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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Trader Joe's 2020 Vintage Spiced Ale

2020. There's one for the books. Appropriate to end the year with a product that actually has "2020" in its name, dontcha think?

Now, I'm not sure if I'm doing this right. If this were a bottle of wine, we'd want it to age a few years and then in, say, 2025 or 2030, we'd be like, "Hey let's break out that bottle of vintage '20 we've got in the cellar," and then we'd reminisce about this most ridiculous of years. Incidentally, that's one of the gifts I got Sonia this year for Christmas—a wine rack that we keep in the basement. I even assembled it myself. We totally have a wine cellar now. We're fancy like that. Actually not really.

We keep one row of pseudo-fancy local stuff on the top rack. The rest is filled in with cheap wines and random selections like, well, this spiced ale. I wouldn't call it "cheap," but for $5.99, it's not exactly gonna break the bank, either. It's a top rack bottle for a bottom rack price. I mean, granted, it's not even's dark ale, but the shape and size of the bottle fit our wine rack perfectly.

So since I'm fairly certain most ales don't improve with age, let's see what we've got going here. Ooh. That is spicy.

Upon pouring into my pub-style pint glass, the head was a little out of control. I like to think I'm decent at pouring like a bartender, where you have the glass basically horizontal at the start of the pour and then you slowly upright the glass as the liquid falls to the bottom, so as to minimize the agitation of the beverage, thus reducing the amount of unwanted foam on top. However, I may have to reassess my pouring skills after serving Sonia and myself about 1/2 pint of beer and 1/2 pint of foam each.

Nevertheless, the foam and the beer were both tasty. The ale was fairly spice-forward with a sort of clove and allspice blend. There was something cinnamony in there, too, but it definitely had the flavor of a beer, rather than that of pumpkin pie or a scented candle. It was a bit creamy, malty, and it tasted festive and unique. It poured a deep brown color, nearly completely opaque. It was moderately carbonated—not too bubbly and not too flat. 

It's 9% ABV, so definitely on the stiffer end of the beer spectrum. Overall, we both liked it. I guess Trader Joe's mixes things up from year to year as far as these vintage brews are concerned, but this one was good enough that I'd definitely check out next year's offering, as well, whatever it may be. 2020 was a very interesting year and I have a sinking feeling 2021 will be, too. So grab an interesting libation or "take a cup of kindness yet" and have a happy New Year!

3.5 stars from me. 4 from Sonia.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Trader Joe's Roasted Garlic & Pesto Pizza with Deep Fried Crust

Having never been a Trader Joe's employee, I cannot confirm with absolute certainty if this would be the case or not, but as an avid shopper for years I can almost assuredly claim that it is: When checking out at the register, the employee running the register must absolutely see one product you're buying and exclaim "OMG have you ever had this? It's literally the best _____ I've ever had!"

Sure, maybe they're being super friendly brand ambassadors trying to make an easy natural conversation, but it's happened way too many times to be coincidence. Can any employee confirm? 

This is mentioned in reference to the new Trader Joe's Roasted Garlic & Pesto Pizza with Deep Fried Crust because while checking out, not just my cashier exclaimed this about this pizza, but two others I walked past as I was walking out. It kinda helps that they know who I am and want to say Hi and wondering what new thing I'm picking up for the blog...but when one of them, whose opinion you generally trust, exclaims "it's one of the best pizzas I ever had!", I follow with a clarifying question of "Pizza pizza or frozen pizza?" and she assuredly states "Pizza. Period.", well, it kinda gets a mind a-wanderin' and a tummy a-growlin'. 

The selling point here, obviously, is the crust. That makes sense. It's the single most important component of any far. And I've heard  of deep fried pizza crust but have never actually had it, so I think this is a somewhat natural, unbiased opinion: the deep fried crust is amazing. I've grown so used to (and tired of) the usual frozen pizza cardboard crust that, to have something so light, so crispy outside, so soft and chewy inside (like chewing on a cumulus cloud) it was amazing. This...from a freezer box and my oven, with literally no effort on my part? Amazing! I love it!


Making this only one time so far, I'm not sure if this is an everytime occurrence or not, but during baking the crust puffed up to deflated soccer ball size. Literally, I had a 5 inch tall pizza mound baking. Cheese and pesto slipped off, dropping to the oven floor, making the smoke alarm obnoxiously blare like some dumb kid with subwoofers driving down the street. Relatedly, the toppings also rearranged themselves, making them not quite as uniformly spread out as before. My lovely bride and I shared a pie, and we each only got about two, maybe three smallish bites of pesto on our portions. 

That's a shame, because it truly was the only downside to the deep-fried pizza. That classic pesto, beefed up with some cashews? Awesome, herbaceous, and lively. All four cheeses- burrata, mozzarella, provolone and parmigiano reggiano? All present and delicious, could use more of the reggiano, but then again I almost always think that. Plenty of good roasted garlic too, which coincidentally is our personal pizza topping of the month - we make homemade pizza almost every week and have ben plopping that atop our like mad. This stuff is great.

At $5.99 for a smallish pie, it's a good enough value. it says three servings per pizza, which sounds slim to me. Half a pizza and some veggies or side salad sounds like a much more appropriate dinner. And yeah, it's still frozen pizza, so there's much healthier things out there (looking at you, fat and sodium), but c'mon now. So happy with the pizza, it's definitely taken the crown of my favorite TJ's pizza. Still can't beat our homemade though. Double fours. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Roasted Garlic & Pesto Pizza with Deep Fried Crust: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons  


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Trader Joe's Caramel Coffee Cashews

"If you could be one thing, you should be efficient."

Okay, anybody else else looking forward to new season of "Letterkenny" debuting this weekend? Anyone? I'm almost looking forward to it more than Christmas Day itself.

