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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Popping Corn

Every year at the holidays, it's the same. My mom and dad go all out in making and prepping quadruple batches of probably ten different kinds of cookies, homemade bread, pies, and other assorted treats (like Swedish tea ring for Christmas breakfast) just so when my siblings and I descend on their house for a crammed chaotic weekend of food and festivities, not a single one of us would have to face the horror of going more than five minutes without having one of our favorite treats more than an arm length away. I love it for more reasons than it being great homemade food. It's how my folks show their love, of course, and naturally we can make a few good-natured jokes at their expense, like how when they put out platters of cookies on the shelf with their pictures of all their grandbabies, that was their "cookie offering" at the "grandkid shrine." All of us laughing and enjoying each other with some good food - no matter which holiday you celebrate, and whether more secular or religious, and no matter who you celebrate it with, that just may be the very best part.

Strangely enough, though, despite all the homemade cookies and cakes and treats, there always has to be homemade Chex mix there. Always, or it seems a little off, to the point where upon realization one of us will spring into action to make it right away. I don't know if it's the contrasting crunchiness or saltiness against all the sugary delights my family makes, but Chex mix, while certainly not the star of the show, has its own important place amongst everything else.

That's kinda how I also feel about popcorn, more specifically, the non-microwaved non movie-theatered butter-blasted super salty lipid explosion Reddenbacher stuff. Although I like that stuff too, its the simple stovetop variety I like the best. For this, of course, you need good popcorn kernels to start with, so with that in mind, once Sandy and I spotted Trader Joe's Organic Popping Corn, we knew we ought to fire it up and give it a try.

I tell ya what: it works well. Really, really well, actually. The corn pops up fairly quickly in a little olive oil and makes big, fluffy popcorn guys that have the needed munch and crunch while still being a little Styrofoamy. Perfect. In the couple times we've made it, there's been a good popped to unpopped ratio of kernels (probably at least 9.5:1) which I can't always say about other brands...there was this one jar we bought once, can't remember which one, but it was nearly 50/50. That's unacceptable. Sandy loves burnt kernels and all, but there's only so much that should be there before you begin feeling a little cheated. TJ's popcorn was just about spot on. Naturally, it works well with whatever kind of seasoning we choose to go with - whether prepped with some chipotle olive oil or some piri-piri sauce we still have from our Portuguese honeymoon, or a little butter and garlic salt once popped, or even just plain. That's another good reason to go with homemade popcorn - you can control what it tastes like and how good or bad it'll be for you.

I don't recall what the cost is, but it's fairly inexpensive, probably around $2 or $3 for bag that'll last a long while. Fearing it'd be a one-and-done sighting like one or two of my other favorite TJ treats, we bought this bagged corn-ucopia of fluffy yumminess a while back right after we just opened a different bag of corn kernels, so we had to wait to crack this one open. It was well worth it, and glad to say, I've still seen it every trip since. The only semi-negative thing I can say about it is, some of the kernels pop so quick that by the time the rest of them pop, they can be a little burned. Those are the ones Sandy goes for, though, and there's plenty enough of unblemished bits to go around. I'm not sure how to interpret the "organic" part of the product except to suppose that, potentially unlike other brands, the corn isn't turbo-blasted with chemicals and popcorn steroids to make the biggest, fluffiest ones possible. That's probably a good thing, and Trader Joe's popping corn does well enough without any of that. Well enough to get dueling 4.5s from the Mrs. and me.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Popping Corn: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Premium Egg Nog

It's been a busy December, as Decembers often are. There's decorating, shopping, and holiday gatherings and whatnot. I often get stressed out and cranky. That's easy to tell from the first couple reviews I did this month. I figure this blog is one of my outlets for ranting and raving, as the blog I do for my day job is so extraordinarily postive and happy all the time. Which reminds me, since it's the holidays and all, we should be thinking about giving to others...and is a great organization to support.

Now, before I move on to the actual eggnog, I must say that I really like the snowman cow on the carton. TJ's has some great artwork sometimes. Though, I'm not quite sure what's coming out of the cup in his hand. Is that steam? Is the cow drinking his eggnog hot? I've never heard of that. That's just downright weird.

And I must say I am an eggnog-drinking maniac. I loooove eggnog. It's so disgustingly delicious. I mean, it tastes delicious, but after I drink an entire carton by myself, I feel disgusting. Disgustingly delicious. I've had many, many different brands. I've had it by itself, I've had it with various liquors, I've had it with nutmeg and cinnamon on top, I've had it cut with skim milk. I have drunk it in a car. I have drunk it near and far. As of now, my favorite is Southern Comfort brand. It comes sans alcohol, in vanilla or regular flavors. Amazing. Sorry, Trader Joe. You didn't make the #1 spot.

But you're not at the bottom of the list either. I've had store-brand eggnog that comes in gallon cartons for like two or three bucks. Terrible. I think the worst I've had was Ralph's brand out in California. Yuck. I learned to just shell out the extra $2 and get something that tastes like heaven in a glass. So let's imagine a hypothetical diagram. It's a line. At the far right end of the line is Southern Comfort brand eggnog in that sleek black container, the very paradigm of dairy deliciousness. At the far left end of the line is a repulsive, yellowed store-brand with mysterious brown chunks and the smell of chewed bubblegum. TJ's brand falls just right of center. It's more good than it is bad, but not by much. Its flavor is a bit nutty. Its texture is creamy enough. But there's just nothing to really set it apart from boring, run-of-the-mill eggnogs.

Sonia isn't a connoisseur of fine eggnogs like I am. In fact, up until recently, she thought eggnog was disgusting. She could never get over the smell for some reason. Under slight duress from her husband, she managed to gag down a couple gulps of different eggnogs over the past 3 Christmas seasons in an attempt to expand her horizons and appreciate new things. It's grown on her. She has managed to discern that SoCo brand is the best, but she thinks TJ's may be second.

I agree it's not bad, but I think there are a handful of other brands that would fall in between Trader Joe's not-bad-ness and Southern Comfort's perfection, most notably Alta Dena on the west coast and Turkey Hill here on the east side. I've heard very good things about a brand called Bud's that I haven't gotten to try yet.

Well, apparently, since Sonia still doesn't quite appreciate eggnog fully and recognize it as the nectar of the gods that it is, "second best eggnog ever" only garners a 3 from her. I'm giving it a 3 also. But in my opinion, it's really just a very average eggnog. Either way, it's only gettin' a 6 from us.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread

...what's that you say? "Better than Nutella"??? Them's fightin' words where I come from!

Someone on our Facebook page stated that about the new Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread. Fair enough, I say, we're all entitled to our own opinions. That's kinda one of the premises of this whole blog, after all. But when at Trader Joe's for myself and seeing this on the new product endcap and it say so right on the product tag, well, we're in for a scrap.

See, I love Nutella. My wife Sandy says that's an understatement. It's gotten to the point that whenever I purchase it, I have to be a jar for me and a jar for her, mostly because I want to eat it all while she wants to be sure to have some handy whenever she wants. I'm sure she's hiding her jar somewhere...wish I knew where...I wish I had the chance to do something like that to her. Want to know a truly decadent and kinda weird way to enjoy some Nutella that I just discovered? Try Nutella topped with crumbled bacon on a whole wheat waffle (the whole wheat is to make it healthy). Freakin' amazing. Just don't over do that, Elvis.

Anyways, if TJ's claims to have a better chocolate nut spread than Nutella, there's only one way I know how to determine the winner: a full out, jaro-a-jaro, chocolatey cage match to the death!!!...err, to my belly! This method helped crown the king of fake sausage a while back so let's get it started.

