Every summer Trader Joe’s parades out a new selection of beverages with the goal of quenching your thirst. Sometimes these are legitimately quenching, like Trader Joe’s Coconut Water, and sometimes they’re just picking your pocket book, like Trader Joe’s Maple Water.
|What it is:||Green tea with a touch of mint.|
|Price:||$2.99 for a 64 oz. jug|
|Worth it:||Yes. Great tea at a good price.|
What makes something truly refreshing? I couldn’t tell you – but I can say that Trader Joe’s Moroccan Mint Tea definitely has *it*. A cool, quenching not-too-minty, subtly sweet green tea that is here just in time to beat back the summer heat. It might just be tea, but it’s tea done right.
What’s so good about it? This green tea is infused with both spearmint and peppermint, then sweetened with a touch of cane sugar. Unlike most mint teas, which tend to be overpoweringly minty, or cloyingly sweet, TJ’s Moroccan Mint Tea gets it just right. Take a big swig of this, and the first thing you’ll taste is… tea. The actual kettle-brewed flavor of a cool green tea. Notice the deep mellowness of it – not too astringent, certainly not sweet – just right. Only as you begin to take a gulp does the minty back show itself, enhancing the flavor of the tea and cooling the palette without overwhelming the natural flavor of the brew.
It’s a similar play with the cane sugar – just a hint has been added. Just enough to balance out the naturally bitter edge of tea, but not enough to make it a traditionally sweet drink.
Trader Joe’s attributes this tea to Moroccan, but this sort of sweetened mint tea is common throughout the Mediterranean regions – or anywhere that the sun gets too damn hot. If that sounds like where you live, you’ll definitely want to consider picking up at bottle.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – extremely refreshing!
Would I Buy It Again: Most certainly.
Final Synopsis: Perfectly balanced, wonderfully quenching tea.
Before I get into talking about Trader Joe’s Dried Baby Bananas, I should probably acknowledge by absence lo, these last 4 months. After posting twice a week, every week for the last 4 years, I just got tired. That, combined with a new ad revenue sharing model implemented by WordPress (“Thanks for the increased traffic – we’d like to start paying you half as much.”) meant that a short Christmas hiatus turned into a long-term indefinite hiatus.
|What it is:||Super tasty, tiny, dried bananas.|
|Price:||$1.99 for a 6 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||More than worth it.|
And honestly, that indefinite hiatus would probably still be going on if it wasn’t for two factors – first, Trader Joe’s started all but taunting me with some of the stuff they’ve been stocking, but more importantly, I received some very touching, very concerned e-mails from fans of the blog. I certainly wasn’t expecting that – and it simply melted my heart. Sure, I could get by without the blog, but how could I deny you, the reader, of my rambling, unprofessional, knee-jerk screeds? That’s what really kept me up at night.
So anyway, I’m back. I’ll be making a couple tweaks in the weeks to come – in particular I’ll be posting only once a week going forward, and maybe making some changes to the format, but really when Trader Joe’s comes out with whole baby bananas, dried into tiny, chewy brown fingers, the time has come again to weigh in.
These whole, dried bananas showed up a couple months ago, but I simply can’t get them off my mind. When it comes to dried fruit, I tend to think that there aren’t any real advances to be made in the field since, say, the Babylonians. It’s dried fruit – once they figured out you could dry fruit for storage it probably took them all of an afternoon to explore every available option. You wanna put apple slices in there? Sure, why not. Apricots? Orange slices? Mango? Pretty straight forward stuff. Maybe someone remembered to try persimmons a day or two later. This is low tech, elemental stuff.
So why have I never before in my life seen whole dehydrated bananas? It’s certainly not because they’re not delicious, because these dehydrated baby bananas are the very definition of nature’s candy. Starting with whole baby bananas out of Thailand, Trader Joe’s simply dries them until they wrinkle up into desiccated, little brown fingerlings – a few inches long, and about half an inch wide. The sugar in the banana concentrates down as the bananas shrink, resulting in that mild, mellow banana sweetness and taste, only sweeter and stronger. Think jelly belly compared to jelly bean – more flavor in a smaller package.
