One Year of Adventures With Blue Apron

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A year ago this week, we received our first box of mail order meals from Blue Apron and we have not looked back. Virginia and I decided to try out this service because we had fallen into a dinnertime rut after Sammy was born. Every week had pasta Monday, grilled chicken Tuesday, pizza Wednesday, hamburger Thursday, and dinner out Friday. We also found that so much of our food was going bad in the refrigerator and we had to keep an annoying amount of spices on hand. For a while we tried cooking for the week plans but the meals were terribly unhealthy (Like six pounds of cheese a week), and I just could not spend eight hours cooking every Sunday. With our busy schedules it seemed like mail order meals were a good idea so sixty dollars later the game was on.

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Our first week of recipes, it did not go well.

I have to say that this was the best food based decision we have made in a long time. As a foodie living in Merced, where there are very few places to eat out, I was getting very food depressed and Blue Apron allowed me to bring the restaurant into our kitchen. The meals are healthy, varied, worldly, and, after you get used to them, easy to prepare. I’ve cooked dishes from twenty different countries and used ingredients I had only ever seen on Chopped… gochujang.

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The biggest plus by far was that Virginia is trying new foods and has really liked a lot of what Blue Apron has to offer, except eggs. She just won’t eat them, won’t. But we just had the “Hey, there were mushrooms in the last four meals I made, so stop saying you don’t like mushrooms” conversation. With the ability to opt out of fish and seafood, and the ability to skip weeks, Blue Apron has made this mail order thing a snap. Also, their customer service is top notch; they give me credits and free boxes every time there is any sort of issue with my shipment. And customer service is almost more important to me than the food itself.

The most fun part of this whole adventure is all the people with whom I have shared this experience. Blue Apron gives me copious amounts of free boxes to send to others and so far a dozen or so friends have signed up (I should get a cut…you hear me BA?). For those of you who may sign up here are my top ten pieces of advice for success with Blue Apron:

  1. Read the recipes completely. Seriously. Read them before you start heating up oil. Once you turn that pan on it is go time and you are going to forget stuff. Then you burn things and have to eat toast for dinner. Toast is sad.

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    Crispy Chicken Thighs with Kumquat Relish & Freekeh Salad
  2. Prepping the food takes longer than you think. Most of the time, the prep is what takes the longest, but you have to do it all before you start cooking. See #1 and the toast. I usually prep at night or in the morning so I can just cook after work.

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    Lentil Bolognese with Fettuccine & Crispy Rosemary
  3. Buy a garlic press. I fought this but it is awesome. They send you so much garlic…so much…they love it. Stop mincing and start pressing. You’re welcome.

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    Center Cut Pork Chops with Beet, Heirloom Carrot & Hazelnut Salad
  4. Never use all the lemon or lime juice. Save half of what they say and add on top of the dish if needed. I have not found one dish where the juice of an entire lemon makes any sense. Unless you really like lemony food, and are just weird.

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    Roasted Japanese Sweet Potatoes with Miso-Dressed Spinach & Candied Cashews
  5. This one is really a complaint. Stop telling me to salt and pepper to taste. Not five times in one recipe and especially not on raw meat. How the hell do I salt and pepper raw chicken to taste. Should I taste it? Do you like Salmonella, tell me Blue Apron! They never, ever give you measurements for salt and pepper so be really careful. I have ruined a few dishes this way.

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    Blackened Chile-Dusted Chicken with Zucchini Rice & Corn-Tomato Salad
  6. Read the recipe card again. Carefully now. Did you notice the one that says makes three servings? Yeah, I didn’t either for about four months. That sucks. Also, how do you make two sandwiches into three servings?

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    Roasted Poblano Chilaquiles with Sunny Side-Up Eggs & Avocado
  7. Figure out that whole recycling everything thing. Then tell me how to do it. Please.

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    Chile-Rubbed Steaks with Quick Kimchi & Tomato Rice
  8. Gochujang is really spicy. Virginia hates it. That is all.

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    Roast Port & Braised Endive with Green Apple & Endive Salad
  9. Take pictures of your food and Instagram away. People hate it, but your Blue Apron friends will totally comment and say, “I made that too, it was awesome”. Then you can feel like part of a super cool cooking club and turn your nose up at all the others. Tag Blue Apron in your pictures for some additional ego stroking. This may sounds like sarcasm, and it is, but I totally do this every time I rock out a beautiful dish.

