Trader Joe’s Dolmas

Trader Joe's Dolmas

Yes, they really open from the bottom. It’s hard for me to express how much this offends my aesthetic sensibilities. Just put the label on the other way around, man!

Ah, the dolma. It’s easy to over look the Greeks as purveyors of strange delicacies, but the dolma is certainly that. It’s rare, outside of Asia (and, I suppose, salads), to be fed straight up leaves as food, yet that is precisely what a dolma is – a broad, boiled grape leaf rolled into a tube and stuffed with seasoned rice.

The dolma is something of an acquired taste thanks to an interesting mingling of flavors. Like any local, traditional dish, the stuffing of a dolma can vary dramatically from region to region. Most commonly, however, you’re going to find them looking like the Trader Joe’s variation here – with plenty of dill and mint mixed into the rice. Dill and mint are not two tastes that are generally thought to go together very well, justly I might add, and complicating matters further is the grape leaf itself. Something of the wine-ness of the grape is also present in the grape leaf. Even after being boiled and stored in oil for god knows how long, the grape leaves have a subtle but lingering wine-like taste that muddles into the dill and mint scrap up. Essentially, a dolma is a tiny flavor battlefield where different flavors keep coming out on top. The amazing thing is this is one of those flavor combinations that actually works, making for a fascinating side dish and excellent compliment to tzatziki sauce.

I’ve only had a few experiences with domas before now – one particularly favorable memory involving a nice Greek salad – so I was game to try them again when Trader Joe’s presented me the chance. This initial willingness was first checked when I picked up the tin they were packaged in. I have very few iron-clad eating guidelines, but one of them is not to neat anything that comes packaged in a sardine tin. I was willing to bend that rule this one time based solely on my regard for the Trader Joe’s name – so much have I come to respect this gentle, supermarket giant.

No sooner did I peel back the metal tab on top (or bottom, strangely) of the dolma tin then did I regret making this exception. Trader Joe’s dolmas look positively unappetizing – shimmering, glistening leaf rolls swimming in the viscous soybean oil which fills the canister to the brim. Soybean oil is just straight vegetable oil – which is to say, it’s 100% pure liquid fat – and while I understand that soybean oil is, in some ways, more healthy than other vegetable oils, I also know that no food should be served in so much oil that it makes Dubai look poor.

The taste of the dolmas themselves was more or less on target – but the texture and execution turns them from something I should enjoy snacking on into something I had to force myself to eat. The soybean oil completely permeates the dolma, bloating every grain of mushy rice with pure oil and running off the leaf to pool on your plate. Combine this with the no-frills, low-quality, upside-down tin and you’re left feeling like you’ve just picked up something from the bottom shelf of the off-brand supermarket.

From the weird tin to the copious use of oil, this just doesn’t feel like a Trader Joe’s product. It’s well known that Trader Joe’s sources nearly all their offerings from various manufacturers around the world, but in general the quality is so uniformly high that I never think twice about it. It’s only when I pick up something like this that the illusion starts to show at the seams and I suddenly get a vision of the crappy factory in Turkey where leaf rolls are dumped off a conveyor belt into tins alternatively marked Trader Joe’s and Tesco.

Dolmas are great and delicious, and I’d recommend you try them sometime – just not here, not like this.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: To Eastern European grandmothers who grew up during the Cold War and other people who don’t mind oil-packed, tinned foods, yes. To everyone else, no.

Would I Buy Them Again: No, There have got to be better dolmas than this out there.

Final Synopsis: A tasty dolma brought low by a cheap, oily presentation.

Trader Joe’s Crunchy Black and White Rice Rolls

Trader Joe's Crunchy Black and White Rice Rolls

The put the little window on there like, “Check out the crazy colored rice!” But there is no crazy colored rice. What is your end game here TJ’s?

Trader Joe’s Crunchy Black and White Rice Rolls are just rice folks, slightly sweetened, crunchy rice in a little roll. They’re good tasting, pretty healthy and convenient. That’s about all there is to say on these, folks. I mean, c’mon, really – it’s just rice. I suppose I should be thrilled by coming across such a cheap, tasty, and healthy snack, but I’m not a mom. I’m a guy with a slightly faulty “Act Like A Normal Person” switch in his head. The light is steady from time to time, but mostly it sort of blinks on and off. I suppose I’m just a little disappointed by such a utilitarian, ordinary snack after the aggressively weird brown butter, lemon and parsley popcorn the other day. We must wonder, however, what is black rice, and why cylinders instead of disks?

The main reason I picked these rolls up was because of the intriguing mention of “black rice” in the title. Now, there are several kinds of black rice cultivated around the world, form the “forbidden rice” once reserved only for the Chinese Emperor’s table to Thai black jasmine rice. The exotic lure of the promise of such a deviation in color pulled me in, much as the promise of black eggs, or black milk would have done. Unfortunately, I found myself left to disappointment. Not only is it impossible to taste any difference between the “Black Pearl Rice” and “Sushi Rice” used, but impossible to even see any difference. Black rice usually cooks up to a deep purple color, but whatever cooing method Trader Joe’s employed has denatured any chromatic differences between the two. Perhaps I should champion these black and white rice rolls as a paragon of color-blind, racial harmony, but instead it feels bland and sterile. Even TJ’s, usually so florid with their food descriptions, can’t seem to muster much enthusiasm for their generic rices in the product copy. Humph.

This, I sense, may be my own idiosyncratic quibble. As I already said, these really taste quite good – rice cake or not. Even better, they appear to be air puffed, like a bunch of lightly sweetened corn pops smushed lightly together, giving the whole roll a light and airy feeling. This certainly an advancement over ordinary rice cakes whose density can sometimes make a snacking session feel like an arduous slog.

So, sweet, light and crunchy – what’s not to like, really? It may, of course, be possible to take issue with the shape. Why cylinders, TJ? Is the traditional disk shape too square for you? Not hip enough for the educated, middle-income crowd? Functionally, this is not actually much of an issue, except in one important way – it’s difficult to layer or spread any condiments on the rice rolls. As a man who always has some room for a nice puffed rice cake smeared with a thickness of peanut butter, this qualifies as a design flaw.

A final word, unlike some other items I’ve reviewed, the rice rolls compare very well to their mainstream alternatives. Despite the differences in shape and texture, Trader Joe’s Black and White Rice Rolls are nearly identical in sugar, carbs and calories to Quaker’s ubiquitous sweetened rice cakes.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend These: Yes, especially to moms.

Would I Buy Them Again: As I have no kids and enjoy spreading peanut butter, probably not.

Final Synopsis: A good, but chromatically perplexing, rice snack.

Trader Joe's Crunchy Black and White Rice Rolls - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Crunchy Black and White Rice Rolls – Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Stuffed Peppers with Seasoned Turkey and Rice

Trader Joe's Stuffed Peppers

Trader Joe’s Stuffed Peppers

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.

The Breakdown:

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.

Trader Joe's Stuffed Peppers with Seasoned Turkey and Rice

Trader Joe’s Stuffed Peppers with Seasoned Turkey and Rice