Category Archives: DESTINATIONS

Places to go

Is Variety the Spice of Life?

TRAVEL HERE: AND THE WINNERS ARE…

We give up.  Perhaps the perfect meal kit service doesn’t exist, but we’ve identified some dogs.  He likes Hello Fresh for this and that, but if Home Chef is going to continue to delight me with dishes like Yorkshire Pudding, well I want it, too. Blue Apron, finally fell off the wagon for a variety of reasons. So for now, I’ll be juggling two services and hopefully I’ll figure out a system to insure that we don’t end up with two boxes of food for any particular week as I did a few weeks ago.  Perhaps someday down the road, one of the services will pull ahead of the others, but for now, I’ll just claim variety is the spice of life.

Why Not Blue Apron?

This journey began with several months of Blue Apron.  I’d done my research and read from several sources they were the best value – not the cheapest, but the one who provided the best product for the greatest value.  I loved it so much.  It wasn’t perfect, but it beat my own meal planning and food management, for a while.  Then Bill demanded a change of pace and did he ever get it!  He’s dizzy from the carousel of meal kit services.

As we sat down to discuss who would win the brass ring, I recounted all the reasons I used to love Blue Apron:

  • Interesting gourmet touches with every meal and lots of variety
  • Unique ingredients never available at the local grocery store
  • Usually the highest quality in meats, fish and vegetables – with some uneveness in the beef department and the occasional vegetable fail
  • Clever packaging that was fun to open and unload
  • Cute knick knack bags for their special ingredients
  • Great recipe cards with easy to follow instructions, helpful upscale photos of the cooking process and finally the best pictures of the plated meals
  • They’d made me feel like an accomplished chef

Even with all these pluses, I had to admit they couldn’t be THE meal kit service, because quite frankly, for the last few months, every time we used them all we had were problems and the food wasn’t as good as it used to be.  All the great recipe cards in the world can’t make up for food we don’t want to eat.

Why Hello Fresh?

Can you say Chicken Under a Zucchini Blanket?  Of all the meals we had from any service, this was Bill’s favorite meal – and I have to admit it was a winner.  Their other strengths were:

  • Not a single packaging or quality issue in six meals (something that no other besides Blue Apron can claim)
  • User friendly recipe cards that did the job (if not as well as Blue Apron)
  • Ingredients that were as least as good as what I would pick out for myself at the store
  • Good healthy food that Bill and I both enjoyed (but nothing in the least exotic)

I didn’t want them to be THE meal kit service because:

  • Unpacking my meal was just not as much fun
  • I don’t like the big brown bag per meal or their graphics
  • A little too main-stream-all-the-time for my palate
  • They said Parmesan Crusted Fish and it turned out to be tilapia
  • While the recipe cards did their job, they were less than excellent
    • less than pristine utensils used in cooking photos
    • a downgrade in overall ambiance
    • instructions were good, but not a s good as others
    • finished plate photos are not inspiring

Why Home Chef?

They had me at Yorkshire Pudding!  Not merely the fact that they offered Yorkshire Pudding, but because the dish was easy to make from scratch and it turned out perfect.  Their other two dishes for the week were quite tasty.  Here’s the other reasons they made the cut:

  • While not as adventurous as my friends at Blue Apron, Home Chef does get creative and almost exotic.
  • None of the ingredients were particularly unusual, but they came up with some unique dishes nonetheless
  • Great quality and no ooops yet
  • Clear plastic bags hold most of the ingredients together for each meal.  While this is not as exciting as obsessing over all the separate items in a Blue Apron Box, it beat the big brown grocery bags from Hello Fresh
  •   The recipe cards are great.  They actually offer a few items of information not provided by Blue Apron, but no points for plated dish inspiration.  They use the same distressed wood table for each shot and the same boring white plate.  (YAWN!)
  • I feel more like a chef with Home Chef than I do with Hello Fresh.

Some day they may actually pull ahead and be THE meal kit service, but till then, I’ll keep juggling.

And there you have it.  Wondering what I’ll come up with next week?  Come back and find out!

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Don’t Miss Dashour

TRAVEL THERE: THE INFANCY OF PYRAMID BUILDING

I’m worried about Egypt.  Tourism is their primary industry, but they aren’t exactly working hard to promote it.  Bill and I shook our heads in disbelief during most of the trip.  It’s almost as if they don’t want tourists.  The first thing I’d like to do is just give everything a good cleaning and add some trashcans.  Egyptians themselves are delightful and there are wonderful things to see, but you have to be serious about wanting to visit and you will encounter obstacles.  Let me explain.

Do You Know the Way to Dashour?