Ringside Introductions: In the left corner, from Canada, weighing in at 13 ounces of pure choco-nutty tastiness, costing $3.99 (but conveniently on sale this week for cheaper at a non-TJ's), ladies and gentlemen, it's Nutella! Wooooooo!!!!!

On the right, coming to you from Belgium, also weighing in at 13 ounces, the unknown challenger, also costing $3.99, is Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread! *mild applause*

Round One: First Impressions: Nutella comes in a oval-shaped jar with a round opening, which I know from experience makes it slightly tough to scrape out every tasty tidbit. It has very plain looking packaging but full of cool stuff like "over 50 hazelnuts per jar" (for the 13 oz size) and disclaimers stating to not refrigerate or microwave it. It doesn't say why but I like to believe that it has Happy Fun Ball-like properties if improperly provoked. The TJ's has a round jar and a cooler illustration on the front (both plusses), but the name's kinda clunky. "Cocoa Almond Spread"...hmm...maybe like "Can-u-tella it's not Nutella?" Ok, that's lame, but a step in the right direction. No fun nutty statements either. Judges' decision: draw.

Round Two: Nutrition: Look at the pics and figure out how you'd split that. A few differences? Sure, but nothing definitive enough for me to make a call. Ingredient lists seem to be pretty similar with the obvious exception of Nutella having hazelnuts and, from what I hear, the Cocoa Almond Spread having almonds. Maybe that makes a difference to you, but it doesn't to me. Ohbytheway, they're both terrible for you. Judges' decision: draw.

Round Three: Appearance Upon Opening and Spreading: Twist the lid open and bust the foil seal on either of them, and you'll be greeted by much the same sight: a brown smooth vat of deliciousness waiting to be devoured. The TJ's is kinda darker, though, and doesn't have as much of a glassy sheen. Pretending they were marching towards a tar pit of muddy despair, I grabbed some animal crackers to dip in both. The Nutella seems a little softer when dipping things in, as it draws out and curls up a little bit more than the TJ's. The Nutella also spread better on top of bread when tested. The TJ's was close, but not quite as dippable/spreadable. Judges' decision: Nutella, but it's close.

Round Four: Texture: Pretty related to the third round, of course. Along with its slightly superior spreadability, the Nutella is creamier and lighter than the Cocoa Almond Spread. The TJ's is more dense and lays a little thicker and lingers around a little longer in your mouth. Both have their plusses but.. Judges' decision: Nutella. To me, it's close. To Sandy, not so much.

Round Five: Taste: In the first four rounds, we have two draws and two slight advantages to the Nutella, leaving the TJ's brand with a fighting chance if it tastes better than its competition. And again, it's close. Imagine if you will two heavyweights fighting at the top of their game, and this is what we got. This ain't Little Mac against Mike Tyson here. And as always, it comes down to taste, and taste invariably comes down to preference. Like milk chocolate with hazelnuts and a little extra sugar? You'll like Nutella. Almonds and dark chocolate? The TJ's just may be your winner. Both are rich, full of chocolate, and with the toasted elements of their respective nuts being present. Nutella tastes a little richer and kinda silky, if that makes sense, while the TJ's is just more straight on. To me, they're both appealing and both tasty, and I'd eat either one of them and be a happy fat kid while invariably smearing it all over my face. But we can have only one winner. Judges' decision: Nutella.

Post Fight Wrap Up: Sandy likes them both, too, but it's a clearer decision for her. I'm not sure what she'd rate Nutella at, but it's on my personal pantheon, so Nutella is an absolute five for me. Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread is step, however small, below. I'm wavering between a 4 and a 4.5. Not shabby there, rookie. Sandy's not quite as enamored with the TJ's. "The texture's a little bit weird and kinda off," she said. Also, as she flatly stated while climbing into the car a morning or two ago after sampling it for the first time, "The Trader Joe's just isn't as good as Nutella. Taste isn't as yummy." So there you have it. Sandy said she'd three it up. Seems a little low to me, so I'll go with that 4.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Trader Joe's Gingerbread Coffee

In the past, Trader Joe's has demonstrated an uncanny knack for nailing all things gingerbread-ish. Case in point: the cookie butter. It's not really gingerbread, but it is "reminiscent of gingerbread." Also, the gluten-free ginger snaps, the lemon triple ginger snap ice cream, and the pfeffernusse are all TJ's gingerbread (or at least gingerbread-esque) classics.

I believe this is the first gingerbread beverage I've ever had. It's quite drinkable. Not chuggable, in my opinion, but very drinkable.

I guess I should mention, in case you're a new reader, that I'm not a coffee person. I have the palate of a semi-sophisticated and relatively adventurous 12-year-old. And I like my beverages to taste like candy. So for caffeine, I drink energy drinks. Yes, they're bad for you...however, I've only been drinking ones without high fructose corn syrup, and have been feeling much better since cutting that out of my diet. But that's neither here nor there. My point is that recently, I've been attempting to plunge head-on into adulthood and become addicted to coffee instead of energy drinks.

It's a difficult transition for me—even with coffees that taste as delicious and unique as this one. I put a fair amount of sugar and milk in it when I drink it, though most coffee drinkers might put in less. But I guess gingerbread is intrinsically dessert-like in a way, so the presence of milk and sugar might be a welcome additive even for coffee purists who would only drink this stuff on special occasions and holidays.

This coffee has a mild cinnamon taste, but there really are hints of gingerbread in it, too. It's not a harsh or bold taste at all. This product strikes me as a gentle winter morning wake-me-up beverage. It's nice. Kind of a peaceful flavor, if that makes sense. Sonia likes it, too. She doesn't think there's anything particularly wintery about it, though. She hopes to ration her canister and enjoy this coffee well into the spring...which, apparently, is coming next week. Philadelphia isn't supposed to be in the 50's in the middle of January.

Sonia gives it 4 stars. I give it 3.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Pie Bites

So, my last review was really negative. And the one before that was pretty negative, too. I was beginning to feel like Scrooge. Granted, the most recent review wasn't really even food. And the Shrimp Bao nonsense wasn't even close to December holiday food. But this stuff could arguably be the perfect Christmas party hors d'oeuvre. It's just similar enough to pumpkin pie that I can pretty much just go ahead and make the sweeping generalization that if you like pumpkin pie, you'll like these tasty little morsels. Plus, they're topped with candied pecans. There's something decidedly Christmasy about certain candied nuts. Walnuts, almonds, and pecans would top my list of Christmasy nuts (but only when candied). And maybe macadamias, if you play that Don Ho song "Mele Kalikimaka" while you eat them.

But anyway, these little fellas can quickly be heated in the oven. 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Ours came out awesome. They were crispy and crunchy around the crust and nuts, and they were smooth and soft in the filling department. They're like little miniature pumpkin pie desserts. So much so, that we grabbed the whipped cream and topped them with little tufts of the confection. Delicioso. Seriously, we downed the entire box in a matter of minutes, just Sonia and me.

I'm just happy that I broke my little streak of Scrooge-like Bah Humbug-ness. Tasty little bites. Hmmm, what else should I tell you about them? Buy them. I'm gonna go ahead and give them a 4.5. I'm feeling happy right now. Serve them at a party with some high-quality eggnog and maybe some Christmas cookies and other finger foods.

Sonia was just as enthused with them as I was. She absolutely loved their taste. She thought that they weren't too sugary...just naturally sweet. She liked their texture, too. Nice and flakey. She's gonna go with a 4.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Trader Joe's 24 Chocolate Days 'til Christmas

Busted. This isn't really a food item. Well, part of it is. Chocolate. Well, really, if you've tried this product, you'd know that the "chocolate" involved here isn't really even food.

