We’ve talked about Trader Joe’s reduced guilt offerings before. In fact, we talked about one earlier this week. As I mentioned then, the problem inherent in “low cal” versions of fattier food, is that they tend to negate themselves. In general, if I’m going to eat a creamy, sugary, salty brownie or whatever, I have steeled myself to the fact that I’m blowing my diet, if at least for the moment. But I’m willing to do it, because it tastes so damn good. Or I at least hope it tastes that good. The problem with our reduced guilt guacamole, or whatever, is that by taking out all the fat and sugar, you’re taking out all the stuff that makes it taste so good. The result is that I’m left sitting there, scooping watery psudeo-guac into my mouth, still getting fat, just not as quickly, but not enjoying myself nearly as much.
So almost always when I see the “diet” version of an otherwise unhealthy food I immediately assume I’m not going to enjoy myself. However, there is a tricky little bit of math here. On the graph of healthfulness vs. tastiness, every now and then there’s a diet food that manages to fall just on the right side of the curve. The “Inner Beans” snack we explored yesterday managed to do this (debatably). Can Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chicken Salad do the same?
To cut to the chase – no, it doesn’t. This new salad is a classic case of close, but not quite. And really, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Often times these “reduced guilt” formulations offer underwhelming health benefits like “15% less sodium!” or “Now only 72% fat by volume!”. Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chicken Salad swings for the fences, offering an insane reduction in both calories and fat. On the label it proudly states that this chicken salad has 85% less fat and 60% fewer calories than their regular chicken salad. An 85% reduction in fat and less than half the calories – from 19 grams of fat per serving to 2.5, and down 250 calories to 100. That’s insane. You’d think you’re getting a tub with about a teaspoon of chicken salad in it but nope, they’ve filled it all the way to the top.
How did they achieve this miracle? In this case, the answer is they took out all the mayonnaise and replaced it with low fat greek yogurt. It’s a bold, crazy move – and it doesn’t really pay off. While the calories might be reasonable, there’s not tang or zip to the salad. Instead it just tastes flat. The chicken is there, the chopped vegetables are there, but there isn’t much beyond that. The result is something that tastes like a chicken vegetable soup without enough salt in it.
For some people this is probably not a deal breaker. If you’re looking for an interesting cracker topping, or a healthy side to have with lunch this will fit the bill. For me,however, this chicken salad just isn’t quite interesting enough to justify future purchases.
Would I Recommend It: Yeah… I guess so. Healthy chicken salad is probably worth a nod.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I thought it was a little too mushy and boring.
Final Synopsis: A very low cal, if bland, chicken salad.
I really feel like Trader Joe’s Inner Bean fails on multiple levels. Namely, two levels. It isn’t a very tasty snack, and the name is confusing gibberish that makes people angry. Nevertheless, there is something interesting going on here, and that is worth looking at.
Let’s lay out all the problems first and see if we can figure this out. First, What does “embrace your inner bean” mean? I assume Trader Joe’s must have a reason for putting a perplexing quasi-pun on the package, but I can seriously not understand why. Yes, I know that they sell a similar snack called “Contemplate Inner Peas”. Yes, I get that this bean snack is a spiritual successor to that pea snack. The crucial difference is that while “contemplate inner peace” is a phrase you might expect someone to be familiar with, “Embrace your inner being” is confusing even with the whole bean part left out. It’s just a very, very strange name that tells you nothing about the product except that it involves beans somehow and that, apparently, Trader Joe’s has very high ideals for them.
Even if TJ gave this snack a purely descriptive name, like “Trader Joe’s Air-Puffed Bean Snack”, it would still have some hurdles to clear. What, after all, is an air-puffed bean snack? Well basically, as you will see if you buy this bag, a Cheeto that is made from milled black beans instead of corn. The result is something that does not look or taste very much like Cheetos at all.
Despite the airy content of each crisp, these bean snacks are surprisingly rigid and dense. If you want to chow down on some of these you really have to commit to the bite. In fact, the extreme structural integrity of these ostensibly grab-‘em-‘n-munch’em fun snacks inspired me to construct a small but sturdy tower from the bean treats and see how many cans of Coke it could support. Stacking the bean puffs into a Lincoln-log style cabin, I was able to stack nearly 3 cans of coke before the structure collapsed – a feat that I doubt even Flamin’ Hot Cheetos could replicate.
