Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trader Joe's Grilled Eggplant & Zucchini Melange

Purchasing this was really pushing the edge of my vegetable tolerance. I can put up with zucchini if I have to, though I'd be happier if it just disappeared from the planet so that I never encountered it. And eggplant? Well, I've never had it before, because it's in that category of things that are so obviously icky that why would I?

But I have a vegetable-loving girlfriend to feed, and a daily blog to write, so one must take some chances. Sometimes I try something new and I'm pleasantly surprised--like discovering the wonderful world of hummus. Other times, my prejudices are confirmed. As, for example, here.

Both the eggplant and zucchini pieces were kind of tough and stringy while somehow also managing to be slimy. That is not a winning combination of adjectives. In case it matters to you, this dish is also not vegan-friendly, with little globs of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Other opinions 

What's Good at Trader Joe's blog: "All in all, this dish is better than zucchini or eggplant served plain by themselves. There's a tomatoey sort of sauce and some bits of mozzarella (which I didn't even notice while eating the dish, to be honest with you) and some bits of tomato...and maybe some other mysterious things...It tasted like what you'd expect. It's stewed vegetables in a sauce. Not bad at all. My only complaints are that the pieces of eggplant were too big, and they were a little chewy. I think eggplant has an underrated taste, but it really has to be cooked a certain way or chopped up into tiny little bits and pieces for the texture not to ruin the experience."

Eating at Joe's blog: "Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a big fan of melanges in general.... Nevertheless, Trader Joe’s Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini Melange is a credit to the name – a tasty, tangy, cheesy mixture of two of the vegetable world’s least celebrated members.... Eggplant and zucchini, despite their frumpy reputations, actually serve very well in this dish. Both veggies have a mild taste that complement each other and the sauce they come in, while providing enough heft to make for a satisfying mouthful. That said, nothing is done to ameliorate the texture of the large, floppy eggplant slices, which remain, as ever, a bit mealy and soggy."

Will I buy it again? 

Not in this lifetime. 

Nina's View

Oh dear. This was just really NOT GOOD. I can only hope that Bob will be able to blank out his memory of this experience on the day when *I* get around to serving him something with eggplant in it.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


This is my weekly compilation of Trader Joe's news and other links from the week.

How do I love thee, Trader Joe's? 

Trader Joe's shopping guide for the paleo diet 

Life hack: How to reuse your Trader Joe's spice grinder 

Beetles found in packaged salads (ew!) 

Trader Joe's chocolate peanut butter cupcakes 

Is everything better with Trader Joe's cookie butter on it? (funny video)

Is Aldi a better place to shop than Trader Joe's? 

10 snacks Trader Joe's must never discontinue 

America's most tasteful $2 buzz (review of several Trader Joe's beers)

I was greatly shocked this week to learn that there is another Trader Joe's blog out there that I had somehow never run across before. I thought I knew about all of them. Take a peek in on Samantha's reviews of TJ's products:

Another special announcement: The good folks (all four of them) at the "What's Good at Trader Joe's" blog have started a podcast to discuss TJ's food. First episode is here.

Best tweets of the week:






Finally, this week's picture of a cute cat in a Trader Joe's grocery bag is Monkey, whose mom hangs out in the Trader Joe's fan page on Facebook:

Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Tortilla Chips

It's another brand-new Trader Joe's item! They have really been rolling them out rapidly lately. We've featured eight in the last 12 days.

This one I have known was coming for a couple of months. That's because I caught TJ's announcement that they were retiring the most excellent Sweet Potato Tortilla Chip Rounds for a similar but allegedly better product. The old ones are now gone, and the new ones are on the shelves in their place.

I am here to testify that they are not an improvement. They are not nearly as good. They're good, and I'll keep buying them, but every time I do I will curse the TJ's executives who made this decision.

Both versions are made from a blend of corn and sweet potato flours, but I thought the old version was much more weighted toward sweet potato flavor, while the new ones can best be described as "corn, with a little sweet potato if you pay attention."

Both versions are fried, but it shows much more in the new ones. They show their oil more. Is this because they're thinner? I don't know. Maybe. But I preferred the old style, with thicker chips that were sufficiently drained of oil that one could almost fool oneself into thinking they were baked. I also just generally prefer round chips to triangular ones.

In short, all the characteristics that made me love, love, love the old ones have been changed--for the worse. Despite that, they're still pretty good, and among the better tortilla chips that TJ's sells. I'm sure I would like them a lot more than I do if the predecessor product had never shown me how good sweet potato tortilla chips can be. *snif*

Will I buy it again? 

Yes, but with mourning for what has been lost.

Nina's View

Everything about Bob's assessment of these chips is correct  except the issue of sweet-potatoeyness. These have more sweet potato and less corn flavor. I preferred the previous balance, in part because it was—say it with me, folks—a tad less sweet. 

