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.

You Don’t Need Mise en Place Bowls: or, There isn’t Much Virtue in the Prep Process Being Beautiful

Don’t get me wrong. It is all well and good to have mise en place bowls — which are the little cute bitsy-size bowls made of glass or metal, usually, that cooks use to organize the stuff they’re going to use in small amounts while they are cooking. Online recipes, especially those little video ones you see on Facebook all the time, always show all the ingredients for something lined up in mise en place bowls. Here is one bowl with your teaspoon of cinnamon, another with your teaspoon of cumin, another with your tablespoon of coriander, another one with your half teaspoon of salt. Sometimes you see these presentations of mise en place bowls and it’s so pretty you just have to hold a scented hanky to your eyes, it’s so affecting, it’s like a painting, it’s so lovely. But it is also  true that using mise en place bowls makes for a hell of a lot of little bitty bowls to wash.
Look at this, for an example. This is a link to a Blue Apron recipe. https://www.blueapron.com/recipes/chicken-cacciatore-with-fettuccine-pasta-mushrooms

Blue Apron is a service that charges you a bunch of money so  that you can have delivered to your door a box of ingredients, pre-measured and ready to go, as I understand it, so that you can cook a nice homemade meal without having to go grocery shopping. I know a woman who is a subscriber to this service but observes, “It’s still a pain. And I don’t have all those little bowls.” I screech, “You don’t need the little bowls to cook the meal!” but she doesn’t care. Somehow, in her mind, she has to have the little bowls to have things Work Right. Because that’s how Blue Apron shows you how to use their product. I pointed out that she could buy mise en place bowls, and that they are, indisputably, cute and would be fun to buy; or that, alternatively, she could just use whatever little bowls she has around, and it would still work fine. “But then you have to wash all those bowls!” she moaned. Well, it’s true: if you dirty a bowl, you have to wash it. But the thing is: most home cooks aren’t doing anything that really requires the use of mise en place bowls. It is useful to have them in a photo essay describing how a recipe is put together, so that the visually-minded novice home cook has a mental image of what they need (“oh, so that’s what a tablespoon of cinnamon looks like”) but it’s not like you get arrested if you don’t use mise en place bowls.

The fact is, there’s a learning curve to cooking that doesn’t perhaps get discussed as much as it should. The novice cook doesn’t have to start with a book or recipe labeled “E-Z Italian Recipes” and assume that he or she is doomed if they look at Marcella Hazan; at the  same time, expecting the novice cook to, as Laurie Colwin says, waltz into the kitchen with a copy of Edwardian Glamour Cooking Without Tears and expect a decent meal to result is sure to result in at least an emotional disaster. Cookbooks and online recipes are, whether or not they expressly say so, targeted toward different skill and interest levels, and these should be assessed and respected.

I remember clearly when, in 1988, as someone who had zero interest in cooking, someone who had a deep love of cooking and entertaining told me that I must buy The Silver Palate Cookbook. I was just missing out if I didn’t make Chicken Marbella. And I remember sitting down in the bookstore and looking through it and going, “Are you kidding me?” I saw all these references to creme fraiche, an ingredient I knew I would never buy, and demands for the use of pieces of kitchen equipment I didn’t own, many of which I don’t own to this day, mind you. It was all so ludicrous. The idea that this was someone’s idea of a 101-level cookbook was madness — and yet, thousands and thousands of well-intentioned people gave this book as a gift to young people setting up their first apartment, as a wedding gift…. and I imagine that thousands and thousands of people attempted Chicken Marbella, made some tough chicken with weird mushy prunes, and said, “Fuck this,” which is why in the 1990s, working in a used bookstore, we were always being offered barely used copies of The Silver Palate Cookbook. It’s a useful book if you are already comfortable in the kitchen. For the novice? It’s just painful and intimidating and annoying. A much more reasonable gift would have been a copy of The Joy of Cooking, which is a book that contains recipes both insanely complicated and ridiculously simple. There is, literally, something in it for everyone. And they never make you feel bad for not having mise en place bowls.

These days, because so many people rely on the internet for their recipe searches (i.e., they’re getting their recipes from photo-heavy blogs, not like this one), and so many cookbooks have elaborately staged color photographs of the recipes being laid out, prepared, and served, we have an over-ambitious, unrealistic sense of what our cooking should look like, in terms of process and result. The people who maintain beautiful, inspiring food blogs (I don’t mean me; I mean, people like Mimi Thorisson or whoever is out there that has a nice supply of mise en place bowls) are in the business of making sure that the images of their cooking process are perfect. That’s part of the point. It’s not just about “This would make a good meal.” It’s that all of these are, at some level, lifestyle magazines. And I guess it’s nice to look at, sure, but it can have a dampening effect on the reader/viewer who innocently went online to figure out how to make chicken cacciatore or salade Nicoise, things that aren’t in fact hard to make, at all, but are easily presented in such a way that a novice cook might be scared right into calling for some Indian takeout.

