I’ve never really had truffles before. I’ve had things with truffle in them – subtly worked into the background of the dish as an transient grace note – but nothing that really plays up to the full truffle flavor. Thanks to Trader Joe’s Himalayan Salt with Truffles I can no longer say that. I have been thoroughly overwhelmed by intense truffle flavor.
Before I start jibber-jabbing about the salt itself, the let’s define terms and make sure we know what we’re actually taking about when we say “Himalayan Salt with Truffles”.
As we all know, truffles are that subterranean fungus rooted out by hogs and dogs in Europe. A firm fixture of haute cuisine, these lumpy tubers go for up to twenty two hundred dollars per pound for the finer species – the so called, “diamonds of the kitchen” and so on. That’s all proper and good and fancy.
Himalayan salt, often billed as “pink Himalyan salt”, is a fancy marketing term that stores like to sling around instead of the more technically accurate phrase “rock salt from Pakistan”. The second largest salt mine in the world just happens to be located in Punjab, Pakistan, a mere 186 miles from the Himalayas, and is the source of practically all the “Himalayan” salt you see in America. This sort of labeling that makes one think that marketers have much more of a loosey-goosey approach to geography than the rest of us, the sort of approach that might lead to vague geographical generalizations with things like balsamic vinegar as well. The salt from these mines is often imbued with impurities of iron oxide (aka, “rust) which results in a pinkish, or at least off-white, color.
If, like me, you’ve never really had truffles before, you’re probably wondering what truffles taste like. What does this underground fungus offer that we feel the urge to shave it into our luxury condiments? Like most percepts in this world, for example the color blue, or the feeling of tilting just slightly too far back in a chair, absolutely novel tastes and smells are difficult to describe without referring to the experience itself.
Blue, you might say, is a bit like green without so much yellow in it, and tilting just slightly too far back in a chair is said to feel like your stomach does a little flip and drops into a void. The point is, in the same way it’s hard to describe a persimmon, it’s hard to describe the odor of truffles. Nevertheless, I’ll try.
The odor of truffles is a bit like sticking your nose in a sweaty tennis shoe and taking a whiff, but in a good way – in an elegant way even. Truffles don’t stink – not in the least, but they are intensely musky and pungent. In the same way the musk of a good, hot tennis shoe is going to linger in your nose for a few minutes, so too does the truffle odor here. What’s true of the smell is even truer of the taste. Though this truffle salt is about 99% salt to 1% truffle, it’s the taste of truffle that’s going to hit you first, and last longest. After dusting my eggs with a pinch of this stuff I was tasting that elegant truffle musk on my tongue for 15 minutes after I finished the plate.
The take away here is that truffle are not to be screwed around with. Normally I would have written “truffles are not to be triffled with”, but the flavor of these things is so damn intense that cute wordplay simply has no place. If you’ve tried truffles before, you know what you’re getting into with this stuff. If you haven’t I’d recommend you give it a shot – it’s a flavor unlike anything you’ve experienced in your grocery store before, and hate it or love it it’s going to expand your horizons at least a little bit.
I do have one big gripe with Trader Joe’s truffle salt. Despite the outlandishness of the product origins, the craziest thing about this salt is that the decided to package it in a little tin with no shaker built in. You simply take off the top and have to do your best to shake a tiny bit out the widemouthed opening. Trying to do this with regular salt is crazy enough, but when we’re talking about a seasoning that’s been supercharged with the culinary equivalent of nitro glycerin it’s downright absurd. It’s unfortunate that the packaging is so pretty, because if you buy this you’re either going to want to dump it a different salt shaker that actually has holes or take your chances dancing with the devil every time you want to season your potatoes.
Trader Joe’s has brought in their salt as part of their holiday gift roll out – sticking it on the shelves alongside their exotic chocolate and tea collections. On one level I understand this, truffles are fancy and it makes you feel good to give things that people think are fancy. On another level however this makes a terrible gift – or at least a very specific and niche gift. The truffles taste so strongly that it’s bound to polarize people into love it/hate it camps. If you don’t know that the person you’re giving your gift to is into truffles, you’re risking getting them something they’ll just chuck into the trash. Chocolate’s going to be much safer. On the other hand, if you know they are into truffles then odds are they already have a reasonably priced truffle salt on hand or simply don’t want one. Really, the only person this gift is going to work for is the friend who you know is into trying crazy new foods but hasn’t gotten around to truffles yet. In other words, me – and I just bought some.
