Tag Archives: food

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.

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.

Sushi Tales From the Midwest

It’s not as hard as it used to be finding sushi here in the midwest anymore. It can be hard finding good sushi. Fortunately I live in a community that contains an Air Force base and a university with programs such as bioengineering that draw a diverse and sophisticated population. It is no longer impossible to find good sushi. The variety may be less than what’s available on either coast or in bigger cities, but someone (like me) with a taste for the Japanese delicacy can find satisfaction, along with sashimi, sunomono, and low-sodium soy sauce.

But it hasn’t always been easy. Here are some fish tales from my journey from doubter to aficionado.

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The first time I tried sushi was in one of those social situations where it is simply impossible to refuse. (Not unlike the time I ate egg salad, which I loathe, at my sister’s mother-in-law’s.)

I belonged to a martial arts club, and one weekend we were invited to the sensei’s house to help answer mail and do some other dojo-related paperwork chores. His wife, a lovely Japanese lady, served up a plate of sushi. That she had made by hand. Using seaweed from her family’s farm in Japan. Short of a deathly fish allergy, there is no conceivable way to refuse such an offer. So we all gulped a little and then gulped a little.

I don’t know what everyone else thought, but I found it odd yet somewhat pleasant. I believe I acquitted myself well. And I decided that if the opportunity ever came up again, I would certainly indulge.

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That opportunity came on my husband’s and my fifth anniversary. We got dressed up and went to a tony Japanese restaurant about 45 minutes away. (Sushi had not yet penetrated the local market. Now it’s available in the local supermarket.)

We ordered a sushi appetizer and tempura entrees. I informed my husband that under no circumstances was he allowed to ask for a knife and fork. The sushi portion of the meal went swimmingly until Dan noticed the little pile of green paste on his plate and scooped up a healthy mouthful. Of course it was wasabi, and of course the top of his head blew off. A fan of horseradish in all its forms, he still likes the stuff, but now in more judicious quantities. The pickled ginger is much more forgiving.

(Later in the dinner I complimented him on how well he was doing with the chopsticks, despite his lack of practice. He replied, “Honey, I’m a compulsive overeater. I’d eat with my elbows if I had to.”)

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Not everyone is enthusiastic about their first encounter with sushi, or compelled by circumstance to try it. But sometimes another person can be convincing and compelling.

I once dined with a husband and wife at a Japanese restaurant, The wife passed on the sushi.

The husband turned to her and said:

“Do you really want me to tell the children that you wouldn’t even try it?”

Bam! Emotional judo for the win. (He would have done it, too.) She had no response possible, aside from the most profound of dirty looks.

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I have no problem with people who actually don’t care for sushi – once they’ve tried it. My friend Tom was a case in point. We were dining at an excellent sushi bar and he expressed a desire to give it a try.

It was beautiful sushi. Gloriously dark red tuna reposed on a pillow of sticky rice. Of course when Tom asked to try a piece, I had to say yes. If he was ever going to like sushi, this was the piece he would like (aside from oshinko or other non-raw-fish varieties, of course).

And he didn’t like it. But I was so proud of him for trying. Without even the threat of disappointed kids.

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My husband’s coworkers were not so brave. They had a tradition on birthdays of letting the celebrant choose the restaurant. Dan chose a local sushi bar, and had to put up with the disgusted faces and the gagging noises they made as he ate his way through a platter of assorted delights.

Of course, when sushi became trendy a few years later, all the fellows were bragging about how much they loved it. Dan refrained from reminding them that they were raving over what they had once considered – and derided – as bait.

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And what of fugu fish, the potentially deadly blowfish that, unless properly prepared, can kill with an insidious neurotoxin? Am I brave enough to try that?

Fortunately, I don’t have to answer. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no properly qualified fugu masters in our area and so no fugu on the menu anywhere around.

But if I ever get into a social situation where eating fugu is the only possible option, I like to think that I would smile, say, “Domo arigatou gozaimasu” and dig in. It might be the last thing I ever did, but I would die politely.

Mold and Fungus – Yum!

I understand that eating crickets (possibly chocolate-covered) is a recent foodie thing.(1) I’m in no hurry to try it, despite what I see on the Food Network.

