Trader Joe’s Mango Taffy

taffy
Sure – I love mango. Maybe I’m crazy for it. Maybe I’m on the record as saying that I wish my diet was pretty much mango and nothing else. I may have even made a tag for all mango themed products I’ve reviewed called “MANGO!”. For these reasons, and more, I am really not sure what to do with myself right now. Folks, I don’t know how else to say it, but we are in the FIRST EVER TRADER JOE’S MANGO MADNESS SEASON.

MANGO MADNESS! MANGO MADNESS! MANGO MADNESS!

Ranking: 3 stars 3 star ranking

What it is: Nice taffy that tastes like mango.
Price: $3.99 for a 12 oz. tub
Worth it: Yes, if you like mango and taffy.

Pumpkin Madness? That I can handle. Over time I’ve started to come to terms with Trader Joe’s annual pumpkin deluge – the October tradition of stocking the store so full of pumpkin derived products that they spill from the shelves and choke the doors.

What I was absolutely not prepared for is my favorite fruit in the entire world, getting the same treatment. My hands are quivering, I’m still breathing hard – and I went in the Trader Joe’s YESTERDAY. Guys, every aisle – every nook and cranny – is absolutely bursting with mango products, each item more outlandish than the last.

I should be thrilled – swinging from the lamp posts – but instead I find a strange uneasy churning in my stomach.

First, I’m not sure my grocery budget can take the strain of purchasing every new Mango product. But even more nervous-making, I’m worried for the mango itself.

Pumpkin is one thing. Pumpkin is the dependable, workman-like squash of the vegetable world. You can do anything to pumpkin and it won’t complain – mash it, roast it, puree it, spice it, candy it, press it for oil – whatever. It’s a mellow gourd with an unassuming, laid-back taste.

Mango, on the other hand, is a diva. Bright, brilliant, succulent and oh so deliciously sweet, mango can only be done two ways – perfectly, or perfectly awful. A poorly devised pumpkin product might leave you non-plussed –  but when someone does mango wrong, you end up with a repugnant horror. This is what I fear – that Trader Joe’s will abuse mango so horribly that they actually ruin my favorite fruit for me. Each new item I pick up is like another spin at Russian Roulette. I’m sure most of these will be great, but at some point I’m bound to find something lethal. Or will the sheer quantity of new products include enough duds that I swear off mango forever.

So which side of the line does Trader Joe’s Mango Taffy fall on?

I’m happy to say that this Mango infused candy is delicious. Taffy is rarely ever truly good or truly bad – most of the time it’s just that sweet, chewy sugar-dough you stick in your mouth when you’re on vacation somewhere rustic. The body of this taffy is just fine – a nice consistency, but unexcpetion. Not too hard, not too soft – malleable and almost yielding to the tongue. The mango flavor is pleasantly flavorful and strong. Taffy makers are fond of claiming they have all manner of flavors – a veritable encyclopedia of tastes encompassing every fruit and confection under the sun – but tend to deliver only about 3 or 4 distinctly different tastes among a sea of sweetness.

Trader Joe sidesteps this pitfall – delivering a mango taffy actually tastes like mango. Close your eyes and concentrate and you can nearly taste the juiciness of a nice bite of ripened, succulent mango flesh. It’s not quite there, obviously, but it’s a fair simulacra, and certainly deserving of the mango name.

The price is reasonable, to boot. If you’re looking for a confection that will really blow your socks off, you could do better in the magical candy aisles of Trader Joe’s, but if your a mango fan or a taffy fan, you’ll not go wrong picking this up.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Sure – this is pretty good taffy.

Would I Buy It Again: Yeah, I guess so.

Lives Up To The Name “Mango”: Yup – real mango flavor in these taffies.

Final Synopsis: Good mango taffy.

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Trader Joe’s Marshmallows

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I’ve dedicated this blog to in-depth, clear-eyed analysis of the strangest, most intriguing and generally hardest to fathom products Trader Joe’s brings to market. The things, in other words, that make you go “Huh – I wonder what that tastes like?”

