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Happy Holidays

My house, ready for Christmas

TRAVEL HERE: CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

When I was a kid, my Christmas activities were tied to my school, my church and my family.  The other constant was driving around to see Christmas lights.  We moved back to Dallas in 1966 and hit the Christmas bonanza.  Highland Park, specifically Beverly Drive, was the most amazing Christmas array of outdoor decorations you can imagine.  Nowadays there are many neighborhoods vying for top dog status, which is probably a relief to the Beverly Drive residents.  What’s more, my hubby is just not to excited about crawling bumper- to-bumper through any neighborhood for any reason that does not involve profit.  The other big deal in my childhood days was the After Christmas Sales.

Post Christmas Shopping Frenzy

This Black Friday business is a recent phenomena.  The big shopping event used to be the day after Christmas.  Aunt Edie, Mom and I were enthusiastic about this annual event.  My sister Susan and Aunt Tommie would often join us, but they weren’t quite as pumped about rising early to fight the crowds.  For us the primary focus of the day was Christmas decorations.  Susan and I would stand in the long lines while the adults rushed about gathering the deals and parking them with us.  Sometimes I’d make treks out to the car to unload the purchases into the trunk and then hurry back in for the next retail foray.  Sometimes we would fill up the car at one mall, deliver our goodies to the house and head to another mall.  It was madness.

In those days, Mom and Aunt Edie used to trade off Christmas and Thanksgiving.  One year Mom would do Thanksgiving and Aunt Edie would do Christmas.  The next year Aunt Edie did Thanksgiving and Mom did Christmas.  One of the benefits of this was the variety it added to our post-Christmas Shopping Orgy.  In Dallas we hit all the big malls and shopped the department stores.  Aunt Edie lived in Temple – a much more boutique experience.  Aunt Edie’s shopping habits made her a known quantity in her small town and her arrival was always treated with elaborate gestures of welcome.  We’d visit florists, small shops, hardware stores and drug stores.  On occasion, we’d hit Salado rather than Temple.  What fun we had!

All this started when I still lived at home and eventually I did have my own place, but I still didn’t have a lot of discretionary income.  Collecting ornaments was something I did as a traveled, on a one-by-one basis, rather than stocking up at years end.  In defense of Mom and Aunt Edie, they used the sales to buy up on holiday gifts for the next year.  They both belonged to a wide variety of organizations which required them to participate in gift exchanges.  By December 27th of one year, they’d be stocked up for Christmas in the coming year.  Occasionally I noticed, however, that what one December was bought as a gift, might actually end up on our tree or coffee table.

Eventually, the day arrived that I could afford to join in the fun.  I was married with my own two-story house to decorate.  In a few years we moved out to California and built an even bigger house.  Mom and Aunt Edie would come out to visit and though they were no longer so interested in the holiday decor for themselves, they were more than happy to help me find things I couldn’t live without.

Thrice Blessed at Christmas

Now Mom and Aunt Edie are gone.  Aunt Edie didn’t have any kids and my sister didn’t catch the holiday decor bug, so I inherited two houses worth of Christmas.  While I did do some culling and selected only the creme de la creme from both collections, when I declare it’s time to start decorating, I’ve got a lot of Christmas to spread around.  It is a task of joy.  I’m a visual sort, so the very sight of these treasures unleashes so many memories.  I can recall the very day we bought them and from which store.  If they were Mom or Aunt Edie’s I can tell you where they used them around their house.  For the entire month of December, it’s as if they have come for a visit.  We reminisce about the Christmases of the past and enjoy the season together.

I don’t go to the after Christmas sales now.  Why would I?  Every nook and cranny already has it’s own bit of Christmas and there’s always plenty left over, just-in-case.  When we first moved into our house here in Heath, I did realize I suddenly had ten windows on the front of the house, something none of us had contended with before.  That first year I was Scrooge – until I could hit Hobby Lobby the day after Christmas.  In about 10 minutes I’d picked up 10 wreaths with big red bows and made it through the lines.  Bill went with me that day, but so did Mom and Aunt Edie – at least they were there in spirit.

 

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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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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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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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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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