In theory, this sounds delicious. How could it not be? Paper thin sheets of oven crisped filo dough filled with a thick and gooey blend of five delicious cheeses – surely that’s a prescription for gustatorial heaven, right. And while it’s close, Trader Joe’s 5 Cheese Greek Spiral isn’t really all that good – as if it’s missing some essential ingredient that would have tied it all together.
|What it is:||Melted cheese in a pastry shell spiral.|
|Price:||$3.99 / 14 oz. disc|
|Worth it:||No. Too bland to justify that much cheese and dough.|
Looking like an over-sized lollipop, Trader Joe’s 5 Cheese Greek Spiral is at the very least an intriguing looking appetizer. It’s essentially a single long tube of filo (AKA pie crust) dough, filled with tons of cheese and wrapped into a single snail-shell spiral. Like a cheese-and-pastry kielbasa, or a cheese-filled pizza crust gone wild. TJ’s isn’t kidding around about that “five cheese” part either – this big honkin’ disc contains nearly a pound of gouda, kasseri, kefalotyri, “semi-hard” and blue cheese.
The whole thing is placed in the oven (the oven explicitly – the packaging bans microwave use) and roasted for 25 minutes until golden, crispy, and filled with hot, bubbling cheese.
So why isn’t this better than it is? It’s really hard to go wrong with cheese and dough – and yet this Greek cheese spiral failed to illicit more than lukewarm reactions from everyone I called around to try it. The problem is that there’s just nothing interesting going on with this appetizer. Lots of cheese is good in theory, but the cheeses in this mixture end up as a single, salty, mild-tasting blend, without the intriguing charm or tang of the individual components. The filo dough is also unadorned, tasting of nothing much but a bland paperiness that makes for a very nice texture, but not much else.
There are no end of delicious foods that make use of cheese and dough, so it seems like a shame to waste it all on an appetizer that is merely acceptable. Pizza, for example, or any of Trader Joe’s delicious flat breads.
In fact, if there’s any potential to be unlocked in this 5 Cheese Greek Spiral, it’s in treating it as a pizza-like launch pad for more interesting toppings. With the application of a little imagination it’s easy to compensate for that missing X factor. Throw a tub of artichoke dip on top of these warm cheese coils and you’d really be talking about a delicious appetizer, or simply serve alongside a ramekin of marinara or other dipping sauces. Drizzle with honey!?!? That might just be crazy enough to work. Do anything, really, just as long as you’re not eating it plain.
Would I Recommend It: Not strongly. It’s pretty underwhelming.
Would I Buy It Again: Maybe – I might try fancying one up for my next soiree.
Final Synopsis: Lots of salty cheese in a bland crust. Should have been better.
Trader Joe’s candy selection is just as interesting and varied as any of their other product selections. In the past we’ve looked at some of their intriguing chocolate offerings (some more successful than others), their honey mint patties, and even their mango gummies. However, out of all of the candies I’ve tried so far, Trader Joe’s new Ts & Js Sour Gummies have got to be my favorite.
|What it is:||Sweet and sour gummy candy.|
|Price:||$1.99 / 7 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||Yes. They’re like better Sour Patch Kids|
Sometimes you want something salty, sometimes you want something sweet, and sometimes you just want to pucker and grimace on something that will scour your taste buds with a coarse blast of citric acid. Trader Joe’s Sour Gummies is their answer to that masochistic desire for sour candy, and a marked upgrade on the only other contender for that slice of market space, the classic Sour Patch Kid.
What you get with these sour gummies is a 7 oz. bag of little letters “T” and “J” in four citrus flavors, dusted by rough grains of cane sugar. Sweet at first, for just a moment, the sugar quickly gives way to a single so-tart-you-love-it punch to the kisser. Trader Joe’s isn’t pulling the punches either – these little candies are every bit as sour as Sour Patch Kids, and then some. After a handful you’ll be ready to put them aside and give your mouth a break for a minute.