The chocolate in this advent calendar is quite probably the most revolting chocolate I've ever ingested during my 33 Christmases. (I'm 32 years old, but you have to count the one Christmas I lived through before I was a year old). And, yes, if by some strange chance I had worse chocolate at 6 months of age in December of 1979, I would have remembered it. In fact, I would have been so scarred by the incident, that I would have written off chocolate for the rest of my life and been one of those rare souls that dislikes chocolate for reasons they can't fully explain.

The chocolate in this advent calendar tastes like a combination of plastic and cardboard, with an emphasis on the cardboard...with an extra dose of the weird glue that holds the particles of board together as a solid substance. The graphics on each window are fairly cute and well-designed, but really, they have nothing to do with Christmas at all. Not secular Santa-style Christmas. Not the true Jesus-inspired Christian Christmas. There's a baseball on there, for crying out loud. This might as well be a countdown to Labor Day.

Granted, there are other versions of Trader Joe's Advent Calendars, but I'm reviewing this one...which very well could be four years old or so. The chocolate tastes like it's at least that old...which reminds me of the time my grade school friend and I handed out 5 year old chocolate at Halloween. It was white. And I don't mean it was white chocolate. I mean it was traditional brown milk chocolate that was so old that it was turning back into sugar. We gave it to a group of cheerleaders that went to our high school. They returned a couple hours later and threw the half-eaten candies at us. It was hysterical. It was worth it.

It seems that karma has seen to it that I am now the brunt of such a joke—a cruel joke perpetrated by my old friend TJ. Good one, buddy. This stuff tastes like butt, and you tricked me into paying you for it. With other advent calendars, we would generally fight each other over who gets to eat the chocolate, but with this top-shelf quality product, my wife and I bicker about who has to eat the chocolate each day.

TJ's could have at least thrown us a bone and put Bible verses with the Christmas story behind each window, or maybe individual lines to The Night Before Christmas. But no. Everything is just blank. The chocolate isn't even good for you...not even a little bit. All things considered, I'd rather be eating carob.

And I hate carob. Well, except for Sunspire Unsweetened Carob Chips. Those are yummerific.

I give this stuff a 1. Way to go, Santa Joe. I'm'a have the fire going Christmas Eve, buddy. Don't try to enter through the chimney. Sonia gives it a 2. I don't feel bad. Call me Scrooge. Merry freakin' Christmas, TJ's. 24 Revolting Chocolate Days 'til I Puke My Face Off.

Bottom line: 3 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Spicy Shrimp Bao

I'm not particularly proud of it, but I'm a carbivore. I'm definitely into anything with breading...chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, fried shrimp, anything parmigiana, and pretty much any kind of Asian dumpling. I would have said just "any kind of Asian dumpling," but after many years of happily gorging myself on many different kinds of high-carb delicacies, I've finally found a dumpling I don't like.
To be fair, I must admit we made them the fast way. The box said microwaving was acceptable, but there were alternate instructions for those patient folks who could wait an extra 15 minutes to eat their food. That version involved cooking them on the stovetop with water—not oil, but water.

These dumplings were dry, lacked flavor, and had very little shrimp in them. In fact, the vast majority of the matter in each pastry was the bland, white, bread-like shell. Though they were small, it was entirely possible to take a bite of them and get only fluffy white nothingness.

I'm usually such a fan of carbs that getting a mouthful of nothing but bread wouldn't bother me, but in this case, the dough was so plain and seemingly stale, that I found it not only unpleasant, but nearly inedible. Even a greater amount of the inside-filling couldn't have redeemed these little wannabe hors d'oeuvres completely, as the main substance in the center was a vague greenish mush, with only slightly more taste than the mass of bleached breadiness surrounding it.

My expectations had been pretty high, since other Trader Joe's Asian dumpling-esque items like this and this were pretty darn successful if you ask me. We ate the shrimp dumplings with soy sauce, but I don't think there's a condiment in existence that could bring these suckers back from the brink of nastiness.

I was surprised that Sonia gave them a 3. She was disappointed with the lack of veggies and shrimp in the middle, but didn't seem as disgusted by the dough as I was. I'm going with a 2 since, in all fairness, they might have been much better had we made them on the stovetop. Otherwise, as we ate them, I might have been tempted to give them a 1. I should totally just stick to traditional holiday fare during the month of December.

Bottom line: 5 out of 10.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Trader Joe's Latin Style Black Bean Soup

There's a cookbook that Sandy and I own that we're both kinda squeamish about and very hesitant to use. Strangely enough, it was a wedding gift from our pastor.* Its name? "Intercourses," and yes, that is a double entendre. Aside from being full of artistic and, umm, interesting yet tasteful photos of food and people**, is all sorts of information about food and its various uses besides filling your belly, along with some recipes. One short chapter is devoted to black beans. Now, it isn't cited, so I'm not sure how true this is, but according to the authors, around the year 400 AD an edict went out forbidding nuns from eating black beans because for those "avowed to celibacy, black beans were bad news." Aside from making one randy, they also allegedly have something to do with fertility, and have been used as a symbol as such going back centuries.

Now, Sandy and I enjoy our black beans, but I'm pretty sure that I speak for both of us when I say it's for reasons completely unrelated to any of the above. First of all, they're tasty. Secondly, there's a lot of dishes that we enjoy that quickly and easily incorporate them into a satisfying meal. And of course, with all their fiber and protein, black beans have a lot of health benefits that shouldn't be denied. Anything else they do is extra credit in my book.

I guess if any black bean product had any chance of sweeping us off in a torrid love affair, it'd be Trader Joe's Latin Style Black Bean Soup. You see, it's Latin-inspired, so it sounds a little exotic, a little mysterious, and definitely Antonio Banderas-y. Interpreting it differently, Latin is the origin of all of the world's Romance languages, though in seventh grade it really wasn't apparent what was sexy about sentences like "Britania insula est."***

Anyways back to the soup...not to go all Yoda on you, but whisk us off our feet it does not. I mean, it's okay and all, I guess, and not a bad option, but that being said, I'm not a huge fan. First, and this is ticky-tacky, to get it out of the box, it doesn't really pour. You have to squirt the soup out, and that's just plain weird, and something that I have a minor hang-up about. Squirt boxes, squirt bottles, etc, just aren't my thing. I don't know why. Tastewise, it's pretty nondescript to be honest. You taste a little bean action, before being hit with a wall of black pepper (the last ingredient listed so supposedly the least used...yeah right) before it mellows out to a kinda beany/milky finish. The cumin and garlic and everything else? Don't really taste it, to be honest. It's all smooth and creamy, too, which some may like, but I'd prefer actual beans in there.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a terrible soup. In fact, I'd say it makes a decently tasty pairing with a grilled cheese sandwich for a simple, hearty meal on a cold winter day. It's just I guess my wife's homemade soup more, with whole and pureed beans, and flavor perhaps evened out better by using chicken or veggie stock as a base and not water like Trader Joe's. Sandy makes hers with marginally more effort than heating up a pot of this soup-in-a-box, and hers tastes at least ten times better. I guess hers is what I'm used to, and however unfairly I'm using hers as a measuring stick for the Trader Joe's soup. I can't vouch for the TJ's authenticity, but can say it was a good buy ($2 or $3, misplaced the receipt) and it lasted us two meals.