The big fail here is the fragile super-oiliness of these chips. 

They're still edible, for sure. But I, too, liked the old version much better. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Trader Joe's Grilled Cauliflower

A big sign in the Asheville Trader Joe's the other day called my attention to this brand-new item. The only information available online about it so far is on TJ's own web site, here.

As you can infer from the name and photo, they have done the grilling for you. All you have to do is heat it up. The package says 13-15 minutes at 400 degree. For once, I think I'd stick with that, even though the instructions invite you to go longer if you want more of a grilled character to the cauliflower. That would probably be fine for the larger pieces. However, there are many tiny pieces that I think would be charred inedible if left in any longer.

I liked the flavor. You can definitely taste the smoky grilled flavor. The cauliflower is left unseasoned, which in this case I think is the right choice; let users decide for themselves whether to add salt, butter, hot sauce, etc.

Will I buy it again? 

Yep. I liked it. I eat a lot of cauliflower, and this made for a nice change, with almost no effort.

Nina's View

Meh. This did nothing special for me. I like oven-roasted cauliflower, but I generally add a little oil and look for some carmelization to boost flavor, and some crispness for texture interest. 

These just had char, and not very flavorful char, imo. The cauliflower itself was still bland and watery-tasting. 

I would not push my cart to the other side of the aisle for this bag of vegetables. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Trader Joe's Handcrafted Beef Tamales Wrapped In Corn Husks

These are pretty good, though a long way short of outstanding. They're also a decent value, at $2.29 for two, with each one making a good centerpiece of a meal. As with most Trader Joe's products--and it seems especially their Mexican foods--they are unnecessarily toned down by the Blandification Committee, though not quite as much as some other items I've tried. They are admirably beefy, and the shredded beef is flavorful and easily the best part of the tamale.

Preparation is not quite as simple as one typically expects for frozen foods. The directions give you the choice between steaming in a microwave oven (after wrapping the product in a wet paper towel) or using some sort of steamer. Since my rice cooker has a steamer attachment, that's what I did. The first one came out perfectly, though I left it in for 30 minutes instead of the recommended 20-25. The second time around, I stopped it at 25 minutes, and the center was still only about room temperature, so I'd recommended going long on the timing.

Will I buy it again? 

Probably not. I'm becoming ever more convinced that beef is a problematic food, and that there are sufficient reasons to shift one's consumption toward some combination of poultry and plant-based meat substitutes. These were okay, but not so compelling that I'd want to use up my shrinking, self-imposed beef rations this way.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Trader Joe's Organic Pea Soup

This is the third item I've reviewed in Trader Joe's line of refrigerated soup. First there was the organic vegetable soup with quinoa and kale, then the organic roasted tomatillo gazpacho.

This struck me as pretty generic pea soup. Perfectly edible, nothing wrong with it, but no better than if it came from a can at WalMart. The TJ's Blandification Committee has thrashed this into nearly lethal boringness. At $3.99 for what amounted to only two servings, it ought to be a damn sight better than that.

Sure, you could improve it by adding some salt and hot sauce, maybe sprinkling some sort of potent shredded cheese on top, etc. But (1) that's true of the cheapest canned pea soup, too, and (2) why don't Trader Joe's cooks take care of that for you?

Will I buy it again? 

I can't think of a reason that I would. However if offered a free tub of any of the three products in this line of TJ's soups, I'd pick this one.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Yep, it was another nearly 100% Trader Joe's dinner with Nina tonight.

We started with TJ's Organic Hummus and TJ's brand-new Sweet Potato Tortilla Chips (not shown). Main course was fake chicken strips called (weirdly) "The Prepper," made by a local company, "No Evil Foods." I marinated that overnight in TJ's Thai Green Curry Simmer Sauce, then simmered it in the same until the sauce thickened quite a bit. It's served over a bed of TJ's Basmati Rice Medley. (In the photo I admit that it looks disgustingly inedible. But it wasn't! It was actually a nice dark green.)

On the side is another brand-new product, TJ's Grilled Cauliflower. The juice is TJ's Low Calorie Cranberry Juice Cocktail. The salad is a mix of TJ's Organic Baby Spinach and TJ's Champs Elysee, with TJ's Raspberry Vinaigrette Dressing.

Dessert was TJ's Rainier Cherries (which I think are only briefly available, and they're excellent, so grab some while you can).

I liked every bit of these things.

Trader Joe's World's Puffiest White Cheddar Corn Puffs

I like cheesy corn puffs. I was raised on those things. (We called them "corn curls.") I could like these, too, if it weren't for the feature that gives rise to their boastful name. They are indeed (at least as far as I know) the world's puffiest.

