Beets, man. I keep giving them a chance, and every time I do, they squander their opportunity. Our example today is Trader Joe’s Just Beets. I got suckered in this time the same way as every time. “Surely,” I thought, “they wouldn’t just sell you dehydrated beet slices if they weren’t secretly delicious, right?” It’s a lesson life first tried to teach me when I was at a restaurant that had a special “Jiffy Burger” on the menu – a hamburger slathered in peanut butter. “Surely,” I thought, “they wouldn’t just sell you a hamburger with peanut butter on it if it wasn’t secretly delicious, right?”
That hamburger wasn’t delicious, and neither are these beets. Admittedly, that’s just my opinion. If you already like beets, you’re probably going to like these.They are, as the bag says, just beets. In fact, the best thing I can personally say about these beets is that, with proper application of a dramatic pause, it’s fun the say the name.
“Do you want some of this?
“What is it?
“Trader Joe’s….Just beets!”
Is an example of the sort of conversation I’ve been having. Unsurprisingly, this has not proven to be an effective way to pitch the product.
What you’re signing up for is right there on the label… and in the ingredients… and inside the bag. Just beets. Dehydrated beets in fact. The product copy proudly touts that “97% of the water has been removed.” If only they could have kept on going and removed the beets as well.
To be fair, of all the beet products I’ve tried from Trader Joe’s, aside from the rather tasty the beet hummus, this is probably my favorite – if only because most of that ruinous beet flavor has been extracted from them. As in most dehydrated foods, the bold flavor of the fresh produce has been muted. That’s just an unavoidable part of the dehydrating process, and, in this case, a perk. However, the vivid deep purple coloration is still there, as is the signature beet aftertaste – that long lingering flavor of the earth that simply won’t leave you be.
In short, I hate beets and think they’re ruining the world – but hey, I’m prejudiced. With that in mind I reached out to a good friend to serve as a special guest taster. She spent time living in New England, and developed a taste for beets, turnips and all the other dire root vegetables of those dour, cloud-saddled states. She loved them flavorful beet chips – calling them, “awesome”. Not only are they still quite beet-y tasting, they’re cut thick enough that even after dehydration most of the chips were intact – perfect little burgundy circles that pack a strong, satisfying crunch. Even more, she loved them as an easy way to get at that distinctive beet flavor in an easy to manage and accessible way.
Assuming you like beets, the only other caveat I’d mention is the price. You’ll pay well for access to this delicious taste – $2.99 for a 1.3 oz bag. I know that dehydrated food tends to be expensive, but doesn’t that seem a little steep for what is, by their own admission, just beets?
If for some reason you’ve subscribed to a love of beets – a love I can only describe as sinister and Lovecraftian – then you’ll probably really enjoy Trader Joe’s Just Beets. You could probably go crazy and dip them in your beet hummus and wash it down with some TJ’s beet juice. Or if you’re sane, like me, then you’ll want to give them a wide berth.
If life gives you parsnips, you make parsnip chips. This is another Trader Joe’s product that, like Avacado’s Number Guacamole, I can’t help but feel existed as a clever name first, and only a product as an after thought. A rhyming snack food that uses an obscure vegetable? How could anyone at TJ’s say no to that? Certainly it’s what I’m always on the look out for.
|What it is:||“Potato” chips made from a different root vegetable.|
|Price:||$2.99 for a 5.2 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||Yes – sweet and crunchy.|
But if a product exists only to serve novelty, can it really be all that good? In this case, the answer is a surprising “Yes!”. Trader Joe’s Parsnip Chips are a wonderfully flavorful, surprisingly sweet, crunch alternative to run-of-the-mill potato chips. It’s a classic case of “Try it, you’ll like it.” But what exactly is a parsnip anyway?
In the wild, the parsnip looks, to the untrained eye, exactly like a big, white carrot. In fact, the parsnip is a close relative to the carrot. Originally native to Eurasia, the parsnip was imported to the Americas by early European settlers in the 1600’s. By the 1800’s, the root vegetable – firmly ensconced in three continents and with a long history of use that extends back to the Roman Empire – was basically forgotten, sidelined as modern agricultural and shipping practices replaced it with other vegetables on an industrial scale. Nowadays, the parsnip is really only encountered by most people in certain niche applications or as the basis of regional traditions.
While the parsnip may not be as popular today as it was in ages past, these parsnip chips make a good case for a comeback. You might not expect a colorless root vegetable to be sweet and flavorful, but these chips are exactly that. Inside the bag, the chips themselves are small, thin and brittle with a tendency to bunch up in clusters – definitely unsuited for dips, but good for general snacking. The frying process has made the parsnip slices curl and brown, more like a plantain chip than a potato chip. However, as soon as you take find that they pack an over-sized taste – long sweet and mellow, with a vaguely carrot-y aftertaste.
