People are willing to put dark chocolate on just about anything. While I applaud the adventerous spirit, the problem is that dark chocolate is not so universal as people hope. Just because the word “chocolate” is in there doesn’t mean it’s a confection. The strong, bitter, almost astringent taste, of a high purity dark chocolate is an acquired taste and should be introduced into a dish only with forethought. Thus it was with trepidation that I picked up Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Edamame.
I like dark chocolate, or at least I want to like dark chocolate. I certainly like it enough on its own. The trouble is, it’s hard to find it done right. One place I seem to continually encounter it is on roasted coffee beans, which has always truck me as very strange. Obviously coffee is a good thing. Coffee keeps America running. I, for one, recently fell in love with Trader Joe’s Cold Brewed Coffee Concentrate. However coffee beans are not coffee. They are the cast off husk that we extract that essential nectar from – the thing that gets in the way between us and the coffee. Why then does it seems to anyone likea good idea to cover the whole beans and eat them? It’s not like we eat them in any other way – nobody is throwing a handful of roasted coffee beans on their salad, or mixing them into their pasta. We grind them up and make coffee out of them or, in extreme cases, add it to steak rubs. We don’t just munch them down whole.
I bring this up because Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame are essentially an improved form of the chocolate covered coffee bean. There’s a shell of dark chocolate around a crunchy, munchable core of dry roasted edamame. What’s surprising to me is that really these things are pretty good.
“Now wait a minute”, you’re probably thinking.”Aren’t edamame just soybeans?” Yes, that’s true – but don’t let the rather long history of soybean bashing turn you against me right from the start. It’s true that soy beans are mostly used to make salty and savory dishes – for example, as soy sauce, miso soup, and tofu. However, anyone who’s ever had a bowl of salted, fresh soybeans at a bar or as finger food, served still in the their little green pods, knows that they also have a very mild taste with an addicting crunchiness.
The truth is, you’ll barely taste the edamame beans in Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame at all. They could have just as well called these Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Crunchers. The flavor of the heavy, dark chocolate coating is so strong that you don’t get any taste from the dry roasted soybeans at all. All you get is texture – the crunchy body and satisfying grist of the light, sere bean. The added benefit is that this snack actually has a pretty good protein content. A 1/4 cup serving contains 7 grams of protein – 49 grams in the whole container.
The other thing that Trader Joe’s did right with their dark chocolate edamame is not actually using dark chocolate at all. Seriously. A
quick inspection of the ingredients reveals only a mention of “semi-sweet” chocolate. Semi-sweet is a far cry from dark chocolate, sometimes containing as little as 35% cocoa. Trader Joe’s doesn’t state the percent of cocoa in these beans, but a safe bet might be around 50%.
Normally I decry this sort of misleading wordplay, but in this case I’m actually not that upset. For one, semi-sweet chocolate is still “technically” considered dark chocolate, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be considered as such in the vernacular. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s actually a good move. Dark chocolate tends to be unpalatable quickly as the purity increases. By going with a semi-sweet dark chocolate, Trader Joe’s has succeeded in making a eminently snackable chocolate treat perfect for setting out at bridge groups, high caliber sporting events, and other informal social gatherings. A chocolate treat that isn’t too sweet, or too bitter.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a fine use of dark chocolate.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, I could see putting this out for guests.
Final Synopsis: Semi-sweet chocolate beans with a pleasantly crunchy center.
I’ve got to hand it to Trader Joe’s Chickenless Crispy Tenders – they’re some of the best fake meat I’ve had to date. I’ve commented before on the common pitfalls of vegetarian cuisine attempting to ape meat instead of just doing its own thing. Usually this ends in a painfully tortured product name that attempts to acknowledge that it’s totally vegetarian but tastes just like meat, wink wink. (cf. Tofurkey). Generally this is an outrageous lie, or, more generously, extremely wishful thinking by a meat-starved demographic.
I’ve already expounded on my metaphysical sympathy for vegetarians. I can support the cause – I advocate the idea of abstaining from meat, and would do so myself if only my intensely bon vivant lifestyle would allow for it. Nevertheless, like the soy creamy ice cream substitute before it, I bought some crispy chickenless teneder because I needed a non-meat alternative for my (one) vegan friend. As fate would have it, I accidentally forgot to cook them in time for the meal, she ended up having nothing, and I was left with these chickenless tenders until tonight, when continued poor planning left me with nothing else in the house to eat.
