Trader Joe's Frozen Foods: Butter Chicken & Trader Ming's Mandarin Orange
If you haven’t tried Trader Joe’s frozen foods or visited one of their stores, I strongly recommend you investigate, if not stock your freezer. I recently had the good fortune to replace an ancient, dying electric range with a powerful five-burner gas range. Unfortunately, the transition required a new gas line and nearly a week without a stove. This forced either more dining out than my budget would bear or my food preparation had to shift from the oven and stove to microwave, rice cooker and a toaster oven. I’ve written before on microwave and rice cooking, but have just started to explore the vast marketplace of new frozen foods. One of the best places I’ve found for frozen and semi-prepared foods is Trader Joe’s.
One of the first things shoppers notice on their initial trip to Trader Joe’s is the absence of familiar, nationally-advertised brands. Trader Joe’s sells few branded products that aren’t Trader Joe’s-branded products. Often their brand appears under such whimsical names as “Trader Ming’s” (Chinese foods), “Trader Jose’s” (Mexican foods), and “Trader Giotto’s” (Italian foods). The store also promises that their branded products have no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, MSG, genetically modified ingredients and no added trans fats. Another pleasant observation is that most of Trader Joe’s products are reasonably priced, despite a décor similar to their pricey competitor, Whole Foods.
Frozen Foods Go Cosmopolitan
Hungry Man style frozen dinners, Tombstone Pizzas and Lean Cuisine meals continue to fill out a major share of most grocery freezer aisles, but a much wider crop of gourmet and ethnically themed lines of frozen foods have emerged even in the most run-of-the-mill chain groceries. These welcome additions have greatly improved the offerings from lasagna, fish sticks and Salisbury steak to Korean Bibimbap bowls, south Asian dishes such as Palak Paneer and Chana Masala, and broader offerings of Mexican, Italian, and Chinese dishes. This is where Trader Joe’s shines. Rather than carry every popular brand of Pizza or ice cream in every size and variety, Trader Joe’s focuses on their own broad selection of high quality products. How much selection of frozen pepperoni pizza does one need anyway?
In my last trip, I picked up a number of items including two I’d like to review here: Trader Ming’s Mandarin Orange Chicken ($4.99), and Butter Chicken with Basmati rice ($3.00). First, the Mandarin Orange Chicken: as explained above, a major consideration was the temporary limitation in cooking methods – no stovetop preparation available.
The instructions were clear: skillet (stovetop) or oven for the chicken; the mandarin orange sauce could go in the microwave or a saucepan. As my oven gradually gave up the ghost, I began to bake more in the toaster oven. I partially thawed the chicken in the microwave, and finished it in the toaster oven. When I’ve had orange chicken in Chinese restaurants, I’ve enjoyed the crispy versions, but have been disappointed when I’ve gotten super sweet sauces. I was pleased to discover Trader Ming’s sauce was not absurdly sweet; unfortunately I didn’t have the patience to fully crisp the chicken. I could hardly blame Trader Joe’s for my impatience. Nevertheless, the Mandarin Orange Chicken scored well on price and flavor. The only downside I could see was that the chicken was just chicken with sauce, not a stand alone meal. For convenience foods, I still needed to make at least rice and would like to add a vegetable.
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The second product was Trader Joe’s Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice ($3.00). This is a south Asian marinated chicken dish. Apparently Trader Joe’s hasn’t come up with a whimsical south Asian name yet. The chicken is marinated with yogurt and spices, I’ve made a dish like this with off-the-shelf “tandoor” spice paste and plain yogurt. Trader Joe’s version was considerably milder, but much more convenient.
I shared both meals with my 10 year-old daughter. She is an adventurous but light eater, so I expected the estimated 1.5 servings per container to suffice. With no other side dishes we both found ourselves hankering for more or something else. The Butter Chicken is perhaps enough for one, but not more, even if that extra mouth belongs to a 10 year-old who normally eats like a sparrow. I would gladly have this dish along with me for a work lunch, especially since it can be prepared exclusively in a microwave, but for dinner I would have naan/roti or fruit to fill out the meal.
I haven't found a dud yet in the many Trader Joe's branded foods I've tried, and the company makes a point of keeping prices low. Occasionally that means the portions are on the skimpy side, but if you match up products and pay attention to serving size, you are bound to be satisfied.
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