Trader Joe’s Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil

Trader Joe's Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil

Foreground: Toasted pumpkin seed oil; Midground: Toasted pumpkin seed oil can w. bread; Background: My table

Trader Joe’s Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil sounds interesting, looks off-putting and costs $9.99 a can. Maybe you’re intrigued by it – but can you really justify such a purchase? If you write a blog where that’s your only function you can!

Let me save you some time, and ten bucks, right now. This oil is not worth your hard earned cash, but before I start maligning it, let’s talk about what Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil is in the first place.

Toasted pumpkin seed oil owes its entire, modern day existence to the region Styria in south east Austria. Styria is probably most famous for being the home of 2004’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner Elfriede Jelinek. If for some reason you’re unfamiliar with Jelinek’s musical use of voices and counter voices in such important works as The Piano Teacher, then I should probably mention that Sytria is also the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At any rate, toasted pumpkin seed oil is, as Trader Joe’s puts it, “a distinct culinary specialty in Styria”. The fact of that matter is, that’s a gross understatement. The pumpkin as we know it is a New World crop – with no existence in Europe until Chrisopher Columbus brought some back with him from his exotic expeditions. The famous orange gourd spread to Austria where, in the 1600’s, someone got the bright idea to roast the pumpkin seeds then, instead of eating them like a barbaric ape, run them through a press and collect the intensely dark green/brown oil that dribbled out. It was an instant hit.

Such a hit, in fact, that the Empress of Austria felt compelled to ban the stuff in 1773 out of fear that people were guzzling it all up. The edict stated: “This healthy oil is unique and much too precious for using it in tasty meals and therefore should rather be used as a medicine. So it shall not be used as a culinary delicacy anymore but shall be collected and distributed only by the apothecaries.”

The medicinal qualities of the oil being somewhat dubious, it eventually returned to general use in Austria where it is generally consumed in one of three common ways: as a simple salad dressing, as a dip for bread or, strangely, as a condiment for vanilla ice cream. What it absolutely cannot be used for is cooking. Trader Joe’s even warns you against this right on the can, and I quote: “Don’t use it for cooking as it burns easily.”

Given all that, plus the high price tag, plus the strange and enigmatic can, you’re bound to assume this is some dynamite stuff, right?

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to love this obscure oil, I was totally nonplussed by it. The big selling point of the pumpkin seed oil is its “intense nutty flavor”. And it certainly is true that the oil has a strong nutty taste – but it also tastes an awful lot like slightly burnt pumpkin seeds. Stronger, and longer lingering, than the nutty taste is this slightly charred taste, and of course the very pumpkin-y flavor of the pepitas.

On paper that still sounds like it should be reasonably good, but in reality it was very flat, and somewhat bland. Feeling certain that I must be wrong, I conducted an informal tasting panel with the oil and some of Trader Joe’s fine artisanal bread. All four voices found the same as myself – the oil is okay, but there’s nothing particularly winning about it. As one taste tester put it – it’s fine, I’d eat it if I had it in front of me, but I’d never request it. When you’re trying to sell 250ml of oil for ten bucks, that’s quite the damning review.

I’ll wrap this up on two final thoughts. The first, and most perplexing, is why Trader Joe’s didn’t wait until their annual Pumpkin Madness in October to trot out this product. It really doesn’t seem to have enough value to stand on it’s own, but it would have looked wonderful next to the pumpkin cider and pumpkin trees.

Second, my favorite thing about the oil was it’s color. The TJ’s product copy calls it “eerily dark green”, and while that’s about right it’d actually be more accurate to say it’s “eerily dichromatic”. When you pour this oil onto a white plate, it’s a thick blackish red, almost like a balsamic vinegar. When spread out thin, however, it becomes an intense spring green. That may not be enough to win me over, but it is pretty cool.

Really, the main issue here is that Trader Joe’s Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As far as bread dips and salad dressings go, it’s alright but I’d go for some nice olive oil of this stuff every time. At least I can cook with the olive oil. If it wanted a little extra nuttiness I’d pick up some dukkah as well.

Like the Himalyan Salt with Truffles before it, Trader Joe’s Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil might make a good gift for your gourmand buddy, but that’s about it. It’s not that the oil is without value, it’s just not worth the price of admission.


 

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not unless they drop the price.

Would I Buy It Again: No, I already have more than I need.

Final Synopsis: A nutty specialty oil that costs more than it’s worth.


Trader Jose’s (Trader Joe’s) Spicy Guacamame – Spicy Edamame Dip

Trader Joe's Guacamame

Ever get tired of guacamole that just resembles guacamole too much? Here, this product is for you.