You don’t need mise en place bowls. You can cook very good meals without laying out your spices and herbs in seventeen perfect little bowls around your big mixing bowl. Your mixing bowl could, in fact, not be a bowl at all, but be the stock pot you also use when you cook your 89 cent box of totally un-chic spaghetti. How do I know this? Because — while it’s true I own a lot of mixing bowls, all given to me as gifts — the “bowl” I use to bake bread (where I mix the dough initially, and then let it sit and rise) is also the 7 quart pot I use for making spaghetti. It’s just a big metal pot with a lid. It’s not fancy. It’s just there, and it works. My mise en place bowls, when I feel called to use something like that, are the same bowls I serve ice cream out of on lazy weekend afternoons when we all need a treat. They’re just little bowls I have around. And in the days before I had no dishwasher, I swear on all that is holy, it wasn’t a big deal to wash them; now that I have a dishwasher, it’s even less of a big deal.

Saint Colwin wrote about kitchen equipment, and how people get all worked up over having just the right gear, but that most of the time, there’s really no need for such agonies. It’s really true. There are certain pieces of equipment you have to have to achieve a few specific goals; it is, undeniably, hard to make true madeleines without a madeleine pan. But if you just want a madeleine-flavored cooky, you could make them in muffin tins, or as drop cookies, if you wanted to. No one is stopping you. You don’t need mise en place bowls to make Cincinnati chili, the recipe I make most often that calls for more than three spices. And you know how I handle organizing the spices, which do have to be added to the pot in a fairly organized manner, to be sure that they cook properly and don’t burn?

I do this.

 

I look at the list of ingredients, which is long:

1 Tbsp canola oil
2 cups diced onions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp tomato paste
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp allspice
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups tomato sauce
2 Tbsp cider vinegar
2 tsp dark brown sugar
1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef

And then I do this: I cut up the onions and I put them into the pot. While they sauté, I prep the garlic, and add it to the pot.

Then I get one of my ice cream bowls and in it I put the chili powder, the oregano, the cinnamon, the salt, the black pepper, and the allspice.

I squeeze the tomato paste straight from the tube into the pot. I dump the entire bowl of spices into the pot. I pour the vinegar straight from the bottle into the pot. The brown sugar is spooned directly into the pot from the plastic box where I keep the brown sugar, usually with a soup spoon, not a measuring spoon, because it really doesn’t matter. Then I add the tomato sauce (i.e., open a can of crushed tomatoes and dump it into the pot) and the ground beef (i.e., unwrap the package of meat and put it into the pot) and the chicken broth (or water, as the case may be), which is probably poured from a measuring cup, but who knows, I may just pour it from the teakettle or the tub where I’ve been storing the chicken broth in the fridge for the last week. I can eyeball two cups of liquid. It’s not that big a deal.

This means that the prep equipment to be washed, after setting up the Cincinnati chili, is this: a knife; a cutting board; a soup spoon; an ice cream bowl. Four objects. The only one of them that can’t go in the dishwasher is the knife (you don’t put knives in the dishwasher, period. Got it?). If I used a measuring cup for water, I just set it in a rack to dry. Painless.
If I used mise en place bowls and showed you how to do this a la Blue Apron: there would be a knife, a cutting board, several measuring spoons, and possibly as many as 14 mise en place bowls. Which is a lot of little bowls. I’d be annoyed if I had to clean up 14 little bowls (ok, the meat would admittedly require a larger bowl). But it’s just not necessary! What is necessary, to cook efficiently, is to read the recipe and really absorb what steps you have to take with which ingredients, and when. Cooking is a flow chart, and a well-written recipe will be clear and explain in concise terms which actions you take at which junctures in the cooking process. No cookbook is going to seriously insist that you have mise en place bowls. And no one should be intimidated out of the kitchen because they don’t have such things.

Forget the mise en place bowls. Just read the recipe carefully, put a pot on the stove, and start cooking. Don’t worry about pretty, don’t worry about not having a mandoline. Just put the pot on the stove and start cooking. Then you’ll get to be all smug about not paying for takeout, and about how you cleaned up the kitchen in ten minutes. As someone with a fancy website or two has said, “And that’s a good thing.”

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