I’ve been holding off on these because, to be honest, an all vegetable gyoza just didn’t sound very appealing. I love vegetables, and there are salads I would kill for, but a bunch of mushed up steamed veggies just didn’t sound like something that was going to satisfy. At most, I was expecting something that might make a satisfactory hors d’oeuvre, to be absentmindedly pushed down the gullet while waiting for the real fare to come out. It was to my surprise that I found these Thai Vegetable Gyozas hold their own with any of Trader Joe’s other excellent gyoza.
I’m routinely shocked when I find a vegan food that isn’t merely palatable, but makes me want to go back for seconds. I suppose that speaks to my ignorance, because we’re lucky enough to live in a world where tasty vegan food is on the rise – particularly, as we’ve seen before, on the shelves of Trader Joe’s. It’s even more surprising considering that it’s a fast food that cooks from frozen in about 5 minutes. That’s a pretty good trick – of course, on the other hand, Trader Joe’s Thai Vegetable Gyoza aren’t really vegan at all.
Scour the bag all you might, you won’t find the telltale “V” TJ’s uses to demarcate their vegan offerings. That’s not because of the ingredients, which are all plants and plant-derived, but because of the processing facility. While laudable that these gyoza, like the Thai shrimp gyoza, are handmade in Thailand, their manufactured on the same machines that handle fish and shellfish – meaning they can’t give the bag that little happy “V”. I dare say that depending on which way your morals fall, that might still be vegan enough for some vegans out there.
Piscine allegations notwithstanding, there’s no reason these gyoza should be limited to only the Vegan. Trader Joe’s Thai Vegetable Gyoza aren’t merely the “meat-free” version of a tastier gyoza, like some vegetarian fare tends to be, but are actually tasty pot stickers in their own right.
Each plump dumpling is stuffed with a filling of white cabbage, carrot, chive, radish, green onion and white onion – plus a dash of ginger, garlic and soy sauce. As you might guess from all the members of the Allium family in there, these are pungent little suckers – packing enough onion and garlic to imbue the minced cabbage with flavorful (if kiss-averting) taste. The touch of ginger and soy sauce lighten things up, giving the dumpling a zippy, slightly exotic taste. The body of the gyoza, which I was worried about being too meager, actually makes for a nice chewy mouthful thanks to the cabbage and carrot filling. Of course, the gyoza also benefits from the same excellent skin of Trader Joe’s other gyoza – thin, chewy, and pleasant to the bite.
What I really liked about these is that they have a very different flavor and mouth feel from the pork or chicken potstickers, which tend to be rather samey. By taking away the meat, it really gives the gyoza a chance to showcase a different, but still satisfying taste. While I might not be switching over to these gyoza exclusively, I could definitely see buying a bag of these for every bag of pork gyoza I get. Served alongside each other, they would add a level of depth that a simple plate of one or the other wouldn’t have by itself.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – but with a caveat to vegans.
Would I Buy It Again: Yup, they fill in
Final Synopsis: Nice gyoza that satisfy even without the meat.
Trader Joe’s can be obtuse, playful, or even boastful with their product names – but Trader Joe’s masters the art of coq au vin is the first time they’ve gotten downright cocky with it. You’ve got to have a pretty big opinion of yourself to unironically declare that you’ve mastered any art. Add to that the affectation of the little ellipses, and they’re making quite the statement. In fact, that ellipses is quite the little touch. You might think, if you saw a title like that, that Trader Joe’s has a whole line of “Master’s the Art of…” products. As far as I can tell, however, this is the only Trader Joe’s Master’s the Art of…. product on the shelves. That, my friends, is worth double pretention points.
Of course, the difference between pretention and genius is whether you can deliver on your promises. So the question is – has TJ really managed to master this classic French dish.
Coq au vin is that all-time classic of French cuisine that everyone should know how to cook – and no one had ever heard of 50 years ago. An enduring rustic dish of the French countryside since time out of mind, coq au vin was unknown out of France until the advent of Julia Childs. Everyone’s favorite TV chef brought the dish with her when she returned from her time at Le Cordon Bleu, taking its straightforward, honest recipe and making it her signature dish.
