I don’t usually go trawling the Trader Joe’s produce aisle for products to review, unless I see something particularly eye catching – like a cruciferous crunch or some kale sprouts – and to be honest I wasn’t planning on reviewing Trader Joe’s Organic Carrots of Many Colors when I bought them.
Two things changed, however. One, I noticed that Trader Joe went ahead and inserted the classic conjunction-article pair “and the” into the product name, which by itself is crazy enough to write about, but more importantly, two, I really liked them.
I know – I’m as surprised as you are! After all, aren’t we just talking about carrots here? Regardless of the fact that there are some with different colors, aren’t they all just basically carrots? Isn’t this just another, somewhat feeble, marketing gimmick to try and move root vegetables? Well yes and no. Yes, because yes – despite some very subtle taste differences, these carrots are all functionally the same. But also no because, as I discovered, a plate of colorful carrots is actually more enjoyable to eat.
First of all, yes this bag really does contain carrots of many colors – from pale yellow through a range of oranges, to red and purple. If this spectrum of carrot colors comes as a surprise to you, then you may be even more surprised to know that for the vast majority of the existence of the carrot, orange was in the minority. It’s only in the modern age that orange overtook every other color for carrot supremacy, a change that is directly linked to the reign of William of Orange in 16th century Europe. You can educate yourself more at the online World Carrot Museum (and I certainly urge you to), or read my summary way back on the Trader Joe’s Beet and Purple Carrot Juice post. TL;DR version: his name was “Orange” so let’s make orange carrots.
These various colors of carrots don’t actually correlate to any difference in taste, and only very subtle variations in nutritional content. What they do provide, however, is a really stunning medley of colors.
The external colors of these carrots is striking enough – but once you’ve skinned them each carrot becomes even more startlingly vivid. The pale yellow carrots become brilliant yellow, the red carrots are as bright as strawberries, and the purple carrots reveal not just a deep regal purple, but also a core of pale yellow that runs the length. Sliced and diced on my chopping board, ready to be added to a hearty soup, the carrots really did look better. Even if the taste was indistinguishable they livened up the dish, and made the prep process more fun – qualities of presentation that were just as enjoyable as the taste of the food.
Will these carrots change the way you think about carrots in general? No. But it will change the way you look at them.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes – why limit yourself to boring carrots?
Would I Buy Them Again: I would. I really liked the flair they lent to the presentation.
Final Synopsis: Taste like regular carrots, but look like a million bucks.
We recently looked at the shocking explosion in popularity of the humble Brussels sprout. I myself have never considered myself much of a Brussels sprout man, although I’m occasionally tempted into the dish when sufficient quantities of bacon and cheese have been introduced. I’m also not much of a kale man, although I can occasionally be convinced to enjoy it chopped – if there’s enough good salad fixings to go with it. Why then, did I feel compelled to pick up a bag of Trader Joe’s Kale Sprouts – a product that is, somehow, exactly what it sounds like. Some twisted nutritional madman, in a decaying castle on some storm bitten crag, managed to fuse these two unfavorably regarded members of the Brassilica family into one lopsided ungainly form – perfect for haunting the dreams of obstinate children forever more. Surely this tinkering can’t work out well, can it?
Fortunately, I’ve matured far enough beyond my own childhood dislike of strange vegetables to actually give this unusual new plant a try. What I discovered was a veggie that combines the best of both its parents into a new form.
Despite owing it’s ancestry in half to Brussels sprouts, kale sprouts don’t look all that much like those infamous green buds. Instead, kale sprouts look like little heads of kale. In fact, kale sprouts are often referred to by their other name, lollipop kale – downplaying the Brussels sprouts side altogether. Don’t be fooled though – despite their very kale-like appearance if you saw kale sprouts at the farm, you’d see them growing off the sides of long, vertical stalks – exactly like Brussels sprouts.
This mixed pedigree is reflected in the taste – the kale sprout taste is almost exactly halfway between kale and Brussels sprouts. Robust, nutritious, crisp, fresh, and slightly bitter with a hint of pepperiness. As a result, you can cook them in any of the ways you would consider cooking either. Kale sprouts can be cut in half and roasted in the oven like Brussels sprouts just as easily as they can be sauteed with a touch of olive oil and salt, like kale – or simply thrown on a salad.
While I expected to be underwhelmed by these guys as a result of that “middle of the road” phenomenon, I was actually quite charmed by the little morsels. I hadn’t known it before, but I guess I’ve always wanted my Brussels sprouts to be leafier and my kale to have more body. Trader Joe’s Kale Sprouts manage to do both those things at the same time. It’s like they scratch an itch I didn’t know I had. In fact, I’d say I found them easier to cook, and friendlier to eat, than either of its progenitors.
