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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Oats and Flax Instant Oatmeal

Toot toot! Hear that? I was pretty sure that was the whistle blowin' on the train headed for Blandville. And I was pretty sure this Oats and Flax nonsense was going to be my ticket there.

However, I wound up in a much more pleasant town. We'll call it Tastyburg. Mayor: Trader Joe, Points of interest: flavor and whole grain goodness.

Silly, I know. But it's high time we reviewed this oatmeal. Sonia's been eating it for months now. I was a little reluctant...a little scared even. I just tried it for the first time today, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Sonia and I both make ours with milk and water, although the box only calls for water (Who makes oatmeal with just water? Blech.) Texture-wise, it's got enough body to keep your teeth busy; it's not just a bunch of mush. There's a pleasant mix of flax seeds in with the oats. It's "hardy." ...or is it "hearty"? Well, it's one of get the idea.

The flavor was what I was really worried about. I like brightly-colored, fancy oatmeals and breakfast cereals with fluorescent, fruit-shaped pieces made of high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils. But it is the new year and that resolution about being healthier is still fresh in my brain, so I braved the oats and flax.

It was surprisingly sweet. They do add cane juice solids to liven it up a bit. It was a little nutty, too. It reminded me of the maple and brown sugar flavored oatmeal that Quaker offers, but I actually liked this one even more. It made me feel all warm inside and gave me a good start to the day. If that Wilford Brimley guy had ever tried this stuff, he surely would have ditched Quaker and started doing commercials for TJ's brand. Is he still alive? C'mon, somebody get Wilford Brimley's agent on the phone!

Anyway, Sonia gives it Four and a half Stars out of Five. I give it Four out of Five Stars. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Enchilada Sauce

Okay, for at least one post, I'm done with super-long fancy named products. I needed something quiet, unassuming, and ego-less (it's tiring to type them out, making sure words are in the right order and whatnot), and Trader Joe's Enchilada Sauce is about the simplest, most humbly named product I could scrum up. They didn't even go for the Trader Jose name to market it under, but TJ"s did opt for ALL CAPS in its labeling design. Gotta do something, I guess.

Anyways, enchilada sauce. Mmm. It's no secret that Sandy and I love Mexican food, or at the very least bastardized Americanized versions of Mexican fare. We've been to the country twice, and while eating some terrific authentic cuisine in remote mountain villages and small mom-and-pop storefront shops in Mexico City (i.e., when we didn't go to Pizza Hut and Starbucks), we've also had some, well ... not to sound ungracious, but sometimes tortillas with rice were the most viable option. That's kind of like going to Italy and eating plain spaghetti noodles, or Ben and Jerry's and getting a vanilla in a dish, no cone. In a lot of ways, you're missing out on something potentially life-alteringly good, but there's just something to be said for the safe option if the other choices are unfamiliar. (Editor's note: This is a horrible analogy. Everything Ben and Jerry's makes is wonderful, and if you go to Italy and eat plain pasta, I will smack you. Just pretend being presented with a bowl of very fresh-smelling cow tripe and a platter of tortillas and rice. Yeah, thought so). That's why we like our Americanized Mexican-style food - it's Mexican enough to delude us into thinking it actually is, while still being tailored much closer to our tastes and preferences.

TJ's Enchilada Sauce is kind of like that. Don't get me wrong, it's good stuff. It's thick, a little goopy, I'd almost say creamy except it isn't, but it invokes creaminess in some way I can't quite explain. The reddish-orange fiery color gives off some visual cues that this might be some pretty spicy stuff. Strangely, no artificial colors are listed in its ingredients. Well, it has a good kick, and like any good meal-time edible accessory, it does its job - namely, it adds to and accentuates flavor without much, if any, subtraction. I used to love overly spicy sauces and spices until I realized how much of the time their heat masked the inherent good taste of the food I used them on. This sauce doesn't - it's not until you've had the first bite or two that you begin to experience the smoky, slightly heated sensation it gives in the back of your throat, but that's where it stays, leaving your tongue and taste buds free to sink into the actual dish. That's the cumin and cayenne doing what they ought - to be present, but not to interfere. We (well, okay, Sandy) made some pretty basic enchiladas with tortillas, black beans, soy chorizo, Mexican shredded cheese and the sauce to share with my brother and his girlfriend for lunch on Sunday, and it was fantastic. The leftover enchiladas were nearly as good reheated for my lunch today. Again, stupid work microwave.

