Frozen entrees easy meals

Frozen foods make for a quick meal when you don't have much time or the barbecue gets rained out. Comfort foods are currently popular with frozen dinner makers.

Bill Hogan

Summer is sizzlin' and few cooks want to turn on the stove.

Frozen foods zapped in the microwave can be an alternative on those nights when grilling outdoors just isn't possible because of rain, no charcoal or no time.

So, what's hot these days in frozen food?

"Comfort food, always popular in a bad economy; Asian, Mexican and Indian for culinary travelers; healthier options like Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice for aging consumers; and pizza for everyone," said Diane Toops, news and trends editor for Food Processing and Wellness Foods magazines.

Interest also is growing in the ethnic "small bites" or appetizers segment, according to David Fikes, director of communications for the American Frozen Food Institute, an industry group.

Items include frozen tortillas, empanadas, egg rolls, wontons and Bagel Bites or Bagel-fuls.

"That category has had a good run the past few years," he said. "It combines two growing trends: increased interest in international foods and a move toward smaller portions."

I decided to take the trend toward frozen ethnic foods as the basis for a tasting of widely available products from the supermarket.

For Italian, I chose that old freezer case standby, lasagna. For Asian, I tasted noodle-based dishes. And for Mexican, Fikes' ethnic-app idea appealed, so I cooked up quesadillas that could serve as a snack or a meal. After lots of zapping in the microwave, here are the results.

Ethnic entrees

For the tasting, I chose products one might find at most national supermarket chains. Prices are what I paid at my local chain supermarket.

What you pay depends on where you live, the store's pricing structure and any specials or loyalty card discounts that affect price. Taste, texture and aroma counted in this tasting.

Italian

Stouffer's Lasagna Italiano

Package weight: 19 1/8 ounces

Portions: 2 1/2 servings

Calories per serving: 260

Price: $3.50

Stouffer's has made its name in frozen food by producing high-quality, delicious takes on classic dishes. This lasagna is a textbook example of microwaveable goodness. Layers of toothsome pasta are sandwiched between a seasoned meat and tomato sauce and plenty of plush ricotta cheese. Love the sauce; great fennel flavor. The dairy tartness of the ricotta plays off the natural sweetness of the tomatoes, while the meat deepens the flavor profile of the whole. All the ingredients are immediately identifiable. Lasagna is not my favorite dish, yet Stouffer's version is so good I easily ate an entire "large size" box, which is supposedly 2 1/2 servings.

Second place: Cedarlane Garden Vegetable Lasagna

Package weight: 10 ounces

Portions: 2 servings

Calories per serving: 180

Price: $4.69

The smell of tomato sauce wafting from the microwave oven was the first clue this lasagna was going to be something. The sauce tastes as good as it smells, the rich tomatoey flavor perking up a chopped spinach filling mixed with cheese and assorted nubbins of mushrooms, zucchini, onions, bell pepper and carrots (I had to read the fine print on the box to figure out all the ingredients.) This package claims to hold 2 servings. Maybe, but I polished it off all by myself in no time.

Third place: Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Lasagna with Meat Sauce

Package weight: 10 1/2 ounces

Portions: 1 serving

Calories per serving: 320

Price: $3.39

The package displays the words "Simple Favorites." This lasagna is simple, perhaps too simple. The meat sauce is nicely seasoned, but the pasta is a bit spongy. The reduced-fat mozzarella adds color and some texture but never contributes any richness to the dish.

Asian noodles

Amy's Asian Noodle Stir-fry

Package weight: 10 ounces

Portions: 1 serving

Calories per serving: 290

Price: $4.99

Amy's is the counterculture goddess of the frozen food aisle. This noodle stir-fry manages to be nondairy, cholesterol free and gluten free, and contains no bioengineered ingredients, preservatives or trans fats. Oh, and it's kosher, too. This dish is good for you on so many levels but still packs the flavor and texture of our most beloved bad-for-you-foods. I love the firmness of the tofu, the slipperiness of the spaghettilike rice noodles and the flavor from broccoli, carrots, peppers and mushrooms tossed in just the right amount of sauce.

Second place: Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers Chicken Pad Thai

Package weight: 10 ounces

Portions: 1 serving

Calories per serving: 270

Price: $4

The "Cafe Steamers" line stands out because of its distinctive bowl-shaped packaging. This meal uses steam from a sauce to help cook the meat, vegetables and starches held above it on a perforated tray. Dump the cooked food into the sauce and stir. This pad Thai smells authentic, with notes of fresh basil, coconut milk and red curry. The bits of chicken actually taste like chicken. The curry sauce is more mild than spicy, but it works. My gripe is the portion size; this dish is good enough to make you want more.

Third place: Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Chicken in Peanut Sauce

Package weight: 9 ounces

Portions: 1 serving

Calories per serving: 290

Price: $3.99

Labeled as "Spa Cuisine," this dish sounds oh-so-healthy with its whole-wheat pasta, edamame beans, snap peas and carrots. But it tastes rather decadent thanks to a dollop of creamy peanut sauce. The edamame almost pop literally; good use of an oft-overlooked legume.

Mexican quesadillas

Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken & Cheese Quesadilla

Package weight: 8 ounces

Portions: 2 servings

Calories per serving: 220

Price: $3.99

It's the cheese, not the chicken, that counts in a quesadilla; you want that gooey richness as contrast to the crisped tortilla. Its good, cheesy quality is why this Smart Ones product scores. The discernible chunks of chicken meat amid the flecks of vegetables and tomato are a plus. The crisper sleeve into which you insert the frozen quesadilla before cooking does its job.

Second place: Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Baja-Style Chicken Quesadilla

Package weight: 5 ounces

Portions: 1 serving

Calories per serving: 280

Price: $3.39

Crazy packaging makes this "Simple Favorites" dish a chore. You have to practically destroy the carton to get at a crisping panel upon which the quesadilla will cook, oozing messy melted cheese all over. And the tortilla doesn't get all that crisp either. I liked the chunky filling with its black beans, corn kernels and chicken strips.

Third place: T.G.I. Friday's Mexican Style Chicken Quesadillas

Package weight: 8 ounces

Portions: 2 servings

Calories per serving: 260

Price: $3.79

A very cheesy product folded into a crispy tortilla (a crisping sleeve is provided for each quesadilla). Too bad the chicken is chopped almost into a paste; the dish sorely needs to be chunkier. Moderate spicing provides a bit of heat.