I’m not a frozen food fan, but sometimes I want something that is quick and easy and cheap and frozen food is /it/. Today, for example, my original plan for dinner was to make Cajun jambalaya, but we went to the movies, and then to the supermarket, and then it was too late to cook (really, I can’t really make anything in less than an hour). So it was mac & cheese for the girls and a trip to Grocery Outlet for me, to see what was in the frozen food aisle. Alas, there weren’t too many choices that fit my palate.
I had already tried Claim Jumper lasagna before – I’d found it edible. There was too much sweet sauce, too little cheese and meat, but while it’d never be my first choice, I could eat it again. Today I decided to try something else, the meatloaf. My expectations were low so I was pleasantly surprised to find the dish not just edible but satisfying. Now, I think that was because the food was super hot and I was very hungry, but I only eat frozen food when I’m really hungry :-). The meatloaf itself had a mild taste and a non-offensive texture, it smelled of liquid smoke but it didn’t have any overwhelming flavor. The mashed potatoes were light and the gravy non-offensive. The portion is definitely much smaller than the picture implies, but it was enough for dinner – and a reasonable 540 calories (though mostly coming from fat, some of that is probably in the gravy and you don’t need much of it). I’d this dinner again over the lasagna.
Update: Today I tried the Claim Jumper fried chicken. Once again it looked like it wouldn’t be enough food for dinner, and once again I was wrong. The meal consisted of a breaded/fried boneless chicken patty, mashed potatoes & gravy & some corn in the cob. The chicken itself wasn’t that great. It had a weird flavor, similar to food fried in really old oil. The texture was fine, though. I did like the mashed potatoes, the fact that they were very hot helped. I didn’t try the gravy or the corn. I don’t think I’d buy this meal again.
My biggest gripe with these meals is that they take too much work. If I’m going to have to eat frozen food, what I want to do is put the damn thing in the microwave, set the time and come back when it’s done. For the meatloaf, I had to remove the cover, add water to the green beans, recover, cook, come back, remove the cover, remove the meatloaves, stir the mashed potatoes, return the meatloaves, recover, cook some more, remove, pierce the gravy package, put it on a plate, microwave, open the package and pour it on the food. It may not sound like much, but if I have to do multiple things I might as well cook some pasta.
Claim Jumper dinners are $3 a Grocery Outlet, they’re about $4 at the supermarket.
I’ve been watching the British version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’ve watched the American version before, but I never really liked it. Every episode seemed the same and Ramsay was just so mean and cruel to the restaurant owners. The British version (which started in 2004) is much better. Ramsay swears a lot and sometimes he gets into people’s faces, but it looks like he’s honestly trying to help the restaurants get better. Now, it’s true that his formula for success is always the same:
-Simplify the menu: offer just a few dishes that the kitchen can manage and do well
-Use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible
-Simplify dishes: let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves
-Have a concept behind the menu: whether it be “new American”, “Irish inspired” or whatever
-Play to the local audience: with dishes they will understand and embrace
-Offer good value and competitive prices
-Have great lines of communications between the kitchen & dining room staff
-The manager/chef must have a firm command of the restaurant/kitchen and not be afraid to demand best performance from workers.
-Chefs must learn to delegate/communicate appropriately with kitchen staff
-Promote the restaurant by going to the people
but it seems like a good formula.
All of this makes sense, of course, but it’s surprisingly hard to do. I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) about how many restaurants serve commercially manufactured food, stuff they buy frozen and then just reheat in the microwave. It’s easy to understand why: reheating things is much easier than cooking it yourself and while it’s not necessarily cheaper ingredient wise, it saves a lot of money labor-wise. And it’s not a complete surprise that they’re doing this. I expect all the foods served at chain restaurants, for example, to be manufactured at a central facility and then re-heated. And I think we can expect any deep fried appetizer at a regular restaurant to be commercially made, plus only top restaurants have pastry chefs, which means most restaurants must be buying their desserts commercially. But I didn’t realize how extensive this practice was. In France, for example, the majority of restaurants serve frozen food that they pass as the real thing. The food, filled with flavor enhancers of all types, is tasty enough to fool French gourmets so it must be quite good. And don’t think it’s any better in America, tens of thousands of restaurants – including top rated ones like Thomas Keller‘s Bouchon – serve manufactured frozen food. Even Gordon Ramsey himself has been caught serving pre-made food at his restaurants – albeit the food is cooked daily and, supposedly, without preservatives or enhancers. As a restaurant patron, I have to say I’m appalled by the practice. If I want frozen food, I can buy it myself and microwave it. Indeed, I wish these foods were available at retails here.
Even restaurants that don’t rely on manufactured food, may take short-cuts themselves pre-cooking and then re-heating their food offerings or using less-than-fresh ingredients. Indeed, the former is probably what’s going on with Ramsey’s restaurants (though he, himself, has decried that practice). Now, there are a few things out there that can be frozen without any loss of quality (things made with puff pastry, for example) and there are many dishes (stews, braises, soups) that should be made in advance and then refrigerated and reheated before serving (though for things with meats, and in particular chicken, stove-top reheating is preferred). But in one of the restaurants in Kitchen Nightmares they were pre-cooking the hamburgers. Now I suspect that if a restaurant won’t serve you a medium-rare burger, it’s not because of safety concerns but because their patties are pre-cooked. My new rule: if I can’t get a burger medium rare, I’m not ordering it.