The Bent Pyramid at Dashour

Were Giza, Dashour and Saqqara in the US, they’d be owned by the National Park Service.  All three complexes would be surrounded by federal lands and you’d get a tour map that helped you navigate your way from one site to another.  All along the tour route, you’d see lovely hotels, a wide variety of restaurants and other attractions like miniature golf and water slides.  Each site would have interpretive signs, museums, exhibits and gift shops.  That’s not the way it goes in Egypt.  Where is UNESCO, by the way!

Nothing about the Giza site suggests that just a short drive away are two more fantastic historical sites.  You’re just supposed to know.  There’s not a single sign that points the way.  You head off down the road and wander along the side of a filthy canal.  Along most of the way, both sides of the road has development, but it’s residences, not fast food and hotels.  If you didn’t have a guide, I guarantee you wouldn’t find it.

While there, I discovered that you could ride horses between the sites.  You can google “pyramid horse tours” and find all kinds of vendors, but since I didn’t know about the tours, I didn’t know to research it.  You are now better informed than I was.

We eventually turned off the main road, but I didn’t see anything that said, “This way to Dashour.”  A rutted goat path took us to a military installation.  I don’t know any better way to describe it – white painted buildings, with guys in uniform carrying guns.  This was not the appropriate welcoming committee for your average American tourist.

I do love one thing about Egyptians – their creativity.  Wherever we went were folks who set up shop and went about their business without the accouterments Americans would demand.  

  • If neighbors want to get together and smoke sheesha, why let the absence of a park stop you.  Gather your chairs in the street and pass the hookah.  The cars will figure out a way to get around you.
  • Want to have a souvenir shop?  Then find a piece of pavement and start selling.  You can hang wire between signs to display your wares or use a cardboard crate.
  • Need an office.  Find a table and chair – any table and chair.

The guy in charge at the military installation had followed the examples above – right by the side of the goat path.  Both pieces of furniture looked like they’d been built in the 50’s, but for completely different purposes.  Sitting on the table was the ubiquitous glass for tea.  Who needs anything else?

Nothing!

Worth It for Me

It’s no wonder that our nephew couldn’t understand why we wanted to go to Dashour.  With the exception of a few pyramids in serious disrepair there is nothing there.  I mean nothing!

But those few pyramids were worth the trip for me.  While Zuzu hadn’t found much new ground to cover with me at Giza, he was invaluable at Dashour.

Obviously, the Bent Pyramid is bent, but hearing why and how it got that way, as I stood below it, was fascinating.  We climbed up another crumbling pyramid to see the shaft built down into it, where the pharaoh’s body would have been carried and imagined the day of the funeral.  How did they get him down all those steps?  Another pyramid was tall and skinny, almost like a Christmas tree.  How did these configurations develop into what we saw at the Giza Plateau?

I’d read right before I left for Egypt that they’d just found a new pyramid at Dashour – but where?  And why didn’t they offer to show it to me for $20 more.  I would have gladly coughed up the Jackson.

The whole thing begs for development.  In our heads we laid out the informational signage, chose refreshment stands, picked out costumes for the guides and decided where the museum and shop should be.  The Egyptians need tourists to spend more days in their country and with just a few bare necessities and a little signage, people would flock to see these wonders, but as it stands, Bill and I were the lone tourists.  We would never have found it on our own and even if we would have, I doubt we’re brave enough to confront the military authorities guarding it.  What a shame!

But our Pyramid tour was not over.  On to Saqqara.  Join us next week.

 

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Freshly Disappointed

TRAVEL HERE: BYE-BYE FRESHLY AND SUN BASKET

Well, I’m on the decision end of my journey.  I’ve tried these meal kit companies, in this order: Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Sun Basket, Home Chef and Freshly.  Two are now out of the running for my on-going business.  Let me tell you why.

Bland, Blah, Boring!

I was skeptical of Freshly from the moment Bill suggested it.  I wanted to be out of the meal planning and food management business, but I like cooking.  Freshly seemed like a pretentious form of frozen food to me, but since he’s the one I’m trying to please, I gave it a shot.

Our first meal was Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Zucchini & Potato Cakes.  These are three of my favorite foods, so it should have been a shoo-in for delicious.  NOT!  Last night we had Chicken Provencal with Roasted Pepper Cauliflower Mash.  Lots of reasons we should have enjoyed it, but we didn’t.  Peppercorn Steak with Carrots and Green Beans is still in the refrigerator, but after choking down two disappointments we’ve already made up our mind.  We’re even going to forfeit the discount on the second week’s delivery.

