The little burgundy bottle of Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar has been staring me in the face for weeks now, daring me to buy it. I finally picked it up the other day, and I’ve really been wrestling with what the hell to do with it ever since.
Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar certainly isn’t the sort of product that you’re reaching for everyday in the kitchen. TJ’s seems to focus on two distinct categories of products – standard fare done in the Trader Joe’s style (soup, salad, bacon, etc) and exotic items designed to appeal to the gourmands and foodies of the world. Trader Joe’s Pomegranate Vinegar falls squarely into this second category. Unless you are living a very specialized sort of life, you’re going to find this a difficult product to just casually make use of from day to day.
Where I usually run into trouble in my comment section is with these more refined food products (ex: dolmas). As an Average Joe, I don’t have too much trouble wrapping my head around the minestrone soups out there, it’s the niche, world-cuisine stuff, the himalayan tuffle salts if you will, that usually leave me boggled. The advanced culinary spheres are only dimly known to me. I still only have a white belt in kitchen jujitsu. I tend to caramelize my simple syrups while other are already eating their crepes.
With that said, I purchased this vinegar knowing full and well that it might best me – but I was determined to give it my best shot. If you haven’t tried this vinegar yet, think of it as tasting like an apple cider vinegar, but with pomegranate instead of apple. A lot of pomegranate. This is a tremendously potent – and flavorful – vinegar, absolutely brimming over with the smells and tastes of pomegranate. The trouble, of course, is that pomegranate is a challenging flavor to incorporate into a meal. I’m mentioned this before, but I think the recent fad of throwing pomegranate flavoring around all over the place is foolhardy. Pomegranate is so tart that it’s just not that good when distilled down to it’s bare essence. Pomegranate seeds are one thing, I’ll gobble them by the handful, but take those seeds, squeeze the juice out of them, and mix it with a strong, acerbic vinegar and you’re talking about a very specific, very difficult flavor to incorporate in your dishes.
The vinegar bottle suggests trying it on salad or with chicken. I gave both of these a shot, and in both cases I found that the intense flavor was off-puttingly strong – almost medicinal in taste. But just laying on some lettuce leaves isn’t a pomegranate vinegar’s natural habitat, it was born to grace foods and dishes as exotic as itself.
So what is pomegranate vinegar rightly used for? Primarily, it would seem, as a condiment for fancy appetizers, as a dressing on carefully constructed salads or, and this one appealed to me, simmered down into a tangy glaze. In order to do full justice to this product, I felt that I must at least give the glaze a shot. After a little bit of searching I settled on this simple but elegant recipe from Il Fustino, and cooked it up with a dish of fresh grilled chicken breast.
The results were exactly what I’d been promised – a fruity, tangy glaze with considerable complexity and none of the acerbic or mediciney hang ups of the straight vinegar. Down right tasty, in other words – all the sweet flavor of pomegranate with just an edge of zing. Was I delighted? Yes. Am I a convert now? No.
To be honest, if I’m looking for a tangy, fruity glaze for my chicken, I’ll grab my bottle of Trader Joe’s Balsamic Glaze before I start stewing some up from vinegar. If TJ’s had released a Pomegranate Vinegar Glaze instead of a straight vinegar I might be singing a different song right now, as it is – this is a fine, well made vinegar, it just has an incredible narrow focus of use.
Would I Recommend It: Not unless you’re eating a lot of artisnal cheese or like to simmer your own glazes.
Would I Buy It Again: One bottle should about do me.
Final Synopsis: An intensely strong, pomegranate-infused vinegar perfect for making a glaze and maybe like one other thing.
Let’s keep it up with the balsamic vinegar, yeah? Today we’re going to look at Trader Joe’s Balsamic Glaze.
Now a glaze is an interesting thig to buy – one of those intriguing grocery product outliers, like bouillon cubes or cloves – that you only by once every 3 years or so and which seems to be manufactured exclusively by tiny, unknown companies with names like “Winslow’s” or “Classic Star”.
Let me say, up front, that this is a pretty good product. Glaze is a weird accessory to food – only lending itself to a few dishes – and I’ll admit that this glaze has vexed me in my efforts to incorporate it into my meals. It’s certainly not something you’re going to use every day, but it does have a multi-year shelf life so that’s not a big problem. Trader Joe’s Balsamic Glaze is a mixture of a thick, natural grape syrup (called grape must) and balsamic vinegar, and it tastes exactly like what you’d expect a vinegar infused grape syrup would taste like. It has a sweet, strong tang that pairs nicely with pork medallions or roast beef, or as a side sauce with Italian-herbed potatoes. There’s no sugar added to the glaze, but don’t underestimate the sweetness – the grape must, being the concentrated remains of crushed grapes, is 10-15% glucose by weight. That said, the balsamic vinegar is strong enough that it makes up the primary taste. This one will zing your tongue before it soothes it. I’m not going to ladle the praise on too liberally here though. A sweet, vinegary syrup is a bold new taste but not necessarily one everybody is going to flip over. I dip into this bottle twice a month or so and have always left satisfied but never blown away.