Kale sprouts are an excellent addition to your produce pantry, and a versatile tool for many meals, from a hearty side for meat dishes, to an addition to your salad bowl, to a simple saute. Unlike so many produce hybrids that seem to be made exclusively for novelty purposes – like the saturn peach, or pluot – kale sprouts actually fill a meaningful role in the kitchen. Let’s hope they’re here to stay.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, they’re handy, novel and nutritious.
Would I Buy Them Again: I would – they made me feel fancy.
Final Synopsis: A kale/Brussels sprout hybrid that combines the best of two worlds.
Look, I know quinoa is enjoying something of a heyday, the likes of which has been unprecedented since the ancient grain was originally introduced as a staple of the human diet in 5,000 BC, but there are certain applications of it which are bound to make even the hippest vegetarian blink. I’ve calmly accepted quinoa in my salads, my “chicken”, and even in my sushi. But quinoa in my pesto? That’s a development that begs further inquiry.
Quinoa was originally cultivated in the Andes region of South America since the rise of civilization there. However, since it’s uptake by the incessant marketing machine in the mid 2000’s, quinoa has been trumpeted as a superfood for it’s many healthsome properties – some certified, some merely alleged – and introduced into practically any food product in need of a sales boost.
What is absolutely true is that quinoa is a gluten-free grain, and is relatively protein rich. Given that both these qualities dovetail nicely into the culinary trends of the day, its recent, widespread popularity should probably not be a surprise. It is notable however. Since 2006, the price of quinoa has tripled on the market even as crop production has nearly doubled world wide – and in 2013 no lesser body than the United Nations itself declared it the “International Year of Quinoa”. They had a logo and everything.
While the sudden rise of quinoa from obscurity to mainstay may sound unusual, it’s not alone. In fact pesto – yes the very pesto in this quinoa and pesto sauce – shares a very similar original story. Pesto may not have a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years, like quinoa, but it’s a lot older than you might think. The first bowl of pesto was found on the table of the ancient Romans who ate a paste of crushed herbs, garlic and cheese. As they conquested into northern Italy/southern France, the basil that grew there was introduced into the dish – resulting in the pesto we know and love today. And then nothing happened for two thousand years. Despite the fact that pesto took it’s fully mature form sometime before the birth of Christ, it was largely unknown out of the rustic Mediterranean regions where it sprang into existence.
Not until 1863 is the first recipe for pesto recorded, and it is not until nearly a hundred years after that, in 1946, that the first pesto recipe shows up in America. Even then, pesto continued to languish in relative obscurity until the 1980’s, when it started to be adopted into Italian cuisine on a wide scale.
So why combine these two long overlooked food items into one condiment? Why did Trader Joe’s bother to make Pesto and Quinoa?
When you try it, the first thing you’ll notice is that they might as well have called it pesto with quinoa, instead of pesto and quinoa. The point being that this is a pesto sauce, first and foremost, with the quinoa making a very meager impact on the overall dish.
Apart from the quinoa, this is a standad pesto recipe – filled with plenty of basil, oil and grated cheese. What it doesn’t have, however, is any pine nuts. In place of that crunchy nuttiness you get the squishy nuttiness of lots and lots of quinoa. This makes the pesto taste more or less like any other pesto you’ve had from a grocery store, even if it looks very very different. There’s so much quinoa in this pesto that it’s far and away the first ingredient. When you unscrew the lid you’ll see a load of quinoa, sprouts and all, staring back at you. If you can get over the somewhat unsettlingly different appreance, you’ll find that this pesto works just like the regular stuff – you can add it easily to pasta, chicken, fish or salads for that big sloppy kiss of savory basil. Just don’t expect it to spread quite like regular pesto. The quinoa makes it much lumpier than a normal pesto, and requires a little extra finesse on the part of the eater.
While that’s all well and good, it does make you wonder why Trader Joe’s bothered to make this stuff at all. There isn’t any real difference in the calorie or fat content between this and ordinary pesto. While I enjoyed it on a variety of meals, I didn’t enjoy it any more than I would have any other pesto. And with the slightly unappealing look and unweildly nature of the quinoa, there really isn’t any need to get it again. I’m glad TJ’s discovered a tasty Peruvian pesto, I’m just not so sure why they wanted to pas it along to all of us.
Would I Recommend It: No, I don’t think so.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope, no need.
Final Synopsis: Pesto with a bunch of quinoa in it tastes just like pesto without quinoa in it. So why bother?
No vegetable has seen a resurgence in recent years like the Brussels sprout. Sure, the per person consumption of broccoli has increased more than 400% since 1980, but people always kind of ate broccoli. Brussels sprouts, on the other hand, have been shorthand for universally reviled food since before WWII. In fact, as recently as 2008 a survey conducted by Heinz Corp. found Brussels sprouts to be the most-hated vegetable in America. Yet in the last few years a strange new, pro-Brussels sprout zeitgeist has arisen in America. Suddenly they are a tasty treat to be found on your dinner plate, no longer regarded as cheap, unpleasant-tasting leaf wads. No one’s fool, Trader Joe’s has made tracks to capitalize on this resurgence, and has brought to their shelves their new Trader Joe’s Roasted Brussels Spouts just in time for the holiday season.
