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.
Sometimes too much of a good thing can be too much. Trader Joe’s Burrata, Proscuitto and Arugula Flatbread pizza is an exercise is decadent excess – not dissimilar to their Cookie Butter Cheesecake, or Caligula’s Rome. And like those forebearers, this flatbread tantalizes more than it delivers.
|What it is:||Cheese and prosciutto flatbread|
|Price:||$4.99 for a 12 oz. pizza|
|Worth it:||Yes, but take small bites|
On paper this flatbread sounds like it should be about the best thing ever – a hand-stretched, brick oven-fired crust, topped with mozzarella, fontal, Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and burrata cheeses, atop a spread of mascarpone garlic cream sauce, topped with wild baby arugula and marbled slices of prosciutto.
The flatbread comes as a simple kit, ready to be warmed to a crispy golden hue in your own oven, then topped with two broad slices of prosciutto. It sounds perfect, basically.
Unfortunately, all this goodness run into the classic “more isn’t always more” quandary. I usually encounter this in terms of drinking. One drink, and I feel good. Two drinks, and I feel a little better. Three drinks, and hey this is really getting fun! Four drinks, however, and things take a rather unpleasant turn. Trader Joe’s is essentially taking the four drink approach to salty food with this flatbread. Those are some good cheeses, and good cheese sauce, and good prosciutto, but when you put them all together you end up with a flatbread that’s too overwhelming to really bite into.
However, that’s not to say this is a bad flatbread. There’s nothing wrong with the individual components – all of which are very tasty and decadent indeed. The problem comes when you try and eat it like an entree. The servings per container given on the package is 3 slices. I would suggest changing that to 30.
Sliced up into a few big bites, this flatbread is simply too rich with fat and salt to really savor – even if you’ve got a good beer at hand. However, cut it up into smaller, hors d’oeuvre sized bites and you’ve got an instant party classic. When you’ve sized it down to nibbling size, the tongue is given a chance to experience the richness of the soft white cheeses, the supremely savory prosciutto, and the spicy arugula.
Just as the cure for Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter Cheesecake was Cookie Butter Cheesecake Bites, this sumptuous pizza is better served by smaller servings.
Would I Recommend It: I would, just not very much of it.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d bring it to a potluck.
Final Synopsis: An overwhelmingly rich flatbread.
Look, I know quinoa is enjoying something of a heyday, the likes of which has been unprecedented since the ancient grain was originally introduced as a staple of the human diet in 5,000 BC, but there are certain applications of it which are bound to make even the hippest vegetarian blink. I’ve calmly accepted quinoa in my salads, my “chicken”, and even in my sushi. But quinoa in my pesto? That’s a development that begs further inquiry.
Quinoa was originally cultivated in the Andes region of South America since the rise of civilization there. However, since it’s uptake by the incessant marketing machine in the mid 2000’s, quinoa has been trumpeted as a superfood for it’s many healthsome properties – some certified, some merely alleged – and introduced into practically any food product in need of a sales boost.
What is absolutely true is that quinoa is a gluten-free grain, and is relatively protein rich. Given that both these qualities dovetail nicely into the culinary trends of the day, its recent, widespread popularity should probably not be a surprise. It is notable however. Since 2006, the price of quinoa has tripled on the market even as crop production has nearly doubled world wide – and in 2013 no lesser body than the United Nations itself declared it the “International Year of Quinoa”. They had a logo and everything.
While the sudden rise of quinoa from obscurity to mainstay may sound unusual, it’s not alone. In fact pesto – yes the very pesto in this quinoa and pesto sauce – shares a very similar original story. Pesto may not have a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years, like quinoa, but it’s a lot older than you might think. The first bowl of pesto was found on the table of the ancient Romans who ate a paste of crushed herbs, garlic and cheese. As they conquested into northern Italy/southern France, the basil that grew there was introduced into the dish – resulting in the pesto we know and love today. And then nothing happened for two thousand years. Despite the fact that pesto took it’s fully mature form sometime before the birth of Christ, it was largely unknown out of the rustic Mediterranean regions where it sprang into existence.
Not until 1863 is the first recipe for pesto recorded, and it is not until nearly a hundred years after that, in 1946, that the first pesto recipe shows up in America. Even then, pesto continued to languish in relative obscurity until the 1980’s, when it started to be adopted into Italian cuisine on a wide scale.
