Tag Archives: cooking

My Husband’s Bananas

Now, I’m not saying my husband’s an ape, but he sure seems to have a thing for bananas. At least recipes containing them.

When I married into his family, I didn’t realize I was also acquiring a sacred banana cake recipe, handed down from Dan’s Grammy. It always seemed like banana bread to me, but Dan calls it banana cake, and I’m not sure what the difference would be, anyway.

I love bananas, but only when they’re close to green. It’s a texture thing. I don’t even like the dark, mushy spots on bruised bananas. But I can’t eat a whole bunch of bananas by myself, so Dan gets the leftovers to leave until they’re the proper mushiness for cooking.

Dan insists on making his banana cake in a bundt cake pan, therefore, I guess, reinforcing the cake-ness of it. He claims that the cake cooks properly only in a bundt pan so the inner part gets as brown as the outside. Once, when we made mini-cakes for Christmas gifts, he acquiesced to the use of mini-loaf pans, but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. (We also made my signature spice cake, which is notable for having to boil the raisins first, making them plump and juicy. But I digress.)

Dan’s other tasty banana creation is a non-patented, no-bake, sugar-free banana cream pie. The concept is fairly simple: graham cracker crust, slices of too-ripe-for-me bananas lining it, sugar-free banana pudding, more banana slices, then sugar-free whipped topping. Low-fat milk for the pudding, of course.

The pie is good, but we’ve improved it over the years. One time we were low on milk, so we substituted part of it for chocolate milk. It worked moderately well, but there wasn’t a lot of chocolate flavor to the finished pie.

So we began to experiment. This pie was open to variation, unlike the sacred banana cake. We tried different combinations of pudding, different amounts of plain and chocolate milk, and other variations.

In the end, what we came up with was a pie with the same graham cracker crust – no way to improve on that, at least not easily. Then we mix two boxes of banana pudding with two boxes of chocolate pudding, but use only half the milk called for on the boxes. This makes the pie much firmer and easier to slice, though I must confess that sometimes we just grab forks and eat it right out of the aluminum pan. Sliced bananas and whipped topping as before.

My family had their banana idiosyncracies, too, I guess. My mother used to eat bananas with peanut butter, long before Elvis invented or at least popularized the fried banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich. She’d just smear a dollop of peanut butter on top of the banana, bite off the end, and repeat.

Maybe I should suggest to Dan that he try to invent a banana-and-peanut-butter pie. I don’t think peanut butter pudding exists. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.) So I think it would be a matter of mixing the peanut butter into the banana pudding and tinkering with the milk ratio until the consistency is right.

We’re going to have a house-warming party this spring when our house is rebuilt. Maybe I should consider having a desserts-only buffet and serving all three kinds of pie and the banana cake as well. Of course, anyone allergic to bananas, chocolate, or peanut butter would be out of luck. We’ll have to have some plain old pound cake for them.

Or spice cake. Is anyone allergic to raisins?

 

Our Favorite Meal Kit Has Been Decided

A while back, I wrote a blog post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-KI) about our experiences with various meal delivery services, the kind where you find a box of food left on your doorstep like an orphaned child. Then you bring it in, cook it, and eat it. (This is apparently turning into a Grimm’s fairy tale.)

Since then, we have had a couple more experiences with meal kits, so I thought I would update the post.

One of the meal services that we hadn’t tried was Freshly. Freshly differs from the other meal delivery kits in that, instead of sending you a bunch of ingredients, they send you already prepared meals for you to microwave. At first this seemed like something that would go with our low-maintenance cooking lifestyle, but then I realized that what we were getting was basically classier TV dinners.

Not that the meals involved Salisbury steak, mixed veg, and a blob of mashed potatoes, with possibly a square of apple un-crisp if you got the fancy kind. We had chicken tikka masala, mahi, and cod cakes as our week’s choices, and they all came out of the ‘wave hot and appealing-looking. They weren’t bad.

The only thing was, they were hard to modify (well, and the portion size was a bit small, too). The tikka masala, for example, we both thought could have used more spice. Of course, we could have sprinkled red pepper flakes on top (if we had any left over from the previous day’s delivery pizza). Or we could have doused it with any of the weird spice blends my husband is in the habit of bringing home from the store. What we couldn’t do, however, was add an ingredient into the sauce and let it mingle with all the other flavors until they decided to play nicely together.

In other words, the Freshly kits took away the cooking, but they also took away the cooking, if you see what I mean.

