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Frozen entrees have seen many of us through tough times. Like any good codependent, frozen food’s effects are soporific. It prolongs and deepens our suffering even as it makes it bearable. Not long ago my heart was as icy and tough as a slab of Hungry Man turkey. But this fall, as the weather grew colder, my soul thawed and warmed in the company of a lovely young woman. Now she is gone — moved south. In her absence I have turned to my old friend frozen food to help me cope. Together we repeatedly recreate the drama of the last few months. I perforate the plastic wrap, much the way she pierced my heart, and peer into my microwave to watch what was once cold begin to simmer in a dizzying spin and with miraculous speed.
Amid any grocery store’s frosty alleyways we face important choices. The classic frozen entrée involves a rubbery meat slathered in a salty goop. But within this genre there are real differences. There was a time when the best of the best was the simple, elegant, Stouffer’s fried chicken breast with mashed potatoes. You could have plucked that crisp-yet-tender chicken out of its plastic tray and served it at Spago. But one day the cooking instructions changed subtly and I got worried. Sure enough, four minutes later I found that the magic was gone — the breading was more moist than crispy, and the chicken more soft than juicy. Why, Stouffer’s? Why? For months I searched the store shelves for the original variety like that guy from Chungking Express looking for the right can of pineapples.
Marie Callender’s frozen entrees have since emerged as the best in the classic American style. The problem, as my sister pointed out, is that the cooking instructions are complex to the point of being prohibitive. You have to begin the cooking, harvest the meat, resume the cooking, stir, vent and unvent, replace the meat, heat sauces separately, et cetera. Serving as Ms. Callender’s sous-chef is like cooking under Gordon Ramsay. The exception is her turkey with stuffing, which is simple to prepare and really quite good. The cranberries sprinkled among the green beans add a classy touch.
Hannaford has discontinued Marie Callender to make room for its On the Go Bistro line of frozen foods. The biggest problem here is that all the entrees come in massive servings appropriate for a small family. A single person who cooks one of these up will inevitably end up in a carb-induced stupor. They also tend toward the goopy. An exception is the very nice small shell pasta with a sauce of sausage and beef. Hannaford does offer a Boston Market turkey with mashed potatoes, green beansn and carrots that resembles Callender’s but is not quite as good. The vegetables are watery and have a strong faux-butter flavor. The potatoes seemed sort of wet, which was a little odd but better than the graininess one often encounters. The turkey is the star here — tender, and with realistically brown edges from the "roasting." On a recommendation I also tried one of the locally produced Barber Foods stuffed chicken breasts. Though it looks just like a meat-twinkie, it was better than I expected — sort of like a particularly good McNugget grown massive and filled with cream of asparagus.
True frozen-food epicures hover around the special "ethnic" freezer. The key here is to avoid entrees with rice — which is always unbearably mushy. One riceless option is Ethnic Gourmet’s lime chicken in ancho chile sauce. It is a little soupy, but has a pleasant tanginess reminiscent of tom ka gai. The chipotle vegetarian chili, also with lime, offers a slightly burnt tasting version of a similar flavor. It’s not bad if you don’t mind that stringy-yet-tender vegetarian protein business.
The single best frozen entrée available is the Green Guru Channa Masala. The chickpeas are tender, but not remotely mushy. Small pieces of onion and pepper maintain a little crunch. The deep-red curry gravy offers a complex spice that goes perfectly with a little plain yogurt. I have taken the Green Guru, dressed up in a nice bowl, to pot-luck dinner parties and been asked for the recipe. But since my baby left I have mostly preferred to spend my nights alone with the Guru at home. He is the only one who comprehends my sadness.
Brian Duff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: January 13 - 19, 2006
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