Fortunately, Trader Joe’s Chickenless Tenders are not just edible, but downright tasty. They actually taste more or less like chicken tenders. How close? Close enough you could probably fool an unwary guest if you served them up without fanfare. There is still that tell-tale aftertaste of “soy-ness” that hangs around, but it’s pretty mild and is more or less totally cloaked by whatever dipping sauces or dressings you’re going to be ingesting the chicken tenders with. The only strange part is that the strips have been “breaded” in a variety of oats and flours that result in a crumbly, quasi breading that’s generally inferior to ordinary breading. The reason for this substitution, I cannot quite fathom.
TJ’s has managed to capture not just the taste, but also the texture of breaded chicken strips. The tenders are precisely that, coming out of the oven tender, moist, and just toothsome enough to give you a nice balance between chewy and yielding. They even pull apart more or less like real chicken, which is a difficult feat to accomplish when your medium is soy protein isolate.
How did TJ’s manage such a thing? I have no idea, but apparently it involves a large number of strange sounding, if allegedly natural, ingredients.
Water, soy protein isolate, and canola oil make up the first three ingredients, naturally enough. It might seem unusual that oil is ingredient #3, but remember that these are oven-baked “chicken” fingers we’re talking about. Like fish and or shrimp nuggets, when you take them out of the oven you’re going to be picking them up out of a little pool of their own oil.
After these three ingredients things get a little crazy. Pea protein pops up in a prominent position. Are peas known for their protein? Is it possible to tell someone, out loud, that your food has a lot of pea protein in it and not make it sound like an unspeakable form of bio-waste recycling? Not as far as I’m concerned.
After that we get into the ancient grain flours – including quinoa (natch), millet, and everyone’s favorite, amaranth. Rounding all that out is a good helping of Kamut®. “What the hell is Kamut®, and why is it trademarked?” is the very reasonable question you might be asking yourself right now. We’ll have to save that can of worms for another day, but the short answer is it’s a proprietary form of ancient wheat known as Khorasan wheat, originally from round about Afghanistan and nowadays lorded over by two Montana farmers. Also there’s beet root fiber in the tenders.
Somehow, in the end, all of this comes together to make strangely delicious vegan chicken tenders, with only thrice the fat of regular chicken tenders. For me it’s less important how it all works out, then the fact that it does. They might not replace regular, flesh and blood chicken in my life, but it’s good to know there’s a good back up option should it ever come to it.
Would I Recommend It: I would, if you’re a vegan/vegetarian.
Would I Buy It Again: This seems like a good fit for Meatless Monday.
Final Synopsis: Eerily good vegan chicken tenders.
Adventures in guacamole continue with Trader Joe’s Spicy Guacamame Spicy Edamame Dip– a 100% edamame based gucamole. Having just reviewed Trader Joe’s semi-guac, the Reduced Guilt Guacamole with Greek Yogurt, it was a no brainer to pick up this brand new little doozy sitting on the shelf right next to it.
At first glance, this “guacamame” seems to combine the healthy aspects of the lite guacamole from last week, with the puns-manship of Avacado’s Number Guacamole – the best of both world’s surely! Of course the proof, as always, is in the pudding.
The package of Guacamame proudly boasts that it contains 40% fewer calories and 70% less fat than regular guacamole. How does that stack up to our previous low cal, low fat, reduced guilt guacamole? Pretty closely, actually. The Guacamame has 35 calories per 30 gram serving and 1.5 grams of fat. The Reduced Guilt Guacamole, on the other hand, has 30 caloires per 30 gram serving, and 2 grams of fat.
That means, if you eat this guac instead of that guac, you’ll have had 5.5 grams less fat, but 55 more calories. There’s also, like, one more carb / serving in this one. To me that’s a small enough difference that this grudge match can be settled on taste alone.
Of course, that raises the question – isn’t Trader Joe’s just undermining their own efforts by making two products fight for the same, narrow conceptual space? Does TJ’s really have room for more than one non-traditional, diet-friendly quasi-guacamole? I’m sure market forces will decide this one ultimately, but it seems weird. Honestly, this feels like another Fruit Bar / Fruit Wrap style inter-company rivalry.
So that brings us to taste. The sad truth, in my opinion, is that the somewhat subpar reduced-guilt guacamole from last week is still better than this Guacamame. Before I can even get started on this, it needs to be said that Guacamame is much better thought of as a bean dip than anything like really guacamole. That’s hardly surprising given the all-beans-no-avocados approach of the dip. It may be green like guacamole, it might even be spicy like guacamole, but it has the same sort of mediocre taste and, more importantly, has the same mouth feel of a bean dip. You know that sort of loose gritty feeling you get from a hummus or pinto dip? That’s the exact same feeling you get here.
