It gets no respect, frozen food, but your grocer's freezer is a culinary treasure trove. And I'm going to prove it to you. Over the past few weeks I've trolled the freezer aisles in markets all over the area to come up with a list of frozen dishes that are just plain delicious.
No complete meals here. I found that when a microwaveable tray contained more than one item, neither flourished in the reheating (exception: Indian entrees featuring a stew and rice). I also found that specialty grocers have the most interesting frozen offerings. Supermarket freezer cases tend to be dominated by the big national brands, few of whose wares impressed me. Invariably these products are long on salt, sugar and unpronounceable ingredients, short on the flavor and texture of real, wholesome food.
Most of these products are reheatable in the microwave, but in a few cases they require an oven or even a skillet. The key to fooling friends and family into thinking that you labored over a hot stove is to transfer the reheated food into a pretty dish, add a little parsley and hide the empty box. --ERICA MARCUS, firstname.lastname@example.org
ATHENS SPANAKOPITA: Greek cooks who make their own spanakopita (spinach pie) know they freeze like a dream. These individual pies, plump with spinach-feta filling and crunchy with phyllo pastry, come in their own foil tray that fits neatly into a small toaster oven. ($5.99 for 12 triangles at Fairway)
DEEP PALEK PANEER, KAWAN PARATHA: Indian grocers, such as Patel or Apna Bazar in Hicksville, generally devote a lot of space to frozen foods, from prepped vegetables to full meals. The palek paneer (left, $3.49 for 1 to 2 servings at Patel Brothers), firm fresh cheese in a thick spinach sauce, is from the very dependable brand Deep. Serve it with paratha ($3.98 for five flatbreads at Patel Brothers); you will be amazed that you made this fragrant, pleasingly greasy flatbread in your own kitchen.
CHEF ONE PORK POTSTICKERS: Like rice, dumplings freeze remarkably well. Preparing these pot stickers (which also come filled with chicken, vegetable, shrimp and tofu) isn't as easy as pressing "start" on your microwave: You brown them briefly in a skillet, add a few spoonfuls of water, then cover them and steam for five minutes. But with their paper-thin skins and juicy fillings, they are better than what you'll get in many local Chinese restaurants. ($6.29 for 24 to 27 dumplings at Fairway)
GOYA RIPE PLANTAINS: Uh, oh. I thought that fried sweet plantains (platanos maduros) were only a temptation when I found myself in a Latin American restaurant. Then I found these in the freezer case. At home I popped the tray, uncovered, in the microwave, and three minutes later I was swooning with delight. ($2.49 for about 12 pieces at Fairway)
SUSIE'S SUPPER CLUB SPINACH SQUARES: If you mixed up a bowl of spinach, Cheddar, milk, eggs, flour, butter, baking powder and salt, sprinkled it with some Parmesan and baked it, you'd be lucky if it tasted as good as Susie's version. Even when reheated in the microwave, it has a delicate, golden-brown crust. A fine side dish or vegetarian lunch. ($7.99 for four 3-ounce squares at Whole Foods)
365 ORGANIC JASMINE THAI RICE: Sometimes you want a blank canvas for saucy foods. This long-grain, subtly aromatic rice is a fit accompaniment for any meal and should forever banish boil-in-bag or instant rice from your pantry. ($2.99 for 20-ounce pouch at Whole Foods)
APPLEGATE NATURALS CHICKEN POT PIE: This individual pie has a flaky crust and rich, homey filling and can be reheated either in a conventional or microwave oven. Even using the latter appliance, though, it will brown on top because the inside of the box has a panel of reflective material pasted to it and you nuke it inside the box. How cool is that? ($3.99 for one pie at Fairway)
TRADER JOE'S TAMALES: All three of Trader Joe's tamales are highly recommended. The chicken-cheese are tender and smoky; the cheese-green chili are addictively spicy; the sweet corn mild and sweet -- very kid-friendly. Microwave them one or two at a time; wrapping each one in a damp paper towel and then in plastic wrap yields the best results. Add some salsa and you've got a fiesta. ($2.29-$2.49 for package of two)
TRADER JOE'S RICE MEDLEY: I don't know what it is about rice that makes it so amenable to the freezer-microwave routine. I just give thanks. Frozen rice and my own homemade beans are my standard office lunch. Trader Joe's Rice Medley, a hearty combination of brown and red rice and black barley, is much more than a blank canvas for saucy foods. $3.49 for three 2-cup pouches)
TRADER JOE'S TARTE D'ALSACE: This savory pastry is a take on the famous Alsatian tarte flambée, a thin crust topped with onions, bacon, crème fraîche and Gruyère cheese. Cut into thin wedges, it's a great party hors d'oeuvre. Cut in half and served with a salad, it's a satisfying light meal. Consumed whole in one sitting, hey, it's only 560 calories. ($4.49 for a 10-inch tart)
TRADER JOE'S FETTUCCINE ALFREDO: Macaroni and cheese is a frozen standard, but after trying countless brands, I could not find one that really pleased me. Amazingly, this did. The pasta comes frozen in little nests, the sauce in thin chips. After a few minutes in the microwave, the pasta was al dente and the sauce luxuriant. I sprinkled it with some grated Parmesan and patted myself on the back. This is a guest-worthy first course. ($3.99 for two servings)