Today we have yet another entry in TJ’s seeming endless parade of salads. Unfortunately, Trader Joe’s Salad with BBQ Flavored Chicken is a pale imitation and poor match for the much more delicious MexiCali salad or, well, most of the salads I’ve tried from TJ’s.
TJ’s BBQ chicken Salad commits one of the great crimes of food – being bland. The salad is basically fine – it’s not unpalatable or gross or particularly unpleasant at all really – it’s simply mute, a more or less flavorless meal. This would have been less of a surprise if I this salad was all boiled watercress or something, but were talking about what sounds like a knock-out line up of ingredients. Lettuce, black beans, corn, minced red pepper, tortilla strips and smoked Gouda cheese. The smoked Gouda I’m not going to say a word against – it’s delicious burst of flavor in an otherwise uninteresting salad. Instead, let’s take a look at the BBQ flavored chicken itself. Sounds good, right? Or does it?
I suppose the “flavored” line in the title should have tipped me off. When people start tossing in qualifiers like “flavored”, as in “grape juice flavored beverage drink”, you know you’re going to be getting some sub-par cuisine. That’s what we’re getting here. This isn’t barbecue chicken, or chicken with barbecue sauce, its barbecue-flavored chicken, meaning, I suppose, that instead of actually cooking the chicken up like someone who cares, you sort of mist the chicken with a barbecue solution while it runs by on a conveyor belt. Whatever the method, the chicken holds only a weak bbq sauce taste that vanishes under the stronger lettuce and corn flavors.
Hand in hand with the bland bbq chicken, goes the bland BBQ Vinaigrette. We’ve already looked, very briefly, at the proud tradition of vinegar-based BBQ sauces native to the Carolinas. This is not they. The included BBQ vinaigrette tastes like a weak, watered down BBQ sauce that does no favor for the vegetable medley. If you cut this out and substituted it with a more robust, flavorful sauce, maybe a blue cheese of some sort, you might have a salad worth recommending. That’s probably more effort that it’s worth however.
Overall, this salad manages to be less than the sum of its parts. It’s not the worst salad in the world, but it really has nothing to recommend it either. When you’ve got panoply of truly great salads just waiting for you in the produce aisle, it’s hard to imagine why you’d ever go for this guy.
Would I Recommend It: No, try the Mexicali salad instead.
Would I Buy It Again: Maybe ironically.
Final Synopsis: A salad as bland as it is poorly named.
This, folks, is a classy frozen meal. When it comes to frozen dinners there are many terrible ones and a few tasty ones – then there are the classy ones. A classy dish is one that turns from frozen, straight-from-the-supermarket food into something that makes you feel like a real person – a dish you’d be happy to serve your family, not just shovel into your mouth alone. Our old friend Hake en Papillote was such a classy dish, and TJ’s Kung Pao Chicken is another. It tastes so good, and cooks up so easily, that and looks so nice on your plate (peanuts and spicy red peppers included!) that you can’t help but feel like a skilled chef.
Before I get into exactly why this Kung Pao is so tasty, a few words on its history are in order. Like many traditional dishes, Kung Pao chicken has a fascinating story that needs to be heard. Kung Pao chicken popped into existence in the 1800’s in the spicy Szechuan region of China. It quickly exploded in popularity, becoming a darling of restaurants all across the nation, until it abruptly ceased to exist one day in 1966, and wouldn’t return to tables for two decades. This sudden disappearance was, of course, the fault of Ding Baozhen, an aristocrat who died in the Qing Dynasty nearly a hundred years earlier.
“Kung Pao” literally means “Palace Guardian”, which just happens to be the title that noble Ding, then governor of Shichuan province, bore. Due to reasons lost to time, Govenor Ding was bestowed the honor of having this delicious, spicy chicken dish named after him. Kung Pao glorified Ding on menus across the kingdom until the sudden, alarming rise of Communism in the mid 60’s China and the ensuing Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was a period of intense fanaticism in China, and chief among its various purposes was to unmoor modern China from it’s imperial roots. Practically, this meant rewriting all of Chinese history, right down to the incidentally named local fare. As a result, from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, Kung Pao, though still served, was no longer known as Kung Pao. Officially, it was now known as “Hongbao Jiding” or “Fast-fried chicken cubes”.
