Trader Joe’s Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burgers with Black Beans and Roasted Corn

Trader Joe's Quinoa Cowboy Burger

Just the kind Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday used to fry up.

Here come’s the quinoa again! Yes the International Year of Quinoa, so declared by the goddamn United Nation itself in 2013, stretches on into yet another year as the psuedo-grain’s popularity continues to grow unabated. Case in point, Trader Joe’s surprisingly tasty Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burgers with Black Beans and Roasted Corn.

What gives you the right to deem something as a “cowboy” food – particularly if that something is a veggie burger made of quinoa? The cowboys were many things, and much falsehood and oversimplification has entered the public consciousnesses regarding these rough riders of the West, but even so it’s safe to say that veggie burgers probably didn’t make up a substantial part of an ol’ cowpuncher’s diet. It seems as far as Trader Joe’s is concerned, if something is spicy and has beans in it it’s a “cowboy” food – case in point Trader Joe’s Cowboy Caviar Salsa.

Speaking of, Trader Joe’s Cowboy Caviar Salsa is actually one of the two main ingredients in this burger – the other one being Trader Joe’s Organic Tri Color Quinoa. As the official Trader Joe’s website notes, these two products have been mixed together and shaped into hockey pucks for your unique enjoyment. To my surprise, I actually found myself liking this seemingly slapdash combination more than I had expected.

Trader Joe's Quinoa Cowboy Burger 1

Trader Joe’s Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burger

I’m a bit warm and cold on the whole quinoa craze – it’s a fine seed, eaten in moderation, but when you start putting it in sushi rolls then we have a problem. In this case, however, it seems to work for me – the quinoa lends its unique nutty, nutrient-packed flavor to the toothsome assembly of boiled beans, soft corn kernels and other chopped up veggies (red pepper, onion, tomato and jalapeno).

Tastewise its just right – warm, satisfying, filling and flavorful with a slight spiciness. Burgerwise, it doesn’t quite do as well. Even after preparing it in the oven to the listed specifications, I found the “burger” far more crumbly than you would ever hope to eat on a bun. Compared to Trader Joe’s excellent Veggie Pizza Burger or Veggie Masala Burger, which hold up very nicely, this was a little disappointing. If you tried to cook one on a grill, for instance, it would just crumble through the slats.

I’d actually recommend treating the patty-like form of the burger more as a suggestion than an obligation. Instead of dealing with the hassle of trying to get these onto a bun, just break them up into a salad, or crumble them into a taco. I found the “burgers” worked best with non-traditional condiments as well. Trader Joe’s suggests sliced avocado and salsa, and you might consider adding to that shredded lettuce, hot sauce or sour cream.

This is probably the first heavily quinoa-based dish I’ve ever really liked. The intriguing spiciness, the good mix of roasted veggies, and the crispiness of a good oven-toasting making these quinoa burgers much more than just a dry mouthful. There’s a lot to enjoy in these, jut don’t get hung up on eating them like a burger.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Yes, just not as burgers.

Would I Buy Them Again: I would – these made me some fine tacos.

Final Synopsis: Toasted quinoa and tasty veggies in an inconvenient burger form.

Trader Joe's Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burgers - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burgers – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Super Burrito!

Trader Joe's Super Burrito!

The kind of burrito ancient Peruvians were probably chowing down on all the time.

What this now – a Super Burrito? A Super Burrito with an exclamation mark and everything?! Oh wow, it must be like, the bigget, cheesiest, meatiest, most ass-kicking tube of molten sodium this side of the Taco Bell late night menu. Let’s just see what we’ve here –  quinoa, kale, sweet potato… wait a minute – this isn’t a Super Burrito, it’s a Super FOOD Burrito. Gah! Trader Joe’s you’ve snookered me again! I’ve bought healthy, filling cuisine when I was hoping for a heart-clogging cylinder of refried beans and queso.