Personally, I’ve long been enjoying the tasty crunch of raw shredded Brussels sprout in Trader Joe’s excellent Cruciferous Crunch Collection, and while that’s all well and good I’ve been avoiding them in their whole, steamed form for many years, thanks to some truly unpalatable encounters with them in my childhood. Yet when I saw them presented in the produce aisle the other day, looking so demure in their minimalist wrapping, I couldn’t resist the urge to pick them up again and see if we couldn’t reconnect.
Normally, I probably wouldn’t have been willing to do this if it wasn’t for that one magically word in the title, “roasted”. The roasting of Brussels sprouts has been the magic key to their reappearance on dinner tables everywhere – that and the generous addition of crispy bacon, onion, pine nuts, etc. The old-fashioned way of boiling Brussels sprouts goes hand-in-hand with their ill reputation. As a cruciferous vegetable, the sprouts contain heaps of the compound glucosinolate which, while beneficial to the body, will stink like rotten sulfur when boiled too long. By roasting a Brussels sprout you avoid all this unpleasantness while retaining the nutrition and enhancing the taste.
Trader Joe’s Brussels sprouts come pre-roasted and ready to eat – sort of. Although they’ve been pre-cooked you’ll need to re-heat them, either by steaming them in their own package in the microwave, or sauteeing them up on the range. Steaming them is more likely to bring out that unsavory glucosinolate, so get out the frying pan if you really want to have a tasty meal.
So how do Trader Joe’s Roasted Brussels sprouts do? Rather well, actually. This is a classic what- you-see-is-what-you-get food product. Although the sprouts have been nominally roasted in olive oil with salt and pepper you won’t taste any of that in the prepared dish. It’s for good reason that TJ exhorts you to “season to taste” twice on the package. The sprouts themselves are fine examples of their cultivar – firm yet yielding, with a mild, vertiginous taste. They’re basically what you want, but they’re not going to blow anyone away just by themselves.
The easiest way to make these sprout delicious is to dress them up with another splash of olive oil and S&P, but if you’re willing to put a little more elbow grease into it, you could consider this recipe with bacon: , or this one with Parmesan – just make sure that you reduce the cooking times to adjust for the already cooked Brussels sprouts.
Finally, I’d like to break into a long digression here about the fascinating history of the Brussels sprout – as perhaps implied by the strange syntax of its name – but the world fails us here. Brussels sprout are apparently named as such simply because Brussels, Belgium was known for growing a lot of them. That shows a lack of imagination that riles me to no end – but I suppose it’s the hard to spell name we’re stuck with.
Would I Recommend Them: Sure, if you have a good idea for how to cook them.
Would I Buy Them Again: No, but I’d gladly eat them if served.
Final Synopsis: A fine bunch of roasted Brussels sprouts.
Thanksgiving is coming fast upon us, or is already here, or (depending on what day you’re reading this) has already long passed by. In any case, it seemed like the perfect time to review some of Trader Joe’s prospective Thanksgiving side dishes – in this case, Trader Joe’s Corn Pudding.
Now, in America the word “pudding” is pretty strictly applied. If it’s not a sweet, creamy desert – usually made by Jello – then it isn’t pudding. But as facts would have it, pudding has a much broader meaning on the global scale. For instance, in the historic sense pudding has almost never been sweet, let alone a desert. The word itself is thought to come from the French word boudin, meaning a small sausage, more or less the furthest thing possible from the modern American notion of pudding.
For centuries, “pudding” meant a savory meat dish of some sort, mixed with grain or suet, then boiled or steamed to make it set. This delicious sounding treat even became the standard main course for the British navy over the 1700 and 1800’s, and would go on to blossom into the weird, often disturbing, world of British puddings from there. The wobbly little universe of British puddings is best not looked at too close, lest what we see within plunges us into Lovecraftian-style madness, but it has resulted is such delights as blood sausage, steak-and-kidney pudding and, of course, the noble haggis.
Don’t worry, folks, I’ll stop there. I bring these puddings up not because Trader Joe’s is bold/insane enough to market British puddings to Americans, but to give context to an otherwise strangely named product. Trader Joe’s Corn Pudding is, as you might guess by now, not the least bit sweet nor even, really, particularly creamy. Although the packaging promises you “yellow and white corn baked in a creamy corn puree”, creaminess is certainly not the number one characteristic of this side dish. Cheese is promised as well, in the form of both melted Mozzarella and Parmesan, but despite this fact the dish doesn’t qualify as particularly cheesy either. What it is, most of all, is corny.
