I saw a photo of one of these cans on Twitter months ago and thought, "Leaves stuffed with rice? What has crazy Trader Joe's gone and done now?" I bought a can on my next trip. (They weren't easy to find in the store, though--must not be a big seller.)
I subsequently learned that dolmas are not a Trader Joe's thing, they're just a thing. Amazingly enough, it turns out, there are foods that everybody knows about except me. This is one of them.
They sat in my cupboard for months, victim of a syndrome with which I am commonly afflicted: I work up enough food adventurism to buy some odd thing, but not enough to actually eat it. Every time I thought the dolmas might be a nice side dish for one of my weekly dinners with Nina, I would think of something that would be even better, and let them sit for another week. (Even so, we were still a year from their expiration date when they were finally consumed.)
But finally I was trying a new recipe for chili, from a new cookbook, and decided that as long as I was going out on a limb, I might as well make the whole meal a risky experiment by adding dolmas to the menu. I looked around on line, trying to figure out whether to serve them chilled, room temperature (which is what the can recommends), or heated. I went with room temperature.
In the can, they are bathed in soy oil--not the olive oil you might expect. They need some serious degreasing with paper towels.
By far the strongest part of both the smell and taste was the dill. (Fortunately, it was strong enough to completely disguise the onion.) Overall, the eating experience was kind of weird, in terms of both taste and texture, but not gag-me unpleasant.
Each of the next two days, I ate a few of them with my lunch of leftover chili and salad, so I basically had the same meal three times in a row. I found that I liked them better cold. Maybe because the texture was a little firmer and they held together better that way? Maybe because the flavors are somewhat attenuated by the cold? I don't know.
But the point is that I ate them all, except for the couple that Nina had. This is another small personal achievement in food exploration for me. Where's my participation trophy?
As for the TJ's product, of course I have no prior experience with which to compare them. To the extent that there is a consensus opinion about TJ's dolmas in online chat groups, it seems to be approximately this: (1) TJ's used to sell, at least in its California stores, house-made dolmas, which were to die for, and which would literally get purchased the minute they were put out. (2) The canned variety, by contrast, were not worth bothering with. (3) However, if you must degrade yourself with canned dolmas, they may be about as good as you can buy.
Will I buy it again?
No. It was a successful experiment personally in that I didn't die, didn't gag, and even finished them off. But they fell short of being something I want more of in my life.
I know stuffed grape leaves as dolmades. When they are good, they are divine—tender leaves, moist and succulent rice, savory herbs and spices. Toothsome. Delicious!
When they're not good, they pretty atrocious. Tough, veiny leaves. Gummy rice. Single note seasoning. Stale.
For what it's worth, these are not the worst dolmades I've ever had. At least the leaves were tender. But the rest? An extreme lack of freshness and un-nuanced seasoning made them unpalatable. One day, I hope Bob will have the pleasure of really good stuffed grape leaves. Until then, we can leave these on the shelf.