Coq au vin is what it sounds like, cock served in a wine sauce. Of course, no one uses rooster any more, that being left to the poor farmer’s of yesteryear. Nowadays, the dish is made exclusively with chicken, which is stewed in a robust red wine with button mushrooms, pearl onions and perhaps fatty pork belly (lardon), garlic and some other vegetables. Originally the dish was meant as a simple way to tenderize the otherwise too tough to eat meat of an old rooster for a nice meal and it’s the simplicty of the dish that made it catch on in such a big way.
Trader Joe’s variation is faithful to the original imaginng of the dish. It comes frozen in a huge chunk of roux and chicken that can either be cooked on the stove, or microwaved to make the classic easy-to-cook dish even easier. After ten minutes in the microwave, it comes out piping hot in it’s little black tray – an island of chicken in a sea of bubbling sauce. While the presentation may not quite be there, the taste is. The chicken is tender, and gives way easily to the fork – surprisingly wonderful for frozen chicken. The sauce, is good as well, thick and loaded with vegetabels, and not short on the wine either. Although it’s a thick and savory sauce the crispness of the wine cuts through the heavier cloying taste of the sauce leaving the dish tasting lighter rather an heavier. TJ’s doesn’t skimp on the veggies, loading up the sauce with pearl onions and sliced mushroom.
Trader Joe’s must really love this sauce, because they include a ton of it – like their Chicken Piccata, the sauce outweighs the chicken at 2:1.
So is this mastery or coq au vin? Do they beat Julia Childs at her own game? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a good, quick meal, the chicken is tasty and the sauce is rich, but it also costs $7.00. For less than that price, Trader Joe’ s has a variety of other dishes that are just as good, or better. If you’re looking for a good chicken dish, you could try the Kung Pao or Cacciatore as easily as this and save a few bucks.
If you’re looking for an excellent coq au vin, my suggestion is pick up a copy of the Art of Cooking and go for it yourself.
Would I Recommend It: I guess so. It’s a little pricey for an average dish.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not.
Final Synopsis: A good coq au vin, but probably not better than you could do yourself.
I certainly do love Thai food – or, more accurately, I love pad thai, and the rest of Thai cuisine is pretty good as well. Odds are that you love pad thai as well – this is double true if you happen to be a Thai national, as pad thai is the national dish in your country. However, even for the 99.98% of my audience that isn’t Thai, it’s still pretty likely that you love pad thai. In fact, pad thai is so highly regarded world wide that it was voted 5th most delicious food in the world by CNN in 2011. And while that may just the result of a fluff-piece poll in a desperate bid to get clicks, it also seems like it’s about right.
It is intriguing, then to come across Trader Joe’s vegetable “true Thai” pad thai in the frozen food aisle. With a promise of being 100% vegan, and a five minute microwaveable meal, Trader Joe’s was setting itself some pretty considerable hurdles TJ’s already proved that they could deliver on Thai street food with their green curry and GABA rice, but could they pull it off again? Fortunately, the answer is a firm yes.
If you enjoy this pad thai, don’t forget to give a quick thanks to Mr. Plaek Phibunsongkhram, one of the most important figures in Thai history, owner of an amazing name, and the person solely responsible for the modern day popularity of the dish. Prime minister of Thailand and de factor dictator during the the WWII years, Phibunsongkhram is a complex character, but the most important thing he did (within the context of this post) is give pad thai the name “pad thai”. Why focus his rather weighty attention on this one dish? The answer, of course, is geo-politics! With World War II raging around them, Phibun wanted to promote Thai nationalism and centralization while reducing domestic demand for rice. He managed to do all this by raising pad thai, and it’s noodles, to a prominent place in Thai culture. The result was an explosion in popularity across Thailand, and from there across the rest of the world.
