An Ode to Joe’s

Sometimes I feel like eating a cuisine I’m not particularly good at, or don’t have the cupboard resources to roll out on a dime. Chinese food is one example — if I ever want to feel inadequate as a cook, I’ll try to make a Chinese dinner. Same with Indian. I can could a reasonably good generic curry, but am lacking the encyclopedic pantry of spices and unusual ingredients to go much further. Fortunately, my cravings for either of these two cuisines is rare, and when need strikes I can usually survive on the occasional take out. I’m mostly satisfied with my repertoire, and will leave the meins and masalas to the experts. Or, I eat Trader Joe’s.

Palak paneer with Malabari paratha from TJ's

I get annoyed when I meet people from the East Coast who ask whether we have Trader Joe’s on the West Coast. When I was a kid, I used to patronize store #3 with my father (the first store opened in 1967, the year of my birth, in South Pasadena), where he went to buy brie, nut mix and wine — which was about all they had back then. Today you can shop in Trader Joe’s from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, and they have everything you could need or imagine. The quality is high, the prices stable — your only fear that something you cherish will suddenly vanish from the shelves, and when you ask the friendly Trader Joe’s associate in the floral shirt about it, you’ll get the dreaded answer: “Oh, we don’t carry that anymore.”

“Did you find everything you need?” another helpful Trader Joe’s associate inquires with genuine interest as she rings up your basket full of stuff.

“Yeah, except that thing you don’t carry anymore,” you reply with a barely discernible tinge of hostility.

People at Trader Joe’s tend to leave their shopping carts to go explore more than they do at other markets. I often drop something into my cart only to have a startled woman turn to me, “Oh, uh… that’s my cart, actually.” Sometimes I’ll drop things into other people’s carts just for fun, a last vestige of the mischief maker of my youth. Once I ran into my friend Tori at the Santa Monica Trader Joe’s, and when she left her cart to go exploring, I put all sorts of things in there. She called me later when she got home and discovered the gluten-free pasta, frozen coq au vin, electrolyte enhanced water and miscellaneous other items she hadn’t intended to purchase.

But back to that Indian food. I’m dashing out the door to some meetings at my office in West Los Angeles, and realize I forgot to make myself lunch. And a smile spreads across my face, for this is an instant I realize I can take a box of Trader Joe’s spinach palak paneer — actually made in India! — and a couple paratha breads, and have myself an epic Indian lunch! I used to go to the famous Indian restaurant, Bombay Café, located a few blocks away. But I like my TJ’s Indian lunch just as well — and it’s under $3.

Jaipur vegetables with Malabari paratha

And just when you worry that after all these years and so many meals, your love may be growing staid… you discover something new amidst the nuts and dried fruits and yogurts and cheeses — hand-milled white grits, pure maple sugar, wasabi seaweed snacks, salty sweet nutty trek mix! Be still, my beating heart.

Here are some of my favorite items from Trader Joe’s (and only from Trader Joe’s):

• Indian stuff. Boxes of Indian stuff in the dry food aisle. Samosas and channa masala in the frozen food aisle. Paratha flatbreads and naan flatbreads.

• Sicilian olive oil. I’ve already told too many people about this. And here I go, telling you too. My friend, Monica, asked one evening if I wanted to go in with her on a case of her favorite olive oil from Italy. “It’s kind of expensive,” she said, “But if we split a case that makes it more affordable.” I pulled out my $5.99 bottle of Sicilian olive oil from Trader Joe’s and gave her a taste. “Wow,” she said, “that’s really good.” It was the last I heard from her about the case of her favorite olive oil.

• Specialty pizzas. Serve the Puff Pastry Margherita Pizza or Tarte d’Alsace at your next party. Tell your guests you made them yourself, and you’ll be the talk of the town. Really.

• Salty Sweet Nutty Trek Mix. One word for you: crack.

• Greek-style yogurt. Drizzled with a little honey, transports me to a breakfast table at a small, dark bed & breakfast in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens.

• Chicken chile verde burritos. Perfect size, perfect flavor. I just wish they had a killer fresh salsa to go with it. But you can’t have it all. (Or as my kids say: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”)

• Mandarin orange chicken. The undisputed guilty pleasure of everyone within a 10-mile radius of a Trader Joe’s store. I blacken some chiles de arbol over a flame and add them to give it an extra kick.

And now, here’s a nice recipe for some Italian-inspired fish, served with those white grits I was talking about above in place of the typical polenta. You could even buy the fish in the frozen aisle. Enjoy!

*   *   *

Red snapper with fennel, tomato and white grits
serves 4

Four 6-8 oz filets of red snapper or other firm-fleshed whitefish (cod, bass or halibut)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large tomato, chopped
1 small fennel bulb (or 1/2 large fennel bulb), thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup fish stock (or chicken stock)
1/4 tsp. saffron threads
1 cup dried grits
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. butter

Make the grits: place dried grits in a saucepan with three cups water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until grits have soaked up all the water (10-15 minutes). Add more water as needed, and continue this way until grits are thoroughly cooked, usually 35-40 minutes. The grits should have a thick soupy oatmeal texture. (They will continue to thicken after they’re done cooking.) Remove from heat and stir in the parmesan and butter. Cover.

