Friday, September 30, 2016

Blue Apron - Pork Chops and Seared Chicken (not in the same dish)

The second and third meals from Blue Apron were equally as impressive as the Cod. We had Seared Chicken & Caramelized Vegetables with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes & Mashed Potatoes followed by Pork Chops & Spicy Chow Chow with Sweet Potato Salad.

The first thing you might notice from this is that the folks at Blue Apron really like to use the ampersand instead of the word "and." The next thing you might notice is that they really like multi-dish meals. I should clarify that they like lots of side dishes, as opposed to liking to make you clean a lot of dishes (no more than Hello Fresh, at least).

Let's look, first, at the chicken de la semaine:

I'll admit that, when I was opening everything, I was a little nervous about the fact that there was a massive fennel bulb in the package. I'm just not a big fan of anything in the licorice family, so that was a bit of a worry for me. 

The big white and green thing in the lower right is the fennel bulb - twice as big as each of the potatoes.
Luckily, I realized there was still an onion in the fridge, because I thought I'd lost it.
The fear I had with my first round of ingredients - where I thought that possibly the vinegar had opened in its "Knick knack" bag - did come true in this batch. The small bottle of vinegar had lost about half of its liquid - into the bag and box. It was a bit of a soggy mess, but I had vinegar in the cupboard, so I was able to move forward.

I don't have a lot of pictures of the prep on this meal. In part because caramelizing onions and fennel simply means you leave them in a pan for ages. And mashed potatoes start with simply boiling the heck out of chopped potatoes. I also don't have a lot of pictures because the cherry tomatoes exploded in the oven while roasting (following all their directions) and caused the kitchen to fill with all kinds of smoke:
Yes, I closed the doors to the rest of the house, opened the outer door, and put the fan in the window before taking photos.
Eventually, after the smoke cleared, I put the chicken (which, really, was lightly pan fried, not seared) into the pan with the caramelized veggies for the final few minutes.

When I put it all together, complete with the rescued tomatoes, it looked pretty good:

And, really, the fennel was much tastier than I expected. Most of the harsh licorice flavor disappeared with the caramelizing. I enjoyed it rather a lot.

Clean up wasn't even too bad...

...if you ignore the fact that I had to scrub the oven.

The final meal of the week was pork chops (with chow chow and sweet potato salad).
I'm not from the South, so I only have a passing acquaintance with "chow chow" - but I know enough to know it's a relish. Which I was about to make from scratch.

See all those peppers? And the corn? And the four tomatillos? All those needed to be chopped.
Remember how I had commented that Blue Apron's prep times seemed a bit more realistic than those of Hello Fresh? Let me revise that to stress that they seemed more realistic.

As I started in on the prep for this meal, I quickly realized that my knife skills were not nearly fast enough for me to keep up with their proposed prep times. Eventually, I got to this point:

In all honesty, the brightest prep board I've had in three weeks of these meals.
I'm happy to say that I read all of the directions and knew, in advance, how many pans to use and for what. And, after the chopping and dicing and de-seeding and de-papering was done, it went pretty quickly.
And, as with my cutting board, this was a very colorful stovetop.
No smoke this time, and tons of flavor in the side dishes when all was said and done. 

So... At the end of week one of Blue Apron, I was definitely enjoying the overall process more than with Hello Fresh. It feels a bit more... well... "me." A little more hands-on, which is a strange thing to say since you're making everything from scratch in both versions, but Hello Fresh gave us a can of corn for one recipe, while Blue Apron gave us a cob. It's that kind of thing that separates the two for me.

Now, I really thought that this would be the end of these trial pack posts for a while. But I misread the deadline for cancellation of Blue Apron, and so we ended up with a second week of meals showing up at our door last Friday. The problem (which I've heard that many people encounter) is that this has been a phenomenally busy week. So we stacked  three meals' worth of food on the bottom shelf of our fridge - and used the first one last night (Thursday). Stay tuned to find out how the food did after the delay.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

How Editing Is Like Dyeing Your Beard - a (mostly) pictorial essay

The following editing-related blog post is brought to you by vanity, pride, and the unwitting assistance of the folks at Just For Men.

When you finish your manuscript, because you've been working so closely on it for so long, you've probably become kind of blind to the errors that still exist in it. You know, like when your beard has started to grow in gray, but you don't really see it.

But, as you force yourself to look a little more closely, you realize that some of your comedy falls flat, the transitions seem rough, and there's a chance that you changed a character's name in chapter 23, and - worst of all - you were typing so fast that you left major typos throughout. Basically, you realize that the highlights that you thought were so great are actually gray hairs.

So you run spell check - and maybe even a grammar check - and you think you've probably caught most of the really egregious stuff. Unfortunately, because most of these programs aim for about eighth-grade level language usage, although you've "fixed" a lot of "errors" you end up with a nice, kind of all-one-tone, manuscript. This is also how it looks when you first do a really heavy application of dye - you get an all-one-tone beard.

Okay. Sure. From the front (or at a distance) it might look fine. The major errors have been tackled. The typos seem to all be gone. But, since your "editor" was a machine without an ear for style or tone, you might have a few issues when you look closer.

