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Remember those Healthy Choice Lunch Express pasta meals we reviewed a few months ago? We found them in the (unfrozen) microwaveable meal aisle next to the shelf-stable meals made by Dinty Moore, Hormel Compleats (ugh), and Spam (double ugh). Those Healthy Choice pasta meals required that you add water to the dried pasta, microwave, and then add the sauce. When I spotted today's offerings made by Barilla, I assumed that they worked the same way. After checking the numbers on the four varieties available at my local Winn-Dixie, I chose the two nearest to acceptable in terms of the amount of sodium in them and took them to our tasting panel.
Until I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, I used to use a lot of Barilla's pastas. They're a good product, and the whole wheat versions are even better, with great texture and flavor. One reason that we haven't reviewed their pasta sauces, however, is that they're higher in sodium than I'd like: most of their bottled sauces are between 470 and 500 milligrams of sodium per serving. Although we did review pasta sauces that high (or higher) in the past, it's now pretty easy to find pasta sauces under 400 milligrams of sodium and even in the 200 milligram range. Of course, I prefer making my own pasta sauce: it freezes well, so make a bunch, freeze it in single-serving ziplock bags, and making pasta for dinner takes about as long as it takes to cook your pasta. What could be better?
Well, in terms of lunch at work, certainly taking leftovers is best, but if you don't have access to a refrigerator or freezer I'll tell you that Barilla is really on to something. As I mentioned, for the Healthy Choice meals the process is to add water to the dried pasta and microwave it, then add the sauce. The Barilla process doesn't require any added water at all. Simply pull back the plastic cover a bit, microwave for one minute, pour pasta sauce into pasta, stir and eat. The panel was dubious: surely this meant over-dry pasta, or mushy pasta, or something.
Not so. We first tried their Mezze Penne with Tomato & Basil Sauce. After microwaving, the pasta looked and tasted much like.... surprise!... pasta that had been cooked just to al dente and then drained very very well. While the cooked pasta tended to stick together a little, once the sauce was added and the whole stirred you essentially had properly cooked pasta. The sauce is very different than the pasta sauces we've tasted in frozen meals or even in the Healthy Choice shelf-stable meals. While the ingredients list does include sugar, this is by no means a sweet sauce. This is, our panel agreed, a much more tart style of sauce, with a bright tomato flavor with notes of basil and oregano. The numbers are pretty good in that this is a 9-ounce meal with 320 calories and 6 grams of fiber, although the sodium, as I mentioned, is at the high end of our allowable scale at 690 milligrams.
The other acceptable variety available (in terms of sodium content) is essentially the same dish but with more fiber: this is Whole Grain Mezze Penne with Tomato & Basil Sauce. It's the same pasta sauce, but the pasta is so much better, with an amazing 11 grams of fiber from its "51% whole wheat pasta" that has lots more flavor and body than the white pasta. At 310 calories and the same 690 milligrams of sodium, I'd recommend that you seek out the whole grain version of this dish, but both are definitely on the acceptable list.