Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch Collection

Trader Joe's Cruciferous Crunch Collection

With a salad mix this good, it doesn’t matter what your name is.

Those word geniuses at Trader Joe’s have done it again, by gum! I never thought they’d top Avacado’s Number, and while Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch may not have dethroned my favorite math-pun named guacamole, it comes close. After all, who in this wide world of popular appeal and lowest common denominator chooses to name their product after a tongue-tangling Latinate family? Trader Joe’s, that’s who. Keep up the good work, whoever it was at Trader Joe’s who was in charge of that! Some R&D wonk, maybe!

The Cruciferous Crunch Collection, as is not at all clear from the title, is a bag of shredded kale, Brussels sprouts, green cabbage and red cabbage. It is, in short, the nightmare scenario of every little kid sitting down to the dinner table. Back in the day that would have been me panicking at the site of kale, however since growing to adulthood I’ve developed a certain fondness for robust salads. To the modern day me, this bag of greens is a god send. The texture and heft of your greens are aspects of salads that go criminally under appreciated. Every time you’ve ever sat down do a cold plate of watery iceberg lettuce, someone has taken the texture and heft of their salad greens for granted. The absolute bastards.

Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch mix brings vibrant tastes and textures to your salad, shading the other elements with the nutritious, nutty flavor of kale, the crunch of crisp shredded cabbage, and the dense chewiness of sliced Burssels sprouts. Throwing an handful of two of this mix in with your bed of baby spinach, romaine or, dear I say it, arugula, is the easiest thing you could do to upgrade your entire salad experience.

A word or two must be spared for the outre name of this bag of greens. Cruciferae is the Latin family name for a whole range of of dark, leafy greens – from broccoli to wasabi – and refers to the cross shaped leaves of the plants. Confusingly, cruciferous plants are also known under the more generally used family name brassicaceae, for no good reason other than to make trouble for botanists. I assume Trader Joe’s opted for cruciferous over brassicaceous because it’s marginally easier to pronounce, and because “Cruciferous Crunch Collection” sounds better than “Brassicaceous Bunch Bag”.

In any case, I would certainly assert  that the bag is amazingly named, and that if you’re at all a fan of good, satisfying salads this is an essential addition to your fridge’s crisper drawer.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: To salad makers everywhere.

Would I Buy It Again: I already have.

Final Synopsis: An awesome name for an awesome bag of salad greens.

Trader Joe's Cruciferous Crunch Collection - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch Collection – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Gorgonzola & Walnut Salad

Trder Joe's Gorgonzola & Walnut Salad

A very attractive old timey font on this salad. Not much else to brag about though.

Oh, Trader Joe’s your salads are so uneven. Sometimes your salads are so good that I do little dances in my kitchen, and sometimes they simply fall flat. Trader Joe’s Gorgonzola and Walnut salad seemed like it was going to land in the first category, but ended up squarely in the second – rather bland and generally unexceptional.

How do you go wrong with such a simple concept? This salad has the fewest ingredients I’ve seen in basically any salad ever. They are, all inclusively, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, gorgonzola and walnuts. Five ingredients, that’s it. Such a pure, simple recipe, such a confident delivery – it’s enough to make you think those few ingredients are actually enough to make the  salad taste good. It’s enough to make you think that gorgonzola and walnuts by themselves will be enough to make you sit up and go, “Yowza, I can’t believe this salad!” This, my friends, is not the case.

Gorgonzola has been served alongside walnuts since time immemorial, for the very good reason that they pair well. You’d think these two would be a delicious meal in and of themselves, salad or not. Splash a little  zingy balsamic vinaigrette on that, mix with some greens and you’d think we’d be talking about a definite winner. The fact that this salad actually tastes so plain and uninteresting is rather perplexing.

The problem here lays in the cheese. When you think of a nice gorgonzola, you’re probably picturing something like a rich, aromatic wedge of veined bleu cheese. This istandard gorgonzola, the most popular kind, is known as gorgonzola piccante or gorgonzola naturale. It is this type of firm, crumbly, strong tasting gorgonzola that isn’t packaged in this salad.  Instead, we are dealing with lumps of gorgonzola dolce, or “sweet” gorgonzola. This is your option B among gorgonzolas – a softer and much, much milder cheese.

