Thursday, July 31, 2014

Posting schedule

I've been writing posts--a lot of them. So many that they are pre-written up through almost the end of October, deploying automatically on Sundays and Wednesdays.

Nina suggested that I bump up the publication frequency. Even though I have a ton of material now, I'm a little worried that, in the long run, three times a week will be harder to sustain than two times a week. But I think she's right, so I'm going to give it a try. If I have to cut back later, so be it.

So, starting tomorrow, I'm going to change the postings to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 9:00 a.m. Eastern time. I hope you enjoy them. I'm sure having fun writing them!

Next post: Hibiscus Cranberry Juice Blend 

I'm not like this

Nope. Not even a little bit.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I should buy stock in this company...

Nina was here for dinner tonight. I didn't go quite so far as to ensure that every single morsel of food served was Trader Joe's, but I did have a lot of new items on hand to try out, so probably 90% of our meal was TJ's. In this picture we've got a TJ's Marsala Burger (covered in Kraft cheese, though, so you can't see it) sitting on a toasted TJ's Whole Wheat Hamburger Bun, TJ's Vegetable Fried Rice, TJ's Vegetable Root Chips, TJ's Cold Pressed Juice Yellow, and TJ's Organics Herb Salad Mix (with some pickled beets from a local company, Green River Picklers), topped with TJ's Raspberry Vinaigrette Salad Dressing (although I think I had not yet added it when I snapped this picture).

So many reviews to write now!

Addendum, August 4, 2014 

I'm adding links to the individual product reviews as they are published.

Trader Joe's Himalayan Pink Salt Crystals

Right after the Asheville Trader Joe's had its grand opening last September, I decided to do a gimmicky thing for my next weekly dinner date with Nina: I would prepare a meal in which absolutely everything came from TJ's--right down to the milk, butter, and other staple ingredients. Naturally, that had to include the condiments on the table. That's why I was looking for salt, which I otherwise didn't need to buy.

If I were doing the same thing now, it wouldn't surprise me that TJ's has several different kinds of funky salt, but it did then. This one looked the most interesting and elegant, so I bought it.

What can I say about it? It's salt. Whatever trace minerals it has in it that turn it pink don't affect the taste in any way that I can detect, and I seriously doubt that they have any meaningful health effects. The way I see it, the only reason to have this stuff is as a fancy little dinner-table conversation piece. Which it is--especially as guests try to figure out how to make the built-in grinder work. (It's not difficult, but it's also not obvious.)

I put out the pretty pink salt when I have dinner guests. For myself, I rarely add salt to my food (less than once a week, on average), but when I do, it's Wal-Mart salt in a Wal-Mart salt shaker. Blindfold me, and I can't tell the difference between that stuff and what you see above.

Will I buy it again? 

I won't be faced with that decision for many, many years. I've had this container for almost a year, and it doesn't look any less full than it did the day I bought it. In 20 years or so, when it's getting empty, I'll let you know what I decide to replace it with. If TJ's still exists, and if they still sell this same product, and if I'm still making dinner for guests, maybe I'll buy another one to last me up until my mid-90s, after which, actuarially speaking, I won't have to worry about it anymore.

But wait, there's more! 

I emailed the above to Nina, hoping that she would add her observations. She has a far wider range of experience with food than I do. Just as importantly, she tends to pay a lot more attention to matters of taste and texture than has been my habit.

She indulged me with her additional comments, not only for this item, but for another blog post yet to come. For the items that we have tried together (which is a large percentage of them, but not all), I hope that you'll often get her opinion thrown in with mine at no additional charge to you, the reader! 

So without further ado, I give you...

Nina's view 

It's pretty. As Bob said, you can have a conversation about the Himalayas. And salt. And woo.

The only advantage I can see to it is that it produces larger crystals of salt (like Kosher salt) than typical table salt fine granules. This gives an extra burst of crunchy saltiness, which can be nice for some dishes.

Kosher salt is probably cheaper, but it's not pink.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bench & Field Holistic Natural Feline Treats

"Hey, wait just a doggone minute," I hear you saying. (I have exceptionally good hearing.) "Those are not Trader Joe's cat treats. You didn't even start the blog post title with 'Trader Joe's.'"

