Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Hello Blue Plated Chef

It seems like you'd have to be living on a remote island without social media to have missed the whole meal prep delivery trend. It may have started with Hello Fresh, at least, that's where it started for me. A friend offered a $30 off card, but I didn't go there. Another friend offered a $30 off card. Still I resisted. Finally, a friend offered a
Spinach and Artichoke Turnovers
with Arugula & Tomato Salad
"free week." It wasn't really free, but it was enough to get me to try it. It is always easy to get in a rut and we were in a serious rut. Too many meals eaten in restaurants or from Trader Joe's frozen section. My husband was skeptical, worried about the cost, etc. Still, when the doorbell rang for that first box, dear hubby was almost pushing me out of the way to get at the box. We unpacked together and it was darn easy to unpack. It takes a large box for all the packing materials to keep the food chilling on the porch. The actual food was nearly overpowered by the packing materials. Those packing materials. The companies claim most of it is recyclable, but not around here. I imagine there will be an entire layer of archaeological wonder over the meal prep delivery waste.
So back to the meal delivery. Our first company was Hello Fresh. There were three nice brown paper bags, each labeled with the meal. Some weeks there was a reminder to look between layers of ice bags for additional items. My meat eating friends tell me there is almost always meat there, but vegetarians get the occasional bag of pasta or something.
Ah, the difference between vegetarian and omnivore when it comes to the meal prep delivery boxes. All the reviews I've seen have been written by meat eaters for meat eaters. I'm a vegetarian married to an omnivore, so I want to concentrate on the vegetarian side of things. I'll make comments on the meal plans I tried from a vegetarian perspective with some comments from my meat eating friends. I started with four of the most common plans for this review -- Hello Fresh, Home Chef, Blue Apron, and Plated.

Hello Fresh

Each meal was  in a recyclable brown paper bag with few exceptions for special ingredients. So while the packing materials for shipping left a lot of non-recyclable trash, the meal bags were readily recyclable. It was easy to reach in the fridge and pull out everything necessary for the night's meal. Many items like crushed tomatoes and chickpeas came in boxes rather than cans. I imagine it reduces shipping weight.

The second week, a bag of tomatoes was squished in shipping and the contents kind

Blue Apron Za'atar-roasted
 Cauliflower with
 Date-Farro Salad was a hit
of leaked out everywhere. Fortunately, most of the mess was contained to one soggy bag. A quick trip to the grocery (something these delivered kits are supposed to reduce) and I had way to many cherry tomatoes for the dinner (another thing these kits are supposed to reduce). Hello Fresh credited me $5 on the following week. Aside from that week, ingredients were well packed to avoid smashed tomatoes, etc. All ingredients were at least as good quality as I would pick in the grocery. A couple of avocados were a bit too ripe, but that's more the nature of avocado than of meal kits.  Liquids were often in manufacturers  miniature bottles, so I knew the quality of the ingredients. At the end of our experiment, liquids were sealed in little packets. Most were Hello Fresh labeled so it might have been a choice to hide lesser quality ingredients or another step in reducing shipping weight. I missed the cute little bottles, but didn't notice ingredient degradation.

Ease of preparation, time from bag to plate:
The instructions were extremely clear. My husband is a great baker -- very precise in measurements, very detailed in following recipes. I'm a free spirit in the kitchen -- I wonder what would happen if I added this spice, almost never measure olive oil aside from a long circle or a little splash. And, dear husband's culinary inclinations were limited to pancakes, grilling, and microwaving. He jumped right in on preparation the very first night, precisely slicing vegetables with excruciating slow deliberation. By the second week when I was away from home a couple of nights, he proudly made one of the dishes on his own, texting me a picture of his masterpiece. I showed that picture to everyone who would look!
Husband's first solo effort -- Chipotle Cheddar
Mac 'n' Cheese with Roasted Cauliflower

Variety of ingredients, interesting recipes:
This was an area where Hello Fresh excelled for vegetarians. Meat eaters get choices of protein and dishes each week. Vegetarians get three meals chosen by the company. This may have changed recently, but it was a bit frustrating. If there was one dish in a week that did not appeal to us, our only choice was to skip the entire week or eat something we didn't like to eat. Aside from that, we loved trying new ingredients. We roast vegetables  almost every night now. There are a lot of good protein  sources -- black beans, chickpeas, quinoa, etc. Hello Fresh used a variety of them. A new favorite snack came from leftover roasted chickpeas. The secret to crisp chickpeas? Pat them very dry before tossing with olive oil, salt, pepper, interesting spices.
A meat eater friend started Hello Fresh with the regular plan. She said it wasn't  very interesting -- meat, side, veggies. When I started posting pictures of the vegetarian  meals, she switched to the vegetarian plan.

