Occasionally I sit at the table gnashing my teeth and staring balefully at a plate of vegetables. My complaint, I think, is a common one – there simply are not enough vegetables in my vegetables. I, and no doubt you, will be relieved to discover that Trader Joe’s has taken a direct approach to resolving this problem by splitting some poblano peppers open and stuffing them to over flowing with corn, beans, wheat berries, quinoa (and a bit of cheese) in Trader Jose’s Vegetable Stuffed Poblano Peppers.
Essentially we are dealing with a chile rellano made with more veggies instead of meat. Why this rellano like product, not even labeled as such, is handled under the Trader Jose’s label while this one is not shall remain a mystery for all time – knowable only to the augerers in Trader Joe’s occultism department.
This veg-and-cheese medley makes for a tasty filling and manages to avoid the heavy lingering vegetable aftertaste common to other veggie-only dishes. This is notable given that the veggies in question are massive, whole kernels of corn and insolent, lounging beans – an almost aggressively vegetarian dish showing off its full vegetable pedigree on its face. That said, the strongest taste is that of the meaty, thick-skinned poblano peppers that require a knife to saw through. The poblanos have lost much of the fire they pack while raw but not all of it, making this a mild dish with a faint edge of tongue-tingling heat.
I microwaved my Vegetable Stuffed Poblano Peppers in leiu of the 25 minute oven prep, and found that the peppers came out somewhat tough and resistant – far from the tender bell pepper skin of Trader Joe’s Stuffed Peppers with Seasoned Turkey and Rice. Worse, the poblanos were laced through with a bitter tinge, a common feature of poblano’s that have been overcooked. Was this my fault? Perhaps, but I adhered to TJ’s box-side directions so I’m going to pass the buck on to them.
A final intriguing touch is the addition of wheat berries and quinoa in the stuffed peppers – two quasi-grains not commonly associated with Mexican cuisine. I wrote about these trendy, health alternatives to other grains here. In the stuffed peppers their presence is largely undetectable, masked by the other stronger tastes, but lending a pleasant quality to the texture of the sauce.
I mentioned Trader Joe’s Turkey and Rice Stuffed Peppers already, and I can’t help but comparing this dish with that one overall. Do Trader Joe’s Vegetable Stuffed Poblano Peppers stand a chance of replacing this favorite of mine? By no means, the tender, savory, seasoned turkey stuffed peppers beat this newcomer across the board. A decent stuffed-pepper stand-in for the vegetarian crowd perhaps, if they found this one too cheesy, but no match for taste and texture of the stuffed red peppers.
Would I Recommend It: To vegetarians in need of a hearty stuffed pepper only.
Would I buy it again: Almost certainly not.
Final Synopsis: A vegetarian-friendly chile rellano that’s basically mediocre.
I never would have guessed raw cabbage and cooked bulgur could be so tasty, and yet here I have my proof in Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Grain Country Salad.
Let us first commend this hearty and delicious salad as a study in the art of simple, elegant salad making. The salad is skillfully tossed together from 4 simple components – a bed of shredded cabbage, a scattering of garbanzo beans and a few select cherry tomatoes embedded in a dense field of moist bulgur. Raw shredded cabbage is ordinarily hard to make palatable, but in this instance it works as crispy counterpoint to the yielding, flavorful grain. Add a few choice spices, and you’re left with a rich, sumptuous salad that smells enticingly of the middle east and fills you up without weighing you down. It does, however, lead us to our first question. Bulgur – what is bulgur?
Bulgur. This is not a word the average American runs into on network TV or his daily paper. It sounds fashionable, in that return-to-the-past sort of way, maybe the sort of thing peasants in medieval Italy were stabbing Cypriots with pikes over. “Unload your mule of my bulgur, varlet” was probably a common cry somewhere at sometime.