Actually, I suppose I can’t Trader Joe’s you for leaving the “food” part out of their Super (Food) Burrito. There’s little to nothing about quinoa, kale, et al. that inclines one to think it would make for a satisfying, quick and dirty microwaveable Mexican food indulgence. Ah, but how wrong we are, us’n who equate only ground beef and melty cheese sauce with good burritos. Trader Joe’s delivers a downright hearty, filling and tasty blast of spicy southwestern cuisine that, if I hadn’t been tricked into it, I’d never have bothered to try.

First of all, yes, you’re correct – there’s no meat in this burrito. It’s entirely vegetarian and vegan friendly, yet even meat lovers can find something to love in this nutritious tortilla wrap.

We’ve covered quinoa, that ancient psuedo-grain, several times before – but for all the health claims that swirl around quinoa one is certifiably true – it really does do a good job of filling you up. A mix of red quinoa and gold quinoa make up the bulk of this burrito, and while they bring their trademark pearl-like texture to the mix, they’ve been cooked long enough and well enough that there isn’t any coarseness to the burrito – each bite is smooth and almost creamy. This smoothness is helped along by the large, soft pieces of golden sweet potato that help the quinoa fill out the burrito. Again, these have been cooked to a pleasing softness and go down easy. Kale makes for the third big ingredient, but despite my fears, it was mild and hard to detect from bite to bite. Kale, with it’s high nutrient, vitamin and mineral denseness has a tendency to scare off all but the most health-food focused, but here it makes nary a wave – chopped and stewed into yet another mild, easy on the tongue ingredient.

What you do notice is the spiciness. The filling is spiced with aji amarillo chili sauce, made from the small, orangish and quintessentially Peruvian chili pepper, and the tortilla is seasoned with red pepper flakes. This gives the burrito considerably more spice than you might expect given the typically mild ingredients in the filling. Each bite delivers a little punch of fire that sears without burning and lends the whole affair some much needed spice that takes it up a notch in the flavor category.

I doubt I would have picked up this burrito if I’d suspected what was in it, but I’m glad I did. The flavors all play well together, the texture is even and smooth, and it cooks up in the microwave in about two minutes. This isn’t just a good vegan burrito, it’s a good burrito in general – and with only 44 grams of carbs and 18 grams of fat it’s a pretty damn healthy one too boot.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: I would – it finds a comfortable intersection between taste and nutrition.

Would I Buy It Again: It surprises even myself to say so, but yes I would buy this vegan burrito again.

Final Synopsis: A quinoa-based, vegan burrito that is actually worth checking out.

Trader Joe's Super Burrito! - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Super Burrito! – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Sweet & Salty Kettle Popped Popcorn Chips with Whole Grain, Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds, Whole Quinoa and Sunflower Seeds

Trader Joe's Sweet and Salty Kettle Popped Popcorn Chips

Yeah go ahead, might as well throw some flax seeds in there too.

Trader Joe’s doesn’t care if everyone else is giving their food products catchy, memorable or even easily paresable names. No, what they’re going for is completionism, and they aren’t going to stop adding words to their product name until it contains as many ingredients as they can get away with. Thus is the case with TJ’s Kettle Popped Popcorn chips – a sweet and salty hybrid snack that dares ask the question, “What would happen if you tried making tortilla chips out of kettle corn?”

I may slight Trader Joe’s for their gaffs, but I love them for just these feats of daring audacity. Obviously no sane person would try to take fully popped sweet and salt kettle corn, then try and compress them down into flat discs. Leave the popcorn to the popcorn and the chips to the chips, the average consumer might say – their sense of normalcy firmly ingrained by the stream of mundane products churned out by mainstream grocers. Not only has TJ’s just made chips out of popcorn, but they went ahead and started throwing in whole fistfuls of quinoa, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds in as well. I’m going to give them full points for thinking outside the box on this one.

That said, are they any good. Well, as you might imagine from such a hybrid snack, it does many things serviceably, but nothing amazingly. While shaped like chips, they certainly don’t behave like chips. That is to say, these popcorn chips can’t be dipped or dunked. Their popcorn nature makes them much to fragile for that. The only thing that the chip nature is good for is to give a home for all the seeds.

