MEAL KITS, Part 2: Fresh in: 30

Meal kits have become a multi-million dollar industry in a few short years. The target audience are millennials who either don’t have time to shop and cook, or who don’t know how to cook because their parents never learned to cook. They must hark back to their grandparents generation to pick up their family’s culinary tradition.

I’m not in the target group, far from it. But I like the idea of trying foods and combinations that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I recently finished my third set of Blue Apron meals. (See “Ponderings" October 12.)

Not wanting to be left out of the act, and in an effort to compete with Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Terra’s Kitchen, Marley’s Spoon, Peach Dish, Home Bistro, and many others, the Giant Eagle, specifically the Market District, has jumped on the meal kit bandwagon. Their Fresh in: 30 line can be found in the Market District stores and at a few Giant Eagles such as McIntyre Square, where I first noticed them.

The meals offered at the moment include (in alphabetical order):

  • Falafel with Tabbouleh and Tatziki: Garbanzo beans, fresh Mediterranean vegetables, bulgur wheat, Greek yogurt, panko bread crumbs, diced cucumbers, fresh dill and lemon.
  • Pork Piccata with Fresh Pappardelle Florentine: All-natural pork tenderloin medallions, piccata sauce, chicken stock, fresh pappardelle pasta, spinach, cherry tomatoes and capers.
  • Sirloin with Parmesan Risotto: All-natural sirloin steaks, Brussels sprouts, diced onions, diced butternut squash, Arborio rice, chicken stock, Parmesan cheese and beef gravy.
  • Spicy Thai Curry Noodle Bowl with Chicken: Marinated chicken breast, Asian vegetable medley, bamboo shoots, Asian Thai spicy curry sauce, rice noodles and fresh cilantro.
  • Sun-Dried Tomato Panko-Crusted Salmon: Salmon fillets, sun-dried tomato panko bread crumbs, jasmine rice, squash and tomato medley and marinara sauce.
  • Vegetarian Stuffed Portabella Mushrooms: Portabella mushrooms, vegetable stuffing, goat cheese, sun-dried tomato panko bread crumbs, arugula, roasted tomatoes and fresh lemon.

Two additional Fresh in :30 offerings, Chicken Alfredo and Garlic Shrimp Linguini seem to have fallen by the wayside.

The available selections won't be found in every store. The placement of meals must be determined by demographics. I’ve seen the Falafel only at the Waterworks.

I have tried three Fresh in: 30 meals, two of which I’d give a B-minus rating, one a C-minus. The ingredients provided, for the most part, weren’t terrible. But, in my opinion, the meals were unexciting, a little too cautions. Certainly the foods described were in the boxes, but there wasn’t much in there that I couldn’t have easily purchased myself, nor was there anything I hadn’t prepared in my kitchen over the years other than fresh pappardelle.

Our first Fresh in: 30 dinner, Pork Piccata with Fresh Pappardelle Florentine, was the most interesting only because of the fresh pasta. The box also included six little squares of pork to be pounded thin, a bag of baby spinach, a bag of lemony piccata liquid, a tiny bag of capers, and a small bottle of broth. The meal was flavorful but offered nothing new to us other than the pasta, and there was an awful lot of liquid left in the skillet at the end of the meal to be poured down the drain. Not sure why. Maybe I misunderstood the directions.

Whoever dreamed up the Sun-Dried Tomato Panko-Crusted Salmon must have thought that tomatoes three ways would be a good idea. Can’t have too much of a good thing, right?. Wrong.

When I plan a menu I try to be careful about redundancy, that is, not to serve the same ingredient in more than one element of the mail. Here, the tomatoes three ways included barely detectable sun-dried tomatoes in the Panko (I had to check the list of ingredients to reassure myself that they were in there); small plum tomatoes to sauté with the zucchini and yellow squash that looked like it had seen better days; and marinara sauce on which to place the salmon. There must be more interesting yet cost-effective ways to present a salmon filet.

