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.
“Chicken meat with vegetables in a flaky pie dough”, promises the box of Trader Joe’s Chicken Pot Pie Bites. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this description, but I’d suggest switching the word order around. Flaky pie dough with chicken and vegetables is considerably more accurate.
If you come to pot pies mainly for the flaky, buttery crust then this the pot pie for you. It will suffice for you to stop reading this post now and pop on down to your local TJ’s. If, on the other hand, you come to chicken pot pie for the chicken, or other intra-pie materials, then this is going to be a much tougher sell.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Trader Joe’s Chicken Pot Pie Bites. The filling is made with yummy little bits of chicken, creamy sauce, peas, carrots, etc – all the stuff you’d expect, and all done well and tasty. As already mentioned, the crust is very good – in fact, it’s probably the best pot pie crust I’ve ever had. Crispy, buttery and flaky, never dry or tasteless, it’s a fine crust on a fine pot pie. The only problem is that there’s just so much of it. The pot pie bites are served up to as 12 individual tiny pot pies, each with their own complete pot pie crust. In theory this is the perfect pot pie upgrade for our take-it-anywhere, always-on-the-go mobile age. In practice it ends up being a whole lot of extra crust that undermines the entire nature of the pot pie.
You would imagine that in order to make a 1/12th scale pot pie, you would simply implement the culinary equivalent of a shrink ray and reduce all the pastry’s ingredients by 1/12th. In practice this doesn’t work. If you tried to make a pot pie crust that was 1/12th the thickness of an ordinary pot pie there wouldn’t be enough structural support to keep all the insides in and you’d end up with a just a little spot of burnt stew on a baking pan.
There’s a limit to how far down you can scale the crust. The problem Trader Joe’s encounters here is actual similar to the same reason giant insects don’t rule the world. Exoskeletons work really well for keeping bugs together as long as they’re relatively small. Start scaling up the size of an ant and you need a thicker and thicker carapace to keep it from falling all to pieces. The thicker the shell, however, the less room for the important stuff inside, hence the impossibility of ants the size of cars. Simply put, attempting to scale things at a 1:1 ratio breaks down pretty quickly in the real world.
In order to maintain the structural integrity of their mini pot pies, TJ’s has to use nearly the same thickness crust they’d use on a full sized pot pie. This means when you bite into a tiny pot pie, you’re getting something like 50% crust, and 50% filling on a good bite. This brings me back to our main point – if you’re a real crust fiend the talk of so much crust has probably got you pretty hot and bothered. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the traditional ratios of pot pie filling to pot pie crust these are going to be more interesting to you as a novelty than as real repast.
There’s a wonderful history of pot pies that is as long and colorful as it is dubiously apocryphal. Unfortunately, I don’t really have the time to get into it in this post. We’ll have to suffice with noting that the ancient Romans purportedly served pot pies filled with live birds at their banquets, a practice that, as the LA Times notes, “must have startled unwary guests.” Associated Press’s Tom Hoge, I would imagine that’s an understatement.
Sadly, we no longer live in a time where the diner must approach his pot pie warily lest he be overtaken by screeching, disoriented birds. Nevertheless, Trader Joe’s continues to enliven the pot pie tradition with novelty – even if in this case it’s more of a miss than a hit.
Would I Recommend It: Only to inveterate pot pie crust lovers.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll buy a regular sized pot pie next time.
Final Synopsis: Good little pot pies that are as much crust as filling.
Trader Joe’s Chicken Asada with Peppers and Onions is a twist within a twist. The classic asada, the asada we’re most likely to meet out in the world, is of course carne asada – a beef dish. Trader Joe’s confounds these classical notions with a chicken dish of pollo asado and, not content to simply flip the script once, flips it again by marinating the chicken in a pineapple juice marinade. The result is a citrusy, savory, colorful main dish that will satisfy every bit as well or better than any mere carne asada.