Trader Joe’s Vegetable Pad Thai delivers not just as a delicious vegan meal, and as a delicious microwaveable meal, but as a delicious meal period. There’s a lot going on in a pad thai – from the bean sprouts, to the rice noodles, to the tofu and veggies, to the sauces. On each front TJ keeps things simple and natural. There isn’t an artificial ingredient to be found in the whole pot – just a vareity of vegetables mixed with water.
That natural simplicity plays out in the dish as a refreshing, wholesome taste – even when its just been been defrosted frosted from frozen. The bean sprouts, which make up the bulk of the dish, still retain some of their juicy crispness, even after being steamed in the microwave, and the rice noodles are suitably chewy and rich with the flavor of the creamy, mildly piquant pad thai sauce (a mix of chili sauce, tamarind sauce, and tomato paste).
The sauce isn’t quite as strong here as it is on other pad thai that you’ve probably had. Part of the reason for that is the absence of fish sauce in the dish. Although not a mandatory ingredient for authentic pad thai, the pungent, musky body of fish sauce gives pad thai a savory second kick underneath the noodles and chili paste. Although it’s missing here in order to keep the dish vegan, it doesn’t degrade the quality of the dish below satisfaction. There’s still enough harmony between the spicy, sweet and salty elements that it carries the rest of the dish along. This is particularly important when it comes to the tofu, which usually needs as much help as it can get. The tofu does manage to make it through alright, again thanks to the sauce, but it isn’t the best processed soybean mash you’ve ever had. The cubes are small, which is to its advantage, because they freezing process was not kind to them – rendering each tofu cube into a tough, chewy customers. While not exactly toothsome, without any meat or fish in the dish, they firmness of the tofu does lend the dish some much needed body.
Over all it works. It’s not going to be the most delicious pad thai you’ve ever had in your life, but for frozen, all-vegan pad thai it’s suitably impressive. The only strange touch is the crushed cashew nuts used in place of crushed peanuts. Whatever the rationale was behind that decision is hidden from my faculties, but it’s a moot point anyway since the nuts are undetectable except as points of crunchy texture,
This dish can be enjoyed as a tasty, vegan option, or just in its own right as a quick and easy dinner. Once caveat, however – bring your own limes. Evidently not even Trader Joe’s could figure out a good way to fit freeze-dried lime juice into the dish, and its the one flavor that the dish is noticeably missing. Get yourself a wedge to squeeze over the dish, and you won’t have any complaints.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – the vegans and non-vegans alike.
Would I Buy It Again: I would, this is perfect for filling in last minute dinner ideas.
Final Synopsis: Delicious, microwaveable pad thai – as long as you have a lime wedge on hand.
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.
Did you know Trader Joe’s sells Thai Shrimp Gyoza? I sure didn’t, and stood staring at these flat-footed for several moments when I stumbled on them the other day. Everyone knows I think TJ’s gyoza are excellent – and here was an even cooler looking bag with an even more exotic sounding gyoza in it!
Guys, you know I had to take a look. Even if someone had been, like, “Don’t do it, man! I’m you from the future – those gyoza are bad news!” I would have been all like, “Psssh – keep your drama to yourself, I’m rocking these gyoza all the way home.” And you know what? I would now be sure that that hypothetical future version of myself was a fraud – because these gyoza are awesome!
We talked about what makes a gyoza a gyoza last time, and these Thai shrimp gyoza deliver exactly the same, high-quality, pan-fryable gyoza goodness. The difference, of course, is in the filling. A generous mixture of shrimp, white cabbage, chives and green onion, plus spices, stuffs these tender dumplings of goodness. The result is a gyoza with a little more chewiness to it than the chicken or pork gyoza, but a very similar mildly savory, meaty taste. Shockingly similar in fact. Despite the top-billing of the shrimp, there is almost no discernible shrimp taste to these at gyoza at all. In a blind taste test, I would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the chicken gyoza and these shrimp gyoza.
That’s a bit surprising, because while the shrimp has been rather finely chopped it’s still easy to notice the shrimpy texture. This is not the unpleasant lumpiness of the 14 Shrimp Nuggets I gave a shot a while back, but just a sort of pleasant “Oh, that’s a bit of shrimp” experience.