Then EveryPlate, one of the meal services I had tried before, lured me back with a special offer I couldn’t resist. Our first three meals were chicken fajitas with lime crema, pasta with sausage and squash ribbons, and pork schnitzel with cucumber/potato salad. This week we received honey-glazed pork chops with roasted broccoli, Cajun chicken sausage penne, and lemon-thyme chicken linguine. Next week we’re getting hoisin-glazed meatloaves with wasabi mashed potatoes, sausage-stuffed peppers with couscous, and harissa-roasted chickpea bowls with avocado dressing. (The three-week offer was one thing that made it so appealing.)

These are meals that we can adapt if we want to. For example, I may want to cut back on the amount of wasabi in the mashed potatoes because of my feelings about wasabi and because, since they’ll send it as a separate ingredient, I can. Likewise, we can use less salt than the (included) recipe recommends, as my husband is (supposed to be) on a heart-healthy diet and cutting down on salt is an easy change to make. (So are sensible portion sizes, which the delivery meals provide.)

The meals do require a bit of prep – chopping, peeling, dicing, stirring, creating squash ribbons (not a thing I do regularly). But oddly enough, that has proved to be one of the things that I like best about them. Since I’m no longer allowed to use sharp objects, my husband prepares the mise-en-place (as they say in cooking shows). I take care of tasks such as putting the potatoes or linguine on to boil or heating the oil to fry the schnitzel.

This has taken us back to a time in our lives when we used to cook together, which I often forget was an entertaining and joyful thing (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-kb). And the choices, while limited to eight per week, provide more variety than the old staples that we have fallen into making, like spaghetti, frittata, and cowboy beans (an invention of our own, from our early married days).

(Since I’ve taken EveryPlate up on their offer, they have let me send a free box of food to several friends. I’m curious to see if their reactions are similar to mine.)

All in all, this experience has moved EveryPlate into first place with me in what is thankfully not called The Great Meal Kit Race (not that I want to give Food Network any ideas). It’s also one of the least expensive services, so I might actually be able to afford it once this trial period ends. I’m hoping that the kits will actually save us money in the long run, since we won’t have to buy an entire jar of wasabi or six tomatoes when one is called for.

I had my doubts when I first heard about these meal kit delivery services, but I’m slowly becoming a convert.

Who’s Useless?

I saw a meme the other day that defined the laundry cycle as wash, 45 min.; dry, 60 minutes; fold and put away, 7-10 business days. That would be optimistic for me and my husband. We are useless people.

We started calling ourselves that when we were so exhausted at the end of the day that we were physically and emotionally unable to cook. So we turned to what we called “Useless People Meals” – ones that come in a box or bag or tray and only need to be microwaved. We eat them in the trays they come in or share them out of a single bowl since we are also too useless to wash many dishes. Paper towels are our napkins, and I’m sorry to report that we have been known on occasion to use paper plates and plastic cutlery. At least the plates are biodegradable.

We took another step towards uselessness when we found the perfect furniture for us – a coffee table that magically rises upward to become a dining table and an end table that swings out over the sofa to make a tray. With these in place, we can happily watch TV while we eat. (We still have meaningful conversations, mostly over who will be the next chef to be Chopped. But I digress.)

As noted above, laundry is another place to practice uselessness. All our clothing is wash-and-wear. We don’t even own an iron (or if we do, I have no idea where it’s gotten itself off to). If we ever do find the iron and would actually need to iron something, we’d have to lay it on the coffee table, which would also magically transform into an ironing board. Much easier just to toss a garment in the dryer with a dryer sheet or a damp washcloth.

I admit we’re useless. We want to skate through life doing as little physical labor as possible. And there are a lot of products designed to make life easier for people like us. The meal kits that are so popular nowadays are not for completely useless people. Some of them require actual chopping and cooking. The most recent one we tried, though, had ready-prepped meals that were microwaveable. And since we didn’t know what any of the delivery meals would taste like when we ordered them, there was something to be said for not spending much time preparing them.

But there are those who mock and deride what they see as completely useless practices, gizmos, and packaging.

They are wrong. My husband and I may be slackers, but some inventions actually make life easier for people with disabilities, who are not useless but merely incapacitated in some way. Imagine a person with rheumatoid arthritis trying to shell an egg or peel an orange and suddenly those egg-cooking gizmos and individually wrapped, already-peeled oranges in vending machines make sense. It is ableist privilege that makes people view such innovations as useless.

Even some of what my husband and I think of as for the useless would actually be great for people who are handicapped. Our “useless people coffee table” makes perfect sense if you think of someone who uses a wheelchair. And our “useless people” heat-and-eat meals are dandy for people who do not have the physical stamina to stand at a counter or a stove, chopping, mixing, stirring, straining, and all the other steps that are needed for a simple plate of spaghetti.

So we’re right to call ourselves useless people, but wrong to call our time- and step-saving practices and devices useless. The tools themselves are immensely useful and many people who use them, unlike us, are not useless at all. More and more, as the Baby Boomers age and we face illness and mobility issues, we will need to use those sock-puller-uppers and canes that stand by themselves and grippers to reach the stuff on the high shelves or on the ground. Whatever the need, it seems some clever soul has come up with a fix or a work-around.

