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.
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?
It’s the holiday season – Thanksgiving, Christmas, all that jazz. The holidays, more than any other time of the year, are a time of traditional foods – of stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes, pie and, yes, cranberry sauce. Of course, just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean Trader Joe’s isn’t going to try and find some way to screw with it. Case in point, the brand new Trader Joe’s Jalapeno Cranberry Sauce.
When I first saw this, I initially assumed it was some new sort of festive pepper jelly. You know the stuff – comes in little jars, thick like jam, people spread it over cream cheese, only ever shows up around the holidays? That stuff? While pepper jelly and this cranberry sauce do have the same burgundy color the two condiments are actually very dissimilar. After all, this is a cranberry sauce – same as the gelatinous stuff you get in cans and serve with the stuffing. It’s not even particularly thick, and while it certainly might be a nice compliment to cream cheese, that’s not what it was made for. As a cranberry sauce, its natural home is in between the turkey leg and the mash potatoes.
Now, cranberry sauce has a long tradition of being blended with any variety of different flavors – orange zest being the most common – but jalapeno peppers? That’s something I’ve never seen. That said, this jalapeno blend is a natural addition to the cranberry sauce oeuvre. Cranberry sauce is, after all, not so much a sauce as it is a relish – meant to add a burst of outrageous flavor to your seasonal repast. On that count this cranberry sauce works very well, the heat the jalapenos pack melds well with the tart sweetness of the cranberries, kicking the sauce up to a whole new notch of flavor intensity. When Trader Joe’s gives “jalapeno” top billing on the label, you know they’re not screwing around. There’s no mistaking the jalapeno taste in this sauce, but that’s not to say it’s very spicy. There’s only a mild heat to each bite – much more prominent is the flavor of the jalapeno itself, that uniquely green and peppery taste. It’s this savory flavor that mixes with the sweet cranberry sauce, and gives it its overall unusual but intriguing taste.
This new and intriguing taste is certainly something worth trying, but while there’s no reason you couldn’t put it out this coming Thanksgiving you’ll probably want to have some ordinary cranberry sauce on hand as well. It’s a bold and striking flavor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want it on every piece of turkey.
If your jar of Jalapeno Cranberry Sauce doesn’t get used up on Thanksgiving dinner, you might consider using it as an hors d’ouevre. It could easily be used as a tarter substitute for pepper jelly in the aforementioned cream cheese and pepper jelly spread. Simply lay on a thick layer of the cranberry sauce over a slab of cream cheese and garnish with an interesting cracker – Trader Joe’s Pita Crisps with Cranberries and Pumpkin seeds could be an excellent fit.
Otherwise, unless you’re serving up a uniquely Mexican-flavored Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner, Trader Joe’s Jalapeno Cranberry Sauce is probably best thought of as a back up to your main cranberry sauce.
Would I Recommend It: Certainly, and doubly so to flavor-thrill seekers and people looking to shake up the Thanksgiving table.
Would I Buy It Again: Maybe… we’ll see how it goes over this year.
Final Synopsis: A sweet and tasty relish to supplement to your ordinary cranberry sauce.
We may have left Trader Joe’s season of pumpkin madness behind, but it is still autumn and that means there’s still a whole cornucopia of harvest foods to review. Case in point, Trader Joe’s tasty Cranberry Apple Butter.
Every season has certain foods associated with it – from the lemonades of summer to the hot choclate of winter, but no season is more intimately tied to food and food traditions than the fall. There are the pumpkins, of course, but that’s not to mention turkeys, pies, stuffing, cranberries, apples or many more besides. Trader Joe’s has decided to take these latter two and combine them into one delicious condiment for us with their new Cranberry Apple Butter.
Apple Butter is one of those niche condiments that the majority of Americans maybe encounters once or twice in a decade. In it’s most basic form, it can be thought of as something like apple sauce MAX. Apple sauce is made by stewing up a load of apples with sugar and water until it forms a pleasant mash. Apple butter simply takes that process to it’s extreme – keeping the apple sauce on heat until the fructose in the apples caramelizes into a rich, deep brown.