Taste-wise, Embrace Your Inner Beans are much more approachable. The beans have been seasoned with salt and a dash of pepper that scratches that salty snack food itch. These crunchable bean nuggets will pass snuff for any typical junk food chip at first blush. They’ve got that sort of generic, fried starchiness common to potato chips, Cheetoes, Bugles, etc. However, this taste quickly gives way to the tell-tail mealy, bean taste common to lentils everywhere. It’s not a bad bean taste – it’s just a bean taste. If you’re okay with that in your snack food, then that’s not a problem. If, on the other hand, you don’t want to be reminded of beans while pigging out, this is something to be aware of. They are, more than anything, like a dry crispy version of salted edamame.
Taste aside, there’s one area where these bean snacks excel, and that’s in the calorie count. If you wanted to sit down and pig out on this entire bag, it would only cost you less than 400 calories, while simultaneously packing in 15 grams of protein. Calorie-wise, that’s equivalent to less than 1/2 of one fun-sized bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Despite the name, despite the hard exterior, these beans are amazingly healthy for a fried food, and still manage to satisfy that gluttonous little voice that demands salt fat all day long. Trader Joe’s has a wide variety of “reduced guilt” or “healthy” alternatives to more fattening snack foods, but generally speaking, it’s a trade off that isn’t worth it. In this case, Trader Joe’s Embrace Your Inner Beans hits that sweet spot of “healthy enough” and “tasty enough” – and that’s a rare combination.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, these are a good healthy snack… if you’re okay with beans.
Would I Buy Them Again: No, these are too bean-y for me.
Final Synopsis: Like healthier, bean-based Cheetos.
If you’ve never had a chocolate lava cake, then you should remedy that situation as quickly as possible. The chocolate lava cake is one of those death-by-chocolate confections that are actually as good as they are billed to be. A three or four inch chocolate cake is served piping hot, concealing within its unassuming body thick, molten chocolate fudge that flows forth with each forkful you eat – a heart-stopping flood of decadence. It’s the sort of desert that Nero would have approved of. Given its popularity, it’s not a surprise that Trader Joe’s would bring their own version to their shelves with Trader Joe’s Chocolate Lava Cakes.
However, when it comes to grocery store versions of restaurant food, there’s always that question hanging in the air. Will the contents of this frozen box be anywhere near as good as what I order off the menu? It’s common for grocery stores, even Trader Joe’s, to over reach on this issue. We previously explored the problem with grocery store French fries in Trader Joe’s Poutine. Can they pull off chocolate lava cakes any better, or are these just a disappointing waste of money?
Answer: These are really good. In fact, not only do they rival the chocolate lava cakes you might get at a restaurant, they open the door on a whole stunning array of possible customization.
A Trader Joe’s Chocolate Lava Cake has 360 calories, and 23 grams of fat, but they make the most of it. Each and every bite of these cakes is luxuriously chocolaty – almost overwhelmingly so. The outer cake, deep rich brown, is sweet and moist straight out of the oven, with a delicate crisp to the outer edge. Plunge a spoon through this and you’ll find the chocolate fudge deluge – an almost frighteningly rich ooze of nearly black dark chocolate, so rich and intense that I highly recommend small bites only.
This is basically what you’d hope to get at a restaurant, and so easily passes that test. The greater appeal is that these unadorned cakes are easy to accessorize with whip cream, butter scotch syrup, fresh fruit, mint leaves, vanilla ice cream, or whatever else might tickle your fancy. Given the staggering level of chocolate intensity, I’d suggest playing the cakes off of a different flavor palette – such as some tart raspberries – but if you want to load it up with Cookies and Crème Cookie Butter and have it fed to you on a divan as you chortle with unseemly glee, I won’t stop you.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, but any ensuing diabetes is your problem.
Would I Buy It Again: As soon as I think my waistline can bear it.
Final Synopsis: Restaurant-worthy fudge-filled, chocolate fudge, fudge cakes.
Well well, beet hummus – that’s apparently a thing we have now. Beets. Hummus. Beet hummus. Not hummus and beets or but hummus with beets, but hummus made from beets. It’s a real thing and we’re all just going to have to deal with it.
Long time readers of the blog know that I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with beets, or maybe more accurately, I have a self-destructive fascination with beets. Despite referring to them on more than one occasion as tasting like gelatin made with dirt, I nevertheless feel compelled to purchase each new and successively weirder beet product that Trader Joe’s puts out. They’re sort of like my anti-mango.
