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Home Chef Arrives at My House

Welcome to Our House!

TRAVEL HERE: HOME CHEF STARTS OUT ON THE RIGHT FOOT

Well, here we are, trying out meal kit company number four.  A blogging friend told me to give it up and go to the grocery store, but obviously he’s got a better grocer than I’ve got out here in the boonies.  Hubby thought it was good advice, but I’m not giving up yet.

The Home Chef Vibes are Good

The proof might be in the pudding, but I have to admit, my scrutiny begins when my box of groceries arrives on the front porch.  Home Chef (HC)arrived before 11 AM.  That put it on par with Blue Apron (BA) and Sun Basket (SB).  I even liked the box.  Nothing fancy, just a logo and line drawings of fresh produce.  A box isn’t everything, but it’s something.  So far, my least favorite box is Hello Fresh (HF).  It seemed as if if were trying to hard to be happy and fresh.

Opening the HC box, I was glad to see someone had thought it through.  On top were recipe cards, my preferred format, just like with BA and HF.  SB’s recipe magazine was not my friend.  What’s more they provided a binder for the recipes and hole-punched the cards.  You’d think they already knew me.  Their packaging materials were customized and attractive.

Comparing the HC recipe cards to BA and HF, put HC somewhere in the middle.  BA has remained my favorite recipe card and one reason is their pictures of the finished plates.  Each photo is a mini-masterpiece with an attention to every item in the shot.  Without resorting to fine china, a unique place-setting is created for each meal.  I appreciate that.  These’s really nothing fancy in the photos, but someone with an imagination set them up and they use a variety of table accouterments.

HF has unique shots for each plate, but the settings don’t inspire me.  The only tables HF seems to have are distressed wood, which might be in vogue, but are a bit depressing to me.  When plates, cutlery and linens are in the shot, they aren’t to my taste, either.  Chances are the millennials out there might approve of the sleek minimalism, but it just looks boring to me – and careless.  The picture of my favorite HF meal featured a wrinkled napkin, but at least it had a napkin!  When HF has sandwiches they forego a plate altogether and set the sandwich right on the counter.  Maybe they’ll add a napkin or some white butcher paper – or maybe they won’t.

HC uses the same depressed wood table and plain white plate in every shot.  Talk about boring.  But they have other things on the recipe card that keeps them out of last place.  They have the nutrition information right on the card, rather than sending you a separate card with the weeks nutrition information all in the same place as HF does.  HC’s pans and utensils are a little more upscale than the HF choices.  If I can get past the same boring plate every day, I might end up enjoying the service.

Perfect Packaging

Move over BA, you have some competition.  The ingredients for each HC meal are packed together in their own clear bag, stamped with the name of the meal.  The clear bag gives you an exciting peek at what’s in store, unlike the brown paper bags of SB and HF.  I can already tell the ingredients provided do not have the quality and uniqueness of BA, but that uniqueness is what got me in trouble with my husband.  The crisp, clear packaging doesn’t put HC ahead of BA, but it puts them ahead of SB and HF.

So how was it to cook and eat their meals?  Come back next week and I’ll tell you.

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Basking in Sun Basket

A Winner in the Recipe Wars

TRAVEL HERE: AND JUGGLING IT WITH HELLO FRESH

So for a week, the Sadek family was wading in meal kits.  It was all my fault, so I was the one who had to figure out how to squeeze all the meals into our schedule.  Sun Basket arrived bright and early, just like Blue Apron, which ties them for first place in the delivery department, and Hello Fresh came along in the afternoon.

A Hello Fresh Packaging Surprise

Among my Hello Fresh (HF) complaints was the huge grocery bags in which they packed their meals.  There must have been a supply line problem, because my second week showed up in the same small bags Sun Basket (SB) used.  So now, HF and SB are neck-and-neck in the packaging race, with Blue Apron still slightly in the lead.

Juggling My Meals

So what would I do with six meals ready-to-cook?  Fish first, chicken next, then steak, a burger, chicken and finally falafel.  That was the easy part.