Possibly a section where a character named "Sandy" has all become lower case "sandy" because the spell check changed it.

Or maybe a section where the "heir" to the throne has become the "hair" to the throne - which the program won't notice, because the spelling is correct. Or a section where the little brush you were using seemed to miss the patch just beyond your mustache/goatee area and has left the gray intact.

So, having run the programs, you're left with something which might look fake from the front - and not really "you" - and up close probably still have errors. What can you do? First of all, talk to an actual editor, who will work with you to bring out the "you" in your manuscript.

Okay. Yes. It's going to look kind of weird for a while as you work on it. You're probably going to have Track Changes all over the place, and additions and deletions that make it hard to read. (Or, in the case of beard dyeing, you end up with goop all over your face, making it look like you just did a headlong dive into some kind of jelly.)

You're most likely going to end up swearing at your computer and any other tool you've been using thinking that it's never going to be right and wishing you'd just left it alone from the outset - or never written it (or grown it) in the first place.

You're not only ready to throw in the towel, you're ready to pitch the entire thing and give up.

But then you start talking to your editor and looking at what the two of you have done. You start seeing that it's beginning to look... well... not exactly the way you wanted it to look, but closer. You're beginning to see more of yourself in it.

Of course, until you and your editor can reach a really good balance, you might find yourself having a read-through where you find that you're all back to one tone, again. That you've lost yourself and that there's no highlights or lowlights. Everything has gone flat and you think "Oh, crap, back to square one (or maybe square three)."

But, as with any good relationship, working with an editor takes time. So as you work together and as you spend time with the manuscript - alone or with your editor or beta readers - you can finally take a long look at what's going on. You can decide that some characters probably don't have perfect grammar - but that your narration might still need to be proper. You can let your editor tell you that readers will appreciate sentences that read like sentences, and not just groups of adjectives. You can decide whether the "rule" that there should be no "to be" verbs is right for you. (Sidenote: that "rule" really only works for about 5% of authors.)

And, with time and a little growth - both for you and the manuscript - you might find that the book feels more like "you" - an enhanced version of you, if your editor is good at his/her job. You might find that the "absolutely perfect" version isn't right for you. That a few stray gray hairs make it more natural, and that you - and your readers - actually prefer the highlights and lowlights more than the all-one-color manuscript you almost gave them. 

And, if not, you can always head back to step one - maybe with a new editorial color in mind.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Blue Apron - Intro and Basque-style Cod

With the second Hello Fresh box off to recycling, we cracked open our first box from Blue Apron last Friday. Right from the outset, you kind of get the feeling that Blue Apron is not playing any games. This is... well... not "serious" business, but it will not be mistaken for being cute or silly.

The "Enjoy!" on the inside of the lid is about as close to playful as they get.

Basically, when you get the box and open it, you get the feeling that this is Hello Fresh's older brother, who probably rolls his eyes each time Hello Fresh uses a smiley face or a "use me first" sticker.

There is no "everything separated out into Tetris-able boxes going on, here. Apparently the folks at Blue Apron have a lot more faith in their customers' abilities to sort things for themselves, because here's what you get in the box:

The "coupon" on the right is actually an offer for wines to pair with your meals. (Honestly, I didn't look too closely at the offer, since we were only planning to do Blue Apron for a week.)

I sorted through everything, pairing things against the recipe cards, to make sure that I had everything. Once out of the box, it started to make a little more sense:

The brown paper bags contain all of the small items (they call them "knick knacks") for each of the recipes. These are things like small bags of almonds, small vegetables, or small bottles of vinegar. I would not have almost misplaced my vegetable stock last week if it had been in one of these bags.

There were meats, too, but they were at the bottom of the box, under the cardboard divider (as they had been with Hello Fresh), again, with a note that reminded us we were not playing:

We stacked everything away in the fridge, and launched into the "Basque-Style Cod with Sweet Pepper-Tomato Sauce & Freekeh." (No, I didn't have any idea what freekeh was when I read that, either.)

Right away, looking at the recipes, you can see that you - as a cook - are being asked to do/know more than with Hello Fresh. There aren't any explanations about allergens - and although approximate calorie counts are listed, there's no mention of anything else (like carbs, fat, etc.). I was pleased to notice that the recipes actually all listed different prep and cooking times, which made me think that maybe I had a better shot at getting things done in the "right" amount of time than I had with Hello Fresh. 

Although we did get separate onions and multiple other packs of herbs for each recipe, Blue Apron only sent one bulb of garlic to be used throughout the week. I liked that you're kind of expected to use what you need and save the rest.

I was a little worried that this bottle (which doesn't have a safety seal - though the "safety" part didn't bother me) - might have leaked. But I had the right amount of vinegar.

Here's a strange thing. Although I have been pretty meticulously photographing each of the steps along the way for the past two weeks, I seem to have missed pretty much all of the prep steps in this recipe. On the other hand, the steps looked pretty much like they are shown on the recipe card. And the meals (one deconstructed, one layered) looked mostly like the cover picture. 

We ended up with a lot more of the pepper-tomato sauce, though - enough that even with the massive amount on the plates we still put a good cup of it in the fridge to possibly use later (along with leftover freekeh and relish).

