Cooking dinner for your family very often is a beautiful thing. But doing the grunt work that leads up to it, day in and day out? There's the rub.
If coming up with a few quick and easy dishes everyone can agree on weren't tough enough. You also have to mentally map out ingredients in your fridge and cupboards (no easy task if you collect leftovers), make shopping lists and -- sigh -- go to the grocery.
As anyone who's ever stopped by a busy supermarket on the ride home from work can wearily attest, there's no such thing as a quick pop-in. As much as we'd like to dash in and out with that night's ingredients, we usually can't: the average shopping trip on a weekday, according to The Time Use Institute, is 38 minutes for the 32 million Americans who grocery shop on any given day.
Maybe you don't mind cooling your heels as the person in front of you in the self-checkout line scans item after item. (That's when I get caught up on the Kardashians in the tabloids.) But plenty of people do, and that's where Marushka Bland hopes to come in.
Nine months ago, the Canadian-born lawyer-turned-chef helped co-found HelloFresh, a gourmet food delivery service. Like craft cocktails and Chobani Greek yogurt, it's quickly gone gangbusters.
Think community-supported-agriculture subscription, but with not just produce, but also meat and fish and everything else you need to make dinner. Business for the box subscription service is so brisk that the New York-based start-up has expanded deliveries on the East coast from Maine to Miami, and west to Chicago. That includes the Pittsburgh region.
Here's how it works.
Each week, subscribers go onto the company website (hellofresh.com) and from a list of five recipes, choose three meals they'd like to try. One week might tempt with tofu stir-fry, creamy chicken penne and pan-seared trout with wild rice; the next could switch it up with breaded salmon, carne asada tacos, wild rice-stuffed squash and rosemary-thyme pork chops. Or, choose the straight vegetarian option.
All the ingredients necessary to make those meals are delivered in an insulated box right to the customer's door. Everything is pre-measured and bagged separately as meals; the dinner kits also include recipe cards with step-by-step photos. All the home cook needs to have on hand are the staples: oil, butter, sugar, and salt and pepper.
Designed for everyday cooks who may (or may not) have tons of experience in the kitchen, all the meals take 30 minutes or less to prepare. But "doable" doesn't mean "dull": Hello-Fresh's chefs and nutritionists have partnered with New York's Aquavit, the Michelin star-rated Scandinavian restaurant where celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson worked before opening Red Rooster in Harlem.
"All you need is one pot, or one pan," said Ms. Bland, adding that the company now has a few hundred recipes in its inventory.
A weekly three-meal subscription costs $69 for two people, or $59 for the vegetarian option; $129/$109 for four, and $179/$149 for six -- a little more than $11 per portion, including FedEx delivery (made on Wednesday and Thursday). Not cheap, but not outrageously expensive, either, all things considered.
So my family tried it.
Though not every item is organic, everything that came in our box was surprisingly fresh. That's because all of the boxes are packed in the same New Jersey warehouse, with ingredients coming from family-run fishermongers and butchers and local produce suppliers.
Grocery shopping services aren't new: Giant Eagle Market District last year launched a shopping service called Curbside Express at its Robinson and Pine locations (marketdistrict.com/Explore/Curbside.aspx), joining companies such as Effortless Shopping (effortlessshopping.com), Best Grocery Delivery (bestgrocerydelivery.net) and Goin' Green Grocery (goingreengrocery.com), the region's first all-organic service. Whole Foods in October also added a personal shopper to its ranks at its Shadyside store, and coordinator Sandi Hartman already has 30 regular customers.
All the above, however, only do the shopping (for fees that range from $4.95 per order up to 20 percent of the cost of the total grocery bill). You still have to conceive the meals, make a list and portion out ingredients when it's time to cook.
That's what sets HelloFresh apart. Everything's pretty much done for you, except for the actual cooking.
Based on a model started several years ago in Sweden, HelloFresh was conceived as a "lifestyle convenience product" for busy urban professionals hungry for stress- and hassle-free homecooked meals. As the company started growing, however, staff quickly realized it appealed to other groups, as well.
"We get a lot of young families, as well as people in the 40-to-60 age range that like the convenience and experimentation," said Ms. Bland. The dinner kits also have resonated with single guys who like big portions, and home cooks who like to experiment with different cuisines but don't necessarily want to buy that $10 jar of garam masala or pound of hazelnuts they'll only use twice a year.
I also can see it working for new moms, seniors who still like to cook, and college students living in apartments. So long as you're not too fussy an eater, or the type of cook who positively, absolutely has to take ownership of what's put on the table.
Having given birth to a pair of picky eaters, I was a bit nervous about the sample, serves-two box I agreed to try last week, especially since I left the choices up to whomever packed it. Adding to the suspense was the fact the box would have to go into the fridge for a few days instead of being used right away due to my being on an out-of-town weekend trip. I was pleasantly surprised on both counts.
My meals for the week included Steak Over Noodles with Thai Peanut Sauce, Seared Scallops with Brussels Sprouts and Mexi-Turkey Taco Salad -- all dishes that appealed to the teenaged palates in the house. And the biodegradable gel packs kept everything fresh until I was ready to start cooking on Monday.
On the plus side: All of recipes were extremely easy to follow, and the portions were more than generous. Even though each meal was supposed to only serve two, it was enough food for at least three of us and maybe even four, if you added bread and salad. The scallop meal, which came with 14 nice-sized scallops and 14 brussels sprouts, was particularly impressive. (Scallops! On a Tuesday! My daughter thought she'd died and gone to heaven.) I had enough turkey left over from the taco salad to make spring rolls the next day, and my husband got two lunches out of the noodle dish. And that was after eating until we were really, really full.