First off the stove was SB’s Salmon with Cucumber Avocado Salad.  Bill thought it was fine, but as I said last week, I wasn’t pleased with quality of the salmon, the cucumber was unusable and two other ingredients were less than optimal.  Bill was happy with the meal.  I was reserving judgement.

Next up was an HF win – one of Bill’s favorite dishes ever – Chicken Under a Zucchini Blanket.  OK, I’ll admit it was pretty darned good.  I’d pretty much written Hello Fresh out of the competition, but they were coming back strong on the second week.  They down-sized their grocery bags and this was a very delicious meal.  The instruction actually began with prepping all the veggies, so maybe I wasn’t the only one who likes to get that out of the way first.

Delicious, but still at number two

But SB was back with a strong recipe – Steaks with Paprika Butter – only they failed to send me one of the primary ingredients, sweet smoked paprika.  The paprika from my spice cabinet was fine, but I wondered what I was missing.  The recipe suggested we grill the steak outside and since it was a Friday night we did.  Very, very delicious.  Oh and by the way, the recipe featured gremolata, something I had never even heard of, so extra gourmet points to SB.

Saturday was HF burger night and it was a fine burger served with parmesan-crusted zucchini fries.  Obviously, it was zucchini week at HF, but we love zucchini and could pretty much eat it every night.  The burger was triple-sauced:  a mayo aioli, ketchup and onion jam.  Even Bill noticed the complexity of flavors, but he thought it was good, not weird, so good for HF.

Monday was another HF night with Warmly Spiced Chicken Thighs – another winner.  Bill loves dark meat chicken.  The meal was easy to make and delicious.  Hello Fresh was having a good week.

Then it was falafel night.  We love falafel, but I was nervous.  We’d had falafel one time with Blue Apron, but it had been a colossal fail.  It wasn’t Blue Apron’s fault, but our attempt was disastrous.  I over-processed the garbanzo beans and Bill didn’t get the oil hot enough before trying to fry the patties.  We found out what the term “hot mess” really means.

SB Falafel Burgers were a better version of the dish that BA’s had been.  This time the recipe came out right, but not right enough for us.  We’ll stick to eating falafel when we dine away from home.

Our meal kit marathon over, I had to admit Hello Fresh won.  SB’s Steak had been very, very good, but HF’s chicken/zucchini rocked our world.  Throughout the week SB had been plagued with bad or missing ingredients, while HF had been flawless in that department.

To get the bargain price we’d scored with SB, we had to sign up for two weeks, so even as I prepared my falafel burgers, we had another week of meals waiting in the frig.  All three dishes, Steaks with Chimmichrui and Harissa-Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Skewers, and Pork Chops in a Southwestern Sauce with tomatillos and sweet potato were good, but nothing received rave reviews from Mr. Bill and that’s what this wife is looking for.  And yes, they did leave out an ingredient – preserved lemon for the chicken skewers and this customer hates missed ingredients!   So, come back next week and see how we do with Home Chef.

 

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Sun Basket Arrives

TRAVEL HERE: AND SO DOES HELLO FRESH

Trying out all the available meal kit plans does not come without some challenges.  While they are basically all doing the same thing, trying to juggle several of them at once can trip you up.  That’s how I ended up with two boxes of food in one week.  We’d skipped a week to go out of town and somehow, though I meant to just get Sun Basket, I also got Hello Fresh. See what I go through for you guys!

A Color Change

I guess it would be no surprise that Sun Basket’s (SB) color theme is yellow.  Right away I thought their pictorial box was more engaging than the text heavy Hello Fresh (HF) box, but something about that crisp Blue Apron (BA) box still gets the points in my book.

Opening Up the Box

SB used the same grocery bag packing method as Hello Fresh, however, their bags were smaller and I was able to put them in the refrigerator.  That put them ahead of Hello Fresh, but behind Blue Apron.

In the box were several pieces of literature.  A nice welcome brochure topped the pile.  Next I realized SB sent a magazine-like booklet instead of the cards I had gotten from the other two.  Since I had already started a binder to hold my recipe cards for future reference, SB was bucking the system.  I’m calling it a tie between HF and BA, with SB making a foul.