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    Shiro Miso Soba Noodles with Poached Eggs, Yu Choy & Turnips
  10. Finally, the most important advice. Complain like hell when Blue Apron gets something wrong. As I said before their customer service is great and responsive. Sixty bucks a week is expensive so every ten dollar credit is totally worth it.

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    Goat Cheese & Kale Quiches with Butter Lettuce & Chive Salad

Well there you have it, my Blue Apron cooking advice. We love this meal delivery thing so much, we now tacked on Plated to try for six days week. Soon our pantry will be empty except for kids stuff. Now, if only Sammy would eat more than buttered pasta every day, but that is another adventure.

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Review: Marini’s at the Beach

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A few weeks ago we went to Santa Cruz to visit the boardwalk. While Marinis the store is closed on Saturdays, Marinis at the Beach was open and ready to serve me some chocolate covered bacon.

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As a man who loves his bacon and has had it in many different kinds of dessert, I needed to see what chocolate covered was all about. Well, I was in for a treat! I ordered myself a quarter pound and got to eating. The chocolate that they use is rich and smooth and it starts to melt quickly in the hot summer sun. The bacon was cooked perfectly, somewhat thick and crispy. Just how I like it and probably the only way it could stand up to the layers of chocolate on top. The salt from the bacon cut right through the sweetness of the chocolate and created a really nice balance of flavor. I could probably have eaten it all day. Good think we only stayed a few hours and live 2.5 hours away. If not, I’d be in a lot of trouble.

mmm..bacon!
mmm..bacon!

Now, you may think that they ship this stuff in from some factory to sell to tourists. Well, you are wrong! This lady was just sitting in the window in front of a pile of cooked bacon. She lovingly covered each individual piece by running in through a pool of melted chocolate. You can’t get much more fresh than that. If I had this job, I’d be dead.

Next time you are in Santa Cruz, check out Marinis and get some bacon!

Overall Review: 7/10 (Not really a restaurant though)

Review: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

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A few months back we took a trip up to San Francisco to scope out some good pizza. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana was high up on the list from both Yelp and the pizza episode of Crave on the Food Network. We decided to give it a try. When we arrived we were told that it would be a 2 hour wait but luckily we got a table outside after 45 minutes. This review will not take the internal ambiance into account since we were outside but here is a picture I snapped on the way to wash my hands.

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As we sat down they brought out a selection of breads and spreads which were the first inkling that we were in for an experience. The bread was freshly made, nice and chewy. They had three options for spreads. In the middle was a traditional olive oil which was tasty but the real treat were the other two. First, was a roasted red pepper in olive oil that was a little smokey in flavor and spread really smooth on the bread. My favorite though was the roasted garlic and honey combination that made my mouth water. If they bottled and sold that spread, I would have bought a gallon. It was just that good, I was worried that I would fill up before even ordering.

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We took a gander at the menu and were shocked at the options. This place has almost every type of pizza cooked in a variety of ovens. The only thing they didn’t do was deep dish, though I don’t fault them for that. I would be surprised to see deep dish options in a restaurant that won the pizza world cup in Naples, Italy. You could order pizzas from a gas oven, electric oven, or wood fired oven, at varying temperatures and even a 1000 degree coal oven! The different temperatures and medium of cooking each provide a different type of crust, chewiness, and charred flavor to the pizza. So whether you wanted to be transported to NYC, Detroit, California Coast, Sicily, St. Louis, or even Naples itself, Tony’s had the option for you. Below is a sampling of the menu but you can go here to see the whole thing.

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As a true test of their “World Cup Winner” status, I had to check out the original Margherita Pizza in the 900 degree wood fired oven. I have been to Naples and eaten at Pizzeria Brandi, the creators of the Margherita Pizza, twice! In fact, we have a picture of their 150 year old oven hard at work.

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So, I will be the judge of this pizza. True to form the Margherita came out fast, the thin crust only needs 90 seconds to cook. Well, we dug in and after over a year since our trip to Italy, we finally found pizza that came close. Now, it wasn’t better than Naples, lets be clear, but it was probably the best Margherita pizza I’ve had in the USA. The crust was crispy and thin, you could almost see through it and the mozzarella and sauce were in perfect balance. The basil was cooked well and just a bit charred. You can see below the side by side comparison, they look pretty similar. The differences are that the Brandi is a individual while the Tony is larger so the crust isn’t as good and the cheese is less melted but those are minor issues in a great pizza.