Adventures in guacamole continue with Trader Joe’s Spicy Guacamame Spicy Edamame Dip– a 100% edamame based gucamole. Having just reviewed Trader Joe’s semi-guac, the Reduced Guilt Guacamole with Greek Yogurt, it was a no brainer to pick up this brand new little doozy sitting on the shelf right next to it.

At first glance, this “guacamame” seems to combine the healthy aspects of the lite guacamole from last week, with the puns-manship of Avacado’s Number Guacamole – the best of both world’s surely! Of course the proof, as always, is in the pudding.

The package of Guacamame proudly boasts that it contains 40% fewer calories and 70% less fat than regular guacamole. How does that stack up to our previous low cal, low fat, reduced guilt guacamole? Pretty closely, actually. The Guacamame has 35 calories per 30 gram serving and 1.5 grams of fat. The Reduced Guilt Guacamole, on the other hand, has 30 caloires per 30 gram serving, and 2 grams of fat.

That means, if you eat this guac instead of that guac, you’ll have had 5.5 grams less fat, but 55 more calories. There’s also, like, one more carb / serving in this one. To me that’s a small enough difference that this grudge match can be settled on taste alone.

Of course, that raises the question – isn’t Trader Joe’s just undermining their own efforts by making two products fight for the same, narrow conceptual space? Does TJ’s really have room for more than one non-traditional, diet-friendly quasi-guacamole? I’m sure  market forces will decide this one ultimately, but it seems weird. Honestly, this feels like another Fruit Bar / Fruit Wrap style inter-company rivalry.

So that brings us to taste. The sad truth, in my opinion, is that the somewhat subpar reduced-guilt guacamole from last week is still better than this Guacamame. Before I can even get started on this, it needs to be said that Guacamame is much better thought of as a bean dip than anything like really guacamole. That’s hardly surprising given the all-beans-no-avocados approach of the dip. It may be green like guacamole, it might even be spicy like guacamole, but it has the same sort of mediocre taste and, more importantly, has the same mouth feel of a bean dip. You know that sort of loose gritty feeling you get from a hummus or pinto dip? That’s the exact same feeling you get here.

Even taken on the grounds of being a  spicy bean dip alone it’s not great. The dip is very loose – much looser than most bean dips, and certainly nothing like guacamole. The edamame beans have been blended into a single, smooth, slightly running mash alongside some tofu, jalapenos and starch. It certainly lights up your mouth with a touch of fire, but beyond that there’s no particular flavor to enjoy – just that bean-y grit. With nary a chunk of anything, let alone avocado, in sight I must once again wonder if the Gucamame would have fared better if Trader Joe’s never tried to compare it to guacamole in the first place.

Shockingly, our Guacamame goes under the Trader Jose’s brand name. Really, TJ? You’re trying to tie your experimental non-guacamole made from Japanese soybeans to a rich Hispanic heritage? A spicy edamame dip made with tofu and modified tapioca starch, just like they serve up in the old school cantinas on the backstreets of Veracruz? I wouldn’t mind it so much if you hadn’t oddly left the “Jose” name off of the reduced-guilt guacamole. It all goes to make me increasingly suspicious that the naming office of Trader Joe’s is run by a single, over-worked monkey who’s heart just isn’t in it any more. Also he might be having troubles at home.

At any rate, there might just be enough body and flavor to replace a spicy bean dip with Guacamame, but certainly not your guacamole.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: I’d recommend the reduced-guilt variety first.

Would I Buy It Again: I would not. There are much better gucamoles out there.

Final Synopsis: A weak guacamole substitute made from edamame soybeans and tofu.

Trader Joe's Spicy Guacamame - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Spicy Guacamame – Nutrition Facts

 


Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole

Trader Joe's Reduced Guilt Guacamole

A guacamole that’s as Greek as it is Hispanic.

“Reduced Guilt”, as in Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole, is one of those phrases that are a little too marketing-y for me. What does that really mean, “reduced-guilt”? We all just want to enjoy ourselves in life, right? If you’re like me, that means repressing and/or ignoring the constant nagging feeling of guilt that would otherwise hound you at all moments, threatening to drag you down the muddy hill of self-loathing into the murky bogs of depression. Free-floating guilt, we all got it – do we really need Trader Joe insinuating it into our lives even here, in the vegetable aisle?

