You never know what’s going to sound bizarre but be surprisingly good tasting at TJ’s. Trader Joe’s Tropical Sweetened Matcha Green Tea Mix is not one of those cases. I should have known better, I actually had forewarning – this isn’t the first powdered green tea with mango flavoring I’ve had. My first experience was with Crystal Light brand Green Tea with Mango, that purveyor of powdered drink mixes. Granted, it had no passion fruit, but the concept was the same – a powdered tea mix with certain tropical fruits mixed in. The Crystal Light product, ordinarily a satisfactory brand, was all but undrinkable in this case – a revoltingly heavy mango flavor having its way with an otherwise okay powdered green tea.
Perhaps by including passion fruit TJ’s had hoped to avoid the same fate. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain. Trader Joe’s Tropical Sweetened Matcha is every bit as repugnant – a terribly mismatched set of flavors putting the nail in the coffin of a perplexing offering.
I think the first question has to be, who in the world’s been asking for this – a big tin of loose, powdered green tea mixed with arbitrary fruit flavoring? It’s the same question I ask myself whenever I order the green tea at Starbucks. “Oh yeah,” I grimace, “They mix mint in with mint.”
Look, green tea is delicious on it’s own, sophisticated and relaxing when served hot, refreshing and invigorating when served over ice, we don’t have to go and mix it with all sorts of other flavors just because we can. It’s a facet of the same madness that compels every sushi place to offer spicy tuna rolls. Guys, straight up fatty tuna is as good as sushi gets – so why is your sushi menu dominated by a dozen variations on minced spicy tuna? Are you all crazy?!
And okay, I’ll grant you that the Starbucks mint and matcha isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, it’s just not my cup of tea. If, however, you’re dead set on adding fruit to green tea for some reason, why are we dabbling in such total non-sequitors as mango and passion fruit? Let’s all just be frothright and admit that no one has ever made a good-tasting mango flavor additive. Whether it’s been distilled from the juices or ginned up in a lab, mango flavoring has never worked well as a flavoring for other foods. Just let mango be mango. Muddling the mix, TJ’s throws some in passion fruit flavoring, a fruit that, in a blind taste test, I wouldn’t be able to identify in it’s natural state.
This is a classic example of less being more. Green tea is a great, nuanced, clean taste in it’s own right. It needs to be given room to express itself. Throw in a bunch of flavorings and you end up with a beverage that is passable at best, but never excellent. If you must add a fruit to it, and I recommend against this, then keep it to something equally simple a clean. A hit of strawberry or something, not just a bunch of tropical fruit.
I could go on forever about this product, it perplexes me so. Instead, I’ll just briefly nit-pick a couple more things. One, it comes in a giant tin of loose powder. This is sloppy, lends itself to big messes and benefits no one. I would guess it’s packaged this way because Two, the serving size is a hefty 4 teaspoons per 7 oz cup. That’s not a ridiculous number until you notice that Three, the prime ingredient is sugar, which means this is no health drink lady. They also misuse the word matcha on the package, but really at this point I’m just pooped out.
Would I Recommend It: No, it’s just not very good tasting.
Would I Buy It Again: Man, are you clownin’ me?
Final Synopsis: Basing a sweet tea mix around green tea and tropical fruit is a mistake, and people should stop doing it.
When is a salad not a salad? No, that’s not the set up for a hilarious joke – it’s a dead on serious philosophical musing. Undoubtedly there are as many different answers as there are salad lovers on this planet. Some might quibble over the presences of leafy greens, others might argue the necessity of a dressing. For me, it comes down to nutrition.
When a salad is delivering 108% of your daily fat intake in a single serving, that’s a poorly constructed hamburger not a salad. When someone can say to you, “Whoa, buddy, instead of that salad, why don’t you try something healthier. Here, shove these two Big Macs into your mouth at the same time.” That for me is where a salad crosses the threshold into junk food. What I’m saying is, brace yourself for Trader Joe’s Bacon and Spinach Salad.
