We return again to the strange shores of vegan cuisine to take a look at Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. We’ve looked at a good number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to this meaty world we live in – from soy “ice cream” to chicken-free chicken nuggets.
In general, I find that vegetarian food really shines when it’s not getting hung up on trying to be the doppleganger of meat products, as with Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers, and just does it’s own thing. The worst sins of vegan cuisine seem to occur when somebody decides that, goddammit, yes, I need to make a turkey out of tofu. Vegetable dishes are good as vegetables, and meat dishes are good as meat – there’s no need for vegetables to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to be proved wrong in novel ways, hence the acquisition of these “meat”balls.
TJ’s comes straight out and calls their meatless meatballs, “a delicious meat-free substitute for any meal” right there on the package, without even a hint of modesty. I wouldn’t go that far, but the meatballs do delivery a surprisingly rich and full, if not exactly meaty, flavor. The meatlessballs, for lack of a better word, replicate the texture and mouthfeel of a standard party meatball pretty closely. The bite of the ball is moist and a little chewy – holding together well, and breaking up much as a bit of ground beef would. Coated with a heavy sauce, or mixed into a plate of pasta you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Taken by itself, however, the meatlessball tastes, and more importantly, smells very dissimilar.
A good job was done to season the meatlessballs in such a way that they are roughly approximate to a normal meatball, but there’s no hiding the sort of soybean-y aftertaste when eaten straight off the plate. There’s nothing here of the fatty, visceral taste of the meatball – instead there’s a thinner, somewhat vegetable blandness. This difference in taste is rather mild, however, which means it can be hidden very effectively under a good marinera or similar sauce. More problematic, for those seeking a true meat substitute, is the smell wich has nothing of the savory, fatty scent of a simmering meatball. Instead, it smells like what it is – a bunch of hot soy. It’s a strong enough scent that it might make you think twice about digging in.
When you pop this bag open, the first thing you should realize is that you
are getting a ton of these guys. These are cocktail meatballs, not the big honking ones you get in Trader Joe’s regular bag of frozen meatballs. The move feels like it may be a practical one, as even at their smaller size the meatless meatballs have a certain tendency to break up if played around with too much. On the plus side, they’re down right healthy compared to Trader Joe’s ordinary beef variety meatballs. Each six meatball serving has only 140 calories, 45 from fat, and 13 whopping grams of protein.
How do such meatless balls manage such a feat? Through the magic of textured soy protein, of course.
To level with you, I generally react to this sort of psuedo-meat like a horse being lead up to Frakenstein’s castle. There’s something strange and unnatural about it that makes me balk. Meat I get. It’s easy to get answers out of meat. “Hey, what’s this meatball made out of?” “A bunch of dead cow.” That’s a straight forward answer. The answers are harder with meatless meat products, because all of a sudden I’m being tricked, right from the start. Nothing is what it appears, but instead a complex masquerade of strange technical processes meant to fool me into thinking I’m eating meat. That’s vaguely sinister – and such weird yet innocuous phrases as “textured soy protein” only make me nervous.
Textured soy protein or “TSP” is, in fact, kind of weird and sinister stuff. It’s basically the styrofoam of the food world, used since the 1960’s by the Archer Dale Midland company to pad out meat with filler material. It’s what happens when you heat soy bean flour to high temperatures that it melts, then is extruded from a nozzle as “a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textured_vegetable_protein). Does that sound amazing? Not really, but they tell you not to ask about how sausage is made either.
That may sound like I’m being harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate. In terms of texture and even, to a fair degree, taste these “meat”balls really are good substitutes for real meatballs. But to say, as Trader Joe’s does, that they’re a substitute for “any recipe” isn’t one I’d stand behind. Taken as a small asset in a larger dish, in a sloppy meatball sandwich say, they work beautifully, as they would for any vegetarian just looking to get a little variety in their diet. However, in a dish where the meatballs are showcased instead of hidden behind other, stronger flavors they’re unlikely to please the table.
Would I Recommend It: Not to meat eaters, possibly to vegetarians.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, I’ll stick to TJ’s lean turkey variety.
Final Synopsis: Fake meatballs suitable for pasta but not soup.
