The cooking tips below will help you make the most of Trader Joe’s foods.
Make It Your Own
Add something to Trader Joe’s dishes or combine them in interesting ways. The chilled Middle East Feast (vegan) is good on it’s own, but even better and enough for two with the addition of an easy salad of cherry tomatoes, cucumber and kalamata olives. The frozen Gnocchi ala Gorgonzola is tasty, but a bit boring until I add frozen peas, sauteed mushrooms and cherry tomatoes.
However, resist the urge to go overboard. Almost any combination of shredded carrots, tomato, cucumber, olives, garbanzo beans and artichoke hearts make a nice addition to the Caesar Salad Kit, but adding them all is just too busy and distracting. In general, 3-5 distinct ingredients is a good amount for an interesting and tasty dish.
Add Freshness to Frozen Foods
Frozen foods are great from a convenience standpoint, but they lack a certain freshness factor. Fortunately, this can be easily remedied with the addition of a fresh ingredient or two. Saute some greens (chard, kale, spinach) and place under frozen vegetable lasagna to enhance the visual appeal and nutrition of this entree. Place sliced avocado on top of black bean and corn enchiladas to add a boost of color and some satisfying and healthy fat. Top frozen waffles with banana slices and berries.
Handle Produce Well
Produce really suffers if it’s kept under the wrong conditions or manhandled. In general potatoes, onions, tomatoes, avocados and should be kept at room temperature (in your pantry or in a basket on your kitchen counter). Berries, stone fruits and apples also are also tastier if they’re not chilled, but if you find yourself with more fruit than you can eat in the next day or two go ahead and put some in the fridge.
Most fruits and vegetables are best washed and dried right before you eat them. Less likely to get slimy or soggy in the fridge.
Lettuce should be hand torn, not cut with a knife, to minimize browning and should be washed and dried (in a spinner or between paper towels), not put in the fridge wet.
Include some long-lasting produce when you shop so you’ll have something fresh to eat towards the end of the week. Spinach lasts longer than lettuce, pineapple and bananas last longer than berries and an unripe avocado will be a treat in a few days.
Make Your Own Salad Dressings
Trader Joe’s has a small, but good selection of bottled salad dressings. However, making your own dressing is super easy and adds a unique and fresh taste to your salads. My favorite salad dressing is 2/3 olive oil and 1/3 balsamic vinegar with a tablespoon each of soy sauce and maple syrup. Add salt and pepper to taste, a squeeze of lemon or orange to change it up, and a crushed garlic clove if you want some zing. This dressing is incredibly versatile and works well on Italian, Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian style salads.
Use white balsamic when making a salad with light colored ingredients, such as white cabbage or citrus fruits. Regular balsamic will turn light ingredients an unappealing brown.
Marinate firm salad ingredients, like olives, beans, tofu and cherry tomatoes in salad dressing before adding them to the salad for a flavor boost.
Beans are Your Friends
Beans are healthy, filling, inexpensive and easy. Add beans to soups and salads to make them more satisfying. Add beans to rice and other grains to turn a side dish into an entree. Trader Joe’s carries a good selection of canned beans that just need to be drained and rinsed before serving. Add a little hot sauce to black beans before adding them to rice for a tasty dish or marinate garbanzo beans in vinaigrette before adding them to a salad.
Add Some Crunch
Food that is all the same consistency or even worse mushy just isn’t very appealing. Add cucumber to a salad, apples to oatmeal, granola to yogurt, and cashews to a stir fry for some appetizing crunch.
Trader Joe’s carries several types of broths and smooth soups bases that are healthy and inexpensive. However, slurping a smooth soup makes me feel like something is missing. Add corn, beans, noodles or rice to a smooth soup and garnish with salsa, sour cream, cheese or herbs for a satisfying soup.
Spice It Up
Don’t skimp on seasonings. A sprinkle of sea salt on vegetables, freshly ground pepper on a salad, a dash of hot sauce in a stir fry, or a pinch of cinnamon on oatmeal all boost flavor without adding calories. Trader Joe’s sells peppercorns in a container with a built in pepper grinder that is well worth the price. Trader Joe’s also carries fresh herbs and actual basil plants. Both are great additions to meals, but only if you’ll actually use them. My basil plant often ends up being mostly decorative.
Use the Rights Oils
I did not think it was possible to mess up boxed brownie mix until a coworker brought brownies she’d made using olive oil. In general, olive oil is something you use in savory foods (pasta, polenta, salad dressings) when you want the oil to add flavor. For other foods (baked goods, pancakes) you generally want a bland oil, such as corn or canola oil.
More exotic oils are fun to use, but are best when the flavor makes sense with the dish. sesame oil adds a nice flavor, walnut oil is tasty in salad dressings, and a splash of truffle oil on flatbread or risotto is extra special.
Don’t Pre-Thaw Frozen Foods
In general, frozen foods needs to stay in the freezer until you’re ready to cook them. It may seem like a time saving idea to thaw that pizza ahead of time, but the crust will get soggy and the vegetables limp. Pretty much any frozen dish with bread or breading, potatoes, or vegetables will get soggy when thawed and not get crispy again unless you really overcook it. A few exceptions to this are rice based dishes, beans, and polenta which seem to do just fine if thawed.
Use Your Microwave Wisely
Microwaves are a blessing for a busy cook, but can be a curse to certain foods. Baked goods are almost always a disaster in the microwave. The toaster or oven are much better options. If you must warm a muffin or biscuit in the microwave, be prepared to eat it right away because it’ll turn rock hard as it cools.
I’ve also never had a decent microwaved burrito. The tortilla ends up dry and crusty and the filling is somehow nuclear hot in spots and and icy in others. However, enchiladas are ok due to the sauce. Similarly lasagna does fine in a microwave.
By contrast oatmeal is super easy in microwave. Just put some oats and a generous amount of water in bowl and microwave until it starts to bubble (usually less than 2 minutes). Stir in some soy milk and add some dried, fruit and nuts, and maple syrup.
Use Cooking Instructions as Guidelines
There’s usually quite a bit of leeway in how you cook a dish and modifications can make the process faster or easier and the final product can taste as good or sometimes even better.
I really like the flavor of TJ’s Roasted Vegetables in Balsamic Butter Sauce, but the ingredients don’t quite work from a cooking standpoint. The green beans cook too quickly, the whole frozen mushrooms take forever to cook, and the cherry tomatoes get dangerously hot inside. I accidentally discovered that this dish is best if overcooked since all the vegetables get a nice caramelized, slightly charred thing going. I also mash the cherry tomatoes as soon as they get soft which adds flavor to the sauce and reduces the likelihood of getting a painful mouth burn from biting into a hot cherry tomato.
I sometimes modify the cooking instructions for the frozen bagged entrees (ravioli, polenta) and side dishes (fried rice, vegetables) from 10 minutes on medium heat with frequent stirring to 20 minutes on low heat with no attention. The Fire Marshall probably wouldn’t approve of this, but 20 minutes on low heat with the lid on, gives me time to take a shower or catch up on email. Then when I’m ready to eat, I turn up the heat, remove the lid and stir and heat the dish until the texture is what I like. Feels like my dinner practically cooked itself.
If you’re in hurry, you can usually boost the oven cooking temp by 25 degrees or turn up the stove burner a notch to shorten cooking time without any adverse consequences. Note that baked goods are the most sensitive to cooking conditions so best to follow the instructions as closely as possible.