When it comes to foreign cuisine, no supermarket chain kills it quite like Trader Joe’s. Case in point – Trader Joe’s Seaweed Salad with spicy dressing. We’ve already looked at some of TJ’s bold, if shaky, forays into the Korean kitchen. With this fun spicy salad they can proudly boast that they’ve done something well that no one will appreciate.
Seaweed is not high on the list of most American shoppers, so hat’s off to Trader Joe’s for branching out into the exciting world of undersea vegetation. The history of seaweed cultivation and consumption is as vast and engrossing as the wide Sargasso, and I doubt I can do it justice in this forum. When confronted with a man who just ate a big bowl of limp kelp, the more pressing question of interest is “Does it taste any good?”
Yes, absolutely, this sea weed salad does – if you’re in the market for authentic Korean cuisine. If, instead, you’re looking for a nice, ordinary salad to accompany your casserole, try one of these. If, on the other hand, your on the hunt for an entirely different taste, and texture, sensation to make dinner memorable you couldn’t ask for better.
In a lot of ways Trader Joe’s Seaweed Salad is exactly what you’d expect – a big pile of wet, limp seaweed that smells more than slightly of the sea. In other ways though, this salad might surprise you.
For one, the salad is actually thrown together from a wide variety of seaweeds. Each one brings it’s own texture, color and toothfeel to the dish, seven different types of sea plants go in, from the translucent agar-agar to the bright Carrageenan Yellow.
Eating these fronds is unlike eating any other salad you’ve ever had – large, tender, sometimes slick, sometimes springy textures slide and bounce their way across the mouth with each bite. It doesn’t exactly come packing the taste – few things are as bland and mild and wet seaweed – but what it lacks in taste it makes up for in texture and appearance.
Of course, TJ’s was aware that seaweed needs some help to become tasty, and it provides that help in the form of a monstrously large packet of “salad dressing: that is, essentially, a thick, paste of red hot peppers. Again, kudos to Trader Joe’s for taking the authentically Korean route here. Many mass retailers might have tended toward a milder, more edible dressing, instead TJ’s gives you the full-on Korean restaurant experience.
This is a seriously hot condiment folks, and it’s given to you in a quantity far beyond what you’ll likely need to enjoy your salad. Try a dab of the dressing first before slathering your salad and adjust accordingly. I found about a 1/6th of the packet enough for me – but as we established before, I’m also a bit of a chili wuss.
A final note, making this salad was more fun than it should have been. The meal comes as a freeze-dried thatch that you must dump in a big bow of water and leave to quintuple in size – dinosaur sponge style. It brightened up my day, but then again I am easily amused.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you think you like seaweed or interesting textures. No to everyone else.
Would I Buy It Again: I could see it happening.
Final Synopsis: This is a great, exciting, interesting seaweed salad but, ultimately, a seaweed salad it remains.
Trader Joe’s Dukkah is a brilliant new introduction to the American food lexicon – a delicious addition to otherwise tasty bread and, more than that, a party in a jar.
Dukkah, or “duqqa” as it is more commonly spelled, is an originally Egyptian side dish made, simply, from a mixture of herbs, nuts and spices for dipping bread in. Word has it that this tasty hors d’oeuvre is all but ubiquitous in Cairo and beyond. The geo-politcal climate being what it is – I’m content to take their word for it.
Dukkah, takes it’s name from the Arabic word for “to pound”, taken from the simple process of making dukkah – just jamming a bunch of tasty spices and nuts together. Traditional dukkahs, as you may expect from such a folk recipe, vary widely in composition. Trader Joe’s take on it is a combination of crush almond, fennel, anise and sesame seeds, plus coriander and salt. I’m sure this may raise some more traditional dukkah lover’s eyebrows, but I couldn’t be happier with this flavorful, exotic mix.
The product label is helpfully emblazoned with the instructions, “Take a hunk of crusty bread, dip it in olive oil and then in DUKKAH”, which was straightforward enough for me. I decided to engaged my jar of dukkah with a loaf of Trader Joe’s Kalamata Olive bread, figuring it was both crusty enough and small enough to fit into my cluttered, tiny kitchen. Also, hey, it’s got olives in it, so yum yum. I prepared a little dish of olive oil, opened my aromatic jar of Egyptian bread topper, and dunked the dukkah out of my bread. Was it good? Friend, it was absolutely great.
