Once upon a time, we would wait 30 minutes or more to get into a hip natural wine bar in Brooklyn. Now that’s how long we queue up to gain admittance to Whole Foods on the North Shore of Long Island.
The COVID-19 era makes new demands on the public’s ability to acquire daily nourishment — be it through the restaurant shutdown or through limits on visiting a market for fresh produce and meats. For some, the frozen food section of a local supermarket or bodega might as well be Siberia. Too bad for them. New forms of organic, flash-frozen comestibles — and older classics like pizza rolls, pierogis, and shrimp shumai — make these chilly goods a fine option any day of the week, especially for a prospective quarantine.
Critics Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema donned their fur parkas to explore the icy depths of the freezer case; here’s what they found, rated by letter grade. To keep the list focused, the critics skipped frozen pizza and frozen dessert (for now). They visited Whole Foods, Westerly Natural Market, Gristedes, H Mart, Health & Harmony, and Duane Reade.
Spoiler: Savory meat pies did not fare as well. And a tip: While Whole Foods might be more cleaned out of frozen product, certain locations of H Mart are better-stocked.
K-town “Mad Spicy” wheat flour cakes (1.32 pounds, $4.99): There’s nothing like the famous pork fat tteokbokki at Hanjan, but K-town’s wheat flour cakes easily outmatch many restaurant versions. The cakes take some work to prepare: Thaw out them out in water, fry them in a pan with sweet-spicy chile sauce, then add fish cakes and scallions. The gochugaru chile is mild at first, but the spice level quickly builds — keeping pace with the ample sugars and salt. It eventually causes a gentle brow sweat. The cakes are firm and chewy, sporting a wonderful QQ bounce, while the fish cakes add umami. This is perfect frozen food. Grade: A+ — Sutton
Chicken tikka samosas by Deep Indian Kitchen (eight pieces, 7.5 ounces, $5.99): These small samosas, baked to a deep brown in 15 minutes or so, were nicely moist inside with plenty of chicken in a fairly dry, dairy-driven sauce. They had a bit of heat to them, and if one ate all eight, it would be a very filling meal. The only problem was that they needed some sort of dipping sauce, a chutney perhaps, though a spoonful of yogurt would do quite nicely, too. Grade: A — Sietsema
Brazi Bites garlic asiago cheese bread (18 pieces, $5.99): Two years ago, one of my co-workers brought pao de queijo to a potluck; I was hooked almost immediately. The Brazi brand isn’t too far off from that homemade variety or restaurant versions. After 20 minutes in the toaster oven, the gluten-free puff (it’s made with tapioca flour) is crispy on the outside, soft and pillowy on the inside, and laced with a knob of stretchy asiago cheese. They make for a fine breakfast snack. Grade: A — Sutton
Hot beef patties by Tower Isles (three patties, 15 ounces, $8.99): Of all the viands presented here, this one has gone through the freezing and baking process and still retained its usual flavor and texture. No wonder they’re sold in many of the city’s pizzerias. Three make a large meal, each pie stuffed with a fine textured “mince” flavored with Scotch bonnet peppers so hot and perfumey that these pies will leave you in an out-of-body state. Delicious dining in its purest form. As a bonus, they’re made in Brooklyn. Grade: A — Sietsema
Mrs. T’s pierogies (24 for $2.50): First thing’s first: The singular is pierog. The plural is pierogi. If we all write ravioli as plural, why can’t we get it right for this Eastern European staple? That aside, when I crave potato-stuffed dumplings, I choose this brand over artisanal varieties — even if it means tossing out a few due to freezer burn. The moderate level of filling is key to the brilliance of Mrs. T’s, as it allows for the best part of the treat to come though: the al dente exterior. One could boil them, though the best preparation involves defrosting in the microwave followed by a pan fry in brown butter. Finish with sour cream, cayenne, and fleur de sel. Appreciate how the crisp, butter-drenched dough contrasts with the soft, starchy interior. Grade: A- — Sutton
Shrimp shumai by JFC (15 pieces, $3.49): Frozen dumplings, reanimated via a quick sauna in your bamboo steamer, don’t really channel the work of dim sum masters like Red Farm’s Joe Ng, but they nourish quickly and impressively. JFC’s shrimp shumai boasts a nice, snappy texture; the interior, mostly pollock, packs a wallop of clear “shrimp extract” flavor, to quote the ingredient list. Grade: A- — Sutton