Here I was, in danger of feeling pretty good about myself for a moment, putting a bag of  shredded carrots into my cart, making positive decisions and following a healthy path! Except, oh man, there’s the Reduced-Guilt Guacamole. “Reduced-guilt” because consuming calories induce guilt, and guacamole has a lot of them. Ergo, eating this guacamole means I don’t have to feel as bad about myself. Hooray!

Except, wait – doesn’t everything have calories? Even my bag of carrot shreds? And I have to eat calories to live… but eating calories induce guilt… and, oh no, I’m never going to win ever am I? Sure, I can reduce guilt – but never eliminate it. Never escape the inherent guilt of calories. Never escape the vicious cycle of consumption and loss until, at last, death claims me. And there I am again, down in the bogs of depression.

Thanks a lot Trader Joe’s.

Assuming you made it this far in this post, or have a healthier sense of self-worth than I do, you’re probably wondering a couple things about this guacamole. For one, you’re probably wondering if “reduced guilt” in this case is actually a synonym for “bad tasting”. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. That said, I feel we have to judge these sort of “healthy option” food products on a curve.

We all know that the healthy option isn’t going to taste as good as the real, full calorie, thing. The question is, does the healthy option hit that sweet spot of tasting good enough for how few calories it has? A little while ago we saw Trader Joe’s Fat Free Brownies undergo this test. Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole does a little better, not because it tastes all that good, but because it’s a really damn healthy option. Each 1 oz serving of this guacamole contains only 30 calories and 2 grams of fat. That’s 40% fewer calories, and 50% less fat than Trader Joe’s Avacado’s Number Guacamole.

With half the calories, does that mean it only tastes half as good? Yes, actually – that’s a pretty good description of this stuff. This low fat version of guacamole definitely lacks the full-bodied flavor and punch of a regular guac.

When you take a dip of it, it starts to taste good but then stops about half way, leaving a vague sense of dissatisfaction. On the other hand, it manages to match the creaminess of regular guac and is just as filling to snack on. That’s not bad for a diet food, where managing to come out even is practically a win.

To put it another way, for a low calorie dip this stuff is pretty good, but for guacamole it doesn’t really pass snuff. A big part of that is because you’re only getting about half as much avocado as usual in your guacamole. The rest is made up for by non-fat greek yogurt. I can only imagine that this non-traditional ingredient is the main reason this guacamole doesn’t get the traditional “Trader Jose’s” appellation.

Part of me wants to praise Trader Joe’s for going out there and making a healthy guacamole alternative. However, I can’t help but think it’s all rather pointless. After all, guacamole’s only really good with chips – and there’s nothing remotely diet friendly about a bunch of tortilla chips. Yes, I suppose you could eat this with some celery sticks or such, but in that case wouldn’t you be much better off with some low-fat ranch dressing instead? Even Trader Joe’s Veggie Chip Potato Snacks and crunchy lentil curls aren’t quite so healthy enough that the diet conscious could feel free to go out and eat a big handful.

In the end, I guess Trader Joe’s is true to their word – you get a guacamole that reduces your guilt, but doesn’t absolve it.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not really. It’s fine for a healthy dip, but there aren’t a lot of healthy ways to enjoy it.

Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stick to the real stuff.

Final Synopsis: A low calorie guacamole with half the calories and about half the taste.

 

Trader Joe's Reduced Guilt Guacamole - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Guacamole – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise

Trader Joe's Wasabi Mayonnaise

The lying little jar itself.

I was truly surprised when I saw Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise. I suppose it’s quite provincial of me to be surprised by flavor tweaks to traditionally mundane condiments, it is, after all,the year two thousand and fourteen, miracles abound. I have, for instance, in my cupboard this very minute a bottle of balsamic vinegar infused ketchup from Heinz, of all people, and a plastic canister of PB2. In the face of that mixing a bit of powdered horseradish in with a ubiquitous and world famous emollient in desperate need of reinventing itself is practically child’s play.

Nevertheless, I was surprised. Wasabi mayonnaise is a very clever update on everyone’s favorite egg-based salad dressing and sandwich spread. I’ll cut right to the chase here, because we have plenty to get to today. Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise is an excellent tool to have in your condiment tool box. It does everything that regular mayonnaise does just as well, plus it adds an extra dimension of bold spice to the mix. The mayo is thick, smooth and creamy – perfect for adding a savory skim of fat to food that are otherwise too healthy for their own good. Only a single quibble, and that’s that it’s a rather oily mayonnaise. That’s certainly not a deal breaker, just be prepared for it.

That leads us to the wasabi side of the mayo. The spiciness here is well balanced, it provides a mild kick in small amounts and a bigger one if you really lay it on, but make no mistake, this is a mayonnaise not a horseradish spread. You’re never in danger of burning your sinuses out of your head, though they might get a little wake up call.