At any rate, for the above reasons, I picked up this unsettlingly purple tub of ground beet mush to see if it tasted as good as it sounds. The first thing I should clarify is, despite all my ranting and wailing, beets only make up a portion of this hummus. The first ingredient in this hummus, as in all true hummuses, is ground garbanzo beans, aka the chickpea. This has been blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and a few Mediterranean spices – aka the hummus you all know and love. It’s just that on top of this really solid base Trader Joe’s has decided to mix in beets. Tons of beets. And also beet juice.
Can you taste the beets in this hummus, you might be asking? Yes – yes you can absolutely can taste the beets. That potent yet somehow drab beet flavor grabs you by the tongue from the first bite and doesn’t let you forget it. “Beets”, as listed on the label, is the second ingredient – and you will notice it. This is augmented by the addition of beet juice and, in case you didn’t think that was quite enough beet, a hearty handful of extra beet chunks scattered liberally on top. Trader Joe’s apparently went into this one with the goal of ensuring that no one in the world could accuse their beet hummus of not being absolutely chockablock with non-stop beet action.
That said really, there’s nothing wrong with this hummus. It’s a regualar, run of the mill hummus across the board – it just has a bunch of beets in it. That’s really all there is too it, which drives me slightly crazy. It tastes just like ordinary hummus, except that you’ll taste beets when you first put it in your mouth and experience that long, distinctive beet aftertaste. I’m sure that there are some people in the world to whom this is somehow a selling point. If you’ve become bored by Trader Joe’s numerous other hummus offerings, if mere edamame hummus strikes you as humdrum, then this novel, beet-centric take on hummus may be just what you’re looking for.
To me, however, this beet hummus is like getting my car back from the mechanic and being told – “Good news. We’ve fixed everything and it’s running fine – and also we filled up the back seat with spiders.” It’s fine, I just really wish you had avoided taking that extra step.
As I say, I’m sure there are people out there who are excited by the prospect of integrating a root vegetable into their hummus routine. To those people I say go for it, this is the best beet hummus on the shelves. For me, however, I’ll be giving it a wide berth.
Would I Recommend It: Hypothetically I could recommend this to beet lovers, if ever I meet one.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope.
Final Synopsis: Hummus, but it tastes like beets.
Trader Joe’s preserved lemons are unlike any other sort of lemon you may have tried before. People do lots of weird things to produce that they store in jars. Sometimes they’re pickling it, sometimes they’re making it sweet, sometimes they’re just packing it in tons and tons of oil. Whatever it is, it’s always impossible to tell what you’re going to get until you actually pop the jar open and give it a try. In this case, I was surprised to find that what they were doing was making the lemons less sour. The lemons in TJ’s Preserved Tunisian Lemon Slices contain all the flavor of that famous yellow citrus fruit, but none of the acidity or sourness. The result is a slightly unnerving but intriguing food experience.
I was really, really not expecting this. Frankly I didn’t even know it was possible to unsour lemons. Really, I didn’t know what expect when I picked these up – and Trader Joe’s was not in a helpful mood when they created the packaging. Search the jar and you’ll find no description of what to use these lemons for, or how they might taste. The one clue that TJ’s sort of lets on to is when they casually mention “Be sure to rinse under water – unless you really like salt.” That might lead you to believe these lemons will be salty. And while yes, indeed, the brine they’re packed in is very salty, that salinity doesn’t make its way into the taste of the lemons. The only reason the lemon slices are soaking in a salt bath is because salt draws out and neutralizes the bitterness of the lemon peel and acidity of the lemon juice.
The result is lemon slices that taste and look like lemons, but don’t make you pucker or wince. If you’ve never had them, it may hard to imagine what non-sour lemons taste like. Basically, they taste like lemon-sceneted dish soap smells. While that is a strange little thing to deal with, mentally, it’s not the only slightly off-putting part of these preserved lemons. As a necessary part of the preserving process, these lemons are saturated, soaked and soggy. Washing them off and patting them dry is about all the strain they can take without falling apart on you. You’ll have no trouble slicing through the rind of these lemons with the edge of a plastic spoon.