In actual point of fact, bulgur is a Mediterranean crop – a high fiber grain, related to wheat but looking and feeling like couscous and with a lightly nutty flavor. If you’ve ever had tabbouleh, you’ve had bulgur, (a phrase which is as fun to say as it was to write). Bulgur is somewhat in vogue nowadays due to the fact that it cooks up like white rice, but with more protein and fiber, and a lower glycemic index.
This leads us to our second question. Where does Trader Joe’s get off calling this a salad?
Being made mostly of grain, it’s pushing the definition of salad further than normally tolerated. It would be just as accurate to call this a pasta dish with a side of shredded cabbage. Not to mention the absence of a salad dressing. Has there ever been an actual salad-type salad that you can eat without a dressing? Top scientists say no. Except maybe in the case of pasta salads, of which this is almost certainly one, which I suppose negates the entire point of this paragraph. Never mind, let’s move on.
Although possibly a bit unorthodox, there’s s nothing to regret about Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Grain Country Salad – simple parts that come together in a tasty, well-designed medley of refreshingly unusual tastes and textures and exotic smells.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to anyone who is at all curious about salads or bulgur.
Would I But It Again: A little carb heavy as a salad, but tasty as a side dish, so yes.
Final Synopsis: A resounding yes to the question, “Does bulgur taste good as a salad?”
Once again, I am shocked that Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano is not on the Trader Jose label. What’s the point of positing the existence of a Hispanic doppelganger if you’re not going to ham-handedly slap him on all your Spanish-inspired cuisine?
For that matter, why have a Trader Jose, a Trader Giotto, a Trader Josef and so on, but not a Korean Trader Jae, an Egyptian Trader Jahi, or a Thai Trader Jayavarman? Why the narrow window of ethno-specificity Trader Joe’s? Edward Said called, he wants to know where you got your Orientalism.
In any case, I better start off this review by disclosing that I’m not really all that into chile rellanos. My list of favorite Mexican food looks like this:
Table 1-1: Mexican Food Preference Chart
- Smothered/”Wet” Burritos
- Fish Tacos (soft)
- Nachos (supreme or ultimate)
- Sweet corn cake mash
As you can see, chile rellanos don’t even crack the top 5, so TJ’s was already embarking on an uphill battle when they created this product then let me go home with it. Strike 1 and 2, Trader Joe’s. Dubious but willing, I tucked in.
The Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano is a roasted poblano pepper, nice and mild, stuffed with monterey jack, slathered in spicy tomato salsa, dusted with bread crumbs and topped with cheddar. When that much melted cheese comes into play, it’s hard to make an unpalatable dish – and as you might imagine these rellanos go down easy.
While most rellanos contain meat of some sort, take note that this one is a vegetarian dish, meaning it is little more than a meat-free, tube of cheese.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a vegetarian looking for sustenance amid the barrens of the modern grocery store. If you’re looking for that meat free Mexican food fix, here you are. The salsa is admirably spicy, delivering a short sharp burn with each bite, and the roasted pepper is toothsome, if somewhat tough to cut. The vegetarian rellano also boosts a surprisingly high protein profile, 22 grams to the serving, which might give you some sense of how much cheese we’re talking about here.
For my part, I found the meat-less rellano less than filling. As a component to a larger Mexican dish it would certainly be more effective – as plate compatriot to an enchilada, perhaps, or a taco. However, if I’m going to ingest that much straight up cheese I have other ways I’d prefer to go about it. (See table 1-1).
Would I Recommend It: To Mexican craving vegetarians, no one else.
Would I buy it again: I don’t see it happening.
Final Synopsis: This cheesy pepper is alright, but nothing special.
I don’t normally review items that are obviously delicious. For example, I’m not writing a review of Trader Joe’s Chocolate Covered Sea Salt Butterscotch Caramels.
Trader Joe’s Raspberry and Vanilla Cream Bars would seem to fall into this category. I mean, frozen fruit juice bars? It’s not like no one’s every thought of doing this before. Do you really need to be told if you’ll like this or not – especially if you’re at Trader Joe’s where, if you’re in the mood for a frozen fruit bar, you have a choice of about three options?
