Most of the time Trader Joe’s manages to make their frozen food look quite delectable on the bag. For some reason, they just couldn’t manage it with their chicken chow mein. From the barren, spike-filled background on which it sits, to the uninspired “here it is” presentation of the dish, the whole picture wouldn’t look out of place inelegantly thumb tacked to the wall of that Chinese food place you never go in.
That should always be your first tip off. If the small army of marketers behind the promo picture, armed with the latest in unscrupulous food trickery and photoshop, can’t make it look good, it’s probably not very good.
From the get go you know it’s not going to be pretty, so the question really is, What do you expect from a frozen chicken chow mein? There’s plenty of good, fresh cooked chow mein out there, but this chicken chow mein isn’t that, and it never will be. This is simply a bag of frozen noodles and vegetables that you can cook up in about 7 minutes.
While there’s nothing amazing or exemplary about this chow mein, there’s nothing bad about it either. It’s there, you’re not going to do any flips over it, but it’ll get the job done – which in this case is nourishing your meaty bod.
There are no special tricks here, it looks like a pound of frozen chicken, vegetables and noodles and that’s what you get. The frozen broccoli, julienned carrots, onions, and strips of red pepper taste just like reheated frozen vegetables always taste – somewhat limp, somewhat muted. The same applies to the chicken, which is entirely ordinary cubes of white chicken breast touched up with some salt. All told they are entirely edible and perfectly acceptable for a no frill Tuesday night, but not something that is going to light up your evening.
The noodles are a cut above what you’d expect to get from a cup of ramen, but not by too much. Like the rest of the meal, they are just good enough to pass mustard without excelling.
A frozen chicken chow mein is meant to be a quick and easy meal, and that’s what Trader Joe’s delivers. Unlike some of their other, higher quality dishes like Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken none of the ingredients are separated out for individual cooking. This is a bag you rip open and dump in the pan. As far as that goes, it’s good, but it never aspires to anything above that station.
And that’s precisely the problem. Trader Joe’s has a lot of excellent frozen dinners to offer, even in the “lonely bachelor food” category. Along with the aforementioned Kungo Pao Chicken, there’s Thai Sai Tung Curry, Hake en papillote or Pizza Veggie Burgers. The list goes on really. If you’re really hurting for chow mein, make your own or just order in. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options out there for your last minute dinner needs.
Would I Recommend It: Apathetically, perhaps.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stay a Kung Pao man.
Final Synopsis: It’s good for a frozen chow mein, so in other words, “meh”.
Trader Joe’s Seriously Stuffed Peppers struck me as a particularly intriguing novelty when I stumbled on them the other day. Not only do they sound like something your industrious grandmother might prepare for Christmas dinner, but they look exactly like that too. Each jar is tiny and cute, topped with a bit of homely parchment rubber-banded around the lid. Inside the jar a dozen or so cherry peppers are packed to bursting with a whole olive, some garlic, and a caper or two. That seemed like it just might be delicious, so I picked it up.
What I wasn’t ready for was all the oil! Not unlike the dolmas I bought a while back, these tasty, European appetizers are somewhat ruined by the enormous amount of oil they’re packed in.
First the good stuff. These stuffed peppers are pretty dang tasty. Based on the smell alone, I was prepared for an intense blast of pickled flavor, or a blazing hot burst of heat. The reality is nothing of the sort – instead they’re mild, slightly bitter, slightly nutty, with a flavorful, zesty tail.
The bitterness comes from the cherry peppers, which don’t bring any heat, but only a mild taste and toothsome texture, with just a hint of bitterness that suggests they’ve been cooked slightly too long.
Inside of these guys are the capers, olives and garlic. All three perform exactly how you’d expect – the olives and capers bring their salty, pungent taste and the garlic sneaks up behind you the moment you swallow to put a little bit of fire on the tongue. The result is very edible. Overall the stuffed peppers are much more mild than olives or capers are on their own, much more flavorful than garlic, and much more complex and interesting than simple cherry peppers. All together, they make for a nice little antipasta – perfect for throwing on the side of some pasta or lamb.
Almost perfect, I should say.
As nice as they are, I have a serious problem with how oily these peppers are. What I thought was a pickle brine at first glace, turns out to be sunflower oil – thick and viscous, with a slightly nutty taste and a smell that starts fills the room as soon as you open the jar. We are talking about a heavy, heavy oil here, and it coats the peppers in a permanent glaze. Drip, dab or wipe a pepper all you want, and it will still glisten with a fine oily sheen. I’m not kidding – my fingers are slipping all over the keyboard as I write this. My girlfriend as a jar of oil she uses on her air, a mixture of coconut oil, argan oil, and macadamia oil, that is less oily than the oil in this jar.