Estimating just from what I see on the shelves at my local TJ's, I would guess that about 95% of the items (excluding alcoholic beverages) sold there are, indeed, branded by Trader Joe's. (Who actually makes them is information that TJ's never discloses.) This particular item is one of the rare ones sold by TJ's without its own branding. So I claim it's a legitimate subject for this blog, despite the lack of the TJ's name.

If I had looked at the list of ingredients while I was in the store, I never would have purchased this. Lucy (my cat) doesn't like fish, or anything fishy. Heck, she won't even listen to Phish! And the first ingredient here is "Anchovy & Sardine Meal." So it's no surprise that she turns up her adorable little nose at these fish-shaped morsels.

Lucy has three different kinds of treats kept in my desk drawer. (OK, it's more of a cubby-hole cleverly disguised as a drawer. Whatever.) When she wants one, she sits down next to that drawer and looks up at me with begging eyes.

Would you like to see what happens when I give her one of what I call her "sardine treats" instead of one of the two kinds she actually likes? Of course you would.

(Please note that this blog is now officially "multi-media.")

Anyway, you can see that she walks away rather than stoop to eating these things. However, she always comes back later, when she's a little hungrier, and reluctantly nibbles it from the floor, before returning to her begging spot to try for something better. That's why I keep giving them to her, one a day. They are, after all, high in protein, high in omega oils, and low in carbs. I imagine that they're good for her, though what I know about cat nutrition would fit inside one of these treats. But once these are gone, I won't buy more. It's a lot more fun to give her things she actually enjoys.

Will I buy it again? 

Weren't you listening? I just answered that: No.


The day after I shot that little video, Lucy upped her game. She didn't even wait to sniff the treat to find out whether it was one she wanted. She apparently now recognizes which container holds the icky treats--and she walked away haughtily as soon as I brought it out.

Addendum #2 

Now it has been another several days since I wrote that, and she has stopped coming back to eat the fish treats altogether. I'm giving up on them. I'll see if Nina's cat likes them.

Bonus cat video 

If you want to see how Lucy reacts when she really likes a treat, you can amuse yourself for ten minutes with this recording of her first experience with a chunk of freeze-dried turkey meat from a company called "Whole Life." She was already a few minutes into this frenzy when I picked up my camera and started recording. Short version: She goes bonkers for it.

Nina's View 

Loki LURVES these treats, which should be no surprise since he's quite happy to eat fishy-flavored food. He likes them better than the Greenies which are his usual reward for Kitty Excellence.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Trader Joe's Mini Chicken Tamalitos

I've bought these "tamalitos" twice now. The first time I tried disregarding the cooking instructions, because they called for steaming the things, and who does that? I mean, processed frozen foods are intended by what our founding fathers called "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" to be shoved in a microwave oven and eaten two minutes after they come out of the freezer. Amirite?

Well, not these puppies. No. I guess you'd call them "delicate." The box does have microwave heating instructions, but they involve multiple steps, wrapping in wet paper towels, and so on. So instead I decided to forge my own path and just heat them up in my toaster oven. The result was not pretty. The parchment paper they're wrapped in got charred before the food was really heated. It was both a mess and a disappointment.

So I bought another box, determined to be a good boy and steam them properly. Fortunately, my sweet girlfriend gave me a rice cooker for Christmas, and it has a steamer basket insert. That's what I used. This time they came out fine--probably pretty close to the way they're intended to turn out. The second photo above is from this second try, not the unsuccessful first try.

The resulting texture was nice, but the taste? Bland. Really, really bland. Like, so bland your mouth asks your brain, "Dude, this is Mexican food? Are you sure? Can you check the box again?" That "red sauce" the subheading on the box promises was practically nonexistent.

I fixed that with the universal cure-all for bland food: Sriracha sauce. But then the result is that all I'm tasting is the sauce, not the stuff I paid for and spent 20 minutes steaming. What's the point of that? I could just dip some cardboard in Sriracha and get the same result.

Between the fussy heating instructions and the completely uninteresting, unexciting taste, I have to designate this item a fail.

Will I buy it again? 

Not unless somebody gives me some good reason to think that there's a way of preparing them that makes them a lot better than how I did it.

Special note 

Nina has been a committed vegetarian for many years. Over the time that I've known her, my diet has gradually shifted in that direction. I probably now eat only one-third of the meat I used to, and that fraction may will continue to drop, as I keep discovering tasty new meat-substitute products. Which means that reviews of TJ's products containing meat--like this one--are likely to be pretty rare on this blog.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Take a guess--answer

The answer to yesterday's contest was...drum roll, please...