The magazine is attractive, but it has all the recipes SB offers for the week, so in my opinion they are wasting paper.  I only needed the recipes I had ordered.  What’s more, they assumed I already know how to cook, so they completely did away with the how-to pictures I found so helpful with the other two services.  I do know how to cook, but it was nice to have a picture to refer to when I was following the directions.  Since I liked BA’s recipe card better than HF’s, BA steps into the lead.

No one else would probably even notice this, but there’s a difference in all the boxes’ insulating materials, too.  SB uses some generic foam insulation they have cut-to-size inside the box.  They tell you to roll it up and send you tape to keep it rolled up.  It was such nice sheets of foam that we put them in the attic in case we needed something like that.  HF uses a different style of foam covered in a shiny material that is designed to fit the box, rather than generic stuff cut-to-size.  My friends at BA have wonderfully customized pieces that have all kinds of wonderful BA messages on them.  Points to BA.

Preparing the Meal

SB follows HF’s method of preparation, instead of BA’s, which means you prep the ingredients for each portion of the meal as you work through them, rather than getting all that out of the way ahead of time.  However, they also print that part of the instructions in a different color ink, so that people like me, who want to do all the peeling, chopping and stuff at first, can follow their inclination.  So points to BA.  SB is only slightly less desirable and HF loses this point.

To me, the SB instructions were easy to follow, because they were specific about times and not so dependent on do-this-until-that-happens, as HF had been.  However, I had that whole magazine thing to move around the kitchen with me and there are no pictures with the instructions.  By the end of the preparation, the book was a mess, just like the cards, but I still had two more meals to prepare out of the messy book.  Taking all that into consideration, Blue Apron is still winning in the preparation portion of the meal.

SB edged close to BA when it came to the items they expect you to provide. Olive Oil, salt and pepper are the only things they require you to keep on hand.  HF expects you to also keep butter on hand for them.  So SB and BA should be in a tie, except that I’m a real fan of butter and in my opinion, BA has better butter than SB and the packaging is superior.  BA butter comes in a little round foil covered package.  Both the consistency and the flavor are excellent.  SB butter is in a small plastic tub and looks like it was cut off the same stick of butter as is in my refrigerator.  Points to BA and HF loses a point.

The biggest SB fail was in fulfillment quality.  On day one, there was a frozen (read that useless) cucumber, a lemon with a big spot on it and an iffy shallot.  The salmon was disappointing, too.  It said it was Wild Yukon River Wild-caught Salmon., but you could have fooled me.  Looked run-of-the-mill.  Pretty much the same fish I reject in Kroger’s seafood department.  The following SF day there was no paprika packet in bag for the paprika butter.

I’m not giving any points here and it’s one of the most important categories.  BA has the highest quality, but they regularly leave stuff out.  There’s usually at least one failed ingredient a week and their steaks are gristly.  HF gets everything in the box, but it falls short on being the quality I expect.  If I wanted their ingredient quality, I could get it at Kroger.  I’d still have to do the planning and shopping, of course, but part of what I want in the service is superior ingredients.

So how was the food.  Come back next week and I’ll tell you.

 

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Hello, Hello Fresh

TRAVEL HERE: AND NOW FOR CONTESTANT NUMBER TWO

When your husband is not happy at the dinner table, it’s time to try out something different.  We both loved Blue Apron in the beginning, but as time went on, the level of satisfaction sank – especially for Mr. Bill.  Bill was tired of Blue Apron’s flavor of gourmet.  He wanted less adventure and more plain food.  I could feel his pain, but I didn’t want to go back to the days before delivered meal-kit came along.  So, a survey of the available services suggested Hello Fresh would solve my problems and give Bill a steady diet of good, but un-gourmet choices.

Choices and Ordering

When it came to the nuts and bolts of ordering meals, Hello Fresh seemed a lot like Blue Apron.  One new opportunity was the chance to upgrade one of your meals to a premium choice.  I just missed the lobster!  It had been available on the previous week.  I decided on my first order to stick with the regularly priced choices.

The selections were more like my mother used to make without the gourmet frills.  While that lowered the fun factor for me, a happy hubby was the goal, so I went with it.  We got an Italian Ciabatta Burger, Parmesan Crusted Fish and some Glazed Pork Chops.

