Beautiful July is on us again, and with it so too has come the promise of an infinite string of perfect barbecues at sunset, – the golden moments of life. And of course, I can never think about big, blow out BBQs without thinking about GAZPACHO!
No, I have never had gazpacho before, and certainly never at a barbecue, but the two are inextricably linked in my mind because of, like so much in my life, The Simpsons.
As I know, and I’m sure you now know, gazpacho is tomato soup – served ice cold. Despite what you may have heard from the shouting of beligerent drunks, Gazpacho is actually a Spanish dish tracing its origin back to the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Nowadays it’s eaten throughout Spain and Portugal as a go to cool-down dish during hot summer months.
If your pop culture tastes run a little higher brow than mine, you might also remember a good gazpacho scene from the movie “Violets Are Blue” (1986). In it gazpacho is described as “salad in a blender”, and that’s probably as good of a definition as any. In addition to the aforementioned cold tomatoes, Trader Joe’s Gazpacho contains cucumbers, green and yellow bell peppers, and onion – all finely diced into a robust concoction of chunky vegetables. The important thing to remember about gazpacho, and the thing that makes it different from any other vegetable soup out there, isn’t just that you serve it cold, but that it’s actually made cold. This is a raw soup – uncooked from start to finish, and as a result it’s bursting with full-bodied, vegetable flavor. Not just vegetables, actually, but fruit as well.
Many gazpacho traditions coexist, including varieties that include strawberries or muskmelon. Trader Joe’s doesn’t go so far as to throw in any fruit chunks, but they do dress up their soup with a good dose of orange juice – as the second ingredient behind tomatoes. That’s still just enough to add a subtle citrus tang to the soup, and to add the faintest touch of sweetness to the soup. Other seasonings going into Trader Joe’s Gazpacho are garlic, jalapeno pepper, and a touch of sherry vinegar, all of which work to give the soup bit of a spicy, acidic edge.
This soup isn’t hiding any surprises. Having never had gazpacho before, I found that it tasted exactly like I expected a cold soup, tomato based soup to taste. This is a soup of overwhelming vegetable flavor, and it doesn’t pull any punches. There’s no saltiness, no real sweetness, just that zing of sherry vinegar layered on top of many vegetables.
If you like strong tomato soups, you’ll like this. There’s certainly a little more than just tomato going on in the background, but overall it begins with tomato and it ends with tomato. Personally, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. The gazpacho wasn’t flawed in anyway, but the simplicity of this cold, straightforward soup didn’t manage to catch my heart. While I didn’t mind eating it, I did keep thinking about how it might taste better if I heated it up and maybe dressed it up a little. I could have done, but at that point I might as well have just picked up one of Trader Joe’s other great soups, their minestrone for instance.
I’m willing to admit that that’s a personal failure, however. If you crave a dish of heart vegetables, or want to beat the heat with a flame-free meal, this gazpacho is certainly worth a shot.
Would I Recommend It: Sure – it may not blow you away, but this is a hearty, healthy soup.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t think so, there are too many other soups to try.
Final Synposis: A cold tomato soup, with a little zing thrown in.
Is it just me, or is the packaging for Trader Joe’s Tzatziki Creamy Garlic Cucumber Dip really weird? The big red “LOW FAT!” flag, the serving suggestions awkwardly crammed over to one side, the semi-unreadable font on the gray background of the low-grade Photoshop job. It reminds me of their weird chocolate-covered banana packaging. It’s the sort of packaging that leaves you wondering what you’re looking at “What’s in there?” you ponder, “Modeling clay? Deck varnish?” Nope, it’s food.
Most of the time, TJ’s does a good job repackaging the third party products that they source. In this case however, even the “Trader Joe’s” brand name looks shoehorned in. Nevertheless, this is a classic case of judging a book by its cover, as the tzatziki sauce within is quite nice.
Let us spend a moment on the truly awesome word that is “tzatziki”. It’s one of those dynamite cuisine words that not only sounds cool, and is spelled cool, but also makes you feel really cool to drop casually into conversation. Like “shwarma”. Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma. Sounds nice doesn’t it? Yo – buddy! Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma! The word itself is popularly attributed to Turkish, but like many foods of shared Greek/Middle Eastern/Balkan origin there’s a considerable amount of bickering over who developed it first/best.
