Hmmm. Well, this is probably proof that the top brass at Trader Joe’s are devoted followers of this blog. No sooner do I suggest that TJ come up with a few more variations on their new Toasted Coconut Pancale Mix then does this appear on the shelf – Trader Joe’s Gingerbread Pancake Mix. It’s arrived just in time for the holiday festivities, so let’s dive in!
In my Toasted Coconut Pancake Mix review, I pointed out that while the coconut bits are pretty good, the real winner was the incredibly easy to make pancake mix itself. Trader Joe’s has brought to market a totally self-contained pancake kit that incorporates powdered eggs and powdered milk into the mix itself. All you need to supply is the water – either a little to end up with big puffy flapjacks, or a lot to end up with thin, dense crepes. This time around TJ’s ditched the coconut, and whipped up something much more in tune with the time of year – a gingerbread infused mix with crystallized ginger bits tossed right in.
While this sounds like it should be a grand slam, the pancake mix suffers from the unique problem of not being gingery enough, and being too gingery at the same time.
There are really two types of ginger in this pancake mix. The first is the ginger present in the gingerbread-like pancake batter itself. This is ginger doing the classic gingerbread thing, providing a pleasant aromatic lift to the rest of the dough and contributing just a hint of ginger taste. I was actually a little disappointed by how mild the ginger taste was in the pancake batter. Given the premise of “gingerbread pancakes”, I had assumed we’d be getting something akin to gingerbread cookies, just in a fluffier form. That’s not actually the case – this pancake mix is more gingerbread-inspired then gingerbread-infused. It tastes somewhat of gingerbread, but not so much that you would mistake it for a cookie in a blind taste test. While that’s a little disappointing to me personally, it’s by no means a deal breaker. The molasses, brown sugar and powdered ginger that do go in give it at least a hint of that warm and lovely taste of gingerbread, while retaining the supple mildness of the good ol’ fashioned pancake.
However, there is another issue. Possibly in order to compensate for the only mildly gingery batter, Trader Joe’s mixes in a heaping scoop of crystallized ginger bits. Not unlike it’s cousin Trader Joe’s Crispy Coconut Pancakes, the ginger bits are numerous, and wind up in each bite. The problem is that bits of crystallized ginger just don’t taste that great in pancakes. There are a couple issues with it – the abrupt combination of textures, the fact that the heavy bits are prone to burn on the griddle – but the biggest issue is that ginger isn’t really an easy spice to use.
Although it’s commonly found in sweets in the form of gingerbread cookies, ginger is
actually better suited for savory dishes, as in Indian and Thai cuisine – not sweet ones. Gingerbread only really works because the ginger is spread out through a good deal of sugar and thick batter. The crystallized ginger lumps in this pancake mix don’t taste like gingerbread at all – they just take like intense bits of ginger. These little gingery bursts don’t go particularly well with maple syrup and butter – instead they sort of throw the flavor off by hitting you with an abrupt, strong, clashing taste. And I say this as a crystallized ginger fan! For years I kept a little box of crystalized ginger in my desk drawer to snack on for a little mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I only stopped when it became clear that fusing my molars together with sugar-caked, sweet glue was not beneficial to healthy tooth enamel.
In the end, what you’re left with is a pretty tasty gingerbread(ish) pancake mix, with a bunch of intense ginger mixed in. The result is something that tastes less like a holiday treat and more like something from an Asian Fusion brunch special. It’s not terrible – but it is very striking. While it’s certainly interesting to try, if you’re looking for something to delight the kids with on Xmas morning this may not be the way to go.
Trader Joe, if you are taking suggestions from me now, keep the pancake mix but don’t stop trying out new flavors.
Would I Recommend It: Not really. Ginger pancakes are interesting, but not incredible.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll probably go back to the toasted coconut pancakes.
Final Synopsis: Nice gingerbready pancakes loaded up with too much ginger.
