Friday, May 30, 2014

Trader Joe's Freeze Dried Fuji Apple Slices

Man, there's some times when I begin to feel old.

I'm not just talking about the ever-emerging bald spot, or the semi-regular chiropractic appointments. it's the other, smaller kinda stuff. Like the extra stiffness in my ankles when I wake up. Like lusting after low interest rates and not the newest gizmo I wouldn't know what to do with anyways. Or realizing there is such a thing as "I'm playing Pearl Jam too loud" when all by myself in the car or wishing the women at the bar (on the few occasions I go out) would use their "inside voice." Now, I won't reveal how old I actually am, because if I did, probably half of you out there would want to reach through whatever you're screen you're staring at right now and smack the stuff outta me, and rightfully so, and let's keep this friendly.

I bring this up because I seem old (to myself, at least), while really, I'm not. Kinda like these Trader Joe's Freeze Dried Fuji Apple Slices. They seem like old, crusty, dried up mummified remains of apples, while really, of course, they're not. Just freeze dried, however that works.

Hate to bring up a negative first, as usually that's not the way I roll, but it seems appropriate. What makes them seem old to me is the texture of them. There's a little crispiness, yeah, but there's a compressed Styrofoam quality to them that honestly reminds me of stale cereal. Of course, there's not too much of another way a dehydrated apple slice could feel, so take that for what little it's worth.

I will admit, I was pretty surprised with the taste. Like a good Fuji apple, it's a strong, vibrant flavor - tart, almost bordering on sour except for a little tinge of sweetness. Honestly, I didn't expect that for something that, based solely on appearance, seems like a dried up shell of the real deal. It's kinda like those TJ crispy oranges in that regard. But like those oranges, the complete lack of any juiciness kinda left me wanting the real deal.

I'm an apple-lovin' guy who regularly eats at least two a day, so while I appreciate what Trader Joe's is trying to pull off here, they just don't completely do it for me. This all sounds so negative, and I don't mean to be (maybe it's me being cranky - getting old again!), so let's hit some rapid-fire positives here: Great work desk stash-a-snack. Satisfies crunchy, sweet, candy cravings in healthy way. Toddler loved them. Easy to eat just a few, then put back down for later - good for snacking, but not feeding-frenzy trigger worthy. Lots of Vitamin C, less chance of scurvy. Priced okay at $3 a bag.

Sandy agrees with much of the above, adding that she wonders if they'd be good with oatmeal. Merits an experiment, I suppose, although I'm not too inclined one way or another to pick them again or not. Kinda one of those "If they fall in my cart, or the kiddo insists, I won't be upset" kinda deals. That means a middling score from us both.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Freeze Dried Fuji Apple Slices: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Trader Joe's Scallion Pancakes (Pa jeon)

I hate the end of a long weekend. Really. Three days of freedom, fun, and sun, and then back to the daily grind on Tuesday. It's jarring. My soul really wanted to stay in summer mode and take another three months off. 

I mean, I had a great weekend—and regardless of your politics, you have to have crazy respect for the people who laid down their lives and gave the ultimate sacrifice, many of whom died in a trench or jungle far from home. Those wars seem so far removed from our typical Memorial Day activities: picnics, swimming pools, and baseball games. Yesterday, Tuesday, wound up being my day for reflection. On Monday, I was too busy having fun.

Plus, yesterday I was still in a pollen haze. I have weird allergies to pollen, mold, and dust that not only affect my sinuses, make me dizzy, and give me headaches, but the toxins that my body produces affect my entire system, including my thought processes and, to a lesser degree, my emotions. Sounds weird, but it's true. And instead of locking myself indoors for weeks on end and going nuts from cabin fever, I simply bite the bullet and go outside, taking whatever preventative measures I can, but I usually wind up paying for it later. And honestly, sometimes food is the best remedy. The more I eat and drink, the better I tend to feel.

