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.
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.
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”.
You’ve probably heard about the oncoming Breakfast Armageddon. Your traditional, western-style breakfast table of bacon and eggs – the hearty, workman-like breakfast of middle-class, middle America – is on an out of control roller coaster ride straight into the mouth of Hell. What I mean, of course, is that the cornerstones of breakfast – bacon and eggs – have seen unprecedented price spikes over the last 12 months (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics). Due to a conflux of calamities, including global drought and widespread swine pestilence, the price for a pound of bacon has jumped nearly 19% between May 2013 and May 2014.
Certainly I don’t want to be accused of fear mongering, but according to the computer simulators here at EatingAtJoes.net, if this trend continues a pound of bacon will cost $572.38 by 2029, at which point it will be cheaper to just start eating human. At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, I absolutely urge you to smash down the doors of your nearest supermarket and steal as much bacon as you can carry this very second. That, or switch over to Trader Joe’s Bacon Ends and Pieces!
I picked up this oblong little pack of scrunched up pork while weighing my grocery bill against the climbing price tag of Trader Joe’s truly, truly delicious Applewood Smoked Bacon. I’m on the record as saying that the bacon fad long ago become tiresome, and am the foremost proponent calling for a period of bacon tumescence, say a decade or so, at which point we can all start eating it again and sticking it in vodka and whatever. That said, TJ’s applewood smoked bacon makes me go weak in the knees when I smell it sizzling up in it’s own, rich fat on the skillet.
It was this battle of my animal id against my budgetary superego that Trader Joe’s so deftly diffused by producing their bacon ends and pieces.
As you can gather from the name, Trader Joe’s Bacon Ends and Pieces are the assorted left over bits of bacon that they didn’t see fit to package in their regular packs of Applewood Smoked Bacon. To a certain mindset, that means you’re eating Trader Joe’s trash, but don’t think about that. Instead, focus on the deal! In exchange for choosing the bacon rejects, and forgoing the niceties of traditional packaging, you get 12 oz of delicious, nitrate-free, applewood smoked bacon for only two bucks and change, less than half the regular price.
What I was expecting from that price, and the smaller package, was a bunch of irregular chunks of varying thickness. I was surprised to find that this wasn’t the case. On opening the pack, I discovered that the strips had been folded, but were otherwise the same size and shape as regular bacon. The big difference is in the fat/meat ration. While TJ’s regular Applewood Smoked Bacon is more or less uniformly fatty, these bacon ends varied between 50% – 80% fat. Obviously, this isn’t ideal. After all, I’m the yutz who usually buys turkey bacon. That said, a little carefully slicing with my kitchen knife before putting them in the pan left me with bacon that was as lean or leaner than what I normally get.
It’s important to note, by the way, that your results may vary. The bacon ends and pieces are a grab bag by nature. The fattiness of the pieces, and their size, is likely to vary from package to package.
I’m sure there are those of you out there who fear picking these up lest they be branded by the stigma of poverty. After all, isn’t this just poor people’s bacon? Well – yes, maybe. But don’t forget that what you’re buying here is not just a breakfast substitute, but a raw ingredient with a long culinary tradition. There are things you can do with bacon ends and pieces that you can’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, with the neatly packaged kind. As the internet has exhaustively noted, the applications of bacon are limited only by your creativity, but in particular the higher fat content of the end pieces makes them perfect for dicing up and cooking in stews and soups, adding to green beans and baked beans, or any dish that you want to infuse with a rich, smokey hint of savory bacon.
For my part, I poured off the excess bacon fat, then cooked my eggs straight on the still glistening skillet – giving them that extra touch of delectable goodness. If you’re happy with your bacon as is, by all means continue buying as usual. If, however, you’re looking for relief from the rising cost of breakfast, or are looking for some fatty goodness to throw in the stock pot, this bacon gets the job done.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, if you’re not concerned about your fat intake.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes for cooking projects, but they were too caloric for my everyday bacon.
