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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Popping Corn

Every year at the holidays, it's the same. My mom and dad go all out in making and prepping quadruple batches of probably ten different kinds of cookies, homemade bread, pies, and other assorted treats (like Swedish tea ring for Christmas breakfast) just so when my siblings and I descend on their house for a crammed chaotic weekend of food and festivities, not a single one of us would have to face the horror of going more than five minutes without having one of our favorite treats more than an arm length away. I love it for more reasons than it being great homemade food. It's how my folks show their love, of course, and naturally we can make a few good-natured jokes at their expense, like how when they put out platters of cookies on the shelf with their pictures of all their grandbabies, that was their "cookie offering" at the "grandkid shrine." All of us laughing and enjoying each other with some good food - no matter which holiday you celebrate, and whether more secular or religious, and no matter who you celebrate it with, that just may be the very best part.

Strangely enough, though, despite all the homemade cookies and cakes and treats, there always has to be homemade Chex mix there. Always, or it seems a little off, to the point where upon realization one of us will spring into action to make it right away. I don't know if it's the contrasting crunchiness or saltiness against all the sugary delights my family makes, but Chex mix, while certainly not the star of the show, has its own important place amongst everything else.

That's kinda how I also feel about popcorn, more specifically, the non-microwaved non movie-theatered butter-blasted super salty lipid explosion Reddenbacher stuff. Although I like that stuff too, its the simple stovetop variety I like the best. For this, of course, you need good popcorn kernels to start with, so with that in mind, once Sandy and I spotted Trader Joe's Organic Popping Corn, we knew we ought to fire it up and give it a try.

I tell ya what: it works well. Really, really well, actually. The corn pops up fairly quickly in a little olive oil and makes big, fluffy popcorn guys that have the needed munch and crunch while still being a little Styrofoamy. Perfect. In the couple times we've made it, there's been a good popped to unpopped ratio of kernels (probably at least 9.5:1) which I can't always say about other brands...there was this one jar we bought once, can't remember which one, but it was nearly 50/50. That's unacceptable. Sandy loves burnt kernels and all, but there's only so much that should be there before you begin feeling a little cheated. TJ's popcorn was just about spot on. Naturally, it works well with whatever kind of seasoning we choose to go with - whether prepped with some chipotle olive oil or some piri-piri sauce we still have from our Portuguese honeymoon, or a little butter and garlic salt once popped, or even just plain. That's another good reason to go with homemade popcorn - you can control what it tastes like and how good or bad it'll be for you.

I don't recall what the cost is, but it's fairly inexpensive, probably around $2 or $3 for bag that'll last a long while. Fearing it'd be a one-and-done sighting like one or two of my other favorite TJ treats, we bought this bagged corn-ucopia of fluffy yumminess a while back right after we just opened a different bag of corn kernels, so we had to wait to crack this one open. It was well worth it, and glad to say, I've still seen it every trip since. The only semi-negative thing I can say about it is, some of the kernels pop so quick that by the time the rest of them pop, they can be a little burned. Those are the ones Sandy goes for, though, and there's plenty enough of unblemished bits to go around. I'm not sure how to interpret the "organic" part of the product except to suppose that, potentially unlike other brands, the corn isn't turbo-blasted with chemicals and popcorn steroids to make the biggest, fluffiest ones possible. That's probably a good thing, and Trader Joe's popping corn does well enough without any of that. Well enough to get dueling 4.5s from the Mrs. and me.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Popping Corn: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Premium Egg Nog

It's been a busy December, as Decembers often are. There's decorating, shopping, and holiday gatherings and whatnot. I often get stressed out and cranky. That's easy to tell from the first couple reviews I did this month. I figure this blog is one of my outlets for ranting and raving, as the blog I do for my day job is so extraordinarily postive and happy all the time. Which reminds me, since it's the holidays and all, we should be thinking about giving to others...and is a great organization to support.