Of course, there’s the small problem that our wasabi mayonnaise doesn’t actually have any wasabi in it. Or, more accurately, it has very very little wasabi in it, way down at the very end of the ingredient list below the spinach powder food coloring. When you have less wasabi in your wasabi mayo then you have artificial coloring, you might want to consider a different name, TJ.

Actually, as much as I’d like to condemn Trader Joe’s for barely putting any wasabi in their wasabi mayo, that’s simply the way it goes. Choose any wasabi product from your supermarket shelf and check out the ingredient list. 99 times out of 100, you won’t find any actual wasabi in the product. Real wasabi is difficult to grow – it can take up to two years to grow a mature wasabi root, and once mature it can only be harvested once. As a result, real wasabi is quite expensive – much more expensive than the simple combination of common horseradish, mustard and food coloring that almost everyone, Trader Joe’s included, uses in it’s place. It’s actually to TJ’s credit that they throw a token amount of real wasabi in here. Many less scrupulous wasabi providers (including, in all likelihood, your favorite sushi restaurant) settle for the cheap, horseradish-based variety that lacks any real Japanese wasabi what’s so ever.

Outraged? Maybe you should be – although you better check to see if you can afford real wasabi prices, currently about $20 for 2 oz. A better question might be, what’s the difference between real wasabi and this substitute?  The answer seems to be not a lot. Those who know report that real wasabi is hotter with a sweeter finish. The sort of thing a real gormund might insist on, but which is probably wasted if it’s just being mixed in with a bunch of mayo anyways.

If you an get over the subterfuge and misdirection, Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise is still a quality mayo with a lot of flavor, and one that you won’t regret buying at the much more reasonable price of $6.99 for a 12 oz. a jar.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a tasty twist on mayo.

Would I Buy It Again: I don’t use a lot of mayo, but if I was going to buy some I’d probably buy this.

Final Synopsis: A flavorful mayo balanced perfectly between spiciness and creaminess.

 

Trader Joe's Wasabi Mayonnaise - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Wasabi Mayonnaise – Nutrition Facts

 


Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar

Trader Joe's Pomegranate Vinegar

Ah, the silhouette of the pomegranate. Like an apple having a bad hair day.

The little burgundy bottle of Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar has been staring me in the face for weeks now, daring me to buy it. I finally picked it up the other day, and I’ve really been wrestling with what the hell to do with it ever since.

Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar certainly isn’t the sort of product that you’re reaching for everyday in the kitchen. TJ’s seems to focus on two distinct categories of products – standard fare done in the Trader Joe’s style (soup, salad, bacon, etc) and exotic items designed to appeal to the gourmands and foodies of the world. Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar falls squarely into this second category. Unless you are living a very specialized sort of life, you’re going to find this a difficult product to just casually make use of from day to day.

Where I usually run into trouble in my comment section is with these more refined food products (ex: dolmas). As an Average Joe, I don’t have too much trouble wrapping my head around the minestrone soups out there, it’s the niche, world-cuisine stuff, the himalayan tuffle salts if you will, that usually leave me boggled. The advanced culinary spheres are only dimly known to me. I still only have a white belt in kitchen jujitsu. I tend to caramelize my simple syrups while other are already eating their crepes.

With that said, I purchased this vinegar knowing full and well that it might best me – but I was determined to give it my best shot. If you haven’t tried this vinegar yet, think of it as tasting like an apple cider vinegar, but with pomegranate instead of apple. A lot of pomegranate. This is a tremendously potent – and flavorful – vinegar, absolutely brimming over with the smells and tastes of pomegranate. The trouble, of course, is that pomegranate is a challenging flavor to incorporate into a meal. I’m mentioned this before, but I think the recent fad of throwing pomegranate flavoring around all over the place is foolhardy. Pomegranate is so tart that it’s just not that good when distilled down to it’s bare essence.  Pomegranate seeds are one thing, I’ll gobble them by the handful, but take those seeds, squeeze the juice out of them, and mix it with a strong, acerbic vinegar and you’re talking about a very specific, very difficult flavor to incorporate in your dishes.

The vinegar bottle suggests trying it on salad or with chicken. I gave both of these a shot, and in both cases I found that the intense flavor was off-puttingly strong – almost medicinal in taste. But just laying on some lettuce leaves isn’t a pomegranate vinegar’s natural habitat, it was born to grace foods and dishes as exotic as itself.

