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Friday, June 01, 2012

The Big Freeze

From the Freezer Dept.: I received some promo packages of frozen entrees recently and wasn't terribly surprised to learn that the technology hasn't changed appreciably in the quarter-century since I wrote this piece.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
TROUBLE LURKS IN THE inner aisles of any supermarket. It beckons to me from my safe periphery, where I try to race from dairy case to butcher's display without being lured by those walls of instant brownies, corn chips and the like. But a few nights ago, in both a hurry and a quandary over what to cook, my wife and I boldly selected a couple of frozen-food items proclaiming themselves to be gourmet delights.

You know where they live: usually about dead center in the store, arrayed in stacks in the big white free-standing freezer or in rows behind glassed-in doors. They have names like Le Menu. Many of them promise salubriously low calorie levels.

I was skeptical; my last brush with convenience food was the rash purchase of low-cal Jello Instant Pudding and Pie Filling, pistachio flavor, which, when stirred with milk, hardened into quicksand and tasted like Nutra-Sweetened mucilage (if the mucilage of my kindergarten days had been that sweet, I'd have eaten much more of it). I discovered that the thickened agents include cellulose, so instead of eating the rest I poured it inside the wall of my house.

So: I chose the Swanson Le Menu sweet and sour chicken. Staying in the poultry family, Susan got the Tyson brand Chicken Mesquite. Both items shared the microwave-aware packaging that places the food between a plate of oven-proof plastic and a layer of tinfoil; substitute a sort of plastic hat for the foil and you're microwave ready.

We microwaved. It seemed the hipper approach. Both items wanted a cooking time of about five minutes, with a plate rotation thrown in; we heated them one at a time, as was suggested, and still found it necessary to nuke 'em a couple of minutes longer.

Although I've been assured it's physically impossible, I maintain that anything heated in a microwave often cools faster. These were no exception. As the chill set in, I confronted a plate of what amounted to soggy Chicken McNuggets in a starchy syrup of colored sugar and candied crinkle-cut carrots to add garish color. All the moisture of the chicken had seeped to the outside; within was the desiccated stuff of campout cookery.

Susan's diminutive filet had an attractive pattern of parallel scorch lines on top and a barbecue sauce that contained what the box describes as “natural flavors with Mesquite Smoke flavor.”

Her vegetables were a “Corn and Pea Medley,” meaning they were drenched in butter; I had the “green beans and oriental vegetables,” a colorful mush in which even the water chestnuts struggled to hang on to some resilience.

You get the idea. It was dreadful. The only winning point was that the meal reminded us of airplane travel and got us to thinking about out next vacation.

With so much so-called gourmet frozen food available, we decided to wade through a few more packages of the stuff and see if there was anything palatable on the market, so the next round comprised Armour Dinner Classics Lite Chicken Cacciatore, a calorie saver with a mere 240 of 'em, and Benihana Oriental Lite Seafood Supreme, with “under 300 calories.”

Despite chef Rocky Aoki's beaming countenance on the rear of the Benihana box, we found the item completely unpalatable. Taking the microwave option over the boil-it-in-the-bag, we got rice that wasn't soggy but also wasn't . . . rice. I mean, it looked okay, but the flaky grains had no flavor. While the seafood had an aroma of a seaside port at low tide. My nose said “Don't eat this,” and I've learned to listen to my nose.

The chicken was no different than its predecessors: same plate, same airplane-food consistency. But you expect crap on an airplane, whereas these cold little boxes with their beautifully-photographed covers are actually welcomed into your house, into your kitchen, where they insidiously betray you.

Surprisingly, it was Stouffer's that emerged as the hands-down winner of the gourmet line, with their unpretentious Lean Cuisine items. “Sliced Turkey Breast in Mushroom Sauce” doesn't pretend to be anything but, and “Chicken Chow Mein (with Rice)” is a known mediocrity anyway. We discovered that boiling the bags produces a better mix of flavors, and, while these certainly not meal you'd care to subsist on (how the hell hard is it to cook a turkey breast?), they have an all-American blandness that's inoffensive. Choose a sturdy beer to go with them.

The first secret of successful frozen foodstuffs lies in expectations. Mrs. Paul doesn't lead you down the garden path with promises of gourmet seafood – she slings fish sticks with that silly U-make-it tartar sauce packet. 

The second is grease. Don't microwave those fish sticks – stick 'em in the oven where the fat can sizzle to the surface, enriching the bread crumbs with moist luster. Pepperidge Farm's Croissant Pastry Pizza is another good one, because those croissants are filled with fats. Again: oven 'em.

And keep your expectations to a minimum. When you buy an Old El Paso frozen burrito, keep in mind that it's nothing more than beans on toast, but wrapped up. And be sure to have a jar of hot sauce on hand to dampen the thing with.

As for me, next time I'm tempted down one of those center aisles, I'm going for soda and potato chips, where I'm happiest.

Metroland Magazine, Feb. 25, 1988

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