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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Trader Joe's Fully Cooked Pork Belly

Mmmm.... bacon bacon bacon. Bacon. Bacon!! I've consumed a lot of bacon over the past few months - at least a couple times a week. That's part of the glory of a paleo diet - eat bacon as often as you want! It works, too - I'm down nearly 45 pounds since August, even after pillaging my mom's and mother-in-law's holiday cookie spreads in a couple days of unbridled Christmassy sugar gluttony.

But dare I say it but - bacon gets kinda old after a while. Like, it's still delicious and all, but a good change up is needed. Fortunately my dad cures and smokes his own bacon, and is only too happy to share (Maple bourbon bacon? Yes please!) but when that runs out, well, a little variety would be welcome.

Fortunately, there's an alternative to get my inner Gimli all fired up again - Trader Joe's Fully Cooked Pork Belly. There's a train of thought that fresh pork belly, when prepared properly, is better than any salty, cured bacon. This being my first foray into pork belly world, I'm not ready to stake that claim, but I can see where it comes from.

Pork belly is, of course, the slab of meat from which bacon is made. Our particular cut seemed to be almost more of a pork roast/bacon hybrid, as it was certainly meatier looking than most bacons I've ever had. And by cut, I mean it's a solid piece - despite the thick cut slabs pictured on the completely unnecessary box, it's a solid chunk that you must cut yourself either before or after cooking. Since we wanted it for a potato soup topping, and I wasn't sure what to expect, I sliced up a few pieces then started dicing the remaining bit once my fingers were beginning to get in potential harm's way.

My goodness, the end result was delicious. It took a while over some low heat, but eventually we got crispy, chunky, savory, melty-in-yo'-mouthy baconlicious bites that even our normally meat-averse toddler couldn't help but gobble right on up. The thicker cut chunks that got crispy on the outside but remained tender on the inside - oh man, oh man. I'm not sure if there was just more greasy gristle, or the meatier girth, but whatever it was, this pork belly had it. If you even remotely like bacon, you'll probably love this. Just be careful during cooking - the extra fat makes some extra-aggressive spatter when provoked - wearing one of these Quailman style might not be a bad idea. 

A quick Google search of pork belly recipes seems to imply that cooking and prepping your own from raw to edible takes quite a bit of work and/or time (couple hours, minimum from what I see) so this is definitely a fully cooked convenience pack, perhaps not made for the connoisseurs but instead to introduce the masses. Well, consider me hooked - I think I just might start trying to make my own. In the meantime, if I get a real hankerin', this TJ's version will make a quick sub at a fairly reasonable price of $6.49 for the package. The wife and I agree: deeeeeeeeeeelish. Double fours.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Fully Cooked Pork Belly: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, December 29, 2014

Trader Joe's Petite Fig, Pear and Cranberry Tart

So far this holiday season, I've seen some incredible Christmas lights, had some excellent beer and great food, played some fun games, watched some classic movies, and read a great, inspiring book. And unlike certain eventful Christmases past, my family members came and went without anyone wishing eternal hellfire on anyone else. 

It's been a whirlwind of awesomeness, and it's not over yet. At the moment, I'm so content, I'm not overflowing with that cynical, sarcastic sense of humor that graces so many of my reviews here on this blog. It's a weird feeling, actually—but not entirely unwelcome.

This year was the first year my wife and I hosted Christmas at our house, so naturally, we tried to impress people with decent food. This tartastic little product was one of the desserts we had on hand. It's not exactly what we expected, but it's certainly not bad.

It's spongy, not flaky. In my mind, and apparently in the minds of Sonia and my parents alike, the word "flaky" signifies a pie crust-style breading. However, this crust is more like a sponge cake than a pie crust. And that's our biggest complaint. It was tasty enough, but we felt the description was a tad misleading. "Buttery," yes. Soft, yes. "Flaky," not so much.

The filling was pleasantly tart and sour. It's also slightly sweet, but nowhere close to a traditional pie filling. Even the sweetness of the pears is overshadowed by the tartness of the cranberries. And there's not much "jelly." It's mostly actual fruit. The overall effect is satisfying, yet lighter and subtler than most desserts.

My dad seemed to like it a bit more than the rest of us, but we all settled on a consensus of 8 out of 10, which puts this squarely in our really darn good category. In our humble opinions, it's worth checking out.

If I don't get another review out before 2015, let me say "Happy New Year!" and thanks for reading!

