Every summer Trader Joe’s parades out a new selection of beverages with the goal of quenching your thirst. Sometimes these are legitimately quenching, like Trader Joe’s Coconut Water, and sometimes they’re just picking your pocket book, like Trader Joe’s Maple Water.
|What it is:||Green tea with a touch of mint.|
|Price:||$2.99 for a 64 oz. jug|
|Worth it:||Yes. Great tea at a good price.|
What makes something truly refreshing? I couldn’t tell you – but I can say that Trader Joe’s Moroccan Mint Tea definitely has *it*. A cool, quenching not-too-minty, subtly sweet green tea that is here just in time to beat back the summer heat. It might just be tea, but it’s tea done right.
What’s so good about it? This green tea is infused with both spearmint and peppermint, then sweetened with a touch of cane sugar. Unlike most mint teas, which tend to be overpoweringly minty, or cloyingly sweet, TJ’s Moroccan Mint Tea gets it just right. Take a big swig of this, and the first thing you’ll taste is… tea. The actual kettle-brewed flavor of a cool green tea. Notice the deep mellowness of it – not too astringent, certainly not sweet – just right. Only as you begin to take a gulp does the minty back show itself, enhancing the flavor of the tea and cooling the palette without overwhelming the natural flavor of the brew.
It’s a similar play with the cane sugar – just a hint has been added. Just enough to balance out the naturally bitter edge of tea, but not enough to make it a traditionally sweet drink.
Trader Joe’s attributes this tea to Moroccan, but this sort of sweetened mint tea is common throughout the Mediterranean regions – or anywhere that the sun gets too damn hot. If that sounds like where you live, you’ll definitely want to consider picking up at bottle.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – extremely refreshing!
Would I Buy It Again: Most certainly.
Final Synopsis: Perfectly balanced, wonderfully quenching tea.
Before I get into talking about Trader Joe’s Dried Baby Bananas, I should probably acknowledge by absence lo, these last 4 months. After posting twice a week, every week for the last 4 years, I just got tired. That, combined with a new ad revenue sharing model implemented by WordPress (“Thanks for the increased traffic – we’d like to start paying you half as much.”) meant that a short Christmas hiatus turned into a long-term indefinite hiatus.
|What it is:||Super tasty, tiny, dried bananas.|
|Price:||$1.99 for a 6 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||More than worth it.|
And honestly, that indefinite hiatus would probably still be going on if it wasn’t for two factors – first, Trader Joe’s started all but taunting me with some of the stuff they’ve been stocking, but more importantly, I received some very touching, very concerned e-mails from fans of the blog. I certainly wasn’t expecting that – and it simply melted my heart. Sure, I could get by without the blog, but how could I deny you, the reader, of my rambling, unprofessional, knee-jerk screeds? That’s what really kept me up at night.
So anyway, I’m back. I’ll be making a couple tweaks in the weeks to come – in particular I’ll be posting only once a week going forward, and maybe making some changes to the format, but really when Trader Joe’s comes out with whole baby bananas, dried into tiny, chewy brown fingers, the time has come again to weigh in.
These whole, dried bananas showed up a couple months ago, but I simply can’t get them off my mind. When it comes to dried fruit, I tend to think that there aren’t any real advances to be made in the field since, say, the Babylonians. It’s dried fruit – once they figured out you could dry fruit for storage it probably took them all of an afternoon to explore every available option. You wanna put apple slices in there? Sure, why not. Apricots? Orange slices? Mango? Pretty straight forward stuff. Maybe someone remembered to try persimmons a day or two later. This is low tech, elemental stuff.
So why have I never before in my life seen whole dehydrated bananas? It’s certainly not because they’re not delicious, because these dehydrated baby bananas are the very definition of nature’s candy. Starting with whole baby bananas out of Thailand, Trader Joe’s simply dries them until they wrinkle up into desiccated, little brown fingerlings – a few inches long, and about half an inch wide. The sugar in the banana concentrates down as the bananas shrink, resulting in that mild, mellow banana sweetness and taste, only sweeter and stronger. Think jelly belly compared to jelly bean – more flavor in a smaller package.
The resulting texture is still soft, but also vaguely leathery and chewy – making them extremely enjoyable to snack on. This, combined with the wrinkled, flaccid, tanned appearance is perhaps a bit off putting. I’ll admit that the notion that this must be a little bit what munching on a mummy’s fingers would be like did flash through my brain on more than one occasion while eating these – however they’re so tasty and snackable that they easily overcome any reservations about texture or appearance.
Trader Joe’s suggests that these make an excellent snack for “little hands and large hands alike”, which only reinforces the whole “I’m eating fingers” thing, but still makes a good point. You may only get about 20 of these baby dried bananas per 6 oz. bag, but they satisfy so well, and are so cheap, that they should last a a whole carful of munchkins, or an office of inquisitive co-workers.
Final Synopsis: Delicious, tiny, dried bananas – nature’s answer to the fun-sized candy bar.
Would I Recommend Them: Absolutley.
Would I Buy Them Again: I already have.
