What’s for dinner?

One of my husband’s colleagues gave him a promotion for a free week of Blue Apron. I’d read about Blue Apron before (primarily on the very awesome Amalah’s blog) and I figured the week of a new job was a great week to maybe have some low-stress meals to cook (plus, since my lunches come with my employment, I don’t need as many leftovers), so we kicked it off this week.

Beautifully curated dinners!

BTW, tragically I’m waaaaay to small to be sponsored by anyone, so this post is entirely unsponsored. It’s really sad when you’re willing to sell your artistic soul, but there are no takers!

If you’re not familiar with the concept, Blue Apron works like this –
1) On Friday you get a box full of super fresh, bizarre ingredients. (You know, cactus leaves. Tomatillos.) It’s absolutely everything you need to make the meals for the number of people you’ve ordered for. (Well, I think they expect you to have salt and olive oil…)
2) You stick it in your fridge.
3) For dinner, you pull out the gorgeous, full color recipe with detailed instructions and the corresponding ingredients and put them together. This may involve turning a radish into matchsticks, but perservere.
4) Twenty to thirty minutes later, you have a delicious, fresh, home-cooked meal in an innovative and very trendy recipe.

I personally think it’s a brilliant idea. The meals are pricey for homecooked meals. I think they’re about $10 a meal a person, which is a lot. But if you’re replacing eating OUT with this, you could save a lot of money. The instructions demystify some of the cooking. And the ingredients are fresh and high quality.

I was actually thinking it would be extra brilliant for people of means in food deserts. For example, my parents live in the boondocks, a 20 mile drive from the nearest grocery store. For the nearest grocery store with an ample produce department, it’s nearly 40 minutes drive. What if they got a box every week of healthy, simple, fresh meals? Then I remembered my dad hates vegetables. Oh well.

Honestly, I was kind of excited about the whole thing. Adam and I love eating! And cooking! And eating what we cook! The first meal came out pretty well. Over our Pork and Tomatilla Pozole with hominy, avocado & radishes we talked about how such a great idea might fit into our lives.

After much cogitation, I realized it doesn’t.

Here’s what a typical week looks like in our house. (Because I have no memory – that’s why I write everything out – this might happen to bear a small coincidental resemblance to this week.)

Friday: Eat the delicious Blue Apron dinner we made for two, since through some amazing coincidence both children are elsewhere at dinner time.
Saturday: Go to dinner with about 8 of our best friends while all of our children were at a YMCA kids night that I won in an auction in the winter. AWESOME.
Sunday: Brother is here. Make world famous chili and cornbread since Blue Apron order only serves two grownups.
Monday: Sacrosanct to library/pizza night. Adam is at aikido anyway, and children unlikely to appreciate “Pulled Chicken Mole Quesadillas
Tuesday: Soccer practice, followed by Adam at trustees meeting focused on manse planning. Dinner was Subway (eat fresh!)
Wednesday: Gaming night. Due to need to watch two (2) Deadliest Catch episodes (having missed one while in New York), I was tragically unable to prep ahead of time on Tuesday. Therefore the 10 people (6 adults, 4 kids) at the gaming table will have an unusually simple meal of buttermilk pancakes and bacon. Mmmmm bacon.
Thursday: Maybe second Blue Apron meal?
Friday: Who knows. Grey is likely to campaign for sushi. The question is how much willpower remains…

On any given week, I may serve neighbors, gamers, visitors, children. The food needs to create enough leftovers for lunches for three people for the entire week. (Not usually a problem.) And I reserve the right to at any moment say, “Hey, why don’t you come over for dinner? There’s plenty.” And mean it.

So how DO I actually accommodate our crazy cooking plans? It’s complicated, but falls into the following parts:

Plenty of food in the pantry!

A pantry that will weather the biggest storm
You could tell me that tomorrow I was hosting 40 people for dinner, and I can’t go to the grocery store. Oh, and one of them is vegan, a second is gluten intolerant, and a third really likes top quality steak. And I could make enough (different) food for all of them to walk away regretting their thirds. The way I do this is with a vast pantry, a stand alone freezer, a farm share, and a dry good cabinet packet with pasta and beans. (I’d make Pav Bhaji for the vegan with a big pot of Basmati rice, which would coincidentally work just fine for the vegan too. Then I’d make a big pot of chili, and figure out how the heck to cook the frozen steaks from my meat share.) This philosophy paid off handsomely this winter when, despite incessant storms and consistently closed roads, I had something to bring to each potluck.

Unfortunately, Grey has figured out that what gets put on the list gets purchased. See also: prime rib.

