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 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.
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.
The only real rule I have for myself with this blog is to review only those things which are unusual enough to catch one’s attention, but are too unusual to warrant an immediate purchase. This plan has guided me down some terrible alleyways and up some delightful avenues. Why then, am I bothering to review Trader Joe’s Southwest Chicken Quesadilla – one of the safest, least intriguing foods out there? After all, isn’t the quesadilla such a staple of kid’s food menus for its tremendously simple execution and supremely inoffensive recipe, namely melted cheese in a white flour tortilla?
Yes, all that may be true, but I was drawn to this product for one very simple reason – the “Taos Joe” brand name.
One of Trader Joe’s charming quirks is their penchant for tweaking their brand name to reflect the “ethnic” nature of some foodstuff or another. There is Trader Josef and Trader Jose, Trader Giotto and Trader Jacques, just to name a few.
Things get a little nutty after this, as Trader Joe starts breaking the pattern altogether with Arabian Joe and Trader Ming. What strikes me as particularly strange, is that Trader Joe’s sort of stops there. Despite having a huge range of Thai, Indian and even African cuisine, there are no labels that reflect these cultural roots. Why, Joe?
While this is all charming and clever, it also irks me deeply because of their erratic application of nomenclature. Why, in god’s name, is this guacamole not a Trader Jose product, but this guacamole is? Perhaps only Joe himself knows.
At any rate, the sight of a Taos Joe product stopped me cold. What I like most about the name is that it’s a sign of Trader Joe’s true commitment to this gimmick. A less devoted brand might feel tempted to just stick their quesadillas under the Trader Jose name, but not so TJ. Evidently they felt that the somewhat subtle difference between Southwestern and Mexican cuisine demanded the creation of the entirely new “Taos Joe” label.
Actually, come to think about it, that’s even more irksome. Going through all the trouble of generating a brand name just for southwestern food makes the absence of, say, a Greek brand feel like more of an intended slight than a simple overlook. Is it madness or brilliance? You be the judge.
That more or less brings us to the quesadilla itself, about which there’s not a lot to say. This quesadilla is a pretty comfortable quesadilla – it’s thick, cheesy, soft and tasty in that sort of way that melted cheese usually is. If you’ve ever had a quesadilla, you pretty much know what you’re going to get from this.
That said, Trader Joe’s does manage to work in a couple nice additions that elevate it above a microwave-it-yourself affair. The best addition are the titular seasonal vegetables – a phrase which in this case means corn, red bell pepper, jalapeno pepper, and strangely, spinach. The jalapenos, along with the blend of monterrey jack and pepper jack cheese, give the quesadilla a barely detectable blip of spiciness, but not so much that it really does anything for the dish.
The vegetables and white chicken are diced to rather small chunks, and spread evenly throughout the quesadilla. This gives it a nice body and something to think about other than the cheese while chewing, but doesn’t really effect the overall cheestastic taste of the dish.
Not getting too fancy with it is actually to Trader Joe’s credit. People don’t usually turn to a quesadilla because they want challenging food, but because they want something pleasant and reliable. This quesadilla may not hit any culinary heights, but it does satisfy on a basic, comfort food level.
In the end, it’s a pretty solid dish – some chicken, some vegetables, plenty of cheese, and microwavable in about 3 minutes. Perfect for a quick and easy frozen dinner any time.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, this is a pretty good quesadilla.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not – it’s got lots of cheese, but not a ton of excitement.
Final Synopsis: A perfectly good quesadilla, suitable for whatever.
I liked my last taste of East Asian non-traditional savory snack pancakes so much, that I went out this week and tried another one. This time we’re talking about Trader Joe’s Four Uttapam with Coconut Chutney – a South Indian flat bread that’s not only vegan and gluten free, but also down right tasty.
I’ll admit right out that I picked up Trader Joe’s uttapam because reading the package made the language part of my brain have a little spasm. As we’ve seen time and time again, if you put a crazy enough word on your package I basically can’t stop myself from buying your product.
In this case, it turns out that uttapam (U-thap-pam, apparently) are smallish, plain pancake/pizza-like flatbreads from the south of India. Each uttapam is about the size of a bagel (a bit smaller than the Pa Jeon) and topped with a healthy scattering of diced onion, green bell pepper and some subtle cilantro. The taste is a mild, but rich with both the flavor of the vegetables and a dusting of traditional Indian spices.
These veggies are all resting on the uttapam itself, a very specifically Indian sort of bread – both doughy, spongy, and slightly sour. I put bread in “quotes” here because the dough is made from a specific mixture of mashed, fermented rice and black lentils called urad dal, which are not things you typically imagine bread as being made out of. In fact, I’m fairly certain urad dal is one of the locations Frodo and Sam had to pass through on the way to Mordor.
You might think that a bread made from rice and beans would taste wildly different from a standard wheat-based flatbread, but shockingly that isn’t the case. The spongy, soft bread base tastes just as good, as any wheat based flat bread – only due to it’s rice and lentil origin it’s miraculously gluten free.