With four great flavors, you’ll actually enjoy the punishment. Unlike the vaguely differentiated “flavors” of Sour Patch Kids, Trader Joe’s actually delivers four distinct and interesting flavors – tangerine, Meyer lemon, key lime and grapefruit. Made with real fruit juice, you will be able to distinctly tell each little bite-sized letter apart by taste, if not by color. Best of the lot, in my opinion is grapefruit, which hits you with a kick of that unmistakably bitter grapefruit zest before giving way to the sweet gummy core.
Even better, these candies are vegan, kosher and all natural – right down to being colored by natural vegetable extracts. At only a $1.99 for a bag, what are you waiting for. Drop those Sour Patch Kids off at the orphanage and pick up some of these instead.
Would I Recommend It: Definitely, a great sweet and sour combo.
Would I Buy It Again: Yup.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s Sour Patch Kids.
Another week, another unforeseen and unique offering from Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s Olive Oil and Lemon Juice is not only a unusual sounding mixture, but it’s basically unprecedented anywhere, as far as I can tell. So unusual, in fact, that I’m still not certain that I haven’t just dreamed it.
|What it is:||Olive oil mixed with lemon juice.|
|Worth it:||It’s not bad, just really pointless.|
Drawn in by the unique name, I found that this was a classic case “what you see is what you get”. Trader Joe’s Olive Oil and Lemon Juice is exactly that – a mixture of their somewhat acclaimed 100% Greek olive oil with a dash of lemon juice mixed in.
Why you would want to do such a thing is the puzzle. Trader Joe’s has quite a wide selection of extra virgin olive oils, and generally place quite highly in the metric of quality vs. price. However, as Trader Joe’s themselves point out, extra virgin olive oils are supposed to have less than 0.8% acidity. It would seem to me that adding a bunch of lemon juice would sort of wreck your pretensions to high quality EVOO.
Of course, people do have a long tradition of adding another common acid to olive oil – balsamic vinegar. Of course, this is usually done at the table – no one, to my my knowledge, is currently offering a blend of extra virgin olive oil and vinegar in the same bottle (although TJ’s has probably thought about it).
As far as I can tell, this bottle of lemon juice and olive oil seems to be intended to fill the same roll as the more common balsamic vinegar and olive oil mixture. The bottle itself even mentions using it as “a salad dressing or sauce sauce for seafood, fish and vegetables. If so, it’s a pretty poor substitute. Lemon juice lacks the body and complexity of a really good (or even a really average) balsamic vinegar. There is a little bit of a zesty zing to this olive oil, but it’s very subdued and one note – nothing like the satisfying blast of flavor you get with a good, viscous vinegar.
Confusing matters more, there isn’t very much lemon juice in this olive oil and lemon juice mixture. Poor out a good drizzle of olive oil on your salad or veggies and what you’ll taste is: olive oil, olive oil, olive oil, a tiny hint of lemon, and olive oil. Even if I was into the idea of replacing balsamic vinegar with lemon juice, this doesn’t seem like the way to do it. I’ve got a little squeeze bottle of lemon juice in my fridge right now – why wouldn’t I just zazz up my regular, all purpose olive oil with a couple squirts of that?
Despite the very lovely bottle, Trader Joe’s Olive Oila nd Lemon Juice left me deeply confused. Who is this for? Why would I want to buy a perfectly good Greek olive oil that’s been pre-mixed with just enough lemon juice to ruin its extra virgin nature, but not enough lemon juice to actually taste like anything? Is it just a convuluted plan by TJ’s to sell off impure extra virgin olive oil by masking it with lemon juice? Surely it’s not meant to be a pre-mixed detox solution for people going on olive oil and lemon juice colon cleanses, right?
In any case, I can’t think of anything this can do that you can’t already do better with the regular olive oil and lemon juice you already have.
Would I Recommend It: Nope – you don’t need this.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope, I don’t need it either.