I guess what I mean is that my husband and I are useless because we take advantage of these helpful tools just because we don’t want to do the work. There are those who use them because they need to and we will likely join them someday. At least we’ll have the tools already in place.

Magic in the Kitchen

It’s amazing what you can find in a kitchen. I admire people who have matching containers for flour, sugar, and mixing spoons. They usually also have kitchen gadgets that I can’t even name, let alone operate. Then there’s the ubiquitous kitchen junk drawer, which as a friend of mine noted, contains “rabies vaccination tags for cats that ran away” and “a dozen mangled twistie ties from last year’s Wonder Bread.” (He also called it “The Mother of All Clutter” and “Perfection’s Perfect Safety Valve.”)

But the most amazing thing you can find in the kitchen is a new life. A new start. A new purpose. Redemption.

I first realized this when my husband and I were watching the TV show Chopped. We couldn’t remember the names of the contestants, so we gave them nicknames: Who’s getting chopped this round? Red-beard guy! No, kerchief lady! Pickles everything dude! (We do the same with Forged in Fire. Santa Claus guy! Teenage upstart! Tattoo-neck! But I digress.)

One night there was a man on Chopped we took to calling “The Old Drunk,” because he was, well, old-looking and called himself a drunk when the judges asked him to tell a little bit about himself. He told how he had spent years as a hopeless alcoholic and how, after he got sober, cooking had saved him. I don’t remember whether he won Chopped, but now, I understand, he has cooking videos on YouTube and has appeared on other Food Network shows like Beat Bobby Flay. He seems to have done pretty well for himself on his journey up from rock bottom.

Then I started noticing other contestants with equally compelling stories. There have been more than a few who have credited cooking with saving their lives or giving them a way out of alcoholism or other addictions. Men have said that their lives started in gangs or ended in jail until they discovered cooking. One woman said it helped her escape from domestic abuse. Any number have said that cooking helped them feel pride in themselves when their families disapproved of their lifestyle or career choices. And quite a few competitors have said they used cooking to help overcome challenges such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other physical and mental difficulties.

This is not something that occurs only on TV, either. My husband used to work in community-based corrections. (And no, that’s not where we met.) As he counseled prisoners (inmates? clients?), he routinely heard that there were two professions that they wanted to explore when they were back on the streets: hairdressing and cooking.

(I don’t think there are any competitive hairdressing TV shows, but as soon as I say that, someone is bound to prove me wrong.)

What makes cooking such a redemptive pursuit? I think there are several answers. Cooking takes time, attention, and creativity when it’s done well. Even non-professional (or non-competitive) cooks can take pride in the idea that they are nourishing someone else – or even themselves.

I’m not saying that cooking will solve all a person’s problems or replace AA. But I do think that cooking, whether it’s at the level of professional or amateur, art or craft, hobby or necessity, speaks to something vital inside us. Food is necessary for life, after all, and making that into something expressive and loving and creative is transformative, of both the food and the self. It feeds not just bodies, but sometimes the soul.

I’m not sure about Forged in Fire. I don’t know whether bladesmithing is a redemptive act, too, though I imagine if done with sufficient commitment, pride, and artistry it could be. The same is likely true of many of the other competition-type shows. (Except Cupcake Wars. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone redeemed by cupcakes.)

One of the best-selling cookbooks of all time is The Joy of Cooking. I think it’s the joy as well as the struggle, the stumbles and disappointments, the cuts and burns, the standing rib roasts and the fallen soufflés, that give cooking its power to feed us all, and especially those who practice it with passion.

And those people I really admire, whether they’ve got their canisters in a row or not.

 

 

Living Large in a Hotel

You know all those movies from the 30s where people live in hotels and call for strawberries and champagne and poof! they appear at their door? Well, life in a hotel is not exactly like that, but it does have its moments.

We’re living in a hotel now not because we’re wealthy socialites or retirees looking for an alternative to a nursing home, but because our house was destroyed in a tornado and this is what the insurance company has set up for us. So, first of all, living in a hotel beats the hell of living in a Red Cross shelter, though we were very glad that there was one available the day the tornado hit. They provided hot meals (our current hotel provides hot breakfasts) and purchased us new underwear (which our current hotel has yet to offer).

When we left the accommodations at the First Baptist Church of Kettering, welcome as they were, we set up at a motel right across the street from a McDonalds. We were assigned a suite and later moved to a nicer suite. Both offered a fridge/freezer, microwave, cable TV, and USB ports in the electrical outlets, an amenity which we did not expect but greatly appreciated, what with all the telephone calls we would be making and receiving once we retrieved our cell phones.

