Yes! Trader Joe’s! How awesome are you? I’ve never even heard of Kouign Amann before, and now I’m in love with them. As you may havenoticed, good reader, I’m a sucker for amazing sounding food names. Avacado’s Number was good, but Trader Joe’s 4 Kouigns Amann is an absolute knock out. What sounds like an ancient Mesopotamian ur-city is actually a delightful layered pastry from Brittany, which give us just so much to talk about today.
First up, what is it exactly and is it any good? What it is, is a dense, hefty square of flaky, moist and yummy pastry with no filling, but a sweet, delicious carmelized bottom. Yes, flying in the face of well-established tradition the world over, the Bretons stuck the sweet bit on the bottom. Simply outstanding work, in my opinion.
Is it any good? My god, yes. It’s good because it walks that wildly dangerous line between flaky crispiness and sweet sugariness and comes out just flaky enough and just sweet enough on the other side. It’s also terribly good because you bake them yourself, and very few things in life beat a warm, fresh-baked pastry straight out of the oven.
To my taste it most resembles a turnover without any filling. This analogy sells the kouign amann short however, because it’s not really like any other pastry I’ve ever had. Essentially, it’s bread dough with layers of butter and sugar folded in. The first difference, is that it doesn’t have as many folds as more common puff pastries, like croissants. As the kougin amann bakes, the folded in butter puffs up the pastry giving it lift and flakiness, but not airiness. At the same time, possibly due to advanced witchery, the sugar caramelizes within the pastry and across the bottom – forming a chewy caramel base.
I’ve tried a few of Trader Joe’s cook-at-home pastries, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. That said, this is my favorite to date with it’s elegant balance that is neither too sweet, or too dry. If there’s a downside, it’s the long prep time. Like other pastries, the kouigns amann need to be left to proof over night, and require a lengthy stay in the oven – at least 25 minutes for them to caramelize properly. This takes it out of the running for an every morning kind of breakfast food – but a wonderful addition to lazy weekends.
So who do we have to thank for this pastry? The French of course! Well, not really the French – but the Bretons! Every good country has a bit that doesn’t really like to be associated with the rest of the country. Canada has Quebec, America has Hawaii, Japan has Okinawa, Great Britain has all the bits that aren’t England, and France has Brittany. With a history that diverged from the rest of mainland France in pre-Roman times, and the hilarious nickname “Lesser Britain”, Brittany never really got on board with the whole “France” thing, and retains it’s own distinct culture and language. In fact, Breton (the language) is far more closely related to Welsh than it is to French – hence a French pastry with a very un-French sounding name of kouigns amann, which translates to “butter cake” in Breton.
In particular, kouign amann hails from a part of Brittany called Douarnenez, where it was first invented in the 1860’s by some unsung genius. Dournenez is also famous for being the home to the mythical Breton city of Ys, long since vanished beneath the waves but ready to rise again once, as the Bretons say, “Paris is swallowed”.
The moral? Kouigns amann are delicous, and might somehow lead to the destruction of Paris. Until that happens, I’d recommend eating up.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you have the time to cook them.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes – as soon as I can rationalize them back into my diet.
Final Synopsis: Tasty, dense and flaky pastries with caramelized bottoms.
Trader Joe’s Chicken Asada with Peppers and Onions is a twist within a twist. The classic asada, the asada we’re most likely to meet out in the world, is of course carne asada – a beef dish. Trader Joe’s confounds these classical notions with a chicken dish of pollo asado and, not content to simply flip the script once, flips it again by marinating the chicken in a pineapple juice marinade. The result is a citrusy, savory, colorful main dish that will satisfy every bit as well or better than any mere carne asada.
Let’s talk asada. The term, I am informed by my vast knowledge of where to translate words on the internet, literally means “roasted” or “grilled”. Now you and I and anyone else who lives south of the 40th parallel knows that this term is encountered nearly exclusively with carne – aka beef. Specifically marinated beef. Exactly what form that beef is going to take, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess. As a rule you can expect long, thin strips, though you’re just as likely to end up with mince meat or a single giant block. Like barbecue, the only real rule is that it’s beef and that it’s been seared to hell on a grill. And, of course, that it gets served up with some sort of vegetable or another.
So it was with considerable curiosity that I picked up the chicken “asada” – or more correctly asado. Could chicken be as good as beef? It certainly can, and in this case it certainly is. Though it lacks the sinewy tenderness you might expect from a good bit of roast flank steak, you’re still getting a nice, juicy slice of flame grilled chicken that locks in that barbecue flavor. Even better, it brings that wonderfully lean nutrition that chicken is famous for – satisfying the health conscious with its rock bottom 3 grams of fat per serving.