Ranking: 5 stars 5 stars

What it is: Really good marshmallows.
Price: $2.99 for a 10 oz. bag
Worth it: Yes. Dense, sweet and creamy.
If I see, say, a can of pumpkin seed oil, or a bag of fried parsnips, I’m pretty much going to grab it immediately. That sort of stuff is irresistible to me. On the other hand, some new type of milk chocolate caramel, or whatever, is simply a bore. Without even tasting that I can tell you exactly how good it is. It’s really, really good. You don’t need me to tell you that milk chocolate and caramel taste good. Maybe  if you throw a little quinoa in there, I’d be interested. Maybe drop some pumpkin pie spice on it and I’ll perk up my ears. So why, you may be wondering, am I bothering to review something as mundane as average, unadorned, regular-old marshmallows?
Well, one – because Trader Joe’s has never carried marshmallows before. You can get muhammara, chocolate-covered potato chips and 4 different types of guac, but you’re out of luck if you want dry beans.
More importantly, however, these are the best damn marshmallows I’ve ever tasted – bar none.
Never did I dream that the standard, industrial-produced marshmallows that I have literally consumed thousands of over the course of my life – in hot chocolate, on smores, as peeps, enrobed in cheap chocolate or dusted with coconut – could be anything more than little sugary pillow of air. Never did I dream that marshmallows, by themselves, could be a delicious, craveable treat.  That’s what we’re talking about here with Trader Joe’s Maershmallows. It’s as if I’d only ever eaten garden variety Hershey bars my whole life, then someone gave me a dark chocolate bar filled with bacon-ganache. I never knew they could be this good.
Trader Joe’s Marshmallows have literally opened my eyes to the world of inferior marshmallows I have been living in. Writing that down makes me feel like the most shallow person in the world – but I’ll take my enlightenment where I can get it, thank you.
What makes these marshmallows stand out? Everything. Imagine for a moment, every enjoyable quality that an ordinary marshmallow has. Now improve them all by 200%. It’s like Trader Joe’s just brought a Lamborgini to a planet that only had go-karts.
The very first thing you’ll notice as you pick up the bag is how dense and hefty these marshmallows are. Still squishy, yes. Still malleable and yielding, but one of these marshmallows sits in the hand with the weight of three ordinary name-brand marshmallows. It’s as if Trader Joe’s decided to pump a third less air into the same quantity of marshmallow stuff.
Now take a bite. How much richier, chewier and – most notably – creamier do these Trader Joe’s Marshmallows taste? Even better, enjoy that satisfying sweetness. I’ve only never known the sugary, hit-you-in-the-bloodstream extruded corn syrup sweetness of name-brand marshmallows. Trader Joe’s marshmallows, even though they’re denser, are more mellow in their sweetness and more enjoyable to just snack on.
Yes, I said it, snack on. These marshmallows are far more than the raw ingredient for some dish topping – they’re good enough to nibble at while sitting around watching a movie. They’re more of a candy bar substitute than a marshmallow substitute.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from using these in place of more ordinary marshmallows in any dish. I tried making a batch of rice krispy squares, and found that not only where they waaay harder to stir, they made for a gooier, and tastier final treat. No surprise there.
There’s no doubt about it – Trader Joe’s Marshmallows deserve a rare 5-star review. They did for me what cookie butter did for me – opened my eyes to a whole new, delicious vista that I never knew existed.

The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Hell yeah!
Would I Buy It Again: It’s the only type of marshmallow I’ll ever by again.
Final Synopsis: The best marshmallows I’ve ever had in my whole life.

Trader Joe’s Just Beets

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Beets, man. I keep giving them a chance, and every time I do, they squander their opportunity. Our example today is Trader Joe’s Just Beets. I got suckered in this time the same way as every time. “Surely,” I thought, “they wouldn’t just sell you dehydrated beet slices if they weren’t secretly delicious, right?” It’s a lesson life first tried to teach me when I was at a restaurant that had a special “Jiffy Burger” on the menu – a hamburger slathered in peanut butter. “Surely,” I thought, “they wouldn’t just sell you a hamburger with peanut butter on it if it wasn’t secretly delicious, right?”

