Up until a few years ago, talking to my mom about groceries and cooking would've been completely bizarre. She was comically clueless when it came to anything kitchen-related. But then, when my dad got sick and could no longer shoulder all the cooking responsibilities, my mom stepped in and surprised us all by becoming a curious, enthusiastic home cook.
Read more: How My Mom Learned to Love Cooking
Now, with her newfound love of cooking and her expanding skill set, it's not strange to spend an hour talking about food on the phone with my mom. On one such recent chat, it struck me that this whole time we'd been missing out on an essential mother-daughter bonding experience: going grocery shopping together.
So we set out on an adventure to Trader Joe's, her favorite store. I don't shop there often (I'm a sucker for Whole Foods), but wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I followed my mom around on one of her trips, asking questions and taking notes, while she dropped her go-to TJ's picks into the cart.
I quickly realized that my mom's most common staples come from the frozen aisle, as she works full-time and needs to get dinner on the table quickly when she gets home. She also buys lots of easy snacks and meals that my dad can grab for himself when he's home alone.
Here are the 10 items my mom always buys at Trader Joe's.
1. Japanese Style Fried Rice, $3 for a 16-ounce bag
My mom admits that this normally wouldn't have caught her eye, but she had it at her sister-in-law's (with a fried egg and rolled-up salami!) last summer and now she loves it.
She'll either microwave or heat the fully cooked rice in a skillet and top each portion with a fried egg, soy sauce, and Sriracha for an easy, filling meal.
Put an egg on it: How To Fry an Egg
2. Red Bell Peppers, $1 each
Mom says the red bell peppers at Trader Joe's hover consistently around $1 each, so she always stocks up on them when she does a TJ's run instead of getting them at other grocery stores, where they often cost more and look less fresh. She'll add them to salads, stir-fries, and pasta dishes all week long.
Get a Recipe
3. Tarte d'Alsace, $4.50
Despite this item's fancy French name, it's known in my parents' house as a "ham tart." It's not uncommon to hear my mom say, "Oh, I'm just warmin' up a ham tart!" She serves it with a simple side salad, like the instructions on the box say to do.
The one thing my mom laments is that they don't sell wine at her TJ's — she says a crisp, affordable Sauvignon Blanc would really seal the deal here.
Pair with this easy side salad: Simple Arugula Salad
4. Uncooked Wild Argentinian Red Shrimp, $10 for a 16-ounce bag
When my mom first dipped her toes into the wide world of cooking, she started with vegetarian recipes, as she thought it'd be easier to learn the basics before bringing seafood or meat into the equation.
But then she found these wild-caught (peeled and deveined) Argentinian shrimp, which she says are so easy to prepare. She tells me she now purposely seeks out new shrimp dishes because she feels confident with a bag or two of these in her freezer.
5. Shredded Parmesan Cheese, $5.50 for a 12-ounce bag
My mom buys four bags of this stuff at a time. Short of putting it on ice cream, she adds it to anything and everything (salads, roasted veggies, soups, pastas). According to her, "You can never have enough Parm. Everything is better with Parm!" Truer words have never been spoken.
Get a Recipe
6. English Cheddar Cheese with Caramelized Onions, $9
Mom says she likes this one because it's not normally something you'd see on a cheese plate, and people always rave about it. "I don't know how they get the onions in there, but it's amazing," she says. "It tastes so real, not artificial." (Probably because there are real caramelized onions in there, Mom!)
7. Gnocchi alla Sorrentina, $3 for a 16-ounce bag
"I can't believe a bag of weird little discs can make such a delicious meal," Mom says, as she grabs this gnocchi from the frozen section. When I ask her to elaborate, she explains that when you first open the bag you'll see little "disc-looking things" that don't really resemble gnocchi. But once you heat them, you're left with plump, flavorful gnocchi.
She serves her cooked gnocchi with plenty of Parm, of course.
Try another TJ's gnocchi: You Can Now Buy Cauliflower Gnocchi at Trader Joe's
8. Organic Spinach and Ricotta Pizza, $4.50 each
Of this particular TJ's pizza, Mom says it "doesn't taste like cardboard, like most frozen pizzas." She thinks it has something to do with the perfectly tangy sourdough crust. To stretch it out, she'll make a side salad while it's heating in the oven.
Pair this with your pizza: Every Pizza Place Salad
9. Pork Gyoza Potstickers, $3 for a 16-ounce bag
Fun fact: My grandma is from Queens, NY, and she thought these were pronounced goy-zahs. She sent my grandpa into Trader Joe's once and the poor guy wandered up and down the frozen aisle, asking people, in his thick New York accent, where to find the goy-zahs. (They're pronounced gheeyo-zah).
A quick defrost and these goy-zahs (as we still affectionately call them) make a perfect snack with some soy sauce for dipping. Or sometimes my mom will make them for dinner and pair with roasted broccoli.
10. Laceys Dark Chocolate Almond Cookies, $4
My mom always keeps these crunchy chocolate almond cookies on hand to serve at impromptu get-togethers and fancy dinner parties alike. "They taste really, really good with a glass of red wine," she tells me. "I call this combo 'getting my antioxidants.'"
What are your Trader Joe's staples? Do you have any in common with my mom?