Although we haven’t spent much time looking at them yet, Trader Joe’s fields a pretty tasty line of ready to rock pasta dishes. Of course, the reason I haven’t really bothered to review them yet is that nothing has lept out at me as particularly crazy. The goal of this blog isn’t to review every average, Joe-schmo thing at Trader Joe’s, but to taste test the truly weird and daring – for better or worse. That means I haven’t felt a need to pick up any TJ pasta until now – with Trader Joe’s Girasoli Ricotta & Lemon Zest ravioli. There are a lot of delicious things to pack into ravioli, but never before this day did I dream that lemon would be one of them.
Let’s start with the name, which I was somewhat disappointed by. Girasoli, as all you literate latinate lovers out there already know, is Italian for sunflower. This immediatley led me to assume that these raviolis contained both lemon and, like, sunflower petals or something. A foolhardy assumption at most grocery stores, maybe, but this is Trader Joe’s were talking about – they already tried taking the sticks out of popsickles, I wouldn’t put anything past them.
Disappointingly, to me at least, there isn’t a seed or stem to be found in these ravioli. The eponymous sunflower refers, predictably, to the shape of the pasta, little flowery suns, not the contents. The lemon, on the other hand, is very real and, what’s even better, tastes terrific. Why put lemon in your pasta? Well, dammit, like most things in life the real question is why not? Actually, lemon zested pasta may be uncommon on American shores, but has a long tradition in Italy.
Trader Giotto lives up to his name here by not just zesting the ravioli with lemon, but with lemons harvested from around Mount Etna in Sicily. And while this sounds terribly authentic, it’s worth noting that while ricotta and lemon stuffed ravioli are certainly Italian, they’re a traditionally Sardinian dish, not Sicillian. I really hope someone got fired for that blundered.
Regardless of the providence of the dish, it’s tremendously tasty. Where Trader Joe’s gets it entirely right is in keeping it simple. The pasta is a basic, wholesome combination of flour, semolina and egg. Into these tender little pockets they add mild, creamy ricotta cheese dressed up with just the right touch of lemon zest. It’s easy to imagine this step going wrong. Lemon is delicous, but add a little too much and suddenly you’re serving up acidic pasta. TJ’s encounter’s no such difficulties here – the ravioli are touched by just enough lemon to bring out the flavorful citrus taste without being at all harsh or astringent. In fact, more than anything, the lemon tastes mellow and creamy – no doubt thanks to the mixture of butter and bread crumbs that also make up the filling.
So what’s the best way to eat this light, summery pasta? Keep it equally simple and light, of course. No need for a heavy pasta sauce here – just let the natural, intriguing flavor of the pasta shine shine through on its own – with a little help from a touch of pesto and fresh tomatoes. It’s a simple, quick recipe, perfect for a relaxed lunch or casual dinner.
Trader Joe’s Lemon Ricotta Ravioli with Tomato and Pesto
- 1 pkg Trader Joe’s Girasoli Ricotta & Lemon Zest Ravioli
- about 1/4 cup of Trader Joe’s Genoa Pesto
- 2 ripe, flavorful tomatoes, sliced and/or diced
- Boil water in a medium-sized sauce pan, and add the ravioli.
- Keep on boil for 6-7 minutes, until appropriately al dente. Drain and place in a mixing bowl.
- Add sliced tomato, a nice bit of pesto and mix.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, these ravioli are refreshing and filling.
Would I Buy Them Again: Certainly.
Final Synopsis: A traditional Sardinian ravioli that keeps things fresh with the right amount of lemon.
The only real rule I have for myself with this blog is to review only those things which are unusual enough to catch one’s attention, but are too unusual to warrant an immediate purchase. This plan has guided me down some terrible alleyways and up some delightful avenues. Why then, am I bothering to review Trader Joe’s Southwest Chicken Quesadilla – one of the safest, least intriguing foods out there? After all, isn’t the quesadilla such a staple of kid’s food menus for its tremendously simple execution and supremely inoffensive recipe, namely melted cheese in a white flour tortilla?
Yes, all that may be true, but I was drawn to this product for one very simple reason – the “Taos Joe” brand name.