The resulting texture is still soft, but also vaguely leathery and chewy – making them extremely enjoyable to snack on. This, combined with the wrinkled, flaccid, tanned appearance is perhaps a bit off putting. I’ll admit that the notion that this must be a little bit what munching on a mummy’s fingers would be like did flash through my brain on more than one occasion while eating these – however they’re so tasty and snackable that they easily overcome any reservations about texture or appearance.
Trader Joe’s suggests that these make an excellent snack for “little hands and large hands alike”, which only reinforces the whole “I’m eating fingers” thing, but still makes a good point. You may only get about 20 of these baby dried bananas per 6 oz. bag, but they satisfy so well, and are so cheap, that they should last a a whole carful of munchkins, or an office of inquisitive co-workers.
Final Synopsis: Delicious, tiny, dried bananas – nature’s answer to the fun-sized candy bar.
Would I Recommend Them: Absolutley.
Would I Buy Them Again: I already have.
Fresh madness, straight from the howling bowels of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Innovation Labs (TJPIL), but oh, what sweet madness this is.
Take a quick poll of your friends and co-workers and ask them to name a spice they naturally associate with pumpkin. Ginger? Did they say ginger? Probably not – not unless they’re in the habit of whipping up their own pumpkin pie spice from scratch. Despite the seeming disconnect between pumpkin and ginger, it does make a subtle appearance as a traditional pumpkin pie spice, along side cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar.
|What it is:||Small, pumpkin-ginger ice cream sandwiches.|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 12 tiny sandwiches|
|Worth it:||Yes. Pumpkin and ginger works, baby!|
For some reason, the TJPIL decided to pass right by those more likely ice cream companions and go straight for the ginger. And you know what – I’m delighted that they did. Trader Joe’s Mini Ginger Pumpkin Ice Cream Mouthfuls are exactly right – a perfect balance of sweet pumpkin ice cream with a dash of tingling ginger, sandwiched between two soft, ginger cookies.
I think we can all agree that it’s hard to screw up an ice cream sandwich as it is. Cookies are great, ice cream is great – putting the two together is pretty much going to be a grand slam. And yet, TJ’s mini ice cream mouthfuls go above and beyond. This seasonal ginger pumpkin variety is a fall addition to their mini ice cream sandwich line, which already includes a mint ice cream version for the summer. All of the varieties show the same attention to creamy delicious detail.
Miniaturizing ice cream sandwiches down to finger food form is actually a bit of a brilliant idea. Often times the “worst” part of an ice cream sandwich (“worst” here, in the sense of the “worst” part of winning the lottery, or the “worst” part of all your wildest dreams coming true) are the bits where they cookie is too thick and dry, the ice cream to far away. With these mini ice cream mouthfuls, you never find yourself in such a predicament. Like the inverse of Trader Joe’s Mini Pumpkin Pies, or Chicken Pot Pie Bites, you actually get less crust and more filling.
Speaking of that filling – Trader Joe’s uses they’re usual, delicious pumpkin ice cream. If you haven’t had it, rest assured that it tastes far more like sweet and creamy than pumpkiny. On the other hand, there’s plenty of ginger in these frosty bites. If pumpkin puts you off, you might well still enjoy these. If ginger puts you off, however, you’ll probably want to give the a pass.
As for me, I couldn’t get enough of these. Each box holds a dozen of the little bites, but I could have eaten twice as many and not been satisfied. Ginger and pumpkin ice cream – who knew they’d work so well together?
Would I Buy Them Again: Sure, if I could trust myself around them.
Would I Recommend Them: Absolutely, very tasty.
Final Synopsis: Tiny ginger and pumpkin ice cream sandwiches that taste even better than they sound.
Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Madness continues, and we really have something unusual for you today.
