April 1, 1998 in Food

Red-Hot And Frozen Once A Humble Meal, The Frozen Dinner Has Gone Gourmet

By The Spokesman-Review
 

So, we’re thousands of miles away from Spago in Beverly Hills. Yet tonight we can dine on dishes created by that landmark restaurant’s famous chef-to-the-stars, Wolfgang Puck.

In the freezer section of specialty food stores, you can “order” such gourmet goodies from Puck as pumpkin ravioli with tomato-curry sauce, eggplant Parmesan with tomato-basil sauce or spicy chicken tortellini.

Or, if you’re in the mood for ethnic, dive into Taj Gourmet’s channa bhaji, chicken tikka masala or palak paneer, all traditional Indian dishes.

Frozen pizzas have entered the upscale arena, too. Meatless, garlic-studded pies from Spokane-based A.C. LaRocco have come on strong, selling in markets across the country.

As our lives have gotten busier, the frozen dinner industry has responded to our hunger for quick, easy meals. Just check out the vast freezer section at your local supermarket for proof.

But no segment of that multibillion-dollar business has expanded faster than upscale TV dinners.

“Oh, these aren’t TV dinners,” said Tom Warner, an executive vice president at The Wolfgang Puck Food Co. in Santa Monica, Calif. “They bear no resemblance to those old Swanson dinners.”

Even with Puck’s name attached, though, the company was not an overnight success.

“In 1985, we introduced a line of high-quality desserts a la Spago,” Warner said. “They were excellent products, but they failed because they were so expensive and the ingredients were seasonal.”

Several years later, Puck discovered that many of his customers ordered his designer pizzas by the dozens, taking the leftovers home to freeze. A little light went on.

Puck’s premium pizzas hit the market in 1987, followed by frozen entrees in 1995. They’re red-hot.

“Our line keeps growing because there’s a tremendous demand,” Warner said. “We have experienced 50 percent growth every year since we started.”

The latest additions to the menu include a cafe-style meatloaf bathed in a port wine sauce and served with garlic mashed potatoes, a pasta primavera with a red sauce, cannelloni stuffed with chicken and spinach and a series of wraps that have a different twist.

“We’re using (sheets of) pasta instead of tortillas,” said Warner.

“It’s totally unique to the frozen-food market.”

All of the products in the line are taste-tested and approved by the man himself.

“We took some new pizzas over to Spago and cooked them in the oven there. Wolfgang tasted them and smiled, so I knew we had a winner,” Warner said.

The creator of the Taj Gourmet line also has a restaurant background, but had to close his popular Indian eatery in Boston because the company’s food line grew so dramatically.

“We’re now in more than 4,000 natural food stores across the country and in Canada,” said Tamia Anand, who works in the company’s customer relations department in Framingham, Mass.

Among Taj Gourmet’s most popular entrees are vegan dishes, made with no meat and no dairy. “Vegan is very much in on the East Coast,” Anand said.

All the entrees are made from restaurant recipes, using fresh, natural ingredients and no preservatives.

“Some of the items might be marinated before they’re cooked. It’s quite a process, but the key is to trap the flavor,” Anand said. “We make a big effort to create gourmet cuisine, true to what we used to sell in the restaurant.”

Next month, the company will introduce several tandoori dishes - meats baked in a special clay oven - as well as a chicken teriyaki bowl, a chicken biryani bowl and a vegetarian teriyaki bowl with snow peas, baby corn and water chestnuts in a pineapple and orange juice-based sauce.

Taj Gourmet also produces Asian entrees under its Thai Chef label, including a peanut chicken satay and a lemon grass and basil chicken. A vegetarian pad Thai will soon join that lineup.

“We get fantastic feedback from customers,” Anand said. “Just the other day, we had a lady chef call up and tell us how thrilled she was with the lemon grass basil chicken.”

A local creator of gourmet pizzas also gets regular raves about its product.

“We get calls from all over the country,” said A.C. LaRocco company president Clarence Scott. “They tell us they can’t believe it’s frozen pizza. The crust is too good for it to be frozen pizza.”

Frozen pizzas rack up $1.9 billion in sales annually, and Scott said the premium category has experienced a huge increase. According to a Nielsen marketing survey, premium pizza sales were up 113 percent last year, while sales of the more inexpensive frozen pizzas dropped.