Crab shumai by Nissui (12 pieces, $3.99): Nissui’s dumplings are softer than the JFC ones, mimicking the loosely packed texture of crab and the crustacean’s sweet muskiness. Both wrappers, though, are thin, translucent, and let the flavor of the fillings shine. Grade: A- — Sutton
Monsoon Kitchens butter chicken (10 ounces): Microwaving this bowl perfumed my kitchen with the bright, beautiful scent of cardamom. That’s not to say it’s superior to the great South Asian takeout readily available throughout the city. It’s not. But for those looking for a quick, affordable meal in a pinch, the Monsoon version of this Punjabi classic gets the job done. Expect faintly creamy tomato sauce, aromatic rice, and firmly-textured chicken thighs that taste like they were roasted, not nuked. Add salt (which it needs) and yogurt for extra richness (which it also needs). Grade: B+ — Sutton
Black bean and cheese tamales by Tucson Tamale (two pieces, 11 ounces, $6.99): Each tamale comes wrapped in two corn husks, and is heated from a frozen state by 30 minutes of steaming. I had to improvise a steamer in my sauce pan, but the tamale came out mildly flavored and wholesome, with black beans and yellow corn kernels tumbling out the end. Though cheese and chiles were present as advertised, they played a subsidiary role. Grade: B — Sietsema
Annie’s Homegrown pepperoni pizza poppers (12 pieces, $3.49): Amazon-owned Whole Foods hates nitrites almost as much as it hates labor unions, which is probably why you won’t find Totino’s pizza rolls here. Instead, we got the Annie’s version made with no artificial flavors or synthetic colors. The pepperoni is uncured. Yes, these rolls are missing all the good stuff, but they still taste pretty good. The filling is sweet (no tomato or mozzarella nuance here), meaty, and if prepared correctly, hot enough to burn a hole in your tongue. The exterior is almost as crisp as fried chicken. Grade: B — Sutton
“America’s Favorite Stuffed Clams” by Matlaws (nine clams, 20 ounces, $7.99): This package was an oddity in the supermarket freezer case, a seafood product that actually looked like the creature it came from. Yet, for anyone who has eaten stuffed clams in an Italian restaurant, these behemoths were way too big, chowder clams to be sure rather than littlenecks or cherrystones. Still, they came from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and, once heated for 30 minutes at high temperature, tasted pretty good, though the proportion of breading to clam was fairly high. Grade: B — Sietsema
“Beyond Beef” crumbles by Beyond Meat (1 pouch, 10 ounces, $5.99): I saw this pouch — which is heated in a skillet rather than in the oven — in my health food store and thought, cool, spaghetti and meat sauce made with fake beef. But it turned out that all that was in the pouch was crumbled meat substitute that developed a faint herby smell as I cooked it, and had the slippery texture of mushrooms. So I plucked down a jar of sloppy joe base from Williams Sonoma that I’d got as a Christmas present, and mixed in the meat substitute. Not bad, but not good either. Grade: C — Sietsema
Chicken pot pie by Boston Market (1 pie, 16 ounces, $5.99): I really wanted to love this updated version of the old-fashioned Swanson chicken pot pie, but this swollen thing was as if someone had hopped it up on steroids. It was way too rich, and not in a good way, either. The perfectly cut dice of chicken proved as rubbery as a duckie tub toy, and there was way too much blond gravy. I felt slightly sick after eating it. Grade: C — Sietsema
Boomerang’s steak and potato pie (six ounces, $3.99): Leave it to a bunch of “real people in Texas,” per the brand’s website, to claim Outback inspiration, employ “g’day y’all,” language, and choose an aboriginal hunting tool for their company name. As for the steak and potato pie, it was flaky when pulled out of the toaster, though the beef and gravy filling was bland. In a city with solid options for Australian and British meat pies, this one is a skip. Rating: C — Sutton
Roasted Carved White Meat Turkey by Hungry-Man (1 dinner, 16 ounces, $5.99): The TV dinner was a prominent invention of the early 1950s, a convenience food that was as much a scientific innovation as a culinary one. Well, eventually the aluminum foil tray was replaced by a plastic one, and the meal swelled (the “Hungry-Man” brand) and then shrunk, so that this TV dinner is of very modest size, accounting for only 410 calories. Were frozen meals — in this case bland gelatinous turkey — as bad decades ago as they are now? Probably. Grade: F — Sietsema