Another calendar year has fleeted its way by, and are we any richer for it? Why yes, indeed we are – for Trader Joe’s has brought forth another cornucopia of culinary delights and downright crazy concoctions. It was a year of many new foods to review – from Cruciferous Crunch to Uttapam. Here were my top ten favorite, presented in no particular order.
I never thought that I’d be putting Brussels sprouts on a list like this, let alone Brussels sprouts that have been crossbred with kale, but I suppose that’s just another example of the mystery of life’s many ways.
Trader Joe’s Kale Sprouts are a relatively brand new type of produce that combines the blends the best parts of kale and Brussels sprouts together, while downplaying their flaws. I took a liking to these little heads of “lollipop kale” – so much so that when it comes to cooking, I doubt I’d ever choose a bag of ordinary kale or Brussels sprouts over these ever again.
Trader Joe’s has long trafficked in the many and wonderful varieties of pre-made, single serving salads in a tub, but Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend Complete Salad was their first foray into pre-made, multi-serving bag salads. Even though it was hung upon the gimmick of “pumpkin in everything”, I found this salad’s flavors so well paired, and the salad itself so robust and filling, that I wouldn’t hesitate to put it toe-to-toe with any Trader Joe’s salad – period.
Here’s hoping TJ’s continues with this trend of bagged salads in 2015.
Trader Joe’s finally cracked the Cookie Butter conundrum this year with their startlingly new Cookies and Creme Cookie Butter. After putting out every variation on the original Speculoos Cookie Butter formula they could thing of, TJ’s finally branched out into whole new varieties of cookies to make the condiment out of.
Cookies and Creme cookie butter owes it’s inspiration to the Oreo cookie, combining thick veins of rich chocolate cream with rich vanilla crème. The result was almost overwhelmingly sweet – a short step down from eating frosting directly. For me it fell short of the glory of the original speculoos variety, but it also suggests a whole new galaxy of potential cookie butters to come. I’ll be keeping an eager eye on the cookie butter shelves this coming year.
One of two, savory Asian pancakes I tried this year, Trader Joe’s Scallion Pancakes are an import of a Korean classic. TJ’s does justice to it’s origins with the dish, with this addictive dish. Whether eaten on their own, topped with chopped seafood, or doused with dipping sauces, these crunchy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside onion-based flapjacks were an instant favorite of mine for any time of day. Possibly my favorite use of scallions ever.
Trader Joe’s Coffeehaus European Style Low Fat Yogurt – Mocha and Chocolate flavors
This was a strongly divisive product this year. My review may sound less than glowing – referring the the taste of this distinctly European yogurt as “sour chocolate” – but not unlike “sour onion” or “salt and vinegar” this was a combination of tastes that was novel, intriguing and surprisingly tasty. Certainly worth trying at least once, if only to experience such a uniquely European taste.
I would probably have added Trader Joe’s Aloo Chaat Kati Pouches to this list for the sheer lyricality of the name alone. Inspired by Indian street food, these on-the-go potato pouches are like the grown-up version of Hot Pockets. Healthier and tastier than those pizza wads, the aloo chaat kati pouch is a great way to eat a microwaved meal while feeling multi-cultural instead of like a sad loner. The only questions now is if Trader Joe’s will come out with more flavors of kati pouch.
I’m a sucker for any food product that I can’t pronounce the name of, and will purchase anything that fits that criteria on sight. In the case of Trader Joe’s 4 Kouigns Amann this worked out in my favor. Flaky Breton pastries with sweet caramelized bottoms, kougins amman have been making their appearance in trendy bakeries across the country. That Trader Joe’s lets you cook up these sweet rolls at home makes the experience all the better.
The other savory Asian pancake I tried this year also made it on to my best of 2014 list. A traditional Indian repast, Uttapam are thick, doughy pancakes made with a sort of sour dough bread and topped with diced onion and herbs. Totally different from the Scallion Pancakes, they nonetheless were a tasty and delightful new flat bread I was happy to stumble across. Topped with the included coconut chutney, or eaten as part of a larger meal, these Tamil treats are something everyone should give a try.
