Trader Ming’s (Trader Joe’s) Kung Pao Chicken

Trader Joes Kung Pao Chicken

Tastes even better than it looks.

This, folks, is a classy frozen meal. When it comes to frozen dinners there are many terrible ones and a few tasty ones – then there are the classy ones.  A classy dish is one that turns from frozen, straight-from-the-supermarket food into  something that makes you feel like a real person – a dish you’d be happy to serve your family, not just shovel into your mouth alone. Our old friend Hake en Papillote was such a classy dish, and TJ’s Kung Pao Chicken is another. It tastes so good, and cooks up so easily, that and looks so nice on your plate (peanuts and spicy red peppers included!) that you can’t help but feel like a skilled chef.

Before I get into exactly why this Kung Pao is so tasty, a few words on its history are in order. Like many traditional dishes, Kung Pao chicken has a fascinating story that needs to be heard. Kung Pao chicken popped into existence in the 1800’s in the spicy Szechuan region of China. It quickly exploded in popularity, becoming a darling of restaurants all across the nation, until it abruptly ceased to exist one day in 1966, and wouldn’t return to tables for two decades. This sudden disappearance was, of course, the fault of Ding Baozhen, an aristocrat who died in the Qing Dynasty nearly a hundred years earlier.

“Kung Pao” literally means “Palace Guardian”, which just happens to be the title that noble Ding, then governor of Shichuan province, bore. Due to reasons lost to time, Govenor Ding was bestowed the honor of having this delicious, spicy chicken dish named after him. Kung Pao glorified Ding on menus across the kingdom until the sudden, alarming rise of Communism in the mid 60’s China and the ensuing Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a period of intense fanaticism in China, and chief among its various purposes was to unmoor modern China from it’s imperial roots. Practically, this meant rewriting all of Chinese history, right down to the incidentally named local fare. As a result, from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, Kung Pao, though still served, was no longer known as Kung Pao. Officially, it was now known as “Hongbao Jiding” or “Fast-fried chicken cubes”.

At the exact same time, Kung Pao was experiencing great turbulence in the immigrant kitchens of Chinese Americans. There the savory dish was suffering an identity crisis of similar magnitude as in China. While the name persisted unchanged, its ingredients started to undergo a radical revision. Authentic Chinese Kung Pao hinges on one key ingredient, the Sichuan peppercorn – an ingredient common throughout Szchehuan cooking. These peppercorns were responsible for the unique, tingling zing Kung Pao was supposed to have on the tongue and lips. The peppercorns flowed freely into American ports until 1968, when Uncle Sam slammed the door. The problem? A botanical ailment known as “citrus canker” was devastating American crops and Sichuan peppercorns numbered among the disease’s potential vectors. With the fate of the Florida orange at stake, Sichuan peppercorns had to go. For 32 years, all the way until the year 2000, the peppercorns were banned from these shores, forcing Kung Pao to mutate into a different form – the peppercorn-free, vegetable-laden dish we know today.

Communism has fallen and the Sichuan peppercorn is again freely available, but the path of western-style Kung Pao is firmly implanted in the American mind. This isn’t a bad thing – bringing a delicious new form of food into the world can never be a bad thing – and Trader Joe’s has mastered the medium perfectly. I’ve been known to bandy the word “mastery” around fairly lightly, but in this case it absolutely applies. I’ve sat down to a plate after plate of Kung Pao chicken in numerous Chinese restaurants and I can firmly say that, like  minestrone before it, the Trader Joe’s version is better than all of them.

I’ll be damned if I know how they packed that much goodness into a frozen bag, but they managed it. Snap open the 1 lb+ bag (cost, a damn reasonable $4.99), and you’ll find some frozen, breaded chicken, a bag of frozen veggies (bell peppers, onions, and water chestnuts and of course super hot peppers), two sacks of tangy sauce, and a baggy of halved peanuts. There are microwaveable instructions on the bag but disregard these – they’re only there to tempt the weak-willed.  Your choice should be skillet cooking, which could not be easy, quicker or more rewarding. I’m generally a klutz in the kitchen, but even I can brown chicken in a tablespoon of oil, add the vegetables until they soften, mix in sauce and garnish with peanuts. Nothing more than that, and you end up with a somewhat sweet, salty, savory dish of tender chicken, crunchy veggies and yielding peanuts, all held together by a brilliantly balanced sauce and a thread of fire.