The bread poofs up nice and soft when cooked, like a soft pillow for the minced vegetables to rest on. You can eat them like this
directly, or get fancy with some toppings. Trader Joe’s includes a couple little packets of coconut chutney to throw on top, but I’d recommend throwing them out instead. The included chutney is rather weak and lackluster, and doesn’t do much for the subtle flavors already present in the bread. Instead, I’d recommend applying your imagination and topping them with whatever seems good – be that a better chutney you have laying around or some other food entirely. I threw some fried eggs on mine one morning and discovered that uttapam beat the hell out of English Muffins. At $3.69 for a pack of four, you can afford to get a little crazy with them.
Your box of four uttapam comes frozen, and Trader Joe’s offers two suggestions for cooking them – either microwave or stove top. This is no idle consideration, because each method yields a very different final result. Microwaved uttapam (net time required: < 1 min) stay soft and pliable and more pancake-y. Stove top, on the other hand, takes about 4 or 5 minutes per uttapam, but comes off the griddle toasty crisp. Having tried both, I’d recommend the stove top without hesitation – not just because the creators of the uttapam, the Tamils, have a culture of enjoying elaborate and leisurely cooking – but also because the time on the stove really brings out the redolent smells and flavors of the dish.
Really, I have to consider myself a lucky guy – just two weeks ago I couldn’t name you a single tasty, simple, vegetarian/vegan, super-snackable, savory mini-pancake, and now I know two. I’d recommend picking up the uttapam and pa jeon at the same time, and having yourself an Asian Pancake Frolic to go along with the waffle frolics you are enjoying already. At the very least, they could serve as a decent stand in for those still feeling the pain of loss of Arabian Joe’s Spicy Spinach Pizzas.
Would I Recommend It: Yup – it’s as tasty as it is worldly.
Would I Buy It Again: I most certainly would.
Final Synopsis: Tasty south Indian flatbread perfect for gluten-eaters and gluten-free alike.
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.
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.
Onion dip, one of mankind’s most favorite dips. With the exciting arrival of Trader Joe’s Onion Dip Mix, they have now fulfilled the requirement that all supermarkets sell some type of powdered onion dip mix. I picked this up because it was new, and that’s always cool, and because onion dip is one of the most ordinary things you’re ever going to encounter in your life. Powdered onion dip mixes seldom, if ever, vary – presumably it’s all made in the same enormous mixing plant in New Jersey somewhere and then packaged with different labels. Trader Joe’s treads so far from the beaten path, is so devoted to bringing us strange and mysterious things, that it seemed weirdly incongruous that they’d be offering something as mundane and prosaic as onion dip. Surely they’ve got something sneaky planned with their onion dip, some uniquely Trader Joe’s twist hidden in this little orange packet.
Sadly, this is not the case. Trader Joe’s Onion Dip is practically indistinguishable from any other powered onion dip you might have ever had. It’s not a bad onion dip, it’s just a very ordinary onion dip. The sort of onion dip that makes you go, “Yup, here’s some onion dip.” So, in summary – if you are looking for a cheap ($0.99) onion dip mix on par with Knorr or Lipton, here you go.
The deeper, and to me more interesting, question is why do we eat onion dip at all. It’s tasty and I’m glad we do, but who was the first enterprising soul who thought “Know what this sour cream needs? A really strong onion flavor.” That’s really weird, wouldn’t you say? These are not two ingredients that naturally occur near each other in the wild Of course, I’m not Northern European either. Various recipes involving sour cream and onions were floating around the Old Country long before we adapted it into a party appetizer in the states. That transformation took place in the mid-
As it happens, the first onion dip didn’t come about until 1954, and owes its thanks entirely to the wondrous Modern Age. The era of convenience that exploded in America after WWII showed itself nowhere more clearly than through changes in the kitchen. Take the sudden rise of powdered soup, for instance. The idea of dehydrating soup for ease of use is a surprisingly old one. Lewis and Clark packed a great quantity of a commercially produced “pocket soup” with them on their expedition. The very first mentions of such a product can be traced back to as far as England, in the year 1681. These first powdered soups however, were more akin to bouillon cubes, hard lumps to be dissolved over time. These were eventually refined into powdered mixes that could easily be added to water by the busy housewives of the 1940’s and 50’s. It was one of these women, now as forgotten to time as the honorable Governor Ding, who first grabbed a packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix and added it to a bowl of sour cream. The result was a hit, and quickly co-opted by the Lipton company who as early as 1958 started printing it on every packet of onion soup mix they sold.
That, pretty much, is everything you need to know about the history of onion dip. What will the future hold for onion dip? We must wait and see. In the meantime, the next time you need to cater a party on the cheap, or prep a snack for the football game, you can give this dip a whirl
Would I Recommend It: Eh. It’s as good as any other brand.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, if I’m having people over or something.
Final Synopsis: A competent onion dip mix with no surprises.