When I found out about Whole Foods' new frozen foods, I looked over the dozens-long list and decided to try the four Whole Foods Market Asian Skillet Meals: Sweet and Sour Chicken, Orange Chicken, General Tso's Chicken, and Beef and Broccoli ($4.99 each).
Each Asian Skillet Meal encourages us to "Put away your passport! While we know you don't have to travel to the Far East to enjoy this popular stir-fried combination, with this favorite fusion on-hand, you won't even need your car keys," which doesn't work. If you can't commit to the passport conceit, then you've got to scrap the whole idea and start over. This likely started off with "Put away your passport, because Whole Foods has eliminated the need for General Tso's-based international travel!" but then someone pointed out that you don't use a passport to eat General Tso's; you just go to the Chinese takeout place. So the first guy said, "Ohhh, right. Well, how about we put away the car keys too?" and the other guy wasn't paying enough attention to shout, "DELIVERY. START OVER."
Whole Foods could have positioned these as a healthier alternative to takeout—each 16-ounce pouch contains an alleged 3 servings at an average of about 150 calories and 5-7 grams each of fat, protein, and sugar, with varied but less-than-you'd think amounts of sodium and cholesterol. However, the only way to get two (let alone three) normal human meals out of these is to slide some rice underneath, which you might as well do since you're already messing with the stovetop due to the other marketing angle, the skillet preparation method.
Skillets are for cooking, not for reheating. This seems designed to make guilty "cooks" feel like they're actually "cooking," a la boxed cake mixes engineered to call for a single egg. But I'm not in charge here, I just do what I'm told, so I skilleted each of these babies for the prescribed 7-9 minutes over medium heat.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Battered chicken reheated in sauce on the stovetop can't help but be soggy, but it does taste pretty good. The pepper and onion chunks are sweet, and the pepper retains some slight snap. The pineapple looks and tastes a little bit like underripe mango, but the texture holds up surprisingly well. The bright-red bits of tomato are mostly skin that add nothing but color. The sauce leans quite decidedly to the sweet, but it's an honest fruit-based sweetness.
This time the same battered chicken is joined by thin-sliced carrots, water chestnuts, edamame, and a spicy, tangy orange sauce. Carrots are often tossed into frozen dinners simply for show, but here they retain admirable texture and flavor. The edamame is flavorless but snappy; the water chestnuts are a fully crunchy delight. This is more successful than the Sweet and Sour Chicken thanks to the stronger vegetables and more pungent sauce.
General Tso's Chicken
That chicken's back again, this time with a cornstarchy liquid that's heavy on the soy sauce and ginger, with lesser doses of garlic and oyster sauce. The dish worked well because the broccoli held up much better than I expected. It was a little squishy up top but the stalks were firm.
Beef and Broccoli
The well balanced oyster, garlic, and ginger sauce was my favorite of the bunch. The sweet and tender beef is very good, and thicker than I'm accustomed to from takeout. The broccoli here wasn't as good as in the General Tso's—maybe I let it get trapped on the bottom of the pan for too long—but it still showed more spine than most frozen broccoli.
If you don't want to clear customs, burn gas, or tip the delivery guy—and you don't mind standing at the stovetop for frozen food—Whole Foods Markets Asian Skillet Meals are a fine option. Comparisons will vary based on how good your local takeout place is, but these are just as good as most of the stuff that comes to my door.
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