But how good is the sauce really? How authentic, or at least how inspired? I didn't even consider that question until I asked Sandy for her Golden Spoon ranking. I was all ready to give it a four, maybe more (yes, sometimes I weight my grade based on Sandy's), and in a very wise moment, she said, "Well, it's good, but we have nothing to compare it to. I don't think we've ever had actual enchiladas before." I did a mental inventory, and she's probably right ... no, not probably, she is. I married myself one smart cookie. I probably don't know what enchilada sauce is supposed to taste like, and without reference it's somewhat tough to put it into proper perspective.

Of course, will that being the case for us, it's probably the case for a lot of Trader Joe consumers, and I'd imagine many if not most similarly palate-experienced Americans would overall be fairly satisfied with the enchilada sauce. The heat might be a little much for some sissies and little girls ... go eat your tortillas and rice then. Sandy and I definitely enjoy it - we actually had it for the first time about a month ago, and in anticipation of our Sunday lunch, we got two bottles to make sure we'd have some on hand for our next Tex Mex culinary romp. Some benefit of the doubt is involved, but Sandy gave it a three and a half. All things considered, that's a pretty fair grade, and since she blinded me with science in giving her assessment, I feel compelled to concur. As I said, una chica inteligente.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Whole Grain Hard Pretzel Sticks

Okay, let me cut to the chase here:

These SUCK. Do NOT, under circumstance, get these. Whole grain pretzel sticks look like they might be a good premise, a good healthy snack. Well, they might be healthy, but they are horrible, horrendous, and just plain disgusting.

How bad are they? If pretzels were Willie Mays, these would be wearing a Mets uniform. If they were Sly Stallone, these guys would be "starring" alongside Dolly Parton in "Rhinestone." If they were the Beatles, ... well, let's just say Yoko Ono would be involved. These pretzels take something so good, so pure and enjoyable, and turn it into crap.

I mean, I love pretzels. Any kind of pretzel - sticks, rods, nuggets, those little grid-like guys, soft, extra dark, splits, sourdough, honey wheat, soft pretzels, flavored bits and pieces, pretzel buns, anything remotely pretzel-like. I went through high school eating two soft pretzels for lunch everyday (well, except taco day, okay). Sandy made awesome homemade soft pretzels a few days ago that once I polished them off I was begging for more. They are definitely one of my favorite snack food groups, partly because they're healthy compared to chips and cheesy doodles, and also because they're just good.

And these guys ... blah. I tried to like them. I really did. I wanted to like them. But there's nothing redeeming about them. They're bland, tasteless sticks of particle board. They're sparingly salted, which is okay, but there's no flavor to them otherwise, except burned. I took a look inside a stick I halfway crunched, and there's an orange-brownish ring surrounding a teeny white core. So they are just overbaked - I guess maybe that's to help them boast about their claim to be "hard", but they're really not - they're really not any more crunchy than any other pretzel stick. But they are much drier, which makes all the saw dust they leave in your mouth much trickier to swallow. After only two or three I needed a drink to literally wash them down.

I guess it's part of the whole grain curse. Whole grain foods, when made right, taste wonderful and nutty and delicious and help fill you up healthfully. But when made wrong ... man, I don't care how good they might be for you if they don't taste good. The marginal health benefits don't outweigh the taste experience for me. And these pretzels are about the best example I can think of for this.

I had Sandy try one. She munched down half a stick, made a face, went to the fridge and got out a jar of peanut butter to dip the other half in. That sounds like an epoxy recipe to me. "They're better with something," she said. I can buy that, but then that pretty much defeats the whole purpose of having a healthy snack. It's like making broccoli to eat healthy but dumping molten Velveeta on it - having to add something unhealthy to make an otherwise good-for-you food edible seems counterproductive and deceptive.

Anyways, I cannot find anything good about them. I considered returning them to the store, but maybe I'll save them for our dog when we run out of his treats. He wouldn't know the difference. Sandy is a little more forgiving than me, and she said she'd give them a two, "maybe a three," so that sounds like a two-and-a-half to me. Well, that's all they're gonna get. Absolute zero from me.

Bottom line: 2.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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