I did not intend to buy Trader Joe’s Cheddar and Horseradish Chips, not in the least. While it might seem like exactly the sort of misfit I’m drawn to, not unlike this insane chip mash up, this product just failed to grab my gustatory attention. Why, for instance, was this product championed as if it were unspeakable outré, by its own packaging nonetheless (“Cheddar and…horseradish?!”), but poor Beurre Meuniere Popcorn, released at exactly the same time, has been left omitted from the Fearless Flyer and left to languish in obscurity? Conspiracy? Perhaps. But in this case, as with the Elvis’ assassination by teamsters or New Coke, the conspiracy has won. Compelled, as if by forces beyond myself, I bought a bag and crunched in. What I found was much what I feared – a nice chip that is sharply spicy, sort of cheesy, but overall not as interesting as hoped for.
First, before I go all crazy on the mingling of tastes and all, a word on horseradish. I’ve often wondered just where the “horse” in horseradish comes from, a question that was piqued in my mind by the boldly emblazoned horseshoe on the package. It’s a common association, and one that’s all the more interesting given that the horseradish is actually poisonous to horses. Why the conflation? The answer can be traced back, like all else that is good in the world, to the filthy peasants of late 15th century England. Evidently, at some point a peon hefted one of these large roots before his eyes and remarked, “Cor, what a horse radish!” Horse being the word for “large” or “strong” at the time. The peasants, being no slouches, knew a good turn of phrase when they heard one, and the name stuck.
The presence of horseradish in these chips is downright undeniable. I was actually warned multiple times at the register by a cashier who was perhaps overly concerned that these chips were for horseradish lovers ONLY. I certainly fancy myself that, but at the risk of appearing haughty, I’d say a single, mild warning would do. There chips do come in with a sharp horseradish kick, but it flares out in half a second, sliding into a quick cool down and the arrival of some generic cheese flavor. Notably horseradishy definitely, but not quite a strong taste and nowhere near the real thing. While Trader Joe’s Cheddar and Horseradish chips do get hotter on the gongue than your standard, long-burn jalapeno chip, the effect is much shorter and the overall experience a milder one.
While the horseradish definitely delivers, there is less to talk about on the cheddar side of things. After the burn, the cheese taste is an anticlimax, muted and uninteresting by comparison. I’m not necessarily a fan of the super cheesy Cheetos approach to snack foods, but these chips could certainly benefit from a more complex flavor. The chip itself is thick, very crunchy, kettle-cooked and wavy – a strong chip that requires a moment to chew through and ensures you get the full horseradish blast.
Would I Recommend Them: Not particularly. Give’m a shot if you love horseradish, or need a new weird chip flavor.
Would I Buy Them Again: For me, these aren’t quite compelling enough.
Final Synopsis: A sharp, fun bite, followed by a more or less average chip.
Trader Joe’s Cowboy Caviar Salsa is, hands down, the grossest product name in the store. I’m no marketing expert, but if you want to sell someone your strange, globular salsa you might be thanked not to name it after fish eggs pulled from the ugliest fish in the Caspian. That aside, this corn-filled, black bean-based salsa is a bold, tasty alternative to your standard yellow-cap Pace and worth a look for anyone.
I should say that the blame for the name is not strictly TJ’s fault in this case. Cowboy caviar was first crafted into existence in the 1950’s by Helen Corbitt, famed chef, fresh food advocate, innovator of bold new cuisine and, ultimately, head chef at the flagship Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Texas – famed at the time (and known still) for its fine eating. The South, as every good southerner knows, has a hankering for black-eyed peas – a hankering that includes, but is not limited to, mandatory black-eyed pea consumption on New Years Day. Thus the decree that Neiman Marcus was to roll out an “all-Texas” menu, prominently featuring the beans was no surprise. No, the surprise was that Helen Corbitt, herself a Yankee girl from New York, detested black-eyed peas, and couldn’t bring herself to serve them in a traditional way. Instead, she pickled them in onions and served them as a chill dip – and lo history was made.
