No matter the season or reason, I fall into an all-too-familiar cooking rut without fail. Even recipes I was once obsessed with can quickly become too much of a good thing. I'm never mad about adding to my cookbook collection or my overflowing digital recipe box, but when I need something in a pinch, there are a few pantry items that always manage to save the day.
Walking through the grocery store is kind of like going to a museum, where I pore over all the new influences and possibilities. And Trader Joe's has more than a few bits of culinary inspiration hiding on their shelves. If you feel like you're in cooking rut, here are some of my tried and true Trader Joe's favorites that always make me excited to get creative in the kitchen.
1. Agrodolce White Wine Vinegar
Take my ultimate shopping advice: See an unfamiliar vinegar? Buy it and try it. If I've learned anything from working in food, it's this: one easy way to make home-cooked foods taste more like restaurant-quality is to add high-quality vinegar. It instantly adds zip and can pull together disparate ingredients begging for that special je ne sais quoi. It's just the alchemical gold you might be skipping when you try out new recipes (try apple-cider vinegar in your next pie crust and you'll see why).
Vinegar is far from a one-size-fits-all ingredient. Steamy rice bowls sing more on pitch with a spoonful of rice vinegar, homemade salad dressings perk up with a drizzle of a crushed-fruit vinegar and a hum-drum beurre blanc gets transcendent when swirling in Trader Joe's Agrodolce White Wine Vinegar. I'm at the point where I literally drink vinegar (in the form of fruity, puckery shrubs), and don't even get me started on all the pickling possibilities, either. I'll never stop.
2. Garlic Spread & Dip
Don't let the simplicity of this spread and dip deceive you; this humble container is anything but. You may be familiar with this creamy, fluffy garlic spread (also known as toum) from your neighborhood Lebanese restaurant, and how it's so much more than the sum of its parts. This classic spread consists of just an emulsion of garlic, lemon juice and oil that, when whipped, forms a sort of mayo-esque dream of a spread. Trader Joe's Garlic Spread & Dip is the grocer's take on the popular sauce.
If you're ever in a pinch for a quick punch of garlic flavor, this will quickly become your new favorite kitchen secret weapon. Soup, potatoes, kebabs and roasted vegetables are always happier with a hearty schmear of this garlicky spread. I've been known to use this dip for dipping crunchy, spicy radishes and crackers, and I have a feeling this would be delicious on avocado toast.
3. Chimichurri Sauce
I don't have enough fingers to count the many ways I've eaten Trader Joe's Chimichurri Sauce. It's sort of the opposite of Green Eggs and Ham: I would eat it on a train, a plane, on a spoon, with a baboon, etc. The list goes on. You're likely familiar with serving bright, vinegary, herby chimichurri sauce along with a grilled steak, but that's just the beginning of all the ways you can get creative with this iconic sauce. You'll be hard-pressed to find something that chimichurri sauce doesn't improve: eggs and frittatas, soups, tacos, mac and cheese or marinated kebabs of any kind (try tofu or shrimp). My new favorite use for chimichurri? I use it in lieu of mayonnaise for mixing up a summery homemade chicken salad.
4. Tamarind Sauce
If you are as much of sauce fan as I am, I beg you to add Trader Joe's new Tamarind Sauce to your cart immediately. Tamarind is a tropical tree that bears fruit containing a sweet-sour paste that's commonly used in chutneys, drinks, sauces and even desserts. A staple in South Asian as well as Central and South American cuisines, tamarind is also used as an ingredient in the popular condiment Worcestershire sauce. This sweet, savory, tangy tamarind sauce from TJ's is delicious in a variety of dishes, and it adds a flavor to my homemade pad thai that I miss dearly when it's not there. Everything from coconut chutney to grilled marinated fish takes on a delicious flavor with a splash of tamarind sauce added.
5. Creamy Cashew Butter
When I'm wild with hunger but nothing sounds appetizing, a spoonful of nut butter saves me from encroaching hanger. But why stop there? Even your nut-butter-spoon routine could use a shake-up. Enter: Trader Joe's Cashew Butter. If you've never had cashew butter, think of it as a slightly richer, creamier and milder version of peanut butter. It is a bit pricier than a typical jar of peanut butter, but a little goes a long way when it comes to adding complexity to dishes from breakfast to dinner. Cashew butter's depth and richness is begging to be used in your next satay sauce, curry or butternut squash soup. And even if you merely add it to your next piece of toast, you'll be glad you made this tiny change.