But that means that they're mostly air. Maybe that's true of other brands, too, but it's taken to an extreme here. The sad result is that you put one of these in your mouth, crunch down on it, and it disappears. It's just gone, leaving behind a little cheesy corn dust. The sensation is a lot like that of eating cotton candy--there's nothing there.

I found that experience to be so frustrating and annoying and just downright weird that I couldn't enjoy these, even though I admit that they have a nice flavor. If only that flavor were actually on something....

Will I buy it again? 


Nina's View

Everything that Bob doesn't like about these is pretty much the reason why I like them. They are the zipless crunch of the snack-food world. (Am I the only person who remembers Erica Jong? Probably.) Because they pretty much disappear in your mouth, they feel guiltless—yet they do have a cheesy but not chemical flavor.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Trader Joe's Kettle Popped Sweet & Salty Popcorn Chips

Once again, it's difficult to tell from the package where the name of the product ends and some extra verbiage describing it begins. If I threw in the "whole grain with chia seeds, flax seeds, whole quinoa, sunflower seeds," it would, I think, become the longest product name yet.

I tried to like these. I had them on at least four separate occasions, many days apart. But they never sat right with me.

First, I'm just not a fan of mixing sweet and salty. It seems to be a big fad in the food industry in recent years, and it doesn't do anything for me. That's true here, too, even though the "sweet" part is pretty subdued.

Second, even if I discount that issue, I don't think these taste much like popcorn. Sure, I can sense that there is popcorn in them, but its presence is confused by the cacophony of other flavors produced by the various other grain and seed components.

Third, the texture is dry and chewy, like rice cakes--not crispy. The spareness of the salt is also reminiscent of rice cakes.

In fact, there's almost nothing I like about these.

Will I buy it again? 


Nina's View


These are just delicious. A little sweet, a little salty, some flavorful grains and seeds. They're not really appetizer- or dip-friendly though, although maybe you could put a dab of peanut butter on them. They're almost desserty.

I'm not much given to buying chips and such. But I like these enough that if I were hosting a party I would get some, and Bob could just snack on something else. In fact, they go into my Top Ten.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trader Joe's Chicken Balti Pies

This is an unexpected Day 6 in a row of reviews of brand-new Trader Joe's products. 

I was in the store yesterday (Saturday) when I saw a big sign on the freezer case announcing this new product. I bought it and had for lunch one of the two pies it contains. The item is so new that a Google search finds literally zero hits about it--nothing on TJ's own web site, no images, etc. I'm sure that will change quickly, however.

I had next to no idea what to expect. I had never heard of "balti" before. According to Wikipedia,
Balti is a type of curry served in a thin, pressed-steel wok called a "balti bowl." It is served in restaurants throughout the United Kingdom, and the consensus appears to be that the term refers to the pot in which the curry is cooked, rather than to any specific ingredient or cooking technique. 
There are several theories regarding the origin of Balti and balti-style dishes. Some believe it was invented in Birmingham, England, while others believe it originated in northern Pakistan in the region called Baltistan, whence it spread to Britain

Some of the seasonings are expected (curry powder, mustard, paprika); others surprising, at least to me (coriander, brown sugar, nigella seeds).

The overall result is kind of a weird mashup between British and Indian. Depending on exactly what my fork picked up, sometimes it tasted like a slightly spicy chicken pot pie, and sometimes like a curry dish in a crust.

It's that neither-fish-nor-fowl characteristic that dampened my enthusiasm for it in the end. It did not feel like a successful blend of two traditions, but more like the creators couldn't make up their minds what they wanted it to be. Maybe the chefs really wanted to make it more distinctly Indian, but the Trader Joe's Blandification Committee made them tone it down. If so, it's a shame. I think it would work better if they went full-bore on the spices. That is, have the form be British, but the taste clearly Indian. I think that would be interesting and delicious meld of cuisines. Going halfway isn't working.

Cook time per the instructions was OK, but not ideal. I used the maximum of the 45-50 minutes recommended, and for the second one I'll extend that another five minutes, because it was not quite hot all the way through. This is a recurring problem with TJ's frozen goods.

Will I buy it again? 

No. It's a good idea that falls short of success by not being carried through to its logical conclusion.


I liked the second one better than the first. I expect part of this was the extra cook time, so it was genuinely hot throughout. Some of it may also have been that I knew what to expect, so there wasn't the clash between my expectations (which initially had been of a hotter curry dish) and reality. Maybe I'll rethink whether I would buy it again.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


It's my weekly compilation of news and other recent links to items of interest about Trader Joe's.