The internet is amazing
I now do 90% of my grocery shopping on Peapod. We have a running list of things that belong in the pantry that have been used (in order to restock). When I go to “shop”, I also list out three to four recipes I plan on making that week, and any special ingredients those recipes require in addition to the pantry restocking and stuff I need every time (like bread, eggs & milk). The next day, some tired looking dude shows up at my house with a box truck and brings in all the stuff I asked for. It’s like magic. I’ve just actually hit “VIP” status with Peapod, which I think translates to “Do you even remember where the store is”. I regret nothing. (Except that my favorite tortilla chips are not available online. WOE!)

The cat-heads veggie is the rarest and most delicious of them all!

Farmer Dave is my farmer
Probably the killing blow to the Blue Apron concept is the fact that in a few short weeks I’ll be swimming in arugula. And tomatillos. No one tell Dave about cactus leaves, since I’m still figuring out what to do with purslane. The producelanche works just fine with my Peapod/menu planning technique, especially when I time it right and do my order the night I get the produce in so I know what bizarre ingredients I need to find recipes for, like kohlrabi. (Just kidding. I never actually use the kohlrabi.) But you really don’t need a box of carefully curated veggie when you get a crate of garlic scapes the same day. And I actually prefer the garlic scapes, thanks.

So to sum up, if you currently eat out a ton and/or live in a food desert and want to be a foodie, consider Blue Apron. If you want to eat more vegetables (because you are afraid that if you don’t you may never find the back of your ‘fridge again) you should join a CSA like Farmer Dave’s. If you love eating but don’t need to spend 90 minutes a week with your friendly grocery baggers, online groceries are amazing.

Finally, you should come to dinner sometime. There’s plenty.

This is what happens when you invite a farmshare friend over. I still have romanesco in my freezer with no plan…

Foodie identity

Yesterday’s post on hospitality actually started out as a foodie post. On Tuesday, as we have done so often since the week my husband brought me home as a blushing bride, we gamed. And as we have since that August of 2000, I made dinner for the gamers.

When I first got married, I couldn’t cook. I was both proud and defensive of this fact. I recall joking at our nuptials that I picked my husband so he could cook for me. This was entirely untrue. I really picked him so that I’d have someone else to get up with the kids in the morning. Anyway, suffice it to say, I had very little practical experience in the kitchen. My first job out of college was as a telecommuting programmer. Ah, 2000! What a time you were! This left me home alone a lot, with practically no responsibilities. Out of boredom and cheapness, I started cooking. The weekly arrival of other people at a game provided a motive and opportunity for me.

Looking back on those early meals, I flinch. I recall one attempt at alfredo where a guest pithily asked if I had just poured a jar of mayonnaise over some noodles. I couldn’t blame him for wondering. But gradually, I got better.

I now have an extensive collection of well-thumbed cookbooks and collected favorite recipes. I have fallen head-over-heels for America’s Test Kitchen and everything they’ve ever written. Their Best 30 Minute Recipes was an exceptional find for my lifestyle. (Note: Just plan on buying fresh thyme every time you go grocery shopping.)

I’ve branched out from those early days. I specialized then in, er, mostly cheap meat slowcooked for long enough that you didn’t notice it was cheap since non-cheap meat can’t stand up to that sort of treatment. I still almost never serve dishes where a cut of meat stands alone. I’ve come to revel in the breadth and depth of casseroles — the housewife’s delight. I also make a lot of soups, that go delightfully with the chewy no-knead bread my husband makes once or twice a week.

Tuesday night was a culinary masterpiece (in addition to a role-playing gem). I made this Pork and Prune dish from the 30 minute recipe book. It sounds… unlikely. I would not have eaten it 10 years ago. I would not have made it 5 years ago. It was gobsmackingly good. Even Grey offered a hesitant compliment. (It was so good I have every intention of making it again tonight. Yum!)

A while ago I served a meal to my family and looked at what was on the table:

Main dish: home made from scratch
Bread: Adam’s no-knead whole wheat bread
Butter: produced from Grey’s whipping cream experiment
Jam: the plum I put down this summer
Veggie: from the farmshare

Stepping back to look at it, I marveled. How did I end up being this and doing this? I survived entirely on pizza pockets my senior year of high school. When did I decide that food was so important? I don’t have time to read books for fun, but I produce 3 – 4 meals a week that would’ve been past my ten-years-ago best effort. I make my own jam. We almost always have home made bread on hand. I have a jar of homemade pomegranate molasses in the fridge, and recipes to use it in. My slowcooker gets more use than my Wii.

I’ve started to wonder what role this all plays in my identification of myself. For example, I don’t consider myself a foodie. This could be because I don’t know what a foodie is, but I do know that I still enjoy Arby’s and Pizza Hut on rare occasions, and therefore I can’t be one. I seek novelty in the dishes I eat and serve, but I am by nature a novelty-seeker. (It took my FOREVER to realize that not everyone was.) I take pride in what I serve guests, and am glad to see my sons eating what I cook. On the other hand, once every week or two I look with despair at my recalcitrant 4 year old and food-tossing baby and wonder, “Why the heck did I put this much energy into feeding THEM this tasty stuff?” Or worse, I get knocked back significantly when a recipe doesn’t work out, especially when I’ve invested heavily in making it. And obviously, not all recipes work out.