At the exact same time, Kung Pao was experiencing great turbulence in the immigrant kitchens of Chinese Americans. There the savory dish was suffering an identity crisis of similar magnitude as in China. While the name persisted unchanged, its ingredients started to undergo a radical revision. Authentic Chinese Kung Pao hinges on one key ingredient, the Sichuan peppercorn – an ingredient common throughout Szchehuan cooking. These peppercorns were responsible for the unique, tingling zing Kung Pao was supposed to have on the tongue and lips. The peppercorns flowed freely into American ports until 1968, when Uncle Sam slammed the door. The problem? A botanical ailment known as “citrus canker” was devastating American crops and Sichuan peppercorns numbered among the disease’s potential vectors. With the fate of the Florida orange at stake, Sichuan peppercorns had to go. For 32 years, all the way until the year 2000, the peppercorns were banned from these shores, forcing Kung Pao to mutate into a different form – the peppercorn-free, vegetable-laden dish we know today.
Communism has fallen and the Sichuan peppercorn is again freely available, but the path of western-style Kung Pao is firmly implanted in the American mind. This isn’t a bad thing – bringing a delicious new form of food into the world can never be a bad thing – and Trader Joe’s has mastered the medium perfectly. I’ve been known to bandy the word “mastery” around fairly lightly, but in this case it absolutely applies. I’ve sat down to a plate after plate of Kung Pao chicken in numerous Chinese restaurants and I can firmly say that, like minestrone before it, the Trader Joe’s version is better than all of them.
I’ll be damned if I know how they packed that much goodness into a frozen bag, but they managed it. Snap open the 1 lb+ bag (cost, a damn reasonable $4.99), and you’ll find some frozen, breaded chicken, a bag of frozen veggies (bell peppers, onions, and water chestnuts and of course super hot peppers), two sacks of tangy sauce, and a baggy of halved peanuts. There are microwaveable instructions on the bag but disregard these – they’re only there to tempt the weak-willed. Your choice should be skillet cooking, which could not be easy, quicker or more rewarding. I’m generally a klutz in the kitchen, but even I can brown chicken in a tablespoon of oil, add the vegetables until they soften, mix in sauce and garnish with peanuts. Nothing more than that, and you end up with a somewhat sweet, salty, savory dish of tender chicken, crunchy veggies and yielding peanuts, all held together by a brilliantly balanced sauce and a thread of fire.
The only complaint I can level against the Kung Pao is that it comes with too much sauce. Two packets is more than you need – but this is as easily solved as putting one packet aside before cooking. If only all of life was this easy.
Would I Recommend It: I absolutely would.
Would I Buy It Again: I already have.
Final Synopsis: A turbulent history has culminated in this better-than-restaurant Kung Pao chicken.
Ah, another delicious salad from Trader Joe’s – but like most TJ’s salads, their Broccoli Slaw and Kale Salad with White Chicken Meat has a unique set of quirks and shortfalls. Somewhere out there is the perfect Trader Joe’s salad, and while I’ve come close before it still eludes me. Nevertheless I press on, searching for that pot of leafy greens at the end of the rainbow.
Things get a bit weird from the word go as we face the fact that this is a kale-based salad – an uncommon choice in a world of iceberg and baby spinach. I have been underwhelmed by kale before, but at least now it’s being utilized for it’s intended purpose. Kale is a tough, flavorful leaf – a mess of roughage just waiting to scrub your insides clean, and as such demands a flavorful and carefully balanced composition to justify such a bold base. TJ’s finds exactly this with the addition of such hearty ingredients as cranberries, sunflower seeds, a coarse grating of broccoli slaw white chicken meat and, though it goes unheralded on the label, finely sliced red onion. Thin shavings of red onion are one of my favorite additions to any salad and they do beautifully here, adding a bit of zing to the broad, nutty flavors of the kale and sunflowerseeds.
