I’m already on the record as being a huge fan of Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken frozen dinner – it’s the sort of cheap, yet easy to make, yet healthy, yet delicious meal that has you wondering why every frozen dinner can’t be this good.
|What it is:||A bean, mushroom and chicken stir fry (frozen) – 22 oz.|
|Worth it:||It’s tasty, if you don’t mind all the beans.|
So when I spied Trader Joe’s (or should I say Trader Ming’s) new Shiitake Mushroom Chicken I was over the moon – surely TJ’s would be able to deliver the same top-shelf cooking with this chicken and mushroom stir fry, right? Well… maybe not. While I found the Chinese chicken dish edible, it’s not nearly as satisfying as its illustrious forebearer.
The chicken and mushroom part is good enough (although we’ll get to them in a minute), it’s the unlabeled third ingredient that throws things off for me. For some reason TJ’s leaves “beans” off the label, even though soybeans (and green beans) make up the bulk of the dish. Of course, it’s understandable that you might not expect “Trader Joe’s Loads of Soybeans with Mushroom and Chicken” to sell quite as well – nevertheless that’s what you’re getting. Big and bright green, beans, beans, beans.
I’ve got nothing against soybeans, or edamame as we usually call them in Asian cooking. I think a dish of salted edamame makes a nice little appetizer, and I even enjoyed Trader Joe’s Edamame Hummus. However, I find edamame to be much more of a support vegetable. Harder, more mealy and less savory than more common western beans like black or pinto, I don’t ask soy beans to carry a dish, and I don’t expect them to. Yet that’s what you get here, with each forkful of chicken laden down with a handful of whole soy beans.
That’s a shame, because outside of the bean bonanza, the rest of the dish is basically on point. The soy-sauce marinated dark meat chicken is plentiful – and delicious – with the thick ginger soy sauce dressing included in the bag. Even better are the whole shiitake mushroom caps, which are as good as they are unorthodox.
Generally the mushrooms you get in Chinese food (or most prepared meals) tend to be chopped up or button-sized. Not so here – each big honking shiitake mushroom cap is larger than a pre-war silver dollar, and served whole. As cool as that is, it’s tempered by the fact that you also only get about five or six of them in the whole bag. This combined, with the bounty of soy beans, makes for a weirdly unbalanced meal – spoonfuls of edamame and chicken, punctuated by the occasional whole mouthful of mushroom. It’s a good thing, then, that the mushrooms taste so damn great. These shiitake mushrooms are absolutely bursting with an intensely earthy mushroom flavor, saturating each meaty bite with savory good times.
Overall, the feeling of the whole dish is sort of “Close, but try again.” All of the elements are just slightly out-of-whack with each other. If they took it back to the testing lab, cut down on the beans and added some more mushrooms, maybe halving or quartering them this time so you don’t have to, then they’d really have something. As it stands, there’s not just reason to get this dish instead of one of Trader Joe’s other, much better balanced, Chinese food offerings.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, with reservations. Jut make sure you’re okay with beans going in.
Would I Get It Again: I wouldn’t – I think I’ll go back to the Kungpao Chicken Instead
Final Synopsis: A bean-heavy take on a shiitake-chicken stirfry.
British Meat Pie Week continues with Trader Joe’s delicious (and heart-clogging) Chicken Balti Pies.
If you read the previous post on Trader Joe’s Steak and Ale Pies, you know more or less what to expect here – it’s the same flaky, buttery crust, only this time they’ve pumped it full of a savory, mildly spicy, chicken curry. The result is just as warm and hearty as the Steak and Ale pie, even more delicious, and even more chock-full of fat.
|What it is:||A hearty, British style pot-pie – with curry!|
|Worth it:||Yes…again, if you can spare the calories|
Rather than the ale-based steak stew in Trader Joe’s other British, meat-filled pastry Trader Joe’s has elected to fill this version with a particular form of tangy chicken curry known as “balti” (named after the the pot it was originally prepared in). Though still rich with chicken, potatoes and carrots, it’s notably less thick than TJ Steak and Ale variation. This is actually a good idea, as it lets the curry sauce speak for itself – and the curry sauce is pretty dang delicious.