Let’s talk asada. The term, I am informed by my vast knowledge of where to translate words on the internet, literally means “roasted” or “grilled”. Now you and I and anyone else who lives south of the 40th parallel knows that this term is encountered nearly exclusively with carne – aka beef. Specifically marinated beef. Exactly what form that beef is going to take, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess. As a rule you can expect long, thin strips, though you’re just as likely to end up with mince meat or a single giant block. Like barbecue, the only real rule is that it’s beef and that it’s been seared to hell on a grill. And, of course, that it gets served up with some sort of vegetable or another.
So it was with considerable curiosity that I picked up the chicken “asada” – or more correctly asado. Could chicken be as good as beef? It certainly can, and in this case it certainly is. Though it lacks the sinewy tenderness you might expect from a good bit of roast flank steak, you’re still getting a nice, juicy slice of flame grilled chicken that locks in that barbecue flavor. Even better, it brings that wonderfully lean nutrition that chicken is famous for – satisfying the health conscious with its rock bottom 3 grams of fat per serving.
Now as exciting as chicken is by itself, what really caught my attention in this dish is the unusual marinade. Pineapple juice is the base, seasoned with garlic, chili powder and coriander. Now it’s not unheard of from lemon juice to go into your carne asada marinade, but this is generally a highlight, not the base note. Here the pineapple flavor is unmistakable, and when coupled with the hints of coriander you might be left wondering if you’re eating a Mexican dish at all, or if you got a box of mislabeled Indonesian food.
If it wasn’t for the fact that Trader Joe’s Chicken Asada goes so well in a fajita, I’d probably make a bigger stink about this flagrant flaunting of traditional labels. As the case stands though, the sweet, citrus vibes and subtle smoky flavoring of the other spices do an amazing job spicing up your otherwise staid and ordinary fajita/burrito/taco.
Complimenting the chicken is a reasonable serving of sliced, grilled onion, poblano pepper, and red bell pepper. Nothing too crazy about these suckers – just your regular veggies soaking up the unusual marinade. If you decide to microwave this dish, just be sure to keep an eye on these guys. I found that even after nuking them for the upper time limit given the veggies were still a little tougher than they should have been.
Overall, this is a very good dish, and certainly one worth checking out, just so long as you don’t think of it as an ordinary carne asada.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, it’s tasty and a little different.
Would I Buy It Again: This could become a staple of Mexican food night around my place.
Final Synopsis: A lean, citrusy alternative to traditional carne asada.
I love salad, but so often it mystifies me. For instance, why do salads always cost more than the surf ‘n turf at restaurants, and why has no fast food chain been able to create a salad that tastes better than a pile of anemic grass clipping with woody chicken strips on top? But of all the salad imponderables, I’m most perplexed by the salads that manage to pack in more fat and carbs than the grossest monstrosities ever to shamble out of Wendy’s R&D department.
Now, Trader Joe’s Cobb Salad isn’t the worst offender on the block (that honor belongs to the 800 calorie candied pecan and blue cheese salad) but it’s still a serious fat delivery system.
Now, yes, before we get going, I am fully aware this is a cobb salad we’re talking about – never high on anyone’s list of healthy noshes. Nevertheless, this is one deceptively hefty salad we’re talking about.
Trader Joe’s bring you by-the-book cobb salad with no real surprises here. Grilled chicken breast, bacon crumbles, ripe blue cheese, some tomatoes, and of course, a sliced hard boiled egg, served with a side of hearty ranch dressing.
What, no olives and anchovies? No sir, I’m afraid not. Perhaps Joe was afraid of turning off the 98% of the population that can’t stand the two of those things together. The salad attempts to compensate for this by bringing in a second cheese in the form of some musky gorgonzola. At any rate, with a run down like that you’re going to expect a certain amount of fat, etc. And, in fact, in some ways this salad isn’t that bad. Only 380 calories, with dressing, and a quite satisfactory 10 grams of carbs.