Catering, with Trader Joe's products 

8 Trader Joe's shopping tips 

Five favorites from Trader Joe's 

How Trader Joe's makes food stuff "significant objects" 

Trader Joe's: Best Key Lime pie at the best price 

Testing the label claims of extra virgin olive oil 

A special pointer to a blog that I just discovered; don't know how I have missed it before: The Fearless Flying Kitchen publishes recipes primarily focused on using Trader Joe's ingredients or replicating favorite processed foods from Trader Joe's.

Tweets of the week:




This week's picture of a cute cat--"Midnight"--in a Trader Joe's bag is the first one whose human actively solicited me to be so included, via the Trader Joe's fan group on Facebook:

And as a special bonus pet photo, I bring you a cute dog eating some Joe-Joe's ice cream:

Trader Joe's Sour Gummies

We promised you four consecutive days of new products, but I went to the store again and found another, so it's a bonus FIFTH "new item" day in a row! 

I've never had sour gummies before. I didn't even know such a thing existed. But I like these. The lemon and lime are sour enough to really grab your attention, without being unpleasant. The grapefruit is a little less so, and the tangerine is almost not sour at all. However, the tangerine, like the lemon and lime, actually tastes distinctly like what it's supposed to be; the grapefruit not so much. Which means that for me the lemon and lime are the real winners here.

Will I buy it again? 

Sure. I can happily add it to the rotation of yummy TJ's treats I keep on hand.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Trader Joe's Brewed Ginger Beer

This is day 4 of new products from Trader Joe's.

I've had ginger beer just twice before, and both times it was as part of Moscow Mules. (I almost never consume alcohol, but these were on two special occasions when out with friends.) I had never even heard of ginger beer when I had the first of those, less than three years ago.

So this is the first time I've tried it as a stand-alone drink. It's a lot less gingery than TJ's seasonally available Triple Ginger Brew. (Maybe that counts as ginger beer. If so, ignore my disclaimer above.) That means it's easier to drink a whole bottle, because it's not lacerating your throat with ginger as it goes down.

There's some unpleasant sediment that settles at the bottom, and will get stirred up into the drink if you're not careful. On my third bottle, I tried some gentle inverting and swirling before opening. That was sufficiently successful at dispersing the sediment that it ceased to be an issue.

I kind of like it. It's a lot more complex and interesting than soda pop, and less heavily carbonated.

You can read TJ's own announcement of this new product here.

Will I buy it again? 

Sure, once in a while. It would be an excellent drink to provide at parties, not only as a mixer for various alcoholic concoctions, but as something nice all by itself for the non-drinkers and designated drivers.

Nina's View

You may remember that I was more enthusiastic about the Triple Ginger Brew than Bob. This is much less aggressively ginger-flavored beverage, which makes it more suitable for thirst quenching on a hot summer day. It goes down easily, if perhaps a tad too sweetly for my taste.

I wager that this is the kind of drink that just about everyone—except diehard ginger haters, if there is such a thing—will enjoy. It's refreshing, it's light, and the modest carbonation avoids the burping and bloat that most sodas bestow on those who drink them quickly. 

I approve.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Trader Joe's Muhammara

This is day three of four, bringing you quickie reviews of brand-new products from Trader Joe's. UPDATE: We had another brand-new product last night, so this series will now be extended to five days! 

I had never heard of muhammara until last week when somebody spotted this new product at Trader Joe's and tweeted a picture of it, asking, "What is this?" Wikipedia helpfully informs me that muhammara is
a hot pepper dip originally from Aleppo, Syria, found in Levantine and Turkish cuisines.... The principal ingredients are usually fresh or dried peppers, usually Aleppo pepper, ground walnuts, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. It may also contain garlic, salt, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, and sometimes spices (e.g. cumin). It may be garnished with mint leaves.
You can read TJ's own introduction to the product, including a full list of ingredients and nutritional information, here.

I'm not a fan of walnuts, so I was somewhat leery of trying this, but I hoped and suspected that the other ingredients would be strong enough in flavor to make it not taste too walnuty (walnutty?).

I was correct in that surmise. It's actually quite sweet, and the dominant flavor is red pepper. In texture, it's denser, more viscous, and much more granular than hummus, to use the obvious point of comparison.

I don't like it as much as hummus, but I was pleasantly surprised. When faced with something so utterly alien to my food experience, my natural inclination is to assume it will be awful--especially when its main ingredient is something I already know I don't like. So it was a great relief to find that I could actually enjoy this. I've had it twice now--first as a pre-dinner appetizer on crackers, then as a late-night snack on tortilla chips. It seems to work fine both ways.

Will I buy it again? 

Probably not--not because it's bad, but because I think I would always reach for hummus over muhammara. But I'm happy to have faced another completely unknown kind of food and have it turn out to be not so bad as I feared.