If you read their packaging, they do warn you they go easy on the seasonings and suggest ways to spice up your meals.  Well thanks, but there is only so much ground pepper and lemon juice can do. If your pork, potatoes and zucchini all taste the same to begin with, just adding condiments is not going to fix them.  The items may then have more flavor, but they don’t taste like pork, potatoes and zucchini with pepper and lemon, they taste like mush you are trying to doctor up with pepper and lemon.  Freshly prepares the meals, flash freezes them and then they defrost on their way to you.  What’s more, that’s exactly what they taste like.

A Basket of Mistakes

Sun Basket’s meals were actually pretty good, but they were fired for cause – two causes, in fact.  First, I hate their recipe book.  It’s a waste of paper for one thing, for another it gets all yucky in the cooking process and finally, their book is bereft of helpful photos and clear instructions.  Instead they have chatty blogs and vague do-this-until-that suggestions.

My second beef with them was the unreliability of their produce and packing.  You may or may not get your seasoning packages.  Your cucumber might have been frozen and rendered useless.  Your lemon might have a big spot on it.  We had six meals and had a least six oops.  I don’t want a weekly $10 refund.  I just want all the ingredients to arrive and for them to be top quality.

Their packaging was of the brown paper bag sort, like Hello Fresh, but while it’s not my preferred method of receiving my stuff, it wasn’t the reason I abandoned them.  With the other two complaints, it was just one more thing I didn’t like.

So, that leaves Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and Home Chef.  There are pros and cons to all of them.  So who wins the Meal Kit Challenge?  Come back next week and find out.

 

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Freshly Arrived

TRAVEL HERE: THE FINAL MEAL KIT CONTENDER

Here we are at Meal Kit Service #5 and for this particularly homemaker, the final contender.  Freshly’s box arrived pretty early on a Friday morning and I felt a deep sense of relief.  I’ll tell you why.

Juggling the Vendors

I didn’t exhaust the list of possible vendors, but I saw enough to feel as if I could make a reasonable decision.  If you’re the type who pursues bargains over and above everything I have an idea for you.  Pretty much every meal kit company will give you a bargain on your first week or two.  You could take all of them up on their offers and save lots of grocery money, but I’m warning you, as soon as the bargain week(s) are over, cancel the service.  Juggling them all until you pick the one(s) you want will make you feel like you’re chasing a three ring circus.  It’s a game of we’ll-send-it-unless-you-say-no and you have to say no on a week-by-week basis.  There’s no going to the site and clicking “hold.”

I’ll also say this.  If you’d like to try any of these, let me know.  By referring you to them, I can get discount on a week of food and after all this work, I think I deserve it!  In some cases, you’ll get a free box or a deeper discount, too.  It will also be nice to know that someone is benefiting from my ramblings.

Freshly’s Arrival

“Your food is here,” Bill called up the stairwell.  His office overlooks the front porch, so he’s always the first to know about deliveries.  When I opened the front door, the box was sitting there on it’s side.  Would it kill those delivery guys to set the box upright?  I know it’s a small thing, but it shows a level of pride that just doesn’t seem to be a part of today’s reality.  They could also lean over and ring the doorbell.  They have to know that a Freshly box contains food and if my husband didn’t see them, it would be nice to know food had been delivered – but I digress.

I like the Freshly box. It’s very simple as you can see from the photo, but there’s an elegance about simplicity I appreciate.  As I began to unpack, Bill strolled in to observe.  He’s almost as curious about packaging as I am.  Instead of throwing the insulation materials into the recycle bin, he’s actually recycling them in our attic.  He says we’ll end up with the best insulated house in the neighborhood! 

The items inside the insulating materials were pretty boring.  Six microwave meals in individual cardboard sleeves, printed with the name of the entree.  Blue Apron is still my favorite delivery.  Classy box, attractive packaging and a wonderful assortment of ingredients to marvel at as you unpack the box.

Since Freshly food is already pre-cooked and all you have to do is nuke it, there’s no recipe card to pore over.  I’ll confess, I don’t think this is going to work.  I’ve really enjoyed cooking with meal kits, so this pre-made stuff is probably not going to fly, but we’ll see.  Come back next week for the Freshly reveal.

 

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A Little Ancient History

My first visit to the Pyramids

TRAVEL THERE: VISITING THE GIZA PLATEAU

No traveler can really claim to have visited Egypt unless they’ve been to the Pyramids.  It’s like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower.  I’ve had the privilege of visiting Egypt twice and both times we made the trip out to Giza.  You can’t really appreciate my second experience until you hear what happened the first time.

