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.
Trader Joe’s has renewed it’s fruit bar producing efforts of late. We just took a look at their new line of thick and hearty two ingredient only fruit bars. Not content to rest with a mere 14 varieties of fruit bars across three separate labels, TJ’s has released yet another one – this one simply called “Fruit Bar with Flax and Chia Seeds.” The hardest part about covering these bars are their homogeneous names, a trend that TJ’s has decided to double down on by not even telling you what kind of fruit this bar has in it. Fruit, it suggests to you coyly, with seeds! Okay TJ, that weird enough to get my attention.
The reason, it turns out, that Trader Joe’s leaves the fruit name off this one is that, for once, it’s a blend of the whole orchard. Apple puree is the primarily ingredient, followed by a mixture of pear, elderberry and strawberry touched with lemon juice.
I went in to the bar with low expectations – after reviewing every fruit bar TJ has to offer, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have any more surprises for me. I was wrong. This bar easily bests all of the Apple & Whatever bars I reviewed last month. That maybe shouldn’t be such a surprise really – when you limit yourself to just 2 ingredients, you’re also limiting our flavor palette. Trader Joe’s Fruit Bar with Flax and Chia seeds has a much deeper, more nuanced taste, injecting each chewy, tacky bite with a density of flavor, one fruit mingling harmoniously with the next in a way that teases the tongue to probe each bite. The lemon juice, in particular, has an appreciated presence, giving the bar a zesty bite that sets it aside from its starchier, blander siblings.
In and of itself, Joe has a winner here. However, they don’t stop there, mixing in a pinch of flax and chia seeds to boost the nutritional profile. Both flax and chia seeds have been very much in the public eye of late for their “super nutrient” qualities. While their purported qualities owe as much to marketers as they do to science, these seeds are undeniable potent sources of nutrients and fats. Each bar brings a full 1000 milligrams of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, advertised right there on the front of the wrapper. That’s a fun perk if you’re trying to get more into your diet, and an interesting concession to texture for the rest of us.
As already mentioned, the bars is gooey and tacky in that “stick to the wrapper” kind of way. The added seeds give the bar a touch of crunch to each chewy bite that lends them a touch of welcome body.
The result is a surprisingly tasty, fruity, and munchable fruit bar. If you’re looking for single ingredient fruit bars (or fruit leather), you’ve got plenty of choices out there. However, if you’re just looking for a good fruit bar to snack on, this is the best TJ currently has to offer.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, if you like fruit bars, or need natural alternatives Fruit Roll Ups.
Would I Buy It Again: I’m not a big fruit bar guy, but if I was this is the one I’d go for.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s tastiest fruit bar.
People are willing to put dark chocolate on just about anything. While I applaud the adventerous spirit, the problem is that dark chocolate is not so universal as people hope. Just because the word “chocolate” is in there doesn’t mean it’s a confection. The strong, bitter, almost astringent taste, of a high purity dark chocolate is an acquired taste and should be introduced into a dish only with forethought. Thus it was with trepidation that I picked up Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Edamame.
I like dark chocolate, or at least I want to like dark chocolate. I certainly like it enough on its own. The trouble is, it’s hard to find it done right. One place I seem to continually encounter it is on roasted coffee beans, which has always truck me as very strange. Obviously coffee is a good thing. Coffee keeps America running. I, for one, recently fell in love with Trader Joe’s Cold Brewed Coffee Concentrate. However coffee beans are not coffee. They are the cast off husk that we extract that essential nectar from – the thing that gets in the way between us and the coffee. Why then does it seems to anyone likea good idea to cover the whole beans and eat them? It’s not like we eat them in any other way – nobody is throwing a handful of roasted coffee beans on their salad, or mixing them into their pasta. We grind them up and make coffee out of them or, in extreme cases, add it to steak rubs. We don’t just munch them down whole.
I bring this up because Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame are essentially an improved form of the chocolate covered coffee bean. There’s a shell of dark chocolate around a crunchy, munchable core of dry roasted edamame. What’s surprising to me is that really these things are pretty good.