So why combine these two long overlooked food items into one condiment? Why did Trader Joe’s bother to make Pesto and Quinoa?
When you try it, the first thing you’ll notice is that they might as well have called it pesto with quinoa, instead of pesto and quinoa. The point being that this is a pesto sauce, first and foremost, with the quinoa making a very meager impact on the overall dish.
Apart from the quinoa, this is a standad pesto recipe – filled with plenty of basil, oil and grated cheese. What it doesn’t have, however, is any pine nuts. In place of that crunchy nuttiness you get the squishy nuttiness of lots and lots of quinoa. This makes the pesto taste more or less like any other pesto you’ve had from a grocery store, even if it looks very very different. There’s so much quinoa in this pesto that it’s far and away the first ingredient. When you unscrew the lid you’ll see a load of quinoa, sprouts and all, staring back at you. If you can get over the somewhat unsettlingly different appreance, you’ll find that this pesto works just like the regular stuff – you can add it easily to pasta, chicken, fish or salads for that big sloppy kiss of savory basil. Just don’t expect it to spread quite like regular pesto. The quinoa makes it much lumpier than a normal pesto, and requires a little extra finesse on the part of the eater.
While that’s all well and good, it does make you wonder why Trader Joe’s bothered to make this stuff at all. There isn’t any real difference in the calorie or fat content between this and ordinary pesto. While I enjoyed it on a variety of meals, I didn’t enjoy it any more than I would have any other pesto. And with the slightly unappealing look and unweildly nature of the quinoa, there really isn’t any need to get it again. I’m glad TJ’s discovered a tasty Peruvian pesto, I’m just not so sure why they wanted to pas it along to all of us.
Would I Recommend It: No, I don’t think so.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope, no need.
Final Synopsis: Pesto with a bunch of quinoa in it tastes just like pesto without quinoa in it. So why bother?
We return again to the strange shores of vegan cuisine to take a look at Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. We’ve looked at a good number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to this meaty world we live in – from soy “ice cream” to chicken-free chicken nuggets.
In general, I find that vegetarian food really shines when it’s not getting hung up on trying to be the doppleganger of meat products, as with Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers, and just does it’s own thing. The worst sins of vegan cuisine seem to occur when somebody decides that, goddammit, yes, I need to make a turkey out of tofu. Vegetable dishes are good as vegetables, and meat dishes are good as meat – there’s no need for vegetables to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to be proved wrong in novel ways, hence the acquisition of these “meat”balls.
TJ’s comes straight out and calls their meatless meatballs, “a delicious meat-free substitute for any meal” right there on the package, without even a hint of modesty. I wouldn’t go that far, but the meatballs do delivery a surprisingly rich and full, if not exactly meaty, flavor. The meatlessballs, for lack of a better word, replicate the texture and mouthfeel of a standard party meatball pretty closely. The bite of the ball is moist and a little chewy – holding together well, and breaking up much as a bit of ground beef would. Coated with a heavy sauce, or mixed into a plate of pasta you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Taken by itself, however, the meatlessball tastes, and more importantly, smells very dissimilar.
A good job was done to season the meatlessballs in such a way that they are roughly approximate to a normal meatball, but there’s no hiding the sort of soybean-y aftertaste when eaten straight off the plate. There’s nothing here of the fatty, visceral taste of the meatball – instead there’s a thinner, somewhat vegetable blandness. This difference in taste is rather mild, however, which means it can be hidden very effectively under a good marinera or similar sauce. More problematic, for those seeking a true meat substitute, is the smell wich has nothing of the savory, fatty scent of a simmering meatball. Instead, it smells like what it is – a bunch of hot soy. It’s a strong enough scent that it might make you think twice about digging in.
When you pop this bag open, the first thing you should realize is that you
are getting a ton of these guys. These are cocktail meatballs, not the big honking ones you get in Trader Joe’s regular bag of frozen meatballs. The move feels like it may be a practical one, as even at their smaller size the meatless meatballs have a certain tendency to break up if played around with too much. On the plus side, they’re down right healthy compared to Trader Joe’s ordinary beef variety meatballs. Each six meatball serving has only 140 calories, 45 from fat, and 13 whopping grams of protein.
How do such meatless balls manage such a feat? Through the magic of textured soy protein, of course.
