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.
I’ll admit it, I find something strangely alluring about tins of food. I can’t really enunciate exactly what it is that draws me to large, sealed metal tins, but whatever it is Trader Joe’s Grecian style Eggplant with Tomatoes and Onions has got it. There’s just something of a mystique to them something, that aura of the unknown that surrounds the Mystery Box, and would lead me to trade it all for what lies behind Door Number Two.
Surely that’s an impulse that we all share – even if it might be a touch harder to understand how that translates over to tins of food in my mind. After all, tin are clearly labeled aren’t they and – what’s more – generally cheap, low-quality, packed with preservatives and otherwise the last resort of cut-rate food producers everywhere. Isn’t the tin, after all, the receptacle of choice for the $0.49 can of tuna fish, the repugnant anchovy, and Armour Brand Potted Meat Food Product?
Yes, indeed – but whether its a sensory addiction to the feeling of gripping the ring tab and slowly prying back the lid or something even stupider, I can’t resist the siren song of a mysterious tin of food.
The last time I was lured down this path was for Trade Joe’s Dolmas, which I found off-puttingly oily but which many readers rose to the defense of as laudably authentic.
Trader Joe’s has here returned again to the Grecian well with this stewed eggplant product, even going so far as to use the exact same type of tin – namely the upside down one with the tab on the bottom. This still twirks my mind unpleasantly. Wouldn’t it be just as easy, maybe even easier, to put the label on in such a way that you could read it and open the canister at the same time?
Well,whatever the reason for it, once you’ve pried open the top/bottom of the tin you’ll find a densely packed stew of the eponymous eggplant, tomatoes and onion – more of a gloop actually. All the constituent parts seem as though they were cooked gently enough to preserve much of their shape and texture, but then crammed into the tin under sufficient force to blur the boundaries between one vegetable and another.
Disappointingly, to me anyways, what you get is exactly what is advertised – a mixture of the three vegetables (plus parsley, garlic and red pepper) that tastes like… well, those three vegetables. There’s no ineffable alchemy that takes place here, no whole greater than the sum of its parts – the three veggies mingle but don’t enhance each other in any remarkable way. The overall result is exactly what you’d get if you decided to stew up the same three ingredients in a pot yourself. Sure, Trader Joe’s is conveniently saving you the trouble with this tin, but the question is why? Who feels particularly compelled to get these particular ingredients in this form? That seems like a rare enough demand to me that I don’t necessarily need it on my shelf, ready to go at any moment.
If I did feel the urge to have some stewed eggplant, I’d probably just cook some up myself instead of going for an oil-packed can like we have here. For a dish that’s all veggies, you wouldn’t think it would be able to pack in 250 calories of fat (70% of all the calories in the dish!).
Trader Joe’s boasts that you’ll be “enchanted by the soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture and the smooth, almost squash-like, eggplant flavor.” If oily, stewed mush is something you have to have from a can, then this tin will suit you just fine. For me, I’ll be heading on to the next mystery tin without a backward glance.
Would I recommend It: Not in very strong terms, no.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t see any reason to.
Final Synopsis: Stewed eggplant packed in oil. About as good as it sounds.
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.
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.
It’s hard to know what to say about Trader Joe’s Baconesque White Cheddar Popcorn. It’s unusual certainly – the most unusual popcorn I’ve had since Trader Joe’s last weird popcorn experiment (or maybe the one before that) – but unusual in a very different way. This popcorn is, weirdly, exactly what it says – a vaguely bacon-y kind of popcorn. Not bacon popcorn, not popcorn with bacon bits, bacon flakes or even real bacon flavor, but a bacon-esque popcorn. Popcorn, in this case, that has been infused with a fake bacon smoke flavor. That fake bacon flavor is mingled with an intense white cheddar cheese powder results in a bizarre, slightly off-putting, but addictive snack.
I’ve written before on my opinion of bacon-mania. Although longer lasting than many of the food fads that have swept the nation, it stills shares the same quality of food fads everywhere – whether it be bacon vodka, or chocolate covered bacon, novelty comes first and quality is the afterthought. So when I see a new bacon gimmick on the self I’m immediately skeptical.
