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At last count we have reviewed over 70 varieties of frozen meals from Lean Cuisine. So I was nonplussed when I looked in the freezer case at my local grocery and thought that we had not, in fact, reviewed their Angel Hair Pomodoro and Spaghetti with Meatballs. Such staples of the American kitchen, and we hadn't reviewed them? I called my wife, the webmaster of DrGourmet.com, and asked her to double check.
As I suspected, we had indeed reviewed their Spaghetti with Meatballs back in 2008 (really? Five years ago?) and gave it a thumbs down. That said, in the last five years Lean Cuisine has really upped their game, so it seemed fair to revisit it, as we've done with other frozen meals. (If there's a meal you like that's gotten a poor review from us, let us know. If it's been a while since we tested it, we may try it again. Send my wife an email at email@example.com.)
The tasting panel voted to try the Angel Hair Pomodoro first, arguing that if Lean Cuisine was using the same pasta sauce for both meals (not unlikely), they might as well taste the plainer version first. Fair enough. The first thing I noticed is that this is not what I would call angel hair pasta - it's more like spaghetti in its diameter than angel hair. That's the chef in me, I suppose. The panel noted that this appears to be a fairly generous portion, even at only 220 calories. There's a fair amount of sweetish-scented sauce that includes specks of basil and oregano and chunks of tomatoes along with a light dusting of cheese.
The good news is that although it might smell a bit sweet, this is actually a fairly well-balanced tomato sauce, with a true, bright tomato flavor. The sweetness is balanced with the acidity of the tomatoes and the basil and oregano add depth and spice. I've actually had worse pasta sauces in restaurants. The bad, if not unexpected, news is that the pasta is overcooked so that it breaks up a little as it is stirred into the sauce. The panel insisted that this was not enough of a drawback to give it a thumbs down, however, with the pluses of the generous portion and good sauce outweighing the pasta's shortcomings. With 220 calories, an almost reasonable (for a frozen meal) amount of sodium at 550 milligrams, and a surprising 4 grams of fiber, this proved more than acceptable and would make a good, satisfying dinner with a side salad.
As I mentioned, the panel expected that the sauce for the Spaghetti with Meat Sauce would mirror the Pomodoro. We're glad to be wrong: this also has a good tomato flavor but is not as sweet, having a distinctly meaty flavor. In our last review there wasn't quite enough sauce, but it seems that Lean Cuisine has corrected this - there's a good balance between pasta and sauce here. This does, however, have the same problem with the pasta that the Pomodoro (and so many other frozen pasta meals) did: it's overcooked and tends to break up.
The meatballs are the biggest change. When you cut these in half you can see that they have a fairly smooth, processed texture, but they look like they're all meat (even though the ingredients list states otherwise). They have the light grey color of a veal or pork meatball and a strong Italian sausage-like flavor with a definite note of fennel. They're about the size of a cherry tomato, but they have a truly meaty "bite." This is a little higher in calories than the Pomodoro at 270, with 580 milligrams of sodium and only 3 grams of fiber, but again, the panel held that the meatballs and sauce far outweighed the texture of the pasta, giving Lean Cuisine two thumbs up for today.
With that turnaround for their Spaghetti with Meatballs, what else has Lean Cuisine improved? We'll look through the Dr. Gourmet's Food Reviews archives and see what we can find out.