I asked Sandy what she thought about it. She took the opportunity to kinda half-glare at me, and utter a semi-halfhearted, "I don't know, 3.5 or 4" which I took to mean the lower of the two. To be fair, it was as she was working on some take-home reports from her work, and right before she was going to run out for her usual Monday night babysitting gig, so I can't blame her for being too unenthusiastic, but it just goes to show that she wasn't too impressed either. "It's yummy but I like to have actual beans in my soup," she offered. I agree. It's decent but lacking something, whether it be real legumes or a little extra flavor to finish it off better. It's not the worst black bean-based Trader Joe's offering, but it's not the best either (that's still TBD). I'll go with a 3.

Bottom line:
Trader Joe's Latin Style Black Bean Soup: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

*Apparently it's his standard wedding gift. "The burritos in it are great," he says with a wink.
**For some reason a certain episode of Seinfeld comes to mind. Believe me, the book is much classier.
***Yes, I know. Different meaning.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe Joe's

If there's one thing that Sandy and I continually do not see eye to eye on, it's the question of when it's appropriate to start playing Christmas music each year. I'm a proponent of enjoying each holiday as it comes; ergo, certainly no Christmas music before Thanksgiving, and preferably not until at least a few days into December. That way, I have a fighting chance of not wanting to claw off my bleeding ears from being pa-rum-pa-pum-pummed by the ubiquitous "Little Drummer Boy" for the umpteenth time. Sandy, though? She probably wouldn't play it year-round, but anytime after Labor Day seems to be fair play for her. Ugh. We've come to more or less a truce where she can listen to whatever when I'm not around (of course) and we can play it around the house after our annual "Elf" viewing (probably the greatest Christmas movie in the non-Jimmy Stewart genre, and possibly ever). Too many good scenes...just too many.... 

 I kinda employ the same rule for Christmas-themed treats. We've reviewed plenty of tasty pumpkin-related Turkey Day treats on the blog. Well, now that Thanksgiving is done with, and "Elf" has been satisfactorily watched, it's on with the carols and Christmas cookies. Bring it, I say. 

 Long time readers (umm, let's mom? Maybe?) may recall last December I reviewed the Trader Joe's Candy Cane Joe-Joe's. Rereading that, I probably sound like more of a grinch than I should have, except I remember not being overly wowed by them. It's probably not surprising that these, the Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe-Joe's, are pretty much the same thing, except, obviously, being coated in yummy super delicious dark chocolate. And man, what a difference that makes. It's like Inspector Gadget got the assist from Penny or Cher found her auto-tuner. These, the choco-covered ones, are that much better. The candy shell just adds this cacao-richness that helps accentuate all the crumbly cookie wafer yumminess and the minty creaminess of the filling. It also helps that the white mint chunks on the outside aren't hard crunchy candy cane shards like they appear to be but instead soft and full of flavor, too. Altogether, each cookie, even by itself, is a rich and filling treat that satisfies my sweet tooth. 

It's a good thing, too, if you gander over at the nutritional info. Like other extremely tasty TJ sandwich cookies, these are something to be taken in moderation. But unlike the Maple Leaf Cookies, I can't knock them too much for that for two reasons: First, it's Christmas. And second, whereas I want to eat as many of the maple cookies as I can, just one of the chocolate-coated minty Joe-Joe's is enough for me. Granted, I may want to eat one of them and maybe then a small something else (50/50 on that), but two of these? That's a bit much, and that means something coming from a big-boned cookie-lovin' kid like myself. They're just too rich for any more. 

Sandy liked the regular candy cane cookies last year but she's in love with these. I've seen her munch one pretty much every night since we got them, and usually a big smile accompanies it. "Whatever I gave the other ones, give these a full spoon more," she said. Well, that would make them a perfect five from her. I like them almost as much, except when it comes to holiday cookies, pretty much nothing can beat my mom's or mother-in-law's. I'm lucky and spoiled. That and $3.99 for a sleeve of ten seems perhaps a slight bit high, but not overly so. Just tonight I repurchased some for a workplace potluck (along with some other holiday goodies), and they do seem to be a perfect easy option for a get-together like that if you're not one of those "hoard-them-all-for-me" type folks. Something around a four seems about right to me. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe-Joe's: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Trader Joe's Chocolate Crème Brulée

I've only had real crème brulée a couple times in my life. The first time was in Las Vegas at one of those all-you-can-eat buffets in one of the casinos. Probably Caesar's. I don't even remember. I just remember being thoroughly enchanted by the solid sugary shell on top of the dish. It was fun cracking it open with my spoon.

The second time I had it was at a friend's wedding. Again, there was this extraordinary novelty about the dessert. The juxtaposition of the textures in the dish was the best part. On one hand, there was the hard, brittle candy shell, and on the other, there was a creamy pudding-like substance. Quite unique. Also, mispronouncing it as "cream brooly" on purpose is fun.

So, to the best of my recollection (which is often severely flawed) this Trader Joe's Crème Brulée is only the third version of the dish I've ever had. I was a bit curious about the inclusion of chocolate in TJ's brand, as there had been no chocolate involved in my first two crème brulée encounters. And of course, Trader Joe's is frozen. Very often, TJ's does the impossible with frozen dishes and makes a product competitive with its freshly-made counterparts.

With this dessert, I'll just cut to the chase: it's delicious, but in my opinion, it shouldn't be called crème brulée. The deep, rich chocolate shell and creamy insides, once blended together, reminded me more of tiramisu than crème brulée. There is no crackable candy shell on top. Just a chocolate shell on the sides, which is not nearly as enjoyable to break with a spoon.
It's a silly complaint, but I feel like I should just warn you all that if you really have a hankering for some real crème brulée, you should just go out to a pricey restaurant and shell out whatever they're asking, because I really don't think anyone could do frozen crème brulée well.

That being said, if you're looking for a creamy, sweet, and chocolatey dessert that's not necessarily crème brulée, this stuff is excellent. The richness of the custard is reminiscent of the other crème brulée dishes I've tried, and it's pretty darn satisfying. I recommend following the thawing instructions exactly: take out of the freezer, leave it at room temperature for one hour, and then eat it immediately. We ate one each that way, and it was really amazing. The following day for dessert, we ate ones we had left in the fridge. Definitely not as good.

Sonia gives them a 3.5, also citing the non-crunchable top as her primary criticism of the confection. Because they're really tasty nonetheless, I'll give 'em a 4.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Seafood Blend...and More

Hello everyone! Hope you don't mind the slight break we at the WGaTJ's team took last week with Thanksgiving and all. Sandy and I did a quick run out (left kinda late Wednesday, came back e-a-r-l-y Friday because my cubicle apparently missed me) to the Philly 'burbs where my folks live to go the annual turkey day get-together with oh, roughly 70 or so family members at a campground. That's considered an average, maybe even slightly small, year...yup, there's that many of us, and we're constantly growing. Needless to say, there was lots of great homemade food, from everyone from my mom to my cousins to my great aunts to the folks I can't remember who they are but dang they made a good pie so they're always welcome. Between stomach prep and food comas, between Sandy and I, we just didn't eat all that much TJ's last week. That's a nice change of pace. We truly hope you enjoyed yours.

Anyways, by Saturday night we had almost recovered and were kinda tired of turkey for the time being, felt kinda lazy (driving 300+ miles then working a full day the day before then a long day of plaster wall work does that to you), but still were in the mood for something that could almost pass as homemade-ish and definitely comforting. And no turkey or potatoes, please. We decided on a simple, easy to make dish of some seafood alfredo pasta, just hoping it'd hit the spot. Fortunately for us, TJ's sold the main three parts needed for our dinner, so let's review how they did.

