Friday, February 5, 2010

i work in a button factory

This isn't an ad or anything. I'm just gonna talk about Trader Joe's.  If you don't live in or adjacent to one of the nine states where they have a store, skip ahead.

Trader Joe's is weird.  You know that.  But they're also a magnet for, well, the focus of this blog: interesting ingredients.  While there's no Trader Joe's in New Hampshire, there's one right over the state line in Massachusetts, and it happens to be next to a liquor store that carries a lot of beers that aren't distributed in New Hampshire (latest acquisitions: Ommegang's Three Philosophers, Southern Tier's oak-aged Cuvee 1, Widmer Brothers' Cherry Oak Doppelbock, and shall we digress about beer? let's do. TEN FAVORITE BEERS, NO ORDER:

Palo Santo Marron (Dogfish Head)
Burton Baton (Dogfish Head)
Arrogant Bastard (Stone) (especially the Oaked Arrogant Bastard variant)
Dirty Bastard (Founders)
Kriek lambic (Lindemans)
Three Philosophers (Ommegang)
Cantillon Classic Gueuze (Cantillon)
90 Minute IPA (Dogfish Head)
Sierra Nevada wet hop ale (Sierra Nevada) (any release)
And I suppose Dixie Blackened Voodoo, for nostalgia's sake.

I have a great deal of beer exploration left to do, but basically I like Dogfish Head, American strong ales, hoppiness, and sourness/tang/funk.)

Speaking of beer, my Trader Joe's does not carry it.  TJs is famous for its beer and wine deals, but in Massachusetts, there's a limit on how many locations of a supermarket chain can carry alcohol, and in TJ's case, they placed them all in the Boston area.  So I have nothing to say about any amazing deals on Chimay or Lindemans, or what the domestic micro/regional brewer selection is like at Trader Joe's, or any of those other conversations I see people having about the store.

But as far as the food goes, there are two main things to know:

1: Trader Joe's frequently renegotiates its sourcing, and the sourcing for produce and certain Trader Joe's branded items can vary from region to region.  So if you're living in Cali and digging the spinach, and you move to Minnesota (or wherever) and it's not so great, that could be why.  The quality of TJ's-brand hummus seems to vary for similar reasons.  I'm told that the Trader Joe's brand of salad dressing is just Annie's dressing with a different label and a two-dollar discount, but I don't know if that's still true, and using their own brand name means it doesn't have to stay true.

2: In line with that flexibility is their weird weird distinctive way of handling inventory: apart from a few basics (they will always carry milk, flour, sugar, etc), they only stock the bestsellers.  They constantly offer new items, hundreds of them a year, but the ones that don't sell at a sufficiently high volume (much higher than the threshold set at a conventional store) are promptly discontinued.  This results in a selection that may not make any sense on paper, but which consumer demand has supported.

That's probably one reason why a significant strain of inventory is geared towards convenience and snacks: it's pretty much the best place to go for cookies, nuts, and dried fruit; their frozen and prepared meals have a strong following; and even the produce skews sometimes towards pre-chopped this, pre-peeled that.

You will frequently find that they no longer carry something, even if they carried it for years.  Passion fruit sorbet?  So long, chum.  Corn rye bread?  You will be missed.  But this keeps turnover high and prices sometimes surprisingly low.  (For instance, the large container of Trader Joe's Greek-style yogurt is a full two dollars less than the yogurt I usually buy, and it's not like I'm buying the most expensive yogurt on the shelf in the first place.  The chevre, while not as flavorful and goaty as what I buy from local dairies, is about a buck-fifty to three dollars cheaper, which is a big difference for something so small.  Dry pasta, canned tomatoes, organic milk -- again, typically cheaper than at your supermarket.)

One of the best descriptions I've heard of Trader Joe's is that it's like Elmore Leonard's books -- he describes his writing as "leaving out the parts people don't read," which makes for something sparse and fast but still filling.  

You kind of have to enjoy shopping to enjoy Trader Joe's.  Unless you were just there last week, it's hard to go in with a list and come out with bags of the things that were on that list.  They're grouped in with Whole Foods a lot, but honestly, apart from Whole Foods' store-brand cola (which is very good) and deeper selection of produce and significantly better bakery, WF doesn't offer a whole hell of a lot to interest me, and what they do have is steeply priced and wrapped in a lot of smugness.  (I have found Whole Foods to be incredibly inconsistent in its meat/seafood department, too, depending on where you live; if you live in a college town where their customer base is mostly vegetarian, have fun with your week-old chicken and freezer-burned fish fillets.)

