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Trader Joe’s and the Organic Carrots of Many Colors

Trader Joe's and the Organic Carrots of Many Colors

Look at all dem crazy colors!

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.


The Breakdown

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.

Trader Joe's and the Organic Carrots of Many Colors 2

Cut up and looking pretty, next to some heirloom potatoes. Notice the purple carrots with white cores. Wild!

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Trader Joe’s Low Fat Chicken Chow Mein

Trader Joe's Low Fat Chicken Chow Mein

BEHOLD – mediocre, frozen Chinese food. Given to man by the lamest Prometheus.

Most of the time Trader Joe’s manages to make their frozen food look quite delectable on the bag. For some reason, they just couldn’t manage it with their chicken chow mein. From the barren, spike-filled background on which it sits, to the uninspired “here it is” presentation of the dish, the whole picture wouldn’t look out of place inelegantly thumb tacked to the wall of that Chinese food place you never go in.

That should always be your first tip off. If the small army of marketers behind the promo picture, armed with the latest in unscrupulous food trickery and photoshop, can’t make it look good, it’s probably not very good.

From the get go you know it’s not going to be pretty, so the question really is, What do you expect from a frozen chicken chow mein? There’s plenty of good, fresh cooked chow mein out there, but this chicken chow mein isn’t that, and it never will be. This is simply a bag of frozen noodles and vegetables that you can cook up in about 7 minutes.

While there’s nothing amazing or exemplary about this chow mein, there’s nothing bad about it either. It’s there, you’re not going to do any flips over it, but it’ll get the job done – which in this case is nourishing your meaty bod.

There are no special tricks here, it looks like a pound of frozen chicken, vegetables and noodles and that’s what you get. The frozen broccoli, julienned carrots, onions, and strips of red pepper taste just like reheated frozen vegetables always taste – somewhat limp, somewhat muted. The same applies to the chicken, which is entirely ordinary cubes of white chicken breast touched up with some salt. All told they are entirely edible and perfectly acceptable for a no frill Tuesday night, but not something that is going to light up your evening.

The noodles are a cut above what you’d expect to get from a cup of ramen, but not by too much. Like the rest of the meal, they are just good enough to pass mustard without excelling.

A frozen chicken chow mein is meant to be a quick and easy meal, and that’s what Trader Joe’s delivers. Unlike some of their other, higher quality dishes like Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken none of the ingredients are separated out for individual cooking. This is a bag you rip open and dump in the pan. As far as that goes, it’s good, but it never aspires to anything above that station.

And that’s precisely the problem. Trader Joe’s has a lot of excellent frozen dinners to offer, even in the “lonely bachelor food” category. Along with the aforementioned Kungo Pao Chicken, there’s Thai Sai Tung Curry, Hake en papillote  or Pizza Veggie Burgers. The list goes on really. If you’re really hurting for chow mein, make your own or just order in. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options out there for your last minute dinner needs.


 

The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: Apathetically, perhaps.

 Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stay a Kung Pao man.

 Final Synopsis: It’s good for a frozen chow mein, so in other words, “meh”.

 

Trader Joe's Low Fat Chicken Chow Mein - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Low Fat Chicken Chow Mein – Nutrition Facts

 

 


Trader Joe’s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad with Tumeric Garbanzo Beans

I may occasionally give Trader Joe’s a real tongue lashing, like I felt compelled to do the other day with their strange and terrible pseudo-salad, but only when the really deserve it, and in any case I like to try and give TJ’s the chance to settle the score. In that spirit, I went out and picked up Trader Joe’s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad with Tumeric Garbanzo Beans.

As you might gather from the picture, or the long, strange name, this is another entry in Trader Joe’s new line of little grain-salads-in-a-tub, and close cousin to Trader Joe’s underwhelming Nutty Grain Salad.  Surely TJ’s wouldn’t have released two, tiny, grain-based salads unless they had damn good reason to think people would actually enjoy them. They couldn’t both be as bad as the first one I tried, right?

The fact of the matter is that Trader Joe;s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad is miles better than it’s counterpart in both taste and nutritional content, and I was glad I picked it up. That said, it’s every bit as twisted and insane as the Nutty Grain salad, just on a different axis.

