Holy cow – what? Trader Joe’s Rosemary and Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds? Wait, Seriously?
Every time – every time – I see something like this from Trader Joe’s I think to myself, “We’ll this is it – Trader Joe’s has gone as crazy as they possibly can.” Surely we won’t be seeing anything as crazy as partially popped popcorn kernels again. Or fried broccoli. Or a BBQ rub made from coffee grounds. And yet here we are – holding a bag of sunflower seeds in our hands, sunflower seeds that have been seasoned with rosemary, thyme and maple syrup. That’s really what these are – no tricks. Here’s the product copy, straight from the website:
“We took great care with our supplier to balance the natural herb flavors of rosemary and thyme with salt. Next, the seasoned seeds are coated in a mixture of maple syrup and salted butter, just before they are fire-roasted in small batches.”
Look at that, just look at that – you can practically hear the desperation of the copy writer as he strains himself to sound casually breezy. The struggle as he tries to convey that this is just some toffee and rosemary and whatever, no big deal – while he knows perfectly well that he’s never once in his life even heard of anyone doing this to any food product, let alone sunflower seeds.
I don’t know – maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the one who’s gone crazy because I’ll tell you this much right now – these rosemary, thyme and toffee seeds are actually pretty good. Could a sane man dare utter that sentence? That very excellent question is beyond the scope of this blog post…all I can say right now is that Trader Joe’s is as skillful as they are brazenly daring. How else could you explain the delicately balanced mixture of spices, sugar and seeds that makes these snacks compulsively snackable?
I don’t know about you, but when I think rosemary I’m thinking, like, Rosemary Chicken levels of rosemary. BAM!-in-your-face, yup-that’s-rosemary, levels of rosemary. Trader Joe’s has been very careful not to give us that sort of rosemary here. There’s a bit more rosemary than salt on these seeds, but not by much. It’s just a hint of rosemary, along with an even more subdued touch of thyme, that you’ll taste behind the sweet and warm taste of crispy toffee.
If you think about these sunflower seeds as toffee-coated candied sunflower seeds, you’re on the right track. A handful of crunchy, sugary, maple toffee is what you’re going to mainly taste when you pop these in your mouth, followed by the familiar mildness of sunflower seeds, and only then will you notice the subtle but persistent touch of these two herbs, rosemary and thyme, which lingers long after the sweetness has faded. The seeds benefits from the light touch, and they’re easy to munch down, but in the end it’s still a strange taste that takes some getting used to.
Why Trader Joe’s even bothered to put rosemary and thyme in this mix at all, I don’t know. It seems like the logical move would’ve been to do something like cinnamon and nutmeg, or just to keep the herbs out of it all together. As it stands, this makes for a weird snack. Sweet and savory tastes rarely mesh well – and while these sunflower seeds are pretty good, the tastes ultimately clash more than harmonize.
Trader Joe’s has presented us with an intriguing new combination of flavors with these sunflower seeds, but it fails to make a persuasive case for its own existence.
Would I Recommend It: I wouldn’t – while they’re not bad, they’re probably too idiosyncratic to really catch on.
Would I Buy It Again: I really doubt it. They get points for daring though.
Final Synopsis: Candied sunflower seeds with just enough rosemary and thyme to make them weird.
Trader Joe’s has unleashed some strange jerkies on the world already – the unusual salmon jerky and addictive sriracha bacon jerky both spring to mind – but Trader Joe’s new South African-inspired Biltong Beef Jerky has got to be my new favorite. With a more nuanced and flavorful mix of spices, and thicker, more robust slices of beef, this jerky elevates a classic snack to a new level.
Biltong, as the bag will tell you, is from the Dutch bil and tong meaning, literally, “rump strip”. The Dutch name reflects the origin of the recipie. The notion of drying cured meat strips had been native to South Africa since time immemorial – but the arrival of Dutch settlers brought the notion of spicing the meat with black pepper, coriander, sugar, salt and vinegar – putting the jerk into the jerky, as it were.