Trader Joe’s Gluten Free, Raw, Vegan Fruit Bars – (Apple & Strawberry, Apple & Mango, Apple & Banana, and Apple & Coconut)Posted: June 3, 2014
With the addition of Trader Joe’s Apple and [blank] Fruit Bars, they have added another participant to the already crowded Trader Joe’s fruit bar arena. How, I wondered as I picked these up, could Joe possible justify the existence of a third, no nonsense, “healthy” fruit bar?
There are, in fact, many similarities between these fruit bars and Trader Joe’s other fruit bars. Like its competitors, these bars are 100% fruit, with no additives of any sort. Does that mean we’re just talking about more fruit leather? No indeed sir, it does not! While Trader Joe’s other fruit bars all hopped on the fruit leather boat, these Gluten Free Raw Vegan Fruit Bars are another thing entirely.
Open up a pack and take a look. For starters, you’ll notice that they’re not all that flat. Each bar is a good half inch or more thick, with the heft and body of a candy bar. As you pick it up, you’ll notice that they’re not all that sticky either – you can wrap your fingers around any of the varieties without fear of peeling them away to the dreaded sensation of “sticky raisin fingers”.
You’ll notice another big difference as well – unlike TJ’s other fruit bars, these guys look minimally processed. Instead of a uniform fruit paste, each of these bars is visibly full of shredded fruit – be it bits of strawberry, chunks of banana, lumps of mango, or slivers of coconut. That same quality means that each type of bar actually feels very different in the hand. The Apple & Banana is probably most dense and firm, while the Apple & Coconut has a tendency to crumble as you handle it.
Which brings us to the taste. Apple goes into basically every fruit bar ever made because its pulp is simply excellent and binding things together. What that means is that you can expect all of these bars to taste at least a little bit like apple. The question is, how much does it taste like anything else?
Actually, before we even get into that, I’d better mention that these bars are surprisingly unsweet. To be sure, they are definitely sweet as compared to – for instance, dirt. But compared to any of the other TJ fruit bars I’ve reviewed these bars are much more muted. There is none of the light-up-your-tongue zazz you normally expect from these sorts of snacks. In fact, these fruit bars are less sweet even than the fruits they’re made from.
The reason for this, in part, is because of the unsulfured nature of the raw fruit that has gone into the bars. We’ve talked about the sulfuring process
before – and how it preserves the color and taste of fruit once it’s been dried. Without preservatives, and without the chemical changes that occur with exposure to high heat, these bars are essentially just shredded, dried fruit – and as such lose a good deal of their fruit’s original intensity.
Why aren’t the bars exposed to high heat? Because they’re “raw”, of course. The notion of raw food, and the ethos of rawism, is simply too big a topic to tackle in this post. One of the more interesting puzzles of only consuming raw food, however, is deciding at what temperature a raw food should no longer be considered raw. It’s generally agreed that the cut off for vegetables and fruits is between 104 – 120 degrees Fahrenheit (40-49 degrees Celsius). Presumably, these bars abide by that guideline, although there is no official “seal of rawness” yet, so really it’s anyone’s guess.
Which brings us back to the taste – just how good are these raw fruit bars? I’m happy to say that even though they are somewhat unsweet, they’re still quite flavorful. The guest fruit in each bar (banana, coconut, mango or strawberry) really come to the fore in each bite. The sugariness may be gone, but the appealing underlying taste of the fruit is still there, mingling pleasantly with the subtle, mellow apple taste. Essentially, you are getting the taste of the fruit without the sweetness. The Apple and Banana Bar, for example, tastes like a cooked plantain more than a ripened banana. The same applies to the coconut, strawberry and even the mango. You can recognize and appreciate the flavors with the candied sugariness common to many dried fruits.
Are these bars worth your money then? There’s certainly a lot to like about them. They give you a convenient way to keep your blood sugar up, a way to stay committed to your raw food diet, and can act as a substitute candy bar for dieters in need of a cheat. Then again, a regular piece of fruit does all of that just as well – and the fruit tastes better.
Really, it comes down to if you like everything about fruit except the sweetness, or if you’ve been questing for a fruit bar that won’t make your fingers sticky. If either of those qualities defines you, then you’ll want to pick up these bars. For everyone else, I’d suggest giving one a try, if for no other reason than the novel experience.
Would I Recommend Them: Sure, if you need a healthier alternative to a Snickers.