Anyhoos if you know anything about the show, you'd know that the main character, Wayne, and his buddies have many mantras they repeat. Very few of them are publishable here. But that top quote is, and through all the adult banter and silly stuff like riffs on ants riding SeaDoos (NSFW - and this is tame for the show), some of that all stick through. 

Well pitter patter, let's get at her. What's more efficient than snackination with caffeination with a side of TJ'sination for your situation? Nothing. 

Enter Trader Joe's Caramel Coffee Cashews. It's all that and a bag of nuts. I hope and pray these are still available next time we get into a TJ's as these have gotten me through some very long work days as of late. 

These nuts are fantastic. Cashews are already pretty much the king of the snack nut world. Pecans could be a challenger, and pistachios would higher if not for the shell. Take a batch, and roast them up. That's already fantastic...but a bit plain. So get some caramel coffee goo and coat all the cashews and let them dry. Fantastic. 

Leading off, the coffee flavor is much stronger than the caramel. It's actual ground coffee beans in the mix, reduced down to a not too clunky powder. That's not to say you won't hit a little clump here and there that's coffee-ground reminiscent. Not matter, the feel of it blends well with the toasty cashew center. But then the caramel kinda sneaks in, very mellowly, and sweetly and lightly lingers for subsequent bites. If this were an actual coffee, I'd consider drinking one on occasion - I'm too much more a black coffee kinda guy, but can outside my comfort zone every once in a while. Well balanced and super soft snackable - perfect.

Sharply minded readers and TJ's aficionados may recall a similarish product sans caramel in the past. Maybe it's the nuts, maybe it's me, maybe I'm nuts, but I like these better. A lot better. Delish. 

And as Letterkenny fans may know, there is an episode entitled "Nut" which I will not reference here aside from this. I think my lovely bride is due to watch it tonight on my rewatch/her first go through leading up to the new season. Gotta long day at work first to get through first - it's a great day for hay! - , then kids in bed - I'm gonna need some more of these nuts to get there. 

Double fours. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Caramel Coffee Cashews: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, December 21, 2020

Trader Joe's Festive Chocolate Collection

In general, I try to look beyond the physical—beyond the surface, to discern what lies beneath a thing, a person, or an idea. But sometimes, sheer physical beauty is its own end. Take, for instance, a Christmas tree or Christmas lights or Christmas decorations in general. If you ask a dozen people what a Christmas tree means to them, you'll get a dozen different answers. But that doesn't take away from the fact that all 12 of said people will agree that it's a pretty thing—a lovely sight to behold.

Similarly, there's a breathtaking conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the southwestern skies just after sunset right now. I've already seen it the past two nights, although tonight will be their closest approach to one another. They'll appear to be touching each other in the sky, despite the fact they are actually 450 million miles apart. Some are calling it the Christmas Star, although I'm pretty sure the original Christmas Star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus...but this isn't an astronomy blog and I'm digressing a bit.

Anyway, it reminds me of what Sam tells Frodo at the end of LOTR: "There's light and beauty up there that no shadow can touch." So true.

I suppose I'm unnecessarily waxing poetic for what is essentially just a box of chocolate. We all know what chocolate tastes like. And Trader Joe's rarely tries to slip substandard chocolate by us...I mean, other than early iterations of their advent calendar. What I'm trying to say is that this particular product is more about presentation than anything else. I almost don't want to eat it, it's so festive and cute, but I'm hankering for a release of endorphins at the moment, being the darkest day of the year and all. But hey, from here on out, the sun gets higher in the sky every day. So let's all be happy and eat some chocolate wreaths, gifts, snowmen, and gingerbread men.

There's dark, milk, and white chocolate represented here, so there's a nice variety—something for everybody in terms of chocolate preference. There are seven pieces of chocolate total, some much larger than others. $3.99 is just a teensy weensy bit steep for what you're getting here, IMO. None of the chocolates are anything to write home about, but then there's nothing to complain about either. 

There are a few little surprises like various fillings. Some of the pieces are just simple slabs of decorative chocolate. Others contain "hazelnut paste," "dark chocolate couverture filling," "caramel filling," or "creme filling." It's a bit like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates in that you never know what you're gonna get. I'd try to match the filling up with its corresponding shape and let you know which is which, but I've indiscriminately shoveled a number of them down my hatch already, and I'm really not even sure which fillings I've had. Some are slightly tastier than others, but all in all, each piece has been satisfying and chocolatey. Sonia agrees.

There. I feel a bit of serotonin kicking in. I'm happy. It's Christmas week. Hope you're all joyous and healthy and have your house stocked with tasty foods. Get out there and check out the planetary conjunction. Very interesting things are about to happen. I can feel it. 

Happy holidays!

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Trader Joe's Olive Chicken Bites

Ever wonder where food concepts were thought of/ Like, their originations? It's an interesting thought exercise. 

Take, for instance, this: Who would watch a chicken drop a spherical white orb from its butt and decide, "Hey, I wanna pick this up." I mean, I've seen an egg fresh from the source, and let's just say there's a lot of cleaning involved before it makes its way into a carton. A LOT of cleaning. But then, pick it up, decide to crack it open, see all the egg insides and then have the insight to add a heat source and watch it firm up and then decide to actually eat it...and find out that it's really good? Especially with salsa. Crazy. I never would have come up with that myself.

Nor would I have invented something quite as silly as Trader Joe's Olive Chicken Bites. 

No, I am not saying that these newish frozen appetizers are going to be a dietary cornerstone like eggs, cuz no, that's ridiculous. But who thinks of putting an olive inside a chicken bite...and how does that actually taste, anyways.

Second question first. It's...odd. As you might be able to tell by my pic, I made up a batch in the air fryer for lunchtime the other day. Anything to beat PBJ/mac n cheese/ramen day 10,142 in a row, seemingly at least. As I waited for the bites to warm up and crispify, I read the ingredients. Potato, onion and chicken, along with the olive and whatever else to hold it all together and season it a bite. A protein, a starch, a veggie or two all in one - it's like a meal in a bite. 

