August 25, 2006
Frozen Wonders

Sometimes I just know a post is going to be controversial. This is one of those posts because in it I praise frozen foods.

In his years in Labrador, fur trader Clarence Birdseye discovered that quick frozen foods, specifically those frozen during the winter, tasted much better than those frozen in the warmer Spring. Birdseye leveraged this observation into a frozen foods empire when he invented a quick freeze machine in 1925. The smaller ice crystals formed by quickly freezing foods preserved the quality of vegetables and meats mush better than older, slower methods.

Frozen foods have since morphed into TV dinners, and then into the Lean Cuisine era of workplace lunch where in addition to the coffee machine, every workplace has a microwave (or two or three) for worker bees to use to defrost and cook their prepackaged inexpensive frosty lunches. Frozen foods today are a huge industry, with sales of over $40 billion dollars as of 1999, the latest figure I could find.

What I've noticed lately, however, is that the quality and ethnic variety of frozen dinners and foods is improving dramatically. For example, what you're looking at above, is a pair of frozen Goya brand Tostones - double fried smashed green plantains. They come about a dozen to a box, and you don't microwave them. Instead, you fry them as you would ordinary tostones, but most of the work is done for you already. A little tomatilla salsa on one and a little red sala on another and you have a delicious snack. The difference between these and fresh? These were pretty close to homemade. Maybe the oil they used for th efirst fry wasn't quite as light as my oil, but otherwise, I'd have no problem serving these at a party. They were delicious.

For most office workers, a simple easy and tasty hot lunch for under $5 is just not going to happen unless it involved speaking into the clown's mouth. Bringing one of the new frozen foods is a way to save money and eat better than at your local Burger Shack. We've been experimenting with frozen foods of a more organic/vegetarian bent. Here's a few to keep your eyes out for.

Amy's - Amy's is the standard brand for us for a variety of frozen dishes. Their meals tend to have under 500 calories, and the quality is pretty good. I've enjoyed the Meatless Meat Loaf Dinner (or as a friend calls it - Wheatloaf) which comes with bright tasting peas and mashed potatoes. The Samosa Wraps - samosa filling in a tortilla - are very tasty indeed. My wife loves the Mexican Casserole and the Enchiladas with Cheese. I'm not as crazy about the cheeseless enchilada meal. Their Indian meals, which usually consist of rice that microwaves very well, a side, and a main curry, are consistently good. The Palak Paneer, Dal Makhani, and assorted chickpea dishes I can recommend highly. They miss with the Vegetarian Pot Pies. The filling is generally pretty good, but the crust is just not right. It comes out not buttery enough and not worth the calories. I think they also miss with most of their frozen burrito line. The breakfast burrito and other burritos that don't have cheese are just too boring. The cheesed burritos are better, and they have a couple of Indian burrito-shaped snacks that I enjoy. We haven't tried their Southeast Asian dishes yet.

Generally, Amy's is reliable and not too overpriced. They offer gluten free meals, vegan meals, and low sodium meals in addition to their regular vegetarian entress. They do not offer non-vegetarian foods. Oh - one more line to avoid - their little pizza bite and veg bite pizza-puff like things are not good. It's the crust again, and I suspect its the same recipe as the crust for the pot pies I found so disappointing.

Kashi - The makers of all those Kashi cereals have started selling frozen dinners. Only one is vegetarian, but it's a winner. The Black Bean Mango Kashi is a great mix of fresh ingredients that comes out tasting nearly as good as if it had been cooked in front of you. This is the best reproduction of fresh out there. I just wish they'd make more vegetarian dishes.

Moosewood - I was very excited to see the Moosewood label on frozen dinners at our local brown-rice-and-granola supermarket. The Moosewood cafe is famous for good vegetarian and vegan foods and the Moosewood cookbooks have been a staple on our kitchen bookshelf for years. I bought the pasta arrabiata and eagerly brought it to work with me. I nuked it, peeled the wrapper off, and was very disappointed in the product inside. The sauce was skimpy for the amount of pasta, the residual water in the bottom of the bowl was a little gross and the pasta itself was overcooked. Avoid. I bought another one of theirs - a Moroccan stew - because I can't believe the Moosewood name would end up on something so awful. I'll let you know how it is.

Linda McCartney - The best thing I can say about Linda McCartney is that she was on the Simpsons and provided an excuse for Apu to sing a mixed up version of Octopus's Garden. The dinners- ugh. Avoid.

Tandoor Chef - If you like vegetarian Indian, this is what you should be on the lookout for. They make a Kofta Curry that's outstanding. Tandoor Chef is a division of Deep Foods, a large company that also sells foods under the Mirch Masala, Bhagwati, Udupi, Reena's and Bansi labels.

