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Supermarket Sampler: Not enough artisan cheese in Sargento blends

Also, Bertolli's new frozen dinners are good but not great

Universal Press Syndicate

Sargento Artisan Blends Shredded Cheeses. Parmesan, Parmesan & Romano, Whole Milk Mozzarella, Mozzarella & Provolone, Double Cheddar, and Swiss. $1.99 to $4.99 per 3-ounce to 10-ounce bag.

Bonnie: I love cheese. In fact, it's always on my short list of foods when someone asks, "If you were stranded on an island, what foods would you want?" (Others include red wine, crusty bread and salad greens.) But these new Sargento Artisan Blends are not the kind of cheeses I have in mind.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with these new varieties of shredded cheese, which combine Sargento cheese with handcrafted small-batch artisan cheese from other producers. They're fine to add to soups, salad, nachos or wherever you might want to add a bit of cheese flavor.

But for me, the special nature of artisan cheese does not come through. Sorry to say, Sargento, but these are not like the handcrafted artisan cheeses I'd want on my desert island.

Carolyn: Since Sargento is not an artisan cheese company, maybe it can cash in on the tremendous recent growth in this segment of the cheese business by partnering with some cheesemakers who do fit that definition.

Hence this new line of Sargento cheese blended with some smaller company's cheeses — in some cases, the exact same variety. Which raises the question: So what's wrong with Sargento cheese?

To see, I taste-tested Sargento's Artisan Blend Whole Milk Mozzarella against Sargento's regular Classic shredded mozzarella. The new Whole Milk kind did taste slightly richer and more gamey — like real cows were involved — but that could at least partly be attributed to the higher milkfat in the Artisan Blend's mozzarella. Differences were more noticeable when the added artisan cheese was a different flavor than the one from Sargento's. Still, it's not as if you could say any one of these blends had a strong flavor.

This is probably because of the mild and familiar cheeses in these blends and because any artisan cheese difference that might exist is diluted by blending it with Sargento's factory kind. In short, this product follows the general rule that any product with artisan or gourmet in its name probably is not.

Bertolli Mediterranean Style Frozen Dinners. Chicken, Rigatoni & Broccoli; Rosemary Chicken, Linguine & Cherry Tomatoes; Garlic Shrimp, Penne & Cherry Tomatoes; and Shrimp & Penne Primavera. $7.50 per 24-ounce bag.

Bonnie: Bertolli's latest offerings are Mediterranean Style dinners for two that cost only $7.50, can be prepared in under 10 minutes and taste pretty good.

As for nutrition, each is a bit hefty on the fat, but at least it's the better-for-you kind.

Just pour the contents of these frozen bags into a skillet, then heat and eat. I found them much fresher-tasting than those frozen entrees in plastic dishes. Too bad the protein wasn't as plentiful as the veggies and pasta. The shrimp and chicken pieces were minuscule and few in number. I'd have preferred a vegetarian dish to my disappointing shrimp hunt. In fact, I suggest that Bertolli lower the price and skip the poultry and the crustaceans.

Carolyn: Bertolli's new Mediterranean Style frozen pasta dishes contain high-quality premium ingredients, are easy to make and are much lighter in taste and nutrition than Bertolli's other bagged skillet dinners, with all their cream and cheese.

Their problem is not, as Bonnie suggests, the small protein pieces (anyone who thinks that obviously hasn't eaten many meals from the freezer case), but the pleasant yet indistinct taste of these four new dinners.

This should not be surprising, considering the many common ingredients in these dinners, including their sauce base of garlic and olive oil. The only discernible difference between the Garlic Shrimp, Penne & Cherry Tomatoes and the Rosemary Chicken Linguine & Cherry Tomatoes is the type of protein and pasta. There is about as much rosemary in the latter as there are olives and basil in the Garlic Shrimp — which is to say, hardly enough in these dinners' kitchen sink of ingredients to taste.

Premium ingredients can go to waste if they're not combined to produce a distinctive taste, as they do in Lean Cuisine's gingery Asian Pot Stickers, Healthy Choice's Whiskey Steak and Seeds of Change's Moroccan Lentil Tagine frozen entrees. Despite cheaper ingredients, they all taste better than these entrees from Bertolli.

Oberto 100 Calorie Jerky Bites. Original Beef, and Turkey Teriyaki. $1.99 per 1.2-ounce packet.

Bonnie: The pricey 100-calorie portion-control packages that have overtaken the cookie and chip shelves have now unexpectedly expanded to jerky products. What surprised me about these (other than the fact that they exist at all) is the large quantity of jerky you get for 100 calories. I've never looked at jerky in terms of calories. Sodium and protein, yes, because jerky contains so much of each. In fact, 100 calories of jerky contains 400 milligrams of sodium and 13 grams of protein.

I was also unpleasantly surprised by Oberto's taste and texture, especially after recently trying and unexpectedly enjoying spicy Frank's RedHot Original Beef Jerky. Oberto's was so vile that I spit it into a garbage can. Skip this, reach for Frank's, and control your own portion.

Carolyn: How many of the tough guys who snack on jerky care about portion control? I'm guessing not too many. This product's only hope for sales is probably in luring weight-watching women away from their Luna Bars and Nabisco 100-Calorie Packs.

Don't laugh. You get a lot of pieces of jerky in these 100-calorie packs, and the beef ones, in particular, are so tough that this bag will keep you busy chewing for a good 20 minutes (as compared to those 100-calorie cookie and cracker packets, which can be inhaled in about three minutes). And slow eating is a good quality in a foodstuff for weight watchers.

The problem is that this beef jerky is also dry, stringy and not very tasty. The teriyaki-seasoned Turkey is tastier and moister, but that moistness means the jerky goes down faster. Neither one is for anyone with weight and teeth problems, given the possibility of more teeth problems from these.


Bonnie Tandy Leblang is a registered dietitian and professional speaker. Carolyn Wyman is a junk-food fanatic and author of "Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat" (Quirk). Each week they critique three new food items. For previous columns, visit www.supermarketsampler.com, and for more food info and chances to win free products, visit www.biteofthebest.com.) © Universal Press Syndicate