So all that stuff aside from the olive makes up the outer shell. There's nothing too wrong with it. It is dark meat, which i don't mind but I know that's a deal breaker for some. The meat itself is the chicken nuggety-y variety, all kinda mashed and shredded with the potatoes and onions kinda holding it all together. Kay. Not bad, but not overly flavorful, aside from the flavor leaking out from the olive core. 

About that olive...okay, who's idea? It's so just so random and basic and odd and bewildering at once. Why a plain green manzanilla olive with a little pimento in there? If you're gonna do an olive, why not something a little more lively like a kalamata, with a little garlic? That'd be bomb.  Even better, why not a hot pepper or some bacon or a little cheese reservoir or something of that sort? Something a little more than just a plain boring green olive. It's like trying to be clever with paper clip chains. If you're gonna go the basic kitschy route, you have slim margin for error. 

There's not much flavor other than the olive, though. A little dipping sauce would probably go a long way towards appreciating the product. A little cheese here could real compliment it well. 

Anyways, pretty much everyone in my family except me turned their nose at them. I ate them...not happily, I was just hungry. Back to those PBJs I guess for everyone. For $4.99 I was kinda expecting this experience but was hopeful for better. Oh well. Not gonna score too high here, let's just call it a 4 and move on. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Olive Chicken bites: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Trader Joe's Chocolate Lava Gnocchi

Gnoccolate. C'mon, man. You missed a golden opportunity to create a beautiful new word, Trader Joe. 

In keeping with this week's chocolate theme so far, it's time to take a look at something many of you already have an opinion of: Trader Joe's Chocolate Lava Gnocchi. We were unable to obtain them last year, so since Sonia and I haven't had much luck scoring this year's newest products in a timely fashion, we'll be sharing our opinions on this formerly buzzworthy product making its sophomore appearance in Jolly Old Saint Joe's frozen section, just in case you're still sitting on the fence about making the $2.99 purchase or not.

It's not the first time we've seen Trader Joe's choc-ify something that's not traditionally chocolatey or desserty. I wasn't particularly impressed with last year's chocolate hummus, but all four of us on the team appreciated the chocolate raspberry tamales in the happy golden days of yore. Do they still sell them? Didn't see them on our last run. Oh well. They should if they don't.

In my opinion, these chocolate lava gnocchi fall squarely in between the two aforementioned choc-ified concoctions. They're not the sweet, rich, indulgent desserts I was hoping for, nor are they a wholesome savory dinner item, either. They're basically chocolate-flavored potato balls. If that sounds good to you, then you might love 'em.

But you also might hate 'em. They're starchy. Like very starchy. Potato is about the most starchy substance I can think of. And then whoever formulated this product was like, "Hey it's not starchy enough with just potato puree. Let's add some rice starch and more potato starch. Then Starchy Joe's Starchy Starch Balls with Starch and Chocolate will be complete!"

I mean, they do taste like chocolate. But like I said before, it's not the rich sweet flavor I was hoping for. A little whipped cream goes a long way in terms of sending these gnocchi in the indulgent dessert direction, but doesn't make them entirely delectable. As far as "lava" is concerned, there's not much. No need to evacuate the town at the bottom of Mount St. Gnoccolate. There's a mild wetness you can see in the center of a piece cut in half on the right side of the pic I took, but even that gets sucked right back into the starchy void before it can really liquefy completely and flow freely. So the lava factor was disappointing. 

Also, they look like fresh reindeer droppings.

We'll have no problem finishing the bag today. We had most of them for breakfast. Is that weird? But we probably won't re-purchase. Three stars a piece.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Trader Joe's Candy Cane Joe-Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar

In the spirit of the season, we'll be making a list and checkin' it twice:

Trader Joe's. Check. 

Candy cane. Yes. 

Joe-Joe's. Yup.

Dark chocolate. Texas sized 10-4. 

A chocolate bar with a name like Trader Joe's Candy Cane Joe-Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar should be fun, festive, seasonal, joy inducing. A cure for what ails ya. It should be a little snippet of merriment, a little piece of contentment, a little bite of something good in a world gone mad. I mean, it's a candy bar, but really, can you blame anyone for pinning at least a little hopes of something positive on it. 

Hate to sound grinchy, but that's a bit too much for this chocolate bar. It's simply just okay, kinda good but certainly not great. Let's run through that list again and see what's naughty and nice. 

Trader Joe's - on the nice list! Really, did you expect anything different?

Candy cane. Oh there's plenty of candy cane, and it's very candy cane-y. That's a good thing. The "generously topped with crushed peppermint" is a bit of an oversell - I prefer the underpromise/overdeliver model of satisfaction personally - but there's plenty enough little candy cane shard that get all up in there and in tooth crevices and whatnot to make the bar plenty candy-cane'd up. Nice and minty and everything. No issue.

Joe-Joe's. Well, okay, here's where things start going sideways. For the uninitiated, Joe-Joe's are TJ's version of Oreos. They're rather ridiculously tasty, and featured plenty this time of year in all sorts of festive offerings. But here? It's literally just cookie crumbs from the Joe-Joe's table. There's not a lot of them, and the ones present are rather small. This could be forgiven if Joe-Joe's creme filling were somehow incorporated (like a little reservoir in the bar itself?) but nope. The cookie essence is completely lost as the cookie crumbs aren't prominent enough in either size or taste to stand out at all. It just feels like another small crunchy bit that could be attributed to a candy cane instead. Not enough in my book. 

Dark chocolate; The usual goodness here. As usual, i could do darker but no complaints. 