The mildly spicy and richly flavored curry sauce hits all the right notes – with a nice tang and just a little bit of fire. It’s good enough that I wish I could buy it just by itself – maybe in one of Trader Joe’s pre-made Indian Fare meals, like with their Punjab eggplant. Of course, in this case the balti curry is already sealed within the same singularly tasty pastry crust used by the Steak and Ale Pie. This shares the same strengths of the Steak and Ale variety (crispy, light, flaky, etc) and the same weaknesses (made with whole sticks of butter).
Those calories from fat are still the big consideration here. The balti pies pack even more butter into the crust, if that were even possible, with 380 calories from fat, or 42 grams of fat per pie.
Like the Steak and Ale Pie before it, these Balti pies have a strong tradition in England where they are consumed by “football clubs” (whatever those are…) with a nearly ritualistic fervor. If you share the belief, as so many do, that British food is unpalatable, picking up either these or the Steak and Ale Pies might just be enough to make you forget about all the bubble-and-squeak, eel pies, mashed peas, Branston pickle, various blood-based puddings, and so forth. Just don’t think too hard about your diet while you’re eating them.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – better than pot-pie to be sure.
Would I Buy It Again: As soon as I stop carrying about my waistline.
Final Synopsis: Really good curry, in really good (really fatty) crust.
We’ve talked about Trader Joe’s reduced guilt offerings before. In fact, we talked about one earlier this week. As I mentioned then, the problem inherent in “low cal” versions of fattier food, is that they tend to negate themselves. In general, if I’m going to eat a creamy, sugary, salty brownie or whatever, I have steeled myself to the fact that I’m blowing my diet, if at least for the moment. But I’m willing to do it, because it tastes so damn good. Or I at least hope it tastes that good. The problem with our reduced guilt guacamole, or whatever, is that by taking out all the fat and sugar, you’re taking out all the stuff that makes it taste so good. The result is that I’m left sitting there, scooping watery psudeo-guac into my mouth, still getting fat, just not as quickly, but not enjoying myself nearly as much.
So almost always when I see the “diet” version of an otherwise unhealthy food I immediately assume I’m not going to enjoy myself. However, there is a tricky little bit of math here. On the graph of healthfulness vs. tastiness, every now and then there’s a diet food that manages to fall just on the right side of the curve. The “Inner Beans” snack we explored yesterday managed to do this (debatably). Can Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chicken Salad do the same?
To cut to the chase – no, it doesn’t. This new salad is a classic case of close, but not quite. And really, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Often times these “reduced guilt” formulations offer underwhelming health benefits like “15% less sodium!” or “Now only 72% fat by volume!”. Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chicken Salad swings for the fences, offering an insane reduction in both calories and fat. On the label it proudly states that this chicken salad has 85% less fat and 60% fewer calories than their regular chicken salad. An 85% reduction in fat and less than half the calories – from 19 grams of fat per serving to 2.5, and down 250 calories to 100. That’s insane. You’d think you’re getting a tub with about a teaspoon of chicken salad in it but nope, they’ve filled it all the way to the top.
How did they achieve this miracle? In this case, the answer is they took out all the mayonnaise and replaced it with low fat greek yogurt. It’s a bold, crazy move – and it doesn’t really pay off. While the calories might be reasonable, there’s not tang or zip to the salad. Instead it just tastes flat. The chicken is there, the chopped vegetables are there, but there isn’t much beyond that. The result is something that tastes like a chicken vegetable soup without enough salt in it.
For some people this is probably not a deal breaker. If you’re looking for an interesting cracker topping, or a healthy side to have with lunch this will fit the bill. For me,however, this chicken salad just isn’t quite interesting enough to justify future purchases.
Would I Recommend It: Yeah… I guess so. Healthy chicken salad is probably worth a nod.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I thought it was a little too mushy and boring.