If you did the same survey now, after I've made three more trips to TJ's knowing that I would be writing about the products, the answer would probably be closer to 70. Yeah, seriously. The freezer and the cupboards are full, almost overflowing at this point.

In case you haven't already figured this out, it's possible that I have slightly obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

The winner of this pathetic little contest, with a guess of 17, was "Alex," who is clearly a towering intellect among men.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Take a guess

A couple of weeks ago, when I decided, pretty much out of the blue, to give writing a Trader Joe's blog a try, I took my camera into the kitchen and pulled out every TJ's item I had in the fridge, the freezer, and in the cupboards. Remember, this was with no preparation or advance notice, no special trips to the store to stock up--just a random day's sampling.

Your challenge is to guess how many different TJ's items I had on hand that day. Closest guess in the comments wins--I dunno, effusive praise in a future blog post, maybe.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Trader Joe's Cheddar & Gruyere Melange Cheese

I'm starting with the first TJ's item that ever caught my attention, years ago, as explained in my introductory blog post (which, if you haven't read, you probably should).

Let's not mince words: I friggin' love this cheese. I would eat it on crackers for a late-night snack every night of my life, except for the fact that when I did essentially that* for a year or so, I gained about ten pounds. So now I force myself to walk past the cheese section without stopping most of the time, and just get it as a treat once in a while.

But you know what? That's not enough of an endorsement. So let me put it this way: Cheese-pirate aliens could come and snatch every other kind of cheese in the world, leaving only this stuff, and I'd be OK with that. Not that I'm wishing for that to happen--because I like lots of other cheeses, too. But as long as I were left with my melange, I wouldn't shed many tears if all the others got sucked into another dimension, or got banned by the Spanish Inquisition, or whatever.

It's super-yummy (I apologize for starting in with the technical food vocabulary so early) without being overpowering. It blends well with whatever goes well with any cheese (which, let's face it, is just about everything). It cuts easily without being all icky-soft (I can't stand runny cheeses) or crumbly-hard.

By the way, I apologize for the photo of the not-quite-new package. It is my intention to use pictures of intact packages whenever possible. But I didn't decide to do this blog until after I had already cut into this block.

There's nothing else to say. Go to Trader Joe's and buy this cheese. Or maybe I should tell you not to, so that there's plenty left for me.

Will I buy it again? 

Yes. Oh, my, yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. This is easily a Top Ten Item. (N.B.: I reserve the right to designate a lot more than ten items as Top Ten Items. Don't be so literal, people!) As you will discover with future reviews, TJ's has a handful of items that I like so much that I will always keep them stocked in my kitchen. This may be the only one that I like in that same kind of way, but can't actually keep around all the time, because of the expanding-waist-size problem. That puts it sort of into a category of its own, which seems only fitting. Unlike my pants.

*It wasn't all or even mostly this particular cheese, but it sure helped get that habit started.

It begins

You may know me from such films as--no, wait, that's Troy McClure on "The Simpsons." You may know me from my other blog, Poker Grump (which doesn't get a lot of upkeep these days), or Facebook, Twitter, or even (gasp!) from real life. Or you may not know me at all, having stumbled here via Google or whatever. However you got here, welcome. Thanks for peeking in.

Let me explain what I'm doing here, and why.

My back story 

I'm a 53-year-old guy living in Asheville, North Carolina. I've been here about 18 months. A Trader Joe's store opened about a mile from where I live, on the street where I already did most of my shopping and other errands, making it exceptionally convenient to visit frequently.

I had never even heard of the chain until I started dating my girlfriend, Nina, in 2009. When I visited her in Washington, D.C., she took me grocery shopping to her TJ's a couple of times, and I was intrigued by a whole store full of different products, virtually all of them store-branded--no national brands. She asked me to pick out a cheese to have with our dinner one night, and I thought the "Cheddar-Gruyere Melange" sounded interesting without being too exotic. I was floored by how good it was.

I was interested in exploring more TJ's items. However, I was living in Las Vegas at the time, inconveniently far from the nearest TJ's store there, so I went a couple of times and tried a few things, but didn't change my grocery buying habits much as a result.

A few years passed, Nina moved from D.C. to Asheville because of reasons, and I quickly moved here to be near her. That a TJ's was announced shortly after I moved here, with a location of terrific convenience to me, was just an added happy bonus.