The only complaint I can level against the Kung Pao is that it comes with too much sauce. Two packets is more than you need – but this is as easily solved as putting one packet aside before cooking. If only all of life was this easy.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: I absolutely would.

Would I Buy It Again: I already have.

Final Synopsis: A turbulent history has culminated in this better-than-restaurant Kung Pao chicken.

Trader Joes Kung Pao Chicken - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joes Kung Pao Chicken – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Many Clove Garlic Cooking and Simmer Sauce

Trader Joe's Many Clove Cooking and Simmer Sauce

So much garlic they can barely fit the label on the jar.

On the bottle of Trader Joe’s Many Clove Garlic Cooking and Simmer Sauce, Joe himself lays it down, explaining that the jar contains garlic, “minced garlic, roasted garlic, garlic puree and granulated garlic”. That’s a lot of garlic, suckers. This is the sauce that Joe made to compensate for growing up in a garlic deprived household. There’s more garlic in here than there is in a clove of garlic. 110% of your USDA recommended annual allotment of garlic is in this sauce. This sauce is Trader Joe’s way of ensuring that no one ever kiss each ever again. Outside of the Stinking Rose, and Van Helsing’s kitchen, this is the most garlic you’re going to find in one place.

Open this jar up, dip a fork in, and put it right on your tongue. Feel that? That high burn that comes to the fore after a second? The way it zings your tongue? That’s the allicin at work – the same potent compound found in onions and chives. Famed for it’s antibacterial / anti-viral properties, what you’re feeling is Trader Joe’s Garlic Sauce actually cleaning your tongue. What I’m saying is, that’s a lot of garlic.

What we’re really tasting is a sauce known elsewhere as 40 Clove Garlic Sauce. A sauce made with exactly that – 40 cloves of garlic. According to Trader Joe’s own packaging, they didn’t keep count of how many cloves were jammed into this jar, which either means this sauce has more than 40 cloves, in which case someone needs to rein in the madmen in Trader Joe’s R&D, or it has less than 40 cloves, which case the thought of real 40 clove garlic sauce scares me.

But of course, this sauce isn’t meant as a dipping sauce or condiment, it’s a cooking and simmer sauce, and in such a role the garlicky nature of the sauce is much ameliorated. Mixed with pasta, or cooked up with chicken, this sauce retains its strong garlic flavor but mercifully loses the sting. If you like garlic this is a great sauce to work into any Italian inspired cooking. If you don’t, you still might want to give it a shot, because this is a garlic sauce done right. The garlic taste is heavy, but the creamy sauce isn’t – containing only a slender 4 grams of fat and 70 calories per ½ cup serving. The sodium on the other hand, is intense. 930 mg are packed into each serving, roughly 2/3rd of your daily recommend amount. Despite this sodium load, the sauce doesn’t taste notably salty. Mostly it all vanishes in the garlic blitzkrieg.

I like this sauce, but I’m also a man who went through a phase where I chewed up a raw clove of garlic every morning based a vague notion that it was supposed to enhance your endurance. This sauce may well be just too garlicky for some folks there, but for the rest of the population I have to give it a hearty, and healthy, recommendation.

The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: Yes, unless you’re sensitive to garlic, or a Transylvania count.

Would I Buy It Again: A healthy, creamy Italian cooking sauce? Absolutley.

Final Synopsis: Very low fat, very high sodium, very, very garlicky sauce.

Trader Joe's Many Clove Garlic Cooking and Simmer Sauce - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Many Clove Garlic Cooking and Simmer Sauce – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Chile Spiced Mango

Trader Joe's Chili Spiced Mango

I mean, they look fiery, don’t they?