What works a little less well for me is the broccoli slaw. Not that I have anything against broccoli slaw – in fact I buy Trader Joe’s Broccoli Slaw by the bagful for use in my own salads. That, however, is exactly the problem. The broccoli slaw on this salad is indisputable the same kind they’re peddling to me from the produce aisle three feet to my left. While that doesn’t necessarily drive me into a rage or anything, it does make me feel a bit cheap.
I suppose it was a little naive of me to think that Trader Joe’s might have a separate storehouse of special ingredients they use to make their salads and that weren’t just dipping into the common trough of their consumer goods and slapping something together. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see someone get dressed up if they’re courting your tastes. If you look at your little pail of food and realize it’s just just a diverted conveyor belt away from whatever goes into the bulk, economy bags the magic fades a little.
Aside from that rather abstract gripe, there’s only one other thing that bothers me about this otherwise very fine salad – the salad dressing. The packaging bills it as a “Sweet and Spicy Vinaigrette” which begins to approach the truth of the matter but then explodes in a burst of absurdity. Sweet and spicy? Yes, and very tasty to boot. Vinaigrette? Not on any planet I’m familiar with. The thick dressing that rolls sluggishly about its little plastic tub has more in common with 1000 Island than any vinaigrette I’ve seen in my life. In fact, a quick survey of the ingredients, or a quick taste, reveals that the dressing is primarily made from mayonnaise. Is this bad? Not necessarily, certainly not if you don’t mind a delicious but hugely fatty dressing on your kale. For my part, I substituted in Trader Joe’s Balsamic Vinaigrette and was much happier for it.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – even if you’ve never liked kale before you might like this.
Would I Buy It Again: Despite a couple short-comings, absolutely.
Final Synopsis: A robust, healthy salad with an unhealthy dressing.
Trader Joe’s Truffle Mousse Pate is without a doubt the fanciest thing I’ve bought from a grocery store. Fancier than the Dukkah, fancier than the organic stone-ground Mexican chocolate, fancier than a lot of things .
Untangling The Fancy Talk
What is a pate? What is a truffle mousse? How do you render truffles into a mousse? Why is the pate vacuum packed in a tiny, plastic tray? What is the meaning of the weird, centimeter of gelatin coating the bottom of the pate?
Look, I won’t try and delude you here – I’m a johnny-lunch pail sort of gourmand, a brutally unrefined taster of interesting nibbles and such. I, and I’m really emptying out my soul here, have never had pate before. I don’t really have a really solid grasp of the pate world. I couldn’t tell you what marks a good pate form a bad pate, or alert you if you were about to bite into a pate smeared brioche that had gone south a week ago. If you had seen me at the Trader Joe’s you would have seen a curious, rotund man quizzically turning over a block of pate in front of his eyes, clearly befuddled. This is all beyond my ken – so this is your chance to bail out now if you fancy yourself something of a pate snob. What you are about to read are the unvarnished musings of a pate initiate.
Okay, first question – let’s see if we can figure this out. What the hell are the truffle, the mousse, the brandy aspic and the pate all doing to each other in this thing?
Let’s start with what I know. Pate is any chilled, meat paste – most famously encountered in the form of foie gras – a pate made of goose livers. Trader Joe’s isn’t delivering on goose liver, but decided to keep it in the avian organ family and is giving us chicken liver instead. When you’re selling a ground organ paste, and trying to market it to humans instead of cats, you need to do two things – give it a fancy foreign name (check), and ensure you’re doing something suitably cruel to justify the cost. Goose liver pate has come under heavy fire in the last few years, in California particularly, due to the rather inhuman method of it’s creation. Namely, a goose is locked in a box and force fed until it’s liver swells to triple the normal size, at which point it is butchered and the liver cut out. Trader Joe’s seems to be rather deliberately side-stepping the issue by sourcing their livers from chickens instead of geese – though you’ve got to imagine that TJ’s is only fooling themselves at this point. If you’re going to be outraged about the geese, you’re going to be outraged about the chickens.
