The Trader Joe’s Report – vol. 1

If you are blessed to have a Trader Joe’s (henceforth TJ’s) in your area, then you know what an awesome place it is.  I loves me some TJ’s!  On this and future Trader Joe’s Reports I will review what’s hot and not-so-hot at TJ’s.  Let’s get started with my TJ’s Hall of Fame – my all-time favorite TJ’s products that I hope they never discontinue.  I’ll follow this post with my TJ’s All Stars – everyday products I always have on hand, and then my Hall of Shame – the real clunkers I can’t believe they ever carried.   Since TJ’s is always bringing new products into the rotation I’ll post new Reports to share what’s new and great or not so great.

My Trader Joe’s Hall of Fame – these are my all-time favorite TJ’s products, in no particular order

  • Chocolate Croissants –  I grew up in California where croissants were quite a fad in the 80’s.  Little French bakeries sprang up all over town and were always mobbed.  My friends and I frequented these joints and I ate mounds of croissants – ham and cheese, dark chocolate, and my very favorite – almond.  The fad eventually passed (maybe because croissants are god-awful fattening!?) and I haven’t tasted anything like those fresh baked delights in many years. Until I discovered the chocolate croissants at TJ’s, that is.  You’ll find these gems in the freezer case.  Each box comes with four small frozen, unbaked croissants, but don’t let their size fool you.  You place the croissants on a baking sheet to thaw out overnite.  When you get up in the morning you will discover that they have quadrupled in size!  A quick turn in a hot oven and you’ve got yourself the most indulgently delicious breakfast treat ever.  They are absolutely worth every one of their 320 calories.  If chocolate isn’t your thing, they also sell boxes of 8 mini-croissants that are just right alongside scrambled eggs and fresh fruit for a slightly healthier breakfast.  One quick tip:  if your oven has a delayed start feature definitely take advantage of that when you bake these treats, or anything else you want to bake first thing in the morning.  It takes at least 20 mins for an oven to truly reach 350, regardless of what your owner’s manual or the “preheated beep” says.  I set my oven to preheat before I get up, then when I wake up I pop these babies in the oven so they can bake while I get ready for the day.
  • Pretzel Slims – These gems combine the salty crunch of a pretzel with the usefulness of a cracker.  They are perfect for scooping up everything from salsa to cheese dip to hummus and everything in between.   I will also admit to covering them with chocolate!
  • Reduced Guilt Pita Crisps – These crisps are super crunchy, perfectly salty and great for scooping up all kinds of dips, including…
  • TJ’s Three-Layer Hummus – I love hummus, and this little tub is one of my favorite snax.  The top layer is roasted pepper with a light, sweet flavor.  The bottom layer is boldly flavored with cilantro and a nice bit of heat.  The middle layer is plain ol’ hummus, a welcome buffer between the sweet top layer and the mucho macho bottom layer.
  • TJ’s Margarita Mix – I hate anything chemically tasting, and to me almost all cocktail mixes, especially margarita mixes, taste awful.  This one is just the right blend of sweet and tart with no chemically or salty aftertaste.  Ole!
  • Heirloom Navel Oranges – TJ’s only carries these for a few months each winter, and when they arrive I buy bags and bags of them to stockpile.  I store them on the attic steps where it is nice and cool during winter and early spring.  These are the best oranges I have ever eaten in my life, and I will be quite sad if they disappear from TJ’s offerings.  Modern navels are bred to peel easily and be fairly sweet.  A classic example of plant breeders sacrificing flavor and nutrition for traits that make a plant more economically lucrative.  Hey, why do you think heirloom tomatoes are all the rage?  Because they were bred to taste good, not grow fast and ship well, that’s why!  Anyway, to me most modern navels are pretty tasteless, but these heirloom navels have bright orange flesh that is rich in flavor and pleasingly tart.  Sure, they are a little harder to peel than a modern navel, but there is just no comparison in taste.  And they are very reasonably priced, too, at under $4.00 for a large bag.
  • TJ’s Uncured, Precooked Bacon – wow, this is just the BEST bacon we have ever eaten!  I always get uncured bacon as I try to seriously limit the amount of preservatives or anything artificial in our diets.  TJ’s uncured raw bacon always seemed to me to lack flavor.  We usually have bacon or sausages (see next item) with our weekend breakfasts and ya know, cooking bacon (we microwave it) is a bit of a time-consuming, messy chore.  One day I checked out the TJ’s precooked uncured bacon and discovered that altho it is a bit more expensive, you get one more slice and save a whole lot of time.  The major bonus tho, is the incredibly complex sweet, smokey, salty flavor.  The bacon is “just cooked”, meaning if you like it crispy, as we do, you will have to nuke it for 30 seconds or so on a paper towel lined plate.  It’s well worth that little step to really bring out all the smokiliciousness.
  • Nuremberger Sausages – these are tiny little German brats that are meant for supper but we love them for breakfast.  They have a smooth, soft texture and mild flavor.  They are definitely great with a hot potato salad or sauteed cabbage (and a beer of course!), but their mild flavor works just as well with pancakes or scrambled eggs.
  • Fresh Mozzarella Log – This stuff is addictive.  Creamy, light tasting and pleasingly chewy.  I use it several different ways.  First, I serve it in a caprese salad, layered with sliced tomatoes and whole basil leaves, sprinkled with fleur-de-sel, fresh oregano, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Second, I use it in paninis made with ciabatta bread (also bought at TJ’s!), roasted red peppers, whole basil leaves and balsamic vinegar.  Third, I use it on top of homemade pizzas – it melts just like butter and tastes fabulous!  Wrapped tightly it keeps for quite a while in the fridge.
