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 Trader Joe’s Masters the Art of… Coq au Vin

Trader Joe's Master The Art of... coq au vin

Do the French not have to follow “Q’s” with “U’s”? What is up with that?

Trader Joe’s can be obtuse, playful, or even boastful with their product names – but Trader Joe’s masters the art of coq au vin is the first time they’ve gotten downright cocky with it. You’ve got to have a pretty big opinion of yourself to unironically declare that you’ve mastered any art. Add to that the affectation of the little ellipses, and they’re making quite the statement. In fact, that ellipses is quite the little touch. You might think, if you saw a title like that, that Trader Joe’s has a whole line of “Master’s the Art of…” products. As far as I can tell, however, this is the only Trader Joe’s Master’s the Art of…. product on the shelves. That, my friends, is worth double pretention points.

Of course, the difference between pretention and genius is whether you can deliver on your promises. So the question is – has TJ really managed to master this classic French dish.

Coq au vin is that all-time classic of French cuisine that everyone should know how to cook – and no one had ever heard of 50 years ago. An enduring rustic dish of the French countryside since time out of mind, coq au vin was unknown out of France until the advent of Julia Childs. Everyone’s favorite TV chef brought the dish with her when she returned from her time at Le Cordon Bleu, taking its straightforward, honest recipe and making it her signature dish.

Coq au vin is what it sounds like, cock served in a wine sauce. Of course, no one uses rooster any more, that being left to the poor farmer’s of yesteryear. Nowadays, the dish is made exclusively with chicken, which is stewed in a robust red wine with button mushrooms, pearl onions and perhaps fatty pork belly (lardon), garlic and some other vegetables. Originally the dish was meant as a simple way to tenderize the otherwise too tough to eat meat of an old rooster for a nice meal and it’s the simplicty of the dish that made it catch on in such a big way.

Trader Joe’s variation is faithful to the original imaginng of the dish. It comes frozen in a huge chunk of roux and chicken that can either be cooked on the stove, or microwaved to make the classic easy-to-cook dish even easier. After ten minutes in the microwave, it comes out piping hot in it’s little black tray – an island of chicken in a sea of bubbling sauce. While the presentation may not quite be there, the taste is. The chicken is tender, and gives way easily to the fork – surprisingly wonderful for frozen chicken. The sauce, is good as well, thick and loaded with vegetabels, and not short on the wine either. Although it’s a thick and savory sauce the crispness of the wine cuts through the heavier cloying taste of the sauce leaving the dish tasting lighter rather an heavier. TJ’s doesn’t skimp on the veggies, loading up the sauce with pearl onions and sliced mushroom.

Trader Joe's Master The Art of... coq au vin 2

Hope you like pearl onions!

Trader Joe’s must really love this sauce, because they include a ton of it – like their Chicken Piccata, the sauce outweighs the chicken at 2:1.

So is this mastery or coq au vin? Do they beat Julia Childs at her own game? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a good, quick meal, the chicken is tasty and the sauce is rich, but it also costs $7.00. For less than that price, Trader Joe’ s has a variety of other dishes that are just as good, or better. If you’re looking for a good chicken dish, you could try the Kung Pao or Cacciatore as easily as this and save a few bucks.

If you’re looking for an excellent coq au vin, my suggestion is pick up a copy of the Art of Cooking and go for it yourself.


 

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: I guess so. It’s a little pricey for an average dish.

Would I Buy It Again: Probably not.

Final Synopsis: A good coq au vin, but probably not better than you could do yourself.

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Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki

Trader Joe's Sukiyaki

Mmm…look at all that gobo!

I really hope you’ve had sukiyaki before, but if you haven’t, here’s the breakdown. Sukiyaki is a stew like dish, made with thinly sliced beef some noodles and a selection of super Japanese vegetables including Napa cabbage, spring onion (negi), shitake mushrooms and gobo. “Gobo” translates to “burdock root” in English, but unless you’ve actually had burdock root, that probably doesn’t tell you much. Basically, gobo is a long, slender root with a taste part way between carrot and potato, generally eaten after being boiled and shredded.

These ingredients are cooked up bubbling hot in a rich soupy broth made of soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Mirin, being a much sweeter, much less alcoholic form of sake, gives the dish it’s trademark semi-sweet flavor which acts as counterpoint to the savory meatiness of the dish. In short, it’s a hard meal to get right – particularly if you’re trying to figure out a way to flash freeze it, and sell it across the nation for $6.99 a bag.