To level with you, I generally react to this sort of psuedo-meat like a horse being lead up to Frakenstein’s castle. There’s something strange and unnatural about it that makes me balk. Meat I get. It’s easy to get answers out of meat. “Hey, what’s this meatball made out of?” “A bunch of dead cow.” That’s a straight forward answer. The answers are harder with meatless meat products, because all of a sudden I’m being tricked, right from the start. Nothing is what it appears, but instead a complex masquerade of strange technical processes meant to fool me into thinking I’m eating meat. That’s vaguely sinister – and such weird yet innocuous phrases as “textured soy protein” only make me nervous.
Textured soy protein or “TSP” is, in fact, kind of weird and sinister stuff. It’s basically the styrofoam of the food world, used since the 1960’s by the Archer Dale Midland company to pad out meat with filler material. It’s what happens when you heat soy bean flour to high temperatures that it melts, then is extruded from a nozzle as “a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textured_vegetable_protein). Does that sound amazing? Not really, but they tell you not to ask about how sausage is made either.
That may sound like I’m being harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate. In terms of texture and even, to a fair degree, taste these “meat”balls really are good substitutes for real meatballs. But to say, as Trader Joe’s does, that they’re a substitute for “any recipe” isn’t one I’d stand behind. Taken as a small asset in a larger dish, in a sloppy meatball sandwich say, they work beautifully, as they would for any vegetarian just looking to get a little variety in their diet. However, in a dish where the meatballs are showcased instead of hidden behind other, stronger flavors they’re unlikely to please the table.
Would I Recommend It: Not to meat eaters, possibly to vegetarians.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, I’ll stick to TJ’s lean turkey variety.
Final Synopsis: Fake meatballs suitable for pasta but not soup.
I have to say, I’m let down by this dish. When I picked up Trader Joe’s Grilled Chicken Cacciatore I was intrigued – it looked good in that picture on the label, all nicely grilled and swimming in a simmering red sauce. The name had a nice ring to it too – cacciatore. It sounds like the ultimate, all purpose Italian word, as if somewhere on the coast between Naples and Florence sits a small town where, even now, a plump matriarchs hang out their windows shouting “Cacciatore!” at the children who run off through the cobbled streets with their soccer balls, laughing “Cacciatore, cacciatore” over and over as they burst past the local pizzeria. “Cacciatore!” shouts the friendly, mustachioed, dough twirling baker.
In actual point of fact, “cacciatore” translates as “hunter”. The connection, allegedly, owes to the fact that it was originally a dish cooked for hunters who returned home without catching any game thus forcing the wife to resort to a chicken stew cooked with the mushrooms he had collected while out in the forest. This origin story is so tortured and improbable that, in light of the insane word histories of linguistics, it is probably true and, moreover, makes a good case for just giving up on language all together.
Romantic notions and etymology aside, I’m a big fan of Italian food – or of any cuisine that makes liberal use of bubbling cheese and fresh baked bread – and was truly excited that Trader Joe’s was offering up a quick-to-prep and very cheap slice of the Italian culinary world. After all, what’s not to like about grilled chicken in a hearty sauce?
Well, in this case, quite a lot.
The cacciatore’s greatest failing, like the acting of Tobey Maguire or McDonald’s, is its mediocrity. The chicken, despite actually appearing to be grilled, is completely unexceptional, while the sauce it’s served in simply tastes so-so. There seems to be an attempt to make up for the generic sauce by providing a huge quantity of it – enough to totally drown your plate in certainly. This tactic fails to salvage the dish. This is a far cry from the hard won excellence of the equally Italian Minestrone – and when it comes to your hard scrabble dinning dollars, there’s nothing to recommend it over the far superior dishes of steamed Hake, stuffed red peppers or even the quinoa and squash salad.
A final note on the preparation. TJ’s suggests two different methods for cooking up your cacciatore – either a quick stint in the microwave, or 25 minutes spent boiling the plastic bag on your stove top. Out of sheer American optimism I decided there must be some hidden merit to the bag-boiling method and undertook it. Rest assured that there is not.
Would I Recommend It: I would, if there was anything to recommend it by. (Which there isn’t.)
Woudl I Buy It Again: No sir.
Final Synopsis: A plastic-wrapped piece of mediocre chicken in a sea of unexceptional sauce.