Friday, October 21, 2011

Trader Joe's: Another Stanford Startup Success

Stanford University is widely known as the birthplace of many entrepreneurial minds and businesses, especially in the high-tech industry. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Intuit, and Google all sprung from Stanford alumni. But what many people do not realize is that the low-tech, high-touch Trader Joe's grocery store was also started by a Stanford alum, a business school graduate named Joe Coulombe

Coulombe stated that he created the store in 1958 "for people who were overeducated and underpaid, so they could have a certain richness on the table they otherwise could not--like brie, olive oil, French mustard, wild rice, and wine. The customers I had in mind were the Fulbright scholar who returns with no money; schoolteachers, above all; plus young lawyers, museum curators, and classical musicians." (Sunset magazine, July 2011) That goal translated to inexpensive, high quality, and unusual items for sale. He added a friendly touch by creating a Hawaiian-like atmosphere in the store with employees' Hawaiian shirts and Polynesian decor. By offering fewer items in a smaller space than the typical grocery store, TJ's also makes it easier and quicker to shop.

One of the elements customers love about TJ's is the sense of discovering new items while stocking up on old favorites. We love:

- dried mango (my go-to sweet and healthy snack)
- mochi ice cream (green tea, mango, strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate flavors)
- orange chicken (savory and sweet)
- fruit tarts (lemon, raspberry, blueberry pear- so easy and good)
- Joe-Joe's cookies (in different varieties, a sometimes splurge)
- pre-packaged nuts and trail mixes (great for quick snacks on-the-go)
- sweet & spicy pecans (great combo of flavors)
- ice cream bon bons (small, sweet, and creamy)
- chana masala and naan (easy and quick way to get an Indian food fix)
- chicken potstickers (good over ramen)
- chocolate croissants (they rise so high and smell so good coming out of the oven)
- vegetable samosas (easy and yummy way to get your vegetables)
- hummus (we like the 4-flavor package)
- peanut butter filled pretzels (great for kids who exercise a lot, including the salt)
- turkey jerkey (chewy and tasty)
- fresh pizza dough (for making marguerite pizza)

TJ's is so popular that it's spawned cookbooks with recipes based on items you can find at the store. On the website Cooking with Trader Joe's: Where Mere Mortals Cook Like Chefs, you can find many recipes to try. Pictured above is a sweet chocolatey dessert that my 11-year-old daughter Amanda helped me make, the Chocolate Truffle Pie with Joe-Joe's Crust. It's so simple with only four ingredients, plus it's vegan. While its taste is different than the usual chocolate pie due to the hidden coconut milk, and not for everyone, it's something we enjoyed trying. I love the idea of simplifying recipes by using tested items easily available at TJ's. And as someone who sometimes feels overeducated and underpaid, I appreciate the tasty and fun items I can find there for a great price.  We love TJ's, and its Stanford connection just makes it that much sweeter.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mrs. Fields' Halloween Pumpkin Spice Cookies

Long before Sprinkles cupcakes, lavender flavored macarons, and organic frozen yogurt, we've been eating Mrs. Fields' cookies. Super-sized, thick, soft, and chewy, packed with large chocolate chips, walnuts, macadamia nuts and more, these cookies make it easy to fall in love at first bite.

So what does the queen of cookies have to do with Silicon Valley? Surprisingly, the first Mrs. Fields' Chocolate Chippery cookie store opened in downtown Palo Alto in 1977 about a mile from the Stanford campus. With this humble start at the tender age of twenty, Debbi Fields pioneered an entire business built around freshly made cookies, and led the way for other gourmet dessert companies to follow.

Once autumn arrives I get in the mood to bake pumpkin treats. Mrs. Fields' pumpkin cookies offer a fresh way to achieve pumpkin nirvana. The recipe is simple and flexible enough that you can add whatever you like to the batter. We like to use Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips, pecans, and crystallized ginger. They're also delicious with walnuts, butterscotch chips, and dried cranberries. The texture is soft and cake-like, not as dense (or intense) as her chocolate chip cookies.

Whip up a batch when you're in the mood for a pumpkin treat. And while you're enjoying them, remember Mrs. Fields' motto that fueled her entrepreneurial determination: Good Enough Never Is.

Halloween Pumpkin Cookies
(adapted from a Mrs. Fields recipe)

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 can pumpkin (15 oz.)
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips
pecan halves
chopped crystallized ginger

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together with an electric mixer. (This is easiest with a KitchenAid stand mixer.)
3. Add eggs and vanilla, beating until smooth.
4. Add pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, baking powder, and baking soda, mixing at medium speed for about one minute. Slowly add in flour until a thick batter forms.
5. Place rounded spoonfuls of dough onto a prepared cookie sheet (sprayed with Pam). Smooth the top with a spoon or spatula, then place chocolate chips on top to form a face. Be sure to push the chocolate chips into the dough as they will pop out a little during baking. Or add in other preferred ingredients like pecans, chopped crystallized ginger, walnuts, or dried cranberries to taste.
6. Bake for 12 minutes, or until bottom edges are golden brown. (We needed longer since we baked two cookie sheets at a time. Rotate sheets between top and bottom racks halfway through, or just bake one cookie sheet at a time.) Cool and serve.