There ya have it. For a $1.99 you could do better for sure, and while these won't ruin your day, if your kid ends up snatching the whole thing to use for shingles for a gingerbread house you shouldn't be heartbroken either. Middling score here all around with a double 3. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Candy Cane Joe-Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons. 



Friday, December 11, 2020

Trader Joe's Nog Protein Beverage Smoothie

If you have high expectations of anything in life, be prepared to be let down. That goes for food, beverages, movies, tv shows, sports, jobs, friends, family, politicians, government, blog posts—in other words, just about anything.

On the other hand, if you go through life expecting very little, things will either turn out the way you thought they would, or you'll be pleasantly surprised. Sure, there are those who will tell you that you'll manifest a negative outcome if you envision a negative outcome from the beginning. So I've been getting good at the mental gymnastics involved with that whole "hope for the best but prepare for the worst" philosophy.

In short, I had very low expectations for this beverage. But I was hoping I was wrong.

And I was. It's actually surprisingly tasty in my opinion. It's very much akin to a "lite" or "reduced calorie" eggnog by my estimation, flavor-wise, but with a better spice mix and background flavors. It's much thinner than regular nog, by virtue of reduced fat milk and nonfat milk in the beverage. I was almost surprised to see they do use egg yolks in there, too. There are other noggy ingredients like vanilla and nutmeg, as well as typical protein shake ingredients like whey protein concentrate and soy protein isolate. Fortunately, I feel like the nog flavors outweigh the protein ones in this mixture.

The texture is remarkably smooth, with very little of the grit or chalkiness typically found in protein shakes. It's even smoother than the pumpkin spice version we saw a couple months ago. Speaking of the PS version, Sonia's immediate reaction to this smoothie was, "Whoa I like the pumpkin one way better!" We'll have to agree to disagree, my love. She thinks this one tastes too much like bubblegum. It does have that faint bubblegum-ish aftertaste that many eggnogs and eggnog derivatives bear.

While I'd never buy this eggnog solely for its flavor, I'd take it over any other reduced calorie or diet eggnog I've ever tried, and I have to say I like it better than Trader Joe's Almond Nog, though this one is most definitely not dairy-free or vegan. It's one of the most palatable protein shakes I've ever had, though I must throw out the disclaimer that I'm not a fan of them in general.

This gets three and a half stars from me. I'll happily finish the bottle since the wifey did me a solid and polished off the pumpkin one. Since it has a good amount of protein and significantly less fat than regular eggnog, Sonia will be nice and show her holiday spirit and give it three stars.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Trader Joe's Candy Cane Chocolate Covered Almonds

With it being only about two weeks before Christmas, you gotta break out the Christmas item reviews as much as possible. Couple years ago, we did one a day for a whole month, and subsequently since many of those same products returned, there's a whole bevy of them in the archives ready for you to search and find. it's actually kinda tough for us to find a new, seasonally appropriate review subject after ten years of writing for the blog. Gotta hear about it, find it (which may be the toughest part), buy it, eat it, review's not that hard a life, but that's sometimes how you end up writing about things like trail mix crackers in early December. It's not a mild case of the bah-humbuggeries and absolutely not any poopy-pantsery, it's just how it is.

On to today's feature: Trader Joe's Candy Cane Chocolate Covered Almonds!

In yet another entry into the ever expanding catalog of TJ's chocolate nut varieties, these almonds are fairly new to stores within the past few weeks. Nothing says Christmas like a candy cane, and feeling a little nuts. 

Please forgive the close up pic of the packaging, and the product pic of a paltry pile. That's the aftermath, courtesy of my lovely bride, for once, and not myself, with packaging pics trying to disguise the carnage as much as we can. She demolished them. Have no shame, love. You know how often I do it. 

And I can see why. These candy-coated almonds make quite a tasty treat. There's a few layers at work here. At the core is your average tasty roasted almond. Who can hate that? No one, unless you're allergic or something. Then, like the rest of us, they're clothed in layers. For the under garmies is a decent, maybe half millimeter thick layer of dark chocolate. As expected, it's the typical tasty TJ's variety. Yums. Then atop of that, for warmth, is the outer layer of white chocolate. Can't argue there. And lastly, for final touches, are little teeny nuggs of candy cane for a minty touch. The more you eat, the mintier they get. 

At first, for everything going on here, they seemed a bit mild. A bit...under-flavored, maybe? The candy cane factor isn't overly strong for the first couple bites, and I was thinking it was somewhat muted by the chocolate layers a bit too much. Maybe too much chocolate, just pick one and go with it? Or heck, even split the difference between dark and white and make it milk chocolate? But then, when the candy canes begin to assert themselves a little, there's much better balance to everything, and while still not aggressively flavored, will keep you going back for more. 

So yup, we liked them. Sandy, even after being dealt with a weird random case of heartburn from them, had a few more bites and we had to negotiate the fate of the last handful of survivors. Tasty stuff. 

At $3.99 for the small tub, it's not an awful deal either. I could definitely buy 'em again and put them in a candy dish somewhere...or more likely stash away so i can eat 'em all myself. If someone took all mine, then i could be all bah-humbuggery and poopy-pantsery about that. Good stuff, calling it a double fours de force. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Candy Cane Chocolate Covered Almonds: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, December 7, 2020

Trader Joe's Trail Mix Crackers

This has been a year of curveballs and surprises—mostly unpleasant ones. That's been true for the world at large and very much true in my own personal life, as well. So I decided to do a surprise review of a non-Christmas item right in the middle of the Christmas season. Crazy, right?

I've got a sinking suspicion that this year isn't done with big surprises just yet, either. Be prepared for anything. Hopefully this review of Trader Joe's Trail Mix Crackers is a more pleasant "surprise" for most of you than what the remainder of 2020 has up its sleeve.

