A few months before she left New York, my friend Audrey started experimenting with menu-delivery services. For about $60 per week, companies like Blue Apron and Plated will drop off ingredients for multiple dinners for two people; each ice-packed box contains recipe cards, plastic-encased protein and vegetables, and mini-bottles of seasonings like marjoram to miso. Cooking from these “dinner kits” largely replaced our regular restaurant outings—once or twice a week, Audrey would invite me over or bring her ingredients to my kitchen, I’d buy a bottle of wine or dessert, and we’d cook, drink, eat and talk. I’m not going to use the dreaded f-word, but we both like trying new kinds of food, so the cook-it-yourself deliveries became a calmer, cheaper alternative to spending money at new restaurants.
The spring of cooking together softened some of my initial resistance to the dinner kits, which another friend once dismissed as “preparing food out of boxes.” I shared her snobbery at first; I like browsing through farmers’ markets, and spending too much money on strange types of eggplant, and then figuring out how I’m going to make meals out of them, so I wasn’t eager to have someone else pre-select all of my produce and then tell me what to do with it. The variety of the dinner kit recipes and their ability to deliver small batches of specialty ingredients started to change my mind. Let’s be honest, I’d probably never bother to find or use a recipe for Palak Paneer on my own, let alone one that takes less than an hour to complete. The ingredients were of surprisingly good quality, from heirloom tomatoes to Pat LaFrieda steak, and the price was right; $60 for six meals fits into my weekly grocery budget, and it’s all too easy to spend more than that for dinner out in Manhattan.
But when Audrey moved away, leaving me with a free trial week of Blue Apron and no regular dinner buddy to cook it with, my opinion of the dinner kits started to boomerang back around to the negative. My biggest stumbling block was Blue Apron’s demand for a commitment six days in advance. I’m pretty organized— have a killer Google Calendar— but in mid-July, that point of no return defeated me. Once the cutoff passes, you’ll have a box of perishables left on your doorstep come hell or high water. As it turned out, that week I had to contend with both.
Other things to consider if you want to try one of these dinner kit services: Don’t live on your own, and preferably do live with someone who will share the cooking responsibilities if your schedule implodes. Don’t live in a small, non-doorman, un-air-conditioned space. Don’t order them during a summer heat wave, when you’ll reject all thoughts of boiling, baking and roasting in favor of ice cream dinners. Don’t hesitate to freeze any meat or fish you won’t cook within a few days, no matter what Pat LaFrieda tells you about how long his chicken will stay fresh unfrozen. And when all else fails and you’ve taken Pat LaFrieda at his word, do live within a short distance of a grocery store that can replace your spoiled organic chicken thighs at 10 o’clock at night.
Here are the three recipes I cooked, and how much money I spent on my week of “free” delivery dinner kits:
Tilapia with Shallot-Tarragon Butter over Corn & Japanese Eggplant: My plans to start the week by cooking the first meal for dinner Tuesday and lunch-leftovers Wednesday are quickly foiled, first by a delivery that arrives almost three hours into the 6-10 p.m. delivery window and then by friends inviting me to impromptu happy-engagement drinks in the neighborhood. I return home at 11 p.m., sticky from humidity and unwilling to even look at my stove.
Wednesday night is even worse, especially after I get to play death-is-not-an-option with a walk or a subway ride home from Times Square. I do get lovely whiffs of basil and other fresh herbs every time I open my overstuffed fridge, which makes me contemplate using the ingredients for some sort of cool cucumbery-herby spa water. Any ambition to fry tilapia or roast chicken is more difficult to pinpoint. I choose ice cream instead.
On Thursday evening the heat is a little better. I ignore the faint fishy smell from tilapia and pan-fry it anyway, sautéing the Japanese eggplant and slicing the corn from its cobs. The final product is pretty and looks just like the image on the recipe card; I snap a photo and text it to Audrey, with a “Miss you!” It also tastes fine, though I’m still not convinced I should have cooked the fish and I vaguely expect to spend the night fighting food poisoning. This doesn’t happen, though my stomach feels a little strange in the morning. I use this as an excuse to put the second piece of tilapia into Tupperware and directly into my freezer – where it remains to this day. Every time I’ve considered taking it out and thawing it for lunch the next day, I’ve worried about the possibility of food-poisoning myself before a big interview or meeting.
