Hello wall of cheese! I hope most of you are lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe’s – I can hardly contain myself that one is actually opening in walking distance from my house! For anyone who has survived a Trader Joe’s parking lot then you know how amazing that is. The reason those parking garages are like the Hunger Games is that once you get hooked on Trader Joe’s you just want more. I will admit that it is not the best store for everything – the produce can be iffy, same with the meat selection and you won’t be finding rolls of Bounty or boxes of Lucky Charms here. However, for life’s important things – cheese, wine, croissants and fresh flowers – TJ’s is the best. Shopping there can be a bit overwhelming, especially at peak times, so it’s easy to pass right by terrific items if you don’t know what to look for. I have seen a couple articles on the best TJ items, all which left out some of my favorites and then my dad introduced me to their chocolate croissants which I had been missing for years! Clearly it was time to share A Capitol Contessa’s Best of TJ’s to hopefully help you get out of there with all your limbs attached and a cart full of goodies.
Starting here since they are usually right by the door. I love having fresh cut flowers in my house especially when it starts to get cold and nasty out but it’s an expensive habit. TJ’s doesn’t have the biggest selection but the quality is good and the prices cannot be beat. I like to grab a couple bunches of a single flower so it looks really bountiful – I will usually go with the alstroemeria (also known as Peruvian lilies), roses, tulips or hydrangeas. If you like a little more variety they have mixed bouquets as well. Grab some flowers and add them to your cart and they will bring a sense of clam as you enter the breach.
As I mentioned, this is certainly not TJ’s strong point. I have often found a giant pile of avocados just to discover that every single one is almost liquid inside. Same for pre-washed lettuce – just don’t, the odds are about 99% that once you get home it will already be rotten. However, there are a couple of notable high points where TJ’s gets it better than most grocery stores. Jalapenos for instance, TJ’s sells them in plastic clamshell boxes so you get about a dozen or so and they are big, spicy and are always in good shape. Perfect for making jalapeno chips. Also terrific (random I know) are their bags of green scallions.
I find that even in the best grocery stores often green onions are tiny, or totally limp, or half rotten. The ones at Trader Joe’s are really good and keep for a while in the bag (pro tip – add a paper towel to the inside of that bag before you put it back in the fridge and they will last even longer). You can sometimes get lucky with other fruits, veggies etc but these are the two that really stand out to me. I am going to skip the meat section entirely because unless you are in a pinch and just need to grab chicken breasts there is really nothing to recommend there.
Refrigerated Dips and Pastas
I have never had a hummus from Trader Joe’s that I didn’t enjoy, and look at all the different varieties they have! Great for taking into work as a snack (and yes they sell snack size too), their dips are also great for parties. If you are hosting a ton of people grab their white bean spread or spicy hummus and just keep them in your fridge for back up. Also delicious their fresh pastas that can be found right next to the hummus. Don’t skip the Chicken Pot Pie Ravioli.
All the Cheese
Now we are about to get serious. If you go into Trader Joe’s for one thing and one thing only, make sure it’s a visit to their cheese wall. For someone who makes a lot of cheese boards and has what some might qualify as a cheese problem, Trader Joe’s is the solution. Extremely reasonably priced cheeses and a huge selection. My favorites are the Dubliner Cheddar (which you will not find cheaper anywhere, ever), St. Andre, a brie like cheese, the Drunken Goat, Trader Joe’s brand Feta Cheese in Brine, their Goat Gouda, their fresh mozzarella…I could go on and on. It’s a great place to grab cheeses that can get pretty pricey elsewhere like grueyre as they are sold in sealed packages so last for a long time until you have a french onion soup emergency.
Also right next to the cheese is a deli meat display. Please skip past all the sad looking pre-sliced turkey and go right for the prosciutto. I like this brand in the picture better then their own Trader’s Joe brand but either way they are both very inexpensive and another great staple to have in your fridge (grilled cheese with prosciutto emergencies are a real thing too).
Nuts and Dried Fruit
Make sure to hit the nut aisle before the holidays – the prices are out of this world. I buy in bulk and then make my famous spiced nuts as gifts for people all season long. I also make sure to have a bag of roasted and salted cashews on hand for any impromptu happy hour. TJ’s also has a great selection of dried fruit like cranberries, apple chips and crystallized ginger.
There is usually one aisle next to produce that has various canned goods, condiments and the like. I am a snob when it comes to oils and vinegars so I usually skip past those. The canned beans and coconut milk are good and cheap but not really any better then what you get at a regular store. What are great are these Yellow and Red Roasted Peppers. Not only do I like that they use two different color peppers (presentation is everything!) but they are nicely charred, and are a great deal. Another terrific pantry staple to turn into crostini or pizza topping.
This aisle or perhaps the end of it, is usually where all the seasonal stuff is. When fall hits I head straight to Trader Joe’s and buy all the pumpkin everything. That Pancake and Waffle mix is incredible and I will be posting a recipe next week for a dip to go with their Pumpkin and Cranberry Crisps that would be perfect for Thanksgiving.
A lot of the stuff at Trader Joe’s is meant to support a healthy live style, organic, etc etc but they also have some really dangerous treats scattered around the store. My friends Debbie and Toby introduced us to these Dunkers that are just awesome with coffee. Usually they are in the frozen food aisle.
Also in the frozen aisle are their incredible self rising croissants. On a recent visit to my dad’s house he opened my eyes to these babies and as soon as I came back I had to get them. They are sold frozen but you have to make sure to plan in advance as they rise over night. Take them out of the packaging and place them on a baking sheet the night before and viola, the next AM they have tripled in size and are ready to bake off. 20 minutes later it’s like you have a French cafe right in your own kitchen. They have plain mini ones, my favorite the chocolate ones and my dad’s favorite the almond ones. They are the perfect thing to make when you have overnight guests.
Unfortunately they didn’t have any of my favorite sweet treat last time I visited – the Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels. They usually carry them around Christmas, though this year they also did a pumpkin version for fall. SO good – make sure to stock up this December to last you through the first nasty snow storm.
Wine and Beer
Now that you have all that cheese you are going to need wine to go with it. Again low prices and a pretty diverse selection though you can run into some duds here. The craft beer selection is always solid and usually features whatever is local (in DC is its a good spot to pick up Port City or DC Brau beer). For wine I usually go with the Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc or the Rabbit Ridge Allure de Robles but there are also some nice Italian reds and French roses. Avoid the 2 buck chuck and go for those with the “staff pick” signs and you should be good.
I am always on the look out for new great Trader Joe’s products so make sure to leave your favorites in the comments section. I looked like a total ass taking pictures in the store but I do it all for you dear readers! Luckily I had a couple nice bottles of wine and a whole cart full of cheese to help get over my embarrassment…