I mean it's not unheard of for us to look at "normal" products in December. And this one definitely deserves a looksee, as it slipped through the cracks review-wise for the past month and a half or so, and it's pretty darn unique and tasty. How many Trader Joe's products have we seen that prominently feature mung beans? Not many.

Combining all the best properties of crispy, crunchy, salty, cheesy crackers and the satisfying snacktasticality of a typical trail mix, this fun bag of munchy morsels is right up Trader Joe's alley. Each cracker is studded with cashew nuts, raisins, sesame seeds, and fried mung beans. All I really know about mung beans is that they're in a lot of Asian snacks and desserts. It's hard to isolate their flavor here because they're surrounded by so many other ingredients, but I believe they're slightly sweet and a little nutty.

And they work quite well with the nuttiness of cashews, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. A bit of extra sweetness from the raisins helps balance out the mixture of flavors. There's also a "sugar syrup" listed in the ingredients, which I'm guessing served as the "glue" that attaches the trail mix pieces to the crackers.

Surprisingly, most of the crackers were fully intact when we first opened the package. A few broke into smaller shards. No biggie. The bag isn't resealable, which in larger families probably wouldn't be a problem. Since it's just Sonia and me, we didn't finish ours in one sitting, so we broke out the chip clips to preserve the freshness. Again, no biggie.

$2.49 for the 4.5 oz bag. Good for curbing hunger and pretty tasty. Four stars from Sonia. Three and a half from me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Trader Joe's Decked Out Tree Cookies

Most normal years right around now, my lovely bride and I are busy as all heck, cleaning up the house and baking cookies for what we call our annual Holiday Cookie Potluck. It's...basically what it sounds like it is. Cookies, friends, family, gathering together, hanging out...but not this year. Not sure if you've noticed, but 2020 isn't exactly what any of us would call "normal" except if you're a weirdo. 

Anyhoos, we're adaptable and doing a smaller thing this year and taking it on the road. Yup, still making cookies, and gonna deliver to some folks this weekend, so we've still been busy with making cookies..and storing them...and smacking away each other's hands so we have enough for the cookie tins...and kids (myself included) still want to eat cookies while staring at them all day, literally within arm's reach, as we're doing work and school from home. 

So if we wanted to get some Trader Joe's Decked Out Tree Cookies to help hold us over this week, who can blame us? 

Look, there's nothing absolutely magical here. Really not. No offense. Take your basic cookie, add a little chocolate, then a little more, add some spirit fingers  I mean "festive sprinkles" and that's about what it is. I'm pretty sure we could easily make a homemade replica pretty easily here. 

But that doesn't mean these tree cookies aren't any good. Nah. They're downright delish. That cookie base isn't quite a shortbread - it's not as crumbly - but not exactly a sugar cookie - not crispy enough - either. Nah. it's like a nice little marriage of the two for texture, with a little hint of sugar. That's all that's needed to serve up the milk chocolate filling, of which there is plenty. The cookie itself even seems a little indented so to have a reservoir to have a little scooch extra filling, which, let's be honest, should be okay with literally everyone reading this. Gotta love the milk chocolate. I usually side more towards darker, but if this were a dark chocolate, it'd likely be too rich a cookie with the amount of filling/frosting slabbed atop. That white chocolate drizzle is a nice little touch, as is the sprinkles. Do they literally meet the definition of "decked out"? likely not, but the cookies are kinda cute, kinda snazzy, and definitely tasty, and what else does one need from a Christmas cookie really?

While not worthy to be the centerpiece of a holiday cookie tray, there's not a thing wrong with them either. Kids will likely love them. Mine sure did. And heck I don't really mind them either. And at like $3 for a tray of 8 cookies it's not a bad deal either. While not blown away, we are quite happy enough to give them a good score. 

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Decked Out Tree Cookies: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Italian Panettone

Sometimes I wonder if I wasn't supposed to be born into a big Italian family. I'd never even heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes until a couple days ago, after watching the 2018 indie film by the same name. Seven types of fish and seafood all on the same day? Yes, please. I like the way you Italians roll.

Likewise, I'm becoming more and more fond of the panettone each year, thanks mostly to Trader Joe's. This is the fifth type of panettone product we've reviewed on this blog, and I don't think I've disliked any of them. They're tasty, festive, and Christmassy. Look, you can even hang this one on your tree. It's an ornament and a snack all in one.

Like the other panettones I've tried, this one is made with soft, supple, lightly sweet, slightly buttery bread. But this one's gluten-free! Goodness. I'm almost always stating that Trader Joe's gf products taste great but have a weird texture. Not this one. The texture here is amazeballs. I probably wouldn't have even guessed it was gluten-free if I hadn't known any better.

There's a good bit of packaging around the product. Maybe it's overkill, but it keeps the bread remarkably fresh. There's the decorative outer cardboard box, then there's a cellophane wrapper within, and finally, there's a cupcake-esque muffin liner on the bottom and sides of the panettone.

The product is spongy and pleasantly moist. The bread alone would make a great little treat, but there are "golden raisins" and teensy bits of candied orange peel scattered throughout the loaf to make it even more interesting. The sweetness level is probably on par with a breakfast muffin, rather than a dessert like cake or cupcakes. In fact I had my panettone for my breakfast yesterday, and it was the perfect size and density to serve as a morning meal.

At $1.99, it's plenty affordable. If you've got anybody with a gluten-free diet on your Christmas list, this product has Sonia's seal of approval and mine as well. The original glutenful version is still available, but the taste and texture of this one doesn't suffer much if at all for want of wheat or gluten. Four Christmas stars a piece.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Trader Joe's Stepping It Up Spicy Snack Bar Mix

Around this time of year, there's routinely some homemade Chex mix around the house. For whatever reason, during the holidays, it's a constant, and, well, why should this year be different? Tradition, right? Nobody needs to shout that from the rooftops for me. 