 

That hamburger wasn’t delicious, and neither are these beets. Admittedly, that’s just my opinion. If you already like beets, you’re probably going to like these.They are, as the bag says, just beets. In fact, the best thing I can personally say about these beets is that, with proper application of a dramatic pause, it’s fun the say the name.

“Do you want some of this?

“What is it?

“Trader Joe’s….Just beets!”

“No.”

Is an example of the sort of conversation I’ve been having. Unsurprisingly, this has not proven to be an effective way to pitch the product.

What you’re signing up for is right there on the label… and in the ingredients… and inside the bag. Just beets. Dehydrated beets in fact. The product copy proudly touts that “97% of the water has been removed.” If only they could have kept on going and removed the beets as well.

 

To be fair, of all the beet products I’ve tried from Trader Joe’s, aside from the rather tasty the beet hummus, this is probably my favorite – if only because most of that ruinous beet flavor has been extracted from them. As in most dehydrated foods, the bold flavor of the fresh produce has been muted. That’s just an unavoidable part of the dehydrating process, and, in this case, a perk. However, the vivid deep purple coloration is still there, as is the signature beet aftertaste – that long lingering flavor of the earth that simply won’t leave you be.

In short, I hate beets and think they’re ruining the world – but hey, I’m prejudiced. With that in mind I reached out to a good friend to serve as a special guest taster. She spent time living in New England, and developed a taste for beets, turnips and all the other dire root vegetables of those dour, cloud-saddled states. She loved them flavorful beet chips – calling them, “awesome”. Not only are they still quite beet-y tasting, they’re cut thick enough that even after dehydration most of the chips were intact – perfect little burgundy circles that pack a strong, satisfying crunch. Even more, she loved them as an easy way to get at that distinctive beet flavor in an easy to manage and accessible way.

Assuming you like beets, the only other caveat I’d mention is the price. You’ll pay well for access to this delicious taste – $2.99 for a 1.3 oz bag. I know that dehydrated food tends to be  expensive, but doesn’t that seem a little steep for what is, by their own admission, just beets?

If for some reason you’ve subscribed to a love of beets – a love I can only describe as sinister and Lovecraftian – then you’ll probably really enjoy Trader Joe’s Just Beets. You could probably go crazy and dip them in your beet hummus and wash it down with some TJ’s beet juice. Or if you’re sane, like me, then you’ll want to give them a wide berth.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Me, no. My friend, yes.
Would I Buy Them Again: My friend definitely would. I would buy anything BUT them again.
Final Synopsis: Dehydrated beet slices make for crunchy chips.

Trader Joe’s French Roast Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate

 

IMG_20160502_184840.jpgSome time ago I published my review of Trader Joe’s original Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate. The product was, needless to say, an instant hit. 24 ounces of fine, dark coffee, cold press-expelled and concentrated 2-to-1. It not only scratched that caffeine itch, but it did it in a damn nice way. It was, in its own way, the cookie butter of the coffee drinking world – a remarkable game changer that everyone can agree on.

Now, I’m not much of a coffee drinker myself – my monthly coffee intake is roughly equivalent to what most people drink in one morning. I bring up this as a sort of inverse bona fides – I really know next to nothing about coffee. Nevertheless, even I, untrained palette I, was able to appreciate the fine, if subtle, qualities present in Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate. In fact, TJ’s cold brew coffee is responsible for the very first redaction I ever ran on this blog. After giving it an initial rating of “Eh, I don’t get what the big deal is”, I ended up going back to the bottle time and time again, until I’d polished the whole thing off. It’s that good. Even an untrained, unsophisticated coffee drinker preferred it to ordinary brewed coffee.

What’s the appeal? The biggest difference is that cold brew coffee is almost unbelievably mellow and unacidic, compared to ordinary brewed coffee – even for “low acidity” blends. When coffee grounds are cold brewed they’re basically just soaked – soaked in cool water for a day or more until gentle osmosis has impregnated their medium with all the flavor and caffeine of the bean. This lengthy process is the reason you have to buy your cold brew coffee pre-made – and why Starbucks runs out of it part way through the day. You simply can’t brew up more of this stuff on command.

