Look, I know quinoa is enjoying something of a heyday, the likes of which has been unprecedented since the ancient grain was originally introduced as a staple of the human diet in 5,000 BC, but there are certain applications of it which are bound to make even the hippest vegetarian blink. I’ve calmly accepted quinoa in my salads, my “chicken”, and even in my sushi. But quinoa in my pesto? That’s a development that begs further inquiry.
Quinoa was originally cultivated in the Andes region of South America since the rise of civilization there. However, since it’s uptake by the incessant marketing machine in the mid 2000’s, quinoa has been trumpeted as a superfood for it’s many healthsome properties – some certified, some merely alleged – and introduced into practically any food product in need of a sales boost.
What is absolutely true is that quinoa is a gluten-free grain, and is relatively protein rich. Given that both these qualities dovetail nicely into the culinary trends of the day, its recent, widespread popularity should probably not be a surprise. It is notable however. Since 2006, the price of quinoa has tripled on the market even as crop production has nearly doubled world wide – and in 2013 no lesser body than the United Nations itself declared it the “International Year of Quinoa”. They had a logo and everything.
While the sudden rise of quinoa from obscurity to mainstay may sound unusual, it’s not alone. In fact pesto – yes the very pesto in this quinoa and pesto sauce – shares a very similar original story. Pesto may not have a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years, like quinoa, but it’s a lot older than you might think. The first bowl of pesto was found on the table of the ancient Romans who ate a paste of crushed herbs, garlic and cheese. As they conquested into northern Italy/southern France, the basil that grew there was introduced into the dish – resulting in the pesto we know and love today. And then nothing happened for two thousand years. Despite the fact that pesto took it’s fully mature form sometime before the birth of Christ, it was largely unknown out of the rustic Mediterranean regions where it sprang into existence.
Not until 1863 is the first recipe for pesto recorded, and it is not until nearly a hundred years after that, in 1946, that the first pesto recipe shows up in America. Even then, pesto continued to languish in relative obscurity until the 1980’s, when it started to be adopted into Italian cuisine on a wide scale.
So why combine these two long overlooked food items into one condiment? Why did Trader Joe’s bother to make Pesto and Quinoa?
When you try it, the first thing you’ll notice is that they might as well have called it pesto with quinoa, instead of pesto and quinoa. The point being that this is a pesto sauce, first and foremost, with the quinoa making a very meager impact on the overall dish.
Apart from the quinoa, this is a standad pesto recipe – filled with plenty of basil, oil and grated cheese. What it doesn’t have, however, is any pine nuts. In place of that crunchy nuttiness you get the squishy nuttiness of lots and lots of quinoa. This makes the pesto taste more or less like any other pesto you’ve had from a grocery store, even if it looks very very different. There’s so much quinoa in this pesto that it’s far and away the first ingredient. When you unscrew the lid you’ll see a load of quinoa, sprouts and all, staring back at you. If you can get over the somewhat unsettlingly different appreance, you’ll find that this pesto works just like the regular stuff – you can add it easily to pasta, chicken, fish or salads for that big sloppy kiss of savory basil. Just don’t expect it to spread quite like regular pesto. The quinoa makes it much lumpier than a normal pesto, and requires a little extra finesse on the part of the eater.
While that’s all well and good, it does make you wonder why Trader Joe’s bothered to make this stuff at all. There isn’t any real difference in the calorie or fat content between this and ordinary pesto. While I enjoyed it on a variety of meals, I didn’t enjoy it any more than I would have any other pesto. And with the slightly unappealing look and unweildly nature of the quinoa, there really isn’t any need to get it again. I’m glad TJ’s discovered a tasty Peruvian pesto, I’m just not so sure why they wanted to pas it along to all of us.
Would I Recommend It: No, I don’t think so.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope, no need.
Final Synopsis: Pesto with a bunch of quinoa in it tastes just like pesto without quinoa in it. So why bother?
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.
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 Qunoa Duo with Vegetable Melange is the sort of healthy fare I turn to when the New Year rolls around and the scale starts broadcasting dire warning vis-a-vis my sexiness. I’ve touched upon the intricacies of quinoa before, but this is the first time I’ve really sat down for an all quinoa dish.