Also on the plus side is the fact you don't have to sign up for a set number of weeks, though you do have to give at least seven days notice to quit.
The price isn't bad, either. While it's definitely more expensive than cooking from scratch, it's less than eating in or getting takeout from a decent restaurant.
What I didn't like: All the recipes contained more calories than I typically like to eat in one meal (a whopping 948 for the steak dish). Also, the amount of plastic required to ship the food kits -- plus the fact it's being shipped from New Jersey -- isn't exactly sustainable. And I would have preferred a Sunday or Monday delivery.
The flavors, while good, also weren't incredibly exciting; if you're used to a more complex flavor profile, you'll be reaching for your favorite spices.
But compared to standing in line at the grocery store at 6 p.m. with no end in sight, while kids are texting me "when r u going to b home??" and "what's 4 dinner???," that seems like a pretty minor complaint.
Steak Over Noodles with Thai Peanut Sauce
We liked this dish very much, especially after I stirred in a little red curry sauce and hot pepper flakes. I mixed the meat in with the sauced noodles instead of dividing it on top.
1 beef bouillon cube
8 ounces broccoli florets
1-inch piece fresh ginger
1 red bell pepper
1/2 pound sirloin steak
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces soba noodles
3 ounces peanut butter
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup roasted peanuts
Put bouillon cube in a pot with 2 cups water and bring to a boil. (I used the microwave.) When cube has dissolved, transfer to a bowl and set aside. In same pot, bring salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes. Remove stalk from the broccoli and separate the florets. Peel and mince the ginger. Cut the red pepper into strips, discarding seeds and veins.
Cook broccoli florets in boiling water for 1 minute, then transfer to ice bath. When florets are cold, drain and set aside. Keep water boiling. Cut steak into thin strips and season with salt and pepper.
In pan, heat sesame oil over medium-high heat, and when hot, add steak and garlic, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate and loosely cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.
Add noodles to boiling water and cook for 5 minutes. Drain. Meanwhile, wipe pan clean with paper towel and add peanut butter, ginger, soy sauce and 1/2 cup reserved beef stock and stir until fully combined. (I stirred together in a bowl.) Add the noodles to the sauce and toss to coat.
Divide noodles between plates. Top with steak and sprinkle with roasted peanuts.
Serves 2 to 3.
Seared Scallops with Brussels Sprouts
Very simple, but quite tasty. The scallops were plump and sweet, and quinoa was a welcome (and healthful) alternative to rice or pasta.
1 chicken boullion cube
1 cup quinoa
1 bunch cilantro
8 ounces brussels sprouts
3/4 pound sea scallops
Salt and pepper
1 ounce hazelnuts
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Put bouillon cube in a pot with 2 cups water and bring to a boil. (I used the microwave.) When cube has dissolved, set aside. Fill another pot with 2 cups salted water and bring to a boil. Add quinoa to pot with dissolved bouillon cube and bring back to a boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. (Mine took about 20 minutes.) Remove from heat and set aside.
While quinoa is cooking, chop shallots and cilantro and halve the brussels sprouts. Zest the orange and slice ends off. Following the curve of the fruit, cut away the white pith. Cut along both sides of each membrane to remove the segments and set aside.
Fill a large bowl with water and ice cubes. Cook brussels sprouts in salted boiling water for 2 minutes, then transfer to ice bath. When they are cool, drain and set aside.
Season the scallops with salt and pepper.
In a pan, toast hazelnuts over medium-high heat for 4 to 5 minutes until lightly browned. Transfer to plate. Heat 1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil in the same pan and add the shallots. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes until soft.
Add brussels sprouts and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until they are browned. Add orange zest and soy sauce and season with salt and pepper. Add oranges and transfer to a plate.
Wipe pan clean with paper towels and add remaining tablespoon oil. Add scallops and cook until brown and opaque in the center, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer right onto serving plates.
Season quinoa with salt and pepper. Divide brussels sprouts and quinoa between 2 plates and top with hazelnuts and cilantro.
Mexi-Turkey Taco Salad
I had to laugh when I saw the snack-sized bag of tortilla chips and teeny-tiny packet of hot sauce in the bag of ingredients. And the mozzarella cheese didn't exactly make sense as a topper (shouldn't it have been cheddar or some sort of Mexican blend). But somehow, the dish worked, once I added some piment d' Espelette to the turkey. I had enough meat left over to make spring rolls the next day.
1 red bell pepper
1 small zucchini
1/3 cup cherry tomatoes (my box came with grape tomatoes)
1 bunch cilantro
1 head Boston lettuce
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound ground turkey
1 snack-sized bag (1.5 ounces) tortilla chips, divided
2 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
1 tablespoon hot sauce
Dice red pepper, onion and zucchini and halve cherry tomatoes. Chop jalapeno and cilantro, and cut lemon into wedges. Tear the lettuce into bite-sized pieces.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add onion and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often, until onion becomes translucent. Add red bell pepper, zucchini and jalapeno and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a plate.
Add remaining tablespoon olive oil in the same pan and cook turkey for 4 to 5 minutes, breaking the pieces up, until meat is slightly browned and cooked through. In a bowl, toss the lettuce with the tomatoes and 1/2 of the tortilla chips.
Divide salad among 2 serving plates. Top with turkey, vegetables, cheese and the rest of the tortilla chips. Sprinkle cilantro on top and serve with lemon wedges and hot sauce on the side.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published May 2, 2013 4:00 AM