Update: I wrote the above a few days ago. Since then, I finished off the tub of it, and found that I liked it more each time. I think maybe it has even tipped into the would buy again category.

Nina's View

This stuff is boring. It tastes mostly of sweet roasted red peppers, but more in a tomato-pastey kind of way than in a zippy, flavorful red pepper sort of way. It seriously needs some pep in its pepper. The walnuts and purported pomegranate flavors are undetectable to my palate.

Zzzzz. Wake me when you have a product with some complexity and zip to the dip.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trader Joe's Maple Water

We're on day two out of four with reviews of new products that have just hit the Trader Joe's shelves.

One of the little joys of watching the #TraderJoes hashtag on Twitter is when an intriguing new product hits the shelves. TJ's fans immediately post pictures of it with comments about what is it, can't wait to try it, OMG it's the best thing EVAR, etc. This product was the latest to get that treatment. So, of course, I had to buy it.

The claim is that this is maple sap, tapped directly from the trees--the stuff that we usually only eat after it has been boiled down to make maple syrup. It has been pasteurized, but not cooked. Here's a recent article about the alleged new craze that is maple water.

If you put it in a clear glass, you can see just a touch of yellowish or light brown color. Drinking it, I found, has a three-phase sensation. First, it tastes and feels just like plain water. Then, as I'm swallowing, I get a general sense of sweetness, though not sugar per se.

Finally--really as more of an aftertaste than a taste--comes the distinctive flavor. Now, frankly, if I hadn't known the name and origin of this product, I think I would have been hard-pressed to call it out as "maple." I think that all I could have said is that it's vaguely familiar but unusual and hard to place. And I could have said what it isn't: not fruity, not nutty, etc. But maple? No. You could have given me 20 guesses, and I doubt I would have gotten there.

Which isn't to say that it's bad, just that it's both unexpected, in the sense of being out of context, and faint. It's maybe like something Monet would have concocted--not really maple, but "impression of maple."

Given the delicateness of this flavoring, I was surprised to find how persistent it was as an aftertaste. I had some this morning. About an hour later, I could still taste it. I had a can of Coke Zero, and within five minutes of finishing that, the maple-water taste was back, like a flavor ghost. Not unpleasant, but surprising.

Here's another view, from the "What's Good at Trader Joe's" blog.

Will I buy it again? 

No. I can wholeheartedly recommend trying it, because chances are good that you've never had anything like it, and it's an interesting experience. But I don't see an ongoing place for it in my life.

Nina's View

What will they think of next?

First they put tap-water in a bottle. Biggest scam ever.

Then they put coconut water in a bottle and shipped it around the world. Ridiculous.

Now they're taking tree-blood (water) and charging a lot for it.

I am a fan of real maple syrup, which is what happens when you take the tree-blood and evaporate it by boiling it for a very long time. This tastes like slightly viscous sugar water, which it is. It's perfectly pleasant and inoffensive. For $2.99. 


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Trader Joe's Pastrami Style Smoked Atlantic Salmon

Breaking news! Trader Joe's has unleashed a mini-torrent of new products, of which Nina and I have tried four in the past few days. So I've taken out of the blog publication schedule the things that were in line to run this week, moved them to a later date, and put in four reviews of brand-new items. This is the first.

This is a new product at Trader Joe's. They've put up two articles about it on their web site, first announcing its arrival, then promoting it in the Fearless Flyer. You can learn the basic points about it there.

I saw somebody on Twitter rave about it, and I thought it sounded interesting. (Who thinks up things like salmon pastrami? Trader Joe's!) However, I have no experience in cooking fish, since I generally don't like fish. So I asked Nina to take charge of cooking it--at which time she clued me in to what would have been obvious to anybody else, which is that smoked salmon isn't meant to be cooked.

I had not brought home any of the other stuff that one might normally serve with it--because what does a nice Mormon-raised Illinois boy know from lox?--so Nina decided to make it into sandwiches with some fresh sourdough bread I had just purchased, butter, and lettuce.

I liked it. I thought it tasted more like pastrami than salmon, because of the dominance of the sugar, salt, and spices they've added. (See the links above for full information.)

It won't become my favorite thing ever. However, when I bring home something that is, to me, kind of exotic and risky, I always assume that it could fall anywhere on the spectrum from "best thing ever" to "worst thing ever." Anytime such an item falls on the "like" side of that range, I consider it a success. Today I can say that I like salmon pastrami. Yesterday I could not say that. So--a win!

Will I buy it again? 

I didn't like it enough for a repeat performance. But I won't turn up my nose at it if it or something similar gets served to me in the future.

Nina's View

This is okay smoked salmon. I was improvising, and so it wasn't offered up in what I would consider an optimal context: cream cheese, capers, bagel (or crackers). This product really shouldn't be served in a sandwich—it's too delicate a texture and flavor for that.