I’m quite boggled as to why TJ’s went for this mild variety. The stronger gorgonzola naturale would have melded deliciously with the nutty bitterness of the walnuts and the acidic pop of the balsamic dressing. Instead, the mild gorgonzola dolce fades into the unimpressive wallpaper of the lettuce and cabbage. The overall effect is that you’re left with a salad that never really seems to get started.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not this one, no.

Would I Buy It Again: There are too many delicious salads at TJ’s to waste time on this one.

Final Synopsis: A perplexing cheese failure wrecks what could have been a great salad.

Trader Joe's Walnut and Gorgonzola Salad - Nutrtition Facts

Trader Joe’s Walnut and Gorgonzola Salad – Nutrtition Facts

Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Grain Country Salad

Trader Joe's Vegetable and Grain Country Salad

Why can’t the shredded cabbage be considered part of the salad? It’s a vegetable too.

I never would have guessed raw cabbage and cooked bulgur could be so tasty, and yet here I have my proof in Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Grain Country Salad.

Let us first commend this hearty and delicious salad as a study in the art of simple, elegant salad making. The salad is skillfully tossed together from 4 simple components – a bed of shredded cabbage, a scattering of garbanzo beans and a few select cherry tomatoes embedded in a dense field of moist bulgur. Raw shredded cabbage is ordinarily hard to make palatable, but in this instance it works as crispy counterpoint to the yielding, flavorful grain. Add a few choice spices, and you’re left with a rich, sumptuous salad that smells enticingly of the middle east and fills you up without weighing you down. It does, however, lead us to our first question. Bulgur – what is bulgur?

Bulgur. This is not a word the average American runs into on network TV or his daily paper. It sounds fashionable, in that return-to-the-past sort of way, maybe the sort of thing peasants in medieval Italy were stabbing Cypriots with pikes over. “Unload your mule of my bulgur, varlet” was probably a common cry somewhere at sometime.

In actual point of fact, bulgur is a Mediterranean crop – a high fiber grain, related to wheat but looking and feeling like couscous and with a lightly nutty flavor. If you’ve ever had tabbouleh, you’ve had bulgur, (a phrase which is as fun to say as it was to write). Bulgur is somewhat in vogue nowadays due to the fact that it cooks up like white rice, but with more protein and fiber, and a lower glycemic index.

This leads us to our second question. Where does Trader Joe’s get off calling this a salad?

Being made mostly of grain, it’s pushing the definition of salad further than normally tolerated. It would be just as accurate to call this a pasta dish with a side of shredded cabbage. Not to mention the absence of a salad dressing. Has there ever been an actual salad-type salad that you can eat without a dressing? Top scientists say no. Except maybe in the case of pasta salads, of which this is almost certainly one, which I suppose negates the entire point of this paragraph. Never mind, let’s move on.

Although possibly a bit unorthodox, there’s s nothing to regret about Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Grain Country Salad – simple parts that come together in a tasty, well-designed medley of refreshingly unusual tastes and textures and exotic smells.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes, to anyone who is at all curious about salads or bulgur.

Would I But It Again: A little carb heavy as a salad, but tasty as a side dish, so yes.

Final Synopsis: A resounding yes to the question, “Does bulgur taste good as a salad?”

Trader Joe's Vegetable and Grain Country Salad - Nutritional Information

Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Grain Country Salad – Nutritional Information

Trader Joe’s Dried Kimchi

Trader Joe's Dried Kimchi

Cabbage is more than 90% water – is this a good idea?

First, for those of you who aren’t Korean, or don’t frequent the adventurous aisles of your supermarket, I will spare a few words for the remarkable food that is kimchi.

It seems that at some point in ancient history the good folks of the Korean peninsula thought they should start pickling fermented vegetables in spicy, spicy spices. Kimchi can be made from many vegetables, but most commonly from cabbage.

You’ve been served this limp, red-slathered dish in a tiny bowl if you’ve ever been lucky enough to patronize a Korean BBQ (or any Korean restaurant for that matter).