Pizzeria Brandi
Pizzeria Brandi
Tony's Pizza Napolentana
Tony’s Pizza Napolentana

I would come back just for that pizza but we weren’t finished. The Margherita was just the appetizer! For dinner we went back to our roots and traveled from Italy to New York City. We ordered the New Yorker, a mozzarella cheese pizza with pepperoni, Italian fennel sausage, ricotta, garlic and oregano fired in a 1000 degree coal oven. Literally everything I could ask for on a pizza. We waited patiently for our New Yorker to arrive, it took a little longer than the crispy Margherita but when it arrived we were speechless. This may have been the most beautiful pizza I had ever seen. Take a look and tell me otherwise.

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Starting from the charred bubbles you get from a coal oven down to the chewy crust, the bread on this pizza was glorious by itself. But then you get to the toppings. The fresh pepperoni was spicy and cooked crispy and that paired with the thick slices of fennel sausage was eye closing good. The garlic was roasted and a little sweet coupled with the earthy flavor from the oregano. The last part in the toppings arena was the ricotta cheese. I had never had ricotta on a pizza before, only lasagna but the rich creamy texture and cooling flavor was just what I needed to balance out the other ingredients. A great idea and one I will repeat when making pizza at home. Lastly, just like the other pizza, the mozzarella and sauce balance was spot on. This New Yorker pizza was BY FAR the best thin crust pizza I have ever eaten and it came from San Francisco. So I apologize to my east coast heritage but when it’s the best you just can’t argue.

However, I did think that perhaps my pizza taste buds had been dulled by the five years of sad attempts I’ve eaten in California so I waited to write this review. I waited until my parents, who grew up in NYC, came to visit and checked out Tony’s. They got the same pizzas we ordered and on the New Yorker my mom said, and I quote via text “Omigod, that may be the best pizza I have ever eaten”.

So there we have it folks, if you are in San Francisco, run, do not walk, to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. A two hour wait for this pizza is nothing. Honestly, if you are a pizza fanatic like me, I need no reason to eat anywhere else in San Fransisco if you are there for less than a day. The service was great, ambiance seemed fun, and the food was ridiculous.  It’s famous and lives up to the hype, Tony’s is for sure my 3rd perfect 10 restaurant. It will share that coveted space with only 2 others: Buddakan in Philadelphia and Scarpetta in Beverly Hills

Overall Review: 10/10

Check out Tony’s Pizza Napoletana here

Tony's Pizza Napoletana on Urbanspoon

Review: Nopa

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While on a trip to San Francisco we decided to swing by Nopa for some lunch. Upon our arrival we were quickly seated in the upstairs dining area and started to look at the menu. Unfortunately the bacon flat bread pizza from The Best Thing I Ever Ate was not on the menu so we had to go a different direction. I ordered goat cheese bread pudding, whiskey braised pork with jalapeno biscuits, and of course a side of bacon. I thought about ordering a specialty beer but at those prices, it was not going to happen.

Before I talk about the food, I am going to say this now, our server was awful. He wasn’t rude just sort of indifferent. He never told us his name, never looked us in the eye, and barely asked us if we liked the food. I thought for a minute that maybe the hipster theme translated to the service but then our food was brought out by someone else. This server was friendly, talkative, and excited about the food. Too bad we only saw her once because she would have made us feel much more welcomed. I will always knock a restaurant for bad service especially one that is going to cost me more than $50 for lunch. They should probably work on that.

First my bread pudding arrived with the goat cheese on the bottom. While I wasn’t overly impressed by the presentation, the flavors were pretty good. The bread pudding was moist but I was surprised that the goat cheese was mostly at the bottom. I expected the cheese to flow across the entire dish but alas, you had to dig to it. I really liked the pickled beets perhaps better than the pudding itself. Enjoying the vegetable side will be a theme in this meal. The arugula was completely unnecessary.