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Trader Joe's Mini Gingerbread Men

In the South, they say "y'all." In Pittsburgh, they say "yinz." Here in Jersey and most other places, they say "you guys" or some variation of that. Let's face it: "you people" is somehow offensive. But every once in a while, when I use the phrase "you guys," I get criticized for leaving out the women folk. So let's just agree right here and right now that "you guys" currently means "you persons," "you humans," or "you (plural)." Just as Spanish words like "niƱos" can mean both male and female children together, or it can mean just boys.

In that same vein, Sonia wonders why there can't be gingerbread women included in this box of merry holiday cookies. Why is it always gingerbread men? Or are we to assume they're genderless gingerbread persons? 

Sonia's whimsical musing isn't necessarily out of a desire for political correctness. It's more because she wishes to see happy cookie couples pairing off with one another to face the excitement and uncertainty of being consumed together, rather than solitary male cookies heading off to the great beyond all by their lonesome, like so many brave soldiers being whisked away to war. However, I sense that this metaphor will very quickly devolve into absurdity within the next few sentences here, so I'm going to abruptly transition to the actual food review. Ready?

Here goes. The cookies are covered in white fudge icing. I like that. Finally, something NOT covered in dark chocolate. They're not too hard and not too soft. I like that, too. Their flavor is gingerbready, sweet, and spicy. There're enough gingerbreadish spices to warm the back of your throat slightly, thus prompting you to clear your throat excessively, which in turn may cause some slightly awkward social situations. Yet the cookies are good enough that you'll continue eating them, which may cause said awkward social situation to escalate into a nightmarish episode of outright public embarrassment. Not really. I'm exaggerating. But no seriously though, they really do kind of tingle at the back of your throat a bit.

I'm not sure what it is about cookie butter that makes it so amazing. It tastes very much like gingerbread, but so much better. If we had any on hand, I would definitely try making gingerbread sandwich cookies with two of these little men and some cookie butter in between. As tasty as these cookies are, I can't really even put them in the same ballpark as most of those cookie butter products, score-wise. They're good, but they're not that good. Plus, I get hyper when I have too many cookies. Three and a half stars from me. Four from Sonia. 

You guys excited Santa is coming next week?

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Trader Joe's Embrace Your Inner Bean

Straight from the folks who previously brought you oddly inspired snack sticks with groan-worthy puns for names comes....Trader Joe's Embrace Your Inner Bean! What's next in this line of veggie tranquility inspired munchies? Some Lettuce Be? Romaine Calm? Bay Leaf in Yourself?

Why can I come up with only puns for shrubbery-esque veggies? I dunno, leaf me alone!

Regardless, before branching out to any other snacks of this ilk, TJ's really needs to buckle down their craft. Just like those Inner Peas were borderline good but missing a little somethin'-somethin', so do these beanie bad boys. They're just on the cusp of being really darn tasty but just don't get there. It's not the texture - a little foamy, but reasonably crunchy but it's the taste itself. First, they're made with rice flour, which doesn't have the same supporting flavor of a regular corn or tortilla chip. I'm not a fan of rice flour at all, I guess, despite its gluten-free properties....wait a minute...these aren't gluten-free? Well, let's read the gluten in any of that...hold on..."May contain traces of wheat, milk, soy, fish, and shrimp"???? What the heck kinda of cross-allergen control polices are in place at that manufacturer? Bad enough that their product cannot reasonably be labelled as either gluten-free or vegetarian/vegan? This is a snack whose main ingredients are beans, rice, and salt. Ay-yi-freakin'-yi. That's some serious point dockage there.

In case you can still ingest these, like I can, the flavor profile also kinda lacks. Silly as it sounds, these sticks might taste too much like black beans (over 60%, says the blurb on the back) and black beans, taste like, well, not much. That's why if we're making them up for some tacos or making a black bean soup, we're sure to add lots of stuff like cumin, which perhaps tricks us into thinking we like black beans more than we actually do. There's a little salt here, which is kinda boring tasting - really, a little cumin or paprika or slight chile powder dusting would have been better, in my opinion.

Anyways, these Inner Beans make an okay dip stick - I dunked some of them into a little homemade guacamole I made and was reasonably happy with the results. Yet, after a few bites, the flavor just kinda goes back to the rice flour more than anything, and I can't shake that lingering essence off my molars. Meh.