Would I Buy It Again: I like it, but this one tin will last me about 10 years.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, try a crazy salt, live a little!
Final Synopsis: This salt that packs a ton of pungent truffle flavor.
Ah, the dolma. It’s easy to over look the Greeks as purveyors of strange delicacies, but the dolma is certainly that. It’s rare, outside of Asia (and, I suppose, salads), to be fed straight up leaves as food, yet that is precisely what a dolma is – a broad, boiled grape leaf rolled into a tube and stuffed with seasoned rice.
The dolma is something of an acquired taste thanks to an interesting mingling of flavors. Like any local, traditional dish, the stuffing of a dolma can vary dramatically from region to region. Most commonly, however, you’re going to find them looking like the Trader Joe’s variation here – with plenty of dill and mint mixed into the rice. Dill and mint are not two tastes that are generally thought to go together very well, justly I might add, and complicating matters further is the grape leaf itself. Something of the wine-ness of the grape is also present in the grape leaf. Even after being boiled and stored in oil for god knows how long, the grape leaves have a subtle but lingering wine-like taste that muddles into the dill and mint scrap up. Essentially, a dolma is a tiny flavor battlefield where different flavors keep coming out on top. The amazing thing is this is one of those flavor combinations that actually works, making for a fascinating side dish and excellent compliment to tzatziki sauce.
I’ve only had a few experiences with domas before now – one particularly favorable memory involving a nice Greek salad – so I was game to try them again when Trader Joe’s presented me the chance. This initial willingness was first checked when I picked up the tin they were packaged in. I have very few iron-clad eating guidelines, but one of them is not to neat anything that comes packaged in a sardine tin. I was willing to bend that rule this one time based solely on my regard for the Trader Joe’s name – so much have I come to respect this gentle, supermarket giant.
No sooner did I peel back the metal tab on top (or bottom, strangely) of the dolma tin then did I regret making this exception. Trader Joe’s dolmas look positively unappetizing – shimmering, glistening leaf rolls swimming in the viscous soybean oil which fills the canister to the brim. Soybean oil is just straight vegetable oil – which is to say, it’s 100% pure liquid fat – and while I understand that soybean oil is, in some ways, more healthy than other vegetable oils, I also know that no food should be served in so much oil that it makes Dubai look poor.
The taste of the dolmas themselves was more or less on target – but the texture and execution turns them from something I should enjoy snacking on into something I had to force myself to eat. The soybean oil completely permeates the dolma, bloating every grain of mushy rice with pure oil and running off the leaf to pool on your plate. Combine this with the no-frills, low-quality, upside-down tin and you’re left feeling like you’ve just picked up something from the bottom shelf of the off-brand supermarket.
From the weird tin to the copious use of oil, this just doesn’t feel like a Trader Joe’s product. It’s well known that Trader Joe’s sources nearly all their offerings from various manufacturers around the world, but in general the quality is so uniformly high that I never think twice about it. It’s only when I pick up something like this that the illusion starts to show at the seams and I suddenly get a vision of the crappy factory in Turkey where leaf rolls are dumped off a conveyor belt into tins alternatively marked Trader Joe’s and Tesco.
Dolmas are great and delicious, and I’d recommend you try them sometime – just not here, not like this.
Would I Recommend Them: To Eastern European grandmothers who grew up during the Cold War and other people who don’t mind oil-packed, tinned foods, yes. To everyone else, no.
Would I Buy Them Again: No, There have got to be better dolmas than this out there.
Final Synopsis: A tasty dolma brought low by a cheap, oily presentation.
Trader Joe’s Tempura Shrimp Crunch Rolls – well, these are interesting. I fully intended to never buy another clammy lump of Trader Joe’s sushi ever again. This isn’t a Trader Joe’s problem, this is a general supermarket problem. Supermarkets (the places that keep food for weeks on refrigerated shelves) simply do not match well with sushi (the delicate slices of raw fish mean to be eaten as fresh as possible). The problem is I love sushi, and even the most lopsided of supermarket california rolls call out to me with plaintive little voices, begging to be eaten.
