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.