The Seven Wonders of Trader Joes

Trader Joe's is not just a store, it's a cultural phenomenon. This bargain gourmet food chain has a cult-like following and its products are now staples in many home pantries – even in caterers' kitchens. Although Trader Joe's won the hearts of American consumers with frozen hors-oeuvres, salsa, and chocolate dipped pretzels, it has many treasures for the "from scratch" type of cook. Everyone has their Trader Joe's favorites. Mine lean more towards the raw ingredients rather than prepared foods, as you might have guessed based on my obsession with cooking.

My husband's aunt is the Trader Joe's shopper extraordinaire. When we meet at Christmas, we swap Trader Joe's secrets and new finds. This holiday season, I decided to compile a list of my favorite seven products in hopes that it might lead someone else to a delicious discovery.

Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic Vinegar has been available in the states for quite some time, but most of what is available is either young and acidic, or priced like it's liquid gold. However, TJs has 10 year old Balsamic vinegar for $4 (8 oz. bottle). Other cooks have told me that they haven't tried it, assuming that it wasn't from Italy and wouldn't be as good as "real" Balsamic vinegar. If you read the label carefully, you'll find that it comes from Modena, the official Balsamic vinegar region of Italy. If you taste it, you won't care who makes it or where it comes from, you'll find that it tastes just as good as all those $20 bottles you'll find in your local "gourmet" store. It has a good balance between acid and sweetness and is perfect for cooking. For an extra dollar, you can get the 15 year old Balsamic vinegar, which is thicker, sweeter, and muskier – perfect for dipping bread, marinating strawberries, and drizzling over food.

Olive Oil

Trader Joe's sells excellent Extra Virgin Olive Oil that comes from Italy (Trader Giotto's label), or Spain (Trader Jose's). For the price, $5/liter, it's unbeatable.

Charles Shaw Wines

Charles Shaw has re-defined "cheap wine." Before discovering Charles Shaw, when I needed a "table wine" or wine for cooking, I would go to my local wine store and pick some from the "bargain bin." This was always a bit of a gamble. Some of the wines were palatable, some weren't, but they were only $4/bottle, so I didn't complain too much. Once I discovered Charles Shaw, I was an instant convert. Charles Shaw wines are (1) cheaper, and (2) more consistent than the "bargain bin" wines at my local wine store. I know what I'm getting, and I'm spending less money. Besides, some of the Charles Shaw wines (such as Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc) are as good as or better than wines two to three times their price!

Kitchen Basics Stocks

If you like to make your own stocks, more power to you; but if you need stock in a pinch, Kitchen Basics brand is fantastic. They make beef, chicken, vegetable, and fish stocks. You can get them in many stores, but Trader Joe's has them cheaper than anywhere else I've found them. At $2.19/quart, they even beat Russo's! My only pet peeve is that Trader Joe's doesn't usually carry the Kitchen Basics fish stock.

Dry fruits and nuts

Trader Joe's is a great place to buy dry fruits and nuts for all your holiday baking. The selection and prices are excellent. Many nuts even come already roasted, chopped, or both, which saves time. The dry fruit selection is quite impressive too. I found 3 types of dry cherries, 3 types or dry figs, not to mention all the different raisins, and mixes of dry berries, fruits, and nuts. I've never seen dry fruit available in so many combinations and permutations.

Annie's Naturals salad dressings

One of my coworkers introduced me to Annie's Goddess salad dressing describing it as "not only organic, but orgasmic". The ingredients looked intriguing – tahini, sesame seeds, garlic… I am not a fan of bottled dressings, but I must say, this one is quite incredible. Annie's Naturals is a very popular brand that you can buy in most supermarkets, but as everything else, it's about 25% cheaper at Trader Joe's.

Fresh Salsa

This is not breaking news, but Trader Joe's makes really good fresh salsa. It's in the refrigerated section near the cheeses. It's perfect for weekday meals and impromptu casual gatherings. If you want to get fancy, add some chopped mango and lime zest.

Helen Rennie is the culinary maestro behind Helen's Kitchen and offers private cooking lessons in the Boston area. Visit her cooking blog Beyond Salmon for more cooking articles. She'd also like to thank her husband Jason, who is their designated Trader Joe's shopper, for providing product pricing, and his wonderful insights on wine, oil, and balsamic vinegar.

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