The skinny on celebrity chefs' prepared foods

Ina Garten. Ina Garten. Photo Credit: Brian Sheridan

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Erica Marcus Erica Marcus (face disguised) is Newsday's food writer.

Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998. ...

What do you think of mass-market prepared food by "celebrity chefs"?

In the past few months, food stars Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and Lidia Bastianich have launched branded lines of prepared meals. Garten's are frozen and are widely available in supermarkets; Bastianich's are refrigerated and sold exclusively at Whole Foods.

I tried four of Garten's nine "Sauté Dinners for Two": creamy chicken stew, beef Bourguignon, garlic and ginger chicken, and penne with five cheeses. All are prepared on the stovetop in a skillet and require the addition of water or oil, some stirring and a degree of attention. All cost $7.99 and serve two.

The chicken and beef dinners weren't terrible, but they had the canned, salty taste and gluey sauce of airplane food.

The penne was the best of the lot, but it was markedly less good than if I'd boiled my own pasta and added a jarred sauce.

If Garten's portrait and signature didn't adorn the packaging, I would never have associated her with such an unremarkable meal.

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Another disappointment

I was even more disappointed in Bastianich. "I use only the freshest and highest quality ingredients," she writes on the labels of Lidia's Homestyle Meals.

"Food is nurturing and a way of connecting, so it is with love that I make these Italian classics for your table."

All six of the meals cost $9.99 and serve one. I gave three a test drive. First up, lemon chicken, "light and lemony fresh, this dish is made with all-natural chicken, capers and plump green olives then elegantly topped with lemon slices."

The flavor was OK, but there was something odd about the chicken, the pieces had a funny grain, like they had been stuck together from smaller pieces.

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I consulted the ingredients.

“All-natural chicken” turned out to be “chicken breast filets,” which, in turn, contain “chicken breast meat, water, wheat flour, salt and pepper. Chicken set in hot soybean oil. Soy lecithin used as a processing aid.”

Plenty of prepared-food manufacturers — not to mention delis and restaurants — start their dishes with processed meat products made by big manufacturers such as Tyson Foods. But Mama Lidia? When she’s charging me 10 bucks for two little filets?

The turkey meatballs were dry and tasteless. Six of them cost $9.99. I’d save my money and buy a container of Shady Brook Farms turkey meatballs, $3.49 for 12 moist and savory ones.

Bastianich’s lasagna with chicken Bolognese sauce was acceptable, but no way worth $9.99 for a small portion.

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Growing their brands

I have admired both Garten and Bastianich for years. Unlike showier personalities, they both seemed to believe that, armed with good ingredients and a well-written recipe, anyone could cook great food. Both established themselves in the culinary firmament first through their bestselling cookbooks and then through their television shows. (Bastianich is also a partner in a number of excellent restaurants and the Italian food market Eataly.)

Cookbook buyers and cooking-show viewers represent two distinct consumer groups: The former cook, the latter may not. A culinary star looking to “grow her brand” may well wonder what she can sell to fans who like to watch food prepared on TV but don’t like to make it themselves.

In 2006, Ina Garten launched Barefoot Contessa Pantry, selling baking mixes and condiments. Through her subsidiaries Lidia’s Kitchen and Nonna Foods, Bastianich sells pasta, sauces, cookware (through QVC) and more. And now, prepared food.

There is your answer.

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