“Hey lady! We had Blue Apron change their delivery to my apartment but didn’t realize I was going to be gone this week. The box should show up on the steps tomorrow, have some dinners on us so it doesn’t go to waste! ;)@”
So I’m trying out Blue Apron, courtesy of my lovely out-of-town neighbor. Blue Apron is one of several start-ups currently competing over delivering ingredients as pre-packaged meal kits to Bay Area residents.
I started out with one of the three recipes in the box, a “Spiced Pork, Squash & White Bean Soup with Lacinato Kale & Sage-Walnut Pesto”.
My first impression was: “Boy do they make me work!”
I’m now sharing and commenting the process since it’s a perfect example how “standard” cooking could be made so much quicker and easier.
Let’s start with the instructions for the soup. There were 6 pictures with instructions on how to make it. Let’s look at the first picture:
That’s about 26 steps already!!
Let’s look at whether we can minimize these a bit.
1) Wash and dry the fresh produce. The produce we have is: butternut squash, kale, onion, sage, lemon.
– The onion we do not need to wash or dry since it’ll be peeled.
– The lemon we do not need to wash and dry in this case since only the juice is being used (not the peel).
– There are only a few leaves of sage – washing yes, but will a little wetness that’s left on them after chopping affect the pesto they’ll go in? Nope. So no drying.
– In the recipe, the kale will be added to the soup just before the water – hence I doubt drying the kale after washing it is essential.
– The recipe asks for peeling the butternut squash. So I think drying it is redundant. It may make sense to wash it, especially if there’s some dust or dirt on it, as you’ll be touching both peeled and unpeeled parts in the process. In this case it arrived completely squeaky clean already though, so I’d say even the washing before the peeling is optional – IF you actually plan on doing the peeling (see below).
Hooray, we saved ourselves a bunch of work and time already!
2) Cut off and discard both ends of the squash; peel the squash.
– I actually cut off just one end of the squash; the “round” end looked perfectly fine and no cutting and discarding was needed.
– Despite my resolution to follow the recipe in all steps, I actually didn’t peel the squash. This is one of the basic Minimalist Cooking rules – if one has a choice between peeling and not peeling something, don’t peel. I should say though that the produce was NOT organic. So while peeling the squash is absolutely not needed for this recipe, it may be serving the secondary purpose of making sure people don’t eat a pesticide-infested peel. This is why I recommend buying organic produce – you can be sure there are no pesticides on it, and you can happily skip the peeling. In this case I figured a one-time potential pesticide dose won’t hurt me too much, but I’d definitely not recommend eating peels of any conventional produce on a daily basis.
3) Separate the neck and bulb of the squash; halve the bulb lengthwise, then remove and discard the pulp and seeds. Small dice the squash.
I skipped the first of these – not sure why they asked for separating the neck and bulb of the squash. Then small-diced the squash – this was quite some work that took about 8 minutes. I understand it was needed for this recipe, but just to mention, there are ways to prepare a butternut squash without having to finely chop the whole thing, such as baking the halves on a baking sheet or making a soup by throwing the large pieces in a pot with water and using a blender once they are cooked.
4) Peel and small dice the onion. Peel and mince the garlic. No shortcuts here.
5) Remove and discard the kale stems; thinly slice the leaves. I did this, but just to mention: Kale stems are totally edible. What we have in real (non-box) life is a choice/trade-off between doing the work of super duper thinly slicing the kale stems, doing the work of separating the leafy parts from the stems, or buying/harvesting very young tender kale where one could easily eat the stems. So, like with the squash, your grocery shopping choice determines how much work – and which kind of work – you’ll be doing later.
5) Drain and rinse the beans. The beans actually came in a conventional can. There’s nothing wrong with that unless one expects those delivery boxes to contain exclusively fresh ingredients – they don’t. I drained and rinsed the beans, however, draining only – and probably even just dumping the whole can content as-is into the soup – would’ve worked perfectly well. The recipe calls for adding the beans to the soup together with 3 cups of water. So the draining doesn’t serve the purpose of removing liquid. The recipe could’ve just as well asked for adding the whole can content along with let’s say 2 cups of water.
6) Quarter and deseed the lemon. Totally redundant step. The recipe later asks for half the lemon’s juice in the soup and the other half in the pesto. One can perfectly squeeze the juice out of a halved lemon – it doesn’t make any sense to ask for squeezing the juice out of 2 lemon quarters — twice. Also for those who prefer to use a lemon squeezer the deseeding is redundant (but they’ll have to clean the lemon squeezer).
7) Pick the sage leaves off the stems; discard the stems and finely chop the leaves.Nothing wrong with that but I just chopped them somewhat (not exactly finely). Still tasted good.
