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Pulled pork mac and cheese, meatloaf, turkey dinner, and Swedish meatballs — these are the four meals included in Andrew Zimmern's new frozen food line that's available in Walmart stores nationwide. It was only a matter of time before the longtime television personality brought his recipes to store shelves, with these entrées intended for families across the United States. If that concept sounds familiar to Zimmern's brand, that's because the line is inspired by the chef's iconic series, "Family Dinner."
The "Bizarre Foods" host has seen it all: unexpected flavor combinations and a melting pot of cultural meals while traveling across the country and the world. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Zimmern detailed how he is brought simple yet decadent home-cooked favorites to kitchen tables. As we head into the holiday months, the James Beard Award winner also revealed his top budget-friendly Thanksgiving hacks (how could we have forgotten about pouring cheese sauce on vegetables?!).
Zimmern Narrowed It Down To Four Meals
Let's start by talking about your new frozen food line. How did you narrow it down to four meals?
Oh my God, with great difficulty. It started as a list of 30. The goal was number one, deliciousness; number two, affordability;, and number three, convenience. Then, we put everything through the prism of what I felt was missing in the marketplace. I've spent the last 20 years making television all over the world, but a lot of that television was here in the United States. "Family Dinner" was about half of our episodes of "Delicious Destinations," and about a third of "Bizarre Foods" all revolved around families and how they gather.
I have my own family. It was pretty simple to lean in that direction, and what I saw in that space was not very tasty, wasn't very well made, and the ones that I thought rated decently were in real desperate need of an upgrade. With painstaking editing, you have to let go of foods you really love.
Hopefully, these do well enough, and we can add some more [items] to the line. I'd love to get it up to about eight or 12 items, and I've got some fantastic dinners in the pipeline, but we spent about a year nailing these and our production partners were fantastic. The Swedish meatballs, being an example, I was floored that we were able to adjust the meatballs so that they were so tender and so well flavored and noodles that didn't come out like a soggy, watery mess. The mac and cheese is pulled pork, not barbecue pork. It's roasted pork and caramelized onions. It's wonderful, and we're getting such great feedback from parents and from kids. I'm thrilled.
I was going to ask you if you thought the product line would expand at some point, but you said eight to 12 hopefully in the works?
It all depends on how these do, and I'm hoping American families respond to them. I hope they save people time and money that they're proud to put them in front of a family member. It was really important to me, with the turkey dinner, that it was served with green vegetables with the mashed potatoes that also go with the meatloaf, which are delicious and buttery and real. The meatloaf comes with peas — how my grandmother always served them — even the details of grinding the vegetables the way she did for her meatloaf and glazing the top with tomato paste. In its price category, I don't think there's anything better.
Zimmern Made Some Compromises
Would you say that the most difficult part of bringing the homemade meals to a frozen product was maintaining the flavor and the details?
I thought that would be the hardest part. The food groups and the chefs and the scientists and the engineers who we worked with at the company that's actually creating these products, building them and packaging them and shipping them to Walmart, has such incredible skill in that arena. I was floored. I was really happy with where we got coming right out of the gate.
The trickiest part is maintaining the price point, with the Swedish meatballs probably being the best example. I wanted to put a dollop of lingonberry preserves, which is how it's usually served, in a little pocket, like an oversized ketchup packet. It's the same way that the packages of frozen egg rolls include a sauce. Take the packet out, then in five minutes, it would heat up the Swedish meatballs, that packet would defrost, and you could tear it up and squeeze it into somewhere onto the bowl and dip your meatballs in the lingonberry preserves, which is very traditional.
We invested so much in the quality of the meat and the quality of the noodles and of the gravy. We had no room to spare. You then do a serving suggestion. "Serve these with your favorite preserves. I do mine with lingonberry." Along the way to get to that point was a lot of discussion. [What's an] easier way to do it? Do we want to do one less meatball? No. Are we going to sacrifice all the noodles? [It's a] triage [of] decisions that led to that. When you're trying to make anything that's excellent, that's what's going to happen.
When it comes down to it, would you say that is what makes these meals different from others on shelves -- the excellence and quality that you were referring to?
Gordon Ramsay just launched a frozen food line, too. Do you guys have a little competition going?
I don't think there's a competition.
That's a fair point. I'm really excited to try them out, too. They look really delicious.
It's homey comfort food, and I've been eating them nonstop for months leading up to the launch, and [I'm] making posts for my Instagram and stuff like that. Doesn't everyone hack microwave instructions? If your local editor is like, "A microwave hack," there's so much that we all do ourselves: what we choose to leave the lid on, when we choose to take it off. Do we cover it with paper toweling so it doesn't spatter? Do you not? Do you put something in the bowl you want to serve it in or do you put it in the tray of the food packaged? We all have. There's a million decisions when you take it out of your freezer, and I'm no different.