A personal preference with which you may disagree: I don’t think that pink salmon on a bed of red sauce is a particularly attractive combination. And why was Jasmine rice chosen as an accompaniment to fish with marinara sauce?

The Sirloin with Parmesan Risotto was promising. The vegetables and risotto were quite good. But the meat was so chewy that on the second night I struggled through the second piece of sirloin and broiled my husband a hamburger. (We’re small eaters, so the dinner for two was enough for us for two nights.)

I’m guessing that when you consider the price charged for these meals for two, around $16, the company isn't about to include better quality beef.

The Market District would do well to give its customers credit for having more adventurous palates than the meals they’ve put together so far.

With Blue Apron and a hundred other meal kit companies breathing down their neck, the Market District would do well to perk up its Fresh in: 30 program, or abandon it.

Posted on Thursday, November 17, 2016 at 11:31PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment

WISHFUL THINKING

As a few of you know, on March 3, 2016 I wrote on a small piece of paper, “Trump will be our next president,” put it in an envelope in my file cabinet and thought of it occasionally as the campaign proceeded. Just in case you think I’m clairvoyant, have a crystal ball, possess above average intuition, or am just terribly astute, I should tell you that in 2008 I wrote on a similar piece of paper headed for the file cabinet, “America will never elect an African-American president.” So, I’m batting .500.

Why did I predict what I did about Trump? For one thing, I truly believe that some things are just destined to happen. My husband thinks I’m full of hot air, but I really do believe in Destiny.

Although I’m pretty sick of the word narrative, you’ll be reading it several times in the following paragraphs.

When Hillary Clinton lost to Obama in 2008, there was an existing narrative that after Obama had completed a term or two, Hillary would automatically run for president, and win. Who thought that? And why? Was it her birthright to become president? Was it her reward for being defeated by Obama? There seemed to be a foregone conclusion that she was going to occupy the Oval Office. That gave me pause.

On July 5 I wrote in this space:

Nothing is happening right now that gives me hope. We have a choice between two painfully flawed candidates. Many months ago I asked my husband, “Don’t the Democrats have anybody else to run for president?”

Evidently they didn’t, and we’re seeing the results now. I’m not a Hillary hater, but it seems to me that someone with less baggage and more charm might have come to the fore.  Hillary is brittle and unspontaneous. Nothing about her makes me think, “I like that woman.” My husband says, "She's competent."  I say, "Competent is boring."

And I'm now questioning even her competence having just heard the FBI report on her email activity, which was described as “extremely careless.” That doesn’t exactly bespeak competence.

I’m sorry, but I don’t give two hoots about whether we have a woman president just so we can say we do. I would like for us to have an excellent president.

My choice, misguided as it may be, would have been Joe Biden. He’s a sympathetic figure, an affable, back-slapping kind of guy who, notwithstanding a tendency to utter an occasional verbal clunker, is liked, and he knows plenty about domestic and foreign policy and as much as Hillary does about the presidency. He has been the best vice president a president could possibly want.

What can I say about Trump that hasn’t already been said? It’s obvious that his success is based primarily on his ability to give voice to the rage of millions of disaffected white people – the ones whose idea of cultural activity is tailgating and target shooting – who will never get over having an uppity Nee-gro in the Oval Office.

The Republican Party has only itself to blame for this unlikely turn of events. They've spent the last eight years doing everything they could think of to undermine Obama while the gods were about to pull the rug from under them. Whoops!

I’m no big fan of George Will, but on November 9 he wrote:

“The Democrats offer a candidate as familiar as faded wallpaper. The party produced no plausible alternative to her joyless, strained embodiment of arrogant entitlement.

I don’t hate Hillary. I voted for her. But like many, my vote was really against Trump, not for Hillary. Quite frankly, I’ve grown weary of the Clintons as have many of us. After having to put up with his shameful behavior in the 90s it would seem to me that both of them should have sought to maintain a lower profile. But no. Here they are again, on stage far too long.