So what are you to do with a jar of un-lemonafied lemon slices? The answer is, pretty much anything. The best way to think of these preserved lemons is as a solid slices of lemon juice. Adding a slice, either diced or whole, gives a refreshing zest to any dish. The real boon here is that you can’t over load on these. With the face puckering sourness of the lemon nullified all you’re really adding is a burst of citrus flavor. The classic way to use preserved lemon is in a Moroccan tagine soup, but they really dress up any dish that would benefit from a touch of lemon zest. Dice it up and mix it in a salad, add a slice to a sandwich, or serve as a garnish for roasted chicken. If the somewhat unnatural texture and taste of the lemons doesn’t bother you, they’re an easy and interesting way to dress up almost any dish.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes – these have all the perks of lemons without any of the downside.
Would I Buy Them Again: One jar should last me a long time, but I’d consider it.
Final Synopsis: All of the flavor of a lemon without the acid.
Ah yes, the jumble. One of the lazier forms of organization on the books. It’s right up there with the heap and the mess in terms of ways people don’t like their things to be. There’s just not much cachet to a jumble. So what lead Trader Joe’s to just sort of jumble some chocolate and stuff together instead of delivering it to the customer in a precisely thought through execution – like they did with their strictly ordered triple tiered chocolates? I must admit, I don’t actually know – but I will tell you that Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles are downright delicious.
Aside from the intriguing name, what attracted me to these candy jumbles was the ingredient list. Listed right up in there, right next to milk chocolate and caramel is quinoa. Toasted quinoa. Also Himalayan salt. Okay, TJ, now you’ve got my attention. You may have dozens of chocolate-covered after-dinner treats available to me – but only one has quinoa in it. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s either a stroke of desperation or brilliance.
Why in the world, after all, would you try to shoehorn quinoa into a chocolate confection filled with gooey caramel? Quinoa and chocolate occupy opposite ends of the nutrition spectrum. I would think that they would have annihilated each other when they came into contact. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the first time anyone has ever tried mixing caramel and quinoa together.
Well, I’ll tell you this much – all the hypothetical people who decided not to do this before – it’s your loss. The toasted quinoa is a delightful part of this little snack food. Before I get into the why’s and wherefores of that, though, we’d better take a look at our jumble as a whole.
You might not be sure what you’re getting into at first glace. Any manner of strange and surprising items could be lurking beneath that rich, milk chocolate coating. It could easily be chewy, hard, salty, filled with hidden nuts, baked like a brittle or as hard and unyielding as an over-cooked cookie. You just can’t tell that much from such an ambiguous lump.
The fact of the matter is, on your first bite your teeth will sink right into a sweet, dense core of caramel. There’s no hidden, solid substrate to this little trifle – it’s pure, pliable, yielding caramel all the way through. Or almost pure, I should say. This is where the toasted quinoa comes in. Little did I know that toasted quinoa tastes and acts pretty much just like toasted rice. Nothing of the distinctive taste and texture of quinoa remains – instead it has become a light, crispy, crunchy bit of pleasing texture teasing the tooth here and there and lending the jumble a bit of much needed body. Unlike toasted rice, the toasted quinoa is much smaller, and as a result it works much better in this small treat – never interrupting your bite, but just kind of sitting there, in your mouth, crunching up pleasantly between your teeth.
While the quinoa is fine and completely inoffensive, the real star of the show is the sprinkling of Himalayan salt. Why it needs to be Himalayan salt, I don’t know – but I can tell you that it takes the jumble to a whole new level. If you’ve never tried salted caramel before, or salted chocolate, you’re missing out on one of life’s great flavor sensations. Nothing accentuates and compliments the rich sweetness of cream and sugar like a few well placed grains of salt, and here it adds an entire new level of richness to what would otherwise be a simple little treat.
The only real problem, as far as I’m concerned is that the salt distribution on the jumbles is very erratic – some jumbles have no salt, while others have plenty. The jumbles without salt on them are fine and good – it’s just that the salted ones are what really make this worth picking up.
Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles are aimed at the buyer who is looking for a decadent chocolate treat without any of the pretension (and inflated price tag) that so often goes along with that. They’re certainly not going to make you any thinner, but if you’re looking for a novel new way to intake caramel and chocolate, these aren’t a bad choice.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, if you like really sweet sweets.
Would I Buy Them Again: I would if my willpower was stronger.
Final Synopsis: Don’t let the quinoa worry you – these are all about the salted caramel and chocolate.
You know what they say – once you’ve reviewed one novelty chocolate confection, you just can’t stop. Someone says that , I’m sure of it. At any rate, this classic axiom lead me to pick up Trader Joe’s Fireworks Chocolate Bar – a real honest to goodness chocolate bar, except it’s dark chocolate and filled with Red Hot Pop Rocks.