The word “sukiyaki” is Japanese for “???”. Everyone can agree that “yaki” definitely means “cooked” (as in, teriyaki, teppanyaki, yakitori, etc). It’s the “suki” part that there is no general consensus on. It’s either translated as the noun “shovel”, or as the verb “to make thin”. The verb is explained through reference to the thin slices of meat. The “shovel” claim, on the other hand, is backed up by awkwardly contorted and dubious historical scenarios, one involving a peasant who was so ashamed of his inferior kitchenware that, when a guest showed up at his hut by surprise, he decided to clean off his shovel and cook on that. I hope it’s obvious which translation I prefer to believe.

Even if you haven’t had sukiyaki before, you’ve probably heard the “Sukiyaki Song” at least once. Performed by Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese Dean Martin, way back in the 1960’s, this happy little ditty rocketed to #1 on the billboard charts in America – a shocking fact given that there isn’t a word of English in the whole song.

Pedants and know-it-alls are quick to point out that the so-called “Sukiyaki Song” actually has nothing to do with sukiyaki at all, and is in fact a heart-rending ballad of a love lost forever saddled with a silly name by savvy American marketers. What these blowhards fail to grasp, however, is that due to the grammatical quirks of Japanese the subject of Kyu’s doleful crooning is never explicitly stated. It’s entirely possible that the love Kyu mourns is, in fact, a really good bowl of sukiyaki that he’ll never have again.

In that light, lines such as “Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars. Sadness hides in the shadow of the moon,” are all the more haunting and resonant.

So how does Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki stack up? Although TJ’s make an admirable effort, their sukiyaki just doesn’t quite cut the mustard. They make their first misstep before you even open the bag. Normally, sukiyaki is made with thick, hearty noodles like udon or chewy “jelly” noodles made of firm konyaku. Not so here – instead Trader Joe’s uses thin, flat, glass noodles made from mung beans. That may sound like a subtle difference, but the result is that the noodles are considerably downplayed in the dish, letting the veggies and meat run wild without a mild counterpart to balance out the stronger flavors.

It’s in those stronger flavors where the sukiyaki really falters. No one was more ready than I to love the hell out of this little dish, but it just doesn’t quite work. The main problem in in the sweetness. Sukiyaki should be sweet enough to intrigue the tongue, but not so sweet that your left grasping for a glass of water. Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki makes exactly this mistake, loading on the sweet mirin (and added sugar) to the point where the sweetness is the primary taste. The beef and sliced veggies certainly make an impression, they just don’t outlast the strong, sweet taste of the sauce.

That brings us to the other problem – the calorie count for this bag of sukiyaki is something to be reckoned with. Each 20 ounce bag is supposed to be broken up into 4 servings. Sadly, if you buy this dish you’ll discover that serving suggestion is a pipe dream. While the helping of meat is generous, there is hardly enough veggies and noodles for two people, let alone four. Sukiyaki is meant to be a standalone dish – or at the very least an entree. Taken at the given proportions, Trader Joe’s is delivering a side soup at best.

That’s not to say this is a bad dish – there’s a lot that Trader Joe’s does well here. The beef and veggies is good quality, and come in a separate bags for ease of defrosting and cooking. There’s a real effort to try and do the whole thing right, and if the flavor palette was reformulated a little bit this would be a killer dish. Until that happens, I’ll just have to walk along, whistling, remembering fonder sukiyakis long gone.


 The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: It’s not bad exactly, but I don’t think I would.

Would I Buy It Again: Sadly, I wouldn’t.

Final Synopsis: A good attempt at sukiyaki that ends up too scant, and too sweet.

Trader Joe's Sukiyaki - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Scallion Pancakes (Pa jeon)

Trader Joe's Scallion Pancakes

Who would have thought scallions and batter would taste so good together?

What? Korea has a sort of dinner pancakes made from more veggies than batter? And Trader Joe’s has brought it to us under the simple, if intriguing, name of Scallion Pancakes? This sort of esoteric awesomeness is exactly what I made this blog for.

What are you, scallion pancakes? What are, as the South Koreans say, pa jeon? I wondered these things as I stood stupid in the frozen food aisle. I tried smelling the bag. No luck there – the strange mystery of scallion pancakes was securely locked inside the cheerful green sack. Was it really just pancakes made with wild green onions? Could that possibly be any good? If pa jeon was a product of, say, Swinton England, I would guess no – but this is a tradition Korean food and I’ve done pretty well by those so far, despite the occasionally debacle, so I was willing to give it the old college try. Was this going to be another Spicy Seaweed Salad or just another dehydrated kimchi? Fortunately, it’s my pleasure to report that Trader Joe’s Scallion Pancakes are totally awesome.

Jeon in Korean (pronounced “jun”) means something like “battered stuff”, while pa means scallions (aka green onions). Pa is by no means the only Jeon out there – the Koreans really went to town on the whole notion. Where Americans were content to put some bananas in their flapjacks then rest on their laurels, the South Koreans diced up basically anything they could get their hands on. While the scallions and batter are usually there, it can come loaded up with any sort of seafood or meat imaginable. Trader Joe’s gives us the most basic version here – plain green onions with a smattering of other vegetables, including leeks and onions plus some carrots and oyster mushrooms.