First, the seafood. We used Trader Joe's Seafood Blend for this. Honestly I haven't spotted this at our usual store, but the weekend before last, Sandy and I checked out the new South Hills shop (inside a former Pier 1) where we saw it and picked up. Man, South Hills, not only do you have more stuff, but nice, wide aisles, too. The East Lib store's jealous. Anyways, the seafood blend is pretty basic. It's just frozen shrimp, calamari rings, and bay scallops. Out of all of them, the shrimp kinda stands out as being the best to me, but then again, I'm usually a shrimp guy. All the bites I had seemed to be about right - the shrimp was definitely firm yet tender, and the calamari was kinda chewy and tough, and somewhat reminiscent of when an old high school buddy tricked me into eating one at the Italian restaurant from the movie "Big Daddy"on a field trip to NYC back in my junior year.* Truth be told, I haven't had scallops more than once or twice that I can recall, and they were a little mushy/ever so slightly gritty, but I presume they were on-target enough and were palatable. As a whole, the seafood blend wasn't salty or mushy or just kinda crappy like other times I've gotten frozen seafood at other stores, and I presume the blend is versatile enough for a variety of dishes.

Next, the alfredo, as in Trader Giotto's Alfredo Pasta Sauce. When I think alfredo sauces, I usually think pretty mild, kinda bland, slightly cheesy white sauce. Yup, well, that's what this is, a fine example of the genre. The sauce has all the typical ingredients like romano and parmesan cheese, a little garlic, so on and so forth. I could kinda taste it, but it seemed to just cover everything with white stuff and not do much else.Although I'm not an alfredo aficionado, I'm not saying this as a negative. It's just that, I wish alfredo sauces had more to them in general, and TJ's wasn't an exception. That being said, the alfredo sauce definitely added the needed "comfort" to our dinner and help tie everything together pretty well.

Lastly, the pasta noodles themselves. I'm not a resident pastalogist, so I'm not entirely sure if Trader Joe's Egg Pappardelle Pasta was the most appropriate of choices for a seafood alfredo, but it's what we had and truth be told, they worked just fine. Sandy and I love our carbs (not pictured above: the garlic bread we demolished as well) but a package of these, about half the seafood and half the sauce seemed to make two generously sized dinners that slid into our over-expanded tummies pretty well. The noodles were a big part of it. They're big and thick and not wimpy at all...I might actually fear taking lashes from a wet one of these. Okay, well, probably not, but they're not weak, but firm with a bite to them. I can easily see using these to make different soups and all sorts of pasta dishes.

Altogether, they made a pretty good pairing. I kinda misplaced the receipt for this** but I think the seafood blend either 7 or 8 bucks, the sauce was $3-something and the noodles were probably $2 or so. I'd put the dinner about on par with something you'd get at the Olive Garden (just without the fresh ground pepper), so $13 for two good dinners at home plus some reserve supplies is a decent win as opposed to more than twice that out somewhere. I think it's kinda silly to rate each item separately, as we enjoyed them all tossed together, and it's kinda hard to single out just individual items as they're not made to be enjoyed alone. Sandy, who cooked it all up for us, was pretty pleased and made some nice friendly "mmm"s throughout the course of our meal. I was mmming right along with her. We'd both brandish our dinner with a good solid 8, so that's what each of the components will get.

Bottom lines:
Trader Joe's Seafood Blend: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Giotto's Alfredo Pasta Sauce: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Egg Pappardelle Pasta: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
* Jerk told me it was an onion ring.
** Let's hope the IRS doesn't audit....:)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Peppered Uncured Turkey Bacon

Nathan's right. It s kinda silly that leading up to Thanksgiving we've featured Thai products two posts in a row. So let's talk some turkey, shall we? Chances are, in just a few days time, you'll have more turkey leftovers than what you'll know what to do with - too good to throw out, the food pantries won't take it, but before too long you'll be sick of it. Never fear; there's some okay looking recipe websites out there that'll give you plenty of tips (although some look a little gross. Like Thanksgiving in a Cone. Blecch).

Not a single one of these sites will tell you how to make turkey bacon, though I can presume how it's made: mix and mash up all the random turkey bits you can, process them down with a couple random spices, form into a thin loaf-like shape, put a heavy coating of pepper on the outside, and cut into thick strips. To cook, drizzle some oil in a pan and cook to either it's limp, greasy and heated, or burn the crud out of it and hope for the best.

If that doesn't sound so great, well, there's a reason: it isn't. I've extolled my love of bacon before so I'm not going to go over that all over again. But dangit, bacon is either pork, or it isn't bacon at all. Trader Joe's Peppered Uncured Turkey Bacon is no exception. It tastes just like how presume it was made, which kinda left me with the impression it was Turkey Spam. For cooking, we went the "blacken and pray" route, and while the outside got burnt and semi-palatable, the insides were left chewy, kinda funky, and Turkey-Jerky-esque. The cooking instructions say to heat for a couple minutes on both sides but all that produces is the aforementioned big floppy greasy strip of meat. The directions also ominously say "results may vary." Tastewise, it's mostly pepper, though the meat is a little sweet from the applewood smoking it undergoes. It's okay, but it doesn't taste enough like bacon to either one of us. I should've guessed that before buying, with poultry being such a lean meat and fat being such a key part of the bacon equation, but the thought didn't cross my mind. I just saw cheap ($2.99) bacon and decided to try it out.

I can understand people liking it though. Nutritionally, it's a bazillion times better for you. Almost no fat or calories, no nitrates, yada yada, all that good stuff. And perhaps things like turkey bacon are an acquired taste, and perhaps this is good for the aficionados out there, and if it is, go enjoy. For Sandy and I, we're just a little confused that while TJ's can consistently offer a reasonably good alternative meat products like soy chorizo, veggie sausage, beefless ground beef, or heck, even a meatless corn dog, they can't do the same for one animal stepping in for another one. I made us a panfull for breakfast over the weekend, and for once my scrambled eggs were the highlight on the plate. Sandy, who I thought would be in a better place to appreciate this TJ product, actually had much the same thought as I did. "It just doesn't get crispy, which I like, and it tastes kinda weird," she said. I concur. She went with a 2.5 for it, while I'll knock it a half-spoon down from there.

Bottom line: 4.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, November 18, 2011

Trader Joe's Vegetable Thai Kao Soi

If you like curry, you'll like this Thai Kao Soi. It's got some spice, and it's got a great balance of noodles and vegetables. It even comes with wonton-like crisps to put on top for a little extra texture. Trader Joe's usually does pretty well with vegetable dishes because they always throw in a great mix of veggies. When there's meat involved, TJ's tends to be a little stingy. There's always just enough meat to leave you wanting some more. But personally, I didn't miss the meat in this dish. Thai foods usually don't need meat because the flavors are always so rich without it. It's an extremely filling dish as it is.

We ate it with rice. It didn't really even need that, but it did help round out the meal. The Thai Kao Soi was on par with restaurant Thai curry. Good restaurant Thai curry. We used to go to this place in Hollywood called Jitlada. It was just a hole in the wall in some strip mall, but it was a nice hole in the wall. The friend of mine who introduced us to the place claimed that when the previous prime minister of Thailand visited Los Angeles, he stopped in and ate at this place. After I tasted the food, I could believe that claim, which originally sounded a little outrageous. There were photos of important-looking people adorning the walls of the restaurant, but then, there are photos of famous and important-looking people in Hollywood's hot dog stands and McDonald's.

I'm not sure if the prime minister of Thailand has ever stopped in to a Trader Joe's while visiting the U.S., but Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra, if you find yourself in America and you've a hankering for a microwaveable taste of home, I'd swing by a TJ's if I were you. Most of their Thai stuff is decent, considering most of it can be prepared in under 10 minutes. I'd avoid the Vegetable Pad Thai, but apparently the Red Curry Sauce is good. Interesting that we've reviewed two Thai items right in a row...and a week before Thanksgiving.