Trader Joe’s Seriously Stuffed Peppers struck me as a particularly intriguing novelty when I stumbled on them the other day. Not only do they sound like something your industrious grandmother might prepare for Christmas dinner, but they look exactly like that too. Each jar is tiny and cute, topped with a bit of homely parchment rubber-banded around the lid. Inside the jar a dozen or so cherry peppers are packed to bursting with a whole olive, some garlic, and a caper or two. That seemed like it just might be delicious, so I picked it up.
What I wasn’t ready for was all the oil! Not unlike the dolmas I bought a while back, these tasty, European appetizers are somewhat ruined by the enormous amount of oil they’re packed in.
First the good stuff. These stuffed peppers are pretty dang tasty. Based on the smell alone, I was prepared for an intense blast of pickled flavor, or a blazing hot burst of heat. The reality is nothing of the sort – instead they’re mild, slightly bitter, slightly nutty, with a flavorful, zesty tail.
The bitterness comes from the cherry peppers, which don’t bring any heat, but only a mild taste and toothsome texture, with just a hint of bitterness that suggests they’ve been cooked slightly too long.
Inside of these guys are the capers, olives and garlic. All three perform exactly how you’d expect – the olives and capers bring their salty, pungent taste and the garlic sneaks up behind you the moment you swallow to put a little bit of fire on the tongue. The result is very edible. Overall the stuffed peppers are much more mild than olives or capers are on their own, much more flavorful than garlic, and much more complex and interesting than simple cherry peppers. All together, they make for a nice little antipasta – perfect for throwing on the side of some pasta or lamb.
Almost perfect, I should say.
As nice as they are, I have a serious problem with how oily these peppers are. What I thought was a pickle brine at first glace, turns out to be sunflower oil – thick and viscous, with a slightly nutty taste and a smell that starts fills the room as soon as you open the jar. We are talking about a heavy, heavy oil here, and it coats the peppers in a permanent glaze. Drip, dab or wipe a pepper all you want, and it will still glisten with a fine oily sheen. I’m not kidding – my fingers are slipping all over the keyboard as I write this. My girlfriend as a jar of oil she uses on her air, a mixture of coconut oil, argan oil, and macadamia oil, that is less oily than the oil in this jar.
Evidence of the oil’s impact is visible in the nutrition facts – each 4 pepper serving contains only 60 calories, but 40 of those calories are from fat. That’s a huge amount of fat to cram into what are, otherwise, nothing but vegetables. The sunflower oil also imparts its own flavor on the peppers – imbuing the whole thing with a nuttiness that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the flavor profile.
I do like these stuffed peppers, and I’d love to snack down on them, but there really doesn’t seem to be a good way to do that. It’s tricky to fish the peppers out of the jar without them falling apart – trying to get the oil off of them without ruining their delicate construction is even harder. Leaving the oil on is always, an option, but the result is a big pool of oil on your plate or running down your finger. That’s not the end of the world, obviously, but it does limit how you eat and serve them.
Between the very pretty packaging and the beautifully stuffed peppers, this is dish looks wonderful in the jar sitting on your self. Unless you have a pressing need for antipasta, however, I’d recommend leaving them there.
Would I Recommend It: Not really – it’s okay, but not worth the hassle.
Woudl I Buy It Again: No, it’s much too oily for me.
Final Synopsis: Very nice as décor – not as good as food.
Is it just me, or is the packaging for Trader Joe’s Tzatziki Creamy Garlic Cucumber Dip really weird? The big red “LOW FAT!” flag, the serving suggestions awkwardly crammed over to one side, the semi-unreadable font on the gray background of the low-grade Photoshop job. It reminds me of their weird chocolate-covered banana packaging. It’s the sort of packaging that leaves you wondering what you’re looking at “What’s in there?” you ponder, “Modeling clay? Deck varnish?” Nope, it’s food.
Most of the time, TJ’s does a good job repackaging the third party products that they source. In this case however, even the “Trader Joe’s” brand name looks shoehorned in. Nevertheless, this is a classic case of judging a book by its cover, as the tzatziki sauce within is quite nice.