The big deal with quinoa, and the cornerstone of its popularity, is the fact that quinoa contains a balance of all nine essential amino acids, in other words it’s a “complete protein”. This is common among meats, but rare in the plant world which makes it a boon to vegetarians. While that’s not me, I was particularly excited by the notion that I would be eating both red and white quinoa at once. Two quinoas? They must be, like, wildly different right? Otherwise, why mix them together? Sadly, I was a let down to discover that red and white quinoa are practically identical. The only real difference is that red quinoa is a little more toothsome than white quinoa, and doesn’t clump as much.
Trader Joe’s Quinoa Duo combines the quinoas with cubed zucchini and sweet potato, tinged with a bit of tomato sauce. The result is about as strange as it sounds. I’ll be upfront with you, I didn’t much love this one. It’s not that I dislike quinoa – I like it just fine, sometimes I even love it, and it’s not that I dislike vegetable melanges either, I’ve had one or two from TJ’s that I’ve quite enjoyed. The problem for me came in the mixture of everything together.
Quinoa has a decidedly nutty flavor.This works well with the sweet potato, and reasonably well with the zucchini, but for some reason Trader Joe’s decided to put a french twist on the dish. This takes the form of a tomato flavoring that is mixed in with the dish – not so strong as to really stand on its own, just strong enough to sort of throw the other flavors off. It certainly makes for a complex taste, but to me it came across as more of a mess of flavors than a medley.
Really, though, how much you like this dish will come down to how much you like hot quinoa . Although the words “vegetable melange” are right there in the title, don’t come to this dish expecting much more than quinoa. The pseudograin-to-veggie tradeoff is something like 80 – 20, meaning for every big mouthful of quinoa you’ll get a couple bits of zucchini or sweet potato. That also means that, despite Trader Joe’s urgings to the contrary, this doesn’t make a very good main dish. Undoubtedly there’s room to find a good entree pairing here that will elevate the rather confused taste of the quinoa duo to a higher level, although I couldn’t tell you what that would be.
If you’re really interested in working this quinoa duo into your diet, I reckon the best approach is to disregard Trader Joe’s serving suggestions entirely. Cool down the quinoa after you cook it up, and turn it into a salad base. You can find one good recipie for just that on this blog. Mixed with the right combination of veggies and seasoning this quinoa duo can become something great – by itself, not so much.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to undernourished vegetarians and adventurous salad makers. No to most others.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I wasn’t really into it.
Final Synopsis: Lots of good qunoia with a strange tomato taste.
I’ve always been intrigued by Trader Joe’s Lemon Chicken and Arugula Salad, squatting in the lower reaches of the salad aisle, mostly because I assumed it had a big piece of salmon on it. That particular misconception came about due to the unusually enormous salmon pink bag of spicy pimento dressing that lays, slug like, on top of the salad mix. While there’s no salmon on this salad, what it does have to offer is tasty and intriguing.
This is, as Trader Joe’s itself is quick to point out, a Moroccan style salad. Morocco is home to many types of salads, both hot and cold and beet derived, and while this isn’t a traditional type of Moroccan salad per se, it does bring together many wonderful, traditionally Moroccan spices. These include parsley, mint and smoked paprika, all of which show up along side the lemon zested chicken.
This medley of spices is mixed into a bed of couscous and red quinoa that makes up the unspoken third component of this chicken and arugula salad. It’s anyone’s guess why the grains didn’t make it into the title, they’re certainly the most notable part of the salad. The arugula is perfectly acceptable and the lemon chicken is nicely lemoned, but it’s the couscous and red quinoa mix that infuses it with rich and savory flavors, in addition to adding a little exotic texture. Add to this a scattering of sweet currants, and you’re talking about a complex combination of flavors that could easily go all wrong. Fortunately, Trader Joe’s manages to strike a good balance here. The simple flavors of the zesty lemon chicken and the stridently piquant arugula are foregrounded here, with the other more nuanced tastes leaping out at you from the curtains from bite to bite.
This leads us, as all human inquiry must, to the spicy pimento dressing. My first reaction to this dressing was, really? A dressing made out of pimentos? What did they do with the rest of the olive after they got the pimentos out? It turns out, however, that the pimento is more than just the hilarious name for a specific type of olive stuffer, it’s a little red pepper with a life all it’s own. The pimento is a smallish chili pepper, rather like a dwarfish, heart-shaped bell pepper, known also by the name cherry pepper. In the world of chili peppers, as we all know, there’s no rating so important as your place on the Scoville scale. While the juggernauts of the chili world, the ghost peppers and scotch bonnets and such, battle it out for position Supreme Pepper President at the top of the scale, the pimento suffers the indignity of having one of the lowest ratings on the books, ranking below even the banana pepper. Life in pepper school must have been hard for the poor pimento.