The result is something extremely beef jerky like… and yet not. At first blush, beef jerky and biltong jerky are damn similar – after all they’re both beef, they’re both spiced and dried – but they vary in small, interesting ways. The first thing you’ll notice is that the biltong is narrow but thick – about half an inch wide and nearly that thick. It’s a much more orderly snack than your usual, raggedy, crumbly pile of wafer thin beef jerky – easier to eat and easier to share.
This same thickness gives the biltong jerky an amazing chewiness. Where ordinary beef jerky tends toward dryness, biltong tends toward juiciness. One strip will give your jaw muscles a full on work out. Once you’ve popped a strip in your mouth, however, you’ll quickly notice something else.
The blend of spices and flavors marinating the biltong is subtly different from most beef jerkies. While Trader Joe’s plays coy with the exact mix in their description – calling it a “family secret” – the result is a taste that is less intense than ordinary beef jerky (which, as we know, often tends toward extreme flavor profiles), and since it hasn’t been smoked the flavor of the meat itself is more apparent. Aside from the expected saltiness of the biltong, there’s a gentle pepperiness along with a faint fruitiness (thanks to the apple cider vinegar used in the curing process) and perhaps even a hint of floral notes – from Trader Joe’s Flower Pepper perhaps?
In any case, the resulting biltong is a whole new take on ordinary beef jerky – with thicker juicer slices, and an equally savory, if more subtle, flavor palette.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, a definite must try for jerky fans – enlightening.
Would I Buy It Again: Absolutely, I love a good jerky.
Final Synopsis: Beef jerky’s slightly more refined older brother.
Like all the other salads in the Complete Salad line, this is an amazing deal. For only $4 you get a massive bag of greens that could easily feed two cows, let alone two people. I’m something of a salad fiend, regularly sitting down to eat massive bowls of salad for lunch and dinner in the same day, and even I was overwhelmed by the huge portions you get from this bag. Definitely a good deal.
This salad is what it sounds like –a mountain of kale (in this case baby kale), packaged with a large bag of toasted quinoa. By itself this may not sound very appealing, but TJ’s dresses the salad up nicely – leanding it some more body with a handful of shredded broccoli, diced carrot, chopped red cabbage and radicchio, and scattering in a handful dried cranberries, and pumpkin seed kernels to provide flavor accents. That’s a pretty damn Complete Salad, if I do say so myself.
If you asked me to name one thing that Trader Joe’s consistently knocks out of the park, I’d say practically everything. But if you really pinned me down, I’d say their salads. The saladsmith have really honed their saladsmanship skills to elevated levels, and their skills are on full display here.
Of course any salad lives or dies by its dressing choice, and Trader Joe’s has certainly screwed up this part of the equation on occasion. In this case, TJ’s decided to pair the greens with a “lite” lemon vinaigrette. This suits the salad very well, the zingy zest making the salad taste as light and fresh as a spring breeze.
While I enjoyed this salad, your mileage may vary. The hard balls of crunchy quinoa give it a texture that isn’t usually found in salads, and there’s a ton of it. Unlike the cooked quinoa found in Trader Joe’s Wheat Berry and Quinoa Salad, there’s a real, crunchy, nutty texture here that will make or break the salad for you. If you’re already a fan of toasted quinoa, you’ll love this – but if you’ve never had it before you may want to proceed with caution.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, as long as you don’t mind the texture of crunchy quinoa.
Would I Buy It Again: Absolutely – I think I’ll top mine with some roasted chicken next time.
Final Synopsis: A zesty, refreshing salad perfect for spring, and another great addition to the Complete Salad line.
Sorry everyone – I’m too sick to post today. Hope to be back on schedule for Thursday!
Until then, please enjoy a “Comment of the Week” – one of the real comments left on my blog this week.