Here Comes the Box

The box arrived as scheduled and from the outside it looked pretty much like the Blue Apron box, but with green as the primary color instead of blue.  When I opened the box, the story changed.

Inside the box were three huge grocery bags of food, each with a sticker announcing the meal they contained.  I’m not sure exactly what they thought I was supposed to do with that, because the sacks were too big for my frig.  It’s probably very convenient for them from a picking and packing standpoint, but I had to unpack the bags to get the items into the frig.  Blue Apron’s box came loaded with individually packaged items, not mystery grab bags.

As I unloaded the bags I sorted the ingredients into Ziplocks.  I discovered some of the items didn’t need refrigeration and some like the maple syrup would be better without it.  So each grocery bag of food was offloaded into one large Ziplock of refrigerated items and one small Ziplock of pantry items.  Points to Blue Apron!

Hello Fresh packaging wasn’t much fun either.  While unloading my Blue Apron box, there were elaborate packaging solutions, like individual cartons for eggs and plums, and I’m a sucker for great packaging.  There were other interesting items in Blue Apron, like unusual vegetables or breads or intriguing descriptions on labels, while there was nothing at all exciting in the Hello Fresh box.  The biggest thrill was some artwork on the bag of shredded mozzarella, but I do graphics and could have whipped it out myself in moments with a better vocabulary.  Points to Blue Apron.

The best part of unpacking Blue Apron was small brown bags of what they called “knick knacks.” It was like a present for every meal – spices, bottles of vinegar, sauces, crazy mushrooms, beautifully packaged rounds of butter and on and on and on.  I would load the small bags in the refrigerator and not open them until I cooked the meal.  Home-run for Blue Apron.  Nothing for Hello Fresh.

So, we hadn’t even started cooking yet and Blue Apron was way ahead.  Did Hello Fresh come from behind at mealtime?  Come back next week and find out!

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Blue Apron Is My Friend

TRAVEL HERE: WHY I LOVE BLUE APRON

Even though I knew immediately that I wanted to try out one of these meal services, it took me a while to convince my husband that he was interested in it, too.  When I finally convinced him a meal service would be the answer to all my prayers, I then had to prove the financial viability of it.  I found a consumer site comparing the available services and they said Blue Apron was the most cost effective.  Then we found a deal at Costco and that sealed it.  I really think he was just tired of hearing about it and he assumed that after a week or two I’d get tired of it.  Au contrare!

Heaven in a Box

I confess, I loved everything about Blue Apron.  It was easy to order.  I loved unpacking the box it came in.  It solved every problem I ever had with cooking.  It gave me easy-to-follow, step-by-step, illustrated instructions.  I did what they said and with only a very few exceptions, the results were amazing – at least to me.

I loved “shopping” on the website to pick my meals.  I loved getting ingredients I didn’t normally have access to.  I loved the way the items in the box were packaged.  I loved following the instructions.  I liked the quality of the meats.  I loved rating the food and making comments on the website.  I loved sharing my experience on Facebook.  I loved giving my friends a free week of food.  I loved how responsive their customer service team was.  I was having a grand time.

So, It Wasn’t Perfect

Really, my one and only complaint about Blue Apron was the limited selection.  I could have easily found what I wanted out of the six choices they offered, but as soon as I started making selections, things became unavailable.  By the time I got to my third choice, there was no choice.  I just had to take whatever was left.  I’m sure that had to do with food cost, but it was irritating.  Otherwise I was a happy camper.

Then They Improved the Selection Process

Then they improved things and that’s always dangerous.  We’d been on Blue Apron for about six weeks when they announced, not only were they expanding the number of choices available, they were also doing away with limiting selections as you made choices.  Sounded like all my dreams were coming true.

The switch coincided with our vacation.  I left all excited, because when I came home, the new process would be in place.  The selection process was great when I got home, but suddenly, the food was not as good.  It was small things.  Like there seemed to be more in the way of steaks, but the steaks were tough and gristly.  We were getting good vegetables, but the combinations seemed weird to my husband.  I was ready to trade my new options in on the way it used to be.