Even taken on the grounds of being a spicy bean dip alone it’s not great. The dip is very loose – much looser than most bean dips, and certainly nothing like guacamole. The edamame beans have been blended into a single, smooth, slightly running mash alongside some tofu, jalapenos and starch. It certainly lights up your mouth with a touch of fire, but beyond that there’s no particular flavor to enjoy – just that bean-y grit. With nary a chunk of anything, let alone avocado, in sight I must once again wonder if the Gucamame would have fared better if Trader Joe’s never tried to compare it to guacamole in the first place.
Shockingly, our Guacamame goes under the Trader Jose’s brand name. Really, TJ? You’re trying to tie your experimental non-guacamole made from Japanese soybeans to a rich Hispanic heritage? A spicy edamame dip made with tofu and modified tapioca starch, just like they serve up in the old school cantinas on the backstreets of Veracruz? I wouldn’t mind it so much if you hadn’t oddly left the “Jose” name off of the reduced-guilt guacamole. It all goes to make me increasingly suspicious that the naming office of Trader Joe’s is run by a single, over-worked monkey who’s heart just isn’t in it any more. Also he might be having troubles at home.
At any rate, there might just be enough body and flavor to replace a spicy bean dip with Guacamame, but certainly not your guacamole.
Would I Recommend It: I’d recommend the reduced-guilt variety first.
Would I Buy It Again: I would not. There are much better gucamoles out there.
Final Synopsis: A weak guacamole substitute made from edamame soybeans and tofu.
Well, it happened – a fall from grace I never saw coming. After and unending streak of not just good, but down right delicious salads, Trader Joe’s has finally served up a stinker. A salad that’s not just kind of bad, or hard to get down, or somewhat unpalatable. No, I found Trader Joe’s Kale and Edamame Bistro Salad actually inedible. Inedible! There’s almost nothing from Trader Joe’s I’ve found inedible – and that’s coming from the guy who actually finished off Trader Joe’s gelatinous Shrimp Nuggets. I’ve even managed to finish of things I don’t like (like that tub of marinated beets). But with this salad I just couldn’t do it, and it wasn’t for lack of trying either. I really wanted to like this salad. Salad is one of my favorite foods in the world. For me, discovering a new salad is like unearthing a small, rare treasure. How could this have happened?
Before I launch into my criticism here, I’m perfectly willing to admit that it’s probably my fault that I didn’t enjoy this salad. Trader Joe’s has such a stellar record with their salads that it’s hard for me to accept that they could put out one so completely unpalatable. The far more likely scenario is that I’m an uncultured heathen whose crude taste buds failed to appreciate the higher art the salad was devised by. I’m fully expecting to see some resounding condemnations of my review in the comment section and, frankly, I welcome them. I’d rather live in a world where I’m a confused nitwit than a world where Trader Joe’s puts out lame salads.
Okay, so on to the salad.
It’s awful, guys. Nothing in it really seems to work. I should have maybe been tipped off to this by the name – a combination of kale, soy beans, and sweetened cranberries just sounds like trouble. On the other hand, there’s nothing about roasted squash, quinoa and wheatberries that sounds like they’d be particularly delicious and I enjoy that salad so much that I’m actually eating it now, as I type this.
The first problem with the Kale and Edamame sald is, I think, the kale. There’s no other green in the salad but kale. I like me some kale in my salad – I loved TJ’s Cruciferous Crunch for exactly that reason – but kale needs to be used sparingly. It’s wonderful for texture and body, but when you make your salad out of nothing but kale, like TJ’s did here, it feels like you’re eating a pine tree from the tip down.
If you can get past the kale, you’ve still got to deal with the gangs of edamame soybeans, cranberries, grape tomatoes and scallions. These tastes just simply did not go together well for me. The sweetness of the cranberries fought against the waxiness of the beans, and the scallions practically reeked, overpowering the other tastes. The big, button-sized beans and whole tomatoes didn’t help either, it just made it so I had to take lots of giant mouthfuls.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, was the salad dressing. The package bills it as a lemon herb dressing, and I had hope for it. The dressing looked thick and creamy perhaps, I reasoned, it would have just the right flavor to balance the rest of the salad’s intense elements. Sadly, it did not. The lemon herb dressing lacks sweetness, or tanginess or depth. What it delivers seemed more like mustard to me than anything – harsh and astringent, clashing with everything else in the bowl.
It was after the addition of the dressing, when I found myself sitting there chewing a huge mouthful of chopped kale covered with lemon juice and pungent herbs, that I simply put the fork down. I couldn’t go on. I need at least one good element in a food to muscle my way through it, one ray of light. In the case of Trader Joe’s Kale and Edamame Salad I couldn’t find any.
Would I Recommend It: No, just no.
Would I Buy It Again: It was such an unpleasant experience that I might have to get it again, just to convince myself it was real.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s worst salad.