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Two Weeks with Trader Joe:

(chowhound team: feel free to move this if you feel it belongs on TJ 3Q 2012)

Some of my favorite Chowhound threads are about the good and bad at Trader Joe's. Since the nearest location to me is 50 miles away, I rarely get the chance to shop there. I recently found myself in the neighborhood and decided to stop in for some CH inspired shopping. There was no rhyme or reason to my choices. I just picked what looked good and for the next 14 days ate TJ’s food.

I did sneak a couple of pizzas in during the two week period simply because I can’t go 5 days without one. Besides the pizza, and a few fried eggs, I ate *nothing* but TJ food.

I’m a grazer and almost never eat multi-course/multi-item meals so most of these were eaten without any accompaniment.

Here are my Yays, Nays and Mehs…

*Yay -- TJ FROZEN MANDARIN ORANGE CHICKEN: I had to try this after seeing so many positive comments on CH. IMO it’s a dead ringer for “Food Court Chinese Chicken”. The chicken was meaty, I liked the taste of the coating and I loved the flavor of the sauce but wish it was a little less sweet. After finishing my portion, it was quite enough thank you. Round two produced three un-chewable pieces. I’d still buy it again and extend the sauce.

*Nay – TJ PRE-SLICED SEASONED ROAST BEEF: At $7.68 per pound I was excited to find sliced beef with a unit price under ten bucks. Unfortunately this was horrible. Somebody must have leaned on the salt button at the factory because this was akin to a box of kosher salt. The flavor profile was like cheap beef jerky. My wife would not even swallow the sample I gave her and opted to spit it out. This went to the local cats.

*Meh -- APPLEGATE NATURALS SLICED SMOKED TURKEY BREAST: Moderately Smokey with average turkey flavor but the water content was a bit high. The slices were soaking wet. I finished the package but would not purchase again. On the deli-turkey spectrum this is about 4 notches down from Boars Head.

*Yay -- TJ SLICED PROVOLONE CHEESE: Nicely piquant; The way provolone is supposed to taste - Makes a killer grilled cheese.

*Yay -- TJ FROZEN SPANIKOPITA: Flaky phyllo leaves with a tasty spinach-feta filling. I ate the entire tray save for one square the wife ate. It tasted much better than it smelled while in the oven. Give them plenty of room on the cookie sheet so they won’t get soggy.

*Nay -- TJ SOURDOUGH ROLLS: I’m a sourdough lover and this was real disappointment. The rolls felt wonderful in the store but had little sourdough flavor and a weak textured crumb. Toasting them made them passable and allowed me to finish the bag.

*Meh -- TJ FROZEN STACKED EGGPLANT PARMESAN: It had a surprisingly firm texture for a frozen product and a pleasant tomato sauce. The eggplant itself was mild with no bitterness, but the cheese was tasteless and the dish was just too heady with basil. Unlike garlic, you *can* have too much basil. It was really the only discernable note. I ate the entire portion but I don’t think I’d buy it again.

*Nay -- TJ MASTERFUL PIMENTO CHEESE SPREAD: My wife and I are Connecticut Yankees and pimento cheese is not part of our culinary culture so we were not sure what this stuff was supposed to taste like. The wife gives this a big YUCK! I will be a bit more gracious and just say it's not very good. I disliked both the flavor and the texture. The local wildlife will get it on crackers.

*Yay -- TJ SALSA VERDE: Love this! Some have said it's too salty but I don't get that. It's very flavorful and my only complaint is that it has no heat. It's better than my usual supermarket brand which is Mrs. Renfro (Did Mrs. Renfro change the recipe? It used to be so good.).

*Yay -- TJ FROZEN CHICKEN BURRITOS: As somebody who has been eating low-grade factory frozen burritos for 35 years, these were a real surprise (nothing commercial tasting about them). If you put these in front of me and told me you made them yourself, I’d believe you. Tender chicken, mildly spiced, with a bit of cheese, rolled in a soft flour tortilla. Great smothered with TJ Salsa Verde. Like the salsa, these burritos are not spicy in any way. At a $1.50 a pop they are a real value. I have to report that my very last mouthful produced a tiny bone fragment but that’s not a deal breaker.