Seems to me there was an awful lot of wishful thinking going on during the campaign. The Post-Gazette’s Tony Norman, whose pronouncements I usually agree with, wrote, on November 4, “Next week, America will elect its first woman president while kicking an orange-tinged strongman to the curb.” Really?

And he was one of many who jumped to this conclusion as I was thinking, in the words of that presidential candidate of yore, Herman Cain, "Ain’t gonna happen.”

The narrative was never allowed to die or even be questioned. Hillary was going to be the next president. Most women would shun Trump and vote for Hillary. Didn’t happen. Blacks and Latinos would come out in numbers equal to their participation in 2008. Didn’t happen. Obama was new, he was handsome and smart, and he generated excitement, at home and abroad. My husband and I were in Copenhagen one evening during the 2008 campaign when Obama spoke on television. The crowd was enthralled.

To all of you who didn’t bother to go out of the house on Tuesday because “I just don’t like Hillary,” thanks a whole bunch. I hope you’re happy with the result of your decision. Nothing like standing on principle.

Despite what the narrative would have had us believe, plenty of women like Trump just fine, in fact a lot of them were probably turned on by his naughty-boy talk. They probably think he’s “dreamy.” They wouldn’t tell you that, but there it is.

And plenty of others, male and female, are devious. They look you straight in the eye, tell you one thing and turn around and do the opposite. Remember the Bradley Effect? That’s when former L. A. mayor Tom Bradley, who happened to be African-American, was running for governor of California against a fellow named George Deukmejian. So many voters at exit polls said they had voted for Bradley that he seemed to be a shoe-in for the office. George Deukmejian became California’s 35th governor.

The media bought into the Trump-Clinton narrative, and it’s really funny now to hear them contorting themselves in an effort to explain why it didn’t work out the way they thought it would.

Sometimes, Destiny has the last word.

Posted on Monday, November 14, 2016 at 12:14PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment

HYDRATE THYSELF!

It is jokingly said that “Vee get too soon old und too late schmart.”  Certainly that's the case when it comes to me and water. All my life I’ve heard that one should drink eight glasses of water a day. But I’ve never managed to get that much down – until recently.

Because I suffer from Dry Eye Syndrome, my eye doctor advised me to drink eight glasses of water a day. Weight Watchers’ recommendation is the same. Nutritionists and massage therapists tell us to drink eight glasses a day. By now we all know that we’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day.

But how to get it all down? Unless you're dying of thirst, water is the most uninteresting drink imaginable. It’s the liquid equivalent of eating paper, except that paper at least has texture. Mixed with a little club soda or Pellegrino it’s a little more bearable, but those bubbles can cause other problems.

Most of the time we’re not thirsty and the idea of drinking plain water just for the heck of it is something to be avoided. And it’s hard to remember to drink when you’re not thirsty.

In recent years there has been a proliferation of health conscious souls running about carrying bottles of water from which they annoyingly squirt and sip every five minutes.

But not being inclined to sip and squirt, I’ve tried leaving a big glass in the middle of the kitchen counter to remind me. Hasn’t worked. It’s not long before I just walk right past the glass as it becomes part of the scenery.

If I’m not thirsty why should I force myself to drink water? I drink small amounts of coffee, orange juice, milk, iced tea and tonic with lime during the day. Do they add up to eight glasses? Most likely not.

I recently read a lively and interesting book I would recommend, Fit for Life not Fat for Life, by Harvey Diamond. In it Mr. Diamond imparts a load of useful information – some practical, some a little bit “out there” – about how to maintain a healthy diet along with suggestions for losing weight, some of which I might be willing to try, others, not so much. I tried eating nothing but fruit until noon. Didn’t work for me. I thought I was going to faint.

Now this might sound pretty stupid, but in all the years of knowing I should drink eight glasses of water a day, until I read Fit for Life I never understood why. I had a vague sense that drinking water is good for the skin and other organs, which are mostly made of water. I knew that we don’t have to be thirsty to be dehydrated. But my joints weren’t squeaking or creaking, so I figured I was okay.