8) Finely chop the walnuts. Skipped that one. We’re talking about very few little pieces of walnut here (1 tablespoon according to the ingredients list), with some spices on them. They were perfectly bite-sized already, so no further chopping needed for me.
This was the first of 6 panels of instruction. I won’t go over the next 5 panels in such detail, here are just a few notes:
– “Season with salt and pepper”. Can you guess how often this phrase appears in the remaining instructions? A total of 7 times!! That’s 6 times for the soup at various stages, and once for the pesto. I’m at a loss as to why this is being asked for so often – How is one to keep track of all that salting and peppering? Why not season the soup to taste once, before serving?
– The soup did come out nice and tasted good. However I noticed that it had the characteristic of a processed food in that I got tired of its specific taste rather quickly (already after I ate it twice). I decided to freeze the rest of it.
– I don’t really know how to make this same soup again, even though I have just made it. The seasoning came out of a little bag called “Spice blend”. The components are not listed on the bag. On the “Ingredients” list I found them listed as: All-Purpose Flour, Ras El Hanout, Ground Turmeric, Ground Nutmeg & Ground Cardamom. Ras El Hanout is a spice blend as well. I have just a vague idea what spices went into the soup. That’s ok as long as nobody is under the impression that they will actually learn how to cook the dishes when making meals from the box. ((Why is there all-purpose flour in the spice blend though? Good I’m not gluten-intolerant..))
That was the first dish – so far, so good. Two more to go, which I cooked over the next couple days: “Spiced Salmon & Cranberry Chutney with Parsnip, Sweet Potato & Clementine Sauté”, and “Roasted Cornish Game Hen with Rosemary Baguette Stuffing”.
– That gorgeous clementine sat on my counter for 2 days. Eventually I ended up eating it. I have very little discipline when it comes to delicious fresh food.. The thing is also that they asked for it to be cooked, but I wanted that fresh clementine! I can imagine that this can be a problem not only for me. Imagine a family: What are the odds of some delicious, fresh, ready-to-eat fruit sitting peacefully on the kitchen counter until its cooking time comes around a few days later? My guess is that there’s been the one or the other box meal out there that was prepared from a slightly stripped cooking kit. What to do – implement strict processes in the household which fruit can be eaten and which can’t? How to explain this to kids? Personally I think it’s easier to allow people to eat what they desire and then creatively work with the ingredients that are left. Of course that’s The Minimalist Cook’s approach 🙂 What I’m looking to point out though is that a strict set of exact ingredients that have to go into a certain meal – as convenient as that seems -, comes with a set of new problems as well that have to be solved or dealt with.
– The salmon recipe, like the soup recipe, asked for peeling – in this case of sweet potatoes and parsnip. My recommendation again: Buy organic, and save yourself the peeling process!
– I was shocked at the amount of sugar that I was asked to put into the cranberry sauce. I only added about 1/6 of it (about one teaspoon), and the sauce came out just fine for my taste. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you put the meal together yourself it is automatically “healthy”! Pouring a whole little bag of sugar into the main course (not even the dessert) certainly isn’t.
Lastly, I made the roasted hen. Usually I eat little meat, and boy was I not used to handling an animal like this.. The poor thing had no head, and I was asked to stuff the filling up what was now called its “cavity”. Just when I thought I was done the instructions called for:
“Tuck the tips of both wings under the stuffed hen. Cut a small slit in the skin flaps to either side of the cavity. Fold the legs across the hen; tuck the end of each leg into the slit on the opposite side.”
None of this happened – I just plopped the stuffed hen down on the baking sheet, and on it went into the oven, riding on the sheet as gloriously as it could without a head, poor thing. It still came out nice, which retrospectively rendered the cutting, tucking, and slitting unnecessary (in case you were wondering).
This was my 3-day adventure with the Blue Apron box. One last thing I should mention is that it left a mountain of trash. All ingredients were packed separately, and then there was a cardboard box, an aluminum box lining, and two ice blocks wrapped in plastic. I tried to drain the water once the ice had melted – but they don’t actually contain water. Some kind of a gel came out. So I didn’t know what to do other than dumping the whole thing, including the gel. The second block I put in my freezer, maybe I’ll have a use for it eventually. (If I’d get two of these ice blocks every three days, though, the dumping would start up again rather quickly..)
To sum up my experiment: Cooking can actually be much easier than those boxes make it seem! Some of the instructions are even so pointless that they resemble occupational therapy more than the purpose of making your life easier. And there are other problems that come with those boxes: you have to stick to the kits (no eating any parts of it early), you don’t know where the ingredients are from, you won’t grow much as a cook over time, and it causes a lot of trash. If you truly want to make cooking healthy, delicious, and quick and easy on yourself, I’ll be happy to teach you.