Now, before I move on to the actual eggnog, I must say that I really like the snowman cow on the carton. TJ's has some great artwork sometimes. Though, I'm not quite sure what's coming out of the cup in his hand. Is that steam? Is the cow drinking his eggnog hot? I've never heard of that. That's just downright weird.

And I must say I am an eggnog-drinking maniac. I loooove eggnog. It's so disgustingly delicious. I mean, it tastes delicious, but after I drink an entire carton by myself, I feel disgusting. Disgustingly delicious. I've had many, many different brands. I've had it by itself, I've had it with various liquors, I've had it with nutmeg and cinnamon on top, I've had it cut with skim milk. I have drunk it in a car. I have drunk it near and far. As of now, my favorite is Southern Comfort brand. It comes sans alcohol, in vanilla or regular flavors. Amazing. Sorry, Trader Joe. You didn't make the #1 spot.

But you're not at the bottom of the list either. I've had store-brand eggnog that comes in gallon cartons for like two or three bucks. Terrible. I think the worst I've had was Ralph's brand out in California. Yuck. I learned to just shell out the extra $2 and get something that tastes like heaven in a glass. So let's imagine a hypothetical diagram. It's a line. At the far right end of the line is Southern Comfort brand eggnog in that sleek black container, the very paradigm of dairy deliciousness. At the far left end of the line is a repulsive, yellowed store-brand with mysterious brown chunks and the smell of chewed bubblegum. TJ's brand falls just right of center. It's more good than it is bad, but not by much. Its flavor is a bit nutty. Its texture is creamy enough. But there's just nothing to really set it apart from boring, run-of-the-mill eggnogs.

Sonia isn't a connoisseur of fine eggnogs like I am. In fact, up until recently, she thought eggnog was disgusting. She could never get over the smell for some reason. Under slight duress from her husband, she managed to gag down a couple gulps of different eggnogs over the past 3 Christmas seasons in an attempt to expand her horizons and appreciate new things. It's grown on her. She has managed to discern that SoCo brand is the best, but she thinks TJ's may be second.

I agree it's not bad, but I think there are a handful of other brands that would fall in between Trader Joe's not-bad-ness and Southern Comfort's perfection, most notably Alta Dena on the west coast and Turkey Hill here on the east side. I've heard very good things about a brand called Bud's that I haven't gotten to try yet.

Well, apparently, since Sonia still doesn't quite appreciate eggnog fully and recognize it as the nectar of the gods that it is, "second best eggnog ever" only garners a 3 from her. I'm giving it a 3 also. But in my opinion, it's really just a very average eggnog. Either way, it's only gettin' a 6 from us.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread

...what's that you say? "Better than Nutella"??? Them's fightin' words where I come from!

Someone on our Facebook page stated that about the new Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread. Fair enough, I say, we're all entitled to our own opinions. That's kinda one of the premises of this whole blog, after all. But when at Trader Joe's for myself and seeing this on the new product endcap and it say so right on the product tag, well, we're in for a scrap.

See, I love Nutella. My wife Sandy says that's an understatement. It's gotten to the point that whenever I purchase it, I have to be a jar for me and a jar for her, mostly because I want to eat it all while she wants to be sure to have some handy whenever she wants. I'm sure she's hiding her jar somewhere...wish I knew where...I wish I had the chance to do something like that to her. Want to know a truly decadent and kinda weird way to enjoy some Nutella that I just discovered? Try Nutella topped with crumbled bacon on a whole wheat waffle (the whole wheat is to make it healthy). Freakin' amazing. Just don't over do that, Elvis.

Anyways, if TJ's claims to have a better chocolate nut spread than Nutella, there's only one way I know how to determine the winner: a full out, jaro-a-jaro, chocolatey cage match to the death!!!...err, to my belly! This method helped crown the king of fake sausage a while back so let's get it started.