Few things are more tempting and decadent than a thick and creamy dip – and the king of these is no doubt the Spinach Dip. There is no party or social gathering that can’t be improved by the addition of a good spinach dip. Rich, cool and savory, even a mediocre spinach dip can elevate a humble tortilla chip to heavenly levels.
|What it is:||Low calorie spinach dip|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 16 oz. tub|
|Worth it:||Yes. Healthier, and still tasty.|
Of course, as is usual for anything that tastes so good, spinach dip is terrible for you. Loaded with lethal levels of fat, spinach dip is the sort of condiment designed to test your willpower to the utmost. Perhaps just a nibble, you think, maybe just a chip or two… We all know where this leads – into the grasping, inescapable current of a spinach dip whirlpool.
Fortunately, Trader Joe’s has come to the rescue with their new Trader Joe’s Reduced-Guilt Spinach & Kale Greek Yogurt Dip – another entry in their line of “reduced-guilt” dips. We took a look at their reduced guilt chunky guacamole and reduced guilt chicken salad before. Both delivered uneven results. As is so often the case for “diet” foods, it’s easy to make a low-fat, low-cal food product, it’s just hard to make it taste any good. “Reduced-guilt” products walk a dangerous line. You have to sacrifice flavor in order to be healthy, but stray too far to one side or the other and you end up with something pointless and stupid. Healthy, but too bad tasting, and no one will eat it. Good tasting, but not particularly healthy, and you might as well just get the full calorie version.
In this case, Trader Joe’s manages to walk the tight-rope perfectly. This Spinach and Kale dip isn’t quite as delicious as the real thing, but it’s damn well close enough. A rich mixture of kale, spinach, water chestnuts, red peppers, carrots, green onions, garlic and even a little mayo create a colorful flavor pallete that makes a satisfying, full-bodied snack for crackers or chips.
Whenever you sub out sour cream for plain greek yogurt, as TJ’s has done here, you’re going to lose a little zip. That’s still the case here. After a big bite of this dip, you’ll notice it’s missing a little something on the tail end – a touch bland where it should be a touch zingy. That’s just the unavoidable cost of keeping the fat content under control. Fortunately, the blend of other vegetables and seasonings pep the dip up, compensating for this flatness fairly well.
And boy is that little bit of blandness worth it. Trader Joe’s normal spinach dip has 70 calories per serving, 60 of those from fat. This greek yogurt dip has less than half that per serving – 30 calories, 20 of those from fat.
All in all, that’s a pretty good trade off. No every “reduced guilt” product is worth it, but this dip is an exception to the rule.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, healthy and tasty!
Would I Buy It Again: Sure – this is a winner.
Final Synopsis: Low cal spinach dip worth the price.
Trader Joe’s candy selection is just as interesting and varied as any of their other product selections. In the past we’ve looked at some of their intriguing chocolate offerings (some more successful than others), their honey mint patties, and even their mango gummies. However, out of all of the candies I’ve tried so far, Trader Joe’s new Ts & Js Sour Gummies have got to be my favorite.
|What it is:||Sweet and sour gummy candy.|
|Price:||$1.99 / 7 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||Yes. They’re like better Sour Patch Kids|
Sometimes you want something salty, sometimes you want something sweet, and sometimes you just want to pucker and grimace on something that will scour your taste buds with a coarse blast of citric acid. Trader Joe’s Sour Gummies is their answer to that masochistic desire for sour candy, and a marked upgrade on the only other contender for that slice of market space, the classic Sour Patch Kid.
What you get with these sour gummies is a 7 oz. bag of little letters “T” and “J” in four citrus flavors, dusted by rough grains of cane sugar. Sweet at first, for just a moment, the sugar quickly gives way to a single so-tart-you-love-it punch to the kisser. Trader Joe’s isn’t pulling the punches either – these little candies are every bit as sour as Sour Patch Kids, and then some. After a handful you’ll be ready to put them aside and give your mouth a break for a minute.
With four great flavors, you’ll actually enjoy the punishment. Unlike the vaguely differentiated “flavors” of Sour Patch Kids, Trader Joe’s actually delivers four distinct and interesting flavors – tangerine, Meyer lemon, key lime and grapefruit. Made with real fruit juice, you will be able to distinctly tell each little bite-sized letter apart by taste, if not by color. Best of the lot, in my opinion is grapefruit, which hits you with a kick of that unmistakably bitter grapefruit zest before giving way to the sweet gummy core.
Even better, these candies are vegan, kosher and all natural – right down to being colored by natural vegetable extracts. At only a $1.99 for a bag, what are you waiting for. Drop those Sour Patch Kids off at the orphanage and pick up some of these instead.
Would I Recommend It: Definitely, a great sweet and sour combo.
Would I Buy It Again: Yup.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s Sour Patch Kids.
Holy cow – what? Trader Joe’s Rosemary and Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds? Wait, Seriously?
