2020, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t going particularly well. Social distancing and self-quarantining are two gerunds we’ve all become familiar with over the last weeks, and as far as food goes, it means one thing: You’re eating at home more. Whether you’re getting takeout from your favorite restaurants or scouring the CVS shelves for beans and hand sanitizer, we’re all eating more meals at home.
Which brings us to Trader Joe’s, the place for millennials who don’t like to cook but do like to drink. Joe Coulombe, who died last month at 89, ingeniously created a chain where each branch somehow seems as friendly as a small-town grocery store. Hand-written signs, the signature Aloha-shirt uniform, the fact that employees are actually, you know, reasonably helpful and friendly. Their little Fearless Flyer newsletter, looking cribbed straight from the Farmers’ Almanac, as old-timey as a shop that spells the word “shoppe,” might distract you from the fact that the chain was sold in 1979 to the Albrecht family, founders of the multibillion-dollar German behemoth Aldi.
I have a Martin Luther-esque list of grievances about the store: Why is it Trader Joe’s-branded everything? Do you expect me to believe that yogurt and those peanut butter pretzels and that fried rice all came out of one magical factory in Monrovia? Why can’t you buy, like, normal grocery store things like aluminum foil? But those are for another time. People are stressed out, and people gotta eat.
Here are the scientifically proven and totally correct Trader Joe’s Frozen Food Power Rankings, freshly wiped down this morning with the last can of Clorox wipes on Earth. I have tried no fewer than 37 different Trader Joe’s frozen food products, which I have ranked based on two metrics: 1) Taste and 2) Laziness Factor — how easy was the prep and cleanup? (Factors in oven time if recommended. A higher ranking means it’s easier.)
Here are the top 12.
1. Maitre Pierre Tarte d’Alsace
This very good take on an Alsatian tarte flambee or a flammkuchen will make you feel like you’re a kid in eastern France, getting annexed all over again. It’s a crispy, buttery dough base layer smeared with creme fraiche and sprinkled with Gruyere cheese and little batons of ham.
This has been a staple of the T.J. frozen food pantheon for as long as I can remember, and for good reason: The flaky crust combines impeccably with the delicate onions, nutty cheese and sweet-smoky ham.
2. Korma fish curry
Hey. This is a winner. Are those mustard seeds in that rice? Is the fish — a swai (a freshwater shark catfish) fillet — flaky and tender? Is that just the right balance of heat in the creamy, coconuty, tamarind-tinged sauce? The answer to all of these is a resounding “yes,” as is my response to the question, “should I buy this?”
3. Korean-style beef short ribs
These marinated flaps of “L.A. galbi” (so-named because Koreans who moved to Los Angeles had to adjust to how meat was butchered in the U.S. and brought that flanken-style across-the-bone cut back to Korea) compellingly balance sweet and savory. The brown sugar in the marinade helps with the caramelization to the meat, offsetting the funky rice wine and garlicky thrust, but without getting into sticky teriyaki territory. The prep and cleanup is a little tough, but it’s worth it to feel like you’ve landed a seat at a totally decent Hawaiian lunch counter somewhere.
4. Cauliflower gnocchi
Slow clap. Count me as a member of the Sarcastic Clapping Family of Southampton, because I’m duly impressed. I had my doubts about this product because of its popularity (one of the bestselling items, according to the Trader Joe’s crew leader I spoke to at my local store), but I was surprised how good these are.
Unlike the prep of other frozen T.J. gnocchi, wherein you just toss them into a hot pan, these cauliflower gnocchi are steamed back to life first before they get crisped up in the pan. The extra step results in a mouthfeel that could nearly convince you that they weren’t from the freezer.
If you’re generally a fan of the bitter pepperiness of Brassica oleracea, which includes cabbage and Brussels sprouts, you’re going to like these. Served with cheese sprinkled on top, they conjure broccoli, but you’ll probably be happier dousing them in sauce — T.J.’s jarred arrabiata or its frozen turkey bolognese aren’t bad choices.
5. Butter chicken with basmati rice
Butter chicken isn’t as complex or interesting as some other Indian dishes, but it, like kung pao chicken, has broad appeal. And this is an earthy, satisfying, faithful representation of the dish.
Butter chicken was supposedly created in the kitchen of Moti Mahal, a Delhi restaurant that opened in 1947. The sauce in this rendition has a tomato-inflected creaminess and some slight smokiness to give it depth. Would I like it if the sauce weren’t quite so thin? I would, but I can’t carp about the flavor. The rice holds up well, even after half an hour in the oven.
6. Chicken & mushroom pelmeni
I enjoyed these — but I am a fan of pelmeni. These cute, aural Russian dumplings — pelmeni comes from a word that translates to “ear bread” — are stuffed with a bouncy-textured filling that almost crosses the line into rubbery but manages not to go too far. There’s a nice dill flavor to the dish, which cuts the salt and umami of the chicken and mushroom filling.
7. Fiery chicken curry
Described as a “Goan-inspired recipe with turmeric rice” the fiery chicken mostly delivers. The sweet and sour tomato-based sauce, flavored with tamarind, lulls you into satiation before a sneaky heat comes over and backhands you. It’s slightly more herbal and bitter than some of the other T.J. curries and good if you want an extra kick.
8. Chicken cilantro mini wontons
Cute is an operable descriptor for these tiny, adorable little meat pockets. They’re not that different than most of the other T.J. dumpling offerings, but there’s an added herbal tanginess to the filling imparted by the cilantro. You do, of course, have to not be one of those people who thinks cilantro tastes like soap.
9. Palak paneer
What’s with the Indian food at Trader Joe’s? It’s better than any other category of frozen food in the store by, like, a metric ton. This palak paneer, spiced with fenugreek and turmeric, has the right amount of heat in the creamy, slightly grassy spinach. Cheese cubes, swimming in the sea of green, add a pleasing squeak.
10. Burrata, prosciutto & arugula flatbread
In an interesting prep experience, you completely remove the prosciutto package before backing the flatbread, then add the somewhat skimpy meat portion to the completed product. The cheese mixture is sharp and tangy, but the arugula, after sitting in a hot oven, essentially has all the oomph of spinach, totally lacking any peppery sharpness. The ham imparts needed salt and the overall flavor is good, with an above-average crust.
In the “hard to mess up” category, it’s still important to acknowledge when something is done right. Frozen phyllo dough crisps up awesomely in the oven, and the slick, cheesy spinach filling is no better or worse than we need it to be. Serve these up at a little dinner party for your friends and make them think you’re fancier and more skilled in the kitchen than you are.
12. Joe’s Diner Mac ‘N Cheese
This doesn’t look like much going into the oven, and it doesn’t look like much coming out, either: a tray of lumpy, alabaster slop. But it has the pleasing graininess that only thiamine mononitrate has, as well as satisfying gooey stretchiness. It’s souped-up cafeteria fare, better than Kraft or Velveeta, but not quite “Diner” in its quality or evocation of warmth and comfort.