Trader Joe’s differs from its primogeniture by introducing the aforementioned corn, plus onions, red bell pepper and , perhaps hereticaly, swapping black beans for black-eyed peas. The chunky veggies are mortared by a mix of chipotle peppers, adobe sauce and lime juice – and the result is a dang good, medium salsa that give you plenty to chew on chip by chip. In addition to the touch of fire, you’ll pick up a citrus tang and even a hint of sweetness, which makes this an interesting salsa all around.
I myself am a die hard salsa fan, willing to take it any way I can get it, and to me this is one astounding find. Even with the sudden coming into vogue of non-traditional salsas (mango & papaya salsa, for example) there’s still a paucity of tomato-free varieties. Why not get the tomatoes the hell out of there? It’s the 3rd millennium A.D. isn’t it? “Nothing is sacred” is all but the mantra of our epoch – I don’t see why we should stop at tomatoes as salsa.
If you’ve ever been to a Trader Joe’s you know that they have a host of intriguing chips to go along with this salsas and dips. Why not try a bag of Super Seeded Tortilla chips when you pick up your southwester, rough-ridden, saddle-packed jar of cowboy caviar.
Would I Recommend It: Surely I do.
Would I Buy it Again: It’s a good change of pace salsa, if not an everyday kind of salsa.
Final Synopsis: Pickled corn and beans? As a salsa? Yessir, and damn good one.
Trader Joe’s Crunchy Black and White Rice Rolls are just rice folks, slightly sweetened, crunchy rice in a little roll. They’re good tasting, pretty healthy and convenient. That’s about all there is to say on these, folks. I mean, c’mon, really – it’s just rice. I suppose I should be thrilled by coming across such a cheap, tasty, and healthy snack, but I’m not a mom. I’m a guy with a slightly faulty “Act Like A Normal Person” switch in his head. The light is steady from time to time, but mostly it sort of blinks on and off. I suppose I’m just a little disappointed by such a utilitarian, ordinary snack after the aggressively weird brown butter, lemon and parsley popcorn the other day. We must wonder, however, what is black rice, and why cylinders instead of disks?
The main reason I picked these rolls up was because of the intriguing mention of “black rice” in the title. Now, there are several kinds of black rice cultivated around the world, form the “forbidden rice” once reserved only for the Chinese Emperor’s table to Thai black jasmine rice. The exotic lure of the promise of such a deviation in color pulled me in, much as the promise of black eggs, or black milk would have done. Unfortunately, I found myself left to disappointment. Not only is it impossible to taste any difference between the “Black Pearl Rice” and “Sushi Rice” used, but impossible to even see any difference. Black rice usually cooks up to a deep purple color, but whatever cooing method Trader Joe’s employed has denatured any chromatic differences between the two. Perhaps I should champion these black and white rice rolls as a paragon of color-blind, racial harmony, but instead it feels bland and sterile. Even TJ’s, usually so florid with their food descriptions, can’t seem to muster much enthusiasm for their generic rices in the product copy. Humph.
This, I sense, may be my own idiosyncratic quibble. As I already said, these really taste quite good – rice cake or not. Even better, they appear to be air puffed, like a bunch of lightly sweetened corn pops smushed lightly together, giving the whole roll a light and airy feeling. This certainly an advancement over ordinary rice cakes whose density can sometimes make a snacking session feel like an arduous slog.
So, sweet, light and crunchy – what’s not to like, really? It may, of course, be possible to take issue with the shape. Why cylinders, TJ? Is the traditional disk shape too square for you? Not hip enough for the educated, middle-income crowd? Functionally, this is not actually much of an issue, except in one important way – it’s difficult to layer or spread any condiments on the rice rolls. As a man who always has some room for a nice puffed rice cake smeared with a thickness of peanut butter, this qualifies as a design flaw.
A final word, unlike some other items I’ve reviewed, the rice rolls compare very well to their mainstream alternatives. Despite the differences in shape and texture, Trader Joe’s Black and White Rice Rolls are nearly identical in sugar, carbs and calories to Quaker’s ubiquitous sweetened rice cakes.