Final Synopsis: Extremely delicious bacon, with more fat for less money.
Trader Joe’s Chicken Piccata is an excellent, no-frills Italian-style chicken dish perfect for your last-minute dinner. As TJ explains right on the box, chicken piccata is “seasoned breaded boneless chicken breasts, baked in a lemon, caper and white wine sauce. Even this simple descriptions belies the simplicity of the dish.
When you open package, you’ll only find only two things within, breaded chicken cutlets, and a large pouch of yellowish sauce. That’s it – and that’s all you really need. This is a meal at its most spare. Simply open the sauce packet, apply to the chicken, throw it in the microwave for two and half minutes and your piccata is ready. This minimalist meal is pared down from the more bulked up version that Trader Joe’s offered back in 2013 that included a side of broccoli and pasta.
That minimalism actually suits the chicken picatta well. Piccata, after all, has always been the very figure of quick and easy cuisine. Even traditional, hand-made chicken piccata (or veal piccata, if you going really old school) can be cooked up in a few minutes flat. The dish couldn’t be more streamlined if it had been designed in some sort of food wind tunnel (maybe it uses gravy instead of wind?). For example, the first step to a good piccata is smashing the hell out of piece of meat until it’s thin enough to see through. The chicken breast gets sandwiched between two sheets of wax paper and pounded remorselessly until the chicken is either a quarter inch flat or the cook has worked out all of his simmering rage.
The flattened meat is then dredged through a mixture of flour and seasoning until properly breaded up. This has got to be the best part of the cooking process, because every resource I consulted on piccata uses the exact same terminology. “Dredge the chicken through the flour.” Dredge it. Dredge the chicken.
Dredge is an amazing word, but most of the time you have to tack it onto downer sentences about muck and sunken corpses and such, so I’m glad it gets a chance to jazz
up a more light-hearted sentence once it a while. Unless you decided to go with the veal, I suppose. “Dredge the veal” isn’t a sentence that’s likely to win many people over.
At any rate, your smashed up, dredged meat is going to cook up on a hot frying pan almost instantly, at which point it’s removed from and the pan and the pan drippings are mixed up with some wine, lemon juice, etc into a sauce. And there you have it – piccata. Just that easy, bro.
So while it’s understandable that there isn’t more to this piccata, it’s also a shame because what it has to offer is so good. The breaded chicken breast is pre-cooked, but retains its tenderness and moisture even after reheating. This is thanks, in some part, to the breading that encloses each breast in a thick, chewy layer that crisps up after cooking. The breaded cutlet is pretty dang good by itself, but it’s the sauce that really makes this piccata a piccata.
The lemon and white wine in the sauce are no mere threats – despite the heavy nature of the sauce (and its fat content) it tastes light and packs a zippy zing. It dangerously good, the strong, dry citrus taste pairing very well with the chicken, while the melted butter satisfies to the corners of the mouth.
If it wasn’t for the considerable fat content (44 grams total), I would pick this up all the time. In fact, I’m such a fan I might skip Trader Joe’s entirely next time and just make it myself! (But probably not.)
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is as good as it is simple.
Would I Buy It Again: I want to say yes – if only it wasn’t so fatty.
Final Synopsis: A quick and easy Italian-American classic.
I really hope you’ve had sukiyaki before, but if you haven’t, here’s the breakdown. Sukiyaki is a stew like dish, made with thinly sliced beef some noodles and a selection of super Japanese vegetables including Napa cabbage, spring onion (negi), shitake mushrooms and gobo. “Gobo” translates to “burdock root” in English, but unless you’ve actually had burdock root, that probably doesn’t tell you much. Basically, gobo is a long, slender root with a taste part way between carrot and potato, generally eaten after being boiled and shredded.