But I must admit that two of my favorite foods are mold and fungus.(2)

Cheese would not exist without mold (or bacteria, or curdling, or the lining of various animals’ stomachs), and mushrooms are fungus, plain and simple. Still, most people would find it odd to see a frittata recipe that said, “Add chopped fungus, then grate moldy milk over the top.”

Blue cheese slices closeupI believe, however, that cheese should keep its origins secret. That is to say, I do not like cheese that reminds me that it has moldy origins. As far as I’m concerned, blue veins belong beneath aging skin, and are not for human consumption. And nothing that smells like old sweat socks, including old sweat socks, should be put in my mouth.

That being said, American, Swiss, colby, jack, muenster, havarti, boursin, mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta, gouda, marscapone, provolone, asiago, feta, neufchâtel, paneer, brick, farmer, brie, and the entire family of cheddars are welcome on my palate or in my recipes. In fact, all my recipes contain the instruction, “Add way too much cheese.”(3)

The world should come with too much cheese. I’ve tried to think of a food that isn’t better with cheese, and aside from Asian dishes, all I’ve come up with is ice cream. Now that I think about it, though, I can picture brie and blueberry ice cream being worth a try. Or maybe cheddar and bacon.

I suspect my love of cheese springs from a childhood in a meat-and-potato, cheese-poor home. And when I say “cheese-poor,” I mean “poor cheese” –  Velveeta, those rubbery orange bricks good only for grilled cheese sandwiches and giving pills to gullible dogs.

Photo by Dan Reily
Photo by Dan Reily

The other category of dubious food is fungus. Mushrooms have two marks mark against them for squeamish eaters: They are fungi and they grow in manure.(4)

Our family kitchen also lacked mushrooms, which I didn’t discover until I read Lord of the Rings and learned that they were hobbits’ favorite food. After cautiously trying a few at salad bars, I was a convert.(5) Now I like them raw, marinated, sautéed in butter or wine, or in sauces and gravies – morels, chanterelles, woodear, oyster, cremini, shitake, porcini, or, failing all else, button mushrooms.

These days my favorite fungus is the mighty, meaty portobello. I introduced my husband to these at an Italian restaurant. I informed him that we were having the stuffed portobello as an appetizer, and that he was not allowed to ask the server how many were in an order. I knew his head would explode if he found out that one mushroom cap equaled a serving. When it arrived, imposing and luscious and overflowing with bread crumbs and mold, his taste buds exploded with delight instead.

You may deduce from all this that one of my favorite foods is a pizza with a six-cheese blend and double mushrooms, which I hardly ever get, as my husband is a dedicated carnivore and a fan of veggies.(6)

In fact, I believe mushroom pizza is nature’s nearly-perfect food. I say “nearly perfect,” because it does not contain all four of the food groups: salty, sticky, sweet, and crunchy.(7) Using those criteria, nature’s perfect food is the chocolate-covered pretzel – hold the crickets, please. It contains no cheese or mushrooms, but nothing’s that perfect. You could always eat it for dessert. No, wait, the perfect dessert is a cheese plate.

 

(1) Although it’s been a thing in many countries for thousands of years. They skip the chocolate in favor of toasting, I believe.

(2) Not the sort that one finds in unsavory locker rooms, though.

(3) It’s about the only way I get calcium, aside from the little chewy supplements.

(4) A relative once had a job picking mushrooms in a cave, a job for which, unsurprisingly, no experience is required. She didn’t last a day. I thought about getting her one of those grow-your-own mushroom kits for Christmas, but restrained myself. Now I wish I hadn’t.

(5) During my Girl Scout days, I would occasionally forage for delectable, easily identifiable morels, but now I indulge in mushrooms for which other people can be blamed, and sued, if I die.

(6) Really, he’ll eat anything you put in front of him, except veal (for ethical reasons). He even taught himself to tolerate okra, which he formerly hated. I don’t understand why he did this, but perhaps it was an exercise in overcoming prejudice, or maybe sliminess.

(7) You can get the crunchy element by making a frico, or by overbaking mac-n-cheese, which I heartily recommend.

Light Crumbs and Muffin Bones

A woman told a joke and I collapsed in hysterics before she even got to the punchline. Here’s the set-up:

Why did the man have a hundred-dollar bill tattooed on his wing-wing?

That’s when I lost it.(1)

I found out later that she called a woman’s genitals her “tutu.” Which no doubt confused her kids the first time they saw a ballet.