“Now wait a minute”, you’re probably thinking.”Aren’t edamame just soybeans?” Yes, that’s true – but don’t let the rather long history of soybean bashing turn you against me right from the start. It’s true that soy beans are mostly used to make salty and savory dishes – for example, as soy sauce, miso soup, and tofu. However, anyone who’s ever had a bowl of salted, fresh soybeans at a bar or as finger food, served still in the their little green pods, knows that they also have a very mild taste with an addicting crunchiness.
The truth is, you’ll barely taste the edamame beans in Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame at all. They could have just as well called these Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Crunchers. The flavor of the heavy, dark chocolate coating is so strong that you don’t get any taste from the dry roasted soybeans at all. All you get is texture – the crunchy body and satisfying grist of the light, sere bean. The added benefit is that this snack actually has a pretty good protein content. A 1/4 cup serving contains 7 grams of protein – 49 grams in the whole container.
The other thing that Trader Joe’s did right with their dark chocolate edamame is not actually using dark chocolate at all. Seriously. A
quick inspection of the ingredients reveals only a mention of “semi-sweet” chocolate. Semi-sweet is a far cry from dark chocolate, sometimes containing as little as 35% cocoa. Trader Joe’s doesn’t state the percent of cocoa in these beans, but a safe bet might be around 50%.
Normally I decry this sort of misleading wordplay, but in this case I’m actually not that upset. For one, semi-sweet chocolate is still “technically” considered dark chocolate, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be considered as such in the vernacular. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s actually a good move. Dark chocolate tends to be unpalatable quickly as the purity increases. By going with a semi-sweet dark chocolate, Trader Joe’s has succeeded in making a eminently snackable chocolate treat perfect for setting out at bridge groups, high caliber sporting events, and other informal social gatherings. A chocolate treat that isn’t too sweet, or too bitter.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a fine use of dark chocolate.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, I could see putting this out for guests.
Final Synopsis: Semi-sweet chocolate beans with a pleasantly crunchy center.
Trader Joe’s Gluten Free, Raw, Vegan Fruit Bars – (Apple & Strawberry, Apple & Mango, Apple & Banana, and Apple & Coconut)Posted: June 3, 2014
With the addition of Trader Joe’s Apple and [blank] Fruit Bars, they have added another participant to the already crowded Trader Joe’s fruit bar arena. How, I wondered as I picked these up, could Joe possible justify the existence of a third, no nonsense, “healthy” fruit bar?
There are, in fact, many similarities between these fruit bars and Trader Joe’s other fruit bars. Like its competitors, these bars are 100% fruit, with no additives of any sort. Does that mean we’re just talking about more fruit leather? No indeed sir, it does not! While Trader Joe’s other fruit bars all hopped on the fruit leather boat, these Gluten Free Raw Vegan Fruit Bars are another thing entirely.
Open up a pack and take a look. For starters, you’ll notice that they’re not all that flat. Each bar is a good half inch or more thick, with the heft and body of a candy bar. As you pick it up, you’ll notice that they’re not all that sticky either – you can wrap your fingers around any of the varieties without fear of peeling them away to the dreaded sensation of “sticky raisin fingers”.
You’ll notice another big difference as well – unlike TJ’s other fruit bars, these guys look minimally processed. Instead of a uniform fruit paste, each of these bars is visibly full of shredded fruit – be it bits of strawberry, chunks of banana, lumps of mango, or slivers of coconut. That same quality means that each type of bar actually feels very different in the hand. The Apple & Banana is probably most dense and firm, while the Apple & Coconut has a tendency to crumble as you handle it.
Which brings us to the taste. Apple goes into basically every fruit bar ever made because its pulp is simply excellent and binding things together. What that means is that you can expect all of these bars to taste at least a little bit like apple. The question is, how much does it taste like anything else?
Actually, before we even get into that, I’d better mention that these bars are surprisingly unsweet. To be sure, they are definitely sweet as compared to – for instance, dirt. But compared to any of the other TJ fruit bars I’ve reviewed these bars are much more muted. There is none of the light-up-your-tongue zazz you normally expect from these sorts of snacks. In fact, these fruit bars are less sweet even than the fruits they’re made from.
The reason for this, in part, is because of the unsulfured nature of the raw fruit that has gone into the bars. We’ve talked about the sulfuring process
before – and how it preserves the color and taste of fruit once it’s been dried. Without preservatives, and without the chemical changes that occur with exposure to high heat, these bars are essentially just shredded, dried fruit – and as such lose a good deal of their fruit’s original intensity.