But Mr. Diamond finally got through to me, at this late date, the utterly simple reason why we should drink eight glasses of water a day: Our bodies lose two quarts of water a day, even by breathing, and we simply need to replace what we lose. That should be obvious. But it wasn’t to me. Now, if you’ve known this all along, you’re saying to yourself, “What a dope she is.” But I really didn’t know that.

So, armed with this new information I’ve become a resolute water drinker, and not just any water. I buy big bottles of water containing electrolytes in the super market. Some people buy cigarettes. Some people buy lottery tickets. I buy water.

Why electrolytes? Mr. Diamond says: “Our body’s health is greatly affected by both the mineral and electrolyte balance of its fluids. Therefore, if your water of choice has been cleansed, purified of all pollutants and undesirable natural and manmade contaminants – and then enhanced with a proper mineral and electrolyte formula – it becomes a superior vehicle for the replacement of minerals and electrolytes. Unlike most bottled and municipal tap water, which have a neutral pH, these waters are in an alkaline range, the same as human blood and other body fluids.”

Of course I want a superior vehicle, so I’ve become an electrolyte water junkie. And the way I support my habit is by buying big bottles of the stuff such as Smartwater or Essentia. I keep a full bottle of beside my bed. And although it’s kind of a drag, first thing in the morning, when I’m rarin’ to get up and go, I find a nice radio station todistract me and drink most of the bottle before I put my feet on the floor.

I feel no different after I’ve drunk the water – not bloated or weighed down, just happy that I’ve drunk half of the daily requirement and it’s not even 8 a.m. And in the weeks since I’ve begun this ritual I feel peppier, have more mental clarity, my eyes are less dry, and my face looks a little less weary.

You're probably aware that besides losing water through natural processes, certain medications -- antihistamines, H2 blockers (Zantac, Pepcid), plus diuretics, laxatives, and alcohol all have a drying effect.

In case you’re worried that drinking a half gallon of water would require distressingly frequent trips to the ladies room, I haven’t found that to be the case. But like the queen, I make sure to go when an opportunity presents itself rather than thinking, “Oh I’ll wait ‘til I get back to Buckingham Palace.” Most stores and other buildings where I spend any time have restrooms.

So, if you’ve chastised yourself for not drinking enough water, maybe my little story will give you the push you need. And if you’re thinking, “Why would I want to spend all of that money on water?” just think of what you’d be spending if you were a pack a day smoker or frittered away your hard-earned cash on losing lottery tickets. There is always a way to rationalize behavior especially when it leads to positive results.

Posted on Tuesday, November 1, 2016 at 10:47AM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

MEAL KITS, PART 1: BLUE APRON

You’d think that with so many decades of cooking under my belt, my meal planning would consist of finding the easiest possible dishes to put on the dinner table. And that is generally the case, unless company is coming. Every once in a while I jump in and make a big pot of chili, or my husband’s beloved meatloaf, or I see a new recipe I just have to try. But broiled trout, steamed asparagus, and a baked potato require practically no preparation.

But within the last couple of years something new has appeared on the horizon, meal kits, dinner in a box, which is delivered to your front door ready to be opened, its contents examined like the trinkets in a Christmas stocking.

Little bottles of flavorings and little plastic bags of veggies and herbs arrive along with step-by-step illustrated directions for the dish you’ve selected – meat, fish, chicken, vegetarian or gluten-free.

The first meal kit service that penetrated my consciousness was Blue Apron, which has by now become the No. 1 ready-to-cook meal company in this country, grossing $2 billion dollars a year, and growing. By now you’ve probably received a Blue Apron coupon in the mail or seen a commercial on television.