Would I Buy Them Again: I’d buy these before any of the other Trader Joe’s Fruit bars, just because they’re less sticky.
Final Synopsis: A hefty fruit bar that isn’t all that sweet.
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.
To be honest, I picked up Trader Joe’s Organic Soy Creamy Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert (aka vegan ice cream) because I feel sorry for vegans.
I probably shouldn’t, I know that vegans and vegetarians and pescatarians and whatever all else there is are perfectly capable of looking after themselves, but I still feel sorry for them. It’s a crazy, meat eating world out here in America. If people aren’t spraining their jaws exalting the wonders of bacon, they’re drooling over commercials for monstrous, meat soaked burgers. Occasionally I try and put myself in the shoes of a person who, for reasons of personal ethics or personal health, has chosen not to eat meat.
What if the tables were turned, I sometimes wonder, and was in the minority? What if, for example, 99% of restaurants served dog and dog based dishes? What if TV, print media and the internet were plastered in ads showing people taking loving mouthfuls of hot, roasted dog. What if people not only went on at length about how many delicious puppies they ate last night, but would even go so far as to ridicule me for not eating dogs, and bemoan my stubborn refusal to just give in already and start eating puppies like everyone else.
So yes, I bought all the flavors of Soy Creamy Non-Dairy Frozen Desert because I want to morally support my vegan friends (okay…friend) who comes over sometimes. What I was shocked to discover, is that soy based ice cream is great!
I was every bit as surprised as you. As we’ve discussed over “healthy” guacamole and veggie patties, there’s usually a price to pay for healthy and/or vegetarian cuisine. That price is taste. If something is good for you, it doesn’t usually taste very good, and if something is bad for you it generally tastes amazing. That’s the inherent cruelty of life, and strong evidence that the Irish Catholic guilt-based version of God might be the accurate one. TJ’s Soy Creamy completely explodes this model. This vegan, non-dairy, organic, soy-based ice cream is equally as good as it’s dairy based counterpart. In fact, I might actually like it better.
Soy Creamy is just as sweet and creamy as any other grocery store ice cream you’re likely to find, creamier even. I assumed the “creamy” bit in the title was just a throw away marketing line. Not so – this stuff is seriously smooth. Something about the vegan make up of Soy Creamy keeps it from freezing solid in your freezer. We all know that problem, hammering away at the top of an ice-hard lump of caramel ripple, denting up the spoon in an attempt to get out two or three teaspoons worth of ice cream. The vegan ice cream doesn’t have this problem – every spoonful comes out smooth and easy, but still stiff, and melts on the tongue with a full bodied flavor. It strikes the perfect balance between soft-serve and the real stuff.
The flavors are great as well. The vanilla tastes wonderfully rich and perfectly decadent. A bowl of it will leave every bit as satisfied as any milk based alternative. The cherry chocolate chip was also good, but this has never been my favorite flavor, even in the non-dairy world. The combination of chocolate chunks and mild cherry flavor doesn’t work any better as a vegan dish, leaving me equally nonplussed.
The only thing I can imagine that might put people off of Trader Joe’s Soy Creamy is that the aftertaste is different from the aftertaste of dairy based ice cream. You might notice a mild aftertaste of beans a few minutes after finishing off a bowl. Is that a bad thing? I suppose that depends on how you feel about the taste of edamame. For my count, I found it mild enough to right it off entirely. Plus, it’s more than compensated for by the healthy nutrtional profile.
In addition to being totally organic, which it is, the soy cream also has less fat and fewer calories per serving. Trader Joe’s French Vanilla Ice Cream, for example, has 260 calories and 16 grams of fat per serving – compared to the 180 calories and 8 grams of fat in the Vanilla Soy Creamy. Even if you have trouble grappling with the concept of a non-dairy ice cream, the calorie count couldn’t be a more eloquent argument in it’s favor. Eat twice as much for the same amount of calories? I’m on board.
So yeah, I like it. In fact, with the summer coming around the corner I’m libel to buy a lot more. In fact, I might even start buying this exclusively whenever I have a hankering for chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Am I crazy? Arguably, but you’ll just have to try some and find out.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is your go to organic ice cream, so or not.
Would I Buy It Again: I may never go back to dairy ice cream.
Final Synopsis: Vegan ice cream that as good as the real thing.
