Thursday, January 28, 2016

Favorite Things: 14 Items You Really Should Try from Trader Joe's

For a long time, I really thought Trader Joe's was an expensive yuppy/hipster grocery stop.....a place where you would shop if you had a bottomless wallet, or if you didn't know how to do your own cooking.

I have no idea why I thought that. Trader Joe's is fabulous, it's affordable, and it's full of amazing items for fridge, freezer, pantry and party. Every time I go there I try to find something new, and 85% of the time it results in another item added to my 'addicted list': items I absolutely must buy whenever I stop in to TJ's.

So, without further ado- here are the 14 items I absolutely encourage you to try from Trader Joe's.

Note: not everything listed is in the picture above!


1. Trader Joe's Demi French Baguette

At $0.99 a pop, these little baguettes are perfect for a sophisticated sandwich, a cheese board, dips, or to split with someone over soup. Keep a couple of these in your freezer and enjoy a crusty baguette whenever the craving strikes!

2. Trader Joe's Fully Cooked Falafel

Okay- first of all, the freezer sections of TJ's is glorious. Spend a lot of time there. While you're there, do yourself a huge favor and pick up a couple of bags of the Falafel. One to two minutes in the microwave and you have an insanely delicious lunch, appetizer or side dish. My personal favorite way to enjoy these guys is on a flour tortilla with garlic hummus, sour cream, cilantro and Cholula.

Other freezer favorites: Chicken Balti Pies, Mandarin Orange Chicken, Pork or Chicken Potstickers, Naan, Riced Cauliflower

3. Trader Joe's 'Bucket' Cookies

This is a broad category, but one of our house favorites. Trader Joe's makes a variety of cookies, all packaged up in clear buckets. Hubby adores the Ultimate Vanilla Wafers (especially dipped in his coffee), while I'm preferential to the Triple Ginger Snaps. The buckets might seem excessive for small households, but trust me- they go fast.

4. Trader Joe's Organic Mango Nectar

Admittedly, this is one of the more 'splurge' priced items on my list. I promise you, though, that it's totally worth it. This juice IS mango in a glass. Word has it that it's also amazing with tequila, but I wouldn't know anything about that.....

5. Trader Joe's Speculoos Anything

TJ's really hit the nail on the head with speculoos. I like to think of it as their response to the Nutella craze. The traditional jar of cookie butter is always a good place to start for the uninitiated (with apple slices or by the spoonful- it's all good), but TJ's boasts tons of other products incorporating this tasty spread. There's really no wrong way to approach this category.

6. Trader Joe's Lemon Curd

This was the first product from TJ's I fell in love with. Fabulous lemon flavor, not too sweet and pleasantly sticky- insane with butter on a crumpet. If you ever have a recipe that requires lemon curd and don't feel inclined to make your own, this is the only acceptable substitute.

7. Trader Joe's Dried/Freeze Dried Fruit

Another broad category, but one not to be ignored. TJ's has a ridiculous amount dehydrated and freeze dried fruits. If you're looking for anything from dried bananas to jackfruit, this is the place to find it. The dried fruit selection makes for fabulous snacking, or as a great addition to cereal, trail-mix, granola or oatmeal.

My favorites are: dried mangoes, dried banana chips, freeze-dried strawberries, dried jackfruit.

8. Trader Joe's Pumperknickel Pretzel Sticks

Sorry kids- these are pretzels for grown-ups. Deep, toasty rye flavor and not overly hard, these pretzels are perfect with mustard (try TJ's Dijon Mustard mixed with a bit of mayo) or any other dip.

9. TJ's Sour Gummis 

I adore sour gummi candy, and while these are overly sour, they are delicious. Flavored with natural citrus juice, there's something refreshingly not over-processed about these treats. I would sneak these in to a movie theater.

10. Charles Shaw Merlot (aka Two Buck Chuck) or Cotillion Tri-County Pinot Noir

Either of these wines are reliably cheap options for wine. While I wouldn't recommend bringing Two Buck Chuck to a party (better to keep on hand at home for when the good wine runs out), Cotillion is a perfectly acceptable host gift. (Though I have many other favorite wines under $10 that I would recommend instead...)