If you’re worried these dumplings would be too “shrimpy” for you, that means you don’t have to worry. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a strongly executed bit of shrimp to enhance your seafood dinner, these aren’t going to do the job. That’s a little strange, but doesn’t detract from the overall goodness of the dish.
Even weirder than this, is why these gyoza are being made in Thailand in the first place. Unlike, say, Trader Joe’s Thai Lime Shrimp Skewers, these shrimp actually are from Thailand. At least, the gyoza are hand made there at any rate, and the shrimp come from off either the Chinese or Thai coast. This is actually a pretty safe thing to say about almost any shrimp you eat, as 75% of the world’s shrimp farming happens between those two countries.
That’s all well and good, but it still leaves the window open on why Trader Joe’s calls these gyoza Thai Shrimp Gyoza in the first place. As we talked about before, the cuisine of gyoza is bound up in the histories of China and Japan – Thailand is sort of a non-player in the whole scene. If you’re getting your shrimp from Thailand, I suppose you’re welcome to throw the word in the title, but if you’re just going to make the whole thing taste just like your chicken gyoza I don’t see how that’s really worth the bother.
I suppose this, as so many other answers, lays with Trader Joe’s inscrutable marketing department. Presumably there’s a chart someone has on their desk that shows seafood sales increase by 7% when the word “Thai” is in the title. At any rate, all the mind games and marketing ultimately give way to how it actually tastes, and in this case the taste is there.
If you’re vegetarian but not pescatarian, or if you’re looking for another totally easy, totally tasty potsticker to stick in your pot there’s no reason not to give these a shot.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, these are pretty good gyoza – particularly if you’re staying away from meat.
Would I Buy It Again: These gyoza don’t taste all that different from the slightly cheaper chicken and pork gyoza, so probably not.
Final Synopsis: A shrimp filled gyoza that tastes just as good as, and just like, Trader Joe’s other gyoza.
Do you sometimes crave a whole green fig, but all the ones you find are either not organic, or not frozen rock solid? Well I have good news! Trader Joe’s is solving both of your problems at once with their frozen Organic Whole Green Figs!
The last time we looked at any of Trader Joe’s figs it was their Black Mission Figs, which I found pleasantly sweet and tasty, if you can get over the somewhat unnerving fleshiness of them. Well fleshiness isn’t a problem this time around, because they’re coming to you in the form of rock hard iceballs!
The first thing you’ll notice when you pick these figs up is that Trader Joe’s didn’t go looking for the small ones. Each fig in the bag is a hefty little monster, considerably larger than the fresh Black Mission Figs you might be able to find in the produce aisle. Apart from the size, these green figs (also called kadota figs) are somewhat less sweet than the black figs from before. That said, they’re still figs – which means they’re still quite sweet indeed, and have the same mushy-soft / crispy-seedy center that gives them such a unique bite.
We spent plenty of time reviewing the history of these meaty drupes last time, so I won’t bore you all again with a lecture on prehistoric agriculture. This time let’s take a look at the religious perspective.
As you might expect from a fruit man has had such a long history with (11,000 years+), religion has a good deal to say about figs – in particular considering that they’ve been cultivated widely through the that fertile belt of religion that begins around the Mediterranean and stretches all the way to South East Asia. As such, all the big time religions feature figs in their holy books to a considerable degree.
Adam and Eve, for instance, sought to cover up their shame from God with the trusty old fig leaf – maybe not the best choice considering that figs are a notable skin allergens, and that the natural latex that the fig tree produces is a serious eye irritant. Nevertheless, thanks to A&E, fig leaves entered the art world for a pretty good stretch of centuries as the de facto tasteful genital cover in paintings and sculptures.
Meanwhile, in the religion of Islam, the fig is considered one of the two sacred trees, along with that other old favorite the olive. Going further we find that the historical Buddha went out and achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree – otherwise known as the sacred fig tree – and that the fig is even considered to be the “world tree” from which all springs in Hinduism. Even Jesus got in on the fig tree, when he chose to kill one in Mark 11:12 by cursing it to death for not bearing fruit. Harsh Jesus!
