Well folks – Trader Joe’s annual corn madness is upon us once again. The pumpkin hoppers have been serviced, the pumpkin chutes re-greased, and the pumpkin crazed madmen in the R&D department are off to a flying start with Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread.
What possessed Trader Joe’s to add dehydrated, powdered pumpkin to cornbread I can’t say, whatever it was, it’s the same mechanism that drove TJ to put pumpkin in waffles and croissants. In all these products the addition of pumpkin seems completely superfluous – an unnecessary ingredient shoehorned into an food that was already perfectly fine. The pumpkin will not be denied. It’s almost sinister, in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers kind of way. You turn around and what you thought was cornbread is now pumpkin cornbread. You go to the fridge only to find your cream cheese is now pumpkin cream cheese and your yogurt has been replaced with pumpkin yogurt. You go to the Trader Joe’s to complain, but everywhere you look there’s more pumpkin products, insinuated into every aspect of your daily life, each box being dutifully stocked on the shelves by smiling Trader Joe’s employees.
At any rate, they did go and put pumpkin in cornbread, so I went ahead and ate it. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, even on a basic level. Notions as to what “cornbread” means varies wildly from state to state. In the South, where cornbread got its start, it’s made with practically no sugar and little or no flour. Up North, in Yankee lands, it’s a much sweeter dish, made with plenty of sugar and wheat flour besides making it more airy and cake-like. Meanwhile, out in the great Southwest it’s commonly made with creamed corn, jalapenos, and even topped with melted cheese.
Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cornbread uses a Northern cornbread recipe, going heavy on the wheat and sugar, and fairly light on the corn meal and pumpkin. In fact, flour and sugar are the first two ingredients on the box, only then followed by corn meal and finally pumpkin. The result is a light, cakey cornbread, that cooks up in 30 minutes or so.
Fresh out of the bag, the cornbread mix smells delightfully redolent, as a heady mixture of spices wafts up to the nose. Pumpkin can be detected in here, sure, but cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves even more so – all the classic spices you find in pumpkin pie filling. The finished cornbread cooks up to a rich, golden brown – darker than ordinary cornbread. Following the directions exactly results in a dry, crumbly cornbread that’s ready and willing to soak up some butter. If you like a moister cornbread, you’ll want to consider adding a touch more oil and milk.
Shockingly, despite the pumpkin pie smell that comes off the cornbread, there’s almost no taste of pumpkin in the bread at all. In fact, it almost tastes exactly like regular cornbread, except spiced with a gentle amount of the above mentioned pumpkin pie spices. This isn’t a heavy spice cake, but a light touch that imbues an otherwise traditional cornbread recipe with an intriguing taste of autumn flavor.
Personally, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of a pumpkin presence in the bread – why bother calling it pumpkin cornbread if you’re not really putting any pumpkin in it? That said, even without a strong pumpkin taste, the cornbread is quite tasty. The touch of spice adds an extra dimension to the bread, and really comes to the fore when loaded up with a good pat of butter.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a good fit for autumn dinners.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d probably buy this before I bought regular cornbread, to be honest.
Final Synopsis: More pumpkin pie spice cornbread than pumpkin cornbread.
Trader Joe’s can be obtuse, playful, or even boastful with their product names – but Trader Joe’s masters the art of coq au vin is the first time they’ve gotten downright cocky with it. You’ve got to have a pretty big opinion of yourself to unironically declare that you’ve mastered any art. Add to that the affectation of the little ellipses, and they’re making quite the statement. In fact, that ellipses is quite the little touch. You might think, if you saw a title like that, that Trader Joe’s has a whole line of “Master’s the Art of…” products. As far as I can tell, however, this is the only Trader Joe’s Master’s the Art of…. product on the shelves. That, my friends, is worth double pretention points.
Of course, the difference between pretention and genius is whether you can deliver on your promises. So the question is – has TJ really managed to master this classic French dish.
Coq au vin is that all-time classic of French cuisine that everyone should know how to cook – and no one had ever heard of 50 years ago. An enduring rustic dish of the French countryside since time out of mind, coq au vin was unknown out of France until the advent of Julia Childs. Everyone’s favorite TV chef brought the dish with her when she returned from her time at Le Cordon Bleu, taking its straightforward, honest recipe and making it her signature dish.
