Everyone has desperation meals. You know, those old standbys you eat when there's nothing in the fridge, you're tired, time-strapped, and possibly broke, and you're way too hungry to go to the grocery store and hunt for ingredients. (Besides, everyone knows it's dangerous to shop on an empty stomach.)
For a lot of busy people, desperation happens every night. I've been asking around, and these meals can be anything from omelets or cheese and crackers to PB&J or Special K. And, of course, there's always fast food or takeout if you're headed home to a really bare cupboard.
It's no wonder, then, that assemble-your-own-meal places like Dream Dinners, Super Suppers, and My Girlfriend's Kitchen are all the rage. On the recommendation of a friend, I visited one called Entrees Made Easy, a Mesa-based company with national franchises, four Valley locations, and more stores on the way. I also talked to acquaintances who thought it was fun and convenient. While they adored the concept saying they loved knowing that dinner was in the freezer, a dinner more complicated than they'd ever venture to make I was more skeptical.
For one thing, it's a full-on fad. I counted 30 such businesses that've sprung up (or are about to) around the Valley. In the same way that the Atkins diet appealed to people who wanted to lose weight quickly, these meals appeal to stressed-out people who want to save time and money. In other words, just about anyone. But after folks satisfy their curiosity and the trend peaks, how many of these places will be in business?
The idea behind it is that someone else will do the planning, shopping, prep work and cleanup, while you put together a dozen different meals in just an hour or two. Hardly any thought is required. The staffers post recipes at each assembly station, lay out all the ingredients in the order you need them, and even include the appropriate measuring cup for each portion. You just mix and package the meals you've ordered ahead of time. (Monthly menu selections are posted online.) Take 'em home, throw 'em in the freezer, and they're ready whenever you are.
Well, not quite. I took the promises literally, as if the meals were a fancier version of TV dinners. That's only sort of true.
The first night I wanted to make one of the entrees, I had plans to check out some art galleries on Roosevelt Street. By the time I got home from the office, feeling low-blood-sugar grumpy, I was anxious to get dinner ready. I grabbed a pan of basil Florentine shells, took one look at the cooking instructions, and shouted an obscenity. What? The thing needed to be thawed first in the fridge, which takes a day. It was solid as a rock, and so were all the other entrees I brought home. Dammit, I wanted food! I threw it in the fridge, along with another entree for good measure, and headed out to a restaurant.
I was excited the next day, when I baked the pan of pasta for lunch. It filled the house with a wonderful marinara and pesto aroma, and it tasted as good as it smelled. At that point, I completely appreciated why people are enthusiastic about this do-it-yourself stuff.
Later on, I got back home from a long day of running errands and decided to take a quick power nap before company was coming over. It was comforting to know that I could cook up my now-thawed bag of tangy honey-glazed chicken and still probably have time to do a little housecleaning.
Surprise! I read beyond the first couple sentences of instructions and found out that the chicken thighs had to be marinated first, for 30 minutes. Even a quick grilling on my George Foreman wasn't going to give me enough time to pull off dinner in less than an hour. And considering the disheveled state of my living room (not to mention my appearance), going out wasn't an option this time.
I resorted to frozen pizza.
After that, I threw a whole stack of frozen entrees in the fridge to thaw so I could be more spontaneous. Over the next few days, I ate a variety. The shepherd's pie was a pan full of ground beef, corn, green beans, and tomato sauce, with a layer of mashed potatoes and Cheddar on top. It tasted fine in a basic way, but it didn't look very appetizing when I heaped a watery spoonful onto a plate. Note to self: Eat by candlelight.
Molten lava cakes were great it's hard to criticize warm, chocolaty desserts and I thought the hoisin and honey pork chops turned out nicely. Those were already packaged in their own marinade, which also contained soy sauce, chives, and grated ginger. Baked and then broiled in less than 30 minutes, they were surprisingly moist.
As for the Mykonos chicken pockets, I only ate them for the sake of this column. Stuffed with feta and slivers of sun-dried tomato, the chicken breasts were individually foil-wrapped with a few artichokes and a sprinkle of fresh oregano. They sounded good when I ordered them, but the final dish was dry, in desperate need of some olive oil.
To be fair, I stuck to the instructions when I really could've improvised. That's how I usually cook. A lot of these dishes could be tweaked once you get home with a dash of your favorite seasoning, a sprinkle of cheese, or even just some butter. Many of the entrees come with side dishes that you might already have on hand, like white rice, plain mixed vegetables, or instant mashed potatoes, and those require customization, too. (I'd skip the instant mashed potatoes altogether, though.)
I admit, my visit to Entrees Made Easy was entertaining the employees were friendly, the place was clean and pleasant, and the no-brainer assembly process was a novelty. I felt pretty accomplished when I loaded up my cooler with 12 dinners. Yes, it was convenient, and the ingredients were fresh. But was it a good value? That depends. I don't think it'd be any less convenient to grab a bottle of marinade and a package of chicken thighs at Safeway. It would probably be cheaper. And I wouldn't go out of my way to pre-assemble a meal of spaghetti and meatballs when that's one of the world's easiest meals to cook. Still, a number of the entrees were more complex than what any tired, hungry person would bother to make from scratch. If this sounds like your kind of dining trend, just choose wisely when you place your order.
Otherwise, you're better off with frozen pizza.
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