Let’s start off by calling it like it is: The term "frozen" has garnered a stronger negative indicator of quality than a positive indicator of convenience. This is a crying shame, because high-quality cuisine exists in many forms, including frozen. You just have to know where to look.
I didn’t grow up eating frozen food bought from retail stores. My mom’s cooking — how do I put this politely? — is better than your mom’s cooking. While I was growing up, she was an old-school Slow Food chef who would just as soon chop off her ears as feed me frozen or fast food. But that aside, she was also as pressed for time as she was fiscally responsible, and I think that she would have been glad to catch a break on some nights. She deserved it.
So for all you busy parents out there — and college students, and working people, and humans who appreciate good food — here is a starter list of gourmet frozen foods available for retail in the Boston area.
Capone Foods Pizza
This longtime Union Square fixture is known for its fresh pasta. (In addition to the classics, varieties include basil, black pepper, squid ink, lemon, chive.) But should also be known for its thin-crust Neopolitan-style pizzas. The 8-inch pies are sold frozen for $6.95 and $7.95, and cook in about 15 minutes. Red pizza varieties include classic tomato and cheese; fresh sausage with ricotta; and "upscale pepperoni" made with spicy Casalingo salami. White pizza varieties include mushroom, pesto and Peccorino Romano cheese; prosciutto and peas; and spinach and cave-aged Gruyere. To top it off, if Union Square isn’t convenient for you, you can order online and have the frozen pizzas delivered straight to your home.
Capone Foods, 14 Bow St., Somerville, 617-629-2296, caponefoods.com
New England Soup Factory
Marjorie Drucker makes a lot of soup for a lot of hungry customers in a relatively small space in Newton. Like many affordable places with good food, it can be hard to get a seat during the lunch rush. But luckily, there is a magical case full of frozen soups and broths that you can take to the peaceful serenity of your own home, where hopefully you won’t have trouble getting a seat. My personal favorite is the "lemony chicken throat soother" (pictured above), which Drucker says was designed to be a less eyebrow-raising version of the lemonade-and-whiskey cocktail that parents (including hers) used to give their children to combat sickness.
The concoction is indeed super lemon-y and super chicken-y, but also quite spicy from a liberal dose of cayenne pepper, with a number of other spices at play including ginger, mint and cinnamon — all chosen for their healing properties, says Marjorie. The soup is intended to be sipped piping hot from a mug, as the steam will help relieve congestion, but don’t save this only for when you’re under the weather. I try to keep at least two frozen quarts in my freezer at all times, as a perfect relaxing end to extra-exhausting nights when I’m too tired to cook a full meal AND too tired to go out. In addition to straight sipping, I'll occasionally add oyster crackers or saltines if I’m feeling like my day is lacking sodium. New England Soup Factory sold 1,500 quarts of the magical stuff this winter (only 200 or so of those were bought by me).
New England Soup Factory, 244 Needham St., Newton, 617-558-9966, newenglandsoupfactory.com
Willow Tree Farm — Chicken and turkey pies
What kind of gourmet frozen-food list would this be without some poultry pies? Thankfully, Willow Tree Farm has a retail location in Attleboro, and the pies are available in many other supermarkets as well. The frozen chicken pies stuffed with white meat get a lot of love, and deservedly so, but I want to note for the record that I think the turkey pies are even better. The latter have an even proportion of white and dark meat, bathed in turkey gravy with a flaky golden-brown crust.
Willow Tree Farm, 997 S. Main St., Attleboro, 508-222-2479, willowtreefarm.com
Tex Mex Eats Tamales
Despite the name, Tex Mex Eats actually features “Texachusetts” cuisine: Tex-Mex cuisine sourced with as many local Massachusetts ingredients as possible. Owner and tamale extraordinaire Amanda Escamilla grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. Since coming to the Boston area, where she worked at the beloved and now-closed East Coast Grill in Inman Square, she started Tex-Mex Eats and has received much positive feedback (e.g. Boston Globe) for her pop-up dinners and farmer’s market stands. The tamales in particular get rave reviews: masa (cornmeal dough) cooked in cornhusks and filled with three flavors: (1) "the vegetarian," slow-cooked pinto beans hand-mashed with cheese; (2) "the farmers," with local green sweet potatoes and mushrooms; and (3) the slow-braised pork with spices. They are available frozen at the Stillman Farms stand at the Boston Public Market as well as various farmer’s markets, including Union Square on Saturdays, Harvard Square on Tuesdays, and every other Thursday at the Arsenal in Watertown.
Tex Mex Eats, 1385 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-905-1806, txmexeats.com
Qingdao Garden's Pork-and-leek dumplings
Eat each of these pork-and-leek dumplings in a single bite — it’s a big-ish bite, but not too big — because you will lose some of the juiciness if you cut the dumpling open, and you do not want to leave any of the savory porky oniony flavors on the plate when they could be on your taste buds.
The Dumpling Lady makes these little gems by hand on-site. Her real name is Jianhua Ma but staff and diners call her “the Dumpling Lady,” spoken with a special reverence that you will understand as soon as you taste her food.
This Chinese restaurant on Harvard Avenue in Cambridge typically sells over a thousand dumplings a day, because the Dumpling Lady and her dumpling skills are just that special. For other must-order items at Qingdao Garden, check out my previous article on upgrading your Chinese takeout in the Boston area.
Qingdao Garden, 2382 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-7540, facebook.com/quingdaogarden