Veggie Tales: How the Pret-a-Manger Options Stack Up
The onion knows its place in Arora Creations' Vegetable Korma. Photo by Victoria Bekiempis
Like their meaty relatives, vegetarian-friendly TV dinners and pre-made meals can be as tasteless as they are convenient. Often overloaded with salt and sameness, many are too mushy (and mysterious) to enjoy. Still, there are some selections that should satisfy even the pickiest veg palates. Here's a critical look at a few that you'll find at chain supermarkets, gourmet delis, and gentrified bodegas throughout NYC.
Tandoor Chef's Samosas
These frozen potato-and-pea pastries are pleasant, but by no means great. Yeah, they have a minimal kick, and the crust is flaky and crisp without being greasy. And they're filling. Still, they aren't as distinctly Indian as the subcontinent's specialty should be; they're more mildly hot and salty than spice-rich. They could have been marketed as curry-esque empanadas, and it would be an equally accurate assessment of their flavor. The mint chutney, which comes with the samosas, doesn't help their cause. Think over-sour cilantro paste.
One Stop Natural's Dumplings
Dumplings are based on an easy principle: Stuff that's good on noodles is usually good inside them. When it comes to flavor, One Stop's varieties aren't that different from one another, but they're all meal-worthy. Vinegar and black pepper give the cabbage-and-carrot filling more oomph than you usually get with similar snacks. Also, the pasta dough is surprisingly al dente for a cold-case selection. One thing: Try to eat the dumplings the day you buy them. If they sit too long, the shell becomes chewy.
Ethnic Gourmet's Pad Thai With Tofu
The frozen, meat-free version of this Southeast Asian staple is a satisfying plate. Though pad thai is normally a bit sugary, this dish has more of a sweet-and-sour-sauce vibe. The dish could have used more peanut chunks and green onions. While the tofu cubes aren't flavorless, they're a bit soggy. Overall, it feels more like Asian-motif noodles in sauce than its stir-fried namesake. On the upside, it doesn't have that sometimes-overbearing huskiness of fish sauce, a basic ingredient of the carnivorous variety.
Cedarlane's Enchilada Pie
It's hard to imagine that this Mexican entry came out of a micro. This bold casserole serves as a solid meal. The tomato sauce is rich and chunky, the cheese sharp yet creamy. The black-bean filling is seasoned lightly, but retains the legumes' characteristic earthiness. Also, the corn tortillas -- which make up the layers -- taste like they're toasted or grilled. That, along with a few black olive slices, gives the pie a distinct smokiness. It definitely doesn't have that generic frozen-food-meets-Tex-Mex effect.
A drift toward the sweet-and-sour: Ethnic Gourmet's Pad Thai With Tofu. Photo by Victoria Bekiempis
Tabatchnick's Vegetarian Chili
Something just misses the mark with this bean soup. Perhaps it's because the tomatoes -- and flecks of what appear to be fake meat -- aren't a strong enough base. You feel like you're eating mouthfuls of saucy kidney beans, not a unified stew. Is it hearty, something you would eat on a cold day? Sure. Protein-packed? You bet. To call it a staple of a busy vegetarian's fridge, however, is a tough sell when there are jazzier alternatives. There is one plus, though: Each box contains two pouches of soup.
Commensal's Butternut Squash Soup
What works well here is the smooth texture of the puree. Still, the squash isn't particularly flavorful. It gives off a mild, gourdy taste. Yeah, butternut squash soup isn't usually intense anywhere, but Commensal's comes off as bland. The best part is probably the cool, reusable container the soup comes in.
Arora Creations' Vegetable Korma
Even in onion sauces, there's a risk of being heavy-handed with the bulb. In this vegetable korma, however, cream and tomatoes soften the pungency. The result: a robust sauce that pairs well with a broccoli, cauliflower, and green-pea-laden veggie medley. Saffron rice comes with the korma and is fluffy, not starchy or hard like many refrigerated, pre-made grains.
Celantano's Vegetarian Eggplant Rollettes
This entree is heavy on the breading and light on nuance. There's far too much tomato sauce. Flavor-wise, it's more like a thick, canned tomato paste, so it masks the rest of the dish. Also, the rollettes don't microwave well -- the edges of the eggplant tubes are crusty and tough. You wind up having to gnaw them because the edges won't tear. The tofu filling is moist and light, accented with bits of broccoli and spinach. Unfortunately, you can't enjoy the tofu much because the offering is so tomato-heavy. Think cheap eggplant parm without the cheese.
Veggie Patch's Spinach and Chick'n Nuggets
Both of these fried-tasting, veg finger foods are fun and convenient. The faux chicken's texture is convincingly meaty. The spinach filling isn't quite leafy-green-tasting, but it's earthy and hearty. The main flaw with these nuggets is the breading. It tastes a bit stale, almost freezer-burnt, though the selection is actually refrigerated.
Whole Foods' Channa Masala
This chickpea plate is thick with cumin and diced, sweet onion. While there's nothing wrong with the flavor, the texture is iffy. Sure, stewed veggies and legumes can get mushy. But it wouldn't hurt for the garbanzos to be a bit more defined.
Garden Lites' Cauliflower Soufflé
Surprisingly, this frozen soufflé is enjoyable -- fluffy, moist, and light. The cauliflower is sweet, and the carrot shreds break up the softness. The outside does stiffen after you pop the soufflé out of the micro, so if you're not careful, the top and edges peel off with a single jab of the fork.
Trader Joe's Chile Relleno
When you pluck it out of the micro, this take on a Mexican favorite sure doesn't look appetizing. But when you dig in, it becomes clear that looks belie its taste. The pepper is breaded slightly, and the sharpish cheese interior keeps the mild chile from being too plain. A chunky onion and sweet tomato salsa are another part of its robustness. This relleno easily rivals a fresh offering.
Health Is Wealth's Broccoli & Cheese Munchees
If you bite into one of these snacks too quickly, piping filling might squirt out and burn you. If you wait for them to cool down, however, you'll probably like the wheaty exterior and melted cheese inside. Unlike the picture on the box, broccoli doesn't burst forth; it's basically cheddar in a crisp whole-grain wonton shell. Regardless, the frozen snacks are flavorful without being too salty or creamy, and they're uber-easy to make.
Amy's Vegetable Lasagna
A thin layer of melted mozzarella tops this delightful frozen casserole. Pasta sheets, tofu, zucchini, and carrots are coated with a mild tomato sauce. A bit of parmesan and ricotta rounds out the veggie-heavy dish with a hint of creaminess. The noodles are soft and moist without being gooey, which is uncommon with similar pastas. Meal-worthy indeed.
Westside Market's Pasta Faggioli
The Chelsea epicerie's take on this Italian option is one of the better vegetarian soups. The tomatoes aren't overwhelming, so you can appreciate the plentiful carrots, basil, and celery. Also, the faggioli isn't overfilled with noodles. They're an important player in the soup, but not blasé filler. Ditto the kidney and white beans; they're woody and nutty, but not the spotlight. Solid overall.
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