Given all this, what I think restaurant reviewers should do from now on is take a look at restaurant kitchens, preferably during dinner service, so they can see whether cooks are cooking or re-heating, though even noting the number of freezers and microwaves can give you a clue as to what they’re doing in that kitchen.
Orange Beef is the latest product from Hart Food Products, a small mom & pop frozen food company that seems to mostly distribute through Grocery Outlet. I had tried their Orange Chicken before and I had been less that impressed, but it was another kidless night when I didn’t want to cook and, if nothing else, the Hart Orange Beef ($4 for the 2+lb package) seemed like a good value. So I decided to give it a try.
Like the chicken, this product consists of small pieces of beef heavily battered. You sauté them on some oil for about 12 minutes, stirring often, heat up the orange sauce in a different sauce pan, and then mix it in with the beef. It’s not too complicated, but it does use up two cooking pots (not good for those of us without dishwashers).
The results are mediocre. The beef has way too much breading and it was too oily (I’d recommend using a non-stick pan and only minimal oil when cooking them), the sauce wasn’t painfully sweet but I grew sick of it quickly. In all I think I’ll steer clear of Hart products.
With the kids out of town I haven’t been cooking as much as I normally would, which means I’ve been relying on whatever frozen food I find at Grocery Outlet. That’s very much of a hit and miss, but as far as frozen food goes, Red Baron by the Slice Pepperoni Pizza ($2 at GO) is a hit. The pizza slices come in their own baking trays, so all you have to do is take them out of the plastic and put them in the microwave for 2 1/2 minutes. Unlike most other frozen pizzas, these slices actually crisp up. They have a medium crust, light tomato sauce, enough real cheese and pepperoni. They are pretty tasty, not pizzeria quality, but quite good for frozen pizza. At 360 calories and 15 grams of fat they’re not great for you, but they could be worse. In all, not a bad choice for lunch.
Note: the box offers two ways to cook it, I went for the simple one, it may be even crispier if cooked the other way.
Today I found a package of Island Wok brand steamed pork buns at Grocery Outlet and decided to give them a try. I LOVE pork buns, and while these were a bit expensive ($4 for 6 3.5 oz pork buns, about the same price you can get freshly made ones at your local Chinese restaurant), I liked the convenience of having them in my freezer. They also seem to be made with natural ingredients. Unfortunately they weren’t very good.
My main complain is the filling. I like my pork buns at least a little bit sweet and these ones are not. Probably the most notable flavor is that of the soy sauce. Mika thought that there was too much bread for the amount of filling, but I don’t think they’re more unbalanced than most pork buns. In all they weren’t bad, and they microwave very easily (1 minute each), but given their price I think I may just stick with the ones from New Hong Kong.
Island Wok is a brand of Harvest Food Products, a Hayward based Asian frozen food company. One of the things I do like about GO is that they give small producers a chance. While I didn’t love these pork buns, I will try other Island Wok/Harvest Food products.
It’s unlikely you’ll find anything if you look for “Hart Authentic Orange Chicken” online – at least I didn’t find anything when I looked. It seems that this frozen entree is made by Hart Food Products from Lakewood, CA. I bought it at Grocery Outlet, and I imagine they are their only distributor. Actually, given Hart’s pathetic website, it’s difficult to believe they are any sort of serious company. Which really tells you something about where Grocery Outlet sources its products. And indeed, orange chicken seems to be one of only three or four products Hart offers .
Anyway, I was in Grocery Outlet yesterday and thought I’d take a look at the frozen stuff they had, as I’ve been feeling less and less like cooking lately. This orange chicken product didn’t seem too bad – at least in comparison to the brand-name frozen food products. Yeah, it has a lot of salt, corn syrup and a myriad of preservatives, but so do all the brand name products. At least it had chicken as its main ingredient 🙂
It’s not obvious from the picture in the package, but this is really popcorn chicken – which is annoying as that means it has much more breading than you would like. It’s uncooked so you need to bake it for 20 minutes, pan fry it for 10 to 15 minutes, or deep fry it for 6 minutes. Then you mix it with the orange sauce which comes in 3 packages. You can’t microwave it.
As for the taste, it met our very low expectations. Mike found it too bland, while I thought the chicken had a subtle “off” flavor. The sauce was OK, somewhat orangy and not too sweet.
I’m unlikely to buy it again.
** UPDATE July 2012**
The owner of Hart Chicken e-mailed me a few weeks ago and told me they’d made changes to their product and to give it another try. I was reluctant, because one of the changes involved getting a different supplier of chicken pieces that produced more uniform – but smaller – pieces. I figured one of the major problems was the size of the pieces, so this wouldn’t help. But I figured I would give the product another try (though it would have been nice if he’d sent me a coupon rather than I having to buy it myself) and I was happier than the time before.
The pieces are still small (they need to be in order to be ready within a reasonably period of time, given that they are not pre-cooked), but this time I went into the meal experience thinking of it as popcorn chicken. So I wasn’t disappointed by their size.
I also used much less oil than the instructions called for, which you can do if you stir fry the chicken.
The sauce was supposed to have an improved flavor, and I think it did. It was just the right amount to coat all the chicken – though a bit more would have been welcomed for any rice or veggies you might want to throw in. I did note this time that the sauce takes on a full 10 oz of the 32 oz of the package, which is quite a lot.
Anyway, Hart Orange Chicken is still not for me, though as you can see below it has many lovers (and haters).