I bought this salad the other night because I was hungry and had managed to convince myself that, you know, in light of the paleolithic diet, Atkins, etc TJ’s Bacon and Spinach Salad wasn’t actually that bad for me. If you haven’t looked yet, I’m going to direct your eyes to the bottom of this article. Yup, that’s right. Not just 108% of your daily recommended fat, but 105% of your cholesterol, 68% of your sodium, and even some trans fats in there for good measure, all delivered directly to your arteries on a healthy bed of fresh spinach.
Who in their right mind can call this a salad? If they’d stopped at the bacon, that’d be one thing but this salad by no means stops at the bacon. What else is in there?
Well, we’ve got some cherry tomatoes, nice plump and juicy, that’s fine, a whole hard-boiled egg, that’s not too bad, then we have the mozzarella cheese and the poppy seed dressing. I’m not sure which of those chokes me with surprise more. I mean, the mozzarella just seems egregious. We’ve already slathered the spinach with a hefty helping of cured pork belly, bacon that is literally sagging with fat, who was out there was thinking, “This salad just isn’t rich enough. Throw on a bunch of fatty, white cheese!” And, with that in mind, can I just say – poppy seed dressing? Really, Trader Joe’s? On top of everything else, poppy seed? One of the richest, liquid-fat infused dressings on the books? And not even a poppy seed dressing that makes overtures at healthiness, but an oily poppy seed dressing? Honest to god, this poppy seed dressing has a thick layer of oil floating on the surface when you crack it open. I’ve had poppy seed dressings many times before, but never one that comes with its own oil slick.
It’s astounding, readers. This salad is practically a novella about the rage simmering beneath the exterior of one crazed salad designer at Trader Joe’s, a man who has been forced, day after day, to design fresh, light new takes on lemon chicken while his soul within slavers for sticks of butter and pork flesh, a man who, one day, snapped when presented with a bag of broccoli slaw, the levees of his mind giving way to the flood of carnal need, and leapt about ransacking the shelves, tongue hanging out of his mouth, loading up a bed of spinach with his every secret, depraved desire.
Okay, so if you eat this salad everyday your body fat will eventually smother your heart and you will die, on that we can all agree. On the other hand, it’s very tasty. And of course it’s tasty, it’s a pile of fat and salt – it’s incredibly delicious. Pour on the poppy seed dressing, mix up the bacon and cheese and dig in – you’re taste buds will be taken on a wild ride of salty, fatty, meaty tastes. In fact, the most incredible thing about this salad is that it’s actually edible. As anyone who’s had a Big Mac can testify, it’s hard to eat so much fat and salt in one sitting and not leave feeling at least a little ill. For this we can thank the spinach and cherry tomatoes, which provide a clean, light taste counterbalance to the more dominant heavy tastes. In a way, it’s a brilliant solution to the problem of how to eat a bunch of fatty bacon and cheese all at once. If that’s not a problem your trying to solve, then this may not be the salad for you.
Would I Recommend It: No to salad fans, yes to bacon fans.
Would I Buy It Again: I’m not sure my blood pressure can take it.
Final Synopsis: A novel way to eat a bunch of sloppy bacon.
Trader Joe’s continues to populate their food aisles with the occasional eccentric choice from some 3rd party vendor. So far, with few exceptions, these has failed to entice me with the levels of eccentricity and full out cheekiness that Trader Joe’s brings to their food products, and so I have passed them by with a sniff of my nose. There was no passing up this boggling fruit today. Any food whose name makes me do a double take, then makes me stare at the name as I try to puzzle it out, then makes me doubt my own sanity, gets an in any day.
Plumogranate Plumcots. Plumcots, I suppose I am to take it, of the plumogranate variety. An already twisted noun strapped onto an adjective that might be an out and out act of war on the English language. A plumcot, as you might have experienced at some point in your life, is the result of cross-breeding a plum and an apricot. Alternatively, you may have encountered a pluot, which is the very same thing but which sometimes goes by a different name due to a trademark battle to tedious to get into here.
That’s fine. I’m not happy with people going around, brandishing clumsy, uninspired, fruit-based portmantaus, but that’s the world we live in and I’ve made my peace with it. Plumogranate, on the other hand, is beyond the pall for me. I have a short list of words that I will never ever say out loud, and plumogranate is sitting in fresh ink at the bottom.
