Local food ’grammer Tracey Korsen talks her just-released cookbook, plus what’s always in her grocery haul.
Philly-based food influencer Tracey Korsen — better known by her Instagram handle, @tracyjoes — has been sharing her Trader Joe’s-inspired meals the past two years. In that short timeframe, she has garnered almost 60,000 followers who love her sweet and savory creations that exclusively use ingredients from the popular grocery store chain — so much so that she decided to write a cookbook.
Released today, Cooking with 5 Ingredients from Trader Joe’s: Simple Weeknight Meals Using Your Favorite In-Store Products is Korsen’s collection of nearly 50 comfort-food and healthy dinners, takeout favorites with a TJ’s twist, elevated frozen dinners, and super-delicious desserts that, yes, only involve five ingredients and require minimal effort.
Below, Korsen shares how she became obsessed with Trader Joe’s (hello, Mandarin orange chicken and cauliflower gnocchi!), what it was like writing a cookbook as a self-learned recipe developer, and what’s in her typical TJ’s haul. Bonus content: One of her recipes from the book!
How did you get started cooking, specifically with Trader Joe’s products?
I actually didn’t start cooking until I started grad school in 2015, but I was basically just making spaghetti, roasting vegetables, or cooking Trader Joe’s frozen chicken tikka masala. As a Ph.D. student, I didn’t really have time to create more extravagant meals. But in the summer of 2019, I went to New York for a research trip and, while there, I rented a room in a family’s home (so they were also living there). The parents both worked at restaurants and would make these really delicious meals every night. I discovered they were using mostly products and ingredients from Trader Joe’s and was amazed they could make something so good out of simple grocery items. I had always liked shopping at TJ’s, but my time spent in that family’s house is what made me realize that you could make a cohesive and delicious meal out of Trader Joe’s products, instead of one-off or separate dishes. (For example, I would always eat the orange chicken alone, not with any other product.)
Two years is a pretty short time to put together an entire book of recipes, especially as someone who wouldn’t have called themselves 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 of 2019 and, soon after, gained a lot of followers. I didn’t view myself as a recipe developer, though — just someone who was sharing meals they had put together from a Trader Joe’s grocery haul. As the page grew and grew, people started asking me if I was going to make a book out of my feed. Once I earned my Ph.D. and had the bandwidth, one of my followers — who works for my book’s publishing company, Page Street Publishing Co. — took interest, so I moved forward.
What was the process like putting together a whole book of nearly 50 recipes?
It was kind of intimidating and forced me to think out of the box, especially because each recipe only contains five ingredients. I’m also very inspired by dishes I’ve had at restaurants or have seen on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and think about how I can Trader Joe’s-ify them. But I needed to keep the recipes easy because most of my Instagram followers are busy or working moms who want to whip up something tasty and simple for their families that isn’t super time-consuming. Some recipes are a little more complicated, like the harissa meatballs, but others are more straight-forward, like the shrimp fiocchetti, which basically only involves cooking the frozen bags of shrimp and pasta in a pan. This helps mitigate the amount of prep work, counter space, and kitchen appliances you have to use!
In your Instagram bio, it says you’re not affiliated with Trader Joe’s, but you just wrote an entire cookbook using their products. You have to be on their radar!
So, I’ve never worked with them, mainly because it seems like Trader Joe’s doesn’t interact with influencers. I don’t know if it’s a legal issue or what, but you’ll notice that many of us [influencers who use Trader Joe’s products] make clear in our bios that we’re not affiliated with the grocery chain. But I will say that while grocery shopping, you can tell that Trader Joe’s highlights certain products based on Instagram. You’ll see signs sometimes in stores that say, “As seen on Instagram,” so I know they’re paying attention to what’s trending on social media.
That is wild to me, especially because, in spreading the word about their products, you’re basically giving them free advertising — or at least exposure.
For sure. It can be frustrating at times, especially because the influencer community is so positive, and we all really do love Trader Joe’s, and because all of this takes a lot of creative energy and time. When it came to my book, we had to tweak the title a bit because the original one would’ve suggested or implied that I was affiliated with Trader Joe’s as a brand partner. My publisher handled all the legal/copyright stuff when it came to including Trader Joe’s brand name and products.
Book aside, what makes Trader Joe’s ingredients so popular? There’s basically a cult-like following around them.
Well, I think for me it’s because most of the items in the store are Trader Joe’s brand, so it makes it feel like the chain has everything available and ready for you. The whole experience just seems so much easier to navigate and more curated for shopping, prepping 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 in undergrad, and I had this misconception that it was an expensive store. But when I went there, I realized it wasn’t. That — plus the quality of their products — is what has kept me a loyal customer.
OK, back to your book. What are some of your favorite recipes you included?
The one-pan chicken legs, for sure. It’s my favorite way to cook chicken legs because you just put them and veggies on one pan and cook everything low and slow in the oven, resulting in fall-off-the-bone meat. The seasoning is also easily customizable. Sometimes I just use salt and pepper, and other times I switch it up and use curry. I also like the pot stickers with the curry simmer sauce because it becomes a really nourishing soup, but is super easy to make.
Your book isn’t totally meat-centric — there are so many vegetarian-friendly recipes, like veggie gyoza dumplings and the soy chorizo hash.
Many of my Instagram followers don’t eat meat, and on posts where meat is used in the dish, they or I will mention how you can easily swap the meat for a non-meat substitute. I eat meat, but tofu is one of my favorite proteins in general. I’ve always really loved it, so I knew I had to have some vegetarian recipes in the book. And that soy chorizo is actually one of the first Trader Joe’s products I ever cooked with!
What are some of your go-to Trader Joe’s buys?
I always get the frozen Jasmine rice. You microwave it for three minutes and it’s perfectly cooked. Plus, one package can last three to four days if you’re not sharing it with someone else. I think their condiments are super underrated, and a condiment can spruce up any meal in my opinion. Their sriracha is great, and so is their jalapeño hot sauce. (It’s not as spicy as they market it to be!) I always get their cheeses and cured meats because I make personal charcuterie boards all the time. And their snacks are amazing! I love their Joe-Joe’s, which are their take on Oreos.
Final, and maybe the 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 package Trader Joe’s Sun-Dried Tomato Chicken Sausage, sliced
- 1 12-ounce package fresh asparagus, chopped
- 1 bell pepper, sliced
- 1/2 yellow onion, diced
- 1 cup Trader Joe’s Authentic Imported Italian Orzo Pasta
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Place a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat and coat with olive oil.
- Add the sausage and brown on both sides, about 3 minutes.
- Add the asparagus, bell pepper, and onion, and sauté for about 5 minutes.
- Add the orzo and 2 cups of water to the pot.
- Stir the mixture continuously until the orzo is cooked completely through, 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