WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 17, 2008) - Can a celebrity chef, restaurant owner, cookbook author and winner of the Food Network's "Iron Chef," create five-star, restaurant-quality dishes out of two Meals Ready to Eat'

"Mission: MRE" assigned Chef Roberto Donna and Sous Chef Claudio Sandri only 30 minutes to create at least two dishes out of two MREs. They were allowed to use only five ingredients total, in addition to unlimited herbs and spices, in Donna's Arlington, Va., restaurant "Bebo Trattoria."

The mission was assigned by Soldiers Radio and Television's Ana Allen, who produced it as a segment for "Army Newswatch," now airing on the Pentagon Channel, American Forces Networks overseas and almost 1,000 cable channels nationwide.

"It's for our guys in the Army, so anything that makes them feel good and (helps them) do their job is a pleasure," said the Italian Donna, admitting that he wasn't sure about the idea at first. "I say, 'What' What are you talking about'' I was kind of surprised, but then, talking to Ana, she explained it. It's challenging and it's for a good cause. If you can make people feel better and laugh a little bit, it's good."

Given a list of MRE flavors ahead of time, Donna picked vegetable manicotti and grilled chicken, but he couldn't open the packages until the clock started, so he didn't know exactly what he was getting.

He said that as a chef, the MREs were a little scary, but that it's amazing that Soldiers can carry full meals with them. The manicotti and chicken weren't that bad, either. According to Donna, they were very similar to what can be found in many supermarkets. They just needed a little help.

Donna added some pork sausage, tomato puree, basil, onion and garlic to the manicotti, topping it with the ubiquitous cracker found in almost any MRE. The pasta wasn't very al dente, so he wanted to add some firmness and texture with the cracker. The whole mixture then went into the oven.

He added some of the same tomato puree to the grilled chicken and melted some mozzarella on top to make chicken parmesan. Then Donna toasted some flatbread he found in the MRE and rubbed garlic on it, serving it alongside the chicken.

Desserts were more of a challenge. First, Donna cut out a circle from a poppy-seed cake and sliced it in half, layering the pieces with homemade fig preserves and adding an orange sauce.

For the second dessert, Donna used only MRE ingredients, topping a caramel-apple Ranger bar with peanut butter, M&Ms and a sauce he made from a hazelnut-chocolate drink mix.

This was the least favorite of Army taste-testers Sgt. 1st Class Randy Randolph and Sgt. Ashleigh Torres of SRTV. They gave it two stars, Torres saying it tasted like medicine.

The other dishes were a much bigger hit, especially the chicken parmesan, which earned four stars.

"It's delicious," said Randolph, adding that he thought it deserved five stars. "This is definitely a five-star meal. It beats throwing water into a bag."

The poppy-seed cake also received four stars, while the manicotti earned three, although the Soldiers still said it was fantastic.

"A little bit of olive oil and garlic, they taste good," said Donna. "It's just a little bit of imagination. This is Italian style. I think any cuisine can fix them their own way.

"I'm very happy with the two main dishes. I agree with the chocolate-and-apple cracker and peanut butter was a little strange-tasting, but if you like those tastes, it's good. I think all together I'm pretty happy with the job that we did. I added ingredients that were pretty good and easy to work with."

Vegetable manicotti in a tomato and sausage ragout with breaded topping: three Army stars

1 vegetable manicotti in tomato sauce (MRE item)
1 cup pork sausage
A,A1/2 cup tomato puree
A,A1/2 cup wine
A,A1/4 of an onion
1 clove garlic
1 white cracker (MRE item)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Fresh basil
Tabasco sauce (MRE item)

Finely chop onion and garlic. Pour olive oil in a medium sized skillet and sautAfA onion, garlic and pork sausage over medium heat. Add wine, tomato puree, salt, pepper, fresh basil and Tobasco to taste. Add vegetable manicotti and warm it all the way through. Coarsely chop a white cracker and set aside for topping.

Plate manicotti and ragout sauce in an oven-proof dish. Add cracker topping and bake in the oven at 350 A,Ao for 15 minutes. Serve hot.

Chicken parmesan in a tomato sauce over garlic bread: four Army stars

1 grilled-chicken breast (MRE item)
Two large slices of mozzarella cheese
2 slices of flatbread (MRE item)
A,A3/4 cup tomato puree
2 cloves of garlic
A pinch each of salt, pepper and oregano
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 sprig of rosemary

Coat pan with olive oil over medium heat. Chop one clove of garlic and sautAfA until golden. Pour in tomato puree. Add salt, pepper and oregano to taste. Place grilled-chicken breast into sauce and then place mozzarella cheese on top of chicken to melt over medium-low heat.

Coat another pan with olive oil and toast flatbread until golden brown. Remove bread from pan. Cut a clove of garlic in half and rub it over the flatbread. Place bread on a plate and scoop finished chicken parmesan on top. Decorate with a sprig of rosemary.

Lemon poppy-seed cake with fig marmalade and orange sauce: four Army stars

1 lemon poppy-seed cake (MRE item)
A,A1/4 cup fig marmalade
A,A1/2 cup sugar
1 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon orange rind
1 cookie cutter

Take lemon poppy-seed cake and cut it into a circle with a cookie cutter. Carefully slice dessert horizontally into two cakes with a knife and place on a dessert plate. Spoon a generous amount of fig marmalade between the cake slices. Place a dollop of marmalade on top of the cake.

Caramelize A,A1/2 cup sugar over low heat. Once the sugar has a golden-brown color, pour 1 cup orange juice and 1 table spoon orange rind and reduce sauce over medium heat. Place left over poppy seed cake pieces around the dessert and dribble reduced orange sauce all over cake.

Caramel-apple Ranger bar in a chocolate hazelnut sauce with M&Ms and a crunchy peanut butter topping: two Army stars

1 caramel-apple Ranger bar (MRE item)
1 packet of chocolate-hazelnut cocoa powder (MRE item)
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon peanut butter (MRE item)
1 packet of M&Ms (MRE item)

Slice the caramel-apple ranger bar into 1 inch slices and save the crumbs for topping.
To make chocolate sauce, mix chocolate-hazelnut powder with a couple of tablespoons of water in a separate bowl. Pour sauce into a shallow dish. Place the sliced ranger bar on top of the chocolate sauce and decorate with M&Ms around the dessert. Take a tablespoon of peanut butter and mix in crumbs left over from ranger bar. Place dollop of peanut butter topping on top of dessert and enjoy.

(Editor's Note: SRTV's Ana Allen provided the recipes for this report. This is the first in a series about chefs making over MREs.)