We try out Heston’s new range of ready meals for Waitrose so that you don’t have to waste your money on them.
‘My food hell is any ready meal. It’s so easy to prepare a quick dish using fresh produce, such as a simple stir-fry, but people still resort to ready meals that all taste exactly the same.’
– Gordon Ramsay.
You might not agree with that (it’s fashionable not to agree with Ramsay). We think ready meals, however tragic, do have their place in society. This range is hardly going to be aimed at people who can already cook well.
Excitingly, a few of these recipes are versions of his painstakingly researched and absurdly complex Perfection dishes. Even the simplified Heston at Home versions can take several hours to make. Convenient.
The Guardian is famous for employing Britain’s finest food-writing talent. That includes the always engaging James Ramsden, who has provided a comprehensive review of the range on their site. We’d recommending reading his much better breakdown of these products first. (And subscribe to his site while you’re at it).
Our reviews of the Heston from Waitrose ready meal range aren’t as thorough; we just sampled 4 of the main dishes. (No Shepherd’s Pie, I can’t stand lamb).
Products: Heston From Waitrose Prepared Meals: Fish Pie, Lasagne, Chilli Con Carne, Macaroni & Cauliflower Cheese with Truffle.
Price: £3.40 (introductory offer, RRP £4.89)
If you’ve seen the fish pies in either the 2nd Perfection book or Heston at Home you might also remember the foam topping, meant to replicate lapping shoreline waves – like the Sound of the Sea dish at the Fat Duck.
That topping is horrendously complex to make. And its missing here. Given the huge numbers of these meals that Waitrose is producing it surely wouldn’t have been too much to include a whisk-at-home sachet of sea foam to decorate the pie with. The PR-spin alone would’ve justified the extra cost.
And while we’re on the subject of actually bothering to make an effort, Waitrose, how about printing a web link on the box to the Fat Duck Sound Of The Sea mp3?
Cooking instructions recommend an alarming 20 minutes at 170°. Heston won’t sous-vide his salmon above about 45°, and a long passage in Heston at Home discusses how fish proteins begin to squeeze out moisture, becoming dry and grainy, above about 50°.
We’re sure there’s a legitimate health & hygiene reason for these numbers, but a quick stab with a probe after cooking revealed that Heston’s Fish Pie had reached an internal temperature of 78°. Heston’s own words, from Big Chef Takes On Little Chef, describe the results best:
We didn’t find the mash as stodgy or gloopy as James did, the panko breadcrumbs add a pleasant crunch and the fragrant sauce is a marvel. It’s generous with the fish too.
If you were to compare this to, say a Young’s Admiral Pie it’s a vastly better product. But, considering the standard you expect from a chef with Heston Blumenthal’s reputation, it’s a failure.
As with most ready meals, this didn’t make it to the plate looking as presentable as the image on the packaging.
The flavour pleasantly surprised us, reminding us of Heston’s Perfection Spaghetti Bolognese recipe.
This makes sense. Both dishes are just slightly different arrangements of pasta and meat ragu. The lasagne just adds a rich cheese sauce. (Maybe similar to Heston’s cheese sauce recipe?).
While this doesn’t have the same depth and complexity of the perfection spag bol,(and we’d have liked a stronger tomato flavour), its decent enough.
CHILLI CON CARNE
Another dish that’s featured in the Perfection series and Heston at Home.
Sitting on top is a blob of Heston’s Spiced Butter, containing paprika, chilli, marmite and other bits & bobs of flavouring. The idea of this is you add a little or a lot to adjust both the richness and spicyness of your chilli.
Packet instructions say you can microwave this in as little as 3 minutes. So that’s exactly what we did. All of the butter was stirred in afterwards.
“Try with cornbread, sour cream, grated cheese and a squeeze of lime” suggests Heston, on the front of the pack. Great idea! But is the shopper who bought a 3 minute microwave-meal-for-one really going to spend an hour or so rustling up 10-ingredient side dishes or decorating their food with 3 separate toppings? As with the fish pie, these are all things that ought to have been included with the product, in single-serving quantities.
This chilly has a pleasingly deep, smoky flavour. And the butter doesn’t make it as greasy as the last time we tried to make this. We like to make our chillis so thick you could sculpt with them, Close Encounters style. Heston’s Waitrose version is more of a dribbly molten slop with gritty bits of meat in it. Good flavours, atrocious texture.
MACARONI & CAULIFLOWER CHEESE WITH TRUFFLE
The “macaroni” is larger than any you can find in the shops, and you get plenty cauliflower too.
There’s a decent hit of truffle and a wonderful sharp tang from the mature cheddar used. Pricey for what it is, but definitely our favourite in the range. As others have stated the sauce is a fraction too thin which leaves a lot left over.
We’re confident you could make this at home though, in the same time it takes to heat the oven-ready version, but this was our favourite from the range.
UPDATE: This is radically different to the version of the dish featured in Heston at Home, as we found out during a recent experiment.
The blame for these meals even existing surely begins with Little Chef. Remember the Channel 4 series we mentioned earlier? In this interview about creating meals for the chain in the 2009 series Heston says:
“There comes a point where you have to use the ‘compromise’ word. At the Fat Duck, that word doesn’t exist.”
These meals seem to represent the sum total of several compromises. If the food at Little Chef is mostly churned out from some central factory and reheated in portions on site then you could call them Ready Meals on a mass scale. We could swear all of these dishes were on the Popham menu after Heston’s makeover.
So if they were good enough for Heston to put his name to at a roadside diner, you have to assume they’re considered good enough for a supermarket’s shelves too.
I used to live off ready meals in my younger days, but haven’t had cause to try one in years (save for the occasional vice of a Goodfellas pizza). From what I remember, none of them tasted as good as these do.
We’d certainly consider buying the Macaroni n’ Cauliflower Cheese or Lasagne again, but the other dishes are just missing those little details that could have made them something truly special.
If you are going to buy a ready meal, these are probably some of the best you could get. However, with Heston’s reputation for perfection, and his history with some of these dishes, we reckon they fall far short of expectations.
Michelin Microwave – Consistently excellent writing here. Reviews of several Heston products along with many other celebrity-endorsed proudcts.