Coq au vin is what it sounds like, cock served in a wine sauce. Of course, no one uses rooster any more, that being left to the poor farmer’s of yesteryear. Nowadays, the dish is made exclusively with chicken, which is stewed in a robust red wine with button mushrooms, pearl onions and perhaps fatty pork belly (lardon), garlic and some other vegetables. Originally the dish was meant as a simple way to tenderize the otherwise too tough to eat meat of an old rooster for a nice meal and it’s the simplicty of the dish that made it catch on in such a big way.
Trader Joe’s variation is faithful to the original imaginng of the dish. It comes frozen in a huge chunk of roux and chicken that can either be cooked on the stove, or microwaved to make the classic easy-to-cook dish even easier. After ten minutes in the microwave, it comes out piping hot in it’s little black tray – an island of chicken in a sea of bubbling sauce. While the presentation may not quite be there, the taste is. The chicken is tender, and gives way easily to the fork – surprisingly wonderful for frozen chicken. The sauce, is good as well, thick and loaded with vegetabels, and not short on the wine either. Although it’s a thick and savory sauce the crispness of the wine cuts through the heavier cloying taste of the sauce leaving the dish tasting lighter rather an heavier. TJ’s doesn’t skimp on the veggies, loading up the sauce with pearl onions and sliced mushroom.
Trader Joe’s must really love this sauce, because they include a ton of it – like their Chicken Piccata, the sauce outweighs the chicken at 2:1.
So is this mastery or coq au vin? Do they beat Julia Childs at her own game? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a good, quick meal, the chicken is tasty and the sauce is rich, but it also costs $7.00. For less than that price, Trader Joe’ s has a variety of other dishes that are just as good, or better. If you’re looking for a good chicken dish, you could try the Kung Pao or Cacciatore as easily as this and save a few bucks.
If you’re looking for an excellent coq au vin, my suggestion is pick up a copy of the Art of Cooking and go for it yourself.
Would I Recommend It: I guess so. It’s a little pricey for an average dish.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not.
Final Synopsis: A good coq au vin, but probably not better than you could do yourself.
I tend to avoid reviewing coffee drinks for the same reason I tend to avoid reviewing cheese and beer – I’m simply out of my depth when it comes to the breadth and depth of knowledge possessed by all the armchair experts out there. There was one guy who posted a comment about my Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate review that I’m still afraid to post because of its excoriating intensity and essay length. Nevertheless I’m going forward with this review of Trader Joe’s delicious Mocha Cappucino Mix because I figure powdered coffee drinks get a pass. I enjoy them, so I imagine that no self respecting coffee snob would be seen dead with a can of this stuff in his cupboard.
Allow me to start out strong by saying, coffee drinks have always confounded me. I understand that coffee means water filtered through coffee grounds. What perplexes me is how the countless, subtle changes in this proportion lead to a bewildering array of different names. Coffee americano, expresso, macchiato, cortado, cafe latte, cafe au lait, frappucino – the list, I’m sure, goes on. I’m aware that some of these have milk in them, and some don’t, but that’s about it.
Turning to the internet, I hoped to clear up this muzzy-headed understanding of what makes a cappuccino uniquely a cappuccino before today’s post. Sadly, I failed. The traditional definition of a cappuccino is an espresso, mixed with milk and topped with foamed milk, each in approximately equal proportions. On the other hand, a cafe latte also seems to be defined in the exact same way – the chief difference being that cafe lattes are served in larger cups that don’t have handles, whereas cappucinos are served in smaller cups with handles. In other words, the name of the drink changes depending one what kind of glass you serve it in – which is a daunting thought and one that I’m glad doesn’t apply to other categories of food. It’s possible that I’ve got this all wrong, so I’ll cite my source here – a slipshod wikipedia page.
In any case, Trader Joe’s Mocha Cappuccino has nothing to do with any of this. There is no expresso, hot milk or milk foam involved at any point. Instead, there is a tin of powdered coffee, powdered milk and powdered chocolate that you mix with hot water. The results, rather surprisingly. are very good.
I’ve been burnt by Trader Joe’s powdered milk and tea mixes in the past, burnt bad, so I wasn’t confident that their powdered milk and coffee mixes would be much better. Fortunately, I was wrong. It might be the chocolate that pulls it together, but a little this mix is quite good hot or cold. The balance between sweet, sugary chocolate (or mocha, as we may call it here) and bitter coffee is just right, giving you that Starbucks confectionery blast that may not make for a classical cappuccino, but sure is tasty. 20 grams of sugar per scoop makes this far from a health drink, but if you’re in the mood to buy a drink called Mocha Cappucino you’re probably ready to be a little decadent.