I'm all about an international Thanksgiving. Hopefully I'll get a little taste of that next week in NYC as I partake of my dinner with a Mexican, a Cuban, and an East Indian. One of the things I'm thankful for is that my wife and her friends allow a white person to hang out with them.

I really don't have any major complaints about this dish. Well, there's the 70% US RDA of saturated fat, but hey, that just goes to show you how authentic it is. Real curry ain't lite. It's creamy and coconutty and it's got a bit of a kick, and that's exactly what we've got here. Double 4.5's from Sonia and I. It's another near-Pantheon dish in our opinion.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Trader Joe's Thai Red Curry Sauce and Low Sodium Soy Sauce

Sandy and I are coming up on our second anniversary in the next week or so. Don't worry, I know the date and got a special night set up for us. Know what got me talkin' with her a few years back? A cake. Seriously. For a church picnic, she made a homemade lemon lavender cake with white chocolate cream cheese frosting...I swear to this day one of the best things I've ever eaten, it was so impossibly good. I found out she made it, saw she was cute, knew she was single, and the rest is history. Due to the hours she spent baking it, Sandy's on record as saying she'll never make it again, which I'm strangely okay with, seeing as that I'd prefer not to keep fending off any more happy-bellied suitors. That cake's already got her one man, thank you very much.

Despite her baking prowess, I am predominantly the chef in our household, though. Not that I'm supremely talented or anything, but it just kinda works out that way more times than not, probably because I'm holed in a cubicle all day as she's wrestling a classroom worth of older toddlers. I tend to try and look at what we have and go from there. Have bread, cheese, butter, and leftover soup from our weekend crockpot-o'-goodness? Grilled cheese and soup for dinner. Bacon, eggs, and a certain hankering? Breakfast for dinner. Seeing as that we have a Home Depot bucket full of rice in our kitchen, we go to that fairly often for all sorts of tasty meals, and we nearly always have chicken and onions (which I chop under careful spousal supervision to make sure they're small enough under threat of revolt) and other tidbits around, so fried rice/chicken-and-rice dinners are pretty common, too. The question is, how should I make them tasty and different enough to keep them from getting old?

One decent choice is Trader Joe's Thai Red Curry Sauce. Is this the best curry sauce ever? Nah. We've gone out to enough Thai restaurants to know it's not in the running. But how many world class curry sauces do you have lurking around your pantry shelf? Thought so. It's thick, creamy, sweetened from the coconut milk, fairly rich, and a little kick to it. That's the main problem - the kick just isn't strong enough. Granted, this comes from a guy whose Thai waitress once said, in an equally polite and incredulous tone, "I have never seen a white person eat as spicy food as you." That earned her a big tip. The pureed red chiles just don't do enough, and when the ingredients say "spices" I presume that's just salt. Still, it's complex enough (I liked the little bit of ginger you can taste), with a little sweet and a little spicy, and most importantly, it does well enough when simmered with some chicken and served with rice to make a fairly good, satisfying dinner fairly quickly. There's also a yellow curry sauce available, and although it's been a while since we've had that, I remember it being pretty decent too, maybe even a little spicier. At the local shop anyways, it's $2.69 a bottle, and with a little discipline it can last more than one meal, though we're usually tempted otherwise.

Another go-to option is the Low Sodium Soy Sauce. Hmm, looking at the label, I'm not sure how that qualifies as "low sodium" regular soy sauce that much worse Na-wise? I've made my one nutritional stand recently to hold me over for a bit. Anyways, I frequently use the soy sauce for making a good-size batch of fried rice. Used to be that along with the soy sauce, I'd toss in different spices to try and come up with a good flavor combo. What does the trick for us now is a little extra soy sauce to get that flavor in and a sprinkling of crushed red pepper to add a little heat. It's a little sweet, definitely salty, and deep and robust, and it brings out a lot of goodness with chicken, rice, eggs, peas, peanuts or whatever else I toss in. TJ's soy sauce delivers a winner nearly every time unless I botch something up, like the time I confused the cinnamon and cumin. That was kinda weird. A bottle lasts a while, and it's something like $2 a pop, which is a small price to pay for some dependability for your rations.

I pressed Sandy for her opinion on the Thai Red Curry Sauce, and she gave me one of those looks. "32," she said. I pointed out that's not a valid Golden Spoon rating, and that there's no way she liked it 6.4 times as much as one of our favorite ice creams. "Arrrrgh, sometimes I just want to eat something and not try to rank it," she said. Poor thing. Must be tough to be hitched to one of the nation's prominent foodie-hack bloggers (and a self-indulgent one at that), with the pressure being what it is.* I finally figured out that by "32" she really meant "4" for the curry sauce, and I thought it best to not press my luck and ask her to rank a soy sauce, of all things. I can tell she likes both though, because when I present her with a hot dish of either, after a few bites, she usually says to our pooch, "Wimbles, Daddy makes good dinner. Yumyumyum." Both sauces make for one of the major flavors, so she's gotta like 'em both. I'll presume a 4 for her for the soy sauce as well...aww heck, matching fours all the way around. We're harmonious like that.

Bottom lines: Trader Joe's Thai Red Curry Sauce: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Trader Joe's Low Sodium Soy Sauce: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

*I'm not even recognized at the Pittsburgh store yet. That has to change.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Acaí 120

I remember it well. Circa 2004, I walked into Jamba Juice on Ventura Boulevard near my old apartment in Sherman Oaks, CA; the same Jamba Juice where I saw Natasha Henstridge, Brooke Burke (twice) and Shaquille O'Neal on seperate occasions. I perused the menu for a while, wanting to try something new. They had an item listed called the Acaí Supercharger, which, I believe, they have since discontinued. They now offer at least one other acaí-based drink. Curious, I asked about it. The enthusiastic "juice-ista" (that's a word I just invented) explained that it had about the same amount of caffeine as a can of coke (35 mg) but that the Supercharger's caffeine was all wrapped up in the completely natural acaí (ah-sigh-yee) berries, rich with fiber and antioxidants, etc. She explained that the natural caffeine would be slowly time-released as my body digested the berries, thus preventing the dreaded caffeine-crash associated with sodas, energy drinks and coffee.

I tried the Acaí Supercharger and quickly turned into a proponent of the acaí fad. Soon thereafter, every smoothie place and health food establishment in the city was offering at least one product with acaí. Those acaí-based drinks from Jamba Juice became a staple of my diet, and thanks in large part to those smoothies, I lost more than 20 pounds over the next 12 months (almost all of which I have gained back in recent years, unfortunately). At the time, I could have been the poster child for Jamba Juice—like their version of Subway's Jared, but hopefully a little less annoying. (If anyone from Jamba is reading this, please open a store in the Philly area, have me walk there every day, and I promise I'll rapidly lose weight again and you can use me as your Jared-like poster child, and I'll write my own commercial scripts as a bonus).

Now, I realize my opinion is probably part of a distinct minority, but I could write you a lengthy essay on why I believe Southeastern Pennsylvania is superior to Southern California. However, that's one thing I really miss about Los Angeles: my beloved Jamba Juice. The nearest Jamba Juice to Philly is over 2 hrs. away in NYC. Road trip, anyone?

Flavor-wise, acaí tastes a little like dark chocolate. It's a berry flavor, but it's very rich, very complex. This Trader Joe's acaí juice is no exception. The "120" represents the supposed number of berries in each bottle. At our TJ's, one tiny little bottle will run you about $2.30. You're paying almost 2¢ per berry. I suppose I can live with that, since the berries are coming all the way from Brazil—and in PA, there aren't a whole lot of other places you can buy organic acaí.