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Trader Joe’s Green, Beans and Grains could be anything, with a name like that. What it actually is, is a West African inspired curry-like, vegetarian dish. In this case, the greens are kale, the beans are garbanzo beans, and the grains are couscous. Also there are peanuts, which are technically legumes, but whatever. They don’t get to be in the title. These tasty components have been simmered up in a heavily spiced tomato based sauce that tingles and excites the tongue. Despite not having any meat in it, this dish manages to satisfy quite nicely – a result of the complex, savory spices as much as the hearty, filling beans and grains.
The strangest thing about the name that Trader Joe’s choose for the product, is that it falls so short of actually describing the contents of the dish in any meaningful way. “Greens, beans and grains” is so vague and non-specific that it hardly serves as a product title at all – greens, beans and grains can show up in so many dishes and so many combinations, that this title only obfuscates the nature of the dish rather than help you out in any way. It’s like if Taco Bell decided to call one of their dishes “Cheese, Beans and Beef” – it effectively signifies nothing and sows confusion. It’s a sort of anti-product name really, confounding innocent shoppers and muddying the waters of cognition with its nebulous semiology.
Here’s the thing – if the dish is so West African, as Trader Joe’s themselves claim on the side of the box, shouldn’t there already be a name that it’s known by? Trader Joe’s looooves attaching strange, exotic names to their food products, often without explanation, such as their Pa Jeon, Uttapam, Kouigns Amman, Dukkah… I could go on. Why not do that again here?
The fact is, Trader Joe’s has gone somewhat rogue with West African cuisine in this dish. The word “inspired” on the side of the box is meant in the same way that horror movies about ghosts that make people’s heads explode are “inspired” by true events. The germ of the idea comes from traditional West African dish maafe – or peanut stew. Traditionally maafe is made from peanuts, collared greens, tomatoes, onions and a selection of spices such as chili pepper, coriander, garlic and cumin. Trader Joe’s made the radical decision to swap out the collared greens for kale and, strangely, the peanuts for garbanzo beans, but the spices and the tomato and onion base are still there. It’s this tasty stock that makes the dish worth eating, as well as connecting it to its African roots.
Really, given how much the dish has deviated from its West African origin, TJ’s has shown remarkable restraint in giving the product a lackluster name instead of just sticking “Trader Joe’s Maafe” on it, and being done with it. That shows integrity, Trader Joe’s Marketing Department. Kudos.
It may not be, strictly speaking, a West African dish – but Trader Joe’s Green, Beans and Grains is interesting enough to make a strong case for its own existence in the frozen food aisle.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, it’s pleasantly spicy and reasonably healthy.
Would I Buy It Again: I very well might – this would be an easy way to dress up boring meat.
Final Synopsis: A spicy, West African curry – with couscous.
I’ll admit it, I find something strangely alluring about tins of food. I can’t really enunciate exactly what it is that draws me to large, sealed metal tins, but whatever it is Trader Joe’s Grecian style Eggplant with Tomatoes and Onions has got it. There’s just something of a mystique to them something, that aura of the unknown that surrounds the Mystery Box, and would lead me to trade it all for what lies behind Door Number Two.
Surely that’s an impulse that we all share – even if it might be a touch harder to understand how that translates over to tins of food in my mind. After all, tin are clearly labeled aren’t they and – what’s more – generally cheap, low-quality, packed with preservatives and otherwise the last resort of cut-rate food producers everywhere. Isn’t the tin, after all, the receptacle of choice for the $0.49 can of tuna fish, the repugnant anchovy, and Armour Brand Potted Meat Food Product?
Yes, indeed – but whether its a sensory addiction to the feeling of gripping the ring tab and slowly prying back the lid or something even stupider, I can’t resist the siren song of a mysterious tin of food.
The last time I was lured down this path was for Trade Joe’s Dolmas, which I found off-puttingly oily but which many readers rose to the defense of as laudably authentic.
Trader Joe’s has here returned again to the Grecian well with this stewed eggplant product, even going so far as to use the exact same type of tin – namely the upside down one with the tab on the bottom. This still twirks my mind unpleasantly. Wouldn’t it be just as easy, maybe even easier, to put the label on in such a way that you could read it and open the canister at the same time?