One of Trader Joe’s charming quirks is their penchant for tweaking their brand name to reflect the “ethnic” nature of some foodstuff or another. There is Trader Josef and Trader Jose, Trader Giotto and Trader Jacques, just to name a few.
Things get a little nutty after this, as Trader Joe starts breaking the pattern altogether with Arabian Joe and Trader Ming. What strikes me as particularly strange, is that Trader Joe’s sort of stops there. Despite having a huge range of Thai, Indian and even African cuisine, there are no labels that reflect these cultural roots. Why, Joe?
While this is all charming and clever, it also irks me deeply because of their erratic application of nomenclature. Why, in god’s name, is this guacamole not a Trader Jose product, but this guacamole is? Perhaps only Joe himself knows.
At any rate, the sight of a Taos Joe product stopped me cold. What I like most about the name is that it’s a sign of Trader Joe’s true commitment to this gimmick. A less devoted brand might feel tempted to just stick their quesadillas under the Trader Jose name, but not so TJ. Evidently they felt that the somewhat subtle difference between Southwestern and Mexican cuisine demanded the creation of the entirely new “Taos Joe” label.
Actually, come to think about it, that’s even more irksome. Going through all the trouble of generating a brand name just for southwestern food makes the absence of, say, a Greek brand feel like more of an intended slight than a simple overlook. Is it madness or brilliance? You be the judge.
That more or less brings us to the quesadilla itself, about which there’s not a lot to say. This quesadilla is a pretty comfortable quesadilla – it’s thick, cheesy, soft and tasty in that sort of way that melted cheese usually is. If you’ve ever had a quesadilla, you pretty much know what you’re going to get from this.
That said, Trader Joe’s does manage to work in a couple nice additions that elevate it above a microwave-it-yourself affair. The best addition are the titular seasonal vegetables – a phrase which in this case means corn, red bell pepper, jalapeno pepper, and strangely, spinach. The jalapenos, along with the blend of monterrey jack and pepper jack cheese, give the quesadilla a barely detectable blip of spiciness, but not so much that it really does anything for the dish.
The vegetables and white chicken are diced to rather small chunks, and spread evenly throughout the quesadilla. This gives it a nice body and something to think about other than the cheese while chewing, but doesn’t really effect the overall cheestastic taste of the dish.
Not getting too fancy with it is actually to Trader Joe’s credit. People don’t usually turn to a quesadilla because they want challenging food, but because they want something pleasant and reliable. This quesadilla may not hit any culinary heights, but it does satisfy on a basic, comfort food level.
In the end, it’s a pretty solid dish – some chicken, some vegetables, plenty of cheese, and microwavable in about 3 minutes. Perfect for a quick and easy frozen dinner any time.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, this is a pretty good quesadilla.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not – it’s got lots of cheese, but not a ton of excitement.
Final Synopsis: A perfectly good quesadilla, suitable for whatever.
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.
Sure, I tried beet salad once. Once. At the time I compared it to gelatin made from dirt, and nothing in the intervene months and years has done anything to convince me otherwise. So it was in a perplexed, slightly surreal haze that I found myself buying Trader Joe’s Chicken and Roasted Beet Salad.
Why am I buying this?, I thought, bemused, as if watching myself in a dream. Why am I paying this quirky sales clerk good money, money which could literally buy me anything, on beets? Have I truly gone mad at last? Sitting at my kitchen table, staring into the unsealed maw of this uncouth salad, it seemed the only likely answer.
I’m willing to admit that I have never eaten any beet and liked it. Certainly not in their rawest, beetiest form. I can boast that I managed to get down about a pint of Trader Joe’s Beet and Purple Carrot Juice a while back, before realizing that, no, this is terrible. Beets really have no place in my life, and I no place in a the life of beets. It’s an arrangement I think we’re both happy with.*
If you, gentle reader, have managed to make space in your heart for this ignoble root vegetable, than you are a better fellow than I, and I would ask you to keep in mind that I’m prejudiced against these things from the start.