Let’s just consider the ingredient list – raspberries, sugar, vanilla, cream. Does this sound like something you’d like to eat in a frozen bar form? Of course it does! It really seems like a waste of perfectly good turns of phrase, not to mention everyone’s time, to dig much deeper.
So that’d be it, article over, if it wasn’t for the fact that someone in the Trader Joe’s corporate chain of command is either a twisted madman, or a genius in thrall of a dream beyond our comprehension. In either case the visions that torment him have been made manifest in this bar for, you see, this bar has no stick.
NO STICK. It’s just a little plastic envelop with a lump of frozen fruit and cream in it.
In all honesty, Trader Joe’s expects you to take out one of the small bags, tear open the plastic wrapper, and devour their Raspberry and Vanilla Cream bar right there as is. There is simply no way to take it out of the wrapper without sticky-ing your fingers. I suppose you could drop it onto a plate, at which point you will stare at the sad, stick-less lump and wonder why TJ’s would do such a thing.
The history of civilization is the story of man striving to develop the perfect frozen treat delivery system – whether sandwiched between cookies, pushed up a cardboard tube, enrobed in chocolate and wrapped in foil, served in tiny tubs, sugar cones, waffle cones or chocolate-dipped waffle cones progress has marched on! And throughout it all the stick has remained most simple, most pure and cost effective method – the father and platonic ideal of all frozen treats delivery systems. All this progress out the window!Trader Joe’s is trying to single-handedly undo all the progress frozen novelties have achieve in the past centuries and drag it kicking and screaming back to the dark ages.
This is madness Trader Joe’s! Put sticks in your fruit & cream bars! We are not animals! We will not mess our faces like beasts at the trough. If you wanted to serve ice cream in a little pouch, than call it ice cream in a little pouch. Don’t call it a bar and stick it in with the rest of the iced novelties as if that were somehow sane.
Also, the bars are a little bit small. Each bar comes in at 40 grams, or 1.4 ounces, which makes them about as big as your cell phone’s battery back, or about two bars of guest soap set side to side. That’s may not be much to chew on, but the cream is so sweet and the fruit so rich that it eats slow It is an intense and delicious taste sensation that brims over with real raspberry taste and sweet vanilla cream that would lend itself to slowly nibbling – if only it had a stick.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you don’t mind tiny bars that are doomed to be messy.
Would I Buy It Again: No, it’s just not fun to eat.
Final Synopsis: A delicious bar, fatally flawed by the lack of a stick.
Seafood can be done well, and seafood can strand you in the bathroom for 24 hours – so when someone, even Trader Joe’s, offers to make me a stew from assorted castoff bits of seafood I take pause. Nevertheless, it is my duty to report on such things to you, dear reader, and so I found myself face to face with a bubbling bowl of Trader Joe’s Cioppino Seafood Stew.
Cioppino, despite it’s robustly Italian-sounding name, is actually an American creation – springing into existence on the docks of San Francisco in the 1800’s. It owes it’s name to a derivation of the Italian word meaning “to chop”, a naming convention that is less than totally unique.
In this case, the chopping was done to whatever the fisherman had left over once the good bits of their day’s catch had been accounted for. This fish, bivalve and crustacean medley was then chucked into a pot and simmered in a tomato and wine base until delicious. This colorful history played through my head as I stared at the floppy, opaque bag Trader Joe’s was peddling – images of unsavory, marine castoffs swimming through my head. As I ripped open the bag and poured its contents into my stew pot, I discovered my fears were for naught. Once again, the TJ’s chefs have saved what may have been a questionable concept in lesser hands by the strength of their delicious recipes. Rich, red and flavorful, Trader Joe’s Cioppino Seafood Stew is as hearty as it is delicious.
