June 8, 2005
Pre-packed steak au poivre? Ready-made lobster risotto? Let’s face it, frozen food isn’t just fish sticks anymore. A growing number of sumptuous-sounding feasts, some created by celebrity chefs, are hitting home freezers with the promise of making high-end feasts a snap.
These meals go beyond overnight fish and steaks. They come fully prepared with appetizers, desserts and main courses. Many can be shipped overnight, so not only can customers avoid cooking, they don’t even have to leave the house. Consider it a path to the gourmet life without the effort. No longer are duck turnovers in red wine sauce the province solely of smug epicureans with seven kinds of spatulas and a lifetime subscription to Bon Appetit. All you need is an oven. These meals are also perfect for sending to sick friends and family who live too far away for well-wishers to pop in with a casserole. “The mail-order business is growing like crazy,” said Dave Wellman, editor of Frozen Food Age magazine. “You can get everything you want, from steaks to sides.” A combination of better freezing technology and faster, cheaper shipping can bring just about any delicacy to the doorstep, he said. Not all meals are created equal, however. Many companies’ entrees are delicious, easy to prepare and taste absolutely fresh. Others are little more than overpriced TV dinners, with more fat and calories than a Big Mac and fries. Since prices range from $8 to $100, it pays to check around before ordering. The Gazette sampled some of the hottest brands and experienced love, loathing and every shade of reaction in between. TOP PICK: FIVELEAF FiveLeaf serves up top meals from such famous restaurants as French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s. Founded when French chef Gerard Bertholon hooked up with Cuisine Solutions Inc., a company preparing ready-made meals for first-class airline passengers, FiveLeaf has seven celebrity chefs and a changing menu, with prices from $10.95 to $17.95 for a single-serving main course. We tried the rack of lamb with artichokes and boiler onions ($15.95), and the duck turnover with red wine sauce ($11.95), both by chef Antoine Westermann, and the baby squid with shiitake mushrooms in a soy coconut-ginger sauce ($9.95) by Bertholon. Each came packed in dry ice in a vacuumsealed pouch that needed only to be heated in water before serving. And each was absolutely stupendous. Too often, frozen food relies on fat, salt and “natural” flavors, but this spread was loaded with real flavor. The lamb was tender and blushing pink. The squid was an adventure of complementary spices, and the duck turnover was a masterpiece: moist cuts of duck breast wrapped in a simple dough reminiscent of the best homemade pie crusts and topped with a deceptively simple-looking red wine reduction that held all the subtle flavors of a good burgundy. “We wanted people to experience the best restaurants without having to get a reservation,” said Bertholon. The presentation at home isn’t quite the same, but you never have to worry about getting a table. www.fiveleaf.com; 1-800-856-8390 THE REST - À La Zing Decidedly more down-home than FiveLeaf, this branch of Omaha Steaks delivers such mid-America delights as meatloaf and mashed potatoes for four ($27.99) and a pork chop platter for two ($17.49). We tried the chicken cordon bleu with baked potatoes and green beans, and the marinated salmon with rice pilaf and julienne carrots ($24.99 each for two servings.) Although they were easy to prepare, the entrees tried all the old tricks of using fat and salt in place of flavor. We were disappointed that, for the price, these meals did not taste noticeably better than stuff from the freezer aisle. www.alazing.com; 1-888-959-9464 - Impromptu Gourmet This white-gloved arm of the Schwan’s Food Co. distinguishes itself as the most gimmicky. Its full-meal boxes come with soup, dinner, dessert, table-setting instructions and even a mood music CD. We tried the cream of asparagus soup, chicken saltimbocca with mushroom risotto and maple-glazed carrots, and chocolate lava cakes, ($58.95 for two servings). See accompanying story. Anyone sharp enough to read the table-setting instructions might also notice that the food was wildly mediocre and hardly worth the price. www.impromptugourmet.com; 1-877-632-5766 - Home Bistro This New York-based company has the same preparation and high tone as FiveLeaf, without the celebrity chefs. We didn’t sample this one, but with meals such as beef burgundy, Chilean sea bass in champagne portabella mushroom sauce, and maple-dijon chicken, we wish we had. Entrees $7.95 to $22.95 www.homebistro.com; 1-800-628-5588 CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0223 or email@example.com