Now before I get carried away with unalloyed praise, let’s get the facts straight. A nice crusty bread is damn good in it’s own right, and dunking said bread in some cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil? You can’t really go wrong. The immediate question is how much enjoyment did the the dukkah lend to this simple banquet? The straight answer is – a great deal.
Dukkah is like having a delicious new tool in your meal tool box. Hit bread with some savory olive oil and that’s good, add to that a splash of tangy balsamic vinegar and that’s better, follow that with some nutty, crunchy, spicy dukkah and you’ve just added a whole new dimension to your meal. And while the taste is nice in and of itself, the crunch is really the selling point here, making a mouthful of sopping bread even more of a pleasure to work on.
That said, this spice mixture might not be for everyone. Anise is a strong flavor, commonly identified with black licorice, and while it’s presence in Trader Joe’s Dukkah is not overwhelming it certainly in noticeable. If you’re interested in giving yourself over to an exotic taste for a new way to enjoy bread, go for the dukkah, but if you’ve never warmed up to black licorice you might consider giving it a miss. Either that, or consider whipping up your own batch. Dukkah amounts to little more than a dry mix of crushed nuts, spices and a little salt. Making your own is as easy as taking a walk down the dry goods aisle of your supermarket. Want to substitute salt and anise for rosemary and black pepper? Why not? You can find one alternate recipe here and others all across the web.
Taste aside, dukkah has a lot to offer. It’s a very easy addition to the table – a casual condiment that can be dabbed in or done without as the mood dictates. It also fits easily into parties, allowing simple, tasty snacking for a whole room with just one simply jar. Of all the wonders of dukkah, most incredible is how many servings you’ll get out of this one $2.99 container. With a price that low, consider throwing one in your cart next time and forgetting about it in the cabinet until company comes over.
Would I Recommend It: If you like bread and don’t hate anise, go for it.
Would I Buy It Again: As soon as this jar runs out (so not for a while).
Final Synopsis: Why has it taken me so long to hear of this stuff?
Oh man, why couldn’t Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs have been good? As I’ve made clear before, dark chocolate is the only kind of chocolate I can purchase. Regular milk chocolate bars tend to disappears down my throat in a way that worries medical professionals and my insurance provider. In the world of confections, milk chocolate is your good-time buddy who just wants to party – always on the scene with a six pack and the crazy plan. “Don’t worry man!” milk chocolate boisterously shouts, “Diets are stupid, let’s get nuts!”
Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is a stern Scandinavian quartermaster. “Haven’t you had enough of me now,” dark chocolate asks you solemnly, after one tiny bite, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to go back to work?”
Milk chocolate was fine in college, but as an adult it’s time to knuckle down and get serious. Hence my constant search for new, interesting forms of dark chocolate. Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs seemed like they might deliver – dark chocolate, after all is best enjoyed in tiny bites. So why not save some time and sticky fingers by going straight for the nibs?
As a rule of thumb, I steer clear of vaguely defined nouns in my food (lumps, chunks, gobs, etc) on the grounds that usually someone is trying to pull a fast one. In this case, I figured I was alright to bend my normally adamant rule. Not because I think Trader Joe’s is above marketing flim-flam, but because I was actually seeking the unpalatable.
A quick review of the ingredients reveals that the true identity of our anonymous nibs is the much less endearingly termed “cocoa mass”. Now, cocoa mass is just the name for ground up cocoa bean prior to being processed into unsweetened chocolate, so I figured this was right on the money. “Nibs” might just be a way for the irrepressible ad wizards at TJ’s to market their excess, extruded cocoa mass, but I didn’t come here for their tastiness – I came to find a safe outlet for my otherwise uncontrollable sweet tooth.