So in between writing assignments yesterday, I took a nice long break at lunchtime and looked for some comfort food in our cupboards. Finding none of my traditional stand-by's, I decided to break out this pa jeon—Korean "pancakes" made with scallions. And boy, did they do the trick. They're not unlike the Vegetable Bird's Nests we reviewed a while back—these are just larger, and they have more scallions and less of every other vegetable. We've seen TJ's brilliantly employ the use of scallions with another Asian food in recent memory, too.

I heated the pa jeon on the stove top with a little Coconut Oil Spray. They browned up nicely in a few minutes, just as the directions indicated. They were perfect just by themselves. I didn't feel the need to add rice, soy sauce, or sriracha, although some of that sweet Bird's Nest sauce might have been nice. They were a tad oily, but that's kind of what I was in the mood for yesterday. Plus, I was able to put the remaining two pancakes back in the resealable package for Sonia to try later. She loved them, too, but she wishes there had been some kind of sesame sauce or something to sex them up a bit. We've always been fans of Korean barbecue, and we're both glad we're able to expand our horizons to other authentic-ish Korean foods. This pa jeon is a winner. Four and a half stars from me. Four from Sonia.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Trader Joe's Coconut Cranberry Granola

Today's gonna be a good day.

It's Thursday morning when I'm writing this. I have this theory about Thursdays: they're the worst day of the week. Monday gets a lot of flak, yeah, but for me, it's the start of the work week, and I got a decent job which I'm thankful for and enjoy enough, so the start of the work week, although daunting, isn't that bad. Tuesday, Wednesday, eh whatever. But Thursday? Blah. By Thursday, I'm beginning to feel a little worn from the week, I'm ready for the weekend...but I still have Thursday and Friday to go. Friday? I'm in love.

But yes, today is going to be a good day. Doesn't matter I'm one week out from an emergency root canal (done on a Thursday, naturally) - Hey I can close my mouth and chew again. It doesn't matter that last night I got ripped off $10 at a local bar on a wings and beer night when someone (probably barstaff) pocketed the tenspot I paid for my first beer with - wings were good, had a good time with coworkers, I supported the local economy, and I'll consider it an extra generous tip, although I probably won't go back, Mike's Wife's Bar in Oakmont, PA (if you go there, pay with card, apparently). And, well, anything that can happen today shouldn't really matter or be all that bad, cuz I have me a good belly full of Trader Joe's Coconut Cranberry Granola.

I've been a big fan of TJ's granola in the past - maybe too earnest a fan, according to some of you. No matter. I hate too dry, too hard granola which I've gotten too often in the bulk bins at places like Whole Foods. This coco-cran-concoction is perfect bitewise - a little crunchy, a little crispy, even a little chewy, but remains crunchy from first spoonful to last gulp from the bowl. There's bigger and smaller clusters all over the place, interspersed with light, crispy coconut flakes and chewy, tart cranberries. It's a joy to eat. The granola itself has a light cinnamon flavor that jives with everything else perfectly in a tasty little balance - yum yum extra yum.

And like a good granola should, this gets me going for the day. Way back in the day I alluded to a "10 a.m. test" for cereals - namely, if I'm still reasonably full from a bowl at 10 a.m. Too often regular cereals just seem to make me even hungrier somehow, like they're made out of Chinese food or something. But oh no, not this granola. I ate a bowl a day or two ago at about 8:30, and it held me clear over til my lunch break at about 2 or 3. That's impressive. Well done.

Sandy also likes it, maybe not as much as I do, but still a pretty decent amount. "It's great for a little snack on the go, or if I save some for my afternoon yogurt, for a little crunch," she said. I've never been a huge fan of the yogurt and granola combo, but if you are, I'd imagine this would be a perfect mix-in. Speaking of perfection, I'm going with a full-out five, while Sandy is going a little lower but not by much. If Thursdays and the TJ's coconut cranberry granola could collaborate on a theme song, it'd probably sound a lot like this. It's gonna be a good day.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Coconut Cranberry Granola: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Trader Joe's Matcha Green Tea Latte Mix

