Trader Joe’s Green, Beans and Grains could be anything, with a name like that. What it actually is, is a West African inspired curry-like, vegetarian dish. In this case, the greens are kale, the beans are garbanzo beans, and the grains are couscous. Also there are peanuts, which are technically legumes, but whatever. They don’t get to be in the title. These tasty components have been simmered up in a heavily spiced tomato based sauce that tingles and excites the tongue. Despite not having any meat in it, this dish manages to satisfy quite nicely – a result of the complex, savory spices as much as the hearty, filling beans and grains.
The strangest thing about the name that Trader Joe’s choose for the product, is that it falls so short of actually describing the contents of the dish in any meaningful way. “Greens, beans and grains” is so vague and non-specific that it hardly serves as a product title at all – greens, beans and grains can show up in so many dishes and so many combinations, that this title only obfuscates the nature of the dish rather than help you out in any way. It’s like if Taco Bell decided to call one of their dishes “Cheese, Beans and Beef” – it effectively signifies nothing and sows confusion. It’s a sort of anti-product name really, confounding innocent shoppers and muddying the waters of cognition with its nebulous semiology.
Here’s the thing – if the dish is so West African, as Trader Joe’s themselves claim on the side of the box, shouldn’t there already be a name that it’s known by? Trader Joe’s looooves attaching strange, exotic names to their food products, often without explanation, such as their Pa Jeon, Uttapam, Kouigns Amman, Dukkah… I could go on. Why not do that again here?
The fact is, Trader Joe’s has gone somewhat rogue with West African cuisine in this dish. The word “inspired” on the side of the box is meant in the same way that horror movies about ghosts that make people’s heads explode are “inspired” by true events. The germ of the idea comes from traditional West African dish maafe – or peanut stew. Traditionally maafe is made from peanuts, collared greens, tomatoes, onions and a selection of spices such as chili pepper, coriander, garlic and cumin. Trader Joe’s made the radical decision to swap out the collared greens for kale and, strangely, the peanuts for garbanzo beans, but the spices and the tomato and onion base are still there. It’s this tasty stock that makes the dish worth eating, as well as connecting it to its African roots.
Really, given how much the dish has deviated from its West African origin, TJ’s has shown remarkable restraint in giving the product a lackluster name instead of just sticking “Trader Joe’s Maafe” on it, and being done with it. That shows integrity, Trader Joe’s Marketing Department. Kudos.
It may not be, strictly speaking, a West African dish – but Trader Joe’s Green, Beans and Grains is interesting enough to make a strong case for its own existence in the frozen food aisle.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, it’s pleasantly spicy and reasonably healthy.
Would I Buy It Again: I very well might – this would be an easy way to dress up boring meat.
Final Synopsis: A spicy, West African curry – with couscous.
I may occasionally give Trader Joe’s a real tongue lashing, like I felt compelled to do the other day with their strange and terrible pseudo-salad, but only when the really deserve it, and in any case I like to try and give TJ’s the chance to settle the score. In that spirit, I went out and picked up Trader Joe’s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad with Tumeric Garbanzo Beans.
As you might gather from the picture, or the long, strange name, this is another entry in Trader Joe’s new line of little grain-salads-in-a-tub, and close cousin to Trader Joe’s underwhelming Nutty Grain Salad. Surely TJ’s wouldn’t have released two, tiny, grain-based salads unless they had damn good reason to think people would actually enjoy them. They couldn’t both be as bad as the first one I tried, right?
The fact of the matter is that Trader Joe;s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad is miles better than it’s counterpart in both taste and nutritional content, and I was glad I picked it up. That said, it’s every bit as twisted and insane as the Nutty Grain salad, just on a different axis.
The main thing you’ll probably notice when you pick this salad up is how it is topped with bright yellow chickpeas. Oh, great, you might think – Curry, that’s brilliant. I bet curry could taste really good on a salad like this.
Only it’s not curry, it’s just tumeric. All the other rich and exotic spices that give curry it’s magical kick – the cardamom, the cumin, the garam masala in general, aren’t present. Just musty old tumeric – wonderful for color, but dull and dusty when it comes to taste. In fact, given the overall taste of the salad the garbanzo beans are a total non-sequiter. I went into this bulgur salad expecting it to taste something like Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Country Grain Salad – one of my all-time favorite TJ’s salads, and place holder on my Best of 2013 list. Instead of the nutty and mellow tastes of that salad, or something that would work well with tumeric, we get the strong flavor of orange juice. Yes, orange juice is the primary flavoring agent in this salad and I swear to god that you can taste it in every bite. This whole salad is infused with the strong zing of not just citrus, but real oranges, real oranges and a hint tumeric.