Pros and Cons:
Almost all the meals were tasty. Many of them appear on our table fairly often. I have tripled the recipes and taken them to potluck dinners and I regularly get requests for the recipes. It accomplished the original goals of giving me new menus and getting my husband and I cooking together. The app was very nice and easy to use.
We hated that dishes repeated a lot. It would have been nice to have at least one alternate meal each week. My meat eating husband would have been happy if we could have ordered some vegetarian and some regular meals. The menus repeated soon and often. We stopped using the company when there were no new dishes in a week.
We may buy the occasional week from Hello Fresh in the future if the menus expand. In less than two months, we had as many as four repeats of the same recipe.

Blue Apron

We heard good things about Blue Apron, so we tried that next. By now, we were accustomed to all the packaging. I will say quite a few Blue Apron boxes have found new uses in our home.
Dear husband loves these boxes for tax
records and other papers in transition. We
both love the easy to use lid,
What we did not like was that almost all the ingredients were loose in the box. Small items are put in a knick knack bag, one for each meal. We discovered the first week that we had to do an inventory when we unpacked. I started to make couscous stuffed Poblano peppers only to find most of the ingredients missing. I called the company and we discovered two of the knick knack bags were not packed. Not a great start, but the company  credited me a full week's meals free. I'd  show a picture of the peppers, but I never made them. Perhaps, now that i ran across the recipe pulling together things for this post, I'll make that dish. Dear husband tackled the pizza dough while I was
The makeshift pizza.
Note the best ever broccoli!
at a board meeting and topped it with stuff we had around the house. Not the red pepper and olive pizza advertised,  but tasty and a demonstration of how far hubby had expanded his culinary chops. We did have ingredients for the recommended accompaniment, the best broccoli ever. We steamed the broccoli and tossed it in a sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, and hot sauce. This is a dish that makes regular  appearances around here.
A few liquids were bottled and leaked slightly, not enough to ruin the recipes, but enough to know the vinegar leaked.

Blue Apron exposed us to ingredients we'd never worked with before. They used more enoki mushrooms than I'd ever eaten in my life. Sometimes they were perfect, sometimes a stringy minus in a sandwich. 
I got some good tips for getting nice crisp fried tofu -- pat really dry before tossing in cornstarch in very small batches. Blue Apron relies a lot on eggs and tofu as protein sources. There was some cheese in the many pasta dishes.

Ease of preparation, time from bag to plate:
Blue Apron recipes are complex. They are probably the most sophisticated,  but we found the preparation, with both of us working full tilt, took about twice as long as

Freekeh and Vegetable "Fried Rice"

The referenced stringy enoki mushroom tortas

Ginger-Miso Long Life Noodles with Roasted Vegetables and hard-boiled Egg

the recipe promised. With a lot of chopping and grating, we averaged 90 minutes to two hours on recipes that were supposed to be 40-50 minutes. Some of our slowness came in collecting all the ingredients.

Variety of ingredients, interesting recipes:
This program had a great range of dishes -- Italian, Asian, Southwestern, Mediterranean, etc. The recipes exposed us to Korean rice cakes which are not at all those crispy banes to dieters; they are very chewy and filling things. I wanted to love spicy Poblano  and enoki mushroom tortas, but the enoki were stringy and hard to bite off in a sandwich.
One of the techniques  Blue Apron uses a lot is pickling -- cabbage, beets, carrots. I'd forgotten how easy it is to pickle and what a nice contrast it adds to dishes. The Freekeh "fried rice" was topped with carrots that were lightly pickled. Freekeh is an interesting  protein source that substituted  for rice. I wasn't wildly thrilled with it, but it is a good ingredient to know.

Pros and Cons:
Blue Apron probably offered the broadest variety of dishes. If you are confident of your kitchen skills, but thinking your menus are a bit boring, this plan will challenge you. The app was easy to use and I liked that they included user comments.
My meat eating friend who switched to the vegetarian version of Hello Fresh liked the challenge of the recipes in the regular version of Blue Apron. She tends to alternate suppliers depending on the schedule for the week. She's a mom with two active grade school boys and a home-based business, so schedule is everything for her. I'm active in church on several levels, politics, boards of directors, editing, and blogging, so I  found myself skipping weeks when the schedule was tight.
Much as we loved the variety of dishes, we found it was too time consuming, not just the cooking, but the sorting.

