I Cooked a Blue Apron Meal and All I Got was…

…. well, I got a lot of things out of my Blue Apron meal. I got a lot of little packages, and I got enough food to sort of feed the family, or, at least, it might have fed the family, had the family genuinely liked the food. What I really got was, simply, the experience of using Blue Apron, and confirmation that, for someone like me, it’s a total waste of time.

I already knew I was kind of anti-Blue Apron, just on principle, but I didn’t realize how frustrating it would be to prepare a Blue Apron meal until I set out to do it. I guess part of my problem stems from the fact that I obviously misunderstood what it is that Blue Apron saves you time on. As my readers doubtless know, Blue Apron is a service that delivers to your door a box of ingredients for cooking dinner. You go to their website and look at their menu and select which meal(s) sound good to you, and the ingredients for those meal(s) are shipped to you in a refrigerated box. I knew this, but since I’d never played with the contents of such a box, I didn’t really understand how it worked, until this week.

A few months back, I noticed that my neighbors, a very busy young couple, started receiving Blue Apron packages. I figured that my neighbors’ schedules were so batshit that the service made sense to them, even though they live literally one block from a lovely Italian grocery store, three blocks from another lovely Italian grocery store, and within easy walking distance of so many other places to get food, it’s ridiculous. (I mean, there are reasons I live in this neighborhood.) The other day, the lady of the house caught me in the courtyard. She said, “Hey, I was wondering — we’re getting our Blue Apron shipment today but we’re not going to be around to cook it. I meant to cancel it but I forgot. Is there any chance you’d want it? I mean, I hate to waste the food.” I thought about it and realized this was my chance to have a crack at a Blue Apron project and said, “Sure!” So late yesterday afternoon she knocked on the door and handed over the goods.

There was a package of two catfish fillets; a little plastic bag with two Yukon Gold potatoes; a really tiny plastic packet with two sprigs of parsley in it; a small foil box of organic whole milk; a plastic bag with a weird grayish powder in it that I took to be the flour mix for breading the catfish; 1/4 of a head of Napa cabbage; and another mini-package with something in it called “knick knacks.” It took me a while to figure out the “knick knacks” because I was afraid to just open it up. It finally occurred to me to read the glossy color instruction sheet my neighbor had helpfully given me. The “knick knacks” were the things you need to make the recipe, things that, in a household like mine, you’d just have because you have them. Things like cider vinegar and butter and mayonnaise and “cajun spice blend.”

I don’t have a jar of Cajun Spice Blend around, but Blue Apron does explain to us what Cajun Spice Blend is. It is: smoked paprika, ground yellow mustard, onion powder, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried thyme, and cayenne pepper. In other words, stuff I had sitting around on my spice shelf.

My family considered this pile of ingredients. My daughter, who isn’t a big seafood person, said simply, “Yuck.” My husband said, “Catfish is good!” but seemed dubious: two potatoes does not make a whole lot of mashed potatoes. And the quarter of a head of cabbage — it was to laugh.

Well, I set to work. I read the instructions carefully and inspected the pretty color photos to make sure I understood what Blue Apron wanted me to do. It seemed to me that this was a situation where, if I winged it, I wouldn’t be giving the product the test it deserved. I resolved to follow the instructions to the letter. To this end: I took a shallow bowl and poured some of the milk and the vinegar into it, and then I stirred it around a bit, and placed the fish fillets in the bowl. This is supposed to do something to the catfish akin to soaking catfish in buttermilk. (Curdling milk with vinegar is a good way to approximate buttermilk; even I know that.) I’m not sure why we are supposed to soak catfish in buttermilk but this is Standard Operating Procedure, so, fine. I soaked the fish and turned it over in the “buttermilk” intermittently while I washed and dried the cabbage, sliced it finely the way Blue Apron wanted me to, and assembled the cole slaw (combine with mayonnaise, a little vinegar, and Cajun Spice Blend). I also set a pot of salted water to boil for the mashed potatoes. I hate making mashed potatoes; I hate cooking potatoes. But I dutifully washed and peeled and chopped the potatoes and boiled them for 12 minutes. Then I drained them (saving the potato water to use in making bread — thank you, Blue Apron, for my future loaves of potato bread) and mashed them with more of the milk and the butter Knick-Knack.