I picked up this piece of fruit based on the very exciting assumption that Family Tree Farms had somehow managed to breed a pomegranate with a plum with another plum with an apricot, and were selling them for $0.50 a pop in a big cardboard box over by the dog food. The reality is somewhat of a let down. The plumogranate plumcot is simply a sub-genre of plumcot with ruby red flesh and a very high antioxidant count. (Allegedly, we’re talking quadruple the amount of antioxidants found in a pomegranate, but I have been unable to substantiate this claim, and therefore will not commit it to print.).
So the name is unwieldy, annoying and misleading. The taste, however, is perfectly wonderful. It’s a good fruit that does well on first bite and in the mouth, but also costs considerably more than its basically similar parents. The promise of the plumcot and reason it still exists, is because it combines the smooth, thin skin of the apricot with the chewier, meatier flesh of the plum. Despite the evocation of the pomegranate in the title there is nothing of the tartness of the pomegranate in the fruit. It is sweet and mellow throughout – very sweet actually. Hold one of these close to your nose and inhale, the alluring aroma of complex fructose is not lying to you, it’s sweet. This is a fruit perfect for desert, baked on a grill, juiced with citrus or just eaten raw – if you don’t mind throwing down at fifty cents a piece.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you’re looking for a sweet summer fruit to slot between the peaches and cherries.
Would I Buy It Again: No. Unless the antioxidant thing is true, this hybrid didn’t stand out enough to replace its parents.
Final Synopsis: A tasty hybrid that costs too much to replace a good plum or apricot.
Continuing my foray into the popular world of Serbian/Bulgarian/Macedonian food stuffs comes Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread. Unlike its very close cousin and shelf neighbor, TJ’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, this condiment is hands-down delicious – like a thick, savory pasta sauce made with eggplant rather than tomato.
I got into this already with the craptacular ajvar, and I don’t want to kill it all over agian here, but TJ’s is really wrecking their own house with these name games. These two products, Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread (with peppers) and Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, could not be positioned to confuse the casual shopper more. One delicious, one awful, both Bulgarian, of similar packaging and nearly identical names. It’s like having an evil twin and a good twin and naming one George T. Riley and the other George D. Riley. What’s that? Did you say T. Riley? You did? Well too late, because now I’m dead and/or my chicken tastes awful.
Let’s rectify the situation right here – this product, like it’s compatriot, is proudly Bulgarian, and is known in that country as ljutenica. The name might roll off the tongue, but it’s hard to say what exactly a proper ljutenica is supposed to taste like. As with many folk foods (kimchi, etc) it’s taste, consistency and composition varies widely between households. Some are much spicier than cousin ajvar, some sweeter, and so on. This ljutenica is actually milder and more savory. Whatever it was that Trader Joe’s did to its red pepper spread to make it so they avoided it here – nothing harsh or mealy comes through from the garlic or eggplant. Instead, both blend together with the fefferoni pepper to make an intriguing new taste – a full-bodied, broad, tongue-pleasing taste. It is somewhat salty, but not overly so, and very slightly piquant. It worked excellently for me as a condiment for chicken dishes, vegetables and meatballs.
How this ljutenica stacks up against the real Bulgarian stuff I couldn’t venture to say – and if any Eastern Europeans out there want to weigh in please do so – but I personally couldn’t be happier with what I’ve got. If ajvar threatened to turn me against Bulgarian condiments, this spread has rectified all wounds.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – try it with your chicken or pasta, or slathered on bread and topped with goat cheese.
Would I Buy It Again: I already killed my first jar, so it’s pretty likely I will.
Final Synopsis: A ljutenica that will do you well from Sofia to the Black Sea.
A heart-based salad? How intriguing, Trader Joe’s. Was this done on a bet? Did some Hawaiian-shirt wearing executive in TJ HQ start shooting off at the mouth about how nobody, but nobody, could make a delicious salad centered on two different types of plant hearts? And then did a little guy (also in a Hawaiian shirt) step forward and go, “I created a salad out of goddamn marinated beets – just watch me.” If this is not what happened, please don’t correct me.