As a result of this patient process, the resulting coffee avoids any of the acrid components that show up in hot-brewed, or over-cooked coffee, while also teasing out more subtle aspects of the bean that obliterated by being exposed to boiling temperatures. The coffee is still as bold, bitter and brawny as it would be of it was hot brewed, it’s just easier on the palette, teeth and, importantly, stomach.

So if Trader Joe’s cold-brew coffee is already such a hit, what does this new variety have to offer? Why bother with a French Toast? To be honest, there’s really not a whole lot of difference between the new brew and the old brew – more crunchy cookie butter vs. smooth than of cookie butter vs. oreo cookie butter.

“French roast” just refers to how long a
coffee bean has been roasted for, before grinding. In this case, a very long time. On the informal scale of bean roasting, the French is the penultimate roasting designation – only the Italian roast subjects beans to more heat for longer. As you might expect, a longer roast results in more of that smokey, toasty, roasted taste, but at the cost of burning away any individual characteristics of the original bean. As such, it’s not usually the coffee conisseur’s first choice. However, that same extended roasting process also breaks down the acid in the bean, making it a naturally choice for those looking for a lower acidity brew.

The end result means that this brew is a little bolder and even less acidic than its forbearer. Those are both pluses in my book. If you’re looking to expand your cold brew experience, or just trying to find the least acidic coffee on the market, you’ll want to give this one a try.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yup – if you like cold brew coffee, you’ll like this.
Would I Buy It Again: This jug is a 2x concentrate, so it should last me a year or so.

Final Synopsis: More of what you live in a cold brew.


Trader Joe’s Uncured Bacon Jam

Trader Joe's Bacon Jam

As I mentioned in my last post and as is, I suppose, self-evident, I’ve returned from my indefinite hiatus to write – you know –some more stuff about food or whatever.

Ranking: 3 stars 3 star ranking

What it is: Sweet and tangy bacon spread.
Price: $4.49 for a 8.5 oz jar
Worth it: Yes – if you like new flavors.

It may have been the dried whole baby bananas that stuck with me during my time away, but it was the numerous encouraging voices that checked in with my blog of out genuine concern that spurred me back into action. Well, that and one other thing – Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam.

There are some challenges that simply must be risen to. By releasing Bacon Jam TJ’s was practically daring me to return to blogging. After all, who else could possibly write off-beat, off-the-cuff, man-on-the-ground style articles with just a dash of snark? Who else, other than the numerous other Trader Joe’s review blogs, some of which directly rip-off my website design? Obviously the world needed me.

When I see products like Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam, I can’t help but think that there’s someone, somewhere in the high echelons of TJ’s who is compelled by a Joker-style urge to unmake the order of the world. Only instead of throwing bombs, his tool is novel food products – and he wields that tool like a hammer against the glassine walls of reality.  If you wanted to break down the shared consensus of what is logical and what is madness, you could do worse than mass producing products like Trader Joe’s pumpkin-spiced pumpkin seeds, pickle popcorn, dehydrated kimchi, etc.

Add to that list Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam. If I assigned myself the task of thinking up the most outlandish, bacon-food mashup up, I could work for hours (Bacon Candy? Bacon Beer? Bacon Pie?) and never have come to Bacon Jam. Incidentally, all the other things I came up with are actual, real products as well.

Of course, the same could have been said about cookie butter, and look where cookie butter is now, – ascended to Olympus to bathe us all in its warm, loving gaze. To be clear, Trader Joe’s Bacon Jam is nowhere near the same caliber of delicious as cookie butter, but a sort of strange parallel does present itself. Cookie butter…bacon jam… we may have to face the very real possibility that Trader Joe’s ideal target demographic is late career Elvis. It’s now easier than ever for me to take two slices of bread and with a few easy moves make an unholy cookie butter and bacon jam sandwich. Deep fry that and throw on a white sequined suit and you’re ready to die mysteriously on a toilet!

Actually the most surprising thing about bacon jam is that it isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s a surprisingly edible and spreadable condiment. From the name you might expect it to be quite sweet, and while it certainly contains some sugar, this isn’t a pork version of Smuckers. Instead, it’s a vinegary and tangy spread with a mellow, apple-y sweetness. It immediately reminded me of that classic American recipe, green beans and bacon (or the similar recipe for spinach and bacon salad). This bacon “jam” has that same baked-in-vinegar taste that that the bacon dressings in those recipes have – it’s just as if all that dressing was gathered up and packed in a jar for your convenience.