That’s a pretty good pedigree, the fig! But all that said, what reason do I really have to buy these things frozen?
Obviously, getting them fresh is always going to be your best option, but due to their high sugar content, figs ripen and spoil very quickly. A ripe fig will even split under the strain of it’s own sweet innards if left too long, so transporting the fresh produce is a considerably trickier prospect than, say, an apple.
If you’re feeling a hankering for figs, know that the frozen solution is not a perfect one. For starters, the figs seem to freeze inconsistently. In my bag, I found that three or four were somewhat mushy, even when the others were frozen solid – and that’s after a few days in the back of my freezer! These mushier figs didn’t seem to be bad necessarily, just soft. That said, you might want to feel around for a couple different bags to find one that’s perfectly hard and frozen.
If you want to enjoy your green figs right away, you can throw them in a blender and try out this tasty and quick smoothie recipe.
If you’d rather enjoy your figs thawed, you’ll need to slowly defrost them in your fridge for a few hours. However, at this point be prepared for a shock. These defrosted figs are incredibly slimy and incredibly mushy. That’s simply an unavoidable aspect of the freezing process – and the price you’ll pay if you want figs you can defrost any time.
It’s somewhat off putting, and nowhere near as nice as handling actual fresh figs, but while the texture is somewhat compromised the taste is still the same.
If you can stand the wait to thaw these, and the softness, there are lots of great recipes that call for the refined sweetness of green figs.
Here’s one that I like, a rather laid back recipe for laid back times.
Fig, Arugula and Goat Cheese Flat Bread
- 1 flat bread
- 1 or 2 tsp olive oil
- Some arugula
- Some awesome goat cheese
- Trader Joe’s Organic Green Figs (quartered)
- Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees.
- Paint the flat bread with olive oil, until it has a nice sheen.
- Lay down a bed of arugula. On top of this add your (thawed) quartered, green figs and as much goat cheese as you feel comfortable with.
- Pop you prepared flat bread in the oven and heat until toasty. About 5-10 minutes
- Enjoy the hell out of it with a few friends while discussing philosophy, the sunset, or Game of Thrones.
Note to you, the reader If you like this recipe, or want to see more, let me know! And feel free to share your notes on it in the comments.
Would I Recommend Them: I’d look for fresh figs first – but these are a good stand in.
Would I Buy Them Again: Sure, I really like that flat bread!
Final Synopsis: Not as good as getting your figs fresh, but more convenient.
We continue our look at Trader Joe’s frozen Chinese-insipired food with Trader Joe’s Chicken Gyoza Pot Stickers. Unlike the Chicken Chow Mein from the other day, I like these gyoza just fine. In fact, I have a nearly bottomless stomach for a good gyoza, and Trader Joe’s certainly manages to deliver. I crammed hundreds of these savory dumplings into my face in Japan, and I’ll cram hundreds more if given the chance. Where the chow mein clearly lacked any sort of passion in it’s execution, these gyoza were made by a true believer. Despite coming to you frozen, these little dumplings are nearly as good as the real thing and, even better, seem to cook up perfectly every time.
There’s something wonderful that happens to mince meat and vegetables when they’re put inside the thin, crimped skin of a gyoza dumpling. Trader Joe’s combination of rich and flavorful chicken with minced vegetables combines brilliantly with the smooth, almost creamy texture of the tender skin. Whether pan fried or steamed, the gyoza seal in the flavors, keeping the insides moist and tender.
The name gyoza is directly taken from the Japanese, but that name is as meaningless to them as it is to us. The Japanese took both the name and idea from Northern China where gyoza go by the name giaozi or jioazi. Their true origin is obscured by the hazy reaches of history, but seems to owe their creation to Zhang Zhongjing – a legendary figure in Chinese history and the most prominent physician of the year 200 AD – as some sort of medical treatment.