Last year, we reviewed TJ's Tropical Sweetened Matcha Mix. That product left more than a little to be desired. Neither a tropical fruit drink nor a true matcha green tea drink, Sonia and I felt that it missed its mark—regardless of the fact we couldn't tell which mark it was aiming for. It was 

And while I've never been thoroughly impressed with the taste and texture of matcha green tea to begin with, true matcha fans like Sonia might get really excited over this Matcha Green Tea Latte Mix. It's thick and creamy, and it actually tastes like matcha. It mixes very smoothly and leaves virtually no powdery grit after stirring—IF you follow the instructions and mix it with hot water. If you want it cold, just chill it after you mix it. Mixing it with cold water requires several years worth of stirring.

For extra creaminess, you can make it with milk or soymilk. I found that if you mix it with water and also serve it on ice, as per the instructions, that it gets a little too watery and thin. If you're going to chill it with a glassful of ice cubes, we found it's best to use some kind of milk. It's still sweet enough, but it loses almost all of its creaminess.

I'm not sure what it is that turns me off about matcha. I feel like it looks and tastes just a little too much like a plant...or algae...granted, sweetened algae, but I'm just not into drinking algae at all. I like tea. I like chai. But I didn't even like that matcha flavored mochi that much—and Mikawaya mochi is wonderful. Mushroom Mochi? Glad Russ reviewed that stuff. You couldn't pay Sonia and I to try it—we're both pseudo-allergic to mushrooms.

How did we get to talking about mochi? Back to matcha. Anyway, I couldn't even stomach the Matcha Green Tea Smoothie from Jamba Juice—and I love me some Jamba Juice. I'm just not a matcha guy. But if I were, I have determined that I might have liked this particular product.

Sonia loves it. She says it reminds her of the matcha latte from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. She gives it 4 stars. I don't think I'll be drinking it on a regular basis, but since I can tell that it's a quality product, I think I'll go with 3 stars. If you're into green tea, but not necessarily matcha, check out Green Tea and Lemonade or Pomegranate Green Tea.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Trader Joe's 12 Mushroom Mochi

Skipping right to the obvious question: no, there's neither 12 types of mushrooms in Trader Joe's 12 Mushroom Mochi, nor are there 12 mushrooms per mochi. Those both would be records. There's just two types of mushrooms involved, with the equivalent of about maybe one to one and a half mushrooms per piece. Are there even 12 kinds of mushrooms that are edible for us homo sapiens? I don't even know.

Nah, if you haven't guessed it by now, the 12 refers to the number of mochi (mochi? mochis? mochies?) in the box. My only previous experience with mochi have been of the ice cream variety, which are honestly a little bit weird to me. That's not meant in a judgmental way. Wiggily, doughy-skinned ice cream is a little bit of an odd concept for the classic suburban-raised American palette, but it doesn't mean I can't enjoy them. Regardless, these mochi were my first foray into non-desserty mochi (I didn't even know such a thing existed), and though I'll admit my hesitancy, there's a good part of me that was fairly intrigued.

Cooking them was a cinch that took just a couple minutes - brown in some oil, dump a little water on and cover. Nothing new if you've heated up frozen potstickers before, of which TJ's has some decent varieties. The dough tastes a lot like those - there to serve the purpose of holding in the filling and not stand out. But here's a difference, probably due to the size and shape: whereas smaller dumplings more or less keep intact, these mochi practically explode and gush all over the place once your teeth pierce the skin. Not sure of the right mouthfeel-related term to describe, but man, the first one was a bit much, but I was used to it by the time I ate my sixth and last one.

As far as taste, I'm not impressed or dismayed. They're very much a meh product, for me at least. The filling tasted a lot like the Trader Ming Stir Fried Vegetable Rolls that were fairly disappointing when we gave them a test drive. The mishmash mushrooms with carrots and onions and whatnot was salty, a little soy-saucey, and honestly not that terrific. Important note: there's oyster sauce in the filling, so despite mostly being a fungi, the mochi couldn't help being a little shellfish. Not vegetarian. Not that they taste all that oystery, just mushroomy and oniony.