Final Synopsis: Perfectly good olive oil, but with a tiny little dash of lemon juice mixed it.
There’s no way in hell this crazy combination of vegetables and spices should work as a salad – and yet it does, and does so beautifully.
|What it is:||A kale, cauliflower, raisin and wheat berry salad.|
|Worth it:||Yes, all this actually works.|
On the surface of things, you might expect a salad made from cauliflower, wheat berries, kale, canola oil and raisins to be a true disaster. None of those things seem like they should work well together – let alone when combined with curry powder – and yet the whole salad executes beautifully.
In fact, this is probably the most daring salad that Trader Joe’s has ever put out. On top of the eponymous kale and cauliflower, you also get a whole army of wheat berries, a scattering of big, sweet golden raisins, a liberal drenching of canola oil and, to top it all off, a “curry” salad dressing that isn’t actually curry flavored, at least not if you expect curry to be at all spicy. A better description would be “arid and pungent turmeric sauce”, because what it lacks in spice or complexity of flavor it makes up for in a potent turmeric punch. And the weirdest part is, I’d go back for seconds.
Honestly, no one is more shocked than me. I’ve been completely grossed out by a couple of Trader Joe’s more recent, “hip and daring”, salad developments – notable their divisive Kale and Edamame Salad, and their offensive bulgur and carrot salad nightmare. What is it that this equally out-there salad gets right?
For me, it comes down to one thing – the wheat berries. Wheat berries are nothing more than whole wheat kernels, and when soaked and added to salads provide a sort of satisfying, chewy toothsomeness and mild nutty flavor. In fact, one of my all time favorite Trader Joe’s salads – Trader Joe’s squash, quinoa and wheat berry salad – makes similar good use of this wholesome grain.
Although they don’t get top billing here, wheat berries make up the bulk of this salad – providing the binding agent that holds together the piquant curried cauliflower and intensely robust kale leaves. In fact, kale is more of an accent vegetable in this salad than the backbone. A few shreds of kale leaves hang out alongside the crunchy cauliflower – deep green, uncooked to the point of toughness, and tasting almost aggressively nutritious. If you’re looking for more roughage in your diet, this kale is eager to provide it.
The cauliflower is its typically mild and roughly textured self, but without the springy, soft wheat berries to pad out the bites in between the two vegetables this salad would be a much less tasty experience. Not to be overlooked, of course, are the raisins. Providing interesting bursts of sweetness to the otherwise beige-tasting affair, the raisins work brilliantly with the tumeric dressing and compliment the mild wheat berries perfectly.
Despite everything that’s going on in this salad, it’s not so much of a taste sensation as it is a texture experience. The flavors are bold, but not overwhelming. Far more notable is the vivid spectrum of textures that play across your tongue from bite to bite. If the thought of slippery wheat berries mixed up with strong ribs of kale makes you shudder, you’ll definitely want to give this one a miss. If you can get past that, however, this is a nutritious and wholly original salad perfect for shaking up your culinary routine.
Would I Recommend It: Cautiously – this salad isn’t going to be for everyone.
Would I Buy It Again: To my own amazement and surprise – I would.
Final Synopsis: There’s no way this outrageous salad should work – and yet it does.
Occasionally I’m compelled to review something not of the Trader Joe’s brand. Why? Am I crazy? Am I trying to sabotage the accuracy of my own blog’s name. Far from it! Every now and then, Trader Joe’s simply finds a product that, for one byzantine, boring reason or another, they choose to bring in under its original brand name instead of using the TJ label.
|What it is:||Very sweet, alcoholic ginger ale.|
|Costs:||$4.99 a bottle.|
|Worth it:||Nope, too expensive.|
To that we can add Hollows and Fentimans Alcoholic Ginger Beer. Yes, you all know that I’m a sucker for those potent ginger brews – case in point, Trader Joe’s Brewed Ginger Beer, Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Brew, etc. What makes Hollows and Fentimans’ Ginger Beer any different from the others crowding the shelves? 4% alcohol by volume, as fact would have it.