Evidence of the oil’s impact is visible in the nutrition facts – each 4 pepper serving contains only 60 calories, but 40 of those calories are from fat. That’s a huge amount of fat to cram into what are, otherwise, nothing but vegetables. The sunflower oil also imparts its own flavor on the peppers – imbuing the whole thing with a nuttiness that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the flavor profile.
I do like these stuffed peppers, and I’d love to snack down on them, but there really doesn’t seem to be a good way to do that. It’s tricky to fish the peppers out of the jar without them falling apart – trying to get the oil off of them without ruining their delicate construction is even harder. Leaving the oil on is always, an option, but the result is a big pool of oil on your plate or running down your finger. That’s not the end of the world, obviously, but it does limit how you eat and serve them.
Between the very pretty packaging and the beautifully stuffed peppers, this is dish looks wonderful in the jar sitting on your self. Unless you have a pressing need for antipasta, however, I’d recommend leaving them there.
Would I Recommend It: Not really – it’s okay, but not worth the hassle.
Woudl I Buy It Again: No, it’s much too oily for me.
Final Synopsis: Very nice as décor – not as good as food.
You’ve probably heard about the oncoming Breakfast Armageddon. Your traditional, western-style breakfast table of bacon and eggs – the hearty, workman-like breakfast of middle-class, middle America – is on an out of control roller coaster ride straight into the mouth of Hell. What I mean, of course, is that the cornerstones of breakfast – bacon and eggs – have seen unprecedented price spikes over the last 12 months (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics). Due to a conflux of calamities, including global drought and widespread swine pestilence, the price for a pound of bacon has jumped nearly 19% between May 2013 and May 2014.
Certainly I don’t want to be accused of fear mongering, but according to the computer simulators here at EatingAtJoes.net, if this trend continues a pound of bacon will cost $572.38 by 2029, at which point it will be cheaper to just start eating human. At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, I absolutely urge you to smash down the doors of your nearest supermarket and steal as much bacon as you can carry this very second. That, or switch over to Trader Joe’s Bacon Ends and Pieces!
I picked up this oblong little pack of scrunched up pork while weighing my grocery bill against the climbing price tag of Trader Joe’s truly, truly delicious Applewood Smoked Bacon. I’m on the record as saying that the bacon fad long ago become tiresome, and am the foremost proponent calling for a period of bacon tumescence, say a decade or so, at which point we can all start eating it again and sticking it in vodka and whatever. That said, TJ’s applewood smoked bacon makes me go weak in the knees when I smell it sizzling up in it’s own, rich fat on the skillet.
It was this battle of my animal id against my budgetary superego that Trader Joe’s so deftly diffused by producing their bacon ends and pieces.
As you can gather from the name, Trader Joe’s Bacon Ends and Pieces are the assorted left over bits of bacon that they didn’t see fit to package in their regular packs of Applewood Smoked Bacon. To a certain mindset, that means you’re eating Trader Joe’s trash, but don’t think about that. Instead, focus on the deal! In exchange for choosing the bacon rejects, and forgoing the niceties of traditional packaging, you get 12 oz of delicious, nitrate-free, applewood smoked bacon for only two bucks and change, less than half the regular price.
What I was expecting from that price, and the smaller package, was a bunch of irregular chunks of varying thickness. I was surprised to find that this wasn’t the case. On opening the pack, I discovered that the strips had been folded, but were otherwise the same size and shape as regular bacon. The big difference is in the fat/meat ration. While TJ’s regular Applewood Smoked Bacon is more or less uniformly fatty, these bacon ends varied between 50% – 80% fat. Obviously, this isn’t ideal. After all, I’m the yutz who usually buys turkey bacon. That said, a little carefully slicing with my kitchen knife before putting them in the pan left me with bacon that was as lean or leaner than what I normally get.
It’s important to note, by the way, that your results may vary. The bacon ends and pieces are a grab bag by nature. The fattiness of the pieces, and their size, is likely to vary from package to package.
I’m sure there are those of you out there who fear picking these up lest they be branded by the stigma of poverty. After all, isn’t this just poor people’s bacon? Well – yes, maybe. But don’t forget that what you’re buying here is not just a breakfast substitute, but a raw ingredient with a long culinary tradition. There are things you can do with bacon ends and pieces that you can’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, with the neatly packaged kind. As the internet has exhaustively noted, the applications of bacon are limited only by your creativity, but in particular the higher fat content of the end pieces makes them perfect for dicing up and cooking in stews and soups, adding to green beans and baked beans, or any dish that you want to infuse with a rich, smokey hint of savory bacon.