Did I eat the entire bag of Trader Joe’s Chile Spiced Mango slices in one day? Yes. Did it taste very good? Not really, no.

My ongoing struggle with the world’s most addictive fruit has been well documented. If there is mango in my house, dried or otherwise, there is an increasingly likelihood, day by day, that I will enter a mango frenzy, stuff it all into my mouth and once, then burst into the streets looking for more. Even now I feel the mango-craving beast within stirring in my breast, it’s insatiable hunger for mango only whetted by this offering. I hold it safely in check – for now. If the chile spiced mango had been a tastier treat, it’s unlikely that would be the case.

A brief lapse in my mango defenses resulted in me buying this sachet of dried fruit the other day. The chili spiciness is what got me. Faithful readers might remember this post about chile spiced dehydrated pineapple from early on. The ecstasy of that sweet napalm still tingles on the edge of my tongue, and the thought of that but in mango form was a lure I could not resist. Sadly, the reality was a faint shadow of the dream.

By no means was this my first encounter with chili powder on fruit, let alone mango. As a denizen of that astonishing salmagundi we know as Los Angeles, I’ve purchased my share my share of fresh, sliced fruit from curbside cart pushers. Always it’s handed to you with a healthy dusting of rusty red cayenne pepper. Not necessarily

my favorite way to enjoy fresh fruit, but certainly a tasty option. My hope was that Trader Joe’s, with their network of chefs and deep coffers, would have perfected this local delicacy. What I got was something no self-respecting street vendor would give you.

Trader Joe’s Chile Spiced Mango is bland. With every bite you’re expecting a blast of intense hotness, tempered by the profound amplitude of succulent mango. This is what you never get. This is the worst dehydrated mango I’ve had from TJ’s. The mango taste is subdued and flat, not so much hidden by the chile powder as absent all together. Meanwhile, the chili powder itself is practically impotent. I get that when you’re selling to a national market you need to tone down the heat, but I’ve had mild salsa with more kick than this chili pepper. There’s a brief hint of fire, like a match threatening to light, that immediate vanishes into a dusty, indistinct taste.

It’s two ingredients, Trader Joe’s! If you’re going to spice something with chili powder, actually spice it. If you’re going to use mango, then let us taste the mango. Yes, I’ll eat the entire bag (it is mango after all), but I’m not going to like it.

The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: Not unless you like bland mango.

Would I Buy It Again: Not until it’s the last mango available to me on Earth. Then yes.

Final Synopsis: “A bland, timid entry, suitable for patients recovering from surgery.” -Homer Simpson

Trader Joe's Chili Spiced Mango - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Chili Spiced Mango – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Honey Roasted Macadamia Nuts

Trader Joe's Honey Roasted Macadamia Nuts

Evidently macadamia nuts grow in little green pods. Who knew?

Oh very nice, Trader Joe’s! I’m not sure which genius came up with the idea of honey roasting nuts all those many years ago, but someone needs to give him some sort of award. Roasting nuts with honey? It’s an idea that would’ve been laughed out of the building if it hadn’t been so damn brilliant! In any case, it’s put to excellent use here on Trader Joe’s Honey Roasted Macadamia Nuts.

While swapping out the peanuts in peanut butter might have left something to be desired, when it comes to snacking nuts any variety is  a welcome change of pace.

The first thing you’ll notice with these little nuggets, even before the different taste of the nut itself, is how well the honey-roasting was done. These things really taste like honey. The moment you drop one on your tongue, you’ll be met by a brief candied sweetness followed by the distinct, lingering note of real honey. It’s eye opening, especially when compared to name brand honey-roasted nuts (Mr. Peanut, I’m looking at you) where “honey-roasted” just means, vaguely sweet.