Now as exciting as chicken is by itself, what really caught my attention in this dish is the unusual marinade. Pineapple juice is the base, seasoned with garlic, chili powder and coriander. Now it’s not unheard of from lemon juice to go into your carne asada marinade, but this is generally a highlight, not the base note. Here the pineapple flavor is unmistakable, and when coupled with the hints of coriander you might be left wondering if you’re eating a Mexican dish at all, or if you got a box of mislabeled Indonesian food.
If it wasn’t for the fact that Trader Joe’s Chicken Asada goes so well in a fajita, I’d probably make a bigger stink about this flagrant flaunting of traditional labels. As the case stands though, the sweet, citrus vibes and subtle smoky flavoring of the other spices do an amazing job spicing up your otherwise staid and ordinary fajita/burrito/taco.
Complimenting the chicken is a reasonable serving of sliced, grilled onion, poblano pepper, and red bell pepper. Nothing too crazy about these suckers – just your regular veggies soaking up the unusual marinade. If you decide to microwave this dish, just be sure to keep an eye on these guys. I found that even after nuking them for the upper time limit given the veggies were still a little tougher than they should have been.
Overall, this is a very good dish, and certainly one worth checking out, just so long as you don’t think of it as an ordinary carne asada.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, it’s tasty and a little different.
Would I Buy It Again: This could become a staple of Mexican food night around my place.
Final Synopsis: A lean, citrusy alternative to traditional carne asada.
Sometimes you’re just hankering for something from Sardinia. Maybe the Big Game is about to come on, or maybe the kids are driving you up the wall? Times like these, nothing hits the spot like a little something Sardinian. Not only does Trader Joe’s Sardinian Parchment Crackers bolster the relatively anemic roster of the Sardinian products available from your grocer, but it also has the added benefit of sounding like the hotly contested artifact a dashing archaeologist might be racing Nazis for.
So it’s a great name – but what is a Sardinian Parchment Cracker?Well get ready for some excitement folks, because it’s very thin, flat, unyeasted cracker bread milled from semolina. In other words, a taste explosion. This might be expected given the origin of these crackers – invented circa 1000 BC by wandering shepherds trying to make a portable lunch. No bread lasts so well as a good, dry cracker, and so this it was that this simple, broad, flat snack entered the world.
Joking aside – Trader Joe’s Pane Guttiau is a good tasting cracker with some intriguing applications. In terms of flavor, these crackers are very close to saltines, only enlivened by a touch of olive oil and served much thinner. Much, much thinner actually. The more jocular name for pane guttiau is carta di musica or “music sheet” – either because these wafer thin crackers resemble wrinkled sheets of paper, or because they’re so thin that you can actually read a sheet of music through them. This is no exaggeration – I was able to see my hand through a sheet of pane guttiau, which is not something most crackers can brag of.
There are two main reasons you’re going to want to come to these crackers – for the size and for the texture. The taste, though good, won’t blow you away – it’s the huge 4-5” size of each cracker and their light, crispiness that lets you snack on these in a whole new way. You won’t necessarily be digging into a tub of hummus with these crackers – though you can manage it if you’re careful enough. Instead, they lend themselves to being layered with thin slices of salami and cheese, or dabbed with a nice tapenade and had as an antipasta.
There’s something really enjoyable and liberating about dealing with crackers this size. Instead of being forced into dealing with a set size of cracker out of a box, these parchment crackers allow you to easily snap off any sized section you want from the larger cracker. Nibble on a broken-off corner or stack a plate with multiple layers – the versatility of the pane guttiau is tremendous.
A final note, despite the thinness of the crackers, I found that Trader Joe’s packed a good number into each box. I wound up running out of things to put on the parchment crackers before the parchment crackers themselves ran out.
If you’re going to try these – get some good cheese and meats, some nice spreads, and enjoy a little free-form snacking.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, particularly if you’re exhausted by traditionally sized crackers.
Would I Buy Them Again: Eventually, maybe when I have guests over.
Final Synopsis: These ancient, wafer-like crackers are a whole new way to snack!
The little burgundy bottle of Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar has been staring me in the face for weeks now, daring me to buy it. I finally picked it up the other day, and I’ve really been wrestling with what the hell to do with it ever since.
Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar certainly isn’t the sort of product that you’re reaching for everyday in the kitchen. TJ’s seems to focus on two distinct categories of products – standard fare done in the Trader Joe’s style (soup, salad, bacon, etc) and exotic items designed to appeal to the gourmands and foodies of the world. Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar falls squarely into this second category. Unless you are living a very specialized sort of life, you’re going to find this a difficult product to just casually make use of from day to day.
Where I usually run into trouble in my comment section is with these more refined food products (ex: dolmas). As an Average Joe, I don’t have too much trouble wrapping my head around the minestrone soups out there, it’s the niche, world-cuisine stuff, the himalayan tuffle salts if you will, that usually leave me boggled. The advanced culinary spheres are only dimly known to me. I still only have a white belt in kitchen jujitsu. I tend to caramelize my simple syrups while other are already eating their crepes.
With that said, I purchased this vinegar knowing full and well that it might best me – but I was determined to give it my best shot. If you haven’t tried this vinegar yet, think of it as tasting like an apple cider vinegar, but with pomegranate instead of apple. A lot of pomegranate. This is a tremendously potent – and flavorful – vinegar, absolutely brimming over with the smells and tastes of pomegranate. The trouble, of course, is that pomegranate is a challenging flavor to incorporate into a meal. I’m mentioned this before, but I think the recent fad of throwing pomegranate flavoring around all over the place is foolhardy. Pomegranate is so tart that it’s just not that good when distilled down to it’s bare essence. Pomegranate seeds are one thing, I’ll gobble them by the handful, but take those seeds, squeeze the juice out of them, and mix it with a strong, acerbic vinegar and you’re talking about a very specific, very difficult flavor to incorporate in your dishes.
The vinegar bottle suggests trying it on salad or with chicken. I gave both of these a shot, and in both cases I found that the intense flavor was off-puttingly strong – almost medicinal in taste. But just laying on some lettuce leaves isn’t a pomegranate vinegar’s natural habitat, it was born to grace foods and dishes as exotic as itself.
So what is pomegranate vinegar rightly used for? Primarily, it would seem, as a condiment for fancy appetizers, as a dressing on carefully constructed salads or, and this one appealed to me, simmered down into a tangy glaze. In order to do full justice to this product, I felt that I must at least give the glaze a shot. After a little bit of searching I settled on this simple but elegant recipe from Il Fustino, and cooked it up with a dish of fresh grilled chicken breast.
The results were exactly what I’d been promised – a fruity, tangy glaze with considerable complexity and none of the acerbic or mediciney hang ups of the straight vinegar. Down right tasty, in other words – all the sweet flavor of pomegranate with just an edge of zing. Was I delighted? Yes. Am I a convert now? No.
To be honest, if I’m looking for a tangy, fruity glaze for my chicken, I’ll grab my bottle of Trader Joe’s Balsamic Glaze before I start stewing some up from vinegar. If TJ’s had released a Pomegranate Vinegar Glaze instead of a straight vinegar I might be singing a different song right now, as it is – this is a fine, well made vinegar, it just has an incredible narrow focus of use.
Would I Recommend It: Not unless you’re eating a lot of artisnal cheese or like to simmer your own glazes.
Would I Buy It Again: One bottle should about do me.
Final Synopsis: An intensely strong, pomegranate-infused vinegar perfect for making a glaze and maybe like one other thing.
Many a good salad have I reviewed from Trader Joe’s, but always am I on the prowl for more – ever hunting, never satisfied. So it was that, in my endless roaming, I cam across Trader Joe’s Honey Glazed Miso Salmon salad – an Asian-style salad with pretensions to greatness, but which settles merely for good.
Before we dig into this salad, it’s important to note which version of Trader Joe’s Honey Glazed Miso Salmon on Salad Greens I’m talking about. Running contrary to the feeling of friendliness and openness that Trader Joe’s cultivates is their shadowy, behind the scenes operations. The goings-on of Trader Joe’s corporate offices are famously private – cloaked from all public scrutiny due to orders straight from the owners, Germany’s ultra-private Albrecht family.