What do you think makes a “foodie”? How do you feed yourself or your family? Do you eat out? Have prepackaged meals? Do you cook simple things? How often do you cook complex things? Is it the same stuff regularly, or do you love branching out? What’s your favorite source for new recipes? I’m not sure I know what “normal” is for feeding a family!

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also

In my life as it is right now, there is tremendous pressure on my time. Working full time, commuting 1.5 hours a day, sadly being the sort of person who needs 8 hours of sleep a night, and taking care of two active curious boys is really time consuming, even when you have a great partner to do it all with. As things I enjoy have slipped away, it’s been enlightening to me what has stayed, and what I still make time for.

I had no idea food was so important to me.

I’m not a “foodie”. I don’t read recipe books for fun, like my sister. I don’t watch cooking shows or read cooking blogs. I don’t delight in new and exotic ingredients. In my perception of myself, I’m a pretty decent utilitarian cook who does enough to provide healthy tasty food for her family with a few heritage recipes thrown in for fun. Heck, when I married my husband I joked that I was doing so because I don’t know how to cook.

But when I look at the TIME I spend in the kitchen making food, it totally belies that perception. This weekend I spent several hours canning. I cooked chili and cornbread for dinner Saturday night (1 hour). I made Crock Posole and Arepas on Monday night. Then I stayed up after I got the boys in bed to prepare smothered pork chops for the gamers on Tuesday. Last night we served: Pork chops with onions, au jus, bacon gravy, bacon, baked potatoes with fresh chives and sour cream, bruschetta with fresh basil and tomatoes on homemade bread fresh out of the oven (my husband made the bread) and corn. Fresh strawberries and blueberries made up dessert. This was a little more overboard than usual, but not wildly so. Certainly, it wasn’t the longest prep I’ve ever had for a game night dinner.

We make roughly 3 “real” dinners (dinners with 45 minutes or more preparation) a week, and several little dinners (boxed mac and cheese, tuna fish casserole, IKEA meatballs, etc.) a week. If it only takes half an hour, I think it’s a moderate prep.

Basically, I spend way more of my negotiable time on food preparation than pretty much anything else.

We COULD do more takeout, although I don’t really understand how that works logistically. We could eat out more, although that’s not great on the budget. (To be fair, my grocery bill is pretty monumental. I’m increasingly coming to understand the impact that quality ingredients have on how a meal tastes and buying accordingly. Mmmmmmm blade steak….. But as a result, I’m not sure that cooking at home saves much money at all.) But frankly, my cooking is better than most food I can buy, up until the $25/entree price point. So I could pay to eat food that doesn’t taste as good as the stuff I cook.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this discovered value. On the one hand, there are many ways these tasty family dinners are considered virtuous. They tend to be healthier than purchased food (although knowing how much butter/bacon I use, I’m not entirely convinced of that). They are definitely tastier than the kind of food we could afford to eat out every night. We eat together as a family almost every single dinner. Studies show that children who eat dinner with their parents at a common table do better in some metrics, like test exams. Theoretically cooking your own food costs less than eating out. And my husband and I eat entirely (delicious) leftovers for lunch during the week, and always have. Finally, I imagine that my children will be grateful (in retrospect) for my great cooking (their Freshman year in the dorms).

On the other hand, the time I spend in the kitchen is time I’m not spending building block towers on the floor. I don’t have time to go for a walk with the kids before bed. I can’t make finger paintings with Grey because I have deadly chicken juice on my hands. Thane roams the kitchen floor, sweeping up old Cheerios and sampling tasty cat food while I work. This is some of the rare, precious time I have with my family and I spend it making bechamel and chopping onions. (Seriously, why don’t grocery stores sell 10 lb bags of onions?) And then there are the dishes. You have no idea how many dishes I can make.

Once a friend of mine came to visit, and exclaimed in astonishment at how there was no takeout boxes in our fridge. I actually hadn’t realized, to that point, that what I was doing was optional — that there was any other way to feed your family. On the other hand, I know it’s possible to be even more into it than I am. Many of my friends are far more adventurous in their cooking and eating than we are.

You can usually find out what’s important to people by looking at where they spend their optional time. We spend ours at church, playing games, cooking and outdoors. I am explicitly ok with the church, games and outdoors. I am surprised by this cooking thing, and not sure if I meant to make it such a big part of my life.

What do you think? Where do you find yourself spending a lot of your time, possibly to your surprise? What do you eat for dinner every night? Do you think the time spent in the kitchen is worth it? If you were my children, would you be glad for the effort at meals, or would you wish I’d spent more time with you than cooking for you?