*Yay – TJ LEMON TURNOVERS: Expecting sugar-shock, I was so surprised to discover that these wallet sized pies were so mildly sweet as to be almost savory (I could picture eating these with roasted chicken thighs). They were perfect for my palette although they were not as intensely lemony as I had expected. I wouldn’t complain if they kicked the lemon up a notch. The Wife says they are sweeter than I’ve described.

*Yay – HANSEN’S DIET BLACK CHERRY SODA POP: Surprise! It’s clear. It’s also the damn best tasting diet black cherry soda I’ve ever had. It’s on the dry side with a real cherry bite. If I had known how good this was going to be I would have bought a case. I’m hooked.

*Yay – TJ MAPLE & BROWN SUGAR OATMEAL: After eating nothing but Quaker brand for years, this was a wakeup. Not too sweet with a great maple flavor and a rustic texture. I could taste no factory. This stuff is ten times better than Quaker. A few chopped prunes thrown in made it even better.

*Yay – TJ CLEMENTINES: After reading a CH post describing an experience with dry, mealy TJ Clementine’s I was wondering how my bag would fare. I’m happy to report that these little orange super-balls were sweet, tender and juicy; all the usual positive fruit adjectives apply.

*Yay -- TJ FIRE-ROASTED TOMATO SALSA: If there is one type of food that I am particular about, it’s salsa. There are very few non-fresh brands that I truly like. I think this stuff is terrific. Agreeably sweet, with an emphasis on tomato, a light chili and smoke note and a pleasant finish. Since wifey is a spice wimp, I had to purchase the medium-heat which was mild by my taste. There is no salt added but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I use more salsa in cooking than I do as a condiment but this is too good to cook with; Break out the chips, pour it over burritos or eat it neat from the jar like I did.

*Nay -- TJ BUTTERNUT SQUASH TRIANGOLI: The wife and I are both big fans of squash ravioli but neither of us liked this for one reason: Amoretti biscuits - an ingredient in the filling. These were the sweetest ravioli we have ever eaten. One expects a light sweetness with butternut squash but these were on the verge on being a confection - A big disappointment. We discarded the leftovers.

*Yay -- TJ ARUGULA & PARMIGIANO REGGIANO RAVIOLI: Conversely, these ravioli were much better than expected - Extremely savory, with a perfect amount of parm cheese. The wife and I always complain that store bought raviolis can have too much parmesan in them but these were perfect - A definite return purchase.

*Yay -- TJ FROZEN BEEF & BEAN BURITTOS: Like the TJ Chicken burritos, these had a home made character but were slightly inferior to their Chicken cousins. The reason: Not beefy enough. The main note was beans not beef - Still good enough for a hangover.

*Yay – TJ INDIAN FARE PUNJAB CHOLEY: One in a series of shelf stable Indian dishes packaged in a foil pouch. This is a mixture of chickpeas, tomato and onion in a ginger/five spice type sauce. Man is it good! I could have eaten five more bags. I absolutely have to find this locally - A new fave. Did I mention it’s real spicy?

*Yay – TJ FROZEN PETITE SWEET PEAS: These could very well be the best tasting frozen peas I have ever eaten - A pronounced pea flavor, sweet with a perfect balance of firm vs. tender. I can’t remember if they were organic but who cares?

*Meh – TJ REDUCED GUILT MAC & CHEESE: More of a yay-minus. I purchased this on high recommendation. Next time I’m going full-guilt. Wife and I agreed this is not as good as Stouffers. It’s more than passable when kicked up with some TJ Fire Roasted Salsa.

