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Friday, September 30, 2011

Trader Jacques' Macaron aux Framboises

This is only the second time Trader Joe's French chef friend, Jacques, has made an appearance on our blog, although we've clearly reviewed more than one other French-inspired culinary creation. Why he didn't take credit for the Boeuf Bourguignon or the Breakfast Scramble, which featured a fleur-de-lis on its box, for cryin' out loud, is beyond me. At any rate, he's back, and he's about to march on your tastebuds like Napoleon in Russia with these Raspberry Macaroons. They're not cheap, but they're truly gourmet, and they're très magnifique. In our review of Jacques' Ham and Cheese Croissants, I accused him of being arrogant. Not because he's French, of course, but because he was selling ham and cheese sandwiches that had a day's worth of fat for something like $6. Pretentious.

If you're going to wow me with highfalutin European fare, you'd better slap a couple words I can't pronounce onto the title of your food. "Macaron aux Framboises" sounds way more exotic than "Ham and Cheese." And then, you've still gotta back that food up with some pretty amazingly unique, exotic and taste-tastic textures and flavors. Which is exactly what Jacques did this time.

This incredible raspberry cake comes frozen, and it calls for something like 45 minutes thawing time. No heating or microwaving required. It's super easy. That is, if, unlike me, you have the willpower to wait 45 minutes before digging in to the mouth-watering "macaron." I think I was just beyond the 35 minute mark when I began to chow down on my section of the dessert. It was still a bit icy in parts, but the taste was amazing nonetheless. It's not a sticky sweet taste. It's a little more subtle than that. It's a very delicate, soft, spongy cake with fluffy vanilla cream and a tart twist from the raspberries. Sonia waited a full hour before she ate her part. She was kind enough to let me try a bite that had fully thawed. Excellent. If you can wait, it's probably not a bad idea to let it thaw for a full hour before you eat it. It's even more incredible that way. The cake is unbelievably soft for having so recently emerged from the freezer.

Between the shortcake-like almond biscuit, the creamy vanilla-ness and lip-smacking raspberries, this one was a big winner with both of us. Sonia thought it had a great balance of textures and flavors, and she happily gave it a 4.5. I concur. This was the best dessert we've had from Trader Joe's in a long time, and it will fall just shy of our Pantheon Level status. Jacques, my good man, très bien. Très bien.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Chile Relleno

Besides really piquing my interest about what went down at the local pseudo-Chotchkie's, Nathan's latest post brought to mind one of the greatest movies ever, Office Space. It's one of the few movies that I can say I've seen probably twenty times, and if I happened to see it on TV, I'd most likely stop whatever I was doing and watch it. That and The Princess Bride. Anyways, I don't want to bore you with the details of my job (which I generally enjoy, possibly more than one reasonably should, considering it's dealing with prescription insurances) but my job does kinda remind me of Office Space sometimes, especially how the main character, Peter, seems to continually repeat a daily work routine. Difference is, I generally like mine. I usually get in at right around the same time, clock in, blow off the first couple minutes BSing with my cubicle neighbors, make my usual pot of coffee while explaining to yet another coworker what a French press is and how it works, review a couple emails (on a good day, 1 out of 10 has lasting relevance for me), BS with the boss about whatever sports event happened the night before, and before I know it, it's about 15 minutes or so later, and it's time to start saving the world, one insurance fustercluck at a time. I like to think I'm good at it, and I like it, so if it's up to me I'll be sticking around for a while.

Short of gutting a fish on a pile of TPS reports or dragging a fax machine out into a field to play whack-a-mole, one way to add a little variety (note: a relative term) is for my lunch. For a while, I was definitely stuck in a rut. First, it was Chef Boyardee. I've eaten more of that for a work lunch than I ever care to admit. Then, for a while, add a bunch of the TJ noodle bowls, but those got old after a while, so those have been relegated to emergency lunch stockpile status for the time being. And I really don't like to go out and buy lunch somewhere, especially in a suburban jumble where the best inexpensive option is the Sheetz down the street (as good as it is, I cannot eat Chick-Fil-A every day...the wallet doesn't allow it). So I've been trying out some different TJ frozen lunches when there's no leftovers to snatch up in my out-the-door whirlwind. There's been some great, some pretty good, and one or two decent ones I've found, with no true clunkers yet (one close call, though).