Along with the Chex mix there's a constant chorus, and I don't mean just from 'last Christmas" or 'All i Want for Christmas is You." No, in reference to the Chex mix, it's "no mining! No mining!" What's that mean? That means no digging around for the very best bites, like the wheat Chex that got a little extra soaky in Worchestershire sauce. Take a scoop, and you get what you get and you don't get upset. No mining. It's sacred tradition.

We may have to make a new one for Trader Joe's Stepping it Up Spicy Snack Bar Mix.

Acutely minded readers and shoppers may recall the Step Up to the Snack Bar Mix that TJ's has peddled in recent years. This is a spicy sibling, a seasonal sidekick, a spirited sequel. 

And man, it's good. 

There's some of the usual suspects around - almonds, cheese sticks, big clunky pretzel pieces a la broken up sourdough bites - all covered in this dusty, spicy seasoning blend. It's everywhere and while mostly tasting like seasoned salt, there are some hot pepper kicks sneaking through here and there. Allegedly some of the pieces have different seasoning - like the pretzels are supposed to have "sweet jalapeno" - but a lot of that gets lost literally in the mix. Not a complaint, it's good. 

There's also these "chile lemon corn nuggets" that deserve their own mention. What the heck are they? Well...they're kinda like the Peruvian corn snacks TJ's has carried in recent years. If you're not familair, think huge, crunchy corn kernels, all crispified and mummified. It's a bit of an odd bite if you'tre not accustomed. While I don't mind them particularly, the "big crunch" factor for a good snack mix has already been satisfied by the pretzel chunks, so i would have preferred a smaller or alternative form.

All of that doesn't mention the absolute best part, though: the pasila chile and sesame chips. My goodness. I'd inhale a sack full of these bad boys. I love sesame chips and sticks and all that kinda stuff, so naturally I'm inclined to be fairly fond of them, but there's something about them - maybe their own chile flavors, maybe the excess seasoning shook off on them - that make them extra tasty to snack on for a fine snacking target. No mining? No rule here, though yes, my lovely bride invoked it to make sure she got some.

Overall spice level isn't too bad, maybe a 5, perhaps a 6 at most. Most people can handle it. My kids couldn't, which is a plus - more for me! The Stepping It Up mix goes very well with an IPA, as I confirmed on a few different nights recently. Pick some up for a little kick - at $4.99 for the can, you may discover (as we did) that it goes fast. Double fours here!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Stepping It Up Spicy Snack bar Mix: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Trader Joe's Creamed Greens

It's kind of ironic and counterintuitive, but Thanksgiving Day and the days surrounding it produce some of the lowest numbers for us on this blog as far as traffic is concerned. You might think that what is arguably the most food-centric day of the year would generate greater interest in food blogs and such, but you'd be wrong.

I mean, it's great that people are apparently paying attention to their families and traveling and preparing for the big day rather than fussing about our silly little grocery store blog. Doesn't bother me a bit. And now that I think about it, it might be slightly disturbing if the reverse were true.

But we're heading into not only the biggest and best family + food holiday of the year, but immediately after, we dive headlong into the Christmas season. At least around our house, turkeys and gourds will be replaced by fat men in red suits and reindeer by the end of this long weekend. So I found it appropriate to look at a product that might find its way into either a Thanksgiving meal or a Christmas meal. It's nothing quite as exciting as a pie or a cake, but hey, every big holiday meal needs to at least pretend that there's been an attempt to provide greens and veggies. So if the creamed corn side dish isn't looking adequate in the way of plant-based roughage, here's another item to consider.

Trader Joe's Creamed Greens with Brussels Sprouts, Kale, & Parmesan Cheese. In addition to being the only Trader Joe's product I've ever seen that includes the Oxford comma before an ampersand in its extended title, it's also one of the only dishes that takes not one, but two of the most hated vegetables in existence and attempts to turn them into calorific comfort foods...with moderate success, I might add.

The flavor is somewhere between a spinach dip and a green bean casserole. There's a heavy, creamy, salty, savory vibe. It tastes quite strongly of parmesan cheese and onions, but the kale and Brussels sprouts are far from wanting in the mixture. That is, your fork will be full of actual greens with what appears to be a medium-thick glaze of cheesy creaminess. The overall effect is a nice hearty veggie flavor with a major comfort food component.

My biggest and possibly only complaint is that certain bits seemed stringy. I'm guessing that the kale is mostly to blame for the stringiness, although sprouts can be a little tough and pulpy, too. There seemed to be "veins" of vegetable matter that didn't want to melt in the mouth quite like the rest of the dish did. Not every bite was stringy, and even the ones that were didn't stop me from plowing through my share of this otherwise smooth side. Sonia didn't seem to mind the texture of the creamed greens at all.

$4.99 for the one pound package. I'd eat this again alongside a traditional holiday meal. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

p.s. It works as a chip dip, too.

Three and a half stars from this guy. Four full stars from Sonia. 

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Trader Joe's Italian Style Soffrito Seasoning Blend

Some days are just potato soup days, aren't they?

This past Sunday was. First of all, it was a Sunday. Also: cool, rainy, all not-sure-if-November-or-March outside (in so many ways, actually). The kinda day that just made you want to curl up with a warm blanket and cats and books and movies while the crockpot did its thing all day to bring forth a warm, comforting meal that goes down easy.

One of the best things about potato soup is: you can make it taste however you want with toppings and mix-ins. In my opinion you gotta go with bacon, cheese and green onion at the very least, but then something else is needed. Something to give it a little more flavor, a little pizzazz, a little je ne sais quoi. Could go hot sauce or salsa, sure, but sometimes, that's not what I'm looking for.

Turns out it was Trader Joe's Italian Style Soffrito Seasoning Blend. 