If dark chocolate is a stern quartermaster, surely dark chocolate on nibs of cocoa mass is even more severe – like a stone-faced mortician with cold unblinking eyes. Two nibs and I’d be set, I reasoned. The perfect post-dinner way to get in, satisfy my chocolate craving, and get out with minimal damage done.
It seemed quite unlikely to me that I’d end up finishing the wee decorative tin of these nibs in anything close to the suggested two servings. And that turned out to be true – it’s just too bad the nibs are crap.
The main problem is that the nibs are too hard and small to enjoy properly. Once the scanty coating of dark chocolate has melted away in your mouth, you’re left with a tiny, brittle nugget of roasted cocoa bean in your teeth. You can bite it, break it up, and you’re done. A single nib is far from satisfying, and even a small handful of the nibs left me wanting. They nibs don’t dissolve on your tongue in a pleasing way, they just crunch up into bitter fragments.
When compared to the pleasures of a dark chocolate bar, the nibs simply don’t stand up. A small bite of a dark chocolate bar renders the pleasure of numerous complex flavors that slowly unravel over the tongue before ending in a bitter punch – the nibs don’t pack enough chocolate to give you this delectable pleasure, and leave you with an inert bit of cocoa mass as your reward.
At the price you pay for the tin, you might as well just buy the dark chocolate bar in the first place.
Would I recommend them: Yes, if you need a tiny, decorative tin. No to everyone else.
Would I buy them again: Give me a bar of dark chocolate bar over these any day.
Final Synopsis: Nibs suck.
The full name of this product, listed boldy on its label, is “Trader Joe’s Trader Joe’s Roasted Butternut Squash Red Quinoa and Wheat Berry Salad with Baby Arugula, Cranberries, Toasted Almonds, Goat Cheese and Honey Sesame Vinaigrette”, which also doubles as an exhaustive list of it’s ingredients. I know that Trader Joe’s has a thing for compendious product names, but this one crosses the line from “a mouthful” to “ridiculous”. Honestly though? This time, I don’t even care – because this is the most delicious salad I’ve eaten all year.
I’m an inveterate salad diehard. You can count on me to eat salad, as a meal, between 5 and 8 times a week. Someday they’ll pass a law so you can marry salad, and on that day I’ll finally be a happy man – all the more so because I’ve finally met my fiancee. World, say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Quinoa and Wheat Berry Salad.
Every single ingredient in this salad works in sublime harmony with every other ingredient to turn a cheap, $4.99 salad into a taste sensation. I can’t imagine who it was who thought to mix wheat berry with butternut squash et al, but that man earns my heart-felt thanks.
Let’s look at this master piece, shall we? The spiciness of the arugula is balanced nicely by the mild, soft squash, which is supported by the crunch of the red quinoa, the chewiness of the wheat berries, and the sweet tang of the cranberries. And that’s not even getting into the goat cheese, which is a world of flavor in and of itself. Finally, the pairing of the honey sesame vinaigrette is a perfect match for the rest of the mix, neither too sweet nor to vinegary.
Even better, the salad boasts a healthy profile for such a hearty, savory meal – 290 calories (80 from fat), 41 grams of carbs, and 10 grams of protein (without dressing). As always, once the dressing comes on the fat goes up. In order to keep it on the healthy side, consider only going half way with the dressing – the flavors of the salad will more than makeup for the lighter drizzle.
While the nutritional profile may not satisfy a strict dieter, the salad also packs a potent nutritional punch in it’s healthy whole grains – wheat berry and quinoa. Wheat berry is the name for a whole kernel of wheat, minus nothing but the hull. In conventional processing the nutritious germ and endosperm are stripped from a grain of wheat. By leaving the whole grain, the kernel remains packed with fiber, protein, iron, vitamin E and magnesium. Red quinoa is another highly-regarded whole grain (or grain-like seed, to be strictly accurate) that has exploded in popularity recently for it’s high protein, iron and calcium content.
I could go on and on about how much I liked this salad, but this one is better experienced than described. The interplay of the flavors pleases the entire tongue from tip to heel in a way much more expensive restaurant salads often fail to, and takes more risks with it’s composition than most restaurants dare dream of.