Let us spend a moment on the truly awesome word that is “tzatziki”. It’s one of those dynamite cuisine words that not only sounds cool, and is spelled cool, but also makes you feel really cool to drop casually into conversation. Like “shwarma”. Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma. Sounds nice doesn’t it? Yo – buddy! Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma! The word itself is popularly attributed to Turkish, but like many foods of shared Greek/Middle Eastern/Balkan origin there’s a considerable amount of bickering over who developed it first/best.
At any rate, as we all know, tzatziki is a somewhat zesty dip/sauce made from plain yogurt and flavored with a variety of seasonings – in this case, salt, garlic, dill, mint, white pepper and, of course, lemon juice. The result is a smooth, cool mixture that comes on mild, then surprises you a moment later with a complex burst of citrus and herbs. Tzatziki exists through out the Mediterranean and Middle East in a variety of forms – extending even as far out as India where the classic yogurt side dish raita can be considered a close relative. The type Trader Joe’s is serving us up here is the familiar Greek variety, prepared with thinly sliced cucumber mixed directly into the herbed yogurt.
In fact, Trader Joe’s tzatziki is one of the better varieties I’ve had. The dip is quite loose, but it doesn’t lack in flavor. The lemon juice comes through clearly alongside the mellow, long tones of the creamy yogurt. The dill and mint come through clearly in the after notes , but the dish isn’t overloaded by their flavors, and they leave room for the tail note of languid, cool cucumber and mild garlic to linger on the tongue.
As appealing as that is, it’s made better by the extremely reasonable nutritional profile. Each 30 gram (two teaspoon) serving has only 30 calories, and two grams of fat. Even the sodium content isn’t that bad, at 65 mg per serving. For such a healthy dip you’re getting a surprising, and satisfying, amount of flavor.
The go-to applications for tzatziki sauce are gyros and pitas, but it goes awesome with pita chips as well. Even if you’re not whipping up Mediterranean food very often, it still makes an awesome side dish for any meal that could do with a little spread on top, or cooling down on the side. In other words – throw some tzatziki on that shwarma!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, so long as you don’t mind cucumbers in your food.
Would I Buy It Again: Definitely – I’m always in the market for good dips.
Final Synopsis: A solid version of tzatziki with plenty of pep.
I’m sorry, what? Can you repeat that please? Did you say, Trader Joe’s BBQ Rub and Seasoning with Cofffee and Garlic? Does that make any sense at all? This one is truly mind boggling. I knew Trader Joe’s didn’t give a flying fig about convention, I knew that the second I saw them stocking Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil on their shelves, I knew that when I picked up their Avagadro’s Number themed guacamole, but even I didn’t dream they were this dangerously unhinged.
I’d like to put myself in the mindset of the Trader Joe’s food scientist who dreamed up this insane blend of seasonings, but I’m afraid to do so would be to permanently wrench my psyche from it’s bearings. Coffee grounds and garlic – blended together, for the sake of rubbing on your meat. It’s got to be a stunt, right? Maybe there isn’t that much coffee in it, or maybe it’s, like, a type of coffee that isn’t really coffee. Let’s just check out the ingredient label.
Ingredient #1: Coffee. Period.
Okay, we’ll, there’s a bunch of other stuff in here too. Look – brown sugar, salt, garlic, um… paprika… and, uh, clemengold rind,? Which is apparently the skin of the Nandorcott mandarin orange? Okay, that’s a new one. At any rate, it must, like, all blend together in a way that sort of hides the strong coffee taste amid many flavors. Let’s just open it up and take a whiff. Wow – nope, that’s coffee. That is straight up coffee. I can’t imagine this is going to be any good.
And this, folks, is where it gets even crazier. After all that, when you really get down to it, this seasoning is spicy, flavorful, intriguing, nuanced, and totally worth your $1.99.
