Frozen entrees are thawing out. Just when the supermarket freezer case looks as if it couldn't accommodate another lean or lite dinner (or fattening, upscale ice cream), marketers are experimenting with packaging concepts that are putting the single-serving entree into the display aisle, meat department and dry goods shelf.
One of the latest buzzwords in prepared dinners is "fresh." In February of 1985, Campbell Soup Co. unsuccessfully tested the waters in Washington with Today's Taste, a line of pricey refrigerated entrees prepared locally by chefs at Kitchen Privileges, an Alexandria catering facility. The company has taken its fresh concept to other cities where it is test-marketing a line of Fresh Chef soups, salads and pasta sauces.
General Foods has jumped on the bandwagon, too, with a line of fresh,refrigerated "premium-quality" entrees. Right now, the Culinova line is being sold only in a handful of stores in the New York metropolitan area. Supermarket chains in the South, too, are experimenting with fresh entrees.
And here in Washington, a local company is taking another stab at the refrigerated entree market. Introduced late last month, Devon Farms ("Fresh Entrees Delivered Daily") is a branch of Davis Distributors Inc., an Arlington company that got the project under way with the help of the locally based Potomac Marketing Co.
Like Campbell's Today's Taste product, Devon Farms dinners are prepared daily by chefs at Kitchen Privileges. To extend shelf life and prevent bacterial growth without the use of preservatives, the five entrees -- Stuffed Chicken Breast, Beef Lasagna, Baked Stuffed Shrimp, Peppered Beef and Pasta with Meat Balls -- are fully cooked and then chill-blasted to lower their temperature quickly to under 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They are then heat-sealed using a Norwegian sealing system, according to Hilton Davis of Davis Distributors. (Industry observers agree that the Europeans are far more advanced when it comes to innovative packaging.) From there, the dinners, with five-day shelf lives, are shipped to around a dozen test-market Safeways, where they are being sold in the meat department.
Davis said Campbell went "too upscale" with its Today's Taste products. (They were priced between $4.25 and $7.95.) Thus, Devon Farms entrees are priced between $2.99 and $4.49, competitive with the upscale frozen dinners. And more common dishes were chosen to appeal to a wider audience. They can be microwaved in two to four minutes, or reheated in a conventional oven in 10 to 15 minutes.
Devon Farms' head chef, Tom Mott, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, said he is aiming for "restaurant quality" food and that he would be happy to serve any of the entrees any night in a restaurant.
Our review of Mott's "restaurant" wouldn't exactly garner him four stars, however. Some presentations -- such as thick strips of green and red peppers banded with mozzarella and rolled inside a chicken breast -- are indeed attractive, and there are crisp herbed green beans or pretty "carrot coins" that accompany some of the dishes (the carrots may have too much vinegar for some tastes, however).
But the peppered beef fulfilled all the expectations of its appearance. Its grayish meat tasted as tough and warmed-over as it looked. And that stuffed chicken breast would be much improved if the abundance of peppers hadn't overwhelmed it. This kitchen doesn't fare too well in the breading department, either. The meatballs were mostly breading and skimpy on the meat, and the shrimp (although large and not overcooked) were stuffed with a rather off-tasting breading that seemed to have suffered in its travels. Probably the most fault-free dish was the beef lasagna.
* A variation on the packaged fresh entree is Salad Singles, a refrigerated line of salads produced by the Illinois company Orval Kent. The 3 1/2-ounce containers of tuna, ham, chicken and crab meat salads are sold in the lunch meat sections of local supermarkets, and have a 42-day shelf life, due to the addition of preservatives. The salads also contain monosodium glutamate and other ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup and sugar, not normally found in fresh salads.
Another packaging approach to single-serving entrees that is used extensively by the military -- but has never really caught on in the retail market -- is the retort pouch. Kraft and Continental Kitchens have unsuccessfully tried to market retort pouch items, according to Martin Friedman, editor of the newsletter New Product News.
