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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Trader Joe's Butternut Squash & Creamed Spinach Gratin

Unable to procure the popular, recently-released Butternut Squash Mac & Cheese, reviewed by my esteemed colleague, Sonia and I chose this interesting dish on our last TJ's run. It's slightly reminiscent of another understated Trader Joe's find from two years ago: Butternut Squash Parmigiana. The main difference, of course, being that the parmigiana was significantly sweeter...and also "ovenable."

This product is microwavable. No other heating instructions are given, although Sonia and I will now assert that it is indeed "stovetoppable." At the moment, Sonia and I are sans microwave yet again. Well, okay, I take that back. We still have a microwave, but it's in our RV, and I wasn't about to fire up the generator on Tiago the Tioga just to heat our lunch. So we tossed this refrigerated—not frozen—food item in a skillet and stirred it around until heated evenly, and the whole thing worked out beautifully...or at least deliciously, anyway.

Sonia immediately mentioned that the product lacked "sauce." I think she was talking about the creamed well as the parmesan cheese? I thought there was plenty of creamed spinach, but I guess our chosen method of preparation kind of ruined the "gratin-ness" of the dish. Since we didn't microwave the product, I'm guessing we just stirred all the browned, grated cheese right into the rest of the foodstuffs. Flavor-wise, it worked, although the presentation might have suffered a bit as a result. Eh. We were both hungry, so we wouldn't have spent very long gawking at the dish before shoveling it into our mouths anyway. You're lucky we paused to take a picture at all.

Sonia also asserted her absolute approval of the trio of flavors here: butternut squash, spinach, and parmesan cheese—she just wanted a tad more spinach and parmesan. I concur that the flavor combo worked on some level, but I felt that the subtle natural sweetness of the squash worked better with amaretto cookie crunch in the aforementioned parmigiana, and that elements like spinach and parmesan cheese mix better with salty, savory vegetable dishes, such as the classic potatoes au gratin.

Sonia liked that it walked the line between savory and sweet, whereas I generally prefer one or the other. And it's always possible my palate's a little off, or that I'm going insane, but I thought the butternut squash in this instance in particular, was unusually sweet. No biggie. I still give it a solid three and a half stars and think most butternut squash fans will like it. Sonia gives it a full four.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Trader Joe's Maple Pecan Shortbread Bar Mix

At time of writing, I'm wrapping up an entire weekend of solo Dada duty while Sandy's out of town on a business trip. Just me and my girls. Going into this, I had some big plans - camping, hiking, maybe even playing on a lakeside beach somewhere (late October, yes, but it's in the 70s) - but alas it was not to be. Had a pretty bad tendonitis flare up so have been hobbling around and haven't wanted to over do anything.

Which kinda worked out, anyways. Asked the kids what they wanted to do - "Ride bikes! Play games! Go to playground!" - so that's what we've been doing. Sounds kinda dull, in some ways, but honestly, it's been awesome. Just goes to show it doesn't always have to be some big adventure to have a great time. Don't just take my word for it, here's a take from another Russell.

So, it kinda means something when I asked M, our five year old, what her favorite part of the day was just a few minutes ago, she said "Helping you make our treat." And our treat was, you guessed it, Trader Joe's Maple Pecan Shortbread Bar Mix.

It's a really simple mix to do. Almost Dad-proof. Add some butter, an egg, a little water, that's it. It's a two-part deal - the crust and the filling. Beat the crust mix with butter in a mixer, then press into place in an 8x8. That's the part me and the kids really got into - squishing crumbs into place is a total blast with little fingers. it's also where we goofed the most - the crust didn't need to be nearly as up the sides as we made it, but I had no idea, and the box gave no indication. Bake up the crust, and be aware it also surprisingly poofs up quite well. Mix up the filling (again, fun for little ones to stir, hard to goof up) then pour into crust and bake again. Cool, slice, eat. Yum?

Yeah, it ain't bad. Not terribly special, but it's solid. Think typical pecan bar, or imagine pecan pie with much smaller bits of nuts. That sweet, thick, sugary molasses pecan goopy goodness? It's all there. And the shortbread crust gets crumbly and a little greasy and holds the whole shebang together admirably. I may or may not have eaten a quarter of the pan already.

But...what about the maple? I mean, it says it's a maple pecan bar! There's...just not that much. If I didn't know it was supposed to be there, I wouldn't have tasted it. It's just subtle and easy to miss with the sugar and molasses, etc. Needs more maple.

Worth a try if an easy autumnal-type treat is needed. I'm not sure we'll make a repeat purchase, as they seem pretty par for the course, not special, not awful. So, in all, pretty solid. My kids really liked 'em though, so there's that. Easy Dad win, hard to properly quantify that, but I'll take it. Let's just say pretty darn good overall.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Maple Pecan Shortbread Mix: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

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