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.
There are a lot of Trader Joe’s salads to like, a a lot of different reasons to like them. Some, like the Bacon and Spinach Salad, are decadent tongue-pleasers. Some, like the Country Salad are a good hearty meal. Some, like the Quinoa and Squash Salad, are simply intriguingly different. But of all the Trader Joe’s salads I’ve had, Trader Joe’s Lemon Chicken salad has been the most purely refreshing.
I’m an avowed salad lover. It’s not unheard of, for instance, for me to eat 10 salads in a week. The issue I find facing me most often, the true concern of the salad lover, is in balancing heartiness with healthiness. It’s all too common to run into salads out there which load on the cheese and bacon and heavy cream dressings, and end up being and end up at a monstrous calorie levels. On the other hand, there’s also the issue of the super light, salad – a collection of lettuce leaves, free of any protein source, that cost $13 and contain 150 calories. Somewhere in the middle, and oh so rare, are the salads that balance a good meal with nutritious content. There are a rare handful of these kingly salads, even at Trader Joe’s, and this Lemon Chicken Salad is one of them.
Most of Trader Joe’s salads are simple and straight forward – here’s your bin of greens, here’s your dressing, go at it. Trader Joe’s Lemon Chicken Salad, on the other hand, plays it a little more subtle. It isn’t a salad so much, as it is a light entree built around a sub-salad – in this case a chicken salad.
We start out with a good portion of chicken salad, packaged in a small tub inside the salad itself. This is the cornerstone of the dish, and it successfully carries the day. Lean white chicken breast is zested up with lemon and a touch of black pepper and melded together with just enough mayonnaise. There are a lot of ways to screw up a supermarket chicken salad, but Trader Joe’s version is not just edible, but flavorful and delicious.
Added to the bed of seasonal greens (romaine, chard, argula, etc) and this would make for a fine, refreshing salad by itself – but things get taken up a notch with a welcome portion of crisp grapes and apples that provide fresh, sweet bursts of juicy flavor. This fruity sweetness is itself a perfect pairing with the citric zing of the lemon chicken and not only alternates flavors, but makes you think about how you’re eating the salad as you eat it. That’s not a big deal but it’s a nice touch.
Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and, divinely, red onion, although not referenced in the title, all make appearances as well – bulking up the body of salad as well as laying the ground for a scattering of decadently sweet, candied walnuts. All of this is topped off with a light and zingy champagne vinaigrette that buoys the salad up and brings out the flavors of each part, a refreshing touch to the end of a refreshing meal.
At 400 calories per container, 18 grams of carbs, and 22 grams of lean protein it’s a tremendously well balanced salad as well – as healthy as it is filling. The nutritional profile, along with the variety and interactions of the many flavors, makes this one of the most enjoyable salads I’ve had form TJ’s – and a prefect option to turn to when the thought of heavier salads seems oppressive.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this salad strikes just the right balance between healthy and hearty.
Would I Buy It Again: Without a doubt, this is a good ol’ salad.
Final Synopsis: A light, refreshing salad that still fills you up.
One thing that Trader Joe’s cannot be accused of lacking are options is the dried fruit department. I’m endlessly charmed by the lengths and methods TJ’s will go to in order to bring us a fourth type of dehydrated apricot, or a new way to make banana chips.
However, even I was surprised by Trader Joe’s Crispy Crunchy Jackfruit Chips. For one, it’s weird to see such a massive fruit in such a tiny bag. The first time I encountered jackfruit in real life, I was shocked and a little taken aback, that fruit could get so big. How big is it? Big enough that I was momentarily afraid I had been shrunk to the size of bug. A fully mature jackfruit can be up to 3 feet long, weigh up to 80 pounds, and grow in bunches on trees – meaning they straddle the line between fruit, and natural hazard.
Your average jackfruit could kill a horse if it happened to drop at the right moment, helped along by the fact that they are covered in spiked, armored plates – as if Nature decided to stop screwing around after this pineapple thing. It’s rare to find a fruit where two, stacked on top of each other, could beat me in a fight.