Would I Recommend These: Yes, especially to moms.
Would I Buy Them Again: As I have no kids and enjoy spreading peanut butter, probably not.
Final Synopsis: A good, but chromatically perplexing, rice snack.
Wow, Trader Joe you magnificent bastard. It seems any time I have reason to pout over how Trader Joe’s is, when you get right down to it, no different from any store trying to trick you into buying what you don’t need, they release a product that makes me cheer with delight at the sheer, bloody nuttiness of the thing. Trader Joe’s Beurre Meuniere popcorn is that lemon zested, herb-rubbed popcorn that you didn’t ask for and you don’t actually need, but which enlivens the world regardless.
Let’s begin by exploring what exactly the hell a beurre meuniere popcorn is. A word of warning out the gate – this is going to get complicated, so hold on tight.
The Miller’s Wife
To cook something, as the French say, a la meuniere means to do so in the manner of “The Miller’s Wife”. What it really means is that you’re going to be adding lemon, thyme and parsley to a brown butter sauce and cooking with it. In one of those awesome quirks as etymology, somehow, at some point, a Frenchman conjoined the concept of a simple, tasty preparation with the idea of a miller’s wife and the two have been fused forever more. This is very different from the typical American word association with “A miller’s wife” which is “Wha?” (Unless, of course, you’re an English major, in which case you’re probably reminded of an act of brutal, sexual humor so unspeakable it could only have been dreamed up by Chaucer.)
Where things start to get crazy is that the act of preparing thins a la meuniere is almost completely limited to fish. And not even a lot of types of fish, basically just sole and trout. Trader Joe’s decied to instead apply it to popcorn. Normally I feel like I can tease out the psychology behind TJ’s moves, but this one is totally opaque to me. Evidently someone with some clout in the organization was eating a nice piece of white fish and said, “You know what this would taste good as? Popcorn.”
Now at this point, I know what you’re thinking: “There’s a brown butter now?!”
I, too, became elated when I heard tell of this tasty sounding beurre, but in truth there is little to tell. A butter is browned simply by letting it melt on the stove for a goodly time. The melted butter separates into its constituent parts – the lighter clarified butter that floats to the top and the heavy butter solids that settle down. The solids then brown as they heat and there you have it, brown butter. It is to this that the lemon, thyme and parsley are added followed by, in this case, the popcorn.
Ambitious, but worth it?
So this is obviously a very interesting thing. In fact, as far as my research shows, no one has ever, as in ever, made a popcorn a la meunierre before, which means this isn’t just madness, but an unprecedented madness. In my book, that’s something to be proud of. But what does it taste like?
Basically just popcorn with lemon juice on it. The herbs make a very timid appearance here, adding a fiat undertone to the much stronger zing of the lemon and the even stronger, lingering starchy taste of popcorn. As for the brown butter, sadly I was totally unable to locate even a hint of a difference from popcorn produced with regular oil. If you’re having trouble imagining the taste, consider that you’ve almost certainly had fish prepared this way, just replace the taste of tender trout with crunchy kernels of corn.
Is this a taste you’re going to like? Maybe? This product is so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to pass judgment on. I will say that it’s not an immediate palate pleaser. After a handful of the stuff I had no trouble setting the bag down for the night. The taste is challenging and more than a little acidic, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is certainly nowhere near as strong a contender for your calorie budget as the salty, sweet or cheesy kinds. This is not a snack to try and make kids happy with, though it might make for an interesting cocktail party addition or a cultured accompaniment to a foreign language film.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, $1.99 isn’t too much for a totally novel taste experience.
Would I Buy It Again: No, for a bag of popcorn it just isn’t that enjoyable.
Final Synopsis: Most men say “Why?”, Trader Joe’s says, “Why not?” (With regard to manufacturing zesty, herbal popcorn.)