Unfortunately, this microscopic motel did not allow pets, so our two cats were put up in a different facility, our vets’ boarding kennel. There they received three squares a day, a cozy room each, and all the loving they could con out of the attendants, plus shots and treatments for the various indignities they had suffered. In some ways, particularly the pets and scritchies, they were better off than we were.

Later, the insurance company moved us to a pet-friendly inn for residence, where we remain to this day (two weeks after the tornado struck). This is a semi-proper hotel. Not that the other was an improper hotel, the kind we spent our wedding night in. But this one features full breakfasts rather than Continental, plus mixers with appetizers three nights per week.

No strawberries and champagne, alas. There is no room service unless you count the local pizza parlors that service the establishment. No cocktail lounge either. But the kitchenette is improved by a full-sized refrigerator/freezer, a cooktop, and a dishwasher in addition to the microwave.

When I traveled with my mother to Rio back in the day, she was delighted by the wee room service amenities such as tiny pots of jam and decanters of cocoa, which she had never encountered before. This hotel equips the guests with not merely soap and shampoo, but small packets of salt and pepper, dishwashing liquid (to go with the plates, glasses, pots and pans, and other kitchen paraphernalia), paper towels, can opener, corkscrew – nearly everything a patron could wish. (The front desk sells laundry soap and there is a coin laundry on the third floor.)

Then there is the housekeeping service. I actually have no problems with this service – they even start the dishwasher if there are enough dirty dishes (though I’m not sure what quantity that is). The problem I have is with my husband. We could never have a maid at our home because (aside from the cost), the house would never be clean enough for a maid to come in and clean. He has a similar problem with the housekeeping staff, which means that we are piling up used paper towels, kitty litter (and barf), and such detritus until such time that enough of these items disappear that the housekeeping staff would not be appalled to vacuum our floors and change the sheets.

All in all, I can’t complain about living in a hotel, though when we move to a rental house (perhaps next week), we will have to make numerous trips to transfer all the clothes, food, and other accouterments that we have acquired during our stay. The bag of potatoes, for example, not to mention the laundry, both done and undone, could easily comprise a single load.

It’s been worth not having champagne and strawberries at our beck and call to have a safe and comfortable place for us and our kitties to recover and feel at least a little more normal. It will be a relief, though, to have a place, even if not our own, to spread out a bit more and resume our habits of daily living and not have to worry about the maids’ opinion of them.

Kiffles and Kugel, Facebook and Google

Dan was trying to remember the name of the holiday cookies he and his mother liked so much, but neither of them could recall it. “We used to have them at Uncle Rudy’s house,” Dan said. But no bells rang. Uncle Rudy was no longer available to provide any suggestions.

“What were they like?” I asked.

“They were rolled up and had walnuts in them.”

“Sounds a lot like rugelach,” I said. Strictly speaking, rugelach don’t have to be made with walnuts. They can have jam or other fillings inside. Along with hamentaschen, they’re a staple of Jewish baked goods. Dan had some Jewish relatives, so it seemed a good place to start the search.

“I think it began with a ‘k,'” he said.  “Maybe kugels?”

“No,” I said. “Kugel is a baked noodle dish. It’s not remotely like a cookie.”

So, as with most modern problems, we turned to Google. (At least it rhymes with kugel.) In fairly short order we found that the cookies in question were kiffles, and their origin was Hungarian. We found a recipe that sounded reasonably simple on Allrecipes.com.

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/235921/hungarian-kiffles/

I decided to check it out with a Hungarian friend to see if the recipe was authentic.  He said he didn’t remember them from childhood, but he added, “You had me at ‘a pound of butter.'” (Actually, they had me at “a pound of cream cheese.” The recipe made 36 cookies. It was clear that this was not a heart-healthy recipe, but what holiday baked goods are, really?)

Well, I suppose you can write the ending to this one. There is now half a batch of kiffle dough resting overnight in our fridge. Tomorrow we bake! And evaluate. And tweak if necessary for a second batch.

But the kiffle saga had me thinking. What other cookies or treats did people have in their childhood or from their heritage that they could no longer get or could barely remember? Naturally, this time I turned to Facebook. A quick post brought some interesting answers. And a lot of warm memories.

Jean remembered a cookie called Springerlies and thought they were Italian. “Mom’s friend made them. They were a real treat when we got them.”  Gwen replied that Springerlies are German, though most likely multicultural. “A friend spends days making them and other German cookies every year,” she said. “Awesome cookies!”

