Continuing my foray into the popular world of Serbian/Bulgarian/Macedonian food stuffs comes Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread. Unlike its very close cousin and shelf neighbor, TJ’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, this condiment is hands-down delicious – like a thick, savory pasta sauce made with eggplant rather than tomato.
I got into this already with the craptacular ajvar, and I don’t want to kill it all over agian here, but TJ’s is really wrecking their own house with these name games. These two products, Trader Joe’s Eggplant and Garlic Spread (with peppers) and Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic, could not be positioned to confuse the casual shopper more. One delicious, one awful, both Bulgarian, of similar packaging and nearly identical names. It’s like having an evil twin and a good twin and naming one George T. Riley and the other George D. Riley. What’s that? Did you say T. Riley? You did? Well too late, because now I’m dead and/or my chicken tastes awful.
Let’s rectify the situation right here – this product, like it’s compatriot, is proudly Bulgarian, and is known in that country as ljutenica. The name might roll off the tongue, but it’s hard to say what exactly a proper ljutenica is supposed to taste like. As with many folk foods (kimchi, etc) it’s taste, consistency and composition varies widely between households. Some are much spicier than cousin ajvar, some sweeter, and so on. This ljutenica is actually milder and more savory. Whatever it was that Trader Joe’s did to its red pepper spread to make it so they avoided it here – nothing harsh or mealy comes through from the garlic or eggplant. Instead, both blend together with the fefferoni pepper to make an intriguing new taste – a full-bodied, broad, tongue-pleasing taste. It is somewhat salty, but not overly so, and very slightly piquant. It worked excellently for me as a condiment for chicken dishes, vegetables and meatballs.
How this ljutenica stacks up against the real Bulgarian stuff I couldn’t venture to say – and if any Eastern Europeans out there want to weigh in please do so – but I personally couldn’t be happier with what I’ve got. If ajvar threatened to turn me against Bulgarian condiments, this spread has rectified all wounds.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – try it with your chicken or pasta, or slathered on bread and topped with goat cheese.
Would I Buy It Again: I already killed my first jar, so it’s pretty likely I will.
Final Synopsis: A ljutenica that will do you well from Sofia to the Black Sea.
Okay, now this confuses me. I’ve made the observation before – but I must again express how perplexed I am by their naming conventions.
Trader Joe’s Cacciatore being placed next to Trader Giotto’s Balsamic Glaze is one thing. But Trader Joe’s Indian Fare Punjab Eggplant? Why delve into such twisted wording when there’s so much existing precedent? Just call it Trader Juhi’s Punjab Eggplant leave it at that – we’ll figure it out.
Sigh. Sorry, but proper applied nomenclature is one of my buttons. Look, let’s just talk about this delicious, savory dish and forget all about it.
Though my haughtier, Indian-cuisine loving friends will probably roast me in a tandoor for saying so, I really liked this dish. Simple, cheap and bursting with flavor – what’s not to like?
This is roasted eggplant done right. Pay attention, you crappy ajvar, you might learn something! I mean let’s take a look at the (typically) awesome ingredient list: four veggies (eggplant, tomatoes, onions and pumpkin), a host of wonderfully Indian spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger, all that), and not a preservative or artificial color in sight. Of course, there’s the sunflower oil as well, which they go more than a little heavy on. It does nothing to harm the taste – but when 60% of your calories are from fat, it’s time to ease up.
The taste is typically Indian, thanks to the medely of spices listed above, and the eggplant simply lays back and lets them go to work. There isn’t much recognizable left of the eggplant, but that’s okay by me. It might have ended up as a sort of beige mush, but that’s beside the point. The eggplant is there more as a medium for the intriguing aroma and complex taste of the cooking, both of which are entirely enjoyable.
Okay, so maybe it’s lacking a little something in the class department. Food that gets served to you in ready-to-heat Mylar pouches can’t help but make you feel like you’re standing barefoot in your college kitchen again. It’s better then even a TV dinner for dissipating all the day’s successes and making you realize that, oh yeah, you’re just a fat, lonely man.
The other gripe is that, yes, it looks like a big pile of wet cat food when you pour it onto your dish. That would probably be more depressing if it didn’t smell so damn good, redolent of everything you expect Indiant food to be.
Everything else aside, Trader Joe’s Punjab Eggplant wins one award from me – Most Creative Serving Suggestions. Check it out: “Serve with fluffy rice, hot Indian bread, pita – or as a burrito stuffing.”
Burrito stuffing!? Whoever came up with that one, I want to high five you. I live in LA, spiritual heartland of “Let’s mush stuff together and call it fusion” cuisine, and I have not yet seen such a thing. Indian-mexican food? What could be more natural?
Finally, I’m let to wonder, once again, why we can’t figure out how to make delicious (and cheap) meat-free food in the West when the Indians knock it the hell out of the park again and again. Let’s get on the game here vegetarians! Food without meat in it should taste great and cost less. America can do this!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, especially to inept cooks like myself.