I'm now packing the stuff that I came up with. It's hysterical. I never had it on my bingo card that I would be hacking my own instructions, but I'm doing less and more. Everyone's microwave has a different output [in] watts. They all perform differently. I would encourage everybody to find what works for them.
Buy Your Thanksgiving Turkey Now
In the spirit of budget friendly eating and with Thanksgiving coming up, are there any budget friendly meals or hacks that you would be able to recommend, in general, for the upcoming fall holidays?
I know this sounds nuts. It's not even October. I just did my generic ideas of what I want to cook for Thanksgiving. The reason that I do that now is when turkeys roll out, and at whatever time they do in November, when they start filling up [in] great quantities, the price is going to be at peak. The turkey companies want to make their money. Right now is the time to be doing things like buying turkey, either whole, frozen, or small ones, to roast and make gravy. You can slice the meat. You can eat turkey more than one day of the year. I live in Minnesota, which is the number one turkey producing state in America.
I love turkey. We make turkey sandwiches all the time, and I don't buy deli meat. Once a month, I roast a turkey, and I take the legs and I make pot pies with them, and I roast the breasts and slice them and put them in the fridge and we make turkey sandwiches. I'm specifically going to get a turkey and make my gravy and freeze it, so that I have that done ahead of time. Number one, the price is lower now for turkeys, but in addition, it's one major thing off my list and in the freezer.
Cranberries are going to start showing up in the supermarket. It takes a little while. The weather needs to turn a little colder, but there are frozen cranberries. I'm talking about whole fruit -- not sweetened, just the cranberries themselves. There are going to be frozen cranberries from last year that are going to be in grocery freezers, and if you're making sauce from them, they're going to break down when you're cooking them anyway. Why not use the frozen products and save the money?
They're going to be very expensive this year; the two big states that were producing cranberries had fairly dry summers. Cranberry bog production relies on water, so the price is going to go up. These are the traditional items that we have that saves time and money, because remember, you save dollars, but we're all time poor. If I can make whatever dip because my uncle loves it, and I have to have that at Thanksgiving as an hors d'oeuvre, I'm going to make it next week and throw it in the freezer. To make my pie crusts, because I needed four of them, I am going to go to my website. That's how pathetic it is. I go to my own website, because I don't make pies that often, so it's not in my head.
Zimmern Has Hot Soup At The Ready On Thanksgiving
Which pie crusts were you looking to make?
All my pie crusts are on my website. There's a pâte sucrée, the traditional sweet pie crust that's really good. The last thing that I would say [is] at andrewzimmern.com, if you put "Thanksgiving" into the search bar, people will get my three-day "have it ready for Thanksgiving" primer. It's one of the best tools we ever put on our website. I would encourage people to look at it now, because it'll start their thinking about what they will want to do for their holiday and anything that you can do now ahead of time, even their Buy One Get One in two weeks at your local supermarket, because they're not going to be Buy One Get One the week of Thanksgiving. I assure you. Get it now and throw it in the garage. You'll save money and you'll save a trip.
You mentioned a lot of traditional dishes. Are there any ideas that you have for non-traditional dishes that you think could be added to the Thanksgiving table?
I never want to yuck on someone else's yum. I rotate dishes through, because there's too many favorites. I make a purée of root vegetables, of carrot, rutabaga, and sweet potato, and I season it with butter and smoked brown sugar. Some people would say that's non-traditional. To me, it's root vegetable purée. I'm seasoning it differently. That wasn't on my table last year. It's coming back this year.
I always have a container of hot soup at the front door as an hors d'oeuvre, because it's cold in Minnesota. People come in, they take off their jackets and shoes. I put a mug of soup into their hands. It's usually an oyster chowder or some other New England-y seafood chowder. People can have that as they come in. Everything else I do is extremely traditional, and the reason is this: Thanksgiving and Passover are my two favorite holidays of the year, because there's no gifts and they're all about gratitude.
That's my exact reasoning as well. Those are my favorite.
Consequently, I've always thought of them as two sides of the same holiday. At Passover, we eat very specific foods in a very specific order because we have ... a small service at the table that goes along with it. You're eating, but you follow this story of the freedom from bondage in ancient Egypt that the Jews experienced after millennia as slaves. I also feel the same way about the Thanksgiving meal. I believe that it should be in a certain order. I believe you should have that time where everyone gets their food, if you're doing a buffet style or if you have a table that's big enough to hold all the food.
I don't think I've ever seen a family that's been able to do that. When everyone sits down, we go around the table, and everyone has to name three things they're grateful for. We do have a lot of fun at Thanksgiving, and there's no "service," but it is a great time to reflect as a family on what's making us happy, what opportunities for service we have in our community, and what we're grateful for. I believe in the traditional foods that go with that. When I say "traditional foods," I'm talking about the modern American tradition.