My personal darling this year. Now that I stock up on this stuff weekly, it’s hard to imagine a time before Trader Joe’s carried this astoundingly simple mix of shredded red and green cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts. Not only is it a wonderful addition to any salad, and a snap to cook, but the name is a masterpiece. I’ll be eating Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch Collection for the rest of 2015, 2016, and so on until California finally snaps off and sinks into the sea.
You guys know I’m no fan of the Cult of Bacon and it’s knee-jerk worship of any food product that even has the word “bacon” in its name. Sure guys, it’s good stuff – fat and salt are a wondrous combination – but it’s not like we’re talking manna from heaven or anything.
That said, my knees literally went weak when I put a fried slice of Trader Joe’s Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon on my tongue. This is bacon worth singing the praises of. The smell alone as it crackles on the stove is enough to get every mouth in the house drooling. It’s more expensive than your ordinary side of bacon, but it’d still be a deal at twice the price.
Editor’s Choice: Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Joe-Joe’s
These are on the list only because I’m crazy. Their inclusion here has nothing to do with their taste, which was sort of average, but with the box design. Trader Joe’s commits to Pumpkin Season like moray eels commit to a bite. They are not screwing around, to put it mildly. Trader Joe’s box art on this box more elegantly sums up the peculiar pumpkin pyscosis that Trader Joe’s undergoes every October than my deluge of words – although I certainly tried – and for that it deserves special praise.
Obligatory Cookie Butter Entry: Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter Ice Cream
Ice cream with Speculoos Cookie Butter in it. ’nuff said.
Happy Holidays everyone!
No post today as I celebrate the Yuletide with friends and family. I wish you all a Merry Christmas season – with more and merrier to come!
Rarely, as in very rarely, as in once a year or so, I review something available at Trader Joe’s but not made by them. Last year about this time we looked at the shocking Dutch ChocoVine, a blend of red wine and European chocolate. This year we look at something equally seasonal, and equally European – Edel-Marzinpanstollen. A soft, heavy, sweet loaf of bread filled with dried fruits, marzipan, citrus, loads of spices, and dusted with sugar. The result is something like a fluffier fruitcake.
As you might guess from the long, unwieldy name, Edel-Marzipanstollen is German in origin. And, moreover, it’s as seasonal as seasonal can get. What do I mean by that? Well, put it this way – not only is it a traditional Hanukkah treat and a traditional Christmas treat, but also the Pope himself issued an edict to save them from being outlawed (by an earlier Pope). Now that’s a holiday tradition.
Let’s start at the beginning – distant medieval Germany, AKA the Fun Zone. Back in middle of the dark ages, in the Saxony region of north-eastern Germany, people decided what the hell, let’s start baking a bread-like fruit cake and fill it with all the sweet tasting goodies we can get our hands on. This came to mean including candied orange and lemon peel, raisins, almonds, cardamom, cinnamon and, depending on taste, marzipan – as in the version we’re trying today.
The resulting product, called stollen in it’s most generic form, was originally of Jewish origin, and was eaten throughout the Hanukkah season. The neighboring gentiles, recognizing a good idea when they saw one, adopted it for their own Christmas celebrations sometime there after. However, despite its popularity among Christian laity, the Pope was having none of it. Tasty Christmas breads we’re one casualty of medieval Advent traditions – namely the tradition of fasting, which forbade (among other things) using butter in baking. A stollen isn’t really a stollen if it isn’t absolutely slathered with butter to ensure tasty, moist bread and a long shelf life. Forced to use oil as a surrogate, the resulting stollens were much less palatable – harder, crustier, and bland. The Saxons did not take the loss of the stollen sitting down.
You might have a Christmas tradition you hold dear – you might be prepared to fight for it, but are you prepared to fight five Popes to the death for it? The Saxons were. Starting in the mid-1400’s, two Saxon nobles began sending letters to Pope Nicholas V campaigning for a special dispensation for their bakers to use real butter over Christmas. These letters were summarily ignored until Nicholas’ death – when his successor Callixtus III took over. Callixtus, a very different sort of Pope, nevertheless continued to refuse the request until he died. The post then fell to Pius II, who wanted nothing to do with the butter request and shot it down again. This pattern continued until 1490 when Pope Innocent VIII finally gave in – allowing butter to be used once more. The stollen was saved.