Final Synopsis: A very low cal, if bland, chicken salad.
What is a popper? The jalapeno popper is a thing certainly. Is it a class of things? Is it so different that we can’t consider it simply to be an “appetizer”, an “hors d’ouever” or even a “bite”? What makes cheese-filled jalapenos deserving of the name, but not – say – bacon-wrapped water chestnuts? Sadly, this is beyond the scope of our article today. Suffice to say that if the only requirement to be a popper is that you enjoy popping them in your mouth, then Trader Joe’s Southwest Jalapeno Poppers most definitely fit the bill.
Trader Joe’s has developed for us this tasty new appetizer to grace our plates at sporting events, birthday parties, themed get-togethers, or generally anytime you want people to come over and eat up all your food.
The southwestern popper is a combination of white chicken meat, roasted corn, black beans, diced jalapenos, spinach and jack cheese all rolled up and melted together a meatball-sized glob of mini-Mexican dinner. This glob is more or less held together by a coating of red white and blue tortilla chip crumbs because hey, why not, Trader Joe’s probably has a ton of left over tortilla bits from their bags of Red White and Blue Tortilla chips.
The result of all this are some really good, bite-sized, finger food appetizers that will be eaten up as soon as you set them out. Each popper is, essentially, just one-mouthful of chicken burrito – an idea so simple that it’s shocking Taco Bell hasn’t been doing it for years. It’s all the classic Mexican food ingredients you love (meat, cheese, beans, et al), but instead of bothering to wrap them up they’ve just been left at the bite-size level – perfect for picking up ‘twixt thumb and forefinger and, dare I say it, popping.
If there’s anything not to like about Trader Joe’s Southwester Style Chicken Poppers it’s that they don’t really hold together well. Look at that picture on the box again – notice that there are no toothpicks sticking out of them. That’s because a toothpick would be about as helpful for picking these up off the plate as an acetylene torch would be for picking up marshmallows. The tortilla crumb coating just doesn’t bind the contents very well at all, and even after a good long bake in the oven these poppers are still given to falling apart at the end of a fork.
That means that poppers are really meant to be finger food – but for such a snackable morsel, that’s not really a big problem. Just be sure to buy a couple boxes if you plan on entertaining – they’ll go fast.
Would I Recommend Them: Yup, these appetizers are both filling and tasty.
Would I Buy Them Again: I might set some out for the Super Bowl party.
Final Synopsis: Bite-sized burrito balls, minus the wrap.
Trader Joe’s can be obtuse, playful, or even boastful with their product names – but Trader Joe’s masters the art of coq au vin is the first time they’ve gotten downright cocky with it. You’ve got to have a pretty big opinion of yourself to unironically declare that you’ve mastered any art. Add to that the affectation of the little ellipses, and they’re making quite the statement. In fact, that ellipses is quite the little touch. You might think, if you saw a title like that, that Trader Joe’s has a whole line of “Master’s the Art of…” products. As far as I can tell, however, this is the only Trader Joe’s Master’s the Art of…. product on the shelves. That, my friends, is worth double pretention points.
Of course, the difference between pretention and genius is whether you can deliver on your promises. So the question is – has TJ really managed to master this classic French dish.
Coq au vin is that all-time classic of French cuisine that everyone should know how to cook – and no one had ever heard of 50 years ago. An enduring rustic dish of the French countryside since time out of mind, coq au vin was unknown out of France until the advent of Julia Childs. Everyone’s favorite TV chef brought the dish with her when she returned from her time at Le Cordon Bleu, taking its straightforward, honest recipe and making it her signature dish.
Coq au vin is what it sounds like, cock served in a wine sauce. Of course, no one uses rooster any more, that being left to the poor farmer’s of yesteryear. Nowadays, the dish is made exclusively with chicken, which is stewed in a robust red wine with button mushrooms, pearl onions and perhaps fatty pork belly (lardon), garlic and some other vegetables. Originally the dish was meant as a simple way to tenderize the otherwise too tough to eat meat of an old rooster for a nice meal and it’s the simplicty of the dish that made it catch on in such a big way.