Despite the rather sinister tone all this evokes, Trader Joe’s seems to be a mostly a force for good – at least in the supermarket world. One way that it continually surprises me, however, is through the continual reformulations that TJ’s is carrying out invisibly, beneath our very noses. Last month I found myself staring rather blankly at my old friend Turkey Bacon, not sure who he was anymore. The packaging was the same, the product copy was the same, but these were undeniably different strips of meat – leaner and with a different, less tasty, flavor profile. Can I prove that this was a reformulation? No, I have no proof, nothing beyond my own vanishingly subjective experiences, and Trader Joe’s won’t comment. Is this how the hegemony convinces us that our protestations are merely symptoms of madness? By replacing our bacon? Time will tell, I’m sure.
Rather more noticeably is the face lift that the miso salmon salad in question went through. A previous product of the exact same name but of totally different formulation used to sit on Trader Joe’s shelves. This previous iteration, in addition to having different packaging, was served over lo mein noodles and had an inferior salmon. The version I’m reviewing today has no noodles and a better cut of fish – overall a change for the better.
There’s a lot to love in this salad actually – salmon, first of all, is a wonderful salad accompaniment. Not only is it flavorful and healthy, but it flakes easily under the fork, a highly desirable quality for a fork-only food. That said, salmon can be a difficult fish to do right – doubly so when you’re packing it cold into a refrigerated salad. Trader Joe’s does a reasonable job delivering the salmon here. It’s a generous hunk of fish, and clearly some love went into the cooking process, in particular the miso-honey glaze. The miso honey glaze is nearly as good as it sounds, a sweet and tangy drizzle of flavor that gives your taste buds a pleasant zing. That said, the salmon itself is somewhat on the bland side, possibly over boiled. In any case, it’s the glaze you’ll notice, and the salmon passes by more or less as wallpaper.
The rest of the salad delivers a similarly satisfactory experience. “Matchstick” vegetables simply means that everything has been julienned into long veggies strips, strips that include such elegant additions as daikon (a mild Japanese radish) among the carrots and broccoli. The slivered almonds are also a nice touch, giving a bit of toothsome crunch to the proceedings.
The biggest problem, for me, was the salad dressing. The honey ginger vinaigrette included with the salad wasn’t bad – but I found it too oily, and tending toward bland where it should have been zingy. Not a death stroke, certainly, but a problem in that it’s hard to find a good dressing to pair with the honey-miso salmon. Apart from this one little misstep, this salad was a welcome change of pace to the chicken dominated salad fare that makes up most of Trader Joe’s other selections.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, but bring your own dressing.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, and I might try TJ’s Asian Sesame Seed Dressing with it next time.
Final Synopsis: A good, Asian salad with average salmon on it.
Trader Joe’s Qunoa Duo with Vegetable Melange is the sort of healthy fare I turn to when the New Year rolls around and the scale starts broadcasting dire warning vis-a-vis my sexiness. I’ve touched upon the intricacies of quinoa before, but this is the first time I’ve really sat down for an all quinoa dish.
The big deal with quinoa, and the cornerstone of its popularity, is the fact that quinoa contains a balance of all nine essential amino acids, in other words it’s a “complete protein”. This is common among meats, but rare in the plant world which makes it a boon to vegetarians. While that’s not me, I was particularly excited by the notion that I would be eating both red and white quinoa at once. Two quinoas? They must be, like, wildly different right? Otherwise, why mix them together? Sadly, I was a let down to discover that red and white quinoa are practically identical. The only real difference is that red quinoa is a little more toothsome than white quinoa, and doesn’t clump as much.
Trader Joe’s Quinoa Duo combines the quinoas with cubed zucchini and sweet potato, tinged with a bit of tomato sauce. The result is about as strange as it sounds. I’ll be upfront with you, I didn’t much love this one. It’s not that I dislike quinoa – I like it just fine, sometimes I even love it, and it’s not that I dislike vegetable melanges either, I’ve had one or two from TJ’s that I’ve quite enjoyed. The problem for me came in the mixture of everything together.
Quinoa has a decidedly nutty flavor.This works well with the sweet potato, and reasonably well with the zucchini, but for some reason Trader Joe’s decided to put a french twist on the dish. This takes the form of a tomato flavoring that is mixed in with the dish – not so strong as to really stand on its own, just strong enough to sort of throw the other flavors off. It certainly makes for a complex taste, but to me it came across as more of a mess of flavors than a medley.
Really, though, how much you like this dish will come down to how much you like hot quinoa . Although the words “vegetable melange” are right there in the title, don’t come to this dish expecting much more than quinoa. The pseudograin-to-veggie tradeoff is something like 80 – 20, meaning for every big mouthful of quinoa you’ll get a couple bits of zucchini or sweet potato. That also means that, despite Trader Joe’s urgings to the contrary, this doesn’t make a very good main dish. Undoubtedly there’s room to find a good entree pairing here that will elevate the rather confused taste of the quinoa duo to a higher level, although I couldn’t tell you what that would be.