If pretty much anything can go into a scallion pancake, you might wonder why the Koreans insist on keeping the scallions in there at all. The answer is one, because they are super delicious, and two, because of history. As well as I could dig up, pa jeon owes its existence to a bunch of Koreans that started throwing green onions at retreating Japanese soldiers during one of the numerous Japanese-Korean battles of the the late 16th century. Obviously, that led immediately to people cooking them into pancakes for some reason. There’s no figuring out history folks, it’s just a bunch of crazy stuff like that.

At any rate, scallion pancakes are exactly what they sound like – each bag contains four danish sized  “pancakes” made with a wheat and egg batter mixed with, you guessed it, scallions. I put pancake is quotes because the word doesn’t quite do justice to what you’re getting. The shape is approximately that of a nice sized buttermilk flapjack, flat, smooth,  rounded and about a ¼ inch thick, but that’s where the resemblance ends. The pa jeon batter is very different from pancake batter. Trader Joe’s uses a mix of wheat flour, corn powder, baking powder, and a touch of egg in their mix, and the result is something more like bread dough than pancake batter – a difference that comes to the fore when you fry them up. Instead of staying light and fluffy, like they are when they come out the bag, the pa jeon become golden and crispy on the stove top. This crispy crunchiness is delightfully toothsome, with a somewhat flaky and pastry-like crunch to the bite.

Once you do throw your scallion pancakes on the stove, get ready for a room filling aroma of mouthwatering proportions. The mixture of onions, leeks, mushrooms and other veggies smells warm, rich and hearty – expect people to be popping their heads in to see what smells so good.

A single glance at these scallion pancakes makes it obvious that they are packed with all sorts of vegetables. What’s more surprising is how much oil is in there as well. Whether you cook these up in a frying pan or in the oven, you’ll notice the pool of oil that forms around each cake. With 7 grams of fat in each pancake and 21 grams of carbs, these are more savory appetizer than health food. On the other hand, with only 160 calories in each pancake, and so much vegetable filler, you can fret the guilt off pretty quickly.

A final note – although Trader Joe’s doesn’t mention it on the bag, you’ll want to eat the scallion pancakes with a traditional dipping sauce of some kind. The most basic type (which worked well for me) is just to mix up a little bit of soy sauce and white (or rice) vinegar. If you’re looking for a fancier sauce recipe, you can try this rather complex one http://www.trifood.com/pajeon.asp.


 

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: If you’ve never tried a savory pancake before, you should try these.

Would I Buy Them Again: Yes indeed – these make great snacks/appetizers/sides.

Final synopsis: Crispy, scallion filled pancakes that prove the Koreans know what they’re doing in the kitchen.

Trader Joe's Scallion Pancakes - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Scallion Pancakes – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s 12 Mushroom Mochi Potsticker Dumplings

 

Trader Joe's 12 Mushroom Mochi Potsticker Dumplings

I’m sorry sir, but you just blew my mind.

Trader Joe’s you simply never cease to amaze me. Although we may fight from time to time, such as when you mix kale and soybeans, you never fail to bounce right back and deliver something both shockingly clever or shockingly tasty. In this case, Trader Joe’s 12 Mushroom Mochi Pot Sticker Dumplings is both.

What Trader Joe’s has done here is something unprecedented, bold and iconoclastic. They’ve taken an ordinary mushroom dumpling, a classic of Chinese cuisine, and remade it with a touch of a Japanese style. Chinese dumplings, classic potstickers, are traditionally made with thin, translucent wrappings made of flour and water. Trader Joe’s has kept the interior stuffing, but replaced the exterior wrapping with the marvelously soft, chewy and malleable mochi.

For those of you know don’t know, and I hope that is very few of you, mochi is a type of dough made by pulverizing cooked rice over and over until, taffy like, it melds into a sticky, chewy, gooey blob. It’s a food that’s long been an integral part of Japanese cuisine – sometimes eaten by itself, sometimes as the delicious delivery system for a lump of sweet bean paste, sometimes (and most commonly in the States) as the elastic casing for a ball of ice cream.

What Trader Joe’s has ingeniously done is to divorce the mochi of it’s sweet innards and replace them with a savory mushroom filling. The result is a dumpling unlike any you’ve ever tasted. In fact, the pairing is so unorthodox that I don’t blame TJ’s for giving them such a long and unwieldy moniker as “Mochi Potsticker Dumplings”. There’s simply no easy description for such a unique dish.

The result of this combination the best of both worlds – a lovely, chewy yielding exterior that gives way to a traditionally Chinese mushroom center, a mixture of Wood Ear and Shiitake mushrooms, carrots, bamboo shoots, and oyster sauce. The mushroom filling is loose, and relatively small in comparison with the thick mochi walls, but still full of savory flavor and entirely tender.