Sometimes you’re just hankering for something from Sardinia. Maybe the Big Game is about to come on, or maybe the kids are driving you up the wall? Times like these, nothing hits the spot like a little something Sardinian. Not only does Trader Joe’s Sardinian Parchment Crackers bolster the relatively anemic roster of the Sardinian products available from your grocer, but it also has the added benefit of sounding like the hotly contested artifact a dashing archaeologist might be racing Nazis for.
So it’s a great name – but what is a Sardinian Parchment Cracker?Well get ready for some excitement folks, because it’s very thin, flat, unyeasted cracker bread milled from semolina. In other words, a taste explosion. This might be expected given the origin of these crackers – invented circa 1000 BC by wandering shepherds trying to make a portable lunch. No bread lasts so well as a good, dry cracker, and so this it was that this simple, broad, flat snack entered the world.
Joking aside – Trader Joe’s Pane Guttiau is a good tasting cracker with some intriguing applications. In terms of flavor, these crackers are very close to saltines, only enlivened by a touch of olive oil and served much thinner. Much, much thinner actually. The more jocular name for pane guttiau is carta di musica or “music sheet” – either because these wafer thin crackers resemble wrinkled sheets of paper, or because they’re so thin that you can actually read a sheet of music through them. This is no exaggeration – I was able to see my hand through a sheet of pane guttiau, which is not something most crackers can brag of.
There are two main reasons you’re going to want to come to these crackers – for the size and for the texture. The taste, though good, won’t blow you away – it’s the huge 4-5” size of each cracker and their light, crispiness that lets you snack on these in a whole new way. You won’t necessarily be digging into a tub of hummus with these crackers – though you can manage it if you’re careful enough. Instead, they lend themselves to being layered with thin slices of salami and cheese, or dabbed with a nice tapenade and had as an antipasta.
There’s something really enjoyable and liberating about dealing with crackers this size. Instead of being forced into dealing with a set size of cracker out of a box, these parchment crackers allow you to easily snap off any sized section you want from the larger cracker. Nibble on a broken-off corner or stack a plate with multiple layers – the versatility of the pane guttiau is tremendous.
A final note, despite the thinness of the crackers, I found that Trader Joe’s packed a good number into each box. I wound up running out of things to put on the parchment crackers before the parchment crackers themselves ran out.
If you’re going to try these – get some good cheese and meats, some nice spreads, and enjoy a little free-form snacking.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, particularly if you’re exhausted by traditionally sized crackers.
Would I Buy Them Again: Eventually, maybe when I have guests over.
Final Synopsis: These ancient, wafer-like crackers are a whole new way to snack!
Holy crap – I mean, guys, words fail me. We’ve seen some pretty bold and unpredictable moves from Trader Joe’s before, but I’ve never seen anyone, anywhere, seen anything like Trade Joe’s Quinoa Teriyaki Mushroom Rolls. Swapping the rice out of sushi for quinoa? That is some mad scientist level tinkering there, mad science that has resulted in an abomination not fit to dwell on God’s green earth.
Look, I like Trader Joe’s, you like Trader Joe’s, but let’s be honest here – no supermarket has ever made reasonable sushi. Supermarkets on the coast of Japan don’t even do sushi well. If you want sushi, you go to a sushi restaurant. If you want cold patties of clammy rice and old fish, you go to supermarket. I can only imagine that it’s only due to the abysmal standards of supermarket sushi that Trader Joe’s thought they could get away with such an outlandish concoction. Replace the seafood with marinated mushrooms? Why not? Infuse the rice with quinoa? Who’s to stop you?
It’s not that I can’t see their thought process here – a healthy, vegetarian option for sushi lovers is a noble goal – but the execution here is unconscionable. The marinated mushrooms themselves are alright – a bit slimy, but tasty and nicely saturated with teriyaki flavor. If the product was mushrooms alone, I’d have little to complain about. The real culprit in making these rolls inedible is the unpleasant quinoa/rice wrapping – served soggy, tremendously dense and mealy. Those are characteristics shared by most supermarket sushi rolls, granted, but these were without a doubt the worst I’ve had of that dubious ilk. Was it adding quinoa that pushed it to the bottom, or would these have been just as bad with rice alone? It’s hard to say.