This is a terrible salad. I’ve never really had a bad salad from Trader Joe’s, other than, you know, the ones with all the salmonella in them, but their Chicken and Roasted Beet salad blazes new downward territory. It’s not just the beets which are the bad part of this salad, that much was to be expected. The rest of the salad mix contribute as much to this stinker as the beets. It’s as if the salad engineers at TJ’s just gave up while putting it together.
“It’s got beets in it,” they probably said to themselves, pausing to let out a long, defeated sigh, “It’s not like anyone’s ever going to eat it.”
The salad mix here involves a very nice, snappy mixture of greens, but that one high point is defrayed by a couple factors. One, despite being a big 10 oz. salad, there’s not much in the way of greens or chicken in it. Two, it’s packed with a pungent, yet bland fetid cheese. There’s almost as much feta in here as there is chicken. I’ve got nothing against feta, per se, I think it’s a fine cheese, but this particular feta is on the mild and squeaky side. Cheese in a salad should be the highlight, not the grist you have to chew through.
That leads us to the beets themselves. Though unheralded on the packaging, this salad actually comes with two, count ’em two, kinds of beets – red beets and white beets. Isn’t that a pleasant surprise! All too aware that leaving beets in prolonged contact with wholesome food will ruin it, both kinds of beets come packaged in their own individual tubs. It’s these tubs, plus the considerable water weight of the beets, that accounts for the bulk of this salad. Such a sad waste of space.
The beets themselves are typical beets, which is to say: wet, cold, lumpy, drab, unpleasantly musky, and repulsive to the taste. It’s amazing to me how something can be so bland, yet so disgusting at the same time. Mother Nature must have been in a particularly creative and dark place when she came up with beets. It was probably the same day she figured out slugs.
All that said, Trader Joe’s did choose a good dressing to pair the salad with. The balsamic vinaigrette is well formulated, hitting all the rights notes of viscosity, acidity and sweetness. It does a good job highlighting the flavorful notes of the salad while masking the weaker ones. Good, but not good enough to rescue the salad from the beets.
In the end, if you, like all right minded people, dislike beets, then avoid this salad. For good measure, maybe consider avoiding any salads it happens to be touching as well. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind beets then why not eat this, as it appears you’re willing to eat anything.
*I take all this back in the face of borscht, which is one of the most delicious soups in existence. How such a charming son came from such a damned sire, I can’t imagine.
Would I Recommend This: Ha ha ha.
Would I Buy It Again: Ha ha ha ha ha, no.
Final Synopsis: A subpar salad with some beets thrown on. It’s like someone was trying to get fired.
I picked up Trader Joe’s Greens and Seeds Salad the other day after a moment’s hesitation. Greens and seeds? Seeds are not normally my go to salad toppings. I was even more surprised by the ingredients: butternut squash, feta cheese, pomegranate and pumpkin seeds. First off, I’m not sure butternut squash counts as anyone’s idea of “greens”, but more than that, who’s ever heard of mixing pumpkin and pomegranate seeds together. Nevertheless, remembering the rather delicious lessons Trader Joe’s couscous and cabbage and quinoa and wheat berry salads taught me, I decided that I’d better just suck it up and give it a try.
Folks, I’m glad I did. The salad mix might be unconventional, but the taste is right on. This is exactly the kind of salad I go for – a hearty, robust mouthful that hits every taste bud on the way down. Where salads like Trader Joe’s Walnut & Gorgonzola focus on a narrow, rather bland taste profile, the greens and seeds in this mix cover the whole pallet. The butternut squash is savory with mellow, earthy tones, the feta is as intensely flavorful as a nice fragrant fetid should be, the pomegranate packs that astringent, high-toned zing, and the pepitas are salty and nutty. It could, and maybe should, be the taste equivalent of dressing in a tux, sandals, and a clown wig, but somehow it manages to all hang together. The eclectic assortment of tastes are helped in no small part by the excellent salad dressing pairing – a zingy and creamy honey dijon balsamic. The dressing is strong, quite mustardy and vinegary, so you might only want to put about a third of it on at first, but it’s this strength that unites and accentuate the tastes of the other ingredients.