11. Anything Seasonal

Fall and winter boast a plethora of pumpkin and peppermint flavored treats at Trader Joe's, and they go fast. My advice: as soon as a seasonal item hits the shelves, just buy it.

In the summer, be sure to check out their plant selection. I scooped up a HUGE basil plant for $2.99- way better than anything I found at several of the other stores I went to.

12. Trader Joe's Unexpected Cheddar Cheese

"Tastes like an aged premium cheddar with hints of Parmesan". I've spent.....a lot of money on cheese before. What can I say? I'm a girl that loves to entertain with a good cheese board, and at $3.99 a package, this cheese is a winner. Enjoy it on a grilled cheese with slices of apple, or on it's own with a good cracker or sliced baguette.

13. Trader Joe's Corn and Chili Tomato-less Salsa

I don't like tomatoes. I love the flavor, but I just can't do the texture. Don't ask me to change my ways- it won't happen. This whole love/hate affair really comes to a head when salsa is involved. I adore salsa, but I simply can't bring myself to do anything more than dip a chip into the liquid and leave all 'chunks' behind. This corn and chili salsa is a life-saver. Surprisingly fresh and with a pleasant flavor, this stuff is great with Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Tortilla Chips. Another fabulous way to enjoy it: grilled shrimp, cilantro, corn salsa, diced jalapenos and fresh pineapple all wrapped up in a tortilla.

14. Trader Joe's Frosted Maple and Brown Sugar Shredded Bite Size Wheats

This is what breakfast tastes like. Not overly sweet, but with plenty of maple and brown sugar flavor, I can't imagine ever going back to Kellogg's Mini-Wheats.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

Opa! It's Greek Night


Greek food is one of those 'ethnic food' categories that I feel goes under-appreciated. I'm not sure how Greek food procured a reputation as 'bland' and 'all the same flavor' (I've heard it multiple times....), but I can assure you that that is certainly NOT the case.

I love Greek recipes because there's a huge focus on  using fresh, bright flavors in combination to create something delectable. And if you're a citrus lover? THIS is your cuisine!

So what's in the bento up above?

First up: Spanakorizo, a delightful way to get your veggies in. Onions, spinach and rice are simmered together with a bit of dill and lemon juice for a truly addicting side.


Recipe:


  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely diced onion
  • 1 TB minced garlic
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 4 TB fresh dill, minced and divided in half
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1/2 pound baby spinach, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • Feta
Heat olive oil over medium/high heat. Add onions and saute until soft and translucent. Add in garlic and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add cumin, lemon zest and spinach. Cover pan and cook until spinach has wilted. Add in chicken broth, rice, 1/2 of the dill and bring to a boil. (Note: before boiling, you could transfer everything into a rice cooker and cook according to directions) Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, 15-20 minutes. Stir in remaining dill and lemon juice, and add in crumbles of feta cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt/pepper if desired.



Next: Chicken Souvlaki with Tzatziki. The marinade for this chicken smells so good- marinate shoe leather in this stuff and I'm sure it would turn out. Whip up plenty of minty-cool tzatziki for dipping (or schmeering on a pita!) and you're in for a tasty main dish.


Recipe:

  • 4 TB olive oil
  • 2 TB fresh lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp freshly grated black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp oregano (or 1 TB fresh)
  • 1 pound chicken breasts, cut into 1" chunks 
Whisk all ingredients together. Add marinade to a large ziploc bag (or bowl), add chicken, toss, and rest in fridge for several hours, ideally overnight. 

Remove chicken from marinade, pat dry and cook as desired. Grilling is recommended (skewer and grill 8-10 minutes), but oven-baking is also acceptable (lay on a pan and broil until chicken is done, timing will vary based on oven and rack position)



Recipe:

  • 6 oz plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 smallish cucumber, peeled and grated (use large grater holes)
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon (adding more to taste if desired)
  • 1 TB fresh mint, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced fine
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients, adding in more seasoning until you're happy. Allow to rest in fridge for at least 30 minutes so flavors can meld.


Finally: Greek Honey Cake. I just need to take a minute here and tell you how unique this cake is. It really is unlike anything I've ever had. The texture is almost like cornbread, and despite nearly drowning the pan in an addicting honey syrup, the cake maintains it's structure.