The serving size is tragically small, but it does pack more of a punch than one might think. The three gulps in the bottle are relatively filling, since they're thick and rich, and have 2 grams of fiber. It's just enough to curb a moderate appetite for a while, or to give a little boost of natural energy.

You should know that the acaí berry has taken flack recently for supposedly not being as healthy as was originally claimed, and also for allegedly being farmed and harvested unethically. I myself am still a fan of acaí for its taste and natural energy. If you've never tried any acaí stuff, I recommend you pick up just one of these bottles to taste it. And that's all these are: just a taste of acaí.

Because it does what it's supposed to, and it tastes good, I give it a 4. Sonia does too, for the same reasons. Be warned, however, that it's a lot of money for a very small amount of product. Perhaps our score is a tad high because the novelty-factor is also very high, here in our otherwise acaí-less world.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 stars.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Trader Joe's Mojito Salmon

I've only ever heard of a "mojito" as a drink: a Caribbean-originated rum-based citrusy thing with mint. I wikied it. Same thing. No mention of a salmon dish. Trader Joe is getting creative in the kitchen again, apparently. Maybe he dumped the remains of his cocktail on a piece of fish once and like the taste, so he whipped up a recipe and mass produced it for the frozen sections of his stores.

This is another one of those $7 a pop deals...or something pretty close to that. Like the Chicken Serenada, this stuff comes as a single serving, and heating in the microwave is allowed. Sonia decided she couldn't bear to eat salmon from the microwave, so she fired up the oven. Sonia pronounces the "l" in "salmon," as many Angelena's do. Not sure why. They just don't get the whole silent "l" thing. I guess I can't really blame them.

At any rate, we heated it in the oven. It came out firm and slightly dry, but that was just as well for me. I'm not a fan of even slightly-mushy fish.

Any time we do these reviews, it's just natural to compare what we're eating with similar products we've had recently from other places. The TJ's product has to slug it out with its competitor in a virtual arena in my head. Apparently, Russ has similar delusions when he eats Trader Joe's food, as he once wrote an entire review in the manner of a boxing match between veggie sausage patties. A few weeks back, while visiting friends in the D.C. area, Sonia and I had the privilege of trying some salmon burgers from some healthy-type store. I forget where they came from. It wasn't Trader Joe's and it wasn't Whole Foods. It might have been Wegman's. But that's all beside the point, really. The point is that there was some competition for this Mojito Salmon fresh in my memory. Those salmon burgers were tasty.

As I mentioned, this salmon was dry. It was almost too dry for me, and I kinda like my fish on the dry side. I'm sure heating it in the microwave would have yielded something a little more moist. The salmon burgers we had were just right in the moisture department. And they were softer than this Mojito Salmon. Even the parts of the salmon that were buried under that...mojito-esque topping were a little parched. The mojito-esque topping wasn't really very mojito-esque. It was kind of just like a mélange of vegetables and a touch of sauce that happened to be green.

Flavor-wise, the salmon tasted like salmon. It's not like we grilled it, so it didn't taste grilled. It didn't taste fishy (I think if salmon tastes fishy that they probably just took some trout and dyed it pink or something). It was perhaps a tad more salmony than those salmon burgers that we tried (we put a touch of mustard on those). So that was good, but at the same time, they could have done something really special in the flavor department with that mojito-looking stuff on the top, but I found it a bit disappointing and underwhelming. It added little.

Considering the price and size of the dish, it's not a whole lot of bang for your buck in my opinion. It was salmon, and as I might have mentioned before, we quite enjoy salmon. So I can't give it too low a score. How about a 3? Sonia will give it a 3.5 (my score may be lower because I'm projecting my unresolved frustration about that peculiar silent "l" onto the poor fish).

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 stars.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Trader Joe's Maple Leaf Cookies

I really don't know why Canada gets so much flack. Don't know what I mean? Google "Blame Canada" and that'll give you a brief lesson. It's a lovely nation, having visited it close to ten times myself. Montreal? Great city, as close as to being in Europe while still being in North America, as possible. Niagara Falls? A wee bit commercialized, but beautiful, and Niagara-on-the-Lake is pretty charming. And let's not discount what some famous Canadians have done to make our world a better place. Alexander Graham Bell? Jack Warner (founded Warner Bros.)? Bryan Adams? All Canadians. Arcade Fire is one seriously underrated band. And let's not forget my favorite Canadian contribution to society...Tim Hortons. Man oh man, Sandy and I love us some Timmy Ho's. Not that there's one in Pittsburgh (okay, a coffee stand at the Consol Energy Center), but while traversing to a neighboring state to procure some TJ goodies not available in PA (the really good, fairly good, and just plain bad), there's one or two stateside shops we can stop at for a sandwich/coffee/doughnut break. Two summers ago, before relaxing at my grandparents' cabin in Maine for a couple nights, we stopped at the Portland shop, and were incredibly irked when the lady in front of us bought every last Timbit that we were so eagerly waiting to munch on over the course of our stay, and were resigned to buying a dozen regular donuts. That just seemed so much more, I dunno, overtly gluttonous or something, and despite being so tasty and delicious, both of us were pretty aware of what we ate and how bad it was for us.

It's kinda like that with Trader Joe's Maple Leaf Cookies. I'll start with the positive: superbly delicious. Seriously, with just about anything maple-related, these were right up my alley. These are big, huge honking cookies, with two thick maple leaf-shaped shortbread cookies tinged with maple sandwiching a mega-swath of maple cream. Think Double-Stuffed Oreos on steroids except far, far tastier. The filling is rich and sweet and practically dripping with maple goodness, and I'm a sucker for a good shortbread wafer to boot. I want to eat and eat and eat these, and wash them down with a tall glass of milk poured right from the bag. On the merits of taste alone, both Sandy and I agree: pantheon contender, almost a certain shoo-in.

Except one thing...look at the second picture here. That's for one cookie. I've said it before, and will say it again, that I'm not a prude when it comes to nutritional info. Tastes good, eat it, I say, and damn the torpedoes. Usually. I'm slowly working myself out of that mindset, and this is one singular cookie we're talking about, with no inherent nutritional value nor any expectations thereof. It's like a luxury item, and for something so good it makes you want to eat more than one, well, before too long you could find yourself in some trouble that'll take more than just curling to work off. I don't there's much harm in having one, but that's not where I want to stop.

I needed something else to help justify the relatively low score these will be earning, because really, I wanted to five these babies up, but can't. I looked all over the box for something, anything, and saw that on the front, these are clearly labeled as "Maple Leaf Cookies" with "cream" filling. Well, I'm not sure if the side of the box was printed in Quebec or something, because it refers to the product as "Maple Creme Cookies" with "creme" filling. C'mon now, you couldn't expect to blow that past me like a Gretzky slapshot, could ya, Trader Joe? That's yet some more silly packaging from you. Gotta love it.

Sandy insists we've had them before, but I don't remember that at all. They really do deliver for a sweet, maple-y, sugary treat, but for Sandy and me at least, we have to begrudgingly hold ourselves to one, and that makes it harder to enjoy them, and so we may not spend our loonies and toonies on them for a bit again ($3.29 American for the box). Me forgetting about allegedly buying them before must have been a psychological defense mechanism, kinda like what kicks in whenever I hear Celine Dion and remember I saw "Titanic" three times in the theaters. Ugh. Sandy's divided between a 3 and a 3.5 for these, as am I.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, November 7, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Tortilla Longboard Chips and Organic Tomatillo & Roasted Yellow Chile Salsa

Ok, so I'll admit it. I was kinda tempted to look up some surfer lingo for reviewing the Organic Tortilla Longboard Chips to drop in and make myself sound cool or something. Thing is, Sandy and I aren't even close into fitting into the surfer crowd, and me trying to sound like I do would, like, totally sound bogus or something. Busted, man.* All it took was a couple short hours at Huntingdon Beach in California on our September vacation to confirm that, during which time due to a sunscreen spray snafu I ended up with a second degree sunburn on my back. Unrighteous, dude. But I guess that's just the price I pay for my pale ginger beauty. Sunburns at night are a real thing and those who suffer from them shouldn't be mocked.