I certainly don’t mean that in the down-home, gee-whiz kind of way. This pudding is wall-to-wall corn
kernels, bound together by a mixture of cream, eggs, milk and, yes, some cheese. However, this binding is by no means what you’ll taste in the dish. From bite to bite what you’ll get is big, whole kernels of soft, sweet corn.
Now by this point, what with all the pudding bashing and all, you might think I’m not a fan of this pudding. That, however, is not the case. This corn pudding is what it is, and it does that thing well. If you need a heavy, savory, corn based side dish, Trader Joe’s Corn Pudding will be that for you. After 25 minutes in the oven it comes out golden brown and rich with the taste of golden yellow corn kernels. In particular, it has an enjoyably gentle corn taste that is softened by the very mild cheese and egg mixture. The pudding nature, and the oven baking, results in a more mellow taste than roasted or steamed corn kernels, which can tend to overpower other dishes with their smell or taste.
The result is a very capable side dish that won’t outshine the turkey or butt heads with the mash potatoes. It brings corn to the table, and gives it an extra level of texture and flavor that makes it a valuable addition to your feast, even if you’re already serving steamed corn at the table. Will it be everyone’s favorite? Certainly not – it’s too mild and one-note for that. Will there be some left in the serving dish at the end of dinner – I would imagine so, but it will also have made it on to everybody’s plate as a little bit of tasty filler. And that, really, is more or less what a supporting side dish is supposed to do.
In short, pick this up if you need an idea for another Thanksgiving side dish. It won’t offend, and it delivers a pretty tasty corn dish without much fuss.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, if you’re out of ideas for another side dish.
Would I Buy It Again: I might get it again next year.
Final Synopsis: A savory and mild corn casserole.
Well, pumpkin season is winding down – but what a long, crazy ride Trader Joe’s has given us this year. You never can guess what perfectly fine product TJ will suddenly feel compelled to put pumpkin in, but it will always be surprising. Case in point, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cranberry Scones. Cranberry scones? Sure, no one’s going to bat an eye at that. So why go the extra step and put pumpkin in it then? That’s a question that only Trader Joe himself can answer, but the strong money is on some sort of highly localized brain aneurysm.
The issue with scones in general is just that they’re not very good. “But that’s not true!”, people (British people) may say – “I enjoy a good scone from time to time.”
Do you? Or do you enjoy clotted cream and jam? In the same way that tortilla chips are mainly just a delivery system for delicious dips, the value of a scone is in it’s ability to convey sweet and fatty condiments from the jar to your mouth.
The scone is, I think we can admit, no one’s first choice of pastry. Combining a not-actually-sweet blandness with a touch of salt, then serving it in irregular, dense patties might show a certain ingenuity of baking but it isn’t likely to eclipse the croissant – or even the English muffin – anytime soon.
And yet… and yet… I find myself enjoying these scones. Unlike most scones I’ve had in my life, they’re not too dense to enjoy. They actually have an almost biscuit like fluffiness to them, especially straight from the oven. And while these scones still aren’t sweet, they do feature enough moments of sweetness to make them enjoyable to munch on, even without copious amounts of heavy cream. These moments of sweetness are thanks, primarily, to the scattering of dried cranberries that speckle the batter – generous enough to dress up every bite, but not so many that they undermine the sconeiness of the scone.
Presumably the pumpkin that was included in this dish was put there for the same reason, however despite top billing in the product title, it doesn’t make much of an appearance. In fact, the pumpkin levels in these scones are sub Pumpkin Cornbread, as the scones don’t even smell that strongly of pumpkin or pumpkin spices even straight from the oven. I guess that undermines the whole point of putting pumpkins in them in the first place – but I really can’t get too mad over that. Whatever Trader Joe’s is doing with scones is working, and if that means they feel compelled to put low levels of pumpkin in them I’m willing to sign off on it.
Cooking the scones is one thing – but eating them is another. Even if these scones are edible on their own, even if technically you don’t have to slather them with jams and marmalades and butter and curds, you might as well anyway. These are scones after all – that’s most of the fun.
If you want to shake up the scone scene a little bit, you can try a few of the scone related recipes TJ recommends. These include hitting them with cream cheese, or slicing them in half and popping in a scoop of ice cream. In both cases you could use Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cream Cheese, or Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream to really up the pumpkin ante. Other suggestions that worked well for me were Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter (which really stood out as delicious), Trader Joe’s new Cranberry Apple Butter, and even Trader Joe’s decadent Pumpkin Caramel Sauce.
Really, with the biscuit like fluffiness and mild sweetness of these scones, you can’t go that far wrong.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, these were some fine scones.
Would I Buy Them Again: Still not a big scone fan, but I’d consider it.
Final Synopsis: Semi-sweet, not-too-dense scones with plenty of character but not much pumpkin.