*Yay – TJ THAI SHRIMP GYOZA: I pan fried them crisp and then discovered (Gasp) that I had no soy sauce so I ate them neat without any condiments. They had a mild shrimp flavor and the skins fried crisp were excellent. A good soy-ginger sauce for dipping would make them even better. My only complaint was that the skin-to-filling ratio was lopsided; needed more filling.

*Meh – TJ POUR-N-BAKE BROWNIES: For me, the standard is working class Duncan Hines as opposed to gourmet brands. These did not meet that standard. They were chocolaty enough but had a texture that was closer to a flourless cake. Not bad just un-brownie like. In fairness, next time I would use cooking option #2 which is supposed to create a more cake-like result.

*Yay – TJ FROZEN ORGANIC GREEN BEANS: Like the frozen peas, these were some of the best frozen green beans I’ve come across - Great flavor. I cooked them in the microwave and had to add an additional 4 minutes to the suggested 7 minute cooking time to produce a tooth-tender result. Better than Stop&Shop or National brands.

*Yay -- TJ MUENSTER CHEESE: Standard mild soft cheese but oh so good when melted. I actually ate three slices (with a spoon) microwaved in a small bowl. (oh the guilt)...

*Yay – TJ INDIAN FARE PALAK PANEER: Another Indian dish sold in a shelf stable foil pouch. A concoction of spinach, ginger, garlic, tomatoes and onion with squares of soft Indian cheese. While it’s not the most visually appealing dish (dear wife thinks it looks like the contents of a baby’s diaper), it tastes great. This is mild, as Indian food goes. If you like spinach, chances are you will like this.

*Yay -- TJ FROZEN MAHI MAHI FILLETS: Yikes! These were good. I prepared the eight strips simply by coating with mayo and bread crumbs then baking with slices of the TJ Clementine’s. Superb - Firm, tender and mild. The wife, who never eats more than one of anything, ate three of them. I could have eaten twice as much as I did - Served with TJ FROZEN ORGANIC GREEN BEANS.

*Yay – TJ FROZEN WILD BLUEBERRIES: Plump and naturally sweet - Terrific in TJ Maple/Brown sugar Oatmeal. Superb in a bowl with Half-n-Half (no sugar needed). Wife reports that they were great as a topping for her Corn-Chex.

*Yay – TJ LOW FAT VANILLA YOGURT WITH ALMOND SLICES: My wife is the yogurt eater in the family and she gives this a big yay. She reports that it is richer and more flavorful than Activia or Stop&Shop brands.

*Yay – FRESH BANANAS: No difference from Stop&Shop.

*Yay/Nay -- TJ CUT PEACHES-N-CREAM STILTON CHEESE: This is white Stilton and not the blue stuff. My wife and I are usually on the same page when it comes to food but not this time. She loved this. I thought it was terrible. For me, it was too sweet, too crumbly and had an unpleasant finish. It’s all yours babe.

*Yay -- TRADER GIOTTO’S ORGANIC MARINARA SAUCE: I live on the two far ends of the jarred tomato sauce spectrum: It’s either $2.50 Ragu or $9.00 Rao’s. I rarely use anything in between. My first taste of this sauce was straight from the jar with a spoon and I was neutral about it. After a puree in my blender (I don’t like chunky marinara), and served on spaghetti (Barilla), It was very good. It was not overly sweet nor too highly seasoned. I could see using this in baked pasta dishes but I’ll stick with my proletariat Ragu for everyday spaghetti (Childhood tastes stay with you forever).

*Meh – TJ BLUEBERRY CHEESECAKE POPSCICLES (?): I screwed up and threw the box out before I could get the correct name. No matter, because they don’t taste like cheesecake. They have a faint blueberry flavor with crumb coating on the edges that reminds me of a Good-Humor toasted almond bar. These do not taste nor have the mouth feel of a premium product. Did I mention that they are *small*? If they were to my liking, I would be able to eat three per sitting.