“This shows that people are willing to spend a bit more if they could get a really good product,” Scott said.

The A.C. LaRocco pizzas - available at Rosauers, Huckleberry’s, Tidyman’s and Super 1 - are all vegetarian and are built on whole-wheat crusts.

“We bake them to 70 percent of their baking cycle, so when you finish them in your oven, they rise and brown,” Scott said of the pies, produced at a plant in Eugene, Ore. “That gives them a fresh-baked taste and texture.”

The toppings also are treated differently than those on your average frozen pizza.

“The vegetables are frozen within four to six hours of harvest,” Scott said. “That way, everything comes alive in the oven.”

Like many pizzerias, A.C.

LaRocco uses fresh garlic with its toppings and in its sauce, which also contains olive oil. “It’s an expensive item, but you can’t beat it as a flavor carrier,” Scott said.

That kind of attention to detail means this small company sells between 36,000 and 40,000 pizzas a month around the United States.

“People’s attitude about frozen pizza has really changed, especially after they try ours,” Scott said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Rolf Goetzinger

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

These gourmet frozen meals pretty tasty

By Leslie Kelly Staff writer

Today’s upscale frozen meals aren’t going to set you back as much as a trip to spendy Spago, but they are more expensive than your average “Hungry Man.” The entrees rated below cost between $4 and $6 each.

Are they worth the extra bucks?

Sometimes.

Over the past month, I’ve sampled more than a dozen restaurant-style frozen entrees and upscale pizzas. A few were awful, but most were pretty darned tasty.

They all had something in common with the stuff from Swanson and such. None looked as pretty coming out of the microwave as the colorful pictures adorning the box.

And they all improved when given a flavor boost from my personal pantry, whether it was adding salsa, chutney or sprinkling red pepper flakes to liven up a pizza.

Here are my tasting notes:

Taj Gourmet’s chicken tikka masala: The meat was a little chewy, but the creamy tomato sauce was exotic with hints of garlic and ginger. The side of brown rice seasoned with turmeric and other aromatic spices was dried out and crunchy, but had a good flavor and softened when mixed with the sauce.

The Thai Chef’s peanut satay chicken: The first thing I noticed was that the rice portion was much bigger than the meat side of the meal. The peanut sauce was sweeter than most and was thin, but it still tasted pretty good.

Wolfgang Puck’s spicy chicken tortellini with cilantro sauce: The pasta was overcooked and the flecks of chicken meat were bland. The sauce was far from spicy. Even so, I got heartburn. Thumbs down.

Wolfgang Puck’s sweet potato ravioli: This dish was vibrantly seasoned and gorgeous to look at. The ravioli were filled with red yam, goat cheese and pine nuts and the spicy sauce was seasoned with curry, shallots and leeks.

Elka’s white meat chicken burrito with smoky tomato salsa: This was created by a California chef and its label boasts of quality ingredients, including fire-roasted vegetables. Unfortunately, it had a funky sweet flavor that made it inedible. A $4 bummer.

Taj Gourmet’s channa bhaji: This is basically curried garbanzo beans and, while it was a fairly simple dish, this was one of the best items I tasted. The texture of the beans held up and the sauce was rich and spicy.

The Thai Chef’s lemon grass and basil chicken: The mild sauce had a green curry base blended with coconut milk. It was light and elegant. Yet, the vegetables in this dish - green beans and carrots - were mushy and tasteless. And the chicken was tough.

The Thai Chef’s vegetarian massaman curry: It sounds good on paper - chunks of tofu, red and green peppers, onions, green beans in a spicy curry sauce. But the massaman sauce was too tame. In fact, it was sweet. And the vegetables were uniformly mushy.

Taj Gourmet’s vegetable korma: I expected the same watery texture from the califlower, potatoes and peas in this dish, but was pleasantly surprised. They were tender-crisp and the spicy sauce was a nice complement.

Wolfgang Puck’s cheese and mushroom risotto: This dish looked like wallpaper glue, gummy and gray. Yet, it was yummy. It’s far from the typical restaurant risotto; they should up the amount of rice in this recipe, for starters. But you could actually taste the white wine and the Parmesan cheese in the sauce.

Wolfgang Puck’s spinach and mushroom pizza: The whole-wheat crust was flat in taste and appearance, more of a cracker than a crust. The cooking instructions advise you to dab the cooked pizza with a paper towel before serving. It drenched my Bounty and helped explain why the veggies were watery and flavorless.

