Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Frozen Delights: Wherein the Protagonist Discusses the Merits of Pre-Made Frozen Dinner Items from Trader Joe's

So here's the thing. I love to cook, I really do. Cooking is a blast. Making food for friends is great. Entertaining and enjoying others' company over an ambitious home-cooked meal is one of life's great pleasures.

That being said, I have a hard time finding the effort to devote the significant investment of time and money (nowhere are economy of scales more prevalent than in purchasing food) for just myself.

And despite my obvious love for dining out, I've found myself in recent months to be paying a little more attention to the bottom line as I've left the lucrative world of table waiting for a moderately less lucrative but infinitely more rewarding line of work.

So I've been eating a lot of Trader Joe's lately.

Don't get me wrong, I do cook. I made an excellent turkey loaf which lasted me quite some time--fry it up with eggs for a sort of turkey scrapple breakfast, slap it on some bread for a meatloaf sandwich, or throw it out the window to get your cute neighbor's attention. It's your world, the loaf's just along for the ride. I also can still make a nice from-scratch pasta sauce, assemble a mean sandwich, cook the shit out of some cranberry beans, and steam up the quinoa.

I know that one doesn't actually steam quinoa.

But what's the harm in letting Trader Joe's do the work sometimes?

I'm not a big fan of the fully-made frozen entrees, like the heat and serve pasta dishes, mac n' cheese, taquitos, and burritos. The heat-serve pastas aren't any better than if you make dried pasta and add a sauce and some chopped meat yourself, I can't bring myself to eat mac n' cheese as an entree even though I love it, and the Mexican stuff you can get fresh from a good taqueria for the same price.

What I mostly eat are the Asian and Asian-esque rice and noodle dishes. Some of them are pretty damn solid.

I like this stuff because it's really quick to cook, unlike the Mexican and Italian stuff which often take two or three repetitions of the on-the-box instructions to render the innermost delights not ice cold. Of course the outer layers will be molten as soon as you open the package. The rice dishes just take a quick sautee in the skillet and they're ready to go.

I also like these dishes because they're easy to doctor. You can cook a little garlic first, add some additional veggies or some scrambled egg, or grill up a piece of fish or chicken (or turkey meat loaf!) to throw on top.

Really what Trader Joe's is doing is saving me the time and annoyance of cooking rice only to have re-fry it and the tedium of dicing up some veggies really small.

Obviously it's not as good as the real fresh thing, but it takes 10 minutes and costs a few bucks.

The hits and misses of Trader Joe's frozen Asian-esque entrees.

Chicken Fried Rice: HIT! Cooks easily. Lots of big chunks of chicken. And the rice, although already fully cooked and frozen, doesn't leach out too much water into the pan (a common problem with this stuff). With enough patience (and enough canola oil) you can make a reasonable approximation of Durant food ghetto fried rice.

Chicken Chow Mein: MISS! I should clarify this. Overall it's pretty tasty, but the noodle preparation instructions are ridiculous. The already fully-cooked noodles come vacuum packed in the bag with the chicken and vegetables. You're instructed to let the noodles run under cool water for 5 minutes or so to thaw them while you prepare the chicken and veggies. Five minutes leaves them just as rock-freakin'-hard as before. And then even if you finally thaw them out, they're still all stuck together, which means you'll never actually have chow mein noodles but rather a bunch of two or three inch pieces of chow mein noodle resulting from you violently hacking the noodle-blob apart. At the end of this traumatic process you're still left with a pleasant-tasting dish but at the expense of your dignity.

Nasi Goreng: HIT! Really aromatic and flavorful with lots of chopped vegetables. Pretty much my favorite of the bunch, though it's lack of significant protein requires the addition of at least a couple eggs. My favorite additions are a scrambled egg and some frozen shrimp (also conveniently available at Trader Joe's!)

Vegetable Biryani: HIT! Good and surprising flavor combinations thanks to the addition of apples and cashews to the mix. Unfortunately the vegetables in the biryani sweat a bit too much and you're never able to get the nice dry, ever-so-slightly crisp texture that makes restaurant versions of this dish so appealing. Like the Nasi Goreng, it requires the addition of a couple things to make it a meal.

Sweet and Sour Shrimp over Rice: MISS! Simple dish to prepare, but found lacking in a number of ways. The cooked frozen white rice gives off a ton of moisture when thawed which takes a while to steam off and leaves the rice tasting, well, wet. The shrimp are nice and the vegetable quantity generous, but the sauce is a big miss. I appreciate the attempt at making a sauce that isn't overly sweet and syrupy, but unfortunately this was done at the expense of flavor. The sauce tasted pretty much like watered-down syrup from canned pineapple. Ah well.

Join me next time for a detailed discussion of boil-in-the-bag Indian food.

Not really, they all taste like cumin and ghee. Good though.

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