Trader Joe’s Eggplant Garlic Spread

Trader Joe's Eggplant Garlic Spread

A Bulgarian spread? I’ll allow it, but I think I know some Serbs and Macedonians who will take issue with that.

Continuing my foray into the popular world of Serbian/Bulgarian/Macedonian food stuffs comes Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread. Unlike its very close cousin and shelf neighbor, TJ’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, this condiment is hands-down delicious – like a thick, savory pasta sauce made with eggplant rather than tomato.

I got into this already with the craptacular ajvar, and I don’t want to kill it all over agian here, but TJ’s is really wrecking their own house with these name games. These two products, Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread (with peppers) and Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, could not be positioned to confuse the casual shopper more. One delicious, one awful, both Bulgarian, of similar packaging and nearly identical names. It’s like having an evil twin and a good twin and naming one George T. Riley and the other George D. Riley. What’s that? Did you say T. Riley? You did? Well too late, because now I’m dead and/or my chicken tastes awful.

Let’s rectify the situation right here – this product, like it’s compatriot, is proudly Bulgarian, and is known in that country as ljutenica. The name might roll off the tongue, but it’s hard to say what exactly a proper ljutenica is supposed to taste like. As with many folk foods (kimchi, etc) it’s taste, consistency and composition varies widely between households. Some are much spicier than cousin ajvar, some sweeter, and so on. This ljutenica is actually milder and more savory. Whatever it was that Trader Joe’s did to its red pepper spread to make it so they avoided it here – nothing harsh or mealy comes through from the garlic or eggplant. Instead, both blend together with the fefferoni pepper to make an intriguing new taste – a full-bodied, broad, tongue-pleasing taste. It is somewhat salty, but not overly so, and very slightly piquant. It worked excellently for me as a condiment for chicken dishes, vegetables and meatballs.

How this ljutenica stacks up against the real Bulgarian stuff I couldn’t venture to say – and if any Eastern Europeans out there want to weigh in please do so – but I personally couldn’t be happier with what I’ve got. If ajvar threatened to turn me against Bulgarian condiments, this spread has rectified all wounds.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes – try it with your chicken or pasta, or slathered on bread and topped with goat cheese.

Would I Buy It Again: I already killed my first jar, so it’s pretty likely I will.

Final Synopsis: A ljutenica that will do you well from Sofia to the Black Sea.

Trader Joe's Eggplant Garlic Spread - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Eggplant Garlic Spread – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Cauliflower Romanesco Basilic

Trader Joe's Cauliflower Romansco Basilic

Every time I eat romanesco I feel compelled to tell people about fractals in nature. I apologize in advance.

Trader Joe’s Cauliflower Romanesco Basilic is, pretentious name aside, a nifty little dish.

So often it’s so hard to eat like a reasonably decent human being on a frozen vegetable budget. Oh sure, if you’ve got some skill in the kitchen you’ll manage to make do, but for the rest dinner time is a harrowing event not to be looked forward to. It’s parade of sorrow: sacks of frozen, mechanically-chopped spinach wilting into a messy wet pile in the skillet, or yet another bag of green beans that repel all attempts to make palatable or, worse, tiny plastic TV dinner trays with impossibly hopeful names that do nothing to mask the depression that infuses every misplaced kernel of corn or sloppy lump of beef product.

What I’m saying is it’s tough out there for the unskilled bachelor (or bachelorette) folks, and it’s rare to find something to eat in the flash frozen food aisle that makes you feel like you’ve still got your dignity about you. Trader Joe’s awesome Hake en Papillote dish is one, and their Cauliflower Romansco Basilic is another. It not only provides a truly delicious side dish to any meal in minutes, bit it does so with so much class and style that you actually feel like a better human being while eating it.

First off, it’s healthy. 70 calories per serving, (serving size 1 cup), and oly 6 grams of carbs, two of which are fiber. The world garlic butter does show up right there in the title, so you’ve got to expect some fat, but at only 4.5 grams per serving it’s not an unreasonable amount.