This apple spread was first concocted by German and Dutch monks back in the Middle Ages, when monasteries included large orchards. The enormous, annual crop of apples had to be managed somehow, and what couldn’t be eaten was turned into the shelf stable apple preserve we now know as apple butter. Although it never really caught on in Europe outside of the regions of the Rhineland and Limburg, migrants to America brought the recipe with them and it can be found nowadays as a staple in Pennsylvania Dutch country, as well as more widely available in boutique grocery stores here and there nation wide.
That’s all well and good, but if you’re anything like me you’ve often scratched your head over the whole “butter” part of apple butter. After all no butter, or any dairy product, goes into apple butter. The misnomer apparently comes from the soft, easily spreadable nature of the food product, which apparently lead some miserable medieval peasant to remark, “Oy- these apples is like butter, isn’t they?”
Of course, you and I know that’s stupid, as butter is only seldom that easy to spread. If we’re going strictly by consistency Apple Margarine would have obviously been the better term – or maybe Apple Toothpaste. At any rate, it’s in the history books know and I’ll be damned if I know what can be done about it.
Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, had no such shortage of ideas. In a rather clever move, they’ve gone and added a heavy dollop of cranberry puree to the tradition apple butter, giving the condiment a tart zest. How much of a dollop are we talking about? Plenty, actually. Cranberry is actually the primary ingredient in the spread, followed by apples. That’s a choice you can taste – the cranberries are front and center here, in fact they taste so strong that this apple butter could be mistaken for cranberry sauce on first blush. However, once the sharp cranberry taste has subsided, the mellower sweetness of the apple butter remains, taking some of the bite off and making the preserve more palatable than a straight cranberry sauce would be. Although it’s the “apple butter” part of the title that catches the attention, this is probably better thought of as a cranberry sauce first, and an apple butter second.
So what do you do with a hybrid cranberry-apple spread? Put it on your turkey is the obvious answer. And while this would be a perfect addition to Thanksgiving dinner this year, it also makes a tasty spread on toast and English muffins. If you wanted to get crazy with it, you could even add it to a turkey sandwich for a little of that pseudo-thanksgiving taste!
Would I Recommend It: Sure, if you like cranberry sauce.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not, honestly. Regular cranberry sauce usually does it for me.
Final Synopsis: Like cranberry sauce, with a mellower apple butter follow through.
I’ve been going around eating every type of gyoza Trader Joe’s has to offer, but only now am I finally sitting down with their Gyoza Dipping Sauce. Why the delay, you ask? Because I’m stupid. Thanks for pointing that out – now I feel terrible.
What is there to say about a simple gyoza dipping sauce? We’ll, for one, it’s not what you’d expect. A traditional gyoza dipping sauce, the type commonly used in China and Japan, is essentially a simple mixture of rice vinegar and soy sauce, occasionally touched with a bit of chili pepper. If you happen to have it laying around, it takes about two seconds to make up for yourself and costs almost nothing.
Trader Ming’s gyoza dipping sauce keeps the soy sauce and rice vinegar, but takes it in a different direction by adding load of additional spices – include sugar (in the form of “evaporated cane juice”), ginger, garlic, sesame seeds and cilantro. The result is a much thicker sauce, where the soy sauce and vinegar are pushed into the background by the strong flavors of the other spices. The result is something much more like what you’d get after mixing up a bunch of sauces at a Mongolian BBQ place than a traditional gyoza sauce. The cilantro, in particular, is an intriguing addition. We’re not talking about just a little bit of cilantro here either. Pick up the bottle and you’ll actually see the whole flakes of cilantro floating around ready to make you go “Wow, that really tastes like cilantro.”
None of this is unwarranted in Chinese cooking – cilantro, ginger and garlic all have important places in the pantheon of Asian cuisine – but it does make for a strong tasting, and somewhat unusual dipping sauce. I actually prefer the simpler vinegar/soy sauce concoction to this as the ginger and cilantro in particular really come to the fore of the sauce, and linger on the tongue long after. This, combined with the thickness of the sauce, threaten to overwhelm the taste of your pot stickers if used in more than very small quantities.