Recipe:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened to room temp
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup milk
Preheat oven to 350. Spray an 8x8 pan with cooking spray. Set aside.

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and orange zest. Set aside.

Beat sugar and butter together until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until thoroughly combined. 

Working in alternating batches, add flour mixture and milk to sugar mixture, scraping down the bowl as needed. 

Pour batter into pan and bake 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean and the cake has pulled away from the sides of the pan. 

While the cake is cooling, prepare the syrup. In a large saucepan, add 1 cup honey and 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Add in 1 tsp lemon juice and 1 tsp orange juice- cook another 2-3 minutes. Pour over the top of the cake.

Let the syrup soak into the cake for 30 minutes-1 hour. Enjoy! 




Sunday, January 10, 2016

A little Sous-Vide action...Beer Brats!

We just got back from an AMAZING honeymoon in beautiful, sunny, warm, fabulous Mexico.

We're such goons.

Unfortunately for us, we returned to Minnesota just in time to catch the beginning of a fun-filled polar vortex. 

Boo.

As I'm coming down from my warm-weather high, I found myself craving one last taste of summer. I needed something fresh. I needed something savory. I needed something that would tide me over until I could either escape back to Mexico or drag out the grill in June. 

I also needed to sous-vide something for my 52 Weeks of Cooking Challenge. 

Beer brats. I needed to beer brats. 

(I also needed to pack it all into a Bento Box style for my 'metatheme' weekly challenge)

Here's the deal- I love a good brat. What I can't abide, however, is a brat that is charred to the point of exhaustion. This is why I love beer brats: I get to avoid the char! However, I sometimes find that beer brats, left to simmer away in a bath of beer, can turn out over-cooked and under-whelming. 

Sous-vide brats are truly a revelation. By maintaining temperature, the brats cook evenly and perfectly. Add in some caramelized onions and beer to the cooking bag (along with a divine roasted pepper salad) and you've got a brat that's thoroughly infused with all the flavors of a summer grill out. I absolutely adore this method and will go so far as to say THIS is how I will cook my brats forever, no matter the time of year. 

If you're craving a taste of summer, get yourself some brats and get going on this recipe!


First, we're going to caramelize some onions. Begin by melting some butter in a pan on medium heat. 2 tablespoons should do the trick. When your butter begins to bubble, add in 1 thinly sliced red onion, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, and a good pinch of salt. Cook the onions for 15-20 minutes, until they deepen in color and are thoroughly softened. Add in 12 ounces of your favorite pale ale and bring to a steady simmer. Cook another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

In the meantime, you'll want to heat up a pot of water to 140 degrees F. It's essential to maintain the temperature at 140 for the duration of the cook time, so be sure to have a reliable thermometer handy. 

Divide the onion/beer mixture between to gallon freezer bags (or 2 vacuum seal bags) and add in 3 brats to each bag. Flatten the bags and remove the air from the bag using the water submersion technique or a vacuum sealer. Be sure the brats aren't overlapping each other.


Add to the pot and be sure to watch the temperature. If it begins to drop, you'll want to turn up the heat in order to maintain 140. Use a pot or other item to help submerge the bags completely. Cook for 1 hour. After 1 hour, brats can be held at temperature for several hours.

Or we can eat them right away! Remove the bags from the water bath and all to rest slightly while you heat up a skillet on high with some butter. Sear off the brats for just a minute or two (they're already fully cooked), or until they begin to split open. 


Beautiful. Juicy. And thoroughly delicious served with the caramelized onions and some mustard. 

If you want to go a step further, though...


Char up a red, green and yellow bell pepper over an open flame or under the broiler. You'll want to char until nearly all the skin is blackened. 


Lovely! Remove to a bowl and cover with a kitchen towel. Rest for 20 minutes, then use your hands to peel off the charred skin. Remove the inner membranes and slice the peppers into thin strips. 

In a small bowl, combine 6 tablespoons olive oil, 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon each of dried oregano, basil, parsley, rosemary (1 TB if using fresh), 2 cloves finely minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne, and salt/pepper to taste. Whisk well and add the mixture to the pepper slices. Allow to marinate for at least 20 minutes.


Absolutely delicious on a brat!