Five Favorite French Finds at Trader Joe's

Trader Joe's Macarons by Jeremyiah via Flickr.

Trader Joe’s Macarons. Photo by Jeremyiah via Flickr.

Sure, I love to make everything from scratch as much as the next food-lover, but sometimes that’s just not going to happen. That’s why I keep a keen eye out for great French-food convenience products and readymades. (And if you’ve spent any time in a French supermarket, you’ll know that the French have no trouble at all with readymades—as long as they’re truly worth bringing to the table).

That said, here are some of the best French-inspired foods I’ve found at Trader Joe’s.

• Trader Joe’s Macarons à la Parisienne ($4.99)

Qu’est-ce que c’est: The quintessential French cookie, these are sandwich cookies made from airy disks of egg white/almond flour meringues with a buttercream filling.

The verdict: I’m not going to say that these are as good as Ladurée or those from your favorite French pastry shop. But seriously, they do, for the most part, what great French macarons do: They have that lightly crisp exterior, that somewhat chewy interior, and they’re so ethereal they practically float off the plate. Let’s just say that I’m so impressed with these, I’d serve them to my most discerning guests. And I have. When they asked me where I got them, I just smiled.

What? You want to make your own French macarons? Here’s help: David Lebovitz has written this really great French macaron resource page on where to find the information you need.

• Trader Joe’s Original Savory Thins ($1.69) 

Qu’est-ce que c’est:  Are they French? No, but they’re great. These shiny, crunchy crackers are made from rice meal, sesame seeds and flour, safflower oil, and a few spices.

My Happy Hour Crackers, made with Trader Joe's Savory Thins.

My Happy Hour Crackers, made with Trader Joe’s Savory Thins.

The Verdict: Stock up! I use them all the time to make French-inspired canapes. Top them with a little hummus and tapenade for a go-to appetizer with wine. Or, top them with a semisoft cheese (Brie, Camembert, Taleggio, etc.); run them under the broiler just until the cheese oozes a bit, then top with chopped olives and a few herbs or Piment d’Espelette(as pictured).

Tarte d'Alsace• Maître Pierre Tarte d’Alsace ($4.49)  

Qu’est-ce que c’est:  This is a version of Alsace’s “tarte flambée”–a traditional pizza-like dish that tops a cracker-like crust with crème fraîche, onions, and lardons (thick French bacon strips).

The Verdict: Go for it. Ah, the crisp-thin crust! The salty bacon! The sweet onions! The creamy lusciousness of it all! I found it amazing that a frozen product could truly approximate this time-honored dish so well. Or, put it this way: If a true tarte flambée in Strasbourg rates a “10,” and your own homemade-in-American version might score a “9,” this is easily an 8.5. And that’s pretty darn good for something this convenient and inexpensive.

• Trader Joe’s Frozen French Green Beans ($1.99)

Qu’est-ce que c’est:  These are those chic, slender haricot verts that go so well with …. well, just about everything, but specifically, roast chicken and steak-frites.

The Verdict: Get yourself some. Sure, if you can find fresh French green beans picked that very day at your farmers market, those will be better. But these are mighty good, and they’re loose-packed in a way that makes it easy to pull out a handful here and there. Just be sure to cook them the French way (that is, boil or steam them until just tender, and then saute them in….wait for it….butter).Trader Joe's Fleur de Sel Caramel Sauce

• Trader Jacques Fleur de Sel Caramel Sauce ($3.49) 

Qu’est-ce que c’est: It’s a real caramel sauce—and remember, a great caramel sauce is more than caramelized sugar—it has to have butter or cream, and this one has both.

The Verdict: Let’s start by saying that I love making my own caramel sauce, so any purchased product had better be pretty amazing. But if my homemade caramel sauce is a 10, this is about a 9.7—and again, that’s high marks for something so convenient.

So, have you found some pretty-good readymades at Trader Joe’s? If so, I’m all ears. Merci.

 

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Time to Let Go of These French Food Myths

Is Aligoté necessary for a great Kir? Do the French ever serve butter with their bread?  When do the French serve salads, anyway? And are we over Absinthe?

Is Aligoté necessary for a great Kir? Do the French ever serve butter with their bread? When do the French serve salads, anyway? And are we over Absinthe yet?

A few years ago, I was on a press trip (ask me about these sometime…I have stories!) to Bordeaux. It was unseasonably hot, and I mentioned how nicely a Pernod—classically served with ice and water—might go down at the end of this long, hot day of touring vineyards.

Pernod?” a fellow traveler said. “We should find some true absinthe.”

I looked at my watch. Any minute now, I thought, this person is going to start going on about how Armagnac is so much better than Cognac….

Actually, it took a couple days, but at the end of the trip, there we were on our last night. Someone ordered Cognac. “You should have an Armagnac! They’re much better,” my smarty-pants traveler said.

Sigh.

Certainly, one should like what they like…but sometimes such moments feel more like knee-jerk one-up-manships rather than meaningful impulses of one foodie sharing something great with another.

Let’s take a look at some of these oft-spouted clichés:

Historic bottles of Cognac on display in Cognac, France

Historic bottles of Cognac on display in Cognac, France

1. “Armagnac is so much better than Cognac!”