It's interesting, all of the above has become a large part of their identity now that organic food and their other health/eco-conscious offerings have become easier to find.  I realize this is less true in the rural parts of the South and Midwest, but here in the northeast where nothing south of the Manchester airport is really rural -- it's all just flavors of suburban -- it's no longer unusual or even interesting to find ground buffalo at the corner supermarket, or quinoa, or organic salsa.  (On the other hand, I had to order my genmai cha tea -- and yes, I know cha means tea, but not everyone reading this will know what genmai cha is if I don't add "tea" -- by mail.)  Neither Trader Joe's nor Whole Foods is the sole purveyor of a particular kind of food anymore, and they've become defined by other traits instead.

Anyway, it helps to know what's good at Trader Joe's.

First: Frozen seafood.  Depending on where you live, chances are that Trader Joe's frozen seafood is fresher than the fresh seafood at your supermarket, because it hasn't been sitting behind a counter for a couple days.  Greenpeace has been on TJ's ass about sustainability; we're not going to get into the ethical issues of Trader Joe's, especially relative to your local supermarket (I think people expect more of a store they like than a store they need, and that TJ is condemned for things that wouldn't be commented on if Publix or Kroger did the same).  This is a food blog, not an ethics blog.  So I'm just saying -- this is a pretty reliable source of cod and shrimp.

Second -- here's some stuff I've picked up lately:


The dried fruit selection at Trader Joe's is kind of ridiculous.  I go for plain unseasoned fruit, sometimes with sweetener added if it makes sense -- they're a good source for dried Montmorency cherries, for instance, and used to have these awesome dried oranges.  What you see here are dried flattened bananas (like giant banana chips) and sweetened chewy hibiscus flowers (so good).

The frozen peas?  Seriously, the Trader Joe's petite peas are the best peas I've found apart from fresh.  Also good and cheap but not pictured here, are the frozen green beans.

The peanut-butter-filled pretzels are everything Combos always should have been.  There's a chocolate-covered version, but I'm not a big fan of most chocolate-covered things.  (Speaking of peanut butter and pretzels, these chocolate bars may be the best in the universe -- they're expensive, but Jesus Christ, they're like long rectangular peanut butter cups filled with very good peanut butter and ground-up pretzels.  That would be my middle name, if my middle name were stupidly long!)


Bagged frozen artichoke hearts are exactly the kind of thing I would not usually think about buying, but they're $2.00.  At that price, they'll add negligible cost to half a dozen pasta meals for me, or be a very cheap side dish a couple nights.

Organic pea shoots, another $2.  Very sweet, very green-tasting, very very good.  I don't know anywhere else where I can get these out of season -- and even in season, I pay more than this.  

The triple ginger snaps are super-popular -- they're made with fresh ginger, candied ginger, and ground ginger.  I'm going to make a pie crust, most likely.

And the macarons, well, look.  You can't have high hopes for macarons that aren't bought straight from the bakery that made them.  The fact that frozen macarons exist at all is just kind of cool, but you have to keep your expectations at a reasonable level.  I figured I'd try them once (haven't had them yet) -- at $5 for a handful of cookies that only come in chocolate and vanilla, once is enough, but you know, it's part of the Trader Joe's experience, you pick up some stuff you may never get again just for the hell of it.

Other interesting or useful items: they often have trimmed leeks, which can be handy; the Brittany blend of frozen vegetables is green beans, wax beans, and baby carrots; for a decent price (about $3.50), they sell a blend of chopped and washed "southern greens" (collards, kale, and mustard, I think? I forget); they regularly sell pre-cooked, not canned, refrigerated legumes of various kinds (I saw black-eyed peas and lentils today, I'm pretty sure I have seen pintos before); the jarred marinara sauce and salsa are comparable in price to the cheaper supermarket brands, without the preservatives, corn syrup, and xanthan gum; the dried pasta, though there isn't a deep selection of it, is 99 cents a pound, and even the variants (brown rice pasta, etc) aren't much more expensive than that.

I feel a little more prepared for Lent now (not pictured above are the several pounds of fish and pasta that I bought today).

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