Despite its relative obscurity here in the West, jackfruit has been a staple in India and South East Asia for thousands of years thanks to its size, resiliance and versatility as an ingredient. Like papayas, jackfruit are used for much more than simply a sweet snack. It is roasted, added to soups, fried into cutlets, mashed into kati and otherwise eaten all over the placed. In fact, jackfruit is so adored that it’s the National Fruit of Bangledesh. It’s not surprising, then, that Trader Joe’s got the idea to dehydrate them into chip. After all, that’s been a popular snack throughout South East Asia for many years.
In their natural, raw state the jackfruit tastes something like a banana crossed with a very mellow mango. By drying jack fruit out, Trader Joe’s reduces this flavor profile greatly. Regardless of the exotic origin and taste of jackfruit, what we’re encounter here is basically a nice-sized banana chip. It may be a hint sweeter, and there are subtle tones of mango and pineapple hiding in the background, but these more exotic flavor are not nearly pronounced enough to over power the starchiness of the chip. It’s the size and softness of the jackfruit chips that makes them most different from banana chips – each piece is a mouthful, and they yield rather more pleasantly to the tongue than the brittle banana chip.
One other thing the jackfruit is famous for is its trade mark odor. Fortunately lost during the dehydrating process, the fruit is generally described as having an unpleasantly overripe musk often compared to smelly feet.
Overall, it’s only subtle touches that set these jackfruit chips apart. If you’re a banan chip fan, these will be interestig to pick up by comparison. If you’re looking for a fresh new taste, however, something exotic to tingle the tastebuds, Trader Joe’s Cripsy Crunch Jack Fruit chips aren’t going to blow you away.
That left me a little disappointed, but not defeated, so I went looking for a recipe that could give second life to this otherwise limited snack chip. I may or may not have found it. The recipe below is for traditional jackfruit bonda – a type of small, South Indian snack dumpling. Ideally you make these by grinding fresh jackfruit into a paste but, dammit, we just don’t live in an ideal world. Until TJ’s starts stocking their shelves with smelly, 80 pound monster fruits, I guess I’ll just have to make do with their jackfruit chips instead.
The concept behind re-purposing this recipe is to somehow reconstitute the dehydrated jackfuit chips with a bit of water (or juice) in order to create a paste. This paste is then, conceivably, used to cook with. Unfortunately, my food processor couldn’t manage the task and I was left with an unusable slurry. Next time I’ll try taking a mortar and pestle approach, and pulverize the jackfruit chips before trying to reconstitute them – so stay tuned for that!
In the meanwhile, if anyone has more luck with this recipe, please share with us in the comments!
Impossible(?) Jackfruit Bondas (using dehydrated Jackfruit chips)
- 1 cup of dehydrated jackfruit chips
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup farina or semolina (cream of wheat will do)
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut
- 1/2 tsp of fun exotic spices (Recommended options: a mix of dried ginger and cardamom, with a pinch of salt and black pepper, but really you can get crazy with this part)
- oil to fry with
- Somehow grind jackfruit chips into a fine paste (maybe with a mortar and pestle?)
- Combine jackfruit paste, sugar, farina, coconut and spices.
- Let sit for 15 minutes
- Roll into small balls (about 1/2 the size of an egg, or so)
- Heat up a frying pan, fill with oil, and start frying the suckers.
- Eat them bonda up!
Notes: Real bondas should be made with jaggery and rava – two Indian ingredients that I barely understand and can’t get into here. Instead, I substituted brown sugar (for the jaggery) and cream of wheat (for the rava). Both of these substitutions will probably piss off anybody who makes real bondas, so be careful.
Would I Recommend Them: Not really, these weren’t much better than banana chips.
Would I Buy Them Again: I have to! I’m not resting until I figure out this bonda recipe
Final Synopsis: Like banana chips, but a little softer and a subtly more exotic tasting.