Almost every family, and many politicians and pundits, have trouble calling things by their right names. So we have “lady parts” and “va-jay-jays” and “junk.” Even “uterus” was too shocking for the Florida State Legislature, which reprimanded a member for letting such a word fall on delicate ears, “particularly [those of] the young pages and messengers who are seated in the chamber during debates.”(2)

But every family also has unique words and phrases that enter their vocabulary and stay there, though not for fear of giving offense. They’re just things that no outsider understands.

Some of these terms are created by children and have no equivalent in adult language. One little girl said she wanted an Easter hat with a “go-down.” “You’ll have to show me one,” her mother said. Turns out a go-down was a ribbon that dangled down the back.

Another child invented “move-down” for that moment during a meal when you’re not completely full but need your stomach contents to settle a bit. My husband and I have adopted that one. It’s just so darn useful. “Are you through?” “No, just having a move-down.”

Here’s a good example of one of our neologisms(3): Light crumbs. Dan works nights and hates to leave lights on because of the power bills. I, on the other hand, can’t find my way upstairs without light. I can’t even get from the sofa to the switch by the stairs. If I get up the stairs, I can’t make it to the switch in the bathroom. If I get that far, I can’t make it to my bedside lamp. I have balance problems and walking in the dark makes me dizzy. Plus we have a cat whose nickname is “Mr. Underfoot.”

So Dan leaves a trail of light crumbs for me to follow like a vision-impaired Hansel and/or Gretel. Instead of turning them on as I reach them, I turn them off as I pass them. It’s less doofy than hanging a flashlight around my neck, more agreeable than sending the power company more than absolutely necessary, and easier on Garcia’s tail. Win, win, win.

Many of our personal vocabulary items have to do with food. Here are a few, with definitions.

Muffin bones. When you eat ribs, you usually have a side plate for the bones. When my husband was doing the low-carb thing, he wouldn’t eat pizza crusts. He would put them aside, and they became pizza bones. Similarly, the empty, sticky, crumby fluted paper cups that hold muffins are muffin bones.

Tuna juice. No, we don’t put fish through a juicer.(4) Tuna juice is the water that tuna packed in water is packed in. Cats love it, either straight up or mixed with their regular food.

Not-flan. I had a recipe for a sweet baked good involving pastry crust, eggs, cream cheese, sugar, and optional fruit topping. My husband kept calling it “flan.” I told him that wasn’t the thing’s name. “What is it then?” he demanded. I was stumped. “Well, not flan!” I replied. Ever since that has been our name for it. Later, after I thought it over, “Way-Too-Big Cheese Danish” would have been more accurate. But by then it was too late.(5)

Cat-related activities are good sources for invented words too. Here are some of ours:

Cat fit. Also known as “the Crazy Hour,” this is when cats race around the house for no apparent reason, as if the devil himself were after them.(6)

Bag mice. Those things that make the rustling noise inside either paper or plastic, that cats must protect their owners from. I was pleased to learn that this phenomenon must be universal, as once in Dubrovnik, a black catten(7) detected bag mice in our souvenir bag. (It’s also possible that it just wanted to sneak into the U.S.)

Kitty burrito. Not a food item, but what you must make in order to give a cat pills, fluids, eye drops, or other indignities. Swaddling in a towel is traditional, but we find that dropping the cat in a pillowcase and then doing the burrito folds makes it harder for the patient to squirm loose.

I have not trademarked or copyrighted any of these words or phrases. Feel free to use them if you wish. And if you’d like to share some of your most useful invented vocabulary items with readers of this blog, please do. But please, no euphemisms or slang terms for penis and vagina. We already have way too many of those.

(1) If you are the one person in the world who’s never heard it, the punchline is: Because he heard how women love to blow money.

(2) Pages and messengers range in age from 12-18. I envision an 18-year-old asking, “Mommy, what’s a uterus?”

(3) Look it up.

(4) Or cook them in the dishwasher, which apparently is a thing.

(5) This was also not during Dan’s low-carb phase.

(6) Once Maggie got her back paw tangled in a plastic shopping bag, got scared, and was chased up the stairs by a recently purchased videotape of An American in Paris, which is not exactly the devil, but pretty alarming anyway. Because no matter how fast you run, it’s still always Right There Behind You.

(7) Not a kitten, but not full-grown; a teen-ager.