Sandy, who thinks all mushrooms are really Goombas out to get her, could not be interested any less in trying these, and well, I was not going to plead a toddler to try them, either, so I made them for dinner on a night they both were out, and I shared them with Jack, the Chinese exchange student and mushroom aficionado who lives with us. "Pretty good," he said. "I thought they'd be sweeter, but they're not bad." Not sure how a sweeter taste would work, but, well, different flavor palettes I guess. He gave them a 3.5. I'd be open to giving them another try, but for now at least, I can't go higher than a 2.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's 12 Mushroom Mochi: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, May 12, 2014

Trader José's Guacamame Spicy Edamame Dip

If you like the texture of guacamole and the taste of edamame beans, then this product might be right up your alley. It's slightly spicy, so there's something weirdly reminiscent of wasabi about it too, although the spice level doesn't quite have the nasal passage-clearing potency of actual wasabi sauce. I might be wrong, but I think most people can handle the spiciness of this product because it's balanced with cool, smooth edamame.

This stuff is great with chips, especially any kind of corn chips or tortilla chips. Sonia was a huge fan of it, gobbling down a bit with each meal until the tray was gone. I liked it too, but I noticed that after I had a bunch of it, I consistently got a very slight case of nausea. Not sure why. Edamame has never done that to me before, but I'm not sure that I've ever had edamame—which are really just unripe soybeans—in such large quantities before. I've usually only had a few at a time, whether they're an appetizer at a sushi restaurant, or in nuggets
or rangoons. It's harder to quantify the number of actual soybeans when they're just a big green mush. Like really, ask yourself how many avocados you're actually eating next time you have guacamole. "I just ate three quarters of an avocado. Maybe." A rough guesstimation is probably the best you'll be able to come up with.

But that brings me to my next point. As interesting and novel as this stuff may be for a single purchase, I simply couldn't see it replacing guacamole in our household. Weird nausea issue aside, I think I just like the taste of avocado better than edamame—especially when we're talking about green mush. Edamame beans are better as beans if you ask me. 

Sure, guacamame has a few advantages over regular guac. It has a really clever name. It doesn't brown nearly as fast, although we did notice the slightest bit of darkening toward the end of the package. It has fewer calories and less fat. Plus, it's actually spicy. They need to make a regular avocado-based guac with a bit more of a spicy kick. Now that would be an improvement over the original. This stuff is fun, weird, and tasty with tortillas, but guacamole is just a better product in the end. Sonia agrees on that point, but she could see herself alternating between guacamame and guacamole from one time to the next. After all, variety is the spice of life—and FYI, pickled jalapeño peppers are the spice of this $2.99 pack of guacamame. Sonia gives it 4 stars. I give it 3.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute

So, I'm not going to bore you with the details of my job, but generally speaking, when not moonlighting as amateur foodie hack extraordinaire specializing in all things Trader Joe's, I work at a durable medical equipment company that specializes in cardiac patients who are, generally speaking, post heart-attack, or at high risk for one. If you're intrigued much beyond that, here's my company's website. In my role, I get to read lots of doctor progress notes and whatnot for insurance authorizations. It's not a bad gig at all. It can be just...very repetitive. One thing I see overandoverandoverandover again: doctors advising patients to quit smoking, quit drinking as much, start exercising...and limit salt intake. Over and over and over again. Those are pretty much the four best things you can do for yourself, unless you partake in nonprescription drug use - cut that junk out too! Your body will thank you and just might last a little longer.

The salt thing is kinda tough, as it's in just about everything. And it's no secret why: it tastes gooood. Personally, I love me some sodium. Kinda hard for me to say "Na" too (Get it? Periodic table joke!). I just try to not add it too often to foods and avoid too much processed junk, and hoping my heart is happy for the effort.