Now healthy is no big thing if it doesn’t taste good, and man does this stuff taste good. So good that you’ll relish munching each morsel of cauliflower and want to slurp up the juices after. How does it manage this trick on otherwise undesirable cauliflower? Through the miracle of garlic butter folks. Right out of the microwave your portion of steaming veggies are swimming in a sea of melted garlic-infused butter – enough to pack each piece with a savory, smooth, tongue-pleasing taste without going too heavy on either the butter or the garlic. It walks that knife edge of light but delicious and reaches the other side unscathed. And tender, my god – can we talk about tender? I’m going to wholeheartedly endorse preparing your cauliflower melange in the microwave because six minutes turns these ice-crusted veggies into yielding, supple morsels that provide absolutely nothing in the way of resistance. It’s like eating a cloud, so pleasant it is.

Trader Joe’s ingeniously preps their broccoli and cauliflower for success by freezing the garlic butter sauce around each sprig or stalk. It’s a stroke of absolute brilliance that eliminates the fuss of having to deal with a enclosed secondary sauce packet. The sauce melts around each individual piece as you heat it, meaning that you can portion out your veggies in any quantity over any length of time and always get just the right amount of garlic butter sauce with them. Goddamn brilliant!

All of this is, of course, ignoring the coolest part of the Cauliflower Romanesco Basilc, which is of course the romanesco – that craziest looking of vegetables adored by fractal-lovers and gourmands alike. If you’ve never had it before, don’t get too freaked out by it’s glorious, Fibonacci sequence exemplifying spirals, just relax and try some – it’s taste is halfway between cauliflower and broccoli. I absolutely applaud it’s inclusion here, or in fact, anywhere that it replaces it’s boring cousin broccoli if for no other reason than novelty.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: You’ve got to try this one at least once.

Would I Buy It Again: Without hesitation.

Final Synopsis: A downright scrumptious vegetable side perfect for any occasion.

Trader Joe's Cauliflower Romanesco Basilic - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Cauliflower Romanesco Basilic – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Chicken

Trader Joe's Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Chicken

I know, how can this taste good, right? But it does. It really does.

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.

The Breakdown

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.

Trader Joe's Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Chicken - Nutritional Facts

Trader Joe’s Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Chicken – Nutritional Facts

Trader Joe’s Dukkah

Trader Joe's Dukkah Nut and Spice Blend

Not just tasty, but a nice executive little package too.

Trader Joe’s Dukkah is a brilliant new introduction to the American food lexicon – a delicious addition to otherwise tasty bread and, more than that, a party in a jar.

Dukkah, or “duqqa” as it is more commonly spelled, is an originally Egyptian side dish made, simply, from a mixture of herbs, nuts and spices for dipping bread in. Word has it that this tasty hors d’oeuvre is all but ubiquitous in Cairo and beyond. The geo-politcal climate being what it is – I’m content to take their word for it.

Dukkah, takes it’s name from the Arabic word for “to pound”, taken from the simple process of making dukkah – just jamming a bunch of tasty spices and nuts together. Traditional dukkahs, as you may expect from such a folk recipe, vary widely in composition. Trader Joe’s take on it is a combination of crush almond, fennel, anise and sesame seeds, plus coriander and salt. I’m sure this may raise some more traditional dukkah lover’s eyebrows, but I couldn’t be happier with this flavorful, exotic mix.

The product label is helpfully emblazoned with the instructions, “Take a hunk of crusty bread, dip it in olive oil and then in DUKKAH”, which was straightforward enough for me. I decided to engaged my jar of dukkah with a loaf of Trader Joe’s Kalamata Olive bread, figuring it was both crusty enough and small enough to fit into my cluttered, tiny kitchen. Also, hey, it’s got olives in it, so yum yum. I prepared a little dish of olive oil, opened my aromatic jar of Egyptian bread topper, and dunked the dukkah out of my bread. Was it good? Friend, it was absolutely great.