Like a man in a bad relationship I kept going back for more – and every time I did I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, swearing I’d never do it again. The supermarket sushi experience, though universally bad, never quite broke my eternally hopeful nature that this time, surely, they were going to get it right. The vicious cycle continued until I found myself staring at the mealy, flavorless, half-eaten mass of a Trader Joe’s Quinoa Roll and realized this had gone on too long. I was never going to let sushi treat me that badly ever again. I was done with supermarket sushi, and I meant it.
I was doing good – walking past the sushi aisle without so much as a second glace, developing a sense of self-worth – until yesterday when I saw the tarted up, trashy glory of Trader Joe’s Tempura Shrimp Crunch Rolls and my willpower just gave way. Grasping at the flimsy excuse that is this blog (“I have to buy this terrible thing, I owe it to the public!”) I clutched the sushi rolls to my chest and sped home. Why do I do it to myself? Do I crave the abuse? Whatever the case, I found myself there again, off the wagon, staring at a polyurethane tray filled with damp rice wads.
Only this time, my friends, this time it’s actual good. How is that possible, you ask? How did Trader Joe’s manage to make bottom rung, low grade sushi worth eating? Quality ingredients? Magic? No – the answer is much simpler. Trader Joe’s simply identified the weakest link in supermarket sushi (the way it tastes) and came up with a brilliant solution – drown it in delicious sauces!
It’s honestly surprising that it took a supermarket so long to hit on this elegant solution. “Fusion” sushi restaurants have been doing this for years – smothering their otherwise mediocre fish with cream sauces, spiciness and bread crumbs. Trader Joe’s does the exact same thing. In each package of Tempura Shrimp Crunch Rolls you’ll find three tubs of savory toppings – a tub of “Sweet Sauce” (aka soy sauce thickened with sugar), a tub of “Dynamite Sauce” (aka spicy mayonnaise) and a tub of tempura crisps. The Sweet Sauce and Dynamite Sauce are nowhere near healthy, and Trader Joe’s gives you enough to lay a heavy drizzle on each pre-cooked tempura shrimp roll.
How do the tempura shrimp rolls taste by themselves? I have no idea, I never tried. Why bother setting myself up for yet another bad experience when I have thick, delicious sauces to ladle on? I will say that they are relatively crispy and crunchy, and hold together well enough for either a chopstick or fork to take them on a fantastic voyage through the world of sauce and into your mouth without falling apart.
When you do get to your mouth, you’ll be surprised at how good tasting these sauces actually are. The Sweet Sauce is akin to a sweeter form of teriyaki sauce, dripping with syrupy goodness, and the Dynamite Sauce is mildly spicy and endlessly creamy. Liberally apply the crunchy, round tempura crisps to the outside of the sauced up sushi for some enjoyable texture and you’re in for an eating experience that’s a powerful taste explosion, if not exactly the paragon of elegant dining.
Some of you purists out there might protest that fully-cooked shrimp dripping with tempura crumbles and mayonnaise is not, strictly speaking, real sushi. You are, of course, absolutely right, but you’re also missing the point. Criticizing the authenticity of these products is like getting upset about the representation of physics in Scooby Doo. You’re just setting yourself up for a bad time. Supermarket sushi is, and always has been, little more than junk food. By adding sauces, Trader Joe’s has merely helped complete that apotheosis.
Would I Recommend It: Not to anyone who likes actual sushi.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes – whenever I want to indulge my trashy side.
Final Synopsis: Not exactly sushi, but the sauces sure are delicious.
Surely we can all agree on a good Thanksgiving dinner – complete with juicy turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings. But what if that dinner was served in the form of a wrap? Would that be just as agreeable? Trader Joe’s is certainly hoping so, with their sandwich, the Turkey Gobbler Wrap.
Trader Joe’s Turkey Gobbler Wrap is not the first sandwich to try and cram an entire Thanksgiving feast into a sandwich, not by a long shot. This is America after all, if there were only two thing we like they’d be commemorating our nations founding and compressing whole meals into fast-snacking cylinders. What Trader Joe’s does different from these other sandwiches, however, is loose the bread. I’ll save you some time and tell you right now: that was a misstep, but let’s take a look at what’s actually inside this wrap before passing sweeping judgement.