Fortunately, there's stuff out there like Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute. Here's a spice blend that's decently full of flavor but...wait for salt! None! I can use as much as I want! Well, maybe, I don't know. But I know this: it works. I sprinkled some on some potatoes to cube up into foil packs and grill. Yum. The next night, Sandy made a delicious sausage-and-greens soup, for which this was a perfect match. Yum. It also works decently well on some eggs I scrambled for a quickie meal the other night. It seems kinda all-purpose and versatile, which I like.

You may wonder what it tastes like. Good question. As kinda a duh-ism, it tastes like whatever spices happened to be most prevalent on your bite. For a base, it's pretty close to a basic Italian seasoning blend - not too surprising given the basil and oregano and thyme and other usual suspects. Every couple bites, though, something else pops out, like the black pepper or cayenne or even the lemon or celery seed (enough so that I asked Sandy if she put celery in that soup, which she did not), so every bite is a little bit different. It's nothing earth-shattering or world changing by any means, but for me at least, it's the occasional viable alternative to the usual bottle of hot sauce that I dump on most everything.

If you're thinking this sounds a lot like Mrs. Dash...well, Google says you just may be right. At  least 21 Seasoning Salute is a much cooler name, and from the looks of things, comes in a more spice-rack friendly bottle. Also, I haven't priced Mrs. Dash recently (or ever), but the $2 or so for the TJ's version seems like a pretty solid deal.

Tried to get Sandy to say something interesting about the spice, and she just kinda looked at me. I don't blame her. The fact that she opted for this over hot sauce for said scrambled eggs, an upset perhaps on the level of Foreman over Frazier, does say a lot though. I think we're both pretty happy with this seasoning, so we salute you, Trader Joe's.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Trader Joe's Soft Pretzel Stick

Despite multiple promises to review more gluten free products, here's another review of something that is most definitely not gluten free. I hope this doesn't come as a slap in the face to you gluten-intolerant folks out there—it's just that we haven't seen anything interesting in the gluten free category in quite a while, and we couldn't pass up this tasty-looking 99 cent soft pretzel.

I never realized how many pretzel products we've reviewed on this blog until I searched for the keyword "pretzel" just now. As Russ observed a few years back, it probably has something to do with the fact that the German-speaking settlers who brought pretzels over from Europe many generations ago kinda made this area (southeast PA to central PA) the pretzel capital of the US—and possibly now the world. One could argue that the Germans who invented the pretzel should have that title, but while our Deutsche freunde balanced their interest in twisted bread with beer,
sauerkraut, and chocolate cake, we Americans took to marketing the pretzel as far and wide as we possibly could. We not only have the headquarters for several famous hard pretzel brands in this area, but we also have pretzel-based restaurant chains like Philly Pretzel Factory and Auntie Anne's. So we Pennsylvanians know our pretzels.

And considering that this pretzel is pre-packaged, shelf-stable, and inexpensive, I have to say that it's not bad at all. In my opinion, it's not particularly pretzel-like. It's more like soft white bread if you ask me, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It does have the typical brown "skin" of a pretzel, but even that is pretty soft. Sonia was mesmerized by the softness of this pretzel. She sat there staring at her piece, squeezing it, and smiling strangely. I asked if she was going to eat it, and sensing that I might snatch it away from her if she didn't, she quickly wolfed it down. She loved it. It tasted like lightly salted fresh white bread. It made great sandwiches and tasted good with cheese and chili. 

It's nothing very fancy. But the genius of a pretzel is its simplicity. Sonia gives this a near-perfect score of 4.5 stars. It's certainly not bad, but I might have marked it higher had it been more pretzel-esque. As it is, I give it a respectable 3.5.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Trader Joe's Crème Fraîche

I was entirely unfamiliar with crème fraîche (krem fresh) until I was enlightened by Wikipedia and this recent Trader Joe's purchase. It's apparently somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream—not unlike unflavored Greek yogurt, but significantly more fattening. I'd also like to go out on a limb and say that it's slightly more in the direction of sour cream in terms of flavor, because it tastes better with the same types of foods that you'd eat with sour cream. Sonia tried it with biscuits and jelly and was thoroughly disappointed. It's apparently more suited for consumption with salty and savory foods, rather than sweets. So a good rule of thumb is that if you'd consider eating a food with sour cream, you could consider eating that same food with crème fraîche. But be warned: it's much thicker than sour cream.