The name Mr. Zhang bestowed upon his creation, jiaozi, translates literally “tender ears”. This is not, as you might expect, because of the lumpy, oblong shape of gyoza makes them look a somewhat ear-like. Instead, historic record suggests they were used to treat frostbitten ears. Whether this means that they were supposed to be fed to a person with frostbitten ears as a sort of medicine, or strapped directly to the head in order to warm the damaged extremities is unknown, as Zhang’s original texts were lost during the ravages of the Three Kingdoms period.
Medical use aside, the other big gyoza question is – what’s the difference between these things and Trader Joe’s equally delicious wantons?
While outwardly similar, the wanton is usually rounder than the gyoza, with a somewhat thinner skin and more heavily seasoned filling. When steamed, the differences between gyoza and wantons are more academic than anything – it’s when you pan-fry your gyoza that the differences really show up. A good pan-fried gyoza turns toasty brown on one-side while steaming up on the other. The result is a spectrum of textures, from crispy to soft, to add another dimension to the meaty filling.
Of course, no good potsticker would be complete without a killer dipping sauce. A simple mixture of soy sauce and vinegar (I like a 1:2 ration) elevates this humble dumpling to surprisingly levels of flavor and melt in your mouth pleasure. Ideally, you should use a mild rice vinegar, but any vinegar will work.
It’s a winning combination in my book, and a flawless execution of a delicious and versatile food that can be eaten as a side dish or main course. Trader Joe’s should be proud – they’ve done the gyoza proud.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – they’re perfect for entrees or sides.
Would I Buy It Again: I’m hooked.
Final Synopsis: Authentic tasting gyoza that cook up fantastically.
Most of the time Trader Joe’s manages to make their frozen food look quite delectable on the bag. For some reason, they just couldn’t manage it with their chicken chow mein. From the barren, spike-filled background on which it sits, to the uninspired “here it is” presentation of the dish, the whole picture wouldn’t look out of place inelegantly thumb tacked to the wall of that Chinese food place you never go in.
That should always be your first tip off. If the small army of marketers behind the promo picture, armed with the latest in unscrupulous food trickery and photoshop, can’t make it look good, it’s probably not very good.
From the get go you know it’s not going to be pretty, so the question really is, What do you expect from a frozen chicken chow mein? There’s plenty of good, fresh cooked chow mein out there, but this chicken chow mein isn’t that, and it never will be. This is simply a bag of frozen noodles and vegetables that you can cook up in about 7 minutes.
While there’s nothing amazing or exemplary about this chow mein, there’s nothing bad about it either. It’s there, you’re not going to do any flips over it, but it’ll get the job done – which in this case is nourishing your meaty bod.
There are no special tricks here, it looks like a pound of frozen chicken, vegetables and noodles and that’s what you get. The frozen broccoli, julienned carrots, onions, and strips of red pepper taste just like reheated frozen vegetables always taste – somewhat limp, somewhat muted. The same applies to the chicken, which is entirely ordinary cubes of white chicken breast touched up with some salt. All told they are entirely edible and perfectly acceptable for a no frill Tuesday night, but not something that is going to light up your evening.
The noodles are a cut above what you’d expect to get from a cup of ramen, but not by too much. Like the rest of the meal, they are just good enough to pass mustard without excelling.
A frozen chicken chow mein is meant to be a quick and easy meal, and that’s what Trader Joe’s delivers. Unlike some of their other, higher quality dishes like Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken none of the ingredients are separated out for individual cooking. This is a bag you rip open and dump in the pan. As far as that goes, it’s good, but it never aspires to anything above that station.
And that’s precisely the problem. Trader Joe’s has a lot of excellent frozen dinners to offer, even in the “lonely bachelor food” category. Along with the aforementioned Kungo Pao Chicken, there’s Thai Sai Tung Curry, Hake en papillote or Pizza Veggie Burgers. The list goes on really. If you’re really hurting for chow mein, make your own or just order in. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options out there for your last minute dinner needs.
Would I Recommend It: Apathetically, perhaps.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stay a Kung Pao man.
Final Synopsis: It’s good for a frozen chow mein, so in other words, “meh”.
We return again to the strange shores of vegan cuisine to take a look at Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. We’ve looked at a good number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to this meaty world we live in – from soy “ice cream” to chicken-free chicken nuggets.