If there’s anything that bothers me about Trader Joe’ Mocha Cappuccino mix, it’s the powdered milk. While the drink certainly benefits from a touch of creaminess, it still leaves that lingering “I am not real milk” taste on the edge of your tongue. If TJ’s had just stuck to the coffee and mocha side, and let us add the cream ourselves, I’d have been happier. And even though the powdered milk still tastes like powdered milk, at least it’s natural powdered milk. Trader Joe’s is proud to boast that this mix doesn’t have any artificial flavors or preservatives in it, which is actually something of a rarity in the powdered coffee drink field.
And really, in the end, it’s not really a deal breaker – at only $3.99 for the whole tin there’s more than enough value in it to justify the purchase.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you want that Starbucks fix in the comfort of your home.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not, I’ll leave the coffee drinking to the coffee drinkers.
Final Synopsis: A powdered chocolate and cappuccino mix that tastes better than it sounds.
I certainly do love Thai food – or, more accurately, I love pad thai, and the rest of Thai cuisine is pretty good as well. Odds are that you love pad thai as well – this is double true if you happen to be a Thai national, as pad thai is the national dish in your country. However, even for the 99.98% of my audience that isn’t Thai, it’s still pretty likely that you love pad thai. In fact, pad thai is so highly regarded world wide that it was voted 5th most delicious food in the world by CNN in 2011. And while that may just the result of a fluff-piece poll in a desperate bid to get clicks, it also seems like it’s about right.
It is intriguing, then to come across Trader Joe’s vegetable “true Thai” pad thai in the frozen food aisle. With a promise of being 100% vegan, and a five minute microwaveable meal, Trader Joe’s was setting itself some pretty considerable hurdles TJ’s already proved that they could deliver on Thai street food with their green curry and GABA rice, but could they pull it off again? Fortunately, the answer is a firm yes.
If you enjoy this pad thai, don’t forget to give a quick thanks to Mr. Plaek Phibunsongkhram, one of the most important figures in Thai history, owner of an amazing name, and the person solely responsible for the modern day popularity of the dish. Prime minister of Thailand and de factor dictator during the the WWII years, Phibunsongkhram is a complex character, but the most important thing he did (within the context of this post) is give pad thai the name “pad thai”. Why focus his rather weighty attention on this one dish? The answer, of course, is geo-politics! With World War II raging around them, Phibun wanted to promote Thai nationalism and centralization while reducing domestic demand for rice. He managed to do all this by raising pad thai, and it’s noodles, to a prominent place in Thai culture. The result was an explosion in popularity across Thailand, and from there across the rest of the world.
Trader Joe’s Vegetable Pad Thai delivers not just as a delicious vegan meal, and as a delicious microwaveable meal, but as a delicious meal period. There’s a lot going on in a pad thai – from the bean sprouts, to the rice noodles, to the tofu and veggies, to the sauces. On each front TJ keeps things simple and natural. There isn’t an artificial ingredient to be found in the whole pot – just a vareity of vegetables mixed with water.
That natural simplicity plays out in the dish as a refreshing, wholesome taste – even when its just been been defrosted frosted from frozen. The bean sprouts, which make up the bulk of the dish, still retain some of their juicy crispness, even after being steamed in the microwave, and the rice noodles are suitably chewy and rich with the flavor of the creamy, mildly piquant pad thai sauce (a mix of chili sauce, tamarind sauce, and tomato paste).
The sauce isn’t quite as strong here as it is on other pad thai that you’ve probably had. Part of the reason for that is the absence of fish sauce in the dish. Although not a mandatory ingredient for authentic pad thai, the pungent, musky body of fish sauce gives pad thai a savory second kick underneath the noodles and chili paste. Although it’s missing here in order to keep the dish vegan, it doesn’t degrade the quality of the dish below satisfaction. There’s still enough harmony between the spicy, sweet and salty elements that it carries the rest of the dish along. This is particularly important when it comes to the tofu, which usually needs as much help as it can get. The tofu does manage to make it through alright, again thanks to the sauce, but it isn’t the best processed soybean mash you’ve ever had. The cubes are small, which is to its advantage, because they freezing process was not kind to them – rendering each tofu cube into a tough, chewy customers. While not exactly toothsome, without any meat or fish in the dish, they firmness of the tofu does lend the dish some much needed body.