Crazy though it may sound to me, coffee rubs are not a wholesale invention of Trader Joe’s. Many in the hardcore slow-cooked meat world have experimented with the intriguing addition of robust coffee grounds to otherwise ordinary rubs. Despite the intense coffee smell of the rub, the taste is actually much more diverse and interesting. Coffee, being coffee, has a smell that tends to overshadow everything around it. On the tongue, however, that bold, bitter coffee taste is joined by a medley of other equally strong flavors that stand out on their own. The coffee gives way, in turn, to sparks of sweetness, sudden notes of saltiness, and the simmering, low key spiciness of the garlic and paprika.
These flavors do not blend, but tussle for position on your taste buds, and that’s what makes this rub work. It’s not a single flavor, or polite union of similar flavors, it’s a raucous dust up of competing tastes. It’s a tour of the whole tongue, with fun flavors for every taste bud. I’d be interested to see how this stuff would taste without all the coffee in it, to be honest, but having the coffee is what makes it really stand out. While other rubs commonly play up to saltiness, Trader Joe’s Coffee and Garlic Rub plays up the boldness, and it’s this strong base note that gives the riot of other flavors the grounds to go wild.
Trader Joe’s also suggests that you can use this rub as a seasoning on veggies, fish, etc. I’m not sure I’d recommend that myself. While it isn’t bad, per se, the rub is so intense that it can only really be used in tiny amounts, and even then you probably want to mix in another, more traditional seasoning to round out the taste.
One final caveat – make sure you leave yourself plenty of time for the flavors of the rub to permeate your ribs, steaks etc. Trader Joe’s recommends at least an hour – but the longer you wait the richer the flavor in the end. Give this rub as much time as possible on your meat, and apply it generously, for the full effect. Just don’t wait until too late at night to eat. This is real coffee in the rub and, as I discovered, a late dinner might leave up for hours.
Would I Recommend It: Absolutely. This will shake up your life a little.
Would I Buy It Again: I think I’ll stock up on a little more.
Final Synopsis: A bold, mix of bitter, salty and sweet flavors that you should try at least once.
Holy crap guys, I dare you to string three words together that make less sense than “Cypriot Pyramid Salt”. What does that mean? Is it salt from the pyramids of Cyprus? The code name of a covert military strike force? Surely it couldn’t be salt actually shaped like tiny pyramid. Surely anything but that. I’ve seen some pretty unbelievable things in the 30 or so revolutions I’ve taken on this little ball we call the Earth, but nothing in my experience has ever prepared me for salt that self-assembles into large, pyramid-shaped crystal. And yet, dear reader, that is exactly what we are talking about today.
Honestly, there’s not much more to say about Trader Joe’s Cypriot Pyramid Salt. Is it from Cyprus? Yup. Is it salt? Yup. Is it inexplicably shaped like little pyramids? Double yup. That’s basically case closed. Do you want your eggs to look more like Egypt? You’re all set. There’s nothing I can say or do to detract from the demonstrable reality that this salt looks like little pyramids. Well done, Trader Joe’s – you win again.
I mean, I guess the only real big question we need to answer here is, why is Trader Joe’s getting their Pyramid Salt from Cyprus, instead of somewhere else? There’s nothing specifically uniquely Cyprian about pyramid salt – similarly shaped salt naturally occurs around the world from Bali to England. The interesting phenomenon of “pyramid salt” falls under the broader salt category of “flake salts”, as opposed to granular salt. These flake salts are capable of taking all sorts of forms, although usually just irregular shapes or potato-chip like laminated crystals. Pyramid shaped salt crystals are just one of those remarkable quirks of life on this here planet, and a cool example of the amazing structures that nature is apt to produce when you do things like evaporate the water from a saline solution.
Unlike the Himalyan Salt with Truffles that we reviewed before, there is nothing shocking or strange about this salt’s taste. It simply tastes like salt. So why pick it up, when you already have a big box of Molson’s in the cupboard? Because of the unusual shape, of course. I may be no selmelier, but even I can appreciate the interesting texture you get from these little hollow pyramids. For one, there’s an exciting crunch to each of these crispy, hollow crystals. That same, thin form means that each salt crystal has a huge amount of surface area as well – the crystal hits the tongue all at once then melts away in a moment. As Trader Joe’s says themselves on the jar – these tiny pyramids of salt add bursts of flavor.