Does Trader Joe’s Baconesque Popcorn actually qualify as bacon though? Kind of… but not really. Normally I’d criticize a product for something like that, but in this case that’s what they’re actually advertising right on the bag. They promise fake bacon flavor and they deliver fake bacon flavor – should they penalized for that, or just stared at agog? They make it abundantly clear that in lieu of real bacon or bacon flavoring you will be getting “natural smoke flavor”. A psuedo-flavor that is sort of like putting your nose right above a sizzingly BBQ.
“Natural smoke flavor” is the same thing as “liquid smoke”, which really is actually made from smoke. It’s usually made by burning hickory or mesquite wood and capturing and concentrating the resulting smoke in a liquid medium. The resulting taste is a general sort of heavily-cooked meatiness. There isn’t anything screamingly bacon-y about it, certainly nothing resembling the heady, savory tastes of Trader Joe’s incredible Apple Smoked or Black Forest bacons. It tastes much more like these pieces of popcorn were mixed with a few heaping handfuls of Baco Bits – those hard, granuated bacon imitators people put on baked potatoes and what have you.
This strong and perplexing taste is combined with the equally strident taste of white cheddar – every bit as mouth blastingly cheesy as you would expect as if this popcorn was bright orange. The combination of extremely fake bacon flavor with extremely strong cheese flavor makes for one intense popcorn snack.
I personally found the roller coaster ride of flavors interesting enough to come back to bag more than once – although each time I limited myself to just a kernel or two. This would be extremely hard stuff to munch down like your standard movie theater popcorn. It’s much better treated like a tin of sardines or a plate of olives – as an over the top flavor to be sampled in small quantities.
Would I Recommend It: Probably not. The fake bacon taste is somewhat off putting.
Would I Buy It Again: I might, I like a snack that demands you muse on it rather than gobble it down.
Final Synopsis: Like cheesy popcorn with a bunch of Baco bits mixed in.
Sometimes Trader Joe’s nails the names, as with their Avacado’s Number guacamole, other times, as with Trader Joe’s 0% Frozen Vanilla Greek Fat Free Yogurt, they’re just being confusing. I dare you to parse that mangled phrase. 0% frozen, vanilla Greek, fat free yogurt. So obviously we’re talking about a 100% melted, fat free yogurt with the flavor of vanilla Greeks, right? This isn’t the first time Trader Joe’s has been syntactically confusing in their product titles (see Italian Blood Orange Soda, Thai Lime Shrimp, and French Berry Lemonade) but it is probably the most egregious. Just call it Fat-Free Greek Frozen Yogurt, you guys!
At any rate, I was excited to see this on the shelves because, like my father and his father before him, I love that froyo! The low calorie, low fat version of ice cream, frozen yogurt is the salvation of anyone craving a frozen treat.
Trader Joe’s offers ordinary non-fat Greek yogurt in vanilla already, and this frozen variety is incredibly similar. It’s as if they took the yogurt available in the refrigerated case and just cooled it a few more degrees. I’m a big fan of TJ’s non-fat Greek Yogurts, going so far as to live my life by a yogurt clock, so I was basically won over as soon as I saw this.
The frozen Greek yogurt capitalizes on all the best qualities of the non-frozen variety – it’s creamy, dense, and sweet (but not too sweet!) with a mellow tone of vanilla set against the yogurt tang. It certainly isn’t the sort of sweet creaminess you’d get from a dairy vanilla ice cream, but frozen yogurt isn’t trying to be that. And at a scanty 100 calories per 1/2 cup and no fat, it doesn’t have to be.
I enjoyed this frozen yogurt in its own right, but it’s a basic enough taste that it can easy be dressed up with all the usual ice cream toppings, bits of crushed candy sweets, or even strawberries, raspberries, ripe peaches or plums. I mean, anything really, man. We live in a free and crazy age of bold experimentation – I can’t think of a reason not to pick up a tub of this and go completely nuts.
Would I Recommend It: For sure – no fat, few calories and sweet frozen goodness. That’s all good.
Would I Buy It Again: Well, I finished eating this one already, so yeah.
Final Synopsis: Pretty much exactly like the frozen version of TJ’s regular 0% fat Greek yogurt.