What would you expect the primary ingredient to be in a quinoa roll? Quinoa, perhaps? You would be mistaken, I’m afraid. I like quinoa, I’ve discussed it before, but it’s inclusion here is tragic. If the roll was entirely made of quinoa, that’d be one thing – I expect I’d even like a roll made entirely of quinoa. But that’s not what we have here. What you’re really getting is rice, sprinkled with a bit of quinoa.
Consult, if you would, the picture above. Notice the little yellow dots? That’s the quinoa. Everything else? That’s rice. It hardly seems honest, really, to bill these as quinoa rolls. If TJ’s really wanted a healthier sushi roll, they should have gone with a brown rice. You can’t just mix up an 80-20 rice to quinoa mix and call them quinoa rolls – that’s farcical, Joe. Knock it off.
If you’re a vegetarian and you love sushi, I feel for you I really do. For the time being, however, I’d suggest sticking to your cucumber and daikon rolls. I hope that Trader Joe’s will do something else with the teriyaki mushroom bits. Until then, I must award these quinoa rolls with the ignoble “Worst Thing I Have Ever Eaten from Trader Joe’s” award. Congratulations.
Would I Recommend Them: No. Really, really no.
Would I Buy Them Again: Not until opposite day, the day when you buy the things you hate and throw away the things you love.
Final Synopsis: Why would Trader Joe’s do this to sushi?
Nutritional Info, per 3-pc serving
Total Fat: 3g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg (duh, since it’s vegan)
Sodium: 430mg (before the soy sauce of course)
Total Carbs: 21g
Dietary Fiber: 1g
Vitamin A: 25%
Vitamin C: 4%
If there’s one thing Trader Joe’s is good at, it’s making me do a double take. Case in point, Trader Joe’s Crunchy Curls, a bag of puffed up, curly snack thing that blends seamlessly into the endless wall of junk food until you notice it the bag tacks on “A Tasty Lentil & Potato Snack!”
The first thing I’ll say is, I really wish they had made these into chips instead of crunchy spiral snack tubes, because there is no easy way to say “crunchy, spiral snack tube” in the English language. Let’s agree to call them “curlicues” right up front and get on with things.
So, TJ’s, why make a lentil and potato curlicue snack? Are there not plenty of crunchy snack options around? Is America not the land where you can walk down a 60′ long, triple-tiered aisle of snack chips every time you go to the supermarket? The land of the mighty Dorito, undulating Ruffle and tubular Pringle? Do you really think a bland looking, lentil and potato based thing that just happens to be a spiral is going to be able to stand it’s ground in the face of Cheetos, Funyuns, Bugles, Fritos, et al.?
Before we condemn these lentil-based curlicues with a thunderous cry of “Unnecessary!”, let’s look a bit closer. Notice, if you will, that Trader Joe’s Crunchy Curls are both gluten free and vegan. It goes without saying that gluten free, vegan snack foods are few and far between in this world. Try a Google search for the term and have fun choosing from all three options you get. I have vegan friends, I feel for their plight. I know it must be hard to maintain your resolute moral bearing while guys like me stroll around stuffing their mouths with tender beast flesh, sauteed mushrooms, moist, flaky croissants, etc. A gluten-free, vegan snack crunchy, salty snack just answered a lot of people’s prayers.
The big question, of course, is if it’s actually worth buying. Unfortunately, these curlicues left me flat. The taste isn’t the problem – they’re salty enough to scratch that salty food craving but not so salty that you’re rushing for your glass of water. The lentil/potato flavor is palatable if uninteresting with that long, starchy aftertaste – basically similar to munching down on a few Lays at once. The thing that disappointed me was how hard and crunchy the curlicues were. I know “crunchy” is right there in the title, but this snack combines “crunchy” with “hard”. Because of the thickness of each curly cue, each bite is like a fresh assault on a fortified compound. You don’t have to worry about mindlessly munching these down – pop a handful in your mouth and you’ll be busy for a minute or so.
In the end, however, that’s quibbling. If you’re in the market for vegan / gluten-free chips, these are basically fine. You won’t hate them, and they’ll hold up in your hummus dip. If you’re under no such strictures, however, there isn’t much reason to prefer these over anything else in the aisle.
Would I Recommend Them: Only if you’re on a vegan / gluten-free diet.
Would I Buy Them Again: Barring a major lifestyle change, no.
Final Synopsis: A good snack food – for being vegan and gluten-free.