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Dr. Gourmet's Food Reviews

Lean Cuisine

Limited Edition: Sweet & Spicy Harissa Meatballs and Moroccan-Style Spiced Beef



Sweet & Spicy Harissa Meatballs from Lean Cuisine reviewed by the Dr. Gourmet tasting panel

One of the featured recipes this week was a Moroccan Grilled Chicken, using harissa sauce, tomato paste, and spices as a barbecue sauce. I swear we did not choose the review items for today as part of some Moroccan theme.

In fact, my wife ran across these at our local Walmart: these are two "limited edition" items from Lean Cuisine. Back in May of this year we reviewed two other limited edition items - Mango Chicken with Coconut Rice and Roasted Garlic White Bean Alfredo - which received a split decision: the Mango Chicken was judged not worth repeating, while the Roasted Garlic White Bean Alfredo was one of those dishes we thought was good enough to actually stock up on against their discontinuance. (Those who have followed Dr. Gourmet for a while will know how unusual that is.)

With such strong flavors in Moroccan food in general and harissa sauce in particular, we had high hopes for today's meals. We started our tasting session with the Sweet & Spicy Harissa Meatballs (270 calories, 540mg sodium, 4g fiber).

Unfortunately, they were disappointing. As I mentioned in the Moroccan Grilled Chicken Recipe, harissa sauce can vary in its level of spiciness. Perhaps Lean Cuisine chose a different type of harissa than we did, because while our Grilled Chicken recipe leaned more toward the spicy side of things, the sauce in this dish is firmly on the side of sweet.

The dish is colorful, with bits of green spinach and julienned yellow peppers and carrots contrasting nicely with the white rice. The meatball sauce is an intense reddish orange and the meatballs themselves the usual brownish-grey. Yet despite the 540 milligrams of sodium, the rice and vegetable portion of the dish is disturbingly bland, and worse yet, has almost no texture but that of mushy, overcooked rice. You'd expect to have some bitterness from the spinach and sweetness from the yellow bell peppers, but there is none.

The meatballs (all five of them) are a little smaller than a quarter and have "the texture of play-dough" (according to one panelist). They are perfectly smooth in texture and have a faint pork flavor, but are otherwise unremarkable. The sauce they are in, however, is far more tomato-sauce-with-brown-sugar flavored than harissa-flavored, although the panel admitted that there was a bit of spice that lingered on the tongue.

We wouldn't bother going looking for this one.

Moroccan-Style Spiced Beef from Lean Cuisine reviewed by the Dr. Gourmet tasting panel

The Moroccan-Style Spiced Beef (310 calories, 650mg sodium, 5g fiber) is another dish that on paper should be good: it's described as "tender beef with a sweet & spicy Moroccan-style sauce with couscous, sweet potatoes, chickpeas & raisins."

Once again, the reality is at least somewhat disappointing. The good news is that the beef is "pretty darn good:" it's tender, with a full, beefy flavor - not dry or stringy as so much beef in frozen meals can be. It's let down by the side dish, however.

For those who might not be aware, couscous is essentially pasta: it's basically wheat flour and water that in the case of couscous is rolled into balls. (Larger balls, like those in today's meal, are known as Israeli couscous.) Like pasta, properly cooked couscous won't be mushy - it's cooked "al dente" so it has some texture when you bite into it ("like biting into fish roe," put in a panelist). The couscous in this dish, however, is woefully overcooked: "it might look like pearls, but it's mush." The chunks of sweet potatoes are worse, if that's possible ("also mush"), and the only texture in the side dish - and it's slight - is the chickpeas, "which at least you know are there."

Like the meatballs, this dish is more sweet than spicy. The bad news, however, is that Lean Cuisine chose to use potassium chloride in this as a salt substitute, which gives it a bit of a metallic aftertaste. Overall, while today's dishes aren't bad, they're just not really good - and there are too many better choices out there that are better. Or just make your own Moroccan Grilled Chicken.

Read all reviews of Lean Cuisine products »

Reviewed: August 31, 2018