*Yay – TRADER GIOTTO’S GARDEN VEGETABLE LASAGNE: In the name of honesty, I confess that I ate this at midnight after an evening of movies and half a box of cheap Chardonnay. My Franzia numbed taste buds were in no condition to identify any nuance of flavor. All I can say is that it is good drunkard food and I could tell it was better than my usual midnight frozen lasagna: Stouffers.

Aug 20, 2012
tomhensr in Chains

What discontinued products do you miss?

There are so many old products that I miss but I'll list three:

- Burry's Mr. Chips cookies: IMO these were a light-year better than Chips A'hoy or the Keebler Rich-n-Chips

- "Frosted" frozen milk shakes: Came in small cans in the frozen orange juice section. I thought these were terrific. I got two cans per week as a treat from Mom for behaving in the store.

Now for the third: I can't remember the name but it was a frozen Orange drink that was advertised by Popeye the Sailor in the late '60s early '70s. I just loved that taste of that stuff.

Aug 12, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

What was your favourite childhood concoction, which you now think is disgusting?

When I was a kid I used to eat M&Ms with Wise potato chips. A sweet/salty thing I guess. 45 years later I gave it a try. Let's just say that I did not derive as much pleasure from it as I did back then.

Aug 12, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

Guilty Pleasure

Guilt? nah... I've decided to be unapologetic in my love of factory food.

- Boston Creme Pie: My all-time favorite dessert. My local Stop&Shop just kills on this. I'm not even going to mention my serving size.

- Duncan Hines Brownies: 'Ol reliable. IMO better than yuppie boutique brands. Add two scoops of Cherry Garcia and the caloric count needs to be expressed using a comma.

- Big-Mac: One every six months. Although the last one sucked big time.

- Libby's Canned Corned Beef: Any low-grade Brazillian canned meat product is fine by me. Served fall-apart microwave hot with Gulden's mustard on Rye. The wife calls it dog food but what does she know?

- Vienna Sausages: The more disgusting the better. Eaten from the can. Anybody who first disgorges these from the can before eating is a certified Piker.

- Spaghetti-Os with Franks: Those little Franks are sublime. I'd buy a can of just the dogs.

- Hormel Chili in the can: On top of Fritos with a good shake of powdered Cayenne.

- Frozen mini-Meatballs with Franco-American gravy: Brand is unimportant; The more commercial tasting the better. When I'm feeling mercurial, I'll use Marie's Blue Cheese dressing instead of the gravy.

- Instant mashed potatoes: With butter, black-pepper, garlic powder and a healthy shake of the evil green can. I swear I could eat two pounds of this while watching TV. Tried this once with fancy-pants Parm-Reg; NOT the same.

Aug 12, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

Best pasta sauce in a jar?

After seeing so much talk about Rao's, we decided to give it a try. My wife and I agree that it's the best tasting jarred sauce we have ever eaten. We are crazy about it, but at $8.99 a jar it will only be for special occasions. I don't think any jarred sauce is worth nine bucks. For years the only spaghetti sauce we have used is the DelMonte canned stuff. It's cheaper than any jarred brand and tastes terrific. I can discern no metal taste. It works great as a recipe ingredient.

Jun 27, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

Snows clam chowder tragedy

I had not purchased a can of Snow's in 20 years. I had found a local brand that I liked better. I just purchased three cans of Snow's and I was shocked at how different it was both in taste, texture and quality of the solid ingredients. It's now a non-premium product.

Jun 21, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

What's your favorite frozen dinner?

I discovered Stouffers Stuffed Peppers and Stuffed Cabbage only 6 years ago. They are terrific IMO. Especially the cabbage. I could eat a dozen of them in one sitting.

Jun 19, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

Favorite Frozen Food?

Are they exclusively mail-order? I can't see any info on where they are sold. I've never seen that label in my supermarket.

Jun 19, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

Favorite Frozen Food?

Stouffers Mac-n-cheese is better than 80% of all the home recipes I've tried over the years.