It’s incredible. Taken back to back with the Nutty Grain salad, it feels like Trader Joe’s has started to curate a small selection of recipes broadcast to it from a parallel universe several degrees separate from our own. “Mmm-boy! Serve me another plate of cooked bulgur and a tall galss of orange juice!” demand the insect-headed denizens of that universe before scuttling off to work in their cities beneath the sea.
The other flavors you’ll experience with this salad are the slightly nutty taste of the bulgur, and the strong, lingering taste of carrots. Surprisingly, the cilantro that gets top billing in the product name is only present as a subtle background touch, emerging mid chew, then vanishing again without a trace.
All in all, this salad tastes more like an orange/carrot juice drink than anything else. In salad form, that makes for a very strange eating experience but not necessarily a bad one. Once I got used to the fact of the thing, I happily munched this salad up. There’s enough texture and chewiness to the dish that it lasts you a surprisingly long time for only eight ounces, and the orange and carrot flavor works together, if not perfectly, than well enough.
The other nice difference between this salad and the Nutty Grain salad is that it has a much more reasonable calorie count. There are only 240 calories per serving, and only a slender 10 calories from fat. There is still a considerable 54 grams load of carbs in the tub, but that’s too be expected from so much grain, and it’s ameliorated somewhat by the 9 grams of fiber in it as well.
Overall, it might be the most unusual salad I’ve ever had – even stranger than the Korean Spicy Seaweed Salad – but isn’t that what we go to Trader Joe’s for? Whether it sort of work out, like today, or misses entirely, like with the Nutty Grain salad, I have to take my hat off to Mr. Joe if for nothing more than his boldness of vision.
Would I Recommend It: Not to the populous at large. This is a unique salad with an unusual taste.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t think so. It was okay, just not good enough to justify repeat purchases.
Final Synopsis: A small, bulgur salad flavored with orange juice.
As promised we continue Frozen Indian Food week with Trader Joe’s Channa Masala. Sure, the name might not be as hypnotically rhythmic and soothing as Aloo Chaat Kati Pouch, but this spicy, tasty, cheap and tangy chickpea dish has just as much to offer on the flavor front.
As you might guess from the above description, this dry and tangy dish comes from the dry and tangy regions of Northern India. Rajistan in the north west of Indian, and the neighboring regions, are dominated by the great Indian Thar Desert and something of the sere nature of this region has permeated the food that comes from here.
The Thar Desert (bordered to the south by the Great Rann of Kutch) is, of course, famous for having the best desert name of all time, just above Gobi and Mojave. The Thar Desert’s other claims to fame, of course, is as the setting for Rama’s attack on Lanka with his army of vanaras, when he and had to use his agneyashtra-amogha to dry up the drumakulya, leading to the creation of the Marukantara, but that may just be my opinion.
At any rate, masala, as we maybe all probably know, is the general South East Asian term for a mixture of spices, while channa, or chana, is the Hindustani word for chickpeas. That, and exactly that, is what you get in Trader Joe’s Channa Masala – a bunch of garbanzo beaans mixed into a sauce of onions, tomatoes, peppers and some usual Indian spices (namely, cumin, fenugreek, tamarind, mango powder and cilantro).
What that means is, you get a damn good side dish with a bunch of different flavors going on. The garbanzo beans cook up in a couple minutes in the microwave, and come out with just the right texture – a nice toothsome bite that is neither too hard nor too mushy. The sauce starts out with a savory, slightly charbroiled taste that gives way to a nice low burn as you eat. Where things start to get a little weird is around the edges of these flavors, where a noticeble, delicate sourness comes in. This hint of sour is the result of the mango powder and tamarind spices, and turns the whole meal into something more considerable than a simple bean side dish.
Trader Joe’s claims they make their Channa Masala from a traditional Indian recipe, and while that’s the sort of claim I usually write off immediately as marketer-speak, it really seems to be the truth in this case. This is a solid, and simple dish perfect for pairing with a more substantial entree – the Aloo Chaat, for example, would give you a complete, rather good Indian dinner in about 6 microwaveable minutes.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, these are some tasty beans.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, this is an excellent solution for my go-go lifestyle.
Final Synopsis: A cheap and easy Indian chickpea dish.