Back when I reviewed Trader Joe’s South African Smoke Seasoning I was delighted to discover it was one of Trader Joe’s hidden gems. Easy to overlook on shelves full of peppercorn grinders and rock salt, this South African style seasoning is imbued with a whole different dimension of flavor – the savory, rich taste of smoked meat.
When used on hamburger, steak, chicken, or anything you might like to barbecue, it’s a killer seasoning that brings to the fore the richer, meatier flavors hidden in any meat – a little magic touch of South African umami.
Of course Trader Joe’s would be Trader Joe’s if they could just leave it there. Which has lead, apparenlty, to Trader Joe’s throwing this seasoning designed for meat onto potato chips with the new Trader Joe’s Potato Chips with South African Style Seasoning.
It’s an innovation that could go either way. On the one hand, we live in an age of out-of-control potato chip creativity. Bold, daring and, some might say, insane flavors of potato chips are not just possible to find, but aggressively marketed from supermarket shelves. 10 years ago about the most “out there” chip you could find was jalapeno. Nowadays you can dabble in the sorts of epicurean excess that would have made Nero take note. Chicken & waffle flavored potato chips, mac & cheese, wasabi ginger, balsamic vinegar & rosemary, – even cappuccino, by god, cappuccino! It’s an age of snack madness, and one that Trader Joe’s is clearly unafraid to get in on. Already they’ve weighed in on with their non-standarad Beurre Meuniere Popcorn. Throwing a meat seasoning onto potato chips is almost tame by comparison.
So we can’t doubt the boldness of Trader Joe’s resolve or vision – the question is, does this seasoning actually go well on potato chips. The answer, sadly, is no.
The same qualities that make the South African Smoke Seasoning so savory on meat work against it here – it’s simply too salty and strong tasting for the simple potato chips. Divorced of a meat base, the seasoning has nothing to work off of. The result is sort of like throwing a handful of the seasoning directly into your mouth. It’s not that the taste of the seasoning is bad, it’s simply overpowering. When used on a grilled steak or hamburger, the smoke seasoning simply blends in to the complex profile of the flavors at hand. Here, on its own, it has the very strong taste of bratwurst, or as one taste tester put it, “burnt hot dog”.
How much you’re going to like these chips, then, depends on how much you like that heavy, bratwurst taste, without getting the juicy bratwurst bite. This wouldn’t be as much of a dealer breaker if it wasn’t for the strength of the taste. Trader Joe’s isn’t mincing around here – each chip is blasted with a full on shot of seasoning that is close to overwhelming. These chips are best not eaten by the handful, but slowly, one by one, or not at all.
For me the intensity of the flavor simply didn’t work together very well. Between the serious saltiness, and the heavy seasoning these chips tended to overshadow whatever I was eating them with. When your potato chips taste more like hot dogs than the hot dogs themselves, it’s generally not a good thing.
The chips may not work very well as chips because of the seasoning, but what if they were the seasoning. That barely coherent thought is what lead me to cook up the recipe below – country fried steak, with crushed potato chips instead of breading.
Trader Joe’s South African Style Seasoning Potato Chip-Fried Steak
- 2 steaks, about 1/2″ thick
- 1 cup flour (any sort, I don’t care)
- 1 cup pulverized Trader Joe’s African Style Seasoning Potato Chips
- 2 or 3 eggs, beaten
- About a 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- Maybe a delicious gravy?
- Pulverize the hell out of your chips. You can do this with a food processor, or by putting them in a baggy and smashing the hell out of them. (This is the most fun part of the recipe.)
- Spread the flour around in one dish, and the potato chip dust in another dish.
- Have the eggs ready in another dish or shallow bowl.
- Dredge the meat on both sides in the flour. (This is the third most fun part of the recipe)
- Dredge the meat in the potato chips dust, followed by the egg, and finally in the potato chips again. (This is the second most fun part of the recipe.)
- Repeat these steps with all the meat.
- Place enough of the vegetable oil to cover the bottom of a skillet and set over medium-high heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, carefully add the meat.
- Cook each piece on both sides until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.