The scattering of quinoa, sunflower, and flax seeds give the otherwise ordinary kettle corn a nuttier taste and a sort of extra intriguing crunch. However, because the chips are so fragile they tend to break up immediately in the mouth, so there isn’t really much time to appreciate it. I like the idea of mixing in those seeds, but unlike, say, Trader Joe’s Super Seeded Tortilla Chips, these just don’t hang around long enough to have much of an impact. It almost seems like a waste of the seeds, and an unnecessary source of additional fat.

The kettle corn itself is quite tasty – just the right amount of salty and sweet that makes it such a treat. However, it begs the question, why wouldn’t I just buy a regular bag of kettle corn if that’s what I was after? The only real advantage, as far as I see, is that it’s easier to be aware of how many “chips” you eat. Regular popcorn is such an amorphous collection of tiny things that I tend to eat more than I realize- munching down kernel after kernel. In chip form it’s easier to realize “Whoops – that was a dozen chips, better lay off.”

Ultimately, Trader Joe’s Kettle Popped Sweet and Salty Popcorn Chips are an interesting new snack, but fail to make a strong case for buying a second bag.


The Breakdown:

Would I Recommend It: No, just go pick up some regular kettle corn.

Would I Buy It Again: I’d give it a pass.

Final Synopsis: Tasty kettle corn, compressed into an unnecessary disc shape.

Trader Joe's Sweet and Salty Kettle Popped Popcorn Chips - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Sweet and Salty Kettle Popped Popcorn Chips – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles

Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate Jumble

I feel this is a missed opportunity to call them “Jumbo Jumbles”. Seems like something Trader Joe’s would go for.

Ah yes, the jumble. One of the lazier forms of organization on the books. It’s right up there with the heap and the mess in terms of ways people don’t like their things to be. There’s just not much cachet to a jumble. So what lead Trader Joe’s to just sort of jumble some chocolate and stuff together instead of delivering it to the customer in a precisely thought through execution – like they did with their strictly ordered triple tiered chocolates? I must admit, I don’t actually know – but I will tell you that Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles are downright delicious.

Aside from the intriguing name, what attracted me to these candy jumbles was the ingredient list. Listed right up in there, right next to milk chocolate and caramel is quinoa. Toasted quinoa. Also Himalayan salt. Okay, TJ, now you’ve got my attention. You may have dozens of chocolate-covered after-dinner treats available to me – but only one has quinoa in it. Depending on your viewpoint, that’s either a stroke of desperation or brilliance.

Why in the world, after all, would you try to shoehorn quinoa into a chocolate confection filled with gooey caramel? Quinoa and chocolate occupy opposite ends of the nutrition spectrum. I would think that they would have annihilated each other when they came into contact. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the first time anyone has ever tried mixing caramel and quinoa together.

Well, I’ll tell you this much – all the hypothetical people who decided not to do this before – it’s your loss. The toasted quinoa is a delightful part of this little snack food. Before I get into the why’s and wherefores of that, though, we’d better take a look at our jumble as a whole.

You might not be sure what you’re getting into at first glace. Any manner of strange and surprising items could be lurking beneath that rich, milk chocolate coating. It could easily be chewy, hard, salty, filled with hidden nuts, baked like a brittle or as hard and unyielding as an over-cooked cookie. You just can’t tell that much from such an ambiguous lump.

The fact of the matter is, on your first bite your teeth will sink right into a sweet, dense core of caramel. There’s no hidden, solid substrate to this little trifle – it’s pure, pliable, yielding caramel all the way through. Or almost pure, I should say. This is where the toasted quinoa comes in. Little did I know that toasted quinoa tastes and acts pretty much just like toasted rice. Nothing of the distinctive taste and texture of quinoa remains – instead it has become a light, crispy, crunchy bit of pleasing texture teasing the tooth here and there and lending the jumble a bit of much needed body. Unlike toasted rice, the toasted quinoa is much smaller, and as a result it works much better in this small treat – never interrupting your bite, but just kind of sitting there, in your mouth, crunching up pleasantly between your teeth.