So what is pomegranate vinegar rightly used for? Primarily, it would seem, as a condiment for fancy appetizers, as a dressing on carefully constructed salads or, and this one appealed to me, simmered down into a tangy glaze. In order to do full justice to this product, I felt that I must at least give the glaze a shot. After a little bit of searching I settled on this simple but elegant recipe from Il Fustino, and cooked it up with a dish of fresh grilled chicken breast.

The results were exactly what I’d been promised – a fruity, tangy glaze with considerable complexity and none of the acerbic or mediciney hang ups of the straight vinegar. Down right tasty, in other words – all the sweet flavor of pomegranate with just an edge of zing. Was I delighted? Yes. Am I a convert now? No.

To be honest, if I’m looking for a tangy, fruity glaze for my chicken, I’ll grab my bottle of Trader Joe’s Balsamic Glaze before I start stewing some up from vinegar. If TJ’s had released a Pomegranate Vinegar Glaze instead of a straight vinegar I might be singing a different song right now, as it is – this is a fine, well made vinegar, it just has  an incredible narrow focus of use.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not unless you’re eating a lot of artisnal cheese or like to simmer your own glazes.

Would I Buy It Again: One bottle should about do me.

Final Synopsis: An intensely strong, pomegranate-infused vinegar perfect for making a glaze and maybe like one other thing.


Trader Jose’s (Trader Joe’s) Avocado’s Number Guacamole

Trader Joe's (Trader Jose's) Avacado's Number Guacamole

Let’s party indeed.

I’ve heaped some pretty high praise on the names of a few Trader Joe’s products before – but as of this moment those items are dead to me. There’s only room in my heart for one truly amazingly named product and the throne now belongs to Trader Jose’s Avocado’s Number Guacamole. Truly, I can’t imagine it will ever be deposed.

Avacado’s Number Guacamole is awesome for many reasons.

  • One, it’s guacamole and guacamole is amazing.
  • Two, the name is a play on the esoteric mathematical measurement “Avagadro’s Number”, better known to most as the number of atoms in one gram-molecule of hydrogen and commonly jotted down by housewives, accountants, etc as 6.0221413e+23 .
  • Three, this guacamole has five avocados in it. That’s a lot of avocados!
  • Fourth and finally (and best) there is a picture of good ol’ bug-eyed, limp-haired, shyster-looking Amedeo Avagadro himself making the dry proclamation: “Let’s party. ‘Arriba.’ ”

Simply, wow.

Before we get to the guacamole itself, which is quite tasty, we’ve got to spend a few minutes just looking at what the hell is going on here. First, lets just try and wrap our brains around the international gumbo we’re knee deep in here. The guacamole is a Trader Jose’s product, being a traditionally Mexican food of course, featuring the picture of, and named after, an Italian who doesn’t actually have anything to do with Avagadro’s number other than the fact that a Frenchman decided to name his discovery after him in 1909. So that’s one thing.

Yes, despite the slick looks of Mr. Avagadro, he’s only loosely connected with Avagadro’s number. The number in question, the above mentioned 60221413e+23, is one of the cornerstones of modern chemistry and physics – the number of atoms in a conventional unit of measurement called the mole.

The mole, and by extension the number, is essentially a way for us to talk about infinitesimally small and rather fidgety atoms on a reasonable and realistic scale. In 1909 a future noble prize winner and current Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Perrin coined the term to describe his work, naming it in honor of the Italian Amedeo Avagadro. Our man Avagadro lived and died back in the 19th century and amused himself by calculating the volume of gasses, thereby laying the groundwork that lead up to Perrin’s discovery, but had nothing to do with the number that bears his name per se.

Two things bother me about his gucamole. First, it only has five avocados in it which, while pretty good for guacamole, is certainly less than the 602,214,130,000,000,000,000,000 avocados (AKA six hundred and two sextillion, two hundred and fourteen quintillion, one hundred and thirty quadrillion) that the name suggests will be in it. I’m willing to let this slide in this case, seeing as that making the name more truthful would require each man, woman and child on Earth to pick a few trillion avocados first, and that’s just too long to wait for guac.

Really, this guacamole is pretty good. It comes in two separate 8 oz tubs, each one individual sealed. In order to cram in as many avocados as they did, Trader Joe’s has left in the occasional big, uncut chunk. When I say big, I mean big – think potato-chip sized. This really isn’t that bad of a thing – I found that it gives you something to break up the monotony of the otherwise featureless smooth greenness, something to really shake you up and make you confront the reality of your dip.