Since the founding of Blue Apron, a good many other meal kit services have jumped into the fray, among them Hello Fresh, Terra’s Kitchen, Home Chef, Fresh Diet, Green Chef, and a pricey line from the New York Times, “brought to you by Chef’d.” The competition is fierce and the prices wide-ranging, from less than $10 a meal for Blue Apron to more than $20 a person for the New York Times’ Chilean sea bass. And these entrepreneurs are knocking each other over trying to get your business. 

As I became "curiouser and curiouser" I read comparisons of several such services online. Most of the meals are delivered in cardboard and plastic packaging, which is to be discarded after use. But a couple of them pack the foods in reusable plastic containers. The box they’re delivered in is picked up at your home and returned to the fulfillment center.

Never content to be left out of the latest trend, the Giant Eagle, specifically the Market District, has thrown its hat into the ring with a meal kit called  “Fresh in 30” of which I’ve tried two. More on them later.

One afternoon, as I was thinking about Blue Apron, luck smiled upon me. A neighbor had forgotten to turn off the tap of Blue Apron orders, and oops! – her doorbell rang with two more meals in a box. Not able to keep up -- like Lucy on the assembly line -- she sent the extra ones to our house.

One was Crispy Catfish with Kale-Farro Salad & Warm Grape Relish. The second a Five-Spice Chicken with Vermicelli, Mushrooms, and Baby Fennel. I was surprised by the catfish because the other services I examined offered only salmon and tilapia, which are evidently the most popular, although tilapia is a fish we never buy. We we find it tasteless and uninteresting.

We enjoyed both meals and although I’m fairly experienced in the kitchen, there was one ingredient that I had never cooked, farro, a chewy wheat grain that is gaining in popularity, and two others, kale and collard greens that I would not have thought to use the way they were in these recipes.

I assume that the target market for meal kits is millennials, young people who are interested in fresh and, if possible, organic ingredients. They want to know that what they’re consuming doesn’t contain a long list of preservatives. For that reason alone, meal kits are a good thing.

But there’s a big difference between bringing home a frozen or refrigerated entrée from Trader Joe’s or your super market to pop into the oven or microwave, and launching into assembling the contents of a meal kit when you get off a crowded bus at 5:30 in the evening.  

Compared to Heat 'n Eat, meal kits are work. They require a good bit of preparation before you start cooking. For the catfish recipe I did the following mid-afternoon, before my siesta:

  • ·       Washed, spun and “scissored “the kale
  • ·       Chopped three tablespoons of whole almonds
  • ·       De-leaved three rosemary stalks
  • ·       Washed and seeded four ounces of Thomcord grapes
  • ·       Minced two cloves of garlic
  • ·       Measured out 2 tablespoons of flour

...and put them all aside in little Rubbermaid containers. At cooking time those items along with a 2-tablespoon packet of butter, the catfish, and a small bag of farro were mise en place, lined up like tiny soldiers ready to be turned into dinner. I would not have been happy about doing all of that busy work starting 6 p.m.

I had already made salad, so the only other quandary was at what stage to serve it. I determined that I could go to a certain point with the dinner entrée, stop, serve salad, resume cooking.

I have to say, it was a delicious dinner and as we ate it I decided that it was worth the effort it took to put it together. My husband seemed to appreciate having something entirely different from anything I had cooked for him in thirty-three years. However, he wasn’t crazy about the second meal, the Five Spice Chicken, which was a little too exotic for his elderly, Western Pennsylvania palate.

He did remark, “You have a lot to clean up over there, don’t you?” And it was true. There were quite a few pots and utensils scattered around the counter area.

The advantage of meal kits is that they supply you with exactly what you need for a each recipe so you don’t have to buy entire bottles of flavorings you might never use again. There is very little waste and a wide range of choices that provide the opportunity to try foods and combinations that might never occur to you. Plus, my husband and I are both small eaters, and some of the meals would be enough for us for two nights.

There are critics who feel that meal kits are the "Paint by Numbers" of the culinary world. But how much more creative is it to purchase ingredients and follow a recipe? The meal kit simply cuts down on time spent tracking down ingredients and wasting unused spices and produce.

