Most of the time Trader Joe’s manages to make their frozen food look quite delectable on the bag. For some reason, they just couldn’t manage it with their chicken chow mein. From the barren, spike-filled background on which it sits, to the uninspired “here it is” presentation of the dish, the whole picture wouldn’t look out of place inelegantly thumb tacked to the wall of that Chinese food place you never go in.
That should always be your first tip off. If the small army of marketers behind the promo picture, armed with the latest in unscrupulous food trickery and photoshop, can’t make it look good, it’s probably not very good.
From the get go you know it’s not going to be pretty, so the question really is, What do you expect from a frozen chicken chow mein? There’s plenty of good, fresh cooked chow mein out there, but this chicken chow mein isn’t that, and it never will be. This is simply a bag of frozen noodles and vegetables that you can cook up in about 7 minutes.
While there’s nothing amazing or exemplary about this chow mein, there’s nothing bad about it either. It’s there, you’re not going to do any flips over it, but it’ll get the job done – which in this case is nourishing your meaty bod.
There are no special tricks here, it looks like a pound of frozen chicken, vegetables and noodles and that’s what you get. The frozen broccoli, julienned carrots, onions, and strips of red pepper taste just like reheated frozen vegetables always taste – somewhat limp, somewhat muted. The same applies to the chicken, which is entirely ordinary cubes of white chicken breast touched up with some salt. All told they are entirely edible and perfectly acceptable for a no frill Tuesday night, but not something that is going to light up your evening.
The noodles are a cut above what you’d expect to get from a cup of ramen, but not by too much. Like the rest of the meal, they are just good enough to pass mustard without excelling.
A frozen chicken chow mein is meant to be a quick and easy meal, and that’s what Trader Joe’s delivers. Unlike some of their other, higher quality dishes like Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken none of the ingredients are separated out for individual cooking. This is a bag you rip open and dump in the pan. As far as that goes, it’s good, but it never aspires to anything above that station.
And that’s precisely the problem. Trader Joe’s has a lot of excellent frozen dinners to offer, even in the “lonely bachelor food” category. Along with the aforementioned Kungo Pao Chicken, there’s Thai Sai Tung Curry, Hake en papillote or Pizza Veggie Burgers. The list goes on really. If you’re really hurting for chow mein, make your own or just order in. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options out there for your last minute dinner needs.
Would I Recommend It: Apathetically, perhaps.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stay a Kung Pao man.
Final Synopsis: It’s good for a frozen chow mein, so in other words, “meh”.
Trader Joe’s Seriously Stuffed Peppers struck me as a particularly intriguing novelty when I stumbled on them the other day. Not only do they sound like something your industrious grandmother might prepare for Christmas dinner, but they look exactly like that too. Each jar is tiny and cute, topped with a bit of homely parchment rubber-banded around the lid. Inside the jar a dozen or so cherry peppers are packed to bursting with a whole olive, some garlic, and a caper or two. That seemed like it just might be delicious, so I picked it up.
What I wasn’t ready for was all the oil! Not unlike the dolmas I bought a while back, these tasty, European appetizers are somewhat ruined by the enormous amount of oil they’re packed in.
First the good stuff. These stuffed peppers are pretty dang tasty. Based on the smell alone, I was prepared for an intense blast of pickled flavor, or a blazing hot burst of heat. The reality is nothing of the sort – instead they’re mild, slightly bitter, slightly nutty, with a flavorful, zesty tail.
The bitterness comes from the cherry peppers, which don’t bring any heat, but only a mild taste and toothsome texture, with just a hint of bitterness that suggests they’ve been cooked slightly too long.
Inside of these guys are the capers, olives and garlic. All three perform exactly how you’d expect – the olives and capers bring their salty, pungent taste and the garlic sneaks up behind you the moment you swallow to put a little bit of fire on the tongue. The result is very edible. Overall the stuffed peppers are much more mild than olives or capers are on their own, much more flavorful than garlic, and much more complex and interesting than simple cherry peppers. All together, they make for a nice little antipasta – perfect for throwing on the side of some pasta or lamb.