Of course, you’re not limited to using this on dumpling, if you don’t want. TJ also suggests trying it with egg rolls or, vaguely, “any Asian food”. While I’m not sure I would go that far, it certainly might work on salads, or with any number of Asian fusion dishes – banh mi, or Korean style tacos, perhaps.
Overall, however, this one feels like a miss for Trader Joe’s. Regular gyoza dipping sauce is simple and tasty by itself that TJ would have to offer something pretty special to lure me into making this a regular purchase. The sauce they delivered certainly has an unique taste – but not necessarily a superior one.
Would I Recommend It: Not really, unless you have some Asian-Mexican fusion recipes in mind.
Would I Buy It Again: No – I’ll stick to mixing soy sauce and rice vinegar, thanks.
Final Synopsis: A curiously thick and cilantro heavy dipping sauce
Is it just me, or is the packaging for Trader Joe’s Tzatziki Creamy Garlic Cucumber Dip really weird? The big red “LOW FAT!” flag, the serving suggestions awkwardly crammed over to one side, the semi-unreadable font on the gray background of the low-grade Photoshop job. It reminds me of their weird chocolate-covered banana packaging. It’s the sort of packaging that leaves you wondering what you’re looking at “What’s in there?” you ponder, “Modeling clay? Deck varnish?” Nope, it’s food.
Most of the time, TJ’s does a good job repackaging the third party products that they source. In this case however, even the “Trader Joe’s” brand name looks shoehorned in. Nevertheless, this is a classic case of judging a book by its cover, as the tzatziki sauce within is quite nice.
Let us spend a moment on the truly awesome word that is “tzatziki”. It’s one of those dynamite cuisine words that not only sounds cool, and is spelled cool, but also makes you feel really cool to drop casually into conversation. Like “shwarma”. Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma. Sounds nice doesn’t it? Yo – buddy! Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma! The word itself is popularly attributed to Turkish, but like many foods of shared Greek/Middle Eastern/Balkan origin there’s a considerable amount of bickering over who developed it first/best.
At any rate, as we all know, tzatziki is a somewhat zesty dip/sauce made from plain yogurt and flavored with a variety of seasonings – in this case, salt, garlic, dill, mint, white pepper and, of course, lemon juice. The result is a smooth, cool mixture that comes on mild, then surprises you a moment later with a complex burst of citrus and herbs. Tzatziki exists through out the Mediterranean and Middle East in a variety of forms – extending even as far out as India where the classic yogurt side dish raita can be considered a close relative. The type Trader Joe’s is serving us up here is the familiar Greek variety, prepared with thinly sliced cucumber mixed directly into the herbed yogurt.
In fact, Trader Joe’s tzatziki is one of the better varieties I’ve had. The dip is quite loose, but it doesn’t lack in flavor. The lemon juice comes through clearly alongside the mellow, long tones of the creamy yogurt. The dill and mint come through clearly in the after notes , but the dish isn’t overloaded by their flavors, and they leave room for the tail note of languid, cool cucumber and mild garlic to linger on the tongue.
As appealing as that is, it’s made better by the extremely reasonable nutritional profile. Each 30 gram (two teaspoon) serving has only 30 calories, and two grams of fat. Even the sodium content isn’t that bad, at 65 mg per serving. For such a healthy dip you’re getting a surprising, and satisfying, amount of flavor.
The go-to applications for tzatziki sauce are gyros and pitas, but it goes awesome with pita chips as well. Even if you’re not whipping up Mediterranean food very often, it still makes an awesome side dish for any meal that could do with a little spread on top, or cooling down on the side. In other words – throw some tzatziki on that shwarma!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, so long as you don’t mind cucumbers in your food.
Would I Buy It Again: Definitely – I’m always in the market for good dips.
Final Synopsis: A solid version of tzatziki with plenty of pep.