Now are the best of these dinners as good as making these dishes from scratch? No, of course not. Your well prepared home cooking is always going to be better than any of these frozen foods, but if you occasionally don't want to devote your entire evening or lunch break to cooking, having a few frozen dinners in your home can give you the break you need. The variety and quality is much better than even just a few yeasrs ago, and a frozen dinner is a lot cheaper than eating out.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at August 25, 2006 8:51 AM Print-friendly version
Comments

controversial? this is great, very much appreciated... very useful. thanks for posting!

Posted by paul on August 25, 2006 at 9:32 AM

I have to agree with you that there is good frozen food out there for food lovers. Amy's lasagna is awesome. period. A lot of other Amy's entrees are good to. And there is an Indian Brand they sell at whole foods which is also reliable. In a pinch, this stuff is better than fast food.

Posted by Julie O'Hara on August 25, 2006 at 9:38 AM

Right there with you on the good frozen food train. Technology has made possible the freezing of foods at their peak flavor. (See my post on this: http://ninecooks.typepad.com/perfectpantry/2006/07/frozen_artichok.html)
Yes, some frozen food is loaded with sodium, so read the labels carefully. But the best quality brands, like Amy's, are low in sodium, and high on my pantry list.

Posted by Lydia on August 25, 2006 at 11:47 AM

Oooooooooooooh, those look gooooooood.

Posted by Elsa on August 25, 2006 at 3:43 PM

Frozen food! On a cooking site! Very controversial.

I visited him and the Redhead and witnessed the stock, so I can say he's given this post a lot of sensory input before the thought. I'm glad they're tasty.

I have a bad confession. My kids really like frozen veggies much better than fresh in things like peas. I'm puzzled, but I buy them. How can one judge a pea so that fresh tastes better than the frozen?

Posted by Bryan on August 26, 2006 at 2:33 PM

Barrett,
I'm betting that when you & the Redhead were here in Paris visiting Meg, you had some Picard products.
Picard is a French chain store with over 95% of its product line being frozen. It's gourmet quality at very reasonable prices and every American I've ever served it to says "why don't we have this in the States?!" For busy families that don't like to sacrifice taste, it's a lifesaver. I will certainly miss it when we move back!
On a separate note, since you like Indian veg food, have you tried Tasty Bite brand? It's not frozen but vacuum-foil packed & excellent.
Taina

Posted by Taina on August 27, 2006 at 2:32 PM

Bryan, I think that on the peas issue it's because they lose enormous amount of flavour and the texture goes woody really quickly after a) being picked and b) being shelled. My Critic is a huge fan of peas and I've tried over the years to convince him that fresh can be "as good as" frozen - to no avail. We also keep a bag in the fridge!

For potatoes and carrots and zucchini and eggplant and most other veggies, though, I think the fresh keeps well and is much better. Green beans are okay frozen, though - we keep those too.

Taina, we do indeed shop at Picard from time to time. But my biggest "why don't they have this in the US?" moment was when I discovered frozen spices. I am completely addicted: they are very nearly as good as fresh spices and a thousand times better than dried or the stuff that comes in jars. If only I could find a frozen lemongrass source...

Posted by Meg in Paris on August 30, 2006 at 3:43 AM

Oh, and Barrett, I'm amazed that you managed to write this piece without once mentioning Francis Bacon, who died of pneumonia after experimenting with stuffing a chicken with snow to see if it would preserve it - an early martyr to food preservation science!

Wiki article on Bacon

Posted by Meg in Paris on August 30, 2006 at 3:58 AM

As both a busy grad student and a vegetarian foodie, I completely concur on all counts. Thanks for the great recommendations. I'll have to give a few more of those Amy's options a try.

On a related note, there's a blog devoted to this very topic at HeatEatReview.com. Many of the posts are your standard Lean Cusine fare, but there are many veggie/vegan/organic options in the archives, and they're helpfully arranged by brand name.

Posted by Heather on September 6, 2006 at 9:03 PM

I'm often surprised at the more than acceptable quality of frozen foods.

What really surprised me about this particular write-up is seeing those tostones with tomatilla sauce and red salsa! Having grown up with tostones (frozen and fresh) it would have been perceived as an unacceptable choice to serve tostones with either one of those sauces as an accompaniment. This is combining Cuban food with Mexican food and just would not have made cultural sense at all for my family and might have been taken as an insult. It would be like serving a cheese burger with finely chopped escargot on top. Not standard, somewhat repulsive, possibly interesting, not authentic. let's not go there.

I have to admit the tostones with the salsas do look good. I just had to write in at the culture shock I got hit with when I saw the pic and read the text.

In any case, yes, these Goya frozen tostones are quite good. And if the lesson to be learned is that not all frozen food is bad, then these are a good example to check out.

Posted by barknot on September 12, 2006 at 6:08 PM

Barknot, I was similarly amazed when an old Aussie boss I had told me they put beetroot and egg on their hamburgers. As an all-American kid, that just seemed wrong, but I tried it and it was pretty good.

It's a fusion world we live in, these days.

Posted by barrett on September 12, 2006 at 10:14 PM

frozen lemongrass can be found at phillipino/chinese markets.

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