Knowing all this, you might feel more inclined to pick up this sweet bread – but the big question remains – how does it actually taste? Well, as I suggested way back up at the top of the page, Edel-Marzipanstollen is a lot like fruitcake, only better. I’m aware that’s not saying a lot, given the low regard fruitcake is held in, but the comparison stands.
Many of the same ingredients you find in your standard, sticky heavy fruitcake are found here too. The biggest difference is that instead of being crammed into the densest possible wad, they’re given room to breathe in a fluffy, moist, cake-like bread. This bread isn’t sweetened directly – all of the sweetness comes from the sugary fruits and nuts, and the dusting of confectioners sugar on top. This lighter texture makes it much friendlier and more snackable when compared to fruitcake. Nevertheless, the taste is still very similar. If you’ve had one slice of bread filled with candied produce, you know what to expect here. The biggest difference is in the large pieces of marzipan placed throughout. Soft, sweet, and about the size of walnuts, they insert some welcome variety into the otherwise predictable fruit bread.
Overall, despite the unusual name, there isn’t anything in this stollen that you haven’t seen before. If you have a tradition of buying holiday fruit breads, this is a good one, pleasantly heavy and soft, with plenty of candied sweetness. However, if you can get along well enough without fruitcakes or their kin, there’s nothing here that is going to make you change your mind.
Still, it’s only $3.50 for a fine, big loaf – and that’s not a bad price for a piece of ancient holiday history. If the spirit of the season happens to overtake you one fine day as you browse the aisles, why not pick it up and see what all the fuss was about?
Would I Recommend It: Not really, unless you have a particular fondness for holiday fruit breads or feel buoyed up by holiday cheer.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not, I’ve had it once – my curiosity is satisfied.
Final Synopsis: A fluffier, moister variety of fruit cake with a rich history.
We recently looked at the shocking explosion in popularity of the humble Brussels sprout. I myself have never considered myself much of a Brussels sprout man, although I’m occasionally tempted into the dish when sufficient quantities of bacon and cheese have been introduced. I’m also not much of a kale man, although I can occasionally be convinced to enjoy it chopped – if there’s enough good salad fixings to go with it. Why then, did I feel compelled to pick up a bag of Trader Joe’s Kale Sprouts – a product that is, somehow, exactly what it sounds like. Some twisted nutritional madman, in a decaying castle on some storm bitten crag, managed to fuse these two unfavorably regarded members of the Brassilica family into one lopsided ungainly form – perfect for haunting the dreams of obstinate children forever more. Surely this tinkering can’t work out well, can it?
Fortunately, I’ve matured far enough beyond my own childhood dislike of strange vegetables to actually give this unusual new plant a try. What I discovered was a veggie that combines the best of both its parents into a new form.
Despite owing it’s ancestry in half to Brussels sprouts, kale sprouts don’t look all that much like those infamous green buds. Instead, kale sprouts look like little heads of kale. In fact, kale sprouts are often referred to by their other name, lollipop kale – downplaying the Brussels sprouts side altogether. Don’t be fooled though – despite their very kale-like appearance if you saw kale sprouts at the farm, you’d see them growing off the sides of long, vertical stalks – exactly like Brussels sprouts.
This mixed pedigree is reflected in the taste – the kale sprout taste is almost exactly halfway between kale and Brussels sprouts. Robust, nutritious, crisp, fresh, and slightly bitter with a hint of pepperiness. As a result, you can cook them in any of the ways you would consider cooking either. Kale sprouts can be cut in half and roasted in the oven like Brussels sprouts just as easily as they can be sauteed with a touch of olive oil and salt, like kale – or simply thrown on a salad.
While I expected to be underwhelmed by these guys as a result of that “middle of the road” phenomenon, I was actually quite charmed by the little morsels. I hadn’t known it before, but I guess I’ve always wanted my Brussels sprouts to be leafier and my kale to have more body. Trader Joe’s Kale Sprouts manage to do both those things at the same time. It’s like they scratch an itch I didn’t know I had. In fact, I’d say I found them easier to cook, and friendlier to eat, than either of its progenitors.
Kale sprouts are an excellent addition to your produce pantry, and a versatile tool for many meals, from a hearty side for meat dishes, to an addition to your salad bowl, to a simple saute. Unlike so many produce hybrids that seem to be made exclusively for novelty purposes – like the saturn peach, or pluot – kale sprouts actually fill a meaningful role in the kitchen. Let’s hope they’re here to stay.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, they’re handy, novel and nutritious.