As taken aback as I was by being asked to cook lox, now that I'm noodling with the idea, I am curious. What would happen if you fried lox up like bacon? Would you end up with crispy, crispy fish-bacon?

My guess is it would be a waste of an expensive delicacy, but now I have to try it… at least ONCE.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Trader Joe's Organic Shells And White Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese

Let's not beat around the bush: This is the best boxed macaroni and cheese I've ever tried. It's better than Kraft. It's better than Annie's. It's better than Trader Joe's own regular variety of mac and cheese. It actually tastes like real cheese, with no icky chemical overtones.

My only quibble is the use of shells instead of elbow macaroni. This is only because the shells tend to turn face up and retain water--which makes it hard to drain the pasta after cooking it--and catch globs of the cheese powder rather than letting it disperse fully. But it's a minor defect.

As the best item in its class available anywhere (as far as I know), I nominate it to my Top Ten list.

Will I buy it again? 

It has already become my first choice from now until I die, or they stop making it, or I learn of something even better.

Nina’s View

This stuff is the diggity-bomb. You may cease eating that other crap immediately.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Trader Joe's Crispy Rice Milk Chocolate

It's just like Nestle's Crunch--except better. The chocolate is richer, less waxy. It should be a no-brainer to pick this over its more famous competitor.

Besides, it's from Belgium. How often do you get to eat food from Belgium?

Will I buy it again? 


Saturday, May 16, 2015


This is my weekly compilation of news and other features about Trader Joe's that I have run across in the past seven days. It's a long list this week.

Veggie burger taste test (spoiler: TJ's Quinoa Cowboy burger was the unanimous winner)

Using Trader Joe's sriracha sauce as a marinade 

Best stores to buy organic food for less 

Trader Joe's announces recipe contest 

Comparison test of molten/lava cakes 

25 companies that are revolutionizing retail 

The Trader Joe's food allergy shopping list 

Trader Joe's ranked America's favorite grocer for 3rd year in a row 

Real women share their favorite Trader Joe's staples 

The 10 best things to buy at Trader Joe's 

My favorite Trader Joe's products 

Latest TJ's loves 

Review of TJ's new "maple water"

Unexpected vegan finds at Trader Joe's 

9 ways to save money at Trader Joe's 

Trader Joe's maple water may be the next big super-drink 

Whole Foods is falling to competitors because of one mistake 

Trader Joe's preparing to accept ApplePay 

I couldn't decide on a TJ's Tweet of the Week. I'll just post my five candidates here (all of them came with photos), and you can pick your own favorite.

This one came in Sunday, from just outside "Pirate Joe's" in Vancouver, British Columbia:



(Never mind that the juice in that jug is vile. The kid is adorable, and that's what counts.)


#5--this one is kinda gross:

And finally, to cleanse your mind of that last image, it's this week's cute cat in a Trader Joe's grocery bag:

Trader Joe's Cauliflower Romanesco Basilic

Nina and I both recently learned of the existence of this "romanesco" vegetable when it showed up as a small constituent in Bean So Green. It is the same species of plant as cauliflower, broccoli, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi--just a different cultivar. We were both fascinated by its alien appearance. Nina later found some fresh romanesco for sale at a local grocery store, and cooked that up for us. Then she found this item.

At first I assumed that it must be a new product to Trader Joe's, because surely I would have noticed it before. But no, upon doing a little internet archaeology, I discovered that it was on the market at least as early as 2010. Maybe it hasn't been stocked in the Asheville TJ's for a while? Or maybe I really did unwittingly pass it by a dozen times or more. Who knows?

Anyway, Nina bought it and cooked it up for a recent dinner at her house. I liked it, didn't love it. The cauliflower was OK, but not especially high quality stuff, in terms of being flavorful. I thought the romanesco was even more boring; I had to concentrate to notice that it had any independent flavor at all, after mentally subtracting the garlic-butter sauce that it's packed in.

So I'm still interested in romanesco, but not so much in this particular packaging.

For an enthusiastic endorsement, however, see this post from the "Eating at Joe's" blog. The guy sounds like he's ready to make sweet, sweet love to his TJ's basilic, and maybe ask it to marry him.

Will I buy it again? 

Maybe someday. And I won't mind at all if Nina serves it up again. As I said: liked, didn't love.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Trader Joe's Druid Circles Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

I admit it--I'm a sucker for Trader Joe's peculiar product names. My mindset these days, what with a daily blog to put out and all, is to buy anything at TJ's that even remotely interests me, and a quirky, out-of-left-field product name is one easy way to spark such interest. I saw somebody mention TJ's "Druid Circles" cookies on Twitter, and instantly knew that I had to find out what they were. I did, after all, just last year finally see the mother of all druid circles.* (See photos on my other blog, here.)