I think I'll end up putting the Trader Joe's Chile Relleno somewhere in the decent to pretty good category. If you're not familiar with what a chile relleno is, it's a pretty basic Mexican dish comprised of usually a poblano pepper stuffed with some meat and cheese and topped off with salsa and more cheese. Now that sounds like it could be a spicy dish, but this particular incarnation really isn't. Poblanos are pretty mild by nature, and honestly, I've had regular bell peppers with more of a bite than the one that came with my box. I'd also rank the salsa as tasty but pretty tame, and any trace amount of heat gets more than compensated for by the Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses oozing here, there, and everywhere. Alas, there's no meat to be found here, which depending on your point of view can be a plus or minus. Tastewise, it's satisfying enough. Texturewise, well...for being plucked, roasted, stuffed, frozen, boxed, shipped, stocked, bought, then nuked, the poblano holds up pretty well (only semi-squishy), though if you have a knife, you'll want it to slice through the skin. All I had was a fork, and well, that didn't quite cut it. For me, I got a nice little treat when the work microwave (I swear, those things suck! I'd take those out to a field with a baseball bat any day) scorched some cheese mingled with a little salsa on the one edge of the tray, giving me a crispy bonus. I love burned cheese, and my lunch was much better with it. Thanks, work microwave, and thanks Trader Joe's, for making that possible...TJ's, are you trying to make up for something here? Thanks, you shouldn't have.

If you're familiar with my lovely wife's food rules, you'll know why she'll pass it up. Sorry all, we'll get back on board with her usual silliness and rankings very soon. This one's all me. So, it was fairly likable overall, I'd say, and with a couple side items made for a reasonable lunch in the belly-rumble quelling department. I wish it were a little spicier, and wish it had a little chorizo in the stuffing for a little added boost, but until I'm in charge, this is the way the chile relleno's gonna be, I guess. Somewhere around a 3.5 and a 4 seems in order, so let's say one of each.

Now, excuse me, but I believe you have my stapler...

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Trader Joe's Chicken Serenada

Before I tell you anything about this chicken, let me lay it on the line: this chicken cost $6. (That's in Ardmore, PA. Prices vary from store to store). That might not seem that bad to you...and it's really not terrible, but if you consider you can get a decent chicken dish at a "Chotchkie's" type restaurant for eight or nine bucks, then this Serenada better change your life. When you buy frozen chicken at Trader Joe's, not only are you not getting side-dishes and service and a cute waitress with 15+ pieces of flair, but you have to heat it and prepare it yourself.

Do you remember Chotchkie's? It was a fictional knock-off of the TGI Friday's/Ruby Tuesday/Applebee's-genre of restaurants in the Mike Judge film Office Space. Right now, my favorite of those is Ruby Tuesday, as I've had excellent service and food there lately—at multiple locations. I know this has absolutely nothing to do with Trader Joe's food, but I'm going to seize this opportunity to use what little sway I have on this blog to stick it to Applebee's, whose revolting restaurants I've vowed to never set foot in again, primarily because of the jaw-droppingly awful service we received at their Havertown, PA location several months ago. Trust me, you don't wanna ask. I'm usually a kind, sympathetic human being, but I certainly wouldn't lose any sleep if the earth opened up and swallowed that particular location of that restaurant down into the bowels of the earth. I advised their regional manager to take that $25 Crapplebee's certificate that he offered me in compense for the horror I experienced, to gift it to his worst enemy and to tell him to use it in Havertown. I'm not bitter or anything, though...

Ahem, back to the Trader Joe's Chicken Serenada. Most bites were delicious. But some were better than others. The majority of the dish was nice, juicy white breast meat. A few bites were a bit stringy, and there were traces of skin. Some people, like my wife, are fans of chicken skin, and it doesn't bother them to get a bit mixed in with their meat. I'm not one of those people. Animal skin of any kind revolts me. It's not just the principle of the thing, it's the texture. Skin is so's too chewy. But anyway, the bites with skin were just aberrations in an otherwise terrifically-textured plate of poultry.

Flavor-wise, the chicken itself tasted great, and the sauce was excellent. I'm not sure what all was in the sauce, but there appeared to be several different kinds and colors of peppers and onions. On about the third bite I took, there was this very magical moment in which my mouth became unusually, uncommonly, and abnormally happy. Way happier than usual. Not that it's usually unhappy...but there was just something about that particular bite. The experience repeated itself at least three more times throughout my consumption of the chicken. I tried to slow down and be aware of what I was shoveling into my mouth, so that I could pick out what was causing these sporadic occasions of noshing nirvana. I never did figure out what it was. My best guess is those green pepper-looking vegetables.

Anyway, that handful of magical bites was as close as I came to having this chicken change my life forever. But alas, it was too infrequent and irregular to call this chicken transcendent. Also, I should mention that the serving size was just barely enough for one person. Sonia and I shared it so we could both taste it and give it a score. Sonia liked it. She doesn't know where the dish came from. She says it's not Mexican, so we're guessing it's some kind of Spanish meal. "Chicken Serenada." It's like having a ballad written for you by a baked yardbird. I picture farm fowl dancing flamenco and clapping their wings together in unison. It's beautiful. But not to the point that I can overlook the stringy bites, the stunted serving size and the hefty price tag. I'll give it a 3.5. Sonia gives it a 4 for it's pleasant taste and texture. Not bad for a gourmet entree you can heat in the microwave.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

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