That said, my sole reservation is that this may not be the best salad for your fly-by-night salad dabblers. It is a complex salad for people who are tired of simpler concoctions. The appearance of the salad, for example, is either gross or gorgeous depending on where you’re coming from in life. The countless beads of partially sprouted red quinoa spread throughout the salad, along with the mushy wheat berries and soft squash, give the salad a slightly intimidating or off-putting look. My rule of thumb would be this: If you don’t like big gobs of stinky cheese in your salad then steer clear, to everyone else – dive right in.
Would I Recommend It: To sophisticated adult palettes everywhere.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll buy it weekly, if they can keep it in stock.
Final Synopsis: The best salad I’ve ever had at Trader Joe’s.
What is quince? And what, really, is paste? These are two questions I found myself wrestling with as I held Trader Joe’s Quince Paste in my hand. Some serious research would have to be done, that I was sure of, but would it all be worth it in the end? With my trademark, devil-may-care laugh I tossed the quince paste into my basket and checked out – ready, as always, to gamble on a reckless impulse. If only I knew then what I know now – that I’d just been duped into buying an inferior product!
Trader Joe’s Quince Paste was so prettily packaged, hanging on the rack like a pack of new cards, and so exotically named (not jelly, not jam – but paste) that I just had to go for it. The package screams decadent exoticism – quince! Imported for New Zealand! Perfect compliment to artisanal cheese! I was unbearably excited to get it home, sit down with my block of Trader Joe’s Quintupled English Cheese and try it out. You, my good friend, need not get so excited yourself.
The quince paste is little more than a rather ordinary slab of jelly in unusual packaging. Paste, to me, calls to mind a thick, heavily textured spread – tomato paste, for instance, or bean paste, or a nice liver paté. This is just a jelly, maybe a bit thicker than ordinary jelly – a little bit – , but still just jelly.
So that’s illusion number one popped. If you’re looking for an exotic paste, don’t get this, because it’s gelatinous and jiggly and just a mundane, regular jelly.
But it’s still quince, right? Exotic quince, brought to us from far off shores? The fabled quince of legend – that Adam and Eve are rumored to have eaten ‘ere the fall? The fruit rumored to possess a sweet, intense aroma reminiscent of pineapple, guava, pear and vanilla all at once? The flesh of which is all but inedible while raw, but which transumtes to a sweet, translucent pink when cooked? That quince?
The very same. I’ve never had quince before – all the above has come to me by rumor, hearsay and Wikipedia articles – but this, I can tell you, does not live up to the legend. Trader Joe’s Quince Paste is so thoroughly processed and sugared up that it has lost any of it’s innate character. It just tastes sweet, with some faint fruity undertone that isn’t strong enough or distinct enough that you could put any sort of name to it.
I was forced to put my block of fine cheese down, disappointed. Quince paste isn’t a bad jelly, but it isn’t any more than a jelly, a jelly just like any other. If I had the dollars back, I’d spend it on a different, more interesting condiment, or at least a larger jar of some other regular jam. As it stands, if you buy Trader Joe’s Quince Paste you’ll have to be wowed by the exotic name alone – the product simply doesn’t do it.
Would I Recommend It: There’s nothing really to recommend it by.
Would I Buy It Again: Not while fine jellies, jams and preserves are available.
Final Synopsis: Try out a different jelly before bothering with this lackluster spread.
If Trader Joe’s made love to Ikea, Hake en Papillote would be their golden child.
Trader Joe’s typically intriguing take on food shows up with all the hallmarks of the Swedish furniture magnate4 here – an absurdly foreign name, calming minimalist design, and clever European-style packaging. That’s nice, much more refreshing than the usual frozen fish in vacuum-packed polyvinyl approach, but design is not food. My question is, does it taste as good as it looks?
Yes it is. And more so. I’ll delve into the details shortly, but first I want to answer the question on everyone’s mind: What the hell does “Hake en Papillote” mean?