Okay, but what are you adding flavor to with this stuff? Well, like most flake salts – this pyramid salt is best used as finishing salt. What’s a finishing salt? Honestly, I’d really love to just dig into that question, but I’m not sure it’s possible to hold forth on the finer points of finishing salts and not feel like an asshole. Simply put a finishing salt is basically a garnish to top off your dish. Flaking some of this pyramid salt over a broiled fish, or rimming a margarita glass with these angular shards is just one more way to add an intriguing new dimension to your food.
If that extra touch of flair is worth it to you, then this is an easy accessory to pick up. If, on the other hand, your ordinary shaker gets you by alright, this is probably an embellishment you can skip.
Would I Recommend It: I would if you like impressing dinner guests.
Would I Buy It Again: I doubt I’ll ever use up the container I’ve got.
Final Synopsis: Pyramid shaped salt that gives adds an interesting crunch.
Today we follow up mochi with gnocchi.
Our good friend, mysteriously ethnic Trader Giotto has show up again, and he has brought us Trader Joe’s Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina. As a well-meaning carb avoider, gnocchi is a relatively unknown dish to me, let alone gnocchi that has some rather daunting appellations appended to it. In layman’s terms, Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina, or Gnocchi in the style of Sorrento, is a baked potato gnocchi (or in this case, a semolina, durham wheat and potato gnocchi) served with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese.
Gnocchi, with it’s silent “g”, non-standard pronunciation, and strong resemblance to grubs has always seemed to me a strange and forbidding pasta dish – nothing like that friendly old goof spaghetti and his wacky cousins (fettuccine, linguine – even that lumbering yokel zitti). I was doubly hesitant to give this gnocchi a chance because of it’s residency in the frozen food section. I’m willing to give even the most outlandish fusilli a chance, but as soon as your pasta needs to be frozen I start to get wary. This wariness was not much alleviated when I poured out the contents of the bag – the gnocchi were rock solid and the marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese came out as big frozen discs, almost as if slices of frozen salami had been tossed in with the pasta. It was therefor a complete shock and surprise when this stuff came out of the microwave hot, steaming and perfectly delicious.
The marinara and cheese sauce is pretty good – the tomato taste is rich, strong hints of basil are present throughout, and the cheese is present but not overwhelming. It’s a nice sauce and it serves the gnocchi well, but the star of the show is really the gnocchi itself.
A common problem with gnocchi, or any type of doughy lump, is that it’s easy to make them too dense, either by compressing the gnocchi too much, or simply getting the recipe wrong. Trader Joe’s Gnocchi Alla Sorrentina get the formula exactly right – the gnocchi are pillowy and pleasantly yielding without giving up body or heft. You can enjoy the hell out of these straight out of the bag, like I did, or dress it up with your own concoction of condiments and accoutrements. In fact, you should feel free to dress it up, as the bag of pasta and cheese somehow only clocks in at 510 calories for the entire one pound bag. That seems practically impossible, but is evidently true.
In any case this is a simple, cheap and easy to cook dish that could stand in for your kid’s Spaghetti O’s as easily as it could compliment your next bit of fine Italian cooking.
Would I Recommend It: Absolutely, there really aren’t any downsides to this dish.
Would I Buy It Again: Even someone as afraid of carbs as myself might pick this up again.
Final Synopsis: Excellent gnocchi that are as good as they are easy to make.
I’ve never really had truffles before. I’ve had things with truffle in them – subtly worked into the background of the dish as an transient grace note – but nothing that really plays up to the full truffle flavor. Thanks to Trader Joe’s Himalayan Salt with Truffles I can no longer say that. I have been thoroughly overwhelmed by intense truffle flavor.
Before I start jibber-jabbing about the salt itself, the let’s define terms and make sure we know what we’re actually taking about when we say “Himalayan Salt with Truffles”.