I found this real honey taste quite delightful but, to be frank, I can imagine it may not please everyone. It’s a bolder and more nuanced taste than plain, sugary sweetness, and it demands you pay attention to what your tongue is doing. A thinking man’s honey roasted peanut, if you will.

The macadamia nut itself is, I would hope, not unknown to you. If you’ve never had a white chocolate and macadamia nut cookie, you need to get your butt out that door right now and try one. Let’s just say, if I want to kiss the guy who invented honey roasting, the guy who invented this cookie is in danger of a marriage proposal.

The macadamia nut is mild tasting nut with a light, clean taste that doesn’t linger on the tongue, like the brittle almond or bitter walnut. A macadamia nut makes itself a welcome guest in your mouth, but does not overstay.

The roasted macadamia nut not only has a completely different taste than the peanut, but a different crunch as well. This crunch bears a few words. Your typical macadamia nut is maybe 50% larger than a standard issue peanut, and very round – almost spherical. This, to me, makes for an almost indecently enjoyable munching experience. A macadamia nut really gives you something to grip in your incisors and cleanly bisect, something to put up a brief, satisfying resistance before giving way beneath set of molars. Tremendously satisfying.

Of course, on the other hand, it’s quite oily. In fact, the macadamia nut is one of the fattiest nuts around, and one of the lowest in protein to boot. 17 grams of fat for only 2 grams of protein. By comparison, TJ’s Honey Roasted Peanuts have 13 grams of fat and 5 grams of protein per serving.

On a pure taste basis, I’d prefer these over honey roasted peanuts most any time, but there’s no reason the world can’t accommodate both varieties. These could be a perfect addition to a trail mix, or even mixed in with honey roasted peanuts in the nut bowl to create a more nuanced party snack.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Yes, to all and sundry.

Would I Buy Them Again: These could go over well at my next cocktail party.

Final Synopsis: If the higher fat doesn’t put you off, this is a great roasted nut.

Trader Joe's Honey Roasted Macadamia Nuts - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Honey Roasted Macadamia Nuts – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Creamy Almond Butter & Trader Joe’s Crunchy Almond Butter

Trader Joe's Creamy Almond Butter

Almond butter, the Hydrox of the peanut butter world.

When I first set eyes on Trader Joe’s Almond Butter, my heart did a little leap. After all, the last time Trader Joe’s unveiled a new butter, it was an epochal, life-changing event. History had prepared me for another smash hit. Unfortunately, history was setting me up for a fall. This new almond butter is a very average spread with little to recommend it.

Both new almond butters are the “stir” variety, with a thick layer of oil on top that needs to be mixed in before using. This is, as always, the tell tale sign of the “natural” nut butter. Trader Joes’ creamy and crunchy almond butters follow in this proud, healthy tradition. Salt has been added, but only 60 mg which is rock bottom by commercial standards, and sugar is at a minimum, with only 2 grams per serving. Of course, that means it lacks that tongue pleasing tingle that you get with additive laden, less healthy butters, but a little mouth-plastering blandness has ever been the price for healthful eating.

All of that’s fine by me. In both taste and nutrition it’s about the same as the natural, stir peanut butters that Trader Joe’s offers, but that is exactly my problem – there’s no meaningful difference netween these almond butters and their peanut counterparts. Even in taste, we’re only talking about a very subtle change to the underlying nuttiness of the spread, one that you might be able to identify in a side-by-side taste test but which, when incorporated into a sandwich etc, is practically interchangeable with a natural peanut butter.

If there’s something I’m missing here, please clue me in to it. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal or rationale for almond butter. There are, I’m aware, people with peanut allergies. Is that the whole market almond butter was made for? At the risk of sounding intolerant, I think we can all agree that these “people” should simply acclimate to life in the margins of society. Suck it up, peanut allergienes!

I really, really do not understand almond butter. Yes, we can make our nut butters out of things other than peanuts, and we can make car tires out of wood and books that are 25 feet tall. We can do a lot of things – but a lot of things don’t make sense to do. It’s not like we’re talking about hazelnut butter here, which brings a totally new and delicious taste to the table. Now, I’m always a proponent of a broad selection and innovation in the food market – but only to the extent that it makes sense, and almond butter doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like laboring tirelessly to create Hydrox cookies, then trying to sell them for more than Oreos.