Cost: $0, plus an ongoing Schrodinger’s cat stand-off with my leftovers.
Marjoram-Garlic Chicken with Jersey Tomato Panzanella: At this point, I surrender and put the Pat LaFrieda ground pork in the freezer, realizing that the third recipe will not get cooked before the weekend. But his chicken thighs I leave out, in part because Pat asks me to use the meat by next Wednesday. It’ll stay good until then, right?
A friend persuades me to choose movie-theater air conditioning and frozen yogurt over cooking on Friday night, but by Saturday morning I am resolved. I WILL make the chicken. I even pick up two additional Jersey tomatoes at the farmers’ market for the panzanella salad ($3.25), figuring that fresh tomatoes will trump the two Blue Apron specimens sitting in my fridge for four days now. While chopping and prepping all the ingredients, I call my parents – and after hearing about its four days in my fridge, my mother starts begging me not to use the chicken. My resolve lasts until the time that I cut open the package and unleash a sulfurous stench of rotting meat. For an insane moment, I consider cooking it anyway and hoping the heat kills any bacteria. Then sanity prevails, sending me over to my local grocery store for a new packet of chicken thighs (Murray’s organic, $3.99, but then I see blackberries and blueberries and lemons and soon I’ve racked up $14 on my trip to replace free ingredients). Still, the final product is delicious, good for leftovers, untainted by any fear of food-poisoning, and has since inspired me to cook both panzanella and garlic-stuffed chicken thighs with my own ingredients.
Cost: $17.25, plus a new bag for my garbage can.
Glazed Mini Pork Meatballs & Snow Peas over Brown Rice: On Sunday, a pipe in my apartment building bursts early in the morning, flooding the floors beneath me and killing any plans of cooking or doing anything else at home that day. The Pat LaFrieda pork doesn’t make it out of the freezer, but I can’t complain when I talk to the super and hear about the guy on the ground floor whose new $1500 mattress got destroyed in the flood. Suddenly $60 of food doesn’t seem like that much to waste.
On Monday, I start defrosting the pork in my fridge in the morning and, once home, chop the remaining vegetables, barely squeezing the last life out of the small packet of cilantro. I have a fragrant bowl full of scallions and ginger and garlic and lemongrass, ready for the ground pork, but once I open it, half of it looks more grey than pink. Another Pat LaFrieda package in the dumpster, another run to the grocery story (though I did have an I-love-New-York moment about being able to buy $3.59 worth of fresh ground pork late on a Monday night). Given how relatively cheap it’s been to replace my spoiled designer meat, I’m wondering if I’m really saving any money by using the dinner kits instead of making the same things on my own schedule. Though I do realize that I’ve lived in New York for several years without making ground pork-lemongrass meatballs, and Blue Apron has now badgered me into making really good ground pork-lemongrass meatballs.
Cost: $3.59, much cheaper than a designer water-logged mattress.
I still haven’t cancelled my Blue Apron subscription—once you’re registered, it automatically signs you up for meals for the upcoming eight weeks, which you can cancel anytime before each week’s cutoff date. Every week I get a gently chiding “see what you’re missing” email, complete with knockout photos of the newest recipes. And I have vaguely regretted not getting a chance to barbecue my own Cornish game hen, however that would work in my apartment’s mini-kitchen, or to cook an entry-level miso cod. But practically, while I hope the heat waves are done and the plumbing in my apartment building is sound, I’m just not ready for the commitment that Blue Apron wants out of our relationship.
My week of dinner kit experimentation was good for inspiration, however. Last week, Audrey came back to New York for a visit, and one night we decided to cook together again. She bought fish at the local gourmet grocery (about $15), I chopped up the leftovers from my last greenmarket run (about $10), and we cooked with and finished an open bottle of wine ($12). Together we sat down for Baked Arctic Char with Dijon-Shallot Blue Potato Salad & Peach-Tomato Salsa. No menus, schedules or commitments required.