Would I Buy It Again: That seems pretty likely.
Final Synopsis: Tasty, exotic bachelor food.
It seems like there must be something wrong with Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic. For one, that is a ponderous descriptor for something which has an actual name. Two, and more importantly, it’s bitter – so unpleasantly bitter!
“Add to pasta sauces, spread on chicken,” the jar enthusiastically suggests, “Top a burger with it!” Why, jar? I like all those things. Why would I want to smear a bitter condiment from the former Soviet bloc all over them?
That is being, perhaps, a bit unfair to the good people of Bulgaria, from whence this spread hails, and who I’m sure are only trying to do the best they can. The problem may lay in me, after all. Red Pepper Spread – or ajvar as it’s known as in its Serbian homeland – is not something I’m very familiar with. I’m more than willing to grant that the the subtleties of the spread are being lost on me.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of this unusual spread before we get into what exactly it’s trying to do to your taste buds.
Ajvar, also known under the more easily remembered but more frightening sounding name “Serbian Salad”, is basically a type of relish – made primarily from roasted red bell pepper and garlic, containing various quantities of eggplant, red pepper etc. Historically, the dish is known as a winter food throughout the Balkans, canned in early Autumn and subsisted on until spring brings fresh veggies.
I’m not quite sure why Trader Joe’s embraces some of the cultural names for its dishes, like dukkah, but not others, like this poor spread, unless perhaps they feared the outrage of countless babushkas, their dudgeon raised high by a sub-standard product peddled under the name ajvar.
All else set aside, I must praise Trader Joe’s for fetching interesting foods from interesting places. Always a culinary adventure at TJ’s! Of course, every adventure must have its times of misfortune, and that is where our red pepper spread comes in. In its homeland, this spread can be many things – piquant, red hot, even sweet – what it is not supposed to be, and what most foods try and avoid being, is unpleasantly bitter.
As the spread hits the tongue it is nearly sweet, thanks to the sugar added by TJ’s to offset the harshness of the taste. Even with the sugar, however, the bitterness comes through, clean and strong, right from the beginning. During the chew the bitterness rises in power, finally lording over your tongue for the length of the aftertaste. I can’t really figure out what it is they put in the spread that makes it so bitter – the list of ingredients is pure and simple, veggies, some oil and vinegar, no preservatives or artificial colors. It’s possible the fault lay in the preparation process itself. Ajvar is rumored to be best when roasted – not simply cooked on an industrial scale. Perhaps what the spread is missing is the tender loving of a roasting flame?
What isn’t bitter in the spread is certainly worth praising. The robust, earthy tastes of the eggplant and red pepper very nicely compliment simple meat and vegetable dishes, but the bitterness is simply too strong for me to actually enjoy any given mouthful of the stuff. It’s a nice idea for a spread, I only hope Trader Joe’s can reformulate this and bring it back under a prouder banner.
Would Recommend It: I’m afraid not, not even for novelties sake.
Would I Buy It Again: This spread has no place in my cabinet.
Final Synopsis: A hearty, tasty spread ruined by a strong bitter flavor.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not a big fan of melanges in general. They’re a cut above medleys, to be sure, but I’ll take a combo, mishmash or salmagundi over them any time. Nevertheless, Trader Joe’s Grilled Eggplant and Zucchini Melange is a credit to the name – a tasty, tangy, cheesy mixture of two of the vegetable world’s least celebrated members.
You could not blame the average consumer for passing up this awkwardly named side dish. Eggplant and zucchini aren’t the world’s most popular veggies individually, let alone together, and a passerby could be forgiven for assuming this mixture of the two is aimed to please the health-food nut more than the mother of three. Such is not the case however. Following a brief jaunt in the microwave, the dish is surprisingly pleasing – hiding it’s big veggies in a thick tomato based sauce. Though not noted in the product title, a judicious helping of cheese, both mozzarella and parmesan, appear in the dish which gooifies the sauce without dominating the vegetables (unlike Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano).
Eggplant and zucchini, despite their frumpy reputations, actually serve very well in this dish. Both veggies have a mild taste that complement each other and the sauce they come in, while providing enough heft to make for a satisfying mouthful. That said, nothing is done to ameliorate the texture of the large, floppy eggplant slices, which remain, as ever, a bit mealy and soggy.
Overall, the result is a tasty and healthy side, that fills you up without laying on the fat. The downside, for me, were the relatively small portions. The bag, though quite ample, shares the same large bag problem of the cioppino. Though it promises you four servings, I found that it what you get after cooking is more realistically described as two.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to all but the eggplant haters.
Would I Buy It Again: Absolutely, it’s a great side for many an entree.
Final Synopsis: A veggie side that takes the middle ground between steamed broccoli and fried potatoes.