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Frozen Meat Lasagna

By john • • Jan 24th, 2004 • Category: Columns, Prepared Foods

Taste Test

It’s career gal hell. You’re tired, late, hungry and dully toting a basket in a grocery store. To whom do your thoughts turn? To Mary Tyler Moore, of course, and the title sequence of her 70’s TV show, in which our stressed-out, food shopping heroine rolls her eyes as she tosses another pathetic cellophane-wrapped dinner into her cart. Mary we feel your pain. Especially when it comes to frozen meals. Why do they never live up to their promises? Can’t technology move a little faster on this one? After all, we can send a fancy camera to Mars – which is probably where manufacturers of frozen meals find their ingredients.

Who can turn the world on with their smiles? Love is all around for this week’s judges: Ken Kostick, food entrepreneur and Canadian culinary household name; restaurateur Ed Levesque, chef/proprietor of Ed Levesque’s Kitchen in Toronto; and Susie Weinthal, author of the recently published The Oy of Cooking: A Jewish Grandmother’s Legacy of Food and Memories. As always, space limitations prevent us from evaluating every brand in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste tested and awarded between one and five stars.

Roman Roman
Lasagna with Meat Sauce and Mozzarella
1020 g, $6.59
Widely available

Ken: The frozen food industry is a wide-open race right now.Did you know that prepared meals are the fastest-growing sector of the food market? Anything frozen is hot, so to speak. Although maybe not this brand, which I find visually attractive but flavourless. There’s no spice and the sauce is bland, so what you’ve got left is a little too close to Chef Boyardee.
Two stars **

Ed: There are four layers of pasta here and nothing in between them. Not only that but the pasta is overcooked, so I feel like I’m eating a miniature stack of mattresses. There are a couple of things manufacturers can do to liven these dishes up; Number One, provide a little texture on top – a crunchy crust of cheese would really make the difference. Number Two, include more spice.
Two stars **

Susie: Certainly this brand looks good, but the taste is tinny and acrid, and I really miss key flavours such as garlic. There is absolutely no comparison to homemade lasagna here, but Brand One does have one thing in its favour: There’s a surprising amount of meat present, and sometimes sheer bulk compensates for a multitude of problems.
Three stars ***

BRAND ONE TOTAL SEVEN STARS*******

Presidents Choice President’s Choice
Meat Lasagna
355g, $2.99
Available wherever President’s Choice brand is sold

Ken: This pasta is a little better. Brand Two might be worth sprucing up with other items you add at home, such as cheese. Speaking of cheese, you’d be surprised at the number of times people serve frozen meals at dinner parties. I’ve gone over to friend’s houses and been served heated-up food. Of course these people are not friends anymore – just kidding.
Two stars **

Ed: Right away this brand gets my attention because there appear to be more home-made-type ingredients, such as peppers. I agree that the pasta is better quality. It’s too bad, though, that all these products seem to use fake cheese; I guess the real thing isn’t cost effective.
Three stars ***

Susie: Some of the elements here are mystifying – what do you suppose those little black things are? And the pale bumps? And I’m finding no meat chunks here at all. Brand Two has no density, no spice – and I’ve got no patience.
Two stars **

BRAND TWO TOTAL SEVEN STARS *******

Our Compliments Our Compliments
Meat Lasagna
1KG, $6.99
Available at IGA/Sobeys and affiliated stores

Ken: Great smell, good flavour, acceptable pasta – so far this product is the most like homemade. Having said that, though, there’s no zing here. I think the manufacturer needed to go that extra mile with the cheese or spice, which would provide real texture and impact. Something like Brand three might be the highest quality you can get for the money you pay.
Three stars ***

Ed: I think Brand Three looks the best, and the flavour is right up there too – although extra salt might be doing the heavy lifting here. Unfortunately the sauce is a little gummy and gelatinous. Still, you could fix that problem at home by adding stuff that would distract you from the sauce, such as mushrooms or other toppings.
Three stars ***

Susie: I scribbled down: cheese problem. But that’s not all she wrote – now that I’m really tasting it, I find there are other drawbacks. It’s very tough – I can’t cut it. Really, if you’re looking for something quick and easy, you’d be better off with a grilled cheese sandwich.
Two stars **

BRAND THREE TOTAL EIGHT STARS ********

Stouffers Stouffer’s
Meat Lasagna
1.12KG, $9.99
Widely available

Ken: The browning effect on top is successful. Something like this – a touch that adds authenticity – is quite difficult for manufacturers to pull off, because consumers will invariably screw up the cooking times and scorch the thing, or they’ll just object to anything that isn’t insipid-looking. So high marks for the crust. Unfortunately the pasta needs to be firmer.
Three stars***

Ed: Brand Four’s tomato sauce works for me, and I like the crunchiness of the cheese crust on top. I also like the fact that the bottom layer has some density – there’s good forkability there. But I agree with Ken that the noodles are on the gummy side.
Four stars ****

Susie: I like the smell, but I can’t agree that the tomato sauce is effective. To me, all these brands have used a sort of too-scarlet, ketchup-like red stuff, a kind of strange tomato paste, which reminds you that their products are made in factories as cheaply as they can. Overall, I think the manufacturers pay too much attention to the salt and sugar in these products.
Two and ½ stars**1/2

BRAND FOUR TOTAL NINE AND HALF STARS*********1/2

Results: Figuratively speaking, winning entry Stouffer’s can toss its beret in the air. Runner-up Our Compliments gets the sidekick Rhoda Morgenstern role. Sadly, nobody will be singing, “You’re going to make it after all” to the remaining entries.

Off the menu: This week’s test sparked off a heated discussion on the future of frozen entrée’s. If as judges maintain, health-conscious consumers are increasingly discerning (certainly, they check labels more closely and more often), why aren’t frozen meals reflecting this demand for better quality? The answer seems to be that the market is currently at the tipping point, and within one or two years your average brand of frozen lasagna will be tastier and more nutritious, possibly even offering some gourmet flair. But it won’t be any cheaper.

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