Continuing the foie gras similarities is the addition of truffle mousse. Truffles are, of course, famous for being really expensive mushrooms that pigs hunt. Truffle mousse is most commonly made when truffles are whipped up with foie gras, though in this case it is our chicken liver pate they are mixed with. Presumably this is to make the pate very tasty. Unfortunately, the flavors of the mushroom and truffle mousse, being folded into the chicken liver pate, is beyond my proletarian tongue’s ability to tease out.
The final noteworthy addition is the brandy aspic, which takes the form of a thick level of gelatin that’s congealed along the bottom of the pate. Why stick a layer of brandy-infused meat jelly on the bottom of a truffle mousse pate? Well, primarily because it’s traditional to include some sort of refined alcohol (aspic or otherwise) with pate, and having tried it I can only imagine that it’s there to offset the otherwise overpoweringly intense flavor of the pate itself. By itself, this aspic jelly doesn’t taste like much – whatever bite the brandy had has been much muted by it’s inclusion in a meat jelly – so it gives your tongue a cool respite from the heavy liver and truffle flavor.
The pate itself tastes musky, very musky, and thick with very savory, complex meaty flavors. It is not overly salty, or any other taste –but rather overwhelms you with it’s heavy, liver taste. Pate is, as we discussed, basically just liver – and if you’ve ever had ground liver in any of its forms you simply have to amplify that taste in your head several times and you’ve got an approximate sense of what to expect.
The Error Of Cheap Pate
Most shocking is that Trader Joe’s Truffle Mousse Pate – for all the truffles and pate and brandy aspic, is reasonably priced at $6.00 / 8 oz. A little pate goes a long way, so this little brick should be enough to please the whole party. That is, if your party is the type where people are going to be pleased by cheap pate. God knows I love Trader Joe’s for their true dedication to affordable prices, but in this case I believe it’s actually the final mark against them.
Pate, after all, is like caviar in that it is appreciated more for its elegance than its taste. There is a food to compliment every hue of the human spectrum, and pate just happens to fill the niche of hoighty-toity cuisine. A budget priced pate undercuts it’s reason for existence. Caviar and truffles and pate are good and all – but there’s a reason they aren’t potato chip flavors. People aren’t flocking to truffles and pate because it’s the absolute taste sensation, it’s value lays in the price at the cash register. Offer an expensive pate and you’re a classy host, a cheap pate and you’re a cheap host – taste has always been secondary.
That said, let us never underestimate the trumpeting blast of democratization. If you, like myself, have never had a pate, let alone a pate infused with black truffles, then why not pick up some crackers and give it a whirl. Surely, there has never been a more opportune time then now.
Would I Recommend It: Only to the very curious.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t host those kinds of parties.
Final Synopsis: A cheap version of a very upscale snack.
I should develop a special Star of Excellence to award for the best products at Trader Joe’s. I won’t because, you know, eh – life, but if I did I would not hesitate to award it to Trader Joe’s Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Chicken.
How did they do this?! It’s astounding – there it is, a big hunk of cold chicken sitting in a little cheap, plastic bin sealed by a flimsy bit of plastic, basting in a dubious looking dark fluid, packaged with an actual twig, sitting in the refrigerated section between shapeless strips of sliced turkey and uninspiring lasagnas. How could this thing, this ordinary thing, be very good? Maybe it could be not bad, maybe it could even be decent, but there’s no way it’s going to be exceptional, right?
Goddamit people! This is what I’m tell you – it is exceptional. I don’t know how the mighty food wizards at TJ’s did it again, but they did it again. They took a cheap chunk of sub $5.00 chicken, the same thing you’ve been sold a 1,000 literal times – at grocery stores, in restuarants, in fast food bags, frozen, grilled, broiled, boiled, cubed, chopped and pathetically garnished in a myriad ways. An no one has ever done it right. No one has cared enough to do it right. No CEO has ever thundered, “You know that chicken with the low profit margin, the one people will buy regardless? I want you to work around the clock until it is goddamn delicious!”
