It might surprise you that some of my most rewarding shopping moments happen not at a charming farmers market or a far-flung ethnic grocery but at Trader Joe’s. Chances are you have shopped there before, because at last count the company has grown to more than 315 stores in 25 states across the country. But it is a far cry from a soulless supermarket chain. Traders (as they are affectionately called in our town) are homey and retro, with hand-drawn signs and wooden crates, the smell of a simmering barbeque sauce or oven-baked garlic fries wafting through the aisles.
Some years ago (okay, it was something like thirty years ago), I remember my first foray with my mother to the Traders on National Boulevard. The store was crowded and cramped, and navigating the aisles with a shopping cart was like a bumper car ride. There were pony-tailed guys in Hawaiian shirts passing out samples of new products, daily specials squawked out on a loudspeaker, shoppers grinding their own peanuts and coffee. It was like a neighborhood bazaar. I’ll never forget the day I tasted a sample of tapenade (I was probably 12); I had never tried anything so delicious. Traders also awakened my virgin tastebuds to grilled Haloumi cheese, instant Kosher Indian curries, Greek-style yogurt, chile-dried mangoes, whole wheat ciabatta and freeze-dried jack fruit.
Last week, I had been experimenting with a new recipe for kale (see In The Kitchen) and was stumped for days on how to make it less greasy. My “Aha!” moment came in the olive oil aisle at Trader Joe’s. Olive oil spray! Feeling buoyant from my discovery, I skipped over to the dried fruit and nut section. I was in the mood to bake scones and was looking for an inspirational flavor idea. I came upon a bag of dried cranberries infused with orange and some roasted almonds. Baked into a whole wheat scone recipe I had been testing (see In The Kitchen), they turned out to be just the needed twist.
By the way, the prices at Trader Joe’s are hard to beat. I know firsthand because I used to sell to the company when I owned a snack business. Trader’s buyers are as tough to please as Simon Cowell, demanding from vendors the lowest possible pricing. This turned out to be less than a boon to my bottom line but great news for customers. The baked goods are supplied daily by local bakeries, cutting transportation costs to a minimum. And since Trader Joe’s puts its own label on most of its products, packaging is at its most cost-effective and conservationist.
When it comes to produce, Trader Joe’s always offers an interesting and plentiful selection. Organic produce costs scarcely more than the conventionally grown. For less than $2.00, a bag of beautiful blood oranges can become terrific lunch bag snacks or a beguiling salad dressing. I especially adore the microgreens, which I have only found at Maggie’s stand at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Tossed with a little vinaigrette, microgreens are an elegant way to top an otherwise ordinary piece of roasted or grilled fish. The organic frozen fruits and vegetables are more flavorful than any other brand I’ve tried, especially the artichoke hearts and diced mangoes. There are also colorful vegetable mixes to throw into a stir-fry or pasta sauce. And don’t overlook the meat section—Trader’s is the most convenient place to procure a fresh organic, Kosher chicken and excellent Kosher ground beef.
Trader Joe’s is where you’ll find me shopping this month in the ’hood!