While the quinoa is fine and completely inoffensive, the real star of the show is the sprinkling of Himalayan salt. Why it needs to be Himalayan salt, I don’t know – but I can tell you that it takes the jumble to a whole new level. If you’ve never tried salted caramel before, or salted chocolate, you’re missing out on one of life’s great flavor sensations. Nothing accentuates and compliments the rich sweetness of cream and sugar like a few well placed grains of salt, and here it adds an entire new level of richness to what would otherwise be a simple little treat.

The only real problem, as far as I’m concerned is that the salt distribution on the jumbles is very erratic – some jumbles have no salt, while others have plenty. The jumbles without salt on them are fine and good – it’s just that the salted ones are what really make this worth picking up.

Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate Jumbles are aimed at the buyer who is looking for a decadent chocolate treat without any of the pretension (and inflated price tag) that so often goes along with that. They’re certainly not going to make you any thinner, but if you’re looking for a novel new way to intake caramel and chocolate, these aren’t a bad choice.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Yes, if you like really sweet sweets.

Would I Buy Them Again: I would if my willpower was stronger.

Final Synopsis: Don’t let the quinoa worry you – these are all about the salted caramel and chocolate.

 


Trader Joe’s Pesto and Quinoa

Trader Joe's Pesto and Quinoa

Yup, pesto and quinoa – that classic duo. Like ketchup and custard, salt and Dr. Pepper

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.


The Breakdown

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?


Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad

 

I don’t have anything to say about Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad that isn’t short and nasty, so I suppose I’d better just get to it. Trader Joe’s should have called this Trader Joe’s Crappy Peanut Bean Thing. Instead they try and tell me it’s a salad and put it next to the good stuff.

Saying that this salad tastes as bad as it looks is not entirely accurate. Obviously, it looks terrible. I’m not sure I’ve seen a mass of soy beans, peanuts, pistachios chunked carrots, and cooked spelt that looks worse than this – and I’m including vomit in that. At least vomit has the effluvium of stomach bile to cloak it’s terrible, true nature. This stuff just sits there in the open, daring you to stare directly its clusters and lumps. Go ahead and try it – see if you can last longer than five seconds, I can’t.

So to say it’s as bad as it looks is implying that it tastes atrocious, which it doesn’t. It tastes worse than that – it tastes bland. There are foods out there that I think look and taste awful which whole cultures have passionate loves for. You’re not really a country, I reckon, unless you have at least one national dish that no one else in the world can stomach. The English have Vegemite, the Scotts have hummus, the Japanese have natto, the Americans have Kraft Singles, etc. What I’m trying to say is, taste is relative, and really intense flavors may alternately repulse and delight, depending on the eater.

Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad, on the other hand, is simply bland and uninteresting. The packaging claims that it is dressed with a soy ginger sauce. This is technically true, but the dressing is present in such cowardly quantities that it contributes almost nothing to the taste, beside rendering the whole mess somewhat squishy. The primary flavor you’ll experience is “soggy nuts”. There’s some nutty tasting quinoa, some peanuts and pistachios. Next to that, the edamame, spelt and carrots don’t really show up much, and when they do it’s only to add an additional dimension of blandness to the whole affair.

I could go on and on about how upset I am at this tiny little tub, but the bulk of my ire is actually reserved for the nutrition labels. Go ahead and flip this tub over, but first set your faces to “stunned”.

Serving size, 1 package. Sure, that seems reasonable. What else. Calories: 590, Calories from fat: 290.

Trader Joe’s, ARE YOU TRIPPIN’, BRO?!?! These numbers are absurd – and the madness goes on. 45% of your daily fat value, 350mg of sodium, 68 grams of carbs.

So essentially, what we have is a tiny little tub of stuff that looks gross, tastes like a more mild version of unsalted peanuts, and contains as much fat as a Big Mac only with more calories. It’s like Trader Joe’s figured out how to remove all the fun and enjoyment from eating fast food. There are entire galaxies of more delicious, healthful and fun meal options out there – many of them right there in the Trader Joe’s salad aisle. Unless you are in desperate need of compact, high calorie food sources (sumo wrestlers, long distance bomber pilots, roving apocalypse survivors) why you would want to go for this instead of literally anything else is beyond me.