TJ is smashing through this wall of mediocre chicken with his own two bare fists, showering the promised land beyond with wobbly breasts. “NOOOOO MOOOOOORE!” he screams, hurling his besprigged packages to the benighted populous. “HAVE GOOOOOOD CHIIIIIIIIICKEN!”
Look, let’s really get into this.
This chicken, a hefty 12 oz breast, is redolent of fragrant rosemary and lightly infused with the delicious tang of a balsamic vinegar marinade. The basic nature of it’s ingredients only serves to magnifies Trader Joe’s own glory and to further rebuke everyone else in the world. This is an easy recipe guys! Everyone could be doing this!
Balsamic vinegar and rosemary have a long history of working together with chicken, and for good reason. Here they bring a nice, considered touch to the dish, balanced in every dimension – neither too acidic or too musty, too watery or too weak. The sauce is so good you’ll be tempted to lap it up after – and it makes the marinated chicken a taste sensation whether it’s eaten cold and dripping in it’s own juices, or hot and sweaty. Oh, and by the way, that twig in there? Well, as you probably guessed, that’s an actual spring of rosemary packaged in for good measure. The country-side notes of the rosemary sing along with the tasty tang of the balsamic in this very low fat, very healthy dish. Like Trader Joe’s Stuffed Red Peppers, I’m drawn back to it time and time again.
In other words, if you’re stuck in a bad chicken rut, you can’t go wrong with this chunk of clucker.
Would I Recommend It: Yeah, I like this one.
Would I Buy It Again: Weekly.
Final Synopsis: Proof that incredible eats can be found for under $5.00 in a cheap plastic tray.
I have to say, I’m let down by this dish. When I picked up Trader Joe’s Grilled Chicken Cacciatore I was intrigued – it looked good in that picture on the label, all nicely grilled and swimming in a simmering red sauce. The name had a nice ring to it too – cacciatore. It sounds like the ultimate, all purpose Italian word, as if somewhere on the coast between Naples and Florence sits a small town where, even now, a plump matriarchs hang out their windows shouting “Cacciatore!” at the children who run off through the cobbled streets with their soccer balls, laughing “Cacciatore, cacciatore” over and over as they burst past the local pizzeria. “Cacciatore!” shouts the friendly, mustachioed, dough twirling baker.
In actual point of fact, “cacciatore” translates as “hunter”. The connection, allegedly, owes to the fact that it was originally a dish cooked for hunters who returned home without catching any game thus forcing the wife to resort to a chicken stew cooked with the mushrooms he had collected while out in the forest. This origin story is so tortured and improbable that, in light of the insane word histories of linguistics, it is probably true and, moreover, makes a good case for just giving up on language all together.
Romantic notions and etymology aside, I’m a big fan of Italian food – or of any cuisine that makes liberal use of bubbling cheese and fresh baked bread – and was truly excited that Trader Joe’s was offering up a quick-to-prep and very cheap slice of the Italian culinary world. After all, what’s not to like about grilled chicken in a hearty sauce?
Well, in this case, quite a lot.
The cacciatore’s greatest failing, like the acting of Tobey Maguire or McDonald’s, is its mediocrity. The chicken, despite actually appearing to be grilled, is completely unexceptional, while the sauce it’s served in simply tastes so-so. There seems to be an attempt to make up for the generic sauce by providing a huge quantity of it – enough to totally drown your plate in certainly. This tactic fails to salvage the dish. This is a far cry from the hard won excellence of the equally Italian Minestrone – and when it comes to your hard scrabble dinning dollars, there’s nothing to recommend it over the far superior dishes of steamed Hake, stuffed red peppers or even the quinoa and squash salad.
A final note on the preparation. TJ’s suggests two different methods for cooking up your cacciatore – either a quick stint in the microwave, or 25 minutes spent boiling the plastic bag on your stove top. Out of sheer American optimism I decided there must be some hidden merit to the bag-boiling method and undertook it. Rest assured that there is not.
Would I Recommend It: I would, if there was anything to recommend it by. (Which there isn’t.)