The result is as sort of quasi-congealed, spreadable bacon condiment that can add that meaty, zingy sort of taste to… well, whatever you want to put it on, I guess. What that is, exactly, is up to you. Trader Joe’s makes the half-hearted suggestions of using it on burgers, BLTs and pizzas, although none of those struck me as killer app (-itizer…ha.) Like some of Trader Joe’s other novel food creations, it might make an interesting addition to the cabinet, but fails to scratch any real itch.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Yes to the adventerous, no to the staid.

Would I Buy It Again: I can’t think of a reason to.

Final Synopsis: Tangy, vinegary bacon spread. Not bad, but not really essential.

Trader Joe's Bacon Jam - Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Greek Whole Milk Yogurt – Maple Brown Sugar & Trader Joe’s Greek Whole Milk Yogurt – Chocolate Mousse

Trader Joe's Whole Milk Greek Yogurt - Maple Brown Sugar and Chocolate Mousse

Non-seasonal, but still lovely, packaging. Nice work, TJ’s!

Trader Joe’s has never been afraid to “go there” – in terms of yogurt development and placement. Like most grocery stores they offer a virtual cornucopia of yogurt flavors, types, and fat content. Unlike most grocery stores, they’ve been known to put out holiday versions of their classic greek yogurt.

Ranking: 2 stars 

2 star rating

 

What it is: Greek yogurt in two new flavors.
Price: $1.29 for an 8 oz. cup
Worth it: Not really. Both new flavors are only mildly interesting.

Last year we saw the debut of their Pumpkin Greek Yogurt over the October Pumpkin Madness. It must have worked well, because this year Trader Joe’s has debuted two new flavors for the winter holidays – Maple Brown Sugar, and Chocolate Mousse. Those might not be the flavors that come to mind when you first think “Christmas”, but that’s why we love Trader Joe’s isn’t it? They zig when everyone else is zagging.

Unlike the pumpkin Greek yogurt last of last fall, these two new flavors are whole milk, full fat yogurts. 320 calories wait for you in each 8 oz tub, 12 grams of fat (7 grams of that saturated fat) and 37 grams of carbs.

3 gallons of milk go into 1 gallon of Greek yogurt, so this is the nutritional density you’re paying for – not to mention the whopping 16 grams of protein. If you eat both of these, you’ve basically had a pretty heft meal. So, are these novel yogurt flavors worth it?

What you certainly can expect is what you always get from a whole milk Greek yogurt – thick, smooth, velvety and thick again. A greek yogurt needs to be eaten slowly, regardless whether you enjoy the flavor or not.

The flavors, in this case, are intriguing, but not incredible. The Maple Brown Sugar Greek Yogurt has a wonderfully evocative name, but doesn’t taste particularly special. It’s a combination of real brown sugar and real maple syrup (naturally, this being Trader Joe’s). Sugar and syrup, however, even brown sugar and maple syrup, are just your basic sweeteners. Basic sweetness is about what you get out of them here. The more nuanced notes of the sugar and syrup are lost in the generally yogurtiness of the yogurt. However, the sweetness is a nice counterpoint to the considerable tang of the yogurt cultures. Overall, a nice, fatty yogurt.

The Chocolate Mousse Greek Yogurt is a more complex matter. Some time ago, I reviewed Trader Joe’s European-style chocolate yogurts, and found them intriguing and sophisticated, but ultimately a bit off-putting. This chocolate greek yogurt is a lot thicker than those little yogurt pots, but hte flavor is the same – tangy chocolate. If you can hold those two words together in your head at the same time and not shudder a little, then you will probably enjoy this yogurt. The chocolate flavor comes courtesy of cocoa powder touched up with some sugar and vanilla extract, and it’s done well. The chocolate is strong tasting, bold and verging on the bitterness of dark chocolate, but it comes paired with the strong, undeniable tang of active yogurt cultures. Tangy chocolate folks – it’s here again.