At any rate, Trader Joe’s Heart of Palm and Artichoke Salad feels absolutely decadent. God knows – God almighty in his blue heaven knows – that there’s nothing so good as a nice artichoke heart. To make a salad of them feels almost hubristic. They don’t look like so much – little, uninteresting, drab cubes sitting mundanely on a bed of arugula instead of, as I would have imagined, gleaming with magic sparkles and heavenly rays. A single bite, however, and I was immediately hooked. I didn’t doubt that this would be the case. I mean, it’s goddamn artichoke heart. I’m definitely on the record as a fan of mango, but my mango addiction doesn’t even compare to the pleasure I derive from a properly prepared artichoke.
I think we can all agree that the artichoke is an amazing food. It’s crazy looking as hell, fun to eat, strangely delicious and hides, in its secret, armored center, what might as well be a heart of gold – the absolute intersection of crunchy and succulent. It’s goddamn madness, the kind of food that, if it didn’t exist, Philip K. Dick would have had to drop acid to envision.
Not satisfied with only one heart, Trader Joe’s reaved a second from the palm tree. Heart of palm is less of a palette pleaser than artichoke heart, but has an intriguing taste and decadent history all its own. Also known by the evocative name “Millionaire’s Salad”, the heart of palm was historically harvested from the core of a young coconut palm – killing it outright after the long labor to raise it, and throwing away of the great worth of a mature palm tree. This, being more or less the culinary equivalent to lighting a cigar with a hundred dollar bill, earned the salad it’s name. Nowadays, heart of palm is less extravagantly wasteful – the heart is cut from a different type of palm that creates off shoots, allowing the core to be harvested without killing the whole tree.
The fanciness of the salad is beyond reproach – but does it taste any good? My love of artichoke heart aside I found this salad quite tasty. There are really three big flavors going on – the the succulent crunchiness of the artichoke heart, the marinated zing of the heart of palm and a touch of bitterness from the otherwise mild baby greens. These tastes meld into an enjoyable symphony of tastes, taking your tongue one way one moment and another way the next, but ultimately playing well together. At 7.5 oz, it’s a bit smaller than the average TJ salad, but packs big, novel flavors into it’s small size.
My one big mark against it is the salad dressing – a raspberry vinaigrette that hardly lives up to the name, a thick, opaque pink dressing with the appearance and consistency of Pepto Bismol. This purported vinaigrette packs a fair amount of fat as well, so I substituted Trader Joe’s Light Champagne Vinagarette instead. For a salad already so decadent, I thought a little champagne only a fitting touch.
Would I Recommend It: Yes. This is a tasty, if unusual, salad.
Would I Buy It Again: It’s got artichoke heart, man. I’ll be back.
Final Synopsis: A salad that manages to stand on it’s novelty.
Okay, now this confuses me. I’ve made the observation before – but I must again express how perplexed I am by their naming conventions.
Trader Joe’s Cacciatore being placed next to Trader Giotto’s Balsamic Glaze is one thing. But Trader Joe’s Indian Fare Punjab Eggplant? Why delve into such twisted wording when there’s so much existing precedent? Just call it Trader Juhi’s Punjab Eggplant leave it at that – we’ll figure it out.
Sigh. Sorry, but proper applied nomenclature is one of my buttons. Look, let’s just talk about this delicious, savory dish and forget all about it.
Though my haughtier, Indian-cuisine loving friends will probably roast me in a tandoor for saying so, I really liked this dish. Simple, cheap and bursting with flavor – what’s not to like?
This is roasted eggplant done right. Pay attention, you crappy ajvar, you might learn something! I mean let’s take a look at the (typically) awesome ingredient list: four veggies (eggplant, tomatoes, onions and pumpkin), a host of wonderfully Indian spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, all that), and not a preservative or artificial color in sight. Of course, there’s the sunflower oil as well, which they go more than a little heavy on. It does nothing to harm the taste – but when 60% of your calories are from fat, it’s time to ease up.
The taste is typically Indian, thanks to the medely of spices listed above, and the eggplant simply lays back and lets them go to work. There isn’t much recognizable left of the eggplant, but that’s okay by me. It might have ended up as a sort of beige mush, but that’s beside the point. The eggplant is there more as a medium for the intriguing aroma and complex taste of the cooking, both of which are entirely enjoyable.