The main thing you’ll probably notice when you pick this salad up is how it is topped with bright yellow chickpeas. Oh, great, you might think – Curry, that’s brilliant. I bet curry could taste really good on a salad like this.  

Only it’s not curry, it’s just tumeric. All the other rich and exotic spices that give curry it’s magical kick – the cardamom, the cumin, the garam masala in general, aren’t present. Just musty old tumeric – wonderful for color, but dull and dusty when it comes to taste. In fact, given the overall taste of the salad the garbanzo beans are a total non-sequiter. I went into this bulgur salad expecting it to taste something like Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Country Grain Salad – one of my all-time favorite TJ’s salads, and place holder on my Best of 2013 list. Instead of the nutty and mellow tastes of that salad, or something that would work well with tumeric, we get the strong flavor of orange juice. Yes, orange juice is the primary flavoring agent in this salad and I swear to god that you can taste it in every bite. This whole salad is infused with the strong zing of not just citrus, but real oranges, real oranges and a hint tumeric.

It’s incredible. Taken back to back with the Nutty Grain salad, it feels like Trader Joe’s has started to curate a small selection of recipes broadcast to it from a parallel universe several degrees separate from our own. “Mmm-boy! Serve me another plate of cooked bulgur and a tall galss of orange juice!” demand the insect-headed denizens of that universe before scuttling off to work in their cities beneath the sea.

The other flavors you’ll experience with this salad are the slightly nutty taste of the bulgur, and the strong, lingering taste of carrots. Surprisingly, the cilantro that gets top billing in the product name is only present as a subtle background touch, emerging mid chew, then vanishing again without a trace.

All in all, this salad tastes more like an orange/carrot juice drink than anything else. In salad form, that makes for a very strange eating experience but not necessarily a bad one. Once I got used to the fact of the thing, I happily munched this salad up. There’s enough texture and chewiness to the dish that it lasts you a surprisingly long time for only eight ounces, and the orange and carrot flavor works together, if not perfectly, than well enough.

The other nice difference between this salad and the Nutty Grain salad is that it has a much more reasonable calorie count. There are only 240 calories per serving, and only a slender 10 calories from fat. There is still a considerable 54 grams load of carbs in the tub, but that’s too be expected from so much grain, and it’s ameliorated somewhat by the 9 grams of fiber in it as well.

Overall, it might be the most unusual salad I’ve ever had – even stranger than the Korean Spicy Seaweed Salad – but isn’t that what we go to Trader Joe’s for? Whether it sort of work out, like today, or misses entirely, like with the Nutty Grain salad, I have to take my hat off to Mr. Joe if for nothing more than his boldness of vision.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Not to the populous at large. This is a unique salad with an unusual taste.

Would I Buy It Again: I don’t think so. It was okay, just not good enough to justify repeat purchases.

Final Synopsis: A small, bulgur salad flavored with orange juice.

Trader Joe's Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad

 

I don’t have anything to say about Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad that isn’t short and nasty, so I suppose I’d better just get to it. Trader Joe’s should have called this Trader Joe’s Crappy Peanut Bean Thing. Instead they try and tell me it’s a salad and put it next to the good stuff.

Saying that this salad tastes as bad as it looks is not entirely accurate. Obviously, it looks terrible. I’m not sure I’ve seen a mass of soy beans, peanuts, pistachios chunked carrots, and cooked spelt that looks worse than this – and I’m including vomit in that. At least vomit has the effluvium of stomach bile to cloak it’s terrible, true nature. This stuff just sits there in the open, daring you to stare directly its clusters and lumps. Go ahead and try it – see if you can last longer than five seconds, I can’t.

So to say it’s as bad as it looks is implying that it tastes atrocious, which it doesn’t. It tastes worse than that – it tastes bland. There are foods out there that I think look and taste awful which whole cultures have passionate loves for. You’re not really a country, I reckon, unless you have at least one national dish that no one else in the world can stomach. The English have Vegemite, the Scotts have hummus, the Japanese have natto, the Americans have Kraft Singles, etc. What I’m trying to say is, taste is relative, and really intense flavors may alternately repulse and delight, depending on the eater.

Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad, on the other hand, is simply bland and uninteresting. The packaging claims that it is dressed with a soy ginger sauce. This is technically true, but the dressing is present in such cowardly quantities that it contributes almost nothing to the taste, beside rendering the whole mess somewhat squishy. The primary flavor you’ll experience is “soggy nuts”. There’s some nutty tasting quinoa, some peanuts and pistachios. Next to that, the edamame, spelt and carrots don’t really show up much, and when they do it’s only to add an additional dimension of blandness to the whole affair.

I could go on and on about how upset I am at this tiny little tub, but the bulk of my ire is actually reserved for the nutrition labels. Go ahead and flip this tub over, but first set your faces to “stunned”.

Serving size, 1 package. Sure, that seems reasonable. What else. Calories: 590, Calories from fat: 290.

Trader Joe’s, ARE YOU TRIPPIN’, BRO?!?! These numbers are absurd – and the madness goes on. 45% of your daily fat value, 350mg of sodium, 68 grams of carbs.

So essentially, what we have is a tiny little tub of stuff that looks gross, tastes like a more mild version of unsalted peanuts, and contains as much fat as a Big Mac only with more calories. It’s like Trader Joe’s figured out how to remove all the fun and enjoyment from eating fast food. There are entire galaxies of more delicious, healthful and fun meal options out there – many of them right there in the Trader Joe’s salad aisle. Unless you are in desperate need of compact, high calorie food sources (sumo wrestlers, long distance bomber pilots, roving apocalypse survivors) why you would want to go for this instead of literally anything else is beyond me.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: No, not unless you needed the final component for a robot powered by hate.

Would I Buy It Again: Only as a tip off to my loved ones that I’m secretly being coerced by kidnappers.

Final Synopsis: A bland, gross looking pseudo-salad that is bad for you.

Trader Joe's Nutty Grain Salad - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad – Nutrition Facts

 


Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burger

Trader Joe's Vegetable Masala Burgers

Burgers?

Making due on an overdue promise I made when reviewing TJ’s excellent Pizza Veggie Burgers, today I decided to try out Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burger. What I got was a tasty bit of Indian cooking in a strange new form.

These two burgers, pizza and masala, are closely linked despite their completely different tastes. Obvisously they are both veggies burgers, but more than that they are veggies burgers that refuse to conform to the standard veggie burger model. Like Trader Joe’s Pizza Veggie Burger before it, the Vegetable Masala Burger has dared to ask the question, what if a veggie burger didn’t try to taste like a hamburger at all? It’s an ingenious solution that sidesteps the pitfall of trying to ape in greens what meat already is. You’re never going to out burger a burger with condensed tofu, the only way to win is to not play the game in the first place.

This is the highest form of vegetarianism, the food item that’s not a “meatless” version of something else, not a substitute or alternative to the mainstream, but a unique and delicious meal in its own right. You’re not giving something up to eat this burger, you’re getting something new.

Before we get into what I think was strange about the burger, I’d better give you a run down of how it tastes. Masala simply means “a mixture of spices” and the term is used throughout south east Asia. The masala Trader Joe’s uses here is mysteriously only described as “spices” on the ingredient label, but from the taste of it all the usual suspects are here. Tumeric, cardamom and cumin all mingle with the hearty mixture of veggies, which very visibly includes potatoes, carrots, green beans and bell peppers. The resultant patty is dense, and redolent of spices when lightly toasted on the stove. It both looks and tastes like a hearty vegetable soup without the soup. In particular, the veggies are all soft and toothsome, a pleasure to eat even if the patty tends to disintegrate too easily while you eat it. As for the spices, they’re strong enough that they give the burger a warm and authentic flavor, but mild enough that you might consider dressing them up with a condiment – be it ketchup or chutney. Another selling point, and relief to veterans of the veggie burger world, the masala burgers don’t include soy of any kind, relying instead on breadcrumbs to bind the veggie mix together.

What’s strange to me is that they market these as burgers at all. Where Trader Joe’s pizza burger tried to at least give you the semblance and feel of a burger, the masala burger goes complete off the beaten path. From taste to texture, there’s nothing particularly “burger-y” about these burgers beyond the fact that they’re puck shaped. It’s even stranger when you regard the huge bits of potato and other vegetables roughly shouldering each other right up there at the surface. The veggie pizza burger sort of managed to look like a burger from a distance. With such large and vulgar vegetable chunks, these masala burgers wouldn’t fool a near-sighted sloth.