Stouffers Stuffed Peppers, Stouffers Stuffed Cabbage, Stouffers Lasagna. -- The DW thinks they are low-grade but she is wrong. I just love them. The Peppers and Cabbage are genuinely good and the Lasagna appeals to my love of factory food. The noodles are extremely dense and chewy; Nothing delicate about them. I'm also a sucker for any tomato-based sauce that Stouffers makes. Their Meatloaf and Salisbury steak are great too. My only gripe is that my closest store only carries the small single serve sizes. I can eat four of them in one sitting.

And can somebody please point me to a frozen beef burrito that actually tastes good? I'm a lover of commercial food but frozen beef burritos uniformly suck.

ETA: Can't believe I forgot my all-time fave frozen food: Mrs. T's Pierogies. DW and I are crazy about them fried in butter and covered in black pepper.

Jun 19, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

favorite guilty snack food

Cajun flavored corn nuts. -- I have never reached my limit while eating them. I have always finished the bag before I had enough.

Mar 26, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

What did your Mom always have on hand, that you NEVER do?

From my childhood in the 1960's/1970's:

Shake-n-bake -- I just loved the stuff. Never used it once I grew up.
Hamburger Helper -- Must have eaten a metric ton of it.
Lawry's Seasoned salt -- My Dad would use half a jar on his burgers.
Parkay -- I did not taste real butter until I got married. Now it's buttah all the way.
Chef Boyardee canned pasta -- I ate it cold from the can.
Ann Page spices in the small cans -- An old A&P brand.
Eight-o-clock coffee -- Another old A&P brand. No Maxwell House in my house.
Frosted -- A frozen choc milk shake that came in little cans. I thought they were terrific!
Gravy Master -- I do use this but my Mom and Grandma did not like light-colored foods so they put this stuff in everything to darken it up.
Uncle Ben's instant rice -- Tastes like the box but I never knew real rice until I got married.
Maxim instant coffee -- Grandma thought it superior to real brewed coffee.
Banquet frozen fried chicken -- Had a disgusting batter coating. My brothers loved it but I stayed away.
Moxie soda pop -- My dear Grandma loved this but I could never develop a taste for it.

...And finally: Horsemeat... My uncle knew a farmer who would convert old worn-out Horses to meat. I ate tons of the stuff as a kid and loved it. Have not had Horsemeat since 1975.

Oh I forgot a couple:

Snack-pak puddings in the tiny cans -- I thought the butterscotch was the best!
Gubment-issue "canned meat" -- Super low-grade; One step up from Alpo but God I loved that stuff! Never knew what kind of "meat" it was...
Gubment-issue Cheese -- We received a 25lb package of it once and I think it took 9 months for my Grandma to include it in everything we ate -- EVERYTHING... :-)
Morton's frozen Chicken Pot-Pies -- I thought they were great but in the days before microwave ovens, 45 minutes was a long time for a 12 year old hungry boy to wait...

One last big one: Olive Loaf -- I ate it all of the time and had no problem with it. Once I ate in a very well regarded place and ordered Veal Pate with olives... I was served a slab of the stuff for $13.00 and it tasted IDENTICAL to the .60 a pound A&P Olive Loaf that I ate as a kid in elementary school... :-)

Mar 25, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics

Do you have a favorite I'm-alone-now-so-nobody-will-know favorite dish?

My wife thinks it's gross but I love hot spaghetti with garlic powder and black pepper tossed in a small amount of Marie's Creamy Cole Slaw dressing. I think it's terrific.

Canned Sardines in oil will chase her out of the room and she complains about the smell of the kitchen trash until I tie it up and bring it out.

Same goes for large canned snails which I cook in garlic oil -- She retreats to the basement for some computer time until I'm done.

Those wouldn't be considered shameful indulgences but years back I used to make myself a pot of Stovetop Stuffing and dowse it in red wine -- Protip: Don't attempt to eat that if you have been drinking Blackberry Brandy -- Mess you up!!

Feb 15, 2012
tomhensr in General Topics