We had it with Trader Joe's Veggie Chili, some cheese, and some corn chips. It was delicious that way, although it was difficult to distribute the crème throughout the mixture. It kept occurring to me that we might as well be dumping lumps of lard into our chili. It makes everything richer, thicker, and more indulgent, but I'm not sure that it enhances the flavor enough to make all the extra fat worth it. I think I'd just prefer sour cream in most cases. And as we've discussed before, plain yogurt makes a great substitute for sour cream, in case you want even less fat.

This is one of those rare cases in which I have no frame of reference to judge TJ's product against other brands' offerings. So if I'm harsh with my score, you can assume I'm just not a crème fraîche kinda guy. It's certainly not that I'm assuming that TJ's version is worse than others. In fact, kudos to Trader Joe's for making international-type products like this accessible for relatively low cost. However, Sonia has had crème fraîche before, and she thinks that the other times she's had it, it was fluffier and lighter than in this case. And while that may have to do with the way it was prepared, she was still a bit disappointed with the consistency of this product. But on the other hand, she's in love with all things European, particularly French, and she liked the taste enough to give it a 3.5. I like to think of myself as cultured, worldly, and open to new things, but when products like this come along, I realize I'm just a sour cream-loving 'Merican boy. If I'm dining out and I order a dish that happens to have crème fraîche in it, then so be it. But I can't feature myself purchasing this $3.49 product ever again...from TJ's or anyone else. 2.5 stars from me.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Trader Joe's Crunchy Slaw

Yup, another week, another salad here.

Let's get right to it: In all honesty, Trader Joe's Crunchy Slaw is certainly the best TJ's salad I've had in recent weeks. It's simple, straightforward, and pretty darn close to uncompromising in almost every aspect. Unlike last week's southwestern stroll, every bite of lettuce and cabbage had plenty of fresh, fleshy crispiness and bite to it that tasted practically like I just dug up the leafy veggies and chopped them myself. Absolutely nothing to complain about there. Some carrots, green onion and cilantro are tossed in, and also very fresh, for a very simple yet flavorful combo. Those crispy lo mein style noodles add even more crunch and add a great texture layer and a little filling out, while the peanut dressing...mmm mmm mm mmm mmm. Ask any of coworkers who have borne witness to my past Easter Reese's Cup binge (stop bringing them in!!!) and they will tell you I love me some peanut butter, and while peanut dressing and peanut butter are obviously not the same exact thing, the dressing was definitely very peanut buttery-esque in taste. It's like pad thai without the noodles.  There's plenty of the sauce, too, so there's more than enough to cover up every bite without using the whole packet if you want to save some caloric content. And it's just all simple and straightforward enough that it works, effortlessly.

The one downside: chicken content. There's not enough. The Chick-Fil-A cow would go picket about this, provided it weren't Sunday, of course. In my salad, there's were two respectable-sized strips (one big bite or two medium chomps each) and a smaller one about half the size of the other two. Going on the theory that a serving size of meat is about the size of a deck of playing cards, this is pretty close to a half-serving. I guess, arguably, some of the lack of poultry protein is made up for in part by the peanuts in the dressing, but still, another couple bites would have been a welcome addition, especially because it was some pretty decent bird otherwise.

Major thanks to one of our longest tenured and most loyal fans, Kalei's Best Friend, for tipping me off to this particular salad after last week's bummer. It's always to nice see your comments and whenever we agree, is it strange to say I personally feel legitimized? Maybe. Anyhoos, this was $4.49 fairly well spent once that will be spent again. I'll just try to find one with a little more chicken next time.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Crunchy Slaw: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons.