hot sauce to tinker the taste a little closer to my preference. Hmm, maybe some of this?

But what I really liked was the essence of the flavor. Somehow, the burrito filling captured the smoky full-flavoredness my chili seems to develop with a daylong sentence in the crockpot. It's as if Trader Jose burgled his way into my house and took a sample one night while I was dozing away, ran off to some top secret bunker and extracted whatever it is that makes my chili so good and injected it right into these.

I will mention one thing I didn't like as much: the tortilla. Not that it was bad, per se. Apparently, they're made from both wheat and rice flour, which taste pretty good, but makes one Kate Moss-thin wrapper. My burritos were bursting less than halfway thru the nuke cycle in the microwaves, and when trying to eat them, all the goodness was oozing and poking out. By some grace of God I was able to keep my shirt clean and scrub the collateral damage out of my beard. Burritos with all this good saucy tasty filling need a tortilla that can withstand all the magma-esque qualities of the insides, and, sadly, these failed, though not quite to a catastrophic level.

But overall, these are pretty great. And I didn't realize this until I was reading the package wrapper while they were in the microwave, not only are these vegetarian but also organic. The ingredient list makes a point to list each thing as being organic, and if you squint enough you might be able to discern the organic stamp of approval on the front sticker. I sat at my lunch table with a vegetarian coworker and chatted about this fact. She said most grocery stores she's gone to, a couple organic vegetarian burritos like these run at least six or seven bucks for the pair. These were between $2.49 and $2.99, so apparently, a pretty decent value, and fairly healthy. I'll get these again for sure.

Sandy's not interested ever in my homemade chili, and by tangential extension* not so interested in these (too bad), so she sat this ranking out. I'm not accustomed to the burden of such responsibility. I'm deciding between a four and a four and a half, based primarily on the tortilla shortcomings, so, uh ... yeah, one of each sounds right enough.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

*Speaking of tangential extensions, if Chuck Norris liked my homemade veggie chili, he'd like these by the powers of the transitive property. So there's one celebrity endorsement. For a more direct one, these are Rachel Ray's favorite frozen veggie burritos. So, by logical extension, you better like these too or you'll be roundhouse-kicked to death or drowned in EVOO. Consider yourself warned.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Trader Joe's Grilled Eggplant & Zucchini Mélange

A "mélange" is simply a mixture or medley. That's kind of the vibe I got from the word even before I looked it up. Just a big mishmash of nonsense, a sort of confused mess.

"Mélange" is also a French word, which I would have guessed just from the look of it. So, shouldn't it be part of the Trader Jacques line? Sonia actually says she thinks this dish is Italian. If that were the case, shouldn't it be presented by Trader Giotto?

But no, we get an Italian dish with a French name served up by an American. A hodgepodge of origins. That's fine. I suppose you all want to know how it tastes...

When it comes right down to it, I can go either way with zucchini and eggplant. I'm a big fan of baba ghanoush, which is a mashed eggplant topping that goes well with pita and middle-eastern foods. Haven't tried TJ's version of it yet. I also like fried zucchini and zucchini bread. It's one of those foods that's really good dressed up, but by itself, it usually leaves a little to be desired.

All in all, this dish is better than zucchini or eggplant served plain by themselves. There's a tomatoey sort of sauce and some bits of mozzarella (which I didn't even notice while eating the dish, to be honest with you) and some bits of tomato...and maybe some other mysterious things...It tasted like what you'd expect. It's stewed vegetables in a sauce. Not bad at all.

My only complaints are that the pieces of eggplant were too big, and they were a little chewy. I think eggplant has an underrated taste, but it really has to be cooked a certain way or chopped up into tiny little bits and pieces for the texture not to ruin the experience.

We ate the mélange on some Trader Joe's Organic Brown Rice Spaghetti Pasta. I like this stuff. The noodles seem heavier and thicker than normal spaghetti, but they aren't giant, beastly things that can't be kept under control.

We noticed that there's a strange gelatinous residue left over in the pot after we cook this pasta. This wasn't the first time we made it, and it left this film in the pot each time. Weird.

So let's get down to brass tacks, shall we? The mélange has a fancy name, a decent taste, and enormous slabs of semi-rubbery eggplant. Sonia gives it a 4. I give it a 3.

Trader Joe's Grilled Eggplant & Zucchini Mélange. Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

The pasta leaves a funky film, but satisfies the tummy. Sonia gives it a 4. Me too.

Trader Joe's Organic Brown Rice Spaghetti Pasta. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Trader Joe's Earl Grey Bagged Tea

Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

Sonia and I both like Earl Grey, but we aren't exactly connoisseurs. This stuff tastes just as good as any other brands we've had. Cheap. $2.99 for 20 bags.

English black tea. Slightly bitter. Decent source of caffeine. Captain Picard would be pleased.

Until we can get this stuff to materialize in a replicator at the sound of our voice, we'll stick to the Trader Joe's version.

That's all I got for ya. I felt guilty because my last entry was so short. So I figured I'd throw in a bonus review. That and I wanted to use that "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." line.

4's from both of us.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Blueberries & Cream and Vanilla & Cream Yogurt Cups

Emphasis on the cream. One small bite of this yogurt's enough to fill the stomach of a grown man. It's like the Elven Lembas Bread of yogurts.

For those of you who didn't catch that reference, please re-watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Back to the ultra-creamy yogurt. It's tasty. And...really, really thick. Just imagine a good blueberry or vanilla yogurt. Now imagine it five times thicker and heavier.

That's this yogurt.

I like both flavors equally. And that's a good thing, because they're packaged together. If one were better than the other, there could have been some household conflict about who got to eat the last of the better flavor.

The cups are a little smaller than the average yogurt cup I think. That's fine. After you eat one, it feels like you've eaten two cups of regular yogurt. Overall, me likey.

Sonia gives 4's to both. Me too.

Trader Joe's Blueberries & Cream Yogurt Cups. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.
Trader Joe's Vanilla & Cream Yogurt Cups. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Trader Joe's Chicken Satay Party Skewers

Trader Joe has great taste when it comes to American cuisine. When it comes to Thai food, however, he should take a note from his buddy, Thai Joe.

These Chicken Satay Party Skewers aren't great. They're a little chewy and not super flavorful. They don't taste bad, but they're not exactly dripping with savory chicken goodness. We felt the images of the chunks on the packaging were slightly deceiving, since the little bits of thigh meat you actually get seem significantly smaller. As a bonus, though, you get little pointy sticks through each piece of chicken, with which you might poke your friend or partner in the arm for selecting such a poor choice at TJ's.

Oh well, maybe the chicken's slight lack of flavor was order to allow the taste of Trader Joe's Satay Peanut Sauce to dominate the dish...

But wait, that doesn't make sense either, because this stuff's even worse. Way worse. Sonia and I have both had chicken satay with peanut sauce from more than one restaurant, and this is by far the worst either of us has had. The sauce doesn't even taste like peanuts. There are little chunks of actual nuts in the sauce, but somehow they just get lost in the mess of flavors crawling around in this stuff. I don't even know how to describe it. Sonia thought it tasted like fish. For those of you who've had real Thai chicken satay with peanut sauce, you should know that it is NOT supposed to taste like fish. I personally wouldn't describe it that way, but I certainly wouldn't describe it as anything positive. This peanut sauce is an emphatic thumbs down from both of us.

All in all, we just recommend you get something else from TJ's. If there were some other super-delicious sauce that was intended for use with the Chicken Skewers, it might be worth trying. The Skewers aren't gross enough in and of themselves to tell you not to ever try them. They're really not that bad...they're just not great. It's the sauce that really made this meal a disappointment.

Trader Joe's Chicken Satay Party Skewers. Sonia gives them a 3. Me too. Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Satay Peanut Sauce. Sonia gives it a 1. It just dawned on me that if I had no idea what satay peanut sauce was supposed to taste like, it might not have seemed quite so disgusting, so I'll be merciful and give it a 2. Bottom line: 3 out of 10.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon

Really, can it get any better than bacon?

I don't think so.