  • Fruit Frenzy Bars and Fruit Floes – These are the best ice pops ever!  The Fruit Frenzy Bars have 3 layers made with real fruit – raspberry (rich and fresh tasting), lemon (super tart – my mouth is watering just thinking about it!) and my favorite layer, strawberry (sweet and delicate).  My husband John loves the super-tart Lime Fruit Floes and I love the Strawberry and Caribbean (strawberry, pineapple, mango and coconut) ones.  They are a favorite treat when our North Carolina summers start bludgeoning us with high temps and even higher humidity.
  • Fresh Orange, Pineapple and Grapefruit Juices – These juices are always fresh (not from concentrate), delicious and well-priced.  The pineapple juice is especially fab.  It’s a little too sweet for my morning sip, but it makes the best cocktails.  When I buy a carton I pour it into pint freezer jars and freeze.  When I need juice for a recipe or a drink, the small containers are just the right size and quick to defrost.   One more juice tip:  if you take any medications with your morning juice, make sure you choose one that mixes well with your meds.  For example, grapefruit juice doesn’t mix well with cholesterol meds and some medications such as thyroid hormones aren’t absorbed well if taken with calcium-rich foods.  I take thyroid meds with my juice when I wake up, so I always make sure I get one without added calcium.
  • Plain and Blueberry Chevre (Goat Cheese) – TJ’s sells some excellent chevres at great prices.  The plain chevre is fabulous in salads, hors d’oeuvres and on pizza.  Chevre is fairly delicate, so when I use it on homemade pizzas I either tuck it under some other toppings such as roasted peppers or fresh tomatoes or I put it on after the pizza comes out of the oven.  The blueberry chevre is a luxurious topping for morning bagels.  It would also be great served room temp with crackers and grapes.  I have found that both cheeses freeze well, only becoming a little bit softer on thawing.  I can never finish a whole log before it goes bad, so I always pop 1/2 in the freezer when I first open it.
  • Almond Butter with Flax Seeds – This is my favorite of the nut butters sold at TJ’s.  It is sweet (without any added sugar), nutty, and the flax seeds add a pleasing crunch factor.  I used to always pour off the oil that floats to the top of “natural” nut butters.  Then I learned that the oil is very good for you, so I now happily stir it right in.  One trick I learned to help stir in the oil is to store the jar upside down for a while before you open it.  The oil will then “rise” to the bottom of the jar and be easier to stir in without sloshing out.
  • Truffle Brownie Mix – Ordinarily I’m strictly a “from scratch” kind of girl, but I like to keep a box of brownie mix on hand for chocolate emergencies.  My old favorite was the Hershey’s mix they sell at BJ’s Warehouse.  Those are pretty good brownies, but TJ’s truffle brownies are even richer and more chocolatey.  A definite pantry staple.
  • Morello Cherries from Germany – These German beauties come packed in large jars and are unbelievably well-priced.  These tart-sweet cherries are excellent spooned over Greek yogurt with honey and almonds, pureed with yogurt, almond milk and frozen mango for a healthy smoothie, thickened with cornstarch for a pancake/waffle topping or simply used for baking.  I even use the flavorful “juice” they are packed in to make spritzers with soda water or a cocktail with vodka.
  • Canned Artichokes – TJ’s has the best price on canned artichokes, and they are great quality.  I use them pureed into my hot artichoke dip and sliced in Greek salads or on top of homemade pizza paired with roasted peppers, kalamata olives and feta.
  • TJ’s Brand Feta – Speaking of Feta, TJ’s sells many variations of feta, but the one I really like is the small block that is shrink-wrapped in plastic.  It has a bright, not-too-briny flavor and an unusually creamy texture.  This is a great feta to try if you are not a fan of feta’s sharp taste or crumbly texture.  This feta is excellent in salads, spreads and pastas, as well as pizza.  When I use it on pizza I try to tuck it under other ingredients so it doesn’t dry out too much – feta is not a melting cheese.
  • Chocolate Almond Clusters – I’m super-sensitive to bitter tastes, so dark chocolate is really not my thing.  However, most brands of milk chocolate are so wimpy tasting they aren’t worth the calories.  Here we have the perfect blend of both.  The chocolate is more flavorful than most milk chocolate yet not bitter.  And each cluster is chock-full of plump, super-crunchy roasted almonds.  They are fabulous, and hey, almonds and darker chocolates are good for you!  They are pretty high-cal, tho, so I keep it to only one a day.
  • TJ’s Bran Flakes – These have a great, nutty taste and a natural sweetness without a bunch of added sugar.  I especially love a bowl full of bran flakes topped with a Tbsp. of ground flax-seed and ½ cup of fresh blueberries.  When the berries come from our own back yard, this is really a sublime treat!
  • Joe’s Diner Mac and Cheese – this little treasure comes from the freezer case and is surprisingly like homemade.  My mom made great from-scratch mac and cheese, and I often make my own with her recipe, so I’m a bit of a mac and cheese snob.  The first time I tried it they were sampling it in-store.  John was with me and whining (per usual) about being hungry.  I told him to go try the mac and cheese and he refused (I’ve trained him well!).  To get him to try it, I ate some and was shocked at how good it was!  It’s now one of my fave quickie lunches when I’m craving something substantial but don’t have any good leftovers.  It is very rich, and a bit high on the calories, so I always portion each package into two servings and round out my lunch with some veggies or applesauce.
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