Two potential marks against the salad. First, it’s meat free. I’m perfectly happy to make a meal of salad alone, which generally means I’m looking for something with at least a little meat in it. That said, all the cheese and seeds in this salad means that you’re getting 11 grams of protein per serving. That’s not bad. The other caveat is that the squash is, as you might expect, a bit squishy. That doesn’t bother me, but if you get hung up on texture this may not be the salad for you.
Trader Joe’s rolls out new salads all the time, but this rather wild salad combination has come out this fall for more reason than mere happenstance. Spring mix and summer salads abound, but this is one of the few truly autumnal salads I’ve ever had – a pointed and purposeful concoction made with only those ingredients that are in season during the harvest – or so they say on the company website, at least. I’m a food fan, sure, but I’m an even bigger fan of food born out of high concept musings. Kudos on this happening salad, TJ!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you don’t mind squishy squash in your salad, you’ll love this one.
Would I Buy It Again: Absolutely, I’m adding it to the shopping list now.
Final Synopsis: A hearty salad with a tasty autumnal bent.
Oh, Trader Joe’s your salads are so uneven. Sometimes your salads are so good that I do little dances in my kitchen, and sometimes they simply fall flat. Trader Joe’s Gorgonzola and Walnut salad seemed like it was going to land in the first category, but ended up squarely in the second – rather bland and generally unexceptional.
How do you go wrong with such a simple concept? This salad has the fewest ingredients I’ve seen in basically any salad ever. They are, all inclusively, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, gorgonzola and walnuts. Five ingredients, that’s it. Such a pure, simple recipe, such a confident delivery – it’s enough to make you think those few ingredients are actually enough to make the salad taste good. It’s enough to make you think that gorgonzola and walnuts by themselves will be enough to make you sit up and go, “Yowza, I can’t believe this salad!” This, my friends, is not the case.
Gorgonzola has been served alongside walnuts since time immemorial, for the very good reason that they pair well. You’d think these two would be a delicious meal in and of themselves, salad or not. Splash a little zingy balsamic vinaigrette on that, mix with some greens and you’d think we’d be talking about a definite winner. The fact that this salad actually tastes so plain and uninteresting is rather perplexing.
The problem here lays in the cheese. When you think of a nice gorgonzola, you’re probably picturing something like a rich, aromatic wedge of veined bleu cheese. This istandard gorgonzola, the most popular kind, is known as gorgonzola piccante or gorgonzola naturale. It is this type of firm, crumbly, strong tasting gorgonzola that isn’t packaged in this salad. Instead, we are dealing with lumps of gorgonzola dolce, or “sweet” gorgonzola. This is your option B among gorgonzolas – a softer and much, much milder cheese.
I’m quite boggled as to why TJ’s went for this mild variety. The stronger gorgonzola naturale would have melded deliciously with the nutty bitterness of the walnuts and the acidic pop of the balsamic dressing. Instead, the mild gorgonzola dolce fades into the unimpressive wallpaper of the lettuce and cabbage. The overall effect is that you’re left with a salad that never really seems to get started.
Would I Recommend It: Not this one, no.
Would I Buy It Again: There are too many delicious salads at TJ’s to waste time on this one.
Final Synopsis: A perplexing cheese failure wrecks what could have been a great salad.
I did not intend to buy Trader Joe’s Cheddar and Horseradish Chips, not in the least. While it might seem like exactly the sort of misfit I’m drawn to, not unlike this insane chip mash up, this product just failed to grab my gustatory attention. Why, for instance, was this product championed as if it were unspeakable outré, by its own packaging nonetheless (“Cheddar and…horseradish?!”), but poor Beurre Meuniere Popcorn, released at exactly the same time, has been left omitted from the Fearless Flyer and left to languish in obscurity? Conspiracy? Perhaps. But in this case, as with the Elvis’ assassination by teamsters or New Coke, the conspiracy has won. Compelled, as if by forces beyond myself, I bought a bag and crunched in. What I found was much what I feared – a nice chip that is sharply spicy, sort of cheesy, but overall not as interesting as hoped for.