Over all it works. It’s not going to be the most delicious pad thai you’ve ever had in your life, but for frozen, all-vegan pad thai it’s suitably impressive. The only strange touch is the crushed cashew nuts used in place of crushed peanuts. Whatever the rationale was behind that decision is hidden from my faculties, but it’s a moot point anyway since the nuts are undetectable except as points of crunchy texture,
This dish can be enjoyed as a tasty, vegan option, or just in its own right as a quick and easy dinner. Once caveat, however – bring your own limes. Evidently not even Trader Joe’s could figure out a good way to fit freeze-dried lime juice into the dish, and its the one flavor that the dish is noticeably missing. Get yourself a wedge to squeeze over the dish, and you won’t have any complaints.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – the vegans and non-vegans alike.
Would I Buy It Again: I would, this is perfect for filling in last minute dinner ideas.
Final Synopsis: Delicious, microwaveable pad thai – as long as you have a lime wedge on hand.
Although we haven’t spent much time looking at them yet, Trader Joe’s fields a pretty tasty line of ready to rock pasta dishes. Of course, the reason I haven’t really bothered to review them yet is that nothing has lept out at me as particularly crazy. The goal of this blog isn’t to review every average, Joe-schmo thing at Trader Joe’s, but to taste test the truly weird and daring – for better or worse. That means I haven’t felt a need to pick up any TJ pasta until now – with Trader Joe’s Girasoli Ricotta & Lemon Zest ravioli. There are a lot of delicious things to pack into ravioli, but never before this day did I dream that lemon would be one of them.
Let’s start with the name, which I was somewhat disappointed by. Girasoli, as all you literate latinate lovers out there already know, is Italian for sunflower. This immediatley led me to assume that these raviolis contained both lemon and, like, sunflower petals or something. A foolhardy assumption at most grocery stores, maybe, but this is Trader Joe’s were talking about – they already tried taking the sticks out of popsickles, I wouldn’t put anything past them.
Disappointingly, to me at least, there isn’t a seed or stem to be found in these ravioli. The eponymous sunflower refers, predictably, to the shape of the pasta, little flowery suns, not the contents. The lemon, on the other hand, is very real and, what’s even better, tastes terrific. Why put lemon in your pasta? Well, dammit, like most things in life the real question is why not? Actually, lemon zested pasta may be uncommon on American shores, but has a long tradition in Italy.
Trader Giotto lives up to his name here by not just zesting the ravioli with lemon, but with lemons harvested from around Mount Etna in Sicily. And while this sounds terribly authentic, it’s worth noting that while ricotta and lemon stuffed ravioli are certainly Italian, they’re a traditionally Sardinian dish, not Sicillian. I really hope someone got fired for that blundered.
Regardless of the providence of the dish, it’s tremendously tasty. Where Trader Joe’s gets it entirely right is in keeping it simple. The pasta is a basic, wholesome combination of flour, semolina and egg. Into these tender little pockets they add mild, creamy ricotta cheese dressed up with just the right touch of lemon zest. It’s easy to imagine this step going wrong. Lemon is delicous, but add a little too much and suddenly you’re serving up acidic pasta. TJ’s encounter’s no such difficulties here – the ravioli are touched by just enough lemon to bring out the flavorful citrus taste without being at all harsh or astringent. In fact, more than anything, the lemon tastes mellow and creamy – no doubt thanks to the mixture of butter and bread crumbs that also make up the filling.
So what’s the best way to eat this light, summery pasta? Keep it equally simple and light, of course. No need for a heavy pasta sauce here – just let the natural, intriguing flavor of the pasta shine shine through on its own – with a little help from a touch of pesto and fresh tomatoes. It’s a simple, quick recipe, perfect for a relaxed lunch or casual dinner.
Trader Joe’s Lemon Ricotta Ravioli with Tomato and Pesto
- 1 pkg Trader Joe’s Girasoli Ricotta & Lemon Zest Ravioli
- about 1/4 cup of Trader Joe’s Genoa Pesto
- 2 ripe, flavorful tomatoes, sliced and/or diced
- Boil water in a medium-sized sauce pan, and add the ravioli.
- Keep on boil for 6-7 minutes, until appropriately al dente. Drain and place in a mixing bowl.
- Add sliced tomato, a nice bit of pesto and mix.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, these ravioli are refreshing and filling.
Would I Buy Them Again: Certainly.
Final Synopsis: A traditional Sardinian ravioli that keeps things fresh with the right amount of lemon.
Back when I reviewed Trader Joe’s South African Smoke Seasoning I was delighted to discover it was one of Trader Joe’s hidden gems. Easy to overlook on shelves full of peppercorn grinders and rock salt, this South African style seasoning is imbued with a whole different dimension of flavor – the savory, rich taste of smoked meat.
