It was last year right around this time that I tested what seemed like a thousand pumpkin recipes.
Admittedly, I am not a fan of pumpkin anything, especially when it includes gobs of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or heavy cream. After my pumpkin adventure, anything having to do with Halloween or Thanksgiving was banned from the pantry.
And I stuck to that promise. Not a single pumpkin-pie-spiced-anything passed through my kitchen again, much to the chagrin of my pumpkin-loving family.
...Until this past September, when I walked in to Trader Joe's for organic cheese sticks but was distracted by aisles laden with new and intriguing products. All were pumpkin. Pumpkin bread pudding, frozen pumpkin waffles, pumpkin butter, pumpkin pancake mix, pumpkin bar mix, pumpkin cream cheese, pumpkin bagels, pumpkin raviolis.
I walked out with at least 10 pumpkin items, telling myself I wasn't really going back on my word. In fact, I was simply doing research on behalf of my readers!
Trader Joe's in Annapolis is a small grocery located in a strip mall off Jennifer Road, across the street from Westfield Annapolis Mall and close to Anne Arundel Medical Center. It is the only TJ's (as it is affectionately known) in Anne Arundel County, although west county is close to a Columbia location.
Founded in the late 1950's in northern California, Trader Joe's mission is to source products of the highest quality -- many imported -- at the best possible price. Anyone else remember the blaze of glory that was Two Buck Chuck?
Originally, the store packaged nuts right in the aisle and sliced artisanal cheese to order. They offered handmade granola and an emphasis on natural foods not unlike that other famous western grocer.
Trader Joe's is sometimes overshadowed by Whole Foods Market. The two companies do share the same commitment to offering products free of hydrogenated or trans-fats, artificial flavors and artificial colors. Like Whole Foods, TJ's has a wide and growing variety of organic items and guarantees that their private label items are non-GMO. But the stores differ in many other ways.
Whole Foods Market is a publicly owned American company generating billions of dollars around the world. Whole Foods stores are typically quite fancy, and the company has generated a food revolution and counter culture unto its own.
Trader Joe's is a privately owned German company with 365 stores nationally, all of which are infamous for their tiny footprint and inconspicuous nature. While Whole Foods is known for fresh gourmet items offered around the perimeter of the store, Trader Joe's popularity until recently focused on shelf-stable or frozen items.
I have been known to sarcastically refer to TJ's as a snack and pack shop, but that reputation is changing as the store expands fresh product offerings. Where Trader Joe's stands alone, many customers say (although Whole Foods would protest), is in the price and the number of truly unique items the store carries.
"Where else can I find Kona Coffee Cookies, an entire aisle of all natural candies and my favorite imported Dutch Speculoos for less than $3 while at the same time buy pomegranates and a pizza actually made in Italy, even if it is frozen," a customer remarked.
Trader Joe's hosts two major seasonal inventory updates: one in the early fall that features pumpkin, and another a little later that focuses on peppermint. In between the two is a Thanksgiving push for cranberries. The changeovers are famous amongst TJ loyalists.
Erica Radford and Lisa O'Malley, known to their co-workers and fans as the Demo Goddess and Demo Queen of Trader Joe's, have collected a compendium of recipes to help customers become familiar with the flow of new products.
Erica and Lisa are not professional chefs, but both have extensive and generational cooking backgrounds. Erica's father is a wonderful cook she says, a true gourmand. He was formerly the head cook and kitchen manager at Angler's on Kent Island for many years and has lent much of his experience to Erica as they bonded in the kitchen. She is an admitted Food Network and Cooking Channel junkie, and when even when she isn't at Trader Joe's she loves to cook for family and friends.
Lisa grew up over a restaurant: literally. When her father was young, he envisioned becoming a chemistry teacher. Instead, he took over the family restaurant, The Monterey Inn in Monterey, Pa. At age 19, he was running an establishment that Esquire called one of the best restaurants in the country. Lisa worked in the kitchen with her father for most of her childhood, soaking up the culinary experience that workers her father hired from all over the world brought to suburban Pennsylvania.
Lisa has been with Trader Joe's for what will soon be 10 years. She started there cooking from an electric skillet on a cart in the middle of the grocery aisle. This is hard to imagine given the tiny footprint of the Annapolis store and the near constant state of congestion throughout it. She kept extra product under the table, so I joke with her that she has helped build the demo program from the ground up. These days Trader Joe's has a much more sophisticated demo station customers can see right when they enter the store.
Each morning, Erica and Lisa set out coffee and a breakfast treat to welcome TJ's guests. But by lunchtime, they provide a sampling of handmade dishes they hope will bring flavor and convenience to the family table.
"Erica and I feel like we sell a way of life for our customers. We sell them healthy food...the tools. They sell the mood, or the vibe, when they put it together at home," says Lisa.
Lisa and Erica focus on convenience. Their one cooking rule at the store is to use only three or four ingredients. Usually, their recipes include one fresh, one frozen or shelf-stable product and some seasoning.
"We touch the people of our community through the food we suggest and the convenience we offer" says Lisa. "This job can be hours of brutal time spent on your feet, but it is also very rewarding because we are selling time together."
Here are Lisa and Erica's suggestions for using some of Trader Joe's most famous fall products in an appetizer, dinner and dessert.
1/2 can Trader Joe's organic pumpkin puree
1 15-ounce can Trader Joe's Great Northern beans
8 ounces Trader Joe's tahini sauce
1 teaspoon Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pie Spice
Puree everything in a blender or food processor until smooth. Garnish with pomegranate seeds or minced fresh herbs and serve with pita chips.
Creamy Pumpkin Pasta
1 pound Trader Joe's pappardelle pasta
2 tablespoons butter
1 container Trader Joe's pre-diced onion, garlic and shallot
Salt and pepper
1 15-ounce can Trader Joe's pumpkin puree
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
Chopped parsley and more Parmesan for garnish
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the water from pasta.
In a separate pot melt butter over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and shallot, season with salt and pepper, cook until translucent. Stir in heavy cream and pumpkin puree and bring to a simmer. Add pasta to the pot. Stir in Parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped parsley and Parmesan and enjoy!
Cherry Chocolate Pumpkin Bread
1 box Trader Joe's pumpkin bread mix
2 large eggs
1/2 can Trader Joe's pumpkin puree
1 cup water
1/2 cup Trader Joe's semisweet chocolate chunks
1/2 cup Trader Joe's dried bing cherries
Follow the directions for Trader Joe's pumpkin bread and muffin mix. Substitute pumpkin puree for vegetable oil. Add dried cherries and chocolate chunks to the mixture.
Bake for about an hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes away clean. Cool, slice and enjoy.