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September 25, 2009 at 10:12 AM

Trader Joe’s: What’s in your shopping bag?

Twenty years ago in a Ballard apartment, my pal Abbie introduced me something I’d never seen — nor heard of — before: products from Trader Joe’s. She was unpacking a suitcase after a trip to California and carrying on the way some people do when they’ve returned from France with raw-cheese contraband. “Look at this pesto!” she said, pulling a tall jar of the deep-green paste from its clothing cushion. “And what about these sun-dried tomatoes? Guess how much they cost? Bupkes!”

Well, that was then and this is now, when California-based Trader Joe’s stores are an ingrained part of our shopping culture, and TJ’s — with their secretive house-brand products — can be found all around town (the latest is slated to open in Redmond October 9). I hit my local TJ’s regularly, stocking up on things I can’t live without. Just about everyone else I know apparently does so, too.

“Homemade?” Uh, not exactly, but I won’t tell if you don’t tell.

Turns out we’re all addicted to different products. For me that means frozen mini-croissants, grade “A” maple syrup, Middle Eastern flatbread, tomato chutney, pretzel slims and balsamic vinegar — to name a few. And until I could no longer find it on the shelves, those little jars of honey mustard. That “here today, gone tomorrow” problem is widespread, as this classic video (I insist you watch it!) points out:

Earlier this week, when I asked former Seattle Times restaurant critic John Hinterberger whether he’s still making his own pizza dough, I had to laugh when he said he’d thrown the homemade stuff over for the easy out: Trader Joe’s. Providence Cicero, who’s now reviewing restaurants for the Times, always keeps on hand TJ’s “Soycutash” (that’s succotash with soybeans subbing for the limas) and organic fruit spread. Which, she notes with eyebrow raised, is “way cheaper than the PCC brand and comes from the same town in Canada as Trader Joe’s.” (No offense to locally owned PCC, whose resusable cloth totes we carry with pride.)

Remember when I told you about my well-fed book club — whose members love to cook almost as much as they love to read? Well, at last month’s meeting, as we were sitting around the dinner table yakking about our latest book, I asked which Trader Joe’s products they couldn’t live without. Did I ever get an earful (and some great ideas).

Mary Kay turned me on to frozen organic brown rice (“ready in 3 minutes, always fresh, it makes healthy eating on the run easy”). Chris always has “canned tomatoes in various forms, for those nights when I’ve been busy or just reading all afternoon.” With canned tomatoes in the pantry, she says, she can quickly whip up some pasta. Carol loves the frozen chocolate croissants (“something I always make for houseguests”) and Jan keeps those on hand too, as well as the frozen french onion soup — at my suggestion.

Sandy says, “Dried fruit? I never buy it elsewhere!” She also says “I can’t do without the cubes of frozen garlic. Each cube is one clove, minced and very fragrant — there are 20 to a package.” Found alongside the garlic in the freezer case are chopped fresh herbs. Mina swears by the frozen basil and given their thumbs up for those products, I caved and bought the cilantro cubes last week. Go ahead and scoff, but my garden cilantro’s long since bolted and I tend to throw away more store-bought cilantro (regularly found rotting in a rolled-up paper towel in my produce bin) than any other herb.

Yes, they’re frozen. So sue us.

Maria insists “their tsatziki and hummos are the best you can find anywhere,” while the other Nancy (a former caterer) loves the corn tortilla flat bread crackers, the salty chocolate-covered almonds and the organic Trek Mix with nuts.

And you know how TJ’s posts those signs that say, essentially, “Try it, you’ll like it” — noting that if you don’t, bring the product back and they’ll give you a refund? I did that once with some reputedly fabulous canned coffee. Hated it! They didn’t blink an eye when I came back with the can and told them so. Nice.

So, I’ve got to ask: What Trader Joe’s products do you always keep on hand? And no fair saying, “I’m not going to tell you, because if there’s a run on it [like there was last week when I went in to buy some more frozen croissants at the Lynnwood store], there won’t be any left for me!”

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