Frozen dinners have come a long way since Swanson’s—such a long way that they now include lobster mac ’n’ cheese from the famed French Laundry in Napa Valley and braised beef short ribs from Daniel in Manhattan.
Cuisine Solutions—the Alexandria frozen-food company that specializes in the sous vide technique of slow-cooking food in a vacuum-sealed pouch submerged in water—offers, under its FiveLeaf brand, a line of frozen gourmet dinners created in collaboration with top chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud. The meals are fully cooked and bagged in plastic; instead of putting them in the microwave, you drop them into hot water to heat.
The lamb top sirloin with apricot sauce ($15 for a box of two), created by Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, was perfectly cooked after 25 minutes in a pot of water—so tangy and delicious that we’d serve it at a dinner party (with guests banned from the kitchen). Boulud’s braised beef short ribs with red-wine sauce ($17.99 for a box of two) and chef Mark Miller’s barbecue pork ribs with tamarind sauce ($17.90 for about two servings, although the box claims between three and four) were equally impressive.
Cuisine Solutions also has a line of meals from Washington chefs, including Michel Richard (Chesapeake striped bass with mushrooms) and José Andrés (chicken sofrito with dried fruits, nuts, and apple), as a fundraiser for DC Central Kitchen through the December holidays.
The standard frozen dinners by Cuisine Solutions—with no chef’s name attached—are a cut above typical frozen fare. Lamb shanks in rosemary-mint sauce ($19.99 for four) were fall-off-the-bone tender, and salmon Wellington ($11.99 for two) was rich with fresh-tasting spinach and Parmesan. The catch is that like many frozen dinners, Cuisine Solutions meals tend to be high in sodium and fat.
FiveLeaf and Cuisine Solutions frozen dinners are available at Paul’s Wine & Liquors (5205 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-537-1900), and the FiveLeaf line can be ordered at fiveleaf.com. Cuisine Solutions meals made in collaboration with local chefs will be available around the holidays at Chevy Chase Supermarket (8531 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-656-5133) and MOM’s/My Organic Market (11711-B Parklawn Dr., Rockville, 301-816-4944; 9827 Rhode Island Ave., College Park, 301-220-1100; 3831 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-535-5980).
Meal-assembly shops are another source of gourmet-quality frozen dinners. They traditionally let customers put together the already-prepped ingredients for a family-size meal, which is then cooked at home. Many now also offer grab-and-go takeout dinners. Thyme Out (504 Main St., Gaithersburg, 301-990-6440; 11401 Woodglen Dr., Rockville, 240-221-2777) has a full case of ready-made dinners—both frozen and refrigerated; the menu changes every six weeks or so. Favorites include the sweet and spicy “campfire salmon” ($16 for two to three servings), hearty, tomatoey chicken cacciatore ($13), and tilapia with pesto ($14). You also can pick up everything from a side of sweet-potato fries ($6) to fabulous chocolate-chip/toffee-crunch cookie dough ($5 or $10).
Dinner Zen (11160 E. South Lakes Dr., Reston; 703-391-9361) serves a similarly changing menu of interesting Zen to Go meals. We’ve liked the pork tenderloin with spicy guava sauce, chicken enchiladas, and honey-mustard meatloaf (all $13.50 for three servings, $26 for six).
This article appeared in the November, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.