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My entree came out next with my side of bacon (Not pictured but decent). I was very surprised by the presentation. I was not expecting it to come out as a kind of stew. I really like my pork but this was a little bland. It was cooked really well though and melted in my mouth. The only thing that was truly memorable from this dish was the brussel sprouts. These were slightly charred and delicious soaked in the pork broth. Tasty veggies aside this was a disappointing entree. The two biscuits also left me a little wanting. If you call somethings jalapeno cheddar than it better be just that. These biscuits just tasted like normal biscuits where I was hoping for cheesy and spicy flavors.

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I was expecting so much more from our trip to Nopa but sadly it was only mediocre. At the price point I was hoping for a more engaged server and better flavors but it seemed that all I was paying for was a nice seat at a sleek modern eatery. While I do love my beets and brussel sprouts when they are the things I remember best from a meal that included pork and goat cheese, you have a problem. The meal just did not come together how I would have hoped and I will probably not return to try it again.

Overall: 5/10

See if you like Nopa and tell me I was wrong, check out their website here

Nopa on Urbanspoon

Guest Review: Devi

The Foodie and the Fatty

Guest Blog by Kafele J. Khalfani (@kafele)

As Steve is a foodie and I am a fatty, I go where Steve tells me to go to eat. Last night, I tried Devi (www.devinyc.com 8 E 18th Street New York, NY 10003).  Steve normally has a recommendation for every restaurant.  The reco for here was a Hot Pepper Stew. It wasn’t on the menu, despite Steve’s demand to fire them, I stayed for dinner.

Clearly seeing that I was going to eat them out of house and home, they recommended we do the Three Course Tasting Menu, which I somehow did twice cause…well, yeah.

Devi is having their liquor license renewed so they don’t have alcohol. I did have a lovely Ginger Ale Chiller that was awesome. It was like ginger ale with a kick.  LOVED IT!

We were then given a complimentary shooter. I have no idea what the waiter said it was because (1) it was loud (2) I can’t hear and (3) his accent was thick. I think I heard pomegranate. I drank it hoping I wouldn’t be sentences to months in the Underworld like Persephone.  The shooter was hot and spicy, like an angry gazpacho.  LOVED IT!

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First appetizer was a paneer & zucchini tikka. It looked good. It tasted fine, but it’s not something I would have again. Mainly because I don’t like zucchini and I have no idea what paneer is. Also my date ordered it. MEH.

SIDE NOTE: Yes, I was on a date. And he was the world’s slowest eater. At one point I had to ask if he wasn’t hungry or if he was a slow eater. He wasn’t that hungry at which point I heard the announcer from Mortal Kombat say “FINISH HIM” and I destroyed the rest of the food.

Second App was a Chicken Kastoori Kebab – totally awesome. Huge piece of chicken. Well-seasoned and with a side salad made from what my date called “the stuff they put on the burritos at Chipotle”, which the rest of us call avocado. (Please note, he’s kinda cute so I’m letting that burrito comment slide).  LOVED IT!

The entrees were a Chicken Vindaloo (pretty much an Indian staple) and Tandoor Grilled Lamb Chops. The Vindaloo was good. Enjoyable. Just enough spice, good sauce. Nom. Nom. Nom.  LOVED IT!

The Lamb Chops were also good, but they suffered because I had some AMAZING lamp chops at Enoteca Maria (http://www.enotecamaria.com/wp/) a few months ago that brought me to tears.  Enoteca Maria – – one reason to come to Staten Island.  But Devi’s chops were good.  LIKED IT

Totally bombed on the dessert picks. Pista Kulfi is an indian ice cream with pisachop and rose milk. The best way I can describe the ice cream would be a milk flavored Italian ice with soy juice.  And I hate break pudding. But date ordered Emperor’s Morsel “Shahi Tukra”. It was like if you eat French toast before you put it in the pan. Not their fault, but boo to desert.  DOUBLE MEH.

The ambience of the restaurant was a very subtle Indian. Overhead light fixtures, drapes in the back part of the restaurant for some booths. The uniforms of the waiters. Music was loud enough that you couldn’t hear people at the next table unless you really tried.

Wait staff was attentive and quick. Clearly they have an optimistic view of water glass refilling as I was never at glass half full.  The manager was great and made lots of recommendations for what to eat.  Also made recommendations to save money. LOVE IT!