“But surely it couldn’t be more unusual than the Pumpkin Panettone we read about in the last post?”, I hear you asking, glancing at each other in puzzled concern.
|What it is:||Very salty, heavily spiced caramels|
|Price:||$4.99 for a 6.2 oz box.|
|Worth it:||Yes – if just for the unusual experience|
The thing is – while Trader Joe’s pumpkin-filled panettone is clearly the product of a mind deranged by over-consideration of gourds, it is still a product easily recognizable and identifiable. Trader Joe’s Dark Choclate Pumpkin-Spice Sated Caramels, on the other hand, have no analog on this planet Earth.
They certainly sound ordinary enough – salted caramels, sure those are delicious, dark chocolate, why not, and of course pumpkin-spice, because this is October and we can’t control ourselves.
Yes the combination of these three components results in a truly intense and wholly new sort of taste completely unlike most chocolate bonbons I’ve experienced – a taste that is nearly savory, rather than sweet.
The issue is that while “dark chocolate”, “pumpkin spice” and “salted caramel” sound good together on a box, they don’t really mingle with each other harmoniously on the tongue. Eating one of these is a little like wearing black-and-white checkerboard shorts with a plaid shirt. They components clash in bold and unusual ways.
Let’s start with the salt. A little salt goes a long way, regardless of what you’re cooking, and doubly so when it comes to candy. When I tried Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles, I was really impressed with the elegance they showed with applying the salt – just a few grains place carefully on top. One glance on these caramels and it’s obvious that the same restraint was not shown. Each caramel is packed with a huge clump of vivid red Hawaiian sea salt. While I applaud the gorgeous color effect it has (and really, the presentation of the whole box couldn’t be classier), this is way too much salt. On first bite you’re immediately overwhelmed by a nearly painful burst of saltiness.
The very next flavor you’ll notice is the rich, dark chocolate. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but dark chocolate should never simply be used as a substitute for milk chocolate. Yes, it sounds classier, looks better, and people will pay more money for it – but it simply isn’t the sort of light confection that milk chocolate is. In this case, Trader Joe’s is only using 55% dark chocolate in the candy shell, but in context the bitterness really comes to fore. This semi-bitter dark chocolate collides with the intense salt, and immediately starts a violent war over your tastebuds.
This bitter/salty conflict is the start of the savory taste I was talking about above. What really drives it home, however, is the combination of “pumpkin-spices”. As we all know, “pumpkin-spice” is short-hand for a wide selection of strong spices used to turn pumpkin into something redolent and flavorful. In this case, TJ’s is using cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger, and no shortage of it.
Right as you bite into the caramel core, as you’re recovering from the wild ride of the outer shell, this combination of spices hits you so strongly that they nearly overpower the typical caramel sweetness. The result of all this is that for a moment, you might actually believe you’re biting in a slice of meat pie, or some other savory, salty, meaty treat.
Only after a few moments, when the initial barrage of taste sensations die down, do you finally get to taste the long, mellow finish of the caramel – punctuated here and there a few parting sallies from the salt.
On the back of the box, Trader Joe’s writes: “You think you’ll know what to expect, and yet, you’ll be pleasantly, pumpkinly surprised.” Surprised, certainly. Pleasantly is a matter of opinion. I will admit, after getting over the initial shock of the first few pieces, these caramels have started to grow on me. I’d hesitate to call them “good”, in the traditional sense of the word at least, but they are incredibly intriguing – a candy unlike anything else available in the store.
While these aren’t for everyone, if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to snack on and ruminate over, these are fascinating little morsels.
If you need a nice little hostess gift (and you don’t want to bother with a panettone), you might be tempted to pick up a box of these. The presentation is certainly up to the job – but realize that you’ll be giving them something more challenging than delicious.
Would I Recommend Them: Hesitantly, if I knew their palette well.
Would I Buy Them Again: I’m still trying to come to terms with the first box.
Final Synopsis: Extremely intense chocolates, with a nearly meaty taste.