Hake (rhymes with “rake”) is a smallish, seagoing white fish – most commonly eaten in Western Europe. Spaniards in particular hanker after the hake, snapping up nearly 50% of all hake eaten on the continent. Like tilapia, hake is a text book example of a “trash” fish suddenly becoming a marketplace commodity. Previously sold on the docks as “scrod”, denoting its undesirability and small size, hake has now stepped in as a tasty, white and flaky alternative to more expensive cod or halibut. The problem with all white fish is that they tend to dry out more or less immediately when stuck in a hot oven. This problem can be worked around in a number of ways, but Trader Joe’s struck on an innovative solution with its roots in French, as well as Japanese culture.
Cooking “en papillote” literally means “in parchment” in French. Upon opening your box of hake you’ll see this is exactly what Trader Joe’s has delivered on – a tidy box of folded white paper entombing your meal. There are various reasons for cooking in this rather unconventional way, but ultimately the reason is that foods sealed in paper will steam in their own evaporated juices, creating an even more flavorful environment than with traditional steaming (where the water vapor rushes out and away).
Cooking en papillote is generally limited to fish and vegetables, so obviously a good choice here, but is historically fraught with difficulties – How is the meal best wrapped? How is it kept closed as it steams? How can it be opened without scalding tender fingers? As a result, most en papillote cooking, even at fancy restaurants striving for haute cuisine, use aluminum foil for the task.
Trader Joe’s would have none of that. As stated on the box, and self-evident upon opening the package, they have devised a brilliant, two-piece, origami box that neatly wraps up the food, holds it safe, and allows for easy opening – either in the kitchen or directly on the plate for that “ooh-la-la” feeling.
So it’s a fancy take on something old, that’s fine – but is it worth all the paper-folding? Simply put, Trader Joe’s should start packaging all of their frozen fish like this, because I can’t get enough. Hake en Papillote is, without a doubt, the tastiest frozen meal I’ve ever had from Trader Joe’s or, in fact, ever.
Now, I’m not necessarily a fish person – I’m entirely satisfied to go months on end without tasting the flesh of the cold-blooded ichthyoid – but Hake in Papillote might just change my mind. Conceive of a light, flaky fish in a tasty, savory nutty pesto with a spring vegetable melange that pleases the whole tongue and you’ve got it. Often, I find that white fish tends to taste particularly “fishy”, though whether that’s because of something inherent in the fish or my own poor cooking I don’t know. In either case, the preparation here takes care of that for me and the hake has a clean, fresh taste without a hint of fishiness. The cherry tomatoes and zucchini are augmented elegantly by the delicious, but not overwhelming, pesto, and the steam-cooking process ensures that all these flavors come out vividly.
And let’s not for get the nutritional information – Hake en Papillote offers a complete entree that’s actually healthy. 14 grams of fat, 8 grams of carbs and only 220 calories make it the perfect, tasty meal for all but the most ascetic dieters.
It is a brilliant work of food engineering – from packaging, to presentation, to taste, to price. I try and maintain a philosophical outlook on the comings-and-goings of Trader Joe’s many products – to become too attached to any one product at TJ’s is to set yourself up for heartbreak – but this is one product whose eventual absence will leave me utterly crestfallen.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, firmly and definitely.
Would I Buy it Again: I’ll be picking this up on a weekly basis.
Final Synopsis: The best frozen fish you’ve ever had, and a reason to believe in a hopeful future.
First, for those of you who aren’t Korean, or don’t frequent the adventurous aisles of your supermarket, I will spare a few words for the remarkable food that is kimchi.
It seems that at some point in ancient history the good folks of the Korean peninsula thought they should start pickling fermented vegetables in spicy, spicy spices. Kimchi can be made from many vegetables, but most commonly from cabbage.
You’ve been served this limp, red-slathered dish in a tiny bowl if you’ve ever been lucky enough to patronize a Korean BBQ (or any Korean restaurant for that matter).
If you’ve ever been to Korea you’ve encountered it much more often than that. Kimchi is, in fact, the national food of the Koreans. The food is so important in that nation that it’s more a deeply ingrained cultural element than a food. Your typical Korean serves three or more types of kimchi every meal, including breakfast. Kimchi is to the Koreans what apple pie would be to Americans if Aunt Bea was the tyrannical overlord of our nation. Many Koreans, and this is utterly true, own two refrigerators – a regular refrigerator and a kimchi refrigerator. A separate refrigerator, you understand, that they need to own so they have a place to keep all their kimchi.