A.C. LaRocco’s pizzas: I saved the best for last. I’ve tried all the varieties - the garden vegetable, the Greek sesame, the garlic and cheese, the tomato and feta. They’re all first-rate. But my favorite is the full-flavored tomato and feta with sun-dried tomatoes. When baked following the package directions - on the oven rack, not a cookie sheet - the crust had a wonderful, fresh-baked flavor. A real winner.

This sidebar appeared with the story: These gourmet frozen meals pretty tasty By Leslie Kelly Staff writer Today’s upscale frozen meals aren’t going to set you back as much as a trip to spendy Spago, but they are more expensive than your average “Hungry Man.” The entrees rated below cost between $4 and $6 each. Are they worth the extra bucks? Sometimes. Over the past month, I’ve sampled more than a dozen restaurant-style frozen entrees and upscale pizzas. A few were awful, but most were pretty darned tasty. They all had something in common with the stuff from Swanson and such. None looked as pretty coming out of the microwave as the colorful pictures adorning the box. And they all improved when given a flavor boost from my personal pantry, whether it was adding salsa, chutney or sprinkling red pepper flakes to liven up a pizza. Here are my tasting notes: Taj Gourmet’s chicken tikka masala: The meat was a little chewy, but the creamy tomato sauce was exotic with hints of garlic and ginger. The side of brown rice seasoned with turmeric and other aromatic spices was dried out and crunchy, but had a good flavor and softened when mixed with the sauce. The Thai Chef’s peanut satay chicken: The first thing I noticed was that the rice portion was much bigger than the meat side of the meal. The peanut sauce was sweeter than most and was thin, but it still tasted pretty good. Wolfgang Puck’s spicy chicken tortellini with cilantro sauce: The pasta was overcooked and the flecks of chicken meat were bland. The sauce was far from spicy. Even so, I got heartburn. Thumbs down. Wolfgang Puck’s sweet potato ravioli: This dish was vibrantly seasoned and gorgeous to look at. The ravioli were filled with red yam, goat cheese and pine nuts and the spicy sauce was seasoned with curry, shallots and leeks. Elka’s white meat chicken burrito with smoky tomato salsa: This was created by a California chef and its label boasts of quality ingredients, including fire-roasted vegetables. Unfortunately, it had a funky sweet flavor that made it inedible. A $4 bummer. Taj Gourmet’s channa bhaji: This is basically curried garbanzo beans and, while it was a fairly simple dish, this was one of the best items I tasted. The texture of the beans held up and the sauce was rich and spicy. The Thai Chef’s lemon grass and basil chicken: The mild sauce had a green curry base blended with coconut milk. It was light and elegant. Yet, the vegetables in this dish - green beans and carrots - were mushy and tasteless. And the chicken was tough. The Thai Chef’s vegetarian massaman curry: It sounds good on paper - chunks of tofu, red and green peppers, onions, green beans in a spicy curry sauce. But the massaman sauce was too tame. In fact, it was sweet. And the vegetables were uniformly mushy. Taj Gourmet’s vegetable korma: I expected the same watery texture from the califlower, potatoes and peas in this dish, but was pleasantly surprised. They were tender-crisp and the spicy sauce was a nice complement. Wolfgang Puck’s cheese and mushroom risotto: This dish looked like wallpaper glue, gummy and gray. Yet, it was yummy. It’s far from the typical restaurant risotto; they should up the amount of rice in this recipe, for starters. But you could actually taste the white wine and the Parmesan cheese in the sauce. Wolfgang Puck’s spinach and mushroom pizza: The whole-wheat crust was flat in taste and appearance, more of a cracker than a crust. The cooking instructions advise you to dab the cooked pizza with a paper towel before serving. It drenched my Bounty and helped explain why the veggies were watery and flavorless. A.C. LaRocco’s pizzas: I saved the best for last. I’ve tried all the varieties - the garden vegetable, the Greek sesame, the garlic and cheese, the tomato and feta. They’re all first-rate. But my favorite is the full-flavored tomato and feta with sun-dried tomatoes. When baked following the package directions - on the oven rack, not a cookie sheet - the crust had a wonderful, fresh-baked flavor. A real winner.


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