Few things are more tempting and decadent than a thick and creamy dip – and the king of these is no doubt the Spinach Dip. There is no party or social gathering that can’t be improved by the addition of a good spinach dip. Rich, cool and savory, even a mediocre spinach dip can elevate a humble tortilla chip to heavenly levels.
|What it is:||Low calorie spinach dip|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 16 oz. tub|
|Worth it:||Yes. Healthier, and still tasty.|
Of course, as is usual for anything that tastes so good, spinach dip is terrible for you. Loaded with lethal levels of fat, spinach dip is the sort of condiment designed to test your willpower to the utmost. Perhaps just a nibble, you think, maybe just a chip or two… We all know where this leads – into the grasping, inescapable current of a spinach dip whirlpool.
Fortunately, Trader Joe’s has come to the rescue with their new Trader Joe’s Reduced-Guilt Spinach & Kale Greek Yogurt Dip – another entry in their line of “reduced-guilt” dips. We took a look at their reduced guilt chunky guacamole and reduced guilt chicken salad before. Both delivered uneven results. As is so often the case for “diet” foods, it’s easy to make a low-fat, low-cal food product, it’s just hard to make it taste any good. “Reduced-guilt” products walk a dangerous line. You have to sacrifice flavor in order to be healthy, but stray too far to one side or the other and you end up with something pointless and stupid. Healthy, but too bad tasting, and no one will eat it. Good tasting, but not particularly healthy, and you might as well just get the full calorie version.
In this case, Trader Joe’s manages to walk the tight-rope perfectly. This Spinach and Kale dip isn’t quite as delicious as the real thing, but it’s damn well close enough. A rich mixture of kale, spinach, water chestnuts, red peppers, carrots, green onions, garlic and even a little mayo create a colorful flavor pallete that makes a satisfying, full-bodied snack for crackers or chips.
Whenever you sub out sour cream for plain greek yogurt, as TJ’s has done here, you’re going to lose a little zip. That’s still the case here. After a big bite of this dip, you’ll notice it’s missing a little something on the tail end – a touch bland where it should be a touch zingy. That’s just the unavoidable cost of keeping the fat content under control. Fortunately, the blend of other vegetables and seasonings pep the dip up, compensating for this flatness fairly well.
And boy is that little bit of blandness worth it. Trader Joe’s normal spinach dip has 70 calories per serving, 60 of those from fat. This greek yogurt dip has less than half that per serving – 30 calories, 20 of those from fat.
All in all, that’s a pretty good trade off. No every “reduced guilt” product is worth it, but this dip is an exception to the rule.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, healthy and tasty!
Would I Buy It Again: Sure – this is a winner.
Final Synopsis: Low cal spinach dip worth the price.
Ever since they introduced their own brand of (rather delicious) sriracha sauce last year, Trader Joe’s has been actively working it into as many different products as possible. We’ve seen spicy sriracha ranch, sriracha BBQ sauce and, not to be overlooked, sweet sriracha glazed bacon jerky. These have been heady months.
What better time, then, to introduce a brand new form of hot sauce to the shelves – Trader Joe’s Green Dragon Hot Sauce – a bolder, hotter variation of their tasty sriracha.
|What it is:||A spicy, jalapeno-based hot sauce|
|Price:||$2.99 for an 18 oz. bottle|
|Worth it:||Yes, spicy and bold!|
I should note, just in passing, that this is a pattern that exactly follows what Trader Joe did with their amazing cookie butter. First, filling the shelves with as many cookie butter infused products as they could spin out (seriously, there’s a ton), then introducing a brand new member of the cookie butter family with their “Oreo” based cookie butter.
Although packaged in nearly identical bottles, and emblazoned with a similar dragon logo, there isn’t a lot of family resemblance between these two hot sauces. What’s different? For one, the green dragon looks a lot wussier than the rad red dragon – but more importantly the Green Dragon Hot Sauce dispenses with the flavorful, sweet tang of the red sriracha sauce in favor of a bolder, more herbaceous, and overall spicier taste.
The green color in the Green Dragon comes from replacing the ground chili peppers in the original sriracha sauce with a jalapeno and tomatillo pepper puree. You’ll find the same vinegar and garlic base in both, giving them that slightly acidic zing – however the new Green Dragon sauce also adds a strong dose of cilantro to the mix. This results in a very strong, earthy flavor that lingers long on the tongue.