Almost perfect, I should say.
As nice as they are, I have a serious problem with how oily these peppers are. What I thought was a pickle brine at first glace, turns out to be sunflower oil – thick and viscous, with a slightly nutty taste and a smell that starts fills the room as soon as you open the jar. We are talking about a heavy, heavy oil here, and it coats the peppers in a permanent glaze. Drip, dab or wipe a pepper all you want, and it will still glisten with a fine oily sheen. I’m not kidding – my fingers are slipping all over the keyboard as I write this. My girlfriend as a jar of oil she uses on her air, a mixture of coconut oil, argan oil, and macadamia oil, that is less oily than the oil in this jar.
Evidence of the oil’s impact is visible in the nutrition facts – each 4 pepper serving contains only 60 calories, but 40 of those calories are from fat. That’s a huge amount of fat to cram into what are, otherwise, nothing but vegetables. The sunflower oil also imparts its own flavor on the peppers – imbuing the whole thing with a nuttiness that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the flavor profile.
I do like these stuffed peppers, and I’d love to snack down on them, but there really doesn’t seem to be a good way to do that. It’s tricky to fish the peppers out of the jar without them falling apart – trying to get the oil off of them without ruining their delicate construction is even harder. Leaving the oil on is always, an option, but the result is a big pool of oil on your plate or running down your finger. That’s not the end of the world, obviously, but it does limit how you eat and serve them.
Between the very pretty packaging and the beautifully stuffed peppers, this is dish looks wonderful in the jar sitting on your self. Unless you have a pressing need for antipasta, however, I’d recommend leaving them there.
Would I Recommend It: Not really – it’s okay, but not worth the hassle.
Woudl I Buy It Again: No, it’s much too oily for me.
Final Synopsis: Very nice as décor – not as good as food.
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.
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.
I’ve always been cautious when it comes to foods stuffed in other foods, so it was with wariness that I approached Trader Joe’s stuffed peppers with seasoned turkey and rice. Stuffing, after all, is fraught with peril. We’ve all heard the dire warnings regarding turkey stuffing and seen the gruesome spectacle of sausage stuffing. It is a mixed bag. Sometimes the rewards outweigh the dangers, and sometimes you find yourself eating a pile of gunk.
I turned to Trader Joe’s stuffed red peppers during a quest to find a cheap, easy prep, low carb, non-frozen dinner entree. A tall order, and one that Trader Joe’s has trouble delivering on. It was after a great deal of searching that I finally struck upon these. Trader Joe’s Stuffed Red Peppers may not be exactly a dieters dream, but at 11 grams of fat and 14 grams of carbs per serving they’re not too far off the mark.
I’ve come back to these stuffed peppers time and time again because it fills a gap not many Trader Joe’s products do – a dead-cheap dinner option that takes 15 minutes and no prep. In other words, with two full servings for about $2.50 each and no knowledge of cooking necessary, this is the perfect I’m-An-Unskilled-Bachelor dinner go to. I go the oven-cooked route, but it’s just as easily microwaved. In either case, you end up with something that’s not just tasty, but could nearly pass as home cooked.
The piping hot rice and season turkey spills in a moist slump over the red pepper’s wilted walls – flavorful, meaty and savory without being starchy or over-salted. The balance between turkey and rice is generously nudged toward the turkey side, which at makes this more entree than side dish. This rich filling is, in turn, balanced by the soft and very mild taste of the roasted red pepper casing.
That said, these stuffed peppers aren’t perfect. For one, the casing always collapses to some degree when cooked, making messy piles. Relatedly, the filling tends to resist becoming crisp and brown no matter how long you bake it.
Trader Joe’s Stuffed Red Pepper isn’t incredible, exotic or revolutionary, but like TJ’s Minestrone it’s something with a value all it’s now, a classic mainstay. This is the sort of meal that a mom might serve up to her family once a week – a modern-day casserole that gives the TV Dinner Set an option outside the freezer section.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, whether you’re a mom, a bachelor or just too tired to defrost the chicken.
Would I Buy It Again: I already have.
Final Synopsis: A simple, but tasty classic.