An interesting salad, this Trader Joe’s Super Spinach Salad, an intriguing salad, but not necessarily a very good salad.
Spinach is an incredible base for any salad – tender, and flavorful, and supple, and yielding to the ardent bite, and nutritious, and, and, and – well, I could go on. I have a deep and abiding love for leafy, raw spinach that manifests itself in a refrigerator stuffed full of salad greens and dirty looks I throw at petulant children. My adoration of spinach, I’ll admit, is partially irrational. You see, I lost my salad virginity to spinach.
I was a young man, a college freshman. I hadn’t been looking for love, I didn’t even think I was interested in salads. I had grown up around plates of iceberg lettuce and, apart from the occasional juicy crouton or Baco Bit, they did nothing for me. But then I saw it, there in the dorm cafeteria’s buffet , demure but intriguing. I remember stuffing my mouth full of the delicious young sprigs, the juicy blast of nutritious flavor. I can taste it still. That day changed my life, leading me into the wonderful world of salads, and though I’ve often played around with exotic radicchios and roquettes I’ve always returned home to those tender, loving fronds.
So you’d think a TJ’s spinach salad would be an almost perversely easy slam dunk, right? Not so. Trader Joe’s Super Spinach Salad offers up the sort of charmingly eclectic list of ingredients see in some of their other excellent salads, quinoa, carrots, cranberries, chickpeas, edamame, tiny little tomatoes, and pumpkin seeds, but they simply do not work as well as a unit. It’s hard to say where the salad goes wrong. The main problem seems to be the carrot ginger miso dressing, which is, one, a strange combination of ingredients that don’t work very well with the salad mix, and two, unusually thick, almost like a very gritty mayonnaise that resists spreading evenly across the salad. Worse, the dressing leaves a strong aftertaste of onion in your mouth that lingers on long after the salad is finished.
The veggies do make for a crunchy, crispy unit that’s not bad for munching on, and I would suspect that if you ditched the dressing and substituted it for a personal favorite the salad would benefit greatly by it.
Even worse than being unpalatable, the dressing commits the all-too-common sin of wrecking the otherwise very healthy nutritional profile of the salad. Check out these post dressing stats: 19g of fat (a third of your daily intake), and a whopping 53g of carbs which, even controlling for the 10g that come from fiber, is more than a Big Mac packs.
I’ve got nothing against the occasional decadent salad (perhaps choked with gorgonzola and candied pecans), but it has to be pretty fantastic tasting to make the calories worth it. This salad fails to deliver anything like the level of enjoyment I’d demand for blowing my diet for the day.
Would I Recommend It: With a caution – lose the salad dressing and substitute a healthy alternative.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, there are far more interesting salads to explore.
Final Synopsis: A very promising salad ruined by a very poor salad dressing.
What a name! Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Honey Mints, this little confection could not be cheekier – 3 ingredients, all listed there in the name, thrown together in a fit of what could only have been hubris. Dark chocolate, honey and peppermint extract. This is an almost frighteningly bold undertaking – even the most cursory glance at the ingredient list reveals that TJ’s is not f-ing around here. There are seriously only three ingredients – honey, chocolate liquor and oil of peppermint. Is it even okay to do this? Or, better question, is it reasonable to do this?
When you’re squaring yourself up against York Peppermint Patties, beloved classic and mainstay of parlor candy dishes the nation over, do you really want to start self imposing handicaps like “oh, and we can only use three ingredients.” It is absolutely a move on which Trader Joe’s should be applauded, in the same way you should applaud someone who just ran ten consecutive marathons or ate a box of light bulbs, after a brief pause and with a quizzical look on the face.
The fact of the matter is that these patties are not particularly helped out by this three ingredient policy. They taste simply alright, like a slightly stronger and aggressive York patty with a sweeter aftertaste. The texture, size and minty bang are nearly identical – the clash of flavors is what marks it as different. The honey whipped filling doesn’t exactly gel with the mint flavor and the dark chocolate shell.