In general, I find that vegetarian food really shines when it’s not getting hung up on trying to be the doppleganger of meat products, as with Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers, and just does it’s own thing. The worst sins of vegan cuisine seem to occur when somebody decides that, goddammit, yes, I need to make a turkey out of tofu. Vegetable dishes are good as vegetables, and meat dishes are good as meat – there’s no need for vegetables to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to be proved wrong in novel ways, hence the acquisition of these “meat”balls.
TJ’s comes straight out and calls their meatless meatballs, “a delicious meat-free substitute for any meal” right there on the package, without even a hint of modesty. I wouldn’t go that far, but the meatballs do delivery a surprisingly rich and full, if not exactly meaty, flavor. The meatlessballs, for lack of a better word, replicate the texture and mouthfeel of a standard party meatball pretty closely. The bite of the ball is moist and a little chewy – holding together well, and breaking up much as a bit of ground beef would. Coated with a heavy sauce, or mixed into a plate of pasta you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Taken by itself, however, the meatlessball tastes, and more importantly, smells very dissimilar.
A good job was done to season the meatlessballs in such a way that they are roughly approximate to a normal meatball, but there’s no hiding the sort of soybean-y aftertaste when eaten straight off the plate. There’s nothing here of the fatty, visceral taste of the meatball – instead there’s a thinner, somewhat vegetable blandness. This difference in taste is rather mild, however, which means it can be hidden very effectively under a good marinera or similar sauce. More problematic, for those seeking a true meat substitute, is the smell wich has nothing of the savory, fatty scent of a simmering meatball. Instead, it smells like what it is – a bunch of hot soy. It’s a strong enough scent that it might make you think twice about digging in.
When you pop this bag open, the first thing you should realize is that you
are getting a ton of these guys. These are cocktail meatballs, not the big honking ones you get in Trader Joe’s regular bag of frozen meatballs. The move feels like it may be a practical one, as even at their smaller size the meatless meatballs have a certain tendency to break up if played around with too much. On the plus side, they’re down right healthy compared to Trader Joe’s ordinary beef variety meatballs. Each six meatball serving has only 140 calories, 45 from fat, and 13 whopping grams of protein.
How do such meatless balls manage such a feat? Through the magic of textured soy protein, of course.
To level with you, I generally react to this sort of psuedo-meat like a horse being lead up to Frakenstein’s castle. There’s something strange and unnatural about it that makes me balk. Meat I get. It’s easy to get answers out of meat. “Hey, what’s this meatball made out of?” “A bunch of dead cow.” That’s a straight forward answer. The answers are harder with meatless meat products, because all of a sudden I’m being tricked, right from the start. Nothing is what it appears, but instead a complex masquerade of strange technical processes meant to fool me into thinking I’m eating meat. That’s vaguely sinister – and such weird yet innocuous phrases as “textured soy protein” only make me nervous.
Textured soy protein or “TSP” is, in fact, kind of weird and sinister stuff. It’s basically the styrofoam of the food world, used since the 1960’s by the Archer Dale Midland company to pad out meat with filler material. It’s what happens when you heat soy bean flour to high temperatures that it melts, then is extruded from a nozzle as “a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textured_vegetable_protein). Does that sound amazing? Not really, but they tell you not to ask about how sausage is made either.
That may sound like I’m being harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate. In terms of texture and even, to a fair degree, taste these “meat”balls really are good substitutes for real meatballs. But to say, as Trader Joe’s does, that they’re a substitute for “any recipe” isn’t one I’d stand behind. Taken as a small asset in a larger dish, in a sloppy meatball sandwich say, they work beautifully, as they would for any vegetarian just looking to get a little variety in their diet. However, in a dish where the meatballs are showcased instead of hidden behind other, stronger flavors they’re unlikely to please the table.
Would I Recommend It: Not to meat eaters, possibly to vegetarians.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, I’ll stick to TJ’s lean turkey variety.
Final Synopsis: Fake meatballs suitable for pasta but not soup.