 


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: No, not unless you needed the final component for a robot powered by hate.

Would I Buy It Again: Only as a tip off to my loved ones that I’m secretly being coerced by kidnappers.

Final Synopsis: A bland, gross looking pseudo-salad that is bad for you.

Trader Joe's Nutty Grain Salad - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Nutty Grain Salad – Nutrition Facts

 


Trader Joe’s Quinoa Teriyaki Mushroom Rolls

Trader Joe's Quinoa Teriyaki Mushroom Rolls

Yes, there is quinoa in sushi now. No one shall escape quinoa!

Holy crap – I mean, guys, words fail me. We’ve seen some pretty bold and unpredictable moves from Trader Joe’s before, but I’ve never seen anyone, anywhere, seen anything like Trade Joe’s Quinoa Teriyaki Mushroom Rolls.  Swapping the rice out of sushi for quinoa? That is some mad scientist level tinkering there, mad science that has resulted in an abomination not fit to dwell on God’s green earth.

Look, I like Trader Joe’s, you like Trader Joe’s, but let’s be honest here – no supermarket has ever made reasonable sushi. Supermarkets on the coast of Japan don’t even do sushi well. If you want sushi, you go to a sushi restaurant. If you want cold patties of clammy rice and old fish, you go to supermarket. I can only imagine that it’s only due to the abysmal standards of supermarket sushi that Trader Joe’s thought they could get away with such an outlandish concoction. Replace the seafood with marinated mushrooms? Why not? Infuse the rice with quinoa? Who’s to stop you?

It’s not that I can’t see their thought process here – a healthy, vegetarian option for sushi lovers is a noble goal – but the execution here is unconscionable. The marinated mushrooms themselves are alright – a bit slimy, but tasty and nicely saturated with teriyaki flavor. If the product was mushrooms alone, I’d have little to complain about. The real culprit in making these rolls inedible is the unpleasant quinoa/rice wrapping – served soggy, tremendously dense and mealy. Those are characteristics shared by most supermarket sushi rolls, granted, but these were without a doubt the worst I’ve had of that dubious ilk. Was it adding quinoa that pushed it to the bottom, or would these have been just as bad with rice alone? It’s hard to say.

What would you expect the primary ingredient to be in a quinoa roll? Quinoa, perhaps? You would be mistaken, I’m afraid. I like quinoa, I’ve discussed it before, but it’s inclusion here is tragic. If the roll was entirely made of quinoa, that’d be one thing – I expect I’d even like a roll made entirely of quinoa. But that’s not what we have here. What you’re really getting is rice, sprinkled with a bit of quinoa.

Consult, if you would, the picture above. Notice the little yellow dots? That’s the quinoa. Everything else? That’s rice. It hardly seems honest, really, to bill these as quinoa rolls. If TJ’s really wanted a healthier sushi roll, they should have gone with a brown rice. You can’t just mix up an 80-20 rice to quinoa mix and call them quinoa rolls – that’s farcical, Joe. Knock it off.

If you’re a vegetarian and you love sushi, I feel for you I really do. For the time being, however, I’d suggest sticking to your cucumber and daikon rolls. I hope that Trader Joe’s will do something else with the teriyaki mushroom bits. Until then, I must award these quinoa rolls with the ignoble “Worst Thing I Have Ever Eaten from Trader Joe’s” award. Congratulations.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: No. Really, really no.

Would I Buy Them Again: Not until opposite day, the day when you buy the things you hate and throw away the things you love.

Final Synopsis: Why would Trader Joe’s do this to sushi?

Nutritional Info, per 3-pc serving

Calories: 120
Total Fat: 3g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg (duh, since it’s vegan)
Sodium: 430mg (before the soy sauce of course)
Potassium: 0mg
Total Carbs: 21g
Dietary Fiber: 1g
Sugars: 4g
Protein: 2g

Vitamin A: 25%
Vitamin C: 4%
Calcium: 2%
Iron: 4%