It’s the base that makes it work – a heavily seasoned tomato stock cut with red wine that verges on the edge of being too salty without going over. It’s a good stew base through and through, a gut-warmer that invites slow, deep sips.
The seafood itself is a nice mixture of deboned cod, and shelled shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams. Strictly speaking, this is a departure from traditional ciopinno, which is made from local fish plus shrimp, crab and squid, still bone-in and in shell, as suits the tuff wharf walkers of San Fran. Even better, despite the plentiful helping of seafood in the stew, it doesn’t suffer from a debilitating fishy taste.
I didn’t find much to dislike with this stew. One quibble is that the bag contains 80% of your daily sodium intake between two small servings. Speaking of which, the bag is ridiculously oversized for the contents it holds. Despite the appearances, you’ll be able to cook up the entire dish in a pint-sized sauce pan with room to spare. Trader Joe’s calls this two servings. Not where I come from, TJ.
Would I Recommend It: Get your cioppino on, those of you not suffering from high blood pressure!
Would I Buy It Again: It’s the perfect excuse for me to buy a bread bowl.
Final Synopsis: A tasty, salty seafood stew that does it all right.
Like another syntactically ambiguous citrus product, Trader Joe’s Thai Lime Shrimp Skewers confounds the English tongues ability to parse. Come on TJ, is this a Thai preparation of shrimp with lime, or Thai limes on shrimp?
Spurned to action by this irksome lack of clear-sightedness, I threw myself into a burst of quick detective work. The answer, it turns out, lurks in the ingredients.
I present to you, ladies and gentlemen, proudly listed on the second line, the kaffir lime.
Yes, the kaffir lime – the very sort commonly used in Thai cuisine! A Thai lime, if you will. Long did I suspect this particular ingredient was one of those overly elaborated upon nouns used for marketing purposes – as in “optic white” or “full serving”.
The truth is quite to the contrary. Kaffir limes are not just a distinct species, smaller, uglier and native to southeast Asia, but are also largely inedible. In fact, kaffir limes are used in cooking not for their citric juices, like the garden variety lime, but for the fragrance of their leaves. A grilled shrimp spritzed with citrus is delicious, but this isn’t that. This is a shrimp prepared in a very Thai way, with the aroma of lime but not its zest.
Trader Joe’s Thai Lime Shrimp Skewers come uncooked but ready to pop on the oven or grill for your non-bar mitzvah party event. The box holds five skewers of five shrimp, each simply herbed with flakes of the kaffir lime leaf and assorted other spices. The taste is subtle, but distinct – laying on top of the shrimp taste as a counterpoint rather than working with it like a butter or cream.
The end result is a simple, and simply prepared, dish that captures the taste of Thai cuisine. The taste is difficult to summarize, after all kaffir lime leaf is not that common here in the West, but if you’ve ever had a Thai curry or Tom Yum Gai you’ve tasted it.
Trader Joe’s Thai Lime Shrimp Skewers would make a great addition to the buffet table, as a fun option for a family meal or, if you pluck the shrimp from their skewers, a fantastic addition to your curry or light noodle dish.
Two words of warning. First, don’t think “citrus” when you buy this – be ready for an exotic taste of Thailand.
Second, each skewer is as long as the box they come come in. If you’re prepping them on the range, make sure you have a big, and preferably square, skillet. I used my largest frying pan, but found I could only fit two skewers across it’s diameter at the same time. A square skillet eliminates such geometric hassles, as would cooking them up on the grill.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to party planners or Asian cuisine dabblers.
Would I Buy It Again: Next time I tire of ordinary shrimp.
Final Synopsis: An easy, healthy way to get a taste of Thailand.
I’ve always been cautious when it comes to foods stuffed in other foods, so it was with wariness that I approached Trader Joe’s stuffed peppers with seasoned turkey and rice. Stuffing, after all, is fraught with peril. We’ve all heard the dire warnings regarding turkey stuffing and seen the gruesome spectacle of sausage stuffing. It is a mixed bag. Sometimes the rewards outweigh the dangers, and sometimes you find yourself eating a pile of gunk.