Well,whatever the reason for it, once you’ve pried open the top/bottom of the tin you’ll find a densely packed stew of the eponymous eggplant, tomatoes and onion – more of a gloop actually. All the constituent parts seem as though they were cooked gently enough to preserve much of their shape and texture, but then crammed into the tin under sufficient force to blur the boundaries between one vegetable and another.
Disappointingly, to me anyways, what you get is exactly what is advertised – a mixture of the three vegetables (plus parsley, garlic and red pepper) that tastes like… well, those three vegetables. There’s no ineffable alchemy that takes place here, no whole greater than the sum of its parts – the three veggies mingle but don’t enhance each other in any remarkable way. The overall result is exactly what you’d get if you decided to stew up the same three ingredients in a pot yourself. Sure, Trader Joe’s is conveniently saving you the trouble with this tin, but the question is why? Who feels particularly compelled to get these particular ingredients in this form? That seems like a rare enough demand to me that I don’t necessarily need it on my shelf, ready to go at any moment.
If I did feel the urge to have some stewed eggplant, I’d probably just cook some up myself instead of going for an oil-packed can like we have here. For a dish that’s all veggies, you wouldn’t think it would be able to pack in 250 calories of fat (70% of all the calories in the dish!).
Trader Joe’s boasts that you’ll be “enchanted by the soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture and the smooth, almost squash-like, eggplant flavor.” If oily, stewed mush is something you have to have from a can, then this tin will suit you just fine. For me, I’ll be heading on to the next mystery tin without a backward glance.
Would I recommend It: Not in very strong terms, no.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t see any reason to.
Final Synopsis: Stewed eggplant packed in oil. About as good as it sounds.
Reviewing Trader Joe’s peculiar partially popped popcorn snack the other day got me to thinking. The highest praise I had for those little half-formed kernels was that they were like Trader Joe’s own off-brand of Corn Nuts. Then I remembered, Trader Joe’s already has its own off brand of corn nuts – in Trader Joe’s Giant Peruvian Inca Corn!
The phrase “giant Peruvian corn” might conjure up all sorts of images for you – enormous Peruvians tending their stepped maize fields with a tender prod of the forefingers, perhaps. What it actually means in this context is a bright yellow bag of very large corn kernels that have been fried up until hard, then robustly salted.
The result is something more or less exactly like the American snack food stable Corn Nuts – almost too hard, brittle, and incredibly crunchy kernels of puffed up corn primarily used as a salt delivery system for the snack prone. The taste is practically the same as well – roasted, toasted, nutty and only ever so slightly corn-y in the after taste.
The biggest difference between the branded variety and Trader Joe’s version is also the most obvious – these kernels are gigantic! Although the center of each roasted kernel is hollow, these roasted corn snacks are still alarming gigantic – chewing on even two or three at a time is a serious undertaking. Munching on these is like smoking a cigar to Corn Nuts’ cigarette – it’s simply scaled up the whole affair to a daunting level.
There’s no hidden trick to Trader Joe’s giant Inca Corn, they simply went to the source. Peruvians have been growing a giant form of corn, known as choclo or simply Cuzco corn, since time immemorial. In addition to being oversized, the corn is known for being chewier, nuttier and less sweet than other types of sweet corn. The staple crop has long been served up in restaurants across Peru and the surrounding areas in this very form – fried, salted and served hot.
As long as you’re down with the Plain version of Corn Nuts, I found Trader Joe’s Giant Peruvian Inca Corn a perfectly acceptable substitute. In fact, the giant size makes them even more filling, and slightly less impulsively snackable, than the mainstream variety. Trader Joe’s Partially Popped Popcorn might taste about the same, and be less hard on the ol’ chompers, but in my book whole, hard, fried corn kernels is just a classic snack.
Would I Recommend Them: If you like Corn Nuts, you’ll like these.
Would I Buy Them Again: It’s a lot of carbs, but I’ll definitely be tempted to.
Final Synopsis: Big ol’ Corn Nuts with old school roots.