There’s a lot to be said for ready-made frozen meals, even for the avid cook and fresh food fanatic. Having a plan B safely squirreled away, just in case of a dinner emergency, can make the difference between choking down impossibly tough seitan burgers or enjoying something a bit more edible. Well aware of a certain bias against most prepared foods, I will go on the record to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the classic tv dinner every now and then; it’s the ingredients and the over-processing where these easy options frequently go wrong. Homemade frozen meals of leftovers are fantastic, and the only difference is that you’re still the one doing the legwork to put that food on the table. For the overworked mom, student, busy professional, or anyone who doesn’t spend all of their waking hours in the kitchen, a warm, relatively healthy meal that can be on the table in five minutes or less can be downright miraculous. The key is choosing the right brands to pledge your dinner allegiance to.
New on my radar but hardly newcomers to the freezer aisle, Vegetarian Plus has been cranking out the meatless frozen meals for years now, providing vegan options directly to consumers and to larger institutions that wish to feed them. Featuring easily accessible flavors for even the pickiest palates, while still covering a whole world of exotic cuisines, they’re excellent for serving to a crowd with varied tastes.
Plate provided by Steelite
Take for example, their latest offerings of Indian-inspired entrees. Vegan Chicken Tikka Masala, looking for all the world like curried poultry, rather than its actual soybean fiber and wheat protein construction. Redolent of warm spices and a certain savory scent, the flavor is shockingly on par with some of the better takeout I’ve had. Initially sweet but switching over to spicy in seconds, the spice profile is impressively well-balanced, and on the spicier side for a mainstream meal. Nothing to burn a hole through your tongue, for sure, but lively in flavor and fairly true to its title. I would absolutely purchase this again in the future, and anyone who appreciates Indian food should take a chance on it too.
Defrosting a package of Vegan Lamb Vindaloo on another hungry and somewhat desperate evening, I had no clue what to expect. I’ve never eaten lamb, so I can’t say with any authority how authentic those protein chunks were, but I can tell you that the texture seemed chewier, perhaps gamier as far as imitation meat goes, and more similar to seitan than the previous offering. Somehow the flavor struck me as less rich, and a bit lacking in body compared to the first amazing meal, but rest assured, I had no problem cleaning my plate. Unarguably spicier, those craving a meaty meal with some bite to it would no doubt enjoy this.
Craving greasy but oh so good Chinese takeout? Vegetarian Plus has got you covered there, too. Their Vegan Kung Pao Chicken tastes as though it could have just as easily come from a cardboard carry-out box as your own freezer. Not just an homage to the idea of kung pao, this version goes the whole nine yards; coated in the same shiny, vaguely sticky, semi-sweet and generously salted sauce, it coats the palate richly, perfectly scratching that itch for something a bit indulgent. As “authentic” as American Chinese food goes, this is exactly what I remember chowing down on as a picky omnivore ages ago. Accented by a decent kick of heat, it manages to avoid descending down the sad path of bland Americanized ethnic food, so it may even have a leg up on the competition.
I must admit that what I was most intrigued by, however, was not the offering of a completely ready made and defrostable dinner, but the possibilities presented by their Vegan Shrimp. Packaged with a sweet chili sauce that I didn’t particularly enjoy, the “shrimp” needed only a bit of love to become something even better. Genuinely fishy, they both looked and smelled the part. Sure, the mere concept may sound dubious at best, but they don’t deserve the harsh judgement they’ve so often received. Bouncy between the teeth and relatively bland unadorned, the flavor strikes me as being very similar to the somewhat controversial shirataki noodles. Either you love them or you hate them, so the same could probably be said for these “shrimp.”
Plate provided by Steelite
Lightly pan-fried in a generous dose of garlic I dressed up my imitation crustaceans as a riff on shrimp and grits. Rather than making grits from dried cornmeal, my version is more like a cross between polenta and creamed corn, utilizing fresh, coarsely pureed corn for a brighter, lighter flavor. You certainly don’t need fake shrimp to enjoy it though; a bit of crispy tofu on top would be just as good, if slightly less convenient for the harried cook.
Fresh Corn Grits
1 Tablespoon Non-Dairy Margarine, or Coconut Oil
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Large Shallot or 1/2 Small Yellow Onion
1 Teaspoon Light Agave Nectar
3 Cups Fresh or Frozen Sweet Corn, Thawed
3/4 – 1 Cup Unsweetened, Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
Salt + Pepper
Melt your margarine or coconut oil in a saute pan over medium heat, and swirl in the olive oil. Add the shallot and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until softened. Incorporate the agave and continue to saute for 10 – 15 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Toss in the corn next, and allow about 5 – 10 more minutes on the flame to soften the corn and enhance its sweeter flavors.
Transfer everything into your blender or food processor, along with 3/4 cup of the non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast, and plus lightly until the mixture is creamy, but still has a good bit of texture to it. Drizzle in more non-dairy milk if needed, to reach your desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.
If preparing the “grits” in advance, add more non-dairy milk when reheating, because it thickens significantly as it sits.
Serves 3 – 4 as a Side Dish