On the other hand, I did find Trader Joe’s Avacado’s Number Guacamole a bit on the salty side. This wouldn’t present a problem if you were eating it with unsalted chips, but when combined with salted tortilla chips its just a little too salty to really enjoy.

The other thing that bothers me about this guacamole is that Trader Joe’s was willing to go out there for the whole “Avocado’s Number” thing, but just left “mole” and “guacamole” sitting on the table. This is your once chance to ever make a “mole” related guacamole pun, and you missed it TJ! All you had to do was put a hyphen in “guaca-mole” up in the title and say something like

“Don’t ask us how many avocados are in this guaca-mole, ask our friend Amedeo.” Really, really disappointing work there Joe, but otherwise fine.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes, especially to physicists who like word play.

Would I Buy It Again: Yes, but I’d use unsalted chips next time.

Final Synopsis: A good guac with an excellent name.

Trader Joe's (Trader Jose's) Avacado's Number Guacamole - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s (Trader Jose’s) Avacado’s Number Guacamole – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Corn and Chile Tomato-Less Salsa

Trader Joe's Corn and Chile Salsa

Why would they do this to you salsa? Noooooo!

One time, at a Hawaiian themed buffet, I loaded up my plate with chocolate pudding, put a big spoonful in my mouth, and discovered that it was actually sour poi . Until now that was the most shocking food surprise I’d ever had. Having tried Trader Joe’s Corn and Chile Tomato-Less Salsa, that is no longer the case. This salsa, or “salsa” I should say, and I hope the judicious use of italics and quotation marks conveys my dubiousness, is incredibly sweet. Sweeter than most confections, in fact. Sugary sweet, corn-based salsa. I’m going to say that again, in case you haven’t thrown up in your mouth yet. Sugary corn salsa.

This is really a very crazy and very unpleasant thing for me to write about. Know, first of all, that I love salsa. I love salsa in, I thought, all of its many forms. I love it all the way from the simple jar of mild Pace picante sauce to the artisanal batches of peach and mango salsa. I liked cowboy caviar, I liked papaya and mango salsa, I thought I would like this as well, but I never imagined they would just out and out make a super sweet, barely spicy, salsa.

I’ll admit I shouldn’t be so surprised – they do mention it on the label after all, “A sweet combination of corn, red peppers and onions” they say. But this sweet? This sugary? That is the sort of information that shouldn’t be hidden in a small font under the title – it should be called out in huge letters proclaiming “WARNING: This salsa is 20% sugar by volume” or more to the point “WARNING: This salsa is really gross tasting”.

It’s really hard for to stress how sweet this salsa is. Think syrup, then take it up a little bit. The whole kernels of corn, which are otherwise fine, are suspended in what is essentially a clear, simple syrup, mixed in with some minced onion and red pepper. Really, what we’re talking about is a very nice, very mild corn salsa that someone decided to ruin by pouring a ton sweetener into it. I really don’t know why anyone would do this or, more accurately, I don’t know why you would do this and call it a salsa. I have nothing against gross tasting condiments, they just need to go by their proper name – relish. Despite Trader Joe’s labeling here, this is clearly a corn relish, not a tomato-less salsa. If it had been billed as such, I wouldn’t have undergone the eye-popping surprise I experienced when I dug my first tortilla chip in and took a big bite. Instead I would have spooned a tiny amount into a sandwich and experienced it that way. Would I still consider it gross? Most definitely, but relishes, like ajvar, get the sort of leeway that salsa doesn’t.

At the end of the day, I don’t suppose it really matters. If you’re one of the dozen or so people world wide that find themselves constantly spooning sugar onto their corn because it isn’t sweet enough, this is for you. For everyone else, I’d recommend taking a miss on it. That said, a shocking 14 million+ jars of this stuff have be sold by Trader Joe’s as of this post, which boggles my mind and makes me question my place among humanity. Please, if you enjoy this “salsa”, let me know in the comments and explain, if you can, its appeal.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Never.

Would I Buy It Again: At gunpoint…maybe.

Final Synopsis: Think very sweet, corn relish rather than salsa.

Trader Joe's Corn and Chile Salsa - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Corn and Chile Salsa – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl Spread

Just looking at the jar is exciting!

Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl

I’m typing this post with sticky fingers. No, not because I’m engaged in unsavory, graphic acts. Shame on you for thinking that. My fingers are sticky because I’m currently knuckle-deep in a brand new jar of Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl – the latest development in TJ’s now three-prong assault on American waistlines known as cookie butter. As readers of this blog know, I’m hopelessly in the thrall of cookie butter, and avoid buying it simply because it will plunge me into mango levels of reckless binging.

