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Dr. Gourmet's Food Reviews

Trader Joe's

Spinach & Cheese Stuffed Shells and Baked Ziti

the Dr. Gourmet tasting panel reviews Spinach & Cheese Stuffed Shells from Trader Joe's

You should have seen how excited people got when Trader Joe's opened a store in the New Orleans area.

For the first few weeks after our local store opened I would have at least one patient ask me about them every day. My wife grew up in Los Angeles, where the chain originated, so it wasn't quite as big a deal for her: we live much closer to other grocery stores, so going to Trader Joe's for organic products or other specialty items simply wasn't necessary.

The good news is that we found ourselves near that local Trader Joe's recently and picked up some frozen foods to review. Neither I nor my wife had really been aware that TJ's (as they are colloquially known) made frozen meals, so we were pleasantly surprised to see a number of items that fit our criteria. Today we have our very first ever products from Trader Joe's to review, both from their "Reduced Guilt" line.

The Spinach & Cheese Stuffed Shells (270 calories, 500mg sodium, 8g fiber) go into the microwave for 1 minute, then you are instructed to "stir the sauce along the edge of the tray," recover, and continue cooking. While it cooked we noted that it smelled good; "like fresh tomato sauce, but not too sweet."

There does seem to be a method to the stirring-around-the-edges madness: the sauce was kept from burning, which saved a fair percentage of the tomato sauce. That's not to say that there wasn't enough sauce, but burning the edges certainly would have made a significant difference in overall flavor.

That tomato sauce proved to be one of the better tomato sauces we've had in quite a while: "it's sweet and tart at the same time," and "you can taste the basil and oregano" remarked panelists. Overall, "very balanced."

The shells themselves are also a pleasant surprise: al dente pasta is filled ("and well filled they are, too") with a thick, umami dollop of spinach and ricotta with "the faintest touch of nutmeg" and topped with "a reasonable amount of mozzarella." The panelists decided overwhelmingly that the dish was "one of the best pasta dishes we've had in a while" and gave it multiple thumbs up.

The Baked Ziti (320 calories, 590mg sodium, 3g fiber), on the other hand, was "just a disappointment."

"What is it with people cooking ziti?" one panelist asked rhetorically. "It seems like all the frozen ziti we ever get is overcooked."

This ziti was certainly overcooked, although not as egregiously so as some we've had. It's the sauce that "doesn't stand out:" it's so nondescript that it reminded some panelists of "middle school cafeteria food" and others of "plain tomato paste" (I'm not sure there's a difference, myself.) A "tiny dollop" of cheese placed in the center of the plate effectively disappears when you stir it into the dish, and the overall effect of the dish was judged to be "plain pasta with a single spoonful of sauce." Not bad, but "not worth eating, either" - especially when the numbers are so much better for the shells.

Reviewed: January 5, 2018