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Freezer Queen

Adventures in microwavable meals

By Heather Irwin

Peering into the grocery freezer case, I'm just not feeling receptive to Hungry Man. It's 10pm, for God's sake, and I'm standing here, glassy-eyed, listening to the Boy extol the virtues of the Hungry Man brownie. And the Hungry Man corn. And something about Salisbury steak. But I've already started pushing my cart slowly away from the testosterone-jacked boxes, which are seriously giving me the creeps.

I've certainly got my own little frozen-food fetishes, which include Lean Cuisine peanut noodles, Stouffer's macaroni and cheese, and just about anything from Amy's Kitchen. But, really, I swear that's it.

Which is, of course, a lie. I'm a realist, and a girl's gotta find sustenance on a tight schedule. You can only do foie gras and $9 boutique sandwiches so often before the purse strings and belt loops start to get uncomfortably tight.

And whatever our peculiar yen, it turns out the Boy and I aren't alone in our fondness for the frozen-food experience. According to the American Frozen Food Institute, nuked meals have become a $26 billion industry, with something like 94 percent of us tossing semisolid blocks of meatloaf and macaroni into our carts on a semiregular basis. Yes, dear readers, we are chilling in a frozen-food nation.

So after reaching into yet another freezer to microwave yet another dinner-in-a-box, I've got a pretty good idea as to what's edible and what's better used as a moist doorstop. I'm guessing you do, too, out there with your soggy lunch bag and overstuffed freezer. Let's compare notes.

Flashback to the 1970s. On the occasional PTA night or hurried weekend, Mom would heat up some sort of mystery meat in those nifty compartmentalized trays. As kids, we found the whole thing rather exotic. But some 30 years ago, pot pie, steak, macaroni and meatloaf were the staples of the frozen-food aisle. Not much to fantasize about, other than watching the nifty apple dumplings puff up in the oven.

Things really took off in the late 1980s and '90s, when microwaves become as ubiquitous as televisions. Today, frozen foods are big business, and as adorably mom-and-pop as your organic frozen tofu lasagna may look, the big food conglomerates have a lock on most of what you're eating. The Heinz company owns (among others) Linda McCartney Meals, Boston Market Frozen Entrées, Ethnic Gourmet, Rosetto, Delimex and Smart Ones. ConAgra gets us from childhood (Kid Cuisine), through our lean college years (Banquet) and into our paunchy middle age (Healthy Choice). The leader in the budget category is Luigino's, with the Michelina's, Yu Sing and Budget Gourmet brands under its corporate belt. Other than the big guys, however, one of the most consistently yummy brands, which sticks to its organic ideals, is local producer Amy's Kitchen.

While the usual Hungry Man-type stuff still sells well, ethnic foods are gaining fast. Suddenly we're hankering for pad thai and taquitos, though most frozen food has little in common with the true cuisine of Asia or Latin America. I'm willing to accept the discrepancy and move on.

Pad thai (and its cousin, peanut noodles) are the new caesar salad. Honestly, you really can't escape some version of sweet-spicy Asian noodles on pretty much any menu. So its not surprising to find a bevy of Asian inspired knockoffs in the frozen aisles ranging from ungodly nasty to better-than-expected. One of the best: Seeds of Change peanut noodles, though there may be too much requisite broccoli filler to give it an unqualified thumbs up. Better: Ethnic Gourmet chicken pad thai with hot, sweet, nice bits of chicken and tofu and crispy little carrots. Plus, you can actually find the little bits of peanut. Yum.

There was a time, not that long ago, when nine out of 10 dinners I served to my ex-husband involved a Budget Gourmet box. It may explain our demise. It was also because we were both out of work, and you can't beat 99 cents for a hot meal. With a heavy emphasis on Italian foods, Michaelina's is the workhorse of everyday frozen dining. You know you've had them. You can probably still taste the slightly plastic and cardboard tang. The best choice: lasagna Alfredo. Lots of cheese, pasta and just a few sprigs of green stuff to make you feel like you're eating right.

Though it can be hard to find, if you've got the money to splurge a little, Michael Angelo's eggplant parmesan can't be beat. Crispy and cheesy with a tangy tomato sauce, it's a meal for two.

In the lunchtime microwave lineup--you know, where everyone puts his or her frozen meal in a line next to the microwave, waiting for those four minutes of fame--Trader Joe's is so frequently in the mix as to warrant a separate mention. Comfortable straddling the line of mediocrity, TJ's wins most of its points for pretty OK flavor relative to fairly low cost, both of them good things. All of the small frozen pizzas, especially the chicken barbecue, are repeat winners. I'm also a fan of the lasagna, and will eat the chicken pad thai in a pinch--but that would be a really hard pinch. TJ's chicken masala cooks up nicely and smells like heaven, though I still prefer Ethnic Gourmet's version.

Newer to the namesake frozen-food aisle is Safeway brand. The best of the bunch was a chicken salad wrap. You provide the lettuce, then heat up the gingery ground chicken and pour on the crispy noodles. A shocker was a Safeway brand crème brûlée dessert. The little puddings come in individual dishes and have a package of sugar you can broil or torch on top. The taste was remarkably sweet and creamy, despite the fact that I overnuked it.

Honestly, I have no idea what Welsh rarebit actually is, other than some sort of sharp cheddar cheese sauce that my mother has been ladeling over toast for 30 years. It's comfort food, and I actually adore it (despite telling my mother to the contrary). If you can locate Stouffer's Welsh rarebit, a holy grail of cheesiness, covet it. Love it. Do not share it. It is frozen gold.

We also found a relative newcomer to the mix--Smokey Robinson's red beans and rice. Though a bit salty, the mix of beans, turkey sausage and rice came out pretty dang tasty. The soul is in the bowl, baby.

Another big winner was TGI Friday's loaded potato skins in the red and white box. Just toss a few of these into the oven. You'll thank me later. Note, however, the oven is critical to crispiness. Ignore at your peril.

Baking, if you have the time and the oven, really does make a difference with all frozen foods. Things that are supposed to crunch actually do, rather than limply sighing in your mouth. You also avoid all that guilt about irradiating your genitals or whatever.

Which, as I eat yet another frozen meal at my desk, should probably be the least of my concerns.

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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