Turkey, as you may expect, makes up the bulk of the filling, along with a combination of stuffing, real cranberries and, surprising to me, cream cheese. This mish-mash works together okay – satisfactory, if not tasty. But who does turkey all that well in a pre-packaged sandwich, really? Who picks up a turkey sandwich, even from Trader Joe’s, and goes, “Oh boy – this is going to be some amazing turkey!” No, you know it’s going to be dry, the only question is how dry. This turkey? Only a little dry. That practically deserves praise.
The stuffing is equally satisfactory, only the cranberries really stand out as notable with their big bold flavor. Thanks, no doubt, the the fact that TJ deciced to use big, whole cranberries in the wrap.
On two slices of bread, this would be a good sandwich. Wrapped in a whole wehat tortilla on the other hand, it tastes a little off. There’s a certain taste and texture to a cold tortilla that goes wonderfully with some foods,v but just does not favors for most others. A Thanksgiving meal is just one of these that doesn’t go very well with the smooth, chewy, gluey walls of a big, floppy tortilla.
There’s another interesting facet to the Turkey Gobbler Wrap – in fact it was the reason I was drawn to it in the first place. Along with all the fixin’s in the wrap itself also comes a serving of “Festive Dipping Sauce”. That phrase is blazing brand new avenues of nebulous terminology. “Festive dipping sauce” is one of those descriptors so vauge and pointedly undefined as to be actually frightening. It’s the kind of name that’s a mask, hiding the real nature of the food you’re about to eat behind a meaningless collection of words. It’s what you do when you realize the chicken you’re serving isn’t actually an identifiable part of the bird so much as it is a slurry of heavily processed ventrical matter, so you just call them “chicken nuggets”.
Opening up the little tub, you will discover that it’s an opaque tan liquid which, on taste, strongly resemles a milky gravy. It’s not bad tasting – it might acutally be the tastiest part of the sandwich and it’s certainly a tasty way to combat the dryness of the turkey – but it’s important to remember that it’s not actually gravy. If it was gravy, you can bet they would call it gravy, in the same way that if you could get away with putting “STEAK” on the cans of meat you sell you would. That’s why the FDA has regulations for these things and you’re forced to put “Mechanically Separated Pork” on the label instead.
The “sauce” as it turns out, is a mixture of turkey broth, milk cream, sherry wine and roux (a flour/fat mixture), and while lip-smackingly good also remains strangely uncongealed even coming straight out of the fridge.
Apart from the tortilla, Trader Joe’s does a good job replicating the Thankgiving dinner – right down to the calorie count. You’ll notice the nutritional information below is only for ½ of a wrap – which means you’re getting 98 grams of carbs and 20 grams of fat along with your 800 calories. That’s an audacious wrap, people. The only aprt of the wrap that didn’t really stand out to me, the cream cheese filling, is the party responsible for much fo the fat and calories. It seems that Trader Joe’s could have subsittued this out for something lighter. As it stands, you’ll want ot substitute out the wrap for a healtheir meal if you’re concerned about your waistline.
Would I Recommend It: Not really, unless you’re jonesin’ for Thanksgiving.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d go for the equivalent 1.5 Big Macs instead.
Final Synopsis: Not bad, but not nearly good enough to justify 800 calories.
Well folks, it’s time to face facts. It’s November, and that means that Trader Joe’s pumpkin madness is drawing to a close for another year. Still, there’s time for one final pumpkin post before holiday food mania sets in upon us, and that post I’m reserving for Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Soup.
On the pumpkin weirdness scale I think we can agree that pumpkin soup is not as out there as pumpkin greek yogurt – there is, after all, a rich tradition of squash-based soups. Nevertheless, I’ve never actually seen a purely pumpkin-based soup before now. The soup itself not much more than pumpkin puree mixed with water and a few spices – essentially a watered-down verision of Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter (which is to be expected, given the soup recipe listed on the pumpkin butter jar). That simplicity means that the soup tastes almost exactly like you would expect it to, like a big mouthful of pumpkin, but with one slight surprise – it’s notably, quite sweet. There’s no sugar added, so that sweetness comes from the natural sugar in the ripened Wisconsin pumpkins that go into the dish. A sweet, vegetable soup is not necessarily the taste I would have been looking for, but the mellowness of the pumpkin and the richness of the flavor keep the sweetness from becoming too overpowering, but its still a taste that takes some getting used to. The tongue may also detect the mild presence of some typical pumpkin spices (nutmeg and clove, mainly), but these don’t add much to the basically pumpkin taste.
