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Today we return from our recent forays into what one might call "ethnic flavors" (last week's Korean-Style Sweet Chili Chicken and Thai Mango Chicken), and before that a rather bizarre delivery service (SunBasket). Today we're solidly in what one panelist called "American familiar" territory with the flavors of peppercorn beef and chicken and pasta with pesto.
First up was the Grilled Peppercorn Beef & Vegetables. How many times have I said that a dish would have more fiber if they used brown rice instead of white rice? I don't even want to guess (we've reviewed over 1,000 different items), but this dish comes with brown rice and 4 grams of fiber along with 260 calories and 620 milligrams of sodium (a little high, certainly).
Every time we review this brand I shake my head over the claims on the back of the box: "Made with real ingredients you can pronounce," it says. "Made like YOU make it," it says. First, I would argue that "seasoned cooked grilled sirloin beef steak strips and corn starch product" (this was directly transcribed from the ingredient list on the box) might not fall under their "real ingredients" rubric even if the terms are easily pronounceable. I don't go to the store and buy "beef steak strips and corn starch product," I buy beef. And second, I'm obviously not cooking my food in a factory (I'm pretty sure I've said that before but it's worth repeating).
Quibbles with the wording on the package aside, this is a "pretty nice" meal: there are big pieces of onion and red bell pepper to go with the rounds of sliced zucchini, and the dish mostly smells of the cooked vegetables, though there's a hint of black pepper. The black pepper - and there's enough of it that it rates listing it as a specific ingredient as opposed to "spices," - really comes through once you take a bite. A hint of cayenne leaves a spicy aftertaste, but it's not strong: "just has a bit of a zing," described a panelist.
The ingredients themselves are about as good as we hoped, given that our expectations for frozen food are pretty low: the beef is not dry and has good, savory beef flavor enhanced by the pepper. The onions and zucchini are flavorful and crunchy while the diced red bell pepper is pretty soft in texture and in flavor gets rather lost. The brown rice has the texture of, well, reheated brown rice, having distinct grains and that extra chewiness that's characteristic of reheated rice.
Overall the panel felt this was "a good, straightforward meal," that would definitely appeal to those whose tastes are more along the meat-and-potatoes line but are looking for a somewhat healthier alternative to a French Dip.
We had higher hopes for the Pesto Chicken & Orzo dish, as a little pesto - if it's good pesto - can go a long way toward providing a lot of flavor for comparatively little fat and sodium. This meal has significantly more calories than the other, at 350, with 620 milligrams of sodium and an impressive 6 grams of fiber.
Speaking of impressive, if I was impressed with brown rice I'm even more impressed with the use of whole wheat orzo pasta, which is in this case came out al dente. I haven't had any luck finding whole wheat orzo in regular grocery stores, and I do look any time I'm in a grocery store, whether it's at home in New Orleans or wherever I'm traveling. I've never seen gluten-free orzo pasta on a market shelf. (If you know of a source for gluten-free orzo pasta, please put it in the comments.)
Our first look at the meal, however, when stirring the dish just before its second 2 minutes in the microwave, is a little underwhelming: you first notice the four large chunks of chicken and then the dollop of almost-still-frozen whitish-green pesto in the middle of the dish.
There's just not that much volume in this dish: we counted 5 bits of sliced zucchini of varying sizes, with only 2 small florets of broccoli and a couple of bits of broccoli stem. Both the broccoli and the zucchini have great texture, but there's just not enough of them to not feel short-changed. More vegetables wouldn't have added that many calories, but they would have added a lot more volume, and that's what this dish is missing: I'd estimate that there's perhaps an ounce of cooked orzo, then with the addition of only a few vegetables and the four chunks of chicken, the average person is likely to feel fully justified in going for a snack afterwards since their lunch was so small. Yes, the basil flavor turns out to be pretty good, but overall the meal is not going to be satisfying. We can't give it a thumbs up.
Reviewed: October 27, 2017