Yup, this is the first actually alcoholic ginger beer available from Trader Joe’s. And as exciting as that prospect is, it’s actually kind of a let down.
After so many delicious ginger drinks – in particular the recently released, cloudy and complex Brewed Ginger Beer – Trader Joe’s has set the bar quite high when it comes to spicy root-based beverages. Given that Hollow and Fentimans’ offering is billed as “all natural”, and comes from a British company with a 110 year history of brewing the stuff, I was expecting something equally flavorful, nuanced, and ginger-tastic. And while it certainly isn’t swill, this ginger beer is more like a syrupy ginger ale than a spicy taste bud tingler.
The contents of the bottle are golden-yellow, non-carbonated, and very sweet – sweeter than any can of regular ginger ale you can find on the shelf. This is actually a mark of its pedigree. The very first ginger ale ever sold, dating back to one Dr. Thomas Cantrell in Belfast in 1851, was also golden-yellow in color and sweet as the dickens. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that Canadian John McLaughlin developed “Canadian Dry” ginger ale – the more common, paler variety found in North America under big names like Schweppes, Seagrams and, yes, Canada Dry.
While that shows excellent adherence to tradition, it doesn’t really make Hollow and Fentimans Ginger Beer all that pleasant to drink. At the quite low 4% alcohol by volume, you don’ taste the beer in this ginger beer, just the sugar. The ginger part isn’t all that impressive either. After getting zazzed up by Trader Joe’s more sophisticated and intense ginger offerings, this ginger beer tastes positively juvenile – flat and one-note, with an unremarkable ginger taste dominated by cloying sweetness.
So if neither the “Ginger” part, or the “Beer” part are particularly appealing, what is there to draw you to this ginger beer? Certainly not the price, which comes at an outright expensive $5.99 per 12 oz bottle.
If you could get a six-pack for six bucks, this ginger beer might be worth it. As it stands, it would be easier, cheaper and tastier to mix a boozed up ginger drink yourself with Trader Joe’s own excellent offerings and a little bit of imagination.
Would I Recommend It: No, too expensive for such an average a drink.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope – see above.
Final Synopsis: A very sweet ginger ale, with little alcohol and not much kick.
I’m already on the record as being a huge fan of Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken frozen dinner – it’s the sort of cheap, yet easy to make, yet healthy, yet delicious meal that has you wondering why every frozen dinner can’t be this good.
|What it is:||A bean, mushroom and chicken stir fry (frozen) – 22 oz.|
|Worth it:||It’s tasty, if you don’t mind all the beans.|
So when I spied Trader Joe’s (or should I say Trader Ming’s) new Shiitake Mushroom Chicken I was over the moon – surely TJ’s would be able to deliver the same top-shelf cooking with this chicken and mushroom stir fry, right? Well… maybe not. While I found the Chinese chicken dish edible, it’s not nearly as satisfying as its illustrious forebearer.
The chicken and mushroom part is good enough (although we’ll get to them in a minute), it’s the unlabeled third ingredient that throws things off for me. For some reason TJ’s leaves “beans” off the label, even though soybeans (and green beans) make up the bulk of the dish. Of course, it’s understandable that you might not expect “Trader Joe’s Loads of Soybeans with Mushroom and Chicken” to sell quite as well – nevertheless that’s what you’re getting. Big and bright green, beans, beans, beans.
I’ve got nothing against soybeans, or edamame as we usually call them in Asian cooking. I think a dish of salted edamame makes a nice little appetizer, and I even enjoyed Trader Joe’s Edamame Hummus. However, I find edamame to be much more of a support vegetable. Harder, more mealy and less savory than more common western beans like black or pinto, I don’t ask soy beans to carry a dish, and I don’t expect them to. Yet that’s what you get here, with each forkful of chicken laden down with a handful of whole soy beans.
