Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Stuff You Should Be Buying At Trader Joe's

Truffegeddon dinner at La Toque's chef table was a tough post to follow, so I decided to take a completely different angle for this next one: my favorite cheap TJ's groceries, suitable for eating at home in front of the TV.

I have a short list of grocery products I get at Trader Joe's that consistently garner amazed compliments and urgent inquiries about their provenance.  One of my friends recently asked me to list them all out for her so she too can shop like a ninja there, and avoid the scores of nasty TJs products that lurk on the shelves.  It would take more time than I have today to list all of my picks, but here are seven of my most-loved and most frequently purchased staples, in no particular order:

1.  Kono Sauvignon Blanc ($7.99).  This is my go-to house wine, suitable for any occasion. It's an extremely racy, grassy, Sancerre taste-alike from New Zealand that pairs with practically any food you're having: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Vietnamese... there's enough acid to cut through rich dishes, but also enough Marlborough-style fruit to round out more lean snacks. I love its jalapeno notes, and distinctive whiff of pipi du chat that makes you think you're drinking a much more expensive Loire Valley offering.  Buy this one by the case, seriously.  Though fabulous with most foods, this wine is particularly delicious when paired with item #2, below.

To know them is to crave them.

2. Roasted Gorgonzola Crackers ($1.99). These little miracles put the crack in crackers.  They're kind of like tiny Saltines, if Saltines were hexagonal and dusted in an addictive umami-rich cheese/onion/garlic/yeast/soy sauce powder. I don't care that they don't actually contain any roasted gorgonzola, these things are compulsively delicious, and the perfect aperitif to munch on with a cold glass of Kono. I can't eat fewer than 30 in a single sitting, which is probably why TJ's lists the serving size as 31 crackers. Pro tip: don't ever let yourself snack on these directly from the box.  Also, did you see the $1.99 price?!? You can't go wrong with these.

3.  Tarte d'Alsace ($4.99).  This grande dame of TJ's frozen pizza section has a shockingly delicious puff pastry-like crust, topped with shredded gruyère cheese, julienned ham, and caramelized onions.  I like to cook it directly on the oven rack (put a piece of aluminum on the lower rack to catch the runaway cheese and oil that frequently escapes and makes a huge smoky mess on your oven floor), and bake it about 2-3 minutes longer than the directions recommend.  This crisps up the crust nicely, yet still keeps it pliable enough to fold around a green salad.  One tarte serves two not-too-hungry people (not four, as the package claims), but you can always add a fried egg on top of each person's piece to round things out in classic French style.  It makes for a tremendous and très chic dinner in 15 short, effortless minutes.

4. Fennel ($1.99/2-pack).  Fennel is not particularly well-known in the US, but I'm doing my best to change that by feeding it to everyone I cook for.  I mostly eat fennel raw in salads (it's awesome in a salad for the Tarte d'Alsace at #3, for example) or crudité platters, but I also love it cooked.  Pasta con sarde is one of my favorite ways to eat sauteed fennel, and buying this two-pack is the way to go if you're making a big vat of that delicious fennel-spiked sauce.  TJ's has the best price in town. Sadly, not organic though.

5.  Port Salut Cheese ($9.49/lb).  This French cheese was originally created by monks in the dark and crazy days following the French revolution, as a way to sustain themselves during the chaotic anti-religious sentiment of the period.  Those savvy monks obtained trademark protection once they realized how amazing their cheese really was, and now we have Port Salut in nearly every grocery store in Napa -- but TJ's has it cheapest. Semisoft, mild, but with an addicting tang, this cheese melts well and can be used in pretty much any situation involving cheese. I love it with the aforementioned Gorgonzola Crack[ers].  I also like to use it in toasted cheese sandwiches with sliced apples, or Pumpkin Butter (another fantastic seasonal TJ's item).

6.  Arabian Joe's Thin Crust Spicy Spinach Pizza ($3.99 for 4 pizzas).  I bring these little pizzettas to the office for lunch a lot, and torture my colleagues with their delectable aroma.  The olive oil-rich dough is spread with plenty of spinach cooked with garlic, spices, and green onions, so they actually have quite an impressive nutritional value as well as an intoxicating scent and taste.  For years I topped these with a dab of TJ's stellar eggplant hummus, a slice or two of pepper-crusted roast turkey deli meat, and a handful of arugula -- which I then folded up and ate like a giant taco.  That is still one of my favorite ways to eat them, but I'm trying to branch out. They're fantastic on their own, really, and need nothing except a few minutes in the toaster oven to unleash their full depth of flavor.

7.  Espiral Vinho Verde ($3.99).  This dubiously-priced Portuguese wine is a summertime staple for pool parties and barbecues.  It's a vinho verde, so don't expect buttery richness or 15% alcohol -- think vodka tonic, with a lot less alcohol -- and calories, if anyone cares.  This 7% alcohol wine is light, effervescent, and built for all-day drinking in the sun.  (Not that I ever do that, of course....)  Pour it over ice and add a few slices of lime to make it more festive, Argentine tincho-style. Another wine to pick up by the case when it's in stock.  


  1. Looking forward to shopping after being in the midwest for many days!!!! Thanks for making part of my list.

  2. Amazing! I want more! How about World Market next?

  3. That's a fun idea, Mrs. Luhn... I don't shop at World Market all that often, but I do have a few favorite things there which might be worth sharing. Thanks for the suggestion and encouragement!

  4. I found this to be very helpful. As an East Coaster with a limited knowledge of California wines, could you list some not too expensive white wines to look for at a wine shop. I have a favorite dessert made with Kumquats, what type of wine would you serve with that dessert?

  5. Hey newly converted foodie, welcome to my blog! I am all about not too expensive stuff. A local (for you) pairing option might be to look for a dry Gewurztraminer from the NY Finger Lakes district, from Dr. Konstantin Frank. I tried it for the first time yesterday, think it would work great with your kumquats. Clean, fresh, NOT sweet, and with plenty of aromatic interest. About $15 retail. http://www.drfrankwines.com/finger-lakes-gewurztraminer

  6. Thank you. Your recommendation was wonderful. The Gewurztraminer was a perfect complement to the dessert. I have another question. I was a dinner with a dear friend, who introduced me to delicious Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa. Would you perhaps know what this was? I seem to recall the label included the name of an animal.

  7. Hmmm... could it be Porcupine Ridge? I just discovered that lovely SB myself. Apparently you can buy it on Amazon.com now, at least in some states.

  8. Port Salut is no longer a craft cheese these days. Cheapest is not necessarily a good one.

    1. Hi George, thanks for your comment. You're absolutely right on both points. I certainly didn't mean to suggest here that our modern grocery stores' mass-produced Port Salut is the finest cheese available! It is, however, a top choice for Trader Joe's shoppers looking for a modestly-priced, tasty cheese for everyday consumption. I picked Port Salut for this post because of all the cheeses TJ's sells (none of which are true craft cheeses), this is one of the most versatile and enjoyable -- and one of the best values there. It wasn't meant to rank Port Salut over any true craft cheeses, like Andante's exceptional products.