Not to get too Lady Gaga on you, but baby, I was born this way (nature). I also grew up in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, the unofficial "home of the smiling porker" and have so many fond memories of Saturday mornings with cheese omelets and bacon for breakfast (nurture). I just love the greasy salty goodness of a few choice crinkley slices of pure heaven, and I know I'm far from the only one. Sandy doesn't like most pork products but she salivates at just the thought. Among my Facebook buddies, I have friends who do such things as making bacon-wrapped scrapple (freakin' delicious) and regularly track down and share pictures such as this. Studies have even shown that bacon is the number one temptress meat for vegetarians, simply because we as humans come wired to seek and crave this stuff. I have yet to meet anyone who can say anything bad about bacon.

So how does TJ's Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon stack up?

I busted out our package yesterday morning (it was Saturday, after all, and Sandy had some tasty omelets on her mind). Once I opened it, the aroma of slightly sweet smokiness hit me, that drew me in for a closer smell. Sandy gave me a weird look and was probably wondering why it looked like I was huffing bacon fumes, until I let her have a good whiff, too. Really, this stuff smells pretty impressive. I prefer to bake bacon in the oven (just easier, with a pretty reliable result) and even hours later, when we got home from a concert at about 1:30 a.m. last night/this morning, the aroma still permeated the air like the best Scentsy product ever. This stuff is of the thick cut variety, and we prefer our bacon good and crispy (Sandy goes as far to just say "burnt"), so it definitely took a while. The bacon strips seemed to have a pretty healthy meat-to-fat ratio, with the fat more concentrated on one side, the meaty parts on the other. Anyways, the fatty sides definitely crisped up pretty well, I saw, as I pulled our breakfast treat out of the oven. The smell was literally intoxicating at this point, so delectable and pheromonesque that it would make even the most militant vegan spiral out of control.

Tastewise, it's pretty darn good. The fatty sides were definitely savory, delicious, comforting, melt in your mouth good. The meatier sides, because of the thickness, were a little chewy and more leathery, but pretty tasty. You can definitely taste the smoke flavor and slight apple-y sweetness which works pretty well with the salt and gristle. Really good and satisfying, and a little tough to stick to my spouse-allotted ration of 3-1/2 pieces. Yes, I would steal bacon from my wife, and not feel too bad. Still, I was left with the feeling that this stuff smelled a lot better than it tasted, but overall I was fairly pleased.

Sandy wasn't as much of a fan of it as I was. She prefers more thinly cut so it burns up a little better and gets crisped up a little more evenly. A valid point for sure. She liked that taste though, and gave it a three. I'll go with a four. I think, for me, it comes down to gustatory preference. Apple smoked bacon makes a great accessory meat, like on top of a cheeseburger, but for stand-alone meat munching, I like either regular or pepper-crusted better. So even though our cumulative score is a seven, if you and your kin are aficionados of good, thick-cut apple smoked bacon, get this stuff and I'm sure you'll be well-pleased.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, March 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Hickory Barbeque Potato Chips

If you like Kettle Chips, you'll probably like these. They're similar in quality, flavor, and texture. Neither brand is a light food option, but both are made with mostly natural ingredients.

The amount of BBQ flavor in these chips is perfect. They definitely have that barbeque kick and tang, but it's not overwhelming, either. It lets the natural potato flavors through, as well.

They're a bit on the greasy side, and there are always little particles of the chips completely coating your fingertips after you've eaten a few handfuls. It looks like you dipped your fingertips in some kind of weird potato batter and then stuck them in a deep-fat fryer. Ouch.

The side of the bag says "Hawaiian style." When I see "Hawaiian style," I usually take that to mean there's some pineapple and/or ham somewhere in the product. Not the case here. Although I suppose they could have snuck a few drops of pineapple juice into the barbeque sauce they used, but I didn't pay close enough attention to the ingredients to notice...

If I had a weird anecdote about potato chips, I'd share it with you right now, but unfortunately for this blog post, my experiences with potato chips have been relatively boring and there you have it: if you like Kettle Chips, and you like BBQ flavored chips, try these.

Sonia gives them a 4. I do, too. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Baker Josef's Chocolate Cake and Frosting Mixes

Since Russ mentioned Baker Josef in his last post, I thought now would be a good time to bust out a review of the Chocolate Cake and Frosting Mixes.