Straight from the box, it’s a very basic, not particularly impressive soup. The soup has almost the exact same texture and consistency of a bowl of Campbell’s Tomato soup, and it shares the same the same simple, workman like nature as well. Few are the individuals going to a bowl of unadorned tomato soup for the soup alone, not when there’s a can of minestrone at hand. Tomato soup is only going to show up on the table when it’s been paired with the right dishes, or fancied up with addition ingredients, and the same is true of this pumpkin soup. Eaten straight the soup is okay, though maybe slightly to sweet to have broad appeal, but if finessed into a more robust soup or stew you might really have something here.
Trader Joe’s seems to sense this themselves, offering a couple of easy soup augmentations on their webpage – suggesting topping it with a dollop of sour cream, or giving it some Indian flare with a bit of coconut milk or coconut cream and curry powder. You can delve deeper into the twists and turns of pumpkin soup with the Trader Joe’s approved Hazelnut Frico Soup-Topper recipe, or check out some of the third-party innovations like this pumpkin and chicken stew.
The takeaway from all this is that there’s not much reason to pick up this soup unless you’re going to do so with an experimental attitude. The soup is not by itself a compelling buy, but could become the compelling center of an ambitious dish.
I should spare a word for the one thing about the soup that did impress me – the really clever box design. Trader Joe’s packages this soup in tiny, soft-sided 17 oz. boxes that, in addition to being long-term shelf stable, also folds out into a convenient spout with the application of a quick squeeze to all four corners. Clever, Trader Joe’s, just don’t forget to keep putting that much thought into the food.
Would I Recommend It: Only if you already have a recipe already in mind.
Would I Buy It Again: ‘fraid not – slightly too sweet for my tastes.
Final Synopsis: A functional, sweet pumpkin soup in search of a delicious recipe.
One time, at a Hawaiian themed buffet, I loaded up my plate with chocolate pudding, put a big spoonful in my mouth, and discovered that it was actually sour poi . Until now that was the most shocking food surprise I’d ever had. Having tried Trader Joe’s Corn and Chile Tomato-Less Salsa, that is no longer the case. This salsa, or “salsa” I should say, and I hope the judicious use of italics and quotation marks conveys my dubiousness, is incredibly sweet. Sweeter than most confections, in fact. Sugary sweet, corn-based salsa. I’m going to say that again, in case you haven’t thrown up in your mouth yet. Sugary corn salsa.
This is really a very crazy and very unpleasant thing for me to write about. Know, first of all, that I love salsa. I love salsa in, I thought, all of its many forms. I love it all the way from the simple jar of mild Pace picante sauce to the artisanal batches of peach and mango salsa. I liked cowboy caviar, I liked papaya and mango salsa, I thought I would like this as well, but I never imagined they would just out and out make a super sweet, barely spicy, salsa.
I’ll admit I shouldn’t be so surprised – they do mention it on the label after all, “A sweet combination of corn, red peppers and onions” they say. But this sweet? This sugary? That is the sort of information that shouldn’t be hidden in a small font under the title – it should be called out in huge letters proclaiming “WARNING: This salsa is 20% sugar by volume” or more to the point “WARNING: This salsa is really gross tasting”.
It’s really hard for to stress how sweet this salsa is. Think syrup, then take it up a little bit. The whole kernels of corn, which are otherwise fine, are suspended in what is essentially a clear, simple syrup, mixed in with some minced onion and red pepper. Really, what we’re talking about is a very nice, very mild corn salsa that someone decided to ruin by pouring a ton sweetener into it. I really don’t know why anyone would do this or, more accurately, I don’t know why you would do this and call it a salsa. I have nothing against gross tasting condiments, they just need to go by their proper name – relish. Despite Trader Joe’s labeling here, this is clearly a corn relish, not a tomato-less salsa. If it had been billed as such, I wouldn’t have undergone the eye-popping surprise I experienced when I dug my first tortilla chip in and took a big bite. Instead I would have spooned a tiny amount into a sandwich and experienced it that way. Would I still consider it gross? Most definitely, but relishes, like ajvar, get the sort of leeway that salsa doesn’t.