It almost seems unnatural that Trader Joe’s has forced the vegetables into this shape at all. The way the whole thing comes apart as soon as you stick a fork in them makes you wonder exactly who we’re fooling by going through the trouble of corralling them into a burger shape in the first place. They might more accurately be called Trader Joe’s Cooked Indian Veggies That We Packed Into A Cylindrical Shape, although I suspect that may not have gotten past the Marketing department. Trader Joe’s may have hung onto the name, but make no mistake – these burgers defy the genre in every other way.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Yes, to vegetarians and carnivores alike.

Would I Buy Them Again: Probably not, honestly. I’ll eat burgers for my burgers and enjoy my Indian food on a plate.

Final Synopsis: A genuinely tasty veggie burger that defies the genre.

Trader Joe's Vegetable Masala Burgers - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers – Nutrition Facts

 


Trader Joe’s Inside Out Carrot Cake Cookies

Trader Joe's Inside Out Carrot Cake

Notice the Playboy bunny tastefuly incorporated into the label.

Well this is a tasty surprise. Trader Joe’s does a wonderful job giving you things you didn’t know you wanted, like their Kouigns Amann, and/or wouldn’t have asked for even if you did, like their Quinoa Sushi Rolls. In this case, somehow some genius at Trader Joe’s looked at a slice of carrot cake and thought, “You know, I bet you could invert that.” Thus was Trader Joe’s Inside Out Carrot Cake Cookie born.

Yes, it turns out, you can invert carrot cake – by pulling the cake off the bottom, splitting it and two and making a sandwich out of the thing you can have a portable, easily snackable, mini slice of cake that you can eat with your fingers. And it’s actually as good as it sounds.

The goodness of the Inside Out Carrot Cake Cookie is due more to the tasty carrot cake recipie TJ’s uses than the novelty of the dish. The cake bit is soft, spongy, moist and mildly spicy with just a hint of carrot taste, while the cream cheese icing is thick, sweet and surprisingly fluffy. An all too common mistake of carrot cake is to load it up with almost heart-stoppingly rich cream cheese frosting that 1) totally hides the cake, and 2) limits you to eating about a postage stamp sized slice of cake at risk of have your blood turn to syrup. Good though that is on occasion, Trader Joe’s goes for a sweet, but not overwhelming recipe here.

There are numerous variations on the carrot cake recipe – from straight cake to cake loaded with nuts and pineapple. Trader Joe’s goes for a pretty traditional version, sprinkling a handful of raisins into their batter and leaving it otherwise alone.

Carrot cake has always intrigued me. Unlike, say, France, we don’t stand much on tradition when it comes to food in America. Any which way you can think of making a cake, you are positively encouraged to do so. Wanna put red food coloring in the chocolate cake? Go right ahead, red velvet. Wanna mold the Battle of Hastings (1066) out of eleven pounds of fondant? You’re the boss… the Cake Boss.

And yet, when it comes to a few particular cakes we insist on certain formulas. Carrot cake always has white cream cheese frosting and, if at all possible, little frosting carrots on it. Isn’t that strange? And who even thought of putting a bunch of carrots in a cake in the first place? In carrot cake we have one baked product that isn’t just tradition bound, but incredibly tradition bound – like five centuries tradition bound.

Carrot cake comes to us, believe it or not, from medieval Europe, circa 1500 – possibly earlier. It’s been awhile since I’ve really delved into carrot history, but the time has come again and, like before, it means we get to turn to our old friend the World Carrot Museum (if you stop by, be sure to check out the Musical Instruments page. Required reading.) This is an absolutely amazing website for anyone who is interested in the intricate history of carrots and/or early 90’s website design. If only more websites showed this level of dedication to straight forward navigation and depth of knowledge of subject the world would be a much better place.

As you will read, carrots have long been a part of cakes due to their relatively high sugar content – highest among all vegetables save the sugar beet. This raises the question of why we’re not all enjoying delicious sugar beet cake, but I suppose that’s beside the point. With their high glucose load, carrots make a reasonably good natural sweetener in baked goods – perfect for sugar-poor peoples like your average medieval knave. The carrot cake pioneered in the dark ages experienced a resurgence mid century by sugar deprived, but resourceful, housewives during the great wars. They added their own touches, including the cream cheese frosting and, for some reason, the little icing carrots.