I had trouble finding these at the store. I wandered up and down the cookie aisle several times before finally surrendering and asking at the information desk. The guy there escorted me to the display of fresh-baked goods, which is in a different part of the store from the boxed cookies. He said that the fresh-baked varieties come in new every day, unlike the boxed ones. Well, alrighty then!

There's no difficulty telling that these differ fundamentally from boxed cookies--far more moist and chewy. How do they taste? Pretty good.

However. Over the past year I have been spoiled by having found a local neighborhood bakery--Geraldine's--that makes the most fabulous oatmeal-raisin cookies it has ever been my pleasure to devour. TJ's just has no prayer of competing with them, no matter what they do. It is probably unfair to expect them to.

So I guess I would say that the Druids have here produced one of the best mass-marketed oatmeal-raisin cookies I've had, but I won't be buying them again, because a mile up the road I can get something far, far better.

Sorry, Trader Joe's.

Will I buy it again? 


*Yes, I know that the old theory about Druids building Stonehenge was discredited long ago. But it's not really any fun talking about neolithics, is it? Would you buy cookies called "Neolithic Circle Cookies"? No, of course you wouldn't. They sound gross. Druids are infinitely more fun than neolithics.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Trader Joe's Albacore Tuna

If you didn't think buying tuna was already complicated enough, what with the skipjack and yellowfin and bluenose and bigeye or whatever, Trader Joe's goes and throws three different albacore tunas at you.

The only difference appears to be the salt. They have no salt added, salt added, and then one in between--half salt.

I made each of these into tuna salad sandwiches two days in a row, with a few days between each experiment. I could tell no difference between them. Maybe I could if I tried them side by side, but not the way I did it. Which means that I would probably just go for the no salt added, or maybe the half salt variety.

Or at least I would if I were planning to keep getting this--which I'm not. I like light tuna better than albacore (white), perhaps just because that's what I was raised with. Light is also cheaper. As a final benefit, it has only about 1/3 as much mercury as albacore, on average, according to a recent article I read in Consumer Reports magazine.

Will I buy it again? 

I'm not planning to.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Trader Joe's Organic Orange Juice, No Pulp, Not From Concentrate

If I counted correctly the last time I was at the store, Trader Joe's carries eight kinds of orange juice in the refrigerated section, plus the frozen concentrate. The varieties are kind of bewildering: you have to pick from fresh-squeezed/not from concentrate/from concentrate; organic or not; no pulp/regular pulp/extra pulp; and with/without added calcium. I don't seriously propose to try and report on every one of those variants. Heck, I wasn't even planning to do any of them, until Nina got sick and requested OJ as part of a care package I was going to deliver to her.

But having tried a couple, I wanted to go for their top-of-the-line with the fresh-squeezed. Then when that was kind of disappointing, I wondered if anything else was worth trying. This one caught my eye. I'm not usually one to care about organic versus non-organic, at least as far as things like juice are concerned. But I held out a glimmer of hope that maybe it would be better than the others.

And it is! Or at least it's clearly better--in the sense of being both sweeter and more genuinely orangey--than the ones I had tried prior to the fresh-squeezed. It's close to what I remember of the fresh-squeezed, but it's been a week since I had that, and my sensory memory isn't refined enough to do a reliable comparison of similar items spaced that far in time.

However, it also costs quite a bit more than any except the fresh-squeezed: 64 ounces is $3.99, compared to $3.29 for the most comparable non-organic variety TJ's sells. On the other hand, it's a lot less than the $5.49 you'd have to shell out for the same amount of their fresh-squeezed. So maybe it's a reasonable compromise. Or if you're willing to go cheap, $1.99 will get you 64 ounces of the stuff they have reconstituted from concentrate for you. Your call.

Was it better because it's organic? I doubt it. I think it's more likely that it's just batch-to-batch variation. I suspect that I got unlucky with the fresh-squeezed sample, and lucky with this one.

Will I buy it again? 

I well might. It's very tasty, extremely convenient (compared to mixing up the frozen concentrate), and no more expensive per ounce than the mediocre frozen concentrates that I've been using all my life.

Nina's View

I rarely buy orange juice these days. But if I were going to buy orange juice, I would buy this.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Trader Joe's Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice

Apologies for the crappy photo.

Since I was on a little kick of taste-testing orange juices, I decided to take a shot at Trader Joe's top-of-the-line product. This is way more expensive than the others (see posts from yesterday and the day before), at $5.49 for this 64-ounce jug. It has to be good, right?