Once the potatoes were done, I put the pot in the (gently pre-heated) oven to stay warm, and I assessed the overall situation. It was abundantly clear that the cabbage might have created enough slaw to satisfy our cabbage needs (raw cabbage doesn’t shrink down the way cooked cabbage does, so I guess 1/4 a head of Napa was sufficient, and my snotty laughter was uncalled for). But there was simply not going to be enough of this meal to feed three of us. For one thing, our daughter was sure to not want to eat any catfish; and there were nowhere near enough potatoes. So I filled a stockpot with water and set it on to boil, and then I spent a few minutes mincing onion and garlic and getting a pot of pasta Natalie ready. (This meant sautéing onion, garlic, and some chopped olives in anchovies, and olive oil and then blending in tomato paste and water. It’s not hard to put together, thank god.)

Once the Natalie sauce was assembled and I didn’t have to think about it anymore, I heated some oil (not provided by Blue Apron) in a wide cast iron pan and dressed the catfish as instructed — shaking the “buttermilk” off the fish and dredging it in seasoned flour. I fried the fish and drained it on paper towels as Blue Apron advised.

“Okay everybody,” I said. “As soon as I’ve cooked the spaghetti, dinner’s ready.” I chose thin spaghetti because it takes five fewer minutes to cook than regular spaghetti, and seven minutes later, the three of us were seated around the table.

“That’s catfish?” my daughter asked, looking skeptically at the handsome platter of fried breaded fish.

“It’s yummy,” my husband said. “Well, it looks yummy,” he said. He took an entire filet and put it on his plate.

“I made spaghetti for you,” I told my daughter. “Don’t worry.” I gave her a large serving and grated cheese onto it and spooned some extra olives on top. “Here you go.” I then served myself some fish, some potatoes, and some cole slaw.

The cole slaw was fine. The potatoes were fine. The fish was entirely unappetizing. I ate a bite, trying to be optimistic. “What do you think?” I asked my husband. “It’s ok,” he said. I chewed, took another bite. “Is the problem the fish or the way I cooked it?”

“I have don’t know,” my husband said. The truth is, I almost never cook fish, so there’s no way anyone could described me as a skilled seafood cook; how could this have turned out well? My husband, the poor guy, doggedly continued to consume his fish. I got through half of mine and gave up.
He looked at my plate sadly. “Had enough?” he said.

“I’m switching to spaghetti,” I said, humiliated. “The cole slaw is good,” I said.

“The potatoes are okay,” my husband said.

“Can I have more spaghetti?” my daughter asked.

By the end of the meal, there were no leftover potatoes and the cole slaw was gone. One half of a catfish filet remained; there was enough leftover pasta to serve some to my daughter for lunch the next day and give myself some for lunch too. Had my husband and I not had catfish, cole slaw, and potatoes, there would have been no leftover pasta at all.

“What should we do with the leftover catfish?” I wondered.

“I’ll take care of it,” my husband said. I assumed this meant he would choke it down. I wiped down the kitchen counter and took the dirty kitchen linens upstairs, saying, “I might as well do a load of laundry now.”

While I was standing at the washing machine measuring in the detergent, my husband came up the stairs holding a small bowl. We don’t generally have food upstairs, so I was curious. “What’s going on?”

“Watch,” he said. He put the bowl down on the floor in the stairwell and our cat came trotting over from the towel on the bedroom floor that he regards as his bed. He sniffed. “You’re giving the cat the catfish?” I said. My husband smiled affectionately at the cat. The cat pawed at the fish and licked his paw once; then he repeated this exploratory movement. Satisfied that this was food, he then plowed through the scraps of fish in the bowl. “I only gave him a few flakes,” my husband said. “The rest of it I’m saving in the fridge as treats.”

“Okay,” I said, defeated. The truth was, if neither of us liked the fish, then the cat might as well enjoy it. The cat finished the fish in his bowl and marched away, pleased as punch. A tiny flake of fish had landed on the floor. I debated bringing it to him and decided that was insane and threw it into the toilet bowl. Then I went downstairs to help finish cleaning up the kitchen.

“I think Blue Apron’s worth it for people who really can’t stand grocery shopping,” my husband said, “or people who’re living in those extended-stay hotel type places and maybe don’t want to deal with stocking a pantry while they’re there.”

“Yeah,” I said, dolefully putting leftover pasta into a plastic tub.

“But otherwise, it’s not really worth it. They don’t take care of the prep for you, or the cooking. It’s just the shopping.”

“I spent just as much time cooking this meal — more time, really — as I would on any other normal weeknight dinner,” I said. “And it was ok, but none of us really liked it.”

The cat marched down the stairs and came into the kitchen and looked at us expectantly.

I’m wondering if I should make my neighbor an offer. For $50 a week, plus the cost of groceries, I will cook dinner for her and her husband two nights a week. It might be a better deal than Blue Apron.

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