Aside from aiding the peanut sensitive, there really doesn’t seem to be a good reason for almond butter to exist. Jokes aside, I am glad that it exists for that reason at least. My heart really does go out to people who suffer from peanut allergies. I can only imagine the nightmare of living in a world where the peanut, one of the most widely used foodstuffs, has the power to incapacitate and/or kill you. Peanuts are tiny. They could be anywhere. Not to mention that they’re often incorporated with absolute stealth into a bewilderingly huge assortment of food product, and the only tip off is a tiny line of small type hidden under the bar code. That’s like living in a war zone where all the enemies are invisible, but give you a quick “Heads up!” before opening fire.

Ulitmately, I feel about Trader Joe’s Almond Butter about the same way I feel about their sunflower seed butter – good on them for giving us more options, but there’s nothing compelling about the product, unless it be the brief, sad thrill of the blandest form of rebellion conceivable. “Forget what those mainstream losers are doing – I’m putting almond butter on my sandwich.”

No sir, it doesn’t make sense to me at all. You can leave me with Better’n Peanut Butter for my PB alternative.

The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: No, unless you have peanut allergies.

Would I Buy It Again: Never.

Final Synopsis: 90% identical to peanut butter, only more expensive.

Trader Joe's Creamy Almond Butter - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Creamy Almond Butter – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Carolina Gold Barbeque Sauce

Trader Joe's Carolina Gold Barbecue Sauce

TJ’s has elected to use the non-standard “barbeque” on this bottle. Getting pretty fancy there, Joe.

Hot dang! Now this is some good BBQ sauce. Though I’m sorry to admit it, barbecue has never been my specialty, however, even I can recognize that Trader Joe’s Carolina Gold Barbeque Sauce is top shelf.

If it were possible to reach back through time and space to tweak one aspect of my childhood, I would probably make it so I came from a proud tradition of barbecuing. There is something incredibly appealing to me about the great American BBQ – a potent blend of technical know-how, manliness and cherished family tradition that culminates in a perfect summer day. As it is, I grew up unaware of the heights barbecue can achieve, and of the four great traditions within it. I speak, of course, of the four chief BBQ regions in the US: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas and, of course, the Carolinas.

Books can and have been written on the character of these distinct styles and their various merits. I have no desire to choose sides on that hotly contested subject, (about as much desire to weigh in on that as I do to choose sides in European Football League) so for the purposes of this post we’ll limit ourselves to the qualities of the sauce itself.

TJ’s leaves it at Carolina on the bottle, but those in the know could place this sauce with far more accuracy. The golden color and strong mustard base place it firmly in central South Carolina, in Midlands region. The hankering pig eaters in those towns were the first to really place mustard based BBQ sauces on the map, and have been knocking them out the park ever since. That’s right – mustard. Carolina Gold still incorporates the tomato puree you find in more name brand sauces, but in a much smaller quantity than the rich yellow mustard and vinegar which are the hall-marks of Carolina sauces.

Thanks to this mustard and vinegar base, this sauce tastes like the half-way point between more traditional BBQ sauces and Honey Mustard. The first thing you’ll taste when you take a bite of that pork rib is the zing and tang of a sharp mustard followed by the even sharper vinegar. That’s just first blush, however. The complex medley of tastes you expect from a good barbecue sauce follow right on the tail of that, softening the edge. Unlike some Carolina sauces, Trader Joe’s Carolina Gold is thick, not watery. This might offend some purists, but makes it great for slathering on pork and beef. In fact, the mustard edge of the sauce allows it to pair with far more foods than another barbecue sauce normally could – try using it on your sandwich or veggies.