- Serve the steaks (with some of the delicious gravy?)
Notes: This recipe delivers a crunchier steak than you might otherwise get, and the African Smoke Seasoning lends it’s helping hand, giving it a robust, BBQ sort of taste.
Turning chips into the seasoning instead of just adding the seasoning directly might be considered taking the long way around, and that’s a fair criticism, but dammit we live in the world of the Mini Waffle Stick Maker and Segway. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in an unnecessarily, silly way.
A delicious gravy is bound to help these steaks out, but that’s beyond the purview of this post.
Would I Recommend It: Not unless you usually feel your brautwurts aren’t brautwursty enough.
Would I Buy Them Again: I don’t think so.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s excellent south african style seasoning should stick with meat instead of potatoes.
Kale – who really knows anything meaningful about this stuff. I, like most of humanity I suspect, don’t pay much attention to the seemingly countless varieties of leafy green veggies that basically just go on salads. I do know someone who does care though, who cares deeply – Trader Joe’s. These guys push the kale hard – they really believe in kale. Where most retailers in the world might go “Maybe let’s hold back on the kale, I’m not sure this is something the public is really hungry for,” Trader’s Joe’s says, “Screw it – we’re doing kale chips.”
Now, I know kale chips are no new thing, and yes, you can find on the shelves of your Fresh and Easy and other idiosyncratic supermarkets, but the bold audacity of the TJ’s Kale Chips packaging, the outright assertiveness of the stuff, is what sets Trader Joe’s apart. How could I say no?
I could spend all day on the packaging honestly, a perplexing take on what it would be like if Superman was an air-crisped bowl of greens surmounted with the words “Meanwhile, zesty nacho…” This is, without a doubt, the least sensible thing I’ve ever read in a supermarket. TJ’s mad ad wizards were up late fabricating this head-scratcher, I’m sure. Presumably the kale-comic book mashup was the brain child of the same guy who thought up combining tropical islands and supermarkets.
The problem is that with all the set up, the overly free use of the adjective “super-duper”, the literal word “POW!” emblazoned on the front, etc, you can’t help but be disappointed by the drab, flaky, crusted up leaves you find inside. If it were up to me, I’d have stuck these in a nondescript, brown paper bag with the word “Kale chips” stenciled bleakly on the side and maybe a dreary man’s face staring listlessly out at you. Then at least the contents would look fun and exciting by comparison. As it stands, the kale chips resemble the packaging, and in particular the actual image of the chips on the front, as little as possible. They are dark olive drab instead of the depicted perky, spring green and rather than getting the crisp, individually differentiated chips I was promised I found leaves caked together in patties, or flaked across the bottom of the bag, more or less like fish food.
As for taste, well, there are two school of thought here. Let’s suppose you are on a serious diet, not an I-feel-chubby-I’m-cutting-back-on-the-chocolate diet, but real, I-don’t-fit-into-my-wedding-dress-and-the-ceremony-is-in-a-month diet. A serious diet. If you’re eating nothing but blocks of tofu and steamed broccoli I can see these “alternatives to traditional chips” being a delightful indulgence, and the hint of cheese-free crud crusted on them probably tastes like real nacho cheese. Such is the madness of a serious diet.
If, however, you live in the ordinary, lack-a-day world where Doritos and their ilk are cheap, plentiful and an occasionally justifiable snack, these bland, plant-y tasting flakes aren’t really worth the brittle, crumbly hassle – or the price tag.
A final tone – although billed as a chip alternative, compare these guys to a serving of Santitas Tortilla Chips (the ones in the ubiquitous yellow bag).
Trader Joe’s Kale Chips Santitas Tortilla Chips
Regular chips have less calories, less fat, and a carb difference which, though notable, is far from enough to make up for resorting to the much less satisfying, harder to eat kale chips.
Would I Recommend Them: Only to dieters who are starting to lose it.
Would I Buy Them Again: Never.
Final Synopsis: An ineffectual, not-quite tasty alternative to chips.
I’m not going to play coy on this one – these freakin’ banana chips rock. Let’s get it out up front – who doesn’t love banana chips? No one, obviously, and I think we should all tip our metaphorical hats to the man, men, woman, women or mixture thereof who pioneered the frying of this fleshy fruit in the first place.