Would I Buy Them Again: I would – they made me feel fancy.
Final Synopsis: A kale/Brussels sprout hybrid that combines the best of two worlds.
Look, I know quinoa is enjoying something of a heyday, the likes of which has been unprecedented since the ancient grain was originally introduced as a staple of the human diet in 5,000 BC, but there are certain applications of it which are bound to make even the hippest vegetarian blink. I’ve calmly accepted quinoa in my salads, my “chicken”, and even in my sushi. But quinoa in my pesto? That’s a development that begs further inquiry.
Quinoa was originally cultivated in the Andes region of South America since the rise of civilization there. However, since it’s uptake by the incessant marketing machine in the mid 2000’s, quinoa has been trumpeted as a superfood for it’s many healthsome properties – some certified, some merely alleged – and introduced into practically any food product in need of a sales boost.
What is absolutely true is that quinoa is a gluten-free grain, and is relatively protein rich. Given that both these qualities dovetail nicely into the culinary trends of the day, its recent, widespread popularity should probably not be a surprise. It is notable however. Since 2006, the price of quinoa has tripled on the market even as crop production has nearly doubled world wide – and in 2013 no lesser body than the United Nations itself declared it the “International Year of Quinoa”. They had a logo and everything.
While the sudden rise of quinoa from obscurity to mainstay may sound unusual, it’s not alone. In fact pesto – yes the very pesto in this quinoa and pesto sauce – shares a very similar original story. Pesto may not have a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years, like quinoa, but it’s a lot older than you might think. The first bowl of pesto was found on the table of the ancient Romans who ate a paste of crushed herbs, garlic and cheese. As they conquested into northern Italy/southern France, the basil that grew there was introduced into the dish – resulting in the pesto we know and love today. And then nothing happened for two thousand years. Despite the fact that pesto took it’s fully mature form sometime before the birth of Christ, it was largely unknown out of the rustic Mediterranean regions where it sprang into existence.
Not until 1863 is the first recipe for pesto recorded, and it is not until nearly a hundred years after that, in 1946, that the first pesto recipe shows up in America. Even then, pesto continued to languish in relative obscurity until the 1980’s, when it started to be adopted into Italian cuisine on a wide scale.
So why combine these two long overlooked food items into one condiment? Why did Trader Joe’s bother to make Pesto and Quinoa?
When you try it, the first thing you’ll notice is that they might as well have called it pesto with quinoa, instead of pesto and quinoa. The point being that this is a pesto sauce, first and foremost, with the quinoa making a very meager impact on the overall dish.
Apart from the quinoa, this is a standad pesto recipe – filled with plenty of basil, oil and grated cheese. What it doesn’t have, however, is any pine nuts. In place of that crunchy nuttiness you get the squishy nuttiness of lots and lots of quinoa. This makes the pesto taste more or less like any other pesto you’ve had from a grocery store, even if it looks very very different. There’s so much quinoa in this pesto that it’s far and away the first ingredient. When you unscrew the lid you’ll see a load of quinoa, sprouts and all, staring back at you. If you can get over the somewhat unsettlingly different appreance, you’ll find that this pesto works just like the regular stuff – you can add it easily to pasta, chicken, fish or salads for that big sloppy kiss of savory basil. Just don’t expect it to spread quite like regular pesto. The quinoa makes it much lumpier than a normal pesto, and requires a little extra finesse on the part of the eater.
While that’s all well and good, it does make you wonder why Trader Joe’s bothered to make this stuff at all. There isn’t any real difference in the calorie or fat content between this and ordinary pesto. While I enjoyed it on a variety of meals, I didn’t enjoy it any more than I would have any other pesto. And with the slightly unappealing look and unweildly nature of the quinoa, there really isn’t any need to get it again. I’m glad TJ’s discovered a tasty Peruvian pesto, I’m just not so sure why they wanted to pas it along to all of us.
Would I Recommend It: No, I don’t think so.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope, no need.
Final Synopsis: Pesto with a bunch of quinoa in it tastes just like pesto without quinoa in it. So why bother?
Sorry, but my brain melted down today due to crazy overwork. No post today, but we will learn about amazing things on Thursday! Come back soon!