Now, let me break something down for you. I can't bake. I just barely got an "S-" in Home Ec in 9th grade. The "S" stands for "satisfactory," but the minus implies it's a little less than satisfactory, and just slightly above a "U" for "un-freaking-acceptable." I think they would have given me the "U" if I hadn't tried so hard. But I really did try, and I still failed miserably. So my teacher, though frustrated, had mercy on me. I remember my whole group was a little...shall we say "unskilled" in the culinary arts. All four of us needed a little extra grace in the kitchen. I remember one of our assignments was to bake rice krispy treats, and we wound up chiseling the blackened finished product out of the pan with a hammer and icepick. I'm not kidding.

So, the natural choice was to let my lovely wife prepare and bake this product. She presented it to me as a sort of late Valentine's Day present. So sweet. We also planned on giving a piece to one of our neighbors...but that didn't happen. We couldn't part with it. So. Freaking. GOOD!

Sonia's an adept baker. She says it was simple. She just added eggs, water, and butter to the cake mix, baked it according to the directions, and then added hot water and butter to the icing mix. Seems straightforward enough to me. But for some reason my IQ drops about 50 points when I'm in the kitchen, so I let her handle the whole thing. I do attempt to cook for my wife sometimes, but I don't want to screw up the dessert stuff. It would just be a big letdown for everyone involved.

I actually prefer white cake or red velvet. Not usually big on chocolate. But I must say...this was probably the best chocolate cake I've ever had. The icing was amazing, too. I wouldn't change a thing. The moistness and texture probably has a lot to do with the way Sonia baked it, but I gotta say, both of these mixes are big winners. Props to Sonia and her good friend Baker Josef.

And again, not sure about the ethnicity or the origin of this Josef fellow. But he seems to know what he's doing.

Double fives on both.

Baker Josef's Chocolate Cake Mix, Bottom line: 10 out of 10.
Baker Josef's Chocolate Frosting Mix: Bottom line: 10 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thai Joe's Coconut Curry Chicken Stix

So apparently there's this new tenderfoot dude named Thai Joe. Never heard of the guy? Well, me neither. Certainly, he has an interesting name. I mean, Trader Joe's has, besides themselves, Trader Ming, Trader Joe-San, Trader Jose, Trader Jacque, and, I think, Baker Josef (flour). Though there's certainly nationality implied in those names, none of them are directly labeled like Thai Joe. I mean, would you buy something from a dude named Chinese Joe? Sounds sketchy at best. I guess it's because there's a certain dearth of Thai names that resemble the name "Joe." I did a quick search on some shady looking baby-naming site, and after wading through the pop-up-a-looza that came up (don't ask why my work doesn't have a blocker for that), that closest thing I could find was the name Chao-Fa, which means "crowned prince." Hmm, Trader Chao-Fa ... that's a pretty cool name I'd be down with. Sounds a heckuva lot better than "Thai Joe," and it's a closer match than that Trader Ming character. What the name Thai Joe conjures up for me is, imagine there's a new kid in school, second grade or so, Thai, with a nearly impossible name to pronounce. Trying to be friendly, he says, "Call me Joe," but there's already five or six other kids in the class named Joe or Joey, so to differentiate him from every one else, one somewhat-culturally aware-yet-snotfaced punk dubs him "Thai Joe." Umm, well, yeah, that might just be me.

Anyways, for a debut (for me at least) product, Thai Joe's Coconut Curry Chicken Stix are pretty fantastic. They're typical spring roll sized and shaped, and even though we baked ours, the stix remained pretty crispy, flaky, and texturally appropriate. I'd imagine they'd be even better Fry-Daddied up, but that's too much temptation for too many bad things for us. The insides are just as good if not better than the wrapper. I've had the misfortune of having some food court-variety spring rolls with mushy yard work posing as vegetable matter inside them, and while these guys are somewhat sparing cabbage-wise, what's in there was firm and tasty. Mostly, it's white-meat chicken inside, diced in little chunks, and insanely good. Flavor-wise, the overriding taste is actually lemony (there's lemongrass in there as both a main ingredient and an ingredient in the curry sauce), but it's kept well in check with the coconutty undertones and overall flavor. If you're a spice-adverse sissy, you're be glad to know these barely register a one on a scale to ten. I personally would have preferred a little more spice, as good Thai cuisine is so talented at being hot without sacrificing the other flavors of the dish, but even so, they're pretty delectable.