Home Chef

Home Chef was recently purchased by Kroger. It is probably a good fit. The dishes were tasty, carb intensive, not very challenging. Vegetarians often have few options in restaurants, often a vegetable salad with no protein (maybe a touch of cheese) or some pasta dish (with a dusting of cheese for protein), sometimes a grilled cheese or a cheese omelet. That same mentality seemed prevalent with Home Chef. "Gosh, we need three vegetarian dishes. What can we do for them."
The packaging was nice. Everything was in a plastic bag that worked well as a "garbage bag" where I dumped non-recyclable trash, peels, trimmings, etc. After I finished cooking, I sealed it up, put it in the trash and the trash stayed less odoriferous. There was, of course, the usual issue of packing materials that couldn't be recycled. This company had the biggest problem with leaky packaging. Things like cooking wine (which I would toss anyway) leaked completely. Vinegar leaked by half. The liquids were packed in little bottles that were not sealed.

There were no interesting ingredients. There were a lot of pasta dishes. Several sandwiches, a tofu salad. Only one recipe made our favorites list. We had a lot of hard lemons and limes, unripe and overripe avocados. A few times, I had to rush off to the grocery store (ironically one in the Kroger chain) to replace unusable ingredients.

Cuban Avocado Black Bean Quinoa was
our favorite @realhomechef
Ease of preparation, time from bag to plate:
These dishes definitely lived up to the company name. They were, for the most part, quick and simple.p
Variety of ingredients, interesting recipes:
There were some strange things like using cooking wine in risotto. Have you ever tasted cooking wine? It is super salty and bears little resemblance to actual wine. I threw it out and used real wine. The most of the alcohol evaporates in the cooking or risotto, so it is even safe for children. The other oddity was using Cheddar cheese. Mozzarella, Provolone, Asiago,
Romano, Parmesan, maybe Fontina, but Cheddar is an English cheese. Why use an English cheese, worse yet, the American version of an English cheese when there are so many  great Italian cheeses?

Pros and Cons:
The pros were a slightly lower price, very simple recipes. The app is fairly good. This might be a good choice for someone moving into their first apartment if they didn't learn to cook along the way. It beats living on take out (much cheaper and a little healthier) or frozen meals (ditto on healthier).
Frankly, I  think it would be better to learn good techniques and more authentic recipes, but there is a place for Home Chef. It just isn't my kitchen.


Plated combines the best and least of our first companies. This was the first company that gave vegetarians options, even the option of some meat dishes! The dishes are creative and definitely tasty. Plated offers desserts for $8 for four servings. The app works well and has more flexibility than most. The packaging continues the trash issues of the rest. Like Blue Apron, most of the ingredients are loose in the box with the bags of condiments, etc. that can
Herb-roasted Carrot & Zucchini Tarts with Spring Greens
serve as garbage collectors during the preparation.
Adding to the trash issue, the vegetables are individually bagged. If the zucchini was pre-washed, fine, bag it, but these vegetables aren't pre-washed. The kicker was last night's roasted peppers. First of all, we were roasting zucchini and eggplant, so we could have roasted the peppers. We even used a second sheet pan for toasting pine nuts and so we stuck the pitas in foil on that same sheet. Plenty of room for peppers. The peppers were in a little baggie inside a plastic carton. Massive trash and they still leaked out a little.
We got a little tired of kale and eggplant, but we learned a nifty trick for kale that will be eaten as a salad -- massage salt into the washed and dried kale to begin breaking down the fibers, then dress the kale in an acidic dressing (we liked Fresh lemon juice with olive oil and seasoning) before you start the rest of the meal.
There were few truly surprising ingredients.
Ease of preparation, time from bag to plate:
Again, we usually estimated twice the time that Plated gave. I'm relatively swift with a knife, but dear husband is still precise and that precision extends to several breaks to tidy up the knife edges if he thought they were off. If I'm in a hurry, I chop, he mixes dressings, oils and seasons veggies for roasting, and does other tasks. By the time we started Plated, we were pretty clear on our kitchen choreography.
The dishes were fairly easy to prepare and the company provided some nice pre-made like tart shells, puff pastry squares, and na'an.
Variety of ingredients, interesting recipes:
The ingredients were common, but assembled in interesting ways. As I said, we saw a lot of eggplant, kale, and sweet potato. But those sweet potato tacos will come back to our table from time to time. We liked quite a few of the recipes.
We bought two desserts during our exploration of Plated. Somehow I didn't get a picture of the delicious  lemon tarts. The Blackberry-Cornbread Trifle was interesting, but nothing like a true trifle. First, cornbread is unexpected. I don't care for sweet cornbread and I found it too grainy. The blackberry was just a quick jam, and not nearly enough of it. The dessert was dry. The jam was something I've made for biscuits since. Equal measures of fruit and sugar with a little water, bring to a boil, lower temp to simmer for about 15-20 minutes (that's  at 6200 ft. elev.) until it begins to thicken. Pour into a little bowl or jar and refrigerate until it thickens to a jam consistency.  The whipped cream was informative as well. Add a little powdered sugar to the cream and it holds consistency once it is whipped. Stirring in a little Fresh lime zest at the end was a game-changer.