Look at this stuff. It's beautiful. It looks very fancy and refined, what, with all the different rustic colors and flakes and crinkles all mixed up. That's just how it looks - but also, how it smells? Wow. "Aromatic" is an understatement. Crack it open and this warm, inviting scent of herbs and spices wafts everywhere. I kinda want to leave a jar open somewhere as an air freshener. If I were to open a fancy Italian restaurant, I think I'd pipe in the scent from this somehow to the dining room - it'd be an automatic five star review. 

Inspired by the "holy trinity" of onions, carrots and celery (or as the French would say, mirepoix), the Italian soffrito seasoning is very evocative of those elements without actually featuring carrots or celery. There's a lot of onion, for sure, which adds a little punch and really drives the overall flavor, but the rest of the ingredients like garlic or rosemary or crushed red pepper taste more like the seasonings one could put on those veggies instead of the actual veggies. Which works, because that's what one tastes anyway from a mirepoix/soffrito/onions, carrots and celery. I really wish we Americans had a cool name for all that. Still, a little dried carrot and celery salt could have been used, just to pay proper homage, but I'm not going to quibble too much and just run with it. It's just too good, with herbal warmth, the right amount of salt (neither too much nor too little), the smallest of kicks 

We love it in our house and have used in various ways already, not just on potato soup. Top of pizza? Check. Eggs? Yup. Grabbing a little pinch here and there? Absolutely. With holiday and soup season in full swing, I can see this in more soups, sauces, dishes like stuffing, atop a roast, most anything always if you have ideas or favorite implementations please share! And only like 4 bucks max for an ample sized jar - I just bought a regular little guy of seasoning salt at a regular grocery store for nearly that much, so the price is definitely a good deal for what it is. 

Speaking of fours, we're gonna hit it with two of them and add a little more, because that's what you're gonna be doing once you give this a try. Boom.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Italian Style Soffrito Seasoning Blend: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Trader Joe's Cranberry Orange Relish

Apparently there are some cran-haters out there, but I ain't one of 'em. I love me some cranberries. Especially this time of year. Oh how I love the sweet-tartness, the tang, the taste of cranberries. But then, hmmm, it occurs to me that I've never eaten an actual cranberry. I really don't think I've ever had one in my life. I mean, I've had "craisins," which are dried cranberry raisin-esque thingies. And also, apparently, that name is trademarked by Ocean Spray, so it's actually Craisins®. Please don't sue us, Ocean Spray.

I've had cranberry sauce, cranberry jam, cranberry juice, cranberry juice mixed with literally every other kind of fruit juice, and cranberries baked into all sorts of confections. But why on earth haven't I ever eaten a plump, juicy cranberry straight off the vine...? Bush...? Tree...? I don't even know where cranberries grow.

Oh well. It may be some time before I eat an actual whole cranberry in its natural state, but thanks to long-time reader and commenter NJ-to-TX, I was recently reminded of this product, which I'd heard about before, but never really paid much attention to—and lemme tell ya' it's crantastic. It's been around Trader Joe's for a long, long time. And, as is usually the case with such a product, that's a testament to its scrumptiousness.

This stuff is sweet. It's very sweet. It's actually a bit sweeter than traditional cranberry sauce by my estimation, and you'd expect it to be so with 25g of sugar per serving. There's plenty of tartness, too, to make it a little less like a candy and more like a condiment.

There are exactly three ingredients: cranberries, sugar, and oranges. I'm a little surprised sugar isn't the number one ingredient, but I guess cranberries are a little sweet on their own. There's definitely more cranberry flavor, while the citrus kick of the orange is more subtle and understated. It's a beautiful balance of the constituent flavors.

Channeling my ten-year-old self that zeroed in on cranberry sauce over any other dish on the Thanksgiving Day table, I took bite after bite straight out of tub upon first opening it. Sonia was less enthused to consume it plain, and like a real adult, prefers it on turkey, tofurkey, stuffing, and/or mashed potatoes. It does go VERY well with all of those things, but I'd get creative and try it in pies, as a dip for chicken nuggets, or whatever ridiculous combo pops into my foodie-hack brain at the moment.

If you haven't checked it out, I recommend trying this in place of traditional cranberry sauce at your Turkey Day meal. $3.49 for the 6 serving tub. Four and a half stars from me. Three and a half from Sonia.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Trader Joe's Cornbread Bites

Cornbread bites feel Thanksgivingy enough. I mean, we had some with our Turkey Day meal, and they were hearty enough, heavy enough to pair up with Turkey-Less Turkey and stuffing—indulgent enough to be one of my favorite elements of the entire meal.

Sonia's parents, my in-laws or "mi suegros" en espaƱol, generally don't celebrate major holidays like Christmas and Easter since their roots are considered pagan. It's a pentecostal thing. They make an exception for Thanksgiving, though, since it's about giving thanks. How appropriate that these appetizers bring traditional American delights like cornbread together with serrano chiles, native to Mexico. It's a great match, in my opinion.

Trader Joe's Cornbread Bites are super cheesy, full of delicious pepper jack. There's a moderate amount of heat, as well as a moderate amount of sweetness.

Southern cornbread purists might be a little disappointed. I've known Southerners to go on rants about how tea has to always be sweet and cornbread must never be so. Fortunately, I'm a Yankee boy and we had our Thanksgiving in the northern midwest this year, so we didn't hear much in the way of dissenting opinions about this particular sweetened cornbread.

Truth be told, the cornbread isn't really the main attraction here. The shells are a little thinner than I would have assumed. Many bites have more cheese and pepper than cornbread by my estimation, although that does vary from piece to piece, as some of the bites had more cheese leak out than others.

That might be my biggest complaint. The appetizers were all frumpy looking when they came out of the oven, cheese piled outside the apps. They looked nothing like the pic on the box, and they weren't particularly crispy when baked for exactly 15 minutes at 400°.