If you’ve ever been to Korea you’ve encountered it much more often than that. Kimchi is, in fact, the national food of the Koreans. The food is so important in that nation that it’s more a deeply ingrained cultural element than a food. Your typical Korean serves three or more types of kimchi every meal, including breakfast. Kimchi is to the Koreans what apple pie would be to Americans if Aunt Bea was the tyrannical overlord of our nation. Many Koreans, and this is utterly true, own two refrigerators – a regular refrigerator and a kimchi refrigerator. A separate refrigerator, you understand, that they need to own so they have a place to keep all their kimchi.

To your average American, kimchi is something of an acquired taste. We don’t pickle as much as we used to, and cabbage was never on the menu even back when pigs feet were going in the brine. Add to that fermentation in red hot spices and it starts to become clear why kimchi isn’t more widespread in the states.

So if that’s Kimchi’s illustrious, if idiosyncratic, past what is Trader Joe’s thinking by drying it? I really can’t get over how crazy this idea is. Unless there was a protracted, filibustering exhibition of super-human showmanship, I have great difficulty imaging the board meeting where this idea was successfully pitched. Essentially, someone must have stood up and said, “We want to start dehydrating cabbage,” and every just looked at each other and nodded. How does that happen?! This is 2013 – are all our pretenses to enlightenment a hollow lie?

Let me reiterate – I like kimchi. I’m a guy who literally says, “Alright, kimchi!”, when it’s served to him. I’ve willingly purchased whole jars of kimchi and brought them home with me. This is not a weird food to me, this is something I like. But I do not like this. Dried kimchi is, essentially, a bitter dose of spices on a shrunken leaf wad. It falls into the category of foods so weird I can’t even like them for their weirdness.

As we’re all aware, cabbage is 93% water content, and the bits that aren’t water are more tolerated than celebrated. Not many people are walking around hefting heads of cabbage and biting off a big mouthful just for the flavor. Really, dehydrating cabbage is just a fancy way of throwing it away. The fact that the already intense kimchi spices get concentrated in equal intensity on these dry bits of leaf is not a selling point.

The bag advertises the dehydrated kimchi as a “snack and condiment”, but a snack it is not. Dried kimchi is something you take a small pinch of, chew on slowly, and regret your recent life decisions. It’s more bitter than anything, although it’s also tremendously spicy.

As a condiment, the dehydrated kimchi fares better. The bag makes several suggestions for working the product into your daily life, some of them ludicrous, but includes “soup” and “salad” among them.

Dried kimchi flakes on salad is not something I would encourage. If you set out to design a salad entirely around the dried kimchi flakes, I dare say you could manage it. If you simply sprinkle them on a standard garden salad like I did, your results will be less than stellar. The gnarly cabbage-ness of the flakes blends away into your other leafy greens, but the touch of bitter spiciness still stands out, clashing with the other, more dominant flavors in the salad.

Soup, I’m glad to say, fares much better. I sprinkled my kimchi on Trader Joe’s Spicy Seaweed Ramen and actually found the dish much improved. The ramen, though tasty, is fairly simple in flavor. Seaweed doesn’t contribute much to it in terms of taste, and the spicy broth is simple and straight forward without depth.

Adding dehyrdated kimchi improved the whole situation. When the kimchi contacted the broth it began to reconstitute and unfurl, essentially undoing the damage done to it by Trader Joe’s mad kitchen scientists. With a little moisture and life returned to it the kimchi fares much better – infusing the soup with it’s complex, tangy, spicy flavor. This was the only way the dried kimchi seemed edible to me – if TJ’s is serious about keeping this stuff on the shelf they should try and play up this angle.

As good as the kimchi was as a soup additive, it made me wonder “Why not just add regular kimchi to the soup?” If I’m in the market to buy some kimchi, and it comes down to dehydrated or regular, I’m going to go with regular every time. Not only can it be incorporated into more meals than the dried kimchi, but it’s cheaper per pound, and even stores better – a jar of kimchi will last in your fridge for as long as you need while the dried kimchi starts to degrade in quality as soon as the airtight bag is opened.

Overall, this is a weird exercise in food absurdity – almost an art project. If, like me, you actually like kimchi, do yourself a favor and just buy the regular, non-dehydrated stuff.

The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: Only to die-hard kimchi fans looking for another way to get that kimchi-fix.

Would I Buy It Again: Oh no. No, no, no.

Final Synopsis: Dehydrating cabbage is a bad idea.