Blackberry-Cornbread Trifle
Pros and Cons:
Plated had the disadvantages of excessive non-recyclable packaging. It also had some of the disadvantages of loose ingredients to corral and sort. Aside from the roasted red peppers, we had no leakage issues, but there was excess plastic bagging. 
Plated had a couple of big pros -- choices of dishes and desserts.

In conclusion

My purpose for using a meal prep delivery kit was two fold -- to get out of my menu rut and to encourage my husband to cook together. I then added a purpose for this blog post to examine four popular companies from the vegetarian perspective.
All four programs got my husband and I in the kitchen together, talking about food, comparing notes on dishes, and discussing why the programs did or did not work for us. We had fallen in a rut where
I was the one who did the true cooking, my husband heated a frozen option or scrambled eggs if I was sick, tired, away for home, etc.
Before we started this experiment, we were, in a word, bored. I was bored with menu planning and uninspired in the kitchen. Three of these programs gave us exciting new ways to look at familiar and unfamiliar ingredients. Even our least favorite program added a couple of new recipes to our kitchen repertoire. Easy became the enemy of good. Now we have a variety of dishes to chose from in our menu planning and, frankly, I'm energized because I am cooking with my husband.
As for how the companies address vegetarians, I suspect it is in their vegetarian options that the companies show their true natures.
Home Chef was our least favorite. While there were a couple of standouts, there was a lot of pasta, little protein, little new or challenging. That's not to say that the same holds true for their meat entrees. It says that they were not inspired or inspiring in their vegetarian options.
Blue Apron was the complete opposite of Home Chef for vegetarians. The dishes were often unfamiliar cuisines. The ingredients were often unfamiliar. The tastes were sometimes challenging. This certainly wasn't an exercise in same old protein sources. This would be a great program for truly adventuresome eaters with fair kitchen skills. Since we started our experiment, Blue Apron has gone on a roller coaster ride in the stock market and began offering versions of their kits in Costco stores. The downside for us was the sorting of ingredients and the long prep and cooking time.
Hello Fresh has a good system. The vegetarian meals may be more interesting than the meat entrees. There was a broad range of readily available ingredients that make it easy to replicate the recipes. Putting everything together for each meal was a definite plus. It took no time at all to pull out the bag labeled for the dinner I wanted, open the bag and start in on the veggie washing and slicing/dicing. The downside was how quickly the recipes started to repeat. Because the ingredients are commonly found in the local grocery store, the incentive to continue buying Hello Fresh is diminished.
Plated was certainly the most flexible of the plans. Although we started to see some dishes repeat, there was always at least one vegetarian dish to replace the repeat. For some reason, Mushroom Cavatelli and Grandma's Skillet Pie (our least favorite from Plated) have been showing up often. I'm not sure we would buy the desserts often because I am almost always watching the calorie intake and because we have some great dessert recipes already. There were many common ingredients and just enough exotic ingredients to keep us interested.
If Hello Fresh added to their vegetarian menu, it would be a hands down winner. It has the most convenient packing of individual meals, a good variety of interesting recipes and a decent price. If we had to choose one company today, it might be Plated because of the range of vegetarian options, a good system for getting around repeats, and flexibility.

Coming Up...

We just got our first shipment from Hungry Root, an entirely vegan meal prep delivery system. Be watching as I change up our experiment to examine systems designed for vegetarians/vegans.