All this means that, despite being billed as such, this dressing is not particularly spicy – at least not in sane quantities. TJ’s seems to be suffering from the same spicy dressing over compensation here as they did with their seaweed salad. The single bag included in the tub could easy cover two to three salads of equal size. It’s a bold paring for such an already complex dish, but the creaminess and mild fire only add to the intrigue rather than detract from it – just be sure to play it on the safe side when putting it on.
On a final pimento note, it is my understanding stuffed green olives are made by a hydrolic pump shooting the pimento into each olive, blasting the olive pit out the other end at the same time with what, I am sure, is a very satisfying noise. While that has no bearing upon this dish, I just wanted to share that rather striking image wit you.
More than anything, Trader Joe’s Lemon Chicken and Arugula salad reminds me of TJ’s other quinoa salad – but unlike that one, this salad fails to fill you up. Once you remove the dressing packet, there’s not a whole lot left in the salad tub – just a handful of knotted arugula leaves, a little hill of couscous and, depressingly, a tiny portion of chicken. If this salad was a little more robust, I’d be a frequent buyer. As it stands, it’ll have to be content to exist as a savory side dish to go along side a larger meal.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, but not as a meal in itself.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably someday, when I’m not too hungry.
Final Synopsis: A savory, Moroccan inspired salad that’s a little on the small side.
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.
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
Total Fat: 3g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg (duh, since it’s vegan)
Sodium: 430mg (before the soy sauce of course)
Total Carbs: 21g
Dietary Fiber: 1g
Vitamin A: 25%
Vitamin C: 4%
An interesting salad, this Trader Joe’s Super Spinach Salad, an intriguing salad, but not necessarily a very good salad.
Spinach is an incredible base for any salad – tender, and flavorful, and supple, and yielding to the ardent bite, and nutritious, and, and, and – well, I could go on. I have a deep and abiding love for leafy, raw spinach that manifests itself in a refrigerator stuffed full of salad greens and dirty looks I throw at petulant children. My adoration of spinach, I’ll admit, is partially irrational. You see, I lost my salad virginity to spinach.
I was a young man, a college freshman. I hadn’t been looking for love, I didn’t even think I was interested in salads. I had grown up around plates of iceberg lettuce and, apart from the occasional juicy crouton or Baco Bit, they did nothing for me. But then I saw it, there in the dorm cafeteria’s buffet , demure but intriguing. I remember stuffing my mouth full of the delicious young sprigs, the juicy blast of nutritious flavor. I can taste it still. That day changed my life, leading me into the wonderful world of salads, and though I’ve often played around with exotic radicchios and roquettes I’ve always returned home to those tender, loving fronds.
So you’d think a TJ’s spinach salad would be an almost perversely easy slam dunk, right? Not so. Trader Joe’s Super Spinach Salad offers up the sort of charmingly eclectic list of ingredients see in some of their other excellent salads, quinoa, carrots, cranberries, chickpeas, edamame, tiny little tomatoes, and pumpkin seeds, but they simply do not work as well as a unit. It’s hard to say where the salad goes wrong. The main problem seems to be the carrot ginger miso dressing, which is, one, a strange combination of ingredients that don’t work very well with the salad mix, and two, unusually thick, almost like a very gritty mayonnaise that resists spreading evenly across the salad. Worse, the dressing leaves a strong aftertaste of onion in your mouth that lingers on long after the salad is finished.
The veggies do make for a crunchy, crispy unit that’s not bad for munching on, and I would suspect that if you ditched the dressing and substituted it for a personal favorite the salad would benefit greatly by it.
Even worse than being unpalatable, the dressing commits the all-too-common sin of wrecking the otherwise very healthy nutritional profile of the salad. Check out these post dressing stats: 19g of fat (a third of your daily intake), and a whopping 53g of carbs which, even controlling for the 10g that come from fiber, is more than a Big Mac packs.
I’ve got nothing against the occasional decadent salad (perhaps choked with gorgonzola and candied pecans), but it has to be pretty fantastic tasting to make the calories worth it. This salad fails to deliver anything like the level of enjoyment I’d demand for blowing my diet for the day.
Would I Recommend It: With a caution – lose the salad dressing and substitute a healthy alternative.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, there are far more interesting salads to explore.
Final Synopsis: A very promising salad ruined by a very poor salad dressing.