I’ve written before about the surprising sweetness of carrots – well it turns out that parsnips are naturally sweeter than even its own close cousin. In fact, in ancient times, before sugar canes or sugar beets were grown, it was parsnips that were used to sweeten meals. It’s this sweetness that is the most notable feature of the parsnip chip, but a very mild sort of sweetness that satisfies without overloading you on sugar. That sweetness, combined with the nuanced, earthy, root vegetable taste, is a real delight.
I was expecting something dry and bland from these chips, but instead I found a wonderful substitution for other “naturally sweet” type chips – in fact I liked these parsnip chip so much better than, for instance, the sweet potato chips you find around. However these chips are far from a healthy alternative – due to the fact that these parsnips have been fried up in a serious amount of oil. With a rather surprising 12 grams of fat per 12 chip serving, these are some very oily chips. Expect some greasy fingers after polishing off a bag.
To my taste, I found these parsnip chips more than just a novelty. For a list of ingredients that is nothing more than “parnsips, oil, salt” I was completely surprised by the fullness of flavor – a world away from the one note starchiness of potato chips. If they were healthier I’d be eating them all the time. As it is, I’ll enjoy picking them up a few times a year for an interesting snack that has stands out from a pack of monochrome competitors.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes – these are worth a taste.
Would I Buy Them Again: Not often, but I will.
Final Synopsis: A completely different sort of “potato” chip.
As I mentioned in my last post and as is, I suppose, self-evident, I’ve returned from my indefinite hiatus to write – you know –some more stuff about food or whatever.
|What it is:||Sweet and tangy bacon spread.|
|Price:||$4.49 for a 8.5 oz jar|
|Worth it:||Yes – if you like new flavors.|
It may have been the dried whole baby bananas that stuck with me during my time away, but it was the numerous encouraging voices that checked in with my blog of out genuine concern that spurred me back into action. Well, that and one other thing – Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam.
There are some challenges that simply must be risen to. By releasing Bacon Jam TJ’s was practically daring me to return to blogging. After all, who else could possibly write off-beat, off-the-cuff, man-on-the-ground style articles with just a dash of snark? Who else, other than the numerous other Trader Joe’s review blogs, some of which directly rip-off my website design? Obviously the world needed me.
When I see products like Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam, I can’t help but think that there’s someone, somewhere in the high echelons of TJ’s who is compelled by a Joker-style urge to unmake the order of the world. Only instead of throwing bombs, his tool is novel food products – and he wields that tool like a hammer against the glassine walls of reality. If you wanted to break down the shared consensus of what is logical and what is madness, you could do worse than mass producing products like Trader Joe’s pumpkin-spiced pumpkin seeds, pickle popcorn, dehydrated kimchi, etc.
Add to that list Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam. If I assigned myself the task of thinking up the most outlandish, bacon-food mashup up, I could work for hours (Bacon Candy? Bacon Beer? Bacon Pie?) and never have come to Bacon Jam. Incidentally, all the other things I came up with are actual, real products as well.
Of course, the same could have been said about cookie butter, and look where cookie butter is now, – ascended to Olympus to bathe us all in its warm, loving gaze. To be clear, Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam is nowhere near the same caliber of delicious as cookie butter, but a sort of strange parallel does present itself. Cookie butter…bacon jam… we may have to face the very real possibility that Trader Joe’s ideal target demographic is late career Elvis. It’s now easier than ever for me to take two slices of bread and with a few easy moves make an unholy cookie butter and bacon jam sandwich. Deep fry that and throw on a white sequined suit and you’re ready to die mysteriously on a toilet!
Actually the most surprising thing about bacon jam is that it isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s a surprisingly edible and spreadable condiment. From the name you might expect it to be quite sweet, and while it certainly contains some sugar, this isn’t a pork version of Smuckers. Instead, it’s a vinegary and tangy spread with a mellow, apple-y sweetness. It immediately reminded me of that classic American recipe, green beans and bacon (or the similar recipe for spinach and bacon salad). This bacon “jam” has that same baked-in-vinegar taste that that the bacon dressings in those recipes have – it’s just as if all that dressing was gathered up and packed in a jar for your convenience.
The result is as sort of quasi-congealed, spreadable bacon condiment that can add that meaty, zingy sort of taste to… well, whatever you want to put it on, I guess. What that is, exactly, is up to you. Trader Joe’s makes the half-hearted suggestions of using it on burgers, BLTs and pizzas, although none of those struck me as killer app (-itizer…ha.) Like some of Trader Joe’s other novel food creations, it might make an interesting addition to the cabinet, but fails to scratch any real itch.