I got into the whys and hows cookie butter before. As you’re all probably now aware, Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter was their own version of what is also known as biscoff spread, a peanut butter like spread where instead of peanuts there are finely ground speculoos cookies. I won’t rehash old news, but suffice to say that Trader Joe’s take on the delicious condiment outstripped the original in both taste and texture – creating a mind-blowingly delectable taste sensation and a brand new way to eat cookies.

Trader Joe’s followed up this first miraculous, iPhone level market disruption with a second version, crunchy cookie butter, some months later. The iPhone 4S to cookie butter’s iPhone 4, if you will – a variation on the original theme. Which is why this new approach, the cookie butter cocoa swirl, is so exciting. Trader Joe’s is, for the first time, legitimately attempting to innovate their ground breaking product. But do they succeed?

Like most of you cookie butter fans out there, I’ve tried adding cookie butter to everything and anything that will hold its weight. I’ve put it on everything from celery to croissants, I’ve baked it into cookies, used it on pancakes and even tried spreading it on other speculoos cookies. The results have always been the same – no matter what cookie butter is combined with, it isn’t better than cookie butter by itself. As I pointed out in my first post, cookie butter is like pure, elemental gold. You can add anything to it you like, but you’ll only end up with a less pure gold.

That said, Trader Joe’s clearly decided to take a proper run at clearing this particular hurdle. Before cookie butter came on the scene and took its throne, the previous regent of sweet, spreadable condiments was Nutella – the thick hazelnut and chocolate spread of your dreams. Trader Joe’s has whipped up their own version of Nutella for this product – a mixture of 8% cocoa powder, vanilla flavoring, hazelnuts and cocoa butter. So what happens when you combine a #1 with the former #1? The answer, rather predictably, is that you get a #2. In other words, Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl is beautifully delicious but simply not as good as cookie butter by itself.

Where do I get off making such a claim, you ask. Who am I to judge between two angels? To you sir, I say set down the two side by side and conduct a taste taste for yourself.

Let’s eat a nice spoonful of this new cookie butter and cocoa swirl. Do you taste that wonderful cookie butter taste? That delicious silky smoothness that’s bursting with impossibly rich speculoos cookie goodness? But pay attention now, notice how the chocolate flavor rises to the fore, overpowering the comparatively subtler and more complex flavor of the cookie butter. It’s a good taste at first, for a moment they mingle together in a perfect balance. Then the chocolate takes control, blanketing your tongue in a heavy chocolate flavor. Notice how that chocolate taste continues to linger on the tongue, not just immediately on swallowing but long after. Wait long enough and you’ll notice it almost becomes sour at the edges of your tongue. Not exactly an unpleasant taste, and to be sure you’ll be going back to the jar for more, but it’s just not quite as good as regular cookie butter is it?

Nutella by itself is wonderful. Cookie butter by itself is even better. Combining the two is a noble idea, but their child, unfortunately, is a bastard unfit to claim the cookie butter throne.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes – but only if you’ve already tried regular cookie butter.

Would I Buy It Again: There’s no reason for me to choose this over pure cookie butter.

Final Synopsis: Even when mixed with nutella, you can’t improve on cookie butter.

Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter

Pumpkin butter coming at you at a dutch angle! Whoa – look out!

There was no question in my mind about which of Trader Joe’s ridiculous list of pumpkin products I was going to try next – the pumpkin butter. I could barely conceive of what this product might possibly look like, but my best guess was something like a stick of butter but orange. I was entirely surprised, and slightly disappointed, to discover that Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter was not actual butter butter, but the apple butter kind of butter. A classic, “Ah – of course, I’m an idiot” moment.

Despite my initial confusion, this pumpkin butter is actually rather good, in a fruit butter sort of way. By which I mean that it’s very sweet, very creamy and entirely suited for any of your general or seasonal fruit butter purposes – whatever those might be. Which is to say, again, that it’s nice but pretty unnecessary by anyone’s definition of the word.

Pumpkin butter is a fruit butter – which is basically what you get when you cook down a load of fruit, puree it and thrown in some sugar and spices. What you end up with is a creamy, smooth spread that tastes like a sweet fruit jam, but spreads like a dream.

If you’ve ever had apple butter, you’ll know what to expect from Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter. If you haven’t had it, imagine eating a jar of sweet pumpkin pie filling and you’re not far off in both taste and consisetnecy. I’ve tried it on a variety of food products, and each time I’m left with the same sensation – like I’m eating the center out of a pumpkin pie that is subtly wrong somehow.

