Tzaziki
Seek Out the Trader Joe's
March 9, 2006

Do you like the King Lear ref?

When Mathra and I feverishly prepped for our five-day drive from Boston to San Francisco, we did more than attempt to anesthetize the cats with heavy doses of catnip and send off the movers with an agonized prayer. Thinking of our stomachs hurtling down I-80 in the rental mini-van, we made sure to pay a final visit to a favorite store in Cambridge. Because we needed the use of a car to do so, it was always an event when we got over to the Trader Joe's on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, and we relished every moment of it. As we were collecting tubes of summer sausage, packages of dried fruit, dried soy nuts (a mistake for such a long car ride), and bags of Asian-flavored rice crackers, we didn't even notice the full bounty a Trader Joe's has to offer.

After we were nominally settled in our apartment, our lack of furniture and kitchen things (see why I hate movers) propelled us (still in the rental mini-van, natch) to the Trader Joe's on Masonic. We stocked up on frozen shu mai, pizzas, and all sorts of other goodies you don't need cookware or even plates for. It was at this time that we discovered -- and subsequently bathed in -- their freakishly good Tzaziki dip. We were dipping their Middle Eastern Flatbread (heat it up on a dry skillet or in the toaster for maximum warm and crispy yum) into the tzaziki and watching Deep Space Nine on my iBook. The threesome was pure heaven. Now, three years later, Trader Joe's (or "Trader's" as we like to call it) is one of our necessary, weekly shopping stops.

Flatbread

It's not a big surprise to find plastic-wrapped vegetables in any grocery store, but I was particularly bowled over by the packaged baby artichokes at Trader Joe's. I started getting them several times a week, peeling them down, and simmering them in a bit of lemon juice, water, and olive oil until they were tender. Scatter a few pinches of sea salt over the lot and that's one heckuva way to start dinner. I was even more impressed by Trader's artichoke stock after I brought home a pound of the precious green jewels from my Farmer's Market and had to bin most of them because they were wormy. I never found a single worm in any of the pre-packaged ones from Trader's and I've also never felt that I was compromising on taste. Same goes for usually cha-ching products like truffle oil and saffron.

Truffle Oil

I frequently make entire meals from Trader Joe's stuff. This is a slightly new twist on an old recipe but I've made some improvements recently. I take two portabello mushrooms and cover each of them (gills up) in two tablespoons of a vinaigrette. I usually make a lemom-thyme vinaigrette, but a few nights ago I made a mistake and started whisking one up with balsamic vinegar, O Port Wine Vinegar, and Dijon mustard. Instead of giving up on the mushrooms and making the salad for which that vinaigrette is actually intended, I took my recipe a step further. I finely chopped two of the stems from the four portabellos and added them to the vinaigrette. The chopped stems thickened the vinaigrette nicely. My husband, who loves the way I usually make these mushrooms, was highly suspicious of the alterations and started to make noises about calling out for pizza. What a food purist I've created.

Anyway, the mushrooms go into a 400 oven for about 10 to 12 minutes -- just until the mushrooms' juices start to release. Then I pull them out and put chunks of the champignon mushroom "brie" (also available at Trader Joe's) on each mushroom and shove them all under the broiler until the cheese melts. Now, in the past, that's where I've stopped and served, but we've discovered these adorable micro-greens at Trader Joe's.

Microgreens

They're about the size of peashoots but with thinner stems. I take a container of them and toss them around in what little vinaigrette remains at the bottom and sides of the bowl and pile them on top the melted cheese. My husband loves this new rendition and now won't let me make it without the microgreens.

Another meal I make completely from Trader Joe's stuff is a beet salad. I recently fell in love with roasted -- not pickled -- beats and when I can have them in a salad with blue cheese and nuts, I'm pretty damn happy with life. I do roast and peel my own beets, but it's time-consuming and messy and I just don't have time for it during the week. Lucky for my burgeoning beet obesession, I found these vacuum-sealed, pre-steamed, peeled beets in the refrigerated section and took a chance on them. Twenty-five packages later, I'm glad I did.

Beets

They're really quite tasty stand-ins for the real thing. I quarter them and mix them up with baby lettuces, candied pecans (also a Trader Joe's favorite) and a few sprinkles of crumbled blue cheese from (Trader Joe's carries tubs of several varieties). The dressing I prefer to use is the one I mistakenly made for the portabellos. The tangy Dijon mustard in the dressing plays off nicely against the earthy beets, which never come out overly sweet in this salad. Our check-out gals and guys at Trader's always grab our beets and swoon, "Oh, my god -- these are the best things we carry!" and then proceed to tell me what they do with them. That's another thing about Trader Joe's, everyone who works there is clearly very excited about the food -- it's infectious.

Inspired by Amy's list and the fact that my New York friends are psyched about the new store opening, here are my Top 10 Trader Joe's Favorites

1. Packaged baby artichokes
2. Melissa's Baby Red Beets
3. Middle Eastern Flatbread & Tandoori Bread

Tandoori

4. Tzaziki
5. Quinoa
6. Granola (We regularly stock the Maple Walnut, Apple-Cinnamon, and Pumpkin Spice.)
7. Spiced Pecans

Nuts

8. Fingerling potatoes (When they started getting in little net bags of these babies, I just about died. They're great the next day cold, sliced, and stuffed in a sandwich with arugula.)
9. Apple-stuffed pork chops
10. Tejava iced tea (I drank two big bottle of this every day we lived in San Diego)

While I refuse to go the Sandra Lee route and buy pre-chopped onions or peeled whole garlic -- mostly because I'm not entirely sure how fresh they'd be -- I love, love, LOVE other Trader's other fresh fruits and vegetables. The baby orange and yellow carrots? Adorable. The pre-seeded pomegranate seeds? Major time saver. Plus, the have far and away the best price on Clif Bars ($.99 per bar) any where in the Bay Area where they can be as high as $1.50 p/b. We couldn't get along without the several kinds of granola at Trader Joes. Plus it's one of the only places we can find the veddy, veddy British After Eights mints to go with our Christmas port (Delaforce port is an excellent buy at Trader's.)

I'm also ganking these Trader Joe's links from Amy because they are definitely worth visiting:

The Tracking Trader Joe's Blog
A fan site that I might have to join with a quickness
General Trader's discussion group called "Trader Joe's or Death"
And finally, and perhaps most interestingly, a Trader Joe's singles group in the Seattle area

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