Would I Recommend It: Yes to the adventerous, no to the staid.
Would I Buy It Again: I can’t think of a reason to.
Final Synopsis: Tangy, vinegary bacon spread. Not bad, but not really essential.
Trader Joe’s annual Pumpkin Madness in October is always my favorite time of the year, if just for the sheer thrill of seeing which products Joe decides to green light – but I also love it because once those gates are thrown open they stay open for the rest of the year. With the pumpkin products receding into the distance behind us, we now find ourselves fording the wild rapids of Holiday product season.
|What it is:||Gyoza filled with seafood paste.|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 7.6 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||No. There are tastier potstickers out there.|
We don’t usually see anything quite as crazy as we do in October over the holidays, but Trader Joe’s still manages to slip one or two out there products in when no one is looking – like chocolate milk mixed with wine.
What surprised me most, as I was perusing the aisles, was this extremely unusual holiday (???) offering – Trader Joe’ Seafood Sriracha Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab.
Seafood potstickers don’t generally scream “Christmas”, but hat hasn’t stopped TJ’s from wrapping these dumplings up in red and green dough. Let the festive, merry colors of crimson red and evergreen greet you in this mixed meat, Asian-style, seafood dumpling. It’s a weird choice, sure, but there’s no denying they’ll fit right in at the annual Christmas potluck. The rest of the year, assuming these stay around the rest of the year, I guess they’ll just be weirdly out of place.
These potstickers are very similar to Trader Joe’s many other gyoza offerings – namely they are cheap, tasty and easy to cook. Despite the difference in color, each dumpling is filled with same filling – a combination of shrimp, crab, mung bean noodles, and water chestnuts. These flavors all blend into each other, however, so don’t go expecting big, tasty pieces of either crab or shrimp. Instead, the ingredients have been blended into a uniform paste that has been pumped into each casing. This makes these gyoza much less substantial than their pork and chicken brothern, and gives them a consistency much closer to a classic, mashed potato filled potsticker. Presumably, that’s why they left “gyoza” off the label and went with “potsticker” – although it makes the choice to call the whole-wheat and squash version “gyoza” even more bizarre.
In any case, if you don’t mind the soft texture, and weird coloration, these potstickers are reasonably tasty and a welcome return to form over the dreaded wholewheat version debuted last month. The inclusion of some sriracha spice in the filling is a nice touch, although TJ’s is careful to keep the heat in the mild range band. If you want to spice these up, you’ll want to bring some TJ’s Sriracha hot sauce or cilantro Green Dragon hot sauce – or even a nice chili sauce of your own.
Personally, I thought these were fine, but nothing to write home about. The seafood doesn’t really standout in the prepared product, and without that it’s just a sort of mildly, inoffensive dumping. Trader Joe’s has a LOT of gyoza varieties to choose among nowadays, from the mundane to the adventerous. Once you get past the eye-catching colors, there isn’t anything to set these potstickers ahead of the pack.
Would I Recommend Them: Not really. They’re fine, but there are better gyoza on the shelf.
Would I Buy Them Again: No, I prefer the chicken and pork versions.
Final Synopsis: A good appetizer for a holiday-themed party, but not much more.
Just a quick post today to talk about Trader Joe’s Sriracha Potato Chips. After really bringing down the hammer about Trader Joe’s underwhelming Ghost Pepper Potato Chips, I was surprised to see that they immediately doubled down and released another spicy potato chip.
|What it is:||Mildly spicy, tangy potato chips.|
|Price:||$2.29 for an 8 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||Yes, these are great to snack on.|
Obviously that raised too many questions to avoid picking it up. Would this chip actually be spicy? Even if it wasn’t, would it still be spicier than the Ghost Pepper chip? Would it capture Trader Joe’s uniquely tangy take on Srircha sauce?
The answer to all these questions is a firm yes. While I can think of a dozen brands off the top of my head that are much spicier than these, they are at least spicy enough to actually make it into the “Spicy” category – even if it’s only under the heading for “Mild”.
These chips actually manage to be a little spicier than their disappointingly mild Ghost Pepper brethren, and they do so delightfully – replicating the full, zippy flavor profile of Trader Joe’s Sriracha Hot Sauce. While that hot sauce is far milder than the more widely known Hoy Fong Rooster Sauce, it makes up for it by actually being flavorful – a tasty, vinegary-blend of all sorts of spices. That same flavor is replicated in miniature on these chips, making them a pleasure to munch on. That’s much better than the dull exercise that eating the Ghost Pepper chips ended up being.