As much as we love them though, what’s the ever-present downside of banana chips? Too much grease, and not enough rockin’ banana flavor.
Well, man, brace yourself. Trader Joe’s has solved both problems by, once again, applying the science of vacuum frying. As I mentioned in my last post, vacuum-frying is just deep frying but done inside a vacuum chamber. This is commonly used for fruit chips (like bananas!) because the absence of an atmosphere lets things fry at a lower temperature – thus preserving flavor and color while (slightly) reducing oil. In this case, however, we are talking a 50% reduction in fat – and the best damn banana chips you’re likely to find.
Crisp and very sweet, but not overwhelming, I was pleasantly surprised to see the complete list of ingredients read “Bananas, Palm Oil”. I was like, “Seriously? And this much flavor?!” Listen guys, I’m telling you they are totally serious.
There’s only one downside here, and that’s that you’re paying more than for your standard chip, but forget your standard chip already. It’s 2011 man, and it’s time to vacuum fry bananas.
Would I recommend them? Totally already did.
Would I buy them again? Over regular banana chips? Every time.
Final Synopsis: The best banana chip that I, personally, have eaten.
As I suspected when I bought the bag, these unsalted potato chips taste like unsalted potato chips. The fact they are made from red, gold and “blue” types of potato made me wonder if it wasn’t some sort of quasi-patriotic tie-in to flag season. However, the chips themselves look all but identical, either white or dark blueish-brown wafers of identical taste.
That said, as far as unsalted potato chips go, these are nice. The chips are strong enough to dig into a dip and very broad. The bag copy makes a point of this – pointing out they make their snack from whole potato slices and not potato scrap left overs like other companies. Not just laudable, but a definite revolution on the snack front.
The chips aren’t too greasy – probably aided by the fact that, as the side of the bag touts, they’re vacuumed fried. Vacuum frying is basically just deep frying, except that the deep fryer is inside a vacuum chamber. Without an atmosphere, the oil boils at a lower temperature allow chips to retain more of their natural color and flavor and, allegedly, are less greasy, though only by a few percent.
Now, if I were the kind of man who buys unsalted potato chips, I could probably go on and on about them. I’m not, of course – no one is. In all my years I’ve never met a person who’d choose unsalted over salted potato chips – nor can I imagine any reason anyone ever would, apart from coercion at gun-point. Even people with sodium concerns are more likely to skip chips altogether for a better tasting, low-salt snack then settle for tantalizing themselves with neutered versions of their beloved Lay’s or Pringles.
Would I Recommend Them: Only to people who tackle the stiffest, densest dips.
Would I Buy Them Again: Nope.
Final Synopsis: An excellent snack in a purposeless category.
Blood oranges are, of course, awesome. I mean, c’mon – it’s an orange with crimson pulp and the word “blood” in its name. It’s like the Xtreme version of your everyday, buttoned down breakfast orange. Who wouldn’t want a soda made from it?
The main thing that bothers me about this product though, is the nomenclature. Are they proclaiming that it’s an Italian Soda with Blood Orange flavoring, or a normal soda that tastes like blood oranges from Italy? That might seem like quibbling, but the distinction matters.
An Italian Soda (sparkling water mixed with syrup) is quite different from a can of Fanta. On the other hand, if the marketers are actually calling out which strain of blood orange they’re using that is a much more subtle distinction – Italy is famous for it’s blood oranges, namely the Toccara, but there are also popular, and sweeter, Spanish and American varieties.
With the images of rolling, Tuscan-esque orchards on the label, it seemed most likely that Trader Joes just wanted to get the word “Italian” up front as soon as possible to entice simple-minded buyers who equate the word with Mediterranean luxury (like me).
Unfortunately, Italian Blood Orange Soda let me down. Not because there is anything wrong with it. It’s a quite tasty and slightly bitter, orange flavored soda. It has the calories of a regular soda, the effervescent fizz of a regular soda and, basically, the taste of a regular soda. Although the label proves it is, in fact, sparkling water mixed with blood orange extract, in the end it’s just another soda.