As you hold your Trader Joe’s Inside Out Carrot Cake Cookie in your hand, reflect that it’s not merely a riff on Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies, it’s the cutting edge of carrot cake development, the peak of an ever cresting wave that stretches all the way back to a wattle and daub hut in some feudal serfdom five hundred years ago. Carrot cake.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yeah! It’s a tasty and snackable way to eat carrot cake.

Would I Buy It Again: I’ll probably buy it a little more often than I buy regular carrot cake.

Final Synopsis: Portable, well-made carrot cake slices – with raisins.

Trader Joe's Inside Out Carrot Cake Cookies - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Inside Out Carrot Cake Cookies – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Organic Carrot Juice

The strawberry flavored milk of a healthier reality.

Carrots have always been something of a mixed bag for me. Raw, a find them delicious – be they shredded, sliced, julienned, or dropped on the table as an unvarnished, knobbly stick still covered in garden dirt. I also love them boiled, roasted, toasted or fried -just don’t steam them. If you steam them I’ll punch you in the face. Don’t steam them anywhere near me, the odor alone is uniquely repulsive. Steamed carrots are bastards and we can all hate them together.

I’ve written on unusual forms of carrots (and their unusual history) before, but as I stood in my local TJ’s, staring a stately array of gleaming orange bottles in the face, I realized I’d never had carrot juice before. Not straight carrot juice, at any rate. Of course, I’ve had it in my fruit juices, yogurts, salad dressings and, of course, smoothies before. People have been squeezing the fluid from these oddly colored roots as a natural food dye for decades. The stuff’s all but ubiquitous in adulterated forms, but as straight-from-a-bottle, only-ingredient-listed-on-the-bottle, honest-to-god, organic carrot juice? That’s something you don’t usually see. I had to imagine there were two possible reasons for that fact, either it tastes dreadful, or it tastes fine but $3.50 for 100 ml is an unseemly price for the privilege of drinking a handful of carrots. Reckless as always, I took this one home.

The taste of organic carrot juice is shockingly complex. Shockingly because, again, we’re talking about a single, pure ingredient. The juice advances through your mouth in three distinct phases, each dominated by an almost alarming sweetness. Pure organic carrot juice is like drinking a box of strawberry milk, if some joker swapped out the artificial strawberry flavoring for artificial carrot flavoring. Shocking, guys, like I said.

Let’s break this down to the blow by blow, shall we.

At the setup, you are ready for anything but sweetness. The nose detects nothing but the odor of the unleashed carrot. As you tip the drink into your mouth, a wave of intense carrot sensation runs before it. This is an amazingly brief sensation, existing in the few milliseconds before the juice itself hits the tongue, but distinctly notable nonetheless. It’s as if the liquid is so supercharged with pure carrot-ness that the air itself becomes infused with these uncontainable motes of carrot essence. Like a reverse aftertaste, in effect. At this moment you are absolutely convinced that this is going to be a healthful, if untasty, experience. However, in the very next moment the juice pulls a trick so unforeseen as to make you fear, momentarily, for your sanity. As the opaque milky juice bathes your tongue you are rooted to the spot by unrelenting sweetness. Yes, you know it’s just carrots, and yes, somewhere deep within the juice the flavor of carrot lingers, but any such vegetative taste is overwhelmed totally by the unyielding, delicious sweetness.

Once you gulp, the sweetness vanishes like a dream and leaves in it’s place a taste exactly as if you’d just gnawed upon three inches of solid carrot root. Only the absence of lingering, carroty fragments in your teeth marks any real difference.

In my experience it’s really totally unprecedented. After every sip I couldn’t help but think “Really? This is pure carrot?”

Kudos, Carrots.

Would I Recommend It: Oh yeah, so long as you don’t mind the aftertaste of raw carrots.

Would I Buy It Again: Only if the price comes down by about 30%.

Final Synopsis: You will never look the same way at a carrot again.

Trader Joes Organic Carrot Juice - Nutritional Information