As we’ve previous discussed, dark chocolate, while perfectly good on its own, simply cannot be treated like milk chocolate. These are not mere adjectives people, dark and milk chocolate are different beasts all together – milk chocolate the friendly pony who nuzzles your hand as he prances, dark chocolate the powerful, curried stallion, illuminated for a moment on a rocky crag by a flash of lightning. While it complements the mint oil, the honey wants to be sweeter than the unsweetened dark chocolate will allow.
Would this taste issue be ameliorated if TJ’s had allowed the addition of byzantine bisorbates and other curious additives? Perhaps not, but as it stands the candy doesn’t work well enough for me to spend my calorie budget on them. Afterall, even though it lacks the preservatives, artificial colors, and high fructose corn syrups it’s still 17 grams of sugar and 6 grams of fat per serving – a worse nutritional profile than York Peppermint Patties. To adherents of certain nutritional philosophies I’m sure the absence of manufactured additives constitutes an enormous draw, to me however this comfort is purely hypothetical. I listen to my brutal, masticating jaw and swollen gullet, and they advise me that despite the intriguing lead-in there is little to recommend this product.
Would I Recommend It: No, save for those with grudges against the York corporation or an adversion to America’s typical food chemicals.
Would I Buy It Again: Sadly, no.
Final Synopsis: A York Peppermint Patty, but with a greater clash between bitter and sweet.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a big fan of melanges in general. They’re a cut above medleys, to be sure, but I’ll take a combo, mishmash or salmagundi over them any time. Nevertheless, Trader Joe’s Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini Melange is a credit to the name – a tasty, tangy, cheesy mixture of two of the vegetable world’s least celebrated members.
You could not blame the average consumer for passing up this awkwardly named side dish. Eggplant and zucchini aren’t the world’s most popular veggies individually, let alone together, and a passerby could be forgiven for assuming this mixture of the two is aimed to please the health-food nut more than the mother of three. Such is not the case however. Following a brief jaunt in the microwave, the dish is surprisingly pleasing – hiding it’s big veggies in a thick tomato based sauce. Though not noted in the product title, a judicious helping of cheese, both mozzarella and parmesan, appear in the dish which gooifies the sauce without dominating the vegetables (unlike Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano).
Eggplant and zucchini, despite their frumpy reputations, actually serve very well in this dish. Both veggies have a mild taste that complement each other and the sauce they come in, while providing enough heft to make for a satisfying mouthful. That said, nothing is done to ameliorate the texture of the large, floppy eggplant slices, which remain, as ever, a bit mealy and soggy.
Overall, the result is a tasty and healthy side, that fills you up without laying on the fat. The downside, for me, were the relatively small portions. The bag, though quite ample, shares the same large bag problem of the cioppino. Though it promises you four servings, I found that it what you get after cooking is more realistically described as two.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to all but the eggplant haters.
Would I Buy It Again: Absolutely, it’s a great side for many an entree.
Final Synopsis: A veggie side that takes the middle ground between steamed broccoli and fried potatoes.
Trader Joe’s Truffle Mousse Pate is without a doubt the fanciest thing I’ve bought from a grocery store. Fancier than the Dukkah, fancier than the organic stone-ground Mexican chocolate, fancier than a lot of things .
Untangling The Fancy Talk
What is a pate? What is a truffle mousse? How do you render truffles into a mousse? Why is the pate vacuum packed in a tiny, plastic tray? What is the meaning of the weird, centimeter of gelatin coating the bottom of the pate?
Look, I won’t try and delude you here – I’m a johnny-lunch pail sort of gourmand, a brutally unrefined taster of interesting nibbles and such. I, and I’m really emptying out my soul here, have never had pate before. I don’t really have a really solid grasp of the pate world. I couldn’t tell you what marks a good pate form a bad pate, or alert you if you were about to bite into a pate smeared brioche that had gone south a week ago. If you had seen me at the Trader Joe’s you would have seen a curious, rotund man quizzically turning over a block of pate in front of his eyes, clearly befuddled. This is all beyond my ken – so this is your chance to bail out now if you fancy yourself something of a pate snob. What you are about to read are the unvarnished musings of a pate initiate.