For my part, I poured off the excess bacon fat, then cooked my eggs straight on the still glistening skillet – giving them that extra touch of delectable goodness. If you’re happy with your bacon as is, by all means continue buying as usual. If, however, you’re looking for relief from the rising cost of breakfast, or are looking for some fatty goodness to throw in the stock pot, this bacon gets the job done.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, if you’re not concerned about your fat intake.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes for cooking projects, but they were too caloric for my everyday bacon.
Final Synopsis: Extremely delicious bacon, with more fat for less money.
We return again to the strange shores of vegan cuisine to take a look at Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. We’ve looked at a good number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to this meaty world we live in – from soy “ice cream” to chicken free chicken nuggets.
In general, I find that vegetarian food really shines when it’s not getting hung up on trying to be the doppleganger of meat products, as with Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers, and just does it’s own thing. The worst sins of vegan cusine seem to occur when somebody decides that, goddammit, yes, I need to make a turkey out of tofu. Vegetable dishes are good as vegetables, and meat dishes are good as meat – there’s no need for vegetables to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to be proved wrong in novel ways, hence the acquisition of these “meat”balls.
TJ’s comes straight out and calls their meatless meatballs, “a delicious meat-free substitute for any meal” right there on the package, without even a hint of modesty. I wouldn’t go that far, but the meatballs do delivery a surprisingly rich and full, if not exactly meaty, flavor. The meatlessballs, for lack of a better word, replicate the texture and mouthfeel of a standard party meatball pretty closely. The bite of the ball is moist and a little chewy – holding together well, and breaking up much as a bit of ground beef would. Coated with a heavy sauce, or mixed into a plate of pasta you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Taken by itself, however, the meatlessball tastes, and more importantly, smells very dissimilar.
A good job was done to season the meatlessballs in such a way that they are roughly approximate to a normal meatball, but there’s no hiding the sort of soybean-y aftertaste when eaten straight off the plate. There’s nothing here of the fatty, visceral taste of the meatball – instead there’s a thinner, somewhat vegetable blandness. This difference in taste is rather mild, however, which means it can be hidden very effectively under a good marinera or similar sauce. More problematic, for those seeking a true meat substitute, is the smell wich has nothing of the savory, fatty scent of a simmering meatball. Instead, it smells like what it is – a bunch of hot soy. It’s a strong enough scent that it might make you think twice about digging in.
When you pop this bag open, the first thing you should realize is that you
are getting a ton of these guys. These are cocktail meatballs, not the big honking ones you get in Trader Joe’s regular bag of frozen meatballs. The move feels like it may be a practical one, as even at their smaller size the meatless meatballs have a certain tendency to break up if played around with too much. On the plus side, they’re down right healthy compared to Trader Joe’s ordinary beef variety meatballs. Each six meatball serving has only 140 calories, 45 from fat, and 13 whopping grams of protein.
How do such meatless balls manage such a feat? Through the magic of textured soy protein, of course.
To level with you, I generally react to this sort of psuedo-meat like a horse being lead up to Frakenstein’s castle. There’s something strange and unnatural about it that makes me balk. Meat I get. It’s easy to get answers out of meat. “Hey, what’s this meatball made out of?” “A bunch of dead cow.” That’s a straight foward answer. The answers are harder with meatless meat products, because all the sudden I’m being tricked, right from the start. Nothing is what it appears, but instead a complex masquerade of strange technical processes meant to fool me into thinking I’m eating meat. That’s vaguely sinister – and such weird yet innocuous phrases as “textured soy protein” only make me nervous.
Textured soy protein or “TSP” is, in fact, kind of weird and sinister stuff. It’s basically the styrofoam of the food world, used since the 1960’s by the Archer Dale Midland company to pad out meat with filler material. It’s what happens when you heat soy bean flour to high temperatures that it melts, then is extruded from a nozzle as “a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textured_vegetable_protein). Does that sound amazing? Not really, but they tell you not to ask about how sausage is made either.
That may sound like I’m being harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate. In terms of texture and even, to a fair degree, taste these “meat”balls really are good substitutes for real meatballs. But to say, as Trader Joe’s does, that they’re a substitute for “any recipe” isn’t one I’d stand behind. Taken as a small asset in a larger dish, in a sloppy meatball sandwich say, they work beautifully, as they would for any vegetarian just looking to get a little variety in their diet. However, in a dish where the meatballs are showcased instead of hidden behind other, stronger flavors they’re unlikely to please the table.
Would I Recommend It: Not to meat eaters, possibly to vegetarians.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, I’ll stick to TJ’s lean turkey variety.