Every time – every time – I see something like this from Trader Joe’s I think to myself, “We’ll this is it – Trader Joe’s has gone as crazy as they possibly can.” Surely we won’t be seeing anything as crazy as partially popped popcorn kernels again. Or fried broccoli. Or a BBQ rub made from coffee grounds. And yet here we are – holding a bag of sunflower seeds in our hands, sunflower seeds that have been seasoned with rosemary, thyme and maple syrup. That’s really what these are – no tricks. Here’s the product copy, straight from the website:
“We took great care with our supplier to balance the natural herb flavors of rosemary and thyme with salt. Next, the seasoned seeds are coated in a mixture of maple syrup and salted butter, just before they are fire-roasted in small batches.”
Look at that, just look at that – you can practically hear the desperation of the copy writer as he strains himself to sound casually breezy. The struggle as he tries to convey that this is just some toffee and rosemary and whatever, no big deal – while he knows perfectly well that he’s never once in his life even heard of anyone doing this to any food product, let alone sunflower seeds.
I don’t know – maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the one who’s gone crazy because I’ll tell you this much right now – these rosemary, thyme and toffee seeds are actually pretty good. Could a sane man dare utter that sentence? That very excellent question is beyond the scope of this blog post…all I can say right now is that Trader Joe’s is as skillful as they are brazenly daring. How else could you explain the delicately balanced mixture of spices, sugar and seeds that makes these snacks compulsively snackable?
I don’t know about you, but when I think rosemary I’m thinking, like, Rosemary Chicken levels of rosemary. BAM!-in-your-face, yup-that’s-rosemary, levels of rosemary. Trader Joe’s has been very careful not to give us that sort of rosemary here. There’s a bit more rosemary than salt on these seeds, but not by much. It’s just a hint of rosemary, along with an even more subdued touch of thyme, that you’ll taste behind the sweet and warm taste of crispy toffee.
If you think about these sunflower seeds as toffee-coated candied sunflower seeds, you’re on the right track. A handful of crunchy, sugary, maple toffee is what you’re going to mainly taste when you pop these in your mouth, followed by the familiar mildness of sunflower seeds, and only then will you notice the subtle but persistent touch of these two herbs, rosemary and thyme, which lingers long after the sweetness has faded. The seeds benefits from the light touch, and they’re easy to munch down, but in the end it’s still a strange taste that takes some getting used to.
Why Trader Joe’s even bothered to put rosemary and thyme in this mix at all, I don’t know. It seems like the logical move would’ve been to do something like cinnamon and nutmeg, or just to keep the herbs out of it all together. As it stands, this makes for a weird snack. Sweet and savory tastes rarely mesh well – and while these sunflower seeds are pretty good, the tastes ultimately clash more than harmonize.
Trader Joe’s has presented us with an intriguing new combination of flavors with these sunflower seeds, but it fails to make a persuasive case for its own existence.
Would I Recommend It: I wouldn’t – while they’re not bad, they’re probably too idiosyncratic to really catch on.
Would I Buy It Again: I really doubt it. They get points for daring though.
Final Synopsis: Candied sunflower seeds with just enough rosemary and thyme to make them weird.
Trader Joe’s has unleashed some strange jerkies on the world already – the unusual salmon jerky and addictive sriracha bacon jerky both spring to mind – but Trader Joe’s new South African-inspired Biltong Beef Jerky has got to be my new favorite. With a more nuanced and flavorful mix of spices, and thicker, more robust slices of beef, this jerky elevates a classic snack to a new level.
Biltong, as the bag will tell you, is from the Dutch bil and tong meaning, literally, “rump strip”. The Dutch name reflects the origin of the recipie. The notion of drying cured meat strips had been native to South Africa since time immemorial – but the arrival of Dutch settlers brought the notion of spicing the meat with black pepper, coriander, sugar, salt and vinegar – putting the jerk into the jerky, as it were.
The result is something extremely beef jerky like… and yet not. At first blush, beef jerky and biltong jerky are damn similar – after all they’re both beef, they’re both spiced and dried – but they vary in small, interesting ways. The first thing you’ll notice is that the biltong is narrow but thick – about half an inch wide and nearly that thick. It’s a much more orderly snack than your usual, raggedy, crumbly pile of wafer thin beef jerky – easier to eat and easier to share.
This same thickness gives the biltong jerky an amazing chewiness. Where ordinary beef jerky tends toward dryness, biltong tends toward juiciness. One strip will give your jaw muscles a full on work out. Once you’ve popped a strip in your mouth, however, you’ll quickly notice something else.
The blend of spices and flavors marinating the biltong is subtly different from most beef jerkies. While Trader Joe’s plays coy with the exact mix in their description – calling it a “family secret” – the result is a taste that is less intense than ordinary beef jerky (which, as we know, often tends toward extreme flavor profiles), and since it hasn’t been smoked the flavor of the meat itself is more apparent. Aside from the expected saltiness of the biltong, there’s a gentle pepperiness along with a faint fruitiness (thanks to the apple cider vinegar used in the curing process) and perhaps even a hint of floral notes – from Trader Joe’s Flower Pepper perhaps?
In any case, the resulting biltong is a whole new take on ordinary beef jerky – with thicker juicer slices, and an equally savory, if more subtle, flavor palette.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, a definite must try for jerky fans – enlightening.
Would I Buy It Again: Absolutely, I love a good jerky.
Final Synopsis: Beef jerky’s slightly more refined older brother.
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.