Okay, so maybe it’s lacking a little something in the class department. Food that gets served to you in ready-to-heat Mylar pouches can’t help but make you feel like you’re standing barefoot in your college kitchen again. It’s better then even a TV dinner for dissipating all the day’s successes and making you realize that, oh yeah, you’re just a fat, lonely man.
The other gripe is that, yes, it looks like a big pile of wet cat food when you pour it onto your dish. That would probably be more depressing if it didn’t smell so damn good, redolent of everything you expect Indiant food to be.
Everything else aside, Trader Joe’s Punjab Eggplant wins one award from me – Most Creative Serving Suggestions. Check it out: “Serve with fluffy rice, hot Indian bread, pita – or as a burrito stuffing.”
Burrito stuffing!? Whoever came up with that one, I want to high five you. I live in LA, spiritual heartland of “Let’s mush stuff together and call it fusion” cuisine, and I have not yet seen such a thing. Indian-mexican food? What could be more natural?
Finally, I’m let to wonder, once again, why we can’t figure out how to make delicious (and cheap) meat-free food in the West when the Indians knock it the hell out of the park again and again. Let’s get on the game here vegetarians! Food without meat in it should taste great and cost less. America can do this!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, especially to inept cooks like myself.
Would I Buy It Again: That seems pretty likely.
Final Synopsis: Tasty, exotic bachelor food.
It seems like there must be something wrong with Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic. For one, that is a ponderous descriptor for something which has an actual name. Two, and more importantly, it’s bitter – so unpleasantly bitter!
“Add to pasta sauces, spread on chicken,” the jar enthusiastically suggests, “Top a burger with it!” Why, jar? I like all those things. Why would I want to smear a bitter condiment from the former Soviet bloc all over them?
That is being, perhaps, a bit unfair to the good people of Bulgaria, from whence this spread hails, and who I’m sure are only trying to do the best they can. The problem may lay in me, after all. Red Pepper Spread – or ajvar as it’s known as in its Serbian homeland – is not something I’m very familiar with. I’m more than willing to grant that the the subtleties of the spread are being lost on me.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of this unusual spread before we get into what exactly it’s trying to do to your taste buds.
Ajvar, also known under the more easily remembered but more frightening sounding name “Serbian Salad”, is basically a type of relish – made primarily from roasted red bell pepper and garlic, containing various quantities of eggplant, red pepper etc. Historically, the dish is known as a winter food throughout the Balkans, canned in early Autumn and subsisted on until spring brings fresh veggies.
I’m not quite sure why Trader Joe’s embraces some of the cultural names for its dishes, like dukkah, but not others, like this poor spread, unless perhaps they feared the outrage of countless babushkas, their dudgeon raised high by a sub-standard product peddled under the name ajvar.
All else set aside, I must praise Trader Joe’s for fetching interesting foods from interesting places. Always a culinary adventure at TJ’s! Of course, every adventure must have its times of misfortune, and that is where our red pepper spread comes in. In its homeland, this spread can be many things – piquant, red hot, even sweet – what it is not supposed to be, and what most foods try and avoid being, is unpleasantly bitter.
As the spread hits the tongue it is nearly sweet, thanks to the sugar added by TJ’s to offset the harshness of the taste. Even with the sugar, however, the bitterness comes through, clean and strong, right from the beginning. During the chew the bitterness rises in power, finally lording over your tongue for the length of the aftertaste. I can’t really figure out what it is they put in the spread that makes it so bitter – the list of ingredients is pure and simple, veggies, some oil and vinegar, no preservatives or artificial colors. It’s possible the fault lay in the preparation process itself. Ajvar is rumored to be best when roasted – not simply cooked on an industrial scale. Perhaps what the spread is missing is the tender loving of a roasting flame?
What isn’t bitter in the spread is certainly worth praising. The robust, earthy tastes of the eggplant and red pepper very nicely compliment simple meat and vegetable dishes, but the bitterness is simply too strong for me to actually enjoy any given mouthful of the stuff. It’s a nice idea for a spread, I only hope Trader Joe’s can reformulate this and bring it back under a prouder banner.
Would Recommend It: I’m afraid not, not even for novelties sake.
Would I Buy It Again: This spread has no place in my cabinet.
Final Synopsis: A hearty, tasty spread ruined by a strong bitter flavor.