Final Synopsis: Fake meatballs suitable for pasta but not soup.
Beautiful July is on us again, and with it so too has come the promise of an infinite string of perfect barbecues at sunset, – the golden moments of life. And of course, I can never think about big, blow out BBQs without thinking about GAZPACHO!
No, I have never had gazpacho before, and certainly never at a barbecue, but the two are inextricably linked in my mind because of, like so much in my life, The Simpsons.
As I know, and I’m sure you now know, gazpacho is tomato soup – served ice cold. Despite what you may have heard from the shouting of beligerent drunks, Gazpacho is actually a Spanish dish tracing its origin back to the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Nowadays it’s eaten throughout Spain and Portugal as a go to cool-down dish during hot summer months.
If your pop culture tastes run a little higher brow than mine, you might also remember a good gazpacho scene from the movie “Violets Are Blue” (1986). In it gazpacho is described as “salad in a blender”, and that’s probably as good of a definition as any. In addition to the aforementioned cold tomatoes, Trader Joe’s Gazpacho contains cucumbers, green and yellow bell peppers, and onion – all finely diced into a robust concoction of chunky vegetables. The important thing to remember about gazpacho, and the thing that makes it different from any other vegetable soup out there, isn’t just that you serve it cold, but that it’s actually made cold. This is a raw soup – uncooked from start to finish, and as a result it’s bursting with full-bodied, vegetable flavor. Not just vegetables, actually, but fruit as well.
Many gazpacho traditions coexist, including varieties that include strawberries or muskmelon. Trader Joe’s doesn’t go so far as to throw in any fruit chunks, but they do dress up their soup with a good dose of orange juice – as the second ingredient behind tomatoes. That’s still just enough to add a subtle citrus tang to the soup, and to add the faintest touch of sweetness to the soup. Other seasonings going into Trader Joe’s Gazpacho are garlic, jalapeno pepper, and a touch of sherry vinegar, all of which work to give the soup bit of a spicy, acidic edge.
This soup isn’t hiding any surprises. Having never had gazpacho before, I found that it tasted exactly like I expected a cold soup, tomato based soup to taste. This is a soup of overwhelming vegetable flavor, and it doesn’t pull any punches. There’s no saltiness, no real sweetness, just that zing of sherry vinegar layered on top of many vegetables.
If you like strong tomato soups, you’ll like this. There’s certainly a little more than just tomato going on in the background, but overall it begins with tomato and it ends with tomato. Personally, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. The gazpacho wasn’t flawed in anyway, but the simplicity of this cold, straightforward soup didn’t manage to catch my heart. While I didn’t mind eating it, I did keep thinking about how it might taste better if I heated it up and maybe dressed it up a little. I could have done, but at that point I might as well have just picked up one of Trader Joe’s other great soups, their minestrone for instance.
I’m willing to admit that that’s a personal failure, however. If you crave a dish of heart vegetables, or want to beat the heat with a flame-free meal, this gazpacho is certainly worth a shot.
Would I Recommend It: Sure – it may not blow you away, but this is a hearty, healthy soup.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t think so, there are too many other soups to try.
Final Synposis: A cold tomato soup, with a little zing thrown in.
Is it just me, or is the packaging for Trader Joe’s Tzatziki Creamy Garlic Cucumber Dip really weird? The big red “LOW FAT!” flag, the serving suggestions awkwardly crammed over to one side, the semi-unreadable font on the gray background of the low-grade Photoshop job. It reminds me of their weird chocolate-covered banana packaging. It’s the sort of packaging that leaves you wondering what you’re looking at “What’s in there?” you ponder, “Modeling clay? Deck varnish?” Nope, it’s food.
Most of the time, TJ’s does a good job repackaging the third party products that they source. In this case however, even the “Trader Joe’s” brand name looks shoehorned in. Nevertheless, this is a classic case of judging a book by its cover, as the tzatziki sauce within is quite nice.
Let us spend a moment on the truly awesome word that is “tzatziki”. It’s one of those dynamite cuisine words that not only sounds cool, and is spelled cool, but also makes you feel really cool to drop casually into conversation. Like “shwarma”. Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma. Sounds nice doesn’t it? Yo – buddy! Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma! The word itself is popularly attributed to Turkish, but like many foods of shared Greek/Middle Eastern/Balkan origin there’s a considerable amount of bickering over who developed it first/best.