While the grits are cooking, place 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add fennel and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden. Add garlic and cook another 2 minutes. Add tomato, wine and stock, and turn heat to medium-high. Simmer until 2/3 of the sauce has cooked away (about 15 or 20 minutes, usually). Turn off heat and stir in saffron.

In another large skilled, heat the other 1/4 olive oil over medium high heat. Dredge your fish fillets in the flour, and place in the oil. Cook for about 5 minutes per side, until golden and crisp. Pour your fennel sauce over the fish and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes, or until sauce has thickened. Remove from heat.

To serve: scoop about 1/2 to 2/3 a cup grits onto each of four plates. (Note: you may have grits leftover — which when combined with a fried egg, a couple sausages and a dash or three of Tabasco, make a great next-day breakfast!) Place one fish fillet on top of each of the four piles of grits, and spoon the sauce and fennel over each. Serve with an extra drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, if you’d like.

17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Benjamin Thompson
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 00:45:14

    I’ve desperately been trying to kick my Whole Foods habit. It just kills me when I see skirt steak at WF for 12/lb. and then a I go around the corner and see it at the Mexican mart for 4/lb. But then again, you have to ask the Mexican butcher to hold it up and flip it over to make sure it’s not turning black on the other side. At WF, you don’t have that problem. So I guess, it’s a trade off. I like your philosophy of having some good frozen foods, I’ve been wasting a lot of produce lately and need to start utilizing more canned and frozen goods.


    • scolgin
      Apr 24, 2012 @ 01:47:21

      I like “quick and easy and pre made” if it’s done well, which it almost never is — but almost always is at Trader Joe’s. You have TJs in Chicago, no Ben?


  2. Greggie
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 00:49:05

    That’s funny. I was just at TJ’s today. One of my fave discontinued items was the refrigerated iced tea with mint. Now that everything is computerized, they not only told me they don’t carry it anymore but that it didn’t sell very well at my neighborhood store. Gee, I thought West Hollywood would be a prime mint tea city. I also like their crackers.


  3. Lisa Gaskin
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 01:05:31

    Mom used to take us to the TJs in Reseda or something….somewhere near there…I always thought of it as this mecca of unusual food items, which it really was probably not…I thought that was the first one but it makes sense that the very first one would have been Pasadena…


  4. f8ce
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 01:36:07

    I’m ashamed to admit I’ve eaten nearly a whole bag of that Trek mix on the drive back to Topanga – seriously addictive.


  5. Andy
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 01:37:55

    I have a knack for Indian food….how weird is that? I LOVE it to begin with so I’m motivated….I make my own sourdough naan and that cucumber/yogurt thing and then lamb or chicken in those amazing sauces….dude!! It’s SO not harder or more exotic than the stuff you do, you must not LOVE Indian or you would be all over it. When you come here, that is what I will make…..


    • scolgin
      Apr 24, 2012 @ 01:49:07

      Yeah, I guess I’m really only in the mood for it periodically — versus, say, Italian or Japanese or Mexican, which I can eat a couple times a week. Plus, you can’t really make a quick naan and tandoori chicken, can you! LOL


  6. mom
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 03:32:50

    TJ’s has always ruled for me and now Whole Foods was caught selling ‘ organic California veggies’ which if you looked at the small print were made in China and their organic inspectors sounded a little shaky so it’s TJ’s for me.
    I don’t remember your Dad ever going near a grocery store but that may have been AM [after me].


  7. mom
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 03:35:40

    PS Andy really is good at Indian food.


  8. Michelle
    Apr 24, 2012 @ 14:56:53

    I have to say I really don’t “get” Trader Joe’s, other than as a fairly reliable place to find a bottle of wine when traveling. But perhaps I’ll give it another try after this glowing recommendation! By the way, how did the fried chicken and mint juleps turn out?


    • scolgin
      Apr 24, 2012 @ 15:43:32

      Yeah, try some of those things I wrote about. Try the organic dried spaghetti, and the imported mozzarella di bufala. Good ricotta, great price on parmesan reggiano, good cereals, good juice, nice selection of frozen things when you don’t feel like cooking. (Which for me is never, but hey…) Mint juleps were good — that’s my next post. 😉


  9. g
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 16:03:26

    What I find amazing about TJs is the clientele. Each store has its own unique neighborhood culture – often maddening, always fascinating and good people-watching. The Santa Monica store on Pico is particularly rich in this regard.


    • scolgin
      Apr 26, 2012 @ 16:16:49

      Yep, I frequent the Santa Monica store on Pico, usually in the morning. There are a couple characters who are there every morning, sipping tiny cups of coffee and pestering the “free samples” girl. The Woodland Hills store is soccer moms, well made-up Persian women and the occasional furtive fellow Topangan.


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