To your average American, kimchi is something of an acquired taste. We don’t pickle as much as we used to, and cabbage was never on the menu even back when pigs feet were going in the brine. Add to that fermentation in red hot spices and it starts to become clear why kimchi isn’t more widespread in the states.
So if that’s Kimchi’s illustrious, if idiosyncratic, past what is Trader Joe’s thinking by drying it? I really can’t get over how crazy this idea is. Unless there was a protracted, filibustering exhibition of super-human showmanship, I have great difficulty imaging the board meeting where this idea was successfully pitched. Essentially, someone must have stood up and said, “We want to start dehydrating cabbage,” and every just looked at each other and nodded. How does that happen?! This is 2013 – are all our pretenses to enlightenment a hollow lie?
Let me reiterate – I like kimchi. I’m a guy who literally says, “Alright, kimchi!”, when it’s served to him. I’ve willingly purchased whole jars of kimchi and brought them home with me. This is not a weird food to me, this is something I like. But I do not like this. Dried kimchi is, essentially, a bitter dose of spices on a shrunken leaf wad. It falls into the category of foods so weird I can’t even like them for their weirdness.
As we’re all aware, cabbage is 93% water content, and the bits that aren’t water are more tolerated than celebrated. Not many people are walking around hefting heads of cabbage and biting off a big mouthful just for the flavor. Really, dehydrating cabbage is just a fancy way of throwing it away. The fact that the already intense kimchi spices get concentrated in equal intensity on these dry bits of leaf is not a selling point.
The bag advertises the dehydrated kimchi as a “snack and condiment”, but a snack it is not. Dried kimchi is something you take a small pinch of, chew on slowly, and regret your recent life decisions. It’s more bitter than anything, although it’s also tremendously spicy.
As a condiment, the dehydrated kimchi fares better. The bag makes several suggestions for working the product into your daily life, some of them ludicrous, but includes “soup” and “salad” among them.
Dried kimchi flakes on salad is not something I would encourage. If you set out to design a salad entirely around the dried kimchi flakes, I dare say you could manage it. If you simply sprinkle them on a standard garden salad like I did, your results will be less than stellar. The gnarly cabbage-ness of the flakes blends away into your other leafy greens, but the touch of bitter spiciness still stands out, clashing with the other, more dominant flavors in the salad.
Soup, I’m glad to say, fares much better. I sprinkled my kimchi on Trader Joe’s Spicy Seaweed Ramen and actually found the dish much improved. The ramen, though tasty, is fairly simple in flavor. Seaweed doesn’t contribute much to it in terms of taste, and the spicy broth is simple and straight forward without depth.
Adding dehyrdated kimchi improved the whole situation. When the kimchi contacted the broth it began to reconstitute and unfurl, essentially undoing the damage done to it by Trader Joe’s mad kitchen scientists. With a little moisture and life returned to it the kimchi fares much better – infusing the soup with it’s complex, tangy, spicy flavor. This was the only way the dried kimchi seemed edible to me – if TJ’s is serious about keeping this stuff on the shelf they should try and play up this angle.
As good as the kimchi was as a soup additive, it made me wonder “Why not just add regular kimchi to the soup?” If I’m in the market to buy some kimchi, and it comes down to dehydrated or regular, I’m going to go with regular every time. Not only can it be incorporated into more meals than the dried kimchi, but it’s cheaper per pound, and even stores better – a jar of kimchi will last in your fridge for as long as you need while the dried kimchi starts to degrade in quality as soon as the airtight bag is opened.
Overall, this is a weird exercise in food absurdity – almost an art project. If, like me, you actually like kimchi, do yourself a favor and just buy the regular, non-dehydrated stuff.
Would I Recommend It: Only to die-hard kimchi fans looking for another way to get that kimchi-fix.
Would I Buy It Again: Oh no. No, no, no.
Final Synopsis: Dehydrating cabbage is a bad idea.