A Guide to Trader Joe’s Party Platters

Identifying the items to hog, pick at, and pass over that you’ll most definitely see before it’s 2009.

The elections may be over, but I'm going to make some projections on another critical event. Ten percent of Seattleites will be holding New Year's Eve parties. Fifty percent of you will be attending them. And more than half of you will be filling your cocktail napkins with Trader Joe's party snacks.Admit it, party people: You will be buying most of your festive spread at Trader Joe's, not to mention the case of Three-Buck Chuck. Blue-state eaters seem to love the freezer section of TJ's like it's dispensing gun-control laws and alternative-energy tax credits alongside meatballs and mini-quiches.Me, I'm iffy on the store. Though I'm grateful the chain provides a number of my cousins with decent wages, Trader Joe's prepared food is so hit-or-miss that I only shop there for cheeses, dried fruits, and nuts. However, considering that I'm probably going to be downing TJ's snacks between sips of Prosecco next week, this year I baked or thawed everything I could find. Here is a field guide to which canapes you should hoard before anyone else gets to them, which you should eat with reservations, and which you should leave in favor of the tortilla chips and cheap Brie.HogPotato latkes ($2.29). These potato pancakes, the mashed rather than grated-potato type, bake up respectably crunchy around the edges. I wouldn't compare them to your grandmother's latkes—that's like holding Zachary Quinto's Spock against Saint Leonard of Nimoy—but with a little sour cream and applesauce, quite edible.Manitaropita (3.99). What are manitaropita? Spanikopita with mushrooms instead of spinach. Even if you can't figure out how to pronounce the name of these phyllo triangles, they're worth picking up. Baked from the raw instead of merely reheated in the oven, they taste fresh and almost homemade; the brown-tipped exteriors shatter and slough away in crackly sheets when you bite through them.Seafood crab cakes ($3.29). A surprise show. I expected these fluted rounds to be disgusting—reheated seafood always seems a dicey proposition, and I'm a little suspicious of a product named "seafood crab." However, these eggy one-bite cakes, more like crab-scented quiches than like Tom Douglas' signature dish, are spiked with enough aromatic veggies and red bell pepper to have some flavor.Artichoke dip ($2.69). You don't want to see this thing when it comes out of the freezer—a solid shrink-wrapped cylinder that looks like astronaut food—but when it's microwaved and stirred and microwaved some more, the spinach-flecked artichoke dip becomes a satisfying cheesy gloop, at least for the first hour it sits out on the buffet. After that, dipper beware.Caramel bites ($2.79). Butter and caramel are the Will Arnett of the food world—a guaranteed good time. In fact, I admit to becoming a little obsessed with these waffle sandwich cookies, thanks to the memories they evoke of the stroopwaffels a friend used to bring back from Amsterdam every year. It was necessary to sample several bags to guarantee consistency.Tarte d'Alsace ($4.39). A flaky flatbread covered in caramelized onions, ham, and Gruyère, this tarte succeeds for the same reason the manitaropita do: The dough is raw when it goes into the oven. The crust doesn't get very brown, but it's got enough fat in it to turn flaky, and the onions come out silky and sweet.Pick AtPastry bites with ham and cheese ($4.99). Actually mini-quiches with puff-pastry crusts, which the host has baked in Trader Joe's own plastic muffin tin. The filling is decent—how can you screw up ham and cheese, the world's most perfect flavor combination?—but the puff pastry shells don't brown or crisp in the plastic. For those of you who get paranoid about your body's chemical load, let me reiterate: baked in plastic.Mushroom turnovers ($2.99). These half-moon pastries, barely bigger than a quarter, don't spend enough time in the oven for their crusts to take on any color. They look like they belong under the heat lamps at a 7-Eleven, not on a soigné buffet spread, but the filling tastes like the mushrooms have been properly seasoned and sautéed. Hide them under a napkin and sneak bites.Pretzel snowflakes ($5.99). These attractive coated pretzels say "I'm feeling the holiday spirit" and "I'm ecumenically appropriate." They do contain overdose protection: Covering a pretzel in white chocolate and white candy sprinkles tips the sweet-salty balance over to ridiculously sugary. I could manage to eat two before requiring a stiff water chaser.Pass OverVeggie samosas ($3.49): Poor tiny samosa elves, slaving away at Trader Joe's factories in Peoria or Chennai, forced to spend their days folding dough into perfect isosceles triangles. Save their tiny, wizened fingers by ignoring these samosas, whose curried potato-pea filling is completely dominated by cinnamon. They don't quite taste like Atomic Fireballs, but one of my tasters asked after her first bite, "Is this supposed to be a dessert?"Flatbread with pesto and tomatoes ($3.69). Tough bread, funky pesto, and frozen unripe tomatoes. A real winner.Cheesecake bites ($4.99). These chocolate-covered, flavored cheesecake squares, which received the cashier seal of approval when I picked up a box to unfreeze, taste like cheap chocolate (think soft Oreos enrobed in Dilly Bar coating) rather than cream cheese, peanut butter, or raspberry. A pungent reminder: Class is not just about what's on the surface.Brownie bites ($3.49). When you think brownie, you don't think dry, do you? Like, dusty and windburned?Spizzico di pizza ($2.99). According to the dictionary I just consulted, the name of this appetizer means "a nibble of pizza." Which confirms my theory that anything named "nibble" bodes ill. The crust starts hardening in the oven and only gets harder as it sits, the tomato sauce tastes raw, and the cheap cheese would lose a taste test against Vegan Rella.Lemongrass Chicken Stix ($2.99). Some of my testers liked these Thai egg rolls, but I found the wrappers didn't crisp up in the oven, and the lemongrass-ginger flavor of the filling came off overpoweringly fragrant. You might consider slicing a few open and hiding them around your host's bathroom if she lacks for scented candles.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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