Trader Joe’s variation is faithful to the original imaginng of the dish. It comes frozen in a huge chunk of roux and chicken that can either be cooked on the stove, or microwaved to make the classic easy-to-cook dish even easier. After ten minutes in the microwave, it comes out piping hot in it’s little black tray – an island of chicken in a sea of bubbling sauce. While the presentation may not quite be there, the taste is. The chicken is tender, and gives way easily to the fork – surprisingly wonderful for frozen chicken. The sauce, is good as well, thick and loaded with vegetabels, and not short on the wine either. Although it’s a thick and savory sauce the crispness of the wine cuts through the heavier cloying taste of the sauce leaving the dish tasting lighter rather an heavier. TJ’s doesn’t skimp on the veggies, loading up the sauce with pearl onions and sliced mushroom.
Trader Joe’s must really love this sauce, because they include a ton of it – like their Chicken Piccata, the sauce outweighs the chicken at 2:1.
So is this mastery or coq au vin? Do they beat Julia Childs at her own game? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a good, quick meal, the chicken is tasty and the sauce is rich, but it also costs $7.00. For less than that price, Trader Joe’ s has a variety of other dishes that are just as good, or better. If you’re looking for a good chicken dish, you could try the Kung Pao or Cacciatore as easily as this and save a few bucks.
If you’re looking for an excellent coq au vin, my suggestion is pick up a copy of the Art of Cooking and go for it yourself.
Would I Recommend It: I guess so. It’s a little pricey for an average dish.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not.
Final Synopsis: A good coq au vin, but probably not better than you could do yourself.
There are a lot of Trader Joe’s salads to like, a a lot of different reasons to like them. Some, like the Bacon and Spinach Salad, are decadent tongue-pleasers. Some, like the Country Salad are a good hearty meal. Some, like the Quinoa and Squash Salad, are simply intriguingly different. But of all the Trader Joe’s salads I’ve had, Trader Joe’s Lemon Chicken salad has been the most purely refreshing.
I’m an avowed salad lover. It’s not unheard of, for instance, for me to eat 10 salads in a week. The issue I find facing me most often, the true concern of the salad lover, is in balancing heartiness with healthiness. It’s all too common to run into salads out there which load on the cheese and bacon and heavy cream dressings, and end up being and end up at a monstrous calorie levels. On the other hand, there’s also the issue of the super light, salad – a collection of lettuce leaves, free of any protein source, that cost $13 and contain 150 calories. Somewhere in the middle, and oh so rare, are the salads that balance a good meal with nutritious content. There are a rare handful of these kingly salads, even at Trader Joe’s, and this Lemon Chicken Salad is one of them.
Most of Trader Joe’s salads are simple and straight forward – here’s your bin of greens, here’s your dressing, go at it. Trader Joe’s Lemon Chicken Salad, on the other hand, plays it a little more subtle. It isn’t a salad so much, as it is a light entree built around a sub-salad – in this case a chicken salad.
We start out with a good portion of chicken salad, packaged in a small tub inside the salad itself. This is the cornerstone of the dish, and it successfully carries the day. Lean white chicken breast is zested up with lemon and a touch of black pepper and melded together with just enough mayonnaise. There are a lot of ways to screw up a supermarket chicken salad, but Trader Joe’s version is not just edible, but flavorful and delicious.
Added to the bed of seasonal greens (romaine, chard, argula, etc) and this would make for a fine, refreshing salad by itself – but things get taken up a notch with a welcome portion of crisp grapes and apples that provide fresh, sweet bursts of juicy flavor. This fruity sweetness is itself a perfect pairing with the citric zing of the lemon chicken and not only alternates flavors, but makes you think about how you’re eating the salad as you eat it. That’s not a big deal but it’s a nice touch.
Cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and, divinely, red onion, although not referenced in the title, all make appearances as well – bulking up the body of salad as well as laying the ground for a scattering of decadently sweet, candied walnuts. All of this is topped off with a light and zingy champagne vinaigrette that buoys the salad up and brings out the flavors of each part, a refreshing touch to the end of a refreshing meal.
At 400 calories per container, 18 grams of carbs, and 22 grams of lean protein it’s a tremendously well balanced salad as well – as healthy as it is filling. The nutritional profile, along with the variety and interactions of the many flavors, makes this one of the most enjoyable salads I’ve had form TJ’s – and a prefect option to turn to when the thought of heavier salads seems oppressive.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this salad strikes just the right balance between healthy and hearty.
Would I Buy It Again: Without a doubt, this is a good ol’ salad.
Final Synopsis: A light, refreshing salad that still fills you up.
Trader Joe’s Chicken Piccata is an excellent, no-frills Italian-style chicken dish perfect for your last-minute dinner. As TJ explains right on the box, chicken piccata is “seasoned breaded boneless chicken breasts, baked in a lemon, caper and white wine sauce. Even this simple descriptions belies the simplicity of the dish.
When you open package, you’ll only find only two things within, breaded chicken cutlets, and a large pouch of yellowish sauce. That’s it – and that’s all you really need. This is a meal at its most spare. Simply open the sauce packet, apply to the chicken, throw it in the microwave for two and half minutes and your piccata is ready. This minimalist meal is pared down from the more bulked up version that Trader Joe’s offered back in 2013 that included a side of broccoli and pasta.
That minimalism actually suits the chicken picatta well. Piccata, after all, has always been the very figure of quick and easy cuisine. Even traditional, hand-made chicken piccata (or veal piccata, if you going really old school) can be cooked up in a few minutes flat. The dish couldn’t be more streamlined if it had been designed in some sort of food wind tunnel (maybe it uses gravy instead of wind?). For example, the first step to a good piccata is smashing the hell out of piece of meat until it’s thin enough to see through. The chicken breast gets sandwiched between two sheets of wax paper and pounded remorselessly until the chicken is either a quarter inch flat or the cook has worked out all of his simmering rage.
The flattened meat is then dredged through a mixture of flour and seasoning until properly breaded up. This has got to be the best part of the cooking process, because every resource I consulted on piccata uses the exact same terminology. “Dredge the chicken through the flour.” Dredge it. Dredge the chicken.
Dredge is an amazing word, but most of the time you have to tack it onto downer sentences about muck and sunken corpses and such, so I’m glad it gets a chance to jazz
up a more light-hearted sentence once it a while. Unless you decided to go with the veal, I suppose. “Dredge the veal” isn’t a sentence that’s likely to win many people over.
At any rate, your smashed up, dredged meat is going to cook up on a hot frying pan almost instantly, at which point it’s removed from and the pan and the pan drippings are mixed up with some wine, lemon juice, etc into a sauce. And there you have it – piccata. Just that easy, bro.
So while it’s understandable that there isn’t more to this piccata, it’s also a shame because what it has to offer is so good. The breaded chicken breast is pre-cooked, but retains its tenderness and moisture even after reheating. This is thanks, in some part, to the breading that encloses each breast in a thick, chewy layer that crisps up after cooking. The breaded cutlet is pretty dang good by itself, but it’s the sauce that really makes this piccata a piccata.
The lemon and white wine in the sauce are no mere threats – despite the heavy nature of the sauce (and its fat content) it tastes light and packs a zippy zing. It dangerously good, the strong, dry citrus taste pairing very well with the chicken, while the melted butter satisfies to the corners of the mouth.
If it wasn’t for the considerable fat content (44 grams total), I would pick this up all the time. In fact, I’m such a fan I might skip Trader Joe’s entirely next time and just make it myself! (But probably not.)
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is as good as it is simple.
Would I Buy It Again: I want to say yes – if only it wasn’t so fatty.
Final Synopsis: A quick and easy Italian-American classic.