Nope. Another disappointment. To be sure, it's better than the other ones we've talked about. But compared to the stuff you can sometimes find at good restaurants, where they squeeze the oranges on site and pour it into a glass, well, this TJ's stuff is as far behind that as their from-concentrate juice is behind this.

Incidentally, if you're wondering how there can be a not-from-concentrate juice that is not fresh-squeezed, here's an explanation. It's not pretty.

Will I buy it again? 

I doubt it. It's just not enough better than the more pedestrian versions to warrant the steep price.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Trader Joe's 100% Pure Florida Orange Juice Not From Concentrate With Extra Pulp

The fact that I have this carton is an offshoot of the taste test discussed in yesterday's post. I had meant to purchase both from-concentrate and not-from-concentrate versions of TJ's no-pulp orange juice. I thought--mistakenly, as it turns out--that I remembered Nina expressing a preference for no-pulp juice.

But when I got them home, I found that I had accidentally bought the extra-pulp version of the not-from-concentrate. I was going to take it back to the store and exchange it, but then I decided, what the heck, I'll just hang onto it and get another blog post out of the mistake. (I did go back to the store to pick up the other half of yesterday's comparison test.)

Incidentally, the price is the same for both not-from-concentrate versions: $3.29.

Though I'm not tasting them side by side, this one definitely reminds me more of the non-from-concentrate product from yesterday, with a rich, sweet, complex blend of flavors. But man oh man, they are not even kidding around about that "extra pulp" business. It's almost gloppy. A more accurate product description would be "orange pulp, with a little juice." You practically have to chew this stuff before swallowing.

Will I buy it again? 

No. I don't mind either the natural amount of pulp or the no-pulp version. But I can't imagine why anybody would choose to have extra put in.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Plant update

Just before St. Patrick's Day, I bought at Trader Joe's a potted plant billed as a "shamrock." (See this post for some clarification on that term.)

Here's what it looked like when I brought it home:

It has now been two months. How is it looking now? Well, I'd say "fabulous"!

It's one of the rare plants I've tended in my life that can honestly be said to be thriving under my care. Looking at it has brought me plenty of pleasure for the few bucks that it cost me.

Trader Joe's no-pulp orange juices

Nina was fighting a nasty cold, possibly influenza, and asked me to bring her some provisions--among them, orange juice. The only TJ's OJ I had bought previously was their frozen concentrate, which is just about the only way I've had orange juice all my life. Oh, sure, once in a while if I'm having breakfast at a restaurant and they offer fresh-squeezed, I'll have some, and it's the nectar of the gods. But the cost of non-concentrate juice and the difficulty of lugging home heavy jugs from the store have caused me to settle on frozen concentrate as good enough most of the time.

Nina's request, however, presented a nice opportunity to try a couple more TJ's products. When I looked over the options, I noticed that they offered two different no-pulp versions: one from concentrate, one not. There was a substantial difference in price: $1.99 versus $3.29. Would we be able to tell a difference in taste? And if so, would the difference be worth the extra cost? It is to answer precisely such questions that this blog exists, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Nina poured a glass of each juice for me, and I tried them without knowing which was which. One small taste of each was all it took; I was left with zero doubt about what I was drinking. The comparison test was only a contest in the same sense as it's a "contest" when one boxer comes out of his corner and knocks out the other with one punch. Here it took just one sip for the referee to whistle the end of the bout.

My palate is untrained and, I have to admit, a rather blunt, unsophisticated instrument. When I can instantly recognize a marked difference between two similar products, well, then they're not really very similar after all.

The from-concentrate juice tastes pretty much like what I've come to expect when I reconstitute my own. It's OK, but it's nothing to make you stand up and take notice.

The not-from-concentrate juice was superior in every way: richer, more complex, sweeter and yet with more citric tartness all at once.

As to the second question--is the better product worth 65% more? That's a much harder question.

This experiment has alerted me to a mental mistake I've been making my entire adult life. I have assumed, without ever checking, that I was saving money by buying frozen concentrate instead of having the manufacturer reconstitute the juice for me. I see now, however, that that assumption was false. TJ's frozen OJ concentrate costs $2.99 for a 12-ounce can, which makes 48 ounces of juice--about 6.2 cents per ounce. The not-from-concentrate product here costs just 5.1 cents per ounce, while the from-concentrate product is just 3.1 cents per ounce. So for decades I have been paying more for an inferior product. Of course, I haven't done a direct taste comparison of the frozen versus fresh. I probably should.

I would certainly be willing to lug the carton home to get better juice at a lower cost. On the other hand, since I'm already used to reconstituted juice, maybe I'll go for the cheapest option of all, with the from-concentrate version. I'm not sure yet.

Will I buy it again? 

I'm still pondering that. But I might be on the verge of changing a lifelong habit here.