Taste Test: Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers & Marie Callender's Pasta Al Dente

From the 12/09/2009 edition
Soggy pasta is a serious turnoff. That's why I'm careful where I procure my orecchiette, finicky about who fixes my fettuccini. At home, I long ago learned that the "trick" to cooking properly al dente noodles was to pull them off the heat before they're fully done, because if you cook them through completely, they'll be mushy when they reach the table.

Then there's the matter of the sauce clinging nicely to the pasta. The best way to accomplish this is to finish cooking the starch in the sauce - the worst is to introduce a fat (like oil) into the pot of pasta-filled boiling water.

If all this stuff sounds complicated to you (though it really isn't), then you're likely the kind of person a couple of brands had in mind when they designed new heat 'n eat lines of frozen pasta meals.

What I tried: Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers Chicken Pesto Classico ($3.99) and Marie Callender's Pasta Al Dente Orecchiette Chicken Pesto ($4.39)

Flash in the pans: Scanning the different boxes of the frozen dinners, I noticed technical and linguistic similarities that had to be more than coincidental. They were. In fact it was a case of two brands, one company - both the comfort-food-leaning Marie Callender's and the lean-leaning Healthy Choice are owned by industrial food giant ConAgra.

Their purported innovation (or gimmick) is a two-plastic-pan configuration - with the top "steamer" bowl containing the solids, the bottom holding the sauce. After popping the two-fer into the nuker for five minutes or less, you mix their contents together. This was supposed to result in "authentically Italian!" pasta that "arrives at the table prepared to perfection" (Marie Callender) and "restaurant-inspired meals" (Healthy Choice).

In a nutshell: The Marie Callender had barely passable pasta shells, little chunks of "I've had worse" chicken meat, a few soft heads of broccoli and the occasional weak red-pepper bit. The Healthy Choice had softer, less passable pasta, big chunks of chicken that comically bore grill marks but were better than Marie's, and soggily off-putting hunks of yellow and zucchini squash.

They put the pest in pesto: The main problem with both of these was the pesto sauce, and it was a big one. Marie's and Healthy Choice's pesto sauces were, not surprisingly, quite similar. Both had bogusly basily, ersatzly garlicky, seriously salty, chemically and unfortunately extremely long-lingering flavors. While Marie's more concentrated version had more body to it, that just meant more presence of a sauce I really, really didn't like.

Would I eat either again?: Not even if they came with three plastic pans.

Spot a supermarket specialty you'd like Taste Test to try? E-mail gbenton@columbusalive.com