Sandy enjoys these kinda things more than I do, usually, and this time was not an exception. "I'd get these for a car trip or something for a light snack," she said. But I can tell she's not overly enamored, especially when she gave them a half-hearted three.That's more generous than I can go. As is appropriate for their buck-fifty price tag, I'm going 1.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Embrace Your Inner Bean: 4.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Trader Joe's Jingle Jangle

I thought $7 for Cookie Butter Cheesecake was pretty steep, even though, admittedly, it was worth every penny. Well, this stuff was $9 at the Marlton TJ's. You'd think for that price, they'd at least give it some highfalutin name like "Extra-ordinary Random Chocolate Covered Nonsense of the Finest Collection," like that weirdness that Russ checked out recently, or something pretentious like that. Nope. Just Jingle Jangle.

There were milk and dark chocolate covered pretzels, mini peanut butter cups, Joe-Joe's, M&M-like things, and dark chocolate covered caramel corn—the latter of which was about the only novel element in the mix. Everything else felt like something I'd had before. To my great disappointment, there were no white chocolate covered items, although some of the pretzels had a wee bit of white chocolate drizzle on top. It was practically untasteable, though—more for decoration than anything else.

The tin was filled to the brim with the aforementioned goodies and was actually quite heavy. If you're battling rain or snow as you carry it out of the store in one of TJ's famous paper bags, be wary that the bottom doesn't drop out on you. It's a good bit of food and a great lot of calories, but in my opinion, the five species of candy in the tin still aren't enough variety to justify the price. They get old pretty quickly. It's definitely a product you'd want to consider for large office parties, big family gatherings, and grand soirees. It's not to be shared by one lonely couple and two pets who can't have chocolate. Thank goodness we'll have some company later in the month to help us finish it.

As someone who's not a huge fan of dark chocolate, I'm just not sure this is the best way to spend $9 at Christmas time. The quality of the ingredients is fine. I wouldn't call that into question. But hey, you dark chocolate fans, wouldn't you rather enjoy the flinty undertones of your sophisticated candy alone in a bar form, rather than coated all over a generic Oreo? There was some milk chocolate, but not nearly enough to suit me. If it weren't for the joyous holiday spirit soothing my cynical soul right this moment, I might have snubbed this product even worse, but I'll be Christmassy and throw out three stars. Sonia likes dark chocolate, so she'll muster enough enthusiasm for three and a half.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Trader Joe's Cookies Beyond the Pail

And now for today's lesson in rarely used English idioms: "beyond the pale." Basically, it means outside an acceptable bounds, such as my language and use of middle digits during rush hour traffic. Deplorable. Disgraceful. Disgusting. Like the driving actions of others that facilitate my own improper response during said rush hour. But where does this expression come from? Um, here's a pretty lengthy breakdown...something about stakes and Ireland and colonial resentment...I'll admit I stopped less than halfway through.

What the h-e-double-bendi-straw does that expression have to do with the naming of Trader Joe's Cookies Beyond the Pail? These aren't cookies gone wild or behaving badly. No bleeps. No blurs. Just some butter cookies hanging out in the bucket with a windmill on it. Yeah, fine, there's the "pail" they come in, and the chance to make a stupid pun (which I always appreciate), so perhaps we'll just to settle for that.

Butter cookies are always everywhere this time of year, usually in fancy tins that I feel guilty about tossing but foolish for wanting to hang on. In lieu of festive decorative packaging, to get us all more in the spirit, focus more on the beautiful LL Bean table wreath my folks sent us a few days ago. At least Big Girl M is already excited about the prospect of having a "cookie bucket" to play with when we're all said and done, and it won't look all that ridiculous.

Packaging aside, there's four types of butter cookies here: pretzel shaped with vanilla-y crystals, snickerdoodles, almond bars, and chocolate chip. Each are pretty representative of the general butter cookie genre in their own right - good bite, crumbly, sugary, rich but not too much so, nothing too fancy but yet so satisfying. I prefer the vanilla pretzels the most, as they seem a little tougher and crunchier than the rest, but man, those almond bars practically melt...Not a huge fan of the chocolate chip ones, though. There's only a few chips in each cookie, and any chocolate flavor is so muted compared to the rest of the cookie that if I didn't see them, I wouldn't know they were there. The snickerdoodles could use a tad more cinnamon, too, in my opinion, but they're pretty decent as is.