What intrigues me more than the taste is the weird marketing shenanigans Trader Joe’s has gotten up to with this product. This is sold on the Trader Giotto’s label, it also proudly touts the fact that it’s not just “Made in Italy” but even a “product of Modena” made with “traditional methods”.
Let’s take a look at what they’re insinuating.
Balsamic vinegar, true balsamic vinegar – Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena – is essentially refined grape must, aged for a decade in special casks within the town of Modena, Italy. This is a designation protected by international law to prevent cheap knockoffs. True balsamic vinegar sells for around $100 an ounce, and is justly craved by the well-to-do trendy gourmet set.
On the other hand, Aceto Balsamico di Modena (no “tradizionale”) is an inexpensive, commercially produced imitation of true balsamic vinegar, which is to say it’s the only type you or I have every had. This balsamic vinegar is really just a mixture of ordinary vinegar with food coloring, some caramel and bit of thickening agent. A dollar a gallon, in other words.
If Trader Joe’s were the hardcore mofo’s they want us to think they are we would be discussing the former right now. In reality, of course, this glaze is made with the latter. What I don’t understand is why they’re bothering with the antics here. We’re not idiots, TJ, we’re not going to think you’ve somehow figured out a way to package super-expensive, authentic balsamic vinegar into a plastic squeeze bottle at $2.99 a pop. Why bother with the misleading language? Made with “traditional methods”? Really? You mean the method of mixing food coloring and ordinary wine vinegar, just like they did in the middle ages?
It’s a sad fact that we live in a time where the shape of our daily life has predominantly been decided by marketers trying to make a buck. Every man-made thing we come into contact with, from our cradles to our coffins, have passed through the hands of a marketer at some point. I’m aware of this, it’s the way of the world, but I sometimes like to fool myself into thinking that maybe there’s a corporation out there that could change things, that maybe there’s a CEO who values genuine human interaction over a forklift full of money. Trader Joe’s does a better job than most at coming across as sincere, so moments like this are important reminders that in this day and age, faking sincerity is just one more way to get that dollar out of your pocket.
Would I Recommend It: If you have use for a sweet, vinegar glaze this is a good bet.
Would I Buy It Again: One is enough, thanks.
Final Synopsis: A sweet, tangy glaze that promises more than it can deliver.
I should develop a special Star of Excellence to award for the best products at Trader Joe’s. I won’t because, you know, eh – life, but if I did I would not hesitate to award it to Trader Joe’s Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Chicken.
How did they do this?! It’s astounding – there it is, a big hunk of cold chicken sitting in a little cheap, plastic bin sealed by a flimsy bit of plastic, basting in a dubious looking dark fluid, packaged with an actual twig, sitting in the refrigerated section between shapeless strips of sliced turkey and uninspiring lasagnas. How could this thing, this ordinary thing, be very good? Maybe it could be not bad, maybe it could even be decent, but there’s no way it’s going to be exceptional, right?
Goddamit people! This is what I’m tell you – it is exceptional. I don’t know how the mighty food wizards at TJ’s did it again, but they did it again. They took a cheap chunk of sub $5.00 chicken, the same thing you’ve been sold a 1,000 literal times – at grocery stores, in restuarants, in fast food bags, frozen, grilled, broiled, boiled, cubed, chopped and pathetically garnished in a myriad ways. An no one has ever done it right. No one has cared enough to do it right. No CEO has ever thundered, “You know that chicken with the low profit margin, the one people will buy regardless? I want you to work around the clock until it is goddamn delicious!”
TJ is smashing through this wall of mediocre chicken with his own two bare fists, showering the promised land beyond with wobbly breasts. “NOOOOO MOOOOOORE!” he screams, hurling his besprigged packages to the benighted populous. “HAVE GOOOOOOD CHIIIIIIIIICKEN!”
Look, let’s really get into this.
This chicken, a hefty 12 oz breast, is redolent of fragrant rosemary and lightly infused with the delicious tang of a balsamic vinegar marinade. The basic nature of it’s ingredients only serves to magnifies Trader Joe’s own glory and to further rebuke everyone else in the world. This is an easy recipe guys! Everyone could be doing this!
Balsamic vinegar and rosemary have a long history of working together with chicken, and for good reason. Here they bring a nice, considered touch to the dish, balanced in every dimension – neither too acidic or too musty, too watery or too weak. The sauce is so good you’ll be tempted to lap it up after – and it makes the marinated chicken a taste sensation whether it’s eaten cold and dripping in it’s own juices, or hot and sweaty. Oh, and by the way, that twig in there? Well, as you probably guessed, that’s an actual spring of rosemary packaged in for good measure. The country-side notes of the rosemary sing along with the tasty tang of the balsamic in this very low fat, very healthy dish. Like Trader Joe’s Stuffed Red Peppers, I’m drawn back to it time and time again.
In other words, if you’re stuck in a bad chicken rut, you can’t go wrong with this chunk of clucker.
Would I Recommend It: Yeah, I like this one.
Would I Buy It Again: Weekly.
Final Synopsis: Proof that incredible eats can be found for under $5.00 in a cheap plastic tray.