There is, however, a dark side. This sauce doesn’t taste very sweet outright, like a Kansas City sauce might, but still packs in plenty of sugar. One serving (two tablespoons) contains a whopping 14 grams of sugar. For comparison, Bull’s Eye’s name brand Carolina sauce only weighs in at 11 grams of sugar for the same serving size. For what it’s worth, this sugar isn’t high fructose corn syrup, like it is in so many other name brand barbecue sauces, but made from cane sugar. How much that means to you is a matter of personal taste, for my part I find that processed sugar tends to be processed sugar.

Even with the high sugar content, this sauce still comes out in the black in my books – hands down the best store bought barbeque sauce I’ve ever had.

The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: There are probably better small batch BBQ sauces out there, but if you haven’t found them yet go for this one.

Would I Buy It Again: I plan on restocking for next BBQ season.

Final Synopsis: A delicious, mustard-based barbecue sauce that goes well with everything.

Trader Joe's Carolina Gold Barbecue Sauce - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Carolina Gold Barbecue Sauce – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Crunchy Curls – Lentil & Potato Snack

Trader Joe's Crunchy Curls

Nothing says snack food like lentils!

If there’s one thing Trader Joe’s is good at, it’s making me do a double take. Case in point, Trader Joe’s Crunchy Curls, a bag of puffed up, curly snack thing that blends seamlessly into the endless wall of junk food until you notice it the bag tacks on “A Tasty Lentil & Potato Snack!”

Double take.

The first thing I’ll say is, I really wish they had made these into chips instead of crunchy spiral snack tubes, because there is no easy way to say “crunchy, spiral snack tube” in the English language. Let’s agree to call them “curlicues” right up front and get on with things.

So, TJ’s, why make a lentil and potato curlicue snack? Are there not plenty of crunchy snack options around? Is America not the land where you can walk down a 60′ long, triple-tiered aisle of snack chips every time you go to the supermarket? The land of the mighty Dorito, undulating Ruffle and tubular Pringle? Do you really think a bland looking, lentil and potato based thing that just happens to be a spiral is going to be able to stand it’s ground in the face of Cheetos, Funyuns, Bugles, Fritos, et al.?

Before we condemn these lentil-based curlicues with a thunderous cry of “Unnecessary!”, let’s look a bit closer. Notice, if you will, that Trader Joe’s Crunchy Curls are both gluten free and vegan. It goes without saying that gluten free, vegan snack foods are few and far between in this world. Try a Google search for the term and have fun choosing from all three options you get. I have vegan friends, I feel for their plight. I know it must be hard to maintain your resolute moral bearing while guys like me stroll around stuffing their mouths with tender beast flesh, sauteed mushrooms, moist, flaky croissants, etc. A gluten-free, vegan snack crunchy, salty snack just answered a lot of people’s prayers.

The big question, of course, is if it’s actually worth buying. Unfortunately, these curlicues left me flat. The taste isn’t the problem – they’re salty enough to scratch that salty food craving but not so salty that you’re rushing for your glass of water. The lentil/potato flavor is palatable if uninteresting with that long, starchy aftertaste – basically similar to munching down on a few Lays at once. The thing that disappointed me was how hard and crunchy the curlicues were. I know “crunchy” is right there in the title, but this snack combines “crunchy” with “hard”. Because of the thickness of each curly cue, each bite is like a fresh assault on a fortified compound. You don’t have to worry about mindlessly munching these down – pop a handful in your mouth and you’ll be busy for a minute or so.

In the end, however, that’s quibbling. If you’re in the market for vegan / gluten-free chips, these are basically fine. You won’t hate them, and they’ll hold up in your hummus dip. If you’re under no such strictures, however, there isn’t much reason to prefer these over anything else in the aisle.

Break Down:

Would I Recommend Them: Only if you’re on a vegan / gluten-free diet.

Would I Buy Them Again: Barring a major lifestyle change, no.

Final Synopsis: A good snack food – for being vegan and gluten-free.

Trader Joe's Crunchy Curls - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Crunchy Curls – Nutrition Facts