As we all know, truffles are that subterranean fungus rooted out by hogs and dogs in Europe. A firm fixture of haute cuisine, these lumpy tubers go for up to twenty two hundred dollars per pound for the finer species – the so called, “diamonds of the kitchen” and so on. That’s all proper and good and fancy.
Himalayan salt, often billed as “pink Himalyan salt”, is a fancy marketing term that stores like to sling around instead of the more technically accurate phrase “rock salt from Pakistan”. The second largest salt mine in the world just happens to be located in Punjab, Pakistan, a mere 186 miles from the Himalayas, and is the source of practically all the “Himalayan” salt you see in America. This sort of labeling that makes one think that marketers have much more of a loosey-goosey approach to geography than the rest of us, the sort of approach that might lead to vague geographical generalizations with things like balsamic vinegar as well. The salt from these mines is often imbued with impurities of iron oxide (aka, “rust) which results in a pinkish, or at least off-white, color.
If, like me, you’ve never really had truffles before, you’re probably wondering what truffles taste like. What does this underground fungus offer that we feel the urge to shave it into our luxury condiments? Like most percepts in this world, for example the color blue, or the feeling of tilting just slightly too far back in a chair, absolutely novel tastes and smells are difficult to describe without referring to the experience itself.
Blue, you might say, is a bit like green without so much yellow in it, and tilting just slightly too far back in a chair is said to feel like your stomach does a little flip and drops into a void. The point is, in the same way it’s hard to describe a persimmon, it’s hard to describe the odor of truffles. Nevertheless, I’ll try.
The odor of truffles is a bit like sticking your nose in a sweaty tennis shoe and taking a whiff, but in a good way – in an elegant way even. Truffles don’t stink – not in the least, but they are intensely musky and pungent. In the same way the musk of a good, hot tennis shoe is going to linger in your nose for a few minutes, so too does the truffle odor here. What’s true of the smell is even truer of the taste. Though this truffle salt is about 99% salt to 1% truffle, it’s the taste of truffle that’s going to hit you first, and last longest. After dusting my eggs with a pinch of this stuff I was tasting that elegant truffle musk on my tongue for 15 minutes after I finished the plate.
The take away here is that truffle are not to be screwed around with. Normally I would have written “truffles are not to be triffled with”, but the flavor of these things is so damn intense that cute wordplay simply has no place. If you’ve tried truffles before, you know what you’re getting into with this stuff. If you haven’t I’d recommend you give it a shot – it’s a flavor unlike anything you’ve experienced in your grocery store before, and hate it or love it it’s going to expand your horizons at least a little bit.
I do have one big gripe with Trader Joe’s truffle salt. Despite the outlandishness of the product origins, the craziest thing about this salt is that the decided to package it in a little tin with no shaker built in. You simply take off the top and have to do your best to shake a tiny bit out the widemouthed opening. Trying to do this with regular salt is crazy enough, but when we’re talking about a seasoning that’s been supercharged with the culinary equivalent of nitro glycerin it’s downright absurd. It’s unfortunate that the packaging is so pretty, because if you buy this you’re either going to want to dump it a different salt shaker that actually has holes or take your chances dancing with the devil every time you want to season your potatoes.
Trader Joe’s has brought in their salt as part of their holiday gift roll out – sticking it on the shelves alongside their exotic chocolate and tea collections. On one level I understand this, truffles are fancy and it makes you feel good to give things that people think are fancy. On another level however this makes a terrible gift – or at least a very specific and niche gift. The truffles taste so strongly that it’s bound to polarize people into love it/hate it camps. If you don’t know that the person you’re giving your gift to is into truffles, you’re risking getting them something they’ll just chuck into the trash. Chocolate’s going to be much safer. On the other hand, if you know they are into truffles then odds are they already have a reasonably priced truffle salt on hand or simply don’t want one. Really, the only person this gift is going to work for is the friend who you know is into trying crazy new foods but hasn’t gotten around to truffles yet. In other words, me – and I just bought some.
Would I Buy It Again: I like it, but this one tin will last me about 10 years.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, try a crazy salt, live a little!
Final Synopsis: This salt that packs a ton of pungent truffle flavor.