Ringside Introductions: In the left corner, from Canada, weighing in at 13 ounces of pure choco-nutty tastiness, costing $3.99 (but conveniently on sale this week for cheaper at a non-TJ's), ladies and gentlemen, it's Nutella! Wooooooo!!!!!

On the right, coming to you from Belgium, also weighing in at 13 ounces, the unknown challenger, also costing $3.99, is Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread! *mild applause*

Round One: First Impressions: Nutella comes in a oval-shaped jar with a round opening, which I know from experience makes it slightly tough to scrape out every tasty tidbit. It has very plain looking packaging but full of cool stuff like "over 50 hazelnuts per jar" (for the 13 oz size) and disclaimers stating to not refrigerate or microwave it. It doesn't say why but I like to believe that it has Happy Fun Ball-like properties if improperly provoked. The TJ's has a round jar and a cooler illustration on the front (both plusses), but the name's kinda clunky. "Cocoa Almond Spread"...hmm...maybe like "Can-u-tella it's not Nutella?" Ok, that's lame, but a step in the right direction. No fun nutty statements either. Judges' decision: draw.

Round Two: Nutrition: Look at the pics and figure out how you'd split that. A few differences? Sure, but nothing definitive enough for me to make a call. Ingredient lists seem to be pretty similar with the obvious exception of Nutella having hazelnuts and, from what I hear, the Cocoa Almond Spread having almonds. Maybe that makes a difference to you, but it doesn't to me. Ohbytheway, they're both terrible for you. Judges' decision: draw.

Round Three: Appearance Upon Opening and Spreading: Twist the lid open and bust the foil seal on either of them, and you'll be greeted by much the same sight: a brown smooth vat of deliciousness waiting to be devoured. The TJ's is kinda darker, though, and doesn't have as much of a glassy sheen. Pretending they were marching towards a tar pit of muddy despair, I grabbed some animal crackers to dip in both. The Nutella seems a little softer when dipping things in, as it draws out and curls up a little bit more than the TJ's. The Nutella also spread better on top of bread when tested. The TJ's was close, but not quite as dippable/spreadable. Judges' decision: Nutella, but it's close.

Round Four: Texture: Pretty related to the third round, of course. Along with its slightly superior spreadability, the Nutella is creamier and lighter than the Cocoa Almond Spread. The TJ's is more dense and lays a little thicker and lingers around a little longer in your mouth. Both have their plusses but.. Judges' decision: Nutella. To me, it's close. To Sandy, not so much.

Round Five: Taste: In the first four rounds, we have two draws and two slight advantages to the Nutella, leaving the TJ's brand with a fighting chance if it tastes better than its competition. And again, it's close. Imagine if you will two heavyweights fighting at the top of their game, and this is what we got. This ain't Little Mac against Mike Tyson here. And as always, it comes down to taste, and taste invariably comes down to preference. Like milk chocolate with hazelnuts and a little extra sugar? You'll like Nutella. Almonds and dark chocolate? The TJ's just may be your winner. Both are rich, full of chocolate, and with the toasted elements of their respective nuts being present. Nutella tastes a little richer and kinda silky, if that makes sense, while the TJ's is just more straight on. To me, they're both appealing and both tasty, and I'd eat either one of them and be a happy fat kid while invariably smearing it all over my face. But we can have only one winner. Judges' decision: Nutella.

Post Fight Wrap Up: Sandy likes them both, too, but it's a clearer decision for her. I'm not sure what she'd rate Nutella at, but it's on my personal pantheon, so Nutella is an absolute five for me. Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread is step, however small, below. I'm wavering between a 4 and a 4.5. Not shabby there, rookie. Sandy's not quite as enamored with the TJ's. "The texture's a little bit weird and kinda off," she said. Also, as she flatly stated while climbing into the car a morning or two ago after sampling it for the first time, "The Trader Joe's just isn't as good as Nutella. Taste isn't as yummy." So there you have it. Sandy said she'd three it up. Seems a little low to me, so I'll go with that 4.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Cocoa Almond Spread: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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