It's a minor complaint, though. They still tasted great. Cornbread + cheese + peppers = scrumptious. Twelve bites for $3.99. Almost everyone at our Thanksgiving feast agreed, these are a thumbs up—probably in the ballpark of four stars a piece out of five for Trader Joe's Cornbread Bites with Pepper Jack Cheese and Serrano Chile Peppers from this guy. 

Sonia was slightly less enthused, stating "I don't really like cornbread that much." I think it's because she waited too long to try her bites, and she had to nuke them to make them warm again. I tried a bit of her microwave-reheated ones, and they weren't even close to as good as the ones straight from the oven. She wanted to give them only three stars, but the rest of us think that's a bit too low—so three and a half, I guess.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Trader Joe's Spicy Chakri Mix

During my freshman year of college, Aerosmith released their Nine Lives album. My dormitory roomie, whom I'd known since high school, and his then girlfriend, were big fans. So they purchased the CD shortly after its release. On it was a track entitled "Taste of India." The opening lines of it went: 

"Gotta love the sweet taste of India. Lingers on the tip of my tongue." 

Like a good Christian roommate, my old friend changed the lyrics to "Gotta love the sweet taste of Nathan's mom" and would sing it that way when it would play on his boombox in our very tiny dorm room. We'd always have a laugh together about the lyric swap, as "your mom" jokes were in vogue at the time. 

But none of us were well-versed when it came to actual Indian food back then. In subsequent years, walking the streets of Los Angeles and Philadelphia with a bag of curry or channa masala take-out in my hand, my friends would often hear me mumbling "Gotta love the sweet taste of Nathan's mom" under my breath and would ask what the heck I was singing.

I gotta give it to Trader Joe's for furthering my experience with Indian food. Most of their Indian selections aren't quite restaurant quality in my opinion, but they're close enough that when you consider price and convenience, they're still a must-try in most cases.

This snack bag is a little different from the other Indian selections I've had in that it's a dry snack, rather than a saucy meal with veggies, rice, and tofu or meat. It has a spice blend that's similar to a lot of other Indian treats—curry leaves, turmeric powder, and rosemary.

In some ways, it's not a far cry from a Tex-Mex snack mix. The smell is pretty similar and the heat level is comparable, also both styles are super crunchy. There are tiny balls, skinny sticks, peanuts, and those big long pieces that look like the spines of small animals, and each element is super crispy. Looks like all the pieces are made of chickpeas and/or rice, other than the peanuts, of course. I really do wish the peanuts were larger and more plentiful. The peanuts on the cover art are huge compared to the tiny ones I found in my mix.

Other than that, not too many complaints. It's a convenient, exotic snack that's got a decent flavor and a little spicy kick. It would be great on salads or maybe even mixed in with other Indian dishes. I'd even try it with other international cuisines. I'm thinking this would be great on top of Pad Thai or even in wonton soup...? 

It's salty, nutty, and moderately oily. I still think it would be much stronger with more peanuts. But hey, I can always add my own, right? $2.99 for the 7oz. bag. Three and a half stars from me. Four from Sonia.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Trader Joe's Gobbler Quesadilla

Ever hear of the Gobblerito?

It's legendary out here in the Pittsburgh area. Maybe there's something similar wherever you are, but here, every fall, at the local chain Mad Mex, it's officially Gobblerito season. it's literally Thanksgiving dinner as a burrito - turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, black beans and corn all wrapped up and served with gravy and cranberry. Somehow, all my life I've avoided trying one until just a few weeks ago, and I am lost in the awareness of the error of my ways. It's amazing. It's huge. It's comforting.  

And it's a major dietary depth charge. It's so bad for you it practically makes Trader Joe's Gobbler Quesadilla look like health food. 

Granted, the TJ turkeydilla is somewhat of a lighter take. No taters. No gravy. Still plenty of turkey of the roasted variety - not quite as good as a fresh bird, but not dry and insipid either. It passes muster, for sure. Stuck some kale in there, too. That's healthy, although I'm pretty sure I've never seen kale on my Thanksgiving table. But it works. A couple tart cranberries sprinkled in add to the freshness and give a little "flavor sparkle" and seem at home. And naturally it's all held together with a big ol' flour tortilla, with neither too much nor too little tortilla or filling to make it all work

The two other ingredients, though, are worth more insight. First off, the butternut squash. My lovely bride loves butter nut squash while I'm much more ambivalent towards it. We decided to share a quesadilla for lunch the other day, and after just one bite, she unwrapped the whole thing and plinko'ed out every bit of squash she could. Never, in all my years...I took a bite, expecting some shenanigans of the crookneck pumpkin variety. None, really. But my wife? Couldn't stand it. "it...It just doesn't work here, with everything else," she said. With a little unpacking, it seemed that maybe the fibrous nature of the mini chunks weren't the hoped-for mouthfeel, and perhaps some mashed or squashed squash would have been a better option. Taste was good, feel was off. Make of that as you will.

Also: mozzarella. I'm a bit torn on this. I can see why mozzarella was chosen - it is, after all, a quesadilla so a gob of melty oozy cheese is a must, and mozzarella is always on call and ready to go for that kinda job But the rest of the ingredients seemed to demand something sharper and more robust, perhaps like a decent cheddar or even gouda. Some mozzarella would still be welcome, or heck, keep the mozz as is and sprinkle in some quality parm shavings to pique it up - but mozzarella as the only cheese, when not really jiving with the rest of the ingredients in a way that makes Thanksgiving sense, just seemed a bit too haphazard and uninspired. 

That being, said, in all, the turkey quesadilla made a good enough lunch which we may or may not repeat buy. Costs $4.49 (way less than a Gobblerito!) which puts it in the right kind of price range for a quick grab, easy, filling meal. Matching 3.5s from us!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Gobbler Quesadilla: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons 


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