If you’re really interested in working this quinoa duo into your diet, I reckon the best approach is to disregard Trader Joe’s serving suggestions entirely. Cool down the quinoa after you cook it up, and turn it into a salad base. You can find one good recipie for just that on this blog. Mixed with the right combination of veggies and seasoning this quinoa duo can become something great – by itself, not so much.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to undernourished vegetarians and adventurous salad makers. No to most others.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I wasn’t really into it.
Final Synopsis: Lots of good qunoia with a strange tomato taste.
Put on your checkered, ear-flap caps readers, because today we’re going full Canadian with Trader Joe’s Poutine.
Poutine – what is poutine? What is this strange word, this strange brown bag smiling broadly at us from the depth of the freezer section? What do french fries, cheese curds and gravy have to do with each other? To put it simply, poutine is French Canadian nachos – only instead of tortilla chips you have fries, and instead of melted cheese you have gravy, and instead of jalapenos you have melted cheese. Yes, I know that’s confusing, but there’s no avoiding that. Only a Canadian can truly understand poutine – just as only Aussies can truly understand Vegemite, only Scots can truly understand Irn-Bru and only Americans can truly understand root beer. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to explain.
Basically, what you get with Trader Joe’s Poutine is a big bag of frozen french fries, a packet of beef gravy and a packet of cheese curds. The idea is, you cook the fries in your oven, while warming the gravy and curds on the stove top. Once everything’s ready, you top the fries with the curds, drizzle the gravy over the whole lot, then eat it with a fork/your fingers. It’s a sloppy heap of messy, salty savory junk food perfect for anytime you feel like abandoning your goals and dreams in favor of immediate mouth-stuffing gratification – again, not unlike nachos.
I’d never had poutine before, which presented me with a unique challenge. How could I fairly review Trader Joe’s Poutine, and thus avoid incurring Cannuck ire, without anything to compare it against? Where was my control group? A Google search revealed the depth of my problem. Although poutine is wildly popular in the barren polar regions of North America, it doesn’t have much of a presence anywhere so far south in America as Los Angeles, CA.
I was able to find a number of upscale restaurants offering their own nouveau fusion versions of poutine designed to downplay the more uniquely Canadian side of poutine (read: giant salty cheese curds) in favor of a more marketable, bastardized dish, but little in the way of real, authentic poutine. For a moment I thought I’d found a lucky break in the form of the Gravy Train Poutinerie – a poutine slinging mobile food truck promising real, home-style poutine – but an examination of their Twitter account revealed that they moved operations to the greener pastures of Salt Lake City, UT in October 2013. Things were getting depressing.
Finally, I found success at Little Fork, Hollywood – a cool little box of a restaurant dedicated to serving Canadian food up right. Over a couple cheap Molsens I enjoyed my first real poutine – smoked meat gravy, gooey cheese curds and all. Folks, it was a delicious heap of a hot mess.
So it was with considerable anticipation that I cooked up Trader Joe’s Poutine on my stove. After following the direction and digging in – I’m sorry to report that I didn’t like it very much at all.
The gravy is fine, and the cheese curds, though saltier than I like, are as thick and squeaky as you could ask for. The problem, unfortunately and unavoidably, is in the fries. It’s next to impossible to cook fries in an oven and have them be anywhere as near as good as fries out of a deep fryer. Countless brands have tried to do it, but none, not ever Trader Joe’s, has succeeded. Without the deep fryer, fries aren’t fries – they’re just dull potato planks.
There are some other minor difficulties with Trader Joe’s Poutine – I found it hard to heat up the cheese curds without them melting together into a big blob, even by heating them in a water bath, but these are only petty concerns. The heart of a good poutine is in the good fries – take those away and your might as well just have your cheese and gravy on a baked potato. Honestly, you’d be much better off buying some good fries from a takeout joint and adding the curds and gravy to them than you would be buying this frozen bag of flat potato slices. Thank you, Trader Joe’s, for bringing us the delicacy of rural Quebec, but these fries simply won’t do.
Would I Recommend It: Not with these fries I wouldn’t.
Would I Buy It Again: No – I’ll just wait for the Poutinere to wheel it’s way back here.
Final Synopsis: The great Quebecoise cuisine brought low by inadequate fries.