In fact, that vinegary, spicy side of the sriracha sauce makes these chips taste more like a hybrid between Salt & Vinegar chips and Jalapeno chips than a simple spicy chip – something I’ve never had before.
The better flavor of these chips also helped me to appreciate the great waffle-cut texture of these kettle-baked chips. Thick, crispy and big, these chips stay crunchy and hold up in dips remarkably well – certainly far better than your run-of-the-mill Lays would.
That, plus the fact that they aren’t saddled with trying to fill impossibly large shoes (as was the case with the ghost pepper chips) made them pretty damn enjoyable.
Looking at these Sriracha chips alongside the Ghost Pepper chips actually made me wonder if this isn’t all some marketing scheme gone wrong. Is it possible that the “Ghost Pepper” chips were simply supposed to be the “Plain” variety of potato chip – laying the ground work for more interesting flavors, like this Srircha variety. Did the marketers find themselves struggling with a mental block, unable to conjure up a tasty sounding way to pitch bland, barely spicy chips? Did they panic? Was the product rushed out, some executive making the decision to stick “Ghost Pepper” on the label, hoping all would be forgiven when the more flavorful varieties were rolled out?
Extremely likely – in this blogger’s opinion. Watch out, you shadowy figures of the Trader Joe’s Marketing Department…I’m on to you.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, they’re good if you’re looking for something not too spicy.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes – these are some of my favorite chips I’ve had at TJ’s.
Final Synopsis: Crispy potato chips that faithfully capture the tang of Trader Joe’s Sriracha sauce.
As you may have noticed from my unofficial first post last week – Pumpkin Season has returned again to Trader Joe’s! Today, we really get right into the swing of things with Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Panettone – a pumpkin-spiced, pumpkin-cream filled, Italian desert bread stuffed with candied pumpkin.
|What it is:||A bready cake made with candied pumpkin.|
|Price:||$5.99 for a 26.5 oz cake.|
|Worth it:||No – not as good as regular panettone.|
Yes, as you can tell from the last sentence the annual pumpkin madness has fallen upon us again – the most exciting and, occasionally, harrowing time of the year. There’s no telling what fresh chimeras or monstrous hybrids the Trader Joe’s food scientists have cooked up in their labs, secreted far from judging eyes in the protective, pumpkin-scented bedrock of TJ’s Monrovia headquarters.
The season of Pumpkin Madness at Trader Joe’s is a time to mentally prepare yourself before you go shopping – there’s no knowing what what miracle or nightmare may be lurking around every corner – from the heavenly delights of Trader Joe’s pumpkin-glazed, pumpkin cinnamon rolls, to the terrors of Trader Joe’s Non-Fat Pumpkin Greek Yogurt, to the mind-wrenching bafflement of Trader Joe’s pumpkin spiced pumpkin seeds and Pumpkin Joe-Joe’s.
Where does Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Panettone fall in this pumpkin spectrum? That depends in large part how you feel about panettone in general.
As you may or may not know, panettone (pronounced, approximately: “pa-nuh-toe-ni”) is a traditional Italian Christmas “cake”. I put cake in quotes here, because even though it’s generally referred to as such, panettone is much airier and “bread-ier” than the more common sort of American cakes. Like fruitcake, panettone is more of a concept than a set recipe, and is made as many different ways as there are people who make it. Nevertheless, all panettone are linked by a couple universal factors – they’re laced with dried or candied fruit, dabs of marscapone cream, and are always airy and bready.
Trader Joe’s does carry regular panettone around the holidays, so they know how they’re made. This year it seems they couldn’t contain their excitement for the sweet bread any longer, and decided to bring us a unique, pumpkin-based version. Instead of candied citrus and raisins, there’s candied pumpkin. Instead of marscapone cream there’s pumpkin-flavored cream. There’s even dried pumpkin powder worked into the dough. With that much pumpkin, you might expect the cake to be a double-fisted pumpkin punch to the jaw. Instead, it hardly tastes like pumpkin at all. All you’ll really taste is the traditional, bready panettone cake, and the sugary sweetness of the cream and sugar. The actual pumpkin bits – as numerous as they are, have been denatured of their natural pumpkin flavor. At best, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice a very, very subtle pumpkin aftertaste and that’s it.
The overall effect is somewhat bizarre. It’s like having a glimpse into some alternate universe where the twisted occupants make panettone for Halloween instead of Christmas. In fact, this is probably what Trader Joe’s has in mind for this product. Each Pumpkin Panettone comes packaged in a very nice looking gift box, including a pretty little ribbon handle – perfect for a little host/hostess gift.