Other than the pureed pumpkin, there’s not a lot to pumpkin butter. For instance, despite its very smooth consistency there is no butter, cream or fat of any sort in the spread. There’s also much less sugar than you might expect from such a decadent spread. The butter is sweetened with sugar and honey, but only to the tune of 9 grams of sugar per 18 gram serving. While 50% is a pretty considerable sugar to food ratio by most standards, it’s a big improvement over the 70+% you find in most jellies and jams. What that really means is that you’re going to want to come to pumpkin butter for the pumpkin first and the sweetness second.

So what do you do with a pumpkin butter? Well, the jar itself happily suggests you try it as “a pastry filling, a poultry glaze, an ice cream topping, on toast, mixed with fat free cream cheese, and as a soup”. In other words, you can do everything and nothing with it. It’s like we’re talking about a sneed here. Works as an ice cream topping and a soup? Really, TJ? Because nothing else in the world does that. In fact, I’m going to have to give this Trader Joe’s Most Creative Serving Suggestion award – ripping away from the former champion.

So yes, pumpkin butter is probably totally unnecessary – but on the other hand, that can be said of all seasonal holiday products. The real merit of this class of food is how tasty it is and, more importantly, how much it helps you get into the spirit of the season. On those grounds, Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter is reasonably effective, but not a knock out. By it’s very nature as pumpkin butter it’s so rich and thick that it’s hard to integrate into your daily routine.

If you’re planning on baking holiday pastries or hosting a pumpkin themed dinner, this is probably a great purchase for you. As a regular sort of Joe, I don’t plan on doing anything with this other than putting it on the occasional piece of toast and, if I’m feeling particularly fey one of these evenings, making a nice bowl of pumpkin butter soup out of it. Pumpkin Butter on toast has been okay, but  something I could skip in the future.  As for the soup, stay tuned for an update.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not unless you’re already a fruit butter fan or can’t get enough pumpkin.

Would I Buy It Again: Sadly, no. I don’t have anything to do with it.

Final Synopsis: Basically, spreadable pumpkin pie filling.

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Balela

Trader Joe's Balela

Not hummus

Trader Joe’s Balela is a mildly spiced, tangy chickpea bean dip with it’s origins in the Middle East and it’s absolutely killer. I know what you’re all thinking – “A middle eastern chickpea bean dip? He means hummus right? Why doesn’t he just say hummus? Is he stupid?”

Please, reserve your harsh judgement, hasty internet commentator, for unlike hummus the chickpeas in balela are whole, not ground. That little fact, of course, makes a world of difference.

Balela is in fact a loose mixture of garbanzo and black beans tossed with tomatoes, lemon juice, onion, garlic, parsley and a hint of mint, all served in a tiny, hummus size tub. This makes it a dip, bean salad or side dish, depending on your need.

I set into my little dish of balela with a collection of tortilla and pita chips, and simply could not stop eating it. It has that same tongue pleasing tingle and pleasant mealiness of hummus, while avoiding the overwhelming richness that hummus brings. While the tastes aren’t exactly analogous, they’re close enough that you can think of balela as “hummus light” – a much less dense take on the classic dish. The absence of tahini and presence of mint and parsley very much help further this difference between the two.

The only real mark against this dish is the small size. Little eight ounce tubs are plenty for hummus, but only holds a handful of whole beans. I ate this thing up in about six bites which, though good, was a bit fast for $3.00. It’s not terrible for an individual, but you’d have to buy about 10 of these tubs to cater to even a small get together.

Normally at this point I like to launch into the history and cultural relevance of the food I’m reviewing, but there is a shocking dearth of information about balela online. Numerous blogs all mention the dish, but only in reference to having seen it at Trader Joe’s, and the lone wikipedia article on balela is for 1950’s Portuguese soccer coach Manuel Balela. This suggests that TJ’s is delving further and deeper into esoteric foreign cuisines than I had previously dreamed, or that they’re just making up their own dishes now. I’m not sure which of these options impresses more.

Nevertheless my curiosity has been piqued. I’ve sent several communiques out to Trader Joe’s seeking answers and will update this post with the answers I uncover. In the meanwhile, if any loyal readers have any insight into the history or origin of balela, please post in the comments.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes, to anyone who enjoys hummus, chickpeas or dip in general.

Would I Buy It Again: Yes, even if I wish there was packed in per package.

Final Synopsis: A deliciously tangy and savory bean dip/salad/side dish.

Trader Joe's Balela - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Balela – Nutrition Facts