In the beginning, Bill had been as happy as a clam, but suddenly, his level of satisfaction was going down, down, down.  Now, I was not as dissatisfied as he was.  Those odd combinations were fine with me.  The steaks bothered me, but I could choose around the beef.  I’ll be honest with you.  I didn’t think the food was quite as good as it had been before the improvements, but it was good enough and it beat the heck out of going back to the pre-Blue Apron system.

Let’s Try Something Else

After some pretty tense conversations about it, because I loved the easiness of the program, we finally decided that we’d try out some other services.  Bill had offered to “help” if I’d go back to just doing it myself, but I didn’t need help with the cooking or cleaning up and he didn’t want to take over the planning.  So it was time to give Hello Fresh a try.  Come back next week and see how that went.

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Why I Love Meal Kits

TRAVEL HERE: FOOD DELIVERED TO MY DOOR

Have you tried out the latest culinary trend?  You see them everywhere.  Some companies call them meal kits.  Others call them recipe services.  I call them wonderful.  From the moment I first heard of them, I knew I was their target customer and I couldn’t wait to sign up.  See if you have the same kinds of complaints about preparing meals.  You might be a candidate for meal kits, too.

Meal Planning is a Mess!

I love a good meal.  I enjoy cooking a good meal.  I don’t even mind cleaning up after a good meal.  What I hate is planning and shopping and managing ingredients.  Don’t get me wrong, I love browsing through a gorgeous cookbook and imagining making the dishes, but the fun stops as soon as I pick out a recipe.

There’s only two of us in this house and every recipe has that one ingredient.  It could be almost anything – a spice I don’t have in my collection and may never use again, a vegetable I have to buy that will ruin before we can finish it or a can of something I will only use a portion of and have to figure out what to do with the rest.

These are not insurmountable problems, but I get tired of dealing with them – especially when I live in the boondocks and Kroger  is the only place I have to shop.  Here’s why:

  • I need three mushrooms and all there is available is that huge plastic-wrapped carton of them.
  • The tomatoes are awful and the cucumbers all have soft ends.
  • The recipe calls for X, but it’s not in season or they don’t carry it in Texas or whatever.  Of course, I find this out only after I have all the rest of the items for the recipe in the cart.
  • After scouring through the produce department I ask the clerk if they have any shallots and they direct me to the seafood department.
  • I want things to quit changing every time I go to the store.
    • Remember when the canned onion rings you needed for green bean casserole were made by Durkee’s.  Forget that.  Now you have to figure out who bought the company and how they are packaging them on any given week.  Will they still be in a can or will it be a bag this time and a box next time.
    • My favorite fish recipe ever was made with White Wine Worcestershire sauce.  Apparently I was the only person that liked it, because it is no longer available and the recipe just doesn’t work with regular Worcestershire sauce.
    • Once I could get brand-name green beans – DelMonte, Green Giant or S&W.  Not now.  Kroger is saving me money by only carrying their store brands – and I don’t like their store brands.

Cooking the Recipe

Let’s pretend that once, just once, I picked out a recipe and found everything I wanted at the grocery store with very little hassle.  Now, I have to keep it somewhat real, so nothing actually came in a package that fit the recipe, but just getting home with everything I wanted would give me a thrill.

The next thing one has to do is figure out what order to do stuff in so that everything will be ready at about the same time.  I have a few meals for which I have mastered this skill, but they are few and far between.  Most of the time I’m throwing things in the warming oven and then being mad because they dried out or getting to the table to face crunchy rice, too raw meat or any other number of fails.

Then there’s all the ambiguity of recipes: a pinch of this, a drizzle of that, add this until that happens, stir until it has this consistency, salt and pepper to taste.  Quit that stuff!!  Tell me exactly what to do and don’t leave it to interpretation.  If I had wanted to play a guessing game, I would not have used a recipe.

Oh yes, and every once in a while, something you have made five million four hundred thousand and thirty-seven times, turns out completely different from every other time you made it.  You didn’t change a thing – it just happened!