Now before I get carried away with unalloyed praise, let’s get the facts straight. A nice crusty bread is damn good in it’s own right, and dunking said bread in some cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil? You can’t really go wrong. The immediate question is how much enjoyment did the the dukkah lend to this simple banquet? The straight answer is – a great deal.

Dukkah is like having a delicious new tool in your meal tool box. Hit bread with some savory olive oil and that’s good, add to that a splash of tangy balsamic vinegar and that’s better, follow that with some nutty, crunchy, spicy dukkah and you’ve just added a whole new dimension to your meal. And while the taste is nice in and of itself, the crunch is really the selling point here, making a mouthful of sopping bread even more of a pleasure to work on.

That said, this spice mixture might not be for everyone. Anise is a strong flavor, commonly identified with black licorice, and while it’s presence in Trader Joe’s Dukkah is not overwhelming it certainly in noticeable. If you’re interested in giving yourself over to an exotic taste for a new way to enjoy bread, go for the dukkah, but if you’ve never warmed up to black licorice you might consider giving it a miss. Either that, or consider whipping up your own batch. Dukkah amounts to little more than a dry mix of crushed nuts, spices and a little salt. Making your own is as easy as taking a walk down the dry goods aisle of your supermarket. Want to substitute salt and anise for rosemary and black pepper? Why not? You can find one alternate recipe here and others all across the web.

Taste aside, dukkah has a lot to offer. It’s a very easy addition to the table – a casual condiment that can be dabbed in or done without as the mood dictates. It also fits easily into parties, allowing simple, tasty snacking for a whole room with just one simply jar. Of all the wonders of dukkah, most incredible is how many servings you’ll get out of this one $2.99 container. With a price that low, consider throwing one in your cart next time and forgetting about it in the cabinet until company comes over.

The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: If you like bread and don’t hate anise, go for it.

Would I Buy It Again: As soon as this jar runs out (so not for a while).

Final Synopsis: Why has it taken me so long to hear of this stuff?

Trader Joe's Dukkah - Nutrional Facts

Trader Joe’s Dukkah – Nutrional Facts

Trader Joe’s Chili Lime Chicken Burger

Trader Joes chili lime chicken burgers

Unless they are using the chili variety of lime (and I assure you they are not), these are not grammatically correct burger. Tasty though.

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.

Trader Joes chili lime chicken burgers - Nutritional Facts

Trader Joe’s South African Smoke Seasoning Blend

Trader Joe's South African Smoke Seasoning

Let's all start smoking! (Our food!)

What have we here? Smoke-flavored seasoning, it promises us. But can anyone really bottle smoke? I mean, it’s smoke man. It’s famously elusive. If you could stick that flavor in a pepper mill and sell it for a couple bucks, then what the hell are people laboring over charcoals in smoke houses at minimum wage for? Let alone selling it in the very same pepper mill / pepper grinder doohickey you’re already selling your sea salt and flower pepper in? A prelimary whiff of the unopened container imparted the strong smoky musk of a dying campfire. Skepticism overruled by curiosity, I decided to give it a shot.

I tried Smoke Seasoning out on a couple different meats – some hamburgers I was grilling up outdoors and a nice, skinless chicken breast. After a few liberal grinds of the (to me) incredibly satisfying built in pepper mill apparatus and both items suddenly smelled a whole lot better. Smell, of course, is one thing. Taste? Quite another. One bite though, and I was stunned. The bastards over there at Joe’s did it. God know’s how, but it effortlessly infuses your food with a seductive, delectable waft of smoke. Just perfect.

What the hell’s in this stuff? Just smoke and paprika, a little salt and garlic? Seriously? And, as we all know, paprika does basically nothing aside from lending color – so basically, yeah, it’s just bottled smoke. But wait, now you’re telling me that the smoke in question is made from a renewable south african hardwood? Man oh man, Joe – you have out done yourself again.