This is a perfectly safe purchasing option for people who want to try something only a little bit different, or as a light warm-up for more adventurous consumption to follow.
On a final note: I was initially pleased by the very blood-orangey look of the soda, but later dismayed when I saw the color was brought on through the use of coloring agents, then finally pleased again when those coloring agents turned out to be derived from the sinister sounding “black carrot.” Not necessarily ideal, but certainly much cooler than resorting to red dye #6.
Would I recommend it? If I was bored.
Would I buy it again? Not any time soon.
Final Synopsis: In the end, just another soda.
Hell yes, brown god-damned tomatoes. I had high hopes for these immediately, as both an inveterate tomato fiend and lover of strange foods. Many color tomatoes have I seen – red and green, tiny yellow dudes and giant misshapen orange heirlooms, but brown?!?! That’s gutsy. Brown is, after all, the color every vegetable wishes to avoid – the visual tip-off that all that was once good and wholesome has putrified into waste. Yet some inspired ad genius at Kumato farms decided “To hell with convention – we’re going to sell brown tomatoes!”
It shouldn’t surprise you that I found these resting next to the Saturn peaches and, like their squat friends, brown tomatoes are largely a non-event. The taste was a touch sweeter and a touch less acidic than your standard hothouse tomato – apparently the kumato has a boosted level of fructose – but I thought it was a very subtle difference. Other than their bizarrely colored flesh (they’re a nice burgundy color on the inside, btw) I found brown tomatoes basically interchangeable with the ordinary sort. I feel fine leaving them to the salads of iconoclasts and antiestablishmentarians who were long ago bored witless by the bourgeois garden-variety tomato. Although, I must say they looked quite nice diced up on my bed of lettuce.
A final note of interest, “kumato” is actually a trade name, and the strain is very tightly controlled by Sygenta, the ominously named company that originally engineered its existence. Only a select handful of farms are allowed the seeds to grow these unusual fruits, and they must obey Sygenta regulations and pay the appropriate dues and tithes to the company – all of which goes to make the act of growing tomatoes sound like the forerunner for a grim dystopian future we shall all find ourselves plunged into soon enough.
Would I recommend them: Only to the rebellious.
Would I buy them again: Sadly, no.
Final Synopsis: A novelty vegetable with no punchline.
A final note, I noticed that over several days the tomatoes took on a steadily redder hue, turning a dark reddish brown on the same day they turned squishy
Pleasantly surprising. Looking at the murky green glop in this bottle, you have to wonder why they didn’t opt for an opaque container instead. Just look at it: too drab to be fecund, to green to pass itself off as good tasting. It has the exact same look as pond scum, and the cut rate labeling on the bottle only enhances the feeling that this product comes from far back corner of the Trader Joes factory, where light bulbs flicker and the machines are slowly breaking down.
What’s the surprise? It’s sweet. Really sweet – like thick apple juice cut with banana and mango, which is, basically, what it is. Underneath, the bitter tones of the wheatgrass juice and other healthy stuff occasionally poked through, but never becoming unpleasant.
This overall sweetness is what turned me off. I live in America, man, finding sweetened fluids is no chore. I basically spend all day sipping on, purchasing, or watching advertisements for a broad spectrum of sweetened fluids. When I pick up a cheap looking bottle of wet green stuff, it’s because I’m ready to teach my tongue a lesson for leading me down those candied alleys. When I pick up something healthy, I mentally prepare myself for a certain degree of nasty taste. If it didn’t taste at least a little bad, how would I know it was good for me?
I feel like this is a product that doesn’t know what it wants. The look of it makes me imagine it lining the microfridges of hard-core vegans, but the taste is hamburger-joe friendly. It advertises itself as protein, but only delivers 10g of the stuff while its flashier competitors, sitting right next to it, offer 16g and 20g of protein. It feels like a product that was focused grouped into no-man’s land, or a hold out from a more primitive age.
Would I recommend it? No.
Would I buy it again? No.
Final Synopsis: A protein-ish drink that tastes good, to its own detriment.