So here for you, Jean and Gwen, is a recipe:

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/9922/springerle-i/

Trish voted for Spritz cookies. “My mom used to make them, I think my Nana did too. I don’t have a recipe….” Well Trish, now you do! The recipe comes straight from Gold Medal Flour, so it ought to be authentic.

http://www.goldmedalflour.com/recipes/classic-spritz-cookies/ccd9d7f3-6075-4593-be61-7b0aeb02bc88

Lisa remembered, “My mom used to make these cookies called Spice of Life. They were a soft, dark molasses cookie, rolled in sugar. She’s lost the recipe, unfortunately, and I haven’t been able to recreate it.” Here you go, Lisa. This recipe actually appeared in a murder mystery by Diane Mott Davidson. It sounds fantastic! You had me at molasses and spices.

http://recipecircus.com/recipes/Stella/COOKIES/Spice-of-Life_Cookies.html

Jane’s favorite was date nut cookies.  They involved sweet dough, covered with dates and nuts, rolled like a jelly roll, sliced, and baked. “People are not into dates anymore, although about five years ago I saw the very same recipe in a magazine, and couldn’t believe it.” She also mentioned pizelles, very thin butter cookies, covered in powdered sugar. “They sell them in fancy shops, but you can make them pretty easily,” she added. They do require a special machine to make, which I’m guessing costs a packet at Williams Sonoma.

Melissa, whose background is Swiss-German, mentioned Mailänderli, Spitzbuebe, Basler Läckerli, and Züri Tirggel. “No one is ever going to make them like my grandmother did, and no place is ever going to be as comfortable as the chair in the tiny spot between the radiator and the kitchen table.” She’s been experimenting with recreating two of the cookies, but says she hasn’t got the texture quite right yet. Here’s a recipe for the Basler Läckerli:

https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/basler-leckerli-566387f7424bb12207dbef07

Gwen also told about a holiday cake – makowiac, or poppyseed roll, with filling 1/2″ thick. She says she has her grandmom’s recipe, but that it’s labor intensive. (I looked at a recipe and is she ever right!) Gwen ordered one from a specialty bakery and is hoping it lives up to the legendary dessert of memory.

Peggy said that her mom didn’t make cookies, instead making fudge and peanut butter balls for teacher gifts. Robbin makes rum balls that can knock you on your ass.

Other friends fondly remembered treats that are not uncommon nowadays but don’t always live up to memories. Michael mentioned Toll House cookies – the chewy kind. (I’m with him on that.) And Wendy was fond of Scooter Pies – Moon Pies, readily available, just aren’t the same, she says.

It was fun hearing the stories and chasing down recipes. To all my friends I wish fond memories and a lovely, treat-filled holiday! You’ve made mine a little bit sweeter.

The Tender-Hearted Carnivore

gray steel cooking pan near orange lobster
Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca on Pexels.com

My husband is a carnivore, or actually an omnivore, like the bear that he resembles. But if he tried to live like a bear, he would never survive. He’s just too sensitive about what he eats.

He’s not a member of PETA, but he has certain qualities in common with them. He won’t eat veal or goose liver because he objects to the conditions in which the animals are raised – closely confined and force-fed. It’s no life for an animal, he says. Neither is being slaughtered, sauteed, and served for supper, for that matter, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. I can sympathize with his position.

When he’s forced to participate in said slaughter, he’s even more uncomfortable. My mother was raised in the country and delighted in fishing. She also delighted in frying and eating her catch. Dan can tolerate fishing if it’s catch-and-release (though just barely). And he would refrain from commenting when my mother served up her self-caught delights. But on the way home, he would look positively morose.

He had an even more extreme reaction when we were on a sailing vacation off the coast of Maine. We anchored at a tiny, uninhabited island and the ship’s cook started a fire.  A huge pot of seawater and seaweed sat ominously nearby. So did a container of live lobsters.

Now, Dan doesn’t even like to watch live lobsters being prepared on television. He began referring to Emeril Lagasse as “the Evil Cook” when he saw the TV chef throw live crayfish into a hot skillet and laugh about it.  If I’m watching a cooking show, I have to tell him to cover his eyes whenever a live crustacean is going to be sacrificed.

Anyway, when the cook in Maine got ready to drop the lobsters in the pot, Dan took a melancholy walk around the island. Mind you, when he returned and found the lobsters bright red and safely dead, he devoured three of them, banging their bodies against rocks to get them open, proper lobster-cracking tools not having been provided. Lobster juice ran down his face into his beard. He wasn’t squeamish about that.

I began to think he was carrying his sensitivity too far, however, when he started objecting to barbecue restaurants whose signs featured happy pigs serving up platters of ribs. “They’re showing smiling pigs serving themselves up to be devoured,” he asserted. No amount of reassurance that the signs were merely illustrations could suppress his uneasiness. It was the principle of the thing.