Make Zimmern's Four Cheese Mac And Cheese
Within that modern American tradition — I want to really be specific about this — there are about a hundred different varietals. Thanksgiving in the Southeast is different than in the Southwest. With African-American families, Mexican-American families, Asian-American families, we have a hundred different colors of the rainbow in our country, and everybody brings their own traditions to this holiday, which has a side of ugliness to it, in terms of our treatment of the First Peoples of this country who were here before everyone else.
Being in Minnesota, we try to honor that, and I always serve wild rice with blueberries and some other foods of the First Peoples here, because in Minnesota, we're so close to so many of them, and I'm privileged to have spent time with them and learned about the real stories from them. That's a big part of our experience at our table as well. I want to make sure when we're celebrating that we're understanding that we're keeping our own family traditions alive, but that we're thinking of all the people in our country. We're a fairly divided nation. Anything that we can do to bridge those divides, we need to take advantage of, and Thanksgiving is a great time of year to do it.
That's a great point. The word "tradition" holds a lot of different weight for different people around.
That's exactly right, and people throw it around as if there's one tradition. It really irritates me.
As one of your meals is the pulled pork mac and cheese that you mentioned, what is your number one tip for a decadent mac and cheese?
I try to keep my mac and cheese as simple as possible. On my website, we have a four cheese mac and cheese with breadcrumbs on top. That, to me, is as decadent as it gets. I do not put lobster in my mac and cheese, ever. That's a horrible idea. Putting in truffle oil or truffle butter is a horrible idea.
The fanciest that I get is a mixture of what I'll call four more "adult's" cheeses. I make a bread crumb topping, so you get that crusty contrast to the cheesy creamy sauce that's underneath. That was one of my favorite recipes because everyone loves it. It's decadent, because you're using taleggio in there, and beautiful, ripe traditional cheeses.
Put Cheese Sauce On Your Vegetables
By the way, let me tell you, in my freezer right now is a bag with about two pounds of cheese ends and pieces from cheese boards from parties of the last six months. When you put out a cheeseboard and there's half a little wheel of camembert and a four-inch square piece of fancy aged cheddar that's been sitting out for four or five hours, if it goes into your refrigerator, it's going to sprout a little mold colony faster than you can say, "Abracadabra." If you put it in the freezer and then take it out -- and it's easier even to grate when it's frozen -- with some soft cheeses, then you can incorporate it into a cream sauce and build a mac and cheese meal around it.
The other day, there were people eating over at my house and I had a lot of broccoli, and I've been eating it all summer the same way with olive oil and garlic and red chili flakes and sautéing it and doing it more of an Italian style, which I love. It was a cold night here in Minnesota, and I was roasting chicken thighs and a lot of broccoli in the fridge, and I made a little cheese sauce with four, six ounces of grated cheddar. I made a little roux, put in the cheese, put in some hot milk, a little bit of nutmeg, and then poured it over the broccoli. Everyone at the table was like, "Oh my God, I haven't had this in 20 years." Green cruciferous vegetables especially have such affinity with ... It's a spectacular combination. Try it.
Zimmern's Honest Opinion About Pumpkin Spice
I'm definitely going to. Now that you mentioned a fall seasoning — you mentioned nutmeg —what are your go-to fall seasonings that you're looking towards?
Anything but pumpkin spice.
You're a pumpkin spice hater?
No, I am a pumpkin spice "I get to not like things" person. I don't want anyone to hate on some of the stuff that I put in my mouth, which happens all the time. If pumpkin spice makes somebody happy, why wouldn't we want them to be happy? I love pumpkin pie. I saw something on a rival website ... Figures ... that really pissed me off that I wrote about in my Substack, which was a whole bunch of people chiming in that canned pumpkin is the same as roasting your own pumpkin. It couldn't be further from the truth. As someone who makes a lot of sweet potato pies and pumpkin pies all fall and up into the December holidays, it's my favorite pie, and it is like night and day.
I love what happens when I put clove and ginger and nutmeg and cinnamon and a little bit of cardamom in there. I'm not a big "pumpkin spice person," which has that faint sweet thing added to it. I do like the fall sweet spices that we traditionally use in baking. They're some of my favorites. The other thing that I'm doing now ... It's weird. I'm a 12-month-a-year curry person. A cold curry chicken salad — such a great lunch or dinner picnic item. Now that the weather is turning a little cooler, I've made curry at least once a week for dinner, hot traditional ones from different places in the world, whether it's Japanese curries or Indian curries or Pakistani curries or Sri Lankan curries. It's so delicious.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Read the original article on Mashed.