Questions and answers
Tracey Korsen, grammarian for local food, talks about her recently published cookbook, plus what’s always in her purchases.
Philly-based food influencer Tracey Korsen – better known by her Instagram handle, @traceyjoes – has been sharing her Trader Joes-inspired meals for the past two years. In that short time frame, she has gained nearly 60,000 followers who love her sweet and savory creations, using only ingredients from the popular grocery chain – so much so that she decided to write a cookbook.
Published today, Cooking with 5 Ingredients from Trader Joe’s: Simple Weekly Meals Using Your Favorite In-Store Products is the Cross’ collection of almost 50 comfort foods and healthy dinners, takeaway favorites with a TJ’s twist, elevated frozen dinners and super delicious desserts that, yes, involve only five ingredients and require minimal effort.
Below, Korsen tells how she became obsessed with Trader Joe’s (hey, mandarin chicken and cauliflower gnocchi!), What it was like to write a cookbook as a self-taught recipe developer, and what’s in her typical TJ’s traits. Bonus content: One of her recipes from the book!
How did you get started cooking, specifically with Trader Joe’s products?
I actually did not start cooking until I started high school in 2015, but I basically just made spaghetti, fried vegetables or made Trader Joe’s frozen chicken tikka masala. As a Ph.D. students, I did not really have time to make more extravagant meals. But in the summer of 2019, I went to New York on a research trip, and while I was there, I rented a room in a family home (so they lived there, too). The parents both worked at restaurants and made these really delicious meals every night. I discovered that they mostly used products and ingredients from Trader Joe’s and was surprised that they could make something so good out of simple grocery items. I have always liked shopping at TJ’s, but my time in the family house is what made me realize that you could make a coherent and delicious meal out of Trader Joe’s products instead of one-time or separate dishes. (For example, I would always eat the orange chicken alone, not with any other product.)
Two years is quite a short time to put together an entire book of recipes, especially as someone who would not have called himself a home cook in the beginning. Where did the idea to put together a cookbook come from?
I started my Instagram for fun in September 2019 and soon gained a lot of followers. However, I did not consider myself a recipe developer – just someone sharing meals they had put together from a Trader Joe’s grocery store. As the site grew and grew, people started asking me if I wanted to make a book out of my feed. Once I got my PhD. and had the bandwidth, took one of my followers – who works for my book’s publisher, Page Street Publishing Co. interest, so I moved on.
How was the process of putting together an entire book with almost 50 recipes?
It was a little scary and forced me to think outside the box, especially since each recipe only contains five ingredients. I am also very inspired by dishes I have had at restaurants or have looked at Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and think about how I can Trader Joe’s-ify them. But I had to keep the recipes easy because most of my Instagram followers are busy or working moms who want to make something delicious and simple for their families that is not super time consuming. Some recipes are a little more complicated, like the harissa meatballs, but others are more straightforward, like. shrimp fiocchetti, which basically only involves cooking the frozen bags of shrimp and pasta in a pan. This helps reduce the amount of prep work, table space and kitchen appliances you will need!
Your Instagram bio says you’re not affiliated with Trader Joe’s, but you just wrote an entire cookbook using their products. You must be on their radar!
So I’ve never worked with them, mainly because it seems like Trader Joe’s does not interact with influencers. I do not know if it is a legal issue or what, but you will notice that many of us [influencers who use Trader Joe’s products] makes it clear in our bios that we are not affiliated with the grocery chain. But I would say that while shopping for groceries, you can see that Trader Joe’s highlights certain products based on Instagram. You will sometimes see signs in stores that say “As seen on Instagram”, so I know they are aware of what is trending on social media.
It’s crazy to me, especially because when you spread the word about their products, you’re basically giving them free advertising – or at least exposure.
Definitely. It can be frustrating at times, especially because the influencer community is so positive and we all really love Trader Joe’s, and because all of this requires a lot of creative energy and time. When it came to my book, we had to adjust the title a bit because the original would have hinted or hinted that I was affiliated with Trader Joe’s as a brand partner. My publisher handled all the legal / copyright issues when it came to including Trader Joe’s trademark and products.
Order aside, what makes Trader Joe’s ingredients so popular? There is basically a cult-like entourage around them.
Well, I think to myself, that’s because most of the items in the store are Trader Joe’s brand, so it’s making you feel like the chain has everything available and ready for you. The whole experience just seems so much easier to navigate and more composed for shopping, preparation and cooking – from their frozen meals and cheese to their bread and snacks. Plus, the prices are more affordable compared to, say, a chain like Whole Foods. I started shopping at Trader Joe’s when I was a bachelor and I had the misconception that it was an expensive store. But when I went there, I realized it was not. That – plus the quality of their products – is what has kept me a loyal customer.
OK, back to your book. Which of your favorite recipes have you included?
The one-pan chicken thighs, for sure. It’s my favorite way to cook chicken thighs because you just put them and vegetables on a pan and cook everything low and slow in the oven, resulting in the meat falling off the bones. The spices can also be easily adapted. Sometimes I just use salt and pepper, and other times I switch to and use curry. I also like pot stickers with curry simmer sauce because it becomes a really nutritious soup, but is super easy to make.
Your book is not entirely meat-centered – there are so many vegetarian-friendly recipes like veggie gyoza dumplings and soy chorizo hash.
Many of my Instagram followers do not eat meat, and on posts where meat has been used in court, they or I will mention how to easily replace the meat with a non-meat substitute. I eat meat, but tofu is one of my favorite proteins in general. I always really loved it, so I knew I was going to have some vegetarian recipes in the book. And that soy chorizo is actually one of the first Trader Joe’s products I’ve ever cooked with!
What are some of your go-to Trader Joes purchases?
I always get the frozen jasmine rice. You microwave it for three minutes and it is cooked to perfection. Plus, one package can last three to four days if you do not share it with another. I think their spices are super underrated and a spice can spice up any meal in my opinion. Their sriracha is amazing and so is their jalapeño hot sauce. (It’s not as spicy as they market it to be!) I always get their cheeses and spiced meats because I make personal charcuterie plates all the time. And their snacks are amazing! I love their Joe-Joe’s, which is their bid for Oreos.
The last and perhaps most important question: If you could eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Sushi. Hands down. I love the King Ghidorah roll from Tuna Bar and order two of them every time I go – I could eat spicy tuna every day of my life.
Recipe: One-Pot Orzo with sausage
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 12-ounce packet Trader Joe’s sun-dried tomato chicken sausage, sliced
- 1 12-ounce packet of fresh asparagus, chopped
- 1 pepper, cut into slices
- 1/2 yellow onion, diced
- 1 cup Trader Joe’s authentic imported Italian Orzo Pasta
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place a thick-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat and coat with olive oil.
- Add the sausage and brown on both sides, about 3 minutes.
- Add asparagus, peppers and onions, and sauté for about 5 minutes.
- Add the orzo and 2 cups of water to the pan.
- Stir the mixture constantly until the orzo is cooked through completely, 12 to 15 minutes. Add more liquid if you need it.
- When ready, add salt and pepper to taste before serving.
Yields: 4 servings
Total time: 25 minutes