The difference between these two sauces is almost like the difference between those famous, commonly related seasonings salt and pepper. The red sriracha sauce is more like salt – zippy, very flavorful and, for all intents and purposes, the more popular choice for putting on everything. On the other hand, the green pepper sauce is better for adding a more complex, heavier and spicier dimension to your food – and because there’s so much cilantro on board, a few dashes is probably all you need of it.
In fact, cilantro has such a strong presence in this hot sauce, that I’ve found that it makes it particularly suitable for spicing up Mexican dishes – tasty with eggs (ranchero-style or otherwise), tacos, burritos… the whole enchilada. Combined with the distinctive taste of jalapeno and tomatillo peppers, this sauce feels as Mexican as it does Thai.
Trying them both back to back, I can’t help but prefer the red sriracha sauce. It’s still my go to hot sauce from Trader Joe’s – improving on Hoy Fong Foods famous rooster sauce by sticking closer to the authentic Thai recipe. However, while it may not get as much use as the red sauce, the green dragon sauce is still a welcome tool to have on the spice rack.
Would I Recommend It: I would – there aren’t a lot of sauces out there like this right now.
Would I Buy It Again: This bottle should last me a while, but I might pick up another one in a year next year.
Final Synopsis: A bold, spicy hot sauce with plenty of jalapeno and cilantro.
Every now and then, after Trader Joe’s comes out with a particularly weird or goofy food product, I get to feeling a little bit superior to Trader Joe’s – sort of like they’re my wacky next-door neighbor.
|What it is:||A hummus like spread made from|
|Price:||$2.99 for a 8 oz. tub|
|Worth it:||Yes. A delicious hummus substitute.|
“Pickle-flavored popcorn, TJ?” I’ll think to myself, shaking my head, “You’re just lucky I love you so much, you big goof!”
And without exception, every time I start to feel this way, Trader Joe’s turns around and absolutely embarrases me with a product that is elegant, nuanced, and grounded in a rich culinary tradition that I’ve never even heard of.
“What d’ya got this week, TJ?” I ask, sauntering into the store, “Another wacky popcorn flavor?”
“Actually,” Trader Joe’s casually informs me, “This is muhammara – a middle eastern condiment similar to hummus but made from walnuts and pomegranate juice. A product of ancient Syria, of course. Ahahaha – no, don’t try and pronounce it, you’ll just make yourself look silly.”
Yes, today we’re reviewing Trader Joe’s Muhammara – a delicious, hummus-like spread with a cool, dark red color and a smooth, gently earthy, mildly piquant taste.
Unlike hummus, that can taste a bit grainy or mealy due to the garbanzo beans it’s made from, muhammara is a blend of walnuts, roast red peppers, pomegranate juice, olive oil and bread crumbs. While that sounds like it would result in a weirdly lumpy or heterogenous texture, it couldn’t be more smooth and velvety – perfect for veggie dip, cracker spread, or pita filling.
The taste itself has quite a bit of the mildness of a red pepper roasted to softness, and only a subtle touch of the nuttiness of walnuts, and even less of the tart pomegranate flavor you might expect. In fact, muhammara is generally made with pomegranate molasses, much more similar to the pomegranate syrup we made up than mouth puckering pomegranate juice. As such, the muhammara also has an understated touch of sweetness to it that makes go down particularly smoothly.
Despite never hearing of it before, I enjoyed the hell out of my muhammara. It was good with pretty much whatever I tried it with, and made an excellent “before dinner” snack with just a handful of Triscuits I had at hand. I’ve always been a little bit ambivalent on hummus – which generally ears out it’s welcome with me after a few bites. Muhammara has all the qualities I like about hummus, the soft spreadable texture and cooling, snackable taste, with an added edibility and improved texture.
As you may have guessed from the walnuts and olive oil, muhammara shares hummus’ high fat content – but thta’s simply the nature of the beast. Buy a tub, enjoying it moderation, and you won’t regret it.
Would I Recommend It: If you like hummus, give this a try.
Would I Buy It Again: I do think so.
Final Synopsis: Just like hummus, but a little tastier.