At the end of the day, I don’t suppose it really matters. If you’re one of the dozen or so people world wide that find themselves constantly spooning sugar onto their corn because it isn’t sweet enough, this is for you. For everyone else, I’d recommend taking a miss on it. That said, a shocking 14 million+ jars of this stuff have be sold by Trader Joe’s as of this post, which boggles my mind and makes me question my place among humanity. Please, if you enjoy this “salsa”, let me know in the comments and explain, if you can, its appeal.
Would I Recommend It: Never.
Would I Buy It Again: At gunpoint…maybe.
Final Synopsis: Think very sweet, corn relish rather than salsa.
Of everything that Trader Joe’s has attempted to cram pumpkin into, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Green Yogurt has surprised me the most. Pumpkin in waffles? There’s precedent for that. But pumpkin in yogurt? Any member of the squash family, really, has no place being blended into thick, protein laden yogurt. Of course we’re talking about the food engineers at Trader Joe’s labs who didn’t shy back from merging pizza and veggie burgers so it was unlikely their hand would be stayed here either.
To get right into it – pumpkin does not marry well to the tongue-enveloping cloak of greek yogurt. I like pumpkin as much as the next man, and I’m certainly a lover of greek yogurt, but they simply do not play well together here.
Let’s start with the first issue – what does pumpkin really taste like? The squash family as a whole isn’t known for overwhelming people with blasts of flavor. While pumpkin does have it’s own sort of mild, intriguing charm it isn’t really a natural candidate to jazz up plain, unflavored yogurt in the same way that, say, strawberries and pineapple are. What people generally respond to, when you’re talking about pumpkin are the spices and sugar that get mixed in with it – pumpkin pie, more than pumpkin.
Trader Joe’s tries very hard to deliver this – in addition to the pureed pumpkin (the second ingredient), they’ve also added nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. So really what we’re talking about is not pumpkin flavored greek yogurt, but pumpkin pie flavored greek yogurt. This doesn’t really seem like all that daunting of a task to deliver on – Yoplait manages to pull off a huge number of pie flavors in their yogurts, from Boston cream to lemon chiffon. But yoplait isn’t interested in delivering you a healthy, non-fat, greek yogurt like Trader Joe’s, and it’s in pursuing that course that TJ’s managed to trip themselves up.
This yogurt tastes, first, strongly of the slightly sour yogurt cultures you’d expect, then a bit of generic pumpkin spice, then very faintly of pumpkin. And that’s about it. None of the jazzy pep of the more flavorful, fruit variety yogurts you offer. Just a long, lingering, slightly sour taste in the mouth.It’s possible that if this were not a non-fat yogurt, if it had a richer, fuller body, there might have been more room for the pumpkin pie spices to play out, but that’s nothing but conjecture at this point.
I get it, Trader Joe’s, you love pumpkin! But let’s take a good look at just the non-fat greek yogurts you already offer – honey, mango, blueberry, vanilla, strawberry and pomegranate. Why are you adding pumpkin to the mix? To impress people with your boldness? What if you succeed and people buy it, just out of curiosity? Don’t you think it’s important that the yogurt tastes at least as good as your other yogurts? I’ve tried all of your other non-fat greek yogurts, and I can safely say this is the least enjoyable of them all. Worse than pomegranate, TJ, worse than pomegranate.
You know me, I’m all for boldness. I’m all for embracing the wild and unknown. But you also have to know when you’re challenging the status quo and when you’re just peeing into the wind. Trader Joe’s Greek Pumpkin Yogurt is, despite all their enthusiasm and good intentions, the latter.
Would I Recommend It: To no one but the pathologically motivated Trader Joe’s pumpkin perfectionist.
Would I Buy It Again: Not this year, not next year.
Final Synopsis: Non-fat greek yogurt is just one of those things that doesn’t need pumpkin in it.