Just below the surface, however, lurks some shocking stats – 250 calories out of 380 are from fat – that’s 28 grams AKA 43% your daily recommended amount. Combine that with the 47% of your daily cholesterol limits, and you might start to think twice.
Normally, salads that suffer from such unhealthy nutritional profiles are under the sway of a fatty dressing. That’s true here – to some extent. The ranch kicks in 12 grams of fat, but even without it you’re still talking about 42% of your cholesterol.
None of that would be so bad, if only the dressing was better than it is. A far as ranch dressings go, this is actually a really nice version. This clearly isn’t something taken from another brand’s mass produced bottles. The ranch in this salad feels downright rustic – smooth and creamy, sure, but swimming with full-bodied herbs that season the ranch and give it some real character. It practically feels home made.
That said, it doesn’t really work in this salad. This ranch is too mild for such a robust salad as this. It’s a gentle butter milk ranch that disappears into the background of each bite, and while there’s much to be appreciated in subtlety, it leaves you wondering why you’re pouring 12 grams of fat into your arteries if you can’t even taste it.
Just like the Artichoke and Hearts of Palm salad from the other day, I’d recommend a dressing substitution. Chuck that tub of ranch (or save it for a future occasion) and drizzle on a little of Trader Joe’s Light Champagne Vinaigrette. Not only is it much, much healthier, and tastier but the creamy zing of the vinaigrette really plays well against the savory and salty flavors of the bacon, eggs, and cheese.
With the dressing switched out, this cobb salad does better – but it didn’t wow me. It’s not bad – just very average. The tomatoes taste like tomatoes, the lettuce tastes like lettuce, and everything else just sort of tastes pretty okay. Like Trader Joe’s Cowboy Bark, I feel if you’re going to sit down and eat 28 grams of fat, you should enjoy the hell out of it. Trader Joe’s has some great salads and some healthy salads – this one is neither.
Would I Recommend It: It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Would I Buy It Again: Not if I want to lose any weight.
Final Synopsis: A standard cobb salad without anything to recommend it by.
Bacon week continues with Trader Joe’s Uncured Black Forest Bacon!
This has been a banner week for me. The transition from a baconless existence to a world of delicious bacon has left me unnaturally giddy and elated. Not just one, but two different kinds of suberp, praise-worthy bacon have glorified my breakfast this week. Trader Joe’s Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon we already covered, and by gum if you don’t have some of this in your pantry already then I don’t know what you’re doing with your life. Today we take a look at Trader Joe’s other delicious bacon – Black Forest Bacon.
Is the Black Forest bacon delicious? Absolutely – it’s a nice thick cut of fatty, smoky, slightly sweet bacon that is almost too good for this earth. Is it better than the Apple Smoked Bacon? That’s a trickier question. Where the applewood smoked bacon comes out the gate strong with plenty of razzle dazzle, Trader Joe’s Uncured Black Forest Bacon offers a more sophisticated and nuanced bacon choice.
Tastewise, these bacons are playing quite different games. The apple smoked bacon has set out to dominate the world of smokey, strongly seasoned bacon and it has done exactly that. In a side by side taste test, I’d have to choose the the apple smoked bacon, no question. But real life isn’t a taste test. When it comes to a bacon you’re going to turn to every morning, you don’t necessarily want the intense flavor and smokey aroma of the apple smoked bacon day after day. In the same way that you don’t always turn to the maltiest beer, or the sweetest soda, Trader Joe’s Black Forest Bacon provides a more nuanced alternative.
The taste of the black forest bacon is still as absolutely delicious as the apple smoked bacon, but plays up the “cured” side of bacon over the smoked side. You’ll notice the rind of spices on each slice forms a sort of natural crust once cooked, almost like a honey baked ham, and the raw sugar in the rub gives this bacon just a hint of sweetness. The taste is overall much broader than the apple smoked bacon, a little sugary, a little smokey, and lots of rich meaty flavor.