Okay, I made that up. It's better than me trying to make up too many other surfing similes while trying to review a bag of chips and jar of salsa. Other than being shaped vaguely like surfboards, there's no relation I can make from these chips to surfing at all. I can't even say that Sandy and I channel surf while munching on these, because we decided to not have cable and any shows we watch (currently "Law & Order: SVU" and "Phineas & Ferb" ... interesting combo...) we stream from Netflix via our Wii. I thought couchsurfing might be a term, and it is, but not what I thought it was (although fortunately a work-safe link to click).

So yeah, anyways, the tortilla chips. Pretty decent, actually. They're long, flattish ovals (hence the "longboard") made from stone-ground white corn and lightly salted. There's not much to them tastewise, of course, which isn't a bad thing. They're really not too much different from a typical crunchy, salty, fried, tortilla chip aside from two things: 1. They're organic and 2. The shape. Somebody thought, apparently that these were an ideal shape for dipping, which I can see if you're going for the bottom half of a tall skinny jar of salsa or something. Dump your dip in a bowl, though, and it loses that advantage and makes it no more and no less than just a chip. They're all kinda wrinkled and crinkled a little differently, so I don't see what makes these so exceptional for dipping. Also, I'm not sure if it was directly because of its long slender shape, but there seemed to be an inordinate amount of busted-in-half tortilla chips in our bag. The Tostito Tortilla Scoops seem to be the best for salsa-bearing capacity and capability, though I like the overall taste of the TJ tortillas better and appreciate that they're organic and lower sodium per serving (as if we can stick to those, unfortunately). For a bag of chips in the $2-$2.49 range, they won't change your life or anything, but chances are you won't be too displeased.

And of course, a good tortilla chip needs a good salsa. I could make a joke about TJ's Organic Tomatillo & Roasted Yellow Chile Salsa bringing in a "tidal wave of taste" bringing in a "flavor wipeout" or something, but nah. What I will say is, darn good salsa. Let's see, first ingredient is tomatoes, which are generally red, tomatillos, which are green, and yellow chiles, which my sources tell me are, in fact, yellow. Add them all up with some onions and other stuff like garlic and cilantro, and it makes the greenish reddish brownish jar of tastiness. Everything seems fairly well pureed so it lacks any big chunks, much to Sandy's delight, and goes down easy. The tomatillos, which salsa verde is made from, adds some mild depth to the flavor while the yellow chile adds some roastedness and a kind of sweetness. It's far from being a spicy salsa, but it seems to me to be one of the most flavorful of the Trader Joe salsas, and for once not in a nasty overly vinegary kinda way. It's so good I can eat it by the spoonful, and I'm already envisioning using it in some of our soup recipes which call for a jar of salsa. We made some tortilla soup a week or so ago that I put just plain salsa verde, and that lacked a requisite snap. This salsa won't have that problem. I just went shopping again yesterday and have already made it a repeat purchase. For $2.29, it'd be hardpressed to be beat, although a little more spice would make it absolutely killer.

Sandy and I ate quite a bit of the chips and salsa few nights ago while relaxing, and this was a definite winning combination for the both of us. Neither one of us have anything too bad to say about the chips, nothing overly affirmative either except hey, they're organic, so they must be good for you or something. Or at least better, so we can feel less guilty while chowing down. I think we settled on matching 3.5s for the surf-inspired longboard chips. The salsa? Sandy's judgement: "Mmmmm it's sooooo goooooood...let's eat more tonight!!!!" That translates to a four. My call is, I really like it, quite a bit, actually, but wish it ended on a slightly less sweet/spicier note. Really, just a tidbit more spice, and we got ourselves a pantheon candidate here. As is, I'll give it a 4.5 just to taunt it a little bit.

Bottom lines:
Trader Joe's Organic Tortilla Longboard Chips: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Organic Tomatillo & Roasted Yellow Chile Salsa: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
*See what I mean?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Soufflés

I actually wrote the bulk of my previous post (about the peanut butter oat bars) in a little journal while riding on the train home from work. For some reason, it felt like I had written a novel, and yet, when I transcribed it into this blog, the post actually turned out significantly shorter than my average post. I had completely forgotten how tedious writing by hand can be. I guess some might say how cathartic and therapeutic it is, but really, I do much prefer typing on a keyboard. (I'm writing this entry by hand right now, and my wrist is already tired and sore after one measly paragraph). Thank goodness for modern conveniences. It's so easy to take them for granted. But anyway, I imagine you're interested in the soufflés...

Prior to this blog post, I'm not sure if I could have told you precisely what a "soufflé" is. Something sort of puffy came to mind when I heard the word, but I don't think I knew what it was made of or what it tasted like or anything. I suppose not knowing the properties of a traditional soufflé gave me somewhat of a disadvantage when it came to comparing and contrasting a pumpkin soufflé with a usual one. But that's not really the point, as I am a foodie-hack that knows what he likes and what he doesn't like and that's pretty much what this blog is all about, take it or leave it.

Here's what I found about souffles from a quick Google search:

souf fle /ˈso͞ofəl/
Noun: A low murmuring or blowing sound heard through a stethoscope.

Wow! Pumpkin indeed must have transformed these strange murmurs into something different entirely. These souffles are more like oven pastries than blowing sounds within the body (though they may create such noises after consumption). Ah, but silly me—these are soufflés, not souffles. The accent over the "e" makes all the difference, even if it does slow down my typing, hitting "alt+0233" every time I type the word "soufflé." It's still much faster than writing by hand, so I won't complain about the alt least not until there's some kind of app that reads your mind every time you want to type a letter with an accent as opposed to the organic, non-accented version.

But seriously though, apparently, a soufflé is a cupcake-like pastry of sorts that puffs up while you bake it and then deflates like a cheap children's jumping castle at a frat party once you take it out of the oven. The box recommends baking these in cupcake pans for 25 minutes. We didn't have cupcake pans, so we baked them on a regular baking tray. They took 40 minutes for us—perhaps for want of the proper culinary tools. And they were still very squishy in the middle. But I rather enjoyed them that way. Sort of like warm bread pudding, texture-wise. They tasted like pumpkin pie filling. Which, unless you're like my friend who, on the subject of pumpkin pie, once said, "Um, yeah, like, I'm not big on vegetables as desserts," is a fairly good flavor.

My big complaint with the Pilgrim Joe's Pumpkin Ice Cream was that it tasted like pumpkin pie, but lacked the duality of textures featured in pumpkin pie: bread and puddingy filling. Well, this product was sorta like a combo of both of those textures, more greatly resembling the former on the outside, where it was cooked better, and more greatly resembling the latter on the inside, where it was slightly more raw. So, if you can get something to taste like pumpkin pie and have a bit of complexity in the texture department, it's a winner in my book. I give it 4 stars.

My score might have been slightly lower, but my wife enjoyed neither the texture nor the flavor of these. Not exactly sure why. She said she just didn't like them. She shafted them with a paltry 2 stars. That's just too low. These shouldn't be lower than a 6 overall. And that's exactly what they shall be.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 stars.

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