Look, you might well think that. But are you sure you’re not just saying it because Armagnac happens to be the more obscure of these two French brandies and hence, has more cachet?

Having traveled and sampled my way through both the Cognac and Armangac regions, here’s my take: It’s true that Armanac and Cognac are made differently. It’s true that a lot of mediocre, industrially produced Cognacs make their way into the U.S.

But if you put a fabulous bottle of Cognac up against a fabulous bottle of Armagnac, choosing the better of the two would be somewhat akin to choosing between a great Bordeaux and a great Burgundy. Each would be great in different ways.

So next time someone offers you a beautiful Cognac from the Borderies region—rife with piercing brightness and fascinating florals—you might want to give the Armagnac-Cognac hegemony a rest.

Remember--One Part Pernod to Five Parts Water

Pernod is just fine with me.

2. “If you like Pernod, you really should try a true Absinthe!”

When my husband and I first started travelling to France, we would order Pernod, Ricard, Pastis 51, or other pastis drinks for the simple reason that they were often the least-expensive thirst-quenching drink you could get in a café.

One trip, we noticed that a chic young waitress at one of our favorite cafés could hardly suppress a smirk whenever we ordered one. We finally asked her (in so many polite French words) what was so smirk-worthy about ordering Pernod.

“That’s what old men drink,” she said.

And yet, about 10 years later, trendy cocktail enthusiasts started cooing over of pastis’s kissing cousin, absinthe. Was the taste really that different? Or were some new fans simply lured in by absinthe’s well-marketed back-story (you know—artists and hallucinogens and all that)?

Of course, there are probably plenty of drinkers who truly prefer absinthe over pastis. But the genuine absinthe enthusiast (versus the knee-jerk myth-lover) likely won’t bat an eye at a Pastis-drinker’s choice of spirit.

3. “The French never serve butter with their bread.”

Tell it to those who live in Normandy and Brittany. Indeed, that basket of bread is often served without butter, but never say never. Here’s a post about exactly when the French do serve butter with their bread.

4. “The French always serve salads after the main course.”

By now, you should know that “always” and “never” should never (oops!) be part of the vocabulary when talking about what the French do and don’t do. In France, I’ve enjoyed salads before the main course, with the main course (especially at lunch alongside the classic steak-frites), as well as after the main course. It truly depends on the salad. For example, the French generally wouldn’t serve complicated salads—those with poached eggs, beets, or a variety of ingredients beyond greens—after the main course; such a complex salad would likely be a starter.

Salads for serving before, with, and after the main course.

Salads for serving before, with, and after the main course.

Salads served after the main course are usually quite simple—greens tossed with a vinaigrette—served as a palate refresher as you move to the cheese course or dessert. And of course, sometimes the cheese course is served avec sa petite salade verte (with its little green salad).

What? Chase all over town to find a real Aligoté for my Kir? You can, but I'm not.

What? Chase all over town to find a real Aligoté for my Kir? You can, but I’m not.

5. “The best Kirs are made with a true Aligoté from Burgundy.”

Well, if you said the original (or perhaps even the most authentic) Kirs were made with Aligoté (as the first ones indeed were), you might have a point. Yet really, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever (unless it’s just for the fun of it) to seek out an Aligoté to make your Kirs.

In fact, I’ve heard tell that the original Kir (the white wine/crème de cassis apéritif) was devised, in part, to do something interesting with this undistinguished wine, which is much less hallowed than that other Burgundian white, Chardonnay.

All over France, mighty fine Kirs are made with whatever dry local white is around, with the exception of Riesling–a combo I’ve not seen but that may exist somewhere (never say never!). Sauvignon Blanc makes particularly good Kirs, as do low-oak Chardonnays and blends from Ugni Blanc. Really.

Here’s a post that explains more about the Kir—along with comments on whether or not you “must” use an Aligoté for a kir.

More posts you might enjoy:
How to serve a cheese course—the French way.
The Art of the Apéritif
All About the Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day.

 

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Wines from Uruguay? Count Me In!

The other day, I had the pleasure to host two lovely sommeliers on the “Great Food” segment of our local “Great Day” morning program, and I had them blind-taste some wines from Uruguay.

My goal wasn’t to “stump the sommelier.” Rather, I wanted to lean on their expertise to have them tell me where these wines tasted like they’re from. Uruguay neighbors Argentina—but does did these taste like Argentine wines?Garzon Sauvignon Blanc

Watch the first few minutes of this tape, and you’ll see why Francophiles should probably take note. The Sauvignon Blanc tasted French-like to Abbe Hendricks, our certified sommelier—and that’s music to my ears. I also loved the way Sarah Pritchard nailed the fact that the Albariño was from a low altitude. What fun!

Party idea: Grab some bottles Uruguay and do your own blind tasting. Does the word “France” come up for you?

• Find out more about the Garzon winery here.
• Find where to buy Garzon wines here (you might have to mail-order them).

PS: Do you even know where Uruguay is? I couldn’t exactly have pinpointed it until I was in Buenos Aires a year ago and saw that this big mass of land blocked the view from B.A. to the sea. That mass of land is Uruguay.

Enjoy!

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