That’s a shame, because outside of the bean bonanza, the rest of the dish is basically on point. The soy-sauce marinated dark meat chicken is plentiful – and delicious – with the thick ginger soy sauce dressing included in the bag. Even better are the whole shiitake mushroom caps, which are as good as they are unorthodox.
Generally the mushrooms you get in Chinese food (or most prepared meals) tend to be chopped up or button-sized. Not so here – each big honking shiitake mushroom cap is larger than a pre-war silver dollar, and served whole. As cool as that is, it’s tempered by the fact that you also only get about five or six of them in the whole bag. This combined, with the bounty of soy beans, makes for a weirdly unbalanced meal – spoonfuls of edamame and chicken, punctuated by the occasional whole mouthful of mushroom. It’s a good thing, then, that the mushrooms taste so damn great. These shiitake mushrooms are absolutely bursting with an intensely earthy mushroom flavor, saturating each meaty bite with savory good times.
Overall, the feeling of the whole dish is sort of “Close, but try again.” All of the elements are just slightly out-of-whack with each other. If they took it back to the testing lab, cut down on the beans and added some more mushrooms, maybe halving or quartering them this time so you don’t have to, then they’d really have something. As it stands, there’s not just reason to get this dish instead of one of Trader Joe’s other, much better balanced, Chinese food offerings.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, with reservations. Jut make sure you’re okay with beans going in.
Would I Get It Again: I wouldn’t – I think I’ll go back to the Kungpao Chicken Instead
Final Synopsis: A bean-heavy take on a shiitake-chicken stirfry.
British Meat Pie Week continues with Trader Joe’s delicious (and heart-clogging) Chicken Balti Pies.
If you read the previous post on Trader Joe’s Steak and Ale Pies, you know more or less what to expect here – it’s the same flaky, buttery crust, only this time they’ve pumped it full of a savory, mildly spicy, chicken curry. The result is just as warm and hearty as the Steak and Ale pie, even more delicious, and even more chock-full of fat.
|What it is:||A hearty, British style pot-pie – with curry!|
|Worth it:||Yes…again, if you can spare the calories|
Rather than the ale-based steak stew in Trader Joe’s other British, meat-filled pastry Trader Joe’s has elected to fill this version with a particular form of tangy chicken curry known as “balti” (named after the the pot it was originally prepared in). Though still rich with chicken, potatoes and carrots, it’s notably less thick than TJ Steak and Ale variation. This is actually a good idea, as it lets the curry sauce speak for itself – and the curry sauce is pretty dang delicious.
The mildly spicy and richly flavored curry sauce hits all the right notes – with a nice tang and just a little bit of fire. It’s good enough that I wish I could buy it just by itself – maybe in one of Trader Joe’s pre-made Indian Fare meals, like with their Punjab eggplant. Of course, in this case the balti curry is already sealed within the same singularly tasty pastry crust used by the Steak and Ale Pie. This shares the same strengths of the Steak and Ale variety (crispy, light, flaky, etc) and the same weaknesses (made with whole sticks of butter).
Those calories from fat are still the big consideration here. The balti pies pack even more butter into the crust, if that were even possible, with 380 calories from fat, or 42 grams of fat per pie.
Like the Steak and Ale Pie before it, these Balti pies have a strong tradition in England where they are consumed by “football clubs” (whatever those are…) with a nearly ritualistic fervor. If you share the belief, as so many do, that British food is unpalatable, picking up either these or the Steak and Ale Pies might just be enough to make you forget about all the bubble-and-squeak, eel pies, mashed peas, Branston pickle, various blood-based puddings, and so forth. Just don’t think too hard about your diet while you’re eating them.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – better than pot-pie to be sure.
Would I Buy It Again: As soon as I stop carrying about my waistline.
Final Synopsis: Really good curry, in really good (really fatty) crust.