Woudl I Buy It Again: No sir.
Final Synopsis: A plastic-wrapped piece of mediocre chicken in a sea of unexceptional sauce.
Mini wontons. What a world of astounding technical innovation this is – our computers are becoming increasingly smaller, the pixels in our devices are shrinking to infinitesimal points, and now Trader Joe’s has successfully miniaturized the wonton.
How did they manage the technological breakthrough that is Trader Joe’s Chicken Cilantro Wonton? Microchips? A pact with helpful elves? There’s no telling, but here they are nonetheless. This leaves only one question worth answering: Is it okay to just cavalierly mix cilantro into your Chinese wontons, no matter how small they are?
Actually, there’s nothing new about mini-wontons cooked with cilantro. A recipe very similar to the one Trader Joe’s is peddling can be found throughout Shanghai. As you might expect, different regions and cities throughout China have their own unique spins on the concept of wonton. Although more famous for their massive, tortellini-shaped wontons, China’s largest city also has a long tradition of peppering their soups with handfuls of these tiny, cilantro-seasoned wantons – properly called xiao huntun.
A wonton is, ultimately, a very simple recipe (some meat, some greens, a little seasoning) and lends itself to all sorts of interpretations, so there’s nothing that shocking about cilantro in a wonton. Taste-wise, there isn’t much to write about. Despite the prominent billing of cilantro in the mini-wontons, they don’t actually taste that strongly of cilantro. The potent herb is hidden under the chicken and other seasonings, only showing up later, as a mild aftertaste wafting off the tongue.
This isn’t altogether surprising, seeing that cilantro is listed in nearly the last place on the nutritional label, outdone by bean thread, salt, and green onions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s easy to abuse cilantro and its presence in this dish is subtle and effective, a gentle touch that sets the wontons apart from the potstickers and gyoza of the world – just don’t come crying to it for your cilantro fix.
Cooking the wontons could not be easier. Two minutes in a microwave makes up a big batch, and pan-frying or soup based cooking directions are included as well. Add to this the generous number of wontons included in each bag (about 50) and you’ve got an easy to prepare, tasty Chinese meal for 1-3. If only they’d replace “cilantro” with “shanghai-style”, I’d have nothing to complain about.
Would I Recommend Them: Easy to prepare and good tasting – definitely.
Would I Buy Them Again: With some Asian stir-fry, this could become a standard Chinese dinner for me.
Final Synopsis: A good wonton, misleadingly named.
It’s got the chili, it’s got the lime – what more can you want.
I would call myself very satisfied with these. Chicken burgers are a well known delicious healthier, lean alternative to ground beef. However, it has also been accurately accused of being a blander alternative as well. The chili and lime flavoring did a phenomenal job compensating for this – zesting the chicken with a flavor that gets the mouths of everyone in the room watering. I actually had to fend off overly ardent admirers of my browned burgers as I ate them. The patties are flavorful without going overboard. I went into these mostly worried that the chili-lime balance would be skewed too far one way or another, but I needn’t have. The chili packed a kick without being too spicy, and the lime was zesty without being too citrusy. A good taste for a fresh burger, or any light, summery dish. Combined with the shockingly healthy nutritional profile (on 6g of fat per patty) these burgers roar to the top of the Taste To Health Quotient.
Other positives – the packaging is tight, efficient and easily storable, and the wax paper in between the paddies ensured ease of separation. The only real downside? No cooking instructions on the box. I’m kind of a numb nuts when it comes to intuiting the way to cook things. Though I enjoy cavalierly disregarding the instructions for most things, I assiduously pore over any meal preparation tips. For the chicken burgers, not being something I am overly familiar with, I was particularly looking forward to a little help, but was left in the lurch. I just sort of cooked until they browned, and although this mostly worked out I did over cook one of the four patties. For shame Joe! To paraphrase an episode of the Simpsons, stupid cooks need the most attention.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, but look up the cooking instructions online.
Would I Buy Them Again: I could see it.
Final Synopsis: A little zing-pow in your chicken burger.