First, before I go all crazy on the mingling of tastes and all, a word on horseradish. I’ve often wondered just where the “horse” in horseradish comes from, a question that was piqued in my mind by the boldly emblazoned horseshoe on the package. It’s a common association, and one that’s all the more interesting given that the horseradish is actually poisonous to horses. Why the conflation? The answer can be traced back, like all else that is good in the world, to the filthy peasants of late 15th century England. Evidently, at some point a peon hefted one of these large roots before his eyes and remarked, “Cor, what a horse radish!” Horse being the word for “large” or “strong” at the time. The peasants, being no slouches, knew a good turn of phrase when they heard one, and the name stuck.
The presence of horseradish in these chips is downright undeniable. I was actually warned multiple times at the register by a cashier who was perhaps overly concerned that these chips were for horseradish lovers ONLY. I certainly fancy myself that, but at the risk of appearing haughty, I’d say a single, mild warning would do. There chips do come in with a sharp horseradish kick, but it flares out in half a second, sliding into a quick cool down and the arrival of some generic cheese flavor. Notably horseradishy definitely, but not quite a strong taste and nowhere near the real thing. While Trader Joe’s Cheddar and Horseradish chips do get hotter on the gongue than your standard, long-burn jalapeno chip, the effect is much shorter and the overall experience a milder one.
While the horseradish definitely delivers, there is less to talk about on the cheddar side of things. After the burn, the cheese taste is an anticlimax, muted and uninteresting by comparison. I’m not necessarily a fan of the super cheesy Cheetos approach to snack foods, but these chips could certainly benefit from a more complex flavor. The chip itself is thick, very crunchy, kettle-cooked and wavy – a strong chip that requires a moment to chew through and ensures you get the full horseradish blast.
Would I Recommend Them: Not particularly. Give’m a shot if you love horseradish, or need a new weird chip flavor.
Would I Buy Them Again: For me, these aren’t quite compelling enough.
Final Synopsis: A sharp, fun bite, followed by a more or less average chip.
Once again, I am shocked that Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano is not on the Trader Jose label. What’s the point of positing the existence of a Hispanic doppelganger if you’re not going to ham-handedly slap him on all your Spanish-inspired cuisine?
For that matter, why have a Trader Jose, a Trader Giotto, a Trader Josef and so on, but not a Korean Trader Jae, an Egyptian Trader Jahi, or a Thai Trader Jayavarman? Why the narrow window of ethno-specificity Trader Joe’s? Edward Said called, he wants to know where you got your Orientalism.
In any case, I better start off this review by disclosing that I’m not really all that into chile rellanos. My list of favorite Mexican food looks like this:
Table 1-1: Mexican Food Preference Chart
- Smothered/”Wet” Burritos
- Fish Tacos (soft)
- Nachos (supreme or ultimate)
- Sweet corn cake mash
As you can see, chile rellanos don’t even crack the top 5, so TJ’s was already embarking on an uphill battle when they created this product then let me go home with it. Strike 1 and 2, Trader Joe’s. Dubious but willing, I tucked in.
The Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano is a roasted poblano pepper, nice and mild, stuffed with monterey jack, slathered in spicy tomato salsa, dusted with bread crumbs and topped with cheddar. When that much melted cheese comes into play, it’s hard to make an unpalatable dish – and as you might imagine these rellanos go down easy.
While most rellanos contain meat of some sort, take note that this one is a vegetarian dish, meaning it is little more than a meat-free, tube of cheese.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a vegetarian looking for sustenance amid the barrens of the modern grocery store. If you’re looking for that meat free Mexican food fix, here you are. The salsa is admirably spicy, delivering a short sharp burn with each bite, and the roasted pepper is toothsome, if somewhat tough to cut. The vegetarian rellano also boosts a surprisingly high protein profile, 22 grams to the serving, which might give you some sense of how much cheese we’re talking about here.
For my part, I found the meat-less rellano less than filling. As a component to a larger Mexican dish it would certainly be more effective – as plate compatriot to an enchilada, perhaps, or a taco. However, if I’m going to ingest that much straight up cheese I have other ways I’d prefer to go about it. (See table 1-1).
Would I Recommend It: To Mexican craving vegetarians, no one else.
Would I buy it again: I don’t see it happening.
Final Synopsis: This cheesy pepper is alright, but nothing special.