Why aren’t the bars exposed to high heat? Because they’re “raw”, of course. The notion of raw food, and the ethos of rawism, is simply too big a topic to tackle in this post. One of the more interesting puzzles of only consuming raw food, however, is deciding at what temperature a raw food should no longer be considered raw. It’s generally agreed that the cut off for vegetables and fruits is between 104 – 120 degrees Fahrenheit (40-49 degrees Celsius). Presumably, these bars abide by that guideline, although there is no official “seal of rawness” yet, so really it’s anyone’s guess.
Which brings us back to the taste – just how good are these raw fruit bars? I’m happy to say that even though they are somewhat unsweet, they’re still quite flavorful. The guest fruit in each bar (banana, coconut, mango or strawberry) really come to the fore in each bite. The sugariness may be gone, but the appealing underlying taste of the fruit is still there, mingling pleasantly with the subtle, mellow apple taste. Essentially, you are getting the taste of the fruit without the sweetness. The Apple and Banana Bar, for example, tastes like a cooked plantain more than a ripened banana. The same applies to the coconut, strawberry and even the mango. You can recognize and appreciate the flavors with the candied sugariness common to many dried fruits.
Are these bars worth your money then? There’s certainly a lot to like about them. They give you a convenient way to keep your blood sugar up, a way to stay committed to your raw food diet, and can act as a substitute candy bar for dieters in need of a cheat. Then again, a regular piece of fruit does all of that just as well – and the fruit tastes better.
Really, it comes down to if you like everything about fruit except the sweetness, or if you’ve been questing for a fruit bar that won’t make your fingers sticky. If either of those qualities defines you, then you’ll want to pick up these bars. For everyone else, I’d suggest giving one a try, if for no other reason than the novel experience.
Would I Recommend Them: Sure, if you need a healthier alternative to a Snickers.
Would I Buy Them Again: I’d buy these before any of the other Trader Joe’s Fruit bars, just because they’re less sticky.
Final Synopsis: A hefty fruit bar that isn’t all that sweet.
Sometimes you’re just hankering for something from Sardinia. Maybe the Big Game is about to come on, or maybe the kids are driving you up the wall? Times like these, nothing hits the spot like a little something Sardinian. Not only does Trader Joe’s Sardinian Parchment Crackers bolster the relatively anemic roster of the Sardinian products available from your grocer, but it also has the added benefit of sounding like the hotly contested artifact a dashing archaeologist might be racing Nazis for.
So it’s a great name – but what is a Sardinian Parchment Cracker?Well get ready for some excitement folks, because it’s very thin, flat, unyeasted cracker bread milled from semolina. In other words, a taste explosion. This might be expected given the origin of these crackers – invented circa 1000 BC by wandering shepherds trying to make a portable lunch. No bread lasts so well as a good, dry cracker, and so this it was that this simple, broad, flat snack entered the world.
Joking aside – Trader Joe’s Pane Guttiau is a good tasting cracker with some intriguing applications. In terms of flavor, these crackers are very close to saltines, only enlivened by a touch of olive oil and served much thinner. Much, much thinner actually. The more jocular name for pane guttiau is carta di musica or “music sheet” – either because these wafer thin crackers resemble wrinkled sheets of paper, or because they’re so thin that you can actually read a sheet of music through them. This is no exaggeration – I was able to see my hand through a sheet of pane guttiau, which is not something most crackers can brag of.
There are two main reasons you’re going to want to come to these crackers – for the size and for the texture. The taste, though good, won’t blow you away – it’s the huge 4-5” size of each cracker and their light, crispiness that lets you snack on these in a whole new way. You won’t necessarily be digging into a tub of hummus with these crackers – though you can manage it if you’re careful enough. Instead, they lend themselves to being layered with thin slices of salami and cheese, or dabbed with a nice tapenade and had as an antipasta.
There’s something really enjoyable and liberating about dealing with crackers this size. Instead of being forced into dealing with a set size of cracker out of a box, these parchment crackers allow you to easily snap off any sized section you want from the larger cracker. Nibble on a broken-off corner or stack a plate with multiple layers – the versatility of the pane guttiau is tremendous.