Blue Apron was begun by three Harvard business school grads who had a pile of venture capital but weren’t sure what to do with it after a less-than-successful try with a crowdfunding platform for research scientists called Petridish.  

When one of them was attempting to buy the ingredients for Argentinean-style steaks he suddenly thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone delivered you the ingredients in the right amounts?” He soon learned about a highly successful meal kit company in Sweden called Linas Matkasse and the rest, as they say, is history.

Would I try Blue Apron again? Absolutely. It was fun, the recipes were unique, there was no waste – and my husband liked it. What more could I wish for?

NEXT: Fresh in 30

Posted on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 at 3:07PM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment | References1 Reference

A STEAK TOO FAR

I’m not a cheapskate by a long shot, but if you saw some of our sheets and towels you might think I should pay a visit to Goodwill -- as a customer.

But I, along with my spouse, have been a little self-indulgent over the years, visiting foreign countries by land and by sea, dining in upscale restaurants, and occasionally purchasing a pricey garment or pair of shoes that could well have been spent on something more sensible.

But I am the queen of rationalization and can come up with a convincing justification for every dime I spend no matter how guilty I may feel at the moment of purchase. But even I have a cutoff point. And it’s somewhere just south of laying down $275 for a serving of meat.

In case you’ve been off sunning yourself at your oceanside villa for the last few weeks, you might not be aware that a small, local dining establishment has put on its menu a beefsteak that goes for $275 a pop. I find that idea slightly off-putting, but I know there are a few folks out there, wealthy and not so wealthy, who are rushing to reserve one of these fancy viandes so they can be the first on their block to announce that they've sampled this delicacy – if an 18-ounce slab of beef can be considered a delicacy.  

I enjoy fine dining, but in my opinion a $275 steak crosses the line from fine dining to wretched excess. I can't imagine what would prompt me to pay $275 for a steak when I know that the high end Department of Agriculture figure for feeding a family of four for a week is $289.

The steak in question is Kobe beef, from Japan, which I learned about more than forty years ago on the first of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s many trips to the Land of the Rising Sun. We all thought it was a real howler and probably not true. Beef that was outrageously expensive because the cattle were treated to daily massages and fed beer? That was hard to believe even in Japan, where there was so much that was new and exotic to us. And who would have thought that this "diamond-crusted" beef would eventually find its way onto a Pittsburgh menu? Upon hearing that Kobe beef could be made available in Pittsburgh, even the local chef was skeptical asking, “Are you serious? These things really exist?”

Yes, they do, and and it turns out that more are being sold than had been expected -- three to six a week instead of the predicted six over the entire summer.

And it's a sure bet, now that the bar has been raised, other area establishments will feel compelled to come up with offerings that are even more “luxurious,” although they'll have to think hard to one-up a $275 steak.

We’ve been hearing about the citizens of Venezuela who are starving as their economy descends into chaos. They stand in line for up to eight hours a day hoping there might still be food or basic supplies remaining at the end of their wait. Skyrocketing inflation, corruption and smuggling have put adequate food out of reach of most citizens.

I wonder if those dining on $275 steak give a thought to the Venezuelans or the millions of others, worldwide, who go to bed hungry. If such a thought does cross their minds perhaps they believe that the hungry deserve their fate.

It's unlikely that anyone reading this is planning to spring for a $275 steak. My readers have more compassionate ways of distributing their money. So if you're feeling generous, how about sending a few dollars, by check or online at

Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

1 N. Linden Street

Duquesne, PA 15110

or online at

https://www.pittsburghfoodbank.org.

You can even send a monthly contribution for whatever amount you choose, perhaps what some are spending on a Kobe steak. 

Then go out and treat yourself to a nice, normal steak and drink a toast to the many blessings in your life.

Posted on Saturday, September 3, 2016 at 5:55AM by Registered CommenterPatricia P. Jennings | CommentsPost a Comment | References2 References
displaying entries 1-5 of 115    previous page | next page