My First Visit to Giza

Just like my most recent trip to Egypt, family was the reason we visited Egypt in 1996.  The primary motivation was Sophie, Bill’s mom.  Some business needed to be taken care of in person, but it was also my first time to meet most of his family, including Sophie who was not well enough to travel to the States for our wedding.  We crammed a lot of tourism into our 19 day stay, but family issues dominated our time there.  Well, family issues coupled with luggage woes.

In spite of our lack of luggage and our family business, Bill got me to the Pyramids within 48 hours of our arrival.  I was wearing the same outfit I wore on the plane, because it was the only one I had, but I was gleeful nonetheless.  Bill hired a car and driver for the day, but that was a very different prospect than having Ezzat on hand for our more recent visit.  Ezzat looked out for us, protected us and did everything he could to enhance our time in Egypt.  The anonymous driver we hired in 1996 treated us like tourists.

The Papyrus Museum and Perfume Factory

Yes, it happened to us.  Instead of enjoying a day at the most important tourist site in Egypt, we spent our morning at a Papyrus Museum (make that souvenir store) and before the day was over watched perfume bottles being blown and silver cartouches being poured against our will.  Bill may have thought he was a native, but to our driver he was just another gullible American tourist.

I won’t bore you with the papyrus shopping opportunity, but what happened next was important.  Our driver did not drive up to a big gate that said “The Pyramids” or buy any entry tickets.  He drove through a slum and parked in front of a hovel.  He and Bill had a significant conversation about it, but since I didn’t know what to expect I was not alarmed.  I probably should have been.

The driver had brought us here to be the reluctant guests of a local headman.  This guy, we’ll call him Ahab, had a great little industry going on.  Limo drivers brought him unsuspecting tourists and Ahab would convince them to open up their pocketbooks to benefit himself and his neighbors.  The driver may have misunderstood who Bill was, but by the end of the day, he and Ahab found out they hadn’t picked the right mark.

Initially, things seemed all right, unconventional, but entertaining.  Ahab’s “family” put me on a camel and Bill on a horse.  For awhile we rode down a street, then out into the desert and across a cemetery.  Suddenly, we were at the Pyramids.  We walked about for a bit, took a few pictures and then our “guides” arranged for us to go inside one of the Pyramids.  It was siesta time and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  My strongest memory was heading back to Ahab’s. For a moment, I sat atop my camel looking across the Nile to Cairo with it’s crosses and crescents kissing the horizon. 

Then things didn’t seem alright.  We were ready to return to the hotel, but we were in Ahab’s control and he wasn’t ready for us to leave.  Today, we would have used our phone to contact Uber, who would know where we were thanks to the magic of GPS.  In 1996 we just had to pray for things to turn out OK.

We sat forever in a perfume showroom chatting with Ahab.  This was where we were supposed to open up our pocketbooks.  Bill had paid for our unique transportation to the Pyramids, but now his pocketbook was shut tight.  On the surface everything appeared normal, but the air was thick with non-verbal confrontation.

When it became apparent that nothing short of a firearm was going to convince us to buy any perfume-filled bottles Ahab offered us the opportunity to buy some cartouches.  He even took us into the factory where they were made, but Bill wasn’t buying a cartouche either.  I was ready to buy all their perfume and cartouches – if they’d just let us leave, but not Bill.

I’m here to tell the tale, so obviously the limo drive did eventually return, but he wasn’t glad to see us.  No commission would be forthcoming.  On the very quiet ride back to the hotel, Bill told me to get out of the car and get to the room as soon as the car pulled to the curb.  I minded him with alacrity and I don’t think any of us really want to know how things went for that driver.

No animals were involved in our most recent visit to the Pyramids and that’s just part of the good news.  Come back next week and I’ll share the adventure with you.

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Dining with Home Chef

Jane Sadek Made Yorkshire Pudding

TRAVEL HERE: THE YORKSHIRE PUDDING MIRACLE

I lost my mom four years ago, but she is so much a part of my life, every day, that you might think she actually lives in my house.  She was my friend, my confidante and the biggest challenge of my life.  In her later years, when preparing holiday feasts had become too difficult for her, one of her favorite things to do in the whole world, was to gather the family for a holiday meal at Lawry’s.  This tradition was not a favorite with my husband, for several reasons.  This is just one of the many situations where I was caught between the two most important people in my life.  Sometimes I sided with Bill, but when it came to Lawry’s, Mom had an edge – Yorkshire Pudding! 

Home Chef Has Yorkshire Pudding?