I love novelty, and for some reason I really love novel yogurt flavors, but these two yogurts left me underwhelmed. The Maple Brown Sugar was too generically sweet for me to buy again, and if I wanted to try chocolate yogurt again I’d go with the European versions that are still on the shelves.

I’m tempted to recommend these as a desert surrogate, but honestly if you have room in your dietary budget for 300 calories of sugar and fat, just eat a real chocolate mousse. Aside from that, I think only Greek yogurt fans in desperate need of a little variety can really justify making this purchase.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Only in the faintest of terms.

Would I Buy Them Again: Me? No.

Final Synopsis: Fatty yogurt available in a couple mildly interesting flavors.

Trader Joe's Whole Milk Greek Yogurt - Maple Brown Sugar and Chocolate Mousse

Trader Joe’s Whole Milk Greek Yogurt Chocolate Mousse – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Seafood Sriracha Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab

Trader Joe's Sriracha Seafood Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab

Trader Joe’s annual Pumpkin Madness in October is always my favorite time of the year, if just for the sheer thrill of seeing which products Joe decides to green light – but I also love it because once those gates are thrown open they stay open for the rest of the year. With the pumpkin products receding into the distance behind us, we now find ourselves fording the wild rapids of Holiday product season.

Ranking: 3 stars 

3 star ranking

What it is: Gyoza filled with seafood paste.
Price: $3.99 for a 7.6 oz. bag
Worth it: No. There are tastier potstickers out there.

We don’t usually see anything quite as crazy as we do in October over the holidays, but Trader Joe’s still manages to slip one or two out there products in when no one is looking – like chocolate milk mixed with wine.

What surprised me most, as I was perusing the aisles, was this extremely unusual holiday (???) offering – Trader Joe’ Seafood Sriracha Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab.

Seafood potstickers don’t generally scream “Christmas”, but hat hasn’t stopped TJ’s from wrapping these dumplings up in red and green dough. Let the festive, merry colors of crimson red and evergreen greet you in this mixed meat, Asian-style, seafood dumpling. It’s a weird choice, sure, but there’s no denying they’ll fit right in at the annual Christmas potluck. The rest of the year, assuming these stay around the rest of the year, I guess they’ll just be weirdly out of place.

These potstickers are very similar to Trader Joe’s many other gyoza offerings – namely they are cheap, tasty and easy to cook. Despite the difference in color, each dumpling is filled with same filling – a combination of shrimp, crab, mung bean noodles, and water chestnuts. These flavors all blend into each other, however, so don’t go expecting big, tasty pieces of either crab or shrimp. Instead, the ingredients have been blended into a uniform paste that has been pumped into each casing. This makes these gyoza much less substantial than their pork and chicken brothern, and gives them a consistency much closer to a classic, mashed potato filled potsticker. Presumably, that’s why they left “gyoza” off the label and went with “potsticker” – although it makes the choice to call the whole-wheat and squash version “gyoza” even more bizarre.

Trader Joe's Seafood Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab

Trader Joe’s Seafood Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab

In any case, if you don’t mind the soft texture, and weird coloration, these potstickers are reasonably tasty and a welcome return to form over the dreaded wholewheat version debuted last month. The inclusion of some sriracha spice in the filling is a nice touch, although TJ’s is careful to keep the heat in the mild range band. If you want to spice these up, you’ll want to bring some TJ’s Sriracha hot sauce or cilantro Green Dragon hot sauce – or even a nice chili sauce of your own.

Personally, I thought these were fine, but nothing to write home about. The seafood doesn’t really standout in the prepared product, and without that it’s just a sort of mildly, inoffensive dumping. Trader Joe’s has a LOT of gyoza varieties to choose among nowadays, from the mundane to the adventerous. Once you get past the eye-catching colors, there isn’t anything to set these potstickers ahead of the pack.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend Them: Not really. They’re fine, but there are better gyoza on the shelf.

Would I Buy Them Again: No, I prefer the chicken and pork versions.

Final Synopsis: A good appetizer for a holiday-themed party, but not much more.

Trader Joe's Sriracha Seafood Potstickers with Shrimp and Crab - Nutrition Facts