By Kate Bennett –
Well, perhaps “spying ” is too strong a word; but, I was curious. After every trip to Trader Joe’s, no matter my intentions, I always come home with the same things. As coveted as my little cache of items might be, one can’t help wondering: What about those hundreds of other things on the shelves and freezer cases that other shoppers have in their grasp. What am I missing out on? What do other people know about this place that I don’t?
Over the holidays, I asked this question to a few unsuspecting people at social gatherings and was delighted to see how animated the conversation instantly became. Even the shyest guests held forth on their favorite things. Subsequently, I sent out emails to a haphazardly selected group of friends with the same question. Among them, there were several extremely good cooks, several people who recognized a bargain when they saw one, and several who were combinations of both. Not exactly scientific; but, it was a start.
There were only a few duplications in people’s top recommendations and they covered a variety of categories. So, what I can share with you here is truly a random sample. Items from my own list are marked with an asterisk. Also, please note that these “findings” are limited to everything except wine. That, in itself, is a whole other topic.
Most “favorites” via email did not come in with annotations but a few did, such as: “First and foremost – Powerberries – amazing dark chocolate-covered round fruit juice balls.” Another friend volunteered, “As for Trader Joe’s, we enjoy the Veggie Birds Nests from the frozen section; a great snack paired with Sunday night PBS viewing. Also like the avocados; the fruits are large and heavy with a creamy texture.“ And, another noted, “I always buy their extra virgin olive oil and saffron there—they are marvelous bargains, and the quality is excellent.” (I too am a fan of their “premium” olive oil; it is imported from Italy and the bottle has a nice pouring spout included.) While we are in the condiment and things-in-jars section, here are a few recommendations from that general area: Pitted Calamata Olives in extra virgin olive oil* (from Greece); Red and\or Yellow Curry Sauce* (received, several “favorite” votes, and has many uses including stir-frying chicken, shrimp, etc.); Tomato Basil Marinara Sauce (also mentioned more than once); Aioli Garlic Mustard Sauce* (gorgeous on crab cakes and just about anything else); Almond Butter–Creamy with Sea Salt* (to my mind this has the best flavor of any almond butter and is a great value); and finally, the Pumpkin Spread.
As for things packaged in cardboard boxes: Granola lovers find these shelves a paradise. One friend who does not have a local Trader Joe’s brings home a suitcase full when she visits out of town friends. Also, the Cornbread Mix* yields a moist and not-too-sweet cornbread—it’s a good thing to have in the pantry when you need to make a quick contribution to a pot-luck dinner. In the coffee section, the Dark Roast Coffee got a nod of approval from a coffee lover. Gorgonzola Crackers and Rosemary Raisin Crackers were noted as stars in an overall excellent section. As for sweets, one thing is for sure. This is the place to buy ginger snaps. And not just one kind. Recommendations came in for chocolate-covered snaps as well as regular—which come in both a plastic container or a box. To my mind, the boxed Triple Ginger Cookie Thins reign supreme. Try with a dab of Brie or Cheddar on top. Also, all of the nuts and dried fruits get high marks, with Sesame Almonds being mentioned by name.
For refrigerated items, let’s go back to some emails; “ …there is one item that I will go out of my way for: the TJ’s European-style plain, non-fat, organic yogurt. I LOVE IT. Another item is their pizza dough. It’s in the case with the
cheese. I like to make my own pizza and have found that their dough is very good. I also purchase their 4-cheese blend to top off the pizza.” Other notable refrigerated items include Blue Cheese Roasted Pecan Dip, Steamed and Peeled Baby Beets* (from France) and the very-handy Steamed Lentils (to use hot or cold); All-Natural-Dry-Rubbed Bacon; Organic Chicken; Smoked Salmon; Plain Goat Milk Yogurt, and Natural Pear Vinaigrette Dressing.
And now to the copiously-stocked freezers where main courses, sides, and desserts crowd one another for attention. There is so much being offered, respondents could only skim the surface. On the savory side recommendations included Turkey Meat Loaf, Mahi-Mahi Burgers, Chicken-Chili-Lime Burgers, the Indian dinners, and Vegetable Biryani* which, when sautéed with shrimp and a few more seasonings, makes a great main course for two in under 5 minutes. For sweets and desserts, one friend highly recommended the Pear Custard Tart and the Raspberry Tart. Both are made in France. The Mini-Mint-Ice-Cream-Mouthfulls* are a refreshing and small delight, and the Frozen Mixed Berries were mentioned as a good thing to have on hand.
Finally, well, I suppose we could say “sundries.” Several people mentioned the quality of the floral department. As a frequent buyer of their sunflowers, I agree; but, I do think it also depends upon your particular store. Also praised was the Mountain Spring Water –“best bottled water I have ever tasted; it is so difficult to explain why.” The same person, who stated that her TJ favorites were not always food related, recommended the Lavender Dryer Bags. “You put one in your dryer and linens come out with a lovely subtle scent. Each bag (four to a container) is good for five cycles. Then, sprinkle the florets on a carpet and vacuum up.”
The last time I was in Trader Joe’s, I asked my checkout person what he liked most. He said he didn’t cook much, but he put the 21 Seasoning Salute on just about everything, especially shrimp before grilling. His recommendation was enthusiastically seconded by the person bagging my food. Hmmm, I had to go back and look. Sure enough, it’s in the spice section and miraculously, contains no salt. Needless to say, I bought one.
Send us your list of Trader Joe favorites