Okay, first question – let’s see if we can figure this out. What the hell are the truffle, the mousse, the brandy aspic and the pate all doing to each other in this thing?
Let’s start with what I know. Pate is any chilled, meat paste – most famously encountered in the form of foie gras – a pate made of goose livers. Trader Joe’s isn’t delivering on goose liver, but decided to keep it in the avian organ family and is giving us chicken liver instead. When you’re selling a ground organ paste, and trying to market it to humans instead of cats, you need to do two things – give it a fancy foreign name (check), and ensure you’re doing something suitably cruel to justify the cost. Goose liver pate has come under heavy fire in the last few years, in California particularly, due to the rather inhuman method of it’s creation. Namely, a goose is locked in a box and force fed until it’s liver swells to triple the normal size, at which point it is butchered and the liver cut out. Trader Joe’s seems to be rather deliberately side-stepping the issue by sourcing their livers from chickens instead of geese – though you’ve got to imagine that TJ’s is only fooling themselves at this point. If you’re going to be outraged about the geese, you’re going to be outraged about the chickens.
Continuing the foie gras similarities is the addition of truffle mousse. Truffles are, of course, famous for being really expensive mushrooms that pigs hunt. Truffle mousse is most commonly made when truffles are whipped up with foie gras, though in this case it is our chicken liver pate they are mixed with. Presumably this is to make the pate very tasty. Unfortunately, the flavors of the mushroom and truffle mousse, being folded into the chicken liver pate, is beyond my proletarian tongue’s ability to tease out.
The final noteworthy addition is the brandy aspic, which takes the form of a thick level of gelatin that’s congealed along the bottom of the pate. Why stick a layer of brandy-infused meat jelly on the bottom of a truffle mousse pate? Well, primarily because it’s traditional to include some sort of refined alcohol (aspic or otherwise) with pate, and having tried it I can only imagine that it’s there to offset the otherwise overpoweringly intense flavor of the pate itself. By itself, this aspic jelly doesn’t taste like much – whatever bite the brandy had has been much muted by it’s inclusion in a meat jelly – so it gives your tongue a cool respite from the heavy liver and truffle flavor.
The pate itself tastes musky, very musky, and thick with very savory, complex meaty flavors. It is not overly salty, or any other taste –but rather overwhelms you with it’s heavy, liver taste. Pate is, as we discussed, basically just liver – and if you’ve ever had ground liver in any of its forms you simply have to amplify that taste in your head several times and you’ve got an approximate sense of what to expect.
The Error Of Cheap Pate
Most shocking is that Trader Joe’s Truffle Mousse Pate – for all the truffles and pate and brandy aspic, is reasonably priced at $6.00 / 8 oz. A little pate goes a long way, so this little brick should be enough to please the whole party. That is, if your party is the type where people are going to be pleased by cheap pate. God knows I love Trader Joe’s for their true dedication to affordable prices, but in this case I believe it’s actually the final mark against them.
Pate, after all, is like caviar in that it is appreciated more for its elegance than its taste. There is a food to compliment every hue of the human spectrum, and pate just happens to fill the niche of hoighty-toity cuisine. A budget priced pate undercuts it’s reason for existence. Caviar and truffles and pate are good and all – but there’s a reason they aren’t potato chip flavors. People aren’t flocking to truffles and pate because it’s the absolute taste sensation, it’s value lays in the price at the cash register. Offer an expensive pate and you’re a classy host, a cheap pate and you’re a cheap host – taste has always been secondary.
That said, let us never underestimate the trumpeting blast of democratization. If you, like myself, have never had a pate, let alone a pate infused with black truffles, then why not pick up some crackers and give it a whirl. Surely, there has never been a more opportune time then now.
Would I Recommend It: Only to the very curious.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t host those kinds of parties.
Final Synopsis: A cheap version of a very upscale snack.