At any rate, as we all know, tzatziki is a somewhat zesty dip/sauce made from plain yogurt and flavored with a variety of seasonings – in this case, salt, garlic, dill, mint, white pepper and, of course, lemon juice. The result is a smooth, cool mixture that comes on mild, then surprises you a moment later with a complex burst of citrus and herbs. Tzatziki exists through out the Mediterranean and Middle East in a variety of forms – extending even as far out as India where the classic yogurt side dish raita can be considered a close relative. The type Trader Joe’s is serving us up here is the familiar Greek variety, prepared with thinly sliced cucumber mixed directly into the herbed yogurt.
In fact, Trader Joe’s tzatziki is one of the better varieties I’ve had. The dip is quite loose, but it doesn’t lack in flavor. The lemon juice comes through clearly alongside the mellow, long tones of the creamy yogurt. The dill and mint come through clearly in the after notes , but the dish isn’t overloaded by their flavors, and they leave room for the tail note of languid, cool cucumber and mild garlic to linger on the tongue.
As appealing as that is, it’s made better by the extremely reasonable nutritional profile. Each 30 gram (two teaspoon) serving has only 30 calories, and two grams of fat. Even the sodium content isn’t that bad, at 65 mg per serving. For such a healthy dip you’re getting a surprising, and satisfying, amount of flavor.
The go-to applications for tzatziki sauce are gyros and pitas, but it goes awesome with pita chips as well. Even if you’re not whipping up Mediterranean food very often, it still makes an awesome side dish for any meal that could do with a little spread on top, or cooling down on the side. In other words – throw some tzatziki on that shwarma!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, so long as you don’t mind cucumbers in your food.
Would I Buy It Again: Definitely – I’m always in the market for good dips.
Final Synopsis: A solid version of tzatziki with plenty of pep.
Trader Joe’s Chicken Piccata is an excellent, no-frills Italian-style chicken dish perfect for your last-minute dinner. As TJ explains right on the box, chicken piccata is “seasoned breaded boneless chicken breasts, baked in a lemon, caper and white wine sauce. Even this simple descriptions belies the simplicity of the dish.
When you open package, you’ll only find only two things within, breaded chicken cutlets, and a large pouch of yellowish sauce. That’s it – and that’s all you really need. This is a meal at its most spare. Simply open the sauce packet, apply to the chicken, throw it in the microwave for two and half minutes and your piccata is ready. This minimalist meal is pared down from the more bulked up version that Trader Joe’s offered back in 2013 that included a side of broccoli and pasta.
That minimalism actually suits the chicken picatta well. Piccata, after all, has always been the very figure of quick and easy cuisine. Even traditional, hand-made chicken piccata (or veal piccata, if you going really old school) can be cooked up in a few minutes flat. The dish couldn’t be more streamlined if it had been designed in some sort of food wind tunnel (maybe it uses gravy instead of wind?). For example, the first step to a good piccata is smashing the hell out of piece of meat until it’s thin enough to see through. The chicken breast gets sandwiched between two sheets of wax paper and pounded remorselessly until the chicken is either a quarter inch flat or the cook has worked out all of his simmering rage.
The flattened meat is then dredged through a mixture of flour and seasoning until properly breaded up. This has got to be the best part of the cooking process, because every resource I consulted on piccata uses the exact same terminology. “Dredge the chicken through the flour.” Dredge it. Dredge the chicken.
Dredge is an amazing word, but most of the time you have to tack it onto downer sentences about muck and sunken corpses and such, so I’m glad it gets a chance to jazz
up a more light-hearted sentence once it a while. Unless you decided to go with the veal, I suppose. “Dredge the veal” isn’t a sentence that’s likely to win many people over.
At any rate, your smashed up, dredged meat is going to cook up on a hot frying pan almost instantly, at which point it’s removed from and the pan and the pan drippings are mixed up with some wine, lemon juice, etc into a sauce. And there you have it – piccata. Just that easy, bro.
So while it’s understandable that there isn’t more to this piccata, it’s also a shame because what it has to offer is so good. The breaded chicken breast is pre-cooked, but retains its tenderness and moisture even after reheating. This is thanks, in some part, to the breading that encloses each breast in a thick, chewy layer that crisps up after cooking. The breaded cutlet is pretty dang good by itself, but it’s the sauce that really makes this piccata a piccata.
The lemon and white wine in the sauce are no mere threats – despite the heavy nature of the sauce (and its fat content) it tastes light and packs a zippy zing. It dangerously good, the strong, dry citrus taste pairing very well with the chicken, while the melted butter satisfies to the corners of the mouth.
If it wasn’t for the considerable fat content (44 grams total), I would pick this up all the time. In fact, I’m such a fan I might skip Trader Joe’s entirely next time and just make it myself! (But probably not.)
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is as good as it is simple.
Would I Buy It Again: I want to say yes – if only it wasn’t so fatty.
Final Synopsis: A quick and easy Italian-American classic.