5 Things to Try at Trader Joe's This Fall

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Even a food reporter has a tough time tracking what’s new at Trader Joe’s. “We don’t have a list of new items that I'm able to send,” a rep emailed, “but as you likely already know, we are constantly introducing exciting, new products in our stores.” Harumph.

Though the company wasn’t willing to part with a list of new items, TJs fanatics—and they are legion—probably know all about the “What’s New” page, the store’s “New Item” shelf, and to watch their Instagram like a hawk. So I poked around like any other curious shopper, looking for new-to-me and straight-up new items. I bought a handful, and tasted all. I’ll definitely buy a few of these again, but for others, my goodness, caveat emptor. (All prices represent what we saw in-store in Brooklyn, New York.)

Antipasto Cherry Tomatoes ($3)

Propped up on the “New Items” shelf, these plastic-packed, slow-dried tomatoes didn’t look super appealing during peak fresh tomato season, but these were a sleeper hit. I brought a pack of the semi-dried cherry tomatoes, which are packed in extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned with garlic, salt, and oregano, to a picnic. It turned out to be a genius idea. A friend had made a macaroni and cheese casserole that needed something bright, sweet ,and salty as a foil, and these fit the bill. I’d set them out on a platter with the Unexpected Cheddar, rumpled prosciutto di parma, baguette, olives, mustard and butter, and call it lunch, no problem.

Unexpected Cheddar ($4)

This is a good enough cheddar to set out on a cheese board. Its label says that it’s somewhere between aged cheddar and a Parmesan, but I find that I don’t care about that bizarre analogy because—despite its slight waxiness—it has faux crystals. Cheese crystals, primarily tyrosine and calcium lactate, are the delicious, nutty, salty, sweet little flavor pockets that populate great aged Gouda and cheddar. I’m not sure how TJ’s got here from there, nor do I think Unexpected Cheddar is new. But thanks to its flavor profile and crumbly texture, I will totally buy it again.

RELATED: How to Make 5 Healthy Lunches from a $25 Trader Joe’s Shopping Trip

Nonpareille Capers ($2.70)

Capers are having somewhat of an It Girl moment. They’re splashed all over trendy cookbooks like Alison Roman’s Dinner in an Instant and Tamar Adler’s Something Old, Something New, and they’re a crucial player in one of my favorite autumn chicken recipes. Like many of the best recipes involving capers, this one calls for a full two tablespoons of them. That’s a fast way to empty out the teeny-tiny 2-oz bottle you have kicking around the fridge. So eschew tiny containers in favor of TJ’s relatively huge 7.7-ounce container. It’s cheap as chips, will last you many meals, and you won’t have to run out for capers on bagel-and-lox Sunday.

Organic Creamy Salted Peanut Butter ($3.50)

I love peanut butter, particularly on toast. (With butter. And sometimes crispy bacon, but we don’t need to talk about it.) This is a tasty, organic, sugar-free peanut butter that comes with a free dancing elephant on its logo. It’s another example of where TJ’s pantry aisle sometimes quietly shines: Instead of spending money on giant, sugar-packed containers of heavy hitters like Skippy’s, you can purchase something that has simply organic Valencia peanuts and sea salt on its ingredients list.

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Miso Instant Ramen ($1.29)

As is true of most cheap ramen, this one had my head dancing with visions of what else it required in order to be great: soft-cooked eggs; pork belly; corn kernels. That would, of course, vaporize instant ramen’s cheap and convenient attributes. I love miso ramen to the moon and back; properly done, it’s buttery and salty, an umami heavy hitter. And I’ve definitely had worse ramen than the new miso ramen from TJ’s. They add a little oil packet, which adds a good bit of flavor, and the noodles on their own are toothsome and well-seasoned by the enclosed seasoning packet. (Often, quickie ramen noodles taste under-salted or simply bizarre.) I’d buy this again for winter snow day sustenance emergencies.

Here's what I wouldn't buy again:

Figs (Organic, $4.50; Regular; $4)

In fairness to Trader Joe, my dream fig was French, and eaten on a patio in Paris along with Roquefort, baguette, and rosé. But when you see “California Mission figs” on a container, it brightens your hopes. They are famously delicious and in-season right now, but somehow they did not make it in good shape to this East Coast fig lover. Both organic and plain options were mealy, sweet, and just not tasty—though of the two, organic shone a little brighter.

RELATED: 5 Fresh Foods to Always Pick Up in the Produce Aisle

Cold Brew Coffee, Ready-to-Drink ($5)

“A case of morning grumpiness is quickly curbed when you have Trader Joe’s cold brew coffee within reach.” I’d quibble with the review trumpeted by this cold brew label. This is decidedly mediocre cold brew coffee. If coffee could taste beige, taupe or neutral, this is that coffee. I will admit that I snootily make my own iced coffee, and adore it, so I was a tough sell on this product, but still. This stuff is pre-diluted with water, giving you less bang for your buck. Sure, that’s convenient, but I like to do half milk, half cold brew at home, for a stronger, milkier concoction. Avoid mediocre mornings. Make your own, and have it go farther for less money.

Squid Ink Spaghetti ($2)

I gasped aloud when I saw black-as-night squid ink pasta at TJ’s. The trendy ingredient is also quite tasty, with a slightly briny, seaworthy taste that is well-suited to shrimp and its ilk. I happily threw together a béchamel sauce at home to see how it would fare with the noodles. But I fear that no squid—or too few squid—gave their lives to this pasta project. Though this spaghetti was made in Italy, and “squid ink” is right there in the ingredients list, the ebony hue faded during cooking. I filled a bowl with gray pasta in a white sauce, feeling rather as I though I was in a Muji store. Gray pasta may float some folks’ boats, but I imagine it’s the sort of thing that makes children quail in terror. Nor did the squid ink taste really come through; this behaved like any other sort of noodle. It’s a good price, and a fun novelty, but I'm not inclined to snag it again.

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Organic Caesar Salad Kit ($4.30)

This is a pale rendition of Caesar salad. (It is more of a Brutus salad.) The Romaine lettuce is fine and decently fresh, and the croutons are serviceable, but pre-grated cheese will never do right by you. This dressing occupies the same “meh” category as the iced coffee. The whole thing needs salt and fresh-cracked pepper to be good. However, because the egg yolks in the dressing have been pasteurized, this is the sort of thing a pregnant woman who doesn’t want to eat the classic raw egg Caesar dressing should buy if she has cravings. As for me, I won’t be getting it again.

Black Licorice “Treads” ($2.50)

People have strong feelings about black licorice, and those who love it can’t get enough. I like it just fine, but tend to prefer the squat, portly black jelly bean as a licorice flavor delivery vehicle. These skinny little numbers are flatter and more rubbery than I now realize I like in licorice. I will not buy them again.

Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.

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