A quick trip to the microwave renders each little mochi dumpling wonderfully warm and soft. Sitting down and eating these little, pale orbs of pert dough is a tactile pleasure as much as a culinary one. The mochi extends and snaps with just the right viscoelastic properties – a delight of texture, taste and tensile strength.

We’ve talked before about TJ’s tendency to append weirdly specific numerals to to the front of their products, so I won’t get into it again here. I’m pretty much against it in every case, except where the number can only be expressed in scientific notation. However, these mushroom mochi are so delightful that they rise far above their mundane numbering. Simply put, if you’re looking for an elegant and intriguing Asian side, these mushroom mochi dumplings won’t disappoint.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Yes, to explore the intriguing recipie if nothing else.

Would I Buy Them Again: Yes, this is some of the best mochi I’ve had in years.

Final Synopsis: A hybrid Japense-Chinese dumpling that satisfies the senses.

Trader Joe's 12 Mushroom Mochi Dumplings - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s 12 Mushroom Mochi Dumplings – Nutrition Facts

 


Trader Joe’s Quinoa Teriyaki Mushroom Rolls

Trader Joe's Quinoa Teriyaki Mushroom Rolls

Yes, there is quinoa in sushi now. No one shall escape quinoa!

Holy crap – I mean, guys, words fail me. We’ve seen some pretty bold and unpredictable moves from Trader Joe’s before, but I’ve never seen anyone, anywhere, seen anything like Trade Joe’s Quinoa Teriyaki Mushroom Rolls.  Swapping the rice out of sushi for quinoa? That is some mad scientist level tinkering there, mad science that has resulted in an abomination not fit to dwell on God’s green earth.

Look, I like Trader Joe’s, you like Trader Joe’s, but let’s be honest here – no supermarket has ever made reasonable sushi. Supermarkets on the coast of Japan don’t even do sushi well. If you want sushi, you go to a sushi restaurant. If you want cold patties of clammy rice and old fish, you go to supermarket. I can only imagine that it’s only due to the abysmal standards of supermarket sushi that Trader Joe’s thought they could get away with such an outlandish concoction. Replace the seafood with marinated mushrooms? Why not? Infuse the rice with quinoa? Who’s to stop you?

It’s not that I can’t see their thought process here – a healthy, vegetarian option for sushi lovers is a noble goal – but the execution here is unconscionable. The marinated mushrooms themselves are alright – a bit slimy, but tasty and nicely saturated with teriyaki flavor. If the product was mushrooms alone, I’d have little to complain about. The real culprit in making these rolls inedible is the unpleasant quinoa/rice wrapping – served soggy, tremendously dense and mealy. Those are characteristics shared by most supermarket sushi rolls, granted, but these were without a doubt the worst I’ve had of that dubious ilk. Was it adding quinoa that pushed it to the bottom, or would these have been just as bad with rice alone? It’s hard to say.

What would you expect the primary ingredient to be in a quinoa roll? Quinoa, perhaps? You would be mistaken, I’m afraid. I like quinoa, I’ve discussed it before, but it’s inclusion here is tragic. If the roll was entirely made of quinoa, that’d be one thing – I expect I’d even like a roll made entirely of quinoa. But that’s not what we have here. What you’re really getting is rice, sprinkled with a bit of quinoa.

Consult, if you would, the picture above. Notice the little yellow dots? That’s the quinoa. Everything else? That’s rice. It hardly seems honest, really, to bill these as quinoa rolls. If TJ’s really wanted a healthier sushi roll, they should have gone with a brown rice. You can’t just mix up an 80-20 rice to quinoa mix and call them quinoa rolls – that’s farcical, Joe. Knock it off.

If you’re a vegetarian and you love sushi, I feel for you I really do. For the time being, however, I’d suggest sticking to your cucumber and daikon rolls. I hope that Trader Joe’s will do something else with the teriyaki mushroom bits. Until then, I must award these quinoa rolls with the ignoble “Worst Thing I Have Ever Eaten from Trader Joe’s” award. Congratulations.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: No. Really, really no.

Would I Buy Them Again: Not until opposite day, the day when you buy the things you hate and throw away the things you love.

Final Synopsis: Why would Trader Joe’s do this to sushi?

Nutritional Info, per 3-pc serving

Calories: 120
Total Fat: 3g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg (duh, since it’s vegan)
Sodium: 430mg (before the soy sauce of course)
Potassium: 0mg
Total Carbs: 21g
Dietary Fiber: 1g
Sugars: 4g
Protein: 2g

Vitamin A: 25%
Vitamin C: 4%
Calcium: 2%
Iron: 4%