Brrrrrr! Are we cold yet?
It's times like these I wonder what possessed Bryan (who's from sunny Southern California) to leave what he calls "the happiest place on earth" to this freezing place we call home now.
It's times like this I start to really miss the sunshine. In the dead of winter, the sun sets around 4:30PM here in Boston, which means it's pretty much pitch black by the time I leave work. On a freezing cold winter's night like today, it's sooooo hard to get myself psyched up to open that door and brave the cold winds that come blasting inside. I've been listening to podcasts to distract myself so I can get lost in my thoughts, not my environment!
I find that this cold weather makes me quite lazy. I lose all motivation for spending tons of time chopping, cutting, and stir frying after a long day at work (plus a loooong cold walk home!). I yearn for warm, simple, and healthy meals.
With Chinese New Year coming up, my thoughts have turned towards dumplings. Sure, ideally I would make these from scratch, filling them with my favorite ingredients - Chinese chives and ground pork. But I must confess, frozen Chinese dumplings is one of my favorite "emergency" staples to keep in the freezer.
I think of dumplings as a complete food. They encompass virtually all the "food groups" (yes, I'm a child of the 80's pre-food pyramid days!) - a nice balance of meat, vegetables, and carbohydrates (OK, so we're missing the diary food group). This glorious little all-in-one package is easy to portion out (you just cook the number you feel like eating), and you can easily pan-fry them straight from the freezer.
I almost always have a few packages of frozen dumplings in my freezer, usually purchased from a local dumpling restaurant or from a Chinese supermarket. I've never bought them from any Western supermarket. So when Whole Foods contacted me telling me about their new healthy frozen line of foods (many of which were international), I was immediately dubious about the Chinese food.
Nevertheless, I figured it wouldn't hurt to try their new line. After all, frozen food comes in handy quite often during the winter, especially on those freezing nights (like today!) when you really just rather not even step foot outside.
Whole Foods gave me a $25 gift card to pick up various frozen foods from their new line. I thought Italian food would be the safest, so I picked up a couple of those. I also got some Chinese dumplings. I figured if they could make a good dumpling, I'd be completely sold.
Their dumplings come in a pack of eight for $3.99. This is a far cry from the bag of thirty that I'm used to getting in Chinatown for $2.99 or the bag of fifty frozen handmade dumplings I can get at Mulan, Golden Garden, or Qingdao for about $15.
They are pre-shaped in a way that facilitates pan-frying. I found it easy to follow the directions to get a nice, crispy bottom, just like a restaurant "gyoza."
But how did it taste?
It was . . . . OK. Frankly, I didn't love it. Sure, the skin texture was decent and the bottom fries up beautifully. I just didn't love the flavors inside. The pork + vegetable one had a very strong essence of celery inside, which I wasn't used to at all. I strongly prefer the flavor of pork + Chinese chives or maybe napa, a classic combination you'll see everywhere in Chinatown. I think this dumpling has been tweaked for the Western palate, which is not bad, but doesn't taste completely authentic.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed the vegetarian one a bit more, maybe because I had less pre-conceived notions about what I was expecting. It was reasonably tasty, though quite expensive at 50 cents a pop.
We enjoyed the Italian food much more. The frozen Italian meals come with the tomato sauce frozen in coin-sized chunks. This obviously speeds up the rate at which everything melts, which makes preparation quick and easy.
The Gnocchi di Polenta with Peas & Kale was not bad! The gnocchi itself was unusual in that it was made of cornmeal and thus had a slightly unusual texture. The vegetables had lost their bright green color, but overall the flavors were enjoyable. I appreciated how, unlike most prepared foods, the dish was not too salty. It came off tasting balanced and healthy, which was a nice refreshing change.
The Gnocchi alla Sorrentina was Bryan's favorite out of all the frozen dishes we tried. Of course, the texture of the gnocchi is nothing like fresh gnocchi, but it's acceptable and again, the sauce was bright and flavorful yet not too salty.
We also tried a Margarita Pizza. Although it had healthier ingredients and decent toppings, it most definitely tasted like frozen pizza. I haven't had frozen pizza in years, so this really stood out as being quite different from any pizza you'd get at a restaurant.
I guess my little home oven just can't come close to producing the quality of crust that comes out of a commercial wood or brick oven!
Finally, we tried a few of their new "Six Not-So-Secret Ingredients" ice creams. These ice creams come in a few simple flavors (I tried vanilla and coffee), and consist of cream, sugar, milk, eggs, vanilla, and a thickening agent, carob bean gum.
The ice cream was alright but not nearly as good as other premium brands. It lacked a depth of flavor and richness associated with the most premium ice creams. Priced at $3.69, the quality is in line with the price. It's not as good as the top premium/artisanal ice creams (which can cost anywhere from $5 to $12 a pint), but it's a step up from the national brands that typically cost about $4 for a quart.
So it was a fun experiment. It's been so long since I've bought frozen prepared foods (with the exception of my Chinese dumplings) that it was interesting to consider this third alternative to food. I'm usually either cooking completely from scratch or eating out at a restaurant, so this in-between option was interesting to me. I sometimes forget that I can eat at home without it being a huge affair.
I guess I've been food blogging for so long that this third option doesn't even enter my mind anymore.
In any event, I doubt I'll be stocking up on these particular frozen foods, mostly because it's part of my "job" on this blog to continue to cook and try out new recipes. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that Whole Foods is trying to create healthy and tasty frozen prepared foods for those that don't have that much time. It's nice not to have to worry about crazy sodium or fat levels in your "fast food."
If I were to stock up on "emergency" food from this batch, I'd probably pick the gnocchi dishes, which I found to be hearty, flavorful, and quite enjoyable to eat.
Whole Foods has kindly agreed to give one Tiny Urban Kitchen reader a $25 Whole Foods Gift Card. You're welcome to try out the frozen dishes mentioned above, or you can buy whatever you want from Whole Foods. The store carries tons of fantastic produce, which I buy all the time.
To enter the Giveaway, please comment below telling me your thoughts about frozen prepared foods and how you use them. Do you eat it often? Are there some you hate and others you love?
I can't wait to hear what you have to say.
Giveaway ends this Friday, January 25th, 2013 at midnight EST. Winner will be chosen by a random generator and will be contacted via email and also announced on this blog. If I do not hear back from the winner within 24 hours, I will pick a new winner.
Disclaimer: The above products as well as the $25 gift card are provided by Whole Foods Market. All opinions expressed are my own.
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