The effectivness of this product is undeniable, but it’s scope is somewhat limited. I only tried it on meat, but the imagination suggests it might go well on grilled veggies too. Even if so, even the toughest of men, men who barbeque their every meal, don’t

want to have their every dish taste strongly smoke. This is an item best used in the height of summer revelry, a delicate but savory flavor to grace the periodic hedonistic grill session. As such, I predict this item will be sitting in a cherised spot in my cupboard until next summer comes.


Would I Recommend It: Without hesitation


Would I Buy It Again: Once this one runs out.


Final Synopsis: Smoke your food the easy way.


Trader Joe's South African Smoke Seasoning - Nutritional Facts

Trader Joe’s Flower Pepper

Trader Joe's Flower Pepper


Whoa-ho-ho, now you’re talking Trader Joe – a product so seemingly mad that I would never have dreamed of its existence.

Pepper – and FLOWERS?!? This is already well beyond the range of even the craziest food mash ups I’ve ever heard of. I mean, we’re talking about a food mashed up with a decidedly non-food product. That I’ve got to respect. Let’s just look at the ingredients: Black Peppercorn (natch), Rose Petals, Calendula, Lavender, Cornflower. I don’t even know what calendula is.

I’ll be honest; this is exactly the sort of product I go to Trader Joe’s every week hoping to find. Something so outlandish that no sane buyer could ever be expected to purchase it, yet marketed right next to the brownie mix. This is where I, Trader Joe’s Taste Tester, come in – give me the goddamn desiccated flowers, I’m ready to rock.

But first, a digression.

I am amazingly slow to learn, but a few lessons have slowly crept their way into my brain over the last 28 years, and one is that product mash ups which sound like they may be terrible almost invariably are. Case in point: the Red Eye (1/2 tomato juice, ½ beer) and the Ditka Burger (peanut butter on a hamburger). I tend to assume, over and over, that these concoctions are only being sold because a gauntlet of testers have engineered the flavors to magically fuse into a symphony of taste. I have come to appreciate that this assumption may be a bit naïve, and the real source of these products are just bored gluttons and drunks. Hope springs eternal however, and the very few big wins (Salt and Vinegar?!? On a chip?!!) continue to spurn me on to self-abuse.

So, flowers in pepper – what’s up with that? I gave my flower pepper a try in two big ways – ala garden salad and ala some chicken breast I had lying around. Both delighted me. I don’t want to get onto a whole digression on pepper here, so let’s suffice to say that a little pepper brings out flavor and a lot of pepper chokes you with it’s fire. We know these things – we are not fools. What flower pepper brings to the table is a moderation of both ends of the equation – for the better. The hints of flower petals are far less subtle than I would have guessed – even in a small quantity over a large salad they lent a distinguishable, pervasive flavor that never got to heavy or clashed with my veggies and dressing. It enhanced goddammit, it went in there and did what it was supposed to do, then it went and brought a whole new herbal flavor to the mix. (Loving my italics right now, by the way. Lovin’ them.)

The chicken went down plain, save for a dusting of the titular spice, and I’m happy to say the flowers seemed to dial back the more peppery part of the pepper – retaining the bite while losing the fangs, if that makes any sense.

While I’m sure flower pepper can’t substitute for ordinary blackcorn pepper in every instance, there’s no real need for it to. I can easily imagine keeping a happy larder with both peppers side by side, taking on all comers. The only criticism I have is a weak one, that due to the pervasive use of floral scents in household cleaners it could be said that the pepper tastes how soap smells. There’s nothing unpleasant about it, tastewise, but the conditioning against eating cleaning products is so strong you might find you have to mentally push past it.

Would I recommend it: To try, at the very least.

Would I buy it again: I think I will, when I eventually run out.

Final Synopsis: A rare win for Team Strange Food Mash-ups!

Trader Joe's Flower Pepper Ingredients