In terms of a nice looking gift, you could do worse. Show up with a Pumpkin Panettone and a bottle of wine to the seasonal autumn party of your choice and you’ll look quite dashing. Just don’t wait around the buffet table fishing for compliments – this panettone is likely to impress visually, but the taste is more likely to leave people scratching their heads than going back for seconds.
If you like Christmas panettone you are likely to enjoy this – the pumpkin hardly makes an appearance, and the sweet bread aspect is dominant. If you’ve never much enjoyed panettone, or if you’re looking for something heavy on the pumpkin, you should pass this up.
Alternatively, I would highly recommend punching it. The high, domed form of the panettone, combined with the soft and airy interior, make it an absolute delight to deliver a devastating front punch to. If you buy a Pumpkin Panettone, and you don’t like it, I’d definitely suggest winding up and letting one fly directly at the top of the dome before taking it back to TJ’s for a refund.
Would I Recommend It: Not really – unless you like panettone that doesn’t taste like pumpkin.
Would I Buy It Again: No thanks.
Final Synopsis: Very satisfying to punch.
Look, I have to hand it to the product naming team at Trader Joe’s. Sure, in the past I’ve excoriated them over inconsistent and even nonsensical naming schemes. I may have lambasted them for giving products unpronoucable French names, but when it comes down to it, they’re basically geniuses and I love them.
|What it is:||Sweet pumpkin filling in a cereal bar|
|Price:||$1.99 for a box of 6.|
|Worth it:||Yes, if you like a sweet breakfast.|
I love Avacado’s Number Guacamole, I love their Carrots of Many Colors, I even like their Popcorn in a Pickle. It’s crazy, but what can I say. I like it when they get a little crazy. However, of all TJ’s product names the one I’ve somehow avoided talking about until now is Trader Joe’s “This Pumpkin Walks Into A Bar…”- one of the proud members of the ridiculous family of “This Fruit Walks Into A Bar…” cereal bars. It takes a bold unwavering vision to end a product name with an ellipses. “Just sort of trailing off without finishing your thought – that’s what customer’s respond to! Release a dozen varieties and keep ’em coming!”
In addition to the Pumpkin version we’re looking at today, Trader Joe’s also offers “This Apple Walks Into A Bar…” “This Strawberry Walks Into a Bar…”, “This Fig Walks Into A Bar…”, the list goes on… You certainly can’t accuse TJ’s of not committing to the gag – even if it makes scanning their breakfast aisle feel like flipping through a joke book.
All of these cereal bars offer basically the same thing, a strip of fruit puree surrounded by a wheat bran sheath. It’s a familiar set up for anyone who’s ever had a Nutrigrain bar, or one of the other many “cereal bar” versions on the market. The big difference is that Trader Joe’s brand cereal bars proudly boast they that they contain no synthetic colors, perservatives or hydrogenated oils. In addition, Trader Joe’s has blended an elixir of vitamins into the fruit filling which contains 6 different B vitamins and, oddly enough, selenium.
Selenium, which Trader Joe’s highlights on several parts of the box, is an essential trace mineral linked to various vital functions. Just one bar contains 50% of your daily selenium value. Most people get enough of this in the typical balanced diet – but if you’re worried you’re selenium levels might be low, hey, chow down.
As far as the taste goes, these are pretty ordinary fare. The bready casing is dry and crumbly, and the filling is sugary sweet with fruits flavor underneath. To TJ’s credit the first ingredient listed is actually “pumpkin filling”, less impressive is that fact that this pumpkin filling lists rice syrup, cane syrup and apple powder above the actual pumpkin.
It’s definitely the syrup you taste most, with the sugar levels pushing my tolerance for a breakfast food. Think “concentrated poptart filling”, and you’re about in the area. If you’re looking for an intense sugar lift to get you started in the morning these would do the trick (and be sure to please the kids), just watch out for the imminent sugar crash waiting around the corner. There are 15 grams of sugar per 37 gram bar, but it tastes like more.
Eaten straight from the box, I didn’t find these a satisfying breakfast addition – and eating more than one in a sitting left me filling sugared out. They fared much better after a few minutes in the toaster oven – crisping up slightly and filling the house with the warm smell of pumpkin pie. Tastier, but still super sweet and not particularly convenient if you’re using it as an on-the-go meal substitute.
Trader Joe’s cereal bars might fit the bill as a substitute pop tart, but if you’ve outgrown those sort of sweets it’ll leave you flat.
Would I Recommend It: Only to people who like a sugary breakfast.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I.
Final Synopsis: Sugary pumpkin filling in a Nutrigrain-like bar.