Overall Review: 7/10

Check out Devi’s menu here

Devi on Urbanspoon

Review: Big & Little’s

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On my final day in Chicago a few months back I was able to stop by Big & Little’s Restaurant. This place was on Tripple D and I have been wanting to eat their food ever since. Big & Little’s is a interesting blend of a corner burger place and a high end bistro. I was extremely excited to try what they had to offer. When I arrived a only had to wait in line for a short time but that was only because I missed the rush. Only a few minutes later and I would have been in the line out the door so lucky me. I was also lucky that I had some cash on me since they do not take cards. I ordered right from the dishes on the show, I mean who could pass up on pork belly and foie gras?

I only had to wait a few minutes for my food to arrive and I used that time to charge my dying phone. Soon I was sitting in front of two awesome looking dishes. First on the menu was a pork belly po-boy. Overflowing on a bun were over a dozen pieces of pork belly perfectly cooked, fatty, and gloriously greasy. Each bite of pork was unbelievably flavorful and paired extremely well with the crunchy pickles. The lettuce below the pickles was also a good addition. Since the pork belly was decadent, as expected, the crisp lettuce helped to cut through the richness and allowed me to keep eating. Lastly, the bread was chewy and tied the entire sandwich together in a nice package. I think the best thing of this sandwich and the next dish was how generous they were with the expensive ingredients. With a pork belly po-boy I think I would have been happy with half the amount of pork they gave me but I’ll never turn down more.

Perfectly cooked pork belly
Perfectly cooked pork belly

Now if the richness of a pork belly po-boy was not enough, the next dish put me over the edge. I was literally sweating when I finished but it was so worth it to try the foie gras french fries. There were really only two ingredients in this dish but what a combo! Who would have thought that you could pair the decadence of goose liver with the humbleness of fried potatoes. Definitely a knife and fork kind of side dish. Basically, though the foie gras was served in large pieces, it made sense to smooth it out into some sort of a condiment for the fries. Ketchup just didn’t seem appropriate. The look of it after doing that was not picture worthy but it surely made the fries delicious! This was my second foray into foie gras and definitely a much better experience.

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So rich and tasty!

Big & Little’s Restaurant is an unassuming little place with some big bold flavors. One of my all time favorite meals and no service or ambiance to bump up the experience. They rest on their flavors and that is definitely not a bad thing. I was more than happy to spend upwards of $30 for my meal of rich and decadent items paired with street food favorites. I would stop by again without hesitation and try their other po-boys. The oyster po-boy especially. Next time you are in Chicago or if you are there right now run to Big & Little’s, you won’t be disappointed!

Overall Review: 9/10

Take a look at the Big menu for their Little place here

BIG & little's on Urbanspoon

Review: Kopp’s Frozen Custard

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On the way back to Chicago from a wedding my friends Renee, Gavin, and I stopped by Kopp’s to grap some burgers and frozen custard. Kopp’s is mostly a fast food place with upscale custard. When we arrived I was super excited to see that one of the specials was grasshopper fudge custard! We ordered our food and, once we received it, took up residence on a bench around the corner of the restaurant. I first ate the burger which was pretty good. It was a relatively standard with a thin patty with thick cut vegetables and a chewy bun. It tasted good but it was not the reason I came to Kopp’s.

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The vegetables are so thick you can’t even see the patty

After finishing the burger I dove into the custard. Grasshopper Fudge is everything I like in ice cream. Mint and chocolate custard with fudge swirled into the mix. This was the first time I ever had frozen custard and it will not be the last. The custard was an interesting combination thick and creamy. I could take the cup, turn it upside down, and the custard did not move at all. Yet when I took a bite it was probably the smoothest dessert I had aside from pudding. The mint sang through and balanced extremely well with the chocolate. Each spoonful also brought a little fudge to the table which added to the richness of the entire cup. I polished off my cup of custard without any hesitation and could have gone back for more.

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It just looks creamy and delicious!

I am glad that I finally made it to Kopp’s, the custard was everything it was made out to be. The burger was good but definitely not the star of the show. I imagine that is why it is not called Kopp’s Burgers and Custard. Next time you are in Wisconsin you should swing by and hope they have grasshopper fudge on the menu. You will not be disappointed!

Overall Review: 7/10

Check out all of Kopp’s custard options here

Kopp's Frozen Custard Stand on Urbanspoon