Specialty Food Finds on a Budget at Trader Joe's

Billing itself as "Your Neighborhood Grocery Store," Trader Joe's is a quirky, kitschy mashup of a trading post and specialty food store. Regulars love it for staples like olive oil, coffee, and seasonal specialty goodies. Most of all, folks love the prices - they're often surprisingly low, particularly for organic, gluten-free, vegan, and kosher products that would command a premium elsewhere.

You never know what you'll find at Trader Joe's; the stock can change unexpectedly. But shopping there is fun, and while there are duds in the product selection, there are lots of gems. Here are my current gourmet must-buys.

  • 01 of 05

    Dried Pitted Tart Montmorency Cherries

    Dried cherries at Trader Joe's
    Trader Joe's

    Tart and sweet, these plump cherries are great for eating out of hand, stirring into oatmeal or granola, or tossing into muffins, quick bread, or cakes. They're also great strewn over a goat cheese and walnut salad, as an accompaniment to a cheese plate, or mixed into rice pilaf. 

  • 02 of 05

    Spanish Saffron

    Trader Joe's saffron
    Jimmy Mac

    No, Trader Joe's doesn't offer the best saffron money can buy, but there's no reason to break out your precious reserve of Kashmir Mogra Cream, Spanish Coupe or Moroccan Taliouine saffron for a quick weeknight riff on paella. TJ's Spanish saffron is still of better quality—and better priced—than what you'll typically find in a supermarket, and it's inexpensive enough that you don't need to ration the strands. The clear glass bottle may be cute, but store it in a cabinet to protect it from light and heat, or your bargain will lose its flavor. 

  • 03 of 05

    Frozen Artichoke Hearts

    Trader Joe's Frozen Foods
    Frozen Artichoke Hearts. Trader Joe's

    Fresh artichokes are delicious, but they've got a short season, and let's face it, prepping them takes a fair amount of work. Sometimes, frozen artichokes work just fine, especially if you're just after the hearts for a puréed soup or comforting lasagne.

    Trader Joe's frozen artichoke hearts aren't over-processed and stuffed into a little box in a solid frozen mass. These hearts are well-trimmed and appear to be individually quick frozen, so you can use as many or as few as you want. Sauté them with olives and capers in extra-virgin olive oil, with hot pepper, lots of garlic, and a squeeze of lemon or splash of white wine.

  • 04 of 05

    Organic Red Quinoa

    Trader Joe's Red Quinoa
    Trader Joe's

    An ancient Andean staple, quinoa is classed as a whole grain, though botanically it's actually a seed. It's chock-full of protein and iron, is gluten-free, and has become increasingly popular over the last few years on restaurant menus and as a specialty-food ingredient. The tiny seeds cook up fluffy and light, and serve as a great canvas for a wide array of flavors, as in a Greek quinoa salad

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Vanilla Cake & Baking Mix

    Worlds better than standard supermarket mixes, (and without the sketchy ingredients found in them), this vanilla cake is one of our pantry staples in case unexpected guests drop by. It's flecked with vanilla bean and has a nice crumb, so people always assume it's homemade. It's a huge time-saver, and it's versatile—serve it plain, with fruit, topped with a homemade berry sauce, or sliced into layers, filled and frosted—the possibilities are endless. It's also far cheaper than other upscale baking mixes.