So, here I am on my tour of meal kit companies and it’s Home Chef’s turn.  One of their choices was Sunday Supper English Roast Steak with Yorkshire Pudding.  I was amazed it was even an option and I doubted it would meet my expectations, but I couldn’t resist it.  Lawry’s isn’t the only place I’ve eaten Yorkshire Pudding, but they certainly did a good job with it.  I confess that as much as I love the dish, I never tried to make it.  I’d looked at recipes and I couldn’t imagine how those instructions could end up being the dish I loved so much.  So here was an excuse to give it a whirl.

Cook Within X 

A little bonus on the Home Chef Recipe Cards is a note to cook a dish within X days of delivery.  I’m food savvy enough to know it’s fish first, then chicken or pork and finally beef, but the little notes on the card remind me – otherwise I would have probably cut right to the Yorkshire Pudding, in spite of what I knew.

Within three days, we were supposed to consume the Parmesan Crusted Salmon, so I made it the first day and was not wowed.  The meal was fine and Bill was content with it, but not me.  I would have enjoyed a little less salad and a little more protein.  Edible, but marginal in my book.  Next up was Seared Chicken with Tzatziki Sauce and Harissa-Roasted Cauliflower and I loved it.  I can’t say it made it to the top of the list, but it was a lot more delicious, in my book, than the salmon. 

Time for Yorkshire Pudding

It was a Saturday night and I recruited Bill to help me with the meal.  He just does steak better than I do, on the stove or on the grill.  Besides, I had my hands full with the Yorkshire Pudding.  I was a little intimidated to see that Home Chef rated this as an “Expert” meal (another little addition to their cards I had not seen elsewhere), but I was determined to conquer it.

Making the Yorkshire Pudding was not as difficult as I thought it might be.  The card warned me of all the possible pitfalls, like not having the pan hot enough or opening the oven door.  I just did what they told me to and voila!  The meal looked so good I pulled out the good china!!

The meal tasted as delicious as it looked.  The beef was sirloin, not Lawry’s prime rib, but otherwise I could have fooled myself into thinking I was back at Thanksgiving dinner with my family.

So, cooking with Home Chef was a lot of fun.  Of the three meals, one was below par in my opinion, one was fine and the third – REMARKABLE!  Next on the list Freshly.  They actually prepare the meal to be micro-waved, so I doubt they will be my final choice, but Bill wanted to give them a try.  Come back next week and see how it went.

 

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The Marvelous Mena House

TRAVEL THERE: AN AMAZING HOTEL

I was predisposed to love the Mena House.  I’d been hearing about it for years and it sounded like my kind of place.  It had historical significance and it was a luxury hotel Bill’s place of birth would make affordable.  Let me tell you about it.

Arriving in Style

 I will admit there is something posh about being delivered to your hotel by a private driver and car.  We pulled up to the security gate to be sniffed by dogs, checked by metal detectors and generally gone over with a fine tooth comb, but our driver handled it all while Bill and I marveled at the Pyramids looming over us.  I thought we’d have a view of them.  I didn’t realize we’d be next door.

The lobby was opulent and we were treated like dignitaries.  Being treated like dignitaries takes a little longer than just being tourists, but it was kind of fun.  We were whisked to our room on a golf cart by a servile employee of the hotel and escorted around our new digs as if they rooms of the old palace, instead of the very comfortable modern room we’d reserved.

A Delicious Meal

Our next stop was lunch.  We wandered across the grounds and found a nice patio restaurant which served food all day long.  The prices were reasonable, the service was attentive and the food was amazing.  The travel gods were shining on us.

A Free Historical Tour

As we lazed about enjoying the view our nephew Steven and his friend John arrived.  They’d fallen for the 8:30 sight-seeing tour I’d rejected.  While they regretted waking up early, they were very happy with their day.  We decided to meet up again soon and see the free historical tour of the hotel I’d seen advertised in the lobby.  The parade of celebrities who have stayed at the Mena House is pretty interesting, but not anything compared to the amount of history that has occurred since it was built in the 1800’s as a lodge for royalty.

The Rest of the Stay

The only problem we had with our stay at the Mena House is that it was too short.  We loved hanging out in our room and enjoying the patio with the great view of the pyramids.  We loved wandering around the hotel and grounds, photographing all the beauty both natural and man-planned.  The service was amazing.  The food was great – whether we were enjoying the free breakfast buffet, having lunch with a view or enjoying a Middle Eastern feast at the Khan il Khalili restaurant (named after the famous Cairo bazaar).

I have a fantasy of returning to Giza some day to see the wonderful museum being built to replace the Cairo Museum and the Mena House would be the perfect place to stay – but I doubt I could ever get Mr. Bill back to Egypt.  The place he has fond memories of growing up in doesn’t exist anymore.

If you’re still hungry for more about the Mena House, watch this video.  If you want to know about visiting the Pyramids, then come back next week.

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