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”.
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.
All salads are chock full of vegetables by definition – but Trader Joe’s Harvest Salad really hammers that notion home in a robust new way with this aggressively vegetable laden cud fest. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.
I love a salad that takes the salad formula in strange new directions, like the Artichoke and Hearts of Palm Salad, but I also have a great deal of respect for the classic salad formula pulled off right. Trader Joe’s Harvest Salad with Grilled Chicken is one variation of that classic salad formula, huge hearty salad where the sheer robust presence of veggies completely eclipses the meat. It’s the perfect palette cleansing salad – a return to the roots of what a salad is meant to be: huge mouthfuls of hearty, filling veggies served on a thick bed of lettuce. Which isn’t to say the salad is so straight laced that it doesn’t dabble in absurdity. Case in point, the huge, uncut green beans laid out front and center on top of the whole shebang. “Are we really supposed to eat these?” and “Why did Trader Joe’s do this?” are a couple of the reasonable questions you’ll immediate ask yourself. It’s not like Trader Joe’s doesn’t have sliced green beans. We know you have those, Joe. No, these green beans are here on purpose, to convey a message – and that message is that you’re going to need a knife just to eat the vegetables in this salad. It’s boldness and simplicity intertwined – a masterful representation of Trader Joe’s high salad artistry.
The “eat your veggies” message is further hammered home by the choice of a creamy dijon dressing. Dijon? Certainly. Creamy? Not so much. It’s a fairly loose dressing actually, more like a vinaigrette than a heavy sauce and, more importantly, the acerbic dijon works like a vinaigrette, accenting and highlighting the chewy greenery instead of obscuring their flavor under thick, overpowering emollients.
To be sure, there are non-vegetable elements in this salad, the titular chicken, along with some cubes of white cheddar cheese and half a boiled egg, and it’s these touches that make the salad work. Vegetables for vegetables sake can quickly become boring – but the charbroiled taste of the chicken meat and thick cubes of cheese break up the homogeneity with sudden bursts of fatty flavor.
In all in all, it’s very well done – but that’s not to say it’s a must buy. Trader Joe’s put this salad together with one point in mind, to remind you about vegetables. If you’ve forgotten about vegetables, you’re sure as hell going to remember them as you sit idly chewing on a big mouthful of corn kernels and green beans, really tasting those flavors at their most basic. And while that’s an important message, it has its time and place. If you remember vegetables quite well already and enjoy them frequently in your day to day life, you might appreciate one of Trader Joe’s more subtle or unusual salad over this bruiser. If, on the other hand, you need a palette cleanser, a vegetable side dish, or simply want to wipe the slate clean after a long sojourn among fast food, you couldn’t do better. As daily meal in itself, however, you might find that this salad tends to side a little too closely with the roughage.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a fundamentally good salad.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, the next time a need a simple, serviceable side salad.
Final Synopsis: A hearty garden salad that highlights the vegetables.
I’ve got to hand it to Trader Joe’s Chickenless Crispy Tenders – they’re some of the best fake meat I’ve had to date. I’ve commented before on the common pitfalls of vegetarian cuisine attempting to ape meat instead of just doing its own thing. Usually this ends in a painfully tortured product name that attempts to acknowledge that it’s totally vegetarian but tastes just like meat, wink wink. (cf. Tofurkey). Generally this is an outrageous lie, or, more generously, extremely wishful thinking by a meat-starved demographic.
I’ve already expounded on my metaphysical sympathy for vegetarians. I can support the cause – I advocate the idea of abstaining from meat, and would do so myself if only my intensely bon vivant lifestyle would allow for it. Nevertheless, like the soy creamy ice cream substitute before it, I bought some crispy chickenless teneder because I needed a non-meat alternative for my (one) vegan friend. As fate would have it, I accidentally forgot to cook them in time for the meal, she ended up having nothing, and I was left with these chickenless tenders until tonight, when continued poor planning left me with nothing else in the house to eat.
Fortunately, Trader Joe’s Chickenless Tenders are not just edible, but downright tasty. They actually taste more or less like chicken tenders. How close? Close enough you could probably fool an unwary guest if you served them up without fanfare. There is still that tell-tale aftertaste of “soy-ness” that hangs around, but it’s pretty mild and is more or less totally cloaked by whatever dipping sauces or dressings you’re going to be ingesting the chicken tenders with. The only strange part is that the strips have been “breaded” in a variety of oats and flours that result in a crumbly, quasi breading that’s generally inferior to ordinary breading. The reason for this substitution, I cannot quite fathom.
TJ’s has managed to capture not just the taste, but also the texture of breaded chicken strips. The tenders are precisely that, coming out of the oven tender, moist, and just toothsome enough to give you a nice balance between chewy and yielding. They even pull apart more or less like real chicken, which is a difficult feat to accomplish when your medium is soy protein isolate.
How did TJ’s manage such a thing? I have no idea, but apparently it involves a large number of strange sounding, if allegedly natural, ingredients.
Water, soy protein isolate, and canola oil make up the first three ingredients, naturally enough. It might seem unusual that oil is ingredient #3, but remember that these are oven-baked “chicken” fingers we’re talking about. Like fish and or shrimp nuggets, when you take them out of the oven you’re going to be picking them up out of a little pool of their own oil.
After these three ingredients things get a little crazy. Pea protein pops up in a prominent position. Are peas known for their protein? Is it possible to tell someone, out loud, that your food has a lot of pea protein in it and not make it sound like an unspeakable form of bio-waste recycling? Not as far as I’m concerned.
After that we get into the ancient grain flours – including quinoa (natch), millet, and everyone’s favorite, amaranth. Rounding all that out is a good helping of Kamut®. “What the hell is Kamut®, and why is it trademarked?” is the very reasonable question you might be asking yourself right now. We’ll have to save that can of worms for another day, but the short answer is it’s a proprietary form of ancient wheat known as Khorasan wheat, originally from round about Afghanistan and nowadays lorded over by two Montana farmers. Also there’s beet root fiber in the tenders.
Somehow, in the end, all of this comes together to make strangely delicious vegan chicken tenders, with only thrice the fat of regular chicken tenders. For me it’s less important how it all works out, then the fact that it does. They might not replace regular, flesh and blood chicken in my life, but it’s good to know there’s a good back up option should it ever come to it.
Would I Recommend It: I would, if you’re a vegan/vegetarian.
Would I Buy It Again: This seems like a good fit for Meatless Monday.
Final Synopsis: Eerily good vegan chicken tenders.