A final note, despite the thinness of the crackers, I found that Trader Joe’s packed a good number into each box. I wound up running out of things to put on the parchment crackers before the parchment crackers themselves ran out.
If you’re going to try these – get some good cheese and meats, some nice spreads, and enjoy a little free-form snacking.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, particularly if you’re exhausted by traditionally sized crackers.
Would I Buy Them Again: Eventually, maybe when I have guests over.
Final Synopsis: These ancient, wafer-like crackers are a whole new way to snack!
Put on your checkered, ear-flap caps readers, because today we’re going full Canadian with Trader Joe’s Poutine.
Poutine – what is poutine? What is this strange word, this strange brown bag smiling broadly at us from the depth of the freezer section? What do french fries, cheese curds and gravy have to do with each other? To put it simply, poutine is French Canadian nachos – only instead of tortilla chips you have fries, and instead of melted cheese you have gravy, and instead of jalapenos you have melted cheese. Yes, I know that’s confusing, but there’s no avoiding that. Only a Canadian can truly understand poutine – just as only Aussies can truly understand Vegemite, only Scots can truly understand Irn-Bru and only Americans can truly understand root beer. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to explain.
Basically, what you get with Trader Joe’s Poutine is a big bag of frozen french fries, a packet of beef gravy and a packet of cheese curds. The idea is, you cook the fries in your oven, while warming the gravy and curds on the stove top. Once everything’s ready, you top the fries with the curds, drizzle the gravy over the whole lot, then eat it with a fork/your fingers. It’s a sloppy heap of messy, salty savory junk food perfect for anytime you feel like abandoning your goals and dreams in favor of immediate mouth-stuffing gratification – again, not unlike nachos.
I’d never had poutine before, which presented me with a unique challenge. How could I fairly review Trader Joe’s Poutine, and thus avoid incurring Cannuck ire, without anything to compare it against? Where was my control group? A Google search revealed the depth of my problem. Although poutine is wildly popular in the barren polar regions of North America, it doesn’t have much of a presence anywhere so far south in America as Los Angeles, CA.
I was able to find a number of upscale restaurants offering their own nouveau fusion versions of poutine designed to downplay the more uniquely Canadian side of poutine (read: giant salty cheese curds) in favor of a more marketable, bastardized dish, but little in the way of real, authentic poutine. For a moment I thought I’d found a lucky break in the form of the Gravy Train Poutinerie – a poutine slinging mobile food truck promising real, home-style poutine – but an examination of their Twitter account revealed that they moved operations to the greener pastures of Salt Lake City, UT in October 2013. Things were getting depressing.
Finally, I found success at Little Fork, Hollywood – a cool little box of a restaurant dedicated to serving Canadian food up right. Over a couple cheap Molsens I enjoyed my first real poutine – smoked meat gravy, gooey cheese curds and all. Folks, it was a delicious heap of a hot mess.
So it was with considerable anticipation that I cooked up Trader Joe’s Poutine on my stove. After following the direction and digging in – I’m sorry to report that I didn’t like it very much at all.
The gravy is fine, and the cheese curds, though saltier than I like, are as thick and squeaky as you could ask for. The problem, unfortunately and unavoidably, is in the fries. It’s next to impossible to cook fries in an oven and have them be anywhere as near as good as fries out of a deep fryer. Countless brands have tried to do it, but none, not ever Trader Joe’s, has succeeded. Without the deep fryer, fries aren’t fries – they’re just dull potato planks.
There are some other minor difficulties with Trader Joe’s Poutine – I found it hard to heat up the cheese curds without them melting together into a big blob, even by heating them in a water bath, but these are only petty concerns. The heart of a good poutine is in the good fries – take those away and your might as well just have your cheese and gravy on a baked potato. Honestly, you’d be much better off buying some good fries from a takeout joint and adding the curds and gravy to them than you would be buying this frozen bag of flat potato slices. Thank you, Trader Joe’s, for bringing us the delicacy of rural Quebec, but these fries simply won’t do.
Would I Recommend It: Not with these fries I wouldn’t.
Would I Buy It Again: No – I’ll just wait for the Poutinere to wheel it’s way back here.
Final Synopsis: The great Quebecoise cuisine brought low by inadequate fries.