Now Preston Ford, president of Miss Molly Inc., is taking a shot at it. Ford said that consumers have had a hard time understanding or accepting the retort pouch -- given the fact that it has no preservatives and doesn't have to be refrigerated or frozen -- but that the "population mix" is right now. The "new generation of yuppies" is more willing to try something new, Ford said.
The shelf-stable entrees, which are appearing in display aisles and on the convenience food shelves of local markets, are manufactured at a plant in Hamilton, Ontario, where there is a "state-of-the-art" facility that can fill 120 pouches a minute, according to Ford.
The laminated pouch is filled with the uncooked food, then vacuum sealed. The filled pouch is then cooked at a high temperature very quickly. No light, air or moisture can get in and no microorganisms can grow. Ford said the product has a shelf life of two to five years.
The process is similar to canning; in fact, Ford compares the pouches to "soft cans." And indeed, the contents -- which cook up in five minutes, or two minutes in the microwave -- taste like canned food. The beef stew is a double for Dinty Moore's, and the Pasta Italiana tastes as if it could have come out of Chef Boy-ar-dee's canning kitchen.
Nevertheless, Ford said he's competing for the frozen entree buyer. Miss Molly's six different entrees are comparable in calories to many of the frozen dinners, and comparable in sodium too: the range is from 800 to 1300 milligrams per serving, according to Ford. And they are less expensive than many frozen entrees, falling below $3. But in this case, most frozen entrees would probably win out in terms of taste.
Retort pouches in plastic containers are beginning to gain momentum, too, among Hormel's, Armour's and Campbell's products. Manufacturers are trying to appeal to the growing market of microwave owners, and plastics also seem to show a market advantage over canned foods, said Dane Bernard, division director of microbiology, processing and packaging at the National Food Processors Association.
Aside from fresh and retort pouch entrees, convenience or partially prepared foods are continuing to cater to small households and single cooks who don't want to cook. You can buy marinated chicken breasts in a vacuum package, yam or potato patties already portioned into neat rounds, lasagna and sauce already made in a jar (Ragu and Mama Leone both have new pasta-in-the-jar lines which Friedman calls "Spaghetti-O's for adults.")
Still, while marketers are experimenting with every new combination to make fast food faster, there's still nothing as satisfying as fresh, homemade food. And it doesn't have to take long to prepare, either.
Here are some recipes using fresh ingredients that take less than 20 minutes to prepare -- less than it takes to heat a frozen dinner. CHICKEN BREAST GRUYERE WITH ASPARAGUS (1 serving)
1 teaspoon safflower oil or butter
1 chicken breast half, boned, skinned and pounded to 1/4-inch thickness
4 asparagus spears
1 slice gruye re cheese
Cherry tomatoes for serving
Basil for sprinkling
Heat oil or butter in a small skillet. Add pounded chicken breast and cook about 3 minutes per side, adding extra oil if neccessary.
While chicken is cooking, cut asparagus spears in half and steam tips until crunchy tender.
Place steamed asparagus on top of chicken breast and top with gruye re slice. Broil until cheese is melted, about 2 minutes. Serve with halved cherry tomatoes sprinkled with basil. SPINACH FETTUCINE WITH FETA (1 serving)
Scant 1/4 pound spinach fettucine
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1/8 teaspoon oregano
Freshly grated black pepper
Cook spinach fettucine until al dente. Sprinkle with feta, oregano and black pepper and serve. SICHUAN SCALLOPS IN CHILI SAUCE (1 serving)
1 1/2 teaspoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped scallions
1/4 pound bay scallops
Rice sticks for serving (optional)
6 snow peas, washed and ends trimmed
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon chili paste or 1/2 teaspoon chili powder mixed into 3/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Dash of salt and sesame oil
Heat oil in a small skillet. When hot, add ginger and scallions and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Add scallops and continue to stir-fry, about 1 minute more. Add combined sauce ingredients and stir-fry for another minute. Add rice sticks and snow peas and continue to cook for another 3 minutes, or until scallops are done.