When I totally lost sympathy for his obsession, though, was when he started objecting to TV commercials that showed cereal squares eating other cereal squares (and licking their nonexistent lips). He objected to the cannibalistic element, which he found offensive.

“They’re cereal,” I pointed out. “And they’re animated. No grain suffered in the production of the cereal. Nothing alive was harmed in the production of the commercial.” It didn’t matter.

“They’re presented as sentient,” he said, “and they’re eating their own kind.”

Well, there’s really no way to argue with that, so I just roll my eyes and don’t even try.

Oddly, Dan loves movies and shows about mountain men who hunt and forage for their food under harsh, primitive conditions. He doesn’t like it when the animals get their paws caught in traps and suffer because of it, but he suddenly doesn’t object to the killing of a sentient being and the subsequent devouring of it.

Despite his affinity with mountain men, I try to point out that he would be lousy at it. “Not if I was hungry enough,” he replies. “Then I could do it.” He’s eaten venison, but personally, I can’t picture him shooting, skinning, and butchering a deer. He might have to become a vegetarian at that point and his career as a mountain man would be over.

Until a moose was magically transformed into moose steaks and presented to him wrapped in styrofoam and plastic at the local grocery, I doubt he’d survive.

Which Meal Kit(s) Did We Like Best?

brown fish fillet on white ceramic plate
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Not too long ago I decided I would try a few meal delivery kits, the kind that send you a box of fresh ingredients with enough food for three dinners, plus recipes.

I was curious and I had heard that meal kits could help reduce grocery bills and food waste, both of which can be problems in our household.

Full disclosure: I did not tell anyone that I was doing this, most particularly not the producers of the meal kits. I did not set out to rank the kits and I am receiving nothing in exchange for my opinions.

The services I tried were Home Chef, Hello Fresh, SunBasket, EveryPlate, and Dinnerly. I took advantage of introductory offers to order a different kit every week for a month. Here’s what I found.

From Home Chef we selected the shrimp yakisoba noodle bowl, New England fish cakes, and Italian pork wedding pasta.

Our selections from Hello Fresh were orzo and sausage with veggies, shrimp with zucchini ribbons, and sweet and smoky pork tenderloin.

The SunBasket meals we ordered were salmon with white bean artichoke salad, coconut shrimp, and a skillet version of moussaka.

From EveryPlate we chose spicy chicken tacos and slaw, chicken cutlets with mashed sweet potato, and Asian bbq pork with rice and broccoli.

Dinnerly provided mole chile and rice, caprese pasta, and spicy egg rolls with Thai sauce.

Now on to the comparisons.

Delivery

Each box arrived in a timely fashion, most of them by noon and all before dinner. The boxes were sturdy cardboard with cold packs inside to keep the fresh ingredients that way. The boxes were left on the doorstep without our having to sign for them, which was good, except when it rained and the bottom of the box became soggy.  But I prefer that to needing to be home when the box arrives.

Packaging

Packaging evidently makes a difference to some users of the services. Three of them packed the ingredients for each meal in a separate bag, Hello Fresh and SunBasket’s in brown paper bags, Home Chef’s in plastic (though reusable) bags. Dinnerly and EveryPlate went the grocery cart route, with all the ingredients somewhere in the box, making the user sort them into each meal’s supplies.

Ingredients

All the ingredients arrived in satisfactory condition, although the chard in one box was slightly limp but usable. Sauces and such came in little restaurant packages or cute little jars.  The pesto for the caprese pasta and the dipping sauce for the eggrolls were in lidded plastic cups inside plastic bags, which made me nervous, but held up despite the potential for mess. The one egg called for in a recipe came in a cunning little individual egg box and, amazingly, arrived safely.  If garlic was required, a whole head arrived, with instructions to use two cloves and save the rest for later.

I was generally satisfied with the amount of ingredients, although all of the services should look at sending more tomatoes than they do, especially since they provide roma tomatoes and tell you to seed and core them, leaving very little actual tomato flesh.

I was surprised that shrimp featured in so many dishes. Pork and chicken were other prominent proteins. The lack of beef was explained when I noticed that most beef dishes cost extra – keep an eye peeled, because these premium prices aren’t prominently marked.

Recipes

Detailed recipes are included with each box, except for Dinnerly, which asks you to download the recipes from their website. Home Chef’s recipes came packed in a notebook binder, making it easy to save the hole-punched instructions. The recipes all included five or six steps, mostly evenly divided between prep and cooking. My husband had been worried that the dishes might not be filling, but he was wrong. He was satisfied with the portions.

The meal delivery services assume you have some standard pantry ingredients like salt, pepper, and flour, and common kitchen implements such as knives and colanders. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a vegetable peeler, which meant our zucchini ribbons were less than uniform, or a grater, so the carrots in our slaw were rather larger than recommended.