I turned to Trader Joe’s stuffed red peppers during a quest to find a cheap, easy prep, low carb, non-frozen dinner entree. A tall order, and one that Trader Joe’s has trouble delivering on. It was after a great deal of searching that I finally struck upon these. Trader Joe’s Stuffed Red Peppers may not be exactly a dieters dream, but at 11 grams of fat and 14 grams of carbs per serving they’re not too far off the mark.
I’ve come back to these stuffed peppers time and time again because it fills a gap not many Trader Joe’s products do – a dead-cheap dinner option that takes 15 minutes and no prep. In other words, with two full servings for about $2.50 each and no knowledge of cooking necessary, this is the perfect I’m-An-Unskilled-Bachelor dinner go to. I go the oven-cooked route, but it’s just as easily microwaved. In either case, you end up with something that’s not just tasty, but could nearly pass as home cooked.
The piping hot rice and season turkey spills in a moist slump over the red pepper’s wilted walls – flavorful, meaty and savory without being starchy or over-salted. The balance between turkey and rice is generously nudged toward the turkey side, which at makes this more entree than side dish. This rich filling is, in turn, balanced by the soft and very mild taste of the roasted red pepper casing.
That said, these stuffed peppers aren’t perfect. For one, the casing always collapses to some degree when cooked, making messy piles. Relatedly, the filling tends to resist becoming crisp and brown no matter how long you bake it.
Trader Joe’s Stuffed Red Pepper isn’t incredible, exotic or revolutionary, but like TJ’s Minestrone it’s something with a value all it’s now, a classic mainstay. This is the sort of meal that a mom might serve up to her family once a week – a modern-day casserole that gives the TV Dinner Set an option outside the freezer section.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, whether you’re a mom, a bachelor or just too tired to defrost the chicken.
Would I Buy It Again: I already have.
Final Synopsis: A simple, but tasty classic.
We’ve dipped a toe into the wild, wondrous world of non-standard spreads and emollients before, with universally positive results. Let us now turn our discerning gaze to that strange lurker on the peanut butter rack – Trader Joe’s Sunflower Seed Butter.
Here we have a weird and unusual spread. Almond pastes and hazelnut creams have become, if not common, at least wider known in recent years – earning a reputation for packing a delicious punch that belies their simple parts. Sunflower seed butter, on the other hand, is an item I’ve only encountered on the far left hand side of Trader Joe’s shelves, huddled off shyly to itself, away from the lime light of the more popular spreads.
I have long been intrigued by this little guy. Was he, like myself, the poor awkward kid in the school yard hiding a heart of gold, or was he a deserving misfit, a mismade troll rightfully shunned into lurking under the bridge in Trader Joe’s sunny world? Is it, in other words, any good?
The answer is not easy to come up with. Trader Joe’s Sunflower Seed Butter isn’t particularly good or bad. It has a very unusual taste that a certain niche audience might enjoy, and which isn’t offensive, but has nothing in particular to recommend it.
It’s hard, at first, to get past the packaging. The label has a cheap, tossed-off look that screams “We don’t care about this product”, a notion that is backed up by the surprisingly flimsy plastic jar it comes in. Twist off the top, and you’ll discover that sunflower seed butter looks almost exactly like your run of the mill creamy PB. Look closer, do you see how, as you tilt the container from side to side, a sheen of separated oil glimmers on the top? You’ll notice as well that the sunflower seed butter flows quite easily, more like an organic, hand-made peanut butter than a Jiff. In fact, the sunflower seed butter is so loose you could almost pour it out, if you wanted to. This is not all bad, as it makes it easy to spread, though it comes at the cost of being somewhat sloppy to ladle with a knife.