Or that’s how it tastes at least. This chocolate bar is Trader Joe’s entry into the amazing new world of chocolate bars with non-chocolate confections embedded I them. Confectioner Chuao started doing this a while back, coming out with such Willy Wonka-esque hybrids as chocolate and popcorn bits, chocolate and strawberry bits and, of course, chocolate and bacon bits. Trader Joe’s own crazy idea is to combine dark chocolate (although the exact percentage dark is left unspecified), combined with “popping candy” bits, chipotle chile, and cayenne pepper. The result is kind of crazy. When you first bite into the bar, yes, it tastes just like a low percentage dark chocolate bar, more sweet than bitter, smooth and of course chocolaty. But then things start exploding in your mouth and you get concerned. These, of course, are our “popping bits”, a generic name for what is essentially pop rocks. Ground up small enough that you will rarely encounter one of these crackling bits of sugar, they are nonetheless very noticeable, as your mouth gently hisses and snaps as the chocolate dissolves on the tongue.
Secondary to this effect is the “fire” part of the “firecracker” chocolate. Although it contains, as previously stated, chipotle chile, pasilla chile and cayenne pepper, it’s not in sufficient quantities to light anyone’s mouth on fire. It is, however, plenty enough to give you a warm glow and tingle to go along with the nice bittersweet chocolate.
Overall, it’s a pretty good effect – pulling your mind and your taste buds in at lest three directions at once as you feel and taste your way through this cavalcade of bittersweet, fiery explosions. This is really a chocolate bard to be savored in small bites, and let melt luxuriously onto the tongue. It may be the same size as any of TJ’s other chocolate bar, but you’ll derive many times the satisfaction from it. After the swing-and-miss dark chocolate and ginger confection I tried earlier this week, it’s a relief to see that they can also deliver something this good. You may not want to come back to this bar every time you feel a chocolate craving – but you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you pick it up at least once.
Would I Recommend It: Yeah! Don’t be afraid guys – Trader Joe’s is doing something pretty cool here.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d definitely pick one up to share.
Final Synopsis: Dark chocolate + pop rocks + chili pepper = a surprisingly good candy bar.
I picked up Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Ginger because, well, it sounds kind of terrible. Why would I do that to myself? Perhaps I’m insane. Perhaps. At any rate, I like both dark chocolate and ginger, but taken together they sound a little bit off putting. Both alkaloid rich dark chocolate and intensely strident ginger are strong, acquired tastes that are best used sparingly. So what was TJ thinking when they decided to give us huge globs of dark chocolate, stuffed full of spicy, candied ginger? I can’t begin to imagine, because really, these globs aren’t particularly good.
This is a classic case of what you see is what you get. If you look at these big chunks of dark chocolate and imagine that beneath a thick semi-sweet coating rests a big nugget of ginger you have the right idea. The only real surprise is that the ginger isn’t a solid single chunk, nut a tight wad of small ginger chunks. This is actually a pleasant reveal as I was preparing myself for the teeth gluing, tongue-burning action that a really good sized hunk of crystallized ginger is uniquely capable of delivering
While that isn’t the case here, there is still plenty of ginger in these hefty morsels, and that strong ginger taste simply does not mesh very well with the strident bitterness and subtle sweetness of the dark chocolate. There is a way to enjoy these, but it isn’t by snacking on them. Instead, these fall squarely into he camp of sophisticated thinking-man’s sweets. To enjoy the experience of eating one of these you really need to be thinking about it – thinking about the clash of spicy, sharp ginger with its own crystallized ginger exterior, while simultaneously appreciating that whole clash as it clashes with the bittersweet dark chocolate its enrobed in.
That’s a whole lot of clashing and honestly, in my opinion, it’s not worth it. Yes it’s a novel taste – but not so novel as to make up for all the sugar and fat you’re eating. There are plenty more sophisticated chocolate tastes in the world, such as Trader Joe’s Stone Ground Salt and Pepper Chocolate, and if you’ve got a candied ginger hankering crystallized ginger is pretty good on its own. Combining these two does neither any favors and should probably be relegated tot he dust bin of novel failures, along with Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Nibs.
Would I Recommend It: I’d recommend either of these things separately, but not like this.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope. Done with these.
Final Synopsis: Two great tastes that taste confusing and strange together.