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Purchased at: Kroger
Price: $1.89
According to the box… Now with more cheese! Ziti pasta in a delicious marinara sauce topped with mozzarella, monterey jack and Parmesan cheeses.

While I was on my way home from work yesterday afternoon, I was craving something covered in hot, melty cheese. Of course, my first instinct was to head to the nearest Taco Bell and get a nacho cheese chalupa or any of their various menu items covered in their delicious fake cheese sauce. Instead, I decided to be healthy and go for the frozen baked ziti I had in my freezer at home. I’m going to be honest. I wasn’t expecting this to be a good substitute, but I was pleasantly surprised.

I HATE Lean Cuisine with a passion. Their chicken is always a weird texture and their pastas always end up gummy/mushy. However, somehow Smart Ones manages to do low-cal, microwavable entrees pretty well. This one was no exception.

The pasta cooked up perfectly. Of course it was a little softer than I would have preferred, but for a microwavable pasta dish, I can’t complain. It held its shape and was al dente enough to hold a respectable amount of the marinara sauce and cheese. The sauce is probably my least favorite part of the dish. It’s your typical boxed/frozen meal marinara sauce, meaning it’s a little sweeter than I prefer. There also aren’t enough spices (mainly, garlic). It’s inoffensive. On the other hand, because it’s not very bold, it doesn’t get in the way of the real star of this dish: the cheese.

The box boasts three different kinds of cheese, but I only tasted two: the Parmesan and mozzarella. Parm and mozzarella happen to be my two favorite cheeses (aside from nacho), so I’m okay with that. The cheese melts surprisingly well – it’s creamy and gooey and stringy all at the same time. And it mixes in with the marinara to form a creamier, cheesier tomato sauce. It’s awesome. I wasn’t expecting this little frozen pasta dish to take care of my craving, but it definitely did.
Well done, Smart Ones.

4.5/5

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Purchased at: Trader Joe’s
Price: $1.99
According to the package… well…there isn’t any product description, actually. I guess they expect it to speak for itself.

I discovered Trader Joe’s about a year ago, and I instantly fell in love. Before I ever went into one, I assumed it was some hoity-toity, expensive store (kind of like Whole Foods). Imagine my surprise when I realized it’s exactly the opposite and they actually have a lot of great prices. There’s a TJ’s right across the street from my college, so sometimes I stop in on my way home from class to pick up some lunch. Yesterday, I grabbed this.

Yeah, I know how the picture looks. Not good. And that’s entirely my fault – I popped it in the microwave (with a napkin on top to prevent sauce explosions all over my microwave) and then got distracted. I nuked it for a little too long, hence the burned, bubbly looking sauce around the edges. And the napkin pulled a lot of the cheese off, which was sad.

How does it taste, though? Delicious. There’s a ton of spinach in between the layers of pasta, which I wasn’t expecting. I thought it was going to be a mix of cheese and spinach, but there was definitely more of the green stuff than cheese. I’m not usually a big fan of cooked spinach, but it tastes really great in here. It’s not too watery (a problem I usually encounter with frozen, cooked spinach) and doesn’t taste too strong, either. Frozen pasta doesn’t usually have a great texture, but this one did. It wasn’t gummy or flimsy at all.

For $1.99, this was a surprisingly good lasagna. And it was huge. I was full after I finished it, but I didn’t feel weighed down or sluggish. Well done, TJ’s.

4/5

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Purchased at: Target
Price: $1.94
According to the box: Enjoy a taste of Italy with this classic dish. Made from only the finest ingredients, our fusilli is topped with a creamy four cheese sauce. Pair with grilled shrimp and a fresh herb salad for a guest-ready dinner. A gourmet meal is only minutes away with Pasta Sides by Archer Farms.

I love pasta, but I’m usually too lazy to cook pasta AND make sauce on my own, so I resort to boxed pasta sides like this quite often. While I was walking around Target the other day, this one caught my eye. The picture on the front of the box looked awesome, and the box proudly boasted using four cheeses, spinach, and sundried tomatoes. What’s not to love?

A lot of things, apparently.

The fusilli pasta cooked very nicely and the sauce clung to the curly noodles. The problem with this? The sauce is bland. The box promises a flavorful cheese sauce made with parmesan, cheddar, gouda, and fontina, but that’s not what I got. The sauce wasn’t thin, but it didn’t taste like much – the only word I can think of to describe it is “watery,” which is strange considering it was pretty thick. There was also a strange aftertaste – the sauce didn’t taste like much, but the aftertaste was similar to American cheese, which is weird, because it’s not even in the sauce. The sundried tomatoes were a nice addition, but that was one of the only redeeming qualities. I also didn’t see (or taste) any spinach anywhere in the dish.

I usually love Archer Farms products, but this one was a swing and a miss for me. I won’t be buying this one again (and I didn’t even bother to finish the leftovers. Those were fed to my garbage disposal.).

Overall rating: */*****