Of note: The almond/parsley/garlic "relish" that went on the fish was incredible and very unexpected. I've also not cooked with cod very much (aside from when I was a kid and my grandmother would make fish and chips), and I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to work with. 

One area where Blue Apron seems about on par with Hello Fresh is in the dish department. As someone who does a lot of one-pot meals during the week, I'm still getting used to having enough dirty dishes and pans that I need to use two photos to get them all in.

Oh - The freekeh was really good. Kind of nutty and with a texture that was somewhere between crunchy and couscous. I'd definitely try that (and the relish) again in the future. 

My first impression of Blue Apron is positive. Possibly not as user-friendly for a beginning cook as Hello Fresh is, but certainly more satisfying for someone like me who already has experience in the kitchen. Stay tuned for a look at the rest of the week's meals. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hello Fresh, Week Two

So, last week (the 9th, 12th, and 14th, specifically), I wrote about the first week of working with Hello Fresh meals. They were... fine. We started with the roasted pork, had the chipotle-rubbed chicken salad, and finished with the caramelized-pineapple burgers.

Well, for week two, we had a new box of three meals. This time, when we opened the box, we had Honey Mustard Salmon (with Roasted Asparagus and Israeli Couscous Pilaf), Crispy Chicken Parmesan Salad (with Spinach and Roasted Potatoes), and Mole-Spiced Steak Tacos (with Poblano and Mexican Corn Salad).

Under this, you get the ice packs and seriously cold foods.

More fridge Tetris

I'm not sure why it happened this way - I mean, we did get to choose our three meals from six options each week - but the second week's meals just seemed to fit us better. Which may have added to how we felt about them as the week went on.

Let's see... First there was the Salmon (which had a sticker on it saying "Make this first"):

Yes, I read all of the instructions, first. And I was happy to see the small number of ingredients. (Though, again, I had to try to empty little tiny jars of things.)

Almost missed that tube of stock inside the box.
Sorry for the sideways mise-en-place.
There wasn't as much drizzling, since a lot of this just went into the oven on a baking sheet while the Israeli couscous (not pictured) boiled on the stove.

The asparagus looked a little rough by the time it came out of the oven.
 And, in about an hour, we had dinner:
The salmon was nice. The preparation was easy. The couscous was actually really good. The asparagus... well... it kind of tasted like it looked.

Meal #5 was the Crispy Chicken Parmesan Salad. Just read that title again. I'm thinking it had to be good, right? Though - with a "Total" time listed at 30 minutes, I knew I'd be working for at least 45.

I love recipes with short lists of steps.
Okay. This looked promising: Not a lot of ingredients, to go with the not-so-many steps.
The yellow thing in the middle of the board is not a rogue potato - it's a lemon.
Before we got to the next photo, there was a step that included smearing sour cream on the chicken, and then coating the breasts in panko breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Of course, the potatoes had also been tossed in a drizzle of olive oil... At least this time I read ahead and figured out how many pans I needed - and whether or not they could both be in the same oven.

Why is there a photo of a timer? Because, for the first time, I actually found myself with a little time to kill. Unfortunately (as you'll see in a moment) I wasn't able to do all of the dishes, because - you know - I was still using some of them.
Guess which plate goes to which person!
I got relatively close, I think.
Overall, this had good flavor, and we liked how it turned out. We had leftover potato and spinach salad, which I ate for lunch about two days later. It was actually a little better after the dressing had had time to set.

Our final Hello Fresh meal (because, remember, I had cancelled it in advance - we'll discuss that more later) was Mole-Spiced Steak Tacos. Christopher and I both like hot, spicy foods, so we thought this would be good. After all, there was a poblano pepper in the box, as well as mole spices and chili powder.

Again, I loved the number of ingredients:
And the fairly straighforward recipe steps:

Seriously, though - I want to know who times out the prep in these recipes. This was probably the first time I finished my prep in the 10 minutes they say each of these recipes is supposed to take.
There was some sauteing: 
 There was more sauteing:
And, although I don't have a photo of it, the beef also got sauteed (and, yes, each of those steps had its own drizzle of olive oil.)

When we were done, it looked pretty much like steak tacos: 
What you can't see in the picture, though, is that there was pretty much no spice in it. Yes, we used the pepper and the chili powder and everything they gave us, but there was just no real kick. When I served it, I brought out hot sauce for both of us, and we really needed it.

And thus ended week two of the Hello Fresh test.

I still hold that it's a great idea if you're looking for new recipe ideas, if you like to cook but don't have time to shop (or interest in shopping), or if you get it at a discount.

Unfortunately, I think that your experience with it could vary from week to week, based on the meals you get. I also think that the recipes could use some editorial work and some testing - and whoever keeps declaring that each thing only takes 10 minutes of prep ought to be taught how to read a stopwatch (honestly - every meal we made in two weeks said the prep should take 10 minutes, while most of them took at least twice that to prep).

Stay tuned for my opinion of Blue Apron, which we're currently in the middle of trying out. (Here's an early bit of news: aside from the fact that they both come to your door in a big cardboard box, the two services are not interchangeable.)