The Aftermath

When you’re all done the worst for me is not cleaning up the dishes.  I hate the rest of it.  Was my husband hungry when we were through, because it wasn’t enough food OR do I now have leftovers, because the recipe’s idea of a “serving” and reality are two different things?  There’s about half a can of chicken broth left and a half a head of cauliflower, both of which I have to store and figure out how to use – not to mention the thousands of mushrooms, because I couldn’t buy three.  If we liked the recipe, great.  If not, well then, should I keep that spice or throw it away?

When a meal is over, I want it to be over, but it seems it never is.  Six months from now I will still have that extra piece of meat in my freezer, but it will be frost bitten and I will have to throw it away.  I feel the same way about laundry.  You gather the clothes and sort them and wash them and dry them and fold them and put them away – but then you have a sock without a mate, a blouse that has a button missing and there’s always something that’s going to need to be pressed or taken to the dry cleaners or something.

So now you know why I was so excited about meal kits, recipe services or whatever you want to call them.  If you have any of the same feelings, then you might be interested in meal kits too.

 

 

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Wedding Morning Breakfast at the Fairmont

Quiche at Le Marche

TRAVEL THERE: WHAT I DID ON THE DAY OF THE WEDDING

Waking up in my hotel room, my first thought was, “This is it.  Bassem and Mariam’s wedding day.”  My next thought was a sense of gratefulness that I hadn’t allowed Bill to talk me into a tour on the day of the wedding.  I planned to relax all day.

Back to Le Marche Cafe

When we headed out of the room on our second morning at the Fairmont, there was no question about where we’d have breakfast.   We were going to Le Marche, as much for the delicious food as for our friend, Ahmed. We were momentarily disappointed when Ahmed was not there to greet us, but when we asked for him, the other guy faded into the background and a wide-smiling Ahmed appeared to welcome us back.

We sat down to peruse the menu and enjoyed several chance encounters with family, who passed to and fro in the lobby.  The groom scooted by on an errand, then along came the bride and her mother with a trail of attendants.  The attendants were in charge of the luggage and a rolling rack which was transporting the wedding gown.  Don’t worry the gown was completely covered, so there was no peeking.  Double kisses all around!

Next to arrive were nephew Steven and his friend John.  They decided to join us for breakfast and enjoy the attentions of Ahmed, the new friend of the family.  The meal was delightful.  I ordered a scone and got a second one on the house.  Steven ordered a chocolate croissant and got a Danish to boot.  Bill was delighted by his generous slice of quiche.  John, however, did not have such great fortune with his selection.

John’s Egyptian fantasy meal was a plate of fresh dates and figs.  He arrived a day or two before we did and asked for this delicacy at every opportunity and though he continued his quest throughout the whole trip, I don’t think he found it anywhere.  So much for Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Ahmed was so disappointed to admit he couldn’t provide the plate of dates and figs, but he suggested fruit instead.

John wanted to know how the fruit was presented.  “Is it on a platter or in a bowl?” John asked.  “Whatever you like,” Ahmed assured him.  “Is it a fruit salad?” John asked.  “No,” Ahmed replied, “it is a salad in a bowl.”  That being settled, John decided to see what would appear.

Ahmed roamed back and forth between the kitchen and the table.  Beverages were the first to appear and for awhile it seemed that was about all we were going to get.  Then the orders dribbled out.  First the pastries.  Then a while later, Bill got his quiche.  We were all just about done, when we started making noise about the missing fruit.  Ahmed was contrite in his protestations and assured us the fruit was almost there.

Ahmed, you were a treasure, but the fruit bowl, salad or whatever was a disappointment!  I’m sure any American could have driven to the nearest Kroger, bought some grapes, apples and oranges, returned home to chop them up into a bowl and then delivered them to the family, faster than Ahmed delivered up the same boring bowl from somewhere in the bowels of the Fairmont.  Not even a pineapple slice, no melons, nothing.  Just grocery store fruit!

Going Separate Ways

Bill was still having a difficult time believing I did not want to fill up every moment of the trip with tours and museums, but I was truly new and improved.  When Steven and John suggested he join them for a trip to the Khan-il-Kalili, I had my fingers crossed he’d join them, so I could have some alone time.

The crossed fingers worked.  The guys headed off on their adventure and I created my own spa day.  Come back next week and see how it went.

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