Flavor

I’d have to say that the results here were hit or miss. There were excellent dishes from each service, and less successful ones as well.  Particular favorites were Hello Fresh’s sausage with orzo, which was more flavorful than Home Chef’s similar Italian wedding pasta. SunBasket had one real winner, the salmon with white-bean/artichoke salad, and one not so great, the coconut shrimp. Overall, we liked the Dinnerly dishes the best, though of course we had no way to judge the flavor when ordering. You’re totally dependent on the pictures and descriptions, though some are thoughtfully labeled “spicy,” which may or may not be accurate.

We found many of the dinners a little bland, probably because they recommend adding a fair amount of salt, which we don’t for health reasons (the sodium levels in the nutrition information can be quite high). We had to supplement with Mrs. Dash or ingredients like chili flakes left over from previous meals.

Price

Here’s where the meal services really differ. Although all of them do seem to reduce food waste, and you probably do save money by not buying a whole bunch of carrots instead of just two or two ounces of Thai chili sauce instead of a whole bottle, the dinner boxes are not inexpensive. EveryPlate and Dinnerly were the most economical, with prices around $5 per person per meal, which is not unreasonable.  The other meal services were as high as $11 per person per meal, which means they’re comparable to eating out at a casual dining restaurant, something we couldn’t do three times a week.  Add to that the delivery charges, and the prices are more appropriate for someone with a higher income than we have.

EveryPlate and Dinnerly suffer, though, by offering a choice of only five and six different meals per week, respectively. Perhaps that’s how they keep costs down. Other services offer up to 18 choices per week.

Bottom line? If we were more financially stable, EveryPlate or Dinnerly would get my vote. There might be fewer choices per week, but since I never really know how any recipe will taste, that doesn’t seem a complete drawback. Plus, if nothing appeals, I can always skip a week.

 

The Great Meal Kit Experiment

We have had trouble with our meals.  Well, that’s not quite true. We’ve had trouble with our grocery budget. Actually, both those things are true.

The first part of the problem is shopping. My husband works in a store that sells, among other things, groceries. And he just can’t resist meats which, while on special, are still so expensive I’m tempted to take out a meat loan to get them. Plus, he’s unable to resist the Manager’s Special, Close-Out, and Day Old tables.

That might seem like frugal shopping, but it results in a variety of bizarre foods that we would never otherwise have purchased. Vanilla butter. Bourbon-apple salsa. Snacks that taste like sesame-flavored cardboard. And the “reduced” prices don’t mean they’re cheap. You should have seen the price tags the week the store cleared out the “Imported from Italy” section. Imported pesto isn’t cheap, let me tell you.

Our next problem is waste. We waste a lot of food. Our refrigerator is so unreliable that it regularly freezes any produce we buy and turns it into unidentifiable slimy green goo. This is good neither for our budget nor for our appetites. We are reduced to buying prepared deli salads – which are hideously expensive but can be eaten the same day – or getting bags of cole slaw mix that are hideously expensive but can be eaten with my special slaw dressing (mayonnaise and pickle juice) which my husband loves. That we devour in a day or two. Frozen peas and corn and canned tomatoes are the most vegetable-like things we can keep on hand. And sometime V-8 juice.

Anyway, our food expenditures are outrageous. I’ve tried setting a budget, but my husband does the shopping and is unable to understand the concept. I’ve tried splitting the shopping with him, but every night when he gets off work he picks up a few more (or even more) items that he seems psychologically unable to resist.

So, in the hope of reducing both the amount we spend and the amount we waste, I have decided to try an experiment. Those meal kits we hear so much about on TV and online promise solutions to budget, preparation, shopping, and variety of meals. They are said to provide good nutrition, reduce waste, and be ever so yummy.

So each week for the next six weeks, I am ordering one of those yuppie, home-delivered meal kits. I am taking advantage of special promotional deals, as there is no way that paying the full price would produce any actual savings. I am not receiving any freebies or reduced prices by promising to blog about any of them.

The services I have chosen for this experiment are:

Home Chef

Blue Apron

Hello Fresh

EveryPlate

SunBasket

and Dinnerly.

Each week will receive three recipes and sets of appropriate ingredients for the making thereof. My husband is dubious of this experiment, as he claims (rightly) that the portion sizes they will deliver will not match the portion sizes of meals that he prepares. I try to point out that this is not necessarily a bad thing and that we can always supplement with appetizers, yogurt, pretzels, or popcorn should we feel unsatisfied.

I am trying to select a range of meals that will be filling yet different from our usual fare, involving ingredients we don’t usually have on hand and international cuisines we don’t make at home.

