TV dinners not so easy any more

Ah, for the days when making a TV dinner was as easy as turning on the TV…

(And for that matter, ah, for the days when turning on the TV didn’t involve a half-dozen remotes, proper integration of cable boxes, DVRs and game consoles, and enough knowledge of modern electronics that you could rewire the nation’s missile defense system if you had to in a pinch…).

My earliest memories of cooking and eating a frozen dinner go back to high school. As a break from the monotony of the delicious home-cooked meals prepared with love and care by my dear mother, we’d occasionally toss a Swanson’s TV dinner into the oven for a few hours at 600 degrees for a special treat.

By the time it was ready (and our un-air-conditioned Miami home began to feel like a Seminole sweat lodge) the anticipation was palpable, even if the food was barely palatable. My favorite was the meat loaf dinner. It consisted of a tomato-sauce-drenched triangle of meat-like matter, a whitish plasma purported to be mashed potatoes, and no more than 35 kernels of buttered corn. Simply add a piece of Wonder Bread to sop up the remains from the corners of the metal tray, and you had a complete meal, including your minimum daily requirement of aluminum.

What it lacked in fine dining it more than made up for in convenience. The preparation steps were simple: (1) remove foil tray from box; (2) stick it in the oven; (3) find something typically ’60s-style to pass the time, like marching on Washington to protest the Vietnam War; (4) suffer third-degree burns removing the metal from the oven; and (5) enjoy.

Since those innocent days over 40 years ago, frozen dinner technology has advanced markedly. The variety and quality of food is vastly improved. Preparation time has been slashed to mere minutes. Cooking instructions on the package are now printed in both English and Spanish, for our Hispanic friends who wouldn’t otherwise know what a “panini” is.

The only advancement left is to have the food pre-chewed for you, which I understand the Swanson’s people are working on.

Having grown tired of the bland turkey-on-wheat sandwich I’ve taken for lunch for several decades, my wife recently suggested I consider bringing frozen foods. There’s now an entire aisle in the grocery store devoted to such meals. The variety can be overwhelming, so I made my request simple: It has to be so easy that a monkey could do it.

Beth brought home an inviting sack full of Stouffer’s dinners. She’d done a good job of reviewing the cooking instructions so my role would be minimal. The most that any of them required was piercing a few holes in the plastic film to vent the food so that meltdowns could be averted.

Within several weeks I had explored all the subtleties that Swedish meatballs had to offer, and was ready for something different. This time, I went to the grocery store myself. I operated under the assumption that none of the offerings could be that hard to prepare, and let myself get a little carried away.

The first dish I tried was the “New! Lean Pockets Pretzel Bread sandwich.” The roasted turkey with bacon and cheese offering looked delicious on the package, and my mouth watered with anticipation as I stood before the microwave at work and read through the directions.

Step one required that I unwrap the product and insert it into the “unfolded crisping sleeve.” Two questions immediately came to mind: How do you insert something into a flat unfolded sheath? And what the hell is a “crisping sleeve”? Also, if I can’t figure out how to get the sandwich into the crisping sleeve, would my shirt sleeve work just as well?

Once I got past this obstacle, I noticed that cooking times varied depending on the type of microwave oven used. For those with 1100 watts of power, one sandwich took 2 minutes and 15 seconds, while “lower wattage/compact microwaves” would require a minute longer. The small desktop appliance at work seemed pretty compact, but I had nothing to compare it to. It definitely wasn’t the room-sized monster I imagined an 1100-watt machine would be. I split the difference and zapped it for 2:45.

The next bit of doubt came along after the cooking and two minutes of cooling time were done. The crisping sleeve was apparently meant to double as a plate substitute. “Fold and lock bottom flaps of the sleeve, peel away top tab as you eat,” read the package.

“Crisp and carry!” said larger type on the sleeve itself. “Find us on FACEBOOK at facebook.com/leanpockets.”

So I was going to have to make a fool of myself on the world’s largest social network? All my friends were going to see that I couldn’t comprehend the origami required to enjoy a simple lunch? I don’t think so.

I slid the sandwich out of the sleeve, impaled it on a fork, and ate it like a popsicle. Despite this blatant disregard of protocol, it was pretty good.

Now I had the confidence to proceed toward even more difficult preparation methods. I tried the Lean Pockets Seasoned Crust Grilled Chicken Mediterranean stuffed sandwich. It too had a crisping sleeve (or “cajetilla de cocinar”), though it was a much bigger version that I wasn’t required to eat out of.

The real test came with the Lean Cuisine Chicken, Spinach and Mushroom panini. This meal not only used a “REVOLUTIONARY GRILLING® Tray,” something that sounded like it came right out of Col. Qaddafi’s attempts to quell his nation’s Arab Spring revolts. It also demanded that you mold the carton itself into a “platform, then align panini halves, edge to edge, along the vertical indent in the ‘REVOLUTIONARY GRILLING® Tray'”. After two minutes and 45 seconds, not counting a consult with professors at MIT’s school of engineering, the sandwich would be ready.

Somehow, I managed to fake my way through it. I scraped the exploded remnants of the lunch from the corners of the microwave, heaped them onto a paper plate and, as instructed, I enjoyed.

Monkeys would be proud of me.

A savory delight (once you figure how to cook it)

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2 Responses to “TV dinners not so easy any more”

  1. Paul Dixon Says:

    Davis, I see that your culinary skills have barely progressed since the days of Ragu sauce and fried baloney. (Bologna, if you prefer…)

    As one who has microwaved his way through his eating life, please allow me to offer some helpful hints:

    (ahem…)

    Instead of being such a literary guy and READING the instructions, try looking at it from the perspective of the item being cooked. In other words, if YOU were a Lean Pockets Pretzel Bread sandwich, what would be the best method in which to cook yourself? Why, you’d want to leap up on the nearest little platform and just DRINK IN those pulsating microwaves. Suddenly, the task before us becomes clear.

    It’s just like the Drinkwell Platinum Re-Circulating Pet Fountain, with which I know you are familiar. The instructions on how to take that sucker apart for cleaning and put it back together are intimidating enough, but the accompanying photographs make it absolutely terrifying. Once I thought of assembly from the point of view of the fountain, though, it practically assembles itself. That last part is a lie, you realize.

    The other bit of advice I’d like to mention on the question of appropriate microwave times is that, after the company’s testing kitchen has painstakingly arrived at the exact length of time required to best present their product, the corporate lawyers will routinely tell their marketing division to add 30-60 seconds of heating time onto that figure so as to avoid lawsuits from undercooked food. If you’re careful, you can save lots of time and electricity.

  2. rjs47 Says:

    No, the really sad aspect of Lean Pockets Pretzel Bread Sandwiches is that you cannot cook them in a conventional oven or toaster oven. Microwave cooking is not all it’s cracked up to be. Nestle, which owns Lean Pockets, is wasting our time by not making that clear on the package. Ignoring all the crap that was inside the sandis, I did grab a couple of frozen boxes in a grab-n-go, only to find that I couldn’t use them. I only cook with heat, not molecular vibration.

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