However, like any rookie, Thai Joe made a mistake. Fortunately, it's completely fixable. On the box, he shows a small bowl of awesome looking peanut-and-something-else sauce. Other TJ products actually have a little sauce packet in them, or at least give you a recipe on the package for a suitable sauce. Not these. No bonus packet, and their instructions simply say to "enjoy with your favorite sauce" (or something to that effect). Well, in my household, that means Red Devil, Frank's Red Hot, barbecue sauce, and (for Sandy) ranch dressing (I think, it depends on the week). For some crazy reason, I don't think any of those would be right, and I'm ignorant enough to not know what might work best. I mean, you gave me an easy recipe for dipping sauce on your cilantro chicken wontons that was the bomb ... I don't think asking for a little help here is too much. Also, "stix"? Really? Call them what they are, spring rolls, and not some stupid made-up name. Stix? Sounds too much like that crappy band to me.

Though they'd be optimal for pregaming a Thai feast, Sandy and I baked the whole box up for lunch over the weekend. With some chips and salsa (we were in a multi-cultural mood), it made a great, light meal that I'm already craving to have again. Due to its immigrant heritage, Pittsburgh, where we live, is blessed with a plethora of amazing, locally owned ethnic restaurants, especially Thai ones like Smiling Banana Leaf. These rolls are good enough to pass themselves off as an appetizer at any of them, and at a fraction of the cost, too. That being said, support your locally owned restaurants, but pick these guys up too.

Sandy gives the springy stix a solid four as they made some pretty happy chomping for her. "Mmmmmm" is pretty much what she said. I agree. If Thai Joe shares any secret sauce goodness with us (packet or recipe), I can easily see this ranking climb even higher.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Gone Bananas!

It's time for a fictitious adjective. Let's go with "Ridiculuscious!"

I almost went with "Stupidelicious," but I already mentioned that one in a previous blog entry...either word accurately describes these amazing chocolate covered frozen banana slices.

How much can you do with chocolate-banana, really? "Aren't they all the same?" you might ask. Well, for starters, there are only 2 ingredients in these little bites: bananas and chocolate. Then, thankfully, they do break down the chocolate into its constituent parts. Pretty got some sugar and milk and cocoa. The only word I wanted more info on was "soy lecithin." According to Wikipedia, lecithin "controls...the flow properties of chocolate." Well, it must have done what it was supposed to do, because this chocolate flowed right down my throat and into my tummy with delicious ease and smoothness.

My wife's score for these was tragically low (only a 4 out of 5) because she's had taste-aversion to chocolate-bananas since the age of 6. Her story takes us back to Los Angeles, California, circa 1985. Her father had bought her a chocolate-banana from a street vendor cart, and the product was apparently a scary, ghetto version of the classic chocolate-banana. Within its dripping, melting, fake-chocolate shell, an old, semi-rotted, ultra-ripe banana waited...lurking...planning to ruin my poor Sonia's opinion of chocolate-bananas forever. Unfortunately, it succeeded. She became deathly ill, vomited multiple times, and vowed to never again eat a chocolate banana.

These Trader Joe's Gone Bananas! chocolate-covered frozen banana bites have begun the healing process in dear, sweet Sonia. The decades-old trauma is slowly being replaced with good chocolate-banana memories.

And that, my friends, is the only reason Sonia gave these a 4 and not a 5.

The bananas are perfect. Not too ripe, not too young. The slices are the perfect size. There's just the right amount of chocolate around each piece. I have no complaints. The last chocolate-banana I had prior to these TJ's bites was from Disneyland, about 6 months ago. The Disney version had fakey-type chocolate, the banana wasn't ripe enough, and it cost something like a hundred dollars.

To summarize, I really, really love chocolate-bananas, and Trader Joe's Gone Bananas! are the best chocolate-bananas I've ever had. Natural-ish chocolate and perfectly ripe bananas, with the innovative concept to serve the banana bites in little slices instead of the whole big banana-on-a-stick deal. Perfect. 5 out of 5 from me. And the only reason Sonia gives them a 4 and not a 5 is because she had this crazy near-death banana tragedy as a little girl...anyway...I can't recommend them enough. 

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

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