When used on hamburger, steak, chicken, or anything you might like to barbecue, it’s a killer seasoning that brings to the fore the richer, meatier flavors hidden in any meat – a little magic touch of South African umami.
Of course Trader Joe’s would be Trader Joe’s if they could just leave it there. Which has lead, apparenlty, to Trader Joe’s throwing this seasoning designed for meat onto potato chips with the new Trader Joe’s Potato Chips with South African Style Seasoning.
It’s an innovation that could go either way. On the one hand, we live in an age of out-of-control potato chip creativity. Bold, daring and, some might say, insane flavors of potato chips are not just possible to find, but aggressively marketed from supermarket shelves. 10 years ago about the most “out there” chip you could find was jalapeno. Nowadays you can dabble in the sorts of epicurean excess that would have made Nero take note. Chicken & waffle flavored potato chips, mac & cheese, wasabi ginger, balsamic vinegar & rosemary, – even cappuccino, by god, cappuccino! It’s an age of snack madness, and one that Trader Joe’s is clearly unafraid to get in on. Already they’ve weighed in on with their non-standarad Beurre Meuniere Popcorn. Throwing a meat seasoning onto potato chips is almost tame by comparison.
So we can’t doubt the boldness of Trader Joe’s resolve or vision – the question is, does this seasoning actually go well on potato chips. The answer, sadly, is no.
The same qualities that make the South African Smoke Seasoning so savory on meat work against it here – it’s simply too salty and strong tasting for the simple potato chips. Divorced of a meat base, the seasoning has nothing to work off of. The result is sort of like throwing a handful of the seasoning directly into your mouth. It’s not that the taste of the seasoning is bad, it’s simply overpowering. When used on a grilled steak or hamburger, the smoke seasoning simply blends in to the complex profile of the flavors at hand. Here, on its own, it has the very strong taste of bratwurst, or as one taste tester put it, “burnt hot dog”.
How much you’re going to like these chips, then, depends on how much you like that heavy, bratwurst taste, without getting the juicy bratwurst bite. This wouldn’t be as much of a dealer breaker if it wasn’t for the strength of the taste. Trader Joe’s isn’t mincing around here – each chip is blasted with a full on shot of seasoning that is close to overwhelming. These chips are best not eaten by the handful, but slowly, one by one, or not at all.
For me the intensity of the flavor simply didn’t work together very well. Between the serious saltiness, and the heavy seasoning these chips tended to overshadow whatever I was eating them with. When your potato chips taste more like hot dogs than the hot dogs themselves, it’s generally not a good thing.
The chips may not work very well as chips because of the seasoning, but what if they were the seasoning. That barely coherent thought is what lead me to cook up the recipe below – country fried steak, with crushed potato chips instead of breading.
Trader Joe’s South African Style Seasoning Potato Chip-Fried Steak
- 2 steaks, about 1/2″ thick
- 1 cup flour (any sort, I don’t care)
- 1 cup pulverized Trader Joe’s African Style Seasoning Potato Chips
- 2 or 3 eggs, beaten
- About a 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- Maybe a delicious gravy?
- Pulverize the hell out of your chips. You can do this with a food processor, or by putting them in a baggy and smashing the hell out of them. (This is the most fun part of the recipe.)
- Spread the flour around in one dish, and the potato chip dust in another dish.
- Have the eggs ready in another dish or shallow bowl.
- Dredge the meat on both sides in the flour. (This is the third most fun part of the recipe)
- Dredge the meat in the potato chips dust, followed by the egg, and finally in the potato chips again. (This is the second most fun part of the recipe.)
- Repeat these steps with all the meat.
- Place enough of the vegetable oil to cover the bottom of a skillet and set over medium-high heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, carefully add the meat.
- Cook each piece on both sides until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.
- Serve the steaks (with some of the delicious gravy?)
Notes: This recipe delivers a crunchier steak than you might otherwise get, and the African Smoke Seasoning lends it’s helping hand, giving it a robust, BBQ sort of taste.
Turning chips into the seasoning instead of just adding the seasoning directly might be considered taking the long way around, and that’s a fair criticism, but dammit we live in the world of the Mini Waffle Stick Maker and Segway. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in an unnecessarily, silly way.
A delicious gravy is bound to help these steaks out, but that’s beyond the purview of this post.
Would I Recommend It: Not unless you usually feel your brautwurts aren’t brautwursty enough.
Would I Buy Them Again: I don’t think so.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s excellent south african style seasoning should stick with meat instead of potatoes.