I'd rank them in this order of preference: vanilla pretzel, almond bars, snickerdoodles, chocolate chip. It's funny and probably very beneficial for the two of us that Sandy's list would go the complete opposite, so we can each focus on the cookies we like best. There's nothing too above and beyond about these nominally brash buttery bites, but man, we like them, and for the price (big bucket for like $4, cheaper than most!) they're definitely worth checking out.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cookies Beyond the Pail: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Trader Joe's Extraordinary Bark of the Finest Collection

Well, like Nathan said recently, it's Christmas time, so we best be gettin' on to to reviewing all sorts of holiday treats. To me, Christmas season begins with Advent, ends on Epiphany, and interrupts itself whenever I hear the opening chords of "Christmas Shoes" - I just can't help but get mad at that grifting little kiddie conniver, the many faces of Rob Lowe be damned. No matter, to me, this is the time of year that Trader Joe's shines brightest of all, with all those holiday goodies - thanks for putting them in the produce aisle this year, forcing me to walk by them, by the way. Good thing my cohort got to review the gingerbread pancakes first, though - those were a disaster awaiting re-experimentation in our test kitchen here. Taste was okay, occasionally a little too heavy on the ginger as mentioned, but man, with following instructions carefully, they were a runny mess that stuck to our pans, and believe me, we know how to cook pancakes. Meh.

On to Trader Joe's Extraordinary Bark of the Finest Collection. What a goofy, overly honorific, and pretty much unearned name. There's nothing all that special here. Okay, so dark chocolate...I've been getting more and more used to the darker stuff recently (Lindt's 90% bar? Love it!) so the chocolate base layer actually tastes a little too sweet to me. Take that for what it's worth, my scale might be whacked. That's not the problem here.

No, the issue is with all the little stuff added on. And I do mean "little". There's a billion itsy bitsy almond and pretzel shards, which is okay but kinda run-of-the-mill by itself. All the other stuff, like the mini peanut butter cups, and popcorn, and the unlabelled-upfront-but-definitely-there Joe-Joe cookies? Few and far between. There were maybe four or five Reese knockoffs in the entire six serving bar - not good enough. A few more of those, and a couple more bites of cookie, and more than three pieces of popcorn would have been pretty good. Although, I'd personally kick off the Joe-Joes altogether and get more PB cups and popcorn on there, because the barky bites with those, with the little added crunch of the nuts and pretzels, and if the cocoa-drizzle on top were just right - mmm mmm mmm mmmmmm. Those were good, not "too much" on there, and certainly not too little either. The entire package needed to be like that, not just a few choice morsels in an otherwise sparsely chunkified choco-wasteland.

The repeat purchase potential for this extra ordinary (definitely not extraordinary) product depends completely on the level of effort I wish to bring forth to the next office holiday food day - that is, if I wish to bring something more than my usual case of ginger ale but lack desire to much more than plunker down another four bucks. For the first seasonal foray into the world of TJ's Christmassy treats, both Sandy and I were a little disappointed, but in the end not overly, I guess, and I guess we're just gonna have to keep on going back. Got a particular holiday treat we need to get our grubs on? Recommend away!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Extraordinary Bark of the Finest Collection: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Trader Joe's Gingerbread Pancake Mix

I'm going to kick off this review by comparing these pancakes to a cereal we reviewed earlier this year. First, they're both for breakfast. Second, we prepared both of them with milk (although the instructions for these pancakes said to just add water). Thirdly and most importantly, they were both just too gingery for us. Or rather, certain bites were just too gingery for us in both cases.

The ginger bits in the batter had a tendency to sink down to the bottom of our mixing bowl, so the first few pancakes we made were just like regular flapjacks but with a mild to moderate gingerbreadishness about them. Really pleasant overall. With butter and maple syrup, they tasted really good, and the gingerbread vibe was a nice holiday twist. However, the last few pancakes had at least one hunk of "crystallized" ginger in every bite. 

You can chalk it up to user error and say we should have fluffed up the batter a bit before each pancake hit the skillet—and in hindsight, that might have solved the problem. But even then, I think there would have been too much ginger. It might have been a blessing in disguise that the first half of our pancake batch was relatively ginger free. Because the ones with ginger were WAY too gingery, even dressed up with butter and syrup.

Each ginger chunk was about the size of the piece of pimento you might find in an olive. That might not sound very big, but the flavor of ginger is so potent, it overshadowed everything else. We were expecting something that tasted like gingerbread, not raw ginger. Ginger's great as a spice, but it's just too much for Sonia and I when it becomes the main attraction.