For the rest of the meals for the week, hubby can shop for whatever he chooses, though I fervently hope he will stick to staples like chicken, ground beef, fish, rice, beans, canned tomatoes, mushrooms, frozen vegetables, potatoes, pasta, eggs, bread, and the like. He makes an awesome frittata, an amazing shepherd’s pie, and a killer deconstructed mac-n-cheeseburger.

At the end of this experiment, I will report back on the results. My goals are variety in cuisine, reduced waste, lower grocery bills, and fewer odd ingredients that go with nothing else.

Our first delivery is arriving on our doorstep Tuesday.

Wish us luck.

Weird Food Faves and Fails

I admire adventurous cooks. Especially ones who make something out of what’s already in the house instead of going to the store for a double rack or ribs, which requires taking out a meat loan. If it’s in the fridge, freezer, or pantry, it’s fair game. Unless it’s game in the pantry, in which case you have bigger problems than what to eat.

People who cook this way inspired me and my husband to start cooking again after a long spell of frozen, pre-cooked Useless People Meals™. Tom and Leslie had a dish called “Experimental Chicken,” which, as you can probably guess, never came out the same way twice. It did, however, have a consistent theory – chicken, salt, pepper, garlic, and some kind of sauce. Any kind of sauce. Chili. Thai. Mexican. Indian. Martian. (They are both science fiction fans.)

My husband and I were inspired. Our dishes were not just experiments; at times they seemed straight out of a mad scientist’s lab. The trend was encouraged by the fact that my husband likes the one-of-a-kind and slight-irregulars tables at the stores where he shops. He’ll bring home a “unique” ingredient and then try to build a dish around it.

For example, he recently brought home spaghetti sauce in two flavors: regular and chipotle. The only problem was, the sauces weren’t tomato-based. They used pumpkin as the main ingredient. And he decided to try them out not with regular spaghetti, but with spaghetti squash.

Now, I’m not a big fan of spaghetti squash, which I find watery and tasteless. And the pumpkin sauces looked, shall we say, dubious. I instantly knew why they had appeared on the “Manager’s Special” table. But there they were, so in the interest of science and encourage culinary courage, I agreed to try it.

Given the bland nature of spaghetti squash, I picked the pumpkin-chipotle sauce to go with it. We figured out how to solve the wet-noodle problem thanks to Google, which has replaced cookbooks in our kitchen. And Dan decided to add some bite-sized chunks of leftover pork chop because he feels that every meal should contain meat, unless he has to kill it himself.

The first forkful was not inspiring. It was definitely pumpkiny, with a brief finish of chipotle on the back of the tongue. The more we ate of it, the less odd it seemed to get. The result was what I like to call a “Work in Progress” – something that’s survivable but needs either tweaking or a major overhaul before it enters our regular repertoire. I still hope the manager never finds that sauce “special” again, though.

Another one-of-a-kind item that appeared in the grocery bag was apple-bourbon salsa. It struck me as an awful combination for salsa, though I do enjoy peach or mango salsa. But, valiantly, I dipped in a chip and made a discovery. “This is horrible salsa,” I said. It reminded me of all those weird new alcoholic drinks like cranapple schnapps and birthday cake tequila and whatever that liqueur is that comes in a bottle that looks like Oil of Olay.

“But,” I added, “it tastes like pretty good barbecue sauce.” We tried it out on a handy pork loin that had survived in our freezer, and declared it delicious. Now I wish we could find another jar of it.

Our best culinary invention came when my husband, disappointed by a frozen cheeseburger mac that contained only ground meat, macaroni, and cheese, declared, “We can do better than this!”

Our new, improved version included those basics, plus garlic, diced onion, diced tomatoes with green chiles, and diced dill pickles. And way too much cheese – our theory is that everything should come with way too much cheese. Occasionally we add mushrooms or bacon if some happens to be around.

But the ingredient that really makes the dish – and makes it taste like a real cheeseburger – is a drizzle of ketchup over the top. As over the top (sorry, not sorry) as that may sound, it brings the whole dish together. Even I, ketchup lover that I am, had my doubts, but once I tried it I loved it and we have never made this one-skillet meal without it since.

Unfortunately, not every experimental dish goes that well. A man I once knew had a “signature dish” that he regularly made. It started innocently enough, with ground beef and rice in a stew pot. Then it started to get weird. Knorr instant split-pea soup was the next ingredient. After that all cooked together to a porridge-y consistency, at the last moment before serving, he added pineapple chunks “for the contrast in flavor, texture, and temperature.”

And that wasn’t even the worst of it. He made huge batches of it and kept adding things as the days went by. The most, uh, memorable addition was leftover Chinese food. The actual “recipe” has not survived, and neither did the relationship.

The porridge may not have actually ended the romance, but it’s surely no accident that I ended up with a man who at least understands the concept of flavor profiles, even if he does shop from the quick-sale table.