These ingredients are cooked up bubbling hot in a rich soupy broth made of soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Mirin, being a much sweeter, much less alcoholic form of sake, gives the dish it’s trademark semi-sweet flavor which acts as counterpoint to the savory meatiness of the dish. In short, it’s a hard meal to get right – particularly if you’re trying to figure out a way to flash freeze it, and sell it across the nation for $6.99 a bag.
The word “sukiyaki” is Japanese for “???”. Everyone can agree that “yaki” definitely means “cooked” (as in, teriyaki, teppanyaki, yakitori, etc). It’s the “suki” part that there is no general consensus on. It’s either translated as the noun “shovel”, or as the verb “to make thin”. The verb is explained through reference to the thin slices of meat. The “shovel” claim, on the other hand, is backed up by awkwardly contorted and dubious historical scenarios, one involving a peasant who was so ashamed of his inferior kitchenware that, when a guest showed up at his hut by surprise, he decided to clean off his shovel and cook on that. I hope it’s obvious which translation I prefer to believe.
Even if you haven’t had sukiyaki before, you’ve probably heard the “Sukiyaki Song” at least once. Performed by Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese Dean Martin, way back in the 1960’s, this happy little ditty rocketed to #1 on the billboard charts in America – a shocking fact given that there isn’t a word of English in the whole song.
Pedants and know-it-alls are quick to point out that the so-called “Sukiyaki Song” actually has nothing to do with sukiyaki at all, and is in fact a heart-rending ballad of a love lost forever saddled with a silly name by savvy American marketers. What these blowhards fail to grasp, however, is that due to the grammatical quirks of Japanese the subject of Kyu’s doleful crooning is never explicitly stated. It’s entirely possible that the love Kyu mourns is, in fact, a really good bowl of sukiyaki that he’ll never have again.
In that light, lines such as “Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars. Sadness hides in the shadow of the moon,” are all the more haunting and resonant.
So how does Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki stack up? Although TJ’s make an admirable effort, their sukiyaki just doesn’t quite cut the mustard. They make their first misstep before you even open the bag. Normally, sukiyaki is made with thick, hearty noodles like udon or chewy “jelly” noodles made of firm konyaku. Not so here – instead Trader Joe’s uses thin, flat, glass noodles made from mung beans. That may sound like a subtle difference, but the result is that the noodles are considerably downplayed in the dish, letting the veggies and meat run wild without a mild counterpart to balance out the stronger flavors.
It’s in those stronger flavors where the sukiyaki really falters. No one was more ready than I to love the hell out of this little dish, but it just doesn’t quite work. The main problem in in the sweetness. Sukiyaki should be sweet enough to intrigue the tongue, but not so sweet that your left grasping for a glass of water. Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki makes exactly this mistake, loading on the sweet mirin (and added sugar) to the point where the sweetness is the primary taste. The beef and sliced veggies certainly make an impression, they just don’t outlast the strong, sweet taste of the sauce.
That brings us to the other problem – the calorie count for this bag of sukiyaki is something to be reckoned with. Each 20 ounce bag is supposed to be broken up into 4 servings. Sadly, if you buy this dish you’ll discover that serving suggestion is a pipe dream. While the helping of meat is generous, there is hardly enough veggies and noodles for two people, let alone four. Sukiyaki is meant to be a standalone dish – or at the very least an entree. Taken at the given proportions, Trader Joe’s is delivering a side soup at best.
That’s not to say this is a bad dish – there’s a lot that Trader Joe’s does well here. The beef and veggies is good quality, and come in a separate bags for ease of defrosting and cooking. There’s a real effort to try and do the whole thing right, and if the flavor palette was reformulated a little bit this would be a killer dish. Until that happens, I’ll just have to walk along, whistling, remembering fonder sukiyakis long gone.
Would I Recommend It: It’s not bad exactly, but I don’t think I would.
Would I Buy It Again: Sadly, I wouldn’t.
Final Synopsis: A good attempt at sukiyaki that ends up too scant, and too sweet.