This pancake mix isn't a complete fail, in my opinion, but you really have to love the taste and texture of actual ginger for them to be considered a win. Sonia's only other comment: "Not terribly impressed." She gives them 2.5 stars. I'll be the slightly less grinchy Grinch this time and give a 3.5.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Trader Joe's Mini Peppermint Waffle Cookies

December's finally here, so I think we can go ahead and start eating Christmas-type cookies without feeling like we've jumped the holiday gun. This blog has certainly seen a couple of successful peppermint cookies and other treats. But in general, I'm starting to feel like I'm simply not a fan of  pepperminty desserts. I want my candy canes separated from my baked goods.

First impressions: they remind me of other miniature waffle cookies I've had in terms of size and texture. But these little guys have the added crunch of candy cane bits. Not a huge fan of biting down on hard candy (but my dentist loves it because he gets richer every time I do it). There's a good bit of chocolate here. In fact, according to the ingredients, there's more chocolate going on than waffle. And my inner-alcoholic absolutely loves that the number one sub-ingredient is chocolate liquor. Between the liquor and the mint, it's a bit like rinsing one's palate with a festive holiday mouthwash. But seriously though, there really is a nice little chunk of chocolate on every piece, which makes these tiny cookies rich and serotonin-inducing, if not delicious.

The waffle element is crispy enough, and I suspect these cookies are fairly stale-resistant. If I ever have grandchildren, when they come to visit, I'll put stuff like this out in a little dish on the coffee table the way my elders did with red and green M&M's at Christmas time. I mean, maybe if I were 7 again, I would want to shovel these things down by the handful, but I think for most people they're just going to be a "one here, another there" type of holiday mood-setting appetizer more than an actual dessert or snack.

Sonia was happy that she had minty-fresh breath after consuming these wintery treats, but she wishes the waffles were thicker. She gives them 3.5 stars. I give 'em 3.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Trader Joe's Fancy Medjool Dates

In our house, we consider "fancy dates" ones on which we don't go shopping at Target. Who knew there was such a thing, albeit a different kinda meaning, right in the Trader Joe's refrigerated produce section?

Yup, we're talking TJ's Fancy Medjool Dates. I don't see what's so fancy about bowties or bejewels or bling or anything. It's just a box of wrinkly, pitted dates.

But oh, the possibilities! I kid you not. First off, these dates were an absolute joy to just eat right out of the box. Sandy, Big Girl M, and I happily spent one morning late last week chomping thru nearly half the container, all of us together partaking in the slightly sticky, little bit gooey, totally tasterrific natural morsels of delight. I'm not too experienced when it comes to dates (my high school was too busy with video games and Creed - oh wait, wrong kind again) but I can't imagine these medjool munchies to be much if any different than most.

Of course, though, with a little work and adaptation there's so much more you can do. Everytime I mention my primarily paleo to a fellow caveperson wannabe, they mention "Bacon wrapped medjool dates!" as if the skies parted and angels streamed down whenever these were consumed. I have failed to make those thus far, but did happen to have some cooked bacon on hand that morning we had a family munch time. Even from my semi-half buttcheeked approximation, I could tell this was a match worthy of the raves. Yum-yum-yummy in my tum-tum-tummy. Yes I watch too much kid programming these days.

Even better still: Paleo pecan pie. I kid you not. That's the number one reason I got these dates, and dangit, to me, it's just not Thanksgiving without pecan pie. This is the recipe I used (easy as can be! - though I used just a regular egg, I'm not crunchy enough to know what a "flax egg" is) and while texturally the pie was much different than it's usual corn-syrupy incarnation (oh so good!), the taste itself was almost spot on, with the dates supplying all the sugary sweetness. The pie was so good, with the dates being such an easy, key ingredient, that I got another box of them in the fridge now just waiting to be turned into my next pie. Truth be told, at the risk of being labelled a heretic, I enjoyed the pie much more than the cookie butter cheesecake, although that was pretty good as well.

I say medjool dates at the big local chain being sold for something like $7 a pound, so this box for $4.49 strikes me as a pretty reasonable deal. I'm sure we'll continue to buy these - nothing wrong with a new fruit that all of us can enjoy together. Nothing too much more to say, just give 'em a try if you haven't already, and always, we're open to suggestions if you leave a comment or two.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Fancy Medjool Dates: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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