Two other factors enter into the comparison: nutrition and price. The Black Forest Bacon is actually the healthier choice, despite the sugar rub, with 70 calories a slice, and 45 from fat. That’s still 5 grams of fat per thick slice, but that’s better than the 7 grams of fat in each apple smoked slice. Pricewise, Trader Joe’s Black Forest Bacon is the more expensive option, $4.99 / 13 slice pack – a dollar more than the apple smoked variety.
Like the apple smoked bacon, the black forest bacon is also “uncured”, meaning no sodium nitrate or commercial curing salts were used in the process – nothing but the natural nitrates found in sea salt and celery power.
The takeaway is, on the balance these bacons are equally good. If you’re only an occasional bacon eater, the apple smoked version is probably the better choice – given it’s bigger flavor and worse nutritional profile. If, on the other hand, you’re snacking on bacon all the time, you might want to go with the more nuanced, and slightly healthier, black forest bacon.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, but try Trader Joe’s Apple Smoked Bacon first.
Would I Buy It Again: I already have.
Final Synopsis: A delicious bacon for frequent bacon eaters.
To date, the only bacon I’ve had from Trader Joe’s has been the healthy, if middling, Turkey Bacon. In fact, so devoted have I been to the concept of being healthy while eating bacon that turkey bacon is the only bacon that I’ve ingested for the last two years. So biting into Trader Joe’s Uncured Apple Smoked Bacon was like a spelunker emerging from cloistered subterranean depths to thrust his head into the sunlight again, like a skin diver coming up for air after a crushing 120′ dive, like Dr. Manette emerging from the Bastille to be recalled to life. It was, to be blunt, really good.
This is, quite simply put, some knock-out bacon. And it’s not like I haven’t had bacon before guys. I was raised on Oscar Meyer brand, I enjoy a slice or two with the occasional Denny’s Grand Slam, but there was never anything really and truly memorable about the long train of sizzled bacon slices that came before. Certainly nothing to make me buy into the still white-hot bacon mania that has gripped the nation lo these past few years.
Folks, I’m telling you this bacon has turned me all around.
I’m going to start out with my one quibble, my one insignificant little quibble, then commence with the waxing rhapsodic. The bacon, as you can see above, is all layered on top of each other – not fanned out as in most bacon packages. This makes it a little more difficult to pull the bacon slices apart – especially considering how marbled with thick bands of delectable fat they are.
Manage to pull off a couple thick slices of bacon, however, and you are in for a treat. The smell, by itself, is enough to get you drunk. It’s almost hard to find a bacon in this country that isn’t “applewood-smoked”, or “mesquite-smoked”, or appended with some other marketer-inflated appellation that means, essentially, nothing at all. Believe me when I tell you that this bacon has been smoked – really and properly smoked. It smells so richly of the savory curls of smoldering wood that you will swear you’re smoking it yourself as you cook it. It smells so good you’ll have to fight off the urge to shove raw strips of meat into your mouth with both fists.
Once your nose has feasted to satisfaction, it’s time to take a bite. Friends, every promise that the sizzle and smell of that bacon made to you the taste more than delivers on. Is it fatty? Yes, tremendously fatty – packing in 7 grams of fat per slice, but it is deliciously essential fat, fat which enriches the smoky meat with melt in your mouth, hug-your-tongue flavor. It is a lot of fat, but that, of course, is God’s way of keeping us from eating bacon all the time, non-stop. If you have room in your diet for a little extra fat, this is a fantastic way to spend it.
It’s all so wonderful, that it’s impossible for me to fully describe to you with mere human words how much this bacon pleases me. To top it all off, this wonderful apple smoked bacon is uncured and nitrate-free. Delicious and nitrate free? What else needs be said?
Would I Recommend It: Yes, please buy this bacon.
Would I Buy It Again: As frequently as my diet allows.
Final Synopsis: The tastiest, store bought bacon I have ever eaten.