At any rate, as we all know, tzatziki is a somewhat zesty dip/sauce made from plain yogurt and flavored with a variety of seasonings – in this case, salt, garlic, dill, mint, white pepper and, of course, lemon juice. The result is a smooth, cool mixture that comes on mild, then surprises you a moment later with a complex burst of citrus and herbs. Tzatziki exists through out the Mediterranean and Middle East in a variety of forms – extending even as far out as India where the classic yogurt side dish raita can be considered a close relative. The type Trader Joe’s is serving us up here is the familiar Greek variety, prepared with thinly sliced cucumber mixed directly into the herbed yogurt.
In fact, Trader Joe’s tzatziki is one of the better varieties I’ve had. The dip is quite loose, but it doesn’t lack in flavor. The lemon juice comes through clearly alongside the mellow, long tones of the creamy yogurt. The dill and mint come through clearly in the after notes , but the dish isn’t overloaded by their flavors, and they leave room for the tail note of languid, cool cucumber and mild garlic to linger on the tongue.
As appealing as that is, it’s made better by the extremely reasonable nutritional profile. Each 30 gram (two teaspoon) serving has only 30 calories, and two grams of fat. Even the sodium content isn’t that bad, at 65 mg per serving. For such a healthy dip you’re getting a surprising, and satisfying, amount of flavor.
The go-to applications for tzatziki sauce are gyros and pitas, but it goes awesome with pita chips as well. Even if you’re not whipping up Mediterranean food very often, it still makes an awesome side dish for any meal that could do with a little spread on top, or cooling down on the side. In other words – throw some tzatziki on that shwarma!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, so long as you don’t mind cucumbers in your food.
Would I Buy It Again: Definitely – I’m always in the market for good dips.
Final Synopsis: A solid version of tzatziki with plenty of pep.
Trader Joe’s Watermelon Cucumber Cooler is one of those surprising products that doesn’t quite seem to fit at Trader Joe’s. Do-it-yourself fusion sushi? Sure. Popcorn seasoned with brown butter and french herbs? Why not. But a watermelon cooler? A summery, watermelon drink called a “cooler”. That seems oddly plebeian on the shelves next to Trader Joe’s French Market Sparkling French Berry Lemonade, and Trader Joe’s Italian Blood Orange Soda.
As much as I like Trader Joe’s, my blue collar roots sometimes rebel at the rather fancy image Joe likes to cultivate for himself. It’s a bit of a relief to see them throw the word “cooler” around on a relaxed summer drink – much in the tradition of Cactus Cooler and HI-C’s long mourned Ecto-Cooler. That may sound like I’m trying to damning this product with faint praise, but I mean it genuinely. Whether it’s pink lemonade or cherry coke, summer is the time for unnatural sugary drinks to bring out the kid in us. It’s the time for pretensions to fall to the way side and kick back with a nickle glass of Kool-aid and a slice of watermelon.
It’s in that very spirit that Trader Joe’s has given us this Watermelon Cucumber Cooler – a jug of refreshing, sweet and tasty juice flavored beverage. There’s not much to dislike with this beverage. What you see is what you get. Pour yourself a cool cup and you’ll taste exactly what it promises on the side, a sugar-sweetened, watermelon-flavored drink with the cool aftertaste of cucumbers.
I’m actually a fan of cucumbers in water. There’s something about the long, mellow aftertaste of a chilled cucumber that seems to slake the thirst as much as the water itself. The unsweetened cucucumber presence in this drink makes for an elegant grace note to what could have easily been one more too-sugary fruit drink. The Watermelon Cucumber Cooler strikes a balance closer to the unsweetened end of the drink spectrum than the overly sweet end. That makes it a rare participant in the summer drink wars – a beverage that satisfies the sweet tooth, quenches the thirst, refreshes with cucumber, and goes easy on the sugar.
Pairing watermelon off with cucumber in the first place might seem like a random choice – but not so random as it sounds. Both watermelon and cucumber are close cousins in the plant kindgom, siblings of the Family Cucurbitaceae, known generically, along with gourds and such, as curbits. This familial association makes for a fine flavor pairing, with the strong watermelon flavor blending seamlessly into the more understated cucumber, leaving you uncertain as to where the one taste ends and the other begins. Shine on you crazy curbits!
Sure, there’s still 23 grams of sugar per glass, but at least it’s from organic sugar and watermelon juice and not high fructose corn syrup. It’s not a health drink by any stretch of the imagination, just a fresh and refreshing take on the summer drink scene. If you’re not on the bad wagon with cucumber water to begin with, there may not be much here for you. If, on the other hand, you like cucumber water or have simply never tried it, I’d recommend this drink to quench your summer thirst.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – as long as you’re okay with the flavor of cucumbers.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll pick one up the next time I head down to the beach.
Final Synopsis: A refreshing, sweet-but-not-too-sweet summertime libation.