Since the store's opening last September, I have tried dozens of different products. The exploration has been greatly catalyzed by the fact that Nina comes over for dinner once a week. I'm not a good cook, but I love having her here. She likes trying new food, and I enjoy finding new products that she hasn't had before.

My own experience with food has been rather limited. That is, I've eaten as much as most 53-year-olds, but probably a lot less variety than most. My diet has mainly consisted of maybe a dozen things I especially like to make for myself, repeated over and over and over again. The entrance of Nina into my life, with her zeal for trying new things, has gently, gradually nudged me that way.

A concrete example: Last week I was at TJ's for some items, and passed an aisle-end display of "Hibiscus-Cranberry Juice." I like cranberry juice, and love it blended with other juices, especially grape, raspberry, or cherry. But hibiscus? Who has ever heard of that? My reaction was, "Well, that's different. I should try it." With absolutely no doubt whatsoever, five years ago my reaction in the same situation would have been, "Well, THAT'S different. I'd better not try it. Why aren't they putting normal juices with the cranberry, the way nature intended?"

My purposes 

I have in mind some reasons for doing this blog. In no particular order:

  • It gives me an excuse to play around with my new camera, taking pictures of food. 
  • It will force me to write about a subject--food--on which I am a rank amateur. I do a lot of writing, both for public consumption and for private clients, but until now all of my writing has been on subjects on which I know a great deal. There's safety in that; I won't make a lot of embarrassing mistakes, or reveal ignorance. This is a whole different thing. I'll be writing as I learn, fully exposing how little I know, but hopefully eradicating my ignorance one little post at a time. 
  • I tend to try foods, then not remember clearly what I thought of them later. I've bought stuff I don't like a second time by accident, not remembering that I didn't like it the first time. This will be an accessible record that I can consult. 
  • I hope that readers will help educate me, disagree with me, explain where I'm wrong and why, point me to other items that I should try, share ways of preparing foods that would be better than what I have done. 
  • It will be another motivator to keep trying new things. TJ's web site says that they typically roll out 10-15 new items a week, and retire an equal number of poorly selling ones. There's no danger of running through the entire catalog and being left with nothing to write about. 


  • I'm no foodie. I have taken no courses in food preparation or evaluation. I make stupid rookie mistakes in my cooking. My palate is untrained and neither experienced nor particularly adventurous. Don't expect me to expound on the subtle flavor profile of some new cheese. If you ever catch me saying crap like, "It has a prominent hickory note, with lovely undertones of weaselwood and dahlias," you have permission to shoot me. 
  • I don't drink alcohol, so about one-quarter of the space at my local store is never going to get included in my exploration. 
  • I'm not going to take requests. 
  • If it has onions in it, I'm not going to eat it, period. Onions are foul, disgusting, noxious weeds that should be vaporized off the face of the planet. This is one of the few non-negotiable items in my life, so don't ask. 
  • I hope to write posts about twice a week, but I'm not committing to any particular schedule. I'm tentatively planning for Sundays and Wednesdays, but we'll see. 
  • Posts will probably often be very, very short. Like, "This stuff sucks. I don't ever want to taste it again, and I don't even want to write any more about it now." 
  • As will rapidly become evident, there is no commercial interest here. I.e., you'll see that I'm just as willing to bash as to praise. Nobody is paying me to do this. In the unlikely event that TJ's finds and likes this blog and decides to offer me freebies or something, I'll let you know about it. No secrets or undisclosed motives. 
  • It's likely that every post title will be just "Trader Joe's" followed by the name of the item under review. I know this will be tedious, but it's intended to help people doing searches for specific things. 
  • Comments are welcome, with word verification (to cut down on the damn spammers, who should rot in hell starting immediately) and light moderation. Basically, say whatever you want about my posts and I'll approve it, unless it's clearly spam, or libelous, or just rude/insulting without any substance. 
  • I'm aware that there are already other blogs out there covering this same territory. I haven't yet decided whether I'll ignore them, or slavishly read and link to what they have said about items I'm writing about, or something in between. But I won't ever copy or plagiarize. Every word you see here will be mine (or that of Nina, if I am successful in coaxing her into sharing her opinions here, too). So will every photograph, unless marked otherwise. 
OK, I think I've rambled enough. Time to write my first few posts (set in advance to publish on Sundays and Wednesdays, at least for now), and see what happens.