The taste is simple and unmistakable – sunflower seeds. This will be your first blush and the long, lingering tail. The immediately taste is almost identical to popping a shelled handful of those tiny, oily seeds into your mouth. After that, as you roll it around on your tongue, the taste become much more mild and somewhat sweeter (thanks, no doubt, to the evaporated cane sugar used as a natural sweetener). While chewing you’d almost swear you were eating ordinary peanut butter – if it wasn’t for a faint hint of that sunflower seed taste lingering just on the peripheral of your tongue. This is all more or less exactly what I expected from a sandwich spread made of sunflower seeds, what surprised me was that once you swallow, the strong, undeniable taste of sunflower seeds will resume. This is practically identical to the aftertaste left in your mouth when you munch on a handful of dry sunflower seeds, and it is not a quick aftertaste either but long and lingering.
Overall it’s not a bad taste or a very good taste – it’s simply a very strong sunflower seed taste. If you have an aversion to peanuts, and therefore peanut butter, you could very well get used to this instead. That said, there isn’t very much to recommend this over any other peanut-variation butter. Like all nut/seed butters it is mostly fat, and it has very nearly the same amount of sugar and carbs as other alternatives. In the end it comes down to how you feel about sunflower seeds. If you love snacking on them, keep them in your kitchen cupboards and car cup holders, this is your dream product.
A final note, sunflower seed butter is very dense compared to most store bought butters. Like organic peanut butter, a very small amount of sunflower seed butter goes a long way – each dab is dense with the crushed essence of a hundred sunflower seed kernels. One small bite and you’re tongue will feel slathered with the paste, resulting in much dog-like chop licking. As a result, one jar of this stuff is going to last you a lot longer than a similar jar of peanut butter, for better or worse.
Would I Recommend It: Only if you have a peanut allergy and don’t like almond butter.
Would I Buy It Again: Maybe when this jar runs out, 2 or 3 years down the line.
Final Synopsis: Yes, apparently you can make this, and yes it does taste exactly like you think.
Masa, delicious corn masa. It’s about time some bum decided to start making Mexican-style pizzas with this stuff. Lord knows I wish it had been me. Trader Jose’s Pizza al Pollo Asado Pizza (Hurray, another “ethnic” cousin!) is a tasty and original take on the world of frozen pizzas that will delight your taste buds, and perhaps even open your heart to a whole new world of pizza variations.
Accurate, I’m afraid to say, on every point. Let’s take a look:
The pizza is layered on a thick, masa crust and it is without a doubt the showcase item here. Masa is simply spanish for dough, and corn masa is exactly that – a thick, tasty corn dough. TJ’s manages to make theirs tasty and flavorful while avoiding the common pitfall of being unpleasantly mealy. The toppings aren’t bad either. The chicken chunks taste nicely roasted (it isal asado, after all) and have been spiced up to provide a peppery kick to each bite. The bean-cheese substrate of the pizza is the perfect tomato sauce substitute, binding the toppings to masa in a mild, creamy base.
That said, the promised tomatillo “salsa” is far less than stunning. In fact it’s nothing more than a scattering of dry tomatillo chunks that are so dry and blocky that their more an obstacle to overcome in chewing than a friendly ingredient.
The failings are quite moderate however. Straight out of the oven, the corn masa crusty and piping hot, this tasty appetizer/entree will leave wanting to experience more. Sopes and huraches are all well and good – but the crumbly, yeilding crunch of the thick masa crust brings something new to the game. More substantial than the hurache, and more manageable (and servaable) than the sope, the corn masa pizza is the perfect bridge between Tex and Mex. All the more so if you start layering on lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole and sour cream to make a towering, masa-crusted tostada cum sliceable seven-layer dip.
Would I recommend it: Popping ’em out at parties or chow down with a cerveza
Would I buy it again: Heck yeah – but next time I’ll layer on my own toppings.
Final Synopsis: It’s biggest failing is that they don’t sell a bigger one.